Saturday, May 30, 2015

Art as Experience

Art as ExperienceArt as Experience by John Dewey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some labyrinths are worth descending into just to get a glimpse of the Minotaur, even if you can't yet defeat him. Art as Experience is one of those. It will require several more descents to get the clearest picture of the Minotaur and more familiarization with the territory in order to be able to face it head on. But I have seen the face of the Minotaur, and it is beautiful and terrifying. This is my attempt to follow the threads back out of the maze.

Dewey's monstrous work - and I use this as a term of admiration, rather than derision - is daunting in scope, yet, at it's core, it is a simple argument: People change, their perception changes, so that every encounter with a potential "art" carries with it the possibility of an aesthetic experience. The imposition of one's preconceived theory on art interferes with one's direct interaction with art, since it imposes generic ideas on the mind that do not take into account both the artists and the viewers own experiences as influences in the interplay between creator and created, viewer and viewed.

This flies in the face of several philosophical traditions that tend to shoehorn art into their paradigms as an afterthought or even a necessary nuisance - philosophers seem to recognize that they ought to include art in their thought-system, but they don't really know where to place it on the map. From this springs the aesthetics-theory equivalent of Ptolemaic models of the geocentric universe, with their complicated, strained systems of deferents, equants, and epicycles.

Dewey's solution is to abandon philosophical preconception and begin from the ground up, defining the very word "experience" with some logical rigor, then examining whether or not that definition accurately communicates the difficult-to-quantify interplay between art and those who appreciate it (or not). His theory arises from art as an experience, the experience of production and enjoyment, rather than imposing his theory on art and aesthetic experience. He uses flowers as an analogy to show the difference between the mere appreciation of art and the understanding of art:

"Flowers can be enjoyed without knowing about the interactions of soil, air, moisture, and seeds of which they are the result. But they cannot be understood without taking just these interactions into account - and theory is a matter of understanding. Theory is concerned with discovering the nature of the production of works of art and of their enjoyment in perception."

Note that Dewey addresses not only the understanding of art, but the understanding of its production, as well. He gives importance to the conscious manipulation of materials during an artist's work (he is careful to identify "work" as more of what an artist does than of what an artist produces, though the word often works with both definitions simultaneously). While others work for efficiency, especially in the manufacturing and production sectors (I can vouch for this from my day job as a "Continuous Improvement Supervisor" - yes, that's my actual job title), the artist works to consciously form matter into a "work" of art that communicates meaning. I am struck particularly by Dewey's assertion that "It is possible to be efficient in action and yet not have a conscious experience." This is my experience in my day job. And this is why I love writing. Though writing is hard work, and believe me, it's a lot like real work, I am immersed when I write, fully conscious of the experience, and yet "lost" to the outside world. It's like making intellectual love with words and sentences - a very sensual, immediate experience, very much unlike the job I use to pay the bills.

That's not to say that someone can't produce something of great craftsmanship with efficiency. But Dewey is careful to indicate that the conscious work, bolstered by an emotional investment, something of the "heart" of the artist, again in an attempt to communicate meaning, is different than the work of creating a functional object. A chair is just a chair, unless the artist can somehow, in the chair's construction, communicate meaning beyond the mere utility of the chair, thus providing an aesthetic experience to the audience: "Without emotion, there may be craftsmanship, but not art"

Dewey also separates the art object from that which it represents. Once the artist has manipulated matter to create a work of art, it is its own thing, despite what it might represent. Thus, Dewey includes abstract art as fully capable of engendering aesthetic experiences, again depending on what the artist puts into it and what the audience brings to its viewing: "When someone complained to [Matisse] that she had never seen a woman who looked like the one in his painting, he replied: 'Madam, that is not a woman; that is a picture'."

The "unity" that occurs when the audience comes into dialogue with the artist through the work of art is what, ultimately, constitutes the aesthetic experience. The audience approaches the work of art with their own prejudices (Dewey uses the term "resistances") born of previous experience. The artist has also brought his or her prejudices, also born of previous experience, to the work(ing) of (the) art. In this interaction, the art itself acts as the device of communication between the two parties, and a sort of negotiation takes place. "There is unity only when the resistances create a suspense that is resolved through cooperative interaction of the opposed energies." The audience brings something of opposition to the table, and that opposition cannot always be resolved (take, for example, my utter loathing of The Catcher in the Rye which is loved by some of my close friends and many of those whose opinions on literature I hold in high regard). In the example of Matisse just quoted, one can surmise that either the prejudices of the woman speaking to him did not allow the art to "speak" to her, or that Matisse failed to create the art in such a way that the woman could understand. This is why the appreciation or rejection of art can be such a divisive discourse. Not everyone's communication style is compatible with everyone else's. As with speaking, so with art.

This leads to Dewey's criticism of criticism (!). This segment of Art as Experience is excellent in that it shows that any justification toward "objectivity" on the part of a critic is misplaced if the critic doesn't acknowledge his or her then current circumstances, which must inform the criticism. In other words, there is no absolutely true objectivity when it comes to critiques of art (or literature, etc), and such critiques can change over time, as the critics experience changes.

Now, I have merely scratched the surface. This is a work that demands to be read and re-read. I am shocked that this wasn't ever included in my studies as an undergraduate Humanities major. Perhaps the professors thought this should be reserved for graduate level studies and, if so, they might have been right. This book, like any labyrinth, is a challenge. But it is worth it, if only to get a glimpse at the horrible beauty of the Minotaur which, in my case, at least, is likely to go undefeated in this lifetime. I simply don't have enough years left to fully explore every nook and cranny of this monumental work, though what I've retained thus far will definitely inform all my own creative endeavors from now on.

Finally, I believe that the paragraph I quote below, by itself, speaks potential volumes. It might seem fairly straightforward, but, I believe, it contains subtle twists and turns that could inform ones study of art (in all its forms, whether visual art, statuary, architecture, dance, poetry, or music) for a lifetime.

"[The existence of art] is proof that man uses the materials and energies of nature with intent to expand his own life, and that he does so in accord with the structure of his organism - brain, sense-organs, and muscular system. Art is the living and concrete proof that man is capable of restoring consciously, and thus on the plane of meaning, the union of sense, impulse, and action characteristic of the live creature. The intervention of consciousness adds regulation, power of selection, and redisposition. Thus it varies the arts in ways without end. But its intervention also leads in time to the idea of art as a conscious idea - the greatest intellectual achievement in the history of humanity."

Go forth, Theseus. But please don't forget about the black sails, okay?

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Beta Testing the Apocalypse

Beta Testing the ApocalypseBeta Testing the Apocalypse by Tom Kaczynski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If Kafka had been born 100 years later and studied architecture, and become a cartoonist, this is what he might have produced. Tom Kaczynski immerses the reader in 21st century angst brought on by gentrification, the commodification of the environment, and the horrors of suburban living (only slightly more terrifying than urban living). This is an angsty collection wherein existentialism bleeds out of the very walls around us. It is also an incredibly smart collection, successfully calling the reader's attention to the ironies and contradictions of modern living, while not being too pedantic about it. Some refer to this as a sidelong segue into science fiction, but it is more a work of magic realism than science fiction. There is a heavy dose of philosophy here, at least implied, particularly something akin to "object oriented" systems in which man's relation to the objects (especially architecture and artificially-controlled spaces) are of paramount importance to one's view of the world. But do please take this last claim with a grain of salt, as I am only very newly-introduced to the "object oriented" philosophy.

One thing that you will see less of in this graphic novel than in other contemporary graphic novels is the hipster aloofness, bordering on amorality, that infects too many comics nowadays. Beta Testing the Apocalypse may be full of angst, but the angst arises because the characters represented actually care about something, unlike those in, say, Clowe's Death Ray or Daly's Dungeon Quest. This is refreshing . . . in an angsty way . . . if such a thing is possible.

Despite my incoherent ramblings, this is a graphic novel that deserves your attention. Like any of the best literature, it will cause you to think, question, reflect on your place in the place in which you live, not in a detached way, but in a way that engages your eyes, mind, and heart. Reading the book, for me, was something approaching a religious experience, and I mean that in all seriousness and reverence. This book deserves to be studied and meditated on, rather than merely read.

You may never look at condos or green-spaces the same way again . . .

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

God of Bug Eater Flipbook

God of Bug Eater FlipbookGod of Bug Eater Flipbook by Mo hitotsu no kenkyujo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered this little thing straight from Japan. And, in classic Japanese fashion, the package arrived neatly wrapped and protected, with the book in a small cellophane bag, and included in the bag was . . . a package of eyeglass wipes?!?

