Whereas cubist art varies from legible to illegible, the dominant model of critical interpretation of cubism has remained at all times legible
I have been reading, with much interest, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) by James C. Scott, anthropologist and political scientist.
In his study Scott outlines a series of disasters initiated by nation-states in pursuit of what he describes as “great utopian social engineering schemes” (p. 4).
The author argues that a characteristic form of legibility, connected with seeing like a state under conditions of high modernism, in situations where civil society has lacked the capacity to stage effective resistance, set the stage for a number of “the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted” (p. 3).
A previous post outlines typical issues that are involved, when historians address circumstances in which lives have been irretrievably disrupted, and lost; the post is entitled:
Nazism and Stalinism: What if anything did they have in common?
Scott notes (p. 20) that in order to arrive at a state of legibility suitable for state-level purposes (as with regards, for example, taxation, conscription, and systems of planning) state officials must of necessity place outside of view a whole world “lying outside the brackets.”
Such a system of state-level bracketing of reality invariably returns to haunt such a technical vision. By way of a case study – a parable – of a technical vision in Chapter 1, “Nature and Space,” Scott cites the invention of scientific forestry in late eighteenth-century Prussia and Saxony.
In the end, the invention failed. Over an extended period of time (trees can take a very long time to grow), the timber yields fell dramatically, because the entire nutrient cycle, typical of an old-growth forest, “got out of order and and eventually was nearly stopped” (p. 20).
In subsequent chapters, Scott applies concepts related to simplification, legibility, and manipulation, evident in the history of forest management, to “how the modern state applies a similar lens to urban planning, rural settlement, land administration, and agriculture” (p. 11).
He notes (p. 7) that:
The failures and vulnerability of monocrop commercial forests and genetically engineered, mechanized monocropping mimic the failures of collective farms and planned cities.
A feature of a focus on simplification and legibility, on the part of state officials, is that to a considerable degree, it has allowed the state to impose such a logic “on the very reality that was observed” (p. 14). In the case of the history of forest management, a focus on legibility resulted, for example, in the “attempt to create, through careful seeding, planting, and cutting, a forest that was easier for state foresters to count, manipulate, measure, and assess” (p. 15).
The author also notes (p. 7) that he is making “a strong case about the limits, in principle, of what we are likely to know about complex, functioning order. One could, I think, successfully turn this argument against a certain kind of reductive social science.”
I have explored the relationship between social theory and history in a series of earlier posts. An underlying message that Scott communicates is that there is a limit to what historians (among other academics or observers) can tell us concerning the reality of human existence. Some things perhaps are, that is to say, ineffable.
There is thus much of value that we can learn from history, but as with every discipline there are limits to what we can learn. Such a view, we can add, requires a person to have a certain tolerance for uncertainty; as noted at a page devoted to the topic of mindfulness, however, the drive toward certainty appears to be a fairly ubiquitous feature of human life. At times the quest for absolute certainty has, in the course of history, taken on features of a mass possession.
‘Legibility’ lens not meant to make sense of all things
Scott cautions that the lens he has chosen (based on a particular conceptualization of state-level legibility, exercised under specified conditions) would not provide a suitable means for making sense of absolutely everything that a person can think of.
He notes, as well (p. 6):
I am not making a blanket case against either bureaucratic planning or high-modernist ideology. I am, however, making a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how.
Legibility and reading appear to be complementary
Legibility is a central conceptual tool in James C. Scott’s analysis of how states go about getting things done, in pursuit of ends that may turn out to be beneficial or destructive. We can also think of powerful global actors such as Google and Facebook. As well, among disasters emblematic of the current era is the climate crisis.
Regarding this topic, a Aug. 8, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “Farming and eating need to change to curb global warming, UN report says: Increased extreme weather events could further disrupt global food chains, IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says.”
Scott’s 1998 study, which focuses on state-initiated disasters of the twentieth century, does not address the climate crisis. We can say, however, that the legibility that has mattered above all at a global level since dawning of the industrial era, has been efficient measurement of annual economic growth, which for historical reasons has been fueled by fossil energy.
Other aspects of how the planetary system functions, in the circumstances of the burning of fossil fuels, have remained largely illegible to state-level decision makers.
By legibility, I refer to how easily a text, situation, or person can be read.
Scott describes how, in the course of history, states have shifted from scattered and haphazard ways of gathering information, related to governance of populations, to methods that were – or have appeared to be, technically speaking – more efficient.
A quote (p. 2) from Seeing Like a State (1998) signifies how the author addresses legibility:
The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed “map” of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to “translate” what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.
It is at this point that the detour began. [Before turning to the topic on which Seeing Like a State is based, the author had been planning, before he made his detour, that is, to focus his next research project on state efforts to settle mobile peoples (the process called sedentarization).] How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.
Legibility and reading appear to be complementary processes, from what I can gather.
Reading as a process can be categorized according to various hierarchies, from least effective to most effective – in relation, say, to a person’s level of reading comprehension, education, or capacity for human agency.
With regard to reading of a particular text, person, or situation, we can arrive at a variety of readings – that is, a variety of different conclusions – depending, for example, on who is reading, and the presence or absence of a dominant model of interpretation.
In the same way, a given set of data can be illegible in a particular conceptual framework, but legible in some other framework, with the aid of which information can be more readily elicited.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907
The current post is devoted to Chapter 6, entitled “Building high modernism: the ‘analytic-synthetic’ paradigm,” in a study by David Cottingham entitled Cubism and its histories (2004).
The book’s title is in lower case except for the first word, and the word cubism is left in lower case all through the text. That works well, in my view.
Click here to access the book’s table of contents >
My interest in cubism includes studying how Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 works as a painting. I have on my laptop an image of it, based on a photo I took with my iPhone of a page at a library book.
The painting is also available at the MoMA website; the latter features colours that differ markedly from the colour reproduction of the same painting observable in typical reproductions in some art books. I have also viewed the original, on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Representation of three-dimensional forms on two-dimensional picture plane
I have a keen interest in how three-dimensional forms can be represented on the two-dimensional surface of a picture plane. This is a central challenge that cubist painters sought to deal with, in Paris in the early 1900s.
A related topic of interest concerns visual representations of the class of optical illusions known as ambiguous figures, where what is figure and what is ground alternates, in the mind of the viewer. Such ambiguity is among the perceptual phenomena that cubist painters have explored.
These topics are in turn of interest to me, in the context of how words work, and how they are used – when dealing, for example, with ambiguities, or with divergent points of view, in relation to a given phenomenon, person, or event.
I also read art-historical interpretations of cubism, on occasion, but mostly I prefer to study cubist paintings, through viewing reproductions of them closely. I can zoom in and out on a jpeg image of a painting, and also study enlarged details of such paintings. Cubism readily lends itself to such forms of study.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, influential cubist dealer and interpreter, played key role in setting tone for critical interpretation of cubism
I’ve recently made a point of studying Chapter 6 in Cubism and its histories (2004), because David Cottington appears to have a good grasp of the history – or histories, as he puts it – of cubism, and he occasionally distinguishes between legibility and illegibility.
In the notes that follow, I will share a few brief glimpses of the contents of the chapter; for a fuller overview, all of the book is worth a close read.
Cottingham, in the chapter chosen for study, has a particular interest in the contrasting roles that “gallery cubism” and “salon cubism” were to play in the launch and development of cubism in early-1900s Paris. He speaks as well of the values and functioning of an emerging dealer-collector-critic system.
The chapter describes the career of Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, who, not keen to be working as an apprentice stockbroker in Stuttgart had, in 1907, persuaded his family to give him a sum of money and a year to prove his abilities as a Paris art dealer (Cottingham, p. 15):
Thus short of time but better capitalised by far than most small galleries, he put both to shrewd use, renting a tiny gallery space in the rue Vignon near the place de la Madeleine, a fashionable location on the edge of the quartier where the leading dealers were gathered, and quickly putting together a stock of relatively inexpensive pictures that was at the leading edge of their tastes.  After thus securing his short-term survival he pursued a more independent strategy that was based on an acute reading (perhaps helped by his stockbroker training) of the dynamics of the market, steadily narrowing the range of purchases to focus on the work of a few artists he judged to be of particular promise and who were still available: in particular Picasso, whose reputation within avant-garde milieux was huge but whose recent Demoiselles d’Avignon (plate I) had scared away erstwhile patrons; but also Braque, Derain and Vlaminck, all of whom had begun with fauvism, newly fathomed by the market, yet were sailing into uncharted waters. He bought directly from the artists, introducing the innovation of ‘exclusivity’, that is, an agreement to take every picture the artist produced, at set prices according to size.
During the First World War, Kahnweiler was exiled in Switzerland, where he wrote a pamphlet, Der Weg zum Kubismus.
The pamphlet, published after the war (p. 166),
“offered an analytical narrative of the several phases of the elaboration of the pre-war pictorial style shared by Braque and Picasso that was based on his close familiarity, as their dealer, with their paintings of those years and the many conversations he had with them. It differed in this important respect, but also in its clarity and closeness of focus, from the several previously published first or second-hand accounts of cubism, including those by Gleizes and Metzinger, Apollinaire and Salmon. It also brought to cubism Kahnweiler’s own intellectual predilections and commercial parti-pris – with significant consequences, as will be seen, for the historiography of cubism as a style and as a movement.”
