Art

The sacredness of objects

 

guitars

For a variety of reasons, catharsis prominent among them, I will be posting a lot of guitar clips on my blog and FB in the near future. As some of my friends know I lost several guitars recently, an experience which hurt. Beloved musical instruments, through which one has experienced many hours of lucidity, are very personal objects. Perhaps, for atheist musicians like myself, they are the equivalent of sacred objects of ritual through which believers find communion with their deity of choice. Perhaps they are not the “equivalent” at all.

Anyway, part of moving on is remembering the good times, to which end I’ll be posting some old recordings made with lost friends. The other part of moving on is celebrating the present and looking forward to the future, so I’ll also be posting some more recent noodlings. Enjoy my lo-fi babies….or ignore, denigrate or ridicule them if you prefer – catharsis is achieved in the act of giving birth 😉

This is the second last piece of music I ever recorded on the guitar that was most dear to me. It’s essentially a free improvisation, so it’s semi-abstract, but for me that’s its charm:

BluesbyJacksons

Hominids and ursids (aka “Not so fast!”)

I’m a bit obsessed with music. Anyone who knows me knows this. Strangely though (at least it’s strange to me), a lot of people seem to think I’m primarily obsessed with just one kind of music. People say things like “I know you’re mostly a classical guy, but…”; “You’re a jazz snob, but…”; “It’s not prog, like what you usually listen to, but…”; “You really only like virtuoso musicians…”; “You just have a prejudice against electronic music…”. Actually, I like all these things (including electronic music) and much else besides. Or, more accurately, there’s a “me” that likes each of them. Like everybody, I experience myriad different states of consciousness – some types of music “match” some of them, other types match others.

One kind of music I really like is “folky singer songwriter stuff”. This isn’t really a genre (what’s a genre?), but in my mind it includes artists like Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Bill Fay, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Jack Carty (check him out! https://soundcloud.com/jack-carty/lay-low) and many others. The other day, someone gave me the Boy & Bear album “Harlequin Dream”. Just now, I listened to the track “A Moment’s Grace”. Wow. It blew me away and made me happy to be alive in a world full of so much beauty. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s not the first time I’ve heard Boy & Bear. They’re pretty famous here in Australia. I don’t really keep up with current music (I’m generally too busy exploring the art form’s history), but even I’ve been exposed to them before. The thing is, last time their music didn’t do anything for me. The “me” who heard it then wasn’t the “me” who listened to it today.

I don’t trust my initial reaction to a piece of art unless it’s positive. An artwork is an experience catalyst and any one piece of art has the potential to catalyse a wide range of experiences – different ones in different people, but also different ones in the same person at different moments. All of these experiences have a legitimacy that is absolute, but that doesn’t extend beyond the experience itself. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but what I mean is that if you have a good experience listening to/looking at/reading a piece of art, nothing anyone else says about that piece of art can change the fact that it catalysed a good experience for you. If somebody makes fun of you for liking a piece of music, that just means they haven’t had the same experience as you (or they think they’ve “grown out of it”) and that they think their experience trumps yours. They’re wrong. The legitimacy of your experience is unassailable. Its legitimacy is limited to itself, however. What that means is that if a piece of art fails to catalyse a good experience for you, or catalyses a bad one, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything intrinsic about the artwork itself. It doesn’t mean the art isn’t “good”, it just means it didn’t work for you this time. Try it again at some other time (or don’t, just don’t imagine that you’ve “understood” the work and found it wanting).

The principle of the unassailable, but bounded, legitimacy of experience applies to all of our experiences, not just the art-related ones. Fundamentally, our experiences can’t tell us directly about anything except themselves. This is a disconcerting fact and I’m going to avoid wading off into the philosophical deep end by getting back to the point…

Not so fast! Don’t be so quick to judge – what bores you today might enthral you tomorrow. The incredible diversity of possible experiences available to us is what makes our lives potentially so rich. Don’t be so hasty to give it up.

 

 

Aramis, Part 1 (A Sessile* story)

This story contains graphic imagery and language.

Late at night in a large office at the top of a sixty storey building labelled “Technopharm” in huge neon letters Aramis Blake sat staring into space, his fingers typing on the bare surface of the desk in front of him. A dozen precisely placed invisible speakers filled the air with Brahms, the dense contrapuntal texture and developing variation of the quintet for piano and strings sharpening Blake’s focus as numbers flew before his eyes. He was balancing the Technopharm accounts. It had taken just two years for his business to go from start-up to billion-dollar enterprise, exceeding even his own expectations. He’d discovered the technology during the final year of his doctorate and saw its potential immediately – the ability to induce chemical brain states purely through electrical stimulation, without the need for “drugs”. The research program had been languishing due to a lack of funding and an excess of red tape stretched across its path by legislative bodies in the back pocket of big pharma. Its developers were looking at several years of expensive clinical trials before the medical application of their invention would be approved. They couldn’t afford it. They would have to shut the project down; another potentially paradigm-shifting medical technology ground into the dust by pharmaceutical companies desperate to keep their share of the drug market. Blake had seen straight away what the technogeek developers, their near-sighted eyes already brimming with tears for their death of their baby, were incapable of imagining – the recreational potential of the tech. It started with electro-psychedelics, -stimulants and -opiates, but it wasn’t long before the military took an interest and NocBlok, a nociception-blocking implant, made Blake an instant billionaire.

Glancing up from the spread sheet Aramis Blake’s eyes came to rest on the bas-relief on the wall opposite his desk; The Exaltation of the Flower, an Ancient Greek sculpture depicting two women exchanging gifts of flowers or mushrooms. Usually this image identifying his path with that of the ancients brought him solace but tonight he felt the need to look on something more dramatic. He considered his options and then chose to replace the relief with Picasso’s Guernica, his field of view filling with the contorted and screaming faces of the horse and humans as soon as he made the selection. Increasing the volume of the music he relaxed in the assault to his senses as the horse, the bull, the broken sword and bodies and Brahms’ exquisitely organised chaos of counterpoint merged for a moment into an intoxicating gesamtkunstwerk. Sighing with abstract emotion Blake jacked into the security feed; the Technopharm offices that occupied the top two floors of the building were empty except for his own and the laboratory down the hall where Bruno Skachkov tinkered with his miniatures at all hours of the night. Fascinated as always by the tireless industry of the tattooed Russian homunculus, Blake watched him at his work, zooming in as Skachkov inserted a tiny handmade microchip into the back of a figurine no more than seven centimetres tall. As soon as the microchip was in place the figurine, an immaculately detailed demon with wings, hoofs and its mouth sewn shut, started to move, turning to face Skachkov and genuflecting before its creator. Chuckling to himself, Blake returned his attention to his company’s finances.

There are no clocks in the Technopharm offices – the rotation of the Earth is precise enough a metronome for Aramis Blake. Shorter periods of time are measured by the duration of favourite pieces of music.

The Brahms had finished and the air was thick with Bruch when the music was suddenly muted by a notification from the security feed flagging an event in the building’s lobby – someone had attempted to gain access to the private elevator servicing the Technopharm offices. Video from security cameras downstairs revealed the marble-floored lobby, decorated in the old style with statues, prints of artworks and projected advertisements for companies that occupied the various floors. Standing by the elevators were two men, an odd couple: one small and wiry with the face of a weasel and the other a muscle-bound behemoth looking like he’d stepped out of Norse legend. Establishing vidphone contact, Aramis addressed them politely.

“How can I be of assistance, gentlemen?”

“Blake?” the little man snapped, his voice reedy and high-pitched.

“This is Dr Aramis Blake, yes. To whom am I speaking?”

“You’ll find it’s in your best interest to let us up there Blake, we have an important message for you,” said the man. A notification appeared in front of Blake’s eyes and he switched feeds, replacing the weasel-faced man with Skachkov’s stony visage. Saying nothing, Blake nodded and the Russian broke the transmission.

