What’s the Zabriskie Point?

June 23, 2010

Not a big fan of Antonioni’s Blow Up, so why would I watch another of his English language films?  Because occasionally I feel the urge to see those films that I always heard about as a kid, but never could see.  No DVDs, no VHS, no cable TV…  Zabriskie point is one of those, brought to my attention by a near insane friend of mine.

It begins as an almost vérité exercise in cinema, showing a raucous meeting of college radicals in 1970, planning a strike to shut down their university.  One good looking disaffected participant declares his readiness to die for the cause, of boredom, and walks out.  Later, during a riot, he draws a bead on a cop with a gun, but someone else shoots.  The kid runs, now a suspect in the murder he didn’t commit.  He steals a small airplane and flies to Death Valley where he meets up with a hippie secretary driving to her real estate developer boss’s desert mansion.  They play, they love, he returns to LA and is shot for no good reason, while she, despondent over the radio reports of his death, fantasizes the ultimate in revolutionary armageddon.

The film makes little sense, and it almost laughable in some ways.  Wikipedia reports that it is widely considered as one of the worst cinema disasters in history.  It is amazing to watch at times, however, for MA knew what he was doing with a camera!.   Let’s just say it’s one European’s love letter to the American landscape.

I enjoyed the scenes of the southern California industrial landscape and the street scenes, c. 1970.  Took me back a bit once again.

Some images from the film:

A clever sequence in which some mannequin-like suits watch rushes of some new commercials for their desert homes development featuring dressed up dummies.

Out in the dessert, at Zabriskie Point, in fact, the young couple gets to know one another.  She: “This is such a beautiful place. What do you think?”  He: “I think it’s dead.

The desert is an amazing place.  Cinematography is wonderful.  Aren’t those copulating couples hot??

An amazing house her boss has.  Why does she drive an old Buick?  Is that the good old days of consumerism?

We get to see this several times from many angles.  Must have cost a pretty penny to bring it off so well.

Dreaming?  A girl’s gotta dream!

Your whole world is going too.

Just in case you thought that didn’t include all those books you read!  Background music by Pink Floyd.

Ahhh!  Where there’s destruction, there’s hope.

The sunset, and Roy Orbison’s music heals all.

 

Advertisements

John Singer Sargent

January 2, 2010

A remarkable painter!  He was the favorite of Edwardian society, but at the height of his success as a portraitist in the “grand manner,” he gave it up.  A very private man, sophisticated, yet also naive, dedicated to his art, his friends, and his family, but little else.  So what?

He knew what he was.  He moved in those circles, but he was not quite of them.  Who knows what he really thought?  He certainly was never ironic or satirical in his depiction of the rich and great.  He never shared their anti-semitism either, doing  some of his best work in portraits of the Anglo-Jewish financial and merchant kings, much to the chagrin of the Establishment.

With the advent of Modernism, and the self-conscious avant garde, his reputation went into eclipse, to be resuscitated later.  Sample this from the great puritan – I do love him, though – Lewis Mumford (from wiki):

“Sargent remained to the end an illustrator…the most adroit appearance of workmanship, the most dashing eye for effect, cannot conceal the essential emptiness of Sargent’s mind, or the contemptuous and cynical superficiality of a certain part of his execution.”

Appearance of workmanship..? Alas, Lewis, I couldn’t disagree with you more.


Free and open elections

July 26, 2009

Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin – He was the author of the great anti-utopian novel, We.  Orwell admired it, and he thought Huxley had been influenced by (copied?) it.  He died in exile, after his letter to Stalin gained him permission to emigrate rather than remain in the USSR without the permission to write.  Considering the contents of his 1923 essay, On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,  it’s a wonder he wasn’t just taken out and shot.

Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.

Where the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma- a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatisation in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns: it only gives off warmth- it is tepid, it is cool.

The novel, We, is a memoir written by a prominent engineer in the glorious future One State in which human life is totally regulated.  Mathematics has trumped all poetry.  Individuals rejoice in their state as ciphers.  Sex is proscribed to limited “private hours” regulated by the Book of Hours, and access to sex partners is free, and regulated with a system of recorded pink chits.  The book is a little heavy with literary experimentation as it seeks to evoke the mentality of the future man who revels in his routine and lack of spontaneity, but it is prescient of so many things, in culture, in politics, and especially in the entire future of science fiction, that it amazes.  It also has a very sharp and dark humor.

