Tag Archives: Painting

Love, Logic, Love

The requirements of logic and the needs of a beloved supersede any contrary preferences to which we are less authoritatively inclined. Once the dictatorial regimes of these necessities have been imposed, it is no longer up to us to decide what to care about or what to think. We have no choice in the matter. Logic and love preempt the guidance of our cognitive and volitional activity.
—Harry G. Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (66)

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Waclaw Szymanowski, Blooming Apple Tree 

I am involved in a year-long research project,* and now have an official reason to indulge my insatiable curiosity on the subject of love—oh joy! I mention it only to preemptively explain the expected preponderance of books about love, the senses, and neurology that may be forthcoming. Although, it occurs to me that there may already be a preponderance—or at least a driving theme— of such books in my reading habits. So be it.

There is a striking and instructive resemblance in the matter between love and reason. Rationality and the capacity to love are the most powerfully emblematic and most highly prized features of human nature. The former guides us most authoritatively in the use of our minds, while the latter provides us with the most compelling motivation in our personal and social conduct (64).

As Harry Frankfurt states, in his book The Reasons of Love, love and logic are what dignify us—they are “distinctly humane and ennobling in us” (64). The entire book is dedicated to examining the preeminence of love in our lives. The mere fact that “caring” distinguishes our attention; our affection; our past, present and future proves, by his lights, the very quiddity of the emotion. Why do we love? Because we care. Not selfishly, or even unselfishly—to use words such as ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ distorts the question—love is a sine qua non condition of being human.

Bertrand Russell alludes to “the restfulness of mathematical certainty.” Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe (65)

When we commit to loving, we no longer have to deliberate, consider, or weigh the options. That declaration of love—the ‘I love you’ (as Alain Badiou so eloquently described in its form of “stage fright”) is the leaving-off of doubt for the restfulness of certainty. The comparison to logic is clear, and yet, and yet…we all know that love is more prone to distortion than logic (although—politics, for one, could cure one of that notion as well). And we all know that certainty is the domain (again, Bertrand Russell, not to mention Voltaire) of fools and fanatics. Still, when I think of my own children I understand love perfectly. There, in my heart, is a restfulness like no other.

The fact that we can not help loving, and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps us to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course (66).

Love, like logic, is constrictive in that we are compelled through the very laws of each to obey. That we do not necessarily choose whom to love is important. Who can solve the mystery of why this person and not that person? Frankfurt suggests that this is a form of freedom. The stage fright of ‘I love you’ is, in this light, a respectful fear of certainty. Given the horrific events in Orlando I am more afraid of people who hold rigid beliefs than I have ever been. I have never understood absolutism, belief, certainty, dogmatism….And yet I do think that love, as a manifestation of certainty, like logic, may inhabit unique space. Neither is capable of doing harm on its own, although both are often used to excuse acts of perversity which defy the very meaning of the words. Love and logic simply are.

One doesn’t choose to love their children anymore than one chooses to believe two plus two equals four. That seems obvious. Not having to constantly re-evaluate or reassess those truths is freeing. Frankfurt sticks to child-parent love for a reason, as he states it: it is a more pure love without all of the distractions of romantic love. Yet for all the complications and distractions, it remains true that all love is freeing in that it is binding. It binds us together and limits how we behave in accordance to what is good for the beloved and the lover: the demands of profane love, that which cares and is caring.

 

*I will be a 2016–17 Kahn Institute Fellow, in the “Shaping Perception” project. My proposed project, which may change slightly as my research develops, is on the relationship between the senses and the emotion of love.

The Starting Point

As you can see, philosophy struggles with huge tension. On the one hand, love seen as a natural extravagance of sex arouse a kind of rational suspicion. Conversely, we see an apology for love that borders on religious epiphany. Christianity hovers in the background, a religion of love after all. And the tension is almost unbearable.
—Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love (15)

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Evocation of Butterflies, Odilon Redon c.1912

Thus, when Kierkegaard was finally unable to contemplate the idea of marrying Régime, he broke with her. In the end, he represented the aesthete seducer of the first level, lived the ethical promise of the second and failed to make the transition, via the real-life seriousness of marriage, to the third level. Nonetheless, he visited the whole gamut of forms of philosophical reflection on love (15).

