"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Friday, August 27, 2010

Those Who Wield the Pen Must Also Wield the Scalpel: Installation #1

There are many well-known poems that have enjoyed wide recognition despite (what I consider) fairly obvious weaknesses that could have been remedied by a good editor. I will offer a short poem as my first example, with other examples to follow in future installations in this series. So, allow me to offer for your consideration the oft-anthologized poem "Keeping Things Whole" by Mark Strand. For copyright reasons, I refer you to the link attached to the poem title instead of reproducing the full text here. I love this poem, but I think there is a definite weak point. My suggestion for improving the poem is simple: Cut lines 4-7. Read it that way. What do you think? These lines seem overly-explanatory and redundant. They say in a less interesting way what is already said better by the other lines of the poem. The economy of the language in this poem also begs for eliminating all superfluities. Moral of the story: Those who wield the pen must also wield the scalpel.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Featured Artist: Meghan Rand

(1) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand

Meghan Rand is a photographer who lives in California. She was born in Boston and grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, but found her home in San Francisco, where she has resided for the last 7 years. You can see all of Meghan's photographs and purchase prints at her website: http://www.meghanrand.com/

*Note: The numbers in brackets ( ) in the captions of the photographs featured here have been assigned simply for ease of reference and are not titles.

"Everything Has Beauty": An Interview with Photographer Meghan Rand

Luke Hankins: Hi, Meghan. Thank you for agreeing to be my first “Featured Artist”! I primarily want to showcase your fine photographs, but I thought it might also be interesting to discuss your work a bit. The first thing I’d like to ask you about is what I might call a painterly quality in your photographs. You have an ability to find accidental phenomena that bear the hallmarks of aesthetic intentionality and design. Photographs (1), (5), (7), and (13) are good examples of what I mean. Is this a conscious, intentional effort on your part? If so, what is the significance for you of this approach? Or, if it is not a conscious effort, what might be the significance of the unconscious tendency?

Meghan Rand: Yes, I would say that the approach is intentional. My conscious mind is always looking for something in my everyday world that is beautiful in an unexpected way. It’s like discovering a painting that nature already created and all I do is document it. The photographs you referenced are all of rust—rusty water, rusty sidewalk, rusted paint scrape, rusted metal. Rust is in fact a paint created naturally by the elements. Photograph (13) is called “Rust Fern” and I noticed it in a parking garage near my office. If you can picture a big metal recycling bin, the “fern” has been created by a truck that has backed into the same spot over and over to transport or empty the bin. The first time I saw it, I smiled, and took its picture.

(2) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand 
(3) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand 

LH: I’m curious about your techniques and the equipment you use. Are all of your photos digital, or do you sometimes use film? Does the process of taking photographs differ greatly for you, depending on which equipment you’re using at the time? You have a series of photographs called eyePhotos, for instance, which were all taken with the camera on your iPhone (see (8), (9), (13), and (14)). What is it that you find interesting about using this relatively unsophisticated tool?

MR: These days, I shoot almost exclusively digital. I would be delighted to continue with some film projects sometime soon. I have really enjoyed using my Holga and Rollieflex medium format cameras, as well as photographing with my 4x5 large format camera, but getting to do a film project is more of a special treat than a daily reality due to cost.

Without a doubt, the process of how I take photographs differs depending on which equipment I am using. Photographing with my iPhone has been the most liberating experience and one that has reinvigorated my love of photography and my prolificacy. The easiest way I can explain is that shooting with an unsophisticated tool, as you put it, helps me get out of my own way. I don’t have to make many choices about how to take the picture (the aperture, shutter speed, focal length, etc.); I just see, aim, and click. The options presented to a photographer with sophisticated camera equipment can be overwhelming and in my case, stifling, as I am still in the learning stage with professional-level gear.

I must mention that the support of my friends on Facebook has provided the most amazing encouragement, and I owe much of the momentum of my recent work to that blessed social networking tool. Who could’ve guessed? I am extremely grateful.

