Rachel Cohen


Passages: Dewey

Here are two passages I've been struck by recently in reading John Dewey's Art as Experience.  

(Perigree Trade Paperbacks, Berkeley Publishing Group, Penguin, originally published 1934, edition August 2005 p84, p98.)

Throughout the book, Dewey argues that esthetic experience is a heightening of every day experience, that all experience has, immanently, the possibilities of order and understanding that are reached in esthetic experience.  This continuity used to be more commonly felt and understood when many people were engaged in crafts, and when the arts had not become specialized, cordoned-off areas.  Dewey argues for re-establishing the sense of continuity between life and art:

The problem of conferring esthetic quality upon all modes of production is a serious problem.  But it is a human problem for human solution; not a problem incapable of solution because it is set by some unpassable gulf in human nature or in the nature of things.  In an imperfect society -- and no society will ever be perfect -- fine art will be to some extent an escape from, or an adventitious decoration of, the main activities of living.  But in a better-ordered society than that in which we live, an infinitely greater happiness than is now the case would attend all modes of production.  We live in a world in which there is an immense amount of organization, but it is an external organization, not one of the ordering of a growing experience, one that involves, moreover, the whole of the live creature, toward a fulfilling conclusion.  Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life.  But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life.  The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to the artist and to a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work.  In the degree in which art exercises its offfice, it is also a remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity.  

In the fifth chapter, "The Expressive Object," Dewey presents a very helpful set of ideas about how the act of expression involved in making art and the esthetic experience of perceiving that art are related to the art that he calls "the expressive object."  In one nice passage he points out that "expressivity" by no means excludes abstraction:

Art does not, in short, cease to be expressive because it renders in visible forms relations of things, without any more indication of the particulars that have the relations than is necessary to compose a whole.  Every work of art "abstracts" in some degree from the particular traits of objects expressed.  Otherwise, it would only, by means of exact imitation, create an illusion of the presence of the things themselves.  The ultimate subject matter of a still life painting is highly "realistic" -- napery, pans, apples, bowls.  But a still life by Chardin or Cezanne presents these materials in terms of relations of lines, planes and colors inherently enjoyed in perception.  This re-ordering could not occur without some measure of "abstraction" from physical existence.  Indeed, the very attempt to present three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane demands abstraction from the usual conditions that exist.  There is no a priori rule to decide how far abstraction may be carried.... There are still-lifes of Cezanne in which one of the objects is actually levitated.  Yet the expressiveness of the whole to an observer with esthetic vision is enhanced not lowered.  It carries further a trait which every one takes for granted in looking at a picture; namely, that no object in the picture is physically supported by any other.  The support they give to one another lies in their respective contributions to the perceptual experience.  Expression of the readiness of objects to move, although temporarily sustained in equilivrium, is intensified by abstraction from conditions that are physically and externally possible.

I especially like "Expression of the readiness of objects to move."  


Une Semaine de Bonté

Une Semaine de Bonteacute

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1934

Some weeks after my father’s death I thought that I might at last begin my piece on Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, but I didn’t.  I did spend some hours studying the images in the catalog of the complete collages, a massive black-spined book with thick cardboard covers that seem the gates to an inaccessible realm.  And it was a right time to be in contact with the images again, and to begin a small private inquiry into Ernst and Surrealism, but I couldn’t really write then, and I didn’t.

The show, at the Musée d’Orsay in the summer of 2009, affected me powerfully, the feeling while there an odd combination of extreme clarity and something like vertigo.  Afterwards I felt a great need to be sure that I could go through the images again, more slowly.  I coveted the forceful catalog and when at the gift shop they said there would be no American show and that they did not ship internationally, I bought it.  I carted it then from Paris to Switzerland, strong help was necessary to get it up and down the peaceable heights, and it had weighed down my luggage to New York and later been moved with my library to Cambridge.

The catalog has become one of the books that’s most important to me to see on my shelves.  Although it is not terribly frequently that I take it down to look through the pages, its presence is a strong clean line, like the novels and notebooks of Dostoevsky, or The Interpretation of Dreams.  “It’s all been squarely faced there,” is how the feeling might be named, “it’s all there, he wasn’t afraid.”  


