On Spring, 2013

To mark a year’s passing since my “last” post on this blog, I decided to post an email I just sent to a few friends about this year’s “spring”:

“Pardon my self-indulgence: I want to talk about the season.  It’s what current social practice calls “sharing,” a word I could never have brought myself to say in earlier parts of my Oklahoma-inflected life.  Probably to my detriment.

Calendar says it is Spring.  Bones say: “still winter,” and I know that’s so for many of my addressees.  It seems to be the identifier of 2013.  As I type I look out my office window to endless monochrome gray sky, leafless gray trees, and clumps and mounds of gray snow on gray earth, bordering the gray asphalt.  The weather pundits say we shall be 6-8 weeks behind last year’s pace for Spring’s arrival (which, admittedly, was ridiculously early).  I find it hard to accept.

Oh, there are reasons for hope: I’m hearing bird calls that come only in Spring, and some of the old crowd are now at our feeders.  There are a few hardy crocus and daffodils snugged against foundation walls on my morning walk.  The snow piles are shrinking.  There are firm plans for trapping and expatriating the groundhog who has taken up residence in our neighbor’s basement through an entrance tunnel just by Fran’s intended tomato garden. The flowering tree buds are bulking up.  The rhododendron leaves are no longer curled into cigarette sized cylinders against single numbers on the garage thermometer.

And there is my own stirring: I am two days into a three-day plan to prune the plum tree (so tempting to say plum the prune tree!). I’ve simplified and opened most of the branches that I can reach, so now I must go buy a pair of long-handled shears to do the top third of the tree.  No fruit the last two seasons from our neglect of this ritual.  And I refuse to do this job on an unstable ladder.  Dreams of plum preserves or cobbler next autumn.  Maybe.

Also dreams of escape to warmer climes.  I’ve been checking prices for Amtrak and the airlines for an April vacation south.  But as usual, driving takes too long, and is too tiring.  Amtrak takes much too long for a short vacation.  And air fares are ridiculously high, when added to car rental at the southern end.  And where?  We are tempted to revisit port towns we visited by boat 20+ years ago: Elizabeth City, NC, Beaufort, NC, Beaufort, SC, Charleston, SC, Wilmington, Georgetown and Myrtle Beach, SC, and so many others on the Intracoastal Waterway route south.  But the promise of food options and lodging on land in those regions could never resurrect the joys of our original sailing adventure, and so much has changed since the early 90s.  Including us.

My hermit side says: “Stay home.”  I dream of reading Virgil’s Georgics –the most poetic agricultural manual ever written, and dating from 29 B.C.  By the fire. An instruction manual for how to get the gods back into your garden.  I’m not big on the Farmer’s Almanac, seed catalogs, and, happily, have no responsibilities involving birthing lambs, castrating male bovines, breaking horses, plowing fields, incubating chicks, or building rabbit hutches.  But….there is something in the blood that wants to join the dance of spring, cultivation, renewal.  I suppose I’ll settle for the usual lawn care, and Fran-support for her flower and vegetable gardens.  And maybe a small trip somewhere for whatever purpose.

I have attached a photo of my grandfather (dad’s dad) and family taken probably around 1905, standing (most barefoot) in front of their sorghum mill (sorghum is a sweet tall grass used for sileage and making sweet syrup like molasses).  Oklahoma. My dad is not among the children: he had not yet arrived.  My grandfather is in a straw hat at far right. Zooming will reveal that maybe we do share some DNA in facial structure.  I would not wish this life, but I’d wager that grandpa, born before Lincoln was president, would understand some of my “stirrings” and discontent on this still-winter day?

Anyway, happy spring to all”

Au revoir…

Philosophers love to quote Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
My ex-colleague, Alphonso Lingis (google him!) said it should be added that
“The unlived life is not worth examining.”

The past few weeks have been fun, but please consider this blog closed, and have a good year!


“Memorandum”…and A Temporary Exit

E. B. White, one of two or three of my favorite writers, wrote  “Memorandum,” in his book of essays, One Man‘s Meat, in October, 1941–just a couple weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The title refers to his listing the approximately 200 chores that need to be done before New England winter sets in on his Maine salt-water farm–each sentence beginning with some variant of “Today I ought to…” After a few pages he notes that the sun is going down, and he has spent the afternoon at his typewriter, thus avoiding the work, postponing acceptance of winter.  He decides to go into town, since he “ought to get a haircut.”

If you run a large farm in Maine, October is a time of reckoning. Chores not completed will be impossible a month later, and a price will be paid, up to–and maybe including–disaster.
For a city-dweller like me a similar memorandum could be written to myself in October, (I ought to put on the storm windows, clear out the spent tomato vines, shut off the water-line to the outside faucet, put away the hoses, put on snow-tires, have the furnace inspected, take in the outdoor furniture, and so on.) But April involves a much longer list in preparation for putting in the gardens,  and preparing for warmer weather, while doing repairs necessitated by winter’s toll on paint, stain, asphalt, and plantings.  And this year the list is heavily augmented by other more pressing factors: F. has a photography exhibit to prepare for the month of May, and we have decided to reconfigure in several household categories–vehicles, home improvements, and budgeting strategies, among others.

So this is all in the way of saying that this blog gets shoved aside for a few days, to allow more hours per week to be spent looking for used vehicles, drawing up lists, AND doing what’s needed around the place (new window boxes, new garden plans, painting, and much more.)

I will leave everything online as it is, so feel free to check back from time to time in case I found time to post new entries, or to read older posts that you may have missed.  But I will no longer wake each day thinking about what might be fun to write or put online.

Thanks so much for your kind responses and interest, and have a great Spring, which arrives officially in a few days.  Having no hair, I will not be going into town to get a haircut, but if you know anyone selling an old 4-cylinder Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, I might be interested, since that garage  MUST be cleaned out before gardening season!




A Manifesto as Introduction to an Intended Essay – Photography and Art

It has been a light-blogging day: errands to run, promises to keep, with dinner and wine to go before I sleep…

I’m thinking that my “appropriated” posts, lifted from online videos, essays, and news stories, reprinted for your pleasure here, need a frame and context–some attempt to say what I think I mean by “art,” “photography,” and other root metaphors of my current endeavors. And surely it is the same for issues in politics, humor, and so on (though those are not my immediate concern…)

I’m sure that YOU do not need this, but I do.  As a philosophy professor, I was always thinking in advance about how I might defend any claim I made, since a philosophical statement is only as good as its support.  Anyone can claim that, say, “Art is the Sublime, recollected in terror and awe, under the aegis of Beauty.”  But (a) what does that MEAN, and (b) what argument can you offer in support of this grand construal?  (Yeah, you are right, I just made that up.)

So I’m thinking I may spend a day thinking about such questions before I propose some of my views on the matter here.

A year or two ago I entered a comment on another (local) blog that asked the question of artists and photographers, “Where Are We Headed?”– and remembering it, thought that my rather quick, rather offhand comment on that blog might serve as a “Prolegomena to Any Future Big Idea on the Nature of Art, according to Exocentrist…”  So I am (lazily) printing below what I said then, most of which I still find agreeable.  You have been warned. There WILL be a post on “Art.”  But there will not be a test, so reading it is voluntary.

“Anyone can make a photograph and the result is a commodity like any other that can be sold. The fate of such commodities depends, like others, on cultural fads, advertising, celebrity endorsements, and other forms of marketplace ideology of the moment—almost always in the service of profit, whether corporate, institutional, or personal. The trick to selling “art” is to give the customers what they want—to divine the current eros operating in the marketplace and meet the market “need”—no different from “stainless appliances and granite countertops” in current real estate ads.

Almost all “art” offered in “galleries” in every country of the world today belongs in this category: marketed commodities to meet current market demand: “Art” for interior designers, corporate offices, rich bored upper-middle-class consumers, “educated” in well-marketed, branded universities, speculative investors, and so on. Think of “critics” in the local media as enablers and lobbyists for their friends, and you’ll be getting close to the way the system actually works.

The question should be: “what uses of photographic technology generate ‘art,’ or more to the point, ‘fine art’?” This question requires an answer to a question not really addressed in most of the posts here. What makes fine art fine? It is assumed we know it when we see it. History suggests that we do not.

After 25 years teaching courses on such matters in philosophy and cinema departments around the country—mostly in New York, I came to the conclusion that no one has ever bested Roland Barthes in answering this vexing question. In The Pleasure of the Text (67 pp. in translation), he deftly distinguishes between texts of pleasure (plaisir) and texts of bliss (jouissance). If we extend “text” to include photographs (“drawing with light”), then I can paraphrase his definitions, as follows:

Pleasure: the photograph that contents, fills, grants euphoria: the photo that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of “reading” it.

Bliss: the photograph that imposes a state of loss, that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), and unsettles the viewer’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with visual representation.

This is not entirely new as a manifesto: the surrealists and others in the modernist tradition preached, as Ezra Pound said, “Make it new!”

Viewing photographs of “pleasure” (landscapes, seascapes, lighthouses, old boats, ruins, children’s portraits, voluptuous nudes, sunsets, …you know the drill) gives a pleasure akin to making love to a long-time lover, who knows your every need, and meets it comfortably and predictably.

