Saturday, October 31, 2009

What is Character?





James Toback has just given us an incredible documentary on Mike Tyson, the youngest Heavyweight Champion to ever win the World Title. My fascination with Toback's other films, such as Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White, eventually grew into a fascination with Tyson, because Toback himself was fascinated with Tyson.

In the movie, Black and White, Tyson appears briefly, strongly contrasted by another one of Toback's favorite actors, Robert Downey Jr. It is an interesting scene between the two. Robert Downey Jr. plays a closeted homosexual and actually comes on to Tyson, who is playing himself. Tyson appears startled, afraid, and agitated by turns. Then his characteristic rage comes out, and you know he is not acting.

What is character?

There are some words in the English language that contain multitudes. And then there are some words that want to contain multitudes, but they cannot hold the weight of their meaning.

In the beginning of the documentary, Tyson is describing his relationship to Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, his first manager and trainer . . .

Tyson spent much of his early adolescence in juvenile penitentiaries. His family moved to Brownsville, NY from Brooklyn when he was ten years old, a neighborhood he describes as "gruesome" and "promiscuous". His mother died when he was sixteen years old, and Constantine D'Amato became Tyson's legal guardian.

D'Amato, in his late seventies, felt a deep affection for the young Tyson. In footage from the documentary, the older man says that the boxing prodigy gives him motivation to live. Tyson recalls his relationship with Cus:
I did everything he told me to, and I won. I won every championship at the amateur level--and I started believing in this old man . . .

I turned my whole life over to boxing. He brainwashed me so much. I was like his dog. If he told me to bite, I would bite.

It's like a father and son relationship even though he is my manager and trainer.

Cus trained me to be totally ferocious.

He spoke with me every night about discipline and character, and I knew that nobody--physically--was going to fuck with me again.
Tyson lived with the D'Amato family in a fourteen bedroom Victorian mansion in Catskill, NY. His entire focus was on becoming the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the world. He studied boxing. He practiced. He trained. Every night from the ages of 14 to 21, he watched fight films that dated back to the early days of boxing. D'Amato had a collection of them and the young Tyson would pore over the great fighters. He knew their every punch by heart.

A poignant moment in the documentary comes when Tyson is recalling what D'Amato used to tell him about the different fighters in history, and what made each of them great in their own way.
I have a great deal of respect for Cus--I believe everything he said. His word in boxing is Bible to me. When he described fighters, he talked about their good points. He talked about Jack Dempsy's ferocity, he talked about Rocky Marciano's will and dedication; when he discussed Muhammad Ali, he talked about character. He said that's the only reason why Ali is the best--because he had more character. I thought that was funny--I was a young kid. As I grew older, I realized what he meant.
Most definitions of the word "character" emphasize moral strength. But "moral strength" is only slightly less conceptually vague than the word "character". What does character really mean?

Character embraces the whole person, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Character seeps into the physical person as well, blending fluidly with the emotional, becoming habits, tics, and what we call "characteristics".

Character is the person's root in this earth, their essence day to day, and over a lifetime.

There is nothing greater than character; only destiny. And a sage once pointed to the connection between character and destiny.

Let me be concrete now. Writing this essay about character, the one you are reading right now, was not a choice for me. For days, I will go without a single igniting flame in my mind, and then, I'll watch a movie or read a passage in a book or have a conversation with a stranger, and suddenly, I must write. There are ideas wildly ringing in my ears, connections and metaphors that were not there the day before.

Writing is my form of boxing. From my earliest memories of childhood, I was writing. My father disciplined me to read classical literature and write on a regular basis. I wrote ferociously through high school and college. There was this root of my personhood that needed to be expressed in writing.

Now, I pick up electricity in the world, in the things I read, in my experiences and relationships, I pick up the current of whatever happens to be rushing though my reality in a given moment, and I express those ideas for people to read, for myself to understand. This is what the Blog of Innocence is all about. It is about bending raw, open questions into language.

