Assignment 4 – Preliminary research

Assignment 4 asks to look at some of the ways in which artists have integrated photography into their practice, makes six suggestions at possible options in this respect and invites to choose one and write a short essay on the relationship between the artworks, their artistic message and the use of photography within the art process, with particular regard to the main themes of time and place. Having done a preliminary research online, I shall be focusing my essay on David Hockney‘s photocollages such as Pearl Blossom Highway 2 (1986) and My Mother, Bolton Abbey (1982).

Suggested topics (Creative Arts Today, page 177)
  • Photography combined with text to produce combined narratives, such as those by Duane Michals (1932),  an American photographer who is known for using sequences of photographs that often incorporate texts, as in his book Sequences (1970) in which text was handwritten beside the images to enrich and integrate photographic information (Wikipedia, Duane Michals)

I think photographs should be provocative and not tell you what you already know. It takes no great powers or magic to reproduce somebody’s face in a photograph. The magic is in seeing people in new ways.

—Duane Michals (www.lensculture.com)

The sequences make use of a cinematic frame-by-frame format. The texts do not so much explain what we see in the photographs, as they add ‘another dimension to the images’ meaning and give voice to Michals’s singular musings, which are poetic, tragic, and humorous, often all at once.’ (DCMoore Gallery)

 

  • Accumulating photographs together as a way of producing a hybrid between film and still. La Jetée, a 1962 French science fiction short film by Chris Marker, is constructed almost entirely from still photographs and tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. The 1995 science-fiction film 12 Monkeys was inspired by and borrows several concepts directly from La Jetée.

 

A prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris is obsessed by a memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman he had seen on the observation platform (“the jetty”) at Orly airport, hence the title. (Wikipedia, La Jetée)

 

  • Andy Warhol‘s screen prints generated from photographs

The screenprinting process – an evolution from simple stenciling – and how it was successfully and efficiently used by Andy Warhol to make serial art is well explained on this page by revolverwarholgallery.com.

 

This act of undermining any translation or evidence of the artist’s hand in favor of a mass-produced, machine-like look appealed to Warhol. Once he discovered the process and implications of working with silk screens, the content of Warhol’s output as a painter became inextricably linked to the process by which he created his art. (Sotheby, 2013).

 

  • Andy Goldsworthy‘s ephemeral sculptures which had been already briefly touched upon in Project 2.

Andy Goldsworthy (1956) is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist producing site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings. He lives and works in Scotland. (Wikipedia, Andy Godsworthy)

He keeps an artist website: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/ and within it a section dedicated to his photography: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/photography/ in which he explains why and how he uses photographs.

Here is a video about Goldsworthy’s work:

There are several books on Goldsworthy’s work, one of the latest is: Andy Goldsworthy – Ephemeral Works 2004-2014, Abrams, New York

Book cover by Abrams, New York

  • The political collages of Peter Kennard, for example Santa’s Ghetto (2006), Union Mask (1981), Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980).

 

‘That sense of ripping into an image, unveiling a surface, going through that surface into an unrevealed truth, is at the core of photomontage …The photojournalist goes out and takes the pictures; I sit in a room with the tools of my trade and try to pummel these pictures into revealing invisible connections, disconnecting them from direct representation into statement and argument … The point of my work is to use easily recognisable iconic images, but to render them unacceptable … After breaking them, to show new possibilities emerging in the cracks and splintered fragments of the old reality.’

from Peter Kennard’s website

 

With a career spanning almost 50 years, Peter Kennard is without doubt Britain’s most important political artist and its leading practitioner of photomontage. His adoption of the medium in the late 1960s restored an association with radical politics, and drew inspiration from the anti-Nazi montages of John Heartfield in the 1930s.

Kerley, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

  • On Duane Michals:

Wikipedia(2016). ‘Article Duane Michals’ [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duane_Michals (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Lensculture.com (2015) ‘Book Review/Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals’ [online] At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/duane-michals-storyteller-the-photographs-of-duane-michals-2 (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Dcmooregallery.com. (2016), ‘Duane Michals – Artists – DC Moore Gallery’ [online] At:  http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals/series/sequences (Accessed 5/06/2017)

 

  •  On La Jetée by Chris Marker:

Wikipedia (2016). Article La Jetée. [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Jet%C3%A9e (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Vimeo (2016) https://vimeo.com/191131906 (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Chris Marker.org (2016). ‘Chris Marker – Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory.’ [online] At: http://chrismarker.org/ (Accessed 5/06/2017)

 

  • On Andy Warhol‘s screen prints:

http://www.revolverwarholgallery (2016) ‘Andy Warhol Screenprints – The process and History’ [online] At: http://revolverwarholgallery.com/warhol-originals-andy-warhol-collection/ (Accessed 5/06/2017)

Youtube (2011) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzrPmfaYcMM (Accessed 5/06/2017)

http://www.sothebys.com (2013) ‘Andy Warhol and His Process’ [online] At: http://www.sothebys.com/en/news-video/blogs/all-blogs/21-days-of-andy-warhol/2013/11/andy-warhol-and-his-process.html (Accessed 5/06/2017)

 

  • On Andy Goldsworthy‘s ephemeral sculptures:

Wikipedia (2017) article on Andy Goldsworthy [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Goldsworthy (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Andy Goldsworthy’s website: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/ (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Youtube (2015) Video on Andy Goldsworthy by xstuporman [online] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz14M_pbzdU (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Abrams, New York: http://www.abramsbooks.com/product/andy-goldsworthy-ephemeral-works_9781419717796/ (Accessed 19/05/2017)

 

  • On Peter Kennard‘s political collages:

Peter Kennard’s website at: http://www.peterkennard.com/main/home_set.htm (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Slocombe, R. (2015) ‘Protest and survive: why Peter Kennard is political dynamite’ In http://www.theguardian.com 1.05.2015 [online] At:  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/01/blair-selfie-peter-kennard-political-dynamite (Accessed 19/05/2017)

Kerley, P. (2015) ‘Peter Kennard: A very unofficial war artist’ In: BBC News Magazine 14.05.2015 [online] At: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32706845 (Accessed 19/05/2017)

 

 

 

 

Assignment 3 – Reflective Commentary

Visual communications being a totally new area of study for me, I must say that at the onset I was not even sure of what exactly they dealt with and Part 3 has so been first and foremost a voyage of discovery into culturally foreign territories. As I progressed through the course it became apparent that these territories are indeed very close and often hastily taken for granted and that if we spend great part of our days in receiving and exchanging visual messages it really matters if not becoming specialists of this area at least try to understand what kind of messages we are talking about, how they are made and which meanings they convey.

Perhaps more importantly I realised that visual communications do not stand by themselves but have their roots in and are nurtured by the visual culture they have in common with the arts, literature and other cultural expressions at large, and reflect it back in a two-way exchange and influence. The ground is the same, the themes of time and space run through them as connecting threads and concern them all. More, I am becoming aware that the separation into different areas – contemporary arts, writing, photography and so on – is mainly functional and fulfills the need for a structured approach that allows us to come to terms with the complexity of human creativity and research it in manageable bites. And whenever I concentrate my efforts on a single topic or exercise I keep telling me that it is difficult but necessary to not lose track of this shared ground.

What perhaps most interested me was to start investigating the semiotic approach and exploring the concepts of signifier and signified and denotation and connotation as helpful tools to analyse the cultural ‘broth’ we live in. I find this line of thought very stimulating also in connection with the other parts of the Creative Arts Today course.

I did not find Part 3 easy because for all the exercises proposed the scope of research was very large and the possibility of getting lost in a never-ending chain of cross-references a very real menace: for me it is always difficult to know where to stop and as I said at some point in my blog I inevitably get the frustrating feeling that I am just dipping my little finger in the ocean and never have the time to take a good swim. But I think this too is part of the learning process.

I particularly enjoyed working on the collage exercise in connection with the recontextualisation of images and the research on photomontage artists, especially the intriguing narrative and the skillful composition of Martha Rosler’s visual stories (Project 2: Combining visual elements). It was a challenging exercise and though I was less than satisfied with my literal and amateurish work at least I had a chance to get my hands dirty and experience how difficult it is to produce structured meaning.

Another exercise that will stay with me was that on the semiotic analysis of posters (also in Project 2): I had never before examined so closely a film poster (Kill Bill in my case) and a DVD cover (Downton Abbey series) and have learnt how much these apparently simple images can tell. But I found very interesting also the exercise on the semiotic analysis of the apple through time (Project 3: Reading visual communications) and that on Knitting Patterns (Project 4: Time and place).

(571 words)

 

Assignment 3 – ‘Las Meninas’ (1656) by Diego Velázquez and its re-appropriation by El Corte Inglés poster (2009)

In 2009 El Corte Inglés, the biggest European department store chain based in Spain, reused Las Meninas, a masterful and seminal 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, as an advertising poster within a commercial campaign directed by Jose Maria Cañas Maeso with Paco Navarro as fashion photographer. I am going to do a short semiotic analysis of both the original and the re-appropriated image, compare them and try to show the shift in meaning produced by the change of elements and context. In so doing I shall limit myself to consider Las Meninas only in relation to the poster, without any pretense to an exhaustive exploration of the visual and cultural complexities of this absolute masterpiece.

Fig. 1 Las Meninas (1656) by D. Velasquez

REVISTAS MENINAS

Fig. 2 Advertising poster (2009) of El Corte Inglés

Las Meninas is a painting depicting the making of a painting. In a large and scarcely lit room, with the walls hung with framed works, Velázquez himself stands on the left in front of a big canvas, holding a brush and a palette and looking ahead towards where we, the viewers, stand. Moving to the right we see the delightful Infanta Margaret Theresa surrounded by her maids of honour, two dwarfs, a nun, a priest and a dog. On the end wall a mirror reflects the blurred images of Queen Mariana and King Philip IV of Spain, who are supposedly posing for a double portrait but stand outside the painting space (Palomino, 1724). Beside the mirror a chamberlain’s silhouette is back-lit in the doorway which is the vanishing point of the picture .

The artwork was produced for the private contemplation and pleasure of the monarchs and remained in the Alcazar Palace in Madrid as part of the royal collection until 1819 when it entered the Museo del Prado and became known as one of the most celebrated European paintings of all times (Konstantinidis, 2012).

On a careful examination, one becomes aware of a very complex play of gazes among the figures within the painting and outside it, as analysed in depth by Foucault (Foucault, 1966). The painter himself and most of the characters look outwards, beyond the picture space and towards the royal couple being portrayed and standing approximately where we, the beholders, are while watching the painting: the mirror at the back reflects the Queen and King and could theoretically reflect our image too. We observe the painter and the people in the painting, and are observed by them in return.

The fact that we look at the scene from the same position of the royal couple, that for a moment we are in their shoes, establishes a strong and contradictory relationship of participation and exclusion between the characters represented and us, the beholders. What we are watching is an intimate and private moment of the royal family life, which was exclusively meant for the royal gaze, not for us and certainly not for the crowds noisily assembling today in front of the painting in the Museo del Prado. Moreover we are only allowed to see the back of the canvas on which Velázquez is working and must limit ourselves to imagine the subject from a blurred reflection in the mirror, as if we were not admitted to a direct vision of the royals. So we see the scene as the sovereigns see it, briefly enjoying their royal point of view, but we are also intruders who may only have a glimpse of their indistinct features.

If I now turn my attention to the re-appropriated image of El Corte Inglés I see that many elements of the original have been maintained: the composition is fundamentally the same and so is the number of figures represented, their positions in space and postures are very similar, dog included, the colour scheme is slightly simplified with an intensification of tonal contrast, the sources of light have not been significantly altered.

