Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Music vs. Genre


I was listening to some music recently. I forget whether it was rock or jazz or whatever... but it was definitely music composed of many separate parts... parts for vocals, drums, bass, guitars, horns, and so on. Whatever it was, there was a lot of it… and all that noise was woven together using skills and timings and arrangements and sensibilities that were highly refined.  It put me in mind of the surprising sophistication of even the most humble pop music, let alone the extravagant arrangements of jazz or classical. In comparison to the utter simplicity of my own musical existence, these sophistications are a million miles from what I construct when left alone with my instrument. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder how one goes from here to there... from the simple connection of solo musical consciousness, to those farthest reaches of musical group-think. And then I asked myself, "Who the fuck comes up with that shit?"

I ask it because when one sits alone with their instrument, the act of finding and making sounds is so much simpler and dumber. You just sit there plucking one note, then another, and then strum a chord, then sing something that occurred to you, and then do some more of the same and play around. So you sit on your porch in a rocking chair like some old bluesman, strumming and plucking your way through what seems like a relevant musical experience, whereby you sincerely relate tonal happenings to movements in your soul. But then you turn on the radio and are literally blown out of your seat by musical conflagrations of sound and the combined energies of a gaggle of musicians all playing in a fantastic unity… and it seems completely obvious that such things could not have emerged from the mind of any single person, since singular persons are prone to sitting alone with their instrument and coaxing sounds from it with nothing but their native imagination to guide them. 

For instance… if left to their own devices and never having been exposed to rock music, would anyone just independently come up with "Stairway To Heaven" or "Purple Haze"? If one wasn't exposed to jazz, could one somehow invent the hard-bop styling of John Coltrane, or perhaps the impossibly animated and rambunctious cacophony of traditional New Orleans Jazz? And if someone had never heard a symphony orchestra, could they (by tinkering with the various orchestral instruments) conceive of what-in-the-hell 75 musicians could manage to play for 20 straight minutes.

The answer to this paradox is found in recognizing that music has both a personal and a social aspect. In terms of the social aspect, we can note that the social evolution of music has been ongoing since medieval times, where (for example) the Gregorian chants were composed without the full range of musical tones we recognize today. The subsequent history of Western music has been the development of musical theory, musical instruments, and forms and genres of music. Each next generation accepts as a baseline the developments that evolved from the previous one. It is not always clear to historians how and when key moments of evolution happened… the musical missing link so to speak… but we can be sure it adheres to an evolutionary process.

As to the personal aspect of music, we can note that those who undertake to make music in any time or place are always subject to the state of the evolutionary process that exists then and there. Though we imagine the musician to be involved in a personal moment of musical awareness, the larger fact seems to be that all the instruction they ever receive is derived from the evolution of music, and so the knowledge and skill transmitted to them will be in terms of the musical theories, instruments, forms, and genres as they exist there and then. This means that the musician is not simply trying to relate music per se to some innate musical sensitivity that we imagine exists in the human soul… but instead, is drawn into the bigger world of the social aspect of music… where they will express musicality through instrumentalities not of their own creation. This is obviously the case with the musical instruments, which we do not expect anyone to have to invent. But it also applies to the tones created, which have to obey the harmonic and melodic norms of their time and place, lest they seem like incomprehensible noise to the audience. And finally, the music needs to be arranged in genres familiar to the audience, lest (again) they seem incomprehensible. 

These considerations suggest that music is not so much the product of individual temperament, as it is a complex social product that produces conformance between those who make it and those who listen. Individual temperament will naturally show itself based on the personality of each performer, which will come through more or less as their genre allows. But the limit on the individual freedom of the musician is that they cannot operate outside the known bounds of the social aspects of music described above. 

The reason that these considerations are important is that a vast amount of hot air is generated by performers, audience, and critics in describing what is going on with music. It is generally accepted that because music is made by people, that it is thereby an individualistic activity. This is a pleasant notion that corresponds to the Romantic and Modernist desire to root creation in acts of individuality.  And within a certain context, this is true. But what I believe is consistently ignored are the aforementioned social aspects, which produce a vast conformity over music, and which hamstring the musicians in the very infancy of their instruction; locking them into genres and styles that they could not possibly have originated on their own… and that by the time they have evolved to so-called master status, it's not so much that they make the music (which strictly speaking, they do)… but rather, that the music has made them.

Proof of this is that musicians are very typically locked into a genre (shared traditions and conventions) which exerts a controlling influence on their musical thinking. If you sit a rock musician down with an acoustic guitar and ask him to invent a brief musical thought, they will undoubtedly play something in minor blues scale. A blues musician will knock off a riff characteristic of that genre, all the while imagining themselves as expressing their blues in an original way. A jazz musician will rifle through some seventh and ninth chords characteristic of that genre, while the classical musician will pound out 88 keys worth of lush familiarity.  

These things make me wonder whether a musician can relate to music other than through genre? Can a musician simply relate himself to music per se, without having to reference the shared traditions and conventions of the genres that he has only ever learned music through? And if they cannot, then is it fair to say that they have no musical consciousness outside of a genre's shared traditions and conventions? And though this might be the unquestioned norm, is it fair to consider that the musician doesn't so much express himself through music, than that he expresses himself through a genre of music... which means he expresses through shared traditions and conventions... which means he expresses himself through that which has formed him in the first place. Does this not strain the credibility of claiming that one expresses themselves through music, when in fact it seems more the case that they are simply expressing that which the genre allows? But what does the genre allow other than itself? Only this... it allows the musician stylistic variations on the genre itself, hemmed in on all sides the bland determinism of genre training and sensibilities. Everything points back to the genre. The musician is only allowed to have a style. But what is that, other than prisoners singing in their cells to relieve the monotony of that which they cannot escape. It seems the musicians are somewhat confused about the difference between freedom and slavery?

I shouldn't be too harsh on musicians. After all, even language itself shares these paradoxical aspects, and evolves from a similar socially evolved educational process. And though we vest language with the potential to represent and communicate our deepest notions of self… it is also a socially constructed and historically evolved form with structural characteristics we are not aware of until we are older. And not even then unless we study philosophy or linguistics or foreign languages, and by that study come to understand that our views of ourselves and the world around us is dominated by what our language allows, and what it does not allow. So if we put language users to the same test as the musicians, and ask them to express a verbal idea, we might be surprised that their utterances track along the predictable features of their language or genres of writing.

But we are not so quick to label language users as trapped by language… but rather we understand that language is the necessary construct for originating and communicating ideas at all. We might then forgive musicians for their dependence on genre, and recognize that musical genre (like language) is the necessary form that musical consciousness must take. The only alternative is to have no language, and to construct simplistic utterances like a primitive… such as a child raised by wolves might make if deprived of human education. Because without a genre, there is no way to connect musical instruction to history… just as without language there is no way to connect thinking to the long history of meanings contained in culture. 

But there is a difference. A language speaker can (at any time) construct a verbal utterance to convey a meaning NOT simply given by the language. For instance, I can say "My foot hurts." I assume that every language would allow for this sentiment, such that the sentiment does not originate in the language so much as the language allows for the articulation of the sentiment. And because the sentiment originates in the person, the utterance is personal. Can a musician make a parallel utterance? Obviously I don't mean to ask if there is a musical equivalence to "my foot hurts", but rather, is there some thing that originates in the musician apart from genre, that they can represent in musical tones… such that we can know their musical construction is fully personal? And if there is not, then is it valid for us to conclude that one or all musicians might derive their meaning primarily from the social aspect of musical genres, rather from their ability to articulate anything personal... that is, can there be musical meaning apart from genre?

There is another difference. The kinds of internal things we represent through language and music are not the same. Language expresses conceptual relations. Our ability to relate such conceptual notions as "my" (concept of identity) and "foot" (concept of a thing) and "hurts" (concept of a feeling) to our self, is the result of having familiarized the relations between language and ourselves. This is the result of a lifetime spent using language to frame our relation to the world around us. Without language, there would be no utterances of "my foot hurts", even if it did hurt. Which means that we cannot create or express concepts without the structure of language. In this sense, language seems no fulfill the same role as musical genre, in that it is the structure through which the person understands and represents themselves.

Such an equivalence between music and language would no doubt delight the musicians, who never tire of telling the audience that music is a language… and by this idea gaining the credibility language possesses in its apparent ability to express personal thoughts. But what if this wasn't true for music? What if music is not a language? Let me start by asking what it is that music presents. We know that language represents conceptual constructs, and so I suppose music represents musical constructs. But what are musical constructs? If conceptual constructs are generalizations of our observations of reality, then musical constructs are a parallel form of having generalized how harmonic and melodic experiences relate to our emotions. Such relating is the product of long familiarity with music, and with the musical training that accompanies that. Musical training is nothing if not this constant reinforcement of the two.

But in so being so constantly reinforced, I have to wonder if the musician thereby detaches from music as a simple thing, and invests their emotive response with genre specific forms, and all the associated complexities that have evolved through time. Which would explain why it is that players from different genres think in the terms of those genres, whereas a language user might get much further along in developing complex and personal ideas without having to resort to cultural and historical structures built into language. 

