Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Fall Of The Rebel Angels”

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I’ve been a fan of Hieronymus Bosch for some time now, but have never really given him my public due. That will change as I plan to discuss at least a few of his paintings at some point, but suffice to say that I consider him one of the first truly great painters — greater, in some respects, than even some of the best-known painters of the High Renaissance, with whom he was contemporaneous. That is because while Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were still at times stuck in the ancient Christian world of Old Rome, replete with its rote symbolism, simple — even twee! — tales, and predictable figuration, Bosch had turned to an unlikely, even contrarian, source: that of medieval art, with its clunky figures, simple landscapes, and other elements that, in lesser hands, stifled Western art of any real potential for many centuries.

This is because, under most circumstances, medieval art was simply flat. There was, on the one hand, no real technical merit, and on the other, no real idea, either. Bosch, however, was able to reach a compromise of his own making. Technical excellence, he likely realized, meant nothing without some intellectual heft, some deeper ‘trap’ or allure that would make mere technique absolutely REAL to the observer. So, forget the new standards of painting for a second, forget some of the better rules of perspective, and forget some of the repetitions, as well as the aesthetic demand for ‘beauty’. The more relevant thing, he instinctively thought, was not ‘beauty’ — which is always a tool or a preference, as opposed to an inherent good or depth — but COMMUNICATION. And not just communication, mind, but deeper communication, which might, in the right circumstances, involve less technically accomplished figuration, or colors and ideas that were presently out of vogue. Yet, in exchange, one would get a deeper look at the sorts of things the more popular painters were trying to do, via techniques that, while less showy, complemented the subject matter in a way that was not only richer, but more relevant to art in the long-term sense. Say what you will of the technical excellence required for the best Leonardo, or the greatest Michelangelo, but these are painters that have dated in a way that Bosch has not.

In fact, if one were to draw a line from the Italian Renaissance to modernity, the Renaissance painters would clearly be a kind of blueprint for the greater things to come. After all, who is Francis Bacon, Picasso, or Van Gogh more indebted to: the ideas (if not the artist) of Bosch, who revealed a more fractal sense of what art could be, or of the polish and re-polish of the Masters? Hell, even Caravaggio, who seems to be a direct descendant of Michelangelo, is only superficially of ‘that’ world. His ideas are just so completely different, and — even more importantly — are therefore treated differently by Caravaggio. Or Rembrandt, … Continue reading →

Review Of Steven Pinker’s “The Sense Of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century”

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Now, to be sure, I have never had much use for style guides. Yes, there was all the studying for the writing portion of the SAT, years ago, which required lots of rule-learning and — even worse — the application of said rules to poorly-written ‘answers’ that were anything but right. Yes, I’d been assigned the oft-banal Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style in college courses, and have, out of curiosity, perused a number of similar guides not only across form and genre (prose, poetry, non-fiction, sci-fi, grammar) but multiple languages, as well, just to see how the rest of the world, well, merely hypothesizes the sorts of things that are in fact REAL to me. For instance, I still recall reading Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, and finding — even as a 10 year old with a desire to impart stories — the thing too restrictive for anyone but the worst writers, to whom issues of mechanics and advice re: ‘world-building’ might narrowly apply.

Thus, I was both intrigued and a little alarmed when I read the title of Steven Pinker’s new book. Now, don’t get me wrong. While admittedly a very good writer with MANY interesting ideas across the board, Steven Pinker is a thinking academic (as opposed an academic thinker!), first, and has not, in his occasional comments on the topic, shown any deeper understanding of the arts. Yes, he’s constructed some great arguments, and pointedly done away with scientific fraud within the clarion of a mere sentence or two, but that does not really lend itself to art criticism. This is because the wisdom (not ‘knowledge’) immanent to recognizing a great poem, or the odd assortment of skills and luck that goes into differentiating a good from bad metaphor is nigh-indefinable. In short, while true creativity might be easy to quantify, if one merely KNOWS how to evaluate the works, themselves, its source in most cases isn’t. This means that no intellect, personal background, type, or force of character guarantees success in this endeavor, and Pinker’s book, to its credit, does not pretend otherwise.

