Posts Tagged ‘Everyday Aesthetics’

SpongeBob And The Angels

October 23, 2013

The reports out of AP and others is that Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati has evicted a monument of SpongeBob SquarePants after originally admitting it, claiming it to be inappropriate. The legal argument (of course) pivots on a cemetery being like a condominium, though anyone who has visited one will attest that no one is living there – the cemetery, that is. Now the grieving are really aggrieved. Monuments are forever. No peace to be found in Spring Grove until this enduring dilemma is resolved.

In a 6-16-13 post entitled Punctum, All Of The Noose That Is Knot considered Eric S. Jenkins’ insights on a Barthesian Punctum within animation. Setting aside Barthes’ obvious corollary of mortality applicable to Spring Grove, what Jenkins had to say on a different matter creates some genuinely eternal concerns. “The punctum of animation, although likewise a punctum of “Time,” is about life rather than death… Jones [famed Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones] might depict the character moving and expressing, but Bugs lives beyond the drawings. This child expresses animation’s punctum, sensing as alive that which exists only as image.” (Critical Inquiry Vol. 39 No. 3 pg. 585) This last line likewise could be used to describe an angel, of which there are probably a considerable number adorning monuments throughout most cemeteries. The Walkers, whose daughter Kimberly the monument is meant to commemorate, now may have recourse on aesthetic and cultural grounds. “Animation, animated subjects do not exist, have never been, share our world and experience only through the image, nothing more.” (this blog’s 6-16-13 post, Punctum). As much could be said for angels, though many, like the child recounted by Chuck Jones, actually see and believe in their actuality. This brings up an even gnarlier quagmire than the often related joke about Catholics in heaven (will anyone of another faith be there?). If our cemeteries are “populated” by what comprises our democracy (though strictly prohibited from being able to cast a vote by our boards of election), who determines the aesthetic, cultural appropriateness of commemorations to be found there?

Spring Grove's Eternal SpongeBob

Spring Grove’s Eternal SpongeBob

Life Is Short

August 26, 2013

Life is short, so one should enjoy it. Life is short, so one should find meaning in it. These two admonitions create a certain tension. Much continental philosophy and aesthetic theory reflects this tension within their discourse. Enjoyment seems to be not enough for a satisfying aesthetic experience. Meaning, as the basis of action and philosophy, elides the mundane, the everyday, the material.

Karl Marx was born in 1818; Ralph Waldo Emerson 15 years earlier. Emerson died in 1882; Marx a year later (roughly as contemporary as Mick Jagger and Jon Bon Jovi). Charles Darwin was a fellow rock star (1809-1882). Both Marx and Emerson were influenced by Hegel and his writings, philosophy and approach. It is hard to believe that Darwin did not know of Hegel. Volumes have been written on these contemporaries. Nothing new here. Suffice to say Emerson evolved Hegel different than Marx. Marx threw out the “spirit” aspect of meaning and replaced it by what makes for meaning within the capitalist status quo of the time – material. Emerson, perhaps much more cognizant of actual human bondage (than Marx) because of his everyday experience of living in a land where humans were considered material within the capitalist status quo (could be bought, sold and treated legally as property), focused on the “spirit” aspect, but without necessarily discarding the material. We all think we know what is attributed to Marx re: religion, but no memory permeates today of Emerson’s disposition to material, what makes for physical experience.

Capitalism’s emphasis on the material as fundamental to value (and meaning) differs little from Marx’s emphasis on the material as fundamental to value and meaning. The how’s and the why’s may differ but the material as foundational does not. Materialism determines value and meaning with either. In that they are brothers. Within continental philosophy this fraternal relationship seems to surface and reify with the thought and production of Guy DeBord and his Society of the Spectacle. The ultimate evolution of this affinity of meaning and value is found with Baudrillard’s writing on our culture, and simulacra (with regard to the values and meaning of materialism expressed as such). Emerson finds meaning and value with what is not tangible. Within his writing he advocates that what is not tangible has a bearing on the conduct of life and the determination of meaning. Early within his essay “The Poet” he writes “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (again the Hegelian influence?). From DeBord and Baudrillard we associate expression today with material – material presence and the material being that accompanies “having”. Even the meaning and value of words and language changes within the hegemony of materialism. Emerson is also known for having been a poet, part of his appreciation and valorization of language (in a Marxist sense?). Language as material, maybe not, but as a material (sensual) experience, for sure, for sure. And therein lies the separation from the tension of continental philosophy, of meaning and enjoyment. For Emerson, to enjoy produces meaning. Within the materialist disposition (capitalist or socialist), the meaning that is material (that material “is”) does not necessarily correlate with or produce enjoyment (Jay Leno may have a lot of “stuff”, but is that what brings joy to his life?). Life is short. One should enjoy it as that is the only way to find meaning within the short span. But what brings joy? For Emerson, this was a (and “the”) philosophic question, something to be considered critically. It would be presumptuous (and flippant) to give the knee jerk answer as a distraction, past time, religious conviction or addiction. Joy for Emerson isn’t automatic, predetermined or guaranteed, but rather involves the half of a person that is not “his expression.”

Jury Duty!

February 14, 2013

The legal summons that must be honored, even if only to petition exception. Standing in an overcrowded room full of homogenous strangers, most seated and self-absorbed, some reading magazines or books, the entirety quieter than any school library during exam week. And all so fashionably retro! Electronic appliances, like cell phones or tablets, are strictly verboten in the halls of jurisprudence. The bailiff walked in and activated a locally produced instructional video about the court, the jury, and civil and criminal law. He exited to the electronically starved masses becoming immediately mesmerized with the staged performance of real life Perry Mason. Peeking out from under the TV judges’ robes were ties, the defendant wore a tie, the male prosecutors were arrayed in ties, the male jurors also wore ties. The video male bailiff was sporting a tie. The women lawyers and jurors were dressed to impress, bejeweled in their finest Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Scanning the video’s captive real life audience, not a tie in the bunch, not a single gussied up femme fatale, not an iota of bling. Primarily that “everyday” casual look, witnessed at any Walmart or Home Depot. The video started to loop again with nary a conscientious citizen daring to intervene. Finally the not made for TV bailiff (wearing a suit and tie) returned, soon after followed by the carefully groomed and fashionably correct clerk. She announced the entrance of the robed but with tie prominently displayed judge. He in turn announced the defendant had just pleaded guilty, there would be no trial, we could all go home. Filing out of the room we faced our collective raison d’etre there in the hall, wearing a Rasputin-like soviet blouse (just a neck and arm holes in what could have passed for a blue sack), arms hand cuffed to a thick leather belt that wasn’t made to support loose pajama style pants, ankles shackled together over a pair of steel grey crocs.

The Wisdom Of The Ancients

January 24, 2013

This morning, reaching outside the door for another piece of firewood, I heard the steady thump, thump, thump of water dripping off the roof onto an overturned bucket. Strange… The third week of January has just passed, it is 14 degrees outside and the sun is bright, but bright enough to turn the roof’s snow to water?
I’ve never cared for winter. It brings out the vulnerabilities which retrieves the perverse nostalgia of realizing the painful struggles with winter in my youth. But the dripping from the roof also brings out vulnerability concerns, not some poetic hope of spring. You see, according to 30+ years of bee keeping, it is right on schedule with what I have been experiencing in terms of global warming. No, it’s not the arctic melting away to the joy of Shell oil, and consternation of naturalists. It is the very real impact that this is having on us all, only in small increments, unnoticed in the everyday. Back in the late 70’s, the “wake up” period for bees, trees, etc. was at the start of February. Since then it has slowly crept up so that most things are happening almost two weeks earlier than then, and lasting a good two weeks later in the fall. The dripping is right on schedule. There’s less stopping the sun now than previously. We’re very vulnerable, and no one is paying attention. Yeah, in the back of everyone’s mind is that global warming will effect us all and change everything to our detriment. But it is filed there along with smoking is bad for you, cholesterol is detrimental, obesity ought to be avoided, texting and driving don’t mix, etc. As the experts point out, climate change (like honey badger) don’t care; it will effect us all, rich or poor, republican or democrat, Christian or Muslim. I’ve never cared for winter but I’m a little concerned about what a year without winter will be like in Ohio.
You know, the ancients were on to something. All over the world are architecturally excavated/built sites where ancient people created structure that aligned astronomical phenomena with constructed edifice. The “experts” tell us this was for religious reasons, “art”, or as calendars to determine planting times, etc. Yet it is undeniable that an effort was made, and a considerable one at that, to integrate what was going on “out there” with what is going on “down here”. The denizens of these sites couldn’t help but notice. The constructed site was part of their everyday. We enlightened inhabitants of the 21st century would do well to pay attention to the ancients’ fait accompli. We believe that by putting ourselves “out there” (with the likes of the space station, Hubble telescope, Mars’ robots, etc.), by being “out there”, we don’t need to concern ourselves about the effect the “out there” has on the “down here”.

