Thursday, March 27, 2014

on not being a professional

Colebrook refers to Modernism as a liquid state, "dynamic, open, fluid and affective," with "deflection, divergeance, deviation and dehiscence," and "attention to the force of the dead," a flow not only from one idea to another but the flow also extending back in history, picking up a scrap of lingo and carrying it into the current text, book, poem, whatever that is, making it into a prose-moue, ie, hint of another language of emotion coming into the present discourse, making, maybe, a mosaic of personalities or utters of the dead.

In a state of nondifferentiation before the historic Big Bang you would not have these divergeances for no one is dead and there is no death; and if modernity is "liquid" then it must be a time of extreme deviations, knowing that Powys is an author of extreme deviations who goes in pursuit of those deviations once he finds them, this Modernist with a theory of his own, maybe, so compare him to others in that area and say he is more easily frightened than a Joyce or a Woolf or an Eliot because he stopped before they stopped and planted his mule feet stubbornly in the ground, never leaving the foreknown field of narrative as per the famous nineteenth century model, all his deviations recycling themselves into that shape; and perhaps you could call him a more eccentric and amateur author than the others, amateur on purpose, defending, like Clarice Lispector, his right to be an amateur. "I only write when I want to. I’m an amateur and insist on staying that way. A professional has a personal commitment to writing. Or a commitment to someone else to write. As for me … I insist on not being a professional. To keep my freedom," she said in her last interview, these very Powys sentiments coming out of a different mouth, freedom or free will being paramount, and both of them saying, "You can't make me if I don't want to," those words being metamorphosised from a pout into a value.

In literature I respect the I-won't but the last time I met it in real life it was a dam-like stunting force coming out of a man who said that he would never understand any modern art, it was all Renaissance and Rome for him, meanwhile producing the same small vocabulary of stiff figures in a bad imitation-classical smooth-surfaced style. Speaking of figuration, I saw a piece of observation in an oil portrait two days ago that gave me an instant interest in the artist, no matter what else they ever did with their lives, and that was the subtle way they had depicted the shadow between the person's fingers as a compacted fiery glow, not brown or grey or black or any of the other colours that people paint on shadows when they haven't looked at them, but rose.


  1. "all Renaissance and Rome for him, meanwhile producing the same small vocabulary of stiff figures in a bad imitation-classical smooth-surfaced style." This is so like Ruskin's criticism of sculptors and architects working in the 19th century, his Stones of Venice argument against the corrupting influence of the Renaissance. It's also sort of why I abandoned visual art: I had a small vocabulary and no way to expand it, no real ideas about the possibilities within visual art. I see it as a collection of finished forms, but never really as an activity I can do.

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    2. It's one of the problems with having a history at all: here you've got people showing you these artworks and saying, "This is wonderful art, see" -- these Michelangelos and marble friezes, see the talent, and the talent is obvious -- but here you are in the present, confronted with these things, and how do you pretend to be an artist after that, and why should you, when there are all these finished objects that people are pointing at and saying, "Masterpiece"? You don't see Michelangelo working on a painting, you see the fait accompli. So the art of the past is the art of fait accomplis. Nobody can make a fait accompli. Even the people who made the fait accomplis weren't making fait accomplis. Art being made today (whenever "today" might be) can't be a fait accompli. The artist is still working. The art is part of a restlessness and an unfinishedness. They're two different species of art, with different attributes. An artist is trying to reach the unreachable species by making the reachable one. They'll never know if the plan has worked out or not.

    3. Wait, who and how did the Renaissance corrupt?

    4. Ruskin wrote half a million words (at least) on that topic. Here are a few: "I have not written in vain if I have heretofore done anything towards diminishing the reputation of the Renaissance landscape painting. But the harm which has been done by Claude and the Poussins is as nothing when compared to the mischief effected by Palladio, Scamozzi, and Sansovino. Claude and the Poussins were weak men, and have had no serious influence on the general mind. There is little harm in their works being purchased at high prices: their real influence is very slight, and they may be left without grave indignation to their poor mission of furnishing drawing-rooms and assisting stranded conversation. Not so the Renaissance architecture. Raised at once into all the magnificence of which it was capable by Michael Angelo, then taken up by men of real intellect and imagination, such as Scamozzi, Sansovino, Inigo Jones, and Wren, it is impossible to estimate the extent of its influence on the European mind; and that the more, because few persons are concerned with painting, and, of those few, the larger number regard it with slight attention; but all men are concerned with architecture, and have at some time of their lives serious business with it. It does not much matter that an individual loses two or three hundred pounds in buying a bad picture, but it is to be regretted that a nation should lose two or three hundred thousand in raising a ridiculous building. Nor is it merely wasted wealth or distempered conception which we have to regret in this Renaissance architecture: but we shall find in it partly the root, partly the expression, of certain dominant evils of modern times — over-sophistication and ignorant classicalism; the one destroying the healthfulness of general society, the other rendering our schools and universities useless to a large number of the men who pass through them."

      Or, to say it in brief, "the reader remembers, I trust, that the most characteristic sentiment of all that we traced in the working of the Gothic heart, was the frank confession of its own weakness, the principal element in the Renaissance spirit its firm confidence in its own wisdom." Ruskin goes on (this is all from The Stones of Venice) to call that Renaissance confidence a triumvirate of immoral pride: pride of science, pride of state, and pride of system. Stones includes a 30,000-word essay on Renaissance pride. Mr Ruskin really gets himself into an uproar about the Renaissance. He admires certain obvious Renaissance geniuses, but scolds the neoclassical mindset of the time as immoral.

    5. True, and he boiled himself down to a couple of paragraphs once, for the sake of an audience of students in Oxford, where he was delivering a lecture:

      "The course of Art divides itself hitherto, among all nations of the world that have practised it successfully, into three great periods.

      The first, that in which their conscience is undeveloped, and their condition of life in many respects savage; but, nevertheless, in harmony with whatever conscience they possess. The most powerful tribes, in this stage of their intellect, usually live by rapine, and under the influence of vivid, but contracted, religious imagination. The early predatory activity of the Normans, and the confused minglings of religious subjects with scenes of hunting, war, and vile grotesque, in their first art, will sufficiently exemplify this state of a people ; having, observe, their conscience undeveloped, but keeping their conduct in satisfied harmony with it.

      The second stage is that of the formation of conscience by the discovery of the true laws of social order and personal virtue, coupled with sincere effort to live by such laws as they are discovered.

      All the Arts advance steadily during this stage of national growth, and are lovely, even in their deficiencies, as the buds of flowers are lovely by their vital force, swift change, and continent beauty.

      The third stage is that in which the conscience is entirely formed, and the nation, finding it painful to live in obedience to the precepts it has discovered, looks about to discover, also, a compromise for obedience to them. In this condition of mind its first endeavour is nearly always to make its religion pompous, and please the gods by giving them gifts and entertainments, in which it may piously and pleasurably share itself ; so that a magnificent display of the powers of art it has gained by sincerity, takes place for a few years, and is then followed by their extinction, rapid and complete exactly in the degree in which the nation resigns itself to hypocrisy.

      The works of Raphael, Michael Angelo, and Tintoret, belong to this period of compromise ..."

      The rest is here:

  2. From "Theory of Colors, 1808," by Lars Gustaffson, in A Time in Xanadu:

    So shadows are red?
    But a shadow is nothing.
    An absolutely nothing.