Despite its subtle and not-so-subtle ravishments, a Warhol canvas is expressively vacant. “There’s no place for our spiritual eye to penetrate it,” the art historian Neil Printz has said of the work. “We’re just thrown back on the surface.” That’s true, though the effect is more dreadful than that. What made Warhol so perishingly cold was the implication that the “spiritual eye” never existed in the first place. Warhol, one observer put it, “wanted to be Greta Garbo, he wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” and to better convert himself into an icon, he withdrew behind an affect as lifeless as one of his Marilyn paintings. The deadpan rigmarole was total. It functioned as an anti-elegy. It said that nothing was lost, that nothing of depth or value had been surrendered to the image.
— Stephen Metcalf. Is it Warhol who is “expressively vacant”? Or is it the world that he so faithfully represents? Imagine if Warhol, a faithful Ruthenian Catholic, had been born not in Pittsburgh but in the Carpathians two hundred years ago: Would you expect that an artist of his gifts, so culturally placed, would produce “expressively vacant” work?
Our ability to recognize faces resides in the right fusiform gyrus of the inferior medial temporal lobe of the brain. People with damage to the front of that region are face-blind, like [Chuck] Close. People with damage to the back of that region cannot see a face at all. Close is probably the only person in the history of Western art to paint portraits without being able to recognize individual people. Why, then, did he focus on being a portrait artist? Close says his art was an attempt to make sense of a world he didn’t understand. For him, it’s not so strange that he makes portraits. He was driven to make portraits because he was trying to understand the faces of people he knows and loves and commit them to memory. For him a face has to be flattened out. Once he flattens it, he can commit it to memory in a way that he cannot if he’s looking at it head-on. If he looks at you and you move your head half an inch, it’s a new head for him that he has never seen before. But if he takes a photograph of the face and flattens it out, he now can effect the translation from one flat medium to another.
Tom Phillips, Brian Eno
oil on canvas
35.6 x 25.4 cm
collection: the artist
I once devised a television project whose abbreviated ghost now forms, not inappropriately, an introduction to the film I worked on with Jake Auerbach (Artist’s Eye: Tom Phillips, BBC2 1989). The title was to be Raphael to Eno: it traced the lineage of pupil and teacher back through Frank Auerbach, Bomberg, Sickert etc. until, after an obscure group of French Peintres du Roy, it emerged via Primaticcio into the light of Raphael. Thus I find that at only twenty removes I am a pupil of Raphael. Brian Eno as a student of mine (initially at Ipswich in the early sixties) therefore continues that strange genealogy of influence as the twenty-first.
I cite that simply because it’s awesome.
The relationship between Phillips — one of whose most famous works is A Humument, an ongoing-for-decades collage/manipulation/adaptation of a Victorian book — and Eno is a fascinating one in the history of aleatory or, as I prefer, emergent art.
I’ve been talking about all this with Austin Kleon — whose newspaper blackout poems are descendants or cousins of A Humument — who not only knows way more about all this than I do but who also has been posting some great stuff lately on the themes of patience, waiting, and what I recently called “re-setting your mental clock.” See for instance this post on Dave Chappelle’s willingness to wait for the ideas to show up at his door.
And of course that post circles back to Eno — so many useful thoughts about being a maker of something circle back to Eno — quoting from this article:
“Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.” Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. “I want to rethink surrender as an active verb,” he says. “It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice. I’m not saying we’ve got to stop being such controlling beings. I’m not saying we’ve got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I’m saying something more complex.”
In another talk, one in which he also spoke of control and surrender, he developed another contrast, between creativity-as-architecture and creativity-as-gardening:
And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden. One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them. It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound. So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience. I want to be surprised by it as well. And indeed, I often am.
What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together. Gardener included. So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder. It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have. Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.
I was texting with Austin about all this earlier today:
This is all good for me to reflect on right now, in this season of heat and uncertainty.
It being lawful to paint then, is it lawful to paint everything? So long as the painting is confessed—yes; but if, even in the slightest degree, the sense of it be lost, and the thing painted be supposed real—no…. In the Camera di Correggio of San Lodovico at Parma, the trellises of vine shadow the walls, as if with an actual arbor; and the troops of children, peeping through the oval openings, luscious in color and faint in light, may well be expected every instant to break through, or hide behind the covert. The grace of their attitudes, and the evident greatness of the whole work, mark that it is painting, and barely redeem it from the charge of falsehood; but even so saved, it is utterly unworthy to take a place among noble or legitimate architectural decoration.
— Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Unique to Ruskin is the combination of an exceptionally acute aesthetic sense with an exceptionally acute moral sense, and this is one of the many moments when they struggle mightily against each other. Ruskin cannot help admiring the beauty of Correggio’s work here, but he is so deeply opposed to deception in art that he wishes he could reject it altogether.
Annie Atkins is an immensely talented graphic designer who specializes in work for film — the image above is an example — and I’ve just started subscribing to her newsletter. In the newest installment she writes,
In early December I received a curious email from a Latvian man named Jānis claiming to have a large hoard of perfectly preserved but slightly yellowed paper from his great-grandfather’s 1930s stationery shop. Perfectly preserved but slightly yellowed paper is like gold dust in film graphics departments: no amount of tea-staining and ironing can make a paper prop look aged, but not like it was once dropped in a puddle. On The Grand Budapest Hotel the property buyer gave the graphics department three large boxes of paper salvaged from the old German Stasi offices, which felt so precious that we really only used it for making hero props. I only have about 20 sheets left from this haul now, so I ordered some more pieces from Jānis and, like he promised, it’s perfect. If you’d like to buy some, too, then you can use the code ATK20 for a 20% discount at his Etsy shop.
I had no idea that reproducing the look and feel of old paper was so difficult! Fascinating stuff. Also, check out the vintage toilet paper you can buy from Jānis:
This carved ivory polyptych was made in the early 1300s in France. It shows scenes from the Life of Christ, with the Virgin and Child in the centre. The Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel and the Adoration of the Magi are on the left, and on the right is the Nativity. A polyptych is a work of art made up of multiple pieces – the word comes from the Greek ‘poly’ (many) and ‘ptychē’ (fold). #Nativity #ChristmasEve #Christmas #polyptych #France #14thcentury
Ann Buttimer, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Geography of Plants:Bridging Sciences and Humanities.” Click on the image for a larger version.
Royal Museums, Greenwich: A manuscript globe, hand painted and lettered, representing in 3-dimensional form the maps of Mars published in the American astronomer Percival Lowell’s books, Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) which developed Camille Flammarion’s views. The globe is mounted on a bronze stand. Emmy Ingeborg Brun was a Danish Mars enthusiast who made a small number of globes, many for presentation to particular individuals and institutions. Her inscriptions suggest that she viewed Mars as a potential model for Christian socialist cosmopolitanism on Earth. There are three inscriptions engraved into the globe’s stand. The title — Mars after Lowell’s Globes ca. 1905-1909 — is near the column. On one half of the edge of the base is a quotation frrom the Lord’s Prayer — Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. On the other half of the edge of the base is a socialist slogan — Free Land. Free Trade. Free Men.
This is a slightly edited version of a post I published a long time ago at The American Conservative. The original has disappeared — removed, I suspect, by someone who has a different interpretation of Babette than I do. Well, this is another reason for me to own my own turf!
Rod Dreher calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:
Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.
But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect.
Philippa’s heart was melting in her bosom. It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.
“Dear Babette,” she said softly, “you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake.”
Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?
“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”
She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.
“I am a great artist!” she said.
She waited a moment and then repeated: “I arn a great artist, Mesdames.”
Again for a long time there was deep silence in the kitchen.
Then Martine said: “So you will be poor now all your life, Babette?”
“Poor?” said Babette. She smiled as if to herself. “No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing.”
Indeed, Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others — but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be farther from the truth for the Babette of the original story.
There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and I guess the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of consideration, and when the importance of our pleasure is suggested to her she responds with contempt.
The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.” It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.
For me, his great gift – on the page and in person – was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic room in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of jumping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his bike to buy it in the 1960s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson – pleated like origami to hide his books – he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he kept a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones: “May the blessed Archangel Michael defend us in battle lest we perish in the terrible judgment.” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.
Many years ago now John Updike noted his response to much modern art: “we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence — a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.” Art thrives, Updike believed, on resistance, on something pushing back hard against the artistic impulse. So, for Updike, this is what the city of Dublin as it was in 1904 did for James Joyce: it resisted him, it demanded to be accounted for and respected. And the greatness of Ulysses derives at least in part from Joyce’s willingness to reckon honestly with that resistance.
You can see this principle at work in big ways and small, in famous artists and less-famous ones. I’ve often told the story — for instance, here — about how Miles Davis’s beautiful and influential style of playing the trumpet arose largely from his simple inability to compete with the brilliant virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie.
But here’s a story I haven’t told before. One of the most sadly neglected of singer-songwriters, I think, is Richard Thompson, who first came to public attention fifty years ago (!) as the leader of Fairport Convention. Thompson has never been a really big name, and whole he has continued performing all these years, he has typically done it as a solo act. And that of course limits the kinds of sounds you can produce — it offers resistance to what you imagine your songs sounding like. Thompson has responded to this challenge by developing one of the most distinctive guitar styles I’ve ever heard, one that couples rhythmic propulsion and a clear bass line with articulate melodies on the high strings. He’s become sort of a one-man band, though not in a flamboyant way (that would obscure the character of his beautifully crafted songs).
There are many examples online — look for performances of “Dimming of the Day” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” — but my favorite song of Thompson’s is “Keep Your Distance.” The best version of the song I know is on his new release, Acoustic Classics II, but you can get a close-up look at him at work in this fine performance: