The Black Hole of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

December 20, 2012

B and P

[I just realized, this is my 1000th post!  How appropriate that it should be about Bouvard and Pecuchet!]

I read through most of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet again over the last few weeks.  Flaubert didn’t finish the book, and the conclusion is simply an outline assembled from his notes.  It is a very difficult book to get a grip on, unless you are well versed in the Flaubertian world view:  This blogger, however, is on to something when she remarks that she read the entire thing with the childrens’  book, Frog and Toad in mind!

The ‘novel’ tells of two clerks, nobodies is how Flaubert referred to them in his original title for it, who take up a life of ease in the country after one of them comes into an inheritance.  In fact, the life they adopt is what I plan for myself in retirement: reading, travelling, ‘intellectual’ hobbies, and so on.  But this is Flaubert, remember.

B & P is Flaubert’s revenge on human culture, his ever-ticking time bomb of a black hole that sucks in everything that has been thought and said about anything, and makes it disappear with a ‘poof!’  He remarked in his letters that he hoped that after reading it, people “would be afraid to say anything,” because of course, anything they could say would be reflected in some imbecility or other in this book.  At last, people might just shut up, forever!

The book is not about anything, other than the endless mental and recreational diversions of the two clerks.  You could say it’s a book about nothing, more than one hundred years before Seinfeld hit on that theme as a platform for mass entertainment.  Of course, Flaubert’s spirit, if it watches television, recognizes and accepts the inevitability of the recuperation of his work.

People comment on this book a lot, in rather grand ways.  Christopher Hitchens reviewed a recent translation and got this off, my emphasis:

This novel was plainly intended to show its author’s deep contempt, however comedically expressed, for all grand schemes, most especially the Rousseauean ones, to improve the human lot. Such schemes founder because the human material is simply too base to be transmuted. Even Bouvard and Pécuchet receive a glimpse of this, if only through their own solipsism: “Then their minds developed a piteous faculty, that of perceiving stupidity and being unable to tolerate it. Insignificant things saddened them: newspaper advertisements, a burgher’s profile, an inane comment overheard by chance. . . . They felt upon their shoulders the weight of the entire world.”

Earnest fellow that Hitchens is, it doesn’t occur to him that Flaubert is here talking about himself.  As he said of his most famous character, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”  Read his entertaining and outrageous letters, and that much is clear.

In the forward to my edition, Lionel Trilling has this to say:

The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century.  Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.  The novel does nothing less than that:  it rejects culture.  The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding … that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.

Sometimes I get so sick of culture I could scream…but what’s the alternative?   Here’s a passage with my favorite part in blue:

Pécuchet, without bestowing a thought on them, took up the argument:

“Excuse me, M. Jeufroy. The weight of the atmosphere, science demonstrates to us, is equal to that of a mass of water which would make a covering ten metres around the globe. Consequently, if all the air that had been condensed fell down in a liquid state, it would augment very little the mass of existing waters.”

The vestrymen opened their eyes wide, and listened.

The curé lost patience. “Will you deny that shells have been found on the mountains? What put them there, if not the Deluge? They are not accustomed, I believe, to grow out of the ground of themselves alone, like carrots!” And this joke having made the assembly laugh, he added, pressing his lips together: “Unless this be another discovery of science!”

Bouvard was pleased to reply by referring to the rising of mountains, the theory of Elie de Beaumont.
“Don’t know him,” returned the abbé.

Foureau hastened to explain: “He is from Caen. I have seen him at the Prefecture.”

“But if your Deluge,” Bouvard broke in again, “had sent shells drifting, they would be found broken on the surface, and not at depths of three hundred metres sometimes.”

The priest fell back on the truth of the Scriptures, the tradition of the human race, and the animals discovered in the ice in Siberia.

“That does not prove that man existed at the time they did.”

The earth, in Pécuchet’s view, was much older. “The delta of the Mississippi goes back to tens of thousands of years. The actual epoch is a hundred thousand, at least. The lists of Manetho——”

The Count de Faverges appeared on the scene. They were all silent at his approach.
“Go on, pray. What were you talking about?”
“These gentlemen are wrangling with me,” replied the abbé.
“About what?”
“About Holy Writ, M. le Comte.”
Bouvard immediately pleaded that they had a right, as geologists, to discuss religion.
“Take care,” said the count; “you know the phrase, my dear sir, ‘A little science takes us away from it, a great deal leads us back to it’?” And in a tone at the same time haughty and paternal: “Believe me, you will come back to it! you will come back to it!”

“Perhaps so. But what were we to think of a book in which it is pretended that the light was created before the sun? as if the sun were not the sole cause of light!”
“You forget the light which we call boreal,” said the ecclesiastic.

I love the way the local class system is limned with such economy: the Count approaches, and they all await his words.  He lets fall a few clichés supportive of the status quo.  The dialog of the deaf continues…

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Thomas Kinkade – Artist for the People

April 11, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, the “most collected,” “most successful,” most this-and-that artist of America today died a few days ago.  I come here neither to bury, praise, or damn him, but only to mull over the curious intersection of aesthetic and cultural issues that his work occupies.  His paintings bring to mind Walter Benjamin, of course, whom I have belittled in an earlier post.  I should read his work again since I refer to it so often: perhaps I would have a more favorable opinion today.  At any rate, Balzac may have said it best when he foresaw the pickle of modern art in the advancing machine age:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.

And products a-plenty we have by Kinkade!  I believe he rarely sold his original oils, but the reproductions, the franchises for furniture, dinnerware, galleries, pillows, and other items are a business with annual revenue in the many tens of millions of dollars.  He is an artist who is scorned by the ‘critical establishment’, although he claims the hostility is a one-way thing: he loves Franz Kline and Rothko.  The word ‘kitsch‘ comes up frequently in evaluations of his oeuvre.  (Beware, one man’s kitsch is another man’s living room!)

The image at the top is typical of a large number of his paintings, a serene landscape, while others are religious, genre, or even sci-fi almost surreal. One of the few art critics sympathetic to his work quips that he is a ‘conceptual’ artist because his work is driven by his desire to give visual form to his ideas and values:  Christianity; family; patriotism, among them.  Other academics cite the eerie similarity of his career to that of Andy Warhol, who referred to his studio as The Factory, and who made no qualms about blurring or completely rejecting the line between Art and Commerce. (see Heaven on Earth)

Kinkade’s art is a perfect target for the satire of Komar and Melamid, purveyors of ‘nostalgic realism,’ who also did a market resarch project to determine what paintings people want, and created images to meet the need.  Kinkade, judging by his commercial success, has the talent to sniff out what people want and need on their walls without the benefit of professional pollsters.  He acknowledges this, and is proud of it.  As far as he is concerned, what is the point of artists having contempt for the taste of most people on the planet?  Doesn’t he have a point?  It’s just that I would rather look at older art, skipping the contemporary stuff, instead of Kinkade’s art.  But let’s look at a few…

The two images below are very typical of his work, and I cannot bear to look at them.  I find them simply ugly, boring, meretricious, and profoundly irritating.  They are chock full of symbolism according to Kinkadists.  So are Renaissance landscapes and action scenes.  I was just looking at an engraving by Durer of Adam and Eve that Panofsky analyses in terms of the animals signifying the four humours of the body, among other things.  Personally, that rather arcane aspect of art history never interested me.

e

The seascape below on the left, the style is that of the bulk of his work, strikes me as soporific.  I feel I’ve seen it in countless waiting rooms.  Not painful to see, but nothing interesting.  The one on the right is simply weird, and not too exciting given the terrifying nature of the monster.  It’s a bit too literal for me. [Note:  comments by Sledpress lead me to wonder if this is not actually a Kinkade.]

Okay, with these images below, we have evidence that Kinkade can certainly paint.  Both are rather attractive, though I find the one on the left to be a visual cliché for calendars and more office waiting rooms.  It is very much in the style of Andrew Wyeth, I think, and boy, is he popular!  I like the one on the right, but it is unusual in his catalogue. Technique is only part of being an artist, though a part too much scorned in the modern era.  On the other hand, as professor once remarked to me, we have Bougouereau, who we might call a great painter, and a lousy artist.

Below, a workmanlike urban landscape: glowing, unremarkable, and dull; a rural scene in Guatemala that captures some sense of the place, almost plein air impressionistic – pretty good, but atypical of his production.

The image on the left below is pretty good:  I happen to have a weakness for that type of color and light.  Kinkade is called, or refers to himself as The Painter of Light, a monniker that the Impressionists would have been happy with.  So too would the Luminists of the turn of the 20th century period.  The image on the right by Maxfield Parrish shows Kinkades stylistic pedigree, I think, but he would never include figures in such a bewitching state of languor.

The Whitney Museum of Art in NYC scorns Kinkade, and the hostility is returned.  He’d like to build his own museum (an anti-art museum, to his critics) right next door.  But as Heaven on Earth points out, The Whitney began as an institution championing American Regionalism – Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, etc. – against the effete strains of European modernism, an art historical irony.  Kinkade has affinities with this sort of art, as shown by his American slice-of-life image of the Indianapolis 500.  Reginald Marsh painted crowd scenes of American’s at play, but he was very prone to showing sex and violence, not in Kinkade’s line.

So Kinkade gives people what they want, and what they want is based on their unchallenged preconceptions.  Does art always have to be new?  Must it épater le bourgeois always?  (And are Kinkade’s buyers actually the same group as the bourgeois  so reviled by the avant garde?  One critic locates his market square in the working class, whatever that is these days in America.  That’s a nice culturo-politico irony too.) Where is it written that art must challenge the ideas of the day?  That’s a prejudice of the avant garde that developed during the 19th century and that is shot through with intellectual and political elitism, even when it’s directed at championing what it sees as the causes of the masses.

Much of the “great art” that is universally applauded by the cognoscenti, even as they condescend to it from the pinnacle of today’s art, was produced exactly as Kinkade’s was.  That is, for patrons who knew what they wanted, and wanted nothing else. Much of the art then was boring, and we don’t see it in museums:  we see only the best of it.  Think of all those Dutch still-lifes and landscapes: they aren’t all masterpieces!  Some of them seem to have been churned out pretty much by the numbers.  Kinkade simply adapts that approach to the age of consumerism, and broadens the reach of his patronage to include everyone!

Behind the critical disdain for his work is usually an intense strain of snobbism and elitism, and a failure to acknowledge that these days, we are all part of a market, a lifestyle segment, a target demographic, even if we don’t embrace the fact, even if we are acutely aware of the fact, even if it is a very small and select group after all.  Scorn and ridicule are out of place here.  If people like this stuff, then…so what?  If you find it boring, spend your time and money elsewhere.  Is there anything new under the sun here that should get you all hot and bothered?


A matter of taste, again…

February 7, 2011

Victory Arch - Iran/Iraq War .

Disgusting, vulgar, obscenely kitsch – some of the comments that are heard about Saddam Hussein’s Victor Arch, which is now being restored in Baghdad.  One scholar wrote an entire book on the subject of Saddam’s artistic output. [Edward Said felt that the author, Kanan Makiya, an erstwhile booster of the GWB invasion, had tainted motives for his critical tirade.]

One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room. Tolstoy had the same opinion of Napoleon as we have of Saddam, but Boney is a “great man,” and his monuments are gawked at with admiration and reverence by millions of civilized westerners

Napoleon celebrates Austerlitz


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.


Wheel of Fortuna

September 11, 2008

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…