Sunday, May 27, 2007

Self portrait with lonely sports anchor, Sixth Avenue near Rockefeller Center.

George Romero's Dawn of the Dead

"It is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad," says a gravelly voiceover in the trailer for Dawn of the Dead. Director George Romero made it in 1978, about 10 years after his famous Night of the Living Dead.

It isn't really a sequel; it's more of an ambitious expansion of the concept from the 1968 film. Romero says he got the idea when he toured a shopping mall owned by some friends. The mall had crawl spaces above the stores and civil defense food supplies hidden away.

The film begins with a television station in chaos, trying to report on the worldwide zombie pandemic. Our heroes are four people who get away from Pittsburgh in a TV news helicopter. About a half hour into Dawn of the Dead, the four land on top of a shopping mall to look for supplies. The mall's crawling with the undead.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here?" Francine asks her boyfriend Stephen, the helicopter pilot.

"Some kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do," Stephen replies. "This was an important place in their lives."

When the two others, cops named Roger and Peter, find the mall's control center, they turn on the Muzak. Next the escalators, then the fountains. We hear comical easy listening tunes while zombies stumble around. Cut to mannequin heads in windows. Which is which?

The message here is mixed: on the one hand, we have shoppers coming to the mall to mill around after death looking much as they did as live shoppers. A sort of critique of consumerism.

On the other hand, our survivors are living the ultimate consumer dream: a shopping spree.

"I need lighter fluid," Roger says to Peter.

"You got it!" Peter yells, as they jump out into the mall's main concourse with their machine guns.

They're ecstatic as they break into Penneys:

"How the hell are we going to get back!?"

"Who the hell cares! Let's go shopping first!" they cry.

We can see already what will be their undoing. It's greed. The horror movie code (especially circa 1978) demands it. This is the code that says promiscuous women must get killed first. That a swagger of over-confidence will be rewarded with decapitation. My god, if the zombies ever do come for us in the real world, more than half of us will know exactly what not to do, just from watching movies.

Another hour in, and the survivors are barricaded in the mall, having destroyed all the zombies inside. During a repose, they hear a clattering at the entrance of the mall.

"They're still here," says Francine.

"They're after us." They know we're still in here," says Stephen, her boyfriend.

"They're after the place," smiles Peter. "They don't know why they're here. Just remember. Remember that they want to be in here."

"What the hell are they?" muses Francine.

"They're us, that's all," answers Peter.

Romero plays the mall for its survivalist haven potential and black comic relief as much for its emerging status as a cultural wasteland.

The shopping spree has soured. Roger slowly dies after being bitten. He comes back to life, and Peter shoots him and buries him in the mall's modest tropical garden.

But life in the mall goes on. They make the mall's skating rink a shooting range, using mannequins for target practice. There's an almost endless cache of weapons and ammo in the mall's gun shop. They dress up in department store duds and make a candlelight dinner in the mall's restaurant. They outfit a fortified part of the mall like a luxury penthouse -- clear acrylic side chairs, an Italian lamp, a Danish stereo system, appliances, televisions tuned to the dwindling broadcasts.

They do everything they can to play at normal life, and it's utterly surreal. A cartoon imitation of real life, but weirder. Certain scenes surprise us: is this person dead? If so, is she a zombie? Or is it a mannequin? Or is one of our survivors just being still? When does the difference no longer matter?


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chloroform in Print

I had the pleasure of walking by the great Mormon temple across from Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side in Manhattan yesterday. It is, no doubt, a sign of wealth and influence for the Mormons to have such a large and ornate marble church in the heart of New York City.

A day later, today, I was reading the current issue of the New Yorker, and found a mention of Mormonism buried in an article about the insane former leader of Turkmenistan. It was a quote from Mark Twain -- he called the Book of Mormon chloroform in print -- and I was able to find it online. It's from his book Roughing It:
All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the "elect" have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it. I brought away a copy from Salt Lake. The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so "slow," so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle--keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, according to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

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In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: 'Let's establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it's true; if it's written in red ink, it's false.' After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: 'Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair -- the only thing you can't get is red ink.'
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, above, in bed, in the movie Zizek! The movie includes the joke above, which Zizek explains in detail in his book about 9/11, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!

Of the joke, Zizek writes:
One starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants -- then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the 'red ink': we 'feel free' because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict -- 'war on terror', 'democracy and freedom', 'human rights', and so on -- are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. In this precise sense, our 'freedoms' themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Name's Dowd. Elwood P.

"My name's Dowd. Elwood P. Let me give you one of my cards. If you should ever want to call me, call me at this number, don't call me at that one. That's the old one. If you happen to lose the card, don't worry, I have plenty more."

Can anyone name the actor and the film?


UFO in Central Park

I caught this shocking image of a UFO hovering above Central Park. Even as children played catch with footballs, and a commercial jet passes above, oblivious to the sinister presence, the alien ship watches. Click on the photo for a larger view.

"If I was her, I would hit someone the second I got in there and go into PC, protective custody. Then she's just got to sit in there and read some books."
Ice-T's advice for Paris Hilton on going to jail. From New York Magazine's Party Lines column, May 28, 2007.

Heaven Is Right Here

The single most interesting I've learned about the world from the Mormons:
"Latter-day Saints know, through modern revelation, that the Garden of Eden was on the North American continent and that Adam and Eve began their conquest of the earth in the upper part of what is now the state of Missouri. It seems very probable that the children of our first earthly parents moved down along the fertile, pleasant lands of the Mississippi valley."

From Mormon Apostle John A. Widtsoe's Evidences and Reconciliations, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft 1960, p. 127 (found at Utah Lighthouse Ministry)
Yeah. That's right. Missouri.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sketching Edward Hopper

Peter Schjeldahl wrote something in his New Yorker review of the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that struck me:
A good way to grasp Hopper paintings is to sketch them—never mind if, like me, you can’t draw. Just get the main shapes, including those of empty space, and how they nest together in the pictorial rectangle. Hopper bets everything on composition, which, in his work, is almost as tautly considered as in a Mondrian. (He didn’t so much hold back from modernism, from which he took what he needed, as see beyond it. He objected to abstraction only as Picasso did, for its limits on emotional engagement.) Hopper’s means are light and shadow, which establish the masses and the relative locations of forms. Raking light is the active element in static situations, as a stand-in for the artist, who inhabits his works everywhere and nowhere, like God. The light’s authority overrules worries about clotted textures and gawky contours. A wall or an arm is exactly as it is because the light, hitting it, says so.
The part that interested me most was the part about sketching an artist's painting. This isn't something the typical art appreciater might think of, but it's one of the surest ways to engage with a work of art. In an era when a simple stripey Rothko painting can fetch $72.8 million at auction, confounding all the parents who have toddlers they may regard as more talented than the late Mr. Rothko, we need all the engagement we can get.

And this can apply to all the arts. I'm not saying we all need to sing karaoke and start tribute bands, but that might help. It's a shame, in a way, that the days when people bought sheet music to bring home and play for the family are over. My parents' generation were forced to memorize poetry in school. Mine wasn't, and I think we're suffering for it -- both in the sense that we don't have the words of the wiser to call upon in times of trial and in that we simply don't have the discipline that memorization creates.

Try transcribing a great poem. Or sketching a great building, as students of architecture do. It's the only way to truly understand the way words and spaces relate to each other. It's a more active way of observing, a way of seeing the things right in front of you that never showed up before.

The painting above is Hopper's "Second Story Sunlight", 1960, from the Whitney Museum's collection.

See also Richard Lacayo's review of the Hopper retrospective in Time.


Scenic Como Park, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Fighting Words From Our Friends in Print

"Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand," Richard Schickel wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday:
Criticism -- and its humble cousin, reviewing -- is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.
Schickel, a film and book critic, is bitter about something he read in the New York Times, an article that found solace in the possibility of bloggers filling a void left by the disappearance of newspaper book critics.

Richard Schickel makes the same mistake that every scared print-bound critic makes: That blogs are trying to replace print. They're not, and the bloggers, much less the blog medium itself, are not the mortal enemy of the print critic.

Observers and paranoid ad sales teams have been over-thinking the so-called blog revolution. Blogging is merely a cheap, easy way of making a website. A website can, like a magazine, contain articles. For our purposes, it's best to think of blogging as a mode of delivery similar in many ways to a magazine. It's a medium.

But the medium isn't the message (to turn Marshall McLuhan's trope around); the message stays the same. The message here is criticism, and the fact that there's high-quality criticism and low-quality criticism, professional criticism and amateur criticism, doesn't change with the publishing mode.

I like to compare today's burst of blogging to America's newspaper industry around the time of Ben Franklin. With a wide-open market and relatively affordable printing presses, some small entrepreneurs started little papers. There was a lot of competition. There were big papers with big money behind them and small, one-man operations that struggled. There was yellow journalism at the worst end and excellent standards at the other. Over time, most papers fell. Some prevailed. And not necessarily the best or the most reliable. That's capitalism.

Blogging and web-based media will follow the same pattern. This isn't as new or as scary as some of our frightened friends (or abusive step-fathers, in the case of Mr. Schickel) in print would have us believe.

So when a critic who's been making a living as a film critic for Time and a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times suddenly uses his position to tell people who have been making the best of cheap printing presses (which is what the blog medium amounts to) that they are lower than amateurs, that they have no credibility and that they ought to stop, I figure we bloggers must be making progress.

No one thinks Joe Barstool, a working stiff who rattles off casual reviews of crime novels, is replacing the professional daily and weekly critic. No one thinks that the 16-year-old movie enthusiast who posts rave reviews of blockbusters on his MySpace page is creating thoughtful prose and insightful criticism.

When the barriers to entry are low, the quality is lower and the quantity is higher. Everyone knows that, and no one in their right mind thinks that means the end of the good stuff; it just means more junk to sift through. But it isn't as if Americans are being deluged by millions of pounds of mimeographed fan-zines, pamphlets, and cut-and-paste newsletters in their mail boxes every day. We have to seek out these blogs and web-based dilettante critics ourselves.

Richard Schickel's error is comparing the blog world to a democracy, a mythological political system where everyone gets a voice. Politics is the wrong analogy. Try economics. The market decides who gets read. Not every voice is heard. Many voices echo into the void and then fade out. Much like new companies or new magazines.

When a new genre, like blogging -- or to use a music analogy, hip hop -- is created, the first skeptics will say it's not music at all. A moody and snobbish Schickel compares blogging to finger-painting, and quotes a writer who says it's more like talking than writing.

Next, the skeptics will concede that it's music (or writing), but that it isn't as good as its traditional counterparts, and never can be.

Maybe they're missing the point. If you and I are playing chess against each other, and I'm playing speed chess and you're thinking through each move for an average of 30 minutes, the game isn't going to work so well. This is the difference between a typical blog critic and a typical newspaper critic: they're playing different games.

Mr. Schickel believes that the permanence of paper elevates criticism:
The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.
He's saying that when a writer knows he or she will be writing for paper publication, the writer takes better care, thinks things through. He's right -- when I post this online, I will have worked on one draft, without an editor, and I will have posted it rapidly.

But again, Schickel is concentrating on the medium, when the blame lies in the execution. What blogs have created is in essence a genre of writing. The best of the genre, like the best of graffiti or the best of detective novels, is excellent, but different from traditional painting or literary novels or magazine and newspaper criticism. Dismissing the entire genre is a losing battle. Pay attention to the best of it, Mr. Schickel, and accept that the world is changing.

And embrace the enthusiasm with which people are engaging with culture. Some of them will become better writers because of it, and eventually graduate to paying jobs at major print media.

Schickel is an elitist in the worst sense of the term. He's the party guest who stops talking to you when he hears you live in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. He's the guy who mutters during an impassioned speech by an earnest soul that we shouldn't have to listen to this self-indulgence, reacting to the emotion and not hearing the words. He's the type that believes that art in a museum is good art, because it's in a museum. He's the kind of critic that enforces canons and grumbles about other voices pushing out the venerable classics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a bit of an elitist myself. I don't have time for babble and cheerleading and over-simplified rating systems. But I'm not going to judge the merits of a critic or a reviewer based on his or her mode of transmission. That's illogical.

I was recently asked by an acquaintance why I thought I was qualified to be an art critic. My undergraduate degree isn't in Art History, it's in English Literature. I don't have a graduate degree. I currently write about telecom software for a living. Why should anyone trust my judgment about art?

Let me turn that around and ask why anyone should trust my judgment about telecom software. My background is in writing, not in technology. How did I get here? I'm not an expert -- I don't even want to be. But I have the analytical and writing background necessary to ask the right questions. My role isn't as a pundit or an insider; it's as a translator. I am a liaison between the sometimes-hostile factions of software maker and software user. I ask the software users what they think of the technology, how they use it, what they're lacking, and what they want to do. I ask the software makers what the software is built to do, how people use it, what's coming next, and how best to make the technology work.

Back to art, a topic I'm much more personally invested in. I'm not a seasoned expert in art, but no expert comes to the media fully formed. I'm an educated enthusiast who asks questions, follows critical threads, looks closer, and attempts to bridge the gap between an intelligent but confused public and a insular and opaque art world. I am constantly learning about art and its roles -- actual, possible, and ideal -- in our culture, and my goal is to document my thought process.

I write this blog because I love to write. I do it for a living but I don't write about what I love at work; I do that on my own time. With any luck, I'll be paid for this some day soon. I think of this as a part of the minor leagues. If I'm not entertaining and thought-provoking, people won't read what I have to say. If I am, people will come, and skeptics like Schickel will have deal with my kind on a more level field.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Hanging Meats of MoMA

MoMA Cafe, second floor.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Downtown Minneapolis.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Ralph Burnet's Luxury Art Hotel

"Art doesn't have to be an oil or goache or acrylic on canvas hanging on a wall. It doesn't have to be necessarily a sculpture that's in a sculpture garden. Art can be anything, as far as I'm concerned, that evokes some kind of an emotion."

That's Ralph Burnet, art collector and owner of the Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis. The Chambers website calls it "The country’s first luxury art hotel"; each room has a piece from Burnet's private collection.

Above, in the courtyard, is a sculpture called "A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling" by Angus Fairhurst (b. 1966) -- one of the so-called "Young British Artists" avidly collected by Burnet.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a slide show, narrated by Burnet (from which the quote above was taken), about the hotel's art collection.

The New York Times travel section reviewed the hotel last January.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

John D. MacDonald's The Quick Red Fox

The following rant is an excerpt from John D. MacDonald's crime novel The Quick Red Fox, the fourth in his Travis McGee series. All four of them came out in 1964.

In this passage, McGee, reluctantly trying to recover photo evidence of a famous actress's sexual indiscretions, is visiting Santa Rosita, California on the trail of a blackmailer. He sees the city as a banal Anytown, USA -- a place where mass culture tramples down individuality, whether personal or geographical.
You see, Virginia, there really is a Santa Rosita, full of plastic people, in plastic houses, in areas noduled by the vast basketry of their shopping centers. But do not blame them for being so tiresome and so utterly satisfied with themselves. Because, you see, there is no one left to tell them what they are and what they really should be doing.

The dullest wire services the world has ever seen fill their little monopoly newspapers with self-congratulatory pap. Their radio is unspeakable. Their television is geared to a minimal approval by thirty million of them. And anything thirty million people like, aside from their more private finctions, is bound to be bad. Their schools are group-adjustment centers, fashioned to shame the rebellious. Their churches are weekly votes of confidence in God. Their politicians are enormously likable, never saying a cross word. The goods they buy grow increasingly shoddy each year, though brighter in color. For those who still read, they make do, for the most part, with the portentous gruntings of Uris, Wouk, Rand and others of that same witless ilk. Their magazine fare is fashioned by nervous committees.

You see, dear, there is no one left to ask them a single troublesome question. Such as: Where have you been and where are you going and is it worth it.

They are the Undisturbed. The Sleep-Lovers.

And they fill out an enormous number of forms every year, humbly and sincerely. Each one is given a number to use all his life. ...

In the meanwhile, Virginia, Santa Rosita still exists, and it is as if some cynical genius had designed a huge complex penal colony in the sunshine, eliminating the need for guard towers and barbed wire by merely beaming a gigantic electronic message at the inmates, day and night, saying You are in heaven! Be happy! If you can't be happy here, you can't be happy anywhere!
The title, incidentally, probably comes from the pangram "The quick red fox jumps over the lazy brown dog," a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. It has been used to test typewriter keys and to show typefaces.

The illustration on the cover of a German edition of the book, shown above, may be an allusion to the blackmail photos of the actress, in flagrante delicto.


A Shepard Fairey poster near the Bowery, defaced by the infamous Splasher.

The Splasher has destroyed Manhattan and Brooklyn graffiti, often works by star artists like Shepard Fairey, Banksy (who was just profiled in the New Yorker), and the Brooklyn collective, Faile.

The Splasher's antics may or may not be the result of some ham-handed guerrilla marketing by American Apparel, which has a clothing line based on nothing but permutations of the t-shirt. American Apparel is also known for its quasi-porno ad campaigns.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Yeats' Second Coming

Lots of our pearls of wisdom of sayings come from Shakespeare and the Bible, and few of us ever realize it. But there are other sources, too. Take William Butler Yeats' 1919 poem "Second Coming." Adam Cohen parsed the poem in the New York Times recently, in the context of Iraq. It's been quoted amply of late, from "the center cannot hold" to "things fall apart" to the more gruesome and specific "the blood-dimmed tide is loosed."

Here's part of what Cohen wrote, noting that blogs were chock full of Yeats these days:
These phrases all come from William Butler Yeats’s “Second Coming.” Yeats’s bleakly apocalyptic poem has long been irresistible to pundits. What historical era, after all, is not neatly summed up by his lament that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”? But with its somber vision of looming anarchy, and its Middle Eastern backdrop (the terrifying beast Yeats warns of “slouches towards Bethlehem”), “The Second Coming” is fast becoming the official poem of the Iraq war.

The pundits who quote it, though, are picking up on Yeats’s words, but not his world view. As Helen Vendler, the great Harvard poetry scholar, and others have pointed out, “The Second Coming” is really two poems. The first eight lines are filled with the pointed aphorisms that pundits like so much, while the rest of the poem suggests the unpredictability of how history will unfold. This second, less quoted part is the one that speaks most directly to the grim situation in Iraq.
Here's the entire poem:
The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(found at
Cohen notes that Yeats was more of new age mystic type, and not a Christian. The Bethlehem reference and the title didn't mean to Yeats that Jesus was on his way; what's more, Yeats apparently liked fascism more than quaint democracy.

Critic Harold Bloom says the poem is meant to describe the end of Christianity and the beginning of something else, a new god. None of that is what the pundits had in mind when they quoted the poem.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Times Square.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tom Wolfe on Public Sculpture

Tom Wolfe, everybody's favorite dapper dandy, is a curmudgeonly critic when it comes to art and architecture. He's simply nonplussed by the Bauhaus and by abstract art. But don't let the photo fool you; he's quite articulate.

Wolfe's article "The Worship of Art," from the October 1984 issue of Harper's, appeared in abbreviated form in the Fall/Winter 2006 issue of Public Art Review, a biannual journal published in St. Paul. He's skeptical of contemporary and even modern art, which he said, somewhat sarcastically, was replacing religion as an object of worship. Public sculpture in particular.

At one time, a monument erected outside a building or in a public space was easily understood by Joe Sixpack. You'd have a figure on horseback with a plaque announcing his contribution to democracy. Or a fellow in bronze may grace the front of a building he endowed. Even the more modern Atlas sculpture outside of Rockefeller Center makes sense, Wolfe argues -- it's about the power and reach of the Rockefeller family's influence.

But then this new-fangled abstract stuff came in and befuddled poor Tom. Art that, instead of glorifying something obvious, like a man or a war, "proclaims the glory of contemporary art."

It fulfills the the new purpose of public sculpture, which is the legitimation of wealth through the new religion of the educated classes.
Which nicely describes what Aby Rosen, a real estate developer and art collector who owns the Lever House building in Midtown Manhattan might have been doing when he put Damien Hirst's monstrous Virgin Mother sculpture up in the Lever House plaza. This sculpture of a pregnant woman cut-away to reveal musculature and fetus says that Rosen is rich, audacious, and sophisticated in a creepy sort of way. It signals that he knows art, collects it, and that if you don't get it, well, you don't get it. What better way to cultivate a reputation than to publicly display grotesque art that few understand? This is what makes Hirst's piece successful for a billionaire collector: It's shocking enought that if some people don't like it, the people who do can claim that the people who don't are just squeamish. Put more simply, it's got shock value.

I disagree with Wolfe. I don't think that public sculpture since 1950 merely celebrates itself. I think it can also, at worst, celebrate the taste (however bizarre) of the commissioner. Not to mention his or her belonging to a rich, sophisticated, secular (as in non-religious) group of quasi-intellectuals. At best, it does much, much more, but it never does just one thing.

At best, public art can call attention to an open space, decorate, provide entertainment, and something give a community something to ponder and rally around. It can become a symbol of a place, like the Eiffel Tower.

To Wolfe, much of post-WWII public sculpture is part of a system of blobs and shapes made by eccentrics and displayed all over to justify the fact that there's a lot of other blobs and shapes in other places.

