The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

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 an anguished response to the massacre; within a short time I knew something dreadful had happened, but not exactly what. Google's newsfeed supplied the headlines, and then the video on the evening news, bringing the numb, sickening sadness in like the tide. I let loose a cry of uncomprehending grief and listened to the darkness.

I didn't 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

Photo by Evan Vucci/AP, edited

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 imperative for art that allows 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 highlighted 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 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 containing thirteen images of a Buddhist prayer statue from the second or third century CE. The sculpture, depicting a “wisdom being” or bodhisattava, was from the Gandhara region of eastern Afghanistan, the farthest point Alexander the Great penetrated into Asia. There are Chinese and Hellenistic influences in the figure's tranquil countenance and ringlet hair, which Adams photographed in a series of intimate close-ups. It seems appropriate to call the results portraits as much as studies; Adams clearly regards the deity not merely as an artwork to be observed, but as an entity with a distinct life force. 

In Adams’s book, each photograph floats in the center of the right-hand page, opposite a blank white leaf. The eye reads the spread as a single entity, left to right, and the whiteness affects each image's tranquil presence. The blankness is not blank at all; it is, indeed, an atmosphere the bodhisattva inhabits, part silence, part radiance. The thin book takes only minutes to page through, but like any proper revelation, multiplies its meaning over time. 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 the critical literature about Adams, 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 tracts and suburban sprawl in the American West, photographs that Ken Johnson described in the New York Times as “dispassionately objective, as if made by an insurance adjuster.” The aggressive detachment of Adams’s aesthetic was startling and subversive when he emerged in the mid-1970s as one of a group of anti-Romantics who revolutionized our view of the American landscape. Robert Adams was a kind of anti-Ansel Adams, the widely popular photographer of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Where the older Adams (the two men are not related) portrayed the Western wilderness as an heroic paradise, his younger namesake exposed the destruction of the West’s open spaces by rapacious, unregulated development.

I'd first seen Adams's photographs when I was a young photographer in the 1980s. His work produced a frisson of admiration and uncertainty in me. I could never quite emulate it, but could also never quite forget it. I was intimidated by its courage and its coldness, its searing commentary and its eye for the resonant 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 Bodhisattva, and it was these photographs that clarified and confirmed what I take to be Adams’s larger project 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 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York. The exhibit title revealed the new aesthetic it championed. In contrast to the vision of reigning masters Ansel Adams and Edward Weston—whose sweeping vistas and dramatic light were inherited from the Hudson River School and European Romantic painting —the artists in Rochester affected the dry, analytic stance 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.” Overnight, New Topographics 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 school of postmodern photography that produced the likes of Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. 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 iPhones. The Big Bang moment of the new ethos was the 1959 publication of Robert Frank's The Americans, the book that did for photography what Leaves of Grass did for American poetry, finding a door in what had seemed a solid wall. The Americans disregarded photography’s assumptions of narrative and composition, borrowed from traditional genre painting, and flouted notions of craft. The Swiss-born artist’s blurred, grainy, seemingly off-handed images of juke joints and drive-in theaters, elevator girls and open roads, possessed a mordant melancholy and distilled vision of American aggression, alienation, 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 was the zeitgeist at large, fed by assassinations, Vietnam, Dylan, the Pill, pot, and a few years later, Watergate. That the “establishment” was an empty shell seemed not a stance but irrefutable fact. Exposing the perfidy of the status quo was an act of conscience. It's not hard to imagine Adams, who spent his boyhood amid the pre-sprawl grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, looking with grief and contempt at its degradation. Depicting the rampant development was a way of condemning it. J'accuse! The act alone did not make Adams an iconoclast—in fact, it was squarely in the tradition of Lewis Hine’s photographic campaign against child labor—but his inclusion in New Topographics put him squarely among the insurrection. And his pictures did appear to share a similar ethos. Not only were they openly critical of the notion of "progress," they also looked starkly anti-aesthetic. So often seemed to be of, well ... of nothing, really.

