Friday, January 29, 2016

The Empty Canvas

Some people still insist there's a meaning for everything and that you do things for a purpose. For instance, if you ask the average human being why they exercise, they'll say “to get strong” or “be healthy.” The notion that there's no meaning or reason to do anything is not an attitude that's maintained by a broad spectrum of the population. But isn’t the plight of the artist with his or her blank canvas a paradigm of the human condition? No one is telling him or her what to paint or how to paint it and yet they must begin somewhere, make a mark from which the rest of the artistic work will proceed. The act of filling the canvas is not informed by meaning, but is an exercise in meaning making. The canvas could be blank or filled with gibberish like Jack Torrance’s page in Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining with the famously perseverative “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Dull he wasn’t. One of Alberto Moravia’s best known novels is The Empty Canvas whose original Italian title La Noia translates as “boredom.” What these titles have in common is the state of absence, of disinformation that however uncomfortable remains an optimal condition for artistic creation. When Antonioni met Rothko he commented "Your paintings are like my films--they're about nothing...with precision.” Renaissance artists, like Michelangelo and da Vinci, dealing with Christian liturgy didn't face this problem since they had a mission. But the truly empty canvas is the predicament of modernism in which meaning is created rather than received. So when you go to the gym and step onto the treadmill, you're not ultimately attending to your health or your strength, you're stepping into the abyss—and the inertial force of the unwilling body, clamoring to return to its resting (couch potato) state is ample testimony to the fact.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Karl Ove Knausgaard's Kierkegaardian Leap

sketch of Soren Kierkegaard (Niels Christian Kierkegaard)
In a rumination on the Communist era, in a recent piece in The New York Times MagazineKarl Ove Knausgaard, the author of the infamous Min Kamp novels makes the following comment. (“The TerribleBeauty of Brain Surgery,” NYT, 1/3/16): “If there is one thing I have a weakness for, it is the Communist Era, especially the secretive culture behind the Iron Curtain, with its working class heroism, its celebration of industry, it’s massive architecture, its Tarkovsky films, its cosmonauts and its supernatural ice-hockey teams. I don’t know why it appeals to me, because in actual fact I opposed everything it represents: the veneration of the collective, the industrialization of everyday life, the monumental aesthetics. I believe in blundering man and in the provisional moment. But something about the aura of the Soviet Age attracts me, sometimes with an almost savage force.” The article is really about Knausgaard’s following a prominent British brain surgery Henry Marsh to a gig in Tirana, Albania. But this is why we read Knausgaard. Who else is going to come up with a stunning sentence like “I believe in blundering man and the provisional moment?” Who else can employ parallelism to such poetic effect? “An Open Mind,” the heading under which the piece appears in the print edition, is also a great metaphor for a piece which describes the process by which a skull is sawed open. But this is why we read Knausgaard. Almost every sentence finesses a Kierkegaardian leap which in turn requires an act of faith. The Times piece is about brains. It's a great subject for Knausgaard and it's the thing we admire him for, his brain.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

For a Luddite Politics

What about a Luddite politics? Even the biggest Donald Trump hater must secretly enjoy the way he stands up to the Republican establishment and Bernie Sanders replete with his Brooklyn accent is almost the quintessential everyman bucking the Clinton dynasty. If Trump is Manifest Destiny, Sanders is the embodiment of the American dream, a Horatio Alger of politics, a pied piper with a constituency of voters who are generally too alienated to go to the polls. Besides their difference on almost every issue that’s being discussed from immigration to taxes and health care, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in their iconoclasm have more in common than any of the candidates. Is it far flung to think that the real issue is the defiance of the juggernaut we call Washington? Isn’t that what this election is all about and wouldn’t that make a Trump/Sanders ticket the next logical possibility—certainly, if you are one of those people who is more interest in process than product, in style over content? What you have in Trump and Sanders are two no nonsense pragmatists who shoot from the hip. The fact that they’re both New Yorkers and both from the outer boroughs (one initially from Queens and the other Brooklyn) only strengthens the potential bond. What the election would really boil down to then would be a war between New York and Washington, for which city would be the de facto capital of the United States. From there Trump and Sanders would work things out and the negotiations would be very much like the way say the Teachers Union negotiates its contract with the city. Remember Woody Allen’s line about the famed Teachers Union president Albert Shanker from Sleeper, “Yes. According to history, over a 100 years ago, a man named Albert Shanker got a nuclear warhead.” In New York, the Al Sharptons and Albert Shankers hold as much power as the titans of industry and that’s the way it would be if a Trump/Sanders ticket prevailed and subleased Gracie Mansion from Bill de Blasio.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Rome Journal XV: The Tiber

"Fluvio Tiberius" by Hallie Cohen
The Tiber runs through Rome, the Seine through Paris and the Thames, famously through London.  “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” wrote Edmund Spenser in his “Prothalamion.” The river’s name probably derived from the same pre-Roman sources as Tiberius, which was a common name for those of both aristocratic and common estate. Romulus and Remus of course were left to sink or swim in the Tiber and thus began Rome and the phrase “crossing the Tiber” has taken on a religious significance to the extent that it connotes a kind of conversion to Catholicism and a recognition of the Papacy, as a representative of God on earth. The Tiber had a history of flooding up until 1876 when the city attempted to control the waters with stone breakwaters and streets called lungoteveri. The Tiber divides Rome. For instance if you are visiting the Colosseum or the Circus Maximus, which are part of the Rome you may know from postcards, you cross the Tiber at the Ponte Suplicio to enter Trastevere, which is a more bohemian part of the city full of winding ancient where artists studios compete with churches for the visitors attention. We associate the Seine with lovers, the Thames with royalty and the Tiber with empire. You might not talk about the Tiber like you do the Seine or the Thames and its not the subject of musical works like the Danube, but it’s where Rome was founded and as you pass over it, you feel it’s the elemental silent force out of which a civilization was created. As Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon he makes the fatal choice between politics and power, his desire to be a hero or a politician, famously intoning "the die is cast." And we know where that landed him. "I see war, horrible wars, and the Tiber foaming with much blood," said Virgil in The Aeneid.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Trump v. Sanders For the Heavyweight Title

Wouldn’t it be great if the 2016 election ended up pitting Donald Trump against Bernie Sanders? To begin with these two candidates who were deemed unelectable by most pundits? Yet now Trump is prevailing against Cruz with the help of Sarah Palin whose verbal hijinks would make her a great candidate for Restoration comedy and Bernie Sanders is just prevailing.The race would essentially be David versus Goliath, the representative of the little man with all his failings and foibles against the Ubermensch, the symbol of big business who represents the notion that might is right. Trump is just a slightly more crass version of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead. Roark was an architect and Trump is a developer, but they’re pretty close. On the ideological level Sanders represents socialism and Trump free market capitalism. It’s Adam Smith versus not Marx but maybe someone like Fourier. If the matchup turns out to be Clinton versus Cruz you get a far less black and white scenario and hence something lacking in the superhero effect that would be the result of the combat between two contenders who are basically New Yorkers (something which would parenthetically afford some poetic justice after Cruz’s dismissive remarks about Big Applers during the last debate). In essence the Sanders/Trump fight card is Brooklyn vs Queens since that’s where both candidates respectively emanate from and that has to say something about the state of the nation. Lastly, what is the mathematics of electing two supposedly unelectable candidates? The British bookmakers, famous for making odds on almost anything, will be working over time on this one.