But I want to try to answer this question, "What is character?" Because I believe that some of us, like Mike Tyson, have enormous talent, skill, and intelligence. Remember D'Amato's words, "Each great fighter has something different; something that makes them great."

To answer this question, I hold up two icons of boxing, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali as examples.

Mike Tyson reached the pinnacle of boxing fame before he was 21 years old. In art-world terms, he was the Basquiat, who I write about in another essay . . .

After this enormous staggering success--a result of Tyson's many years of rigid apprenticeship under Constantine D'Amato, a string of tragedies unfolded. The death of his father-figure and trainer, a divorce, a rape conviction.

Under the new circumstances of his life, Tyson could not be the same man, the same fighter. No reality is permanent; and Tyson's reality dramatically shifted into a complex web. His character was tested on a grand scale.

A boxing match provides an illuminating metaphor for spiritual fitness.

Literally, you must be healthy to fight; you must train hard; and prepare yourself.

Spiritually, the outcome of the fight depends on the strength of your character in a single moment of your life.

You may win the World Title, as Tyson did. You may win it again, and if you are lucky, another time too. People will venerate you and you will feel, as Tyson did, like you are on top of the world--

But for success to happen once or twice, for victory to occur, does not imply greater character. Character endures over time, and brings success and victory full-circle. And your greatest successes are always your future ones; because your wins keep getting bigger, more unfathomable.

But let's be honest, who can stay on top forever? Nobody can. Which is why those with the most character stand out from the crowd--and this is not the usual crowd--this is a crowd made up of Presidents, Olympic record breakers, and world champions of every stripe from chess to literature.

Lincoln. Mahatma Gandhi. Muhammad Ali. Nelson Mandella. We know them by heart, their stories are woven into our national histories.

In the world of boxing, Muhammad Ali was a three time World Heavyweight Champion, and "suffered only five losses (four decisions and one TKO by retirement from the bout) with no draws in his career, while amassing 56 wins (37 knockouts and 19 decisions)."(1)

Character.

D'Amato: "The only reason why Ali is the best--he had more character."

Now I think about my life and how quickly things change. States of emotion, my outlook, my thoughts. And, it seems, every day is different from the last one. Like Tyson, there is turmoil in my life, and I wonder if I can still fight like I once did.

How can I continue to fight?

How can I continue? This existence?

I'm not even talking about suicide. I'm talking about being unable to fight, unable to win anymore. You need character to win. You need character to fight every day, and then to do it again the next day.

We each have our struggles. We've all been on the razor's edge before . . .

But if I've learned anything from my past, it is that there is life after death. I may sink into despair because of the choices I make. I may be unable to enjoy the most basic things, sleeping, eating, loving . . .

All it takes is a series of unlucky events, like the events that destroyed Tyson's career, to knock one of us out of the ring--

But character is what lives through all of that. If the self dies a hundred times in one lifetime, if the self dies a thousand times, one's character grows with every death. It is the thread that cannot be broken.

And we remember the person by that thing which cannot die--even long after they are dead.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Story of the Stone


2. The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin

Also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, this five volume work combines a Buddhist and Taoist cosmology and an 18th century aristocratic family saga in China. At the center of the story is Bao-yu, a precocious, spoiled, and undisciplined boy and his romantic affinity to his poetry-loving, orphaned cousin, Dai-yu.

I said the The Man Without Qualities expanded my understanding of what a novel can do. The Story of the Stone did not so much expand my understanding of what a novel can do as it expanded the very world of the novel itself.

This world originates in the heavens and in myth; an intricate cosmology sets the narrative wheels in motion, and stands above the story as the explanation for it on a cosmic level.

We read at the start of the novel:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.
As an overarching theme, The Story of the Stone examines how illusion is perpetuated on earth and how it leads to suffering. The treatment of this theme begins with the myth of a magical, sentient stone that was left over from when a goddess was mending the heavens.

According to Buddhist philosophy, illusion is caused by attachment--the mental and emotional clinging to things, people, places, ideas, etc. The novel uses romantic attachment as an analogy for all attachment; and throughout the course of the 3,000 pages, gives a fictional account of the working of karma.

The mythic portion of the book, the opening frame, takes place in the Land of Illusion. Here the magical Stone grows infatuated with a Crimson Petal Flower. The Stone waters the flower every day until she suddenly transforms into a fairy girl. But this transformation contains the seeds of suffering because now the fairy girl feels a debt to the Stone for transforming her. She vows to live in the mortal realm in order to pay off her "debt of tears", one drop at at time.



From the supernatural world, the narrative shifts to the mortal realm. Now we find a recognizable novel and a story-world that reminds one of a Jane Austen or George Elliot novel. Literary critics often refer to The Story of the Stone as "novel of manners".

The domestic drama takes place in the Jia family mansion. The Jias are portrayed as wealthy and prosperous with ties to the royal court. Soon it becomes clear, however, that the power and wealth of the Jia family is more a thing of the past. Plagued with marital problems and financial loses, the men of the family are no longer able to govern the household. The position of authority is taken up by Grandmother Jia, an energetic, eccentric, and discerning woman, who places her affection on the younger generation. Grandmother Jia's authority in the Jia house demonstrates a reversal of the Confucian value-system, and provides the first evidence of the family's social and financial decline.

In 1958, Kenneth Rexroth wrote about the novel,
It is the Chinese plot of plots: “When women rule, the house decays.” Again, it is exactly the opposite: a glorification of the hidden matriarchy at the heart of Chinese society.
My experience of reading Stone was like watching a play. But you have to re-imagine the size of the theatre if you are going to compare the novel to a play. The cast is huge, and even the bit players, servants, maids, and extended relatives, are given lengthy sections and whole chapters. The day-to-day life of the wealthy, but now strained Jia house, has an incredible verisimilitude. We are watching the theatre of the "real" in contrast to the myth of "illusion" which opens the novel. How these two facets interpenetrate each other through narrative art is testament to the author's genius.

Recall the couplet under the gateway between the mundane world and the Land of Illusion:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.


Not only does Cao Xueqin choose the largest canvas (metaphysics, myth), but he also imbues his canvas with the greatest detail. There is an abundance of physical detail, descriptions of clothing, architecture, ritual objects; historical accuracy; and genealogical detail. But there is also a high degree of psychological detail and development. It appears as if literary modernism occurred two hundred years earlier, and in China. A stream of consciousness pervades The Story of the Stone, moving between five to ten characters within a matter of chapters, floating in and out of their mental worlds, as Joyce does in Ulysess.

The Jia household can be divided into two separate spheres--adults and children. You can further divide the spheres between male and female. Many scenes in the novel involve the management of the household by the female, adult sphere. The male sphere exists on the periphery, aloof. Abusive fathers, wastrels, and licentious husbands are generally shown as disrupting the harmony of the inner court.

The inner court is where the children play and have their garden. Most of the second volume of the novel is about the children, who are really precocious young adults. The central story revolves around a love triangle between the youngest male member of the Jia family, Bay-yu, his orphan cousin, Dai-yu, and the girl he is expected to marry, Bao-chai. Their biggest diversion is composing poetry--they even start a poetry club--and the second volume of the novel contains all of the poems they draft together in the garden.

In her critical work, Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone, Dore Jesse Levy writes:
The Story of the Stone presents a poetic view of life, written so that the reader experiences the narrative in the way that one experiences lyric poetry. The plot is organized not as a unified, dynamic temporal sequence but as a sequence of lyric vignettes, each potentially a complete moment of insight beyond self-awareness, when the self is laid aside and integrated with the moment of lyric transcendence.
The narrative is continuously interwoven with poetry and poetic fragments. I didn't know the importance of the literary tradition in China until I read this novel. Literary education was highly valued among the aristocracy and it occupied their leisure time as a form of entertainment; riddles, literary trivia, and the sheer activity of composing poems on a regular basis. One of the features of the garden compound is that a couplet adorns each building, stream, and bower.

