Obviousness

Strolling around town today I saw a poster for a Max Ernst exhibit at the Albertina, and I stopped to have a look at it. It’s a sepia-toned woodcut of the corner of a bourgeois-looking interior, with a large figure in the middle and another visible through the window to the left. The main figure is dressed in a Victorian robe of sorts, something between a dressing gown and the cloak with shoulder-length cape that Sherlock Holmes is often portrayed as wearing. In place of it’s head is one of those Moai faces, dark, impassive, impersonal. Clutching the back of it’s head is presumably the creature’s hair in a hairnet; but it could also be a roughly sketched ferret or lemur. This bizarre figure is observing itself in an elegant hand-held mirror. On the dressing table in front of it lie a comb, another mirror (face down), a bowl, and an enormous praying mantis grasping a fly in its claws. The figure in the background is a romantic nude, like Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people; windswept hair, one arm raised, breasts round like oranges, cupid-bow lips, eyes peering inside the window at the Moai creature . When I first saw this it seemed like a common, and rather boring, avant garde comment on the strictures of bourgeois life: earthy, liberated life contending with the elements out of doors, while the cosseted and closeted bourgeois lurks in grotesque unnaturalness inside, surrounded by superfluous finery. I admit to a Steppenwolf-like admiration for bourgeois life, and so in addition to the childish petulance of their protests (think Pierre Boulez, for instance, or Alain Badiou) I object to their choice of target. In striving to make a name for themselves, such people simply attack what they perceive to be the establishment, and the gesture of protest becomes the fulcrum of their respective projects–aesthetic, philosophical, literary, whatever. I see it so often, so obviously, that I tend to see it everywhere…But anyway, the Ernst engraving…the more I look at it, the more I tend to think that it’s probably not that simple; he seems to have been pretty odd, and it seems unlikely that he’d spend so much effort on something so banal. Anyway, aside from Ernst’s intention, it did make me wonder what it was that was objectionable about excessive obviousness in art, both in terms of content and in terms of the visibility of authorial intention. With respect to the first, I seemed to me that it had something to do with the paucity of thematic material, the excessive abstraction from the complex environment of the subject being represented. Abstracting the subject, or the idea, from its context in too reckless a manner tends to leave unconsidered the variety of other relationships it possesses, and in this process of simplification inaccuracies are introduced. Of course, all art, all efforts at representation, in whatever discipline, assumes the need to abstract–representation cannot, a priori, maintain the inexhaustible complexity of the real, both in terms of the relationships it expresses as well as because of the limitations of its consumers. But good art–indeed, good thought generally–selects wisely from the multiplicity of references, and in its abstractions attempts to maintain the general structure of the real, while being selective. Bad art tends not to be capable of this, and this not because these artists (or thinkers, etc.) select poorly from the multiplicity of references, but because they are incapable of recognizing many of them. That is to say (and this leads me to the second issue, that of authorial intention), the artist driven by fierce personal interests tends to have a severely circumscribed vision, which only permits the acknowledgement of references which are in accord with this narrow range of self-interest. Again I think of Boulez and Badiou: Boulez, who, meditating on his early years as more of a rabble-rouser than a musician, said something to the effect that the dog stops barking once he’s let into the house; and Badiou, who built his whole metaphysical edifice on the concept of the ‘break’, which itself derived from his earlier ‘militant’ (the word his his) Maoism and his determination to wipe the slate clean and start over again, to break with everything established. The obviousness of their motives, and its unashamedly self-interested character, in itself devalues their speculations and/or expressions; the reason, one thinks, that they are so interested in such polemics is not that their ideas are in some way better or truer than those of their opponents, but simply because such clamorous protest garners attention. Going back to content, it quickly becomes evident, upon an examination of their ideas, that their systems are either less coherent than more patient and more circumspect meditations–their set of chosen references do not ‘add up’, as it were, because of the artificiality of their commitments–or they are simply coherent in a narrow, circumscribed way. If one starts from a position of narrow self-interest, and chooses those references that support one’s self-interest, it is not difficult to construct a facile system justifying the means of satisfying that agenda; but in most cases it will be so abstracted from real conditions that it is quickly unmasked. The truths they offer in support of their theses are facile, trivial truths; partial truths forcibly extracted from the complexity of the actual. This reminds me of Whitehead’s suggestion, derived ultimately from Spinoza and picked up by Deleuze, to focus on relevance and interest rather than the already abstract category of truth. Coherence is essential, but since coherence can be fabricated in all sorts of trivial contexts, the relevance of ideas is actually more important.

