Monday, July 26, 2010

Star Wars Highbrow: Thesis Antithesis Synthesis

Joshua Glenn's final revision of my Star Wars Klein group diagram 

Above is another variant on my Star Wars Klein Group Diagram. I heard from's Joshua Glenn. turns out the first version of his Star Wars Semiotic Square I posted was pretty close to the mark, but I got some things mixed up. I left that first version up but guided by his corrections here is the final "fully functional" Joshua Glenn Star Wars Semiotic Square
In addition to describing the square above Glenn's original post also discussed his choices for the cardinal points at some length in terms of a "highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow-nobrow-hilobrow schema." It is a scheme he has charted elsewhere, admitting that "aesthetic and lifestyle choices aren't entirely independent of social class." Until I read Glenn's criticism it hadn't consciously occurred to me to think about lowbrow vs highbrow in any systematic way. I suppose if I thought about it at all, I figured that what I have been doing with my Star Wars & Modernism project is some sort of highbrow take on a lowbrow film, or a lowbrow take on highbrow art and architecture. In his post however  Glenn calls Star Wars "George Lucas’ attempt to cobble together a middlebrow entertainment following Joseph Campbell’s template" and calls Lucas himself a sentimental middlebrow. Once he brought it to my attention, it made perfect sense, lowbrow is not the term of derision, middlebrow is. Posting on the middlebrow (Farting in Church) wet my appetite. The term turns out to be so loaded with connotations, not just of social class, but ideas about cultural and racial superiority left over from the waning years of the age of imperialism, and Star Wars is the perfect vehicle to unpack the biases shadowing the judgement of both high and low.
A  diagram I made according to Joshua Glenn "highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow-nobrow-hilobrow schema."

Because Glenn describes how his schema would overlay his Semiotic Square - once I got Star Wars diagrammed correctly, charting the various angles of "brow" was comparatively straight forward. I just needed to match the character with the degree of brow they had been assigned. The one snag was that in addition to the various grades of brow Glenn uses the German word for nonsense - quatsch - to mean "nobrow" that has been "coopted by the middlebrow." I did some google stalking and am pretty sure this is original to HiLoBrow, but it is clearly meant to invoke Clement Greenberg's use of the German loanword kitschAs I discussed in my post on the middlebrow, Greenberg used kitsch to condemn every magnitude of the middlebrow as it existed in the 1930s, from tap dancing to Socialist Realism.
Darth Vader unmasked is a cuddly monster/alien like Chewbacca - both are Low-Middlebrow 

Like Geenberg, who was damning Norman Rockwell and John Stienbeck in a single breath, Glenn doesn't thin slice quatsch the way he does middlebrow, which is divided into high and low. He writes that Darth Vader is "a nobrow figure--but we find his coolness attractive, at some level. And that makes him cooptable by middlebrow... So: Darth Vader is quatsch." But like its predecessor  kitsch, quatsch is used to describe a range wide enough to test the flexibility of a single term. Because Glenn uses quatsch to describe both Vader, and Vader's least likely bedfellow I felt quatsch could use an articulated high and low end: "Han Sol is certainly nobrow - cool, detached. a mercenary who cares only for himself. But like Vader he is secretly sentimental - e.g., when he says "The Force be with you"to Luke... As a sentimental nobrow, solo is cooptable by middle brow." Neither Vader or Han Solo are located on Glenn's Square. Because he didn't assign Aliens or the Death Star a 'brow' I took the liberty of labeling those points as high and low quatsch. We'll see what he thinks of that idea...
Both Han Solo and the still masked Darth Vader are "Quatsch" - perhaps representing Low-Quatsch and High-Quatsch respectively?

This brings me to something about the visual program of Star Wars that has been tickling the back of my mind for some time now. The vernacular low of whitewashed adobe, and the functionalist high industrial polish, mirrors Modernism back at itself in ways that feel both well informed, and subtly altered. What has been tickling my imagination is how the reflection manages to feel obvious, the alterations insignificant, but are surprisingly insightful (this is supposed to be sentimental middlebrow pap after all). 
Glenn himself writes that, "Whether he knew it or not, Lucas was making a movie about Western imperialism in the era of decolonization." This is the same subtext that Fredric Jameson and W.J.T. Michell read into the film - who am I to disagree? Glenn continues that, "though it’s never articulated, the most poignant aspect of Star Wars IV is not whether Luke will rescue Leia, but whether the Death Star will be completed — and then used to wipe out non-human species. Note that the only non-human we see on the Death Star is the trash monster." Glenn has made a leap and decided that Star Wars is about genocide. That the story it is telling  is a Dances-with-Wolves-like encounter between the modern and the premodern. It is worth noting however, that more remarkable then the fact that the trash monster is the only alien on the Death Star, Princess Leia is the only woman. 

