Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Like a non-object made of antimatter: Paulo Leminski’s ars poetica

I was going to write about Paulo Leminski's essays; you can find several online. My usual modus operandi here is to select bits from this and that essay, add my own commentary and try to give a coherent overview of the author’s ideas. But as I started pecking at the first essay – “In-utile art, free art?” I realized that there was more I wanted to include than leave out, so at one point I just said to myself, “Ah fuck it! I’ll just translate the whole text.” There’s no reason to explain Leminski when he can do it better than me in his own words. I’ve kept his idiosyncratic punctuation and neologisms intact.

In-utile art, free art?

The curious idea that art is not at the service of anything except itself is relatively recent. It dates from the 19th century European Romanticism, the apogee of the 1st Industrial Revolution and the bourgeois hegemony, the moment when the artist becomes a chronic unemployed.
Art and handicraft. Industry came to replace it.
Without social function but still full of its own importance, art between horrified and fascinated turns against the utilitarian world that surrounds it, denying it, criticizing it, like a non-object made of antimatter.
The bourgeois world is anti-artistic. Art doesn’t need it anymore. “Art for art’s sake” can finally be born.

Delight and Lesson

An art, a in-utile art: no idea could be stranger to the Catholic Middle Age, heir to Greco-Latin conceptions on the double role of art: “delectare,” “to please,” and “docere,” “to instruct.”
For a Medieval learned European (almost always a clergyman), it seemed the most logical thing in the world that artistic and literary activity, like the other activities, should be subordinated to an educational, edifying purpose, at the service of the salvation of the believers’ souls.
The literary work has moral duties. There is no place for a blasphemous, sacrilegious, iconoclastic, dissolving, corrupting work.
The work of art is the expression of a norm. Not a criminal gesture.
Like the men who produce it, it must fight against sin.
The limitless freedom of modern Western literature would seem to Medieval-agers like Satan’s triumph on earth. Modern literature’s sin, in fact, is the same as Lucifer’s, haughtiness, the pride of declaring itself autonomous, beyond good and evil.
 The Italian Renaissance, skeptical, critical, mundane, brought to life a new conception of art and literature, no longer subordinated to moral or pedagogical duties. An art turned solely to “delectare:” the concept of “Beauty” is born, the artistic goal, independent from didactic ends or ethical barriers.
The Catholic reaction in the Counter-Reformation, in its struggle with Protestantism, restored the ancient doctrine of art at the service of ideological or doctrinarian objectives. “Beauty” only has a reason to exist because it must make Truth carve itself more deeply in the hearts of men. And that Truth comes from outside: it preexists the work of art. Literature goes back to being just the vehicle of a given vision of life and the world.
Not that Protestantism was more liberal in terms of art and literature. On the contrary. Luther and Calvin were two typical Medieval minds. Certain Protestant currents went so far as to completely devalue every artistic activity as being a thing of Satan.
The utilitarian view of art and literature will prevail until the 18th century, including the Encyclopédistes. Voltaire’s vast literary oeuvre is at the service of the “Lights,” of the work of enlightening minds, ridiculing prejudice, demystifying superstition. Voltaire is not a poet, the way we understand the word nowadays, a problematic consciousness expressing his conflicts in words. He’s an educator, a pedagogue, who uses literature’s resources to illustrate certain “moral” principles.
With the French Revolution and the end of the Ancien Régime, the difficult equilibrium between the author and his audience, between the author and his Maecenas or protectors, is dissolved.
From now on, handed to the markets’ flukes, the writer is in the forest without a dog.

