American Graffiti.

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

What Can I Say?

A couple of things led me to start writing about art, and specifically graffiti—although if you’re a regular here you know I don’t always write about graffiti. Anyway I’ve always had an interest in graffiti, since, to me, it represents the need to create something—it’s not commissioned, it’s not wanted by anyone else. Frequently it’s breaking the law, but even the simplest, most slapdash tag represents someone’s need to express themselves. Another thing is I see a lot of graffiti and I thought it would be fun to take what I know about art history and theory and apply it to stuff you’re never going to see in a museum. And I thought I’d have an endless supply of things to say. I may not be a professional art critic but I can talk a lot about nothing, but that’s another story.

Well, this week I’m out. I can’t think of a single thing. Not a word to say. I’ve read about goings-on in the art world, although they’re limited with galleries and museums closed. And I’ve gone through my collection of pictures to see if something I haven’t used yet, or, heck, even one I have will spark something. No luck. Being blocked like this is frightening, as I know it is for all creative people. It must be even scarier for professionals to be completely out of ideas, to wonder if they’ll ever come up with anything ever again.

What prompts that desire to create in the first place? I know there’s a deep desire that comes from within, but, at least in my experience, and that of many others I know, outside factors play a large part too. When I was in college the poet William Stafford came and gave a reading. One of the poems he read was “The Little Girl By The Fence At School”.

Grass that was moving found all shades of brown,
moved them along, flowed autumn away
galloping southward where summer had gone.
And that was the morning someone’s heart stopped
and all became still. A girl said, “Forever?”
And the grass. “Yes. Forever.” While the sky —
The sky — the sky — the sky.

A few days later a friend of mine shared a poem he’d written that was inspired by hearing Stafford. It was about how he’d heard this great poet’s work and thought, “Hell, I could do that,” and went and sat in front of a typewriter until he fell asleep at it, unable to think of anything. My friend’s poem ended,

And I thought how the great ones make

it look so very easy and the empty page—

The empty page—the empty page—the empty page.

He then smiled and said, “It took me three days to write that.”

Sure it did, I thought. I bet it took you all of three minutes. But I still liked it. I thought it was funny and thought-provoking. I just couldn’t express exactly what thoughts it provoked. There seemed to be something very deep about the way it responded to Stafford’s poem, and what it said about the creative process, about influences and how what inspires us comes from both without and within, but I couldn’t get any of that to come out, and I wondered if I ever would.  

Get Fortified.

Source: Design Boom

The home art recreation trend for people looking for creative things to do during quarantine is still very popular, as Rivergirl has reminded me, but you may be asking, what’s the next big trend? And if you are then please stop. There’s so much more to life than chasing trends, even when you can’t get out, and chasing trends really isn’t very good exercise. It’s much better to chase your kids or chase your pets or go chase yourself and if you cut to the chase please be careful or you could end up with a nasty injury, but that’s another story.

And while I wasn’t actively looking for new trends when I read the article How To Build A Fort I thought, hey, building home forts might be the next big thing. None other than Ikea has put out design ideas leading to a sudden worldwide shortage of umlauts.

Home forts are a fun thing to do and you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy it. As the above article notes, “If life feels dangerous and unmoored, a space built largely of bedding materials might calm someone of any age.” That is, of course, as long as you don’t think too much about that creepy scene in The Sixth Sense. Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have brought that up.

Still the home fort is a fun thing to do and a good way to take your mind off the troubles of world, a safe space and, even though most people might not think of them this way, they’re even an art form. They’re naturally personal and ephemeral but think about this: if you draw a picture and never show it to anyone it’s still a creative expression. Lots of famous artists did works that were completely personal and never meant to be seen by anyone but themselves and I’m having trouble thinking of an example because most of those works were never meant to be seen by anyone.

Maybe everybody everywhere is building their own home forts and it’s just not being talked about, and that’s okay. Not every big trend has to be talked about.

 

The Arts They Are A Changin’.

