Friday, January 18, 2008

Davenport, still life, the image

Finally got around to reading Davenport's OBJECTS ON A TABLE, his study of still life in art. As always with Davenport, the writing is lively and the learning is vast and often arcane, assembled as one would a collage. He seems uninterested in constructing historical narrative, believing instead that the past is present and can be cherry-picked at will. So, his scholarly procedure is analogous to those artistic procedures he admires most and considers most modern.

"The art of our century is that of collage, involving quotation, parody, cultural inventory. Collage is by genre and by strategy the art of the still life, which begins as a duplication of reality in an image [Aristotle said art was an "imitation" of reality. The same thing?], grows into an enduring depiction of symbolically interacting objects in the service of one sentiment or another..."

"We can see this spirit of recycling forms and subjects in literature's propensity to follow Nietzsche in his saying that, human nature being unchanging, the same things must happen over and over again." Other bon mots include: "Reiteration is a privilage of still life denied many other modes," i.e., conserves its subjects and forms better than other modes. "It is an art that is symbiotic with civilization." Early in the book, he speaks of doing "iconographic inquiry," of which of course he is a dazzling master. But, this would seem to validate art especially (only?) as it reiterates the past, echoes it, alludes to it, cites it. As I said, art resembles and, in its extreme forms, becomes a kind of scholarship, preserving by reiterating the past. Such art is implicitly conservative, in all senses of the word. For Davenport still life is the highest form of art because it is so traditionally self-reflexive, more so than other modes. Self-relexivity in art ("recycling forms and subjects") keeps the past alive. So, when it comes to modern art, he praises first (only?) what is old in it, not what might be new. But, as Nietzsche said, human nature is "unchanging." Nothing is new. Rather, what is new is old (made new).


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