The same year Star Wars premiered, the artists Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff published the essay, Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture. Jaudon and Kazloff were both feminists attached to the Pattern and Decoration movement - a lively and productive group of artists at the time. In their essay they surveyed the "writings and statements of artists, art critics, and art historians" associated with the Modernist canon. The essay is an compilation of quotes - and is described by the feminist art historian Anna Chave as "following the proven tactic of hanging malefactors by their own ropes." To introduce the quotes, Jaudon and Kazloff also listed two groups of words. The first list were words "continuously used to characterize what has been called 'high art.'" The right, or "highbrow"side of Glenn's Star Wars Semiotic Square, lines up nicely with this list: 

the individual man
the human figure
the Greeks
the Romans
the English
true form

Stormtroopers are Highbrow, Imperial Officers High-Middlebrow.

In their second list Jaudon and Kozloff pick out words, that, in the same texts, "are used repeatedly in connection with so called 'low art.'" Again this list lines up nicely with the left, or "low" side of Glenn's schema. Glenn writes that "the finest Jedi eventually realize that it is preferable to be lowbrow - living in a simple hut, chopping wood and carrying water and communing with natural energies." Glenn is clearly aware that an authentic folk culture in contrast to the alienated self-reflexive modern man, is a loaded and patronizing romanticism. "Or is this fake authenticity?" he asks. According to Jaudon and Kazloff, yeah it pretty much is. Here are the words they found associated with the lowly:

the lower classes

Luke and Ben are, according to Glenn, solidly Lowbrow.

Jaudon and Kazloff were feminist with a particular ax to grind - they were countering the low esteem afforded pattern and decoration by High Modernism. They observed that, "since the art experts considers the 'high-arts' of Western men superior to all other forms of art, those arts done by  non-Western people, low-class people and women are categorized as 'minor arts,' 'primitive arts,' 'low arts,' etc." 
During the nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution gathered steam and engineering distinguished itself as a distinct and wholly independent profession, architecture began to be defended as a highbrow aesthetic discipline. Consider how engineering marvels like the Crystal Palace (1851), Brooklyn Bridge (1983) and the Eiffel Tower (1888) must have set architects on their back foot. perhaps in response to engineering's cultural success, architecture became a gentleman's game of historical self-awareness. Architecture was the "master art" - it was the well-informed (highbrow) overarching vision, beneath which the "minor arts" were subordinate. This vision of architecture lasted into the earliest moments of twentieth century Modernism. Frank Lloyd-Wright's "Organic" modernism and Gropious's germinal Bauhaus shared this vision of the architecture as the master art. The Empire Sate Building is perhaps the final and ultimate expression of that vision of architecture as cultural jewel bow. But Modernist architecture emerged from the war stripped bare. In its full bloom of functionalist glass and steel towers, post war Modernism was characterized by an even greater imagined distance between the high and low. In his canonical 1908 polemic, Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos wrote: 

No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives at our cultural level. I can tolerate the ornament of the Kaffir, the Persian the Slovak peasant woman, my shoemaker's ornaments, for they all have no other way of attaining the high points of their existence. We have art, which has taken the place of ornament.

The Jawa and Hammerhead are examples of vulnerable and non-threatening aliens in Star Wars.

That's mighty white of old Loos. Ornament and Crime is particularly harsh; its cultural suprematism particularly noxious, but it had the authority of holy scripture for the Post-War functionalists. Loos was writing at a time when European and American Imperialism was peaking. Not just territorially - although in the lead up to WWI the colonial powers controlled 85% of the world's surface  - but also in brutality and the penetration of colonial rulers into the lives of those they ruled. Loos was giving intellectual aid and comfort to an ideology that had become wantonly violent and all encompassing. Edward Said writes that it must be noted that:
This Eurocentric culture relentlessly codified and observed everything about the non-European or presumably peripheral world, in so thorough and detailed a manner as to leave no item untouched, no culture unstudied, no people and land unclaimed. All of the subjugated peoples had it in common that they were considered to be naturally subservient to a superior, advanced, developed, and morally mature Europe, whose role in the non-European world was to rule, instruct, legislate, develop, and at the proper times, to discipline, war against, and occasionally exterminate non-Europeans.  
When Star Wars was conceived, the Modernist were at the height of their powers. Lucas says Nixon was considering amending the Constitution so that he could run for a third term. The worlds the the-tallest buildings, The John Hancock Center (1968), the World Trade Towers (1971-2), and finally The Sears Tower (1974), had been recently completed The downtown core of Paris, which had survived WWII unscathed, had been transformed to such a degree (a full third of the old city had been demolished by the Modernists) that one critic called it a city only an American could love. But by the time the film premiered that Modernist world was in decline. The historian Frank Gavin asks:
Was there anything in 1975 that would have led anyone to predict that the United States was about to begin an extraordinary three decade plus economic and technological surge, the likes of which the world had never seen before? In retrospect, this post Vietnam era, which at the time, anyone in any position of power, any commentator talked about as the decline of the United States actually were the seeds, the roots of a great American rebirth and a great sort of renaissance in American power. It was actually the birth date of our current age of power triggered by globalization-led economic growth...  the release in 1977 of the movie Star Wars, the highest grossing movie of all times highlighting the increased dominance of U.S. popular culture that would spread around the globe like wildfire. People are probably familiar with Joe Nyes A Notion of Soft Power, the idea that your culture and your ideas and your beliefs are an incredibly important instrument in spreading your national interest. Well, how does that manifest itself? Coca Cola, Levi Jeans, Star Wars. This is the signal that American culture which one could have imagined would be in a period of decline. This is the beginning when we see American culture actually stepping up and increasing its influence around the world.
Not all monster/aliens are cuddly in Star Wars, Some, like Walrusman and the Sand People are violent and threatening.

This is the moment the Modernist narrative of high/low runs out of gas. In that moment in time the modernists were still disparaging the middle, romancing the low and lionizing the logic and purity of the high, but most of them were doing so mechanically, almost as if it were simply force of habit. Glenn writes in his earlier post explaining his schema of thin sliced brows (ant-lowbrow, ant-highbrow, unbrow... oh my) that his "fourth metaterm," hilobrow, may be unattainable:
Middlebrow does not mediate between Highbrow and Lowbrow; and therefore it should not be championed by those who are attempting to champion social mobility... HiLobrow may not actually be a disposition that anyone can actually inhabit; it might be more of an ideal — Highbrow and Lowbrow, reunited and it feels so good... I have not in my experience encountered any certain specimen of this type; but I do not refuse to admit that as far as I know, every other person may be such a specimen. At the same time I will say that I have searched vainly for years….”
Perhaps it is not because Glenn has been looking in the wrong places, but because he has been using the wrong frame for his search. His judgement of the Droids doesn't ring true to me (niether does placing Leia in the Lowbrow position - which is why I didn't group her portrait with Luke and Obiwan). Glenn Writes that:
C-3PO and R2-D2. Because they’re artifacts of the “White” world who exhibit “Brown” values. To the extent that they’re an eccentric, unpredictable, funny slapstick duo one is tempted to call them hilobrow. 
That sounds too much like the lowbrow peasants in Akira Kurosawa's  film Hidden Fortress. Lucas has pointed to The Hidden Fortress as the one of the inspirations for Star Wars. He has said that he borrowed the narrative device of filming an epic from the perspective of the socially lowest characters from Kurosawa. What is most striking about the relationship between these two sets of lowly characters however is that Kurosawa's peasants are stupid, petty fools, constantly undone by their own greed and incompetence. Lucas Droids have their own agendas, to the point that it can be convincingly argued that R2-D2 is not just a MacGuffin, he is a supremely competent manipulator guiding the events that lead to the fall of the Emperor. If I were to liken them with a "low" character, I would choose modern example like Charlie Chaplin's wiley Little Tramp or Jacques Tati's strangely dignified Monsieur Hulot
R2-D2 and C3P0 are, according to Glenn, as close to the impossible ideal of Hilobrow As the film offers.

