Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Small, Local Festivals: Calder's Mobiles and the Significance of Formalism

It's probably a sign of my irredeemable logocentrism that, when I started to think about how I could describe my recent experience visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art's show of Alexander Calder's mobiles, I thought not of any particular mobile, but of Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Les Mobiles de Calder," from Situations III. The essay defines a mobile as "a small, local festival, defined by movement and nonexistent apart from it," which isn't a bad place to start. In fact, the word "festival" gets at a couple of important things about Calder's mobiles: firstly, it gives a sense of them as collections of individual elements, the way festivals are living collections of large and small events held together in some kind of relationship; and secondly, it gets at the joyfulness of the things — an emotion not prominent enough in discussions of art. The people at the MCA understand the joy of the mobiles — in fact, the name of the show is "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy." But one senses a little hesitation, maybe even a little condescension, in the way some art-types treat the notion of Calder's joy. "Some scholars," says Laura Pierson in her piece on the show in TimeOut Chicago, "have criticized [Calder's] works as too playful or simplistic and devoid of layered meanings."

The idea that playful joy is somehow beneath us makes me sad, since it's often just a sign of deep insecurity, of people afraid that lightheartedness might be taken as a sign that one is insufficiently cynical/worldly/critical of late capitalism/intelligent/full of deep sympathy for the wretched of the earth. (Trust me: I'm an art school brat, I've seen this kind of anxiety in artists, critics, profs, and especially grad students since I could first toddle along to gallery openings, gripping my mom's hand, in the early 70s). The other idea Pearson mentions — that Calder's art is somehow without meaning — points to a strange thing that's happened to art (or, at any rate, to prominent art, and the prominent discourse about art) over the course of the last few decades. If I had to name the phenomenon, I suppose I'd call it either a failure to understand the significance of formalism, or a return to some elements of Victorian aesthetics.

Let's come at it this way: consider Alexander Calder's father and grandfather. Each was a sculptor of some prominence in Calder's native Philadelphia. The grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, made some of the best-known pieces of Philly public sculpture, such as the statue of General Meade in West Fairmount Park, and the giant William Penn on top of City Hall. The father, Alexander Stirling Calder, also did statuary for City Hall, and made the Witherspoon Building Figures. In short, both of these Calders were creators of the kind of civic, commemorative sculpture that pigeons like to shit upon in public spaces everywhere. These guys were skilled in making forms, but they weren't formalists. Instead, they were informed by an aesthetics that said form should serve meaning (in this case, meaning of a pretty straightforward kind: "Billy Penn founded Pennsylvania, and you live in Pennsylvania: be proud of your state identity, and trust in Great Men like Penn and General Meade, whose like will guide us, the masses huddled beneath these great, dignified statues, in the future" and similar patriarchal/establishment bullshit). By the time the elder Calders were making their civic sculpture this kind of aesthetic was already being challenged in London and, to a much greater extent, in Paris, but the news hadn't really hit Philadelphia in a big way, at least not those circles willing to commission public sculpture. So the elder Calders were very much parts of what we think of as the Victorian way of thinking about art. The grand old critic Richard Altick gives a good, brief summary of this way of thinking when he writes (in Victorian People and Ideas):

The age's criteria of acceptable art are usually summed up in the term 'moral aesthetic.' The idea that art should teach and inspire as well as give pleasure was not new; it was, indeed, older than Horace's dulce et utile. But seldom had it been as established as it was in this period…. Poetry and painting supplemented the pulpit if they did not actually replace it. The early and mid Victorian emphasis was thus upon theme rather than expression, upon intention and substance rather than technique. The more pleasing a style was, the better; but style should never be so pleasing as to distract attention from content.

This is art at the service of morality — more specifically, it is art at the service of paraphrasable, specific moral messages. It certainly isn't the autonomy of art for it's own sake: rather, it's the heteronomy of art for the sake of something else (the moral message). But things, as I mentioned, had started to change, even as the elder Calders were scrubbing the pigeon shit off their newly-unveiled statues of generals. Aestheticism, and later some strands of modernism, were (for hugely complicated social reasons) freeing art to be for itself, taking the emphasis off message, and allowing the emphasis to settle on form. So the modernist tradition that young Alexander Calder, the Calder of the mobiles, found when he went to Paris as a young man was all about form, and this made all the difference.

