The bridge broken, the city faint from fear

It is well-known that minister for propaganda Josef Goebbels used lines from the sixteenth century Propheties of Michel de Notre Dame (Nostradamus) to bolster Nazi belief in a coming victory; also that the British reciprocated by plucking their own prophetic writings out of the air. The game of using any suitably elastic corpus of words, phrases or images in order to organize a field of emotional investments is as old as time.

Continue reading “The bridge broken, the city faint from fear”

The Politics of Form

(This is an edited version of some work I did at undergraduate level some years ago)

The Politics of Form in Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed (1913) and Hans Haacke’s A Breed Apart (1978)

Figure 1. Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

Figure 1: Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed by Giacomo Balla, 1913

Figure 2. <em>A Breed Apart</em>, 2nd Image, by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 2. A Breed Apart, 2nd Image, by Hans Haacke 1978 From Perry, G. and Wood, P. (eds.) 2004, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London in association with The Open University: Milton Keynes, plate 1.1, p.22

Figure 3. <em>A Breed Apart</em> (all seven images as conventionally exhibited) by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 3. A Breed Apart (all seven images as conventionally exhibited) by Hans Haacke 1978

Figure 4. <em>Abstract Speed</em> Triptych (speculative reconstruction by David J Smith), by Giacomo Balla 1913

Figure 4. Abstract Speed Triptych (speculative reconstruction by David J Smith), by Giacomo Balla 1913

Introduction

This essay proposes that certain formal attributes of a work of art can project a political dimension upon the screen of its reception, offering a politicised position to the viewer. More precisely, the two very different works of art Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed (by Giacomo Balla, 1913, see fig.1) and A Breed Apart (by Hans Haacke, 1978, see fig. 2) will be compared in terms of how they put to use formal techniques for quite different political purposes. The degree to which political themes are present in these works will be assessed. The political context of both artists will be considered as well as a brief commentary on the development of their artistic techniques. A formal and visual analysis of each work will attempt to draw out the ways in which their artwork amplifies or contests the politics of their age, and situates the viewer.

The critic and media theorist Franco Berardi characterises the twentieth century in Europe as the “century that trusted in the future”, in its early years presided over by a utopian Futurist vision (Berardi 2011 p.17). By 1977 this faith had imploded into the dystopian nihilism of Punk, proclaiming ‘No Future’ (Berardi 2011 p.17). Berardi’s periodisation dates are highly significant with respect to the two artworks examined here. Balla’s Abstract Speed series of paintings from 1913 mark the artist’s ‘fully-fledged’ entrance into the Futurist circle (Humphreys 1999 p.36), while Haacke’s A Breed Apart, produced in 1978, marks a definitive moment in anti-establishment institutional critique.

Balla in Context

As Robert Hughes notes, the speed with which culture reinvented itself in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th seemed ‘almost praeternatural’ (Hughes 1980, p.15). More than one writer has noted that the inauguration of Futurism coincided with the arrival of the first moving assembly lines (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62; Berardi 2011, p.19). However, Fordist production processes and Taylorist ‘scientific management’ of labour time had not yet reached Italy. During this period, the cultural memory of the Risorgimento was still recent, and the economy was still largely agricultural (Berardi 2011, p.21). The infamous racing car of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto, with its ‘explosive breath’ and seeming to run ‘on machine gun fire’ (Marinetti 1909 in Harrison & Wood, p.147), would not have been produced with the ‘beauty of speed’ but hand-assembled ‘using traditional craft techniques’ (Meikle in Schnapps 2009, p.62). Italian Futurism looked, initially at least, beyond national borders and saw urban life in the industrialised nations changing radically and rapidly.

For the poet Marinetti, the inventor of Futurism and later a Fascist demagogue, the velocity of machines represented freedom from history, the power to redraw the map of Europe, and to replace ‘the old sickly cooing sensitivity of the earth’ with ‘iron bridges’, piercing ‘surgical trains’ and enormous turbines – the ‘new muscles of the earth’. For Marinetti war was ‘hygiene’, and speed was ‘beauty’ (Hughes, 1980, p.43). Marinetti’s lyrical bombast may seem extreme but it can be considered to have both expressed and contributed towards a particular ‘structure of feeling’ in which its artistic statements were ‘all the time lived’ (Williams 1977, p.128-29) in everyday early twentieth century Italian life. Futurist painting was an attempt to translate or embody this structure of feeling in a visual medium (Hughes 1980, p.43).

