There's a story by Isadore Ducasse in which the anti-hero breeds lice. He occasionally throws the arm of a child into the pit in which the lice feed and breed. The lice need a fillip on occasions but mostly they are happy to feed on each other. The lice form a compacted mass which the anti-hero then cuts into blocks before depositing them in the city so that they can infest the populace.
It must be said that there is something satisfying about the image of a block; a solid which is not a solid, a unit composed of a single element, of a series of self - similar particularities forming a mass. In this sense Ducasse's block might be seen as a baroque block. The lice take nourishment from outside in order to create something which is the same as themselves - more lice. A self-contained lice unit where the form of each individual louse is sacrificed to the overall form of the block.
It seems that the whole surface of Francois Boucher's portrait of Madam Pompadour is covered with folds, wrinkles and creases. Save for her mercury - rouged face and her alabaster arms all is in movement. Even the different parts of the statuary, from the limbs of the arms of Venus to the cherub's bum, are knitted together by a field of folds. It is almost as if the folds are forming a skin over the canvas, a skin of ripples on which the subject (the face and arms) float. But this is more than a skin of paint and it succeeds in doing more than merely displaying the foliage, fabric and statuary as emblems of a vapid opulence which had outstayed its welcome. It is also implying the continuation of the folds, or perhaps to make a single continuous fold which moves beyond the vertical and horizontal planes of the picture and beneath the skin of folds on its surface.
If we flick through a book of reproductions of baroque and rococo pictures it is possible to see a movie in which the gods, the mythological heroes and heroines, the soldiers and horses, the potentates, mistresses and the fruit are swept away on an irrepressible tide of ripples and folds - and then it's possible to see the folds moving through time.
The Baroque is a contested term and it's always been difficult to put a defining finger on it. It might be easy to argue that the Baroque no longer exists and that when it was prevalent, (16th and 17th centuries) it was nothing more than the attenuation of an aesthetic system which had outgrown its time. If this were the case we could conclude that the Baroque actually never existed as a movement but only as a series of fillers, as only so much scrambled egg and filigree spread between eras where movements held the centre. In areas where baroque tendencies persisted (as errant explosions of organic, polymorphic activity) it could be seen as the dying gasps of 'a style which had exhausted all its possibilities and which was in the constant endeavour of exhausting them further'1.
But in a time where it is unreasonable to expect 'the great completed project' or a work of art or literature which will kill time with an emphatic full stop, where no one expects the movement to end all movements, it might be worth examining a phenomenon which has grown, and is still growing like wild grass between the paving stones of official culture.
It might be more useful to argue that the Baroque is a tendency rather than a movement. A tendency which plays like a persistent arpeggio in the background and is only clearly apparent in periods of attenuation (such as our own). A tendency, a complexion, an inflection has no centre, no beating heart, no central nervous system, and is only as definable and palpable as the gaps between things are. Deleuze has speculated that the Baroque might be described as 'inexistent' as it has no reason to exist without the concept [the Baroque] that forms this very reason.2
If the Baroque operates in the gaps between forms this isn't to say that it has no form of its own, its own form is based on the duplication of components which create a form like a skin without the encumbering boundaries of a body. If this skin had a will it would be to make a planet of skin, a planet away from our own, a virtualised seamless world of representation.
Where nets spread, where horizons recede, where time and space collapse together, where the privileged few engage in an ecstasy of communication, where the technology we have developed seeks to move ever outwards, through plug - ins and extensions, through satellites and real time video links, there is a tendency to intensify the web of communications and to make the virtually infinite virtual space larger. Where we run inexorably to greater complexity, we are more likely to find ourselves influenced by the self-perpetuating logic of the the Baroque. This logic would unfold in the things we make, an unconscious, non-reflexive pattern of duplication which could carry us on .
By this definition the aim of the aesthetic of the Baroque (if it had a mouth, or a desire to speak) would be seek to duplicate a series of particulars which create a complex form, these forms then begin to knit into the motifs of other similar forms which have started from the same base logic. The Baroque seeks to make a skin over territory within which its continued reproduction is viable, be it the church, the palace, the gallery or within cyberspace. The baroque acts like a narcissistic meme, mesmerised by the beauty of its reproducing reflection. It wants more of itself, it seeks change but the change it desires is the change which occurs when you have more of the same. Like a Mandelbrot set it repeats the same litany of numbers so that a process of self - similarity eventually occurs. Repeated elements create patterns which after reaching a certain density create forms and these, from a distance, themselves make patterns which... &c. and so the skin expands.
At each stage however the Baroque holds within it the seeds of the virtually infinite, the promise that it could go on within its own virtual space forever.
The Baroque is also profligate, it overproduces visual information. But Borges was undoubtedly on the money when he observed that 'the baroque can not lose its sense of scale because it is simultaneously every scale' 3 and it is equally the case that the Baroque is not a lack of taste but rather the overproduction of taste.
When information is overproduced it is, of course, impossible to assimilate it at at any one time, the result is an art that allows for, at best, partial intelligibility as the nature of the task is always to move towards greater complexity. By over-producing the aesthetic seeks to leap beyond particularities in order to create a form, but there is always the implication that these forms could themselves be reproduced ad infinitum.......
© Steve Rushton 98
1 and 3 Borges. Forward to the 1948 edition of Universal History of Infamy
2. Deleuze. The Fold, Leibniz and the Baroque Anthlone 1993.
© Steve Rushton 1997