Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts

Thursday, May 16, 2013

On death and painting

In the late Nineties, I was involved in an online debate about whether painting was a dead art, considering the then emerging new digital media which promised to give artists a new canvas, a new palette, a revolutionary way of creating art that hadn’t been done before. I harrumphed and pouted and tried to be sage in my remarks, but there wasn’t much of anything I could offer to the discussion besides this: Painting will be dead when artists stop painting and when art lovers stop desiring to look at the work of past, recent, and current artists. So far, there are no so-described symptoms of paintings' impending demise. In any case, what is with the impulse for some to declare entire mediums "dead", as if a literal body had been discovered somewhere, knife in back, bullet in brain, i.e., "the death of literature", "death of the subject", "death of the novel", "the death of the author", "the end of history", "jazz is dead”,” history is dead", "rock is dead", and so forth. I've read these declarations over the years, some with, some without arguments, some articulate, others ruthlessly abstruse, and save for a momentary rush of certainty that the many threads of history are suddenly woven together to the precise moment that the respective professors are making a case for, one realizes that the activities still go on in strength. Humans have a way of tending toward their business and their pleasures, in the ways that suit their needs and personalities, quite despite the cloudy forecasts of aesthetic morticians. There appears to be an easy habit-of-mind that wants to advance a more recent set of techniques, usually attendant on new technologies, only at the mortal sacrifice of older mediums. Co-existence seems like a concept that makes a self-conscious experimental artist nervous. In any event, shall we say that there are things that can only be done with painting that nothing else, really, has come close to? Even if it did come close to achieving the effects, good oil or watercolor can, what makes the medium new anything besides an advanced species of clip-art and simulation.   The body count, I think, is greatly exaggerated. Devalued, no, if the aim of new art is to re-create, faithfully, effects produced by painters. 

Sadly, this seems to be the only motivation behind many competently technologized artists whose work is often little more, really, than the reproduction of painterly effects. I'm willing to think these medium new artists are still wood shedding and experimenting with what they can do with their "new canvas" and "new palette", but it's plain that many have yet to make Real Work. We have fascinating results that have an inescapable crisis of its own, an utter soullessness coming from any intrinsic lack of character apart from the shiny, show room sheen of simulacra. Clip art is the result, I believe, if that is the only impulse motivating the particular artist. Newer methods can indeed co-exist with older--it's all around us--when artists drop the show-offish instinct of duplication and instead reconcile themselves to the limits as well as the advantages of their particular form. The crisis, I think, festers on the other end. The death of painting not withstanding, it appears that painters long ago accepted the terms and strictures of their chosen craft, and are in a long and envious history that they can play with at will, add to, diminish, broaden, contract, what have you. No painter I know feels crunched or sickly because of the imagined malaise --human need to express itself perseveres and is acted upon whatever revisionist rhetorical brackets are set around them, trying to diminish their worth, relevance, or health. The death or crisis of their art is meaningless to the working artist. The announcements that arts or particular mediums are "dead" or in "crisis" are melodramatic inventions that come from bad, over generalized criticism that's rushing. It's better to get on with the honest work of art making, and focus commentary on the interaction between art styles and periods. 

Technologized, digital art is the art that is having the crisis, if anything: a personality crisis, and one wonders what his new art wants to be when it grows up. This is a real question: what is "real work?"  Work that artists manage to do that's unmindful of having to illustrate a critic' or a harried art historians' criteria. What that evidence is endlessly subjective, and will vary artist to artist, medium to medium, but it will be the work, I think, that seems the most self-contained, mature, and complete, with all influences assimilated and artists' experiences and personality full enough to inject individual intelligence into the work. It will be the work that utters precisely the ideas the artist has about ways of seeing. It is art that works as art, not demonstrations of yet another manifesto. We're talking about professional adult artists here, not small children or plants that need tending. What makes a form of art-making grow are artists who dedicate themselves to their process, their work, and who focus their energy on how the medium they've selected for themselves. A healthy self-criticism probably doesn't hurt the production of new work either, as with the notable artists who can tell the difference between pandering to an imagined niche market, or a specialized audience that inoculates the work from honest appraisal, and the real work that is made quite apart from anyone's expectations or demands, except those of the artist. Good art-making is a rigorous activity, playful as it is, in whatever mode one operates out of. Everything else seems to take of itself if the art is good, worth being noticed. One advances into their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgment of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere. The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. 

The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium. Less that democracies are anti-artistic than they are resistant to the notion that aesthetic concerns and artistic expression are reserved for a cultivated elite.  Democracy rejects this sublimated priesthood on principle, and opens the arena, the galleries so that more who wish to do so may engage in the intuitive/artistic process and keep the activity alive in ways that are new and precisely relevant to the time--this is the only way that the past has any use at all, as it informs the present day activity, and allows itself to be molded to new sets of experiences. Art is about opening up perspectives, not closing them down, and that is the democratic spirit at its best. Otherwise, the past is a figured religion, and history is an excuse for brutal, death wish nostalgia. History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Death may be your Santa Claus

We get older, our joints ache, our blood pressure rises,we bore ourselves with our jokes and our set platitudes said to friends who are having a sorry time of it . We tire of being responsibility for other people's feelings, we weary of repeating ourselves again to the same people the same things. We want to be done with our pains, our complaints, the sounds of our own voices venting our regrets and resentments: sometimes we just want it all to end. But most of us do nothing to abort our transactions with the inane and the repetitive--we shoulder our burden, we cram our misgivings into a burlap sack, we continue to live for the next five minutes of happiness all this breathing and work schedules too infrequently results in. But still others of us want it to stop, all this obligation, this drudgery, this loss of interest in the vitalism they used to see at the core of their community, their jobs, their jobs: one finds themselves living by rote to forgotten rules and the awareness of the inability to forge a new path , an improved outlook, a fresh perspective causes one to dwell on the idea of escape, the permanent solution to the consequences life in the big city. You just envy the dead their peace, you become romantic for the one thing that is, indeed, forever and unchanging.

Deborah Digges

See how the first dark takes the city in its arms
and carries it into what yesterday we called the future.

O, the dying are such acrobats.
Here you must take a boat from one day to the next,

or clutch the girders of the bridge, hand over hand.
But they are sailing like a pendulum between eternity and evening,

diving, recovering, balancing the air.
Who can tell at this hour seabirds from starlings,

wind from revolving doors or currents off the river.
Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don't call them back, don't call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

This hit me like a sock in the jaw--it seems to get the mood of a writer who has an intense sense of that all manner of gravity, both natural and moral, has ceased to exist that the material world and the conduct of the population was now free to play, wander , roam, let themselves go into a an vertiginous , all embrace void. These very much resembles Yeats, and the ringing rhetorical and hard edged images resound like "Easter 1916". The difference between the two, of course, is that Yeats' poem was a prophecy, and his poem was apprehensive because everything old was being made new with new uses, new meanings, remolded from a new philosophy. Terrible in the unknown and beautiful in the sense that life processes cannot be stopped, only made into something new , different. Digges gives the feeling of the floor, the sidewalk, the street giving way from under you , that the conditions of conduct are suspended or revoked outright, and that the life goes to an inevitable, ecstatic end.

Some are as children on swings pumping higher and higher.

Don't call them back, don't call them in for supper.
See, they leave scuff marks like jet trails on the sky.

These last lines get the pitch exactly, the pull toward a personal apocalypse being so strong that the bounds of reason, protocol, faith are undone. It's a seduction to the darkest yearning, to enter a sphere where there is no contradiction, no agitation, no weighted arguments with the balance of one's universe. To become nothing. It's a plea, as well, for the families, the friends, the passers by to cease heroic efforts to prevent the inevitable and accept one's decision to be raptured.The nihilistic lure is overpowering here, and one is made to feel that there is nothing for this speaker to do but to surrender to natural forces, to embrace the inevitable end.

What gets me in the poem is how it makes the Big Sleep, the Large Nod, the Humongous Nap an attractive state; life consists mostly of temporary problems requiring our wits and ingenuity with which to engineer remedies. It's a wearying task as the years go on, and Digges , it seems to me, writes from a point of view of someone approaching their nadir, the breaking point when what passes for ironic disengagement, the activity of minimizing one's labors in just getting through the day, becomes an encroaching obsession for a permanent solution . The narrator seems envious of the dead, as you say, but I think there's a real desire here to leave this sphere of being. The weightlessness and unboundedness of the dead suggests desire, a deferred longing . The narrator sounds like she is desirous of what the dead get to do in the universe as we understand it, which is nothing. The desire is to do nothing and to be nothing in turn.The foreknowledge that every living thing dies finally crowds the poem like a Bosch painting--one last intense set of indulgences of the human senses, and then ride the sensual tide to a darkness one cannot report back from. This is beautiful, unnerving, slightly scary.

Reading about the yearning for death, though, can be worrisome in itself, and Kim Addonizio provides a proper antidote with this piece:

by Kim Addonizio

On winter nights, the dead
see their photographs slipped
from the windows of wallets,
their letters stuffed in a box
with the clothes for Goodwill.
No one remembers their jokes,
their nervous habits, their dread
of enclosed places.
In these nightmares, the dead feel
the soft nub of the eraser
lightening their bones. They wake up
in a panic, go for a glass of milk
and see the moon, the fresh snow,
the stripped trees.
Maybe they fix a turkey sandwich,
or watch the patterns on the TV.
It’s all a dream anyway.
In a few months
they’ll turn the clocks ahead,
and when they sleep they’ll know the living
are grieving for them, unbearably lonely
and indifferent to beauty. On these nights
the dead feel better. They rise
in the morning refreshed, and when the cut
flowers are laid before their names
they smile like shy brides. Thank you,
thank you, they say. You shouldn’t have,
they say, but very softly, so it sounds
like the wind, like nothing human.

This is a is a sharp and funny rebuttal to the late Digges' poem. Unlike the narrator in "Trapeze", who all but says she envies the dead their inertia and seeming serenity, Addonizio's poem tells of us spectral traces of formerly corporeal beings who cannot severe their link with the physical world. It's funny in an odd way, as it mirrors the vanity of the living's obsession over status and the fear of not getting what they desire or losing what they think they have. Addonizio's point, after her brisk and crosscutting descriptions of spirits contending with various dis-pleasures and discomforts, is that we should make our peace before our time comes; otherwise the anxieties will follow us in the crossing over to the other side and cause us to stall before we reach the place of fabled Eternal Rest. It seems Addonizio sees this state analogous to being stuck at the starkest intersection for all time. A drag.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fretting in the examination room with Sophie Cabot Black

Robert Pinsky , Slate magazine's poetry editor, has the enviable task of selecting and posting a poem for interested readers to debate each Tuesday morning, a fact I mention only because the discussions that result appear on that magazine's attendant Fray forum contribute to the minor declarations you read on this blog. The talks alternate between lively, inspired, dull and droning, and there are those outbreaks of real acrimony over imagined transgressions a few participants in the digital ether believe have been committed against them. It's a quarrelsome rhubarb much of the time, there are moments when I wonder I spend so much time on the board, between work, free lance assignments, reading my book of the week and the regular social engagements:might I have take that time and write the great American rent check instead?

Maybe, but I realize quitting the board would deprive me of a source of material to post on this blog; for the last five years I've been commenting on Pinsky's selections, honestly, subjectively and all that, and have blended the best of the exchanges into a single blog post. Sometimes, however, I get stumped, there is a poem I can't respond to, not because I don't understand it, but that I understand it too well. There are things I prefer not to think about, although I know I have to. Try as I might, the issue appears again, that low branch I run into while looking back to see how close the boogieman man is behind me. Whack! Sophie Cabot Black's poem "Biopsy" smacked me hard.


Once he lies down, he says, he is afraid
There is no getting back up. Maybe
It will be that nothing ever

Is the same; you put the body down
On the adjustable bed in the room where
Those before you also came and climbed into

Clean sheets, one blanket, one pillow, and a noise
Turning into trees whispering overhead.
People dressed in the exact clothing of each other

Walk in and never look at us. He is still afraid,
And so I lie down first, which is to say nothing
Except I am not him, concentrating on the manufactured

Tiles above us, which came from somewhere far
And were brought by truck or rail to this city
Where in time they were laid one by the other

To make a ceiling, sky below which we lie
Looking for stars, as the needle enters the vein,
And we search for any possible constellation, something

Familiar to name.

The Black poem "Biopsy" hit close to home with me because I had a biopsy myself three two years ago, one of the most nerve nerve-racking and dread-filled events of my life. Some peculiar had come up in the results of a blood test a doctor had ordered up, so we arranged for some tissue samples to be extracted from the area of concern.

This was one of those health plan doctors who seemed to habitually overbook his daily practice and who's staff is humorless and seeming more interested in their tasks than in the patients. I was instructed to take off my pants and have a seat in an examination room and wait for the doctor ; an hour later, after reading every chart on the wall at least three times, no one had come into the room. I put my pants back on and went back out the nurse's station to complain, and the response from the staff who'd heard me were stares, blank stares, more annoyed than anything else, like who was I to complain about being kept pantless in utilitarian examination room for an hour without even a magazine to read?

Black's poem is effective in sound and image, but more importantly it gets that anxiety of the mind trying to distance itself through various means and subterfuge from the nearness of death, a dread compounded because the thoughts you're trying to bury or obscure have a way of emerging back up to the forefront of consciousness; that sinking feeling gets you again. It does sound, I realize, that I am complaining about the small things, but this dread was awful. I was in a mild depression for days leading up to the exam , and the actual appointment was prolonged, bureaucratic. It was my good fortune that the results of the lab analysis were in my favor, but the processes leading up to the relief were interesting to note, especially the various kinds of deal making I was doing with God or whatever fateful pixilations that await. I was , in effect, preparing to settle my accounts on this planet between the mental sessions of minimizing and maximizing the pending news about the health of my prostate. Black's poem is about someone's psychological defenses against the cold facts of the certain death nudging up against unavoidable events. It is enough to make you pause and retire your certainty as to how the way things should work. You're forced to deal instead with the way things are, concrete and unmindful of what you'd rather be doing.