Saturday, June 6, 2009

CUBISM AND CULTURE by Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten

Reproduced on one page of this book is a ca.1910 photograph of Apollinaire by Picasso that makes me wish Picasso had taken more photographs, because he might have revolutionized that art too. The Apollinaire photo gives evidence of Picasso's wonderful visual wit (and thus functions as a kind of 'key' to understanding the wit of Cubism): the pudgy poet poses in a chair in Picasso's studio, his head intersecting the frame of a Cubist painting on the wall behind; his head is also turned so that the smoke from his pipe appears to lay in the plane of the painting, and the depicted Cubist figure seems to rise like smoke from its bowl.

Unfortunately, this single photograph is much more interesting than most of the text in this book. Antliff and Leighten's Cubism and Culture is yet another book on Cubism that fails to understand the true radicalism of the movement. Rather than doing the hard hermeneutical labor of looking deeply into individual paintings and constantly testing and re-testing their ideas against them, the academic authors are content to give us a tour of the Cubist zeitgeist that dubiously attempts to place the paintings in contexts to which they are tangential at best: anti-colonialism, Riemannian geometry, Bergsonian philosophy, feminism, etc. The necessity of arguing their dubious thesis about the influence of Bergson also leads them to grant undue prominence to 2nd- and 3rd-rate Cubists like Metzinger, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, etc., ignoring superior works by Picasso and Braque. So the book is ultimately a triumph of thesis over art and of academic fashion over taste--in other words, a typical piece of contemporary American art historical discourse. This is what passes for the social history of art today, and it's a long way from Arnold Hauser and Robert Herbert (or even T.J. Clark).

The most important point the authors fail to understand (and they're hardly alone in this) is that Cubism is painting at its most self-conscious. Cubism is painting slowing down--and sometimes stopping--in order to think about itself, to reflect on materials and techniques, on strategies of representation. Cubist paintings therefore come to us with the imperative that we also slow down, stop and look and think--think about the myriad unexamined rules and conventions that determine how we 'see' paintings (and everything else in the world). Cubism is subjectivity cubed. The subjectivities of artist and viewer ideally collide and collude in the interpretation of the work.

Near the end of the book, the authors almost redeem themselves with a marvelous close reading of Picasso's Bottle of Suze. It's too little too late, but it suggests how interesting the book might have been had Antliff and Leighten paid more attention to paintings and less to current academic fashion.

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