Home Is Where The Heart Is They Tell Me

September 18, 2011

            Disruptive innovation theory – “Disruption is a positive force. It is the process by which an innovation transforms a market whose services or products are complicated and expensive into one where simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability characterize the industry.” (Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, pg. 11)

            Occasionally, over the years, a dream recurs and puzzles my analysis. The format is similar, generally involving going, being in transit, either as in moving from one location to another or reviewing some situation (from where it once involved me to where it is evolving). In all of these there is an overriding sense of familiarity and certainty with what is involved – the environment, terrain or object of the dream. There is likewise some impediment, rearrangement or complication that familiarity (and certainty) would deem prevents a conclusion (the neighborhood has evolved, the road has been rerouted, or ownership has shifted). The sense of it has proved evasive because there is so much certainty and familiarity of all the elements involved. It is not so much a sense of frustration, as nothing is attempted to be achieved, retrieved or ascertained within the dream. Rather, it is more about a long term, slow moving kind of anxiety; an anxiety that is accumulated rather than precipitated.

            This is the dream of old age, the reliance on the familiar not in the everyday mundane sense but rather in the psychological sense, that the familiar is how we relate to our expectations, anticipations, values, etc. These were all established, determined, originated yesterday. When we are young, the expectations, anticipations, and values are coexistent and coextensive with the (contemporary) time of their fulfillment. As we age, the expectations, anticipations, values, etc. are more familiar to us than the changing contemporary where their fulfillment can only be met. Not that the fulfillment can’t be met, only the fulfillment must likewise follow changing anticipations, expectations, values, etc. When these subjective abstractions do not undergo change (do not become un-familiar), then what is being desired to be fulfilled (the expectations, anticipations, values, etc.) remain only those with which we are familiar. Hence the dream of not being able to connect with what one is so certain of, so familiar with. Cliché may be that one can never go home, but both home and expectations, anticipations, and the value of home change.

            In an analogous manner, Ranciere’s account of what makes for the expectations, anticipation, valuation of a work of art within the contemporary was formulated yesterday. That formulation did not evolve. Rather, it is continuously clarified and ascertained. In short, as the years sneak by it becomes more and more familiar and certain. The art of the contemporary, which so seamlessly accommodated the theory at its inception, today finds impediments, rerouting and impossibility. Evolving innovations in “new” technology de facto produce an art avant garde. This group’s familiarity and certainty with regard to what “creates” innovative art immediately dates them, makes them old. To be “at home” with the avant garde is to be at heart continuously in a state of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Such is the consequences of “new” within art. How this differs from Yuriko Saito’s Everyday Aesthetics!

What’s In Your Pantheon Of Gods?

August 8, 2011

            Borat intrigued and repelled. Something about the mimicry wasn’t “just right”. Quirky. Yeah, ‘quirky’, that’s the new aesthetic term that appeared in the eighties re: pop music and visual art. Now, ‘quirky’ is understood by all as an aesthetic adjective. You’d think that after 20 years of exposé political documentaries folks in social service agencies would recognize bogus pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes. After all, this is the age of information. But no, ‘quirky’ as part of the popular aesthetic acts to counter just such recognition. What’s going on with Borat and the influence of ‘quirky’ to perpetuate antique Candid Camera within multi-culturalism?

            Jean-Pierre Vernant’s essay Semblance of Pandora: Imitation and Identity (Critical Inquiry Vol. 37 No. 3) contributes some interesting insights on ‘quirky’ and its questionably legitimate hold on today’s aesthetic. Vernant’s essay reaches way back into his specialty, classical Greek culture. He illuminates a mimicry that is performative. Modernism embraces the mimicry of Plato’s original model and the copy being like the model. “Modeling” is part of the lexicon of the current scientific culture and language, though not in the strict sense introduced by Plato. Vernant speaks of a different sense that the Greeks would have immediately recognized. It is the sense whereby the copy inspires conviction on the basis of the performance. As he puts it: “imitation (mimesis) essentially plays on the relation between two terms: the one who shows himself, puts himself on display, and the one who sees, who observes – the actor who mimes, the spectators who look at him.” (Pg. 415). What makes for a successful copy is the grace of god, or in the case of the Greeks, the gods. Without the qualities found embodied by the various gods, the performance falls short and becomes godless (without quality). The Greeks would have understood that well enough as the gods embodied qualities, were the qualities, whereas mere mortals only could aspire to be really good copies. If humans actually embodied these qualities, they would be immortal and the gods didn’t take kindly to competition. This outlook would be similar to comparing Angelina Jolie (as a kind of Aphrodite) with a homeless woman of the same physical composition. Were the homeless woman to be gifted by the gods with the qualities of beauty, poise, etc. her mimesis of Angelina would be applauded. Without the grace of the gods, she is marginalized and overlooked, without quality, though in the Platonic sense her features and physical characteristics are “like” the original. This grace could also be considered comparable to the talent and abilities of impersonators who sound and voice a political or celebrity figure with uncanny accuracy though they look not at all like the impersonated individual. In his book Mimesis and Alterity: a particular history of the senses, Michael Taussig presents mimesis as a form of knowledge for natives that were colonized by Europeans well into the 20th century (and beyond?). Although a cliché, “Knowledge is power”, for Taussig the aboriginal inhabitants of various locations considered their mimicry of the whites as somehow usurping the power of the colonizer’s culture (“This notion of the copy, in magical practice, affecting the original to such a degree that the representation shares or acquires the properties of the represented.” Pg. 47-48). Yet much of what Taussig notes continues to dog Plato (“…[W]e have mimesis based on quite imperfect but nevertheless (so we must presume) very effective copying that acquires the power of the original- a copy that is not a copy, but a “poorly executed ideogram,” as Henri Huberl and Marcel Maus…put it… Pg. 17). The “objects” given as examples come across as rather quirky though they are “very effective copying”. Vernant fills this gap within Taussig’s fine book. The native craftsman and shaman’s were unfamiliar with the European pantheon of gods necessary to create a successful copy in the western cultural sense, an un-quirky, ‘graceful’ copy. Vernant points out that for a successful copy to be produced (an un-quirky one) the spectator (as well as the performer) must be familiar with the pantheon of gods and the uniqueness of their graces. Within our contemporary aesthetic, ‘quirky’ is a carte blanche dismissal of any need for familiarity or intimacy with any particular, individual pantheon of gods. Considering such a sense of ‘quirky’, social workers (and others) will continue to be taken in by lame impersonations. The assimilation of ‘quirky’ into the current popular aesthetic is one factor that enables functioning within a multi-cultural society. Within a society of spectacle, this just about insures that even the most artless mimetic performances will be accepted as successful.

Not To Be At Home In One’s Home

July 11, 2011

            This past weekend Licking County Arts held its annual members meeting, attended by approximately 20% of the membership. Reflecting on that event produces a depiction of the US; a microcosm as a dynamic of a greater whole. Although named “Licking County Arts” (formerly the Licking County Art Association), it functions primarily and solely from a storefront location well off the main square in downtown Newark (as noted by a member at the meeting). The easiest way to direct a visitor to its location is through reference to the next door, now defunct, century old jail (likewise noted by another member). Though architecturally interesting, this historic poky succumbed to a severe case of mold throughout. It was abandoned (but never torn down) in favor of a new site across town many years prior to the LCA’s relocation. Newark itself is the county seat, with booming court and government related traffic during the days and hours these offices are open.  The town’s population is just under 50,000 with 40% of the residents being non-owner occupants. Recent articles in the local daily paper let slip certain statistics from which these and the following references are taken. The paper itself is not owner operated but owned by an out of state media holding company (the largest in the US). Print sales are shrinking so revenue reliance is primarily on advertising, hence the dearth of statistics and the non-existence of investigative, in-depth reporting. Recent articles have covered the plague of abandoned, foreclosed, boarded up and derelict houses. These accounts are always accompanied by positive projections of a return to the glory days by interviewed city leaders and prominent business figures. They advocate visionary leadership and aggressive advertising/promotion. Currently families qualified as living in poverty by state or federal standards is above 25%, with unemployment around 10%. Other parts of the county have huge tracts of farm land either being developed, or already developed as industrial parks or enterprise zones with warehouses, distribution centers, light manufacturing, etc. (accounting for the heady daily county government business in the downtown). The county seat itself is a formerly heavily industrialized rail center which has few industries left today. County government pretty much drives the downtown economy. Everything written here is not so unusual for the mid west. It can be duplicated throughout this state as well as neighboring ones.

