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When you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance art brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In 50 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew. 

Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend in art is, there are acolytes and epigones. 

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die. 

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art fades to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept. 

2.

The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learning from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs, and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos. 

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the know of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beads of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance, it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe eight years old, those building burnt down one night in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from the Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant successions wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busyness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was  Raphael and Delacroix on the high end. 

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. It wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it, and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

3.

I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th Century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect. 

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that art over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age, and I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside, I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing was reified into monumentality. Instead, there was the profusion, confusion and organicim that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried the photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. 

I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that show in the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see and click the shutter. 

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. Each chapter in this volume is a single look at a single place, with all the images usually taken in a very short amount of time, a single visit.

For the pictures here, selected from those loose leaves, I have managed to edit them down to a manageable few. Here are a couple, maybe three, images from each of several of those “books.” I hope they still give a flavor of what I have attempted.

4.

If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsberg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.

Click on any image to enlarge

Many years ago, I attended a photo staff meeting at my newspaper and the photo editor was complaining about a picture that a very talented staffer had made. For him, it was too arty.

“This is a newspaper,” he said. “Our photographs must be clear. We cannot have any ambiguity in them. If it is a picture of a house, I want it in the center of the frame, and I want the whole house. Like a real estate photo. We are not making images for a gallery; we are showing readers what the story is about.”

I remember cringing, but I said nothing. I was not on the staff, but just a travel writer who made my own photographs for my stories. I was in the meeting by default. 

The idea that a photograph was merely an illustration to back up words bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Instead of a supplement, I thought of them as amplification. 

Some things can be said better visually than verbally. The photo might very well be able to stand on its own. 

But, in a culture of verbal people — as a newspaper tends to be — a picture is a stand-in for words. You should be able to point to something in the photograph and name it: “House.” The name then, takes over, and any visual information is immediately rendered moot. Very like when you head to a rest room at a McDonald’s and the pictures on the doors tells which one to open. The image becomes a pictogram. 

This is the way many people regard photographs. They look and they name. “Aunt Julia.” “The house I used to live in.” “Niagara Falls.” Then they turn the page in the album. “Here is me at my prom.” 

Much of the visual information in the picture is passed over, not registering. Was that a blue tux at the prom? Did those horn-rim glasses make you look dorky? Were the shoes cropped out of the picture? Can you remember, then, what shoes you wore? 

Details matter. When you name the image rather than see it, you miss the majority of what is pictured; you miss all the pleasures you could enjoy — the colors, shapes, textures — and all the information that is there to mine. I am reminded of those impatient people I have seen in art museums running from painting to painting and reading the tags next to them. “This is a Renoir. Oh, this one is a Picasso.” 

Naming things often gets in the way of seeing them. Naming is a very low form of intellectual activity, but one it is too easy to become proud of. It does not actually indicate your intelligence if you can name ever painting in the gallery, or the make and model of every car you spot on the highway. It just means you can memorize. 

When, before I was a writer, I was a teacher, I would sometimes draw two shapes on the blackboard and ask, “Which of these shapes can you draw more accurately?” Most students would pick the square. It had a name and they could see the square, translate what they saw to a word, and then retranslate that word onto the paper with their pen. In the process, details of the original are obliterated.

Notice that the square here is not a perfect square. It has some sketchy lines and it is not completely closed up, and, in fact, it isn’t even a square, but a low-aspect-ratio rectangle. All of that visual information is expunged when you replace it with the name, “square.” The amorphous shape, on the other hand, would require you to look at it and attempt to follow its contours with your pen, forcing you to pay attention visually. 


Your blob would be drawn more accurately than your square. 

In his groundbreaking book, Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin described the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art with a series of oppositions. Among these is the contrast between art which emphasizes the unity of the whole, which may suppress detail to the benefit of the overall design; and art which revels in a multiplicity of detail, even if it confuses the overall design. 

It isn’t that the classic art doesn’t pay attention to detail. In fact, it often takes pains to make everything equally easy to recognize, well lit, well placed in the frame. But the whole is more important than the parts. 

Balancing that is art that may even obscure some detail to make others more prominent. 

This dichotomy occurs repeatedly in art history — from Classic Greek art to Hellenistic Art, from Renaissance to Baroque, from Neoclassic to Romantic, from Modernism to Postmodernism. In Nietzschean terms, classic and romantic, Apollonian and Dionysian. 

