Tag Archives: goya

apple cut

Have you ever been in love? Do you love chocolate?

Do you love your mother? Do you love heavy metal music? The smell of dew in newly cut grass? Perhaps you love irony.dinner knife

We toss the word ”love” around as if it meant only one thing, but love of Monday Night Football is significantly different from Tristan’s love for Isolde. We use the same word, but we mean different things.

It’s the same way with ”art.” The tiny trigram covers an enormous range, from late Beethoven quartets to the design on your dinner knife. And then we have trouble defining it, because we are looking for one single definition that will fit all cases. It should be no surprise that we can’t find it.

The problem with discussing art is that one person’s Rembrandt is the next person’s Hershey bar.elvis 2

So when I write that black-velvet Elvis paintings simply aren’t art, I’m guilty of hyperbole. Of course that is art. It just isn’t good art.

(There are some people who believe that ”bad art” is an oxymoron. Or as my late friend, the great Dimitri Drobatschewsky, used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad art; if it is bad, it isn’t art.”)

Working on the assumption that art requires ability, they make the analogy that bad art isn’t art the same way ”bad ability” isn’t ability.

Yet, there is a very wide range of abilities. Can we discount Henri Rousseau because he didn’t have the technique of Raphael? Surely it still deserves the name of art. And how about Jeff Koons’ basketballs floating in a fish tank? mbulu nguluHow much craftsmanship did that require? And yet, if it isn’t art, what the hell is it? Surely the definition of art is broad and deep.

If we attempt to be inclusive, if we attempt to find a definition that covers Rembrandt, Shakespeare, the prints that hang on a motel-room wall, the designs cut into a Western belt, the mbulu-ngulu figure of Africa and shakuhachi music from Japan, things get murky.

But that is only because we have set an impossible task: finding that illusive single definition for art.


Yet, if we step back and attempt to see art as a whole rather than attempt to make a polemical case for our favorite corner of the art universe, we can begin to see at least the general outline of the subject. It also becomes clear that art must have a four-sided definition: The whole can be divided in half from side to side, or from front to back.

Sliced from side to side, there are two apple-halves of art.

First, there is the decorative side of art. Whether it is racing stripes on a car or a landscape over the sofa, art of this order attempts to make our lives more graceful. We use it to decorate our lives and the things of our lives.

On a more serious note, it is art that is a palliative against the abrasiveness of living. If we must suffer in love and business, we should be able to escape that in art. Hence, Broadway musicals.bass buckle

On the simplest level, it is the shape of your belt buckle, the color you choose for your Toyota, the typeface of your letterhead.

On a more refined level, it is Monet painting mural-size pictures of waterlilies for the Orangerie.

Overall, it is the sense that beauty is somehow the opposite of life and that art should embrace beauty and turn its back on pain and suffering, or at least idealize them and therefore freeze them into powerlessness.disasters of war


But the other apple-half wants us to engage with life, complete with all its sufferings, frustrations and complexities. This view recognizes that art is a means we use to come to terms with life. All of life.

It says that art is the test we give to truth. As science confronts fact, art confronts truth. In this sense, art distinguishes between the genuine and counterfeit, the possible from the impossible, the passion from the sentimentality, the moral from the moralistic.

Art is in some sense a virtual reality, a model of the world that we can use, as an airplane designer uses his computer model or a climatologist uses his, to test our version of reality.

In another way of putting it, art isn’t the opposite of reality, but in fact, art creates reality.

It is one of the often overlooked verities that without art to picture what the world looks and feels like, we would not be able to see or feel the world at all.

The worlds of sensation and emotion are so infinitely complex, such a swirling mass of input, that we are forced to filter the information and organize it to make sense of it. Art is the means by which we do this.


Egyptian figuresIt is the cumulative power of all our arts that defines our culture and its view of reality. The arts create civilization and not the other way around.

The style differences between cultures are not questions of fashion and taste but of how those cultures decide to see the world.

An ancient Egyptian wall painting, with its stylized poses and almond eyes, probably looked as real to the ancient Egyptians as a Renaissance painting looks to us.

