Sunday, March 30, 2008

Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937

Went to this yummy exhibition on Wednesday, in the bowels of the architecturally confused British Library (I thought it looked like a brick kiln; my friend KH thinks the forecourt looks like Tiananmen Square; but the totalitarian tropes apart, it's a good people-spotting venue). The exhibition is a fascinating introduction to the major 'isms' of the Avant Garde - Dadaism (which I first discovered through Poile Sengupta's unfathomable Collages - but Dadaism just is like that), Futurism, Constructivism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism. Walking through this exhibition, it's hard to believe that some of this stuff is almost a hundred years old. The idioms are still with us, and we seem to aspire to many of the same horizons - the rejection of tradition, the interest in abstraction, the impulse to render strange, the tendency to distort reality for emotional impact. Other elements appear extremely dated in a postmodern age: e.g. the more totalising manifestos seeking an aesthetic that embraced all aspects of life including literature, music, art, food and sex (one incredibly suggestive photograph features two cooks presenting some rather phallic and breast-like creations). KH was reminded of St. Catz in Oxford, where the designer Arne Jacobsen designed virtually everything, down to forks for left-handed diners; I could just be making this up, but I think there are regulations about the sorts of curtains you can hang in your room, as heterogeneity on this score is thought to vitiate the appearance of the glass-fronted main building. Talk about totalising.

The emphasis in the exhibition was on the printed face of the avant garde, so we saw lots of pamphlets, posters, books, magazines, manifestos, artist's books and photo books - although there was also film and sound poetry. Much of the exhibition was organised by city, with a concerted attempt to enlarge the avant garde canon beyond Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna to include lesser known centres such as London (featuring, prominently, Wyndham Lewis). Paris did of course occupy pride of place - a huge display right in the middle of the room exhibiting, among other things, a shiver-down-spine-inducing manuscript of Finnegan's Wake, a first edition of Hemmingway's something-I-can't-remember [In Another Country?], something else by Gertrude Stein with a big board telling us about her who's who literary salon [mental note to read Two Lives, recently gifted to me by dear S]. Other memorable exhibits included a cubist map of the world distorting the continents in line with Cubism's preoccupations. Remember that Reagan-era map with its gigantic Cuba and Nicaragua? This one virtually eliminated Britain and North America (except for Alaska and Labrador) and blew up the Easter Islands, reflecting the cubists' interest in native [I suppose the word today would be 'indigenous'] art. The map also shows only two cities in the world, one of which is Paris [damn I can't remember the other, so dazzled was I by the islands].

I missed politics. It was always there, hovering below the surface of everything, but it wasn't easy to discern the specific political allegiances of different exponents of the avant garde from the exhibits on display and the information provided about them. As suggested above, some seemed totalising in their intent (and totalitarian in their effect), others suggested anarchist sympathies, and a not inconsiderable number were fascist. The versatility of the politics of the avant garde is also suggested by the very different sorts of enemies that it made. The Stalinists banned it in the Soviet Union, permitting only socialist realism. The Nazis identified it with Communism and held exhibitions comparing Aryan culture with 'Degenerate' Art and Music before destroying the latter (a pamphlet produced for the music exhibition features an ape-like figure playing a saxophone and appears to posit an equivalent degree of degeneracy between black and Jewish music). Visitors were told all this at the end, but for the most part, you had to read the politics of specific exhibits for yourself. Or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to the writing.

PS - the fascinating thing about brick kilns is that they are made of the very things that they make. As are libraries.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

