ArtKrush - the art magazine online™
 
ArtKrush - the art magazine online™
WAYS of SEEING:

Ernest Hemingway
on Joan Miró

Sigmund Freud
on Michelangelo

WRITERS on ART:

Leonard Michaels
on Michelangelo

Charles Bock
on Comic Books

Max Winter
on Ida Applebroog

Erik Anderson Reece
on Mark Rothko

Pierre Michon
on Lorentino

Erin Hogan on
Barnett Newman

Lawrence Weschler
on David Hockney

David Ryan on
Kathy Pendergast

Leonard Michaels
on Max Beckmann

M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online:

Collaboration

Is Resistance Futile?

AK Diary

Laurel Nakadate

General Archive:

All Aboard
the Art Express!

Nauman's Endless
Games

Gerhard Richter's Elysian Melancholy

The Designer
is Dead!

Blue Collar Gallery

Trio: Nolan,
Mahoney, Ackerman

Greek is Good: El Greco at the Frick

Teens at Risk,
Art at Hand

The Ambiguous Body

Andreas Gursky
in the Void

MoMA's Roulin Redux

Photems
by Tim Davis

WTC World
Views Program

 

WRITERS ON ART:

 

Acts of Friendship

by Charles Bock

1
Let's start with count Leo Tolstoy, and his rather dry, yet more than occasionally readable polemic, What is Art? In What is Art?, the good count basically declared art to be an infection. Your artist has a feeling, he expresses it; at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. What is Art? clocks in at more than two hundred pages, so I am summarizing here, but essentially, Tolstoy believed that if you had to puzzle over a painting or a novel, and try, try, try to like it, the novel, or the painting, was not—repeat, not—art. Art was something more honest than that, more pure. And Great Art, art where the capitol G and A applied, was even more rare, more honest, more pure.

According to Tolstoy, every so often a man came along who possessed his time's "highest conception, or life-conception." This is to say, a man who did not merely embody the ideals of his age, but possessed a singular and overriding interpretation—or understanding—that best encompassed and represented a stratum of the human experience for a certain time and place. If and when this guy expressed what he felt, Tolstoy believed, the created work would cause something of an infection, and this infection would be universal. Not universal in that everyone in the universe would understand it. Rather, universal in the sense that anyone could. Lepers. Haughty barristers with powdered wigs and painted moles. Peasants on a ten minute break from plowing a field who happen to see a painting through the window of a passing carriage. Anyone who took any kind of serious gander, they would have a chance at being infected with the highest vision of life.

 

2
Tolstoy was born in 1828 and lived until 1910. Here are some of the machines which were invented during his lifetime: the telegraph, the teletype, the phonograph, airplanes, steam engines, automobiles, assembly lines. Tools of the industrial revolution. I bring this up for a specific reason. What Is Art, written over a fifteen year period, was completed in 1898. As of 1914, the photograph machine, though available as a consumer item in most cities, was still enough of a novelty that traveling salesmen roamed countrysides, visited small towns, and charged awed farmers for formal portrait sessions. Which is to say that as civilization moved into the Twentieth Century, the nature of just what a painting did, the service it provided, the services it was relied upon for, were quite different than those which we nowadays think of a painting as providing. Painting was representational in form. A tree was a tree. Other meanings may have been attached, but you had that there tree. Surrealism, cubism, abstractionism, collage, these lay on the horizon. I bring these changes up because they affected your average leper's ability to appreciate art. Rotting limbs also affected the leper's ability. So maybe a leper is not such a great example.

How about we abandon the convention of the nineteenth century altogether, and imagine a salesman, in the present tense, the here and now. Let's make him thirty years old or so. Let's say our salesman lives in one of those square states in the lower Midwest and is in New York City for the third time. He's thinking about going back to school for some sort of advanced degree, although he's not sure what for. Of Tolstoy our salesman knows the dude was Russian. Wrote a bunch of thick books that our salesman equates with being hard to read, which means, of course, not enjoyable, not worth my time, stay the hell away from them. Our salesman is visiting the Museum of Modern Art because he saw the Statue last time, and he's already been to the Ground Zero Viewing Pit. He has another day to kill before his plane leaves for Flatsville and visiting museums are one of the things you are supposed to do in New York City, and besides, everybody knows that you are supposed to be able to pick up real hot chicks at museums. The chicks, they love arty shit.

