Art and its Dark Side – The Eight Rivers of Art

A series of eight essays dealing with the ‘rivers of art’ – creative concerns which have the abiding power to preoccupy artists and writers, and which have always had currency in our cultural life.  These essays divide into two four-essay parts:


Part 1: “Beauty and the Sublime”

1: The Picture within the Picture

2: Quietism: the “vacancy” of Formalism

3: Grandeur versus the Sublime

4: Non-Finito or the art of incompletion

Part 2: “Ugliness and the Abject”

 1: Immoralism

2: Grotesque: Ancient and Modern

3: Fetishism and the Uncanny

4: Caprice

I try to ensure that all the essays cover the history and development of the term under discussion in visual art, literature and film, and sometimes in music and architecture.  Thus “The picture within the picture” will also consider the “book within the book”, “the play within the play”, the “building within the building”.  Many of the essays delve far back in history for the roots of their subjects – to cave painting, Roman wall decoration etc.  So Homer is discussed as well as John Hawkes, Durer as well as Duchamp.  The essays should constitute a useful source for references.

To take my Immoralism essay as an example: this is a term I have used to identify a tendency in cultural activity to engage the reader/spectator in complicity with darker aspects of the psyche.  The term is taken from Andre Gide’s novel, The Immoralist.   I discuss the work of writers (James Hogg, Robert Browning, Andre Gide, John Hawkes, etc) and show how a similar tendency operates among painters (Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Ron Kitaj, Eric Fischl, David Salle etc) and among visual artists working in other media such as photography and film (Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Jayne Parker, Nicolas Roeg, Tim Krabbe etc).

A more comprehensive description of the project can be found below in the introduction.  I have compiled images which might accompany the text. I see any prospective book of these essays not only as a dynamic new teaching tool but also as a lavishly illustrated ‘conversation book’.  It is at the same time a reappraisal of artistic terms employed in the pre-twentieth century parlance of artists’ studios and literary salons as well as a way forward from the now historical dialectics of the twentieth century.

I am very happy at the way these lectures have now developed a life of their own on the web!

The talks I have given on these eight subjects have proved popular with students, artists and writers.  Most of the terms are key-words which students feel that they need to investigate.  At the same time,  I hope the delivery of the essays is done in a light enough way to appeal to a more general public.  Equally, there is a serious contention being raised, so any publication should be expected to stimulate critical and theoretical debate as we move into the twenty-first century.


This book is an attempt to chart the extensive geography of pluralism.  It is concerned with affinities rather than derivations; and, in preference to chronological contiguity, it often offers metaphors which may seem aoristic.  These concerns should distinguish my essays from those of most art historians, for the attempt is one which seeks to disassociate itself from the sort of history that cites key works and their dates and constructs from these une histoire des événements, a narrative of events.  If I am engaged in history in any way whatsoever, it is more with that notion of the longue durée first articulated by Fernand Braudel; a sense that in large matters, things change rather slowly.

My project is more imaginative than scholarly.  I am accustomed to looking at the world of art from a creative standpoint.  Today I can go to the National Gallery and look at Bronzino’s Allegory.  Tomorrow, I can visit Rebecca Horn’s installation at the Tate Modern.  In the evening I may find myself at home, reading the poems of Rochester.  I get up and put on a tango cd, recorded in the 1930s.  There is no time, no history.  Each of these items is as present to me as the next.  I may indeed look at a Renaissance artist through contemporary eyes, just as I look at contemporary Japanese art through British eyes – whatever that means.  But I make no apologies for so doing, and readily accept my subjectivity.  Mine is a poetic view of the cultural context in which I find myself, and, as such, perhaps my method harks back to ways of looking at the arts that were more prevalent some four centuries ago.  As John Shearman puts it:

“The modern tendency towards increasing specialization in all branches of research and scholarship has discouraged comparative studies of the arts; and what we so seldom do we distrust.  But our distrust of analogies was not shared by the sixteenth century, which inherited from antiquity a habit of drawing parallels as a matter of course.”

