A Matter of Perspective

The other day, I started reading Aisthesis: Scenes from the aesthetic regime of art by Jacques Rancière while eating dinner at the local coffee shop. While walking home, my sister drove by, not as odd a coincidence as it sounds since I live between where she lives and where she works. She asked if I wanted to come back to her place for a bit, so I got in the car. She glanced at the cover of my book, a deep black rectangle with the title placed soberly near the top and, at the bottom, as if placed inside a shadow box, and a woman in white billowing garments emerging from the darkness. With no more than a momentary glance she said, “Loïe Fuller.”

This utterance brought me back to a party in Paris about ten years ago. It would wrong to say that the subject of the conversation turned to art, because, as the hostess was an artist, the principal subject of the conversation all evening had been art. The subject, however, turned to dance. One of the Parisians was trying to recollect the name of a particular dancer. She moved her arms in an undulating manner, imitating a woman with billowing drapery. My sister, who had been a dancer when she was young, guessed Loïe Fuller. In this instance, her guess was wide of the mark. There was a beat, then a disdainful glance. After quick, terse no, the conversation resumed. Over the years, that disdainful glance has taught me far more about what is regarded as good art and what is dismissed than all the lectures I have ever heard. However, my sister is not ignorant of dance and its history and that moment reveals a divergent evaluation of Loïe Fuller and her legacy, between the speaker, who was French and my sister, who is American. (Note to self: Do not mention Loïe Fuller in a conversation with Parisians unless you have ready arguments at hand and have already established oneself as a knowledgeable person in the given social situation.)

Over dinner, I only read the prelude and part of the first chapter. The flap of the book promises, “a history of artistic modernity far removed from the conventional understandings of modernism.” Happily, the book is not nearly as boring as that description sounds. The arrangement of the book is that each chapter details an episode that shows the development of modernism.

Their selection might give rise to some surprise; the reader will seek in vain for landmarks that have become unavoidable in the history of artistic modernity: no Olympia, no Suprematist Composition: White on White, no Fountain, or Igitur or The Painter of Modern Life.

I confess, despite having taken few art history classes, posessing a degree in literature and once having been enrolled in an MFA program at an Ivy League school, I had to do a search on the internet for “igitur.” Now, I hesitate to hold myself up as some sort of paragon of sophistication, but I would suggest that Igitur, which if Wikipedia can be trusted is an unfinished story by Mallarmé, is not a touchstone in the American telling of art history. On Wikipedia, it is mentioned more prominently in the French article on Mallarmé than in the English. If “Le peintre de la vie moderne” was something I could place, it has to do with some quirks of my own particular interests, not because it was presented to me as a landmark. In fact, I didn’t know it was one. The fact that a search for “igitur” on google.com and google.fr, yields very different results, leads me to believe that my lack of familiarity is not some unique gap in my own education. However, the French story and the American one, do have a large degree of overlap, as the mention of Olympia, Suprematist Composition: White on White and the Fountain attests.

Rancière has chosen a less well-trod set of episodes for his discussion.

The scenographic revolutions of the twentieth century are difficult to understand without mentioning the evenings spent at the Funambules or the Folies Bergère by poets that no one reads any more: Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville. One would be hard pressed to perceive the paradoxical ‘spirituality’ of functionalist architecture without referring to Ruskin’s ‘gothic’ reveries – or even write a somewhat precise history of the modernist paradigm while forgetting that Loïe Fuller and Charlie Chalplin contributed to it far more than Mondrian or Kandinsky, or that the legacy of Whitman is as influential as that of Mallarmé.

However, we most certainly covered Ruskin at length in one of the architecture history classes I took in school and read his work. How much did the fact that Ruskin wrote in English influence that choice? If Loïe Fuller is less well-known, it may be because dance is not as well covered as painting. She was most certainly mentioned in the dance history class I had in high school, but the fact that I took a high school class in dance history is highly unusual. Do the French teach, as we do here in the United States, that modern dance is an “American art form?” Probably not. Finally, ask an American who is more influential, Whitman or Mallarmé.

I am not castigating anyone, neither the French nor the Americans, for nationalistic bias. For example, I’ve noticed the French hold Edgar Allen Poe in far higher esteem than do Americans. I’m sure, if I were only more familiar with the received wisdom of the French, I could find a Frenchman or French woman held in higher esteem here. Ruskin, after all, was English, and if he is more widely studied here I am inclined to attribute that to the coincidence of a shared language rather than to cultural chest thumping. I am simply amused by differing perspectives.


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