A publication of the Center for Documentary Arts, an independent, nonprofit initiative to integrate art, culture, and humanitarian awareness. The Center promotes narrative and lyric forms of photography, film, oral history, radio, theatre, paintings, poetry, etc. that address social themes and bear witness to the human condition. A full description can be found on the About page. Curated by Timothy Cahill.

30 April 2013

Something beyond the void

The essay below was written for the production of Red, the John Logan play about Mark Rothko, at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, New York, 19 April to 19 May, 2013.  It had been many, many years since I considered Rothko; researching this brief piece for the production's Playbill allowed me to revisit assumptions and enthusiasms formed when I was not long out of college. The opportunity also made it imperative that I travel to Houston some day on pilgrimage to the Rothko Chapel. In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins evokes the rich silence that fills the small space where fourteen "black" paintings, created for the chapel by the artist, appear by turns funereal, charged, and sacred. I've known similar silences that penetrate to the core of being and provoke both insights and tears. Elkins reports that "people have always cried at [Rothko's] paintings," a phenomenon the artist seemed not only to accept but consider quite reasonable. "The people who weep before my pictures," he once averred, "are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them." Preparing the essay, I was reminded of a similar experience I had the first time I viewed a Rothko in person; the painting seemed to resonate with an energy between vision and sound. There was a spiritual aspect to much of modernist abstraction, a sacredness that chafed constantly with the movement's existential doubt and postwar formalism. Most of the juicy metaphysical tension was drained out of modern painting by the Sixties; there is increasing activity among artists from Eastern Europe, South America, Asia, and the Pacific to revive it for a new century.

A Communication About the World
The Art of Mark Rothko
By Timothy Cahill

Mark Rothko may be the last great artist of passion any of us will see in our lifetimes. The brooding Abstract Expressionist stands in the lineage of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, and van Gogh, artists for whom our most powerful human emotions—ardor, ecstasy, suffering, despair—were both the subject and motive of their work.  Whether Rothko’s shimmering and somber rectangles of color will achieve the immortality of the masters before him, time will tell. Like those earlier artists, he sought the essence of what it means to be human, and expressed it with a sublime and awesome presence unimaginable in our current age of irony.

There is a moment in Red in which Rothko rages after seeing an exhibition of the artists who followed him, including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. “They’re trying to kill me!” he declares. “Superficial, meaningless sewage!” The scene is not literally accurate—Andy Warhol did not produce the paintings for which he is famous until a few years after the time frame of the play—but it is emotionally true nonetheless. Warhol and the rest of the innovators of Pop Art (it was called the “New Realism” when it first appeared) were indeed out to discredit, dethrone, and ultimately dismantle what Rothko stood for. And they succeeded, openly mocking their elders’ claims of existential and spiritual purity with an aloof, acidic irreverence and jaded cynicism that embraced the materialism, consumerism, celebrity, flash, and trash of modern culture, an ethos we have inherited. In real life, Rothko was introduced to Warhol on a Greenwich Village sidewalk; he turned and walked away without a word. If we were filming the scene today, where would we point the camera? On the expression of the older master as he composed himself in the throes of contempt, or on the young upstart, watching the old man disappear?

Rothko struggled for his success, experimenting through more than twenty years of successive genres and forms, from grim social narrative to mythic surrealism, before finding his mature style in 1949. His best paintings are triumphs of beauty and intensity, two or three blocks of glowing, soft-edged color stacked in a vertical field. He was widely considered America’s greatest living painter at the time he accepted the commission to paint the Four Seasons murals in 1958. He turned the canvas sideways, creating haunting friezes that seem at once shrouds, portals, and free-floating auras. 

The painter once, only half ironically, offered a “recipe” for his art. The ingredients included “intimations of mortality,” “sensuality,” “tension,” “wit and play,” and “the ephemeral and chance.” Rothko often denied his paintings were “abstract,” by which he meant they were neither purely intellectual nor non-representational. Indeed, he most likely viewed his works as utterly literal renderings of the non-material but entirely real psychological awareness he depicted. Painting a picture, he once said, “is a communication about the world.” The last item in his recipe was hope. “Ten percent to make the tragic more endurable.”