(Mannerism, London, 1967, p. 32)

Correctly, from the point-of-view of his discipline, the contemporary art-historian places greater emphasis on the social context that causes a work to emerge than he does on its timeless affinities and the remarkability of its likenesses; averring that “a proper understanding” depends on an attempt to see art through the eyes of those present at the time it was made.  Realism, for instance, can be held up as a term exclusively attached to the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century, since it was in this epoch that “Realism” was utilised by artists to express their scientific attitude and their “epistemological agnosticism”.   In her book on this movement, Linda Nochlin maintains that:

“One of the ways in which Realism differs from the older arts concerned with verisimilitude is this important and all-embracing one: realism of this particular kind and degree was not possible or even conceivable until the nineteenth century.  Van Eyck painting Arnolfini or Caravaggio his Magdalene, no matter how scrupulous they might have been in reproducing the testimony of visual experience, were looking through eyes, feeling and thinking with hearts and brains, and painting with brushes, steeped in a context of belief in the reality of something other and beyond that of the mere external, tangible facts they beheld before them.  And even if certain artists, such as Velasquez and Vermeer, tried to break free of existing schemata of representation – which they certainly did, to a greater or lesser extent – in order to look at nature for themselves – they were still bound by the often unconscious ideological limitations of their own era, as indeed were the nineteenth-century Realists, of course…”

(Realism, London, 1971, p.45)

As indeed are twentieth century scholars.  Nochlin herself quotes Courbet, who wrote:  “The history of an era is finished with that era itself and with those of its representatives who have expressed it.”  He was referring to history painting, but no historian can escape their own time.  Those of the late twentieth-century may have placed too much faith in Jacques Derrida and his view that any work considered has to be deconstructed, and located in its various contexts.  By the same token, twentieth century historians must also be assigned to their own specialised context.  The trouble is, their scrupulous historicity is not how art is viewed by the public or how literature is read.  But then, the Kantian notion, that one can assess the intrinsic merit of a work by resolutely referring only to the work itself, the work within its frame, is, in its own way, equally suspect.

Merely a lover of art, I come to any work, whether it be a Bronzino or a Brancusi, and view it from my own point-of-view.  In other words, the work can be placed in a subjective context, and this is what art-lovers together with creative practitioners – artists, musicians and poets – tend to do.  When I see a meticulously executed basket of fruit by Carravaggio, I can certainly identify it as realist if not “Realist” – if the capitalised term refers to a specifically delineated historical period.   Because I have a whole gallery of paintings, sculptures, poems and pieces of music in my head, I need to assign an address to this basket of fruit; and, in terms of mental space rather than in terms of time, I may well place it next to a Chardin or even next to a Goings.  This is an act of personal curator-ship, rather than an art-historical duty.  A smidgen of knowledge may provide some anecdote that enriches my experience of the work in question, that is undeniable, but lack of historical knowledge should not impede the appreciation of a work of art.

*        *        *        *

Does art have to be defined by fashionable time-based shifts?  Can there ever be proscriptions – ways of making art which are right for one’s time?  In the recent past, some distinguished art critics have fought bitter battles over such issues.  Clement Greenberg, for instance, insisted that hard-edge abstraction was the correct thing to be doing in the nineteen-sixties.  Barbara Reise contested this. She maintained that artists were relevant when they pushed an issue to its extreme – any issue in any direction.  Her argument prevailed but she made enemies in the Greenberg camp, left New York and came to live in Kentish Town.  Barbara was an iconoclast – though she did more than overthrow the icons of abstract expressionism.  She introduced many new artists through her articles in Studio International.  Marcel Broodthaers was one, a Belgian artist who was also living in Kentish Town at the time.  There were many others: Jan Dibbets, Gilbert and George and Sigmar Polke, to name but a few.  Each pushed some issue to its extreme, exaggerated its potential – and Barbara identified that exaggeration as a mark of distinction in creativity – as Victor Hugo had done before her.

We saw this aesthetic of extremes in operation during The Sensation Show, the last important show of the twentieth century.  But the title is to some extent misleading because it suggests that all the artists in the show were actively engaged in “sensationalism”.  This is hardly the case, when one considers the cool, curved geometries of the mirror exhibited by Cerith Wyn Evans, or when one thinks a little about the work of Rachel Whiteread and compares it to the notorious image by Marcus Harvey of Myra Hindley – created with of the stencilled hands of children.