I, for one, have a very hard time forgiving Kierkegaard for this failure. A friend convinced me to give him another chance, and so I suppose I must, but I am always on the side of the heartbroken and against those that create a philosophy or moral that disregards, or attempts to repress, the truth of love: “as we all know, love is a re-invention of life” (33). Well, at least according to me and M. Badiou, as told in his compelling little book In Praise of Love (2009), a book composed of a conversation with Le Monde journalist Nicolas Truing  initially coming from a series of conversations from Avignon Festival’s “Theatre of Ideas.”

Badou begins the book by discussing some problems with the modern perspective of love. The first being the unwillingness to admit risk into one’s life which is perpetuated by online dating sites that advertise the possibility of finding your “soul mate” or perfect match risk free. And then:

The second threat love faces is to deny that it is at all important. The counterpoint to the safety threat is the idea that love is only a variant of rampant hedonism and the wide range of possible enjoyment (8)

And so one can see in the history of philosophy and religion an attempt to devalue romantic love. In philosophy the love of friendship is the gold standard while in religion, the transcending love of god, or some higher power, is the only true love. There is something in the temporal, mundane, and corporal nature of passionate love that make people feel exposed to their mortality and vulnerability I suppose.

But surrendering your body, taking your clothes off, being naked for the other, rehearsing those hallowed gestures, renouncing all embarrassment, shouting, all this involvement of the body is evidence of a surrender to love. It crucially distinguishes it from friendship. Friendship doesn’t involve bodily contact, or any resonances in pleasure of the body. That’s why it is a more intellectual attachment, and one that philosophers who are suspicious of passion have always preferred (36).

For Badiou, the idea of a transcending love is also off the mark. Love is about difference, not oneness. It is the “Two scene”, as he puts it, in which,in its role as a ‘truth procedure,’  “a certain kind of truth is constructed” (38).

the “Two scene” —is experience. In this sense, all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference” (39)

All kinds of love, Badiou states, make it possible for us to feel that we do not have to experience the world as a solitary, but can experience it through the difference of the other, side by side. Certainly this must be true. I only have to think of the delight I take in seeing the world from my youngest son’s point of view. I think we all do that—it is easy to find joy in experiencing the world through our children’s eyes but somehow we are told this can not extend to passion. People often look for love (through online dating sites in particular) to find the perfect match—the one that is just like me!—and yet, for myself, what I love the most are the people that make me see the world differently, through their eyes, their minds, and of course in the case of romantic love, through their body.

Badou’s book is thought provoking and quite lovely, although I did hit a few snags when he got to Lacan. In a nutshell, Lacan declared that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Badiou clarifies the famously “shocking” proposition a bit, explaining:

Lacan doesn’t say that love is a disguise for sexual relationships; he says that sexual relationships don’t exist, that love is what comes to replace that non-relationship (19).

The reason why it doesn’t exist, according to the theory, is that the pleasure, while mediated by the other’s body, in fact takes you very far away from the other in the form of your own personal pleasure. I am not sure I buy this. After all, if sex where truly, solely, a narcissistic adventure, then why the need for an other at all? Masturbation would suffice for that, no? It is difficult to see, in fact, why the theory applies only to sexual relationships. In this light can there be such a thing as friendship if the pleasure of the friendship can only be felt individually. Maybe I am missing something. Coincidentally I have a rather large tomb of Lacan’s sitting on my to-read pile, so I will have to investigate.

But overall, Badiou’s book is a brave declaration, in this day and age, of the importance of love. The chance encounter that transforms into destiny. Badiou talks of the process of falling in love as the “event-encounter” from which love follows. The passages in which he focuses on the declaration of love is really wonderful and true:

The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it iso perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright […] That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened” (43)

I love that—a kind of horrifying stage fright—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image out of my head of those three little, yet infinitely powerful words, clinging to the curtains of the stage of my mind: the butterflies of I love you.

As Troung writes in the introduction to this book, “praise of love, sung by a philosopher who thinks, like Plato, whom I quote: ‘Anyone who doesn’t take love as a staring point will never understand the nature of philosophy.'” My thoughts exactly.

*published 2012 by Serpent’s Tail, trans. from the French by Peter Bush

Sacrificing a Thousand Apparent Truths

The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’ 
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).

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14th & 1st, L line Florist, Victoria Accardi (2016)

The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.

[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).

What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.

The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).

By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.

The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:

Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).

Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,

Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).

All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:

Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).

Well. What more can one say?

 

*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.

Joy Made Even Less Heavy

“Speaking has to do with the reality of things only commercially: in literature, one contents oneself with alluding to it or disturbing it slightly, so that it yields up the idea it incorporates.”
—Stephané Mallarmé trans Barbara Johnson, Divagations (208)

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I spent the final week of my lunch breaks during my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The American Wing. The above photo I took  is of a painting by James McNeill Whistler titled Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Théodore Duret. While the title does not exactly flow from the lips it goes a long way to get the viewer to look with the intentions Whistler thought were important. I find it amusingly heavy-handed. The label accompanying the painting insisted that M. Duret was given the props for purely aesthetic reasons and not to “imply a narrative.” I have no reason to doubt this assertion, I only can say—well good luck with that! The painting is extraordinary in every way, including (all intentions notwithstanding) implying an intriguing narrative. And, I will argue, I am able to love it all the more for that very implication. My narrative is my way in.

“Verse, which, out of several vocables, makes a total word, entirely new, foreign to the language, and almost incantatory, achieves that isolation of speech; negating, with a sovereign blow, despite their repeated reformulations between sound and sense, the arbitrariness that remains in the terms, and gives you the surprise of never having heard that fragment of ordinary eloquence before, while the object named is bathed in a brand new atmosphere” (211).

So too, I say, goes art. Mallarmé famously wrote “that everything in the world exists to end up as a book” (226), by which I think he points to the gestalt which occurs as a natural outcrop of  art (visual, performative, literary). The parts of verse are merely informative—to paraphrase Whistler: a study in black ink on white paper—but the whole is truly bathed in a brand new atmosphere. And that is where, when one is absorbed by literature, dwells in front of a painting, or is transported by music, that, is where the art lives and where the soul desires to go. How one gets there is the story each work of art must share in its own way.

“Something else…It seems as if the scattered quivering of a page only wants either to defer or to hasten the possibility of that something else” (187).

An organizing principle of the mind is creating narratives. The wonder of it all is that art (in all its forms) must, if it is successful, give, not specifics, but ambiguities in order for there to be room for a narrative of the reader, viewer, listener. I don’t mean that a thing can’t be representational or more (or less) overtly relate a story, Whistler’s painting is a perfect example of an absolute representational painting maintaining allegiance to strict ambiguity. Perhaps many people, even now, know who Théodore Duret was, but what does it matter to the painting as a work of art? It is a wonderful painting because of the beauty, (and in my narrative) the darkness lifted by the insouciance of the ridiculous and very pretty fan and pink shawl, the sober expression on his face betrayed by the slight forward thrust of the hips in an attempt to preserve some imposed masculine sense of pride. Just who is the owner of the shawl and fan? I get to decide.

Just as one crosses out certain words that, in me, take the place of what once was a heart; it would thus be a mortal sin to serve them badly. A fool blabbers on without saying anything, and to so the same with out any notorious taste for prolixity and precisely in order not to say something represents a special case: mine (122).

There are of course varying degree of a narrative that an artist can give, but even in the most traditionally defined narrative works, I would argue, there is room left for the individual’s imagination to shape that narrative as their own mind and heart dictates. Without that there is a failure to communicate—a void—which is different from nothing. A void is too slick for there to be anything to grip, or to make meaning. It is the something that nothing emits that captures our imaginations and holds onto our hearts.