Because we are not part of that culture, we can spot the artifice on the pharaoh’s tomb, but are harder pressed to see the distortion and artificiality of Renaissance perspective. But it is just as schematic, just as false as the Egyptian. Always, the image that falls on your retina is different from the image that forms in your mind. Art is how we learn to transform the one into the other.Waiting-for-Godot

From this view, art is the discovery or creation of meaning and order from the chaos of perception and experience.

And that is why some people prefer Waiting for Godot over The Odd Couple. Godot feels more true.

With the apple sliced this way, the argument is Vladimir and Estragon vs. Felix and Oscar.


Ah, but if we slice the apple from front to back, we have a completely different argument on our hands.

This one asks, ”Is art a noun or a verb?”

If art is a noun, then it is an artifact. Seen this way, the art is the painting on the wall, the poem on the page. Art is what the artist creates, what is left when the artist walks away.

But if art is instead a verb, it is seen as the process that creates the painting. In this view, the finished canvas is only a byproduct of the art.

In this view, what counts is what the artist learns in the process of making the art. A residue of what he learns is evident in the resultant poem, painting or symphony, and an attentive audience, as they experience the art, must in essence re-create the journey the artist took.

This view requires rather more effort on the part of the audience. When the process becomes the point, the viewer cannot remain a couch potato.

It is what we mean when we say a certain play or piece of music is ”difficult.” It is art as hard work.

Art as noun leads to a scholar’s view of art, or a connoisseur’s. All one needs to possess it is a large enough bank account.

But with art as a verb, you cannot have it unless you earn it through your own emotional and intellectual barn paint by number


So let us reassemble the apple and see if all art can be encompassed in its sphere. Here is a provisional definition of art:

Art is something made by human hand or mind, or the making of something by hand or mind, that graces our lives or the things of our lives with beauty; or the same thing that explores experience and attempts to discover or create meaning. That meaning can be personal or communal, spiritual or perceptual, emotional or intellectual.

I have no doubt that there is a worm in this apple, and I encourage readers to search for it. If this definition is where I light for the moment, I am not unaware that the problem of coming to terms with art has remained difficult through the eons. But maybe this short explication sets the mark as high as I can stretch for the time.

It is as Sappho once wrote: ”Like an apple ripening on an upper branch, passed over by apple pickers — no, not passed over, but too high to reach.”

Memo:031a venus di milos


— Art can teach us to see

— Art can grace the ugliness

— Art can be used to express the mythology we believe in

— Art can be the note pad of the unconscious

— Art can be propaganda

— Art can be merchandise

— Art can be a value judgment

— Art can investigate the nature of reality

— Art can unify the senses and the intellect

— Art can be a means of causing meditation or contemplation

— Art can give names to things that have no names

— Art can illustrate a text, adding emotional resonance or clarity

— Art can give us roots

— Art can give us a past

— Art can be used to enforce a political agenda

— Art can be a means of recapturing what we think we have lost

— Art can establish class distinctions

— Art can be the satisfaction of form

— Art can be misunderstood and still be effective

— Art can be subversive, but not on a political level

— Art can be evidence of maturing taste

— Art may raise your IQ

— Art can be wealth

— Art can be instruction

— Art can be substitute language (including international symbols)

— Art can be fashion

— Art can be design

— Art can be secret communication

— Art can be an exploration of the non-verbal

— Art can be anything beyond the primary body needs

— Art can make a fetish from simple body needs: a certain way of eating

— Art can encompass everything mental, as opposed to physical

— Art can be packaging

— Art can be comic, lyric, epic or dramatic

— Art can lie to us profoundly

— Art can yank our chains

— Art can provide models for behavior

— Art can clarify something insufficiently clear in words

— Art can be the codification of values

— Art can unseat old values

— Art can be creation of order in a chaotic universe

— Art can be creation of chaos in an orderly society

— Art can unify a culture

— Art can separate elements of the culture

— Art can be as rigorous as physics

— Art can be as sloppy as mud wrestling

— Art can heal a wounded psyche

— Art can open wounds

— Art can be the object hanging on the wall

— Art can be the process that makes the object

— Art can be the means of defining the ego

— Art can be the means of defining the culture

— Art can be the communal experience of audience

— Art can be singular experience

— Art can provide an entree into the past

— Art can provide the key to understanding an alien culture

— Art can amuse us

— Art can bore us

— Art can be craftsmanship

— Art can make magicrousseau

gojira over the sea

Who knew Godzilla was an art film?