The reason for the difference is this... that the concepts of language originate in observations of the natural world, whereas the concepts of music originate in the man-made world of musical genre. The conceptual consciousness of a person originates in staring into raw nature, and progresses quite far in that difficult and chaotic ordering long before they encounter the genres of writing by which they are pulled into the world of man-made literary forms. But the musician begins their existence by considering preexisting forms of representation, i.e., genre. They never have to encounter and deal with music at the level of raw nature, and thus never have to struggle through the chaotic orderings that would bind music more directly to their consciousness. In fact, there is no music in raw nature, as even something as apparently melodic as a bird chirping is not music until its tones have been ordered by some convention. And it is only this convention the musician considers, because there is no music outside of convention. With music, all that exists in genre.

Which all puts me back on the porch with my guitar, plucking notes and trying to keep things simple. Trying to trace a straight line between myself and the sounds I hear. And the only thing that stands in my way is the whole history of all the music I ever heard, and how the critical ear wants to conform what one produces to what one has already been done… because in that correlation rests the long history of social permissions and acceptances that we must be either brave or foolish to deny. And the same thing exists in language, where one struggles to grasp and order and represent the complexity of their consciousness, without forcing it into the cliches and type-castings of all the explanations and expressions we have ever heard. Because when one dares to reach into themselves… the means of that reach are tied to learned techniques of representation… and so the first thing we must not do is hold on tight to that power… because all it does is turn us into a learned response, which is necessarily external to ourselves. We then only understand and represent ourselves as a type of thing, rather than as the particular thing we actually are.

The audience naturally delights in our similitude to that which they expect, and wants us to correspond to them. And in the absence of courage or integrity, this is the natural fate of those who hold on tight to what little power they have in the world. In human societies only ever dominated by money and power, the artist is most often a marginalized and desperate figure, clinging to skills hard won, often at the expense of pursuing the very money and power by which they are marginalized. So they hold on tight. But that death grip on learned response is a prison. Liberation comes from realizing that in the moment of introspection… in the moment when we want to understand and represent ourselves either in visual art, or music, or language, or even in love making… that one must pause, and allow learned responses to pass on by. And this wait is excruciating in that it reminds us of how powerless we are when we are just ourselves… and that the burden of individuality is to live with the discomfort of not knowing as a prelude to enlightenment.

Only then can we construct a new form of knowing appropriate to that moment of our existence. Only then does a kiss come alive and convey the meanings of our flesh, rather than put us in mind of a Man Ray painting of lips from 1936. Only then does the music we make convey those innate sensibilities that we imagine of ourselves, rather than the realization that we are subconsciously quoting the whole history of jazz in ways that seem clever and original, but which are probably just reworked. Only then can one sit at a typewriter and lay words down like bricks in order to convey the staccato rhythm of ideas that condense daily in all the days of our lives, but which cannot find their way past the censorship of all the literary expressions we so admire. In short… only then, in all the expressive instrumentalities we possess in life, can we know we represent who we are as unique, rather than surrender out of fear to a box this world would put us in.

(Written 11/25/2015 based on observations of 11/18/2015 through the 11/23/2015, and the conversation of 11/23/2015 in Booty's Street Food in New Orleans)

Cowed By Authority


Driving north on Route 1 just about a mile south of Route 3, the scene laid out before me. Bumper to bumper cars in the dusk, their red tail lights lined up and down the rolling terrain to the horizon in the daily pilgrimage of to and fro to all the places regular people go.

I had been entertaining a thought moments before about how a judge might have to pass a judgement upon an overly litigious person, who kept bring law suits because (after all) there is always something that can be objected to, and the system allows for the redress of every possible nuance. So to prevent such things, the system must allow for the judge to say "enough is enough", and bring some common sense to bear in cases where the facts will seem to remain forever open to the opportunism of equivocators. And I imagined how I would feel if this social power was brought upon me, whereby I was told that enough was enough, and I could no longer pursue my rights. I would be pissed. But that is how society works at some level. At some point it comes down to somebodies judgement. This may or may not be related to what is to follow here, other than that the idea of being judged is a form of social acceptance.

So as I observed the cars stacked to the horizon, and the other cars intersecting them from other directions (chasing their own horizons I suppose) I wondered for a brief second over how amazing it is that everything runs like clockwork here in America… or at least many things do. The roads are often jammed, that is true… but the volume of dutiful drivers rarely break ranks and express disagreement by violating any rules. And by this conformity they make the vast spectacle of a car-dominated society possible… and are every bit as responsible for this (I suppose) as are the car companies, the road builders, and the existence of gasoline.

And then it occurred to me, that such coordination of thousands and millions of people is not possible if they are not, by and large, all cowed by authority. If we lived in a country full of very autonomous people, the system by which cars and goods and services and workers and school children … and just everybody gets to where there going and then returns and then goes out again to achieve some other objective… this particular American reality is not possible without substantial submission to authority… and the level of submission is directly proportional to the efficiency we are meant to value.

The precision of a machine is a reflection of the close fittings and smooth conformances and close tolerances of all the parts that make it up. The machine of society is made from people, and the precision of the machines operations (society) is thus a function of how allegiant the machines components (people) can make themselves to what the machine requires. The logic of the machine defines the behaviors of the components, and the very first behavior isn't a behavior at all… but rather an oath of allegiance to the goals of the machine over and above what a person might imagine of their life if left to their own devices. But we are not left to our own devices, and therefore our survival requires submission to this machine authority.

To the extent that individuals do not view themselves not as primarily autonomous minds… or as primarily religious, spiritual, intellectual, or political beings… is to the extent that they are led by the economic imperatives of survival to view themselves as producers and consumers… and mostly as consumers, in as much as most work severs the connection between their efforts and any awareness of the thing produced. As consumers they are then factors in an economic equation, and subject to thereby to economic law. And since all laws and systems of equations are inclined by their creators to seek optimum states, the consumers in the economic systems have a natural striving after the optimal efficiencies of their consumer existences, which comes from always moving towards greater and greater economies of scale. And what falls away in the shift from individual selfhood to consumer identity, is the loss of the personal, and the embrace of whatever all-encompassing efficiency the system can afford at any time.

It then occurred to me that there are obvious examples of being cowed by authority (such as traffic, getting to work on time, behaving as expected at social functions, not talking loud in the library, etc)… but I don't suppose that we could fix the submissions we suffer by simply refusing to obey traffic laws, showing up late for work, behaving poorly at cocktail parties, or shouting in the library. The reason must be this… that though those behaviors can be singled out for consideration, we have to presume they are simply the most obvious examples of submissions in daily life. But in as much as the total efficiency of our lives is a function of EVERYTHING we do, and that EVERYTHING affects everything else… we have to imagine it is not possible to consider these obvious examples out of context. The implication here is that being cowed by authority in the big things MUST express itself in the little things… and that in fact… all the things we do (both large and small) are all participating in the same system of submission.

An interesting analogy for this would be the human body, which is made up not only of the obvious organs of note (i.e., brain, heart, stomach, etc), but also of less glamorous things (i.e., arteries, veins, cartilage, etc), and then more so by the vast collection of little things in the body that we probably not aware of… the endless little capillaries and nerve endings and pustules and cells at every level that perform a billion functions per second. And so if we presumed to deny any part of the human body, we immediately see how the system is not possible without any of them. We cannot simply remove the heart, because the blood won't flow through arteries into capillaries into cells… and we can't remove cells because the blood they receive won't be returned to the heart… and so on, in an endless variety of biological  codependencies. If we wish to remain alive… that is, to receive the benefit of life that our bodily functions provide when dealt with as a holistic effect… then we must understand that none of it can be denied.

The question is… does this describe our social existence, and to what degree? Is my submission to authority in obeying traffic laws, or employment policies, or not shouting in the library…. is this simply the tip of the iceberg of a pattern of overall submission. For instance, am I required to watch TV all night and zone out? You would think not. But if you work all day in a corporate cubicle in the typical soul-less fashion… and then drive home obeying traffic laws… and eat foods to stay slim so you can look like the people on TV that you watch to zone out so that you can maybe meet a girl or guy that looks like the people on TV because you have to zone out in order to survive the conformity of work and commuting… and so on… THEN how can you deny anything at all.

In a system tending toward maximum efficiency… if you are cowed into submission in one area, you will be tending to submission in all areas. It is simply a matter of time before things that formerly were your choice, are swallowed up in the ever expanding field of efficiency. And many will want to submit… because as in all erotic relationships, even the most degraded position delights the submissive, in as much as they have become such a person. Are we to judge a man who rolls around in the mud and barks like a dog? Is it simply what he prefers… a rational expression of his will? Or do we view it like doctors examining a diseased patient, and understand that certain growths go against the healthy state of the body? And what is healthy, other than that which promotes that natural processes of living. But whereas such moral distinction come easily to mind with the body, they are harder to identify for the mind… thus the spectacle of insisting that there is no truth, and every one's decisions are just as good as anyone elses. When writ large, this kind of collapse of the intellect (skepticism) leads to the inability to discern disease from health… and gives rise to what I am speaking of here… the spectacle of mass submission to authority on the grounds that maximizing economic efficiency is the only goal that anyone understands or cares about.

In the end, this is EXACTLY the case. But just to be clear, being cowed by authority and living (either) fat or lean in the slipstream of social permissions and economic prosperity is not a moral justification for the human freedoms foregone in the process. If anything, the loss of human freedom is simply the loss of human identity… and in the end there is nothing left to delight in when there is no whole person left to enjoy it. It's the machine city of tomorrow… today.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Prayer For Modern Gods

Truths too obvious for the telling
Must be told anyway
And truths too obscure for easy reckoning
Must be told anyway
And truths too sad for the heart to bear
Must be told anyway.
And if such would break us
We are already broken.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Drag forever

Cold breeze naked breath foot's heel hard pavement pounded
To bone and flesh resists, is persuaded giving way as pain.
Walk around the block again.

Limo stretched and soft, white tinted windowed riders
Hide from gazes they require
To ride the limo there for hire.

Trash cars, some have missed, in alleys some have pissed,
And puddles like a forest, of broken glass gathered in cool clear waters.

Bricks curved extreme root presence. Persistent roots soft unrelented.
Soft like water, soft like erosion, soft like death,
Collapsed implosion sweeps encompassing nothing to the bottom of the sea.

Leaves and twigs stick dirt granite ground.
Drive forever for nothings around but streets to go down, streets to go down.
Parking and walking or turning around.
Walking forever to where you are bound, only streets to go down, streets to go down.

Who is too cold in my mind designed the t-shirt finds me missing more from door to door
And stately clocks from block to block announce the endless table's brown light trim
With purple chairs fat asses in.

Flash again, flash the buffer, flush the toilet and the lover.
Move out spin round and then again,
Circumstances find me reeling from my self imposed drop ceiling
And muffled noises and the choices
Whispered here in all my voices.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A 2015 Bore de France Preview

The Bore De France contenders breakdown.

With the Tour de France rapidly approaching, it's time to get out our Merxx colored glasses and pretend that the epic race will be peopled by legends and giants, rather than the rag tag crew of skinny nerds, one of whom will win simply because somebody has to.

Vincenzo Nibali (Italian)
  Can he repeat? Can he recover from Giro? Is he tall enough to pass the height-limit bar and go on the bigboy rides at Great Adventure? Vincenzo will probably not repeat, because he is just too cool. Ever since The Roman Empire and Mussilini, the Italians have been suspicious of over-extended ambitions. Expect to see Vincenzo getting along with other nations, and avoiding axis-like, on-the-road pacts with Japanese and German riders.

Nairo Quintana  (Columbian)
   A Columbian will never win the TdF… never. They attack with gusto on mountains and accelerate to breath-taking gaps. But are then caught when large-boned Europeans reel them back in with surprising ease. He will probably win a stage if there is a mountain finish at 25% grade. And he will stand on the podium and get kissed on the cheek by podium-girls that are a foot taller. He will grin from ear to ear, and look like a little boy.

Alberto Contador (Spanish)
   When he wins, Alberto makes a pistol shooting gesture with his hands. Them call him Pistolero. I suppose this is ALL lost in translation for an American… because to me it looks completely retarded. But none-the-less… I hope he wins and redeems himself against all the nay-sayers. Plus, Alberto is one of the last connections we have to the reign of LANCE ARMSTRONG!!!!!!!    I really hope Alberto kicks butt, because I really, really hate seeing that look of suffering on his face. It's so undignified. The Spanish should be solemn, not sad... and certainly not cracking like a dried twig in the last two kilometers.

Chris Froome (South Africa)
   Froomy will probably win. He looks to be the unnaturally skinniest person in the race, and that will probably be the edge he needs. Also, he has the powerful Skye team around him… whose riders and management seem to have been cast from some distopian novel about rationalistic control of a future where grim-faced brits dominated a permanently raining urban squalor.  Froome's post-race interviews are the model of the charming winner who gives credit to his opponents and references the moments when he too felt victory had slipped away. And therefore I don't like him. Give me Armstrong's smug arrogance any day.

Thibaut Pinot (Tee Boh Pee No… French, obviously from the unpronouncable name)
   They always have to put some wannabe French rider in the list of contenders. But no Frenchman will ever win the Tour again. Ever. Bernard Hinault is the reason for this. Because Hinault threatens the lives and families of all French contenders. If a Frenchman wins, Hinault will have to start paying for his wine and cheese.

Rigoberto Uran (Columbian)
   Yet another Columbian who cannot possibly win. The Columbians are like the French… they just don't care enough. In this regard too… his name is eerily similar to another famous quitter… Robert Duran. NO MAS!!