Silence! Sole luxury after rhymes, an orchestra only marking with its gold, its brushes with thought and dusk, the detail of its significance on a par with a stilled ode and which it is up to the poet, roused by a dare, to translate! (140)

*title from p. 208: “Under those conditions arises a song, which is joy made even less heavy.”

Free from the Tyranny of Erudition

A good work of visual art carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy: to use art as a means to emotions of life is to use a telescope for reading the news.
—Clive Bell, Art, (29-30) 

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Clive Bell’s book  Art (preface dated 1913)expounds on his ambitious attempt to articulate his theory of art. What is art? is the question to which he thinks he knows the answer. That last sentence makes it sound as if I don’t think he does, but in fact his thesis is completely acceptable if for no other reason then it defines without revealing. While my edition of the book is nearly 300 pages long, he comes right out with it—Art, Bell states, is always this one thing: significant form. Lines, colors, shapes, and material must always relate significantly to each other in order to precipitate the aesthetic emotion. Bell is a very clever fellow, of course, so I can not argue with a man that defines art so succinctly while leaving the puzzle of the how and even the why untouched. In fact, this is his cleverness, because, of course, must know what one is dealing with—significant form— in order to consider the Yes or No.

Be they artists or lovers of art, mystics or mathematicians, those who achieve ecstasy are those who have freed themselves from the arrogance of humanity. He who would feel the significance of art must make himself humble before it. (70)

There is a lament in the museum world that goes something like this—do you know that the average museum go-er spends less than 30 seconds in front of a piece of work?—Whenever I hear that I want to say—hold on a minute. Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Too short to waste more than 30 seconds, or whatever the amount is (30 may be generous), on a No. We feel it right away. The aesthetic emotion hardly requires seconds to register. Yes or No? Or as Bell cheekily puts it: “there are two types of art: good and bad.”

Yet, though the echoes and shadows of art enrich the life of the plains, her spirit dwells on the mountains. To him who woos, but woos impurely, she returns enriched what is brought (35).

What is in the substantial form that moves me? Or doesn’t. By feeling the Yes or No we can then be on firm ground to approach the why. And that is not to say that one can not come to be moved differently as one’s emotional intelligence becomes refined and freed, but, alas, Bell has a rather low opinion of most people’s ability to really feel, and therefore understand, a good work of art. As with a writer who with “nothing to say soon come[s] to regard the manipulation of words as an end in itself” (222), so too the artist can make a perfect representation of an object or display impressive control of materials without touching anything true in the realm of Art, he/she makes mere “labels” by which many viewers get hopelessly distracted:

The habit of recognising the label and overlooking the thing, of seeing intellectually instead of seeing emotionally, accounts for the amazing blindness, or rather visual shallowness, of most civilized adults (79).

Bell blames the culture of intellectual appreciation. Coming at a work of art through the intellect, through a learned (ruinous!) and well-intentioned study (the road to hell is paved!) of art history and methodology is a useless and damaging endeavor as far as he is concerned. What does history have to add to a work of art’s quiddity? He doesn’t say it isn’t potentially interesting in itself, but the objects and images in a painting, the historical placement of a painting—these are details that mean nothing to its value as a work of art. It is the emotion that transports one away from the plebeian, away from the emotionless news report of the image and/or its happenstance— perfectly rendered or not.

Just as the aesthetic problem is too vague, so the representative problem is too simple. (67)

Unapologetically and amusingly bitchy at times, Bell’s book is refreshingly blunt. Despite the fact that he is an intellectual, he argues for something more from artists and art lovers alike. The mind is not enough, one must invest one’s heart, truly and purely.

He who goes daily into the world of aesthetic emotion returns to the world of human affairs equipped to face it courageously and even a little contemptuously (292).

Ecstasy awaits.

*Title from p 263: Let us try to remember that art is not something to be come at by dint of study; let us try to think of it as something to be enjoyed as one enjoys being in love. The first thing to be done is to free the aesthetic emotions from the tyranny of erudition.