Those of us who grew up on the American re-edit with Raymond Burr jimmied in remember it most fondly as one of the campier entries in the 1950s-era giant mutant monster genre: Godzilla: King of the Monsters. A man in a rubber dinosaur suit stomps on a model-train layout, crushing cardboard buildings.

That version, released in 1956 and badly — even comically — dubbed, was aimed at kiddies and the drive-in market. The basic story is familiar, recycled not merely from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), but from older classics such as King Kong (1933) and the 1925 silent film Lost World. In all of these, a dinosaur or other prehistoric monster is found alive in modern times, wreaking havoc on a major city until it is subdued by modern science or a well-equipped military. gojira with bridges

Godzilla, played over and over on TV, became a classic of its genre, but we all sensed that underneath, there was a Japanese original that we never knew. It was rumored to be a quite different film, and now that is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and cleaned up by the people at Criterion, with a new transcription of its title — Gojira — we can see for ourselves.

The real models for Gojira were Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the more recent (at the time) case of the Japanese tuna fishing boat Lucky Dragon Five, which was caught downwind of the U.S. Castle Bravo nuclear test at the Bikini Atoll.

It is a revelation: Ishiro Honda’s original film (in Japanese and subtitled) is a moving anti-war and anti-nuclear parable, and its intended audience is adult, not juvenile.

The film is still a victim of its minuscule budget, and some special effects are laughable — hardly more sophisticated than in a Gumby cartoon — and not all the acting passes muster. But these faults can also be found in the rarefied art films of both Pier Paolo Pasolini and the fountainhead of Italian Neorealism, Roberto Rossellini.

In fact, Honda’s film shares a visual aesthetic with Rossellini — the style is meant to be almost documentary. And the style serves the subject well: This isn’t a monster film, but a film about the devastation and suffering of war. mothers and children duo

Made only eight years after the end of World War II, the effects of the incendiary bombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were even fresher in Japanese minds than the World Trade Center is now in American minds. When the Japanese audience saw Gojira in 1954, they saw a vision of cities flattened and burning, with hundreds, thousands of maimed people on stretchers in bandages, waiting for care and moaning in pain. It must have raised the hair on their necks.gojira burning city

The scenes in the movie are lingered over — and largely trimmed out of the American version — and they are accompanied not by the rapid pulse of a Hollywood sound score to pump up our energy level, but by the elegiac strains of funeral music. The score, by composer Akira Ifukube, is one of the great film scores of all times, deeply affecting; it’s hard to hear it, even without the visual, without a profound sadness welling up from inside.

In Hollywood thrillers, people may die by the boatload, but there are seldom corpses to clear away. They are somehow forgotten about. Not in Gojira. They are in our face.two colossuses

Gojira winds up being a metaphor of war and its horror, much like Picasso’s Guernica. And the first time we see Gojira, looming over a hillside, he looks uncannily like Francisco Goya’s late dark painting, Colossus, in which a giant stalks the war-torn countryside.

A break in filming

A break in filming

The original film was 98 minutes long. The American version chopped out nearly half of it and reinserted the refilmed Burr footage, usually talking to a stand-in for one of the Japanese stars, seen only from the back. Even with the new footage, the American version is only 79 minutes long.

The DVD includes both versions and fascinating extras, like a description of the “Godzilla suit” used to create the monster.

The original film should be seen by anyone who cares deeply about cinema. It isn’t the joke we thought it was. It is art.

fighting for peace 1950

Politics and art; oil and water; Mitch McConnell and charisma.

Like alternate universes, the oppositions seem utterly irreconcilable.

”The only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters P and O,” the late poet Joseph Brodsky once quipped.

Yet, there are clearly many cases of political art. Much of the world’s greatest art, from the Antigone to Angels in America, has concerned politics.

So when I say art and politics are death to each other, what I mean is not politics as a subject — anything in life is fit subject for art — but politics as a lens, as dictator of what is permissible. If you have a political ax to grind, don’t try hacking tree stumps with it, hoping to make a masterpiece.

