Archive for September 2011

A Laugh Like a Bomb: The Vorticists for a (Post-)Modern World at Tate Britain.

A Laugh like a Bomb: the Vorticists for a (Post-)Modern World at Tate Britain.

By Fernando Gomez Herrero (fgh2172@gmail.com).

 

In the hot summer of London revolt, I got to see the manageable, if still inspiring exhibit The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World at Tate Britain (June 14 – Sept. 4, 2011). It was a happy transport, yet again, to the early 20th century, the first two decades of the “classical” aesthetics of “early” modernity between Europe and America, with the gravitational weight of aesthetic inspiration clearly leaning towards the old continent (unsurprising thinness of “romance peoples” and “latinities” in this official perspective that will be somewhat rescued in the final section). This Avant-Garde moment, titled “radical” in the exhibit, hence the funny pair “classical-radical,” is of a restless formal experimentation, of irreverent anti-traditionalism, of “mirror of nature” iconoclasm, of compulsive geometricism and verticality, of eminently kinetic dispositions to flight and travel from permanence and Being, think permanent impermanence, ephemerality and becoming, and add angular, or aggressive and forceful (“masculine”?) predilections to the tight, intimate intercourse in all directions between textuality and visuality, of mechanicism, kineticism and some exotic and primitive feathers for extra provocation. This is indeed the early age of the mechanical reproduction of mass- culture gadgets (telephone, photographic cameras, film making, etc.), still with us, when impetuous experimentalism is also uncomfortably aligned with proto-fascism. How far away is this history, already a hundred-years old, from us?

 

 

The term “Vorticism” was coined by the American expatriate Ezra Pound in early 1914, a year of tremendous modernist upsurge. Don’t hesitate to check out the definition of “vortex” to get its ethereal quality: vertiginous, spiral movement of air and things inside a limited space sucked away towards a vanishing center (“vórtice, torbellino:” eloquent synonyms in Spanish, despite the unsurprising invisibility of such dimension in the exhibit). Are we in the best position to reconstruct the vertigo of the pictorial moment from impressionism to cubism and futurism? Do the Vorticist creations sustain our curiosity besides the seductions of youthful rupture? Does this short-lived experimentalism manage to deliver long-lasting repercussions? Is the postmodern mode / mood the best ally that wants to return to Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST endeavors? Has this type of experimentalism been assumed, superseded or co-opted by the mass-media and virtual intensities of cosmopolitan capitalism?

The visitor finds the sculpture of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Rock Drill and Birth (1913-1914), as “welcome” signs to the exhibit. How are we to interact with such otherworldly, robotic frames with no human face? Make the connection with the hieratic head of Henri Gaudier Brzeska (1891-1915), who will die on the Western front, of Ezra Pound (1914) in marble, and you already have something of a sculptural frame and a deliberate atmosphere of estrangement. There is something to be said about the achieved, enduring strangeness of the sculptures. No comfort here. Pound asked Brzeska to make it “virile.” Now, one can walk through the masculine semantic field in the realm of aesthetics with great care and attention to detail. The back of the head resembles a penis, the museum legend reminds us in case the visitor was distracted looking the other way or around the “phallus,” or vigorous signification, Lacanian associations will surely come fast, if you wish. The legend fails to elaborate. So did the vivacious instructor with the attentive high-school group with whom I coincided. Horace Brodsky called it “entirely pornographic.”  I hesitate with the emphatic adverb. Yet, the sculpture wants to be totemic as though the metic Pound wanted for him the allegorical impersonation of a vatic voice of the universe unrestrained by traditionalism or by this or that locality. There is something here of foreigners intensifying foreignness while fighting all natural or native attachments. This foreign is an object of desire. Is it sustainable for long? The exotic and the eccentric come thus natural to Vorticism with or without the gestures of grandeur in Pound and Lewis, also gestures of provocation, inevitably tinged with cutting, tongue-in-cheek in-the-joke, in-your-face humor by a cadre of artists in para-academic settings: think cabaret settings. Is virility in this realm of aesthetics valid vocabulary accordingly? I made the connection with the profile of Mussolini, a favorite of Pound, by Thayat (Ernesto Michahelles, 1893-1959): Antique helmet, bullet, phallus or the solid headpiece of the charismatic leader?, as it was included in the exhibit at the Guggenheim, “Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany, 1918-1936,” covered in previous Culture Bites.

