Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Piled-Up Exoticism of Flaubert's Carthage

I recently mentioned Flaubert's violently exotic novel Salammbo, about the Mercenary revolt in Carthage after the First Punic War, in this post over on WorldBin, and it reminded me of this small extract which shows how well his immeasurably precise and spare style lends itself equally well to both the emotive realism of his novels 'Madam Bovary' and 'Sentimental Education', as well as to the evocative, romantic, strange and spectacular constructions of this book, and his short story Herodias (a story set in the great fortress of Herodium, and revolving around the dance of Salome, Herodias' daughter, and John the Baptist's subsequent execution). His description here of the city's disposition packs all the dreamy immutability of some of Bocklin's paintings, with their implied rituals and fusions of building-and-nature that recall something, although one can never be quite sure of what, with the sharp power of analogy through which he uses language to pack the image he creates with a clear, although impossible, juxtaposition of compound impressions. When I first read this book, it felt as if Flaubert had taken that period just before sleep, when as a young teenager in love with architecture and antiquity, I had tried to imagine the physical grandeur and luscious sensibilities behind the ruins I had seen in photographs, and stretched that state out into an entirely alternate, but historicaly located, world. And although he researched intensively for the narrative, there is only so much information that one can gather about any one moment in the past, and it was a magical revelation to see how the threadbare paucity of history and its march of facts can be taken up at one point, and be as it were enlivened to a degree such as this where it becomes a credible alternative to explanations of the present, or speculations on the future.

Behind extended the city, its tall, cubed shaped houses rising in tiers like an amphitheatre. They were made of stone, planks, pebbles, rushes, seashells, trodden earth. The temple groves stood out like lakes of greenery in this mountain of multi-coloured blocks. Public squares levelled it out at regular intervals; countless intersecting alleys cut it up from top to bottom. The walls of the three old quarters, now mixed together, were still distinguishable; they rose here and there like great reefs, or extended huge sections -half covered with flowers, blackened, widely streaked where rubbish had been thrown down, and streets passed through their gaping apertures like rivers under bridges.

The Acropolis hill, in the centre of Byrsa, was covered over with a litter of monuments. There were temples with twisted pillars, bronze capitals, and metal chains, cones of dry stone with azure stripes, copper cupolas, marble architraves, Babylonian buttresses, obelisks balancing on their points like upturned torches. Peristyles reached to pediments; scrolls unfolded between colonnades; granite walls supported tile partitions; in all this one thing was piled on another, half-hiding it, in a marvellous and unintelligible way. There was a feeling of successive ages and, as it were, memories of forgotten lands.Behind extended the city, its tall, cubed shaped houses rising in tiers like an amphitheatre. They were made of stone, planks, pebbles, rushes, seashells, trodden earth. The temple groves stood out like lakes of greenery in this mountain of multi-coloured blocks. Public squares levelled it out at regular intervals; countless intersecting alleys cut it up from top to bottom. The walls of the three old quarters, now mixed together, were still distinguishable; they rose here and there like great reefs, or extended huge sections -half covered with flowers, blackened, widely streaked where rubbish had been thrown down, and streets passed through their gaping apertures like rivers under bridges.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

A Room Returning From The Sum To Its Parts: Marguerite Yourcenar's Abyss

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Room in A Dutch House. The Hermitage Museum.

This is the point in the book “Zeno of Bruges” (or “The Abyss”) by Marguerite Yourcenar, where the main character, a physician, alchemist and philosopher in sixteenth century Flanders, begins a descent during the process of which all forms of meaning, use and abstraction, applied and overlaid onto the material and physical world by man, begin –for him- to fall away, eventually revealing a vast, certain, terrifying, meaningless, but ultimately liberating Nature, into which, at the end of the book, he calmly releases himself in an act that takes him back to a state like the one he is imagining of the room and its contents below. Spending his entire life in buildings and cities, discussing ideas, science and theology, he himself goes through several shifts in perception where the constructs of man, both logical and spatial at first seem tenuous, then infinitely ephemeral, dissolving into an unending and timeless process against which they stand as strange, illusory solidities, vainly encrusting tiny moments of space and time with systems and values which although meaning everything to their respective civilisation, count for nothing in the march of time and the teeth of nature.

For nearly half a century Zeno had used his mind, wedge-like, to enlarge, as best he could, the breaks in the wall which on all sides confines us. The cracks were widening, or rather, it seemed that the wall was slowly losing its solidity, though it still remained opaque, as if it were a wall of smoke and not of stone. Objects no longer played their part merely as useful accessories; like a mattress from which the hair stuffing protrudes, they were beginning to reveal their substance. A forest was filling the room: the stool, its height measured by the distance that separates a seated man’s rump from the ground, this table which serves for eating or writing, the door connecting one cube of air, surrounded by partitions, with another, neighbouring cube of air, all were losing those reasons for existing which an artisan had given them, to be again only trunks or branches stripped of their bark, like the Saint Bartholomews, stripped of their skin, in church paintings; here and there the carpenter’s plane had left lumps where the sap had bled. These corpses of trees were laden with ghostly leaves and invisible birds, and still creaked from tempests long since gone by. This blanket and those old clothes hanging on a nail smelled of animal fat, of milk, of blood. These shoes gaping open beside the bed had once moved in rhythm with the breathing of an ox at rest on the grass; and a pig, bled to death, was still squealing in that lard with which the cobbler had greased them.
On all sides there was violent death, as in a slaughterhouse, or in a field of execution. The terrified cackling of a goose could be heard in the quill pen scratching its way, over old rags, to record ideas deemed worthy of lasting forever. Everything was actually something else: this shirt that the Bernadine sisters laundered for him was, in reality, a field of flax, far more blue than the sky; but it was, at the same time, a mass of fibres put to soften in the bed of a canal. The florins in his pocket, stamped with the head of the late Emperor Charles, had been exchanged or given away, stolen, weighed, or shaved off a thousand times before he had thought them, for one brief moment, his own; but all such turnover and back and forth between hands avaricious or prodigal was of short span as compared with the inert duration of the metal itself, which had lain infused in the earth’s veins before Adam had ever lived. The brick walls around him were resolving into mud from which they came, and which they would again become one day.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Breaches, and Other Places

A storied proposal about architecture as a democracy of institutionalised reification, told from the perspective of one of its citizens.

I realised some-time after the adventure that it is something one simply has to do as a child, a sort of right-of-passage, a coming-of-age. You slip through the barriers set up by all the conventions which surround that beguiling taboo that is the Other places (that taboo which in turn girdles our cities as tightly as did our old ring of suburbs), and find something more wondrous than speculation. Those Other places which we always grew up being warned about, and yet could do nothing but endlessly speculate on, those places which were fashioned so alluringly in their inapproachability, their possible wonder, they became so big in our minds, so important for both our communally fabricated childish, ghostly and ghoulish mythologies, as well as for our developing sense of independence and accompanying intrepid curiosity, that their pull was entirely irresistible. The delicious tickle of fear induced by the tales we had all whipped out of thin air to further mystify whatever caverns lay beyond the dark entrances; the transgressive thrill which swamps any such experience with the power of having circumventing rules laid down by parents and society, together with the pre-eminence and respect amongst classmates that would be obtained, meant that sooner or later such an undertaking was inevitable for any group of kids with any inclination to adventure and imagination whatsoever.

More After The Break...

Monday, 5 October 2009

A Bedchamber and a Boudoir, Balzac's Architectures of Pleasure.

Here are two spaces described in two of the three novels that make up Honore De Balzac’s ‘History of The Thirteen’, books written at the inception of the Human Comedy. They capture the beginnings of his ability to mix architecture, art, ornament, design and decoration into an inseparable continuum with the passions, dreams, impressions and activities of the people who play out their lives within their walls, an ability which reaches its apogee in the pages of his novel “The Wild Ass’s Skin” where he manages to describe the entire state of a civilisation, its dreams and nightmares, through long scenes which flit effortlessly between objects, conversations, tastes, smells, lust, art and architecture. It is a tendency in his novels which is partially explained in his book “Seraphita”, a strange tale which explains his philosophy on art and life, heavily influenced by the eighteenth century Swedish mystic Swedenborg, and which emphasises the nature of all materiality as being something through the understanding of which an interconnectedness, and totality, can be touched or adumbrated through its apprehension:
“If matter terminates in man by intelligence, why are you not satisfied to believe that the end of human intelligence is the Light of the higher spheres.”And conversely, that divinity, or the unique and spiritual essence of ‘nature’ is present in any work of man, and by this renders all possible relationships between the parts of man’s creations to be something profound beyond the material of their parts and the consequence of their existences.
“Earth has divided the Word –of which I here reveal some syllables- into particles, she has reduced it to dust and has scattered it through her works, her dogmas, her poems. If some impalpable grain shines like a diamond in a human work, men cry: ‘how grand! How glorious!’ That fragment vibrates in their souls.”Hence Balzac, who called himself a Historian, wished to describe a complex continuum, not a sequence of facts, and his science, while always vivid and descriptive, never fell to cataloguing. He was looking for an urban ecology which made every furnishing and candelabra pulse with whatever pathetic fragment of divinity Balzac managed to divine.
These two novels were meant to be his History of love in the efflorescence of luxury that occurred at the time of the Bourbon restoration in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

From “Ferragus: Chief of the companions of duty”
Book 1 of “The History of The Thirteen”
Madam Jules’ bedchamber was a holy of holies. Only she, her husband and her chambermaid had right of entrance. Opulence has fine privileges, the most enviable of them being those which give the greatest scope to the expression of our feelings, bring them to fruition through the accomplishment of the innumerable whims they inspire, surround them with a radiancy which magnifies them, with the studied attentions which purify them and the delicate touches of courtesy which add yet more to their attractiveness. If you hate al fresco luncheons and badly served meals, if it gives you some pleasure to see a glisteningly white damask tablecloth, a silver-guilt cutlery service, exquisitely delicate china, a gilt-bordered, richly sculptured table, lit with diaphanous candles and then, under emblazoned silver globes, the miracles of the choicest cuisine; if you want to be consistent, you must then spurn attics and house-tops, streets and street-walkers; you must say goodbye to the garrets and grisettes, to umbrellas and galoshes, you must abandon them to people who pay for their dinner with vouchers. Also you must understand the basic principle of love: it can only be achieved in all its grace on carpets from the Savonnerie, under the opal glimmer of a marmoreal lamp, between dicreet, silk-lined walls in front of a gilded fireplace, in a room muffled from all noises by Venetian blinds, shutters and billowy curtains, whether these noises come from the streets or from neighbouring flats. You must have mirrors which make play with human shapes and reflect to infinity the woman you would wish to be multiple and whom love does indeed render multiple. You must have very low divans and a bed which, with a sort of secretiveness, allows its presence merely to be divined; and, in this dainty chamber, fur rugs for bare feet, candles with glass shades amid draped muslins, so that one may read at any time of the night; also flowers whose scent is not too heavy, and linens whose fineness of texture would have contented even Anne of Austria.
Madame Jules had carried out this delicious programme, but that was only a beginning. Any woman of taste could do as much, even though the planning of these things requires a stamp of personality which gives originality and character to this or that ornament, to this or that detail. Today, more than ever before, there reigns a fanatical craving for self-expression. The more our laws aim at an impossible equality, the more we shall swerve from it by our way of living. In consequence rich people in France are becoming more exclusive in their tastes and their attachment to their personal belongings than they were thirty years ago. Madame Jules knew what this programme entailed and put everything in her home into harmony with the luxury which went so well with their conjugal love. ‘Sixty pounds a year and my Sophie’ or ‘Love in a cottage’: only starvelings talk like this. Black bread is all right to start with, but having become gourmets if they really love each other, they come round to regretting the gastronomic pleasures they cannot afford. Love loathes poverty and toil. It prefers to die than to pinch and scrape.

From “The Duchesse de Langeais”
Book 3 of “The History of The Thirteen”
That half of the boudoir in which Henri now found himself described a softly graceful curve, contrasting with the other half, which was perfectly rectangular and resplendent with a chimney piece of white and gilded marble. He had entered through a side door hidden behind a rich portiere with a window standing opposite. The horseshoe section was adorned with a genuine Turkish divan, which is a mattress laid on the floor, wide as a bed, a divan fifty feet in circumference, of white cashmere offset by black and poppy-red silk rosettes forming a lozenge pattern. The back of this huge bed rose many inches higher than the numerous cushions, the tastefulness of whose matching gave it even further richness.
This boudoir was hung with a red fabric overlaid with Indian muslin, its in-and-out folds fluted like a Corinthian column, and bound at top and bottom with bands of poppy-red material on which arabesque designs in black were worked. Under this muslin the poppy-red showed up as pink, the colour of love, repeated in the window curtains, also of Indian muslin, lined with pink taffeta and bordered with poppy-red fringes alternating with black. Six silver-gilt sconces, each of them bearing two candles, stood out from the tapestried wall at equal distance to light up the divan. The ceiling, from the centre of which hung a chandelier of dull silver-gilt, was dazzlingly white, and the cornice was gilded. The carpet was reminiscent of an Oriental shawl, reproducing as it did the designs and recalling the poetry of Persia, where the hands of slaves had worked to make it. The furniture was covered in white cashmere, set off by black and poppy-red trimmings. The clock and candelabra were of white marble and gold. There were elegant flower-stands full of all sorts of roses and white or red flowers. To sum up, every detail of decoration seemed to have been thought out with loving care. Never had wealth of adornment been more daintily disguised in order to be translated into elegance, to be expressive of taste and incite voluptuousness. Everything there would have warmed the blood of the chilliest mortal. The iridescence if the hangings, whose colour changed as the eye looked at them from different angles, now white, now wholly pink, harmonized with the effects of light infused into the diaphanous folds of the muslin and produced an impression of mistiness. The human soul is strangely attracted to white, love has a delectation for red, and gold gives encouragement to the passions because it has the power to realize their dreams. Thus all that is vague and mysterious in man, all his unexplained affinities, found their involuntary sympathies gratified in this boudoir. There was in this perfect harmony a concerto of colour to which the soul responded with ideas which were at once voluptuous, imprecise and fluctuating.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The Fight Between Utility, Pleasure, Morals and Desire in Mlle De Maupin and Its Preface