Ultimately, the tragic became unendurable for the artist himself. “One day the black will swallow the red,” Rothko laments in the play. Despair, decline, and death overtook the chromatic splendor of life, and Rothko committed suicide in 1970 at age 66. The next year saw the opening of what the artist considered his greatest creation, the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The chapel holds fourteen paintings in an octagonal museum-cum-mediation center, each of them black, though to say so is somewhat misleading. Embedded in the darkness is an immanence of other hues—brick red, chestnut-brown, plum. mauve—that give the works depth, movement, mystery. Even as the color drained out, Rothko sensed something beyond the void.

Albany has its own Rothko, one of the gems of the Empire State Plaza Art Collection. The untitled 1967 work, on display in the concourse level of the Corning Tower, features a bright blue ground with a large, teal-green square floating above a charcoal rectangle. Like the blacks in the Rothko Chapel, the grey of the Albany Rothko is hardly static. Study it slowly. As your eyes grow used to the dark, the lower rectangle sheds its gloom and feels lit from within. There is no irony in the passionate eloquence of this effect. 

Romano Cagnoni, Rothko Chapel, Houston, 1967
Henry Elkan, Mark Rothko in his 53rd Street studio, c 1953 

15 February 2013

Everywhere, a mood of change

Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn and make an end of you. — Charles Dickens, Hard Times

In 1997, as staff art critic for an upstate New York newspaper, I went to a museum exhibition of works from the 1970s through the 1990s called "Is It Art?"—a coyly provocative question with the clear answer, "Yes, whether you like it or not." The exhibit was an adjunct to a book (not the other way around) titled Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art's Meaning in Contemporary Society, that sought to explain and endorse the work of thirty-seven of our age's most highly regarded artists, including Joseph Beuys, Sophie Calle, Gilbert and George, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter. In the book, each artist was chosen for his or her explorations of a culturally relevant concept or theme; hence, the idea of "Data Collecting" was illustrated by the pixelated pointillism of painter Chuck Close; of "A Chicano Woman" with the icon-crowded installations of Amalia Mesa-Bains; of "Self-Sanctification" by the multiple videotaped plastic surgeries and phials of fat tissue of French artist Orlan; and so on in this manner. The subject "Urine" was personified by Andres Serrano, who in the early 1990s became a lightning rod of the "culture wars" for his photograph Piss Christ, which, with the work of other politically, sexually, and religiously controversial artists, had been assailed by right-wing politicians in a scorched-earth campaign against contemporary art and government funding. For much of the '90s, detractors from Sen. Jesse Helms to the television journalist Morley Safer prosecuted a case against the very same aesthetic that "Is It Art?" was mounted to defend.

Although my job at the paper was to act somewhat as an expert, I was at the time largely self-taught, with limited exposure to the postmodern avant-garde or its controlling philosophy, expressed by Linda Weintraub, author-curator of the book-exhibit, as "deviation." Today, a decade and a half later, the fashionable word is "transgression," but the project is the same: to challenge cultural norms and dispute accepted ideas of order.  I was stymied and shaken by the exhibit's mood of perpetual indignation, belligerent irony, and zealous embrace of chaos. Its implications bewildered me, to say nothing of my own half-recognized responses. Despite my confusion, the exhibit had its intended effect, setting in motion an engagement with contemporary art that continues to this day, though one, I allow, generally closer to an interrogation than a love-in. Indeed, the show was a turning point of my thought-process and my career. But that's another story. 

I recalled all this while listening to Edi Rama speak about the ways beauty improved the civic life of Tirana, Albania, where he was mayor from 2000 to 2011. I should put the term in the uppercase—Beauty—for as Mr. Rama's TED talk reveals, it was not simply the presence of pleasing color that enhanced his city, but the ideal of order and integrity that beauty represented. Beauty was conspicuous in its absence in Ms. Weintraub's book and exhibit (in truth, in the book it was not at all absent, but explicitly nullified in an afterword by postmodern apologist Thomas McEvilley)—one could not help but observe that the art on display was starkly un-beautiful, as each artist adopted a stance, from banality to shock to sheer ugliness, to undermine all hope of visual pleasure. The effect was quite obviously purposeful, like there was a movement afoot. How long had this been going on? In fact, since the 1960s an anti-aesthetic ideology had grown up in artist studios and art departments that rejected beauty as a humanist virtue and considered it, far from Keatsean truth, an insidious lie. Toiling far from urban galleries and academia, I had not connected the dots on the new paradigm. Till then, I had regarded beauty more or less like oxygen, something we could all agree on. The fact that certain works were not beautiful had never struck me as an assault on the idea of beauty, any more than a rhombus negates a sphere. In the exhibit in question, though, the lack of all elegance, grace, proportion, balance, fineness, or any other quality appealing to the senses, was plainly a call to arms.

