Thursday, July 17, 2014

Impressionist, Expressionist and Conceptual Art

The French Impressionists, for a moment, attempted a rendering of what they saw, an “impression” yes, but the interesting aspect is best illustrated by Seurat's Pointillism. In the late 1800s there was a shift in emphasis among painters of an adventurous nature, what came to be called the avant garde, from the subject depicted to the act of perception. This may have grown out of or been influenced by then current scientific theories of how the eye works but I think it was based in an emerging self-awareness. It was not so much an excitement about “how I see” but that I see. I am, I exist... being was becoming the subject or content. Later, what I think came into it also, or maybe more accurately, what I intuite - I create!

The Self as Monitor

One way to conceive of the self is as a sort of awareness monitor. What the self monitors is: Thoughts, Emotions and, let's venture, Instructions. This is easy to test. Take a breath, let it out. Watch for the first words to drift across your mind. They are not you,... you are the observer.

Thoughts: functional thought is problem-solving, like what I'm doing right now, trying to reach insight about consciousness. Or crossing the street safely, planning a vacation etc; Dysfunctional thought is a more or less obsessive reviewing of past events or fantasizing future scenarios, all the while mistaking that obsessive mind chatter for self. This blocks the experience of simple being, reality, preoccupying one with fantasy.

Emotions: these are triggered by thoughts or are karmically induced, that is, residue from unfinished experiences, consequences of past decisions, guilt for example or the elation of winning recognition or the downside, being criticized. Karmic accumulation may have to play out but one can, theoretically, stop making more. There is also the problem of karmic events outside personal experience, like say, U.S. responsibility for, in some estimates, 4 million dead in the Vietnam war, something that has to weigh on every citizen.

Instructions: when thoughts and emotions are the subject of the monitor or observer, rather than what is identified with, they loose their power to fool you into believing that they are you and at that point their energy is transposed into awareness, presence. For the duration of that presence, until mind kicks in again and ego regains control, experience is of enjoyment in being, joie de vivre. There is no need for action, for thinking or doing. Eventually into that peaceful state an impulse to creativity happens. These are the instructions. What to do as determined by the... what popped up on my word processor just now was theGoodLordAbove... and in a way, that is what I meant to say, if by that archaic word Lord is meant the unnameable, the field of being, the source, the intelligence obvious in the patterns of reality.

I opt for the other words, Lord being, as I said, archaic, and loaded with confusing baggage and an endorsement of hierarchy. Looking at the meaning of the english word at the time of its use in the St. James version of the bible, I would suggest that the equivalent word today might be boss. What is gained in accuracy is lost in reverence... “Our boss who art in heaven...” but for me, I trip over the class implications. I like boss because it makes this obvious and allows for a notion of “god” that is egalitarian rather than hierarchical, ie, HE doesn't reign above, rather WE are interconnected. At the interstices of this interconnection is the bliss of Buddhism, the feeling realization of interconnection that shatters the dysfunctional - the egoic thought-belief in a vulnerable separate self. Thus is dissolved the fear natural to that lonely conception, that same fear at the root of ruthless competition and war.

In Art the “instructions” lead to the creation of images or structures, painting or sculpture, dance, drama, poetry, song and the other forms that creativity fills. A painter might stare at a blank canvas until “instructions” emerge, blue here, in a slash, or an overall field or in the shape of a world image, a building, a hill... or it might come in the form of jumping out of bed with the burning intent to put the alphabet on canvas, filling the space with as many scribbled or painstakingly rendered letters as will fit.

These acts, inspired by instructions are evident, to a person in a state of presence, as coming out of presence and so confirmation and celebration. Just as “fake” art is evident also in this state, art that is ego-driven instead of flowing out of being. The evolution of humanity consists in changing or reversing the ratio of time spent in mind-chatter versus time spent present.

It puzzled me for awhile how it was that I immensely enjoyed reading Beckett's sorely depressing novels. Now I realize that what delighted me was the creativity, the instructions. They bring one to interconnection, accessible through presence, and that, as Eckhart Tolle claims, is a feeling for which we have no more adequate word than, love.

