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2006-08-20 - 11:13 a.m.

Strange Episode no 438 – in May 1912 Der Blaue Reiter was published – as an almanac with articles on a variety of subjects by Kandinsky, Schoenberg and Marc together with compositions by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg – in Munich to accompany an exhibition. Kandinsky reflects much later as follows about this episode – atonal music and its master, Arnold Schoenberg, who was then being booed in every concert hall in Europe were creating no less a stir than the –isms in visual art. I got to know Schoenberg at that time and found him an enthusiastic supporter of the Blaue Reiter idea.

Wouldn’t I like to see a copy of the almanac! It reminds me of a project that Steve Reich was involved in around 1967 – his contribution was Pendulum Music which is possibly his most radical piece of all. Several other artists at the edge between minimalism, conceptualism and performance were involved and I believe this almanac went through several editions , unlike the Blaue Reiter which only came out once. In my world new music sits well with new art – its odd that as far as Blaue Reiter is concerned, the music seems now much more radical than the art which we can digest easily.

I picked up this titbit in the Thames and Hudson book on the Expressionists which I picked up in the local Oxfam shop who had a three for two offer. The other two included Linda Nochlin’s book on Realism which I read when it first came out in the early 1970s and then lost. Part of the reason for going back to it is that I can now see that its an interesting subject by an interesting author written at an extremely interesting point – when most forms of ‘realism’ were under extreme challenge.

Finally I got a first (only) edition of Pardox and Discovery by John Wisdom which appeared in 1965. Wisdom was one of the participants in Wittgenstein’s 1930s seminars and he had a big impact on the Cambridge Philosophy faculty in the following decades. By the time I was there he had left for the US but he was still talked about a lot – not least by Ross Harrison who taught me in my second year. I see RH has just been elected Provost of Kings – not an outcome that seemed obvious over three decades ago. At this point RH was interested in metaphysics and transcendental arguments and he passed this enthusiams onto lots of students including me.

I bought and indeed read the book on Bentham that RH wrote in the 1970s – because I had enjoyed his teaching . I thought the Bentham book was rather good but a bit off-centre in terms of subject matter. Subsequently when I read Foucault I thought it had been an amazingly prescient choice of subject because of the way F’s analysis of modernity highlights the practical and conceptual innovations that Bentham helped engender as the start of the modern age - where surveillance and control become functions of the state and are organised in a new rational way.

That thought stayed with me a long while and I began to see the time around Bentham’s death as a nodal period – just one example would be the decision to set up a series of schools of design across England which occurred at the end of the 1830s – much earlier one might suppose if one didn’t know anything about the subject. One such was in Coventry which in the 1960s became the first place in the country to offer automotive design as an undergraduate subject – and was also a starting point for the art and language movement within conceptuat art at about the same time. (I think that art and language subsequently migrated to Cambridge.)

At its simplest, it was a radical circa 1835 for a chunk of the elite to agree that national welfare would be increased if public money went into creating more tasteful manufactured objects. You can relate that episode to both Bentham’s and Foucault’s analysis. The thought and indeed programmes based on that thought haved recurred periodically since then and the latest was last year when design was linked to enterprise – one of G Brown’s 5 factors of productivity.

More recently I have wondered about the coincidence between this Foucauldian node – circa 1830 – and the end of the classical period in musical composition eg Schubert’s last 4tet – the major/minor one in G – which I think is 1827 – and the Mendelsohn one in A minor which he wrote as a teenager – also in 1827 – and is also an absolute cracker.

But Lukacs is provoking a rethink – for him it is the political failures of 1848 that mark a transition between valid artistic endeavour and something more mediated and ideologically inflected, The novels of Walter Scott – which were very popular in the 1820s – are valuable for Lukacs because the protagonists understand their situation in its historical context and act accordingly. In that sense, for him, they are ‘realistic’ and I think he managed to amplify Scott’s reputation in USSR and boost his readership there – an interesting turn of events in the middle of Stalinism.

Hence the decision to revisit Nochlin to see whether she sides with Lukacs on the unreality of realism after 1850 on a European scale.

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