Using the popularity of History novels in 1830s Paris, Theophile Gautier wrote a book that was ostensibly about the historical figure Mlle de Maupin, a seventeenth century Opera star known for dressing as a man, fighting duels, and generally making a sensation. Not at all a banal starting point, and even if the novel had attempted to faithfully recreate the epic narrative of that woman’s life, playing off of its swashbuckling shock-value, it would have been far from normal.
Illustration of Mlle de Maupin by Aubrey Beardsley
Instead Gautier took the potentials embedded within the thrill that is elicited by a woman successfully occupying the role of a man, potentials which up until then had lain dormant, hidden behind the scandalous excitement and/or moral opprobrium surrounding the tale, and drew them out, unrolling each of them, giving them body through the unique structure, the independent voices, the confused desires, and almost unbearable atmospheres of the book.
He did precisely the opposite of what would have been expected from an author in those times to make money in publishing, and with a hero who could have offered just the right pitch of marching plot, duels and spectacular encounters and fights and related moral conclusions that would have got Parisians’ eye’s flying, thoughtlessly, through the pages. Nothing really happens in it. A young man gets a mistress, then meets the mistress’ friend, with whom he falls in love, and eventually beds, once. Everything happens in the grounds and interiors of the same country house. But the intensity of each page consumes far more than could any amount of flashing knives, with the author forever keeping us unsure of who exactly is who, what they are feeling, what is real and what is not, as everything we are told is in letter form, deeply transfigured by the intense, confused passions of the person writing. Underneath the sensational nature of a woman taking on the role of a man, Gautier falls down a magical hole of his own making and discovers a shifting and anxious world of protean identities, indefinite boundaries, emotional, intellectual, and sensual desires that have no respect for binary oppositions. He discovers (I refer to this as a discovery since, like all the best writing, he manages to illuminate parts of our natures that simply lay undescribed, but which were always there) a place in which there is no defined way for each of the characters, and by extension the reader, to know how to judge themselves, their actions, and even how to know what is right and what is wrong. Judgements arise from the solid ground of morally imbued categories (like promiscuous, chaste; active, contemplative), with their various interactions being frowned upon or celebrated; but when these positions become unstable, when male becomes entirely indistinguishable from female, innocence from supposed corruption of the flesh, earnest passion and ingenuousness from a libidinous worldliness, then the reader, and the characters, are left completely on their own as arbiters of an entirely personal judgement. Like the characters with their necessarily continuous and acute insights, and their long, agonising self analyses, we find ourselves as readers having to analyse and carefully consider our own responses to the impassioned and daring situations set up by Gautier, in order to feel –even slightly- as if we know how to see what we are being shown. Like descending into a world of supposed sin and debauch, only to find deeper good, and more profound forms of humanity than we had known before, there is a need to constantly re-evaluate ones position and viewpoint amongst the homosexual confessions, the serial sexual exploits, and the confused minglings of affection and passion between pubescent and adult.
Mlle de Maupin is apparently the Romantic novel par excellence, and lays out many of the tropes that came to define the romantic atmosphere, from the power of androgyny (although after this mostly kept as feminine attributes in a male character), to the free appeal of sensual liberation coupled with a nostalgia for gallantry and pre-industrial chivalry, and the ultimate impossibility of lasting love. Romantic in the best sense of the word, the book is stifling in its desire to break free of any moral straightjacket, any outside force that may exert pressure on the novel itself, and the content within it, to serve any specific purpose, any moral good. It serves itself and sets us a little bit freer because of it, a little bit freer and a lot more desirous. It is almost a system of libidinous reconfiguration, somewhere in between Sade and Masoch, in which uncertainty, introspection and acting create a tense fever-pitch of speculation and amplified desires, heightening the potency of every physical description, every possible point of contact between characters.
Either way, Gautier was explicit and self conscious in his construction of the book’s world, intending it as a rallying cry against the critics of the time who were demanding that art either “serve” the Republican cause, be “morally uplifting” for the people, be “virtuous”, or be “useful” and help further “progress”. Below are some extracts from the Preface to the book, which is long, aggressive, eloquent, quite devastating, and aimed as a riposte to those very critics, all demanding that literature serve what they saw as necessary causes, with Gautier standing up and, daggers of sarcasm in hand, spectacularly managing to reclaim his own ground. As an architect, I was set alight by the preface (which has been called a manifesto for Romanticism, and art for art’s sake), since, like the way in which the book triumphantly describes and celebrates things which were considered somehow shameful, he takes an attitude to art production seen as contemptible, one rooted in pleasure and elegance, whose system of value is based entirely upon stimulation, and propounds its transcendence, explains how for him it was the very essence of literature. I am also fascinated by, and hold most dear, everything that comes after the point of appeased necessity, and while I have only respect for those who make their business the solving of problems, the furthering of causes, or the alleviation of physical poverty, I have always wondered why the production of pleasure and the celebration of life through art, and architecture, always either gets mistaken (how?!) for the pompous showmanship of wealth in search of signs of differentiation, or else is attacked for being unnecessary and wasteful.
Enough for now, the extracts from this manifesto of manifestos (1837…):

Page 3
In the glorious age in which we have the good fortune to live nothing is more ridiculous than the efforts being made by every journal, of whatever political hue be it red, green, or tricolour, to re-establish morality. Morality is of course greatly to be respected, and, heaven knows, we shouldn’t want to treat her discourteously. She is a good and worthy woman. We are indeed of the opinion that behind her spectacles her eyes are brilliant enough; that her stockings are properly adjusted; that from her gold snuff box she takes her snuff as elegantly as can be; that her lapdog bows like a dancing master. That is our opinion. We shall even concede that she is in pretty good shape for her age and carries her years very well. For a grandmother she looks fine, but she is nevertheless a grandmother… It would seem quite normal, especially when you are twenty, to prefer some immoral, pert, coquettish and feminine little thing, with tumbling curls and a skirt somewhat on the short side, with provocative eyes and feet, a flush on her cheek, laughter on her lips and her heart on her sleeve. Even those journalists who are monstrously virtuous would not argue with that. And if they say the opposite, more likely than not they do not believe it. Thinking one thing and saying another is something that people, especially the moral ones, do every single day.

Page 20
You fools, you imbeciles, you goitrous idiots, a book does not make jellied soup; a novel is not a pair of seamless boots nor is a sonnet a vaginal syringe; a drama is not a railway; all of these things that are essential to civilisation and to the advancement of humanity along the path of progress.
By the bowels of all the popes past, present and future, no, two hundred thousand times no.
You cannot make a cotton bonnet out of a metonym and you cannot put on a comparison as you do a slipper; you cannot use an antithesis like an umbrella; you could not, more’s the pity, wrap a few multicoloured rhymes round your middle by way of a waistcoat. It is my deep conviction that an ode is too light for winter wear and that you would be no better clothed with a strophe, antistrophe or epode than was the cynic’s wife who made do with her virtue for a chemise and went stark naked, or so the story goes.
People who claim to be economists, and who want to rebuild society from scratch, seriously suggest such nonsense.

I should like to know first of all the precise meaning of the great gangling fellow of a noun they pepper their vacuous columns with every day, and which they use as a shibboleth or a sacred word. Utility. What does it mean and what is its application?
There are two sorts of utility and the meaning of this word is only ever relative. What is useful to one person is no use to another. You are a cobbler, I am a poet. It is useful for me that my first line rhymes with my second. A rhyming dictionary is very useful to me; but you don’t need one to mend a pair of old boots; and it is fair to say that a shoe-maker’s knife would be no good to me for writing odes. Then you will object that a cobbler is far superior to a poet, and that you can more easily do without the one than the other. Without wishing to disparage the noble profession of cobbler, which I esteem equal to that of constitutional monarch, I humbly submit that I should prefer to leave my shoes unstitched than my verses badly rhymed, and that I should rather do without boots than poems. As I almost never go out and since I make better progress with my head than my feet, I get through fewer pairs of shoes than a virtuous republican who does nothing but run from one ministry to the next, in the hope of landing a job somewhere.
I know some prefer windmills to churches, and the bread of the body to that of the soul. I have nothing to say to them. They deserve to be economists in this world, and in the next.
Does anything exist on this earth of ours, in this life of ours, which is absolutely useful? In the first place there is very little use in our being on earth and alive.

