Unprimed Canvas

Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses

CM363_GAs other reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses (Entre Paréntesis, Anagrama, 2012) note, the posthumously published collection of the writer’s articles, essays, speeches and other writings isn’t a pretty thing. And not that Bolaño was ever too concerned with form and beauty, but this amalgam of texts dating from 1998 to 2003 is particularly devoid of the kind of narrative coherence found in his novels. Which–don’t get me wrong–isn’t a bad thing. And not only not a bad thing, but, this being mostly a collection of journalistic writings, to be expected from a text of its kind. In this respect, Between Parentheses might unwittingly be Bolaño’s most postmodern, poststructuralist and/or schizophrenic text: for one (though only in the strictest sense of the term), its author isn’t really Bolaño–the texts are all the writer’s, but as a posthumous publication it was Ignacio Echeverría, Bolaño’s literary executor, who selected and organized them [1]; because of the diverse nature of the writings, the book lacks a cohesive narrative and can be best described as collage-like, a series of independent fragments that don’t quite cohere into a whole; and, lastly, Between Parentheses is also the closest thing we’ll get to a Bolaño autobiography, to an unfiltered view of the writer’s mind at work. But Bolaño wasn’t a postmodernist, and there is plenty of the author’s distinctive style to be found in the 350 or so pages of Between Parentheses–which I don’t think anyone would deny is largely the writer’s appeal.

Not that the content, the subject matter of the various writings in Between Parentheses doesn’t matter–I’ll get to that in a minute–but there is no question that much of Bolaño’s allure lies in his prose, as much in what he says as in how he writes. He did, after all, consider himself a poet first and foremost, and if there is one thing that Bolaño carried over from his poetry-writing days to the short stories and novels (and, as demonstrated by this collection, journalistic pieces) he wrote in his forties was a prose that remains as idiosyncratic and mysterious as impenetrable. In a New Yorker: Fiction podcast episode from 2011, Daniel Alarcón argues that for many young writers the appeal of Bolaño’s writing resides in its ability to describe a mood or atmosphere without really saying anything or without anything significant happening plotwise [2]. I would tend to agree with this assertion. So, despite the fact that a good chunk of Between Parentheses is about literature, poetry, writers and writing, much (though not all) of Bolaño’s prose here somehow manages to be as political, ethical and atmospheric as that of his more narrative undertakings. For fans of Bolaño, this should be reason enough to pick up this book.

As far as the contents of Between Parentheses, the bulk of the writings found here are journalistic pieces Bolaño published in Spanish and Chilean newspapers toward the end of his life (the book’s title is borrowed from that of the column he wrote for the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias), while the provenance of the rest of the texts is varied. Included are the author’s last known interview with the Mexican edition of Playboy, the speech he gave upon receiving the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives, and various prologues and prefaces he authored. These are all organized into six non-chronological sections, an organizing scheme that works as well as any other given the diverse nature of the texts. Also worth noting is that fact that it is not a coincidence that the writings in this volume only span half a decade, from 1998 until Bolaño’s death in 2003, as it was not until the publication of The Savage Detectives and subsequent critical acclaim the novel received that Bolaño’s fame began to grow, and with it, invitations to give talks and write columns.

From the book’s first section, “Three Insufferable Speeches,” the Caracas Address stands out for Bolaño’s candid comments on writing and literature. In response to an unidentified writer who claimed that “the homeland of a writer … is his language,” Bolaño retorts: “a writer’s homeland isn’t his language or isn’t only his language, but the people he loves. And sometimes a writer’s homeland isn’t the people he loves but his memory. And other times a writer’s only homeland is his steadfastness and his courage” [3]. And a bit later he describes great writing as the “ability to peer into the darkness, to leap into the void, to know that literature is basically a dangerous undertaking” [4]. Though upon first impression hyperbolic, for anyone familiar with Bolaño’s background and concerns these statements fit well within the writer’s ethos. In this regard, it isn’t surprising that Bolaño ends the speech by aligning specific political, ethical and philosophical positions with the (honorable) profession of the writer; in great poetic fashion he confesses that, “to a great extent everything that I’ve written is a love letter or a farewell letter to my own generation” [5].

The book’s second section, on the other hand, is comprised of a dozen or so columns Bolaño wrote on the occasion of returning to his native Chile in 1998. Though he states in the book’s preface that, “my only nationality is Chilean,” he had what can only be described as a conflicted relationship with his country of birth [6]. At fifteen Bolaño left Chile with his family for Mexico and came back for a brief period in 1973 to support Salvador Allende’s leftist government. In September of that year, however, Allende’s government was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces, which captured and kept Bolaño in custody for a week or so on charges of extremism. After being rescued by two former classmates (or so the story goes), he returned to Mexico, where he lived for a few years before moving to Spain in the late 1970s [7]. He did not return to Chile for two and a half decades, and it was upon setting foot again on Chilean soil that he wrote the various pieces include in this section of the book. Among these, “Fragments of Return to the Native Land,” “The Corridor With No Apparent Way Out,” and scattered passages describing his visit with Nicanor Parra are worthy of note. It is also in the last piece of this section, “On Literature, the National Literature Prize, and the Rare Consolations of the Writing Life,” that Bolaño famously disparages the work of Isabel Allende (Salvador Allende’s niece), one of Chile’s better known and popular living writers; he writes: “Allende’s work is bad, but it’s alive … It won’t live long, like many sick people, but for now it’s alive” [8].