OK, I've come to expect weirdness from Japan. After all, have you ever watched one of those crazy Japanese game shows? Or those creepy Japanese McDonald's commercials?

But . . . eyeglass wipes? What the heck do eyeglass wipes have to do with this book? WHAT?

What the heck does God of Bug Eater even mean? I . . . I . . . I need to have a seat and calm down . . .

There. Better. Now breathe. Okay.

If God of Bug Eater is a "good" translation, then this is a very strange title for a book, to say the least. If it's a case of bad "Engrish," then it's the most serendipitously surreal title since . . . ever.

And I love it! This book is concentrated strangeness, a 4"X1.5"X1" brick of weird. Move over, Mieville, vamoose, VanderMeer, there's a NEWER weird in town!

After failing my saving throw versus the confusion caused by my glass-wiping "visitor," I was hit by another round of confusion: Was this a large matchbook? Is that what I ordered?

Well, no and no. The book comes in this very clever little slipcase. Yeah, a sturdy little slipcase that looks an awful lot like a matchbook. What you see in the photo on Goodreads is the slipcase, not the book itself. It's encrusted with all sorts of Japanese characters that I can't read, but one side provides this lovely little translation: "You and I will always be together. Be one with me, and we'll become a pretty-colored forest."

"Forrest" is my real name, incidentally. I was named after my grandfather, Forrest. So reading this invitation, had me a little creeped out (keep in mind my mental association of all things Japanese with those McDonald's commercials . . .). In fact, I thought it might be an omen. Would I pull the little flip book out and then be PULLED IN?!?!?

Why, yes! I was pulled in. Pulled in by the novelty of the flipbook and pulled into a universe where a bug eats its way through your book right before your very eyes. And I mean, eats a physical hole through your book. It's entrancing and delightful. Then, watch in numb horror as the "god" eats . . . well, I don't want to give it all away.

Let's just say that the quote on the box is the most fitting summation of the story. There are no cliffhangers here. Let's also say that this book is a wonderfully complete artifact. Every detail points back to the theme presented on the slipcase. It is, as John Dewey would point out, entirely engaging, but evocative of something much more than the sum of its parts: something much more simultaneously creepy and cute than I can even put into words.

In other words, it is a little treasure. And I am chaining it to my bookshelf with my most precious books!

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Monday, May 11, 2015


RhinocérosRhinocéros by Eugène Ionesco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A libertarian manifesto, of sorts; not in the strictly political sense, or in the philosophical sense of free will versus determinism, but in the broader sense of one who values personal liberty and freedom above all else in or out of the political arena. I just saw a fantastic rendering of this play put on by the theater troupe at the high school where my wife teaches. I wasn't certain that they could pull off a play that demands such a high level of skill from its actors and director, but they did it, and they did it well. The lead actor, playing the part of Berenger, brilliantly portrayed the transformation of Berenger from a waffling, unsure drunk to the morally certain, but crushingly alone last-man-standing, after the inhabitants of his town slowly choose to turn into rhinoceroses.

Afterwards, having been near the edges of the audience and having had one of the "rhinoceroses" brush up against me (they wander around among the audience for much of the play), I remarked to my wife that I felt like the absurdist (and strongly existentialist) play was a sort of audience-participation episode of the Twilight Zone. And since TZ is my favorite television show of all time, that was the highest compliment I could give it. Reading the play may not lend the same intensity, as this was written "for the stage, not for the page" (as my daughter so frequently characterized Shakespeare when she was a child). But the blueprint is there, and a well-directed group of actors can really plunge the audience into the middle of the angst.

The central theme running throughout is that of individualism versus conformity. Though the play is frequently cited as being "anti-Nazi," Ionesco says:

"Rhinoceros is certainly an anti-Nazi play, yet it is also and mainly an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemics that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are none the less serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies."

