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  • Cubist PoetryPart of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry by Jacqueline Vaught BroganReview by: Alan Michael ParkerArt Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4, Latin American Art (Winter, 1992), pp. 106-107Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 22:43

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  • 106

    socialized the European past by permitting it to rename itself art history, while ignoring those ob-

    jects unable to be made part of that history" (pp. 5-6). As a result of this resocialization into a "his-

    tory of objects," Fisher contends that new objects were created, "objects that have as their single, overt design, the desire to join history" (p. 6), the

    history of the museum. From this he concludes that "the 'subject' of the museum is not the indi- vidual work of art but relations between works of

    art, both what they have in common (styles, schools, periods) and what in the sharpest way clashes in their juxtaposition" (p. 8). This attitude allows for all types of objects from various cultures to enter the museum, calling into question the

    criticisms of those multiculturalists who see the aesthetic display of non-Western objects as a form of cultural domination. For as Western objects lost their ritual significance, they were appreciated as

    "visually interesting" things. From here, Fisher

    argues, "It seemed plausible to accept these mute

    objects [objects from foreign cultures] precisely because the civilization [of the West] had already set itself to silence its own objects for the purposes of the new category of art" (p. 20). While Fisher makes this process of "silencing" much too willful

    (I think it occurred as a result of the replacement of religious faith by Enlightenment ideas of ratio-

    nalism, a replacement that undercut the ritual and

    mystical significance of religious objects), his re-

    marks do suggest that museums, rather than de-

    basing non-Western objects, raised non-Western

    objects to the level of art, to a level equal to the

    most precious of Western objects.5 In the remainder of the first half of his book,

    Fisher proceeds to demonstrate why abstract art is "the natural art of a museum culture" and why "linear ordering and the cancellation of content are the two museum practices that come to be recorded within later art, where it occurs not only as one content among others, but as the essential

    subject matter" of art (p. 21). He does this through an interesting interpretation of the works of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. To Fisher, their works ex-

    emplify these aspects of abstract art by the way they "efface" (expunge) literal content and by the

    way they control the sequencing of works that surround their own through a "strategy of the series" or a disjunctive compositional format

    (chaps. 3 and 5). The second half of the book deals mostly

    with the relationship of museums and, more espe-

    cially, works of art to industrialization. "Museums

    became more and more central exactly in cultures

    touched most deeply by the factory system" of

    mass production, writes Fisher. They became

    "storage areas for authenticity and uniqueness

    per se, for objects from any culture or period whatever that were 'irreplaceable' or singular" (p. 165). For Fisher, it is not only the museum that is affected by industrial production. In a lengthy discussion echoing Meyer Schapiro's observations about CUzanne's still lifes, Fisher argues that the still life, being an arrangement of objects without

    internal, natural relationships, is a human manipu- lation of objects along rational lines similar to the

    thinking inherent in industrial production (p. 209).

    According to Fisher, however, the still life and sub-

    sequent use of industrial materials in art does not

    deny humanity, as Marx argued when he de-

    scribed "all objecthood as frozen human labor, human time, and human need" (p. 251). Instead, Fisher asserts that "through work the human is

    injected into matter " (p. 251) and a recognition of this in art "involves us in a willingness to recognize the same presence in bridges, skyscrapers, and

    pylons. ....

    Each recovery [of the human] in an individual work states that the object world . . .

    exists as a rebus, spelling and re-spelling the hu-

    man name" (p. 252). 4

    Notes 1. See Clement Greenberg, "Modernist Painting," reprinted in Howard Risatti, ed., Postmodern Perspectives: Issues in

    Contemporary Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990), 12. 2. Greenberg began theorizing about this at least as early 1939. See his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," in Clement

    Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 3. 3. The assumptions and therefore the dangers I see in con-

    tinuing to promote the "great plot" theory (i.e., corporations are instruments of absolute control/domination) are nu- merous: because it assumes people don't like their consumer- oriented lives, the theory leads one to presume, in view of the lack of change in these areas, that people are unable to do

    anything to implement change, and thus the theory tends to absolve people of responsibility. I think it is time to entertain the idea that we, as a society, may have made so little change in areas such as education, the environment, and rampant con- sumerism mainly because these assumptions may be false. 4. The conference was held at the International Center of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., in September 1988. 5. Clearly, Fisher's ideas reflect Greenberg's scenario for mod- ern art as an autonomous realm of activity, something that Fisher feels is fundamental to the modern museum's identity and operation. As this view of art is rejected, however, post- modern criteria, criteria that value political and social content, are being used to judge the past performance of museums

    originally created around the idea of modern art.

    H OWAR D R I S AT T I teaches art history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.


    Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, ed. Part of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 362 pp. $45.00

    J acqueline Vaught Brogan's Part of the Cli- mate: American Cubist Poetry never quite decides what kind of book it wants to be.

    Ostensibly an anthology of American experimen- tal poetry from 1915 to 1942, as published in the "little magazines" of the time, this collection pro- vides a platform for the author's opinions-on Cubism, on Wallace Stevens's exclusion from the

    literary canon, on William Faulkner, on Jacques Derrida-which rarely transcend specious asser- tion. What might have been a fine critical study of

    Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, of the Armory show of 1913, of Alfred Stieglitz and his work on behalf of Cubism, and of how American poets were influenced by the radical aesthetics being bandied about so blithely in the visual arts, instead falls flat. Intent upon her claim that literary mod- ernism as we know it lacks historical credence as a

    movement, and that the whole of avant-garde poetry should be considered "Cubist," Brogan presents no analysis of either paintings or poems. There is no rigor to this study, nor is there any close reading of texts, without which the connec- tions between the two arts remain curious, at best. Moreover, as her commentary dwindles into "who published where" and "how this poem looks different from that poem," Brogan rarely

    justifies her selections. She has compiled an inter-

    esting anthology, and one that might provide fu- ture scholars with significant source material, but her critical histrionics fail to jibe with the poems presented, leaving us with two disconnected halves of one book.

    In her prefatory remarks, Brogan offers a def- inition of Cubism in the visual arts:

    Somewhat oversimplified, cubism in the visual arts rapidly changed from an aesthetic designed to reintroduce form, largely as a reaction against the ephemeral quality of Impressionism, to an aesthetic which quite ironically but consistently fractured form. This "fracturing" not only in-

    cludes the actual forms of objects and the intro-

    duction of multiple perspectives, but extends to

    the fracturing of the boundary between visual

    and verbal representation, primarily through the

    use of collage (pp. 5-6).

    These two sentences provide the extent of

    Brogan's art historical analysis, and there are no

    illustrations. Moreover, in this rather general and

    literary approach to fine art-in her assumption that ultimate "fracturing" blurs the visual and the

    verbal-Brogan reveals an awkward meth-

    odological slant. Her bias is clear:

    While it may be purely an accident that Picasso

    would develop cubist techniques in painting

    WINTER 1992

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  • (techniques which were rather quickly recognized as corresponding to the fragmented, postwar mentality) before the Great War began, it is his-

    torically and even politically no accident that cubism in literature largely falls between the Great War (appropriately renamed, in a kind of cubist twisting of perspective, with a number) and World War II (p. x).

    Brogan's concept of Picasso's "accident" appears crude to me, as though she believes literary history to be the only important history. Equally trouble- some is this "kind of cubist twisting of perspec- tive," an astonishing notion. Brogan seems to consider all paradox to be Cubist; indeed, she states that Ezra Pound is "an especially difficult

    figure to categorize (a fact which is, itself, amen- able to the spirit of cubist multiplicity)" (p. 114), and that Derrida "may now be our most prolific cubist writer" (p. 283), two statements that are left completely unexplored. Such offhand opin- ions serve to deflate her more reasonable ideas.

