September 3, 2011
Money is in the Eye of the Beholder
By (Emory University)

We are fighting against all forms of lifeless attire which make man feel tired, depressed, miserable and sad, and which restrict movement producing a sad wanness.

–Giacomo Balla, Futurist Manifesto of Men’s Clothing (1913)

Last week’s episode of Project Runway (8/18) featured a guest judge, Joanna Coles, the recently anointed editor-in-chief of Marie Claire. Coles—former writer for The Guardian and Times of London and now Adweek’s editor of the year—has turned Marie Claire into the “anti-Vogue” for an anti-Vogue economy:

Instead of being a magazine about composure and remoteness—the Anna Wintour persona—Marie Claire became a fashion magazine about drive and ambition. It encouraged the moxie and the career tools with which you might actually buy the damn clothes. Whereas Anna’s Vogue makes its readers feel like outsiders—noses pressed to the glass—Joanna’s Marie Claire makes fashion seem, with a little hustle, quite attainable.1

Coles’ “anti-chic” attitude matches the needs of a “post-recession fashion magazine.” If Wintour made her name as fashion’s “Nuclear Wintour,” Coles made hers as the leader of the post Cold-War neoliberalization. As a former writer at Vogue lamented, Wintour was “obsessed only about reflecting the aspirations of a certain class of reader,” while Coles has opened the elite world of fashion to anyone with the “drive and ambition” to buy the clothes—largely the same ones featured in Vogue. Wintour’s distaste at running a piece featuring an airline stewardess (“she wouldn’t have a stewardess in the magazine”), a piece on breast-cancer no less, required that the staff go in search of a “businesswoman who’d had cancer.” Marie Claire was quick to respond to the outrage: a subsequent issue featured a story on a graphic novel about a “neurotic stewardess out to save the world.” For Wintour, Fashion magazines present us with “fictions”—lifestyle fantasies—while Coles imagines them to be anything but a world apart.

If the emotions captured by Vogue are of another, more glamorous life, then Marie Claire’s role is to insert those emotions into the life we already have. And unlike the epigrammatic Wintour, Cole has no hesitation about articulating her fashion philosophy. While excoriating one of the contestants on Project Runway about her ill-conceived and poorly constructed green blouse, Coles offered a brief summa of affect theory:

Clothes are emotional. When you put them on they make you feel something, and they make other people feel something when they see you in them. That makes me think your model is depressed. It makes me think you’re probably a bit depressed, too.

Coles then turned to her employee at Marie Claire, Nina Garcia, one of the three core judges on Project Runway along with Heidi Klum and Michael Kors, and said: “if Nina came in wearing that, honestly, I’d think she was ill.” The logic is clear. Coles describes a causal chain of depressive affects: the designer is depressed; the garment she made is depressing; when the model puts the garment on she becomes depressed; those around or in view of the green blouse become depressed as well. It remains unclear whether we the viewers are supposed to be depressed watching this (this viewer can confirm that result).

Even within the hostile ranks of fashion judging, this is a harsh assessment. But then again, it’s not at all. Like a “degenerate artist,” one should “pity” the Project Runway designer (she’s clinically depressed, after all, so who can blame her) and then maybe legislate her green blouses out of existence, for they are making everyone ill. While there’s no theoretical problem in Coles’ remark that clothing can make one happy or sad, there is a potential political problem to the view that clothing determines how you feel about yourself and how others feel about you. The temptation, for instance, is to say that intentional objects—like artworks—bear affective properties that cause bodily responses. Which means that if we really believe what Coles is saying we might make clothes (and artworks) a matter of public policy. Dress codes for all.

Coles’ attitude toward the green blouse evokes Max Nordau’s discussion of color in Degeneration (1892) when he describes how the

sight of violet has a depressing effect, and the unpleasant feeling awakened by it induces dejection in a sorrowfully-disposed mind. This suggests that painters suffering from hysteria and neurasthenia will be inclined to cover their pictures uniformly with the color most in accordance with their condition of lassitude and exhaustion.2

On this account we might suspect that the designer of the green blouse was fighting her urge to make it violet but that the truth of her depressive cast of mind could not be suppressed. Of course, for Nordau the viewer has to be disposed toward the effect for it to take hold; he never imagined that any and everyone would be infected by the color (his race theory did not permit such an easy infection).3 This also meant that the potential threat of depressive colors was rather minimal, or at least easy to monitor.

