Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Art is upon the Town!— to be chucked under the chin by the passing gallant— to be enticed within the gates of the householder— to be coaxed into company, as a proof of culture and refinement.

If familiarity can breed contempt, certainly Art— or what is currently taken for it— has been brought to the lowest stage of intimacy.

The people have been harassed with Art in every guise, and vexed with many methods as to its endurance. They have been told how they shall love Art, and live with it. Their homes have been invaded, their walls covered with paper, their very dress taken to task— until, roused at last, bewildered and filled with the doubts and discomforts of senseless suggestion, they resent such intrusion, and cast forth the false prophets, who have brought the very who have brought the very name of the beautiful into disrepute, and derision upon themselves.

Alas! ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned. She has naught in common with such practices. She is a goddess of dainty thought— reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, from Mt Whistler’s “Ten O‘clock”

I went to a lecture by an art teacher today, who asked us to read a selection from a book called Not at Home: The Suppression of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture. The theme seems so counter-intuitive to me. Modernism, as I know it (from a photographic perspective) was a celebration of the common object. Whistler’s pronouncement (from 1885) seems to herald literary modernism, the “art for art’s sake” nonsense and a turning away from the commonplace to serve that “goddess of dainty thought” who certainly wouldn’t demure to look inside anyone’s bedroom, let alone bathroom. But artistic modernism to me includes things like Duchamp’s urinal, and Weston’s toilet. It wasn’t exactly demure. To be fair, the premise of the book more specifically addresses images of homosexual domesticity, but I couldn’t help but think of the larger context.

Also echoed in Whistler’s statement is the idea of a purposeless art, which would have made Walker Evans, among others, smile in assent. Reflecting on it, his cold steely tool studies were an effort to displace domesticity into the aesthetic realm, and much the same could be said of Weston or Duchamp. So I’m back at square one. Perhaps I need to read more essays from the book, but I think “suppression” is a later development, and even then, I question whether domesticity was effectively suppressed— rather, I think that the normalizing models of populux rhetoric merely marginalized homosexuals in a world populated by happy homemakers, who if they went to bed at all, closed the doors as they slipped between the sheets. This rhetoric wasn’t purposeless, and it certainly was a form of domestic art.

I was thinking about Warhol too, as most of the examples cited in the essay I read were post 1950— Brillo Boxes? Soup Cans? How domestic can you get? I think that the painters were just slow on the uptake in joining the swing to the commonplace; but even as these objects were shifted from the kitchen to the gallery, they are removed from utility into uselessness— except, as machines for thought. I think that is what has drawn me into documentary praxis. Representing lives, or artifacts from lives, is both distinctly serviceable and aesthetic. The dainty goddess never gave me the time of day. I always felt more like a historian, I suppose, providing a visual (now verbal) transcript. I started thinking about Walter Pater, one of those theorists that Whistler sought to overthrow.

All beauty is in the long run only a fineness of truth, or what we call expression, the finer accommodation of speech to that vision within.

— The transcript of his sense of fact rather than the fact, as being preferable, pleasanter, more beautiful to the writer himself. In literature, as in every other product of human skill, in the moulding of a bell or a platter for instance, wherever this sense asserts itself, wherever producer so modifies his work as, over and above its primary use or intention, to make it pleasing (to himself, of course, in the first instance) there “fine” as opposed to merely serviceable art, exists. Literary art is, like all art which is in any way imitative or reproductive of fact— form, or colour, or incident— is the representation of such fact as connected with the soul, of a specific personality, in its preferences, its volition and power.

Walter Pater, from Appreciations

For me, the best art has always been domestic. I just can’t see any time that it hasn’t been that way. The problem with such generalities as proposed by the title of that book is that they seldom hold up to scrutiny. The idea that all artists of a certain period automatically agree, or all members of a culture agree, is downright silly. I suppose it depends on what you consider serviceable— or better still, who you serve— is it a goddess called “art” or a personal memory? I have no problem with an art of the familiar, as long as it provides a means to think outside the familiar— to create a vision within. I think that Pater was closer to my point of view than Whistler could ever be.

1 thought on “Familiar”

  1. As complex as Duchamp is, I am sure it’s foolhardy to question your statement that his project involves displacement ”into the aesthetic realm.” Yet certain of his statements seem to suggest a strategy to displace the aesthetic itself:
    ”On the contrary, the interesting thing for me was extracting from its practical domain or its utilitarian domain and bringing it into a domain completely… empty, if you will, empty of everything, empty of everything to a point such that I spoke of a complete anesthesia in order to do it, you understand, which is to say it was necessary…”

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