Another way of looking at it is that there are two types of political art.

The good and the bad.

If you are politically inclined, good political art is art that advances your ideology, and bad art is anything else. This was the inspiration for most Socialist Realism, and it’s making a comeback in a raft of forgettable politically correct art and theater.

But if you are aesthetically inclined, the good and bad are not defined by ideology but by aesthetic persuasiveness. Does the work ring true?

Politics itself can be seen as two separate, almost incompatible things. On the basic level, politics is the acquisition and use of power. It is a basic characteristic of humanity. Politics on this level can be used for ill or good. It is not a thing about which a value judgment can be made. Like gravity, it just is.

But to too many people, ”politics” means political theory. It means not the way things are, but the way things should be. Life should be more fair, the aristocracy should rule, power to the people, a flat tax will solve all ills. Name your poison. human pyramid

When American politics works as it is supposed to, factions promote their causes and compromise is reached. The result is a continuous tension of interests, like a human pyramid in the circus.

But when ideology takes over, compromise is seen as an evil. Through the ideological lens, there is only one truth and everything else will lead to ruin. This is equally the case with Marxists and the Christian right.

”One law, one God, one king,” as William Blake has it. You are either with us or against us.

So, lost in the discussion is the fact that when we say something is ”political art,” we mean two very different things. On one side, there is partisan art, which takes a political stand and uses the art to proselytize. It is the art of the street theater, meant to persuade — although more often than not, its audience has already signed on, so its purpose really is to reinforce beliefs already held. socialist realism

At its worst, partisan art is Nazi and Soviet propaganda; at its best, it is Brecht. Always, it is didactic, and more often than not, it is forgotten by the following year. Name a Socialist Realist painter, I challenge you.

But art may approach political questions from another direction:

There is an art that is interested in the ironies and passions of politics, in its human toll, not its theories.

Partisan art is interested in answers, certainty and action; the other direction is interested in questions, ambiguity and contemplation.

The problem is that ideology is system, and systems are dehumanizing. It matters not whether it is left- or right-wing. The machine is supreme: We measure success not in human terms, but by whether it adheres to theory. Read any Marxist criticism and you will see such. Or listen to a House Republican talking about the National Endowment for the Arts.

In both cases, the question is whether the art is orthodox — does it adhere to the party line.

It is a mark of critic John Berger’s intelligence that his Marxist theory inevitably leads to gibberish and double talk. He must wind up saying something patently silly or else he must ultimately abandon the theory.

People simply do not act the way Marxist theoreticians say they do; neither do they act the way capitalist theoreticians say. Humans are much more complex, much more contradictory.

No, art, if it is to last, must concern itself with the human, not the system.

Goya’s Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even Homer’s Iliad, all approach political questions from a human point of view.

So do Citizen Kane and Oliver Stone’s Nixon. And so does Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. It does not take a stand on one side or the other; rather, it allows each side to say its piece, incompatible as those sides may be.

Such art examines the possibilities and tests them against the human heart.

Such art is dedicated to this one human truth: There is always a larger context.

Compare Maria Irene Fornes’ A Conduct of Life with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. The first deals with the rape of a 12-year-old girl; it knows who the villains are and what we should think of them, and it tells us in no uncertain terms.

Death and the Maiden, about a woman brutally tortured under a South American military regime, is much more equivocal. We are never quite sure whether the man she accuses of carrying out the torture is guilty or innocent, and we surely find that the woman’s revenge on him is brutal in return. There is blame to go around.

As W.H. Auden wrote, ”Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

Or Barbara Garson’s MacBird, which lampooned Lyndon Johnson as a Macbeth who killed his Kennedy/Duncan for his own political ends. It is a sour-toned comedy and nearly forgotten except by graduate students with theses to complete.

And that brings up another reason the narrow partisan art dies such a stiff death. Its concerns are almost always so transitory. Does MacBird still have meaning 45 years after the events it describes?

Nothing is more dated than a superannuated political idea. We’ve moved on; we have our own problems, thank you.

Compare that with Citizen Kane, which is equally a hatchet job on a public figure. But because filmmaker Orson Welles concentrates on the human rather than the partisan, it still contains meaning, still has that resonance which is the ultimate test of a work of art.