Think about materials. Unlike his father and grandfather — who used Serious Materials like bronze and marble, because these were the materials suitable to Serious Civic Significance — our Calder was free to use anything that pleased him formally. "I like broken glass on stems, old car parts, old spring beds, smashed tin cans, bits of brass imbedded in asphalt," he said, "and I love pieces of red glass that come out of tail-lights." Of course none of this feels particularly liberating to us now, since art schools have been preaching about the infinitely variable materials for art for decades. But for Calder, the use of sheet metal, bits of broken glass, coiled wire, and the occasional coffee can was a step away from the practices of generations of family sculptors. It was a realization, long after Kant had claimed that an emphasis on prestige materials constituted "barbaric taste," that form could be primary, and that amazing form existed in the humblest of places. A broken wine glass is, after all, an elegantly incomplete and asymmetrical set of curves. I can think of a couple I wish I hadn't thrown out.

Just as the notion that form was primary set Calder free with regard to materials, it also set him free with regard to subject matter. Instead of weighty civic themes, he took to subjects that pleased him. Not coincidentally, these tended to be subjects of visual fantasticness, not moralistic seriousness: his early Calder Circus, for example, was just that: a small model of circus animals, performers, and sets, which he'd sometimes animate for his friends. And the sense of the primacy of form also set Calder, among many others, free from any bond to representation. Sometimes his stabiles look a bit like elephants or flamingoes (the big one on Chicago's Federal Plaza is even called "Flamingo") and the mobiles can look like seals or spiders, but ultimately they're nonrepresentational. As Sartre put it, Calder's mobiles represent nothing in the world, nor do they try to convey messages, "his mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves; they simply are, they are absolutes."

It's this sense of signifying nothing and referring to nothing but themselves that seems to have put Calder in the doghouse of the art world in the decades since his death in 1976. Nathan Carter, one of the younger artists influenced by Calder whose work is also on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art show, tells us:

When I went to art school in the mid-’90s, having an interest in Calder or anybody from that particular generation was completely taboo. Most work at art schools is being made in relation to philosophy and psychology or things like that. You’re more likely to have a discussion about like, Hegel, than about the way something looks."

This is interesting, and it points to what I would call either a failure to understand the significance of formalism, or the return of elements of Victorian aesthetics. I think the neo-Victorianism is pretty obvious: when Carter was going to art school at the School of the Museum of Fine Art (Boston) and at Yale, art was as subordinated to its discursive meaning as it had been for the Victorians. A 'moral aesthetic' was all the rage, and just like the Victorians Altick describes, artists were oriented to "theme rather than expression, upon intention and substance rather than technique." Oriented, that is, to Hegel or psychology, not to how things look. Some things were different from the Victorian moral aesthetic — the particular themes, for example, were likely to be intended as challenges to norms of race, gender and (more rarely) class, rather than the kind of urge to be one's supposedly better self that were the substance of so many Victorian works. But the orientation to social message, and to discursive, paraphrasable, specific moral messages, and away from form, was similar. Think of someone like Barbara Kruger or Martin Firrell, and you'll get one idea of how this kind of new-moral-aesthetic-driven of art can work. (I am not saying Kruger and Firrell are bad artists, by the way — far from it — merely that they seem to operate under what Altick called a "moral aesthetic" rather than a formalist one).

I suppose one reason this kind of message-based art came about was out of a sense that formalism was somehow meaningless (that whole "devoid of layered meanings" thing), and that meaninglessness was somehow a bad thing. The "somehow" often seems to have to do with moral or political reasons: the idea being that formalism is, by virtue of its refusal to subordinate form to message-making, a kind of moral or political vacuity. Art, in this view, exists for critique. There's certainly an uptightness about inutility and beauty here, again reminiscent of the Victorians (not that such uptightness is always a bad thing — Victorian uptightness created much of the world we live in, for better as well as for worse).

Anyway. This view of formalism has always seemed to me a bit na├»ve. I mean, think about what Sartre says about Calder's mobiles. They "refer to nothing other than themselves; they simply are, they are absolutes" — this is actually important stuff. If the mobiles don't serve any function except to be themselves, then they aren't means to any end, they aren't instrumental. They're autonomous — and this matters. It means they put us in a position where we aren't treating them as means to something else, some goal we want to achieve. We're distanced (relatively, if not entirely) from our normal habits of thinking of things in terms of how useful to us they are. This is a moral stance, and in some profound sense a political stance, too. In fact, it's a stance very much in line with what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno had to say in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the problem of modernity being the instrumentalization of everything, including ourselves. This kind of formalism works (because of and despite its unconcern with anything but itself) as an antidote to the instrumentalizing intelligence.

