Maelstrom

“The center cannot hold.”

This is a common saying these days from political commentators on TV or in op-ed pages. The assumption is that there is such a thing as the political center. It is an assumption that needs to be challenged.

We tend to lionize the political center, as if it were the place where sanity is found, battered on left and right by zealots and ideologues. But, in fact, there is no codified political theory that can be tagged with the label. It is, in fact, the bin for dumping the leftovers.

Those who hold genuine political thought fall down the steep slopes of the bell curve on both sides, toward conservatism and reaction on one side, and toward socialism on the other. Marx vs. Ayn Rand. Both sides hold their opinions with passionate intensity. What we call the middle is really just the no-man’s land between them where they battle it out, and with no clear victor, they fall, exhausted, between the two poles, and we have a stalemate. That is what we call the center.

In practice, this has actually worked out quite well for the rest of us, who are not card-carrying members of either side. It is as if two out-of-phase sine waves have cancelled each other out, and we live in relative peace. Politics, when done right, is the clash of interests, where no one interest prevails all the time, and compromises are reached to keep each side, not happy exactly, yet equally miffed, but just under the boiling point.

“The trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.”

This, then, is the center, where most of us, unafflicted by theoretical strait-jackets, try to live our lives spending the least possible time on policy and government. Government is something up with which we must put. To paraphrase Willie Loman, “Taxes must be paid.”

This doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the importance of social order, or a ruling forum that functions efficiently and cleanly, but more important than making rules about who gets to use which bathroom, are such things as the welfare of our children, our careers, the availability of food, and whether the Cubbies will ever again win the World Series. That a well-run government is necessary for some of those things is acknowledged, but just how much energy we put into politics is the issue. In ancient Athens, you were judged in part by whether or not you were politically aware and active. But for most of us in middle-class America, being politically active is rather more a badge of how misguided you are, how obsessed, how geeky.

We have, since 1789, run on the well-oiled principle that if we let the two sides fight it out, we can comfortably nestle in the hammock left in between them. There have been a few times, like the years from 1861 to 1865, when the center did not hold and the country erupted. We came close again in 1968, as those of us who lived through it remember. The pressure has been building up again. Both political parties found their basic premises threatened this election cycle. Republicans have discovered that the dissension, obstructionism and bigotry they have sowed for the purpose of maintaining power in Congress has come back to bite them. What they hold as true conservative values are shredded by the buzz words and palaver of Donald Trump, who seemingly holds no values whatsoever, outside of Donald Trump. Democrats found that a socialist roused a significant sector of their membership, driving their conventional candidate further to the left and away from the coveted “middle.”

That middle has become a vacuum as the polar sides pull apart and we suffer the pain.

The central problem is that, because the middle is not a platform, not a policy, not an ideology, it cannot clearly enunciate its principles, outside of a basic, “Don’t go nuts.” The Right and Left have manifestoes and position papers, arguing with faultless logic the rightness of their causes — albeit within the confines of the definitions they use and the axioms they leave unexamined. We in the middle have only a defensive “please go away” and “leave us in peace.”

Once in a while, however, we are called upon to slough off our natural passivity and take a stand. In the 1960s, we had to decide whether segregation was morally defensible, as a hundred years before, we had to pick a side on slavery. When we didn’t step in, as with the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, or the McCarthy era in the 1950s, the country went off the rails and the looneys took over. We face something of the same now, with Donald Trump, whose unfinished sentences pile cliche on cliche, Ossa on Pelion, and we are buried under a mountain of verbal garbage, un-thought-through, indefensible, and outright dangerous.

My great friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, grew up in pre-war Berlin. His family was forced to flee the Nazis, and his father eventually died at Auschwitz. He remembers as an adolescent hearing Adolf Hitler speaking live. “Everything he said was a banal platitude,” Dimitri recalled. “It was meaningless cliche piled on meaningless cliche. But he was such a persuasive and hypnotic speaker that I found myself, a Jew in Germany, that it was all I could do to keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Dimitri eventually left Germany for France, and after the fall of that country, joined the Free French forces under De Gaulle.

But Dimitri reminded me that Hitler didn’t usually come right out and say specific things. He let his minions do that. Hitler spoke of vague ideas, such as “Germany for the Germans,” and “Make Germany great again,” which are hardly controversial on the surface, but underneath was an unspoken agenda, heard by his followers as clear as a gong. One after another the meaningless platitudes piled up until an entire nation found themselves committing atrocities their grandchildren are still ashamed of.

One doesn’t want to pull out the Nazi trump card to easily. One gets tired of calling any opponent a “Hitler.” It too often trivializes the insult. But there is the parallel, too easily overlooked, especially by his followers. If we don’t want to discover in four or five years that we were “good Germans,” we had better decide now that even if we are not enthusiastic about the choice we have to make in November, we had better not give in to apathy, we had better make the effort to go to the polls, else we could wind up somewhere very dark, very violent, very shameful.

