Monthly Archives: August 2011

Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, part 3 of 3

This is the continuation of an earlier piece from July 28th

*St. Francis in the Desert

June 9th of this year was an exceptionally hot day in New York. I don’t have air conditioning yet in my new home so I passed the day cooling off in three of New York’s miraculous caves filled with painted and sculpted images–the Frick Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Natural History Museum.

My triple-decker museum day began when I found myself passing by the Frick Museum: I remembered that Giovanni Bellini‘s 1480 painting St. Francis in the Desert  was going on special view so I went in to cool off and to see how the special installation, “In a New Light: Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert,” might change one’s view of a familiar work.

I had just seen Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Paleolithic cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave in France and I had been thinking of the 1946 Russian children’s movie The Stone Flower which made an indelible impression on me when I saw it as a small child, so I had rock faces and caves on my mind and there in the familiar painting was a man standing alone on a stone ledge, in front of a  cliff face very similar to the location of the Chauvet Cave. The man’s modest hut,  an open lean-to, frames a dark entrance into the rock face. On a rough wooden reading desk there is a book and on a little shelf, which infrared reflectogram analysis now tells us was a last minute addition by the artist, is placed the vanitas of a human skull, not unlike the one bear skull seemingly placed by a human hand on a rock in the Chauvet cave.

This is the the third cave I want to write about, the one that you cannot enter, whose entrance you can barely see, the dark portal into the stone cliff in front of which St. Francis receives the stigmata from an unseen blast of divine light.

In the museum’s brochure and in the many appreciations of the painting by art critics Holland Cotter (a very thorough and informative article), Peter Schjeldahl, Blake Gopnik, and Jerry Saltz, no mention is made of this cave entrance, everyone refers only to the hut or simple shelter in front of it.

Yet in a painting where every detail is present in order to advance a religious narrative, the cave portal must have significance.

But before I propose what I think might have been Bellini’s meaning for this iconographic element, let me turn to First Impressions, Judith Thurman’s 2008 New Yorker essay about the paleolithic cave paintings in the Chauvet and other Southern European caves, an essay which Herzog credits with inspiring him to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Thurman is careful to warn against any contemporary explanation of the meaning of these paintings for the men that did them (though even her own assertions demonstrate how hard it is to escape supposition and speculation), but all her information is suggestive and inspiring. She lays out the time frame of the paintings, noting that based on the geological time frame of mineral deposits on the cave walls, in some cases 5000 years may separate one layer of paintings from another without any significant alteration in style of drawing. This is due to what Thurman refers to a “stable” culture:

A new age in the science of prehistory had begun in 1949, when radiocarbon dating was invented by Willard Libby, a chemist from Chicago. One of Libby’s first experiments was on a piece of charcoal from Lascaux. Breuil had, incorrectly, it turns out, classified the cave as Perigordian. (It is Magdalenian.) He had also made the Darwinian assumption that the most ancient art was the most primitive, and Leroi-Gourhan worked on the same premise. In that respect, Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, [Gregory] Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

In today’s willfully amnesiac ahistorical media environment, such millennial cultural continuity is indeed unimaginable, which is part of the deep appeal of these works. Notions of continuity and tradition are constantly overridden by the impulse for progress or at least speed, change, and novelty. Forget about 5000 years, even 60 are too much.

In this regard, I began my summer reading with the e-flux journal’s small book, What is Contemporary Art?–an interesting collection of texts whose answer to the title’s question is that actually that the question is Where is  Contemporary Art? placing its location beyond the boundaries and histories of Western art more than addressing, for example, what it might look like or consist of, though it is implicit that it does not likely consist of any media associated with modernism, especially painting. My reading however proceeded down the streets of the old art center of New York, as I  read a number of books about the New York School, including Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, David Kaufmann’s Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works , and Morton Feldman’s wonderful essays collected in Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Not surprisingly, given my upbringing in the New York artworld of that period and tradition, I found much commonality with ideas from that period about painting and about the creative experience itself. In a millennial frame, thinking of the cave painters’ 5000 years or more “stable” culture, it should stand to reason that ideas that go back only 60 years (albeit with a century-long back story) would still have something left in them for a contemporary artist to work out or work from,  but I know that there are many contemporary artists and theorists who feel that these ideas are dead or, if they aren’t, should be.

Nevertheless, here I am in front of a painting made 500 years ago, and our culture since its creation has been stable enough that the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the story of Christ remain in our collective history enough that one can  put forward a reasonable supposition about Bellini’s incorporation of this topographic detail. Can it be anything else than the cave from which no living man can return, except, that is, for Jesus? The darkened entrance to a tomb set into the natural sepulcher of a cave in a stone cliff, such as the sepulcher of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, foretelling his own resurrection from the confines of a similar cave wall tomb chamber. In Roman Judea, this was the Jewish burial ritual:

The Jews of Early Roman Palestine had a long tradition of prompt burial of the dead. Most funerals took place as soon as possible after death, and almost always on the same day.  As soon as death occurred, preparations began: the eyes of the deceased were closed, the corpse was washed with perfumes and ointments, its bodily orifices were stopped, and strips of cloth were wrapped tightly around the body–binding the jaw closed, holding the hand to the sides, and tying the feet together. Thus prepared, the corpse was placed on a bier or in a coffin and carried out of town in a procession to the family tomb, usually a small rock-cut cave entered through a narrow opening that could be covered with a stone. [source]

There are other ways in which this work reflects cultural stability.

Even though the Renaissance was a period of intense intellectual and technological growth, and even though this painting was produced with the then new technique of oil paint, it was so well crafted that it has endured in excellent physical condition for 500 years: technical manuals from the period, such as Cennino Cennini‘s 15th century The Craftsman’s Handbook, give an idea of the labor and craft involved in every aspect of panel painting, from weathering wood panels for a couple of years to eliminate any chance of warping (St. Francis is painted on three joined poplar wood panels) to purifying gesso “a whole month by being soaked in a bucket.”

One can imagine that the painting may survive 500 more years if given half a chance, and even if found buried under the ruins of the Frick Museum at some future moment of archeological exploration and excavation, it might still be intelligible, so long as there are still men, trees, rocks, and bunny rabbits left on earth [something that cannot be said for the kind of flickering images one sees in contemporary museums, video installations and digital projections that may well be impossible to view in the passage of a single generation, if that–I have plenty of diskettes from the early 2000s, but no reader with which to look at them, how about you?]

The painting reflects a stable culture in another way. Not only was the painting so well made in terms of material support and surface that it has survived in good condition for over 500 years, but it is composed like a tank! This is an astonishingly stable and balanced composition, with an strongly established foreground balanced by a sharply delineated background.  The painting is disconcertingly close to, though not exactly, a square, a close ratio that has the effect of locking the viewer into a perspective that recedes into space yet guarantee a frontal focus. It is an unusual ratio, avoiding the Gothic narrow vertical and the wider Renaissance rectangle. The nearly square format divides into roughly four near squares in such a way that each area is imbricated, though at the same time the top left quadrant which represents the distant background of field and hill towns is so sharply etched as a bold overall square shape with a different overall coloration from the rest of the painting, that you could carve it out of the composition like  a block of stone.

In one of my Google image searches for jpegs of St. Francis I came upon a bizarre but strangely apt comparison, of Piet Mondrian‘s Broadway Boogie Woogie and Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert.

Google Image search result for Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, July 31, 2011, screen capture

When I tried to refind this unexplained combination to see what the original point of it was, I couldn’t find it but the momentary conjunction made a kind of strange sense to me: the geometry of Bellini’s composition and the odd way in which it undermines the programmatic illusion of spatial depth place it in a line that can be drawn forward to Mondrian’s painting, which, in turn, could stand as a diagrammatic analysis of the earlier work.

Even St. Francis himself is an exceptionally stable figure: not only does his monk’s robe retain the effect of sculptural mass of early figures in the paintings of Giotto, but in doing a number of sketches of him this summer trying to imagine the outline of his body under the robes, I came to the conclusion that he is planted firmly on his feet even if his soul is reeling.

So this is a painting of a man in some state of transcendence, ecstasy, or surrender, it is a landscape painting with an illusionistic representation of deep perspectival space, it is a painting which evinces a profound confidence in a natural order, yet it is also a painting in which a medieval or Northern Renaissance overlay of a carpet of exquisite and endearing vignettes of flowers, rabbits, birds, blades of grass creates a overall field almost like the field of one of the Unicorn tapestries.

Here, in a manner similar to Herzog’s use of 3D to heighten the movie viewer’s experience of the Chauvet cave painting, the intervention of new technological advances in imaging reveals more of the painting than meets the naked eye. As part of its recent hi-tech inspection, the ink underpainting has been studied and documented via infrared analysis and the 500 year old oil on three wood panels painting has been found to be in excellent condition. And, in addition to scanning the physical depth of the painting to reveal the very complete underpainting, its surface has also been scanned. The Frick’s St. Francis in the Desert was recently chosen to be one of the first world masterpieces to be scanned for the Google Art Project and the museum has set up computer viewing screens in a small room off the main conservatory where you can inspect the painting in astounding detail: you can get close enough to see details that you cannot see even if you are right in front of the painting, close enough to see traces of fingerprints of whoever smoothed on the gesso ground by hand, or the single tiny flick of white glaze in St. Francis eye.

The painting combines the newly developed representation of deep space with a more medieval or northern, Flemish, attention to detail, narrative and decorative. The dominant bold elements of the overall composition combined with the carpet effect of flowers, birds, leaves of grass, every thing represented with fine detail and delicate brushstrokes all across the surface of the panel somehow have the effect of making the painting seem astonishingly flat, for all that it has an ambitious spatial program with the theatrical staging of the desert set against a civilization of fields and walled, turreted villages going back miles and miles in to the vanishing blue perspectival space.

But not even the magnifying powers of the Google Art Project can take you inside that flat darkness of the the interior of the cave.

You could just look at all of this online of course, without ever going to the Museum, but the wonderment is in running back and forth between the macro imaging and the painting itself, to find the details you had not seen before, a kind of wonderment of closeness and of distantiation at the same time. If anything, this technological intervention, when, down the hall from the computer screen, the painting is present in front of you with all of its strangeness of proportion and religious faith combined with Renaissance fidelity to perception, its deep perspective but strong sense of compositional and surface unity, gives you an inkling of how hard it is to really see a painting, how complex painting is, especially a painting that in a sense is perfect.

The dark entrance to the cave is a cut into that perfection, not a flaw exactly, but a crucial imperfection in the picture plane, a hole in the surprisingly modernist flatness of the very stable composition, despite the mastery of illusion of deep space. The black door into a flat nothing that we can see or enter both refers back in time to a knowledge from our close millennial past–the two stone Sepulchers of the story of Jesus– and calls up modernist ideas about the essential flatness of painting, because the flatness of the black space of the cave entrance only calls attention to the flatness of the representational painting that frames it.

This black door into the flatness of the painting field appears in other earlier Italian paintings, when representation’s movement towards full spatial verisimilitude pushes up against the vestigial flat gold ground of Byzantine and medieval art, while weirdly prefiguring modernist painting’s declaration of its essence as flatness. In Duccio’s 1308 The Road to Emmaus  the figures gesture towards a shorthand for architecture, the door nevertheless still a hole in the flat gold leaf ground, a Hofmannesque floating rectangle, a door to the city, and a door into the unknown.

Duccio, The Road to Emmaus, tempera on wood panel, back of the Maesta, 1308-1311, from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

*

Despite Thurman’s cautions against any interpretation of the cave paintings because of the temptation to overlay contemporary concerns and histories on a culture we have no knowledge of except for these visual manifestations and a few artifacts, the temptation is great to project one’s ideas and dreams onto the cave painters and the time they lived in.

Philip Guston spoke often of the cave painter. The cave painter first arose as a theme in a 1965 conversation with art critic Harold Rosenberg.

Philip Guston: It’s a strange thing to be immersed in the culture of painting and to wish to be like the first painter.

Harold Rosenberg: Many an artist today wants to be the last painter.

PG: I imagine wanting to paint like a caveman would, when nothing has existed before. But at the same time one knows a great deal about the culture of painting and one is conscious of that culture.

HR: You know Mallarmé’s formula for the poet? He calls him “un civilisé édénique,” a civilized first man.”

PG: That’s marvelous. Exactly what I mean. I should like to paint like a man who has never seen a painting, but this man, myself, lives in the world museum.”

Guston recalled this conversation many times in later years, the allusion to Mallarmé’s term reappears in talks and interviews up to the last published in the collection, from 1980. In a 1969 talk, he responds to an audience question about what motivated the cave painters:

There are a lot of conflicting theories about that. You’re aware of that? The anthropologists have written many things about it. You make these marks and you do these bulls and bisons, because it had to do with hunting and so on. And that may be true. I don’t know about that so much. But I also think that for man from the beginning, who made the line of this bull, it was a catharsis, a joy, an ecstasy, to make this line. And it had nothing necessarily had to do with hunting, you know? I mean, why, to the scientists, would it be impossible that a man would enjoy making a curved line that became a bull? But he’s an anthropologist, so he has to have a motivation for the guy making the bull. Like you read social art historians who talk about modern art, psychological motivations and endless reasons for it. A psychiatrist, for example, who gets involved with why these men do this funny stuff. But the part they miss is that there’s material, there’s you and there’s this feeling, an inchoate feeling, a raw feeling. And what they miss is that you may want to take up these charred bones or colored mud and make some….I’m not a scholar. You all paint, you know there’s this feeling. So just because I want to be civilisé édénique, why does that exclude my connection to this man in the cave twenty-five thousand years ago? We’re no different. We’re different in other ways; we don’t have to go into that. But on this basis, that impulse is the same.

In a 1980 interview, Guston returned again to his identification with the first painter:

I feel directly in line with a tribal colony, so-called primitives. They are not primitives. Who are the men in that prehistoric cave? The men in the Lascaux caves who didn’t go on the hunt and used charred bones to draw on the cave walls? What kind of a neurotic was he to make these beautiful bulls? I don’t think art has changed very much. it’s a very archaic form.

Recently in “Life Studies,” Adam Gopnik’s June 27, 2011 New Yorker article about drawing from nature, Gopnik turns to the example of the Chauvet and Lascaux cave paintings to buttress the point of view that life drawing is an atavistic human activity,

less an acquired instrument of slow-crawling craft, and more just something back there that we delve deep to find again. This may in turn explain the enduring mystery of why the oldest of all human representations, the cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet, are expertly rendered as shaded, three-dimensional life-drawings, full of persuasive highlight and shadow. The caveman in us still draws what he sees, until the Egyptian in us interferes.” To back this up, Gopnik goes even further, referencing “psychologist Nicholas Humphrey…[who] has argued that the existence of the perfectly modulated cave paintings suggests that the people who made them didn’t yet know how to talk.

Humphrey had compared the cave paintings to the drawings of an autistic girl who could not speak but who drew animals in a lively manner reminiscent of the cave painting, in order to suggest that if a contemporary human without language could draw animals so well therefore it was possible or even likely that the humans who had painted the cave paintings also had no language. I can’t comment on the veracity of Humphrey’s example or the logic of his assertion, but it is hard to believe that the level of craft that went into the creation of the cave paintings– including discovering how to process natural materials to making the pigments, bringing in man-made sources of light, building scaffolds, in some cases scrapping the cave wall to get a lighter ground for their images, incising drawn forms, and then rubbing pigments prepared for this purpose to create the final drawing–could be the result of the activities of pre-verbal ape-like creatures, rather of the strapping men that Thurman describes, who were “as tall as the average Southern European of today, and well nourished on the teeming game and fish they hunted with flint weapons. … genetically, our direct ancestors.”

Such preparation would have required the kind of cooperation and transmission of knowledge among human beings and the kind of conceptualization and memory that are all reliant on language. If they had the concept of a horse, they had a word for it too. Guston’s projection of his own angsty image of the neurotic artist onto a kind of Joe Ur-Painter may be fanciful but it is certain that the cave paintings were no more painted by painter UGH and painter UGGH jumping around and grunting than was St. Francis in the Desert.

At the same time, like Guston, I feel that without having any theory or interpretation of what the cave painters thought or rather knew they were doing, without any ability to enter their conceptual universe, I can have some understanding in the body of how the painter felt, or thought/felt, applying charcoal to a ridged line on a prepared ground. I’ve done that, I can feel that, I can trust that something at the level of making is shared underneath the changing languages of meaning and intent.

*

A friend of mine told me last week that he wanted to see how I would pull together the diverse threads of the first two parts of “Wonder and Estrangement: Reflection on Three Caves.” I’m not sure if I’ve now tied up every loose end in a satisfying or logical manner. I do know that the kind of non-polemic, discursive, and associative thinking in these texts takes me time to develop and may not fit into artworld schedules–in this instance I’m the last art writer to weigh in on St. Francis, since the special exhibition closes at the end of next week. I discussed this aspect of writing in my other series of posts this summer, on conditions of contemporary art writing).  I’m more likely to have time for this kind of thinking in the summer. But now the summer is ending. The dream is over.

Mira Schor, Drawing fragment: Dreaming Sleeper, ink and gesso on tracing paper, 2011

*

St. Francis in the Desert is usually on view in the collection of the Frick Museum and I assume that within a reasonable amount of time it will be returned to its usual residence, in the back room to the left of the grand hall at the museum, but it is wonderful and interesting to see it as it is currently on display, alone in a centrally located skylit room, set into a huge specially constructed easel which brings it into the present space of a viewer in a new way. If you’re in New York and you haven’t yet done so, go see it. The current special installation closes August 28.

 

 

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The Berger Mystery

The conditions of contemporary publication on the web that I’ve touched on in my two previous posts, “Invisibility and Criticality in the Imperium of Analytics” (July 31, 2011) and “The Imperium of Analytics” (August 2, 2011), made me interested in researching the conditions of the writing and publication of two essays I particularly admire yet whose publication has always seemed in some sense mysterious to me. These are two essays by John Berger that are among my favorites, both of which are included in Berger’s 1985 book of collected essays, The Sense of Sight: “The Moment of Cubism,” originally published in The New Left Review in 1967 and then in the 1969 book of the same name, and “The Hals Mystery,” originally published in the British journal New Society in December 1979.

