March 16, 2000
The Book of Idolatry, written by Bruno Schulz, a Polish school teacher killed in 1941 by the Nazis, contains emotionally charged images, drawings and etchings. Humans “think” in images or in feelings. Only secondarily do we translate these to the most appropriate words available to us within the scope of our cultural milieu, education, and ability. Wordlessly, human gestures, movements and actions proclaim a sociobiological legacy, occasionally, the whole of human existence. We accept the fact of cross-cultural and cross-species similarities of body movements or body language. Artist’s images plumb these human mind-states directly, without translation into another language.
Schulz’s images illustrate male and female behavior and wordlessly confirm my assertion that the most valuable thing in the universe is the human egg. All human behavior follows from this commodity condition. Accordingly, you see idolatry of woman, zealous guarding of genetic integrity (jealousy), O. J. Simpson (crimes of possessive passion), marriage contracts, alimony (egg-rental money). Females, in all species, choose the male with whom they will mate. Men “rut.” They compete with each other to show women (the choosers) who is the worthiest. The behavior is a pre-human legacy. From it derives war, sporting games, leaders of industry and politics, presidents of nations, wealth-seeking, all of the activities of humankind, all commerce, all search for knowledge. In effect, everything.
Schulz was on to something.
Recently, I found a collection of his drawings and letters in publications from Northwestern University. In one was a thoughtful essay by Ewa Kurylik, art historian and novelist. I use it as a framework upon which to construct an explanation for the existence of art.
The human brain can generate, in imagination, any number of images, scenarios, or steps, which exactly mimic reality. The computer can simulate complex reality, becoming real when introduced to a real world setting, directing weapons, guiding aircraft, surgical operations, anatomy dissections, whatever one can imagine. Humans have been simulating forever. What some call “precognition,” may be subconscious simulating, a process that would have survival value.
If one picture is worth ten thousand words, then an image is a perfect portable metaphor, a gestalt. Some do image conjuring better than others. I do this well but find that verbalizing the imaginary is not as easy. It amounts to fitting a gestalt concept, thought, image, emotion, something that comes all at once, into a lattice of available vocabulary. When faced with the task, I ask: “What words do I know that come close to this feeling?” “How can I describe in words what I strongly feel will come to pass?” Still, it is only a translation; it is not the feeling, not the emotion, not the brain-state. My artist friend has painted or drawn 12 or more hours every day for 40 years. He says he no longer easily reads with comprehension. Reading is intellectual, L-mode or Left Brain activity. I paint with him regularly. As he paints, he enters a state, describable as R or “Right Brain” mode. I have almost annihilated my R mode, possibly as a result of my profession. I can see how choice of career followed my nature but also how subtle changes in the nature of the practice of medicine have urged a L mode or Left Brain dominance. L mode thinking tends to be tautological and legalistic, imitative, fundamentally non-creative.
Humans are not primarily linguistic. Spoken language developed late, long after body language said everything that needed saying; written language came much later. Why did language develop at all? Non-verbal communications work with precision, why bother with this complicated and inexact activity?
Some suggest that language developed to lie, to obfuscate, to cover-up. Obfuscation is the goal of legalistic writing. The Constitution, for one example, is a concise and perfectly written document whose meaning (particularly when coupled with the Federalist papers that anticipated it) is understandable by any thoughtful High School student. Yet, two hundred and twenty-five years later, lawyers and politicians continue to twist and re-arrange the document to their own advantage–Queens of Hearts, words adopt meanings the users choose.
Wittgenstein understood words bear the message of the speaker or writer. Using the example of the word “brick,” by a person referring to bricks in a wall, the listener would not know which (specific kind) of the thousands of bricks was meant. Wittgenstein said the only road to clarity was to combine “words” with actions--the speaker must walk-up to the wall and with his finger point to “that brick, right there.”
Words to do not afford a perfect means of translating ideas. Images are better. Images and feelings. But how to transmit a feeling?
