Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Banalistes Monumentales . . . the Jadedness of Unmasking Precursors.

Was Philip Larkin an avant-gardist who anticipated Jeff Koons*, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and other Banalistes Monumentales of the Supersize School of Art ? 

I ask because Larkin’s artistic sensibility, insofar as his dreams were on a neo-Speerist scale, certainly predates the mindset of the American pop pioneers.

Do not these lines of Larkin’s from 1954 outrival them? And, indeed, outrival any of the installations boasted by today’s conceptualists . . . not forgetting those Scale-Up showmen Hirst and Christo.
. . . I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

‘Bigging Up’ is Better?

Anyhow, the idea of spectacular giantism – in both the literary and visual arts – has been so long established as to prompt the question, ‘Why aren’t more Banalistes Monumentales discouraged from stale emulation?’

William James’s famous axiom, ‘The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook’, is negated when proponents of today’s visual arts insist it is we who should be overlooked by banishing us to a sort of cultural Easter Island made arid by artists who throw up spectaculars of such magnitude that they dwarf those Easter Islanders who would much rather swim to the mainland and resume human scale.

And if, as I believe, art has become a heavyweight contest then the trend towards giantism in banal art objects, as a tame commentary on Western Consumerism, cannot be resisted when certain galeristes measure the open volume of their exhibiting space against that of a Turbine Hall.
     Oldenburg                                                 Hirst           

Megalophobia Revisited.

Jonathan Swift lampooned the idea that ‘Bigger is Better’ in his Voyage to Brobdingnag.

As Lemuel Gulliver reminds his readers in his Travels, an esteemed Brobdingnagian historian believed that it was ‘very reasonable to think, not only that the species of men were originally much larger, but also that there must have been giants in former ages; which, as it is asserted by history and tradition, so it has been confirmed by huge bones and skulls, casually dug up in several parts of the kingdom, far exceeding the common dwindled race of men in our days.’

That sojourn in the midst of a race of Giants is found troubling by the ‘dwindled’ Lemuel: a clean white handkerchief for his bed-sheet is all very well, but he complains it is ‘larger and coarser than the mainsail of a man-of-war.’ Even a giantess’s thimble filled with liquor is cumbersome. To be pelted by hailstones the size of tennis-balls was to be ‘so bruised from head to foot that [he] could not go abroad in ten days.’ 

And the daunting realities of a Fay Wray, say, contrarily magnified to the stature of Mount Rushmore are the substance of some of the ribalder – more scatological – passages of Swiftian satire.
The [Brobdingnagian King’s] maids of honour often invited [me] to their apartments . . . on purpose to have the pleasure of seeing and touching me. They would often strip me naked from top to toe, and lay me at full length in their bosoms . . . That which gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honour . . . was, to see them use me without any manner of ceremony, like a creature who had no sort of consequence: for they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence . . . directly before their naked bodies, which I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other emotions than those of horror and disgust: their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher [dinner platter], and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads, to say nothing farther concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at all scruple, while I was by, to discharge what they had drank, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a vessel that held above three tuns. The handsomest among these maids of honour, a pleasant, frolicsome girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples, with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular.
For Gulliver, the idea of humankind viewed through a ‘magnifying glass’ is repugnant, an aversion manifested in almost phobic intensity when he’s confronted by a Brobdingnagian nursing mother.  
I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour.  It stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference.  The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug, so varied with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous . . .
And as to post-mortem phenomena when considering condemned Brobdingnagians:
One day, a young gentleman . . . came and pressed [us] to see an execution. It was of a man, who had murdered one of that gentleman’s intimate acquaintance . . . although I abhorred such kind of spectacles, yet my curiosity tempted me to see something that I thought must be extraordinary. The malefactor was fixed in a chair upon a scaffold erected for that purpose, and his head cut off at one blow, with a sword of about forty feet long. The veins and arteries spouted up such a prodigious quantity of blood, and so high in the air, that the great jet d’eau at Versailles was not equal to it for the time it lasted: and the head, when it fell on the scaffold floor, gave such a bounce as made me start, although I was at least half an English mile distant. 

Eyeless in Scarf’s Grasp.

Philip Larkin was haunted by the voice of Thomas Hardy, more than by Auden’s or Yeats’s. So it’s not surprising to find in Hardy’s verse the profounder realities of Giantism that Larkin sought to express when he considered in what form he would raise his monumental votive totem were he ‘called in to construct’ an animistic set of beliefs. The poets shared atheistic tendencies. (Compare Larkin’s Churchgoing with A Plaint to Man by Hardy who asserts that the ‘fact of life’ is to have ‘dependence placed on the human heart’s resource alone [with] visioned help unsought, unknown.’)