Switching back to the lobby feed Aramis addressed the strangers, “Of course gentlemen, come on up,” and entered the eight digit code giving them access to the elevator. Moments later they stood in front of his desk. He hadn’t risen as they entered the room and now the smaller man snapped his fingers,

“Sid,” he grunted, pointing at Blake. The giant shoved the hardwood desk aside, picked Aramis up as if he were a child and deposited him on his feet facing his accomplice. Blake was not a small man, considerably taller and heavier than the leering thug who now slouched against the repositioned desk investigating his crooked yellow teeth with a toothpick, but the man behind towered over them both and seemed almost as wide as he was tall. Blake addressed the little mustelid-featured man,

“Welcome to Technopharm. I’m sure you understand that it’s most unusual for me to accept visitors, particularly at such an hour and without an appointment. How may I help you?”

“Listen, Blake, listen good alright,” the man spat, his toothpick descending to the floor in a shower of spittle. “You’re going to back off from the pharmaceuticals market alright mate? Take whatever money you’ve earned and fuck off back to wherever you came from. Today was Technopharm’s last day of business.”

“Ah,” Blake’s voice was steady, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, gentlemen. Please tell your employers, whoever they may be, that it’s only business, I’m sure they’ll understand. They really shouldn’t get so worked up about it.”

“Right. Well this is only business too mate, I’m sure you understand,” Blake’s arms were pinioned from behind and his hand forced onto the desk. Feeling Sid’s strength Blake relaxed, knowing there was no point fighting. The weasel-faced man reached his hand into a jacket pocket and drew it out brandishing something that looked like an antique soldering iron, its metal end already glowing red. As he burnt a hole in Blake’s hand the CEO of Technopharm impassively maintained eye contact, not flinching even as the hot wand passed clear through his hand and began to burn to desk beneath it. The torturer’s excitement turned to frustration and he raised the wand towards his victim’s unflinching eyes. “I heard you was a tough guy Blake, I love tough guys. I could spend all night burning off little pieces of your body mate, burning your eyes out, burning your fucking balls off, but I’m here for results first and fun second. So tell you what mate. After I’m finished with you how about I head over to fifty one View Street and say hi to your woman and kid eh? How about I go make your little bitch my little bitch? Whadoya reckon, eh tough nuts?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“No?”

“I’ll do as you ask.”

“’Course you farken will, mate. ‘Course you will. All you tough guys go soft for your bloody cows. Let him go, big man. All right then, before we go we need to get some of this equipment of yours. The programs you use, the hardware, all your research materials, where’s it at?”

“Everything you need is in the laboratory down the hall.”

“Alright, let’s go then you macho prick.”

Bruno Skachkov crouched barefoot on the floor beside the entrance to the darkened laboratory, listening intently for sounds from Blake’s office down the hall. In his right hand he absent-mindedly shuffled his three-inch knuckle knife from finger to finger. At the sound of footsteps and a sneering voice in the hall every muscle in his body tensed. The twin curves of his weapon’s handle nestled snugly under index and middle fingers; the short blade sticking out from in between was almost as broad as long. Automatic lights came on as the doors next to him slid open soundlessly and a gargantuan slab of muscle topped with hay-blond hair stepped through. Bruno didn’t wait for him to turn – he leapt, grabbing a handful of hair with his left hand and, perching his bare feet on his victim’s hips like a monkey, he drove the little blade in his other hand into the man’s throat again and again, severing the giant jugular with the first thrust but not stopping until the giant was horizontal and lying in a steadily spreading sticky pool of himself. The weasel tried to turn but collided with Blake who wrapped his arm like a python around the wiry little man’s neck. Struggles turned to spasms and then the feet twitched a moment before movement ceased altogether and another body fell limp to the floor. Aramis Blake turned to Bruno Skachkov,

“Clean this mess up. I’m going to get Persephone.”

*

They’d met in prison. Blake was in on a six-month sentence for distribution of an unlicensed delivery mechanism for a controlled substance on the London campus of PanGlobal University. He’d been eighteen months into his doctorate and had seen an opportunity to make some easy cash. The drug war had been dying a slow death over the previous decade but cops with nothing better to do were still looking for ways to make easy drug-related busts. Blake had been selling a stimulant that improved concentration– a performance enhancing molecular cocktail that was legal but banned for use by students during the examination period. It was also only approved for use in pill or vaporiser form, both of which had a relatively short half-life compared to the skin patches Blake was selling. The transparent delivery patches, undetectable once they’d been applied, slowly released the drug over several hours – perfect for tedious exams. It wasn’t much of a crime and Blake didn’t even need the money thanks to his inheritance, he just liked making money.