The next section, “Between Parentheses,” comprises the bulk of the book and includes Bolaño’s published columns from 1999 through 2003. As newspaper pieces, these are mostly short and come across less as researched and prepared texts than as diary entries–their tone is candid and relaxed. Though the theme of literature and writing is predominant among them, as opinion columns the format’s freedom allowed Bolaño to speak his mind about anything and everything–he writes about a pastry cook friend from Blanes, his local bookshop, childhood memories of growing up in the south of Chile, his editor, Berlin, planes, movies. On the other hand, the columns on writers and writing are diverse within the constricted universe of literature; recurrent topics include Latin American and Chilean literature–the latter of which he describes as “an endless nightmare” [8]–the classics, surrealist, nihilistic or absurdist novels and poems, and too many writers, both dead and alive, to list here. If there is anything the reader learns from this section is that Bolaño considered himself a Latin American writer through and through; his opinions regarding Latin American literature’s past, present and future are some of the most fervent in the entire book–no doubt because for Bolaño literary and political choices and positions go hand in hand.

“Scenes,” the book’s following section, consists of a grouping of pieces Bolaño wrote about specific places. These pieces are part diaristic and autobiographical, and part fictional and narrative. In “Beach,” for instance, Bolaño writes about undergoing methadone treatment for heroin use and the surreal scenes he witnesses at a nearby beach–see footnote [7]. This short piece hinges on the use of a unique narrative strategy–one that Bolaño used to great effect in The Savage Detectives and 2666–in which the writer describes in an ominous and foreboding way the witnessing by a character (in this case Bolaño himself) of a seemingly banal event. Plagued by a sense of anxiety and impending doom, stories such as this one exemplify Bolaño’s aforementioned ability to evoke an ambience or mood around the most trite of events–I also just realized that the 5-page story consists of a single, unbroken sentence, which surely adds to the effect. This excerpt should exemplify what I’m talking about:

“… she was fat, or round, and must have been about seventy, and he was thin, or more than thin, a walking skeleton, I think that was why I noticed him, because usually I didn’t take much notice of the people on the beach, but I did notice them, and it was because the guy was so skinny, I saw him and got scared, fuck, it’s death coming for me, I thought, but nothing was coming for me, it was just two old people, the man maybe seventy-five and the woman about seventy, or the other way around, and she seemed to be in good health, but he looked as if he were going to breathe his last breath any time now or as if this were his last summer…” [9]

Also worth a mention from this section is “Fateful Characters”–an essay included in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the photographs of Chilean artist Sergio Larraín in Valencia, Spain–if only for the following line, which is worthy of its own Bolaño story: “The killer sleeps as the victim photographs him” [10].

The fifth section is comprised of pieces written on assignment, such as prefaces and reviews, all on literary topics. From this section I thoroughly enjoyed “The Brave Librarian,” a sort of homage to Borges in which the Argentine’s name isn’t mentioned once. (We learn in Between Parentheses that Bolaño’s writer is Borges and his poet/anti-poet is Parra.) Lastly, the sixth section is largely autobiographical and includes four pieces in which Bolaño discusses his young and adult life in the context of his literary influences. He talks about stealing books, tells how Camus’s The Fall “saved me from hell and plummeted me straight back down again” [11], gives advice on writing short stories–“It’s best to write stories three at a time, or five at a time. If you’ve got the energy, write them nine at a time, or fifteen at a time” [12]–and confirms what the reader of The Savage Detectives already knows: “[The Savage Detectives] tries to reflect a kind of generational defeat and also the happiness of a generation, a happiness that at times delineated courage and the limits of courage. … I believe there are as many ways to read my novel as there are voices in it. It can be read as a deathbed lament. It can also be read as a game” [13]. The interview with the Mexican edition of Playboy, possibly the last one he gave, is an essential read, too.

Sure, not all of Between Parentheses is as consistently gripping as some of Bolaño’s best novels–for instance, the pieces where the writer discusses lesser-known Latin American literature; much of which, I have to admit, I have not read–but as demonstrated by the various writings I’ve discussed, there’s enough substance and meat and enough of Bolaño’s prose here to make this worth a read–and in the case of some of the pieces, a re-read. Having said as much I have to say about the book, I’ll end with its beginning, the epigraph chosen by Echeverría which serves as a homage to Bolaño, but which also, in my opinion, expresses with great accuracy the power of Bolaño’s words: “Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength” [14].

