Thursday, August 20, 2009

From White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art



Most of the feckless, listless quality of today's art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gem-like inertia of an old-densely-wrought European masterpiece.

Advanced painting has long been suffering from this burnt out notion of a masterpiece -- breaking away from its imprisoning conditions towards a suicidal improvisation, threatening to move nowhere and everywhere, niggling, omniverous, ambitionless; yet, within the same picture, paying strict obeisance to the canvas edge and, without favoritism, the precious nature of every inch of allowable space. A classic example of this inertia is the Cezanne painting: in his in-doorish works of the woods around Aux de Province, a few spots of tingling, jarring excitement occur where he nibbles away at what he calls his "small sensation", the shifting of a tree trunk, the infinitesimal contests of complementary colors in a light accent on farmhouse wall. The rest of each canvas is a clogging weight-density-structure-polish amalgam associated with self-aggrandizing masterwork. As he moves away from the unique, personal vision that interests him, his painting turns ungiving and puzzling: a matter of balancing curves for his bunched-in composition, laminating the color, working the painting out to the edge. Cezanne ironically left an expose of his dreary finishing work in terrifyingly honest watercolors, an occasional unfinished oil (the pinkish portrait of his wife in sunny, leafed-in patio), where he foregoes everything but his spotting fascination with minute interactions.

The idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area, both logical and magical, sits heavily over the talent of every modern painter, from Motherwell to Andy Warhol. The private voice of Motherwell (the exciting drama in the meeting places between ambivalent shapes, the aromatic sensuality that comes from laying down thin sheets of cold, artfully cliche-ish, hedonistic color) is inevitably ruined by having to spread these small pleasures into great, contained works. Thrown back constantly on unrewarding endeavors (filling vast, egg-like shapes, organizing a ten-foot rectangle with its empty corners suggesting Siberian steppes in the coldest time of the year), Motherwell ends up with appalling amounts of plasterish grandeur, a composition so huge and questionably painted that the delicate, electric contours seem to be crushing the shale-like matter inside. The special delight of each painting tycoon (de Kooning's sabre-like lancing of forms; Warhol's minute embrace with the path of illustrator's pen line and block print tone; James Dine's slog-footed brio, filling a stylized shape from stem to stern with one ungiving color) is usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece. The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of over-ripe technique shrieking with preciosity fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist's signature, now turned into a mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today's esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art.


Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators (Laurel and Hardy, the team of Howard Hawks and William Faulkner on the first half of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep) seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture, but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

The most inclusive description of the art is, that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
Laurel and Hardy, in fact, in some of their most dyspeptic, and funniest movies, like Hog Wild, contributed some fine parody of men who had read every ''How to Succeed" book available; but, when it came to applying their knowledge, reverted instinctively to termite behavior.

--Manny Farber (1962, Film Culture)

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