Earlier in the show Coles heaped praise on a “fitted metallic-like gold top and a pair of expertly cut black pants”—the winning outfit of the episode—drawing on the same theoretical logic. “Clothes are transformative,” she said. “You wear that top and it transforms how you feel about yourself.” (As her later comments make clear, it transforms how all of us feel about ourselves.) “You can come in and do your expense forms in that and you’d feel like you were living a million-dollar lifestyle.” So while stewardesses don’t necessarily fill out expense forms, Coles’ ideal reader does in fact have a job, whereas Wintour’s is presumed not to need to work, even if she does. But Coles reveals something more crucial about affect theory here. When it comes to class, and not behavior, affect theory offers a special kind of “transformation” of the beholder. You feel like you’re a millionaire, even if no cash is forthcoming when you dress yourself in a gold top. While you are physically depressed by the green blouse, the gold top makes you feel like a million bucks. Of course what both the depressive green blouse and the “classy” gold top share is that none of the affects they generate is a product of the designer’s intention. It’s not as if Danielle Everine (the designer of the depressive ensemble) intended for her blouse to have a noxious effect on Coles. It had that effect on Coles (and everyone else, we presume), by virtue of the fact that Everine was clinically depressed, even if she didn’t know it (no evidence is forthcoming).4

A few days after the Project Runway episode aired the New York Times featured an article by economist Daniel Hamermesh entitled “Ugly? You May Have a Case” that largely supports Coles’ claims. Over the last twenty years Hamermesh has studied the economic impact of beauty versus ugliness. The results are conclusive (if anything but a revelation): “being attractive…helps you earn more money” and “Being good-looking is useful in so many ways.”5 In Hamermesh’s study, those in the bottom one-seventh in looks “earned 10 to 15 percent less per year” than those in the top one-third ($230,000 in a lifetime). What’s the cause of this? “Simple prejudice.” Although many of us imagine ourselves to be tolerant of the ugly, we actually prefer to make our transactions with good-looking people. “We are all responsible for these effects,” he laments. And the solution is the one offered by any neoliberal society: “offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals.”

Hamermesh considers various objections to this “new legal frontier.” Ugliness, he says, is “not a personal trait that many people choose to embrace.” And he’s right. But Hamermesh’s answer to the problem of anti-ugly prejudice is far more controversial: seek to reduce the number of ugly people. That is, he’s behind the neoliberal curve when he neglects to see how the ugly—alongside racial minorities, women and the handicapped—might in fact “choose to embrace” their ugliness (the beauty-capable). Hamermesh returns to the neoliberal fold, however, when he suggests how ultimately there is “one legitimate concern”: the effort to expand rights to yet another protected group would inevitably result in reduced protections for historically protected groups.

But this leaves us with the more basic problem of determining who is ugly and who is beautiful. While Coles suggests we can objectively identify beauty and Wintour tells us what beauty is, what can Hamermesh offer? One might argue—against Coles and Wintour—that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and therefore legislating it would be impossible. And that’s true, Hamermesh says, if one asks the question “who is the most beautiful person” within a delimited group of “beautiful people” (the example is patently tautological), then we might all have “different answers.” But when it comes to broader classes of attractiveness “we all view beauty similarly.” Problem solved.

Hamermesh’s claims put him in good company alongside Coles as well as historian and aesthetician E. H. Gombrich (1909-2001). Gombrich was above all interested in the “perceptual and emotional effect of elementary forms,”6 and his commitment to perceptual response made him notoriously averse to modernism’s commitment to intentionality. For Gombrich, whatever artists thought they were expressing was often at variance with what they were actually expressing with their works. Like Coles, Gombrich assumes that no one has to be taught to feel the emotion of forms, arguing that “artists have been aware of the expressive potentialities of shapes and colors long before expressionist theory seized upon that aspect of painting.” According to Gombrich, all viewers could gain “access to the workings of traditional symbolisms,” even of the most recondite variety, if they properly tuned in to the “structural relationships within a scale or matrix” of sense. Gombrich, like Hamermesh, offers two types of categories: delimited groups and general classes. And he is equally skeptical of the significance of the group; his focus lies with the broader biological consent. Here is Gombrich: “When we say that u is dark blue and i bright green [as Kandinsky does], we are talking playful nonsense, or serious nonsense if we are in earnest. But when we say that i is brighter than u, we find a surprising degree of general consent.”7 It is on the basis of this consent—based in turn on biology and not on artist “nonsense” (whatever they intend by their colors and words)—that Gombrich developed his prolific analyses of pictures. Like Hamermesh, Gombrich is distinguishing between the historical and contingent claims of a specific, small-scale group of viewers, and viewers at large. Although he rejected the absolutes of expressionist theory—the idea that “a given shape or color were inherently ‘charged’ with an expressive meaning that would explode in the mind of the beholder”—he nonetheless believed that conflicting aesthetic responses could be “reduced to unanimity” when a work is understood broadly as matter of affect.8 In the end Gombrich had no hesitation in saying that “There is such a thing as a gay melody and a cheerful color.”9 And again: “There is some inborn disposition in all of us to equate certain sensations with certain feeling tones.”10 What makes Gombrich’s claims more problematic than Coles’ is that he’s talking about artworks and not garments. That is, he’s talking about intentional objects in a way that Coles is not (or not explicitly). Following Gombrich’s logic here it seems pretty clear that if certain pictures are gay and some are depressive then we might well rid our walls of the latter and legislate for an abundance of the former.

Then again, what Coles and Hamermesh demonstrate, and what Gombrich fails to grasp, is how affect theory can function in a neoliberal economy. If certain gold tops make you feel like a millionaire and beautiful people make more money because they are beautiful, then the solution to poverty is clear: give Coles the chance to dress poor people in couture and lobby with Hamermesh for government subsidies of plastic surgery and gym memberships. While none of this will make any difference in the escalating numbers of poor, it might at least make a few sad souls (and the neighbors who have to look at them) feel like a million bucks.

REFERENCES

1. http://www.adweek.com/news/press/editor-year-joanna-coles-130741
2. Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York: Appleton, 1895), 29.
3. Nordau suggests that “the violet pictures of Manet and his school, which spring from no actually observable aspect of nature, originate from a subjective view due to the condition of the nerves” (ibid.).
4. While intentionality is hardly a problem designers need to worry about—no one imagines that clothes don’t have effects on wearers and those around them—it does become a problem when we begin to see clothing as a model for forms of art.
5. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/opinion/sunday/ugly-you-may-have-a-case.html
6. E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 168.
7. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956), 370.
8. Ibid., 373, 370.
9. Gombrich, “Expression and Communication” (1962), in Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 58.
10. Ibid.

***

Steve Buttes responds to Todd Cronan:

I’m troubled by your reading of the green blouse you mention.  Rather than produce “a causal chain of depressive affects” as you claim, one of the other guest judges affirmed that she “doesn’t hate it” and that the problem was simply that it wasn’t a design for Nina García, the judge and intended client for the challenge.  I bring this up not to quibble with your account of affect theory, which develops interesting relations between Coles and the others you mention, but rather because your analysis here speaks directly to a question I’ve been chewing on since your discussion with Michael Clune and Nicholas Brown in response to Walter Benn Michaels’ article a couple of months ago.

There, you critique both Clune and Brown’s interest in aesthetic autonomy by noting that they tend “to conceive a work as devoid of risk” and that to conceive of artworks in this way is to pose a “danger, [one that] is [characterized by] always succeeding in one’s aim (the aim being, not having one) and therefore always failing.”  I wouldn’t describe Brown’s argument as claiming that aesthetic autonomy has no aim but rather that if a work can be said to have an aim (a political one, that is) then it necessarily need be considered as aesthetically autonomous for that aim to become intelligible.  To make this point, Brown gives an account of artworks that, when reduced to commodities, can no longer (if they ever could) be understood with strategies of interpretation.  He states that the commodity is “uninterpretable” because it can’t have a meaning beyond its exchangeability in the market (which isn’t a meaning as such): “If a work of art is only a commodity, interpretive tools suddenly make no sense at all, since the form the object takes is determined elsewhere than where it is made, namely on the market.”  Even though the green blouse or the (winning) gold blouse in this episode were produced on a small scale (one piece for Nina García), they were produced with the goal of “answering a lot of working women’s problem of finding a look to go from day to night,” which is to say, they are producing an art commodity for a market niche.  Coles’ account of art commodities given in your piece, however, doesn’t highlight that Kimberly Goldson aesthetically solved a practical problem for the high end fashion market by interpreting her client’s desires but rather that the garments here are the products of the “unintentional” urges inside the designers’ heads.

It is certain gaps in these two non-intentional accounts of the art commodity (based in the market and in affect) that lead me to be less interested in the green blouse that elicits your discussion of affect theory and more interested in the design that received the worst critique of all in this episode: the dress that actually was “legislated out of existence” by being the loser in this challenge.   Unlike the green blouse, which made lots of people in this episode depressed, Julie Tierney’s losing dress simply made people confused: “we thought it could be on the top or on the bottom,” note the other designers.

Dialoguing, in a certain sense, with modernist forms—her design is “architectural” and composed of “blocks of color”— Julie, whom another contestant calls a “real artist,” failed because she produced what Coles calls “a new kind of thing.’”   Indeed, this “new kind of thing” (is it a dress? is it a coat? “it’s a ‘droat,’” says Coles disparagingly) is the one design that none of the judges could imagine having a consumer: “I can’t see you in this.  I can’t see anyone in this,” Heidi Klum complains.  Julie’s ambiguous art commodity, then, produces an interesting question: how do we account for dresses like hers?  That is, how should we react to what we could call unexchangeable or failed art commodities?

The force of this question becomes clear when Julie’s dress is contrasted with Kimberly’s winning gold top.  Here, the garment is not the one Kimberly wants (Kimberly mentions that she wanted to do a dress that incorporates brocades or, as she puts it, “what I want to do”) and as such is not composed of the author’s intentions: she makes another pair of the pants Nina García had liked in previous weeks, or what Kimberly calls in skeptical frustration (air quotes and all) “my pants.”  As Michael Kors points out, however, she successfully got “inside the head” of the “modern working woman,” and consequently her design graced ads on New York City taxi cabs advertising new fall fashions.

