Monday, June 26, 2017

TJ Clark explains the Bourgeoisie (and Petty-Bourgeoisie)

Annie Louisa Swynnerton
The Sense of Sight
oil on canvas
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

"Obviously there are difficulties in making, and sustaining, a distinction between 'bourgeois' and 'petty bourgeois' as terms of class analysis.  But I believe the distinction is real, and I do not want my talk in the text of class 'cultures' and 'formations' to give the impression that I fail to see the distinction is ultimately one of economic power.  A bourgeois, for me, is someone possessing the means to intervene in at least some of the important, large-scale economic decisions shaping his or her own life (and those of others).  A bourgeois, for me, is someone expecting (reasonably) to pass on that power to the kids.  A petty bourgeois is someone who has no such leverage or security, and certainly no such dynastic expectations, but who nonetheless identifies wholeheartedly with those who do.  Of course this means that everything depends, from age to age and moment to moment, on the particular forms in which such identification can take place.  The history of the petty bourgeoisie within capitalism, is therefore a history of manners, symbols, subcultures, 'lifestyles' necessarily fixated on the surface of social life.  . . .  No need to be oversubtle about these things.  Sometimes symbols and lifestyles have class inscribed on them in letters ten feet tall.  What could be more disarmingly bourgeois, in the old sense, than the First Class section on an international airflight?  And what more dismally petty-bourgeois than Coach?  (Those in Business Class  or what one sardonic airline calls Connoisseur  would take a bit more ad hoc class sorting, some going up, some going down.  A lot depends in this case on particular styles of corporate reward to middle management, which vary from country to country and phase to phase of the business cycle.)  Anyway, the rough balance of numbers on a 747 over the Atlantic seems to me instructive for the balance of numbers in the world at large."

Cecil Beaton
Models in front of Pollock
1 March 1951

Cecil Beaton
Model in front of Pollock
1 March 1951

"On 1 March 1951, Vogue magazine published four pages of photographs, black and white and color, by Cecil Beaton.  In them Irene and Sophie showed off a range of the season's evening dresses in front of pictures by Pollock from a show just closed at Betty Parsons.  Beaton had ideas about how the pictures and dresses matched.  He reveled in the analogy between Lavender Mist's powdery transparency  or the transparency his lighting gave it  and that of the chiffon and fan.  The fan struck a Whistlerian note.  He tweaked Irene's black cocktail dress into a to and fro of diagonals which made it quite plausibly part of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm behind.  And so on.  The effects were not subtle, and did not need to be.  Hedging his bets just a little, the Vogue subeditor informed readers that "the dazzling and curious paintings of Jackson Pollock, which are in the photographs on these four pages, almost always cause an intensity of feelings."

"The Vogue photos raise the question, then, of what possible uses Pollock's work could anticipate, what viewers and readers it expected, what spaces it was meant to inhabit; and, above all, the question of how much a structure of expectation can be seen, by us in retrospect, to enter and inform the work itself, determining its idiom.    . . .   What else, we might say, did modernism expect from the public realm?  What else did it think art was for?  What Pollock invented from 1947 to 1950 was a repertoire of forms in which previously marginalized aspects of self-representation  the wordless, the somatic, the wild, the self-risking, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, the "existential," the beyond or before our conscious activities of mind  could achieve a bit of clarity, and get themselves a relatively stable set of signifiers.  A poured line with splatters now could be taken to stand  taken quite casually  for "sustained paroxysms of passion" (1956), or "ravaging aggressive virility" (1949); another "suggests the fluids of life, intermingling, expanding and undergoing gradual chemical change" (1952); it "has an ecstatic, irritable, demanding force" (1959); it "is done in great, open black rhythms that dance in disturbing degrees of intensity, ecstatically energizing the powerful image in an almost hypnotic way" (1950); and so on."

"What do these readings of Pollock add up to?  It seems as if there are aspects of experience  and you will notice that the family resemblances between them are strong  that the culture quite urgently (and to a degree, quite suddenly) wants represented, perhaps because it sees it can make use of them; because its organizing powers have come to need a more convincing account of the bodily, the sensual, the liberated, in order to extend  maybe to perfect  their colonization of everyday life.  Of course the Vogue photographs give that process of recuperation a somewhat glib, superficial form: we think we can condescend to the models' outdatedness: fashions change, art endures.  But the process these photos glamorize is not glamorous, and not incidental: it is one that the practice of modernism knows lies in wait for it, and may prove its truth."

Hans Namuth
Pollock painting
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

"What the juxtaposition is meant to suggest is simply that abstract art has lived for much of its life in productive anxiety about the uses the culture might make of it.  In particular it has claimed (not only in 1920) that the orders art would discover by doing away with resemblance would be the opposite of easy or enticing: they would not simply be "decorative."  The claim was serious, and had real effects.  But insofar as the claim is testable by looking at what society actually did with abstract works of art, then we could say that indeed they have been thought to be decorative, and put through their paces in that spirit.  They have seemed the appropriate backdrop to ballgown and bolero, to the black-tie "do" at the local museum, and the serious business of making money."

"Of course, someone might reasonably reply at this point that any culture will use art as it sees fit, and that the very idea of art resisting such incorporation is pie in the sky.  At a certain level of high cynicism, there is no answer to that.  At other levels, a few unsatisfactory answers occur.  Yes, this idea about art's relation to its host culture is pie in the sky; but so are most, perhaps all, other ideas about art's purposes and responsibilities  art as the vehicle of Truth or transcendence, for one; art as distilling the hard possibilities of Geist; art as opening onto a territory of free play and pleasure; art as putting an end to reference and being able to live off its own resources; art as Universal and Particular (seeing the world in a grain of sand); or art as the real form  the pure expression  of Individuality.  The pie in these cases is so far in the sky as to be considerably less visible, to my way of thinking, than the pie we are looking at  the pie of resistance and refusal."  

Head of Athena (The Treu Head)
AD 140-150
British Museum

"Years ago, writing about Clement Greenberg, I quoted him saying in a footnote, by way of apology for his own artistic preferences: "It's Athene whom we want: formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension." And I added to the list other qualities we tend to associate with high art (that European episode) at its best and worst: "intransigeance, intensity, and risk in the life of the emotions, fierce regard for honor and desire for accurate self-consciousness, disdain for the commonplace, rage for order, insistence that the world cohere."  These are specifically feudal ruling-class superlatives, I said then, and ones the bourgeoisie believed (for a time) it had inherited." 

– quoted passages from In Defense of Abstract Expressionism (chapter 7 and its notes) in Farewell to an Idea by T.J. Clark (Yale University Press, 1999)