Codes for North (2017) -- Introduction: The Invention of Difficulty (excerpt)

Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015. The book was published by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in December 2017 to mark their 50th anniversary. It is now available for order from the CFMDC. Below is an excerpt from the book's introduction, which deals with the evolution of difficult forms in the transit between medieval and modern art.

The Map of Hell , Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485.

The Map of Hell, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485.


The Invention of Difficulty

Difficult aesthetics cannot be said to have a fixed point of origin, an hour of invention, much less to have entered the world as a symptom of the modern era. A long-advancing impulse toward difficult forms in art conspired with the epistemological transformations of the post-Victorian era to bring us into the modern, to create a difficult modern art, an art that is a contest of complex pleasures. Difficulty evolved in tandem with modernism, a radical break from the past that simultaneously bound itself to that past. To map the evolution of difficult art is to map the precursors of modernism.
    Difficult aesthetics have their origins in medieval and renaissance literature, from the pantheistic allegories, self-reflexivity and vernacular of Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy (1321), to the intertextual and metatheatrical strategies of Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605).(1)  In the visual arts, a primitive difficulty begins in the telltale emblems of painted saints, for example, in the cross, skull, Bible and lion that indicate St. Jerome even as other aspects of his appearance change to reflect the era of that representation. This encyclopedia of symbols signalled the world as the text of God. Slowly we would come to engage the perceptual difficulties of dynamism and perspective, but difficult aesthetics began from an understanding of the work of art as a container into which one could collapse the world into symbol and allegory. When the Moderns arrived, they were not only responding to political and social transformations and to the new and different experiences, sensations and visions that came with the industrial age, but also to a rare urge that runs through the history of cultural production, to “bring light to bear upon a dark age.”(2)  Their work emerged out of a heritage of paintings and texts that employ self-conscious devices, texts that are steeped in obscurities, ontological barriers, slang, complex programmes, iconography and ambiguities. These texts necessitate interpreters whose task is seemingly infinite, toiling in the total library of a deep history. This concept for literature finds its apotheosis in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), its world constricted and magnified, detailed to minutiae, the tiniest detail rich with ambiguous meaning, yet still by its roots in Homer a cosmic odyssey; and in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1915–1962), a text that integrated many languages and Chinese logograms, a text of sudden allusion without transition, holding to its own mysterious logic and its oracular rhetorical strategies, a text under endless construction terminating only with the life of the author. In 1891, the poet Stephane Mallarmé observed that, “everything in the world exists to end up in a book.”(3)  Such books-to-end-all-books, books to contain all knowledge, all insight, all experience, became the mission of twentieth-century modernist literature. Those who set themselves to the task of this writing–Joyce and Pound foremost–were following in a tradition older than Mallarmé, a tradition passed across disciplines in rare, visionary works that had heralded the modern. The makers of this art-to-end-all-art would produce works that were conscious of their own mediation of reality, that would contain not only a vastness of experience and information, but which would also have inbuilt obstacles. These works would be fortified against ready understanding, posing challenges that would involve the reader in the construction of meaning. 

Las Meninas , Diego Velázquez, 1656

Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez, 1656

    All schools of painting have codes. Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), a painting of perspectival enigmas, contains at once a self-portrait of the artist at work, a royal portrait seen in a reflection, a high-ceilinged room decorated with paintings and mirrors, and the titular subject of the painting, the maids of honour and other members of the royal entourage as they attend to the young Margaret Theresa of Spain.(4)  Michel Foucault wrote that Las Meninas was the midpoint between the classical and the modern, that within it “representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form,” and yet even freed, that pure representation had a history embedded in it.(5)  The painting is simultaneously an erasure and a container of its world and its predecessors, recalling Frederick Karl’s thesis that modernism sought “to capture the present while denying the past, and yet to use every aspect of the past to develop ideas of presentness.”(6)  The paintings that hang on the walls are scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first painted by Peter Paul Rubens, copied by Velázquez’s son-in-law and assistant Juan del Mazo. Las Meninas therefore contains Velázquez’s representation of Mazo’s copies of Rubens’ paintings. By this mimetic echo, by its inventory of perspectives, by its metatheatrical staging, Las Meninas foretells the impulse in modern art to subsume the world.(7) The veil between representation and the perceptual experience of reality was under duress in the Baroque paintings of Velázquez and his contemporaries, for example, in Luca Giordano’s Rubens painting the Allegory of Peace (1660). Giordano, with coexisting planes and perspectives, depicts Rubens sitting in the world of his own paintings, selecting a detail from the limitless universe of his fantasy, a fantasy of luminous and divine erotomania. These painters knew the traps of vision. Their labours would cause painting to break from the restrictions of realist representation. 

Rubens painting the Allegory of Peace , Luca Giordano c. 1660.

Rubens painting the Allegory of Peace, Luca Giordano c. 1660.

    In the twentieth century, crises of perspective and of the subject would become the governing theme in art. But in the decades leading up to the twentieth century, a crisis of vision would already begin to play out, in the shift away from naturalism and toward abstraction. Photography displaced the value of realism in painting. From the photograph’s evolution beginning in the 1840s, through to its assumption as the essential medium of realist representation, painters gradually turned their attention to the expression of interior experience. The photograph, as a tool for precise documentation, gave form to a scientific record of reality. This not only freed painters to develop representations of inner life, but also gave rise to art that engaged with a scientific understanding of optics.(8)  The divisionism and pointillism of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat is a sea change in the formal representation of vision in painting, not as concerns perspective or symbol, but in its relation to the physics of vision. By choosing as his subject A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884), Seurat remained connected to the tradition of conventional representation, a tradition dominated by the ready pleasures of naturalism and realist figuration. The method of the painting held to realism, but the divisionist form suggests the composition of photographic vision, understood as the granular makeup of the photograph, a complex mimesis arising from a scientific knowledge of perception; this form extends even to the frame, now realized as simply a margin of the whole, as the divisionist pattern continues outwards, extending the composition to the limits of the art object.(9)  The divisionist painter breaks down his scene into granular fragments that reassemble into representation. Even this post-Impressionism, with its ostensible ties to the tradition of realist depiction, was embracing a coming fragmentation and recombination of vision, a departure from classical ideas of time, space and sight. The modern movements of the early twentieth century would see a further dispensation with realism, a detachment of form from representation, toward freer, improvisatory, gestural, content- and form-dense work. The perceptual possibilities of such work would further foster resistance to realist conventions.(10)

Portrait of Félix Féneon , Paul Signac, 1890.

Portrait of Félix Féneon, Paul Signac, 1890.

    Visual art pressed forward through the fragmentation of Italian Futurism, the prismatic imagination of analytic and synthetic Cubism, and the anti-art of Dada. This series of movements showed a pronounced resistance to realism. Futurism had prefigured the fragmented vision that, in Cubism, pushed toward a fuller abstraction. Cubism in turn partly prefigured Dada, in its plastic aspects: the affixing of paper fragments directly to the canvas foreshadowed Dada collage, but to a vastly different end. Dada was, by Hans Richter’s account, “anti-art,” anti-aesthetic, anti-tradition, a rage against the demoralization of man in the shadow of progress. Dada was ushered in with the Great War and lasted from roughly 1915 to 1924, beginning in Zürich and spreading out to other European territories and to America. It was an ideology arising out of the disgust that its artists and poets felt in the course of the War, an outraged response to the fatal logic of bourgeois capitalist society. It was a rejection of the cold reason and strategy that had choked men with chlorine on the front. Against the scale and horror of the War, it was an embrace of the irrational, the intuitive, and, despite the weight of its protest, the comic. These themes took form in the performances and poetry of Tristan Tzara, the collages of Hannah Höch and the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters. Form, even photorealist form, took on an abstract dimension in the associative collage of Dada. The art object, increasingly abstracted since the 1880s, had steadily divorced from realist representation. Through Dada, art would reconnect with a perceptual reality, in the tremors of hearing, in the disfigurative collage. The world of art was no longer slave to the uncanny pleasures of realist rendering; real things, drawn out of the everyday, could now be declared art, and in that declaration the purity of their forms would take on manifold meanings. Dada’s subversion of the everyday is most prevalent in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, for instance, Fountain (1917), an ordinary object, a urinal, signed and declared as art. Against this reality, an embattled realism could not stand. 

Bouquet of Eyes , Hannah Höch, 1930

Bouquet of Eyes, Hannah Höch, 1930

    Dada was a prelude to the postmodern, to the Neo-Dada, Pop Art and Situationist movements, but its immediate descendent and the recipient of its anti-realist tendencies was Surrealism.(11)  Surrealism emerged with the decline of Dada, formalized in André Breton’s 1924 manifesto, which stated its intention “to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”(12)  The nonsense of Dada extended here into an embrace of the sublime, the surprise, by logic of dreaming; it was an embrace of the processes of the unconscious, of automatism as a process to bring the maker and the viewer closer to the realities of perception, and to assemble new unities out of the discontinuities of perceptual experience. Automatism joined creative action to the crude structures of the subconscious, of the unguided hand. In Surrealist painting, familiar forms and figuration would be compromised by dream and fantasy, for example in the automatic drawings of André Masson, whose spontaneous webs of pen strokes suggest the reordering of a conventional subject; in the paintings of René Magritte, where hats rest on phantom heads; those of Salvador Dalí, where temporal and spatial distortions of his subjects bely a bridge between dream and reality; or in the boxed assemblages of the American Surrealist Joseph Cornell, in which commonplace objects gathered from thrift stores form lyrical and nostalgic juxtapositions. This movement would last until the Second World War and the rise of Nazism displaced a great number of European artists.(13)

Abraham , Barnett Newman, 1949.

Abraham, Barnett Newman, 1949.

    With the end of the Second World War, the American Abstract Expressionist movement took up the modern impulse against realism. A movement primarily based in New York City, Abstract Expressionism signalled the end of common figuration, as individual expression became dominant in the act of painting. Paint would be applied for expressive purpose, for its raw colours and textures, and artists would master new forms of craftsmanship based in a comprehensive knowledge of their materials and the application of that knowledge to spontaneous forms. Such craftsmanship might appear ingenuous to those entrenched in more traditional schools. Theme and symbol remained in the programme of works such as Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic (1948–1991) and Barnett Newman’s Abraham (1949), but form, having long abandoned the representational aspects of earlier modern movements, was becoming increasingly radicalized. The great envoy of Abstract Expressionism was the critic Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg, modernism had established the autonomous expression, which in turn created a pure art, freed from the traps of representation to pursue its own agenda. Raw material engagement was the path of bare expression. External influence was eliminated, privileging the elements of picture plane, frame, depth, consistency and the application of paint and other materials to the canvas. Abstract Expressionism aspired toward a confrontation with pure form. Vision would have to surrender its search for reality in art, to give itself over to form, mechanism and pluralism. 

