Category Archives: Art theory and thought

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What’s not to Like? Less beige, Zuckerberg

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Last week I eavesdropped on two 30-somethings talking about their favourite skiing destinations. When they finally agreed on a snow field in Japan, the guy said, “Oh yes! Big Like! ”

Thank you Facebook, for doing away with hyperbole around the things we love, for flat-lining our great passions and worst fears into one beige syllable.

We need this conflation, don’t we, Mr Z?  The sort of pale pleasantness that Zuckers has decided will arbitrarily help us scale down nasty aggression and unbridled positivity.

Well, in line with a current FB meme currently, I am thinking of ‘doing something different’, of laying down ‘new neuronal pathways’, by going to live in Spain or Holland. I’ve dreamed of hanging out in both places while finishing my novel, and now there’s an even stronger incentive to do it: these are the two countries where FB is trialing alternatives to ‘Like’.

I forget the more nuanced expressions that FB mavens are considering, and I don’t know exactly what they’re testing for.

Perhaps they want to know how alternatives to Like are understood in other languages?  Will shades of emotion cause confusion? Yes.  But confusion of this sort helps make life experience so piercing, so puzzling, so enticing – and so unique to the individual.

I am afraid of hearing more and more people say “Oh, big LIKE!”
I want to hurry to places where you can pick through a cornucopia of synonyms for warm feeling … weakness for example, or soft spot, partiality, bent, leaning, proclivity, inclination, disposition; enjoy, appreciation of, taste for, delight in, relish, passion, zeal, appetite, zest for, enthusiasm for, keenness around, predilection toward, penchant, and in the most beige moments, perhaps simple fondness?

What is wrong with ‘fond’? Such a lovely last-century word? So Scott-Fitzgerald, or even earlier, so Austen, so Elliot. Think Zuckers ever read Austen or Elliot? Possibly. But they clearly didn’t work for him. Because we have ended up at this anodine ‘LIke’.

I can see this young woman and man, clearly attracted, heading off for the incredible, six-meter powders on the Japanese slopes, pumping their funny skiing things and flexing their fine, powerful young bodies along the pistes and chutes and so on (I don’t ski).
They feel the blood powering through their cells, wind chewing their earlobes, the one-off sensations of being young, strong and happy … and, through the fizz of adrenaline and roaring pheromones, they’re yelling to each other:  “Oh, like, like, like, like.”

The universe provides … with practice

Spring 2015 BestOne of the most misunderstood syllogisms of our time has to be: ‘the universe provides’.   Those who accept it as a special exchange with the Great Provider take up a more challenging deal where we are trying for a constant  relationship with the cosmos.  Those who accept the journey also eschew magical thinking, or a knowing wink at the dole, or the myth of natural talent.
In exchange, the universe provides enough glimpses of our goals met and scored to keep us hurrying along, trying and re-trying, for another glimpse of mastery.

Here’s the rub: if you want that engagement and you choose what Julia Cameron calls ‘the artist’s way’, can you do it without expectation?  This doubles your dharma and makes the journey even more provocative: you may have to go for extended periods with the existential mud dragging on your heels, and still stick to your practice.

If practice starts to make you feel low – and it can do that because it is so slow, demanding, and only occasionally yields a noticeable reward – you can reflect on this small sweetener: persistence deepens understanding and all along the way bright, heartening insights can occur. (You can also try this, by the way: shake your head briskly, give your scalp a good, rough scratch (scrambling your brains, I call it), stre-e-e-e-tch your whole self – now smile and return to your practice and see if your atomic being is jingling again.)

Of course, if persistence feels too boring, you can at any time throw the whole process away and do something else … but then you may deprive yourself of the chance to see what would have happened if you’d only kept on keeping on.

To ‘keep on keeping on’ means holding faith with Jung’s insight: “Change takes place at glacial speed” … but it rest assured, it does take place – change is still the only constant.

As an example, a woman I met a couple of years ago was suddenly widowed and then discovered her late partner had mismanaged their joint funds, leaving her virtually penniless.

She’d been born with artistic talent, but “reality always got in the way of the dream”.  She had followed the pragmatic journey of a working wife and mother, always imagining – as we do – that one day she’d have the space and financial security to develop her gift.  Now she was over fifty, standing alone on very shaky ground.

The next couple of years were challenging, sometimes frightening, but she gradually righted her ship.  On the voyage, she discovered she now had one precious, wholly-owned asset: her time.

Never in her adult life had she had so much of time to spare – nor been so aware of how finite it is – it seems for reasons both biological and cultural, that the gods do not permit us this insight until we reach a certain age.

At first the woman struggled to manage this abundance of extra time.  All to often, loneliness came to fill the space, and with it a loss of faith in the singular miracle of life.  Then one Saturday afternoon a friend invited her to a life-drawing class in the city.  She felt the charcoal’s grittiness on paper, her eyes began talking to her hand about lines, light, shade … two hours later she ‘came to’, as if she had woken from an hypnotic trance.  Twelve drawings she had executed, tentative and rough, and the time had whipped through her, charged with extraordinary energy.  That night, looking at her work, she made a pact between Self and Universe – she vowed that for one solid year she would do a drawing every day.

I met this woman at the end of her 365-day drawing practice, and at the start of her Master’s Degree in Visual Art.  After so much consistent focus on her internal and external universe, she had produced an extraordinary body of work.  Not only because the final pieces were so strong and persuasive – but because you could track, from the first tentative sketches, the gathering of her energy.  She was a storm of productivity, a living evocation of “energy out, energy in”.

“I will never be comfortable again,” she told me, “From now until I die, I will have to acknowledge the stone in my shoe and let it drive me forward. And be at peace with that.”

As we practice breathing, we can understand the foundation value of practice itself: with each new breath, nothing special happens … except the miraculous provision of the next inhale.  With each new breath, another chance to express your gift, and gradually we build, expression upon expression, until we understand:

the only provision the universe makes for us is the next breath, and we have no other choice but to keep taking it.

Aura you grown up enough to argue with Walter Benjamin?

'Les Amis Toujours', Demeter Charpuris, 1925.

‘Les Amis Toujours’, Demeter Charpuris, 1925.

‘Les Amis Toujours’, Demeter Charpuris, 1925.  Lots of queries at the end of this blog entry.  All comments welcome.

You’re not allowed to get involved with theory of art unless you’ve read ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ – if Walter Benjamin received a rose from every student who’s pawed through his insights he’d be under a Kilimanjaro-sized bouquet.

Thirty-five years ago, my friend Paul Rappoport asked if I’d read the Benjamin essay.  I had not; I was too busy cutting tropical fish shapes out of sticky shelving paper and making zany collages to be reading anything seriously educative.  I was too busy ‘experiencing art’.

Between then and returning to university I a few times did try to get my head around those pages and even owned a copy of the collection ‘Illuminations’, with a foreword by Hannah Arendt.  Didn’t get it.  Gave the book away eventually.

Now I am by choice re-reading the essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and now incredibly I can see it, follow it.

There are even bits I can disagree with because I have other ideas, my own ideas, built by exposure to other writing, images and systems of belief.

There are lines I want to copy out and use because now I see they are beautiful and precise synonyms for more complicated ideas.

Most astonishing of all, places where I now can appreciate the value of his enthymemes – those parabolas of Benjamin’s imagination where he leaps over giant scads of knowledge.  He knits together ideas about the 5th Century and the 20th on the assumption that you will get what he is saying. He assumes you have read Adorno (I have not!) and Kant – yes, I have … but not on this subject precisely.  But I have read other people who have read Adorno and Kant, et al and I have understood things as transmuted by them and that is okay with me.

The key signifier of Benjamin is always his definition of ‘aura’.  It is such a challenging insight you can see how it kick-started a half-century of new discussions.

And in the context of the essay I am writing, it is the difficult word – ‘aura’ – around which some of my thinking now spins.  It’s not the ONLY word, not the LAST word … it is an important word, a key word that Walter Benjamin picked and added to our lexicon of cultural signifiers.

‘Les Amis Toujours’, Demeter Charpuris, 1925.
Sculpture from ‘chryselephantine’ – combining carved elephant ivory and bronze casting.  What happens to the ‘aura’ of this work in the context of current beliefs and values around the horrific trade in elephants’ tusks?  Does that affect the cult value of the work in public collections?  Should it be in collections?  How do changes in public ethos affect the status of artworks?  Ideas?  Anyone?