A friend of mine was New England bureau chief of a newspaper far away for a million years. No one in New England believed that they worked, which they did, about 14 hours a day, and would be slightly insulted when it was impossible to meet during their extensive business hours. No one in the city which published the newspaper for which they worked believed that they existed. For those of us who write, seeing the byline on an actual newspaper is evidence that we and our obsessions exist.

Such is my life online, I think, as I keep it very separated from the real life people I complain about, and regularly go about erasing online evidence that my LJ user name is connected to a “real” person name. To exist in the world, with a hyper real self online, is basically to have two identities, real and realer. You also can’t gossip with real people about what your imaginary friends online are up to.

Reading Hilton Kramer’s obituary today, in which his many combative campaigns on behalf of high modernism and mandarin aesthetics were detailed — I got pissed off at him for sneering at Vermeer simply because millions came out to view him — got me thinking about this dissociative state. Turns out a lot of things he took exception to I agree with. He was a staunch defender of Milton Avery, who I’ve loved since I first saw his stuff in the 60s. He came to prominence in an attack on Harold Rosenberg’s epochal essay defining Abstract Expressionism, and with it New York City, as the epicenter of modernism. Kramer said, “By defining Abstract Expressionist painting as a psychological event, it denied the aesthetic efficacy of painting itself and attempted to remove art from the only sphere in which it can be truly experienced, which is the aesthetic sphere. It reduced the art object itself to the status of a psychological datum.”

Of post-modernism, and the idea that irony imbues and permits all kinds of immoral behavior, Kramer thought little. The obituary recalls

A resolute high modernist, he was out of sympathy with many of the aesthetic waves that came after the great achievements of the New York School, notably Pop (“a very great disaster”), conceptual art (“scrapbook art”) and postmodernism (“modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate”).

What’s interesting about Kramer is how often he is right for what seem to me the wrong reasons, ie., sticking to the canons of Western culture. I am for the canons of Western culture as well as those of all other cultures, including the counter-. Nothing is more soul-murdering, as I have recently been discovering in my tour of hippie memoir, than having to re-invent the wheel every day and have it collectivized by a guru on the make. Canons are good, exactly what’s missing in hippie existence, with feral masculinist values rushing in to take their place.

But this life of the mind — although it could and did have a financial effect, for example, on the sale of Milton Avery’s paintings and the reputations of all those jazz-hands museum exhibitions and tap-dancing curators — was one from which Kramer seemed detached. He fell into life as a critic and arts editor as a grad student of philosophy who’d made friends with the editor Philip Rahv. I sense that his mandarin or conservative view, while upholding clear standards, also appealed to the grey lady aesthetic of the New York Times who with Kramer, I submit, were to be cautious in admitting that the art forms of the 1960s were anything more than charlatanism — the mid-20th century equivalent of the outrage with which Manet in his day and Picasso in his were greeted. Unusually, I think, for the NYT, Kramer’s education was far from the Ivies or New York city’s socialist or bohemian purlieus like NYU or Cooper Union. A New Englander, and not of the Brahmin kind, Kramer’s attack on Rosenberg, published in Art News in 1952, was launched from a graduate school seminar on Dante and Shakespeare in Indiana. I’d add that I agree with him and think he was right in believing that psychoanalytic values in painting — as well as in the Stanislavsky acting method which has permitted so much horrific professional behavior by actors in Hollywood — are just as bullshit in aesthetics as they were in psychiatry.

At the end of his life, Kramer was surprised by his reputation as a dragon. “I’m really not very angry at all,” he told New York magazine in 1984. “I am appalled at times; astonished, disappointed, anxious, worried. I think of myself as judicious.”

And that detachment, being very different from who you are in the city far away where your byline is published in the daily newspaper, online, or as an art critic, is what I’m thinking about today. I know my friend and I, and Hilton Kramer, literally exist as our best selves in what you could call cyberspace. Is it true matter does not exist? And only the soul does?

I am coming down the home stretch in the magisterial and exceedingly well-written huge new biography of William James. It identifies as the keystone of his life one of the pages I have quoted over and over in my genocide work, James’ thought on the saintly virtue of poverty. James wrote:

Over and above the mystery of self-surrender, there are in the cult of poverty other religious mysteries. There is the mystery of veracity: “Naked came I into the world,” etc. — whoever first said that, possessed this mystery. My own bare entity must fight the battle — shams cannot save me. There is also the mystery of democracy, or sentiment of the equality before God of all his creatures. This sentiment (which seems in general to have been more widespread in Mohammedan than in Christian lands) tends to nullify man’s usual acquisitiveness. Those who have it spurn dignities and honors, privileges and advantages, preferring, as I said in a former lecture, to grovel on the common level before the face of God. It is not exactly the sentiment of humility, though it comes so close to it in practice. It is humanity, rather, refusing to enjoy anything that others do not share.

Along these lines I am thinking the life of the mind, the cyber existence, the daily byline in a city far away, is more real.


Milton Avery, Gaspe Pink Sky, 1940
http://www.artchive.com/artchive/A/avery/gaspe_pink_sky.jpg.html

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

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