Notes

[1] For the purists, Echeverría notes in the introduction that before his untimely death, Bolaño hinted a number of times at the idea of publishing his journalistic writings–though surely Bolaño’s version of this collection would have been different from Echeverría’s; [2] http://www.newyorker.com/ online/2011/03/28/110328on_audio_alarcon; [3] Roberto Bolaño, Between Parentheses, New Directions, 2011, p. 34; [4] Ibid; [5] Ibid, p. 35; [6] Ibid, p. 16; [7] as this New York Times article suggests, Bolaño’s past might not be as tumultuous as the writer would like us to believe; [8] Between Parentheses, p. 110; [8] Ibid, p. 124; [9] Ibid, p. 261; [10] Ibid, p. 280; [11] Ibid, p. 344; [12] Ibid, p. 350; [13] Ibid, p. 352; [14] Ibid, p. 13.

Art and Forgeries

A recent essay published in The Brooklyn Rail by Blake Gopnik got me thinking about a number of things–art, the experience of it, forgeries, appropriation. The text is partially a response to an essay by Alva Noë, which itself in part addressed an earlier New York Times piece by Gopnik. In this last text, published in November of last year and titled “In Praise of Art Forgeries,” Gopnik argues (no surprises here) in defense of forgeries–needless to say, a contentious position. He makes the following points: forgeries could be thought of as artworks artists didn’t get around to making; if they’re good enough to fool experts, then maybe they’re just good enough; fakes remind us that art depends on “the ideas of artists, not necessarily on their actual hands”; they also help tame the art market by scaring off speculators–a tenuous claim at best; and, lastly, forgeries “teach us to doubt connoisseurs,” since whenever a fake fools the eye of an expert, it reminds us that, “the whole idea of a unique artistic ‘touch,’ along with the ideal of ‘authenticity’ that goes with it, may be beside the point in our understanding of art”–surely Gopnik’s most sensible insight in the entire piece. He ends by noting that the idea of the forgery is a modern concept, and that forgers “help preserve modern art’s productive uncertainty” [1]. (I have to admit I’m not sure what this last point is supposed to mean.)

I’ve been thinking about and looking at art for some time now and the issue of the fake or forgery has never been one for me–or, rather, it was only something I grappled with when, years ago, I first became acquainted with art theory, or later on in graduate seminars. For those us that have gone through school in the past two or three decades and have some familiarity with art theory, the issue of originality, of the original and the copy, is an old and settled one–right? Here, I’m thinking of Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Rosalind Krauss’s “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” along with a number of artistic practices coming out of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde that throughout the 20th century contested modernist notions of authorship and originality. Also, the stakes of the issue today, as exemplified by Gopnik’s piece, are, at least to me, just not interesting, mainly because they don’t concern me or anyone I know: how “fakes” affect the art market, whether some collector got fooled into buying a fake. (Though none of this should be surprising in an age when reports on the state of the art market and news of record-breaking art auctions pass for art criticism.) Fake Rothkos might make for an interesting story, but surely there are more important things going on in the world–if not in my life. The only instance I can think of when I (and I’d venture to guess, most graduate students and recent grads) am confronted with the original/copy dilemma is when at the supermarket I have to decide between a brand name product and its presumably subpar knockoff.

And yet, having said all this, the issue of the forgery remains an interesting one. Not, pace Gopnik, because of the ways forgeries might affect the art market or “help burst our art bubble,” but because the issue has a real philosophical angle, one that touches on a number of questions that are still relevant today and worth talking about. Noë’s essay, “Art Placebo,” which is in part a response to Gopnik’s piece, addresses some of these questions. Noë’s text starts with a contentious proposition that is tangentially related to the question of forgeries: if art, he argues, is whatever art experts decide it is, then it follows that art is a sham. In other words, if forgeries can manage to fool even those most qualified and pass as art, then fakes are as good as originals, and, by the same logic, originals are as good as fakes.

Moreover, if what art is is nothing but what someone with some degree of power or knowledge decides it is, then art is the very opposite of, to put it one way, an experience separate from every other human experience–which is how I think Noë conceives of art when he says that there might be “no such thing as art,” as surely he’s not doubting the very real and material existence of art objects, but, rather, putting traditional views of the ontological status of art on trial. This kind of skepticism in regards to art, Noë continues, can be found in more sophisticated form in the belief that the experience of art can be reduced to, and potentially reproduced by, mere neurological activity. The argument is that, “works of art trigger experience, and experience is a neurological effect. … Art produces aesthetic experiences the way pills affect the body’s chemistry.” If all of this so, “we can’t draw a meaningful line between what is and what is not art,” and neither the object nor the experience of art can be singled out [2].

