feedback incoming

Just a note to let you know that I’m marching through your excellent work (in alphabetical order: sorry those on the ‘Z’ end, but as you know I’m an ‘A’ myself).  You should get a GDoc from me with feedback on your final project + blog and a final grade.  I’m on “D” now, so if you haven’t heard back or don’t hear back soon, feel free to email me.

What does a painting do?

Technically, it does very little. For the most part, it is an assemblage of color or shade on a canvas of some material. In the best-case scenario, it hangs on a wall and it is looked at. For centuries, the nature of the painting in itself was not question, often times overshadowed by its attempt to capture, or more specifically, represent something else. But those things one would represent – things that occur in nature, individuals, and landscapes, for example – exist naturally in three dimensions. This required that a painter strive to create the illusion of three dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

When walking through the Met, looking at the exhibit of modern art, I was struck by how many painting here seemed to do something different than in other galleries. I have spent untold time staring into any number of pieces, walking around with my family or friends, nodding thoughtfully at a use of color or shadow in a great work from centuries ago.

For this exhibit, I walked the museum alone. This was a strange experience because I didn’t have to be engaged with anyone else in the area. It was just me and the paintings (or a number of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces). I took copious notes at first, unsure what I was supposed to be looking for. I recognized pieces from the issue of Camera Work we had studied in class, but they were different. As I walked around and around Picasso’s Head of a Woman, I started to recognize that I was having a strange problem. I couldn’t just stare at the piece. I had to keep moving. My eyes had to bounce around. It was as if I was aware that I wasn’t seeing all of it. I stopped taking notes and moved around the exhibit, at first seeking out the Picasso pieces specifically. Here, I forced myself to stare at them, straight on, recognizing that “this is a piece I am looking at.” I took a photo of one of his paintings to show it wasn’t created to be flat. It had much more physical depth than other canvases I’d seen in this building. But the images on the canvas avoided any tricks to suggest visual depth in the painting. More and more, the collection forced me to realize that I was looking at a piece of art, not a representation of a thing, and that I was struggling not to have my gaze disrupted.

After a while, I went from the difficult work of trying to figure out what the work of art is doing and switched gears to watch the piece of art “work.” I sat before the massive canvas “Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental” by Richard Pousette-Dart and watched as museum visitors looked from corner to corner, read the description, looked for the bird and the cross in the canvas like a giant game of “Where’s Waldo?” and satisfied, they moved on quickly. The pace of people walking through this exhibit seems faster than everywhere else. I think this piece became my favorite because I was so excited to see this repeated trend – this trackable emotional moment shared by people who looked at the piece and yet, the people looking wouldn’t realize they had a shared experience. And I saw there, at least in this case, what a painting does.

Late Response One: Vertov and Benjamin

After watching “Man with a Movie Camera” by Dziga Vertov I couldn’t help but think upon Walter Benjamin’s essay on art in the age of technological reproduction. Vertov’s movie is highly experimental, bringing new aspects into the world of cinema. It is also a moment in the creation of Soviet propaganda. This made me think more on Benjamin, whose essay is meant to explore a theory of art that is unable to be used for fascism by breaking off from tradition. Considering our knowledge of the results of the Soviet Union, it is difficult not to see some forms of fascism and dictatorship in Stalin’s rule.

In this moment though the Soviet Union was not seen as a dictatorship, rather a radical reformation of a monarch. The Soviet Union was removing itself from the traditional forms of society to save the working classes from serving an unjust country. The film brings the viewer into the personal space of the average worker. Without characters, the movie is attempting to give the viewer a view into the everyday life of those who have won the revolution. Vertov is working within Marxist ideology, which requires a move away from tradition. Using this ideology as a basis, Vertov is attempting to display a futuristic city. This futuristic city allows Vertov to explore and comment on the ideas of the Soviet Union. In doing this Vertov is trying to awaken, and inspire, the Soviet citizen through the use of “truth” (though some scenes in the movie are staged). He portrayed electrification, industrialization, and the achievements of workers through hard labor and supporting the state.