Tara Geer: Carrying Silence

Tara Geer walk along the border 2013

Tara Geer, walk along the border, 2013

At Glenn Horowitz, 87 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, NY, 11937, through September 3, 2013. Here is the first section of my catalog essay, "Looking at Tara Geer's Drawings":

  1. One way to begin is just by quietly trying to notice things.  In “walk along the border,” your eye might be drawn by the smudges off to the left, or by the white surround and the sense of movement in the white surround.  

In my notes: white area with a little falling black squiggle; then other little black details, these somewhere between figures and lines, running on a diagonal from lower left to upper right.  Almost like little embedded panels – as if there is a progress toward the final window.  In the gray an effect of a waterfall down the right-hand side.  A gray patch and a gray triangle make a space between them.  On the right, the softness almost of hair.  An immense variety of texture.  The central column like vertebrae.  This central black part is strangely flat like a mosaic and also has a lot of depth.   A problem I returned to in looking: the skein in the lower right corner seemed dirty in a way that was familiar.  After a while I felt that it looked like an old cobweb in which flakes of dirt have gathered.  Hesitatingly, I mentioned this to Tara and she said that for a long time she had been stopping the freight elevator at her studio between floors so that she could study the cobwebs.  This – the suspended elevator, webs between floors, painstaking attention to the derelict – could be a sort of parable for Tara Geer’s way of looking.  The drawing is a meditation on space.  It is full of respect for spiders.  


Some Pages Into August, 2013

Some books with which I'm underway:

John Dewey, Art as Experience.

Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers.

John Rewald, A History of Impressionism.  


Dancing Couple

Dancing Couple

Renoir, Dancing at Bougival, 1883, MFA

I went with the baby, perhaps two weeks ago now, to look at the Renoirs at the MFA.  In the great room of the Impressionists, she liked best the Degas ballerina, “girl! girl!” though she liked better still an actual girl in a polka dot skirt who sat on the bench.  In general, her preference was for statues, mirrors, the lime green chairs in the café, the beaded curtain hanging between two rooms of contemporary works, things with which she could have a spatial interaction.  It was hard to get her to stand still in front of the great Renoir, the full-length dancing couple.  (The people posing for this painting were the painter Suzanne Valadon and Renoir’s friend Paul Lhote.)  Woman in a red hat, cluster purple fruits part of bonnet, girlish delight; man’s face somewhat obscured; both bodies in happy motion.  I looked as well as I was able to and already had the impression of a more complex light, space, and atmosphere than I had before credited to Renoir.  We hurried out, both of us pushing the stroller, and some time passed – we accustomed ourselves to long strings of glittery beads, were hushed and still in the presence of a magnificent towering seated bodhisattva from the Eastern Wei dynasty, tried the new gelato at the café (excellent, though, as an administrator in the elevator pointed out to us over his delicately balanced cup, dangerously sticky) and purchased a children’s board book at the gift shop with pictures of Renoirs, “girl! girl!” said the baby.  I wanted, though, to see the Renoir again, and we made our way back to the room – again I saw mostly in glimpses, but how different the painting seemed – now it had those strange depths that open in paintings after longer consideration, now the space moved about the figures and the figures moved through the space.  The air was soft, but not cloying, pleasures of a summer breeze as summer turns toward autumn.  Probably, I thought, as we clambered into the sticky stroller and hastened down to stand in the fountain outside, this is a very great painting indeed.  


Reading Toward Renoir

Reading Toward Renoir

Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum

Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me.  Too sweet, too voluptuous.  All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.


Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment.  It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people.  It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that?  Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers.  In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure.  Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.”  They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.  


When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.”  In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.


There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft.  Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness.  He could be humming.  


Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship.  He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades.  His father was a very good tailor.  Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines.  He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople.  Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live.  “Around them I feel happy.”  


In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.  