As with the bodhisattva book, that apparent nothingness was shot through with 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, he is far from typical of the new paradigm. Like the Gandharan sculpture, Adams shows influences of divergent, 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 turns out to be 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 metaphysics and the divine.  

“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. Traditionally, an elegy is constructed in three parts—lament, praise, and consolation—and all these elements are in Adams's work. He raises a cry against destruction, a celebrating evocation of what has been lost, and a final redemption in the rigorous, 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.” There, 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. “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 corrosive irony Adams evokes here but the nihilist's hedge against the pain of being human? Over the course of nearly fifty years behind the lens, Adams’s solution to the pain of life has been to expand the capacity of his heart, to employ his work as much for praise as lament.

Since the 1980s, his photographs have pointed increasingly toward Aquinas' and Williams’ sense of splendor. In Beauty in Photography, Adams invokes William Carlos Williams’ edict, “no ideas but in things,” which has led legions of poets into labyrinths of banality, but takes the photographer to the specificity of light—especially natural light—and the flux and surge of daily life. As the decades have passed for Adams and he has lived fully into this mission, light and life have converged in stunning fragments of transcendence. These emerge in sequences from the 1980s of families in Colorado parking lots; in his landscapes in eastern Colorado's Pawnee National Grassland; in his meditations on waves along the Oregon coast from the 1990s; in studies in 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 to be not a topographical photographer, not a documentary witness, not a commentator on environmental destruction—though he is all three of these—but in essence as 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 a mystical “light of overwhelming intensity,” the “incontrovertible brilliance” that is “far too intense to examine directly.”

In his volume on the Buddhist deity, Adams notes in his introduction that a
 bodhissatva is, “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 a post about 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 inimitable manner of the Victorians. It is impossible to speak of Christianity without immediately rousing powerful emotions, for and against, few of which I share. My engagement 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 to have most influenced modern thought. I was led to Jesus' teaching through the sermons of Martin Luther King, who expands on Dostoevsky's 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

05 May 2012

This stuff called art

The tent on Randalls Island, NYC, containing the art fair Frieze New York, which Holland Cotter describes as, "nearly 180 galleries, along with restaurants, bars, V.I.P. lounges, an auditorium and a bookstore." Cotter's review in the NYT includes a rather deflated account of what he calls the "gentrification of contemporary art": 
Part one is about a 20th-century model of an avant-garde, with artists as feisty cultural delinquents and idiot savants who set themselves outside the mainstream to make baffling things and think deep thoughts. 
In part two, set in the 21st century, the model has changed. Now artists, whether they know it or not, are worker bees in an art-industrial hive. Directed by dealers and collectors who dress like stylish accountants, they turn out predictable product for high-profile, high-volume fairs like Frieze.
I wish I were free to attend this event. I am not at all sure what the move from gallery to fair means for the future of art. I don't think anyone is. The crowds that fill the tent at Frieze and the other huge fairs (Basel, Miami, Maastricht, Dubai ... )  bring to mind the Paris Salon at its height in the nineteenth century, when going to the official painting exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts was the cultural equivalent of a new Harry Potter movie, the Super Bowl, and the Whitney Biennial rolled into one. It was the artists who didn't make it into the Salon, or those who rejected its principles, who would change the history of art. That said, Manet showed in the Salon, as did Chardin, Delacroix, Courbet, and Millet before him. History's lessons are generally ambivalent. 

As is Holland Cotter, as he ends his notice of the Randalls Island fair:

" . . . tickets for admission to New York Frieze are available only online. This effectively denies entry to anyone without computer access, which means a not-small number of New Yorkers. Outside, after I saw the fair, I thought of the poor, the crazy and the criminal who once, whether they wanted to or not, called Randalls Island home. Their ghosts must be looking at that big white worm of a tent, at the Wall Street suits, and at this stuff called art that you can do nothing with but buy and sell, with wondering distrust. I’m looking at it all that way myself.

