April 30, 2012

Capitol Columns


An overcast day at the National Arboretum last week. Probably the most overlooked spot in the city.

April 27, 2012

The merging of agent and idea


My wife says that the only thing that could have made this image more bitingly accurate is if they pushed the spotlight in the second panel to highlight the little artist's face.

It's experiential, we're told. The artist is exploring (remember what I said yesterday about exploration) concepts of race/ethnicity/gender/body image/disability/religion through his or her own standing as one who experiences life through the lenses of said worldview, or at least, has taken on the mantle of affectation for the purposes of producing art that transcends merit and acts as a sort of mass therapy, a quest for validation of a chameleon "I" that seeks little else. In other words, it can be Facebook on canvas.

This sort of internal exploration is purported to be able to generate observations that can be more generally applied to the group of people experiencing a certain attribute, or even further, to society itself. This ambition usually stalls once we're actually looking at them.

In the fall, the National Portrait Gallery exhibited a hodgepodge of mostly terrible art from contemporary Asian American artists (there were some stunning images of hair by Zhang Chun Hong), the sort of identity delimiting, unnecessary, patronizing, "hey we're people too" redundant rhetoric that NPR slings on a weekly basis in defense of nothing. But I digress.

You can boil the rest down to pop-art slop collages and professionalized Instagram self-portraits. Look at me eating fruit. Look at me in my New York apartment. Look at me in this dress, that dress, in crazy makeup. Look at me naked. If the point is to cast (explore?) our banal modern impulse to capture our likeness in solitude for electronic posterity in a different light, that's one thing, but there was no indication of intent beyond an equally base representation of self.

This isn't a nostalgic plea for change. Artists, musicians and writers have always been driven by ego. It takes ego to have the guts to express yourself in such intimate ways, to insinuate the darkest parts, to lay bare threads that can be pulled together to weave a tapestry, a version of the person behind the work. Artists have always represented themselves in portraits. Writers always include themselves in their work.

I think the new self-portrait, the XML tagged, Facebook-inspired self, is only cathartic, however. It's a different artist that delves into a subject (object?) and digs out the guts of it, trying to hone that feeling inside them into an enlightened thesis. Call attention to a thing outside of oneself; look at this amazing thing; look how we interact with it; look how it touches us. It makes me, the artist, feel this way. Does it make you feel the same? Are you absorbed in its being as much as I am? In different ways? Can you see what I see?

It's important to remember too, that like everything else in this town, the NPG's stimulus for curating this particular show, as with others of its kind, was purely political. The curator wants to make a statement as much as the individual artists do. When we cross into identity politics (willingly or unwillingly), we step into that awful territory of art-as-activism, which, like religious art (and often guided by the same impulse), is not art at all. I've always liked what Philip Roth has said about engaging an audience:
You asked if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there's been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it's a way of life for them. It doesn't mean a thing. If you ask if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no. What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book--if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don't. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that's otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn't fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it's not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading.
Control. It's key here. Perhaps I'll write about that sometime.

Art's always been about me. But the "me" of old was an agent of an idea; some loved the attention they received for representing their ideas skillfully, some shunned it. In recent years, agent and idea have merged. Affectation has become a stand-in for self.

April 26, 2012

When artists discuss conservation science

It should be documented as the grandest, most sweeping appeal to tradition in history: to undermine the impulse to conserve, to manage habitats and wild populations, they argue for the "natural" flow of life, that livings things die, populations disappear under pressure, laissez-faire rhetoric dismissing modern extinction spasms.

This particular argument is easily dismissed: It makes the error of assuming that all extinctions are equal. The difference is, the contemporary declines are not due to inexorable glaciation or an extraterrestrial bomb, it's due to the rapid expansion and carelessness of an expansive conglomerate of very clever animal consciousnesses: We. We think therefore we shape.

