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In search of the “flashes of identity between subject and object”……the world that exists outside language

The following provocation closely aligns with my own views. This passage is by a forceful voice, Barbara Guest, from a book of her writings, Forces of Imagination:

There is no substitute for imagination. Words deprived of their stability—that is if not fed by the imagination—rush around attempting to attach themselves to a surface. They have no stabilized vocation; they become furtive, ready to sell themselves. Wordsworth, not immune to appropriating landscape, wrote:

“Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waster, to vitiate, and to dissolve.”

It is the counter-spirit we must beware of, even in the presence of despairing academic anxiety that—overwhelmed by the creative spirit, angered by imagination that disrupts its formulaic view of life—would like to convert imagination into a conservative toy.

In such an atmosphere of controlled tedium it is always refreshing to turn to a poet such as Jules Laforgue, who is 1883 wrote:

“In the flashes of identity between subject and object lie the nature of genius. And any attempt to codify such flashes is but an academic pastime.”

From the “flashes of identity”—marvelous phrase—and above academic anxiety rises an elite structure, elite not because it is marble, but because it is rock in which Art survives in every era sustained by desire and necessity.

Finally, in case we become discouraged or overwhelmed or even disappointed in our era, in the state of our art, I would like to remind us of the remark Valéry made in 1933, a year that was to initiate the close of an era: “Profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful.”

About Barbara Guest: Poet, critic, expert on the poetry of H.D., was awarded the Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Poetry Society of America in 1996. She died in 2006.

Michael Palmer’s moving description of her work: “To speak with Barbara Guest about poetry was always to be in the presence of a fiercely uncompromised vision of the art and its obligations. Her insights continually astonished me. They were beholden to no one. And the work itself, of a lyric intelligence entirely her own. For whatever reasons, and I can sadly imagine many, it has not received its full due, but it will. The music insists.”

Some images never grow old, never fade in color on that screen of our life that lives at the back of the mind. Some of the images that live on for me were created 18,000 years ago, in southern France.

I remember the first time I saw ever saw cave painting art. I was a young art student and eager to soak up everything while hitchhiking through Europe and Asia with my best friend, devouring every museum and monument to visual culture with an energy and appetite typical of the 18 year olds we were. We spent two solid weeks systematically studying every gallery in the Louvre, camped our way down the Turkish coast to the ancient site of city of Troy, wandered through the Casbah in Algiers, sat on the stones of Stonehenge before anyone had the good sense to preserve that Neolithic treasure from the wear and tear of careless tourists like us.

But the cave paintings at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in France. That was something of a completely different order. Primal and yet elegant, ancient and yet timeless, overwhelming in its scope and yet so intimate and personal. I was stunned how the painters (many experts believe that these images were actually made by women for reasons that I won’t elaborate here) incorporated the topography of the cave surface into the paintings—an actual “hump” in the wall becomes the hump of a beast’s back.

The legendary caves at nearby Lascaux were discovered in 1940 but had to close down in 1963 due to damage from the breath of visitors. Later on I toured the ambitious replica that was created alongside the original cave and found the images spectacular. And of course big discoveries have happened since then, most spectacularly the cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc.

Thanks to Sally Reed for flagging a set of “unpublished” images from Lascaux on Life. The slide show’s intro:

A warm afternoon in southwestern France. As two schoolboys hunt rabbits on a ridge covered with pine, oak, and blackberry brambles, their dog chases a hare down a hole beside a downed tree. Widening the hole, removing rocks, the boys follow — and enter not merely another world, but another time. Underground, they discover “a Versailles of prehistory” — a series of caves, today collectively known as Lascaux, boasting wall paintings up to 18,000 years old. In 1947, LIFE’s Ralph Morse went to Lascaux, and became the first photographer to ever document the astonishing, vibrant paintings. Here, on the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the cave and its treasures, in a gallery featuring rare and never-published photographs, Morse — still vibrant himself at 93 — shares with LIFE.com his memories of what it was like to encounter the long-hidden, strikingly lifelike handiwork of a vanished people: the Cro-Magnon.

I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Even though yet another blog post about the literary sensation of the moment is not contributing much to the collective forward motion of our cultural understanding, I can’t NOT spend just a little time talking about the book.

The reviews have been unabashedly glowing, so much so that another storm system developed around claims of gender bias in book reviews and asking why it is that we (all of us) seem more interested in male writers than female writers. I don’t mean to dismiss these questions. They are similar to the concerns raised by the Guerrila Girls regarding the visual arts back in the 80s, and increased awareness of the (mostly) invisible bias favoring male painters and artists resulted from their efforts. But that isn’t my topic today. The book is.

I loved Freedom, and I’ll tell you why. Or at least some of the reasons why I couldn’t put it down.

1. Franzen captures the peculiar confusion and complexity of life since 9/11, most of it under the very unfortunate watch of Bush/Cheney. It is the time capsule portrait of life in the US in the aughts. Poignantly so.

2. He steps into Big Themes with bravado. And even though he doesn’t handle all of them with mastery, he’s not a fool and stays afloat. So here is a story that deals with relationships, parenthood, family, heritage, depression, politics, liberal and conservative blindspots, ecology, save the world-itis, fidelity, money, misuse of power, war, class warfare, suburbanism, honesty, loyalty and forgiveness, among many others.

3. His character development does not feel gender-skewed. His men and his women are complexly drawn and not cartooned. Sometimes they are endearing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes desperately familiar in their human frailty. But my allergic reaction to the ease with which many male writers repeatedly miss the mark on female sensibilities was not triggered once.

4. His protagonists, like all of us, are cripplingly flawed. In fact I felt no sympathy or attraction to his female protagonist until the last 100 pages. But by god you want them to figure it out. Desperately. I wanted each of them to measure out the black holes in their souls, put up some police barricade tape and steer everybody else clear of the sure disaster that would ensue should someone overstep the edge. The humanness of the story touched me deeply.

5. Franzen doesn’t preach. He doesn’t offer answers but reveals how complex every decision we make actually is. This book is about the question, How should we live? I would feel manipulated if he thought he had the answer to that, but I am moved by how much thought he has given to that question and incorporated that thinking into a beautifully written novel.

Excerpt from Freedom:

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

And thes two final paragraphs from Sam Tanenhaus’ review in the New York Times:

Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front — the seething national peace that counter­poises the foreign war. Himself a confirmed and well-informed environmentalist, Franzen gives full voice to Walter’s increasingly extreme preachments on the subjects of overpopulation and endangered species. “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” he declares at one point, in a rant that goes viral on the Internet as his dream sours into a nightmare vision of a land in which “the winners,” who own the future, trample over “the dead and dying and forgotten, the endangered species of the world, the nonadaptive.”

The apocalypse, when it comes, clears the way for a postlude, set in Minnesota, that is as haunting as anything in recent American fiction. In these pages, Walter, “a fanatic gray stubble on his cheeks,” seizes hold of the novel, and Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life. Walter, groping toward deliverance, mourns “a fatal defect in his own makeup, the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.” But of course it is no defect at all. It is the highest, most humanizing grace. And it cares nothing about power. Like all great novels, “Freedom” does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.

Mystical metaphysics meets science: The Economist has reviewed the new book, The Grand Design, written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. This passage is full of possibility:

The main novelty in “The Grand Design” is the authors’ application of a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, derived from the ideas of the late Richard Feynman, to the universe as a whole. According to this way of thinking, “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.” The authors also assert that the world’s past did not unfold of its own accord, but that “we create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”

The reviewer questions just how accurate that view is (“the authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of it have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be”), but the provocation of this statement by Hawking and Mlodinow is substantial and titillating IMHO.

Whenever we venture into those regions that exist beyond capacity of our instrumentation or sensory evidence—be it science, philosophy or religious belief systems—my response is a paraphrase of Rumi: In the end, we will all be surprised.


Emily Dickinson: “The best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries”

Book alert: The coming together of two greats—Emily Dickinson and Helen Vendler. Vendler has just released a new book, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. And although there are many collections of Dickinson’s work currently available, I can’t think of anyone I would prefer walking through those poems with than Vendler. Her sensibilities have enriched the works of two of my other favorite poets, Wallace Stevens and William Butler Yeats.

From a review of Vendler’s book written by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

Vendler’s sheer appetite for poetry and her explicatory power are phenomenal. She is, however, a thoroughly serious, academic critic. Now, some professors are fun to read: Think of the cool Olympian clarity of Northrop Frye, the astonishing encyclopedism of Hugh Kenner, the delicious precisions of Guy Davenport, the Empsonian dash and brilliance of Christopher Ricks. Vendler’s strength, meanwhile, lies in clearly, patiently explaining what’s happening in a poem. But — and it’s a big but — you really do need to pay attention. As Vendler writes in her introduction to “Dickinson,” hers isn’t so much a book to read through as “a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here.”

As Dirda points out in his review, Dickinson has been described by the legendary critic Harold Bloom as “the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries.” And yet:

Aside from the handful of poems that appeared anonymously in local newspapers, she never published her work. Most of it survives either in manuscripts or from transcriptions in letters, mainly to her family. When first brought out in book form, her generally short, gnomic verses were often regularized. Words were altered when their meaning was deemed puzzling or sacrilegious, and Dickinson’s beloved dashes, her preferred form of punctuation, were frequently changed to commas or periods. Only in 1955 did Thomas Johnson produce a scholarly edition that printed the earliest fair copy of what Dickinson actually wrote.

Dickinson’s poetry, summarizes Vendler, is “epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny.”

Can’t wait to read this commentary.


Being at home in a layered reality…The view through the rooms in Stephanie’s magical Rockport home

I’ve confessed here before to the paradox at the core of my art making and blog writing persona: I don’t believe art can be parsed and analyzed in language the way other topics can be. But there are words and languaged explorations that inhabit the borders of that non-languaged land and are of interest and value. This blog is about the content that lives in that liminal zone, bordering the border and at home along that edge.

Laurie Fendrich is a blogger on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm site and has written about the “deafening silence” she encounters whenever she writes about art. When the topic is politics, the switchboard lights up and everyone wants to log in on their opinion. Why so little commentary when the topic is art?

A lot of people can’t understand how art of any kind conveys meaning. At its best, it seems to sit there, or hang there, waiting to be contemplated for some sort of aesthetic pleasure. What else is there to say about it? At the same time, many are terribly intimidated by art—especially modern and contemporary art. They find they don’t like it, but worse, they’re annoyed that they don’t “get” it. It seems as if it’s part of a club they aren’t allowed to join. Tethered as they are to their preconceived ideas about what a painting should do (it should be beautiful, or at least good-looking, or it should tell a story, or be noble, or be about flowers, or the Bible), a lot of people think modern and contemporary art is nothing but one enormous joke. Since this is hardly the kind of thing sophisticated people want to admit, they prefer to keep quiet about the subject.

But Fendrich goes on to point out another aspect that impacts public interaction with the visual arts. This is one that particularly resonates with my views:

For aesthetic taste to broaden generally requires a lot of serious, direct experience with art—lots of time hanging around museums, galleries and artists’ studios. It helps to read about art, or listen and talk to people who love it, or are at least involved in it. Yet even then, and even among the educated elite, only a relatively small group of people do any of these things on any kind of regular basis. People in the humanities (where you’d think you’d find a lot of people who pay attention to art) are frequently just as alienated, flummoxed or indifferent to art as the masses that are obsessed with pop culture. The stock and trade of academics is words, not images, and for all their ability to analyze culture, academics are mostly blissfully ignorant of what it takes to make something that becomes a part of culture—a work of art, or a product of scientific inquiry and experiment. For all their study of ideas and actions (artistic or otherwise), and all their inventing of explanations and theories about what creative people do, in both art and science, they rarely ever try their hands at creative work.

On the consistently interesting blog Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski has written a thoughtful response to the difference between talking about politics and talking about art:

Fendrich almost makes that reticence a virtue as she dissects why everyone feels so free and almost obligated to talk about politics: “For most of us, talking about politics has become merely another means of self-expression — another way to yell (if we’re bullies), rant (if we’re full of tension), sound reasonable (if we’re nice people).”

But that has consequences: “People eagerly opine about politics because talking about politics today has deteriorated into nothing but a game of chatter–a way of responding to the unsettling modern world that seems so devoid of much that’s beautiful or good.”

So cheer up, art-lovers. Would you rather have a lot of people blather on and on about something, even when they don’t know much, or remain quiet because they don’t know much?

More specific to my particular concerns, a comment on Dobrzynski’s blog left by “Joan” captures many of my feelings with this thoughtful note:

The only language that really touches the purposes or heart of art is poetry, not analysis. Why? Because a work of art isn’t a response to a rational question. I don’t mean by that the arts are irrational. If a work of art does emerge from thinking, it is born from the place where thinking comes to a sort of intellectual dead end past which it can’t verbally go. Is America so materialistic it has forgotten that there is meaning apart from rational thought or the work and progress of science and technology?…The heart of art is non-verbal, experiential, practical, and non-commercial. Why blab about it- unless you’re an art student or artist talking to other artists, deeply involved in discovery about what it is and how it is, that you are doing what you are doing??


From Anna Hepler’s series, “Cyanotype 28,” on exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art. Hepler uses the idiosyncratic nature of a photographic process to explore how images can morph and disintegrate and, at the same time, expose the way light wraps a form and gives it a sense of presence.

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In any kind of creative work a point is reached where our power of free choice comes to an end. The work assumes a life of its own, which offers its creator only the alternative of accepting or rejecting it. A mysterious ‘presence’ reveals itself, which gives the work a living personality of its own.

–Anton Ehrenzweig

Anton Ehrenzweig studied art but was primarily known for his psychoanalytical examination of art making. The Hidden Order of Art is his best known work.


Fallow fields near the Great Salt Lake in Layton Utah

Friend and artist Kitty Bancroft stopped in Boston on her way to Philadelphia yesterday, and we had a few moments to share where things are in our private tinkering spaces called art making. I think of conversations like these as reminiscent of ones I had as a child inside the structures I made with my sisters and brothers out of tables, chairs and large blankets. Inside those freshly constructed child-sized rooms, I felt like I was now under life rather than in it. Cocooned and safe.