The 20th Century, which we are most recently heir to, unity was valued as supreme. Artists, writer and poets who filled their work with profusion of detail were denigrated. The most concise poets were held superior. Painters who reduced their subject to basic forms were extolled. Musicians who subdued florid detail in order to render the overall form of the music more clear were applauded. They had a “grasp of the structure.” 

The complaint lodged against pianist Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, was that he never fully expressed the form of longer pieces of music, such as sonatas, getting lost in multifarious musical volutes and whorls. Of course, when you listen to the ancient recordings of the great pianists of the early 20th century — an era of romantic piano playing — all of the pianists focused on details. It is where the fun was to be found, the flavor of the ingredients rather than the melange of the whole.  

Romanticism in general relishes the detail, and can often get lost in it. That’s what makes it Romanticism. (Well, one of the things). Detail is where we find the pith, the essential oils, the meat. 

Classic painter Joshua Reynolds taut the “grand style,” and recommended choosing the general over the particular: a stylized tree over the quirky oak in the back yard. Romantic artist William Blake read Reynold’s book and wrote in the margin: “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit.” You can also imagine him chasing kids off his lawn. 

But his point is that the world is made up of details, and meaning is found in them. The collection of details fills out the impression we get from the quick overview. It is the detail that we know the whole. 

Through this essay, I have sprinkled photographs of the details of a house in Maine. It is one I know and love very well. 

If you look closely at them and absorb all the tasty detail, you can have a much fuller understanding, not only of the house, but of the style of Down East Maine, its economy, its culture, the nature that grows green in profusion everywhere. 

Crumbs to make a cake. 

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.

Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”

“Juliet?”

“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is the alpha and omega of music.

It’s one of the few things most musicians agree on. The question is whether to pay attention to the alpha part or the omega part.

For many, he’s the beginning of 250 years of the classical-music tradition: During most of that time, his music was the earliest regularly programmed and, for composers, the model of what good music should be.janus coin

Beethoven called him “the father of us all.”

But for an increasing number of listeners, he just as importantly is the culmination — the end — of the long tradition of polyphonic music dating back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Like the Roman god Janus, he faces both directions at once.

He is the hinge on which the history of music turns, the hinge between early music and our modern tradition.

J.S. Bach was born 325 years ago in the dead center of what now is Germany. In 1685, it was the town of Eisenach in Thuringia.

eisenach 1647

So many of his family were musicians — uncles, cousins, grandparents — that in parts of Germany at the time, Bach was a slang term for musician the way “Einstein” is sometimes used for a scientist. His father was Eisenach’s bandleader.

The young Bach was a spirited fellow — caught once with a girl in the choir loft; another time, he fought a duel in the streets; and later, for another offense, spent a week in jail.

He must have had a very passionate side, given his two wives and 20 children, even in a cold German habitat.

He joined the family business, as it were, and had a series of musical jobs for the rest of his life.thomaskirche leipzig2

His career can be divided into three distinct parts. From age 18 to 32, he was a church organist, mostly in the city of Weimar. From 32 to 38, he wrote secular music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen in Cothen. And from then until his death at 65, he was in charge of all music at St. Thomas Church in Liepzig.

At St. Thomas, he wrote a new sacred cantata every week for five years. About 250 of them survive: They make up a third of his output.

The composer didn’t get around much; few people did back then. All these places were within 50 miles of each other.

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The High Baroque

We call J.S. Bach a Baroque composer, but what does that mean?

Mostly, it means energy, emotion, drama and density.baroque art

From roughly 1600 to 1750, whether it is the painting by Rubens or Rembrandt, the poetry of John Milton or the counterpoint of Bach, Baroque art embraced its own artifice and reveled in florid extravagance.

You can listen to the music of Bach like any other, of course, letting it flow over you. Its tunes are memorable and its rhythms and harmonies are always interesting and pleasurable.

But Bach’s music offers special rewards that you can uncover if you try listening with your attention focused on these three things:bach canonic portrait

* Counterpoint: Much of Bach’s music is written in counterpoint, which means the playing of multiple melodies at the same time, overlapping each other. You can pick the top line and hear it as the “main tune” or you can listen to the subordinate parts and discover a tremendous richness of detail and meaning. Bach wrote many fugues, which are pieces of music in which the same melody overlaps itself in a different key, and races after itself (“fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight,” as in “tempus fugit,” “time flies”). Listening to a fugue is like juggling with your ears.