I don't live in a progressive's dreamworld. I think it's beyond the scope of any program or project to comprehensively manage anything as complicated as a protected valley forest ecosystem or demographic economics (in the pursuit of "fairness"). The laissez-faire argument recommends inaction, not as a solution, but as a sort of acceptance of the truth. I appreciate the notion; often I feel that when we act - ideologically - without 1.) an evidential grasp of the true nature of the problem and 2.) the willingness/attention required to continue maintenance of a remedying program that will most likely change as the system itself evolves (Medicare comes to mind). In my mind, inaction can be the best way to handle certain complex situations, especially when the data are volatile, inconclusive or controversial, but it's never a solution. Sometimes there is never a solution. I find the idea that there is always a fix to any problem both arrogant and puerile.

Conservation has seen success, however, if we define success as directional movement toward historic restoration. We have found ways to manage disturbed areas and bolster populations of animals that were long lost from particular ecosystems. Humans have shaped the world to their liking. We can certainly reshape it into how we think the world was or how it might have been without our destructive influence. It's still preferential, but I appreciate the impulse to have enough humility to accept that we are not the only exceptional animal intelligence on the planet. It's still our prerogative, but it's addressing the adverse affects our biological success has had on other life. It's a mission to protect the vast amount of information stored within each quivering protoplasmic article.

The agents of this argument are far more interesting than the content of it. With the recent advances in neurology and its influences on philosophy, it has become chic for artists, writers and self-ascribed philosophers to parrot the slim reviews of this science in pop-sci publications and Nova documentaries without an even cursory understanding of the nature of science itself, particularly data interpretation/validation (falsification, etc.). It becomes a rapid-fire delivery of trivia-worthy facts and figures or an "exploration" of the science, a favored word of artists and art historians in particular, usually signifying an entry into the realm of unbridled - and decidedly unscientific - speculation; the science acts as a marginally solid springboard for confirmation bias. When confronted with an actual discussion of data and the real implications of it, within the field, as related to other science, the interest wanes and their institutionalized bias against technical knowledge asserts itself.

Don't think this, as is the tendency, and definitely don't act on it: "Well, I'm an artist/art historian/writer/philosopher and I don't do that." You don't, that's good. I know you exist, but you're in the minority. Near extinction, perhaps. In need of a equalizing (democratizing!) government program? One could make that argument.

April 8, 2012

Burnt mill

A careful construction along the Long Branch. Ritual or whimsy? Stick fort? Altar? Sculpture? The product of child's mind? Of a theist's?

It's built along the transition point, where the hard rock of Maryland ends and the sliding sands of Washington DC begin.


April 6, 2012

Opening days


People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.
-Rogers Hornsby

Typical. Another Nats nailbiter; we never quite got used to it last year. As much as I like the patience at the plate, the strikeouts and the hiccups with RISP is problematic. All in all, it was a win, Strasburg looked good, and Bernadina, Zimmerman (twice), Tracy and Werth would have have gone yard if it wasn't for the wind. For the Cubs, Dempster was untouchable; his performance makes you wonder how he gave up almost five runs per nine last year.

I can feel a little more normal when April hits. Tom Boswell got it right, I think, if I can paraphrase him: In spring, summer and fall, baseball is there when you need it. You may not need it every day, but it's there if you do. There's no escape from January, when the sun is hung thin between the dark and dark. We muddle through.

Baseball-less malaise didn't saturate my entire winter, fortunately. I've been finishing off stories and poems long due for completion and sending them off to journals in my area. I had an essay on ethnicity accepted for publication recently. I narrated a small piece for a friend's documentary on homosexuality in Iran. Another friend filmed several people - including me - drawing birds and flowers to follow along the story told in an ancient Persian poem. Her piece was lovely; it ran last night for the first time, along with my wife's new work.

I've walked hundreds of miles up and down a local creek. Wondered why we don't spend entire days out on the grass anymore. Wondered why a woman would leave her heavily perfumed satin scarf hanging from a tree branch. Found a tiny ballfield hidden in the woods behind a housing development; someone had duct-taped a strike zone on the chain fence backstop. Carried my dog over paths strewn with shards of green glass while children ran along oblivious. Wandered through an old forest in the middle of the city. Lamented the loss of my grandfather's legacy, confronted with his work, apparent on houses, fences and gates.

Hoped. Despaired. Desired. Raged. Ate. Drank. Shit. It's all one in the longview. Reactive brevity hates the longview. So much detail, so many updates, lost in slim summary, impoverishing the incremental progression of narrative tedium.