David Hockney painting. Source: BBC

High winds hit our neighborhood last weekend, taking down a neighbor’s tree and our internet. I realize we got extremely lucky: many people in Nashville lost all power as a result of the storms, and I can’t imagine the double hit of having to stay home and losing power. Then again if the power goes out where are you gonna go? Whenever our power goes out we stay home and wait for it to come back on.

Anyway the loss of internet access was disconcerting because it took out our TV as well—or at least anything we didn’t have on DVD. We couldn’t get the local news, and when I’d try to check just the weather on my phone it was really slow to load without wifi. We were able to use one of our phones to set up a wifi hotspot to get some work done, but I took a vacation day Monday, and did a lot of reading. We get a weekend newspaper—an actual ink and paper edition, thrown into our driveway from a moving car, usually in the mornings, but occasionally in the afternoons, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It reminds me of the arcade game Paperboy—I’m old enough to remember video arcades. Most of the time I pull out the Arts section and a few others that interest me and recycle the rest, and yet I still end up with a backlog that sits by the couch patiently waiting for me to either get to it or recycle it too, although I figure whatever’s going on in the art world is still going to be relevant no matter when I get to it, unlike sports or politics, which keeps changing, and I did just read something about how the Hindenburg is on its way to New Jersey, which I’m sure will turn out okay, but that’s another story.

It was weird not having internet access, and no TV. Somehow it made me feel even more isolated than usual. But it was while catching up on the old news that I read about various artists and how they’re dealing with isolation. Museums around the world are closed now, and art shows are being cancelled. One of the artists was David Hockney, who said,

I am in Normandy, and we don’t have TV. I am in the middle of nature, which I prefer to the city. I must admit I had been planning this for the past year — I don’t like crowds. So for me, nothing has changed that much…But nobody can cancel the spring. Nature just goes on relentlessly, I am glad to say.

I figure that’s true for most artists—most have studios as part of their homes, and do most of their work alone anyway. Hockney caught my attention because in 2009 he started doing drawings on his iPhone, switching to an iPad in 2010. He’s even had exhibits of his iPad drawings, printed and enlarged, and he’s got a book—an actual ink and paper book—of the drawings coming out. And Hockney’s also known for working with the physicist Charles M. Falco on the idea that advances in art since the Renaissance had been helped by the invention of the camera obscura and other optical devices. Basically they’ve suggested artists like the Dutch masters used images projected onto the canvas as a guide.

At a time when I was missing some of the technology I’m so used to having, and that’s become so important, it was interesting to read about an artist who’s using technology, and who’s considered the influence of technology on art through the ages. Even the arts keep on changing.

Who We Are.

Source: Artnet

Is it ever possible to really capture how an experience feels and share that with another person? That was a question that a philosophy professor once posed in a class I was taking. His specific example was a headache. Can you ever convey to another person exactly how a headache feels to you? What if they’ve never had a headache? How could they know what one feels like? It wasn’t long before my head hurt from thinking about it, and all I  could say was that I sure as hell didn’t want to pass that misery on to anyone else. In fact I’m sorry I brought it up now.

Students taking a photography class with the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Turnley at the University of Michigan were assigned to get to know a stranger and “document the essence of a day in their life over the course of five weeks”. That assignment got completely changed with the COVID-19 outbreak and all classes moving online. Instead of documenting a stranger’s life the students documented their own. And this is an important project because, among other things, these students, being young but at the same time on the threshold of adulthood, will hopefully carry the experience, and their own memories of it, farther into the future than those of us who’ve already run out most of our allotted threescore and ten.

It’s still not clear how the current crisis will end but one thing that is clear is the need for a clear record of what’s happening—what mistakes were made, what was done right, and so on. That’s especially true of the science and medicine, and it’s not a coincidence that a predecessor of modern scientific journals began in the smallpox outbreak that hit Paris and other French cities in the 1820’s. It’s true of art too, though. A painting or photograph or sculpture or even a video or any other art form may never really be able to capture exactly how something feels, and it’s going to be interpreted differently by every individual, but it’s important to record the feelings, as well as the facts, because it’s not just how we deal with the crisis but also who we are that matters.

Here’s a video Turnley put together of the students’ photographs.

Hey, Mr. DJ…

This week I was asked to give a talk at work—well, for work, since I wasn’t going in, but I was broadcasting from my home work space, sort of like a video DJ, except I was mostly using PowerPoint to present a slideshow so, yeah, nothing like a video DJ. That’s probably just as well. I once helped out a friend at a radio station and stepped in to do an announcement for him when he ran to the bathroom. I did okay, reading from a script, but I got an inexplicably angry phone call from a woman who wanted to know if this was my first time on the air, and I did a funny voice and pretended to be someone else, but that’s another story.

Anyway I gave a short talk about the art at home challenge that I wrote about here last week, which is a way people are communicating with each other while in quarantine. And even though I didn’t have a lot of time that’s a message I wanted to get across: that all art is an act of communication. Creating art is a way of communicating and just looking at art can create communication. I know most art museums are quiet places where people stand around looking at paintings and sculptures in silence, or, if they talk, it’s in reverent whispers. And yet I’ve had conversations with complete strangers in museums. Once, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I stopped to look at an exhibit being put together and started talking to a guy also looking at it. It turned out he was a member and a regular there, and he told me about some previous exhibits that had been in that same space. Another time, at the Cincinnati Art Museum, I was looking at a wall piece and I commented to the docent that it was so unlike the artist’s other works, which were bright, colorful, and jumbled.

“It’s amazing,” I said, “that the same artist would make a work that’s monochromatic, that’s so austere, almost utilitarian.”

And she said, “That’s a light switch.”

Anyway I took the picture of some messages written on a post several months ago and only found it again recently, as I was going through my pictures trying to find something, anything, I could say something about this week, and it reminded me that art can allow communication between people who will never meet, who will never know each other, but who will still connect in some way.

Everybody’s In Art.

As an art history guy, and a fan of art in general, I’ve missed going to museums or even just finding neighborhood graffiti, but there’s been an upside: people at home recreating their favorite works of art. Or just works of art. And I could say a lot about art bringing people together and being therapeutic and never mind I’m just gonna share some of my favorite examples, although the critic in me can’t help spotting certain categories. For instance there are the elaborately faithful reproductions:

Source: Sad And Useless

Source: Bored Panda

Source: Instagram

And then there are the ones that tweak the original slightly.

Source: Bored Panda

Source: Sad and Useless

Source: My Modern Met

Some use the original as an inspiration.

Source: Instagram

Source: Smithsonian

And then there are the ones that are so staggeringly brilliant I feel like they’ve improved on the originals.

Source: Facebook

And then there are the ones that…don’t.

Picture of Mercury About To Slay Argos by Bertel Thorvaldsen from Wikimedia

Glass In Session.

I snapped the picture of that sign several months ago thinking I’d save it for National Poetry Month. At the time I didn’t realize how much it would haunt me, or how appropriate it would seem for this particular moment. I know a glazier is someone who works with glass—specifically installing windows, and it got me thinking about something I read years ago. Jean Cocteau was on a transatlantic steamer when he met Charlie Chaplin, who happened to be on the same ship. Chaplin had just seen Cocteau’s film Orpheus and asked why he’d made the angel Heurtebise a glazier, since that’s a relatively obscure profession. Cocteau reminded Chaplin that in The Kid his Little Tramp worked as a glazier—and had a pretty good con job going, getting his junior associate to break windows so the Tramp could come in and replace them. I’m not sure that answered Cocteau’s question, and now all I can think about is that Chaplin’s Kid would grow up to be Uncle Fester, but that’s another story.

Anyway it had never occurred to me before that “glaze” and “glass” derive from the same root word, the Latin glesum, which also meant “amber”, probably from a Germanic word for a translucent substance, which tells me those barbarians weren’t that barbaric if they were making glass instead of breaking it. And that led me down a rabbit hole of the whole history of glassmaking which goes back at least six-thousand years and may have started in Egypt or Mesopotamia. Also I’ll never look at glazed donuts the same way, which is probably a good thing.

