Friday, October 24, 2014

No help at all

Painting is practical day-to-day thing I think. One might say something clever, one might say something big, but one does something limited. It’s a serious thing – like religion – like love – one does the persistent thing, and then the really remarkable happens when something’s there that wasn’t there before.
Frank Auerbach's words from fifty years ago were pasted above my student work desk without ever prompting attention. Inspirational quotes are there to be ignored, after all. Only lately has the contrast between his trust in a modest routine and apparent wonder in the presence of art demanded examination. After so much striving, after so much art, what is this something there?

The answer is obvious: a rectangle with colours. Except not all paintings are 'really remarkable', as confirmed by Auerbach's fame for regularly scraping the paint from the canvas to start again and his recent description of "laying siege to the subject" in order to "work through [draughtmanship] to something deeper". How this depth works through practical components is unclear, but it would at least mean the value unique to a painting is never reducible to physical matter despite only ever being physical matter. We all know this already without worrying for too long about its implications, especially as it is safer to chatter about content than to ask, again, what is this something there?

How indeed can we talk beyond content, especially lately when content has become everything? Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle novel sequence and Mark Kozelek's recent LPs are prime examples of a zeitgeist in which oddly mundane content takes precedence, salinising poetic abstractions. Not, that is, fictionalised autobiography or misery memoir in which every description, anecdote and incident is a necessary part of a whole and leads somewhere in more or less artful fashion, but a focus on the apparently random and indeterminate.

Since at least the presumption of David Shields' Reality Hunger that the primary motivation for artists is to get closer to reality, the remove of art has been placed under quarantine, suspected of infecting readers with unhealthy deceit and indulgent fantasy, and in response these artists appear to be in the vanguard of an extreme supersession to the everyday.

(This is where one is supposed to cite examples – he writes about changing a nappy! he sings about building a house! – but this would make both sound like stunts, literary or musical readymades. So let a song sing for itself.)

Kozelek explains his new mode of songwriting as part of a wish to let go ("I wanted to give my first instincts a chance without shooting them down immediately"), while Knausgaard famously dispensed with attempts to write a novel and just wrote about his life, thousands of words a day for three years. Both appear to be shortcuts to "something there", and certainly their improvised and headlong nature never allow content and form to resolve, thereby disconcerting critical expectations of transcendent mastery.

Why is this happening? In Kozelek's case, it might easily alienate his core audience, used to swooning to the chiming sentiments of Carry Me Ohio, and Knausgaard's critical and sales success has come at the price of abasing himself before the world, so cynical career moves they are not.

Perhaps they have turned toward the quotidian because they recognise a subtler malady, so while the zeitgeist appears as only the latest cure for a virus whose quack remedies have included a 21st century Charles Dickens and HBO serials written by Shakespeare, the most notable symptom is revealed here as the ache of what escapes content, the earworm nagging at us all, that which infects even as the lock snaps shut on the quarantine cell. If this movement is toward anything then, it is toward the remove of the everyday; a conclusion that helps no one and prompts only the same question and demands the same response: not an ontology of art to be erected inside a critical, philosophical or theological apparatus, because this would be content too, but instead writing, and writing alone. A serious thing.


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