Tejay van Garderen
   Oh good god… not TEE JAY.  I hate this guys constipated face and post-race interviews, where he sounds like an absent-minded hippy. Plus, he choked in the Criterium du Dauphine… loosing to Froomy on the final climb. What a loser. I hate that he is the main American contender. He's such a wimp. He is actually taking over the tofu-eating, hippy-dippy, "I did my best"-ISM made so famous by the mythically underperforming Levi Leipheimer… who could roar in the tour de california… but have tragically bad days in the Tour, and lose by 15 minutes.

So there you have it. But all kidding aside, I will be glued to the set. Because even if all of these underwhelming personalities leave me frustrated... I am never frustrated by listening to Phil Ligget, who is a freakin' genius of narrating the poetry of the great race. And not just Phil, but his trusty side-kick Paul Sherwin... whose oratorical skills are to Phil's, as the faithful dog's bark is to his master's voice. Maybe that's a bit harsh. Let's just say that Paul is a domestique for Phil. If Phil gets thirsty, he sends Paul to the team car for a glass of water. If Phil's microphone suddenly breaks, Paul will give his to Phil. That's teamwork. And just like in any team, Phil occasionally let's Paul call (perhaps) an intermediate sprint or time-check. That's what leaders do. They spread the glory around.

Viva la tour.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I Am My Own Sub-Optimal Secular Agenda

The first thing I see each morning is one of my own paintings on the wall next to the bed. It's a large, abstract work, and nominally derivative… a cross between Pollock's drips and Basquiat's primitive iconography. The palette is of strong red, yellow, white, and black oil enamels. I painted it in late night sessions on the concrete floor of a garage in the middle of winter. It took forever to dry, giving me plenty of time to stare at it beneath the glare of a 100 watt bulb. Plenty of time to wonder why. And then it occurred to me.

I have often thought about what it means, but I have never been in doubt over what it meant. Like every abstract work I've undertaken, the painting represents the state of mind employed in its execution. The subject is quite literally the resolution of pictorial complexity as it emerged from the embodied experience of constructing the painting. And like any expressionistic work, the power of the paint is not mediated through the deliberate probity of draftsmanship, but derives from the absence of deliberate strategies. It is a meditation, not a pre-meditation.  It is of the real stuff of life, of action and reaction… a mode of animal existence.

It is a blow against every known reasonable approach to daily life. The arc of the hand, the force of gravity, the splashing of paint, the scanning of the eye, the brief moment of decision, and then do it again. Danger and deliverance make their advances together… entropy dances around a stolid order, as the fractured kaleidoscope of nature channels thoughts too prescient to be defined. There are moments when actions make sense without being sensible, and when existence doesn't have to excuse itself. The moments before identification, when possibilities haven't been weened.

I've often thought about why I make paintings, but I've never been in doubt over why I made this one. It was a moment in life that required action. Perhaps simply to take control,  in a life with little control. In a life where control is only the power of money to control some smiling face reached out to exchange it for whatever gives pleasure. Like feeding coins into a slot machine for all eternity. The painting erased all of that pain. It was my private devotional. My permission to play god, and turn my secular self into an end in itself… a prime mover in my private world. To be my own secular agenda.

As god created man in his image, I have created this painting in response to myself. The painting is a sign thereby, and I am signified in it's unblinking eye. The wet canvas sweats on the cold concrete floor, like some ravished lover too exhausted to move… I am aware of a presence. Like some unexpected visit nine months after a night of dirty sex, I am surprised then to find that a brand new thing has been birthed by my arrogant hand. Proud parents can wonder. I could have not made the painting. I might have abstained. I could have abandoned it up until the last stroke. But I didn't do those things. I was carried away by passions. As that last bit of paint approached it's inevitable configuration, I felt the point of no return. I knew I couldn't turn back. I didn't want to. Pulse quickened, dilated, shallow breathed logic overtook me. I thrust that paint where it needed to go and let nature take its course.

There exists a painting before me. It's not so private after all. Like some full grown human emerged before my eyes, it sits across from me and stares back, with whatever full consciousness I could give it. Resplendent in total exposure, walking nude with the curtains thrown open. No shame for the painting. The voyeur circles the block, shooting looks opportunistically. The eyes take in the body, in whose minds races the thought of impropriety… that both parties are engaging in a dark desire… the desire rooted in something deeper than the very conventions that label the desire as dark in the first place. The taboo is who we are, or a clue at least. The fetish is a resistance to life as we know it… to all the crap we have to take.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Notes on European art supply stores

In the last the ten years I have managed to go to Europe 4 times, spending time in Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, and Florence. On each trip I try to locate some art supply stores, in the hope that I might find the mythic "old school" art supply. I can't say exactly what these things should be, other than that they should be something that one cannot find in America at places like Dickblick, Utrecht, Pearl Paint, or any of the many smaller art supply stores. Here is a list of what I have a vague idea that I am looking for.

1. Authentic clay drawing chalks. This is the holy grail of old school materials, always talked about but never found. We presume the master draftsmen of the renaissance used such things. Old school art teachers will reference their existence, or refer to a small supply of them that they acquired long ago.

2. Anything of unfamiliar origin (unknown brand) but of unsurpassed quality. This includes brushes, pencil, papers, and particularly sketch pads. I'm always looking for a sketch pad that is better than the Strathmore 400 hardcover sketch pad.

3. Unusual sculpting tools or mechanical devices that suggest old world techniques long since lost and unknown to the American mind.

4. In general... a brand I never heard of.

The conclusion I have drawn is that none of this stuff exists. The art supply stores I have visited have all the same crap that you find in Dick Blick... only less of it in stock... and at higher prices. Those stores with some kind of "history" are no different... the only thing historical about them at this point is that their retail spaces are tiny and cramped... and maybe they take the pencils and conte crayons out of the packaging and arrange them in mahogany display cases. Certainly this enhances the charm of the store, but it does not represent a breakthrough in materials. The other OLD SCHOOL aspect of these historical stores is that the staff are not customer service oriented... and they close for lunch. The store might be 5th generation purveyors of fine pencils... and they might be the store where Picasso bought his paint brushes... but those times are long gone, and with them the very objects that I am seeking.

Here is a partial list of the cities and stores I have visited. These are the ones I can remember. I popped my head into more than this, but I can't recall them all. The following are also the ones most typically reported online as being the best. I will list them, then give a quick summation, and note anything I bought there. I should say that I have managed to find things that are satisfyingly different and useful, but nothing to support my dream of a profoundly different art supply.

   Ditta G. Poggi (Via del Gusu, 74-75) Near Pantheon
      CON: Old guys behind counter stare at you, cramped
      PRO: bought a pair of brass dividers for 14 euros

   Ditta G. Poggi (via Carinale Marry del Val, 18) In Trastevere
      CON: Young guys behind counter stare at you like you're a thief
      PRO: bought three sheets of cotton fiber paper (6x9 size) for 60 cents per piece
           Also, they carried a line of tiny etching presses that I never heard of,
           which looked of decent quality

   Zecchi (Via dello Studio 19r) Near the Duomo
      CON: Very crowded, old guys stare at you, same old materials as ever
      PRO: they had some pieces of linen that seemed cheap, but so what

   Rigacci (Via dei 71R)
      CON: The epitome of fussy art store. Small. 2B graphite pencils of no particular relevance are
           housed in display cases as if the ghost of Michelangelo was going to stop by later.
      PRO: none, really... except it's better to have some art supply stores than none

   Lory (Piazza Frescobaldi 4-9r) Across from Ponte Santa Tinita
      CON: rude bitch behind counter, same old materials as ever
      PRO: Unpretentious, modern retail space...easy to shop in

   Sennelier (3 quai Voltaire) around the corner from the Beaux Arts
      The archetypical "Historic" art supply, located around the corner from the Beaux Arts
      We can imagine all the greats coming in here to buy stuff
      CON: cramped... always seems to be closed, and is closed for lunch
      PRO: managed to buy a tiny sketch book that was semi-cool and different

   Le Geant des Beaux Arts (166 rue de La Roquette) further out from center
      A large space... Dickblick-esque, I guess. Lot's of stuff, but nothing unusual
      CON: A bit of a hike from center of Paris
      PRO: Unpretentious. Staff were courteous.

   Barna Art (Carrer del Rossello, 290)
      CON: Small, cramped, nobody spoke English (my bad, I know)
      PRO: I bought a small pencil sharpener for 2 euro that I like

   A.J. van der Linde (Rozengracht 36, 1016NC)
      CON: nothing really... same old stuff
      PRO: bought some paper, no big deal though

   The art supply stores in Europe usually carry watercolor sets in metal boxes, which is nice. Apparently there is no market for this amongst the cheap-ass Americans.


Earlier I said that customer service in the old-school European art stores was bad. Let me explain what I mean via the following observations.

