“RED,” A PLAY ABOUT MARK ROTHKO BY JOHN LOGAN

By Paul M. Lewis

When the curtain goes up on John Logan’s play “Red,” we see Abstract Expressionist artist, Mark Rothko, sitting in a chair in his studio, smoking a cigarette. He is facing the audience, staring at something in front of him. We come to realize soon enough that this is one of his paintings (another is actually visible to the audience directly behind him). For anyone not familiar with Rothko’s later paintings—and the play mainly deals with these works of the 1950’s—they are iconically large canvasses consisting of juxtaposed floating colored rectangles on a darker background. Those referenced in this play are exclusively red and black.

Rothko’s newly hired young assistant, Ken, enters and stands behind him, ignored by the painter. After a few moments, we realize that Rothko does know Ken is there. Without even a glance in his direction, the painter asks him: “What do you see?” Ken, who is clearly in awe of the great man, much his senior both in years and in experience, replies innocently enough: “Red.” And the play is off and running.

The production my partner and I went to see recently took place at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, although we had already seen another version at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles a few years ago. Both productions were very well done, with the actors in each playing off their individual strengths and idiosyncrasies—greater forcefulness or anger in one portrayal of Rothko, more subtlety and intellectuality in another; youthful energy and verve in the part of Ken in one iteration, while more of an emphasis on innocence, morphing into maturation, in the other.

There is much discussion of the concept of red in this drama. Logan portrays Rothko as challenging his new helper to understand more deeply what is meant by the color, both in terms of its physical manifestations, as well as its psychological implications. Is there even any such a thing as red—simple red? Or is it, as Rothko points out, better thought of as: “plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral?” I suppose he could have added crimson, lobster, ruby, cherry, vermilion, cardinal, cuprite, and so on, as well. The point being that, to an artist, the über-category of red is of little use as an honest, visual description of the almost endless possibilities of physical reality.

Rothko and Ken then go back and forth in naming other categories of red that relate more directly to the feelings and emotions that the color can represent: passion, wine, lipstick, apples, rust on the bike on the lawn, an albino’s eyes, atomic flash, the Russian flag, the Chinese flag, the Nazi flag, red light district, red tape, rouge, viscera, flame, Santa Claus, blood, slash your wrists, and on and on. Slowly, Ken—to an extent our stand-in as audience members—begins to get the feeling of what Rothko means when he paints with “red.”

But there is also black. Big blocks of color that are again not merely of one hue, but are composed of browns and umbers, endless underpinnings of multifarious earth tones. We see coal and we see night; we see darkness and the symbolism of race, prejudice, bigotry and bias; the absence of light, the Stygian world, mourning, and of course death itself. But we also see the Cosmos, filled with light and only seemingly black because it reflects off of nothing, or nothing that registers with us at least.

And what happens when red and black are juxtaposed? There is an immediate play of one off the other, such that our eyes see what both is and what is not there. Logan has Rothko expound on the concept: “Look at the tension between the blocks of color: the dark and the light, the red and the black and the brown. They exist in a state of flux—of movement. They abut each other on the actual canvas, so too do they abut each other in your eye. They ebb and flow and shift, gently pulsating. The more you look at them the more they move…They float in space, they breathe..Movement, communication, gesture, flux, interaction; let them work…They’re not dead because they’re not static. They move through space if you let them, this movement takes time, so they’re temporal. They require time.”

Of course time is needed. Because we are talking about physical manifestation, about the world as it appears to us, as we live in it in our bodies, and this cannot be experienced except temporally. It’s there for now, but gone in another moment. We are here for a second, and then disappear again into the endlessness of Cosmic energy, only to come together once more in some other form. Matter cannot be created; neither can it be destroyed. It simply is, and can be perceived only by those whose very form has been cobbled together by its own seemingly random interaction. The subject matter of the play has to do with the nature of art. But if art is both a reflection and an enhancement of nature, a highly idiosyncratic while at the same time universalized vision thereof, then it is in that sense also a play more generally about the full panoply of the human experience.

Rothko, the man, was not without his flaws. He was arrogant, bombastic, argumentative, contentious, prideful, jealous, domineering, and conceited. He was so full of himself and lived so hermetically, so much in his own head, that he eschewed nature as being too messy. But he was also highly sensitive, energetic, insightful, intellectual, emotional, fearful, depressed, and of course ultra-talented. Given all this, the play may not be for everyone. If you don’t like long discourses on art, or contentious dialogue between master and apprentice, or Abstract Expressionism for that matter, this may not be what you might choose to spend your hard earned money on.

But if you are interested in exploring what art is, that elusive, fragile, delicate, phantasmagorical mix of the real world—whether it be paint, or canvas, or light, or clay, or physical movement, or words, or sound, or whatever the medium—and something else, some ultimately indefinable ethos of the human spirit, something pointing beyond humanity to another level altogether even more subtle, exquisite, elegant, refined, eternal, spiritual, if you will, then “Red” was written for you.

Also thrown front and center into the mix are questions of Rothko’s politics. We are reminded in the play of his social-revolutionary youth. His anti-establishment leanings did not sit well with gallery owners, museum curators, or even some of the rich who ultimately bought his paintings. One of the major turning points in the play, in fact, has to do with his struggle over the commission he received to paint murals for the famous—and famously rich and exclusive—Four Seasons Restaurant located in the new Seagram Building in New York City, for which he was paid handsomely (more, we are told, than any other commission in the history of modern art). In that sense, we are back once again with the conflict between light and dark, between artistic integrity and commercialism, idealism and money; we might even say, between red and black.

