I)

Seems the director John Huston was setting up for a Western when his principal, John Wayne, spoke up:

Mr. Huston, what's my motivation here?
- Excuse me?
- Yeah, when I walk into the saloon, what am I supposed to be feeling?
- Duke: you push open the swinging doors, you stand where we put the X, you say "Dirty Deke, I've come to take you in." But whatever you do, don't feel!

If only the Central Park Conservancy had the same attitude - they're the rich folks who run New York's Central Park the way the Lord of the Manor used to run the village commons in the early seventeenth century, and they stake their claim with a lot of signs and barricades and signs: KEEP OFF THE GRASS - IT'S MINE! And unlike John Huston they've hired someone to tell the yo!-men how to react: the Central Park Conservancy have come to realize that acting like elitist thugs is conducive to being seen as elitist thugs, and that can play havoc with your image; so the solution is not to stop acting like thugs, it's to hire a PR firm to show how you're a good thug, by putting up new signs all over the Park that spell: "WE ARE NOT A THUG!"

It's awesome to think that a sign that seems to say "KEEP OFF THE GRASS" can be subtly imbued with feelings in the hands of the right designer, so that it subliminally says something like "KEEPING OFF THE GRASS CAN BE FUN!" It's also pure Concentrate of Drivel, the type of typographic hogwash the New York Times has been pushing for years, the fantasy that passes as a typographic theory that there are emotional qualities inherent to serifs, kerns and such, and all that's needed is some typographic expert to tell you which serifs correspond to which emotions, and presto! Keeping Off the Grass is Fun Again! And just to make sure we know how much fun that can be, the Times tells us our brilliant designing lords have chosen a typeface known as Titling Gothic: "None of the styles of Titling Gothic exude the kind of authoritarian insistence of Helvetica." What a relief!

 

 

II)

The question, whether specific feelings are inherent to certain forms of artistic expression and can be communicated to the viewer was central to the development of Modernist music, art and literature and philosophy - it's discussed in Janik and Toulmin's quirky, passionate book Wittgenstein's Vienna. The issue was not whether the artists themselves should or should not have feelings, nor even whether the listener, reader or thinker could perceive the existence of these feelings; the issue was whether or not specific affects like "authoritarian" or "friendly" could be consciously incorporated at one end of the composition and picked up by the audience at the other end.

A composer like Arnold Schoenberg was very clear that he was "expressing" something. (A disgusting word, "expressing:" it feels like a teenager squeezing zits, though I suppose if you expressed expressing with a nice Garamond as I've done here that would mitigate the whole thing.) Like his admirer Kandinsky, Schoenberg believed that the presence of affect could be identified in a piece of music or a poem or even a philosophical treatise; neither Schoenberg nor many of his cultured colleagues in Vienna believed their listeners could, or should, identify that thing being expressed. Expressing oneself was something an artist did, it was not what she did for others. When Schoenberg moved to Los Angeles in World War II some moviemoghoul asked him to compose some "lovely" music for MGM's version of Pearl Buck's Good Earth. Schoenberg announced he would teach the cast to speak in Sprechstimme, "similar to Pierrot Lunaire, but of course, less difficult." Instead, The Good Earth went out with an accompaniment of tinkling pseudo-Chinese music, just in case you might be led to believe it was set in the South Bronx.

Or again, a typographer like Hermann Zapf might well design a superb font while quietly, intensely thinking that designing type while seated in a room full of English-speaking groupies was an excellent way to avoid them; if the students later on decided that a Zapf typeface expressed Man's Eternal Striving for Green Grass, well, that was their problem. As the black character in Amiri Baraka's Dutchman put it:

They say, "I love Bessie Smith." And don't even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, "Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass." Before love, suffering, desire, anything you can explain, she's saying, and very plainly, "Kiss my black ass." And if you don't know that, it's you that's doing the kissing.

 

 

III)

As Hanns Eisler put it, "There is a favorite Hollywood gibe: 'Birdie sings, music sings.'" Unfortunately, the reverse does not apply. Kandinsky spent his life trying to work through that particular problem, only to prove that the more obvious the "story," the less likely the viewer was to recognize it if the viewer had learned to look elsewhere: what Kandinsky claimed he was trying to do ended up obscuring what he actually did. A possible solution would be to argue that only certain very special, refined people get the exquisite Klang, the vibrations of color, line and serif inherent in the sign or typeface. Only a very special refined sort of honkie mothafocka can truly understand the deep, abiding love of the Central Park Conservancy for the People; such an educated honkie (a typical New York Times reader, for instance), cannot but fail to see the Conservancy's message, which is "Kiss my upper-class ass." But then, the whole purpose of the lettering would be defeated, wouldn't it, if the only folks who could correctly read the lofty intentions of the Conservancy were those who didn't need to be persuaded to begin with. The difference between the Bourgeois Theory of Art and the Hippie Theory of Marijuana is, that with Marijuana you only need to be persuaded you're going to get high the first time you try it; with Art you're expected to "get it" every time. Wittgenstein used to ask his students to consider whether there could exist a primitive tribe that used quadratic equations to decorate their walls without ever knowing what the equations meant. Reading Wittgenstein's Vienna you begin to realize the question was rather, whether one could imagine any other kind of tribe. The Central Park Conservancy could have saved itself the trouble of hiring a designer to pretend it was saying the opposite of what it was obviously saying; and the New York Times could have saved itself - oh, right, that's how the Times saves its skin to begin with, by explaining to its readers how they're supposed to feel if they're going to be the right kind of people with the right kind of high; explaining to readers and sponsors alike that the judicious use of kerns and serifs reinforces the unalterable, incontestable fact that X washes whiter, and that the United Bank of Ripoff really loves you. If X, or United Bank, were to ever face the fact that the proper serif conveys nothing, but nothing at all that can be named, well, that would be the end of the New York Times and its advertising department.

