Art Academy Reading Group: Composition as Explanation, Gertrude Stein

Present: Natalie Bradbury, Lauren Velvick and Maurice Carlin

Gertrude Stein's Composition as Explanation was, like our last reading, originally delivered as a lecture, this time to Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the summer of 1926. Natalie suggested this piece as she had previously read it on Maurice's recommendation, and had found it understandably challenging, so was eager for the opportunity to discuss it in more depth.

In this text Stein outlines her ideas regarding art, modernism and war, and actively demonstrates what she describes with an experimental "continuous present" writing style. Using style in order to convey meaning, as Stein does here, is hard to approach as a reader unless you are expecting it, however, we all agreed that once we had become familiar enough with the style to follow the text it became enjoyable and poetic, rather than unpleasant and jarring as it had seemed at first. Stein begins by defining 'composition', in her conception, as how we live differently over time, in an empirical realm which remains essentially the same. She repeatedly explains 'composition' in various ways, slipping in points about human perception which ring with truth, and the cumulative effect is of broad understanding, as though this is what the word composition has always meant, which serves as a backdrop for Stein's other points about how society functions aesthetically.

Maurice suggested that there are three interlocking issues to consider in this text; Firstly, as mentioned above, the concept of 'composition'. According to Stein, composition has to do with 'what is seen' (which I take to mean 'what is experienced empirically') and time. She seems to be referring to the particular reality of a given time, or era, which is simultaneously experienced and made by everybody who lives in that era; "they are composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living". Outside of this experience and making, however, everything is the same; "Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted". Stein refers to a tyranny of no-one, whereby everybody knows and agrees to certain things without knowing or ever having agreed to them.
Secondly, early on in the text Stein refers to the way in which artists have tended not to be lauded until after their death, and of how the beauty in art which is Avant Garde for its' age often goes unrecognised until it is too late; "Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic". With a basis in her concept of composition, Stein then goes on to state that "No one is ahead of his time", indicating that context is of paramount importance in cultural production, and if artists are only recognised posthumously, it is a symptom of a stagnant society.
Finally there is Stein's observation that when a society is at war it is forced to become contemporary with itself, and perhaps war is the only time when this is possible; "it is quite certain that nations not actively threatened are at least several generations behind themselves militarily so aesthetically they are more than several generations behind themselves". For a trio of readers who have only known relative peace, the idea that war could be viewed as positive progress was bizarre. We wondered whether now we have succeeded in become contemporary with ourselves? After all, artists often become famous before they are dead now, and 'shocking' contemporary art is welcomed into institutions - or are we just able to define and categorise everything more quickly?

Reading this text also raised an issue which we have been returning to again and again in recent Art Academy activities - the idea of appreciating a piece of artwork without trying to 'get' it. In this case the text became much more enjoyable, and fruitful once we had stopped trying to decipher it in terms of a traditionally written essay. This is something that we discuss in more depth at the next open Crit.

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