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Architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa

A few days ago my friend Janet alerted me to an appreciation of Frank Kermode in the New York Times (an excerpt is posted here.) She also left a comment on an earlier post about Dorothea Lasky that asked this question: “I am curious about what your response might be to V. Klinkenborg’s remembrance of Frank Kermode in today’s NYTimes. He included this provocative quote from Kermode: ‘To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character.’ Hmmmm.”

Hmmmm indeed. My response to her was this:

As for that quote… It put me in that deeply ambivalent place about art making, something I am dealing with more now than ever. So a part of me says OK, yeah, you’re right Frank, it IS essentially frivolous. But another part asks, does anything else feel this authentic? And look at what survives time to speak about a culture once it is gone. I am of two minds too much these days.

Several days later, and that two-mindedness has thankfully dissolved. I am not feeling that ambivalence. Maybe that feeling of “e) all of the above” is just another symptom of the micro crises—or periodic periods of drought—that seem to be a new aspect of my art making terrain of late. Right now I am more aligned with this quote from Juhani Pallasmaa in Eyes of the Skin:

The sense of self, strengthened by art and architecture, allows us to engage fully in the mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire. Buildings and cities provide the horizon for the understanding and confronting of the human existential condition. Instead of creating mere objects of visual seduction, architecture relates, mediates and projects meanings. The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being. Significant architecture makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings. in fact, this is the great function of all meaningful art.

Allowing all of the sensations—dark and light, frivolous and essential—to flow through: isn’t that being fully engaged in the “mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire”?

No Frank, I’m not signing up for the “art is frivolous” argument today. I’ll pass. For now.

Frank Kermode died this week at the age of 90. His output was staggering. I’ve only read a small sampling of a body of work that is wide ranging as well as insightful.

In her appreciation of Kermode in the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg describes Kermode’s literary modus operandi. It struck a chord. The same could describe a strategy for navigating the visual arts.

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Thanks to Janet for alerting me to Klinkenborg’s appreciation.