Angelus Novus

If we accept Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus, that it is moving backwards into the future while watching the increasing pile up of wreckage we call modernity, then it is also looking at us, who are a little further back in time. We are facing forward to the future, which we cannot see, for it is obscured by the angel. So the angel might be assimilated to Harold Bloom’s image of The Covering Cherub, the demon of influence, who rises on the horizon as a blocking agent. I find this notion intriguing because I suspect that the most influential figure in the visual arts of the eighties and nineties of the last century was precisely Walter Benjamin. It is a very peculiar period in which the strongest influence on practice was not an artist, but a critic. Actually, I should qualify this and say the strongest influence on certain genres of conceptual art, not on art overall, but the further influence of those practices has been huge, especially in the realm of what I’m calling “global conceptualism,” the normative art of biennials and large group shows. Unfortunately, Benjamin was massively misunderstood. He advocated that history and even criticism should become more like art, but what we got in the eighties was art that became more like art history. This is the key to “Transavanguardia,” “appropriation,” and other aspects of the eighties, a period in which the social critique of art depended a lot on critical art history. In a literal vein, some might remember the work of David Diao, but today more sophisticated examples come from artists like Tacita Dean. Actually, in her case I’m no longer certain if we have art history as art or art as art history. But these are just the most obvious manifestations; what I’m interested in is an analytical perspective, a retrospective critical gaze directed at society, a fundamentally passive recounting of the disasters of recent history. Readers will have to think of their own examples, though it shouldn’t be hard. With respect to Angelus Novus, what matters is the way that we take the same position as those backward looking eyes. We can see those eyes looking at us, but we also see through them, and it is this circuit that eliminates the future from view. As Smithson said, in an earlier post, “the eyes seemed to look.” As an artist, I notice particularly that “seemed.” And then, “Even if you cannot look, others will look for you.” One “cannot” look because the sight would be too terrifying, yet we “know” anyway because our practice is always social and collective, whether we admit it or not.

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6 Responses to Angelus Novus

  1. Shep Steiner says:

    It has taken me a while to realize some of the repercussions and some of your reasons for bringing Bloom and Benjamin together. I had to read Bloom, for one thing, and I had to think through some of the consequences of Bloom in terms of the history of high modernist painting and its wake. In any case, that Benjamin, a critic, comes to the forefront in the 1970s for an art field dominated by conceptualism really is a Bloomian curiosity. Primarily because Bloom, following Nietzsche, likes to harp on the critic as the weakest form of poet–the poet being someone who is not a critic but precisely a poet because working through one or another of the forms of the anxiety of influence. I think he argues that the poem instances that anxiety, because it pragmatically works through that influence in the making. This leaves the weak critic’s enterprise as one of simply interpreting–a kind of shallow hermeneutic without any purchase on making or poetics. Thus, the neo-avant-garde’s and ultimately conceptualism’s interest in grappling with larger and larger frames of support, those frames that frame the painterly frame; and the tendency of those artistic practices–and much worse, art criticisms and art histories that adopted its procedures to the exclusion of making–to use Greenbergian modernism for traction. That is, all those practices, which are largely discursive, that point to Greenberg as the moment of an error to be overcome.

    On the other hand we also know Benjamin is a strong critic, and that Bloom leaves a lot more elbow room than Nietzsche for the critic. For the critic can be someone who broaches hermeneutic as well as poetic problems. Which makes me think that the succession of neo-avant-garde forms (with global conceptual art capping off the tradition) did manage to do both, though the critics who adopted their procedures definitely did not do both. They remain only critics who make meaning, and hypostatize it as the work of art—even when using poetic means like structural linguistics—and that becomes the truth of the work. Which also makes me think that if these art practices did manage both they don’t do it in any of the ways Bloom describes–at least up to page 99 and the chapter on Daemonization, as far as I have read. It seems, and correct me if I am wrong, that criticism and poetry are not integrated to the same extent that Bloom suggests they should be. They make it, but also then frame it. The latter (criticism) exists as a conceptual shell that does not entirely connect to the former (the poem), but seems only to exist as the form of a reductive historical memory that ultimately references the initial refutation of modernist painting.

    I feel like I want to jump to Fried here, and am not sure if it is sustained by the preceding. I think we come up against Friedian type problems here, but maybe from another angle, not exactly his tension between art and objecthood, but at least part of the shift he attempts to mark. The clearest statement on Fried’s behalf in terms of these problems is perhaps his “Three American Painters.” But when we contrast Fried with Bloom, we see that Fried’s essay isn’t exactly driven by the anxiety of influence, but something more like the anxiety of influence in reverse.
    Fecundity, the key term for Fried’s modernism, produces results and confirmations only in the future–say from the perspective of Pollock as a Milton or Goethe. Certainly there is the problem of breakthrough for the painters who follow in the wake of Pollock, which is Bloomian, but Fried doesn’t play that up as much as Bloom–the fact of cubism is ever-present. The real anxiety for Fried manifests itself as a historical anxiety. For the master (and also the public for modern art) has to wait to see who will be great and on what terms, and this is a function of future uses and misuses by other artists. I tend to see this all through the optic of canon formation (which is important to Bloom as well), more than a theory of poetry, and something that divests this critic of some of his own anxiety: Fried’s anxiety of influence being bound up in his role as critic of a tradition that has no history and no future, yet which finds continuity there in any case. Maybe this can then be framed, again following Bloom, as the anxiety of influence (where it does not exist); i.e., as it impacts American painting in the wake of its break with the European tradition, which repeats the paradigm of tessera for American poetry. You only have to listen to Stella in “Painters Painting” and you here the relief of not having to face the entire history of painting, because that tradition is all so conveniently telescoped into Pollock.

    Nothing firm here, only thoughts in process. I’d like to hear your response.

  2. Shep, your comment is very much appreciated, and it sounds like you are taking on some new material. I trust you also realize how utterly unfashionable it is to cite Bloom. You seem to be reading “The Anxiety of Influence;” I think that his views about the relative status of poet and critic may have changed over time. In any case, whatever he thinks, the question is open. But one thing I realized, during my own study of the dialog between Smithson and Fried, is that there is a painful asymmetry between critic and artist. Even just using Fried’s terms: the artist is the first viewer, so the critic is always belated. I detect considerable anxiety in Fried. His constant harping on the notion that the art he admires “stands comparison with the best art of the past” (paraphrase) proves it, else why does it need to be said? Fried, Judd and Smithson were the best American critics of the late sixties. All three of them were obsessed with the idea that Pollock took American art beyond cubism, something that Greenberg did not claim, which was the cause of considerable disappointment to Fried. Stella had his own anxiety on the same topic, which he has since overcome; in “Working Space” he explicitly takes a distance on this orthodoxy, and his work from the Moby Dick series on has learned a lot from Picasso. What you are saying about post-war American modernism as seeking to unground itself and move into an open future in which judgment is suspended for the time being (very free paraphrase), is very interesting and deserves to be treated on the blog. I think that when you get to Bloom’s use of metalepsis, in the last chapter, you’ll make a few connections with your other deconstructive reading.

  3. Shep Steiner says:

    A recent example of the Angelus Novus enacted comes into play in Rodney Graham’s Phonokinetoscope, 2001, where we see the artist riding his bicycle backwards in one short sequence. From this I get an exaggerated sense that catastrophe lies both in front of the angel and behind him, as you suggest very nicely. I think I have never been attentive enough to the catastrophes about to befall the angel. But in Graham’s sequence these are made very palpable, as this is the one and only risk of riding a bicycle backwards. In any case I am also tempted to make the leap to the Covering Cherub, as I think Graham as angel on the model of Benjamin can be assimilated to this sequence. More interesting though is if the same image can also be identified with the Sphinx–which Bloom plays off the Covering Cherub as more originary. In the context of Graham’s work in 2001 I would say this takes us into the thick of a set of issues relating to random accidents (or more succinctly random objects, the bicycle being a case in point, which was a gift, or the typewriter in Rheinmetal which he came across in a store), but also random ideas. Graham says his wife, Shannon, suggested that he drop acid; finally, random direction, by which I gesture toward the shooting of the film itself which was aided by Mathew Hale. Graham seems obsessed with integrating chance into the corpus at this moment. The perfect mirroring and echoing we find within Graham’s corpus is played off something very different at this level of micro-textual detail. It is an outside of a distinct kind. It is in this sense we are brought to the riddle of genesis, what Bloom brings on to the table directly after his discussion of Cherub and Sphinx. Something that makes me think the Cherub can only be an insufficient entrance to Graham’s image, or indeed Smithson, given that it arises as something of a critical fiction–one of the many “demon(s) of discursiveness” that assail us. I wonder if we hear the pragmatic side of Bloom speaking at a moment like this, for it seems the Covering Cherub ascends to a theoretical horizon. Something that I immediately liken to the general plight of theory at the hands of postmodern art critics and art historians, who have systematically dismissed high modernism on so many false charges, none of which have any bearing on the paintings themselves. At stake is the poetic object, which the Covering Cherub bars access to because of its blinding or spectral blocking. In this sense I take the Covering Cherub, if an opening to respond, is also an instancing of critical projection that is mediated by the powers that be. The successful allusion to Benjamin resting on the screen thrown up by this strong critic. I think we are both in agreement and disagreement here, but I can’t quite parse the one from the other.

  4. It sounds like you are working hard on the piece you are writing about Rodney’s work. I don’t recall the Sphinx in Bloom and will have to go back and look at that again. The Sphinx was very important to Yeats, and Bloom has had some things to say about that. The Covering Cherub actually appears in the Bible, but I for one am not versed enough to know it. I never really had the first book on influence that close to me, I much prefer some of the later ones, like Poetry and Repression, and the most deconstructive of all, Kaballah and Criticism.

  5. Shep Steiner says:

    In my slim exposure to Bloom these figures, whether Covering Cherub and Sphinx, or critic and poet, seem to pack more of a punch than any single reference to the history of poetry might yield. They appear to be containers for larger questions about language that are steeped in deconstructive problems: in the former case the tension between hermeneutic and poetic notions of language, or logical and grammatical notions of language; and in the latter case once again hermeneutic and poetic notions of language, with the qualifier being that the (the second) repressed term is additionally a riddle and would seem to occupy the place allotted the unconscious, which as for Lacan is structured like a language. Actually I found it quite surprising to come across references to Jacques Lacan, Paul de Man, and Geoffrey Hartman amidst the sea of references to the fairly dusty and conservative tweed wearing critics in the British tradition. Bloom seems a real transitional figure in that sense. But as you say no one is interested in this trajectory in face of area studies and identity politics.

  6. Bloom was very important in a re-evaluation of the romantics that took place in the early 60s, a correction of the New Critics disparagement of Shelley for one. Just to correct my previous note: there is a big difference between the Oedipal Sphinx, which Bloom is talking about, and the Egyptian, which is important for Yeats. The Covering Cherub is not supposed to be equivalent to the critic, but my comments on Klee’s angel come out of the fact that Benjamin the critic really did have a huge impact on artists of the 80s, more than any individual artist I can think of offhand.

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