Hedonism and the rest

Hedonism and the rest

Away with hedonism and the rest.

The problem with being against everything is that you slide down the whirlpool of being against yourself; and there you often find the start of your whirlpool too. I have a mind trained to make unusual connections, the ones that art permits and reveals to its disciples. This kind of mind is pleased whenever the web of links shows anomalies, like clots, stretches, or a hiatus.

The book ‘Against Everything: On Dishonest Times‘ by Mark Greif (London-New York: Verso, 2016) is a collection of essays that present in a cool minded way an array of protests. With the voice of a young man and a scholar, the author carefully unfolds on the dissecting table the passions of age groups, style groups, class groups, and the philosophies whereupon our world of today is lingering.

I had to show how every commonplace thing might be a compromise. [p. xi]

Why is it that I thought that this is also a common place, a common knowledge? Is it because of a nearly compulsory critical thinking or because of catching a big shift (or rather its final twist) at its start? Didn’t we see the aesthetic hedonism (the idea that aesthetic value resides solely in a thing’s ability to give us pleasure) taking over within the establishment of consumerism (triumphant for everyone’s consent); these two together eliminating life as we knew it, to the extent that things must be explained as before and after? The author searches the origins of today’s hurtful structures in a depth of more than a century when putting forth the authors Thoreau and Flaubert, and the derailment of the notions of aestheticism and perfectionism.

In the nineteenth century, Flaubert and Thoreau foresaw mud where others saw a perfectly rewarding way of life. Today we’re up to our eyes in it. [p. 88]

This is included in one of the interim chapters sharing a common by-title ‘The meaning of life’. There are four such chapters. Here is where the specific leads to the general, a contemplative step back is taken for viewing the structure with the aim to word it.

Part III of this series is titled ‘Anaesthetic ideology’. Within a few pages, Plato and Aristotle are put on the table, in connection to experience and non-experience, or restriction of it, with mentioning of Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic and the concluding presence of Epicurus. The Epicurean bliss is then connected to the apatheia (no passion, or better not responding to the world’s mud) of Epictetus, in the quest for absolute freedom, in which case self-ending is an option. Both sides of anesthesia (non feeling) are referring to pain. They are like the operas of Richard Strauss where the happy parts are the same hysterical scream as the tragic parts (an amazing thing). That is because despite all, you want to be here.

The sad truth is that you still want to live in their world. It just somehow seems this world has changed to exile you. [p. 227]

Philosophy does help us find a position, see what we do and maybe why; see also why we feel guilty and whether there is anything we can do to improve all that.

The essays look at subjects partly of our lived youth and further, carrying a question mark (with a kind of sympathy or inevitable association?). Radiohead, punk, rap, a good historical account of the hipsters (had no idea), teenage bodies of grown-up women, the fitness (have tried and failed; my body is a stoic philosopher on this), reality tv, and some sides of American reality which we can read only with the cognition (I’m afraid).

Decomposing things in present tense and in writing is interesting indeed, and wise. Surely wiser than counting the number of ‘NOs’ you’ve said in practice.

P.S.1 Epictetus was a presence in my youth, through the writings of Jason Xenakis who followed the path of self-determination to the end. I recently came across this essay: The post-existentialist neo-stoicism of Jason Xenakis and the stoic theory of suicide. 

P.S.2 Whatever happened to aesthetic beauty as the condition where the content falls into the form without flaw (in the same way that the soul falls into the body in/through martial arts and such)?

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When the artist departs

When the artist departs

Away from the institutional art scene.

I was preparing myself for a light new article, as too much darkness had weighed on my writings this last period. Let me be a blasphema (I always wanted to use this word as hilariously pronounced by the English speaking crowds in biblical movies), but well, art is not worth dying for. I had planned to put this blog through a digital analyses, something in the line of digital humanities, where words are retrieved and counted and you get a graph, or even a more elaborate image, of what your blog is about, its atmosphere too; a fun way to see what we are talking about here.

But, the devil has it, that I received as present the book ‘Tell them I said No’ by Martin Herbert (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016) which, in ten documented essays, talks about artists who took a distance from the art-world or dropped it completely; with enough variations to fit the cases of ten artists. The content of the book is well described in this article/ interview with the author: ‘Goodbye to All That: Why Do Artists Reject the Art World?

The departed artist is a critic of the field where in he/she is asked to work. With the exception of the painter Albert York (essay title ‘The Next Hill’, pp. 29-38),  and the anarchist/ activist Christopher D’Archangelo (essay title ‘Forever Incomplete’, pp. 83-94), the presented artists have operated within the main stream art-world and the accepted game of status-acknowledgment-trend (of institution and artist equally). They departed after having ‘earned the right’ to retrieve themselves from all this; once the safety valve was secured.

What kind of virtue is silence if your stand is forgotten by art history, […]? (p. 44)

When the artist departs without having secured the safety valve he/she commits professional suicide. Yet, this may be the only decent act to do. Because professionalism in the arts presupposes reduction. Nevertheless, we hang our wares out in the light; nowadays our head too, more and more.

A big part of the artist’s role now, in a massively professionalized art world, is showing up to self-market, being present. (p. 11)

The notion of ‘professional artist’ is a dubious one. We never know whether it is there to help the artists or to dig their grave. When it helps, for ex. in claims to be paid (like, with money) for work done, or to request a societal status from the authorities, which in principle resumes in to being allowed to actually do their work and not any other work in order to exist, the word ‘professional’ has a value as in any other work field. Artists, in the course of time, have been professionals, meaning that they were getting paid for their work, unless they were monks or tribe craftsmen. The crafts aspect of the art is more than anything prominent in this deal. There was a demand, a kind of need, for the artwork, and the artists offered their work as a service. We’ve been told that this deal has faded away (or was deliberately broken), yet what was annihilated was the status of the artist in society; the authority, monetary or political, still gives out the cards: prestige-money-presence (in art history). Plus, in countries solely ‘success oriented’ like the Netherlands, art projects are not welcomed (not even by fellow-artists) if not carrying the stamp (or the aspiration) of institutional approval, most often translated into a state subsidy; thus, usually such projects are not attempted.

Within this, the artist-celebrity blurs the situation even more. Is it a joke, a blaspheme, or an exposure of the art world as it is, the artists-stars (think for ex. Hirst, Koons, etc) show in their egocentric extremity that art can be a reality show and thus not only is not worth dying for, but it is not even a field for decent people. Vanity is the opposite of the holy grail. You can not claim to set off for both.

[…] artists don’t have to have long careers. A starburst can be enough. (p. 110)

The artists’ course (career included) is not linear, as there is no given path, and it certainly does not have to be public in its entirety. Plus, the more private the less compromised.

“It is painful for me to face the fact that art cannot contribute to the solution of urgent social problems” (p. 42)

The poetical, although seen as not engaged, can be more subversive because it does not fit the ‘narrative’ of any institutional authority. It is usually appreciated in out of time-bound context and when the official history (of art) is revised. Nothing useful for the artist here either.

The book provokes a plethora of thoughts about the reviewed artists, about the dominance of conceptualism, and indeed about the self-destructive aspiration for becoming an artist. It is written with lucidity, and with sympathy for the departed artists. For artists, it is good to know that there are other options than what the art school proposes and what the institutions suggest one should be busy with (brand yourself?). Whatever this is, don’t do it.

P.S. 1 No endnotes, though this piece could have them.

P.S. 2 The images are from the exhibition ‘De geborgen kamers van Transvaal’ (the secured rooms of Transvaal), set up in 2006 by Stichting Gaidaro in the closing-down part of the street Brandtstraat in the neighborhood Transvaal in The Hague (NL), a few months before demolition started. It was a composition of aesthetic rubble and sound, that no one saw, except of the artists and one or two close friends.

