on the limits of art

I haven’t read the Haruki Murakami story Drive My Car adapts but Murakami’s locus of themes seems apparent: the centrality of sex, long opaque stories seeming to beg for but ultimately deny wider resonances, the intertextuality (especially with canonical western literature). 

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To Live A Life

“A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Take away the outside and the inside is left. Take away the inside and you see it’s soul.”

In Vivre Sa Vie Jean-Luc Godard juxtaposes a tragic story with stylistic camera work and affectless acting to create a wholly surprising film.

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The weird cinematic world of Guy Maddin

“The more manipulated things are, the less likely people are to be misled.”

An a propos line for film auteur Guy Maddin to offer up in response to an interview question concerning the blurry line between fiction and non-fiction created in some of his films. That’s the allure of speculative art really, one can create a world as strange as one can imagine: the weirder it is, the less likely we are to be confused.

Much has already been written of Maddin, as is true of any artist who has attained even a nominal level of fame in 2015, but many of Maddin’s biggest fans are film geeks, and I mean film geeks; those people who, like Maddin, enjoy destroying, tampering with or in any other way possible interfering with the medium, the raw material, of film itself.

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On Nostalgia

Art is stupidly powerful, if sometimes, in a rather roundabout way.

About a month or so ago author and blogger Maris Kreizman published an op-ed in the New York Times on nostalgia in the wake of Netflix’s announcement of it’s “Full House” reboot.

A rabid “Full House” fan in her youth, Kreizman used the news to comment on the out-of-control nostalgia (my words) of our generation, attributing this to, at least in part, how technology has changed the way we interact with the art (or… not art) we love.

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leviathan: religion and state in russia

Religion is a nasty animal in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan.

Late in the film an orthodox priest, when confronted by the recently widowed Kolya, who despairingly questions the omnipotence of God in the aftermath of his wife’s death, responds to Kolya by quoting Job chapter 41, Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? God asks Job, Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?

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Thoughts while listening to Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador”

How much are we influenced by memory, experience and location when writing, or listening, to music?

The composer Gabriel Kahane, I believe, would say the influence is inextricable. In The Ambassador, his most recent song cycle, Kahane uses the titles of his songs to literally inform the listener of the song’s spatial and/or artistic influences, essentially telling the listener what to see or think about while listening.

For the cycle’s subject he took Los Angeles, a city which is host to a mythology constructed from our cultural portrayals of its residents and environs over the greater part of the last century. My guess is that unless you have been living in a cultural vacuum, there are a set of feelings and images the city’s name conjures, even if you’ve never visited.

Kahane, I’m sure, was quite aware of that fact, and in The Ambassador, he utilizes both film and other image sources, as well as books he’s read and his own personal history, to inspire an illustration and recreation, through music, of the intoxicating atmosphere of Los Angeles as he has experienced and remembered it. It’s beautiful, cacophonous, occasionally mathy and occasionally simple, but the power Kahane wields by telling us his subject, is what I found particularly interesting.

To what extend does music derive its meaning and effect from the realm of the visual world? And/or, do you lose or gain something in its experience by having a musician literally explain the atmosphere he would like his music to conjure?

I think it’s safe to say composers are undoubtedly influenced by various sources, both from first-hand and learned experience, when writing music. Whether you lose, or gain something in experience with the knowledge of those influences, is another question.

Listening to someone like Kahane explain his music, which is all I can do not, as of yet, having had the opportunity to see him perform it, my mind immediately wandered towards a contemplation of what the gesamtkunstwerk looks like, or could look like, in the 21st century.

It’s not a term we discuss much anymore, Wagner having co-opted the term and destroyed it with suffocating elitist idealism. I’m using it here to refer more to the idea of a perfect work, not any actual piece. It’s an abstract idea, in my mind, which could more or less assert that the visual or aural component of a piece of art is not the entirety of the work. In which, maybe, we acknowledge that all (or at least most) art, is a synthesis of various influences internal to the work’s creator and, therefore, inseparable to the result. Here’s what I mean.

I’m not referring here to an art exhibit or installation which incorporates multiple forms of media from various artists, with a vague philosophy attempting to connect everything. I’m talking one artist, who, since we value ideas over results much of the time anyways, offers the whole of his art, the real whole, to experience. Can we honestly, in a post-structuralist world, assert a work of art is complete without its influences? Just as the art visual, and even musical artists create, becomes less and less “art” in its classical definition.

In other words, the 21st century gesamtkunstwerk is less an artist utilizing various media to create various components of an experience or exhibition, but an artist whose influences which are necessarily varied, are overtly on display.

The history we’re in the process of making seems like it might be pointing us in this general direction.

Opera, the great and historical art form which does combine disparate forms of art into one work, seems to be enjoying a popular resurgence, in so much as opera ever can. And artists of all types are disrupting the boundaries between their form of art and another, creating art that is difficult to classify.

Maybe this trend towards cross-pollination acknowledges that perhaps we have failed to engage with art and music in the correct way (in so much as there is a correct way which of course there’s not, one of those wonderful contradictions we are meant to embrace). Perhaps somewhere along the way, we lost track of how to present it (art) and our perpetual need to explain or disclose artistic influences would seem to attest to our fascination, interest, need, pick your word, for a context.

What if we could experience that context at the same time as we experience the art? Maybe that’s what we’re attempting to recreate in all of our “installations” and “performances.” A real complete story, not an opera, play or film that attempts to fictitiously recreate, what each of us already has inside of us.

I’m not advocating screening shots of Austrian landscapes behind the music of Mozart. Not exactly. The presentation would be less a disparate weaving together of art forms, and more, as in the work of Kahane, the offering of clues, and the creation of an environment through which we are meant to experience an individual’s art; essentially recreating the environment he/she experienced while creating it in the first place. I’m not entirely sure what it would look like really.

We’re fully aware artists don’t create art in a vacuum, why should we have to experience it in one?

This dovetails into, as all my lines of thinking usually do, the future, and the art world’s mounting fear of losing its audiences.

It’s interesting to think about the idea of multisensory stimulation and a more comprehensive experience of art, like the music of Kahane, in the context of film, something he, unsurprisingly, cites as an influence for much of his music. Great film artistically incorporates a bit of everything; dialogue, visual and aural content, and, while we fail to bring new audiences into other art forms, film (yes, thanks in large part to its facility of distribution, but I’d posit more than that), is thriving.

Perhaps there is a key to art’s future somewhere in this rambling. Perhaps it lies in, as many artists seem to already be exploring, a better experience. Not for the sake of experience, and not because we can’t appreciate the art without it, but instead, because we’re meant to know where the art is coming from in the first place.

Musings 4.21.14

Words mean more than we mean to express when we use them, so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.

– Lewis Carroll

One of Salvador Dali's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland
One of Salvador Dali’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland










Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination. 

– Jim Jarmusch

Ed Ruscha

I’ve recently been spending an inordinate amount of time with two things. Generational theory, which attempt to understand and explain why we are the way that we are, and writing on criticism as we attempt to explain how we analyze and evaluate music today.

Unlike the generations which have preceded us, mine, the millenial generation, first and foremost identifies themselves individually. We don’t seek to fit in with a ‘group’ instead we pride ourselves on our individuality, our style, our taste etc.

How we define ‘cool’ is different too. According to writer Alexandra Molotkow, being cool is no longer based on what you know and other people don’t. Being cool is about what you have to say about thing things everyone else already knows.

This manifests itself in conversations third-party listeners often think sound pretentious or unintelligible. We’re so consumed with having an opinion and demonstrating our cultural capital and understanding of theory, that we have taken to re-evaluating everything those who came before us dismissed.

We’ve collectively revolted against elitism and our critical technique is to evaluate, to our credit, everything previous critics outright rejected as kitschy, pedestrian, low-brow (pick your negative word), etc.

Molotkow however, talks about the danger’s of this culture of acceptance we’re cultivating, and the risks inherent in ‘poptism’s’ all-encompassing policy of acceptance, by asserting that it’s one thing to defend the music of a Justin Bieber, it’s another to offer him a place in the music history canon.

The challenge for today’s critics and an idea which will undoubtedly continue to evolve as yet another reaction to what came before it in the history of music criticism, is the need to ask the right questions of these pop stars we insist so vehemently on defending. ‘Does this pop song do what a pop song should do?’ ‘Does it succeed or fail by updating, employing or subverting its genre tropes?’ These are the questions we should be asking and they’re hard ones.

Mindfully evaluating genres of music within the theory of the genre as opposed to a blanket comparison between genres will become the dominant theme in music criticism for the conscious rejecters of both rockism and poptimism, and as we descend into an ever more critical place may we all become smarter and more critical without resorting to yet another form of elitism.

Wade Guyton, “untitled” (2014)

Wade Guyton and Post-Media Art

In an art world that seems to accept anything and everything as art, the refusal by some to accept certain computer-made art as art is nonsense.

Another seemingly incongruent fact is the reality that in our post-media world we are starting to accept computer-created art as art provided we remain more or less unaware of the art’s origins in technology.

We are just entering an era in art in which we can accept technology can be the means to create artwork, and not just the subject.

Wade Guyton’s untitled pieces above serve as a good meditation on new media art. Their origin belies their creator’s hand while at the same time darkly prophesying a future of machines and machine-produced art.


The Culture and Assumptions of the American Midwest

The second show in Chris La Bove and Steve Walter’s Second Thought Theatre’s season is a combination of theater and film presented in conjunction with Aviation Cinemas, Inc., the operating company for the ultra-cool Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.

Eric Steele’s The Midwest Trilogy, in a not surprising vein for Dallas theater, presents a critique of Midwest culture through three brief vignettes. Each mini-play presents issues characteristically associated with the stereotypically backwards folk of the middle of the country, which yes, includes Dallas. Where Steele surprises however, is in his ability to overturn our assumptions and in the process, create a memorable piece of theater.

Eric Steele

In the first (and weakest) “act,” entitled “Cork’s Cattlebaron,” Jon and Brady sit down for a meal at a fancy Omaha steakhouse. Brady’s incessant chatter is obnoxious and the audience commiserates with the younger Jon who seems utterly embarrassed by his business associate’s brash mannerisms.

After several minutes Jon snaps, and instead of any number of accusations one might assume Jon to lash out with, he fires Brady on the spot; a task he had apparently been attempting to accomplish all night. Despite an initial lack of respect for Brady’s unsympathetic character, the audience finds itself sorry for Brady as he leaves a painfully emotional voicemail for his wife.

After we travel to Omaha, Steele takes us to “Topeka” in a film where young New York businessman Layne Edelman encounters a group of locals in a coffee shop. In this short film Layne tackles the perceived prejudices of the Kansans as he chats with his fellow customers.

Typical issues of city versus country and the stereotypes that pervade the relationship appear but the audience is never quite sure whether the group is indeed predisposed to dislike Layne because of where he comes from and his religion, or if the bias is all in Layne’s head. The dramatic ending again turns our assumptions upside down as it would appear that Layne is the one placing too much stock in a societal narrative, rather than vice versa.

The third and final installment of The Midwest Trilogy is “Bob Birdnow,” the only live action portion of the saga. Dallas audiences saw Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow in last year’s Festival of Independent Theater and Nash excellently reprises his role here. Second Thought and Aviation Cinemas, Inc. plan to eventually turn this portion of the Trilogy into a film as well.

Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow - Photo Credit Karen Almond

Birdnow is a “reluctant motivational speaker” who relates to the audience, acting as a group of salesmen at a conference, the story of a dramatic plane crash and his survival. While seeming to serve as a critique of the practice of rote motivational speaking, this section of the play also toys with the notion that human existence is based solely upon survival. Nash’s acting is emotional, raw and excluding the plane crash, utterly relatable.

Second Thought is preaching to the choir with this production of Steele’s work. Steele stated he received inspiration for these stories from his days as a “traveling salesman” in the American Midwest, a career in which a pervasive isolation lends itself to ample time for observation.

The stories in the Trilogy are based on circumstances he was confronted with and the stereotypes, narrative of the “culture clash” and the danger of buying too much into both, are ideas anyone even remotely familiar with this area of the country will be able to relate to oh so well. Go see it. You’ll understand exactly what I mean.