In the art world, size metamorphoses from a quantity to a quality


“‘[Kehinde Wiley is] an interesting contemporary artist who brings together many of the same interests and ideas as the museum’s.’ said Karen Levitov, an associate curator at the Jewish Museum. The members of its curatorial team were so enamored of his work that when they saw ‘Alios Itzhak,’ they decided it was something the museum had to acquire.

“‘It was a perfect match,’ Ms. Levitov said. ‘It’s nine and a half feet tall. . . . ‘”

— Carol Vogel, “A Painting That Begat a Whole Show,” New York Times 16 September 2011: C25



About Kehinde Wiley:



“I have purchased a 4 × 5 Graflex and will start making contact prints, unretouched. From now on I will not sign retouched portraits! This is a daring step to make during a major economic crisis, but it had to be done! I have been psychically ill at times from signing my name to work which was not my work. I have done enough aesthetic whoring. I paid for the camera by the biggest and worst job of whoring I have done in years. At times during the work, I came near to throwing it in the fire and telling the poor unsuspecting subjects that I did not want their lousy money. I kept going by repeating to myself: ‘$380, $380! — you must not give in, this means a new camera, a new life.’ And so I went through with it.

“The 4 × 5 size is large enough, I hope, so that I will not be asked to enlarge; which means greater technical perfection; for no matter how well done, an enlargement does lose quality, cannot compare with a contact from the same negative. I do not dare to say ‘no enlargements,’ not yet; that will be the next step. But I will not sign, except duplicate prints from old negatives, any retouched order. This still leaves another step, which will follow logically, that I will accept no order that I am ashamed to sign, that I will never retouch again. But I must go carefully, I cannot let others suffer from my rashness.”

— Edward Weston, December 8, 1932. The Daybooks of Edward Weston. II. California. Ed. Nancy Newhall. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973. 265-66.

Questions with auxiliary imperative

I confess that I expected to see my sister denounce him, and that I was disappointed by the different result. She manifested the greatest anxiety to be on good terms with him, was evidently pleased by his being at length produced, and motioned that she would have him given something to drink. She watched his countenance as if she were particularly wishful to be assured that he took kindly to his reception, she showed every possible desire to conciliate him, and there was an air of humble propitiation in all she did, such as I have seen pervade the bearing of a child towards a hard master.

Great Expectations, volume 1, chapter 17: bad-tempered Mrs. Joe, beaten almost to death with Magwitch’s iron manacles, has lost her power of speech but mysteriously become affectionate toward the surly Orlick. Toward the end of the book we’ll learn that it was Orlick who attacked her.

Or, at any rate, readers in 1861 would have learned. Since that year when Dickens published the solution to the mystery, mysteries and their solutions have changed. It isn’t likely that any of us know more about the mind than Dickens did, but we certainly can say more. With the help of a Freudian lexicon that readers in 1861 didn’t possess, we’ll find it easier than our ancestors did to break the code of Pip’s encrypted comparison, ” . . . such as I have seen pervade the bearing of a child towards a hard master.”

We won’t expect the same things from the mystery that our ancestors did, either. During its prehistory, Great Expectations loomed over its readers as an original work of language, standing alone. For us it has been overlaid by other texts and become a classic — that is, a text enwrapped like a lictor’s axe with a beltwork of Cliffs Notes and Wikipedia and downloadable undergraduate papers. Socialized to read a classic as if it were inseparable from that infrastructure, we’ll conceive it as only good manners to have experienced the secondary sources simultaneously with the primary source, immer schon, and learned all the endings in advance. In their time, the first readers of Great Expectations read Great Expectations. It was a part of the language of that time. In our time, we read the language of our time — both the part of the language that includes Great Expectations and the part that simultaneously includes a Harold Bloom anthology of Dickens criticism and today’s newspaper.

On September 3, 2011, for instance, we may set down our copy of Great Expectations next to the newspaper and think something like, “Mrs. Joe’s relationship with Orlick reminds me of President Obama’s relationship with the Republicans.” The thought will enter our minds as unbidden as this morning’s junk mail entered our mailboxes.

And what will happen to our reading of Great Expectations if this morning’s junk mail actually comes from the Republicans?

For me, this Saturday morning’s junk mail did. Waiting for me in the mailbox was a questionnaire (or “questionnaire”) crafted by the Republican Senate Leadership Survey for the purpose not of eliciting information but of stimulating an emotional response by means of loaded words and leading questions.

Click to enlarge.