            The LCA, though it used to be an association (of artists and art lovers), is a not for profit run by a board of directors (trustees?). Though members may have lobbied (and I underline “lobbied”) for various specific courses of action, these member contributions were graciously received as “good ideas” that the board would deign to consider. In short, it is a parliamentary form of governance, not unlike our own local and national one, though not representational save for the voting by the governing board which “represents” the best interests of the LCA (previously the “association” making up the artists and lovers of art, though it no longer appears in the name of the organization as such). The organization’s concrete presence in town functions as a store/gallery/multi-purpose room. Akin to the ingredients listed on a food label, the first is what predominates. Like its home city/county described above (and our own federal gov’t.), revenues for the LCA don’t match (even close) expenditures. And like the debate in Washington (occurring as I write) suggestions to raise membership dues, entry fees, etc. (revenue enhancements) were immediately met by counter proposals of ways to cut these fees to participants and make them pay less (with intentions of creating more membership and greater involvement). The treasurer’s report shows membership dues actually collected have been decreasing overall the last couple of years, along with sales and show entry fees. The invisible elephant in the room, whose presence was felt but not seen throughout the meeting, was the storefront’s landlord to whom the organization is indebted through a long term lease agreement at twice the market rate (as pointed out by yet another member). As on the mega scale (national/international), this is non-negotiable, a contract between corporate entities, a sacred trust whose violation would involve legal remedy. Ultimately the small gathering sang in chorus (as per Robert Morris’s insights on contemporary art making, see 12/3/09 posting Making The Signifier), emphasizing the need to mobilize visionary leadership, and urging each member to advertise/promote people to come downtown and shop at the LCA store.

            Past postings of this blog have reiterated the increasing “corporate think” within American culture and its growing (pre)dominance; “corporate think” in the manner of prioritizing, establishing identities, ways of doing and being, etc. The LCA is celebrating 50 years of existence and has dropped the conceptualization of “association” (of art related individuals) entirely within its name. This places it within the context and definition of corporation under the 1819 Dartmouth vs. Woodward Supreme Court ruling regarding corporations in terms of immortality and individuals (see posting Existing Only In Contemplation Of The Law 6/28/11). It was a bit disheartening to witness such a response to matters of concern (in the Latour/Weibel sense covered in recent postings) by a group of gifted creatives. But then again, as a microcosm of the dynamics of our culture as a greater whole, it was a more than true to life representation.

How Are Things To Be Seen?

June 11, 2011

            It was a small ceramic figurehead on a wall of the boutique, a smiling face. Alongside was a text, not surprising given the statistical preference of buyers for objects accompanied by narrative. It was in memory of a friend who passed away and how the artist looked for that smile to appear in the places it had inhabited in the past.

            Did the artist do this to please herself? Once pleased, was it now available to please me, second hand so to speak? Did the artist do this to please me? Did she relinquish part of herself, her private moment now become public, never to be private again? Would it have been enough to just have the smiling face, or was the meaning of the smile what separated the caricature from kitsch? Did the meaning please or did it just distinguish the pleasure? Is pleasure distinguishable?

            The last essay in the Making Things Public catalog (see prior post Ding Politik May 24, 2011) is one by Peter Weibel, entitled Art and Democracy: People Making Art Making People. It is a synopsis of western art with the turning point of Greek classical art and its relation to democracy. It is also a synopsis of the show for which this is a catalog. The bent is heavily political but from the materialist perspective of the thing and making it public. Although the aesthetic interpretation parallels Ranciere’s description of the Aesthetic regime, the political interpretation differs in that it is from the materialist perspective.