His outcry over modern art is as disingenuous as a person complaining that he doesn't understand what the trees are saying with all those leaves. We're not always supposed to read abstract art. It isn't always a symbol of something else, or a commemorative, or a story in physical form. Sometimes it's a shape. Or a blob. It doesn't have meaning. It has a shape and a texture and if one looks at it long enough, or in different ways, it makes one feel things and imagine things.

"This type of abstract public sculpture is known within the architectural profession, sotto voce, as the Turd in the Plaza school," wrote Wolfe. That's actually really funny, I have to admit. He continued:
The term was coined by James Wines, who said, "I don't care if they want to put up these boring glass boxes, but why do they always deposit that little turd in the plaza when they leave?"
Look at it this way though. Those boring glass boxes weren't boring when the first of them appeared amid a sea of brick and stone buildings. And some of the better turds really looked fresh at one time.

If there's a point to abstract art as I understand it, it was -- and may continue to be -- to create shapes and themes that do not have a basis in nature or knowable forms. The first times this was done it was revolutionary.

"The public sees nothing, absolutely nothing, in these stone fields, tilted arcs, and Instant Stone Henges, because it was never meant to." Wolfe wrote. Is that bad? When he writes "nothing," he means that they were looking for easily digestable meaning. Asia has been much better about appreciating the abstract than we in the West have. The jumps from a Japanese garden to raked gravel and stones to Wolfe's "stone fields" is really not so far. But when you're hoping for a sculpture of a guy with a sign that says "This Guy Built the Building Over There," a bunch of rocks can be pretty disappointing.

And when an artist charges you a million dollars for him to truck in a bunch of rocks and dump them in your yard, you feel like a rube, because any landscape architect, nay, any person with a budget and a phone could have accomplished much the same thing.

Wolfe complains about what the artist Carl Andre did when he was commissioned to create something for the city of Hartford, Connecticut in 1978. Andre brought 36 big rocks to the place, called it Stone Field, and charged the city $87,000. They are, rumor has it, still there. To head off any dissent, and there was lots of it, Andre had a sort of manifesto, wrote Wolfe:
Andre's Stone Field ... was created to illustrate three devout theories concerning the nature of sculpture. One, a sculpture should not be placed upon that bourgeois device, the pedestal, which seeks to elevate it above the people. (therfore, the rocks are on the ground.) Two, a sculpture should "express its gravity." (And what expresses gravity better than rocks lying on the ground?) Three, a sculpture should bot be that piece of bourgeois pretentiousness, the "picture of the air" (such as statues of Lee [the general] and Duke [the tobacco baron]); it should force the viewer to confront its "object-ness." (You want object-ness? Take a look at a plain rock! Take a look at thirty-six rocks!)
Wolfe is fun to read because he's funny, he writes well, and he's provocative. I'm not going to defend all abstract and post-WWII art against Wolfe, but I'm not going to agree with him either.

I found a similar argument on a blog called Two Blowhards:
Don't get me wrong, I love public art, and would like to see more of it. I just think that public art should actually connect with the public, not talk down to it.
I agree, but can we ever agree upon what connects with the public?

Alexander Calder's La Grande Vitesse (pictured above), one of his Stabiles, was put in Grand Rapids, Michigan (at a cost to the NEA of $45,000 in 1969. The blogger uses this as an example of public (and publicly finded) art that doesn't connect with the public, but I happen to think Calder's Stabiles do connect with people.

That said, much of post-WWII deliberately confounds. Wolfe quotes the great art critic and champion of anstract art, Clement Greenberg, "who said that all great contemporary art 'looks ugly at first.'" So, Wolfe says, if you don't like it at first, if it seems hideous and out of place, it's probably quite good.

That's not fair, either on Wolfe's part or Greenberg's (although I doubt Wolfe's reductive quote is the whole of Greenberg's argument). But it may be just this attitude that makes the incomparable Lisa Yuskavage's art (at left) worth so much these days.

No, I don't always agree with Wolfe, but the art world would be a lot cooler right now if more people thought of art less as a commodity and more as something to serve us, connect with us, and tell us about ourselves.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Quality Design and Classy Style

The word "design" has become as casually mis-used as the word "quality" -- both have come to mean something good, as in good design and high quality, in business and marketing speak. To say something is "quality" is like saying something tastes. How does it taste? What kind of quality? Low quality? High quality?

