Can You Take This?

December 10, 2010

What’s your tolerance for controversy? What kind of controversy, you ask? We suffer controversies all around us so what do I have in mind? The color of a tie, a barking dog, e-mail spam, people eating veal, Michael Jackson’s nose, BP’s cover ups, Osama bin-Laden’s muffled threats on tape, Wikileaks releases of semi-truths or maybe the origin of cosmos. These are all valid controversies that many if not all of us suffer, cherish or ignore.Harold Pinter

Once in a while something pops up that hits you in some special way. I’m referring to Harold Pinter’s 2005 lecture called “Art, Truth and Politics”. If you don’t know, Harold Pinter was a British actor, screenwriter and playwright. His works were somewhat mysteriously labeled “absurdist and realistic while displaying despair and defiance about the human condition”. If you, like I, didn’t quite catch that, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was one of his movie credits. Moreover, he won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature. He got the French Legion d’Honneur as part of a mile long list of awards and honors. He was a controversial, outspoken leftist political activist.

The Nobel Price lecture was pre-recorded, and shown on video on December 7, 2005, in Börssalen at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden. Pinter, 75, suffered major health issues and could not attend in person. Death is one of the controversial themes in the lecture and clearly on Pinter’s mind but did not lessen the fury, passion and personal honesty displayed By Pinter. He died three years later, in December of 2008.

Pinter was controversy personified. He was and is the left-winger that right-wingers love to smear. The US and British post WWII policies in the Middle East and Central and South America gave Pinter the political platform he needed. Yet he is also a keen observer of the phobias of mankind on an individual level. Therein lays the greatness of his Thje 2005 Nobel Literature Prize Diplomalecture. He bridges the gap between the national horrors and our personal sphere of “lies, lies and lies around us”.

The lecture ties our personal, moral culture to the corrupt top level political arena. In the latter, he targets the two Bushes’ wars in Iraq, extending it to the US deadly meddling in Central and South America. You may or may not agree with his leftist views – that is not the main point. It’s not about whether or not Pinter hates America. It is about whether you and I have the courage to see and react to what is around us. That’s the point missed or ignored by his critics.

You will find plenty of controversy; as good as it gets in civilized circles. Take the time to sit through the lecture (link below). It probably won’t change your life. But the lecture will make you think. It may anger you or it might make you jump up and cheer. In either case, the real point is how we personally relate to a world of violence on the highest level. It is about opening one’s mind. I know. That’s a hard Harold Pinter, The Actorone.

The lecture ends with a poem by Pinter. Labeled “Death”, it pinpoints the gruesome reality of death with a question about love. “Did you wash the Dead Body”?. “Did you kiss the Dead Body”? The macabre horrors of the world are not distant events but events that affect us morally, ethically and personally every day of our lives. His final point is about our loss suffered from the “lies, lies, lies”. We have “lost the Dignity of man”.

Below is the link to the 46 minute lecture as presented to the Swedish Academy on December 7th of 2005.

The Official link: http://nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=620

Here is one of the responses, as merciless as the lecture itself:

Harold Pinter, Acting“Christopher Hitchens, a US-based British polemicist alerted American conservatives to the full horror of Harold. He warned, in The Wall Street Journal, that the new Nobel laureate was “a thuggish big mouth who has strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage for far too long”. Hitchens also declared he had experienced more wit and enlightenment on the walls of a public lavatory than he had by attending Pinter’s plays.”

And here is the other side as expressed by the price awarders of the Nobel Prize:

“Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest honor available to any writer in the world. In announcing the award, Horace Engdahl, Chairman of the Swedish Academy, said that Pinter was an artist “who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”.

You decide.

Why should anyone care about the wackiness of a few deniers of Global Warming? What’s the big deal about a few morons dragging a big issue into a morass of non-truths, voodoo and plain boredom? These fools succeeded in turning the potential life-and-death issue of Global Warming into pettiness about Al Gore and, more importantly, about scientists in general. They hail the lunacy of Senator James Inhofe and bless the ignorance of George W. Bush. They echo the saintliness of an oil industry deriving massive, record profits from raping Earth. They applaud the smokestack plants burning cheap coal, as long as such plants are not in their backyard. They are the deniers.