            Making Things Public could also be described as How Things Are To Be Seen. Although this synopsis of history heavily favors the northern European/French perspective (as to how things are seen), it does make a compelling statement as to the intertwining of things and politics. Weibel notes the opening of the Louvre and its accumulation of cultural artifacts in 1794 as distinguishing what had previously been the domain of the monarchy/aristocracy and religious hierarchy to that which became public. He acknowledges the centrality of the bourgeois in this revolutionary move and traces it up through its maturing in the Aesthetic regime (also described by Ranciere). It differs somewhat from Ranciere’s account in that Weibel maintains a hierarchical status for the modus operandi of the art, from what he describes as the artes liberales of classicism, through the artes mechanicae to today’s art of technology/mixed media. In a sense these various methodologies retain the hierarchical appropriateness of Ranciere’s Representative regime while simultaneously partaking of dissensus (demanding their rightful place where they have previously not been included). For Weibel, today’s techno art created through the use of generically ubiquitous tools partakes of this “progression” (dare I call it that?) through its facilitation of informing how things are to be seen. Within this engagement, the contemporary artist is presenting the viewer with operating instructions which then make possible the multiple perspectives of representation of the assembled reality. Weibel references Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass (“To Be Looked At, With One Eye, Close To, For Almost An Hour”); which brings us round to the place of the narrative alongside the smiling faced figure, and why it is there today whereas fifty years ago it would not have accompanied the offerings of an art boutique.

            So today, in art/politics (the interface for both Ranciere and Latour/Weibel) we are instructing each other on how things are to be seen. Literally we are asking others to walk in our shoes, except in this case it would rather be to wear our eyeglasses or contacts. But what if we’ve opted for Lasiks?

            A curious perspective of Weibel’s synopsis appears when one asks the questions I posed regarding the creation of the small smiling figure. With the opening of the Louvre in 1794, there was an immediate access to the creativity of previous cultural workers. But what of the “post opening” crowd of cultural workers and their production? The bourgeois with which Weibel articulates his synopsis is notoriously private in its hoarding and accumulating propensities. It is convenient for a brief history of western art to posit the Making Things Public through its cultural artifacts, art and things but the actuality is of an intermediary action ( ““Art is a form of action,” he [Rothko] wrote, or to be more precise: “Art is not only a form of action it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other action does.”” Pg.1030). The “social action” of hoarding, accumulating, privatizing this “action” called art is very much a part of the history of western art (the Aesthetic regime) as well as contemporary art (whether the artifacts of the past as well as other cultures, or the “informational” techno art activity of today). The Louvre may have sprung Athena-like from the cultural archives of the French in 1794 but since then most art made public has been mediated through “private” collectors as well as the “private” ambitions of artists. Only after this activity has been private does it become public. To focus on the public exclusively within how things are to be seen is to assign a part-that-has-no-part to what is private.

            Did the artist do this to please herself? Once pleased, was it now available to please me, second hand so to speak? Did the artist do this to please me? Did she relinquish part of herself, her private moment now become public, never to be private again? Would it have been enough to just have the smiling face, or was the meaning of the smile what separated the caricature from kitsch? Did the meaning please or did it just distinguish the pleasure? Is pleasure distinguishable?

            Ultimately this references The Undocumented Life (May 14, 2011). Is it possible to answer “How Things Are To Be Seen” privately?

 

Between The Saying And The Doing

March 4, 2011

            In the dream, the dreamer/agent is invited, expected, anticipated. Within the reception, conversation with the hostess is easy. The hostess is attractive, accepting, enhancing, and contributory. Overall there is such ease, comfort and “rightness”. An acquaintance present wants to know about the hostess. The dreamer/agent relays a description of the hostess to the acquaintance. The account, completely accurate, is empirical, distant; the hostess becoming unattractive, suspect. Overall, the entirety becomes dis-eased, uncomfortable, questionable. 

            A simple case of buyer’s remorse? Dreams inform the dreamer (or is it the dreamer informs the dream?). They are remarkable more for the curiosity of their recall than their description of the dreamer. Everyone in the dream is the dreamer (or so I’m told).

            There it was, on the desk, Allan Kaprow’s Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. The greenish image of tires and a laborer moving them from here to there propositioned entry. It seems like not so long ago, such employment, with “a working class hero is what you should be” droning away on the always on, always present radio (pre earphone days). Though his essays end with the 90’s, the redundancy of genius threads Kaprow back to when radio was the ubiquitous personal screen (TV being the public, common one).

            Language is often spoken of as a system, a relationship between signs, with the meanings determined by the changes within the system. So with the machine I’m producing this essay on, certain “commands”, certain icons, produce certain results, certain interpretations depending on their combination, order, sequence, etc. No one thing stands for, represents exclusively a single function or determination. Even on/off is precisely that- on or off. Others link language to some “thing”. They say it points to, indicates, adumbrates some determination or particularity. Often, this is prefaced contextually, culturally, or historically.

            Sorry Allan, blurring Art (in the singular and with a capital) and Life (in the singular and with a capital) is to deny it, to destroy it, to make it not. Which one, the Art, or the Life, or both? Hard to tell, they have become so blurred (Oh my, how cool is that!). The privileged dreamer, privileged to recall the dream. The recollection is not the dream. Everyone in the dream is the dreamer (or so I’m told). But does everyone dream? Rather, is everyone privileged to recall? No re-call(ing) without differentiating (Play it again, Sam). One morning the privileged agent wakes and recalls a description of themselves that is empirical, distant, unattractive and suspect.  It is also unabashedly accurate. Sartre’s Roquentin “But you have to choose: live or tell.” isn’t so clear anymore; not the living or telling, but the choosing.

            A simple case of biopolitics? It is so much easier to manage the laborer, to get the tires moved from here to there if the difference can be removed, the distinction obliterated (no heroes here, we are all heroes. Everyone gets a trophy). It is the distinction, the difference of saying, that makes the other possible (saying assumes/implicates an other). Blurring removes the other altogether. The saying is a choice, a distinction, a commitment. As Ranciere points out, such a distribution of sense (the saying) is political. As Yuriko Saito points out (archive post It’s Complicated), the distinction presents the opportunity for respect, for appreciation of difference.

The Face Of Jesus

January 6, 2011

            One of the phenomena of the history of Western Christianity is people finding Jesus, and his entourage, in the everyday. OK, I agree, that was the original intent of the religion. In this case, I mean finding Him sensually, in the everyday; they find his face or likeness on a piece of toast or a flood lit, rusty oil storage tank. Such recognition can earn the astute breakfast practitioner a few bucks on Ebay, as well as cause headaches for the oil company planning to provide its facilities with a facelift.

            Several months ago I saw the face of Jesus in the image of Zahra Baker taken while she was waiting to be fitted with a hearing aid at one of those charity health clinic events that compensate for the lack of a universally provided, fundamental health care in the USA. You may not remember but she was the 10 year old girl whom fate had afflicted early in life, lost a leg, hearing, parents split up, found herself in another country, father remarried, step mother was abusive, poverty, etc. The image of her face revealed a quietness, an openness to things being better.

            Last night there was an American Masters documentary on PBS which covered the life of Pete Seeger. The short coming of documentaries is that they always leave you thinking that the end was already anticipated at the beginning, and thus mitigated what went on in between. Wrong. Pete Seeger’s life was filled with quite a bit of affliction and uncertainty during an exceptionally trying time for our society. True, he was privileged by being white and native born, but this didn’t provide comfort or exception during the times he lived through. Like George McGovern, no reference was ever made that he was a veteran by those challenging his patriotism or commitments. At the end of the documentary, Zahra Baker came to mind. Many of the images of Seeger’s face during his early, and then middle, strife filled years also showed a quietness, an openness to things being better.

            Maybe the commonality was the sensuality of sound. In Zahra’s case, she could enhance her enjoyment and active participation in life. With Seeger, he could structure community; one of sanity and humanity (amazingly, community much in the manner described by Ranciere since it spanned many peoples, differences, times, and geographies while also being political in the contentious sense). The sensual and the everyday intimately intertwined. Unfortunately, at the end of the American Master’s documentary, I also found myself thinking “Sorry, Pete, but you lost”. Today, the closest thing to loosely organized, spontaneously singing groupings of people would be flash mobs. Sensual interaction has become a deeply personal expression of individual choice and ambition. Like tattoos, it is the mark of one’s identity and personality. Most musical sound is experienced within the confines of earphones, emanating noiselessly from an ipod, phone or other electronic device. The songs themselves, and the music, have become commodified. Little is found in the common domain (even “Happy Birthday To You” has been contested). Indeed, many question the very existence of a commons.  In the end, after much suffering, Zahra lost her life and her body was dismembered, scattered about a North Carolina county. After suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, Pete Seeger’s music-as-a-social-event has been hyper-individualized to the extent that it is not, save for the buzz.

            This week, in the United States House of Representatives (“the people’s house”), John Boehner took the speaker’s gavel in hand, and the election’s much ballyhooed “primary need” to provide jobs quickly was displaced by the priority of killing and dismembering the health care legislation passed in the previous congress. What were the lyrics to that old song; the one about Joe Hill (who died 10 years ago), his ghost, and the words that it spoke?