david lynch and language

Eraserhead is one of those films that stays with you. I have an absolutely horrific memory. Films, books, theater, you name it, I’ll be lucky to even remember the most important of plot twists or themes even six months after completing a viewing or book, even if I discuss it at length with someone else. 

David Lynch’s work is different. 

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While I couldn’t quote you lines from Eraserhead (despite the fact that there are few), I remember most scenes of the film vividly. 

Mary X’s fetid home. Spencer’s miserable apartment. The horrifying ‘child’ X has born for Spencer. Spencer’s visions. The lady in the radiator. The man in space. The nightmarish cabaret. All somehow connected. And all seemingly, frustratingly unconnected. All occurring in a film which at the same time lasts forever and is over too soon. 

EVERY Lynch film, music video, photograph, is equally unforgettable. Why?

It’s not because after long periods of discussion I finally found intellectual peace with my interpretation. And it certainly wasn’t because the films were beautiful, although in their own way they are.

Words.

Lynch on language “The power of words is that they change things as soon as you know what something is.”

How much of our collective definition of something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is based upon the feelings elicited by the words themselves? 

According to Lynch “Eraserhead” is his most spiritual film but “no one has written it to that side at which I understand it or what it means to me.” 

For Lynch the social meaning we have ascribed to various words refuses the possibility that we can interpret and dream our way into a new way of thinking. 

Example. We’ve given ‘death’ an ugly word. But is the act of ‘death’ really ugly? Or is it ugly because the word is ugly? Think about it.

Lynch doesn’t use words because they’re too powerful. Because they eliminate the possibility for a ‘sore’ or ‘sperm’ to be beautiful. 

It’s impossible but its a good dream; the idea that we could create art that doesn’t rely on a language that has been imbued with centuries worth of conflicting meaning, that we could create work and not seek an interpretation. That we could be allowed to dream.

That’s David Lynch’s dream. And that’s why Lynch’s work is so unforgettable. It’s a film or a music video or a photograph without words, and therefore, something that we, through words, attempt to imbue with self-imposed meaning

Missing the point completely that the very reason Lynch’s work is strangely powerful and disconcertingly beautiful, is because there are no words. His refusal to allow us meaning doesn’t make sense. But maybe that’s the point.

on art as philosophy, simplicity and those darn cubes

Even as someone who will defend modern art and its contributors until my dying breath, I occasionally find myself skeptical of certain allegedly important artists and their place in art history. Sol LeWitt has always been one of those artists.

In my rather brief life I’ve yet to encounter LeWitt’s infamous wall paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of photographs along with dozens of imitations, so maybe I’ve seen them after all? But no, what I’m talking about are those infuriating cubes. When I see Lewitt’s cubes I don’t think twice and just keep walking. I always assumed there had to be a reason they were in art museums and not just children’s playrooms or my math textbook and not surprisingly there is.

According to the artist Joseph Kosuth in his landmark essay “Art after Philosophy,” the 20th century saw a radical redefinition of philosophy that was the impetus in the same for art. By Kosuth’s line of reasoning philosophy has historically concerned itself with the “unsaid.” For many centuries, scientists and philosophers were one and the same, contemplating the great unknown with many questions.

It’s a given that today’s science is different than the science of the philosophers and there is very little left “unsaid,” leading Kosuth to ask the question, is man and his “intelligence” such, “that he cannot believe the reasoning of traditional philosophy?” Maybe the unsaid is unsayable.

Now these conclusions are only one man’s opinions but hear me out. Philosophy was struggling with its place because science had entered the technology age. Suddenly we knew what else was out there and had ways to analyze ruins and determine where we came from. In this age of the automobile, electricity, the atom bomb and space travel, what was the point of traditional philosophy?

Traditional art too, suddenly seemed irrelevant. With the advent of modern science, aesthetics as a societal value was second to an emphasis on modernity; formalist artwork somehow seemed trivial.

For Kosuth then, aesthetics could not be the basis of good art. After all, judgments based on aesthetics are based entirely on taste and never on a work’s “reason for existence.” It was that “reason for existence” that became the defining quality for artists of Kosuth’s generation. Traditional art was valuable as a certain type of art, but it was just that, one function of what should be art in a much larger context.

The vaccum left by the dissolution of traditional philosophy was filled by these new artists who were suddenly creating work in which the idea was the central focus, what I like to think of as art as philosophy. The birth of conceptualism in art.

According to Sol LeWitt, the new breed of artists associated with this conceptual movement were so-called because they concerned themselves solely with the conception of the idea and its realization. The finished product was meaningless.