The New York Times runs a feature in its book section called “By the Book,” where famous authors are asked a set of questions. The Times will never get around to me, so I decided I needed to ask myself these standard questions.

Gulag 2

Question: What books are currently on your nightstand?

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974Answer: I am about 70 pages into the second volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. There are three volumes; I fear my nightstand may collapse. Not only for the weight of the books — they are real doorstops — but for the sagging heaviness of its content. For some reason, I have an unquenchable thirst for validation of my pessimism, for a dim view of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind, and likewise a depressing recognition of the tiny flame of idealism that refuses to be extinguished. I wish I could get rid of it. It always breaks my heart.

Q: That’s fine for your nightstand, but what book are you currently reading?

DublinersCaught me. Yes, I’m 70 pages in to Vol. 2 of the Solzhenitsyn, but it was so depressing, I needed to take a short break. So, I am now finishing up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Turns out it’s nearly as depressing. I’ll be getting back to the Russian as soon as I’m done with the Irishman.

Q: What was the last great book you read?

A: That’s a tough question to answer, because you have to decide where to set the bar. Does the Solzhenitsyn count, even though I’m not finished? Before that, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. But that is for content, not for style (nothing wrong with his prose, but that’s not the reason for picking up that depressing book). Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is one of the best translations I have ever read. I just finished rereading it (again). I read all three of John Updike’s Bech books and reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I first read in high school when it first came out. But if you mean really great, like Moby Dick or Proust, then I will up the ante, if you want great, the greatest book I have ever read is Homer’s Iliad. How can it be that the first book in our culture is also the greatest? I reread it once a year.

Q: What book did you hate reading as a child?

A: Hands down: I was required in 8th grade to read Oliver Twist. I hated it. I hated, hated, hated it. The teacher had picked out a book she thought each student would most enjoy and I got saddled with Dickens. I don’t know what she saw in me that thought I would enjoy reading a Victorian novel, but it has ruined me for life, not just for Dickens, who I still cannot bear, but for all Victorian literature. The fault is not in the books, but in myself. I grant that. But I feel like I’m chewing an old mattress when I try once more.

Q: Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

ogden nashA: We are all inclined to favor certain styles and epochs and to fail to appreciate others. I have never been able to stand Virgil’s Aeneid. It feels completely stiff and academic to me, too literary, too contrived, artificial. I have tried to read many different translations, hoping to find one I could stomach, but so far … no. As for not finishing, I came across a used set of the complete works of Ogden Nash. I so looked forward to wallowing in his wit. Lightweight, yes, but clever. At least, so I thought. Turns out, all the great bits he wrote are already anthologized to death and the stuff that you don’t already know — it turns out there’s a reason you don’t know it. Pedestrian, dull, dated, trying too hard, puerile, or contorted beyond enjoyment. I couldn’t finish it. I’ll keep to the good verses I already know.

Q: What do you read for fun?

brian lambA: My wife makes fun of me by calling me “the man who can’t have fun.” She means I’m always in some serious book of history, or the classics. She means that on weekends, I watch C-Span. (There are some very few beings in this world whose utter humanity and service to humankind recommends them for sainthood and among them I place the Dalai Lama, David Attenborough and Brian Lamb). My wife wants me to go see some popular movie or wear a funny hat for a costume party, and I just cannot get any pleasure from such things. I dread state fairs and Renaissance festivals. Shoot me if you ever see me at a karaoke bar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. It’s just that my definition of fun is different from hers. I get the greatest pleasure from listening to Bach or Schoenberg, reading John Milton, viewing films by Tarkovsky and rereading Ovid one more time. I can’t help it. I’m not pretending, or trying to make myself sound more brainy; these are the things I genuinely enjoy. I do them for pleasure. Utter pleasure.

Q: All the time? Really?

A: Well, my wife and I share an enjoyment watching British detective series on TV. American cop shows are too violent for our tastes, and the crimes are always by serial killers, drug kingpins or terrorists. The British series tend to focus on the more mundane crimes we are all more likely to encounter in life, crimes of jealousy, greed, anger. And the British series  often bypass the actual murder, joining the story as the body is found. We love them all, from the wimpiest to the grittiest. Unfortunately, between the two of us, we have defused too many of these mysteries by discovering the most successful trick in fingering the guilty party, and it has nothing to do with clues. It is a metalogic method: Just look for what we call “the unnecessary character,” the supererogatory person in the story — an extra sister not otherwise needed, a solicitor outside the main story, an ex-boyfriend or a retired cop, dragged into the story for reasons not otherwise clear. The unnecessary person rarely fails us.

Q: But this is about books. Do you read mysteries, too?

Bruno CremerA: Sort of. I’m addicted to Maigret books. Whenever I have to decompress from reading more about genocide in Eastern Europe, I pop open another Maigret. But properly speaking, they aren’t mysteries. We often know who the culprit is early in the book. Instead, they are novels about crime, and Georges Simenon fills the pages with vivid characters, drawn in three dimensions. There is little of the piling up of clues and gathering people together at the end to ferret out the killer. Instead, the same books could probably have been written without the crime at all, as perhaps love stories or travel books. I love Simenon as a writer. By the way, we have the DVDs of all the Bruno Cremer Maigret episodes and the British version with Michael Gambon. Watched them all multiple times.

