It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps
The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….
why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?
What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)
I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.
Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.
No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.
And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.
I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:
I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)
I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links
‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)
I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.
Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.
It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.
Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:
I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)
He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.
For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to
nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)
He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.
This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:
There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs
display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)
There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.
An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.
Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:
Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)
I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.
Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.
One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)
What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.
We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)
How fucking limiting that would be.
What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)
I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.
I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)
I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.
Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Julie Johnson’s book The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 is wonderful. She writes:
The Memory Factory, refers to Vienna as a site for fabricating history. Vienna was indeed a place where intellectuals and artists ‘thought with history,’ and participated in providing their own historical narratives (P 3, quoting Schorske 1998).
I’m working on writing something on Vienna, and everything written about fin-de-siecle Vienna is about men. Men, men, more famous men. There are some mentions of the women who stand by them but mostly those who betray them. God, that Alma Mahler. There is a sprinkling of mothers. It wouldn’t be surprising if women couldn’t flourish in the arts in such a climate of misogyny as Johnson details on these pages (and that is detailed on many another page, believe you me).
But they did. A splendid few, their work is amazing. This is a book that looks both in depth at their work, its connections to a wider modernist movement and to the art of Vienna of the period, an art book. But it also looks at how these women have been removed from the canon, removed from accounts of Vienna, removed from galleries, and erased from our understanding of the past. She quotes Trouillot’s work on the erasures of the Haitian Revolution, which is one of the books I love most. That is about erasure of resistance to Empire and white supremacy. There is a whole field of work on the erasure of women I did not yet know. There is Joan W. Scott, who
believes all history writing depends upon identification — a selective delving into the past–in a process that uses fantasy to create coherence out of chaos. The repetitions or ‘echoes,’ of history are part of this process: there are inevitable distortions that occur over time and over the generations, but identification is required for these repetitions to take place. This is as true for the established canon as it is for new research on women artists. (4)
These repetitions are key in building understandings of history. The amount of work on certain artists and pieces adds to their aura and position, which can become so exaggerated that others are erased. The Memory Factory.
Such examples from the discipline of art history support the proposal of some historians that memory is by definition repetition. (4)
There opens a memory gap where women’s participation slowly becomes invisible — how else to explain the false understanding that women did not exhibit art publicly in fin-de-siecle Vienna when arguably they were more prominent then than they often are now? That astonishes me, actually. This is not a project rescuing competent artists who were never enough appreciated because of their gender, though that would be worth doing. Nor is it fighting for wider appreciation of more ‘feminine’ and interior domestic scenes as high art the way Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin’s separate spheres model is used to explain the aesthetics of Morisot and Cassatt. In Vienna, it is a project uncovering works of astonishing strength and power that were much admired and displayed and copied in their time. It’s uncovering modernist art of landscapes, nudes, still lifes, challenging portraits…nothing in short, that does not achieve excellence within the very male canon.
Their loss from descriptions of Vienna’s fin-de-siecle glory is rooted not just in misogyny, but also in Vienna’s antisemitism and all of WWII’s erasures. A fascinating example of how much was lost is that in 1977 an exhibition of women artists from the Renaissance to the 1950s was held in Vienna, that was
credited with launching new research that has led to changes in the canon, now visible in the inclusion of women artists in survey books and virtual memory systems for students of art history.
It took them 5 years and the women described it as starting from scratch. In 1910 a very similar exhibition was held and very successfully, bringing together art from around Europe as well as showcasing working artists. It was put together in only 6 months…between these two dates there was clearly an erasure, not least of the documentation of the earlier exhibition.
So it is not just in the processes of creating memory we must look, but on the processes that erase it, how women have been excluded.
Another interesting note? Over one-third of the Kunstschau exhibitors in 1908 were women, as were members of Schiele’s Neukunstgroup in 1909. (164) For Museum of Modern Art’s International Survey of Painting and Sculpture in 1984, only ten percent were women. (247)
The exclusion of women from art’s history appears to have been favourable for men’s prominence in major exhibitions.
