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Spectators vs. Participant

Posted by thomas-cummins on 14 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: books, essays, performance art

In his short essay ‘Romancing the Looky-Loos‘, Dave Hickey shares his interesting viewpoint on the evolution of coöptation as viewed through its audience. He makes a distinction between Spectators(the titular looky-loos) and the Particiant. You can spectate the full article here or participate with it .

“spectators invariably align themselves with authority. They have neither the time nor the inclination to make decisions. They just love the winning side— the side with the chic building, the gaudy doctorates, and the star-studded cast. They seek out spectacles whose value is confirmed by the normative blessing of institutions and corporations. In these venues, they derive sanctioned pleasure or virtue from an accredited source, and this makes them feel secure, more a part of things. Participants, on the other hand, do not like this feeling. They lose interest at the moment of accreditation, always assuming there is something better out there, something brighter and more desirable, something more in tune with their own agendas. And they may be wrong, of course. The truth may indeed reside in the vision of full professors and corporate moguls, but true participants persist in not believing this. They continue looking.

Thus, while spectators must be lured, participants just appear, looking for that new thing—the thing they always wanted to see—or the old thing that might be seen anew—and having seen it, they seek to invest that thing with new value. They do this simply by showing up; they do it with their body language and casual conversation, with their written commentary, if they are so inclined, and their disposable income, if it falls to hand. Because participants, unlike spectators, do not covertly hate the things they desire. Participants want their views to prevail, so they lobby for the embodiment of what they lack.

The impact of these participatory investments is tangible across the whole range of cultural production. It is more demonstrable, however, in “live arts” like music, theater, and art than in industrial arts like publishing, film, and recording. Because in the “live arts,” participatory investment, as it accumulates, increases the monetary value of the product. You increase the value of an artwork just by buying it, if you are a participant. Thus, you will probably pay more for the next work by that artist you buy. You do the same if you recruit all your friends to go listen to a band in a bar. If all your friends show up and have a good time, you will almost certainly pay more at the door the next time the band plays. But that’s the idea: to increase the social value of the things you love…”

“Six Years Later”

Posted by ben on 27 Apr 2009 | Tagged as: essays, links, responses/reviews

My review of the current Unit B show has been posted over at Glasstire:

While [Matt] Hanner tells us exactly what he means to convey with his symbol (which he refers to as “the 8th element”), [Stephen] Lapthisophon lets us gather meaning from his free-form visual associations. One potato lies in a nest, conjuring the idea of a particularly large and lumpy egg; others are scattered around as if they were stones gathered by Robert Smithson for one of his non-sites. Hanner’s symbol, rendered in three sculptures using neon, coiled metal wire and burnt incense sticks respectively, asks how materials influence meaning. We are asked on the one hand to synthesize meaning from the repetition of a simple object in various contexts, and on the other to analyze shifting signification as an abstract concept is made material.

Mrs Eaves XL

Posted by ben on 24 Mar 2009 | Tagged as: design, essays, typography

Emigre expands one of my favorite font families with some new faces that are better suited to longer texts:

One area where Mrs Eaves seems less comfortable is in the setting of long texts, particularly in environments such as the interiors of books, magazines, and newspapers. It seems to handle long texts well only if there is ample space. A good example is the book / CD / DVD release The Band: A Musical History published by Capitol Records. Here, Mrs Eaves was given appropriate set width and generous line spacing. In such cases its wide proportions provide a luxurious feel which invites reading. Economy of space was not one of the goals behind the original Mrs Eaves design. With the introduction of Mrs Eaves XL, Licko addresses this issue.

Read the whole thing for an interesting discussion of the development and refinement of this Baskerville revival. Baskerville himself is an interesting character, a master typographer / printer / binder / paper maker whose greatest work was the Baskerville Bible, despite the fact that he was an atheist who saw himself as advancing the cause of rationalism through his type designs.

Calma con La Algebra of Life: Remembering Manny Castillo

Posted by aaron on 14 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: arts organizations, essays, in yo face, music, mustaches, possibilities, public art, r.i.p., rock!, wordy

Unknown artist's rendering of Manny Castillo and Ram

Manuel Diosdado Castillo, Jr. tragically succumbed to lung cancer on January 6th at the age of 40 – a matter of weeks after receiving the diagnosis – leaving behind a remarkable legacy of music, public artwork, of pride in and a powerful sense of responsibility for his beloved Westside San Antonio barrio. Manny was, for nearly twenty years, a singular presence in both the underground music scene in San Antonio (whose spiritual epicenter is marked by the centuries-old live oak tree at his favorite local dive/venue: the legendary, much-missed Tacoland) and in the non-profit community organization he built, originally as an offshoot project of Patti & Rod Radle’s Inner City Development, but which quickly blossomed into San Anto Cultural Arts.