But, what to do with Julie’s dress?  This art commodity is not composed of the author’s intentions.  Such a work would be made without changing the garment (as Julie does with the collar) to satisfy the client (the market niche).  Importantly, however, it is not comprised of any existing market’s desires either: “I can’t imagine anyone wearing it.”  How, then, to treat this garment?  If an art commodity fails as a commodity does it necessarily become an artwork?  As failed art commodities disappear from retail stores, do outlet malls and clearance racks become suburban art museums: artworks produced for beholders (consumers) that do not exist?

While the political failure of “causal affective chains” are absolutely clear in your piece, I’m wondering how you might respond to failed art commodities like Julie’s dress.  How does the difficulty in pinning down intentionality in failed art commodities fit into or evade the political logic of neoliberalism?

Stephen M. Buttes is Assistant Professor of Spanish and Culture Studies Department of International Language and Culture Studies Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.

***

Charles Palermo responds to Stephen Buttes (and Nicholas Brown)

Stephen M. Buttes writes: “[Nicholas Brown] states that the commodity is ‘uninterpretable’ because it can’t have a meaning beyond its exchangeability in the market (which isn’t a meaning as such): ‘If a work of art is only a commodity, interpretive tools suddenly make no sense at all, since the form the object takes is determined elsewhere than where it is made, namely on the market.’”  Is that true?  Further, is he right to wonder whether a failed commodity will, on account of its failure, “necessarily become an artwork?”  I think the answer to both questions is “no.”  But I think they likewise raise important issues.

Works of art are complex things—by which I mean that they are multiple, divided things.  They are autonomous products of an artistic intention, available to interpretation.  They are also objects made for an audience and the market that arises among that audience.  Moreover, these two senses of the work of art are not independent of each other.  Historically, as Michael Fried has argued, art has lived by battling objecthood, by staging a denial of the “primordial convention” that it is “made to be beheld,” which I will take here to mean that it is made for its beholders in every sense, including the sense in which it is made to appeal to them and to open their wallets.11 What Fried does not argue—what would be mistaken to claim—is that successful art could or even should undo the fact that it is made for its beholders (and the market they constitute).  Is this not also the force of Walter Benn Michaels’ discussion of John Cage’s 4’33” in “Neoliberal Aesthetics: Fried, Rancière and the Form of the Photograph”?

It is no surprise that art often makes a theme of its relation to its objectified and commodified aspect.  Near the end of one of his greatest works, Wild Life on a Tidal Water (1890), the great Victorian photographer Peter Henry Emerson imagines the failure of a painting.  He imagines that the painting, executed by his friend and companion, T.F. “Dick” Goodall, has been sent from their houseboat in East Anglia down to London, where it will be displayed in a gallery.  The art press and the public will misunderstand it.  After it leaves the immediate circumstances of its making (the boat on which it was painted and from which the view it represents is available), it will become a mere object (for art criticism, for art history, for the art market).

I think Emerson’s judgment is deliberately naive.  He writes as if “presence” (in the sense postmodernist criticism intends) were necessary for understanding and as if the public life of the work of art were necessarily the end of its meaning.  He frames his book with a better lesson, though, which is meant (or so I take it) to correct the naive view his complaint about the painting’s fate exemplifies.

It’s a story about fish.  At the beginning of the book, in a passage that follows without transition the story of Goodall pointing out the view he aims to paint, Emerson explains that their servant, Joey, cooked them excellent fish for dinner.  When asked about the cost of the fish, Joey explains that it was just a “shillun’,” and promised to get more regularly.

Toward the end of the book, Emerson and Goodall part ways with Joey, amid accusations of theft and a dispute about wages.  Joey’s been convinced by his friends that Emerson and Goodall are underpaying him.  As soon as he leaves their boat, the friends apply for his job.  He is as easily deceived by his rivals as he is poor at deceiving Emerson and Goodall.

Or, at least, he fails to deceive them in most things.  Precisely at the narrative’s close and immediately following his grim estimate of the painting’s chances in London, Emerson himself travels to London and receives a letter from Goodall.  In the letter, Goodall explains how Joey managed to find such good fish so cheaply: they were gifts.  Goodall and the new factotum encounter the landlord of a pub while they search for good fish in town together.  The landlord overhears them, leads them back to his bar and gives them fish.  He will not accept money.  He permits Goodall to treat him and the factotum to a drink, and explains that someone who fit Joey’s description had been taking these free fish, which fishermen left at the bar as gifts, and drinking his weekly fish-shilling in beer.  Goodall conjectures that that someone was Joey, and that he’d been feeding them fish from the bar all along.  Emerson then closes his narrative with an apostrophe to the reader: “What do you think, kind reader?  I agree with Dick.  Farewell!”