Q: What books give you the most pleasure in the reading?

A: And the re-reading. There are a handful of books I can read over and over and always give me pleasure, not so much in the storytelling — since I already know how it comes out — but in the words. The words, words, words. Certain writers just make my mouth water with the words they use, the metaphorical and playful use they make of them. If I were to make a list of, say, the top five books that give me utter, ecstatic pleasure, they would be: 1. Tristram Shandy; 2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; 3. Paradise Lost; 4. Joyce’s Ulysses; and 5. The Iliad. I cannot get enough of all of them. Oh, and I have to add Chaucer; can’t leave him off. And Moby Dick. Jeez, I love that book. I cannot limit it to five. How could I leave off Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

Q: What books most influenced you as a writer?

Herman MelvilleA: So many people were influenced by Hemingway. I was not. Instead, I loved the long, baroque sentences and richly figurative language of Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, image piled on image with a profuse fertility, leaving me, as a reader, feeling like I was being pulled one way and then another by breakers at the beach. Oddly, I often read secondary works before moving on to the main course. I read all of Melville’s short stories, including Benito Cereno and Billy Budd, before I ever finished Moby Dick. Perhaps because I loved the opening chapter of Moby Dick so much, every time I put the book down and picked it up again, I started from the beginning. I must have read “Loomings” a hundred times before finally moving on to the rest. The other great influence was Henry Miller, not for the obscenity, but for the torrent of words, the forward motion of the narration in such books as Plexus, Tropic of Capricorn and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ve since left Miller behind, but he was a great ignition flame.

Q: Which writers writing today — novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, critics — do you admire most?

A: I am not being disingenuous when I say my favorite living poet is my wife, Carole Steele, whose book, Rust Sings, is full of life and great lines. And I always open my New Yorker to its final pages looking for Anthony Lane.

Q:  What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?

Laurence_Sterne_by_Sir_Joshua_ReynoldsA: First, it would have to be an author in English. I can’t speak ancient Greek. There are some that come to mind, but I’m not sure I really want to know them: Nabokov is too waspish; Faulkner too inebriated; Gibbon too erudite. I go through a list and realize most authors I would rather read than meet. But there is one I would love to spend a lazy afternoon with, talking and making jokes and maybe commiserating a bit — Laurence Sterne. We could share a beer easily. What would I want to know? Not a thing; let’s just talk.

Q: What is your favorite word?

A: We’ve made a pivot (Bernard) in this Q&A, haven’t we. What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page? Not “elbow,” not for me, though it is a fine word. No, I like “smudge,” or perhaps “caliper,” which on the page has both an ascender and a descender, which makes it a good word to compare typefaces with. Really, I can’t pick one word. How does a mother choose among her children? Not possible.

Q: What is your favorite curse word?

A: I rarely curse, which makes it more effective when I do.

Q: If a movie were to be made from your life, who should play you?

michel simon 1A: Ideally, Jean Gabin, but more realistically, Michel Simon.

Q: What sound or noise do you love?

The squall of thousands of Canada geese in a pond and flying overhead. A noise most people find excruciating, but in me, it brings forth the swelling of my chest and the tears one sheds faced with ultimate beauty.

Q: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

A: “Don’t unpack, we’re sending you back for another round.”

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

wall panels

Two of the most common complaints I heard at art galleries were: “My kid could do that,” and “It’s the emperor’s new clothes.”

As far as the first, I suspect the kid could do that, although the parent could not. Kids’ art is amazing. As for the second, it implies that the artist is somehow hoodwinking the public, setting out to create something to “fool the rubes.”

But in my 25 years of being an art critic and seeing hundreds, probably thousands of shows, I have to say I cannot remember a single example of an artist deliberately scamming the public. On the contrary, no matter how godawful the art, how silly the conceit, how pretentious the content, every single one of them was utterly sincere.

The issue has been raised by my former esteemed colleague, Kerry Lengel, on his Facebook page: “What percentage of Modern art was created for the sole purpose of making rubes like me scratch their heads and go, ‘Whuh …?’ ” Included is the above photo of a four-panel Minimalist artwork. He seems to have addressed this question specifically to me.

My initial response to his percentage question was “13.7 percent.” But that was merely facetious. He suggested 40 percent. But my real answer is closer to zero.

This is not to exonerate all the really bad art that hangs on gallery and museum walls, but to claim that the miserableness is not by intent. Remember the rule of thumb: 90 percent of everything is crap. (Others calculate that at 99 percent, but I’m not here to quibble).

Nor am I going to argue that many arts professionals aren’t gargling jargon and hiding behind graduate degrees and claiming to have arcane knowledge the ordinary art goer is not privy to. Any profession has its shibboleths. I have complained many times about the ridiculous text that curators post beside the art on the wall, claiming all kinds of political and philosophical content in otherwise simple imagery. Such content may or may not be there, but if it isn’t communicated by the art itself, what good is having an explanation next to it?

