American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

Art Therapy.

It’s fun for me to take some graffiti and relate it to some aspect of art history even if, and sometimes especially if, any connection between the two is a real stretch or simply nonexistent since most, or even all, art comes from a mental leap. This time, though, I want to get more personal. I’m still contemplating my five-year cancerversary—and I know that’s a word I just made up, and I know that since “annus” is the Latin for “year” and “versus” is the Latin for “turn” and that therefore “anniversary” means “turning of the year” and cogito ergo something or other the word should be “annicancer” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue like “cancerversary” and this entire paragraph has gotten away from me and I should start over.

Back in June 2014 when I got the cancer diagnosis I spent two nights in the hospital. The second night I was taken up to a private room, and while the window basically looked out at a brick wall because it was in a wing that was a fairly recent addition I could walk down the hall to a window that looked down at a stretch of 21st Avenue I knew well. I sat at that window for a long time wondering what was ahead of me, looking down at places that held so many happy memories for me, and wished I could be down there. Really I wished I could be anywhere other than a hospital room, but there was something especially frustrating about being so close to places I’d not only much rather be but that I could imagine so clearly.

One of those places was the Sportsman’s Grille where I’d had a few beers. Really I’d had more than a few beers there–in college I did this Dylan Thomas impersonation. I’d imitate his voice and recite “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and guzzle an entire pitcher of Gerst beer in between lines and sometimes, in another imitation of Dylan Thomas, do that three or four times in one night, which would amuse my English major friends and horrify my pre-med friends, but that’s another story.

The Sportsman’s Grille also had an upstairs pool room and it was the only place I knew–and still know–in Nashville that had a snooker table, which is larger than the standard table used for 8 and 9-ball. And I love snooker. It’s so unbelievably complicated it’s best played sober, although I think the reason it’s unbelievably complicated is because whoever wrote the rules had to be drunk at the time.

Anyway the Sportsman’s Grille was brightly lit that night and as I sat at the window, almost certain I could hear the click of billiard balls and maybe even a voice slurring, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right…”

The Sportsman’s Grille in that location is closed now, and the building is currently empty. There’s a billboard over it and someone, or, from the look of it, a couple of someones, added their own tags to the back of the billboard. They’re stark and simple although really well done, and I can’t explain why but it makes me happy to see them up there. I’m sure there’s a reason but I can’t quite make the leap.


Play On, MacDuff.

So I happened to be passing by and noticed that someone had stuck a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence, and of course I had to stop and take pictures of it because I’m weird, although probably not as weird as someone who’d stick a bunch of mostly red plastic cups in a fence and not even try to put them in some kind of order or pattern. Or maybe the original person did make some kind of pattern, reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as kids, and then someone else came along and rearranged the cups so it was just random and looked stupid, also reminiscent of the Lite Brite toy many of us had as a kid, and it would be even more reminiscent of the Lite Brite I had as a kid if one of my friends had come by and rearranged it to say DICKS.

Some might think it’s a stretch to call this art—and some might think this is a terrible waste of red plastic cups which are more often a common symbol for “YES I AM DRINKING CHEAP ALCOHOL”, but that’s another story. Consider, though, that toys have an aesthetic design which isn’t usually thought of as art for the same reason that most other mass-produced objects aren’t thought of as art.

Speaking of toys and art consider this:

Source: MOMA.orgThat’s The Palace At 4 AM, a 1932 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti. It looks like a pared-down dollhouse, doesn’t it? It also kind of reminds me of the Scottish play, specifically Act V, scene 1, but that may be getting too high-falutin’ for, um, play. Giacometti even made some other sculptures that were meant to be played with as toys, but because they were made out of plaster and fairly fragile and because Giacometti went on to become a famous sculptor whose works are now worth millions those “toys” can’t be touched anymore, which ruins the purpose.

Also consider that all art—and all science, too, since science also requires creativity—begins with play. Art and science begin with us learning to play with the world around us, because play is a way of shaping the world and understanding its rules and limits. And that’s why I’ll leave you with this final thought from none other than Captain James T. Kirk:

“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”

Raise It Up.

Back in the ‘80’s when I first saw a documentary on New York graffiti I was surprised that some people went to jail for tagging subway cars or walls. I’m not sure why that surprised me, although I still think that if someone gets busted for graffiti it would make more sense to put their talents to good use doing some community service or something than it would to throw them in jail, which could just make the problem worse. Back in the ‘80’s I also heard a joke that’s stayed with me: a cop tells a kid, “A night in the slammer will teach you a lesson,” and the kid says, “Yeah, if I want to learn to be a junkie, hooker, or thief,” but that’s another story.

Every time I see graffiti, something that isn’t obviously there legally, I think about the risks the artist took, especially the risk of getting caught. And then I see something like the tag MENAS left and I’m even more impressed. This was going to eleven. I had to go by there at least a dozen times before I could get the picture above, and I could only get it from a moving car while my wife was driving. It shows up on Google Maps so here’s a picture that gives you an idea of its placement and how difficult that must have been.

Embiggen for the full effect. And here’s an aerial shot, also from Google Maps, although the red circle is mine, that also gives an idea of how difficult placing this tag must have been.

There’s also something to be said for the sharp, clean lines. Whoever Menas is they’ve clearly shown some skills, and a willingness to take some risks. Do they really deserve to go to jail for that?

Enough Isn’t Enough.

Minimalism was an art movement that rose to prominence in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, probably because, if there are two decades that absolutely screamed excess, it would be the 1960’s and ‘70’s. If the recent fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock should remind us of everything it’s how weird it was that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Sha Na Na all performed on the same stage. Not at the same time, and, yeah, okay, maybe it wasn’t that weird, but still if that’s not excess I don’t know what is.

Anyway it’s a principle in art as well as physics that every movement has an equal and opposite movement. Well, maybe not really opposite, and not necessarily even equal—a counter-movement may always be as popular as the movement that inspired it. Such is the case with Maximalism, although it can be hard to define. In art how much is too much? A friend of mine says that certain films, like 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “make excess into a virtue”, which is a phrase I love, but it’s hard to define, and kind of like that famous definition of pornography: you only really know it when you see it.

Maybe that’s why Maximalism is a term that mainly gets applied to things like David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel Infinite Jest, or Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that he performs non-stop over twenty-four hours, which has gotta take a toll not just on him but the audience too.

And then there’s this that I found stuck to a wall of an industrial building.

From a distance it looked so small, but the colors got my attention, and the closer I got the more the depth of the design made it look bigger and bigger and bigger. Within its own small space it really stretched to excess.

Hooked On A Feeling.

Not everybody likes art. Let me back up and rephrase that: not everyone’s interested in art. And that’s okay. Nobody’s interested in everything. I find all kinds of things fascinating—sometimes things I didn’t even think about will interest me, and I’ve gotten drawn into long conversations with people about their hobbies, but even I have things that just can’t hold my attention, as my college economics professor learned, but that’s another story. So not everybody’s interested in art but I think almost all people appreciate having it around. Imagine if hotel rooms, lobbies, or other spaces were just blank. It’d be pretty dull. It might even be unnerving. You might not realize what it is that’s missing, just that there’s something that’s not quite right. Or maybe hotels just hang up pictures to distract you from the bedbugs.

Anyway this is what got me thinking about that:

It also got me thinking about when I was younger and had this idea that the way to define “good” art was that it inspired some kind of emotional reaction, and let me add that this was years, maybe even a decade, before I first read Aristotle, although he limited the emotions he thought art should inspire to pity and terror, and I eventually realized that, hey, pretty much all art inspires some kind of emotion. Even if you stand in front of it and say, “Well that sucks” that’s still an emotional reaction, one that might even be strong enough to distract you from the bedbugs.

Here’s a wider view of that graffiti:

I like the words–I especially like the way the artist has used cursive and the way the artist has made a U that kind of looks like a Y, and the possibility that the artist is asking, “Why feel it?” But it’s that figure on the left that makes it something even more. Here’s a closer look:

That the figure is headless suggests mindlessness, disappearance, invisibility–but it also invites us to put ourselves in the position of the art. Instead of looking at me, it might say, put yourself in my place. What do you see? What do you feel?

Here’s Looking At You.

Source: The Verge

Art isn’t necessarily something you hang on your wall. Or something you see in a gallery or a sculpture garden, or performed on a stage or projected on a screen and, yeah, one of my pet obsessions is trying to figure out a comprehensive definition of art. The best I’ve come up with so far is “anything people make or do” but that includes a lot of things that even I wouldn’t consider art, and, as you can tell, my own definition of art is pretty broad. I felt like I should include “do” not only because art includes live theater but also performance pieces like, say, Joseph Beuys’s “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”, in which the artist carried a dead hare around a gallery and talked to it.

Of course Beuys was a known artist and announced what he was doing and did his performance in an art gallery, but I think the definition of “art” could be stretched even further to things like flash mobs, which easily fall under the much broader art concept of “happenings” first coined by the artist Allan Kaprow—four years after Beuys carried a hare around a gallery. An event doesn’t have to be announced to be a work of art, although that makes it harder to define “art”.

Anyway this has all been running through my head, and boy are its feet tired, ever since I read about a guy with a TV on his head leaving old TVs on peoples’ porches in Virginia. He must have known he’d be caught on video doing it, which may be part of the point he was trying to make, if he was trying to make a point. Maybe it was a statement about obsolescence, disposability, and surveillance. Who watches the watchers, and when we look into our TVs do our TVs look back into us? It wasn’t that long ago that our devices didn’t record what we watched, unless you were a Nielsen family, and even then, especially in the early days, those who collected the ratings had to rely on the honesty of the participants. Now practically every device we own collects data on our habits and we’re not always aware that our data are being collected or by whom or for what purpose.

Of course the guy responsible may not have thought of putting TVs on porches as a work of art. It may have just been an elaborate prank without any intended deeper meanings, but does that make a difference? And, hey, who are we to split hares?

Fly Away.

Several years ago I went to Russia—to give you an idea of how many years exactly it was a school trip and when I signed up for it we were going to the U.S.S.R., and the day I boarded the plane there was a newspaper headline that the Soviet Union had officially dissolved. I sat next to a friend on the plane and we started speculating that Lenin’s tomb could be turned into a nightclub, and then we started inventing cocktails like The Opium Of The People, The Stalin Stormtrooper, and The Soviet Union–a layered drink of fifteen different liqueurs that don’t mix.

One of my favorite parts of that trip—really my favorite part of a trip to any other country—was learning to talk to the locals, and I was reminded almost immediately after I got off the plane that Russians don’t just have a different language; they have a whole ‘nother alphabet. I didn’t bother to study up on Cyrillic before I left, figuring I could pick it up as I went along, and for the most part I was right. There’s enough overlap between the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets to give me a leg up so it wasn’t all Greek to me, and there are quite a few words that are the same in both Russian and English. There were still phone booths in those days and the word телефон was a big help, as was having read A Clockwork Orange. While I was there I also went to МакДональдз and was kind of disappointed that the Биг Мак wasn’t called a большой Мак. And a few years later when Pizza Hut opened in Russia it made me laugh that they spelled it пицца хат, which tranlisterates back to the Roman alphabet as “pitstsa khat”, but that’s another story.

One letter I couldn’t figure out on my own was Ж, but it intrigued me–it was such a cool looking little letter that I had to know what it sounded like, so I broke down and got a guidebook. When translated to English it sounds like “zh” and you hear it in words like “vision”. Joseph Brodsky mused on the letter in his poem The Fly:

What is it that you muse of there?

Of your worn-out though uncomputed derring-

do orbits? Of six-legged letters,

your printed betters,

your splayed Cyrillic echoes…

Anyway I thought it was strange to see some Cyrillic graffiti next to a sidewalk in a Nashville neighborhood. Who put it there, and why? It looks like a name–someone just leaving their mark, I guess, with no political overtones. Maybe it was their way of calling back to where they came from, in the same way it took me back to a place I’d once been.


Crossing Over.

Death is a popular subject in art, and I can think of at least a couple of reasons why this is so. The act of creating a work of art, whether it will ultimately live on after the artist or not, might prompt the artist to contemplate the ephemerality of existence. If you create something it’s both the summation of who you are at that point in your life and it also becomes part of you going forward. Another possibility, and one that could overlap with the first, is that death is such a big subject, one that everyone living will have to contend with sooner or later, that it’s an easy way to lend weight a work of art, especially if it’s not that good, which is why so many poems I wrote as a teenager were about death, but that’s another story. In the case of graffiti most artists, I think, expect their work to only be around a short time, and that too can prompt contemplation of the ephemerality of all things.

This particular graffiti, placed on a wall below a parking lot and just off a busy street makes me contemplate much more than death, though. For one thing it reminds me of The Epic of Gilgamesh. At its end Gilgamesh tells the boatman Urshanabi to look at the city walls he built. Those walls will be Gilgamesh’s legacy but, having completed his journey and having accepted his own mortality he knows the walls too will eventually crumble until there’s nothing left.

It also reminds me of the Spreuer Bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland, which I went to when I was a teenager. Built around 1400 the bridge was spruced up between 1626 and 1635 with a series of paintings in which death comes for everyone.

Source: Atlas Obscura

Death is sometimes described as a form of “crossing over”, going from one world to the next, so it seems especially fitting that reminders of death would decorate a bridge. Although now that I think about it decorating a parking lot with a reminder of death is pretty fitting too, since your mortal remains are going to be parked somewhere, even though they’ll eventually crumble until nothing’s left. Anyway I fortunately outgrew the bad teenage poetry phase, even while I was still a teenager, because the closer I get to death the more I’m reminded that there’s life to be lived.