They say that the Ancients conducted elections in some kind of  secrecy, hiding like thieves … Why would all this mystery be necessary?  Even today it is not understood conclusively; the likeliest explanation is that elections were connected to some sort of mystical, superstitious, maybe  even criminal rites.  For us, there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of:  we celebrate election day in the daytime, openly and honestly.  I see everyone vote for the Benefactor; everyone sees me vote for the Benefactor – and it couldn’t be any different, since “I” and “everyone” are the unified “WE” …And if you even suggest the impossible, that is, that there could be some dissonance in the usual homophony, then the invisible Guardians are here, among our ranks:  at any momen, they can stop ciphers who are falling into error and save them from their next false step – and save the One State from them.

Need I add that the “hero” is undone by love, by sex, by a femme fatale ?  At their trysts outside the glass wall of the city, in the museum of the Ancient House, she wears a yellow silk dress.  Her teeth are like daggers.  She scorns the One State, respects nothing.  She is irrestible to him, the engineer of the great spaceship Integral, the vessel that will bring the happiness of tyranny to other planets.  She drives him crazy…makes him…human?


Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

January 2, 2009

When I am old, I shall write criticism; that will console me, for I often choke with suppressed opinions.

-Gustave Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, 1868

garden-gnome-pipe-9r pompier gerome-femmes-au-bain1179060145

I am a kitsch-man! Thirty years on, and it’s time to finally wrestle with the demon.  Sorry in advance, but those of you with an interest in kitsch are used to long-winded posts, I’m sure.

As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on “Kitsch in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  My advisor loved it; my second reader said “I should just go and be angry,” and that it wasn’t enough of an art history thesis.  The chairman, following protocol when thesis reviewers disagreed strongly, knowing I was a refugee from the philosophy department, and trying to be helpful, gave it to the only philosopher in that coven of Anglo-American Empiricists who was interested in aesthetics, and he said it wasn’t enough of a philosophy thesis.  So much for inter-disciplinary thinking.  Well, I’m embarrassed to read it now anyway…

gillodorfles

My interest in this topic was spurred by my encounter with the English version of this book by Gillo Dorfles while in high school.  It’s an anthology of materials on the topic of kitsch – I was fascinated to find that the stuff had a name!  I was particularly taken by the weighty Germanic metaphysical arguments of Herman Broch, especially when he posited kitsch as the anti-system to art.  I love rhetorical absolutes!  Seeing junk as part of an apocalyptic metaphysical wave, “vomiting over the entire world,” as one writer put it, I recall, appealed to my love of abstruse analytical reasoning and over-the-top ranting.  I adopted this point of view with gusto in my thesis, arguing that kitsch was not just a consequence of mass production society, but embodied its inner metaphysical principle.  Marx, Benjamin (obviously), Hegel, Adorno, Marcuse, Hauser, etc. etc…all grist for the mill.

At one point, I toyed with the idea of making the entire piece a philosophical meditation on the archetypal souvenir, the snow globe.  As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man wrote…apropos of the falling snow…  Why do those things fascinate so?  The wonder of the miniature – a world in a world – a mini stage – the God-like perspective they confer on us – the urge to collect them?  What is it!

The dominant position on kitsch for much of the intelligentsia was for a long time Clement Greenburg’s essay, Kitsch and the Avant Garde.  He did soften his position against Academic Art in the end, but only a little.  (Academic art, art of the establishment against which the avant garde, e.g. the Impressionists, rebelled was often referred to as l’art pompier, or pompier art.  A pompier is a fireman, the late 19th century equivalent of our contemporary American Joe Sixpack, or the Hardhats of the 1970’s  I guess.)

Greenburg’s position is about as absolute as they come: He knows art, and so he knows what kitsch is. It’s the opposite of art.  Why did he get to decide on what is art?  Tom Wolfe asked the same question in The Painted Word written during the 70’s.  It’s a silly book, and Wolfe seems to think that whatever Greenburg wouldn’t have liked must be great art – a sort of anti-avant-gardism – so it really doesn’t clarify things.  Greenburg’s view leads to conceptualism in many ways, although he was foreshadowed by Marcel Duchamp who uttered the remark in the early 20th century that “retinal art” was on the way out.  (Was it he who said that the history of art was that of postage stamps?)

Sure, craft is important, I think, but that doesn’t mean that  someone who can draw well is a great artist anymore than a calligrapher is a great author.  Which leads me to my point, sort of…Why argue about what is ART and what isn’t?  Let’s just agree that art is what artists make, and artists are those whom society regards as makers of art.  Nicely circular – we’re not talking mathematics here.  The question to ask is, “Is this art interesting in any way?”  Thus, when I hear people in museums guffaw in front of stark white canvases and say, “This is art?” I think, “Yes, dear people, it is art, but it is very, very, boring art and I don’t blame you a bit for not wasting another second on it…”

Which leads us back to kitsch, which would never evoke that response.  It always seems to be art.  I would say, it is art, kitsch_cheesecakebut not very good art.  Why seek to cast it from the select club of Art – is it insecurity about the membership of those things we secretly admire?  (This is what some call “guilty pleasures” , I think.)  The critics of mass-cult from the 50’s and 60’s, e.g. Dwight McDonald seem to be simultaneously elitist snobs, weak-kneed inhabitants of the citadel of culture under siege by barbarians, and fanatic partisans issuing a frantic call to arms.  To agree with them is to feel a member of a noble but doomed fighting band of brothers, bound to go down fighting the armies kitsch.

Of course, this sort of highfalutin criticism pertains only to work that is shown in fancy galleries and museums.kitsch_jesus_king Nobody seems to entertain much doubt about works like this  masterpiece on velvet.  We all love to sneer at them.  Of course, if your seven year old child said he or she wanted it in their room would you tell them, “No, no, dear, nice people don’t have such things on their walls!”  “But Daddy,  I LIKE it..! ”  (Ah yes, “doesn’t know much about art, but knows what she likes”…Why is that taken as the acme of philistinism?  Isn’t the first step in appreciating art to know what you like?)  Another course would be to sigh and say yes, and hope that eventually the child’s tastes will develop and change.  And if they don’t, is there a moral stigma associated with it?  For avant-gardists, there is always.

This moralism in aesthetics of the anti-kitsch avant garde comes through in many ways.  Often it is deeply connected to sociological ideologies, such as the Marxist “false consciousness.”  How does one have false consciousness?  Isn’t one simply conscious…we hope?  One can be in error, but false consciousness implies a sort of drugged state of deception in which simple-minded people or superficially educated ones are lulled into averting their eyes from the nasty realities of economic exploitation by cultural manipulation.  There IS exploitation to be sure, but I’m not sure that people have a false consciousness about it as opposed to simply feeling that they can’t change it and therefore have no interest in the question…The highbrow avant-garde point of view is actually a variant on the eternal conspiracy theory mode of explanation, otherwise, of course, wouldn’t everyone just agree with us critics who see through it all?

And really, it’s hard for me to look at these classic pieces of kitsch and get all worked up about capitalist hegemony, culture of the dominant discourse, and the society of the spectacle.

kitsch_figurines snowglobe 03souvenir

I mean, it’s pretty harmless, and stupid at bottom, isn’t it?  And do we really care how people decorate their living rooms?  Must the personal always be political?  Maybe David Hume was right, taste is just a matter of experience and education.  We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist; we don’t have to surrender and say that everyone’s opinion is equal, but it is all relative in the end.  People who just don’t care about aesthetic sophistication just don’t care – let them like what they like and let’s not get snooty about it.  The world won’t end!

alma_tadema_a_favourite_custom

As for this sort of academic art,  this piece by the curator of the Dahesh museum in NYC quite nicely   kitsch_bougcupidpunctures the pretensions of the oh-so-pure critics of academic kitsch.  The discourse of kitsch critics is filled with assertions that kitsch does not present “real ideas,” or “genuine sentiments,” and that it is false, sentimental, too easy, too eager to please, too dependent on consumerism or the market, etc.  These vague criticisms simply reveal the prejudices of the writers and just about all of them could be leveled against revered works of art in all or part.  We paint with a pretty broad brush when we take this approach.