After letting slip to a guard that he was a PhD student at PGU he’d found himself sharing a cell with a man that looked like a chimpanzee someone had shaved and then painted all over – another inmate had called Skachkov a “technicolour sock full of walnuts” and lost his two front teeth for his wit. When they’d got to know each other a bit Blake asked about the significance of the huge cobra tattoo on the Russian’s head, its hood spread across the back of his skull. Skachkov had said it was because he was “just like Buddha under the Bodhi tree until some unlucky prick disturbs my meditations”. Blake didn’t point out that Buddha had been under a mucalinda tree when the cobra had sheltered him. Bruno was inside for assault – five years for biting off the ear of a policeman who’d come to arrest him in connection with a crime for which they’d had no evidence against him. The real crime, of which he freely admitted his guilt to his cellmate, was manufacturing miniature robotic assassins for use in remote hits on major corporate figures. He never knew who hired him and the money wasn’t as much as it should have been but he did it for access to the materials and equipment with which to indulge his passions for artificial intelligence, robotics, and miniaturisation. At first Blake didn’t believe the little thug capable of such technical work, but when he saw what Skachkov could do in the prison workshop he was quickly converted into a believer.

They shared a cell for the full six months and became close allies. Their e-brains were disabled as part of prison policy and Blake gradually replaced Skachkov’s collection of smutty pinups with prints of great works of art. The Russian grew to respect the Englishman for his intellect and ambition and agreed to join him in whatever business venture he had going when they were both back on the outside. For a year after his release Blake hadn’t known what use he could put his new comrade to, hadn’t known until he’d come across the technology for electrostimulation of brain chemistry and founded Technopharm – it was Skachkov who’d taken the researcher’s technology and put it into tiny handheld units connected to a comfortable electrode array that could be slipped on and off like a swimming cap; it was Skachkov who provided the necessary muscle to deal with big pharma’s scare tactics.

*

Blake went down to the basement and got into his late model Porsche 911. A torque addict, he would avoid getting a grid vehicle until they finally outlawed freewheelers completely – he didn’t even use his Porsche’s autodrive function except in zones where manual control was illegal. Putting his foot down and darting between computer-controlled cars he was at the apartment block on View Street within eight minutes of leaving the Technopharm building. It was a nice block but the lobby was big and facelessly modern, advertisements for expensive perfumes and jewellery and exotic holidays flashed at him from every wall. He took the elevator to level five and knocked on the door to number 51. After a minute or so a woman’s voice came over the intercom,

“No way Aramis, it’s late and it’s not your day to see her. You can’t keep messing around with the schedule like this, it upsets her and it upsets me.”

“Open the door, Apollonia, this is important, I need to talk to you.”

“She’s asleep.”

“We both know that’s a lie.”

“Forget it. I’m not going to argue about this. Come back on Sunday. Good night, Aramis.”

Blake sighed deeply and then took an access card out of his wallet and held it against the card reader. When he heard the lock slide he turned the handle and pushed his way into the richly appointed apartment.

“You bastard,” yelled his ex, “this is my apartment!”

“No, Apollonia, this is my apartment,” Blake didn’t raise his voice but his tone was cold, “you just live here with my daughter.”

Your daughter? Our daughter, arsehole.”

Aramis walked into the living room and saw the Technopharm unit sitting on the arm of the comfortable leather chair. “Still using, eh?”

“Your products, dealer. You think I don’t take advantage of my lifetime supply?”

“I know you do. I’m going upstairs.”