The family of Marcus Yokovlevitch Rothkowitz (his original name) moved to Portland, Oregon in 1913, when Rothko was only 10 years old, having fled the Cossacks and the pogroms of the old Russian Empire. Logan has him describe the neighborhood as a ghetto, filled with “thinky, talky Jews.” He was, of course, also himself in life both “thinky” and “talky.” He understood what it was to be the outsider, and he knew fear, tension, and the everlasting interplay of the opposites. Logan portrays how Rothko saw that movement was essential to growth, that the son succeeds the father, the apprentice takes over from the master, and that one art movement must kill off its predecessor (as much as he hated it, and railed against it, when Pop Art came to displace Abstract Expressionism).

Rothko will be remembered as a master of this tension, of strain and stress and the push-and-pull that so utterly enthralled and mystified him. I will not reveal how the play ends, except to say that it does so with an answer to a question. Although my own preference might have been to allow that question to hang in the air, unanswered, for us all to contemplate.

Rothko is famous for having said: “If you are moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” Who can fully plumb such questions? Can art, or even a great artist like Mark Rothko, ever reveal to us what is, in the end, indefinable, unfathomable, and ultimately unanswerable?

 

 

 

 

 

 

ICON AND MASK: WHEN IS AN OBJECT SACRED AND WHEN IS IT ART?

By Paul M. Lewis

Forty or more years ago, I purchased a late 17th century Russian icon of the type commonly referred to as the Mother of God of Kazan (Kazanskaya Bogomater). It depicts the Virgin Mother, holding her infant son, Jesus, who is facing directly outward, with His right hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. I have no idea as to the provenance (i.e. the exact origin and history) of this particular piece, how it left Russia (in the hastily thrown-together luggage of a wealthy aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks?), or how it eventually wound up in Chicago, where I bought it. But it’s not a stretch to think that it may have originally resided in a church somewhere in central Russia. Whatever its exact origins, it was undoubtedly an object of worship. People would typically come before such an icon, stand there in silent prayer, imploring the Mother of God for help or favors, or thanking her for gifts already bestowed. Nor would it have been uncommon for devout parishioners to bow low before the icon, reverently crossing themselves in the Russian manner. People did so especially before beginning a journey, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the late sixteen hundreds in Russia, asking for protection along the way.

Today, hung on a wall in our home here in Long Beach, California, it is no longer an object of worship. At least, I do not bow low before the Virgin, nor do I ask her for protection before leaving the house to go on a trip. And no one lights candles in front of it. Instead, anyone who visits us and sees the painting surely assumes that it is displayed as a piece of art. As such, it does have its own great beauty. The expression on the face of the Holy Mother is one of sublime quietude, exuding a kind of peace that comes only from the inner certainty of knowing who one is and of being unfailingly comfortable with that knowledge. The Child Jesus, on the other hand, looks more like a miniature adult than a young boy. Was this because the icon painter was depicting Him as born mature and fully developed, mentally, emotionally and of course spiritually, or was it a simple issue of artists of his day not knowing how to portray children, as children? Icons, at any rate, are always painted in a highly stylized manner; that is their nature, their greatest beauty and, to some, their greatest drawback. People sometimes complain that they do not look realistic—of course not, they were never intended to! Icon painters meant to portray the figures they painted as beings who reside on a far higher and more elevated plane of consciousness, well above the tediousness and pettiness of the quotidian.

But the principal question that concerns me here is not icons per se. Rather, it is this: When is something a sacred object, and when is it merely (unless that word is thought to be offensive in this context) a piece of art? Just last week, an auction took place in Paris in which a number of sacred masks of the Hopi Nation were on offer. The sale took place in spite of pleas by tribal elders, as well as on the part of US embassy officials, not to allow it to happen. Traditional Hopis consider such masks not mere representations of spiritual beings, but as the actual embodiment of them. Even taking photos of them is considered highly questionable. When under tribal control, they are never displayed casually, only ceremonially, at a time when these sacred beings are experienced as actually visiting the people and offering assistance. No self-respecting Hopi would ever dream of hanging such a mask on the wall, as a piece of art. Yet, there is little doubt that most buyers intend to do just that. Nor is this the first time such an auction has taken place in Paris.

So, are these masks, which undoubtedly possess a profundity and an utterly mysterious beauty all their own, to be considered as art (merely), or as sacred objects that should be returned to the tribe, where they are part of millennia-old cultural and religious traditions? The government of France ruled that they could be sold as art, to the great disappointment of the Hopi. Again, the question remains, when is an object sacred and when is it a piece of art? And, if I’m being frank about it, I suppose another similar question might also be asked: How do the Hopi masks differ in any substantive way from the icon of the Holy Mother of God, displayed on the dining room wall of our house? Are my partner and I guilty, too, of religious and cultural insensitivity?

In a very interesting article in the June 25, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, Julian Bell discusses a recent work depicting a long conversation about the nature of art between Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. De Montebello was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for thirty-one years, and Gayford is a well-known British art critic. In the book, entitled Rendez-vous with Art, the director of the Met makes this provocative statement: “I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.”

What can be made of such a statement, and what connection, if any, does it have to the question of distinguishing between the sacred and the artistic? The concept of redemption certainly sounds religious. It would seem to imply the need for, or the act of, being saved from something. Sin and evil are the usual suspects. Or did de Montebello mean to make reference more to ignorance than to sin? But if art saves nothing and no one, sacred objects, on the other hand, are purported to have redemptive power, at least for those who believe in their transcendental efficacy. I remember once reading that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, said he had been asked if a picture of a particular Indian saint would be a protection for an individual who held it. His reply was: “If you believe it is a protection, it is a protection. If not, it’s only a simple photo.” Should this suggest to us that the sacredness of an object is not inherent within the object itself, but rather within the consciousness of the person coming into contact with it? Perhaps so. Or is it too much to think that art in and of itself, at its best, really ought to be considered sacred? In fact, can an object ever be both sacred and artistic, or must we think of them as one or the other?