The academic and intellectual world has been infected for the past 30 or 40 years with “theory,” and it has deracinated a good deal of the art, both by explaining away the work, or by substituting theory for actual experience. There is much to be learned from deconstruction or semiotics, but it cannot replace just looking at the art itself. All theory is an attempt to replace living experience with dry words. Language is a way to tame the effusive and prolific chaos of human experience. It is a map instead of a voyage.

(I thank goodness that we seem to be leaving the constipated orbit of post-structuralism. I could never understand why we should take seriously any theory that by its own tenets is meaningless. It has been one of the least helpful things the French have ever given us.)

Let’s take a look at the four wall panels above. First, they aren’t just any colors, but specifically the primary colors of the additive color system, that is, the colors in your TV and computer screen. The blue isn’t any blue, but the almost purple blue, the red is a tomato red. If you look closely at the colors and try to ingest them the way you might a salami sandwich, roll them around on your eyes the way you might roll that deli meat on your tongue, you can simply enjoy their intensity. They are a pleasure to look at.

But they may also make you consider the difference between the mediated world of digital experience and the sensuous world that you float in daily. The artist could have chosen the printer’s subtractive primary colors (the colors of the printed page), cyan, yellow, magenta and black (abbreviated to CYMK, where the K stands for black).

wall panels cmyk

So, they are not just any colors. You bring to the art your knowledge of the color choices you use daily on your iMac, the same way you bring your knowledge of biblical mythology to the paintings of Titian, or your knowledge of the French demimonde to Impressionists.

Further, the rectangular shape of the canvases (or panels, I can’t tell from the photo) is the shape of the pixels on your TV or computer screen. If you look with a magnifying glass at the screen you can see them lined up in register. These four panels seem to be about something, not merely four panels of random colors.

What you make of all this is up to you, but you should not simply dismiss the art. I don’t want to make to great a claim for this specific piece of art, but the artist clearly had something in mind.

What we are asked to do by any piece of art is to take it seriously. We may ultimately decide it belongs with the 90 percent that deserves to be flushed away, but we haven’t earned the judgment unless we first allow ourselves to assume its sincerity (even when it is clearly an ironic comment). It’s the art world equivalent of “innocent until proven guilty.” Admittedly, it can sometimes be a short trial, but it shouldn’t be a lynching.

It should also be noted that there is a difference between liking a piece of art and appreciating it. We all have tastes and sometimes we like vanilla and don’t like asparagus. But we can recognize that some people love the vegetable. Liking is not a judgment, it is an expression of personal taste. There are many works of art I recognize as important and distinguished but that I have no taste for. I have a personal animus toward all Victorian literature. Can’t stand the stuff. But just because I was put off Dickens by being forced to read Oliver Twist in eighth grade doesn’t mean I think Dickens is no damn good. I just don’t resonate to Victorian writing. I don’t enjoy Browning, either, or Hardy. Liking is merely personal; quality is something else.Holzer

Samuel Coleridge says somewhere in his Biographica Literaria that there is a difference between “gustibus” and “gusti.” De gustibus non est desputandum, he says is merely the personal liking and disliking of something, but taste, he says, is not like that. It can be cultivated and developed.

I remember recoiling at the rather glib statement by artist Jenny Holzer that “Money creates taste.” That should be, “Money creates fashion.” Taste is something else. Just ask Donald Trump.

Taste requires engagement. Spending time and effort. It is not a question of academic degrees, but willingness and openness; and an ability to forget the myriad conventional categories we have been ground down by. Art that is unfamiliar is usually art that is going somewhere beyond the norm, and invites us to go with it.stella-flowers-italy-1931-copy

So, if you don’t recognize value in the four panels of color on the wall, this should be a sign that you should stop and plan to spend an hour with it trying to figure out what the artist might be attempting that you cannot understand with the speed and alacrity you might get the punchline of a New Yorker cartoon. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2014/07/10/how-to-look-at-a-painting/ )

Engagement — not in the Sartrean political sense, but in the sense of spending your time and attention — is the bottom line both in making art and in perceiving it. Let it absorb you as you absorb it. Seek the pleasure in the simplest things, such as the green; not just any green, but this very specific green. Taste it in your eye. For the time you stand in front of it, let the painting or sculpture, or installation, be everything in the world, a funnel into which you pour your whole life experience, and let it come back out in a torrent.

Obviously, you won’t get the big reward every time. Some art is thin gruel. But you should never just assume it is pabulum. It just may prove worth your time.

Waterlilies Brookgreen Garden, SC

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — when I was still earning a crust as an art critic, I wrote a nasty review about a painter who had genuinely made me angry. This artist had some currency in the region, and a cadre of fans. I was not one of them.

Some years later, I discovered that the review I wrote had caused the artist to stop painting altogether for five years. When I was  asked if I felt bad about that, I always said, no, I felt I had performed a public service. There was a smugness in my flippancy which I now regret.

