Nietzsche

‘Of Course We’re Doomed’ (Video Transcript and Expansion)

LOGOS I (SoundCloud / YouTube)


I’ve been itching to reboot my YouTube account for a while now. I used to do some sparse reviews and music video mashups and all that. I figured, I’ve still got it on there, and decided to start uploading again.

THIS is my most recent yammering. An impromptu monologue in line with « Forever and Ever (and Ever and Ever and…)—a Little Rant… », on the collision of value and virtue. Part of a new and ongoing series with the provisional name of LOGOS:

I’m not a bona fide philosopher. But I like to talk my ass off.

Gustave Doré: illustration of Lucifer falling from Heaven (1865), for Milton's Paradise Lost.

Gustave Doré: illustration of Lucifer falling from Heaven (1865), for Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The transcript:

“Of course we’re doomed. That’s a given. But, I think we often wonder how and when… I mean, you can’t honestly expect the human race to survive, say, the heat death of the universe; and, we know in all likelihood that it will be much earlier than that, that the species meets its demise. I mean, I think it was said [that] that would occur in something like 10 to the hundreth power (10100) years or something—some wildly ridiculous number like that… the heat death of the universe… the “degenerate era,” or whatever. But I guess the problem boils down to one of infinity and immortality… you know, this idea that we need to preserve something… Why? I mean, you see monuments and statues and all sorts of things erected all over the world all the time in honor of so and so or such and such; and you do have to wonder, you know… several billion years from now the Sun is going to engulf the Earth… and you have to wonder exactly what people are thinking. Like… this is being left for posterity? [I mean] it’s short-sighted. If you’re long-sighted you realize none of it lasts, and there’s no point in doing anything with a sense of I’m preserving something… [That] I’m preserving some kind of artifact, especially… that, you know, is really ultimately a product of my ego. And I think this is where we boil down to a lot of moral philosophy… that here and now, what can we do to alleviate the suffering of sentient creatures? I think that ultimately that’s what we care about, even if we don’t realize it. “We all want to be happy.” I think that’s what the Dalai Lama said, right? But… “what can we do to make ourselves and other people [truly] happy?” Not, “what can we do to gratify ourselves and make us feel like we’re somehow memetically (sic) immortal?” Because, we won’t be, and none of this—none of the grandiose structures… none of the art, the literature, the music, the philosophy—nothing that humans have ever done is going to be a lasting thing in the universe at large (sic). So, what do we do now? Here and now? I think that’s the real question.”

~

I think that if we take this view to its logical conclusion we realize the general importance of empathy and compassion. Now, there are moral relativists, and solipsists, and other types who think that morality, generally speaking, doesn’t have a set state, or that suffering is either non-existent (and thus a non-issue) or dulled for other minds. (If there even are other minds.)

Anyway, there are a lot of different ways of looking at morality. But I think that most of us can agree that, if there is such a thing as morality or virtue, it ties into our sense of empathy and the existence of suffering for both ourselves and others. Poor old Schopenhauer had this in mind when he, in his On the Basis of Morality, wrote:

“If an action has as its motive an egoistic aim… it cannot have any moral worth… the everyday phenomenon of compassion… the immediate participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it… Only insofar as an action has sprung from compassion does it have moral value; and every action resulting from any other motives has none.”

Now, that being said, I will say that pity is something I think should more often than not be avoided. I mostly agree with Crowley’s assertion on this issue, as presented in his article “On Thelema” (c. 1926-1927):

“Pity implies two very grave errors…

The first error… is an implicit assumption that something is wrong with the Universe, and that moreover one is so insidiously obsessed by the Trance of Sorrow as to have completely failed in the task of solving the riddle of Sorrow, and gone through life with the groan of a hurt animal—”All is Sorrow.” The second error is still greater since it involves the complex of the Ego. To pity another person implies that you are superior to him, and you fail to recognize his absolute right to exist as he is.”

Crowley was, of course, speaking from the perspective of Thelema, a rather (I would argue) Nietzschean occult system which promotes the divine sovereignty of oneself and the primacy of joy over suffering (“Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass & are done; but there is that which remains…”—Crowley, Liber Legis sub figura CCXX), putting it somewhat at odds with Schopenhauer and Buddhism (which I will mention further down). Schopenhauer and Buddha both seemed to have as their emphasis the nature and problem of suffering (“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance…”—Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism), whereas Nietzsche promoted—in his disagreement with Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity—amor fati, the love of one’s fate (despite pain), and Thelema seems to have a vaguely similar idea of things. (“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”—Nietzsche, The Gay Science.)

Frankly, I find all four—Gotama Buddha, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Crowley—to be incredibly wise in their own ways, and it is difficult to “side” with any particular one in terms of ethics and value. We’re talking about some very profound thinkers and articulate writers and orators here.

Anyway, true compassion, to my mind, does not involve any kind of power exchange or other faulty dynamic. It must be a recognition that what is within oneself is also within another.

Despite Crowley’s admonishments of those who are “obsessed by the Trance of Sorrow,” the Buddhist view (particularly in line with the Mahayana) is one very close to my heart on this issue. As is noted by the Buddha of the Diamond Sutra, in speaking to his disciple Subhuti:

“…Subhuti, in the practice of compassion and charity a disciple should be detached. That is to say, he should practice compassion and charity without regard to appearances, without regard to form, without regard to sound, smell, taste, touch, or any quality of any kind. Subhuti, this is how the disciple should practice compassion and charity.”

In this context, compassion is something that must exist without regard to condition—the condition of ourselves, others, or the world at large. It must be self-existent and be provided to all beings.

But this brings me back to my original point: In a world so transient (as the Buddha, speaking of Buddhism, was so eager to point out), suffering and happiness must be our chief concerns. Looking to impermanent objects or projects for a lasting sense of meaning, security, or peace of mind is ultimately folly and is destined to fail. We are very much “doomed,” both as individuals and a species. We will not and cannot go on forever, and the idea that we persevere through objects/products/creations is a trick of the ego. Plus, considering the current state of our little planet’s climate and ecology, there’s a distinct possibility that we won’t be around much longer anyway. Given that, it is time to afford ourselves and other creatures a perfect measure of respect and love. I think that, despite any philosophical debate, we must come back to the fact of suffering and do something about it. What can we do otherwise?


» Check out the LOGOS! podcast on Soundcloud and the video series version on YouTube.

logos

Thirteen Weeks (Bullshit—Layman’s Review of Unfathomable Art)

I’m a shitty student. I’m not a stupid person, but I am a shitty student. Just some sick and lazy undergrad. I had a writing class this semester, the topic of which was “hybrid genres.” It was a good class, and an easy class, but I still managed to score a C- overall, mostly out of sheer laziness.

Anyway, we had to make a research portfolio, with a study of a primary artist, as well as other artists encountered during our course of research, due each week, for 15 weeks. I cheesed most of it. (And only did 13 of the 15.) Still, the final product came out to about 30 pages of double spaced text, and I thought, why not? I’ll put it online. (With a few additions.)

So here’s something both heady and stupid, a bit of half-BS about art and music, multimedia, inter-textual things, and all those aesthetic shenanigans.

If this comes across to you as some name-dropping bonanza, then you’re definitely on to something. It’s basically supposed to be.

WEEK 1:

[…]

WEEK 2:

In the past several weeks I’ve encountered a variety of artists, musicians, and poets who inform contemporary artistic milieu. For instance—just to name a few of many examples—Pavarotti’s opera, Magritte’s surrealist paintings, and the poetry of Neruda have had various impacts on the many art-forms that we see proliferating today. I’d like to write a little on them, as well as Ed Ruscha (my first of many, henceforth, “weekly artists”) before initiating a discussion on, and observation of, the work of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Surrealism, in this case represented by the work of René Magritte (1898-1967), was a key player in the development of postmodern art. Magritte’s works are masterful portrayal of a world that exists outside the normal bounds of nature: they are symbolic, haunting, challenging—often a subtle trick on the viewer’s state of consciousness—and, perhaps above all, full of wit.

Magritte said of his work: “My painting is (sic) visible images which conceal nothing… they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question: ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”

I was lucky enough to see some Magritte’s paintings (as well as Dali’s) in the MoMA a few years ago.

the-lovers-2

Magritte: The Lovers II (1928). (From ReneMagritte.org.)

Neruda (1904-1973) took on a slew of different topics in his poetry. His work tackled subjects as diverse as politics and nature, nostalgia and food. I recently finished reading his compilation On the Blue Shore of Silence, a series of beautiful contemplations on the sea. His diversity and the exquisite nature of his expression never fail to captivate me. They also did not fail to inform a greater postmodern aesthetic.

Pablo Neruda in 1966.

Pablo Neruda in 1966. (From Wikimedia.)

One of his most striking poems from that collection is, in my opinion, “The Sea”:

I need the sea because it teaches me.
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
if it’s a single wave or its vast existence,
or only its harsh voice or its shining
suggestion of fishes and ships.
The fact is that until I fall asleep,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.
It’s not simply the shells crunched
as if some shivering planet
were giving signs of its gradual death;
no, I reconstruct the day out of a fragment,
the stalactite from the sliver of salt,
and the great god out of a spoonful.
What it taught me before, I keep. It’s air
ceaseless wind, water and sand.
It seems a small thing for a young man,
to have come here to live with his own fire;
nevertheless, the pulse that rose
and fell in its abyss,
the crackling of the blue cold,
the gradual wearing away of the star,
the soft unfolding of the wave
squandering snow with its foam,
the quiet power out there, sure
as a stone shrine in the depths,
replaced my world in which were growing
stubborn sorrow, gathering oblivion,
and my life changed suddenly:
as I became part of its pure movement.

