Thursday, September 18, 2008
If she weren’t my wife I would resent her. She sleeps easily. Wherever we find ourselves regardless of climate, altitude, or nation, she will sleep as soon as the lights go out. If she lays flat she will sleep. We laugh at this. I have seen her lose consciousness in mid-sentence. I call her “the chicken” as this bird is knownto fall into immediate sleep when the lights go out.
I don’t bring this up to ridicule my wife, and as I mention I do not resent her somnia (if that can be counted a word). I enjoy watching her sleep, especially now as my sense of instability grows. Her sleep, her dreams, even those she can’t recall, put me at ease. She will wake momentarily and with a groggy voice, she will tell me she loves me, or mumble in a soft tone and touch my arm. She, at least, is at peace.
Isn’t that terrible? It is common speech to resign ourselves to leasts. Let me state it differently (so I don’t disgust myself.) Shall I write I envy her quick peace, or clarify and say I do not begrudge her ease. I would very much like a share of that limitless expanse. I, as is clearly implied, do not sleep so easily. I am writing now in a hotel room. Unfamiliar places make me uncomfortable, restless. This room is no exception. It has that cramped feel of transitory living, and a smell of perfumed antiseptic. It is not as homey as I would like. My own rooms are memories, and anchors. I don’t need to rebuild the map of the clear areas on the floor or worry over the strangers next door. Here I am far too aware of being a guest to easily sleep. Please ignore these complaints, I am circumscribing the truth. It isn’t the discomfort of unfamiliar locations. It is the awareness of my identity. It is the unfamiliar person who is assembling behind my eyes. I cannot keep it away when the lights go out, or when the sounds diminish. It waits behind distractions. It is not me. And it is beginning to abandon me as an inconvenience.
I have been considering this for some while for it has not always been this way. I have attempted to discuss it with my wife, but she was disturbed in such a passive way she ignored a good deal of what I said, and forgot the rest or pretended she had. She can see it though. Sometimes her face will cloud with mild worry. She will probe with questions for which she clearly does not want answers. For her pleasure I evade these questions gently, tacitly stating my distress is minor. I must admit my suspicion I am not entirely sure which aspect of me, my old self or this new intruder, she worries over. I wonder if she wants to be free of me, and my new self may be justification. Or even more troubling, I wonder if she works in collusion with my intruder. Again, I have written wrongly: the intruder would seem to be me the other would be almost eternal where I am fleeting. I am well aware of the philosophical history behind this idea, but Aristotle and Pythagoras can’t help me.
It is not minor, this splitting of my identity. Nor do I think it is innocent. I am willing to state it has been calculated. My life has been changed by outside agents. My empiricism, my shield of aesthetics, was an illusion. Experience has worked against me. I sense the infinite as if the invisible chasms of space, the whole universe, had opened up on every side forever reducing and expanding. I have unpleasant anxieties about the stability of the floors under my feet like walking across an ancient and decaying bridge of brittle planks and fraying ropes. These are simply similes. How can I write this about my mind? How do I report this to you with comparisons for it seems incomparable?
My isolation, my solitude, has become a thorn. This is a peripheral occurrence of the extinguishing of many long cherished comforts and abstractions. I have heard that when Howard Carter was opening the chambers of King Tutankhamun’s tomb he saw some ostrich feathers that had lain untouched for 3000 years. They were, for a short second as they had always been, but beneath his new breath and the air of this latter world, the feathers collapsed, they disintegrated. Imagine this as my former sense of things. The winds that strike me are profound. Unfortunately, I do not seem to have the integrity of a feather. The transformation is a sentence I have earned in my indulgence. I have long been a candle claiming responsibility for the dawn and the dawn is progressing to a sunrise, very shortly all my claims will be revealed as lies. Even I can’t begrudge it.
If you do not know me (whoever should come to read this) I am somewhat well known as an art critic, philosopher, and historian. A profession I was very proud of. It is the poorest of professions. I am neither a historian, nor am I an artist. I tend to think history may be a bit of an error, and I have never made a piece of art (in fact I am only beginning to reckon what art is) in my life. I offer opinions. That is what I do. I use the “halo effect” to advantage. I know names, movements and periods in regard to art. I was once referred to as “the art maven” and this familiar but dismissive title has become too sticky. There are endless papers written in specialist’s language about the propriety and theory of criticism. I have written some of them. I have also written at length on aesthetics and attached myself to various philosophers and antique opinions. Who doesn’t love Descartes and his “cogito?” I believe Dante describes the situation of attachment to aesthetics in the inferno (under the guise of opportunism): “I saw a banner there upon the mist. Circling and circling, it seemed to scorn all pause. So it ran, on and still behind it pressed a never-ending rout of souls in pain.” Of course this can be seen in every movement or philosophy in art- the opportunist's banner whose signs and insignia are every changing. Let me repent anonymously here. I am very well paid for my articles, lectures, even consultation. I considered myself a bridge between the esoteric and exoteric, a translator of the mystical artist to the public. A translator who approved or disapproved of what he was translating. Of course I am educated, I have my proper degrees, but I no longer have the vanity to claim my employment is due to a superior eye or deeper understanding.
That is terrible. It is stupid. “The eye” of the discerning! How superstitious! What nonsense! Croce, perhaps, opened this door. No I won’t assign blame. It is shifty to do so. I am the fool.
Allow me to expand on Shakespeare “In the land of the blind the one eyed are kings.” Consider this, if the land of the blind has no one eyed to be kings, who is left? Would it be unlikely to assume that one or several of the blind might delude themselves into thinking they were seeing, or even suggesting a certain elite “blind sight”? When this “blind sight”, this terrible example of opposites together, is assumed and given a proper language, even an expansive Ptolemaic explanation, is it an error to consider that it is believed? In the land of the blind the blind become kings. Now consider this, these blind become tyrants, fragile tyrants whose reported powers must remain elusive, occult, because examination of their powers will prove they are only blind men. One last consideration: among the blind are born those with full sight, what happens when they appear?
I am a charlatan. I did not believe this at the start. But this is the truth. I am not feeling sorry about this; it seemed like the truth when I flaunted my “blind sight”. If this scenario of the blind is in any way a model of the world of art, then let me answer what becomes of the sighted children when they appear. They are blinded. Somehow, it seems, there are some who evaded this blinding. Those unblinded fugitives have found a cure to our blindness; they developed their own sights that no socket, full or empty, can evade. It is sight, alive, and woe to the blind. This blind man has been administered three real visions, and now my sight is overwhelming me. It is dismissing me.
The first time my eyes opened was at a private showing of a painting.
I have many, many friends and acquaintances. One of my closer and more insistent friends had discovered a new young artist. These discoveries are very important to the aimless and those lacking talent; they believe it implicates them with the arts. It shows they too have the certain sensitivity that makes one an artist, even if they do not produce art they can perceive, and make in a professional sense, artists. As a professional critic I had to deal with such individuals whose wealthy circles tend to include both opportunists and actual artists. These are my clients. I must instruct them as doctrine demands, who is and who isn’t a real artist, who is and who isn’t innovative, what is and what isn’t art. My criteria were, admittedly, strange in retrospect and seem to apply to other matters, such as who is the artist, what was his history, socially what role does he play, what was the deeper sophistic meaning of his work, is he a product of structuralism, anti-structuralism, and importantly for me was his work malleable enough for me to use in my inflated descriptions.
My friend was manic when she called. It was not the usual purring that underlies the poses and cadences one affects when they are being sophisticated; it was breathless and quick speech. I had assumed she had found a new boy toy. These were usually mediocre to bad art students whose feigned moodiness had captured her easy excitement. I was tired of these calls but I owed this friend a great deal, and she knew it. It became implicit in our conversation that this would take care of my debts. I recall I fretted a bit to make the weight of this favor more impressive. The bargaining and haggling in the American social Bazaar is very subtle and filled with complaint. She assented to the leveling of my debts so I agreed to meet her young artist. I would magnanimously give him advice, perhaps gratify myself with an expansive filibuster on art, and then leave as pompously as I arrived.
I was late for our meeting. I had been having dinner with my brother. I was tired and some small degree possessed by the spirits of three martinis. My friend ushered me into her ostentatious apartment. I made brief small talk in her lobby, before she dragged me into her reception area.
It is the usual formula in a meeting to talk to the artist, allow them their say, after which you will view the work, and then analyze or opinionate based on their intentions in comparison with their skills. At some point an invitation to talk just below the surface of the truth is given. I will say something leading, such as: “What would you like to do with your art?” This is an invitation to discreetly discuss one’s greed and ambition. It allows me a chance to sense their chances of success, in the rather brutal but grinning world of art. After which I remain noncommittal pointing out strengths and vices in the arts. It is generally the case in a private meeting to refer to the “art world” as an outside entity, a tyrant, whereas in a crowd, with plenty of shielding you can make elaborate rude commentary on behalf of the “art world”. I was preparing to offer my private treasons and excuses in their usual form.
I was never given the chance to mount my bench. I was marched in front of the painting directly. (See painting in photo section).
It was not a large painting, perhaps 36”x 30”. At first it appeared to be a young girl. I recall he later said she was supposed to be Sudanese. She was wrapped in a wrinkled hood. The background showed an angry, stormy red sky over jagged hills. It was like the aftermath of a great fire. It was well painted, nicely composed: skillful. I was pleasantly surprised. I remember thinking this artist may be worth consideration.
My gaze shifted slightly as I was making to turn and address the artist whose presence had been on my periphery since I entered the room. It was then the painted girl moved.
Allow me to clarify. I had been looking at her from about a foot away. Her expression was placid. It appeared the eyes were painted to be unusually penetrating, but her expression was calm. When my eyes moved a fraction, and her expression changed. The face became tinged with anger. It seemed to glare. I stared back at the painting and the girl’s face changed again: she smiled subtly. I could feel my breath become short and unsteady; my heart beat rapidly and I began to perspire. Such was my physical response, mentally I felt as if suddenly I discovered I had been dreaming, I even tried to rouse myself. A wave of panic and exaggerated emotion crept behind my eyes. I wanted to weep or laugh hysterically, but I could do neither. I just teetered suspended on the precipice of that moment waiting. What I was waiting for was very clear, I was waiting for more. I was not disappointed. The more I stared the more the painting transformed. The face became placid again but then the clouds began to move, and ghost faces mingled in the yellow hood around her head. Again her face called my attention. Her features became clouded and indistinct. Within that cloud a muddy checkerboard pattern emerged. I sought to regain her face with surprising urgency. I felt security in her face in comparison with that muddy pattern. That pattern seemed wrong, wrong as only a dream or hallucination can seem wrong. I hunted for her face and was met with more than I could bear. Abruptly the face reemerged, but it was not just her face. It became a Proteus of faces which my mind chased. Faces replaced that one face, and no feature settled. Her features recombined and displayed an ever changing population staring from beneath her yellow hood.
I was terrified and amazed. How long the painting and I stared at one another I cannot write and is perhaps irrelevant. I suspect it would not have ever ended. Its transformations would never cease, and I began to wonder if the painting wasn’t an oracle or clock showing all faces that were, are, and will be. I stepped away in sudden panic realizing the painting might become a mirror. Looking back I should have wondered something more troubling: those faces were not, are not, and will never be. I may have been looking at impossible people. Their only life was granted by my eyes and my breath and their potential population was infinite. Eventually the artist spoke: “Did you warn him about the painting?”
I stumbled backward staring around the painting, still very tempted to look at it. Finally, I murmured, “What? What does that mean?” My sense of alarm was rising. “Have I been drugged?”
My friend laughed, she grabbed my arm comfortably and led me to the sofa. “No, no, of course not, I haven’t done that to anyone in years.” That bland joke, attempting to hint at some false daring or previous mischief, helped me back to myself. It was the language of deluded exchange in our finite world; it was a petty, banal (effective), effort to belittle the experience of the painting. I needed ground and that joke, which was all such a cliché of naughtiness, provided it. How foolish of me to confuse the ground with hot air.
“Isn’t Aaron’s painting fabulous? He claims it doesn’t ever stop, not even when you look away. Isn’t that right Aaron? Aaron please introduce yourself!” My friend was giddy. I could feel giddiness rise in myself. I wanted to praise the young man; I wanted to talk to him. But my fears had not subsided. I am aware that people who are the victims of insult will try to align themselves with those who have insulted them, they will toady and placate and feign secret understandings with their oppressor. This is because contempt is contagious and the insulted do not wish to incur the insults of the several who may be witnesses. I had the unmistakable urge to toady. Believing what I believed I constructed a suit of arrogance for the young artist, I assumed in some yet undetected way I had suffered insult. I quickly defended against a strike that was never administered. I believed he was attempting to better me. I became cold and smug.The young man did introduce himself. He also elaborated on his warning. “It isn’t that the painting won’t stop, it becomes epidemic in the Dionysian sense. It is a divine infection. I asked Marcel to warn you before you looked.” Art is filled with snake oil salesman. Artist statements are full of false claims and polysyllabic words, self aggrandizement, and mysticism. I immediately assigned this young man’s statement to these categories. I was dismissive. I spoke to him with disinterest and vanity. This was a mistake I am willing to admit here. “Aaron” was not a stereotypical artist, nor was he a typical artist. He was very well kempt, calm but quickly interested, and free of melodrama. He was a normal man. He did not wear his eccentricities on his sleeve, nor did he otherwise flaunt them. I could ignore him in a crowd of three. This does not mean he was without mystery. He exuded mystery. It was clear upon first glance his mysterious qualities were difficult, well maintained, and honestly, too much work to penetrate. This reckoning of mystery as normality was more generous and apt then I could claim to have made before I saw his painting. It was an infection. What I had assumed was artistic bragging was, in fact, a clear statement. Having been a liar and dealt with liars for so long, I assumed it was the rule of statements. I was wrong.
Feeling bested, although not admitting it, I later read up on Dionysian “epidemics”. I would use this trivia as a tool to later impress should I meet Aaron again. I would attempt to refute his claims. Being a historian, even of art, I was very familiar with Dionysos, through viewing Renaissance paintings, through reading Nietzsche, and I had also examined vases and other work attendant to this Greek god. I am by no means an expert. Of course, I considered him in the sense portrayed by Nietzsche, or painted by Caravaggio, or DaVinci. This god was a symbol or an emblem. The “epidemic” description was something different. By the time I learned of it, the epidemic was being felt and I could not refute it. An epidemia was an “arrival on the land” or to “be upon the people”, otherwise called an epiphany- a manifestation. It referred to Dionysus’s arrival and the spread of madness before him. He was the infectious god.
Aaron was claiming his painting to be a germ of madness, or divinity. I must admit while I stared at it, that is how it seemed, but I did not account for its more subtle powers after had I left its presence. It takes time to understand the infestation of madness. It seems so familiar, so close, so unbelievable, and so far, all at once, ignorance seems preferable. Dismissal is the hope tried by all who are over come. Like a child with blankets over his head warding off the forces menacing him, I tried to blind myself to what had been awakened. I even wished to scoff. It was somehow galling to peripherally notice it was my subject and slave, Art, which had quickened the madness. I could not scoff as it was, even then, even through my denial, it was true: he had induced a divine infection.
Although he was a pleasant enough young man, something disturbed me. And as I’m sure, Dear Reader, you will sympathize I assumed he was the source of disturbance. I did not assume I had been given the first dose of self disgust, I assumed he was disturbing. I was a king among kings, a being of free will; I had seen it all and was trusted for my opinions of all of it. When not adequately self assured I could reach back and rely on venerable tradition, greater authority, on which I could depend. But this intruder had dismissed it all, seemingly without even being aware of it. It is difficult to be magnanimous with a mouth full of manure.
In such a deliberately intimate, enclosed, room I had little to say or do. I could not lose myself in bookshelves, or foreign ornaments. The room was barren and so one could discuss art without distraction. The best I could do was maintain a smirk and pretended to be jaded. Though somewhat hysterical my friend was an astute woman. By the look in her eye I knew she was aware of my discomfort; she knew I was overwhelmed. Not that it was hard to notice, my clothes were soaked with sweat.
They spoke amiably of several subjects, sometimes art but not conspicuously. I remained aloof, acting as if I were listening. I must confess Aaron was a very nice and subdued fellow. But I would not bow to him. In Caravaggio’s day, artists, even friends, would pass in the streets without acknowledging the other, without “raising their hats”. It was a sign of power, a submission to those above, to lift your hat first. Friends did not speak for years waiting for a hat to be tipped their way. I was behaving in this fashion. The truth is it was my desire to tip my hat but I was immersed in habitual games of position and could not guess when it might be time to be humble, even when I was humbled.
It is still a question in my mind: did I like the painting? Where can I start? What criteria do I use? The painting, as far as technique is concerned was good enough, but the paint was apparently, meant to be dismissed. The pigments were truly a “medium” a bridge to some other device. What was I to gauge? Was it art? Not in the terms I was taught. But what was it? This was some time ago, and I have gone out of my way, to avoid the young man, though he has twice crossed my path.
I have seen another work since that evening. It seemed to carry the same epidemia as the portrait. Thinking on this next work makes me hesitate, for it was desirable. I wish for more of the work. That probably doesn’t clarify the sentiment, or give it enough thrust. I am well aware of how melodrama has become the relay of sentiment in writing and speech. It is repulsively telling how removed we are from the living. I saw the next work I will describe in a gallery. Looking back it couldn’t have been placed in a worse setting.
My wife and I were invited to a not-so-intimate intimate gathering of artsy friends in Seattle. The invitation was extended by my good friend, Martin. Martin is a respected collector, with unusually fashionable taste. His collections toured very widely in Europe, and rarely in America. His pieces are select. Only the best and most lucrative are gathered to his collections.When the invitation arrived, we excused ourselves from any other engagements, and made arrangements to attend Martin’s soiree. This was certain to be a gala event. The invitation, which I have saved as a souvenir (and have committed to memory in pathetically religious adoration) read:
Dear Friends,Please make yourselves available for a truly profound viewing experience Sept. 15, ----. What you will witness will forever change your perspectives. Please R.S.V.P at the attached address no later than Sept. 2 Marty
It would be a habit for me to write in a smug tone about how I craved for social attention and the deferred opinions of the vulgar. Art venues have a very wicked habit of luring the vulnerable to pettiness and pretense. I did not care about art. Art as I look back was an opportunity to not only point out the emperor was naked, but to point it out while I was naked. I was not insincere when I thought I was an art lover, I just mistook what art was. The above opportunity to "change my perspectives" seemed like a beacon to either debunk an upstart, or attach myself to new and improved art. Which ever the situation, I would need to get some prior information. My persona would need preparation. I would like to clarify; this bogus persona was not perpetual. I was normal and good with friends-friends with little interest in art. It was professional. It was going to work, and loving my job which was, admittedly, to promote vanity, it was to create a false demeanor.
Gathering information was not easy. No one knew anything. Martin, much like the rest of the certified professionals in our society, was (I was going to write gregarious but as this is a confession of sorts let's be a bit more frank) a loud mouth. Bragging is part of the reward in art. Rarety and who owns what is most rare needs gossips, and deliberate information leaks. This is very profitable. Most people know this advertising tactic through tabloid news on Hollywood celebrities. Auction houses and private collectors use these same tactics, but in a more elitist setting. So you can imagine how strange it was that nothing was leaked. The usual channels of information were untrafficked. The only thing that was offered and this so generally it was believable, was that Marty had not seemed himself in the last few months. By report he seemed nervous, or under stress. He had lost some weight, he was distant. This up coming opening was beginning to ring alarm bells. It was not advertised in any journal or art periodical. It had not been previewed to critics, or reporters, it was by invitation only, which is not the most successful marketing stratagem. What is more I had had the unenviable experience of touring the gallery where the opening was going to be held. It was a smaller venue, usually dealing in reproductions and decorative art, that is, "schlock." The crowd would not be a very large one.
Just before the opening some word leaked out, unreliable word I should add, that Martin had invested a huge sum of money in the artist and the subsequent marketing of the artists work. It was intimated it would be very unusual.
September 15th arrived, and our anticipation was to be sated. We had no idea how much so. I was prepared, so I thought for every variable. If it was good, bad, or other, I was ready. I had dozens of things to say. I researched regarding every rumor and hint (sparse as they were). I suspected the oddity of this event would attract the most important of my peers. I was not going to be unprepared.
When we arrived, formally dressed and hungry, my wife and I were quickly greeted and ushered in the front door. It was somewhat ominous. The gallery was closed. I usually expect the milling and socializing of the cultured spilling out into the streets at an opening event. Cocktails (once literally a cocktail with the feather in it) and exotic snacks with various French and Italian (even Russian lately) names could be expected. But we were ushered like fugitives in the underground to the back offices and then to the door of the basement. There were several people already waiting and clearly annoyed. I did not know anyone, and what is worse, they were dressed very casually. We seemed like caricatures of a 1920’s fat cat and his wife. It struck me then, very forcefully, this was not going to be about me, unless of course I made an ass of myself.
More people entered, until two rooms were filled in only security lighting. Someone made an inappropriate joke relating our circumstance to that of victims of the Nazis in a boxcar. This was offensive for many obvious reasons, but was also jarring because it voiced a certain quiet fear that some dangerous trick had been pulled. Very quickly, when expectation is not met, small but strong paranoia can appear. We were very relieved when the basement door was opened and no Panzers stormed out. An 18 year old usher in a red vest was all that emerged. She didn’t say anything just smiled a self conscious, but not bashful smile, and waved us in.
The basement was very spacious, and a longer descent than I had expected (for some reason I was thinking of the basement stairs of a duplex I rented when I was 23.) I was a bit heavier then and I could feel 40 pounds of luxury bouncing and jouncing stair by stair restrained only by tuxedo. This seemed another demerit from my dignity. At the bottom three sets of risers, like those used in elementary school chorus recitals, were set up in an arc before a white curtained wall. There were only two spot lights directed at the curtain as illumination for the room, but they were sufficient.
After asking the usher, someone courteously called out “stadium seating”, and everyone gave a forced chuckle. My wife and I sat together, a pair of sore thumbs. I was very conscious of my dress and becoming more so by the minute. This tell seemed to be broadcasting. My clothes were accidentally revealing more of my pretence than I could have dreamed. I was an imposter, but regarding what? My wife, I should add, was only momentarily embarrassed, and then preceded about her business. She is far less an imposter.
The seating ended up elbow to elbow, not very comfortable, I assure you. Those risers were not cushioned, and before all was said and done I became very aware of the bones in my buttocks.Finally Martin entered the room, and made his way before the curtain. He was followed by a very tall lanky fellow. This new man seemed entirely made of elbows. Martin looked well, healthy, even strong. He was dressed in a casual jacket and jeans, and seemed very excited. He was expectant, and assured, I could not help but forget my silly clothes. Something was really going to happen. My instincts flared and I became excited as if by contagion. This was not going to be hype or a prank.
Martin made speeches before everything. To get a glass of water Martin would ask for silence in a room and describe how important water was to one and all. For this brief moment he seemed reluctant. He said, after uncharacteristic stammering, “Dear friends, thank you so much for coming to this unusual event. You may be questioning the wisdom of the choice to attend, as rough as it is. Regretfully I can’t tell you much about what is to come, I mean both here and after you go to your warm homes. You won’t see anything quite like this again. It is a shame, and also a blessing. You will not believe what will happen when this curtain is parted. So without further indulgences, let me present the artist, Mr. David _____.”
The tall man of elbows awkwardly made his way to the front of the curtain. I was expecting a self referential speech describing the validity of his work, first through art history than some anti-classical pinnacle. At least, I thought this in part, the excitement had not waned to fully accept this idea.
In his right hand he held the handle on a plastic box. A lens peered out amid the usual swirls of design that accompany up to the minute electronic appliances. He did not speak, he gestured and said a half word to the two young men controlling the lights. “Wait!” this sharp bark made all of us jump. The artist made an earnest face as he adjusted his plastic device. He smiled up at us blushing, I believe, “That wouldn’t have created a very good performance if I made you all blind.” I became uneasy. For a brief moment with the Sudanese girl, I thought I was going blind.
The lights went out, and the tall man turned on his plastic box, what I first thought was a portable projector, but I do not think this now. For a moment I feared I was about to endure a performance piece. The curtains were pulled aside and what appeared behind it, revealed by the indirect light of the box was blank wall.
“If you all direct your attention to the center of the beam of light” which he promptly directed to the blank wall, “I would like to begin my tale.”
In the center beam of light, isolated, an island of vision surrounded by the geometric lightening provided by our eyes, was a painting. In a moment I will change the form of narrative, as it will better relate what was seen, but for a moment let me describe something jarring. The light was not a projector. The light from the beam was slightly shaky as it was hand held. The painting did not shake. What is more, the painting seemed to spread out in the shaky perimeter. It was something about the nature of the light on the surface of the wall that revealed the painting. As we would later watch his small spotlight travel and unravel his illustrated narrative we realized not only was he traveling this broad surface and using his light to reveal an enormously elaborate painting, but he retread portions and a new painting was revealed where another had been.
I will here switch to 3rd person and try to tell the story we heard it, including descriptions of the illustrations as it was seamless whole.
“Before the Hejira and after the age of the Jamshid who’s starry cup witnessed Kai Khosrau there was a war. Some have said the war was in Khurasan and its hero was Idris, other say it was in Meshed and was at the command of Shab. The tale has been abandoned to whispers and obscure scripts. All the accounts, however, agree it was Shachar the Sabian that secured the victory.”
“Of Shachar I will tell only the end of this war for that is when his wisdom was miraculously revealed. Shachar sat in despair, alone in a field.” Again, this is a combination of the spoken narrative and the paintings as it was slowly revealed. “The war gear of his men were scattered around him. Their final camp site was abandoned litter. Insects claimed the abandoned war prizes, now abused and filthy. Shachar sat still and tired. His once handsome face was leather stretched taut against sharp bones and hollows. The face that was once harsh and proud had been broken by privation, duration, and loss.”
“A short time before he sat Shachar had sent the closest of his lieutenants from him. He released them to try as they may to escape punishment. The war was lost. They would find little left of their villages, or families. The reward for their struggles and loyalty to him would be mourning.”
