Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Festival of Fried, Part III: One Foot in the Grave

Michael Fried gives us a vision of personified animals in his poem “Care,” which he dedicates to Allen Grossman, one of the leading interpreters of his poetic work. As in poems such as “The Hilltop” with its Aesop-like speaking fox, eagle and rabbit (NBR 58), “Care” imagines a badger who has amassed a collection of art but is concerned that it will be squandered or destroyed, implicitly after his death. While the image of the nervous keeper of a horde of treasure is interesting enough, the badger’s subterranean habit and its way of digging in the earth particularly caught my attention. For, the motif of digging is one that occurs frequently across Fried’s oeuvre. His poem “Cézanne” finds the narrator collapsing after “a day spent looking at paintings / I’m as exhausted / as I would be if I had dug a trench.” (NBR 12) If this equation of looking and trench-digging sounds a bit rich from someone who has probably never dug a trench in his life, Fried also then turns the equation around to imagine a reciprocal exhaustion on the part of the painter. The labor of making the painting figures as “a day spent digging trenches.” (NBR 12)

Understanding acts of looking at and making pictures qua digging also finds instructive resonance in Fried’s art historical writing. In “Painter into Painting” from 1982, Fried takes the bent bodies of Gustave Courbet’s Stonebreakers (at left), who painfully smash and heft bits of earth, as allegories of the hands of the artist painting the figures: “The old stonebreaker and his young counterpart may be seen as representing the painter-beholder’s right and left hands respectively: the one wielding a shafted implement that bears a distant analogy to a paintbrush or palette knife, the other supporting a roundish object that might be likened to the (admittedly much lighter) burden of a palette.” (PP, 641-2) Just as the poet’s labor of looking at paintings is equivalent to the trench-digging work of the artist who makes them, so both actions register in Courbet’s simultaneous identity as painter and first beholder of his own work (PP, 634). These actions then get transcribed—or better, personified—as markers of Courbet’s own identity (see PP, 642-3) as he fulfills what Fried sees as his ambition to “transpose himself as if corporeally into the painting on which he was working” (PP, 634) as a way to overcome the theatricality felt in his position in front of the canvas.

There is another way in which digging and “earth-work” figures significantly in Fried’s reading of Courbet, however. In an article from 1983, Fried approaches Burial at Ornans through Courbet’s landscapes of the late 1840s, teasing out the role of central, serpentine forms often occupied by images of rivers. These river motifs serve to guide the eye into and through the landscape, but their resulting hollows and declivities follow from a Kunstwollen directed at carving out a deeper kind of ground-work: “a desire for excavation and filling in, a desire that ... receives its most direct and in a sense its most capacious expression precisely in the Burial.” (SB, 654) What is driving this desire, Fried will argue, is Courbet’s aim to undermine his own separation from the painted worlds he is creating with the effect that “the bottom of the picture is subjected to extraordinary pressure in Courbet’s art.” (SB, 663) So, whereas the chiasmic labors of Cézanne and his viewer make for parallel but discrete trenches, Courbet’s split identity and simultaneous occupation with seeing and painting makes earthwork central to his project. Of the foregrounded grave in the Burial, Fried writes: “We might say that both the location and the treatment of the grave bear witness to a resolve to cut the ground out from under the feet of the beholder and by so doing to leave him nowhere to stand outside the Burial itself. Part of the tool by which that labor presumably was accomplished can be made out just to the left of the grave: the blade of a shovel, crusted with dirt and, like the grave, abbreviated by the bottom framing edge. This is suggestive ... much as if the fictive activity of excavating the grave (of excavating this grave precisely here) and the actual activity of painting the Burial were in crucial respects analogous.” (SB, 666)

All of these effects, we need to remember, follow from the central thrust of Courbet’s project: “the painter-beholder’s ‘fantasmatic’ insertion of himself into the painting” or, again, “the heavy urgency of the painter-beholder’s determination to achieve union with the painting before him.” (SB, 676) Given the ancient gendering of the cold, wet earth as feminine, Fried can hardly escape from the sexual address of this urgent drive for insertion through the bottom or “from the rear” (PP, 638); indeed, in his Courbet book, Fried will take on these questions directly. But, reading his poetry, what struck me particularly was Fried’s return to these metaphors of excavation and passage into the earth, as it were, in reverse. In a poem called “The Tunnel,” the narrator describes his father made fluid—dying “of a cirrhotic liver / caused by poisoned blood / flushed through him one winter dawn / to fight a bleeding ulcer” (NBR, 7)—penetrating a stony portal: “He found a stone wall / with, at its base, a tunnel / just too narrow to admit / a man. Undaunted he crawled though / hand over hand/ to the other side.” (NBR, 7) Unlike the hands-made-into-bodies as the artist passes into Stonebreakers and out of theatricality, the broken body of the leaking father passes out of life through a stone portal, a grave.