Marcus Harvey

Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – a tiger shark in a glass case filled with formaldehyde – has little in common with Hadrian Pigott’s Instrument of Hygiene – a sink contained in a velvet case as if it were a musical instrument.  And Marc Quinn’s Self – his portrait sculpted in blood and encased above the equipment which keeps this object frozen and preserved – has a feel to it that is quite different to the strident grotesques of Jake and Dinos Chapman, while these may or may not have anything in common with the fetishistic work of Sarah Lucas or the calm abstraction of Jason Martin’s Merlin – a big black painting where the brush-mark reads like a blown-up kink in a vinyl record.  I feel the need to differentiate between the various modes represented by this exhibition, or any other contemporary show.  It is not enough to group effects which are demonstrably operating on conflicting terms loosely together, and then to apply to them all the epithet “post-modernist”.

As I see it, there are several rivers running through art.  In the west, many of these rivers may be traced back to manifestations first encountered in antiquity – in the Graeco-Roman world in particular, which was in turn influenced by Egypt.  With certain rivers, the source goes back into prehistory.  The influence of the Far East also contributes to these rivers.  These are not rivers of influence so much as of precedent.  It is not a matter of imitation – more that similar impulses have existed for a very long time.

When I first started thinking about art this way, I found that I could identify one or two of these rivers, and because their waters seemed to have a rather esoteric flavour I imagined that beside them there was one main stream.  You could call it humanism, or moralism perhaps.  I saw this stream as awash with works of art generated by worthy, conscious causes: religious belief, belief in the glory of the state and its history, belief in revolution.  Its position was essentially the romantic one, with humanity at its core – it accounted for the music of Beethoven, for instance, officially intended to elucidate and to magnify our emotions, or the Sistine chapel, or the films of Stephen Spielberg.  The main stream seeks our engagement, I thought.   It solicits our emotional response.  It is clearly not an art about which “we can neither laugh nor cry” – this being Ortega y Gasset’s term for modernism in his brilliant 1925 essay on The Dehumanisation of Art.

There have been other attempts at identifying this “main stream”.  Out of the four types of art outlined in Arthur Clayborough’s The Grotesque in English Literature, the main stream is either “regressive positive” – a variety of art which is mythical and synthetic, which embodies archetypal imagery and somehow suggests the existence of a ‘greater reality’ or explains a mystery: or it is “progressive-positive” – that is, wholly at the disposal of directed thinking.  If it utilises distortion at all, in a “progressive-negative” way, the main stream takes up such distortion for pragmatic ends, such as satire or political caricature:  Picasso’s Guernica is an example of this.  Here the unconscious may produce distorted images and a world upside down, but it does so fully under the aegis of the consciousness.  Clayborough’s system is described in more detail in my essay on the Grotesque.

It seemed obvious that within this main stream a canonical order could be established; the names making up that cannon being well documented.  For this reason I decided that I was not going to discuss it.  John Ashbery has spoken of his enjoyment of the by-ways of literature.  I felt the need to concentrate on the smaller streams.  And I sensed that I might not cover all of these – only the ones that intrigued me.

*        *        *

My ideas moved on:  some of the streams I charted represented opposing concepts.  For instance, I argued “the picture within the picture” was in contradistinction to Non-finito or “incompletion”.  Whereas the picture within the picture has moved on beyond completion to the issue of framing and supplying the referential context to an image, with nonfinito the image is abandoned before it is finished.  It thus exhibits its process, and it has not transcended its materiality, indeed it still wrestles with that materiality as a slave by Michelangelo may wrestle to free himself of his stone. Contemporary philosophy offered extensions to my ideas.  Fashionably enough, Derrida invited perception to step outside or beyond the picture, or indeed beyond the picture within the picture, in The Truth in Painting, and to see the picture within its frame and the frame positioned in the gallery space – with all that this entails, both as regards its positioning it its own time and in its contemporary setting – together with its location  in several social contexts: its value then and now, for instance, or the employment it generated or its means of production.  In a sense, he continued the regressive series evoked by the picture within the picture, however he moved this away from its perspective’s vanishing point rather than towards it.  Nevertheless, Post-modernism could be seen as a swing towards “the picture within the picture” – with its concern for the hyper-real and for layers of reference – in reaction to the “raw” paint and the “incomplete” exercises in style which distinguished a very large chunk of mid-twentieth-century modernism.