On a closer look though the new image shows also substantial changes and substitutions: the middle-aged and self-conscious artist, intensively perusing the monarchs he is portraying, has been substituted for a young and canonically handsome photographer who passively holds a camera which he is not using, posing instead as a male model to be watched; the Infanta and her maids of honour are likewise transformed into fashion models; and models have become also the religious figures and the dwarfs, quite obviously eliminated as deemed unsuitable and even disturbing elements in a contemporary commercial context; the mirror at the back now reflects the images of two well-dressed people who seem to be observing the fashion shooting in the studio; the canvas, a meaning-charged feature in the original, is now a photographic umbrella, and the paintings on the walls are turned into empty frames.

REVISTAS MENINAS

A fashion model (Fig. 2 detail)

img_4087

Infanta Margaret Theresa (Fig. 1 detail)

img_4080

The Queen and King (Fig. 1 detail)

REVISTAS MENINAS

A well-dressed couple (Fig. 2 detail)

img_4086

Self-portrait of Diego Velasquez (Fig. 1 detail)

REVISTAS MENINAS

The fashion photographer (Fig. 2 detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The re-appropriated image of El Corte Inglés, while paying a seemingly close tribute to many aspects of Las Meninas, also makes major changes to it, deliberately recasts its time and place frame from the XVII to the XXI century and from the Spanish royal castle to a photographic studio, and as a result it gives life to a new visual product that may perhaps look somewhat flat and unnaturally staged but that is well fit for its commercial purpose and context. In the process the exquisite richness and complexities of the original get intentionally lost since they are not functional to the task at hand, and only those elements that are useful to the intended persuasive message are retained while the others are dismissed as irrelevant or distracting. The original meaning and significance are emptied and replaced by new ones.

But the aura of the original is not dispersed: through the cleverly focused reuse of this iconic and internationally recognized painting the advertising poster candidly appropriates the cultural prestige and high artistic quality of Las Meninas and powerfully transfers these values to the department store El Corte Inglés and to the products it sells, as clearly stated by the caption ‘welcome where the fashion is art – bienvenido donde la moda es arte’. Interestingly English appears first and in big letters, showing that the message is specially aimed at tourists visiting Madrid and the Museo del Prado where Las Meninas constitutes a main attraction.

The department store itself becomes in this way identified with a museum of high fashion, and fashion itself with art, as characteristically Spanish as Las Meninas, with its associated implication of excellence and splendid tradition, and the beholders now turned prospective consumers can rest assured that by making their purchases at El Corte Inglés they are not only buying the best quality, but also that in so doing they personally acquire distinction and become part of an aesthetically and culturally savvy élite.

(1094 words)

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez [oil painting] At: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/V/velasquez/meninas.jpg.htlm (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Figure 2. Advertising poster (2009) of El Corte Inglés [poster] At: http://paconavarrophoto.com/category/advertisings/ (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Bibliography

Palomino, A. (1724) Vite degli eminenti pittori e scultori spagnoli. [online] At: http://www.marcomancin.com/art/documenti/Antonio_Palomino_Vite-degli-eminenti-artisti-Spagnoli_trad-Marco-Mancin.pdf (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Konstantinidis, G. (2012) ‘Diego Velázquez – Las Meninas’ [online] At: http://www.velazquezlasmeninas.com/velazquez-las-meninas-analysis-and-interpretation-posters-prints.html (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Foucault, M. (1966) ‘Las Meninas’ in The Order of Things : an Archaeology of  the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon Books [online] At: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BysebiKtvtnWZGYzZjk0MzQtMDgzYi00YTFkLTk5NTYtYzE5NmNmYzBiNjU2/edit (Accessed 17/03/2017)

The Khan Academy, ‘Las Meninas’. At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/reformation-counter-reformation/v/vel-zquez-las-meninas-c-1656 (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Assignment 2 – Reflections on feedback

 

I must say that my tutor’s feedback on Assignment 2 has been a real eye-opener as to the need to follow and track down alternative or new directions and developments when tackling an analysis, and in Mr Belshaw’s words ‘to look for interesting problems or contradictions and push them as far as they will go.’ Not easy to do but a pointer to a method of working.

As a telling example of how this could be done, or at least this is my interpretation, the feedback offers me a rich chain of ideas to develop, sort of offspring born from my analysis in a kind of ping-pong game that could continue in several ways and modes. These are ideas that were perhaps implicit in my analysis but not fully explored.

Idea one: white noise as masking ambient sounds in the same way that possessions mask mortality.

Idea two, following from idea one: if possessions mask mortality the story itself can be viewed as a memento mori or vanitas.

Idea three, chained to idea two: the story as memento mori makes us think of the Dutch still life which analogously ‘represents possessions as a kind of inventory on display’.

Idea four, back to DeLillo’s text: the ‘meticulous attention to detail’ of the Dutch still life brings us back to DeLillo’s precisely descriptive and visual writing and to his well-honed ability to express content through form.

Idea five, developed intuition : DeLillo’s precious language can be considered as belonging to the white noise of possessions, so again as something protecting us from the fear of death.

Idea six, how to improve the analysis: the sounds of words could have been dealt with in my analysis ‘along with the discussion of subject matter’ to bring them in closer connection with content. A very good suggestion, I shall try to improve my text by taking this into account into my final review.

Idea seven, further development: to extend the research Mr Belshaw has suggested me to read Thomas Hardy’s poem In Wind and Rain as a poetic equivalent of White Noise. I have read the poem which I did not know – I studied in Italy, and I see a lot of connections with later parts of DeLillo’s book and his beautiful family dialogues. Another track to follow.

In his feedback on my reflective commentary Mr Belshaw cites an essay by Wolfgang Kemp as a useful read to extend my grasp of the role of the reader (or the viewer) and draw parallels between the verbal and the visual. It is a dense essay on reception aesthetics – pivoting around the concept of the implicit beholder and how the work structures itself in order to be approached and there are several points that deserve close attention. For the time being I focused on the chapter of the ‘Forms of Address’ which helped me during my semiotic analysis of Las Meninas (Assignment 3).

 

Bibliography

Hardy, Thomas During Wind and Rain’ in The Longman Anthology of Poetry. (Pearson, 2006)  At: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52314 (Accessed 27/03/2017)

Kemp, Wolfang (1998) ‘The Work of Art and Its Beholder The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’ in Cheetham, Mark A. (ed.): The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives, Cambridge 1998, pages 180-196 [online] At: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1916/1/Kemp_The_work_of_art_and_its_beholder_1998.pdf (Accessed 27/03/2017)

Assignment 2 – Reflective Commentary

I have always loved reading and was already familiar to some extent with the notion of creative writing but the concept of reading creatively is fundamentally new to me and this part of the course has been important to put it in focus. After being introduced to the reader-response theory I now see the word ‘creative’, so far a rather general term with a vague meaning, under a different and more precise light. I find particularly stimulating the idea of a living and evolving relationship among authors, texts and readers and of a real exchange and influence in all directions.

Initially, when I started concentrating on this part, I was considering that of the reader a basically passive role and the reader as someone standing on the recipient side, as I said in my beginning post Reasons to read, reasons to write. My perspective has certainly changed. In this respect also the experience of close reading has been very interesting and has activated in me a different kind of response as against what I used to have back in high school when confronted with construing texts in more traditional ways, based on studying authors and context first and only afterwards interpreting their texts as if from a distance. It was study first and analysing later, here the process has been reversed, from what I understand of it.

All this made me also consider how connected all creative activities fundamentally are and how similar the role of the reader of a text is to that of the visitor of an art exhibition or of a member of the public of a film or theatrical performance, and conversely how much writers, visual artists, performers have in common and share.

When I knew lately that the literature Nobel prize had been assigned to Bob Dylan my first thought was: notwithstanding all the debates if this was a right or a wrong choice the fact is that probably fifty years ago nobody would have thought to give this award to a songwriter, and to draw a parallel between Dylan and ancient poets and performers like Homer and Sappho. As such I believe it was a very destabilising, postmodern decision. Speaking in ‘performative’ terms, Dylan’s art songs have been considered ‘speech acts’ that have a real influence on the world.