Nothing that is beautiful is indispensable to life. If you did away with flowers, the world would not suffer in any material way. And yet who would wish there not to be flowers? I could do without potatoes more easily than roses and I think there is only one utilitarian in the world capable of tearing out a bed of tulips to plant cabbages. What use is the beauty of women? Provided a woman is medically fit and capable of bearing children, she will always be good enough for the economists. What is the good of music? What is the good of painting? Who would be mad enough to prefer Mozart to M.Carrel, and Michelangelo to the inventor of white mustard? The only things that are really beautiful are those which have no use; everything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of men are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in the house is the lavatory.
Whether these gentlemen like it or not, I belong to those for whom the superfluous is necessary. And I prefer things and people in inverse proportion to the services they render me. Instead of a certain useful pot, I prefer a Chinese one decorated with dragons and mandarins, which is no use to me whatsoever. I should be quite happy to renounce my rights as a Frenchman and a Citizen to see and authentic picture by Raphael, or a beautiful naked woman.

I would sell my trousers for a ring, and my bread for jam. The most appropriate occupation for a civilised man seems to me to be to do nothing, or to reflect upon life as he smokes his pipe or cigar.

Pleasure seems to me to be the aim of life and the only useful thing in the world. God has designed it thus. He who created women, perfumes, light, beautiful flowers, good wine, thoroughbred horses, greyhounds and angora cats; Who did not say to his angels “Be virtuous”, but: “Be loving”; and who has given us a mouth more sensitive than the rest of our skin for kissing women; eyes which can look up to see the light; a subtle sense of smell to breathe in the souls of flowers; strong thighs to grip the flanks of stallions and fly as fast as thought without railway or steam engine; delicate hands to stroke the long heads of greyhounds, the velvety backs of cats, and the satin shoulders of creatures with very little virtue; God who, in short, who has given to us alone the threefold glorious privilege of drinking without being thirsty, of striking a light, and of making love all year round, which distinguishes us from the animals much more than does the custom of reading journals and making charters.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Extracts From Cezanne-Picasso Exhibition

These are two extracts taken from the Musee Granet's exhibition about Cezanne's influence on Picasso, showing now in Aix-En-provence. The first was written from L'estaque, a small fishing village at the time, near Marseilles, when Cezanne first discovered its charms, and was placed next to the painting of L'estaque from the same period, pictured below. I find the tenuously presentated, but hugely forceful conclusion quite remarkable. The second text, by Picasso, was placed in a room full of quite sketchy paintings of apples by him, so I instead picture here the epic still life by Cezanne that so luckily for us Londoners is in this city, hanging in the Courtauld galleries.

Cezanne, written in a letter to Pisarro 2nd July 1876 from L’estaque:

“It is like a playing cards. Red roofs on the blue sea […] There are olive trees and pines which never lose their leaves. The sun is so terrible there that it seems that the objects advance from the background in silhouette, and not only in black and white, but in blue, red, brown and violet. I might be wrong, but to me it is the opposite of volume.”

Picasso said to Francoise Gilot

“If we concern ourselves with what is solid, that is to say the object as a positive form, the surrounding space is reduced to virtually nothing. Are we more interested in what happens inside or outside a form? When we look at the apples of Cezanne, we see that he has marvellously painted the weight of the space on this circular form. The form itself is a hollow volume, on which the exterior pressure is such that it produces the appearance of an apple, even if this apple doesn’t exist really. It is the rhythmic thrust of space on this form that is important.”

Monday, 17 August 2009

Interview for the Exhibition "Parallel Cases" at the Rotterdam Biennale 2009

I was kindly Invited by Karel Wuytack to be interviewed by two of his students, in order to take part in a textual exploration of the theme of 'Open City', all the texts of which will be exhibited in the "Parallel Cases" Exhibition -curated by Ralf Pasel- of this year's Rotterdam Biennale, as well as being published retrospectively in a themed publication.
Michael Callant

What is the role of the city in the 21st century for you? What are the biggest threats for the open city in your opinion? Do you agree with the ideas of the open city? (everybody can coexist with everybody and should do so…) Do you believe in the open city and are you in that context rather positive or rather negative about the future?

Adam Nathaniel Furman

Cildo Meireles -a Brazilian artist- recently had a retrospective at the Tate, in which there was an installation exhibited that consisted of a space created out of a range of boundary objects that we traditionally use to divide space up into demarcated zones that relate to an individual, activity, or group, these objects being banal units of separation ranging from wooden fences to metal grilles, bead walls, plastic shower curtains, railings and perforated walls, all united by the fact that their physical disposition would not allow you to pass over them, but would allow you to see through them: indeed the exhibit was called “Through”.
More After The Break...

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Bad Taste: Applied, Reflexive and Camp

There is Taste that is bad because it is defined by people who conform to or are active within a given taste (taste here being distinct from sensibility, since many tastes can together form an epochs overall sensibility), and define their taste as good in opposition to an antithetical taste which they call bad (such as the successions of nouveau-rich aesthetics from New York to Houston to Dubai and Moscow which are dogmatically classed as bad taste by those who posit their own styles as being all moderation, restraint and hence “good taste”).

This type of bad taste is externally applied to an uncapitulating group and I guess I would call ‘Applied Bad Taste’.

Then there is Taste that is entirely aware of the boundaries of a particular given group that defines in one place and time what constitutes Good Taste, and defines itself entirely within a liminal zone around these boundaries. Unlike Applied Bad Taste -which exists on its own and only has judgements projected on it externally from Good Taste, this form of Bad Taste is self conscious of its relationship to Good Taste and controls the way it is seen by carefully controlling the distance it goes towards the outer reaches of what Good Taste considers a part of itself… but the key is that it will always return either to the boundary line or back within, because this form of bad taste (which is the one which can handle shock and horror so effortlessly) is internal to Good Taste, is a part of it and performs the role of constantly checking where it ends, and so maintaining its integrity as a unit as it changes through time. These arbiters of Bad Taste are Aristocrats and have a privileged Aesthetic role in society.

This type of Bad Taste acts internally on its own group and I guess I would call it ‘Reflexive Bad Taste’.

Then of course there is that field full of earnest and overabundant inventiveness that is something like the fecundity of nature coming out in plastic, velvet, rhinestone and lace. Namely a taste which is entirely the opposite of the Aristocratic and controlling role of Reflexive Bad Taste, but which also performs at the edges; here Good Taste is not tested to breaking point, but rather multiple tastes are grown in a fecund profusion of uncategorisable inventions and styles which surround good taste like fields or forests used to surround cities, providing unending material for any future alterations or innovations within Good Taste itself. This Taste is precisely too heterogeneous to be a taste at all, and is therefore looked at but not seen in its entirety by Good Taste’s homogeneity, and can only be understood in tiny parts at any one time.

This type of Bad Taste is Nature coming out through our hands and in our Garages, is by necessity heterogeneous, self-sufficient and EARNEST, and is obviously ‘Camp’.