Vague, irresponsible and stereotype statements by the skeptics challenge the existence of Global Warming. Never mind their statements lack any objective support. They still make possible the foot dragging of the US Senate and Congress. Most deniers camp out in the Republican Right wing. They should be out in the cold, but aren’t. The Democratic dominance in the Senate and Congress produced nothing substantial. Even the Supreme Court rulings are ignored. Nothing, nada, nichts, ingenting, rien.

The Siberian tundra is no longer frozen but spews untold, catastrophic tons of green house gasses into the air. The Northwest Passage is suddenly navigateable. Antarctica will calve ice sufficient to raise ocean levels by a meter or so. Florida may not like that. Alp ski resorts stand without snow. Glaciers disappear. Coral reefs die. Intuit villages sink in mud as perm freeze melts. Greenland becomes an agricultural Mecca rather than an ice chest. Untold masses of species disappear, under the water and above. Hoax? Not so.

The Bush administration deep-sixed Global Warming by lying to the World about the findings of its own scientists. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and scores of others joined the US in putting the perceived threats to limitless economic growth before the safety of the world. Let nothing stand in the way of more SUVs for the lucky. Support your local gas station. Surely we must thirst for mineral water from far-away Italy or France.

The Copenhagen Climate Talks are fast approaching. Expectations have moved up a few degrees from absolute zero as Obama promises to show up in person, as will, maybe, the Chinese Premier. Obama carries a lunch box of toothless promises to reduce to US green gas emissions. China generously may promise to release some data on its world leading pollution. Observers announce such data is likely to contain more lies on top of current lies. The EU dispatches a Global Warming denier as its representative.

No one expects progress any time soon towards progressive action. An agreement to replace the flawed Kyoto agreement is not in the stars. After all, Kyoto is wildly profitable to some of the worst polluters. Obama’s hoax proposals aim at reducing criticism of US foot dragging. They mean nothing as the Senate and Congress remains locked up in its deepfreeze of Global Warming.

A fair share of the pessimism expressed above comes from the might of the deniers. They managed to put sufficient scare into the American people and government. Every argument put forward by these crackpot rednecks has been disproved over and over but keep popping up like a California brush fire. Lunatic misfits keep throwing lighted matches at the brushes. California burns at the will of a few token arsonists. The World might burn at the will of token deniers. Never mind logic, science or sanity. Let it all burn.

On this day of November 30th, 2009, Scientific American published “Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense“. You owe it to yourself and your kids to read this article. Do it now. Then read the comments associated with the article. Almost all comments appear to be written by core deniers. Let it burn, no matter why, where, when, who or how. For example (SA is Scientific American):

  • “Global warming has been demonstrated to be a hoax with fabricated and fraudulent data. SA knows this, but instead of dealing with the MAJOR issue of widespread scientific fraud and corruption, instead decides continue to pretend the hoax is real. It is obvious that SA is nothing more than a political propaganda publication.”

Like the above, unsubstantiated non-truths and self serving distortions have swept the world many times before. Africans are born to be slaves. Women are unfit to vote. There is but one God. The rich are better than the poor. I am better than you. I am not an ape or fish. Kill thy neighbor. Inferior groups – be it Jews, gays, gypsies, bloggers or scientists – should be whacked once and for all. Burn the books. Let it all burn. Help us all.

Karl

Don’t we just love to assign labels to people? We have famous people and those unlucky unfamous people. There are winners and losers. Some are rich, others poor. You have heroes and creeps. Cops and robbers. Good guys, bad guys. Pillars of society and scorchers of earth. Then the whole deal morphs into crime and punishment, Bible versus Koran, Red versus Blue, Cancer versus Hangnails and Canon versus Nikon shooters.

This is the story about the rich and famous, the not quite rich or famous and, most importantly, those not famous at all. It is also a story about art. It touches on some shameful facts but there are good things too. Nothing is black and white only. Something for everyone, I think.