“The hell you are!” as she grabbed at him he jabbed her hip with a tiny auto-injector hidden in his palm. The drug was a fast-acting tranquiliser and she immediately slumped into his arms. It would wear off in under a minute so he took her to the chair and slid the electrode cap on over her hair. He loaded an opioid program and set the timer to thirty minutes – he’d be long gone by then. He looked down at her as the program started and she began to squirm lethargically and sigh with pleasure, her eyes open but unseeing. She was in a nightgown of fine black silk; her hair was golden, her skin smooth and tanned, her eyes startling electric blue, she was beautiful and he missed her. They’d been planning to marry but his prison stint had put an end to that – she’d left him when he got arrested and when he got out she wouldn’t talk to him. Their daughter was born while he was inside. Even when he had become rich in the way she and he used to dream about, even when he showered her with gifts and installed her in one of the most expensive apartment blocks in the city, Apollonia wouldn’t consider taking him back. She allowed him to see Persephone because she knew she couldn’t fight his legal team.

He went upstairs and into his daughter’s room. The little girl was dancing on the bed conducting music he couldn’t hear. Twirling in his direction she saw him and her face lit up, her blue eyes sparkling. “Daddy!” she squealed, running along the bed and launching into his arms. He squeezed her tightly then put her down on the ground and crouched next to her,

“How is my munchkin genius?”

“I’m well Daddy, good and well, always good, always well,” she nodded at him sagely before her expression suddenly changed, her eyes full of concern. “Daddy you’re hurt! What happened to your hand? It’s got a black hole in it!”

“It’s nothing baby, I’ll have it patched up as soon as I get a chance.”

“Oh. You should be more careful daddy, nothing escapes from a black hole you know.”

“I know, you better watch out you don’t get sucked in!” He made a mock lunge towards her and she giggled and squirmed away.

“Oh, oh! Look at this daddy,” she grabbed something from the floor and brandished it triumphantly in front of his eyes, “look at this!” It was an antique toy older than Blake himself, which he’d found through an online dealer of esoterica. She pulled the string protruding from the plastic yellow bunny rabbit’s back and little plastic hands moved back and forth in front of little plastic eyes as the tinkly music box played Brahms’ Lullaby. Persephone giggled and swayed to the music.

“It’s lovely isn’t it sweetheart?”

“Yes Daddy but look at this, look at this!” she dropped the bunny and ran over to a small keyboard in the corner and started to pick out Brahms’ melody.

“Wonderful sweetheart, Johannes couldn’t have played it any better himself,” she beamed at him, “but we have to go now OK? Bring your keyboard, bring whatever you like.”

“Where are we going Daddy?”

“We’re going to my place. We’re not coming back here for a while so make sure you pack all your favourite things.”

End of Part 1.

*All Sessile stories contain concepts created by the author in collaboration with Joha Coludar

Can I just dig it, please?

freud5_double

Recently, a friend of a friend contacted me with an interesting question. She had been entirely baffled when my friend told her that I not only considered the painter Lucian Freud “culturally significant” (her words), but that I actually liked his art. In order to try and understand why an (apparently) otherwise normal human being would enjoy gazing at such things, my friend’s friend asked that I justify my predilections by explaining to her what “ideas” I found in the paintings that attracted me to them. My (slightly edited) reply to her forms the content of this post:

Before I get into my brief (Ha! – ed.) discussion of ideas in Lucian Freud, I’d like to say a few things about the way I view art in general. Our mutual friend will no doubt be happy to confirm that I tend not to answer certain questions directly, because I think they admit of no direct answers. These are the best kinds of questions in my opinion – questions that require thought, questions that require context. In thinking of a way to answer your question, I have specifically resisted looking at the interpretations of Lucian Freud that are no doubt abundantly available – those published by art critics or by the artist himself. It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that the opinions of those people (including that of the artist) are just as arbitrary as mine when it comes to a discussion of the appreciation of the art “on its own terms”.

For me, the most important property art (any art) possesses is its “aesthetic quality”. This can be taken at face value – if I like the look/sound/way it makes me feel, I like it. I have very strong reactions to art of all kinds at a level “below” the intellect. However, just because this reaction takes place on such a potentially diaphanous level, somewhere in my mysterious “aesthetic sense”, doesn’t mean that it can’t be analysed in considerable detail. Such analysis is certainly of interest to me, but it needs to be clear that it’s as much analysis of me (the appreciator), as it is analysis of the art (the appreciated). The best art, in my opinion, is (in the New Age jargon) “holistic”; it has properties that are (in the scientific jargon) “emergent” – more than the sum of their parts. This means that, even though these properties are produced by the form and content of the artwork, they cannot be reduced to that level, cannot be understood by separate analysis of form and content. That is because the form and the content are not separate properties – the form is the content, the content the form.

