philadelphia

Fernand Léger, La Ville (The City), 1919, oil on canvas, 91 x 117 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Fernand Léger

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Fernand Léger, La Ville (The City), 1919, oil on canvas, 91 x 117 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

As theorized by fin-de-siècle sociologist Georg Simmel, the term metropolis denotes less a specific scale of the city than the acceleration of stimuli therein, including traffic and advertising, the spasms of the business cycle, and the unending flow of pseudo-history in the news media. To ward off neurasthenia, Simmel argues, the urbanite develops a “protective organ,” a kind of mental shield, which blunts the force of sensation, subordinating aesthesis—the domain of perception—to the rule of reason. In other words, the faster things go, the less one feels.

Might we also add: the less one sees? Like the city dweller’s deadpan mien, does abstraction arise organically from the matrix of urban modernity, as a pictorial reaction-formation, or—to propose an alternative diagnosis—is the attenuation of sensation itself the malady, treatable not in kind, anaesthetically,

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