Reading Toward Renoir II

Reading Toward Renoir II

Renoir, Madame Hériot, 1882

I find that in reading Jean Renoir’s Renoir, my father, I am thinking of Maxim Gorki’s memoir of Chekhov, a most beautiful reminiscence.  In particular of a story I have always loved, and which has to be quoted complete with Gorki’s introductory meditation.  It is as follows:

I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence everyone involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self; I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns himself, like a savage with shell’s and fish’s teeth.  Anton Chekhov disliked fish’s teeth and cock’s feathers; anything” brilliant” or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed him; I noticed that whenever he saw any one dressed up in this way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul of the person.  All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubled about what some people expected and others – coarser people – demanded of Anton Chekhov.  He did not like conversations about deep questions, conversations with which our dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that it is ridiculous, and not at all amusing, to argue about velvet costumes in the future when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.
         Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple.
         Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and the smell of strong sent; they sat down politely opposite their host, pretended they were interested in politics, and began “putting questions”: “Anton Pavlovich, what do you think?  How will war end?”
         Anton Pavlovic coughed, thought for a while, and then gently, in a serious and kindly voice, replied: “Probably in peace.”
         “Well, yes… certainly.  But who will win? The Greeks or the Turks?”
         “It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger.”
         “And who, do you think, are the stronger?” the ladies asked together.
         “Those who are the better fed and the better educated.”
         “Ah, how clever,” one of them exclaimed.
         “And whom do you like best?” another asked.
         Anton Pavlovich looked at her kindly, and answered with a meek smile: “I love candied fruits… don’t you?”
         “Very much,” the lady exclaimed gaily.
         “Especially Abrikossov’s,” the second agreed solidly.  And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish: “It smells so good.”
         And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge.  It was obvious that they were happy at not having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given a thought.
         When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovich: “We will send you some candied fruit.”
         “You managed that nicely, “ I observed when they had gone.
         Anton Pavlovich laughed quietly and said: “Everyone should speak his own language.”
[Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev. With an introduction by Mark Van Doren. Translator not given.  New York: Viking Press, 1959, pp74-76.

Although the translator’s name is, astonishingly, nowhere given in the volume, I assume the translation is a good one and that the tiny hint of condescension in “not having to strain their minds,” is Gorki’s, though perhaps, under the influence of Chekhov, the younger writer felt no such thing and it is at the further remove of translation that the note has entered the composition.  I am certain, though, and in part from reading this passage of Gorki’s, that the feeling is not Chekhov’s, as it seems it would not be Renoir’s.  Chekhov’s idea of a person may be more complicated than Renoir’s – it does seem that the regrets and struggles of his figures have more bitterness in them – but, as in Renoirs, there is the sense in the stories that it is natural for people to be themselves, and that the task of the painter or the writer is to help them to circumstances in which they are.  


Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Giotto, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers, Arena Chapel, Padua

What was stolen were my minutes, fifteen of them. I’d been under the mistaken impression that for my twenty-seven euros – thirteen each for me and for M., one for the baby – we were to be vouchsafed half an hour in the presence of one of the greatest fresco sequences in the western world. I knew that we were to spend fifteen minutes cooling down in an air-conditioned portal prior to being allowed entry to the sacred place, but I counted on half an hour to try to snatch a few glimpses of Giotto’s eternal understanding. The bell, though, rang after fifteen minutes.

The whole thing of course is absurd – each panel, and there are dozens, ranks among the greatest paintings we have – any one could be profitably studied for many half-hours. For how long is it right to contemplate Giacchino asleep with the angel curving down his vision and the shepherds, still and aware? Five minutes tracing the steady tender robes of the figures presenting the baby Christ at the temple would not be wasted. Nevertheless, there would be a settled internal logic to spending fifteen minutes in general awe and survey and a further quarter of an hour in contemplation of a few moments. Robbed of this latter experience I could hardly feel that I had seen the paintings at all.

“Cynical,” M. said after we had left; they had simply given up on whether their visitors would have a real experience of the paintings and focused on how to get a maximum of funds in short increments of time.

