The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Arguing with Manet: The Piano and a Dead Bear — Joanne Tod
Carmen Lamanna Gallery, Toronto, September 8 - October 4

C Magazine #4, Winter 1985.
[ 2,607 words ]

Joanne Tod has drawn close to Manet with her recent work, but it is a difficult relationship. The painters share the obvious affinity of working with received imagery and social types in periods of representational crisis, but Tod does not want to stop at a level of resemblance. She wants to differentiate herself from Manet, and rightly so, for the current crisis of representation is traceable to problems in his work, in his example, in his position at the articulation point of representation under capitalist expansion. (1)  Tod approaches Manet as an object of critique, treating him as the pretext for a consideration of modernist culture. In her version, Manet represents the master artist of avant-garde pedigree, the dominant repertoire of art history and the significant relation, established in Greenberg's title, between avant-garde and kitsch. She cites some of Manet's paintings and adopts some of his strategies, but manages to remain remote from them. She indicates how they have lapsed from significance, how they picture exploitative relations underlying modern society and, finally, how they prefigure her own inability to depict authentic meaning.

The exhibition of ten paintings at Carmen Lamanna is readable as a reprise of Manet's strategy of the 1860s. The celebration of modernity is rehearsed here in the concentration upon entertainers as cultural figures, upon the body as ideological instrument, upon mass culture as a simulation of contemporary experience. Tod reverts to the broad categories of Salon painting showing portraits, genre scenes, a landscape and even a wayward history painting. She gives a stilted revision of these modes, like Manet did, but shorn of the salient feature of his revision. Where Manet drew on the antagonism between traditional painting and contemporary appearance, parodying the former to vitalize the latter, Tod pursues a different line. There is no antagonism between Manet and mass culture in her work. Where he placed an overlay of eccentric facture and flashy brushwork to indicate liveliness, Tod lays down a tidy, dull, dispassionate and impersonal layering of paint. The grey grounds compliment before they alienate, the modelling is disciplined, the subjects stereotypical. The imposition of personality that struck Manet as the imperative of modernity is let go and desire and expression are excised from Tod's manual tracings. The connotations of vitality are replaced by those of duty; willed mastery becomes alienated labour, and painting becomes a sign of bland, subservient dissolve into the impersonal. Manet is delivered into a new order of meaning, that of mass cultural kitsch, where vitality is merely the aura of a system of exchange.

Amway Consciousness is most lucid in this regard, the figure being a reworking of Olympia. An Oriental woman in Western dress reclines on a flowery couch, nonchalantly gazing out to the viewer. One arm follows the line of her torso, with the hand nested on an inside thigh, while the other lolls along the edge of the couch giving light support and holding a cigarette. Legs are crossed at the ankle and terminate in pink sandals, with each element positioning the body according to Manet's model. The clearest deviation from Manet concerns the angling of the couch into pictorial space, but this brings in further references. Other portrayals of exotic women are called up — majas, odalisques, orientales — the common feature being the sexual objectification of women, particularly those in imperial colonies. Combined with Olympia the whore, the image amounts to a rounded parody of exploited woman as servile subject, economic tool, voyeurist fantasy. From Delacroix to Coughtry, male artists have milked this stereotype for orientalist escape from constrained sexuality and ignored the social content of exploitation. That content is what Tod is after and her title raises its economic consequences. The corporate tag 'Amway' qualifies 'consciousness' much as the repeated stereotype qualifies the treatment of women. Relations are posed between the visual ideology of images of women and the consumerist ideology of Amway. Both artist and corporation peddle connotations that involve exploitation, a painting wearing its meaning like a commodity bears a label, as jugs of generic cleaner proclaim the American Way. Similarly the exchange between viewer and canvas is consigned to the same order as that of consumer and commodity — each is lured by fantasies of independence and domination while remaining happily ignorant of the exploitative relations that sustain independence. The male artist is comparable to the Amway entrepreneur, to any opportunist who pretends to be outside ideological relations while covertly reenacting the coercive mechanics of social control. A dull reality of exchange lies behind the image of women, a reluctant cipher of social conditions.