Before getting into the book’s negatives, however, one must first say what it does right. Although it is easily the worst of the 3 or 4 books of his that I’ve read, The Sense Of Style is also, unsurprisingly, the best style guide that I’ve ever read. This is because it simply drops a few key hints re: usage and style, combs over the important historical trends as a kind of guideline, and thus allows the reader — at least for the most part — to draw his own conclusions on aesthetic matters, keeping the long view in mind and minimizing the least defensible stylistic errors. Too often, style guides are bogged down by dull proscriptive rules that don’t give a damn for rhythm, music, ambiguity, and subtleties of meaning that, in the end, do FAR more for language than thoughtless obedience ever … Continue reading →

Some Things Of Andy Warhol

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Prior to going any further, let me just get this out of the way. No, I would not consider Andy Warhol a very good artist, much less a great one. And, yes, his biggest claims to fame — repetition, mass production, irony, the overuse of color — merely took one or two ideas that MIGHT have worked as part of a smaller series, and made an entire life’s work of it, as opposed to a short, controlled burst of activity that would have been far easier to justify.

In short, this is the equivalent of having a single, minor idea, not being happy with its general lack of application, and therefore deciding to write the same 1,200 page book about it, a hundred times over, albeit with slightly different formatting at each go. Obviously, painting some banal object, or re-touching someone else’s photo, over and over again, can only take an artist so far, ending, as it does, precisely where the work ends: a colored image of a bad actress or dictator, or an ode to the commonness of soup — and the ‘deeper’ (I use this word lightly) reactions to said commonness. Sure, one can think of far worse paintings and/or statements, but this, by itself, does not ameliorate the real issue. It only reveals how easily confused the public is, manipulated, as it is, by artists who consider themselves above the sort of pettiness that they in fact engage in, thus taking the heat away from their own lacks.

Yet there’s another side to Warhol, as well. Unlike, say, the repetition of a Jackson Pollock, or the self-serving ‘explanations’ (if they can even be termed such) of a Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol had an advantage that these other folks did not. And I don’t just mean talent, because Warhol, in his ‘serious’ moments, was far more penetrating re: the arts, and FAR more self-aware when it came to his place there — including the transience of his own position, and what it says not only of other artists, but of the consumers who respond to such.

And, naturally, these responses aren’t very pretty. A couple of months ago, I watched a few documentaries on Warhol, including a 3 hour doc (“The Complete Picture”) and a better, 4 hour one. Yet I use the word ‘better’ loosely, since the only real reason why the 4 hour doc was better was stylistic — on top of the fact that it actually quoted a great deal from Warhol, who could be very interesting to listen to, at times. In fact, the primary drawback of both is their overuse of talking-heads, and especially clueless talking-heads that, in their admiration of Warhol, offer no real criticism, no original insight, and merely take Warhol’s art at face value, raving about the color saturation of this or that photo, or throwing around terms and judgments that, if one merely has eyes, clearly ill apply to the subject at hand. It’s a … Continue reading →

Public Domain: One Way Forward

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As a writer who constantly needs to have multiple books open at my work-table, as well as poetry, news stories, films, and my own notes, I’m always annoyed at how much SIMPLER this process could be if many of these materials were freely available online. Now, lots of people complain about issues of ‘access’, but, even more important is the fact that new artists must reasonably engage with older works. This includes extended quotation, the re-use of elements and narratives, and other forms of appropriation that, if we’re dealing with the public domain, can all be done without the fear of lawsuits. Combine this fact with the proliferation of e-readers, and quality publishers, such as Delphi Classics, who neatly collate and optimize complete editions of writers’ and painters’ works for a mere $2-$3, and you have not only a way of deepening culture at an exponential rate, but a new business model, as well, wherein publishers have an incentive to perfect these otherwise free works by adding ‘extras’ (images, biographical notes, technical scholarship, etc.) that would simply be impossible in print books.