I'll leave you with one of the poems from the first volume, entitled 'Garden Nights'.
I. SPRING

Behind silk hangings, in warm quilts cocooned,
His ears half doubt the frogs' first muted sound.
Rain at his window strikes, the pillow's cold;
Yet to the sleeper's eyes spring dreams unfold.
Why does the candle shed its waxen tear?
Why on each flower do angry drops appear?
By uncouth din of giggling maids distressed
He burrows deeper in his silken nest.

II. SUMMER

A tired maid sleeps at her embroidery.
A parrot in its gilt cage calls for tea.
Pale moonbeams on an opened mirror fall,
And burning sandal makes a fragrant pall.
From amber cups thirst-quenching nectar flows.
A willow-breeze through crystal curtains blows.
In pool-side kiosks light-clad maidens flit,
Or, dressed for bed, by open casements sit.

III. AUTUMN

In Red Rue Study, far from worldly din,
Through rosy gauze moonlight comes flooding in.
Outside, a stork sleeps on moss-wrinkled rocks,
And dew from well-side trees the crow's wing soaks.
A maid the great quilt's golden bird has sread;
Her languid master droops his raven head.
Wine-parched and sleepless, in the still night he cries
For tea, and soon thick smoke and steam arise.

IV. WINTER

Midnight and winter: plum with bamboo sleeps,
While one midst Indian rugs his vigil keeps.
Only a crane outside is to be found -
No orioles now, though white flowers mask the ground.
Chill strikes the maid's bones through her garments fine;
Her fur-clad master's somewhat worse for wine;
But, in tea-making mysteries deep-skilled,
She has with new-swept snow the kettle filled.

This post is part of a series of posts on
25 Profound Works of Literary Genius.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Man Without Qualities


1. The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil

This book expanded my understanding of what a novel can do. As a writer, there has been no greater influence.

I've read it three times from beginning to end, and I return to passages regularly. The Man Without Qualities is a three volume work, left unfinished at the author's death. The serial chapters continually open up the novel to new possibilities and new story-lines. Musil calls this the "open architecture" of the book.

The titles of the chapters read as follows:
From which, remarkably enough, nothing develops

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility

In a weak moment Ulrich acquires a new mistress

A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation
The chapters are short, often digressive, and typically witty. The plot is less important. More important is the vivid characterization and the novelistic treatment of "history".

This reviewer sums up the novel quite nicely:
On the one hand, Musil offers a highly entertaining satirical portrait of Austria-Hungary right before the First World War. His detached hero Ulrich meets all kinds of bizarre people, who happen to be members of the ruling class of the country. Like a vivisecteur, Ulrich analyzes the philosophies and ideologies of his time. On the other hand, he dreams of a kind of new mysticism, an emotional purity that is opposed to the dross surrounding him; together with his sister he embarks on quest for 'the other state of being'.
The narrator of the Musil's opus, Ulrich, a mathematics professor with a bent for philosophy, has a charisma and intelligence that is hard to resist. He's the supreme objective observer and the supreme subjectivist at the same time. You feel as though you are listening in on the thoughts of the most brilliant man on earth.

Musil's motto was "Soul and Precision." This statement applies to life and art, and it implies the harmony and synthesis of the logical, analytical faculty of the mind, and the emotional, spiritual soul of the individual. "Soul and Precision" runs through the three volume work as a motif in the narrative and as a philosophy behind the writing about the writing.

While the work contains elements of satire, there is a real force of sincerity and earnestness about it. The narrator is not merely mocking the ruling class of Austria-Hungry, but also seriously trying to understand people's motives and eccentricities.

The world, according to Ulrich, may be absurd; but it is not worthless. There is still a mystery to be sought after, a spiritual reality. . .


Deep philosophical reflection is embedded within highly-visual, almost hallucinatory scenes. These scenes are filled with lively characters and charged by a kinetic, quasi-mystical language.

Here is an example from the chapter entitled, "Clarisse and Her Demons":
The next instant, Clarisse and Walter were off like two locomotives racing side by side. The piece they were playing came rushing at their eyes like flashing rails, vanished under the thundering engine, and spread out behind them as a ringing, resonant, marvelously present landscape. In the course of this ride these two people's separate feelings were compressed into a single entity; hearing, blood, muscles, were all swept along irresistibly by the same experience; shimmering, bending, curving walls of sound forced their bodies onto the same track, bent them as one, and expanded and contracted their chests in the same breath. In a fraction of a second, gaiety, sadness, anger, and fear, love and hatred, desire and satiety, passed through Walter and Clarisse. They became one, just as in a great panic hundreds of people who a moment before had been distinct in every way suddenly make the same flailing movements of flight, utter the same senseless screams, their gaping mouths and staring eyes the same, all swept backward and forward, left and right, by the same aimless force, howling, twitching, tangling, trembling. But this union did not have the same dull, overwhelming force as life itself, where this kind of thing does not happen so easily, although it blots out everything personal when it does. The anger, love, joy, gaiety, and sadness that Clarisse and Walter felt in their flight were not full emotions but little more than physical shells of feelings that had been worked up into a frenzy. They sat stiffly in a trance on their little stools, angry, in love, or sad, at nothing, with nothing, about nothing, or each of them at, with, about something else, thinking and meaning different things of their own; the dictate of music united them in the highest passion, yet at the same time it left them with something absent, as in the compulsive sleep of hypnosis.
It's clear from this passage that Robert Musil had a gift for conjuring the emotional states of human beings, and with his remarkable command of the language, he approaches metaphysical description, the territory between feeling and God (or spirit).

The translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is the authoritative one, but I'd like to add that I first read a translation of The Man without Qualities by a translator who I no longer have the name of, but found the same, incandescent experience while reading--and in some cases--more profound. I wish I knew the name of this translator. It's been said that Musil translates well into English, but the original language is German, and there is probably a major gulf between the poetry of the original and the translated versions.

If a three volume work seems too daunting, you might want to check out Musil's first novel, Young Torless. This is an easier book to read, more compact and digestible.
This post is part of a series of posts on 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius.

Image Credit: Musil Illustration

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

25 Profound Works of Literary Genius

I'm about to embark on a series of posts that introduce 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius.

Originally, I planned to provide readers with an enormous list all at once; and I had 50 works on the list instead of 25!

As I started to think more deeply about these books, and write about them, I realized there was too much material for one post.

As Thoreau wisely remarks:
The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them.
And so, regaining some perspective on the project, I've decided on a manageable 25. If the posts are a success, and I'm still passionate about my undertaking, I may do another 25.

About the list:

I've specifically chosen works that have affected me deeply. In some cases, these works altered my reality, life, or existence in general.

Many of the books and short stories, I've read more than once. This is literature that can be both enjoyed and appreciated for its aesthetic value.

I'm also avoiding works that tend to show up on every great books list. You will recognize some of these titles, but hopefully not all of them. The purpose of the list is to introduce some lesser known masterpieces.

With that said, the first profound work of literary genius is Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities.

Note: This series of posts will be interwoven with my usual posts on art, culture, and life.

The List Thus Far


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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mother of Pearl

Man Ray (Emmanual Radnitzky) (American, 1890-1976), Nancy Cunard, 1928
If you're looking for love in a looking glass world, it's pretty hard to find. --Bryan Ferry

I've fallen in love with an older woman. I can't tell you much more than that.

There is a song by Roxy Music called "Mother of Pearl". This song has enthralled me for many, many years . . . and every time I listen to Bryan Ferry's histrionic voice, every time I hear the tempo changes and rollicking rifts, I illuminate from inside out.

I glow from this music and I cannot explain why.

Like a personal anthem, the song speaks directly to me, encompassing my reality. The music is fantastic, but it's the near-perfect fusion of lyrical poetry and transcendent Rock 'n Roll that gives me euphoria.

You know, I could never get to the bottom of "Mother of Pearl." It kept me guessing into my late twenties.

The language, always enchanting, mystical . . . funneled through electric sound. There were lines that eluded me.

I didn't have the experiences to match the words.

