Saturday, May 22, 2010

La Grande Jatte

At first sight, this seems to be a harmonious representation of leisure in late nineteenth-century France. Sun falls on people strolling and lazing on the river bank. The atmosphere is calm and still. However, when we look more closely, the work reveals Seurat’s concern about contemporary society.

George Seurat - La Grande Jatte (1885)

Figures seem stiffly poised and mechanically positioned, and there is no social interaction. Faces are generalized. The minute dots of which painting is comprised suggest an absence of feeling – technical accuracy, scientific precision, and skilled observation have combined to create a detached mood. Leisure pursuits are said to reveal society’s trust nature. Seurat presents a troubling glimpse of the new, depersonalized industrial world.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hello Impressionism

I once tried to sell a Monet to an Eastern potentate. He sat opposite me in the marbled splendour of his palace wearing an expression of intelligent perpiexity. Outside, the palm trees barely moved in the oppressive afternoon heat, and the sea beyond was a still, deep blue. Through the window I could see the golden dome of a vast, recently constructed mosque, and a skyscraper decorated with the insignia of an international bank and a neon advertisement for Coca-Cola. Here in this cavernous reception room where the air-conditioning spun its chill cocoon, I noticed that even the carpets were sprinkled with gold dust. The lift in which a flunkey had accompanied me up to these private quarters was walled in mink. What was I doing here, I asked myself? Through a geological freak — huge resources of oil being mineable beneath the barren surface of his country - this man was rich to a degree that set him apart from the rest of humanity. He had a fine face and impeccable manners. He treated me with enormous politeness.

Claude Monet - The Grand Canal, Venice (1908)

‘So’, he said, peering at the painting I had brought with me, ‘this will cost 7 million dollars at auction?’ He gave a quick, uncertain smile, as if he suspected he might be the victim of a practical joke but was determined to remain a good sport about it.

I told him it would, possibly even more. ‘But how can that be?’ ‘Because it’s by Claude Monet, one of the most famous of the Impressionist painters. It’s a very beautiful one.’

‘Please, explain to me something I do not understand.’ He rose from his chair and walked over to a painting that he already had hanging on his wall. ‘For this work by Jean-Leon Géróme I paid only 900,000 dollars.’

It showed a street market in Cairo. Each figure was minutely, photographically painted, with all the finish that distinguished the masters of French academic art in the second half of the nineteenth century ‘Surely’, insisted the owner, ‘this Gérôme is superior to the Monet. It is a masterpiece. It is real. It is how things look’.

Gérôme - The Baths at Bursa (1885)

How things look. His Royal Highness had touched upon the essence of what Impressionism was about. Nonetheless, I decided not to risk a theoretical debate and stuck to the financial certainties. ‘The Gérôme is a very good one, of course’, I reassured him. ‘But the Monet is more highly prized on the market.’

‘But this man Monet does not know how to paint, not as well as Gérôme. The colour is jarring. The figures are awkward. The strokes of the brush are too broad, they are not precise. There is no detail.’

I thought about quoting at him how Mallarmé explained Impressionism in 1876: ‘As to the detail of the picture, nothing should be absolutely fixed. The represented subject, being composed of a harmony of reflected and ever-changing lights, cannot be supposed always to look the same but palpitates with movement, light, and life....’ But I wasn’t confident it would do any good. My client came from a culture unfamiliar with the way western painting had developed over the past century and a quarter. He was groping towards an understanding of it. By instinct, however, he preferred the certainities of Gérôme to the suggestive imprecisions of the Impressionists. And it came to me then that this was how people – not just the philistines, but intelligent people, too – must have reacted when the Impressionists first exhibited in Paris is the early 1870s.

The enduring appeal of Impressionist painting has proved to be its capacity to uplift the spirits of the spectator, its mood-enhancing effect. Doctors and dentists around the world decorate their waiting rooms with reproductions of sunlit Monets and Renoirs. It is anxiety-therapy by dappled light. Even amid the initial hostility; this anti-depressant quality was identified surprisingly early on. The critic Armand Silvestre wrote in 1873: ‘what apparently should hasten the success of these newcomers is that their pictures are painted according to a singularly cheerful scale. A “blond” light floods them and everything in them is gaiety, clarity; spring festival...’, what the Impressionists chose to paint appears to the cynical eye of hindsight a deliberate exercise in customer manipulation, blatant exploitation of the feel-good factor. A list of what is characteristic Impressionist subject matter and what isn’t would run as follows:

Recreation, holidays
Picnics, gardens
Streets, restaurants, cafes
Race meetings
Theatres, concert halls
Sea views
Undulating countryside
Cornfields, sunlit snow scenes

Battle scenes
History morality
Death, disaster
Emotional profundity
Intellectual complexity
Precipitous landscape
Night scenes
Bad weather: storms, floods

Of course it would be an exaggeration to claim that the Impressionists never painted bad weather or its effects; but the reality of the present-day market is that subjects like floods are difficult to sell, precisely because they upset people’s expectations of what Impressionist painting should be all about.

Claude Monet - Gare Saint Lazare (1877)

Another important factor in the rise of Impressionism was the railway. Railways were emblematic of modern life, and thus ideal subject matter for artists who strove to be contemporary. Monet, Manet and Pissarro all featured trains, stations and railway lines in their work. Indeed Monet’s series of views of the Gare Saint-Lazare is one of the icons of Impressionism, the artist’s technique finding its perfect expression in the rendering of the evanescence of the steam billowing up from the engines. The invention of the railway was important to landscape painters of this generation in another way, too. It opened up the countryside to city-based artists in search of accessible rural subject matter. A day-return to Argenteuil could produce five or six paintings (one of the advantages of their method was that Monet and his school worked quickly). Then there was the enormous wealth that the late nineteenth-century railway expansion produced, a significant element in France’s economic boom of the early 1880s, which brought more money into the art market and in turn boosted demand for the Impressionists. Railway fortunes were even huger in the United States, and this new wealth also benefited the Impressionists: for instance Mary Cassatt’s brother Alexander, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, was an early collector. The age of mass travel had begun; and as coal yielded to oil as the fuel of preference, so yet more staggering wealth was created for oil producers. Hence, a hundred years on, my feeble attempts to sell this Monet in the shadow of the mosque.

Bye Bye Impressionism

Claude Monet - Poplars on the River Epte, Autumn (1891)

‘It was as if he had been struck with a subtle blindness that permitted images to give their colour to the eye but communicated nothing to the brain’, writes Edith Wharton describing a moment of crisis for Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country. Her imagery is taken from the theory of Impressionism. I tried it myself once: I let my gaze linger on one of Monet’s series paintings of poplars on the River Epte, in an attempt to achieve Ralph Marvell’s state of mind. I registered the pure visual sensation of the sinuous S-shape formed against the sky by the trees receding round the bends in the river, broken by the strong vertical lines of their trunks in the foreground. I congratulated myself. This was good, this was what Impressionism was all about: pure visual sensation, nature absorbed optically in a system of shapes of colour. Hadn’t Monet wished he could have been born blind, then suddenly regain his sight, so that he could begin to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him? In the same way that Ralph Waldo Emerson pursued the idea of the ‘transparent eyeball’ that would exclude all personal interpretation from the direct experience of nature, so Monet sought what he called ‘the innocent eye’.

But here is the fallacy of Impressionism. Here are the seeds of its demise. There is no such thing as pure visual sensation. Because we have not been born blind, sensation and perception are inseparable. An artist cannot render objective truth. A painting reproducing nature will always be refracted through the personality of the artist, as Zola recognised: ‘Art is a bit of creation seen through a powerful temperament’, he wrote in 1867. Indeed that is what gives it its piquancy, what distinguishes it as a work of art. And as spectators, too, we know too much. We are interpretative beings. We will never be like Ralph Marvell seeing things simply as abstract patches of colour. The patches are inevitably significant, associative. So the S-shape means something. It is the foliage on a line of trees growing on the banks of a river curving into the distance. But because we know too much we can also interpret shapes in variant ways, not as the artist intended. As I stood in front of the painting, Monet’s poplars suddenly reformed themselves in front of my eyes as something quite different: the shimmering but unmistakable impression of a dollar sign.

