So, yeah, the title. Kinda lame, right? Well, it’s all about a new riff, a certain spin, a re-imagining of the previous post, in which I wax philosophical about ancient times.
Ancient times and ancient vistas. We all have them, if we live long enough. And some of us feel that way even in our late teens about our earlier teens, as was the case with my friends and me, one of whom passed away well before his time, like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi. Way before.
We would drink and laugh and listen to The Doors, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Humble Pie, as if we were looking back from twenty years into the future, instead of two or three. Reminisce. Sadly, tragically. Think about the girls who got away. The things we should have said and done. The beauty we missed. So much beauty. And what’s more important in this life than that? Beauty and truth and guzzling rot gut whisky because we didn’t know the difference. We didn’t care about. We couldn’t afford. We were all out of. Beer. And does it really matter, domestic or imported, when you’re Rockin’ the Fillmore?
And then the concerts, and the “authorities” looking away when we. When we mixed this and that. When we. The Doors mastered that. The falling off the. The End taking years and years in Rimbaud land. The riders on a storm forever running guns in distant Abyssinia.
So, it’s possible that it wasn’t just the metal sculpture that did it, that made me go abstract. In fact, it couldn’t have been just that. It never is. And while I want to throw bottles whenever I hear “it’s complicated,” it is. Rilly, as we used to say. Icebergs, Freud, and all of that underwater stuff . . .
I was rereading Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and TheGreek Myths by Robert Graves, and I thought: Hieros Gamos! Sacred Marriage! The Northern Sky gods invade Greece, try to replace the far more ancient Matriarchy of the Triple Goddess, but can’t quite do it, can’t quite do away with the Earth Mother, and this is the key, the Rosetta Stone. And so I painted it all in utter, frickin’ turmoil, nearly 40 years ago.
I am the most humble person the world has ever seen. There has never been such a humble personage as I. Therefore, I take it as my self-created birthright to tell the following story.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, an artist lived and loved and was convinced that only the representational could be “art,” and that anything else was nonsense. This is not to say he necessarily loved blue velvet paintings of dogs playing poker, or Elvis in his later years, even though these American icons could be called “realistic.” There were lines he drew, and lines he would not draw, and they tended not to involve velvet. At least not yet.
So when he arrived at the gates of the Big City, or some facsimile there of, it mattered not that the artist was just a freshman, nor that the sum total of his art lessons to date came all too close to nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. And it mattered not that he was taught almost exclusively by the god Osmosis, a deity well known for his hit or miss organizational skills. What really mattered to this young, head-strong artist, all too certain in his convictions, was that he, at least inwardly, Titanically strove toward unreachable goals, like some Romantic hero out of Isaiah Berlin’s book on the subjecthe would read more than 40 years later.
In short, there was the way of the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Greeks, or there was no way at all, though Van Gogh always had special rights outside those rules. Vincent surpassed all boundaries even then. There was just no reason to try to fit him into the various boxes the artist had created for himself. To do so, of course, would be like expecting an avalanche to go back up the snow-blue mountain side.
But, as time passed, as montages roamed the streets, as he got to know his fellow art students, inside and outside the halls of University, the god Osmosis reappeared, and his eyes opened and the fog lifted and he was almost free. It also helped that he took Art History class after Art History class, which continuously reset the goal posts, semester after semester, year after year, until his own theories and artistic practices came close to meshing. Close. It wasn’t until metal sculpture class, however, that the artist was finally ready to paint abstractly. Heavy metal, among other elements, revolutionized his art.
The painting above was among the first, or second, or sixth tries, and I’ll get into the whys and wherefores of its conception in the next installment of humbly magnificent origin stories.
The eternal question(s): Does it matter what the artist intended? His or her background? His or her influences, research, working methods? Do these things matter when it comes to how an audience interprets or should interpret their work?
