Monday, July 21, 2008

Facing Up to It

Probably the most uniformly scorned of the last ten years’ worth of John Updike publications, 2002’s Seek My Face offers a typically ambitious blend of closely observed character study and critical rumination. Protagonist Hope Chafetz is an elderly painter who spends the novel’s entire sjužet—except for the stunningly gorgeous final 15 pages, which occur after the interviewer’s departure—being interviewed about her life in a marathon session over the course of a single day. Much more interesting in my view than either of the two works of long fiction that precede it in the Updike corpus (Gertrude and Claudius and Rabbit Remembered, both 2000), the novel nonetheless was reviewed quite coldly in America and Britain.

This frigid reception was due largely to a perceived misguidedness in the book’s central conceit. In her younger days Hope was married (sequentially) to two major figures in the postwar American art scene. Zack McCoy, her first husband, is an exact stand-in for Jackson Pollock, and the Hope of this period is meticulously based on the life of Lee Krasner, Pollock’s real wife. Zack’s art, his alcoholism, and his spectacular death are all described as identical to the corresponding elements of Pollock’s biography (literally, since Updike admits to having relied heavily upon Naifeh and White’s Jackson Pollock: An American Saga in writing the section in which Hope reminisces about Zack, roughly the first half of the book). Like the real Krasner, Hope interacted with almost all the important figures in the closely overlapping New York School and Abstract Expressionist movements. As many reviewers noted, the names of these artists are flimsily, sometimes comically disguised in the novel: Willem de Kooning becomes Onno de Genoog, Barnett Newman becomes Bernie Nova, Franz Kline is Phil Kaline, Karel Appel is Jarl Anders, Robert Motherwell’s surname is franc-ified as Roger Merebien, etc., etc.—though other artists are somewhat better disguised, with the Mark Rothko’s Latvian Jewish background oddly transmuting into the Irish heritage of Seamus O’Rourke. Updike has always enjoyed crafting these sorts of literary games—his great early novel The Centaur (1963) included a cheat-sheet in the form of a three-page “Mythological Index” listing for various members of the Greek pantheon the pages of the novel that contained a reference to, or a character standing in for, him/her/it—and one does feel that hiding real historical personages behind silly false names is not an inappropriate gesture for a novel about Pollock, who after all was to painting precisely as Kerouac was to literature; still, reading this early portion of Seek My Face can remind one of completing one of those odd-format, single-topic puzzles that sometimes accompany the crossword in the New York Times magazine.

But then, when the interview shifts focus from Hope’s first husband to her second, a strange thing happens. Suddenly every heretofore unmentioned artist who hasn’t yet been provided with an alias is called either by his actual, historical, full name (e.g. Ad Reinhardt), or by an extremely transparent alias, much more transparent than those given to anyone in the first part of the book (e.g. “Morris Lewis” for Morris Louis), or else is subsumed entirely into the figure of Hope’s second husband, Guy Holloway. Holloway’s personal life with Hope corresponds to that of no historical figure, but his work is based most obviously on that of Andy Warhol: he makes experimental films similar to Warhol’s, and he masterminds a Factory-like art collective where “he and his assistants were turning out those multiple silk screens of car accidents and electric chairs, after 1963 of Jackie looking stunning in her pillbox hat, with such a different, impersonal feel, in those icy Day-Glo colors” (173). But Holloway is also credited in the novel with having produced works suspiciously similar to some of the most well-known pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, and Claes Oldenberg. I’m sure there are other artists in the Holloway mix—I’m nowhere near as well-versed as Updike in the history of postwar American art, and missing certain references would be inevitable for any reader save a professional scholar of art history. The point, though, is that the author has taken quite seriously Warhol’s oft-cited 1963 comment “I’m painting this way because I want to be a machine,” words rendered drier, more literal before being placed in Holloway’s mouth as “There are ways of creating without being the subject. I’m merely a means” (160). Updike accepts this notion and expands it to cover the entire Pop Art movement, condensing the diversity of its major figures into a single fictional representative. To gauge Updike’s own aesthetic preferences one need only notice the name of Holloway’s version of Warhol’s Factory—“The Hospice,” where, presumably, art went to die—or, less directly but more tellingly, to examine his characters’ Dickensian surnames: Pollock was the real McCoy, but the way of Pop Art is a hollow one.

But do we believe this? Updike offers little to convince us to share his view, and in the end convincing us seems to be missing from his to-do list. The vociferous scorn with which so many reviewers responded to this novel—a good number of them, such as Michiko Kakutani in a brainless New York Times review, seemed personally insulted by the book’s treatment of these artists—is worse than excessive. It’s fashionable. Nonetheless, Updike’s is far from an isolated, unpopular opinion, even among intellectuals. Probably the most important theorist of avant-garde art to have emerged in the past 50 years, Peter Bürger claims, in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (Theorie der Avantgarde, 1974) that the neo-avant-garde, which includes Warhol, Rauschenberg and all the other artists flavoring Updike’s Guy Holloway stew, is pretty much worthless—albeit for reasons quite different from those Updike seems to endorse. Updike disdains the neo-avant-garde for contributing to the death of art. But Bürger doesn’t think art is dead at all, and he condemns the neo-avant-garde for having arrived too late to assist the unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to murder it.

In the Theorie, the neo-avant-garde is admonished for being “void of sense and [permitting] the positing of any meaning whatever” (61)—qualities that Bürger, who is (or at least was in 1974 when the Theorie was first published) a staunch Marxist dedicated to forwarding a revolutionary political project through cultural critique, does not find praiseworthy. Bürger argued that Modernism, as well as all “bourgeois art” before the period of the historical avant-garde of the 1920s and ’30s, owes its existence and its function what he calls the institution of art, which is defined by the notion of art’s autonomy from the non-aesthetic sphere of social praxis. For Bürger, the historical avant-garde coheres as a category not around any particular style but rather around the goal of integrating art into social praxis, or, as he sometimes puts it, dialectically sublating the former with the latter so that the new praxical-aesthetic production “is not to be understood as artistic production, but as part of a liberating life praxis [. . .] All that remains is the individual who uses poetry [or art] as an instrument for living one’s life as best one can” (53). Bürger, who calls Brecht “the most important materialist writer of our time” (88), relies upon the familiar Benjaminian/Brechtian concept of shock effects to explain the attempted efficacy of historical avant-garde pieces. The historical avant-garde was of course only one part of a wide-ranging resistance to the bourgeois capitalist system of political domination, a system that (among other things) produced and maintained the institution of art as a means for bourgeois individuals to understand themselves as subjects with no need to change the political status quo.

The problem, Bürger claims, is that bourgeois capitalism proved too resilient to the attacks of the historical avant-garde and its ideological allies, so resilient that the institution of art not only withstood the challenge posed by avant-garde antiart but managed to incorporate “antiart” into its institution, thus transforming pieces such as Duchamp’s fountain into autonomous works of art for contemplation alongside Caravaggios and Watteaus. In order to do so, the institution of art had to abandon any hope of making universally valid aesthetic claims; aesthetic relativism and the equal availability of all past styles is therefore the hallmark of the period Bürger calls the post-avant-garde, what we know as postmodernism. For Bürger the neo-avant-garde (simply an early moment within the post-avant-garde) is inherently contradictory and impotent, since it merely rehearses the historical avant-garde’s strategies within an institutional context, thus unwittingly collaborating in the institution’s endeavor to leach the last fading remnants of potency from even the remaining pieces from the avant-garde’s first go-round. In the present-day context in which historical avant-garde pieces have been granted full acceptance as works of art, the shock effects they initially produced have become yet another commodified experience offered for consumption by bourgeois individuals.