With the wall between art and mass-culture reduced to rubble long before the Berlin Wall, some people took umbrage against the puritan intellectualism, the cult of art, preached by the Greenburg-ites and his crew at The Partisan Review. Susan Sontag is among them, and her Notes on Camp was one of the early salvos in the internecine culture war of the intellectuals.  She has been followed by the avalanche of material culture studies. Let me go on the record:  I dislike Sontag, and I think her Notes is a piece of self-indulgent drivel.  There, I said it.  I am a snob as well as a kitschman!

Having trouble figuring out what I really think?  This kitsch business opens up so many cans of worms!  Let state it simply:

  • I believe we create rational hierarchies of values based on our ideas of value, but these hierarchies are relative.  If you reject my values, you reject my judgments.
  • There is no way around this.  The problem of taste and value is, at bottom, one variant on the question, “What is knowledge.”  I do not believe that absolute definitions exist, but neither do I think astrology is as good as astronomy!
  • The only way forward is to discuss, exchange ideas, argue, and test our ideas against one another’s.  To say, “Well, that’s just my taste,” is to end the discussion.  To assert that there is no way to build a bridge of common values between two differing critical systems.  Most of the time, this is just bunk.  On the other hand, in extreme cases, it may be just so.
  • Cross-genre judgments are hazardous.  Arguing that Goya is brilliant while Batman is junk is just stupid.  The aesthetic arenas within which these two exist are different.  First try and agree on whether or not Goya is a good painter, and Batman is a good comic.  Then evaluate the aims of comics vs. Romantic painting.  You may find out that it is pointless to try and compare the two.
  • Intellectuals and normal people should be open minded enough to enjoy “good” work from all sorts of genres.  Some call this “no-brow.”  To me it’s just the mark of an educated and liberal-minded person.

My rant is done…for now.


Blown Up

December 26, 2004

Yes, she is very pretty, and she looks a bit cold. Get her wrap, why don’t you? Of course, it’s Vanessa Redgrave in the most famous pose of her career, and of the movie by Antonioni, “Blow Up.” I watched it today, for the second time in about 25 years. I think I saw it in college in a film class, and at that time, I took it moderately seriously. On this viewing, I could only regard the film as preposterous. I wonder, did anyone take it seriously at the time it was produced? A quick look at some reviews online shows that people still do, and so, I assume, did then.Well, Redgrave and Hemmings are fun to look at, and the period styles and mood of Swingin’ London are moderately diverting. Of course the drug use and ‘orgies’ are so tame by today’s standards that one could almost miss them, but that’s not the fault of the film. Problem is, it’s boring and obvious. The protagonist is a self-involved, alienated, artist, and the intelligence behind the film is preoccupied with making rather obvious points about “we see what we wish to see,” and “who knows what is real and what is illusion…?” Were these points not obvious in 1966? If not, we can only say that the film has not weathered the decades well.

Still, watching it, I get a whiff of the stale miasma of the avante garde. That stilted, self-referential intellectualism that leads artists to publish manifestos and make grand pronouncements about subverting traditional conventions of narrative, structure, expectation, yada yada yada. Time and popular culture subvert them instead. And ideas are never an excuse for being boring. And so we have minimal art of the 60s and 70s, which is art, of course, but only minimally interesting. And we have its descendants today, covering gallery walls with text and message, but nothing to look at. I wish they’d all go read Jean Gimpel’s masterly tirade, “Against Artists,” in which he traces what he calls the decadence of modern art to a centuries-long progression down the road of too much philosophizing. Well, it’s one point of view.

Does the avante garde have any currency today? Does it mean anything to anyone outside of the tiny art world, and inside it, is it anything but commercial? I hope not! I’d rather have a lot of sold-out avante gardists than a vigorous Mario Marinetti and his fascist futurist thugs. Lenin was always talking about the vanguard of the revolution, the political wing of the avante garde. Same idea – a small class leads, and receives from on high the nectar of final truth.