The movie uplifts particular virtues into the civilians, as well as a sense of nationalism. Benjamin sees a problematic view in art that supports the traditional and particular virtues, since it can be used by fascist governments to control their civilians for the sake of war. This makes me wonder on a few concepts. If Stalin creates a dictatorship that is more similar to a fascist nation, then does the art produced by people such as Vertov become capable for fascist means. Or did Stalin require the focus on socialist realism in order to force artists to work alongside his form of politics.

Benjamin speaks on Vertov, focusing on the idea of the camera being able to allow any person to “lay claim to being filmed.” This is used for propaganda purposes, but also brings up an interesting situation within the artistic realm. Through allowing anyone to lay claim to being filmed, the movie is able to place the viewer into the film, giving a more personal connection between the viewer and the film. This alters the way we interact with the film, as well as with the authorship. Now the viewer gains access to a piece of the creative act.

Reflections and Looking Ahead

As requested, here is a reminder to please provide feedback on having an embedded librarian in your course. Your input by way of filling out this brief survey will help to evaluate how to promote this model in the future.

Thank you!

[Building Reflections in Crystal Ball, West Cedar Street, Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts]. Walker Evans. 1930-31

[Building Reflections in Crystal Ball, West Cedar Street, Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts]. Walker Evans. 1930-31. Rights and Reproduction: © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Collection Online.

Man With a Movie Camera

My first reaction to the film is probably the same as most people’s. It is really strange and confusing but at this point in the semester if we were looking at something that was both of those things it wouldn’t be a class on modernism.

I posted a few (quickly typed and error laden) thoughts into the vialogue page so I am just going to echo some of those things here in a more coherent venue. The main style or choice I saw Vertov using over and over again was extreme contrasting and juxtaposition. This is probably the simplest and most obvious thing one could take away from the film but nevertheless it is those contrasts that stick in my brain even the day after my viewing.

I think from the very beginning the least surprising contrast, but still very interesting in retrospect, is the almost completely empty theatre sort of autonomously lowering its seats. Seeing the theatre open and maneuverable with the seats up has a different feel to it than the empty theatre with the seats lowered. This ‘different feel’ is taken further by having a large amount of people shuffle in quickly and sit in the seats that seemed to not be there even a few seconds ago.

This just seemed like a weird opening as I first started the film but in retrospect it sets the viewer up for the juxtaposition and play with opposites that will become a major theme in the film. From the beginning we are presented with empty vs. crowded, campact space vs. open space, man vs. movie camera.

I find the man toying with the camera interesting because it sets up the man and machine binary early on, but Vertov later confuses this binary by giving the camera agency and having it perform something like a vaudevillian act in front of that theatre of spectators. It moves somewhat mechanically but the agenc and free movement it has hints at a sort of humanity. Sets of human eyes mirror into the dancing camera eye as the audience literally looks through the fourth wall of the theatre, blurring the line between performer and spectator.

survey time

Iris requests that you fill out a brief survey evaluating her work for the course. I hope we get a good response, since she’s done a heroic job of helping students find the resources they need for a wide range of projects.  And the “embedded librarian” model that we’ve been experimenting with has real potential, in my view at least, to enhance what we do in the humanities to bring together research skills and classroom teaching.  So what are you waiting for?

Oh, and evaluate me too: we’re currently at 20% (3 of 15).


other examples of the “city film” or “city symphony” genre

Laura Marcus’s argument depends on comparisons among several examples of what she calls the “city symphony”: films that sought to capture the dynamism of the modern metropolis on film using experimental forms.  The first, chronologically speaking, is Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927).  Marcus also relies heavily on Manhatta (1921), a film by the photographer Paul Strand and the painter Charles Sheeler using intertitles from Whitman’s poetry.

Strictly optional but both films are interesting, they show that Vertov’s work was building on a tradition, and they help illuminate Marcus’s argument.