So, authentic art is a hit or miss affair. An artist working every day will produce work out of ego some of the time and out of presence some of the time, evolving, with the greater society, toward that preferred ratio. The more presence the more the shift is accelerated, art being the sort of formal signpost for the movement. The acceleration is critical because the life system here on this planet can't take a hell of a lot more of what ego has been doing to it.

painting, "June 29, 1940" by author (date of Paul Klee's death)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Cop Town, Karin Slaughter, Crime Fiction set in 1974 Atlanta, a review

Many a late night, with my waning energy, I've eased into day's end with crime fiction under my lamp. Once a friend challenged, “You read so much of the genre, why don't you write one?” What a great idea. So I did, called it Arrival, set it in Atlanta (search tom ferguson, Raymond Chandler, the dean of the detective story, once remarked that, in order to advance the plot or produce some drama, mystery writers more often than not, wander into a territory where credibility is thin and shaky. The cop agrees to meet in an abandoned factory without backup, leaving his or her gun in the glove compartment. The normally perceptive interrogator believes everything the obviously lying suspect says. A critically important phone call is allowed to shift over to voicemail and the cell phone turned off... and variations. Some of my preferred detectives are Jazz or Rock-listening, classic-book reading intellectuals, like Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson or John Harvey's, interests I suspect aimed more at readers than at reality.

Another characteristic of the genre I've noticed is that sooner or later the writer tires of the character and limitations imposed by the who-dunnit form. The reader and publisher however is now in love, respectively, with the character and increasing sales figures so one-a-year is the insistent demand. Sometimes the writer ventures, for relief, into a “serious” novel which predictably disappoints on both counts. More often the yearly novel is produced but with noticeably enhanced credibility problems. The author too has grown accustomed to that bestseller income but enthusiasm is lacking, not a boon for creativity. Some addicts like Ed McBain and Donald Westlake can't get enough and put out two or three a year, even using pseudonyms. McBain's lifetime sales were well over $500 million.

Authors I have witnessed undergo this metamorphosis include James Lee Burke, Robert Tanenbaum, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham and even lately I see hints of it in Michael Connelly. I stop reading them when this goes too far (though in Cornwell's case it was because she dedicated a book to Barbara Bush). Mankell Henning gave his loveable hero an irreversible case of Alzheimers, thus ending that, and now produces infrequent “serious” novels. Leave it to a Swede to recognize when one has enough money. The immensely successful Steig Larsson series ended with his untimely death, transforming his oeuvre into a trilogy. Lisa Marklund has picked up, sort of, where Steig left off and so far is holding up. Her endings though, they tend to slip into that credibility gap. Larsson and Marklund both parlay feminist issues with their strong female leads. Which brings us to Karin Slaughter. That last name has got to be a pseudonym but in any case it's apropos to the level of violence typical of her books, though in a footnote she apologizes to a fan for lowering the level on this one. She's got to be joking.

What was Atlanta like in 1974? Slaughter's latest shoot'em-up, Cop Town, will give you a glimpse. I somehow doubt, though, that a woman couldn't rent an apartment or open a bank account without a male household member co-signing but maybe that was needed to make credible the behavior of one of the book's characters. The city's first black mayor was in office, shaking things up, especially in the police department. Slaughter portrays a brutal racism there though that seems from a much earlier era. I hope she exaggerates but I don't know. She fills APD's ranks with crude white men right out of the KKK, augmented by a few who are slightly more empathetic and, ah... gay (closeted of course).

To whatever extent she exaggerates, she creates a setting where one cannot but sympathize with her heroines (unless of course one identifies with the lunatic Right, but those folks don't read do they?). Her heroines are a group navigating a similar gauntlet to the new mayor, the early women recruits to the APD. One is a relative veteran who's been through the toughening up initiation and now “welcomes” the newest graduate of the academy, a Buckhead yuppie, with little more empathy than the men. She and a small group of women cops have survived the daily and continuing harassment of a fierce sexism the Taliban would sagely approve. They fully expect the Buckhead princess to dropout in short order and the reader can be forgiven for expecting the same, given the outrageous challenges she faces in her first week. But like Larsson's character, she rises to the occasion after initial humiliations and provides a nice vicarious ride for the reader, who nearly by definition will stand with the values attributed to our heroines, well some of 'em... they are cops. I do believe this is Slaughter's strongest effort, some of the writing is downright poetry-ish, without the flimsy mystical pretensions of James Lee Burke.

illustration by the author