This position can be polarizing, as some of the more conservative branches of art criticism along with much of the art market are sustained on the belief that there is something that makes an object worthy of the label “art” and another one not. To illustrate this position and complicate the issue, Noë brings up what is possibly one of the most contentious texts of 20th century art criticism, Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood.” According to Fried, Minimalist sculpture, which came into being in the 1960s and was characterized by its use of industrial materials and a general deskilling of artistic activity, was anything but art. Minimalism, he argues in the 1967 text, “conceives of itself as neither [modernist painting] nor [sculpture],” and “belongs … to the history almost the natural history–of sensibility” [3]. Fried qualifies Minimalism as theatrical and art-like (but, again, not art), and condemns it by being concerned with “the duration of the experience,” with the fact that “the experience in question persists in time” [4].

Noë correctly identifies that through this argument Fried makes two significant claims in regards to the ontology of art: that the art object is different and separate from other objects (one gathers from his argument that, for Fried, artworks must be aesthetic), and that the experience of art is 1) visual and 2) rooted in the present, as if taking place outside of time. (Fried also suggests at the end of the essay that painting and sculpture’s condition “of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present,” is what other modernist arts, such as poetry and music, aspire to. This, of course, to suggest that the visual arts are the highest form of art [5].) Before continuing, I have to say that whether one agrees with Fried or not, the impulse define and demarcate the limits of one’s object of study, whether a valid enterprise or not, should be in anyone’s eyes a reasonable pursuit.

Noë’s alignment of the question of the ontology of art, and all and any doubts that come with it, with Fried’s condemnation of Minimalist sculpture remains interesting for reasons that transcend art market anxiety. As he correctly identifies, part of what Fried feared and rejected in the experience of Minimalist sculpture was an engagement other than visual with the art object, whether it be psychological or phenomenological: “One could say that Fried criticizes theatrical art because it conforms to the psychological trigger theory of the neuroscientist” [6]. I find the connection that Noë draws here particularly interesting as it was, as far as I know, not until the mid-1970s that Minimalism was discussed in terms of psychological engagement–Fried doesn’t use the prefix psycho- once in the entire text.

In Krauss’s 1976 essay Objecthood, she argues that Joel Shapiro’s sculptures, “seem to be in perpetual retreat because they are simultaneously present within our space and infected by memory. It is this what characterizes them as psychologized objects” [7]. And in 1977, borrowing from Krauss’s text, Douglas Crimp’s by now canonical exhibition and text Pictures further aligned the experienced of Minimalist sculpture with mental activity. In the exhibition’s catalogue text Crimp speaks of a transformation and reinvestment of Minimalism’s theatrical dimension into the “pictures”–films, photographs, and performances–of Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo and Sherrie Levine: “If many of these artists can be said to have been apprenticed in the field of performance as it issued from minimalism, they have nevertheless begun to reverse its priorities, making of the literal situation and duration of the performed event a tableau whose presence and temporality are utterly psychologized” [8]. And, lastly, a more recent instance in which Minimalism has been read as partly engaging a psychologized experience is Howard Singerman’s essay “In the Text”: “From the beginning [Fried] read Minimalism as Crimp did its successors. … he psychologized the terms of duration and read Minimalism as a narrative” [9].

In regards to Pictures, Fried’s anxiety about the psychologized experience of Minimalism was to be found a decade later in the work of a group of artists that had internalized many of the lessons of the 1960s and the 1970s–and there were many. By then, 1) skepticism toward traditional nations of the art object and its originality was a given, and 2) in addition to Minimalism’s critique of the modernist traditions of the author (through artistic deskilling) and the art object (through a rejection of aesthetic concerns), Pictures work also destabilized the modernist assumption of art’s seeing subject as a passive, neutral receiver of visual information, as an eye. The various techniques of cultural appropriation by the likes of Goldstein, Levine, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince help support the first claim. Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, Levine’s After Walker Evans, Goldstein’s MGM and Prince’s Cowboys, readymades for an age of new media, complicate the original/copy dialectic by furthering the notion that meaning resides as much in semiotic form as in the way (and in the contexts in which) this content is presented.

In regards to the second claim, Minimalist doubt in regards to traditional notions of art had, by the late 1970s, transcended anxieties about artworks and artists to include pressing concerns regarding the art viewer. As Hal Foster notes, “for minimalism considers perception in phenomenological terms, as somehow before or outside history, language, sexuality, and power,” leaving out “a crucial concern: the sexual-linguistic constitution of the subject” [10]. It was not until the mid- and late-1970s with Pictures that both the object as well as the subject of art were destabilized and put under scrutiny. In the world of theory, it was Lacan’s conception of the gaze in 1970s that complicated modernist trust in perception. Again, Foster: “Seen as (s)he sees, pictured as (s)he pictures, the Lacanian subject is fixed in a double position” [11]. Some of Sherman and Levine’s late 1970s pieces can serve to exemplify this “double position.” Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and Levine’s After Walker Evans and Sons and Lovers are all series of images that address their viewers as beings within history, language, sexuality, and power, images that see as much as they are seen.

Others, like Goldstein, continued Minimalist and Post-Minimalist questioning of truth in vision and experience. Some of Goldstein’s late 1970s installations/performances, such as Burning Window and The Murder, included staged, simulacral environments that sought to trigger the same neurological connections that real instances of these “events” would, complicating notions not only of visual truth, but also of experiential truth. If an artwork such as Robert Morris’s Untitled (Battered Cubes) from 1965 upsets viewers’s visual, perceptual expectations–the four “cubes” of the piece are not quite cubes–by the 1970s Goldstein’s Burning Window not only questions whether an object can fool the eye, but whether an environment can fool the brain. In Goldstein’s description of Burning Window, he notes: “This spectacle, which may be felt ambiguously both as ‘real’ and as a ‘cinematic’ illusion, calls into question the ‘truth’ of visual experience” [12]. If indeed experienced at once as “cinematic” and “real,” the experience of Burning Window would confirm psychology and neuroscience’s skepticism about art [13].

It isn’t surprising that after discussing Fried’s doubts regarding 1960s Minimalism, Noë’s text then turns to questions of the art market, art criticism and to Gopnik’s New York Times piece. It isn’t because, as I said earlier, it is among the least progressive circles of the art world–the art market and, unfortunately, some of today’s art criticism–that the question of originality remains an issue. Noë argues against Gopnik’s belief that fakes are as good as originals, not, however, by engaging with the question of what constitutes art, but by reevaluating the task of the connoisseur/critic. He contends that Gopnik misrepresents the task of the art expert: “The connoisseur or critic, crucially, is not a measuring instrument, a kind of authorship- or value-detector,” someone merely capable of recognizing a Rembrandt from a fake. Rather, he argues, the task of critics and connoisseurs is to make artworks “intelligible to oneself and another,” to “make sense, and … give you the tools you need to make sense too” [14]. I take issue with this line of thinking because it perpetrates traditional notions of authorship and originality, only here it isn’t Rembrandt’s hand that constitutes authenticity, but the critic’s words. Noë ends the piece by claiming that, “It is the work of the connoisseur/critic—whether professional or amateur—to discern what a work is doing and so what work it is” and, moreover, that, “We are all critics” [15]. So which one is it? Are we all connoisseurs/critics or do we need critics to give us the tools to make sense, to discern what a work is?

Lastly, I am skeptical of Noë’s belief in the possibility of a “more positive, non-mythological conception of the connoisseur” [16]. And this in part because I object to the notion that the terms art connoisseur and art critic can be used interchangeably. Though this might simply be a semantic disagreement, it is one that I find important to address as it might yield some interesting insights. I share Gopnik’s view and definition of the art connoisseur, and mainly because I would qualify the task of the connoisseur as merely detecting value, and by that, continuing to breath life into the outmoded modernist notions of authorship, originality, and style. I borrow this definition of the term from Edgar Wind’s “Critique of Connoisseurship,” in which the art historian traces the history of the practice back to the 18th century and identifies it as a product of the Romantic Period. By seeking to identify an artwork’s “authentic touch,” connoisseurs, Wind tells us, “as a rule, are over-anxious not to let the artistic experience run its full course, but to arrest it at the highest point of spontaneity” [17]. I would define what Noë hopes the connoisseur/critic to be–someone who can teach us a different way of looking at something–as an art critic.

Differentiating between criticism or critique and commentary of a work, Walter Benjamin said:

“Critique is concerned with the truth content of a work of art, the commentary with its subject matter. … If, to use a simile, one views the growing work as a funeral pyre, its commentator can be likened to the chemist, its critic to an alchemist. While the former is left with wood and ashes as the sole objects of his analysis, the latter is concerned only with the enigma of the flame itself: the enigma of being alive. Thus the critic inquires about the truth whose living flame goes on burning over the heavy logs of the past and the light ashes of life gone by” [18].

Though the task of the connoisseur and that of Benjamin’s commentator are hardly the same, the passage elucidates the significance of criticism in contrast to mere commentary or attribution. Also, it reminds us of how insignificant issues such as authenticity are in light of everything art objects can tell us as objects, objects with their own lives and histories, and not as somebody’s object. This reveals, perhaps, the greatest crime of forgeries: not that in their aesthetics or formal qualities they are any less valid or accomplished than originals, but that they pretend to be something they’re not.

Notes

[1] Blake Gopnik, “In Praise of Forgeries,” New York Times, November 2, 2013; [2] Alva Noë, “Art Placebo,” The Brooklyn Rail, December 18, 2013; [3] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, 1995, p. 117. In an unrelated note, I wonder if Fried had read Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,'” from three years earlier, by the time he wrote “Art and Objecthood”; I am in no way comparing Minimalism and Camp, but I find it interesting that Sontag opens the essay by describing Camp as a sensibility. Come to think of it, in “The Other Side of the Wall” George Baker explores the relationship between these two “sensibilities”: “Camp fixates on the Minimalist object’s surface. It makes Minimalism purple. Or it makes it shiny. … Camp might then value Minimalist surfaces as ‘superficial,’ but it also invests these surfaces in depth: Camp likes Minimalism’s fakeness, revels in its extreme challenge to nature. Camp turns Minimalism into theater, into so many duplicitous stage sets ripe for the enactment of ‘drama.’ Camp takes a Minimalist form and makes a bar of it, throws an imaginary party around it. Camp makes Minimalism festive. Camp turns Minimalism into objects of decor, into furniture or things to be used.” (October, Spring 2007, p. 130); [4] Ibid, pp. 144-145; [5] Ibid, p. 146; [6] Noë, “Art Placebo”; [7] Rosalind Krauss, Critical Perspectives in American Art, 1976, p. 26; [8] Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October, 1979, p. 77; [9] Howard Singerman, “In the Text,” A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation, 1989, p. 160; [10] Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” The Return of the Real, 1996, p. 43 and p. 59; Hal Foster, “The Return of the Real,” The Return of the Real, 1996, p. 139; [12] Jack Goldstein, Jack Goldstein, 2002, p. 161; [13] See Whitney Davis, “Neurovisuality” (nonsite, June 12, 2011) for an art historical take on some of these issues; [14] Noë, “Art Placebo”; [15] Ibid; [16] Ibid; [17] Edgar Wind, “Critique of Connoisseurship,” Art and Anarchy, 1963, p. 50; [18] Quoted in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 2007, pp. 4-5.

After Art by David Joselit

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After Art (Princeton University Press, 2012) by David Joselit is a small book with a big argument. In barely over one hundred pages the art historian contends for what amounts to be nothing less than a critical shift in the way art historians, critics, and artists should be thinking and talking about art in the 21st century. According to Joselit, the conversation about contemporary art needs to shift its emphasis from the making and exhibiting of artworks to their life and circulation outside of the confines of hermetic art contexts, which is where, he argues, the true power of art and images resides today. So the “after” of the book’s title functions here less temporally than as a marker of significance: as opposed to the temporal break signaled by the post of postmodernism, “after shifts emphasis to [the art object’s] effects–its power” (p. xv). In short, Joselit (perhaps optimistically) conceives of the life of images after art as a great resource of untapped power and potential.

He further argues that the exigence of this shift is based on the changing conditions of contemporary art and images in the 21st century, “conditions of circulation” that he summarizes under the moniker of “Image Explosion”–which also serves as the title of the book’s first chapter. “The scale at which images proliferate and the speed with which they travel have never been greater,” the art historian tells us (p. 1). Whether as concrete objects on display at one of the many (and increasing number of) art fairs around the world or as JPEGS, in today’s global village artworks circulate at an unprecedented rate. And to such an extent that, as Joselit argues, “people now see art as an international currency. Art is a fungible hedge” (p. 1, his italics). And, as the value of any currency must lie somewhere, the logical question that follows is: Where does contemporary art’s power and value lie? To answer this question the art historian begins by describing the different kinds of values artworks possess and where these values reside–for instance, within the object or in its site of origin.

According to Joselit, today artworks can be categorized into three “paradigms of cultural circulation”: the migrant, the native, and the documented object. The migrant object is characterized by its mobility and status as a commodity; moreover, its value is aesthetic, contained in its form, and not dependent upon its site of origin. The art historian also aligns the migrant object with what he defines as the neoliberal position with regard to the circulation of art, a position that conceives of art as currency and artworks as commodities. The native object, on the other hand, is defined by its association to a specific site. “While it may be of the highest aesthetic quality,” Joselit argues in regards to the native object, “its primary value is tied to a specific cultural identity, and typically it belongs–or is said to belong–to the state” (p. 11). Furthermore, the native object is aligned to what Joselit terms the fundamentalist position, which, antithetical to the neoliberal position, posits that “art and architecture are rooted to a specific place” (p. 3, his italics). Lastly, there is the documented object. The relationship between this object and its site of origin has been studied and documented to produce “an informational or documentary value” (p. 11). According to Joselit, contemporary artworks fall into this last category by virtue of the fact that they have come into being “in an ‘information era’ where documentation is virtually inherent in the production of art” (p. 12).

The art historian’s differentiation between migrant and native objects on the one hand and documentary objects on the other is important, as it is his argument for “documentary value,” one that is proper to 21st century art production, that is novel to this study. And he lets us know this. Joselit reminds us that the migrant/native and neoliberal/fundamentalist binaries he discusses here were central to Benjamin’s canonical 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Benjamin’s dialectics of exhibition and cult value and, on the other hand, technological reproducibility and aura, are analogous with the art historian’s own migrant and native dialectic. The latter’s proposition of a third kind of object and value, the documented object with its documentary value, is, of course, an effort on his part to transcend Benjamin’s influential study. As noted earlier, Joselit argues that changing conditions of circulation, conditions that are new and proper to the 21st century, logically demand new approaches to thinking about contemporary art and where its potential lies.

