PRINT February 1987


This is the second in a series of articles on sight. The first, “Bagpipes on the Shore,” was published in October 1986.

STEREOTYPE CAN’T MAKE UP its mind about Brazil. The paintings of Frans Post exhibit analogous uncertainties. In 1637 Count Johann Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, newly appointed governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil, included Post in the contingent of artists and scientists he brought with him to the New World. Post left seven years later. In country, he saw Brazil as an underfurnished immensity, a new world with the look of a nonworld. Back in the Netherlands, he remembered Brazil as Arcadia, a perfect world. The book O Rio de Janeiro (1986) suggests that fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s arcadian reflexes are quicker than Post’s. He went to Brazil looking for an earthly paradise, and found one on the spot. But fashion’s embrace of its images is fickle.

A television commercial for L’Oreal Ten-Day Formula nonchip nail enamel shows a young woman in close-up pouting about all the things, in addition to chipped nail polish, that tend to annoy her. There’s something about bad news from the vet (her dog needs orthodontic work), other pet peeves whose descriptions elude me entirely, then this one, which jumped out at me because I had been looking at Post’s paintings: “When the airlines send your luggage to Brazil and you’re going to Paris.” In other words, you may arrive in Paris but a part of you—the fashionable part that can be packed in a suitcase—has flown off to what seems like nowhere.

In Brazil, Weber was not just another fashion photographer on location. O Rio de Janeiro takes the Brazilian void as an opportunity, a chance for pleasure. In bars and beaches and light-washed hotel rooms, Weber’s entourage of male and female models flirts with the camera in a dreamy sun-baked way. Images sizzle with an intensity that is taboo on most fashion assignments. Weber’s models model themselves, not clothes. O Rio de Janeiro shows fashion photography wandering free in an imaginary land that keeps promises routinely short-circuited by the demands of the garment industry. Looking beyond the tight circle drawn by his own profession, Weber’s camera included Brazilians who belong in his fantasy. Of course it excluded those who do not. Nowhere on earth does the entire population display the knowing ease with the body that you see in every last target of Weber’s gaze. Arcadias do tend toward tedium. Yet, when successful, these pictures astonish. Wandering from one subject to the next with the flexible logic of sexual reverie, O Rio de Janeiro becomes a solemn inventory of pleasure.

Weber gives his dream a documentary weight. Gently clouded Brazilian skies play the same part as wooded mountainsides and floral wallpapers, that of diffident backdrops to assertive outlines of breast, chin, thigh, shoulder. Post, when he worked in Brazil, rarely managed to relegate those skies to such a retiring role. In many of his paintings the weight of the sky’s emptiness pushes the land down toward the lower edge of the canvas and oblivion. Plants, animals, and human beings find their habitats along the edges of the canvas. Much of the center is a void where standard pictorial devices do not take hold. Post’s Brazilian paintings show a world not yet coalesced.

On the imaginary map drawn by the L’Oreal ad, Paris is the capital of fashion, and Brazil, which occupies the antipodes, is terra incognita, a dangerous vacuum pulling one away from dreams of first-rank stylishness. Paris is also the capital on the map that guided Maurits, Post’s sponsor, through his social and diplomatic career. Over three decades after he left Brazil, Maurits presented Louis XIV with paintings made in the New World by Post and Albert Eckhout, another artist attached to the Dutch West Indian service. Inscribing observations of Brazilian Indians with obsessive precision, Eckhout also ignored niceties of placement. Putting legibility of detail before pictorial elegance, he set standing figures along the upright axis of vertical canvases—an arrangement that looks boring or even stupid to an eye seeking compositional finesse. Eckhout was capable of “proper” composition, as he showed when he arranged heaps of tropical fruit for still life paintings. However, when faced by a human presence he had no more use for pictorial propriety than did Post, who filled his Brazilian canvases with uncomposed openness—sheer light-filled space.

The French king ordered a display of the Post and Eckhout canvases at the Louvre. They were immediate hits. In 1687, almost a decade after the exhibition at the Louvre, the Gobelins factory turned Post’s and Eckhout’s designs into tapestries. The project required more than a transposition of images from one medium to another: treating the Dutch artists’ work like raw material, the tapestry designers supplied it with all the pictorial structure it lacked. They imposed on it the rhetoric of the French Baroque—bravura stage management as effective in tapestries as in theatrical productions.

Paris demanded no less. Free-floating observations of palm trees, Indians, and alligators had to be brought to compositional order, for Paris, with its académie, was the capital city of that order—the capital of Europe’s most powerful monarch, a sovereign with the authority to demand that every image upon which he cast his eyes reflected back to him an assurance of his divine right to rule. Academically approved composition provided the subtlest flattery of that sort, for it is a matter not of themes (Apollo or the noble elephant) but of arranging thematic images: hierarchically, with small forms subordinate to large, and large forms designed to reflect the all-encompassing principles that assign a proper place to every detail. In Louis XIV’s France, pictorial composition offered up an image of the monarch’s will.

The “classical” composition sponsored by Louis XIV’s academy looks crystalline beside the open, agitated kind called “Baroque.” Yet the “classical” and the “Baroque” share an underlying structure. And the standards of good composition have evolved little in the past three hundred and fifty years. Because so much else, from technique to subject matter, has changed so drastically since the 1600s, this is easy to overlook. Yet the Cubists, for example, nearly always met traditional criteria for well-composed paintings. Braque and Picasso, like Cézanne before them, often modified their brushwork to make their compositions clearer—so clear, sometimes, that the artist’s mastery of traditional structure becomes a theme along with, say, modern life as symbolized by the silhouette of a factory building. Composition itself possesses symbolic import. As in Louis XIV’s time so in this century: to arrange one’s image properly is to establish an all-embracing coherence. A well-composed Cubist cityscape with billboard and pylon is not just an emblem of its industrialized moment; it is also an emblem of the painter’s will to harmonize that moment’s imagery, and to bring the meaning of that imagery under control. In this decade the figurative painting called “neo-Expressionist” usually establishes order with some variety of Baroque composition.

Composition provides political institutions with symbols of social and cultural stability. In supplying such symbols to the world at large, artists also establish order in the realm of their own experience. Audiences use the same means to accomplish the same task. Though some art of the modern period encourages us in habits of freedom, much tempts the modern self to play Louis XIV on a personal scale—in other words, to claim a despot’s power over that inward realm known as the sensibility. Composition helps in organizing the sensibility’s endless surge of experience into something governable. This organizational effort employs a variety of models, which range from Claudean landscape to avant-garde painting to network television. Their differences are obvious. So is their similarity, once one looks past the surface of style: in each of these models one can find a variant on composition’s principles of hierarchical order. Those principles have taken on an astonishing degree of authority in our culture, not because they are inherently powerful but because modern institutions, with their tendency toward conflict and collapse, are so inept at providing stability. Understood in its largest sense, composition provides a set of principles for generating an image of cultural coherence in the absence of the real thing. To reject composition is to look into the abyss opened up by the failure of modern institutions to provide a believable coherence.