There are some interesting concepts of identity and the way gender parallels race as well:
Kutluh Ataman, one of many contemporary artists who deal with how race is represented, has put it aptly: “I do not think identity belongs to the individual. Identity is like a jacket. People you never see will make it and you wear it. Identity is something other than you, outside of you. It’s a question of perception. You can be aware of it and manipulate it, play with it, amplify it, or mask it for infinite reasons.” (10)
For Eleanor Heartney, identity
is like a reflection in still water–it is only clearly visible until you reach out and try to grasp it in your hand.
I rather like those two, I need to think more about them.
I also realised I will throw around the words modern and Modernism occasionally, but have never been entirely sure what official (and I am sure contested) definitions of those might be as it is not especially my field. So I found it interesting that Vienna is
characterized as birthplace of modernism, but only in fields outside the history of art–in cultural studies, philosophy, science, music, psychology, architecture, and literature… By Modernism with a capital M, I refer to the doctrine articulated best by Clement Greenberg: that the best art is self-critical about its own medium and is autonomous.(10)
Thus material takes precedence over subject, so for Greenberg Manet is the 1st Modernist painter as the paint came first for him — Klimt on the other hand uses allegory, combination of abstraction and naturalistic bodies.
By “autonomy” Greenberg meant freedom from social context and politics. This is why the white cube space of the art gallery is so well suited to sowing modernist works–it removes them into an aesthetic vacuum, where the works relate to each other in a historical progression. (11)
Freedom from context and politics… that is quite fascinating as a definition as well, that wouldn’t have occurred to me though in thinking about art for arts sake and views of the life and role of the artist I see it has been there lurking in my head to some extent all the time. Aesthetically some of the most prominent women, Koller, Luksch-Makowsky, Funke and Blau are clearly part of and pushing the modernist canon, though as women they have been systematically left out of it.
The idea that women were not part of Modernism, and only became important public artists in the postmodern phase, had become a truism in the history of art by 1986. This study aims to correct that misperception. (13)
And it does, artist by artist.
She had a significant public exhibition record, was given a studio in the prater (a beautiful central park) where the World Exhibition had been held together with another (male) artist named Schindler, in 1879 it became all her own. She was singled out by Prince Regent Luitpold and he regularly visited her there.
It’s important to remember that artists in Vienna never saw themselves as breaking away politically from anything at all. As Johnson remarks later.
Unlike Berlin, where a rift between the avant-garde and the government was an expected part of life, in Vienna the approval of the emperor was a crucial endorsement.
Tina Blau won this endorsement, thus she was envied by her peers and former teacher Shaeffer (who again and again is seen to be working to denigrate his female students and bury their work away from public gaze). He even describes her in a rather nasty review as the student of Schindler, when he knew better as her actual teacher that the artists had simply shared studio space. She was innovative and brought impressionism to Vienna, had pictures rejected by the Kunstlerhaus as being too progressive, drew amazing landscapes, was very successful in Paris — yet never seen as part of movement. Johnson argues part of that was the mythologies created by the secession artists themselves around father-son relationships, and brotherhood. They couldn’t bear the idea of a mother-son relationship in art, so Blau could not be seen as an early forerunner of their movement or part of Modernism itself.
Yet Spring in the Prater — and all of her paintings — are wondrous. This was bought by the emperor.
Above all I love that her paintings show women in public space and unlike the men, she shows they could inhabit public space without being whores. A number of the artists who are women do that. I wonder if that was infuriating.
She was retiring, never wanted her work associated with gender, but did attempt in her 50s to correct misperceptions of her life and work. She taught at the Art School for Women and Girls, and one of her students was Rosa Mayreder, one of the most well-known feminists of the time, who published a wonderful review of her work. Tina Blau responded thus, in a way that breaks my heart a little but emphasises why reviewing people’s work is very important indeed even beyond the highlighting of excellence and the repetitions that ensure work is known and remembered:
…no one has written like you have, and I will read your article again when I am sad and depressed about the lack of success that I was supposed to get used to and that I did get used too: and then I would agree with you, that my way of being carries some of the blame. (37)
A street was named after her. When she died in 1916, numerous celebrations of her life were held, and in 1933 there was a retrospective exhibition.
Then in 1938 all her paintings removed from galleries as she was a Jew. The street name changed, her name was erased. And then there were those constructing the histories of art in this period, influential art critic Julius Maeier-Graefe for example:
A woman with genius? The thought gives one the shivers. Unhealable sickness, a kind of elephantiasis. (26)
She had her own signature block as part of secession group of artists — her husband was a member and she worked to all intents and purposes as one also, though without voting rights. She was on their hanging and design committees for the Raumkunst installations, her work always appearing there.
She also participated in art collectives Wiener Kunst im Hause and the Wiener Werkstatte.
She was responsible for an entire issue of their in-house magazine Ver Sacrum showing her amazing woodcuts — though somehow this is an issue not reproduced in glossy collections. She drew on Russian folktales and stories for these, along with broadsheets and a whole array of crafts. This is one of her more famous paintings, and it is arresting, below is the painting as it was integrated into the 17th secession exhibition:
For all of these women, for a time, Johnson argues Vienna was cosmopolitan and diverse and actually did offer possibilities for women working as public artists. Pictures such as this one were celebrated.
And ‘public art’? These wonderful friezes:
She moved with her husband to Hamburg, and during difficult times of inflation and war, Luksch-Makowsky trapped rabbits, gardened, harvested, made everything at home.
She too excluded from histories — Johnson points out not by the Klimt group itself, but by contemporary historians.
…when she was rediscovered in the 1980s, she was described as a “painting housewife”
Johnson writes, yet
…she was a serious artist who presented her work in no fewer than forty-six art exhibitions…
Koller was a member of Klimt’s artist association (Kunstschau group), a founding member of Egon Shiele’s New Secession. She was often to be found at the Cafe Museum with Klimt, Wagner, Moser, Hoffman et al, and noted as one of ‘the greats’ in at least one diary. Her focus was much more on interiority — named by Schorske as
a key component of the aesthetic of Vienna 1900, and links developments in interior design to the psychological discoveries of Freud and innovative interior monologues of Arthur Schnitzler.
Interesting that in the 1980s, the label of domesticity and decoration seen as opposite of modernism — of interiority? They were seen as secluded, cocooned, away from the outside world and its risks. Away from the crowds. This is a difference between art emerging from Vienna and that of other key centres — for the artists of Vienna, it was all about art in life, art as part of life.
Klimt, in his opening speech for Kunstschau 1908, declared the unity of his group and their belief that:
no area of human life was too insignificant or narrow to offer space for artistic striving, that in the words of Morris, even the most unseemly thing, when it is perfectly made, adds to the beauty of this earth, and that progress in culture is founded on permeating life with artistic intention.
where reason prevailed, unlike the crowds of the street. In Bahr’s scenario, the interior was gendered as masculine and calm while the exterior figured as feminine and unruly, dominated by the unknowing masses. This is the opposite of the Baudelairean vision of public and private, masculine and feminine domains… (134)
Again to return to the interesting division between this kind of view and its inclusion of craft and decorative detail and that of more traditionally understood ‘Modernism’ (I know I need to dig more here into how other people understand this) as opposed to this, where instead:
the decorative, the add-on, the nonessential, and the detail’ as ‘the foil for Modernism, which was seen as adventurous, daring, out in the world, and an art that is avant-garde, autonomous, essential, and self-critical’
For Koller there was no such binary really. And look at these:
The female nude was a genre that allowed the avant-garde to distinguish themselves from conservative artists in the nineteeth century. It became a vehicle for making claims to the new, which Modernist artists often did…
I love this painting, how different this slightly awkward pose, this returned gaze between model and artist — not about sex but just, ‘is this the pose you want?’ Maybe a little, ‘are you done yet?’
How better to challenge the genre? I love this one too:
The book looks at how these pictures influence Shiele, Erwin Lang, how influences of women’s art upon men are never acknowledged.
Funke was part of Matisse’s circle in Paris, lived in an apartment building there with Gertrude and Leon Stein. She enjoyed great success in Vienna, but survived the years of inflation and war by becoming a cleaning lady. Fauvist art is not perhaps my favourite, but she was a brilliant artist on the cutting edge of that tradition working there in Vienna, exhibiting there in Vienna, celebrated in Vienna. Then forgotten.
I love this one though, playfully responding to the art of male gazes and women on display.
Ries’s fortune was made when the emperor himself singled out her statue of ‘The Witch’ during an exhibition, and asked to speak to her. Critics quickly changed their opinions of a female sculptor.
The witch is uncanny and truly splendid.
Her Eve is beautiful as well.
The Prince of Lichtenstein allowed her to use a grand suite of rooms next to his picture gallery as her studio. Being Jewish, this studio was later plundered, her history erased, and her statues hacked and defaced.
Better to remember the ugliness of which fascists are capable, but Teresa Ries at her best. Her Lucifer, sculpted years before Rodin’s Thinker:
Like here in her studio with Mark Twain.
There was Olga Wisinger-Florian, an accomplished impressionist painter herself after a career as a pianist was cut short by an injury to her hand. I love this painting:
More women in public space, talking amongst themselves, not being whores. Wisinger-Florian exhibited widely both in Vienna and Europe, and worked tirelessly to promote the exhibition of women’s paintings. With Marianne Eschenberg she formed the ‘8 Women Artists’ in 1901, curating a highly successful exhibition at the Salon Pisko. They would hold annual exhibitions. She was also active in the Association of Women Writers and Artists of Vienna (VSKW) founded in 1885, formed to ‘promote professional interest and eventually to offer a pension plan for women artists in need.’ This parallel the self-help offer of men-only artists unions.
There was the Art School of Women and Girls, where Tina Blau and a number of secessionist artists taught. Its graduates formed the Radierclub Wiener Künstlerinnen, or Print Club of Women Artists in 1903, ‘to promote the arts of printmaking in Austria and “win new friends” for the graphic arts by publishing original hand-pulled prints in affordable portfolios.’
I adore their logo.
There was the Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ), founded in 1908 and recognised and supported by the State as an art association. Interestingly, many of the women, both in the exhibitions held by the VBKÖ and ‘8 Women Artists’ felt ambivalent about them, hoping they would act more as a key to opening up the men-only artist groups to women’s membership rather than remaining as separate and gendered institutions. As Johnson writes of the VBKÖ, ‘The group wanted to prove that being separate was a mistake…If the exhibition were successful, the VBKÖ would “no longer be necessary.”‘ (278)
They faced a great challenge, however, despite the success of some in exhibiting alongside men. Above all the strange layers of misogyny floating around Vienna at the time. One of the most curious that of Otto Weininger, who wrote Sex and Character as a thesis that barely passed, but became a huge publishing success in 1903. He had a strange, partly even possibly progressive argument that everyone had some masculine and feminine essence within them through gendered plasma particles coursing through the bloodstream (crikey), but that genius and intellect alone belonged to the male. So successful women ‘were actually dominated by the “M,” or masculine, substance. Something in between a man and a woman.
There were other ideas about how painting was similar to applying makeup, which attracted women to it and defined their painting technique. There is also the narcissism of themselves on display, the love of gaudy colour and fabric. One reviewer of the 1910 retrospective of women’s art described how the pictures seduced the ‘unsuspecting male’.
He credited members of the installation committee with “feminine slyness and clever calculation” in their ability to “capture the visitor…Before a critical word has formed on the lips, a conciliatory, friendly, receptive mood has been awakened in the spectator. (318)
Adolf Loos himself in his polemics against the ornamental and decorative wrote:
Whenever I abuse the object of daily use by ornamenting it, I shorten its life span . . . subject to fashion, it dies sooner. Only the whim and ambition of women can be responsible for the murder of this material. (322)
Which makes you hate him. But then, surprisingly, he also comes around with the argument that:
Ornament is something that must be overcome…But we are approaching a new and greater time. No longer by an appeal to sensuality, but rather by economic independence earned through work will the woman bring about her equal status with the man. The woman’s value or lack of value will no longer fall or rise according to the fluctuation of sensuality. Then velvet and silk, flowers and ribbons, feathers and paint will fail to have their effect. They will disappear. (80)
This conversation ended with the Nazis. Johnson writes by 1945,
approximately three generations of women artists had been — for racist or political reasons, rarely aesthetic ones — erased, driven into exile, deported to concentration camps, their works removed from museum walls and public settings. (337)
This was the destruction of both women’s artwork, and women themselves, as well as the history of women as public artists. Only in 1988 did Austria recognise it was not just a victim of the Nazis, but participated in their cleansings. Given that many of the same collaborating artists, museum personnel and critics continued operating there was little hope of recuperating and recovering women’s art removed from walls and studios, much less that of Jewish women. It seemed that it has been many of their children who have worked hardest to save what could be saved, and to bring their work to the public once again.
The highlighting and constant repetition of certain stories of art in Vienna, the functioning of the memory factory, meant the silencing of others. There is so much here both in terms of extraordinary art, but also around memory and forgetting, historiography, identity… wonderful.
[Johnson, Julie M. (2012) The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900. West Lafayette, IN: Perdue University Press.]
Richard Neutra wrote ‘Man loves to immigrate to the south, or to conquer it.’ Interesting encapsulation of one aspect of the European/American desire — probably best explored through his own words, and not a celebratory book of his work.
Another of the few personal insights to be found here: when he met Frank Lloyd Wright at Louis Sullivan’s funeral in Chicago, he said ‘It was like coming into the presence of a unicorn’.
I lived in L.A. forever and never really knew who Neutra was, an opportunity missed.
This is a good introductory description of his work (incomplete, of course, as he was still at work during its writing), a good introduction to what works about his style, why it was so innovative and the spaces he created so beautiful, flowing almost without break from inside to outside. I prefer roundness and more organic materials, but I still love these houses. Almost unexpectedly, as so many talentless hacks have taken his squares and glass and reproduced them cheaply and ad infinitem.
There are, of course, a couple of cringeworthy moments (yet really, when will I be able to stop saying ‘of course’ when it comes to white professionals and their attitudes towards race, poverty and housing?). The brief discussion of his design for the ‘Negro and Mexican housing’ for one. All the politics of Chavez Ravine ignored in the presentation of his plans for the original housing to be developed there by the Housing Authority (but much as I know about that, I had forgotten it was Neutra had designed it… still, they never even say the words Chavez Ravine, only Elysian Park), and a celebration of urban renewal in the demolition of a ‘slum’ to be replaced by Neutra designed parking. Even that it’s Neutra-designed doesn’t reconcile me.
Still, I love how this has set me thinking about space and how we inhabit it. His designs for Rush City I find rather chilling, a vast city of modernist skyscrapers, yet part of me wishes it had actually been built just to see how something like that would work.
I loved this book, loved Marshall Berman and his provocations on how capitalism and literature and our strivings in the world are intertwined, loved how a new dialectic is brought into Marxist thought and this is tied into our dreams for the future and our visions for a full life, loved that its is grounded in the pain, and yet excitement and vision too, of capitalist destruction. Entirely dialectical, restless, searching, wary of solutions and ‘end stages’ and static utopias. It is also entirely based on the voices of white men, frustrating, especially in the chapter on under-development. At the same time it manages to capture, I think, what is both great and what is terrifying about capitalism and its visions, and since these emerge from white men I forgive it this focus. I’m glad it’s done. I don’t think it needs to be done again.
It’s based around this wonderful quote from Marx:
To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, value, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities (13) for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something even as everything melts (13-14).
What I love about Marx, this book, and this aspect of Modernism itself I suppose, is the understanding that the drive to profit through exploitation must be fought, yet that everything is flux and process and overwhelming odds and even so we must ‘be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change the world and make it our own’. I agree in the feeling that this is something that has slipped away from many Marxists and many post-Modernists alike. Berman continues:
Meanwhile, social scientists, embarrassed by critical attacks on their techno-pastoral models, have fled from the task of building a model that might be truer to modern life. Instead, they have split modernity into a series of separate components – industrialization, state-building, urbanization, development of markets, elite formation – and resisted any attempt to integrate them into a whole. This has freed them from extravagant generalizations and vague totalities—but also from thought that might engage their own lives and works and their place in history (33-34)
He critiques the over-totalisation of Foucault as well, its all-encompassing microcosms of power without discussion of struggle against them, and this is where my own frustrations lie. I am all about how we fight I realise:
Foucault’s totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like the turn of the screw (34).
Berman has also convinced me to re-read Goethe. I was at most 17 when I last/first read it, and only remember it wasn’t the camp devil-meets-man-who-sells-his-soul I was expecting, so I am curious to see what I think now. Especially after Berman’s uncovering of so much of the soul of capitalist dreams here, their beauty along with their deadliness. This is such an amazing attempt to really grapple with the fascinations and promises of capitalism, so much a part of its longevity, surely one of its great supports alongside the misery and destitution and destruction it creates.