P.S. 3 A list of key-words should come in a future article on this blog. The language manufactured by all those working (and earning) around the artists gets probably the highest score among art impact factors. Brains have been shaped upon them. Art works have been pronounced as such through them. Key-words put the work into recognizable and measurable context; if the work cannot be worded, it cannot exist. Mambo jumbo it is; and yes, the world is turned upside down (these do not belong to the key-words list).

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Authority and the Artist, with irony as safety belt

Authority and the Artist, with irony as safety belt

The noise of time, by Julian Barnes
Vintage, 2016

I read the book twice; at first reading I could not hear the voice of the author, otherwise clear and solemn. The narration is in third person going through the life of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It is a fictional biography where while the facts may be deriving from research, the thoughts can belong either to the hero or to the narrator; the latter as most probable. It is a difficult book to enter. It seems fragmented and the time and place give away the drama. Yet, we don’t realize the volume of the drama unless we read through to the end. The noise of time talks about two themes: the artist in front of the authority, and irony in the life and work of the artist. For those who go through life as artists, or see artistic expression as an essential human trait, these are painful matters and unsolvable. Barnes has a remarkable sensitivity for the fate of artists, expressed often along the way; here, he turns the knife in the wound, masterly.

Life was the cat that dragged the parrot downstairs by its tail; his head banged against every step. J.B.

Wherever there is a monopoly established for art matters, the same motif is repeated. The monopoly draws a line of rules and separates those included from the excluded. And whenever there is state control to art matters there is artists’ persecution. Physical bodies may not be imprisoned (when not) but emotional worlds are destroyed, identities are annihilated, intellectual dreams are crushed. Totalitarianism disguised as a liberal state’s policy is in many aspects worse than totalitarian regimes. Because here any sense of solidarity is evaporated onto a surface of freedom. The artist is alone in front, or within, the ‘creative industry’ and guilty towards everyone and everything. ‘Independent committees’ follow similar patterns. There are keywords to be checked, like ‘political’, ‘dialogue’, ‘message’, etc., and a style to be detected as (currently) ‘innovative’, ‘interactive’ and most of all uplifting (and consequently successful in societal terms). Authority knows how to entrench what is acceptable and present it as the boundary-breaking art of today.

Khrennikov had an average ear for music, but perfect pitch when it came to power. J.B.

The three times that the authority talks to the artist, position him towards his work and his colleagues whether he likes it or not.

First, the artist is a victim. Tortured in real, living his precarious life (some stop or are stopped here).
Then he is a traitor. This is the phase when solidarity is dangerous because the artist may lose the crumbs that the authority feeds him. So, either he does not speak up for his colleagues (and his ideas), either he denounces them (even with some guilt).
In the end, he is an accomplice, and still a pawn (pawn-king, pawn-horse, …). This last phase is combined with the authority’s honours and tangible benefits (stardom, professorships, chairmanships, and financial comforts).

If the intention of the author was to defend Shostakovich and even more his music, he does give thumbs up on his wish to have his music be heard when the noise of time will have been drowned. We, are grateful that it does. For, music (and art for that matters) has a value in itself. No matter what authorities want us to believe, that it must reflect socio-political issues and relevant ideas (always to a certain direction of course). Music made on these prerequisites is mainly marches and guerrilla songs, or the non-poetical song of the authority. Shostakovich’s music was accused by the authority as ‘non-political and confusing’, addressed to the bourgeoisie and to the intellectual elite.

Then irony comes in, as the means for preserving one’s self and what you love, a disguise used ‘to smuggle things past the wrong ears’.  Irony is when you say something meaning something else; those who can listen understand. And in the same time, you save your life and you protect whatever precious. It is a way of cheating preserved for poetry and the arts, and for a specific kind of intellect. Not for the kind that grows close to authority. But, ‘there are limits to irony’. In which what you do in the end becomes what you are. The defendable joke becomes a degraded identity. Either way, in the end, you lose.

He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function. J.B.

P.S. We may have more to it if we transpose the story to present time (take it as an irony); check the art world, the creative industry, the authority full of itself as it is.

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Ordering books and combing the sea waves

Ordering books and combing the sea waves

This happened.