The three-page “questionnaire” was followed, of course, by an invariant fourth page requesting money. That was the payload of the emotional response. But the mailing also included a four-page cover letter which didn’t request but demanded. “Your immediate attention is required,” its first page began, and it concluded (just before the modestly self-effacing “Over, please”):

DO NOT DESTROY YOUR SURVEY! The enclosed Republican Senate Leadership Survey is an OFFICIAL REPUBLICAN PARTY DOCUMENT. Your Survey is REGISTERED IN YOUR NAME ONLY and MUST BE ACCOUNTED FOR upon completion of this project.

Of course the word “official” can’t have any perlocutionary meaning here, if only because it doesn’t communicate any sense of office. But one word in this paragraph does mean something. From its breech in its sentence, the modal auxiliary “must” falls on the reader like a blow from a piece of iron.

At least it seems to have descended, this year, on President Obama. For myself, I am now going to disobey an order, destroy the “questionnaire,” return Senator Cornyn’s postage-paid reply envelope empty, watch a few YouTube parodies of Bruno Ganz in his Hitler suit shrieking in underlined caps, “Das war ein BEFEHL!”, get back to my classic and my newspaper, and start rethinking my own expectations.

Mots gratuits


In the middle of the crowded final exam, the football player was suddenly in trouble. Waving his arm to attract my attention, he held up his pen, shook it, and pantomimed despair. I held up my own pen, pointed at it to signify comprehension and impending action, and then slow-pitched it over other students’ heads to him.

Every muscle in the football player’s body suddenly became alert. His head swiveled as he followed the trajectory of the approaching pen, and his eyes glittered. With a gesture as efficient as a ballerina’s, he reached up, wrapped his huge hand around the pen, and pulled it down through the air toward himself.

For that fraction of a second, an intelligence had been at work. It had taken control of the pen so completely that it had no need for any words that a pen might write. It was an intelligence purely of flesh making contact with plastic, body to body. It was love.


Twice a night, late at night in my time zone, the comment spams come through to my blog. They’re all the same: a few anonymous sentences of extravagant but vague praise, not just mistyped but typed as if the typist doesn’t even know the alphabet. “You hpeled a brother,” say the sentences. “Thnaks!”

I’m told that they look that way because the typists actually don’t know the alphabet. In rooms full of keyboards in India or the Philippines, people type and type and type, for pennies an hour, transmitting alphabets into the aether on behalf of other people who think that such an act will cause search engines to notice their existence. In the aether, electronicized words say “Love.”


Click to enlarge.


If you have the pen, you don’t need the words. If you have a computer programmed to transmit the word “Thnaks,” you don’t need love. Look:

if you have the shadow, isn’t that enough?

Life: two temporary artifacts


On August 21, 2011, Kim Jong Il crossed the border between North Korea and Russia by train and made a brief stop at a station in Siberia to accept the greetings of local officials.

Click to enlarge.

A 24-second video from the scene shows the hemiparetic tyrant walking with a characteristically Korean gait — arms at sides, legs apart, abdomen thrust forward — but also with the toddling little steps of any sick old man, in any culture.

And when Kim reboarded his train after that walk, his ascent was by a ramp built of structural steel.

In this array of tilted perspectives and gazes focused off-scene, the red steel is the stablest element. Only it seems as if it might still be present tomorrow.


On September 4, 1939, three days after the beginning of World War II, Adolf Hitler stepped down from his train to confer with his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Beside a coniferous forest somewhere in Germany, a photographer recorded the meeting for a fraction of a second, perhaps the time it would have taken to speak one syllable. The silent record now waits to be seen in Life magazine’s online archive.

I open it in Photoshop. Within minutes, I have undone some of the wastage of time.

Once again, perhaps as in 1939, colors are bright and outlines are sharp. I have pushed the image back across time in the direction of what was once a moment of lived historical experience. But of course the moment itself has now been absorbed by pictorial design. The film is still silent. What Life and I have generated here on your monitor is only the optical illusion of a time with lives in it.

Nevertheless, images like this one attract certain viewers who use them to generate a substitute time: the time universe of dream. Ubiquitous in the comment streams that make up the fantasy life of the world online, these viewers are the fetishists. We can tell them from other viewers because they view as an act of love. Some of them are Hitler fetishists and some are train fetishists, but whatever the ostensible subject of their love, they all experience that love as a generalizing, all-purpose experience. It is a paraphilia made of Agfachrome and pixels: an undying idea which now immortally substitutes for what was once steel and leather, rust-brown rail and green tree.