an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Blogger Book Club II: Two-Lane Flattop

By Matthew Guerrieri

Here’s where he really lost me:

In the restructured
modernist dynamic, the role of the beholder is to be dominsated and
awestruck by the work of art, which undergoes a sex change and is
recast as a simulacrum of the male artist’s autonomous, impenetrable
self.

Under these revised priorities, the validity of
receding illusionistic space in painting was immediately called into
question. This imaginary space had been traditionally, and quite
rightly, perceived as “community property,” shared by the work, its
creator, and its beholder. The new, modern priorities insisted that no
such community existed. The flat picture plane came to represent the
property line dividing the mundane world of the beholder from the
exalted territory of the artist’s incarnate philosophy. (pp.
41-42)

Earlier (p. 36), Hickey really lays down the law:
“Today we are content to slither through the flatland of Baudelairian
modernity, trapped like cocker spaniels in the eternal, positive
presentness of a terrain so visually impoverished that we cannot even
lie to any effect in its language of images–nor imagine with
any authority–nor even remember.”

As someone with an Ellsworth
Kelly print hanging above his piano, I can only say, this is not the
way I perceive beauty. I think the problem is this: Hickey is very
concerned about modernism’s elimination of the illusion of three
dimensions in Renaissance painting. But he doesn’t seem to be
considering that the plane of a painting is a convenient fiction as
well–all paintings are three-dimensional objects, we experience
them in three dimensions, because we experience the world in three
dimensions. And the “flat picture plane” is just as much an
illusion as Renaissance perspective.

A big difference between
the two is how that illusion changes as the work is regarded from
different angles in the real, three-dimensional world. For
traditional, representative perspective, any viewing angle but
straight on collapses the illusion. But for abstracts, the
different angles produce different images, different proportions–the
“flat plane” illusion not only holds, it enables–the illusion
of a flat picture plane makes possible manifold relationships between
the work and the viewer.

My initial reaction was that this
difference–between seeing abstraction as a boundary and seeing it as a
source of possibility–might be roughly analogous to reacting to
analysis of a piece of music and reacting to a live performance. But the
more I re-read the book, I find it hard to see how any of its
arguments about beauty and the relationship between art and audience
can carry over into any music that doesn’t come pre-packaged with a
programmatic frame of reference. This might be because the book
doesn’t ever explain what Hickey likes about abstraction–he
gives Frank Stella a hard time but elsewhere gives an approving
shout-out to Morris Louis, which is a little cognitively dissonant to
me. (I’d be really interested to know what he thinks about painters
like Seurat or Matisse.) But going on what’s there, beauty seems to be
defined at the intersection of a work’s visual pleasure and its
representative content–which I can see for representative, figurative
art, but falls apart when the content is not immediately recognizable
or easily agreed upon.

Page 71: “So we talk, because the
experience of American beauty is inextricable from its optimal social
consequence: our membership in a happy coalition of citizens who agree
on what is beautiful, valuable, and just.” I have real problems with
that one–not because I don’t think it accurately describes a lot of
the way people perceive art nowadays, but because Hickey seems to
think it a good thing. Notice that this is now shifting the viewer’s
pleasure from their viewing of the work to the crowd’s validation of
their opinion. I think this need for validation inevitably warps
artistic values to market values–but those market values aren’t a
reflection of artistic value, but of ease of marketability. On
both these counts–a privileging of representative art and a need for
like-minded validation–an awful lot of the music I find beautiful–any
music, really, that doesn’t have an obvious textual or cultural
frame–is bound to come up short, because it a) such music tends to
require a less passive interpretive engagement on the part of the
listener, which means everyone’s going to build up their own
different, individual interpretive framework, and b) music is hard to
talk about. The fact that I still experience such music as beautiful
isn’t diminished by the possible lack of a “happy coalition.” The
secret ballot is a hallmark of democracy as well.

Comments

  1. “Today we are content to slither through the flatland of Baudelairian modernity, trapped like cocker spaniels in the eternal, positive presentness of a terrain so visually impoverished that we cannot even lie to any effect in its language of images–nor imagine with any authority–nor even remember.”
    “…we cannot even lie to any effect in its language of images…” Is that a typo?
    How can I” lie to an effect in an images’ language”?
    Does Hickey mean “lie” as in “to not tell the truth” or “lie” as in “lie down cocker spaniel!”
    And how do we slither like trapped cocker spaniels?
    And what does “presentness” mean?
    I’m enjoying everyone else’s writing a LOT more than Hickey’s.
    But I’ll still be glad when you’re all done with the book :(

  2. Based on a few mentions in this interview, Hickey seems to be quite a fan of Ellsworth Kelly.

Leave a Reply

an ArtsJournal blog