Merriam-Webster's cites the more collquial definition ("being of high quality"), an adjective instead of a noun, as coming into use in 1936. It still rankles some of us.

Likewise this more casual use of the word design. We need to be more aware of how we're using these terms, lest we start thinking only well-designed things are actually designed at all. Anything made is designed, whether consciously or not.

I thought of all of this again when I read an article called "What if Apple is Bad for Design" on the superb design blog Design Observer. Note here that the word is being used as a description of a trade or discipline, and not to snobbishly describe something one merely thinks is good design.

In the article, written by designer Thomas de Monchaux, there's a rant about the terminology, but it's not exactly the same as my rant:
First, there is the corruption of the word "design" itself, as it's generally applied to an Apple object. What distinguishes your iPod from your brand-x MP-3 player is not design: that brand x machine also is distinguished by design. By bad design. What is unique to Apple is more accurately called "style": a clear signature vocabulary of forms and materials, superabundant to the mere requirements of function, that convey a certain sensibility, atmosphere, association, vibe. Of course, all those rounded corners may aid in manufacture and structure, but they also say in a comfortingly Jetsonian way: "I'm from the future, and so are you." It's the familiar tension between Modern and Modernist, in which a particular high style is mislabeled as "design," and a corrupted understanding of the phenomenon of design is misrepresented as an additional "feature" of an object. The danger here is the implication that design can be reduced to a characteristic of an object, and not the animating spirit behind all its characteristics in total, (and, thus, the notion that an expensive detail that can be dispensed with by the practical-minded).
De Monchaux is distinguishing between design and style, which makes me realize that my anti-quality and anti-design rant is a losing battle. Might as well complain about the word "stylish" not being specific enough about what sort of style, or about saying someone is "classy", when you really mean high-class. Okay, so our language tends to turn general terms into specific ones.

But I'm left with de Monchaux's distinction between design and style. Jeffrey Zeldman, a blogger for the software maker Adobe, had a similar argument:
Many young web designers view their craft the way I used to view pop culture. It's cool or it's crap. They mistake Style for Design, when the two things are not the same at all. Design communicates on every level. It tells you where you are, cues you to what you can do, and facilitates the doing. Style is tautological; it communicates stylishness. In visual terms, style is an aspect of design; in commercial terms, style can communicate brand attributes.
Later, he says something else, something that reminds me of some of the toothbrushes that don't make it into my famous toothbrush collection:
When Style is a fetish, [Web]sites confuse visitors, hurting users and the companies that paid for the sites. When designers don't start by asking who will use the site, and what they will use it for, we get meaningless eye candy that gives beauty a bad name — at least, in some circles.
Toothbrushes, like car stereos and sneakers, are the victim of garrish, constantly changing style with little attention paid to design. They are all a lot of flashing lights and neon colors, but very little in the way of ergonomics, function, and cohesiveness.

Back to Mr. de Monchaux and the discussion of Apple products. He writes:
The good design of the iPod is not to be found in the high style that shapes its material form, but in the inspired interface between that physical object and the information design and the software embedded therein.
That's what I'm talking about. The problem with good design is often that consumers become so happy with a product that they don't want to replace it every season.

The solution many product designers have, says de Monchaux, is to have their products "annually tweaked in ways that stray far from anything one would arrive at from first principles." A toothbrush gets a tilted or split head, angled bristles, more colorful handle, and every permutation imaginable, only to distract consumers into spending more and replacing earlier.

De Monchaux's essay is ultimately about Apple's design problems. "If you round too many corners," he writes, quotably, "you lose your edge." He isn't happy with the new iPhone design; he makes it sound like it's design hastily, and that Apple is slavish to its own style quirks to point of sacrificing good overall design.

It's all a reminder that the way something looks often trumps what it does and how it does it, and how we all like shiny things.


The Masticator at One Year Old

I was pleased to see that my post on Jeff Wall's Invisible Man photograph is linked to in the blog attached to the Public Radio show Open Source, which is, alas, not available in either New York City or the entire states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Consequently, I've never heard of it.

But my post was filed under "Extra Credit Reading" in Open Source's blog entry on Ralph Ellison, which was done in conjunction with a broadcast called "Ralph Ellison's America". Nice to see my readership is slowly growing beyond the fifty or so people that read The Masticator weekly.

As of March 31, this blog is now one year old, and it's had nearly 7,000 hits.
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