Because, now in my senescence, I have become somewhat gentler, and regret the tone of that review, although I cannot gainsay the content. (When I met the artist many years later, when she came to a lecture I was giving — after she had survived not only my review, her hiatus from work and a fight with cancer — she was surprisingly forgiving and said she did not hold the review against me. I don’t know why not.)

She has recovered from her cancer and from my review and recently mounted a new show. She still has her cadre. I wish her well. But I do want to explain my anger. It wasn’t simply the quality of her work, or its purported subject.

I didn’t get angry over her technique, which was rather sloppy — I’m sure her fans call it “spontaneous,” although I took her to task for it. And I didn’t get angry over her popularity. Certainly lots of popular artists are awful, sentimental, shallow — but there are also quite popular artists who are among the best. It’s hard to knock Van Gogh or Monet for being popular, although the general run of popular, in the demotic sense, tends to be in the Thomas Kinkade and LeRoy Neiman or P. Buckley Moss camps.

The sins of this painter I refer to — aside from painting poorly — was that she presented her work as “spiritual,” and surrounded it with all the cliche buzzwords that accompany such pretensions. The show was called “The Lotus as Metaphor,” and it purported to lead us on a spiritual journey.

There is a whole class of artist who gush spiritual, a quality less evidenced in the work, but more in the words they pack around their work. They claim a kind of spirituality and it is usually of the soft-focus kind that blurs all inconvenient edges. Often they pick up the conventional symbols and signs of a religious tradition and use them like bumper stickers. This is mistaking the Völkergedanken for the source.  Not so much spirituality as it is cultural tourism.lily-lotus comparison

The particular show that got my dander up was a series of paintings of “sacred lotus.” The first problem was, she had not painted lotus but waterlilies. Not the same plant, not the same cultural meaning.

It isn’t that I was being pedantic about botanical nomenclature, but that I have noticed over the years that those who wax ecstatic about the spiritual often have such an indifferent relationship with the real.

The lotus (genus Nelumbo) has a different growth pattern, leaf shape and flower — to say nothing of cultural meaning — than the more common water lily (Nymphaea). The painter’s plants were not clearly drawn, but they grew more like Nymphaea, have the heart-shaped leaves of Nymphaea and the flowers of Nymphaea.

This may seem like caviling, but I firmly believe that before you start jumping on the otherworldly bandwagon, you should learn something about this world. This retreat into “spirituality” evidences a certain medieval contempt for the world that is not earned. In fact, as any dedicated artist knows, looking closely at something, as when you draw it with total concentration, will lead you to the edge of mystical experience. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/21/apple-of-my-eye/ ) Without the commitment to this world, you cannot break on through to the other side.

Rather than starting with the here and now and taking the path to eternity, the artist seemed content with the road map. She approached spirituality from the exterior, with not a hint of introspection. She started — and ended — with the public symbol — borrowed though it be from an alien public — instead of finding a fresh, direct and personal symbol that might express personal experience. Borrowed profundity isn’t profound. It is hearsay.

That kind of facile pontificating on “harmony with nature” and “celebrating the joyousness of life” is what I call “Mah-jong mysticism,” the kind that seems to satisfy bored middle-class housewives with too much time on their hands. Surely one should be suspicious of any warm and fuzzy mysticism that tells us only what we want to hear. And make no mistake, this sort of thing is usually quite self-congratulatory.

In fact, after seeing these paintings, I’m not convinced the artist has ever had a mystical experience more profound than the buzz from white wine at a gallery opening. The artist wore the word “spiritual” the way some coffeehouse poets used to wear berets.

The paintings were like third- or fourth-generation color Xerox copies of Monet waterlilies, with all the subtlety of color and drawing sucked out. Indeed, my initial response was generated by the effrontery of copying Monet so blatantly and yet so ineptly.

It isn’t that waterlilies aren’t a perfectly good subject, but for many of these paintings, the painter adopted the same angle of view, the same distance from her subject and the same loose, scumbly brushwork that is so familiar from Monet. The debt was too obvious.

monet waterlilies st louis

monument valley 2It was as if she hadn’t looked at waterlilies at all, but looked at Monets instead. This is secondhand experience, like reading the Cliff Notes instead of the book. If she had looked at waterlilies intently and followed them down into the depths of her mind and heart, she might have painted something astonishing. That’s what Monet did. But imitating the look of Monet is no better than standing at the visitor center of Monument Valley and photographing the Mitten Buttes, thinking you have equaled Ansel Adams.

Her art mimicked the words and images that have conventional currency among those who bask in what is held to be spirituality. But those words and images have less to do with genuine spirituality than they have to do with conventionality. They are like gamepieces in a board game with all the rules known and understood, at least by the initiates. They are Tarot cards, ouija boards, seance knocks, and are at root just as fraudulent.

