LITERATURE AND ART

LITERATURE AND ART
In the beginning there was...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From the PAGES OF MIDDLE AMERICA: THE SCENT OF A PLACE

If there is a scent to a place then the scent of where I live is that of newly cut grass and fresh laundry just hung out to dry. It is an airy, sweet, distinctly American scent to me, one that I associate with a certain kind of puritanism, collective ethos of pulchritude garnered at some imaginary gate--the gate of a Christian church or school, where everyone knows one another, likes one another, and is being raised, it would appear, by the same set of parents--Ozzie and Harriet. Deeper into the Midwest, in the Chicago, where Grandma Jenkins used to live, that scent would turn metallic, the scent of steel, tall buildings and hope interrupted by bitterness, the refrain of hard times, this broken sometimes by the aroma of fresh baked pies cooling on a shelf near a window--the memory of how things used to be.

If they ever were that way.

The town where I live is white middle-class middle America--maybe 20 years ago in terms of the styles it embraces and even older, in terms of how its people live. Kids of any age riding by on their bicycles will inevitably nod their heads politely, greeting you respectfully, the way they were taught to do.

Conformity is waved like a pendant here and treated as the main symptom that things are all right. Passing a group of young girls running together, their listing chatter slicing through a morning mist, or seeing a line of boys running over the bridge after school, will leave you with the distinct impression of witnessing something that is uniquely right and pure and good. To win a game here is a holy achievement, not only a signifier of great things to come, but proof you are on the right team--in sports and in life.

In the town where I live, healthy, blond children behave and do well in school; their parents have jobs and see one other frequently at games and cookouts, and probably have affairs, although they tend to stay married. Further west along route 422, closer to poverty, time slides even further back--in Niles, for example, where the air smells like cheap candy and a rusty handful of change.

The most depressing mall in the world, where nearly every shop window displays a close out or 60-percent off sale, is in Niles. Its rugs and corridors are dark and dank; and its people, sad and poor. Many of the people that visit that mall are either skinny or overweight and missing teeth, from poor diets and habits. Way too many are disabled and disfigured, so many that you have to wonder whether there is poison in their water, or whether some factory toxin was passed along from generations through the genes. Boys and men sport haircuts so unattractive and out-of-date, they can't be placed in time--bangs in front, long stringy hair in back; and rat tails, that hideous hairstyle of the 80s, adopted mainly by lower class males to distinguish them from their peers. Young females dress in tight jeans and off the shoulder tops, Flashdance style, and bob their big hair, teased 80s style, to 80s music piping through the sound system. This is a nether world of things gone bad in days gone by, only no one has caught up to the realization.

I suspect the styles the folks in the mall reflect and emulate are those of characters from long-running television shows that are still the favorite past-time of families, who still watch them while sitting together before the big TV set in their living rooms. When Happy Days, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, the Six-Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman come on, those watching who are in reality struggling to manage mortgages and juggling debts of every sort, get caught up in a bliss of remembrance and illusion that makes them and everyone around them happy for a time. In the spell of such shows in which a wholesome America is portrayed, Americans without much are likely to believe that everything is all right and will always be all right--for America is blessed, is it not? There is a subconscious belief system here, engrained for generations, that whatever trouble comes along, whatever ails us as a town or  country will always and forever be met by the rainbow that always comes at the end of everything for Americans.

Monday, April 28, 2014

QUESTIONS of ART

One of the questions that preoccupies me more often than what I would like to admit is the question of what ART is. I have my own ideas, based on experience, but these ideas tend to flex and alter depending on my interests and focus. I remain stuck on the idea that a work of art--in any media--should create awe and spark some kind of transformation in the viewer/reader, even if it is subtle, while eliciting questions. Always questions.

The following is a melange--from the simple to the complex--that can be absorbed in parts or as a whole. It's not meant to be comprehensive, or even that cohesive, although I do hope it stirs your own ideas on the subject.

The Dictionary.com definition of art is appealing, but lacking.  It reads: "The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." The missing word in the definition is "considered." The phrase should read: "The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is considered beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance."

But, from the moment we enter "considered" into the equation, we bring in the role of cultures, traditions and their attendant biases--and these provide the fodder of endless discussion.

So many definitions of art go by the wayside as new trends come into being. What remains constant is the idea of art as play and experimentation, and who was a greater master at this than John Cage? Currently, there is an exhibit at the MOMA in NYC called, THERE WILL NEVER BE SILENCE: Scoring John Cage's 4'33"that runs through June 22, and features what is known as Cage's "silent" piece, which is made up of three movements during which a performer produces no sounds. The work, which lasts four minutes and 33-seconds, was considered radical as it shifted attention from what the performer was doing onstage to the audience. Cage has said that through this piece he hoped to attune listeners to silence as a musical structure. The work is said to synthesize Cage's exploration of the idea of chance operations, experimental music and the visual arts.

In this month's issue, ARTnews features an article, "How Artists Are Using Music to Seduce, Confound (and Entertain) Us" by Elizabeth Fullerton on the use of music in art. Music currently plays a part in exhibits at the New Museum in New York. Jeanine Oleson's, "Hear, Here," which recently opened there, for example, features an experimental opera. Hip-hop, which played a role in "Art into Music," a show that just closed at BRIC House in Brooklyn, will also figure in shows later this year at the New Museum.

