“a obra de arte emerge da fractura entre a Terra e o mundo, entre a ausência de sentido na materialidade do corpo e da natureza, para receber sentido na história e no social”
«When van Gogh depicted the peasant’s wooden sabots, he gave them a clear, unworn shape and surface like the smooth still life objects he had set beside them on the same table: the bowl, the bottles, etc. In the later picture of a peasant’s leather slippers he has turned them with their backs to the viewer. His own shoes he has isolated on the floor and he has rendered them as if facing us, and so individual and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.»
Meyer Schapiro, The Still Life as a Personal Object (1968)
«We will begin with one of the canonical works of high modernism in visual art, Van Gogh’s well-known painting of the peasant shoes, an example which, as you can imagine, has not been innocently or randomly chosen. I want to propose two ways of reading this painting, both of which in some fashion reconstruct the reception of the work in a two-stage or double-level process.
I first want to suggest that if this copiously reproduced image is not to sink to the level of sheer decoration, it requires us to reconstruct some initial situation out of which the finished work emerges. Unless that situation — which has vanished into the past — is somehow mentally restored, the painting will remain an inert object, a reified end product impossible to grasp as a symbolic act in its own right, as praxis and as production.
This last term suggests that one way of reconstructing the initial situation to which the work is somehow a response is by stressing the raw materials, the initial content, which it confronts and reworks, transforms, and appropriates. In Van Gogh that content, those initial raw materials, are, I will suggest, to be grasped simply as the whole object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and the whole rudimentary human world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state.
Fruit trees in this world are ancient and exhausted sticks coming out of poor soil; the people of the village are worn down to their skulls, caricatures of some ultimate grotesque typology of basic human feature types. How is it, then, that in Van Gogh such things as apple trees explode into a hallucinatory surface of color, while his village stereotypes are suddenly and garishly overlaid with hues of red and green? I will briefly suggest, in this first interpretative option, that the willed and violent transformation of a drab peasant object world into the most glorious materialization of pure color in oil paint is to be seen as a Utopian gesture, an act of compensation which ends up producing a whole new Utopian realm of the senses, or at least of that supreme sense — sight, the visual, the eye — which it now reconstitutes for us as a semiautonomous space in its own right, a part of some new division of labor in the body of capital, some new fragmentation of the emergent sensorium which replicates the specializations and divisions of capitalist life at the same time that it seeks in precisely such fragmentation a desperate Utopian compensation for them.
There is, to be sure, a second reading of Van Gogh which can hardly be ignored when we gaze at this particular painting, and that is Heidegger’s central analysis in Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, which is organized around the idea that the work of art emerges within the gap between Earth and World, or what I would prefer to translate as the meaningless materiality of the body and nature and the meaning endowment of history and of the social. We will return to that particular gap or rift later on; suffice it here to recall some of the famous phrases that model the process whereby these henceforth illustrious peasant shoes slowly re-create about themselves the whole missing object world which was once their lived context. “In them;” says Heidegger, “there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.” “This equipment,” he goes on, “belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. . . . Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth. . . . This entity emerges into the unconcealment of its being;’3 by way of the mediation of the work of art, which draws the whole absent world and earth into revelation around itself, along with the heavy tread of the peasant woman, the loneliness of the field path, the hut in the clearing, the worn and broken instruments of labor in the furrows and at the hearth Heidegger’s account needs to be completed by insistence on the renewed materiality of the work, on the transformation of one form of materiality — the earth itself and its paths and physical objects — into that other materiality of oil paint affirmed and foregrounded in its own right and for its own visual pleasures, but nonetheless it has a satisfying plausibility. At any rate, both readings may be described as hermeneutical, in the sense in which the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth.
Walker Evans: “Floyd Burroughs’ Work Shoes, c. 1930
Now we need to look at some shoes of a different kind, and it is pleasant to be able to draw for such an image on the recent work of the central figure in contemporary visual art. Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes evidently no longer speaks to us with any of the immediacy of Van Gogh’s footgear; indeed, I am tempted to say that it does not really speak to us at all. Nothing in this painting organizes even a minimal place for the viewer, who confronts it at the turning of a museum corridor or gallery with all the contingency of some inexplicable natural object. Or the level of the content, we have to do with what are now far more clearly fetishes, in both the Freudian and the Marxian senses (Derrida remarks, somewhere, about the Heideggerian Paar Bauernschuhe, that the Van Gogh footgear are a heterosexual pair, which allows neither for perversion nor for fetishization).
René Magritte, Le Modèle Rouge, 1935
Here, however, we have a random collection of dead objects hanging together on the canvas like so many turnips, as shorn of their earlier life world as the pile of shoes left over from Auschwitz or the remainders and tokens of some incomprehensible and tragic fire in a packed dance hall. There is therefore in Warhol no way to complete the hermeneutic gesture and restore to these oddments that whole larger lived context of the dance hall or the ball, the world of jetset fashion or glamour magazines. Yet this is even more paradoxical in the light of biographical information: Warhol began his artistic career as a commercial illustrator for shoe fashions and a designer of display windows in which various pumps and slippers figured prominently. Indeed, one is tempted to raise here — far too prematurely — one of the central issues about postmodernism itself and its possible political dimensions: Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Campbell’s soup can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.
