Archives for the month of: May, 2014

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An addendum to Self Expression and Conceptual Painting.

One day while waiting for my train to arrive, I watched a freight pull by and noticed a spray-painted message on a boxcar, “ANGER IS A GIFT”. It had never occurred to me that anger was a gift, and thus it required further thought. I am more inclined to see anger as an unwanted disturbance, or an interruption of any free will that I might possess. Anger doesn’t seem much different from a toothache – it goes about its business with little regard for my opinions or wishes.

It would be strange if anger were a gift. But let’s be fair about this, and consider for a moment some hypothetical people who might regard me as “too cerebral” or “alienated from my feelings” because of my opinion about anger. Quite likely, these people have such preposterous ideas because they are suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding about human nature – they identify their supposed selves with their emotional weather.

These deluded, hypothetical people could easily jump to thoughts like “anger is a gift,” and then add, when considering me, “especially in your case, as it might curtail the growth of a tumor.” But who can say – we all have our delusions. Nonetheless, I suppose anger is a gift in a certain way. First there wasn’t anger, and then suddenly, I have anger. It’s like getting a birthday gift in the mail.

But I haven’t been fair. I have trivialized the concern by merely playing with the somewhat tautological connection between ‘gift’ and ‘getting’. Now I have used the word ‘tautological’ to make the hypothetical people feel bad about their possible ignorance of the word. It makes matters worse that these same people probably don’t feel bad about their ignorance at all – they don’t even care, they may even be proud of it, and I don’t doubt for a moment that they think I’m a snot – that is, if I were generous in my definition of ‘think’.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the world has been configured by high-average people primarily for the exploitation of average people – people who can be counted on to respond somewhat normally and predictably. This is the kind of world where people of high average intelligence can expect to succeed. The dictatorship of the “middle-brow”, as Clement Greenberg might say.

In this kind of world, the people at the extreme ends of the intelligence-sophistication-wisdom scales all have to fend for themselves when it comes to community and stimulation. This also applies to people thought of as defective, eccentric, or dangerous by those middle-brows mentioned above. The shunned and invisible find their own places to gather: places like group homes, sheltered workshops, strange hobby gatherings, Mensa chapters, academies, criminal organizations, and religious or political get-togethers.

All of this though, has merely been an example of my repressed anger and resentment reaching outwards from the personal to full-blown social theory. I suspect this may be rooted in my mostly unsuccessful career as an artist, and my unimportance within that huge group of hypothetical people I don’t want to spend time with anyway. I am thankful I don’t know them, and I suppose that might be a gift of sorts.

Of course it might just be self-loathing. Hard to say. It’s easy to prevaricate, and hard to be honest, especially if pride is involved.

At any rate, it’s true that righteous anger and revolutionary anger can be gifts. Anger is a healthy response to injustice, and Noam Chomsky endorses it because it motivates us to do courageous and important things. But regardless, repressed anger warps my good intentions and this is not a gift. The box car was right, but it confused me: I probably live with more anger than I care to acknowledge. It’s hard to make clean art living that way.

Image at top: Steve Armstrong, Equality Brand Aluminum Foil, oil on cardboard with serrated metal edge mounted on panel, 7.5″ x  16.5″, 2006.

I made this atypical box painting (atypical in that it contains an internal figure/ground relation (the red on blue)) shortly after being diagnosed with macular degeneration.The condition developed shortly after the death of my mother who also suffered from it. Stress and grief may have triggered my amazing psycho-somatic powers. I guess I was a bit upset.

With this painting, I was engaged in some unintentional self expression that has just been waiting there for me to notice it. And perhaps someday, if I have a famous name, at which point I am very likely dead and my cremated ashes have been poured into the Humber river in Toronto, the place I will always consider home, and those ashes are somewhere out in the North Atlantic, this box painting with its serrated metal edge, will be sought after as if it held drops of holy blood from a self-severed ear. The art market works in obvious ways.

Self expression was my warped-by-anger intention. Clean art goes as planned, dirty art doesn’t. I like both kinds, and this requires further thought.

 

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Kandinsky

Last night I heard a reference to Gesamtkunstwerk on the PBS Idea Channel available on YouTube. This morning The Globe and Mail contained an article by Russell Smith that referenced the same thing. I always enjoy a good coincidence, a pleasure I share with André Breton. I recommend his book Nadja. It elicits an aesthetic appreciation of coincidence, and once you’ve developed the habit of noticing such things, there’s a world of accidental art to be explored. Breton was an arrogant bastard, but I like him in spite of his faults.

The problem is, if you begin to suspect a real connection within a coincidence, its beauty begins to drain out. I’m not talking about the one world, all and everything, cosmic consciousness, clear light, nirvana kind of connection. That’s a whole different, perfect beauty. That doesn’t drain anywhere, it’s already there. I’m talking about causality, which ruins everything.

So it may be the case that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is fashionable right now, and as a fashion victim, I’m also trying to write about it. Wagner is associated with the idea, but let’s consider Wassily Kandinsky, author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), who was somewhat of a Theosophist, a synesthete, and the painter of the world’s first abstract, or non-objective painting in 1910.

From the very beginning there were various understandings of ‘abstract art’. It was something spiritual for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but formal, and a touch political, for Malevich and Tatlin. Today the term seems totally empty and its only reference is historical. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter anything written about the centenary of this event. It would have been fun to read.

This is where I would build a case for some kind of non-coincidental connection between synesthesia, or the desire for it, and the Gesamtkunstwerk. But I really don’t feel like it. I don’t sense any worthwhile aha in a conclusion

It’s claimed that Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, and Vladimir Nabokov also lived with synesthesia. That might be interesting, then again, I don’t think so. It’s not a good coincidence.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, untitled, watercolour, 188 x 196 cm., 1910, collection of Paris, Musee National Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. As far as I know, this is the first abstract painting in the Western tradition.

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