Since composition appears to offer a solution to difficulties brought about, in part, by modern market economies, it’s no surprise to find examples of good composition among the commodities traded on our markets. Nor is it any surprise that advertisements display an indefatigable command of good composition: to place the image of a commodity at the center of an orderly picture is to suggest that the object, once purchased, will form the centerpiece of a coherent life. Hence “Chevrolet is the heartbeat of America.” Promises like this are only fleetingly persuasive, so they must be revamped and recycled often, just as an art whose chief allure is an aura of novelty must be restyled just about every season to obscure its reliance on traditional composition.

Despite the great fuss raised by commentators eager to see our times as the worst of times, the pressures of the open market have been inspiring esthetic fashions for well over two centuries. Throughout the modem period, artists capable of resisting the image-machine of the picturesque have had to compete against others who defined art as, precisely, the manipulation of that machine. By the end of the 1700s the principles of composition had been codified in a marketable form—handbooks—under the name of the picturesque. Borrowing a mechanistic psychology from the empiricism of John Locke, early versions of the picturesque employed the Lockean “association of ideas” to link form to concept to feeling, in tight chains of cause and effect. An example famous two centuries ago is Salvator Rosa’s landscapes, which flow from foreground to background less evenly than Claude’s, and so were called “irregular”; such form brought thoughts of wildness and danger to the mind of the 18th-century connoisseur, thoughts reinforced by Rosa’s images of banditti and stormy clouds; and danger generated the agitated emotional state called “sublime.”

At present, one finds equally stereotyped chains of form-thought-feeling in the associational pattern that leads, for instance, from Willem de Kooning’s “Baroque” compositions to the idea of physical agitation to feelings of psychic turmoil; or from Robert Rauschenberg’s layered forms to thoughts of unmanageable complexity to feelings of alienation. Writers have devised other variations on the picturesque Rauschenbergian interpretation. Such accounts are not utterly wrong, even when they contradict one another, but they are unsatisfactory, because whatever value they might have once possessed was lost when they became generalized to the point of cliché. It is customary to say that clichés clutter the mind, but our clichés about art originate in tight associational patterns enforced by habit, and those patterns rest on the hierarchical rigidities of traditional composition. Such clichés don’t clutter the mind so much as assemble in orderly clusters, each a version of the picturesque, and then these clusters subject our conscious experience, the realm of sensibility, to unrelenting surveillance and supervision. It’s not just a matter of picture postcards interposing their images between us and the places where we travel. There is a picturesque designed to impose order on every region of modern life. The picturesque of the avant-garde provides us with automatic interpretations of Manet, Cézanne, and company. When it comes to judgment, there is the picturesque of “quality,” which used to produce reflexive raves for the latest Jules Olitski and now does the same for early Richard Diebenkom. Updated for the ’70s and ’80s, the picturesque of “radical” esthetics constructs another form-concept-feeling pattern, a variant of the ’60s’ more convincing critique of the marketplace. All these picturesques and more confine thought and feeling within the frame of stereotype. They protect us from even a quick glimpse of the abyss.

Only if one travels beyond the reach of the picturesque can one’s vision attain freedom in full measure. What that might be is difficult to say, because, in some version, the formulas of the picturesque apply at every point in this world or any other possible to imagine. Images of life off-planet tend to display principles of good composition too, whether subtly or brashly. Look at the sci-fi picturesque in the new-found lands of the “Star Wars” movies. Look at Max Ernst’s play with Surrealism’s standard routines in his imaginary landscapes of the ’40s. Painters often reinforce the patterns of order we habitually apply to whatever we see in interiors, in city streets, in the countryside. Look at Anselm Kiefer’s pictures. What would it be to see a landscape with eyes released from the tyranny of the picturesque?

Jackson Pollock’s allover paintings offer a hint, for they broke free of composition, banishing the traces of the picturesque. Those traces survive, however, even in certain of the most aggressively innovative works of the avant-garde, European and American. Composition as the West has known it since the Renaissance appears even in the Italian painting of the ’50s known as l’informale. The word sounds like the English “informal”—that is, “casual”—but it actually means “unformal,” lacking form. Obviously no painting can lack form completely, yet painters can eliminate from their work the formal relationships that establish pictorial order. L’informale presents the spectacle of painters like Giulio Turcato, Ennio Morlotti, Leone Pancaldi, and a few others trying to follow Pollock and Barnett Newman as those two painters traveled toward open zones beyond the reach of composition. After the first glance, however, it’s hard to make the informale label stick to their canvases. Often splashy, sometimes frantic, their brushwork inevitably arranges itself in patterns laid down by the Baroque. As in the 17th century and all the intervening centuries of Italian painting, a sturdy pictorial architecture supports the image–in this case, an image of freedom from such support. The French equivalent to l’informale was l’informel, also known as tachisme, a style whose practitioners could bring themselves to offer only the archest of allusions to spontaneity. I’m thinking particularly of Georges Mathieu, whose calligraphic tachism looks like action painting by a robot kept under too tight supervision by the guiding spirit in the central control tower. The French often feel a particularly acute distress when a spectacle, in the world or in art, does not look properly composed.

In “Bagpipes on the Shore,” which discussed two types of vision, the tourist’s and the traveler’s, I described André Gide’s African journey of 1925–26, on his return from which Gide wrote official reports and a book, Travels in the Congo (1927), that effectively encouraged French-colonial reform. Few writers can claim as much, yet I’m reluctant to let my admiration for Gide’s political efforts distract me from certain questions about his esthetics. “We lunched at the M’Brés,” reads his journal entry for October 15, 1925. “The scenery was very picturesque, all surrounded with rocks. One might have been in the neighborhood of Fontainebleau.” By willing a familiar Western order onto whatever we happen to see, the picturesque makes us feel at home everywhere—or supplies us with an image of feeling at home. The picturesque also colonializes, giving us a proprietary interest in those landscapes that permit us to wrap them in our assumptions. This imaginary colonialism supplies principles of vision such as those Gide deployed when looking for Fontainebleau in African scenery, and finding it, like any tourist.

On the whole, though, Gide’s vision qualifies as a traveler’s because, when the African landscape resisted his will to impose order, he didn’t turn away, as a tourist would have done. Rather than denying his fears that the world outside the borders of France was an unmanageable void, his writing reflects them, and the result is a fluctuating tension between what he saw and what he wanted to see. On November 13, 1925, writing about his party’s arrival at Berberati in the Middle Congo, Gide recorded his uneasiness as he rested in the local administrator’s house, a building “very well situated on the side of a plateau which commands a vast prospect; but, as usual, in this immeasurably vast country, there is no focus; the lines run incoherently in all directions; there is no limit to anything.” There was no composition, in other words, none of the order Gide expected to see not only in landscape paintings but in landscapes themselves. Nine days after Berberati, he reported, “The landscape is growing vaster, the undulations of the ground greater.” The next day: “It must be admitted that this immense tract of country was most disappointing. The savanna unrolled before us for hours and hours and miles and miles, and always identically the same. . . . I thought desperately of France and home.” What Gide sees as monotonous he calls “savage, formless, embryonic, inexistent.” Its other side is chaos.