“On the perimeter of the field the arms of the embracing forest shielded Shachar form sights and sounds not far away. Just beyond the eastern arm of the forest waited Belchir Ibn Melchir and his legions. These armies knew fresh infantry, a sea of foot soldiers all armored and spiny with weapons, generals and the young princes, sons of Belchir Ibn Melchir, eunuchs and servants attended, the priests were there, and the diplomats. They were preparing for a feast day.”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir had sent envois to Shachar’s camp giving detailed instruction for the rites of surrender. Shachar sent back his reply. At the first break of sunlight the following dawn Shachar would present himself to Belchir Ibn Melchir and meet his fate. He would arrive alone, unarmed, standing upright. Belchir Ibn Melchir received the news with satisfaction.”
“Shachar waited in the field, stark and empty, as the sun slipped below the horizon. There Shachar waited, hoping for the sound of birds, or beast. No song from the Archons would be his servitor. He abandoned the hope the angels would deliver him, but perhaps he would receive some comfort from them yet. In bodies of light they mapped the sky. As he had come from dust, so would he return to dust, and the stars would witness this without surprise. In a language he did not know his story too, was written in the heavens. He ran his hand through the dust at his feet and wondered upon which heads he had strode. He thought it likely the dust beneath his feet had once sported crowns, but here it was brought low, hidden under grass and ferns. That field was surely a looking glass that told him the one certain future. “Dust unto dust and under dust to lie, sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and sans end…’”
“He brought his dusty hand before his face, looking at his kin, and he was curious regarding an old question.”
“The sun was nearly gone. The forest could not hide the armies further. The smells of campfires and cooking met Shachar’s nose, and the sky behind the trees glowed. Shachar had not eaten in days, and his head ached from hunger, and his belly turned. He felt slightly sick, but too drained to give this suffering its due.”
“Shachar stood to draw in air, to ease his belly with memories of food. He was met with the stir of his own filth and sweat. He patted himself and clouds of dust poured from him, while his clothes cracked under his blows. He was disgusted by his filth. He became angry with the protuberance of his knobby bones.”
“Flowing not far within the confines of the field was a small but deep stream. Shachar ambled to it with bony angularity, like a door frame under an enchantment to move. He painfully disrobed, and set about bathing. Tomorrow he would transform to dust, but for now he was a man, and water was welcome on his beaten, scarred clay. He would not face Belkir Ibn Melkir clothed in fugitive’s grime.”
“He soaked in the water for a time. His mind was surprisingly free, but also very aware of time. He wished for better moments of ease. He brought his hands to his face, rubbed his eyes, wrung his beard. His pale hands were visible in the star light. In ways they were nebulous, insubstantial, indistinct. He brought his hands close to his eyes, then held them far and said aloud, ‘Perhaps this is their truth.’ To himself he thought, tomorrow if Belchir Ibn Melchir follows custom I will ask this question.”
“He dried in the warm night air. He dried his poorly washed clothes like spinning swords in the old martial exercises. He had difficulty pulling his clothes back on as they were still damp.”“He ate nothing, he had no fire, he did not sleep, he only had the stars. He watched them spin, the fixed and the wandering. They marked time but largely ignored time. Their dance was the concern of men it did not trouble the stars themselves."
"As a boy, he had gone on pilgrimage with his father. They traveled to the Pyramids in Egypt. His father told him stars are not time, but describe time. In those distant fires were maps of all their temples. Those angels were the places of memory, and the visions of their idols, the entire story of man.”
“He believed these stories, but could not discern the memories of his home or temples in those far lights. He wished to take asylum. He would go to Egypt again, he would follow the Milky Way and it would lead him to Troy, or Rome, or Harran. There were so many stars but too many letters for a man to read.”
“The night passed cold and slow. Shachar spent much of the night with his arms up stretched to the sky, watching the silhouette of his hands.”
“Blue tinged the vault of heaven and the stars eased their labors. All but one. The morning star seemed flared and defiant. Sitting close to the horizon it retained resplendence. The sky brightened, and the star remained. Shachar used the star as his beaconas he tromped through the grassy field and then the dim forest, to meet his end.”
“He emerged from the forest at the proper moment, for the sun just settled on the tips of the tallest trees. Shachar lost his breath at the expansive vision of war before him. Belchir Ibn Melchir’s legions flowed out before him. Their aim and attention dropped fully upon him. His hoped finally melted away. Standing at the forefront of the armies was Belchir Ibn Melchir. He was on horseback, his head high. Belchir Ibn Melchir was rotund and oiled, clothed in jewels and ceremonial armor. Behind him stood generals, advisors, his thirty sons, and behind them were innumerable men regimented behind flags and totemic insignia. A forest of spears and swords were raised in triumph, and a great roar erupted from all throats excluding Belchir Ibn Melchir. Shachar nearly collapsed.”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir languidly raised his hand and silence descended. Shachar swallowed very hard. A rough swallow. He straightened and stood as if his body remembered pride. He sent his gaze to meet Belchir Ibn Melchir.”
“’Shachar! For you folly will end here, for it is here you will be finally counted wise and sound. For here you have surrendered to the hands of fate. You were as a sheep before the lion, and it is futile for the sheep to struggle so, for God has made them both, and made the lion supreme. But I am more fierce than the lion!’ Belchir savored the sound of his words and spoke them heavily with great gestures. ‘I am also more merciful. Shachar you will not be made an example, for you have many qualities I admire. I will not allow you to be tortured. Your death will be the death of a man, though you now look an animal. Come forward, let my armies see you. We will then take you into custody and execute you, without delay.’ Belchir smiled widely, almost like a spoiled boy.”
“Shachar paused before he replied. ‘Belchir Ibn Melchir. I submit you have triumphed in this war. I agree I am defeated. You have not asked that I bow to you or your generals or armies, and for this I am grateful. Let it never be said Belchir Ibn Melchir is an Emperor without courtesy. Let it never be said Belchir Ibn Melchir does not observe the old traditions and piety. You are the victor and I am the dead. But I would ask one thing of you, and this has been the way of victors for all time. Will you observe the final request of the vanquished?’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir seemed to have expected this and so grinned. “Shachar, you know these requests have conditions, they are not absolute. I will grant your request as long as it does no harm to me, or my own, and as long as it does not interfere with my more extensive wishes.’”
“’Belchir Ibn Melchir, I do not ask any demands, or reprieve. My request is far more humble than this. My final request is the answer to a question. It is a question of philosophical import.’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir seemed pleasantly puzzled by this request. His fat thick brows rose high above his wide nose. He laughed a roaring, scornful laugh. ‘Of course, Shachar, I will grant you this. What is your question?’”“’What is the true size of my hand?’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir laughed so hard he wheezed. His legions attempted laughter in sympathy. He lifted a fatty hand and pointed at Shachar, ‘Measure his hand!’”
“Shachar held up his own hand, ‘No, Belchir Ibn Melchir! That will not answer my question.’ Shachar’s hand was held high and he slowly displayed it to the legions. ‘Consider: when you bring your hand close to your eye it looks large. When you pull your hand away it seems to diminish. Children know this. But I would like to know, as my eyes will not tell me, what is the size of my hand?’”
“Belchir Ibn Melchir’s mouth hung slack. He turned his head with difficulty and looked to his advisors stupefied. His face immediately soured. He roughly ordered a eunuch forward, this was one of his philosophers and advisors. The eunuch bowed, and trotted to stand behind Belchir Ibn Melchir’s horse.”
“’Shachar, the answer to your question is known to me, but it is a small thing! It is beneath my majesty to address a child’s question! But I have granted your request, and so it shall be answered!’ He kicked the eunuch forward. ‘This one will answer your question!’” Belchir Ibn Melchir seemed unduly troubled by his inability to answer such a strange question. Perhaps that mighty army, those wolfish generals, the serpentine sons were not as tightly bound as they appeared. Was that a shadow of unease that darkened Belchir Ibn Melchir’s face?”“The eunuch seemed very nervous, but he quickly built a long toothed smile. ‘The answer to your question is: your hand is the same size.’ He bowed and began to back away. Belchir Ibn Melchir smiled.”
“Shachar also smiled a sympathetic smile and shook his head in negation. ‘Still you have not answered my question. It is, of course, the same size as itself. This does not answer my question, for it still remains, what is the size of itself? And again, what is the size of my hand?’ Belchir Ibn Melchir, you have given your word, here, before the strength of your armies, to answer my request. Are you unable to grant this? Is this not a disgrace? After all of our violence am I to topple you, and the wits of your ministers and vast armies, with a child’s question. Was this the vulnerability I should have exploited, and stood where you now stand, our positions reversed?’”“Belchir Ibn Melchir shook with rage. He called the eunuch to his side, drew his scimitar, and with a great ponderous swing, cut the eunuchs head from his shoulders. He roughly turned his horse, nearly toppling the animal, and approached his son’s, his generals and his ministers. He held the bloodied scimitar before them. He could taste their rising scorn, their doubts and he knew to crush them with fear, for if he did not the day may rapidly change the balance of power. Murder was very close to the minds of his court-it was their gift, but it must not be turned against him. Belchir Ibn Melchir growled low as he passed in front of his court. ‘Do not look at me with blood in your eyes! You dare! Wipe your chops, there is no prey here! You are my prey! You are mine! And so I deem to pass the burden to you! The answer to this question will be found before the noonday sun or I will take the heads and hands of all of you!’ Belchir Ibn Melchir called forth his personal guard and ordered them to stand weapons drawn man to man with each of his generals, sons, and ministers. As one the leaders of the army called forth messengers. These messengers were dispatched with the question to each captain, who then relayed the question down the lines of command until each soldier heard.”
“Shachar became dizzy with a wave of hunger. His head ached, and his eyes watered. He had said all he would to another man on this day.”
“Shachar squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed. The world was amazingly silent. When he opened his eyes, his vision took in a nearly comical sight. All the advisors, all the sages, and warriors, every last man in the vast army stood waving there hands forward and back before their eyes. Every face was quizzical and uncertain.”
“The hours passed and the sun rose. Sweat poured from every brow, not from overwhelming heat, but under the burden or death. The swaying hands did not cease, but varied in speed and angle. Sometimes they would cease moving only to begin again with greater confusion. Even Belchir Ibn Melchir stared at his hand.”
“It seemed a spell was cast. The legions of faces had lost their liveliness. The armies of hands were becoming still. Like the cessation of disturbance in a pool, the actions of the armies slowed. It seemed a trance was falling. Shachar looked up at the sky. It was far from the noon hour.”
I must now return to my narrative to describe the rest. The painting which had unfolded with the traveling light became slightly obscured. It seemed to take on blotches of absence- scotomas. If you suffer migraines you will understand what I mean.
Sight by sight the light exposed the perspective of different soldiers. It seemed as though we blinked, and it took on a new perspective every few seconds. Each time an eye opened a hand appeared in its center and behind, at various points of view stood Shachar. Hands of different shapes and characters popped in and out of our vision, making Shachar the magnetic constant in this parade of perspectives. Shachar was near and then far, but most impressively, he changed under the point of view and social biases of each soldier. He was Shachar in some general way, and in no way a caricature, but some feature in each changing view became emphatic. The transformations that changed Shachar were amazing. In one soldiers eye his tattered clothes became emphatic, in another his starvation, in another he seemed proud, in another he seemed filthy and small. We were given peripheral observations of a man as seen by many men, and it was done with subtlety. It seemed natural. We were allowed to see through the eyes of others to read fear and power of other men-impossible men who did not exist. After a short time it seemed these myriad Shachars were building a composite, a truth, as if we these sights were building the first vision of something ideal. An absolute Shachar seemed to be under construction.
These perceptions were becoming deeply marred with the blotches of absence. Just as something seemed to be entering clarity it was being obscured. For a few moments I thought I was beginning to have a migraine, the effect was so convincing.
The armies continued to look at their hands. The narrative had paused for a moment. The light did not cease to travel the wall, as if imitating our eyes, seeking out something to see. But it could find less and less. And I became somewhat nervous because I was unsure if it was the work or my vision. This kind of suspension is very uncomfortable. It is an unpleasant intellectual rebellion.
The artist continued: “After a time Shachar began to understand the stillness of the army. Still with little hope, but more days and adventures before him, Shachar stumbled away from the still army. After he had walked some short distance, he heard the first howls and cries that initiated a mass panic.” He granted us the illustrative perspective of Shachar, and interspersed this with the blotchy perspective of the mass. “The armies of Belchir Ibn Melchir, including Belchir Ibn Melchir had all fallen into an abstraction. They were tricked into regarding the deceptive nature of vision. They held a mirror to sight. They were lulled to answer one of the forbidden questions. They....” my eyes hurt and seemed to involuntarily cross looking for sight, “…all …” the images were fading even when Shachar was shown, “…went…” suddenly the absence took over and I could not see, I reached out for my wife, “blind.” Had I noticed, and not been ready to panic, everyone gasped and became utterly silent. The spot lights flicked on again.The lanky artist stood before us satisfied and smiling. Behind him the wall was completely blank. We all looked around to ensure our vision, even stupidly measuring our hands.Martin was up in front of the room giddy and gesturing for us to proceed up stairs. Everyone laughed. Like we just stepped off a roller coaster, everyone was tussled. We must have been squirming in our seats, though I must admit, I did not notice any such fidgeting. Someone tried to start applause but, it fell dead. Applause seemed a little inadequate. We may as well have set up barking like seals.
