04 August 2008

Confession time: I don't know Art

A couple of weeks ago, i commented on “art,” as if I knew something about it. I did receive a response to what I said about Picasso’s Guernica, a black-and-white large canvas depicting his reaction to an air raid on an undefended city in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. (I have not published that response. Yeah, right, try and get something intelligent and liberal into the Washington Times, then get back to me on the First Amendment, OK?) My correspondent explained to me that the lack of color was a starkness-of-war thing, that the abstract faces obviously were in agony-of-spirit, and so forth, and that only a country cretin such myself would miss that. Folks, I am writing from the ridge overlooking Coal Run, a tributary of the Monongahela River, not from the Gobi. Here in West Virginia, we use certain literary devices, in this particular case “irony” and “self-deprecation,” the latter of which leads to “social contrast.” Sometimes I wonder if I overdo self-deprecation, but it just feels so Right. Social contrast is, at times, funny. Funny as in ha-ha, that’s enjoyable and even thought-provoking. That’s one point of writing, that’s why I bother. I certainly do understand that intellectually insecure urban bigots may be surprised that such devices are used outside The City (i.e., in places where normal people aren’t afraid to walk at night).

Now, that being said, I still don’t know Art.

OK, I still don’t know what I like, either.

I was reminded by that when I looked at a website recently.

I don’t keep consistently good track of consumer technology. [And as long as the Earth’s magnetic field supports the magnetic compass, I will not use a GPS.] Up until 1997, I had little clue what this internet was all about, and didn’t really care. I did OK in DOS based WordPerfect, could type and produce docs like a fiend, had decent paper research resources, and I got along fine. It was all deliciously tactile, and I love paper. One effect of the tactile and line-of-sight life was that I lost track of a lot of people who had come and gone in my life. The deer in West Virginia seldom travel more than a couple of miles from where they are born. (No, I don’t know how “they” know that. I cannot prove it. I’ve heard it. It sounds plausible. Get off my ass, blogger.com doesn’t have a footnote function that I’m aware of, and if it does Tree and Emma will tell me, and this is not a term paper.) Well, I don’t geographically stray much, either. Others lead more peripatetic lives and have vanished from my sight. Some have reappeared briefly, often by way of notes they’ve sent when they’ve seen something I’ve written in trade journals or the like. [That’s not a big deal at all - I was never paid for that stuff. The closest I ever got to a writing fee was when I did a cover article for the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. The editor, Jim Page, offered to buy me dinner the next time I came to Los Angeles. I’ve never been to Los Angeles. Unless Friend JeanMarie needs swept off her feet and I can convince LaJ of the necessity/advisability/morality thereof, I have no plans to go there.] One of the people I lost track of was Friend Christina, with whom I attended Parkersburg High School. The last I had heard, she was in KC or thereabouts. Then, along comes this internet thing, and all of the sudden, I’m reconnecting with lots of folks I’ve lost track of. [I still can’t find Friend Christopher Todd Jones, formerly of Newport News, and Friends Geraldine Foucault Katz and Jo Walton Eaton, who I went to law school with. Smart and lovely people. If you know them, have them give me a call, ok?] Anyway, I reconnected with Chris, and have corresponded a bit with her over recent years. Because of my peculiar memory for dates and numbers, I remember her birthday in July, and usually send her a note. [I love it when a judge sets a hearing. I remember something historical about most dates and always pipe up something like, “October 26th? We can’t do it then!” “Why not?” “Well, that’s the 127th anniversary of the Gunfight at the OK Corral!”] This year, she sent me a note talking about her sister, Pamela Tanner Boll, who lives in the Northeast and is a (no kidding) nationally noted documentary film director. I dimly remember Pam at about age 12 as a gangly concentration of ball lightning for whom “sedate” meant only “subsonic.” Pam’s latest project is a film entitled “Who Does She Think She Is?,” a film about women/mothers who are artists. That is such a weak tea description for what obviously is a powerful and moving film, but I’m nowhere near smart enough to do much better. There is a website, www.whodoesshethinksheis.net, to which I refer you for an understandable – no, downright inspirational – discussion. In fact, go ahead and open another tab, take a look, I’ll wait . . .

I am a common sort of guy. I drink a little beer, but only when it is extremely, extremely cold. I drink wine to impress women. Otherwise, I consider it a shame that some idiot let bacteria screw up the grape juice. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a drink of wine, so perhaps my cynicism belies impressing women these days. The first thing I think of when the term “art” is used is the something-or-other-on-canvas painting. I like Norman Rockwell, particularly a painting called “The Scoutmaster.” It’s realistic (and I’m sure there’s a “Realist” view of painting) and it reminds me of stuff I’ve done. It brings a tear to the eye, and I can smell the “woodsmoke at twilight.” (Kipling) Other stuff, I’m not always so impressed. Let’s see: Monet should have stopped at WalMart and gotten some glasses, then his paintings might not have been so fuzzy. (Yeah, I know, “Impressionism,” but I Just Don’t Get It.) Ernest Thompson Seton, gruesome stuff, but again, realism. TR loved him, but he wasn’t a noted art enthusiast, either. Maxfield Parrish, too cute but, OK, it is a nice shade of blue. Jackson Pollock, if there’s something to understand there, damfino what it is. M. C. Escher, that guy must have been abused as a youth by a dysphoric architect. The stuff by amateurs who know how to draw & paint some looks fundamentally OK to me – I used to share an office with some guys, one of whom had this big (4 foot x 5 foot) acrylic painting of a sort of post-apocalyptic distant city skyline in browns and oranges that just fascinated me. I’m sure someone who “knows art” would say that it’s totally prosaic. Who’s right? I like it. It gets me thinking a little. It’s a starting point for thoughts with misty edges that make me uneasy which feels like a stretching thing that I need to do mentally. Anyway, somehow that painting ended up over at the County Clerk’s Office, and I don’t know how others react to it these days. I keep seeing ads in various catalogs and magazines (Smithsonian, National Geographic, Sojourner, even Popular Mechanics) for prints of stuff by Thomas Kinkade. His paintings are either quasi-religioius (images of the Little Church in the Valley) or the equivalent (small town scenes from the 1960's or before) and he does something that seems to play with light in a pleasant way. I’m betting that most Artistic Folks think he’s a commercial hack, but I could be wrong. I like his stuff, it prompts me to feel good. There’s a strange painter from around 1500 who fascinates me, Hieronymus Bosch - Not because of the color or shapes, this guy was so far into symbolism that even the culturally clueless such as this ignorant scribe have an even chance of thinking of some plausible explanation for his images – maybe the wrong one, but plausible, and Bosch isn’t around to give rebuttal testimony. I googled “modern art” and got a long list of artists (mostly painters) I’d never heard of or, if I’d heard of them, it wasn’t about their art. Matisse, there was an odd sci-fi story themed on his painting eyes on poker chips which also involved a beer tap in a prosthetic arm, and I doubt any of that comes from real life. Dali had a helluva moustache, that’s the sort of irrelevant things I remember.

Well, I looked at the film’s website because it’s Chris’s sister, and then I said wow, and I looked at it for real because no matter who’s sister it was, I was just stunned into thinking what a clueless cultural state I’ve been in, approximately since birth. I looked around the site for hours and emerged, well, sort of unexpectedly shaken, and I must confess, rather full of that pressing envy of the merely competent for the truly gifted. (I’m mindful that “gifted” is usually short hand for those who have unusually acute cognitive and/or perceptual abilities and who totally work their asses off to develop those abilities.)

The artists showcased by Pam Boll are mostly in painting/sculpture, plus one in theater. The trailer and website say things about the whole work-life balance thing that lawyers bleat about (but basically know nothing about) and which obviously has great implications for moms. That I don’t understand. Hey, I really love women. (Note to the Not Again Roger You Dumbass Response Squad: This is NOT one of Those Unfortunate Occasions. Sit back down.) Women are fundamentally different, and I don’t mean that in the snide vive la difference Playboy magazine sense. I started at the bar under Judge J. Harper Meredith, and I still revere his memory. (I think that the current young people will feel the same way about Judge Fred Fox.) When I started, the “maternal presumption” in domestic cases was just freshly overturned by trendy gender-neutral stuff, and Judge Meredith said that was stupid. “Roger,” he said, “you can’t overrule a million years of biology.” He was right. Moms are different from Dads. That pisses me off. It also pisses me off that, no matter how well I do dieting, I’m not going to be a jockey unless I find a track where they make traditional weight jockeys carry 150 pounds of lead in their saddles. Dr. Reality is a jerk. But still Reality. Dads have a unique and wonderful role to play in children’s development. It is not exactly the same role as the Moms’. Live with it, guys. Stay at home moms are not unemployed. They simply have about 1-3/4 full time jobs. If they work a full time out-of-home job, then they have 2-3/4 full time jobs. A great dad will come close, real close, and in my practice I don’t see an overabundance of fantastic dads. (Nor, for that matter, nearly enough fantastic moms.) But I hope they’re out there.

I don’t know what sort of time, thought, intensity or dedication Art requires. I assume it’s not accounting, you can’t enter your workspace at 8 AM, and work hard until 5PM, put down your tools, and leave without thinking about the work until tomorrow. (By the way, that’s not a description of a CPA’s job, theirs is an unexpectedly creative profession within brittle limits.) I’m assuming that Art goes on in the artist’s mind most of the time, in whatever form of art that the s/he creates.

Is “creative” writing “art”? Am I wallowing in some sort of art form when I sit with a Red Bull, an attitude, and a laptop? Well, I’d say that Rosary, Doreen and I would vote yes, but we have a huge vested interest. If it’s art, how much art? It has to vary. Mostly, I do reviews, essays, politics (ads, op-eds) and social criticism. (If I ever do a novel, it’ll be in the series-of-letters format of Up The Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman – I do better in short spurts.) I remember that TR said forcefully that “It is not the critic who counts, it is the man in the arena,” and so forth. Doreen writes fiction (and heavy stuff as well) and Rosary not only writes, she teaches this “art” to others. (Rosary, I bought a copy of the philosophy text you recommended.) If writing is in any way art, the tools are to those of the painter as the charcoal of the cave dweller is to the modern palette. To deal with an intuitive (or at least multiple alternative algorithmic) universe, we have only extremely linear tools - less than 50 symbols, with a limited number of different ways to present them (italics, bold, underlined, different fonts, and so forth) and they only go one way, left to right from the top of the page to the bottom then turn the page and start again. Does that limit our art? Or is it the art of the gem-cutter, who is producing variations of the same thing each time, that being the whole point of the art?

The number of tools of the painter and sculptor and the different media of expression may not be infinite, but it’s so large that it might was well be. The painter has a visible spectrum with as many colors as the difference in the number of waves between the faintest red and faintest violet, plus every conceivable combination of colors, and as many variations of brightness as there are possible numbers of reflected photons. That’s a lot. For the sculptor, they have every possible geometric form, regular and irregular, and quite a few materials and methods, plus they also can use the same color universe as the painter. That’s daunting to me. Duh. There are no doubt as many jackleg physical artists in the world as jackleg mediocre writers, so what is it that sets these women artists in Who Does She Think She Is? apart from the mere dabblers? Is it a market decision? If art equals sales, the LaHaye “Left Behind” novels are better than Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Milli Vanilli beats Beethoven. Jackass: The Movie is superior to Citizen Kane. The Chia Pet is much more meaningful than the Pieta. OK, then is it the “critic who counts”? Critics differ. (See below the delicious argument I have with Pastor Josh about a film.) Critics may be ignorant snobs. Hell, I’m a critic, not even a good one, and I am. I look at the physical art in Who Does She Think She Is?, and I stare at the depictions, and I think first, you know, I’m seeing these on an LCD screen on a laptop, no depth, no perspective change, nothing tactile appearing, no “presence,” and while I can’t say, “Shazam, I love that” like I say when I see a familiar Rockwell [I just looked up The Scoutmaster to be sure], there is just something as I stare at the flat photos of these things that capitvates me and makes me wonder What I’ve Been Missing. There’s something there, it’s beautiful and I can’t pull it in. For some reason, I’m reminded of when I was about 4 years old, and saw my Dad driving a screw into wood. I couldn’t figure out how that worked, the screw was getting shorter and shorter, so there must be some sort of very complicated and small machinery going on in there that only Dad understood. The simple answer (wheel/cylinder plus 2 inclined planes plus lever) was so elegant whenever I learned it that it was just a beautiful thing. So when I see these paintings and sculptures in Pam’s movie, I know I’m missing the point, I know that there is beauty there, and I’m only seeing its shadow. What am I missing? What am I on the cusp of? Something as simple as how a screw works? And what worries me – OK, scares me – is that I’ll run out of time before I find out, and that there will be another world that I will never have visited which will be lost for all Time to me.