The only functional remnant that today attaches to works such as Duchamp’s readymades is the simple “enigmatic quality of the forms,” the works’ “resistance to the attempt to wrest meaning from them” (81). The viewer thus must abandon the hermeneutic circle that produces meaning and “direct attention instead to the principles of construction that determine the constitution of the work.” This renunciation of the interpretation of meaning—which, granted, constitutes no small change in predominant behaviors of reception—is the legacy of the historical avant-garde, but that renunciation has not proceeded to the sublation of art and praxis toward which the avant-garde strove. Bürger further suggests that this sublation is now impossible: art’s potentially revolutionary historical moment has succumbed forever to the advance of late capitalism. Art, in Bürger’s analysis, is not dead, but worse: immortally comatose.

This stance should be contrasted with that of Branden Joseph, whose book Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-avant-garde offers an alternative framework for understanding the work of the real Guy Holloways. Joseph’s position and Bürger’s do overlap somewhat, including on the issue that’s perhaps most relevant to Seek My Face. Influenced by the famous mid-century art critic T.J. Clark, Joseph writes that all aspects of Jackson Pollock’s painting “work toward undermining a certain form of subjective unity” (115). But only a certain form: the Dripper’s drips do signify the absence of any notion of a singular maker as a central, continuous psyche, but at the same time “Pollock’s work, a modernism in extremis, still holds some totalizing force by which the paintmark’s incessant negation is recovered as productive of meaning: a meaning issuing from a speaking subject, even if dialogically shot through with other voices and the vicissitudes of the unconscious” (115). Bürger’s take on Pollock’s work at first seems similar. Never mentioning Pollock by name, Bürger nonetheless addresses his work when theorizing “directly manufactured chance”:

Paint is dripped or splashed on the canvas. Reality is no longer copied and interpreted. The intentional creation of a totality is largely renounced and makes way for a spontaneity that to a considerable extent allows chance to produce the painting. The subject that has freed itself of all the constraints and rules of creation finally finds itself thrown back into an empty subjectivity. Because it can no longer work itself out in something that the material, and a specific task, set for it, the result remains accidental in the bad sense of the word, i.e. arbitrary. The total protest against any and every element of constraint does not take the subject to the freedom of creation but into arbitrariness. At best, this arbitrariness can afterward be interpreted as individual expression. (67)

Joseph argues that, in stark contrast to Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg (along with his friend and admirer, musician John Cage) “sought to explode those aspects of subjective autonomy that Pollock’s renunciation sought to preserve” (327). Bürger, steeped in reception research and writing urgently in a moment when political revolution still seemed possibly imminent, would surely retort: “‘explode’ for whom?” In noting that neo-avant-garde art permits the positing of any meaning whatsoever, Bürger is most concerned that this maximal semiotic indeterminacy (“arbitrariness”) necessarily restricts any resistance that might be found in works of Modernism or the neo-avant-garde. As he puts it, a “critical subject”—that is, a viewer already politically radicalized and predisposed to think dialectically—can “perceive the positive in the negative” and thus can discover resistance in any work of art whose meaning has not been totally closed down.

This may be true, Joseph might respond. But resistance is no longer what matters. By way of explanation, Joseph cites a 1968 interview with Rauschenberg:

[We are] moving into an area now which [has] as its uniqueness that what a man thinks is less and less important than his way of moving from thought to thought. So that I think eventually we’ll give up thoughts, and there will be a constant flow of concern. Thoughts then would only exist when you were faltering, or ineffective. By thoughts I mean particular ideas. (261)

