Rogier Van der Weyden (1450 appx. detail)

“The culture in which we live is perhaps the most claustrophobic that has ever existed; in the culture of globalisation, as in Bosch’s hell, there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise.”
John Berger (Portraits)

“Painting’s memory nests two supports within each other, since if perspective is the support of imaging, the chessboard, as Hubert Damisch has shown us, is the support of imaging.”
Rosalind Krauss (Under Blue Cup)

“The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phe- nomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.”
Eric Hobsbawm (Age of Extremes)

Rogier Van der Weyden was a fifteenth century Flemish painter, about whom nearly nothing is known. He didn’t sign his paintings, or not many of them, and he worked out of a large workshop and many of his works were clearly collaborations. His best work is stunningly good, in my opinion. The work that was collaborative is not. Still, I’ve always been attracted to what Dirk de Vos called ‘the Flemish primitives’. Early fifteenth century Flemish painters, most of whom are characterized …as someone said…by not being Jan Van Eyck. And readers of this blog know that Van Eyck is among my favorite artists and perhaps my favorite painter period. But that’s sort of silly, picking favorites, and I will only say that something in that first part of the fifteenth century, in Flanders and thereabouts, allowed for an outpouring of extraordinary emotional expression and vision. The lesser painters, Petrus Christus and Van der Weyden perhaps, all of whom seemed connected to Dieric Bouts workshop, and that of Albert van Ouwater, even they possessed a kind of emotional genius. It is Ouwater who was perhaps the earliest master of this small region. And all of them seemed so dark, so possessed of the organic and less than wholesome suffering of the region. The vision is not uplifting or even inspiring. It is not pessimistic, either, which is what I think so fascinates me. They were emotional realists in some sense.

Dieric Bouts, 1470 (Christ crowned with Thorns, detail)

There were divergences — the northern Nederlandish painters and the Ghent Flemish, and Haarlem school. Van der Weyden was born in Tournai in 1399 (?) and moved to Brussels sometime before 1440 or so. He studied at Tournai with Robert Campin, himself a fascinating figure in all this. Van der Weyden was designated *Master*, meaning not just that he was an accomplished painter but that he could converse knowledgeably with the aristocracy and rich merchants he would be painting — conversing about the Bible, Carthusian beliefs, myths and even geography. And it is Van der Weyden who expresses something more unwaveringly single minded and devout than any others of his period and place. Panovsky even wrote…“Rogier’s world is at once physically barer and spiritually richer than Jan Van Eyck’s.” For Van der Weyden it was the inner life of man, his relationship to God, that mattered. He was probably unable to read, and had been schooled entirely by his instructors (Campin certainly). But it is his work, and really that of Christus, too and Bouts and Ouwater that so strikes me. Interestingly Van der Weyden’s key patrons were the Spanish. Which makes sense. Italians were too sensual and secretly optimistic. The Spanish were not. The inquisition was Spanish after all. And Spain had great holdings in the region. For the Flemish painters the world was unforgiving and suffering was the key element in devotion. Nobody painted more tears per square foot of canvas than Van der Weyden.

Rogier Van der Weyden (Woman, 1450s)

That said, Van Eyck was, finally, the realist. Van der Weyden captured something unique in his portraits, subtle and mysterious, but also perhaps idealized. Christus was closer to Van Eyck in his realism, and of course followed Van Eyck, after his death, as Master of Bruges. For Van der Weyden was the myth maker, the metaphysician and dark angel of early Flanders art. I have no particular exact reason for going on about early fifteenth century Dutch and Flemish painting except to say that spending time in contemplation of such work will help cleanse some of the detritus and toxins of contemporary marketed life. But also that somehow the rituals of Christian suffering one sees in Van der Weyden or Christus gradually changed and at some point, notably the Industrial revolution, this suffering became transformed into class stigmatizing. That some combination of forces encouraged projection, and began, too, the long slow dissolving of interior life. Dominique Kalifa’s new book ( Vice, Crime, and Poverty, how the Western World Invented the Underworld) notes the shifts in how descriptions, even words, changed over time regarding the poor. The invention of a criminal underclass was necessary.

“The essential elements were quite real: the frightful poverty that was crushing the new proletarians, the insalubrity, the promiscuity, the absence of a horizon other than the one sketched by depression, the suffering or revolt. Nevertheless the general focus on vice, ‘demoralization’ and transgression did arise from fantasy. The intention was clear: to stigmatize the intolerable, to remove responsibility from the elites and to reaffirm the values that underlay the dominant identity.”
Dominique Kalifa (Vice, Crime, and Poverty, How the Western World Invented the Underworld)

Yishai Jusidman, photography.

The reality of poverty came to be accompanied by a social imaginary, a moralizing vision in which the vulnerable and disenfranchised were evil, contagious, and threatening. Kalifa notes in an interview (Pacific Standard, March 2019) “Until the 12th century in the Christian world, poverty was sanctified,” he tells me. Poor people in those days were seen as blessed by God, and “charity was a necessary action.” He theorizes the Black Death changed things to a large extent, but also shifts in capital and property and the sense of insecurity for the rich and aristocracy. The poor were demonized, and the Church assisted with this. Sure, there were needy beggars but there were also evil criminal poor who *chose* to be so. And from the start the affluent classes were voyeuristically fascinated with these lower depths. The French term bas-fonds, or lower depths was employed. The rich of London and Paris frequently visited the underworld for titillation and amusement. This underclass tourism is still a marked feature of contemporary life. In fact it is larger today than it ever was, really. But in the late 1700s and through much of the 19th century, there was a growing taxonomic process of subdividing the underclass, first between worthy and unworthy, and then into various categories of criminality and moral transgression. And both this underworld tourism, and the categorizing of it served the ruling class — first by allowing a worthy poor to exist in order to express charity — however limited and thereby salve their conscience, and second to create justification for displacing their guilt, or perhaps just projecting their ambivalence. Guilt became and continues to be the engine behind much policy toward the poor, and much of the cruelty and gratuitous punishments visited upon them. All of the institutional constructions for dealing with the pseudo problems of the poor, the moral aspect, were about ruling class protection and also about ruling class psychology.

Lynne Cohen, photography.

“Comparative analysis of the evolution of penality in the advanced countries over the past decade reveals a close link between the ascendancy of neoliberalism, as ideological project and governmental practice mandating submission to the “free market” and the celebration of “individual responsibility” in all realms .. on the one hand, and the deployment of punitive and pro active law-enforcement policies targeting street delinquency and the categories trapped in the margins and cracks of the new economic and moral order coming into being under the conjoint empire of financialized capital and flexible wage labor, on the other hand.”
Loic Wacquant (Punishing the Poor)

So there are several threads here; one is that the aesthetics of neo-liberalism, another is the psychology of class and power, and the third is the sociology of punishment. Now, I should be clear that I don’t think ruling class sadism, as one sees everywhere in contemporary life (in the West anyway) is the product of guilt. I don’t think the ruling class feels guilt, per se. But I do think there is a structural guilt, so to speak, that evolved over time. And it merged with fantasy narratives of individuality, and with the anxiety and narcissism both, in the affluent classes.

Rosalind Krauss posited the idea of painters self expression, or their idea of ‘who they were’, as connected directly to perspective. From the Renaissance onward anyway. And that this changed at the start of the 20th century. However much of that one accepts, what is interesting is how the individual as an idea both grew and shrunk at the same time. The more conformity was coercively demanded, the more individuality was idealized.

Petrus Christus (Portrait of a Carthusian Monk, 1446)

From the 1970s onward there has been an erosion of the idea of rehabilitation for criminals. There are contradictions here, though, too. For addiction this is not entirely the case, for example.

“Forms of public shaming and humiliation that for decades have been regarded as obsolete and excessively demeaning are valued by their political proponents today precisely because of their unambiguously punitive character. Hence the new American laws on public notification of sex offenders’ identities, the wearing of the convict striped uniform, or work on a chain gang, and also their milder British equivalents: the paedophile register and the requirement of uniforms and demeaning labour for those doing community service.”
David Garland (The Culture of Control)

So not only has guilt disappeared, or rather been more deeply buried, but cruelty itself is being normalized. Popular culture certainly reflects this. And yet, there is a consistent and repeated trend toward erasing the signs of cruelty. The recent controversy over the Arnautoff murals at a school in San Francisco. There is a very cogent short video here that touches on the issues…

The last five minutes of this video are very good . A magical thinking curriculum is, indeed, what the system is encouraging. But all identity based policy is de-facto magical thinking. So on the one hand the punitive sadism of the criminal justice system, and its entertainment expressions throughout Hollywood product, is also highly selective in how it is administered. Cruelty toward the poor, toward the marginalized, is acceptable and desired, but the macro narrative regarding how society sees itself is one that demands depictions of altruism and fairness.

Guy Ferrer

The field of deserving poor is ever shrinking. And the intensity of anger toward the poor overall has grown in strength and degree.

“Fear of crime has come to be regarded as a problem in and of itself, quite distinct from actual crime and victimization, and distinctive policies have been developed that aim to reduce fear levels, rather than to reduce crime. “
David Garland (ibid)

The underworld that Kalifa noted is now dramatized differently than thirty years ago. Perhaps even twenty years ago. The underworld is now populated with monstrous predators and crazed career criminals. But it also commodified. There is an entire reality TV category about the worst of anything. The worst gangs, the worst prisons, the worst serial killers, etc. So there is both this growth of *fear* among the bourgeois public, and a growth in the voyeurism targeting the objects of this semi generalized fear. To what degree this fear is sincere is an open question, I think. Or if its an anxiety about ones own fear or fear of one’s anxiety I’m not sure. And of course there has been a startling focus on the victim in popular discourse. And the victim figures prominently in much new criminal legislation (The Brady bill, Jenna’s law, etc).

Garland notes how the figure of the victim has actually changed the very notion of the public. It is dis-aggregated, in his words, it is no longer subsumed within the public good. The public is individualized. And this is part of a broader fabric of security overall. This is the security society. Where eighty years ago there was a desire for protection from the state, there is now a demand for protection by the state. Within this comes the loss of civil liberties and due process. Defendent’s rights are curtailed and incarceration is viewed as a means to protect the public not just from crime, but from future crime.

Graciela Sacco

The shift toward a belief in social controls suggests a cynical view of humanity overall. This is migration of the Ayn Rand philosophy of selfishness into a desire for and belief in societal measures of control. Mass surveillance is accepted alongside and as part of this drift. There is a strange conflation at work in this, I suspect. As poverty grows the privileged white (almost entirely) bourgeoisie feels ever less secure. Homelessness, in Los Angeles, for example, is at some Biblical level almost unimaginable. The state fudges the numbers but everyone knows the numbers are at an apocalyptic level. This fear also begins, in part, to become an amorphous and acute anxiety about life itself. And this partly drives the alarmist tendencies in climate discourse. All the tendencies evident in criminal justice are now present in climate talks, too. The climate underclass are those deemed *deniers* (of course the third world poor constitute an unspoken accepted underclass). The rhetoric of this new quasi religious ecological concern is perfectly congruent with the language of control and punishment. There is a constant drumbeat one reads on social media and in the press about being ‘fed up’ with climate deniers, but rarely is this anger directed at the state. And in fact the faces of this eco-deism are the white faces of the ruling class. The new corporate ecology symbol of teenage and Volkish Greta is accompanied on her excellent sailing adventure by British royals and billionaires. The erosion of interior life is reflected in this, too.

The generalized fear, and anxiety, both operating in a complex of feedback loops I think, are the result of not just this growth in resentment toward the poor, or rather that resentment too is part of a stultified psyche, an arid denuded loss of imagination and dream life. Resentment is intimately connected to the repetition compulsion. But the ennui and malaise of what passes for the white middle class today is intensely self directed. The anger and outrage one sees or reads or hears about is a mock outrage — it dissipates and moves on. It is not a deeply felt emotion, but structurally it serves perfectly well to further this build up of unforgiveness toward the world. The new hyper anxious white person feels indignation mostly at his or her lack of reward or recognition. And even when recognition comes in some way, there is little or no or very very fleeting satisfaction.

Davide Boriani

“There can be no doubt that art did not begin as art for art’s sake. It worked originally in the service of impulses which are for the most part extinct to-day. And among them we may suspect the presence of many magical purposes.”
Sigmund Freud

But magical purposes persist. Or perhaps have returned. Which is an interesting question.

“It is not criminality that has changed here so much as the gaze that society trains on certain street illegalities, that is, in the final analysis, on the dispossessed and dishonored populations (by status or origin) that are their presumed perpetrators, on the place they occupy in the City, and on the uses to which these populations can be subjected in the political and journalistic fields. These castaway categories-unemployed youth left adrift, the beggars and the homeless, aimless nomads and drug addicts, postcolonial immigrants without documents or support-have become salient in public space, their presence undesirable and their doings intolerable, because they are the living and threatening incarnation of the generalized social insecurity produced by the erosion of stable and homogenous wage work (promoted to the rank of paradigm of employment during the decades of Fordist expansion in 1945-75) and by the decomposition of the solidarities of class and culture it underpinned within a clearly circumscribed national framework.”
Loic Wacquant (ibid)

Robert Rauschenberg

“Clinical work shows again and again what large role the affect of resentment (alias unforgiveness) plays in psychopathology. ( ) Antisemitism represents a particularly virulent form of resentment.( ) In the inner life of the patients, this resentment shows itself in a double form: on the one side as a yelling inner voice of self-beratement and self-condemnation, on the other side in the enduring bitterness,…”
Leon Wurmser (Psychoanalytic Inquiry, vol. 29)

So there is a kind of shallow emotional core that filled up with anxiety and fear, and a fear of that anxiety; and one of the salves for this anxiety is both social media group formation — and this, however shallow, sense of belonging is only propped up with magical rituals of performance. The performing of a role of righteous and angry environmental concern. For this eco concern is a substitution for the lost capacity for real feeling. A sense that one’s own thoughts are counterfeit is harrowing.

This performative fantasy of life is close to the Philip K.Dick novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in which Mars colonists eat a drug (Can D) to inhabit a shared fantasy world controlled by industrialist Palmer Eldritch (Jeff Bezos?). The contemporary western world is like that Martian colony. And the Can-D of today is social media and the entertainment complex.

“The working assumption of these theories is that crime is an event-or rather a mass of events-that requires no special motivation or disposition, no pathology or abnormality, and which is written into the routines of contemporary social and economic life.”
David Garland (ibid)

The criminal is just there. Fallen from the sky. Magically. In the eco discourse the causality is diffuse and generic in a sense, too. *Everyone* is to blame, society is to blame, the rich, sure they are to blame, too, and the poor. And too many of everyone, and growth — and a host of other abstractions. Christina Wieland, in a chapter devoted to Otto Kernberg, talks about the formation of fascist groups.

“…this regression to narcissistic feelings of elation and expansion in an identification with a bigger than life entity is a regression to a phantasy of a union with mother – the archaic, omnipotent mother who contains father in herself. At the same time the paranoia of being robbed of one’s masculinity leads to the paranoia that characterises this phantasy. ( ) At the same time the taking over of the mother and her contents, what Klein described as total projective identification, is an act full of greed, envy and griev- ance for what the subject is deprived of. Elation and grievance maybe the two sides of a coin but completely unacceptable in its duality to the idealised image of the group. Instead one side of this duality is projected outside: to the outsider, the Jew or the Gypsy who wants to usurp the body of mother and strip it of all its goodness. The body images that run through Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the images of pollution, contamination and invasion by foreign bodies, are a sign of the psychic level at which the debate is carried out and of the primitive terrors that it describes.”
Christina Wieland (The Fascist State of Mind and the Manufacturing of Masculinity)

Sun Yanchu, photography.

As Mike Davis noted thirty years ago, the sense of threat helped direct the securitization of space, the *gated living* and segregated landscape that began in Los Angeles but has spread throughout the western world. From closed circuit security cameras to a new architecture of risk management, the populace became conditioned to accept and really to desire the exclusion of any trace of the *underworld* from their small but controlled environment. How this sense of privatised security and constant monitoring has affected the perception of Nature is an interesting question. Again the alarmism of much environmental discourse feels strangely reminiscent of 1970s homeowners associations and property owners associations as they argued for broader control of public space, as well as private space. The threat of climate change (and when exactly did global warming become climate change?) is related in several different registers to a fear of crime. A fear of the undesirables of the underworld. An unihabitable planet feels like a gated community with the gates left unguarded.

“Our attitudes to crime-our fears and resentments, but also our commmon sense narratives and understandings-become settled cultural facts and are sustained and reproduced by cultural scripts and not by criminal research or official data.”
David Garland (ibid)

Mathew Hindley

The cultural scripts, as Garland put it, are of course trafficking in the values and narratives of white supremacism and hyper masculine individuality of the US frontier. The narratives relating to Nature are, in general terms for the public today, made of up equal parts Western movies, the mythology of Manifest Destiny, the belief in regeneration through violence (per Richard Slotkin), a layman’s sense of high school level science, and new age health food store 60s kitsch codes of spirituality. There is a profound essentialism at work in almost all of the climate writing and warnings. The real threats of massive global pollution feels, actually, back burner stuff now. Certainly militarism is rarely broached as a topic. And all of this is acutely white and vaguely authoritarian.

I find writing like Justin McBrien (whose paper I’ve seen circulated a great deal) to be strangely vertiginous, and almost written in the code of this new (sic) environmentalism. It often reads like an encrypted message from a secret society.

The class analysis is what is missing. And this leads me back, or part of the way back, to Rogier Van der Weyden and Van Eyck. John Berger saw Bruegel as the most unforgiving of all great artists. Rembrandt may have a degree of accusation, but finally was a soothing brilliance. DaVinci simply made one optimistic. I would nominate Van Eyck as the great recalcitrant. And as an aside, Rubens as the greatest intellect in painting. Van Eyck was a realist, as was Bruegel, but Rubens was intelligence. The intelligence of feeling. If one puts aside Ruben’s nudes (in particular the famous paintings of his second wife) there emerges a vision of humanness, for lack of a better word, that feels very singular to me. And part of this is the confidence of his technical abilities. But another is his affection for the creative act itself. This is a digression, so forgive me.

Peter Paul Rubens (Satyr holding basket of grapes, detail) 1620.

“…with the end to the Twelve Year Truce in the Netherlands, Isabel Clara Eugenia began to send Rubens on diplomatic and political missions, taking advantage of his extraordinary fame as a painter, and his perfect command of Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch and Latin.”
Eduardo Gonzalez (The Diplomat, 2018)

Critics have tended to distrust Rubens for the same reasons many distrust Picasso or Warhol. And not without reason. In much of Rubens work there is a slight pandering embedded — the too rich colours and the general lushness — at the expense of a realism. Still, at this best Rubens was so proficient and skilled a draftsman and technician that it is hard to resist. And there is an acute intellect layered over all of it. And there is nothing prissy or moralizing about Rubens. His several works featuring satyrs are never painted with a warning label.

Rubens is the antithesis of contemporary sensibilities.

There has been a triple transformation going on in Europe and the U.S. over the last thirty years. The retraction of the welfare apparatus, the intensification of police and prison actions and sentencing, and the loss of jobs, or the transference of what jobs there are to the service sector. The peripheries of the city — this more true in Europe than the U.S. where cities developed idiosyncratically in many cases, but the zones of the dispossessed, the working poor, are housed and monitored. In the western U.S. the poor are located, often, near highway and freeway overpasses and exchanges, along industrial thoroughfares and in corridors of the most polluted land. The freeway overpass has come to symbolize dispossession.

Head of Buddha, 6th century Afghanistan.

“We must raise our voices to correct an insidious tendency -the tendency, to blame crime on society rather than on the criminal.”
George H.W.Bush (address to students 1989)

This dynamic has not really altered so much as intensified. And as the loss of jobs reaches crises levels, the hysteria of the affluent and remaining bourgeoisie grows. The eaters of the new Can-D, play at re-arranging their dolls and playhouses (only on the internet, which increasingly does resemble a martian colony) but gradually suffer this particularly distressing anxiety.

“Guilt without judgement (without motive), as happens in some forms of very primitive persecutory sense of guilt, shades ever more into what is called nameless anxiety.”
Roberto Speziale-Bagliacca (Guilt, Revenge, Remorse and Responsibility after Freud)

This is at the core of what I am trying to get at here. For so denuded and barren is the interior landscape of contemporary society, so worn down by screen habituations, by the incoherence of media, both in the truncated narratives of entertainment, most of which are mediated by the Pentagon or DoD, or news in which the events of the world are presented as if fiction, with less and less interest in the appearance of something called objectivity, that a kind of psychic numbness occurs.

Ogawa Kazumasa, photography -hand-coloured albumen print. 1890.

It is stunning how increasingly scripted drama from Hollywood resemble children’s stories. I was reminded of a great insight of Clement Greenberg (of all people, here discussing literature) when he wrote…

“States of being are what count most in Kafka’s fiction, ongoing states such as can have no beginning or ending, but only middles. . . . If Kafka’s fiction admitted resolutions, they could be only melodramatic ones.”
Clement Greenberg (Art and Culture)

In contemporary film and TV there is a kind of psychological insecurity (it is the security culture after all) that stories must arrive at resolutions even when they resolve nothing. This is a good part of the incoherence of entertainment today. Art must reflect the security state. Must make clear there is no mental risk (this relates to trigger warnings and the like, but also the idea of magical thinking curriculums). That said, there is often no ending if the show (speaking of TV and streaming platforms like Netflix) is not popular enough. Then it just stops. Another interruption in an endless series of them.

Brian Rose, photography.

This mental numbness, though, intersects or oscillates between projections of guilt (resentments, lack of forgiveness) and introjected self loathing (which verges on or becomes numbness or lack of affect). The autistic character of much interaction today is colored by all this. And the bourgeoisie has formed a new religion of *concern* with environmental characters. The children’s stories that are presented as adult drama therefore are reproduced at a political level with things like the *Greta* phenomenon. And really one could just call it marketing campaign and be closer to the truth. But what fascinates me here is the narrative of extinction. How extinction became *popular*. And perhaps this strange ‘climate change’ trope or motif is oddly uncanny in its familiarity.

“While translated one could commit incest, murder, anything, and it remained from a juridical standpoint a mere fantasy, an impotent wish only.”
Phillip K. Dick (Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch)

The draw of extinction is both a result of mental fatigue, a kind of wish for an end, but also a projective resentment. I continue to hear how mankind is not worth saving and similar sentiments, which are both just facile cynicism, but also an expression of self loathing. But I think the desire for a master narrative which forecloses the anxiety of contemporary life is the real appeal here. A society in which miniatures of life stand in for life itself, in which loss of affect is normalized and even applauded, is one of near constant experiencing of the uncanny. I think the generations of screen damage are so conditioned by the missing face of the mother, or parent, by a sense of absence overall, that extinction feels like a relief.

Mark Vaux

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