But then again, in another way, one does apprehend the greatness of Giotto almost instantly. What Giotto founded for the next eight hundred years of art to struggle with was the sense that his figures existed, feet on the ground in front of us, in time. He was the master of significant form. As Bernard Berenson rightly pointed out, Giotto’s genius was for significance, for what would read immediately:

With the simplest means, with almost rudimentary light and shade, and functional line, he contrives to render, out of all the possible outlines, out of all the possible variations of light and shade that a given figure may have, only those that we must isolate for special attention when we are actually realizing it. This determines his types, his schemes of colour, even his compositions.… Obliged to get the utmost out of his rudimentary light and shade, he makes his scheme of colour of the lightest that his contrasts may be of the strongest. In his compositions he aims at clearness of grouping… Note in the [picture] we have been looking at, how the shadows compel us to realize every concavity, and the lights every convexity, and how, with the play of the two, under the guidance of line, we realize the significant parts of each figure, whether draped or undraped… Above all, every line is functional; that is to say, charged with purpose… Follow any line here, say in the figure… kneeling to the left, and see how it outlines and models, how it enables you to realize the head, the torso, the hips, the legs the feet, and how its direction, its tension, is always determined by the action.  {Berenson, Bernard, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, vol. II, New York: Phaidon, 1968, 6-7.}

Rendering his figures in time, Giotto gives the wondering viewer the sense of freshness, of “just now.”

On the way art has for many centuries mediated relationships between time and money there is of course much to say. (I tried to say something about this in a piece for The Believer, at http://www.believermag.com/issues/201211/?read=article_cohen). A few things, though, come directly to mind. The Arena Chapel, famously, was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, who was known to practice usury, which was at that time prohibited by the Catholic Church. When Giotto undertook the commission, around 1300, it was understood that the family chapel was to be a sort of lavish expiation. Giotto’s friend Dante, who admired the chapel greatly (and who, one feels sure, spent more than fifteen minutes engrossed there) mentioned Giotto in the Divine Comedy and also had Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, as the head of the usurers in the seventh circle of hell. On the chapel’s great fresco of judgment toward the bottom the figure of Enrico Scrovegni offers up a painted maquette of the chapel in which the viewer is standing.

There is an alchemical irony in the fact that Giotto’s act transmuted Scrovegni’s gold into something as nearly eternal as the individual human being can manage and that that divinity is now changed back, by latter-day Scrovegnis, into gold. I wrote, in “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering,” of how, just around 1300, time began to be measured incrementally, of how this was part of the understanding of purgatory, only incorporated into church doctrine in the 13th century, and then given masterful form by Dante. Purgatory creates a passageway between heaven and hell through which you can move step by step in both time and money. And the incrementalization and measurability of time was also very useful in building the practice of usury – which calculates how money will grow, from itself, over time.

All this, which I spent years studying, was in the background of my aggravation when the bell rang at the Arena Chapel. But what’s really caught my mind in the days since is the relationship between my feeling about time and my feeling about money – captured, I think, in that complex word, “to spend.”

“To spend,” derives from the Latin expendere, “to weigh out money, to pay down.” (The tangibility is interesting in the old word, from a time when money had a specific gravity.) Expendere was generally borrowed by all the Germanic tongues and became in Old English spendan (with forspenden meaning “to use up.”) As explained by etymonline, “In reference to labor, thoughts, time, etc. attested from c.1300.”

It is interesting that, in one of those cosmic shifts of understanding that periodically encompass the globe, at precisely the moment Giotto was painting the ground on the Arena Chapel, in English people began to spend time. But, at least in my ears and usage, in the phrases “I spend time,” and “I spend money,” the “spend” is not congruent. The difference becomes more evident as quantities and further objects are adjoined. “I spent a lot of time with the painting.” “I spent a lot of money on the painting.” It is absolutely clear that in the first case the net result is an augmentation and in the second a depletion. Time is not money. Time spent is something gained. Even wasting time has more so to speak profit in it than wasting money.

In some profound sense, one understood, I feel sure, by every figure in the Arena Chapel, my time is not my own. And not just because it is borrowed from some person or deity to whom it really does belong but because it is that in which we all live and move. It is the awareness of the movement of time that makes significant form possible. Lines and significance are drawn out, corporeal existence has its structured purposes, in time. And, even though the time in which we move cannot be ours, ironically I think it is only when time bears this relationship to significance that we can feel that time has been stolen from us. If I look at a carved wooden Madonna from 1100, my heart full of rebellious fury at how my father, dead at sixty-seven, was robbed of his time, that Madonna looks on incomprehendingly. But all the people in Giotto – the sleeping guards, the Madonnas with their hands outstretched, the Judas and the woman who look on – all of them, they know.

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Giotto, Noli me tangere, Arena Chapel, Padua