The Sense of Sight is a wonderful book of writings about art and, at the same time, or at least when I first read it in the 1980s, it seemed like a rather strange book in comparison to other art history and theory books of the period. There are writings of every kind in it, including poems–the first piece in the book is the brief 1985 poem, “Rembrandt: Self-Portrait.” And it contains essays that seem so personal that you wonder what they are doing there, if, as I was, you brought certain expectations, of “objectivity” or academic impersonality, to essays about art, which is certainly the main subject of all the writings collected in the book.

I’m thinking for example of “Ernst Fischer: a philosopher and death,” a deeply affecting, incredibly tender account of the last hours in the life of Berger’s friend and mentor, the Marxist poet, critic, and politician Ernst Fischer (author of The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach). But nothing ever seems self-indulgent about these texts; each component of the book seems precisely chosen for its relevance to the underlying themes of the book. Re-reading the Fischer essay just now I think, here is a text not only about someone Berger loved, but also about his own writings, beliefs, politics. However the didactic, or polemic, or ideological, however you want to term it, is nestled in something intimate and elegiac. The relation of revolutionary hope, located in a near past in terms of the time frame of the essay written after Fischer’s death in 1972 (the Czech Prague Spring of 1968 had been crushed in August 1968), lost opportunities, and possibility of some redemption echoes themes of other essays, including “The Moment of Cubism.”

“The Moment of Cubism” is a thrilling essay because it instantly opens up a double vista to the past and to the future of an instance of radicality, whose promise is not completely fulfilled but yet may be ahead of us. Nostalgia, regret, wonder, and hope erupt out of the first sentence of the essay.

I find it hard to believe that the most extreme Cubist works were painted over fifty years ago. It is true that I would not expect them to have been painted today. They are both too optimistic and too revolutionary for that. Perhaps in a way I am surprised that they have been painted at all. It would seem more likely that they were yet to be painted.

Do I make things unnecessarily complicated? […]

And anyway is it not nonsense to think of Cubism as having not yet taken place when we are surrounded in daily life by the apparent effects of Cubism? All modern design, architecture and town-planning seems inconceivable without the initial example of Cubism.

Nevertheless I must insist on the sensation that I have in front of the works themselves: the sensation that the works and I, as I look at them, are caught, pinned down, in an enclave of time, waiting to be released and to continue a journey that began in 1907.

It is as if Berger adds an extra time warp to the trajectory of perception of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History whose face

is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (excerpt from Benjamin’s ninth thesis in the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”)

Berger’s Angel of History sees over the pile of wreckage created by the catastrophic loss of faith that followed the First World War, back to the moment of Cubism’s unfinished revolutionary promise, its moment of man’s oneness with the world, and ahead to a future potential for completing Cubism’s vision.

It is hard to believe that Berger’s essay “The Moment of Cubism” was written over 40 years ago, and now sits in the middle of the 100 years that separate us from the moment of Cubism.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910, oil on canvas, 39 13/16″x28 7/8″, collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

George Braque. Man With Guitar, 1911-1912, oil on canvas, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

Two of the epigraphs that precede the essay seem to point to the role of genius: Guillaume Apollinaire‘s poem stanza, “Certains hommes sont des collines/Qui s’élèvent entre les hommes/Et voient au loin tout l’avenir/Mieux que s’il était le présent/Plus net que s’il était passé” (from “Les Collines,” in Apollinaire’s Calligrames: poems of peace and war, 1913-1916, “Some men are hills/Rising higher than other men/The distant future they see/Better than if it were the present/More clearly than if it was past”) and George Braque‘s statement, “The things that Picasso and I said to one another during those years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them any more. It was like being roped together on a mountain.” However Berger quickly undercuts this notion:

Cubism cannot be explained in terms of the genius of its exponents. And this is emphasized by the fact that most of them became less profound artists when they ceased to be Cubists. Even Braque and Picasso never surpassed the works of their Cubist period: and a great deal of their later work was inferior.

As in all Berger writings, social and historical context is always central.

The developments which converged at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe changed the meaning of both time and space. All, in different ways, some inhuman and others full of promise, offered a liberation from the immediate, from the rigid distinction between absence and presence….There was a startling extension through time and space of human power and knowledge. For the first time the world, as a totality, ceased to be an abstraction and became realizable. […]

Today we know that the world should be unified, just as we know that all men should have equal rights. Insofar as a man denies this or acquiesces in its denial, he denies the unity of his own self. Hence the profound psychological sickness of the imperialist counties, hence the corruption implicit in so much of their learning–when knowledge is used to deny knowledge.

At the moment of Cubism, no denials were necessary. It was a moment of prophecy, but prophecy as the basis of a transformation that had actually begun.

Because this moment of transformation was general, Berger notes that the Cubist painters and poets “did not think in political terms. Yet they were concerned with a revolutionary transformation of the world. How was this possible?…It was not then essential for a man’s intellectual integrity to make a political choice. Many developments, as they converged to undergo an equivalent qualitative change, appeared to promises a transformed world. The promise was an overall one.” But after World War I, men found themselves in the “negative possibility implicit in the new relation of the self to the world…the world, which was nevertheless indivisibly part of them, reverted in their minds to being the old world which was separate from them and opposed them…”

I could go on. I’ve left out Berger’s brief but eloquent and informative history of painting since the Renaissance, and his analysis of how the Cubist world view is embodied in its formal approaches–OK, just one quote from this section:

Rather than ask of a Cubist picture: Is is true? or: Is it sincere? one should ask: Does it continue?

My notes are filled with quotes and each sentence unpacks like a Zip file, information and directions for thought bursting from the miniature to the huge, but I’m mindful of the impatience of the web reader and of copyright infringement, so I hope you will read the essay, not just for the pleasure of reading Berger’s narration of the history of modernity and for his grounding of these broader themes within formal specificities of Cubist artworks, but for the distinction between the promise of the moment of Cubism and the distance we may feel from it now.