We are conditioned, most of us anyway (ISIS fighters not withstanding), to have at very least a special kind of reverence for art. This is so whether we think of it literally as sacred or not. The Giotto altarpiece on the wall of a museum in Florence, the seated statue of the Lord Buddha taken from Angkor Wat by French explorers, and the Maya bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl ripped from the wall of a temple in the Yucatán all were once considered to be sacred objects. Displayed in museums today, or in the homes of wealthy art collectors, they appear to have lost that connection to the sacred. Or have they, and does it matter how the viewer perceives the objects, how she or he thinks of and interacts with them?

To most modern people, the answer may be as simple as knowing that once an object is in a museum, it is—more or less by definition—considered to be art, and therefore, not sacred, at least not in the normal meaning of that term. Although that still may depend on one’s religious beliefs. Devout Christians might consider the Giotto altarpiece sacred no matter where it is displayed, though probably not the Buddha, and certainly not Quetzalcoatl. Even so, if we think back to the original etymology of the term “sacred,” it refers to a thing that possesses power, and this power could be considered either as holy or as accursed. In this sense, who is to say that art, as we think of it today, doesn’t have its own kind of secular sacredness?

I know that I still think of the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Kazan as having its own brand of power. I don’t necessarily think of it as a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Christian lore. But I do think of it as a kind of illustration of the feminine aspect of the Divine Spirit. And if even that is too much, why not as a representation of universal motherhood, or the enormous mystery and power of creation itself?

Sacred or not, if art is to be felt at all, it surely has to have power, that is, a numinous kind of mystery about it that cannot ever be fully explained by the things of the intellect. Otherwise, what potency, and what effect, does it have? This is not in any way meant to argue against the Hopi, who I believe have every right to sue the French government for infringement of their rights. But it does speak to the question of whether or not there is a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the artistic. Depending on your point of view, in the end, that may truly be a thing that resides in the mind of the beholder.

SOME THOUGHTS ON ART

By Paul

I have to admit up front that I haven’t actually seen the show, but I was struck recently when I read a review by Deborah Vankin in the Los Angeles Times’ Arts and Books section (Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014) of an exhibit at LA’s Hammer Museum.  According to curator Anne Ellegood, the show, entitled Take It or Leave It, “explor(es) the intersection of art appropriation and institutional critique.”   In case you are unfamiliar with the term “art appropriation,” as I was, it appears to describe either a kind of repurposing of an object, or a referencing, either directly or indirectly, of another piece of art by an artist who is creating something new.  Some examples of pieces in the show include a giant, unadorned gingerbread house, looking (at least in the photo) a little like a kind of forlorn fairytale log cabin, and another, a towering artwork consisting entirely of text, which states: “You are here to get cultured.  To get smarter, richer, younger, angrier, funnier, skinnier, hipper, hotter, wiser, cuter, and kinder.”

In part, the exhibit and the review both attempt to explore the age-old question of what art is.  And while there can probably be no definitive answer to that question, the query is big enough to allow for lots of musing on the parts of artists, museum curators, art critics, and I suppose the general public, too.  For example, do we consider to be art an installation that consists of “jars of seafood, which he (the artist – Mark Dion) bought in a New York fish market and preserved in alcohol.  They’re meticulously lined on a shelf in a scientific fashion, as if on display at a natural history museum.”  The gist of this, and other pieces in the exhibit, appears to be an attempt to create a kind of dialog between the quotidian and the world of the creative imagination, between artist and public, including the museum itself, about what is meant by art and how and by whom it is created.  Andrew Freeman, a professor from CalArts who is quoted in the article, sees merit in appropriation, but admits too that “(i)t’s easily misunderstood.  An appropriation is putting ideas in front of skill.”

Now, that is interesting, I thought.  Can the idea behind the art be more important than its execution and presentation?  Or is art more about thinking (i.e. ideas), and perhaps less about doing?   All this led me to my own musing about art.  I have done so before, but the notions presented in this particular review (and presumably in the show itself) were provocative enough to get me going once again.  So what, I thought, does it take for something to be considered art?  What raises it above the everyday and puts it into this higher, more rarefied category of human endeavor?

For something to be considered art (as opposed to the ordinary or the accidental), I thought, we must have some kind of an infusion of the artist’s thinking or emoting, some personal vision that the artist uses, while manipulating the chosen medium, such that the medium then allows others a glimpse of that artistic vision (whatever it may be) in the product so created.  If that at least gets somewhat at the notion of what art is, I thought, then could it include jars of fish in alcohol lined up on a shelf (so long as the thing was done with artistic intent)?

Of course, this very general statement about art also immediately gives rise to the question of whether art that is not seen by others (or heard or otherwise experienced using any of the human senses) is art at all.  Put another way, can the artist create solely for him or herself alone, absent any desire or intention to share it with the other?  And while the answer, at least in the abstract, is probably “yes,” my belief is that, for the most part, indeed in almost all cases, artists create SO THAT others may in some way experience both the artist him/herself and his or her creation in a way that is both special and unique, indeed in such a way as cannot be experienced except in and through the interaction with that art.  I think this is true even if the artist says he or she does not care if anyone ever sees the piece created, or if he or she claims not to care a whit what others may think or feel or say about their art.  Otherwise, why create a perceivable product in the first place?  Why not simply think about what might be made in the total privacy of one’s own mind, and never “give it birth,” as it were, in the physical world?  It seems to me that the very act of putting something out there in the physical and perceivable universe presupposes a desire (even if that desire is deeply hidden or held largely unconsciously) to communicate to others the artist’s personal and uniquely idiosyncratic vision contained within the piece.  And if it doesn’t communicate this, then it is legitimate for us to ask how successful a piece of art it is (surely, there is “good art” and “bad art,” no?).

Another way of putting all this is that art cannot be art UNLESS it is put into some physically perceivable form.  Therefore, the artist cannot truly, or at least not fully, create except in the actual process of rendering his or her vision in a perceivable form.  Art, in other words, is not art UNTIL it is somehow presented in the material world.  Otherwise, it is just thinking about art, and not the thing itself.  Therefore, some may say, the artist has no choice but to render it “visible” (or auditory etc.), if he or she wishes to make art at all.  Does this then render mute the argument above, that artists who do not care if their work is ever experienced by others could simply “think their art” and never give it form?  The counter-argument would be that one who wishes to make art, which I claim must in some form be perceivable, would not go to the trouble of doing so unless he or she wanted it perceived.  Perceived only by him/herself?  Again, I think the likelihood is no, and for the same reasons as I list above.  Why create art at all except to in some way communicate a vision to the world of the artist’s absolutely individual and distinctive vision of the world, or some part thereof.  All art is sui generis, of its own kind, and if not, if it is only a pale replica of someone else’s personal and ultimately unrepeatable creativity, then it hardly seems worth doing at all (except perhaps by way of learning the foundations of a how to manipulate a given medium, after which the emerging artist goes on to create in his or her own special style).

Getting back to the subject of the LA Times art review, I thought it interesting that the exhibit was entitled “Take It or Leave It.”  It’s a provocative title, to be sure, and perhaps an ambiguous one, as well.  On the one hand, it could refer to an almost cynical attitude on the part of the artist regarding what people “out there” think or feel about his or her creation.  The sort of notion that seems to say, well, if you don’t get it, so much the worse for you.  On the other hand, it could also reference the very materials of the art exhibited, the gingerbread, the jars of fish in alcohol, or stuffed animals on a table (sock puppets and knitted sea creatures) etc.  To quote Andrew Freeman once again, the professor from CalArts, “You could look at the work and say, ‘He put a bunch of stuffed animals on a table’ – they don’t see evidence of his artistic hand.  But it looks like he’s talking about childhood and sexuality and projection.  It’s not meant to be a toy but psychoactive.”

Do most of us, unschooled as we may be, really consider sock puppets on a table to be a work of art, psychoactive or otherwise?  I guess it depends on what you mean by art.  Which is more or less where I started.  I’m not sure I’m any clearer now than I was before, and I will not revert to saying that I can’t describe what it is, but I know it when I see it.  Sometimes, to be honest, it takes me time to really recognize what art is, to understand not just the idea behind it, but the medium, as well.  The first modern dance piece I ever saw was a complete mystery to me, but I have since over the years been privileged to witness what I can only consider to be great masterpieces of the craft. In other words, I’ve come to know the medium a little better.  So, there is something to be said for “schooling,” even if it is of the informal type, that is, just over and over going and looking and listening.

But in the meantime, I find myself a little turned off by artists (and museums) that appear to dismiss me as naïve, if I don’t “get” it immediately. I don’t know if, by going to this exhibit, I’d be any hipper, or smarter, or wiser; definitely not richer, or cuter, or (God help us) skinnier!  But take it or leave it?  Maybe I will, but not until I’ve thought about it, and made an honest attempt to reach my own conclusions.

 

ART AND CREATIVITY: CAN THERE BE A DEFINITION?

By Paul

I was very impressed by Kevin’s latest blog posting below having to do with nudity in art, and read it with interest.  In so doing, I learned a great deal about how an artist thinks, especially a visual artist, and about how he or she works, to say nothing of the kinds of things that occupy the mind of the artist during the creative process.  I was also educated regarding the history of nudity in art, and what it may mean for the artist, him or herself, as well as for those who view the art, not just contemporaries, but those who come after, as well.

I found one passage very interesting, indeed, which I quote here:  “If the artist approaches an erotic or pornographic subject or certainly just nudity with the intention of making an object that is more than simply sexual, then in my book it is art. If the vision of the artist peers through a lens of irony, humor, idealism, heightened or altered reality, social commentary, formal abstraction or other clearly artistic sensibilities, then the art cannot be merely pornographic. It must be more. It is art.”

What struck me, among many other things, about this quote is that I believe it begins to get at a sense of not just what makes nudity in art artistic, but it even starts to delve into an understanding of what art itself may be.

I promised Kevin, in personal correspondence, that I would not attempt a definition of what art is, and I will keep that promise in this posting as well.  Philosophers have written unwieldy tomes about the subject, and artists themselves have spilt more ink than perhaps they ought to have on it.  Who, therefore, am I to attempt as much in a short essay?

Yet I believe it is a legitimate object of intellectual inquiry to think about what art is.  I have in fact often wondered in my own personal musings what makes something art, and what makes something else not art.  We cannot simply say, to be sure, that it is because of the technical skill of the artist (for simplicity’s sake, I will speak here mostly of visual art).  Nor can it only be reduced to the intention of the artist.  If that were the case, then Thomas Kinkade’s paintings could be thought of as rivaling Picasso’s, which surely most people realize that they do not.  Kinkade had great technical skill, and the quantity of paintings he produced in his lifetime certainly speak to his intention and determination.  It turns out, however, that his paintings are more greeting card decorations than what could be thought of as real art.

But why is that the case?  What is it about Kinkade’s paintings that make them, let us say, merely decorative pieces, and not “real art,” and what about Picasso’s paintings do make them art?  That is, of course, if you agree even with the premise that Kinkade’s oeuvre is not art, at least not – let us say – in this truer or higher sense.

My perspective is that for a piece, a painting for example, to reach the level where informed viewers might think of it as truly art, there have to be a couple of things happening.  Aside from training (very broadly defined, including being self-taught), or at least experience, and some kind of technical ability, some facility with the tools of the trade and of the chosen medium, which virtually any artistic effort demands, for a creation to rise to the level of art it seems to me that it must draw from a deeper place in the creator’s psyche.  How exactly we define that, or even what we call it, becomes less of a definitive thing.  Some have variously referred to this “deeper place” within our psyche as the unconscious, the superconscious, the chthonic, the intuitive, the subliminal, or even the spiritual (again, very broadly defined, but not necessarily the religious, to be sure!).  When I say subliminal, for example, I am referring to a word that comes from the original Latin, “limen,” which means a threshold.  Something that is sub-liminal, then, is what is below the threshold of normal, everyday understanding, a thing that gets at and to a more profound place within ourselves (both the artist and the viewer).  It must pass beyond the everyday logical way we normally see the world, and get at the guts of the matter.  Whatever the matter may be.

Real art, great art, it seems to me, must be a thing that exists on the fringe of our understanding, on that narrow ledge between order and chaos.  And yet, it is a thing that will at the same time be somewhat grasped by our normal, everyday knowledge and comprehension; indeed, it must in some way be comprehensible to us in these terms.  This is the trick, because if it is so esoteric as to be beyond any connecting with us, then it misses its own point, which is in some way to communicate, even to communicate what cannot be fully communicated, not on the solely rational level anyway.  Otherwise, we are utterly baffled, and therefore excluded from what it ought to be able to give to us.  But it must equally touch on and pull from a part of us that we, ourselves, may not be totally aware of, a part that both surpasses mere logic and the day-to-day prosaic use of language.  It emanates instead from the unspoken, the unarticulated, the not fully articulatable, the hidden, that part of us which knows before we know, which perceives before we see, and which delights in life, in all of its glorious and horrifying mystery.

Art, then, is a kind of masterful, and in the end not fully definable, balancing act.  I say not fully definable because if we could define it, that is, if we could somehow reduce it to a set of limited, quantifiable characteristics, then it would, by definition, be part of that workaday world of what we know, or what we think we know.  But it is not.  Art is that not-fully-graspable something that straddles and encompasses both the known and the unknown.   And both parts must be present in order for us to reach that magical moment of mystery which we all know when we stand, tongue-tied and baffled, in front of it.

Does one stand so, tongue-tied, in front of a Kinkade?  I can say that I do not, although perhaps there are some who do.  Some may even ask who am I to say that their Kinkadian experience of transcendence is any less than mine in front of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (harkening back to Kevin’s example)?

Does this, then, bring us limping back to a belief that art is what we think it is (the old adage of it being in the eye of the beholder)?  In the end, I think not.  At least, I hope not.  I hope that an appreciation of great art must also assume some experience that is not limited simply to having seen the Thomas Kinkades of the world, but instead to a wider and deeper exposure to the greatness in human achievement that is out there.  And I am not, I hope it goes without saying, speaking only of what we normally think of as the acceptable European canon.  No!  I also mean the great masks of the aboriginal peoples of the world, for example, which were never made to be thought of as “art” (as the term is used in the West); I mean naïve, so-called primitive art of self-taught artists from every culture; I mean any art, of whatever form, format, or medium that connects with those deepest places within our innermost being; I mean all of the great (if “undiscovered”) masterpieces that burst forth and instruct us about what cannot be taught, that delight, that frighten, that perplex, that confound, that dumbfound, that bemuse, bewilder and throw us off balance, that challenge our frightened need for what is comfortable, for what is familiar, for what is acceptable and expected.

There may, in fact, be no possibility of a handy definition for what art is.  And that is good.  That is exactly as it should be.  But if we learn to somehow recognize true art (and I think it is possible to do so), both for what it connects us to and for what it does and what it does not do, then we are, in the end, at least that much closer to also knowing what real art is not.

THE SACRED, THE DECORATIVE, AND THE REVELATORY IN ART

By Paul

It was common practice among early Pueblo Indians, as well as many other indigenous peoples the world over, to “kill” a pot or other ritual object when it was no longer deemed to be part of the life of the family, clan, or larger community.  A hole would ritually be drilled through its base, and this “living being” would then be considered to have “died.”  From this we can deduce two things:  first, much more than plants and animals were (and still are) considered to be alive by many indigenous people, and two, objects created by and for people could take on a spiritual life of their own.

The issue, which may appear quaint or odd to so-called modern people, still in fact resonates today.  Just last week, for example, the French auction house Drouot sold off dozens of Native American objects, most of them belonging to the Hopi Tribe, in spite of the pleas and the lawsuit brought by both tribal elders and US government officials.  The 70 or so objects, mostly masks, that were auctioned off realized $1.2 million.  One mask alone, referred to as “Mother Crow” brought in over $200,000.  The objects had been “removed” from the Arizona reservation in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.  How, why, or with whose permission, or lack thereof, is not clearly known.

Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet, as reported in an LA Times article dated Saturday, April 13, 2013, entitled “French Auction Defies Tribe,” said that he was “happy that French law had been respected.”  No mention was made of “Hopi law,” but we can surmise that the tribe was not as happy about the outcome of the matter as was Monsieur Neret-Minet.

One obvious question all this raises is, when is an object considered a piece of art (an “object d’art”), and when is it considered something legitimately held sacred by people, and therefore removed from the world of market-based negotiations?  Would it be all right with Drouot, for example, or with the French Government, or with people in general to sell the Shroud of Turin as a piece of art, rather than holding it, as many believe, to be the sacred and inviolable image of Jesus, imprinted by Christ, Himself, on the way to Calvary?

Enlarging the question somewhat, we can ask ourselves what actually constitutes art, and what constitutes the sacred?  Is there, indeed, a difference between the two, and if so, what is that difference?  We could even extend the questioning to ask when is something merely decorative, and when is it thought of as “high art”?   Some museums have whole sections dedicated to the so-called “Decorative Arts,” which suggests that curators and art historians the world over do see a difference.  That essential difference, as many would maintain, seems to hinge on whether or not the object could have been considered “useful” in some way.  In other words, “high art” is not useful, at least not in the everyday sense of that term, and is instead considered as a thing apart from the quotidian.  And yet a priceless Greek amphora, let us say, marvelously preserved and beautifully painted (i.e. “decorated”), would probably not be considered to be merely “decorative art.” This is so, even though its original use was merely as a kind of vessel to hold wine or some other such commodity.  Can we conclude then that it might not be thought of as “merely decorative” because of the antiquity of the object, or its market value, or simply because people the world over perceive it to be a thing of surpassing beauty?

The walls separating these various categories, in other words, are not as clear-cut as they would at first seem.  Many anthropologists and students of world culture have noted that even the word “art” itself is not a term that exists in the lexicon of the majority of indigenous peoples.  That is to say, things are not made by them for the sole purpose of sitting on a shelf, or merely to be hung on a wall, but because they are organic participants in the spiritual and the psycho-social lives of the people.  In many traditional instances, masks were ritually “put to bed” after particular ceremonies in which they were worn, and during which the individual wearing the mask became one with the spiritual being it embodied.  There the masks remained until, in due course of time, the moment came for that spirit to again reappear and assist the tribe in some specific way.

It was only as societies became organized on a grander scale that objects were begun to be made by specialists, and eventually by “artists,” who later came to think of them as expressions of their own private and personal artistic vision.  But note even here the use of the word vision.  And does that not in some sense harken back to the ability to “see” into another world, another dimension, another reality, akin to but different from our normal world, and which can either help or hinder the life of the individual or the community?   As recently as the nineteenth century, for example, monastic painters creating Russian icons would never dream of signing their work.  That was because it was considered a sacred task, not a “personal expression,” and the “object” created was in some real sense the embodiment of the holy image it portrayed.  The same could be said regarding so-called religious art in virtually every culture of the world.

To the modern mind, art today is mostly about either the private and the personal, or the political.  And we do not claim that it represents, or certainly that it embodies, anything more than its creator meant.  That, and of course, any interpretation and speculation either on the part of art experts or of the public in general as to its meaning.   In most cases, though, that representation is not normally thought of as sacred.  Why?  Perhaps in part at least because we have lost the knowledge or the feel of the sacred in today’s world.  And it has been replaced by – might I even say reduced to? – the manifestation and the insight of a given individual about him or herself.

Even so, it is not at all unusual for people to think of contemporary artists as gifted in some special way, as possessing insights and perceptions that go beyond the ordinary.  Great art, as least as I understand it, both plunges to the depths and rises to the highest heavens.  It cuts through and helps us to experience a profundity of feeling that is beyond what any of us can normally experience or express in our everyday lives.  And I am not talking here only of the plastic arts, so called, such as painting or sculpture or even film, but of music, literature, theater and dance, as well.  The best of the best embodies something that it alone can express, and only in its unique way, which can then reach across the unspoken divide between its own vision, transferring itself into the hearts and minds and spirits of those viewing, or otherwise experiencing it.

And is this so very different from the great “Mother Crow” mask of the Hopi, ignominiously sold in a recent Paris auction?  In one sense, and perhaps taken to the extreme, could we not even say that no art ought ever to be sold, since it is (ideally) the embodiment of a particular vision of that which is beyond price.  Of course, we all know that this is not the modern world we live in, and that artists also must provide for their own living and make their way in the world.  I only mention this at all in order to highlight the fact that all true art is, or can in some sense be, sacred.

One of the great ironies, not to say discourtesies, of the story of the sale of the Hopi masks is that tribal tradition never even allowed photos to be taken of them.  Again, it should be emphasized that, at least by the Hopi, these are not considered “art.”  They were never meant to be objects hung on a wall and admired; they are the embodiment of otherworldly beings, who have come to us in order to help in some specific way.  The LA Times article itself, in fact, even references that these masks were to be kept out of public view, and that it was considered “sacrilegious even for pictures of the objects to be shown.”  And yet – and yet – there at the top of the article, proudly displayed, if I may say so, are four photos of the very masks themselves!  What are we to make of this?  Is it merely an example of ignorance, or of arrogance or even provocation, or of some subtle, but deliberate, kind of editorial statement on the part of the paper about what art ought to be?

One way or another, the more general question remains, whether art is a private and personal expression of the individual who creates it, and who can therefore sell it, or otherwise dispose of it, since it belongs to that creator her or himself.  Or is it an unspeakable and ineffable representation of a higher order that both permeates and transcends the day-to-day reality we live in?  Is it, in other words, sacred or profane, decorative or of a higher order, societally or self referential, or is it revelatory of some unexplained and unexplainable metaphysical/spiritual essence?  Or, yet again, some highly idiosyncratic, mysterious and mystical combination of any and all of the above?

