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Railing Opinion

Either/Or: But Yes, I Shall…

Image by Gabriel Held

Having read the exchange between David Levi Strauss and James Kalm in the last two issues of The Brooklyn Rail, I’m compelled to respond to their views, respectively, on satire versus irony.

Let me begin with Levi Strauss’s article, which was clearly intended by the author as a satire. It achieved the two criteria the genre requires: humor as a distinct and recognizable element and articulation as invested with literary form. In spite of the article’s all-encompassing subject matter—the current political climate, the globalized economy, and the art world—Levi Strauss’s exercise in satire no doubt consisted of his own impertinence. In other words, he is aware of the clarity of his intention and the meanings of its effects.

I do admit that Kalm nearly succeeded in turning himself into Strauss’s pseudovictim. However, he failed to deliver his supposedly powerful insights in his fields of observation, and his misunderstanding of Levi Strauss’s satire was merely the pretext for personal diatribe. “In all the languages, the verb ‘to be’ is irregular, hence metaphysics,” once remarked Georg Lichtenberg, the hunchbacked physicist who taught at the University of Göttigen during the Age of Reason. Along with Voltaire, some regarded Lichtenberg as the greatest wit in Europe. Perhaps the Rail’s readers are familiar with his famous rivalry with Johann Casper Lavater, the leading expert in the new science of physiognomy. Mocking the pretension of Lavater’s readiness to determine a man’s inner psyche based on correspondences to his posture and external appearance, Lichtenberg wrote a brilliant essay entitled “On Tails,” in which he produced a series of drawings of dogs’ tails as an exercise in the interpretation of expressive signs for the reader. He asked the reader, “If Goethe had a tail, which one of these would it be?”

Apart from that, satire is different from the concept of irony. Verbal irony pertains to the relationship of one meaning of the text to another meaning in the same words or in their context, while dramatic irony deals with the relationship between an event or situation as interpreted from a limited to a broader point of view in literature; the governing idea is to present one’s own point of view as specifically and coherently as possible. Kalm seems ambivalent about this difference. For all his sweeping generalizations concerning the history of philosophy and art, Kalm hardly illuminates his reader with his knowledge. For example, as is well known, over the centuries Plato has been strongly condemned for his banishing the poets from his ideal republic and for approaching literature from the moral point of view—which is a perfectly legitimate criticism, but Kalm gets confused between the moral and the aesthetic. For the ancient Greeks, poetry was a vital educational impetus; therefore, it is no surprise to find that Greek criticism was perceived as moral criticism, beginning at the end of the sixth century with Heraclitus and Xenophanes. Similarly, bound to investigate the claims made on behalf of the poets—teachers of the art of living—as he argued against the Sophists, Plato attacked them, though only on the rhetorical grounds of moral responsibility. Let us not forget that the visual artist did not receive acknowledgement until the Renaissance (a good example is Raphael’s so-called “School of Athens”).

At any rate, the influence of Neo-Platonism was immense. Based on the notion of love depicted in Plato’s Phaedrus, “divine madness”—the sensual cognition of earthly beauty—led by Plotinus, Proclus, and their successors; it came down to Petrarch, Nicholas of Cusa, who had some influence on Marsilio Ficino, and certainly, and notably, Giordano Bruno in such doctrines as the Coincidence of Contraries, in which are described the different infinities, respectively, of God and the universe, the plurality of the worlds, and the motion of earth. Cusa’s De Docta Ignorantia socratically praises wisdom as the awareness of one’s own ignorance. This should prevent one from allowing one’s own emotional tendencies to overcome one’s good judgment. In other words, by reducing any great scholarship into simplistic interpretation, one actually reveals one’s own anxiety and self-defense.

Even though I commend Kalm’s genuine enthusiasm and admiration of artists, and in spite of his own inadequate reading of the history of critical theory, in either of the philosophic or poetic traditions upon which the visual arts greatly depend, I take Kalm’s view of current art production to be rather disappointing and unworthy. However, without humor and concrete evidence in his argument, I find it impossible to comprehend his intended message. I sense also that Kalm is quite uneasy about the relationship between politics and art. Yet politics have been an integral aspect of many painters’ lives and work. For example, Courbet’s involvement with the Paris Commune in 1871, which resulted in his subsequent imprisonment and exile to Switzerland and his death there in 1877, or Malevich, the president of the art department of the Moscow Council of Soldiers’ Liberties from 1917 to 1927. They both managed to make great paintings. How about Diego Rivera or the late Leon Golub? Wouldn’t one agree that their politics and art are inseparable?

Here I end with the thoughts of Alfred North Whitehead, who, having arrived at Harvard in 1924, said, “Half of the books in Harvard library should be thrown out, but which half?” Even if one is having great difficulties in deciding what book to read, the least one can do is to read carefully.

Railing Opinion is an open space for dialogue on the current art world. We invite critics, art historians, artists, and readers to participate.


Wilfred Brendel


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2005

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