But I felt the meaning of the song in my bones.

Because of this mystique, I retained a heard-for-the-first-time experience every time I pressed play.

We make meaning out of poems, and "Mother of Pearl" is a poem.

At first, you find the smaller pearls strung together on chords and in between lines; only later--if you are lucky--do you find the mother pearl.

This song explains my trials in love, my delusions, and my late-blooming revelations.

Salvador Dali (Spanish, 1904-1989), Mae West's face which may be Used as a Surrealist Apartment, 1934/35

Mother Of Pearl

Turn the lights down Way down low
Turn up the music Hi as fi can go
All the gang's here Everyone you know
It's a crazy scene Hey there just look over your shoulder oo oo
Get the picture? No no no no....Yes

Walk a tightrope Your life sign line
Such a bright hope Right place, right time
What's your number? Never you mind
Take a powder But hang on a minute what's coming round the corner, ooh.. oo oo
Have you future? No no no no....Yes

Well I've been up all night.. Again?
Party time wasting
Is too much fun

Then I step back thinking
Of life's inner meaning
And my latest fling

It's the same old story
All love and glory
It's a pantomime

If you're looking for love
In a looking glass world
It's pretty hard to find

Oh Mother of Pearl, I wouldn't trade you for another girl

Divine intervention
Always my intention
So I take my time

I've been looking for something
I've always wanted
But was never mine

But now I've seen that something
Just out of reach, glowing
Very Holy Grail

Oh Mother of Pearl, lustrous lady of a sacred world

Thus, even Zarathustra
Another time loser
Could believe in you

With every goddess a let down
Every idol a bring down
It gets you down

But the search for perfection
Your own predilection
Goes on and on and on and on

Canadian club love
A place in the country
Everyone's ideal

But you are my favorita
And a place in your heart dear
Makes me feel more real

Oh Mother of Pearl I wouldn't change you for the whole world

You're highbrow, holy
With lots of so
Melancholy shimmering

Serpentine sleekness
Was always my weakness
Like a simple tune

But no dilettante
Filigree fancy
Beats the plastic you

Career girl cover
Exposed and another
Slips right into view

Oh looking for love
In a looking glass world
Is pretty hard for you

Few throw away kisses
The boomerang misses
Spins round and round

Fall on feather bed quilted
Faced with silk
Softly stuffed eider down

Take refuge in pleasure
Just give me your future
We'll forget your past

Oh Mother of Pearl
Submarine lover
In a shrinking world

Oh lonely dreamer
Your choker provokes
A picture of cameo

Oh Mother of Pearl
So, so semiprecious
In your detached world

Oh Mother of Pearl I wouldn't trade you for another girl (repeat)



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Monday, October 5, 2009

Olaf Hajek and the Illustration Masters


When it comes to art, I have a bias towards the vividly imaginative. Certain illustrative works are windows into childlike worlds, where color, whimsy, and spirits abound. The separation between fine art and illustration is growing smaller. We can look to Henry Darger's oeuvre, a collection of 15 separate manuscripts, each 145 pages--with hundreds of drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the stories--as the point at which illustration becomes fine art. Today, master illustrators such as Olaf Hajek, are being recognized for their art in publications such as L├╝rzer's Archive 200 Best Illustrator's Worldwide.

Well-known galleries are increasingly representing illustrators and comic book artists. One of my favorite contemporary art galleries is the Adam Baumgold Gallery. Baumgold sells the astounding graphite on paper works by John Borowicz, the comic art of Charles Burns (author of the graphic novel, Black Hole), the ink on paper works by Rene French, and various other examples of contemporary art that reside in the territory between illustration and traditional fine art.

Hajek's works stand on their own as fine art. They do not need the context of the magazine or publication to illuminate them. There is a prevailing style that is characteristically Hajek, and each illustration is a full composition. Particularly, I like the fine-lined figures that evoke the artwork of a child. At the same time, however, Hajek's art reflects a sophistication of design, in which fantasy elements and real-life elements are brought together into harmony. Objects in the illustrations are full of life-affirming beauty, and yet the scenes also give way to esoteric mystery.