I was trying to order the books I had recently read; at first only mentally, as the physical order did not seem so imminent. Or was it a matter of difficulty in combining the idea of order with any kind of action? Order in action holds a sense of compromise, an aroma of conservatism, a swamping in conformity. Nevertheless, sometimes the rigidness of all that can be a safety net for the high flyers or an air bag for the perpetuate thrill seekers, if you wish.

Still, the idea of ordering my books did not even pass the mental phase; it rather provoked a self-annihilating categorization. Like trying ordering the sea waves according to those that reach the shore – the accomplished ones – those that vanish before the end, and those that seem to turn back to the main sea-mass without achieving anything individually.

Combing the sea waves is the picture I see when thinking of ordering books. Less importantly, this is also the urge I get (to comb it) when looking at the sea; even more when the capacity for getting any pleasure of it is dimmed down (the idea itself that the sea is a panacea oppresses me; certainties of any kind look like whirlpools; conclusions point to rooms without windows, etc.).

But, back to order and ordering books: If you can comb the sea waves even mentally, it is worth trying ordering your books.

p.s. All objects of awe, just to name music, writings, and the sea, cause the sharpest pain in periods of sinking.

p.s. 2 Please, don’t send me algorithms (poetry is always welcome)… (but can it categorize?).

 

Black is what you make it

A review of the book
The story of black,  by John Harvey
Reaktion Books, 2013

A book for those intrigued by black colour. It could be a pop-up book, an atlas with many dimensions and complex links between the exposed points; all drawing a story of a colour that is often discarded as not belonging and equally attributed to the “not belonging”. The story of black narrates in 300 pages the story of the colour black and its somewhat abstract characteristic, blackness, attached to art, to religion, to society, to fashion, to politics, to industry, to the environment, and of course to fears and prejudices, always inseparable from humans.

“One may speak of a will to find blackness within, because black bile is an invention, and its blackness another imaginary colour, like that of sin. For there is no black bile.” … For there is no talk about black colour without mentioning melancholia, depression as more modern term, as well as sin and the sense of an end, a death. But these are only a small part of what black can stand for; its story is much more fascinating.

John Harvey, Doctor of Letters of Cambridge University,  narrates with a privilege earned by teaching; of talking extensively and in detail  about a subject that can in the end stay an open discussion. Maybe every story must stay within reasonable limits so that what we call exhaustive does not become a dead-end. The author leaves the door open for further research and more stories to be told about black. However, what is narrated in this book is a story containing so much information that one has to come back to it, to one’s notes, to check again and combine, in time, with own thoughts and experiences. In that sense the Story of black is a study book that could become part of a curriculum.

Each reader will choose a part of the book to focus on, or associate with, while in the end art is what connects the dots; as a painter I appreciate that of course. As a black  painter at some stage of my painting life, somehow the most important till now, I found in certain thoughts of the author the spoken expression of that evasive sense of blackness.

“An element in Rotho’s depression –  and in the disappointment of other notable black painters – was the sense that they had led art to a final high place, and art had not stayed there.”

There are many ways to search for the ‘something more than’ ; black is one of them: a destination, as a safe place and an end, in one; a deep and pointless search at the time; closer to philosophy and music than to tangible successes and commerce (for those who care: the term creative industry hurts!)

“But still we call colours ‘delicious’: they give us a pleasure like the pleasure of taste. We might say colour feeds the soul, not the stomach. But still colour feeds, while black-and-white signifies”.

P.S.1 Some thoughts on black by the author of this article can be read here

P.S.2 I have referred to the book in this post too: “Nymphomaniac”- a study on hypocrisy

SpaceA, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 1999
SpaceA, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 1999, S.Kapnissi #blackandwhite

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The Bukowski party

In the article signed by Sebastian Kort titled “Vrouwen willen seks. Bukowski niet” (women want sex. Bukowski not) published in nrc-next on 4 March, I read about the project in progress of uitgeverij Lebowski (Lebowski publishers #LebowskiBooks): to re-publish all the works of Charles Bukowski. The first three books are about to appear, within March, and for this occasion the publishers are organising a party with chicken and beer, film projections and performances. The author of the article found this rather anti-Bukowski(an), thinking that the poet himself would hate the idea of so many people around him. However, just for displeasing the expectations, the party can very well fit in the spirit, I find.

Breaking the pattern of compulsory book buying whenever travelling, I felt cool about not buying any during my last visit in Athens; the house of my parents has still a lot to offer book-wise. But then again, poetry (just like art) saves lives; I walked in front of it; this edition not new not old either, not  Greek neither in Greek.

“Love is a dog from hell” appeared on the shelf and I had to open it. Page 139: “the meek have inherited… if I suffer at this/ typewriter/ think how I’d feel/ among the lettuce-/ pickers of Salinas?” … eye down the page … “some suicides are never/ recorded.”

I turned, page 193: “melancholia … the history of melancholia/ includes all of us…”

I don’t know if Bukowski hated parties or was sometimes bored of women and sex; he did though hate paid slavery but kept it up for 13 continuous years, while keeping up writing too; there’s your hero and a good reason to party; off to Amsterdam!

P.S.1 The quotes are from the edition “Love is a dog from hell” of 2003 by HarperCollinsPublishers, poems 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski; a beautiful edition.

P.S.2 It is great that Lebowski publishers undertook such a project, but it will be in Dutch; I always preferred dual language editions, when poetry was somehow difficult; but here, it is clear as the sky(?); saying this made me curious again…

"Assimilated information/ 3" , acrylic on wooden board, 2009
“Assimilated information/ 3”, acrylic on wooden board, 2009

Artists in literature – the perils of success

The advice of the teacher starts with a sharp “don’t get carried away by the elegance of your line” and ends to a “don’t submit to time wasting activities like making money”; being elegant and submissive are however the demanded skills (even if sketched differently) with poverty the other side of the coin; speaking of artists. The story is been told myriads of times practically unchangeable. As I find comfort in the Russian classics, especially when times get tough, I could not but stumble upon this top short story about the perils of success. Written in the first half of the 19th century, it still keeps its urgency; this is a short excerpt:

… He seized a brush and approached his canvas. One thought possessed him wholly, one desire consumed him; he strove to depict a fallen angel. This idea was most in harmony with his frame of mind. The perspiration started out upon his face with his efforts; but, alas! his figures, attitudes, groups, thoughts, arranged themselves stiffly, disconnectedly. His hand and his imagination had been too long confined to one groove; and the fruitless effort to escape from the bonds and fetters which he had imposed upon himself, showed itself in irregularities and errors. He had despised the long, wearisome ladder to knowledge, and the first fundamental law of the future great man, hard work. He gave vent to his vexation. He ordered all his later productions to be taken out of his studio, all the fashionable, lifeless pictures, all the portraits of hussars, ladies, and councillors of state.

He shut himself up alone in his room, would order no food, and devoted himself entirely to his work. He sat toiling like a scholar. But how pitifully wretched was all which proceeded from his hand! He was stopped at every step by his ignorance of the very first principles: simple ignorance of the mechanical part of his art chilled all inspiration and formed an impassable barrier to his imagination. His brush returned involuntarily to hackneyed forms: hands folded themselves in a set attitude; heads dared not make any unusual turn; the very garments turned out commonplace, and would not drape themselves to any unaccustomed posture of the body. And he felt and saw this all himself.

“But had I really any talent?” he said at length: “did not I deceive myself?” Uttering these words, he turned to the early works which he had painted so purely, so unselfishly, in former days, in his wretched cabin yonder in lonely Vasilievsky Ostroff. He began attentively to examine them all; and all the misery of his former life came back to him. “Yes,” he cried despairingly, “I had talent: the signs and traces of it are everywhere visible–” …

Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Mysterious Portrait” can be read on line here

P.S. Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian but wrote mainly in Russian; because of the political history of the area he was always considered a Russian writer.

"Assimilated information 1/6", acrylic on wood, 2009
“Assimilated information 1/6”, acrylic on wood, 2009, S.Kapnissi