Technology

It has long been a desire of the powerful to classify people into useful categories. Consumer companies such as Procter & Gamble owes considerable debt to market research which divides the World into those using Prell, Tide, Bounce and the infidels that do not. TV evangelists, politicians, NPR and Greenpeace split people into Donors and Parasites.

The Census Bureau classifies us in microscopic detail to the delight of the marketing and advertising gangs. The political districting gurus have a grandiose sand box of devious tactics. Some become crooked enough to drive legislators into neighboring states to avoid being Camp Art -  A Graveyardrailroaded. Starbucks drill into the data to determine the address of the next overpriced java dump.

I’m happy to learn there are 984 Slovaks and 89 Sioux in the City Of Seattle. Sadly, no Navajos appear to live in my city. 2,447 females require less than five minutes to get to their workplace. Some are my neighbors, no doubt. Of those working at home, 1,271 are not US citizens. 4,767 leave for work between 5 and 5:29 AM, which oddly is about the same number as those leaving between 11 and 11:59 AM. All data is downloadable from the Census Bureau for your entertainment unless, of course, you already have a life.

Then there is something called data mining as practiced illegally by various US government agencies such as NSA in the name of the holy War on Terror, aka the Religious Right War on Muslim. It’s purpose, in the eyes of the George W.’s of an unfortunate world, is to gain insights in as many aspects of your personal life as possible, thereby supposedly proving you are a Muslim and thus a terrorist. Never mind that you may actually be a Slovak, Sioux, Navajo or, worse, a Democrat.

Data mining is largely done by deep diving into the Internet, tapping emails and listening in on phone calls. When it gets more than lukewarm, your phone specifically is tapped, with or, most likely, without court approval. Big Joe demands all your private Camp Art - Cart with Bodiesrecords from record keepers such as banks, online services and your veterinarian. Naturally, banks, airlines and others such as Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft and Google, have caved in to Big Joe. Joe McCarthy would be green with envy if he were to live in these joyous times. Many wonder why 250 million Americans buy into this horse manure. This is the people fanatically defending their right to bear assault rifles. Over their dead bodies as the saying accurately goes. That line in the sand stand, of course, defends the right to carry an assault rifle to the supermarket, not those Commies’
civil rights.

If you are like most people, data mining is not close to your top priorities. It is a subject almost as boring as Global Warming. No doubt you will ignore both of these issues until 1) your house is permanently under carbonized ocean water and 2) Big Brother decides you are no longer allowed to fly on US of A airlines to visit Grandma in Florida. Your charitable donations are suddenlyCamp Art - Horror terrorist money laundering. Your favorite cruise ship vacation is replaced by a prolonged stay in Cuba where no laws are pertinent.

Will data mining stop terrorism? It absolutely, definitely and assuredly will not. Data mining and the War on Terror will fail because George Bush has no idea what or who he is allegedly fighting. Winning means you have to know who and what to beat. It helps if you also know why. Ask any athlete. Tim Duncan does not play against some vague demographic segment. His job is to beat the heck out of Yao Ming and Shaq O’Neal.

Data mining, on the other hand, will generate gigatons of absolutely useless data, not winning a single game. It is pointless to wiretap 250 million Americans to gain insights into the minds of five or so terrorists located in Kazakhstan this week and in Lille, France next week and then possibly in the Sears Tower with a suitcase full of radioactive weapons of mass destruction and a smart looking suicide belt. The CIA will blame FBI who will tear into The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office who sends it off to NSA/CSS after which it is never seen again.

This is all due to the idea people can be classified, pigeonholed and dumped into categories, risk segments, code orange traps and hard drive locations. It is, to be true, all fantasy.

Politics

George Bush splits the World into those with him and those not. Those against him include everyone not with him, that is, Terrorists aka Muslims, Scientists, Environmentalists, anything French or German, Gays, his Dad, Hollywood, the Press, Fancy Food, Alzheimer victims, Math Teachers, ACLU and Anyone making less than a million bucks a day. He also dislikes journalists, Camp Art - The Cagedoctors, lawyers, actors, his own cabinet and members of previous cabinets as well as any past, current or future members of Congress.

Hitler divided the World into mythical Aryans and those not, such as Jews, Gypsies, Hungarians, Poles, Cabaret performers and Homosexuals. Stalin divided his constituents into evil peasants versus loyal commissars. His Generals split their troops into those shot by Germans and those shot in the back by fellow soldiers for not advancing fast enough. The Generals too usually ended up shot by a jealous Stalin.

None of the three gentlemen above cared or cares at all for “different” people. That is a tragedy led by the powerful and directed at the powerless. People are split into categories resulting in the loss of freedom, rights and heads. The rules of the splits can be pretty much anything. Here are a few examples from the last 8 years or so, sorted by casualties:

Iraqi Wars, Afghan Wars, Ethiopia-Eritrea War, Somali Civil War, The First and Second Chechen Wars, Sudanese Civil War, 9/11, Algerian Civil War, Israel-Lebanon War, Sierra Leone Civil War, Waziristan War, Cote d’Ivoire Civil War, al-Qaeda misc. Murders, Turkey-PKK Conflict, Beslan School Siege, Bali Bombings, Madrid Terrorist Attack, Moscow Theatre Siege, Guatemala Civil War, Bojaya Massacre, Super Ferry 14 Bombing, Iraq Fuel Tanker Bombing, London Terror Attacks, Passover Massacre, USS Cole Bombing, Varanasi Train Bombings, Janupur Train Bombing, Karachi Bus Bombing, Indian Parliament Murders, Podujevo Bus Bombing and the Anthrax Attacks.

Tragedy

There is a different kind of prominent split that most of us like to ignore. That is the split of those that are Disadvantaged or those who are not. This includes the Mentally Ill versus us Sane. The physically disabled versus us fit. The oppressed, discriminated against and persecuted; the homeless, stateless, limbless, jobless or not. Anyone not fitting the orderly picture favored by Outsider Art - Bill Traylorthose claiming to be Normal. Once you had Hippies and Beatniks. Now you have welfare mothers, suicide by police, walled suburbs, security cameras, phone taps, road rage and high school murder. It’s them versus us. Take no prisoners.

Perhaps one way to make the distinction is that the Outsiders are those that frighten the Insiders. The Insiders deep down know that the transition to Outsider is just a breath away. That is not a pleasant thought. You might suddenly and involuntarily join the damned, those fucked over one way or another. Jobs, status and security come and go.

Walk into any nursing home and you will not just find the elderly – you will find plenty of people that by their age and physical condition should be out there laboring away as us normal persons do. These people – traffic accident victims, punched out boxers, short-circuited CEOs, born “that way”, victims of violence or natural disasters – are institutionalized because a) they should be and b) someone or something is paying for their keep which is lucky indeed.

The US VA hospitals are filled with those suddenly Disadvantaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam or the dozens of other conflicts deemed worthwhile by brave leaders. Iraqi graves are filled with those permanently Disadvantaged by cluster bombs, religious leaders, Bunker Busters, Precision this or that, lack of milk, neighbors, drugged out Blackwater “security guards” not to mention Syrians, Saudis, Iranians, Egyptians, Kurds, Turks and Jordanians. Perhaps an Israeli or two play their game too.

Cityscapes

I live in downtown Seattle. As in most downtown areas, human misery is close at hand. Screams in the night, mental illness, drugs, pan handling and all the other urban invisibles are all quite visible in my neighborhood. Being on a busy street close to a major fire station, sirens topple the normal Oursider Art - Bill Traylornoise level at a frightening pace. The major TV stations are close by and their remote units come and go, recording misery somewhere else. Their helicopters constantly head for some disaster or another.

Listening to the nighttime screams, the anger of those stuck out there is very obvious. It is true rage I hear. That rage is rarely specific and usually aimed at “it”. “It” isn’t you or me. But it leads to fear among the shop owners, the Yuppie condo people and the city officials. Rage on one side, fear on the other side. Careful demarcation of boundaries: them versus us, day versus night. It is remarkable how loud voices are at 4 AM when the traffic is gone. Perhaps it is despair I hear rather than anger. It might be both.

I have yet to see the rage of the disadvantaged turn into violence although it certainly happens. It does not, though, approach the violence created by even an average American President. Some of “them” I know by now. Others I recognize. Being an insomniac, I see both sides of the fence. Some of “them” are artists with great talent although the chance of a gig or exhibition is slim indeed.

Art

Here is what I’m driving at. You’d be astonished how much art is created by the Different or those Disadvantaged. Take Hitler’s concentration camps and ghettos. A different post of mine includedCamp Art - Shoes the harrowing, remarkable art produced by camp inmates. Some of those images are repeated here. Extraordinary music was composed in the camps. Only a small proportion is preserved. Hitler’s envy of real artists sentenced them to extermination. Here are just four of the names: Mendel Grossman – photographer, Leo Haas – painter, Alfred Kantor – painter, Paul Morgan – entertainer.

In recent times, the fenced paradise of Singapore banned, censored and prosecuted local press, local artists, theater performances, international press and magazines, pornography and music of various kinds. Sex and the City was only shown recently after much hand wringing. They call it Social Engineering.

The people of Singapore feel they live in a nice place which might be true in the mind of some. Certainly Singapore is record clean. There are immigrant ghettos in Paris and many other European cities that are not as clean or socially engineered. The various zones, authorities and partitions in the Middle East are in the daily news. The Baghdad disaster, parts of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. If you live in one such area, Art may not be in the front yard of your life. Yet Art lives on everywhere – even in the Green Zone of Baghdad. I bet. Camp Art - Hands

Many of us saw the glorification of the Soviet Worker’s Paradise: workers rising, workers working, workers marching or worker warring. It did not include workers drunk, workers departing for Siberia or workers suffering from AIDS. Apparatich, KGB and aging leaders were artistically invisible. Artistically, the World became one-dimensional.

The Soviet System demanded conformance to “Soviet Realism” which was neither realistic, nor had much to do with art. Lenin in 1920 denounced “Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and “other ‘isms’,” as non worthy elitist deviance. Dissidence meant gulags as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Ginzburg found out. Major artists such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev in music and, in literature, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Platonov, Mandelstam, Trifonov, Babel and Grossman all walked the thin line of becoming “Different” and rebelling against the state line. But check out some of Shostakovich’s works – there are plenty of semi hidden revolts against the dictations. All of which were at the mercy of Stalin and others. “Different” meant living a very miserable life.

In the US of A

Billie Holiday was banned from performing in New York as was Thelonious Monk. Joe McCarthy destroyed some 140 victims – many were artists. Rudy Giuliani unsuccessfully censored the Brooklyn Museum and its “Sensation” art show. Some five years ago, the New York State corrections commissioner announced that he banned the sale of artwork created by prison Outsider Art - the Clowninmates to reduce the anguish of the victims of said inmates. Considering over two million people in the US enjoy free room and board, it stands to reason there should be a rather lively art scene. Certainly many artists were in jail for some or another offence in their past.

Let’s compile another list: Emily Araki, Asao Handa, Mobu Hashimoto, Taye Jow, Yoshiko Ushida and Richard Kanazawa. All were Artists, different and residents of American concentration camps during WWII. There were many more, all of Japanese origins. Yet the sons fought in Italy and elsewhere. On the American side.

NPR and the National Endowment for the Arts are perpetual Republican targets for extinction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, All the Pretty Horses, the Harry Potter series, The Catcher in the Rye, Sophie’s Choice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Inferno (Dante) all share the honor of being banned from schools in, for instance, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida and Texas. The same schools usually favor school prayers, various patriotic pledges and creationism. They tend to agree with Lenin on “Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and “other ‘isms’,” being dangerous elitist deviance usually leading to pre marriage sex or worse.

Camp Art - the FirebirdThen we have the racial issues. It used to be those were viewed as mostly a shameful American problem. Today it is a global issue that will get worse. Global Warming will force relocation of hundreds of millions of people from tropical areas into developed areas on top of the current labor market flows. Politicians gamble it will not happen on their guard. But Nicolas Sarkozy of France already knows the score as do his riot police.

Racial profiling is yet another example of discrimination practiced by air lines, police and New Jersey Turnpike State Patrol. United Airlines throw Assem Bayaa off a flight claiming that because of national security, they don’t have to obey civil rights protection laws. Racial profiling is blamed for the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the New York City Police Department. London Police killed Jean Charles de Menezes because he looked Middle Eastern. Menezes was Brazilian. US Airways removed six Muslim imams from a flight after fellow passengers expressed fear.Camp Art - Colors

My favorite fascist Ann Coulter jumped in on the US Airways act: “US Airways is my official airline now. Northwest, which eventually flew the Allah-spouting Muslims to their destinations, is off my list. You want to really hurt a U.S. air carrier’s business? Have Muslims announce that it’s their favorite airline.” Would Ms. Coulter like to fly Middle East Airlines on her next trip to Beirut? Maybe she’ll have to connect using Syrian Arab Airlines after crossing the Atlantic on Royal Jordanian out of JFK. No doubt service would be impeccable.

Mortgage lenders, insurance companies and the retail industry have their own version of profiling known as redlining. It means ethnic factors determine the availability of services. Blacks cannot obtain loans or insurance. Retailers refuse to serve certain ethnic neighborhoods. The late 1980s saw the emergence of the phrase Environmental Racism. It covers issues such as urban decay and excessive pollution in minority areas and the unavailable health care for, say, AIDS.

Us

“Us or We” stand for Tide and Dell. iPods, SUVs and cell phone ring tones. A precious few are happy, well adjusted and always productive. Most of us are not. We cherish majestic homes, Camp Art - Revengeexercise clubs, personal trainers. Airline miles, first class upgrades, airport club rooms and special floor in hotels. Foie Gras, Beluga Caviar, Kobe Beef, 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, stirred, not shaken martinis on Bombay Sapphire and a spot of BC’s finest. Prozac, Prada, Nike, Viagra.

Illegal gardeners, cooks and nannies. Insider trading, child porn, spousal abuse, congressional pages. Cancer, heart pacers, redone faces, improved waistlines, hairlines and butt lines. The Sundance Cirque Lodge, The Causeway Therapeutic Center or perhaps the Sunset Malibu when things get out of hand? “We” congest the streets, cause global warming, kill thousands of species, make wars, snort cocaine and generally don’t care for one another.

Camp Art - Gideon AbstractOnly the most stupid of us believe in useless stereotyping as shown above. There is not a single individual fitting the portrait. Some may come closer than others but labeling just does not work. Not all enjoy Beluga Caviar. Some prefer ballpark hot dogs and drive a Chevy Aveo. Others like Iranian Caviar better. Personally, I like spaghetti. I’m not much of a Prada guy.

Let’s consider the “Us” camp and some of its members. By most standards, membership includes strange individuals such as Howard Hughes, Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton, Jerry Springer, Kobe Bryant, George W. Bush, Howard Stern, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Boris Yeltsin, Ann Coulter, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Flintstone and George Karl. All defy classification. They are different but have one thing in common. These people do not produce Art.

The “Us” segment contains untold numbers of serious, legitimate artists. Writers, painters, composers, topless dancers, photographers and maybe a blogger or two. Occasionally well adjusted, safe and sound, they go about the business of art. Some art Camp Art - Gideon Abstract 2may be a bit bland compared to the far corners of expressive power. It truly takes all kinds. Take Smooth Jazz and New Age Flutists – great companions with Prozac. No wonder the true Disadvantaged scream in the night. Their art is rarely bland.

To see the spread from the bland to the somewhat adventurous and, by exception, the truly original, compare, say, Perry Como and Janis Joplin. Doris Day compared to Eve Ensler. Miss Marple and John Barth. Rock Hudson and Sean Penn. Tom Clancy and Kurt Vonnegut. Amy Grant versus Eminem. Norman Rockwell against Pablo Picasso. John Grisham versus Norman Mailer. Burt Bacharach and Arnold Schoenberg. Ebert against Susan Sontag. Ricky Martin versus John Cage. David Sanborn versus John Coltrane. Janet Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Anita Baker against Anita O’Day. Danielle Steel versus Andrea Barrett.