This brings us back to the worried badger. This badger, Fried tells us, has a poet-friend who collects ancient pots, keeping them in an apartment “like a cave.” (NBR, 13) As with the entombment of the father, these pots are “of hard gray stone.” (NBR, 14) Yet, where the father himself had become fluid, these subterranean, stony vessels remain available for activation by artistic penetration. The badger’s friend is convinced that one of these newly-acquired pots “was a scribe’s inkwell. / When the time comes he will dip his pen in it / to write his gravest / songs.” (NBR, 14) Moving with the venerable alignment between power and penetration noted in the reading from Leo Bersani (IRG, 21), death is turned into life by this act of insertion, the cave-like setting and the material grave recouped into immortal, poetic gravity. “Care”, then, is not only the condition of Dasein to the world, but the kind of comportment one needs for reading and writing around the grave. So we saw in class two weeks ago, one of the most ingenious features of Fried’s writing on Courbet is the plotting of the reader like the mourners in the burial as “walking slowly, almost somnambulistically, in the ultimate direction of the open grave.” (SB, 647) Like Stanley Fish’s account of Paradise Lost where the reader endlessly performs the plot by falling—by failing to identify with the right party, by being tricked into Satanic rhetoric—we who fail to see the poetic jaws enfolding around us (if we miss this reference to the plotting of appreciation for the depiction of acts carried out “automatically, as if unconscious ... [with] almost somnabulistic character” [AMTFP, 144]) will end up occupying the grave, rather than sprung artistic from it.

So much for where we left off last time. Soon after class, I received an email from a colleague who shared this insight: “I had a little epiphany this morning: graphein = to dig, to carve, to write.” An excellent point. The etymology of the graphic—binding writing, drawing and digging—would certainly have been known to Fried as, among others, Svetlana Alpers talks about it at some length in The Art of Describing (1983), which he cites in various places. But, it also raises an interesting question about Fried’s account of Courbet—one of particular relevance to our readings for today. That is, if Courbet is moving around his signature in Stonebreakers from right to left; if he is making his central figures in that painting into isomorphs of his own initials, and—most critically—if he is operating with this conception of painting as digging/excavating, might we not also see him as sharing Eakins’s conflict between writing/drawing vs. painting, between the quasi-Wölfflinian graphic versus pictorial seeing? In other words, where Fried sails imperviously between Courbet’s drawings and paintings but sees those relations as problematic in Eakins, might the graphic not be seen to menace Courbet as well?

These questions are pertinent for us today as the figure of the excavation and the filling grave occur again in Fried’s writing on photography. Offering an extended account of photographer Jeff Wall’s laborious working process (based on their own, private email correspondence) as split between on-site shoots and digital reconstruction, Fried parenthetically observes that “as yet Wall has found no means of acknowledging in his art the prolonged and repetitive labor that goes into the making of a work like Morning Cleaning, though, perhaps the imagery of digging a well, a grave, or an anthropological site, as in The Well, The Flooded Grave [above], and Fieldwork may be viewed in that light.” (JWWE, 524) As presented here, Wall’s attention to sites of digging are privileged as they appear to answer to the modernist moral value of acknowledging the material conditions of their making without being reduced to them. Just as viewing and writing about pictures is like digging the graves that figure in Fried’s texts, shooting and digitally building photographs are like the earthy excavations Wall shows us.

But, might this gravitation toward the grave in Wall’s work not also help us to think about the morbidity of photography in recent discourse. Themes of death feature prominently in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (see BP, 558-561), a work central to Fried, Michaels and many others. Yet, how do metaphors of vulnerability and loss of control figure more broadly in conversations about photography? More to the point, what is at stake in these figures?

Works Cited

NBR: Michael Fried, The Next Bend in the Road. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

PP: Michael Fried, “Painter into Painting: On Courbet’s After Dinner at Ornans and Stonebreakers,” Critical Inquiry 8, 4 (Summer, 1982): 619-649

SB: Michael Fried, “The Structure of Beholding in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans,” Critical Inquiry 9, 4 (Jun., 1983): 635-683

IRG: Bersani, Leo. "Is the Rectum a Grave?" October. 43 (1987): 197-222.

AMTFP: Michael Fried, “Absorption: a Master Theme in Eighteenth-Century French Painting and Criticism,” Eighteenth-century Studies 9, 2 (1975): 139-177

JWWE: Michael Fried, “Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein and the Everyday,” Critical Inquiry 33, 3 (Spring 2007): 495-526

BP: Michael Fried, “Barthes’s Punctum,” Critical Inquiry 31, 3 (Spring 2005): 539-574

No comments:

Post a Comment