10/13/09

Manny Farber: White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art


From Manny Farber's "White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art" (1962):
Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.

....

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

....

A termite art aims at buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.

Farber was talking about film, using Truffaut (I tend to agree) and Antonioni (I tend to disagree) as examples of the White Elephant and Hawks as the termite. But I came across the essay in Jim Lewis's appreciation of Melville's Confidence Man (a book that I am completely in awe of, and am making my way through now) that appeared in Conjunctions "Tributes" (29, for those of you following along at home).