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16 January 2012

The Location of Culture: Scattered and Increasingly Digressive Notes About 'Collage Culture', Pt. II

Asco - Día de los Muertos Takeover, East L.A. 1974

In his essay "The Death of Subculture," Aaron Rose relates a comment made to him by Glenn O'Brien, who had remarked, "Subculture is no substitute for culture." Naturally, because the former always evolves and formulates values and identity by way of its inverse relationship to the dominance of the latter. This putting me in mind of Koolhaas's topography of the Generic City:

"Identity centralizes; it insists on an essence, a point. ...As the sphere of influence expands, the area characterized by the center becomes larger and larger, hopelessly diluting both the strength and the authority of the core; inevitably the distance between center and circumference increases to the breaking point. In this perspective, the recent, belated discovery of the periphery as a zone of potential value – a kind of pre-historical condition that might finally be worthy of architectural attention – is only a disguised insistence on the priority of and dependency on the center: without center, no periphery: the interest of the first presumably compensates for the emptiness of the latter. ...The last vibes emanating from the exhausted center preclude the reading of the periphery as a critical mass. Not only is the center by definition too small to perform its assigned obligations, it is also no longer the real center but an overblown mirage on its way to implosion; yet its illusory presence denies the rest of the city its legitimacy."

* * * *

Two quite common, if not slightly clichéd, readings of the work of Alberto Burri...

The first is the materialist angle, concentrating on Burri's use of materials evocative of the landscape of a war-torn Europe -- the "sackcloth and ashes" of his earlier work being reflective of a society digging itself out from the rubble and the burden of a troubled modern history, with the later works using industrial-grade plastics and the like paralleling Italy's recovery thanks to the largesse of the Marshall Plan (if not of the short-lived economic miracolo italiano of the late 1950s and early '60s).

The other being the one that stresses the visceral associations bound up with many of Burri's works. An account anchored in the biographic, that cites his former service as a medic in the Italian military during WWII; and how that experience proved too much for him, causing him to turn his back on a medical career, only to take up painting shortly after war's end. The tears and cuts and stitching and scorchings that appear throughout his works calling to mind fleshly wounds, lacerations, bandagings, suturing and cauterizations.

Both readings being highly metaphorical, each being rooted in a different site of trauma -- the first socio-historic in character, the latter psychological.

* * * *

Alberto Burri's work gained almost immediate attention in the late 1940s; especially in New York, where a young Robert Rauschenberg quickly fell under its influence. By 1952, Rauschenberg traveled to Italy with Cy Twombly, the former with the intent of seeking out Burri in Rome. That artists like Rauschenberg and Twombly would come into the mature phase of their careers by way of European influence proves intriguing, partly because it flies in the face of certain critical accounts of art history in the second half of the twentieth century -- the common version that has it that American art during those years having been a scenario of self-invention and willful pioneering, taking no cues from a European scene whose Modernist momentum had faltered due to the disruption of WWII, and whose postwar artistic developments constituted lateral or idiosyncratic zags that failed to resonate in a broader international context.

By some accounts, the European postwar art informel movement was interpreted as a response to the historical plight of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century -- an expression of cultural and existential malaise, arising out of smoldering doubts about the metaphysical health of Western civilization that had resulted in two world wars, the rise of fascism, and the Holocaust.1, 2  The disparity between historical circumstances makes for an ironic contrast -- Burri and his contemporaries laboring in postwar Europe, engaging modern material culture in a tentative and ambivalent manner; Rauschenberg (and his contemporaries working in the more overtly "Pop" vein) working in a postwar American climate of emerging affluence and triumphant complacency.

* * * *

While poking through my bookshelves looking for what various critics have said on the history of collage, I come across Francis Frascina's "Realism and Ideology: An Introduction to Semiotics and Cubism" in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction – The Early Twentieth Century. Frascina addresses the anti-Symbolist impulse at work in the Cubist collages of Picasso; most pointedly in the incorporation of newsprint as indicative of Picasso's bristling against certain ideas promoted by Stéphane Mallarmé and his neo-Symbolist partisans:

"For Mallarmé and the Symbolists the newspaper was debased literary journalism in contrast to 'the book, ' ...The new poetry, Mallarmé argued, should be the antithesis of the vertical columns of the mass market newspaper: the overall effect of such poetry would be based on the aural and optical effects of words in 'pure,' formal relationships. As [art historian Christine] Poggi points out, Mallarmé's ideas were prevalent among Symbolist poets, artists and critics who shared his aspiration to create an 'autonomous art free of all reality.'"

