Criticism in Parentheses

John Haber
in New York City

Joseph Masheck: Texts on (Texts on) Art

It sounds like a parody of art, and to many it still is. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, which he then inscribed L.H.O.O.Q. As Joseph Masheck explains, it means, "when pronounced in French, something to the effect of 'She's a hot piece of tail.' "

And it may sound like the inspiration for a parody of art criticism. In looking for precedents and influences, Masheck also points to an offhand remark about a philosopher of art—in an editorial that Duchamp almost surely never read, by a political commentator he may not even have known. Then again, do not be too sure, for Duchamp was one smart artist, and that has Mascheck wondering. Could parody be a core theme of modern art? Could caricature be the vocabulary of some of its greatest artists? Could that include even its most austere abstract painters? Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. (Musee National d'Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, 1919)

Of course, L.H.O.O.Q. very much was art, despite the challenge to art of its multiple versions. In fact, it came at that critical moment after World War I, when the shock at devastation was giving way to fear and confusion—and when Dada was soon to give way to Surrealism. And Masheck is the former editor-of-chief of Artforum and contributing editor to Art in America back when art magazines contributed more than puff pieces and advertising. Now his 2003 essay on Duchamp and Santayana appears in Texts on (Texts on) Art, a slim but challenging volume of otherwise uncollected criticism. The "(text)" here just happens to be about a text about a writer of texts on art, and the art here just happens to lie eight years in the future. Hold on tight.

Art in extremity

Walter Lippman, the journalist, was writing on the occasion of quite another desecration of Leonardo's original—the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. Lippman may not have cared about Dada, and he is known today more for his bluster than his ideas. Yet he had read Renaissance art history at Harvard and had studied with George Santayana, author in 1896 of The Sense of Beauty. "Finally," Lippman wrote, "I hit upon the idea that if Leonardo's Mona Lisa were furnished with a little pointed beard, you would have a perfect portrait of Santayana." A trip by Marcel Duchamp to New York was still four years away. "It is in the spirit of Marcel," Masheck writes, "that I would like to believe that L.H.O.O.Q. was in 1919, and is now, in 2011, a portrait of George Santayana."

If there is an anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom argues about literature, Masheck speaks for obsessive-compulsive disorder. He sees the chain of influences as essential to art—and the search for influences as essential to criticism. Each of his ten chapters pairs at least one writer and one artist. The writers include Santayana in 1898, at the dawn of Modernism, and Aloïs Riegl, who helped create art history as practiced today. They include artists themselves with a view of what art might be, like Le Corbusier, André Breton, and Ad Reinhardt. They include the flurry of texts that grew up around Andy Warhol, when Arthur D. Danto proclaimed the end of art.

As with Duchamp, they look at Modernism in extremis—in the sense of both dying and pushed to extremes, because taking thing to their limit meant a new birth. That is not unlike the definition of modern art for Clement Greenberg, although Masheck has a different canon in mind than Greenberg's. He writes about much of the last century, but with homage to only two working artists, William Anastasi and Mike Bidlo. In each case, he links art and text to get a feel for artists in extremity. Those parentheses in his title hint that it could read as simply Texts on Art, and he means to get into the mind of the artists. Then again, he hardly minds if text and punctuation sometimes get in the way of the obvious.

To see how this plays out, consider his slow circling around Santayana and Duchamp. He starts at yet a further remove. He has written about Duchamp before, and a student at the time turned up the joke about the philosopher—but by whom? Masheck sets out to track it down. First, though, comes background on L.H.O.O.Q. and the theft from the Louvre. Duchamp had already upset New York quite well enough, when the 1913 Armory Show brought Nude Descending a Staircase and Cubism to America. The artist, however, is still pondering a visit from Europe.

Now things shift back to Santayana, in drag for the Harvard theater of those days. Duchamp made a similar pose his persona, as Rrose Sélavy, without a thought to the Hasty Pudding. Santayana sure sounds old-fashioned, in both his taste in art and his concern for beauty—or does he? While teasing that out, Masheck cannot resist mentioning how many other people the Mona Lisa might resemble or how often Santayana dispensed with a goatee. How can anyone, he wonders, talk of resemblance after Dada anyway? By the end come Sigmund Freud on Leonardo, Freud on resemblance, Duchamp on Freud on Leonardo, Walter Pater on Leonardo's mockery of his own sitters, Vincent van Gogh on "overexcited sexual organs" and Leonardo's "sexual delights," and, for good measure, Mae West.

At some point, maybe around the first paragraph, you may want to throw the book against the wall—or maybe buy a couple more copies to see how much you too can juggle in the air. And yet Masheck admits right off how unlikely his connections are. The very essay, on sources and influence, is about the elusiveness impossibility of "authorship" and resemblance. Is he self-destructing or self-aware? Is he onto something or off to one aside after another? Probably both at once.

From caricature to religion

I found it most insightful when the reality of influence hardly matters. Does that invalidate the entire premise? Not necessarily. The essay on Duchamp works by showing how art disturbs that reality. Two essays on Reinhardt work because the questions alone resonate. What brought Reinhardt close since childhood to Thomas Merton, the monk and mystic, and how could he have created both austere abstraction and biting cartoons about the art world? Both Le Corbusier and André Breton take for an example the Porte Saint-Denis, the great arch that replaced a medieval gate to Paris under Louis XIV. Breton, in Najda, could have could have been taking a pot shot at the rationality of Toward a New Architecture. Then again, each could have looked to the same emblem of classicism and excess—Breton to undermine the first and to embrace the second, Le Corbusier quite the reverse. Breton might also have wished to subvert the very idea of a public space as apart from Surrealism's dreamscape. Jacques Lacan, for another, may not have cared Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox theologian. Still, one can see the psychologist in a tradition of the gaze of "the other," from the flatness of medieval icons through existentialism, and one can sure use any help with Lacan.

My favorite essay again tackles the strategy of quotation in art, long after Leonardo and Duchamp. Arthur C. Danto describes Andy Warhol and his Brillo boxes as a critical moment, when art clearly became about the creation of meaning and not resemblance. Masheck focuses more on the moment, for Danto the "end of art," than on meaning and resemblance—and not on the philosopher's posing hypothetical works of art. He assaults, though, the very terms of Danto's argument. Surely it sounds naive to take past art as the progressive pursuit of the truth in painting, and surely Warhol is not making art indistinguishable at last from life, just as Sturtevant does not make her copies indistinguishable from Warhol. Slapdash application of silkscreens, often delegated to the Factory, makes the electric chairs of Orange Disaster so chilling and, Masheck argues, makes the Brillo boxes a fiendish engagement with Minimalism.

On the other hand, the essay ends with Mike Bidlo imitating Warhol. And there the terms of praise sound suspiciously like Danto's after all, because now concept matters most. The essays depend on their refusal of closure, as the references multiply, and that really can grow confusing. Reinhardt studied at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro—the great medievalist and later champion of Reinhardt's Abstract Expressionist New York. That does not mean one can look to Schapiro's studies with Franz Boas, the anthropologist, for sources of Reinhardt's caricatures. Sometimes, the concrete reality of influence matters too much.

from Ad Reinhardt's How to Look at Art Talk (Ad Reinhardt Foundation/Anna Reinhardt, 1946)Specifics matter in other ways as well. Ad Reinhardt may have picked up on hieroglyphics and other cultures, but it has to matter, too, that his cartoons concerned the art scene. His black paintings may have a cross at their heart, but it took him a long time to get there, through patient explorations of geometry and gesture. A rectangle divided by an L, on a tablecloth in a fifteenth-century Russian icon, leads to some ingenious interpretation. It may even work, although it is a long way back to Lacan. I would rather forget Bidlo anyway.