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the answer depends on what you think of yourself, of the world you live in, and of what you believe exists, or does not exist, beyond the boundaries of the everyday sphere we normally think of as home.

ART AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN

By Paul

I have often thought about what the definition of art might be. What could such a concept mean? It appears so grand, at least much of the time, to our everyday selves, so beyond the ken of the ordinary, and therefore so elusive, so elevated, so noble, so distinguished – well, so magnificent. The latter word, itself, coming ultimately from its original Latin roots, “magnus” and “facere,” meaning “great” and “to make.” Does not art, in fact, have to do with the making of great things?

Is there, then, a single definition of what art is? One that can span the chasm of all the possible forms that art, as we normally think of it, can take? Indeed, can such a high-minded thing as art, so grand a concept, if that is what it is, ever be pinned down to anything as prosaic as what we might think of as a definition. Definitions, after all, help us understand things, help us grasp them, and does such a notion not fly in the very face of art as being a thing beyond the grasp of us ordinary mortals?

We are, surely, most of us, determinedly concerned with the diurnal, with the day to day business of living, and making a living, of taking care of our usual, and our usually not so distinguished, needs, as well as the needs of our loved ones around us. But if we were to know what art is, if we secretly dared to define it, then suddenly it might come within our grasp. It would be as if the preeminence of on high were to visit the humdrum tedium of the conventional, as if a Great Light were to be shined, not onto darkness perhaps, but instead onto what we might call the dim twilight of our unremarkable lives.

Or, am I wrong? Is there truly such a thing as an unremarkable life? Could we equally not say that all life, as it were by definition, is itself remarkable, wholly special, meaningfully individual, and deeply significant in itself? As Whitman remarks so beautifully: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, and I have said that the body is not more than the soul, and nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.”

But here, are we not treading upon dangerous ground? Are we, seemingly, about to conflate the notions of art and spirit? Or Art and Spirit, if you wish. And if there is one thing we modern people know, it is that art and religion have long ago parted company, if ever in fact they truly walked together hand in hand on this long-suffering earth. The art of the past, while often, or even mostly, religious in expression, was perhaps largely so because conventional churches had power and prestige, and the money that accompanies both. As such, religious leaders could call the shots. They were able to determine what was created, by whom, and what was to be seen where. It follows as the day the night, then, that they had a natural wish to underpin and undergird the very myths and stories which gave them authority and influence in the first place.

Some would say that, if art is anything, it must be a reflection of its time. Or else, how can it speak to anyone living in those times, how can its language translate, as it were, across the ages? But, in fact, we know that great art does bridge the gap of time. Who cannot, for example, look at the Apollo Belvedere, or the statue of Laocoön and his sons fighting the writhing serpent, or Michelangelo’s David, or those enormous Olmec Heads standing and gazing out into mystery, or Shiva Nataraja of the Cosmic Dance in perfect balance between spirit and nature, and not feel in some deep sense what its creator felt?

And let us not forget art this is more ephemeral either. Let us not neglect all of the great masks created in straw or fiber or wood, made by what so-called civilized people have scornfully and arrogantly dared to call primitives, some of whose works have come down to us through the ages, but much of which has perished on the garbage heap, or in the fire of war and the bigotry and violence of one culture eliminating another. Neither ought we to forget the great art of dance, and all of its attendant arts, of lighting and of costuming for example, some of which again clings to tenuous time, as do the ballets of Europe still performed today and a few of the classics of Modern Dance, but much of which passes away with the passing of one great choreographer or another into the depths of unreachable eternity.

Is, therefore, permanence necessary for art? Hardly, it would seem. As even those things we think of as permanent, that made of marble or other stone, or painted upon canvas, or written upon tablets or paper preserved in our libraries, or in the so-called “cloud” of modern electronic media magic, all too will someday perish, as surely as did the melting idol, burnt at the destructive hand of the disdainful priest of yet another jealous idol, all too temporarily replacing it. No, art may be long and life short, as the old Latin saying tells us – ars longa, vita brevis – but in the larger scheme, art too struts its gorgeous stuff all too briefly on the larger and broader stage of life. It exists but for a moment, along with those who created it, as well as those who saw, appreciated, and were perhaps for a time moved, or touched, or uplifted by it.

Art and humanity, of course, cannot be separated. As glorious and as truly magnificent as are all the other creatures of the earth, none makes art as do people. And yet, of course, we too are animals, roiling in the dust and dirt of our daily lives, toiling and rutting and worrying until we drop from exhaustion, wondering, if we are fortunate enough, for a brief moment what we have done and why. But humans are surely more than that, too. Are we also not in our essence and at our very core great luminous beings, hidden away from each other and from our own selves in temporary bodies of flesh? As such, we are capable of experiencing life in its deepest, most intimate, as well as its most visceral form.

Yes, there is no doubt we are always and everywhere full of the play of opposites, expressing both the highest and the lowest, able to accomplish everything from the greatest acts of kindness and compassion to the meanest deeds of degradation, from the grandest works of art to the most hideous and horrifying destruction. This is, after all, what it means to live in the physical world, a place of incalculable beauty and wonder, and of the most profound imperfection and of all manner of failing.

Even so, there are times when it seems we are capable of seeing up and beyond, or if you prefer, deeply within. The metaphor itself is not as important as the act. It is this seeing that is the essence of art, or at least its beginning. Beyond that then comes how we speak of it, for to be truly representative of this depth of vision, we must summon some kind of thoughtful, and thought out, expression thereof. Art must surely not be a thing dashed off in a haphazard moment, but something prepared, constructed, assembled using both emotion and intellect, and worked on in a fully conscious way. Inspiration may be the beginning of art, but only discipline can complete it. And I am not talking here of words only, for we are doubtless capable of speaking in every medium, and using every tool at our disposal.

