Thursday, April 22, 2010
Killing the Past
I spent some days, almost a year ago, writing about forgery and Errol Morris' posts. Morris is obsessed with the acceptable limits of recreation, because he uses it in his documentaries. He is proposing a truth in his films, or that his films are ways of getting at what actually happened. Thus he is always concerned with what kind of recreation, or dramatization is "real." Is it acceptable to re-arrange cannonballs? What makes a painting "real," or "original?"
These questions concern me in my own world, because in art we are trying to draw a line, a line that plumbs a depth. Remember to plumb is to tie a lead weight to a string. We get the word plumbing from the same place. That line is from what we see, to the thing itself, the work or text, and back to the hand that made them. From the hand, to the mind that moved the hand. That is why we worry about who did what, because we are trying to find the pattern that made Rembrandt's hand, his, or anyone else. What makes a great artist, is that they have a certain way with moving from the inner well of self, through the hand, to the result. We want to feel that process in reverse, and so, become in some way, part of it.
In painting, there is a sharp and harsh dividing line for Western paintings, as I wrote of before, that line, is Prussian Blue. Prussic acid has a complex chemistry, even today we do not completely understand its total workings. But what it did, along its successors in chemical pigments, was not only change the painter, and the paintings, but our eyes. We are used to vivid colors, we are used to blue. The era after the discovery of artificial blues, is rich in them. Before? Blue was difficult and expensive, and so it was the center piece of the composition.
That is why forgers of paintings before that line, who worked after it, are often tripped up by Prussian Blue. There are other important lines for other important pigments of course, such as zinc white, but the bluing of our eyes, is the most dramatic. This is part, of the aesthetic of capital, which is, I will argue, a fundamental part of capital-ism. Capital aesthetic is the preference for the products of technology, or other means of improving the production of labor, or reduction of scarcity. We like the substitute of being conscious of production, for the activities of labor, or ownership.
Let me start with an obvious forgery, and show why it is acceptable, only because we are conditioned to see it that way. Here is the image. On the left, a forgery, on the right, the original. The use of a vastly blue background is acceptable to us, because we have seen it in historical pictures, and in our own time. But in its time, that much blue, floridly splashed across the back, is out of place. It would have been very expensive, and therefore would have been used not merely as a background, but as the sky, or other symbol. It might as well have been gilt in gold. We have seen the productions of paintings for the rich, and assume blue was normal, because it is normal to us. But in its moment, such a portrait could not have afforded that much blue, and if the patron could have, he would have wanted an artistic statement.
We see blue. They saw a great deal of money.
Even when the artist gets the use of blue in quantity correct, the cost of Prussic Acid, is just too sweet to ignore.
As I wrote in the long series of essays, one of the great forgeries of Prussic Blue, is not in paint, but in the claims that the holocaust could not have happened, because the gas chambers are not stained with the tell tale cyanide color. The reason for this, as I also explained, is that the places where there is staining used reagent that gives cyanide a more pungent smell. It is meant to warn people, because by the time an individual smells the tell tale bitter almond, it is often too late. But the Zyklon B used for the gas chambers, had no such reagent, and the reagent acts as a binding catalyst for the formation of prussic acid in the presence of iron. The claim is false, because in the delousing stations, where everyone could admit the use of poison to kill insects, they used the ordinary chemical, with safety reagent in it. In the death chambers, the Nazi's did not.
This too, is aesthetic of capital. We learn to recognize early the hand of production, because it is important to know. Why do people fake bought cakes as home made? I remember it happening several times in my childhood. The first time, I stared at the chocolate cake, twin to the one a family friend had brought over the day before. I had gotten sick on the icing, taking a finger through it and licking it. I remembered the impossibly neat icing, and thought it odd. The next day, shopping with my mother, I knew why. The cake was made by machine, and the family friend had lied about buying it.
The death chambers of the Nazi's are acts of capital. They worked in their grisly work, because the people who built them knew how a factory of death should work, because they knew how a factory should work. They knew how to bring in inputs, and move them through a process, and dispose of the bodies. It was this factory of death aesthetic that made it possible to kill so many, so quickly, and without real understanding by the outside world. In contrast, the Japanese attack on Nanjing, with its massacre and atrocities, used capital to kill, but it was capital as consumption. Nanjing was not a death factory, but instead, a killing field. People used capital, but they did not make capital.
I think this contrast, this guilt, is what drives the making of a film about John Rabe a member of the Nazi Party in China, living in Nanjing, who saved hundreds of thousands of people, by organizing safe zones, and delaying the massacre of civilians. In a sense this is an attempt to counter the image of all Germans as being complicit in atrocities, it is also a contrast of how in one place the humanity remains, while at home, it did not.
The forger kills the past, he substitutes a faked artifact, creating confusion backwards, to the hand, the mind, the moment of the mind. And it is that inner pattern that we seek to hold, and in some sense copy. The forgery is then any attempt to distort the pattern of the past: to disclaim that past. All forgeries play, then, on our sympathies, and therefore, on our differences with the past. The past as someone wished it could be, or wanted it to be. The same forgeries that worked to perfection in one place, are embarrassing in others.
The role of Rabe then, can be either a balance, an accent of color in the darkness of the history of Nazi-ism, or it can be an attempt to wash it, to paint over that history. How we look at it, and how it is presented, is as important as the content of the film itself. It is one thing to show a Nazi businessman engaging in humanity for those he can see, while being part of a vast machine. There is a conflict in aesthetic: he cannot bear to watch being made, the tissues of his own empire.