One could also see “the picture within the picture” as a pre-occupation with doubles, thus revealing a tendency towards repetition; while “incompletion” seemed to lack consistency since it left off doing this in order to engage in that – take Leonardo, for instance.  So at a psychological level I found repetition confronting inconsistency in these opposing terms.

It struck me also that it is a commonplace to say that art can be shocking.  But what is often overlooked is that art can be shocking in different ways.  It can be shocking by dint of its “grotesque” distortions, its Rabalaisian rudeness – think of the shit pictures of Gilbert and George or the nose penises of Jake and Dinos Chapman.  But equally art can be shocking by dint of its “innocuousness” – as in art for art’s sake.  Here its formal qualities have emptied the work of extrinsic purpose, emptied it of meaning beyond the meanings art carries within itself. This “vacancy” may have reduced the work to a single issue which has the power to scandalise the public by its very emptiness – think of Carl André’s bricks.

Then, in opposition to that moralising over “humanitarian issues” which the main stream sought to drown us in, I saw that there was an aspect to art-making which might be called “immoralism”.  This term described the art that provoked us into some sort of pact with hidden appetites.  It was an art of complicity that placed us in an uneasy situation so far as our consciences are concerned.  Within immoralism we could also place “the Azure” – that amoral playfulness we associate with the laughing nymphs of Carpeaux and the late sketches of Picasso.


Any of these issues might be carried to excess, indeed, Barbara Reise’s endorsement of extremism should lead us more and more to such excesses.  The eclectic (and esoteric) mixing of these rivers could lead to the uncanny – a formalism touched by the grotesque, say – but there is an opposition even within that river’s particular excesses.  Fetishism and the uncanny seemed like opposites which kept overlapping, merging.

*       *       *

My thoughts had evolved thus far when I fell into a river which proved difficult to name.  At first I supposed that I should call it “the Sublime”.  But this led to problems which threatened to overwhelm my other terms.  I do not wish to go to any great lengths to rehash the history of this term, but briefly, it grew out of Longinus’s interest in grandeur and the elevated tone: the tone used by Homer to describe the actions of heroes. His views on The Sublime were written sometime in the first century A.D.  The text can be found in Classical Literary Criticism.  Later, in the mid-eighteenth century, Edmund Burke expanded on this notion in A Philosophical Enquiry.  This dealt with the development “of our ideas into the origin of the sublime and the beautiful.”  Burke elucidated the physiological sensation of astonishment from a position of safety.  He believed that:

“…ideas of pain, sickness, or death, fill the mind with strong emotions of horror…  The passions therefore which are conversant about the preservation of the individual, turn chiefly on pain and danger, and they are the most powerful of the passions.”

(Section VI.  Of the passions which belong to Self-Preservation)

In Section VII he went on to say:

“When pleasure or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful…”

 (Section VII.  Of the Sublime)

This was a restatement of an ancient idea.  The Greek tragedians understood that we could be entertained by tales of horror and suffering, deeply entertained indeed.  On a banal level, it is pleasant to witness torture from a position of safety, since it encourages an appreciation of our own comfort.  This held true for the shallow luxuries of the Colosseum.  And little has changed.  Seneca was as bored by the afternoon shows put on by the gladiators as we are by the afternoon’s television.  Yet in the main, we still like to be thrilled – by Hollywood blockbusters, or better still by the sufferings we can now see every night on the news.  Burke’s contribution was to establish the physical feelings induced by art: beauty producing a languorous softening effect, the sublime quickening the pulse, producing a gasp of astonishment which breaks the languor and wakes us up.  It was Burke’s conviction that at certain distances and with certain modifications terror can produce a delightful sensation which was taken up by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement, published in 1790.  This contains an “Analytic of the Beautiful” as well as its more famous “Analytic of the Sublime”.  For Kant, the issue becomes a moral one.