My friendship with Manny goes back to a spontaneous garage rehearsal circa 1991. Marshall Gause and I were fruitlessly waiting at my folks’ house for some now forgotten drummer we wanted to try out, as our last band line-up hadn’t worked out. Marshall suggested trying to get in touch with this guy he had played a couple of times with the year before – they had enjoyed it, but it didn’t go anywhere as Manny soon left for New Orleans to follow Academic Pursuits. Marshall had a hunch he might be back in town now. After a few calls, the hunch was confirmed and we had a drummer on the way.

That first rehearsal (guitar, bass, & drums – singer Terry Brown had to work) immediately revealed an undeniable chemistry between Marshall’s hippy-punk musicologist guitar explorations, my intuitive but rudimentary bass playing (which, lucky for me, sounded better than it had much right to thanks to my chronic music obsession, a plethora of interesting audio exposure at a job selling used records, and especially Marshall’s unpretentious ability to cover for my lack of formal musical knowledge,) and Manny’s balls-out, hit-the-drums-hard-enough-to-break-at-least-one-head-per-session-but-always-dead-on-the-beat style, using complex rhythms even formally trained jazz drummers wouldn’t have the nerve to try. He was, and remains, one of the fastest, most precise drummers I have ever seen (even faster when he was nervous,) augmented by the physical strength to just bash the hell out of his drums – a steamroller cross between John Bonham, Neil Peart, Mitch Mitchell, George Hurley and Elvin Jones. All on a minimal and creaky drum set usually somehow held together with yarn.

That afternoon we quickly bonded musically over our mutual love for Rush, The Plugz, Esteban Jordan, Thin Lizzy and especially The Minutemen. Spontaneous jams we engaged in that day became the basis for numerous songs later fully developed and forming the initial base of our oeuvre (some still included in the set list at the time the band imploded.) In short order, we brought Terry back into the circle, sat around with some Lone Stars or whatever was cheap that day and soon agreed to call ourself El Santo, in homage to the legendary Mexican lucha enmascarada/film star who never lost a match.

Continue Reading »


Posted by thomas-cummins on 08 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: essays, responses/reviews, wordy

Just saw Doubt and it’s definitely worth a trip to the theater but I’m interested in Winkleman’s response to the film and his concern with the word doubt and how artists are suffering from a lack of certainty as well as religion – “Consider this an open thread on vital religious/spiritual impulses, art making, and whether or not any of this is new.”

Indeed, this is not new, and doubt has always been at the root of philosophy. The father of Western philosophy, Socrates, once famously agreed he was the wisest man in Athens because he knew that he knew nothing. Cartesian doubt was named after the father of Modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, and his credo to “doubt everything” (”de omnibus dubitandum est”) in an attempt to find a foothold of certainty on which his philosophy could firmly stand. Descartes noted that, more often than not, things are not the way they appear to be and that our senses often fool us – a stick might seem bent under water or we often awake from dreams that we mistaken for reality and, in the end, we could never truly know if Surrounded by all this uncertainty, however, we can never doubt the fact we are doubting and this naturally led to his bedrock “I think, therefore, I am.” Eventually, Critical Theory would derive its name from Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason‘ (and Judgment) in his criticism of possible knowledge and in a response to David Hume’s radical skepticism.

Winkleman notes “how debilitating uncertainty is” but doubt has proven itself the greatest ally to artists. Marxist theory contends that the primary function of art is social criticism and it is certainly true that art perpetually doubts the ideology of the reigning majority. Indeed, Kierkegaard points out that the word ‘doubt’ is etymologically related to the word ‘double’ – our meaning is always duplicitous – there is always two sides to every story, two sides to every coin, and as Nietzsche would write “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Even the sacred realm of science is not immune from the clutches of doubt and prevailing Theories of Relativity and Quantum Theory actually contradict each other and are probably both wrong. Indeed, our everyday trust in science is a lot closer to a religion than we like to admit. Science is a modern religion of high probability but it can never fully erase doubt. Karl Popper would attack the ultimate futility of science when he harshly pointed out “Science is perhaps the only human activity in which errors are systematically criticized and… in time, corrected” and “all we can do is search for the falsity content of our best theory.” Indeed, Einstein agreed with this final assessment and concluded, himself, that “Only daring speculation can lead us further and not accumulation of facts.” Daring speculation just happens to be the primary realm of the artist. Doubt has certainly been around for a long time, but only in our most enlightened moments.

Texas Public Radio will have a more comprehensive review of “A History of Doubt” at 10am on Sunday. Tune into 89.1 FM to hear the radio show “Speaking of Faith” with poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht.

The Coming Design Renaissance

Posted by ben on 06 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: design, essays

Michael Cannell has an interesting article in today’s NYT about economic depression bringing about a resurgence in good design and architecture:

In the lean years ahead, “there will be less design, but much better design,” Ms. Antonelli predicted.

There is a reason she and others are optimistic: however dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems, and if President-elect Barack Obama delivers anything like a W.P.A, we could be “standing on the brink of one of the most productive periods of design ever,” said Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Michael Beirut shows us what this will look like from the designer’s perspective in a post at Design Observer:

The modern design studio can’t help but subscribe to the cult of asap. But while working at full speed is great for profit margins, it’s not so good for quality control. A design solution almost always benefits from a second, third or fourth look. Take advantage of the slower pace of a recession by remembering what it was like in design school to spend a full semester on a single project. What seemed then like torture may now feel like a luxury, and your work will benefit. And don’t forget that recessions are a great time for the kind of research and development that manifests itself in self-initiated projects, work that takes a longer view than the next deadline.

UPDATE: Design Observer posts Murray Moss’ take on the issue. Being a dealer in the high-end design that Cannell decries, Moss seems pretty pissed off (and defensive) about the NYT article. A quick read of the comments by DO readers gives a good idea of the polarization this idea is generating.

It’s a friendly, friendly world

Posted by ben on 05 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: arts organizations, essays, possibilities, responses/reviews, wordy

Edward Winkleman posted a short essay on Saturday, which, in short, claims that the future of the art world is in fact the present of the art world. Citing Barack Obama, Winkleman ties the conventional wisdom about the impact of the internet on contemporary society to the current diaspora of the art world. While the underlying premise is not particularly new or insightful, it was a point that needed to be made: art world observers still looking for “the next big thing” need to take a deep breath and accept that fragmentation is here to stay; and this is, in fact, “the next big thing.” This isn’t a crisis, it’s just a way of being. Winkleman catalogs the effects our database-driven culture is having on the art scene, from curating to collecting to artmaking, and announces that these ripples will only expand as time marches on. What this means is that those looking for a new style or idea to dominate contemporary art culture will be disappointed. Poststructuralism is here to stay, and we’ve only begun to tap its implications.

Fair enough, but I think there’s another point to made here (which is perhaps just a shift in emphasis). Winkleman’s essay focusses on the anachronism, contrasts, and tension bred by a process that revels in referencing the Old Masters alongside contemporary pop culture, in drawing improbable threads through history. He emphasizes the information gathering, the cataloging, the futile but fascinating battle against being overwhelmed by the shear amount of information available to us.

But I think what’s most interesting about our current moment is the ways in which it potentially frees us from these obsessive chases, and actually opens up space for more genuine personal interactions. That might sound counter-intuitive at first, but the fact that there’s no longer a dominating formal or conceptual framework allows us to experience art on more personal terms. As a society, we may no longer reject certain styles of work as “unserious” — we may be forced to accept abstract expressionism alongside minimalism alongside realism alongside surrealism ad nauseum; but as individuals we are more free to just focus on the work that reaches us, rather than struggling to understand paint splatters because Greenberg told us to. And whatever style happens to appeal to you, whether it’s Mark Bradford, Walt Disney, Johathan Ive, Cecil Taylor, Bernard Leach or Outkast, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to make personal connections with others who care about the objects of your quirky taste. We can be more sincere about art if we allow ourselves to be.

So while Winkleman moves toward the conclusion that “art by concensus” will come into vogue, I’m more interested in how much more habitable the long tail is becoming: there are those of us interested in making the connections between styles and disciplines; and there are those whose myopic focus we leach off of to make our broad connections. For both groups, the world is becoming a , if more fragmented.

Imagination and Gin

Posted by ben on 16 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: books, essays, silliness, video/film

In an essay from , Luis Buñuel, while arguing that gin stimulates the imagination, explains how he came to use two actresses to play a single role in his final film:

If I had to list all the benefits of alcohol, it would be endless. In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who’d brought the shooting of to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved. Once again, the combination of bar and gin proved ubeatable.

Bataille on the Museum

Posted by ben on 14 Jul 2008 | Tagged as: arts organizations, books, essays

According to the Grande Encyclopédie, the first museum in the modern sense of the word (that is to say the first public collection) would seem to have been founded on 27 July 1793, in France, by the Convention. The origin of the modern museum would thus be linked to the development of the guillotine. However, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, founded at the end of the 17th century, was already a public collection belonging to the University.

The development of museums has plainly surpassed even the most optimistic hopes of the founders. Not only does the totality of the world’s museums today represent a colossal accumulation of riches but, above all, the totality of visitors without any doubt represents the most grandiose spectacle of a humanity freed from material cares and dedicated to contemplation.

We must take into account the fact that the galleries and the objects of art are no more than a container, the contents of which is formed by the visitors: it is the contents which distinguish a museum from a private collection. A museum is comparable to the lung of a great city: every Sunday the throng flows into the museum, like blood, and leaves it fresh and purified. The pictures are only dead surfaces and it is within the crowd that the play, the flashes, the shimmerings of light technically described by the authorised critics takes place. On Sundays, at five o’clock, at the exit door of the Louvre, it is interesting to admire the torrent of visitors, visibly animated with a desire to be in all things at one with the celestial apparitions with which their eyes are still ravished.

Grandville has schematised the relations between the container and the contained in museums by exaggerating (at the very least, on the face of it) the bonds that are temporarily established between the visited and the visitors. In the same way, when a native of the Ivory Coast places polished stone axes of the Neolithic period in a container filled with water, bathes in the container, and sacrifices chickens to what he believes to be thunder stones (fallen from heaven in a thunderclap), he is doing no more than prefiguring the attitude of enthusiasm and profound communion with objects which characterises the visitor to a modern museum.

The museum is a colossal mirror in which man contemplates himself, in short, in all his aspects, finds himself literally admirable and abandons himself to the ecstasy expressed in all the art journals.

— Georges Bataille, Encyclopaedia Acephalica

Aliza Shvarts and the Role of Transgressive Art

Posted by ben on 02 Jul 2008 | Tagged as: essays, performance art, politics, renegade performances, responses/reviews

My admittedly slow-on-the-draw take on the Aliza Shvarts controversy was just published in the Current:

Art can be viewed as a sort of safe space in which society allows itself to push moral boundaries with the understanding that the artist is asking a question. Behavior that would otherwise be proscribed is permitted in order to catalyze moral evolution. We can draw analogies here to other safe spaces that humans set up in order to take otherwise unacceptable risks: the boxing ring, the therapist’s office, even the dreamworld, where desires and fears are explored without physical commitment. Therapeutic uses of art are well established, as is the connection between dreams and artistic production.

Problems arise, however, when the boundary between art and life is blurred. When we move from image to enactment, a crucial line has been crossed, and the artistic space becomes not so safe. As much as morally questionable performances have been integrated into the artistic canon, it is possible that they will always provoke trepidation, if not outrage, in the general public.

Further reading:

The Beaten Path

Posted by ben on 10 May 2008 | Tagged as: essays, music

I just ran across a wonderful series of essays on New Music Box covering the history of percussion in American music. Considered in Europe to be a non-essential, accentual part of music, it was largely American musicians who brought percussion out of the shadows in Western music. The author, Nicole V. Gagné, identifies three strains in the development of American percussion: the rise of multiculturalism and “world music”; the increasing reliance on percussion in jazz and other popular music; and the more philosophical “all-sound music of the future,” in which John Cage’s break from harmonization was the watershed moment. Of course these strains are not independent; jazz drummers incorporated African, Cuban, and Indian percussion, just as the “all-sound” musicians had their flirtations with popular music.

A little thought

Posted by ben on 27 Apr 2008 | Tagged as: ceramics, essays

George Ohr - Fountain Vase
Fountain Vase by George Ohr (ca. 1895-1900)
This afternoon I was skimming over George Brecht’s 1966 essay Chance Imagery; and as I was reading this essay which traces the use of chance techniques in painting back to Kandinsky in 1911, I was drinking water from a handmade porcelain cup given to me by local potter Brad Lum, with its drips of glaze flowing haphazardly down the side. It occurred to me that just around the time that painting began to embrace chance operations, they were being eliminated from ceramics as a result of industrialization. How odd, I thought, that the western artist saw fit to insert chance into a deterministic art form like painting, rather than embrace an essentially chance-based art form like ceramics. Perhaps it is no coincidence that George Ohr is considered by some to be a precursor to the Dada movement in America.

Wandering Poet

Posted by ben on 21 Apr 2008 | Tagged as: adventure day, essays, poetry

Yesterday the Washington Post published a little reflection by Edward Hirsch on the connection between walking and poetry [hat tip]. He threads his own poetic footsteps with those of Baudelaire, Frost, Blake, and a host of others. The piece has an interesting resonance with a lecture Hirsch gave last year at Trinity University, in which he compares the act of reading to pulling a message from a bottle drifting in the sea. We can see him wandering along the beach, gathering the bottles tossed into the waves by poets on distant shores; and to stretch the metaphor further, uncorking a missive sent through the oceanic postal system of memory by the nascent poet in an 8-year-old Edward Hirsch.

Mostly, though, this discussion of long, poetic walks reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. The opening passage introduces lovers who wander the streets of Paris, dating by chance:

Would I find La Maga? Most of the time it was just a case of my putting in an appearance, going along the Rue de Seine to the arch leading into the Quai de Conti, and I would see her slender form against the olive-ashen light which floats along the river as she crossed back and forth on the Pont des Arts, or leaned over the iron rail looking at the water. It was quite natural for me to climb the steps to the bridge, go into its narrowness and over to where La Maga stood. She would smile and show no surprise, convinced as she was, the same as I, that casual meetings are apt to be just the opposite, and that people who make dates are the same kind who need lines on their writing paper, or who always squeeze up from the bottom on a tube of toothpaste.

He Who Controls the Images Controls the Universe

Posted by ben on 29 Mar 2008 | Tagged as: essays, responses/reviews

The Guardian recently featured a piece by David Hockney in which he claims that the decline of the church is directly connected to the democratization of imagery. It’s true that religious institutions have a history of trying to control the kinds of images people create and see, and I’m sure their reasons for doing this have to do with maintaining their grip over people’s minds. But I think you could make virtually the same argument about the church’s control of music, sexuality, history, poetry, or any number of creative ventures (hmm… is history a creative venture?). And this is why Hockney gets it wrong when he says “the power is with images, not art.” The implication here is that power flows from the material truth of the camera, not from the spiritual truth of a work of art. In the past I have quoted Camus making the point that freedom is predicated on the creative act, not production, not representation. This is why churches have tried, and still try, to control creativity — and why their control of material wealth is ultimately secondary to their control of the spirit.

Art Lies #57

Posted by ben on 07 Mar 2008 | Tagged as: announcements, essays, responses/reviews, sneak peeks, video/film

The new issue of Art Lies should be hitting your favorite news stand soon; but they already posted it online, including my review of the Triangle Project Space tps show Standing on one foot, and an interesting conversation between San Antonio’s Potter-Belmar Labs (Leslie Raymond and Jason Jay Stevens) and Oakland’s Double Archive (Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh). Enjoy!

“I claim this as a pot”

Posted by ben on 27 Feb 2008 | Tagged as: books, ceramics, essays, responses/reviews

Rocking Pot by Peter Voulkos

This is the first half (or so) of Garth Clark’s Subversive Majesty: Peter Voulkos’ Rocking Pot (included in , his brilliant book on ceramic art):

Rocking Pot is inarguably one of Peter Voulkos’ most inventive and important works. Its strength comes from its intense mixture of ambiguity and ambivalence. Its form is perplexing because it seems familiar; a relative of the domestic pot. Yet its self-penetration of volume and its strange base, made up of two curved feet or “rockers,” sows confusion and challenges its claim to vesselness. It presents itself simultaneously as a pot, a sculpture, and a demented birdfeeder. But Voulkos has no such confusion about the piece. Unequivocally he has stated, “I claim this as a pot.”

That, then, should be the last word on the subject. But in the world of ceramics there is a curious tendency to “upgrade” pots to sculpture when they project the energy of art, as though the pot is too lowly a medium for higher levels of expression. Obviously this is often at the hands of critics who have not spent any time with a Ming vase or a Mimbres bowl. But this elevation to sculpture is meant to be a compliment to the artist (albeit backhanded), and undoubtedly this is what Rose Slivka intended when she described Rocking Pot as “one of Voulkos’s earliest outright sculptures. The pottery technique is evident, while the pottery function is subverted to the formal invention.”

This statement perhaps best reveals the core misunderstanding among the fine arts in the (under) appreciation of the dynamism of pottery. Pots do not cease to be pots when function is subverted. Indeed, for millennia, denying function has been one of humankind’s ways of setting aside certain vessels for a different role, one that perforce became ritualistic and contemplative. Sometimes the act of removing function was profound, as in the Mimbres culture’s practice of putting a hole into the bottom of bowls of the deceased, to allow their souls to escape into the spirit world. This precluded domestic/utilitarian ideas of containment in favor metaphorical containment, in this case a purposeful permeability. In other cases function was obscured rather than denied for reasons of whimsy — to tease the user, as with the so-called puzzle jugs and mugs of the Medieval period.

What supports Voulkos’ insistence that this object be seen as a pot is that it becomes more intriguing when viewed in ceramic terms rather than from a purely sculptural viewpoint. The act of cutting holes into an abstract sculpture is primarily a formal act. Cutting holes into a pot is a violation. It upsets orderly notions of utility and culture. In pottery, volume is a sacred space. Holes deliberately placed by the potter provide entrances and exits. But when punctured in the seemingly destructive and random manner of the Rocking Pot, the vessel can no longer serve its literal purpose of containment. By further skewering the interior of his pot with his curved rockers, Voulkos adds an edge of surreal spatial violence.

Violence against the vessel, however, was not Voulkos’ goal. If the sanctity of the pot has been bruised, it is simply because it has come up against the intense energy and physicality with which the artist imbues his vessels. The holes serve many purposes in this piece. On one level they are drawings in three dimensions (much like Lucio Fontana’s paintings and sculptures from his Concetto Spaziale series). One may even view them more conservatively as pottery decorations in their most abstract form. But they are also spy-holes into the interior architecture of the vessel. They reveal the pot’s powerful inner structure, which those who admire pottery as an art already know exists, but few have seen exposed in so visceral a manner.

Visual Consumption

Posted by ben on 08 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: design, essays, graffiti, responses/reviews, wordy

There’s a study making the rounds which investigates the connection between cultural consumption and social position. The findings are being trumpeted as “There’s no such thing as a cultural elite” — but this is a bit misleading. What the study finds is that first, cultural proclivities are determined by social status rather than social class (i.e. it’s more about your education and occupation than your tax bracket). Second, people tend to either seek out popular culture, or to seek out both popular and “high-brow” culture. The interesting point here is that there is no statistically significant group that pursues high-brow culture while shunning low-brow culture. So, for the most part, people are either passive consumers of culture (or “univores”), soaking up the popular types of music, theater, and art that surround them, or they are active consumers (or “omnivores”), spending time and energy pursuing the more rarefied art forms, while also enjoying the arts of the common man.

However, as the study notes, this “univore-omnivore” distinction gets a bit murky when it comes to the visual arts (there’s also another paper by the same authors that focuses specifically on the visual arts). If you clicked on the link at the beginning of this post, you probably noticed that the article in the Toronto Star suggests that the study finds that “the visual arts do not figure very high on anyone’s to-do list.” This is where things get complicated, and naturally, where the journalist gets lazy. The survey the study is based on asked about 6,000 people in Britain what kind of cultural events they attend, including things like rock concerts, jazz concerts, operas, movies, gallery openings, etc. In the visual arts, all five categories boil down to the question: how many museums, galleries, or art / craft fairs have you attended in the last 12 months? Those types of events that could be classified as popular (craft fairs and cultural festivals) actually received much lower attendance than those classified as high-brow (museums and galleries), and thus the “univore” group doesn’t really apply in this area.

The authors of the study also admit that they don’t have any data on home or street consumption of visual art (paintings, posters, graffiti, advertisements, or coffee table books). In a footnote they point to showing that in the working class home, most visual objects are either mementos or decorative objects, both of which are taken as “not artistic.” I think at this point we can begin to see the problem with these findings. Popular forms of visual art are practically defined out of existence, as cinema is grouped with theatrical arts, and all the graphic design, architecture, and other “decorative” elements that constantly surround us are taken to be something other than art. There are numerous ways to engage in visual culture besides going to galleries, museums, and craft fairs, none of which are captured by the dataset used for this study.

Quote vs. Quote

Posted by ben on 14 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: books, essays, vs., wordy

“Prosaically, lunk-literal-mindedly, I’ve wondered to what extent Pollock was being subliminally influenced by the color images of telescopic deep space suddenly proliferating in all the popularizing magazines and books and movies of the period. And, too, I’ve wondered about the human scale — the place of the human in the unfolding drama. Standing before such paintings, I can get to feeling positively infinitesimal (less than minuscule, a merest speck, utterly, in Greenberg’s phrase, “beside the point”); or, alternatively, as my eyes sweep the canvas and my mind identifies, momentarily, with the glory of the painting’s making, I can get to feeling almost godlike. One is reminded of the various self-dramatizing films of Pollock around the time he was making those paintings — a Colossus striding purposefully from side to side, pausing, stabbing, hurling the universe itself into existence.” — Lawrence Weschler,

“Henceforth, when man is for once overcome by the horror of alienation and the world fills him with anxiety, he looks up (right or left, as the case may be) and sees a picture. Then he sees that the I is contained in the world, and that there really is no I, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down; or he sees that the world is contained in the I and that there really is no world, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down. And when man is overcome again by the horror of alienation and the I fills him with anxiety, he looks up and sees a picture; and whichever he sees, it does not matter, either the empty I is stuffed full of world or it is submerged in the flood of the world, and he calms down.

“But the moment will come, and it is near, when man, overcome by horror, looks up and in a flash sees both pictures at once. And he is seized by a deeper horror.” — Martin Buber,

Stockhausen’s Dialectic

Posted by ben on 08 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: essays, music, r.i.p., responses/reviews, sound art

Studie II by Stockhausen

On the news of Stockhausen’s death, it may be worth reading this long essay on his work, which is still often misunderstood. This brief quote encapsulates some of the main ideas of the essay (by Jean-Claude Eloy):

The splendid success of the overall conception, general organization and production of “Zyklus” still do not always allow for the percussions to truly express their life and demonstrate all of their rich potential. On this matter, a work such as “Mikrophonie I” opens up surprising vistas and breaks down all barriers. The rich, but single, source for the whole work (the large tam-tam) is allowed ample time to “share” its multiple metamorphoses of tones, attacks, and resonances. Once again, with such a work, Stockhausen has shown himself to be a frontrunner, the boldest of all.

Throughout his work, Stockhausen’s dialectical personality is express by this double thrust, one rotating, the other ascending. One the one hand, he is truly audacious in his conceptual work and he knows how to impose a (sometimes “abstract”) form of thinking on musical material. And on the other hand, he possesses a very open sensitivity that studies material, listens to sounds created in the studio, analyzes their hidden pulsations, all to extract new meaning, go a step further and push the material forward.

Stockhausen’s double success in the two worlds of instrumental and vocal music – sound material that is already laden with history and acquired habits – as in the new realm of exploration of electro-acoustic technologies (a unique case in our times), can be understood by the presence of this dialectic that is constantly criss-crossing and circulating between two poles: from conception to material and from material to conception. Although ostensibly contradictory, these two poles are, in fact, complementary.

[Image above is a page from the score of Stockhausen's 1954 composition Studie II]

UPDATE: I decided to upload an MP3 of Stockhausen’s groundbreaking 1956 composition, Gesang der Junglinge. You can read more about this piece here. Enjoy.

Paul Feeley

Posted by ben on 03 Dec 2007 | Tagged as: books, design, essays, responses/reviews

Paul Feeley - Germanicus - 1960

I just got an email asking why we hadn’t covered the Paul Feeley show currently on exhibit at Lawrence Markey, and my excuse was that I’m not good at writing about that kind of art. However, it’s an impressive show, and deserves more attention. So I decided to quote from a catalog / book of Feeley’s work put out by Matthew Marks and Lawrence Markey back in 2002. This passage is from a short essay about Feeley written by Lane Relyea. is definitely worth picking up if you are interested in Feeley’s work. I’ll also take this opportunity to scold our San Antonio readers for not attending Lawrence Markey’s openings with more consistency (you know who you are) — he consistently puts together great shows by important artists.

Feeley’s paintings from the ’60s betray too much of High Modernism’s earnest optimism to be characterized as primarily subversive, and yet it’s also hard to see them as bent on autonomy. With their extendable patterns of simple, interlocking forms and their nondeclarative quality gained by the back-and-forth play of assertive and recessive shapes, they’re too suggestive of tiles, fabrics, and other such prosaic materials. These references might in turn place Feeley’s art within [Constructivism], except that there’s no mistaking Feeley for a harbinger of revolution. Feeley’s mature work seems to bear the influence of postwar industrial and commercial design and the intense interest paid to it by college art curricula, lifestyle magazines, and museum curating (including the series of “Good Design” shows MoMA mounted in the early ’50s). In Feeley, as in all these instances, the attempt to merge art and life was made without any nervous glancing at the clock of revolutionary history. Historical time-keeping was also a prominent feature of Modernist painting as Clement Greenberg conceived it, which may help to explain why the critic’s support for Feeley was only lukewarm. Paintings were less likely to participate in grand historical advances if they nestled too comfortably in the private spaces of home and daily social life, where history loses sight of its main actors and staging grounds, its leaders and elections and wars, and instead moves almost imperceptibly.

