Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Realization Of Pure Plastic Expression

Yesterday I went to the Apple Store. I had no need to go to the Apple Store -- indeed, I had just been there the day before to ask them some dumb question about backing up files to my new LaCie hard drive. But I was walking by, and its vortex just, you know, sucked me in.

The store, as always, was teeming with busy shoppers, gawkers, obsessives, tourists, and people like me, who just got sucked in walking by.

As I watched a young woman finger a tiny red iPod shuffle, I got thinking about the appeal of these very perfect and very artificial objects. As often when I get on this train of thought, I was reminded of Mondrian, the artist who made those colorful paintings of lines and squares.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1939-42, oil on canvas, 72.5 x 69 cm, Tate Gallery. London. Image in the public domain, according to Wikipedia.

When I first encountered the idea that these paintings were supposed to have something to do with utopia, I didn't understand. I like them, but they seem so cold, so impersonal. What could they have to do with something so charged as human perfection?

But it turns out the coldness is part of the point. "Curved lines," Mondrian said, "are too emotional." What is necessary is a "detachment from the oppression of nature." This I do understand. People like to get all warm and fuzzy about nature. But it is oppressive. It's messy, often ugly; it's boring; it gets in the way; it's the source of disease, decrepitude, and misery.

But there's no disease, decrepitude and misery in these paintings, and there isn't in the Apple Store either. These objects aren't like us: they stay clean and shiny; they are perfectly responsive, their proportions are perfect and never change.

Mondrian thought eventually, if we played our cards right, we would no longer need artwork, because we would live in a created world. "In the future," he said, "the realization of pure plastic expression in palpable reality will replace the work of art." (from Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1945, p. 32).

I'm all over that. Artifice gets a bad rap these days. But what is artificial is just made by us. Artifice is humanity. Yes, we need nature, but this is a practical matter, and not an ideological one.

When the realization of pure plastic expression comes around you can count me in.


Daniel said...

Two things that ruin the perfect artificial that is on display in the Apple Stores:

1) products not made by Apple - exercise armbands for the iPods and iPod docks with out loud speakers come to mind

2) the fingerprints that get all over the gorgeous touch screens on the phone

Noko Marie said...

daniel: Yes. Totally. Sadly, the store I was in had no iPhones. Because it was in Canada. Boo-hoo.

Fingerprints, indeed. My point exactly.

Mission Control said...

We find this post chilling. Isn't it true that a distaste for nature -- its messiness, ugliness, boringness -- is a cousin to fascism? Continued in the morning . . . .

Noko Marie said...

Hi MC. Maybe true. But if we're just talking about keeping bad company, fascism has also tended to travel with an idea of natural perfection and health, of the purity of natural living over the corruption and sickness of cities.

What I would like to know is how the politics of these utopian guys worked. I know many of them, like I think Malevich, had political underpinnings to their abstraction, but I don't know enough art history to know how this all goes.

Mission Control said...

It's true that some fascists were indeed fresh air freaks. But perhaps that's why we found the part of the post where you say that nature is "the source of disease, decrepitude, and misery" sort of disturbing, since this condemnation of the weakness and decay that are part of nature seems most chillingly Bad Modernist.

To elaborate, the tyranny of straight lines, the imposition of the rigid logic of the grid on nature, and Modernism's (Occidental) fantasies of eliminating or excluding difference, and of totalizing systems are well-rehearsed talking points. Needless to say, the drive to eliminate the contingencies of nature and difference and to create a crystalline or metallic world of machinic perfection are very much symptoms of Modernism's darker side.

Also, in his essay, I believe Mondrian was using "pure plastic expression" not in the sense of objects made from plastic or artificial materials, but "plastic" in the sense of: "8. having the power of molding or shaping formless or yielding material: the plastic forces of nature.
9. being able to create, esp. within an art form; having the power to give form or formal expression: the plastic imagination of great poets and composers.
10. Fine Arts. a. concerned with or pertaining to molding or modeling; sculptural. . .
characterized by an emphasis on formal structure: plastic requirements of a picture.."

Our point being that Mondrian was not talking necessarily about the need to create an artificial environment, but rather abstraction in artistic representation. Mondrian makes clear in his essay -- which is a defense of abstraction in modern art -- that his neoplastic movement is not opposed to nature, only to natural representation: "Abstract art is therefore opposed to a natural representation of things. But it is not opposed to nature as is generally thought." See here.

Captain Colossal said...

Mission Control: But are we supposed to be in favor of disease, decrepitude and misery? I understand that opposition to these things can lead to elimination-of-the-weak behavior, but that doesn't mean that they are good in themselves, right? A theoretical embrace of disease, decrepitude and misery doesn't strike me as all that promising either.

I say this as someone who can't read The Fountainhead without being convinced that I was exactly the kind of person Ayn Rand wanted to see eliminated. (I spent a good minute contemplating whether I could successfully use whom in that sentence and thus placate the grammar police.)

To return to the broader point: I go both ways on whether I'm ready for the abolition of nature. My ipod provides the best example of my problem with this -- here it is, this perfect little object, and I keep filling it up with songs that I kind of like, that I like enough that I don't want to get rid of, but which, nevertheless, subtly undermine the perfection of the object in itself. So I'm not sure that the abolition of nature will do me a lot of good unless I go with it, and I'm not ready to go yet.

An Apple Store note: the Best Buy near my house advertises at the front its "New Apple Shop!" Said shop proves to be three laptops and a couple of ipod cases. Funny the power of the sign though.

Noko Marie said...

Hi MC and Captain C,
Thanks for the comments. Reflecting on all those abstract shiny objects, I was struck by the fact that, as Captain C. points about, at the end of them all is us: our music, and art, pictures of our babies and dogs, sex chat rooms, the list is endless and so endearlingly human. But these things are artificial, too, except in the sense that electrons are, you know, part of nature.

MC, this makes me hopeful that artifice can be kept separate from the darker aspects of purity and abstraction. In fact, it makes me kind of hopeful in general.

I don't know about the Mondrian interpretation . . . the quotations do seem to suggest a claim beyond abstraction in art, but I'd have to study up.

I'm not, like, against nature. Indeed, practically speaking, we're often so inept when we create, we're just better off leaving well enough alone. We consistently underestimate the unintended consequences of our actions, 'cause we're just dumb.

Also, I'm not a utopian, because I don't think there is a coherent set of good things. I have mixed feelings about almost everything.

But I also don't think the fact of something being natural gives us some extra reason to endorse or love it. And in that sense I am a defender of artifice.

Noko Marie said...

By the way, I just noticed the blogger software renders names in comments in all lower-case (I'm kind of slow on the uptake). What's up with that?

Mission Control said...

N.M.: The Blogger software is trying to keep us all humble.

And we are not, like, against artifice. We revel in artifice, especially of the linguistic variety. (We actually are not convinced that any of you exist -- you could all be demons in the Blogger software, capitalized or not. Perhaps the Blogger software is suggesting something deeper about our status as proper nouns.)

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