    What then is Cubism as a literary phenome- non? According to Brogan, it includes both poetry and prose: among the works cited as Cubist are

    T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," William Faulkner's

    Absalom, Absalom!, James Joyce's Ulysses, and Ezra Pound's Cantos. For her purposes in this

    study, Brogan offers an extensive definition of the Cubist poem:

    Yet while it is impossible to delineate specific characteristics that identify every cubist poem, it is possible to say that as it ranges between ana-

    lytic and synthetic interpretation, cubist poetry is

    likely to be marked by concern with visual form ... by a distortion of normal stanza, line, and word boundaries; by a thematic concern with its own modernism and an intense preoccupation with perception; by narrative and temporal dis-

    junctions that, in a collage-like fashion, employ multiple voices, sections, and textual fragments; and finally by a heightened sense of textuality itself (p. 6).

    Aside from its interest in visual play, a characteris- tic that Wallace Stevens would later call "typo- graphical queerness," (p. 250), this definition also seems so broad as to be meaningless. Does

    Oedipus Rex make the grade, considering how its

    choral passages act as "narrative and temporal

    disjunctions"? And what about Elizabethan

    drama and its development of the dramatic aside, as a "heightened sense of textuality itself"? How

    about the fragmentation of some of William

    Blake's lyrics? Or the collage that is Tristram

    Shandy? It would appear that almost any innova-

    tive literary work might meet Brogan's criteria.

    Furthermore, her application of visual art princi- ples to literature-that the introduction of multi-

    ple perspectives and the fracturing of the pictorial plane in painting may be seen as analogous to the use of multiple voices and the fragmentation of

    syntax in writing-strikes me as absurd, for multi-

    ple voices and fragmented syntax have been used

    by writers since poems were first sung around the

    campfire. Finally, Brogan lets herself get caught up in the visual hijinks of various bad poets, which results in the classification as Cubist of anyone who explores "white space" or uppercase letter-

    ing within a stanza. In terms of aesthetics, Brogan seems im-

    paired by a reluctance to read a poem closely or to

    judge its relative worth, which reveals yet another of her extraordinary implicit axioms-mainly, that as of 1913 the traditional stanzaic poem can be seen as "old-fashioned" (p. 16) and that deviation in a poem's appearance on the page may be con- sidered avant-garde, an "interaction between verbal and visual texts" (p. 24) that is essentially Cubist. Consequently, as visual form comes to dominate the discussion, a poet such as Robert Frost remains unmentioned despite his formal

    accomplishments-omitted on the grounds, we

    assume, that his poems look too traditional. (This

    perspective seems awfully limited, for poetry is not painting, regardless of the need to be read, and thus perceived visually) Moreover, lacking careful biographical study-for example, the dis-

    covery of new evidence regarding Eliot's corre-

    spondence, or of Yvor Winters's trip to a gallery on the day he wrote "Snow-Ghost"-Brogan's argu- ment is reduced to circumstance.

    Nonetheless, quite a few of the poems in- cluded are excellent reading. Where Brogan does a good turn, happily, is in her selection of Mina

    Loy, an innovative if not great writer whose "Three Moments in Paris" and "Virgins Plus Curtains Mi- nus Dots" prove to be worth rediscovery. There are also interesting moments of historical drama

    here, in which aesthetics collide quite dramatically as Wyndham Lewis and Gertrude Stein and e.e.

    cummings and Wallace Stevens share a very crowded stage. To be sure, the anthology could have done without Daphne Carr's "While sooty Jews sell second-hand furniture . . ." (p. 56), an

    offensive line from a bad poem, and Alfred

    Kreymborg's banal "Her hair/is a tent/held down

    by two pegs-/ears, very likely-" (p. 86), but

    both of these writers are part of Brogan's "chang-

    ing poetics of the time" (p. 7) and thus...


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