He saw boundlessness as represented by the sublime.  The sense of witnessing something beyond our grasp was what caused the thrill – for it did violence to the imagination. Only an educated person, possessed of finer feelings, could appreciate the sense of astonishment generated by the contemplation of what is great beyond all comparison, what is indescribable.   The less educated would flee in sheer terror.  Beauty was more bounded, but whether sublime or merely beautiful, it was essential that the work or the phenomenon should be without purpose and that the appraisal should be a disinterested one.  It was therefore a “moral” feeling.  The beautiful prepared us to love something in a disinterested way, even nature itself, or the rights of man.  The sublime prepared us to esteem something highly even in opposition to our own (sensible) interest – the sensation of the awesome being quickened by the view beyond the drop: a sensation familiar to the addict who believes that he can ride his habit.

But Kant’s motives were respectable.  He was seeking a logical way to achieve the harmony of everyone’s judgement in matters of taste.  It could not merely be a matter of consensus.  “The sublime consists merely in the relation by which the sensible in the representation of nature is judged available for a possible supersensible use,” he averred (my italics).  The supersensible perception was one concerning the reasoning process rather than one based on empirical feeling. “If you can keep your head while all about you!”  Cooly to be able to appreciate the breathtaking spectacle despite the hazardous nature of one’s foot-hold showed the existence of the sort of finer feelings he associated with the supersensible.  The sublime was a calculated risk.  And in a spirit akin to elation one gambled with one’s well-being to secure a moral empathy with natural magnificence.

Now Derrida has pointed out that Kant’s view of art presumed that the work stood for itself in a state of isolation or “purity”.  But how can a work of art be set apart from its context, and if its context has a purpose then surely that work fulfils it, so how therefore can the work ever be without purpose?   On the other hand, in his Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Jean-François Lyotard defends Kant’s view that art is bound up with the sensation of the ineffable, the incomparable, the indescribable…

And now I was growing confused.  How was I to reconcile these high-flown notions with my own perceptions?      

*       *        *

I have problems of my own with Kant’s views.  In the first place I am wary of this empathy with nature business.  I think of the moment in Nicholas Roeg’s Castaway when Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe are both naked as nature intended on an island paradise in the Pacific – and having a blazing row into the bargain!  Enough of the correspondences of Baudelaire!  There’s something obsolete about the metaphorical empathy between man and nature, nature and art, art and man, which this theory presupposes.  It offends my own sensibility which was formed in the days of the nouvelle roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the “writing degree zero” of Roland Barthes.  We do not live in a world which mirrors our own feelings, nor do our feelings necessarily mirror our environment – the situation is far more alienated than Kant supposed.  And then there is the issue of judgement.

The Critique of Judgement analyses the notion of beauty and that of the sublime and purports to set out a method for establishing an a priori judgement as to whether such and such a thing may justifiably elicit the feeling that it is beautiful or the belief that it is sublime.  It does not question the notion of judgement itself and remains an aesthetic.  Now I am not convinced that we can judge art and come up with any a priori ruling.  Such a ruling concerns the craft of the matter only.  I am not so sure that, Yes, but is it art? is anything more than a trite media comment these days.

The issue of art is better expressed by Lyotard’s notion of the differend – a sort of gap between the feeling of the representation of the work and the sensation the work arouses in us, between what is represented or presented and what cannot be represented or presented.  And there are other gaps.  Art stimulates debate in a neat way by creating differences of opinion.  One person will make a case for a work, and another will present the antithesis to that case.  A synthesis may be possible, or they may agree to disagree.  But no arbitrator can make a final decision, for inevitably time will change that decision, context will change it, and the character of the viewer.  To my mind it is now less a matter of aesthetic judgement, more a matter of the analysis of a symptom.  The contemporary mode of analysis does not properly judge, rather it attempts to describe and to deconstruct the work, and we often find this non-judgmental activity satisfying in itself.

I decided to explore grandeur, but not to use the sublime as the name for one of my rivers.  Both Burke and Kant had used the term in contrast to the term beauty.  This divided all artistic production into two areas, whereas by now I was moving towards the charting of at least eight of my own terms (though these are often not so much invented by me as traditional terms that have lain neglected for some time).  Logically, the sublime would need to cover at least four of my rivers and this was clearly not the case.  In any case, Kant had insisted that the sublime was a sensation not a thing.  It could be stimulated by a work or by some phenomenon in the mind of the observer, given this was open to such finer feeling; but the work or the phenomenon was not sublime in itself.  After all, an anorexic can feel horrified by a tiny morsel of food, but in itself, that morsel is far from sublime.  Since I was engaged in the description of works and of phenomena, I saw no way to use the word for a feeling which could not technically be associated with an object – as opposed to the Uncanny, for instance, which can be associated with certain works or objects even if it is a feeling – though perhaps Derrida would argue that any object or item might be uncanny depending on its history and context.  I’m sure many writers of ghost-stories would agree with him.

*        *        *

I then saw that the two terms used by these philosophers were in themselves a  judgement, for while beauty might be contrasted with the sublime – pleasant feelings contrasted with astonished thoughts – the terms which opposed this pair of terms were excluded, and excluded without hesitation, since the territory which art was supposed to inhabit was more limited in the age of enlightenment than it is today, and perhaps than it was before that age came about.  It struck me that to beauty and the sublime we may oppose the terms ugliness and the abject.  This was not simply a question of a difference between forms.  Kant’s terms are intimately bound up with notions of goodness and nobility of spirit.  These notions needed to be opposed as well.  I thought of the poems of Rochester, the novels of the Marquis de Sade, Hans Bellmer’s doll.  Artists are not constrained to dealing with goodness.  And now I could draw up a table:

“Beauty and the Sublime”xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx“Ugliness and the Abject”

The Picture within the PicturexxxxxxxxxxxxxImmoralism

QuietismxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxQxxxxxxxxxGrotesque: Ancient and Modern

GrandeurxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxFetishism and the Uncanny

Non-finito or the Art of IncompletionxxxxxxxCaprice

Please note that I have placed the two headings in italics.  They are being utilised as convenient tags.  They are not necessarily any more appropriate to the essays they describe than the epithet innocuous is for art bound up with formalism.  Such titles should be read as quips!  Perhaps the sublime may more appropriately reside on the cusp between grandeur and the grotesque – or grandeur and any other term – so long as the position held is pushed towards some absolute extreme.

It is thus though that I have managed to fit the titles of my various essays into two columns.  Each individual essay attempts to plot the course of one of art’s movements through time, not so much the time of concise derivation as the time of analogy and resonance.  What has been lost, left out by this model, is the subject of my conclusion.  Adjustments to the model can occur at the end, once we have an overview.  And it may appear as if I have now lost the contrast between the picture within the picture and non-finito, but that polarisation is still evident:  it simply resides within one column, rather than crossing from one column to the other.

Meanwhile other contrasts emerge.  Kant’s sense of the purposelessness of art and the disinterestedness of the spectator seem to hold true for the column of terms arranged below “Beauty and the Sublime”.  But purpose appears to infect the terms in the other column.  André Gide’s argument for “Immoralism” – which he puts forward in his introduction to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – has as high a purpose as Kant’s sublime – and this is elucidated in the essay on that subject.  However, desire seems to have crept under the covers here, for ineluctably the terms arranged below “Ugliness and the Abject” all touch upon desire or antipathy, or greed, or the flesh, or willfulness, or sin if you like, in ways which the terms in the other column seem immune to, seem capable of avoiding.  But perhaps Kant’s noble ideal of a work without purpose is an illusion.  Certainly Derrida would maintain that this is the case.  The column concerning beauty and the sublime has as much purpose as that concerning ugliness and the abject, it is simply that the purpose is expressed through virtues rather than vices – harmony being apparent here, and representations of heroism, and purity of medium and so on.  Disinterestedness is also a purpose in fact.

*       *        *

So now I have come to feel that I might as well abandon the assumption that there is a main stream.  For the works of Michelangelo can be located within this terminology, as can the work of Van Gogh or Milton, or Hitchcock or Barnett Newman.  It is simply that I may choose to cite lesser known examples now.  But the diversity of art is such that masters appear among all these categories, there is not a separate category of the masterly.  What may be at issue is the notion of a master – but this is a matter for Derrida or Lacan.  Ultimately however, I feel relieved that there is not some brand of “moral humanism” to which all those deemed worthy of inclusion in the cannon adhere.  The situation is more various. “Moral humanism” is a disease which largely affects mass culture.  It is generally hypocritical and it drips copious sentiment or abounds with banal heroics.  I am heartily bored by “low culture for highbrows”.  This post-Marxist espousal of mass virtue is as bad for the planet as the private motor-car.  We need to endorse a non-privileged elite, avoid the obsolescent dinosaurs of Spielberg and support the small furry mammals who seek out John Ashbery’s by-ways.  I may have my doubts about finer feelings, but I’ve no problem with acquired tastes.  One of the joys of art is seeking out some remote work a friend has enthusiastically raved about.  For the same reason a walker may prefer the Long Mynd to Ben Nevis.  By all means let art be unpopular.  All too often it becomes emasculated by being dragged into the limelight by the matrons of art education.