Westerners sometimes see chaos even within the precincts of Western culture. In 1861 Eugène Delacroix painted The Lion Hunt, a picture of a turbaned horseback rider leaning over to stab a lion entangled with another, fallen hunter. The painting recalls Delacroix’s North African journey of three decades before. It also recalls Peter Paul Rubens’ Lion Hunt, 1621, which Delacroix knew from Pieter Claesz Soutman’s etching of it. Delacroix recorded his minute inspection of the print in his diary entry for January 25, 1847:

A Moorish horseman has been thrown to earth; his horse, also overthrown, is already seized by an enormous lion. . . . The rearing horses, the bristling manes. . . tangled bridles, the whole thing combines to strike the imagination, and the execution is admirable. But the picture has an aspect of confusion, the eye does not know where to stop, it gets the feeling of a frightful disorder; and it seems that art has not presided sufficiently to augment, by prudent distribution or by sacrifices, the effect of so many inventions of genius.

Delacroix saw Rubens’ painting as nature unbound, a garden needing a drastic trim. His own Lion Hunt shows Rubensian flair neatly contained. Delacroix has distributed all the main details along the profile of a pyramid whose apex marks the turban of the chief hunter. Retrieving the “classical” clarity of the French Baroque, he has imposed it on what he saw as “the frightful disorder” of Rubens’ Roman-Flemish Baroque. Similarly, about two weeks after his stopover at Berberati, André Gide reported that he had seen order reappear in the African landscape.

“The scenery is magnificent,” he wrote. “This word is no doubt too strong, for there is nothing particularly enchanting about the site–which reminds one of a good many of our French landscapes—but my rapture at getting away at last from the recent formlessness, at once more seeing definite hills, decided slopes, and clumps of trees harmoniously disposed, was such that. . . Well! This morning, at last, the country is opening out before our eyes.” Until then, the savanna had been closed to Gide’s vision. He had seen “formlessness” in it—if not literally, then in the sense that such form as the savanna possessed only rarely permitted his eye to follow familiar routines. Africa, in Gide’s view, was unlike his native France; it showed a reluctance to arrange its landscapes in attractive patterns.

Artists and writers had given those patterns rigid shape long before Gide traveled to Africa. In his Memoirs of a Tourist (1838), Stendhal says he made the mistake of arriving in Marseille by night, meaning that he cheated the city of its chance to present itself as “Marseilles the magnificent, the Southern town par excellence.” At six in the morning, he writes, “I went back down the road to Aix at a fast trot, forcing myself to look neither to the left nor right.” Arriving at the proper landmark, he turned his horse and let his vision embrace what was known locally as “the Vista, the view _par excellence. . . . In fact, the view is immense and entrancing.” Jutting rocks “give a singular charm to the whole landscape.” Stendhal’s France is a compendium of singular charms, though he says the country around Chaumont, in northeastern France, “is very rich in iron, but actually it is so ugly that I had rather not talk about it. I would be taken for a bad Frenchman.”

William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810) showed him to be a good Englishman; writing of the terrain near Great Gavel mountain, he says,

Every valley has its distinct and separate character: in some instances, as if they had been formed in studied contrast to each other, and in others with the united pleasing differences of a sisterly rivalship. This concentration of interest gives to the country a decided superiority over the most attractive districts of Scotland and Wales, especially for the pedestrian traveller. In Scotland and Wales are found, undoubtedly, individual scenes, which, in their several kinds, cannot be excelled. But, in Scotland, particularly, what long tracts of desolate country intervene!

Though he never quite says so, Wordsworth appears to feel that whatever force created the world took special care to endow the Lake District with qualities pleasing to refined observers. Though the second volume of his Lyrical Ballads (1800) mocks those devotees of the picturesque who sitting “Perch’d on the forehead of a jutting crag / Pencil in hand and book upon the knee, / Will look and scribble, scribble on and look,” Wordsworth unconsciously maintains the standards of the picturesque. Measuring the world against those standards, he sees the Lake District’s tendency toward pictorial virtue—proper composition—as a sign of England’s special place in the order of things. “Like good coaches and steamboats, the picturesque comes to us from England,” says Stendhal in his Memoirs of a Tourist. He questions this foreign import—this “eminently modern” guide to artifice, to “composition for effect”—but only in passing. Stendhal was a traveler who knew how to loathe, even in his own country, but he didn’t linger on this talent. In Memoirs of a Tourist, despite the difficulty he felt in taking a favorable view of anything in “this slipshod century”—or, as another passage has it, “this century of affectation”—he wanted to argue for France. And to make his memoirs persuasive, he believed, he had to adopt an affected rhetoric. So he accepted the picturesque in all its supposed Englishness, then implied on nearly every page that the French countryside realizes its principles best. “Five miles above Lyons,” for instance, “the banks of the Saône are picturesque, unusual, very pleasant.” At St. Vallier, “the road leading to Grenoble is lined with chestnut trees which antedate the road and make it very picturesque.” From Brittany to Provence, from Les Landes to Savoy, Stendhal’s France abounds with pleasing views, vistas, prospects. Occasional unregimented glances remind him of Italy and his love for that countryside, but in Memoirs of a Tourist Stendhal insists on playing the patriot. By inference, his descriptions of landscape advance the thesis that, of all nations, France inclines most naturally toward the artifice of the picturesque. This ongoing tension between the natural and the artificial is at the source of the brilliance that makes Memoirs of a Tourist my favorite travel book of the 19th century.

By Stendhal’s time the picturesque had already inspired the kind of international competition carried on today in airline ads instead of travel writing. Since Gide published his Congo journals in 1929, travel books have rarely given a patriotic tinge to their appreciations of landscape. English writers of the 1930s made a particular point of favoring exotic scenes over those of the British Isles. Yet they continued to deploy the picturesque—as, indeed, did nearly every ambitious writer from Chateaubriand to Emily Bronte to Henry James—whenever he or she turned to the problem of describing the look of the world. When faced with a landscape, even writers with undeniably individual styles showed themselves dependent on stereotypes devised for the discussion of art. That shared dependence made it possible for writers as different as Stendhal and Wordsworth to join in early-19th-century arguments about the compositional merits of their national landscapes. Even at its most intense, that rivalry never ran deep, not, anyway, in comparison with the unstated agreement that joined the British with the French and other Westerners in the belief that the entire world should be fitted into the categories of the picturesque or the beautiful. Connoisseurs of the 18th century had distinguished between the two; the Victorian period reduced the beautiful to a delicate variant on the picturesque. If travelers came across a wild or melancholy landscape that could be contained by neither label, they could fall back on the “sublime.” And if a landscape resisted that label too—if one could not say of it, for example, as Wilkie Collins says of the Cornish heath in Rambles beyond Railways (1851), that it possessed a “majestic loneliness and stillness. . . an impressively stern, simple aboriginal look”)—the landscape was dismissed as merely desolate, monotonous, formless.

There is little evidence that 19th-century landscape painters were any more inclined than the writers of the time to see past the structures of codified composition, as Dutch painters like Jacob van Ruisdael and Philips de Koninck and even the peripheral Post had done two centuries before. Sometimes J. M. W. Turner’s obsession with light melts away all but faint traces of compositional architecture. John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Gifford, and a few other Hudson River painters now and again attain an emptiness that looks almost Dutch. Some have argued that Caspar David Friedrich should be included among the painters who dispense with composition. I agree only in one instance, The Monk by the Sea, 1809–10. In his other paintings Friedrich shows too much fondness for symmetrical patterns that invert composition instead of letting imagery sail beyond its reach. His art is not noncompositional but anticompositional, hence tied to the central authority by simple opposition. Only noncompositional works like Turner’s late paintings or Pollock’s dripped canvases give onto the abyss—the plethora of absences—that appeared with the arrival of modernity. Most of the art that acknowledges the void tries to close its dreadful openness with arcadian images of pleasure, whether immediate or utopian and in the future. These enchantments of the void all employ some variant on composition, for that is the point: to conjure up a reassuring order against the threat of boundlessness. Composition is more bearable, hence more in demand, than imagery that guides us to the abyss.

Charles Dickens tried to admire the American prairies, but could not. “Looking towards the setting sun,” he wrote in his American Notes (1842),

there lay. . .a vast expanse of level ground; unbroken save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted to a scratch upon the great blank. . . Great as the picture was, its very flatness and extent, which left nothing to the imagination, tamed it down and cramped its interest. I felt little of that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awaken.

Dickens judged the Scottish Highlands sublime. West of the Mississippi, he saw great stretches of flatness but not a hint of an uplifting sweep. Though he forced his enthusiasm at every turn, Dickens found pioneer society equally flat. The seeming absence of a historical past, the uncertainty of the American future—it all depressed him. Not everyone responds that way to social rawness. During the 1920s Blaise Cendrars traveled to Brazil, “a new country,” he said in a poem called “Saint-Paul” (1926), a place “after my own heart.” “No tradition here / No prejudice / Ancient or modern / Except this furious appetite this absolute confidence this optimism this audacity this work this labor this speculation which builds ten houses per hour in every ridiculous grotesque style beautiful huge tiny north south Egyptian Yankee Cubist.” Cendrars insisted on seeing Brazil as a paradise of bad taste and unashamed energy, an arcadia for a Frenchman tired of French precision and propriety.

Cendrars delighted in the cluttered emptiness of a Brazilian boomtown, which he saw as the abyss of a present moment disconnected from past or future—unlinked, in particular, to the Paris of high style and manicured nuance to which the L’Oreal woman wants so desperately to fly. Of course her Paris of sparkling lights and fashion marching relentlessly onward is a fiction, no less than Cendrars’ “Saint-Paul.” As the African savanna has form, despite Gide’s disinclination to see it, so Latin American towns combine Indian traditions with others that reach back to Europe, even though European travelers often find this difficult to see. Cultivating a cultural blindness, Cendrars read São Paulo as a spectacular tableau sprung up inexplicably from nowhere, and therefore as a zone of freedom.

Certain modern travelers relish the experience of going long distances, actually or emotionally or both, and arriving in a nowhere of some sort. Or they take pleasure in suspension en route. While Post remained in Brazil, his art registered a fascinated disquiet at his immersion in a space that felt limitless. Nothing established a believable scale, vision could orient itself to no landmarks. Post’s Brazilian paintings always threaten to cave in formally, though they also appear to teeter on the edge of drifting away and apart. Almost unnerved by the New-World abyss, Post held his images together by an exercise of will. He returned to the Netherlands in 1644; a region of memory now, Brazil became easier to paint. In his recollected Brazil, foreground moves calmly to middle ground, which majestically turns into misty distances. Along the way, details of flora and fauna convince in a manner that feels friendly but detached; Post could no longer make direct observations, but he checked his facts against the findings of the naturalists and explorers in whose ranks he himself belonged. Perhaps he also checked with his earlier Brazilian sketches as he painted these gentle landscapes, where people look as happy as the staffage of any 17th-century pastoral. Some figures work, some play, some stand and mark a crucial point in the composition. These paintings are thoroughly composed, unlike the ones Post painted in Brazil. Back home, he continued to make the sky immense, yet his memory offers no hint that he once conceived of New World space as a glaring infinite.

Though it sounds odd at first, it turns out that Post didn’t discover an abyss in Brazil: he brought it with him, from a perimeter of Europe where the structures of society and the economy were shifting with a speed that threatened to render Renaissance perspective irrelevant. In fact, the uneasy, arbitrary, uncomposed air of the paintings Post made in Brazil can be sensed in certain Dutch images of Dutch beaches and dunes, Dutch roads and fields, painted as early as the 1620s.

Renaissance standards of proper composition generate symbols of a hierarchical commonwealth, effectively governed and securely contained within clear borders. Such symbols had a far from universal appeal in 17th-century Holland, where a newly rich merchant class, toying with notions of democratic rights, gave an early-Modern urgency to the Calvinist stress on the individual. Throughout the northern reaches of Europe the notion of the self was launched into uncharted regions. Dutch painters like Philips de Koninck and Jacob van Ruisdael found a market for wide-open alternatives to the closed architecture of Renaissance space. No wonder Louis XIV’s France, ideologically opposed at nearly every point to the mercantile Dutch, insisted on codifying pictorial composition in fanatic detail. French Baroque posits a world spacious but absolutely orderly, as France itself would have been if the absolutist rule of the kings ministries, military, and secret police had worked with ideal efficiency. Impatient with that ideal, the 17th-century Dutch edged toward a constitution of the sort we now call “liberal.” Some—but only some—Dutch painting took a parallel direction, away from pictorial zones monitored by composition and deep into realms of the contingent.

This has little to do with geography, everything to do with how we see it. Containing his images of the Amazonian basin within arbitrary edges, Post exercised a freedom devised not in the tropics but in the Netherlands. Returning home, he set that freedom aside, as if he had glimpsed in the New World an unbearable implication of Northern Europe’s temptation to abandon familiar constraints. To cover the void, he painted an image of arcadia.

Whenever Western individuality travels beyond the borders of Western culture, it senses a threat to its sovereign powers, its control of meaning. Danger like that often looks attractive. For over three centuries, artists have been drawn to those abysses, those unmapped regions, that call meaning into question; and nearly always they’ve refused to meet the challenge, preferring to obscure it with some comfortingly exotic image. Inevitably, the challenge intensifies. We fight shy of Japan, sensing in its enigmas a threat to our habits of thinking. It’s much less disturbing to worry about our balance of trade with the Japanese, or to invoke the ready-made imagery of our Japanese picturesque. China presents another threatening void, India another, Africa and Latin America two more. Because these places exert such strong yet elusive pressures on our fantasies, we’re distracted. We forget that the void is in us, in the modern self.

I keep returning to Brazil because our stereotypes about it are so familiar, so thin, and, like the stereotypes that fill so much of our art-world moment, so effective in obscuring an abyss of uncertainty. Until the ’70s much of the Amazonian basin had not been thoroughly mapped, yet Brazil is an advanced industrial nation. Soon the Fox, a small car manufactured there by Volkswagen, will compete in the Hyundai’s price range. On the other hand, we see Brazil as the home of Carmen Miranda and the girl from Ipanema, of the Rio carnival and the soccer player Pelé. According to an ad for Pan Am and Varig airlines, it is “a land of magic. . . where people understand what is best in life.” The L’Oreal woman sees it as a hopeless nowhere. Rarely is the ad industry so divided in its use of a stereotype.

Like Brazil itself, the image of Brazil is only partially charted territory. Never mind the clichés of politics or literature—not even the tourist industry’s picturesque has succeeded in capturing Brazil. Because unmapped regions repel us even as they attract us, they generate anxieties. Any unknown is a void only partially hidden by the rickety scaffolding of half-completed picturesques. Those who approach the void take the chance of slipping into zones where standard reflexes don’t work, where the comforting routines of sensibility break down, and one is left only with one’s self. As they travel through the terrain of familiar options, certain artists skirt those precipices where standard meanings give out and art sails beyond the picturesque to a region where possibilities are wide open. Most artists retreat from the dangerous edge. They like to visit arcadia, but not the void.

A. F. Biard’s Deux années au Brésil (1862) reports that friends in Paris told him not to make the trip. “Who goes to Brazil?” they asked him. “One goes to Brazil only to be named emperor. Have you been named emperor of Brazil?” Biard went anyway, voyaging far inland to the point, on the Madiera river, where he had nothing to do but lapse into a solitary trance. At night, “I spent many hours, aboard the boat, contemplating the immensity, gazing sightless or tracing the forms taken by clouds as the wind drove them through the sky.” His isolation wasn’t total: “I had companions; I heard, in the midst of my reverie, an officer’s command, the contre-maître’s whistle.” Others were present but not close. “Here, nothing; nature was mute: my boat seemed to glide in space. . . .” Biard presents us with a fiction, his variant on a particular arcadian wilderness—the imaginary Louisiana Chateaubriand invented for Atala (1801), his noble-savage romance. Disinclined to walk into the unknown unprotected, Biard armored himself in a role borrowed from high Romanticism. Though the role required him to be solitary, it put him in the company of everyone else who had made a similar borrowing, and so he did his part to preserve the communal nature of Chateaubriand’s New World arcadia.

Louis Agassiz, by contrast, presents himself as the ambassador to Brazil from the domain of “pure science.” It was a pretentious role, but if anyone deserved to play it, this Swiss-American geologist/zoologist did. In A Journey to Brazil (1869), Agassiz’s wife, Elizabeth, a force in the founding of Radcliffe College, reports that their Indian “host” at one field station “is greatly amused at the value Mr. Agassiz attaches to the fishes [he collects], especially the little ones, which appear to him only fit to throw away.” Now and then Louis intervenes with scientific data or a document he feels should be made public—for example, the letter in which he dedicates a newly discovered fish to the emperor of Brazil. He returned to Harvard University with 80,000 specimens, not all of which have been catalogued even now. According to his own estimate he had discovered 1,800 to 2,000 new species in the Amazon network, more than had been found in the Atlantic Ocean at that time. Despite his resistance to the theory of evolution, Louis Agassiz was a formidable empiricist. So was Elizabeth.

The authority of science and technology inclines us to believe that just about anything, if examined carefully enough, will show a tracery of cause and effect. Louis Agassiz thought he could detect genetic endowments (causes) by analyzing the physical characteristics of Amazonian fish (effects). Faced with a work of art or a landscape, we assume casually, as 18th-century theoreticians of the picturesque assumed after long deliberation, that certain forms work as causes to produce the effects that we elaborate into esthetic judgments. It’s a reductive assumption, one that excludes the influence of cultural tradition and the power of the will to shape perception. Mary Shelley, in the “History of a Six Week’s Tour” she wrote with her husband in 1814, says of the Alps that “their immensity staggers the imagination.” Locating events like earthquakes or avalanches in the mind, images like that imply a mechanistic model of cause and effect, stimulus and response. But what if we’re not culturally cued to fit our experience to those stimulus-response patterns? What if we are cued but for some reason refuse to go along? Those questions tend not to come up, for the mechanistic model’s application to our looking has become a powerful tradition in the modern West, linking mind and world in patterns that give an air of “scientific” authority to the picturesque. Modernity wants to scientize everything, including pictorial composition.

Elizabeth Agassiz’s command over the machinery of the picturesque made her, in the realm of esthetics, the counterpart and equal to Louis Agassiz in the realm of science. When the scene calls for sentiment, she evokes the tone of the Victorian genre painting: “Yesterday morning we bade our friendly hosts good-by, leaving their pretty picturesque home with real regret.” Sometimes it is enough to sound like a guidebook, with a remark on “the lake with its many picturesque points and inlets.” Romantic melancholy requires a more resonant voice:

Yesterday we parted from our kind hosts, and bade goodby to Monte Alégre. I shall long retain a picture, half pleasant, half sad, of its shady, picturesque walks and dells; of its wide green square, with the unfinished cathedral in the centre, where trees and vines mantle the open doors and windows, and grass grows thick over the unfrequented aisles; of its neglected cemetery and the magnificent view it commands over an endless labyrinth of lakes on one side, beyond which glimmer the yellow waters of the Amazons, while, on the other, the level campos is bordered by the picturesque heights of the distant Serra.

This passage derives its images from the paintings of Claude Lorraine, Hubert Robert, and others. As Elizabeth Agassiz deploys her rhetoric, she transforms the world into a good composition, a cluster of visual devices whose well-designed parts mesh harmoniously, and she maintains the distance from the actual necessary to keep the machinery of esthetic cause and effect in working order. Coasting along the shore between Santarem and Obydos this arcadian traveler wrote, “the scenes revive all our early visions of an ancient pastoral life.” A canoe moored beneath “overarching trees, usually trained or purposely chosen to form a kind of arbor,” fills “the invariable foreground of the picture.” In the middle ground stand Indians, who greet the travelers as they pass. Behind them Elizabeth notes hammocks and the thatched buildings she calls “cottages.”

Perhaps if we were to look a little closer at these pictures of pastoral life, we should find they have a coarse and prosaic side. But let them stand. Arcadia itself would not bear a minute scrutiny, nor could it present a fairer aspect than do these Indian homes on the banks of the Amazons.

Whether we call it a picturesque or not, our empirically flavored esthetic presents itself to us as a machine for marshaling facts about which vista is beautiful, which firelit spectacle is spookily sublime. Elizabeth Agassiz sometimes comes close to acknowledging that such facts are fictions winged out into the world to bring it under the control of familiar meanings. But that acknowledgment never actually appears. She cannot abandon a way of looking that provides so much comfort, so much protection from the risk of wandering into unmapped territory. To keep from acknowledging these benefits of the picturesque, she misrepresents the disadvantages of approaching too closely the targets of her esthetic maneuvers: their arcadian aspect, she says, would fade into the “coarse and the prosaic.” But that explanation disguises the real trouble with coming too close: it would reveal the other as resistant to the workings of one’s picturesque, it would call the authority of one’s culture in question, and it might set the self adrift in an abyss of doubt. Elizabeth Agassiz chose not to take that chance. When you become conscious that the world defined by the picturesque is an artifice, it begins to wobble in its orbit. Though she never permitted that to happen, she sometimes grew weary of her own finesse. Willing that weariness onto the landscape, she saw what sophisticated users of the picturesque always see, eventually: the beautiful tinged by sadness. The passage about leaving Monte Alégre continues, “I have never been able to explain quite to my own satisfaction the somewhat melancholy impression which this region, lovely as it unquestionably is, made upon me when I first saw it,—an impression not wholly destroyed by a longer residence.”

An intuition of the abyss lurking behind the overlay of proper composition persuaded Elizabeth Agassiz not to relinquish her control of the image-machinery. Her Brazilian journal records an impressive—and unconscious—exercise of will. The sadness she saw in the Monte Alégre prospect originated in her sense that her great effort would never bring satisfaction. No matter how skillfully deployed, the picturesque can never give us an adequate picture of the world. It can only shield us from our fears. Of all the travel writers whose books I’ve read, only Stendhal understood fully that his correct-sounding judgments on landscape were the product of an artifice subject to question. Most cannot object to the failures of the picturesque because they do not let themselves see that they depend on this culturally approved response-machine to generate their talk of beauty, the sublime, and so on. Their remarks on such things sound natural to their ears.

Even though Elizabeth Agassiz went to places where tour guides did not set foot, and, more important, would not have been satisfied with a prepackaged set of responses, she could not let go of the response-machine. Rather than precipitate herself into the unknown, she chose to work her way deeper into the fantasy designed to hide it, into a region where sensuality softened the melancholy isolation of the self. This is the arcadian maneuver, a means of obscuring the difficulties of self-management with an image of communal unity and pleasure. Such images exert a strong allure. They ease the desperation every individual feels as sole inhabitant—and beleaguered sovereign—of the inward territory of his or her selfhood. Struggling to impose one’s will on individual experience, to compose its vistas into a coherent composition, one takes on an immense burden. Individuality is difficult to govern, in part because our culture swamps us with conflicting definitions of selfhood. Unable to say what a coherent self would be, we often feel overwhelmed by questions of what to do, how to act. Modern arcadias permit us to ease this distress by spreading it to others. (Few artists want to be as lonely as Rembrandt.)

With images from a fantasy of a primeval golden age, Elizabeth Agassiz describes the night the North American travelers “persuaded Esperança and Michelina to show us some of their dances.”

They seem rather like statues gliding from place to place than like dancers . . . . One of the boatmen was a Bolivian, a finely formed, picturesque-looking man, whose singular dress heightened the effect of his peculiar movements. The Bolivian Indians wear a kind of toga; at least I do not know how otherwise to designate their long straight robe of heavy twilled cotton cloth. . . . After it was over, Esperança and the others urged me to show them the dance “of my country,” as they said, and my young friend R—and I waltzed for them, to their great delight. It seemed to me like a strange dream.

Narrative of a Voyage to Brazil, published in 1805 by the English merchant Thomas Lindley, registered shock at what the writer took to be the excessive sensuality of Brazilians of all races, all classes. Now, that trait belongs to the travel agent’s picturesque. It’s a cliché so powerful that surely some Brazilians must themselves believe it, just as some Americans treat as fact the assumption that everyone n the United States is in a desperate hurry to make a lot of money. “Brazilian sexiness” belongs to a primitivist daydream, a fantasy about the power of the tropics to bring us closer to our bodies. It’s a dumb fantasy, but persuasive. Bruce Weber populates his Brazilian paradise with noble-savage types for the ’80s, many of them imported, from Manhattan. His male figures also look like direct descendants of the brittle-looking musclemen in the “decoration” George Hoyningen-Huene made for Paris Vogue in 1924. In Hoyningen-Huene’s fastidiously composed vignettes, a nude man balances a fragment of “classical” architecture on his shoulder. This is a game of living statues in which pedestals and swathes of drapery render the human form as fragmentary as the burden it bears. Each image gives off an air of faked effort, formality, stasis—everything you think you leave behind when you head for arcadia. Hoyningen-Huene freezes the image, Weber leaves it supple. Leaning on chairs, sprawling on beds, the men in the cast of O Rio de Janeiro look like Hoyningen-Huene’s figures relaxing after a particularly exacting pose. For Weber, relaxation is the pose.

Weber complicates his paradise with references to fantasies from other times. He gives a glow of beach-party innocence to the sexual frankness that Robert Mapplethorpe presents as sinister, and shows Paul Outerbridge’s willingness to see the body as a luxury object, a piece of remarkably designed furniture. Weber’s devoted gaze gathers even the most ordinary objects—everyday tables and chairs—into the category of the desirable. He condescends to nothing he consents to make visible, women least of all; if anything, he’s starry-eyed about the female body, as if the leading emotional condition in his arcadia were the high school crush. Helmut Newton used to show women embracing female mannequins. For comparable scenes, Weber draws all his characters from the land of the living. He doesn’t brood on death. He doesn’t ignore it either: his share of the proceeds from this book will go to the AIDS Resource Center in New York. Life is obviously sweet in Weber’s imaginary Brazil, yet allusions to Newton’s cruelties drift through his paradise, mixing with the ghosts of Hoyningen-Huene’s refinement. Weber doesn’t just sink into arcadia: he builds the place with his head full of memories. He tells us something we already know: the image of spontaneity can also be an artifice. It is difficult to say precisely what ideal animates O Rio de Janeiro. A faint, melancholy shadow glides across Weber’s men and settles on his women, who seem to possess most of the intelligence on view here.

Weber’s noble-savagery argues for no split between “natural body and “civilized” mind; in his art, the two implicate each other with such theatrical zest he can’t be called a primitivizer. The least complicated sort of travel brought him from New York to Brazil. He just hopped a plane. But as Weber embarked on his travels through the history of style and the prospects for pleasure, his route took on the complications of a maze. Reminders of just about every glamour-smitten photographer appear somewhere in Weber’s work—if not Cecil Beaton, then certainly George Hurrell, whose lens and lighting effects made the faces of Hollywood stars look monumental and velvety at once. Weber gives that looming sheen to entire bodies, helped along by soft Brazilian sunlight and the selection of luscious stock for the pages of O Rio de Janeiro.

Showing mastery but never playing the maestro, Weber commands most effectively when he gives the impression of seeking only to be simple. Not every arcadia promises a refuge from oversophistication. Weber’s delivers oversophistication as a refuge, as a way of traveling through the realm of high styles and letting one’s allegiance be captured by none of them. Weber’s arcadia is not Brazil. It is the state of being on location, which Weber suggests we see as a range of options. Seeking those vistas from which certain stylistic possibilities merge and refine each other, Weber takes charge of fashion’s picturesque rather than letting it take charge of him. He makes an image of, among other things, image-making, rather like those painters who layer their imagery not to picture anything in particular so much as to picture picturing. His control permits him an elusiveness close to invisibility; remaining unseen, he achieves a kind of freedom.