A single definition of art must, therefore, encompass these notions, these ideas, these profound truths, all of which point, however imperfectly, to a meaning that shows that we are somehow more than what we at first may seem to be. Indeed, if in the end art is not the external, disciplined expression of what is ultimately internal and transcendent in the human heart, then I confess that I do not know what it is.

IN AWE OF CREATION

Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul”

By Paul

A couple of things have surfaced recently to make me think of one of my favorite painters of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  

Caravaggio, as he is simply known to most of us today, merely by the name of the town in which he was born around 1571, was an artistic genius of almost unbounded proportions, a great lover of life in all its varied permutations, and a murderer.  We know for sure that he did wind up killing someone, although the reasons and circumstances surrounding the act remain somewhat unclear.  He lived in Rome, and in a number of other Italian cities, depending on where he got commissions, or on whom he was hiding from at any given moment.  Some biographers minimize or completely shy away from the fact that he was also a lover of boys (and women too probably), but I see no reason why they would do that.  It fits perfectly into his character, which was one of thumbing his nose at many societal constraints, while at the same time being smart enough to use the social construct of the age to his best advantage.  He received a number of his commissions directly from the Catholic Church, and many of his most famous paintings remain in churches today.  

The two things that have recently brought Caravaggio and his life to mind are, first of all, a review that I read not long ago entitled “Empathy,” by William Kaiser, of a new biography of the painter, published in the Oct. 25, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.  The biography itself is called “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane,” by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Norton, 514 pp).  The other thing that makes me think of this great Renaissance rascal of a painter is the piece that my friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, posted on the blog site recently. 

If I were to attempt to summarize in a few words Kevin’s posting on why artists create art, I think I would say this: it is because they have to.  Caravaggio even went on painting while on the run from the authorities, who were in hot pursuit for the charge of murder that hung over his head.  He went from city to city in Italy, and even to Malta, all the while keeping one step ahead of the law, stopping long enough to create things of astonishing beauty and to earn a few florins to keep body and soul together, until he inally died of a fever, alone and friendless, in the town of Porto Ercole, just south of Florence, in 1610. 

It is also true that, during his lifetime, Caravaggio did receive a good deal of praise and recognition from his contemporaries.  His friend, Marzio Milesi, even went so far as to write in his epitaph, “in painting not equal to a painter, but to Nature itself.”  I would quibble with this to the extent that, in my view, Caravaggio never tried to equal nature (or Nature), but instead to infuse his own view of life (or Life) into his paintings.  In the end, therefore, the paintings wound up being something more like “Nature Plus,” in the same way that a painting is never the equal (being both better and not better) than a photograph, or even more so, than the actual, physical scene being portrayed.      

But what if no one recognizes your paintings as somehow worthwhile?  What if the world finds you, not objectionable, but unnoticeable?  Would Caravaggio have continued to paint, for example, if the Church, or other wealthy benefactors, had not given him both recognition and the money that flowed from it?  No one can really answer that question, I suppose, but my guess is that he would have found a way to do so.  Of course, things were very different in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when he was painting, and it might have been extremely difficult for someone like Caravaggio to be able even to buy paints and other materials, let alone to afford room and board, unless he sold his paintings.  Today, many artists earn their keep either by teaching art (although as Kevin says, rightly I think, “teaching is not painting”), or by doing something else entirely.  

A case might well be made for the fact that the Renaissance provided great opportunities for artists of all stripes to pursue their art, while the modern world does not.  In doing so, of course, they had to follow the requirements of the time and, for the most part at any rate, depict so-called religious material.  Occasionally, they could get away with doing a painting of a Greek or Roman god, but such depictions were minor in number compared to the Biblical scenes which were the norm.  Great artists, like Caravaggio, however, were able to rise above such limitations and succeeded in somehow showing us more than the painting itself depicted.  Take, for example, a painting called “the Conversion of St. Paul.”  It seems to me that the horse, not Paul, is at the center of this painting.  That is the first thing our eyes light on, not the prone and blinded figure of the Apostle to the Gentiles.  My personal reading of this is that Caravaggio is telling us that the world is paramount for most of us most of the time.  It is also enormously powerful and beautiful beyond measure.  The light shinning on the stead’s side and his haunches is its own kind of miracle, and the power and grace of the animal is almost beyond measure.  Yet we humans do all we can to control those natural forces (the horse is bridled and held in place by a groom).  And it also happens that we are occasionally dumbstruck, thrown, as it were, blinded by something that is beyond our control and our understanding, by something utterly sublime.  

I believe that it is this combination of the love of all that the natural world is and represents for us, this attempt at depiction (vain, always vain, but nonetheless tried over and over again), along with the blinding Light of Vision that hurls us to the ground and makes us throw our hands up in awe, that is the nexus of what makes for great art.

Such power cannot be contained.  It is for these reasons, as Kevin says, that art – and I would add authentic creation of any kind – in the end supersedes all need even for recognition.  It bursts forth entirely of its own, it erupts, it nails us to the wall, and if we don’t do something about it, it crushes us with the enormity of its force and power.  That “doing something about it” is what I call art.  For artists, for all of us who feel the call for creation, it’s not just a requirement in the same sense as food or even sex, but it is instead something akin to air.  Breathe in and you live, stop breathing and for the most part you die.  

In the end, for the artist in each of us, all that can be said is: create!  We must create, or get out of the way, and let the flame burn where and what it may.