These conditions have yielded what Joselit comes to refer as the “emergent image,” (another form of the documented object), which “is located on a spectrum between the absolute stasis of native site specificity on the one hand, and the absolute freedom of neoliberal markets on the other” (p. 19). This is an important point, for the art historian (again, perhaps optimistically) believes that this emergent image can resist commoditization: instead of continuing to accumulate artworks in museum basements, he suggests that “we could take image diplomacy seriously and attempt to imagine how art can function as a currency without falling into monetization” (p. 21).

In “Populations,” the book’s second chapter, Joselit aligns the emergent image or form with recent theoretical developments in the field of architecture. “Blobs” and “folds,” for instance, exist somewhere between discrete objects (which are subject of commoditization) and overt attachment to site. Another example of the emergent image includes Sherrie Levine’s Postcard Collage #4, 1-24 from 2000, which consists of a two-by-twelve grid of the same individually framed postcard, creating a playful exchange between figure and ground, object and field. Through these examples Joselit arrives at the concept of “format.” As images and artworks, Joselit argues, no longer serve the epistemological function of creating new knowledge and meaning–“everyone who inhabits contemporary visual culture assumes the complex communicative capacity of images to be self-evident” (p. 88)–their meaning does not reside in their content or form, but in the “performative nature of content,” their structure or format (p. 37).

It is worth noting that the art historian does mention that engagement with art’s internal logic and framing network dates back to Minimalist sculpture in the 1960s, which makes one wonder about the novelty of Joselit’s argument and position, especially considering that since the 1960s not only Minimalism, but also Pop Art, Post-Minimalism, Pictures, Feminism, and Institutional Critique all paid close attention to context. In light of this, it is not surprising that the art historian’s argument is defined not against these practices, but against art historical methodologies. He disregards all object-centric readings of art–iconography, the social history of art, structuralist and poststructuralist art history, and utopianism–as centripetal (moving inward to the object) by virtue of tethering meaning to objects, and calls for a centrifugal approach to interpretation, from the object outwards.

In the following chapter, “Formats,” Joselit further defines the notion of format through a discussion of a series of works falling under the umbrella of Relational Aesthetics. Through these works he stresses the significance of connections and fields and undermines that of mediums, which, he argues, “lead to objects, and thus reification” (p. 55). This section is followed by a critique of American museums, whose business, he notes, is to deal precisely in objects and mediums: “the American museum is engaged in a massive money-laundering operation: turning finance capital into cultural capital and putting a democratic face on the accumulation of wealth–all exempt from taxes!” (p. 71). Joselit’s discussion of art as currency (art as neoliberal, commoditized object), is perhaps the book’s most powerful argument for the need for what Todd Cronan calls “a progressive art-politics of the future.”

The book’s last chapter, “Power,” serves as a summary and conclusion. It synopsizes the shift from object to format and reiterates what Joselit conceives to be the power of art in the 21st century:

“I have tried to demonstrate that … the organization of the art world–its format–is as real as it gets when it comes to capital’s effects. It’s not just the purchase of artworks, but the self-image of entire nations, the transformation of neighborhoods and cities, and the fashioning of diplomatic identities that art is capable of accomplishing. In fact, its power has probably never been greater” (p. 93).

As a whole, Joselit’s book could be criticized for, at times, making use of overarching assumptions to get its point across, often resulting in overly optimistic passages and statements such as the one above, or, on the other hand, overstated cynicism–i.e. the claim that American museums are money-laundering operations. But, then again, generalizations of this kind are expected for the kind of argument Joselit makes here–one need only be reminded of the last two sentences of Benjamin’s seminal essay: “Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism responds by politicizing art” (p. 122, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, Harvard University Press, 2002). In other words, the stakes of the argument justify excesses of this kind.

Bolaño on Art History

“… the history of art, a discipline that often bears a strong resemblance to entomology, but as the reader turns the pages he finds there’s more to it than that: youth’s long march, its discontents, the fluctuations of taste, the wagers on radicalism that are almost always lost, among other reasons because the odds are winner-take-all and because the young makers of such wagers don’t rig them.”

“… la historia del arte, una disciplina que a veces se parece tanto a la entomología, pero en realidad, en el otro lado de sus páginas, el lector puede encontrar otra cosa: la larga marcha de los jóvenes, la insatisfacción, los vaivenes del gusto estético, las apuestas de la radicalidad que casi siempre se pierden, entre otras cosas porque son apuestas a todo o nada y porque los jóvenes que hacen esas apuestas no las amañan” (pp. 142-143, Entre Paréntesis, Anagrama, 2004).