It's a different kind of moralism or politics than the message-based world of artists like Barbara Kruger and of the art culture that produced her. In a way, the 90s art-school/Barbara Kruger method accepts the premise that everything is rhetorical and instrumental, and tries to counter the rhetoric and instrumentalism of the powerful with rhetorical/instrumental messages of its own. That is, it counters one kind of propaganda with another. Formalism, in the Calder-as-seen-by-Sartre version, doesn't accept the idea of instrumentalism. Calder doesn't concede that everything is rhetorical, manipulative, and about achieving some end: he proposes a different way of experiencing the world, one where things aren't means, but absolutes in themselves.

So Calder's formalism is not without a moral dimension, though it is without a specific moralistic message. You could actually make a pretty strong case that the joyfulness of the work plays a role in the moral dimension of the work. Consider what Adorno says in his often-misunderstood essay "Is Art Lighthearted?" Adorno begins the essay with a quote from Schiller's Wallenstein about life being serious and art lighthearted. He then says that this attitude of Schiller's is typically bourgeois, in that it accepts the notion that most of life is alienating, but that we get compensated with free time where we can have some fun. The essay ends with the famous remarks about the difficulty of writing poetry after Auschwitz, and then makes a big claim that art in 1967, the year of the essay's composition, can only have very limited, qualified kinds of joyfulness, lest it show complicity with the culture industry's calculated, calculating high spirits ("the smirking caricature of advertising") or become merely "cynical" about the darkness of history. But there's a less-commented-upon middle bit, in sections two and three of the essay, in which Adorno makes the case for joyfulness in art. Check it out:

Still, there is a measure of truth in the platitude [from Schiller] about art's lightheartedness. If art were not a source of pleasure for people, in however mediated a form, it would not have been able to survive in the naked existence it contradicts and resists. This is not something external to it, however, but part of its very definition. Although it does not refer to society, the Kantian formulation "purposiveness without purpose" already alludes to this. Art's purposelessness consists in its having escaped the constraints of self-preservation. It embodies something like freedom in the midst of unfreedom.

And he continues a little later:

What is lighthearted in art is, if you like, the opposite of what one might easily assume it to be: not its content but its demeanor… This confirms the idea expressed by Schiller, who saw art's lightheartedness in its playfulness and not in its stating of intellectual contents… art is a critique of the brute seriousness that reality imposes upon human beings.

So: joyful form has a significance, as does the demeanor of the work of art, apart from any specific thematic content. The significance is the expression of an aspiration towards freedom from the ordinary constraints of life (including, I suppose, the constraint of treating everything in a utilitarian way, as a means to an end). I can't think of a better example of the kind of work being discussed here than Calder's mobiles.

We can even begin to see a further significance to the mobile's materials here. Consider Adorno's comments on Mozart from a little further on in the essay. Mozart, says Adorno, gives us a joyful, harmonious music, seemingly unconnected with the dark historical situation around him. But that very harmony is a kind of dissonance, precisely because it is out of whack with the unharmonious world around it. Mozart's "harmony sounds a dissonance to the harsh tones of reality and has them as its substance. That is Mozart's sadness. Only through the transformation of something that is in any case preserved in its negative form" does his music accomplish something significant, says Adorno. That is: the harmony of the music isn't saccharine, because we think of how unlike the world that harmony is. We don't only hear the joy of the music — the very joyfulness of the music reminds us of how the rest of the world doesn't live up to that joy.

Okay. On the one hand, we could concentrate on Calder's form here. That is, we could say that looking at the beautiful forms of the mobiles, and their graceful motions, provides us with a similar push-and-pull of harmonic joy and dissonant sorrow. We see the mobiles and are filled with their joyful harmony. But then we remember how the world is so rarely this happy and serene, and we can think of how heroically Calder works to overcome all of that unhappiness and give us this joy. But on the other hand, we could talk about the materials of the mobiles in this context. They're made, mostly, of sheet metal and rivets. These are materials we associate with industry, with factories and high-rises, as well as with the military, with warships and tanks. When we see them in the mobiles, we think of how Calder is out to negate the normal use of these materials as utilitarian means to gain money, or to kill. We see that he has accomplished what Adorno called "transformation of something [here, the military-industrial complex] that is in any case preserved in its negative form." It's all a matter of taking these specific materials and creating out of them joyful, harmonic forms.