Apart from the centrality of ideas, conceptual art also grew out of the modern artist’s distaste for the commodification of art and its status, by the mid 20th century, as little more than consumer good. Robert Smithson reacted to this by avoiding the gaze of the consumer and using nature as his gallery. While all conceptual artists didn’t shun the public art world, most at least expressed their distaste for the traditional by creating works based on a framework that differed drastically from that which came before them.

Sol LeWitt, in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” may have defined the practice the best. According to LeWitt, conceptual art must be mentally interesting. It must be intuitive to the artist, free from an artist’s skill and most of all free from what he called the “emotional kick” the audience had grown to expect from the expressionist artists. That kick inhibits the significance of the idea being expressed.

One way to look at the new art was expressed by Kosuth as a difference in language. Conceptual art wasn’t the beginning of modern art, obviously. Before the insurrection brought about by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, modern artists were already changing our definition of what was acceptable (Manet, for example) but were doing so by speaking the same language as traditional artists; what Kosuth called the European painting/sculpture dichotomy. With Duchamp’s revolution, artists realized an ability to speak another, new language.

Another artist who famously laid out the framework of the new movement was Lawrence Weiner in his brilliantly brief “Declaration of Intent.” This is it:

  1. 1.     The artist may construct the piece.
  2. 2.     The piece may be fabricated
  3. 3.     The piece need not be built.

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

In summary, whether or not the artist created the piece or even built it was immaterial provided the intention and idea were satisfied. It could be instructions concerning how to create a piece, as LeWitt was famous for, or it could be a piece that never even took on material form. As long as the idea was fulfilled, the artist had succeeded.

While LeWitt wasn’t the founder of the conceptual art movement by any stretch, he for many personifies the central notions of the movement. LeWitt, like many of his contemporaries, was dissatisfied with the state of modern art and early in his career as an artist determined to “start over.”

He acquainted himself intimately with shapes and lines; the shapes, squares, circles and triangles we know so well. We take them for granted but without them there would be no art. LeWitt’s art was about essentials.

It was also about concepts. He focused on ideas such as volume, transparency and sequences, things he believed, as did the other conceptual artists, equaled aesthetics in importance.

Perhaps what helps to enlighten the casual viewer concerning LeWitt’s artistic oeuvre more than anything else is his definition of the artist. By LeWitt’s line of reasoning, if we consider architects artists and their creations works of art, why can’t art function like architecture? The artist creates a set of directions carried out by a team of artisans and a piece of art is born. It actually makes perfect sense.

LeWitt’s wall paintings were his embodiment of this. When we see a LeWitt wall painting today we’re not seeing something physically created by the artist, but we are seeing the embodiment of his idea, and isn’t it the idea that counts? Isn’t it the idea that spurs every action and accomplishes every goal.

LeWitt prized the idea over the object, taking our 20th century redefinition of art one step further than the Abstract Expressionists who valued the process over the object.

“Conceptual art is not necessarily logical… “ LeWitt once said,  “Successful ideas have the appearance of simplicity because they are inevitable.”

Conceptual artists and Sol LeWitt once again changed our notion of what we can and should consider art. They didn’t negate formalist art (although many were disdainful of the practice), they simply enlarged the artistic framework and they did so in a way that made us stop and think. These works of art force us to stop and think about the simple things we take for granted, like a chair, and they do so in a way that really elevates the idea in a way complicated art could never do.

LeWitt’s art may on first glance appear simple or trivial, in my case boring, but when you understand the concerted effort he makes to draw the artists and the viewers attention to the concepts and systems without which we could not work or function, it becomes clear that conceptual art, just like the ideas within it, was itself, inevitable.

“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Sol LeWitt

on museums, nature, universal symbolism and land art

With the first “retrospective” of the Earthworks movement, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” currently on display at MOCA, I thought it an a propos time to explore (briefly) the ideology and work of Robert Smithson, one of the early artists working in the Land Art movement and probably most well-known. While many high profile artists are associated with the movement, Smithson’s prolific writing and his high-profile project “Spiral Jetty” allow a deeper understanding of the “why” than most of his contemporaries.

Land Art, or Earthworks (a term Smithson coined) is an art movement that falls under the category of minimalism and emerged in the late 1960’s.  Land artists utilize land or the landscape as their canvas (or on their canvas) and are characterized by a rejection of what they saw as the commodification of art in the 1960’s, a fascination with nature and an emphasis on the product used in their art rather than the finished product (see minimalism as a whole).

In the 1960’s the art world was seeing a plethora of movements rejecting established practices. Art historian Donald Kuspit describes the systematic rejection of the frame and the pedestal in painting and sculpture during the decade while artists attempted to redefine the boundaries of their art. Removing art from the gallery and giving it indefinite boundaries, ie. Land Art, was simply the next logical step.

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A still from Michael Snow’s “La Region Centrale,” 1971

Minimalism attempts to expose the essence of something by eliminating everything but the necessary. For artists working within the tenets of minimalism (including the Land Art artists) a museum tended to offer their pieces a sense of grandeur and importance the piece did not deserve.  Moving the piece into nature allowed the majesty of the outdoors to dwarf the artist’s creation, better achieving the goals of the minimalist artist.

Smithson began as a painter but his ideology was always minimalist. A rejection of the traditional museum/gallery system as well as a systematic attempt to reject the art world’s insistence on defining an artist and his art form, led Smithson to produce works not easily categorized, even before he delved into Land Art and developed his important notion of the site and non-site.

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Smithson’s “Partly Buried Wood-shed,” 1970 – an example of Smithson’s fascination with the relationship between man and nature as well as the concept of entropy

Site and non-site meant for Smithson respectively the creation of his art in nature as a part of nature and in the case of the non-site, the movement of articles from a site in nature and their placement in the gallery. In the late 1960’s, Smithson’s output was almost entirely focused on these sites and non-sites as his art grew more and more inextricably intertwined with nature.

Apart from a rejection of the establishment, Smithson and others also sought in nature a therapeutic removal from the “life-draining urban environment.” Like many before and after them, an aversion to the technology and chaos implicit in modern man’s daily life, led Land Artists to escape to nature in order to attempt to assuage some of the human trauma incurred through what they saw as life on overload.  It also allowed them in turn to explore the chaos inherent in nature, something especially important to Smithson who was fascinated by the concept of entropy and the effects of the elements on his outdoor work.

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a 1,500 foot long coil composed of rock and soil dramatically jutting out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the embodiment of much of Land Art’s central tenets as well as the significance of universal forms and symbols.

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For Smithson the “Spiral Jetty” explores not only the majesty and at the same time fragility of nature as well as our relationship with it, but it also explores the concept of the universal form, in this case the spiral, as a “symbol of the cosmos.” It exemplifies the Land Artist’s desire to avoid the placement of their creation onto the landscape, but rather to work within it as they explore the human relationship to nature.

“Spiral Jetty” in short, inspires viewers to contemplate the complicated notion of human manipulation in nature while viewing a symbol we as a collective humanity have been inserting into our dialogue for centuries. What is the true relationship between man and nature?  The choice of the spiral is no accident. As Smithson attempts to ease the trauma of daily life through nature, he is also attempting to do so by creating a link to the centuries of civilizations that have come before us.

Viewing Smithson’s masterpiece is moving as the viewer contemplates the universally emotional experience of an un-touched nature, only this time, it’s only seemingly un-touched. Smithson here has been able to create an item that is inextricably linked to the human experience while at the same time it’s presence in nature seems perfectly natural; as if Smithson’s intrusion almost didn’t happen.  Maybe man and nature are closer than we think.

So there you have it, Land Art, art within nature that attempts to be a part of nature and while almost succeeding, still serves as an example of man’s manipulation of nature. We can attempt to make our mark minimal, but it’s still there.

Side-Note: Smithson’s notions of entropy and the ephemeral nature of the landscape and his art within it were subjects upon which he wrote profusely, making the Dia Art Foundation’s discussions of the “Spiral Jetty’s” preservation somewhat ironic. Just something to keep in mind as the debate continues; Smithson valued the aspect of nature that involves organic growth and decay. Would he have wanted “Spiral Jetty,” an artwork that almost isn’t an artwork, to be preserved as such? Or would he have wanted it to go the way of nature?

the mystery of modern art and a mission

There was a moment, somewhere in the last century, in which our definition of art changed forever. It’s easy to attribute it to Marcel Duchamp and his appropriation of the male urinal for his 1917 piece “Fountain,” so for all intents and purposes, let’s just pretend it’s “Fountain.” Funny thing about that piece? The original “Fountain” was only seen by a select few and vanished soon after Duchamp’s ceremonial “signing.” 

Duchamp certainly wasn’t the single most important artist in modern history, but he was in no small part responsible for publicizing the drastic re-definition of art that would be shaped over the next century. In modern art, the idea was to become more important than the object.

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That crucial point upon which modern art turns was laid out in avant-garde magazine The Blind Man in connection to Duchamp’s “Fountain” one year after it’s christening: “Whether Mr Mutt (Duchamp’s moniker) made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

Through the work of the Dadaists and others, and to the chagrin of many, our definition of “art” was changed. Art was no longer about beauty and visual appeal. Art was about the idea and over the next century the world would see a gradual progression that would essentially evolve the “artist” into a philosopher.