Photographs of “bliss” are more akin to the enhanced orgasms (“jouissance” in French, and very much what Barthes had in mind) that one might associate with a wrenchingly disruptive erotic event that would never fit in a Valentine’s Day verse.

In my view gallery art is almost always of the “pleasure” variety, while fine art blissfully disrupts our zone of comfort and redefines the assumptions we hold concerning the effects of viewing in general, often redefining an entire genre: portrait, still life, landscape.

Of course this disjunct (like any apocalyptic erotic event) has a relatively brief shelf-life. The scandal of Impressionist painting quickly became the cliché of every schlock painter selling on the street in New York, Paris, or Des Moines.

But this fact is the source of my hope for the future of photography: there will always be new clichés to smash.

This will not happen, culturally, in Portland (or Des Moines or Atlanta). It only happens in the big centers—Manhattan, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and so on. That is, even the most revolutionary break in the photographic tradition needs the massive cultural apparatus of museums, billionaire collectors, social networking, art magazines, and other power-brokers to launch a truly revolutionary vision into the historical culture. Andy Warhol would not be Andy, if he had stayed in Pittsburgh.

I show work as a “photographer,” but in fact I am a painter, using photographs as my medium to create very large photocollages in Photoshop. Two of my recent works are directly related to my decades-long obsession with these questions (and will be shown in May at the Addison Woolley Gallery): the first is Fauxtographie Factory Farm, which I intended as a satire on the cliché’s of “fine art” photography, only to discover that most people’s response was on the order of: “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever done!” (Pleasure!) The second was a meditation on the question whether my mother’s snapshots of grocerymen in Oklahoma in 1952 could be considered fine art: Big Gallery Séance.
Both are available online in zoomable format by visiting http://www.photocollagist.com

So “fine art” is finally coopted by the market and turned into an art of pleasure. The trick is to be available to experience the moment when the experience is still hot—or if your motive is to make a sale in the market, to be in the right place, the right age, the right gender, have the right friends, and a hell of a story (or resume) to sell. Bon voyage.”

Hmm.  On re-reading this now, I’m not sure I’ll have much to add in an expanded version, but, trust me, there’ll be something

Happy time-change, and almost-Spring to all!


A Video Tour of Cindy Sherman’s MOMA Exhibit

A couple days ago I posted two interviews with Cindy Sherman. Since relatively few will actually get to New York to see the huge Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, I thought it might be useful to post a James Kalm “Report” here–a video by Mr. Kalm, walking around the museum and commenting on the exhibit.  The quality is rough, the commentary only marginally informative, but you CAN see the types of work in the show, and get an impression of the size and organization of her installation.  She just keeps working! For the record, the large images in the entrance to the exhibit are 18 feet high!

Christian Marclay, Collagist, Filmmaker, Musician, etc.

The current New Yorker has an article about Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video collage, “The Clock”

You could actually use this 24-hour work as a clock, if you played it non-stop on a home monitor, and synchronized its start with the actual time. Fascinating commentary on life, film, aging, simultaneity, as well as a visual museum of thousands of familiar images in time.

You can get an idea of this massive work in the clips below, if you have the…uh…time to watch them:

And here’s an interview with Marclay concerning his work with turntables, vinyl records and other materials back to the 1970s

Douglas Gordon made a film, “24 Hour Psycho” that showed the Hitchcock film at 2 frames per second, so that it lasts 24 hours.
(Great if you need to write a term-paper about the shower scene for your film class).
Warhol made “Empire,” an 8-hour film of the Empire State Building, in which nothing much happens.

I think I’d prefer to see Marclay’s “The Clock” myself, but museums don’t usually stay open all night, and I tend to sleep every night. I guess I’ll have to wait for it on Netflix…

Photographers: Cindy Sherman & Nan Goldin

The current retrospective of the work of Cindy Sherman at MOMA gives us the chance to have another look at the woman called by many our greatest living artist.  Whatever you think of her work, no one can doubt her creative ambition, and her massive influence over the past 3 decades of world art. Here are a couple brief interviews with her:

For something completely different, consider Nan Goldin, discussing her more provocative work (X-rated):

Born 3-4 months apart…

A Different Way of Photo-Synthesizing

My huge photocollages (link > thataway) strive for what I hope is an uncanny verisimilitude–classic three dimensional objects in perspective space.  But  a photographer (Idris Kahn), featured in the  NY Times magazine last Sunday works in quite a different way.  Like me, he uses hundreds of (mostly found) photos, and combines them using transparency and layers in Photoshop.  (Examples here.) But his work hovers in some multi-dimensional  space, and his use of transparency goes towards creation of what I’d call impressionist essentialism–an attempt to reveal an essence almost like a memory or archetype.  You get something with a feel rather like Monet: the solidity of things dissolving into an IDEA of the subject matter.