So far I have held myself to using the examples and terms that Glenn used in his revision, but I want to return to the terms I used originally and consider some less orthodox terms that are suggested by the film's visual program. It requires an appeal to a figure who embodies the art and architecture that Star War was both reflecting, and subtly altering.
Tony Smith - who I worship like a God - was both a high Modernists and something over and beyond. According to the art Historian William Agee, "Smith was born in 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock, one of his oldest and closest friends, placing him squarely in the generation of the Abstract Expressionists." But Smith wouldn't have his first artistic success until the after Pollock had died and Abstract Expressionism was on the wane. For its 1967 cover story on Smith, Time Magazine described his as a "minor" architect, a "Sunday painter of geometric abstractions" and a "semiprofessional Irishman." Whatever the jerks at Time Magazine made of him, within the artworld Smith was an avuncular figure who bridged the otherwise uncrossable generational divide that had split the American art world during the 1960s. His art, architecture and ideas had the rigor and severity one associates with modernist architecture. 
Smith's Modernist credentials are unimpeachable (he studied for a year at the Chicago Bauhaus, during the late 1930 worked under Frank Lloyd-Wright, and his own architecture was akin to the striped down International Style),  but he is commonly pointed to as an ur-minimalist.Smith was quoted by Robert Morris in his Notes on Sculpture essays, is name checked by Donald Judd in his essay Specific Objects, the critic Michael Fried used Smith as a bludgeon in his attack on Morris and Judd, Art and Objecthood. The artist Smith may have been most important to was the earthworks artist Robert Smithson, who quoted Smith in a half dozen different essays over the years. Smith's Modernists roots are revealed however when it comes to the split between the lowbrow minor art and the highbrow master art.  Smith makes the modernist appreciation for the primitive all the more explicit when his opposes it to what he doesn't like:
I’m interested in the inscrutability and mysteriousness of the thing. Something obvious on the face of it (like a washing machine or a pump), is of no further interest. A Bennington earthenware jar for instance, has subtle color, largeness of form, a general suggestion of substance, generosity, is calm and reassuring  - qualities that take it beyond utility…
 Glenn does consider the Moisture Farm "whose organic shape," he writes, "conceals high-tech condensers and transformers and droids" as a possible candidate to occupy the HiLoBrow position. Perhaps because he is analysing the film as literature and his effort is to map "aesthetic and lifestyle choices" and to do so, at least in part, in terms of  "social class" he settles on the droids. But he immediately undoes even his own choice because, he explains, "this is a George Lucas Movie! That doesn't seem possible." I perfectly understand Glenn's point about Lucas, but I think he is wrong. HiLoBrow it would seem, would be something as inscrutable and mysterious as a Bennington earthenware jar, and as obvious as a washing machine or a pump. Whether or not Star Wars is a synthesis of high and low, I will leave up to Glenn to decide. On the merits of its visual program, it can however be judged to be a very successful synthesis of the "minor arts" and the "master art."

The Moisture Farm is something "obvious" but  with "a general suggestion of substance."

Architecture as a gentleman's profession developed along with the Industrial Revolution, and a lot can be said about the materials and techniques that gave birth to Modernist architecture, But that same period of development was also marked by the spreading reach and insinuating controls of colonialism. The development of the master art is deeply stained by the attitudes and prejudices of that era. In his essay Space, Knowledge and Power, Michelle Foucault writes that: 
From the eighteenth century on, every discussion of politics as the art of the government of men necessarily includes a chapter or a series of chapters on urbanism, on collective facilities, on hygiene, and on private architecture. Such chapters are not found in the discussions of the art of government of the sixteenth century. This change is perhaps not in the reflections of architecture, but it is quite clearly seen in the reflections of political men.
What marks the Modernist architecture of the Post War years was not the technologies of glass and steel construction, but was instead a shift in ambition. The shift had begun before the war as architects increasingly saw themselves as being able to solve the vexing political questions of urbanism. They offered themselves, but were largely ignored, dismissed as utopians. The exception was New York where Robert Moses was able to radically restructure the city from the ground up as the MoMA's Alfred Barr worked from above to normalize the radical vision of Mies, Gropius and Corbusier for the city's elites. 
After the War political men were ready to accept radical ideas whole swaths of Europe needed to be rebuilt and the Modernists were there with fast inexpensive solutions that they sold as as a cure for all that ailed the Old World. Elsewhere I have written about Utopia at length, but it is worth repeating here that:
The Death Star is a flying saucer that has been inflated to the size of a moon. Like the minimalist art it resembles, the Death Star is a utopia stripped of all progressive justification: It has monastic barracks, its sexuality is defined negatively (see Darth Vader’s masochistic garb), and its entryway is a breach in the “equatorial trench.”

Seagram Building and the Death Star 

The third "metaterm" that bridges the divide between the minor and the master is somewhat unlikely, in that it is not a middling word. The artist Robert Irwin, who is close in age to George Lucas, provides us with our third way. In his biography Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, there is this description of a "New York Artforum type" That finally through out of his car in disgust. The fight was over whether or not hot-rods were folk art:
he was one of those Marxist critics who likes to think he’s really involved with the people, making great gestures and so forth, but they’re hardly in the world at all. Anyway he was talking about pot-making and weaving and everything. And my feeling was that was not all historical art but not folk art. As far as I am concerned, a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use everyday, and you give it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life. And folk art in the current period of time would more appropriately be in the area of something like a motorcycle. I mean, a motorcycle can be a lot more than just a machine that runs along; it can be a whole description of a personality and aesthetic.

George Lucas and his young crew hot rodded Modernism. 

Hot Rods and Pirate Ships

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