Faust begins in an epoch whose thought and sensibility are modern in a way that twentieth-century readers can recognize at once, but whose material and social conditions are still medieval; the work ends in the midst of the spiritual and material upheavals of an industrial revolution. It starts in an intellectual’s lonely room, in an abstracted and isolated realm of thought; it ends in the midst of a far-reaching realm of production and exchange, ruled by giant corporate bodies and complex organizations, which Faust’s thought is helping to create, and which are enabling him to create more (39).
This is an interesting insight as well, about how this process took place:
One of the most original and fruitful ideas in Goethe’s Faust is the idea of an affinity between the cultural ideal of self-development and the real social movement toward economic development (40).
There is a freedom for self-development promised by all of these vast and tumultuous changes capitalism was bringing to the landscape. I am sad that the only voice of women in here is via Goethe in the form of Faust’s love Gretchen, but Berman does draw out the tragedy of her situation and that of all women in the period bound up in strong webs of social rules and limits. She is a fairly flat and pathetic construction (I shake my fist at the sky), but embodies this process of modern times that is still happening today. I left home too, didn’t I:
Gretchen’s successors will get the point: where she stayed and died, they will leave and live. In the two centuries between Gretchen’s time and ours, thousands of “little worlds” will be emptied out, transformed into hollow shells, while their young people head for great cities, for open frontiers, for new nations, in search of freedom to think and love and grow…Unwilling or unable to develop along with its children, the closed town will become a ghost town. Its victims’ ghosts will be left with the last laugh (59).
Modernity contains this promise of self-fulfillment, that we can be
…like Faust himself, tätig-frei, free to act, freely active. They have come together to form a new kind of community: a community that thrives not on the repression of free individuality in order to maintain a closed social system, but on free constructive action in common to protect the collective resources that enable every individual to become tätig-frei (66).
Of course, this comes with huge cost. People stand in the way of progress, refuse to sell their land or give up their traditions. Two older people are murdered to pave the way for Faust’s plans, revealing that
It appears that the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development works (68).
An interesting window opened up into why people do bad things, and how that stays within them. It is a personal choice, but also something larger:
But there is another motive for the murder that springs not merely from Faust’s personality, but from a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogenous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace (68).
I love, too, the understanding that it is not just greed or self-interest driving Faust, but vision. This seems to me one of the most important insights Berman gives us, allowing us to understand not just the tragedy of capitalism, but also the tragedy of those initially socialist societies we have known in our times:
If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism (72).
He uses Saint-Simon as an example, with his ‘long-range development projects on an enormous scale’, and states:
It is only in the twentieth century that Faustian development has come into its own. In the capitalist world it has emerged most vividly in the proliferation of “public authorities” and superagencies designed to organize immense construction projects, especially in transportation and energy… (74)
The section ends with this, a sentence that challenges us to think about where we stand ourselves:
Faust’s unfinished construction site is the vibrant but shaky ground on which we must all stake out and build up our lives (86).
Then he turns to Marx in a most innovative and provocative way that I loved as much as his analysis of Goethe. A few choice quotes that turn around traditional understandings of Marxist thought:
We will soon see how the real force and originality of Marx’s “historical materialism” is the light it sheds on modern spiritual life (88).
Marx can shine new light…he can clarify the relationship between modernist culture and the bourgeois economy and society–the world of “modernization”–from which it has sprung (90).
Although Marx identifies himself as a materialist, he is not primarily interested in the things that the bourgeoisie creates. What matters to him is the processes, the powers, the expressions of human life and energy: men working, moving, cultivating, communicating, organizing and reworking nature and themselves–the new and endlessly renewed modes of activity that the bourgeoisie brings into being (93).
I think this is precisely the power of Marx’s thought. And I love where this insight takes us:
Alas to the bourgeois’ embarrassment, they cannot afford to look down the roads they have opened up: the great wide vistas may turn into abysses. They can go on playing their revolutionary role only by denying its full extent and depth. But radical thinkers and workers are free to see where the roads lead, and to take them. If the good life is a life of action, why should the range of human activities be limited to those that are profitable? And why should modern men, who have seen what men’s activity can bring about, passively accept the structure of their society as it is given? Since organized and concerted action can change the world in so many ways, why not organize and work together and fight to change it still more? (94).