This is maybe our salesman's second extended stretch in any kind of real art museum, and the first was back in high school, a field trip, and on that one most of his time was spent goofing around with buddies. Here and now in the museum of Modern Art, our salesman stops in front of a painting from Picasso's cubist period. Picasso is supposed to be important, our salesman knows this. Our salesman carries a Nokia 3200X wireless phone. That phone has three thousand monthly anytime minutes and a function which allows access to e-mail accounts that are both personal and work related. Our salesman has a relationship with technology, information, and moving images that is not all that dissimilar to the relationship Tolstoy had with paintings and the page, methinks.

He stands and takes in the brown cubey Picasso stuff.

He tries to like it. Really he does.

 

3
Okay. As things are set up, it may seem we are about to take an alarmist turn. Be assured: nobody is sitting here demanding an end to, like, television, with mandatory hours of art history for everyone, and a quiz at the end of each week. Nor is your friendly neighborhood author interpreting the Great Art theory so as to demand that a devotee of Islam has, or ought to have, the same reaction to the Slayer album, Reign In Blood, as a speed metal freak. Your author may want to make this demand, but he demurs. He knows better. He understands that our new century is a place at once vastly diverse and homogenized, simultaneously narrowcasted and demographed and nonetheless unique. Along these lines, your fearless author also understands that there is a difference between High Art (Slayer, Reign in Blood), and Low (Picasso, Van Gogh), and also that we are in a land where high art often takes upon the trappings of low, or popular forms. I know that at no point in the immediate future is Gravity's Rainbow going to show up on a best seller list, but neither will the small but devoted audience of people who adore dense and experimental fiction disappear. Your author—who you should know, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, happily admits to being something of a grump, and a recluse, and a heavy metal freak, and a smoking-hot piece of intellectual ass—even understands that for a long, long time the art world has been something of a hothouse environ, a place where a great many contemporary painters and sculptors and instillation-installers rely on theory, or theories, which is to say that art people borrow from one or many generations of previous work, perhaps even creating works in response to a specific previous work, as part of a dialogue. Your author does not necessarily understand them dialogues, but I have no problem with the fact that they exist, nor the idea that, whether the dialogue involves subversion of an existing work, or pays homage to it, or maybe pays homage through subversion, a certain appreciation and grasp of the old is necessary to understand the conversation. Fine. Fine. Fine. I don't really have a problem with there being tiers and levels. There's room for it all, methinks, the whole shebang, a palette big and wide and wonderful, an inclusive world, with salesmen and hipster art snobs and yes, even reclusive metal freaks like me. That's not my problem. I want to be clear on this: in no way shape or form am I so much as moderately saying that taking a century old pronouncement by an overly wordy and religious Russian Genius, and combining it with herds of ambivalent and confused out-of-towners who, every weekend without fail, fill museums and stare blankly and without comprehension, that this necessarily spells the end of end of art as we know it.

No.

My problem, if you want to call it that, or, rather, my reason for this essay, lays with the fact that, on any given weekend, if you go to any major museum in the United States, you can find the herds. And, yes, their eyes are blank. Go. Stand behind the masses. Watch as person after person wanders up to a painting, recognizes the name of an artist, or maybe the painting itself, and doesn't have any idea who that artist was, or why the painting is supposed to be so special. Usually, you will see the person spending, like, between five and thirty seconds, standing and craning his or her neck, before he or she feels they've done enough, and moves on to the next painting, which, I will give you five to one odds, is not understood, either.

I say this not as some superior, detached voyeur who gets his kicks standing in the back of museums, watching confused salesmen. Nor as mister alarmist essay guy. Nor as one of those chain smoking attitude-suffused hipster-types. I don't own a Nokia 3200X wireless, nor any kind of cellular phone, never have been employed in a job which involved sales (the closest I've come is selling my soul for rock and roll, thank you AC/DC), and, to be honest, I am about as far away from understanding art theory as a person with an essay in this magazine could possibly be. Rather, I am making my claim as one of the masses, another schmoe who, many many times in his life, has arrived at the museum on a fine Saturday afternoon, then wasted half of his day standing on line to get into an exhibit, and then stood in front of a painting, spending fifteen to thirty seconds trying to read the paintings on the wall, attempting to figure out what the h-e-double toothpicks was going on up there. I am a lover of big fat novels, yes, a recreational reader of experimental fiction; not necessarily a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying smarty-pants, but at the same time, I'm not exactly drooling on my shotgun and voting Republican, either. And innumerable are the times I have stood before Yon Great Painting, flummoxed. Not asking to be let into some private conversation. Not wanting the keys to the elitist hothouse. Frickin' Picasso here. Something I know to be classic. Right now, as I type this, I have the tactile memory of a specific visit: standing and staring and craning my neck and simply not knowing where to begin, how to even go about the process which might make that, or untold other paintings, accessible. They ended up seeming willfully unreadable to me. I ended up feeling nothing so much as shame, or perhaps inferiority. Like I was missing something.

 

4
It wasn't always that way for me. As a child there were drawings that gave me great joy. Images I was more than able to read and interpret.

The art I grew up on was comic books. Twice a week I used to go to Page After Page comics, on Charleston Boulevard, and blow whatever cash I had. The Elektra saga from Frank Miller’s Daredevil all but obsessed me for a time.

I am not exaggerating when I say that my love of that series was so great that I used to spend spare time trying to imitate the villain Bullseye, and flick a playing card as if it were a weapon. Really, I did that. Nonetheless, even Daredevil took a back seat when it came to Wolverine and Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus and Cyclops and, to a far lesser extent, the annoying teenaged girl, Sprite (real name, Kitty Pride: my older brother used to call her Kiddy Porn).

Yes, my favorite series was The Uncanny X-Men.

I am not alone in this. Indeed, if you are like me and also like the esteemed editor who commissioned this essay; if you are of a generation that with a squeamish shame recognizes references to +3 swords, eighty-eight sided dice, and graph paper; if, during your adolescence, you were prone to loneliness and sulking and feeling very different from the rest of the world; then, my fine and lonely young outcast, the odds are more than good indeed that with baited breath you followed the monthly goings-on at Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. You likely loved Wolverine's berserker rages. You surely were swept into the cosmic drama of Dark Phoenix (she gave her life that the universe might live). You really, really appreciated the skimpy tops favored by female characters.

For everyone else, that is everyone who not only missed out on the comic but also the 2000 summer blockbuster film: the basic premise of the X-Men was that mutants, children with special powers, were born into our world, and that the general public feared these mutants. Professor Charles Xavier, a middle-aged, bald, wheelchair-bound mutant with telepathic powers, ran a school in Westchester County, NY, where he took in wayward mutants and taught them to use their powers responsibly.

The X-men of my adolescence (Wolverine, Nightcrawler, et al) were in fact known as The New X-Men. They were replacements for The Uncanny X-Men, a comic started in the Sixties by Marvel pioneers Stan Lee and John Kirby. Uncanny never found any kind of widespread or even niche readership. Save for a few carryover characters, they were phased out after ninety-three issues. The New X-Men were written by Christopher Claremont and illustrated, during their heyday, by John Byrne and then Brent Eric Anderson. Be it skyscraper-sized government agency-controlled robots, bitter mutants pledged to enslave humanity, an exclusive ultra-rich club of industrialists bent on world domination, or slimy reptilian aliens that planted slimy reptilian alien babies inside humans, The New X-men fought all sorts of evil. The idea was that mutants protected the same human race which lived in fear of them and even hunted them down. Indeed, there were all kinds of what seemed like subtle messages about acceptance and individuality in the stories. And, obviously, the idea of extraordinary young men and women who were singled out and picked on because of their abilities was the kind of thing that resonated with an awful lot of alienated adolescents, myself among them.

 

5
Now, a comic panel by nature must accomplish certain things. First and foremost it is a drawing. A fixed image, representing an instant in an evolving story. There are ten to twelve panels on a normal comic page. One of the joys of comics is that these panels, fixed drawings though they be, are great at conveying movement. Not only flight or battle, although they also are great at that:

But panels also allow for an almost filmic ability to draw out tension, or build drama:

Explanations and exposition, by nature, are a huge part of the comic medium. Most panels have to incorporate thought and dialogue bubbles, in order to keep the narrative followable. This doesn't change a basic principle. Whether the panel is an image of a fixed head thinking all kinds of stuff we need to know so as to be able to understand just what Cyclops is doing at that computer terminal, or whether it is a full page glory shot of the knockout blow in the climactic battle, each of these panels must fulfill its function—must properly convey movement, pensiveness, fury—whatever is specifically called for at that point. The panel must do this in a way that not only keeps the story moving, but also sustains the willing suspension of disbelief this medium demands, as your story is basically destroyed the moment a reader thinks, hey, he's the head of a billion dollar corporation, he already dominates the world, there's really no reason for him to build a secret robot army.

Here's where our two roads start to diverge. While comic books and contemporary paintings are both, fundamentally, visual experiences, a comic book has a series of pictures in it, whereas a contemporary painting is a picture. A comic book contains art, yet the comic is as much a storyteller's medium as an artist's. This means your comic panel must be followable: not only must it keep the reader visually engaged, but the panel must do so in a way that reflects, and indeed conveys, even enhances the story's emotional and narrative marks.

On the other hand, a piece of contemporary art does not need characters, storylines, thought bubbles, plots. The scaffold of a narrative thread gets knocked away for your contemporary or modernist painting, and the image relies only on itself. Certainly, an intellectual point or storyline can be used, character can be explored, but it will be done without having a recognizable, discernable narrative logic, and/or the scaffolding of a story, or an essay. Indeed, a painting may be nothing so much as evocative, bringing forth a complex reaction that the viewer does not understand, but which kind or runs around somewhere in his subconscious. I look at the painting—It's an image, sure, but of what?—and do not know what it means, but feel something. Something complex. With longing maybe, hints of sensitivity and rage. Or maybe I don't know what the hell the reaction I am feeling is, but am affected nonetheless. Do I know if this feeling I am having what the artist wanted? Does it matter? Well, to some degree, it has to, right? There's a reason the painting is in a museum, after all, presumably there is. There's got to be some difference between a surrealist painting hanging in a museum and the finger painting a third-grader brings back from finger painting class. Doesn't there?

I'm not the one to answer this. Even now, I don't really know how to recognize the clues which might allow me into the artist's world, am not familiar enough with the process of reading a painting to do such a thing, confident enough to trust an emotion, follow an instinct.


6
So, you ask, why not take the museum tour?

Dude. Tours suck. After standing on line all afternoon just to get in the place, like I want to stand around even longer with a bunch of folks I don't know, and get a f'in lecture?

Well, you say, what about the rental headphones with the recorded guide-thingy on them?

I don't care if they're free. They're still a scam.

I'm joking here, kind of, I guess. Either way, when I manage, momentarily, to put aside my natural contrariness, what emerges is a legitimate question: how much of the responsibility for comprehension was mine? When there was such a rich and tenable history to a painting, when the ideas behind a painter's work were potentially available to me, did thirty seconds of staring actually qualify as a worthwhile effort?