We were escorted upstairs to the main gallery by ushers, and it was then some wine and cheese were served. The artist appeared like some figure from Oz, all sticks and pulleys. Vivaldi was playing, people were milling, but in an unnerving silence. We were all still trapped in that world. We were still with Shachar. After a time a crowd gathered around David and everyone managed to overcome their awe, and sense of awkwardness to ask questions. The evening decayed from there.
I did learn some interesting details, by listening to the questions thrown at the artist. It was his first piece. It was not for sale. It had taken him 12 years to create. After a short time the crowd broke into pairs and the theories began to assemble regarding the plastic box. That is was a projector was one theory, another was that box was a flashlight of sorts, but with various colored lights that reflected or were absorbed, and these lights revolved. I thought these were unsatisfactory ideas, and still do. Too many aspects of the work are left unanswered. And although it is intriguing, I think in the end it is not my concern how he did what he did, but more importantly what did he do? He erased us all. I was not me for a time. I jumped body to body, a ghost. We became swept up in the senses of another, in the sights of other eyes, and for a time we were whatever identity he provided. We were, briefly but with lingering aspects, Shachar, Belchir Ibn Melchir, the sons, the army, other men. But what will not dissipate is the variable Shachar; the multiple visions of Shachar that nearly gave us an ideal, an eternal experience.
I had to leave. Somehow normal people were too bland to endure. Shachar was more real. They seemed less effected by the work than I was, and it felt offensive. I began to feel with some certainly the first feeling of disconnection.
The populations of the impossible never people that radiated from the Abyssinian girl, the shifting characters of painted fiction presented in the story of Shachar that I had just seen (that I had just been) seemed to hint at a depth behind the easy surface of sense. If the universe we inhabit is infinite, this other thing, an impossible universe, is more. ! squared or ! to the ! power. It is participating with shadows, only these shadows are more substantial than granite. Illusions seem to describe the bedrock of truth. Reality, at its best, is incomplete. My sense is these works describe a fact: we are illusions to something more startling. It almost seems like a form of solipsism, or a taste of the Hegelian Absolute.
I complained I was feeling slightly ill so we left the reception. On the ride home we attempted to discuss the work, but my wife became nervous and evasive. It felt like we were trying to discuss something shameful or intrusive, or a violation. I cannot explain this.
There was one further piece I would like to mention. And though I am suspicious of threes for the superstitions surrounding this number, it does feel like there is some uncanny relationship between the pieces.
I was at a funeral. I should mention I am, as is normal I believe, deeply troubled by funerals. Perhaps this is old fashioned of me. They seem due homage. Mourning seems like a properly lonely state, and is honored by reluctance to approach. But the world is has truly become a farce or is it still in the tragic stages? I’ll let Marx or Hegel worry over this. This funeral was a “celebration of life” or so the flyers reported. Flyers for a funeral. It boggles the mind. I am disgusted with the idea of a funeral as a celebration. It is morbid, like a clown face painted on a corpse. If life has been good and gracious, virtuous or honorable, its passing will be terrible for a light is gone. Maybe I am being sentimental, but this seems a decent enough sentiment and I won’t lightly throw it aside. Life should be celebrated as it is lived (or condemned). These should occur during our brief span. Post mortem gaiety seems like a really tacky excuse to have a party, or a show put on for an audience of fellow mourners. It is pathetic the dead can become a platform for attention and vapidity. Leave the dead some dignity!
I write with vehemence about this for a reason. The dead man at the funeral meant little to anyone (myself included). That may be cold to write, but it is true, nonetheless. In most circumstances I would have performed as is expected and acted sorrowful, but I had run out. My sense of doubt had matured into self disgust and disgust for all things like me in my isolated field. When you first catch on to the fraud, the first whiff of your own weakness and pretense, it is the most profoundly irritating experience. When I had first been willing to scorn the pieces of art I have here described I was so solid, and knew all of the rituals and acts around me to be real, but after it seemed the worst farce.
We stood around the coffin as it was being lowered, and everyone chatted. Martinis were passed around. It was a monstrous coffin. As if ironic or a joke, it was covered in tinsel and garlands and hundreds of bottle caps. It looked like it was dressed as a gypsy for Halloween. I felt my face scrunched in disgust, and I could not unknot it. In this well manicured graveyard, silent and still, even solemn, we stood out like a glittering pimple. It was like watching the most desperately resentful teenagers crying out for attention. Each mourner was talking and laughing a little louder than their neighbor. One man wore a Technicolor kilt, another man was in flamboyant drag (can’t drag sometimes be subdued?) One woman dressed like she was just arrived from a swingers convention, all in holey fishnet and mesh, and I assure you she was not someone you want to see in fishnet and mesh with holes. This display of scandal might be forgivable if this was teenagers, or even twenty three year olds. But our youngest mourner was 38, our eldest was in his early seventies. This was all false.
In a moment I realized I did not want to stay and would not stay. In mid sentence I strode away from some shrill harpy and set off across the graveyard. It was Scrooge like, after seeing such cold self interest I suddenly had the urge to sense some human feeling. My head felt swollen and my eyes ached. People of a class and culture whom I had striven to join were transforming before my eyes. They were like the frightening puppets on Mr. Rogers. Every face had some “Lady Elaine” quality, or the worst of Venetian Carnival masks, elongated and heavily accented with makeup and paint and shiny grease. They were spangled monsters, twisted people. Perhaps this is all subjective, or perhaps they were cells wracked with disease. I was having the godfather of anxiety attacks.
I was jarred into some reality, or some more calm state, by a simple sight. People. Real people, plain, dull, people. It occurred to me the funeral was unpeopled, a bunch of empty coats. The mourners were behaving in some alien manner and it was very lonely. When you are in a crowd of empty men you suffer the effects of isolation, and possibly sensory deprivation. These real people were not here for my entertainment, nor did they petition me to act as audience. They were solid. They had concerns out in the world. A young man stood beside an old man who knelt, both apparently paying respects at a grave. The young man looked somewhat bored and disinterested, but there was also some sense of warding. His young face squinted and searched passively. He was here for the old man, it was apparent. The old man was hunched forward, sitting on his knees. He was concentrating on something.
They were straight ahead of me, so I kept on my way, and was prepared to quickly sneak a gaze at whatever was happening then leave them in peace as I went to find my car.
The old man was drawing on a small tablet. The young man, and this may be generous, he looked about 16, watched me walk up with some interest. The old man did not shift a hair as I passed.
I had to catch a glimpse of what he was drawing. This was unusual and my instincts informed me to keep alert. Something about this moment seemed portentous, and far more “magical” than anything they had attempted at the sham funeral.
I paused and looked over the man’s shoulder from a respectful distance. The drawing was beautifully done and very simple. It was a portrait of a young woman, face front, neither beautiful nor ugly. He was drawing in pastels on what looked like an old Fisher Price child’s chalkboard.
I spoke quietly to the young man. “I’m sorry, very sorry to bother you, but may I ask what your father is drawing?”
The young man looked away with disinterest while he spoke, as if the act of communicating made me safe, or he had sized me up and I was not worth barring. “He’s my Grandpa. He does this every week. He makes me bring him here on Sundays. This is my Nana’s grave and he’s a sketch artist. He draws her.”
I looked over the old man’s shoulder again, and saw he clutched a tattered black and white photograph of the girl in the hand that clutched the chalkboard. The drawing was far more lively than the photo.
In art you often hear hyperbole regarding the effects of a work. Everyone attributes some voodoo and magical other worldliness to simple drawings. It validates them (both work and observer) in some petty way. I am aware of this and I would like to communicate I am not suggesting this silly superstitious pose when I say the work was better than the photograph. The color would lend “betterment” if nothing else. But there was more than just the addition of color to quicken the picture. The face was different, it resembled the photo but was not the same, and the difference was subtle, more expressive. Certain of the facial muscles were flexed that lent a “telling” quality to the face.
“Again, I’m sorry, but do you think your grandfather would mind if I watch him draw? I am very interested in art and his work is beautiful. I truly do not wish to intrude but it is remarkably beautiful.”
The young man squinted down at his grandfather and put forward my request in what sounded like Italian, but I do not know for certain, it could have been Portuguese. The young man answered with as much disinterest as before, “Sure he won’t mind, he doesn’t even know we are here. PAPA! This man wants to watch you!” The old man grunted but continued without interruption. I drew closer, careful to stay out of his light. His hands were steady and always in motion, but not ever frantic. It was fluid and graceful drawing. He applied each detail with careful but certain attention. He knew what to do with clarity, but he was cautious in application. Each hair was present, each flush. Some aspects were eerie. As I watched I became aware of how the blood supply would have colored her face, blushing the tip of her nose to the bridge. Hidden aspects of her physiology and anatomy were navigated and added as a light smoky blue tracking around the thin tissues around her eyes, or the cracked pink of her lips and the pale skin that circled and then radiated toward her nose and the sides of her chin.
As he drew he mumbled, sometimes chuckling, sometimes it sounded ironic, or even righteous, but the silences were painful. When he stopped mumbling it felt tragic, as if his trance was coming close wakefulness, and the knowledge the face he presented was a meanness, or trick But he would dive deep again, and pick up the strains of the mumbling.
He nagged at the picture with his pastels and with the eraser. When one feature seemed impossible to correct he moved onto another, only to return to the previous feature and alter it in some subtle way. I thought I was watching a perfectionist, and it brought to mind the image of a sculptor who, ever dissatisfied with one angle or another of his masterwork, chips away at it until all he has left is chips and powder.
I misunderstood. I watched for nearly an hour before I did understand. The drawing of the young face I had first seen had evolved, it had aged. With small steady progress he was animating the face. Her mood had darkened from the first version I had seen, her face had become more angular and stark. As I came to this realization others quickly followed. His mumbling and grunting were in time to the changes of the face. He was reliving her.
He continued, and I did not grow tired of watching. His humming dialogs rode a pendulum of moods. At times the face became lovely, at other moments plain, or very expressive. It was angry, disdainful, happy, sly, and worried. In an extraordinary feat he drew her face in deep sorrow, I knew it to be mourning, and yet it was here most lovely. Her pleasures and sorrows took turn dominating her face. With mastery he aged her. He did not use a guide. He did not have further photographs or reference, only the clarity of his memory.
His mumbling became les frequent. The woman was fairly old. That might be incorrect, she was worn. The most terrible sorrow, to touch her face had marked it and was not diminished though other expressions passed beneath it. Along with this, some wrong had settled into her features. Some corruption that cannot be misidentified appeared as slight hollows in her cheeks, and eyes, and a slackening of her cheeks, which did not have enough substance to become jowls. She thinned, her eyes became large as if in frightened realization, and then they became tired, sunken, weak. Her decline was terrible and my throat ached. I felt the muscles in my chin tense and the corners of my mouth arched down to camouflage the possibility of weeping.
The old artist began to weep. From the angle behind him I could see his jaws clench like a pulse the closer he came to her death. And then the moment of her death appeared in a series of colors too easily placed to believe. Less than a dozen strokes of chalk and she was dead. The face was barren, and terrible. The muscles evacuated tension and the eyes …what other term can be used but dead? Her eyes were dead, that horrible unfocused, sunken, vacancy that is apparent in the eyes only with death.
The Old man wept unabashedly. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket wiped his tears and quietly spoke, but I do not know what he said. The phrase wasn’t addressed to me. I am content not knowing, though I will say it sounded sorrowful or regretful. He took the tear damp cloth, wrapped it around his index finger and marred picture by smearing a cross over the board. He took a small water bottle from his pocket, poured it over the board, and using the handkerchief cleaned away the face in muddy streaks.
I did not weep, though the feeling offered itself. The old man stood with some strength. When he unfolded he was surprisingly tall. He was several inches taller than me, though I had thought he must be shorter as he drew crumpled over (perhaps because the perspective of the woman was drawn eye to eye, instead of from above, I confused his height.) He carefully folded and placed the soiled kerchief in his pocket. He finally seemed to acknowledge me, with a small, maybe slightly embarrassed, smile.
He patted his grandson on the back before putting his arm around him and they set off. The old man nodded to me in goodbye as they walked off.
I puzzled over this for some time as I stood above the woman’s grave. I wondered what the old man did with his neatly folded handkerchief. Did he simply wash it or was there more to his ritual of cleaning away her image with tears? Did he keep all the soiled kerchiefs, each a history, a body of memory? It didn’t seem unreasonable that he might keep any and every sacrament, as his weekly dedication demonstrated, he made new icons of her to venerate if only for the time he spent near her grave. I considered the idea he did keep a collection of kerchiefs, and it struck me these started to take on some impossible aspects. I wondered if those dirty cloths were all the same memories, and marked the days on a calendar that actually extended beyond her life. I wondered if he altered her life making it more ideal some days and beautiful, or if he ever held resentments that colored her time, or even if he created fictional events to add to her life. I realized the ideas began to resemble my old manner of thinking; I was trying to impose scandal upon him. He had shown me another miracle of art and my habits strained to pollute it, and bring it low.
