American Graffiti.

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

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.

The Flag.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that for many mark the start of the modern LGBT rights movement. It also marks the 41st anniversary of the rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBT movement. It was designed by artist Gilbert Baker and flown at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. It supplanted the pink triangle as a symbol of gay rights, which reminds me of the time I started to go into a pub but then hesitated because there was a pink triangle in the window. It was off to the side, in the corner of a window, and so small I might have missed it, but I saw it anyway and thought it meant it was a gay pub then wondered why that would be a problem because I just wanted to get a pint like everyone else in there, so I went in and had a pint. And while I can’t say whether anyone in there was gay–there were men and women at the bar engaged in local talk but it seemed to be a place that welcomed everybody–I realized the pink triangle in the window was a Bass ale logo that had faded in the sun. Anyway to get back to the rainbow flag, ten years ago the radio program/podcast Studio 360 asked listeners to submit ideas to redesign the rainbow flag and asked fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to judge. He picked this redesign of the United States flag with only seven stars:

Source: Core77

The stars represented the only states that allowed same-sex marriage at the time: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York. Vermont would be added later that same year, other states would follow, and with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 same-sex marriage became the law nationwide, so the flag that Mizrahi picked six years earlier effectively had fifty stars. The flag Mizrahi picked made a statement that was quickly outdated, and limited to the United States, but LGBT people are everywhere.

For what it’s worth the design I would have picked is this one, since I think it’s a truer representation of the human spectrum:

Source: WNYC

There have also been variations of the rainbow flag almost from the beginning. Originally the flag’s stripes were hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet. Pink and turquoise were removed in 1979 and replaced with blue. Later there was a variation that included a black stripe as a memorial to AIDS victims, a tragedy that, like Stonewall, galvanized and propelled the LGBT rights movement.

I think the rainbow flag persists and has become so popular because it’s an inclusive symbol. A few years ago I was in a small town and went to a coffee shop and, as I was going in, I noticed a rainbow sticker. It was off to the side in the window and so small I might have missed it, but I didn’t hesitate to go in because I knew the coffee shop was a welcoming place.

Anyway I’ve noticed something interesting in the way the flag is often displayed. While it’s usually flown from a flagpole with its stripes oriented horizontally I’ve seen it more frequently hung in buildings and windows vertically. It’s a simple, and probably unintentional, redesign, one that puts the stripes side by side, so that all the colors are equal.



A Matter Of Time.

There are certain areas, not just in Nashville but anywhere there are people, where it just seems that anything that sits still long enough will get graffitied. It’s as though it grows up from the ground, or precipitates out of the air, although I know there’s a person, or persons, behind every work of art. And it takes time to make anything, and usually a lot of time to make something complex and large, which is why this really intrigued me.

Whoever made this must have spent a lot of time on it, and it required a lot of planning—like bringing a ladder, or maybe if it was made by several people someone got up on somebody else’s shoulders, or maybe it was just one really tall person. I even considered the possibility that it was a commissioned mural since it’s in the Nations neighborhood which has a lot of public art, but it’s also one of those areas where anything that’s around long enough gets graffitied. Well, almost everything. I’ve noticed that in spite of graffiti’s association with crime and shady characters most artists respect public murals. This particular piece also popped up in my Instagram feed of Nashville graffiti, and RASMO is a local tag. This respect for murals is, in a way, a break with graffiti’s early history. The word “graffiti” comes from the Italian graffio, “to scratch”, because tourists—originally ancient Greeks, I think, so I’m not sure why the Italians get the blame—would go to monuments like the pyramids and scratch their names and maybe a message like, “cool ‘ramid, would visit again” into the rocks.

It was difficult to get a single good shot of it in part because of the pole in front of it, but also because there was a pickup truck with a boat parked in front of it so I couldn’t really back up enough to get a good view. A funny thing happened while I was there. A guy in a blue Ford Fairlane convertible—an early model with fins–stopped and asked if I needed any help. “No, I’m just taking some pictures,” I said. He waved and drove off, and I watched him go, thinking that he, or at least his car, was from another time.

In The Details.

When I took the picture I thought it said NIT, and that was funny to me—I had this whole essay about nitpicking and attention to detail planned out—but then when I got home and looked at it on my computer I realized it said NITE. And that’s okay. The artist who created this still paid a lot of attention to details, from the interesting color pattern to the odd design of the E which is placed off to the right, cleverly changing NIT to NITE.

And by a funny coincidence I just read an article by New York Times critic Jason Farago about his decision to spend half an hour with Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMA, before it closed for the summer for an expansion project. Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s most popular works—one that’s become as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa or, well, it’s hard to think of another painting that’s appeared on everything from coffee mugs to pens to t-shirts and just about any other swag you can think of, and inspiring countless copies and even animated versions. Maybe that’s why people who see it at the MoMA take so many selfies with it or pictures of it. When Farago decided to spend half an hour in front of it he picked the worst possible time, from 5:30 to 6:00 on a Friday afternoon, and he was understandably distracted by fellow visitors and their screens and had a hard time focusing on the painting itself. This is my second-favorite of his observations:

5:46 p.m. It’s a little calmer now. Smart teenager to my left tells her friend: “This was my favorite painting when I was, like, 13.” Friend responds with a weary postmodern admission that would make Jean Baudrillard proud: “I know this is the real painting, but it’s like I can’t see it.”

