If they’re to continue bearing our consciousness through the restlessly changing universe, the forms of our knowledge will also have to change. The men of this image, for example, are enclosed in a form shaped for the knowledge of earth and water. Soon, but not yet, it will be reshaped for the knowledge of air.
But not yet because the men don’t yet have a new name for their old form. They are still bound to earth and water by the old name, and they haven’t realized yet that the form’s impending ascent into air has left the name’s primary referent behind and reduced what is left to metaphor.
The name is Gondola. On earth, Gondola signifies transit through narrow waterways in a city delimited by history and language. But when this gondola ascends through limit-disdaining air, the men it bears within will learn that it needs a new name. With that revelation, the renamed form will be changed. It will no longer be made of boat-wood and boat-rope and sailcloth, and so it will no longer have to be thought of as boat-shaped. The men in the image can’t yet speak the new form’s new name. They are still under tuition in the Venetian dialect of the old form, a dialect that includes the term gondola. But between the student Venetians and us an educational caption at the image’s front plane promises that the new name will, in time, be taught. If the men there on the other side of the caption won’t have time to learn it, at least we on our side have already been taught that it will be learned.
For now, too, the caption teaches us something we can say in our own language about the language of the men in their gondola. It has to do with the limited time available for them to learn in, it’s in history’s own aesthetic form, and in that form it repeats once more history’s own unchangingly fascinating witticism: Little do they know.
Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Ausbildung von Zeppelin-Mannschaften an dem Schulschiff Hansa.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-024d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped. The caption translates as, “Training of zeppelin crews on the school ship Hansa.” Hansa’s period of service as a trainer (Wikipedia, “LZ 13 Hansa”) dates this photograph between early 1915 and August 1916.
With many thanks to the New York Public Library for its newly released collection of restriction-free digital images.
The book is a ten-page pamphlet by the chief prosecutor of the conspirators in the murder of Abraham Lincoln. The prosecutor, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, had attempted to prove that President Davis of the Confederacy was aware of the conspiracy, and Davis’s sympathizers responded by attacking him in print. In print, he replied:
Printed in 1866, the paper has gone brown with age. The florid rhetoric looks old as well. Since at least the era of Hemingway, our taste in prose about moral conflict has trended monochrome.
But there were also monochrome effects in 1866. Before, during, and after the black-and-white absolutes of the Civil War, Washington was a Southern town where white was what gentlemen wore in the summer. In the presence of white, both time and the conflict seemed to halt at the wardrobe door. Fashion sometimes looks like a parallel morality, and as of the second half of the nineteenth century one of its commands began, in a body language which seemed to transcend the mortal changeableness of the body: “Thou shalt wear . . .”
Experiment with the command yourself. Think of this photograph of Judge Holt by Mathew Brady’s studio as a frontispiece to the pamphlet. Then ask: after I’ve seen this image of an author’s body in absolute white, will I have any desire to turn the page and read his words’ transient brown? Won’t I lose as much as I gain when I leave the white behind, back there at the innocent beginning where faces are fortunes, books are judged by their covers, and to appear seems to be?
shows a first look inside one of the palaces of President Yanukovych of Ukraine. There are no subtitles for the Ukrainian voiceover, but you will recognize the word Голлівуд.
“But,” inquired John curiously, “who did plan all your wonderful reception rooms and halls, and approaches and bathrooms — ?”
“Well,” answered Percy, “I blush to tell you, but it was a moving-picture fella. He was the only man we found who was used to playing with an unlimited amount of money, though he did tuck his napkin in his collar and couldn’t read or write.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”
New York, February 25, 1916: arriving from Chicago a month before he is to perform, the boxer Jess Willard poses at the door of his railroad car. A photographer is waiting for him there, his hod loaded with a charge of flash powder.
Six feet six and a half, Willard is known as “The Pottawotamie Giant.” Having defeated Jack Johnson for the heavyweight title and then declared that he would never again box with a black man, he is also known as “The Great White Hope.” Now, as the powder explodes and fills the underground terminal with whiteness, he smiles. All around him smile other men. Their clothes are less beautiful than his and their bodies are smaller. In this image, the small men are seen to live not for themselves but for the large man. In exchange for themselves, he will offer up his performance for them.
But who are these coming to the sacrifice? Among others, the trainman at the right of the image. When the photographer’s little heap of powdered magnesium was released by a natural force into white light, it crushed the trainman’s form into two flat dimensions, delineated on or off, glare or darkness. The face has been reduced to an artifact of the flash process. In the glare, its grin is nothing but the trace in the darkness of a tremulous reflex: a retraction of the lips from the teeth, exposing them to reflect more light back to the champion man. As The New York Times will explain the next day, the champion’s life evokes that smiling terror because it is all smile itself: a biology of happy force, the fist striking through its surrounding light direct and unswerving.
About two days before Willard’s train rolled into its tunnel under New York and came to a stop, the Broadway star Yvonne Gouraud was walking through the avenues. A photographer saw the beautifully dressed woman there and took a picture. At that moment, a man behind the woman saw the photographer and smiled.
That smile too was a reflex. Alerting the man as it began at his eyes, the image caused him to respond with his mouth, his suddenly reaching arm, his whole eager body. On a late winter day in 1916, a man in the act of seeing was made happy by the click and glitter that answered a woman’s beauty with the countering beauty of a promised immortality.
The two wistful images below depict an uneasy dream staged during the long naptime between the death of Victoria and the beginning of the Great War. That was the era of G. K. Chesterton, when language sweated grease under starched linen as it sleepily tried to say what it had to say; then tried again; then tried again.
All that the Philharmonic Society of Buffalo wanted to say during three spring evenings in 1912, for example, was one simple, poignant thing: “Beauty deserves to be noticed, even if we are in Buffalo.” But what prolonged the poignancy through seven agonizing paragraphs wasn’t its multiplying words; it was their echoless surround. In the merchant city of Buffalo, a city that was all transaction with others, the Society’s prose was admitting to itself that it could speak only to itself. Knowing (the Society’s own Buffalo ledgers confirmed the truth) that its words were being ignored, it comforted itself with a little song whose words went, “I am beautiful, nevertheless.” It repeated the song, tema e variazioni, but still heard no reply. Then, by way of at least salvaging a memory from the hurt, it wrote out the song’s verses in a pretty typeface and gave them a poem’s pretty title: “Proem.” At exactly the same historical moment, Lewis Wickes Hine was capturing his images of child laborers, some of them the scions of parents who had loved them and given them wishful aristocratic names. The images forecast no future except misery and premature death, and the Buffalo printer had trouble with the name “Philharmonic.”
But a century after that sad last paragraph, the Buffalo Philharmonic is alive and prospering. In 1912 the authors of “Proem” did not labor in vain. The memorial to their achievement is now an archivalonline tombeau that also holds the program of (for instance) a piano recital performed on April 17, 1928, by the undying Maurice Ravel, assisted by the soprano Greta Torpadie. During that era, too, Greta Torpadie not only sang beauty into a passing Buffalo night per “Proem” (“Music . . in the very act of being is gone”). No; in herself, as herself, probably while located somewhere other than Buffalo, she enacted a silent beauty within the universal memory of not-Buffalo. There in the not-Buffalo, at the instant she took a ceramic cat into her hand and instructed a photographer to commence recording, she established the shape called Cat in a form capable of communicating in human terms. Touching the cat under the camera’s transforming gaze, the soprano made it desirable. Desire then diffused throughout the camera’s work product, making its image of the piano and the pictures on the walls and the woman’s flowered tunic and smooth dark hair and profound eyes into the working, intercommunicating organs of a single living thing. Like “Proem,” that living thing came into being under the aspect of a generic name. The name of the unified life in the photograph was Collectible (noun).
In Buffalo after Buffalo, Collectible originates by acquisition and inheritance of a single genetic trait: “a certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough.” But uttering the spacious pronoun “enough” frees us to reutter “Collectible” in a simpler, grander way. “Enough” connotes the unlimited, connotes inexhaustible happy surprise, connotes treasure. The nouns “collectible” and “treasure” then combine into something like the emotion we feel when we experience certain faces. We call that emotion Beauty. Its origin is the idea of treasure: something desired without yet being namable, then acquired, and only then experienced as a growing, changing life in memory and as memory.
Reconsidered that way as a memory treasure, beauty becomes a Pharaonic inheritance of Cayman Island safe deposit boxes stuffed with mummified cats and remembered in wills. Soprano memento, beauty expresses itself as a culture’s collective will. Finally, says the document to us readers of its words, I, beauty, am so all-comprehending that I’m simple. All I’m for, all I am, is committed desire and the promise of return. The term of my bequest is this: the instant you vest me in the documented form of dark eyes and a score on the Steinway, I’ll burst into song, forever.
But the Japanese Tumblogger who reposted it had another name in mind. “HIGE,” she wrote in capital letters — a word that means “WHISKER.” Rewhiskered, my cat’s image was then instantly reblogged by dozens of other Japanese sites. Every one of them was kawaii: a Japanese word that translates as “cute,” but with a richer connotation than the English word. Kawaii is the uniformly thick coloring-book line that metes and bounds Hello Kitty, and the big hair and big eyes of manga and anime, and the infantine nightmare figures of Takashi Murakami, and the dress-up ritual (Yukio Mishima converses with Philip Larkin about spanking the maid) that is known by a pseudo-English name, “cosplay.” Reblogged, my cat now (as of April 6, 2013) cosplays with playmates in Tumblrspace, here.
Elsewhere on the same site, more costumes are worn and more smiles are smiled.