I realized much of what I deem art was a vain attempt to bring the powerful down, to diminish what was overwhelming and steal its powers. I wanted these strange things to accommodate the small, claustrophobic, world I was inhabited. As with the other art I have mentioned here this last left me bereft of cleverness. It stole away the walls of my habitat. I am confused by what I have seen, but I no longer feel the desire to dismantle wonders to offer my confusion a balm.
I am uncomfortable inside my skin. Treading the familiar grounds and habits of my professional adulthood is unsatisfactory. Seeing the common, the ironic, the disgraceful, feels like I am being force fed something noxious. I may have been fed manna and now TV dinners (or Gallery or Museum Dinners) seem unsavory. Many of the so called graces and all of the expressions made by my intimates or associates sets me scowling (or create a guilt that I am not scowling.) I have seen things that dictate I dismiss fools, and frauds: I can’t help but obey. So here we reach my dilemma. My standards and expectations are ruined, which is something for which I should be grateful. I am grateful but I am left with little. I survive, and survive well enough for it to be seen as to be called luxury, on the corruption of these greater things. I regret to write I love my luxuries even as I see them dismantle wonders. I have also found I love art. In a profound way, I have been shown an impossible world. The clash between my vices and this undeniable virtue does not seem to alter either abstract, but it is tearing me apart. I mentioned I sense another me is emerging, another self, and this is true. It is not so simple as suggesting I have changed. The arts I have seen have “installed” another man, a better man, inside my head. I want him to win, though it frightens me that I would be swept aside. He might pull apart my world; tear down my structures and theatres. This shabby theatre deserves destruction.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
I am an artist, and when I heard my friend say that Arthur Danto was one of the most influential voices regarding art and the supposed “art world”, I had to admit, I had no idea who Arthur Danto was. That may seem innocent enough, and not unlikely. The isolated social structures and elites in art seem proud of their obscurity and one must be an acolyte of this or that movement or circle to know the local pecking orders. I rarely read magazines on any point in the political spectrum, so that I was unaware of the art critic for the Nation isn’t that telling in any direction either. I didn’t feel especially ashamed that I didn’t know who Arthur Danto is. What puzzled me, what I found worth consideration, was after asking around to various artists I know and with whom I correspond, I found very few knew who Danto was, and no artist who did know mentioned any influence from this scholar. No artist I spoke with had followed the advice of Arthur Danto in regard to technique or subject, or complexity. Nor did they espouse his Hegelian philosophical standards. They did not seek to apply his philosophies to their work. They did not refute them or deny them, they were indifferent.
This could be a symptom of poor variety in my sampling. Though to excuse this I will mention the artists I asked, casually, were not all realists, they were artists from various movements and creeds in the arts. Seeing this lack of knowledge concerning the most influential voice I wondered what exactly was meant by influential. This word comes up often when discussing the arts, and I even asked about “influence”, as if cued, and didn’t notice it seems meaningless in this context.
What does it mean to be an influential voice in the arts? Let me remove “voice”, it sounds contrived and somewhat Biblical, or prophetic. I wouldn’t want the added, subliminal, sentiment of some magical power in speech added to this subject. So let me rephrase: What does it mean to be influential in the arts?
Let me here give over a quote from The Nation, a brief biography of Arthur Danto to see if any sign of influence is related:
Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army, Danto studied art and history at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and then at Columbia University.
From 1949 to 1950, Danto studied in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, and in 1951 returned to teach at Columbia, where he is currently Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy.
Since 1984, he has been art critic for The Nation, and in addition to his many books on philosophical subjects, he has published several collections of art criticism, including Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992); Playing With the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California, 1995); and, most recently, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). He lives in New York City.
It isn’t the most recent biography, but it serves the general purpose of explaining, briefly, who Arthur Danto is. He is a scholar and a philosopher of art. This may seem venerable at first glance but I think can only be said to “look good on paper” and adds up to very little action or influence. This biography seems, like most biographical snippets, a marketing device used to legitimize an unknown person.
I read some of Danto’s writings, by no means all, but enough to lead me to believe, that his thinking on art is deeply flawed and teeters on faulty premises. At times his writing seems so formulaic and contrived that I almost felt embarrassment for him. If not actually embarrassed, I will admit sympathetic discomfort in someone who could so extravagantly and enthusiastically make mountains out of mole hills. I cringed to read the things he writes. These mole hills he tries to emphasize with florid descriptions. Regarding Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”:
“Ono sits impassively on the stage, like a beautiful resigned martyr, while the audience is invited to come and cut away a piece of her clothing. One by one, they mount the stage, as we see in a video at the Japan Society, and cut off part of what she is wearing. One of the cutters is a man, who cuts the shoulder straps on her undergarment. The artist raises her hands to protect her breasts but does nothing to stop the action. Ideally the cutting continues until she is stripped bare. I find it a very violent piece, reminding me somehow of Stanley Milgram’s experiment in psychology, in which people are encouraged to administer electric shocks to the subjects (who pretend to be in agony). The audience has overcome, a bit too gleefully, the gap between art and life-it is after all a flesh-and-blood woman they are stripping piecemeal with shears. It reveals something scary about us that we are prepared to participate in a work like that.”
Reading this I find I am gritting my teeth and squinting due to the heavy handedness and silliness that proceeds from the first line. Let me rephrase the “masterpiece” as he terms it in the common speech:
Ono sits on the stage. The audience is invited to come up and cut away her clothing, piece by piece. They do so; aware that she is willing to be nude (or semi-nude) in public, in fact she has set up situation that allows her to be so. Cut piece doesn't have many alternatives. If no one participated in this artsy and righteous strip tease, it would have simply been "sitting on the stage piece."
A message is meant to be contrived, because of the cutting, and the message is supposed to hint at something dark to legitimize this silly piece. Silly people often suppose dark is deep. Some guy takes the implied dare and is the first to cut away a piece of undergarment. How scandalous (if one is 13 but annoying to anyone older). It is nothing at all like Milgram’s experiments, which are really creepy and disturbing- the subjects of the experiment were unaware of the experiment and were led to believe they were torturing someone, and pressured by authorities to do so. The Ono piece is cooperative silliness. It is only similar to Milgram’s experiments in that the subjects, the audience, are duped into thinking that they are participating in a situation which in fact they are not. The similarity is someone is deceived, and pressured into doing something. As opposed to the Milgram experiment which was dire, the Ono performance was pointless and decieving the audience they were participants in a cultural wonderment. All deceptions are not equal. It is not as Danto suggests above like they are pressured to perform the forbidden act of cutting away garments and stripping a woman. The cutting away of garments is completely understood to be voluntary and okay. I believe certain strip shows have a similar premise, where “tear off” lengths of costume are lightly held by the audience and the dancer dances away from the pieces of her costume until she is naked. Only the shears are missing, but the strip tease is not meant to legitimize itself with “dark is deep” and a guy with scissors in a strip club seems a bad idea. A bad idea that should be brought up here. The strip club is actually dark and deep and possibly dangerous (notice the bouncers, drunks and not uncommon fist fights) and they are trying to induce the opposite- a good time. It seems to suggest that Yoko Ono and her audience are play acting at something interesting and failing to create anything actually interesting.
Danto’s language is curious. Attempts to lead one to think along certain lines like: “until she is stripped bare” makes him untrustworthy. The same phrase could easily have been stated “they cut her clothes off until she is nude”. This phrase doesn’t have the same sentiment as “stripped bare” –utter vulnerability (or is it udder vulnerability?) But then it is one of the possibilities though not as apparently cooperative. Even if Ono wants to relate the idea that she is stripped bare and one knows this, whether or not it has worked is not a given. In fact that she has performed this piece more than once, and conceived of the piece it is hard to imagine she feels vulnerable and laid bare. And what is more is why is laying oneself bare (or being naked in public) "like a martyr", of interest in art- or anywhere else? Contrived martyrdom on stage is not very convincing or interesting, and is not at all what is advertised. There is no martyrdom. The audience has to agree to act and think like fools and accept silly premises they would reject in other settings. And that is not the point of the piece, as might be argued. No one learns anything from this, nor do they benefit in any way. What it more is the "martyr" imagery is specialized to those who have no knowledge of the history of martyrs. Ono wasn't Jeanne D'Arc on that stage. At one point she even seems somewhat peevish one participant is taking too long and upstaging her. The audience feels the same and starts to heckle the man. Kind of juvenile and silly. It reminds me of the girls in freshmen photography classes who invariabley photograph themselves nude, and then explain that these vain nude photos have deep feminist messages in them. Often, I have found, as these girls get older they laugh these pictures off as just wanting people to see them naked. Fair enough, that is honest and even exected, the false and righteous message is what is troubling.
Danto goes on to describe another piece of Ono’s work called “Fly” where a fly walks on a nude woman’s body, and an annoying soundtrack can be heard in the background. “The soundtrack is uncanny, and we do not know if it is the voice of the fly, the suppressed voice of the woman, or the weeping voice of an outside witness to what feels like- what is- a sexual violation.” Well, maybe, but I doubt it. Danto backs this assertion by mentioning Ono’s credentials as a musician. Why we need to know this is unclear as the piece, unless one is willing to stretch unreasonably and start making up their own themes, is a fly crawling on a nude woman with an annoying soundtrack. The soundtrack sounded like someone futzing around with a violin, or a kazoo. The whole thing is, as one might expect, as interestig as watching a fly walking around on some person. It is in fact less interesting then a fly crawling on someone witnessed in person people often swat at flies, and freak out when bugs are on them. What could be considered an "action scene" for this type of interesting art. One need not follow some repetitious and peculiarly scandalous theme of “sexual violation”. Just the mention of “sexual violation” as a theme makes some especially weak minded persons shudder in awe. But it seems strange that this theme of “sexual violation” is indulged and promoted, in case someone forgot about rape. And though sexual violation is a shocking and terrible thing, it doesn’t give power or force to supposed art pieces claiming it as a subject. It seems a little too much like desire for attention. What is worse is it is exploitive and profits (not necessarily financially) from sexual violation. As a means of communicating ideas of “sexual violation" as is claimed, “Fly” fails. As a piece of art anything that implies “sexual violation” fails. Sexual violation is not a standalone issue. It involves history and personal histories. Sexual violation is not an ideal but has particular, personal results. This is why it is horrific. One of its more terrible and tell tale aspects is silence not howling. This silence is consuming and painful, not dramatic and symbolic. An example of a work of art with something like a theme of sexual violation is Sir John Everett Millais “Order of Release.” I would suggest anyone look this painting up. Its narrative is about sexual violation and manipulation regarding the release of a prisoner to his wife. She has had to trade for his freedom. I won’t offer any poetic descriptions of the painting. You can see for yourself. It is also worth mentioning, I read another critical essay about "Fly" that described this piece as a conceptual "absurdist" work, and this essay described another piece as sexual violation instead. This "choose-your-own" movement or issue strikes me as very suspicious. If experts and scholars are fumbling in the dark and describing the emperor's new clothes as completely different outfits, say bermuda shorts vs ski gear, how can they possibly be accepted as experts. It seems important to try to connect silly things to very serious things even when no relationship exists. That the critics and essayists on this work are inconsistant, unsure, and yet "sell" it just the same is telling. That they have a set body of possible, controversial, or cutting edge lables (all meaningless) to work with is disappointing.
Let’s look still further at Danto’s phrase “the gap between art and life.” He borrowed this phrase from Robert Rauschenberg: “Painting relates to both art and life, I try to act in the gap between the two.” Danto explains, “’Overcoming the gap between art and life' had at once the ring of a metaphysical battle cry-like closing the gap between body and mind-and a political slogan promising to abolish privilege. For Rauschenberg, however, it more or less meant giving himself license to make art out of anything: 'A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting than wood, nails, turpentine, oil, and fabric.'" Now it may be that Danto is a so blindly fanatical for art in all of its manifestations (or any claiment to the title) he cannot see things clearly or soberly. And you can forgive him on this basis. I, however, do not believe this is so, and think his acceptance of this nonsense, while claiming himself a professor of Philosophy, is unforgivably sloppy. Here is why: painting does not fill in a gap between art and life. Art and life are not separate things. Art is an experience in life. There is no gap. Paint is a material used to induce the experience of art when configured in certain ways (not in all ways), and painting is the act of configuring and applying the paint. This is done by living persons. Painting does not fill in a gap between art and life, as it is an activity within life, that is, it is part of life also, if one chooses to do it, and it can induce the experience of art, which is also a part of life, as can other triggers, such as music, or dance. These are also part of life. Paintings have a relationship to art at times in that one can trigger the other. But neither is separated by a gap from life. “Art” and “life” here mean nothing. They are meant to be magic words which can be used to say nothing but sound like something is being said. "What is Life?" "What is Art?" Two questions many people cannot answer and so leave untouched and unexamined due to an assumed difficulty in answering. One need not arrive at a definitive answer to either question to see through the silliness of the idea of a gap between art and life. To maintain this idea of separate entities, Art and Life, one must dive backward through time to some very superstitious thinking, and elevate these venerable words to divine status akin to “God”.