The first thing that came to my mind, though, was Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem The Bad Glazier, about the time he yelled at a glazier, carrying a load of glass through the Paris streets, to climb the six floors to his apartment. Here’s the conclusion, translated by David Lehman:

And then there he was. I looked at the panes and said,  “What! No colored glass? No rose-colored glass, red glass, blue glass? Where are the magic panes, the window-panes of paradise? What impudence! You barge into this humble neighborhood without even the decency to bring the glass that can make life beautiful.”
And I pushed him down the stairs.
I went to the balcony with a little flower pot and when he emerged in front of the door, I dropped my engine of war perpendicularly. The shock made him fall backward, breaking all the glass that remained of his itinerant stock. It sounded like the cracking of a crystal palace split by lightning.
Drunk with the madness of the moment I shouted: “Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!”
These impulsive jests are not without their hazards, and sometimes there is a stiff price to pay. But what does an eternity of damnation matter to one who has found in a single instant an infinity of joy?

Nice move there, Chuck. What are the odds that glazier was Charlie Chaplin?

Peep This.

Back in April 2003 the Millikin University Library conducted a formal study of Peeps in the library. This was apparently inspired by the Peep Research website, which has been around since 1998 when the internet was still kind of a novelty and not something we’ve come to depend on. The Library Peeps were a big hit with librarians everywhere, which should put to rest the idea that librarians don’t have a sense of humor, although some may question what librarians consider fun. One year an annual library conference was held in Las Vegas and it turned out to be a disaster for the librarians’ association because no one showed up for any of the seminars and a disaster for Las Vegas because none of the librarians gambled but spent all their time grouping slot machines by theme, but that’s another story.

I don’t know about other libraries but at the one where I work this inspired an annual spring Peepapalooza event, from a time when Lollapalooza was still kind of a novelty and not something we’ve come to use as an occasional punchline. Some of my coworkers would set out fruit, cookies, various other treats, and, of course, Peeps. Several years running we even had a chocolate fountain. And every year I was reminded of something. I hate marshmallows, and Peeps are just marshmallows covered in sugar which somehow just makes them worse. That may be an unpopular opinion but let me clarify that I don’t want Peeps or marshmallows taken off the market. I was even sad to hear that Peep production has been shut down this year because of COVID-19. If you like ‘em that’s great—you can have mine, because I hate to see food go to waste when it could go to waist.

This is an extremely roundabout way of getting to a Little Library in Seattle that’s been turned into a Peep Show. Most, if not all, libraries are closed right now, and I’m okay with that. Well, not really okay, but there’s a lot that libraries offer online, and it’s probably best to not be touching strange books right now, which puts even little libraries on the outs. So I’m okay with a Little Library that’s fun to look at but beyond that doesn’t tempt me at all.

Alone Together.

So there’s a recent article in The Guardian with the title ‘We are all Edward Hopper paintings now’, which, if you know anything about Edward Hopper, might sound sad or even scary, and if you don’t know anything about him–although there’s a certain very famous painting you might recognize, but I’ll get to that in a minute–the rest of the title asks, “is he the artist of the coronavirus age?” Maybe, and the author Jonathan Jones, who pulled the line from online–there have been variations of it going around–seems to think that’s a bad thing. He says,

Modern life is unfriendly in the extreme for Hopper. It doesn’t take a pandemic to isolate his poor souls. Cold plate-glass windows, towering urban buildings where everyone lives in self-contained apartments, gas stations in the middle of nowhere – the fabric of modern cities and landscapes is for him a machine that churns out solitude.

Maybe that’s true. Consider Nighthawks, Hopper’s most famous painting:

Source: Wikipedia

And yet what Jones is missing is a fundamental fact about Hopper’s biography: the guy liked to be alone. He wasn’t a recluse, but he was a reserved, quiet man who preferred to let his painting speak for him. He was married, and his wife Josephine Nivison was his exact opposite: outgoing and friendly, and I’m not sure what they saw in each other, and they didn’t always get along, but somehow they made it work. Maybe it was because she, a talented artist herself, dealt with people while he shut himself in his studio, and was happy to act as his agent and model. She even said that she planned to write two biographies: one of Hopper and one of her cat Arthur, who, according to her, lived an extravagant life. Sometimes Hopper even felt like he was playing second fiddle to Arthur; he once did a quick sketch of himself on the floor eating out of a dish while an oversized Arthur sits at the table giving him the side-eye.

Hopper even had a few friends, and Josephine described him walking down the sidewalk with a friend, both of them a few feet apart, neither one saying a word. Yes, Edward Hopper would be very happy in a world of social distancing. Here’s a picture of Edward Hopper very happy:

Source: Whitney Museum of Art

Here’s a picture of Edward Hopper deeply depressed:

Source: Whitney Museum of Art

Jones also brings up Hopper’s painting House By The Railroad, which Hitchcock used as a model for the Bates house in Psycho. This must be a scene of deep terror, right? Except the Bates house is unpainted, and Psycho was filmed in stark black and white, while Hopper’s painting has subtle touches of color. It’s near a railroad which keeps it in touch with the world while the Bates Motel is off the beaten path.

Source: Wikimedia

Hopper liked to ride the subways of New York and look in the windows as they passed by. He and his wife would make up stories about the people, and some of his paintings were inspired by the scenes he glimpsed. He may not have wanted to hang out with people but he still found a way to connect with them, and he said, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.”

And, funny enough, late last year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had a selection of works called “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” that included a real hotel room recreated from his painting Western Motel. A lot of people happily paid the $150 per night rate to be part of Hopper’s world. It may seem austere but it’s not a sad or lonely place. Like any hotel it’s defined by what the traveler brings to it.

Source: edwardhopper.net

Finally just because Hopper was a quiet and kind of taciturn guy he wasn’t joyless. He even enjoyed the company of others sometimes. Check out this picture he did of himself boxing with a friend during a camping trip when he was seventeen.

Source: University of Michigan

That’s Hopper on the right. Notice the social distancing.

Art historians describe Hopper as the artist of modern loneliness and isolation, of a deep sadness in the contradiction that cities bring people physically close but create vast emotional distances. Except it’s not that simple. I’m a very social guy myself–I like being around people, and even though I’m willing to accept the current isolation as a necessity I don’t like it. Still there are advantages to solitude. It’s a chance to explore our own individual vast and varied realms.

Now that I’ve said all that go back and look at Nighthawks again. Are the people in it really isolated from each other? Are they lonely? Or have they, separate but together, found a light in the darkness?

I’m indebted to Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography for information on his life and work.

At A Distance.

Working from home has been hard. I do most of my writing at home, although sometimes I like to go to a library or coffee shop for a change of scenery, but for my day job that pays the bills I have to go to an office. Or I did until local reports of people testing positive for COVID-19 came in and the message was sent to all staff to work from home. Even before it started I felt anxious about it and it didn’t help that the politicians who have exacerbated the problem by pretending it wasn’t a concern or was “fake news” until the stock market started dropping continued to make misleading or outright false statements while dragging their feet and trying to rewrite history with blatant lies like “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

So one day my wife and I took a walk along a local greenspace and I saw this:

Art can be therapeutic, and there were a lot of things about this that made me feel better. My eye was immediately drawn to the Eye of Horus, or wadjet, at the top in the center. The wadjet was used as a protective glyph, often worn or placed on the bodies of pharaohs to protect them in the afterlife, and added to the bows of ships. And yet, having studied Egyptian mythology, I wonder about why they chose that particular symbol. Horus, like most of the Egyptian gods, is pretty much indifferent to humanity’s struggles. The gods mostly fight among themselves and their interventions in the mortal world are few. On the other hand Horus did defeat his evil uncle Set, who’d murdered Horus’s father Osiris, so anything associated with Horus could be prophylactic.

The jumble of works below is interesting too. I couldn’t get any closer—well, I could, but I’d have needed a small boat thanks to all the rain we’ve had recently. March is supposed to come in like a lamb and at this point I think it’s going to go out like a mudskipper, but that’s another story. I’ve noticed that there’s honor among graffiti artists; usually they won’t paint over each others’ works. Since I couldn’t get close I couldn’t tell if anything had been painted over, but I like to think they’d just been playing an enormous game of Exquisite Corpse.

I’m gonna stick with that thought. It makes me feel good, and there are advantages to not being able to get too close.

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