Monthly Archives: December 2011

After reading this I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized it already: “For eight-ninths of their history, humans could not read at all. Reading and writing did not begin to play a significant role in general society until the invention of the printing press five hundred years ago, a mere twenty generations back. … Once mastered, alphabetic script ‘dissolves’ and reading seems natural, although the skills that produce the material being read are not natural at all” (204). According to art scholar Ellen Dissanayake, if the vast majority of people who lived never read or wrote a word, then how we think of “art” deserves revision.

In her 1992 book about the role of aesthetics in human evolution, Dissanayake claims the invention of writing begat “art.” That is, without text and the modes of thinking that come with writing and reading, we wouldn’t have a separate category of human endeavor called “art.” She writes, “Until the Enlightenment, no other society had considered art to be an entity in itself, to be set apart from its context of use (usually in ceremony or entertainment) or the content that it portrayed or suggested” (196). The steps it takes for a mind to make sense of an alphabet also prepare it to look at the rest of the world with “disinterest,” which “implied that one could transcend the limitations of time, place, and temperament,” and appreciate artworks through aesthetic and supposedly universal criteria (197). These criteria saw images as representations not directly related to the things or gods or people they were meant to represent. To people who read, images appear more like text than they do to nonreaders, who have no concept of text.

Dissanayake’s approach strikes me as a little reductive—she makes sweeping claims about the role of art in Medieval Europe and Ancient Greece in order to ram those societies into her timeline—and she admits she’s oversimplifying. But in her presentation I find a compelling invitation to check my assumptions the next time I see an artifact or scene made by members of a non literate culture, maybe as clues for how people think without text as a tool for organizing. (I also find it funny and instructive that by reading I’m getting into this idea that reading might have changed human aesthetic practice for the worse.)

Dissanayake doesn’t mean other cultures have different ideas about what art is. She means that “art” may not be a part of these cultures’ worldview at all. The way people in our culture hold aesthetics somewhat separate, closed from the rest of life, isn’t the way everyone considers the beautiful or pleasurable. As a painter I find it well worth considering that other cultures probably have different ideas about how a necklace or an image of a face fits into their lives—that “art,” the whole idea we have of it, is constructed and perpetuated by our ultra-efficient, secular habits. Dissanayake asserts “this ‘literate’ approach takes for granted that art is objects—things, like words are things. Let us instead look at art as kinds of behavior, ways of doing things” (222).

This reminds me of the book of Genesis. Yahweh, through Moses, needed to teach people to spurn graven images because Judaism was a new and radical thing: a religion based on the word instead of the image. “In the beginning was the word and the word was God,” and so on. Without the invention of writing, what is God? (For a very involved discussion of the consequences that came with privileging “the word” in Western philosophy, read Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes.)

Dissanayake’s art history work tends to look way back in human evolution, and it’s famous for its focus on social cooperation rather than competition in the development of the species. She claims art helped connect people, which was crucial to our survival. Think about the ways group choreography or chanting as a congregation lead to feelings of community. She pushes aside Kant’s disinterested “art for art’s sake” and replaces it with the mantra “art for life’s sake.”

It pays to reread good stuff—especially when it makes me rethink the implications of reading itself. When I read Dissanayake’s work a few years ago, somehow I missed this proposed link between the historical rise of text and the fall of a sense of fusion between acts of beauty and the rest of life. If in the distant past, nobody did “art” but everyone sang and danced and drew, it seems arbitrary to call anyone an artist today. Who’s supposed to say which cooperative, spontaneous social activities aren’t art? Or, since all of us used to toddle around our parents’ living rooms, dancing and singing and scribbling, was any of that art? When do we start being artists?

In Portland’s Pearl District this January, I’ll be showing one painting from my big dance triptych (seen here). This juried show opens during the regular First Thursday art walk, 5 January, and runs to the end of the month.

Gallery 114 is at 1100 NW Glisan in Portland, Oregon.

There’s always plenty of good wine, food and conversation throughout the Pearl on First Thursdays to go with the many pieces of contemporary artwork on display. I’ll be there with the family to enjoy the variety.

I’m learning that experts disagree about whether the Shanghai Tunnels under downtown Portland, Oregon, were ever actually used to shanghai people.

After hosting both of our families for Thanksgiving week and badly fielding their questions about our new city, my wife and I decided we need to study up on the local history. The zaniest book we’ve consulted so far is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (2003). The author of Fight Club and eleven other beautifully twisted novels about American culture turns his attention here to the town he has called home since 1980.

Palahniuk’s book celebrates his favorite fringe elements in chapters that alternate between themed lists (like strange transportation, gardens, and sex stores) and vignettes from twenty-three years of his drug-propelled midnight encounters throughout the city. We learn where to find the self-cleaning house, the world’s largest hair ball, the best haunted places, the vacuum cleaner museum, the world’s smallest park (the size of a dinner plate), and a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge. As I read about these places, I make notes to look into them, and on the web or on a walk I find that some of Palahniuk’s Portland is gone already. Writing his tour of the city, Palahniuk warns readers that’s how it’ll be: “The trouble with the fringe is, it does tend to unravel. By the time you read this, small parts of it will already be obsolete” (173). On the next page he writes, “This book is not Portland, Oregon. At best, it’s a series of moments with interesting people” (174). Of course, in a strict sense it isn’t that either; it’s symbols on pages. But I get his point.

In telling about some of his favorite encounters, Palahniuk reveals some of Portland’s foundations. For example, the city’s sense of itself as a bratty little brother. One resident, Reverend Chuck, likes to glue things to his car—like bags of Twinkies or hundreds of rusted doorknobs—and blast annoying sounds out of the speakers. Sometimes it’s bedwetting hypnosis tapes from the 1950s, and other times it’s the sounds of crows fighting, a recording which actually attracts a huge cloud of crows following behind the car. The Reverend says the city has a “small man complex. … Portland makes up for its small size with its loud and obnoxious behavior” (130-31).

In my short six months as a resident, I’ve noticed this complex in the art scene to some extent. Some gallery owners, painters and designers seem convinced that the best artists always leave here for bigger and more polished cities, and they’ve told me nobody who’s really serious about collecting art lives here either.

Carl Abbott, a professor of urban planning at Portland State, just published a more scholarly work of Portland history, called Portland in Three Centuries, and his research shows that from its start in the mid-1840s, this town has both drooled over the prospect of being like San Francisco and jealously guarded its foothold as the go-to Northwest city against rivals like Seattle and Tacoma.

Abbott’s is a much drier read than Palahniuk’s, but one full of excellent names and dates to look further into. I didn’t know John Reed, the radical journalist (played by Warren Beatty in the movie Reds), grew up here, and now I get the origins of the street names around our apartment: the names of early town promoters Asa Lovejoy, Benjamin Stark, Francis Pettygrove, William Overton, and so on.

As for Forest Park, that 5,000 acre beast of mossy greenery our family runs muddy through, sources confirm it is the largest city-owned park in the world. But Abbott claims, “The vast expanse of Forest Park is the result of public foreclosure of tax delinquent property during the Depression of the 1930s, not of systematic planning by the preceding generation” (85). Huh. And here I was led to believe all these tree-twisted trails came out of the 1903 plan by John Olmstead (stepson of Frederick Olmstead who designed Central Park in New York, a mere 843 acres). It seems every jewel in this city remains available to us through some combination of idealistic tenacity, hyped-up storytelling and accident.

It had to be so.