on The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin, convoluted by Jens Hoffmann et al (Yale University Press)
Hannah Arendt once described Walter Benjamin as among “the unclassifiable ones … whose work neither fits the existing order nor introduces a new genre.” But a new genre is exactly what he inspired: the cross-breeding of forms – journalism, citation, exegesis, philosophical asides, flashes of memory. Although his own narrative impulse was negligible, his successors have added prose fiction, poetry and memoir to the mix. Arendt also called Benjamin “the most important literary critic between the two wars,” a just claim made on the basis of his unmistakable reviews and essays.
But it is Benjamin’s unfinished work, The Arcades Project, that represents his genre-mashing innovation. Its profound stylistic influence is now on display in “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan running through August 6, 2017. The catalog of the same title offers an experience of its own.
Benjamin visited Paris for the first time in 1914 at age 22 just months before the outbreak of the First World War. He wrote in a letter, “By the time I left Paris, I was familiar with its streets, the advertisements in lights, the people on the Grand Boulevard.” Paris would pulse as the epicenter of his cultural imagination until his death in 1940. In 1927, he proposed a brief work based on “literary montage” that would focus on the more than 40 arcades of nineteenth-century Paris, those iron-and-glass vaulted passageways lined with shops. By 1934, now attempting to be a good Marxist, Benjamin redefined the aim of his project to stir the masses from their capitalist reverie by digging up the remains of the cultural edifice of Paris and illuminating its commercial fetishes.
He began with an essay, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Then over the next 13 years he amassed a vast and varied collection of notes from his research, filing them according to 36 thematic “convolutes” – from the German word Konvolut or “dossier.” Benjamin had been inspired by two works – Louis Aragon’s Un Payson de Paris and Franz Hessel’s Spazieren in Berlin (“Strolling in Berlin”), surreal works introducing the figure of the flâneur, the detached urban stroller. Although Benjamin himself spent most of his time with his nose in a volume at the bibliotèque, his readers could wander through his Passagen-Werk as flâneurs. By 1940, he had piled up many thousands of notes and remarks.
In “The Return of the Flaneur,” the catalog's introductory essay, Jens Hoffmann writes, “In essence, The Arcades Project outlines how everyday objects of industrial culture have the ability to simultaneously function as anticipations of social utopias and as hints of a radical political critique of modern times.” Caroline A. Jones in “The Optical Unconscious in the Age of Its technical Reproducibility,” writes, “His hope that new media could reveal truths concealed from dissembling power elites is a recognizable goal of much contemporary art production.” Benjamin’s technique involved the juxtaposing of collected fragments which, simply by appearing next to each other in detextualized fashion, would trigger a critical awareness. Each fragment is imagined as a flint for the other’s match.
There was never enough theory in his decidedly untheoretical writings to please Marxists like Theodor Adorno who criticized Benjamin’s project as it bulked out into a sprawling, archaic mess. But The Arcades appeal is undeniable. In 2005, Kenneth Goldsmith set out to reproduce Benjamin’s project as an investigation of New York. Hoffmann writes, “His principle idea was to use Benjamin’s methods as a structure for a new book that would analyze New York as the capital of the twentieth century … To create his thousand-page book, Goldsmith spent innumerable days accumulating quotes, notes, and citations from previously published texts on the city, which he located by wading through countless university and neighborhood public libraries as well as second hand bookshops.”
The Jewish Museum exhibit and catalog are organized according to Benjamin’s “convolutes” – and the citations, cribbed from Goldsmith’s book, are displayed typographically in a creative manner. Goldsmith’s entries dominate the catalog, populating the left-hand pages. Thirty-seven artists are represented in the show, including (in the catalog) Jesper Just, Lee Friedlander, Claire Fontaine, Maty Reid Kelley, James Welling, Erica Baum, Adam Pendleton (“Black Lives Matter #2), Andrea Bowers, and Mungo Thomson among others.
In 1933, Benjamin wrote, “I came into the world under the sign of Saturn – the star of slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.” The Talmudic, melancholic aspect of his perspective tempered his cultural critique – an attitude that is perhaps minimized by or even missing from his politically agitated admirers of our moment. Benjamin believed that an art work's fate is a "loss of aura" -- it starts with a desire to express something specific but lapses through time into remnants of itself. The current exhibit suggests that some of our celebrated art today is either a transport device for political values approved in advance by its art-viewing public or an aura-less object that never had an aura to lose in the first place. Kenneth Goldsmith's derivative project is motivated by the ambitious opposite of Benjamin's inclination to disappear. (Below, one of the patterns of his citations.)
Benjamin was an obsessive who was graced with an inability to meet anyone's expectations. He had no choice. Calasso wrote of him, "His dream was to disappear, at the height of his work, behind an insuperable flow of quotations." He didn't write with the fierce experimentalism of the avant grade hero.
You can hear his sweetly dolorous attitude on the slant through The Arcades Project: “Vasari is supposed to have maintained (in his treatise on architecture?) that the term 'grotesque' comes from the grottoes in which collectors hoard their treasures.” He knew he was creating a grotto of shards, fragmentary essays, and incomplete interpretations. There is also his plangent feel for a history which “decomposes into images, not into narratives.”
At this particular moment, however, it is his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility” that has been on my mind. Here he writes, “Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses – but on no account granting them rights … The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.” Into the fake life of reality TV.
[Published March 14, 2017, 136 pages, 50 color & b/w images, $35.00]