Yes and no and maybe and perhaps, in no particular order. As in, great works of art, at least, don’t require the acquisition of such knowledge (to be appreciated), though that knowledge may enhance the experience. It can also ruin it, or something in between. The continuum is there, with its myriad nuances and degrees. In short, only they know. The people on the canvas and in the museum. The encounter works for them or it doesn’t, typically.
Scholars and critics, of course, likely investigate all the whys and wherefores available, and draw inferences from that to make their judgments. Their biographies influence those inferences as well, and so it goes. It’s also likely that the longer they’re at it, the further and further they fall away from the initial gut reaction, the original impression — the first kick in the head, so to speak. And this saddens me. The jadedness at hand. The overthinking involved.
Some artists, writers, poets and musicians see those scholars and critics as their intended audience, so they expect this sort of thing. They actually crave it. But most don’t. Art history and tradition are filled with the sometimes angry dynamic, the occasional rage, the potential for brutal interplay between the opposing sides, resulting in a few ruined lives, more often than not on the artist’s side of the ledger.
“Everyone’s a critic!” is one of those old clichés that still has resonance, and its own sting from time to time. “My little sister could paint that!!” is another oldie but goodie. Actually, no. She probably couldn’t. The artist in question studied and practiced his or her art/craft for years or decades to arrive at that place that provokes the work in question. Your little sister, unless she, too, is an artistic genius/prodigy already, has yet to evolve in that direction. If for no other reason than to kill that particular cliché, deep knowledge of art history and the bio of the artist are welcomed additions.
But they should be used with care. As Goethe once said, roughly translated, “Know all philosophy, but keep it out of your writing.” This applies, I think, to audiences of the arts as well. A very tough trick to pull off, of course, but easier if one has a strong background in Taoism or Zen Buddhism, which brings in yet another layer or a thousand.
Prior to painting The Kiss, Gustav Klimt went to Ravenna, Italy (in 1903), where he studied the Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale. Gold, gold and more gold! Visions of the Sacred and Profane! Inside and outside the museum. Lovers there, lovers in his mind’s eye, then lovers on canvas. Sensuality where nothing like it had existed before. An eroticism all its own, provoking yet another continuum of presence and absence, anger and receptive joy, for this or that person, in this or that era. It amazes me to learn that some contemporaries saw this painting as “pornographic,” just as it amazes me still that James Joyce’s Ulysses caused such an uproar when it was set to print too. All the wasted time!
There are other aspects to be discussed about this most unusual work of art. Until next time . . .
For July, we have new flash fiction from Rebecca Lee, and new poetry from Joseph Robert.
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Having finished And the Show Went On, by Alan Riding, I was struck by several things. First of all, the obvious. When your nation is overrun by a foreign power, and you’ve lost control of your own country, do you continue to try to publish your work, paint your paintings, make movies, put on plays, give concerts, etc. etc.? Or do you go into hiding, withhold your art from the public? Or just leave the country? Are you really an artist if you don’t make art? And if your identity is tied completely to your art, to making it, to being what you make, do you, in a sense, commit suicide by going silent?
In France, many artists during the occupation chose to split the difference. They would continue to make their art, but they wouldn’t collaborate. Others felt that wasn’t enough. They had to turn their art toward the cause of resistance, or engage in actual battle. The book details the many intellectual résistants who chose that road. Some paid for that choice with their lives. Others barely survived the war, stuck in prison. Still others collaborated with the Germans and the Vichy government and paid the price after the war. There was a purge after liberation that presented moral and ethical dilemmas of its own.
Alan Riding makes the point that artists and intellectuals often were treated far worse after the war than business titans who had greater influence on the fortunes of the French. Wherein artistic collaborators were shot, imprisoned or banned from their livelihoods, it was extremely rare that heads of corporations, industrial titans, or owners of publishing houses suffered for their sins.
