Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What Is Art, Anyway?

When you get interested in painting you naturally look around to see what others who got this bug have done. Finding out what painters are doing in the U.S. today is like listening to rock on the radio. You have to wade through a lot of “forgettables” before you hear one that will be an “oldie” in ten years. Museums show oldies. Most of their collections have been filtered. The forgettables have been thrown out. On this painting journey you will run across an opinion that painting is dead, irrelevant, old paradigm. You can ignore that, and be sure you will encounter it again and one of these times you might buy it.

Current paintings are seen in modern galleries and new museums dedicated to sorting out the wheat from the chaff. The big museums are located in the same places as the big money. It was the 19th and early 20th century tycoons or their wives who collected art and the art was European. The oldest paintings in the museums are of religious subjects or are portraits of rich folks of the 14th century – in Europe, of course. Before that it's mostly sculpture that has survived and architectural ruins.

Through history nations or civilizations arise, make their mark and fade as great powers. Much of what is valued in our civilization derives from the Greece of 500 B.C. When Greece had its day in the sun it invented democracy. Its architecture and philosophy had such impact that they are alive today in our thoughts and in our public buildings. The history of painting, as presented in the museums, has shifting power centers too. At one time Italy for some reason, blossomed, producing giants like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael. At another moment tiny 17th century Holland dominated the art world with Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Judith Leyster, Vermeer and many others.

A bit over 100 years ago non-Greek, non European influences began creeping into painting. The first was Asian; elegant Japanese prints which violated some of the rules. When you look at railroad tracks they appear to converge in the distance. The Japanese didn't feel bound by this kind of perspective in their pictures. The second influence came from the Pacific Islands and Africa. They were bound even less by European conventions. Theirs was an art of intense feeling and expression. What European painters learned from this art was that a picture could depict things that happened at different times, different places. It could distort them to suit itself. They could be any color, size or shape, to suit itself. The questioning of the “rules” brought about by this invasion of ideas lead to the radical notion that a picture didn't have to necessarily depict anything. A line, a shape, a color... they can be interesting or funny or moving all by themselves.

Actually the idea had been around quite awhile. People had been going to concert halls for 200 years, listening to patterns of sounds which were interesting, funny or moving without depicting anything. But in painting this idea was revolutionary – people had been looking at painting for too long, expecting scenes and stories to suddenly convert. But gradually some of them did. Soon the wild man Vincent Van Gogh, without selling a single painting in his lifetime, was hanging in reproduction in the most modest of quarters, and selling in the original for millions.

Some artists took upon themselves the mission of staying ahead of popular taste (some were simply ahead of it naturally, by temperament). This frequently meant doing something outrageous, sometimes with that in mind, sometimes as the result of a development of ideas. So it was that sacks of coal or a bicycle wheel were offered as sculpture, paint was mixed and thrown at random, half finished meals were encased in epoxy resin. The variations were as endless as the 88 keys on a piano and some of it was actually beautiful, funny, interesting or moving.

In the 19th century the painters Millet and Gourbet were criticized for their “vulgar” subject matter, depicting farmers and workers rather than heroic generals and mythological scenes. Some artists have always followed their own bent and clashed with the upholders of “standards.” And among the experimenters of course were those intolerant of anyone who failed to embrace “advanced” ideas.

Today there is mass confusion. Numerous schools of painting claim to be on the right track while everyone else is gone astray, living in a previous, discredited aesthetic. A sociologist whose name I forget remarked, “For every significant work of art, there is a truckload of trivia.” As a painter you are faced with this confused situation and you must choose for yourself which is the significant direction. If you are serious then you meet the challenge with this in mind: there is a difference between being honest and having integrity. A fascist may believe that he should kill those who disagree with his beliefs therefore he is honest, congruent, when he does so. But to have integrity one must be willing to question one's convictions.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

History as Mystery, Michael Parenti, a review

After stating in his introduction that “history is written and marketed... to enforce existing political orthodoxy” and that “Those who control the present take great pains to control our understanding of the past.”, Michael Parenti goes on to attempt to persuade the skeptical reader of the truth of those assertions. The persuasion takes the form of chapters on how those who have written history are of a certain class with predictable biases, how the victor's narrative is often the only one available, how the university keeps to the correct line, how publishing is kept orthodox, the death of President Zackary Taylor as example, and one of professional historians' methods of side-stepping class struggle.