Claude Monet - Poplars on the River Epte (1891)

By the end of the 1870s, artists in the Impressionist circle were beginning to recognise that it was time to move on. They had reached a kind of cul-de-sac. Just to register your impressions in front of nature, which the Impressionists were doing supremely well, had become limiting. Degas spoke of ‘the tyranny of nature’, declaring painters had made themselves ‘the slaves of chance circumstances of nature and light’. Renoir wrote in 1880: ‘While painting directly from nature, the artist reaches the point where he looks only for the effects of light, where he no longer composes, and he quickly descends to monotony’. The symbolist Odion Redon took the argument a step further. ‘Man is a thinking being’, he wrote the same year ‘Man will always be there. Whatever the role played by light, it won’t be able to turn him aside. On the contrary, the future belongs to a subjective world.’ Art was more than simply registering your optical impressions in front of nature. Art meant the interpretation of the objective world by the subjective experience. In 1893, Pissarro too was admitting in a letter to his son: ‘Everything (in nature) is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret’. In Zola’s equation, a balance between nature (the thing depicted) and temperament (the artistic prism through which it is depicted), the scales now tipped in favour of the latter. The way was open for van Gogh and Gauguin, and the generation of the Post-Impressionists, to brandish their temperaments to such extraordinary effect.

The lack of intellectual and emotional content in Impressionism has worried people ever since. Impressionist art is the art of surfaces: its subsequent historians are sometimes guilty of ‘going very deeply into the surface of things’, and in their anxiety investing paintings with an emotional profundity which simply isn’t there.

Claude Monet - Winter on the Seine, Lavacourt (1880)

Here is a modern writer, Paul Hayes Tucker, struggling with Monet’s winter scenes of the early 1880s:

With its surface cluttered with huge slabs of ice from the once-frozen river, the views of the Seine in these paintings, indeed the scenes as a whole, are both sonorous and silent, energised and elegiac. The canvases appear to be filled with cries of pain and moments of wonderment, sighs of resignation and odes of hope. They suggest notions of the past cracking and splintering and concerns about whether the present was liberating or unnerving.

You can’t help suspecting that the pain, wonderment, resignation and hope exist more meaningfully in the mind of Professor Tucker than that of Claude Monet.

A debate was instigated in a Parisian literary journal in 1890 as to whether naturalism was now dead. The writer Paul Alexis was so exercised by the question that he telegraphed to the editor: ‘Naturalisme pas mort. Lettre suit’. But whatever the letter said, the tide had turned in both literature and art. The Impressionists were ‘taking orders from outside’, whereas Gauguin wanted to obey what came from within. ‘Don’t copy too much from nature’. he said to his disciple Schuffenecker. ‘Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature by indulging in dreams in the presence of nature, and think more of creation than of the result.’ Van Gogh echoed him: ‘Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly’. This was the beginning of modern art and the unshackling of the artist from the obligation to reproduce natural appearances. But it couldn’t have happened without the Impressionist revolution. The emancipation of light and colour achieved by the Impressionists destablised people’s expectations as to how a picture should look and opened the way to modernism. It was a catalyst to the development of Expressionism and non-representational art.

I wish I were a natural salesman. At heart I find selling people things embarrassing. It’s too personal, this insinuating imposition of your own will upon another human being. You are trying to persuade them into something they don’t necessarily want to do, to buy something they don’t actually need. Exactly, says my friend Jasper, it’s a bit like a seduction. Jasper is an art dealer with a brilliant eye, a persuasive tongue, and a very thick skin. As a result he is enviably successful at selling people pictures, and probably as a Casanova too.

What was I doing, I asked myself in the opulence of my Eastern client’s private drawing room, trying to get this man to buy a Monet? I realised I was only doing it because he was very rich. Because the Impressionist picture has become the conventional accoutrement of the rich, the symbol of his status: the poplar that turned into the dollar. Initially, impressionist paintings were things that buyers had to be persuaded they wanted; then, in the twentieth century, priceless things that the very rich had been persuaded they wanted very much indeed. Literally priceless, because they are of no definable intrinsic value. When did this change come about, I wondered? And why? And how was it that - despite my shortcomings as a salesman — my Eastern client ended up buying the Monet that at first so bemused him, for rather more than the $7 million it had been estimated to fetch at auction?

