Last week I wrote at length about image overload vis-à-vis a portrait of Dave Winfield I drew when I was a teenager. The point wasn’t merely to note that the information age has altered how artists parse the world, though it has, but to get at this notion about how wisdom and magic co-exist on a sliding scale; that wisdom might be seen as the accumulation of information, while magic, conversely, arises in the vacuum of concrete information.
I continued to bounce the idea around as I got sucked into M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” last weekend. (Spoiler alert: perfunctory twist-ending soon to be disclosed.) In the film, a group of town Elders convinces the villagers that supernatural lurk in the surrounding forest. To bring the point home Liam Neeson dons a monster costume haunts the woods, and in the process cements psychic control over the town. Toward the end of the film a young woman is instructed by the Elders to brave the forest in order to retrieve needed medical supplies. The drama ramps up as she scrambles anxiously through the woods, until she reaches a wall, where on the other side a park ranger waits in a modern 4 x 4 vehicle. And, gotcha! Well, got me at least.
It’s a clever misdirection. But more than being a cute cinematic trick, “The Village” happens to be an apt metaphor for my two basic philosophies about the relationship between wisdom and magic: 1) a fundamentalist philosophy in which information leads to wisdom and 2) a relativist philosophy that conserves information in the service of fantasy and magic.
The Fundamentalist believes truth and information shall set one free; the more information transferred, the closer one is to truth.
The Relativist holds that truth and information should be dispensed discriminately, but the right information, at the right time, in the right doses, approximates truth.
Some notable fundamentalists (based on my own interpretation, of course):
Jean Paul Sartre
Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”
Judd Nelson’s parents in the “The Breakfast Club”
Some notable relativists:
Liam Neeson as Town Elder in “The Village”
Colonel Nathan R. Jessup from “A Few Good Men”
The headmaster in “Dead Poet’s Society”
Mrs. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”
Guy Pearce in “Memento”
Molly Ringwald’s parents in “The Breakfast Club”
Several weeks ago, while I was communing with my wholesome Lake Wobegon-esque in-laws—fishing off piers, roasting s’mores in fire pits, telling wholesome jokes lifted from Laffy Taffy wrappers—I caused a stir by dropping the t-bomb: I told a story about a transvestite around the children.
Children are curious, and the questions came fast.
“What’s a twans fest eye?”
“Are you a transfestite?”
My aunt gave me the head-tilt and hushed voice tsk tsk. She said it barbeque-style: slow and low.
“That’s a F-O-R-B-I-D-D-E-N word!”
Having a few beers in me, I dug in.
“Is it the word, the concept, or the act that’s taboo?”
“All of the above, they’re just too young to be saying the word.”
“So it’s the word itself with the magical powers?”
“So you wouldn’t mind if I taught them about transvestite culture, as long as I didn’t use any banned words?”
“C’mon Shane. We just think it’s mature content that they shouldn’t be exposed to at this age. That’s all.
“He knows he’s a boy, and that his sister is a girl. What’s so extra mature about the notion of ambiguity?”
I plowed forward like a fullback.
“So if the cultural aspects are off limits, could I talk about transgender as a biological issue?”
I could see the adults were getting frustrated so I let go of the throttle.
Ambiguous gender was an unsavory topic limited to adults. End of discussion.
My adult company were information relativists and believed information should be withheld from children in order to carve out a proper fantasy. For the safety and well being of society, they choose to put unspeakable monsters in the woods and keep the transvestites in the cities.
I normally fall on the “truth-shall-set you-free” side of things, but as I continued to chew on the idea of image overload and of the state of magic, I reran a vision of my young nephew walking outside the cabin with his fishing pole and a cup of night crawlers, muttering “trans-fest-eye” under his breath. He put on his life vest, sat on the edge of the pier and fished patiently until he caught a tiny small-mouth bass. He ran back into the cabin ecstatically, recklessly swinging the fish and demanding that it to be on the evening’s dinner menu. Before we could dislodge the hook, someone was slyly on the way to the market to buy enough fish to feed 17 people. Even right now, my nephew thinks his 4-inch fish somehow produced 10-times its edible flesh. We all sat at a long communal picnic table that night praising his catch and smacking our chops as if it was the best fish anyone had every consumed. Each family member fought to lay it on thicker than the next until my nephew was intoxicated and dizzy with fake praise.
The image was almost too Norman Rockwell to trust, too Mayberry to believe my memory of it was reliable. Saccharine-sweet with an aftertaste of something fishy. Or was it fishy with an aftertaste of saccharine? It was something like reality, anyway. But a reality created through control.
Funny, “a reality created through control”—that’s not a bad definition of art.
A wise man once said that a map of something that is exactly the same size and detail of what it is mapping ceases being a map. It’s true; sometimes having all the information in the world isn’t as redeeming or as useful as having a little bit of it well edited.
The ultimate question then is: when one goes seeking truth, does one try to grasp reality all at once, or does he start with a map?
In the fall of 1985, when I read that Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield was going to sign autographs at a Long Island Hilton, I decided I would execute the most exactingly perfect Ticonderoga No 2-on-paper portrait of him that had ever been produced. I had the paper and the pencils, but was forced to buy packs of baseball cards to find an image of him. I went through a month’s-worth of allowance before I finally found the card in a Topps wax pack. Over the next four nights I completed what I still consider my masterpiece. And if you doubt its quality, I’ll have you know Mr. Winfield himself told me it was “astounding” when he signed it on a Saturday morning in November 1985. That cultural treasure has hung in my father’s office for more than 20 years.
Last Tuesday, I was wondering what a mature Bot Fly looked like. I Googled it, and in 15 seconds I knew. And what blood fluke, hook worms and intestinal amoebas looked like. All collateral infections from my search, these organisms now freeload in my visual memory like actual parasites might in my gut.
Twenty-seven years ago I couldn’t locate a picture of a celebrity for the better part of a week and today I can pull up twenty thousand of an obscure protozoan or a flesh eating fly in a few seconds.
When I sketched Dave Winfield at my family’s kitchen table two-and-a-half decades ago, the tide of cultural criticism about the information age had already crested: Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyper-Realism of Simulation,” Hal Foster’s “Subversive Signs” and “Learning from Las Vegas,” were all in the ether. And the work of the artists of the “Pictures Generation”—Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, et al.—were all established and hanging in Eugene and Barbara Schwartz’s living room.
After reading about worms that would enjoy living in my digestive tract, I revisited a little of Fredric Jameson’s “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. It was the bit about Van Gogh’s peasant boots versus Warhol’s diamond dust shoes. It’s amazing how prescient he and the others were about imagery, media and accelerated culture. It seems as if they felt the Internet waiting to split civilization at the seams. But, in much the same way the overdetermined, everything-will-be-made-of-aluminum pulp science fiction of the 1950’s, the look-and-feel of those “Pictures” artists, and the accompanying media theories, expired before the more substantial part of the message was absorbed.
Now, as hyper-reality prevails in earnest, and all the futuristic amenities predicted in the Jetsons, save for household robots, arrive, we seem to have normalized and adapted to the vertigo of image overload.
Finding an photo of Dave Winfield was half the battle for an artist in 1985. Now the finding is meaningless and the editing is primary. Some consider this condition visual emancipation, but in time most will see it as visual paralysis, a massive amoebic whole leaching the power of helpless individual pictures.
Without trying I can name artists who make images whose content is sourced from diseased organs to supernovae to shopping carts to movie star pets to NASCAR crashes. I saw a collage recently that featured images of emus, James Taylor, Hubble telescopes, Sesame Street characters and gyrating porn stars, and still it hit me softer than the shimmering highlights on the evening gown of one of Sargent’s ladies. I can yawn in front a Ryan Trecartin…which proves his point and his value as a cultural commentator. The frisson once evoked by the uncanny juxtapositions enacted by Kurt Schwitters or James Rosenquist have been neutralized by the white noise tidal wave of the internet and the spigot that is the search engine.
This condition makes Richard Prince’s cowboys and Sherrie Levine’s Edward Westons look extra profound to me in 2012, and forces me to consider if society is capable of putting good commentary to use, or if even at its best, well-aimed cultural criticism will be processed as good taste. It also makes me look at my Dave Winfield and wonder if my children will ever know what it’s like to thumb through a pack of baseball cards one by one, reading each image, recording every graphic detail with butterflies in their stomach. My guess is that the orgiastic charge that coursed through me when his card appeared in that pack had something to do with the mystery of limitation and the magic of scarcity.
Someone once said with knowledge goes magic, and with magic goes knowledge. I think I know a place where where that scarcity and limits still exist. To be continued…
If you’ve been reading my “Cultural Divide” contributions over the past several months, you’ve gathered that I go to great lengths to try to deliver evenhanded criticism. So much so that a few have accused me of being an apologist for everything from hunting to performance art. My on-the-one-hand-on-the-otherness isn’t a righteous stance of journalistic integrity but rather a reflection of a sincere belief that the terms of cultural difference in America stem from very basic misunderstandings about the structural composition of various cultures, which if inventoried, might bridge the widening divide.
An example: Many of my culturally agnostic New York friends adamantly oppose organized religion, yet they remain open to the most phantasmatic, shamanistic, quasi-religious conceptualism in the high cultural milieu. A Lutheran service severely disturbs their enlightened senses of rational propriety, but they’re more than happy to attempt the leap of faith needed to appreciate Richard Tuttle, Robert Wilson or Trisha Brown. Likewise, most of the parishioners at a Lutheran church in Wisconsin gladly throw their worldly faith behind a 2000 year-old fairy tale about a prophet conceived without intercourse, yet they walk into a contemporary art museum and feel a Duchampian readymade or a Specific Object by Donald Judd is part of a conspiracy dreamed up by cabals of elitist charlatans from Vassar trying to control their minds.
The two scenarios sound pretty similar to me.
The Lutheran church isn’t as religious as many would have it.
The High Art world isn’t as secular as many would have it.
Religion is culture. Culture is religion.
But none of that is my point. My point is that even though most of a particular culture’s eccentricities or attitudes can be written off to relativity, some can’t.
My wife told me last week that I came down a little hard on the tapas bar in northern Wisconsin that served jalapeno poppers and truffled popcorn. She said it was a little snotty of me and that in the process I tipped my hand a little. Sometimes a guy has to pass some judgment.
On the flip side, for the past week New York Public Radio has been running a series of commercials whose appalling arrogance makes me embarrassed to have participated in their pledge drive. It’s the kind of navel-gazing, self-satisfied righteousness that turns people off to New Yorkers and their near monopoly on advanced culture. New Yorkers have taken the blind patronage by the rest of America for granted. Sold out Broadway theaters and stuffed contemporary art centers aren’t a right, though. If New York dismisses everyone whose dinner conversations aren’t about Philip Glass, people may stop making the trip. Instead of traveling to New York for its wealth of culture, they’ll stay home and invent their own, spreading praise amongst themselves. Ever wonder why NASCAR is the most popular sport in America?
As a cultural producer I’m not ready to completely alienate the 20 percent of the country who hasn’t defected to NASCAR and Captain America. We, at least I, need the 60 million Americans who might rather go to a Dodgers game, but still begrudgingly visit LACMA like a good boy eating his Brussels sprouts.
So here it goes: 15-yard penalty on New York Public Radio for Unnecessary Smugness.
(The spots are read by Stanley Tucci)
“There are people who need you to explain things to them. They don’t understand about things like food co-ops and sleep deprivation in children.”
“There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”
I was Up North for the 4th of July weekend.
When I say ‘Up North’ people in New York look at me quizzically.
“Like, Montreal north…or like Catskills north?”
“Neither, I was Up North, not, up north.”
In Wisconsin ‘Up North’ is a proper compound noun referring to a particular recreationally active section of the upper half of the state, where waterskiing skills are a calling card to social approval and the size of your jetski matters. Shirts and visors are emblazoned with phrases like “Up North chick” and pontoon boat titles incorporate the location: “Hoffmans’ Up North Cruiser.”
In Wisconsin ‘Up North’ isn’t a geographical distinction; it’s a cultural one.
These facts are the basis of a new theory of mine called the “Rule of Cultural Chauvinism.” When, through ritualized activity, a place gains the distinction of being a cultural site, the ignorant visitor must tread with caution for there will be landmines deployed to destabilize them in an effort to reinforce cultural differences.
My recent trip to my wife’s family’s cabin Up North was as an ignorant visitor, and I hadn’t yet gained the wisdom of what would become the Chauvinism Rule to defend myself. I imagined Up North being an innocent community of kitschy leisure watersports rather than the fierce contest to master the terms of cabin-vacation culture. In other words, I thought I was merely up north, when actually I was Up North.
My trial-by-fire started when I arrived at the cabin, where 23 other friends and family members awaited the privilege to assert their outdoorsy superiority. When the waterski boat came out on the first day I agreed to give it a try. I thought I might be able to stay on my feet because I was an alright snow skier. Forty-six eyes watched me fail in spectacular fashion three times, skis whipped violently in different directions, body folded like a rag doll—you know the image. I didn’t necessarily expect success, but I did expect a little encouragement. Instead, I got uproarious laughter and persistent backhanded reminders of my failure.
“Last time I saw a body bend like that I was at a Cirque du Soleil in Vegas!”
“Man you would’ve been better off being shot into the water with a canon!”