LH: You say that with your iPhone you "don’t have to make many choices about how to take the picture" and that you "just see, aim, and click." This makes me wonder about your view of photography as an art form. Where does the "art" reside, in your opinion? Is it in the steps the photographer takes to capture the photograph (which you intentionally minimize with the iPhone)? Is it in the act of seeing, of noticing, itself? Is it the documentation? Part of what I'm wondering is whether you view photography as an art in the same way as other mediums (painting, writing, sculpting).

MR: I think the art has to reside in the end result—the photograph. If you know absolutely nothing about the photographer, the photographer’s training, the camera used, the amount of Photoshop applied, the lighting techniques employed, etc., you just have an image in front of you to evaluate. I think perhaps the act of seeing is a talent and the act of making or creating a photograph is the art form. Honestly, I think what is most important is the relationship the photographer has with the work and the process of making it.  So yes, I view photography as an art in the same way as other mediums. 
(4) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand  

LH: When did you first begin taking photographs? When did you begin to conceive of it as a serious artistic endeavor, and what were your life circumstances at that time?

MR: I have been fascinated by photography since I was a little girl and the miracle of picture-taking has captured my imagination ever since. In a way, every photograph is a performance that lasts forever. You can ask my mother—I always wanted photographs taken at every birthday party, recital, or new outfit. I think by 6th grade, I was always the one with the camera. Documenting my life seemed like a necessity and I diligently created albums for each school year. Having pictures seemed like proof of being alive, having friends, getting older, and achieving goals. Re-viewing them over the years was like re-telling the stories of my life—those based on reality or fantasy, depending on which construct was needed at the time. 

My gut answer to your question about when I first conceived of photography as a serious artistic endeavor is when I was 14. I wouldn’t have articulated that way then—and perhaps a more appropriate response would be in college when I got awarded a fellowship and had a solo show in a gallery—but my relationship to photography struck deep at the age of 14 because I desperately needed an outlet for exploring my identity as a teenager. Taking photographs was how I made sense of the world and I knew that I wanted to be able to communicate my view through the art of photography. It is that connection to photography that has sustained me ever since. Paradoxically, this deep connection has both fueled and hindered my artistic successes. So many artists get blocked from doing the thing they love most because of internal pressures that say they must be successful to be an artist. For example, I had long held the belief that I had to own professional, expensive camera equipment to take “real” photographs and to make money off them. As I mentioned earlier, using the iPhone and iPhone applications helped me get out of my own way by simplifying the process of creating art. Then Facebook simplified the process of sharing my art, which led to me landing my own show in a café, and thus, selling my work.

LH: Can you describe the primary appeal for you of the medium of the camera? What is it that attracts you to photography?

MR: Its immediacy. It brings me into direct and instant involvement with something. This gives rise to a sense of urgency and excitement, and makes me feel truly alive. Seeing all types of artwork can create a similar effect, but the act of photographing provides an experience like no other for me. Almost at the same time, I am having a clear perception of some phenomenon in the world and creating art from it. With digital technology, seeing the result is instantaneous and being able to share what I see is deeply gratifying.

(5) from "Perceptions © Meghan Rand 

(6) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand

(7) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand

LH: How do you go about taking photographs? Do you set apart time to go out and work, or do you carry your camera(s) with you and take a more unplanned approach?

MR: Some of the photographs you have showcased for this interview were taken during what I call “Artist’s Walks” where I deliberately walk down the street in a purely visually receptive frame of mind. The black and white photographs of the dunes were taken during a contemplative photography workshop in Colorado using the same philosophy. Many of the photographs I take also happen spontaneously during everyday life—like (8), which I took while standing at the bus stop bored, waiting, so I look up and see how the sun happens to be blocked by the street lamp. That’s awesome, I think to myself, and click. Now armed with my iPhone, I am always prepared to take a picture.

(8) from "Perceptions" © Meghan Rand

(9) from "Urban Meditation" Meghan Rand

(10) from "Perceptions" 
© Meghan Rand

LH: I’ve noticed several strong tendencies in your work: finding vivid colors ((9) and (6)), capturing regular geometric forms ((2) and (3)), and documenting diverse effects of light ((4), (8), (9), (11), and (14)), not to mention the tendency to find accidental phenomena that appear to have aesthetic intentionality, which I mentioned in my first question. Do you have an idea of how these tendencies have developed in your work over time? Have you noticed them?

MR: For sure—I mentioned in my last answer that I had participated in a contemplative photography workshop in Colorado. Back in 2000, I heard about Miksang Photography, a philosophy of photography that was born out of the tradition of Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, artist, and scholar Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. I have participated in several workshops with his student, Michael Wood, over the last 10 years. These teachings have contributed greatly to how I see the world and how I photograph. Some of the first lessons centered around looking specifically for color, light, texture. You can send your readers to http://miksang.com/miksang.html for more information on this wonderful practice.

(11) from "Dunes" 
© Meghan Rand

(12) from "Dunes" 
© Meghan Rand

LH: Finally, can you describe what your ambition is regarding your photographs? What do you hope they do or demonstrate? What do you most hope to accomplish when you take a photograph?

MR: What I most hope to accomplish? I just want to share what I see. I want to see something in my world that makes me stop, and slow down, and appreciate the beauty that is all around me, and in those unexpected places. I seem to be pulling this off so far, so maybe my ambition is to share it with more people.

LH: Thank you so much, Meghan! It is always a pleasure for me to see your photographs, and I look forward to seeing your new work as it appears.

MR: Thank you, Luke, for this opportunity to talk about and think about photography, and its role in my life. And thank you for sharing your gift of writing with us all.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes: 

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” –Confucius

(13) "Rust Fern" from "eyePhotos" 
© Meghan Rand

(14) "India Since 1980" from "eyePhotos" 
© Meghan Rand

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On William Logan's Review of Franz Wright and Natasha Trethewey

Have a look at the comment I recently posted on a review of books by Franz Wright and Natasha Trethewey, among others, by William Logan from a few years ago, in which I consider Logan's "vague kind of moralistic outrage": http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/God-s-chatter-2545

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thoughts on Value in Art

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (Three Panel), 1951; painting; oil on canvas, 72 in. x 108 in. (182.88 cm x 274.32 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchased through a gift of Phyllis Wattis; © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg / Licensed by VAGA, New York

*Those with "postmodernistic" leanings, be forewarned; you will likely be unhappy with some of the ideas that follow! But I'm interested in discussion, so please comment, if you like.

I once saw a blank white canvas (not even painted with white paint) bolted to the wall at le Centre Pompidou in Paris. There was a placard next to the canvas with a title and name of the "artist" (though I’ve forgotten the names). I thought at the time, and still do think, that it was complete b.s. An idea does not automatically qualify as art.

Robert Rauschenberg famously made a series of monochromatic paintings (I don’t believe it was a Rauschenberg that was on display at Pompidou; for one, there was no paint on that canvas, and Rauschenberg used paint even on his white paintings). John Cage, speaking about Rauschenberg’s white canvases, called them “airports of the lights, shadows and particles.” (This is not at all surprising, coming from the famous “composer” of the silent “4’33”--which came, by the way, as Cage himself pointed out, after Rauschenberg's whites.) My response to that notion would be that the wall of the nearest building, the floor, and a leaf (as three instances out of innumerable ones) are equally “airports of the lights, shadows and particles.” I think Cage’s attempt at discerning value or craft in the blank canvas is ridiculous.

