In the Critics this week

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the crisis of Zionism, Stuart Maconie on the Smiths, Helen Lewis on Fifty Shades, Kate Mossman on pop music's nerds and John Sutherland on English studies.

The leader in this week’s New Statesman warns that the window of opportunity for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly imperilled. Many figures on both sides of the debate have moved towards favouring a single binational, secular state. In the Critics section, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, which charts the former New Republic editor’s increasing disenchantment with Israel - typical of the problematic relationship between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft writes: “The settler and Palestinian populations are now so mixed up that a rational and fair partition is practically impossible.” Beinart remains a Zionist who believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land” and as such, Wheatcroft observes, makes for a rather unlikely dissident. But a gulf has opened, Wheatcroft writes, “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official “Jewish establishment””. In many ways, the reaction to Zionism means we have come full circle, Wheatcroft writes. “A hundred years ago Zionism was an esoteric doctrine, little understood by most Gentiles and of little appeal to most Jews”. Wheatcroft notes that Beinart belongs to a line of thinking which believes “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.

Wheatcroft also examines Norman Finkelstein’s Knowing Too Much. Finkelstein writes that the problem for American Jews is that they “can no longer reconcile their liberalism with what they have come to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Wheatcroft finds that Finkelstein makes for a vexing writer, “who treats fraught or delicate topics such as Zionism or what he calls the 'Holocaust industry' in a sarcastic and rebarbative tone”. But Finkelstein does remind us that “the triumph of Israel was once not only a source of healing pride for American Jews but paradoxically made it easier for them to remain American”. “Gradually, from being a boon, Israel has become a burden for many Jews,” Wheatcroft observes. 
 
Also in Books, Stuart Maconie reviews Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance – 20th Anniversary Edition. Rogan’s 1992 biography of the Smiths “astonished most with its Herculean endeavour”, despite having one especially prominent critic – Morrissey. Twenty years later, Maconie still finds the book “the definitive if daunting account of the most romantically mythic band of those times”. Given Morrissey’s mythologising approach to his upbringing, Rogan takes an almost paleontological approach to the Smiths’ prehistory, tackling the group’s family histories in detail. And while Morrissey’s brushes with scandal today border on the absurd, “Rogan reminds us of how genuinely subversive the Smiths were at the time, both musically and ideologically”. Most telling, perhaps, is how the Smiths’ “tortured, arcane financial arrangements underpin the whole narrative”. Far from a story of artistic detachment, “there is much that reads like accountancy here,” Maconie writes, with “many a page given to bank statements, receipts and the labyrinthine ways that the money was (unevenly) split between the members”.
 
Also in the Critics, John Sutherland wonders if change has been good for university English studies. “Centrality is the principal issue,” Sutherland writes. “Departments of English now occupy a position in the university constellation comparable to Uranus in the collar system.” Universities caused political alarm through the 1960s and 1970s as centres of protest. “One way to bring them to heel was to use funding as a short leash drawn throttlingly tight”, Sutherland observes, “less for frugality than to show who was in charge”. Extra-departmental management followed, aimed at introducing “that idolised thing at the time, 'competition'”. The mandatory PhD for entry-level academics and field specialism have produced a shift in which “a subject that had hitherto fostered the undoctored jack of all trades gradually fragmented into a mosaic of doctored specialists”. Heavy undergraduate fees have merely capped off what Sutherland sees as the inexorable deterioration of English studies.
 
In this week’s Critic At Large essay, Helen Lewis looks at how E L James's erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey can be better understood as a throwback to the 18th century. Lewis looks back to 1740, with the publication of Pamela by Samuel Richardson – the first bestseller. Just as James’s work began life in the “slash fiction” genre, with its inferior and feminine associations, Richardson worked “in the upstart novel genre at a time when the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope were regarded as literature’s finest form”. And in many ways, the tame sex and minimalist plotting make Fifty Shades a deeply conventional story. “The “mummy porn” label applied by the media might not be as dismissive as it initially sounds”, Lewis writes.
 
Also in the Critics, Kate Mossman looks at how a generation of nerds is writing music for grown-ups. “Interesting things happen at the point where ambition meets anonymity”, Mossman writes, “you can be a fully formed artistic product before the world even knows you exist”. Mossman examines the Belgian-born Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, responsible for the biggest-selling song in the world this year – “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Gotye spent his twenties living in a former family home in Melbourne “rent-free, tooling around with vintage synths to his heart’s content”. Gotye, along with Kimbra and Monáe – musicians who sound like 1980s pop stars – have been defined above all by an isolated upbringing.  The reach of the internet and laptop technology mean “there’s a new route for the old-fashioned pop star”. It’s all about perfectionism, Mossman argues: “The more nerdy you are, the more artistic control you retain. The penniless, jack-of-all trades musician can take punk’s DIY ethic and reach the world with it now”.
 
Elsewhere in the Critics: Suzy Klein on the great conductors; Yo Zushi on the rise of David Bowie; Leo Robson on Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia; Rachel Cooke on Wallander; Antonia Quirke on the final broadcast from Bush House; Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest Batman film, and Will Self is seduced by his new smartphone.
 
One half of a severed alliance: Morrissey (Photo: Getty Images)
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage