Subscribe to RSS Feed

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.

Due out in December, 2011, I’ve written a chapter of dance scholarship in The Art of Social Critique: Painting Mirrors of Social Life, edited by Shawn Bingham. I interviewed three dancers from San Francisco Ballet to ferret out the peculiar working methods of modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor, whose ballet Spring Rounds they premiered in 2006, and I related that to new discoveries in neuroscience and physiology. (For more info on the book click here.)

My chapter looks at how Taylor does commissions for companies not his own. Unlike most dancemakers, who get directly involved with the group who will premier them, Taylor prefers to work only with his own dancers and then send an emissary to cast the performers and teach it to them. In this way the 80-year-old modern dance legend can work efficiently with people with whom he already has a shorthand and allow others to creatively solve the problems of making the dance fit new bodies. The process stretches the responsibility for choreographic decisions among more than one person in a way that calls into question the role of the dictatorial auteur.

My reason for writing the piece is I believe too often people think of socially engaged art as the stuff of political complaint or consciousness raising. But dance—the art of moving bodies organized in an environment—focuses on the ways people interact and glean meanings from that. Making, performing, and watching a dance are highly social acts, and Taylor’s experiments with the relationships among choreographers, dancers, and audiences demonstrate great ways to approach many of our other relationships. His work demonstrates how to do things better, not just point out how things are bad.

Last week I sent page proofs and indexing info back to the editor, and I look forward to reading the various scholarly takes in the chapters surrounding mine on social engagement in contemporary American literature, movies, painting and so-on. The book will likely be too expensive for one person to buy, but that’s why we love libraries.

A “suzerain,” Cormac McCarthy taught me years ago, is a “keeper or overlord” (198). An evil thing, I gathered, somehow related to the making and collecting of pictures.

I’ve just begun a project sparked by my vague recollection of a scene in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It gave me occasion to reread the novel and follow that up with a little research on some of its imagery. (If you’re interested, John Sepich’s book Notes on Blood Meridian fleshes out a lot of McCarthy’s references, looking into the tarot tradition, the history of the Indian wars of the 1840s and archeological traces from the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon.)

Following the Glanton gang (a group of white men employed by the Chihuahua government to scalp Apaches) Blood Meridian takes the beautiful vistas, lawless honor and shoot-em-up conventions of American Westerns and reworks them into a cautionary tale about blind opportunism and the moral consequences of white men’s attempts to tame this continent. McCarthy uses biblical language to describe the American Southwest as a potent and beautiful hell. At one point the band of Indian killers makes their way up a volcano:

“Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. . . . and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoofprints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock?” (130).

In this scene the gang is following Judge Holden, a seven-foot, bald, muscular trouble maker who speaks five languages, shoots his rifle with amazing control, and plays a mean fiddle. In Holden and in the scenery, Satan’s presence seems unmistakable, yet it’s never quite proven through the many disgusting scenes of scalping, infanticide, and greasy, dusty, alcohol-fueled mayhem done in the name of manifest destiny. The judge carries around a book in which he sketches the images of people, ancient ruins, plants, and animals before he rubs out the originals. He says he’s in a personal battle against nature for dominion over this place. “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth” (198). By drawing the images of his environment, he aims to control it.

In conversation around the campfire Holden spouts some hegemonic lunacy: “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos” (199). McCarthy makes this sound scary instead of just stupid because he has this character say it, a superman both crazy and capable. And even scarier, next to this megalomania the judge often presents metaphysical ideas in some well folded packages:

“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning” (245).

Reading a passage like that in the middle of a novel, I just have to sit for a second and taste it before continuing. It’s so gritty and beautiful and possibly true. So, the judge says, without the embodied, social exploration and categorizing we’ve all practiced since coming out of the womb, our lives would seem like a crazy carnival without order, heading for knee-shaking and unknowable conclusions. I’m with him there. Life sometimes feels that way to me anyway. But I can’t follow his idea that anything is possible if I will it, can I? And is nature, or God, this amalgam of forces and laws, nothing but “a hat trick”?

Holden wants to purge his companions’ belief in the magic and mystery of the West, asserting his will over its resources and native people—and yet this passage does the opposite for me. The judge holds himself up as disinterested master, but sober and scientific this passage isn’t. His assertion reads to me like Tom Waits singing gravel-voiced about a drunken dream with a cadence and vocabulary that depends more on classical literature and religious philosophy than it does on experiment and deduction. It comes from a character, after all, who draws pictures in a book in effort to capture the world. Those pictures aren’t the real thing, as one character points out to him. Holden is a product of this “carnival.” He’s not beyond it.

As I finish reading the novel this time, Holden strikes me as much more human than he did last time, if still pretty Satanic. His drawing is one of many efforts to write or photograph or otherwise record our way toward mastery over our world. How much of the judge’s crazy project is in each painter’s daily practice? I have often shared the judge’s wish to no longer feel pressed upon by what’s outside my control, and I’m regularly reminded of what a fool’s errand it is to try to run the whole show. With that, though, the judge has me wondering just how different my painting project is from his.

I recently finished Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of those books I had heard about since I can remember, but I had little idea what was actually in there. As its title implies, the book tackles a lot, from the subtle social intrigue in the St. Petersburg salons of 1805 to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, swatted and harried by peasants and Cossacks. I didn’t expect so much practice reading French. (The translation I read, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2007, reprints the bountiful French passages Tolstoy put in there, sometimes several pages long.) Nor did I expect such a direct skewering of historians and other intellectuals who advocate great man theories of history and who propose that ideas in a culture drive historical events.

Sometimes Tolstoy just stops narrating the action of his 1200-page historical fiction and spends a chapter trying to correct these errors of historical theory. Referring to the French revolution and the ouster of Louis XVI, he gets sarcastic: “At the end of the eighteenth century, some two dozen men got together in Paris and started talking about all men being equal and free. That led people all over France to start slaughtering and drowning each other” (1181). Several long passages throw down a gauntlet to historians directly like this, summarizing with a critic’s voice the big themes getting played out more intimately between his characters.

One main character, Rostov, “knew from his own experience that, when telling about military events, people always lied, as he himself had lied in telling about them; second, he had enough experience to know that in war everything goes on quite otherwise than we can imagine and recount” (647). Rostov realizes it’s both impossible to foresee and recall the way things actually go in big, life-changing moments. Beyond that, we lie about them anyway, fixing the story to fit. Another main character, Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov (aka “Pierre”), gets heavy into Masonic rites and numerology, deciding divine clues to his destiny are embedded in a particular translation of the Bible. Through a bunch of textual contortions, assigning numbers to each letter and writing his name “L’russe Besouhof,” he gets his name to match the numerology of Napoleon’s: 666. To him this means God has identified him as the man who must assassinate the French emperor as his army enters Moscow in 1812. The plan doesn’t work out.

Watching Pierre go so far to stretch and fold the evidence to fit his assumptions, I thought we’re all this guy to some extent—hopefully not bending scripture for permission to assassinate anyone—but we all warp the “facts” to fit. Tolstoy seems to sum this thread up with his critic’s voice toward the end of the novel, writing, “reason and will are only secretions of the brain” (1203). For Tolstoy, it seems nobody has access to divine clarity. As a critic he makes clear his annoyance with the mechanisms historians use to order events. Historians are bound to steer us wrong by grouping unlike things, picking arbitrary units of power, and assigning numbers that don’t match what happened.

The point I get from the action of the fiction, though, is it’s not possible to escape being a kind of historian—but each of us can avoid being a terrible one. Instead of making the self-assured contortions Pierre makes, I can reflect on my experience with levity, noticing as Rostov does that people all warp experience when we recall what we’ve done. I can remind myself that my version is incomplete. My wish to show myself in a good light bends how I remember things. My favorite plans may not work out, and that might be for the best.

I’ll be showing my painting BodyWeb 3 and a selection of prints in Beaverton’s 29th annual juried competition through early November. Click here to see photos of the accepted work by 77 painters, sculptors, and photographers from the Portland area and beyond.

With an opening gala Saturday, 5 November (7 to 9 pm), the show runs through 13 Nov., and it includes some musical performances and other events. Violas, guitars and harps, oh my! More details here.

Beaverton City Library, 12375 SW 5th St., Beaverton, Ore.

To support breast cancer awareness, I’ll be pouring wine at Vitae Springs vineyard in Salem, Oregon, this Saturday (22 October). They’re hosting the release of their Pinot Noir Rosé 2010. Girls only—7 to 10 p.m.—and I’m told guests are encouraged to wear pink. The $20 entry fee buys a Riedel glass, appetizers, a glass of the pink lady, and support for a local breast cancer treatment center. Click here for more information.

This will be the last event at the vineyard with my portraits of dancers presiding over it.

Ballet taught me that I am not my brain. I’m some evolving, moving, adjusting self. I act out being me. Being “ballet dancer” when I was younger felt temporary in a way other kinds of being didn’t. Dance took constant practice—repeating plie, tendu, and degage forward, backward, sideways, faster. My muscles wrapped around the bones in helixes. I got big thighs. My feet started to point by themselves, and my shoulders rested deep in my back. It became automatic to rise onto my toes and tuck my thumb near the palm while reaching for something in the cupboard. Skipping a couple days of training at the barre happened often, even skipping a week once in a while. More than that, though, and I started becoming another self. The effortless balance started slipping away. My spine started stacking in its former lazy S.

Other labels like “student,” “son” or “brother” seemed permanent, in large part because they were ways of thinking about myself I felt I couldn’t control. I was enrolled in school, born into a family of cheerful musical nerds. I felt my life was largely thrust upon me. “Dancer” felt slippery. I wasn’t yet a member of a company and had never performed. What made me “dancer” was dancing.

I had few words to help me mull over what that discovery might mean until I read a little book by philosopher Alva Noë called Out of Our Heads. In it, he writes, “Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make. Better: it is something we achieve. Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion” (xii). And later, “We can explain how the brain’s activity gives rise to consciousness only when we appreciate that what matters for consciousness is not the neural activity as such but neural activity as embedded in an animal’s larger action and interaction with the world around it” (47). His point is that it takes all parts of our bodies, the people around us, and the environment actually doing things in relation to each other to add up to experience. (That includes the past experiences we bring to new ones.)

This approach stands in deliberate contrast to other fashionable ways of explaining consciousness in neuroscience and psychology today, many based on fMRI scans of brain activity. What do those multicolored pictures of our brains actually show?

Noë’s approach isn’t exactly new. For lots of earlier philosophers, “being is becoming” in one way or another. Nietzsche and Heidegger come to mind. For me, though, the dance analogy is what clicked. Thinking of all this in terms of dance, this immediate lesson from my past, lets me apply this lesson with confidence elsewhere. In that vein I feel I’m only a painter if I’m painting. Taking too much time away from making pictures is like leaving the ballet barre. I lose a bit of that honed, trained self, and I itch to have him back. Rather than looking for artistic inspiration to come to me, I get up early and practice painting with the same faith as I used to drill dance steps in the ballet studio.

Of course there’s more to take away from this line of thinking than “when in doubt, work harder.” It prompts unending questions. Noë writes, “Our bodies and our minds are active. By changing the shape of our activity, we can change our own shape, body and mind. Language, tools, and collective practices make us what we are. Where do you stop, and where does the rest of the world begin?” (67). If I’m not just my brain, how much of the world should I see as part of myself? How does that affect how I treat or represent what I experience?

For me, reading and painting go hand in hand. If I’m not reading, I find I’m not working well as a painter. I have often wondered why that is. For me, painting (like dancing) is a mainly nonverbal practice. I talk with my models, of course, and we share all kinds of words while we work, but while I paint a portrait, I’m not saying to myself, “Ok, make a quarter-inch stroke of rusty red here, at this angle, to pull out that tendon’s shadow…” There is no monologue. I think it’s more like a nonverbal motorlogue or maybe it’s a phenomenological-kinaestheticlogue—which makes little sense. And that’s the point. The act of making pictures for me isn’t usually centered on language.

But there’s something valuable in constantly wrestling with ideas that aren’t our own. Even if we don’t use or directly relate our work to those ideas, it seems like good exercise. In her book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp offers her take on reading:

“If you’re like me, reading is your first line of defense against an empty head. It’s how you learned as a child. It’s how you absorb difficult information. It’s how you keep your mind disciplined. If you monitor your reading assiduously, it’s even how you grade your brain’s conditioning; like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, magazine, newspaper, billboard, instruction manual, or cereal box—reading generates ideas, because you’re literally filling your head with ideas and letting your imagination filter them for something useful. If I stopped reading, I’d stop thinking. It’s that simple.” (101-02)

As a dancemaker Tharp also works in a nontextual medium. Organizing bodies onstage isn’t the same thing as organizing the alphabet on a page. Yet reading is crucial for her because it keeps her in the practice of filtering ideas. It keeps her imagination sharp. In this journal, I’ll be sharing some of my own filtering from time to time in the hope that it leads to good conversation. If you like, contact me with your own thoughts about these texts or with recommendations of what you’re reading while you do your work.