Some would argue (and many do) that this work has to be considered in the context of the “conversation” of which it was a part. Hm. I'm dubious about the status as art of any artwork that depends for its effect on its audience being part of a meta-level “conversation” about art or the work’s particular genre. Those works seem to me less artful than political, foregrounding the “meaning” or “statement” and minimizing the aesthetic effect of experiencing the work. I'm not opposed to education or understanding of the context in which art arises and works within and reacts against. But if scholarship or entree is the ONLY means by which to appreciate a work of art, its worth is severely limited. Education about the context can enrich the experience (think of the way this might happen for someone reading a 19th-century novel, for instance), but if that kind of knowledge offers the only richness to be had in experiencing the work, then I say the work doesn’t function as art at all, but rather as a political billboard or a social commentary or philosophical proposition. This is not to say that art should not be "political" or "philosophical" (on whatever level) or be engaged in a historically-located conversation. Rather, what I mean is that when the message (and even an apparent utter lack of a message constitutes a message because it tells us about the artist's ideas about art, if about nothing else)--when the message supercedes the experience of the medium in importance for the artist and, by extension, for the viewers, then I think it would be strange to call such a work "art." It's become more like an essay than a poem, more like a billboard than a canvas.

I also think it’s important to consider what we value, how much we value it, and why. If Rauschenberg’s monchromatic canvases are a reaction against other artists or philosophies of art, then ok, it’s a “statement.” But in my experience, no one really cares about “statements.” A “statement” (act of communication) might be considered art (I say “might” because I do not think that this should always be the case, as I’ll discuss in a moment). Even so, I’d relegate a work that is purely, or at least primarily, a “statement” about art rather than a rich aesthetic experience to the less valuable end of the artistic spectrum. (Sure, you can experience a statement, but it’s a weak experience compared to other artistic experiences.) In my view, art should have itself (rather than any “conversation”) as its primary and most essential source of power, of having an effect on the viewer. Museums and public places and literary journals and publishing houses ought to champion and preserve those works of art that are most worthy of our giving them value--i.e., those that offer the richest and most significant experiences to those who value them.

There is also these days the opposite problem, namely, "art" that attempts to divorce the aesthetic from any intentionality--indeed, from any work--by the so-called artist or writer. A good example of this is poetry that is entirely computer-generated. Reading a computer-generated poem may be some sort of aesthetic experience, sure, but it is not art because there is no craftsmanship. Art is a shaping, a primarily aesthetic intentionality in a tangible medium. Blank canvases and computer-generated poems are not art because they either lack the primacy of the aesthetic, no matter how much work went into them, or lack intentionality (i.e., work, shaping, craft) despite any aesthetic effect they may have. This has what seem to me clear implications for value.

Much of this already sounds like a manifesto. (Poetry magazine recently featured some interesting manifestos, by the way:
Here's an attempt at the beginning of one:

A MANIFESTO ON ART (Part 1, Assay 1)

1. Manifestos are inevitably imperfect and insufficient, but they can be a means of articulating ideas and fostering discussion.

2. Art is artifice. It is a made thing. (This idea is inherent in the etymology of English words: poem comes from the Greek verb that means “to make”; art originated in the Latin word for “craftsmanship”; artifice comes from the Latin word for “skill.”) Thus, art is inherently creative in the literal sense of that word.

3. Given (2), in order to be considered a work of art, some amount of actual work has to have been done, some action taken on the medium.

4. Given (3), something that expresses an idea (or makes a “statement”) does not necessarily qualify as art. A blank canvas or blank sheet of paper would not qualify. (Another of Rauschenberg’s works, “Erased de Kooning Drawing," for example, would barely qualify, in my view. The blankness, in this case, is the result of work, however, so I wouldn't say it's absolutely not art. [In fact, a lot of work went into it, by Rauschenberg's account, because de Kooning purposely gave him something that would be difficult to erase, a page that had charcoal and paint and crayon.] Works of that nature function primarily on the level of meta-art, and are thus more expository than what I would call creative. "Erased de Kooning" seems to be primarily a “statement” rather than a creation--or an attempt to create a cause rather than an effect [see my previous post]. No matter how much work went into it, I would argue that it is the idea of what he did that is significant rather than the product itself, thus this work does not function primarily as an aesthetic experience--just look at the thing and that should be obvious--but as a representation of an idea. This is at the lowest end of the spectrum of art, in my book, hardly deserving the label. An example of something that, in my view, is decidedly not art would be John Cage’s “4’33,” which I mentioned above, a “composition” consisting entirely of three movements of silence. Note that this might, indeed, qualify as a “statement,” but not as a work of art, not as a made thing--as it is neither made nor a thing.)