These areas that are often dismissed when encountered visualy as being in Bad Taste, and when they are present in the work of an artist or architect who uses them knowingly is always assumed to be intended ironically, these three realms of creativity are always present in everything I do –to varying degrees- and interest me greatly: from the vast, explosive, and joyous release of Camp genius when it encounters vast wealth, from Versace to Cavalli, all the way to the shit-eating murderous sexuality of Salo, and back again to the suburban streets of outer london and all the innumerable “minimalist”, “roman”, and “classic” living rooms occupying the train-set terraces and semis. I want Camp to be present because for me it is the effusive joy of creation, the human instinct to multiply itself and its beauty out into the space around it in a celebration of existence… unquestioningly taking flight in the pleasure of doing; Applied Bad Taste (for me here refering specificaly to the Nouveau Riche aesthetics whose ends is luxurius differentiation. There are many others but I am interested in this instance) is the saturation of art with money and power, and it is glittering, dangerous and full of overripe potential. I am interested in it… when I saw Cavalli’s boat day after day in the harbour, while making all the right sounds with my mouth to my friends about how vulgar it all was so that we were all in communal agreement, my head was furiously imagining what was going on on board, what kind of conversation were happening, what did it look like, how dearly I would have loved to be on it! And Reflexive Bad Taste is like a touch of Tabasco… there is no need to smother all the other flavours by shocking the palate with an overtly unpleasant taste, but it adds so much to the whole if there is that piquant kiss, that cheeky and unexpected position.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Extracts from "Relational Aesthetics" by Nicolas Bourriaud

These are from a wonderful collection of essays/articles, of which "Towards a policy of forms" was the one I found the most arresting. More Bourriaud extracts to follow in the coming months.

Gordon Matta-Clarke or Dan Graham’s work cannot be reduced to the “things” those two artists “produce”; it is not the simple secondary effects of a composition, as the formalist aesthetic would like to advance, but the principle acting as a trajectory evolving through signs, objects, forms, gestures… the contemporary artwork’s form is spreading out from its material form: it is a linking element, a principle of dynamic agglutination. An artwork is a dot on a line.

Transitivity is as old as the hills. It is a tangible property of the artwork. Without it, the work is nothing other than a dead object, crushed by contemplation. Delacroix wrote in his diary that a successful picture temporarily “condensed” an emotion that it was the duty of the beholder’s eye to bring to life and develop. This idea of transitivity introduces into the aesthetic arena that formal disorder which is inherent to dialogue. It denies the existence of any specific “place of art”, in favour of a forever unfinished discursiveness, and a never recaptured desire for dissemination.

So through little gestures art is like an angelic programme, a set of tasks carried out beside or beneath the real economic system, so as to patiently re-stitch the relational fabric.

On the other hand, we can say that art creates an awareness about production methods and human relationships produced by the technologies of its day, and that by shifting these, it makes them more visible, enabling us to see them right down to the consequences they have on day-to-day life. Technology is only of interest to artists in so far as it puts effects into perspective, rather than putting up with it as an ideological instrument.

The future of art, as an instrument of emancipation, and as a political tool aimed at the liberation of forms of subjectivity, depends on the way artists deal with this issue. For art, no technique or technology is a subject. By putting technology in its productive context, by analysing its relations with the superstructure and the layer of obligatory behaviour underpinning its use, it becomes conversely possible to produce models of relations with the world, heading in the direction of modernity. Failing which, art will become an element of high-tech deco in an increasingly disconcerting society.

And what if real style, as Deleuze and Guattari write, were not the repetition of reified “making” but “the movement of thought”? Guattari contrasts the homogenisation and standardisation of types of subjectivity with the need to involve the being in “heterogenetic processes”. This is the primary principle of mental ecosophy: articulating particular worlds and rare life forms; cultivating per se differentness, before moving it over into the social.

Based on Oscar Wilde’s formula, modernity is the moment when “it is not art imitating life, but life imitating art”… Marx is headed in the same direction, by criticising the classical distinction between praxis (the act of self-transformation) and poesis (the necessary, servile action aimed at producing and transforming matter). Marx thought, on the contrary, that “praxis moves constantly into poesis, and vice-versa”.

For “the only acceptable end-purpose of human activities,” writes Guattari, “is the production of a subjectivity that is forever self-enriching its relationship with the world.”

The poetic function, which consists in re-forming worlds of subjectivisation, possibly would not have any meaning if it, too, were not able to help us to negotiate the “ordeal of barbarity, mental implosion, and chaosmic spasm which are taking shape on the horizon, to turn them into riches and unforeseeable pleasures”…

An idea that sets humankind apart from other animal species. In the end of the day, burying the dead, laughter, and suicide are just the corollaries of a deep-seated hunch, the hunch that life is an aesthetic, ritualised, shaped form.

Structural unity imitating a world. Artistic practice involves creating a form capable of “lasting”, bringing heterogeneous units together on a coherent level, in order to create a relationship to the world.

Making a work involves the invention of a process of presentation. In this kind of process, the image is an act.

Having imagined architecture and art of the future, the artist is now proposing solutions for inhabiting them. The contemporary form of modernity is ecological, haunted by the occupancy of forms and the use of images.

The movement of a work, its trajectory. “The style of a thought is its movement” (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari)

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Text Written For "Text Fields" installation "TF002"

Text Fields SITE

TF002 is an exploration of the liminal zone that lies between the kind of quotidian space through which one walks everyday, the sort of enclosure that captures our habitual trajectories -a corridor, a staircase- and the words, the name, the noun, the ‘text’ which denotes that space, signifies it, and categorises it in our minds. Between the thing that denotes, and the experience of what it represents.

‘The Corridor’ is an emphatically mental construct of a definite article and a name, it is an open container of 11 letters which has the ability to encapsulate any number of individual associations, from the memory of hospitals, to the endless labyrinths of nightmares, to -in this case for those involved in the gallery- warm conversations and grandiose discussions about art, and the curation of small exhibitions. The space itself, with its awkward little skylights and concrete floor, is a resolutely physical construct, a passive collection of impressions of cold and warmth, light and dark, echoes and silences, and dirt and colour, all of which are taken up and sensually experienced in any number of ways by each person who passes through it; whether it is the concrete sucking the warmth out of the thin soles of their plimsolls, freezing their feet, or the light from the sunny day outside as it slices the path into pieces through the skylights, and leaves the space disorientating and difficult to navigate.

It is the subjective apprehension of those letters which is a concern of typography. The delicate and calibrated adjustment of the form of the word, of the text, that subtly manoeuvres the tone in which the associations which the word conjures up are received; a form of design in which the scope of subjective mental impressions to which a word may lead – whether hospitals and labyrinths or drinks and openings- are decorated, coloured and unified by a typeface. Where the typographer deals with the subjective experience of the ‘text’, the spatial designer deals in the analogous act of organising the elements of enclosure, in order that they provide a framework for similarly indeterminate, and individual experiences of the object of design -whether they frame and unify the feeling of freezing feet and the disorientation from shafts of blinding light, or the annoyance of having to crouch underneath something and squeeze past people in the impossibly tight space.