 

 

 

 

 

This was a return of sorts for me. I had not returned to Wyndham Lewis after reading his Machiavelli book almost two decades ago, which has to be properly placed against such proto-fascist background. It is incredible to think on the confluence of so many authors, right, left and liberal, around the figure of the Florentine (Gramsci, Althusser, Pocock to cite but three). Original samples of the short-lived magazine BLAST were included in the exhibit. And their fresh attitude of non-compromise and typographic experimentalism still holds your attention. The will to style by BLAST still catches your mind’s eye, ye how will you risk the vertigo of the vortex? “Early modern”  experimentalism typified by Vorticism: the tear of the symbolic texture: permanent or temporary? The give and take, the blasting and the blessing, between different cultural aspects, English and foreign, in a general xenophilic manner, I would defend, supported by a certain cosmopolitanism within the Western frame (no allusion to the contemporaneous Russian experimentalism either, and this expansive internationalism surely remains collective homework for future endeavors). There is however cat’s cradle game of national allegories, not yet cut high and dry in canonical renditions. This is the postmodern predicament: this apparently normalized post-canonicity. Never to be blinded by stylistic fetishisms, the final section will include comments by the American cultural critic Fredric Jameson and by the French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky, an odd pair admittedly, in relation to the class mannerisms of this first modernist moment that we have may have left behind, certainly chronologically speaking.

 

There is undeniable, nervous energy, a kind of existential, rootless restlessness, that the few pieces gathered in the exhibit manage to transmit successfully to the curious visitor. Typographically, we are in the realm of image-textual cut-and-paste juxtaposition, of eminent parataxis, treading the thin line of congruity and incongruity, of mixed, serious and ludic, mocking or iconoclastic disposition towards univocity. Check it out:

BLESS ENGLISH HUMOUR

It is the great barbarous weapon of

the genius among races.

The wild MOUNTAIN RAILWAY from IDEA

to IDEA, in the ancient Fair of LIFE.

BLESS SWIFT for his solemn bleak

Wisdom of laughter.

SHAKESPEARE for his bitter Northern

Rhetoric of humour

BLESS ALL ENGLISH EYES

that grow crows-feet with their

FANCY and  ENERGY.

BLESS this hysterical WALL built round

the EGO.

BLESS the solitude of LAUGHTER.

BLESS the separating, ungregarious

BRITISH GRIN.


Such poetic intelligence catches your mind as well as your eye with repetition in the good sense of the last word. You cannot quite pin down the nature of the blessing in one satisfactory synthesis, but this language is still alive –and kicking. The composition holds delight in an unpredictable, surprising, asymmetrical manner. The poem is pleasant to look at, delicious in the intake with a vengeance against all the opposite values (of predictability, symmetry, comfortable commonplace). Is there anything comparable in our time to such Vorticist gesture, even in its proto-fascism, surely to be publicly disavowed? Has this energetic modality now gone to the postmodern world of marketing pushing the customer to some happy purchase? Has the manufacture of thin line between congruity and incongruity gone global? I can think of comparisons with the early poetry of Dámaso Alonso, Hijos de la Ira: “Madrid es una ciudad de más de un millón de muertos…” Or with the poetry of e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams.  Or, with the music of Talking Heads and the Pixies to name but two. I confess to liking better the explicitness of the embedded social dimension in the very fabric of the textual construction. See the provocation:

MANIFESTO.

I.

Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish

ourselves.

We start from opposite statements of a chosen

world. Set up violent structure of adolescent

clearness between two extremes.

We discharge ourselves on both sides.

We fight first on one side, then on the other,

but always for the SAME cause, which is

neither side or both sides and ours.

Mercenaries were always the best troops.

We are Primitive Mercenaries in the Modern

World.

Our Cause Is NO-MAN’S.

We set Humour at Humour’s throat.

Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.

We only want Humour if it has fought like

Tragedy.

We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-

muscles like hands on it’s belly, and bring to

the surface a laugh like a bomb.

There is no explicit affirmation of any center. Provocation means to push, to give a jolt, to generate a shake-up to your frames of intelligibility. Do the capital letters give any indication of a direction? There is energetic interpellation of this language in a world that appears to be splitting apart. Suspend for a minute the direct –and false—correspondence with the historical and social context, escort service to this language game. This poetry has the beauty of a negative, rupture formulation to the schools of thought and practice that may have preceded. Anti-traditionalism comes natural to these metics, ever so gradually assimilated by the establishment (Pound never quite made it there). Hence a modicum of anti-establishment attitudes still lingers in the Vorticists. This is accordingly the beauty of something out of shape, of a torn form. There is game with formation and deformation. The poem wants to signify formally, visually in silver-bullet one-liners passing through repetitive, mechanical rhythms of diction. This is poetry that wants public display and collective reading. There is unsentimentality about representation and figuration. This is the proto-moment of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, also of Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mairena: loss of individuality and identity. Suspend ontological dispositions: these are movable markers of social performance. Does the center of the vortex hold anything? The subject matter and the subject of diction play with content with an eye to the intensification of the combinatory formal possibilities. Perhaps this is pertinent yahoo language in our world of virtuality: “An identity is a unique identifier that belongs to you and only you. Your Yahoo ID is an identity. You may make any of your verified email addresses identities. You can add or delete identities at any time on the Identity Management page.” Good riddance. Use your favorite expletive. Some of this game is what the Vorticists are always already anticipating for our post- or hyper-modernity: One and many, sameness and difference, singularity and plurality, one and many languages. The gain?

The explicit mood of this exhibited Vorticism is, at least initially, on the surface of it, the opposite of social peace (Fredric Jameson’s generalization to be included later will leave us thinking otherwise in the vicinity of the class-belonging of these artists). We have naturalized the etymology: cinematography, images in motion. Telephone, television: voice and image about something at a considerable distance, from afar. Teleology? Emphasis on the timespace of here-and-now: immanence. Compression of timespaces: Virilian landscape. In the same years, Woodrow Wilson watches the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), originally called “the Clansman” in the White House. Did Wilson like early modernist art? That’s a good question for another time and place. I feel the President would not go out his Parisian way to catch the poetry of his compatriots Eliot and Pound. Did he patronize cabarets and nightclubs, the noted The Cave of the Golden Calf for example, where such art was on display? Did the promoter of Francisco de Vitoria, James Brown Scott, do otherwise? The juxtaposition of aesthetics and politics is certainly engaging topic of interest, particularly in this moment of international conflagration: how many dare step outside the assigned national boxes? Vorticism emerges in the Italian-English divide in what was once a bridge: Marinetti’s Manifesto infuriates Lewis who announces Vorticism in the Vital English Art, Futurist Manifesto of 1914, to cure English art of the most grave of maladies: passéism:

  1. Against the worship of tradition and the conservatism of Academies, the commercial acquiescence of English artists, the effeminacy of their art and their complete absorption towards a purely decorative art
  2. Against the pessimistic, skeptical and narrow view of the English public who stupidly adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, sweet, and mediocre, the sickly revivals of medievalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements, the Maypale Morris dances, Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-primitives and Paris.

Despite the narcissism of small –or not so small—differences between these fussy peacocks rubbing their feathers against each other in limited social spaces, what remains is this historical fascination with modern mobility and travel, with the fragmented, interwoven fabric of incoherent life, the sense of flux, the convulsive forms of dockland machinery, the collage of transatlantic liners, the de-figuration or miniaturization of the human figure. Does the vocabulary of de-humanization, whether used pejoratively or descriptively neutral, imply an assumed ontology of the human condition? And how to find it convincingly in The Arrival (1913) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946), and The Mud Bath, (1914) by David Bomberg (1890-1957)?

There is monumentality in the sculptures Rock Drill and Birth (1913-1914), by Jacob Epstein previously mentioned. Think about the other side of pretty inside a gravitational pull towards technology and the rule of the machines (androids?) sucking the human form into its vortex. There is no explicit “ground” in this technocentrism that I could detect in the exhibit. Vorticism appears to subordinate art to the role of escort service or fitful, also faithful?, handmaiden to the centrality of this technicity (you may wish to recall Heidegger’s definition of early Nazism as the synthesis of machine and ground, of technology and collectivity, politically defined against an enemy in the formulation of Schmitt). Your film recollection will instantly bring Hollywood images of extraterrestrial creatures stealing your planet from you. These are the forms of interest to Epstein. Yet,  suspend figuration and embrace the deliberate mechanism of defamiliarization and travel with it paying close-up attention to the materials and shapes in front of your senses and try to follow the desire to make the organic into something hard and durable. This ideal of durability and order is the double main thesis of this Tate Britain exhibit, in the vicinity of the fascistic seduction also in the aforementioned Guggenheim exhibit: paradoxical permanence of impermanence so to speak? Is this a petty bourgeois ideal that tries to consolidate class belonging within the existing de- or re-structurations of capitalism? Is Epstein’s sculpture emblematic of the heroism of the android figure undergoing a machine-like re-birth or a deliberate dehumanization? Is alienation appropriate “negative” language here in the “face” of the positivity of this act of intellectual production or artistic creation? But Epstein’s sculptures have no “face.” There is some anthropomorphism but no clues as to what to do with it. The impact of mechanized warfare is unavoidable: are these figures soldiers, workers? The language of masculinity comes trippingly to the tongue. If so, what are we to make of this inverted, inserted “creature” (a foetus?) in the abdomen of this muscular, virile figure? Eminent creature of an androgynous modernity? Or perhaps hermaphrodite? Is it right to sexualize these forms of abstraction with no “obvious” sexual markers? Is there celebration of arduous work in Rock Drill? Lipovetsky will square the circle in the end with a second type of sexualization, perhaps a second provocation. This is an art of agitation for agitated times. “The Vortex is the point of maximum energy” (Pound):

 

You may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the top of circumstance, as the plastic substance RECEIVING impressions. Or you may think of him as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting.

The point appears to be the maintenance of the (illusion of) energy. There is the insinuation of release, no recollection, tension, no distension, game, no unique objective, clear goal or all-satisfying gain. The manageable exhibit manages to put together literary sheet samples of “loud” typographic design (BLAST-type textuality), bi-dimensionality (painting) and three-dimensionality (sculpture). The winning perception will be of the convergence of forms and ours is the time of the domination of visuality in increasingly faster motion. What would cause to want to stay put in the assigned places? This is a vigorous, experimental formalism sitting uncomfortably in the skin of artists, who do not hesitate to call themselves “savages,” while providing escort service to mechanical-technological transformations: oppositionality, when the dominant language is of (modern, industrial) “civilization.” Hence, vorticism: “cultural” symptom of civilization and its discontents in the Freudian formula. Lewis accuses Marinetti of having a limited imagination in what still appears to be a compliment that can be extrapolated: “this enormous, jangling, journalistic, fairy desert of modern life serves him as Nature did more technically primitive man.” Naturally, the “n-noun” loses its potency. Nature appears to go lower case with the Vorticists. Technology is the new nature –or rather the name domain– of these early modernists, with or without the adoration of the masses. In fact, it was the opposite, a minority affair. The first Vorticist exhibition in June 1915 drew little critical response, and surely the same on the other side of the Atlantic. The “over-bearing” Lewis, the adjective is granted by Jameson, brings a second exhibition at the Penguin Club in New York City in January 1917, but the exhibit does not include samples, unless my memory fails me here. These are pre-MOMA and pre-Guggenheim moments of early (read: European-based) modernism. This “early modernity,” is still today resilient global referentiality, perhaps eroded and shattered Western canon, paradoxically radical and classical, the last one immediate horizon to go when all others have long gone etherized against the de-traditionalizated collapse of historicity.

Hence, we are dealing with at least two isolated, otherworldly sculptural figures in no recognizable background. And I find myself wanting there were more than two. And we must imagine the relative isolation of the artists, when not public derision. The canvases convey a bird’s eye-view perspective of unidentifiable collectivities in vertically impossible environments, indeed inhospitable set-ups, let us call them “cities.” Wyndham Lewis, the Crowd (1914-15) is one example of the dear theme of the mobilization of a country. Yet what type of action do we have here? What is the pictorial happening here? It is not easy to say. Where is the movement one of falling out or falling down of rectangular, cuadrangular shapes? There is an almost fearful geometric formulation of social relations contained, perhaps trapped by vertical lines separating solid color. There is no explicit perspective, no line of fugue, no transcendence. How to linger for long in this deliberately inhospitable abstraction?

Will Vorticist women give you consolation? Think otherwise. The exhibit includes the collages of Dorothy Shakespear (1886-1873), who married Ezra Pound. Her compositions mark a strategy for the suggestion of movement of unconventional shapes (rectangles?, irregular cubes?), inside an apparent disregard for compositional structure. Shakespear’s lack of figurative references and eminent concern with dynamic pattering combines with another lack, that of texture. Force yourself to positivize the lack: there is some graceful levity here. This is painting liberated from and unsupported by many elements previously taken for granted: bearable lightness of artistic being, accordingly?

 

 

By comparison, try to see if you manage a reliable composition in the following beauty playing with referentiality: “Vision of a certain lady. Post Mortem,” by Ezra Pound.

 

A brown, fat babe sitting in the lotos

And you were glad and laughing

With a laughter not of this world.

It is good to splash in the water

And laughter is the end of all things

(Blast, issue 1 July 1914).

How to go about the correspondence between the babe and the “you” and the speaking persona? What logical coherence may reinforce the parataxis? These artists play with multi-directional signification. The point appears to be to break free from the one point of certainty. The gain of this game is the revivification of the artistic medium (language for a poet, paint, canvas for a painter, machine-man hybridity in the sculpture, etc.) receiving impressions and directing them in conceptual form against circumstances. Impressions of what? And the point of the situational engagement? And what about that circumstantialism? Pity:the exhibit does not want to address these issues.

 

 

 

 

Think your imagination can inhabit Helen Saunders, Island of Laputa (1915)? The flying island of Laputa has no inhabitants and plenty of geometric analogies. Angular mishmash of zigzag shapes and hard hedged patterns, “Bless Swift for his solemn,bleak wisdom of laughter.” Any positive content in this laughter? Isn’t this mostly a iconoclastic, disruptive impulse? Less solid, less centered than Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Are Vorticists doing Gullible’s travels then? The satirist position, perhaps more present in the prose than the poetry of these early modernists, still must cling to a fixed-point of moral-intellectual certainty that appears less and less possible as the last century advances. The pieces are not forthcoming in this regard. Any center for the Vorticists in the London-New York transit in the first two decades? Can we apprehend the acceleration of these timespaces? Can we grab the center of the tornado?

The experimentalism of Alvin Coburn (1882-1966)’s vortographs is included in the final section of the Tate Britain exhibit. The vortoscope was a kaleidoscopic instrument made of three mirrors and arranged as a triangle that was then attached to the front of the camera so that the diagonal, fractured structures favored by Vorticist designs appear in the final result of the photography. It was not popular with the masses who must have wanted something like a faithful lifelikeness of dear ones to smile adoringly back in the palm of the hand. But hold on to the idea of machine production of fractured multi-perspectivism in a disposition that refuses “mirror of nature” correspondences, anti-naturalistically speaking. What if the abstraction of the painting “reality” breaks fundamentally down to the intersection of lines dividing contrasting colored shapes? This may not give you the faithful, smiling face of your beloved, but other things will surely come up.

 

I wish to finish with a double sociological closure, mainly to dismount the determined will to forceful style from the high horse and polemically dress it down with espadrilles in relation to one particular social class that never gets praise, the petty-bourgeoisie. The identity is that of proto-fascism and Western modernism. Fredric Jameson in his early Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, The Modernist as Fascist ([1979] Verso edition, 2008), follows Nicos Poulantzas and Martin Kitchen: “Protofascism may be characterized as a shifting strategy of class alliances whereby an initially strong populist and anticapitalist impulse is gradually readapted to the ideological habits of a petty bourgeoisie, which can itself be displaced when, with the consolidation of the fascist state, effective power passes back into the hands of big business” (p. 15).

 

Surprisingly for works of art that appear obsessed with fractured perspectivism, the unsatisfactoriness of the “conservative” cultural criticism is typified by Lewis inside such proto-fascist milieu in the following way: “The “petty-bourgeois” stance in Lewis’ work can best be detected in the obsessive formal problem of the social and narrative place to be assigned to the essentially placeless observer/satirist. All the classical descriptions of petty-bourgeois ideology have stressed the way in which the structural instability of this “class” (neither proletariat nor classical bourgeoisie, let alone big business; living in a permanent anxiety of proletarianization) inscribes itself in its thought in the form of what Barthes has called its “neither-nor-ism,” in its mirage of social harmony (archetypally dramatized by the class handshake at the end of Lang’s Metropolis), and in the valorization of those purely intellectual skills –science, education, bureaucratic service—which might lend it a non-class-based legitimation. The ideological defense of culture, in particular, explains the potential usefulness of the petty-bourgeois stance as a working ideology for intellectuals at the same time that it accounts for the attractiveness of the state itself for the petty bourgeoisie, which it projects, in its own image, as an arbiter above the social classes (p. 17, my emphasis).

 

 

Culture bites has to be pay attention to the main and qualifying noun in its title. Impossible not to think of the looking shadow of the funcionario vitalicio on the European side of things, the slow-motion dinosaur of the public university in the vicinity of which intellectuality may have been said to have lived something of a meaningful life. But America made this “security” a thing of the past in the wings of the corporate university currently undergoing liquidation of the “public humanities.” Is aesthetic still agitation?  Isn’t the invocation of “culture” thus in the abstraction more suspicious than anything else? There is more: “The intellectual authority of the culture critique depends on the repression of this concrete social situation, and on the projection of its anxieties into some more timeless realm of moral judgment: the sense of placelessness, the illusion of absolute values thereby produced, discloses the constitutive idealism of this genre [of cultural critique], which formally tends to express a classical conservatism even when its content seems to contradict the form. Lewis was often, in this sense, merely a conservative. Where his polemics become formally and ideologically revealing are those moments in which the idealistic framework of the culture critique is briefly and with fitful, energetic impatience unmasked. At such moments, indeed, the rhetoric of conservative thought, which has ended up believing in its own official solicitude for Culture, gives way to the unpleasant and embarrassing cynicism of protofascism itself, which knows its intellectual practice as something other than the disinterested guardianship of universal values. In these moments, an embattled and Darwinian defense of the subject’s own threatened position and individual pretense of philosophical discourse and the rights of privilege are openly affirmed against the threat of the self of some genuinely universal vision of human society. This is, it seems to me, the essential spirit of Lewis’ otherwise conceptually untenable “justification by the eye” of his “occupational” philosophy” (p. 129).

The Tate Britain exhibit remains inspiring, if modest and self-contained, English-only in its island if you wish, also repressed in the interpretive impulse that handles the Avant-Garde dimension of the Vorticists and others typically heralded as artists for a modern world. The exhibit includes no one single interpretation of Vorticism except the strong suggestion of the “radical” experimentation with formalism. No one, not many: there is accordingly less of a suggestion towards plurality of options and roads to take towards interpretations (what about revolutionary Russia?; what about migrant Latin Americans and Spaniards?). There is silence about the social provenance of the cosmopolitan artists included (does the cosmopolitanism stay strong upon close inspection?; do the foreign languages remain sexy upon perusal?). There is one final connection made by Jameson, following J.P. Stern, in relation to Hitler’s own political conversion: “What divided him from socialism was the most tenaciously held and desperate of social attitudes, the petit-bourgeois fear of déclassement” (p. 58). Some of this may be at work with the two big  American expatriates, Pound and Eliot, and this type of social classification, which does not have to feel like rigid corset, puts Eliot’s early-poetry fears –but also your young-man attachments– in perspective. “Unreal City / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn… “ One must learn to relativize and socialize these fears later in life (what about turning Eliot’s disparaging remarks about Poe against himself?). Still one more Jameson quote: “The central social anxiety of its bourgeois readership, namely the terror of déclassement and of proletarianization, the nightmare of slipping back down the social ladder, losing your painfully won savings and business and professional status and sinking into a misery you only know from without, as the squalor of proletarian neighborhoods and the drunken hebetude of workers or the brutish mutism of a sullen peasantry” (p. 113).

The “final solution” of the religiosity of the Four Quartets may also be “socialized” that way, buying the abstraction of the assimilation of the persistent foreign petty-bourgeois engaged in the practice of the beautiful letters, not fully institutionalized, and refusing to leave behind an European society undergoing major upheaval. Eliot remains today canonic figure, and somewhat old-fashioned (bowler) hat, currently undergoing a revival of sorts, while his “big brother” Pound remains still intractable, much more difficult and alien, more foreign, still persona non grata in literary American circles, due to the Mussolini seductions. This type of sociology of knowledge production, aesthetics included, does not mean that one has to go for social determinisms of any kind: at least it puts formalisms in between social content and historical process. I wish to bring to mind a second great text The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger ([1988] 1991) by Pierre Bourdieu, in which he speaks of two petty-bourgeois figures, the “dark-skinned” Heidegger vis-a-vis the upper-class art historian with blue eyes from Vienna, and also of  the high-school teacher Camus “exiled” in the French colony of Morocco and writing the text that will become the Plague. I am sure the interested reader of these pages will not find it difficult to decorate the profession of the foreign humanities in the home of the brave with figures of identical class extraction. Heads or tails? Bless or blast? There is ample use of national labels in the Vorticist poetry included in the exhibit, while the explicit geography remains onion-centered European across the English Channel. Yet the poetry is willing to go to the other side of the fence of the prosaic. Greener grass over there? Well, it depends how you swing it. The winning move is cutting humor in moments of war conflict, and there is no need to cling like crazy to the specificity of the Vorticists in this regard. I must say that I fail to see any allegorical closure or synthesis, at least in the examples included, in such allegorical use of nimble hands and feet. I am willing to concede to a certain, open use of the allegorical form, and to the whiff of nationalism, but xenophobes will not be inclined to rush to raise their flags proudly after the reading of Vorticist literature. Playfulness takes national affiliations in many directions, blessing and blasting everybody so to speak. See:    

OH BLAST FRANCE

pig plagiarism

BELLY

SLIPPERS

POODLE TEMPER

BAD MUSIC

SENTIMENTAL GALLIC GUSH

SENSATIONALISM

FUSSINESS.

