Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Anarchy, Cubism and poking fun at the establishment

            I am struggling with Shattuck's The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire.   I enjoyed reading him as long as he was on the outside looking critically in at the political anarchy that was replaced by artistic anarchy, but by the time he began his discussion of Apollinaire he had clearly gotten caught up in it.  It was no longer art poking fun at "the establishment."  It had become a new establishment, and Shattuck found much to admire.  Shattuck wrote his book in 1958.  By that time critics, many of them, could judge Jarry, Rousseau, Satie and Apollinaire as part of a passing phase -- but not Shattuck:
            On page 283 Shattuck writes, "Frequently, the accusation is made -- and has been from the very beginning -- that cubism is an enormous hoax dreamed up by the hashish-smoking, pistol-carrying, half-starved inhabitants of Montmartre who had been impregnated with Jarry's 'Pataphysics and the pseudo-mathematics of the fourth dimension.  (An imaginative and articulate mathematician, Princet, was originally a member of the bateau lavoir group.)  Without doubt, much of the inspiration for the speculations that produced cubist theory came from these sources.  Yet two further points temper this estimate.  First, the sources are perfectly valid, are, in fact, integral parts of all modern inspiration.  Jarry and Satie, as well as Henri Monnier and Alphonse Allais, were predecessors in this line of perpetrators of hoaxes who took their own antics seriously.  The Chat Noir and the Lapin Agile were truly the salons of the new art.  What started as a humorous indulgence of the imagination in confronting eternal artistic problems became a serious endeavor. 
            "The second point is that these buffooneries helped produce cubist theory, but not its works, to spend several days or weeks painting a difficult and elaborate cubist composition (or to spend year after year writing about these paintings required total dedication.  There is a headily improvised side of cubism that can be called 'dreamed up,' but the genuineness of the whole movement cannot be challenged.  Too many monumental figures lived it.  Part of the greatness of cubism consisted in its willingness to entertain speculations which other minds would have dismissed as foolishness or mere bluff. . . ."
            Can Shattuck be right?  We might grant that the initial political anarchy that inspired the "buffooneries" metamorphosed into "genuineness," depending upon what we mean by "genuineness," but is that enough to authenticate "cubism" and all the other artistic buffooneries of the period Shattuck describes?  And what is "authentication" if not "genuineness" I hear someone object?  Let us move this line of thought back into politics and take another look at it.
            The most serious attempt to subvert the "establishment" was the Communistic political movement.  Lenin and a host of others seriously believed that their enterprise was "genuine" and "authentic."  They were certainly committed to it.  They were even more dedicated than Shattuck's buffoons, but their dedication and genuineness wasn't enough to counter the fact that they were dead wrong.  Their political enterprise didn't work, and in the period (well after Shattuck wrote his book) from 1989-91 the USSR, the great Communist experiment, collapsed. 
            Someone wrote that Jarry's Ubu Roi was a great inspiration to him.  It poked fun at "the establishment" in a very effective way.  I can almost sympathize with the person who wrote that.  We do need to "poke fun" at the things wrong in our society so that they can be corrected, but when the "poking fun" becomes a replacement society then something has gone seriously wrong.  The "poking fun" that became the USSR carried the joke way too far. 
            The "poking fun" that was Cubism can be seen (if we aren't Shattuck) for what it was, a passing-phase buffoonery.  Maybe the artists involved in it were "genuinely" committed, but they were seriously committing themselves to a series of jokes that were only funny when not taken seriously.   

No comments: