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withdrawal of the body

Post #648 • October 19, 2005, 9:31 AM • 23 Comments

A librarian cleaning out some old archives at a theological seminary in Pennsylvania recently discovered a Beethoven manuscript, and Edmund Morris, biographer of Roosevelt, Reagan, and most recently, Beethoven, can hardly wait to see it. "It is reported to be typically three-dimensional, with erasures worn into holes, and a large patch of rewritten music spackled onto one page with sealing wax." He likens its draughtsmanship to the work of Bernard Dufour, and after reveling in Dufour's skill, he continues on to muse about the consequences of decreasing tactility in art.

Then down the sharp thing comes, at a deliberately obtuse angle, so that the first line is not so much drawn but dug out of the paper. Nor is there as much ink running as you would expect; the artist seems to be daring his inspiration to dry up. More swoops and gougings, then suddenly a deliberate splash of ink, which the heel of the hand smudges across some cross-hatching ... and lo, the curve of a naked woman's thigh materializes out of the whiteness, and art begins to happen.

It is moving to watch, because we can feel Mr. Dufour's love of struggle, his sheer joy in being bespattered, stained and even resisted (when a sketch obstinately refuses to cohere) by the materials at hand. Such relish is of course characteristic of workers in the plastic arts. But with the decline of painting and drawing in recent years, in favor of hands-off processes like video recording, performance art and installations farmed out to contractors, even artists are putting less and less of themselves into their work - with the result that what there is of it, is cold. I had to spend a few weeks earlier this year looking down from my window at Christo's orange hangings in Central Park, and got back from them nothing but a sense of manufactured lifelessness.

I worry that further withdrawal of the body will increasingly depersonalize creativity in our computerized age. It is already a given that many young architects can't draw, relying on circuitry to do their imaging for them. Nor can many of them model, never having built things with their hands as children, and felt the pliancy and fragility of structures, the interrelationship of empty space and solid mass. Recently my wife and I bought a country house designed by just such an architect. It looked great until we discovered that the main floor sagged in the middle because it lacked the kind of central support that a child, 40 years ago, would have sensed was necessary in the foundation.

We're talking about architecture now, but I think Morris has a point. I love technology. I daresay that I am the one of the few painters anywhere who can hack XSLT. But I don't want to deal with life in a computer-like way. As a teacher, I see what happens when a student's computer skills outstrips his drawing skills: art becomes a nail for which there is no hammer except Photoshop. The results are a tragic collision of filters and Google Images. You don't judge a medium by its worst usages, of course, but grappling with the medium lays bare its inner workings, and I have witnessed how digital tools favor a disembodied approach that cannibalizes other peoples' solutions. You have to labor mightily to get them to do something better. Beginners at drawing, even when they fail miserably, still produce something that is recognizably theirs.

Does anyone remember those studies they did, in which they isolated baby monkeys from physical contact, gave some of them terry-cloth monkey dolls, and found that the monkeys who had dolls to hug came out psychologically healthier? What does it mean when my only physcial contact with my art is an interface of hard plastic?

I still believe that quality has no qualities, which means, in theory, that digital tools have as much of a shot as any other at producing wonderful work. In practice, I think that for a long time we're going to be seeing a lot of things from them that look cool, which is good, but also feel cool, which is not.

(Also in the NYT recently, one of the finest sentences to grace modern journalism: "Oni pa'a Imua Pa'a'aina, at 450 pounds, was the only one of 14 sumo wrestlers who managed to finish one of the giant sandwiches Tuesday at the Carnegie Deli in Midtown Manhattan." No withdrawal of the body here.)

Comment

1.

Franklin

October 19, 2005, 10:37 AM

Unrelated: Always glad to contribute to the cause.

2.

oldpro

October 19, 2005, 4:10 PM

Nice post, Franklin.

I wonder how Morris, who writes with such exquisite sensitivity about material things and our relationship to them, ever bought a house that lacked a center post in the basement?

3.

craigfrancis

October 19, 2005, 7:38 PM

how can performance art be a sign of the withdrawl of the body? performance art is often about the body. i'm confused. as usual.

4.

oldpro

October 19, 2005, 7:58 PM

Craig, I think that "body" was unfortunate usage. I am sure he meant withdrawal of the relationship of hand and eye to materials.

5.

Franklin

October 19, 2005, 8:13 PM

You have a point, CF, if he means "performance art" and not "performance art farmed out to contractors," which is how I read it the first time. Looking at it again, it could go either way. He also may be talking about performance art as distinct from the "plastic arts," and the "relish" of that. I think his angle holds more strongly regarding digital media.

I would value the work of Marina Abramovic over that of Vanessa Beecroft based on that "contractor" thing. Abramovic is there, all but dying in front of you. I would love to see her work in person.

There is nevertheless something special and valuable about the place that the plastic arts hold. You get an experience in front of materials, independent of their maker's presence, that persists over time with remarkable durability. That material interaction is what Morris is singing the praises of.

6.

oldpro

October 19, 2005, 9:02 PM

Franklin, are you referring to "body" as he uses is in the 3rd paragraph of the quoted text?

He is clearly referring to the relationship between our "bodies", as a whole, and what we do with them in relation to materials. it has nothing to do with "performance art".

7.

Franklin

October 19, 2005, 10:36 PM

Yeah, but he referred to performance art as a hands-off process. He meant hands-off-materials, but it was kind of an unfortunate phrasing. The rest holds up beautifully. I love that first paragraph.

8.

ahab

October 19, 2005, 10:42 PM

Thanks for the article, Franklin. I appreciate Morris' indirect affirmation of a deliberately tangible-visual studio practice.

Makes me want to huck this disgusting piece of plastic and silicone off the tallest river-crossing trolley bridge in the world - it's just down the street from here. To appease the god of haptic things, maybe I'll just throw off one of my redundant remote controls, instead. One remote remote can't be bad for the environment, can it?

9.

Rene Barge

October 19, 2005, 10:43 PM

Hello,
M. Feldman made clear that sound, in itself could be a totally plastic phenomena, suggesting its own shape, design, and poetic metaphor. Those such as Ohne, not farmed contractors, use digital technologies to/with/and simultaneously delve deeper into the body. Strong visuals emerge from and of eye, site, and sound and spike into the history of Vienese Action and Action works in general.
Best,
Rene

10.

Franklin

October 19, 2005, 10:49 PM

My pleasure, Ahab. You got any room up there in Alberta? I'm led to understand that Alberta has an extremely low incidence of hurricanes.

11.

Kathleen

October 19, 2005, 10:51 PM

Morris' whole thing is too romanticized. The Grand Maker, the Architect, the Visionary--that type of crap. Puke.

On the subject of architecture for a moment: though most architects have some degree of structural training, it is usually not the wisest move to rely upon architects to do stuctural calculations. I don't know about the building code in his state, but it probably would have been the structural engineer who designed the foundation, not the architect. If it was the architect, s/he should have let the engineer do it.

But the tradition of the Grand Technician has never really gotten its romantic due then, has it? It just doesn't sound as good to complain about the engineer overlooking the sag, because the engineer uses actual numbers and formulae to discern what is needed instead of some holistic, material-based awareness.

Least romantic of all is the idea that the concrete in the foundation was mixed improperly, which would be the fault of the guys delivering the concrete. They also likely wouldn't have made a bad batch because of some material ineptitude or withdrawal of body, but because they'd overshot the delivery window and added water to the mix instead of starting all over again.

But I don't think the author is talking about his actual foundation; I think he's talking about his floor, which wouldn't have the same grandiose implications. Additionally, if he himself had mixed and poured the foundation instead of using contractors, even the inclusion of himself in the work couldn't rescue it from sagging if he didn't do the calculations right or get the proper water to cement to time ratio right.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew an awful lot about materials (he had an aesthetic material genius, in fact), did beautiful hand drawings, and had a terrible knowledge of structures. His buildings suffer because of it today. Sags, cracks, settlings, seepings. Structural nightmares.

