Saturday, February 06, 2010
MINMALISM: THE LESS SAID THE BETTER?
Minimalism was a term used for the poetry, fiction and art of the 1970s. In fiction it meant the spare style of Raymond Carver and his associates (ok, it mainly meant Raymond Carver). In poetry it referred to the work of Robert Creeley, Richard Brautigan, and especially Aram Saroyan. There were others who worked in similar veins such as the poet Larry Fagin, and Tom Clark. Saroyan was the best-known of the poets because his entire book of poems was read on the nightly news. Among these poems was the single word poem -- ligh-ght (I recite it from memory -- is that how it went?).
In art the work of Carl Andre (better known for having given a push to his wife's career -- ! -- as she fell out of a skyscraper window after an argument). His piece SULCUS is represented above (Sulcus, 1980, Western red cedar wood, overall 150 x 90 x 90 cm).
In general one could say that the minimalism of the 70s comes about because of the lack of belief in transcendence. This leads to a paring down to the basic "It is what it is." This Buddhist approach is deeply intertwined with the rise of Buddhism among the lapsed left who find in it a corollary for their paring.
Poems are reduced to single words.
In sculpture it is a basic shape, or a building block. Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra.
There was a precursor to this movement among the Objectivists, and in the notion of WCW's, that there are NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS.
In some branches of LANG-PO words themselves become things and have no significance beyond themselves (Viz-PO).
The Humean notion that only the tangible exists because of the unproven provenance of God creates a meaning-poor art work that is nevertheless suggestive in its material existence. However, aesthetics itself takes a nose-dive (as did Carl Andre's wife), as do morals, and many find themselves without words to describe larger universals. The flattening affect of Andy Warhol is part of this. He "presents" soup cans, traffic accidents, and major Hollywood stars next to Mao and the electric chair, but these become merely tangible surfaces. Everything becomes surface, and larger meaning is a joke. (One wonders if Warhol wasn't lampooning the movement, and instead asking us to get serious. His secret Catholic paintings presented in the Dillenberger book make this an open question.)
For the secular left, transcendental universals such as beauty and morality disappeared with God. As God disappeared, they nevertheless felt guilty about dispensing with justice. How could they dispense with justice, and still be the guilt-provoking left? how could they lord it over others if there were no larger meanings? Therefore, they decided that guilt is a matter of tangible surfaces. If you were identifiably white and male, you were guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. If you were not, you had to be freed from the white males. What attracted the left to the simplicity of race and gender judgment was the tangible aspect of these categories. Race and gender were something everyone could point to, and it could determine guilt or innocence, as if the sign of race and gender determined the transcendent and universal nature of individuals.
To those of us who continued to believe in God, there was a laughable idiocy about the denial of a universal soul, and God, and the misrepresentation of justice via an idolization and demonization of race and gender, irrespective of any actual narrative, or any actual action or activities on the part of an individual. OJ Simpson was innocent because he was black. Tiger Woods was a good man because he was black. Albert Schweitzer was bad because he was white and male. If a woman chopped off her husband's penis she should go free because she was lopping off a signifier that had entrapped women for millenia. etc.
Yoko Ono presented an apple just as it is.
Meanwhile, there was a rush to find tangibles that could mark the fight for justice and give the squirrelly left something to squeak about. Glass ceilings were invoked. IQ and sports scores were idolized, and became real, and scientific, signs. But then the left said, let's go back and look at this IQ business. Signs in a narrative that presented a very simple narrative having to do with the superiority of the underclasses, a bizarre notion that came from Marx, but then leaked into race and gender discourse, and turned everything upside down, were not supported by Herrnstein's IQ discourse. Therefore Herrnstein was an evil idiot and it was a good thing he was dead. (Nevertheless, the left will still tell you they are smarter than the right, and will invoke IQ scores and college degrees to prove it.)
The young went for Buddha, and the notion of the eternal present. But time also got into the mix. As people smoked pot and saw things around them for the first time (Saroyan was stoned as he wrote his one-word poems, like, man, like, like), the particular turned into universals as huge quantities of dope went up in smoke, and women went out windows, and the intuitive faculty, too, came to distrust signs like the American flag, but to put total faith in signs of race and gender, which became the ultimate reality.
Quantification mattered, but not when it came to IQ. That was too difficult to decide. Race and gender were easy to decide. White meant bad. "Of color" meant good.
Quality is harder to read and so is largely forgotten, but not entirely. In the work of the best minimalists one can discern quality, but I would be hard-pressed to say why a Creeley poem is better than a Fagin poem, or why a Saroyan is better than either. Some of the secularists such as Ed Dorn crept back toward God and an implied Protestantism, but they never worked out a broad goal, or actually went into the church. The smarter ones almost said oops! But never issued a mea culpa.
Somehow it wasn't their style. Style was still problematic.
In sports the raw quantity determines the winner, but there might have been one stylish triple-play by the loser that is the only thing we recall ten years later.
In getting rid of narrative, and turning to the immediately simple, as Hume did, and as the lapsed left did in the 1960s and more so in the 1970s, after lapsing into drug use and giggles, a serious narrative snuck back in to the vacuum, in a simple set of signage having to do with race, and gender, and superiority crept back in with it, as a linear narrative again began to arise. Women were better than men, and had more wisdom than them. If women were racial too, then they had twice the wisdom, and became wise Latinas, and were promoted to the Supreme Court.
IQ was a tricky concept because one wondered if it was scientifically valid. It didn't seem to back the concepts that were wanted by the race and gender thesis, so it was concluded to be invalid.
Meanwhile, the now nearly invisible right reformulated itself, and began a counter-narrative. A huge tsunami having to do with equality, and the reassertion of universal rights, and the Lockean notion of the four freedoms, swept back into the presidency in the person of George Bush. The left objected. Bush was white and male and from TEXAS. The conservatives found a channel on TV (FOX), and got tremendous numbers of visitors, and in the fine arts realm they began to tell a whole different story. In poetry, rhyming and meter and stories began again (ask GM), and in novels, there were again symbols, and characters, and morals. The quality of representation began to matter again in paintings. Things that cannot be measured or quantified such as humor and quality again became touched upon and known through the intuition. And some even started going back to church and believing that there is a timeless God in spite of a lack of tangible proof. But there is no proof of anything. We take our marriages on faith, and we take our children on faith. We know that our father is in heaven, and that life is good and that love exists, and that it will never end.