This closes Emerson’s narrative.  My point is that its tight pairing with the opening and closing episodes of the story of Goodall’s painting and with Emerson’s reflection on the unlikely possibility (or the impossibility) of a painting being understood (once it is extracted, alienated from its maker) mark the story of the fish as something more than an anecdote of life on the houseboat.  The fact that Emerson has gone down to London, where the painting was to travel to risk misunderstanding and “absence,” suggests that he has taken the same risk—that he no longer enjoys the privileged position of “presence.”  Thus, I take the story of the fish (and of Emerson’s receipt of that denouement), along with the closing apostrophe—which marks the episode, I think, as thematizing the text’s relation to its readership—to be a story about the relation of art to commodity and of art’s status as a commodity to the possibility and the risk of misunderstanding.  Anyone can buy a painting; to understand a work of art, however, is something more and something less sure-fire.  It is like receiving a gift.12

Of course works of art are made to be beheld and to be bought and sold, just as blouses are.  But how does that entail that they do not embody other intentions as well, or that they are therefore “uninterpretable”?  There is every reason to think, on the contrary, that the fact that a work of art is made to be beheld (i.e., that it is a commodity) may become internal to its medium.  What would it mean to insist that a work of art could only speak if it were addressed to no one?

REFERENCES

11. See his Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), among other works.
12. Elsewhere, I have compared Emerson’s account of the work of art and of understanding to Martin Heidegger’s, as it is laid out in “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  See “The World in the Ground Glass: Transformations in P.H. Emerson’s Photography,” The Art Bulletin 89.1 [March 2007]: 130-47.)

Charles Palermo’s two current research projects are an account of the importance of authority in the work of Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire before cubism and inheritance as a metaphor for understanding in and around photography, from Peter Henry Emerson to Douglas Gordon. His Fixed Ecstasy: Joan Miro in the 1920s (2008) appeared in Penn State University Press’ Refiguring Modernism series.

***

Stephen Buttes responds to Palermo and Cronan

In response to my question about the concept of the failed art commodity, Charles Palermo suggests that “there is every reason to think . . . that the fact that a work of art is made to be beheld (i.e., that it is a commodity) may become internal to its medium.” I would not (and do not) question the notion that art is made to be beheld and that it is internal to its medium. I would and do question, however, the easy conflation of “being made to be beheld” (an artwork) and “being made to be possessed” (an art commodity). Palermo, in his response, quickly does away with the dividedness of the work and the market by noting that “works of art are complex things” and that when a painting is purchased the work’s meaning is not eliminated. This is, no doubt, uncontroversial, but it also doesn’t exactly address the situation of the art commodity that drew my attention to Cronan’s initial piece. In the terms I laid out in my response to Cronan, I proposed understanding a difference between making the object you want (which would include any effects you intended the work to produce) and making an object that you think others want so as to produce the effect they’re looking for, between making an object from which people must engage your intentions and interpret them and making an object that people will either like or not like based upon whether or not you satisfied their desires. In Friedian terms, the former is achieved by making an absorptive artwork that must produce the fiction that its beholders do not exist, thereby requiring those (actually existing) beholders to engage the intentions of the artist. An object produced as an art commodity, on the other hand, exists only for the situations in which its consumers want to encounter them. That is, art commodities, at their core, are theatrical. “The customer is always right” because the object either met their needs or did not, either entertained them or did not: it’s their experience. Granted, at the end of my response to Cronan, I myself conflate beholders and consumers when I ask about whether art commodities that fail as commodities necessarily become artworks, but I would defend this conflation by limiting it to the strangeness of the “new kind of thing” or failed art commodity I mentioned, a category of object that remains, at least in my view, ambiguous. One obvious solution to describing these objects is to call them, after Fried, “abandoned situations,” but I’m not totally satisfied with this description, as I’ll make clear.

To illustrate the distinction I am making above and hopefully respond to the questions I posed in my initial response, I, like Palermo, want to make reference to a journey. Rather than Emerson’s trip to London that launches the painting into an uncertain future (where it may be purchased or not, understood or not), the journey I have in mind is actually a series of journeys taken by the narrator of Argentine author Sergio Chejfec’s novel Baroni: A Journey [Baroni: un viaje] (2007). The plot of the novel, to the extent that Chejfec’s novels can be said to have plots, centers around the narrator’s trip to the art studio that the Venezuelan “folk” artist Rafaela Baroni maintains in the foothills of the Andes and, more importantly, his subsequent interest in acquiring two of the many painted wooden statues that have earned Baroni a local and national following. The first statue he acquires is a piece the narrator calls “The Woman on the Cross”, and what Baroni calls “The Crucified Woman.” The statue is approximately 30 inches tall and depicts a (for Baroni, anomalous) non-religious image of an (also anomalously) anonymous young woman next to a tree that appears to be a cross. Carved on the upper right hand side of the piece appears a “little parrot” perched on one of the branches of the “cross,” a detail that Baroni includes in “every piece she makes” (10). The second statue of the same size depicts the “Saintly Doctor”, an image of José Gregorio Hernández, a provincial nineteenth century Venezuelan doctor who has since become a popular devotional healing icon and is most likely, according to Chejfec in a recent blog post, the “most reproduced and altered image in Venezuela.” In this statue, the doctor appears holding a child who has the “little parrot” painted on his garment rather than carved anywhere on the piece. There are other statues mentioned in the novel—farmers, many of the Virgin Mary, several of independence hero Simón Bolívar, one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez dressed in the jersey of his favorite baseball team, many manifestations of the “Saintly Doctor,” among others, some made by Baroni and others not—but they are incidental to these two of Baroni’s statues and the narrator’s desire to acquire them.