Pavarotti’s (1935-2007) voice was as powerful and moving as Neruda’s poetry. I grew up listening to some of his aria: My grandfather would often put on a Pavarotti cassette when he would drive me to church on Sundays. In retrospect, listening to his opera is much different than watching a video of him singing. Due to the advent of the Internet, we can experience music differently: The result is a blending of media, and a very different reception of it. There is something so much more gratifying, for instance, in seeing Pavarotti take a first, long breath before unleashing Vesti la giubba on a crowd. Film, and its proliferation as streaming video, has undoubtedly changed the way we experience music… In any case, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors made opera more accessible to a wider audience.

pavarotti

Pavarotti singing (n.d.). (From La Repubblica.it.)

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) is one of the most recognizable artists involved in the pop art movement, a style of visual art that, while its inception was in the 1950s, is quite alive and well today. Pop art is perhaps best known by the work of Andy Warhol, although there were, and are, many artists who could be considered “pop” in some sense or another. Ruscha’s work seems to mostly rely upon typography. I, as an uninformed viewer, would describe his use of words and scripts as self-referential, idiosyncratic, ironic, and clever. I would almost guess that there is a kind of subtle, continuous scrutiny of of advertising and commercialism woven through much of his work. This is, of course, just my initial impression. In any case, his conflation of writing and visual art makes for a happy medium, a style that easily fits between and takes on the best of these two types of media.

Ruscha: Pay Nothing Until April (2003). (From Tate.)

Far from the time of Ruscha, albeit just as (if not more) prolific, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) made a lasting impression on the world of painting. His post-impressionist portrayals of 19th century France are iconic examples of the culture of the time, soulful depictions of lives and livelihoods, chatter among the high society and lonely, impoverished dreamers drunk over bottles of absinthe. Encyclopedia Britannica states that, “Despite his deformity and the effects of alcoholism and mental collapse later in life, Toulouse-Lautrec helped set the course of avant-garde art well beyond his early and tragic death at the age of 36.”

Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec_-_At_the_Moulin_Rouge_-_Google_Art_Project

Toulouse-Lautrec: At the Moulin Rouge (1892-1895). (From Wikimedia.)

WEEK 3:

This week, I encountered and made note of Gustav Mahler and Anselm Berrigan. I’ll also discuss Guillaume Apollinaire, and give a less cursory addition to what I’ve already written on Toulouse-Lautrec.

To begin with Mahler (1860-1911): A close friend had introduced me to his music not long ago. In particular the 4th movement of his 5th symphony—that is, the string-leaden Adagietto. (Which he is perhaps most well known for.) There are few pieces of music so poignant. Characteristic of this piece is a peculiar “climb” toward higher notes, an implication of an audible“peak,” and then a quick, somehow deceptive drawback and descent into the lower register, all the while tantalizing the listener with a unique pairing of musical voices. It was an interesting coincidence that, at the time I was listening to Adagietto, I was reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a book full of recurring metaphors about going “above” and “below,” noting the climbing of mountains and descents into valleys, the rising and falling of the sun, death and life, victory and defeat, self-overcoming and self-indulgence, etc. In any case, the dichotomizing nature of the piece makes it stand out.

Mahler (1907?). (From GustavMahler.com)

Mahler (1907?). (From GustavMahler.com)

I hadn’t heard of Anselm Berrigan (b. 1972) until several days ago, when I picked up the latest issue of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter. Flipping through the magazine, I found around the mid-section two of Berrigan’s poems. I was really very impressed by the duo “Pregrets” and “Regrets.” Here is a sample of the former:

brain will skip these stations in both directions, black
out blink on the mind, on-the-go transit info kiosks a
hit, you know Planned Service Chances didn’t do it
the Degas rehearsal dancers in their slasher flick masks
didn’t do it, the El Greco portrait of St. Jerome’s hung
too high over the fucking fireplace to do anything, no …

berrigan

Berrigan (n.d.). (From Poetry Foundation.)

The tonal aspects of this poem, as well as its stream-of-consciousness, narrative style are captivating. In this particular part of the poem alliteration and repetition are evident, and “carry” the reader through the writing. The wild, urban scenery of “Pregrets” is given a certain weight with the introduction of disgruntled and dream-like, associative observations.

Berrigan has taught writing in New York, as well as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University—famous for its association with the Beat poets, perhaps most notably Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) is someone whom, before now, I’d never heard of. Reading a bit of his biography, I get a sense that his life was a little Byronesque: few poets seem to come off the battlefield, especially considering the horrors of the Great War. His poetry collection Alcools is listed by Le Monde in their “100 Books of the Century” list. One of his most famous poems, “Zone,” opens that work, and its translators include Samuel Beckett. (Beckett is a personal favorite.) While it’s too long to include the entire poem here, I’ll provide an excerpt:

You are weary at last of this ancient world

Shepherdess O Eiffel tower whose flock of bridges bleats at the morning

You have lived long enough with Greek and Roman antiquity

Here even automobiles look old
Only religion stays news religion
As simple as hangars at the airfield

Alone in Europe you Christianity are not antique
The one modern European is you Pope Pius X
And you whom windows watch what shame keeps you
From entering a church and confessing your sins this morning
Handbills catalogues advertisements that sing overhead
Furnish your morning’s poetry for prose there are newspapers
Dime detective novels packed with adventure
Biographies of great men a thousand and one titles

This morning I saw a fine street whose name slips my mind
New and bright the sun’s clarion
Where executives and workers sweet stenographers
Hurry every weekday dawn and dusk
Three times a morning sirens groan
A choleric bell barks at noon
Billboards posters and
Doorplates twitter like parakeets
There is charm to this Paris factory street
Between rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des Ternes

Apollinaire.

Apollinaire (n.d.). (From Poetry Foundation.)

Martin Sorrell called this work “the great poem of early Modernism.” Indeed, while it was published in 1913, Apollinaire’s work, in a way, heralds the 20th century, and captures its spirit. The fast-paced, near-constant sense of technological and cultural innovation inundates us in this poem. Capitalism, and the culture of consumerism, screams at us through advertisements and titles, catalogues and handbills. These stand in stark contrast to the “Greek and Roman antiquity” mentioned during the beginning. Apollinaire’s style of writing very much reminds me of the concept of flânerie, the kind of urban narrative and poetics made popular by Baudelaire.

Back to Lautrec: This week, I was looking at more of his illustrations and lithographs, rather than proper paintings. It’s interesting to note just how much Lautrec’s work has characterized the Belle Epoque of France. He is remembered, quite properly, for his frequenting of the infamous French cabaret, the Moulin Rouge. His illustrations also remind us of the Orientalist Japonism (by which he was inspired, in part) popular during the late 19th century, as well as the Art Nouveau style. Finally, his work is also associated with the culture of absinthe, a long-banned and mysterious alcoholic beverage, known for its popularity in 19th-century France. Lautrec’s work symbolizes an entire culture, time period, and way of life.

divan japonais lithograph

Toulouse-Lautrec: Divan Japonais lithograph (1892-1893). (From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

WEEK 4:

This week I’m going to provide a few observations of the work of Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), as well as Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).

Holzer makes a nice addition to the current roster of textual artists. My first impression of her work makes me recall Ruscha, in that it seems to be mostly constituted by text, though—importantly—text as it’s presented in a very particular manner. Her dark, noir-esque, monochrome photography seems to stand in contrast to the more exuberant, colorful tones of Ruscha’s artworks (and, when he did produce black and white photography, his lighter, sparcer scenery), and when her pieces are colored they employ different tones. This Whitney installation, for instance, is neon and vibrant, and exemplifies her use of LED lights:

(From Yatzer.)

Holzer: MONUMENT (2008). (From Yatzer.)

Pertinent is the fact that Holzer combines text with installation art. This element, and its more overt conceptuality (her work often presents feminist themes), is something lacking from Ruscha’s pop art repertoire. The way she uses color, shape, and light to bend and juxtapose text adds a refreshingly innovative dimension to intertextual artwork. She is also known for her use everyday objects and cityscapes, as well as projection:

words landmines

Holzer: WORDS, LAND MINES EXPLODING, LOVE AND HATE. (n.d.) (From Oh My Jenny Holzer.)

I came upon Alphonse Mucha by accident, in my study of Lautrec. Both men were important in the Art Nouveau movement, and both blended, and blurred the lines between, art and advertising, helping to create a bridge between the 19th century and 20th-century Modernism. Mucha placed a lot of emphasis on detail in his illustrations, and, in comparison to Lautrec, his works are noted by sharper, more natural lines and curves, vibrant colors, greater ornamentation, and less physical depth. Lautrec is earthy, spacious, and mysterious, whereas Mucha is bright, centered, and whimsical:

job cigs

Mucha: advertisement for Job cigarettes (1896). (From Everything Alphonse Mucha.)

WEEK 5:

This week I’m going to discuss the work of Hollis Frampton (1936-1984), the artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)—one of the first installation artists I came into contact with—as well as the Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

To begin with Bourgeois: I encountered her work in Manhattan a number of years ago, when visiting the Guggenheim. At the entrance stood her famous Maman, a huge, metallic, spindly arachnid figure. This distorted, somewhat disturbing sculpture—like many of Bourgeois’ works—explores femininity, and, in particular, motherhood:

Bourgeois

Bourgeois: Maman (1999). (From Guggenheim Bilbao.)

Many of Bourgeois’ sculptures are minimalistic, twisted, distorted, metallic, and concrete. They often take on the likeness of bodies—more often female bodies—and feminine shapes, albeit stretched, amputated, contorted, cool-colored, and surreal. What kind of impression do we have of the feminine, I wonder, and what is Bourgeois trying to tell us about it? Is she celebrating our understanding of femininity, or lashing out against negative perceptions and connotations?

Furthermore, how do we relate to bodies more generally? At what point is the line between object and subject crossed?

Far removed from the stillness of Bourgeois’ works are the experimental films of Hollis Frampton, which, while avant-garde in their own right, make us consider objects and scenery in a different way, often alluding to the nature of film itself. His short film Lemon (1969), for instance, depicts how lighting can dramatically change the way we perceive objects. Zorns Lemma (1970), a primary example of structural film, also uses objects and light—as well as sound and text—in this case to elucidate, quite appropriately, the piece’s own structure and mechanics. Reading reviews of the film by P. Adams Sitney and Bill Simon (two critics who examine Hollis’s work with great care), one quickly comes to understand how, what to the untrained eye might seem merely like a series of letters, scenes, monologues, etc., is in actuality a complex film leaden with intricate structures and concepts. In a sense, Frampton’s work is a kind of “meta-film,” or a feedback loop, in that it examines the very underpinnings of its own cinematic expression.

Alphabetic stills from Frampton's Zorns Lemma.

Alphabetic stills from Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). (From the Cleveland Institute of Art.)

As a departure from the previously examined artists, I’d like to make mention of Hieronymous Bosch. I have long been drawn to his work out of a fascination with Renaissance and Medieval art. A Netherlandish painter, Bosch was known for his landscapes and triptychs in which, like many artists of that time, he explored religious themes. His unique and grotesque depictions of the Christian Hell perhaps stand out the most:

The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch-tree_man

Bosch: From The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (1490-1510). (From In Defence of Marxism.)

WEEK 6:

On Barbara Kruger:

Having previously examine Jenny Holzer’s works, and now Barbara Kruger’s, I notice a certain similarity. Beyond the fact that they share an inter-textual medium, both of their bodies of work seem to be within the fold of conceptual art. Their artworks are both declarative and aesthetically interesting. See, for instance, Kruger’s following piece:

divinity

Kruger: Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece) (1982). (From MoMA.)

Kruger is, in a way, more provocative than Holzer, actively engaging and confronting her viewers. Kruger’s work also seems mostly confined to monochrome appropriations of other art or photography. This itself lends a certain cultural nuance to her art, and with the addition of text, her work then enters into a realm of revelation and upheaval. She tackles culture, art, consumerism, and gender, re-contextualizing familiar images with bold swathes of text. In any case, I really enjoy Kruger’s unabashed dismantling of archetypes and her ability to turn commonplace ideas on their heads. Kruger is bold and her work is a perfect exposition of hypocrisy and constraint as it exists in contemporary society:

Kruger: Untitled (Who’s the Fairest of Them All) (1989). (From The Atomic Irish Mommy.)

WEEK 7:

This week, I’d like to observe the work of Howard Finster, as well as Zdzisław Beksiński, and filmmaker David Lynch.

To begin with Finster (1916-2001):

Finster’s artwork verges on the visionary. Colorful portraits and scenery are arranged in whimsical ways, with deep curves and bevels filled with pastel-like tones, breathing life into his visuals. His art covers a wide range of subjects, from war and politics to religion and pop culture, and mixed into this is a kind of playfulness, embodied by Finster’s unique use of shape and tone. Lehigh University Art Galleries places Finster in the realm of “outsider art”—that is, art that may be considered trans-cultural, or beyond established artistic circles and styles. He is also considered something of a folk artist, and many of his works present a sort of “homemade” portraiture and iconography.

american-devils-are-friendly-1981

Finster: American Devils Are Friendly (1981). (From WikiArt.)

Finster’s story is itself something odd. A long-time travelling preacher, Finster became a painter later in life, after having a religious epiphany. The importance of faith is evident in his artworks, a number of which depict or reference Biblical stories. At times, he makes his religious overtones clearer through the introduction of text. His use of text, moreover, provides more content and context to his art. Compared to the in-your-face conceptuality and use of photography and installation seen in the works of Holzer and Kruger, Finster’s small lettering, religious overtones, and flattened imagery makes for a lighter, less confrontational—albeit still declarative—and less overwhelming style of visual art.

In the past year I became fascinated with the art of Zdzisław Beksiński (1929-2005), a Polish artist with a penchant for both the surreal and the macabre. Beksiński’s sketches, paintings, and computer graphics are positively nightmarish, often depicting fantastical hellscapes and devastated wastelands, and their strange, tormented residents. Bodies and architecture are broken down and re-imagined in forms that are truly disturbing and otherworldly.

beksinski1984

Beksiński: Untitled (1984). (From Wikimedia.)

Despite his penchant for the macabre, Beksinski said that some of his works were, in fact, meant to be humorous, although overall he declined to offer interpretations of many of his paintings.

untitled-158

Beksinski: Untitled (n.d.). (From WikiArt.)

David Lynch (b. 1946) is probably one of my favorite directors. I think he makes a nice follow-up to Beksinski, considering his predilection for visuals that are ominous and disturbing. His films are surreal, to say the least, and by his own admission, some of them follow a style he calls “dream logic.” Many of his movies appear strange in the sense that they are highly associative, non-linear, and often present some element of symbolism. Their atmosphere does indeed make them seem dreamlike, and nightmarish or creepy, in particular. Lynch’s films are often thrillers or mysteries of some kind, but an element of psychological horror is also pervasive.

eraserhead

Lynch: still from Eraserhead (1977). (Source unknown.)

Inland Empire (2006) is probably my favorite Lynch film thus far. While all of his movies involve some level of strangeness, the driving force behind Inland Empire is that it begins normally—with a basically coherent plot—and then quickly dives into a melange of bizarre scenes, scenarios, and symbols. The sudden movement from reality to fantasy is startling and captivating. Through this descent various scenes take on a terrifying, get-under-your-skin tone that is very much unique to Lynch. You can’t really compare his style of cinematography to anyone else’s. He is not merely “surreal,” but is a self-contained artist with a touch of otherworldly brilliance that is itself meted out in the mundane. From Mulholland Drive (2001) to Blue Velvet (1986) to Inland Empire, many of Lynch’s films take place in otherwise normal settings, but their dark, fantastical nature is realized in the atmosphere of his movies, in the nebulous plots and dialogues that seem to be ubiquitous to his work. In every light, for Lynch, there is a dark underbelly, in every pattern a ray of disarray.

It is fair to mention that, aside from film-making, Lynch is also a painter, musician, and advocate of transcendental meditation, and that his broad interests certainly factor into his movies, web series, and his television program, Twin Peaks (1990-1991). His use of music and musical performance is ubiquitous, and forms an important part of films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet.

indland empire

Lynch: still from Inland Empire (2006). (From Complex.)

To quote Complex, “Disorientation is one of many byproducts you experience while watching a David Lynch film—reality becomes distorted, characters are oblique to the point where they no longer feel human, and the unsettling mood forever teeters are the brink of mind-warping horror.”

WEEK 8:

This week I’d like to shed some light on the works of Lynda Barry and Eugenia Loli.

Barry (b. 1956) is a well-known American cartoonist and author, known primarily for her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek, as well has her book The Good Times Are Killing Me. Her style of illustration varies, with some of her works reminding me, to a certain degree, of Karen Romano Young’s intentionally childlike drawings. Other works are reminiscent of more mainstream comic strips and some graphic novels. (I am not well versed in graphic novels, though Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind, as opposed to much more richly detailed books like, say, Alan Moore’s Watchmen.) Her work is creative and humorous, and she maintains a very playful, colorful tone, at times poking fun at herself. Barry’s The Good Times are Killing Me (1988), an illustrated novel about an interracial relationship, garnered her critical acclaim, and was later made into a play. In 2002 she published One! Hundred! Demons! (2002), a graphic novel she terms “Autobiofictionalography.” Barry’s work can be playful and whimsical, and at the same time present as serious and poignant, and she is well-established as both a writer and an illustrator. I really enjoy the fact that much of her work is done on lined paper. It makes her drawings very inviting and down-to-earth.

what it is

Barry: excerpt from What It Is (2008). (From Fuzzy Undertones.)

Eugenia Loli is a Greek-American filmmaker, collage artist, and illustrator. I first stumbled upon her online. She uses photos and vintage cutouts, as well as computer software, to produce psychedelic collages full of precision and detail. I’d almost call her “maximalistic.” I find myself wondering how she sources and repurposes different materials. There are times when she presents the viewer with such a wide variety of imagery that it’s almost overwhelming.

it ends with a bang

Loli: It Ends with a Bang! (n.d.) (From Eugenia’s Collages.)

Her art bombards the viewer with images that juxtapose the mundane with the cosmic, ordinary life with touches of dream, sex, and drugged imagination. Loli is a truly imaginative artist who makes no reservation on what to put in her work. There is, therefore, a huge element of surprise to be found in her collages, and I almost find myself playing Where’s Waldo as I pick apart her artwork detail by detail.

Inappropriate Business Offer

Loli: Inappropriate Business Offer (n.d.) (From Eugenia’s Collages.)

WEEK 9:

On Roz Chast (b. 1954), an American author, cartoonist, and staff cartoonist for The New Yorker:

I’ve always enjoyed Chast’s cartoons. Before I was old enough to read—that is, read anything beyond a small chapter book—I would pick up copies of The New Yorker and flip through the pages, skipping over the articles themselves in order to find her (ubiquitously humorous) comics. Her writing is witty and often pokes fun at modern life and domestic issues, with her monochrome characters meting out significant doses of sarcasm and observational comedy. Her style of drawing reminds me of Lynda Barry’s, but usually involves less text and more detailed backgrounds—often indoor environments.

Chast:

Chast: “Pre-Existing Conditions,” from The New Yorker (n.d.). (From the Conde Nast Collection.)

Chast’s color works seem mostly confined to her books, such as What I Hate from A to Z (2011) and her Steve Martin-coauthored The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z! (2007) Her wry sense of humor never fails to put a smile on my face.

WEEK 10:

This week I’d like to look at the work of Art Spiegelman, as well as Alex Grey, and H.R. Giger.

I have a fondness for Spiegelman. (b. 1948.) I first read his graphic novel Maus in my senior English class in high school. This was my first experience with graphic novels and/or comics (beyond, say, comic strips—if you consider those part of the same genre as full-fledged comic books), and portended my reading of books like Watchmen, the graphic novel version of Fahrenheit 451, Jodorowsky’s The Incal and Metabarons, the horror manga Uzumaki, and the comic Transmetropolitan.

Going based off of Maus, as it’s the only work of Spiegelman’s that I’m familiar with, I will first say that I was impressed by his merging of comics—a format that I was hitherto used to seeing only in the context of humor, or light fiction, and in a very superficial way—with a gravely serious topic like the Holocaust. I thought this was startling, at first. I certainly found it unconventional. But, as I made my way through the two volumes of Maus, I found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by the depth and personality of Spiegelman’s story, and the characters that call it home. The obstinate racism of Vladek Spiegelman (the narrator’s grandfather, who, in the novel, recites his experiences during the Holocaust) is surprising, and also aggravating, given his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. But, all the more, the character’s stubbornness ultimately fleshes out his persona, and draws the reader inward, toward forming a more meaningful relationship with the events unfolding in the novel. Spiegelman is an almost masterful storyteller, and his book is both captivating and disturbing.

maus

Spiegelman: excerpt from Maus (serialized 1980-1991). (From Flickr.)

Alex Grey (b. 1953) is a well-renowned visionary and psychedelic artist—a painter, sculptor, and illustrator. The visionary aspect of his work is different from that of, say, Howard Finster, in that—while his paintings do present mystical and transcendent themes—they are not filled with overtly Christian and Biblical imagery. Grey promotes a holistic, universalist view of world religions and “wisdom traditions” from various cultures, symbolizing humanity’s quest for enlightenment. (Though Grey himself claims to practice Vajrayana Buddhism.) Grey is also very honest about the psychedelic nature of many of his paintings, noting that he was inspired to produce some of them under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, or actually produced them under the influence. His “Sacred Mirrors” series of paintings depict beings in transition from corporeal states of life to those of “higher planes,” and, otherwise, much of his art explores states of being that could be called “yogic” or “energetic,” in a New Age or esoteric sense. In contrast to the hodge podge, finely delineated objects of Loli’s collages, many of Grey’s paintings depict figures that are intimately connected on a metaphysical level, their physical structures transforming into brilliant light. The sheer amount of detail—particularly his use of transparency—that goes into his art is staggering.

Alex_Grey-Collective_Vision

Grey: Collective Vision (1995). (From AlexGrey.com)

H.R. Giger (1940-2014) is much more comparable to someone like Beksiński than Grey. His work, while just as otherworldly and detailed as Grey’s, is far darker. Still, Giger, like Grey, depicted bodies in an exquisite fashion, though his depiction of them is far more cool and mechanical than transcendent and vibrant. Whereas Grey’s use of religious imagery is largely predicated on Eastern traditions (with admitted references to Western ones), Giger presents us with jarring occult and disturbingly alien themes. Whereas Grey celebrates sexuality as force for cosmic union, Giger transforms it into a biomechanical carnality. Grey celebrates the light and life of the psychedelic counterculture, in all its abundant love and hallucinogenic revelry, whereas Giger is something of a shock jock, transgressive and nightmarish—though equally fantastical. As Giger noted, “A sick landscape marks men. And my landscapes are nothing more than the transplanting of human skin onto our surroundings.”

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Giger: Erotomechanics VII (n.d.) (From Count Orlok’s Blog.)

WEEK 11:

Peter Greenaway (b. 1942) is another one of those well-respected filmmakers who, up until this point, I knew nothing about. While I haven’t seen any of his full-fledged movies, I got a taste of his style from his 17-minute, 1977 short film Dear Phone. Like Frampton, Greenaway’s incorporation of text is essential. Unlike Frampton, however (in this case comparing Dear Phone to Zorns Lemma), narration seems more prominent. Zorns Lemma is, admittedly, a longer film, but it gets a lot of its aesthetic from long stretches of silence, whereas a definite story—albeit one that we are somewhat distanced from, as viewers—is the primum mobile for Greenaway’s short movie. There is a consistent element of contrast in Greenaway’s films. I noticed this more keenly in Vertical Features Remake (1978), which, in a very experimental fashion, comes out as something of an intentionally broken documentary, or at least a negligently incomplete one. A kind of meta-film, it documents the restoration or assemblage of footage taken by a fictional ornithologist. There’s an undertone of absurd humor to Greenaway, through his use of narration, which makes his films a little more accessible and level-headed than Frampton’s.

Poster for Greenaway's Vertical Features Remake (1978). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From FilmAffinity.)

Poster for Greenaway’s Vertical Features Remake (1978). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From FilmAffinity.)

My first serious encounter with poetry came from Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whom I’ve revisited recently. (I recently picked up his Artificial Paradises.) After reading his seminal collection The Flowers of Evil (sometime around 2008 or 2009), I was inspired to take on at least several more poets, working my way through Neruda, Williams, Rilke, Coleridge, and Poe; as well as more contemporary writers like Berrigan, Brenda Hillman, and Tate; the Zen poets Ikkyū Sōjun, Ryokan; and the collective Cold Mountain poets of China. Baudelaire is an important figure in modernism, and without him it seems difficult to fully appreciate the history and nature of poetry, from the Romantic period up until well into modern times.

Baudelaire, circa 1862. Portrait by Étienne Carjat. (From Wikimedia.)

Baudelaire, circa 1862. Portrait by Étienne Carjat. (From Wikimedia.)