But, instead, America has a public domain model that allows copyright throughout the author’s lifetime (understandable, and justified) PLUS 75 years… that is, long enough for descendants to skim off of an artist’s riches, then further entomb them in a network of family lineage, publisher demands, and the divvying up of who-gets-what, as opposed to a more rational approach that would ensure culture benefits, first– which is, of course, the true aim of most great artists, who, being dead, can live in one way only. On a personal level, I’ve been annoyed, for instance, at the fact that I could not excerpt Wallace Stevens’s great Yellow Afternoon in full, in my own novel, Doors & Exits, no matter how relevant, or how long ago he’s entered the social imagination, decades after he’s died. On a deeper level, though, there’s something else amiss, and it has to do with the future of one of the best and most neglected poets of the 20th century: James A. Emanuel, whose current issues re: the public domain should alarm anyone with a genuine interest in art.

According to Dan Schneider’s recent essay on James Emanuel and the public domain, Emanuel was, prior to Schneider’s 2001 discovery, championing, and interview with the man in 2007, pretty much unknown. There were no interviews, very few poems online, and no essays on the man outside of what might be found in obscure academic circles, in a godawful niche called ‘black studies’– because, after all, that’s what the clueless academics have pinned him as, a BLACK poet who “wrote about racism” (to quote the New York Times obituary), despite Emanuel having many poems attacking this very condescension.

Today, however, his reputations seems better. This is despite the fact that his Collected Poems are still out of print, and can run for around $200 on Amazon, up from the $15 or $20 … Continue reading →

Confucius, Lao Tzu, I Ching, Chinese history, & some inklings of the future.

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This is an old (2012) e-mail I sent to the Cosmoetica e-list, after I’d re-read Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius a few times, and began studying the I Ching– or, ‘divination sans divinity’. My views have not changed much, and there have been few philosophers as underrated as Confucius, mostly because what Western kids know him for (ideas on family, the practicum of government, etc.) occlude not only the truer depth of his thoughts, but also the clarity through which they’ve been communicated. Say what you will of the importance of Aristotle or the allure of Wittgenstein, but Confucius was, in many ways, an artist, first– which makes his ideas even deeper.

I’ve long suspected that the Chinese, as well as some other ‘older philosophers’, had hit upon a special way of viewing the world that simply had no concrete value to the (then) world of bodies– that is, war, hunger, poverty, and other forms of mass delusion. Because, in a sense, that’s what these qualities are: a means of keeping people stuck in the more transient stuff, wherein history is mere event after event, and generations, if you slice a time period just right, look pretty much identical. Such concerns, big as they are, have crowded out potentially more interesting ones, which are only now making a comeback, albeit mired in the form of New Age stupidity. Confucius, Lao Tzu, and others can easily be misappropriated by the faux spiritual (or, hell, even by the ‘truly spiritual’!), but this only means that they haven’t really found their place. I am not yet sure what role these names will play in our future, but they’ll have a part, eventually, more deep than some of the things we presently consider to be ‘important’, stuck, as we still are, in base, physical concerns, and unable to see outside of the limits of these mechanical roles.

So, let us begin:

Two from Lao Tzu:

For those that try to grasp, it’s gone.

People must learn to take death seriously, and stop wasting time in distant lands.



And the rest from Confucius:

Hence the man who keeps rein on himself looks straight into his own heart at the things wherewith there is no trifling; he attends seriously to things unheard.

The master finds the center and does not waver. The mean man runs counter to the circulation about the invariable.

The empire, kingdoms, families can be governed harmoniously; honors and salaries can be refused, you can tread sharp weapons and bright steel underfoot, without being able to stand firm in the unwavering center.

No, people do not use the main open road.

There are few men under heaven who can love and see the defects, or hate and see the excellence of an object.

To see high merit and be unable to raise it to office, to raise it but not to give such promotion precedence, is just destiny.

The man of breed looks at his own status [at himself], seeing it Continue reading →