Yourdictionary.com defines part-pris as an inclination for or against something or someone that affects judgment.
Appropriation of concepts from Kantian philosophy
In summary we can say, based on Cottingham’s above-noted description, that Kahnweiler’s stockbroker background, ability as a dealer and writer, and direct access to the paintings and views of Braque and Picasso had “significant consequences … for the historiography of cubism as a style and as a movement.” From what I can gather, Kahnweiler set the tone for the communications project, whereby a legible dominant model of critical interpretation of cubism came to be constructed.
Some critics at the time pointed out, however, as Cottingham notes (p. 169), that Kahnweiler’s appropriation of Kantian concepts, in writing about cubism, “was loose to the point of slipshoddiness.”
In Cottingham assessment (p. 169), such a looseness in dealing with philosophical concepts was not a hindrance, nevertheless, given the communications task at hand:
While this [looseness with concepts] is strictly true, it was not as philosophical demonstrations that such appropriations functioned, even though they may have been offered as such, but as heuristic models requiring that some of the differences between philosophy and painting (such as their definitions of ‘representation’) be taken as given and set aside. That these critics were ‘bad’ Kantians was less important, in the discursive context in which they functioned, than that their deployment of these concepts made sense of cubist paintings and the relations between them – as well as sounding good, and offering an intellectually substantial rationale for the style.
Cottingham’s discussion continues along the same lines for rest of chapter
It’s my hope that I’ve established, in this brief note, that according to Cottingham, from the beginning, cubism proceeded at two levels.
At the one level, there was in particular “gallery cubism,” within which in the early years the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler played a key role, in establishing a strong market for the painters, including Braque and Picasso, who had an exclusive relationship with his gallery.
At the other level, Kahnweiler played a key role in development of a dominant model of critical interpretation of cubism, a model distinguished by marketability, legibility, and clarity, which in modified form exists to this day.
Museum of Modern Art
The rest of the chapter deals with the role that other writers played, during the interwar and postwar years, in maintaining narrative legibility for a movement whose paintings, on occasion, made no claim to legibility.
Among the writers, in subsequently developing the dominant model of interpretation, were long-time officials at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. As I understand, the MoMA narrative went in the direction of heralding abstract expressionism as the logical next stage in the evolution of cubism; in subsequent years, abstract expressionism also faded from the contemporary scene. I have not read the narrative any further, in recent years, to get a sense of where the contemporary predominant trend or trends may be heading.
In the event you have an interest in reading about the history of cubism, at any rate, this book makes for a great read.
Contemporary art criticism
By way of an update to this post, an Aug. 6, 2019 Columbia Journalism Review article is entitled: “The Decisive Moment: A new editor deals with the aftermath of Artforum’s #MeToo scandal.”
An excerpt reads:
The art world is invested, to some extent, in the magazine’s inviolability, as a monument to the community’s intellectual seriousness and insular identity. There’s a wagon-circling defensiveness around the crisis. “Artforum has been around for so long and so many people have connections to it that they took [critique] as a personal attack,” says Hrag Vartanian, the editor in chief of Hyperallergic. Another way to say it is that the art world has been struck by a kind of willful amnesia. As the artist Sharon Louden described it to me: “Artists are so starving for validation [from Artforum] that we smoothed it over, and that makes us complicit.”
Museum donation policies
A Sept. 18, 2019 Associated Press article is entitled: “Sackler money complicates donation policies for museums.”
An excerpt reads:
Philanthropy has a long history of conflict in the U.S., dating back to when steel magnate Andrew Carnegie spent vast amounts of money on libraries, schools and other educational facilities even as his workers protested their low wages.
A Sept. 27, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “An art dealer disappeared with $50 million. 17 years later, a documentary crew found him: ‘We never really anticipated finding him because no one had ever found him,’ says filmmaker Vanessa Engle.”
An excerpt reads:
Well I suppose, as well as being an extraordinary story of this huge swindle, the film is as much as anything a character study. He’s a very, very complicated character and a fascinating character.
There is a certain point in the film where there’s a little flicker of remorse, but more than anything he feels that his actions were in some way justifiable.
And whether that’s because he’s had the best part of 20 years to think about it … [and] managed to construct a narrative in his mind that somehow justifies and defends his actions, or whether he always did that — I suspect he maybe always did that.
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