art values, my values
In different periods, artists “imitated life” differently, because, duh, life was different.
Turner painted clouds as furious abstractions. Before him, seventeenth-century Dutch artists imitated life, but mostly glommed onto material culture, except for their doing landscapes and cows. Pearly glass windows, crystal goblets—the Dutch mirrored life, and painted mirrors. Visual puns. A mercantile society inspired artists to render trade goods, glass and silver, imitations of their patrons’ bounty—their output makes aesthetic sense.
Andy Warhol figuratively lunged at his patron’s throat. He painted a dollar sign, a gift for Malcolm Forbes, capitalist tool magazine guy. His portraits of the wealthy are studies like Rembrandt’s.
The Dutch spanked their scenes with unnatural light and shadows. Vermeer, totally arresting case, thought to be inimitable but no one knows how many fakes are out there. Rembrandt: introspective portraits. My art history course zeroed in on landscapes, not portraits. The Romantics had an attachment to Nature that contemporary society has lost: Nature as a willful, indifferent enemy, not an ecology or ecosystem, but as a symptom of God’s power and genius. To naturalists and pantheists, God was Nature. God was in the natural elements.
“God is in the details.” —Mies van der Rohe
Craft and skill once were the painter’s slam dunk. Along came the spider, photography.
Painter Jack Whitten: “The image is photographic, therefore I must photograph my thoughts . . . I can see it in my brain, and it’s reproduced. I’m using the word ‘reproduce’ in the same sense that you would use a Xerox copy machine or a computer—any form of a reproduction device.”
Gazing at clouds, another diversionary tactic—if an unwanted prof or student person crossed my path, I looked up.
I found relief, similar to consolation or faith, in clouds, stars, weather shifts, when I acted like a prognosticator in old movies. I took pleasure, pleasure must be taken or had, in subtle shadings, size, shapes, the wind stirring. Night-time: Shooting stars, UFOs.
Here I go, here I go, here I go.
maggie, shot by passion
I met Maggie in college, in Frame, a photo-media group, seconds before digital absconded with a field that once trafficked in positives and negatives, celluloid, tactility, etc., when, figuratively and actually, she and I stood side by side and developed film, printed it, read
Maggie, she’s a New Yorker, with all the image implies, funny, sharp, deep, plus, she has famous parents: Her father is an Internet genius, who cashed in early, her mother a scientist, researching nasty viruses. These people live in and for the present, and for a future they glimpse (unlike my mother’s tribe sowing their historical oats). Maggie was adopted when she was an infant. And, yeah, she’s beautiful, like Little Sister, but with tawny brown hair. Her father’s an alcoholic, so we have that in common.
In college we all discussed photographer Harold Feinstein (1931–2015). He simply loved taking photographs. He was born in Coney Island—I dislike beaches, Maggie loves them—it became his major subject, and he shot there for more than fifty years. Feinstein: “There were so many things to shoot, the question was not how to take a good picture, but how not to miss one.” And: “The question is what we don’t see, and why don’t we see so much.”
Frame took its name from Stephen Shore’s brief treatise on it: any would-be image-maker could learn how to make a “good” picture. To find the picture, exclusion rules: what remains outside the frame is not the picture, but may become a viewer’s fantasy. Feinstein didn’t have to leave home or exclude home to make his art. We Frame people argued about this kind of love, and how his way of talking about the field was old-fashioned, but Maggie defended it, him, maybe she was a romantic then, and approved his ingenuousness.
In the 1958 U.S. Camera Annual, Feinstein wrote: “You must photograph where you are involved; where you are overwhelmed by what you see before you; where you hold your breath while releasing the shutter, not because you are afraid of jarring the camera, but because you are seeing with your guts wide open to the sweet pain of an image that is part of your life.”
No artist would now say “you are seeing with your guts wide open to the sweet pain of an image that is part of your life.” Totally corny, right, but also the field has changed: many photog/artists don’t look at what’s there but construct their realities.
I have an affinity, I’m admitting it, with “the sweet pain of an image.” You feel me?
In Frame, I learned you can train your eye to think of the world as a picture, say, in a Wittgensteinian sense—a visual language game.
Artists train their vision—though all vision is trained involuntarily, since we perceive through cultural eyewear; let’s say, artists re-train, or “craft,” their vision, “de-culture” it as best they can toward other ways of seeing (see John Berger). Visual tutors can be artists who teach. People learn to see as well as think differently, up to a point (more later). First, people notice details bound up in their group’s interpretations, see them through the group’s paradigms.
There is no universality in sight, and none in a picture. “You have a good eye.” When? In what context?
Maggie and I framed us, made us by the exclusion of others—lovers as border guards not allowing others entry.
I worried about grades, wanted the best grad school; but I could fuck up, go off the rails, get frustrated, a tendency. Maggie lived unencumbered by grade–worry, she didn’t consider failure for herself or me—weird because her parents achieved big. Maybe because she was adopted, didn’t get that gene, because she didn’t have the anxiety of influence. Failure was my personal terrorist, but she carried a resistant strain of that virus (knew too much about viruses for comfort). Maggie was also doing anthropology, art, and writing, she especially got into Malinowski’s diaries, whose “honesty”—ambivalence—caused concern in the field, and Mick Taussig’s books.
“I realized why Renoir went all garish painting women’s bodies, why their flesh had purple and yellow tints, because he saw God in their bodies. Maggie and I—gods together, perfect lovers, soul-to-soul mates, perfect beings being together.”
She denied human failure, which didn’t mean she had faith in our species, exactly; she believed in the fight for survival, for fighting for what you wanted. Maggie was all about that, survival. Maybe because she’d been orphaned.
The species had survived, might prevail, etc. (Why or over what wasn’t a question.) Successes and failures were fundamental for progress—Maggie followed Karl Popper here—trials and errors necessary to improve the species, in the larger scheme of things. Failures weren’t failures, since they produced growth.
No one, I’d counter, kind of kidding, lives in the bigger scheme of things, all life is local. (I once totally believed that.) She’d say, “Failure is not an option”; “Ants can’t fail, are we not ants?” I bought it for a long time, until I met failure. Faced it. I was a cross-disciplinary major, anthropology and visual culture, and my best art guide, my Virgil, was a cool art history prof, handsome in a severe way. She took us around museums and galleries, notably into Philadelphia to see Duchamp’s Étant Donnés. Maggie and I didn’t know what we were seeing, maybe THE inexplicable, similar to when we watched Jack Smith’s infamous Flaming Creatures in an experimental film history course: we didn’t know what we saw. There weren’t men and women, there weren’t trans men or trans women, there were Smith’s characters, who defied any categories.
But from Smith’s costumes and party scenes, our costume sex bloomed, with Maggie flowering and coming in many-colored scarves. Fantastic also, the approach of another kind of invisibility. “Invisible” to me—though it was there, I couldn’t “see” it. Call it the epicene. No lucidity, and it couldn’t be seen through. Some art presents itself uniquely, not rationally, and beyond reason, or based upon other logics, not mine or yours. Maybe against and unavailable to interpretation (“Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” —Susan Sontag).
Obstacles grow up to be people, created ignorantly by people.
We can stand in each other’s way. Maggie once accused me of that, then said she was sorry.
If I couldn’t totally get Jack Smith’s film, then I couldn’t depend upon my understanding my own culture that much better than the “others” I was studying. See where I’m heading? Significantly, I could shape myself into an ethnographer without a knowing attitude, and could learn as much about my own as “the other,” or discover the other inside. That grabbed me most, the other within.
The next rebellion launched itself against earlier rebellions, but this time I raged under the radar. I was chill, driving on cruise control, though in overdrive, and seeking out family albums, talking to the families and writing field notes, annotating the photos, applying ethnographic theory and photo theory to what I found, basically making it up as I went along. It had to be made up.
I was in a discipline, or disciplines, inside an institution where I had to fit, but that in some way urged me not to, also, and I was and also wasn’t making my own life. I was adjusting, and maybe I wanted to but couldn’t know that yet, but wanted to be choosing why I was bending this way or that.
Maggie’s in her office writing her ethnographic novel—I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I’d been an influence, she said. She didn’t say Good or Bad. Kidding. When Maggie had her mind set, nothing ever stood or stands in her way, and she’d thrown herself into this book, and that let me throw myself into mine.
We worked in silence.
John Cage scored with it. (Haha.) A unique American postwar artist. We studied him together. She loved what he thought, how he wrote it. I felt I’d grown up knowing it without knowing it. Everyone has their illusions, right.
“There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound. No one can have an idea once he starts really listening.”
Cage’s 4’33” : a composition of those eponymous minutes. He didn’t want to compose music, what happened was music, sound was music. Mother told me that Ezra Pound wrote, “I tried to write Paradise. Let the wind speak. That is paradise.” I wanted paradise on earth, and had
Nothing felt the same, feels the same, would ever be the same. Should I make a list? No, but I want to, because I can’t stop myself, that’s how love is. Love is a Memory of Love. First times for tears, consolation, sitting near her. An ordinary room shifted into paradise, the aroma of her killed me. I liked watching her breathe.
My new life: impassioned, passionate. Passion sounds like an emotion from the nineteenth century. That intensity, the Romantics. My gen is cool, over it, supposedly. It consoles me that the ancients felt the same. In the grip of love madness, you stand in a long line of humanity. Think about it.
Sex, with Maggie: I got it, finally, apprehended, and it wasn’t an act. I didn’t give her an orgasm, she took it when she wanted it. She did take me in every way, and I took her, and she let me have her, we had each other, totally. I would give her anything, everything. I’d see her and need to touch her, her skin, the flesh on her hips, ass. The fascinating way her breasts moved when she moved, the colors of her labia, heat of her cunt. I realized why Renoir went all garish painting women’s bodies, why their flesh had purple and yellow tints, because he saw God in their bodies. Maggie and I—gods together, perfect lovers, soul-to-soul mates, perfect beings being together. If I didn’t compare my love for Maggie with a summer’s day or a rose, but with playing tennis, I debase romantic love, unless you feel tennis the way I do. So, Maggie was my best partner.
Maggie, always and forever.
Mother says: “You can’t ever know about forever, Zeke.” In love we’re amateurs. By definition. We do it for love,
From Men and Apparitions. Used with permission of Soft Skull Press. Copyright © 2018 by Lynne Tillman.