It is important to note while Balla had signed Marinetti’s Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting of 1910, there was political distance between them which only widened in later years. Balla is described as subscribing to a form of ‘humanitarian socialism’ (Humphreys 1999, p.22). Nonetheless, his 1913 Abstract Speed paintings can be said to express something of the cultural ‘structure of feeling’ of 1913 Italian society, and of Futurism’s love affair with acceleration, economic accumulation, state expansion, nationalism, novelty, violence, and machismo.

By the time that Abstract Speed: The Car has Passed was created, Giacomo Balla—with experience of composing music and of his father’s professional photography—had already spent considerable time producing work which responded to the advent of cinema and to the innovative chronophotography of Marey and Muybridge (Humphreys 1999, p.34; Martin & Grosenick 2006, p.15 & p.42). Balla extended the points of paint (of the divisionist technique) into lines, and multiplied the representations of a subject. His 1912 works, for example, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and Rhythm of the Violinist are ‘mechanically analytical’ attempts to capture and represent motion in a painted medium (Humphreys 1999, p.36).

In the English language the word ‘form’ adumbrates a number of ideas which, for example, in ancient Greek, were different (e.g. morphé, eidos, schema, rythmos). Thus, morphé and schema denote form as something fixed and unchanging, whereas rythmos specifically refers to a form ‘acquired through motion’ (Benveniste 1966, pp.327-335). According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Marey and Muybridge had attempted to capture rythmos in their photographic innovations; likewise this thesis can be extended to Balla’s analytic works, such as the Girl Crossing a Balcony (1912-13) and Speed of a Motorcycle (1913). However it is important to keep in mind an important distinction between the nineteenth century chronophotographers and Balla’s painted motion, which is the specifically Futurist context of the latter. Balla put his techniques in service to the commodification and politicisation of speed and motion.

Balla’s spiritual interests in Symbolism and Theosophy may also have guided his experiments with inter-penetrating complementary colours and with a kind of visual synaesthesia of musical and sonic effects. The latter, concerned as it is with the dynamic propagation of sonic waves through time and space, was in likelihood strongly related to the use of ‘force-lines’ proposed by the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (Humphreys 1999, p.36). The combination of the influences detailed above prompted Balla to give visual artistic form to such concepts as machinery, motion, force and speed, dramatising in paint a sense of the accelerating rhythm and tempo of urban European life.

Haacke in Context

Pierre Bourdieu, a theorist that has collaborated with Hans Haacke (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994), characterised the latter’s work as similar in effect to Karl Krauss’ incitements, which ‘provoked his adversaries to make mistakes, or show themselves up’ and which ‘turned the forces of his adversaries against them’. (Speller 2011 p.144). More specifically, in A Breed Apart, Haacke uses ‘discursive montage’ (Speller 2011 p.144), a way of combining different registers of language with visual elements, as institutional critique.

The combination of photographic visual elements and text, according to Linda Hutcheon (1989, p.126) creates a multi-registered semiotic system in which the meanings produced by the Piercean indexicality and iconicity of the photograph form an ‘interference fringe’ with the meanings produced by the symbolic nature of the accompanying text. This ‘interference’ challenges the reader/observer on several levels; firstly it demands that text and photograph not be considered as independent sign systems, and secondly it demands some kind of synthesis in a new overall meaning. The emergence of this new meaning in the reader/observer can be said to constitute the ‘conceptual art’ of the work.

Haacke’s technique in A Breed Apart can be identified as taking one of two forms: in parts two, four and six (see fig. 3) he presents a familiar photograph (such as might be used in advertising) and unsettles their conventional meanings through the content conveyed by accompanying text, whereas in parts one, three, five and seven (see fig. 3) he accompanies an disquieting photograph of armed policing or political arrest with a paragraph of text designed to read like a cheerful press release. Thus within the work as a whole a duality of both forms of mediation emerge: text critiquing commercial photography, and photographs critiquing commercial literature. What is constant in both of these technical movements is that the familiar and the unfamiliar collide, re-framing a hitherto innocuous-seeming commercialism in terms of its connection with the political tensions of Apartheid.

