Friday, August 08, 2008

An Inner Untidiness Too Vast... be tamed by secular means

Most professional art critics accept modernism's conceit that art progresses linearly, movement begetting movement. Their promulgation of this outmoded precept is surprising and disappointing.

Art, as with all other forms of cultural development, moves in random hiccups and circles. It resembles more the wanderings of a drunken homebody than modernism's straight line ideal.

In "Feeling Blue" (The New Yorker, August 4, 2008), Peter Schjeldahl's recent review of "After Nature," a group show currently installed at The New Museum, the critic observes "something...happening in artists' studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit." He goes on to declare that younger artists are assuming "a backward crouch preceding a forward leap" because "[a]bruptly, once-settled views and values have unsettled themselves and stalk the mind."

His suggestion that a loosely defined trend is indicative of imminent sea change is tidy and exciting but, like the notion that avant-gardism is central to a healthy culture, it is misguided. Many artists - including some of those participating in "After Nature" - have been making deep, melancholic work for years. The shift of emphasis is not in their studios, but instead on the curatorial front, where the administrators of the arts industry, themselves unable to shake off the modern canon and dreams of Life magazine covers, are responding to the media frenzy around all things "eco-": ecology and economy. How many open-calls for "green-themed" group shows have we seen of late? And how many new gallery or non-profit side-projects devoted to addressing "issues of the environment"? I'm buoyed by these developments, but the impetus is managerial and directorial; the artists embraced by these new shows and venues have, for the most part, been there all along.

Near the article's end, Schjeldahl calls for a hero. "What we want now is a major artist - a Manet, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, or Beuys - who will manifest durable truths at the core of inevitable hypes and hyperboles. If none such appears, that will be a valuable datum. It will help us adjust to the happenstance that, once and finally, our particular civilization is spent." Ignoring the rhetorical overstatement, I appreciate the anxiety that Schjeldahl and other intellectuals feel. Amos Oz describes globalization as "a sort of infantilization of the entire human race." The prominent cultural historian Morris Berman argues in his book "The Twilight of American Culture" that most of what ails the contemporary world - social and economic inequality, xenophobia, declining resources and literacy, and a debilitating spiritual void - grows from our pandemic culture of superficiality and postmodern dullardism. Both Berman and Oz are right but they're also wrong. To characterize an inevitable process as infantile is itself infantile, and although the Enlightenment and it's fascist successor modernism both allowed for the championing of reason and so-called progress, the shrinking world is simply too complex for a strictly left-brained approach. It's proving difficult for our dualistic brains to accept that the good guys don't necessarily wear white.

But if Schjeldahl and the arts industry insist on a standard bearer for this flood of anxious melancholy, they needn't wait for one to appear. Werner Herzog, whose 1992 film "Lessons of Darkness" is included in "After Nature," is an influential hero to a great many younger artists, myself included. The German director and writer combines Manet's keen observation and social sensitivity with Pollock's violent, self-destructive embrace of the chthonian and Beuys' playful intellect and deep faith in the spiritual value of art. He is the "major artist" Schjeldahl calls for.

When I feel the poison mercury of misanthropy rise in me, I revisit this clip from the 1982 film "Burden of Dreams." Though Herzog's language is harsh, his observations are essentially celebratory. Sometimes, his comments are laughably bleak: "There is some sort of harmony; it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." Even so, his tone, posture and face betray a wounded sensitivity.

Watching the excerpt, I'm reminded that other people are emotionally stirred by the terrible, indifferent beauty of nature's doings. I want to embrace Herzog and his complicated mess of a mind...and I'd wager that a great many other artists do, too.

Note: The title of the post is stolen from another contributor to The New Yorker: Don Chiasson wrote of T.S. Eliot possessing "an inner untidiness too vast to be tamed by ordinary secular means" in "Fire Down Below," a review of Les Murray's poetry in the June 11, 2007 issue.

Photo credit: Still from "Lessons of Darkness," 1992, Werner Herzog; Excerpt from "Burden of Dreams," 1982, Les Blank


Michael said...

The last sentence is my favorite of the whole video:

I love it against my better judgement.

I think that is the essence of the melancholic work that you describe.

It's too bad that Herzog so often seems to be a caricature of himself. I keep expecting him to say, 'Vee are Nihilists Lebowsky. Vee believe in Nussing."

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, Herzog is his own best foil. The Lebowski nihilist routine allows him to present more dramatic, raw truths; part of me is always laughing at the melancholy clown but then, realizing what has been said, part of me weeps in agreement...even as I continue to chuckle.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, I guess he's read his Schopenhauer? "Every evening we are poorer by a day."