Letter to a Canadian Curator – Baldwin,Ramsden, Harrison
[. . ] Mannerism is a propitious theme. Indeed, it seems to us sometimes that we are working at (and with) the margins of an extravagant Mannerist pantomime. It is tempting, perhaps too tempting, to look for analogies with late Renaissance Mannerism. E. H. Gombrich has pointed out in his essay ‘The Renaissance Conception of Artistic Progress and its Consequences’ that ‘mannerism comes to its climax at the moment when the inherent ambiguities of the renaissance idea of artistic progress become apparent’. Looking at the historio-graphically stable Modernism of the Sixties and early Seventies, the apparent mannerism of today seems causally dependent upon the contradictions in ‘mainstream’ Modernism. Punk-art, artistic Rocking, ‘bad painting’, right-wing enthusiasm for 50s’ epigones create hiatuses for differentiation and identification. These are frequently vague and fugitive. There is little in the way of stability in interests and conventions to enable a clear differentiation of the symptoms of decadence and ruin from critical activity in respect of decadence and ruin. We are all stalked by decadence. It is the cultural material we have to work with.
There has been a lot of naively revisionist ‘instability’ noticeable in the art-world recently. New Wave ‘Americans’, young ‘Italians’ and Born Again ‘German’ Neo-expressionists have moved in to occupy a territory formerly held by the cosmopolitan and progressively secure artists of the Sixties and Seventies. Many of the latter have rightly pointed to the Natopolitan interests of ‘new 1 Euro-art and to the axis of dealer interests lying behind this art. What has not been noted is that its discourses are hysterical.
Hysteria is a psychiatric syndrome. People are reduced to it when the idioms of conversation fail. In art’s first world, conversation has failed in a collapse of differential semantics. A sense of hysteria can also be traced to the apparently relentless appetite of the art-world’s bureaucracy. It is staffed by individuals who know that the prestige and power of their profession can be inflated according to their defining with ever increasing zeal more and more products as falling within their domain of legitimation. In international relations, this is called Imperialism. As critics, curators and middle-men of every variety neglect method, explanation and causal determinations to promote and manage their client discoveries, as discourse vanishes beneath administrative perks and privileges, as the little inventories of cultural tourism proliferate the necessities of parapractical obloquy emerge and that which is serious or historically vivid must manifest itself in a masque or travesty of the indolent and fraudulent – in double meaning, displacement, irony, mendacity, absurdity – in a debacle of fugitive and often demented themes.
It may be that we are indeed engaged in a kind of mannerism, in ‘works that seem to tremble on the brink of one commitment or another’ and which present formidable difficulties in respect of historical codification and classification. If there is a psychologically unifying thread throughout this work it appears to be locatable in concepts like hinting, parody, travesty, alluding, bluffing, forgery, double-talk etc. These are not conducive to stability within the rationalising apparatus of curatorial control. Tim Clark, in his article on Manet’s ‘Olympia’, . . . stumbles across some of these problems of differentiation and identification. Speaking of ‘Olympia’ he says ‘it is an open question whether what we are studying here is an instance of subversive refusal of established codes or of simple ineffectiveness’. The resolution of this ‘open question’ will always be compromised, partial. It ends, in fact, in a hiatus. The difference between expressionist fervour and mere incompetence, insularity and particularity, ineffectiveness and subversion is a difference resolvable in circumstances of concrete contingency, not in the security of a proprietorial and managerial overview.
Within the hiatus of undecidability may lie a half-life for contemporary cultural production.
Without wishing to overcook an analogy, it is of interest that Thomas Szasz has suggested that it is difficult to distinguish between ‘genuine’ hysteria and malingering. For the psychiatrist, the nub of this difficulty is the failure to distinguish between the ambiguous message as object or representation. Between ‘hysteria’, ‘impersonation of hysteria’, ‘explicit’ or ‘inexplicit’ malingering there lies a vexed hiatus of differentiation and undecidability. Such problems may be isomorphs of the problems of differentiation encountered in distinguishing ‘a subversive refusal of established codes’ and ‘simple ineffectiveness’, ineptitude or incompetence. Hysterical behaviour is observable in both the oppressed and fearful and in frauds and liars. The point is that to make the necessary differentiations and to act upon them, the actions and differentiations are of a qualitively different character according to whether you are in a contingent or dependent position or at an Archimedian point of overview – an independent position. And who is to elect him- or herself art’s psychiatrist?
It seems to be of some significance to sort out the dependency relationships in hysterical behaviour. It is a pantomime coercively directed at particular individuals, not at an abstract ‘audience’. It ‘modifies’ the power relationships between people. The ambiguity and multiple meaning of hysteria generates a hiatus of uncertainty in which genuine mistakes can be made. Again, it is in such a hiatus that the furtive and ghettoized half-lives of the art-world reside. But who is to elect him- or herself art’s psychiatrist?
Benjamin’s ‘The Origins of German Trauerspiels’ and ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ relate the allegories of the Baroque to those of Romanticism and the 20th Century – e.g., to Surrealism. Like the allegories of the Baroque, 20th Century cultural production takes place during a period of decline, decay and disfiguration. One of Benjamin’s (or Brecht’s?) principles of form was to collect and reproduce ‘the contradictions of the present’ without resolution. Speaking of Baudelaire, Benjamin describes strange and unusual correspondences emerging as unintended consequences of speech, of work, of wandering (the flanerie of the flaneur). The result of flanerie is an allegorical art that reveals the physiognomy of the present as ‘ruin’ and juxtaposes to the ruins of the bourgeoisie, elements of dream, memory and fantasy stimulated by shock but revealing or anticipating a different collective character of experience.
Suppose we substitute the particular relations or systems of necessary misrepresentation for Benjamin’s presumably ‘dialectical’ contradictions? One of the ways in which we might generate a possible critique or redescription of those misrepresentations is to try to put them into such a critically informative relationship to one another that one is forced to attempt to reconstruct the genetic circumstances whereby such misrepresentations have come to be generated. This may be akin to what has somewhat sleekly been dubbed ‘a montage of discourses’. In the Portraits of V.L Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock the conditions which produced the Social Realist orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of US Modernism are conjuncturally significant. The representations (or misrepresentations) of the Eastern Bloc and the representations (or misrepresentations) of Natopolitan ‘freedom’ are not, simultaneously, thinkable. Their amalgamation into a quasi identity, their mutual exclusivity and lack of boundaries generates an uneasy peace, a detente of mutual reproach and intimacy. [. . .]
It was first published under the heading ‘Correspondence’ in Style, Vancouver, March 1982 (Art & language).