If the book has a single theme after influence, it is the impetus of caricature in Modernism. And if the book has a single theme after that, it is the lasting significance of religion. Both themes are telling attacks on formalist art history, although I was not convinced by the connection between them. The emphasis on religion can also sound overly defensive. It may say more about what matters most to Masheck than what matters most to Modernism. Reinhardt wrote "A Marxist Critique of Thomism," but it was still Marxist and still a critique.

Retrospective influence

The book's uncompromising tone, too, can add perplexity. Masheck is not one to fill in the gaps for the uninitiated or to sum up historians like Riegl. The very first page says that "that," meaning either an argument of Freud's or a fact of human life, "is essentially diachronic." I thought I remembered the term from Structuralist linguistics and, later, distribution from symbolic logic, but I never was all that sure what they mean here. "It would seem the fault of nobody in particular," he writes about Gerardus van der Leeuw, "that particular statements must sometimes be re-read for sense; but at least one's resolve will be rewarded." He could be speaking about himself.

That essay on van der Leeuw, a theologian, asks this:

Unless I have missed out on something well-known: Can anyone else have thought to refer Calvinist "enmity" towards theater to Calvin's liturgical diluting of the dialogic 'Lift Up Your Hearts' (Sursum corda) of the Mass, which before had "expressed the striving of the entire communion of saints, living and dead, angels and archangels, toward God .  .  .," into a monologic ministerial pronouncement of the minister alone?

Nor is that by any means the longest or most intricate aside. The prose also has a way of mixing informality and a fondness for exclamation points into the same passage with the recondite. It has a liking for [N.B.] within quotations, at the risk of chortling, especially since one has to decide whether it refers to the words before or after—and to how many words.

Masheck suffers from the limits of many a small press. (Note towards and toward in the same sentence just before.) He has few illustrations, none in color, and a quirky design that alludes, no doubt knowingly, to the collage of old fonts in Dada. This critic has been part of art in New York for a long time now—even, in a way, from before his birth. His grandmother, he recalls, went to P.S. 1. He deserves better.

Still, before throwing the book across the room, aim carefully—and remember that juggling can be an art. Quite apart from its insights, it has its gamesmanship. It also has an emerging coherence, thanks to those recurring themes. I have been thinking more and more about the moment when Reinhardt's Greek cross first startled me into an almost otherwordly experience, jumping out from the blackness after I had turned away and then turned back. I have also been thinking more about caricature, as long ago as when Pablo Picasso slipped a mustache into Analytic Cubism. Finally, the book offers a vision of criticism and its function, at a time when (speaking from experience) editors treat criticism that has room for a context in ideas as simply wordy or downright irrelevant.

This is hardly a conservative diatribe. As with diachronic or the whole issue of texts and quotation, it engages post-structuralism. The use of parentheses in the title recalls what critics have called bracketing. Yet Masheck also wants to distinguish himself from both political correctness and deconstruction. He does not believe in an infinity of texts about texts. He is seeking conclusions, if not necessarily closure, about art.

Without anxiety, he places his obsession in a tradition of T. S. Eliot, who even coined a term for it—retrospective influence. The changing context of the present, that is, cannot help changing the meaning of the past. I thought of a footnote added later by Stanley Cavell to his 1958 essay on Samuel Beckett and the theater of the absurd. When Jan Kott, in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, calls for making over Shakespeare in light of the present, Cavell calls it "disastrous," because it falsifies how the " 'classic' . . . is always our contemporary." Could Masheck never have seen that essay, its sources, or its adjustments to itself? I must have fallen for retrospective influence.

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Joseph Masheck's Texts on (Texts on) Art was published in 2011 by Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions. Stanley Cavell's essay appears in What We Mean What We Say (Cambridge University Press, 1976, first published by Scribner's in 1969). I should say in the interest of full disclosure that I consider myself a friend of Marjorie Welish, the painter and Masheck's wife, and often turn to her judgment and prodigious memory for a reality check.


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