It does sound like closing the gap between body and mind, and is just as silly. As Borges wrote “you are your body and you are your mind and the two are difficult if not impossible to separate”, or as Bertrand Russell observed, a perfectly healthy, intelligent man becomes an idiot when iodine deficient. Body and Soul, Body and Mind, Art and Life, are poorly categorized when taken as divine beings.
Though very fine for Rauschenberg and it reads as brave, giving oneself license to make art out of anything has some obstacles that are not simply brushed aside by will and license. First, art is not induced by just anything. Though one may try anything they want and may achieve success with many as yet unknown things and combinations, any thing will not induce an experience of art. The things used to make paintings, such as paint, oil, wood, turpentine, etc. are not lawful heavenly bestowals, but evolved and changed to efficiently suit certain purposes. All kinds of materials were used, and many were rejected because they were not very useful. One painter used his own earwax to make a paint, few others have followed done likewise. Many painters found agreement in some general materials such as the above mentioned materials. They gave themselves license to use these materials. They did not find that the usefulness or novelty had been extinguished when Rauschenberg made his comments, and many still haven’t found a satisfactory extent to the potential of these materials. Now let’s get back to Rauschenberg’s sloppy statement which Danto has borrowed. Like the gap between art and life, Rauschenberg has a problem with categories. A pair of socks is a description of the way materials are put to use. Socks are made of cloth, say cotton or nylon. What makes them socks is if this cloth is used to cover the feet to warm them and separate the bare foot from the shoe. A footlike form is also helpful in "sockiness" or is it "sockitude?" This use can be changed, and one could paint on cloth that could also be used as, say, an artist canvas, or cloth used to smear paint, or even cloth placed in a setting. Notice “socks” can be magically transformed into “puppets” with the simple application of buttons. The problem as yet is, cloth formed for use as foot coverings, has very limited use as artist supplies. This is not because of some rigid doctrine, but simple common sense. Flat planes are often used in painting because they are easy to access at least a full half in one expanse, and then easily apply well tried and ever useful techniques such as perspective. These techniques have not been used in every possible manner and have much left in them to explore. The simplicity of the flat quadrangle or circle removes unwanted complexities in materials that would, if present, need to be surmounted to induce the state of art. Socks seem less suitable for an experience of art through painting, but seem just fine if you want to paint on or with socks. With the latter idea I have yet to see socks and paint combined to induce art. Maybe it is possible in some manner, but seems an excessive effort, and has yet to happen. Socks haven’t really caught on as good painting materials, because they aren’t - especially when used to make art. I will confess, I have on several occasions applied paint to old socks, but this is because I was using them as a piant rag.
Danto does something interesting after discussing Rauschenburg which will take us away from Danto and back into influence. In his book Unnatural Wonders, Danto wrote “The essays that compose this volume were written in the space between art and life, which has been my intellectual habit since the 1960’s, as philosopher and as art critic.” He claims for himself the artist’s declared position between art and life (Danto introduced the subject to implicate himself with it). He suggests it as his intellectual habit. This shifts him away from being a simple critic or philosopher but adds him to the roster of heavenly beings between Life and Art. He espouses nonsense for the sake of vanity. He is attaching himself to a cult object to reinforce his influence.
Enough about Danto. I placed his ideas under scrutiny for a reason that I hope is clear. The most influential voice in art offers some unstable and hollow ideas. If these ideas are influential it should be alarming. It should be alarming because these ideas have passed with little resistance or examination, and because influence in art would seem to be an external issue to art. Influence with art has to do with who controls what activities are termed art, and thereby can define markets, masters, and geniuses. It would seem influence in art is a nefarious situation.
The problem of influence isn’t just suspicion that one is being asked to admire the emperor’s new clothes. The problem arises, as with a religion, where emphasis lies. Which persons or actions are important and influencing or influenced, if at all? Let’s take Christianity as a case in point. If influence were exerted in which direction would it go? Do the prelates influence the laity? Does the laity influence the prelates? Do either of these influence Jesus Christ? Does Jesus Christ influence either the prelates or the laity? There are examples in history of the laity influencing the practices and beliefs of the clergy, and likewise there are written works of the clergy complaining about their elite status and actual faith as opposed to the laity. There are examples of conflict between local priests and monks claiming their influence should supersede the influence of the other. Popes have altered the supposed words of Christ and God, as have scribes. The priests have been found to be criminals and have suffered the outrage of their flocks. Looking at this from outside the ranks, it seems that “influence” in any direction are localized instances of social pressure, and self interest, dressed in the garments of a creed. Christian doctrine, writings, and even Jesus, need not be present for the pressure of influence to occur, and these seemingly important bases are commonly ignored. Influence has little to do with what is advertised, namely, Christianity.
This religious example is very close to the situation in the arts. Very close is incorrect, it is the same. The “art world” and the offices, movements, orders, and parties which are presented in social forums and venues are the tail end of the Reformation. I will discuss this more shortly.
To consider influence as described with art we should consider the desires of the actors. There are different groups with different desires each tugging an edge of the same garment. Primary among these would, it seems to me, be the artists, but we should perhaps start with the experts, then collectors, and merchants, and following these would be the ignorant masses, upon whom a great deal is inflicted. Let’s discuss experts first and then go on to artists last.
What do each of these groups desire and what ways can the others shape the behavior and perceptions back and forth?
Let’s take scholars first, as I first introduced a scholar, maybe this is the best place to start. I think it would be naïve and ridiculous to proceed from the idea that the scholar is coming from a position of love of art, or philanthropy. The scholar can be considered synonymous with the expert. To describe their desires and motives, it must first be understood that art is, again, unimportant in any terms one might consider art who, say, simply desired to experience art. Their purpose and actions involve authority, hierarchy, deception, and obfuscation. Their interest is prestige and authority as an expert. This involves such things as disregarding facts and science, as these threaten to undermine the magic charms, and rickety reasoning of the expert. Examples of this can be seen in the documentary “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock” by filmmaker Henry Moses. This film gives the story of a 73 year old former trucker, Teri Horton, and her attempts to authenticate and sell a Jackson Pollock she purchased in a thrift store for $5.00. Even after the discovery of Jackson Pollock’s finger prints on the canvas, and paint consistent with the paint on his well preserved studio floor found in microscopic speckles in the painting, experts refused to acknowledge authenticity. An expert formerly affiliated with the MOMA in New York City, replied, that though science is interesting it doesn’t prove anything. A painting is not factually a painting attributed to an artist until it is, and I am paraphrasing, given authentication as a bestowal. Until experts allow it, a work is not art. What this indicates is that fact is irrelevant according to the expert. The “art world” is here assumed as not an art world but an entirely different cosmos where physical laws, and fact have tiny importance, or even more laughable, do not apply at all. This special cosmos has rulers and priests known as experts.
This is not laughed away, though it is ridiculous. It is a very ancient and superstitious cult. Attendant to this superstitious mime of another special cosmos where the rules of the expert apply, are “mouthes”, incantations, ritual gestures, and speaking in tongues.
The “art world” as charted by the expert demonstrates an interesting shift in value. Value in the ranges of the experts is based in art business: art as stocks, and investments. Prestige has a high place as well but is derivative of financial matters and does not stand alone as a value. The expert takes the position of declaring what is valuable. Their bestowals can include the designation “important” or that work is executed by a “Master”. How one becomes a master or what constitutes importance is largely nonsense, gibberish, and magic words. Vague terms, and very poor attempts at poetry are used and are the easy clues used to discern the hocus pocus. These terms tend to imply that only sensitives and prophets can understand them. Declarations on the “Use of…” this that or the other quality like color or texture, as well as claims of jokes (which are invariably humorless) that are hidden and subtle, place the non-expert in a contemptible position. A position that could lead to scorn if they attempt to dismiss the nonsense they are given.
In regard to the expert it must be kept in mind their demand is to accept fantasies, and boogey men. It is a power play, and an overt power play. Bertrand Russell once wrote “Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than pleasure.” A step further than this, a step to even greater demonstration of power, is to cow the victim into admitting they like what they do not, and even volunteering to suffer it, contrary to sense or pleasure. If one sits and watches an art expert at work (whether dealer, or curator, or teacher) they give over a hard sell. A hard sell with deep scorn and derision, name calling, mockery, and brow beating. They attempt wit, but it usually fails, people will laugh, but the nervous laugh following release from direct stress. Under stress people will accept a great deal of nonsense.
For example in regard to the word “Master” the meaning is not one would accept in regard to any other profession or endeavor, as the word is meant in the “art world”. If one is a master of something, the general meaning and understanding gives over the idea that the master has a thorough knowledge of something with which they work. This is not what is meant by “Master” in the “Art world” of experts. “Master” among experts is something like a saint, but also a magician. It is the erection of a personality cult to a “Master” in the arts. Picasso describes this, situation mentioning how it is not the artist’s work that matters, but who the artist is. In other words, the work is a magical souvenir from an art deity. As you will be aware, name value is paramount, regardless of the work in the “art world”. This is because it is a magic charm, a sliver of the true cross, the index finger of John the Baptist, or any other bogus trinket sold to the gullible or greedy (the greedy will sell it later at a profit to another gull.) Master is a synonym for Saint, God, or Angel. Experts include inflated histories and legend to the “Master” when missionizing them or when attempting to derive authority from them.
In any other walk of life, anywhere outside the art world, this would be considered stupid, which is the great triumph of the expert. They can flaunt their overtly silly powers, the ridiculous fantasies, in front of their victims, and know the victims will defend then and support them, when reason is introduced. The purpose is to make a joke of people, control a crowd, for others to see and admire, and fear. To induce futility to opposition is another purpose.
The expert is not an expert of art. Of those I have spoken to I have been consistently surprised at how little expertise they have. Often they can tell anecdotes about the artists with whom they have casually acquainted themselves. This sometimes consists of a story about the artist’s rude behavior (as if this is admirable or meant to evoke some affection for eccentricity). Always trivia is offered. On occasion dates are used to scare, or names of obscure patrons are offered up. But any information that is not superficial is unknown. The trick is to include dates, names, foreign terms, or authorities to intimidate and beguile. The same areas of weakness demonstrated in high school history exams are exploited by the expert. The expert preys on ignorance, flattery and bullying.
Their influence cannot be said to extend to the arts. Their interests are not the arts, but are instead prestige and power. Art is a convenient, easy and malleable garment in which they can dress their power hunger, but it is not the hunger itself. I know of few artists who worry or adhere to the demands and advice of experts, and those who do tend to be very small groups, who as artists have no great sweep of influence, and often leave art aside as a hobby. This is because a necessary aspect of expert rivalries is supplanting the next guy. The transitory loyalties given by artists to experts are based in obscurity and fashion trends and vice versa. Fashions change quickly, and the artist who was “influential” standing on the train of the expert is quickly thrown off in favor of better pickings. This becomes tiresome except to the most deeply invested. Often this rung of the art world is based in totalitarian attempts, that on a large scale fail miserabley. Orwell describes some aspects of totalitarianism that fit the attempts of the expert very well:
"From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth."
The art experts success in respect to power is inflicted only on a small group that consider themselves elect, and are of little concern to the rest of mankind.
I think “experts” as an influence can be dismissed in regard to art. They are not concerned or involved with the arts. They do not produce or know art, nor do they especially like it. They do not negatively affect art either. They do however know bureaucracy and “organizations” that claim power over arts. But this is an attempt to install authority where none is necessary. Their reach and prestige is very limited and falls short of actual influence. In what may be an ungenerous personal opinion, I think experts are a generally unenergetic and unimaginative group, whose pretentions tend to counteract their effective tactics.
With some acquaintance of the expert and their lack of influence, we can go onto another group, the collector. I recall reading, I think two years ago, an article in The Guardian about the 100 most influential people in the arts. The top spots were taken by business men, experts and dealers. This is mysterious, and misrepresents, in the way of propaganda, art and the arts. What this was a description of economics. Who has the most money in the arts is not the same thing as influence in the arts. What is more is with the power of advertising and expensive galas, the issue becomes even more clouded. These are diversions, and possibly entertaining and glamorous, but have little influence. These events are for collectors, and buyers, as are lists such as the 100 most influential people in the arts. These are ads.
The business of trading what the expert has certified, falls to the collector and the dealer. Collectors have some interesting motives, especially the top collectors, and they do hold influence. They, like the expert, desire power, but their main occupations and work is not exclusively tied to arts. In a Roman sense of civic duty many collectors find it important to maintain and keep collections which are donated to the public, or open to the public, also having the benefit that the collections holds their name, and subordinate the names of the artists within the collection. This almost implies some part in the production of the work, but is a vanity. As with the Romans this is very prestigious and is a testament to their wealth and power. The Steve Wynn collection, for example, is a collection of names showing how rich is the collector who owns those names. It is aristocratic. Teri Horton’s difficulties in authenticating and selling her Pollock are not based on concerns of the painting. They are because she is a lower social class. Pollock’s paintings are not the possession of the lower social classes. If they were they would diminish the value. The purpose in owning a Pollock is to own something that proclaims prestige, and elitism. When the rabble gets their hands on it, what is it worth?