The two statues are immensely similar. Most striking, for the narrator (and his friends who contemplate the statues when they’re over to his apartment for a visit), is the “surprise” and “anxiety” (14) that the similarity of the faces of both statues produces in them: “their faces were so similar that certain changes in the light made them all the more identical: or better said, as variations it became clear that any difference was, all things considered, insignificant, that the faces were there, available, and that either one could have been the other” (14). The rather banal observations of the narrator here (and his discarding of the significance of the difference between these works) do little to explain the “anxiety” (inquietud) that often accompanies banal observations by narrators in Chejfec’s novels. The “aesthetic anxiety” in this novel is precisely rooted in the difference between these two pieces as commodities, a difference that is indeed internal to the pieces.

During a long walk through the imposing Andean landscape returning from Baroni’s studio where he saw the “Woman on the Cross” for the first time, the narrator—who, like many of Chejfec’s narrators, is an author—enters into a deep and profound “spiritual” crisis, which, not unlike Emerson’s concern about Goodall’s painting, is centered in a fear of misinterpretation: “I thought that the truth—whatever that might be—when it came to me could be found [estaba preservada] in the depths (not any interior depth, in which I obviously couldn’t believe and which, at any rate, no longer existed, but rather in the depths of things, or better said, the supposed final meaning assigned to my words)” (43). The narrator was pulled from this deep pessimism and soothed by recalling the image of the “Woman on the Cross,” “feeling her as a figure that absorbed experience, sublimating it” (44) and regretting that he hadn’t recognized the importance of the piece when he was in Baroni’s studio where it “would have been easy to ask about a price and quite possibly buy it and have taken it with me” (50).  As “the mystical use [of the statue] revealed itself, perhaps against Baroni’s own intentions, as a profoundly practical position,” (44), interpreting the statue becomes secondary to the narrator’s “mystical” or “religious” use of it. However, though he moves from a beholder to a consumer, this does not, as Palermo (I think) would agree, prevent him or anyone else from also interpreting it. As if to highlight this, at the point of sale (cash only, says Baroni), the narrator felt that the “wad of bills” he brought as payment served as a “representation and at the same time a kind of substitute” (57) for the “Woman on the Cross,” though certainly “an inadequate sum . . . [because he] knew that there wasn’t an exact amount of money that would account for the value of the statue” (66). Value and meaning coexist but are not equivalent. Though he would possess the statue and use it in his own way, he also felt that the transaction was “a type of loan,” that he was more a “custodian” of Baroni’s talent, preserving it for the future, rather than its true owner.

The “Saintly Doctor,” on the other hand, is an entirely different case. The same day he visited Baroni’s studio and beheld the “Woman on the Cross” for the first time, he had asked Baroni if he could pay her to make him a “Saintly Doctor.” While she expressed “joy” in the task, since it has been such a long time since she had carved a “saintly doctor,” the task was postponed several times due to “her poor health and the damage done to her lungs by the paint fumes” (102). The day he finally received the “Woman on the Cross,” he inquired about the “Saintly Doctor,” and Baroni informed him that she most likely wouldn’t be able to include the “little parrot” that was a signature of her pieces because there simply wouldn’t be room on the piece of wood she had chosen for the carving. When Baroni “perceived [the narrator’s] disappointment” (103), she told him that “she would find a way to include it” (103). To make her client happy, she, of course, paints the “little parrot” on the child’s garment, no doubt spending more time amid the paint fumes against the wishes of her doctor. Noting that the “Saintly Doctor” “would not exist, would not have manifested itself had [he] not commissioned it . . . if he had not been willing to exchange money for it” (133), it becomes clear that the object the “Saintly Doctor” is is comprised, at least in part, of the narrator’s own desires. That is, unlike the “Woman on the Cross,” which he uses to satisfy his “mystical” needs, the narrator’s intentions and desires are internal to the “Saintly Doctor.” Indeed, thinking about the “Saintly Doctor” at the point of sale, he feels “things that he hadn’t felt with the purchase of the ‘Woman on the Cross,’ [he] felt that through the transaction he borrowed part of Baroni’s life, that he wasn’t only buying a relatively mute and decidedly elegant object, something which could certainly be up for debate, but rather that [he was] responsible for that which [aquello] had motivated the creation of that object” (123). And so, what he owns, and what anyone who owns an art commodity owns, is not just the object but also a chain of material and immaterial things that made its production possible:

the time and the effort (the propensity and the outlook) that Baroni had put into the making of the statue. I am not saying that the “Saintly Doctor” is secondary; on the contrary, it is at the center of the question. But through him, being now mine, I was saying: a small part of the little strength Baroni still has, a bit of her immense or unknown talent, including a fraction of her physical debilitation as a consequence of her work with the paints, all of that is what I bought, and it belongs to me in an ambiguous way, it’s true, or better said, in a diffuse way, but in a completely true way. As such, from that point on the idea of being the owner of immaterial things, but as if they were material, continues to persist in my thoughts. (122-23)