TF002 is an act of design precisely positioned between these two complementary practices, an act in which those involved have explicitly attempted to draw the cerebral and associative qualities inherent in the nature of typefaces and text, out into the physical and material space of architecture; and inversely to draw the sensual and impressionistic nature of designed space into the arena of the partially constructed thought. These qualities from the two practices -the qualities from the two which were closer to a relationship of mutual reciprocality between the experience and reading of the space, and its design- were extracted, leaving behind any approach which formed an overtly explicit description of how the space should be read, or experienced. This meant that embodied in the process through which the group arrived at the form of the installation (the formulation of a three dimensional font, the writing of the name of the gallery in space, and the subsequent simulation of that name’s explosion within the gallery, and its freezing and materialisation at a moment of ambiguous eloquence) is a critical distancing from any form of declamatory object-hood on the side of the architecture, and a positioning away from any conclusive declamation of meaning by text from the side of typography. The fact that the research project is called Text Fields and not Text Space or Built Text, is precisely because the group want to create immersive environments of indeterminate origins and ambiguous meaning, in which the usual roles of the various design professions lose their central, fixed functions and roles, and begin to bleed into one another in a field of uninterrupted mental and physical figures and impressions, whose valification lies dually in the freedom of the subject from dictated readings (more towards fields of connotation), and the liberation of the designer from isolated categorisation.

The goals are broad and ambitious, and TF002 is the first built step in the exploration of these themes. It is the first 1:1 physical manifestation of the group and its discussions, and through its realisation has helped to summarize and bring together the issues, and how those issues might be transfigured into a spatial field, something which through the feedback the group has received from the installation, TF002 seems to be doing well.

Next step TF003

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Extract from Proust's "The Fugitive"

"When I wrote them, the sentences of my article were so weak compared to my thought, so complicated and opaque compared to my harmonious and transparent vision, so full of gaps which I had not managed to fill, that reading them caused me to suffer, they had only accentuated my feelings of impotence and an incurable lack of talent. But now in forcing myself to become a reader, if I delegated to others the painful duty of judging me, I was at least able to wipe the slate clean of what I had intended to do, by reading what I had done."

Friday, 15 May 2009

Opinion, and Extracts From Erwin Panofsky's Idea, A Concept In Art Theory

In true Panofsky fashion the book hops in and out of Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, and many of their recombinations and reformations from the high renaissance through to Neo-Classicism, in search of the chain of transformations undergone by the notion of the Idea in art, from its restriction of art to the world of shadows, to its glorification of art as matter enlivened by thought, to its role as weapon in the battle between the subjective and the objective, and even its use in the overcoming of such an opposition in the chasing of its origins back to the groundlessness of divinity. His narrative chain is impressive and fun, however I cannot help but be disappointed that after his recounting of all the fights and debates and dialectics over the centuries which have invigorated artists and artistic production, from the squabbling camps of the Caravvagisti naturalists and the Mannerist stylists, to the oppositions of the Impressionists and Expressionists, that after citing so much colourful material and debate that has arisen from the cyclical return of these recurrent themes, he seems to draw a line under the whole investigation, under all those themes, placing his narrative in the trash-heap of futility, as if it were a failed scientific experiment whose very subject had proven itself worthless and unsuitable for investigation. He wrote that “To recognize the diversity of these solutions and to understand their historical presuppositions is worthwhile for history’s sake, even though philosophy has come to realize that the problem underlying them is by its very nature insoluble”, and in so doing once again brings down philosophy’s heavy and blunt axe onto the nape of art’s soft neck, paternalistically pointing out to art that its energetic dialogues are pointless, that all they need to do is to look at the divine Kant and see that there can be no ground for artistic perception outside of itself, that there can be recourse neither to a pure nature nor to a transcendental “thing-in-itself”, that oppositions like that between “idealism” and “naturalism” are illusions of illogic, dialectical antinomies that have arisen from a misunderstanding of the origins of artistic perception; and so the debate is closed. The oppositions of subject-object, nature-style, systematization-intuition, etc are all passionate phantasms over which so much intellectual energy has been wasted, the interesting residue of which just so happens to be the voluminous and eminently inexplicable mass of sculpture and painting that silently sits in its museums, tormenting the likes of Panofsky in their wordlessness, but which he cannot ignore, and so after convicting the reasons behind their production as being guilty of epistemological inadequacy, he must simply catalogue the sculptures and the ideas behind them like a good botanist cataloguing a species doomed to extinction, and so having noted their existence, having marked their irrelevance, he closes the book on the vainness of art.

How would a writer feel if a theorist came and declared that philosophy had discovered the insolubility of the problem underlying the nature of literary invention? That all the discussions between writers as to the nature of factual history and fictional representation, of style and content, of reality and truth, were all silly disagreements based on their inability to see that the problems themselves had been misplaced, that they were locked in endlessly circling dialectical antinomies? I would think that he might be rather perplexed at the nature of ideas in writing being posed as a problem that should be solvable, that such a notion was as laughable and arid as being told that while people can discuss as much as they like about whatever they so please, it is all pointless because the sum of all their debates cannot be resolved into a proof that concludes a philosophically framed problem. There seems to me to be a misunderstanding about the oppositions in art-production, in that I do not think their value lies in their ability to compose in aggregate an elegant answer to any of the problems they present (which is what many an art theorist seems to look for), or even that their connections in time should be logical enough to form a coherent history, rather it seems to me that their value lies in the quantity and quality of the artistic phenomena they engender; that the amount of investigation they demand be justified not by their quality as resolvable equations, but by the strength and vigour of the pursuit after an unachievable goal which they inspire in the artists pre-occupied with their ideas. And the reason that certain oppositions and questions keep coming back in various forms, and keep inspiring generation after generation of artists to produce, is not that they are logically interesting and eminently given to discursiveness, but that they are representative of various facets of human nature, perfect mirrors and justifications of all the various shades of character-types in the pool of humanity (the ‘rigorous’ types disposed first to systematization and then ‘the scientific’, and the ‘spiritual’ types first to the idealistic and later the absolute, etc etc); and just as (I pray) the diversity of civilisation will never implode to a point where all is in agreement with all else, but will rather remain abundant in human archetypes which subtly shift in combination from person to person and generation to generation, so artistic discourse will continue to be rich in discussions and disagreements which are as rich and inspiring, but also as repetitive and unchanging, as the nature of human character itself.

Plotinus says:
For he who contemplates physical beauty must not lose himself therein, but he must recognise that it is an image and a vestige and a shadow, and he must flee to that of which it is a likeness. For if one were to rush forth and to grasp for truth that which is only a beautiful reflection in the water, then the same thing will happen to him that happened to the one about whom a meaningful myth tells how he, wanting to grasp a mirrored reflection, vanished in the depths of the waters; in the same way, he who holds on to physical beauty and will not let go of it, will sink, not with his body but with his soul, into the dark abysses, horrible for the mind to behold, where he will languish blindly in Orcus, consorting with shadows there as he did here.

Thus the Platonic attack accuses the arts of continually arresting man’s inner vision within the realm of sensory images, that is, of actually obstructing his contemplation of the world of Ideas [relevant passage not included in this extract, see p30]; and the Plotinian defence condemns the arts to the tragic fate of eternally driving man’s inner eye beyond these sensory images, that is, of opening to him the prospect of the world of Ideas but at the same time veiling the view. Understood as copies of the sensory world, works of art are divested of a more elevated spiritual or, if you will, symbolic meaning; understood as revelations of Ideas, they are divested of the timeless validity and self-sufficiency which properly belongs to them.

Scholasticism in general, just like Plato, showed far less interest in the problem of art than in the problem of the beautiful, much more compelling because of its amalgamation with the problem of the good.