Essay by essay, part by individual part, much of what follows may well have been considered by others.  For none of this is particularly original – neither the art nor the literature, nor indeed my thoughts about these matters.  Gide’s introduction to Hogg, Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked, Philip Thomson’s The Grotesque and Mike Kelley’s The Uncanny are far more thorough in their approach to any one issue, and I feel no need to hesitate before acknowledging their influence.  I hope that my contribution will have been to provide a framework for tackling the plurality of forms, genres and aesthetics which obtain today.  I have also attempted to keep the discussion wide enough in all instances to cover more than visual art and literature: so each essay attempts to make some reference to the history of film, music, performance and on occasion to architecture.  This may seem eclectic.  But it has always intrigued me that when Cage, Cunningham and Rauschenberg have come together to create a performance, they have done so not because they are all practitioners in the same medium.  They are palpably not – one is a composer, one a dancer, one a visual artist.  What they have shared is a philosophical point-of-view, an endorsement, in their case, of the operation of chance in creativity.

Duchamp saw no reason to be influenced by another painter, so he turned to Raymond Roussel, a writer.  A composer may see a way forward in his own work by looking at the work of a performance artist.  A poet may learn from a sculptor.  Our age has tried to turn the arts into ghettoized specialisations.  This is to the detriment of its forms.  At all high points in cultural activity a court society, a salon or a cafe society, has kept the arts in contact with each other.   Each artist or poet needs to refine their activity, but this refinement does not entail isolation in a specialised world where painters only talk to painters, poets to poets.   We follow such a road of specialisation into the murky world of the age-lasts, the dry sticks castigated by Rabelais:  shriveled academics, perpetrators of cluttered allegories, out-of-date perfectionists or, worst of all, the young fogeys.

My essays span more than a decade.  They began as fairly informal talks accompanied by slides, and some of that informality persists.  I wish to convey how ideas have grown in significance for me as the years have gone by, and it is thus that a gut-feeling becomes systematised.  But I have no wish to keep tinkering with the system which has evolved.  My book represents a hypothesis, and that is that the twenty-first century needs to get away from the terms which dominated so much of the twentieth. Nor do I wish my categories to be thought of as some system of wooden drawers.  Freud is right to draw our attention to our dogged propensity for clearly defined boundaries.  But surely most activity occupies transitional territory and liminal shores?  And the pluralism of our age – which began before it – though we tend to think that it’s become more abundant since the advent of modernism – extends to the individual.  Picasso had many changes of style – and he is already of a previous era.  Ashbery once told me that he wanted to have written every sort of poem.  New extremes are discovered by new transgressions, freshly unholy marriages, original ways of breaking the rules.  In many cases, artists who I may have cited as examples of one tendency turn up in other essays, exhibiting other tendencies.  Few artists, other than fetishists, bathe in one river only.  We deal with David Salle when “the picture within the picture” is under discussion, we deal with him again when our attention turns to “immoralism”.  This is as it will be.

Other artists and writers manifest themselves as irritants.  They can’t be fitted in.  Where do they fit?  Do they need a category of their own or are they simply a mixture I haven’t considered?  I am sure that readers will come up with their own exceptions.  And I am happy with this.  Again, this is for treatment in the conclusion.  For I don’t think that I am promoting my system as any form of radical and pragmatic adjustment.  I am simply trying to set out the cultural ambiance as it appears to me.  Maps are the result of journeys undergone by the cartographer.  I hope for no more than that my readers may enjoy accompanying me on my various journeys up and down these rivers through the arts.

Anthony Howell, November, 2003.

(Scroll back to the beginning for links to all eight essays!)

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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