"Quoting Ruskin, [T.J.] Clark asks, 'What is vulgarity?' The answer: 'It is merely one of the forms of Death.' That is why abstract expressionism is at its best 'when it is most vulgar, because it is then that it grasps most fully the conditions of representation.': in the struggle to avoid likeness it becomes both 'tasteless, and in complete control of its decomposing means.' " (p. 95)
The "vulgar" abstract paintings referred to here are those with representational elements present; in other words, abstract paintings that aren't purely abstract. Pollock's Wooden Horse contains, for example, what T.J. Clark calls a "banal simulacrum" of the animal. Hans Hofmann's Memoria in Aeternum alludes to a coffin.
Clark writes that the presence of such figures reminds us that "abstraction is parasitic on likeness, however much achievement in abstraction may depend on fighting that conclusion to the death." (p. 95)
But why the association of everyday objects, everyday life really, with death? The answer is a long but interesting story. It goes like this...
Why Does Death Appear in Arcadia?
Bull draws on Clark's book, The Sight of Death, to help examine the image of Arcadia -- that realm of chaste nymphs, innocent shepherds, satyrs and sylvan glades. As it appeared in 17th century painting, Arcadia was an ideal world, abstracted from society. As Bull puts it, "rather than being an identifiable site within early modern society, Arcadia was defined as being outside it -- a place without law, learning, manufacture or even cultivation." (p. 87)
In an imaginative leap, Bull proposes that this ideal world, whose previous existence was imaginatively created by artists and poets, was replaced, in modern times, by actual spaces defined by their devotion to the arts: bohemia and later, the museum itself. But if this is so, Bull asks, why does death show itself in Arcadia -- a realm, like art, supposedly protected from Time. With T.J. Clark, he finds part of the answer in a painting...
Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (Poussin)
Thinking about this picture by Poussin (himself a painter of Arcadia), Bull comments (with the help of Clark's book) that "like..kitsch, Poussin's snake is disgusting and seductive at the same time, 'repulsive but fascinating.' " (p. 94)
Like Poussin's snake, death and the "vulgar" appear in "pure" paintings a little like rude interruptions -- reminding us that, as much as the arts are their own realm, there is always something outside the text: a living and dying world they depend on. Or, as Bull puts it, "abstraction is parasitic on likeness, timelessness on time, unreality on the real." (p. 96)
Should I Comment Between My Poems?
Bull's essay helps me understand my affection for writing and art that plays with "the vulgate." What makes such work funny is that it deflates the purist definitions of the fine arts I was raised on.
His ideas also shed light on why people are sometimes irritated by poets who comment between their poems at readings. Doesn't such a "vulgar" practice, which often entails explaining the "real world" context of the writing, remind us that poems are not purely autonomous objects, but depend upon something outside of themselves? Thoughts?