A MANIFESTO ON ART (Part 2, Assay 1)

1. Value, as regards a work of art (see Part 1), is a measure of the potential reward of engagement (by a person) inherent in that work. Note that the potential is inherent in the work of art, given its physical properties, but not the value itself. Value is primarily an action (on the part of the valuer) rather than a characteristic of the work itself--it is a function of a complex interaction between the human experiencer and the work being experienced.

2. Works of art reward individuals in different ways and at different levels, but the potential reward should be thought of as the sum total of the amounts of reward experienced by a representative audience. (An assumption underlying this claim is that both subjectivity and objectivity exist simultaneously--and, in fact, are interdependent. We have subjective responses to an objective reality [an object or thing that is actual--that exists independent of our perceiving it].)

3. Some works of art are more worthy of value (i.e., reward valuation more highly) than other works of art. (Upon reflection, you will likely see that this claim does not contradict [2] above.)

4. Something can be art without being good art; i.e., the term art is not a statement of value, but art is the subject of valuation. (The term art is a statement of process [see Part 1].)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Way of Happening: Some Thoughts on "Art for Art's Sake"

It seems to me that people often quote W. H. Auden’s poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," as saying "poetry makes nothing happen," but they ignore completely the positive assertion he makes about poetry at the end of that stanza (in the same sentence, in fact!) when he calls poetry "a way of happening." (Not everyone ignores it, of course; see Don Share's 2008 blog entry about this poem, for instance.) This is not a diminishment of art, but a valorization of it and a clarification of its most basic function. It makes nothing happen, perhaps, but it is itself a way of happening. Here is section II in its entirety:


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

[emphasis added]

The 19th-century idea of "art for art's sake" has become not only a cliché, but a joke in common usage, eliciting rolling eyes or smug chuckles whenever the phrase is heard. This is unfortunate, because it means that we, in general, have stopped considering the implications of adopting the alternate view that art must necessarily serve some "outside" purpose. Auden, in his elegy for Yeats, is espousing precisely the "art for art’s sake" view, which is worth expounding: "Art for art's sake" means, for instance, that a poem is valuable as an end in itself, rather than merely as a means toward some other end. If a work of art is viewed as purely causal—that is, if its value is predicated on its effecting additional, exterior, tangible phenomena—then it means that we have forgotten that the work of art is, itself, an effect. This is more than academic lingo. A poem (Auden’s elegy for Yeats, for instance) is valuable already, in itself, as a work of art. If it causes no additional effects, it is still valuable as an effect that we, as readers, can experience firsthand. Another way of putting it is to say that the poem is valuable as an aesthetic work and a record of ideas—as something that can be experienced for its own sake, rather than for the sake of any pragmatic function it may (or may not) serve. That is not to preclude the idea that art can have pragmatic function; but I would caution against locating art’s primary value in pragmatism, at least insofar as “pragmatism” implies tangible effects on the so-called "outside world" (politics, society, etc.).

If poetry (and art in general) is "a way of happening," then we can value a work of art for the very experience of engaging with the work. Art is an effect to be experienced rather than a cause to be tested for its utilitarian impact on the world at large. The irony is, if we view and engage with art in this way, it is far more likely to in fact have a tangible effect on the levels of society and politics. However, we should never look to those effects as the primary source of art’s value.