I very much enjoy one particular poem from The Flowers of Evil, “The Spiritual Dawn”:

When the morning white and rosy breaks,
With the gnawing Ideal, upon the debauchee,
By the power of a strange decree,
Within the sotted beast an Angel wakes.

The mental Heaven’s inaccessible blue,
For wearied mortals that still dream and mourn,
Expands and sinks; towards the chasm drawn.
Thus, cherished goddess, Being pure and true

Upon the rests of foolish orgy-nights

Thine image, more sublime, more pink, more clear,

Before my staring eyes is ever there.

The sun has darkened all the candle lights;
And thus thy spectre like the immortal sun,
Is ever victorious thou resplendent one!

The beautiful image of a beloved goddess, confined to the clouds, reminds me of Dante’s vision of Heaven, and his quest to reunite with Beatrice, in Paradiso. Baudelaire often seems to posit lofty goals and great attainments that, for us mere mortals, always remain just out of reach. Thus his poetry is very much both a glorification and lamentation of human life.

WEEK 12:

I would like to present some information on Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) this week.

Salomon was a Jewish-German artist from Berlin. Her art, much of it expressionist in its nature, mostly makes reference to Nazi Germany and her experiences during the Holocaust. (Salomon and her unborn baby were gassed in Auschwitz, and much of her family committed suicide during the upheaval.) One finds that in her watercolors, full of opaque tones contrasted by darker, hardened lines (which give the amorphous splotches of paint a more definite form), Salomon puts human suffering into perspective, giving the viewer a visceral sense of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust.

Salomon is perhaps best known for her cross-genre Leben? order Theater (German: “Life? or Theater?”), a series of gouaches, transparencies, and texts which collectively form a narrative that documents her life, love, and struggles within the backdrop of the Nazi German political and cultural landscape. Salomon intended for the series to combine various artistic approaches, and so the use of text is unconventional. Transparencies, often containing shaped text, are laid over the gouaches in such a way that the viewer can see their “interaction.” See, for instance, this overlay:

Charlotte_Salomon_-_JHM_4175TC

Salomon: excerpt from Leben? oder Theater? (n.d.). (From Wikimedia.)

In this clever scene, the phrase “Im Himmel…” is written upward, beginning an ascension, wherein it appears that a spirit, or spirits, leave for paradise. “… Ist oben” means “is above,” and, appropriately, the text is overlaid in the shape of a tree, against a window, above a figure in bed.

WEEK 13:

I’ve always been fascinated by optical illusions, and particularly impossible objects: the blivet, the impossible cube, the Penrose stairs, and (especially) the Penrose triangle. (As examples.) I was, for this reason, attracted to the works of M.C. Escher (1898-1972)—quite the master of optical illusions, and a highly imaginative and thoughtful artist.

Architecture and illusion often come together to create incredible scenes in Escher’s drawings, lithographs, and woodcuts. Otherwise, he was known for his fascination with symmetry, tessellations, and mathematics, generally. The physics of Escher’s “worlds” are distorted, and yet eerily orderly, giving the viewer a sense of disorientation. His impossible geometry makes one scrutinize his art for quite some time, trying to “figure out” the strange-shaped images that are so unique to his body of work.

Escher: Relativity

Escher: Relativity (1953). (From Wikimedia.)

Possibly my favorite filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies are one of my biggest inspirations as a writer.

It is unfair to simply deem Jodorowsky a filmmaker, as he is also an author, comic book artist, playwright, actor, former mime, tarot expert, and performance artist. However, this broad set of skills and proclivities figures into Jodorowsky’s films almost more than any of his other works, so I’d like to examine one of those.

Poster for Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From Wikimedia.)

Poster for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973). (n.d.; artist unknown.) (From Wikimedia.)

Jodorowsky’s 1973 cult hit The Holy Mountain is filled with iconic scenes. Known for his avant-garde and provocative presentation of mystical and cultural symbols, The Holy Mountain teems with images that are both disturbing and beautiful, moving and terrifying. Jodorowsky is, like Lynch, a master of emotion, and pulls his viewers into a world that is—at least for The Holy Mountain—teeming with spiritual brilliance and sacred metaphors, colors and sound and light. I would almost argue that Jodorowsky’s films—while rightly quite beyond adequate description—could be compared to a bizarre merging of David Lynch’s movies with the artwork of Alex Grey. (Just to create an example using artists mentioned above.) In reality, Jodorowsky notes influence from Fellini, and performance art. He was an instrumental part of the reactionary performance art Panic Movement, influenced by Luis Buñuel’s Theater of Cruelty—a reaction to the mainstreaming of surrealism.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

(I wanted to write on these fine folks, but didn’t get around to it.)

  • Alfred Jarry
  • Austin Osman Spare
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • David Tibet
  • Genesis P-Orridge
  • Henry Miller
  • Jean Cocteau
  • Kazuo Ohno
  • PFFR (group)
  • Pierre Schaeffer
  • Rozz Williams
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Silk Road Ensemble (group)
  • Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound)
  • Terrence E. Holt