I had all these thoughts at the back of my mind as I was doing my close reading of Don DeLillo’s extract from White Noise. What I tried to do was to stay as close to the text as I was able as a reader, to ‘crawl’ on it to use one word from the extract, do my utmost to not be intimidated by a celebrated novel by a very influential author, and to look at its words only, forgetting the rest. I also made an effort to remain aware of myself and my circumstances, feelings, environment as a reader and of how these were being mirrored back into my close reading. I start to see that I could reread it perhaps in one year time and possibly write very different things. All in all I could say that if I started this course as a modernist I’m getting postmodernist along the way!

(538 words)

 

 

Assignment 2 – Close reading of an extract from White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo

The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum Dum Pops, the Mystic Mints.

I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years. It is a brilliant event, invariably. The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse. Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always. The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction. The conscientious suntans. The well-made faces and wry looks. They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition. The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names. Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.

(DeLillo, 1985)

 

I chose to study an extract from the first Chapter of White Noise, an important novel published by Don DeLillo in 1985, because I think that this work tackles the major course themes of time and place in ways that are connected with contemporary concerns about the future of humanity and with our anxieties about the state of the environment and the Earth. In this regard I also see a relationship between this text and The Road extract that I have just examined.

I shall try to show how all these themes are expressed in the text through the narrator voice, the choice of language and tone, the setting and its details, and how the initial paragraphs introduce the reader to them.

The beginning two paragraphs are like the opening of a stage or the first panoramic view of a film. Somebody, we still do not know who, is talking and depicting the scene he or she has in front and we are dragged into it through these eyes. The general tone is detached, as if removed, somewhat ironic. This somebody is a witness who does not seem involved in what is happening, is an observer who does not belong to the group on which he casts a sort of entomological look. He has the same distant look on things in the first paragraph as he has on people in the second paragraph, as if they too were objects to be examined, dissected and judged, not as individuals but as an anthropological phenomenon. The voice is dry, evaluating, even sarcastic.

The effect on the reader of these fragmented sentences, short and long, made up of rhythmic lists of objects – stuff, a lot of stuff – and of precise and razor-cuts collective descriptions, is wonderfully visual, like well applied strokes of a paintbrush. As we read, our eyes see all these things individually come to life, one after the other, we see these students, their mothers and their fathers, their attitudes, their faces, their movements. Sentences that are true speech acts, words that make a world in a performative sense (Loxley, 2006), generate images and situations.

Who is speaking? Who is creating this world together with the reader? Why this detachment, this disenchantment with things and people? The narrator speaks in the first person point of view and seems to have strong opinions, to be biased, I would say it is an unreliable narrator who wants to influence the reader, offer a vision. But so far this voice is not saying much personal, we are just pulled into the scene as witnesses and made curious about what is happening next.

An enormous mass of things are removed by the students returning to college from the fully loaded station wagons, and the narrator seems to delight in enumerating them to the fullest, to not forget anything. These objects are there to cover every possible circumstance or need of life, as if to take everything into account, to have all under control. This necessity to control, to prevent every possible occurrence is expressed in many ways, insisted upon, reiterated: the suitcases are ‘carefully secured’, the students bring along both ‘light and heavy clothing, ‘the controlled substances, the birth control pills’. The mothers have ‘conscientious suntans’, ‘well-made faces’, the men have a ‘massive insurance coverage’. In the compulsive need of control, of tidiness, of coverage there is I think a first hint of what shall be the fundamental theme of the novel: the fear of death.

The great absent is nature: all this colossal amount of stuff is man-made, manufactured, and speaks of a materially advanced society. Even foods are synthetic, identified only by their brand names, not really nutritious. People too have artificial and constructed looks, attitudes and movements: The students ‘greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse’, the women are ‘in diet trim’. The only natural presence is the sun which, however, is only implicitly mentioned as having on people a numbing effect, not a nurturing invigorating one: ‘The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles’.

I think that the absence of nature is another great theme that emerges from the beginning of the novel. What the reader sees is a useless, void activity, as if these people, notwithstanding all their efforts and abundance of material goods, are animated only by an exhausted, wasted energy. The students’ summer has not been restful and refreshing, but ‘has been bloated with criminal pleasures’ and in this word, ‘bloated’, and in their ‘sodden collapse’ there is a taste of stupor and apathy echoed by the numbed unawareness of their ‘sun-dazed’ parents. Personal identities are fragmented and lost, in what appears to be a quintessentially postmodern way, and when they look around they only see ‘images of themselves in every direction’: not individuals, but reflections.