[Alberti’s Treatise] differs from earlier literature of art by no longer answering the question “how to do it?” but the quite different and thoroughly unmedieval question “what abilities and, above al, what kind of knowledge enable the artist to confront nature with confidence whenever he is required to do so?”
In its attitude toward art the Renaissance thus differed fundamentally from the Middle Ages in that it removed the object from the inner world of the artist’s imagination and placed it firmly in the “outer world”. This was accomplished by laying a distance between the “subject” and “object” much as in artistic practice perspective placed a distance between the eye and the world of things –a distance which at the same time objectifies the “object” and personalizes the “subject”.

It is clear from what has been said that the “subject-object problem” was now ripe for a basic clarification. For as soon as the “subject” is given the task of obtaining the laws of artistic production from reality by his own effort instead of being allowed to presuppose them above reality (and above himself), there necessarily arises the question of when and for what reasons he is justified in claiming to have these laws correct. Yet –and this is particularly significant- it was only the definitely “Mannnerist” school of thought which first achieved a basic clarification of the problem, or at least consciously demanded it.

The concept of the “Idea” was already transformed into the concept of the “ideal” during the renaissance. This stripped the Idea of its metaphysical nobility but at the same time brought it into a beautiful and almost organic conformity with nature: and Idea which is produced by the human mind but, far from being subjective and arbitrary, at the same time expresses the laws of nature embodied in each object, achieves basically the same thing by intuitive synthesis that Alberti, Leonardo, and Durer had tried to achieve by discursive synthesis when they summarized and systematized a rich material, gained by observation and approved by expert judgement, into a theory of proportion: the perfection of the “natural” by means of art.

[Mannersists] rejected both the flowing freedom of baroque space and the lawful order and stability of Renaissance space, and created instead even severer restraints precisely by means of planarity. In a similar way the avowals of artistic freedom co-existed –not too peacefully- with the dogma that artistic creativity could be taught and learned, that is, that it could be systematized. Perhaps this dogma received very special stress precisely because it was feared that otherwise art might be threatened by subjective arbitrariness.

At the end of his book Zuccari interprets the term disegno interno as an etymological symbol of man’ssimilarity to God (disegno = segno di dio in noi), and he celebrates it as the “second sun of the cosmos”, the “second creating Nature”, and the “second life-giving and life-sustaining world spirit”

He who has done much measuring will develop his own Augenmass (ie intuitive sense of proportion); he who “has filled his mind full” by much Abmachen (ie reproducing nature from life), will accumulate a “secret treasure of the heart”, from which he can pour forth what he “has gathered in from the outside for a long time”.

Ideas normally provide a guarantee of objective validity and beauty in the work of art; with Durer however, their proper function is to ensure originality and inexhaustibility in that they enable the artist to pour forth “always something new” from his mind. The theory of Ideas, which here almost take on the character of inspirations, serves to support that romantic conception of genius that recognizes the mark of true artistry not in correctness and beauty but in an unending plenitude that always creates things unique and things that never existed before.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Positive and Negative Creativity

The post in which I revisited an old text talked about a form of heaviness, a solid presence which I often feel weighing down from somewhere just antecedent to my thoughts, a presence which, when it has coagulated a certain amount of units of pure subjectivity around itself, forms a dense intuitive singularity of a ripeness which is impossible to ignore, a pungent and pendulous fatness which imposes itself on every waking thought like the distinct and material urge to empty one’s bowels, except insisting on its release through the hands via the intellect rather than the anus via the intestine. This urge to release what has been metabolised in the mysterious organ that is the brain is the result of the bodily digestion of external reality, the by-product of the process by which the brain consumes that which is external to itself and assimilates it as part of its being, a necessarily continuous nourishment that keeps the mind full of a fresh sense of reality as it loses the present to the vagaries of memory in an uninterrupted stream, forming a mental analogue to the materially essential and unceasing replenishment of our cells by consuming physical matter from the world around us. The processes themselves are metabolic and vital, one for physical health and the other mental, and while both continually replenish their respective realms they conversely create superfluous material which must be excreted as it does not constitute a functioning part of the body, superfluous material which makes its presence felt in the gut, and the mind. The build-up of this by-product of existence and engagement with the surrounding world might have become intolerable for me, might have been a great source of pain if I had not been fortunate enough in life to have had my hands and thoughts introduced to -and trained in- the transubstantiation of mental figure to physical matter, a skill which has allowed me to not only rid myself of these accumulations, which I imagine would otherwise have clogged up my primary apprehension of things outside of myself, but to even begin refashioning small segments of the world around me in consonance with the intuitive and internal process of mental metabolis, in other words the release of this superfluous material now brings me not just the relief of excretion, but also the pleasure of creation.

I have become somehow intimate with the exigencies of the natural functioning of both the stomach and the mind, and have become relatively adept at procuring both food and stimuli that will make me at once feel reasonably healthy and adequately engaged and productive, rendering these biological systems generally predictable, predominantly stable, verging on the habitual. Unfortunately, permeating every stage of the metabolism of both my mind and body, there is an unstable element, a tenacious and inscrutable presence which destabilises the placid equanimity that would be so pleasantly balanced without it. I hadn’t thought about it much recently, preferring to stare into the wine-glass rather than into its entirely specular face, but a brief conversation on the terrace at the AA, and my attempt to be truthful rather than phatic, led me to think a little about its impact on my production, and by association my life. Asked how (or why, I cannot remember which) I was so continuously ‘creative’, I replied phatically that it was because ‘I enjoy it’, vaguely justifying the ease and emptiness of the response to myself via the narrow connection of its positive verb to the slow, quiet and broad pleasure to be extracted from the metabolic, biological creativity I enjoy so much; and while usually such vague justifications are satisfactory this one was clearly insufficient in that the question had been asked about the quantity of my creativity, its incessancy rather than about any quality, and the slow form of production with its occasionally heavy moments of fecundity which I was referring the ‘I enjoy it’ to is not one that produces anything in great quantities at all, it is something entirely else that fills in the gaps between those moments of weight and substantiality, something totally different in kind that forces a certain pace to hands that would otherwise perhaps be helping others or working to make money. It is that other thing which needed to be referred to, and I could not reconcile it to ‘I enjoy it’ because –and this struck me rather heavily at that moment- there was no pleasure contained within my recollection of it whatsoever, it was entirely devoid of delight, or of enjoyment. Rather than emerging painlessly from within me, than being products of a harmony between body and intent, the majority of works I produce are artistic palliatives; not independent sources of joy or pride, but manifestations of a repeated and desperate desire to be rid of an implacable, vicious and mercurial substance which corrupts and agitates every part of my nature that it touches. When I am trying to rest and relax it inserts itself into the gap between the silence and my enjoyment of it, disrupting any germinal relationship between the two by taking the form of an immaterial and shapeless anxiety, an anxiousness which drives me into the arms of books and drink in search of other forms of silence; when I am trying to enjoy an entirely innocent and enjoyable meal it sinks into the delightful union of nature and pleasure that is the transcendental heart of dining, and corrupts it, distorting the balance between hunger and enjoyment so that hunger grows so frantically unstable, so hysterically nervous, that the best that can be hoped for from meals becomes not delight, but relief from a monstrously enlarged hunger; and when I am trying to work, trying to do anything that is not within the orbit of a creative activity, the greater the time spent away from making things, the more items of artifice that I feel I should have made in the preceding interval, the smaller the value that seems appended to me, the further my internal self-estimation falls towards the crushing point of worthlessness, and it is the feeling of proximity to that point of nothingness which agitates a yawning terror and drives me wildly back into production, clawing feverishly drawing by drawing, design by design back from the brink of nothingness. Works produced under these circumstances are definitely not positives, not items of pleasure with value in themselves, they are instead negatives, momentary reliefs from the terror of worthlessness whose value lie in the absence of an unpleasant feeling, the lack of a troubling agitation. They are artistic analgesics, and form a potent medicine in the cabinet of calmatives that habit has developed to give me respite from that one same devilish toxicity, that selfsame noxiousness that is always there in the smooth integers of my personality, ready to crack them into unrelated and selfish fractions; that unitary disruptor which is the ticking heart of that terrible anxiety I always find in silence, that monstrous starvation I have to face in meals and the awful descent into worthlessness I cannot avoid if I am not producing.

