March 2008

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Peep Art

On the lighter side:

My friends over at MadSilence have posted about the Washington Post’s Second Annual Peeps Diorama Contest. Yup, that’s peeps as in marshmallow squishy chicken Easter candies.

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Peep Art

To view a slide show of a number of the entries this year, here’s the link at the Washington Post.

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As a follow up to my posting on March 9th regarding this last outbreak of false memoirizing, here are a few more bubbles under that tablecloth that can move around but never disappear. Jill Lepore, a prof at Harvard, has written yet another of her fascinating articles for the New Yorker magazine. She’s so damn smart, I am always excited when I find her name listed on the weekly Table of Contents.

In this week’s piece, Just the Facts, Ma’am, Lepore details the skinny on the intertwining history of historical writing and fiction. Turns out the term “history” has been used to describe all manner of writing, and the history of the term “history” also has a “who knew?” gender narrative to boot. I found the article fascinating. Here’s a few highlights:

Historians and novelists are kin, in other words, but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. The literary genre that became known as “the novel” was born in the eighteenth century. History, the empirical sort based on archival research and practiced in universities, anyway, was born at much the same time. Its novelty is not as often remembered, though, not least because it wasn’t called “novel.” In a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view.

***

In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, many historians worried that the seriousness of history, its very integrity as a discipline, was in danger of being destroyed by literary theorists who insisted on the constructedness, the fictionality, of all historical writing—who suggested that the past is nothing more than a story we tell about it. The field seemed to be tottering on the edge of an epistemological abyss: If history is fiction, if history is not true, what’s the use? (The panic has since died down, but it hasn’t died out. Donald Kagan, in his 2005 Jefferson lecture, “In Defense of History,” grumbled about the perils of “pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo.”) In 1990, Sir Geoffrey Elton called postmodern literary theory “the intellectual equivalent of crack.” The next year, the eminent American historian Gordon Wood, writing in The New York Review of Books, warned that if things were to keep on this way historians would soon “put themselves out of business.” Reviewing Simon Schama’s “Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)”—a history book in which Schama indulged in flights of fancy, fully disclosed as such—Wood wrote, “His violation of the conventions of history writing actually puts the integrity of the discipline of history at risk.”

***

If a history book can be read as if it were a novel, and if a reader can find the same truth in a history book and a novel, what, finally, is the difference between them? This is a difficult question, Hume admitted. Maybe it just feels different—more profound—to read what we believe to be true (an idea assented to) than what we believe to be false (a fancy): “An idea assented to feels different from a fictitious idea, that the fancy alone presents to us.”

***

Women were not only not interested in history; they didn’t trust it. In “Northanger Abbey” (completed by 1803), Jane Austen’s comic heroine, who adores novels, confesses that she finds history both boring and impossible to credit: “It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Austen saw fit to echo this exchange in “Persuasion” (1818). “All histories are against you,” Captain Harville insists, when Austen’s levelheaded heroine, Anne Elliot, argues that women are more constant than men. “But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men,” Harville guesses, and Anne agrees. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” she observes, saying, “I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men. (Women might write biography, or dabble in genealogy.) Eighteenth-century observers, in other words, understood the distinction between history and fiction not merely and maybe not even predominantly as a distinction between truth and invention but as a distinction between stories by, about, and of interest to men and stories by, about, and of interest to women. Women read novels, women wrote novels, women were the heroines of novels. Men read history, men wrote history, men were the heroes of history. (When men wrote novels, Godwin suggested, this was regarded as “a symptom of effeminacy.”)

This topic is even more interesting than I had imagined.

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One of the reasons I get rather depressed by the current fad for documentary
style fiction, is its insistence on the explanatory above the symbolic. Good
writing goes beyond its subject matter. Language is more than meaning. The
things that we have read that we remember seem to move with us through our
lives as we get older. Their symbolic value increases. This book, that poem,
become repositories for our own changing memories, and retain the power to
activate a response in us, long after the moment.

Jeanette Winterson

Thank you Sally Reed for sending this my way.

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Here is a comment made on yesterday’s post that is too good not to share. Thank you Elatia Harris for this entertaining variation on “accusatory white”:

I had a friend in San Francisco who was committed to this look, but not in white. Her palette was taupe to Rymanesque ecru, this being around 1980, when very pale neutrals were elbowing “gallery white.” Designers then reasoned that absolute white was an effect you could get with paint rather than taste and money, and was therefore too achievable-looking. My friend had the thinking but not the money, so her palazzo of pale neutrals, a converted industrial space, was a project that took many years to complete. For several of those years, she stood up to watch television, because the furniture she needed for living was always just a bridge too far. I particularly recall in the early stages, when there was nothing but sheet-rock and paint, one entered an environment that was a complexity of beiges — an outlaw word, that. It’s easy to conceive of a beige surround that’s boring, but this was somehow edgy, and so thought out it could never be the usual beige that results from capitulation. I dropped in for a look with a printmaker, who told my friend, “I get it. Your house is the color of rich people’s clothing.” Leaving, the printmaker said, “It’s very dry-clean only.”

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More from David Batchelor’s Chromophobia:

In the chapter titled “Whitescapes”, Batchelor describes going to a party at the home of an art collector in London. His description of that experience is hauntingly familiar to me, but one that I have never thought through in such explicit detail:

The house looked ordinary enough from the outside: red brick, nineteenth or early twentieth century, substantial but unostentatious. Inside was different. Inside seemed to have no connection with outside. Inside was, in one sense, inside-out, but I only realized that much later. At first, inside looked endless. Endless like an egg must look endless from the inside; endless because seamless, continuous, empty, uninterrupted. Or rather: uninterruptible. There is a difference. Uninterrupted might mean overlooked, passed by, inconspicuous, insignificant. Uninterruptible passes by you, renders you inconspicuous and insignificant…It was a strategic emptiness, but it was also accusatory.

Inside this house was a whole world, a very particular kind of world, a very clean, clear and orderly universe. But it was also a very paradoxical, inside-out world, a world where open was also closed, simplicity was also complication, and clarity was also confusion. It was a world that didn’t readily admit the existence of other worlds. Or it did so grudgingly and resentfully, and absolutely without compassion. In particular, it was a world that would remind you, there and then, in an instant, of everything you were not, everything you had failed to become, everything you had not got around to doing, everything you might as well never bother to get around to doing because everything was made to seem somehow beyond reach, as when you look through the wrong end of a telescope…

There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was the kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white.

An emptiness that is accusatory. A white that is compassionless. I know of what he speaks.

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I have had a small book titled Chromophobia on my shelf since it was published in 2000. After dipping in and out of it over the last few years and being delighted and intrigued, I finally read it from stem to stern. It is a terrific, terrific book.

The author, David Batchelor, is a sculptor whose work is focused on color (or, because he is British, colour.) He also happens to be an insightful and articulate thinker, and this small book has been feeding my thinking for days.

Batchelor’s basic premise is this: “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that, in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded…As with all prejudices, its manifest form, its loathing, masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable.” Drawing from sources that range from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and the philosophic writings of Aristotle, Charles Blanc, Le Corbusier and Roland Barthes among others, the book unmasks our cultural discomfort with colour.

In the process of this uncovering, Batchelor has assembled some memorable references to art and colour. Here’s a few I found particularly provocative:

The poet Joachim Gasquet, reporting some remarks made by Cezanne about looking at painting:

Shut your eyes, wait, think of nothing. Now, open them…One sees nothing but a great coloured undulation. What then? An irradiation and glory of colour. This is what a picture should give us…an abyss in which the eye is lost, a secret germination, a coloured state of grace…Lose consciousness. Descend with the painter into the dim tangled roots of things, and rise again from them in colours, be steeped in the light of them.

***

Cezanne, it has been argued, subscribed to the idea that a new-born child lives in a world of naive vision where sensations are unmediated and uncorrupted by the ‘veil of…interpretation.’ The work of the painter was to observe nature as it was beneath this veil, to imagine the world as it was before it had been converted into a network of concepts and objects. This world for Cezanne, was ‘patches of colour’; thus ‘to paint is to register one’s sensations of colour.’

***

Gustave Moreau: ‘Note one thing well: you must think through colour, have imagination in it. If you don’t have imagination, your colour will never be beautiful. Colour must be thought, imagined, dreamed.”

So much more to share from this slender volume. I will do so in upcoming posts.

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Sculpture by David Batchelor

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Distance

From up here, the insomniac
river turning in its bed
looks like a line somebody painted
so many years ago it’s hard
to believe it was ever liquid; a motorboat
winks in the sun and leaves a wake
that seals itself in an instant, like the crack
in a hardly broken heart.

And the little straight-faced houses
that with dignity bear the twin
burdens of being unique and all alike,
and the leaf-crammed valley like the plate
of days that kept on coming and I ate
though laced with poison: I can look
over them, from this distance, with an ache
instead of a blinding pain.

Sometimes, off my guard, I half-
remember what it was to be
half-mad: whole seasons gone; the fear
a stranger in the street might ask
the time; how feigning normality
became my single, bungled task.
What made me right again? I wouldn’t dare
to guess; was I let off

for good behavior? Praise
to whatever grace or power preserves
the living for living…Yet I see the square
down there, unmarked, where I would pace
endlessly, and as the river swerves
around it, wonder what portion of
love I’d relinquish to ensure
I’d never again risk drowning.

- Mary Jo Salter

I read the line, “the plate/of days that kept on coming and I ate/though laced with poison” and she had me.

A note on the format of this poem: I am unable to get WordPress to “tab” lines for indentation. (If anyone knows how, please advise.) The layout of this poem is an important part of the experience. Please refer to its proper presentation here.

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It is a strange and esoteric chemistry that moves the inner dial of our moods. Who hasn’t taken a micro-second whipsaw ride from ebullience to hopelessness? For me, some days in the studio are all flow. On others, nothing goes right. If only I could clear a pattern headed in the wrong direction as easily as the horse’s snort described in Alexander Star’s New York Times review of Daniel Lord Smail’s new book, “On Deep History and the Brain,” (cleverly titled, I Feel Good).

Here’s a sample:

Why do horses snort? Sometimes, at the approach of a stranger or the appearance of a plane high above the pasture, a horse will widen its eyes, flare its nostrils and send a stuttering column of air out into the world. On other occasions, horses have been known to snort for no reason besides their own boredom. By suddenly creating a sound, the slack-minded horse elicits an automatic “startle response” — flooding its brain with chemicals, delivering a jolt of excitement and relieving, at least for a moment, the monotony of a long day in an empty field. The horse has in effect fooled its own nervous system — and benefited from the self-deceit.

If horses can alter their own brain chemistries at will (and have good reasons to do so), what about human beings? In “On Deep History and the Brain,” Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history can be understood as a long, unbroken sequence of snorts and sighs and other self-modifications of our mental states. We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing…

Ever since the invention of agriculture, Smail claims, we have seen “an ever greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms.” Some of these mechanisms Smail refers to as “teletropic”: they work primarily to affect the moods of others, stimulating a wash of neurochemicals at a distance. A baby cries and arouses its mother’s instinct to care; a priest intones a Mass and relieves parishioners of stress hormones. The modern era, however, belongs to what Smail calls “autotropic” devices, devices that alter our own moods. In modern Europe, coffee from the Arabian peninsula became a stimulant to “mind, body, conversation and creativity” for the rich and the mercantile. The cultivation of sugar on Caribbean slave plantations made cheap rum freely available, further inebriating the working classes. Individuals became ever more expert at changing their own chemistry, sometimes just for the pleasure of modulating one set of sensations into another. But ingesting substances was only the beginning. The same era saw the rise of novels and erotica, shopping and salons. Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood; indeed, in the 18th century, their impact was often likened to a fever, jeopardizing readers’ purchase on reality and their physical strength. In the age of Enlightenment, man overthrew kings and subjected himself to mild and intermittently pleasurable addictions.

Of course, there was more to the Enlightenment than that. It’s not clear how a neurohistorian of the future would treat attitudes and beliefs alongside cravings and moods. Nor does Smail directly address the larger implications of what has been called “the psychoactive revolution.” What happens when we learn not just how to alter our moods but also to identify the chemical and electrical constituents of our experiences while we are having them? Is there a price to pay when we make the care of the brain a pre-eminent virtue?…

Smail focuses more attention on the “pursuit of psychotropy” than on its consequences. Still, an intelligent disquiet runs through these pages. As we “grow numb to the mechanisms that stimulate our moods and feelings on a daily basis,” we ceaselessly shift from one device to another. The prospects for human foresight and self-knowledge would seem dim. In the 1860s, Walter Pater wrote that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Has art become superfluous? Smail suggests we are all the choreographers of our own chemical dance, enjoying the “spikes” and “dips” as they follow one another, and simply for their own sake.

I love the Pater quote in the last paragraph–art offers “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” So Zen, yet so long ago.

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After several days in California, I’m readjusting to the stubbornness of a winter overlord who won’t give up New England. Succession planning? We’re working on that. Spring is off stage, bedecked in faille, fluttering her white and pink organzas, just waiting for an entrance cue.

I had some memorable moments last week, both indoors as well as out. One morning was spent at the Gilbert & George exhibit at the De Young Museum. These two have made themselves into art icons over the last thirty years with their provocative poises, proddings, posturings, promulgations. Even though I have not ever been what I would term a G&G advocate, their campy pranks aren’t just empty suit stunts and theatrics. There is more going on than that.

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Death, by Gilbert & George

For example, the following statements by the artists were posted at the beginning of the exhibit:

ART FOR ALL

We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.

PROGRESS THROUGH FRIENDSHIP

Our Art is the friendship between the viewer and our pictures. Each picture speaks of a “Particular View“ which the viewer may consider in the light of his own life. The true function of Art is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement. Every single person on Earth agrees that there is room for improvement.