Prestige is not the only motive, and sometimes not the strongest motive. Sometimes it is only a temporary motive. Resale is also a strong motive. Collectors from all over the globe have been known to purchase works by artists they do not know, and whose work they will never see. It is stock. After maturing for a year or two these stocks are sold for twice the purchase price. Proper advertising for these business deals involve the above galas, magazine articles, etc, etc.
Sometimes collections can become very specialized and collectors will collect the rare and extravagant, with no plans to sell. Other times they may collect all things regarding a single subject. I mention this because, as with the expert, this has little to do with art. These are concerns regarding ownership and sale of valuables.
This is not to say there aren’t some collectors of art who love art. It is to say, that when it comes to collecting, love of art plays a small role. Also it is saying that collectors do not influence art.
Objections to this have been raised in discussions, by pointing out art markets are an undeniable part of art and the art world. I would continue to reject this in regard to the subject of influence in art. I would point out that art existed prior to the current state of economics and the art world, or art markets. What is more is the art markets and world are incredibly unstable, and competitive, so do not exist as anything like actual structures or ordered systems but are a convenient general description of the opportunism and greed surrounding art, whatever form it takes. Though they may influence each other, collectors and experts do not influence art. This becomes very clear when you ask the simple question: What is art? They tend to have few answers, and when answers are provided they are usually silly.
People who buy art are not necessarily collectors. An art buyer is just this, someone who buys art. Too many motives exist for the art buyer to be tackled. They are not influential to art. It hasn’t been my experience that art buyers put much effort or thought into being an influence (unlike the expert and collector). I haven’t heard anything to this effect either. There don't seem to be movements started by art buyers to promote their candidates or products as they have none. The art buyer seems to be self gratifying, and benign.
The Art Dealer is a troublesome issue, both in regard to influence and in attempting to generally describe who and what they are. Dealers are not a single entity, or movement. They range from elite dealers to simple salesman. As the simple salesman it is not uncommon that failing at art dealing these salesman turn to real estate. There is no real difference in their selling tactics, and the two things are related in a way as many lower wrung art dealers concern themselves with home décor. The elite, inner rings of dealers are something like car dealers who know how to throw a good party. These two things are also related. Knowing how to indulge people and appeal to vanity is very important. Their influence (top to bottom) is surprising. When successful, these people are not stupid. While experts and collectors deal in their private realms and arenas of concern, the dealer is closer to the public. Whether elite or common they perform the same function. While experts attempt to assemble doctrines as rival popes, and collectors interact like princes, the dealer is the missionary and parish priest. They know their flocks and how to speak with their flocks. They know the hopes and fears (as small as that may be regarding art) of their flocks. Often they act like museum docents and will recite contrived histories (often packaged by art publishing houses) as if they were speaking casually. Strangely, like the local priest, the flock will follow the dealer’s doctrines and interpretations believing they are the doctrines of the Pope, never knowing the difference between the words and concerns of the expert and that of the dealer. The higher wrung dealer may eventually find himself as an expert or consultant (just as medieval bishops were elevated as political offices from the secular realms), but the lower wrung dealers don’t need to elevate themselves to be influential. Though the expert may content themselves with wrangling over occult art doctrines and philosophies, the average dealer actually creates the common language and conceptions of art among the general public. The public who watches television, reads local papers, attends local events, etc. repeat and follow the conceptions and creeds of the dealer. Often dealers need only mention New York, or a famous name to press their ideas, and silence doubt. Invariably these dealers tie themselves, as much as possible, to local or regional civic institutions. Appearing on boards, committees, and councils, they acquire influence over what will be presented to the public. What the public has learned and what they believe is art is largely due to the art dealer. It might be assumed that the art educator has something to do with this and so they do, but they also know art under the beliefs of the dealer, not the expert. The dealer’s speech is a common, easily understood and accepted set of rules and flatteries. Even if one has been educated in art, their art education is subordinate, as may be imagined to their desire to teach philanthropically. Both teachers and dealers refer to “getting things out there” and making art as though these ideas are important if only symbolic. There is a superstitious belief, a folk belief in the magic and goodness of art. This supposed philanthropy, and optimism, is a simple device they can be used to profit. Often dealers will, while hinting at aristocratic hopes and classiness, give over a claim of community and artophilia. All they do, it is claimed, is done for love of art, and the artist, and only in a remote and secondary way is business involved. A newspaper headline I came across offered: “le commerce d’art: Passion, more than money, is at core for gallery owners”. The Frenchisms are annoying but not directly the fault of the dealers interviewed. It also restated the idea more thoroughly, “"A passion for art, a close relationship with their “suppliers” and the love of going to work every day are why most gallery owners are in business. And it’s not an ordinary business: Their interest is more about the art than making money and more about working together than being competitive." This is, of course, silliness and marketing, and it is not unusual. The idea is perpetuated that the art dealer is doing everyone a favor. By extension art institutions, and committees peopled with dealers and marketers, stress they are also there to do everyone a favor, though the nature of this favor and the evidence of the favor are unclear.
There is a form of influence that the dealers exert which have reverberations and is visible. It can be observable. In this they are more potent than the expert, or the collector. The dealer, like the expert and collector, are not interested in art. Some would argue that interest in art is unnecessary, and in personal conversation with dealers they have gone further and declared interest in art a stumbling block. One dealer informed me that artists starve because they get in their own way, where a dealer who is not tied to the work can acquire it cheap and sell it at a good price because they have no personal interest in the thing. Sentimentality is detrimental in sales. Perhaps this is true, and one might be tempted to credit them for their honesty, unlike the snake oil experts, and aristocratic collectors. But that credit may be premature.
The art dealer is a salesman, and deals with product. It is unclear if art is a product, but it doesn’t matter whether it is or not sales can still occur. Often when paintings are sold as simply paintings, anonymous and uncertified, they are deemed of little worth. Instead, following reason given by Picasso, the thing, the painting, the product is irrelevant. It is who made the product that makes it important. This then makes art a service. A somewhat mystical service, but a service. It isn’t quite like the average service one might expect from a trained professional. It is like the services performed in a carnival side show, and the dealer is the carnival barker. You know you are going in to the side shows and freak shows to see something fake, or something scandalous. In either case, the subject of the side show is placed in a setting; a set might get the idea across more clearly. A fictional environment is created to accommodate the nonsense narrative and mystique the barker is weaving. This is influential. Artists attempt to adhere to the fictions of the barking dealer. They will change their work, alter their demeanor, and espouse contrived and hollow ideas.
The seeds for this are implanted early. As I previously mentioned the art dealer is the source of art education. The simple reason from the perspective of the dealer is education allows them to prepare futures adherents. All the terms and ideas of the dealer are repeated in the schools. I recall field trips in elementary and high school to art galleries. We were informed of the graces of the gallery. What is more, the teachers in art classes prepare art students for submission to art galleries, by setting up their own internal galleries and shows.
This educational element is especially disturbing. I would like to quote Bertrand Russell on this point: “The power of education in forming character and opinion is very great and very generally recognized. The genuine beliefs, though not usually the professed precepts, of parents and teachers are almost unconsciously acquired by most children; and even if they depart from these beliefs in later life, something of them remains deeply implanted, ready to emerge in a time of stress or crisis. Education is, as a rule, the strongest force on the side of what exists against fundamental change: threatened institutions, while they are still powerful, possess themselves of the educational machine, and instill a respect for their own excellence into the malleable minds of the young. Reformers retort by trying to oust their opponents from their position of vantage. The children themselves are not considered by either party; they are merely so much material, to be recruited into one army or the other. If the children themselves were considered, education would aim at making them belong to this party or that, but enabling them to choose intelligently between parties; it would aim at making them able to think, not making them think what their teachers think.”
Russell’s reformers and their retorts do not exist in educational systems with regard to art. I recall challenging the ideal of the gallery in a high school art class and the teacher informed me: with thinking like mine I would end up “living by the river.” This may turn out to be the case, but this does not preclude knowledge of art. Observing students it is not hard to see they often alter their thoughts and opinions based on the favor of teachers. I recently took a pre-test version of the SAT test. On taking the test and checking my score I was surprised to find how many of my answers were wrong in the reading comprehension section. Going over those answers, I analyzed them to see where I went wrong and compared them to the correct answers. In every case the answer I chose was logically correct (or as close as possible with what was offered.) I knew a lady who worked creating the tests for one of the testing companies that make the test prep for the SAT. I asked her what went wrong with my test, and proposed the idea that it seemed it didn’t matter what the correct answer was in terms of logic, but rather correct in terms of what the tester wanted to see. She informed me my idea was exactly right. The students need to navigate through the classes and their teachers, and give the answers teachers want to hear, or else they will not succeed in their college classes. This submissive conditioning monopolizes art education.
It is interesting where I live the more successful galleries and gallery owners are also tied to cultural and art educational committees. These committees and institutions continually stress their position as educators. I was informed by a disillusioned member of one of these committees that the “cultural” and “educational” aspects had to do with business interests in town and nothing to do with art, or “culture”. It was meant to educate, and train people to heed marketing calls.
The terms and ideas of art given as education are the same terms and ideas to be found as the premise of gallery sales. My mother, who is also an artist, recalls when schools introduced these and excluded all other possible ideas of art in the 1950’s. In the current situation 50 years of childhood indoctrination are in place.
Contemporary artists (in the temporal sense not any movement) have been trained to pander and respond to the desires and standards of merchants. I do not mean to suggest that merchants are evil, or sneering should be their due. I mean to suggest the interests of the merchant are not the interests of art and should not guide expectation or the behavior of artists. Nor should the desires of merchants be the standard of art generally taught. Education is influential. It does not produce art, it clouds, blinds, and redirects. It offers unfounded and mysterious ideas. Some ideas are that artists are oppressed, art is created by magicians, people have to go learn secret art languages to understand art, art is filled with messages, art is expression, art is emotion, art is therapy, every idea is sacrosanct, and many other stirring, mystical notion - superstitious notions. None of these hold water, but are good for fables to induce sales. Each idea has a valuable, market tested, notion from freedom fighting and heroism, to magic relics and snake oil. Again the carnival barker, but as if the carnival barker was also the mayor and head of the school board.
What is alarming is some very insightful and smart people will parrot the dealer party line with great sincerity. Tolstoy, in What is Art notes a similar idea, and I didn’t agree with his theory of art, but I do think he was onto something about the susceptibility of even very smart people to the halo effect of art. Art has had a very strange history, and has a reputation as “the extraordinary experience.” Art, regardless of party lines, has a subterranean tradition that hints at the uncanny. People desire this uncanny, indistinct, thought. In some cases, people accept something as art without scrutiny that they would otherwise reject as hocus pocus. I heard an interview with what sounded like a very clear thinking and thoughtful lady. She was the interviewer, and was interviewing the author of a controversial book about standards in fiction. To validate a counterpoint she mentioned that Jackson Pollock has given us a new way to see. This struck me as very strange, because it was meant to be understood- a given or accepted idea that was unassailable. What exactly does “new way to see” mean? I’ve seen this phrase elsewhere, especially in hagiographies about artists. It is a sales statement, a vaguery with mystical sentiment, but meaningless. There is no new way to see. Maybe x-ray photos or infrared imaging are newish ways to see, but on examination no, no they aren’t, they just use machines to translate data to be accessible to our old way of seeing. “New” is the key word. Just like New and Improved dish soap.
As an example of the extent of this influence, and doctrinal connections handed down to the unsuspecting I would like to point out a simple but telling example. It is very common that books, including college text books, having anything to do with philosophy, politics, psychology, or other subject implying intellectual sophistication have cover illustrations taken from a piece of 20th century modern art. There is no reason for this, and at times the philosophy, politics and psychology is contradictory to the views of the artists who adorn the covers. This is irrelevant as the artist is just there as a signal to the gullible. New improved art is intellectually superior to old art, and any book showing the new art must be equally new and profound. Books that do not fit, and must be seen as quaint are usually covered by a painted portrait, Renaissance scene, or statuary. It is unclear why a 20th century painter who is not a modern artist (in any sense derivative of the art movement) does not adorn the cover of a science, or philosophy book. It is not subject matter, as many modernists took on ancient themes. It is the signal style used as a marketing device that fools the consumer to think they are smart, deep, profound, and sophisticated. The connection between intelligence, depth, profundity, or sophistication are unclear, but are touted as the advertising line of dealers for this art. Many of the artists whose work are validated in the 20th century as Modern, post modern etc, and who adorn book covers are watered down derivatives of Hegel (1770-1831), so not as fresh or immediately important as they may appear. The artists work is placed on the cover for the same reason the “NEW” and “NOW” stamps are emblazoned on cereal boxes.
The influence of the art dealer is very real- in a negative way.