My favorite observation, though, is one he makes a few minutes later:

5:55 p.m. Move to the extreme right side. Only from this angle can I see van Gogh’s impasto; never had I seen the thick, canary-yellow lines in the hollow of the crescent moon.

I’ve never seen Starry Night in person but this does remind me of the experience of seeing other paintings in person that I previously only knew from books. To really appreciate any painting you have to see it alive and up close, although also with the understanding that paintings change over time. Van Gogh’s paintings are praised now for their slightly muted colors but were originally much brighter–dust and the breakdown of chemicals have changed the look of his paint.

What would I see if I looked at Starry Night? I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful painting but I also know Van Gogh painted it while in an asylum after the famous ear-cutting incident. Hannah Gadsby in her show Nanette had a brilliant takedown of an audience member who tried to tell her Van Gogh wouldn’t have been a great painter if he’d been medicated. Spoiler alert: he was medicated. Maybe that’s why sometimes when I look at it, albeit in reproductions, those swirling lines don’t look beautiful; they look terrifying, like worms consuming the universe. It’s what happens when I look at the details too closely. And then I step back and it becomes beautiful again. It’s all in how you look at it.

Source: Wikipedia


We’re All Bird Brains.

Source: Netflix

When I heard about Lisa Hanawalt’s new show Tuca And Bertie I was excited. Hanawalt’s a very funny artist and I really like her work, and she did most of the design for the characters and overall look of Bojack Horseman. Then I wondered…will it be anything like Bojack? After all Hanawalt is an exective producer of Bojack and Bojack’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is an executive producer on Tuca And Bertie. And the answer is no, in spite of the cross-pollination between the two shows. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges—or maybe even like comparing apples and pineapples. Bojack inhabits an alternate reality that’s not too far off from the one we live in, but with anthropomorphic animals and the occasional animal-pun. One of my favorite aspects, which I’ve written about before, is the art references. Tuca And Bertie live in a very different universe—although Bertie does work for the publisher “Conde Nest”—where almost everything—including plants and buildings—is, if not anthropomorphic, then at least weirdly sentient and mobile. The jokes are subtler, the humor more conceptual. In one of the first episode’s funniest gags Tuca, who’s just moved out of the apartment she shares with Bertie, decides to visit her old friend. The style switches to a video game with Tuca jumping over a graphic rat on her way to Bertie’s apartment. Which is in the same building. Two floors down. If you want a comparison Tuca And Bertie could be sort of described as Broad City meets Adventure Time.

Among other things, as Hanawalt explained on a recent episode of the Bullseye podcast, whereas Bojack is tightly scripted the direction and writing of Tuca And Bertie is much looser. She tells the directors they can add scenes, cut scenes, and change styles if they want, and as much as she loves sitcoms she wanted to get away from the traditional sitcom structure.

Tuca and Bertie, played by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, are very funny characters and very appealing, and the overall vibe of the show is upbeat, although with occasional sad touches. Tuca is loud and outgoing but with a vulnerable side, and Bertie is shy and quiet, but ambitious. It’s great to see her get a promotion but disappointing when she realizes what comes with it. That same episode also deals with sexual harassment both seriously and in a hilariously weird way.

Really though it’s the distinct artistic style—or rather styles—of Tuca And Bertie that to me makes it so fun to watch. It’s frenetic and weird, and I’ve had to pause and rewind several times during an episode to catch details I missed the first time around. It’s fun to see the funny, sometimes intense drawings from Hanawalt’s books transformed into an animated TV show. Hanawalt talks about how different the communal process of making a TV show is from drawing cartoons, and also how Tuca and Bertie represent different sides of herself. She’s multi-faceted, which is reflected in both the stories and the look of the show, but also reflects us–we’re all muti-faceted. We’re all different animals.

Looking In.

Normally I don’t look in anyone’s windows, even office windows just because it’s rude to stare at people even if they’re working, or maybe especially if they’re working, since I always make more mistakes when someone’s looking at me, and I like to keep my windows open to let in natural light to balance out the glare of the fluorescents, or at least I would if I had windows in my office, but that’s another story. Anyway the other day I glanced over at a ground-level office window and saw this:

It made me laugh and also a little sad. Offices are our natural habitat? And then I thought that maybe this is the office of someone who really loves what they do and that made me feel better, and they probably work better when they’re being stared at, which made me feel even better, but then I thought maybe they missed their calling as an actor, and that made me sad again.

It also reminded me that Edward Hopper would ride trains around New York and was sometimes inspired by people he saw through windows, creating paintings like this one:

Source: Wikipedia

It’s an interesting painting for a lot of reasons. The title Office At Night suggests that this couple is working late and that there may be more than work going on once they pull down the shades. It’s also ironic that Hopper took what might have been a fleeting glimpse and turned it into a painting which we, the viewer, can linger over and study in detail.

It also reminded me of this, from the back cover of The Far Side Gallery, which I got for my birthday when I was a kid. This portrait of Gary Larson seemed like a bonus joke which made me laugh, but then I thought, holy mackerel, they’ve got him in a really small space, which made me sad, and then I thought, yeah, but he probably has an outdoor enclosure where he can go and hang out, and that made me feel better.

Source: Reddit

Also I think a person’s “natural habitat” is wherever makes them happy. That’s just me, though. What’s your natural habitat?


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