Nice Diary - 22 Dec 2011

Clancy went to work, I to the Léger museum. Seeing his big crude pictures whilst I am reading nobel psychology laureate Daniel Kahnemann's book 'Thinking fast, thinking slow' put what I wrote yesterday into perspective. Kahnemann talks about our two ways of seeing: the first glance and the considered reflection, which he calls (irritatingly) ‘system 1 and system 2’, but I would prefer to call 'prima facie' & 'second thought'.

What falls into place for me is that Léger and most subsequent 'art lite' is all prima facie stuff. Hunt as you will in Léger's work that isn't anything else: it's all WYSIWYG – and that has been the baseline for everything afterwards: this is art in the age of moving images, if it doesn't hit you at once, forget explanations– the artist has already lost you.

(In auditions you can tell the moment someone walks in the door if they are right for a part: if so the gig is theirs, tho they don’t yet know that, and all they have to do is be an idiot or so incompetent as to talk themselves out of it: contrariwise, you know just as surely if someone is not right and even the most brilliant auditon won't help them get the part. If only someone would explain this to actors how much grief could be avoided!)

In Léger I see the ideas and shapes as being about a clever manipulation of the semiotics of modernism. In his early work you see him trying for a style, but once he has found it the work becomes both more assured but also lazier and cruder, as if he no longer really needed to bother about meanings, because everyone ‘gets’ him – he has become a brand, as we would say today.

By a misfortune returning from Biot to pick up Clancy at the Diacosmie I got funneled onto the Voie Rapide and so was swept away from the banks of the Var where I'd been due to meet her and deposited on the other side of Nice. Luckily one of the Opéra drivers was available to take her home, so I decided to head onto Cimiez for my third attempt at finding the Musée Matisse. There I found what confirmed the thesis I've been evolving here – which is that Matisse was a key figure in what might be called ‘high concept’ art (to borrow a phrase from the film industry when a movie pitch can be summarised within a single breath). The reduction of high art to a single gesture, by stripping away ornament just as the International Style had stript ornament from architecture. From Matisse one can trace the progressive reduction of moral content, ie ‘intentional meaning’ in art. It’s interesting that dealers played off Picasso against Matise between the wars, to the extent that one of Matisse’s earliest collectors sold all his works to ‘get into’ Picasso ahead of the market.

Of course Picasso /Matisse /Léger had a full range of craft skills: but in subsequent generations these have become progressively attenuated until we reached the present position where Tracey Emin is appointed professor of drawing at the RA, no less – & it's far from certain she even knows how to hold a pencil, let alone use it!

Where this comes back to is the issue that if there is no otherness in art, no duende, nothing intangible that the artist is seeking to transmit, then WYSIWYG. There is only prima facie consciousness and no oppositio compensandum as Jung might have said: nothing with the roots that descend beneath the niveau mental, and correspondingly nothing that rises above it.


Nice Diary - 21 Dec 2011

I suggested we visit MAMAC (Musée d’art moderne & d’art contemporain) as we went by it and I imagined it would have a café for lunch. The museum is in the rear part of the National Theatre of Nice – a 70s complex built over the river Paillion in a style that can most favourably be described as misplaced optimism. Climbing the stairs to get there was as much as Clancy could manage. We sat in the foyer area and looked at the catalog. With a few exceptions it just looked like the biggest pile of tat imaginable. Seeing the American-inspired pop and post-pop artists they had we both thought simultaneously that future ages will look at this ugly rubbish and think “what were they are on?"

Before leaving Id watched Andrew Graham Dixon's series on modern American art and a thought arose from what he said; namely that most of the guys who 'hit' in the 50s & 60s saw themselves as outsiders. However, so long as they were outsiders they had a relationship with an ‘inside’ against which they were rebelling that anchored them a kind of counter balance – but once they themselves with all the dissidence and alienation were hailed as the true inside then there was no longer anything left to counterbalance their innate negativity or inner rebellious anarchy. So with their betes noires overthrown they themselves were in the position not merely of having all their dreams come true but of foisting those dreams on others – which is the unique privilege of the ‘insider’ in the mainstream. But that was a trap for them and society as a whole: for there was no longer any archetypal criteria of beauty. Their own conception of ‘beauty’ (aesthetically desirable) was an anti-beauty that they traced back to Duchamp, and really only existed as an anti-beauty – for it had within it no ‘sustainable’ aesthetic rooted in human psychological archetypes. But once they and their successors who desired to emulate their success began to believe their own publicity they were trapped in a mythography of ‘anti-beauty’.

Stumblingly, I'm trying to talk about Dharma in the arts – the sense of what we sense as truth or authenticity or vertu about and within an aesthetic experience. It is governed by one’s instinctive response/s to what the Japanese call shibui, the aesthetic of perfect economy, and/or GM Hopkins idea of ‘inscape’ – what irreducibly inherent within a work of art. If I call this ‘beauty as truth’ I don’t in any sense mean mere prettiness, I mean ‘what is primordial within a realised form'. The Sanskrit word satya is useful here, for it is used to denote truth but it literally means ‘what is enduring’. How long a thing persists in human experience is probably the best, if not the only, validation.

Ive always seen The Rake’s Progress as representing a comparable turning point in music, and it can be no accident that its 1951 premiere is roughly contemporaneous with what Dixon was describing in art. IMO The Rake’s Progress ushered in a whole sequence of composers who were misled by Stravinsky's brilliant gestures and surfaces but utterly failed to understand that the operatic medium demands the evocation of archetypal emotions as sine qua non and so English composers such as Goehr, Blake, Maw and others composed a kind of anti-opera which, while it may have been ‘good music’ utterly failed in its raison d’être as Opera. The old magician Stravinsky, like Nick Shadow in TRP, pulled off the emotion trick himself, but /and succeded in seducing a whole generation of composers who followed this false dharma and effectively shunted the whole ‘modern opera’ scene off into an art ghetto – as also happened to jazz.

As I write I have been listening to one of Frank Perry's tracks – a guy who really knows everything there is to know about dharma in music. And then on came Django and Stephane. The way Django keeps the sound live through an almost vocal vibrato is the playing of someone who understands that evoking empathy is 90% of entertainment.