In the same year in which this interview was conducted, Gilles Deleuze published his most significant book, Différence et répétiton, upon whose concepts Joseph relies heavily. Whereas for Bürger the danger of dialectical thought was the possibility of collapsing into schema—a possibility that Bürger believed the careful dialectician could avoid—for Deleuze schematicism is always already the more or less disguised nature of all dialectical thought. Against the “dogmatic image of thought,” which proceeds by representation (a mode of judgment that hierarchically relates each new term to some kind of preexisting ideal image), Deleuze famously proposed a new mode of thought, “thought without image” or rhizomatic thinking. Bürger’s Benjaminian/Brechtian reliance on shock is founded upon representation in Deleuze’s sense, as is traditional Marxist ideological critique more generally. For Deleuze, relations are external to their terms, and the same terms may be related in more or less felicitous ways. Joseph’s central thesis holds that Rauschenberg’s neo-avant-garde “combines” present discrete elements (a lone stroke of red here, a patch of cloth there) so as to train the mind to think without image—nonhiearchically, so that each term may be related to any other term whatsoever with relations that cannot preexist the production of the related terms in the viewer’s mind. Only a subject who thinks in this way can produce truly new thoughts and thus, potentially, change the extremely resilient system that seems to Bürger so monolithic (and thus seems capable only of being met binaristically with either acceptance or resistance). Art’s present function is thus not as a laboratory for the production of new thoughts, but as a boot camp for the training of rhizomatic thinkers. Guy Holloway is the hero of twentieth-century art history, not, as Updike would have it, the villain.

And yet. . . and yet: In a 1950 New York Times interview Ernest Hemingway remarked about that year’s Across the River and Into the Trees, which is still regarded as the worst book its author ever published and which is in very many ways structurally similar to Seek My Face—each novel taking place in a compressed period of time toward the end of its protagonist’s life, with most of the story’s incidents related through a combination of reminiscences spoken to a beautiful young woman (lover Renata in Hemingway, interviewer Kathryn in Updike) and the further, unspoken memories triggered by that discourse—“Sure, they can say anything about nothing happening in ‘Across the River,’ but all that happens is the defense of the lower Piave, the breakthrough in Normandy, the taking of Paris and the destruction of the 22d Inf. Reg. in Hurtgen forest plus a man who loves a girl and dies.”

Hemingway’s remark pointed up the dissonance in his novel between the richly detailed, historically specific events taking place in the story’s past, and the comparatively archetypal, minimally sketched characters of the story’s present. Yet the sole praiseworthy quality Anthony Burgess mentions in his lovely study of Hemingway—the novel’s “eloquent homage to Venice”—is found in the story’s present, much as Updike, as usual, reserves his most beautiful prose for detailing the food, landscape, weather, the house and the two women’s bodies that fill the novel when Hope is not lost in memory. To wit: “Her mouth is such a patchwork of crowns and root canals and implants, in any earlier era she would have been one of those grotesque crones such as Leonardo in his cool and unearthly way would draw, with one or two teeth left and the profile all sunk in” (264). “She stands at the double door leading to the side yard, for the thousandth time annoyed that the panes don’t quite line up, and feels that this swaying feeder on its wire, this gray birch and the woods beyond, with its tinge of red and smoky gaps of pallor, are friends whose silent trust she is betraying with all her excessively eager talk to an intruder” (74). “The young woman’s face, above the round squat tuna can she has deftly opened, seems itself to have opened, to be childishly expectant in the stark kitchen light, the illumination that fills every crevice and forms a bulwark against the gloom outside, where cloud shadows dip across the dead lawn like swallows in summer” (130).

Updike’s artistry is ostentatious, it’s true. His prose, though playful, is never unserious, and these qualities as well as the consistent readerliness (to use Barthes’ term) of his fiction are all unfashionable today. Later in that 1950 interview, Hemingway boasted with characteristic swagger, “In writing I have moved through arithmetic, through plane geometry and algebra, and now I am in calculus. If they don't understand that, to hell with them.” It turns out that in Seek My Face Updike has solved his differential equation for what might well be considered the wrong variable. Yet the marks left on his chalkboard also describe, and in so doing they move me to breathlessness and elation. Since “America’s Man of Letters” (as the title of one recent critical study has called Updike) is surely too well-behaved to say what he should to anyone who can read through to the end of this fine novel with the dry eyes of a critic who has never bothered to make art, allow me the pleasure: To hell with you.

John Updike, Seek My Face
Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde
Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde

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