For half a century and more, fashion photographers, movie-makers, and songwriters have found that freedom by inducing clichés to clash, to join in unexpectedly lively configurations or to cancel each other out. In doing so they have opened up patches of new territory—cultural terrain no one expected was there. Though David Bowie steals images from travelogues only now and then, all his songs are treks through the possibilities for freedom. Overworking the pop-music picturesque, he tries to force the image-machine to break down, to let something raw be heard. He often succeeds, just as Weber’s O Rio de Janeiro succeeds in forcing the rhetoric of the on-location fashion shoot to produce genuinely sexy pictures—something a standard shoot is not expected to do. But an outwitted rhetoric, whether of the recording studio or of the fashion magazine, refuses to be banished entirely. Weber’s happy Brazil has overtones of Helmut Newton’s miserable, sadistic Paris. Bowie’s anguish on “Cracked Actor” (1973) cannot, despite its distinctiveness, suppress all its echoes of Anthony Newley’s fake sound, the model for so much of Bowie’s stylistic finesse. To be free, for a stylish eclectic like Bowie, is to stay in motion, to keep manipulating the picturesque until its clichés come together in the image of an open vista.

On Tonight (1984), Bowie returned to the explicit travelogue with “Tumble and Twirl,” a song he wrote with Iggy Pop about “the next flight / for Borneo.” Bowie accompanies his crooning with a big-band sound jumbled together from references to salsa, Muzak, and the hipster harmonies of Stan Kenton. Tongue-trills and yelps signify “tropical fiesta.” Bongos heat up. With a serene and bitter elegance, “Tumble and Twirl” exploits all the most exploitive assumptions of the third world as tourist trap and political disaster area. Bowie’s freedom consists in outflanking his clichés. He wins, breaks out of style’s confinement, whenever he manages to suspend an image between two or more contradictory meanings. Terry Gilliam got at these contradictions by naming his most recent movie Brazil, a title borrowed from the 1930s samba that grinds on incessantly over his scenes of life in a country that seems to be England, sinking, in a near future, beneath the weight of information overload. Gilliam’s hero can escape this entropic maze only by way of fantasy, but his dreams, waking or sleeping, never take him to Brazil. The place remains unseen.

In “Tumble and Twirl” a traveler talks of idle times in his imaginary Borneo and of wild times at a seedy place called Leon’s. Then he says, “I like the free world. / They say it’s pretty / This time of year.” This imaginary traveler might not appear to feel passionately about freedom. But this is the overriding issue for the character’s inventors, Bowie and Iggy Pop, who have custom-built their own “free world” by insisting on their right to manipulate images designed to be passively consumed. Bowie likes this “free world,” meaning he finds it consumable—pretty this time of year; meaning that, for him, freedom comes down to a consumer’s right to choose. Traveling through a landscape of clichés, he does not, like a tourist, buy. He borrows. And he mistreats what he borrows, warping images and their meanings into new, if temporary, configurations. Most pop music imposes a tourist’s view on the emotions. Bowie moves through that terrain with the independence of a traveler, realigning the landmarks to suit his own arcadian purposes.

All the landmarks on Bowie’s map belong to mass culture. The painter Peter Halley plays that culture off against “seriousness”—the glow of vernacular Op against Newman’s light of transcendental yearning, the fussy wit of corporate logos against the look of Ad Reinhardt’s stark dead end. Joined together, Halley’s borrowings make what he calls “an imaginary or theoretical world.” The artist says, “It’s sort of a through-the-looking-glass thing, as if one were inside this imaginary world and gradually walking around and discovering or finding out more and more elements.” This movement generates no claims about freedom; Halley gives his paintings titles like Two Black Cells with Conduit, 1986. Revamping Minimalist basics, Halley

tried to take that simple geometry and transform it into figures such as jails . . . as a way of describing the minimalist square as a confining structure. . . . The other part of the iconography is the idea of the conduit. I’m using shapes that refer to buildings or structures that you can’t enter or leave, but information or something can get into or out of them by means of a conduit.

Halley posits progress from one place to another as an illusion. His visible borrowings have verbal counterparts: the concepts and phrases he takes from the writings of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard, theoretical scraps Halley builds into the image of his own theoretical position. He works hard to avoid any show of independence. In “The Crisis in Geometry,” an article published in the Summer 1984 issue of Arts, Halley described the space in his paintings in a series of quotations from Baudrillard’s Simulations (1983)—ten strung together in a short paragraph. On another occasion, Baudrillard’s claim that “nature” has disappeared led Halley to say, “When you’re in that sort of situation all you can do is refer to other people’s thoughts.”

Halley doesn’t say precisely what requires him to sound like the dummy on Baudrillard’s knee. His rationale for talking in that voice has something to do with his vision of our culture’s current dilemma: when effective movement is possible for data but not for us, the individual can only be a conduit. Halley rejects out of hand all hope of a traveler’s freedom. According to his polemic our moment has suspended art in a total freeze-up, a state he calls “closure”—a prison that locks in the will. Actually, his art shows that he has lots of Bowie-like choices. Mixing and matching his options, Halley liberates odd patches of cultural ground—in the overlooked, uncharted gap between the rhetoric of the billboard and the rhetoric of Newman’s sublime, for example. He exercises a carefully circumscribed freedom of choice in building an image of art trapped in an entropic dead end. Information flows, but art can only register its own stasis. Culture as a circular argument, “a massive machine for reproducing its own assumptions”—this image seems to have allure for Halley, a sinister sexiness. His art isn’t really about “closure.” It’s about using the notion of “closure” to suspend the intelligence of his esthetic in the cocoon of his work’s dead-master aura. “We live,” says Halley, “in a world where the dead and the living can no longer be distinguished.” This echoes something David Salle said when he was a fresh new face: not that painting is dead but that “the paintings are dead.” Halley’s polemic promotes the pleasures of the radical picturesque; in his writings he sacrifices the self to a succession of monumental tour guides—Baudrillard, Reinhardt, Foucault. In his art he shows he’s no tourist mummified by a picturesque, but a traveler pursuing necrophiliac tastes in realms of style. Combining and recombining symbols of painting’s dead end, he builds an arcadia of holding patterns.

If we took Halley’s talk of “closure” at face value, if his painted diagrams of “cells” really were inescapable traps for vision, we’d avoid his art the way we avoid vacations in police states. As it is, we seek it out. He charms us with mirrors of our doubts about freedom, not with real imprisonment. Halley’s recent big horizontal paintings look like the work of Newman after a loss of his faith that “the sublime is now,” as he said in 1948. Newman never underwent that loss; Halley suffers it for him, theatrically, in paintings that cast him in the role of the anti-Newman. Like Weber and Bowie, Halley travels back through the history of style to visit the established three-star vistas and to designate new ones. Having decided which belong in the terrain of his sensibility, he applies the pressure of his ambition. The stylistic vistas undergo a degree of slippage. In the gap between a style’s standard meanings and its new ones, Halley finds a temporary refuge. He likes images that freeze up the energies of response, that suspend meaning, that open up regions of emptiness or near-emptiness, zones swept clear by a ready-made skepticism.