* Bass line: Bach’s music has a forward movement driven by a clear and distinct bass line. You will find the music opens up for you if, instead of listening to the main tune, you focus on the lowest notes and see where they go: They will always guide where the top melody can settle. The 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms used to cover up the upper staves of music when looking at a new piece of music, and concentrate on the bass line. “That’s how you can tell if the music is good or not,” he said. You learn new things, like the way a football play opens up if, instead of keeping your eye on the quarterback, you follow the left tackle or linebacker.

* Dissonance: Oddly, for music that’s so listener friendly, Bach is one of the most dissonant of composers. It hardly sounds that way, because the sharp conflicts of notes are always resolved into a satisfying and harmonious manner, but the great emotional depth of Bach’s music — and its tremendous sense of humanity — comes in part from his use of dissonance as a metaphor for human suffering. (In an experiment, you might play one of Bach’s chorale hymn settings, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and play only the offbeats — it will sound surprisingly like Schoenberg.)

One of the canards about Bach’s music is that it is somehow academic and mathematical; the truth is, he was all over the map.

There is a core of irrationality in Bach’s music, a Dionysian freedom: You never know where he’s going next.

When Bach was working, music for church or concerts was polyphonic; that is, written not so much as a melody with accompaniment but as multiple melodies played one on top of the other to make a single whole.

Bach had an astonishing facility for combining separate lines and overlapping melodies with themselves, sometimes at different speeds at the same time, sometimes turning a melody upside down or playing it backwards.

There are worlds within worlds, and the contradiction of seeming to be the epitome of both order and spontaneity.WTC prelude 1

His music may have wheels spinning inside wheels, but it’s always surprising, like the C-minor prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which begins with a repeated rhythmic figure, unchanging over a constantly shifting harmony, but about three-quarters of the way through, he simply gives up on the pattern and takes off on a flourish of notes like a skyrocket spinning in air, and just when you get comfortable with that, he settles into a melismatic cadence that keeps promising to come to a rest but refuses to stop.WTC prelude 2

Or that moment in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto where everyone stops for fully five minutes to let the keyboard wander off on its own for a brilliant cadenza, essentially a rhapsody on a dominant pedal, that seems to find every possible permutation of its ideas, before the orchestra re-enters to conclude the piece.

Barroca

The word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, and it was initially applied to the art of the period as an insult, by the calmer minds of the era that followed.

The history of art is an alternation of periods that idealized order and simplicity with a succeeding age that valued emotion and drama. The Renaissance calm gave way to a Baroque frenzy, just as the Neo-classical stability of Haydn and Mozart gave way to the Romantic yearning of Berlioz or Wagner.Greek sculptures

You can find this alternation as far back as you want: The Hellenic stasis of the Parthenon frieze in ancient Greece gave way to the wild extravagance of Hellenistic sculpture of the time of Alexander the Great, with its writhing figures and tortured faces. The dour Romanesque of the early Middle Ages gave way to the bustling aspiration of the Gothic.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche named the guiding spirits of the alternating eras Apollonian and Dionysian. They also are called Classic and Romantic.

Perhaps one of the reasons the music of Bach speaks to us again so strongly, through the newer interpretations, is that we’re currently entering another era of Baroque sensibility. The virtues of Bach’s time are re-emerging: variety and diversity rather than unity, the recycling of artistic material — Bach was not afraid to reuse material; he was one of the original samplers — and a mixing of high and low cultures. Bach used dance rhythms as the basis of much of his music, the way Duke Ellington and Chubby Checker might have.

(A modern version of the Baroque suite, with its allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, might be an orchestral suite made up of a fox-trot, a waltz, a tango and a Charleston.)

Postmodernism has become a neo-Baroque, and Bach is speaking our language once more.

brilliant bach

Bach-Werke Verzeichnis

Bach’s output was enormous: The complete works fill 155 CDs in one collection. There are more than a thousand numbered compositions, running from music for solo violin to grand vocal works for multiple choruses and orchestras. Half the music was written for church services.

Much of the music is among the best known and dearest loved in the repertoire. Even those with no interest in classical music know his Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor for organ — it’s played endlessly every Halloween — and the Prelude to his first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello can be heard in several television commercials, including one for American Express.