What they still do possess, though, is a sense of belonging, ‘They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition’. It is as if they had given up their individuality in exchange for reassurance and inclusion in a clan that shelters them from uncertainty, natural dangers and the unpredictability of life, surrounded as they are by all their possessions. And the need to belong to a group of like-minded people, to have a bulwark of objects protecting them as shields, speaks again of their fear of death. So perhaps the immoderate orgy of goods in which people indulge is not so much or not only a critique of consumerism and consumer society but mainly an indicator of fear and of substantial fragility. As a clan these affluent anxious people renew themselves and find comfort in the annual September rite of return to college which acts as a substitute for the primitive rites of rebirth.

Like in The Road, the place and time are not specified, but inferred. The college is nameless and it could stand for any average modern American college, it is a sort of mythic college on a hill exactly as ‘the Road’ was an archetypical straight road crossing the emptiness of the central United States. The time is modern, not contemporary, as the reader can guess from the presence of ‘personal computers’, which remind of the Eighties, and the absence of mobile phones, otherwise the fathers, instead of being ‘content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging’, would be obviously playing with them.

The grandiose, imposing futility of the event sets a scene for a looming tragedy: nature is unrecognized, it has been denied and submerged by man-made objects, crowds are obscurely frightened and at the same time obtusely unaware and keep together like primitive humans did confronted with unforeseeable dangers. Perhaps this is our world before The Road, before the end of civilization.

All this is brought to us in carefully chosen words, arranged in cadenced sentences using abundant, insisted sound and structure repetitions and the overall effect is a generation of powerful and very physical images. Don DeLillo makes a masterful and even voluptuous but always controlled use of language – in perfect correspondence to content. The list of things in the first paragraph is a delicious succession of well studied rhythmic and balanced groups of words, couplets and triplets of objects: ‘stationary and books’, ‘rugs and sleeping bags’, and ‘sheets, pillows, quilts’, ‘the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices’. Sound repetitions reiterate and reinforce the almost oppressive quality of this pile of material goods: alliteration like in ‘boxes of blankets’, ‘Mystic mints’, assonance as in ‘boots and shoes’, ‘fruit chews’, and consonance as in ‘hockey and lacrosse sticks’, ‘bows and arrows’ are just some examples. Sometimes words seem to be used to satisfy rhythmic reasons as in ‘inflated rafts’, where the word ‘inflated’ was possibly added to create a balanced sentence: ‘with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts’.

In some cases images are reinforced by the use of onomatopoeian words: ‘cars slowed to a crawl’, women are ‘crisp and alert’. The ready and swift movements of the women stand in stark contrast to the inertia of the men, suggested by the lengthy, prolonged cadence and by the repeated dull ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds: ‘Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood’. On the contrary, the choice of the sound ‘r’ referred to the students creates a feeling of mechanical and perhaps overdone agility and youthfulness – ‘students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside’.

In an interview, DeLillo once soberly said: ‘I’m someone who writes sentences and paragraphs. I think of the sentence — not only what it shares but, in a sense, what it looks like’ (Nance, 2012) and in another: ‘I’m just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms … I’m not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear’ (McCrum, 2010). And I think that in this initial extract from White Noise DeLillo has meticulously and masterfully done exactly that: he has introduced his vision about our times and fears using his carefully sculpted language as a high precision tool.