PARISIAN PAROCHIALISM.         Complacent young man,

so much respect for Papa

and his son !—Oh !—Papa

is wonderful: but all papas

are !

BLAST

APERITIFS (Pernots, Amers picon)

Bad change

Naively seductive Houri salon-

picture Cocottes

Slouching blue porters (can

carry a pantechnicon)

Stupidity rapacious people at

every step

Economy maniacs

Bouillon Kub (for being a bad

pun)

PARIS. Clap-trap Heaven of amative German

professor.

Ubiquitous lines of silly little trees.

Arcs de Triomphe.

Imperturbable, endless prettiness.

Large empty cliques, higher up.

Bad air for the individual.

BLAST

MECCA OF THE AMERICAN

because it is not other side of Suez Canal,  instead of an

afternoon’s ride from London.


These are sections six and seven of the Manifest:  

VI.

The Modern World is due almost entirely to

Anglo-Saxon genius,—its appearance and its

spirit.

Machinery, trains, steam-ships, all that dis-

tinguishes externally our time, came far

more from here than anywhere else.

In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE,

that is, ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in

the same way that France has in Art.

But busy with this LIFE-EFFORT, she has been

the last to become conscious of the Art that

is an organism of this new Order and Will of Man.

Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: inci-

dentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a

narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.

By mechanical inventiveness, too, just as English-

men have spread themselves all over the

Earth, they have brought all the hemispheres

about them in their original island.

It cannot be said that the complication of the

Jungle, dramatic tropic growths, the vastness

of American trees, is not for us.

For, in the forms of machinery, Factories, new

and vaster buildings, bridges and works, we

have all that, naturally, around us.


VII.

Once this consciousness towards the new

possibilities of expression in present life has

come, however, it will be more the legitimate

property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe.

It should also, as it is by origin theirs, inspire

them more forcibly and directly.

They are the inventors of this bareness and

hardness, and should be the great enemies

of Romance.

The Romance peoples will always be, at bottom,

its defenders.

The Latins are at present, for instance, in their

“discovery” of sport, their Futuristic gush over

machines, aeroplanes, etc., the most romantic

and sentimental “moderns” to be found.

It is only the second-rate people in France or

Italy who are thorough revolutionaries.

In England, on the other hand, there is no

vulgarity in revolt.

Or, rather, there is no revolt, it is the normal

state.

So often rebels of the North and the South are

diametrically opposed species.

The nearest thing in England to a great traditional

French artist, is a great revolutionary English

one.

Admittedly, there is something of a subordination for the Romance and the Latins to the “Anglo-Saxon genius,” how not to geopolitically in this timeframe?, but there is also rescue, certainly in Pound and Eliot, in the sphere of poetic inspiration and high culture. It must be underlined that the entity that one may still call the United States is nowhere to be seen in the exhibit and perhaps highlighting the American provenance of some of these members would have been a good thing. I would call this use or abuse of nationalism allegorical provocation that is far away from being dead certain, definite and closed as Renaissance and Baroque modalities of historical certainty, for example in Fernán González de Eslava and Pedro Calderón de la Barca to name but two foreign examples on both sides of the Hispanic Atlantic. I see in the BLAST selections a will to polemics in the explicit predilection for certain authors and trajectories. But it is more poke in the rubs and fingers in the eye socket than sustained exercises in jingoism.  I may be wrong but I still fail to see anything like the writings of Baltasar Gracián, to name a third Spanish author. On this one, I cannot resist quoting Jameson one more time in some disagreement: “The use of national types projects an essentially allegorical mode of representation, in which the individual characters figure those more abstract national characteristics, which are read as their inner essence. In its simplest form, that of the contemplation of a single foreign national essence alone, such allegory often serves as the instrument of cultural critique: thus Stendhal’s heroic images of the Italian or the Spanish temperament are designed to humiliate the conformistic philistinism of the French business classes of his time by juxtaposing it with the gestus of a vanished Renaissance” (p. 90). At least in relation to the materials in the exhibit, I wish to suspend the essentialisms and make the allegorical forms much more elastic and pliable, multi-directional: the national label is but one card to play in the game of aesthetics among others. I feel we do not have the plasticity a hundred years later, much less the daring attitude, of such experimental national-allegorical language anymore. Our moment is a much more institutionalized and euphemistic, and hence indirect and also insidious “cultural profiling,” particularly in the conservative academic consolidations and perhaps the advertising machine of hyper- or post-modernity will provide variation games and occasional suspensions. A certain parochialism in this early modernism remains however unvarnished rock for the interpreations of future generations to drill, the foreign-language skills of both Eliot and Pound left much to be desired for example, and the isolation of the “province” of Europe –i.e. the horizon of the West– including the United States, is no longer sustainable.

 

I wish to close down with a reference to the sexualization modality (male / female) of the paradoxical happiness of Gilles Lipovetsky’s market-society sociology as a kind of future imperfect of the “early modern” Vorticist moment. Lipovetsky covers after all the same fundamental vortex of social-national space reduction as the Tate Britain exhibit. The fundamental message is comparable in a way to the film-making of the Italian Marco Ferreri: Il futuro e donna (1984). The future is woman. Of what kind?:   “If the design of the first modernity was angular and ascetic, the second modernity wants to be cordial, feminine, non-aggressive, in response to the necessities of greater comfort and a tranquilizing environment. In this softening process, the technological forms prime tactile sensations, projects rest, conveys a fluid and soothing type of comfort: a strong tendency in actual design promotes an imaginary of Apollinean and eurythmic sensuality” (my translation out of the Spanish version, Gilles Lipovetsky’s La Felicidad Paradójica Barcelona: Anagrama, [2007], Serie “Compactos,” 2010, p. 220).   More: “If a tendency in actual design favors humor and fantasy, another, more popular, goes for simple and warm modalities, in the manner of Scandinavian furniture, of white wood and bright colors. In this context, light and natural materials are preferred, also furniture that can be folded, easy to use, place and move around, anything that allows you to gain space [is preferred]. Bourgeois style, full of clutter and excessive decoration and ornamentation has expired as much as aseptic functionalism. Hypermodern design privileges lightness, mobility, adjustability, the intercourse of functional and what is sensual, the cleaned-up and the communal, nomadism and ludism. Neo-design seeks the psychological and sensual comfort in response to the system of references of the departmentalized hyper-individual” (p. 221).

Feel free to take the design of objects to the exercise of intelligence and sensibility. More: “Some speak of “postculture;” others more radical, put on the table the tremendous crisis of signification, an accelerated phase of things coming apart and decomposition that takes normativity away from individuals, but also values, necessary motivations for the functioning of society. Others go even further to signal our entrance in the “posthistory,” which coincides with “an animalized and infantilized” humanity, since everything that used to constitute man proper –work, fight to death, conflict, contradiction—has no heirs. In the city of letters, catastrophism is the card most often handed out and played” (p. 345).  Lipovetsky leans on authors such as George Steiner, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Philippe Muray. The French sociologist shies away from social catastrophism and I think there is a point in the contrast between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end that turns into our century. I simply want now to highlight the contrast between the early moderns and the late modern, or the postmodern horizon, that makes the Vorticists and others with them our meaningful history. With or without the male/female manner of speech, Lipovestsky still conveys something I think meaningful in relation to aesthetic and political forms. Unlike early Jameson, the French sociologist typically downplays class affiliations, which he deems them less relevant or even irrelevant. Interestingly, I don’t think Jameson maintains this type of class reading in relation to his controversial synthetic proposals for Third World national-allegory modalities. It is not a matter of sifting the historical sands to find the little piece of gold and safe social truth in relation to the one nice artist seeking progressive social change. One may feel instead often put between a rock –to drill—and a hard place –to run away from, if you can. The said predilection for soft (female) forms in our immediate timespace of hyper-modernity does not have to translate into automatic desirability either, not even in the paradoxical rendering of the French sociologist who is willing to admit to some problems in hyper-modernity he would not exchange for anything else. Cultural conservatism of this intelligent sociology, accordingly? And what would the other side of this “cultural” and this “conservatism” ever be or do for us on the London side of the Atlantic or elsewhere? Such more round or softer “design” can in fact turn into a more indirect or subtle, more insidious form of control and domination, as in the formula “soft power” popularized by Joseph Nye in the context of US foreign relations, level of social relations less pressing for Lipovetsky, but also for Jameson. The previous (male) aesthetic aggressivity that has concerned these pages here –that of Epstein, Bomberg, Shakespear, Saunders, Pound, Eliot and Lewis–  may indeed well go some way, or all the way, to (want to) embrace the cultural conservatism of petty-bourgeois (proto-)fascism, at least according to Jameson. So, pick your favorite poison with no carefree cheerfulness, and since “laughter is the end of all things,” remember the following joke: the waiter approaches the customer and asks, what is it going to be, sir, wine or beer? And the good customer responds, “and why “or”? Cheers!

 

Any comments, questions, issues for FGH? Get in touch, fgh2173@gmail.com