Monday, July 04, 2011

"A potential model of freedom": An excerpt from "The Work of Art"

Jasper Johns, Three Flags (1958). Click on image to enlarge. Brief commentary here. Image found here.

Happy Fourth, reader(s)! Here's wishing you a safe and enjoyable consumption of food and beverages and fireworks-watching . . . and, yes, if you need it, history.

In keeping with the spirit of the day, my long-time online friend Pam of Tales from the Microbial Laboratory has posted a collection of four, very different performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner." All of them, I personally would say, are respectful performances, but it's easy to see how some could take issue with the appropriateness of a couple of them. The fact that two of these versions are by the same person makes watching them even more intriguing.

While watching these performances on Independence Day, I began thinking about the tension between the idea of artistic freedom and our assumptions about how the anthem "should" be performed. The artist who chooses to perform our anthem has a question to answer that seems simpler than it is: "Should I perform this piece of music? Or can I interpret it?" What is/are the expectation(s) accompanying a performance of the anthem, and how constrained should the artist feel by it/them? The dilemma is that the anthem is a piece of music that, like any music, must be performed in order to be fully realized. At the same time, though, the anthem is a piece of public art, just like any monument that seeks to memorialize an event or person from our history . . . except that, as noted, the anthem lacks a full existence until it's performed. It's not like, say, the Lincoln Memorial. Regarding the anthem, I think most people would say that ideally, the performance shouldn't ultimately be about the performer; those times in the past when performers have run into trouble for their versions, for whatever reason, have been when the performance in some way detracts from the "work" of the anthem. [Aside: Do other nations have discussions of the sort that some of us had after Christina Aguilera's forgetting the lyrics to the anthem when she performed it at this year's Super Bowl?] But that doesn't necessarily mean that only "straight" performances of the anthem "work" well or should be the only kind of performances permitted. Or does it? Put another way: Should performances of the anthem simply be, or should they, in J.T. Kirkland's phrase, "do something"?

This post started out this morning with my thinking on Kirkland's phrase and asking myself what exactly it is that Art does or "should" do; my questions about the anthem seemed to me to want to participate in all that. Kirkland phrase "doing something" (his italics) appears in his meditation on the directions his art is taking in this post. I really like that phrase. Like Kirkland, I'm not quite sure what it means; but like him (though speaking from my perspective as a viewer), I know it's happening when I see it: Art itself is intrinsically kinetic, and the interaction between art and audience is something like a dialogue. Anyway, while looking for something else by Berger, I found "The Work of Art" (in his Selected Essays. Berger's great power for me as a writer and critic is that he is completely invested in his subject and persuaded of its importance to people like you and me; as I phrased it here long ago, he believes "art and its appreciation can and should be something that you don't have to wear black and stroke your chin significantly in order to do." Even more important and vital an idea: that at its best, art "imitates a creation, something to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally" ("The White Bird"; fuller context here). The making and appreciation of art, in other words, are essential to the establishing of community and as such are vital human social activities.

As for "The Work of Art" itself, its occasion is a response to Nico Hadjinicolaou's book Art History and Class Consciousness, an attempt to articulate a scientific Marxist art history. Shorter Hadjinicolaou: "There's no such thing as 'art history' or 'schools' or 'style'--there's only 'visual ideology,' the manifestation of those various environmental influences working on an individual artist at the time s/he engages in 'the production-of-pictures' [his preferred term for Art]." Shorter Berger: "[Hogwash]." Berger's politics makes him sympathetic to the need for a valid Marxist aesthetic theory; he notes that Marx himself, valorizing the empirical and the scientific as he did, could not account for why, despite the changing tastes of the centuries, we still think of centuries-old works as being that very unscientific thing, "beautiful." But for Berger the solution is not just to surrender the discussion of aesthetics to the bourgeoisie.

In the passage below, Berger lays out what's at stake in these discussions before going on to give his accounting of the artistic act. What's interesting to me is that, as per the title of his essay, his rhetoric conceives of that act as physical as well as intellectual labor:

The [Marxist] refusal of comparative judgments about art ultimately derives from a lack of belief in the purpose of art. [. . .] If paintings have no purpose, have no value other than their promotion of a visual ideology, there is little reason for looking at old pictures except as specialist historians. [. . .]

The culture of capitalism has reduced paintings, as it reduces everything which is alive, to market commodities, and to an advertisement for other commodities. The new reductionism of revolutionary theory, which we are considering, is in danger of doing something similar. [. . .] Both eliminate art as a potential model of freedom, which is how artists and the masses have always treated art when it spoke to their needs.

When a painter is working, he is aware of the means which are available to him–-these include his materials, the style he inherits, the conventions he must obey, his prescribed or freely chosen subject matter–as constituting both an opportunity and a restraint. By working and using the opportunity he becomes conscious of some of its limits. These limits challenge him, at either an artisanal, a magical or an imaginative level. He pushes against one or several of them. According to his character and historical situation, the result of his pushing varies from a barely discernible variation of a convention–changing no more than the individual voice of a singer changes a melody–to a fully original discovery, a breakthrough. Except in the case of the pure hack, who, needless to say, is a modern invention of the market, every painter from palaeolithic times onward has experienced this will to push. It is intrinsic to the activity of rendering the absent present, of cheating the visible, of making images.

Ideology partly determines the finished result, but it does not determine the energy flowing through the current. And it is with this energy that the spectator identifies. Every image used by a spectator is a going further [Berger's italics] than he could have achieved alone, towards a prey, a Madonna, a sexual pleasure, a landscape, a face, a different world. (434-435)

The idea of Art keeping us free through its constant firing of the collective imagination is really compelling to me today. I hope it might be for some of you, too.


Pam said...

I love this.

Want to make a more thorough comment, and will come back to do so (a few chores yet to do, before it gets dark).

I so agree - about art keeping us free.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by, Pam. I'm looking forward to hearing more.