Not long ago you read a whole bunch of mess about my inclusive mind and how I like experimental fiction. But if I wasn't at the very least willing to read the posted statement next to the painting, or listen to the tour, or in some way make myself available to information which will help me, could I honestly expect to gleam a modicum of understanding as to the cube painting?

 

7
One of the things Chris Claremont did when he was writing the X-Men was to keep tons of plot lines going at once. In some ways it was ingenious because every character had their own life, a life that seemed to be continuing in full no matter if it was being shown on panel or not. Therefore when you cut to, say, Kitty, she might be on a date with Piotr, or taking dance classes. The problem was, we never knew exactly where she was in terms of her relationship with Piotr. This was the case with dozens of characters, all kinds of themes. Claremont just kept introducing more and more. Meanwhile, at a certain point he'd been writing the X-Men for over a decade and started to burn out on them. When he finally agreed to hand over the book to new writers, those writers—some of them longtime X-fans, others newbies—spent a long time trying to figure out all of the plotlines. They never did. Hardcore fans at conventions knew the plots better than they did. There were charts and graphs to explain it all. It was a big mess.

Meanwhile, the X-Men had become a monster industry, spun off in about every possible direction. In addition to the X-Men (formerly the New X-men) there were The New Mutants. Nowadays there are New New X-Men. There are Ultimate X-Men. X-factor, eXtra, eXile, X-treme, and X-treme X-men. Individual characters Cable and Sabertooth (to name two) have their own titles. Wolverine has like nine different series of his own. There are novels and E-novels. There’s an animated Saturday morning series that I’ve heard doesn’t blow. There’s Mutant X, a truly unwatchable television show syndicated to would-be networks needing to fill holes in their Saturday afternoon programming. There’s the 2000 summer blockbuster X-men movie and its sequel, X2, out this coming summer. There’s even an X-men on Ice. And, of course, XXX-MEN, an all male adult film which I’ve, ah, heard about. There is even the X-Men Encyclopedia, or something like that, some stupid title. This hardbound, illustrated gobstopper, whatever it's called, weighs in at like five pounds and includes illustrated biographies of each character. I spent a little time perusing that tome, and was stunned, repeat, stunned by how little I recognized. Characters that I had literally grown up with were changed beyond measure. Wolverine—whose unbreakable skeleton and claws of adamantium steel had been of the former bright spots in my otherwise bleak adolescence—had not only had the adamantium ripped from his body (how can this be? It was his SKELETON for Christsakes), but now had grown natural claws on his own accord. Phoenix—she gave her life that the universe might live? Brought back to life. Then cloned. Then a bunch of other garbage, none of which deserves to be documented here.

An obvious parallel can be drawn, one between the complexities of modern cubism (which to the naked eye, seems on first glance, esoteric and impenetrable and, well, hard), and the complexities of an X-universe (which has grown wild and out of control, and has too many facets to possibly follow).

Thankfully, there's also a way through it.

 

8
Fairly recently, in the space of about seven months, I was fortunate enough to serve residencies at two different artist colonies. Along with working like hell on my stupid novel, I made friends with painters, sculptors, even an instillation-guy or two. There were nights, after we creative-types finished our serious creativity, when someone might open up his (or her) studio, show the rest of the inmates around. Let us in on projects both finished and in progress. Early in my first stay, maybe a week in, an Argentinean sculptor, Luis, gave a slide show of his exhibited work. I sat in the back, munching on chips, listening and watching. Luis explained that he believed in art that could be played with. He flipped through slides of stone and wooden sculptures that looked like intricate miniature houses. Luis said a particular house was inspired by the writer Julio Cortazar, and the novel Hopscotch, whose opening page came with instructions for an alternate sequence to the chapters. If I remember correctly, Luis had designed the house in a similar fashion, with stairwells leading into one another, and a logic to the room order and arrangement that, while apparently random, had an order to it, which he breezily explained.

I remember how fascinated I was with Luis's mind as he guided us through slide after slide, all these miniature homes, which were also games, which were inspired by various books and paintings. How easy it was to fall into sync, to empathize with the things which caught Luis's attention, inspired him, and how he responded, interpreted them, created.

Over the next weeks we frequently talked at dinner, or played Ping-Pong late into the night (he always won). At a certain point, Luis invited me to his studio.

"Come," he said. "Let me show you my balls. "

There was a chainsaw outside his studio. Instead of miniature houses, Luis was heading in a new direction. One new project involved using his chainsaw to carve five small balls and a ring out of stone, all of which could be stacked or positioned together. Another involved shaping, out of wood, these massive spheres, like six feet tall and just as wide, which could be spread across a large lawn.

Visiting and having Luis explain these things to me was like a little lesson. Taking cues. Following prompts. When there were slides, I listened.

The physical presence of someone, the opportunity to spend extended time with a person, to hear them talk about what interests them, and why they do certain things, this in effect gave me the willingness to look really hard at those sculptures, those strange houses and balls. I can't honestly say I got them. I can't say that I went so far as to see the paintings through Luis's eyes. But I do know that I was able to move, however slightly, in the directions that Luis wanted me to move.

Another guy was doing these paintings, I guess they were paintings. His name was Tim and on weekends when the cooks had off, he would grill up some excellent food and was in general a lovely man. He did his paintings, or maybe they were prints, very intricate patterns on a white fiberglass canvas. Tim used white paint and on the white background, the prints looked very futuristic and computerish and at the same time ghostly. I did a studio visit and Tim explained that he would take objects, say an old lace tablecloth, and print the tablecloth pattern. But he'd do it in a way so the ink or pattern (or whatever) was layered somehow, I guess, and refracted light. Part of the idea was that as you, as a viewer, walked around the painting and saw light hit the pattern in its various places, because of how the light refracted, the pattern would appear to change.

If I had seen those balls and white ghost in a museum, I wouldn't have known what to think. Probably would have walked right by. However, as an act of friendship, I was willing to try. To see.

So there you have it. Just dig up Picasso's body, reanimate it, and bring it to the museum with you! Then the undead corpse can explain what it was thinking when it was painting those cubes!

Okay. It's hard not to be sarcastic. The world we live in nowadays is not geared toward standing still and trying to figure out a painting, at least mine isn't. It's fairly unrealistic to believe laypeople with no real training in how to view this stuff, no personal attachments to some dead guy from a hundred years ago, and who are given no overt or obvious instructions in how to look at a piece, are going to be able to meet that work, or the work next to it, or the one next to that one. Not halfway. Not a quarter of the way. There's a definite gap here, a real problem. Extend this problem to its logical conclusion, you find that, as our new century becomes even faster and more interactive and integrated, the problem gets bigger. This is not something for which I have an answer. Hell, to this day, when I attend a friend's opening at some gallery, I rarely know what's going on. Invariably I get impatient, and jumpy, and find myself hoarding carrot sticks from the food tray.

More and more, it seems to me that Tolstoy's idea of Great Art, of any single person on the earth standing and looking at the same object and being moved, is naïve and romantic and quaint in a way that our world no longer is.

Having said this, I also know that I did not go from comic books to Pynchon overnight.

And I know that the steps I took on the way from comics to Pynchon—i.e. the process of learning to read and enjoy prose that was gradually more and more complex—are among the most enjoyable and productive steps of intellectual growth I've had.

 

9
At the end of the graphic novel God Loves Man Kills, there's a moment where the villainous mutant Magneto is trying to get the X-Men to join him in a war on humanity. The X-Men have been victorious in one battle against an anti-mutant senator, but Magneto points out that soon others will take the senator's cause. It's inevitable, he says, and cannot understand why someone would fight an uphill battle such as this when the odds are as stacked as they are.

"Mebbe," Wolverine answers. "But by the same token, chum...the world's got no shortage o' windmills t' tilt at. "

 

 


Charles Bock teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC. He is working on a novel.