Friday, December 13, 2019

Art is the Subject

Velasquez's "Las Meninas"
The subject of the some of the greatest masterpieces of art can be said to be art itself. Consider Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and might it not be said said that Rembrandt’s numerous self-portraits were by definition about the making of art. Art about art is not the same as art for art’s sake however. The subject of the making of art is almost the equivalent of an spiritual or ideological statement. For instance, it can be argued that the famed Grand Inquisitor poem from The Brothers Karamazov is really about the limits of art since the notion of Christ being put on trial for heresy is a demonstration of the power of story. In the hands of Dostoevsky, the narrative itself becomes a kind of Nietzschian Ubermensch who’s no longer subject to any limitations or rules. Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale is about bringing the dead back to life, a subject that Hitchcock would approach in Vertigo, with one addition. The artist could now bring alive someone who was not only dead, but never existed in the first place. What greater essay can one have on the artist as magician—a subject that Bergman would address in a film of the same name? Ibsen’s The Master Builder, one of the great masterpieces of  theater is also a paradigm about the nature of art with its central figure Solness being an symbol of the Ur artist, whose breathtaking ascent to ever increasing heights of awareness places him or her ever closer to self-destruction and death.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Everyman's Ontological-Hysteric Reality

Images are photoshopped and digitized. Sci Fi epics like Star Wars, Star Trek and most recently Interstellar create the equivalent of virtual reality universes while computerized environments like Second Life present alternate universes. If paper currency is a form of abstraction from say gold, cryptocurrencies take this idea one step further. The idea of artificially created voice systems like Siri taking on a life of thie own is dramatized in Spike Jonze’s Her. The question is not alienation and separation but degree. Activities not mitigated by technology having actual flesh and blood conversations are becoming increasing anomalies in a world where you not only go to simulated voices on Google maps for direction but prefer its tone to that of the significant other who’s likely to say something far less neutral than “route recalculating” when you’ve made a wrong turn. Will there come a time when it’s possible to go on dating sites which offer relationships with artificial intelligences? Will the body itself be dispensed with? Who needs the problems of real relationships when an implant can totally replicate experience? What form of sex could be safer than an idea? And forget about stents, clogged arteries and cholesterol when hunger is satiated in the mind by a disembodied consciousness. Richard Foreman coined the term Ontological-HystericTheater. Little did he know that it might some day become a reality.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Pitfalls of Trying to Avoid One's Own Shadow

Yes, you have had all the Walter Mitty fantasies about triumphing at just the moment you’re spurned. It’s hard to be a war hero in the middle of an Upper West Side literary soiree, or particularly in the middle of one of those competitive situations from your post-adolescence where you end up finding yourself at the bottom of the food chain when it came to work or love—i.e. the professor in the course on Kafka who was impressed by the very unKafkaesque student filled with an intellectual self-confidence that you couldn’t muster. But whoever said life was supposed to be fair? Try this the next time you feel slighted or disrespected.  Simply don’t do anything. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t try to defend yourself, don’t vie for scraps of attention that derive from dropping names or citations or trying to impress people with little French expressions like “faux de mieux.” Stop trying so hard and just take a deep breath. Validation is a black hole that can never be satisfied. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t give it to you and the power of the negative attention will by definition wipe out anything in its path. That which doesn’t exist always trumps that which is there for the asking—simply by virtue of its inherent mystique.  Of course, one solution is simply not to attend one of those events where there are big shots sucking the air out of the room, but eluding feelings of inferiority is a little like trying to avoid your own shadow. No way to engineer that .

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Sphinx

Great Sphinx of Giza
Some people just disappear and it’s as if they’ve never existed and others, supernal presences, make serendipitous appearances in which they’re more like apparitions than flesh and blood human beings. That may be the way you regarded the Angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, a presence whose dramatic purpose is defined by the fact that he fulfills a need which is to persuade Jimmy Stewart he should go on living. A doppleganger or alter ego can also fall into this category. Scientists have identified dark matter and dark energy (which is responsible for the continual expansion of the universe), but it often feels like there's some kind of cosmic silly putty that closes in on the empty spaces and also provides the glue on which a new vision makes its entrance. It’s rather astounding how insistent the ego is and how it conjures its own self-importance right up until the end, always imagining new and greater triumphs despite the reality of imminent decay. One of the most common presences to metabolize out of nowhere is the prophet, who’s usually a robed creature encountered along a road. Oedipus met up with the Sphinx one of the most enigmatic presences in literature---neither fairy nor ghost, but a kind of gate keeper armed with riddles that function as passwords. “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” Spoiler alert. Oedipus got it right when he answered, “Man--who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two legs as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age."

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Joys of Pre or Postprandial Bliss

Epicurus (Castellani Collection; purchase, 1873)
Postprandial conversations and activities exist in a world all their own. Hunger can influence one's perspective about the nature of human existence with gnawing emptiness leading to a rather depressing prognosis about the prospects of the human race. Hunger is definitely a depressant. The jury is out about having a meal before sex. You may remember the famous scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen is about to introduce Diane Keaton to the joys of deli and suggests getting the kissing over first. There's something very satisfying about relieving the urge to merge before one enjoys a steak. Generally there's a glow to a couple who have just consummated and also they're less likely to overeat. However playing the devil's advocate one may argue that good food and conversation open the gateways to the heart. What would Epicurus, whose name is associated with both delicacy and the golden mean, have said?

Friday, December 6, 2019


Joie de vivre is a kind of throw-a-away, a tongue-in-cheek means of addressing the tip of the iceberg. Essentially it means nothing. Junkies chasing highs are joy seekers. However, beyond a certain hedonism, there are those who are driven by the gluttonous desire to milk the cow for everything its worth. If you can imagine the dandyish concept of art for art’s sake extended to longevity, you will be confronted with precisely the type of person who insists on prolonging his or her own life at any costs. Maybe fear is the motivation, yet you have undoubtedly read about the situation of families whose nest eggs are totally emptied in trying to defray the medical costs of an older generation who are living preternaturally long lives. Forget the quality of the lives in many cases reduced to no more than the ingestion and regurgitation of food. The fact is they're like black holes that seep the life out of others. Respect for the sanctity of life is often regarded as an admirable intention. However, does that apply to old people hanging on simply because they’re afraid to let go? Praise is often heaped on an aged individual just for persevering and continuing to eat, sleep and defecate every day while the lives of all those around them are squandered on the need to care for someone who has overstayed their welcome. "Living well is the best revenge," said George Herbert. No it's living so long that you outlive your own children.  Advances in medicine are extending the existence of the parent, literally and metaphorically, at the expense of the child.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Le Demi-monde

Alexander Dumas fils
Le monde is French for ‘the world.” You have “le monde” and Le Demi-monde which is the title of a play by Alexander Dumas fils. Demimondaines are the women of the demimonde. Sara Bernhardt was the daughter of a courtesan and an actress, both of which would have qualified her to be a member of the demimonde in the l8th or l9th century. Madame De Maintenon who would marry Louis the XIV also had humble origins qualified her to be demimondaine. In modern times Wallis Simpson who caused the Duke of Windsor to abdicate might have been termed a demimondaine not only due to being a commoner with aristocratic ambitions but because she was a divorcee, a status shared by Meghan Markle who recently married Prince Harry--a woman with no royal blood, a divorcee and an actress to boot. Les Liaisons Dangereux is an epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos later made into a movie with Jeanne Moreau by Roger Vadim. The story is full of manipulative women who use sex as a weapon and tool, but they're not demimondaines because they're all aristocrats, who one would assume were given a certain license to employ noblesse oblige. Sensibilities exist in particular times and places and art may reflect a particular way of life, but it may also create it. The Sufferings of Young Werther famously produced a rash of suicides in imitation of the the behavior of Goethe’s character. "Bounder" is a word used for cads, but it’s not one you’re likely to find in a work of contemporary fiction just as you’re unlikely to meet characters with names like Lady Fidget, Harry Horner and Jack Pinchwife (all characters out of Wycherley's The Country Wife), who marries a simple girl, incapable of cheating on him. When someone created the idea of the demimondaine they locked the door and threw away the key which would have freed their characters from the language (and history) in which they’d been created.