Going back to the main quote about melting into air, I think this understanding of what we fight is pivotal, because change is intrinsic to capitalism which benefits from it, but as part of our own interior selves it must also be part of what we build to replace it:
Our lives are controlled by a ruling class with vested interests not merely in change but in crisis and chaos. “Uninterrupted disturbance, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” instead of subverting the society, actually serve to strengthen it. Catastrophes are transformed into lucrative opportunities for redevelopment and renewal; disintegration works as a mobilizing and hence an integrating force (95).
If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid (100).
Thus where Marx sees a stable communist, collective sharing society that needs to be formed, Berman argues that these dynamic forces within us will still work to destabilize any future solidity, and any attempts to hold and control this change will only serve to damage and ossify what we have won.
But the problem is that, given the nihilistic thrust of modern personal and social development, it is not at all clear what political bonds modern men can create. Thus the trouble in Marx’s thought turns out to be a trouble that runs through the whole structure of modern life itself (128).
Another key understanding is the way that capitalism changes and survives through incorporation and subsummation:
When Marx says that other values are “resolved into” exchange value, his point is that bourgeois society does not efface old structures of value but subsumes them. Old modes of honor and dignity do not die; instead, they get incorporated into the market, take on price tags, gain a new life as commodities. Thus, any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible, becomes “valuable”; anything goes if it pays. This is what modern nihilism is all about (111).
This is just a lovely quote that summarises modern society:
How Marx ‘develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them: the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined: a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations (121).
Berman returns to literature specific to Paris as he examines Haussman and Baudelaire, the tensions between celebrating everyday life of the people, making the city better, redeveloping some things out of existence while creating the possibility for growth and positive change. This is from the poet Theodore de Banville’s tribute at Baudelaire’s grave:
He accepted modern man in his entirety, with his weakness, his aspirations and his despair. He had thus been able to give beauty to sights that did not possess beauty in themselves, not by making them romantically picturesque, but by bringing to light the portion of the human soul hidden in them; he had thus revealed the sad and often tragic heart of the modern city. That was why he haunted, and would always haunt, the minds of modern men, and move them when other artists left them cold (132).
On Haussman’s work in Paris:
…it opened up the whole of the city, for the first time in its history, to all its inhabitants. Now, at last, it was possible to move not only within neighborhoods, but through them. Now, after centuries of life as a cluster of isolated cells, Paris was becoming a unified physical and human space (151).
And it is here in Paris we meet the ‘modern man’ (and man it is), see the obsession with crowds, traffic, movement, change:
The archetypal modern man, as we see him here, is a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal. The burgeoning street and boulevard traffic knows no spatial or temporal bounds, spills over into every urban space, imposes its tempo on everybody’s time, transforms the whole modern environment into a “moving chaos.” The chaos here lies not in the movers themselves…but in their interaction, in the totality of their movements in a common space. This makes the boulevard a perfect symbol of capitalism’s inner contradictions: rationality in each capitalistic unit, leading to anarchic irrationality in the social system that brings all these units together (157).
This was so reminiscent of the film Cairo Drive it was a little spooky. This life and art to be found in traffic is such an interesting thing:
…poets will become more deeply and authentically poetic by becoming more like ordinary men. If he throws himself into the moving chaos of everyday life in the modern world — a life of which the new traffic is a primary symbol — he can appropriate this life for art (160).
And I love this way of thinking about streets, how they have changed, how they are defined by us and define us, how they make new ideas of collectivity possible:
For one luminous moment, the multitude of solitudes that make up the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people. “The streets belong to the people”: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own. For a little while the chaotic modernism of solitary brusque moves gives way to an ordered modernism of mass movement (164).
I like thinking about the shifts in how encounters take place in the street:
for most of our century, urban spaces have been systematically designed and organized to ensure that collisions and confrontations will not take place here. The distinctive sign of nineteenth-century urbanism was the boulevard, a medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth-century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of mdoernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism’s name (165).