The artist is a complex issue and their influence is questionable. This may seem strange as it might be supposed the artist is extremely influential in regard to art. But the issue is clouded. As mentioned above, with the art dealer, definitions and ideas of art have been distorted. Artists are products of the educational system. Artists are not clearly identified. Who is an artist and who is not has become vague. Some artists have been trained to deny or evade the claim, humbly. How art became a princely position one would humbly deny is mysterious. It may be within the last two centuries with the “birth of the Artist” as something other than a person who does a thing but as a social icon. Whenever it was the lofty position is now denied by many who are reluctant to claim it. Equally many who claim the title should not. The position has become so muddled that it is even claimed everyone is an artist. This is in contrast to the exalted artist and could probably be termed the “vulgar artist”. There are artists but only to the elect who can understand the cant of their work. Imitations of science, politics, and religion abound with the artist supposedly acting the role of the scientist, politician, or prophet. There is a more touchy feely and less elite group who take a very Protestant turn in thinking of art. Art is a direct revelation between the individual and art (or God), and no man can dictate art to another, but we are all infused with a soul or rather the ability to make art. And due to the mere fact that an ensouled person has made it, all art is divine- regardless of its form, thoroughness or how effective it may be. It should not be thought that Protestantism frees one of elitism. Elitism and snobbery are constants in the arts (which should inform you that something is fishy.)
This idea of art is actually Protestant, and the ideas are derived from the Reformation. Art has become a religious issue, but in secular clothes. The terminology and the rationale were used in the Reformation. The clearest example that comes to mind is Conceptual art, which follows the lines of Iconoclasm. Conceptual art is based in an ineffable idea or concept. The “idea” should not be considered in a psychological sense, but a magical sense, or very roughly on Plato’s theory of ideas. The Concept or idea is Eternal and cannot exist in a state of becoming. That is, it doesn’t exist in time. After this initial theft of a philosophical concept, it then becomes entirely superstitious and an argument regarding whether god can inhabit stone. The ideas are given automatic importance simply because they are ideas. And these potent, important, eternal ideas cannot be truly described with material objects. The inventors of conceptual art, such as Duchamp, were involved with “anti-art” movements, and later carried the idea forward by attempting to dismantle traditional ideas of art as worthless. The Iconoclasts had similar ideas regarding God as ineffable and eternal, unable to be portrayed in materials. They also sought to destroy traditional icons (they followed the Biblical commandment regarding graven images.) The Iconoclasts destroyed icons, and this can also be said of conceptual artists. When conceptual artists argue their points they use the argumentation of the Reformation substituting “Idea” for God. They, like the Protestants in the Reformation oppose an old church. This old church of art does not exist, but the restrictions and failings of the Catholic Church are somehow applied to art, though the Church is not mentioned explicitly. The church is replaced by classes, educational levels, or other fools. Conceptual art and Dadaism have a tradition of scorn, jokes, and sneering. Jacques Barzun mentioned the problems with this situation:
“Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits for even a minute, it justifies itself and there’s an end of it…
What I am bringing up for scrutiny is that if modern man’s most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fairgrounds, then the conception of Art as an all important institution, as a supreme activity of man is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways-art as a sense-tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support. Nor is it the same art that revolutionists call for in aid of the Revolution.”
That museums and important shows include art unable to convey ineffable ideas, sometimes “absurdist” presentations or jokes, undermines the purpose behind museums. Artists tearing down art, or claiming it is impossible is contradictory.
To be fair, though I don’t sincerely think the things are related, signs of distortion and self doubt infest the so-called Realists. (I say “so called” because they are not exactly Realists in a technical sense, as Realism was a late 19th century movement and has little in common with paintings or artwork that looks like something real, or recognizable.) The self doubt has become so ingrained that assurances of past saints and genealogies, art blood lines, are used to verify ones status as an artist. As if attempting to show aristocratic lineage, Realists often trace their techniques and training back to the Great Masters. It is difficult for me to look to badly on this practice as it is somewhat acknowledged in some Realists who are more and more insisting on an Age of Reason within the arts. These artists would prefer to keep the techniques without the aristocratic tones, and leave the saints and bloodlines behind. In my opinion this seems very good in that what was good from the past can be maintained, without inhibiting or passing reactionary judgments on new inventions. It may have an undesirable effect for some, but one I think is good. It would diminish the snobbery and aristocracy in the arts relying only on results and thorough scrutiny on the part of artists. This said, the aristocratic, reactionary, tendencies among realists is prevalent.
This is just a small section of a confusing dilemma. Other “artists” and types could be brought in and we would be no closer to discovering what an artist is, exactly, and then what is their influence.
We can state, fairly clearly, that the influence of the artist is minimal to such things as the art world. But the art world, and its citizens, as I have hopefully shown, are not concerned with art, and the dealer only in so far as they can obscure and hide art to make anything they term art saleable. We can also state, with artists denying their actions, and non artists claiming abilities they do not possess, that without identity, personal identity or surety of their own endeavors, an artist can have little influence even on art.
There is another problem to consider with the artist, and it deals with the direct meeting with the dealer. It has become a standard belief that artists are mad, and foolishly some artists have adhered to this silly steroetype. But the stereotype is a market invention. As are ideas that artists should starve for their labors, artists are unable to function without agents, artists are mystics, etc. This creates a general image of the artist as a fool, or an idiot savant- a genius and a fool in useful ways. This is contrivance, but artists assist this degrading nonsense. They do so because it is traditional to do so, but also out of desperation. The starving artist is a real situation, though there is plenty of money in the markets that trade art. The artist has no force on this market, and this is due to laziness established in the past and made tradition at present. The dealer exploits this, but the artist performs it. The situation is described in the inquisitors speech to Jesus in the Brothers Kramazov:
"Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.' They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. "
And this is exactly what happens. Artists gladly turn over all freedom, choice and controlover to "art executives" and merchants, without seriously considering the idea that they should feed themselves, or take control of their own works. They accept the situation, somewhat gladly, and indulge in their claims of madness and fallibility. This may say something about the characters who call themselves artists, and it may equally tell a great deal about who exploits them.
It would seem that an artist should be ultimately influential to art. They are derived from art, especially skilled in this thing, and decide what parts they will relay and what parts they will enlarge to pass along. This might be assumed. But more and more, artists accept stereotypical roles, styles, and directions from non artists. They dismiss history, accept social pressures, they are destructively passive and cowardly (whether this is due to conditioning or not is open to discussion.)
Artists may be overmatched. They are certainly out numbered. The thing, presumably, that occupies the artist’s time and energies is the furtherance of art. The social, political, and economic chess games involved with the “art world”, the decoy given to mass audiences in lieu of art, is a secondary or tertiary concern. To those who profit from art in various ways (such as those cases listed above) their “art world” can be a full time job. Part of their prosperity is based in victimizing artists, and exploiting the weaknesses and inability involved with the attempt to serve two masters: art and the art world. This exploitation, all of their professional energies can be used to undermine and dismantle art. Again the Inquisitor in the Bothers Karamazov describes a like situation with the church, and how it had to destroy the words and freedoms given by Jesus, in Jesus name.
I hate to admit, artists have very little influence on art. This suggests something important. If those who do influence art, the dealers, do so in a negative way (they obscure art from knowledge and knowledge of art is necessary for art to continue) and those who would be artists are not even sure if they are artists so cannot be said to add anything to art, then we can say knowledge of art is diminishing, maybe even gone. Knowledge of art, and experience of art, is of primary importance to its propagation. If no one knows what art is, no one knows if they have or have not experienced it, aside from being present when something someone has reverently termed “art” is passed under their nose. Then it has to be admitted art is lost. The destructive influence has succeeded. It is important and a good sign that the negative influence must be continually inflicted on the hapless. This means some impulse is not easily snuffed out.
I should probably mention there are conspicuous, even propagandist, claims that there is more art now than has ever been before. This may seem to deny what I am offering here. But this suggestion of prosperity is easily handled. It falls to pieces when the question “What is art?” is posed because no one seems to know, or will even discuss the idea (as if it were taboo), especially those claiming to be artists. When they do their definitions or ideas are alarmingly uniform, and more alarmingly dismissed in light of science. In fact the definitions are usually a century or more old when many aspects of the functions of the brain were not yet discovered. The concepts of what art may be are antique, and long since demonstrated as faulty. But even without this question the claims fail when one asks for clarity on what makes an artist, and why would certain things be called art, as opposed to others. How do we know this army of artists and all their products are art at all and not, as it seems, just some stuff that was made? All we can really say about the claim is that many people find it important to say they are artists, and it is important for some interested parties to advertise the health of art, even if they cannot back up this advertisement. Beyond this the claim of health is dubious.
There are things to consider. If the most influential force in art is destructive and this destruction is enacted through obfuscation, the likelihood of a cure seems doubtful. So much of art has been buried and removed from experience it seems difficult to rebuild what has been lost and it often seems doubtful whether it can be restored, or furthered at all. No one knows what or how to pick up the baton. Dealers though destructive, are not destructive in an active and cunning way against art, or the generating factors of art, even if they were at one time. The art dealer is also a victim of their own procedures. They behave in a traditional role of carnival barker, but could not innovate this barking, and do not know the base upon which it is built. They are in the same straits as the artist who does not know what they do or why, and cannot press forward. We are destructive or impotent traditionally, not through individual circumstance, or discovery. Likewise we are defensive traditionally- bickering over subjects that are long dead.
I once proposed a hypothetical situation I would like to bring up again. Let’s consider the first artist. We don’t need to connect this person with any age or movement specifically; we just have to place them as the inventor. When this first artist created their first artwork they cannot have had in mind the idea “I want to make a piece of art”, because no such thing existed, and they could not be attempting to remake or re-induce this “art”. The first artist was doing something else. Art was a side effect. This isn’t just hypothetical. Much of the history of art, even stretching into the 20th century (outside cosmopolitan and sophisticated centers) was the result of a separate endeavor. Artists created things to make doors, or thresholds, “holes” in the cosmos, vehicles in which to ride and visit death, rebuild the dead, etc. They did not set about making art, they set about going somewhere or manifesting what was magical. If it worked it was called art. Nothing was made to fit in a standard of art. Like magic charms certain spells and techniques were found to be effective such as paintings, songs, statuary, etc. but the intent was not to make art. If the first artist was not attempting to make art, but did so, why would we assume the second artist attempting to make art would succeed? Would it be unreasonable to think that the second artist, removed from the generating intention of the first artist, would only imitate some qualities of the first artists work, and create a diminished thing? To carry it further, would the 70th generation artist bear any spark of the motivating factor of the first if they are only attempting to imitate the product of the first artist? It would seem to me the chance of making art would grow more remote the more one tried. To create art, it seems one must be doing something else aside from making art. It seems that art would be a side effect or vehicle.
Let’s take the vehicle idea and look at it like this: If the first artist had made a boat to sail to a destination we can understand the process. The artist would have to experiment, and invent to build the thing that would allow him to get across the water. Instead of joining the artist in his adventure, the following “artists” would rebuild the boat, simply for the prestige and wonder of having a boat. Having a boat may be fine, but if you don’t know how or why to use it, it is silly. What’s more: the following artists try to sail the boat on land without altering it, without a destination. They just want the boat, and they expect the boat has magical properties. They remake boats without reason or cause. This isn’t a silly model. This situation has occurred. It is called imitative magic, thanks to Frasier, and has myriad faces.
The next artist would perhaps like to travel over land somewhere or go to the moon more quickly and to some end. They would then create art as a side effect of their other endeavor. They would not be the second artist. They would be another first artist. Art doesn’t have a lineage, and every artist is a first artist, though the experience of art has been well known and wide spread.
Influence in art outside the reach of artists does not stand alone as a malady. There is something that has allowed this to occur. The potential for commerce, even commodification, has been in place for a very long time, and yet have been ineffective. All of the “corruptions” in the arts are borrowings from old manners, ideas, or practices and applied to art now because they can be. Some situation in art has gradually weakened and allowed other matters to intrude, where previously it was held sacrosanct, and was untouched. This can be traced fairly far back into western history, and seems to have relationships to courts as opposed to the peasantry. Welsh court bards complained of the corruption of the poetic laws, and the lowering of standards among the lesser peasant bards, for example. Plato gives distinction to art as something already at odds. He mentions “techne”, and forms of craftsmanship involved with creating likeness, but he avoids “art”, and its related concepts which were termed “extraordinary experience” and connected with the divine and magic. Plato suggests art is dangerous because of its ability to create illusions and alter emotions. With Plato there was a conflict the intellectual propriety maintaining control of one’s sense, and the “arrheton”. Plato dismissed art as illusion and suggested his Republic could do without. This shows that art was still powerful and known, if held in counterpoint to a more controlled and what was assumed a practical set of ideas. Greek religious rites and festivals were “arts” that were healthy and vibrant concurrently with skepticism and attempts at science. Even now, with art’s religio-magical history, it isn’t in conflict with science and reason, or religion.
Some component has been slipping away, where before it seemed somewhat unassailable. If you accept what I have claimed above, that art is negatively influenced by dealers, and an “art world”, and you may be tempted to believe that the component has something to do with money. And in some simple ways it does. In a complex way it does not. Dealers should be susceptible to art as well they should be under its influence. Plato did not deny the power of art, he did not prefer it, but he also noted you could tell a people by their music. Dealers should not sit outside its influence, nor should experts, collectors, or other indifferent persons. The situation of a most influential should never have come up. Dealers should not, even through education, have the ability to blind.
Art was a rarity, and people would travel distances to experience art. It was not everywhere, and aspects of art prevent it from being everywhere (I won’t get into that here). People are born unaware of art, but its rumor was enough to kindle fame and excitement when art was remote. If art is missing now, it should be easy enough to excite people to seek it out, as it is, by its nature, incredible, exciting, and interesting.