All this might well provoke a bad review in the local newspaper, but it might not, in any other critic, provoke anger. My reaction was not merely to the work on the gallery walls, but to an entire class of thought, a class that seems to me to be cheating. I felt cheated. Here the world is all around you, a vast forest of burning bush speaking “I am that I am,” and yet the artist does not see it, but rather gives us the names of metaphors other people have used to describe the ineffable. I have always called this “imitation art,” not just imitation of already existing art, but imitation of the origin and purpose of the genuine article. It is a variety of “play-pretend,” and avoids the real work of art to give us instead a pale simulacrum.

The deep roots of art is a profound love for the things of this world. Not ideas about things, but the things themselves. We live so much by habit and fail to notice what is about us. Not merely raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, not just birdsong and clouds, but the smell of hot tar on the road, the hurt of a stubbed toe, the layer of dust on the enamel gloss of a car hood. And not solely the physical manifestations of the world, but the inner workings as well, the emotions and sensations, the perceptions and the occasional borborygmus. That is, the entire world filtered through your sensibility. It is only when you are not aware of the world and the things of the world that you find existence so drab and monotonous that you need to invent a bogus “spirit” world to revitalize your life, to make it — and you — feel special.

hare krishnaThose who see “auras,” read horoscopes and feel the cold presence of “emanations,” seem precisely those who are incapable of finding the transcendent in fleas or sphagnum moss. Those who wear yellow robes in downtown Cleveland and chant “Om” are not actually connecting with the source, but with an imitation of it. The Edgar Cayce-ites, the crystal gazers, the astral-projectionists and clearers of engrams, seem not aware of or interested in the fact that the ordinary world given us is astonishing enough on its own. Nothing they have come up with matches the weirdness of an elephant or coconut or the shimmering skin of a squid.

I suspect any use of such buzz words as “energies,” “toxins” or “healing.” They are bogey-words, intended to invest their users with a sacerdotal shine. You can have Atlantis; I’ll take the Bronx. I can predict what  you will find in Atlantis — such things are defined by the conventions of the occult, and seldom vary much — but I could never predict what I might find on any house on any street in the Bronx, or in any city. The real world is too varied and multifarious and constantly challenges our expectations.

cezanne

So, I say, look at those apples and pears in the Cezanne painting, look at the roofs and olive trees in the Van Gogh, or hear the birdcalls transmogrified in Messiaen’s music, or regard the madeleine in Proust. Engage with the world, become engorged with it, swallow it whole, let it illuminate your inner life and become the passageway to transcendence. All of it, good and bad, joyful and hurtful, fulfilling and frustrating, pointed and aimless.

It is inexhaustible and inextinguishable.

two old men

Which of these portraits is more realistic?

One is a photograph and the other a Roman portrait bust. One might choose either one over the other, although I suppose most people would choose the photo. But in what sense are either of these “realistic?”

(For the purposes of this argument, you should imagine an actual photograph, on paper, held in your hand, not the digital image you see on your screen — for which there is a whole different set of problems. And the portrait bust, think of as the real stone sculpture, on a plinth in a museum.)

The photograph is in black and white; reality is in color. The photograph is flat; reality is rounded. If you walked around to the back of the photograph, you would not find the back of this man’s head; in reality, you would.

Further, the photograph is rectangular and framed by its edges; reality has no such frame. Looking at a photograph, we hardly notice the frame.

The sculpture is three-dimensional, which might give it a leg up on the photo, but the sculpture is also monochromatic. Worse, it has no pupils in the eyes, which makes it a little eerie. True, you can walk around to its back and see the rest of its tonsure, but that hair is stone, which is unlike real hair, except during the ’50s, when hairspray lacquered the head down into something brittle. Take its temperature, and it will not be 98.6, but room temperature.

Neither the photo nor the bust has a body attached, which would be  very uncomfortable in real life.

The fact is, that both forms of art are highly conventionalized. We take them as “realistic,” when, in fact, they are merely conventional. We tend to let our conventions fall invisible; we hardly notice them.

picasso self portraitThe photograph might be an 8X10 glossy, but the head in the photo would be miniature compared to the man’s real head. How is a tiny figure on a flat piece of paper said to be realistic? You can fit a whole city on an 8X10 glossy; try that with the real Philadelphia. The only way to do that is to accept the conventions and then let the disappear.

You can go on listing unrealities: The photo and bust are motionless. The men portrayed most certainly were not. They also made sounds — I’m sure they they each spoke to their portraitists while they were being immortalized. And they probably had characteristic smells about them. More, they each had thoughts that cannot be read in the images.

Yet, compared to a Picasso painting, we take these as realistic images. We ignore all the counter-indications and lock on to the few things we wish to accept.

duane hansonEven a Duane Hanson sculpture, which might fool us as we first enter the gallery, eventually gives itself away by never moving.