This call brought me face to face with my own unexamined assumptions about beauty. I've never been a push-over on the subject. I don't swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of "Is It Art?" was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was and remains self-evident to me that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.

Once sensitized to the subject, I quickly learned a backlash reconsideration of beauty was in full swing by critics and philosophers. This counter-reformation reached a height in Elaine Scary's 1999 book, On Beauty and Being Just. "Beauty assists us in our attention to justice," Scarry wrote, a truth Edi Rama learned from experience. Upon being elected mayor of Tirana, Rama embarked on a project of beautifying his city, by clearing rubble, tearing down illegal buildings, and constructing green public spaces. He set in motion an initiative to paint public buildings, including housing projects, in bright primary colors, and otherwise improved the aesthetic atmosphere of the neighborhoods. "It was a force of political action," declares Rama. "When colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started."

That change, Rama asserts in his talk, manifested itself in increased civic pride and social cohesion, and in a reduction of crime. "Beauty was acting as a guardsman," Rama told his TED audience in Thessaloniki, Greece. "Beauty was giving people a feeling of being protected." He tells the story of a shopkeeper he met in the act of replacing the metal grate on her storefront with a large display window. "How is it—?" he asked. Look around, the merchant returned; since the neighborhood was painted there have been fewer thefts, fewer crimes, the people feel more secure. "It's beautiful. It's safe."

This is slight anecdotal evidence, but it points the way. Cosmetic upgrades obviously could not solve all of Tirana's ills (they had no effect on the city's decrepit water and sewage system, for instance). Beauty cannot redeem the world on its own . But we are wired to adapt to our surroundings and take our cues from the unspoken values the environment imposes and fosters. A view that supports beauty's emotional and ethical necessity can conceive of humane solutions to a myriad of challenges. Dickens' entreaties for the aesthetic needs of the poor applies to us all. As a value, Beauty has been freighted with numerous and not entirely unreasonable doubts for so long it will not be restored to some former, unambiguous glory. And yet, without it we are lost. This era we are in, this time of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, neoclassical romantic baroque modernism, call it what you will, urges us to seek latent energies in the old virtues, to go back and look again for overlooked possibilities. Is it beyond reason to expect artists, as a kind of minimal job description, to grasp these imperatives? Before becoming a politician, Edi Rama was a painter.

15 December 2012

After Sandy Hook, our Hour of Lead

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—

This is the hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—the Stupor—then the letting go—

Emily Dickinson

I learned of yesterday's terrible attack in Connecticut on Facebook, where I had gone to hide out from a piece of writing I was making no progress on. Every post was a personal response to the massacre; within a short time I knew something dreadful had happened, but not exactly what. Google's newsfeed supplied the details, and then the evening news came on, and the numb, sickening sadness came in like the tide. I let loose a wail of helpless, uncomprehending grief and listened to the darkness.

I did not go back to Facebook. In the process of absorbing the first rough contours of the tragedy there, I had had to hurdle several posts whose first thought was a call for gun control. I endorse this position, but was not prepared to leap over our hour of lead to indulge social commentary or political outrage. This was a moment for horror, for sorrow, for weeping, for compassion. Our ancient viper brain seeks something to strike at, but aggression, even in the form of righteous outrage, denies us the full measure of our pain. Only by fully allowing our own sense of shock and suffering can we share the suffering of those who lost loved ones, and perhaps even experience a flicker of mercy for whatever distress drove a tormented young man to brutally murder twenty children and seven teachers.

President Obama exemplified the compassion of pain fully felt in his brief address Friday afternoon. "[O]ur hearts are broken today, for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost," he said. "Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain." With bowed head and barely staunched tears, the President expressed genuinely moving sadness for those directly touched by the shooting, and for the country as a whole, which groans under a madness of rage, hatred, and pitiless violence.

President Obama made a passing allusion to the political action required to address the ever-more frequent incidence of firearms violence, but let us not fool ourselves into believing gun control is the curative we seek. Few countries have stricter gun laws than Norway, where a similar attack on young people took place last year.  That attack reminded us no place is immune, but Norway showed us something to hold up as well—a national character that healed its trauma through charity and collective reflection. As one Norwegian girl expressed it, "If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together."

"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do,'' the President said, "which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another." We must endure our hour of pain, listen to it, then outlive it and transmute it into love. 

I do not believe in a homeopathy of outrage, where like cures like. Love alone heals the pain that feeds our violence.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Adam Zagajewski
Translated by Clare Cavanagh

05 December 2012

Dangerous empathy

Gonna forget about myself for a while, 
gonna go out and see what others need
   ∼Bob Dylan

One of the convictions this site was founded on is the cultural necessity of art that opens us to compassionately experience the lives of others. Earlier this week, RSA Animate, that “invariably excellent”* series that melds the public lecture with the graphic novel, posted this video in which cultural historian Roman Krznaric argues for exactly this level of engaged receptivity, via a process of “radical empathy he calls outrospection.


If the 20th century spawned a “therapy culture” that encouraged us “to look inside of ourselves, to gaze at our own navels,” the needs of the 21st century demand something different. “Instead of the age of introspection, we need to shift to the age of outrospection,” insists Krznaric, “the idea of discovering who you are and what to do with your life by stepping outside of yourself, discovering the lives of other people and other civilizations.”

The “ultimate artform” of the new age, he says, is empathy. Expanding “empathic potential” is good for us personally and good for the world:

“Empathy can be part of the art of living, a philosophy of life. Empathy isn’t something that just expands your moral universe. Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But more than that, empathy is about social change, radical social change. A lot of people think of empathy as a nice, soft, fluffy concept. I think it’s anything but that; it’s actually quite dangerous. Empathy can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”

I'd have posted this vid simply for that robust stand on the power of empathy, but in its ten minutes Krznaric introduces several compelling ideas. He describes two related but distinct forms of empathy, “affected empathy,” when one individual mirrors another's pain, joy, etc., and “cognitive empathy,” the perspective shifting that Native Americans describe as walking a mile in another man's moccasins. As inspiration for expanding our empathic potential, Krznaric cites the work of George Orwell, not as chronicler of distopian futures, but as the immersive author of Down and Out in Paris and London. He could as well have mentioned the peasant paintings of Van Gogh, the New Deal photographs of Russell Lee, or the documentaries of Agnès Varda, among countless examples. He also reminds us that empathy can powerfully transform society, as it did in the English anti-slavery campaigns of the 1820s and U.S. Abolitionist movement forty years later.

The animated lecture condenses (and at times oversimplifies) a longer talk delivered at the RSA in February, titled  “The Six Habits of Empathic People. (The singularly British RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, is an  “enlightenment organization founded in 1754,  “in a coffee shop in Covent Garden.Krznaric concludes by urging us to cultivate empathy not just around the globe, as when a natural disaster ravages a far-off country, but across time as well: We are failing to empathize through time, with future generations. We need to learn to expand our empathic imaginations forward through time, as well as across space.

Here again, his words echo Native American ethics, which insist that all collective decisions contribute to the welfare of the seventh generation to come. The Great Binding Law, the constitution of the Iroquois Nation, which scholars say may date back to 1100 or earlier, expresses the idea unflinchingly:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation.

* In the words of Maria Popova (herself "invariably excellent"), who posted this video on her must-read daily omnibus Brain Pickings

29 November 2012

Into quiet and light: The photographs of Robert Adams

Photography is inherently fragmentary,
and I find I base my faith on perfect moments.  
  ~ Robert Adams

In 2001, Robert Adams published Bodhisattva, an artist's book of thirteen images of a Buddhist prayer statue from the second or third century CE. The sculpture, depicting a bodhisattva, or “wisdom being,” was from the Gandhara region of eastern Afghanistan, where Buddhism mixed with Hellenistic culture as the farthest point of Alexander's exploits in Asia. Stylistically, there are influences of both Chinese and Greek art in the figure's tranquil countenance and ringlet hair, which Adams observed in a series of intimate close-ups. It seems appropriate to call the resulting photos portraits as much as studies; Adams clearly presents the deity not merely as an artwork to be admired, but as an entity with a life force of its own.

In Adams’s book, each photograph floats in the center of the right-hand page, opposite a blank white leaf. The eye instinctively reads the spread as a single entity, left to right, and this whiteness affects the experience of the pictures. The blankness is not blank at all; it is, indeed, the atmosphere of the bodhisattva, part silence, part radiance. The thin book takes only minutes to page through, but like any good epiphany, multiplies its impact long afterward. Bohdisattva is the slightest and most obscure of the more than thirty monographs Adams has produced since 1970, an outlier and an anomaly, and yet it reveals an underlying spiritual agenda to his work that goes largely uncommented on. 

The subject of spirituality has never been foremost in discussions of Robert Adams, who is widely considered among the most influential landscape photographers of the late twentieth century. He is best known for his stark black-and-white images of housing construction and suburban sprawl in the American West, photographs that Ken Johnson aptly described in the New York Times as “dispassionately objective, as if made by an insurance adjuster.” The aggressive detachment of Adams’s documentary-style images was startling and subversive when he emerged in the mid-1970s as one of a group of upstarts who revolutionized American landscape photography. In those days, Robert Adams seemed a kind of anti-Ansel Adams (no relation), the widely popular photographer of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Where the older Adams portrayed the Western wilderness as a sacred, pristine paradise, his younger namesake exposed the destruction of the West’s open spaces by rapacious and unregulated exploitation.

I'd first seen Adams's work when I was a young photographer in the mid-1980s. His photographs created a significant frisson of admiration and uncertainty in me, an influence that, if I could never quite emulate it, I could also never forget. To a twenty-something photographer still developing his voice, I intimated something deeply penetrating and courageous in Adams’s work, which combined searing commentary with an eye for the significant banality. More than any other early influence, Adams taught me to look to the commonplace as subject matter. So I thought I understood him when I made it to New Haven last month for the closing weekend of Robert Adams: The Place We Live, a forty-year retrospective at the Yale University Art Gallery. But there I encountered a far more nuanced artist than I had known, with a broader range and far different artistic program. Included in the exhibition were selected images from the Bodhisattva book, and it was these photographs that clarified and confirmed what I take to be Adams’s larger mission, and helped me see his landscapes anew.

Adams was nearly 40, and had been photographing less than ten years, when he came to prominence in the 1975 exhibit New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography, in Rochester, New York. The exhibit title reveals the new aesthetic it championed. In contrast to photographic landscapes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—then the reigning masters of the genre, whose heroic style of sweeping vistas and dramatic light was inherited from the Hudson River School and European Romantic painting —the artists in Rochester affected the detached, analytic attitude suggested by the geographic term “topography.” Curator William Jenkins summed up the new philosophy thus: “The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.” To say New Topographics impacted landscape photographers would be an understatement. Overnight, it rewrote the playbook and rendered the old style passé. One of the exhibitors, the German husband-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, birthed a new school of postmodern photography with their work and that of their students, which included Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth; the other exhibitors, among them Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Nicholas Nixon, have enjoyed equally influential careers as artists and educators.

New Topographics was part of a movement in the 1960s and '70s that transformed photography’s conception of itself—and eventually changed how we all think of the medium, right up to our iPhone apps. The Big Bang moment of the new ethos was the 1959 American publication of Robert Frank's The Americans, the book that did for photography what Leaves of Grass did for American poetry: opened a door where there had seemed a solid wall. The Americans disregarded photography’s assumptions about narrative and composition, borrowed largely from traditional genre painting, and flouted its notions of craft. The Swiss-born artist’s grainy, seemingly off-handed black-and-white images of juke joints and drive-in theaters, elevator girls and empty roads, made on a driving trip across the USA, possessed a mordant melancholy that distilled his view of American alienation, aggression, and spiritual debasement. 

Frank’s anarchy made the old guard howl, but younger artists, more tuned to modernism and rock 'n' roll than American exceptionalism, quickly took up the cause. The work of serious photographic artists became increasingly deadpan, random, brooding, aloof, sardonic, irreverent, and anti-sentimental.

When Robert Adams took up the camera in the 1960s, this zeitgeist was in the air, along with assassinations, Vietnam, Dylan, the Pill, pot, Nixon, and, a few years later, Watergate. That the “establishment” was an empty shell seemed not opinion but irrefutable fact, and exposing the mainstream's perfidy became an act of conscience. It is not hard to imagine Adams, who had been a teen-ager amid the pre-sprawl grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, looking with horror and contempt at its degradation and photographing the overdevelopment as a way of condemning it. J'accuse! That alone did not make Adams an iconoclast—it was, in fact, more in the tradition of Lewis Hine’s photographic campaign against child labor—but Adams's inclusion in New Topographics placed him squarely with the insurrection. And his pictures did seem to share a similar ethos. Not only were they openly critical of so-called "progress," they were also not classically dramatic or formally heroic. And they often seemed to be of, well, of nothing, really.

As with the bodhisattva, that apparent nothingness was full of meaning. “The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy,” Adams wrote in 1995, reflecting on his work of the ’70s. “They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love.” For all the affinities Adams shared with the other Topographic artists, however, he is far from an exemplar of the new paradigm. Like the Gandharan sculpture, Adams shows influences of varied, even opposing cultures. If his pictures do often seem, as William Jenkins put it, “stripped of . . . artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state,” they can hardly be said to eschew “beauty, emotion and opinion."

Indeed, regarding beauty, Adams is something of a latter-day romantic. On this point he has been especially eloquent. Far from “eschewing” beauty, he has pursued it throughout his career, as he explained in the title essay of his book, Beauty in Photography:

“[T]he word beauty is in practice unavoidable. Its very centrality accounts, in fact, for my decision to photograph. There appeared a quality—Beauty seemed the only appropriate word for it—in certain photographs and paintings that opened my eyes, and I was compelled to learn to live with the vocabulary of this new sight, though for many years I still found it embarrassing to use the word Beauty, even while believing in it.

“If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form. Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life. . . . Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life might be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

Adams goes on in the essay to explore beauty’s relationship to the worlds of religion, philosophy, and theory.  

“Art’s beauty . . . does not lead to theology or a system of ethics (though it reminds me of the wisdom of humility and generosity). William Carlos Williams said that poets write for a single reason—to give witness to splendor (a word also used by Thomas Aquinas in defining the beautiful). It is a useful word, especially for a photographer, because it implies light—light of overwhelming intensity. The Form toward which art points is of an incontrovertible brilliance, but it is also far too intense to examine directly. We are compelled to understand Form by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us.”

Adams is an elegist, a poet of loss. This reference to poetry is not merely figurative; Adams has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California and taught literature for several years before devoting himself entirely to photography. He has a scholar’s appreciation and command of poetics. An elegy is typically constructed in three parts, lament, praise, and consolation, and all of these elements are in Adams's work: a cry against destruction, a celebrating evocation of what has been lost, and a sense of redemption through the rigorous, if stark, beauty left behind. In 2010, Adams wrote about returning to revisit “a number of marginal landscapes I had taken for granted when I was a boy,” where he fell into a dialectic between despair and gratitude:

As I walked through them I sometimes asked myself whether in coming years they would survive overpopulation, corporate capitalism, and new technology. On those days when I was lucky, however, my questions fell away into the quiet and the light. 

It has been many years now since I left Colorado, and occasionally friends there tell me of what has been lost. We share our griefs, but not infrequently the conversation turns to recollecting scarcely believable glories—near miracles—and we pledge to look again.

An elegist interrogates death, seeking whatever meaning can be found in destruction. To compose elegies is to believe in meaning and imply purpose. Adams is opposed to nihilism and jaundiced expressions of irony. “If we come upon innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in the lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?” he asks. What is the caustic irony Adams evokes here but an intellectual hedge against the pain of being human? Over the course of nearly fifty years behind the lens, Adams’s solution to the tragedy of life has been to expand the capacity of his heart, to employ his work less for lament and more for praise.

Steadily since the 1980s, his photographs have pointed increasingly toward Aquinas’s and Williams’ experience of splendor. In Beauty in Photography, Adams invokes William Carlos Williams’ edict, “no ideas but in things,” a philosophy that has led more than one poet into labyrinths of abstraction, but takes a photographer to the specificity of light—especially natural light—and the flux and flow of unstaged life. As the decades have passed for Adams and he has slowly inhabited his chief mission, light and life have converged in stunning fragments of transcendence. These exist in sequences from the early 1980s on families in Colorado parking lots; in his landscapes from the Pawnee National Grassland in eastern Colorado; in his meditations on waves along the Oregon coast from the 1990s; in his studies of a friend's garden in eastern Oregon in 2003; and in his recent seascapes from 2008.

In the progression of his vision, Adams has revealed himself not as a topographical photographer, not as a documentary witness, not as a commentator on environmental destruction—though he is all three of these—but as in essence a seeker, a soul in search of the sacred. Read again his comments on beauty above. Is the Form Adams describes not another name for the Divine, whether we call it God, Providence, Creator, Source, Atman, anima mundi, or the Ideal? In his later photographs, Adams seems bent on capturing nothing less that that “light of overwhelming intensity,” the “incontrovertible brilliance” that is “far too intense to examine directly.”

Adams evokes this transcendence it in his volume on the Buddhist deity. A bodhissatva, the photographer notes at the beginning of that book, is “the representation . . . of an ideal . . . a person who understands but who has chosen to remain involved in life on behalf of others.” Robert Adams has made much the same commitment.

All images via Yale University Art Gallery/ Robert Adams: The Place We Live 
All photographs by Robert Adams
Page spread from Bodhisattva, Nazraeli Press, 2001
New tracts, west edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973–74
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968
Denver, Colorado, 1973
New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983
Palmer Creek, El Paso County, Colorado, 1984–87
Pawnee National Grassland, Weld County, Colorado, 1984
Looking into Pine Valley, Baker County, Oregon, 2003
From the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon, 1991
Nehalem Spit, Tillamook County, Oregon, ca. 2008

19 July 2012

That imaginative sympathy

In the wake of my recent post of Alain de Botton's mediations on the humanitarian lessons of Christian art, I came on Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, his long letter from Reading Gaol, written in 1897 while imprisoned for public indecency. The full letter is a remarkable document, extravagant and deeply stirring in that unique manner perfected by the Victorians. It is impossible to speak of Christianity without immediately rousing powerful emotions, for and against, few of which I share. My interest in the subject is more or less the same as German philosopher Karl Jaspers', who placed "Jesus the man"  besides Plato, Buddha, and Confucius as the four great minds who have most influenced contemporary thought. I am led to Jesus's teaching through the words of Martin Luther King, from whom I first gained the concept of "love in action" in his book Strength to Love. De Botton's claim that "images are important partly because they generate compassion,"  is here expressed by Wilde with force and eloquence.

"I see a far more intimate and immediate connexion between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist; and I take a keen pleasure in the reflexion that long before sorrow had made my days her own and bound me to her wheel I had written in The Soul of Man that he who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely absolutely himself, and had taken as my types not merely the shepherd on the hillside and the prisoner in his cell, but also the painter to whom the world is a pageant and the poet for whom the world is a song. I remember once saying to André Gide, as we sat together in some Paris café, that while metaphysics had but little real interest for me, and morality absolutely none, there was nothing that either Plato or Christ had said that could not be transferred immediately into the sphere of Art and find its complete fulfillment.

"Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist—an intense and flamelike imagination. He realized in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation. He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich."

—Oscar Wilde
De Profundis

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, The Healing of the Blind Man of Jerico, 1659, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Paul Strand, Blind Woman, New York, 1916 ©Estate of Paul Strand

09 July 2012

Versions of ourselves

Christian art understands that images are important partly because they generate compassion, the fragile quality which enables the boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experiences of strangers, and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own.