Is music art? What started it? Why did ancient Man (and I’m cognizant of the inherent gender bias in our language) start stretching animal skins over cylinders and beating on them? Or pulling and plucking tendons? What made them decide that the musical tone which comes from a string vibrating at 440 hertz equals A in the fourth octave, and that is “on pitch” and sounds pretty but a tone of 453 hertz sounds awful? Who decided how to arrange sounds side by side, let alone what different notes were acceptable when sounded at the same time? Music also presents pretty starkly another problem with art, that people like different things. I hope that the bulk of humanity would say that “rap” is to music as, well, I am to urbane. But beyond that, there is hopeless disagreement. Country music fans are fanatical nuts. (That’s me, give me some Aaron Tippin and a long neck on a hot afternoon.) New Agers are odd. (Me again.) Acid rockers, freaks. (My heart quivers.) But lots of them aren’t me, too. Disco, blues, dance, jazz, metal, latin, pop, R&B, soundtracks & musicals, and so forth, some groove and some would only marginally rather than listen than die trying to escape the hall. Is it all art? For a while in college, I thought that the mandatory “Music Appreciation” course was farcical, but I need music so today, understanding a little about it helps. When I first heard Satie’s Gymnopedies on scratchy (in both senses) earphones at the “music lab” at FSC (“lab,” my ass, a lab is where you have burners, test benches and so forth), I thought that the music was terminally inane - Moonlight Sonata, the Disney version. As as I edit this essay one last time, you’d never guess what’s cookin’ on the MP3.

OK, dance, there’s an alleged art form that I totally don’t understand. Part of that is that I move with the fluidity and grace of an offensive guard who’s just been tasered waltzing in snowshoes. Tragic, just tragic. Now, you can chuckle at ballet people as being frail and “artsy,” particularly the guys, but it isn’t so – take a look at their muscles, those people are athletes, and one of those guys could rip your arms off. Why is it artful and beautiful and worthwhile spending society’s resources on to have people rhythmically move their bodies? I’m sure someone who loves “the dance” could tell me, but I don’t know anybody like that. Universities have Dance Departments. Somebody thinks that this is important. It produces nothing. Well, neither does any other art in the strictest industrial sense. (And the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin. That was OK with Jesus, so why do I complain?) Why do we do any of it? Why don’t we all wrap ourselves into going into the coal mine and get our joy from bolting the roof and figuring BTU content or baling the first cutting of hay for the cattle or rebuilding that engine very, very well and exalting in the close mechanical tolerances? Why do we need the music, the painting (even Norman Rockwell), the film, the sculpture, the play, or other people dancing?

Maybe film is art. There’s a story. And pictures, moving. And color. Angles. Music. Sound. Used to be, for me to enjoy it, it had to be something a movie with Something Happening to get my interest. The Graduate was stupid the first time I saw it. Now, I do love it every time. To overfill a schedule one semester at old FSC, I took a Film Appreciation course to Jack Hussey. I thought it would be bullshit, easy A, a reason to slow down to idle 3 hours a week. But you know, I think I enjoyed that class more than any I ever had and got as much out of it as Physics. Even today, I’ll watch a film and thanks to Jack really be able to get into it. Oh, not on all levels. A confession: I’ve been happily hassling Pastor Josh Patty, a stealth intellectual and film critic (www.cinemautopia.blogspot.com) about his inability to appreciate the Clarke/Kubrick icon, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Josh pans it. I have told him he’s monstrously ignorant, and that can result in midnight shift coup getting counted on him. [Minor contest: Anybody recognize the terms? I had to explain it to Josh.] But: I do not understand the ending of 2001. Never have. There’s a hotel room, an old guy, a baby, something or other “full of stars,” a tiny spaceship, he forgot his helmet, corridors lined with neon lights “that split the night,” colorful visual chaos, all set to Richard Strauss. There has to be a Message there. I don’t get it. Acting superior as if I do could give me a little mysterious oooh and ahhh factor (or, to perceptive people, the knowledge that I'm full of shit), but I really have no clue what’s going on. Oh, I live on the same street as Jack & Nancy Hussey and see them taking a walk now and then. I love to stop and chat with them about literature, film, life & whatever, they are both lovely people.

