PRINT December 1988


“THE DANDY,” WROTE THE English belle-lettrist Cyril Connolly, “is but the larval form of a bore.”1 He registered this opinion in 1960, after England had weathered two world wars and, four years earlier, had watched its last grand imperial gesture end in fiasco at Suez. Connolly believed that an England bereft of empire must now make itself felt in the world chiefly as a civilizing example; a new sort of authority would have to be claimed, a gracious prestige that excessive affectation would undermine. In the political circumstances of Britain in 1960, to charge the dandy with incipient tediousness was to lodge a moral judgment.

Morality’s objections to dandyism took a different shape in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, published in 1836, when England was still assembling its empire. Quivering with Calvinist fervor, Carlyle pointed to a world of work in need of being done, then at the dandy, “a Clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes.” For Carlyle, the god that the dandy worships—himself—is not only false but patently empty. The poor are mustering; revolution threatens, but the dandy is concerned, above all, that his trousers “be exceedingly tight across the hips.”2 Carlyle doesn’t mention the responsibilities of empire that agitate later moralists, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Rudyard Kipling, yet his attack on dandyism helped form the Victorian belief—the prejudice, if you like—that simple decency requires one to shoulder one’s allotted portion of the world’s work, whether at home or abroad.

Carlyle sees moral failure in the dandy’s wish to be no more than “a visual object, or thing that will reflect rays of light. Your silver or your gold. . . he solicits not; simply the glance of your eyes.”3 The dandy is entrepreneurial, but not in the right market. Accepting only the admiring glance as a token of exchange, he does no business of the proper bourgeois sort. For Charles Baudelaire, this withdrawal was no fault. Dispensing with the moral conventions that require disapproval of the dandy’s aloofness, Baudelaire posed it instead as the first step toward “establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to break down because established on the most precious, the most indestructible faculties, on the divine gifts that neither work nor money can give”—among them, taste so refined that its judgments cannot be exploited for moral or utilitarian purposes. “An institution outside the law,”4 dandyism challenges received standards with new ones calculated to discomfit, even to disrupt. The Baudelairean dandy is a recent ancestor of the 20th-century avant-gardist.

This observation supplies the dandy with a salient place in modern life, but it has the unfortunate effect of locking him in static opposition to his enemies. Exclusive stress on the dandy’s antimoralism engages this votary of disengagement with ethical proprieties that would bore him thoroughly; it renders him statuesque, an artifact as outdated as the moralizers and utilitarians he opposes. The dandy does feel, as Baudelaire noted, “an unshakable determination to remain unmoved”5—it is right to see him as static. His stillness, however, despite Baudelaire’s talk of his new “code of laws,”6 is not the rigidity of a combatant straining against the weight of a monolithic bourgeoisie. The dandy is not a revolutionary, nor, despite his legacy, an avant-gardist. He seeks no new order—he seeks nothing, and does next to nothing. He makes jokes, dresses with intimidating correctness, and hands down judgments of taste calculated to fill the initiated with trepidation, yet he does none of this with any purpose save the maintenance of his frozen equipoise. The dandy looks immobile because he knows how to give the impression that having eluded the world’s chains of cause and effect, he stands above its clash of energies. His frivolity, his inconsequentiality, is a precisely modulated indifference to consequences.

Carlyle deplored fashionable Londoners’ determination to be “so very unsubstantial in their whole proceedings. . . . From day to day and year to year the problem is not how to use time, but how to waste it least painfully.”7 Barbey d’Aurevilly saw heroism in the dandy who “may spend ten hours a day dressing, if he wishes, but once the effort is made. . . thinks no more about it.”8 Brummell and other dandies of the Regency treated time as if there were no question of spending it well. They were reluctant, in fact, to acknowledge any event, those products of causes and effects whose patterns they preferred not to notice. Though Brummell is remembered as a wit, little that he said caused people to laugh; interviewing Brummell’s friends in the expectation of collecting armfuls of rarefied quips, Barbey found none worth translating into French. “We omit the witticisms of Brummell,” Barbey wrote, explaining that wit, like wine, often doesn’t travel.9

William Hazlitt, who now and then met Brummell at dinner, understood that his wit was not so much untranslatably English as unfunny. He wrote that the Beau’s jokes “are of a meaning so attenuated that ‘nothing lives ’twixt them and nonsense’: they hover on the very brink of vacancy, and are in their shadowy composition next of kin to nonentities.” Elsewhere an advocate of “gusto,” Hazlitt, in the company of Brummell, lets himself be entranced by “our hero’s answers to a lady, who asked him if he never tasted vegetables—‘Madam, I once ate a pea!’ This was reducing the quantity of offensive grossness to the smallest assignable fraction: anything beyond that his imagination was oppressed with; and even this he seemed to confess to, with a kind of remorse, and to hasten from the subject with a certain monosyllabic brevity of style.”

All is to revert to a nothingness tinged by the dandy’s will. “Had his head been fastened in a vise,” Hazlitt wrote of Brummell, “it could not have been more immovably fixed than by the ‘great idea in his mind,’ of how a coxcomb should sit. . . . the Beau preserved the perfection of an attitude—like a piece of incomprehensible still-life—the whole of dinner-time.”10 Under Hazlitt’s gaze, Brummell turns so statuesque that he loses a dimension; he becomes a picture. But of what subject? As a still-life painting, Hazlitt’s Brummell cannot be made out; he is “incomprehensible.”

I don’t think Hazlitt confesses a weakness of understanding here. He means that Brummell willfully chose to make no sense in human company, or to make only the inhuman sense of a perfected image. Brummell was a heavy drinker, a gambler, and a social climber who scrambled up to the high plateau occupied by the Prince Regent, and, for a time, was able to look down on his royal patron, at least in matters of taste. He was in society, then—but he was not a social presence of the usual sort. He was a patch of inexplicability. The dandy is illegible and, in a way, invisible. An unfunny wit, he is also a fashion plate who dresses so that he can go almost, but not quite, unseen: Brummell’s “chief aim,” recalled his biographer, William Jesse, “was to avoid anything marked, one of his aphorisms being that the severest mortification a gentleman could incur was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance.”11 Yet the dandy’s image of absence from the world is only an image, a deliberate pose. He intends initiates to see his invisibility, so to speak, and in moments of acute perception they do.

George Moore, the Anglo-Irish novelist and art critic, records such a moment in his autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Young Man (1888). As Moore sat in a Paris café, “Manet entered,” undeniably French, yet to Moore’s eye and ear “there was something in his appearance and manner of speaking that often suggested an Englishman.” Like Barbey’s and Manet’s colleague Baudelaire, the painter affected a degree of Brummellesque austerity. The hyperalert Moore remembers him as a “clean-cut” presence, shoulders square and waist thin. He decorates him with a flurry of avant-garde virtues—passion, frankness, honesty, and so on—yet there is an instant when all questions of morality give way before a description of a “visual object” (Carlyle’s phrase), an abstraction: Manet embodied “an idea of beauty of line.”12

When Moore examined Manet’s works he usually found what Emile Zola and Théodore Duret did: images of contemporary life made vivid by the abandonment of much that was traditionally considered essential to the art of painting. For Zola, Duret, Moore, and many later critics, including contemporaries of our own, that is the point: dispensing with inherited means, Manet devised new, more pertinent ones that permitted him to make an idiosyncratically persuasive record of his times. “‘Reality’ is the fixed element,” Zola said, and Manet is great because he “gives us a new and personal vision” of the real.13 This praise qualifies Manet as a Baudelairean dandy, the “aristocratic” individual outside the law who invents a law for himself, but it overlooks what is most disturbing about dandyism: its knack for inconsequence.

Usually Zola’s most faithful English-speaking follower, Moore occasionally strayed, and in straying he noticed that knack in Manet. He can applaud the painter for seeing Paris “truly, frankly, and fearlessly, and more beautifully than any of his contemporaries,” then add that Manet sometimes draws forms that look “hollow within”; a head may seem “a sort of convulsive abridgment, the hand void, and the fingers too, if we seek their articulations.”14 Moore judged Manet the best artist of his period, so this is not an instance of the backward complaint that avant-gardists never learn to draw. Nor does Moore praise Manet’s paintings for their hollow places, their unarticulated voids. Yet he does transfer from the dandy’s person to dandified painting the indifference to cause and effect that Hazlitt saw in Brummell.

Representation wants to bring about certain effects, among them the viewer’s recognition or comprehension of a subject. When Moore talks of voids and hollows, he points to those passages where Manet begins to thwart representation’s causal ambitions. Moore’s Manet only begins this disengagement; he may drain out the content from hands, fingers, a head, but he permits one to make them out. What Moore does not remark is that the painter’s brushwork occasionally covers his canvas in a manner so calmly, so arrogantly acausal that it produces a blank. Easiest to see in backgrounds—the background of Jeune dame en 1866 (La femme au perroquet) (Young lady in 1866 [woman with parrot]), for example, in New York’s Metropolitan—these patches depict no subject, not even insubstantial hands or fingers. They do not serve as foils for faces or gestures, like featureless backgrounds in earlier portraiture, nor do they perform any compositional function. They do not brood, as dark passages in Courbet’s paintings do, nor offer variants on the emotional agitation of Delacroix’s Baroque-revival style. They define no space, evoke no atmosphere, nor do they assert the picture plane with any vigor. Our habits of viewing often lead us to sense a space, an atmosphere, even where there is no cause, but if we elude the authority of those habits for a moment, we might glimpse an unrelenting acausality in Manet’s painting.

Not all these tense vacuities are in backgrounds. Sometimes Manet’s brush imposes a touch of inconsequentiality, a subtle but defiant pointlessness, on a plane that defines a face—even the face of a personage like Emile Zola, in the portrait of him that Manet painted in 1868. At crucial points in the definition of his sitter’s features—at the joining of two planes, for instance, or during a tonal shift that shapes a volume—Manet has made certain marks that insist on being understood as nothing more or less than marks of his brush. I’m not saying that the work is a bad likeness; rather, that once we sense the dandyism at the hollow core of Manet’s art, we see that his Portrait d’Emile Zola mocks the very idea of likeness—mocks it without bothering to dispense with it.

In the modern marketplace, a cause in its simplest form is a demand; supply is the effect. (Only when advertising becomes sophisticated in manipulating images do supplies of goods appear to create demands as well as fill them.) His eye alert to artifice and masks, the dandified artist senses this, and resents the subjection to the manipulations of causality that is forced on him by everyday participation in the market. So he ignores the marketplace, or, if that is not feasible (and it usually is not), he deploys a pretense of ignoring it. When forced into it, he often responds to economic pressures in a peremptory style, as if one high-handed gesture could still the shifting patterns of hungry demand and reluctant but eventually acquiescent supply.

In 1877, James McNeill Whistler sent a painting called Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and six others to a group show at the Grosvenor Gallery, in London. John Ruskin, the great reformer who provided a model for William Morris and, through him, for many of our century’s utopians, attended the exhibition only to complain afterward of “eccentricities. . . almost always in some degree forced, and. . . imperfections gratuitously, if not impertinently, indulged.” Enraged by the price set on Nocturne, Ruskin wrote that he had “seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”15 Whistler sued him for libel.

The issue at trial was whether the painter had worked hard enough on his painting, if he had given it enough of what the 19th century called “finish” to justify a price of 200 guineas. Asked how long he had taken to “knock off that nocturne,” Whistler replied that it had taken him a day, though he might have added a few touches the following day, prompting an attorney to inquire, “The labor of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!” “No,” said Whistler, “I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.” The painter was claiming value not for what he did but for what he was, for the refinement of perception and feeling that he had come to embody and could, with a few gestures, indicate on canvas.

By defending this dandified definition of value in court, Whistler sought legal reinforcement of the idea that he was superior to the need to act in ordinary ways.16 He won his libel suit but received only a farthing’s damages: legal victory canceled by financial defeat. This static result was satisfactory to the fictive, dandified Whistler that the artist presented to his public. Privately, though, his state of near bankruptcy at the time of the trial forced him to take desperately practical measures, and more generally, throughout his life, Whistler was too active on his own behalf, too flashily dressed, too floridly pugnacious to count as a dandy of the most exquisitely inert kind. But his art shows abundant signs of inertia, modulations of tone and texture that only make sense as evidence of perceptions frozen into permanence by an implacable refinement of taste.

By the mid 1860s, the textures of Manet’s and Whistler’s and possibly Henri Fantin-Latour’s brushwork had begun to argue that the canvas should be valued not only for its connections to external things but for its independence from them—that is, for its growing indifference to the task of representation. This task is causal; near the end of the chain of effects it sets in motion is the viewer’s recognition of the painting’s subject matter. As a dandy’s witticism often neglected to cause laughter, so the acausal blanks in Manet’s brushwork show that he now and then neglected to generate the pleasure in recognition that many, even today, find reassuring. Acausal blanks also occur in Degas’ late paintings. Van Gogh did not tolerate them; Gauguin and his followers did, especially Maurice Denis, who once remarked, “A picture—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”17 Small gestures of resistance to the anecdotal flicker with increasing strength through Cézanne’s late work; then, in the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, resistance becomes militant indifference and settles into the image unapologetically. Analytic Cubism in particular displays surprisingly large stretches of terrain vague—passages that are representationally weak but make no strong argument for abstraction.

Looking back in 1917 to steps taken almost a decade earlier, Braque said that “the goal is not to be concerned with the reconstitution of an anecdotal fact, but with constitution of a pictorial fact.”18 The abstract canvas’ claim to independence is familiar, but three-quarters of a century ago it was just as usual in avant-garde circles to suppose that a canvas representing an object could be so focused on pictorial matters that it, no less than an abstraction, counted as autonomous. It had become legitimate to claim that to elaborate the pictorial traits of, say, a still-life painting was an end in itself—as in certain of Braque’s and Picasso’s canvases from 1909–11, which attain something equivalent to the dandy’s disengagement. Soon minor Fauves and Cubists and certain Dadas of programmatic bent defined this disengagement as a goal to be achieved. Moreover, they wanted the audience to recognize their achievement as an effective step toward an esthetically improved future. But such programs of progressive action snared the acausal in new patterns of causality, for, in defining pictorial autonomy as a principle—a cause—to be served, they made it a cause in a simpler sense: a force that produces an effect, changing both the audience’s responses and the future of art.19 It became increasingly incumbent on painters capable of dandified impulses to neglect these revamped causes and effects. They needed to find a new acausality.

Among the Analytic Cubist passages by Braque and Picasso that refuse to depict a thing or to express an emotion are some that refrain as well from all effort to effect a recognition of the painting’s independence. Making no attempt to assert the picture plane, maintain the integrity of the edge, or insist on the materiality of pigment, these passages do nothing to advance the logic of autonomy that critics and historians of Modern art dedicate so much effort to explicating. The institutions of art criticism and art history clash at many points, but they share a dedication to the fallacy that a good painting is a mechanism whose every part functions perfectly, giving the apparatus of explication an opportunity to display its verbal command of pictorial cause and effect. But critics and curators have accounted for only the grossest features of Cubism. Their dedication to a causal view of painting, and to their own task, prevents them from describing, or even from noticing, the passages where Braque and Picasso indulge in pointless reiteration, or leave gaps that neither deprive their images of clarity nor provide them with the benefits of well-managed ellipsis. As the dandy’s ineffably unfunny joke opens a void in a social pattern and fills it with the force of his baffling will, so a nonfunctioning passage of Cubist brushwork disrupts the smooth, ingratiating argument for autonomy.

This is the dandyism not of the Cubist painters’ persons but of their works. The 20th-century art world’s most authentic dandy in person was Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp rejected painting as too “retinal,”20 too implicated in patterns of cause and effect. He was bored by the predictability of such patterns, in Cubism no less than in the Impressionist paintings that received his most intensely dismissive scorn. In its occasional refusal to cause thoroughly pictorial effects, Cubism had pointed him along the antiretinal path; that refusal, however, looked incomplete to Duchamp, who believed, rightly, that Cubism’s occasional blank spots were not enough to protect it from a thoroughly retinal response. He designed his readymades to correct that vulnerability.

Bicycle Wheel, 1913, is elegant but vacuous. The wheel revolves, yet is as inert as the exquisitely arranged figure of Beau Brummell. No blankness can protect itself from interpreters, of course, and a variety of meanings have been projected onto Duchamp’s readymades. These may be the 20th century’s most vigorously analyzed objects. Such maneuvers have their interest, even their fascination, but they should not be allowed to obscure Duchamp’s command of inconsequentiality. I don’t say that the commentaries offered by his supporters, or the questions raised by the most thoughtful of his detractors, are useless—only that they do not take into account the readymades’ indifference to the task of offering a coherent significance. In 1967 Duchamp told Pierre Cabanne that Bicycle Wheel “was just a distraction. I didn’t have any special reason to do it.”21 Perhaps Duchamp was disingenuous, yet Bicycle Wheel’s motion has a quite specific quality: “I enjoyed looking at it,” said the artist two years later, “just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.”22 Duchamp liked the sort of motion that calms the desire to act (see his hypnotic Rotary Glass Plates of the 1920s), and he liked chess, a game of minimal physical gesture. Flames on the hearth, chessmen, the spinning bicycle wheel on its stool—all move constantly, yet all stay in the same place.

Some interpretations of Duchamp’s readymades are surely legitimate, yet none, however plausible, accounts for his enchantment with pointless motion, with inconsequentiality. He became a dandy by permitting this indifference to cause and effect to reach from his art to his person, rendering him elegantly nondescript. Like Jules Laforgue’s Frenchified Hamlet, the public Duchamp was a variation on the commedia dell’arte Pierrot. I don’t mean, of course, that he dressed the part; a dandy’s outfit is never a costume—never a matter of looking bohemian or rebellious, of wearing overalls to dinner or a monocle on 57th Street. (I make no complaint against such gestures, but they are beside the present point.) Duchamp was Pierrot in his person. Where particolored Harlequin, Picasso’s favorite alter ego, is the allegorical figure of activism on the fronts of style and sensibility, Pierrot is the figure of the self as the palest of monochromes: abstemious, idle, resistant to interpretation and to the causal forces that interpretation tries so busily to control—a dandy.

Laforgue said of Baudelaire’s poems that they are “as vague and inconsequential as the flutter of a fan, as equivocal as make-up, so that the bourgeois who reads them asks: ‘So what?’”23 The comment does not make common cause with obtuse sensibilities. Rather, it points beneath the lush surface of Baudelaire’s verse to a dandified refusal to engage any topic in a way that the general reader will recognize as effective. Duchamp’s readymades are similarly incompetent in their performance, similarly defiant in their refusal to perform. And the Large Glass, 1915–23, doesn’t so much deny the rational relations of cause and effect as elaborate them to the point of absurdity and beyond; the work is so complex a machine for the production of meaning that it baffles meaning, defeats interpretation. One could argue that the Large Glass is too richly significant for any commentary to be exhaustive, but I think it would be truer to say that it is a meaning-machine designed not to work.

When members of the general public run across such machinery, they tend to assume even now that they are faced with a hoax. I have no wish to be cruel, but I ought to point out that dandies and their present-day descendants do not respect the public enough to hoax it. They are too fastidious to want to be noticed by the uninitiated, or to make a mark in history as it is popularly understood. Dandified emptiness and immobility are means to freedom from institutions—means ironically deployed, for, as the dandy knows, only the image of such freedom is possible.

The dandy objects to Isaac Newton, or, since one can imagine Duchamp but not Brummell pondering Newton’s axioms of motion, it is better to say that the dandy objects to the utilitarian view of the world that appeared as Newtonian physics engendered John Locke’s cause-and-effect psychology. The developments in science that historians call “the mechanization of the world picture”24 eventually gave tone to much of our modern thought and feeling, even when, or perhaps particularly when, they invoke notions like “the organic” or “the creative.” Though we appreciate modernity’s benefits, sometimes it oppresses. For every modern convenience is an emblem of the attitudes that guide our science and technology, our corporations and bureaucracies—all the institutions that reduce us to data. The self must accept this reduction, which comes to it in different forms from every institution, whether academic, economic, or political.

The dandy may not exactly perceive or comprehend the institutional vision of the self as a definable, therefore manageable, function of a play of causal forces, a datum to be controlled. He senses it, however, and his inertia is in part an attempt to remove selfhood from that demeaningly manipulated play of causality. Yet the dandy never complains about the aspects of modern life that he finds so tedious: a complaint would be too obviously an effect generated by some cause. Others are not so fastidious. In Jerusalem (1804–20), William Blake writes,

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.25

Like Blake, the dandy refuses to be merely a cog “moving by compulsion,” but unlike Blake he does not believe in the paradox of an Edenic mechanics that works in freedom to produce “harmony & peace.” Blake’s utopian energy is not available to him. So he affects stillness, the image of one who neither acts nor is acted upon, and who therefore is not caught in the machinery of modern life.

Most who object to modernity are utopians rather than ironists of the excruciating, dandified kind. It is a choice between wild hope and no hope at all—alternatives not as clear as they might seem, for there are moments when certain utopians display something like the dandy’s pose of defiant blankness. Blake, I think, immersed himself too deeply in sensual particulars to assume the pose of an inanimate object. Dandified episodes are more likely in the careers of utopians inclined less to particulars than to abstraction. I’m thinking of Piet Mondrian, for one, though I don’t deny the usual understanding that he was driven to his utopian visions by a Calvinist sense of good and evil.

Mondrian hoped that a universal style would release painting from the snares of individual ego. Purified of self, canvases would become sculpture, sculpture would attain the scale of architecture, and architecture would generate urban planning so transcendently rational that society would evolve into a state of harmony. Nothing like World War I would occur again. Art was to be the cause and the effect of a heavenly city on earth. Yet one sees equivalents to the dandy’s self-centered inertia in Mondrian’s nonobjective paintings: lines doubled without advancing the clarity of a composition; rectangles counterpoised with a tense precision that neither brings a painting to harmonious closure nor opens it up; chalky, torpid passages of white. I take none of these nuances to be faults. Moreover, I intend no adverse criticism when I point out that the shape of Mondrian’s career sent much of his energy in a circle around an immobile center: from the early 1920s until he began to work on Broadway Boogie Woogie, in 1942–43, Mondrian repeated himself with a doggedness that baffles those who believe that his only impulses were progressively utopian. Little energy remained for pushing his art forward.

Mondrian could envision his grandiose and radical program of change only because, like a dandy, he resisted the imperatives of existing institutions such as ordinary standards of taste, and the morality that prescribes for artists and everyone else the purposes they ought to pursue. In resisting these intangible institutions, Mondrian of course put himself at odds with institutions of another sort—the art market, museums, and so on. Granted, his purpose was to create new institutions, first De Stijl, then the forms of the utopian society that he expected De Stijl to engender. Yet a certain arrogance that proclaims itself in his and his colleagues’ dismissal of the conservative demand for propriety, on the one hand, and the avant-garde demand for progress, on the other, strongly recalls the inert gestures of the dandy.

Beau Brummell designed himself as a “visual object” to assert the irreducible and inalienable intractability of selfhood. The visual object called an abstract painting does the same on behalf of its maker’s self, opening a blank space in the texture of institutionally recognized meaning. Few artists leave that void empty for long. Even when the object looks entirely blank, even when it is a monochrome painting that seems to represent blankness, the artist is usually the first to assign it meanings. But before the artist can feel the confidence necessary for the deployment of this rhetorical machinery, there needs to have been at least a moment when the work was empty and inert, totally resistant to our culture’s demand that images be interpretable. Having blanked out that demand, the self can make demands of its own, and blankness is blanked out in its turn.

Kasimir Malevich, for example, claimed that the Suprematist canvas of three, two, and sometimes only one color is a “‘desert,’ where nothing is real except feeling.” Because Suprematism argues that “pure feeling” constitutes authentic reality, Malevich’s abstractions were, in his own eyes, far from void: they contained everything. Or they emanated everything in pure form, a purposeful characteristic, for Suprematist emanations were to purify ordinary life.26 Malevich delivered his theories pantingly, at the top of his lungs. His public self couldn’t have shown less of the icy refinement that Barbey admired in the dandy.27 Yet Malevich’s abstractions suggest that he too was capable of the dandy’s inert arrogance. To carry out the imperious maneuver of redefining the clichés of idealist esthetics to produce Suprematism, he needed to assert himself, at least fleetingly, as an absolute not to be moved by the flow of institutionally approved meaning—not to be reduced to an effect by an external cause. In the blankest of his canvases, one can sense his stubbornness. And if Malevich obscured the quality of that blankness by layering rhetorical content over it, it was at some point still a reflection of his stance.

George Moore’s introduction to An Anthology of Pure Poetry, which he edited in 1924, speaks of Tennyson “and many other poets. . . that have been devoured one by one by the needs of empire”—the need to moralize and to sustain morale, to justify the great institutions of empire by shaping attitudes to their requirements. Moore asks, “Which shall it be, art or empire?”28 He believed that artists could choose one or the other; the artist who rejected empire—perhaps, one speculates, by developing an abstract art—would be pure. Similarly, Barbey thought the dandy could achieve pure self-absorption. Yet the situation of modern life admits of no purity in the sense that a fin-de-siècle esthete like Moore used the word. Dandyism and abstraction are easily incorporated and taken over by the institution. The most recalcitrant are sometimes given blue-chip status as compensation.

Through his reproachful, repetitious writings, Ad Reinhardt defined himself as a nag—like the obstreperous Malevich, he was no Brummell. With argumentative insistence he urged that art should display “no object, no subject, no matter. No symbols, images or signs. Neither pleasure nor pain. No mindless working or mindless no-working. No chess playing.”29 Reinhardt’s monochromes sometimes look to me like logos accompanying his moral strictures, but they are not that for a sympathetic critic, Lucy Lippard, who argues that his black canvases in particular gain their significance by acknowledging what the theologian Paul Tillich calls “the unconditional and infinite character of the Ultimate.”30 Reinhardt appears to have believed that there are realms where concepts like “the Ultimate” make sense; undeniably, he intended his art to have purposes, both transcendent and earthly. Yet I don’t think his sense of mission would have been so strong, his grappling with institutions so vigorous, if he had never formed a dandified image of himself as a presence utterly disengaged and self-sufficient—the imaginary source of all authority. That image devised, Reinhardt could discard it and get on with the moralist’s and the mystic’s neglect of selfhood. Nonetheless, to see his black paintings fully, one must find amid their ambitiously transcendent meanings their meaninglessness, which is equally ambitious, and obsessively self-centered.

The critic Max Kozloff has argued that “Reinhardt’s excessive craftsmanship dissolved into a puzzling darkening of image and variation.” By contrast, Andy Warhol’s art signals an “ostentatious lack of effort.” Further, “Warhol refuses to be understood by accepting everything; Reinhardt rejects interpretation by despising everything”—that is, everything worldly. These differences reveal similarities: “both artists. . . thwarted all expectations of what art looks like.”31 Interpretation refused to be thwarted, and by 1971, when Kozloff published these remarks, commentators had defined Reinhardt’s and Warhol’s careers as effects of formal, historical, and cultural causes. Even now, however, the work of both artists preserves a degree of unaccountability, a willful resistance to interpretation. With his silverish wig, Warhol was obviously a fop. Less obviously, he shared with Reinhardt a dandified disinclination to be entirely at the world’s disposal. He gave in to his culture so thoroughly that it could only have swept over him and through his art, leaving both unmoved; Warholian inertia shows almost always in a lack of affect, often in self-enclosed repetitions.

Frank Stella’s early stripe paintings put inertia in motion, aiming it at the future. His development has been a single, sustained exhibition of purpose: to respond in painting to the historical demands of the postwar period in America. I find those demands no more compelling than Reinhardt’s faith in absolutes and ultimates, yet I acknowledge what is obvious: Stella’s version of history has institutional authority. He has done much but not everything to define the history his career exemplifies. Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art have done the rest. Working hand in hand with the Modern, and with museological and corporate entities that take their cues from it, Stella himself has become something of an institution. To put it another way: offering no resistance to institutional imperatives, he merges his interests with those of curators and collectors so thoroughly that his public persona is not quite that of a self. It is more that of an agency for the development of historically correct images.

Yet the lack of selfhood in Stella’s persona is not complete, or was not in the 1960s, when the logic of his purpose faltered and he produced variations on his stripe paintings that looked gratuitous, unmotivated by historical necessity, pointless. In Stella’s pictorial logic, his aluminum paintings made a necessary step beyond the black paintings, the copper paintings advanced beyond the aluminum ones, and so forth. But the concentric “portraits” of 1963 defied this forward momentum. Circling around their empty cores, they suspended the artist’s progress. Inert, they hinted at the possibility that a dandified Stella had come into conflict with Stella the developing institution. The hint was not taken up. Since then, even Stella’s most overproduced series have looked all too legibly purposeful. Artists like Peter Halley and Ashley Bickerton mimic that legibility. Because they are so careful to offer no impediment to interpretation, their works look like quizzes administered in a crash course on how to assimilate oneself to shifts in institutional fashion.

Even if he occasionally registered doubts about art-world cause and effect, Stella was already in command of it when he appeared on the scene. Other abstract painters are no less veterans than he, yet because they do not engage art-world machinery with his determination, they seem less present. Look, for instance, at Brice Marden, whose work is admired but—like the artist himself—is only obliquely in attendance. Institutions approve of his painting, yet they can’t entirely enclose it. Robert Ryman and his art stand similarly askew, like the several generations of monochrome painters who have followed Ryman and Marden in New York. Neither accommodating themselves to nor resisting institutions, they remain in odd, half-assimilated positions. They are reluctant to acknowledge the blankness in their art; cultivating a modest, utilitarian morality, they conceive of themselves as artists with proper purposes. Nonetheless, as the nuances of their surfaces grow ever more delicate and blank, their aims remain undefined. They keep from themselves the secret of their own art’s dandyism. I’m thinking of monochromists like Marcia Hafif and Jo Baer, though these remarks apply as well to “conceptualist” painters like Robert Mangold or to a geometric revivalist like Harvey Quaytman. They too are capable of refinement and blankness. They too offer at least the shadow of resistance to the demand that a painting be a cause whose effect is a meaning that an institution can use.

The postwar American art world has produced few sharply resistant figures—Pollock, Jasper Johns, Warhol, Reinhardt, several more maybe. The unassimilable core of their art is difficult to see because work like theirs receives the full weight of institutional anxiety: aside from connoisseurs of entropy and ungraspable nuance like Robert Smithson and Kozloff, members of the American art world make a particular effort to exaggerate the legibility of defiantly illegible artists. But I think there is another reason that illegibility is so rarely seen. It is scarce. American myths of unencumbered individuality obscure the institutional authority that one must recognize before one can resist. Moreover, the entire nation has been reluctant to admit its imperial nature. It was easy for George Moore, writing in London between the wars, to put the question, “Which shall it be, art or empire?” After World War II in America, the choice never seemed that stark, because, for at least a couple of decades, hardly anyone admitted that there were American institutions, with attendant moralities and images of progress, that art could serve—and did. I do not mean to bring up the old story of the U.S. government’s promotion of American art during the cold war. I am talking about something subtler and deeper: postwar art’s unconscious willingness to exemplify the virtues and embody the attitudes approved by postwar institutions. So much American art of the last four decades has been staunch and proper in its optimism, in its programmatic clarity, in its reliance on a mechanistic notion of form as a cause that produces the effect of interpretable meaning—and, in general, in its obedience to institutional expectations of what art should be. If the rush to conformity is unconscious, so are the satisfactions of inertia, and that is why one sees in this era so few sharply focused moments of arrogant, dandified resistance.

Afterword._ This is an essay about blankness, so it may seem odd that I have not mentioned Stéphane Mallarmé and his devotion to “le vide papier que la blancheur défend”—the empty paper defended by its own whiteness (“Brise Marine,” 1887). It is possible to define Mallarmé as a dandy, and to interpret his striving toward emptiness as an attempt to establish an inert void. But this requires one to ignore the immense scale of his art. The dandy confines himself to the small scale of the self. Under Mallarmé’s gaze, the empty page expands to contain the universe—or, rather, all the meaning it is capable of generating. “Everything,” he said, “exists so that it may end up in a book.” Having imagined the possibility of writing the great, all-inclusive book that would subsume every previously written book, he tried to show, in his poetry, what transformations things must undergo if they are to find a place on the pages of this ultimate work.

Nothing would remain its ordinary self. Reduced to Mallarméan nuance, individuals would be relieved of all that they prize as their individuality. Ordinary institutions effect a similar transformation, reducing the self to a cluster of data, the better to snare its various aspects in patterns of cause and effect or supply and demand. If written, Mallarmé’s imaginary book would reduce selfhood to a single, transcendent essence, a subtle cog in an infinitely vast play of metaphysical machinery. In their absorptive whiteness, its pages would show us an image of the modern institution in its most abstract, most thoroughly esthetized form. Like that book, each real institution is dedicated to an ideal—some absolutist notion of truth, efficiency, profit, power. Such notions are blanks designed to absorb and transform all that lies outside the institution, all that is not yet institutionalized. Like an inert passage in a painting, the dandy’s blankness is intended to resist this process. The history of modern culture is the record of a struggle between selves and institutions. At its cruelest, this has been a struggle between two varieties of emptiness.

Carter Ratcliff is a critic and poet who lives in New York. His book on Komar and Melamid will be published by Abbeville Press, New York, in January 1989.



1. Cyril Connolly, “The Dandy: 2,” 1960, in The Evening Colonnade, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985, p. 132.

2. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröch, 1836, reprint ed. Oxford: at the University Press, 1987, pp. 207, 215.

3. Ibid., p. 212.

4. Charles Baudelaire, “Le Peintre de la vie moderne,” 1868, in Oeuvres complètes, 2 vols., ed. Claude Pichois, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1976, 2:711, 709.

5. Ibid., p. 712.

6. Ibid., p. 709.

7. Carlyle, quoted in Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1978, p. 179.

8. Barbey d’Aurevilly, “Du Dandysme et de George Brummell,” 1843, in Oeuvres romanesques complètes, ed. Jacques Petit, 2 vols., Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966, 2:692.

9. Ibid., p. 697.

10. William Hazlitt, “Brummelliana,” 1828, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, London: J. M. Dent, 1934, 20:152–53.

11. William Jesse, Beau Brummell, 1844, reprint ed. London: The Grolier Society, n.d., 1:55.

12. George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man, 1887–1923, reprint ed. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972, p. 104. Elsewhere, Moore retells the story of meeting Manet in an autobiographer’s voice, rather than a novelist’s, and remarks on the painter’s “simple, scrupulous clothes, and yet with a touch of the dandy about them.” See Moore, “Chavannnes, Millet, and Manet,” Modern Painting, rev. ed. London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1900, p. 31.

13. Emile Zola, “Edouard Manet,” 1867, in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, eds. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, p. 30.

14. Moore, Modern Painting, pp. 41-42.

15. Quoted in Andrew MacLaren Young et al., The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980, text volume: 98.

16. See James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “The Action,” The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892, reprint ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1967, pp. 2–18 . For one of several other accounts of the trial, see E. R. and J. Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols., Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Company, 1909, 1:229–45. All full accounts record the painter Edward Burne-Jones’ reluctant admission that he didn’t believe that his friend Whistler had worked hard enough on Nocturne to justify the asking price. For an account of Ruskin’s method of arriving at a fair price for a painter’s labor, see E. R. and J. Pennell, The Whistler Journal, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1921. pp. 322–24. By basing his legal claim on “the knowledge of a lifetime,” Whistler put an extreme construction on an idea common since the appearance of modern market economics: that personal experience is in some way a form of capital. He dandified the idea by insisting that the most valuable kind of experience is that of being a superior sort of person rather than of doing the sort of painstaking work, whether with a brush or some other tool, that is generally considered useful. The elements that combine to form the idea of experience as capital appear, disconnected, in John Locke’s theories of property and perception. See Carter Ratcliff, “Dramatis Personae” parts IV and V, Art in America 74 nos. 2 and 5, February and May 1986.

17. Maurice Denis, “Definition of Neotraditionism,” 1890, in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, p. 94.

18. Georges Braque, “Thoughts and Reflections on Art,” 1917, in Chipp, p. 260.

19. In Edward F. Fry, Cubism, New York and Toronto: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1966, see, for example, Jean Metzinger’s claim, in his “Note on Painting,” 1910, that, by “rejecting every ornamental, anecdotal or symbolic intention,” Picasso “achieves a painterly purity hitherto unknown” (p. 59). See also, in Dadas on Art, ed. Lucy R. Lippard, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, Man Ray’s argument, in a 1916 “Statement,” that an artist advances by “uncover[ing] the pure plane of expression that has so long been hidden by the glazings of nature imitation, anecdote, and the other popular subjects” (p. 156).

20. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett, New York: The Documents of 20th Century Art, Viking Press. 1971, p. 43.

21. Ibid p. 47.

22. See Arturo Schwartz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, London: Thames and Hudson, 1969, p. 442.

23. Jules Laforgue, quoted in Martin Green and John Swan, The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination, New York: Macmillan, 1986, p. 28.

24. See E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture, 1950, trans. C. Dikshoorn, Oxford, London, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

25. William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1804, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. ed. David V. Erdman, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982, p. 159.

26. Kasimir Malevich, “Suprematism,” The Non-Objective World, 1927, in Chipp, pp. 341–46.

27. Barbey, pp. 681, 690, 692, 693.

28. George Moore, ed., An Anthology of Pure Poetry, New York: Boni & Liveright, 1973, pp. 18–19.

29. Ad Reinhardt, “Twelve Rules for a New Academy,” 1957, quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, Ad Reinhardt, New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1981, p. 141.

30. Lippard, p. 184.

31. Max Kozloff, “Andy Warhol and Ad Reinhardt: The Great Accepter and the Great Demurrer,” Studio International 181 no. 931, March 1971, pp. 113–17 .