Moods & Modernisms

I’m in a bad mood today. I’m sitting in cafe Korb, having my morning coffee, and parasitically using someone’s wireless that reaches here inside the cafe. As I was walking here I recalled for some reason a line from Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury (which is odd, since the last time I read it I was in high school): one of the central characters is driven to distraction because of his sister’s quite youthful sexual activity, and in his perturbation he discloses this to his father, a southern gentleman scholar sort of fellow. The father, as my impression recalls him—associated in my mind with the background of heat, sun, dust and booze of southern gentlemanly life—languidly replies with something to the effect that virginity is a negative condition, so one shouldn’t worry about it…In my current mood it struck me as extremely improbable that a southern gent would respond in this way, even with a good goblet of rye in his hand. This brought up other impressions from long ago: I remembered my annoyance when I was reading it years ago, at the apparently needless opacity of Faulkner’s writing, which recalled a comment of one critic frustrated at the difficulty of telling whether Faulkner’s characters are having sex or playing tennis. I found myself recomposing an essay on the book, petulant and superior, from a perspective of considerable annoyance: yes yes, stream of consciousness and all that; but perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of our own stream of consciousness is its extreme transparency—one’s thoughts flow uninterruptedly through a succession of as it were pure meaning, imagistic, linguistic, whatever. The principal feature of these thoughts is that they are immediately meaningful to us, their significance is largely present to us with their arrival, however bizarre and outlandish the ideas or connection between them. The significance is primary, its imagistic clothing merely the form the meaning takes; one’s mind floats on a surface of images connected by various means of association, and while the connection might not be immediately clear, the images are always transparently meaningful to us. This is not the case with Faulkner—one has to labour to reconstruct the connection between ideas, to fathom the significance, and to put the stream back together. It is a curious combination of analysis, of considering phrases and discovering meaning in them, and synthesis, trying to string these meanings into something more or less coherent. Very unlike the flow of consciousness that we experience. This reminds me of Picasso and cubism: enthusiastic art critics rhapsodize about the breaking down of three dimensional objects into different planes revealing different perspectives on the same two dimensional surface; about how innovative and psychologically astute such a method is, for our eyes don’t fix upon one point and stare at it—they’re constantly flitting around and viewing things from multiple perspectives, never experiencing exactly the same image twice. Cubism is supposed to reveal this in its dismantling of the unity of the object. But this again is precisely not how we experience objects, it does not reflect the way we perceive: though our eyes move ceaselessly in regarding something, the object always appears a unity to us, and only through analysis do we decompose our perceptual images into surfaces, partial-objects, etc. In this way, the sense of reality created by, say, Caravaggio’s figures emerging from the background gloom is a much more successful representation (as it were) of representation. Our eyes flit around the canvas, delivering a unified image, just as they do in life. One gets the feeling with Picasso—and many forms of modernism generally—that the development of technique and formal innovation tend to eclipse content in the purpose of the work: art taking itself as its subject and wandering around on tangents increasingly disconnected from ordinary life. One can get a good sense of this dislocation in the Albertina exhibit at the moment “From Monet to Picasso: The Batliner Collection”: from the hazy sunny afternoons of Impressionism to the rigidly geometrical but wholly natural landscapes of Cezanne (he’s almost like Bach in this respect), through the increasingly formal canvases of people like Braques and Picasso. Perhaps I should say that I quite like a lot of contemporary art: Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, the less abstract stuff of Avigdor Arikha, or the more obscure but excellent abstract expressionist Gianni Turella; Bartok, Gubaidulina, Hartmann, Rihm. And perhaps my literary tastes are also indicative: of the modernists, Proust and Musil are outstanding, while Joyce’s spectacular, sophisticated word-play leaves me cold. Ditto the laboured literary styles of DeLillo and Pynchon. Some so-called post-modernist literature sparkles with intelligence and wit, like Italo Calvino, and though I enjoy it as an intellectual pleasure I don’t feel particularly nourished by it. It is stimulating, but not moving.

Perhaps this seems like a rather nasty conservative rant, and I admit that I write all this in a grim mood, but I think, aside from a bit of polemicism, the main point stands. I’m not dogmatic about any of this; it’s just a series of impressions I’ve derived from perusing books and galleries and the local library’s cd collection; I’d quite like to hear an intelligent person’s take on this, should his perspective differ from mine, but alas, I’ve found very few of these. Feel free to leave a comment should you feel moved to do so. I also don’t think this series of impressions is particularly conservative—I think it’s Robert Hughes (a great fan of much modernist art) who said that great art doesn’t yield to the new, it yields to the better. Or something like that. One gets the feeling that many artists, with more energy than understanding, identify in canonical works of the past something novel, something innovative—or better, something revolutionary—and through a perverse logic conclude that what makes an art-work great is its innovativeness, its novelty, in short, its revolutionary qualities. Novelty therefore becomes the benchmark of greatness, and in its name countless aesthetic disasters are created with great confidence. This kind of reactionary thinking reaches its apogee in figures like Pierre Boulez, John Cage and Xenakis in music and at least half (a conservative estimate) of the philosophers/cultural critics to have emerged from France in the past half-century. There’s a resentful dissociation with man, with nature, with, as it were, the pullulating organicism of life in an attempt to achieve some sort of formal perfection. Le Corbusier versus Frank Loyd Wright in architecture; John Cage versus Sofia Gubaidulina in music; Gilles Deleuze versus Alain Badiou in philosophy; Robert Musil versus James Joyce in literature. The same sort of thing operates with performing artists: the styles of, say, Alfred Brendel versus Yevgeny Kissin (or Glenn Gould’s Beethoven). A very instructive contrast is between Brendel’s two books—The Veil Of Order and Alfred Brendel On Music—and the correspondence between John Cage and Pierre Boulez; or between Furtwangler’s Notebooks and any of a dozen or so ‘manifestos’: for Minimalism, Expressionism, Serialism, etc. In all these cases, the self-conscious ‘modernists’ seem to be flying from any sort of artistic responsibility, trying to escape the need to delve inside oneself for insight which is then translated into art. Blank canvases, obsessive word games, aleatory music—John Cage again, flipping coins to determine his compositions. Le Corb, too: his iconic house looks like a set from a low budget 1960’s sci-fi B movie, while Wright’s Falling Water (although I hear it’s falling apart…) has real majesty, integrated with its landscape and thoroughly beautiful. Yet another example, one of my bete noirs: modern opera adaptations. Again, I’m not dogmatic about this; there are modern adaptations that work very well: Hockney’s Zauberflote, for example, or last year’s production of La Fille Du Regiment here in Vienna (which I think went on to Covent Garden and then The Met), by Laurent Pelly (production), Chantal Thomas (set), and Laurent Pelly (costume) was excellent—imaginative, visually interesting, contributing to the drama without being ostentatiously gimmicky. Or the new (-ish) production of La Sonnambula by Marco Arturo Marelli, who sets the action in Thomas Mann’s Berghof, the setting for The Magic Mountain. It works brilliantly, setting the whole thing in a sanatorium; indeed, it works a good deal better than just about any ‘traditional’ setting can because it manages, playfully, intelligently, and relevantly to provide some sort of explanation for Amina’s bizarre behaviour. But for every inspired production there are a score of utterly woeful ones, pretentious, ugly, self-conscious, tedious, distracting, self-important…The first one that comes to mind is the ghastly Parsifal here in Vienna by Christine Mielitz (have I mentioned this before?), especially the first act set. People seem to confuse the controversial with the interesting, with the controversial winning in almost every case. Indeed, sadly the controversial seems to garner the most attention, which is already a positive thing in the eyes of opera companies. Sigh. I once spent an afternoon in a cafe in Paris with Peter Sellars (Sellars with an ‘a’, the director, not Dr. Strangelove, whose name is spelled with an ‘e’), who encouraged my studies of Deleuze but told me that Spinoza, one of the other central figures of my studies at the time (the final one being Whitehead), was dead, his time was like, SO over, and that one should look forward to new things, to our own time, rather than searching for answers in the dust of the past. I rather wanted to ask him, if this were the case, why he spent his career revamping (usually in a rather facile though attention-grabbing manner) old classics: Wagner, Mozart, Bach. He also talked at great length about what I think is one of the keys to this whole issue of innovation-mad modernism: politics. If a psychological factor in such tendencies lies in a resentment of the creative, of the inherently elitist notions of genius and superior aesthetic value—usually because the majority of artists in any given generation are incapable of such creativity—the parallel social factor is in the supposed value of democracy in art. People like Elias Cannetti go on about how classical music is inherently fascistic because it represents a three-fold domination: of the score over the conductor or performer, of the conductor over the musicians, and the product of this music-making over the audience. Similar tendencies can be found in literary studies (New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, etc) and philosophy (most of it springing from the leftist intellectual impetus of the post-war period).

Anyway, that’s all I have time for today.


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