It is my belief that Americans like to be in control of their experiences, but that Europeans are comfortable being led by others. Americans love autonomy and control and independence... or so they say. Americans are terrible conformists in social life, but in private they don't want to be told what to do. An example of this that I have found is navigating European cities. In Europe, it is often difficult to find signage indicating where you are... whereas in America you have a metal post or two at every intersection announcing where you are. America is a big grid-plan with labeled coordinates. European cities are (historically at least) Gothic warrens of confusion, where you either "just know where you are", or simply follow signs to where you are predestined to go.

Most of the signage in Europe is not about where you are, but about how far and in what direction SPECIFIC THINGS are from where you are. In other words, the European society presumes that if you are standing on this particular corner, that you need to know the direction and distance for half a dozen particular places. In other words, they are making presumptions about where you want to go. What they won't tell you (via street name signs) is where you are RIGHT NOW. Americans want to know WHERE AM I RIGHT NOW... because Americans want to located themselves on a map, which gives maximum flexibility of movement. It might be the case that I want to walk to (say) the Pantheon in Rome... but if the only sign I see is one that says [Pantheon 500 meters this way], it bothers me... because it's not helping me walk to the Pantheon the way that I want to. And if I DON'T want to go to the Pantheon at that moment, the sign is useless.

This seems like a little thing, but variations of this occur all the time. Consider eating in European restaurants, and how they are famously unwilling to vary their offerings, or how they do things how they want to do things. I'm not saying this is wrong... but it is entirely a cultural thing. In America... other than in some high-end restaurant... the customer is generally right, and is generally catered too, even to the point of the ridiculous. In the end, the proprietor wants the money, and so will do anything to get it. In Europe, businesses seem indifferent to sales... at least by American standards. As a result, they don't appear to be catering to the customer.

BUT... this is an American thing. We want to be catered to. We want the store and it's offerings to be laid out in a clear fashion... for things to be labelled... for a price tag on each thing. We don't want to have ask the salesperson to go fetch some unusual thing from under the counter, or from the backroom. In fact, we have no knowledge of any backroom or hidden item. We presume everything is on the shelves.

Because of this, we don't feel like we're getting catered to. But again... this is an American thing. We want to "JUST LOOK".... we want to walk unencumbered in a well lit, well marked matrix of stuff and be maximally efficient in a private experience of shopping. In Europe, there is no "JUST LOOKING"... there is simply knowing what you probably want and engaging in a conversation with the proprietor (who presumes to know what's what). They will get it for you and you will buy it. This is the old-world way. America is not old-world.

There is no solution to this, other than the crushing effect of global capitalism and the power of online art merchandising to drive all brick-and-mortar stores out of business, and to force the European model out of existence. To a large extent this already exists, as much of the retail environment in Europe looks American anyhow.

BUT... when you are in these European art supply stores... you are (to some extent) not in America anymore... and the idea of customer service as beginning in clearly marked information is replaced by being serviced in a more controlled way (you ask, they tell you what they have).

I should amend my earlier statement and just say that European customer service isn't bad... it's just that by American Standards it is VERY BAD. And because it is authoritarian in nature, it doesn't lend itself to perusing and "Just Looking", which Americans love to do... because we love to shop... because we don't know what we want exactly... because Americans seek to identify themselves through material purchases... which is fucked up... but HEY... THAT IS AMERICAN.

In addition, because the authoritarian approach requires a submission to personal interaction (which Americans don't do well)... it relies on FOREIGN LANGUAGE SKILLS (that most Americans don't possess).

DESPITE THIS ANALYSIS.... however... I have to say that it still seems true that the mythic, old world supplies just don't exist anymore. One could (and probably will) insist that "YES, THEY HAVE THE MYTHIC SUPPLY BEHIND THE COUNTER, IF ONLY YOU SPOKE ITALIAN")... or "You should have gone to "such-and-such" art supply... they are the best"

But I don't believe that. Not after chasing down all these varied places and picking through all the stuff on their shelves. It's all the same old stuff, less of it, and more expensive. I think the only place left to find stuff is to (a) make it yourself, or (b) located those VERY FEW places in the world that actually have it, such as Kremer Pigments in New York City. I don't doubt the existence of places like this in Europe or elsewhere... but these are very singular places... I no longer believe that a general purpose art store, no matter HOW old-school their cool European environment, and not matter how long they have been in business, and no matter how many famous artists in the past bought canvases from them... everything has moved on... and everyone has basically the same stuff.

So go to them if you must, or if you're bored. Or better yet, go to them because by doing so you often get off the beaten tourist path. But don't expect to step back into time. I don't hate them.. well, I kind'a do... but it's more that I'm pissed. Because until I find some clay drawing chalks, I cannot draw like the artist of the quattrocento. It's all in the chalk.