Sunday, September 27, 2009

Out of business

THE TIMES ARE NOT good. The nice Greengrocer in the nearby town of Windsor is closing at the end of the month. It was too good to make it, I suppose, in this bedroom community of nearly 30,000 souls, few of whom probably cared enough about what they were eating. The Greengrocer was a locavore's shop: wine, meats, dairy, and produce all came from within 150 miles. It was the only place in Windsor where we could buy local organic milk. We'll still get it, but we'll have to go to Healdsburg, two or three miles farther away. And I don't know where we'll be able to get dependable meat, except at the farm market.

Even worse in a way, Sawyer's News Agency in Santa Rosa is closing. When I was in the sixth grade and spent an occasional day in town, riding in with Dad but spending the day not at his sheet-metal shop but strolling the streets and parks, Sawyer's was one of the first places I'd enter. There I'd gawk at forbidden comic books and mysterious paperbacks and maybe, if I had a quarter, pick up a copy of Model Railroading.

A few years later I was buying New World Writing and Discover and novels by William Faulkner and pop-science books by George Gamow. Sawyer's was, quite literally, my first bookstore. It was so good, and so early, that when I got to Berkeley and saw the openings of Moe's Books and then Cody's Books, neither was much of a surprise to me.

Sawyer's is closing, I read in the local paper, for the same reason that Cody's did: the double whammy of high rent and competition from big-box stores and the Internet. Here's what we need: town and city governments must provide legislation for low-income retail space, analogous to low-income housing. Our civil system depends on an informed citizenry, just as our economy requires frugality; and neither newsstands nor shoe-repair shops can survive landlords concerned only for short-term bottom lines.

And if you think you can console yourself with a decent drink, don't get too complacent about that either: the popular Upper Fourth bar, near Sawyer's, is another recent shut-down. This story seems a little more complicated, though, to judge by some hilarious but also sad and pathetic accounts here. Ah, Internet, how cruel you can be at times.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Exposition, Development, Recapitulation

I think there's something to be said for the idea that Modernism stands at the beginning of the third of three great ages of human existence: the one preceding the awareness of consciousness, which Julian Jaynes puts at about the time of Homer; then a long age which is characterized by the long slow crescendo of human consciousness; and then a third age that begins with the awareness of the awareness of consciousness.

Well, perhaps Modernism is really best understood as a logical development of the Renaissance, whose “moment” is the true beginning (as if a single moment can define it) of this third age. But if you draw a rough analogy to the development of an individual human, maybe it would be:
1: Human life unaware of consciousness. Infancy-childhood: human history up to the Renaissance. (Sorry, Age of Pericles; I know you really belong later; you jumped the gun.) Prehistory.

2: Human life aware of consciousness. Adolescence: human history Age of Pericles-Modernism. History.

3: Human life aware of the consequences of the awareness of consciousness. Adulthood: Modernism on. Will there be an early senescence? Probably. Metahistory, or Historicism.

This looks like college-student late-night talk, I know. And it’s influenced by a book many think of as dubious, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977). Jaynes, an American psychologist who published no other book, held consciousness to be a cultural construct, not an autonomous function of the individual human “mind.” (Those are precautionary quotes; let’s not take up the question of “mind” here.) As I recall — I read the book a long time ago, and haven’t revisited it — he takes care not to fix an exact date or cultural “moment” at which this construct appears; but he does identify it, in the Mediterranean context, with the Homeric age, arising between the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Jaynes cites evidence for his hypothesis in linguistic and economic models, among others, and finds in psychological evidence of our own time parallels to the historical (and prehistorical) patterns of unconsciousness, consciousness, and their interfaces. I found his discussions persuasive; and am particularly interested now to read scientists arguing for the abrupt big changes that can determine human behavior, collectively (politically) as well as individually. Nassim Taleb, in The Black Swan, discusses such cataclysms in the economic sphere; the research geologist Dave Wahl, in the current issue of Terrain, discusses them with respect to climatological changes. (Taleb; my earlier blog on Taleb ; Wahl.)

Historicism is inevitably recursive. I’ve always loved Francis Ponge’s description of recursive irony — he cites Maurice Ravel's La Valse — as typical of periods "when rhetoric, dying, examines itself.” (Lane Dunlop's translation, in Soap [London: Jonathan Cape, 1969]; in the original Ce genre est particulier aux epoques ou la rhetorique est perdue, se cherche: [Le Savon: Paris: Gallimard, 1967]). [Cited in my article “What's the Matter with Today's Experimental Music? Organized Sound Too Rarely Heard,” Notes, December, 1993.]

To continue woolgathering: there may be a parallel between all this and the inevitable process which finds "art" declining from Religion to Art to Entertainment. (See Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ; and see also Wikipedia on Walter Benjamin. Come to think of it, Benjamin himself should be added to Jaynes, Cage, Duchamp, and many others as a seminal organizer of aware-or-consciousness consciousness.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Duchamp: Étant donnés…

JUST FOR THE hell of it, and because Marcel Duchamp's final work Given: 1st the waterfall; 2nd the illuminating gas is in the news these days, and because I'm working up thoughts on Duchamp for an exhibition to open next month at the Slaughterhouse in Healdsburg,

here's a short piece I wrote about after seeing the Duchamp centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1987. I apologize to those who know all this perfectly well. This is, after all, only journalism.

[first published in the Oakland Tribune, Dec. 13, 1987]

Marcel Duchamp: Centennial Exhibition

By Charles Shere

PHILADELPHIA— The two indispensable masters of 20th-century art were Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. The Picasso centennial, in 1981, was marked by festivities around the world, including an epochal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Duchamp centennial was observed this year — in a low-keyed manner that would doubtless have pleased the iconoclastic, relatively egoless master. The only notice taken among the larger American museums is on view in Philadelphia, where his three great masterpieces are on permanent exhibition.

The big news for Duchamp fans is Philadelphia’s publication of the last remaining major Duchamp text, the “manual’" he provided for the installation of his controversial posthumous masterpiece, Given: 1st the Waterfall; 2nd the illuminating gas.

This is a sculptural installation, dramatically lit, viewable (by only one onlooker at a time) through a pair of peepholes in a weathered wooden door in a dim alcove in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the 45 years before his unexpected death in 1968, Duchamp had been assumed to have given up all art activity. His greatest work was the unfinished painting on glass, accompanied by a collection of written notes and memoranda, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the “Large Glass"), abandoned in 1923, broken in 1926, laboriously pieced back together in the mid-1930s.

But from 1946 to 1966 he worked secretly on his last grand project, a shockingly erotic yet characteristically enigmatic installation about which opinion is still divided.

Duchamp’s relatively small output — a handful of mature paintings, the Bride, Given... — has been held up as a reproach to the endlessly prolific Picasso. The two artists were opposites in many ways, though they agreed on the central role of the libido in their creative and personal lives.
•   •   •

The third son in a family of six children, four of whom became artists, Duchamp was born in a small town in Brittany. He moved in with his older brothers, in their Paris studio, when he was old enough to leave home.

At 25 he painted his masterpiece, Nude Descending a Staircase. The Cubist establishment in Paris objected to its title and he withdrew it from that year’s exhibition, but the following year it created a scandalous success in the famous Armory show of modern art in New York.

Ironically, he had already abandoned painting. For a few months he worked as a librarian in Paris; then he evaded World War I by traveling to New York, where he joined a brilliant circle of eccentrics and modernists gathered around the pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Here he continued work on the “Large Glass,’" the tantalizing depiction in abstract shapes of an arcane mechanical tableau on two sheets of glass totaling nearly six feet wide by nine feet high.

The “Large Glass’" is analogous to James Joyce’s final novel Finnegans Wake as a monument of extreme modernism. Together with the prose notes Duchamp took during its elaboration — a body of texts that assume poetic depth and dimension — it provides a bottomless source of philosophical and esthetic speculation and commentary by subsequent generations of artists and critics.

Whether deliberately or not, by 1923 — his 36th year — Duchamp had forged a modern mythology. Its significance has yet to reach the man in the street, but it has influenced generations of fellow artists, from the Surrealists of the 1920s through the conceptualists of 50 years later.

It’s hardly surprising that Duchamp went underground after this startling achievement: how could he follow it? Yet the posthumous installation, whose realistic theatrics achieve the promise of the full title of the “Large Glass" in what amounts to a continuation and inversion of that earlier work, is hardly less complex, resonant and challenging.

Except that it is a closing parenthesis, a work that completes rather than commences a great individual creative gesture.

The ironic secrecy of its conception and execution, the lurid realism of its situation, above all its willful stylistic irrelevance in the context of late-20th-century art — these put Given... outside the realm of the art of its time, again challenging conventional assumptions of the methods and the meanings of 20th-century art.

Duchamp’s centennial is hard to do justice to. Most of his work is in the one museum, and two of his greatest works are unmovable by their very nature. The critical world continues to be embarrassed by his laconic open-mindedness, his challenging intellect, mis deft, virtuosic modesty.

Philadelphia was right to honor the occasion with a deceptively low-keyed celebration: a tidying of its Duchamp gallery and a gathering of significant sketches, maquettes and notes for the “Large Glass" and Given....

Duchamp’s honor and celebration belong to the future. A mainstay of modernism, he is yet to be fully comprehended even by postmodernists. His work will always stand somewhere off the center of the long tradition of visual art, from cave painting through Leonardo to our own time.

But it will continue to challenge and stimulate the best artists and thinkers, propelling new work that gradually filters its bright spirit down into the common culture. It is particularly appropriate that his work should be housed, and his centennial observed, in Philadelphia, the city that gave birth to the United States in a superb merging of reason and revolution.