The Whitney Biennial (2014) and the outer space of inner space: is the god artist dead?

written, May 15, 2014.

Contemporary Art Daily (May 7, 2014) has done something a service, by resituating the Whitney Biennial in a nonetheless exhaustive format in three parts on their site, for those who did not see it to catch up, and those who did to look at it again in some greater detail. But there is also something shocking in their review: it too is absolutely excruciating. If, that is, you choose to view as a virtual version of going through the Biennial top to bottom it is absolutely exhausting. And I know why, and what the culprit is. In the modern period, the artist at last wrested full agency and power from patrons and kings and bishops, to become the sole arbitrator of their creativity and art. On the strength of this, many great artists emerged. But at the same time emerged conceptual conclusion jumps of the same thing, as Duchamp and his train of artists felt that if the artist was now God then everything he created as worth looking at. Then, too, among those artists that became great, and renowned, they were fortunate in their death to die so soon before the full-fledged emergence of the field of art history which fetishized their every utterance and drawing and every aspect of their life. I suppose some folk still live in the cult of the God artist, artist against the world; and go to exhibitions formatted that way, for worship, and read bios and studies and monographs all the servant art historians and servant critics paying homage to the great genius of the god artist. But in the postmodern age, the god artist was reduced to a mere demigod, yet somehow the idea that everything that an artist did was art lingered on. In a part of art history that segwayed off of the mainstream, and entered into a gap history, taking ideas given life in earlier markets to their rational or irrational ends, ideas that once had a constructive purpose began to become exercised in their own right, unhinged from history. And so the artists of the late modern period, the 70s and early 80s and 90s, overburdened by the weight of the history of the god artists of the modern period, began to lead their creative life as if making the final work for the market was less important than just being creative per se. They began to, in other words, live posthumously, assuming, in their decadence, that they would be famous and their archives would be valued, so they better get to work doing their paperwork for posterity, because someone down the road is going to want their archives. And this kind of cart before the horse, death over life view of art in the late modern decadence began to favor marginal expressions of creativity over the creation of finished products for the market, works of art, abiding by laws and rules established by successive generations of artists as to what or what not a real human being might be able to absorb of a work of art in a passing encounter with. Both Greenberg’s criticism and then too the criticism of the minimalists, on one level, involved tailoring works of art to the new emerging contexts of a multimedia world in which people would be less able to devote the kind of unique attention they once gave to it to art. But in the meantime, as the mainstream trimmed the sails of art, for it to maintain its position in the world at large, a documentary impulse, building up in the gap history of late modernism, outlying the development of postmodernism, lingered on, and so artists began to fetishize notebooks, and archives, and research, and study projects, and community projects, and any number of other project with a skim of art cast over them, for funding purposes, and theses, and theories, and then too with video went straight to documentary, and this or that research, all of which was classified as a kind of conceptualism, but which was actually a posthumously retrospective fronting on life evinced in a work of art and presented as if it was a work of art.

Cut now to the Whitney Biennnial, 2014? why, I wonder, does it always get bad reviews. It does so because of the show’s format is at odds with a late modern documentary conceptualism of art in a way that in fact cancels out art. In the late modern age, (not the postmodern age, where people have adjusted to less individualist nature of the world), every person is a universe of wonder, every person is a princess and prince and genius and everyone is the Da Vinci of their own life. They begin to elicit wonder from their adoring parents at three and it keeps up until they are 30 and for that reason they are sure to keep every single thing they ever do and like a crazed parent to themselves and their own caretaker after their naturally expected posthumous fame keep every record of their work, and then they decide at some point that their work is actually their paperwork. But, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of where the self is in the current world, it is a decadent hangover of an obsolete vision of the self, which is created by a testy posthumous view of the living as dead. For example, you see a girl on the subway, and, if you are male, and attracted, and have some stuff in you, you strike up a conversation. There is only so much of that person that that person will let you have of her in that first encounter, and then if there are other encounters, there will be a bit more, and then more, and only then, but, then, maybe never too, will you ever get involved enough to know so much about her that you actually do get to understand the vastness and intricacy of her personal universe, which is the entire world and everything in it filtered through her perception. It is likely that most human beings ever get to know another one at the universe level, four or five times in one’s life, or maybe never. For example. I suspect that I remain gunshy in love at my age because I have gone to the universe of the inner self of another (and yet did I really know her after all? that’s another whole question), I did a lot for her, I gave a lot to her, it’s called marriage, and for that, whenever I see another woman I wonder, yikes, am I to have to get to know that universe of views and opinions and wonders and creativity too? The prospect seems daunting. I get exhausted just thinking about it. And for me to then resist that natural human activity because I have developed a hesitation based on having gone to the end once or twice, for me to look at a new beginning end around first from the perspective of another ending, is not only curmudgeonly of me, not in tune with life, but posthumous as well. I judge the living potential of a real human being that I encounter through the prism of my disappointed outcome of a voyage to the inner universe of another once before. That is, I see the end before I even start at the beginning, I focus on the death of it before I live it, which is the very definition of decadence.

And yet at the Whitney Biennial, there is such an emphasis, by all the curators (two more than the other), that the visitor, walking through the museum, is asked to engage with artists on the level of their paperwork, to such an extent that it provides entry into the unedited fullness of their private universe. One does not get from them a message from that universe, reasonably condensed in a work of art, one gets all the jottings, and the ongoing daily creative flow of it, one gets their documentation, one gets evidence of all their interests, hell, in one installation, one got pictures of every zig and zag of the relationship of two human beings with another, and you are expected, somehow, in an art gallery, to absorb all that. It is NOT POSSIBLE. No real human being can possibly attend a Whitney Biennial where you have fifty artists screaming at you like beggars in the marketplace to listen to their every single utterance and to hear every single one of their secrets, right now, right there, listen to me, I’m talking to you, over and over and over again. It is NOT POSSIBLE. It is like going to a party and not only picking up every girl of the 50 girls at it but not only that having sex with them and even marrying them and learning every damn little thing about them, even going to therapy, if there is a problem, and then to move on, at the same party, and do the same thing to the other 49 women, all before midnight. It is NOT POSSIBLE. It is not even close to being possible. It is IMPOSSIBLE.

Worse, to create, through this fundamental misunderstanding in the late modern overlap period (which is not, again, the postmodern period, but the lingering of the late modern prejudices under the surface, in a hidden gap history; ie living in 2014 like it is 1974 plus 40 eventless year; or, if you have been taught by an instructor living in 1974 plus 40 eventless years, living in 2014 like it is 2054 minus 40 years of failure to come), this demand, to insist upon it, in a single exhibitional space, is INHUMAN. I am therefore calling in this note the practice of uber-documentary exhibition multiplied times many artists in one exhibition space an INHUMAN practice, a kind of curatorial waterboarding (actually, it is by this sort of media bombardment that terrorist groups prime their killers into a limbic state of hypnosis before sending them out to kill). It goes against everything we know about what a human being can reasonably ergonomically absorb in one sitting or viewing or standing or whatever. Movies know this, that’s why most of them are under two hours. TV shows know this, that’s why they are half an hour or an hour (I wont discuss the current marathoning fad). Books, they don’t know it, but maybe they do, since maximalist books are obviously made to be the bibles of people who read one book per summer a little bit at a time (in fact, art has caught a disease literature caught 50 years ago, posthumous deformation of text, which American literature has never recovered from, a situation so posthumous today that if you don’t take at least a decade to write a novel it has no chance of being taken seriously). Art knows this too, most of the principles of the New York school were developed to perfect and stabilize this knowledge. Most generationally developed formal art having absorbed the principles of the New York School, which were all about these rules of hygiene and address after all, know it. But somehow in the academic world or in the studios of artists with their now prepackaged and presumed disappointment in the life of the arts, their readymade cynicism superimposing over their lived life a posthumous regard of that life, artists think that, no, I have to stop and make everyone listen to me, and they have to listen to everything I say, and listen to every goddam thing I want to say to them. It is, I repeat, not just bad art, it is INHUMAN practice.

I mean how do I take in the hundreds of photographs installed in the works of a number of different artists, and then come to Joseph Grigeley’s outrageously presumptive installation of the fricking archives of the art critic Gregory Battock, and does he really expect me to spend more than ten minutes leaning over every little piece of paper, not only that, every article! does he expect me to read any of that article? Does he expect me to peruse programs and catalogs from shows of the minimalists in the 60s? Am I supposed to be impressed that Battock knew Martha Rosler and wrote letters to her and here are the envelopes to prove it? Why do I need to see this? I am not doing research. I am not BEING PAID to write an article on Battock. I am not BEING PAID to write a book on him. I am not doing anything with this archival material at all. Why is it of interest to me? If I want to know about Battock, there are scholars who do this, they are the ones who spend years going into the archives of artists and making sense of it all and then summarizing it in that thing that is called a BOOK. A BOOK is precisely the intelligent and critical condensation of all this detritus, to come to an understanding of it through research, so that I DON’T HAVE TO DO IT. I have no interest in becoming a half hour scholar of the life of Battock. None. I do not wish to turn my viewing into research. And I’m an art critic. I simply do not understand the motivation or conceptual basis for the inclusion of such a thing in the Whitney Biennial. The only thing I can think of to justify or rationalize this is that Battock knew a lot of the early conceptualists and ended up knowing all the movers and shakers, which makes me think that ultimately the Battock inclusion is just another example of perverse art world insider narcissism (—well that would be including Gary Indiana), but even I am not that interested in (until, that is, I am interested, and I will chose the time).

But I know whereof the late modern self, and its documentary impulse, is, as I came of age in the 70s. I began to personally keep a journal in the eighth grade; I began to keep a formal intellectual journal when I was twenty. I have probably left as residue on paper in some format or another 20 pages per day of my thoughts and writings. That’s 20 pages, 41 years, 365 days, that’s 299, 300 pages of archival material, which, if you wish to know the wonder of me, the full universe of my vast mental reproduction of the world as I knew it, that is what you must do. Why I could fill a hundred Biennials with the glorious wonder of me. And this does not even count the many other boxes of papers I have which contain the sort of art world thing that the Battock archive includes. It must be 40 boxes full (of a 80 plus box archive), every article, every note, every opening card, press release, letters, gifts, etc etc etc . Who the hell would want to do that? Not even me (most of my papers are in an unvisited storage unit). So I know of the disease–I would gladly, if I could, publish a full blog entry every single hour of every single day, I would write every article in every issue of every art magazine in the world in a month (and I tried that once). But at least I now know that this is a disease of time and place, a cultural disorder, living as if already dead, living as if viewing one’s life from 50 years after one’s life; it is a disease given to me by grumpy early postmodern instructors (again, the 70s is the villain), from which I have tried to cure myself for my whole life.

And so, finally, here’s the rub: here’s the intellectual illusion that builds up as you go through the Biennial. Again, human beings can only absorb so much, in so much time, after that, they begin to flag, there is no getting around this: we are who we are, we have our natural limits. But to include a number of documentary type artists in the same exhibition? Highly problematic. So, you dig in to the first collection of artist god wonder material in mass profusion, and you are diligent, you do your best, but maybe you actually absorb 10% of it. Because it is simply not possible in one’s first encounter with even the documentation of another human being to really make much sense of it. And then you move on and, to your surprise, you are hit over the head with another archive of this kind of thing, and you are expected to take in as much of it as you did of the other. And you try again, but, having already worked to absorb 10% of the former, you are less agile and alert than you were ten minutes ago, so maybe you absorb 6%. And it goes on, always trending down (even if you pause to get second wind), 4%, 2%, then we into the .003% and even the .0005%. This is not because you are not a curious human being, this is not because you are a lightweight, this is not because of bad spatial curating, or a feel for craft or whatever, this is not about taste, what you like, this or that, whose a better curator, what the Whitney Biennial is, this is because the exhibition is grounded in an obsolete notion of the late modern self as contra mundum universe of documented opinionation, the self as the very essence and basis of all meaning in life, all of it wonderful, a veritable kunstkammer of inner wonderfulness, and it is simply not feasible, not possible, not human to expect a human being to engage with that much material in that short of time. As a result, as you move on, the gap between what you can absorb and what you have absorbed, yawns wider and wider, and there does come a point, where, as I phrase it (and I am brutal on this point, I allow no one to belabor my interest beyond the point of my being interested), my eyes just ‘blinked shut’ or I ‘just started walking.” That is, not so much that I am bored, not so much that I do not wish to fully respect and explore the work of these artists, not so much that I don’t like the art (I suspect the Grabner floor garnered the most artist accolades because, though with some serious documentary lapses, it at least communicated in more valid visual art, therefore absorbable ways), simply that I do not have the capacity as a human being to absorb any more (and this again from a critic who has gone the long haul often). I am done. And as a result of the fact that as you leave the Biennial the proportion between what you have been able to absorb and what you did absorb has yawned to appalling numbers, in the .0000010% range, you step out the door with a strange surreal sensation of having SEEN NOTHING. Of having seen so much, but seen ALMOST LITERALLY NOTHING. You have tried to see a lot of art, what you get instead is a lesson in the vast stretches of empty outer space between the inner worlds of individual-universes today, vast empty spaces, universes of inner selves, to be locked away, never understood, invisible to all but a few, and inadmissible in a public space (I also believe that the fashion to wear black has emerged and become the new norm precisely in tacit acknowledgement of the gap that has opened up between highly interiorized people, but that is another article). But, in fact, in proportion to what is there, and in proportion to what you were exposed to, and had to pass my eyes over, and walk by, what you actually saw and worse what you actually absorbed was that very little amount, maybe, if you are lucky, .00010% of the Biennial. It is appalling.

Artists, you are not god, you are an artist, you are not your own archivists, you are not students anymore writing a thesis with just the right answer, you are not activists leaving documentation of your good work, you are not going to save the world by making a study of this or that, but through works of art, by that particular and peculiar form of visual address, which is a distinct language, you may make a mark. I am only interested in your works of art, knowledgeably tailored, by principles of ergonomics developed by cultures the world over over the past centuries, to be able in exposure to be grasped and made sense of by the species called homo sapiens. I am NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR PAPERWORK. I do not want to see your every jotting, I do not want to see your little books while you think this or that over, I do not want to see your notes or your notebooks, I do not want to see the production notes of your video or your sculpture, I do not want to your picture downloads, I do not want to see musings on your research, I do not want to see anti-documents or deconstructed documents, I do not want to see parts of your art collection repurposed conceptually to comment on collecting, I do not want to see your pencils, I do not want to see your emails and your letters, etc etc etc., I do not want to see any of that, I am not interested in the inner bureaucracy of creativity that surrounds your art, I WANT TO SEE YOUR FINISHED WORK OF ART. As I went through the material of the Biennial, the mantra built, and the pace quickened, I DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOUR PAPERWORK! I DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOUR PAPERWORK! To claim as finished all of the preliminary utterances of the artistic process and every little scribble of that process is not process art or conceptual art or any other kind of art, it is PAPERWORK in advance of art. Postmodernists get this, late moderns do not: they live a living death, they are undead in art, vampires of their own presumption of failure in life, salvaged through art, rather than living in art they live to secure through a kind of pre-art their posthumous fame where they may finally be understood as the remarkable wonders that they are. I am sorry: the only way for an artist to be appreciated after his or her time is to learn how to make art that can be appreciated in his or her time, and that means abiding by tried and true rules of address based on fundamental ergonomic and anthropological principles of the limits of human attention (I say this in the broadest possible way), and work from there. Somehow, in the last 15 or so years, this fundamental message has been lost, with the result that, in galleries stuffed to the gills with art, the 2014 Whitney Biennial looks to me to be the loneliest Biennial ever–all the art talking to itself ad infinitum, the public unable to hear a .00010% of what they have to say.

And if the god artist talks, and all you hear is silence, that surely is proof that the god artist is dead.

(PS postmodern artists work modularly in a flux between popular and high culture as kind of loose commentators, all of it in their completed art; since the mid 1990s the communal millennial generation has developed a much less interiorized, subjectivized, modernist self, working in groups or collaboratives, which is a whole other issue—it is not them I talking about, it is those artists who have somehow, in some way, absorbed a toxic mix of late modern individualism and millenialist casualness, resulting in the art favored by at least two curators in this Biennial).

PS 2. I also relate this fundamental misunderstanding to exacerbating influence of the bogus elements of the internet, where everybody now can “publish” their own book, and their blog, without an editor, and yet if you want your post to be anything other than you being stuck in an elevator with exactly three people who stop by now and then you have to personally go out onto the internet and sell your book or article copy by copy. Imagine: bookstores abolished, and writers to wander the streets stopping people trying to foist their books on them, it’s a bazaar mentality, and it’s bizarre—but I will not pursue this point; though there is also the problem that sometimes in the nonproprietary internet the world has rejected libraries and index systems and tables of contents and all the systems of knowledge organization developed over the last five centuries for just winging it from scratch through the universe of knowledge and building up something called knowledge from there, odd. (Note: I have been raging against “book on a wall” exhibitions since at least the mid 1970s, and still it goes on. I repeat: If I want to read a book, I will buy it and settle into a nice chair and read it, as I will, as I can, I am not going to stand and cram in a book in ten minutes in an art gallery—why can’t curators get this?).

The haunted portrait of Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Part 1.

rev., March 27 2014

note, please see Part 2 of this essay in a later post.

The haunted portrait in the story The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the preeminent of haunted portraits in modern horror, and, while hardly the first haunted portrait in the movies, its appearance and explanation in the 1945 Hurd Hatfield/George Saunders/Angela Lansbury version of the movie is distinct in director Albert Lewin’s instrumentalizing the picture in a subtley effective way. Right from the first, the movie makes the correct decision to make itself and the story as a whole only about the portrait, that is, it is told from the POV of the portrait from the first. We start out, that is, in Hallward’s studio, the portrait is at our back, we see a sketch, so we know what he is working on, but it is a secret, and why is it a secret

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It is a secret, Basil confesses, because some strange energy has overseen the creation of the portrait. He explains that the painting all but created itself, he just followed along, it painted itself, it was a mystical experience. This almost effortless, made without his own hands quality, he attributes to some magic power, that has a spiritual value, he says that he may not show this painting ever because he has put so much soul into it. Thus, the first not seeing of the painting means something, it signals it as a miracle creation, made by a natural force that is greater than art. In this shot, also in the opening sequence, we see Basil with his paints, and a herm in the background. While a common sculptural element in gardens, in this shot such a boundary marking statue, presided over by the god of boundaries, indicates the sense that Basil has that somehow in creating this portrait has he cross over the boundary of art, into something else

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In a commentary on the film, Angela Lansbury remarked at how careful the director Al Lewin and his support art direction staff were in placing pictures about the shot, for them to mean something. Thus, it must mean something that such a large painting, as the one in the background of this shot, backdrops the whole scene, and, in fact, backdrops the corner of the room where Dorian poses.

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Though I cannot identify the picture without research, I can liken it stylistically to a conventional royal or official type of idyllic painted at the time, such as Winterhalter’s Princess Eugenie and her Ladies (1855), all of whom are arrayed across the canvas in the same way (so it would take little imagination to strip them, and present them in a pantomime of Diana and her ladies at the bath

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On one level, as official painting, this is meant to represent, one presumes, what Basil usually does, and what his portrait of Dorian Gray most definitely is not. That is, in terms of art at the time, this is art, and the portrait is something—more than art. But then too if a picture of Diana, it represents Basil as Acteaon, an artist who, having had such a moment, seeing into nature, will now suffer a terrible fate as a result of it. The animal theme is not picked up however by a deer, but by a cat, and a butterfly. The cat appears early. Not only is Basil working on a sketch of one as he talks with Basil out in the garden

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But it is the primary property of the portrait, and, as such, will come to have a very important role, as it is strongly instrumentalized in the course of the movie, right on up to the end. But overlaid in over this particular scene, informing the natural relation created between Basil’s interest in Dorian and Dorian’s mystery, is Basil spying a rare butterfly in the garden, capturing it,

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And killing it, in a chemical (not unlike a killer jar), and in this shot it is clear that Lewin means for Basil’s way of collecting beautiful things of nature and turning them into specimens in his culture, to be compared to way he is collecting Dorian, and prompting him and Basil both to say to much with regard to the painting. Thus, Dorian is another one of Basil’s butterflies, and, once he comes under Basil’s influence, and his head is turned by his praise of youth, he is easily caught, and killed as a living being, the implication being that once you want to freeze yourself in a particular moment you are no longer living,

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This beautifully interwoven complicating sequence is then made still thicker by Gladys coming in to ask if she could sign the picture, and, here again, Basil resigns his unique artistry in making it, still struggling to discern how it is that he painted his best picture in this work, so he attributes part of the magic of its authorship to Gladys, making her involved in the picture too, a lovely complication that enriches this telling of the story,

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So, the movie has made use of contrast with current art, dialog, character, a butterfly, a cat and a girl, to weave a supernatural aura around the picture. But it required one last push too. And this is provided by color. Color was rare at the time, because expensive. Gone with the Wind was in color, and then in the Wizard of Oz was the magic black and white-to-color moment on coming into Oz. In the context of a movie, color then represented a breaking through the limitations of the meidum, and black and white, back to nature itself, not art, but the thing itself, the prototype, and, if only an intermedial relation between film and painting, than punching through movies back to painting itself. Thus, color as it were let us clear our black and white sleepy eyes and see the real thing itself, with full clear sense of its beauty, itself further enhanced by the rouge and luster of the color.

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While this is an impressive moment, and was likely much more impressive then, one has to concede that Enrique Medina’s portrait is not that terrific, even though in its Boldonesque elegant realism reined in by photographic realism it became the singular prototype of so many modern haunted portraits in modern movies. But, as color, Dorian depicted is nature itself, is Dorian, and is Dorian now, in the moment of its wow, its love at first sight perception, and that, after all, the moment that Dorian wishes upon, his first sight of this reality, breaking through art, to something essentially real. But the thing that the movie focuses on is the cat

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By making it color, the movie gave it back its supernatural reality. As Saunders points out, after Dorian makes his idle wish, be careful, you are in the presence of one of the 73 great gods of Egypt, it just might come true. And what this colored image of the cat says is that, now, yes, he has that power, and then, too, he takes it back in the black and white movie, and has become, by the process of being painted, or included in the painting, a magic talisman with a power that extends to the extrafictional dimension, and so the movie cuts back to the cat,

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In actual art history, this is Bastet, a guardian god, unrelated, in fact, to resurrection, but mentioned as the epitome of the 73 great gods it represents Egypt, and the taste for Egyptian things that is apparent both in Basil’s and Dorian’s apartments. Thus, it represents, generically, life after death, an afterlife as a ka, or spirit, free of the body. Its presence then acts as a genie as it has the power to grant Dorian’s wish, and so it does. The cat thereafter plays a surprising strong role in the movie, it instrumentalizes and signifies the evil of every act of his that will require the magic contract for him not to age as a result of what he is doing. When he does his evil thing with Sybil, and asks her to stay the night, to whore herself to him, the cat is there

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It signifies his changed nature, acting according to Basil’s test, in this shot, as she leaves in tears

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when the picture is removed from the main room, it becomes the presiding genius of the house, making the magic of the house keep on happening

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Since the cat is a god from ancient Egypt it knows much of secrecy and tombs, and when he decides to put the picture behind closed doors up in the room at the top of the house, wonderfully played out in this version of the story, the cat acts as his psychopomp, leading him deeper into the afterlife created for him by this contractual arrangement of biofeedback between his youth and age, and good and evil, in the house

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a generation later, when Dorian is now completely decadent, indulging in parties where such foreign things are done, a signifying of debauchery, the cat stands guards, taking over now his truest meaning, as the guard of all of the secrets of the house

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When he fakes coming in late, after murdering Basil, the cat is the accomplice, so it also represents evil

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And it is there too offering him backup, and strength to act in catspaw manipulative ways exploiting the weaknesses of others to keep his plots secret from the world, by this point too the cat becomes the altar god of the cult of the portrait as Dorian places a copy of the verse of Omar Khayyam that is used as the emblem of the story, the psychologization of the drama into a psychomachia in the soul,

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And for a time, as Gladys grown, played with cautious fear by Donna Reed, his relationship with Gladys is just an adjunct of his relationship with the painting, she is but a handmaiden of the portrait, she signed it, she is part of the inner drama of the portrait, and thus when marriage is suggested she asks her and Gladys is sitting directly across the table from him in the posture and in the coiffure and in the fur of the cat.

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Now, in the first reel, it is not clear that Hatfield could carry off Dorian. His stiff manner is offputting, until one comes to understand that, as noted by Lansbury in her DVD commentary, Lewin was positively maniac in insisting that Hatfield make no facial gesture, they called cut often, because he would move a muscle, it drove Hatfield crazy, Dorian was to be as stiff as the portrait, as fixed in behavior as in time, and as silent and still and quiet as that cat, a creature completely consumed by the cult of the picture, and by his blasphemous oath of soul exchange, very similar to selling himself to the devil. The movie is also less than compelling in the sequence of the seduction of Sybil Vane, though, it has to be said, the fullness of the treatment of this section of the story is exemplary in this telling, and though tiresome in some regards, plays a central role in the deepening cult because of course what does a cat plays with but a canary, and Lansbury sings her anthem, yellow bird, about herself, Indeed, in this shot, just before Dorian makes his testing request, the cat shadows her, she is in danger

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Then too she contributes to the complications of the knots in the story by in turn not seeing Dorian as real either, but seeing him as the walking embodiment of her own idea of what is perfect, a poster of Sir Tristan, so, they never really had a relationship, they were idealizing at cross purposes through each other, playing with each other, in a catspaw fashion once again

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It is also in this sequence, that modern audiences may be tempted most to laugh, as when Dorian makes what today would be a fairly common request, tears come to her eyes, she is shamed, Dorian has violated her ideal image of him, and shown her that he does not see an ideal in her, it is a crushing, evil moment

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It is also during the sequence where Dorian regrets his actions the morning after and sits down to write a note of apology that Lansbury talks about how the art director was so particular in placing paintings all around the shots, and then she says, of that shot, which I do not have, he also put all that china all over the place, though I am not sure why: well, I am, it was to signify her fragility, and breakage, that, at that moment, his and her ideals were being broken.

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In this particular shot, the care taken to make each object mean something would mean that the blackamoor torchieres, as I have analyzed in other movies, represent the arrival of death, the fact that death will come, and in a scene very shortly from that moment, to a person in that shot. But then there is also the large portrait of an elegant woman, in the style of Whistler or Eakins, at the back of the room, nothing is ever said of it, but it is the second portrait behind the portrait of Dorian Gray in the movie and it is likely to me that it represents his mother

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Through all of this part of the movie, hatfield had to play Dorian almost as if he was a real character in a real movie, interacting with people, living life, being gay and happy, and the contrast between his mask like facial stiffness and the demands of the part may make one think that Hatfield is doing some bad acting, and is not up to the part (I also want to say that I believe it is possible that Lewin decided to borrow from silent movies and the tradition of the questioning face shot several of Dorian’s characteristics, at times I felt echoes of The Lodger in Dorian’s manner). So, about a half hour in, one is worried: is this really turning out to be such a good movie. But it is at this point, that Dorian notices that the picture changes. The movie shifts over entirely from a courtly drama to a psychological study, signaled by the now dominant role of the narrator, a masterful voice-only performance by Cedric Hardwicke, and one of his great performances , in a soft, hushed tone, for the relationship between Dorian and his portrait, perhaps speaking the voice of Bastet, narrating the tale,

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And now the relationship between Dorian and his picture of enters into its crisis stage. For that, part 2 forthcoming.