LANGUAGE FOR MEANING

We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.

THE LIFE FORCES

True Art comes from three main life-forces. They are: –
THE HEAD
THE SOUL
and THE SEX

In our life these forces are shaking and moving themselves into everchanging different arrangements. Each one of our pictures is a frozen representation of one of these “arrangements“.

THE WHOLE

When a human-being gets up in the morning and decides what to do and where to go he is finding his reason or excuse to continue living. We as artists have only that to do. We want to learn to respect and honour “the whole“. The content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration. We stand each day for good traditions and necessary changes. We want to find and accept all the good and bad in ourselves. Civilisation has always depended for advancement on the “giving person“. We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life.

Unfortunately saying doesn’t make it so…I didn’t find this exhibit of large format images to be any more accessible to the average viewer than most other contemporary work. There’s definitely an essential tension between these populist, anti-art world sentiments and the fact that G&G are driving their luxury car down the center lane of the Art World Circus Parkway, busily exhibiting their work in museums everywhere and merchandising a boatload of posters and printed ties.

But the sentiments expressed in these words, idealistic and naive as they may read when viewed in the hard-edged context of contemporary museum scale art, mean something to me. While I don’t want to flatten the complexity of the tangle of issues that exist in contemporary art dialogue today by promoting a bipartisan view of Art World vs Anti-Art World, it might be useful to make a few categorical distinctions. Doing so has been useful to me.

Here’s one set of demarcations that I have been road testing, and it seems to be holding together. Sally Reed, artist and smart friend, has borrowed traditional literary forms, epic and lyric, and applied them to the making of art.

Epic art, says Sally, deals with large arc issues like politics, philosophy, cerebral calibrations, identity and does so through installations in public spaces like art museums and international art fairs. It is often built on a strong narrative armature, with a heavy storytelling and/or content orientation.

Lyric art is more human scaled. Personal. Demanding a relationship with the viewer on an intimate level. This is art that usually exists outside of narrative, outside of time.

I make work that would be classified as lyric. But I have been amazed and moved by both types. Most of what gets written about and discussed however is epic. Advocacy for art that is intended to incite the intensity of a full body experience is hard to find.

More from Sally Reed:

No, I am not “telling a story” — for me it’s more like (how’s this for grandiosity?) creating a world. Or more modestly, creating a place, a “chamber.” When a piece is finished, it seems I am ready to invite people in. Or at least their gaze, their thoughts and feelings.

My problem with narrative is that it often is sequential and always takes place in time. I feel that when I am making art, when I am at my best, it takes place outside of time, as a dream does. For me, the experience of making (when I am in the flow) or experiencing art, is outside of time. I think this might be why many narrative based visual pieces that I like initially can bore me on a second or third viewing. And also why certain masterpieces are endlessly fascinating; there’s always a new way to approach, a new way to experience, to sort of “unfold” all the wonders with which they are packed.

There is more to say on many of these themes, which I will continue to explore going forward.

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Spring Thaw in South Hadley

Old snows locked under glass
by last night’s ice storm left
curatorial Winter, in
whose hands alone we’d hope
to find the keys,
jangling them in the trees—.

not merely in these pine
needles by the fistful
gloved in crystal, but,
from their boughs, the self-
invented digits of
icicles addressed

(in a manner reminiscent
of the insubstantial
finger of a sundial)
less to a point in space
than effectively to Time,
the frozen moment.

By noon, the ice as thin
as an eggshell veined to show
life seeping yellow,
one’s boots sink in
with a snap; the sap
underrunning everything

may be nothing but water, yet
there’s a sacramental
joy in how, converting
to its liquid state,
it’s anything but gentle.
A crash from Abbey Chapel—

who cut the string
that sent the white sheets falling?
Nothing but the long
scissors of the sun
unwraps such thunder. Even
a modest A-frame

in a muffled instant sheds
its wrinkling roofs of snow:
black butterfly below.
As if to make
one more clean break above,
the sky—seconds ago

one continent of cloud—
follows the drift of Spring,
splits and refits like Ming
porcelain. The plate
tectonics alternate:
white and blue, blue and white.

–Mary Jo Salter

This poem is a worthy paen to the power of weather systems, appropriately posted right before I head back to the warmer clime of San Francisco for a few days. I’m hungry for that sound of spring breaking through that I hear, crystalline, in this poem. The éclat of the changing from winter to warmth.

I am also moved by many of Salter’s phrases, like “curatorial Winter,” “a sacramental/joy in how, converting/to its liquid state,/it’s anything but gentle,” “Nothing but the long/scissors of the sun/unwraps such thunder.”

(Salter and her poetry resurfaced for me after reading a review of her latest volume, A Phone Call to the Future, in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday. An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting.)

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