(1510 words)

 

Bibliography

DeLillo, D. (1985) White Noise [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)

Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)

McCrum, R. (2010) ‘Don DeLillo: ‘I’m not trying to manipulate reality – this is what I see and hear” In: Theguardian:com 8.08.10 [online] At:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/08/don-delillo-mccrum-interview (Accessed 2.01.17)

Nance, K. (2012) ‘Living in dangerous times’ In: articles.chicagotribune.com 12.10.12 [online] At: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-10-12/features/ct-prj-1014-don-delillo-20121012_1_mao-ii-angel-esmeralda-printers-row

Assignment 1 – Reflections on feedback

I waited to write these notes till now that I have nearly completed my study of Part 2 on Creative Reading  because I wanted to put some distance in between not only of time but also of discoveries made and inputs received, books read and so on coming along my way during the course. I have kept an eye on myself and noticed that my perspective has been shifting all along and that in this second part I have perhaps developed a more relaxed attitude: after all there may be no final or certain answers in creation and art but only a challenging voyage of discovery and unveiling tentative and provisional meanings layer after layer.

The first suggestion by my tutor Mr Michael Belshaw to consider that art might be difficult or impossible to define in terms of innovation and/or of quality – ‘we would happily say that something is pretty good, excellent or poor on a given scale, but one would not say such and such is nearly art, completely art or not quite art’ – has been really illuminating and a spur to check Arthur Danto’s position on this subject, according to another useful suggestion by my tutor.

What makes Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box an artwork setting it apart from the Brillo boxes in supermarkets, the ‘mere real things’? (Danto, 1981). Danto suggests criteria that are not based on intrinsic aesthetic qualities (they look identical), but rather historical ones (what can and what cannot be considered art in a given period of time), the fact of being about something and having a meaningful content (expressing an artistic vision), and the fact of being identified and so interpreted as art (‘transfigured’ into an artwork by an interpreter). And here I’m beginning to see the point made in my feedback: art as such is not easily definable as a measure of quality or pleasingness to the eye – there may be good and bad art and pleasant and unpleasant art –  and  before speaking about its aesthetics or value we must first identify it as an artwork since we judge art according to different criteria – as Mr Belshaw pointed out to me in commenting my close reading of Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave.

Another important question arising from my feedback is how we can come to terms with an eternal paradox in the arts – ‘that we are taught to see art according to certain principles, methods and contexts that don’t simply give access to the work but compete with it’ or otherwise ‘the widening gap’ between ‘seeing and reflecting on seeing’. In this respect Mr Belshaw suggested also to look up the term ‘performative’ in the context of the speech act theory.

I mulled it over in these months and as I progressed through Part 2, I gradually started to think that perhaps one way to tackle this paradox might be a different approach altogether. If we can’t really have an ‘innocent gaze’ anymore, this doesn’t mean that when we make or look at art or when we write or read a text we are to be necessarily intimidated and paralyzed by what we know in terms of methods and theories and get locked in a prison of self awareness and overthinking. A way out might be to concentrate oneself as creators or viewers/readers/listeners on the task at hand, leave the room and get out in search of some creative fresh air, be aware of methods and theories and then ‘forget’ them while we focus on a artwork or a text. As Picasso is quoted to have said: ‘It takes a very long time to become young’. I am not sure what he really meant by this, but my version is that it takes a very long time to learn and then to unlearn, a very long time and effort to develop an educated spontaneity in making and evaluating art.

In this regard I also think that the ideas born from both the speech act and the reader-response theories can offer invigorating and powerful tools.The notion that a visual artist or a writer can truly and effectively act on the public or the readers through their works, and so ‘perform’ in the world and establish an active and vital communication with it, and that in turn the public or the readers can actively respond to these works and creatively react to them, may be a wonderful way to generate new meanings every time this coming together happens in a sort of never-ending creative chain reaction. This open, ever-changing evolution of texts/artworks and the bidirectional relationship it creates between artists and public is perhaps a typically postmodernist attitude and so intimately linked with a contemporary vision, but I think also that it establishes a renewed and invigorating connection with the ancient oral tradition of storytelling in which the audience was directly involved and texts, poems, songs developed as they were performed.

Bibliography

Maes, H. and Puolakka, K. (2012) Arthur Danto: The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. In: 50 Key Texts in Art History (online) At: https://kar.kent.ac.uk/id/eprint/56975 (Accessed 2.01.2017)

Danto, A. C. (2013) What Art Is [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 2.01.2017)

Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed 18.12.2016)