PRINT December 1985


A Violent Life and Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation.

A Violent Life
By Pier Paolo Pasolini, translated from the Italian by William Weaver, New York: Carcanet, 1985 (published in Italy in 1959, and in England in 1968), 320 pp.

“I WOULD LIKE TO make it quite clear to the reader,” writes Pier Paolo Pasolini, in a prefatory note to A Violent Life, “that everything he reads in this novel really happened, substantially, and continues really to happen.” The subject of Pasolini’s slice of “reality” is the underside of Rome’s slums. The book centers on Tommaso, a snot-nosed member of a rowdy gang of juvenile delinquents. Tommaso’s hopeless world—the suffering, the false camaraderie, the thieving—affords him little joy: even his first date with his future girlfriend Irene degenerates into skepticism and bitterness. Pasolini indicts the selfishness of postwar Italy. From the outset, one realizes that Tommaso cannot transcend the poisonous ghetto.

Good literature, Pasolini has suggested, is itself always “protest.” A Violent Life wages this protest against the comfortable idea of the innocence of poverty The arts have produced many moralist works in which the poor are heroic, their plight sentimentalized, and the details of their lives made spiritual. (One thinks, for example, of the bittersweet moments of Vittorio De Sica’s classic film The Bicycle Thief, 1948, or of the magisterial farmers depicted in the photographs of the Farm Security Administration.) Pasolini’s world is brutal and violent; the poor are hungry. They are filthy. They are robbed. They are beaten by the police. They are devastated by physical and emotional illness. They die. Even children’s play only temporarily conceals horror and deprivation. Pasolini’s is a provocative world, where the stench of urine and feces and the sight of blood, drool, and vomit constitute a leitmotif. (In perhaps the most pathetic passage in the book, a boy’s hand and foot are reduced to a heap of bone and blood, mangled after a failed attempt to jump aboard a moving tram.)

If, as Pasolini has written, the bourgeoisie wishes to reconfirm itself through a “nostalgia for the code,” A Violent Life intends to subvert this centering of bourgeois values. As in his uncompromising films—Salo (1975) or Oedipus Rex (1967), for example—one cannot turn inward to the incestuous codes of art but rather must scale a composite of brutal fragments. “The substance of cinema is therefore an endless long take,” wrote Pasolini in 1967, in reference to a 16-millimeter film of President Kennedy’s assassination, “ . . . and this long take is nothing but the reproduction of the language of reality. In other words it is the reproduction of the present.” A Violent Life reads as a montage of traumatic long takes, a historic present that intends to shock rather than to comfort its reader

Maurice Berger

Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation

Edited by Brian Wallis, New York/Boston: New Museum of Contemporary Art/David R. Godine, 1985, 461 pp., 150 black and white illustrations.

THIS IMPRESSIVE ANTHOLOGY on art and culture, edited and with an introduction by Brian Wallis, challenges the Modernist premise that criticism be value free. Over the past twenty years, the formalist and idealist pretensions of Modernist criticism have yielded to the ideological, a shift represented in this anthology by some of the most important voices of our time. These essays concentrate on the preeminent issue of representation, a problem they filter through a relatively broad range of methods and approaches. A number of authors expose the mythologies of Modernism (Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Benjamin, Rosalind Krauss). Some confront the mechanisms of power and class in postindustrial society (Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard), while others attempt to reveal dominant ideologies of gender and class difference (Laura Mulvey, Constance Penley, Martha Rosler).

The editor’s critical agenda would seem to incorporate more than just notions of social responsibility and the politics of representation: for Wallis, it is necessary to overcome the stylelessness and pedanticism that has characterized the field of art criticism. His inclusion of paracritical essays, for example, is significant. The volume opens with Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a questioning of the conceits of the artist’s creative voice that forms a kind of literary subtext for the rest of the anthology. Wallis’ organization moves toward the literary and away from the didactic, suggesting the sensibility of the late work of Roland Barthes. (“The theory of the Text,” writes Barthes, “can coincide only with a practice of writing.”) The interweaving of texts with film stills, news pictures, reproductions of artworks, and installation photographs produces a resonant whole that is, in its rich textuality and stylistic density, more powerful than its parts. While this collection is “retrospective in character” (all but 5 of the 24 essays are reprinted), the introduction of new visual material underscores an important point: Modernism will not be dismantled by art criticism alone, but by the activism and critical acumen of other writers and visual artists.

The anthology is somewhat problematic in that by comparing post-Modern criticism to Clement Greenberg’s formalist gambit, Wallis (as well as other authors in the book) perpetuates the myth of a homogeneous Modernism. Yet the strength of the book lies in its unwillingness to see post-Modernist discourse as univocal. (In contrast, Hal Foster’s pioneering but limited 1983 anthology The Anti-Aesthetic actually included only one woman, and, in a rather alienating turn, allowed the sole feminist voice to be that of a man.) By embracing subjects traditionally excluded from “art” anthologies, such as cultural politics and an informed feminist theory, Wallis has fashioned an open intellectual forum that provides an important critical framework for understanding the art of our time.

Maurice Berger

#image 2#