- Philip Hook

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cultural Globalization

By drawing previously isolated, autarkic, or otherwise independent communities into the global economy, it tends to lead to increased diversity within cultures at the expense of diversity between cultures. You can get sushi in Montreal and poutine in Tokyo, but the result is that serious “otherness” becomes harder to find around the planet even as our own countries and our immediate surroundings become increasingly diverse.

Political Brands

Consider how brands work. The central question that every consumer faces is, “How do I know I’m not getting ripped off?” How do you know that this bag of flour isn’t adulterated or that these new shoes won’t fall apart the minute you get home? Unless you’ve managed to follow the entire production process from start to finish, you don’t. You trust the flour isn’t full of sawdust because Robin Hood says so. You have faith the sneakers will withstand a running season or two because Nike has put its swoosh on them. Brands are one of the earliest and most effective forms of consumer protection, where trust in the brand (and the company behind it) substitutes for first-hand knowledge or expertise.

Political brands work the same way. In an election, the question every voter needs an answer to is, “How do I know what I’m buying into with my vote? How do I know I’m not getting snookered?” This is where political brands, better known as parties, come in. The role of the party is more or less to take the dense convolutions of modern governance and reduce them to a relatively simple brand proposition. Are you generally in favor of a strong central government that will build national social programs? Then vote Democrat (or, in Canada, Liberal). Would you prefer a more decentralized federation and limited state interference in your life and in the economy? Then the Republicans or Conservatives are the party for you.

The paradox of all branding is that the more complicated things get, the simpler the messaging has to be, which is why politics has become so intensely focused on the party leader’s character and image. It’s pretty remarkable that in an election in which American voters were being asked to decide who would control a budget of somewhere north of $3 trillion, they were essentially offered a choice between two brands: Barack Obama’s “Change” and John McCain’s “Honor.” But what is more surprising still is how well the system actually works. Most people don’t have the time or, frankly, the ability to properly digest budgets, policy documents, or drafts of new bills, and the distillation of the stupendous complexities of the modern state to a handful of simple but distinct brands is not just useful, but necessary. As in the consumer economy so in modern politics — both would grind to a halt without brands as a lubricant.

What of the worry that politics ends up being marketed like Big Macs, pitched to the lowest common denominator? The proper reply is to this is, So what? People always put the emphasis in that phrase on the word lowest, when it should be placed on the word common. The government wields a monopoly over the use of violence, among other things, and any party that wants to claim the right to use violence had darn well better make sure it has the lowest common denominator on its side or it is in big trouble. To adapt a line from the genius of twentieth-century advertising, David Ogilvy: the lowest common denominator is not a fool, she is your neighbor. In a democracy, every politician is in the business of selling electoral Big Macs, and anyone who thinks that’s not his job is either a born loser or a tyrant manqué.

We need to give voters a little more credit. People are no more bamboozled by a John McCain action figure into voting for John McCain than they are tricked into buying a PC because Jerry Seinfeld is in the ad. That just isn’t the way branding or human behavior works. Indeed, whether it’s Nike’s swoosh, or the ubiquitous Hope poster of Obama designed by Shep Fairey, or Stephen Harper’s blue sweater vest, no one ever admits to being a dupe of the marketing. The worry is always that other people — in particular, the people who support the other side — are being manipulated. And so throughout the Bush years, the left in America complained about the way Karl Rove and Dick Cheney were sowing fear and panic over terrorism and keeping the religious right all a-boil over fears about abortion and Mexican immigrants. Once Obama became president and the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, the right immediately started complaining that the electorate had been duped by his pretty speechifying and his wispy promises about Hope and Change.

This is a slippery slope, and it is dangerous for anyone, no matter what their partisan allegiances, to have so much contempt for voters. Democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance between freedom and security. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then the truth is you no longer believe in democracy.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls

Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just

Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,

Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,

And I don't feel so well myself.

- Arthur Guiterman

Written on the Wall at Chang’s Hermitage

It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.

- Tu Fu