Found in Translation

Posted by ben on 27 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: essays, poetry, wordy

I recently picked up Walter Bejamin’s . He’s one of those writers who eloquently expounds some fascinating ideas, but often doesn’t offer much in the way of evidence. In his essay The Task of the Translator, Benjamin asserts that “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language. Luther, Voss, Hölderlin, and George have extended the boundaries of the German language.” Although he points us to examples of what he is talking about, he stops short of explaining what about these authors’ translations illustrates his point (he does, at other points in the essay, talk specifically about Hölderlin’s translation style, but in a way that is abstract enough as to not be really convincing to someone, like myself, who can’t read German).

Because of these concerns I was particularly glad to come across this essay by Seamus Heaney in the Guardian recently (via The Page). Heaney illustrates quite clearly how translations of English poetry (Shakespeare, Tennyson and Longfellow) influenced Japanese verse in the late nineteenth century; and how, a few years later, under the influence of translations of Japanese haiku, Pound and Eliot helped change the way the western world looked at poetry, giving birth to Imagism. Heaney then compares traditional Japanese verse to Old Irish verse, pointing out that the seeds of this “Japanese” vein of writing had also been buried in the western tradition.

But what I’m most interested here, coming back to Benjamin, is the notion that these were translations that Eliot and Pound were reading. Perhaps there is a sense in which the translators of Shakespeare into Japanese or Basho into English deserve more credit for helping to move the target languages in a certain direction than do the poets writing in those languages. Heaney clearly isn’t setting out to prove this point, and he certainly doesn’t demonstrate it, even inadvertently. It could very well be that Benjamin’s notion that the “character” of a particular language is actually shifted by (good) translations from another language is faulty, and that this blending of traditions has more to do with how writers choose to use a language rather than its underlying character. However, I think some of the evidence Heaney introduces about the historical development of poetic traditions could serve to bolster Benjamin’s argument.

The more I think about these ideas, the closer I get to the black hole of linguistics debates (especially when pondering Benjamin’s appeal to “pure language”), so I think I’ll stop here, before I get sucked in.

Against Poetry

Posted by ben on 10 Nov 2007 | Tagged as: essays, poetry

It’s wonderful that we live in an age in which an essay such as this can exist:

Melancholy and joy are poetry’s modest, binary legacy. Affirmation and repudiation taken together form a somewhat psychotic gesture, the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” casually borrowed from the Roman caesars (both caesars and poets rely on the thumb). And isn’t poetic melancholy at times only rapture in disguise, as if the poet wished to enjoy inspiration just a bit longer and so hides it in a heat-resistant container? At times these affirmations and negations may be slightly ahistorical, pronounced without reference to new facts and conclusions. The court assembles, experiences inspiration and, ignoring the witnesses, ignoring both the prosecutor and the defense, passes its apodictic, beautifully composed sentence. Is Baudelaire’s complaint really so different from Ovid’s?

History Lesson

Posted by ben on 11 Oct 2007 | Tagged as: books, essays, poetry

The history of the infinite circle (no, not that infinite circle), from the Corpus Hermeticum to Borges. Don’t miss the Paul Klee material. (This information will come in handy.)

The Story of Matrix

Posted by ben on 29 Aug 2007 | Tagged as: design, essays

Matrix II

Emigre just published the history of the Matrix typeface on their site to hail the release of Matrix II. It’s a story of emerging technologies and their impact on design (exemplifying this quote, also from Emigre), of an iconoclastic designer whose work became iconic, and of the kind of debate that has been raging in the design community for years. It’s also the story of a great font.

Quote vs. Quote

Posted by ben on 20 Aug 2007 | Tagged as: design, essays, vs.

“It should be clear that in the applied arts, innovation is not an unceasing hunt for heterodox and unseen things from desert islands; it is not merely an image surgery soliciting the senses, or a tension tickling the nerves. The idea of seeking the new for the sake of being different is nonsensical, resulting from the prevailing contemporary ‘market and goods’ ideology. True innovation is one that is rightly able to link the adaptive history embodied in any artifact with the changes of production tools, whenever they occur.” — Sergio Polano, Emigre 26

“But these forward gropings, this anticipation of an undefined future and the cult of the new mean in fact the exaltation of the present. The new time consciousness, which enters philosophy in the writings of Bergson, does more than express the experience of mobility in society, of acceleration in history, of discontinuity in everyday life. The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral, the very celebration of dynamism, discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate and stable present.” — Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project”

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