A Breed Apart both says and shows what is in everyday advertising necessarily omitted. It effectively suggests that the commodification of a vehicle is above all a process of eliding the process of its production and the associated social and political structures which enabled this process. Advertisement then appears disingenuous, presenting products as if they had magically appeared via the goodwill of the brand alone, alienating consumers from the real material processes. Pierre Bourdieu cites Brecht’s estrangement effect as an influence on his ideas of ‘une politique de la forme’ (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.84) and on Haacke’s critique of ‘symbolic capital’ (p.89). Brechtian verfremdungseffekt was itself partly inspired by the literary criticism of the Russian Formalist school, particularly Shklovsky’s identification of priem ostranenie—the ‘estranging device/technique’ in Art as Technique (Shklovsky 1917 in Lemon & Reis 2012, pp.). It is not immediately obvious that devices sometimes called ‘alienation effects’ can be used by a viewer to disalienate himself or herself ‘in and through the consciousness of alienation’, but this is indeed an effect of defamiliarisation (Lefebvre 2014, p.45; Shepherd & Wallis 2004, p.185; Gordon 2006, p.389 n25)

As can be witnessed from the above, the context in which Haacke produced his work is one heavily influenced by literary factors, theory and theorists—particularly Bourdieu—and so his use of the creative interface between text and images is hardly surprising. What makes A Breed Apart stand out from more ‘playful’ works of conceptual art is its explicit political targeting. Haacke challenges the formalist, aestheticist idea (such as that expressed by Clement Greenberg in his 1965 article Modernist Painting) that specific political messages and historical references ‘contaminate’ art. Instead, the formal qualities of Haacke’s artwork are a political message, while political message would be impossible without form (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994 p.90).

Haacke’s use of the tagline ‘A Breed Apart’ reveals how his raw materials (here, the stuff of advertising, its phrases and imagery) is always already ‘contaminated’ politically. In some regions of its transnational enterprise Jaguar used this phrase to generate distinction for itself as a brand, since as part of a vocabulary of separating birthrights or pedigrees in bred sporting animals it carried the suggestion of virility and heightened potency. However, the same language when applied to human beings immediately deflates any symbolic capital, as it can easily indicate racist segregation, which is precisely what Haacke wanted to bring into focus in this work. When the phrase is conjoined with photographs of Apartheid politics, its ‘official’ meaning slides uncontrollably towards a condemnation of advertising’s complicity in and proximity to institutionalised racism.

As alluded to in the introduction, the fact that A Breed Apart was produced in the year 1978 is important. If 1977 saw the rise of the Punk movement and the appropriation of Lettrist and Situationist techniques of détournement (Debord 1981 in Harrison & Wood 1992, pp.701-710) then Haacke’s art of the following year also follows this wider social pattern of anti-establishment critique. However, since 1978 techniques of re-appropriating establishment material have themselves been re-appropriated and today there exist ‘cool-hunting expeditions’—marketing practices whereby advertisers scour ghettoes for ‘edgy’ new style ideas for commercial product placement. This highlights the historical specificity of Haacke’s A Breed Apart.

In terms of situating the viewer, Haacke combats what Bourdieu calls the ‘symbolic domination’ of both corporate and state patrons and sponsors whose strategic goal has been to seduce and manipulate artists into neutralising criticism of their policies and products (Bourdieu & Haacke 1994, p.16-20). While this may seem like a return to a modernist argument, concerning the autonomy (versus heteronomy) of the artist, it deeply concerns what the viewer is able to view since it bears on the economic and social conditions of possibility for the production and exhibition of artwork.

Visual Analysis of the Seen Artwork

As currently exhibited at the Tate Liverpool gallery, The Car Has Passed hangs in a corner of the DLA Piper series ‘Constellations’, in which artworks are arranged not chronologically but according to how they were ‘triggered’ by other works. According to this arrangement, the ‘constellation’ Balla’s work belongs to is dominated by Henri Matisse, through a series of ‘correspondences’ including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jean Metzinger (Tate 2014a). In terms of physical location, Balla’s painting hangs between Natalya Goncharova’s Gardening and an exterior window, appearing almost peripheral to the exhibition.