Elsewhere, Frascina addresses Picasso and Braque's place with the "subculture of the avant garde" of the bohemian enclaves of Paris circa 1912. Moreover, Frascina argues that -- with Picasso being a grubby immigrant Spaniard in the works, Braque of rural peasant origins, and both working in a radically new and esoteric artistic direction -- the two artists constituted something of a "subculture within a subculture." In terms of how this manifests itself in Cubist collage and the artist's semiotic manipulation of the mass-produced matériel of Parisian culture:

"Generally subcultures maintain relations with the shared public sign systems of society that are different from those of mainstream groups; this characteristic illuminates Picasso and Braque's 'play' with signs. The social experience of members of a subculture is typically contradictory; they are resistant to but dependant on a social system which [sic] they find inhospitable. In relation to available sign systems, subcultures generally 'play games' with them, breaking their rules in various ways. Much of the time, all that results is a rapid turnover of minority group styles: the music of youth subculture, for example 'punk' in the late 1970s, is typical of 'semiotic play.' Often marginalized as socially eccentric, such styles are essentially defensive of the group's identity. Sometimes, however, the merely defensive is transformed into an active engagement with dominant social groupings. …Symbolic resistance deals with those public signs which come into some relationship with the sub-group's own socio-economic life."

* * * *

Contra Symbolism, #42: Scatology versus Sublimity...
"You want to exhibit gold, I will exhibit shit; you want to pump up the artistic ego with your monochromes and your immateriality, I will put the artist's breath in red balloons that I will burst."
Piero Manzoni, in a reputed taunt to Yves Klein.

* * * *

In his lateral notes on the "Art in the Streets"/Collage Culture topic, Simon cites a quote from the late "Mission School" artist Margaret Kilgallen; a remark from an interview that I'd forgotten, in which she talked about her attraction to vintage sign painting, something to the effect of "all this stuff becomes interesting to me when it's no longer selling anything to me." In this type of instance, we have the case of something being reappropriated from the realm of the commercial and transplanted into that of the aesthetic; and these days it’s a common practice -- the fascination that many artists and designers share for graphic and illustrative styles of prior eras.

Much of which was the product of packaging and advertising, rather than that of "high" art proper – the ceaseless churnings of consumer culture and the surfeit of waste and quickly-jettisoned rubbish it produces as it plows forward with its business. It's of no small significance that Schwitters called his series of collages Merz; the title having been derived from the word Kommerz, the isolated phoneme turning up on a scrap of the street-sweepings that the artist had been sifting through. A descendent of Schwitters's project having been the décollages composed by Jacques Villeglé, Raymond Hains, François Dufrêne, Mimmo Rotella, and Wolf Vostell in the decades immediately following WWII -- treating the layered scraps and peelings of poster bills that lined the city streets as Duchampian "modified readymades" -- raw material for salvage and manipulation. From refuse to re-use.

All these consideration of wounds and wastes eventually playing out on some subconscious level of corporeal metaphorics, pointing in the direction of Bataille and his theorizing about the aesthetics of the abject and the "excremental" in art and material culture. Writing in Formless: A User's Guide, Yves-Alain Bois addresses Bataille's omission of kitsch in his writing on l'informe -- e.g., the kitsch of the "mercenary," "vulgar" products of commercial advertising. This Bois more or less attributes to Batialle's aversion to dialectics; particularly that of the opposition between "high" (art) and "low" (kitsch) elsewhere/later proffered by both Adorno and Clement Greenberg:

"This lack of interest on Bataille's part in the idea of kitsch undoubtedly arose from the position of mastery (irony) and the clear taxonomy that it presupposes and against which it plays. The statue raised to the Cadum baby can only be appreciated ironically: it makes fun of the decorousness of taste and denies that there is an ontological split between the monument (eternal) and advertising (ephemeral); but one can only take ironic pleasure in it if one is confidant in the solidity of one's own taste. One enjoys kitsch only from a distance (nothing is kitsch in itself: for an object to be perceived as kitsch, a distanced, mediated gaze must be directed toward it). In short, kitsch is dialectical: one only has access to it by knowing to the very tips of one's fingers what it attacks, to wit, modernism."3

At another point in the volume, Bois cites the comments of critic Carl Einstein in the Surrealist publication Documents circa 1930, dryly lamenting: "There was a time when collage played the part of the acid thrower, [when it was] a means of defense against the happy chance of virtuosity. Today it has degenerated into easy riddles and is in danger of lapsing into the fakery of petit-bourgeois decoration."

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1.  The term art informel is admittedly a hazy and problematic one. Proposed by French critic Michel Tapié in the early 1950s, it quickly became an umbrella term to describe a variety of vaguely similar stylistic mutations in European art during the postwar years. Several artists that Tapié had in mind when devising the term flatly rejected it as having no bearing on the work that they were doing – Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Burri being chiefly among them. In the case of Dubuffet, Burri, and the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies are concerned, the less common designation arte materica might prove more precise.

2.  Perhaps it goes without saying that this in some ways constituted a chickens-coming-home scenario in Italy, given that mechanized warfare and fascism were two aspects of modernity vociferously celebrated by the Italian Futurists just a few decades previously.

3.  I find that this passage addresses my own dislike for the supposed po-mo "irony" bound up in the art of Jeff Koons. When Claes Oldenburg made soft sculptures of hamburgers and payphones or proposed a huge statue of a teddy bear, it (once-upon-a) amounted to an act of transformatively catapulting the mundane into the realm of the contemplative -- if not a "pop" extension of Dubuffet's program for "rehabilitating dirt." But when Koons effectively recycles the ideas of Oldenburg by producing monuments of Michael Jackson and Bubbles or a giant puppy made of flowers, it can only amount to a misfire, in the process irredeemably reconsigning its subject to the realm of kitsch by way of its own habitual cynicism. Rote, second-hand irony is irony that ultimately nullifies itself out of the equation.


Lutz Eitel said...

I’d have several comments, like: what is collage culture? is it patchwork culture which now we can arrange at our will because we have grown mad digital processing skills? Also, I don’t see the irony in Koons who I’d say was pretty flawless up to and including Banality (and a lack of irony would do a lot to help explain his next work group). That’s the difference to Oldenburg for me, whose trinkets do come with inverted commas winking that they’re art after all (but maybe that’s just because I was 18 in 1986 and would have no clue about the art world’s inside workings and just felt hit by the Banality work as something that needed to be done, obviously. While we’re at it, maybe Koons’ most relevant work after the basketball tanks is Celebrity, simply because these works (the steel balloon poodles and hearts) have been thought out in around 1994 and are being made on order still today, fetching millions, standing all ideas of art as concept over machine execution on their heads).

But instead just a footnote: while MERZ would have been a torn out fragment of the word commerce originally (which wasn’t as exciting then as it would be now, the commercialization of art mot being a really hot topic yet), “Merzkunst” does have, contrary to what is often said, a definite meaning. You immediately think of “ausmerzen” which is “to eradicate,” and has a very unpleasant ring to the historically aware German ear, because Goebbels used it a lot to threaten the elements in society that needed to be done away with. The word comes from “Merzvieh,” which describes the sheep that get slaughtered in the spring because feeding them up again just wouldn’t be worth it. That is the one meaning in which a Merzbild etc. makes absolute grammatical sense, the work of art that gets destroyed because it’s of no use to anybody (which is mighty prescient in the light of the later fate of his Merzbau and a huge part of his work. Also, I am of course aware that Schwitters himself preferred the term to remain fuzzy, as any self-respecting professional dadaist would).

Thanks for another great post!

Lutz Eitel said...

Celebration, of course. Ha.

Greyhoos said...

Lutz: Fascinating, that -- about the semantic variations of "merz." I hadn't encountered that sort of an breakdown/analysis before.

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