The use of multi-media and the idea of including the audience in a work are not new, but are being done in increasingly fresh ways to raise consciousness, often about social issues.  For example: "Operation Paydirt/ Fundred Dollar Bill Project" at the New Orleans Museum of Art, features children and scientists together in a show that intends to raise awareness about the issue of lead-contaminated soil.

Chryssane Stathacos, who works in various media, engages her audiences in a conversation about the feminine, healing,  ritual, the environment and change. She recently toured the U.S. and Canada with her Rose Mandala installations.

Also engaged in the conversation about the feminine and spiritual in art is painter and sculptor William Rock who has toured the world doing collaborative projects with Chinese poet Huang Xiang. In recent years, he has recently focussed his attention on sculpting divine feminine figures from the Bon tradition and is of the belief that embracing the feminine and the divine in art will help to raise the consciousness of humanity.

How will the role of the feminine and the divine evolve in art? And how will it be interpreted?

Among American critics, Rosalind Krauss is one of a handful of women I can think of-- others that come to mind are Deborah Solomon, Karen Wilkin and Barbara Rose--stretching the boundaries of art interpretation in what remains a male-dominated field. Krauss is a founder of the quarterly art theory journal, October, and teaches art history at Columbia University. Her focus is artists working in three dimensions, and she is interested in feminism, post-structuralism and post-minimalism. Originally a follower of formalist Clement Greenberg, she shifted her interest in a theoretical approach that focussed on the purity of an art form (more Greenberg's view) more to the aesthetics that capture historical and cultural issues in a work. Krauss's essays, "The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodernist Repetition" and "Photography's Discursive Spaces" are important reads.

Deborah Solomon's controversial biography, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell, published this past November, sheds some interesting light on what might be called Rockwell's darker side, and dares to point out homoerotic aspects in his work. (The Rockwell family has called Solomon's work, fiction). Solomon, who has also written bios of Joseph Cornell and Jackson Pollock, offers fresh insights on the repressed, insecure artist, who often went along with his critics in believing he was no more than an accomplished illustrator.

Does art arise out of self-consciousness or out of consciousness of the world, or both? Why is the role of the feminine and spiritual playing such a prominent role in today's art? And where is this going? These days collaborative art is including the public in its discourse in exciting, innovative ways, expanding notions of what space art should occupy as well as ideas about space itself. As the conversation about art grows, its definition alters and expands too.





Thursday, April 3, 2014

MARTHA GELLHORN, ON HER OWN

Martha Gellhorn might have been the best journalist of World War II, her reporting exceeding in excellence even that of her husband Ernest Hemingway. That's an arguable point, although the fact she was heroic is not. She beat Hemingway to cover the D-Day landings and was there when the infamous concentration camp, Dachau, was liberated, an experience she never forgot.

The Trouble I've Seen, based on Gellhorn's reports on the Great Depression, was published in 1936, only a few months before she met Hemingway, but it was her coverage of World War II in Spain and other parts of Europe that secured her place as a great journalist. She was unflappable covering the horrors of war on the front, and also brought attention to the ravages of war in its aftermath.

In a report from Rome on how children pay for war, published August 1949 in the Saturday Evening Post, and collected in A View From the Ground, Gellhorn wrote:


…”A nun led up a small brown-haired boy with beautiful but frightened eyes. He would look at no one and kept turning away his head, and you could see the cords standing out in his neck. He was mumbling or whispering something. Then I realized that this child was telling how the Germans came to arrest his father, a Partisan, but his father was not home and the Germans were angry, so they took his mother and his aunts and his grandmother into the streets and shot them. He was with his mother, but she fell on top of him and he was hidden by her skirt and the Germans thought he was dead, so they went away.”

She was influenced by Hemingway's writing style, but her independence, intelligence and compassion were her own and became distinguishing trademarks of her career. Born in 1908 to cultured, socially prominent parents--her father was a doctor and her mother, a graduate of Bryn Mawr--Gellhorn grew up in a progressive household, encouraged to acquire an education and uphold her views. But the independent-mindedness that became a hallmark of her career was a liability in her marriage to Hemingway, who abused her ruthlessly.


One of the fullest accounts in print of the horrors of her life with Hemingway, was in a letter to David Gurewitsch, one of her lovers, written in 1950, six years after Gellhorn had left Hemingway and right after he had included an unflattering caricature of her in his mediocre novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. Gellhorn wrote, “... I beg you to understand this. Ernest had a theory that brutality was all women understood; if they seemed recalcitrant (like me) they only needed to be beaten more… I had honestly thought that Ernest would drive me mad with cruelty.”


She continued her life as a journalist after leaving Hemingway, covering Vietnam, the Six-Day War in the Middle East and Nicaragua and was known as much for the quality of her reporting as her fearlessness. At the age of 79, while walking near her house in Nyali, outside Mombasa, she was assaulted and raped. According to Lesley McDowell in Between the Sheets, Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers, Gellhorn “simply dusted herself down, walked back to her house, treated her cuts and bruises, then drove herself to a nearby doctor.”

Determined to control her path, even at its end, she took her own life. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, she took care of her business, cleaned her flat in London and took a pill she had been saving for just such an occasion, and, after downing some whiskey quietly passed away. Gellhorn had never been afraid of death.