This kind of significance of formalism seems pretty straightforward, but somehow it got lost in much of the thinking in art schools and in what we call the art world during those years when Calder and his generation were, in Nathan Carter's words, "completely taboo," and when the scholars to whom Laura Pierson points found Calder "devoid of layered meanings." And if you want layers, Calder's mobiles have got layers. I mean, we've barely scratched the surface in talking about a moral or political meaningfulness to the experience of their formal beauty. There are other kinds of significance, too.

Let's go back to Sartre for one of these other kinds of significance. Looking at a mobile as it moves slowly through the air, Sartre observes that "the movements of the object are intended only to please us, to titillate our eyes, but they have a profound, metaphysical meaning." This metaphysical dimension comes from the nature of the movement itself. As Sartre puts it,

In [Calder's] mobiles chance probably plays a greater part than in any other creation of man. The forces at work are too numerous and too complicated for any human mind, even that of their creator, to foresee all possible combinations. For each of them Calder establishes a general scheme of movement, then abandons it; the time, the sun, the heat and wind will determine each particular dance.

There's an order to the pieces, a harmony or dance, but it isn't a schematic one, or a predictable one. There is overt balance, but it is asymmetrical and ever-changing and not under the control of a guiding intelligence. The branches of the mobiles — sometimes setting one large object in balance with many small sub-branches and little objects, sometimes creating the illusion that things are connected where they aren't — are like systems opening up to little sub-systems, orders coming into being and then shifting into apparent disorders. Parts that seemed subordinate become important, elements that seemed to coalesce suddenly disperse. Sartre sees this as a kind of dialectic between arbitrariness and order, saying that while Calder's "one aim is to create chords and cadences of unknown movements" his mobiles are nevertheless

…almost mathematical combinations and the perceptible symbol of Nature, squandering pollen and abruptly causing a thousand butterflies to take wing and never revealing whether she is the blind concatenation of causes and effects or the gradual unfolding, forever deferred, disconcerted and thwarted, of an Idea.

Sartre sees the "metaphysical meaning" inherent to the pieces as a metaphysics that holds out the possibility of total disorder, or of total, Hegelian order. For me, though, the point of reference wouldn't be Hegel, but Gilles Deleuze. The evolving chords and cadences of the mobiles seem to echo Deleuze's rhizome, in that they create a structure in which things come together at odd angles, and in which we can follow lines of flight out of an apparently fixed order into something new. I mean, you could stand in the middle of the big room at the Museum of Contemporary Art and watch these combinations cohere and disperse with a big, open-mouthed smile on your face until the security guards begin to suspect you're tripping on something. The mobiles have that kind of metaphysics, layered on top of the moral or political significance that also comes in their joyful forms.

Since we're talking about metaphysics, I think the story Calder used to tell about one of the foundational moments of his way of seeing is important. One night, when Calder was a young man serving in the Merchant Marine, he found himself alone on deck at dawn, at precisely that moment when the sun and moon were balanced forces in the sky. On the one hand, the saw a dull, red disk of the sun, and on the other the bright, hard, cold whiteness of the moon. Around him was the featureless sea, becalmed, and on the deck beneath him nothing but a coil of rope. As he put it in his autobiography:

It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch—a coil of rope—I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system.

Three circles, each balanced in visual significance, but each entirely different, and all of them in some kind of large motion in relation to the others. The moment struck him, and stayed with him, and we can see in the coiled wires, and in the colored circles and blunted triangles of his mobiles echoes of this moment, when he seemed to feel most keenly something about the asymmetry and motion-inflected temporary harmonies of the world. There's a visual epiphany, an insight into the structure of the cosmos, in that moment, and it's a metaphysical insight Calder explored again and again. I think it matters, too, that this was a ship made of rivets and sheet metal, devoted to commerce and war and power — because this is the world that (to use Adorno's words about Mozart) is "preserved in its negative form" in the mobiles.

It's sort of amazing to me that things as profound and beautiful as Calder's mobiles could become taboo in art schools, and dismissed as merely decorative objects without significance. You'd have to forget a lot about how to look at things to come to that conclusion.