Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ambient Podcast Broadcast

There's an ongoing Spacemusic podcast out of the Netherlands, hosted by TC from Rotterdam. (An eccentric radio announcer if every there was one, but with good taste in ambient music, trance, and techno, and their related genres.) I've been listening to Spacemusic for years.

On the Spacemusic webpage, scroll down a bit to the episode titled 07 Jun 10 Coffee Break: 64-bit podcast. You can download or listen via from there, or subscribe and download via iTunes.

The last track on this podcast episode, starting just after 59 minutes, and about 8 minutes long, features Tony Kapela playing mostly bass guitar (and processing), and myself playing Chapman Stick. You'll hear some recognizable Stick sounds in there, but mostly it's very floaty-ambient, which is very appropriate for this Spacemusic program. I was very pleased to be part of this. (Actually, although I've listened to Spacemusic for years, I didn't know Tony had finished and submitted this track till I heard the show. Surprise!) TC seemed to think those were guitar sounds, but htey're actually made on Stick.

Ambient Stick marches on!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 28, 2010


Sunday, June 27, 2010

for Sonny Sharrock

Sonny Sharrock was one of the great free jazz improvising musicians of the past century. Both as a sideman and a leader, as well as a solo artist, his free jazz guitar work was influential and iconic. I have most the recordings he appeared on, and I freely admit he influenced my own playing. When I feel like playing jagged melodic lines, or shards-of-glass chords and arpeggios, I think of Sonny.

He should have been more famous as a musician than he was. He was often a sideman on other musicians' projects, brilliantly adding his brand of sweet and spiky guitar to their projects. He played with Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, and many of the other iconic free jazz musicians. Late in life he had a "rediscovery" resurgence of his career, leading to several new solo albums, as well albums as a band leader, produced by Bill Laswell, who also wrote his own tribute to Sonny.

One of Sonny's classic comments about what he wanted to do musically could stand as an artist's statement:

I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings. . . . I've been trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song. I know it's possible.
—Sonny Sharrock

Here's the poem I wrote after Sonny's death. It's my homage and memorial. It's certainly not the only such poem to have been written.

for Sonny Sharrock (1940–1994)

your shards of glass
have caught you by the thumbs

and pulled you up:    up:
into extended chords.
They finally sound right,

ringing as they were always meant to.
You wanted the knife-edged tone
of your guitar to always be more
near Coltrane’s giant wail than it was,
forever tearing the envelope.
You ran your hands across the sharpened strings
till something bled:    our preconceptions.

Your fingers.
It’s not enough to just do.
You have to only be.    Be whatever it is.

Sonny, your in-the-moment
sheets of sound, wrapping around us
like the aurora, always caught me on fire.
Your desire taught you the way
to play without thinking; beyond thought,
in the music, in the instant, at once,
rising up,
perfection.     Melody.     The lion’s roar.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Spirits in the Material World

Having been fighting an uphill struggle against chronic illness, working hard to get that under control so I can get my life back, I find myself watching a movie or two over the past week, and being pulled in perhaps more deeply than usual.

Gods and Monsters (1998) is a fictionalized portrait of the last days of James Whale, the great director who set the standard and style of the best Hollywood horror movies in the 1930s. (Based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, this film contains one of Sir Ian McKellan's masterpiece performances.) I watched Gods and Monsters again tonight, having not seen it since I first watched it in the theatre during its initial release. I found it to be deeply affecting, in ways many of my literary friends no doubt would dismiss—but then, the whole LGBT/outsider subtext is beyond most of them, except intellectually. No one knows what it's like to have to encode your self in your art quite like artists who have been closeted and hidden LGBT or other minorities or oppressed groups. Except perhaps intellectually or theoretically,

If you believe the New Age cliché that We're not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we're spiritual beings have a physical experience, you can come around to the idea of the spirit-in-flesh (spirit enfleshed) rather naturally. But what of the monster's flesh? What of the role the monster plays in each of Whale's films, in which it, or he, stands in for the compleat Outsider, the rejected Other? The monster never asked to be made—none of us ask to be born, either—and finds himself in a world that hates and fears him, simply for being alive. It's not hard to view that as a gay subtext within Whale's horror films; and it's a subtext that has been discussed, written about, and portrayed extensively, not least in this modern film. We are our own gods, as well as being monsters. We are both.

Much is made in the film of Whale's experiences in the trenches of World War I, where he first fell in love with another man, only to see him murdered by war. At the end of his life, in the film, Whale can no longer evade or escape the horrors of his own life: he has too much time on his hands, he has lost most of his creative ability to aging and (possibly neurological, although it's not made explicit) disability, and none of the distractions are working anymore. Not even memories of the pretty boys frolicking nude in his pool in the middle of the night, as he watched, smiling.

Having spent a week dealing with my own memories, my own horrors both recently-overcome and recently-renewed, it's hard not to see the parallels. Isolated by distance, age, time, knowledge, experience, sexual identity: things that cut us off from each other, from the general run of humankind, from the usual topics of ordinary conversation—which all seems so dull, anyway, when your feet are in the fire—you relish even a moment of voyeurism. Which is not the same as pornography.

As a photographer I'm more of a voyeur than a pornographer—even when making photos of the erotic (male) nude. I'm not interested in titillation for its own sake, but only as a byproduct of something that is beautiful. Is it the beauty that turns us on, that makes us monstrous? Or is it the monsters that make themselves desirable? The argument about whether or not homosexuality is monstrous or natural is entirely irrelevant: what matters is whether beauty is also terrible.

Well, it is. It inspires awe, which is a form of terror. Beauty is but the beginning of terror. —Rilke

Another movie I re-watched recently is based on a Marvel Comics antihero, Ghost Rider. In its own way, just as campy as a James Whale film. Gods and Monsters is certainly the more serious of these two films. But both carry similar tropes about being the Outsider, the misunderstood: being the Monster. In both, the heroes are the monsters; the point is made absolutely, and explicitly, in each case. There is no pretending otherwise.

I used to read the Ghost Rider comic book regularly during its most philosophical run in the late 1980s. The character of Johnny Blaze, and his inner conflict with his demonic alter ego, appealed to me, I now imagine, because I was feeling more and more like an Outsider myself. My favorite soap opera at that time in my life was not a TV drama, but another Marvel comic book: The Uncanny X-Men. (In its heyday of being written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne.) I've watched all the movies made from those characters, as well. In the second film, X2: X-Men United, there is an explicit scene in which one of the student mutant characters comes out as a mutant to his family, who are scared and angry. At one point, the mother asks her son, the mutant, "Couldn't you just stop being a mutant?" The parallels to so many coming-out stories of LGBT youth and adults to their families are explicit and absolutely obvious: how many parents have said to their children, "Couldn't you just stop being gay?" The connection of being rejected as being Other is the same whether you're gay, or have mutant powers. It's rare for an otherwise action-oriented movie to get it so openly, so readily. This coming-out scene was so familiar to me, from my own life, that I had to both laugh out loud and cringe at the same time—which again, is the sort of response the coded layers of humor and pain in James Whale's movies also typically evoke in the clued-in watcher. The parallels are again obvious.

Ghost Rider, the Devil's bounty hunter, who takes his curse and makes it something of a force for good rather than evil, is a spiritual being having a physical-world experience. Movies are flickers of light on a screen: it's hard to get less physical than that, and remain substantially part of the physical world. The generations of men and women who have had to hide their true nature from others, for whatever reason, hid behind screens of coded behavior, coded messages, encoded speech and gesture and knowing looks. And each of these are stories that both tell us who we are, and help us figure out who we are, when such stories are reflected in entertainment. And what else are campy horror movies and comic books but entertainments?

Or perhaps they are something much, much more: perhaps they are the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves, however coded or layered with meaning. Perhaps they are a kind of archetypal autobiography: which is why they remain compelling, decades after they were first written, or drawn, or filmed.

And that's what art does, even more than entertainment: It endures. It still speaks to us, to our human condition, to our wounds and our hopes, long after its makers are gone.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Streaks of Color Fire

embrace of vision
red streaked sun star flash and fire
oceans vibrating

sea of fire in the sand
everything that is, is alive

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, June 19, 2010


and Shiva dancing in the flames,
and Shiva dancing in the flames,
and Shiva telling us through flames,
the world, the world is fire. . . ..

—Shiva on the Plains

Dedication: To my Father, who died three years ago, just before Father's Day

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 18, 2010

Prairie Thunderstorm

You can see them coming, building, rising like a wall of air, long before they arrive. The open sky a backdrop for time.

Storms roll ponderously across the sky, darkening and lightening. Seem to move slowly only because still in the distance. Then suddenly on top of you, a flash and shudder, and all the waters of heaven blind you to the road. Now slow, now frighteningly quickened.

Storm season on the open prairie. The glacial-outwash utterly flat area just north of town, where the flood washed into a lake made by the terminal moraine to the south. So flat you can see forever. Low hills surround. The long view of heaven and earth. Dragons in the clouds, phoenix rising from lightning-struck groves.

Patches of heaven break through to the darkened lands. Promising. The air so clear now, wiped clean, you can feel it sparkle. Fresh grass smell, bruised flower smell. Little roadside buddhas sit and wait for refreshment.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Photographer's Garden 2

The season's first roses:

And some of this year's first lilies. All the lilies I planted in the front garden last summer have split their bulbs over the winter. In most cases, I am getting three stalks where last year I planted one. They're spreading, and growing, and all I had hoped for.

I'm having a bit of a fight with the deer and the rabbits. They find the bulbs, before they open, just too delicious. So I've been sprinkling the garden with deer-blood fertilizer (they hate the smell) and cayenne pepper and/or chili powder (which keeps almost everything from being too tasty to their delicate ruminant tastebuds). Every time it rains, I have too to redo the repellants, as they wash away. One night I forgot, and the deer got a few of the buds, while the rabbits ate somme hosta leaves. So, each time it rains you just have to remember to put out more cayenne and other powders.

Labels: , , ,

Green Man 2

In the Greening, the Great God Pan, the Green Man rises again, come Spring, come Summer.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sidney Lanier: The Marshes of Glynn

I just wrote here, in reference to poetry: I don't care about form: I care about the musical properties of rhythm, pattern, and silence. Those concerns can lead to generating form. But form is musical, generative, organic. It comes out of the poem itself, rather than being imposed upon the form beforehand.

In saying this, I realize that I have now come full circle, across decades of involvement with poetry, to one of the original reasons I was drawn to poetry. I have also come full circle to one of the poets who spoke most to me of poetry's music, when I was still in my teens, still discovering all this: Sidney Lanier.

Sidney Lanier was born in Georgia in 1842. During the Civil War, he was captured and interred, during which he contracted tuberculosis, which he suffered from until his death in 1881. (Those of us who suffer from chronic illnesses can perhaps imagine what this must have been like, if only to some small extent.) After the War, he became a professional musician. He had a native talent for playing the concert flute, which he developed with practice and learning to read music. He became famous as a concert flutist, and also as a composer/performer of show pieces for his instrument.

(To a composer, in case you didn't know, a "show piece" is a piece of technically challenging music designed to show off a performer's high level of skill, and also what the instrument is capable of doing in the right hands. Most of Franz Liszt's famous pieces for piano and orchestra are show pieces. Many composers don't take show pieces very seriously, because while they're technically challenging they're not always very heartfelt; but they serve their purpose. For my own music, I do have a history of pushing the performers past their technical comfort zones, into more challenging material; I've written a four-movement suite for solo flute that pushes the technical challenges rather far, while I hope still being musical rather than merely showy.)

In 1876, Lanier was commissioned and wrote The Centennial Meditation of Columbia, an oratorio for the nation's centennial celebrations.

In order to support his family, Lanier wrote poetry, mostly for magazine publication. He also wrote versions of the myths and legends of English history, such as The Boy's King Arthur, which were immensely popular well into the early 20th C.

His poetry was strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon forms of poetry, and his particular style is intensely musical, lyrical, rhythmic, and sensual. It is rather different from most other Victorian poetry in that was no slave to either poetic form or to the common metric straightjacket of iambic pentameter.