What is the future of illustration? I see illustration as gaining importance to fine art collectors. Our world, which is entrenched in images, is best represented by these image-centric illustrations. You need not look far on the Internet to see what our visual culture has become. We consume images daily, identify with them, avatar them, collect them, bookmark them, put them on our iPhones and screen savers; in short, we decorate our lives with them. But know that these illustrations are not merely decorative. They are imaginative works that add a level of depth and mystery to our lives.

Master illustrators such as Olaf Hajek are emerging as a new breed of contemporary fine artists. Their art plays with the boundaries between high and low, pushes the threshold between comics and paintings, challenges the division between commercial and personal work. We are seeing it now, as illustrators display their works on the Internet by the thousands. Their vividly imaginative renderings create the visual diversity of the web, and in the process, make our experience of web-surfing even more delightful. How wonderful it is to come across the fanciful images of an unknown illustrator. It feels like a true discovery.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Vintage Photographs: 1890-1900















Famous Authors:
Oscar Wilde
Henrik Ibsen
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Anton Chekov

All of these photographs were found in 100 Years Ago: The Glorious 1890's by Diana Claitor

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Reflecting on Basquiat

I watched Basquiat, the movie, last night. A couple weeks ago I posted some of the artist's work on this blog. I knew about him, and had seen snatches of his paintings before. But I didn't know the story behind his life . . . . which the movie clearly portrays.

As an artist, Basquiat interests me from the point of view of direct, unmediated expression. Whereas many artists strive for an ideal in their work, whether it is technical or visionary, Basquiat seemed intimately related with the underlying surface of the self.

This is not the projected self, the idealized version of the self, but the scars. This is not the articulate, polished meanings of the self, but the cryptic messages and uncoded symbols.

My immediate emotion after watching the film was sadness.

How is it that a certain narrative comes to define a person's life? I am very interested in this. The person becomes defined by their story, and after their death, it seems, the retelling of the story replaces the person.

For Basquiat, it is the story of his rise to fame in the art world at a young age; his descent into heavy drug use; and the looming question of whether he was being exploited.

From a book review in the New York Times in 1998, "Hyped to Death":
Their (Warhol and Basquiat's) joint show at Tony Shafrazi's gallery in September 1985 was a glittering media event, followed by a wild, noisy party at the Palladium, but the show itself drew universal pans. ''Everything . . . is infused with banality,'' one critic wrote. ''The real question is, who is using whom here?"
From the second chapter of the book, Basquiat: A Quick Killing:
According to a friend, painter Arden Scott, "Basquiat was intent upon being a mainstream artist. He didn't want to be a black artist. He wanted to be a famous artist."

But Basquiat's celebrity owes more than a little to an almost institutionalized reverse-racism that set him apart from his peers as an art-world novelty. Says Kinshasha Conwill, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, "Race will remain into the foreseeable future a major and usually unfortunate, issue. The fact is, it was anomalous to be an African-American and get that kind of attention for his art. Other people did exploit his race and try to make him an exotic figure."
And so these unavoidable themes come to define Basquiat as we know him now--as we see him portrayed in movies, as we read about him . . .

The artist by nature is a unique individual. We are all "unique individuals" but the artist expresses this individuality, gives it a language, a palette, a series of recurring images.

Baquiat had the same dreams that many of us have, to be recognized for our talents, to be visible--

But in realizing these dreams, in becoming recognized or famous, your life changes, your environment changes--

I relate to Baquiat. While I lived in Spain, I took drugs every night for six months and filled pages in a notebook until my fingers could no longer scrawl sentences. I never left my room, except to buy drugs and Chinese food. I lived in a pensione in Madrid all by myself--I know what this manic drive feels like, this ambitious mania to create . . .

Some artists are able to move between two worlds. Some artists are able to live in the rational, adult world, and the realm of childhood. The later realm is where the artist thrives. The later realm is the oxygen of the artist. But oftentimes, children are destructive. They are destructive to themselves and to others. When we abandon ourselves to fancy, to the imagination, to dreams, we often lose our way back to reality.