His music connects with a lot of different audiences.bach at organ horizontal color copy

Culture wars

The problem is, there are two primary constituencies for the music of Bach, and the difference between them might as well be between red states and blue states: It’s a culture war.bach statue 2

The older tradition plays a beautiful Bach, with long, flowing melodic lines and a profoundly emphasized bass line, with clearly delineated harmonies. It is the Bach that for many, including Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, “is the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”

The composer Debussy said, “Bach is our lord of music. Every composer would do well to pray to him before commencing work.”

This is the Bach we inherited, thick with 250 years of performance tradition. It is Bach as the Alpha of our music. For this contingent, Bach is something universal, primordial, fundamental: Homer in music, or Shakespeare.

The name Bach in German means “brook” or “stream.” “He is not a brook,” Beethoven punned. “He is an ocean.”

But that’s the Bach who is the first modern composer; there’s a rising contingent that views him instead as the culmination of a century and a half of an older music tradition — The Omega. It is a Baroque style of playing completely at odds with the traditional symphonic approach.

The younger tradition mistrusts such grand religio-philosophical interpretations as pretentious piffle. And for them, as for the conductor Arturo Toscanini, “Tradition is just the last bad performance.” They want to clean the browned varnish from Bach and find the bright colors underneath.

These new historically informed performance-practice people want to dance, dance, dance, and they emphasize the rhythm and up the tempo, sometimes approximating speed metal.kimberly marshall

“Sometimes the tempi have become absurd,” says organist Kimberly Marshall. “You’d think you were playing your LP at 78 rpm, like the Energizer Bunny or something.”

The revisionists quote poet Ezra Pound, who famously averred that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance.”
And they believe they’re performing the music in a more authentic way, meaning, the way Bach would have performed it himself. Usually, on the musical instruments that Bach would have known: valveless horns and trumpets, oboes with few keys, wooden flutes and short-necked violins with light bows. They strive to recreate the sound that would have resounded in Bach’s ear.

And this is the sticking point: Like believers in competing religions, their dogmas are irreconcilable. Whose ear is more important? Bach’s ear or the contemporary listener’s ear? After all, we can never have 18th-century ears. Too much has happened since.

“The loudest sound Bach would have heard might have been a door slamming,” says conductor Benjamin Rous, who began his career leading the Boston Baroque Ensemble at Harvard University. “If you wanted to give our listeners the experience that Bach had, you’d have to create a world without the last two centuries of history.” So, pick your side and make your argument.
hamlet burton

“It’s like politics,” says cellist Blythe Tretick of the trio Paradisa. “You get into some pretty heated discussions about these things. You can’t win, because it’s a matter of taste.”

Unexamined through all this is the basic premise that music should reflect the composer’s intent. It’s taken as an axiom. But few people are asking why. We don’t insist that Shakespeare be performed outdoors, with boys playing the women’s parts and with the rhetorical delivery of its actors. We don’t blanch at Richard Burton playing Hamlet in suit and tie.

So why do we argue over whether Bach’s musicians played with a vibrato or not? Shouldn’t the music be played to mean the most to modern audiences, the way we do with Hamlet? How much is composer’s intention and how much merely the limitations and conventions of his age? And is a performance something alive, or a museum piece under a vitrine?

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Perhaps this is the underlying truth of the historical-performance people: Unacknowledged by them, they aren’t so much re-creating historical fact as reflecting contemporary taste. We have grown up with a popular music based on rhythm and energy, so we may well now prefer our Bach the same way. Perhaps our ears are attuned to the virtues of Creedence Clearwater Revival bach with electric guitarand feel more comfortable with a Bach that sounds very like it.

And, too, after a violent century, we have become a little more circumspect about claiming the great philosophical ideas and universal truths we found in Bach’s music and that too often justified war and genocide. We have been humbled into seeking a more modest music.

Yet, the emotional and spiritual profundity is there, goading us into recognizing that if the current age is modest, the universe is still infinite, and someone with the genius to write the Mass in B-minor or the St. Matthew Passion is a brilliant mirror to that something bigger than our paltry selves.

You pays your money and takes your choice

Both styles of Bach performance are generously represented on CD. Arkivmusic.com lists more than 5,700 recordings.stern st. john pair

You might compare the recording of his violin concertos by Isaac Stern (old style) with those by Lara St. John (new style). You’ll get whiplash going from the first to the second.gould copy

The older style is warmer and richer; the newer style is bouncier and more rhythmic — and a whole lot faster. Discover which performance tradition speaks best to you.