Kitty described her artistic summer as a period of intentional fallowing. I hadn’t thought about the idea for a while, and her comment has been floating on the surface of my thoughts ever since.

This passage from Fallow and Fertile, published on The Ecologist, is a point of reference:

Fallow periods were traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of their land. The benefits of leaving land fallow for extended periods include rebalancing soil nutrients, re-establishing soil biota, breaking crop pest and disease cycles, and providing a haven for wildlife.

Like many rural skills, the technique evolved along with a sustainable model of settled agriculture that supported the UK’s population for well over 3,000 years. Up until 1939 it was estimated that 800,000 ha of British countryside was voluntarily placed under fixed or rotational fallows at any time. The idea seems bizarre now, that less than a generation ago British farmers would have had the freedom, let alone the financial security, to improve their land in this way.

The fact is farmers are no longer trusted to use their own judgement in managing the British countryside. If they were, set-aside areas would still be managed as the most effective means of building soil fertility. Inevitably, however, fallow farming has been deemed ‘uneconomic’ by the same logic that has seen agricultural imports and exports increase by 74 and 55 per cent respectively since 1962.

Lots of parallels can be drawn about a productivity focused view of everything in our culture, not just art making. As a younger artist I had no interest in employing a “set-aside” approach to my work habits. Productivity and good use of precious studio time were the measures I cared about and highly valued.

But I now see deep correlations between fallow and fertile. The strategy for the health and well being of my art making life is different for me now than it was when I was 20. I don’t believe there is one way to do anything in life, and certainly I would never proscribe the way an artist chooses to work. You may be like Charles LeDray, using every waking hour for years to obsessionally sew tiny clothes, or like Tara Donovan who can repeatedly construct unearthly landscapes out of a million stacked styrofoam cups. Or you may be like me; sometimes in the zone and unstoppably fecund, sometimes in the fallowing, just sitting and looking with no doing.


Seeking enchantment—here, there, everywhere…The Great Haul, a site-specific installation by Anna Hepler at the Portland Museum of Art. The light becomes crystalline and kaleidoscopic through the layered netting of meshed plastic.

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We have an innate capacity for remembering and imagining places. Perception, memory and imagination are in constant interaction; the domain of presence fuses into images of memory and fantasy. We keep constructing an immense city of evocation and remembrance, and all the cities we have visited are precincts in this metropolis of the mind.

Literature and cinema would be devoid of their power of enchantment without our capacity to enter a remembered or imagined place. The spaces and places enticed by a work of art are real in the full sense of the experience. ‘Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provide it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, anguish which has turned into yellow-rift of sky’ writes Sartre. Similarly, the architecture of Michelangelo does not present symbols of melancholy; his buildings actually mourn. When experiencing a work of art, a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and percepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.

Another memorable quote from Juhani Pallasmaa, from Eyes of the Skin. So many concepts to consider here: Our capacity to imagine, remember and inhabit a space; the metropolis of the mind, built from every city we have ever visited; the power of enchantment that is elemental to art; the aura that surrounds a work of art; the interplay of our own emotions and state of mind with (and on) a work; encountering ourselves in what we see.

And not surprisingly, Pallasmaa’s small book functions for me as a work of art, enchanted, possessing its own aura, providing a reflection that allows me to encounter myself. It continuously speaks to me, holds my attention.

Waiting for Hurricane “My Name is Earl” to gather over the Northeast. We will be descending nonetheless on Cape Ann for a weekend of nuptial celebrating with Alexis and JP. So begins a month of wonderful wedding weekends. Life happens like that, big shifts that occur all at once, like the culmination of storm systems that become a hurricane. Nature does excess so effortlessly (which could be used as a defense for my own proclivities to go too far, too big, too much.)

Meanwhile here is another set of ideas from Juhani Pallasmaa that speaks to the concept of the eye (the human version that is):

An essential line in the evolution of modernity has been the liberation of the eye from the Cartesian perspectival epistemology. The paintings of Turner continue the elimination of the picture frame and the vantage point begun in the Baroque era; the Impressionists abandon the boundary line balanced framing and perspectival depth; Paul Cezanne aspires ‘to make visible how the world touches us’; Cubists abandon the single focal point, reactivate peripheral vision and reinforce haptic experience, whereas the colour field painters reject illusory depth in order to reinforce the presence of the painting itself as an iconic artifact and an autonomous reality. Land artists fuse the reality of the work with the reality of the lived world, and finally, artists such as Richard Serra directly address the body as well as our experiences of horizontality and verticality, materiality, gravity and weight.

The same countercurrent against the hegemony of the perspectival eye has taken place in modern architecture regardless of the culturally privileged position of vision. The kinesthetic and textural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the muscular and tactile buildings of Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn’s architecture of geometry and gravitas are particualarly significant examples of this.