Lanier wrote out his poetic theories—which are musical theories of poetics—in critical volumes such as The Science of English Verse. For me, his most important literary-critical work was: Music and poetry: essays upon some aspects and inter-relations of the two arts. I first read this volume in my twenties, and I was very much interested in it as a composer as well as a writer. I found that his ideas about musical melody and harmony were very much of his time, and not directly relevant to my more contemporary musical language. But the book nonetheless strongly influence my thinking, especially with regards to thinking musically about poetry.

Essentially, and this is very much a musician's view, Lanier opines that poetry is an art subservient to music. That's a composer's viewpoint. I find it congenial because I share it. I am not A Poet as those are who when life's experience urges them to respond artistically, immediately think in words. Words are not my first, most basic response; in fact, I know well how words can limit or even betray the evocation of experience. Words are often inadequate containers for emotion and experience, and fall far short of being able to contain or describe life. The artfulness of words comes in the ways poetry can be made to transcend ordinary words alone. Words come after sounds and images for me. A lot of my poems are soundtracks; a lot of my poems are recordings of images seen on the mind's inner eye. I care little for the manipulation of words as an artform purely made up of words. I care even less for poetic formalism. But I do care about poetry's musical possibilities. A lot of my poems use non-normative syntax and grammar in musical ways.

So I have come full circle with the admission that I don't care about form in poetry: I care about poetry's music. Its musicality, the musical way it works, the musical shapes and gestures and forms it can assume. Poetry must work equally well for me when read aloud as when read on the page; both are essential aspects of the poem, its sound as well as its look and its component typography and orthography.

Here's an image-collage of the first two pages of The Marshes of Glynn, from an edition of Lanier's Hymns to the Marshes.

And here is the poem, in all its music. Look for the musical line, the repetition, the rhythm and melody, all of which follow Lanier's own theories of musical composition in poetry. And do yourself a favor, and read at least the beginning of the poem out loud.

The Marshes of Glynn

Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,--
    Emerald twilights,--
    Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;--

Beautiful glooms, soft dusks in the noon-day fire,--
Wildwood privacies, closets of lone desire,
Chamber from chamber parted with wavering arras of leaves,--
Cells for the passionate pleasure of prayer to the soul that grieves,
Pure with a sense of the passing of saints through the wood,
Cool for the dutiful weighing of ill with good;--

O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine,
While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine
Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine;

But now when the noon is no more, and riot is rest,
And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,
And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem
Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream,--
Ay, now, when my soul all day hath drunken the soul of the oak,
And my heart is at ease from men, and the wearisome sound of the stroke
Of the scythe of time and the trowel of trade is low,
And belief overmasters doubt, and I know that I know,
And my spirit is grown to a lordly great compass within,
That the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn
Will work me no fear like the fear they have wrought me of yore
When length was fatigue, and when breadth was but bitterness sore,
And when terror and shrinking and dreary unnamable pain
Drew over me out of the merciless miles of the plain,--

Oh, now, unafraid, I am fain to face
The vast sweet visage of space.
To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn,
Where the gray beach glimmering runs, as a belt of the dawn,
For a mete and a mark
To the forest-dark:--
Affable live-oak, leaning low,--
Thus--with your favor--soft, with a reverent hand,
(Not lightly touching your person, Lord of the land!)
Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.

Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beachlines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows the firm sweet limbs of a girl.
Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight,
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.

Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free.
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!
Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun,
Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:
Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within
The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

And the sea lends large, as the marsh: lo, out of his plenty the sea
Pours fast: full soon the time of the flood-tide must be:
Look how the grace of the sea doth go
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
Here and there,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
    Farewell, my lord Sun!
The creeks overflow: a thousand rivulets run
'Twixt the roots of the sod; the blades of the marsh-grass stir;
Passeth a hurrying sound of wings that westward whirr;
Passeth, and all is still; and the currents cease to run;
And the sea and the marsh are one.

How still the plains of the waters be!
The tide is in his ecstasy.
The tide is at his highest height:
    And it is night.

And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
    Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn.

(Baltimore, 1878)

Labels: , , ,

Brush Mind Poems

Two brush mind book poems, from my journal. Written on two different occasions, months apart, but following the same brush-mind to place brush pen to paper.

the black pitch
of the old boat

the old shorebound sailor
remembers, nodding by the fire

cold harbors, cold rooms
nights at sea when the mast iced

another log set on the hearth
cold bones never warm enough, growing colder

a gold cloud in summer
lee of the hummingbird's lair

falcons over sparrows
the shaved fields still fallow

the sun calls at last
to its lost boon companion

the fire's gone out, hands on the rocker
chair's arms as cold as the hearthstone

A bit of a memory of my grandfather, the sailor who left his home in Norway's Arctic seacoast north to emigrate to Michigan. But never leaving the sea, as the house he built in Muskegon was less than a mile from Muskegon Lake, and thus not far from the inland sea, Lake Michigan.

Also a bit of a poetic homage to that northern poet whose voice I keep finding in my own, whenever I write about norther things, about granite and sea and weather and the winter's cold: George Mackay Brown.

And looking back, written out of my own cold feelings, these past few months when the illness and anemia made me unseasonably shiver with chills.

blue twilight
fading evening light
evening star crystallizes
start of western sun
westing down to dusk
down darkening grove
darkening cardinal's red
cardinal ordained to weep
ordinal compass rose
risen eastern shine

Form emerging as the poem proceeds—just playing around with form and internal rhyme—middle rhyme becomes first word of next line, more or less. Making a sort of circle around the evening sky, as well as in the poem. (Probably need to drop that first line. Or maybe it's the title?)

I don't care about form. I think the contemporary obsession with poetry's formal craft is a symptom of having nothing to say. I don't go out of my way to find forms; although sometimes, like this, they arise organically out of the poem, during the writing process. Sometimes you emphasize that effect later. Sometimes, a form appears immediately upon starting the first line, like that feeling that emerges when you just know the phone's going to ring an instant before it does.

But I don't care about form: I care about the musical properties of rhythm, pattern, and silence. Those concerns can lead to generating form. But form is musical, generative, organic. It comes out of the poem itself, rather than being imposed upon the form beforehand. Let the dogs run. Don't hobble them before the gate's even open.

Maybe not great or even very good poems; seeds of something for later, perhaps. Examples of the brush-mind journal process. A lot of poems start this way for me, momentary inspirations and random scraps in the journal, then get revised into something better, later, or abandoned as not being worth it. Most poems that start this way need tightening; there's almost always a few words that clutter, or a line that's a warm-up line, something to get the poem going, to oil the gears, and needs to be dropped.

I could have used a stronger word than "dropped" to talk about revision. Excision, chopped, cut out, some other surgical or sculptural metaphor. How violently we describe the revision process sometimes; it makes me wonder if those writers who use violent metaphors to describe the writing and revising processes aren't accidentally saying something about self-hatred and self-esteem.

The creative writing process has to allow for less-than-stellar work as nobody writes winners every time; if an artist does try to convince you that they only make good work, they're either lying or self-deluded. Remember that most artists only show you their good work, not their work-in-process pieces. Remember too that finishing a piece can be an elusive process; sometimes you come back to it, years later, and finally know what to do, to make it come alive. Sometimes you just have to abandon it, and try again from scratch.

I find that for me, the poems that fall into the middle zone, between first/second drafts and coming back years later, are often the worst poems. I usually wait for a poem a strike. I don't go looking. And I learned long ago that trying to force a poem always, always turns it into an intellect-driven process, and kills any life in the poem itself. I can write to prompts, if I feel the gods and archetypes tapping on my shoulder. Otherwise, it's stale. I've said it before: poems written only from the head always fail. Precisely because there's no heart in them. So, I tend to find my best poems at the extremes: immediate appearance, done very quickly, not much revision; or long, long gestation followed by even longer revision. Sometimes waiting is everything. It's the poems in the middle, which you try to fix too soon, or which you over-revise, that end up dying. Some people like those poems, if they see them; but I usually don't.

Labels: , , ,

Flags in the Rain

Memorial Day: Flags

The annual tradition here in small Midwestern towns is to decorate the Veterans' section of the cemetery with flags on Memorial Day. They flags usually stay up till Independence Day.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Re-Enchantment of Art 3: the Decadent Present

In a recent article in Prospect magazine, The dustbin of art history, Ben Lewis defines clearly, and in historical context, what has baffled so many: Why is so much contemporary art so very bad?

Lewis makes some very convincing comparisons between the decadent art of the Rococo period in European art history, among other end-phase periods of former grand art styles, and what is being presented nowadays as post-modern and conceptual art. His central point of comparison, which I find convincing, is that we're now living through the final-stage death-throes of the Modernist project—a point I have made many times: post-Modernism is really Late High Modernism, not a new trend but the end of Modernism. What was once great and vibrant and life-changing and original has collapsed into self-reflexive decadence.

Lewis writes:

There is a pattern typical of these end-phase periods, when an artistic movement ossifies. At such times there is exaggeration and multiplication instead of development. A once new armoury of artistic concepts, processes, techniques and themes becomes an archive of formulae, quotations or paraphrasings, ultimately assuming the mode of self-parody.

Over the last decade, not only conceptualism—perhaps the dominant movement of the past three decades—but the entire modernist project has been going through a similar process. Of course, some important and inspired artists have made important and inspired work in recent years—from famous photographers like Andreas Gursky and painters like Luc Tuymans to lesser-known video artists like Lindsay Seers and Anri Sala. But there is something more fundamentally wrong with much of this century’s famous art than its absurd market value.

I believe that this decline shares four aesthetic and ideological characteristics with the end-phases of previous grand styles: formulae for the creation of art; a narcissistic, self-reinforcing cult that elevates art and the artist over actual subjects and ideas; the return of sentiment; and the alibi of cynicism.

Self-parody (art that refers only to other art), narcissism (the personal self is the only real subject), formulaic rule-sets for art-making (in the absence of truly open-minded exploration, we reproduce and copy), the cult of the artist-personality (especially post-Warhol), the cynical use of cliché and sentimental iconography to simultaneously manipulate and mock the viewer and/or buyer: all these are aspects of the art that is now considered the gallery/museum mainstream. In a nutshell, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and their ilk. (I've never yet been able to decide if Koons was actually making fine art, or if he is rather a one-man icon factory.)

The archetype of the Hero-Artist that Modernism was founded on (itself the ultimate flowering of the Romantic notion of the heroically feeling-motivated artist)—the lone rebel breaking out against the backdrop of stale salon and academic art—was the leading narrative of Modernist art's technical and thematic innovations: from Picasso through Pollock, from Mondrian to Frank Lloyd Wright, from Georgia O'Keeffe to Edward Weston, from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot through to Jerome Rothenberg and Octavio Paz, and the many innovators in between, in all their various styles. A full century of the Modernist enterprise has left us with many high marks to reflect upon.

What archetypes do we have now?

We have the Sellout-Artist rather than the Hero-Artist; the conceptual artist who feels entitled to a museum career merely because they have the ability to shock and provoke. The artist as Brand, in which artistic variation means only diversification of media. The artist who consciously embraces commercialism, who attempts to portray their own commercialism as a mocking commentary on the commercialism of the overall art-market system. The successful insider who mocks being a successful insider.

We have the Reproducer-Artist, he or she who (in genuine postmodernist style) thumbs through art history to borrow images and meanings and icons and reproduce them on a theoretically level playing field, for them to interact—which usually means disjunction and juxtaposition rather than genuine interaction—in other words, steals the art of the past and present and recombines it in theoretically new ways. This is collage-making brought to its ultimate end: the only thing "new" is the recombination; none of the elements are original. In fashionable literary circles, we get flarf and Oulipo and other "post-avant" poetry and flash-fiction stylings; most of which proudly state, in multiple manifestoes, that they mean nothing. Cleverness is all: content is dead and gone.

At what point does an artist quoting another artist's work, referring to other art by reproducing it as a reference, become outright plagiarism? If you quote another artist's entire opus and put your name on it, are you really making a comment about anti-authorship, or are you really just being lazy? Are you attempting to conceal your own lack of ideas in your appropriation and cooptation of the ideas of others?

We have the Theorist-Artist, who must write a manifesto before making any artistic move, whose works are mechanically determined as well as mechanically reproduced. There is always a Movement, an -ism to be named. The artist must be a permanent avant-garde, rebelling against an establishment, even if the artist becomes the establishment, the institution. Permanent avant-garde placed in permanent opposition: to what? Sometimes to nothing but other theories. In literature, neo-formalism and Language Poetry are alike in their conception of political rebellion against a straw-man status quo; although they are opposed stylistically, they are identical psychologically in their need to put theory before art-making, ideology before inspiration.

We have artwork after artwork that plays out in the mind without ever really touching the soma, or the heart. Art which is some cases openly claims this to be a virtue.

Antinomially, I do feel that artists as diverse as Andy Goldsworthy and Donald Judd have been our alternative artists who have been involved with vision and re-enchantment all along, even as the decadent art goes on simultaneously in the urban centers. More than one artist living and working outside Gallery Row in New York City has shown us ways towards re-enchantment, all during this same period: but they are not the darlings of the galleries, the museum retrospectives, or the art-buyers who listen to the dealers who promote artistic fashion over enduring quality.

As many working artists will tell you, the gallery and art-buying big-city "scenes" for the most part perpetuate this state of affairs. There is too much profit invested in the structural edifice of decadent postmodern art for galleries or dealers to let it collapse anytime soon: there remains much money to be made. Does anybody buy a Koons because they love it, or do they buy it as an "investment"? What form of capital is involved in such a transaction: social, financial, spiritual, or aesthetic? Does anybody really like this stuff? Meanwhile, genuinely visionary artists, and artists who have something different to offer, are for the most ignored, or kept in their place as outsiders. Galleries are inherently conservative financially: they rarely show anything that hasn't sold well before. To be "inside the system" means one has to become like what sold well last year: cynical, self-reflective or narcissistic, and ironic.


Irony is the new sincerity, and has been throughout postmodernism. Irony replaces civic grace. Irony is the only acceptable way of approaching the world. Anything non-ironic is labeled retrogressive and mocked. If your art isn't heavily ironic, you probably won't get noticed, much less lauded by dealers or galleries.

When Lewis refers to "the alibi of cynicism," I feel he is at root discussing irony. The excesses of art are claimed to be critiques of society's over-valuing of art in a decadent way. But such art is rarely convincing—except as irony. As Lewis writes about cynicism:

Contemporary artists and their curators and theorists concede many of these faults, but invoke in their defence a critical attitude towards their material. Yes, Koons’s shiny balloon dog is kitsch—but it thereby subverts hierarchies of taste in art. Yes, Hirst’s gold-plated cabinets containing grids of industrial diamonds are glossily vacuous, but they are a critique of the society that admires them. Other artists have made works about their own shortcomings. One of Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant early works, in 1993, was the installation of a live donkey and a chandelier in a New York gallery, to thematise his inability to come up with a good idea. The German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97) spent much of his (now acclaimed) career making art that described his frustrating quest to make important works of art. A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase of modernism. . . .

Here is art celebrating its own superficiality. In doing so, it absorbs any criticism made against it, like Warhol’s celebrities—or Hirst’s Golden Calf, which ironises the adulation and criticism his art receives.

Subverting hierarchies of taste in art: even if I could take Koons seriously on this point, I would never be able to forget that Warhol did it first, and did it better. What is Koons but a third-generation Warhol, only with bigger and brighter and shinier toys? (I admit I do prefer Warhol's art.) Another difference between Warhol and Koons is that Koons' art is deliberately decontextualized, ahistorical, non-referential—more characteristics of postmodernism—in ways that Warhol's art is not. Warhol remains bound to the context of his times; because, in his time, he was innovating something new. Warhol may have claimed to celebrate the popular and the superficial, but his art nonetheless resonated with history. Postmodernism, in removing historicity, indeed celebrates its own superficiality (which becomes another form of narcissism).

One of the contemporary trends in art that I personally find alternately mystifying and infuriating is its smallness: its smallness of scale, smallness of interest, of ambit, its unwillingness to even acknowledge grand themes, much less embody and express them. As Lewis writes: Art has become small, superficial and self-indulgent in its emotional range: sentimental rather than truly intellectual or moving.

Now, I like the gods of small things, too. I like close-up photographs of tree-bark and pond-water textures that reflect the fractal nature of the world's geometry. But I also like broad landscapes. One needs to look at the whole mountain forest, not merely the moss on the north side of one small grove of trees. Postmodern art's narcissism is actually part and parcel of this smallness: a refusal to look outside the self-recursive self, to see the larger, cosmic Self.

The parallels in literature are the dominance, in poetry, of the post-confessional lyric (the dominant style emerging from MFA workshops) wherein the subject is always the writer's own life and emotion; and in fiction, the short story about small personal lives in relationship, the parlor-story, as opposed to, for example, the historical sweep of Dr. Zhivago. The latter is a novel equally personal, equally a love story, to any being published now—but on a large scale, using a large palette. Who writes such epics now (that don't refer to the epics of the past, with irony)?

Smallness of ambit also manifests as repetition of themes. In genre fiction, for example, fantasy publishing is glutted with High Fantasy trilogies featuring elves, magic, heroes, trolls, and all the usual characters—none of which would have been conceived had not J.R.R. Tolkien written The Lord of the Righs. Several of my SF/fantasy-reading friends keep trying to engage me in various of these High Fantasy series being published now; but few strike me as more than warmed-over Tolkien; or worse, self-recursive winking ironic acknowledgments and parodies of Tolkien.

Another aspect of the superficiality of postmodern art is its smallness of feeling, its narrow emotional base. This is perhaps one of the most pernicious smallnesses in play: Because evoking strong emotional responses—other than shock and disgust, that is—is considered passé by so much postmodern art, we are left with the numbing-out of psychological disassociativeness and depression. Acedia is actually considered a positive value in postmodern art; although few would give it so clearly a spiritual label. Spirituality is suspect, spiritual content, even meaning itself, are suspect, and to be avoided at all costs. This isn't really about blandness: it's about numbness. Once again, irony stands in for genuine feeling. One is expected to be numbed-out in front of the paintings; one is supposed to have no strong feelings either way. Responses to art other than intellectual are devalued. The shrug is taken to be a supportive response; in a bizarre use of doublethink, indifference is redefined as love.

I want to be clear, in my criticisms here of contemporary art, which echo Mr. Lewis', I am being neither despairing nor apocalyptic. In fact, there is a great deal of art being made nowadays, as well, that is inspired and endowed with meaning. But you might not have heard about it, if only because it's not making millions of dollars in sales for the artists, the galleries, and the dealers. The wrong turns that contemporary decadent art has made has been perpetuated, even exaggerated by the gallery/dealer/financial systems. But it is not the only kind of art being made. I will be getting around to that soon in this essay series. I am working my way towards describing possible re-enchantments in art; but we must first honestly survey what is happening, right now.

Lewis concludes his article with, in part:

There have been inspired and important artists at work during the last ten years, just as there were in the late 19th century. But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money?

We must first assess the current state of affairs, honestly and with a cold eye. Then we are able to see what visionary, enchanted alternatives have also been going on—if not so publicly, then at least chthonically.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, June 04, 2010

What to Read in the First Hours

cool, pleasantly soft gray skies
third day of gentle rains
after long heatwave and sun
not gloomy, rather meditative

I spent my first hour of the day, my quiet getting started sacred reading meditation hour, reading the Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Fascinating, interesting reading. Historical documents, but also insights into thought processes, and poem process. Not everything has to be a finished essay, not everything a finished poem. It inspires me to maybe write a gentle poem or two, in the moment, after many months of no writing. I still refuse to call myself A Poet anymore, though; that contentious vicious neurotic insecurity world is no longer for me.

birdsong at dawn a riot
awakened me to visit bathroom
birdsong midmorning more subdued
a little more thought going into song

This morning I reminded myself that I like reading in the morning, during that first hour of waking, when I often do my meditation, day-starting contemplation, reading. That it's more than okay to let the laptop just sit there till after reading for awhile, taking a shower, eating breakfast. Nothing online is so urgent that the world will come to an end if I don't get around to it on the instant of waking. One definition of addictive behavior is you can't stop it even if you wanted to. One reason I love going camping is to be off-the-grid for periods of time. I like hand-writing and drawing in the journal, when the nearest electricity, much less WiFi hookup, is tens of miles away. The refreshment of being disconnected, unhooked, slowed down, listening to the birds, ignoring the buzz drone of meaningless online chat and drama.

Labels: , , , ,