And I really like what he likes about Baudelaire, though there is more to dislike:
a will to wrestle to the end of his energy with modern life’s complexities and contradictions, to find and create himself in the midst of the anguish and beauty of its moving chaos (170).
It is a desire to live openly with the split and unreconciled character of our lives, and to draw energy from our inner struggles, wherever they may lead us in the end. If we learned through modernism to construct halos around our spaces and ourselves, we can learn from another modernism — one of the oldest but also, we can see now, one of the newest — to lose our halos and find ourselves anew (171).
There’s a whole chapter on St Petersburg, which gave me a long list of Russian authors to read or revisit (you know I loved that), and was interesting but I didn’t feel it compared to the first two chapters. Perhaps because it is looking at those societies who haven’t gone through this upheaval, who are stuck or behind in terms of development. A good thing to do, but he tries to make the same kind of sweeping statements, using Russia to potentially understand the rest of the world which I think is a really bad idea. Really. Bad.I won’t go into vastly different histories of ‘discovery’, colonialism, slavery, genocide, centuries of outside exploitation, the solidifying of structural racism and etc.
That said, I was quite delighted to find a discussion of the impact that Crystal Palace, South London’s own Crystal Palace, had on some key Russian authors (why don’t I remember this from Dostoevsky?) and utopian thought. I’m looking forward to thinking more about that. There was also an amazing word brought from English into Russian: infiltrazya – Soviet word expressing the fear of the ‘flow of new words and things from other shores’. Awesome.
Anyway, this comes back to its own when it comes back to NY and Marshall Berman’s beloved Bronx, destroyed through these very forces he is working to describe. He wrestles here with what made the destruction of his neighbourhood possible, and I haven’t really read people wrestling with this before though I think it is so vital:
It is easy to dwell endlessly on Moses’ personal power and style. But this emphasis tends to obscure one of the primary sources of his vast authority: his ability to convince a mass public that he was the vehicle of impersonal world-historical forces, the moving spirit of modernity (294).
And this spirit of modernity twisted in odd, and I think fairly terrible ways. Killing one of its sources:
the makers of the post-World War One “modern movement” in architecture and urbanism turned radically against this modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, “We must kill the street.” (317)
Le Corbusier is on my list, but I have read Jane Jacobs, I like what Berman finds of import in her writings:
Much of her intellectual authority springs from her perfect grasp of the structures and processes of everyday life. She makes her readers feel that women know what it is like to live in cities, street by street, day by day, far better than the men who plan and build them.
But our critique is much the same:
It seems to me that beneath her modernist text there is an anti-modernist subtext, a sort of undertow of nostalgia for a family and a neighborhood in which the self could be securely embedded, ein’feste Burg, a solid refuge against all the dangerous currents of freedom and ambiguity in which all modern men and women are caught up…
And really the problem?
…no blacks on her block. This is what makes her neighborhood vision seem pastoral: it is the city before the blacks got there. Her world ranges from solid working-class whites at the bottom to professional middle-class whites at the top… (324)
Ironically, one could say the same about Berman really.
Returning to what makes wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods possible, one of the things I loved most — and that must have been so hard to write — is the soul searching he does, wondering if his family would have voluntarily left the Bronx if they had not been evicted. If it had not been destroyed by Moses, would his family have followed the same path of white flight/ advancement with all of their neighbours? Would the Bronx have been destroyed through this flight of resources just as surely as other areas?
For the Bronx of my youth was possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility. To live well meant to move up socially, and this in turn meant to move out physically; to live one’s life close to home was not to be alive at all. Our parents, who had moved up and out from the Lower East Side, believed this just as devoutly as we did–even though their heart might break when we went. Not even the radicals of my youth disputed this dream…when you see life this way, no neighborhood or environment can be anything more than a stage along life’s way, a launching pad for higher flights and wider orbits than your own (326-327).
Rethinking this, better planning for it or I think better yet changing it, is something radicals certainly need to think through.
I leave you with the last sentence:
I believe that we and those who come after us will go on fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air (348).
[For even more on Berman and the role of the intellectual, you can read here. Also I apologise for not having the willpower to go back over this blog post and removed the overabundance of love that it suffers from perhaps.]
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.