Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Power of Picasso’s Sculpture

The current show of Picasso’s sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art provides, as all who have commented have noted, a rare opportunity to have a fresh look at the work of the artist who dominated so much of the twentieth century. A considerable number of the works are being shown for the first time in this country, many on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The artist was not trained in sculpture, and he kept many of his three-dimensional works in his own possession – they are often prominent in photographs of his studio. Though never for long a central focus of his work, he regularly returned to work in bronze, pottery, and plaster, often using found objects throughout his lengthy career, and viewing this extraordinary collection of objects does not so much as inspire new insights as remind the critic of why Picasso’s oeuvre is so much more powerful than much art since. The great innovator exemplifies the most classic values: emotional strength, vitality, traditional formal aesthetics, and a sort of soaring and unpredictable spirit that might emerge in one moment as wit and in another as insight. Even while participating in Cubism, primitivism, Surrealism, and socially conscious art, Picasso reminds us with the deft dodges and relentless dashes of his unique sensibility. His work could be invigorated by a manifesto yet it would never be contained within the confines of any theoretical program. In our own belatedness, even measured against a hundred years ago, I fear that nothing retains the power to arrest the viewer in the same way. Even were such impact possible today, few artists could make the kind of commanding use of space as one sees Picasso doing here in brand new ways in every room of the exhibit.

As abstraction arose in Dada and came to dominance in New York following World War II, Picasso explored its possibilities but always retained links to figuration. No admirer of Arp’s voluptuously biomorphic forms or Brancusi’s elegant imaginative leaps can doubt the potential for emotional power in altogether abstract work (familiar as well to listeners to Beethoven quartets), but for Picasso ever since his Cubist portraits, the tension between the artist’s view of a real-world object and the viewer’s is a significant element in the work . Drawing a pencil line on a brown paper bag, piling sand in the middle of a room, or sitting opposite a stranger in a gallery (no matter how prestigious the space) do not demand any investment of artistic intention nor can they offer significant aesthetic pleasure.

One hundred and forty works, nearly one fifth of Picasso’s sculptures, are on display in New York. Every viewer will have passionate favorites. Convinced that the value of each work of art is not inherent and automatic but rather is constituted in the consumer’s encounter with it, the most precise data on this show is perhaps contained in my reactions to individual pieces.
Guitar (1914) is a Cubist painting but burst into three dimensions, its refraction of representation combatted by its utter poise in placement, its serene symmetry reminiscent of great paintings such as the 1932 painting Girl Before a Mirror or even, for all its dynamic tension, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907. The use of a musical instrument as subject is emblematic of the artist’s life in Montmartre, suggesting art, beauty, leisure, cafes, and dance. Rendered in sheet metal and wire, as much assemblage as sculpture, its position hanging on the wall makes it seem partly a canvas while its shadows in the clear gallery lighting insist on its volume, thrust, and harmonic balance. The artist has established a firm beachhead on the margins of genre itself.

The painted bronze absinthe glasses of 1914 (with ready-made tin spoons), on the other hand, are a tour de force of anti-art, constructed in defiance of tidy art school design prettiness. The “glass” itself with its Cubist multiplication of surfaces has become clunky and crude, quite unlike those made of glass. They are painted with simple designs that might have come from the most archaic pottery. Yet their impression as one views each of the six in turn accumulates to mutate becoming complex, playful, and dynamic. The viewer recalls the same object surrounded by other artifacts of cafe life in the 1911 painting Glass of Absinthe.

Woman in the Garden( 1929-30), one of the rejected designs the artist submitted for Apollinaire’s gravesite, is likewise elegant and lyrical. The inherently weighty iron looks as though it is blowing in the wind and might take off at any moment. Open space is an element at least as important as metal here, and many of the iron portions are so thin as to approach the character of lines. Picasso again displays wit and discernment in his use of found objects and includes rounded forms in the shape of philodendron leaves to soften the otherwise prickly texture of a piece that, in its total impact, is suggestive of the poet’s energetic imagination or of a soul in flight.

The Bull (1958) is breathtaking: at once monumental in the husky torso and large head yet lyrical as any line drawing in the curves of leg and horn. And in the middle of the elegance every bit as demanding as a Matisse design, a pair of witty complications compete for attention: the infantile three dots for a face gazing at the viewer from archaic times and childhood and a tree branch, seemingly casual but in fact the axis of the composition. Here one sees art brut and objets trouvés as no mere theoretical assertions but as tools in the artist’s inventory of possibilities, intentionally employed to produce a calculated effect that maximizes allusive associations ranging from Neolithic bullheads through the Minotaur to Catalan bullfighting and the rich possibilities offered by parallels in the artist’s earlier and later work, including other pieces in the same exhibit: the bull’s head made of a bicycle handlebars and seat and a ceramic bull seemingly from the dawn of time with beautifully swelling forms and topped with schematic designs.

I appreciate the Head of a Warrior (1933) with its look of goofy eternal outrage, its tennis balls for eyes and off-kilter Trojan helmet, but the plaster heads of Marie-Thérèse seem to me less eloquent. The deformation in the 1931-2 Head of a Woman plasters strike me as evasive or perhaps just wandering. In my eyes the one The Museum of Modern Art owns is the best of the lot, its evocation of antiquity freshened and flavored by Cubism and Surrealism. On the whole, though, I prefer the classically balanced painting of the same model from 1932-4 (and the canvases featuring her from later in the decade). (I may have simply overdosed at the four “Heads,” a “Bust,” and a dozen other representations of the woman in one room together, reminding me that a single visit to a show so grand may be misleading.)

The show offers many other pleasures and revelations. A collection of casually collected and painted pebbles and pottery shards situates the viewer at the beginning and end of time, recalling the pleasure and mystic significance with which children can endow any objects through artistic manipulation. In a sly reference to the paintings by Renoir, Seurat, Cézanne, Gaugin and others, generally so pretty, Picasso’s The Bathers (1956) is instead an installation of lumber yard scraps looking sufficiently outsider to put me in mind of the temporary pieces people used to erect on the Oakland approach to the Bay Bridge. Even familiar works take on new significance in this rich context. The museum’s own 1950 She-Goat (which I have been at pains to call on every time I visit) is a veritable fertility deity with its swollen body (formed on a wicker basket) and udders (two ceramic jugs).

The reviewers have pulled out all the stops in their praise of the show: “staggering,” “dumbfounding,” “magnificent,” “a work of art in its own right,” and I need add no superlatives. In the broadest sense, Picasso’s Sculpture reminds every viewer what art is about, and every admirer of Picasso what is peculiarly his in twentieth century art. For one viewer at least, it was also a reminder of a time when the avant-garde’s power to shock, to challenge, and to surprise was fructifying and productive of new meaning and unsuspected beauty. Now, as techniques more radical than Picasso’s have become altogether mainstream in universities, galleries, and museums, when artists receive foundation grants to execute pieces using the fossilized remnants of avant-garde technique, the aesthetic payoff has become piddling indeed. Picasso in the end reminds us of the potential strength of art in a way that cannot be denied by a viewer with open eyes.


Throughout history people’s social relations have been shaped primarily by power relations. The rich take advantage of the poor and think it only right. [1] The strong and violent victimize their weaker victims. The necessary suffering arising from illness, accident, anxiety, and death has been supplemented by ceaseless exploitation, coercion, and war imposed by people upon themselves. Yet some have always dreamed of a truly just social order and have recorded those fantasies in myths of a golden age and in utopian fiction. A few have consciously sought to construct a better society than the one in which they found themselves. Fictional accounts of a happier existence are sometimes located in remote and undiscovered lands, sometimes projected backward into the beginnings of time or forward into a future yet to arrive. However chimerical the scheme, each utopia presents a critique of the author’s lived reality inspired directly by the particular time and place of its composition, though many across the centuries have also had certain elements in common. One is so universal that it must strike any student of utopias: in Asia as well as Europe, through the centuries, in both myths and semi-practical proposals alike, the residents of utopias are freed from alienated labor either through the magical elimination of work altogether or, in more realistic programs, through the institution of communism.

Once one separates the true utopias from dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 and from satires like Gulliver’s Travels and Erewhon, the fact is evident. [2] A sampling of examples will establish its range. In Hesiod (circa 700 BCE) the fabulous character of the Golden Age is evident in the fact that people had no need to toil at all. They were nonetheless able to feast due to the fact that at that time “the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint.” [3] A decline is then steadily traced in increasing inhumanity beginning in the Silver Age during which they begin “wronging one another” [4] including making war until finally even families break apart. This notion of the earth providing food without labor occurs again and again, as in Hindu accounts of the Krita (or Satya) Yuga, Vergil’s Eclogue IV, a second-hand plots of one of Athenaeus’ loquacious diners, The Faerie Queen, “The Land of Cokaygne,” or “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” [5]

Yet some texts go beyond the Pinocchio-like fantasy of a land of no work and all play. The Confucian Book of Rites describes a similar primordial ideal society and its subsequent devolution. In early times Confucius says crime and malice did not exist. Under the “Great Way” (Datong), “ the world belongs to everyone.” [[6] Here the intersection of the utopian with the practical attracted the attention of modern reformers in search of a workable plan for a peaceful society. [7]

Utopianism sometimes intruded into the world of affairs in a variety of ways. Early Christian teaching clearly counseled communal living. The central passage in Acts could not be more explicit.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to
house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart. (Acts 2: 44-46)

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or
houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according
as he had need. (Acts 4: 34-5)

This practice doubtless accompanied apocalyptic expectations in the earliest days, though the church never lost its preference for communism until the nineteenth century, referring, for instance, to monastic communities which eschewed private property as an ideal of which not all were capable. The church clearly condemned usury (then defined as charging any interest whatsoever), but Aquinas plainly goes further, condemning all commerce as a sinful form of theft, citing the traders Christ expelled from the temple as well as a phalanx of church fathers in support. [7] During the nineteenth century a number of Christian communities with socialized ownership of the means of production arose, such as the Shakers, the Oneida Colony, or the Amana Colonies in Iowa. Some groups survive yet today such as the Bruderhof, the Community Doukhobars, and the Catholic Worker movement.

Doubtless the most fully delineated utopian design of Classical antiquity is Plato’s Republic. In the Republic, though the class system is fundamental, goods are nonetheless held in common to a considerable extent. There is dispute about the degree of common ownership outside the guardian class [8] but the preference is clear. Elsewhere Plato makes social ownership the prime desideratum of a just society.

“Friends have all things really in common.” As to this condition,—whether it anywhere exists now, or ever will exist,—in which there is community of wives, children, and all chattels, and all that is called “private” is everywhere and by every means rooted out of our life, and so far as possible it is contrived that even things naturally “private” have become in a way “communized,” . . .no one will ever lay down another definition that is truer or better than these conditions in point of super-excellence. In such a State,—be it gods or sons of gods that dwell in it,—they dwell pleasantly, living such a life as this. [9]

Though other utopian communist visions of antiquity have been lost – I am thinking of those of Zeno the Stoic, Iambulus, and Euhemerus — the record is clearer as one approaches modern times. More’s Utopia is, of course, wholly communist, and virtually all the utopian novels from the centuries since have eliminated private property: Johann Valentin Andreæ’s Reipublicae Christianopolitanae for instance, in which money does not exist, or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun in which, as in Plato, lovers as well as chattels are held in common.

During the nineteenth century a great many secular experimental programs were proposed by the thinkers whom Marx contemptuously called “utopian,” notably Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. Several hundred communes of greater or lesser duration were established along the lines of one or another of these authors including New Lanark and New Harmony (Owenite), the North American Phalanx and La Reunion (in Dallas) (Fourierist), as well as Brook Farm, the Ruskin Colony, and countless others which blossomed (and often as rapidly vanished) as people tried to build new societies in the New World.

While orthodox Marxism frowned on the utopians, it had its own version of perfectionism not only in the classless withering away of the state foreseen in communism, but at the other end of time, in Engels’ notion of primitive communism in The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State in which he portrays an Edenic origin myth, a Golden Age in the early stages of tribal, what was then called “savage,” human culture. His claim may be myth with the pretense of science, but it is clear that cooperation before the rise of classes (dramatically multiplied with the development of language) provided much of the impetus for the success of our species.

With considerable differences in detail and emphasis visionaries in the last century and a quarter have regularly prescribed communist arrangements: Morris’ News from Nowhere, the Brotherhood of Man in London’s The Iron Heel, Bellamy’s Looking Backward (where socialism is called “nationalism”), H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, even B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two where stability is achieved through operant conditioning.

Clearly these flights of imagination as well as the consistent attempts to form workable intentional communities all recognize that, just as conflicts among other animals may center about females or food, among people property is the central issue that inspires ego rivalry. Accordingly, short of the loss of ego that accompanies enlightenment, one can eliminate most human fights and thus increase efficiency and cooperation and presumably human happiness by ensuring economic democracy. The church fathers were correct in considering the pursuit of wealth to be a debilitating and corrupting temptation arising from greed. In our consumer culture, people, whether inner city hustlers or respectable business executives, are programmed to be addicts, to want always more regardless of need and regardless of the welfare of fellow humans. We assume today, as all cultures have done, that our own assumptions are the true ones, and that cupidity is an inevitable human characteristic. In doing so, we ignore the higher flights of the human imagination where other possibilities are proposed, including the arrangement of human affairs so that we need no longer waste our effort and ingenuity on the ignoble task of chasing the dollar, but instead make room to pause, look about ourselves, and figure ways to enjoy more fully the lives we have and to embrace our fellow creatures. Violence and exploitation may never be wholly erased from the earth, but the direction is clear to take a step in a better direction.

1. The bulk of writings from any age will illustrate this principle. A particularly telling, and not so very ancient, example is the vast body of apologetics for slavery prior to the American Civil War, the greater number of them from a putatively Christian perspective.

2. Among the other works often labeled utopian which do not fit my scheme are Luo Maodeng’s land in the Western Ocean whose primary salient characteristic is peace though details of how this is achieved are scant, and Bacon’s New Atlantis which focuses on the research plans of Salomon’s House. Among the rare exceptions is Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana in which private land ownership is limited and regulated but not prohibited. Plato's Republic and the Hindu first yuga combine social ownership with rigid class systems.

3. Works and Days, 113-118.

4. Line 135.

5. Mahabharata XII (Shanti Parva), 231.12-20, Book V of The Faerie Queen; Deipnosophists VI 268 b-d in quoting The Amphictyones a lost work of Telecleides.

6. Book of Rites, Li Yun 1.

7. Confucian scholar and calligrapher Kang Youwei (1858-1927) advocated communism on the Da Tong model in his Da Tongshu.

8. Summa Theologicae 2a2ae,77. Tertullian had flatly declared that trade arose from avarice, Ambrose said that lying was concomitant with trade, and Augustine said that trade always involved fraud. To the church fathers for over a thousand years it was theft to sell merchandise for a higher price than one had paid as well as to ask more from a borrower than had been lent. See An Anatomy of Trade in Medieval Writing: Value, Consent, and Community by Lianna Farber, p. 15-16.

9. See, for instance, Aristotle, Politics 1264a, 11–22.

10. Laws 739c-740b. The first quoted line cites a Pythagorean saying quoted also in the Republic (424a) and in Euripedes' Orestes 725.

Notes on Recent Reading 26 (Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau)

A Distant Mirror (Tuchman)

Though a popular work by a nonspecialist, Barbara Tuchman’s account of fourteenth century history following the life of a significant French nobleman is intelligent, informative, and entertaining. She uses the devices of a novelist, noting not only descriptive details of weather and landscape but also detailing the moods and attitudes of the story’s principal characters. And it works admirably. She has done her research in primary and secondary sources both and has predigested it all for the comfort and amusement of the reader. Her narration is enlivened as well by wit and humane engagement. The reader will become immersed in the late Middle Ages and is likely to be educated about a number of topics. I, for instance, had never realized so dramatically the effect of “free companies” of mercenaries roaming Europe, hiring themselves out to one magnate or another, or, failing such regular employment, either plundering the countryside or extorting huge payments as the price of leaving a city alone. Only in the historical details can one realize the drama produced by the unpredictable rivalries of courts run by individuals amid crowds of competing barons who constantly shift allegiance in their own self-interest.

Godan (Premchand)

Premchand ‘s last novel published in Hindi in 1936 details the exploitation of a rural peasant, a fundamentally honest and respectable man by his community’s standards (though he beats his wife) who is gradually worn down through malnutrition and hard manual labor despite his tireless efforts to improve his situation.

The title refers to the donation of a cow which is thought to be a particularly meritorious religious act. For the novel’s main character, however, the mere possession of a cow is a lifelong dream that remains out of his grasp through his hard-working life. Written during the same era as the American proletarian novel, Premchand described the condition of the Indian masses, laying out in painful detail the plight of the peasant. Though the novel is rarely didactic, just before the end the theme is stated explicitly: “They all suffered. The peasant moved about, worked, wept and put up with oppression without a murmur, as if to suffer was part of his destiny.” As Hori says, “My life has been one long grind.” Not only does the landlord extort his wealth from the poor, the government does as well. The Brahmins are all depicted as charlatans and profiteers. Should police show up, they seek bribes from anyone nearby. Villagers with a bit of surplus cash turn to merciless moneylenders. On every side vultures seek to steal from the poorest and most vulnerable.

The author, born Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, is the author of a dozen novels, hundreds of short stories and translations of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Wilde among others. He associated himself with the radical wing of the independence movement and his novel Soz-e-Watan was banned by the British. Unlike some writers from the same era, including many members of the Indian National Congress, Premchand sees no solution in socialism. In the book some left-wing Brahmins convince the sugar mill workers to go on strike, and, when the action proves disastrous for the poor, their advisors simply return to their customary comforts.
Godan makes clear how insidiously ideology can operate. When an individual offends the community, the only recourse is donations of rice to all and a feast for the Brahmins. (On the other hand, villagers sometimes intervene to stop what strikes them as unjust behavior by their peers.) Hori wishes always to be proper and to win what prestige he can with his behavior. Even while slowly starving, he is acutely conscious of his standing and fights fiercely to maintain his respectability. Perhaps this is only natural, for it is very nearly the only asset he possesses.

Les Enfants Terribles (Cocteau)

What to do with Cocteau? One need not buy Breton’s dismissal or even the raft of critics that find him a bit of a poseur to consider him a special case. I, like others, have always loved the drawings, so similar one to another and yet with such graceful lines, and found the films, especially Beauty and the Beast, unforgettable after a first adolescent film club viewing. This book, with its hothouse amalgam of myth, preciosity, perversity, and common meanness ending in the most shocking Liebestod the author could conceive.
In spite of writing the title in French above, I read the New Directions version by Rosamond Lehmann, though Samuel Putnam (of whom I think very highly) had done a translation shortly after the book’s original publication.