Paul Klee

Fire in the evening, 1929, MoMA

I saw a Klee exhibit at the Orangerie this weekend. I was blown away yet again.
Unfortunately I can post no images from there, so this is a work that I have not actually seen, but which I do love and will hopefully go see at MoMA sometime soon.



At the Pompidou, I'm working on my second article. My first was on Lee Bontecou, and this one is on Magdalena Abakanowicz. Both were chosen almost at random, because I simply don't know enough modern/contemporary art history to know really what I like, who I like, who I want to learn about. These two artists were picked because, from a sample size of one or two works, I found them interesting.
They are both scuptors. They also share a lot. It was while starting on the Abakanozicz piece that I realized how similar they were in many superficial ways - color choice, for instance - that may or may not reveal something about my taste, but also in two very important areas, theoretically speaking.
When we think of highly formalist art, we think of art that is sterile - either the oh-so-carefully rule-bound compositions of academicism, or the constructivist dream of art devoid of culturally contingent connotations - an attractive vision to be sure, but one which is doomed to end up totally devoid of meaning, if it could ever succeed. Yet art that is not formalist in some sense cannot be good art.
What do I mean by formalist, then? I mean art that sincerely engages with and reveals its form, its medium. Art that does not try to make a whole, a self-sufficient statement, or to conceal the secret of its making, but admits its materiality. This can express itself in different ways.
Lee Bontecou's early work consists of welded structures to which she tied canvas with wire, and include at least one black hole. See the image at left (Untitled, 1959, welded steel, canvas, black fabric, and wire, 147.5 x 148.5 x 44 cm, MoMA.) The work engages its materiality in many ways.
The roughness of the steel, the wire stitching, show you how the work was made. It shows you the physicality of the frame and the canvas which are usually hidden in a painting - the work comes out of its materials rather than being imposed upon them. It reminds you of what canvas is, how it is a thick, rough fabric with that we use in our daily lives, in our clothing, our tents, our machines. It reminds us that the canvas fades and decays.
At the same time, the work challenges us to rethink illusionism. Because it has real relief, because the black hole really is a hole, it reminds us that painting is flat, even if it seems to go beyond itself into three dimensions. It uses the rules of proportion in what could be an illusionistic manner but it is actually physically extant. Yet it also exaggerates its relief, challenging our conceptions of sculpture as a superficial object in space.
So her work, existing between both painting and sculpture, challenges the formal conventions of both in a way that subverts our expectations and embraces, to transcend, its limitations as an art object.

Abakanowicz does something similar in her very process-dependent sculpture, which revels in the accidents of its making and degradation, either made of organic material or successfully transforming an inorganic material like bronze into a living thing.



In my H&P class last semester, the class found the following passage in Origins of Totalitarianism puzzling:
Property by itself, however, is subject to use and consumption and therefore diminishes constantly. The most radical and most secure form of possession is destruction, for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours. Property owners who do not consume but strive to enlarge their holdings continually find one very inconvenient limitation, the unfortunate fact that men must die. Death is the real reason why property and acquisition can never become a true political principle. A social system based essentially on property cannot possibly proceed toward anything but the final destruction of all property.
It is true that the passage seems surprising - nothing had prepared us for this - and quite muddled. Is it the finiteness of property or of life which poses a problem? Why is the fact that property is subject to use a challenge to property while destruction is an affirmation of it?
At the same time the passage seems to speak the truth, or at least it certainly resonates to me, and reminds us of much about the Nazis - Hitler ordered that Paris be destroyed - and in general - live burial of wives/slaves/horses with prominent dead.

I later came across a similar sentiment in Simone de Beauvoir, more explained. Her argument is essentially that property is a way to alienate yourself - i.e. to project yourself onto the physical world, the other, so as to have an object to grip when you think of yourself. The problem is that in this sense property is impossible - nothing every belongs to anything else, nothing ceases to be what it is which is itself and therefore not yours. Being in a shaky relationship to property, we seek to replace the unattainable with exclusivity. If everyone else acts as though something is yours, i.e. with the respect that they show you, then the ownership at least seems to be true.
Now it is easy to see that the only sure form of exclusivity is through destruction - and it may be that the only true form of property is destruction which is acknowledged to be rightfully done. So what seems to be a paradox - what we have destroyed is not safely and forever ours because it is not - is resolved. It does allow a crack in at the security of destruction-as-ownership, in that people not acknowledging your right to destroy the thing are destroying the social framework that allows you to pretend to ownership - but that will never be actualized in the physical world as it could be by theft before.


Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem

I just finished that wonderful book by Hannah Arendt. In addition to providing absolutely chilling reminders of the way a moral system can seem to be turned upside down and the resulting terrifying "banality of evil," she poses several questions in the epilogue and postscript which remain very troubling.

What separates a genocide, e.g. the Shoah, from a numerically equivalent or, indeed, greater mass murder?
Her answer, which is the most concise and illuminating I've read, is an explanation of the phrase "crimes against humanity," which she would have us rephrase "crimes against the human status." Genocide attempts to deny cultural diversity, which is one of the central facts of the cohabitation of humanity on Earth, as well as of the human status. It attempts to deny the capacity of different groups to define their own space and their own relations to each other. Genocide, especially when as in the Shoah it is part of a general genocidal worldview, is an attempt in the end to make genuine human interaction impossible by destroying the Other facing which we ought to interact. Of course such crimes are made particularly horrendous by being attached to mass murder, but there are other ways the aim can be achieved. One thinks of language death.

"Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner." Mme de Stael. To understand is to forgive. While the phrase is a commonplace, it seems no less true that, at the point when one can tell oneself "I would have done the same" one has forgiven (regardless of whether one would forgive oneself had one done the same) because one feels incapable of judging. On the other hand, the truly incomprehensible (e.g. the psychopath) causes revulsion but not true condemnation. How, then, is it possible to judge?
Arendt finds in present-day society an unwillingness to judge individual actions or people, an unwillingness to render verdict or punish. To her, this marks the abandon of justice. The word justice, indeed, is her answer. That justice must be served is self-evident, and for this we must judge, despite our frailty.
The difficulty for the judge is that he must accept the irreducible strangeness of the other person while attempting to understand. He must accept that there was a choice and therefore responsibility and therefore something to judge - and he must be willing to say "there but for the Grace of God go I."

There. I've butchered Arendt enough. I find her work endlessly fascinating and troubling, and difficult to summarize or tighten up. Which, of course, it should be.


Happenings, noticings

I have been home for well over a month and time, as it so often seems to, has vanished. Days blend into a routine.

When that happens sometimes the dumbest little things you notice become meaningful.
On Sunday I went for a ride on my bike - I got a bit less than half of the distance to PA from Princeton - and I saw a biplane that had clearly taken off rather recently. It was pretty cool. It looked like a toy.
Today Chloe and I were heading home when we noticed a house we had never seen before, relatively large. We were attracted to it because it was empty, run down, its garden overgrown, even the for-sale sign seeming dejected. It was L-shaped around a driveway/courtyard space, an inviting house.
Looked it up - $1.4 million. Actually, sadly, for a five-bedroom house on a sizeable property in Princeton with a view on the lake... that's almost cheap.
Funnily the first thing I thought was - someone should take it over and squat there. No good letting it go to waste.