Criticism, Opinion, and Contemporary Art

OK.  I have difficulty appreciating contemporary art.  I had difficulty appreciating disco music.  In the mid ’70’s it was disco or punk.  I had difficulty appreciating both the Bee Gees and Sid Vicious.  So in the mid ’70’s, I opted out of pop music.  For musical enjoyment, I retreated into the world of classical music in my protest/hermitage from pop culture.  And in large part, I’m opting out of contemporary art.  This includes conceptual art, much poetry, and fiction.  I can bear some contemporary music, probably because of all the arts, I understand music best.  But even in “music,” conceptual art such as John Cage is past my willingness to try to like.

Innovation gives birth to new art forms.  In high school, I didn’t understand Jackson Pollock, but like him now.  Fair to say, though, I wouldn’t hang his work in my condo.  My parents didn’t like rock music–disco or other any other form.  But I would argue that rock pushed an envelope that needed to be pushed.  And I’ll say that some classic rock is great in a pop sort of way.  I certainly wouldn’t want a world with only Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra.  So whatever contemporary art thinks it’s doing, it may be advancing the arts.  (Isn’t that generous of me?)  Few appreciated the Impressionists in their day.  But they did the art world a great service in moving painting beyond Gustave Moreau.  Maybe there’s something in the art that came through town which consisted of folding chairs interspersed with speakers through which a dreamy woman spoke about her dream of crows dying.?

A while back, I thought that my ideas about art were bona fide criticism.  I thought that my understanding of art constituted a critical stance and I thought that others should heed my critical positions.  But I now see that as ego.  My critical stance is really opinion.  I’ll validate my opinion that much in contemporary art is not worth my time.  But I won’t say that it’s bad art.  All I can say is that I don’t like it, don’t get it, don’t wish to take the time to get it.  What passes for art today may well be advancing forms that the children of my generation will love.  Or it might be like disco, and die out.  I don’t know.  Don’t think anyone can know.  What I can know is that my position is opinion.  I’d like to think it critical theory and call down the Harpies of the art world on everything I don’t like.  A few months ago, I would have.  Now, call it humility, maybe, but my preferences are mine alone.  Which frees me up to shrug off what I don’t think deserving of my time.  And to laud those who are doing things I don’t get.

LEONARDO’S SONNETS

The artist who painted the Mona Lisa composed

Sonnets

Leonardo is not known for his verse

Though you might be able to find them on Amazon

I don’t know if anybody read them in his day

So why write sonnets no one would read

When you are a painter?

And he designed

Bombs, sculptures, a flying machine

None of which materialized

I don’t think his flying machine would work

Did all this conspire in the painting of

The Mona Lisa

Thought by many to be THE GREATEST PAINTING

Two Narratives about English Literature

My Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary degree in Religion and Literature.  When I was in school, there were only two Religion and Literature departments in universities: U Chicago, and U Virginia.  Religion and Literature is a strange major that neither discipline wants.  Religion departments don’t understand why one of their students would study literature.  And I have been called an “interloper” by a professor in the English department.  The reason I wanted to study Religion and Literature is due to my conviction that literature conveys meaning.  Most sacred literature, including the Bible, is written in literary forms (also the Rig Veda, the Koran, and the Songs of Milarepa).  Many of the prophets use poetry and metaphor, the Psalms are lyric poems, and much of the other books are stories.  It was, and is, my belief that Hemingway says something about life, about reality, and about meaning or the lack thereof in existence.  So did T.  S. Eliot.  So did Samuel Taylor Coleridge–especially in his famous poem, THE EOLIAN HARP.  And Coleridge certainly said something about existence and thinly disguised religion in THE RHYME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.  But I need to be clear, I was not interested in religious literature.  Rather, I sought statements about life in all literature.  I suppose I was making a Swedenborgian connection not everybody would make.  Swedenborg writes, “All religion relates to life, and the religious life is to do good.”  So for me, statements about life are religious statements.

Unfortunately for me then, and now, the keepers of English literature do not think that literary art is about meaning-making.  I’m not at all sure what English literature does or is for them.  But two narratives point to what literature does or is, today.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is located, I ran into a fellow student from the English department in a bar.  I asked him what he was writing about in his dissertation.  He said he was writing about the process by which the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  He alluded to T.S. Eliot’s remark that Hamlet “is the Mona Lisa of literature.”  He said that in his dissertation he makes a lot of that remark by Eliot.  We were on friendly terms, and I was interested in his doctoral work.  But I wondered why someone in the English department was writing about how the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  I think that my colleague was writing critical theory.  Making judgments about the value of art is something critics do.  But I thought that what he was writing on would be more appropriate in the art department than in the English department.  This was due to my presuppositions about English literature.  You see how out of sync I was, and am still?

My second narrative isn’t direct personal experience.  It is a conversation I had with an English professor at a charming coffee shop where I live now.  She has a friend who won an award, she thought, for a poem her friend wrote.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop related her recollection of the process her friend went through in writing the poem.  She said that her friend wrote out in prose a narrative about her parents’ murder-suicide.  She may have also included the guilt she felt as their child.  Then, the poet either physically or conceptually cut up the narrative into phrases and segments.  Then she rearranged the parts out of sequence, out of grammatical order, and the final product is unintelligible.  The final product is called a poem.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop said she was unable to read the poem.  And she believes that her friend won an award.

I think that these two narratives show what is going on in humane letters.  Criticism plays a prominent role in English literature.  That’s what my first narrative says.  Although criticism didn’t really come of age until the 17th Century, it seems to be alive and well, today.  Deconstruction, which I thought was a passe brand of philosophy, dominates contemporary literature.  That’s what my second narrative says–I think.  For I think that disassembling and reassembling a story is a form of deconstruction.  I’m guessing here, I I may be wrong.  But what I do think, is that the poem in question is a lie.  If a narrative is first written out in prose, that is the truth being expressed.  Cutting it up and rearranging the parts into an incomprehensible word salad is a lie.  Why rearrange the sentence fragments?  Or, more importantly, why write out the story in plain English first?  Isn’t the plain English story the reality and the cut-up poem a falsification of the story?  And I don’t think that rearranging words into salad is art at all.

Finally, the subject matter of the so-called poem is also telling about the direction in which contemporary art is going.  Of course her art would be about something horrible.  Contemporary art is not allowed to be about happy, pretty, joyful subjects–especially about the glory of God and God’s works.  Only a few years back a movie called No Country for Old Men won several Academy Awards.  That movie is about a serial killer.  The movie narrated him murdering people.  He got away with his killing as Woody Harrelson, the sheriff, was also murdered.  (A generation ago The Sound of Music cleaned up at the Academy Awards.)  Another acquaintance of mine at the same charming coffee shop told me about her experiences in art school.  She said that someone made a painting of an animal torn open.  Then, the artist covered the frame in pig’s blood.  I went to the art gallery in the city I live in now.  There was a display composed of about 20 speakers on stands, with folding chairs set among them.  I sat on a chair, and there was an audio loop of a woman describing a dream of crows dying.  No eagles soaring upward into the sky.  No baby crows hatching into life.  No hummingbirds and flowers.  Crows dying.

I come up with these ideas about art because I still believe that art makes statements about life.  I believe, too, that my view of art is disjunct from how the contemporary keepers of art view it.  I have already expressed my inability to appreciate contemporary art.  And, indeed, my disinclination even to try.  I have made a decision, though, that in my artistic endeavors, I will express my own vision of art.  I will not attempt to assimilate contemporary trends.  And whether there is an audience or receptivity for what I do is not of my concern.  I think that artists who matter, held similar positions about creativity.  Critics debated Frost’s value all his life.  Andrew Wyeth never was considered a real artist.  And Hemingway’s mother never liked his fiction, nor did Gertrude Stein.  Of course, I’m not situating myself in such august company.  I’m just saying.

Criticism: A Lament for Wyeth and Frost

Go to Wikipedia and search under 20th Century Art and you won’t find anything about Andrew Wyeth.  All through Robert Frost’s life, an ongoing debate raged as to whether he was a legitimate poet.  There are those still today who do not recognize the legitimacy of Frost.  These two artists have one thing in common.  They were accessible.  People love their work.  A person can understand Robert Frost’s poetry, and a person can recognize the objects that Wyeth paints.

In Frost’s day, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dominated the poetics of the modern era.  People forget that Pound reviewed Frost’s first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will.  And Pound liked it.  And typical of Pound’s arrogance, he was amazed that Frost made himself modern without any instruction from himself.  Eliot’s epic THE WASTE LAND required footnotes so that readers could understand what Eliot was trying to do.  Eliot was happy to append them to his published edition.  He didn’t attach footnotes to Four Quartets.  And still, nobody knows what to make of that collection.  Then when Eliot turned to theater, his artistic career was over.  Robert Frost said jovially that modern poets need typewriters instead of pencils.  Frost wrote lyrical poems, of moving sentiment and deep truth.  And he did this by means of keenly described pictures–mostly imagery from the farm he owned during his most productive period.  With Frost, it is easy to remain locked in his pictures and to think he is writing only about trees and snowy woods, pale orchises, and Rose Pogonias.  But Frost captures the pain inherent in living; he questions–but leaves open the question–of a universal Providence in the universe.  Sometimes it is as if Frost is crying out against the universe.  What gave critics pause about Frost is that Frost uses the sound of common speech, that Frost uses rhyme, and Frost uses meter.  And Frost’s poetry doesn’t need footnotes.  That’s why people like Frost.  Frost mastered these artistic techniques and all this is why he is a great poet.

