“Balsphemies, Ecstasies, Cries”

“Blasphemies, Ecstasies, Cries” was, in the words of its curator, Andrew Brighton, a profoundly reactionary exhibition, in that it set out to recoup imaginative high culture rather than to revolutionize it. Yet cynical rejection of this enterprise is not at all in order, since the exhibition was, at the very least, one you could have an argument with. The model of art consumption it attacked was the institutional one epitomized by the Museum of Modern Art, which plays down the individual qualities of works for the sake of their contribution to a larger, continuous story. By contrast, this exhibition offered a broad stylistic and historical mix of paintings and photo-works, each coupled to a poetic fragment. The idea was to suggest that one looked at the art and text in as pre-Modernist a way as possible, which is to say, with a sensibility informed by literature, history, and philosophy.

The premise was, at root, an unremarkable one. Art is usually presented to us in one way: on white walls, accompanied by a label giving title, date, medium, artist, and, where appropriate, owner. In deliberate contrast to this, the Serpentine made its walls into panels of green, blue, brown, orange, and purple, and titles were banished altogether. The exhibition’s title derived from a line in Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire being for Brighton the exemplar of anti-Modernist heroism. Since information was so resolutely not a part of the conception of the show, it would seem unfair to start naming names at this stage. Suffice it to say that the majority of the artists presented were very familiar.

The paradox at the heart of the show, and one that no degree of goodwill could dissolve, was that in offering the opinion that all Modern art is co-opted by institutions in order to function within and sustain the illusion of their version of reality, it had to use paintings in a vociferously oppositional way. Far from opening each work to the possibility of myriad individual interpretations, the replacement of the noncommittal acknowledgment of title and producer with a few lines of verse irrevocably manacled one’s responses. Try as one might to reject the idea that one functioned as an illustration of the other, it was difficult not to see painting and adjacent words as, in a very narrow sense, correspondent. This effect was exacerbated by the styling of the texts, which, far from being set as captions, were works in themselves. Shot from books opened to the appropriate page, with shadows artfully arranged to mask off unwanted lines, they were presented as framed, large-format photographs. They reeked of a kind of generic moodiness, the suffocating richness of which cocooned the paintings, insulating them from the ambiguities and dissonances of the world in which their meanings by necessity must circulate.

One should not criticize a show of wall works for the absence of sculpture, but the point was forced home, nonetheless, that three-dimensional works could not fit into its schema. This show seemed to ascribe to the belief that art, whether literary or visual, should operate as a source of incorporeal images of the ideal. Photography, for all its problems of status, is allowable, but the tactile immediacy of an object would smack too much of empirical apprehension, it would seem too worldly. In championing what it rather nebulously tagged “imaginative high culture” against banality, this exhibition found itself retreating into sterile reflection. Instead of ascending to the heights of T. S. Eliot’s cultural elite (and, make no mistake, the old issues of class hierarchies sit foursquare in the center of the argument here), this show found itself turning away from the world and descending into petty snobbishness. The attempt to disarm us through an honest admission of its reactionary spirit failed, as one realized that, yet again, one was only dealing with a nostalgia for what never truly existed.

Michael Archer