Cave drawings made by early humans resemble pencil sketches made by students and artists who copy the lines of their palms. But, what are the cave drawings; what do they mean? I long to grasp the meaning of hieroglyphs; a few right-brained, R-mode persons, can do this readily. Once the code is broken the “meaning” becomes obvious. Language must experience similar questions. In High School, I studied two languages, one dead, Latin, the other Spanish. I do not use either daily, but I get the gist of Spanish poetry. When the translation and its original are placed on facing pages, I often find that my translation of the original feels better to me than the work of the official translator. In languages totally unknown to me, such as Polish and Thai, seeing the words and their translation offer few clues to the code. After Milan Kundera wrote his book, “The Joke,” it was translated three times from Czech into English, each translation missing the point of the joke. Finally, in frustration, Kundera translated it himself. If mistranslation is a problem in artistic work, what must it be like in the United Nations where translators could easily be the source of serious international misunderstanding? In language used daily, words are often misunderstood, their meaning missed or misinterpreted, causing needless anguish, angst and worry, fear.
Wittgenstein again. The problem was rephrased, crystallized, and directed towards man/woman misunderstanding recently in the popular book: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” Evidence suggests that women and men communicate in ways specific to each sex.
Jerry Fodor further defined the matter, formally:
“...cognition saturates perception...
...one's observations are comprehensively determined by one's theories. . .
...one's values are determined by one's culture...
...one's science is determined by one's class affiliations. . .
...one's metaphysics is . . .determined by ones syntax (language) . . .
. . .Because perception is saturated by cognition, observation by theory, values by culture, science by class, and metaphysics by language, rational criticism of scientific theories, ethical values, metaphysical world views, or whatever can take place only within the framework of assumptions that--as a matter of geographical, historical, or sociological accident--the interlocutors happen to share.”
Michael Gazzaniga writes: “...there ought to be impinging on us information and circumstances that are difficult to learn very well. Evolutionary processes have probably not conferred on the human being all possible capacities to learn all kinds of strange things. There must be phenomena in the world that totally elude us because we do not have a capacity for considering their meaning. . . .this is exactly the case." page 95
There are some things some people cannot do. There is a low probability that any two discussants will share more than a small zone of the contextual framework. In short, we rarely understand each other.
Each person is specific, unique, solitary, though we share a few species characteristics. In spite of similarities and knowledge of the difficulties, our diversity, on the one hand and specificity, on the other, presents serious impediments to communication. Diversity conferred a distinctive advantage over time, it permitted the human species to be successful in the daily fight with the environment. Sameness risks vulnerability; hybridization spawns vigor. In the 2500 years since humans began to record their words, and thereby describe themselves, they–human nature--have not changed. Likely it is that they have not changed in the time before recorded language, either. It is proper to ask if humans can change, can we direct our metamorphosis. It is a high form of conceit to suggest only the modern world, the world of formality and technology, can understand existence. Even so, that belief is a present-day paradigm.
Levi-Strauss sees humanity as a tribal construction. Sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and genetics confirm that interpretation. The ratio of followers to leaders can be seen to exist in tribal dimensions--one leader-type personality to, say, 99, or likely many more, followers. Intrinsic, I contend, inbred, this otherwise inexplicable willingness to give-up freedom, to follow another person. As an ant hugs the posterior segment of his nest-mate, we can see people lining-up for the glow from a guru, the nod from a president, the glance from a Pope, a meeting with the Mayor. Intrinsic, because it must be a complicated tendency, sociobiological, genetic in origin, to be followers. Humans are easily corralled–not with difficulty. Readily and without much resistance we are shepherded; Gary Larson has a wonderful image for this. History literally shouts this elusively obvious truth.
Written in 1850,“Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” says much in its title and more in its substance about what humans do with their lives, their money, their thoughts, their beliefs.
What is our current delusion? What does humanity look like without a current paradigm? Can one see what is standing there while inside a churning popular delusion? Likely not. Delusions confer context which is shared amongst the deluded. The resultant metaphor might be darting flocks of swallows or schools of fish, lemmings.
If this idea is correct, current events are akin to quiet mill ponds or thundering cataracts that happen along-side, while the stream of history just moves on. Proverbs say the viewer sees more of the forest from the mountain than the forest, the trees get in the way. History tells me that nothing has changed–human nature appears locked in a sociobiological, genetic imperative from which there is no mass escape. The delusional states, the madness, relate to wildly improbable ideation, akin to the subliminal mental constructions referred-to above. Humans like games. They like to play; they do so as children but also as adults. Game-playing is carried to extremes in warfare and gambling. Adults take these games very seriously, indeed. Though serious, these need be seen as games– wars are conducted within a tightly-controlled atmosphere of international rules. Wild political schemes play out as Naziism, Sovietizations, arbitrary divisions of national boundaries, all conceptually pleasing to the currently deluded, but impossible to maintain because these schemes fail the test of history, the test of human nature.
Kyryluk writes: “Civilized humanity longs to leap back to barbarity and nature.” She notes, however, that true returns are rare. More often, she suggests, the returns are just dreams which result in “overproduction of pretentious vulgarity.”
I agree. During the most controlled periods of history, there has always been an undercurrent of real humanity bubbling up from below. Our country’s history begins with Puritan dreams which continue to this day, making us the most tight-assed country in the world. We are over-run with rules and regulations by the millions, we have more lawyers per capita than any other country in the world, and the present-day restrictions upon our personal liberty are possible only in a totalitarian state. It is irony that the goal of recent wars, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, was to defeat totalitarianism abroad only to have it descend upon us from within. Perhaps the sociobiology of the American popola at work here. Whatever it is, the “noble lie” at its totalitarian worst today, formalized as a variety of ‘isms:” feminism, environmentalism, protectionism, is just a lie. Like all other attempts at social control, it will fail.
The Victorian age was a socially repressive time. Since my earliest serious encounters with art, I was attracted by the images of the belle epoque, often described as 1885-1915. This era corresponded with the Victorian age of middle class respectability, prudery, and repression. While the Victorians were placing pants on table legs, the brothels of Paris were warmed and celebrated by Toulousse Lautrec, and Felicien Rops. Jacques Villon did charming etchings and aquatints showing his nieces and nephews happily playing in the nude.
The roaring twenties buried Victorian prudery, people behaved overtly free, ladies showed more thigh and almost everyone responded to the Eighteenth amendment to the Constitution (1922) with markedly increased consumption of alcohol. Prohibition was an incompletely snuffed-out Victorian forest fire that burst into flames. The artists responded to the restrictions, perhaps the sovietization of Russia (1922), reflection the formality and by proclaiming a new art, modernism, under the banners of Malevich and Mondrian. Modernism, as a movement, was in the textbooks by the 1950's.
Kuryluk writes:”As new technologies uproot existing traditions, feelings of nostalgia surface. People panic and dream about going underground or to the moon. They also become extremely susceptible to ideas of renewal: the arrival of a new Spring, a demigod or goddess. Suffering from contradictions and exaggerations, periods of transition oscillate between manic and depressive and produce a literature and art that. . .prefer the grotesque.”
Modernity and modernism, the word modern itself, present a problem for the artist and art patron. How shall we define these? What should one expect to be found in a museum which devotes itself to “modern art?”
How and where does one place the work of modern artists such as Bruno Schulz, Paul Klee, Miachael Brenner, Michael Aryton, Leonard Baskin, the Bay Area figurativists–David Park, Jack Lowe, Elmer Bischoff, Dean Meeker, Warrington Colescott, Jim Spitzer, all having main-line twentieth century connections but whose work is out of place as “moderism,” and flies against the common party line of art historians, that art progresses from realism to abstraction, mythology to rationality, subjectivity to objectivity, from fantasy to coolly ordered Bauhaus.
Kuryluk suggests that at a point in history, humanity defines as leading and central the art it wants to be visible, as retrograde that art it wants to hide. I would go further and say that it is not humanity, but rather delusion and misplaced power, that guides the world, not alone the world of art. In the 1960's Marshall McLuhan predicted humanity would come to be imprisoned in impenetrable mass-media bubbles, caused to live out their existence there. The biography of Jackson Pollock shows that the art world is guided by a handful of museum directors and art critics, mainly in New York. The auxiliary question of why an entire era allows itself to be guided by self-proclaimed Pied Pipers begs for an answer, one that likely fits the genetic and sociobiological essence of humanity at large: humans are followers and love to be led, by anyone.
Kuryluk errs in claiming that totalitarian systems arose “in reaction to” modernity. They are the symptoms of modernity, and she reveals this in the next text: “But they were also fueled by progress. The fascist, nazi, and communist ideologies combined scientific or pseudoscientific tendencies with the religious duality of good and evil and a millennia-old messianism: prophecies of a messianic struggle that would purge all bad humanity (inferior races or classes) from the face of the earth and end in paradise.” Behind the assignment of Malevich and Mondrian to top places in the hierarchy of twentieth-century avant garde is a reliance by science and philosophy upon formality of mathematics, acceptance of the totalitarian actions of environmentalist doomsayers, demands of the fundamentalist religious “right.” Behind the curtain of perfection implicit in a complete theory of everything–the quantum physicist’s will O the wisp–behind the constraints of misinformed environmental zealots, behind the Puritanical fear that somewhere someone might be having a good time, lies real humanity. Humanity exists as the only thing humanity can be: human. And human, it celebrates itself, it remembers its origins, pays its legacies to the lemurs, the chimpanzees, the rutting deer. It celebrates the universe, itself.
We would expect a voice or two from among the humans making art, voices heard louder, originating away from the mass-media and bottom-line-controlled bubbles that surround the major art museums. Apart from those who are called “performance artists,” “video artists,” “minimalists,” and other “–ists,” we’d expect to find evidence of life.
And, it is there. Life exists. It wordlessly reflects feeling and emotion; it celebrates what humans celebrate: existence, life and the making of more life--sexuality, romance, joy, beauty. It screams, too, this life force, against the rigid totalitarianism of today and against modernism and against all that a movement includes, including politics. It is to be found in the images, paintings and sculpture of many artists.
I recently attended an art show where I found life. Every image, each work, was perfect and glorious. The exhibition took place in Santa Rosa, CA and included seventy works by local artists. When I first saw the show, I was immediately attracted by the clarity of purpose, perfect composition, flawless use of color, and apparent celebration of life. None of the artists was well known. For most, this was their first public exhibition. None was over the age of eight years.
Here is primordial imagery, vegetal, animalistic, embryonic, fantasy, irrationality, in fact, the anti-hallmarks of modernity. And this energy comes entirely from within these young artists, moved by an inner guide unfettered, as yet, by rationality. That rationality will come to them; it is possible to predict their future work will be spoiled by it.
Betty Edwards describes the process:
If you consider in how many ways human expression has been guided from the outside, there may be little chance to escape the McLuhan bubble. The history of sewing machine manufacture and automobile manufacture follow a course similar to television and computer: there are only a handful of sewing machine makers, all operate about the same way. Little diversity exists amongst automobiles (urged by totalitarian demands for “safety” and “fuel efficiency” ). There are only two significant players in the market for the personal computer: two almost identical computer operating systems and precious little opportunity to move much beyond the vision of the software designers and operating system hacks who control the movement of your mouse. Superficially, it looks like there is ample opportunity for free expression, but closer analysis proves there is not. Everything starts looking the same, predictable, like hotels, motels, cities, nations. Arrive in city A and occupy the identical shape and size hotel room you had in city B the night before. “Where am I” becomes “I know where I am, it’s all the same place.”
But not for these kids, and not for the artists we love, I love, artists whose works speak to me wordlessly, imagination to imagination, feeling to feeling. Mark Rothko: "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else . . .I am interested in only expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstacy, doom and so on . . .And if you , as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point." (8) "The Blank Canvas" Anna Held Audette How would that proclamation sit with main-line art critics and historians?
A recent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art serves to exemplify the problem. A lot of money was spent to gather and reproduce the work of Sol Levitt, a name not familiar to me nor to my artist friends. In theory, the SFMOMA is a significant museum, it surely wishes to be one. Its origins, however, follow the common pathway of poking deeply into the pockets of wealthy benefactors, publishing their names or, if they donate enough money, calling a space after the donor. The relationship between donor money and art appreciation is unknown. It is likely that this association exerts an influence upon how the donors value art work, the value of which cannot fail to be influenced by the choice of the museum directors and curators. As indicated above, the aesthetics of the latter group, follows its own Pied Piper. It is a circle of self-service, of self-fulfillment.
It trickles down to the magazines and publications that relate to art. Despite the extreme minority of the population who appreciate art, people to whom art has seminal importance, a small cadre of directors and curators, controls the nature of what is called “good,” or “bad.” This is similar to the situation in popular music, popular media, where a few dominant engines move the whole of music. The audience is much larger and the lack of quality so patently obvious strikes closer to the nature of the buyers and listeners–like Mencken said: “No one has gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the average American.” In art, the emperors are fewer in number, tend to the elite, but nonetheless, they speak as one: the Emperor, and I say the emperor is nude. The emperor, as a guide to understanding of art–of today’s or yesterday’s art--is a concept that has no substance that is anti-art if is what I suspect it is.
Why is one drawn to do art? Here, I am not referring to commercial art or reproductive art, “artzak*.” These have their function in the same sense that “muzak,” elevator music, telephone ‘on-hold’ music have: motel art, advertisement illustration, etc. But no-one who thought about it would confuse popular music with Bartok or Stravinsky. Living serious composers do not spend their musical lives mindlessly stringing together bits of samples obtained from the cacophony of daily life as do the post-teen-age electronic and computer “musicians.” (though such a thing could be conceived of). And too, though the work of neither Clifford Still nor Mark Rothko could be confused with that of Norman Rockwell or of the Frederick Remington, we seek, behind the floating images of Rothko or the massive black canvases of Still, for feeling and somehow we find it. It is fitting that these artists be defined as ‘expressionists,’ for they were painting feeling.
Even giving the benefit of the doubt to the “modernists” now being gathered by the SFMOMA (I do not wish to pick on that entity–it is my only ready point of reference), I find it difficult to connect with any “there,” in much of the work of “modern” artists (there’s that word again) I have examined.
One way to explain the absence of substance in the work of so many current artists is that it reflects the dehumanizing stamp of our society. Nothing outside, nothing inside. Seen from this point of view, possibly the museum directors and curators are more gifted than I have credited them. Somehow, I doubt this. Artists who come from the mold of academia shine with the light of the academy. To successfully run the gauntlet of education, it is essential to become a card-carrying member of the education team–or perhaps, “biz.” Thus, graduates of the entities begin to adopt, to look just like, their teachers, who look just like their teachers, who all look alike because in the “ed biz” we are looking for educators who look just like. . . And so it goes. So, if the artists who are lauded by their mentors and whose work is chosen by the elite judges of academia and by that inner circle of art major leaguers, tend to be the ones whose work hangs, sits or leans in the halls of museums and their feeding accessories, the high priced galleries who surround them, we should not be surprised. But we need not accept their work just because it seems to be “popular” with the academy. Progress comes from outside the academy; most does. A good example is Whistler, whose work was unacceptable to the academy. That same academy’s work has not held up to Whistler’s by the test of history. Res ipsa loquitor; Q.E.D.