Art has a role to play in this manoeuvre of the mind upon which, not coincidentally, civilization itself is founded, because the unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister that our habit of looking at them in the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, which blind us to the fact that they are really, despite a thousand differences, just altered versions of ourselves: fellow fragile, uncertain, flawed beings likewise craving love and in urgent need of forgiveness. 

from Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton

So conditioned are we by the principles of modernism that many reading this epigraph, whether artists themselves or educated sophisticates, will find something vaguely sinister in its claims. That art should exist for itself alone—indeed, that existing for its own sake is the noblest calling of art—is one of our age's unshakable beliefs. That we should praise a day when an artist's calling was to service, be it to Church or State, Man or God, feels dangerously regressive. But the purpose of Alain de Botton's recent book is not to advocate a return to an age of Christian art, or any regimen that seeks to prescribe how artists work or think. Rather, the author of Religion for Atheists makes a strong case that art once served a cause beyond its own aggrandizement and profit, and that it still does for those who access it in a setting and mindset conducive to the exchange. That this setting is so frequently not a gallery, an art fair, or a contemporary museum—places where, a la Willie Sutton, the art is—is one of de Botton's laments.  In his book, he outlines a compelling program by which museums may serve the psycho-spiritual needs of their patrons with interpretations that take the imagination well beyond the standard proffering of art historical dates and contextualizations.

The unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art. We depend on artists to orchestrate moments of compassion to excite our sympathies on a regular basis; to create artificial conditions under which we can experience, in relation to the figures we see in art, some of what we might one day feel towards flesh-and-blood people in our own lives.”  

What moved me by this book was the challenge de Botton places before artists and curators, the creators and interpreters of this potent force called art. While much of contemporary art ironically or pointedly aims critical commentary at the status quo, pathos, compassion, tenderness, or grief are not emotions so-called "serious artists" engage with all that often. De Botton makes an appeal for contemporary culture to go beyond commentary, to address and even seek to comfort human alienation, vulnerability, confusion, despair, and traverse the immense realms of the heart. He encourages us, as artists, to take on this task boldly, to commit to production that engages the deepest elements of human crisis and aspiration.

By its very nature, life inflicts on us universal pains based on timeless psychological and social realities; we all wrestle with the dilemmas of childhood, education, family, work, love, ageing and death. . . . New secular [works] of representative sorrows could anchor the true nature of their camoflaged dimensions. They could teach us lessons about the real course of life in the safety and quiet of a gallery, before events themselves found a way of doing the same with their characteristic violence and surprise.”  

While I am not at all sure that art teaches the same lessons that hard experience does, I fully believe it can prepare us to meet upheaval or suffering with greater perspective, courage, grace, and resilience. Furthermore, after a bout of life's "characteristic violence and surprise," art assists us in comprehending what we have endured, and allows us to absorb and transform it into strength, growth, even wisdom. And art teaches us that we are all in this life together, gossamer strands of the same web.

Art has a unique ability to make us more receptive to the condition of our fellow humans and all living things. The ethos of art pour l'art has yielded no end of remarkable objects, but the potential of the creative act, via narrative, metaphor, pathos, and love, is so much larger than the making of marks. It is an act of communion (of connection, rapport) that elevates the humanity of all who partake.

The range of possible perspectives in any scene—and the range, therefore, of responses available to the viewer—reveals the responsibilities which fall to the makers of images: to direct us to those who deserve but often do not win our sympathy, to stand as witnesses to all that it would be easier for us to turn away from. The gravity of the task explains the privileged place accorded in the Christian tradition to St. Luke, the patron saint of artists, who, legend tells us, was the first to depict the Crucifixion, who is frequently represented in Christian art with brushes and paints in hand, taking in what the Roman soldiers pretended not to see.” 

Giotto, Lamentation, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
W. Eugene Smith, Tokomo Eumura in Her Bath, Minamata, 1972 (© heirs of W. Eugene Smith)
Norman Rockwell, Saying Grace, 1951, private collection
Francisco Goya, "Nor This," from Disasters of War, 1810-20