The Cubists “did not imagine and did not foresee the extent, depth and duration of the suffering which would be involved in the political struggle to realize what had so clearly become possible and what has since become imperative. The Cubists imagined the world transformed, but not the process of transformation.”

So how do we proceed now when the overall promise is more of a threat: world-wide corporate domination, limited resources, climate change? Can a moment when thinking politically must be a conscious choice move towards any kind of transformative revolution?

Berger ends with a reflection about the miracle of a beginning: “The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art. The incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it, is the secret of art.”

This spring I set out to locate this essay’s original context. How did it begin? Where did it first appear? The answer in the acknowlegments at the back of The Sense of Sight was confusingly tautological: the essay “The Moment of Cubism” first appeared in the book The Moment of Cubism (1969), a  book I hadn’t come across in bookstores. [You can find it in paperback on Amazon (or can you? When I clicked on “paperback” I got a completely different and bizarre reference)]. I went so far as to look at the copy in the Fales Library at Bobst Library, NYU, where I had to surrender my ID and place my bag in a locker while a small book was placed reverentially on a book -shaped pillow made of specially carved clocks of green foam rubber.

The book in hand does not solve the mystery of the essay. It is the first text in the book, so it occupies the place of an introduction but in no way does it service the book it opens in any way that a contemporary academic press might insist upon. His publishers did not seem to require that he commodify or historicize his writings: the essay does not tell you how the book relates to other books by the author, it does not spell out the nature of the author’s intervention into any discourse, it does not refer to any of the other essays in the book. As an essay, it does not locate its origin in an exterior art event such as a major museum exhibition on Cubism.[The Tate for example does not list past exhibitions for the years between 1961 and 1989 (!)]. These days one expects most art history essays to emerge from exhibition schedules or academic dissertations; “The Moment of Cubism” does not seem to be tied to either such systems. It is a self-contained essay which completely represents Berger’s unique ability to combine a socio-historical Marxist reading of art works inflected by melancholy and a deep appreciation of art.

And the essay’s time frame is also not clearly in relation to historical events contemporaneous to it. It is dated 1966-1968, so it perhaps springs from the moment of May 1968, another revolution that passed but perhaps still looks forward to its fulfillment in the future, but the first words of the essay, before even the epigraphs, date the germination of the essay back to a conversation “in an ABC teashop off the Grays Inn Road” “nearly twenty years ago,”  thus around 1946. From this we can infer that this essay had taken Berger, born in 1926,  nearly half his lifetime to that time to complete. We are far away here from both the market infrastructure and the pressures for instantaneity on contemporary writing and publication that I discussed in “The Imperium of Analytics.”

Among a number of essays on individual artists included in The Moment of Cubism is a 1966 essay entitled simply “Hals.”  It is characteristic of Berger’s ability to use description to imaginatively burrow deep into a novelistic and historic understanding of an artist as he worked within his time and through the vagaries of his life. His sympathy, his empathy for the vision of the artist is anthropomorphic or perhaps I mean animistic. It’s a strange thing to say about writings about figuratively representational paintings, but it’s just a way of trying to express how closely Berger gets under the skin of the artwork, of the artist, what the artist sees, and how he paints what he sees–not just what is in front of his eyes, but his cultural moment lived in each individual subject, pose, brushmark.

But this is not the essay I wanted to tell you about, which is “The Hals Mystery,” written 13 year after “Hals.” This is an essay which I will tell you very little about, except that it contains some of the best descriptive writing about a painting, some of the most empathic writing about the model for a painting, but beyond that, well, if I told you I would have to kill you, because “The Hals Mystery” is an essay which has a punchline, an ending that punches at the time-space continuum of what is temporally possible in any art practice at a given moment in history.

Again, as with “The Moment of Cubism,” I wondered about the circumstances of its writing. Had there been a major Hals exhibition in London in 1979? I checked through bibliographies of books on Hals to see if a major book or catalogue was published at that time. I couldn’t find one. Besides, the 1966 essay indicates that Hals is one of the artists that Berger has been interested in, concerned about over a lifetime, an artist who poses a mystery to him through which he can discuss both the nature of what paint can do to create meaning and illusion, and what any artist can do in his time.

The article was not available online via JSTOR or other library databases, so I went to the library to look at the December 1979 issue of New Society, where “The Hals Mystery” was first published.

I totally recommend such an analog research process. Though I’m so spoiled by how much is now available online that I get annoyed that not everything I want to research is online, at the same time, there is so much to learn  from the original publication site as artifact. Was it a glossy magazine? A cheap pamphlet? An expensive one-off artist’s production? Did it have illustrations? What else was in that issue? If there were ads, of what nature? If an article or essay you are searching for is online, you get the text, but you miss the context.

Cover, December 1979 issue of New Society

Going to look for old issues of what I understood to be a leftist journal, I didn’t expect the somewhat up-market looking, relatively glossy magazine format,  or the humorously sexy, Pop, early Red Grooms sensibility of the cover illustration on the Christmas-themed cover.

New Society, December 1979, contents page, detail

However the interior content was closer to my expectations. The inside front cover includes listings for meetings such as the “Defend the 1970 Disablement Act” to be held at a Friends Meeting House, on Euston Road, London, NW1, and announcements of publications including “Measles Misery” and “Batterered Women and the New Law,” and with an editorial next to the contents, “Who the Poor Are.” (I’m writing this the week of inner city disturbances in Britain, about which the Prime Minister is taking the position that the rioting and looting represent criminality without any relation to the poverty caused by governmental policies about jobs, education, housing, police violence, and racism). There is a public interest announcement in the form of a block of text  for “A Call for Compassion” taken by the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children [Royal Patron: HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother] and on the last page the only ads, for a Berlitz cassette language course and a few social science books. And on pages 666-67, John Berger’s “The Hals Mystery.”