Unlike the girl in white with white confection and white teeth, these images are obviously old. Their reblogger certifies them as such with a pair of antique dates: December 17 and 19, 1937. But they too are kawaii. In a cute world, they are cute. How cute they are, after all, these smiling soldiers hugging smiling little kids. A newspaper, Mainichi Shimbun, immortalized the smiles, and now their dentition will last forever, reblogged aere perennius.
On December 18, 1937, a different newspaper, The New York Times, mentioned those same smiles in words equally black and white but perhaps less immortalizing because merely words. An image of the headline under which the words spoke looks merely like this
Except for the neutral shapes of the letters themselves, there is nothing to see here. However, a few more inches down the column a game of cosplay begins. Playfully swinging from newspaper to newspaper, the New York Times grabs Mainichi Shimbun’s imperial photographs out of their Tumblframe, spins them around, and boots them all the way back to 1937. There, mugging and juggling, it mimes an explanatory 1937 caption to the 2013 pictures of cute soldiers cavorting with my cute cat.
Still aglow from their proximity to the sweatless volleyball girl with her perfect teeth, the words “greatly enjoyed the spectacle” bask briefly in the disciplined beauty of art. Just as the girl underwent orthodontia, the New York Times journalist served an apprenticeship to journalistic convention. But in the nature of poor brief mortality, his kind of communication from whatever form history might once have had before it was reblogged can’t last much longer. Now, in the final years of their pre-Tumblr existence, some unpictured pages from the history of China come before us in antique fonts and antique verbal conventions to plead:
Find a Chinese, Filipino, or Korean who is old enough to remember the Japanese occupation. Say to that person, “We Americans feel guilty about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Listen conscientiously then to what you will be told in reply.
But no, of course you won’t believe it. A line like “You should have your head examined” isn’t cute enough to enter into the Tumbldeathlessness of art. It doesn’t have pictures.
[Genshiro] Kawamoto, 81, was arrested Tuesday [March 5, 2013] in Tokyo for suspected tax evasion
. . .
In the late 1980s at the peak of Japan’s economic bubble, Kawamoto invested in Hawaii’s housing market, spending what he described as “pocket money” to buy nearly 200 homes around Oahu for at least $85 million.
. . .
[He] returned about a decade ago and began selling most of his homes that he had rented out with little upkeep over the preceding 15 years. Then he began buying up million-dollar estates on Kahala Avenue [a very wealthy neighborhood], spending close to $165 million for almost 30 homes over the last decade.
. . .
Kawamoto crudely broke down walls, leaving rubble lying about. He also filled in swimming pools, he said for liability reasons, and often let vegetation grow wild. Some of his homes fell into disrepair and racked up city fines. Several homes were demolished, some have been vandalized and some were sold.
On four properties he has arranged dozens of statues, including life-size lions, nudes and towering pagodas.
Caroline Bombar-Kaplan, a visitor from Washington state, couldn’t help stopping on the side of the road to take a closer look Tuesday. “I personally think it’s quite hideous,” she said. “It looks like they went to Costco and bought several six-packs of statues and then threw them all over.”
— Andrew Gomes, “Kawamoto is accused of tax evasion.” Honolulu Star-Advertiser 6 March 2013: B5-B6. Print.
The story you have just read has a genre name: catalogue raisonné. It is history’s overview of a work of performance art acted out across three decades. The artwork’s white marbles of tits & ass & lions have been erected on the red soil and porous black rock of Hawaii only to call attention by contrast to the artist’s invisible force of taste. Think of Charles Willson Peale converting a piece of wood into an imperishable extension into the mortal world of the undecaying idea of perspective.
The ground on which Peale shaped his idea was a canvas, but the ground on which the greater artist Genshiro Kawamoto shaped his idea was ground itself. Plowed by the force of the idea, a soil where rich people live brought forth a museum-quality work of arte povera. The cultivation which prepared the ground for that crop wasn’t a mere matter of bulldozer work, either. Kawamoto’s earthwork doesn’t merely move a form into another milieu, in the way that Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” transported a wharf for Charon onto the shore of a desert lake. No; having been built, Kawamoto’s earthwork established domain. In its domain, as domain, it can’t be owned, because it is nothing but a work of ownership. Its creator compounded the aesthetic interest accruing to white rock, the solvent smell of ever-freshening graffiti, and the invisible electronic atmosphere of money into a new thing: an art whose purpose is not to be bought and sold but to be buying and selling, per se. It is all legacy now: an estate that can never again be anything but real.
And now, somewhere between its prepared ground in Hawaii and a courtroom in Japan, the transaction that brought it forth seems to have been completed. Long days of emptiness must follow; long years of poverty among the money. But every artist comes in time to know that. It is the last spear thrust with the brush that will enable Genshiro Kawamoto too to say at last, “It is finished.”
Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was — her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
So goodbye, Mr. Kawamoto, and thanks. If I can get away with it, I’ll send you some kamaboko with a file baked inside.