The French Way

The doctrine of “art for art’s sake” was first formulated, with all the letters, in 19th century France by Parnassian and Symbolist poets (Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire, Mallarmé). It was also the creed that inspired Flaubert’s desperate stylistic artisanship.
Its formulation was felt by artists as a true innovation, the freedom of art from any commitments with the non-artistic, moral, politics, patriotic exaltation, national tradition, Good, Truth.
In Romantic literature there was still an internal moral tension that, in France, had its great expression in the torrential poetic production of Victor Hugo, nowadays scarcely prized (we can’t understand the true deification to which Victor Hugo was subjected in life).
Significantly, the evolution of modern poetry at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th derives directly from these practitioners of “art for art’s sake:” modern poetry would not exist without Baudelaire or Mallarmé.
That’s due mainly to the fact that those poets, released from moral or patriotic ballasts, could make poetry advance technically, language-wise, even to extreme limits, of which Mallarmé’s “Coup de dés” is the ultimate paradigm.
Descending from them, the 20th century’s most significant poetry is born from “art for art’s sake.” Of art as inutensil. Not as a vehicle of “higher” or “grander” principles.
For that reason a good portion of this century’s best poetry is poetry about poetry, critical poetry, poetry having poeticizing as its own object of inspiration. Metalanguage, as the technical jargon says. Even when it has a “moral motivation” behind it (which is inevitable, since man is a political, therefore moral, being).
The doctrine of art for art’s sake is a natural growth from the survival of art in a market-ruled society.
In the bourgeois world the work of art can only be two things: ornament and merchandise. A Renaissance fresco on a church wall is a complex ideological composite, pulsating with moral tensions and intentions of collective involvement. A painting by Manabu Mabe on a banker’s living room is only a complement to the mat and the sofas’ pattern. The bourgeois saluted modern art’s formal freedom, buying it. Transforming it into mere handicraft: any well-informed artist nowadays knows that art is finished. What keeps existing is handicraft (or industricraft).
Certain arts, painting, sculpture, lent themselves better to that transformation into ethically neutral merchandise, pursuer only of plastic and chromatic, technical and syntactic qualities.
Ornament and merchandise, the language of modern painting has lost all the subverting impact of the turn of the century vanguards (expressionism, fauvism, futurism, cubism, surrealism, geometric abstractionism, tachisme). When the bourgeois hears about modern art he pulls out his check book.
But one art resisted with particular vigour to this commercialization.
And that was literature, the art that has the word as its materia prima. Especially poetry, the place where the word achieves maximum, full, substantive sovereignty.
It’s no reason for surprise. Signally the arts are made with icons (colors, sounds, melodies, rhythms, body movements). Literature, poetry, is the only art made with symbols (the words the poet, an alchemist, tries to transform into icons).
Why, an icon, a color can be “a-moral” and “a-political.”
A word cannot.
For starters, a color is a universal value, independent of race, epoch or place. A word, any word belongs to a particular idiom, historically determined in space and time, the heaviest collective ballast man can carry. To speak Basque in Spain or Gaelic in Ireland is a gesture itself political (nations should coincide with the space of a language or dialect).
Each word has its history, its biography, its etymology.
Its usage deflagrates a constellation of sub-meanings and senses that, in each specific idiom, has a certain unique and non-transferable drawing.
The word is, in essence, political. Therefore ethical.
Thus perhaps the difficulty of transforming literature, poetry, into merchandise.
In fiction, commercially literature’s most prosperous branch, language is not true merchandise. It’s the plot, the setup, the story, you could say drawings, that is icons. Those things Brecht wanted in vain to sell, joining the ranks of Hollywood’s scriptwriters…
The pure value of the word is in poetry. So it’s always considered a difficult merchandise. “Poetry doesn’t sell” is one of the commandments of the indispensible Decalogue of any wise editor. Indeed it doesn’t sell. Poetry’s destiny is to be something else, behind or beyond merchandise and the market.
Wrong are those in thought and deed who complain about the publishing houses’ refusal to sell poetry. Instead they should be happy. Poetry after all is the last trench where art defends itself from the temptations of becoming ornament and merchandise, temptations to which other arts have pleasantly succumbed.
And it’s intriguing the fact that the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” was formulated precisely by poets. Not by painters, nor by novelists.
Transformed into merchandise, the work of art is transformed into nothing.
The thinkers of the “art for art’s sake” only recovered that curse. And gave it a positive sense.
Since then art has been in direct conflict with the world. The 20th century’s best art is a gesture against the world surrounding it. A negativity.

The Russian Way

“It sometimes happens that novelists, even when apparently fighting vice, present them with such colors that for that same reason they make the young to feel attracted to vices we should not speak of. Whatever the literary merit of these works may be, they can only be published if they take into account a truly moral end.”
“Mutatis mutandis,” the sentence could have been signed by any Soviet (or socialist) cultural authority nowadays. Just replace “moral” by “collective”, “socialist,” or “revolutionary.”
But the sentence belongs to count Razumovski, Russian minister of Public Instruction in 1814, justifying the prohibition of a novel that satirized the time’s aristocratic society.
As much from the government’s side as from the writers’, the extraordinary 19th century Russian literature (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekov) is an above all moral literature. And the social conscience of the Russian people, a literature of indictment and exposé, of resistance and collective responsibility.
Moral character: in that the powers and the opposition were in agreement. Only the signs were swapped. To the forceful and contrived moralizing of Czarist censorship, Russian writers reacted with an opposite moralizing.
The great meditative moment of that Russian affirmation of literature’s moral character is What is Art, by Tolstoy (1898).
In that remarkable essay the author of War and Peace denounces the “degeneration” of modern art, particularly the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” in light of ethical and “human” criteria. For Tolstoy all the art and literature of his time struck him as pathological manifestations of decadent and “inhuman” sensibilities. He’s repulsed by its “occultism,” its tendency for creating sects and closed “rackets.” In the rigor of his demands he expresses total repudiation of Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and the Goncourt brothers, while he exalted the fiction of Dickens, Victor Hugo and Dumas Père… on the poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, his judgments are even more severe.
This Russian literature’s ethical character comes from the 19th century and remains almost intact in Soviet literature: the Revolution only inherited the Czarism and the artistic utilitarianism. In that sense the literature of the Russian people presents a rare unity of meaning.
From Razumovski to Tolstoy we arrived at Plekhanov, the introducer of Marxism in Russia: the same “utilitarian,” moral, anti-art-for-art’s-sake posture. His Art and Social Life, a 1912 conference, repeats with Marxist and proletarianizing notes, Tolstoy’s arguments.
In that conference, whose brilliance can’t be denied, Plekhanov drives the judgment against “art for art’s sake” according to his class conditions.
What in Tolstoy was moral, in Plekhanov is political.
Details aside, this vision of art and literature would continue throughout the whole Soviet era, well into Stalinism.
It’s important to remark how that Russian vision of art impregnated the aesthetics and poetics of socialism in general. A Marxist ideological position on the world seems inextricable from a useful and utilitarian view of art, in the antipodes of “art for art’s sake.”

Adorno: the left’s “art for art’s sake”

Fortunately the Marxist art view did not stop in the moralist Manichaeism of Plekhanov, producing with Adorno (Theodor W. Adorno) a sort of dialectical synthesis between the inutensil of “art for art’s sake” and the ethical and political compromise of living revolutionary a given historical circumstance.
The exponent of the Frankfurt School, Adorno is already a contemporary of Walter Benjamin and Brecht. His theoretical reflection addresses capitalism in a far more advanced phase than Plekhanov’s. Compared with Plekhanov, Adorno reflects in a) a far more sophisticated intellectual milieu and b) a non-revolutionary circumstance.
For Adorno the greatness of art is in its capacity to resist the status of merchandise, in positioning itself in the world as an “unidentified object.” In its refusal to assume the universal form of merchandise, art, the work of art is the manifestation in its purest and most radical moments of a “negativity.” It is the “antithesis of society.” The social antithesis of society.
For Adorno, a critic and sharp reader of capitalism’s contradictions, art only has a reason of being as negation of the rarefied world of merchandise. It’s the same as saying while inutensil.
The ethical tension of the work is in this refusal to turn into merchandise.
Mysteriously, the defenders of “art for art’s sake” were right.

Orginally published in 1986 in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and Included in the book Anseios Crípticos.

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