**photo: Marble relief of the Three Graces. Roman, mid-imperial, ca. 2nd Century A.D., The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Three Graces—Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance)—bestow that which is beneficent in nature and society: fertility and growth, the arts, and harmony between men.”

What Is It In Me?

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Shoe Shop, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1911)

One of my favorite things about reading library books is the marginalia or annotations of previous readers. I love to consider the differences between what I might mark or underline and what a perfect stranger (albeit a similarly literarily-like-minded one) takes it upon themselves to mark. I found this written on the half title of Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples: 

If the author of the book were to ask, like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mortmain” [sic?] ‘What is it in me that you like so much, And love so little?”,

It sent me on a quest to discover where that poignant line came from. The written title that was illegible, or just plain wrong, was no help. It took me a little bit of time but I found the the poem. It is called Avenel Gray.

Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And langor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca.

The poem is very long. It is the story of a man who comes to the realization that the woman that he loves will never make room in her heart for him.

What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I am not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine but yours.

It’s a lonely and devastating poem. I became curious about the author. I had never heard of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Edwin Arlington Robinson, (he hated his name apparently and went by E.A. Robinson. One can speculate that his disdain for his name stemmed from the fact that his parents didn’t name him until about six months after he was born [disappointed by his sex] and then finally left it up to a sort of contest between strangers in Arlington, Maine while on vacation the summer of his birth.). He was in love with a woman that went on to marry his brother. Her poor choice in marriage did not cool his ardor and after the brother (who seems to have been something of a wastrel) died she rejected his hand both times he offered it.

My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert.

Robinson had another relationship with the troubled artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. She spent some years institutionalized and one of the unfortunate manifestations of her troubles was an inclination to destroy her own work. Looking at her beautifully energetic painting above, the loss is lamentable. It is unclear to me whether or not the love between Robinson and Sparhawk-Jones was one-sided (if so it would have been on her side) but I hope not. I always root for the love story, fighting against the folly that fools us out of our lives.

Apart From Naughtiness

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.
—D.H. Lawrence, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (55)

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It was only once I was walking down the dark empty hallway that an awareness began to percolate back into my brain alerting me that I had left my glasses behind. Before the realization entirely sank in, while I was still merely in an optical haze of confusion, I spun around and ran back hoping to beat the timer I had turned—I didn’t want the light to go off and have to blindly find my way back to the stack among multiple stacks. Not my fault. I had gone there to get one book. Just one. But in my arms were four. I got excited and was dashing off like a thief in the night.

People wallow in emotion: counterfeit emotion. They lap it up: they live in it and on it. They ooze it (18-19).

What began as My Skirmish With Jolly Roger, (which I found in there! in the general stacks—a first edition! —I’m going to have to talk with someone about that.) —a stand-alone limited edition of Lawrence’s forward to the “Paris edition” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover— turned into A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, extending the original essay by some fifty pages. I added both to my check out, naturally.

And with counterfeit emotions there is no real sex at all. Sex is the one thing you cannot really swindle; and it is the centre of the worst swindling of all, emotional swindling. Once come down to sex, and the emotional swindle must collapse. But in all the approaches to sex, the emotional swindle intensifies more and more. Till you get there. then collapse (21).

In the essay, Lawrence seems to be trying to find his reader. Not the one who skips to the dirty words, not the one who is sanctimoniously looking for moral outrage, but his reader–the one who craves something true. It is a delicate and precious thing:

Herein lies the danger of harping only on the counterfeit and the swindle of emotion, as most “advanced” writers do. Though they do it, of course, to counterbalance the hugely greater swindle of the sentimental “sweet” writers (23). 

It is even harder, in this day and age, to resist the cynics and avoid the fools. This week I began my summer internship. I am working in the editorial department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend my lunch hour wandering the sublime halls of the museum. I let myself approach each piece of art instinctually—yes or no. It is simple. I have time. No pressure. It is just me. Is the answer to the multiple choice question yes or no? I wish life were so simple.

