Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Multi-(Tasking, Media, Directional)

Peter Greenaway is a film-maker trained as a painter. He has long been skeptical about the restricted boundaries of cinema and you could not say that his films were obsessive about the traditional characteristics of cinema—the cinema that we have arrived at after a hundred years based on plot, narrative, story-telling, the demands for an emotional involvement between audience and screen, psychologically drawn characters, and a cinema that can justifiably be described for the most part as illustrated text. Some commentators have said that his films are anti-cinema, and that he is not a film-maker at all. He might not disagree with that. He is disquieted by the inability of the cinema that we now have to give us all the rich possibilities and make all the innumerable connections and engender all the potential excitements of the of the late twentieth century world.

No touch, no smell, no temperature, short duration, passive, sedentary audiences, no real audience dialogue, overloaded technical specifications in set-piece High Street architecture, limited to a single frame at a time visible from only one direction, excessive desire for reality, temporary sets, actors trained to pretend, flat illusions, little comprehension of the screen as a screen, omnipotent vested financial interests, and the tyrannies of the frame, the actor and text, and most disturbing of all, subject to the tyranny of the camera.

The list of disenchantments is long. He is far from being alone in holding these views. His present particular strategy to investigate and change these shortcomings, as he sees them, is to invest much time in extra-cinema activities if only in the hope of bringing these activities back into cinema to find ways to re-invent it—for reinvention of the cinema is surely long overdue and very very necessary. A medium without constant reinventio9n is doomed to perish. Many say now that there are no great inventors working in cinema any more. They have gone elsewhere. Perhaps they are right.


—from Preface to exhibition catalog, Peter Greenaway: Flying Over Water (1997)



I have on my bookshelves three books by and about Peter Greenaway, and also numerous books of writings by and about film-maker Derek Jarman. Both of these film-makers have lessons for me to incorporate, as I proceed along my own film-making career. Oh yes, I am starting such a career. I have made close to a dozen short films, ranging in length from 4 to 20 minutes. All have been made digitally (because the new technology makes it feasible for anyone to make a film nowadays) and none of them conform to conventional cinema ideas of narrative, structure, or content. I also have books by Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke, about the films they have done together, such as Kronos and Baraka, in addition to working on Godfrey Reggio's films such as Koyaanisqatsi, and its companion films. (I want to discuss cinema, and its transformation, at greater length, but I'll leave that for another day.)

Being myself an artist who works in more than one artistic medium, I am always interested in other artist who also work in many media. That’s one reason I collect and read books of essays by poets and novelists, especially when they write about the arts. I appreciate artists whose creativity is always present, no matter they are doing.

I am fascinated by artists’ books—by which I mean, fine art books by artists that are themselves works of art. Beautifully designed, typeset, illustrated: all the arts that go into a book manifest, and beautifully integrated. I love hand-made books made of hand-made paper. I have made a few hand-made books, and bound them by hand, in small editions. My sister, who is also an artist, has been making hand-sewn blank books for a decade; I have several, which I use as journals for my poetry and calligraphy. We have collaborated on two books of my poems and her illustrations.

I also like books like Matisse’s Jazz, which is a multi-media presentation of an artist’s conception, hand-written and illustrated by the artist. I like Frederick Franck’s books on creativity such as The Zen of Seeing because they are hand-written and illustrated by the author. There is something very personal in a hand-written book, even if it is mass-reproduced.

When I was young, I was frequently told, pick one artform and become expert in it, if you want to be real artist. When I was in college, I was told the same thing: get to be really good at one artform, and don’t spend so much time on the rest.

I was always suspicious of that advice. I always thought it was a lie. It didn’t represent my personal reality, and made no sense to me. How could anyone not work in more than one creative medium? Was their vision so narrow? That artists should only do one thing, or could only do one thing well, is a conventional wisdom that I have always resisted. I was lucky in my mentors in college, too: my principal advisor in music school was Prof. William Albright, who always told me to do what I wanted to do, and he’d help me through it.

And the boundaries between artistic media always seemed artificial and arbitrary to me. Why couldn’t a composer write words to songs? The divisions between the arts always seemed like mental blinders with no basis in experience: concepts that limited what one should do, rather than assisting one towards what one could do. Why couldn’t a painter also be a good poet? Why not? What’s stopping them but the idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t?

I’ve always worked in more than one artistic medium. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. Even as a young boy, who was mostly dedicated to music, I also drew, and played with type, and made little collages to illustrate poems. To this day, I still keep trying new media regularly, and also regularly return to ones I’ve practiced before.

I am too productive and prolific for my own good. There is one area where the “choose one” advice has been useful, and it’s specifically an area where I have to deal with the keepers of the sacred keys to artistic success: the gallery owners, the marketers, the professional graphic designers, and so forth. I always have so many different bodies of work, in any one medium, that presenting them becomes a challenge, and I have to focus on one body of work at a time, to present it as a coherent stylistic body to the arbiters of taste. I feel like I'm lying, every time I do it, leaving so much out, but I recognize it as a harsh necessity, to the attention of patrons in the art world.

They often label me as scattered, incoherent, a dabbler, and they are wrong. I am devoted to nothing in my life so much as my creative work, no matter what form it takes.

It’s just that I seem to have a knack, which I can’t take credit for, but is just there, something I’ve always have, and have lived with: no matter what medium I put my hands to, I seem to be able to work with it. Everything from linoleum block printing, to quilting, to film-making, to composing a piano quartet, to writing poetry and essays, to cooking, to web design, to photography. Some come more naturally and fluently than others, and I have to work harder at some. I like short forms, in all my media, as writing a symphony, or a novel, is just tedious. Some media I do focus on more than others. If I suffer from a vice, it’s the vice of impatience: two of my favorite four-letter words are DONE and NEXT.

Again, it’s just a knack, a fluke, a natural fluency, that I don’t feel I own, that I don’t feel I deserve credit for. That’s not false modesty: I feel humble to have been given the gifts I have, and I feel I keep them in stewardship, not in ownership. I use the knack, because it allows me to make art, but even if I had no knack, and had to struggle much harder with every piece that I make, I would still make art. I can’t help it. It’s as necessary to me as breathing. I feel blessed to have a useful set of tools.

Thus, I take as my touchstone and guidepost those artists, whose work I like, who work (or worked) in multiple media. Ever since I was in junior high, I’ve been keeping a list of artists who work that way. I always pay attention to what these artists are doing, and I constantly learn from them.

In truth, they are my mentors.

I can remember, even in junior high school, having discussions with teachers, and other clueless adults, about all this. I can remember citing my list of chosen mentors as evidence that it was (and is) perfectly possible to be good in more than just one artistic medium. I remember making my point, quite passionately at times, with my chosen mentors standing beside me, in spirit, as justification and reason enough. And to the arguments that I could not possibly be as accomplished as those artists who I took to be my mentors, I would reply: maybe not, but I’ll never know if I don’t at least make the attempt.

The short list of my main mentors, who I cited even back then, included: Gordon Parks, John Cage, Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, and one or two others.

Thus, I have in my collection many books by artists who have worked in more than one medium. Not all of them are great artists in all the media they worked in, but some of them are surprisingly adept at working across those boundaries between the arts, those boundaries that always seemed so artificial to me.

A partial list, by no means comprehensive, includes: Books of photographs by writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles, and Thomas Merton. Books of essays by painters such as Piet Mondrian, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee. Laurie Anderson’s books of texts and images from her multi-media performance art shows. (Anderson is one of the few artists I will still pay a lot of money to see live, in these days of ridiculous ticket prices.) I’ve already mentioned Greenaway and Jarman, film-makers and painters both of them, who have radically questioned the traditional conventions of cinema. John Cage’s books of lectures, essays, poems, and visual artwork such as etchings, as well as numerous recordings of his musical compositions. A whole library on typography on design that is as much about conceptual art as it is about commercial design solutions. Books by Andy Goldsworthy, whose photographs of his ephemeral sculptures made of natural materials are often the only lasting record of his work; and I make land art sculptures myself, out of materials found at the artwork’s site, in the desert, or by the ocean. Books of visionary photography which break the rules of conventional photo-reportage to create representations of myth, dream, and archetype; books by Jerry Uelsmann, Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And books of multi-media paintings, sculptural visions, and unclassifiable assemblages by visionary artists such as Susan Seddon Boulet, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, M.C. Escher, Isamu Noguchi, Paul Pletka. Books of essays about writing by Gary Snyder, Ursula K. LeGuin, Hayden Carruth, Sam Hamill, Carolyn Kizer, Lu Chi, a hundred others.

The list is long, and I always feel like I’m leaving something important out. But, short of cataloguing my entire library here, I can only represent the trends and core ideas.

I have no overarching theory or art and art-making, no grand unified theory of creativity, no single bible of style. In fact, I question such overarching theories of creativity, if they don’t leave room for the small mysteries, the little moist corners that never seem to get scrubbed, the little bits of chaos that are manifestations of a higher, more paradoxical order.

So, I leave you with no grand conclusions, only an observation or two: As the saying goes, argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours. But argue for your strengths, your widely-strewn and dedicated attentions, and they’re yours, too. It’s enough to be able to make art, anywhere, anytime, using whatever means one finds lying close to hand. They are of great importance in a creative life, those little things lying close at hand, and should never be underestimated or dismissed.

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