stream of consciousness discoveries

Sarkozy's visit to the UK monopolises the front pages of all newspapers today (the tabloid version of today's Independent screams 'Iraq implodes as Shia fight Shia', but offers us a view of Carla Bruni's legs as its cover photograph; shame on them). Anyway, in an idle moment of listening to the French national anthem, marvelling at its grandeur, and wondering what other national anthems were as 'grand', I looked up the Soviet national anthem at the suggestion of verbalprivilege. And went into a state of shock. Because I was essentially listening to Pet Shop Boys' Go West. As a kid who (uncharacteristically) knew all the lyrics to this song, I had no sense of its complexity and multilayeredness. And watching the video now again after all these years, I'm not sure whether it is a case of straightforward Cold War propaganda as the words suggest (Go West, life is peaceful there, etc.), with the deeply ironic twist of being sung to basically the same tune as the Soviet national anthem. Or whether it is positing some sort of dialectical resolution of the contradiction between capitalism and communism, with all that Soviet iconography (red stars and gymnasts marching in formation) in New York, with the irony being turned in equal measure against the US: in this America, the Statue of Liberty is black, for crying out loud (which she does). And maybe, because the band is gay, Go West (like 'Go west, young man') is an exhoration to gay men to leave the rest of the US and go to California, bastion of gay liberation. The Wikipedia entry, which I swear I didn't read till this point in the blog post, suggests an additional layer: the spectre of AIDS hanging over the song, with the teams of gymnasts ascending the stairs towards their queer utopia signifying the huge numbers of young men dying of AIDS. I have been sleepwalking through life.

Third sex officially recognised in Tamil Nadu.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

on being south indian (or, on having a massive chip on my very worn shoulder)

I'm getting a little fed up of books by eminent Indian social scientists that invariably turn to Bengal for their empirical meat. After 4 and something years in graduate school, I have this vision of a Bengal teeming with social scientists discussing Marx, Dostoyevsky, or genealogies of modernity at coffee shops or second hand book stores on streets named after writers, while all around them bhadralok and bhadramahila scurry to and fro on their bourgeois itineraries, with idle subalterns watching stealthily from between cracks in buildings. None of this has been vindicated by trips to Kolkata, although that's probably my fault (Calcutta is always on the way to somewhere else - Sikkim, Bhutan, etc.) As far as books go, Dipesh Chakrabarty's excellent Provincializing Europe is no exception ('The second part of the book concentrates on the history of educated Bengalis', p. 19). Ch. 7 ('Adda: A History of Sociality') is a must read for anyone interested in the geography of Calcutta's intellectual life. As the title promises, it is a delightful exposition of 'adda', essentially a space for long, informal and unrigorous conversation, a central institution of Bengali life. Not being Bengali, or a resident of Bengal, I am consumed with envy at his description of this vibrant intellectual practice, till he poses the question of when coffeehouses began to act as major sites for literary addas. This is pleasing as far as the competitive stakes between cities are concerned, because it is one area in which Bangalore is not lacking - even if many joints that claim the status of coffeehouses are terrifically anodyne. Here is Chakrabarty on the appearance of coffeehouses in Calcutta:

The big coffeehouses were started by the Indian Coffee Expansion Board as a way of marketing coffee to a city that belonged - and still does - predominantly to tea drinkers. However, the practice of drinking coffee...was introduced into the Bengali culture of Calcutta in the 1930s by the immigrant southerners (the Bengali word dakshini refers to people from the south - Tamilnad, Kerala, Andhra, and so on) in the city who set up small eating places around Ballygunge about this time (p. 202).

Us southerners - we usually get one word, even though we speak such different languages. Languages that are as distinct from each other as Bengali is from Marathi. And yet we are 'Madrasis' to the Mumbaikars, 'Dravida' in the national anthem (written by a famous Bengali) and 'dakshini' to the Bengalis. And even when this Bengali takes the trouble to disaggregate us into our constituent communities - Tamilnad, Kerala, Andhra - it is left to that weighty 'and so on' to contain within it, unmentioned, subsumed, forgotten , THE BIGGEST GODDAMN COFFEE GROWING STATE IN THE COUNTRY.

As I hope readers will recognise, this isn't really a serious criticism of Chakrabarty. I think the book overflows with fascinating insights. But it only reinforces my impression of the very skewed, Bengal-heavy nature of Indian historiography, which has tended to leave the rest of the subcontinent understudied, undertheorised. That 'modernity' appears later elsewhere shouldn't really be an excuse. Chakrabarty is too careful and sophisticated a writer to suggest that his observations about Bengal are applicable anywhere else, but reflecting on what I know of the field as a whole, I cannot help thinking that Indian historiography might benefit from a work entitled Provincializing Bengal.

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