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table (40).

Poor blossom, indeed. Lawrence advocates passionately, in this essay,  for marriage, which, having been married, forces a sort of reckoning within me. Additionally, as the novel’s plot involves adultery, his stance is interesting. And yet, marriage for marriage’s sake–for stature or security or any other shallow or temporal purpose is exactly what he most vehemently rails against…so,  I do come to see his point. I am not only a dedicated observer of art, I am also an observer of couples, and when I espy the authentic thing—I rejoice with a yes in my heart. Life can be all that.

For an essay that begins, ostensibly, as a warning to the reader of the myriad pirated editions of his work, Lawrence diverges with such fervent passion into the heart of the matter, into our very hearts, that I cannot help adoring him. He is a sane man in a mad world, which may make him appear crazed, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for “ideals”, and for this “spiritual” knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness. The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. And they did. Now they have done it. The last great ebullition of friendship and hope was squashed out in mud and blood. Now men are all separate entities. While “kindness” is the glib order of the day—everyone must be “kind”—underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary (57).

It’s the “dreary” that makes me smile. Yes, it is indeed dreary.

*title from pg. 32

the water’s fine

“All art is or was modern in its time, daring and new, demonstrating a constant change in seeing and feeling. If revival had been a perpetual virtue, we still would live in caves and earth pits. In art, tradition is to create, not to revive.” – Josef Albers, Design, 1946 (quoted in The Arts at Black Mountain College, Mary Emma Harris, 107).

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

My last gasp of summer reading that I squeezed in came from my interest in Black Mountain College – ostensibly a quasi precursor to the college where I graduated high school from (North Carolina School of the Arts – they have a high school for the arts within the University). But I didn’t know of that confluence until nearly the end of my reading. What I did know was that Black Mountain College was a really interesting and influential place. Lasting twenty-four years with a total of around thirteen hundred students (1933-1957) in the mountains of North Carolina, an experiment in education was lived out. A spirited, innovative, creative, floundering, democratic ideal of what a meaningful education alive in the world might look like.

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Albers felt that “only dynamic possession is fertile–materially as well as spiritually.” He distinguished between the usual possessiveness or industriousness of the student who mindlessly accumulates and memorizes facts and theories to be regurgitated on an exam to please the teacher and the “dynamic possession” of the student for whom experience and action is an integral part of the learning process (15).

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Albers, one of the founders of Black Mountain College had been a teacher at the Bauhaus.  Fleeing Germany and its fascist government, the ideals of democracy, particularly the expansion of community interests flourishing through hands-on education and art, in both the form and function of aesthetics and creative expression, were some of the very progressive and fascinating experimental ideas in the Black Mountain College education.

“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. –  John Cage, Silence, 1961 (quoted, 107).

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

My interest was peaked by the truly impressive array of artists and thinkers that took part in the experiment. Besides, Alders, some of the notable participants (to me) were Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsburg, Willem De Kooning, Charles Oslon, Robert Creeley, Anaïs Nin, William Carlos Williams, Merce Cunningham, as well as the artist whose work I have included here….it just goes on and on…amazing. Anni Albers, Josef’s wife, brought her extraordinary weaving and textile skills to the college, which I mention not only because they are beautiful but also because the artificial separation between “craft” and “art” was consciously ignored at Black Mountain College. Art for art’s sake is wonderful, but art in form and function is also a worthy pursuit requiring a finger to remain on the pulse of the mundane in a way that Art needn’t, necessarily. And we need art in both the profane and sacred realms…a teacup can transport just as well as a tempest, after all.

