Pop- baroque

Hamish Ford

Angela Ndalianis
Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment
MIT Press, Mass. and London, 2004

“Once upon a time there was a film called Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1992), and on its release, audiences went to the cinemas by the millions to be entertained by the magic that it had to offer.” This opening sentence of Angela Ndalianis’ Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment encapsulates both the book’s resolute emphasis on the popular and the sense of magic, wonder and virtuosity that she argues characterises contemporary ‘neo-baroque’ aesthetics. What makes the book more interesting than other postmodern celebrations of big-budget Hollywood, computer games and theme park rides is Ndalianis’ charting of the links between a significant strain of 20th and 21st century entertainment and the 17th century baroque. Asserting that the technical-aesthetic innovations of both eras give “voice to the association of art with pleasure, divertissement, and entertainment”, she also argues that the contemporary neo-baroque is more challenging and complex than the largely religious connotations of 17th century baroque forms due to the heterogeneity and ambiguity of metaphysical allusion in a secular age. “The unity of the neo-baroque embraces a more daunting task than that of the baroque,” she writes, “asking its audience to discover order from multiple and often contradictory paths.”

In sustaining this cross-century framework, extensive research into and critical reflection upon the respective eras is utilised in presenting the neo-baroque as a logical continuation of the 17th century baroque challenge to an “Aristotelian-Ptolemaic-Christian universe.” Crucially however, Ndalianis argues that an expanded kind of classical order can emerge from the apparent chaos of the baroque—an order heavily reliant upon audience media literacy, without which “chaos reigns supreme…[T]he classical can emerge only when the audience is capable of deciphering the system.” In a familiar move, Ndalianis goes on to differentiate between 2 hermeneutic levels, common to both the 17th and 20/21st century contexts: a broad accessibility by way of the text/artwork’s impact as spectacle, and a more complex intertextual address made up of “iconographic conceits” and metaphors for more “discerning” readers.

As with the baroque’s appeal to religious and mystical suggestion by means of revolutionary formal innovation, Ndalianis highlights how contemporary cutting-edge technical virtuosity is also “strange enough and so radically new as to evoke not only curiosity and wonder, but an aura of the mystical.” This wonder easily becomes “a ‘spiritual presence’…affected by scientifically and technologically creative illusions. Hence the new age element in many contemporary baroque films.” A crucial distinction is set up through the idea that rather than forging signifiers that point to a meta-zone, neo-baroque form is highly reflexive in carrying out its primary role of enabling an immanent wonder: mysticism is generated within the technical virtuosity on display. As Ndalianis suggests while discussing the conclusion to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): “it is both the spectacle and technical mastery as performance that produce the state of affect…[T]he neo-baroque seeks to make the concreter (the technological) unrepresentable by imbuing it with a spiritual quality.”

The book asserts that this spiritually suggestive, high-technology form is brought to life with “the active engagement of audience members, who are invited to participate in a self-reflexive game involving the work’s artifice.” Ndalianis argues this active spectatorship is enabled by the baroque’s “open structures”, which favour an intertextual relationship between a film, its sequel, computer game, comic, theme parks ride, etc. This argument reaches its apogee with the contention that the modern-day ‘high concept’ blockbuster, initiated with Star Wars (George Lucas 1977), has meant “the conception of the passive viewer collapses…The audience’s perception of and active engagement with the image orders the illusion.”

Irrespective of how convincing one finds this argument vis à vis the kinds of spectatorship these films possibly engender, such an assertion also implicitly disavows previous eras of film and criticism centrally emphasising the ‘active viewer’, notably various film modernisms. While Ndalianis does mention that the baroque has been often associated with modernism (citing the Latin American writers of the 1960s and 70s), neither modernist cinema’s emphasis on active spectatorship nor its diverse baroque excursions—Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais, Raul Ruiz being well-known exemplars—are engaged with, beyond a lone citing of Ruiz.

Simultaneous with the suggestion that contemporary Hollywood increases the activity of the spectator, we have the familiar assertion that contemporary virtual forms brought about by digital technology inherently connote fecund interactivity. What remains unaddressed is the question of what kinds of thought, interaction or creativity such activity encourages or entails. This point relates closely to the book’s disavowal of political analysis or critique. Ndalianis highlights well the connection between 17th century baroque artists being commissioned by powerful (mainly religious) figures of the day and contemporary baroque practitioners requiring the financial backing of today’s high priests in the form of large corporations, taking care to state that such reliance cannot be without an ideological component. But beyond acknowledging that such a dimension exists, the book never elucidates how this political economy and its related ideology play out. Nor is the possible nature of this ideology discussed.

By the end of the book, the author’s self-conscious attraction to the baroque seductions she details may actually provide for a (perhaps inadvertent) critique, such is the bold clarity of the concluding remarks. Ndalianis uses openly ontological terms when she says the advanced technologies of the neo-baroque “can reaffirm our connection with the basics of our being: our ability to scream hysterically, to feel intense joy and exhilaration…[W]e recompose the multi-media components and they, in turn, recompose us by reconfirming our ability to feel intensely.” Her investment in the value of technological advancement as a means to endless progress in feeding neo-baroque forms and our evolving humanity is summarised in the book’s final sentiment: “Where these journeys will take us, one can only guess…[O]ne thing is certain: I will definitely go along for the ride.”

The absence of critique that characterises the book is partially explained by Ndalianis’ illuminating early assertions vis à vis postmodernity and its theoretical reflections. She states that “postmodern debates do not constitute the primary concern of this book”, distancing herself in particular from the highly critical early reflections of Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. Yet her book repeats the now much more familiar—and much more celebratory—postmodern tendency to affirm the intertextual nuances of contemporary popular culture that, as Ndaliandis understandably suggests, critical theory historically viewed as “the product of an era steeped in sterile repetition and unoriginality.” In this way, the book seeks to (re)valorise not so much the baroque per se but its distinctly popular outcomes. The value and originality of Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment lies in its trans-century analysis, featuring an effective mix of sophisticated big-picture commentary and detailed intertextural analysis of specific artworks. However, to imply it is unusual or brave to celebrate and closely analyse the formal, conceptual and spectatorial centres of image-dense popular culture in the wake of 2 decades of postmodern criticism and theory is surely by now untenable; rather than subversive exceptions, such discourses and studies constitute the prevailing orthodoxy.

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 20

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2005
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