While the evolution has made art (to some) more interesting, it has also made art, to most, incomprehensible. Unfortunately this has in turn led to its rejection by many and its relegation to the realm of the intellectual. This is in part due to the academic and artist’s inability to explain the art and it’s foundation in philosophy as well as it’s importance on that level and within the history of art; all information which is vital to an appreciation of the art.

A few years ago I wrote an extensive analysis of the Abstract Expressionist movement and argued, as many before me, for the critic’s centrality in that movement as few before it. Without the mediation between the critic and the audience, a belief held by many, is that it would be nearly impossible for the general public to even recognize the movement as art.  Those who know me know I don’t mean that as a slight, but it is still a difficult topic to address amongst non-art fans.

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Should we need an artist’s words to describe his work? Is it really art if the public can’t recognize it as such? 

Questioning the necessity of explaining why modern art is art is a valid question that leads to many more interesting questions.

Should we really have to define art? Shouldn’t art be an individualized experience? Because the artist defines his/her art as such, if we interpret it differently does that mean we are wrong?

Do we owe the general public an explanation about art and its meaning? Or do we treat art as elite?

Concerning the last two questions. Being a casual art lover myself (and by casual I mean without formal education) I am obviously of the opinion that yes, we owe it to the general public to help them understand and appreciate what we are calling art and we should be ashamed for having shirked our duty for so many years.

I’m going to at least put in my two cents.

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It may lack a consistent format for a little while I figure it out, but I owe it to myself, and eventually hopefully to others, to at least attempt to convert a few to an appreciation for something I swear by.

So here it is. Not because I’m particularly well-qualifed, in fact, I’m not qualified at all, but I love art and being someone who wasn’t educated by the establishment and simply spends a great portion of their free time consuming it, maybe I’m at least well-suited to serve as an intermediary and a missionary. Let’s talk about modern art and just see what happens. 

Impressions of Dallas

When Leon Harris, Jr., the vice president of A. Harris & Company commissioned German satirist George Grosz for a series of works portraying the young city of Dallas in 1952, we can only assume the art world was taken aback.

Grosz had made a name for himself in Europe and even America as an acerbic satirist, caricaturist and an oftentimes overtly political painter. He was famous in the 1930’s and 1940’s for series of drawings such as Interregnum, a chronicle of the rise of German militarism from 1924 to 1936. An avid hater of Fascism and an open communist, many of Grosz’s paintings had been banned in America during the 1940’s and 50’s due to his subversive political ties.

How did it come to be that a young (and seemingly conservative) city such as Dallas would offer such a controversial artist his first commission? Regardless, commissioned he was.

Specifcally Grosz was commissioned to commemorate the 65th anniversary of A. Harris & Company Department Store (later to become Sanger-Harris), and the resulting works were meant to illustrate the landscape, economy and society of Harris’ city. In a broader context they were also intended as a public relations campaign; tying Harris, his clientele and his city to a broader and international cultural context.

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In 1952 Grosz, the German artist who had always been fascinated by the allure of the West but never thought he would see Dallas himself, travelled to our “Flower on the Prairie” to see what the city was all about. Twenty works from the series are currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art for the first time in sixty years; twenty works that at least attempt to portray a city in transition.

Naturally Grosz expected a frontier outpost full of horses and cowboys. What he saw instead was a city in flux. A modern metropolis of tall buildings, freeways and business-people, and his paintings convey an element of that surprise.

The final watercolor in the exhibit, “Flower of the Prairie” for which the exhibition is named is the best example of this surprise. An image of Dallas’ skyline seems to magically emerge from a yellow backdrop and blue “flower.” The beautiful image illustrates Dallas’ reputation as a city in the middle of nowhere (at the time) with no obvious reason for its existence and success.

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Throughout the exhibit it is clear Grosz was not only surprised but enthralled with the culture, the people and the buildings of Dallas. Images of Dallas in the 1950’s will fascinate locals, and serve as an education for others as the Dallas Museum of Art’s curatorial team has painstakingly re-created the history of each of the building’s Grosz portrayed from the Adolphus Hotel to Republic Tower to the Mercantile Building, the only “skyscraper” built in the country during World War Two.

While serving as a gorgeous illustration of a beautiful city, the paintings also serve a larger purpose and inspire more questions than answers. What, really, were Grosz’s impressions of Dallas? And why Grosz anyways?

Flower of the Prairie: George Grosz in Dallas will be on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through August 19.  Visit www.dallasmuseumofart.org for more information and don’t miss this beautiful snapshot of Dallas history.