It would not be true to say that everything I do is tainted in this way, since there is always the genius of that silent metabolic process which continues to consume reality, reaffirm existence and excrete singular beauty; it is a genius which resides in a place that lies behind and before the areas where anxiety and agitation inject themselves, a position which allows those positive, natural and pre-neurotic creative acts to develop and occur simultaneously with those negative ones whose aim is palliative. And the two have even fed each other’s ability for self-realisation, in that the relentless drive to assuage the ego’s perpetually diminishing self-worth through production has always had the positive consequence of forcing the hands to learn new techniques, hone old ones, and broach new mediums, skills which in turn have helped in the creative excretion of the residual build-up of mental metabolis, helped in the formation of natural, positive, complete, and joyful objects of creation.

And so if asked the question again of how or why I am so constantly creative, while I cannot in good faith reply that it is because ‘I enjoy it’, I equally would not be able to say that it is only because ‘I want to avoid torment’, my reduced and lazy reply would simply have to be ‘because it pre-occupies me entirely’.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Extracts from 'The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays' by Charles Baudelaire

These are all taken from ‘The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays’. Reading them was easy and enjoyable since most of the ideas set out and discussed by Baudelaire in this book overlap with my own prejudices to the point where the reading of it was like spending an evening with an artist friend who is passionate, repressed and indignant about all the same things as you, and the time you spend together flies past in discussions containing only varying insights around consonant opinions, never a disagreement whether fundamental or contingent, just enraptured complicity…

In contrast to the academic theory of an unique and absolute beauty; to show that beauty is always and inevitably of a double composition, although the impression that it produces is single -for the fact that it is difficult to discern the variable elements of beauty within the unity of the impression invalidates in no way the necessity of variety in its composition. Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. I defy anyone to point to a single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements.

Stendhal [] approached the truth more closely than many another when he said that ‘Beauty is nothing else but a promise of happiness’

The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a small child absorbs form and colour. I am prepared to go even further and assert that inspiration has something in common with a convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock which has its repercussion in the very core of the brain. The man of genius has sound nerves, while those of a child are weak. With the one, Reason has taken up a considerable position; with the other, Sensibility is almost the whole being. But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will –a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.

The genius of childhood –a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale.

That only too difficult art –sensitive spirits will understand me- of being sincere without being absurd.

The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.

This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the first woman before the fall of man.

In short, for any ‘modernity’ to be worthy of one day taking its place as ‘antiquity’, it is necessary for the mysterious beauty which human life accidentally puts into it to be distilled from it.

Evil happens without effort, naturally, fatally; Good is always the product of some art. All that I am saying about Nature as a bad counsellor in moral matters, and about Reason as true redeemer and reformer, can be applied to the realm of Beauty. I am thus led to regard external finery as one of the signs of the primitive nobility of the human soul.

Fashion should thus be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that the natural life accumulates in the human brain: as a sublime deformation of Nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation. And so it has been sensibly pointed out (though the reason has not been discovered) that every fashion is charming, relatively speaking, each one being a new and more or less happy effort in the direction of Beauty, some kind of approximation to an ideal for which the restless human mind feels a constant, titillating hunger.

The whole visible universe is but a store-house of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform. All the faculties of the human soul must be subordinated to the imagination, which puts them in requisition all at once.


I spoke a moment ago of the remarks of certain bricklayers. By this word I wish to categorize that class of heavy and boorish spirits (their number is legion) who appraise objects solely by their contour, or worse still, by their three dimensions, length, breadth and height –for all the world like savages and rustics. I have often heard people of that kind laying down a hierarchy of qualities which to me was unintelligible; I have heard them declare, for example, that the faculty that enables one man to produce an exact contour, or another a contour of supernatural beauty, is superior to the faculty whose skill it is to make an enchanting assemblage of colours. According to those people, colour has no power to dream, to think or to speak. It would seem that when I contemplate the works of one of those men who are specifically called ‘colourists’, I am giving myself up to a pleasure whose nature is far from a noble one; they would be delighted to call me ‘materialistic’, reserving for themselves the aristocratic title of ‘spiritual’.

‘I remember very well (he [Eugene Delacroix] used to say sometimes) that when I was a child, I was a monster. The understanding of duty is only acquired very slowly, and it is by nothing less than pain, chastisement and the progressive exercise of reason that man can gradually diminish his natural wickedness.’

Truth has nothing to do with Song. Everything that goes to make up the charm, the grace, the irresistible fascination of a Song would only take away from Truth her authority and power. Cool, calm and unimpassioned, the demonstrative mood rejects the gems and flowers of the Muse; it is thus the absolute opposite of the poetic mood. Pure intellect has as its goal Truth, Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense teaches us Duty.

To find a critic turning into a poet would be an entirely new event in the history of the arts, a reversal of all the psychical laws, a monstrosity; on the other hand, all great pets naturally and fatally become critics. I pity those poets who are guided by instinct alone: I regard them as incomplete. In the spiritual life of the former a crisis inevitably occurs when they feel the need to reason about their art, to discover the obscure laws in virtue of which they have created, and to extract from this study a set of precepts whose divine aim is infallibility in poetic creation. It would be unthinkable for a critic to become a poet; and it is impossible for a poet not to contain within him a critic. Therefore the reader will not be surprised at my regarding the poet as the best of all critics.

Poetry exists and asserts itself first, and then gives birth to the study of the rules.

As far as art is concerned I admit that I am no enemy of extravagance; moderation has never seemed to me to be a sign of a robust artistic nature.

Observe also that it is with his tears that man washes the afflictions of man, and that it is with his laughter that he sometimes soothes and charms his heart; for the phenomena engendered by the Fall will become his means of redemption.

Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human. It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority. And since laughter is essentially human, it is, in fact, essentially contradictory; that is to say that it is at once a token of an infinite grandeur and an infinite misery –the latter in relation to the absolute Being of whom man has an inkling, the former in relation to the beasts. It is from the perpetual collision of these two infinities that laughter is struck.

As humanity uplifts itself, it wins for evil, and for the understanding of evil, a power proportionate to that which it has won for good.

Those artists who are the most inventive, the most astonishing and the most eccentric in their conceptions are often men whose life is calm and minutely ordered. Several of them have had the most highly-developed domestic virtues. Have you not often noticed that there is nothing more like the perfect bourgeois than the artist of concentrated genius?

The toy is the child’s earliest initiation to art, or rather for him it is the first concrete example of art, and when mature age comes, the perfected examples will not give his mind the same feelings of warmth, nor the same enthusiasms, nor the same sense of convictions.