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Why do I do this?

The year I was born, the New York School of painters was coalescing. When I was an adolescent, they were ascendant. They were my boys: Jackson, Willem, Franz, Barney and Mark. 

(And they were boys. It was years before Helen and Lee were fully recognized.) 

During those years, the boys were flying high, but they still needed to be argued for. The mass of people continued to make fun of them. “My three-year-old could do that.” 

But to me, their power and meaning was manifest. During my teenage years, I spent many hours at the Museum of Modern Art, soaking in those great works. I spent way more of my time at MoMA than I did at the MET. 

They were called “Abstract Expressionists,” but at the time, for most people, abstract meant distorted. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world — the most famous abstract painter, and his subjects were still recognizable as bulls and guitars.

But for the New York School, it would be hard to name a subject. When Jackson Pollock was quizzed about what was his audience looking at, he said, “A painting.” 

There came to be a distinction made between abstract art and what was called “Non-Objective.” My boys were the latter. They weren’t imitating the world, but creating a new one. 

Yet, while I can honestly say I spent 10 hours at MoMA for every one I spent at the Metropolitan, the museum that became my spiritual home was the American Museum of Natural History. I didn’t just enjoy it; I loved it. I still do. 

At AMNH, I met the wonders of the natural world, from the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling to the “Soil Profiles of New York State.” There were dinosaur bones and the colossal Olmec head. Rooms filled with rock collections and the great, illuminated theater of dioramas with their dramatis personae of stuffed bears and lions. 

I had the luck of growing up in rural New Jersey. While it was only a short bus ride to the George Washington Bridge and civilization, it was also a land of woods and streams — one ran through our property. Red fox and white-tailed deer would occasionally pass through our lawn. Tract housing and mini-malls had not yet taken over. 

So, I had these two very polar influences pulling me: On one hand, there was the manifesto of the art world that painting should be painting, and not an image of the world; on the other, I was in love with nature and the world of seasons, leaves, birds and geology. 

This tension still thrives in me. In 1998, I got to see the huge Pollock retrospective at MoMA and the painter’s 1952 masterpiece, Blue Poles, which was on loan from its home in Australia. The 16-foot-wide painting was intensely beautiful; I stood in awe — and that is not too strong a word, despite its current depreciation among the cell-phone generation, for whom even a cheese doodle can be “awesome.” 

Yet, on the same trip, I also went back to the Natural History Museum. Entering its dark and marble halls was an act of love — and that is not too strong a word. 

Since then, the art world has walked through several new rooms: Pop, Conceptual, Postmodern. And each of them seems to step further back from the physical sensation of the the natural world. 

Pop wants us to recognize cultural artifacts as worthy subjects for consideration — and they certainly are. 

Conceptual art removes us from even that, into a world of pure idea, and those ideas are often so removed from our everyday experience as to be unintelligible for the mass of people. And often kind of silly. Often the art would be better expressed in words. Write an essay. 

Postmodernism seems to tell us that there is nothing but rehash of old imagery, and what is more, even those are really about power relationships and keeping the little guy down, especially if he is a she or is melanin-enhanced. 

Certainly, there is among these isms, much art of value and meaning. And I often agree with the political ideas expressed. But I have always missed in them a sense of love for the things of this world — the smells, textures, colors, shapes of the things we use and inhabit. 

I have never given up on that. 

In some ways, this dichotomy is the difference between reason and empiricism. Conceptual and Postmodern art think their way through the world. What I value is experiencing my way through it. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. 

But I still have this memory lodged in my psyche of Pollock and Kline and Rothko and de Kooning. 

So, I have at times attempted a synthesis. I love nature. Rocks and trees and birds and bees. The ocean and lakes; the canyons and grasslands; the swamps and forests.

Ah, but even as I read that, I know those are words. It isn’t rocks and trees, really. It is the hardness and grain of a particular granite, the different bark of birch and yew. It is the spot upon which I stand at any given moment and what I feel as breeze on my skin, what sun glare I shade my eyes from. 

And in that granite or in that tree bark, there are shapes, textures, colors. I touch them. I see them.

There is a place I have visited many times in Maine. It is Schoodic Point, which is a part of Acadia National Park. The main park on Mt. Desert Island, is crowded and developed, but some 40 miles northeast, by road, there is the Schoodic Peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. At its tip, it is bare, hard rock and spume and surf. The wind is usually raw and comparatively few visitors come there, especially in the fall and winter. 

(The double-O in the middle of Schoodic is pronounced like the double-O in “good.”)

There, I can use my camera to record the abstract expressionist details that combine the emphasis on form and texture with an engagement with the natural world. It is a chance to reconcile those conflicting parts of my being. 

There is in some religions and mystical philosophies a contemptus mundi that I cannot share. The world is beautiful — not pretty, but beautiful; even its ugliness is beautiful. 

In 1928, the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published a book in which his images of the world, both natural and industrial, found pattern and form in details excerpted from context. It was named, Die Welt ist schoen. 

That has become a watchword for me: When you engage with it as deeply as you can — and we are each different in this respect — when you so engage with it, you discover that Moses was not exceptional; every bush is the burning bush.

That is what makes those cypresses of Van Gogh so penetrating, the haywain of Constable, the waterlilies of Monet, the peppers of Edward Weston, the simple crockery of Chardin, the rabbit of Durer. Die Welt ist schoen. 

So, I cannot worry if my humble images are important art or not, or whether it is art at all. Muche wele stant in litel besinesse. 

This is my tiny translation of Schoodic into image, the finding of the same elements Pollock sublimated into his canvasses, but here extracted from the hard edge of stone.

Click on any image to enlarge

 

apostle 1When I was leaving the theater after seeing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, way back in 1997, a loud woman in the back of the crowd screamed out, somewhat redundantly, ”That’s the worst movie I have ever seen … in my entire life.”

At first, I couldn’t understand her reaction. It was a very good film, a quiet, intense character study of a Southern preacher. Perhaps, I thought, there were not enough car crashes in it, not enough glowing, cherry-red petro-explosions.

Certainly the film had not fulfilled her expectations.

And that was the sticking point. I have thought about it long and hard. Was The Apostle an outlier or a harbinger? There have been many articles written about the death of irony, yet, irony refuses quite to go away. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a brief hiccup in our otherwise comforting embrace of the snarky, but it soon returned. If we briefly took a breath and said to ourselves, some things are too real, too important to sniff at, well, then it didn’t stop Stephen Colbert, it didn’t put an end to The Onion.

But there was still something in Duvall’s film. The singular quality of the film is its lack of irony. Everything is presented utterly straight, with no snide comments under the breath, no revelation of hypocrisy, no hidden agenda. Duvall neither makes fun of the Apostle’s deeply held religion, nor does he proselytize for it: It is not a “Christian” film, but a sober look at the complexities of a Christian life, fully rounded, and not a summation of a generic Christian life, but rather only this one person. Irony depends on stereotypes, on “classes” of people, not on individuals.

This straightforwardness is rare in Hollywood, perhaps unique, where we expect a cushion of irony to protect us from messy experience. hangover 1

Irony, narrowly defined, is saying one thing but meaning another. As when we see a friend green-skinned and hung over in the morning and say to him, ”You look bright and chipper today.”

In that, we are both in on the joke. Often, though, an audience is split between those who get it and those who don’t. Irony is thus used frequently as a kind of shibboleth for a clique. Those who ”get it” are in, those who don’t move to a retirement community in Florida.

Irony is also a literary trope, which means, its expectations are linguistic and not experiential. Most Hollywood movies set up a form and audiences know where the story is going. A gun flashed in an early scene will by expectation be used in a later scene. The surprise we wait for is the when.

But The Apostle never quite does this. Each time we spot an obvious plot development, the movie goes elsewhere, and where it goes is closer to what might happen in real life than what we would normally expect in a movie.

All setups are frustrated.

Unlike almost any mainstream Hollywood film, there was no ”in joke” to be in on.

Instead, the story of the Apostle E.F. is given to us as an esthetic construct, something to apprehend and appreciate, to hold in our mind, whole, as we might hold in our hands a glass orb, rotating it and seeing it from all angles.

In its lack of irony, The Apostle is an odd fit for our cultural moment. The 20th Century was a century of irony; irony has been our lingua franca. But, there are some indications that as we descend into the 21st, irony has begun to wear out its welcome. It is still pervasive, but oftentimes, it seems to come by rote, as in so many sitcom pilots, seemingly written from some formula. Irony is tired; it wants to put up its feet and rest. We expect the irony, but we don’t really believe in it anymore. It’s just the norm, which we also are too tired to give up.

This shift away from irony has happened before: It is clearest in the change from the 18th to 19th centuries, from the irony of Alexander Pope to the sincerity of William Wordsworth.

daffodilsOne has only to compare the mock epic tone of The Rape of the Lock with the straightforwardness, almost blandness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o’er vales and hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils.”

A younger generation back then, tired of the artificiality of the older and sought to substitute an authenticity for the artifice.

There were things that were important to be said, the younger generation thought, and to be said clearly and meaningfully. The century that followed Wordsworth was a century without irony — and almost, at times, it seemed without a sense of humor.

Eventually, the century gagged on its own sincerity, so that when the new one began, the page flipped back. Poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound stoked their verses heavily with irony, never saying quite what they meant, always approaching their subject obliquely.

We no longer trusted the Great Truth spelled out in large, direct letters, and for good reason. Too many Great Truths turned out to be miserable lies. Colonialism, Imperialism, racism, purity, idealism. There have been many deaths. picasso violin

This wasn’t true only in literature. Music turned from Tchaikovsky’s grand passions to Stravinsky’s tweaked noses, art from grand historical paintings to pasted bits of daily newspapers and deconstructed violins.

One has only to compare the historical straggler, such as D.W. Griffith’s sentimental Way Down East with Ernst Lubitsch’s brassy Ninotchka. It is the same change. You can see the pendulum swing, saeculorum decursum, over and over.

Between the irony and the directness there is constant battle, for neither is sufficient. Each mode has both its strengths and weaknesses. Direct sentiment soon devolves into Victorian sentimentality, so that we laugh now at the mawkishness of much of it. But irony declines into mere cleverness, so that we admire an author’s wit, without much regard for his sense.

This has certainly been the case in Hollywood. It is rare to find a film in which actors behave the way any real people behave or feel the feelings of real people. Instead, they speak in catch phrases that ring with bell-like cleverness. The plots are artificial; their resolutions preposterous.

”Hasta la vista, baby!”

”Go ahead, punk, make my day!”

”Show me the money.”

“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

On television, it is even thicker. Seinfeld was a wonderfully clever sitcom, but it was, by its own admission, about ”nothing.” All style, no substance.

Most sitcoms are the same, and most hourlong dramas are numbingly formulaic. Forrest gump

Yet, there is a hunger for substance. It shows up in such mainstream places as movies like Forrest Gump, where the sincerity and lack of irony of its main character seems like a breath of life. The movie itself was mildly ironic, but the character was guileless. And what is more, his earnestness — that is, his ”pure heart” — won him all his prizes. (I am not defending the film as a whole, but only making a point about its underlying proposal of directness and sincerity — many people despise the film for this very reason).

In that, the tone of the movie was completely at odds with its predecessor, Being There, where we were all in on the great in-joke, as the idiot gardener, Chance, fools all the supposedly smart stuffed shirts into finding profundity in his inanities. Chauncey Gardner

And just as a clever century distrusts an earnest one, the pendulum swings back and we are beginning to be unsatisfied by the cleverness. The deeper Quentin Tarantino dives into genre film pastiche, the more irrelevant he becomes. His first films were about something — the deaths in Pulp Fiction, however clever in terms of plot, were real deaths with consequences; in Kill Bill, the deaths are just tin ducks in a shooting gallery. They carry no punch.

This great cultural sea change may be due, but it hasn’t become pervasive yet. Still, there are warning signs: Sincerity has also brought us political correctness; it has brought New Age philosophy; it has brought us any part of a Tyler Perry movie that isn’t Madea.

For, while irony requires a modicum of intelligence, sincerity is democratic: Everyone is invited — no brain too small. It runs the gamut from genius to imbecility. Not every 19th century poet was Wordsworth; heck, even Wordsworth was only Wordsworth on a good day.

The watchword for irony is skepticism; for sincerity, credulity. Blind faith in alternative medicines, UFOs and astrology is only possible in a time when our irony is eroding.

Yet, irony doesn’t get off the hook so easily, either. There are reasons some people feel compelled to give it up as the new century reaches its teen years.

The first is that irony is words, not life. It is essentially linguistic. That is, its rules and habits are linguistic rules, not experiential rules.

With irony, as with a joke, you have to have the setup and punch line come in the right order, followed by the rim shot. Out of sequence, they fall flat and meaningless.

Real life has other demands, but with irony, we translate the experience of life into the language. Language is a kind of parallel universe, divorced from reality, but somehow accepted as its mirror: When we are laughing at a joke on a sitcom, we are laughing not at life, but at language.

It is at the core of what is called Modern Art, that the process becomes the subject: The painter paints paintings about paint, the playwright constructs dialogue about speech, the sculptor shows us the raw surface of stone. Modernism has been about the tools it uses.

And that is why, at the end of the Modern century, the armor of irony that has protected our egos from the embarrassment of our sentiment has begun to fall off. We demand real experience.

When that woman yelled out her frustration at The Apostle, she was complaining that her linguistic expectations — the language of film we have all become accustomed to — were violated. Robert Duvall was doing something different.

But our culture now requires of all of us that we rise above our comfortable irony and attempt to see what is actually out there, floating in reality.

And deal with it.

 
 
 
 
 

gauguin

Are the arts important?

It is the question at the bottom of the debate over public funding, and a lot of hooey has been written on the subject, from both sides of the issue.

Yet, the question remains. Is art important, or is it merely one of the frills of life? Is it more than the amusement of the rich people who can afford to buy it or attend its performances? Does it serve some essential function in our lives?

The answers usually provided are too often soft and squishy, with a lot of feel-good oohing-and-aahing alternating with benign platitudes.

All of which miss the point.

There are three major things that art provides that we can ill afford to do without. They have nothing to do with ”identity,” ”self-expression” or ”healing,” or any of the pop-oriented, new age or parochial apologies being given in the discussion.

No, what art does is as fundamental as language. Far from being an ornament, it is the foundation of culture.

Put another way, civilization doesn’t make art, art makes civilization.

How does it do this?

First, art asks, ”What is real?” It is the first line of investigation into what is true. Art is the acid test we give our assumptions about reality to find if they are gold or lead.

If science is the test we give to hard fact, art is the test we give to everything else.

Second, it gives us a way out of the isolation of our egos. The greatest art forces us to sympathize and empathize with others and enlarge ourselves and our moral compass in the process.

And third — and least familiar and most difficult to understand — it asks, ”What is the meaning and purpose of structure?” This last has unforseen ramifications.

They may be summed up in Paul Gauguin’s famous painting from Tahiti: Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Those three questions give us a clue about why art is important, why it isn’t merely window dressing.

When we ask, ”Where did we come from?” we are asking what is the ground of reality.

When we ask, ”What are we?” we are asking about those things that make us most human.

And when we ask ”Where are we going?” we are asking how art might show us the possibilities for making a life.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

ART AND REALITY

When art addresses reality, it does so on several levels.

On the simplest, it attempts to find out what the world looks like. That may seem unnecessary at first, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

We must learn to see, not only as individuals, but as a culture. And art is our most important teacher.

We could be taught to see other than as we do.

It is through art as a mediator and not through direct perception that you come to recognize the world. This is a fact we are almost always blind to. We see it no more than we see the retina on which the image is formed. durer

It was a heroic thing for those Renaissance artists who worked out the mathematics of perspective. They were grappling with reality; they were wrestling with an angel.

In some sense, every artist does that when he sets up a bowl of fruit and begins drawing, trying to stare that stubborn reality into submission.

But reality isn’t only about what we see. It is the question of what we feel and believe as a people. So theater and novels investigate the nature of justice or love or violence. In each case, the artist or playwright is creating a model of the world — a virtual reality — that we must come to accept or reject.

It is also important to recognize that every one of these artistic answers is provisional, and each is modified or rejected by succeeding generations. All reality is a working hypothesis.

To those who see art only as surface, the history of art is a history of changing styles. To those who look beneath the surface, style is irrelevant, nothing but distraction. The changes are not mere fashion but result from the constant testing of art against reality and back.

ART AND EGO

The second issue of art is just as important. Too many of us live our lives in the prison of our own egos.

We know what we have experienced but not what others have experienced. We trust our reality but no one else’s.

Art gives us a way out of this prison, by presenting us with other worlds, other realities, deeper emotions and more profound thoughts.

It is the reach of imagination that allows us to grow beyond ourselves and feel those emotions.

Art forces open those prison doors and sends us out into the light of day, where we must learn and feel what it is like to be Madame Bovary, Henry V or Shakuntala.