Again, as with”The Moment of Cubism,” there’s no indication of any journalistic or commercial synergy for this article, composed of evocative descriptive prose, whose basic theme is that a painter can only paint such imagery as is conceivable in his own time. Describing the bed in a painting of a nude by Frans Hals, Berger writes:

It is perhaps the sheet which most immediately proposes that the painter was Hals. Nobody but he could have painted linen with such violence and panache–as though the innocence suggested by perfectly ironed white linen was intolerable to his view of experience. Every cuff he painted in his paintings informs on the habitual movements of the wrist it hides. And here nothing is hidden. The gathered, crumpled, slewed sheet, its folds like grey twigs woven together to make a nest, and its highlights like falling water, is unambiguously eloquent about what has happened on the bed.

What is more nuanced is the relation between the sheet, the bed, and the figure now lying so still upon it. There is a pathos in this relationship which has nothing to do with the egotism of the painter. (Indeed perhaps he never touched her and the eloquence of the sheet is that of a sexagenarian’s memory). The tonal relationship between the two is subtle, in places her body is scarcely darker than the sheet. I was reminded a little of Manet’s Olympia–Manet who so much admired Hals. But there, at this purely optical level, the resemblance ends, for whereas ‘Olympia,’ so evidently a woman of leisure and pleasure, reclines on her bed attended by a black servant, one is persuaded that the woman now lying on the bed painted by Hals will later remake it and wash and iron the sheets. And the pathos lies precisely in the repetition of this cycle: woman as agent of total abandon, woman in her role as cleaner, tidier, folder. If her face mocks, it mocks, among other things, the surprise men feels at this contrast–men who vainly pride themselves on their homogeneity.

*

After Susan Bee and I had published our first few issues of M/E/A/N/I/N/G in the late 1980s, we tried to invite John Berger to write something for us. It was a quixotic gesture, in the form of a letter sent care of his publisher of the time, Pantheon Books. Needless to say, we never heard back. My view was that, as we well know, the Gods don’t answer.

But, hagiography aside, his writing provides a model for art writing that stays close to the art work itself, that is personal yet based on erudition, that is political without being in any way strident. If it veers towards the novelistic or literary, and Berger is a noted novelist and screen-writer as well as an art writer,  it never falls prey to the vain side of belles-lettrism.

Reading his work for the first time in the 1980s, at a time when art writing took a sharp turn towards technical languages emerging from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, I found that all of those disciplines were folded into Berger’s texts, but without a trace of the kind of specialized and often difficult terminologies and theorems that characterized the important art writing of the 1980s. It is quite interesting to me that the art writers who emerged in the late 60s and 70s, such as Berger but also, similarly, Lucy Lippard, Carol Duncan, and Linda Nochlin, wrote with a direct sensibility based in a close experience of the artwork, and from a Marxist and feminist politics, but without the layer of recondite theoretical language, or dense jargon as it sometimes seemed, that came to characterize art theory in the 1980s–and that Berger, Lippard et al were writing in this accessible manner at the same time as authors like Jacques Derrida were laying the groundwork for the more difficult and exclusionary art writing approaches of the 1980s.

So why “The Berger Mystery“?

I have to now confess how much I didn’t know about Berger when I read these two essays. What I read of John Berger including the essays in The Sense of Sight hit me like a truck, but I read only what I read and no more, and that remains true today.

I knew he had left London to live on a farm in Quincy, Mieussy, in the Haute Savoie, Rhone-Alpes region of France. This gesture alone seemed mythic, in part because I would find it very hard to leave New York City in such a definitive manner even though I do so much of my work away from the city, and in part because I spent one day and night in the Haute Savoie when I was a teenager. Away from my mother for a rare few days, in the company of distant family friends driving me through the French Préalpes for a stay in the South of France, the place we stayed the night was incredibly romantic and yet I was alone. I wept and wept at the same time as I was aware of how ridiculous my homesickness was considering the unforgettably beautiful view of  steep mountains covered in thick soft green grass and cows that I saw as I looked out from the large French window of our inn.

When I read these Berger texts, I had never heard Berger speak nor seen many pictures of him. I never saw the BBC program, Ways of Seeing and I didn’t even read the book until fairly late in my feminist education. This seems incredible to me, but, despite the fact that I was closely involved with feminist art and art history as a student and young artist in the 1970s, and that, then as now, I watched a lot of television and at a time when there were still basically just three TV networks + PBS, so if you watched TV and were interested in art and in feminism (and did I mention that, to boot, I was a total Anglophile), it would be hard to miss a series like Ways of Seeing, I missed the program (though I actually do not know if it was in fact ever broadcast in the United States).

This spring I came across a lovely and very informative article about Berger, including an interview with him, published by the Guardian. The veil of mystery lifted slightly. Then last week it occurred to me that I could probably find Ways of Seeing on YouTube, like everything else, and sure enough, there he was and I must say that when reading these essays I had no idea that Berger in 1972 was a studly guy in a tight Carnaby Street style print shirt with an aristocratic lisp startlingly like Sister Wendy‘s, “we wealize,” “the pwice” [for the price], “Euwopean” (though without Sister Wendy’s overbite).

That I had so little idea of what he looked or sounded like I think was a benefit to my reading, I was the least burdened by specifics of the man as a man and could take in his ideas and his words in an act of what felt like private discovery, mind to mind. In a recent long online interview with Berger, now an incredibly healthy in mind and body seeming elderly man with pink cheeks and clear blue eyes, he says he was not good with words. But I’m happy that for a long time I had only the words. I could work from those words, without regard for the man.

(Links to a series of podcasts from 2002, of John Berger readings, and of Berger in conversation with Michael Silverblatt and with Michael Govan at Berger’s home in France, are available on the website of the Lannan Foundation. Berger’s latest book, Bento’s Sketchbook from Verso Books will be available this fall)

 

 

 

 

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The Imperium of Analytics

In my previous post, “Invisibility and Criticality in The Imperium of Analytics,” I discussed the personal background and implications of the rating of Criticality 95, Visibility 5 that I received from artist William Powhida this past winter. In this post I examine further some of the conditions of writing and publication for me when I first started to publish and today.