In Andrew Wyeth’s day, art was dominated by abstraction.  Maybe Jackson Pollack epitomizes this trend in that he poured paint onto canvasses without any intent to depict something.  Andrew Wyeth painted ultra-realistic images.  When you look at Wyeth’s paintings up close, you see that the fine detail is rendered through a rather impressionistic technique that blends into breathtaking realism a few steps back.  The composition of many of Wyeth’s paintings are made of abstract shapes–the realistic pictures form abstractions if you forget that they are about the farm he lived on in Pennsylvania.  Wyeth even expressed in print that mixing realism with abstraction would be a great feat of art.  He did just that.  In an age in which critical theory praised art that represented bare color, form, and hue–or something like that–Wyeth gave the world beautiful images we can recognize.  Wyeth, in other words, bucked the trends in modern art.  And modern art critics hit him back.  When he lived, he was never considered a serious artist.  I don’t believe that he is today, either.

I do not appreciate contemporary art.  I don’t even try.  I believe that contemporary art demands that a person read critical theory first, before viewing or reading the art.  This is why I object to contemporary art.  In my aesthetics, art should speak directly to audience.  We should resonate with art without art being “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”  Funny, I can view 3,420 years of art history and it speaks to me without me needing to open a book of art criticism.  Then, from about 1920 to today, the same phenomenon doesn’t happen.  In order to make a buck, art critics write books about ancient art.  But I don’t need to read these books.  The same strange experience happens to me in regard to literature.  I can read Gilgamesh, the Bible, and Shakespeare without a critical theorist pointing my nose to what I am to take from these works.  But this phenomenon abruptly stops with about Hart Crane.  I struggle with Wallace Stevens, but, unlike Hart Crane, Stevens rewards to some degree.  What is odd in all this, is that I can and do understand and even like some contemporary symphonic music.  When it is not awful, as too much of it is, sometimes it gets boring, though.  Music has it’s bow to deconstruction.  I once heard a trumpet player take the mouthpiece out of his trumpet and noodle on it all the while moving the slider on a synthesizer resonator.  It made my girlfriend so mad she had to go to the ladies’ room till he was done.

The drive to conform to the strictures of contemporaneity is hard to live with.  And it’s not a matter of me tapping out of the art world by age.  I felt this way even when I was younger.  I’m no prophet.  So I don’t know what the ages will do with what passes for art these days.  I only know what I do with it.  Which is really a matter of not doing anything with it.

Some Cranky Aphorisms

If you have something to say, why not say it clearly?

If you have nothing to say, why are you writing?

A sequence of words, no matter how arranged, doesn’t always justify itself.

Art isn’t the deconstruction of meaning.

Perhaps deconstruction should be applied to itself.

THE EYES OF ALL NEED NOT WAIT UPON ME

He turned toward me

As if for comment, or what didn’t need to be said

To indict Borofsky’s words painted black on a white canvass

I want to be great

I, a Swedenborgian divinity student; he, a photographer married to a conceptual artist

 

The lust to be great is quite a thing different from what is

Great in se

Not likely to produce what is great

 

–What is great–

Greatness is a gift

Vibrational resonance on the sound-board heartstrings thrilling the ode

That is what is human

A gift to us all—co-cooperation—collective consciousness all-soul

That is we human solidarity together

It is great to share all together collected around

A Prime Mover of soul

As is to me Borofsky’s Hammering Man and Picasso’s Untitled in Chicago’s Daley Plaza

Condense what is human freely among the affairs of daily life

These are not what humans commonly thought are metrics of greatness

A publication, a work alive 100 years after the artist’s demise, to be a class in a university, a

critic’s nod, mass appeal

 

Peace breathes in the spirit attendant relaxation of the choke-hold that is

The lust for greatness

And insignificance be not a curse;

The eyes of all need not wait not upon me

The satisfactions of being a good man among our common men are great enough to sustain

To be happy with the faces that you meet

And perhaps to touch a soul or two or two or three among the faces that you meet

And to touch the sky in private

For you don’t have to be tall to see the moon

And to walk humbly with a soul or two or two or three

And to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God

A RAKE’S PROGRESS: A COMEDY IN TWO ACTS

Prologue:

When you are the tempest

You don’t notice the gale

Swirling tumult menace

 

In the calming after the threat

You shudder at what could have been

Destruction skirting rash choices, obnoxious, noxious

Act I:

For this life it was long life in schools,

For others it could be other—say, family, workplace, working the land, art

My academic life so much this life, persistent

How I absorbed—no—consumed knowledge

Guided and goaded through many books, no one could count how many books

Reasoning, disputing, inquiring, assimilating, dissipating in pubs after class

Academic identity, subjects discussed, discussing how to discuss

 

Learning to learn to continue to learn

Living to learn at leisure and pleasure

Learning to grow trying on life, lives

Trying a Hemingwayesque character (to become a man), or The Artist as a Young Man,

evolving into self

Yet it wasn’t the schools, the books, for this, my life

Nor would it be family, workplace, working the land, art alone for others

In a critical life worth living, not unexamined—passing time unaware

 

To see in a single vision the course of a life

While karma is lived out of developmental stages

Surrounded, bounded, encased within

The facts, the academic style, the collegial camaraderie

Do not make the personality’s lasting completion

Make person, mark lasting brain synapses firmware

Within the encounter with environment, the contours of self are carved

Not necessarily unchanged but the self, persistent

Act II:

A seed, a stem, a blossom, growth—becoming

The single flower—but is it?

From raging adolescence into combative adulthood

Through economic cooperation vocation teamwork

Emergence: genuine caring, community, the other

The shell that was learning and environment

Husking through what becomes self-development

In fact, new self, though persisting

 

The process of my formal education was

But a shell in which I formed.

The facts, forms of knowing, interlocutor interactions

Outside, the self incubating within the process

How ill-suited I was for a serious academic career

Working through the karma of a developing self,

Headstrong, too sure of a developing self

Indifferent to social norms—“What have I to do with thee?”

The wisdom I acquired was not in the books—the many books, no one could count the books

But in the crucible the walls of which were the process of my education

Epilogue:

In the calming after the threat

You shudder at what could have been

Destruction skirting rash choices, noxious, obnoxious

 

A narrow escape from who I was

 

The wisdom I acquired, and did become and am becoming,

And decorum, more or less, contours of cooperation—no—eco-operation

In sync.  Sympatico become peaceful and am becoming peaceful, become peace

DISCOVERING ART, ARTISTS

It’s taken me this many years, in my mature age

To understand, and, more, to enjoy Shakespeare

For in my younger years, I couldn’t, didn’t

I look forward to the delight in store for me

As play by play, I will open the heavy, leather volumes

Of Shakespeare in my home library

 

I recall, in my youth, my delight

As symphony by symphony, I discovered Beethoven

I recall my sadness, when there were no more symphonies to discover

Symphony by symphony, I had heard them all

Though I can still listen to them time and again

 

I recall, in early manhood, my delight

As novel by novel, I discovered Hemingway

I recall emulating Hemingway’s characters, Hemingway

As I was young, and searching for an identity

 

I recall, also in early manhood, my awe

As I viewed paintings in museums

That I had previously seen only as prints in books

And I could, can, view them time and again

 

So all these years, these good years

Bring me to the doorstep of Shakespeare

And like an eager youth, I anticipate

The delight in store for me

As play by play, I open the heavy, leather volumes

Of Shakespeare in my home library—

A surprising boon bestowed on my advanced years

A LITANY

The Keepers of intellectual trends hold apparent power

And to make it, some are slaves to the Keepers’ fashion

I am a free man to my own muse

I am a priest who intones the litany:

 

Blake was a free genius, self-published,

And died in literary obscurity

Until T. S. Eliot gave him a name

Shelley knew, “Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure”

Whom all English students now study

Though F. Scott knew fame and wealth,

Gatsby didn’t even sell out its first printing

And F. Scott never knew the book as all high school students do

They suppressed Hemingway’s Pulitzer

They fiercely debated whether Frost were a poet, Wyeth a painter

The Impressionists showed in the Exhibition of Rejects

And Moreau, in the National Paris Salon

Pollock had his 10 years, before his suicide

Mozart died unknown, unsung

 

We can’t give our contentment to the Keepers

It rests in the beauty of our art manifesting,

In the pen of the writer alone with paper or laptop screen,

And a  happy finished project

In the living-room, study, or dorm room

With, or without, the blessing of the Keepers

ODE TO THE NIGHT

I feel more at home, and love the dark of night

Then, my creativity, my psyche’s spark,

Flows into art and I drink in others’ insight

I love the peacefulness when everything is dark

 

Daylight is a threat to this contemplative

I strain to shut it out and turn into my mind

In night, the dark, the stillness lets my spirit live

And music, verse, and thought flow freely as the wind

 

I walk the night and love the darkness, the quiet

Day is noisy; light is a distraction

When I try to grasp a poem or express my spirit

Only nighttime gives my spirit satisfaction

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