Of course, no one knew this back in 1940, when it all started. They couldn’t make their decisions based upon the liberation happening in 1944. No one knew, really, who would end up on top, though they certainly made educated guesses and placed their bets. Still, it’s a worthwhile exercise to imagine what we would have done in their shoes. Do your own political leanings come into play? Would you act based on your philosophical principles, or take it to a much more elemental level? Survival.
My own political and philosophical beliefs put me in direct opposition to the occupiers. I’m a staunch lefty, an egalitarian, a believer in real democracy. They were hard-right and against all the things I love and respect. But courage must come from somewhere else as well. It’s something that transcends politics, philosophy, or any abstract intellectual grounding. In any existential dilemma, something much deeper and more primal is at stake and the head can only act as a guide. It can only take you so far. The dilemma takes place outside your head, with blood, physical pain, misery and death all in the picture. The final word is left for your innermost being. Some call it the soul.
Dr. Ernest Williamson III: In Conversation With my Art
I’ve always been fascinated with high contrast. Baroque painters, building on the legacy left them by Da Vinci, among other Italian Renaissance heroes, experimented with cast light and its effects in a way not yet seen before the 17th century. The best of them was Caravaggio, and he had many followers, among them one Georges de La Tour.
The painting above is a meditation on mortality, on life, on death, on the miracles one witnesses with or without a messiah in the picture. It is one of La Tour’s finest, and shows a tremendous growth from his early, rather clumsy and derivative work. In this painting he demonstrates his mastery of shadow and light, of the human figure and the drama a simple candle can create. He makes us think of opposites, the play of opposites — eternal conflicts and their necessity. Black needs white and vice versa. The present needs the past to push it into the future. We can contemplate those opposites as never joining, never merging, never flowing within and without, or we can hold old paradoxes in our minds at the same time until we burst into fire that never dies. The mind as fire that does not consume itself. The mind as the ultimate synthesizer.
Our mind’s infrastructure makes the resolution of paradox extremely difficult. We seek order. We seek the arrangement and composition of opposing, irreconcilable things, and do not want this order disturbed. So it takes a leap — a leap of faith in our capacity to imagine and move beyond the basic fit and finish we impose. It takes a kind of magical thinking to start us off, to get us to run out of the logical, rational, tidy and harmonious buildings we place in front of us. But we must run out from them, at least on occasion, if we are ever to see what may be on the other side of chaos. We must battle through that chaos to find the place where all colors, the deeds of light, converge.
This past October, we were blessed with a remarkable collection of Van Gogh’s letters, newly translated and complete, without censorship:
Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (Vol. 1-6) (Hardcover) ~ Nienke Bakker (Editor), Leo Jansen (Editor), Hans Luijten (Editor)
The collection contains pretty much every one of his paintings, is heavily annotated, and runs to more than 2000 pages. It will certainly revolutionize our understanding of one of the greatest and most misunderstood artists of all time.
For those of you who would rather not buy the book, his letters are now online at vangoghletters.org. Will blog a bit about the collection after I return from holiday excursions.
Composition as Cipher, or Number. The work after his ninth, or a painting to represent all paintings. Whatever his intentions regarding the title, the painting strikes me as musical, like pretty much all of his art, and he wanted that music to come from within all viewers so that they could become seers like Kandinsky. The inner artist meeting the work on the wall and turning it into a tunnel back to themselves. A tunnel with ears.
In your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music. The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings.
— letter to Schönberg, 1911, after the performance of Schönberg’s second string quartet and the “Three piano pieces.”
George Spencer brings us a new poem below about things that perhaps shouldn’t have a name, like poems, and things that could or should populate those works. Riffing from a work by John Ashbery, he plays the meta-game and finds a few new twists. Here’s an audio clip of Ashbery reading the poem within the poem in question, with a short intro:
And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, by John Ashbery
George Scialabba’s excellent collection of essays continues to provoke thought. One arena with a great deal of complexity and contradiction is local control versus centralized control. That dilemma can be extended to all sorts of things, like education, health care, the environment, the arts, the economy and so on. Where should we cede control to localities, and where should we insist on universals of one kind or another?