The play runs far deeper than a simple invective against one group. Rather, it questions *all* groups and the human need to belong vis-a-vis the need for human individuation. Ionesco is careful to make Berenger a complex character, who struggles with the decision of whether or not to become a rhinoceros, thus avoiding a pedantic forcing of the audience to hate the rhinoceroses. This is not a propaganda piece that ignores the psychological subtleties behind such a difficult choice. The situations portrayed pull forth feelings of tolerance, possibly even sympathy, for those who succumb to the allure of the crowd. One must ask, "what would I do in this situation, given all that is presented to me?" The question of who the rhinoceroses are is completely irrelevant:

People always wish me to spell out whether I mean the rhinos to be fascists or communists. Rhinoceritis is not an illness of the Right or the Left: it cannot be contained within geo-political borders. Nor is it characteristic of a social class. It is the malady of conformity which knows no bounds, no boundaries.

There are no easy answers: Tolerate the crowd, accept them, become one of them and accept their sociality, or resist them, become intolerant, and remain staunchly individual, and alone?

Before you answer, think about it. Read or see this play, then think about it. This isn't a decision you'll want to make in haste.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beautiful LEGO

Beautiful LEGOBeautiful LEGO by Mike Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a child, I'm certain that I swallowed at least one small Lego brick. I don't know that it ever passed through the digestive tract. More than likely, it's lodged around a corner in my large intestine somewhere, waiting to kill me. But I'm certain I'm not alone. A straw poll, solidly scientific in its execution (I asked friends and co-workers) shows that most males believe they swallowed at least one Lego during their childhood.

What are the archaeologists going to think?

"Clearly, this little plastic brick was interred with these remains to memorialize the ancients fascination with temple architecture. The building block would have been placed with the body before burial, near the navel (provenience substantiates this) to provide the erstwhile architect with a model to replicate the materials needed for temple building in the afterlife."

They'll never, ever guess they were used to make art. "Real" art. Substantial art. Serious art. The kind that Mike Doyle presents here, and which he produces himself.

In fact, I wish there was more work in the book of the same quality and construction as Mike Doyle's work. This guy is good. Really, really good. Take, for example, his piece Victorian With Tree. This thing was made with legos? That's insane!

Equally insane are Nannan Zhang's surreal, apocalyptic visions, which can likely be found somewhere here. Sorry, Zhang has 50 pages of photos here, all of them showing some fascinating constructions. I don't have time to go through all 50 pages to find a representative sample featured in Beautiful Lego. But if you winnow through it, look for "End of Days" and "Armageddon". You won't be disappointed.

There are dozens of artists featured in this book. I've just pointed out my two favorites. There's something here for everyone, from birds to spacecraft to mosaics to everyday objects. There's even a depiction of a frog dissection, which brought back some memories from high school (traumatic as they may be).

But it's in the architecture that these artists really show their chops. Whether faithful recreations of monumental architecture, or whimsical additions to the canon, the lego-constructed-buildings are absolutely spectacular.

We also get some great insight to the artists themselves through a series of interviews with some of the top builders. These builders love their medium. There is passion hidden in these little blocks.

Maybe we should bury Legos with our artistic dead.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in HellDiableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell by Brian May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let's get the obligatory cataloging information out of the way first, shall we?

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell comes as slip-cased book, with a hologram of Satan and his minions going to war on the cover. It was compiled by Brian May (yes, THAT Brian May), Denis Pellerin, and Paula Fleming (No, not that Paula Fleming, whoever she is). Included is an "OWL" stereoscope for viewing the dozens of 3D stereoscopic photographs reproduced throughout. Contents include an introductory preface written by May, a section revealing "The Magic of Stereo Photography," detail pages including Diableries (dioramas taking place in hell, usually, and featuring Satan and his minions), a timeline, a section on "Peripheral Diableries," which don't quite fit into the formally-recognized diableries, a section giving instructions on how to take stereo photographs with your cell phone(!), a segment on the historical background of the diableries, which helps to contextualize them, and biographies of the men who sponsored and created the sculptures and photographs themselves.

What did I think of the book?

This book will be a family heirloom that will hopefully be passed down for generations long after I have joined the choir eternal. Yes, it's that good. Not just because of the content (which I will briefly discuss in a moment) but because it is an amazing artifact. A shrine, really, or an immersive space dedicated to the artists that created these scenes and the time in which they were produced.

The main character, as one would expect, is Satan aka Lucifer aka Old Scratch aka Mr. Nick (incidentally, my favorite portrayal of the devil is that of "Mr. Nick" by Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). The setting, as one would also expect, is Hell.