Bolaño’s La Pista de Hielo (The Skating Rink)

A few days ago I finished reading one of Roberto Bolaño early novels, La Pista de Hielo (Anagrama, 2012) (The Skating Rink) from 1993, a somewhat appropriate read given that the Winter Olympics are currently underway. Although I should say that there are few parallels between the novel and the Olympics. (As far as Bolaño’s novels go, 2666 would probably the closest literary equivalent to the sporting event… But then again, what is 2666 not about? But I digress.) In fact, the only significant parallel or connection between the two would have to be the sport of figure skating, which one of the novel’s main characters practices. Although, on second thought, one could argue that there is another–if much more speculative and loose–thread that connects the novel and the Sochi games: like the Olympics and like much of Bolaño’s writing, La Pista de Hielo is not just read but also… viewed, witnessed, in a way not unlike spectators to this Winter Olympics might sit and watch the figure skating event.

And there is much in the structure of La Pista de Hielo that helps support the proposition that we, as readers, are placed in the position of being onlookers, of witnessing the novel’s action from the sidelines. The story of a murder and the events leading up to it, La Pista de Hielo is delivered to us through the voices of three characters, all central to its action: Remo Morán, a recently divorced poet turned novelist who owns and runs a campground for tourists in the coastal city of Z in Spain, far away from his native Chile; Gaspar Heredia, a bohemian Mexican poet and old friend of Morán who moved to Z to work at Morán’s campground during the tourist season (unlike Los Detectives Salvajes‘s Alberto Belano, no single character here takes on the identity and biography of Bolaño, though the case could be made that there is some of the writer in both Morán and Heredia); and, lastly, Enric Rosquelles, a corrupt bureaucrat who runs Z’s social services department, and who funnels city funds to build a skating rink in the abandoned Benvingut Palace. 

In Bolaño’s typical polyvocal fashion, Morán, Heredia and Rosquelles take turns recounting the series of events that led up to the murder of Carmen, a vagabond singer who had recently moved to Z. And while all this should make for a detective novel of the rather generic kind–there are suspects, a murder, a crime scene–that, it does not. Frustrating the genre’s expectations, La Pista de Hielo does not take the reader through a series of mysteries and puzzles that ultimately reveal in climactic fashion the murderer’s identity and intentions. If anything, Carmen’s slaying and the eventual disclosure of who committed the murder turn out to be some of the most anticlimactic parts of the novel. And that is saying something, as Bolaño’s writing is characterized by, it hinges on a lack of climax. In Discurso de Caracas (The Caracas Speech) the writer described great writing as, “To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food”/“Correr por el borde del precipicio: a un lado el abismo sin fondo y al otro lado las caras que uno quiere, las sonrientes caras que uno quiere, y los libros, y los amigos, y la comida” (pp. 36-37, Entre Paréntesis, Anagrama, 2012). In Bolaño’s universe, his characters never fall into the bottomless abyss, but they walk, as close as they can, along the edge of its precipice. And La Pista de Hielo isn’t the exception.

For the novel’s lack of climax and its unusual structure for a detective novel make room here for Bolaño’s writing, which, as usual, manages at once to be both descriptive and ridden with mystery, and for a polyvocality, multiple vantages and subjective delivery that make fixed, stable meanings impossible. Regarding this last point I would argue that, in the end, the form La Pista de Hielo takes is less that of (as Morán describes the skating rink upon finding Carmen’s dead body) “a labyrinth with a frozen center”/”un laberinto… con un centro de cristal” (p. 147), than that of a dynamic planetary system in which the novel’s celestials bodies, its characters, orbit around a frozen sun. On his way to find the woman’s slain body, Morán notes that the Palace’s passages, “formed concentric circles around the skating rink”/”corrían formando círculos. En el centro estaba la pista de hielo” (p. 146). In other words, relativism is central to La Pista de Hielo. Other planets and moons: we, who, as readers, take in and reconstruct the action from the outside through the (male) gazes of the three men; Rosquelles, who, also from an outside–the physical outer edge of the rink–acts as both audience and coach to Nadia, the figure skater for whom he built the rink; Nadia, who glides in circles around an ever-shifting center; Heredia, whose storyline and concerns revolve not around the murder, but around Caridad, Carmen’s mysterious protégé; the rink and its concentric passages; and, of course, Carmen and the city of Z that fateful summer.

And, while it should be said that La Pista de Hielo is not always as successful at maintaining that uncanny balance between sublimity and banality that would come to characterize Bolaño’s later writing, structurally, this early effort contains all the elements later found in, say, Los Detectives Salvajes. To borrow Bolaño’s own words, La Pista de Hielo doesn’t get quite close enough to the edge of the precipice, but, at the same time, this not-quite-close-enough vantage is still close enough for us readers to peek into the abyss.