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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The Map and the Territory – the book that made 2011 less tedious but not less painful

Writer: Michel Houellebecq
Translator for the English language: Gavin Bowd
Publisher for the English language: William Heinemann-Random House, 2011
Original title: La carte et le territoire
Original French Edition by Flammarion, 2010

Pinch me if I am dreaming. Or rather pull this knife out of my heart; I am awake and yes, I do acknowledge the pain.

In a time span of 50 years we are told the life story of the artist Jed Martin and his encounter with the writer Michel Houellebecq. The main part of the novel is a story of professional success, backed up by passive relationships and voluntary isolation. The artist’s figure fits to the stereotype of the willingly socially outsider who makes it in the world as opposed to another stereotype of the macho artist (see Picasso) who nevertheless also  made it in the same world. Both come along from the creepy backyard of the writer; but actually not. In this book everyone has found their position in the world and even more carry a certain nobility. The same do the three series of artworks made at the beginning, at the pick and at the end of the artist’s life. It is hard to distinguish to what extent humour plays a role when formalism (the how weighs more than the what) is mentioned as a biased way of making or seeing art. To that I would comment that it is much easier to describe a work than to make it. Houellebecq is  in favour of painting within the visual arts but doesn’t let his artist fall in the sphere of banality; he also does photography and video in the end, even using complicated software made especially for him. Mostly in but also around the atelier, this first part of the book establishes a human warmth; in the frame of the expected peculiarity of course.

Then, with a clean-cut we are thrown into a police investigation. The images drawn and the surrounding script are references to the TV series of the last decade which have put us at ease with details of our insides and stories connected to them. The writer entrusts in art (his art) his own death. The more details he gives about it, the further away he can walk from it in real life. Triumphantly, art saves lives.

Yet, the absolute triumph comes at the closing of the novel when Houellebecq drives us back into the woods. This could be a reference to himself (The possibility of an island), but I take it more as an obsession (wish or fear) that has become artistic vision. The years pass and the artist lets nature devour his personal history and all the things related to him. Nature simply triumphs on man and man as an intelligent being documents his fading away while it actually happens.

The novel has a strong plot and depth and atmosphere. It was accused as being too smooth for the writer’s capacity and maybe it is. However, the overall  irony and the total destruction of everything we believed as settled, written with clarity and passion, do point at Michel Houellebecq, writer.

P.S. 1 It is good that the artist destroyed the painting where Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst divide the artworld. The concept itself is as schematic as the impersonation of Death by Brad Pitt.

P.S. 2 Isolation when the eyes of an audience are on you can be a fulfilling state; almost a luxury. Think of isolation when you devote yourself to your work without feedback from anywhere. That is what it means to float in the world, alone.

We'll meet again, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 100x140 cm

‘de geborgen kamers van Transvaal’ – the book

It is not surprising that a Greek artist together with a Dutch artist grown up outside the Netherlands were treated as intruders when they came back to Holland five years ago. Everyone we knew was telling us that things had changed for the worse in the Dutch common life: unemployement had risen, tolerance had shrank. One would think that the art world is not affected by such things. Indeed, those who know how to work independently do their work under any circumstances. Those who wait for subsidies, have to wait. We landed in Transvaal  and spent three years living and working in houses and streets that have already become images for the National Archive. Our publication project of 2007 can already be seen as documentation of a past chapter of The Hague.
It was printed in Dutch and published on the Internet in Dutch and in English.

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excerpt from my chapter “How to survive success”:

‘I became the race horse of the talking media. 581 words per minute was a record that could not be ignored. At last could I talk; listening had suddenly become not applicable, or at least that became my starting point, and very soon my contribution to the rising media era. Again on travelling, on thanks and bravo’s with a fan club and a limousine added, I should be content. However, the more I kept talking during the day, the worse became my sleep. I had no nightmares; only a constantly repeating dream wherein I was walking through the hidden rooms of my life. They were rooms where I once had lived, with furniture and curtains that I couldn’t recognise, empty from people and sounds, every night a new room. Day after day I became obsessed by the hidden rooms trying to identify them. My famous blabla – without losing tempo – became blurred through intervening jumping words of other languages. I went to the psychiatrist seeking a meaning for all this. She generated no meaning but came to me with an advice: “stop talking”.
To my ears that sounded then as “stop smoking”, “stop drinking”, go to the monastery. Instead of that I took off to become an artist.’


Waiting for the barbarians, geborgen kamers 2007