Art gives us a way of escaping the happenstance of history and birth for a chance at a more comprehensive, more universal understanding. We grow in worth as human beings.

For the great moral lessons, one turns to Aeschylus’ Persians, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Dostoevsky’s Aloysha or James Baldwin’s Beale Street.

It is doubtful whether, without the powerful emotions of pity and love, we would ever be able to create a civilization worth living in.

ART AND STRUCTURE

The third issue is more subtle and difficult.

We understand the things of this world not merely as an accumulation of unrelated facts, but as system. We see not leaves and sticks, but trees.

What we understand in that instance is structure — the ”big picture.” It is the glue that holds together our perception.

That structure doesn’t appear out of nowhere; it has its roots deep in the human psychology. It is the archetype of Jung, the mothers of Goethe, the poetic imagination of Blake. It is the central core of comprehensibility. We measure all things against it, whether we recognize it or not.

A good story isn’t just a collection of episodes, but episodes with a certain shape to them: a beginning, middle and end.

The structure of a story is every bit as important as its content.

Imagine two newspaper stories about the same train wreck. One is a cluttered assemblage of facts, in no particular order; the other is a well-told story with direction and emphasis. Each contains the identical facts, but the second can be read and remembered. The first is fact confetti. We cannot even read it; it makes no sense.

The only difference between them is the structure.

MYTHOLOGY OF CULTURE 

We can take the same structure and apply it so some other news event. The facts may change, but the import of the story remains the same. We see it over and over in newspapers: the child in peril, the senseless killing, the arbitrary natural disaster. Each is a structure of story that we fill in with the facts of the case. Each 40-car pileup is identical, except to those involved.

Each of these stories is a small myth in the larger mythology of our culture.

We think of myth as being a story that isn’t true, but the truth or falsity of a myth is irrelevant. All that matters is its persuasiveness.

The artist recognizes this fact and uses it in his art, working the changes on the myths and archetypes.

What makes this important is that we all use these myths — recognized or not — to give meaning to our lives. We live out our roles as father, mother, hero, victim, lover, loyal friend, all following the internalized archetype we have either learned or been born with.

Art, literature, theater, dance, music, provide models for us, so we may know how to make a life.

Like ritual, they show us the steps to the dance, and the steps are structure.

EMPATHETIC COMMUNICATION 

Take Michelangelo’s Pieta.

It is on one level an attempt to make a statue as lifelike as possible, with poses and emotions as true to their condition as possible. On that level, Michelangelo is exploring the reality of surfaces.

But we don’t look at the grieving Virgin and the dead Jesus as a test of what reality looks like or of what we would do in the same situation. pieta

We feel the emotions of the Virgin almost telepathically. It becomes possible to know what it is like to lose a child, lose a part of your own flesh. Even if we have lived the most sheltered and protected life, we cannot avoid coming to know at least a little about the experience of tragedy, and we are made bigger by it.

It is a work of profound human emotion, and you needn’t be a Christian to feel it.

But Mary is also the archetype of the mother, and Jesus is the archetype of all of us who know we will eventually die. We are given a role in the cosmic drama and the means of playing it with dignity.

The very greatest art, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the Mahabharata does this for us.

A DIGRESSION

Stories have a narrative content, but they have a structure, too, or they would fall apart.

Is it possible to write a story with the structure alone, with no facts to plug in?

That is in essence the direction of what we call Modern Art.

In the Renaissance, a painting was metaphorically a window through which we looked at the virtual reality presented. The paint resting on the canvas was intended to be rendered invisible, like glass.

But in Modern Art, we are meant to look not through the window, but at it. The paint, the brushes’ marks, the canvas, the colors up against each other: They are the very point of the art.

At its most heroic, Modern Art attempts to put us in contact directly with reality and with our emotions, unrelated to mere narrative event. That is the effect of Kandinsky or Pollock or Rothko.

But we have spent nearly a century investigating that level of reality and it has gotten a little moldy with use.

It is now the job of Postmodernism to write with its finger in that now-dusty window, ”Wash Me.” triptych

Yet, that layer of structure, unrelated to fact, remains in art, as it always has. Sometimes art uses it to give meaning to our lives without our knowing it, sometimes art points its arrow at the structure and says, notice it and enjoy it.

Without structure, there is no meaning, and art gives meaning to life.