Friday, November 30, 2007

Aesthetic Etiology

"In discussing the operation and character of the grid within the general field of modern art I have had recourse to words like repression or schizophrenia. Since these terms are being applied to a cultural phenomenon and not to individuals, they are obviously not intended in their literal, medical sense, but only analogically: to compare the structure of one thing to the structure of another. The terms of this analogy were clear, I hope, from the discussion of the parallel structures and functions of both grids as aesthetic objects and myths.

"But one further aspect of this analogy still needs to be brought out, and that is the way in which this psychological terminology functions at some distance from that of history. What I mean is that we speak of the etiology of a psychological condition, not the history of it. History, as we normally use it, implies the connection of events through time, a sense of inevitable change as we move from one event to the next, and the cumulative effect of change which is itself qualitative, so that we tend to view history as developmental. Etiology is not developmental. It is rather an investigation into the conditions for one specific change--the acquisition of disease--to take place. In that sense etiology is more like looking into the background of a chemical experiment, asking when and how a given group of elements came together to effect a new compound or to precipitate something out of a liquid. For the etiology of neuroses, we may take a "history" of the individual, to explore what went into the formation of the neurotic structure; but once the neurosis is formed, we are specifically enjoined from thinking in terms of "development," and instead we speak of repetition.

"With regard to the advent of the grid in twentieth-century art, there is the need to think etiologically rather than historically. Certain conditions combined to precipitate the grid into a position of aesthetic preeminence. We can speak of what those things are and how they came together throughout the nineteenth century and then spot the moment of chemical combination, as it were, in the early decades of the twentieth. But once the grid appears it seems quite resistant to change. The mature careers of Mondrian or Albers are examples of this. No one would characterize the course of decade after decade of their later work as developmental. But by depriving their world of development, one is obviously not depriving it of quality. There is no necessary connection between good art and change, no matter how conditions we may be to think that there is. Indeed, as we have a more and more extended experience of the grid, we have discovered that one of the most modernist things about it is its capacity to serve as a paradigm or model for the antidevelopmental, the antinarrative, the antihistorical.

-- three paragraphs near the end of Rosalind Krauss' "Grids" (collected in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths)

It was after transcribing these words that I surfed the Net, looking for a picture of Krauss to maybe put up with the post, that I discovered it was her birthday today (along with Terrence Malick, the late Gordon Parks, Sr., and also my Dad).

I am trying to wrap my head around Krauss' writing, it still escapes me whenever I think I am about to grasp it. The way I make sense of her writing, the etiological is a type of historical thinking. When applied to aesthetics it is, in some cases anyway, a superior model than the historical modes she rejects or at least moves aside to their more proper place. If we start talking about the idea of, say, the grid as a concept, applied in films (themselves modernity's products, but subject to some kind of anamorphic development of art or literary historical movements, at least pace Jameson, et al., and I think that I agree with this), it doesn't make sense to always read each of a thousand 'grids' as unique products of distinct historical circumstances: as though the grid were always a specially arrived image in each and every film in which it appears as a powerful composition (and thus, sometimes, conceptual) element. More elegant an intellectual model to understand this concept, 'grid,' as a condition, and hence repeatable, explicable, and predictable to some degree. Yes, individual histories exist and are incredibly important; these concepts certainly do not exist, floating around, outside of material histories; but "etiology" pins down the causes and parameters of these works across all these specified histories. That is, etiology allows one to think of totality. This is how I'm making sense of Krauss' words right now. It will require more digestion.

Of course there are different kinds of grids here illustrated by these grabs above. The 'power grid' in Red Desert, represented visually by a row (not a grid) of towers; the aerial reconaissance of Images of the World and the Inscription of War; the computer code fictionalization of Tron; Playtime's humorous modern worker hellhole; the "streets" in The Fifth Element ... one could go on finding examples of varying relevance, just brainstorming. (In all these cases I've singled out, it it's worth mentioning, the primary topic or cause is indeed modernity--in the sense of "newness," not as a specific historicla period--and its concomitant problems.) Below is a vaguely Klee-like screengrab from a work by a young video artist about whom I'll be posting very soon ...

1 comment:

David Lowery said...

Your blog will sometimes manage to evade me for a week or two weeks or a month, and then when I find it again, its posts like this that put a smile on my face.

Incidentally, I agree with your assessment (on a topic I've never once considered before - hence the smile).