The reminders continued as I also failed to correctly light fires, filet fish and even shit in the woods. One might think that shitting is primal and intuitive, but apparently it can be done wrong.
My breaking point came when we were lighting fireworks for the family’s annual party. Not Roman candles and bottle rockets, but Class B sky blooms that come in boxes the size of milk crates. I politely and curiously asked my father-in-law to explain how to ignite a Class B.
“I don’t know what you guys use in New York, but we use these here, ever seen one of these?!”
He held up a wind resistant propane torch like a caveman with a mammoth bone.
“What do ya use in New York? Matches?”
To be fair, all these jabs come with a sort of locker room affection, but really, New York..fireworks?
The ribbing was getting to me but I bit my tongue and took my complaints to my wife.
“How does moving to New York six years ago make me its official spokesperson? Why does having a New York address turn me into Woody Fucking Allen?!”
Then I went for beer. My indignation subsided as the Leinies took hold. Groggy the next day, I thought I’d gain some rugged-guy credits by building shelves in the garage. One of my nieces decided to follow me in and watch. Her curiosity paid off as she witnessed me slice through the power cord of the saw I was using to cut the wood. For a moment I thought the power went out until she handed me the severed, chewed up cord. After howling every word on the ‘off-limits list’ (a real list posted prominently in the cabin), I grabbed young Josie, looked into her young, brown, Christian eyes, and begged her to keep her mouth shut. Then I took the entire circular saw and buried it in the woods, like a reckless serial killer might a body.
And we all know that if one gets caught burying the body, they’re cooked. Circumstances don’t matter at that point. “She died from falling down the stairs, but I didn’t want to call the paramedics because I had a small amount of crack on the nightstand, so I decided to tie a cinder block to her ankle and drop her in the lake,” doesn’t cut it. Guilt oozes from poorly executed cover-ups. One’s only chance is good containment.
Young Josie’s secret knowledge churned inside of her like a bucket of mussels in the stomach of a queasy man on a roller coaster. It projectiled out of her in a couple minutes and spread quickly across the family. They even recovered the saw and have it displayed as an ignominious anti-trophy out on the porch.
I felt they’d turned me into a monster. Who cares about how well one water skis? Who cares about how good one is at horseshoes or baiting a hook or outboard motor conditioning? Few, perhaps, who weren’t Up North or at other lakeside retreats across the country, but still, I buried a saw a foot deep in the forest. And I paid dearly.
After the hazing that afternoon, the adults in the family escaped for a rare dinner without the children in Minocqua, the urban hub of Up North. Apparently, someone was feeling classy so we settled on a popular tapas restaurant instead of the usual Sysco orgy in a red basket or pizza parlour. I was ecstatic—boquerones followed by an Estrella Damm pilsner produces a burp that in itself is a culinary masterpiece. A plate of Pimientos de Padrón is like gambling and eating at the same time. A mess of assorted cephalopods—at once so mysteriously intelligent and so incredibly tasty— would take me to heaven that night against all odds.
Disaster struck when I saw the menu and lasted through my prolonged rant about how a live act shouldn’t be able to play John Mayer at a tapas bar. They served jalapeno poppers, spinach dip and truffled popcorn, but not a single Spanish dish. Apparently, the sangria and the small plates made it tapas. Still, no one, not even my loyal wife, stood by me as I sniped at every audible compliment about the scrumptious little plates.
“Oooooh, that chicken satay looks gooooood.”
“It’s not tapas..it’s not even satay. There’s no peanut sauce. That’s a plate of chicken strips and bowl of soy sauce. Is that supposed to pass as ‘Eastern’?” Why not serve Lucky Charms and call it tapas? No, serve the Charms with some Big Red chewing gum and call it tapas…then it’s both ethnic and spicy. All that on a small plate magically becomes tapas. Better, why don’t you just grill up a bunch of lies, serve them on a mini plate and call it tapas? They’d only be little lies, because they’re on little plates…and then they’d automatically be tapas, too.”
“Geez, who cares about whether it’s Spanish or authentic if we all like it?”
“And who cares how good I am at waterskiing if I’m happily failing at it?”
I guess the question is: who looks sillier? A happy fool being dragged across the water like a ragdoll, or someone enjoying the hell out of miscategorized food on small dishes..or the idiots complaining from the sidelines.
I spent last Saturday providing unwanted color commentary to my wife as she shopped for gifts at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn. For those who don’t know, the RCF is a craft-based flea market, whose proprietors and patrons share an affinity for tights-as-pants, non-menacing tattoos and, of course, crafted nostalgia. It was started in Chicago in 2003 and has since cropped up in other bourgy hotspots like Austin and San Francisco.