At a bygone Western country fair
I saw a giant led by a dwarf
With a red string like a long thin scarf;
How much he was the stronger there 
The giant seemed unaware. 

And then I saw that the giant was blind,
And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing; 
The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string
As if he had no independent mind,
Or will of any kind.

As Melanie Hosking Williams perceptively remarks in The Thomas Hardy Journal (Volume IX, No.1), mythical Giantism and the likely subject of the poem, the giant Joseph Sewell, should be considered in the purely Hardyesque terms of eschewing sentiment in any appeal of the objective correlative . . .
It is likely that Joseph Sewell’s blindness and early death were precipitated not by typhus fever, as was conjectured at the time, but were a direct result of his condition. Gigantism, the development to abnormally large size from excessive growth of the long bones accompanied by muscular weakness and sexual impotence, is usually caused by overactivity of the pituitary gland before normal ossification (the laying down of bone) is complete. Gigantism is much rarer than its counterpart condition, acromegaly (a chronic pituitary disease of adult life that is characterised by a gradual and permanent enlargement of the flat bones, such as the lower jaw, and of the hands and feet, abdominal organs, nose, lips and tongue). One may postulate that Sewell was rendered more compliant to the string, ‘The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string’ and to his role as an exhibit, by the muscular weakness which made a sham of his giant stature. His blindness, fits and early death were almost certainly the results of the increasing pressure caused by a pituitary tumour (which in modern times would be arrested by surgical intervention), or by cerebrovascular disease. Sufferers may expect a range of symptoms including visual disturbances, carpel tunnel syndrome and headaches. There is a significantly high mortality in both sexes, in males from malignancy, respiratory, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and in females from cerebrovascular disease.
Contemporary accounts record Joseph was attended by a Somerset dwarf named Farnham when he exhibited himself, being ‘publicly shewn as a curiosity’. He died on July 5th 1829, aged 24 years. The national and provincial press, including the Taunton Courier of July 1829, recorded the notable death . . . 

The funeral was recorded thus . . 
A Somersetshire dwarf named Farnham, only 37 inches high, followed the caravan as chief mourner at the funeral. The contrasted stature of this individual, with that of Sewell, when alive, presented a curious spectacle, and rendered the conjoint exhibition exceedingly attractive to spectators. The deceased was seven feet four inches high, and weighed 37 stones or 518lbs. His friend, the dwarf, weighed 68lbs only. Sewell’s dress required five yards of broad cloth for his coat, five yards of cloth and lining for his waistcoat, seven yards of patent cord for his trousers, his shoes were 14½ inches long, and 6½ inches wide.
As Melanie observes, ‘Thomas Hardy recorded many incidents in his notebooks, poems and stories which bore witness to individual tragedies and social circumstances of his day . . . It is likely, however, that this tragic sight [the giant exhibited at a bygone country fair] was not within Hardy’s personal experience, but was recounted to him, perhaps by a relative such as his grandmother, and written as if he had witnessed it himself.’ 

Nevertheless, Hardy seized on the image of a ‘dwindled’ giant as emblematic of the powerlessness of even a Gargantua when his plight is such that he is ‘like one Fate bade it must be so, whether he wished or no’. Was Hardy thinking of Shelley’s Ozymandias?

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Eeyore Raises a Glass.

So a strong sense of momento mori is seen to attend the poets in these three cases, colouring their mood in their contemplation of the imperfect colossi – both figurative and real – they choose to apostrophise in their verses . . .  Shelley, Hardy, Larkin were all unsustained by the certainty of faith and these chosen correlatives of theirs – water-glass, fairground giant, monolithic despot  – we may assume are to be taken as corresponding, in varying degrees, to their iconoclastic response to submissive determinism.

Unlike the Banalistes Monumentales, whose facile artefacts are no more than consumer commodities fatuously scaled up with a pantograph, the poeticised devices of the iconoclasts actually prompt active thought. Hardy regarded the meek, blind giant, whose shoes were the size of marrows, as ‘the sorriest of pantomimes’, the sorriest he had ever seen or ‘may see yet’.

By contrast, bland meaninglessness is the signature dish of the Banalistes Monumentales, as flavourless as a pre-packed slice of pasteurised burger cheese. 

Therefore, I continue to salute the astringent wit of a double-dyed English pessimist such as Larkin who could yet half-believe that an endlessly congregating multifaceted light from the east could signify something like succour for those who live in doubt of their souls.

Yet, regrettably, even in his characteristically Eeyore-like dolefulness, he does not tell us . . . cannot tell us . . . if the glass he raises in the east is half empty or half-full. 

See also Les Activistes de la Cause Anti-Brexit – Banalistes Monumentales revisited:

* Footnote October 29 2014

As British cultural critic Stephen Bayley wrote last week of Koons, ‘Kitsch is the corpse that’s left when anger leaves art.’

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