Morris' whole schtick seems like he went to a bad-cliche clearinghouse:

and lo, the curve of a naked woman's thigh materializes out of the whiteness, and art begins to happen.

Naked woman? Check.
Art which happens, lo, as if by magic or divine insemination instead of being consciously, intentionally made? Check
Lo? Check

I also like how he blames a sketch for obstinately refusing to cohere instead of poor skill; that was awesome. Art is divine, magical and random, apparently. He's absolutely removed work from the equation at all.

Your remarks about digital tools are much more interesting than the fellow you quoted, Franklin. That guy has had a withdrawal of the mind.

12.

Franklin

October 19, 2005, 11:35 PM

Kathleen, interesting to note that Romantic impulses are not acceptable when celebratory but become likable when parsed in terms of their agonic aspects.

Call it crap if you like - I subscribe to romance and faith, and absolutely adore women's thighs. Here's to life's juicy bits! You can have your agony, your topoi, your theoretical deconstruction. Just don't think that you're any closer to the truth than Morris is.

13.

Rene Barge

October 19, 2005, 11:44 PM

One more thing,
Before I cap off a last... I can't help but wonder if after our recent history in art that some might have been informed by such recent events enough to go back with oppurtunity, such as events like Earle Brown's open works and reestablish new or "further" reason. This is America after all and capitalism makes free range chiken sound edible.
But say someone has had the oppurtunity see C. Nicolai's work and perhaps be informed or alluded to E. Brown's work and then finds a work comprable to rewrite (history) for a consumer eagerly waiting party conversation or a brain eagerly and socially detached waiting to be stired. I don't know, but have to question further because the more I read the more these possible scenarios come to into mind. This, thanks to not having to walk into a store waiting to be informed inderectly by something published. The media we wish to toss eagerly awaits us as much as we eagerly await it.
Rene

14.

Rene Barge

October 20, 2005, 12:07 AM

Well... just one more 1! and thing,
To architecture? Franklin and Kathleen, I remembered this I read earlier on from Elizabeth Wilson, 1991 after a derive passage...
'Perhaps we should be happier in our cities were we to respond to them as nature or dreams; as objects of exploration, investigation and interpretation, settings for voyages of discovery. The "discourse" that has shaped our cities - the utilitarian plans of experts whose goal was social engineering - has limited our vision amd almost destroyed our cities. It is time for new vision, a new ideal of life in the city - and a new, "feminine" voice in praise of cities.'
a side; I think of John's paintings at Dorsch Gallery and moving right towards quality works, and uninformed in this matter, but rightfully so by hopefull contemplative eyes, with nothing to support its foundation, via a basement.
Anyways, the above comes from David Toop's Haunted Weather.
Sincerely,
Rene

15.

ahab

October 20, 2005, 12:19 AM

Kathleen, you missed the whole "division of labour" angle in your pejorative extrusion of Morris' very simple illustration of a reasonable observation that there is a profound change taking place in our (human) interaction with our environment. He may have veered into territory that you deem passe, but his argument stands.

More every day it seems, we allow and even expect significant intervention in our daily all-body real-time experience of the world by wizards who wield those blander, flatter, cleaner, rule-bound and sterile media which are commonly touted to be technology advantageous to society.

Think of all the cell phones you see stuck on the sides of people's heads, pda's in their hands, mp3 players in their ears, while they're watching HD dvd's with portable PC's on their laps. There is little room in such a paradigm for serendipity - the happy accident that is rightly or wrongly attributed to the divine, fate, magic or natural flow.

If the hands-on studio artist (tormented or visionary or whathaveyou) is a romantic myth, it's a better one and more crucial to our collective quality of life than that being disseminated by marketers of the i-Revolution or the like.

As I type into the ether from my wireless laptop.

16.

ahab

October 20, 2005, 12:24 AM

You are all welcome to sit out the hurricane in Edmonton. But plan ahead if you're going to come because it'll be well below freezing tonight and every night from now until April; oh, and the Highlevel Bridge is really high. Please be safe down there in Florida.