The Imperium of Analytics

Because of the instantaneity of online publication [particularly the case for self-administered blogs with no editorial filters beyond the blogger], there is an expectation of instantaneous response. If you don’t get it, you’re incensed–at any rate I am, that is until I remind myself that I don’t read most of what comes my way via links on Facebook and email because I can’t keep up, I don’t understand how anyone else does (more on that in a minute). Or, put another way, you can see right away if you have not gotten  instantaneous response, since you can track reception and readership by the day, even by the minute: how many “likes” clicked on Facebook, how many views, shares, and comments on Huffington Post, Google +1, how many re-Tweets, and finally, the daily Google Analytics graph that tracks blog readership.

As you can see, in the case of this blog, the graph drops abruptly within a day or two after a post. If you don’t write anything for a few days, it flatlines.

When Susan Bee and I published the biannual journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s (the history of our friendship, our collaboration on M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and the reasons for founding the journal are detailed in our “Introduction” to M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism), we would work on the final proof of each issue in a concentrated fashion for a couple of months, having gathered material for a couple of months before that, following up on questions we and other artist/writers around us had about artmaking and the artworld of that time but with no artworld schedules in mind.

Our magazine was distributed partly through a small-journal distributor whose public manifestation was Niko’s Smoke Shop at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th street, a tiny crowded space that could well have doubled as a CIA drop, and partly by Susan and I ourselves lugging heavy, filthy Post Office mail bags filled with our subscribers’ copies to the nearest Post Office that would accept the non-profit permit we were able to use, where after a clerk would put us through the maximum of bureaucratic hell in his or her small power, we would leave feeling we had just thrown our hard labor down a well. In fact one time early on we had to leave the Post Office after we had deposited our magazines after much bureaucratic interrogation and corrections, paid but not yet gotten our change or receipt, because they thought the station was on fire and when it turned out it wasn’t, they decided to close the station anyway so they could get the rest of the day off! A worker took pity on us and handed us our change through the half-shut back door to the street.

After this thoroughly analog ordeal in the distribution process, reader responses were equally analog, if any: a short note scribbled on one of our subscription slips, the occasional out of the blue phone call, or actually running into one of our readers in the street.

When our first issue came out, containing my essay “Appropriated Sexuality,” in which I critiqued both David Salle’s representation of women in his paintings and the complicit critical apparatus supporting this work, the phone rang and a woman introduced herself as Carol Duncan, one of the art historians I admired tremendously and held as a model for my writing: “Who are you?” she asked. What a thrill.

Shortly after we published my essay “Figure/Ground” in M/E/A/N/I/N/G #6 in 1989, an essay in which I posited that a primal, somatized disgust with the “goo” of paint underlay the supposedly objective critique of painting as a relevant medium for contemporary expression (in the process attacking some of the powerful critical voices of October magazine as “aesthetic terrorists”), I ran into a fellow painter, Guy Goodwin, in the Canal Street Post Office at the end of my block in Tribeca: “I just love that essay about goo,” he drawled in his deep Alabama accent.

This kind of analog response made us feel that we were part of a real community. It was small but tangible in a way that gave a stable and organic basis to what we were doing. And for me, those few interactions with individual readers were present and precious, but aside from that I had little idea of who was reading what I wrote and little expectation of finding out. Time was longer. In fact, as an amusing aside, I wasn’t absolutely sure that Salle himself had read “Appropriated Sexuality” until 7 years after its publication, at which point I felt I had lobbed a canon ball by hand and it had taken 6 or 7 years before it finally landed behind enemy lines.

At the same time the relative paucity or slowness of response was not always a good feeling, but it also insured, it almost enforced a private space for the development of ideas, a move onto new research rather than an absorption in what I had just written.

“Figure/Ground” lurked in my mind for a couple of years and then took more than a year to write and it came out a year after a previous essay in M/E/A/N/I/N/G. Now if I let two weeks go by without writing something new I feel a biological impulse and a commercial imperative for some kind of author’s equivalent of first aid biofeedback to keep the graph line up. The longest I’ve worked on a blog post on A Year of Positive Thinking has been about two months, though of most that just thinking about it on the back burner, with the actual writing compressed into a few days, and even the quickest entries require a full day’s work chained to the computer all day, in my nightgown, without ever leaving the house. I’m not sure I could write an essay like “Figure/Ground” today, but I’m certain I couldn’t do it in two weeks or two months.

Even though I’ve embraced the challenge presented by the blog format and the time frame of the web to try to keep in the current discourse as at close to its requirement of instantaneity as possible, it’s likely that I’m trying to do something perhaps antithetical to this ecosystem: I’m drawn to creating a hybrid text in which a contemporary spark, my penchant for associative thinking, and my enjoyment of research are compressed into an accelerated research and writing process in order to hit the stream of the web within its time frame. I’m trying to get to what I want to say as quickly and as succinctly as I can but the nature of my particular intervention even when compressed and accelerated may go against the grain of its current medium.

Granted, blogs are meant as a vehicle for instant commentary, less formal than even the newspaper article or column so that increasingly even professional journalists who already work in a much tighter relation to the time frame of the news cycle are adding a blog to their newspaper or journal profile for even quicker, though possibly less digested or edited reaction to news. Blogs get better analytics stats if they come out everyday or even several times a day, to establish a brand presence, and I would guess that it hardly matters what the content is, although many are interesting and useful to their audience.

I appreciate the aplomb or maybe it’s the sang-froid of someone like Raphael Rubinstein on his blog The Silo: Rubinstein’s stated aim is to, occasionally and according to no apparent calendar or exhibition schedule, write usually quite short texts that “challenge existing exclusionary accounts of art since 1960 and to offer a fresh look at some canonical artists” that you may or may not have heard of such, from Daniel Spoerri to Biala. At the same time, I appreciate blogs that keep me informed about a wide range of art and art news, such as Hyperallergic; painter Sharon Butler‘s blog Two Coats of Paint; and critical writing that does keep current with art exhibitions but in an idiosyncratic way, like painter Bradley’s Rubenstein‘s reviews on Culture Catch.

Expectation of instant response is paired with expectation of instant reading. As a reader it is hard to keep up with the surfeit of material that comes at you everyday from every source and of every register of writing, from academic research to news editorials to entertainment gossip. I don’t understand how anyone keeps up. But it’s clear that shorter is better, you maybe can read a few things online a day if they are 100 words long, 700 is the limit recommended to its bloggers by The HuffingtonPost, you are probably not going to be able to read 2000, much less 4000 (this post weighs in at a hefty 2672, so if you’ve gotten this far, dear reader, you are definitely above average!). Oh by the way, Google analytics also tells you the average time people spend on your site:

Oops! Now I know how people keep up or try to with the daily flood of links. A minute is about enough time to find out that Arnold isn’t giving Maria alimony. No, actually that took about 5 seconds, so I guess a full minute is a web eternity. The Huffington Post Arts page launched a “Haiku Reviews” section last year but checking the site today there seems to be some slippage from the definition of 17 syllables, because in classic form the haiku requires rigorous and exquisite concentration of ideas into each word–a reduction that takes time to refine, distill, and compose. In 2000, curator Stuart Horodner put together “Haikuriticism – 17 Art Reviews (in 17 Syllables) by 17 Writers,” in Art Issues #63: he sent me a couple of the Haikuriticisms today. About “Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt at Met” I wrote : “Little girl mummy/ ‘Why can’t you grow when you’re dead?’/ Encaustic flesh can”; Amy Sillman on Will Cotton: “Photorealism?/Audrey Flack was much better?/(Not a cute boy, though.)”; and Katy Siegel on Chuck Close: “Agnes said to Chuck,/”I’m ready for my close-up.”/They know grid is good.”

Of course, the analytics graph rises highest when the post is about things, people, artists that everyone already “likes” so their likability will rub off on you, or things that have a frisson of the prurient or the scandalous. Links to names that attract search engines and to websites with a lot of traffic will bring traffic to yours. It also is important that the post be in response to the immediate news cycle. This focus on the immediate shrinks the writing time further because you know that if you don’t intervene in a timely manner, now, another story will push this one aside. Add to that the preference for the known and already liked and alternative stories or ways of thinking–or “think pieces”–are of course even more likely to be pushed aside, especially if they are not likable, that is to say, not positive–hence the title of my blog, which is at once perfectly sincere in its goal but inevitably ironic. The impact of this system on art discourse and politics is quite evidently disastrous, since both political events and artworks are quickly dropped before their meanings are really sorted out while the implications of the “old news” continue to influence the present, whether we see it or not.

Of my writings published online on this blog and The Huffington Post since last April 2010, the ones that have in any small way gone viral, very relatively speaking, were those in which I wrote fast enough about current hot news items or ones relating or engaging with artworld celebrities: as one example, “My Whole Street is A Mosque,” written within 24 hours of the news cycle surrounding the proposal for a Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, was picked up by various web aggregators; “Looking for Art to Love, MoMA: A Tale of Two Egos” also did very well because of my speculation about how or whether Marina Abramovic peed during her performance “The Artist is Present” at MoMA,  a subject of much prurient curiosity (interesting speculation was illustrated online at New York Magazine and resolution of the mystery came in the Wall Street Journal’s blog, “Speakeasy”); “Anselm Kiefer@Larry Gagosian: Last Century in Berlin,” where I tucked a critical response to Kiefer’s recent show into a bit of reporting about how Gagosian Gallery was using the NYPD as its private police force, also created a spike on my Google analytics; more recently I could perceive a noticeable uptick in my readership as well as in the number and enthusiasm of my Facebook friends’ comments for “Should we trust anyone under 30?,” most likely because it was written in relation to a piece by Jerry Saltz and because Jerry participated in the comments discussion to this post on Facebook, bringing his devoted fan base with him.

As I write this blog post I’m reading Give My Regards to Eighth Street, the quite delightful collected writings of the American composer Morton Feldman. A wonderful sentence at the beginning of his 1965 essay “The Anxiety of Art” falls into my lap. The essay caught my attention today, the day the awful debt ceiling agreement has been reached in Washington, D.C., because Feldman begins with the figure of Dr. Zhivago as a figure whose “identity is crushed by history,” and here we are in a summer which feels to some of us like the summer of 1939, a fake calm after war has been declared, a summer of the most glorious weather in European history before the cataclysm, though for us the cataclysm is of a nature that perhaps is more like the summer of 1929 or maybe that of 1933, economic and ideological wars on the individual and ideals of an egalitarian society. Shifting from the large scale cataclysms of history, Feldman shifts to the impact of history on art:

We see it in life; why do we fail to see that in art too, the facts and successes of history are allowed to crush all that is subtle, all that is personal, in our work?

Yet the artist does not resist. He identifies with this force that can only destroy him. In fact, it has an irrisistible attaction for him, in that it offers him known goals, the illusion of safety in his work, the tempting knowledge that nothing succeeds in art–like someone else’s success. In a word, because it relieves the anxiety of art.

Mira Schor, Sketchbook Drawing, August 2, 2011, in sympathy with Morton Feldman’s distinctions between sound and noise

If your eye is on the imperium of the news cycle and of the instant tracking number capabilities of analytics, market /entertainment/promotion/herd positivism dominate.  The subjects that take hold on the web are news about news, news about celebrity, already tied to the market’s tastes and schedules, feeding the known rather than exploring the unknown, critically or otherwise. To maximize your “like” clicks and keep your analytics from flatlining, best to write about things that everyone already knows and likes.

One of the nicest responses to A Decade that never made it into a review was from a fellow painter who wrote to me, “you are writing things I feel like I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time but didn’t know it.”

It goes without saying I hope you have “liked” this post.

*

The conditions of contemporary publication on the web that I’ve touched on here have made me interested in researching the conditions of the writing and publication of two essays I particularly admire and yet whose publication has always seemed in some sense mysterious to me. These are two essays by John Berger that are among my favorites, both included in Berger’s 1988 book of collected essays, The Sense of Sight: “The Moment of Cubism,” originally published in the 1969 book of the same name, and “The Hals Mystery,” originally published in the British journal New Society in December 1979. I will discuss these in my next and third post in this three part series, “The Berger Mystery,” coming soon.

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