Every culture has these conventions. Consider the standard ancient Egyptian figure, turned into contortions so that we see both arms and both feet, yet the head turns profile because we need to know the nose sticks out from the face. Somehow, though, the eye is drawn as if head-on. The convention insists on things we know — like two arms and two legs — rather than things we see — like foreshortening and overlapping. To an Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom, a foreshortened figure would simply be “not true,” since it would obscure facts we know — like two arms and two legs.

ukiyo e mie pose actor pictureOr consider a cultural convention that seems to Western eyes truly bizarre — or at least comic. In the Japanese woodblock print, images of popular actors were often portrayed in the Mie Pose, which means giving them crossed eyes. To us, crossed eyes are silly, but in the Ukiyo-e tradition, they express extreme emotion. Those images were hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries — the equivalent of the Farrah poster from the 1970s, with its own conventional gesture and hairdo.

There are the conventions of Precolumbian cultures and the wonderful circle-and-dot conventions of Northwest Coast Native American cultures.

Each is a way of transposing the living, breathing world into a two- or three-dimensional image that can be understood to embody some version of that world. For us to accept the black-and-white photograph as a realistic depiction of our world, we have to accept and then forget the many conventions behind it.

clock 1But it is not merely art that conventionalizes our sense of the world. Many of the things we take for granted are not rooted in reality or necessity, but are purely conventional. Twenty-four hours in a day? Seven days in a week? There is no good reason, other than convention, that the clock and calendar could not be decimalized, like so many other measurements we now know. A 10-hour day just requires a clock notched out in a new way. Give those extended hours 100 minutes each. Fine. There is nothing about time that requires the division of the day and night into 24. Or a 10-day week, leaving us with a year of 36-and-a-half weeks.

Nor is there reason to add days into weeks, or weeks into months. We could subdivide them entirely differently, say into sub-weeks, or bi-weeks and cut the 36-week year into 9-week divisions, subdivided into 3-week “months.”

There is a lunar and sidereal cycle, but our current conventions don’t actually match up to them, so convention trumps astronomy on the calendar.

I am not suggesting we change our clocks and calendars; convention works just fine. But I am saying we should recognize them merely as conventions. If Ramadan moves around our Julian calendar like a slipped clutch, that’s fine: It’s merely another convention.

We are used to seeing North at the top of a map. How disorienting it can be to see a Medieval map which puts South at the top.

Suits and ties? Convention. Lipstick? Convention. Men in pants, women in skirts? Convention. Just picture Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs standing next to Sean Connery in a kilt. Where are the bloomers and bustles of yesteryear? Conventions change.

Our version of marriage? Convention. There are other ways of organizing families. History is full of them. Patriarchy? Convention. There are perfectly successful matriarchies in the world.

The names of colors are conventional. We could divide and subdivide the spectrum in other ways. Different cultures, in fact, do divide them differently. The same way we think of pink and red as different colors, Russians think of dark and light blue, and have different names for them: Siniy and Goluboy. We could easily make a distinction between “sea green” and “leaf green” and give them distinct names.

colors

chopsticksThe musical scale is now more conventional than ever, as it has been squeezed into the well-tempered system. We now split an octave into 12 semitones; others find five tones in an octave plenty. Indian ragas may need up to 40. All conventions, taken inside their generating cultures as simply “the way things are.”

Why do we eat off round places with knives and forks? Other cultures favor square plates or chopsticks. Three meals a day? Not nutritionally determined. Four does for some; two for others. Compare the French croissant and coffee in the morning with the full English breakfast.

Zuni PuebloOur houses have front and back doors. Ancient Puebloan people did without doors altogether and clambered into their homes from their roofs down ladders.

Poems used to rhyme. Works great in Italian, with all those vowels, a bit harder in English, unknown in most cultures, which may value metrical rules over rhyme, or alliteration instead.

Driving on the right in the U.S.? On the left in the U.K.? Switching from one to the other in Sweden?

We each of us has in our mind a pattern of how we think the world is organized and constructed. Sometimes called the “Umwelt,” it is partly constructed from the ineluctable constraints of reality, such as gravity, light, day, night, hunger, thirst, the horizon and the wetness of the sea — and the rest is made up of convention. We seldom make a distinction between the two, and take the weekend for as natural a thing as we take ripening fruit.

This model of the universe does not feel learned, the way laws have to be learned, but are taken as the natural state of the world. The problem lies when we make prescriptive demands on others based on our private Umwelt. It is what feeds racism, for instance. When you have an internal model of the world that sees one race as superior or inferior, you then create laws requiring others to act according you your inner light (or lack of light). Yet, as we have seen, a good deal of this inner model is nothing but convention. It might be good to examine everything we believe with some skepticism.

Dwight D Eisenhower

I want to make an argument for conservatism. This goes against my nature, because I am not in sympathy with it. Especially now, when conservatism has come to mean unpleasant things like bigotry and nativism. It’s hard to turn on a news channel and not hear some congressman spout such utter rubbish as to make you slap your forehead  in disbelief at the ignorance and hatred displayed.

But I tuned in recently to my favorite TV channel — C-Span — and listened to Dwight Eisenhower in an old kinescope announce his candidacy for president in 1952. He made an argument for the two-party system. Not, “my party is right and the other guys are evil,” but that the parties need each other to prevent us from skidding too far off the road. They are checks and balances for each other. It was such a level-headed and fair speech that I was brought up short: No one today would speak like this.