While Balla’s delineation appears sharp and fresh in photographs of the work, this is misleading, as closer inspection of the work (which is smaller than might be imagined, at 502mm by 654mm [Tate 2014b]) reveals a roughness to the lines and particularly to the shading that follows them. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the pink of the bottom left force-line, where the shading appears granular and smudged in the areas where it is crossed transversally by other force-lines.

The back and top of the pictorial space is marked out somewhat conventionally by a deep blue sky, backgrounding a row of three intersecting geometrical hills, functioning both as a distant landscape and, through shallow modelling following arched and ogival shapes, abstractly foliate forms. A stylised off-white road dominates the lower half of the painting, appearing to issue from a traditionally perspectival and foreshortened vanishing point, albeit a vanishing point plainly inconsistent with the other elements of the painting. The illusionistic depth of the picture is complicated by the unusual, non-realist placement of the road, the abstractness of the landscape, and by the force-lines which criss-cross the surface. The perspective and sweep of the road suggests depth but remains un-modelled. The effect of these complications and dualities is to both invite and to bar the viewer from entry into illusionistic space. The force-lines, which abstractly represent the sonic aftermath and exhaust trail of the titular passed car, oscillate between two modes. Firstly, they appear as an inviting veil or curtain superimposed on a scene with depth; secondly, as a radical partitioning of that scene into more ‘painterly’ and flattened sections. A hint of ‘analytic’ Cubism’s influence is discernible here.

If understood as the third image in a triptych (see fig. 4) the background in Balla’s Abstract Speed series develops narratively from being darkened and obscured by the noise, speed and lines of force of the ‘car’ in the leftmost and central paintings, yet survives intact and bright in the final image (in which ‘the car has passed’). This demonstrates political differences between Balla and Marinetti’s regarding Nature; whereas Marinetti has written bitterly of ‘the old cooing sensitivity of the earth’ and of destroying the Earth for the sake of the machine (Hughes 1980, p.43), Balla’s painted landscape still remains intact despite the energetic advent of the motor car.

In contrast to the heavier, darker and angrier lines of the two other paintings that purportedly make up the Abstract Speed triptych (Tate 2014c; Guggenheim 2014), particularly the second (Abstract Speed: Speed and Sound, see fig. 4) with its smaller, scatter-gun force-lines, The Car Has Passed is dominated by the generous and open curvature of its force-lines, which seem almost serene in comparison. Seen as the denouement of a three-painting narrative, ‘the car’ has indeed ‘passed’, and what remains in its wake is only the cursive flourish or signature of its speed, as gently descending fumes and waves of air pressure that look set only to disperse further. The palette of blues, greens and pinks is cooler and more harmonious than that of the other paintings, but it is important to note that tensions are still present.

The conventionally-ordered, simplistic and even naïve composition of The Car Has Passed in terms of colour (a receding blue sky, a row of dark green hills, an illuminated foreground) appears very much to be a deliberate concession to classical bucolic or picturesque ideals of rurality and Nature’s beauty. It is important not to overstate this, because when presented abstractly, these ideals are indeed analytically flattened, revealing the stasis and schematism of the ideals of pastoral hills and idyllic blue skies. Balla no doubt painted with a full awareness of this contradiction: on the one hand ‘musically’ appreciative of harmony and cyclic returns to cadence, but on the other hand recognising that forces of excitation and disturbance are required to prevent stagnation and inaction.

The overall effect on the viewer, bearing in mind the social context, is to galvanise a belief in the necessity of progress, without undue sacrifice of certain ideals regarding national territory. The emotional atmosphere—or, using Williams’ term, ‘structure of feeling’—generated and conveyed by the painting is complex and contradictory if considered logically, but in terms of emotion it is powerfully motivated. At the centre of the issue, although absent from the painting, is the driver and his driven nature—as Marinetti’s masculinist chauvinism made clear, Italian Futurism required men do the driving—so that any winged Victory for the motorcar and the machine age only masks a paean to the will and might of man over nature. It is hard to filter out Marinetti’s populist rallying cry to unite in mastery of the aggressive energies unleashed by new technologies elsewhere in Europe, to contend for a superior place there. Yet the message suggested by Balla’s abstractions stands slightly apart from that Futurism, in that Balla’s vehicle seems in the end just a vehicle, to be dispensed with: a technical means of interrupting and rousing people from inactivity, while the true object of national desire was a kind of spiritual evanescence that only the vehicle’s speed could facilitate.