Taking the clue from Kurylik that at all times in art history bubbling and bursting from beneath the surface of socially or culturally defined movements, acceptable to the gentry, there is the reality, the life force, the art that speaks for what is, not for ‘what could be if only.’ “If only” we were no human.
Does anyone seriously believe that the world of the future will be the product of some committee or the dream of some single enlightened person? How has the existence of Einstein affected, personally, the man on the street? Yes I anticipate your response. And I would agree that this street man has benefitted in ways he does not know or fully understands. But I also would point-out that there is little evidence that our day-to-day life, on the whole, is improved over that of pre-Einstein times. I personally think it would be desirable and charming to take the rail South from Santa Rosa to Marin County and board a ferry to San Francisco, a journey that could be taken 75 years ago. Formal knowledge and technology have brought us the TV box and more recently, the computer, neither of which has brought with it an improvement in existence. The TV box was hailed as the pathway to enlightenment, to education. The computer, similarly. To test the theory, I suggest a channel surf or a trip to the WWW to find some enlightenment there. Good stuff exists, this is not to throw the baby out, but for the most part, it is shit.
Shit is a great word and very descriptive. Before the days of political and educational correctness, there existed a fabled honest man, a professor of art from the University fo Wisconsin, Madison, who was a sculptor and who, by accepting the stipend for his professorship was caused to teach classes in beginning sculpture to students of occupational therapy–not the stronghold of artistic talent. As he would go around the class, he would pick-up their feeble attempts and describe it for what it really was: “Dis is shit.” he would say in his Russian accent. “Dis is an abortion.”
This daring man no longer exists. But his example would sit upon my shoulder like a doppleganger when, years ago, before I gave them up, I’d page through the art magazines and say to myself: “Dis is shit.” And now when I visit the SFMOMA, he travels with me and I again find myself humming: “Dis is shit.” music as I try to find substance in plates of copper or of brass placed on the floor, or in a room full of rocks, or broken glass, or when I walk through the darkened rooms where “video art,” as they call it, happens. Shit.
So I started to look back upon my own collection of art to find-out if life existed there. I have four thousand works of art at present, each one lovingly chosne by myself and paid for with after tax monies gotten through honest labor.
Walker Percy suggests that”. . .the scientist is the prince of the post-religious age, lord an sovereign of the Cosmos itself through his transcendence of it, [and] the artist is the suffering servant of the age, who, through his own transcendence and his naming of the predicaments of the self, becomes rescuer and savior not merely to his fellow artists but to his fellow sufferers. Like the scientists, he transcends in his use of signs. Unlike the scientists, he speaks not merely to a small community of fellow artists but to the world of men who understand him.
It is no accident that , for the past hundred hears or so, the artist (poet, novelist, painter, dramatist) has registered a dissent from the modern proposition that, with the advance of science and technology, man's lot will improve in direct proportion. The alienation of the artist puzzles many, both the scientists and technologists who are happy and busy and their lay beneficiaries who are happy in the immanence of consumption . . .The artist, caught in the predicament of the self, is at once more vulnerable to the predicament of self than the non-artists and at the same time privileged to escape it by the transcendence of his art. He serves others who share his predicament by naming it. . . .Exhilaration comes from naming the unamable and hearing it named. . .The community of art is not the elect community of science but the community of the artist and all who share his predicament and who can understand his signs.”
It is of value to restate Rothko: "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else . . .I am interested in only expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstacy, doom and so on . . .And if you , as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point."
Or words for the poet, Machado:
"In poetry every feeling, he said, "needs for its creation the distress of other frightened hearts among a nature not understood . . .In short, my feeling is not only mine, but ours."
Transcendence indeed, or re-entry. Artist must do their work. They cannot not.
Selected poems of Antonio Machado
Translated by Robert Bly
Wesleyan University Press
Middletown, CT 1983