Eisenhower’s argument was that Democrats had held the presidency for 20 years and it was time to let the pendulum swing back the other way. Not Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority,” but more like children taking turns. “It’s my turn now.”

Power corrupts and switching parties occasionally can sweep away some of the entrenched habits of power. Eisenhower’s plea was not that Republicans were better but that a periodic change is healthy.

But what I’m talking about isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat issue. In Eisenhower’s time, the parties were not so ideologically fractured.

Southern Democrats were hidebound conservatives, and there was a liberal wing of the Republicans. It is true that most Republicans were business friendly and — aside from race — the Democrats were more concerned with “the common man” and social justice. But these were tendencies, not definitions.

I’m concerned not so much with party affiliation but with the philosophies of conservatism and liberalism. Not as they are currently defined, which is a perversion of history; people who call themselves conservative now most often espouse ideas, like “small government” that are historically liberal.

edmund burkeNo, what I mean is a kind of Burkean conservatism. This is a skeptical conservatism that worries that if we dislodge long-established traditions, we may be doing more harm than good, that what we inherited from our forefathers generally worked pretty well, and so we would be foolish to jump on some trendy bandwagon before carefully examining the wheels and axles of that wagon.

Certainly many reform movements have improved the lives of citizens, but reforms may cause as much damage as they repair. Unintended consequences. And what is deemed proper in one age may be later seen as not so. Consider the reforms of Prohibition. How did that work out?

Liberalism may be seen as a foot on the accelerator and conservatism as a foot on the brake.

Ian_PaisleyThe reason I cannot call myself a conservative is the rather tawdry historical record of conservatism. The foot on the brake meant a perpetuation of slavery in the U.S., of Jim Crow laws, and in England the subjugation of Ireland and the survival of aristocratic privilege. It has been the ugliness of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, Ian Paisley or Father Coughlin.

We are currently seeing a resurrection of such ugliness with Donald Trump. But it should be noted that Trump is not a conservative. He is not anything — unless he is a Trumpist. (Has he ever even finished a sentence?) What policy he has espoused is neither consistently liberal or conservative, but uniformly nativist and bigoted. Such attitudes are not inherently conservative. In fact, the real conservative attitude is not “the government is rotten, throw out government,” but rather “we have established government for the stability of society, and we don’t want to change it too fast.” In this, Trump and his followers — understandably angry at the failure of Washington to act like grown-ups — are not conservative, but radical.Wrecking Ball

That is why, although I despise the political positions of House Speaker Paul Ryan, I nevertheless feel sympathy for him as a genuine conservative. How can a conservative look at the proposed dismantling of our institutions and cheer on the wrecking ball?

There is an uglier aspect of conservatism that believes that keeping what you have means keeping the wealth you have accumulated, and when defined in purely economic terms, conservatism looks like selfishness on steroids. But there is a less monetary shade to keeping what you have, when what you have is a system of laws, a set of customs that have lasted some centuries, a religion that you inherited from your grandparents and a set of morals that creates stability. There is value in such things. They have worked in the past.

Politics, when seen correctly, is the contending of disparate interests. It is not the imposition of an ideology on a populace. Two parties jostling back and forth (or in a parliamentary system, many parties) make opposing cases that at any given time speak to one need or another. Neither conservative nor liberal can reach a final answer to our political problems, because those problems keep changing.

What we have now are two parallel but distinct developments. On one hand, there is an increasing self-righteousness both on right and left. One one hand you have the Grover Norquists who believe that all taxation is theft; on the other, you have those who think that all corporations and banks are thieves. These are two contending camps, and when things work properly, they give and take and work things out, leaving no one completely happy.

the-long-gameBut the parallel development in politics is what Mitch McConnell calls in his new book, The Long Game. It is the political version of playing King of the Hill, where the goal is to be on top. Not to govern better or solve problems, but to beat the other guy in a sort of game. Hence McConnell can say his political goal was to make Obama a “one-term president.” It is hardly surprising, then, that voters are fed up with Washington as it now operates — each side trying their best to undo the other. It has meant a great deal of hypocrisy, of Republicans denouncing policies they have come up with if accepted by Democrats. Obamacare was a Republican program initially. If Republicans want smaller government and fewer regulations, that doesn’t seem to obtain to abortion or gay marriage.

This is, it needs to be noted, not a problem of liberal vs. conservative, but of Republican vs. Democrat and the game-playing is unseemly.

We want to scream to all of them: “It’s not a game!

I said I had a difficult time making a case for conservatism, because I don’t feel simpatico with most conservative thought. But I do think we need a counterweight to the sometimes giddy do-goodism of the liberal side of the equation.

The bottom line is we can never solve our problems. We can sometimes ameliorate immediate difficulties, but such solutions are always temporary, to be obviated by some future historical or social development. If we are not aware of that and believe we can fix the machine so it will run smoothly in perpetuity, we will, like the poorly worded Second Amendment, hamstring our progeny.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,838 other followers