To put these two examples in the terms we’ve been tracking here, the difference between these two similar statues is the same difference we find in the similar objects Palermo highlights in his response: Cage’s “4’33” and Tierney’s “droat.” Whereas, from one perspective, all Cage cared about in the performance were the accidental noises produced in the concert hall (the rain drops, the chairs, etc.), from another (Michaels’s) perspective, all Cage cared about was the “point” of the piece. Tierney, on the other hand, cared primarily about making her client happy and moving on to the next round. In other words, Julie’s last design on her reality show fails in a way that Cage’s first performance in the concert hall does not: whereas with the former the failure is internal to the piece, with the latter, it is precisely external. To put this another way, while the failure of “4’33” lies with the audience (they can be said to have missed the point when they get up and walk out), the failure of the “droat” lies with the designer: she fails to frame the market’s desires. But, what is the nature of this failure? It isn’t that the work is addressed to no one. Rather, the question lies in whether central to the concept of successful art (absorptive art) is the concept of fiction: the fiction that a work has no beholders. What happens when it is reality rather than fiction that characterizes the object’s relationship to the beholder? Or, to slightly reframe Palermo’s question, what does it mean when an art commodity is addressed to consumers (beholders) that actually do not exist?

Chejfec suggests a kind of solution in his novel. Tens of thousands of plastic figurines of the “saintly doctor” are imported each year to Venezuela from the factories where they are produced in China, many of them reproducing the most well-known photo of the doctor on 57th Street in New York City. The narrator, however, saw a “new version of a Chinese produced doctor” (135) “wrapped in plastic wrap” and displayed in a religious store in Caracas. If the new design is successful, like the previous designs, the object will sell and circulate like the thousands of other plastic “saintly doctors” from China and emerge as one more of the many “portable formats” that the icon has taken through the “concentrated efforts of the Church and the business community” to produce “the creation and satisfaction of religious needs” (119). On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that “the hat that is slightly different from his usual hat” (135) will put off devotees looking for a statuary reproduction of the 57th Street photo. One can imagine boxes filled with these plastic figurines wrapped in layers of plastic wrap being packed up, loaded onto the ships that dock in La Guaira and sent back to their producers/creators. And yet, while this failure may seem to tell us less about art and more about the nature of capitalism—that the market produces winners and losers—the moment of failure is precisely the moment that the plastic figurine as an intentional aesthetic object becomes clear. Sitting on the shelf in its plastic wrap, the narrator sees a “representation of a field of forces that obviously exceeds mere plastic wrap, but one that makes itself manifest in an almost tangible fashion thanks to the sfumato of the wrapping, similar to a translucent spider web” (135). The failed commodity, rather than an “abandoned situation” without a frame, remains in its packaging which frames it as an image of a “field of forces,” an aesthetic object that serves as a point of departure for a critique of neoliberalism.

***

Charles Palermo Responds to Buttes — The Sequel

One print of a movie is as full and authentic an instance of it as any other, so long as it is fair and complete.  It is not a substitute for an original, but its manifestation.  Photographs can have not merely many prints, but, one could say, many originals: they would be the ones accepted by the photographer as realizations of his picture.  Each print of a photograph vies with every other for that acceptance.  Unlike the case of photographs, the craft of its maker does not extend through to each instance; when his work is done, he releases it to multiply itself.  It is everything a commodity should be: equal instances available to all, regardless of position.
–Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (122)

Stephen Buttes outlines a series of examples that have arisen in the conversation and adds a couple more.  He refers to Walter Benn Michaels’ account of John Cage’s 4’33”, to Tierney’s “droat,” to Peter Henry Emerson’s story about a painting by T.F. Goodall, and adds discussions of three new examples drawn from a novel by Sergio Chejtec: a sculpture called Woman on the Cross and a sculpture of a popular devotional figure called the “saintly doctor,” both carved (and painted) by a character in the novel named Rafaela Baroni, and a mass-produced version of the figure imported from China for sale in Caracas.

The novel’s narrator buys Woman on the Cross, but feels his payment is only a substitute for the work, that it does not represent the exchange of value equivalent to the work’s.  His money only really gets him the privilege of acting as its custodian (or, as custodian of Baroni’s talent, as embodied in it).

