PRINT May 1988

Something Borrowed, Something Bloom

THAT OUR HISTORICIST ERA is also an estheticist era, one in which sheer attractiveness often seems to reign both in art and in the mundane, has considerable bearing on the apparent fact that ours is above all a synthetic era, one in which the greatest art is merz art—a matter of wittingly random collages. The return to the past can seem to be a way of giving up on the future, and it can have the chilling quality that the most seductively popular nostalgic things always have. But the 1980s’ self-conscious preoccupation with the past—manifested in the manic borrowings of both “high” and popular culture, and in the still-rising obsession with the conservation of monuments from the past—reflects a deeply uneasy self-consciousness about belatedness. The fruits of bygone periods dangle for the reaping; but inherent in the awareness of these expanses of the past is the crippling weight of all that has been said and that cannot, or need not, be said again, of all that is forbidden to the artist in every guise but the tense, imitative one.

Clearly neither the copying and cross-referencing that are integral to appropriative post-Modernism, nor the current rage for conservation, are so much a matter of giving up on the future, or of surrendering to a new incapacity for imagination, as they are of magnifying and reifying a hysteria that has always been lurking. The burden of the old has always been enormous. Usually, however, it has been hidden. We have invariably tried to exclude age from our active consciousness, and this evasion on our part added to the Modern pressure for the new—a stumbling block over which many artists tripped, while others, by luck, folly, or deviousness, managed to pass it with a sharp kick. But the post-Modernists, for whom the old is the source of the new, are the exponents of age. And if the new and ardent conservators in whose company they come are the opponents of age, they are not content with simply ignoring it, as artists have tried to do in the past; they recognize its power and demand that it be hidden or suppressed. The post-Modernists insist on a nonlinear temporal vision in which fragments of the past become the present, while the conservators insist on a pure time line, in which the present can only compensate for the past. But, ironically, the two movements, according simultaneous recognition to the problem of age, have brought closely tied notions to their apparently opposite views of time.

The connection centers on reading and misreading. What is really at stake is the way we constantly define human and artistic time by dividing it into past, present, and future domains, and what this splitting generates. We focus on the past as the concept most subject to our control. We are obsessed with the effort to pinpoint a past—the past and our past. The same instinct that has made us fill time capsules with the trivial materials of our daily life, on the assumption that the people of a future period will be as fascinated by their pasts as we are by ours, makes us strive both to create time-capsule art in the present and to construct false time capsules from the past. (Conservators only pretend to reconstruct; theirs is an art of the new.) We want an original; we want the eternal; yet we are unable to create an original, or even to identify one.

Harold Bloom has stirred the anxiety of poets by confronting a similar problem in the field of literature. Bloom suggests that what is crucial to all poets is the way they come to terms with their predecessors, with what has come before; and that strong poets are strong in their triumph, at best partial, over their greatest influences. So Bloom maintains that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem.”1 A logical (though not inevitable) extension of this position, which implicitly seems to assume a unity within each of the arts, is that the meaning of a piece of music can only be another piece of music; that the meaning of a building can only be another building; that the meaning of a painting can only be another painting. This is an agreeably neat framework for thinking about the arts, and makes the critic’s work apparent: he or she is to be a sort of Dick Tracy of influences, deciding which poem is the meaning of which poem, which painting is the meaning of which painting, and then saying with thrilling precision how this was determined. Our cultural experience shows that such a view is reductive and inadequate, and even damaging. But Bloom broadens his position by locating greater complexity in a multitude of further issues, among them what the very concept of transitive originality entails—what it means to speak of originality as something constantly passed on or newly discovered in something else. And there is also the issue of how meaning itself changes from poem to poem, affected not only by all former poems, but by all subsequent ones, which draw their strength from their predecessors by way of their own belatedness.

Bloom’s theory is set forth in his books The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Poetry and Repression (1976), A Map of Misreading (1980), and the baroquely difficult Agon (1982). The theory is extravagantly specific and purely verbal; it is in many ways too rigorously tied to its poetic subject matter and its poetic vocabulary, which are inseparable, to be applied like a mustard plaster to any of the other arts. But the ethos, the rhetorical standpoint from which the map of misreading is sketched, is of far-reaching consequence. Bloom speaks of poetic history as a history of strong poems. Each poet, going back even to the Yahwistic voice of the Old Testament, attempts to do, with greater glory and strength, what has been done before. To be intuitive or particular in artistic endeavor always involves a responsiveness to tradition as well as to the ostensible subject matter; and so the real battle is to be able to do what has already been done, to accept predecessors on their own ground, and then to beat them on it. Bloom describes the situation as essentially oedipal. Poets are jealous of what has already been done; and what has already been done is the very thing that is most explicitly forbidden to them. So one goes to the scene of one’s conception as a poet, to the creative ecstasies of one’s forebears, and tries to become the force responsible for oneself (that would be originality) by doing again what has already been done.

Bloom claims, however, that all poets are misinterpreters, that they read each other inaccurately. If they are strong, moreover, in setting out to do what has been done before, they end up doing something new. No one, of course, can ever read a poem or any other work of art “accurately,” but most misinterpretation (Bloom’s word is “misprision”) is weak, defined purely by a subjectivity that dilutes the strength of the work in hand. For Bloom, artistic vision entails combining the strength of the predecessor artist with a different subjective paradigm and a different system of values, so that in trying to retrieve the lost intention of the earlier artist one creates a strong intention of one’s own. This is the only triumph of which poets are capable. If there were no strong misreading, they would only mimic predecessor poets and would create nothing truly their own. They would fail “to clear imaginative space for themselves.”2 The work of the poet who misreads well takes on the strength of predecessor poems, and at the same time, though it does not have the weight of priority, it extends the nature and degree of poetic intention sufficiently to gain a partial triumph.

Bloom’s theory leads us to the conclusion that the original artist is original in the process of attempting to be what has already been. Artists naturally resist this notion, as the human mind denies the notion of oedipal desire; when they must acknowledge it, they do so at great psychic cost to both themselves and their art. The “anxiety of influence” that becomes the title of Bloom’s initial meditation on the subject is the anxiety that besets all artists that they have come too late, that their work breaks no fresh ground, that there is no fresh ground to be broken. Maintaining, as Bloom has said, “the melancholy of the creative mind’s desperate insistence upon priority,”3 artists go forward by going backward, bemoaning the perceived impossibility of going forward, never suspecting that they are going backward, and suffering terribly under the suspicion that they have nowhere to go and are going nowhere. This, for Bloom, is the condition of art’s creation. The redemptive note in the theory is the fact that the process of creation it describes does not proscribe an actual creative system.

Bloom writes:

A strong poem does not formulate poetic facts any more than strong reading or criticism formulates them, for a strong reading is the only poetic fact, the only revenge against time that endures, that is successful in canonizing one text as opposed to a rival text.4

This insistence on the interpretive nature of any effective revenge against time has profoundly significant ramifications for post-Modernism and conservation, the two contemporary configurations that compress past and present creativity and experience. The fixation of historicist artists on their predecessors is not unlike the fixations of the predecessors themselves; the eternally repressed skirmishes on an unconscious battleground have simply been brought to the surface, and have gelled into a style. The appropriations from the past are not unlike the copies made by the immemorial Chinese painters who learned to duplicate the work of their predecessors in minute detail, but who invariably gave themselves away because the presentation of that detail was skewed by their own priorities of representation. Our moment of repeats is so relentless that we sometimes feel our cultural context is on automatic replay. Our technologies and our sentimentality are mushrooming, and, terrified that we may forget what is happening to us, we are not only looking at old movies, reading old books, and watching reruns on TV, but also making new documents of the past—in fashion, in films, in the rediscovery of fads that lasted ever so briefly the first time round, in countless other manifestations. This confabulation of what is past and what is copied has forced us to re-ask questions to which the answers had for centuries seemed self-evident. Furthermore, our littering of the present with fragments of a found or newly created past has laid an enormous pressure on the question of memory itself, on the question of what is, or was, real.

If it is not clear what is real, then it is difficult to determine what to preserve; if we want to maintain the real but cannot recognize it, we welcome those whose expertise seems to qualify them to select and preserve for us. Art conservators reassure us in our fragile sense of self. Seen in Bloom’s terms, however, their job becomes far more difficult than it once seemed. To bring a work back to its original condition, the conservator must first postulate and then formulate the artistic fact of the original creative effort. Restoration depends, for example, on the impossible knowledge of why an artist used colors in particular places, not simply on identifying those places. Yet any reading of the original context—strong or weak—must be a misreading, something utterly new. And even if the analysis seems “right,” the conservator faces another impossible task: all marks of the quest for the original context, all manifestations of the process of delving, must be purged from the conservation effort, since they change the work entirely, making it a new work, and the conservator an involuntary post-Modernist. Furthermore, since intelligent conservation requires an enormous effort of return to a lost paradigm, involving the concept of a return to “accuracy,” the question of “inaccuracy” always threatens the conservator’s pursuit. The work of conservation may cease to revenge art against time and become a victim of weak misprision, of time’s revenge on the subsequent generations. And some kind of misprision is inevitable, for the knowledge the conservator must have is impossible knowledge. He or she must formulate unknowable facts, and then purge all signs that a formulation, a meticulous recreation of what came before, has taken place.

Conservation work demands a splitting of time into past, present, and future, for it is clearly as vigorously involved with the posterity to which it transmits works of art as with the past from which the art comes. And even guided by the traditional concept of a return to accuracy, conservators are obliged to make decisions about the level of conservation they wish to pursue. Though the conservator’s necessary neglect of the rival works of art left unconserved gives him or her a certain power of revenge against time, it is the role of conservation to recognize canonical supremacy, not to determine it. For conservators inevitably accept the notion of a canon, and must come to terms with the issue of misreading; it is indefeasible that they decide themselves on the significance of the works of art they are preserving or restoring. If the conservator is to feel confidence in a determination of what the original state of an object was, he or she must consider whether the importance of the object is ultimately in the strength the artist put into it, or in the strength others have read into it. The object can be turned into something that someone believes it once was, or it can be maintained in the condition in which it has had influence, and in which its strength has been misread, and so carried forth. Closely tied to this question is the issue of whether or not to stabilize art objects (insofar as one can). Made relatively stable, they will have influence on ensuing generations who will fail to absorb the constant change implicit in their creation. One might argue that we have sufficient room for misprision in the workings of our vision without needing to depend on the physical degeneration of the object for more, but the question of what happens when we “freeze” an object in the course of its “natural” life, and, furthermore, of why the object itself is worth preserving at all, has an ineluctable power.

If the meaning of a work of art may in part be another work of art, it is important to look at the concrete choices with which conservators have been faced, and to see how inconsistent their choices have been—how often they have found here in favor of a work’s influence, in whatever condition it finds itself, and there in favor of a version of the artist’s apparent intentions. The knowledge that classical sculpture was painted has not led to the repainting of marble figures, and even sculptures recently excavated, on which sufficient traces of paint remain to show fairly accurately what the color scheme might once have been, have not prompted a sudden outcry to return these sculptures to their original state. Our eyes have been conditioned. We resist the notion of paint on a Praxiteles because Michelangelo’s bare marbles have made it absurd, and also, perhaps, because it would make Michelangelo absurd.

The rage and controversy that have surrounded the cleaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel attest to our obsession with these questions. That the ceiling is more vibrant and more formally impressive in its cleaned state is incontrovertible; yet some critics have cried “garish.” Before the Sistine restoration, the power of Michelangelo’s painting was seen to be incarnate in muted forms at once monumental and tasteful, forms in which explicit power was tempered with selfless restraint. Though artists in the generations immediately after the completion of the ceiling either saw or heard of its bright colors, by the dawn of the Baroque its palette had changed, and artists, following what appeared to be Michelangelo’s example, fell into tempering monumentality with taste in what they thought was his way. There is no question that the presence of what looked like a brown wash on the Sistine ceiling had a power to influence. Now, one can look at paintings with muted palettes, or with a tension between palette and form, and wonder whether they would ever have been so painted had not the artist believed the brown of the Sistine ceiling to be Michelangelo’s. So conservators have to choose. With the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling, the history of misprisions is falsified. So the practice of conservation comes to entail an active contribution to history, and not simply the passive duplication of history.

Mark Rothko did not want his canvases coated with varnish, glaze, or any other protectant, and because of the nature of the paint he used, and of the way he applied it, canvases of his that have not been so treated have tended to degenerate. The conservator must determine whether a disobedience to the artist’s known intention is more a violation of the work than is the neglect of the visual object. In the 21st century, will blank or blackened canvases be more truly Rothkos than preserved versions of the luminous images familiar to us now? And what then can be said of Rothko’s strength? Is it communicable at all to subsequent artists, or is his an accomplishment of process and disintegration? Will those future artists who are influenced by Rothko, or who cannot help being influenced by him, be influenced by the suicide of his paintings as much as they are by his paintings as the objects he created? Meanwhile, Rothko has his revenge on those earlier figures who influenced or created him. His struggle with their strength taught him to negate not only himself, but, by extension, them (and so, in turn, his successors). The same may be said of the work of those more recent artists—some of the arte povera artists, for example—whose works comprise materials significantly characterized by their relatively short-term decay. Such works are moving in part because they acknowledge, in their very choice of materials, the importance of that decay.

These are ultimately conundrums rather than questions. Most fascinating of all, however, is the fact that the obsessive interest in conservation should coincide with post-Modernism, and that a mutual betrayal should be enacted by these two phenomena, which seem to have mutual concerns. Essentially, the closer the conservator comes to being accurate, the better his or her work, and the closer the post-Modernist comes to being accurate, the weaker his or her work. Conservation requires that the effort be made to return to a vanished past; when conservators approach success in this endeavor, their work is at its strongest and best. The post-Modernist who approached success in that effort would begin to become what has already been, and would imitate the predecessor art in all things but strength—for strength is a matter of grappling, a matter of struggle, a matter of resistance. This struggle is essential to strong misprision, and hence to strong post- Modernist art. But it is the locus of failure for the conservator. Conservation paves the way to—indeed demands—the most impossible thing of all: a total lack of resistance. The conservator represses the struggle with the past; the less apparent it is in his or her work, the better. The post-Modernist rails against the struggle, and that antipathy is his or her work. There is all the difference in the world between repression and antipathy.

Since conservation and post-Modernism stand in diametric opposition and temporal coincidence to one another, by now there should have been a great collision of the two types of thought. There should have been a terrible moment of truth when post-Modernism and conservation coincided and there was a bang. Then one of them might have “won”; or they might have canceled one another out altogether; or they might have redefined themselves in less oppositional terms. But none of this happened. There was no bang. The sound of explosion or collision has been absent, and the silence is not only strange, but sad, for it points to all the silences of the too-silent ’80s, silences not necessarily of enormous things we have prevented ourselves from saying, but rather of collisions we have failed to notice.

What about this silence? How did it become familiar? If we still want to know more, as we claim; if we accumulate facts like aggregate crystals, and if we have the technology to assimilate them at a rate far beyond the human capacity by which historically we have been limited, why do we delude ourselves into the same old belief that our processes of thought must eliminate mistakes, or misprisions, and with them collisions? As we stretch our physical boundaries beyond our familiar planet, our geometrically growing data bases point more clearly toward the knowledge we have yet to acquire than they do toward the knowledge they include. Computers that process fabulous quantities of data are not making us more sure and more right in our decisions (except in a limited, particular, and occasional way); they are only buoying our need to persuade ourselves that we are approaching what we know to be unapproachable. We are told that computers, though they are not error-free, are incapable of the creative inaccuracies, at once random and fertile, of a human being. Eliminating errors has been a matter of computer pride. Obviously this is a convenience in the mundane arena of daily life, and obviously we are better off without most mistakes. But is it wise now to cease to believe in mistakes?

Misprision goes far beyond the arts; it is the way we have learned civilization. We have spent the century learning from our mistakes—Freud’s theory of parapraxis alone taught us that there was more truth revealed in our slidings and elisions than in what we meant to say; and Darwin’s theory of evolution is founded on the notion that without mistakes (mutations) variety fails and richness of experience disappears, taking with it the capacity of all organisms to survive. Computers and broad data bases try to persuade us thoroughly that we can, and therefore should, triumph over our misprisions. But a Mike Bidlo or Sherrie Levine “copy,” for example, assaults its viewer with its apparent errors, with all the ways in which it has failed, at some level, to be not only an “original” but also a Picasso, an Egon Schiele, or a Joan Miró. It is a celebration of misprision, insisting that even today, with everything pushing us toward the “perfect” system, we will go on making painstaking, apparently stupid mistakes in an unchartable and wholly human way. We are not perfect; when we abandon our mistakes, we miss a great collision, and the silence is of a whole new kind of ignorance.

Andrew Solomon, a contributing editor of Harpers & Queen, is a writer who lives in London.



1. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 95.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3. Ibid., p. 13.

4. Bloom, Poetry and Repression: Revisions, from Blake to Stevens, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976, p. 6.