I might have indulgently added a paragraph here with some of my more searing moments in the booth—those comments that forced my wife to jab me in the ribs with her elbow—but taking shots at the embroidered-owl-tea-towel set just doesn’t have the impact it did before Portlandia. So thanks Fred and Carrie for stealing my thunder. You do it so well.
Because my wife wasn’t having my shtick, I wandered off through the city of tents and made like a social anthropologist for a few hours, in the process devising a crude hierarchy of crafter quality, based on degrees of transformation.
Creative Level 1 (Sedimentary): Any combination of two or more conventional images or objects that transform neither the components nor the final product. This includes eco-tote bags screenprinted with hedgehogs or bumble bees, onesies screenprinted with frogs, letterpress greeting cards and posters spelling out B-R-O-O-K-L-Y-N over a graphic of the street grid.
Creative Level 2 (Igneous): A recognizable object or image transformed into a new, distinct object or image, often characterized by the simplicity of the final form. This includes Nancy Drew books turned into memo pads, old records heat-formed into bowls and vintage beer bottles cut to become tumblers.
Creative Level 3 (Metamorphic): Material or objects transformed into another object or system of objects where the transformation is either: 1.) motivated by the material (in the Robert Morris sense) 2.) poetic/metaphorical (such as, Interventionist board games, where the rules and terms have been manipulated to better match the game’s theme…like, drawing the wrong card in the game of Life might lead to an actual cold sore) 3.) figuratively and literally transformed into a unique product (like, a telescope made out of Can’t Buy Me Love Beta Cassettes.)
Looking at all the plants potted in split Wiffle Ball bats and homemade lemonade soap and dishes formed from old Dr. Seuss books made me realize how structurally similar the craft world is to the art world. Sure, the posturing is different, but they share a creative foundation.
Jasper Johns famously said of art making, “Take an object. Do something to it and then do something else to it.”
Art, like renegade crafts, like rocks, and like enlightenment itself, is about transformation.
But a transformation to what?
Among some fish pillows made from old flannel shirts, I had a vision back to the rural, homespun version of the Renegade Craft Fair: Maxwell Street Days in Wisconsin. Also taking its origins in Chicago, from the original Maxwell Street, Days is more a flea market than a craft fair, more raw material than refined product. The last time I attended, I discovered a terrific steel drafting table in a booth run by mustachioed dude named Mike and his bang-ed wife, who, despite having a similar haircut, wouldn’t have known Zoe Deschanel from the current Under Secretary of the Interior. After chatting with Mike about hardwood and milling for twenty minutes I made him an offer on the desk and expressed my reservations about transporting the piece to the car. Mike gave me a good deal and then a hand carrying the piece out to the street, a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of beer in his back pocket the whole time—he stuck it there when he realized he needed both hands to carry the desk. The beer sloshed around as he shuffled. I remember staring at the muskellunge on his ratty tank top to avoid awkward prolonged eye contact. It occurred to me, standing on the Brooklyn waterfront last Saturday that from a crude description of this couple, one might envision them as the types who play kickball in McCarren Park on Sundays, when in fact they’d sooner be getting their sun on a pontoon boat on Lake Geneva.
The old hubcaps, worm-eaten barnwood planks and antique washboards spawned from Midwestern garages, symbolize a past that my generation considers to be more redeeming than the one we’ve inherited. The symbolic power of vintage miscellanea to artists and craftsmen is that it evokes a nostalgia and wholesomeness of the past..of our youth. But maybe more importantly of youth in general and of innocence unspoiled by self-awareness.
If Maxwell Street is the metaphorical ore for the more refined products of the Renegade Craft Fair, that guy, Mike, in his artlessness is the ore for the artists of the urban set, whose transformative Odysseys are mostly additive, while their destinations – purity, authenticity and cultural virginity – are decidedly reductive.
Indeed: take something, do something to it, then do something else. Do yoga, read Proust, paint pictures, but also: somehow find naked, raw, aching originality at the same time. That second part is more difficult for the cultivated soul.
It makes me think of Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Creative Level 4 (Precious Stones): Marked by an individual transformed from sophistication back into a pre-Creative Level 1 state of virtue (we might call it “Earth”), who has started making art from scratch, again. This includes: magical contradictions of all sorts, yet to be determined.
So, a transformation into what? It’s like that Potter Stewart quote about porn, “I’ll know it when I see it.”