The visionary aspects of Black Mountain were holistic, ambitious in their creative freedom, and obviously difficult to maintain – how does one administrate an institution that stands for anti-administration and anti-institutional ideals? Not easily, and not for very long, apparently. But that is hardly the point. The point is that people try – they try over and over again, and the creative results are extraordinary, the human inspiration invigorating. Everything is cyclical, but to have the nerve and verve to let the cycle run is a testament to the spirit of life.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Today, it seems to me, so much emphasis is put on the material concept of “success.” “Failure” is anathema to our culture – but it is truly the “failures” that make life flourish. That’s where all the beauty and all meaningful success is fomented.  That is one thing Bucky Fuller’s genius proved, with his “magical world of his mathematical models” (151), he was, after all, the self-proclaimed most successful failure ever!  And any school that strove to recognize that is pretty great, and successful, in my book.

Undaunted, [by the failure of his geometric dome due to cost cutting inadequate materials] Fuller explained that failure is a part of experimentation and that “you succeed when you stop failing” (151).

I would only add that success, and learning, depend upon it.

 

*All photographs (except for the Reed drawing) are out of another very fine book, Black Mountain College: Experiments in Art edited by  Vincent Katz, in which four long essays accompany copious images of the art produced and inspired by Black Mountain College.

** Title taken from John Cage’s poetic response to the controversy over an exhibition of Rauschenberg’s all white paintings in 1953, (page 230):

To Whom
No subject
No image
No taste
No object
No beauty
No talent
No technique (no why)
No idea
No intention
No art
No feeling
No black
No white no (and)

After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows.

Hallelujah! the blind can see again; the water’s fine.

John Cage, Printed in Emily Genauer’s column in the New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1953.

 

 

 

 

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
– 
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

Emulsion, Emotion: Exegesis.

Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations (10, Avante-Garde and Kitsch). – Clement Greenberg,  Art and Culture: Critical Essays.

hb_1972.145.2

Ilia Efimovich Repin, portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin.

If art proves anything, surely it must be that the quiddity of humanity is universal. Yes, within parameters each individual’s perspective informs their reactions, and yet, it seems to me, there are, importantly – parameters. It is an obvious observation to make that we agree far more often then we disagree about what constitutes good or successful art. Perhaps it is because art ultimately surpasses exercises in explanation: good art simply rushes in.

It is not enough today, in a country like ours, to have an inclination towards the latter [true culture]; one must have a true passion for it that will give him the power to resist the faked article that surrounds and presses in on him from the moment he is old enough to look at the funny papers (11).

Where else but the blogosphere can one have  a lively discussion about art, love, and authenticity, with perfect strangers? I was directed to Greenberg’s essay by a fellow blogger, and read it, as well as other essays in the book, with much interest.  Fellow blogger, Mr. Johnson does a very good job of discussing the essay’s heart, so I won’t reiterate the salient points regarding the mercenary nature of modern art and kitsch. Nor could I as, after reading the essay,  my heart ran aground in Ilya Efimovich Repin’s portrait of M. Gershin.

That avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating–the fact itself–calls for neither approval nor disapproval. It is true that this culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome […]. But there is one most important difference: the avant-garde moves, while Alexandrianism stands still (8).

Greenberg’s discussion about the difference between avant-garde and kitsch is very compelling. So much so in fact, that half way through the essay, I was driven to seek out the work of Repin based on Greenberg’s referencing him, (and his battle-scene paintings which appealed so embarrassingly, apparently,  to the proletariat) as an example of cheap and easy kitsch.

Where Picasso paints cause, Repin paints effect. Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art, Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art (15).

The first image I took in was that of the portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin. My heart nearly broke as his eyes met mine. All I can say, Mr. Greenberg, is that – if that makes me a peasant, then so be it. One hardly needs to know that Garshin’s life was tragic, that he ended it by throwing himself down a staircase…the painting tells you everything you need to know. It moves.

Poor Repin got raked over the coals in Greenberg’s essay, but at the very end there is a post script. Literally, “P.S.” haha – oh by the way –

P.S. To my dismay I learned years after this saw print that Repin never painted a battle scene; he wasn’t that kind of painter. I had attributed some one else’s picture to him. That showed my provincialism with regard to Russian art in the nineteenth century (21).

Hrmph. Well….apology accepted.