Estate , Robert Rauschenberg, 1963

Estate, Robert Rauschenberg, 1963

    Difficulty had reached a new height in Abstract Expressionism, for the paintings placed a direct demand on the viewer’s perceptual faculties, suspending their search for referent and symbol.(14)  Abstract Expressionism was soon followed with post-painterly abstraction. The dense surfaces of Abstract Expressionist paintings were a site of obscurity; by contrast, post-painterly abstractionist paintings achieved a greater clarity in precision of paint application, and that clarity was simply an evolution and refinement of that obscurity. Post-painterly abstraction went further than abstract expressionism in abandoning the link between art and reality, minimizing the marks of its own construction. Coming in close step with post-painterly abstraction, and to a vastly different end, was Neo-Dada, which drew from the methods and spirit of the Dada movement, for example, in the tool sculptures of Jim Dine and the collage and sculptural works of Robert Rauschenberg. In Neo-Dada, the execution and labour of the work itself was more important than its concept, its objecthood suspended beyond the contemplation and emotion of process. In the branch of Neo-Dada that became Pop Art, painters and sculptors reclaimed the realist project, with a newly pliable line between conceptualism and formalism. For Andy Warhol, contemporary iconography, in the form of mass media images, was elevated to the order of the empty signifier, against interpretation. In his photorealist canvases, of repeating images of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, the repetition itself became iconic, the granules of halftone newsprint and Polaroid colour palettes casting these icons as an echo of an echo, the tireless gesture of post-modernity.(15)  The absurdist soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, such as Floor Cone (1962), undermined the familiar, a continuity of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. For artists such as Warhol, Oldenburg and Jasper Johns (who had come through the American Neo-Dada), Pop Art was as much a reaction to realism as it was to abstraction, and its confrontation repurposed the modes of Dada, and the power of its subjects, into a realm of apathy and indifference.(16)  Its surfaces were impenetrable, and in it, mimetic realism was replaced by the reality of the mass media cliché. 
    Conceptual and perceptual challenges pervaded modern art movements, from the fragmentation of Cubism and Futurism, to the ineffable power of Abstract Expressionism, to the allegorical indirection of Pop Art.(17)  All were engaged in a resistance of realism. This project was not restricted to the visual arts, but was also at the core of modern and post-modern literature and music, from the opaque poetry of John Ashbery to the dissonance and spatial fragmentation of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (1961). The modern, in response to the age of enlightenment, introduced into culture forms of knowledge and art that are full of restrictions and barriers. “In modernity,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, “we have a representation of the world which excludes neither fissures nor lacunae, a form of action which is unsure of itself, or, at any rate, no longer blithely assumes it can obtain universal assent.”(18)  In modern art, the art object itself critiques and departs from representation. It is less assured of the definitive and singular meaning, less assured of the value of meaning, less concerned with speaking directly. By the 1960s, modern difficulties had reached a point of such diversity that the boundaries of art were in continuous development. Even the densest of difficult forms could lie ahead, in a radical domain of the arts that was ever opening to new expressions. To others, aesthetic difficulties would remain a point of contention, the product of a cloistered elite, to be defeated with the insurgence of an all-accessible realism. 


  1. A book of particular value to the study of difficulty in literature, specific to Dante, is James Wilhelm’s Il Miglior Fabbro: The Cult of the Difficult in Daniel, Dante, and Pound (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1982). Wilhelm explores the deeper motivations that guide difficult periods in literature and his argument pivots on the notion that difficulty “does not necessarily arise in every period of literary history,” but emerges primarily in the medieval and the modern. It is a great challenge to locate difficult forms in Romantic and Victorian art and literature to bridge the medieval and the modern, but my position diverges from Wilhelm’s in that I believe Dante tested the boundaries of medieval thought even as he shaped it, and so is among the earliest emissaries of the modern.

  2. Frederick R. Karl, Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885–1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 9. Karl characterizes this notion, of modern thought as light and traditional thought as darkness, as “an unjust frame of reference which (...) enabled Modernists to justify their work.” It simultaneously denigrates the past (the dark age) and establishes that past as the base material of cultural production (light as illumination of a dark age).

  3. Mallarmé’s original remark, “Le monde est fait pour aboutir dans à un beau Livre,” given in an interview with Jules Huret (Revue Blanche, 1891), is translated as the common expression given here. A fuller account of Mallarmé’s intended meaning, and his later modulations of this statement, is offered by Roger Pearson in his Mallarmé and Circumstance: The Translation of Silence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): that the book is a “human accessory [waiting] to serve its purpose as an ‘instrument spirituel’”, a book an assemblage of the component parts of a global totality, and that Mallarmé’s remark is not the “Wildean claim that the purpose of life is to be turned into (literary) art,” but rather a neutral expression of the relationship between words and things (Pearson, 255). The most comprehensive discussion of Mallarmé’s difficult aesthetic strategies is in Malcolm Bowie’s Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), which, as with other studies of difficulty, focuses on the audience as decoder of complex texts.

  4. When he first encountered Las Meninas, the painter Luca Giordano is said to have declared it the “theology of painting.” Antonio Palomino, who recorded this remark, explained it as an expression of praise: that this work is to painting what theology is to ‘lesser’ branches of knowledge. This is a reductive interpretation of this statement. The work contains, as did Giordano’s own work that followed it, a totality of vision, a representation of every possible hierarchy, aligning its governing perspective with the eyes of the royal subject, a confluence of social and aesthetic hierarchies. This work was the theology of painting for it was an enclosed visual system, a realization of the potential of art to vanish into itself.

  5. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 16.

  6. Frederick R. Karl, Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885–1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 13.

  7. The composition of Las Meninas has also become an iconic tableau, repeated through the history of art. It inspired works by Goya, Salvador Dalí, Richard Hamilton and perhaps most famously a Picasso series of 58 interpretations (1957).

  8. The junction of the science of vision and post-Impressionist painting is explored in José A. Argüelles’s study of Charles Henry, a French librarian who conceived of the doctrine of the psychophysical in the age of post-Impressionism. His was a pursuit of a harmony beyond symbolism, a harmony between scientific knowledge and the expression of interior experience through art. For further information, see Charles Henry and the Formation of a Psychophysical Aesthetic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

  9. With Evening, Honfleur (1886), Seurat again painted the frame, again penetrating the very boundaries of painting that separate representation from reality. This act forces the eye to seek continuity between Seurat’s divisionist pattern on the frame and the ends of his exposed canvas, as if the scene that he depicts will pass out of art and into reality. In A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, there was such continuity. But two years later, with Evening, Honfleur, the pattern of the frame is fully abstract. It resists continuing the scene from the canvas and does not extend that scene to the limits of its objecthood. By doing so it sets an impasse between reality and its representation.

  10. This is not to say that photography would remain a slave to scientific observation; on the contrary, the desire amongst visual artists to explore interior experience would soon be extended to photography, and as photography developed as an art form, it too would engage a resistance to realism.

  11. Surrealists, on an individual basis, employed sources such as Symbolist literature and painting, itself an important rejection of naturalism and realism in painting.

  12. André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism,” (1924) republished in Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969).

  13. Surrealist Antonin Artaud, conceptual architect of the Theatre of Cruelty, once called rational discourse a field of “falsehood and illusion.” His work extends the resistance to realist representation and its basis in the rational. For Surrealists, the rational discourse of politics, like the rational discourse of pre-modern movements, was a disconnection from reality.

  14. This is not true of all Abstract Expressionist paintings; while the search may have been suspended, there was still symbolic and referential intention. Consider Motherwell’s Elegies for the Spanish Republic; the artist has described the oval black forms that dominate the canvas as an invocation of bull testicles.

  15. Warhol did not confine this strategy to his iconographic paintings; he did the same in Birmingham Race Riot (1964), a work that, like his celebrity paintings, and despite the apparent social meanings conferred on its subject, held no inherent social ideology.

  16. In Donald Kuspit, “Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism,” (Art Journal, Fall 1976), Kuspit argues that Pop Art–specifically the art of James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol–endorsed the mass media clichés that dominated their work, that they became “part of that organization of optimism so essential to consumer capitalist society, and had nothing to do with the derision of that society socialists imagined they saw in it” (38).

  17. Other modern and post-modern movements excluded from this cursory introduction to difficulty, such as Fauvism, Suprematism, Fluxus, Minimalism, the particularities of Orphic Cubism, and so on, are not irrelevant to this discussion. I have elected to focus on only one strata of this evolution, and even then, there are admitted limitations to this line.

  18. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2004), 106.