Andy Wahrhol, Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980.
But there are some other significant differences between the high-modernist and the postmodernist moment, between the shoes of Van Gogh and the shoes of Andy Warhol, on which we must now very briefly dwell. The first and most evident is the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense, perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms to which we will have occasion to return in a number of other contexts. Then we must surely come to terms with the role of photography and the photographic negative in contemporary art of this kind; and it is this, indeed, which confers its deathly quality to the Warhol image, whose glacéd X-ray elegance mortifies the reified eye of the viewer in a way that would seem to have nothing to do with death or the death obsession or the death anxiety on the level of content. It is indeed as though we had here to do with the inversion of Van Gogh’s Utopian gesture: in the earlier work a stricken world is by some Nietzschean fiat and act of the will transformed into the stridency of Utopian color. Here, on the contrary, it is as though the external and colored surface of things — debased and contaminated in advance by their assimilation to glossy advertising images — has been stripped away to reveal the deathly black-and-white substratum of the photographic negative which subtends them. Although this kind of death of the world of appearance becomes thematized in certain of Warhol’s pieces, most notably the traffic accidents or the electric chair series, this is not, I think, a matter of content any longer but of some more fundamental mutation both in the object world itself — now become a set of texts or simulacra — and in the disposition of the subject.
All of which brings me to a third feature to be developed here, what I will call the waning of affect in postmodern culture. Of course, it would be inaccurate to suggest that all affect, all feeling or emotion, all subjectivity, has vanished from the newer image. Indeed, there is a kind of return of the repressed in Diamond Dust Shoes, a strange, compensatory, decorative exhilaration, explicitly designated by the title itself, which is, of course, the glitter of gold dust, the spangling of gilt sand that seals the surface of the painting and yet continues to glint at us. Think, however, of Rimbaud’s magical flowers “that look back at you,” or of the august premonitory eye flashes of Rilke’s archaic Greek torso which warn the bourgeois subject to change his life; nothing of that sort here in the gratuitous frivolity of this final decorative overlay. In an interesting review of the Italian version of this essay,4 Remo Ceserani expands this foot fetishism into a fourfold image which adds to the gaping “modernist” expressivity of the Van Gogh-Heidegger shoes the “realist” pathos of Walker Evans and James Agee (strange that pathos should thus require a team!); while what looked like a random assortment of yesteryear’s fashions in Warhol takes on, in Magritte, the carnal reality of the human member itself, now more phantasmic than the leather it is printed on. Magritte, unique among the surrealists, survived the sea change from the modern to its sequel, becoming in the process something of a postmodern emblem: the uncanny, Lacanian foreclusion, without expression. The ideal schizophrenic, indeed, is easy enough to please provided only an eternal present is thrust before the eyes, which gaze with equal fascination on an old shoe or the tenaciously growing organic mystery of the human toenail.
Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duam, Duke UP, 1991.
Sherrie Levine, Mercer Street Store, New York,1977- setenta e cinco de pares de sapatos de crianças, vendidos em dois fins-de-semana.
Sherrie Levine, Black Shoes, 1974.
«Lewallen: I saw in Parkett that you made an edition of children’s shoes, which refer to an early installation from 1977, I think.
Levine: Yes, I have them here, I’ll bring them over.
Lewallen: God, I love them. They’re like miniatures.
Levine: Well, they are children’s shoes.
Lewallen: Brown and black children’s shoes in the style of adult shoes. These are done in editions?
Levine: Well, in the early seventies, when I first got out of school, I lived in Berkeley and taught in the area. One of the jobs I had was at San Jose State. I used to stop at a thrift shop on my way home. One day I went in and saw a carton of seventy-five pairs of little black shoes for fifty cents a piece. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I bought them. And when I moved to New York in 1975, I had nothing but a suitcase and this carton of shoes. (Laughter) Then I just kept them around, I never knew what to do with them. In 1977 Barbara Ess introduced me to Stefan Eins who was running the Three Mercer Street Store. He was looking for artists who wanted to show things . . . that weren’t the kind of thing you find in a gallery, but which made reference to the store. Barbara told him about the shoes, and we did a show that took place on two weekends. Two shoes sold for two dollars, and they sold out immediately. It’s very funny, because it turns out . . . I didn’t know who anybody was then—I had just moved to New York—that they went into some interesting collections. Roberta Smith has a pair, Paul Schimmel has a pair. I keep meeting people who have them, even people in Europe. I, in fact, only kept one pair for myself. Subsequently, I received a lot of requests for a pair of the shoes, and so when Parkett wanted to do an edition with me, I asked them if they would be interested in reproducing these shoes, and they loved the idea. Louise Neri, the American editor of Parkett, was wonderful. She knew an editor of Vogue Bambini who hooked us up with an Italian manufacturer.
Lewallen: How many are there?
Levine: About a hundred.
Lewallen: Brown ones?
Levine: The black ones are the readymades. The brown ones of course are much more beautifully made than the cheap ones.
Lewallen: They are irresistible; I can see why everybody wants them. This reminded me of Oldenburg’s store but actually it was quite different, because you sold things you bought and he sold things he made.
Levine: Right. It was a Duchampian gesture.»