And I don’t mean to ignore theater. Angela, the theater person in Who Does She Think She Is?, what is it that she creates, and where does she get her passion for it? Well, I haven’t done any or seen much theater, but it’s like a film, I suppose - but with 3 dimensions, limited space, limited venues and I suppose a more “representational” feel. And live, it’s done live, there are no do-overs or coffee breaks. And it’s quite ephemeral, a performance can be filmed, but then that’s a movie, not the theatrical production itself. When the curtain falls, it falls, and that identical experience will not happen again. Must that not be frustrating to Angela and her sisters? It’s like ice-sculpting – you can fashion a great swan, but it’ll melt the same as a lousy swan. Is human memory an adequate retort or an adequate archive for her art?

Why art at all? What role in our lives? Does it make our lives better? More meaningful? How should we support it? Individually? Through government? Should our tax dollars through the National Endowment for the Arts support art which insults Jesus or Mohammad? Or which depicts a very realistic Old Scratch Himself roasting Darwin over charcoal? Was former attorney general John Ashcroft justified (or even to be commended) for spending $8,000 of public money covering up the naked breast on Lady Justice in the press room at the Department of Justice? (Al Franken suggests that this was so there would be only one boob at a time shown on TV.)

Isn’t art everywhere? OK, appliance design. Years ago, all appliances were “avocado,” a baby-shit green, with lots of chrome. Then, they were mustard-golden-something with rounded edges, then black enamel, and now we see lots of brushed stainless steel with crisp right angles. You can’t tell me that science shows that brushed stainless steel with sharp edges keeps food in the ‘fridge colder. We buy cars for their looks. If function were all that counted, we would manufacture (1) the old VW Beetle (aerodynamic, cheap, dependable), (2) the Checker (simple, easy to repair), (3) Chrysler mini-vans (holds lots of people) and (4) Jeeps (for when you need 4WD). We'd also use one standard truck chassis with modular components to make pick-ups, delivery vans, flat-beds and specialized vehicles. Oh - everything with a manual transmission, cheaper to manufacture, more economical. We’d offer, say, 4 colors for minimal differentiation with industrial efficiency. Anything more would be, well, artistic. Now, what do we have? Soooo many artistic designs, and purchasing pays little attention to function. Yups buy unneeded SUV’s with never-used 4WD so that they will . . . will . . . what? Look manly? Is this the Marlboro Man thing? We judge books by covers, so there is quite an industry in book cover art. That Cone Cordless Vacuum, some engineer didn’t decide that was the most efficient shape, some artist said folks would think that’s pretty. Is commercial and industrial art cynical? Or just part of the beauty of the world? I’m lost here. No kidding.

I’m not intentionally omitting things that others see as art forms. I just don’t know them all. I like good leather work. I have (another) new cell phone, and the next time the gun show comes to town, Dave & I will go and immerse ourselves in that sub-culture go to the leather guys’ booth and see what they have in the way of holsters, and I’ll buy something decorative. Stained glass, some people like that. I remember my first creative writing course to a moderately well-known poet of the 1970's, Pete Zivkovic. (Google him, see some of his stuff. There’s also a Pete Zivkovic film technician who worked on LOTR and a Pete Zivkovic stunt driver, those are other guys.) One night, Pete went into one of the first free-form social rants I ever saw. Pete was a funny guy - built like a fireplug, had been a college football lineman, hair like Michael Bridges in Wall Street, Viva Zapata moustache, always wore down-at-the-heel cowboy boots. He showed a little film, all of 10 minutes, tops, showing a guy making a simple stained glass sun with a face and hanging it out in the woods in a tree. That was Pete’s starting point for Art and freedom and why nobody had the guts to do that “these days” (1972?) and maybe that was one of the events where I realized that worthwhile political and social speech doesn’t have to be sedate, polite and have the crusts cut off. I miss Pete, he died a few years ago, and I’d like to sit on a porch and exchange rants and jokes. But with Pete, I’d still come up with more questions than answers.

I suppose I should count the question marks here. I’ve used more of them here than in any other post.

I don’t know art. This is painful.

It’s your fault, Chris. And yours, Pam. You made me poke my head out of my limited world.

Thank you, dearest ones.

Pippa passes.



Joshua Patty said...


Very interesting and good post about the aesthetics of art. I read a lecture once (in a printed collection) where someone suggested (and I paraphrase) that art was any form that could focus our attention of a beautiful reality in our mundane existence that we overlook. If so, dance is art when we appreciate human movement apart from getting from Point A to Point B; sculpture is art when we see something sublime in physical form that we overlook amidst our busyness. Seems plausible to me, but how subjective it is then.

Anyway, I must chime in on two parts of your discussion. In your music section, you question why A is 440 hertz. Some recent studies have suggested that there is a natural vibration in the human body at 440 hertz, which means that many of us naturally walk around with "A" quite literally stuck in our head.

As for our ongoing disagreement on 2001, I must confess that I don't remember the final scene you describe. I take this to mean that I must have fallen asleep A FOURTH TIME trying to watch this movie. I'm glad many people think it's a masterpiece, and, as I've told you, I recognize the superior special effects. But I have a hard time recognizing a film as a masterpiece when it puts me to sleep several times over several different days. Unless Kubrick was trying to create a cinematic sleeping pill.

pamela tanner boll said...

Roger--Chris pointed me to your blog page here. Thanks for writing--I loved the thoughtful rumination on art and life...I also had to laugh at your characterization of me at twelve!

I have always always been drawn to the BIG Questions in life...why are we here? What matters? How do I live a GOOD life and what makes it so?

For me, the best of art can remind us of what matters--it can move us, make us cry, make us glad to be alive, make us question our actions, our values....make us want to be better people. The practice of putting words on paper (and YES writing is ART!) or of paint on paper is a leap into the unknown. It takes courage--you are "making your mark," saying what matters to you. As an artist, I want to pierce the loneliness of being human. I want to say, "THIS is beautiful! Let me show you..." This sharing of my vision is part of the drive, or the "purpose" of dance, of music, of image-making, of writing.

To make art is, at its best, an integrating experience--it knits together the head, the heart and the hand and therefore, can be a marvelously healing activity. I feel strongly, that we are meant to work with each--we make known what we feel, what we sense, what we think, through our bodies---and we can transcend the old, outdated, yet still potent dualism between mind and body that rules our society...through the arts.

So, I do feel that there is a strong impulse in all of us to feel deeply, to experience beauty. The problem with this is that we only want the "goodies": happiness, joy, peace. We cannot experience those feelings without also experiencing hurt, loneliness, ugliness, anger...We flee from those strong emotions, wrapping ourselves in comfort. Safety. Routine. Sameness. Artists are those who choose to live with more open-ness. To forgo the comfort of safety for truth telling (not so different from a lawyer's quest for justice, is it?

So, thanks for writing, Roger. I truly enjoyed your reverie. I hope you get to see the film.

Oh, on another matter, of course, women and men are different and being a mother is an important matter. The most important, one could argue....My point, is that the mother's perspective, having to do with the vital issues of birth and nurturing and paying attention and the mundane care giving mixed with the divine gifts of a child's laughter, a child's first steps...this perspective has been MISSING from our literature, our song, our paintings. We have countless pictures of the Madonna and Child....but, this is an idealized version of Mother. And it is from the male perspective and as such, does not reflect "lived" experience. I feel this "lived" experience" including the good, the bad and the ugly--needs to be part of our aesthetic, our cultural awareness....

Also, let's face it, at times, we STILL either idealize or dismiss the work of women in this culture....my film addresses these issues.

yours, Pam