Historians, Parenti argues, help influence history by shaping our understanding of things past and present. Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish uprising against Rome in the first century A.D., after playing a prominent political and military role in that struggle. The inquisitors kept records of the inquisition with predictable downplay of torture in extracting “confessions”. In the 19th century the historian Thiers wrote the history of bloody suppression and mass executions of thousands of revolutionary Parisian Communards, he who had presided over it. More recently we have patriot Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and the war criminal Henry Kissinger. I opened Winston's Churchill's history of world war II. at random, to a paragraph blaming the whole thing on communism, this while minimizing the major role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism.

Once the Christians came to power under Constantine they controlled the history which exaggerated, to this day, persecution of Christians, who were actually mostly tolerated in pre-christian Rome. The intolerance of the new rulers toward Pagans, far worse than when the shoe was on the other foot, is hardly mentioned in the church history. Early on wealthy converts were always given VIP treatment, often appointed Bishops from which positions wealth could be multiplied. Given the power of taxation and patronage the church became as corrupt as any regime before it. During Christianity's first thousand years “...church leaders viciously persecuted heretics and Jews, championed the subjugation of women, propagated homophobic intolerance and collaborated with secular overlords in the oppression of the peasantry.” The great libraries of the period were purged by Christian zealotry. So much for the “Age of Faith”.

At the University, seen by the right as a bastion of leftists, there is actually a large middle-of-the-road (self described in one study) contingent of professors, a substantial right-leaning segment and a few lefties who have gotten tenure. Parenti himself was hired by a New York State University, almost slipping in but the university president discovered the hire and reversed it. The 50s hysteria was hard on left academics but it hasn't loosened up all that much, certainly not as portrayed by the right. In my own experience I had an amazing professor in art school who delighted in examining the received wisdom he knew most of the in-coming students shared. He did not last despite his credentials, popularity among students and professional accomplishments.

Noam Chomsky's books have been published by fringe publishers mostly. One he co-authored with Ed Herman was supported by a mainstream publisher, printing 20,000 copies with promotional materials printed and distributed, advertisements placed. Warner, the parent corporation, got wind of the book, decided it was “unpatriotic” and demanded cancelation, threatening to fire the publishers if they went ahead. The publishers suggested publishing a right wing book to balance it. After reluctantly agreeing to this compromise Warner changed its mind and closed down the subsidiary.

Another instance Parenti cites, among many, is the film JFK. Oliver Stone's movie was attacked long before it was completed and long after. Despite raising obvious and legitimate questions, the mainstream press seemed to take the stance that governmental authority would be undermined by this kind of inquiry.

The strange death of President Zackary Taylor is another. The writer Clara Rising was writing a book about Taylor and came to suspect he had been poisoned. Though a slave holder he opposed new states and territories coming in as slave states. She got permission from the family to exhume the body for testing. Tests proved negative for arsenic poisoning... arsenic was present but not in enough quantity to cause death. The media and establishment figures who criticized the idea of testing were jubilant and the results were widely disseminated. Closer examination however showed that the tests were inadequate, diluting the results through faulty methodology. Only the hair that had grown since the poisoning happened should have been tested. Including the hair that had grown before the poisoning skewered the results. This detail was ignored, the first “results” stood, and stand, as the authoritative word. Again, the establishment prefers inquiries that question authority to be suppressed or, failing that, to confirm preferred conclusions.

Finally, psychopolitics and psychohistory are “respectable” subfields which have received generous funding due to their dependability in coming to those preferred conclusions. These disciplines posit psychological explanations for behavior, usually based on traumatic incidents in childhood. Elaborate arguments are set forth but their utility, and popularity with the rulers, rests, again, on those conclusions, conclusions that avoid class-based exposes. Chomsky, Zinn, Parenti, Naomi Klein and many others demonstrate in their writings and activism that the 1% runs things for the benefit of the 1% and the detriment of the majority population. As Parenti demonstrates in this and his other books, they are quite effective, so far, at keeping these ideas out of the mainstream.