Room to Move? Aesthetics and Criticism

What remains of the capacity for critical aesthetic judgment? What is aesthetic logic anyway?  I am currently wrestling with Rainer Rochlitz’s Subversion and Subsidy: Contemporary Art and Aesthetics. Any other ‘perplexed’ artists and writers should probably do the same. Although it is not easy going, it situates certain contemporary perplexities surrounding relationship between art, criticism and institutions in an art-historical context – and if you were not perplexed before then you will be.

It was first published in French in 1994 but received publication in English in 2008 by Seagull Books.

“… modernity isn’t a fashion that can be jettisoned by changing style or giving up certain dogmatic rigors. The collapse of certainty being as liable to induce intoxication as its advent, the deflation of today—still marked, in the negative, by the absolutes that have departed—already sometimes takes itself for a new certainty…”

“Contemporary art has been reclaimed for the national heritage… the difficulty is to understand why government and private investors support a culture that by definition can come to no peace with its patrons nor with the public in general— a situation that has disoriented criticism and undermined the status of art in the eyes of the public.”

“This tolerant attitude has no answer to the more difficult questions raised by works that are without any of the characteristics that have traditionally identified works of art.”


Hide and Seek: Perceiving Being and Being Perceived in Beckett’s ‘Film’


I write to you on the advice of Mr Jack Isascs,
of London, to ask to be considered for admission
to the Moscow State School of Cinematography.

Born 1906 in Dublin and “educated” there.
1928-30 lecteur d’anglais at Ecole Normale, Paris.
Worked with Joyce, collaborated in French trans
-lation of part of his “Work in Progress” (NRF, May
1931) and in critical symposium concerning same
(Our Examination, etc.) Published “Proust” (essay,
Chatto & Windus, London, 1931), “More Pricks
Than Kicks” (short stories, do., 1934), “Echo’s Bones”
(poems, Europa Press, Paris, 1935).

I have no experience of studio work and it is
naturally in the scenario and editing end of the
subject that I am most interested. It is because I
realise that the script is a function of its means of
realization that I am anxious to make contact
with your mastery of these, and beg you to consider
me a serious cinéaste worthy of admission to your
school. I could stay a year at least.

Vuilliez agréer mes meilleurs hommages.

Samuel Beckett

This is the remarkable letter that never reached its recipient—Sergei Eisenstein—which could have otherwise dramatically changed Samuel Beckett’s creative life (It has been published by Seagull Books in The Eisenstein Collection, edited by Richard Taylor). Evidently Beckett’s interest in pursuing a career in cinema was serious, as in this letter he claimed he would dedicate at least a year of his life to learning the craft from Eisenstein. As it turned out, Beckett himself would only ever make one contribution to film: the 1965 short, Film. The fact that the occasion of the film’s making provoked Beckett to make his one and only trip to the United States (it is filmed in New York) in order to have an active role in its production is a testament to his enthusiasm for the medium. In contrast, he neglected to travel for any of his theatre productions, even the ones made by his favourite director, Alan Schneider, who Beckett requested direct this film.

Eisenstein himself had famously remarked upon the influence of 19th Century literature on early cinema: in terms of technique, theme and narrative. Later, it could be interesting to argue whether this trend was reversed and modern fiction took formal influence from the maturing medium of film. Effects such as montage, the fragmenting and re-threading of varied viewpoints and narratives, came to be common devices that would lead both literature and film into an ongoing mutual exchange of ideas. When asked about his treatment of literary texts in his own films (in an interview for Indian State TV that has been long since lost) Satyajit Ray commented on his use of film not merely as an adaptation or translation of a text, but as a critique. This quite excitingly suggests the possibility of a dialogue between images and text, as two distinct voices with corresponding ideas, rather than merely a conflated exchange.

Beckett’s penchant for philosophy is clear in his literary works, which reflect upon certain epistemological concerns portrayed through his characters’ often playful, occasionally oblique, antics. In Film he formulates similar intellectual observations visually. The fact that it is silent (except for the instructive ‘Shhh,’ at the beginning) emphasizes vision as the film’s subject and form. Departing from the words of the 18th Century Irish philosopher, Berkeley, ‘Esse est percipi‘ (‘to be is to be perceived’), Becket here uses film to address certain problems of perception—mainly how it is unavoidable—for no matter how hard you might escape the perception of others, you can never fully escape your own mind’s eye.

There is a tragicomic element to this state of affairs that is not lost on the film’s screenwriter, or on its protagonist, ‘O’, played by the silent cinema phenomenon Buster Keaton. Seen here in his later years, Keaton proves still to be an upholder of the absurd, although the humour, where it is present (Simon Critchley has questioned whether the film is indeed funny at all) is less delightful (compared to The General for example) and more off-beat; unnerving even (an altercation with a puppy and a kitten in a sparse and shabby room is perhaps the exception to this).

The other key protagonist in Film is ‘E’, played by the camera itself. The camera is the ‘Eye’ with which we, the viewers, pursue ‘O’, the ‘Object.’ Along the way, we encounter passers by who are also disturbed by the camera’s gaze. O goes to great pains to avoid all exterior perceptions of himself, from animate and inanimate sources, that close in around him, literally walling him in. A segment of the film that features O sifting through an envelope filled with photographs provides a momentary but poignant divergence, as he tenderly handles a selection of images from his past, featuring significant moments and relations, before promptly tearing them to pieces and stamping out the remains. It seems there are some reflections that are harder to part with than others; not only is perception subjective and discriminative but our rejection of it is too.

Throughout the film both E and O, the invisible perceiver and the elusive perceived, seem engaged in a mutual dance, spinning and gliding about as if in tandem. It is not until O lets down his guard by falling asleep that E gets to play the advantage. Here we are confronted with the irony that the perceiver O has been trying to evade throughout is actually himself. Furthermore, O only has one eye (depth perception is said to be reduced with one eye). The film begins and ends with the image of a blind, blinking eye, confirming that the Eye alone is impotent without an object, just as the object is incomplete if it is not being perceived.