What is unexpected is the whimsical ways in which the devil and his minions are portrayed. The vignettes portrayed in the diableries are as varied as life itself. We see Satan on his wedding day, at supper, in his laboratory, in a gaming room, walking in the park with Misses Satan, in a bicycle race, leading his legions to war, at the lottery, at the stock exchange (I found these last two particularly appropriate), at a regatta, at the wheat harvest, and on and on and on. These scenes are typically light-hearted, even zany (see, for example, "A Lecture by Miss Satan - Satan's daughter educates an audience of men - er, male skeletons - on the merits of the new feminism by standing on a stage, dressed in a man's suit, lifting a glass of champagne while kicking her leg up in a Can Can dance to the cheers of the . . . er, men . . . uh, skeletons . . . minions . . . whatever).

But let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a book about Satan. Remember? The Deceiver? The Father of Lies?

All is not as it seems . . .

Behind the thin veneer of raucous entertainment is a social commentary. When one understands the symbols used and some of the situations represented, the book takes on a more . . . sinister tone. The authors point out some points that hint at underlying messages about and in opposition to France's Second Empire (1852-1870), a period about which I knew almost nothing. Apparently, I am not alone. We are told, in the historical section at the back of the book, that most French schools skip right over this period when teaching French history. Thankfully, this section provides a great survey of the period, which I will not repeat here, so as to not spoil the fun.

It is in the biographies of the artists (there were several, with two, Louis Alfred Habert and Pierre Adolphe Hennetier being the most prominent) and the primary producers of the diableries, Francois Benjamin Lamiche and Adolphe Block, that we come to realize the impetus for referencing and disparaging the French Emperor, Napoleon III.

Napoleon was a notorious womanizer who admitted remaining faithful to his wife for only six months after their marriage. The many portrayals of Satan's dalliances with "Ladies of easy virtue" are really representations of Napoleon III. In one scene, a castle is represented which, to those who know the place, is modeled after a chateau gifted by the Emperor to one of his many mistresses. Satan leads his skeletal soldiers against some un-named enemy, the armies of whom wear the Prussian Picklehaube - a clear reference to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and Napoleon III's defense of Paris. One of the more damning diableries is "Satan the Journalist" in which the devil is portrayed as a two-faced being, one face looking cruelly on, whip in hand, as a demon made from a pair of scissors (a reference to the extreme government censorship of the Second Empire) cooks up scandalous news beneath a bank of drawers containing "Lies," "New Mistakes" (per the label on one drawer), and absurd pieces of made-up news. The other side of his face looks approvingly on those journalists who write and disseminate trivial, vacuous news about celebrities and social happenings that will keep the masses distracted from any real problems in the Empire (the early equivalent of People magazine). Behind these purveyors of schlock, the allegorical figure of Truth is locked up, half clothed (i.e., not naked) in a cage.

As I said, in the biographies, one finds the reason behind these scathing, if carefully veiled (they made it past the censors, after all!) accusations: Francois Benjamin Lamiche, who owned the copyright to the earliest diableries and who must have hired Hennetier and, later, Habert, was a bitter opponent of the regime. His son, Alphonse Benjamin, had died of typhus while en route to the Crimean War, and the government, it seems, did not notify the family in a timely manner. Or, at least, it is unclear when they were notified. Also, Lamiche was arrested, fined, and imprisoned for possessing and distributing obscene pictures and for having conspired with other Parisian photographers, to write a petition to the Emperor asking for an appeal on their collective cases. This backfired when the police used the petition to track down, investigate, and further condemn those who were already out of favor with the law. These experiences seem to have informed, to some extent, the negative, if obfuscated, lampooning of Napoleon III throughout the diableries.

Knowing all of this (and more - there is more, but I shall forbear . . .), the book still works on the level of pure enjoyment. The 3D images are spectacular (though headache-inducing if you look for too long), and the portrayals are mostly quite fun, with a wry, dark sense of humor throughout. For those of us who are trained historians, however, the book takes on deeper social meaning in light of the fantastic historical overview and bibliographies presented at the end. This book is a keeper - one of my "chained" books that I hope to never see leave my library (NO! You can't borrow it! Rawr!) except as I share the delight I've found in this artifact with friends and family who come to visit.

Before i go inviting everyone over, however, I should put a sign above the doorway into my house:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate

Come on over . . . if you dare!

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