One CD everyone should own is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” It’s not only one of the greatest Bach performances on disc, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all times: exuberant, manic in places, and with its counterpoint always clear. It has never been out of print. It’s neither old school nor new school: It is Gould school. Sui generis.

Here are other recordings to check out.

3 traditional recordings you can’t do without

old bach trio

* “Bach: The Great Solo Works,” with Rosalyn Tureck, piano. Tureck was a Bach specialist, and here she shows just how Baroque the composer could be, in a disc of lesser-known works. A must-have.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, conductor. This is old-style Bach, including a piano instead of a harpsichord in the Fifth Concerto (played by the great Rudolf Serkin).

* “Well Tempered Clavier, Book I,” with Daniel Barenboim, piano. Barenboim uses all the possibilities of the piano — pedal, arpeggios, strong bass notes — to make a heroic performance of this iconic music.

Revisionist Bach

new bach trio

* “Six Suites for Violoncello Solo,” with Anner Bylsma, cello. The music is played on a Baroque-style cello (the Stradavarius “Servais” instrument from the Smithsonian Institution) and shows it off at its best.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Harnoncourt is one of the leaders of the “original instruments” movement, and he buffs up and shines Bach’s chestnuts with a fresh vision.

* “Bach Cantatas,” with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Ton Koopman, conductor. This DVD includes performances of five of Bach’s church cantatas, including the famous Nos. 140 and 147 — with the chorus “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and his secular “Coffee Cantata,” which was essentially a singing commercial for the composer’s favorite coffeehouse.

Bottom line

The fact is, the music is so strong, so compelling, so moving — so graceful and so inevitable — that almost any performance will leave you in awe of the imagination and humanity of the grumpy little burger who wrote it.

It hardly matters if its the clever intertwining of voices in a Two-part Invention or a cantata in praise of a good cup of coffee or the cosmic agony of the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. graph

A former editor of mine created a little mind-game of an intellectual Cartesian co-ordinate system. Up and down its ordinate you map a person’s depth — how profoundly he or she can think and feel, and avoid cliche and generalization, with maybe Justin Bieber on one end and, say, Nelson Mandela near the other. And along its perpendicular abscissa you can map a person’s “width,” or how broad are his or her interests and competence.

There are people with great depth in a narrow band. They have a Ph.D. and know everything there is about the design of active site-directed irreversible enzyme inhibitors, but never heard of the infield fly rule. And there are those with a tiny dabs of knowledge in a very wide field — “Jack of all trades but master of none” — but very few, as my old boss pointed out, that score in both depth and width.

There is Shakespeare; there is Homer; there is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Alpha and Omega.

 

Selva Oscura

WHEN you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance iart brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan, Achilles or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd-instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In my 50 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew.Old photos

Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend is in art, there are acolytes and epigones.

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die.

In a sense, when you are young, you test your life against the art you know and love, to see whether you measure up to it; when you are older, this turns around, and you test the art against your life, to see whether the art measures up.

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art faces to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept.

Week's Bay Bog Alabama

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The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learned from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos.

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me, trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the know of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.Crab Apples Sullivan Maine

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beds of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe 8 years old, those buildings burnt down one night in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant succession wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.Buxton Sedge, Hatteras NC

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busy-ness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was Raphael and Delacroix on the high end.

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. I wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th-century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it, and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

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NDP60I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of the experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect.

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age. And I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.friedlander montreal

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing we reified into monumentality. Instead there was the profusion, confusion and organicism that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried the photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that showing the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see and click the shutter.Back Bay, Virginia Beach, Va

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.book cover

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. When I visit a garden, I vacuum it all into my lens and after processing them, spread the images out in a series. You can see the results in a book preview for Gardens/Paradisi, a book I created on Blurb.com. The whole thing is there to see via “preview.” You can find it (and buy it, if you have that much excess money) at: http://www.blurb.com/b/607398-gardens-paradisi.

For the pictures in that book, selected from those loose leaves, I have had to edit them down to a manageable few. Most of these “books” have been turned into chapters of either 9 or 15 images. I hope they still give a flavor of what I have attempted. You can find more in the other books I have made and available at Blurb.com.Giverny 3

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If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsburg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.Doug's Garden