Buttes compares this model to Cage’s 4’33”, at least insofar as neither work was made to suit anyone, and, if one or both fails, it will be because its audience doesn’t understand it (doesn’t see its “point”).  Each is susceptible to uses that its author did not foresee or intend (such as the narrator’s spiritual employment of the Woman), but that matter does not bear on the question of interpretability, which we agree to take to mean understanding the author’s intentions.  There’s a crucial difference, though.  Cage places his piece largely beyond his control—he legislates his minimized control over the formal constitution of the piece by ruling out most means of composition (except, say, specifying that the piece has a beginning and an end) and ruling in everything else, emphatically including the beholder’s experience.  Understanding the piece depends on (consists in) understanding that your experience (about four-and-a-half minutes of it) has been redescribed as Cage’s work: “4’33” can thus be understood as an exemplary case of the way in which a radicalized absorption … becomes indistinguishable from an account of the work of art in which it is theatricality that’s radicalized—the only thing that matters is the audience’s response.” So, the difference between Woman on the Cross and 4’33” is that the spiritual uses to which the narrator puts Woman on the Cross are (as he sees) not part of his custodial charge.  The spiritual applications to which the audience puts the sounds it notes (as variously as it will tend to) amount to discharging its custodial duty.  That is why 4’33” can help show that a work that was really not made for its audience wouldn’t be anti-theatrical after all.  It would be (as 4’33” is) radically theatrical.

Buttes finds a thought-provoking example of a work made for hire, so to speak, in Baroni’s “saintly doctor.”  Of course, lots of works are made for hire.  Maybe someone would propose that Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Saying Grace, 1744 (St. Petersburg, Russia, Hermitage) was uninterpretable because it was a copy of his 1740 Saying Grace (Paris, Louvre).  (Or that one interpretation would be the same as the other, or that they would have to be different.  But all kinds of art objects raise such problems.  As, for example, Stanley Cavell on film, above.)  Baroni’s “saintly doctor” is a response to a commission for a “type” of image—and so not totally unlike Catherine the Great’s Saying Grace—but it raises another matter, too.  Along with the product comes some of “the little strength Baroni still has,” some of her talent, and some of her “debilitation.”  Participating in the economic exchange that gets him the statue of the “saintly doctor” doesn’t make the narrator a custodian, but a proprietor.  And his responsibility is not for the work, but for the woman whose strength and health he has diminished by hiring her.  In the case of Woman on the Cross, he did not feel he bought the work, but he felt he was responsible for it; in the case of the “saintly doctor,” he felt he owned the art-object and was responsible for its maker by virtue of his role in the chain of causes and effects that produced it.  That would be a little like saying that, whereas the purchase of the Woman on the Cross ended up not feeling like a purchase, the “saintly doctor” did, and that that purchase makes its parties members of an economy and, further, that they are therefore liable to find themselves in relations of exploitation and dominance that are typical of economic relations in general.  The same would be true of the transaction that effected the transfer (however one wants to characterize it) of Woman on the Cross—the real difference being that it didn’t feel like a purchase.

A difference, one might propose, is that the narrator asked Baroni to make the “saintly doctor,” while the Woman on the Cross was made speculatively, so to speak.  But, since the economy is not something we establish when we buy something, but something that exists already, into which we’re thrown, so to speak, we might say there’s no real difference.  In a market economy, people make things in anticipation of demand.  Baroni was successful with Woman on the Cross; Tierney failed with the “droat.”  The same mode of participation—i.e. speculative—describes the Chinese exporter’s variation on the “saintly doctor.”  It may be a hit or a flop, but the new plastic “saintly doctor” with the modified hat is imported from a place with notoriously inexpensive labor (which is subsidized by the state, and therefore, practically speaking, no one’s personal responsibility unless it is everyone’s).  Speculative production entails the same effort to understand the market’s desires that responding to a commission does (just with less guidance).

The artistic effect that works on the narrator—the accidental “sfumato” the plastic wrap imparts to the figurines—makes visible to him a “field of forces” around them.  As a conclusion, I’ll offer two observations about that.  First, the effect is unintended.  Like the effects the audience of Cage’s 4’33” experiences, it is theatricalizing.  It forces the individual (the narrator) back into an awareness of his real situation—in this case, a global economy built on the exploitation of consumers’ appetites and of workers’ needs.  Art objects are part of that economy.  Second, one way of describing the success of a work of art is by saying that it defeats that condition by making one feel, as Woman on the Cross does, that it is not (merely or truly) an object of exchange, but a gift or a ward or an inheritance.

About the Author

Todd Cronan is Associate Professor of art history at Emory University. He is the author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2014) and articles on photographic "previsualization," Brecht, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Santayana, Simmel, Valéry and Richard Neutra. He is currently at work on a study (with Judith Sheine) of R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra; a book on Rodchenko/Eisenstein/Brecht; and a study of the mid-century modernisms of Moholy-Nagy, Neutra, Charles & Ray Eames, Garrett Eckbo, and Julius Shulman.


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