From the Fog
A Philosopher, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1570
‘Point to the fog. Now point away from it. Now brush your teeth. (Philosophy as a type of activity)
[Jerry Fodor parody of Wittgenstein]
‘Seduction is the premature ejaculation of the future. It works best after brushing your teeth.’
‘Always attach yourself to the best master and, following him everywhere, it would be unnatural for you not to take on his manner and his style’ writes Cennino Cennini in his ‘Libro dell’arte’ at the end of the fourteenth century. What is this style? Perhaps no more than the artists’ hallmark that can be acquired by others. Raphael writes: ‘ The monuments of our time are known for not having a style that is as beautiful as those of the times of the Emperors, or as deformed as those of the time of the Goths.’ In Vasari ‘style’ or ‘manner’ (the word used was ‘maniera’) becomes a key. It came to mean the surpassing of nature, with Michelangelo the parade case. By the seventeenth century Bellori could write: ‘Artists, abandoning the study of nature, have corrupted art with maniera, by which I mean a fantastic idea, based on practice and not on imitation.’ And then maniera becomes a negative.
Abraham Bosse in 1649 explained the proliferation of artistic style in terms of deficiencies of skill: ‘ .. because ignorance reigned for a period of time among the practitioners of this art, many of them as a result came to formulate manners that pleased their particular fancies.’ Manner/style was a hallmark and whim. Andre Felibien said it was ‘… the habit painters adopted for the practice of all aspects of painting, whether it be composition, or design, or use of colour.’ It was something students could copy and connoisseurs spot. By 1672 it had been loaded with negative connotations of being ‘… a more or less happy failing… a way of always seeing in the same way… a thing we put in pace of nature … an art that consists merely of its perfect imitation, as compt de Caylus put it. It was a lack of manner that was approved in artists. Diderot writes in 1767: ‘ It would seem, then, that manner, whether in social mores, or criticism, or the arts, is a vice of civilized society… Every person who departs from the appropriate conventions of his state and his nature, an elegant magistrate, a woman who despairs and swings her arms, a man who walks in an affected manner, are all false and mannered.’
You get this condemnation of style in someone like John Cage. Perhaps his is an expanded sense, where sometimes now we condemn something because it strikes us as art. When Cage was trying to get across something about his work he talked about Webern and why Webern no longer created a situation of concentration for him. He said, ‘ He did… He no longer does… It’s just that it doesn’t work for me any longer in that way. It just sounds like art, that’s all.’ And then he goes on to liken the big music of Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner to machines, rejecting them and saying that ‘… I’m not making a machine. I’m making something far more like weather.’ This is taken on, perhaps in a different direction, by the painter Philip Guston when he talks about figuration and a Rembrandt self-portrait he’d been looking at. He says: ‘ Honest to God, I didn’t know what I kept looking at; finally, I didn’t know what it was. I mean, next to it was a Van Dyck and you said: yes, there’s a portrait; but, if the Van Dyke is a figure, well what is the Rembrandt? Actually, something very peculiar goes on there…the Rembrandt seems to be so dense; you feel that, if you peeled off a piece of forhead or eye, you know, as if you’d opened up this little trap door, there’d be a millennium of teeming stuff going on. I don’t know what it is, finally… the more you think about these things, the less the things appear as they are supposed to appear. In those great Rembrandts there’s an ambiguity of paint being image and image being paint which is very mysterious.’ I guess ‘manner’ in the pejorative sense is a cancellation of that mystery, when it is just recognized as art. Levered out of the plane of reality into that of art there’s a loss of a kind of frustration where the object under consideration – be it a painting, film, novel, poem, dance, sound etc, gets in the way of knowing where the plane is. It erases the plane and leaves us with a disturbance. Guston says: ‘ The Rembrandt says: I am not a painting, I am a real man. But he is not a real man either. What is it, then, that you’re looking at?’ Something similar happens with a Tinteretto portrait seen by Alex Katz in Berlin: ‘The interest… was gestural… there’s just about no colour and just about no form and there’s a real person there and everything is there with hardly any means…’
Something is happening that may mysteriously be cast as unspeakable.