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.

Continue reading “To Live A Life”

On happiness, or our lack thereof

Happiness. It’s kind of a national obsession. Just do a quick Google search. It’s nauseating to realize how many Fast Company articles and TED talks are devoted to the subject. Whether we’re young or old, rich or poor, we’re less obsessed with having happiness than we are with talking about why we don’t have it and how we can fix that. As if there were a recipe.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch had a recent story in The Atlantic on the midlife crisis. It’s just another in a long line of well-researched, professionally published stories which have surfaced in reputable publications over the last few years on the subject of happiness, but it prompted me to put down a few of my own thoughts on the subject which I will commence forthwith.

In his story Rauch analyzes specifically the over-stereotyped and over-discussed ‘midlife crisis,’ although he couches the ubiquitous catchphrase in new terms. As Rauch discovered after going through a ‘crisis’ of his own, there is an increasingly large body of research from both economics and sociology experts which shows evidence of something called the u-curve. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Happiness and general life satisfaction follow a u-shaped pattern; you start at the top in childhood/adolescence and young adulthood, grow increasingly harder to please as you approach midlife, then, typically in your early 50’s, you start to climb back up the u, concluding your life generally pretty close to where you started in terms of overall happiness.

Surprising? I think so.

First of all we’ve been using this term midlife crisis to refer to an actual ‘crisis.’ You know the story. Mostly men, it seems, start an affair, buy a corvette and generally act irresponsibly in middle age, a reaction, we (or at least I) have always chalked up to the boredom and malaise that naturally sets in as one begins to realize their youth has flown by and their perceived ‘glory days’ are behind them. What Rauch seems to be positing is that while this ‘midlife crisis’ isn’t a fallacy, perhaps ‘crisis’ is the wrong word.

For Rauch the bottoming out of the u curve in his 40’s evidenced itself more as a foundationless depression. His life was great; dream job, wonderful relationship, good friends, but for some reason, every morning he would wake up with an overwhelming depression, a dissatisfaction that he called “whiny and irrational.”

This midlife depression can last a long time, a decade for some. For Rauch it took until he hit his early 50’s when, despite some “real setbacks,” the “fog of disappointment and self-censure began to lift.”

I’m torn on this one. Science is science and there is certainly a lot of research to back up the idea of happiness following a u-curve throughout life (although all researchers are quick to admit that it is not a catch-all and there are many people to whom it does not apply), but while the findings offer some comfort for those in middle-age who suffer from the same confusing sense of disappointment as Rauch, it’s a bit discomfiting for those of us in our 20’s, especially those of us in our 20’s who are already feeling a sense of “malcontentedness” on a regular basis.

It’s not that I’m unhappy, to the contrary, 80% of the time I would say that I’m very happy. But, like Rauch, despite having what most days I can easily say is my ‘dream life,’ on a fairly regular basis I wake up with an overwhelming sense of depression which, although not always, can last for an entire day, and I find it hard to believe I’m the only person of my generation that experiences something along the same lines.

Maybe I’m a cynical person (okay, not maybe) but I kind of always expected that sense of unhappiness to be fairly prevalent. We’re told a story about life and fed a narrative by the culture at large about how exciting and wonderful our young adulthood is when in reality it is a profoundly confusing time, and no time has it been more confusing than in the 21st century. I chalk it up in large part to the expectation gap, which, happens to be what I believe causes most of life’s strife, be it familial, marital or work-related. I would propose that the expectation gap has been severely exacerbated by a couple of things unique to Millenials;

  • Our generation’s constant exposure to a previously unimaginable stream of content
  • A life lived socially online

We read books, we watch tv, we watch movies, we listen to music, we peruse blogs, constantly, and, perhaps most importantly, we use Facebook or Instagram (same difference for the purpose of my point) obsessively. In his article Rauch discusses his disappointment and how it was in large part driven by comparing himself to others, “where was my bestseller? My literary masterpiece?” But that is something that begins much earlier than middle age in the age of constant exposure.

The gap between our life and the ‘perceived’ lives of those around us often seems ridiculously huge, and this generation is hyper-aware of those discrepancies.

I would hypothesize that, despite all of the cheerleading we do to the contrary, living in the Internet age is causing a profound sense of dissatisfaction.

After two decades of television and life lived in large part online, we expect and often need our accomplishments viewed and thereby affirmed. We not only seek affirmation we’re addicted to it. It’s old hat now to say something along the lines of “if it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen.” And while we may have collectively moved on to Instagram, it’s really the same thing isn’t it? Another artificial method by which we think we are creating ourselves and our public persona.

Life lived on social media can’t help but inculcate the need to be recognized into its users because the services by definition, are intended to secure attention. The services, by their nature, appear to create what I’ll just call the ‘celebrity’ effect. We, just like the fictional characters we see constantly in our screen-filled life, now function as if our lives are on display. While it may not be a source of pervasive unhappiness for everyone, we’re all affected.

Enter the expectation gap. There comes a time in the life of every 20-something wherein it hits. It hits that despite the Facebook likes and Instagram hearts, you’re still in exactly the same place you would have been without them. Unlike the people on TV you still go home at the end of the day to your normal house with your normal stuff and your normal self. People have already forgotten how impressed they were with your ass in those gym shorts or the picture of the impressive sounding philosophy book you’re currently ‘obsessed with.’

Women aren’t obsessing over the fact that you’re smart and attractive, and that cute guy isn’t going to reach out just because you’re listening to a rare Dinosaur Jr. cut on your iPhone (FYI. If you weren’t aware, there’s a whole codified language in the 21st century of ‘cool’ and ‘not cool.’ Girls that listen to obscure rock cuts would fall into the ‘cool’ category. Moving on.) But despite the fact that we’re not being noticed for what we think we should be noticed, despite that fact, we keep expecting people to notice us don’t we? We keep expecting our manipulated persona to have an effect on our real lives, and when it doesn’t, reality hits. Enter depression.

It’s something unique to the generation of people who grew up living online, and something we’re just beginning to grasp the ramifications of. We’ve already realized what online anonymity allows people to do, but how does the gap between expected recognition and actual recognition affect us?

I say all of this not at all to discount the fact that middle age is hard, but I do so mostly to posit, perhaps, that this u-curve research bullshit is about to get turned on its head thanks to the Millenials, because despite all of our ambition, our smarts and our work ethic (and shut up those of you who want to denigrate said ethic because everyone I know works their ass off, usually at more than one job), I would venture we’re one of the most disappointed generations yet. Not in a debilitating way. In a quiet way. And one smart people tend to realize is entirely our own fault.

Take all of this with a grain of salt, as I’m sure you will. After all it’s one person among millions, one person who has used a very small research sample from which to hypothesize conclusions, and, just like with the u-curve, this certainly won’t apply to everyone. But we don’t talk enough about the sense of disappointment, and even depression, social media instills in its users, probably because, like I mentioned above, it’s not debilitating. It’s quiet and in all honesty, it’s quite easy to ignore most of the time. But I think it’s there and we would all be wrong in asserting that constant exposure to the lives of others doesn’t have an effect on us. Humans weren’t meant to be in constant contact with an extended network. Sometimes we’re meant to be alone and most of us have forgotten what that truly feels like.

If you make it this far, forgive what is a rather incomplete thought. I’m really just beginning to parse through this topic, and there are many more unique factors that contribute to unhappiness, or at least disappointment amongst my generation. Writing is just a way to work through my philosophy.

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.