02 May 2012

Group dynamics

Biologist, conservationist, myrmecologist, Pulitzer prize winner, and evolutionary philosopher E. O. Wilson is among the growing number of scientists to have entered the intellectual arena of explaining art, ethics, religion, and even our sense of wonder as essentially scientific phenomena. Wilson interprets rapidly advancing research in a wide array of the sciences, including anthropology, genetics, and neurobiology as offering compelling new insights into the source of our humanity. His thoughtful essay in the current issue of Harvard Magazine explores a number of these subjects, offering fascinating empirical conjecture on a diverse array of subjects, from the origins of music to why we like houses that look down on water. My favorite paragraph is this, in which sociobiologist Wilson offers an evolutionary explanation on why humans seem wired for both compassionate cooperation and destructive conflict:

Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole.

While science has long been evoked as the basis of destructive social engineering, there has emerged lately a less domineering application of the sciences on matters of social instincts. This new science, born of advanced understanding of genetics and brain science, is ripe with possibilities to rewrite our collective script on the primacy of  human selfishness, just as research on mirror neurons has suggested that empathy is hard-wired via evolution. Wilson does not speculate on what seems the next logical level of inquiry, that is, to determine if group selection represents a later and higher level of brain function.  As our cognitive abilities advanced, did they influence our capacities for positive group dynamics? From a humanitarian perspective this is a hopeful thought, but it could also be wishful thinking. Dadaism, the anti-art movement created in the midst of World War I, grew out of dismay at that war's carnage and disgust toward the claims of so-called "civilization."  If the same humanity that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Chartres, they reasoned, could also conceive of trench warfare, poison gas, and aerial bombing, then there was no reason to believe Homo sapiens—individually or in groups—was anything but fundamentally  barbarous.  Wilson also comments on the confusion created by two antithetical evolutionary imperatives:

An inevitable result of the mutually offsetting forces of multilevel selection is permanent ambiguity in the individual human mind, leading to countless scenarios among people in the way they bond, love, affiliate, betray, share, sacrifice, steal, deceive, redeem, punish, appeal, and adjudicate. The struggle endemic to each person’s brain, mirrored in the vast superstructure of cultural evolution, is the fountainhead of the humanities.

Wilson's essay considers a way to reconcile the persistent divide between science and the humanities, a gulf that only grows wider as scientific research is based increasingly on mathematical computations. This is true even in a discipline like biology, which one might assume is based essentially on direct observation. In many cases, the sciences, at the level where their most profound truths are revealed, are conducted in a language most of us cannot hope to understand. Nevertheless, Wilson reminds us of the common ground shared by the arts and sciences. "Innovators in both . . . domains are basically dreamers and storytellers," he writes. "In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story." That road rapidly forks off, however, Wilson concedes:  "The essential difference between literary and scientific style is the use of metaphor." The power of creative comparison has minimal value in science, but is the essence of the arts. Wilson, who has penned a novel in addition to his many other achievements, knows what he's talking about. "Lyrical expression," he writes, "is a device to communicate emotional feeling directly from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader." 

Wilson ends his essay with an intriguing rumination on the biological basis of music:

Was music Darwinian? Did it have survival value for the Paleolithic tribes that practiced it? Examining the customs of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures from around the world, one can hardly come to any other conclusion. . . . The musical compositions of modern hunter-gatherers generally serve basically as tools that invigorate their lives. . . .

To create and perform music is a human instinct. It is one of the true universals of our species. To take an extreme example, the neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel points to the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazilian Amazon: “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance, in the form of songs.”

Patel has referred to music as a “transformative technology.” To the same degree as literacy and language itself, it has changed the way people see the world. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of the brain, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. Music is powerful in its impact on human feeling and on the interpretation of events. It is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms.

It is my hope the excerpts here will whet your appetite for the entire essay, which is well worth reading. Equally as interesting are the comments afterward, in which the Harvard community, never one to be cowed by a man's prestige, argues with nearly all of Wilson's opinions and assertions.

Thanks to Maria Popova and her ever-inspiring Brain Pickings, which put me on to Wilson's essay. Portrait of Wilson by Jim Harrison

20 April 2012

All true poets

. . . an elegant statement not only about the devastation of war but also about poetry's 
power to amaze”  — The New York Times

Sunday, April 22, 4 pm, Opalka Gallery*
Discussion and reading with Dr. Ed Tick to follow
$5 Admission  •  Book Table in Lobby
One showing only

The seeds of the documentary Voices in Wartime were planted in January, 2003, when First Lady Laura Bush made the error of inviting a group of poets to the White House to celebrate the works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Mrs. Bush no doubt harbored benign notions of who poets are, and maybe imagined a scene of literary decorum similar to Robert Frost reading at JFK's inauguration. Distracted by the duties of First Ladydom, she may not have noticed that her husband and his handlers were manufacturing a tissue of lies to coerce the United Nations and the US into war in Iraq. Unfortunately for Laura, the poets had noticed, and rather than being solicitous they became unruly. Sam Hamill, publisher of the indispensable Copper Canyon Press, and Emily Warn, answered the invite by founding Poets Against the War. The third person they called was Andrew Himes, who Warn had worked with at Microsoft; within days, Himes had set up a website and the anti-war, anti-Bush poems began to pour in, eventually at the rate of five per second.

Laura Bush cancelled her tea party, but the poets kept on dissenting. Himes, observing the worldwide press coverage and watching the hits on the website whirl upward, understood there was a story to be told. He contacted his friend Jonathan King, who in turn contacted his brother Rick King with the idea of directing a film about Poets Against the War. Less than a year after the three men conceived the project, a rough cut of Voices in Wartime was screened to an audience.

Originally imagined as the chronicle of a protest movement build on poems, Voices morphed first into a history of war poetry and eventually into its final state, a meditation on the poet as the persistent witness to warfare. More than language, more than image, more than music (poetry's three graces), this persistence lies at the heart of the film, the tenacious sense of purpose that compels poets to speak the truth of war. Poetry born of combat occupies a unique literary niche; it never exists for its own sake, but as a phenomenon of testimony, to give voice to suffering, stand clear-eyed before death, cast light on carnage, and condemn bellicose pride and the counterfeit glories of battle. Homer's audience reveled in gory descriptions of battlefield deaths, and praised valor as it cast its spear, but the blind bard knew the toll aggression takes on the soul, and evoked it even as his heroes flashed and gleamed.

Increasingly over the past hundred years, wars are mobilized around armies but waged on civilians. Nuclear weapons have rendered war between major powers untenable; 21st-century conflicts are either techno-mechanical police actions or barbarous feuds between competing factions; in all cases, the destruction is wrought around and on the innocents, and so-called "collateral damage" is the common result with the most casualties. The testimony of poet Wilfred Own during World War I was of fellow soldiers choking on gas and bleeding in the trenches; today, from Afghanistan to Syria to Ivory Coast, eyewitness accounts are of burned children, raped women, the scattered dead of suicide bombers—atrocities committed in the name of someone's fundamentalism or nationalism or old-fashioned brute force.

No poet's cry ever stopped a bullet or bandaged a wound or ended a battle. Yet as warfare becomes  more and more—not just savage, but ruthlessly immoral, our humanity depends on the persistence of poets. The voice of witness, the shout of outrage, the cry of horror and sadness must be raised. "All a poet can do today is warn," wrote Wilfred Owen, whose elegiac descriptions of war's savagery are quietly eviscerating. "That is why true poets must be truthful.". Owen's directive is the ethos of Voices in Wartime and its lasting moral.

A poet functions as a kind of journalist of the interior landscape and brings back reports from the front. The front is the struggle in the human heart. — Andrew Himes

*  The Opalka Gallery is located at 140 New Scotland Avenue in Albany. For information and directions, click here

Something beyond the void

In his book  Pictures and Tears , James Elkins describes the charged silence that fills the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The space ...