I, For One, Welcome Our New Artistic Overlords.

Roald Dahl’s story The Great Automatic Grammatizator is about a young man who builds a machine that can write short stories. He then upgrades it to crank out novels which become bestsellers and he builds a whole business around licensing the names of well-known authors—he puts their names on the machine-produced books and they get a nice royalty check and never have to work again. The authors who hold out against the encroaching technology are put under increasing pressure and—spoiler alert—the story ends with the narrator’s haunting plea:

And all the time things get worse for those who hesitate to sign their names. This very moment, as I sit here listening to the crying of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk. Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

It’s a literary version of the legend of John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man who went up against a steam-powered drilling machine, or that episode of The Office where Dwight goes up against the company’s sales website. And there are other, actual tales of humans against machines. Gary Kasparov was beaten at chess by Deep Blue, Watson did pretty well on Jeopardy!, and there’s a computer program called Sibelius that can not only notate but even compose music.

And there are lots of programs that can turn photos into paintings, and even programs that can match your face to a work of art. And there’s a new one, AI Portraits, that takes your picture and turns it into a painting in varying styles, and with varying degrees of success.

I love Goya’s work but I’m not sure I’d want my portrait painted by him, and this reminds me that when Picasso painted a portrait of his first wife Olga Khokhlova she insisted that he paint a realistic picture. She told him, “I want to recognize my face.”

Naturally when you get a new toy like this the first thing you want to do is break it. AI Portraits won’t accept pictures if it can’t find faces and it does terrible things to pet pictures.Its results with other pictures are a little more interesting.What really interests me, though, is the question of why we prefer—or at least think we prefer—a painting, a musical piece, or a story by a human hand over one done by a machine, if we can even tell the difference. And if we can’t tell the difference what does that say about us and our abilities? I think I prefer art made by a human being because there’s, well, a personal aspect to it. No matter how small or trivial a work of art made by a person is the sum of all they are at that point in their lives. There’s also a psychological drama to a person creating a work of art, or playing a game of chess, or driving steel, that a machine lacks. A machine doesn’t get distracted or unnerved. For the machine there are no stakes to winning or losing–there’s only winning or losing, and the machine doesn’t see either one as success or failure. It just starts over from the beginning. Then again maybe that’s just the way I’m wired.

Getting There.

It’s very hard for me to define art. Every definition I come up with always seems to exclude something that, when I think about it, could also be art. For instance if I conclude that art has to be something people make I then think about, say, a spider’s web, which I can find just as beautiful and moving and meaningful as any work of art. It doesn’t even have to be a picture of a spider’s web, which I think most people would say qualifies as art—it can be a spider’s web itself. I tend to have these prolonged arguments with myself that never go anywhere, and I’m not sure if I had the argument with someone else they’d go anywhere either, which reminds me of a story about the art critic David Sylvester. He was still a young man, although already establishing himself as a writer, and was hired as a part-time secretary by the artist Henry Moore, but they spent so much time arguing about art that Moore fired him, although I think any artist should know better than to hire a critic.

I guess what I’ve finally concluded about art is that I know it when I see it, and, yes, that’s also the definition of pornography given by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and, yes, I think even pornography can be art, although I’ve never been much of a fan of Jeff Koons, but that’s another story.

Anyway I’ve realized in these lengthy debates that art isn’t even necessarily something that’s created, at least not intentionally. Whoever left a door in a frame standing next to the road probably didn’t put it there are any kind of artistic statement—it was on a stretch of road that was about to be closed for several months for maintenance and I think the road crew put it there to hang notes on, or maybe they were planning to build a temporary office around it. From that perspective it’s just an ordinary door, but it’s how you see it that makes all the difference. The wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book seems to be just an ordinary wardrobe until Lucy steps into it, eventually followed by her siblings, and two books later Lucy, Edmund, and their cousin Eustace are transported to Narnia by a painting. Recently the Orangutan Librarian—the blogger, not the one who works at Unseen University, although I think they’re both equally well-read—compiled a list titled Favourite Fantasy Worlds I’d Love to go on Holiday To… which is part of what sparked my thinking about that door out by the road, and doors in general, as well as windows, paintings, and books as portals to other worlds. We were, if not debating, at least in conversation, even if one of us was unaware of it. Anyway that brings me around to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic of art, the one thing I can be absolutely certain of, is that it takes you somewhere.

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