Quotes are fun:

“It may seem deconstructed, but that’s the structure.” – David Lynch

What exactly are “ideas” in art? I’m not trying to be difficult or evasive, this is a serious question. At what level of analysis do these ideas emerge? Let’s imagine for a moment we’re talking about music. One might ask what ideas I find in the performance of Hath-Arob that opens this concert by John Zorn’s Acoustic Masada (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGbUxtdLpFY). I might say something like “it’s just so full of ideas, man!”, and that would certainly be true. Or maybe I could describe some of the ideas in technical terms – changes of tempo, rhythmic groupings, modes employed during solos etc. I could start talking nonsense about extra-musical ideas, saying something like “the violence in this music is the expression of souls in existential torment…”, but then I’d definitely be talking about my reaction and not about the art (“…music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” – Igor Stravinsky). At which “idea level” does the art itself actually exist? Sartre says that art exists in the imagination – that our imagination literally brings into being the “aesthetic object”, which does not exist out there in the world of ideas (be they technical, metaphorical or whatever). So according to him any discussion of the ideas I find in a work of art would be a discussion of the ideas I find in my imagination and connect with the object (the piece of art) in front of me. I’d really be talking about myself, not about the artwork at all. Maybe our reactions really are the only thing we can talk about with any legitimacy when we talk about why we like a piece of art?

Sure, I could provide a list of ideas I find “worthwhile” in that performance of Hath-Arob…but that would really be an a posteriori attempt to explain to you (or to myself) the basic fact that I just dig it. Or rather, a certain “I” (a certain “me”), a certain virtual machine that runs on my wetware CPU (my brain), digs it. Yes, I have to be “in the mood”, for this sort of thing. But when I am, I am, when I am I love it, and no amount of explaining why I love it can do justice to the experiencing of it. In fact, this “why” wouldn’t even be a “why” in any meaningful sense. To attribute a “why” is to attribute a causal antecedent. Trying to describe why one enjoys a piece of art in terms of ideas fails to achieve this goal. Rather than establishing a causal antecedent, such a description is merely the act of smearing an interpretive gloss on an experience after the fact.

Anyway, you get the idea. Let’s talk about Lucian Freud. I’m still not quite ready to answer the question directly, but almost. Firstly, a little bit more about how I (unconsciously – as usual the analysis occurs after the fact) think about art. In my head, as I imagine is the case for almost everyone, artists group together automatically – I associate certain artists with one another. This makes it easier for us to both think about art and (crucially) to communicate about art. This is why we have “genres” and “movements” (whether they are defined by critics or by the artists themselves). “Isms”, like “Expressionism”, and the adjectives derived from them (as in “expressionist painters”), which morph back into nouns (as in “Expressionists”), are useful points of reference for discussing art. As long as we understand their role and its limitations, they are not dangerous. Genres are like criticism is like language in general – words are not things, they are symbols linked to concepts. Symbols are useful, we need them, but they must be decoded.

Incidentally, it’s our reliance on symbols for communication that gets us into to trouble when we’re discussing art. We assume art requires interpretation, like the symbols we’re using to discuss it. On the contrary, however, I contend that part of the immense value of art comes from the fact that it transcends interpretation. What a wonderful respite it is from interpretation to simply stand in front of a painting, to simply listen to a piece of music, and be awed by its holistic, irreducible, non-semantic qualities! Susan Sontag had a particularly eloquent way of putting this – “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

What I’m trying to be clear about is that when I say what I’m about to say: that I think of Freud as an artist amongst artists, as in a “group” with the “Expressionists” Kokoschka and Schiele, this is a harmless statement describing the automatic grouping process that goes on in my head when I think about Lucian Freud. Freud may not have considered himself an Expressionist as such (I think he liked “expressive realist”), but that doesn’t matter. So, some pictures:

Kokoschka, self-portrait.

portrait-of-oskar-kokoschka-oil-on-canvas-14x11_1

Schiele, self-portrait.

