Friday, December 24, 2010

more bullshit

"He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions."
"When you doubt your powers, you give power to your doubts."
"We are number one! All others are number two, or lower."
- The Sphinx from "Mystery Men"

By now, I should expect bullshit from academics and critics. Maybe I should be charmed by it: "whatchagonnado?" But I'm not. I can't seem to lose my innocence. I assume educators and writers are trying to communicate something that makes sense. Yet when another apple from the nonsense tree bops me on the head, I'm shocked and angered again, as if it was happening to me for the first time.

In this piece on Edward Hopper, Morgan Meis, who "is currently finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the New School for Social Research [and] teaches undergraduate philosophy courses at Eugene Lang College and at various other institutions ... throughout the city, including Columbia University," launches into the bullshit almost immediately: "Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper." No, it's not. It's not a question I have ever even once asked myself, while looking at any painting by Hopper or anyone else.

There's no such thing as a universal cliché. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is a cliché to me, as it probably is to most adult English speakers, but to someone who has never heard the phrase before, it's potentially a strong, witty and vivid metaphor. Clichés are subjective. And, as the owner of his subjectivity, each person instantly know if something is cliché to him or not. He may not be comfortable with the word "cliché," but he knows whether something affects him in a visceral way or if it's so blunted that it bounces off him. He's either affected by it or he isn't.

Sometimes I hear people say, "I know that's a cliché, but it still makes me cry." Then it's NOT a cliché -- to you! What you probably mean is this: "I know many people consider it a cliché. But I'm moved by it. And since I know most people aren't -- since I know most people think folks like me are sentimental fools -- I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed that I'm moved. I hope no one finds out. Or I hope I can figure out some way to prove to everyone that they're wrong -- that it's not a cliché." I wonder if this is Meis's real concern. Is he embarrassed that he likes Hopper paintings?

When he asks, "Is he a cliché? That's the question you keep coming back to when you look at the paintings of Edward Hopper," I wonder what will happen to him when he's finally able to answer the question. If he like Hopper but figures out that, yes, he's cliché, will that knowledge suddenly make him stop liking Hopper? "Big Macs taste terrible!" "Oh, they do? Thanks for clearing that up for me. Now I'll know not to like them any more."

Meis is fond of talking about "you" and "we" when he means -- or should mean -- himself:

"We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene."

"Still, we wonder. Did Hopper stick to his guns for all the right reasons?"

"We know that there is an entire universe of interiority unfolding within that person as she does what she does."

This is such an old bullshit trick, most people probably don't notice it. It's a rhetorical device that's supposed to make a personal observation sound universal: "It's true and you know it's true!" No, I don't. "When we think about our childhood, we yearn for our innocent pasts." No, we don't. Just be honest, Mr. Writer. Write, "When I think about my childhood, I yearn for my innocent past." I know that doesn't sound as profound as a universal statement. And that's because it's not. Sorry. Saying "we" doesn't make it more profound or universal. Just tell the truth, which is about your experience. It might be mine, too. Let me decide. Don't tell me what I think. Or, if you're really brave, try writing things like this: "When we see a small child, we want to pick up an axe and chop her head off."

Of Hopper's painting "Soir Bleu," Meis writes: "We may have to accept the fact that Hopper painted the sad clown smoking a cigarette in the café because he felt it to be a poignant scene. He was so moved by the depressed clown that he went and painted one of the silliest paintings of the era."

Well, I keep looking and looking at the painting, which is not one of my favorites, either, but I'll be damned if I see a depressed clown.

What I see is a clown with a rather neutral expression. He COULD be sad. He could be pensive, bored, concentrating, tired, constipated, whatever. I have absolutely no problem with Meis or any other viewer thinking of the clown as sad. I make up stories about paintings all the time. (I think the Mona Lisa owes me five dollars.) But the clown is not necessarily, universally sad to all viewers. There's no information in the actual painting that forces or urges the viewer to see the clown as sad.

"He didn't want to be an abstract painter. His mind was not blown by Cubism. He did not succumb to the excitement of any avant-garde. How many of us have ever shown that kind of resolution?"

Presumably, any painter who knows about the existence of non-realism and yet continues to paint realistically shows that kind of resolution.

"The fact that so many of Hopper's paintings make good postcards and prints makes the worry about cliché even stronger."

Why is Meis so worried about it? When he looks at Hopper's paintings, what is his actual experience? "Oh, dear... this might be cliché. If it is, what are we going to do?"

"His most famous painting, 'Nighthawks' ..., the one with the people sitting in a diner late at night, has become global kitsch. ...The accessibility and near-universal appeal of that painting, like so much of Hopper, starts to make a person suspicious."

Very, very odd. Meis can't tell, for sure, if something is cliché or not. To him, cliché is a sly trait that an artist can sneak into a painting. You might be innocently enjoying it, not knowing that it's cliché! How embarrassing! Can't you just see all those sophisticated museum-goers, laughing behind your back, while you're standing there, looking at "Nighthawks," with a tear running down your face?

I'm also not sure what near-universal appeal has to do with cliché. Sounds a bit snobbish to me.

Not content with his own nonsense, Meis wheels in Clement Greenberg, "the great American critic of postwar painting and the champion of the Abstract Expressionists," to spout some of his own: "Even though Hopper is a terrible painter, Greenberg famously remarked, he is a great artist."

What does that mean? Hopper makes paintings that move people, but you'd be crazy to hire him to paint your living room?

Then Meis makes this baffling statement (which sounds clever if you don't think about it): "Hopper seems to have been fascinated with the fact that all people can really know about each other are what they show on the surface."

Well, all people CAN know about each other is what they show on the surface -- AND what they say. But since paintings are silent, they always -- the figurative ones, anyway -- only show people's surfaces. This is as true of Davinci's and Carravagio's paintings as it is of Hopper's. It's a really boring, obvious thing to say. Yes, a figurative painting can't show you what someone is thinking, unless it includes a comic-book thought balloon.

"Hopper was dealing with people and places as surface. Everybody is nothing more than what they look like, how they behave. And yet, we know that to be human is to inhabit our own interior, to be in our own head, to feel a million different emotions every day that we never get the chance to express fully, even to ourselves."

Since WE know that humans have inner lives, it sounds like Meis is saying that Hopper doesn't know that -- or doesn't agree with it: "Everybody is nothing more than what they look like, how they behave." How do his paintings convey that idea? Even though I have no idea whether the clown is sad or not, to me, it looks like there's something going on in his head. I assume he has an inner life. So if Hopper's goal was to get me to feel or think the clown is entirely surface, Hopper failed.

"Hopper ... paints individuals of great inner depth with the full knowledge that that inner depth itself can never be painted."

I really hope all painters (and all non-painters) have that same knowledge.

"Because he is painting people as surfaces, he is going to flirt with cliché constantly."

So I guess all figurative painters flirt with cliché constantly. Because they all paint surfaces.

"When he gets it wrong, when he tries to be too evocative, too objective, the whole thing falls apart."

What does "too objective" mean? It sounds like the opposite of "too evocative." It sounds journalistic. But I'm not really sure what "too evocative" means, either.

But maybe I'm guilty of the crimes I'm accusing Meis of committing. Maybe I'm projecting my subjective beliefs onto other people, specifically my belief that it's impossible to paint a realistic picture of someone's inner life. Meis certainly disagrees:

"[Hopper's painting] 'New York Interior' gives us a woman wrapped up in the process of acting and doing and thinking and dreaming all at once. We don't even have the faintest glimpse of what could be going on in her head, where her thoughts have wandered as she sews her dress. But we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering."

Here's the painting:

Yes, her thoughts may be wondering. Or, as Meis says, contradicting himself, she may be "heavily involved in the process of what looks to be the sewing of a dress ... as she concentrates."

Well, we don't have to debate it. We know for sure that her mind is wondering, because "we know that she is going somewhere, mentally, that her thoughts are wandering. It is in her gesture, in the absent-minded way she pulls the thread."

I'm really trying to see her gesture as "absent-minded," but I just can't. What I see her doing is what someone has to do when sewing by hand -- pulling the needle away from the cloth.

Like me, Meis loves the painting: "It is a great painting because it hovers so very close to being a cliché without ever crossing that line." But we disagree about cliché. I don't think something can be kinda cliché or almost cliché. Cliché-ness is a binary property. Something is either cliché or it's not.

I'm sorry to be so hard on Meis. He's just doing what countless academics do: he's using rhetoric to make vacuous statements sound like profundities, personal feeling sound like universal truths and nonsense sound like logic. He's also trying to express his visceral response to a painting in the form of a logical proposition, and this is an activity generally doomed to failure.

Meis is playing the game. He's playing the game that countless students and teachers and pundits and critics play out many times each day. I am being unfair in that I'm criticizing the player and not the game itself. I'm saying "How dare he make a forward pass," when, in fact, that's what you do when you're playing football. So I'll end by saying this: go to a museum, look at an painting, have an experience. If it affects you, it affects you; if it doesn't, it doesn't. If you have something truly interesting to say about the painting, by all means do so. If you don't, shut up! Don't add more blah blah blah to a river that's already overflowing.

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