17.

Rene Barge

October 20, 2005, 12:40 AM

Ahab,
I'm curious, are you speaking... of or to the "local only" type (far away and secluded, with only nature as some may have historically been informed of),of or to those even slightly closer to technology type (embraced or helpless or unaware to that which may become a marker of very rapid erasure) or should we suspect those at the money making top or ready for mobility bottom (who make senses increasingly susceptible and tolerant to claustrophobia)?
Rene

18.

Jack

October 20, 2005, 12:52 PM

From Willa Cather's Song of the Lark:

"There's so much that I want to tell you," she said at last, "and it's hard to explain. My life is full of jealousies and disappointments, you know. You get to hating people who do contemptible work and who get on just as well as you do. There are many disappointments in my profession, and bitter, bitter contempts!" Her face hardened, and looked much older. "If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up for it, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate! A contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be."

The novel is about an opera singer, but any serious artist could do.

19.

Kathleen

October 20, 2005, 2:25 PM

Oh, I hope I'm not romanticizing agonism, Franklin. Even so, the romanticism I am talking about in regards to Wilson has to do with the romanticism of the maker and the maker's production, and less so with the maker's product (art).

For example, it would be a disservice to the artist/maker to ascribe too strongly to the faith that art happens independently of intent; if true, then the artist/maker can never count on working hard enough to overcome the "sketch which obstinately refuses to cohere". I mean, it might be an allright diagnosis as long as it applies to someone else's work, but what if it were applied to yours (one's)? What if any of us perennially made sketches which refused to cohere?

Ahab, I'm not exactly ignoring the division of labor; personally I think labor is essential. Art is work. Skill and practice are required, no matter the media. Different media have different strengths, and in a sense, contractors are another means of making art. A faulty home can be the result of having hired poor contractors; a poor performance can likewise fail because of the contractors one has hired. There is nothing inherently disadvantageous about contractors; if there were, there would never be a building or designed object which ever approached the level of art.

In any case, the old tradition of academic art instruction treated artists as craftspeople and laborers, so this business of romanticizing their production process (divine hand business) seems incongrous to me.

20.

Franklin

October 20, 2005, 3:10 PM

That "divine hand business" is merely the product of a hostile reading of "a sketch obstinately refuses to cohere," which clearly refers to an effort that's not coming out as planned, and not some kind of gnostic confusion about agency.

21.

jordan

October 21, 2005, 5:59 AM

Beethoven had quite the hair-do (sp), yet it is comforting to me to know that he was wavering and all- over- the- place, sort of a lucky average guy.

Today greatness belongs to anyone who happens to have money. Perhapes Cezanne started that in this recent era because maybe he sucked as an artist but since he had money, those who wanted 'sum-a-dat' started talking about how great he was; kinda like 'butt-kissin' by Burke and Greenberg, and mystification which influenced Piccaso's dealer, Picasso himself and then those who had less influence and girls than him.

Today he would have been kicked out of school for being difficult, purchased a 7000 square foot loft in Manhatten, hired and then fired many helpers, tossed paintings into the dumpster including the traced 'Bart Simpson in Drag with I-pod ' and the 'Martha Stewart in Hancuffs Unable to give blessing to the new Pope while offering a Red Dildo to the Children of Brazil'.

John's new pool painting is splendid considering he was a nose guard before. I love how a large man can create such delicate and sensitive things; physical proof that feelings of a deeper and more thorough sense are contrary to peoples initial critical judgement of ones physicality and social skills.

22.

oldpro

October 22, 2005, 12:45 PM

'Martha Stewart in Hancuffs Unable to give blessing to the new Pope while offering a Red Dildo to the Children of Brazil'.

Do it, Jordan.

23.

Jack

October 22, 2005, 5:38 PM

Jordan (#21), if you're referring to the painting by John Sanchez in the group show now at Dorsch, it was one of the very few things in the gallery that interested me that opening night. I'm glad you mentioned it. It'd be nice if somebody (Brook? John?) gave Franklin an image of it to post here.

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