Egon_Schiele_-_Self-Portrait_with_Lowered_Head_-_Google_Art_Project

Freud, self-portraits.

Freud_youngpainter

Frued_reflection

Not only do I think of these three as somehow “similar”, they are three of my favourite portrait painters. What “ideas” do they express? I’m not as militantly anti-interpretation as some (e.g., Lynch and Sontag), actually I do, like you, find it interesting (a bit like gazing at my navel), to interpret certain works of art……I just wanted to make sure it was clear that I don’t consider interpretation critical to appreciation.

It is almost certainly central to my grouping of these three artists together that their paintings express similar things to me. It’s no coincidence that they all painted many self-portraits, because what their portraiture expresses above all (to me) is vulnerability. Freud is clearly more literally representational than the other two, but there is an element of “hyper-realism” in all these paintings. No attempt is made by these painters to flatter. These are not like the over-exposed (or airbrushed) portraits we are constantly exposed to by the dominant portrait artists of today (professional photographers). Rather than smooth out the flaws of their subjects, these painters accentuate them. What do the paintings say? Perhaps they say something like “I am a human, a flesh monster, I am flawed and fragile, I eat and shit and I think about sex and death and decay and so do you.” The paintings are nothing if not honest. Maybe that’s why they are hard to like for some people. For me they are real, visceral, and enthralling.

Phew, that was tiring. Maybe instead of writing all that I should have just answered your question with a question of my own – “Can I just dig it, please?”

In praise of doing.

GCJ_dissect

In art, as in life, the doing is everything. Well maybe not everything, but why sacrifice the strength of an aphorism for mere accuracy? Besides, without the doing there is nothing to hear, watch, look at or read, and certainly nothing to criticise.

Before the doing comes the dreaming. Dreaming is vitally important – it’s hard to imagine an artist that doesn’t dream and fantasise about making art! Dreams are not only important; they are real. Crucially, however, they are only real to the dreamer. In the jargon of metaphysics, dreams only have “first person ontology”. Now, as anyone who’s ever tried it knows, making one’s dreams real for other people, giving them a third person ontology, can be really hard work. Sometimes it’s impossible. Giving artistic fantasies third person ontology requires not only technical skill; it requires willpower. Willpower is actually far more important than technical skill. The world is full of talented people with incredible artistic fantasies and the world is full of people with great technical skill. What distinguishes the “real” artists from all the rest is willpower – the willpower to take something that begins as a dream, as a mere idea, through the stages of conceptualisation, planning and execution required to give it a life in the big wide third person world.

Everyone’s a critic. There’s a truism for you, and it is true. We all love to criticise. It’s common to hear people say “I could have done that” when considering a piece of art (be it visual, musical etc.). Of course the full sentence should be “I could have done that if I’d been willing to put in the time and effort required.”….but no one bothers with the second half. It’s a mistake to compare our first person fantasies with someone else’s completed artworks. It’s apples and oranges.

Criticism is the act of drawing comparison, of comparing one work to another. Art is not a competition (the truisms are flying thick and fast now); so do we really need criticism? Ideally, each piece of art we encounter should be considered in isolation; judged on its own terms. In practice, however, this can be tricky. Works of art are always in competition for our time – why listen to this, when I could be listening to that? Unfortunately the industrialisation of art has created an additional kind of competition – for our money. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the music industry, but it’s the same for books and films and also visual art to a lesser extent. There are even entire art forms that seem to have lost out in the competition for our dollars – for example it’s almost impossible to make a living these days as a poet.

In some senses criticism is a misguided process from the get go, but it might be a necessary evil. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by art, criticism plays a role in giving us an idea about where to spend our limited amounts of time and money. This is important, but it is a tool that must be used appropriately. The role of a critic should not be to tell us what to like, rather it should be to tell us where to look for things we might like. We can make up our own minds about the rest.

If we concede that critics are necessary, who should be one and how should they operate? Firstly, as already noted, everyone is a critic. This is not entirely illegitimate because the first thing to note is that criticism is just a matter of opinion. It’s a form of “word of mouth”; so “everyone is entitled to an opinion” (truism number three). It’s obvious (if slightly controversial), however, that not all opinions are created equal. There are any number of variables that can affect the value of a critic’s opinion to us, including the knowledge base of the critic about the art form in question and the critic’s level of awareness of our own tastes (our friends probably know more about what we might like than some professional critic who doesn’t know us from Adam). Perhaps the single most important criterion for effective criticism is receptivity. This is to do with how the would-be critic approaches the artwork in question. This is where things get really tricky, because to be truly receptive one has to banish all thoughts of criticism from one’s mind. “Honest” art is created for “ideal audiences” (I just made that truism up on the spot). Ideal audiences give a work their full attention and consider it on its own merits. Contextualisation can occur after the fact, but if you’re composing your critical analysis in your head during your initial exposure to an artwork then you’re not being receptive. Obviously this is tough. It’s a “big ask”. It’s not easy to be an ideal audience member. It’s not easy to “really” listen, watch or contemplate. You have to make yourself open, vulnerable – it’s a form of meditation. This may seem harsh, but if you haven’t tried to be an ideal audience member then your opinion isn’t going to be worth much as a critic.

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(Igor Stravinsky on the subject of listening – “To hear has no merit. A duck hears also.”)

One might imagine that artists, “doers” themselves, would make the best critics. In practice this often seems not to be the case. Artists often (subconsciously perhaps) make the cardinal error of seeing other artists as competitors and this severely compromises their ability to be an ideal audience member. Stravinsky apparently didn’t take his own advice about listening (admittedly he never said to listen impartially, but I’m not sure there’s any other kind of listening) and a book could be filled with the silly things he said about other composers. It’s telling that he rescinded many of these statements in his later years, often after the other composers had died (cf. statements about Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok) and there was no longer any question of “competition”. Great artists have a unique insight into the artistic process of course, and so their opinions do have a certain validity. If an artist you respect praises the work of another artist then it’s probably worth checking it out. Just because an artist you respect denigrates the work of another artist, however, doesn’t mean you should expect it to be devoid of value.

Is it possible to be an ideal audience member all the time? Probably not. At any rate it’s exceedingly difficult. What this means is that we shouldn’t be in such a rush to form an opinion about a work of art. Sometimes we need to give it time to sink in. We need to be sure we are making the requisite effort to appreciate the work on its own terms and we need to be ready to fault our own appreciation before faulting the work. All this may seem like a waste of time and effort. With so much art available, many of us demand art that doesn’t make us work to understand it. We often seem to want art that grabs us immediately and forces us to appreciate it, not art that makes counter-demands of its audience. This is our prerogative. In my own experience, however, the rewards of learning to appreciate demanding artworks often dramatically outweigh the effort required in doing so.

The truth is that everyone is qualified to be a critic but no one is really qualified to be a critic. The point of this article is that we should generally criticise less and celebrate more. Sure, we have our opinions, we like some things and we don’t like others, but before we make decisions and shout our verdicts from the rooftops we should always pause to first celebrate the achievement that giving a dream third person ontology represents. We should have respect for that act of will. We should try to see the work for what it is; there will be plenty of time for contextualisation after-the-fact. I myself am a naturally critical person, but my first impressions have been wrong so many times in the past; often because I failed to live up to my “responsibilities” as an audience member. These days I’m trying to be less critical and more celebratory and I believe we can all benefit from taking that approach.

I think it would be appropriate to finish this article by celebrating a couple of doers:

The first is my wife, Genevieve – the untitled painting in the article above is by her and (perhaps – the interpretation is mine) depicts the struggle of giving a dream a third person existence…..a process a little bit like dissecting one’s own soul. Gen is a serious artist and a real inspiration to me; she has an exhibition of her paintings (“lighter” works like the one that features in my header) in a gallery in Brisbane, Australia next month.

The second is a friend of mine – Jack Carty. Jack is a singer-songwriter and has just released his third album, Esk. It is a collection of wonderful songs and it’s not at all “demanding” – it’s just damn good. Jack is an independent artist and works without the backing of a label, so the amount of willpower he exhibits in churning out album after album of quality music is truly inspiring. Here’s a link to his website so you can check him out: http://www.jackcarty.com/