Conclusion(s)

Today we can speak easily of a fetishism of speed, in which the actual production and technical mechanics of a vehicle and its engine have been obscured and mystified by the commercial imagery of open roads, responsive controls and breathtaking experiences which pique modern desire. In retrospect, Balla’s Abstract Speed appears as a proto-advertisement, linking a luxury item—too fast to see—with the anticipation of collectively fulfilling these kinds of desires as a nation. Balla’s work prefigures those modern advertisements from which the product is often absent but nonetheless virtualised through its traces and effects: that is, in its ‘lines of force’. Through the imagery and ideologies used in advertising the collective desires of an audience are commodified and sold back to the audience in the form of a product or brand. As such, the painting not only proved prescient but situated the contemporary viewer as part of a much larger collective desirous of a certain future, which is to say, as being on an emotional level politically complicit with international competition, an increasingly corporatist state and its means of economic accumulation.

An interesting visual parallel emerges when comparing the second of the seven images in A Breed Apart (fig. 2) to A Car Has Passed. Ignoring the text, the photograph of the car interior establishes the seating as high-quality, fashioned and modern, capturing its curved lines as ‘symbolic capital’, indicating ownership of such a vehicle denotes ‘distinction’, ‘taste’, and a modern ‘life in the fast lane’. The same curves mark Balla’s painting, appearing there as lingering traces of exhaust traces and force-lines. These curves (which in the masculinist and sexist mindset can no doubt evoke a yielding femininity supportive of, but absent from, the fast lane) echo in Balla’s work the abstract voluptuousness of his landscape; there too they are part of the attempt to generate value or symbolic capital. However, in Haacke’s work, the pointedness of the accompanying text destroys whatever imagined comforts the curved caresses of the interior upholstery might have conjured; the point is to deflate the generation of symbolic capital.

Both artworks examined attempt to engage the viewer / reader actively in the production of meaning, conveying a political dynamic or tension in which the viewer / reader will take up a position. There is in both works an implicit appeal to the popular, that is, to the people. In Balla’s work the overall movement is towards mythologisation, commodification, and the generation of symbolic capital or value, which involves the exercise of the imagination in projecting a sense of the future. This future is not explicitly nationalised, as in a later work (Long Live Italy, 1915—a highly patriotic, literally ‘flag-waving’ painting utilising the Italian colours), although the abstract rolling green hills hint at some nationalistic attachment to the soil. In Hans Haacke’s work the overall movement is towards de-mythologisation, which undoes the imagery and glamour of the advertised vehicles to reveal the political implications of advertising and the selectivity of what is shown by it.

Balla and Haacke certainly share a destructive urge, although clearly there are clear differences in its expression. A Breed Apart sets out to destroy the mythologising, fetishising use of images by advertisers and to wound the tradition of advertising by turning it on itself. Balla’s Abstract Speed: The Car Has Passed stages the destruction of history through the phenomena of escape and passage towards the future (although preserving nationhood, and perhaps to some extent, an idealised countryside).

With Futurism, it is as if the machine merely by its novelty will accomplish marvels—there is in Marxian terms a ‘commodity fetishism’ at work; Haacke shows on the contrary that sordid human political machinations and their deliberate obscuration hold together the media edifice which broadcasts the marvels and modernity of machines to its consumers.

Although working in different directions and very different contexts, both Haacke and Balla make use of formal devices as means of politicising their artwork. This is not to say that such devices are politically neutral, like technical instruments that remain innocent and uncontaminated by whatever specific uses they are put to. On the contrary, they are in Bourdieu and Haacke’s view always indissociable from the political context of their use, but their political meaning changes according to that context.

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