Michael Rosen, philosopher, on David Hockney’s illustrations of a Wallace Stevens poem : The Blue Guitar
GB Tell me why you chose this.
MR To be quite honest with you at the outset, I have problems with “beauty”. I don’t know whether “beauty” is something I can work with. So one of the things about this object that appealed to me is not just that the poem has been very well illustrated by David Hockney, but that the poem itself is a very intriguing and puzzling reflection on what has happened to have made art and beauty so problematic. It resonates with me through my sense of how puzzling those things have become.
GB It’s interesting on so many levels, being an illustration of themes in a poem inspired by Picasso.
MR Then there’s Hockney himself. People don’t take him as an intellectual painter but he’s got a sense of fragmentariness and a sense of wanting to hang on to the virtuosity of painting as a skilful performance and a play with imagery – despite the fact that painting perhaps can’t fulfil the grand aspirations that people once had for it.
GB So is that what attracts you to Hockney?
MR He’s unfailingly visually interesting even when he’s not in a conventional sense, beautiful.
GB One of my favourite quotations from Hockney is from when Larry Rivers asks if he’d rather his work was found beautiful or interesting, and he says that interesting “sounds like it’s on its way there, whereas beautiful can really knock you out.”
MR I don’t always take what artists say about their work as the final word but that does make sense to me. When you look at Hockney across his career, like Picasso, there’s a fecundity there. He’s always allowed himself to be led by images and skills and techniques rather than having some fierce, dogmatic conceptual programme.
GB Yes, I suppose he’s illustrating some of these different techniques here.
MR Hockney strikes me as someone with an appetite for visual technique. I suppose you could say his eclecticism about style and technique goes back to when he started as a pop artist. I also remember his scenery for the Rake’s Progress. Playing with images from the past – re-presenting the old and thereby making something new – is clearly another part of his artistic personality.
GB Do you think beauty has become problematic since Modernism?
MR I think the issue goes back a long way – to before Modernism, certainly. Think back to the 18th Century when people had these categories of the “sublime”, the “beautiful” and the “picturesque”. If somebody nowadays said, “I can’t really work with the sublime and the picturesque because they don’t mean to me what they once did,” I’d imagine most people would nod. They seem to have become clearly dated. But I think that something similar is true of the “beautiful” as well. In those days “beauty” meant to many people a well orderedness, a classical harmony of structural form. For others it was a kind of instinctive aesthetic pleasure. I’m particularly fascinated by the Germans’ identification of beauty with this quality they called “Schöner Schein” – I suppose you’d say ‘beautiful illusion’, a sort of elusive, even dream-like quality, where “beauty” points you in some unspecific way to a higher realm.
In this poem Wallace Stevens is very much concerned with that aspiration of art to stand in for a religious ideal of transcendence. The question is, can we look to art to compensate for some aspects of religion disappearing from our lives and what aspects would those be? I find the Stevens to be very thought provoking there: the central idea seems to be that the elevating function of religion has been transferred to art (“poetry, exceeding music, takes the place of empty heaven and its hymns”) but that poetry is over-burdened because of that. Guitarists can become so immersed in their music that a kind of magical quality emerges from it – that seems to be the thin thread we’re hanging on to if we want to use art to transcend ourselves. “Rhapsody” is a very interesting word that he uses: the idea that something equivalent to the elevated quality (we might call it a sense of the sacred or the numinous) that people identify with religious experience could still remain in a secular world. That makes me think of him as a kindred spirit.
GB It’s interesting that he had such high hopes for poetry and yet poetry has such a small audience today.
MR I think poetry comes in and out. In the late 18th and through the 19th century, poetry was a place where people could sometimes in a coded way explore scary thoughts that it wasn’t possible to articulate publicly without going against strong mores and ethos. It was a place where people could reflect on difficulties, particularly with religion, so it was a private space in which artists and intellectuals could think about these things. Think about the British poetry from the First World War and how crucial it was. Now people shrug their shoulders at very radical views about life, death and politics – asserting them publicly (so long as you’re not a bishop) doesn’t shock anybody.
GB Do you think the problem with art and beauty partly stems from the fact that we have so much available to us now?
MR No, I think the problem is even deeper. It’s not just that there once was an agreed style but we now live in a pluralistic world of, if you will, symbolic abundance. The sense that we’re lacking in style and fixed points of reference has been felt by generation after generation for a long time. And the experience of pluralism brings gains too – people opening up to experiences that once would have been closed. I think that what’s most distinctive nowadays is more a matter of our losing certain convictions about the nature and possibility of art.
GB I’m interested that you’ve chosen a piece of art as something beautiful rather than nature for instance.
MR The idea that, if religion can’t do it, then we look to nature for transcendence seems to me to be just as much a part of the transformation that took place with Romanticism as the idea of transcendence through art. I think that one of the things that was encapsulated within the idea of beauty was an idea about transience and loss –art is a way of registering the distance of loss but experience of nature can carry that too. (Perhaps that was what Benjamin meant when he talked about traditional art as “auratic” and famously compared it to the essentially distant character of a landscape seen on a summer afternoon.) Of all of the post-Romantic arts, music was best placed to capture that. But even that may have ended. Didn’t Mahler once say that he couldn’t work out if his music was really transcendent or just banal?
GB Frank Kermode says about two lines of Wallace Stevens that they’re beautiful but he doesn’t know what they mean. Is it strange to find something beautiful without understanding its meaning?
MR I can’t speak for Frank Kermode, but Stevens does convey to me a sense that there may be a meaning there if only one kept going, but then, sometimes, it’s as if he were almost parodying a philosophical poem. Part of it might be that there were once fixed symbolic correlatives for notions which poets had at their disposal and which allowed common meanings to be asserted. Stevens might have these but he doesn’t explain what they are. We don’t know if “the imagined jay” or “the imagined pine” at the end of the poem are a part of his private history and experience or meant to be a code for something that the reader is meant to be able to translate.
GB Do you think the Modernists made it acceptable to not know what things mean? Picasso always scorned people who tried to understand his paintings.
MR I think the Modernists are responding to a real problem. To put it again in late-eighteenth, early nineteenth-century terms: Coleridge had the idea that the “symbolic” is the “translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal and the special” – that is, that there is always some kind of iconic, indefinite quality in something truly beautiful; that authentic art somehow “points beyond itself”. So Coleridge (and his contemporaries – Goethe, most obviously) had this contrast between the symbolic and the allegorical, by which the allegorical functions like a code (and, for that reason, isn’t truly authentic art). Something in Stevens’s poem is very troubling because what’s at stake is not whether we share a common code in that allegorical way but whether artistic content can ever have the capacity to carry us beyond the mundane.
GB I believe the Modernists were deadly serious but don’t you think there have been a lot of meaningless imitations of them?
MR Yes! Once again, we see that the best argument for professional philosophy is amateurs! There are, unfortunately, people out there who practise post-modern conceptual art as a form of banal philosophy. I find that particularly dispiriting. But then there are works like Jasper Johns’ series of numbers. Those are incredible works that you perhaps interpret in an immediate way as a conventional token. Yet, when you look at them closely you see that you’ve imposed an immediate, simple meaning on an artifact that is much more complex. It’s art that is distinctively visual rather than conceptual. At the same time, it’s intellectually challenging and contains extraordinary virtuosity.
GB But you still wouldn’t describe it as beautiful?
MR No, and that shows that, for me, the end of beauty isn’t the same as the end of art – art doesn’t have to be “beautiful” to be valuable. It’s a big change, certainly, and Stevens was right to find it so disconcerting, yet it doesn’t seem to me to be in all ways a bad thing. For instance, one of the things that was so problematic about the “beauty aesthetic” was the way in which it was related to sexuality – the way we looked to women as epitomes of the “beautiful” and thereby identified them (well, some of them, anyway, and at certain ages) as avatars of that kind of transcendence. That was one of the legacies of Romanticism.
GB So what makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MR I don’t think I can answer that but I still think if you had to have a single definition of beauty then Stendhal’s is the best – that beauty is the promise of happiness. We shouldn’t misunderstand that. Not all promises are kept. Some promises are beautiful because they’re a lie or an illusion – that we can be beyond pain or grief. But even acceptance of transience is a form of happiness. So Picasso’s decrepit old man with the guitar could embody beauty seen in that way.