 

 

IV)

Among those turn-of-the century Viennese who were in general agreement with Schoenberg's position, Janik and Toulmin mention Karl Kraus, who argued that the very presence of advertising in any newspaper was enough to discredit it. They do not mention Freud, though the connection is clear, not simply for the influence of repressed emotions themselves but for the question of cathexis: in Freudian theory the conscious form taken by libido is almost always contingent - how else would its unconscious character be hidden? At any rate, Schoenberg's connection with psychoanalytic theory doesn't pass through Freud himself but through David Joseph Bach, an early friend of Leon Trotsky and cultural editor at the Socialist Arbeiterzeitung, who in 1911 split off from Freud's coterie to join up with Alfred Adler; decades later, Schoenberg named Bach as one of the three great influences on his life. Bach felt that music - even Schoenberg's music - could foster an Adlerian Gemeindegef├╝hl, a general feeling of community, irrespective of whatever "message" the composer supposedly meant to convey; the question whether certain areas of "High Art" were more appropriate to the upper classes was specious: one might very well imagine a typographic art that was designed to appeal to the upper class, or symphonic music that spoke to the working man, woman or lgtbq: if there was a hidden message that some would get and others wouldn't, then the message had far more to do with technical issues inherent to the medium than with the refined capacity to feel; if there was a general affect, a feeling attached to a text or composition, that affect was too diffuse to be the exclusive to any one social group. Mahler's Third Symphony, for instance, was generally agreed by Socialists and reactionaries alike to be "on the side of" the Working Class, perhaps for the same reason: whatever else Mahler may be saying, he's not telling the workers or uneducated to kiss his ass, which would be a step forward from most purportedly political postmodernisms today. Today as then, the distinction that must be drawn is not between those genres that the lords will claim intrinsically separate the upper-class sheep from the rambunctious proletarian goats, but between the uses to which the genres are put. The architect Adolf Loos, a close friend of Kraus and Schoenberg and Wittgenstein (inasmuch as W. had any), famously stated that anyone who comes from listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to sit down and design wallpaper is either a scoundrel or an imbecile. Is that to say that Beethoven's "High" Art is somehow above the lowly decorative arts - wallpaper design and typography, for instance? Not at all: The problem was not that a typographer or wallpaper designer shared lofty feelings with Beethoven; it was that a typographer wanted to have us believe she, too, could transpose the lofty feelings conveyed in Beethoven's Ninth directly into another technical medium; and Loos was very clear that the problem with decorative and "servant" arts arose when they failed to meet the real needs of any given society; kind of like artists and journalists and graphic designers today, whose only calling is to recognize the needs and meet the needs of their masters: "This type expresses the true feelings of the Conservancy." "Saddam has weapons of mass destruction."

 

 

V)

It may be, some day, that wallpaper designers will develop a range of techniques that allows them to "express" themselves in as wide an emotional register as Beethoven; this might also be true of typographers; it could even be true of composers, though, as Daniel Barenboim once argued, Beethoven's ability to communicate feelings depends on an audience that can be kept on the edge of its seat, not in awe that the flute solo in the Credo of the Missa Solemnis adequately "expresses" the Holy Spirit, but rather worrying if the f-sharp minor theme in the first movement of the Pastoral Sonata can be successfully resolved into the ever-evasive D-major. The crisis of Viennese fin-de-si├Ęcle culture deepened as the "expert" audience for music weakened; likewise, American Jazz has long had two distinct audiences: the harmonically sophisticated performers, and their know-nothing, finger-popping audience. (In Cambridge, Wittgenstein spent hours in conversation with a jazz musician, trying to work out the "logic" of jazz performance.) In America the expert audience for lettering and typography disappeared a long time ago, thanks to those whose expertise consists in being experts for Times and the Central Park Conservancy. The real difference between the designers of the Central Park signs and Ludwig Van is not that one was a composer and the other a typographer; it's that Beethoven once got up in the middle of a concert, slammed shut the fortepiano and announced, "I don't perform for swine."

If you don't know that, it's you that's doing the kissing.

- PW.

[10/20/2011; Revised 8/11/2012.]