A brief summary: obviousness, both in content and in intention, is often objectionable because it demonstrates an excessively narrow perspective. An example: Plato raises the issue of desiring something because it is good, and finding something good because one desires it. The Resenters, as Harold Bloom calls them, call something good because they desire it. Kant, on the other hand, urged us to desire something (or, better still, do something even if it repulses us) because it was good. Wisdom, it seems to me, suggests that this is a false opposition (as most oppositions are), that the wise man desires what is good because it is good to desire it…this is a rather cryptic explanation, but it contains a germ of relevance.

Here’s a metaphor to try to make things more concrete, and also to suggest a difference between the kind of ‘bad’ obviousness I’ve been trying to look at and the kind of simple, intuitive relevant truths which ought to be the goal of insight. If ‘bad’ obviousness stems from the restriction of references, inspired by the narrow gaze of self-interest, its perspective tends to be quite limited; looking at the arguments, or the ideas, from a different vantage point, they look ill-chosen, incoherent. They’re like a film set: convincing facades that are intended to present a plausible image from a certain perspective; move to the side, however, and the pretense becomes obvious. What this image is meant to convey is that once the set of references a thinker or artist presents in a work is replaced back into a wider set of references, it stops functioning, its pretense is exposed, just like the film set. More well-judged efforts maintain a plausibility from whatever perspective one chooses to consider them: a handful of uncontroversial examples from the top of my head: Bach’s Goldberg Variations or St. Matthew Passion; Michelangelo’s David or Moses or Pieta’ or in fact most of his work; Hamlet or King Lear or Macbeth or Falstaffiad or any one of 20 or so of his other plays; most of Mozart; etc.

To add a hopefully illustrative twist to the image of the film set: imagine that the perceiver is a source of light, and the artwork or text is represented by the facade of the film set. (It might be relevant to point out that great art is also an abstraction, and so can also be talked about in terms of an artificial construction, just as much as bad art). The more abstract from reality the art work, the more its references are defined, and circumscribed, but narrow self-interest, the fewer will be the perspectives from which it will present a convincing facade. The viewer stands at a given point, radiating his light upon that facade; the facade then casts a shadow over those parts which are not intended to be viewed, it covers its flanks, as it were. An actor stands before a building on a film set; from his perspective it looks ‘real’; his gaze casts a light upon the facade, which casts a shadow behind it–a shadow over the unworked part of the set, a part of the set which, if seen, would dismantle the illusion of reality.

Ideas can be seen in much the same way: from a certain vantage point they appear convincing. The viewer, casting his gaze of understanding, sees no shadows from his given perspective, and so all seems coherent. The facade of the idea, those parts of it present to his understanding, appear to cohere with the surrounding environment: a given constellation, to change metaphors, coheres with the enveloping constellations. Now imagine that a second viewer (who, for the purposes of argument, doesn’t cast a light), moving from the side of the first viewer towards one side. He would see, as in the set, that the facade casts a shadow from the light emanating from the other viewer; he would see that the appearance of coherence derives from the coordination of the elements of the facade to fit the background–from a limited perspective. Once the perspective is shifted, the illusion is destroyed, or revealed. It is this ‘shadow’ that constitutes the obviousness of partiality. Great art maintains the effect of reality from any perspective we choose to look at it; we can walk around it, as in the set, and from whatever point of view, whatever demands we make of it, it maintains this appearance of reality. One can shine a light upon it from any perspective, and it never casts this shadow of falsity.

Another way of describing the same phenomenon would be in terms of integration. Partial truths, perspectives limited by partiality, are not fully integrated, and it is at the borders of this integration–where they cease to relate intelligibly or coherently with the whole–where the shadow is cast. Ideas that are more fully integrated don’t have these floating edges which cast shadows, as a result of being more fully integrated.

Anyway that’s enough for today.

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