This theme of systematic exploitation is continued in two additional depictions of women. Miss Lily Jeanne Randolph is a travesty of portraiture, a picture of a black woman as society queen, as a debutante in a world that tries to keep blacks from coming out. Painted in the style of Sargent, who Americanized Manet, Miss Lily could be Olympia's maid recast in a Harlequin romance of affirmative action. As a response to racism the painting is lame, even hackneyed, but it does share the anodyne properties of ideal liberalism. It is ignorant of historical roles, drawing power from received images transposed into contemporary fantasy. A set of less ideal historical roles structures Illustrating My Points where an Asian Indian male ogles a bare-fronted Jacklyn Smith. She looks from the canvas in stock pin-up pose and between the figures is the caption 'Dad Likes Kelly', Kelly being Smith's role in the defunct television series 'Charlie's Angels'. Tod is equating a number of things — the Oriental heathen gazing upon the new Occidental angel; the global proliferation of American mass culture; the scopophilia of James Collins' photos of 'Watching Women'; paternalism and multicultural sexism; hints of voyeuristic miscegenation. Beholding to Pop, the canvas is like a billboard and incorporates Pop's favourites, the pin-up and superstar. But Tod is illustrating an argument rather than celebrating distaste, and her point is that images of sexual dominance and American imperialism circulate as daily entertainment. The broadcast medium of television binds culture to capital and distorts representation through fantasies that attempt to recuperate suppressive power relations. As in Amway Consciousness the stereotype of media and Pop are parodied to reveal the disguise of actual conditions in mass representations. Tod seeks no adequate countervalue; rather she promotes determined equations — Manet with Amway, Sargent with racism, Pop with American domination.

They are all marked with kitsch, which is the best name for the recuperative fantasy of mass culture. The power of kitsch lies in its assimilation of past form and its reproduction of aesthetic effects in exchangeable objects equivalent to any other commodity. It is, according to TJ Clark, 'the sign of the bourgeoisie contriving to lose its identity' (2)  and maintain social control. This loss is necessary because the values of bourgeois culture are not tenable in mass society. The values of self-reliance, moral earnestness and social reform promoted in genre painting, Victorian novels and realist drama do not recommend themselves to a society based upon passive subjects and social regulation. In a complex trade-off, cultural meaning was abandoned as a means of legitimating power, annexed as an industrial concern run for profit. Instead of producing a cohesive identity that met the needs of capital, meaningful forms were frozen into formulae — the concert performance, the Salon portrait, the realist novel. Under unofficial guidance the avant-garde became the arbiters of meaning, but they contrived to negate bourgeois culture rather than replace it. New and appropriate meanings are not established by parody or by raising 'low' culture to 'high' aesthetics, as witness Tod's critique of Manet and Pop. Instead reality becomes more and more distant, reflected as fantasy in kitsch and negation in avant-garde art. Tod's art brings this dilemma into the foreground as the crisis of representation in our time. She infuses it with the confused bourgeois identity, reproducing its latching on to images as reality in her early project of self-portraiture without resemblance. She goes after Manet with the same zeal, unable to find an adequate representation that does not pursue fantasy alone, unable to find a singular identity for painting that does not involve negation. She presents modernism as an aid to bourgeois dominance, coupled to it in a danse macabre of insignificance.

If we accept Tod's version of the dance, then the tune is played on the piano. Two recent paintings feature the instrument accompanied by suitable players; Idiot Savant is a portrait of Glenn Gould in concert performance, while Remember Manners is a genre scene of parlour music. Gould is presented as the inspired idiot of romantic legacy, the celebrity performer with all the idiosyncrasies that make his aura. Seated on the collapsible chair, a simian figure hunched over keys with mouth open for annoying vocal accompaniment, he is his media image. In contrast, the player in Remember Manners is cropped, his head and torso out of the picture. In full presence, however, is a small, television-screen sized figure; a psychic censor, here to enforce the parental admonition to respect culture — remember your manners. Together the pictures portray the break in performing culture between professional and amateur, concert hall and home, spectacle and practice. The common element is the piano, that peculiarly bourgeois instrument that combines the clerical dexterity of button-pushing with the mechanics of cushioned hammers and the amplifying properties of a large box. It is keyboard, factory and broadcast at once, extending the acoustic limits of the harpsichord to fill large halls yet possessing qualities of soft-tones and durable presence that make it musical furniture for the home. The piano generated mass domestic practice in the bourgeois parlour but, with the celebrity performer, it also produced the phenomenon that disabled practice. The performer is a regulatory device of the culture industry, repeating the classic canon, making interpretation supersede composition, making the multiple recording and the singular performance into commodities that feed on the aura of personality. Practice becomes indebted to consumption, an event lacking the charisma of the celebrity spectacle. So the little man in Remember Manners is a legitimation device, some flashback to an amateur hour that mediated practice, a hallucination for the sake of spectacle.

Spectacle is all we get of Gould even though he attempted to distance himself from it by withdrawing from concertizing after 1957. He acknowledged the 'fetish-quality' of the concert commodity and concentrated on reproductive technology using recording, television and radio to distribute sound away from the concert hall. Glossing over this under the sway of kitsch, Tod paints the nostalgic fantasy of Gould, giving a backhanded homage to an artist who resisted mass manipulation. She prefers him as he wasn't, and proceeds to paint him as a victim of the culture she cannot handle. She negates his achievement, leaving him to reside in kitsch.

Musical culture is the oblique subject of Kiss This Goodbye as well. The painting is a landscape, but one that devolves from Manet. The bending trees and plein-air vision of Tod's work refer to Musique aux Tuilleries, but where Manet's trees canopied a concert gathering, this canvas is soulless. In place of the chattering crowd is the dismal phrase 'WE'RE FUCKED' set out from the grassy park. The voice is sardonic, announcing some defilement of the natural space. Manet treated the park as a screen for human activities, as a site for the staging of culture. Tod extends this notion to the break between nature and culture in the entire genre of landscape. Nature is objectified in landscape and the painter appropriates its appearance for the production of cultural artifacts. The rise of landscape occurs simultaneously with the rise of industry and, like the industrialist who sees lumber instead of trees, the painter is spectator of a potential commodity. Tod's obscenity captures the sense of ecological catastrophe that follows appropriation, the sense of an improper relation to nature that marks an irreparable break, glimpsed in a final kiss.

And finality is surely the subject of Tod's work, her final modernist negation being the identification of painting with the victims of industrial capitalism. Women, non-whites, nature and culture are all degraded and mediated, by the appetite for social control. It's like poor painting that cannot find a gesture or a vitality that will evade the assimilative power of kitsch. Even the refuge of the commodity in allure and projected empathy is refused, as every identity is untenable, split into aura and alienation. So Tod gathers fellow victims around her slim means and commiserates. Her work sees its reflection in the suffering of exploited peoples, its own image in the broken vessels of pre-industrial relations. A crude determinism is operative, making mendacious equations between beings without representation and representation without referents. A room of Tod's paintings repeats a keening litany — this work starts and finishes alienated and defeated, impotent and culpable. What passes for modish commitment is the schizophrenic ability to accept the dominant image repertoire as the only possible representation. That ability is the bourgeois identity trying to cover its tracks but it comes up short regarding the demands of the crisis. Tod cannot find meanings beyond control, meanings that, to quote Clark again, 'are rooted in actual forms of life...meanings of the dominated'. (3)  She deals with the negation of empathy instead, forgoing meanings that might break apart the power relations she uses to achieve final ambivalence. Unable to identify with kitsch, unable to see beyond it past negation, her eloquence is limited to 'we're fucked'. That is final enough, final as seeing painting as prostitution, final as the closing credits of 'Charlie's Angels', final as arguing over the sealed-up corpses of Manet and Gould.

So it is fitting that this exhibit should find its apotheosis in picturing a corpse. Panda Lunch at the Summer Palace merges the photographic history painting of Manet (Execution of Emperor Maximilian, Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama) with the kitsch of Chinese leaders and the original break of culture from nature in cooking. The panda is served up to a power lunch of leaders, the protected species being a proper homage to the appetite of the sovereign. It is rare and delicate, a national symbol being assimilated directly by the peoples' representatives. But the powerful do not relish the dish. Glum faces surround the dining room and nothing is authentic. The decor is ersatz Occidental, the imported ideology of Marxism is faded to the pink of the diners' jackets. These guys are victims too, caught in the ennui of totalitarianism. History from this vantage is simply more kitsch, an endless reception of dolled-up insignificance. Painting is the dead bear, eviscerated and deboned by negation, laid out as a bland platter with coherence only in its feeble relation to the dominant power.

C Magazine #4, Winter 1985.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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