Those who devise contemporary arcadias—traveling through styles, not over the ground—might as well cultivate quirkiness, because they despair of grandeur. They see themselves as late arrivals on the scene, they fear that all the great compositions have been arranged; they persuade themselves that nothing truly new remains to be discovered. They retreat from thoughts about the next step forward. Fleeing from a future they imagine as an apocalyptic abyss, they map and remap bits and pieces of the past. Even if the results lack the authority of more powerful inventions, there is pleasure in lording it over a realm of one’s own, no matter how small or unstable. And if the checks and balances of composition are not immediately evident, there is usually the reassurance of an invisible composition, the odd but soothing harmony of sources nicely balanced—Canal Street versus the Museum of Modern Art, the Minimalist ’60s versus the psychedelic ’60s. The so-called neo-Surrealist Peter Schuyff has looked hard at Yves Tanguy and Fernand Léger. Now, he says, paintings by that leading proponent of l’informale, Lucio Fontana,

look really exciting. They weren’t so interesting six or seven years ago. The same is true of Jean Cocteau and [Antoni] Tàpies. Now, all of a sudden, they look interesting. It is stylistic to me, it is taste.

Shifts in the painter’s taste must be sudden, like jokes, if they are to startle some portion of the past into providing a moment of liberation, a temporary niche where Schuyff feels free to rearrange his sources as his pleasure dictates. Philip Taaffe subjects Bridget Riley and Newman to ruminative revampings. Mike Bidlo does wise-guy reruns of Andy Warhol’s Factory and redrips Pollock’s drip paintings. They and Schuyff and Halley and other hip eclectics enjoy the freedom of play, an enjoyment limited by the shrinkage they inflict on themselves by treating their sources as such impressive grown-ups, totem figures accenting willfully odd visions of the Modernist landscape. There is an arcadia of Jasper Johns-ian happiness in which a painter can have the pleasure of the older artist’s density while sharing with others the terrifying burden of Johns’ solipsism. Like any arcadia, this one is a place where an abundance of enjoyable choices produces an air of liberation. In his recent work, James Brown stirs up the phlegmatic Johns-ian surface with memories of Cy Twombly; he calms Twombly’s influence by referring back to Johns. Brown’s earlier canvases joined the textures of Twomblyan “classicism” to the pictographs of a generic primitivism. Brown softens this potential clash with delicate grays and beiges—the atmosphere of the Johns-ian arcadia. Some commentary groups these thieves of style with appropriation artists, but there’s a difference. Though the appropriators also make use of the art-historical past, they are not arcadians, they do not seek pleasure. Appropriation is didactic; its practitioners carry out their visual tactics for the purpose of charting the intersection of art and culture in the sociopolitical landscape.

Stylists like Peter Halley return often to the dawn filled by the imagery of forerunners whose dominating presences provide an alibi for remaining stalled, figures who define, for them, what it is to be an artist in the first place. In swiping chunks of art history, they prey on the terrifying grandeur at the source of their idea of themselves as artists. Travelers in the Brazilian jungle often mention the dawns borne in on them by the unearthly screech of the howling monkeys. In Exploring and Travelling Three Thousand Miles Through Brazil from Rio de Janeiro to Maranhão (1886), James W. Wells says the howling monkeys looked and sounded “diabolical.” When a member of Wells’ party shot one, the creature “was handed over to the cook, and he eventually appeared on the table much like a roasted baby. We attacked him, however, and found his flesh very palatable indeed, somewhat like roasted hare; but his appearance was so suggestive of cannibalism that we failed to overcome our qualms.” The arcadian eclectics feel no such hesitations. They ingest the howlers of the dawn, with no sign of wondering if that makes them cannibals or not. The point is the freedom to violate a taboo. In their arcadias, pleasure has a nightmarish tinge of hubris. They give us more than we have a right to expect from arcadia, which usually looks so sweet and genteel. They love to jump the consumerist tracks, to travel those regions of the cultural terrain where they invent their own delights with wit and the violation of taboo. By treating their heroes as monuments to be cannibalized, these artists acknowledge death, and they reinforce the deathliness of the picturesque. But they do not venture beyond the boundaries established by familiar images. At play with structures of order, they achieve split seconds of freedom from the authority of the museum-certified past, of academic art history, of official style. With the same set of maneuvers, they show the limits of that freedom. Each of their revelations opens up a new territory that vanishes when the next turn in the stylistic road reveals the pleasures of a new vista. The freedom afforded by arcadian tactics is only provisional, the kind that appears in the sudden circumvention of rules. Only in a daze can a shocking new configuration be taken for the charter of a genuine liberty. The daze soon passes. Feeling once more the weight of history on the present, these artists set out for new regions, invent new arcadias, clear new sites for quick spells of freedom.

Contemporary arcadians may try to outmaneuver one another in the style wars, but none of them would ever challenge the unifying premise that style is what it’s all about. The reason for their cooperation persists unchanged from the 17th century: when individuality feels thin and ineffectual, as individuality so often does in the Modern period, there’s solace in joining with others to create a realm where pressures on the self feel gentler. Patterns of cooperation and competition also join and separate the appropriative artists, who, whatever their many differences, work together to build a community of proper thinking where feeling feels impertinent. The work of the arcadian eclectics suggests a taste for improper feelings—sniggering contempt, mischievous joy, rage. They feel free to visit disreputable corners of the map.

In “Bagpipes on the Shore,” I traced the image-patterns—the rigid itineraries—that tour guides, actual and figurative, impose on the world. I saw tourism’s routine as a particularly restrictive kind of vision, though it seemed to me that certain artists—the ironic David Hockney, for example—found leeway, if not liberty, in the tourist’s role. On my next excursion, I thought, I would leave the static patterns of tourism for travel’s larger freedoms. But no single route leads to that destination. Because there are degrees of freedom, there are varieties of travel. On my way to a look at those travelers who risk immersion in the abyss where no landmarks impose directional cues, I found it impossible to rush past other travelers—some eminent, a few day-trippers—who approach the abyss and back off. The abyss is not an actual place; it is the elusive sum of all that we create but do not permit to enter consciousness. Brazil offered itself as the symbol of the abyss because hidden by our cluster of clichés about that country is a void of our own making—not in Latin America, but in ourselves.

While he was in Brazil, Post let intimations of that emptiness fill his art. Later he substituted a New World arcadia. Writers, traveling to Brazil and elsewhere, painted over the void with imagery learned from the landscapists and theorists who codified the picturesque. Weber produced an arcadia for Manhattan by painting over the void with the glamour machine. The arcadian eclectics hover in holding patterns enforced by their reluctance to land in the void or anywhere else. These travelers find some freedom in arcadia. They also find distraction in pleasure; suspension in the hope that pleasures, even melancholy ones, will be renewed; and imprisonment in the mechanisms of renewal. The question still to be answered is whether any less qualified freedom can be found by traveling beyond the frame to the abyss. And, if found there, can such freedom be sustained? (To be continued.)

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

This essay will continue in a forthcoming issue.