In adolescence, for example, during the time I mentioned living in Spain, I wanted to be a novelist. If you've ever read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, I wanted to be Miller in that novel.

This is how I would've turned out if I followed the manic, drug-strewn path of the artist. Of course, not every artist takes drugs; I'm drawing parallels here to Basquiat.

A writer must employ the rational mode of argument. A fiction writer is still to some degree confined by logic and the credibility of her tale. A visual artist, less so.

The writer appeals to emotion, like the artist. But she does not rely entirely on emotion just as she does not rely entirely on logic. To construct sentences one must have at least one foot in the rational universe. The painter, the poet, less so. The artist can fully embrace the realm of childhood, can totally disregard the rational, adult world. In short, the artist can become a servant of her imagination.

With Basquiat, we see the picture of a young man who was easily able to live in this imaginary world. He could create paintings that conveyed a direct engagement with the imagination. His paintings weren't rational. They were full of emotions, color, expression, and character.

All of us have been in this realm of the imagination before. We lived there as children, and as adults, we all visit there on occasion. You follow a line and see where it goes . . . this is the mindset. You bring two or more things together onto the same page. You create new relations to things.

I loved the scene in the movie where Christopher Walken, playing the character of a journalist, interviews Basquiat in his studio. Walken asks Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) what the scrawls on his paintings mean. He says, "Can you decipher this for us?"

Basquiat: "Decipher? Just words."

Walken: "Yes, I understand. But who's words are they? Where do you take them from?"

Basquiat: "I don't know. Would you ask a musician, like would you ask Miles, 'Where did you get that note from?' I mean, where do you take your words from?"

Walken: Right.

Basquiat: Everywhere.


The originality of a work of art does not exist in a vacuum. Art like language is reused, recycled, and reinvented.

Originality is not so much a new entity as it is old elements in a new relation.

We see something new, something original, but really what we are seeing is a new relation.

The artist is the inventor of new contexts, not new things.

Not only was Baquiat's work original at the time, but the artist himself, as an African-American, was unique to the art establishment.

But is fame acceptance? Is recognition, the right recognition?

All of us dream of these things, we seek visibility in our own environments and in the greater environment. But to be unique is to be alone, and to be recognized as unique, is to be even more alone.

There is a yin and a yang to success. Sages have known it for centuries. Success breeds disappointment; failure is never too far away from success.

Whether you are an artist, a writer, a poet or a musician, you cannot stay popular forever. If you achieve fame in your lifetime, there is a good chance nobody will remember you after you die. Success is never a permanent deal. Even Shakespeare has been criticized as a literary figure! We are not gods. We are people.

Society either ignores the artist's expression, or affirms it. But when an artist is living, and society recognizes them, the artist becomes even more set apart from that society than she was to begin with.

Now the artist is not only unique, but also viewed as unique. This magnification has a huge psychological impact on a person and their subsequent behaviors.

The death of Dash Snow is a just a recent variation of this theme as it relates to drugs, art, and fame.

It happens to artists who cannot separate themselves from society's view of them. But who can? Look at how absurd famous people act; they become distorted in the mirror constantly held up to them.

Detachment under these circumstances would be a saintly thing if one could ever attain it. Many novelists, like J.D. Salinger, flee from society altogether.

When success comes, we naturally want to embrace it, to take it as the last word. But identifying with our success in one moment only leads to a more precarious existence. The minute public opinion shifted concerning Basquiat's prowess as a young painter, he was deeply affected.

My whole life, which is thirty years, I've been trying to describe to the world who I am. I've been trying to define myself.

If I were to let anyone else define me, even if that definition were flattering, I would essentially lose my grasp on a life-long quest. This is what happens to artists who become cannibalized by their fame. They stop defining themselves; society begins to define them.

The respect we achieve from our peers, and from the world around us, is based on this simple fact. Self-definition is the highest form of integrity.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Best Moleskine Art of 2009

















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