Filling Interpretive Gaps

Teju Cole declares his intention in Open City was to write a la Cartier-Bresson — “on the run” — and urges others to do the same.

What does this entail?

Henri Cartier-Bresson said photography is not like painting. It requires both seeing “a composition or expression that life itself offers you” in a flash, and acting “in that creative fraction of a second”. [1]  In painting, by contrast, more time and labor are needed to fashion an object with comparable expressive content.

John Berger characterizes the difference between the process involved in producing a photograph and the process involved in painting as that of “quoting” versus “translating”, “receiving” versus “making”. The photograph requires both a mediated choice, which is a cultural construction, and an immediate, natural, and unconstructed trace produced by the particular configuration of light entering the camera. The photographer “quotes” from appearances that lie in front of the camera. The photograph is a quotation based on the photographer’s instantaneous judgment. A painting or drawing, on the other hand, is the result “of countless judgments…. [E]verything about it has been mediated by consciousness, either intuitively or systematically”.*

And what about writing? How does an attentive writer capture a moment “that life itself offers”? Is it not a long step away from producing a photograph, different in kind from a photographic image? How can we compare them?

If we go back to the passage (in the previous post) from Berger’s essay — gazing onto the courtyard from a window far above — maybe we can find an answer.

Berger sets the scene in a long picture gallery with tall windows overlooking a sunlit courtyard two stories below. We can imagine a few people, perhaps some children playing down below. Then, suddenly, the perspective shifts to a reverse view from below looking back at Berger, a “vision” of the narrator “alone and stiff in his window”. A “chiasm” emerges — a reflexive relation. The narrator says, “I see myself as seen. I experience a moment of familiar panic.”

Click. The image is captured, the text cuts as the narrator turns back to the framed images in the gallery.

The reader is left with an image and several questions. What is the function of this image in Berger’s story? Will the image come again? With what effect, what meaning? What light will it shed on what we’ve read?

So there may be a way of simulating an “image on the run” in writing. Its value would be poetic. We anticipate connections that do not immediately appear, we look for them. If they don’t show up, we create them.

Photograph of Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson

But notice the difference in our expectations when we’re looking at photographs. In a photograph by Cartier-Bresson, for example, something is immediately given — a fuzzy-haired man in a dark suit and tie holding a small sculpture walks briskly between two similar but much taller figures. The image, half again as high as it is wide, captures a moment. In what appears to be a relatively empty room containing several other artworks — busts of human heads on the floor and several small paintings or drawings resting against the wall — the man is moving objects around. To what end? Is he in a museum, an art gallery, a studio? Is he the artist, a curator, a dealer? When did this occur?

When a scene such as this is described in a novel or a short story, we assume the answers will eventually be given. No such assumption arises when looking at photographs. Very often the only additional source of information is the title, the name of the photographer, and the year the photo was taken. If it is part of a larger suite of related images in a book or magazine, the context may provide additional background information.

But when it is taken out of its original context and placed, as it was in this case, in a Wikipedia article on Cartier-Bresson which I came across this morning, I’m given no date, only the image labeled “Photograph of Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson”. Looking up the image in an exhibition catalog**, I see that it was, in fact, one of seven photographs that appeared in a British magazine under the title “A Touch of Greatness: Giacometti”. The catalog places the image in Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre, but provides very little on the photograph itself — taken in 1962 as the artist installs an exhibition of his work. I’m given information about the object. But I create whatever meaning and expressive content I can get from looking at the object. I contribute in this way, looking from a distance — a distance the image itself may shorten, but never eliminate.

*John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling, New York: Pantheon, 1982, 93.
** Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: the Modern Century, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Kuspit, “The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation”

This past week I re-read Kuspit’s The End of Art. Those familiar with the book know it focuses more on the reception, marketing, and institutional setting of art today than on the role of modern and contemporary criticism.  But, as usual, Kuspit’s approach is relevant, insightful and, thus, instructive for our discussion and anyone interested in re-examining art criticism today.  Before commenting on The End of Art and its defense of the "New Old Masters", I want to turn, for background, to an earlier piece — "The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation" — which focuses on aesthetic experience and subjectivity. [Originally published in Art Criticism (Winter 1985/86).  Reprinted in Donald Kuspit, The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.]  The subjective (and intersubjective) plays a crucial role in Kuspit’s theory of art and criticism and provides a useful supplement to his argument in The End of Art.

In this essay, Kuspit gives a psychoanalytic account of the role of modern art criticism.  He makes the case that one of the things one typically looks for in art is substance, significance, and permanence. In particular, he links our desire for art with "enduring value" to a fundamental human need for meaning and psychological stability. Art and life are related, albeit not in the postmodern sense that there is no real distinction between the two, but in the modernist sense that art is a refuge apart from the banal and crushing demands of everyday life.  On this view, art is understood as a fictive realm in which the conflicts of life can be explored, often as a search for an underlying unity and coherence. [550]  This characterization, highly contested in the late 20th century, has important implications for criticism, the avant-garde, and the role of the art critic.

Kuspit claims that we can "recognize" in the experience of art a fantasy of immortality, or, to use a less dramatic characterization, a desire for that which enduresCritical evaluation is an attempt at determining the enduring value of a work and opening up the viewer to the qualities that support such evaluations.  Thus, it is the task of the critic to show what is "mortal" and what "immortal" in a work, since every work is a mixture of both.  It’s important to note that this critical conflict between the enduring and the ephemeral parallels the subjective tension between, and resolution of, one’s fantasies of omnipotent selfhood and the demands made by social norms.

The work of art has charismatic power because it seems to satisfy our needs, to give voice to feelings that seem ineffable, even to put in socially presentable form attitudes that seem transgressively anti-social if not outright criminal.  We expect the work to mirror us, and when it doesn’t, our relationship to it becomes tragic.  We feel abandoned by our last hope for an "understanding" relationship…. This psycho-dynamic symbolic function of art…tends to be obscured by the militantly cognitive response to art.  Discussion about whether  an art is stylistically or ideologically innovative or conservative tends to mask an emotional, even characterological, "prejudice" in favor of the innovative or conservative.  Much debate about the critical value of an art is a kind of allegorical warfare to defend certain preexisting, characteristic "points of view" or "outlooks". [552]

Thus, Kuspit claims, the responsible critic must help one engage the work on this level while resisting banal quibbling over categorization. "[I]f criticism is to be serious it must be motivated by a mature sense of the conflicts that motivate life, and especially of the conflict which shows us life at its maturest". [548]

While Kuspit’s approach is deeply informed by Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice, he questions the adequacy of Freud’s understanding of art.  For example, in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud claims that art offers three "palliative remedies" to the difficulties of life.  The compensations offered by art are:

1. "powerful diversions of interest, which lead us to care little for our misery;
2. substitutive gratifications, which lessen it;
3. and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it." [552]

On this view art offers a substitute gratification for our basic needs.  It is, as Freud said, a ‘phantasy-pleasure’, a ‘sublimation of the instincts’ ‘frustrated by the outer world’, the ‘transferring of instinctual aims’ into a direction in which they cannot be frustrated.  Art is a civilized kind of satisfaction of instinctual aims, ‘but compared with that of gratifying gross primitive instincts its intensity is tempered and diffused; it does not overwhelm us physically.’  It seems to be possible to say that from Freud’s perspective art can also be regarded as a powerful diversion of interest and an intoxicating substance. [552f]

According to Kuspit, this orthodox Freudian view is too limited.  There are other, more "psychologically primitive needs" — existential and psychic needs — that can and should be addressed by art and criticism that enable human beings to feel more "at home in the world". 

It is by putting ourselves ‘in the psychological position of the person who has lost unity with nature as a result of his specific human qualities, and seeks to recover that unity’, that we can understand not only ‘authentic human needs’ but the critical role a relationship to art can play in satisfying them, or rather, in giving us the illusion that they can be convincingly satisfied.  Art…presents itself as the permanent satisfaction of psychic needs.  The illusion of permanent satisfaction is the grandest of the grand illusions — the most fundamental illusion necessary to magical survival.  It is the expectation on which all the other satisfactions art affords are built.  It is the most unconscious expectation we have from art. [554]

It’s precisely this expectation and the subjective value of aesthetic experience that is compromised by today’s "post-art" and "post-artists".  And it’s around this issue that one can begin to appreciate the profound differences separating Donald Kuspit and Arthur Danto — both theorists of "The End of Art".