There are arguments to be made on many sides of many issues along those lines, and it’s one place that makes “consistency” a vice, not a virtue. As in, whereas I think capitalism, globalization and the “free market” have had highly negative effects, overall, on local cultures, especially in the arts (and should be ameliorated), I think it’s essential that we establish universal health care, universal education, universal environmental protections, and so on, regardless of local differences. I also believe strongly that we should teach a solid core of subjects from the point of view of accepted, peer-reviewed, established scholarship, and not let local prejudices chase away science, broadly accepted historical facts, general civics and so on.
In short, I think we need a universal application of human rights to all corners, a national curriculum that is filled with what Mathew Arnold called “the best that is known and thought in the world,” and an economy that respects local differences. That same economy should also respect individual autonomy over robotics, quality over quantity, inherent goodness over public relations, and integrity in all things. We have got to stop thinking of profits as the center of all meaning. We have got to begin to think again in terms of the possibility of an economy that works like photosynthesis, cycling back into the community what the community puts into its companies, rather than letting huge multinationals cart away resources, leaving those communities high and dry.
To me, there should be a new form and a new way. By writ. By law. By statute. If someone in America wants to get rich, that’s fine and dandy. But if they impact local resources, have employees, and their company is above a certain size, then they must readjust their ideas of just how much profit they can take. They must build into that equation at least two things:
1. Higher taxes than they currently pay, which according to the GAO, are minimal (2/3rds paid zero in the last decade; 90% paid just 5% or less), so that we can lift the foundation of basic human rights for everyone in America. And . . .
2. Factor in a certain amount of return to the community for its share of local resources. Land, energy, people, etc.
Work, culture, wealth and cycles. Part of that photosynthesis must also go back into the national coffers. It must then be distributed to build that national foundation for everyone, so that everyone has the basic tools and necessities needed to pursue their finest selves. They won’t be given that self, they won’t be coddled into pursuing it, but the society will provide the basic launching pad for that pursuit, and make sure that no one is without such tools and such grounding. Diversity of wealth accumulation will happen, but it will happen under new rules. Some will get richer than others, but as a price of admission to the club of great wealth, they will give back to the society that makes that wealth possible. The vast inequalities that mar the American landscape at the moment will slowly but surely disappear, and we will become more like the nation the founders envisioned, where democracy meant equal access to the fruits of this society, equal access to its cultural riches, to the protection of its laws, and to the potential for health and happiness.
Common access to cultural wealth, not individual hoarding of that wealth.
Another key point of change: Building alternative economies on a human scale. Local, vibrant, direct. Rather than assume that corporations are the norm, I would take some of the extra capital generated through taxes and teach local crafts and arts. I would launch hundreds of thousands of Master/Apprentice programs, where people would learn how to build craft-businesses on a very small scale and sell direct. To me, that’s the purest and healthiest form of commerce, whereas corporatism is the most remote, distant, and unhealthy of all forms.
Again, George Scialabba on Christopher Lasch:
Lasch argued that the evolution of capitalism has affected family structure and the socialization of children in a number of ways. In reorganizing the production process, it has removed the father from the child’s everyday experience and deprived him of the skills that formerly evoked the child’s emulation and gratitude. . . . In encouraging geographic mobility, it has uprooted families from kin communities and replaced intergenerationally transmitted folk wisdom about child-rearing with social-scientific expertise dispensed by professionals. . . . In promoting mass consumption, advertisers . . . have convinced parents that their children are entitled to the best of everything but that, without expert assistance, parents are helpless to determine what that might be.
I don’t think the onslaught of corporate control and the Walmartization of America (and the world) should be a given. It shouldn’t be something we just roll over and accept. There are alternatives and we should demand them. Demand the choice. Yeah, I’m a dreamer, but nothing good ever happened in this world without dreams . . .