Perhaps not all of the above are well adjusted. Some are or were addicted to various things. Not all are nice people. Some of the art is truly awful and most is very bland. None of them live on the street or reside in mental institutions. Some may feel at home in rehab centers but that’s not quite the same thing. This essay is not about these guys. This article is about the other ones: “them”.

Them

“They” stand for poverty, rage, illness, irresponsibility, insanity, and screams in the night. They are institutionalized, discarded, feared, deep-6ed, 86ed, banned, ignored, hidden, driven out of town. They look bad and smell bad. They are drunk, high, low, infected with lice, AIDS or TBC. A few are violent. They annoy, panhandle and give us evil eyes. Many are in jail, asylums or various concentration camps around the World. Or they would be if we establishment types could find the time to round them up. Being parasitic, they deserve no care, no breaks and no respect. Politicians safely can ignore them. They carry no political weight, do not lobby much of anything and receive no DC pork.

Mental Creativity

Mental illness, in particular manic-depression and creativity go well together. Famous examples include Ernest Hemingway, Robert Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Michelangelo, Diane Arbus and Lord Byron.Martin Ramirez Man on Horse

“Outsider Art” refers to the work of self-taught mentally ill or disadvantaged artists such as Delaine La Bas, Adolph Wolfli, Nek Chand, Ferdinand Cheval, Henry Darrger, Madge Gill, Alexander Lobanov, Martin Ramirez, Achilles Rizzoli and Judith Scott. The 1922 book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” by Hans Prinzhorn identified the Ten Schizophrenic Masters: Karl Brendel, August Klotz, Peter Mogen, August Neter, Johann Knupfer, Victor Orth, Herman Bell, Heinrich Welz, Joseph Sell and Franz Pohl.

The six images close by in this section represent works by Outsider Artists. The top pencil drawing of a woman is by Madge Gill, an English artist guided by a spirit. She did thousands of drawings like the one shown here. The woman in the drawing may be Gill herself or a stillborn daughter.

Martin Ramirez, a Mexican who lived in California, did the Man on a Horse. Ramirez suffered from schizophrenia. After his death, the painting became quite valuable. This is unusual: most of these artists are or were institutionalized with their work neither shown publicly nor sold. Even after death, when often their work first came to light, little is made public.

The drawing of a huge dog with his tiny master is next. No doubt based on an accurate view of the world according to most dogs, the artist is Bill Traylor. He was born a slave in 1856 on a Bill Traylor Big Dog Small Manplantation near Benton, Alabama. He remained at the plantation till 1934, described as an illiterate farmer with some English vocabulary. He then worked on road gangs and was essentially homeless. So how come this man is viewed as one of the most important American artists?

From 1939 to 1942, Traylor worked the streets of Montgomery as a street artist. He was 83 when he started this artistic career, eventually producing around 1,800 drawings. Friends brought him drawing materials and others provided small favors such as food and an occasional roof. His first show was held in 1940 – ignored by Traylor who was busy drawing. His next show was held in 1942 at a local high school. By chance, his work caught the attention of the NYC Museum of Modern Art. The Museum attempted to buy some of the works but was angrily rejected. By 1943 Traylor moved north to his children. He died in 1947 and his work fell into the shadows for thirty five years.

In 1982, he was part of a landmark exhibition of Black American art. His work was rediscovered and he is now a regular feature of the art scene. Exhibitions include about some twenty across the South in the last 10 years. He recently was featured in England, Germany and Switzerland.

Adolf Wolfli, Resident Artist, Waldau Mental Asylum, Switzerland 1895-1930

Adolf Wolfli is perhaps the best known of the Outsider Artists. Born in 1864, he was a farmhand, a laborer and a convicted sex offender by the age of 31. At this point he was committed to the Asylum where he remained to his death in 1930. He was violent, subject to hallucinations and diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

He started drawing in 1899, but nothing is preserved till about 1905. Over the next twenty five years, he accumulated a remarkable output of an imaginary Adolf Wolfli Big Thing25,000 page autobiography and some 3,000 drawings and collages. Supported by some of the hospital staff, here is his established routine:

  • “Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else.”
  • “He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night.”
  • “At Christmas the house gives him a box of colored pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.”

He achieved a bit of fame in 1921 when he was the subject of an attention getting publication stating a mentally ill person can be a serious artist. In 1922, he was one of several subjects in Prinzhorn’s book mentioned above. The publicity allowed him to sell some drawings.

Yet that ripple did not last long and it was not till 1972 – forty two years after his death – that he was discovered by the world of art. His work started a remarkable tour through the world that included well over a hundred fifty exhibitions at locations such as the Museums of Fine Arts in Basel and Bern, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Adolf Wolfli Campbell Soup on NewsprintBrussels, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Universities of California in Berkeley and Santa Barbara, Musee Picasso, Antibes, American Folk Art Museum, New York, Kunsthalle, Kiel, Scottish Art Council, Edinburgh, Berliner Museum, Berlin, Centre de Cultura Contemporania, Barcelona, Museum of Kyoto, Kyoto, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo and the Katonah Museum of Art, New York. This is just a sampling;
add many more museums, exhibition halls and galleries.

What about his work? Well, think an enormous collection of newsprint papers completely covered with text, drawings, symbols, poetry and musical annotations. Meticulously organized into volumes: Nine volumes of “From the Cradle to the Grave”, Seven volumes of “Geographic and Algebraic Books”, 3,000 pages of “Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation (allowing his nephew to conquer not only Earth but the entire Cosmos), six books of “St Adolf II” (his alter ego), six books of “Songs ands Dances”, four books on “Dances and Marches” and sixteen books and 8,404 pages on his “Funeral March”. Most of his drawings were part of the volumes but some, called bread art, were single sheet, occasionally sold and the basis of his modest early following.

The drawings are exhausting, epic, complex, grandiose, geometrical, adventurous, labyrinthine, mysterious, startling and based on an incredible imagination. He spent most of his mature life in an isolation cell, yet provided views on far reaching subjects he could not have observed through Adolf Wolfli Musicanything but imagination.

Here is a bit of trivia: Wolfli did his Campbell Soup Can (above) in 1929. Andy Warhol did his Can in 1964. It seems both of them liked the Tomato Soup. Warhol is the pop artist of fame. Wolfli is known for insanity. May the best man or image win.

Also interesting is the inclusion of musical annotations and hints. Recently, these annotations have been interpreted into actual performances. He is said to have inspired a range of musicians and composers. Here are a few words on the musical aspect of his work off his web site:

  • “Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s music can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music.”
  • “How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well.”
  • “More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.”

Another curious aspect is that he apparently incorporated a detailed vocabulary into his work. This vocabulary included graphics such as birds, faces, decorative borders, snakes, musical staves and mandela shapes.

Adolf Wolfli’s creativity is only the beginning of his startling abilities. It is hard to even imagine what must have been going on in that isolated mind that astonishes a world about which he directly knew very little. There is only room here for a few of his drawings (above). Given the uniqueness of his work, I’ve prepared a short multimedia show of samples from his work, accompanied by his own music as interpreted recently. Hit the “Wolfli” button in the next segment and let the show roll.

TOC

The Case of Adolf Wolfli – A Multimedia Show

Sometimes, Outsider Artists are referred to as “Folk Artists”. Other descriptions include “brutish, rural, untrained, intuitive, menial, peasant, marginal, clumsy, naive, primitive, extreme, mental, elaborate and fantasy driven”. Personally, I don’t quite agree with any of these classifications. Considering that Outsider Art has become a commercially viable art form, some recent output might be described as opportunistic, simply bad or exploitative.

However, in the case of Wolfli, his music as interpreted in the show below is decidedly Swiss Folk style. Perhaps not all of us favor that particular music legacy but few among us can claim to simultaneously be writers of autobiographies, adventures, poetry, algebraic and geographic text books and symbolic essays plus be accomplished visual artists, draftsmen and illustrators plus be composers.

Hit the button for a rare glimpse of a long ago Outsider Artist and his quite strange world and who beat Andy Warhol to the Campbell Soup Can:

Wolfli

Finally

There are Outsider Music and Outsider Photography artists. Perhaps we have Outsider Postmen, Outsider Plumbers, Outsider Accountants and Outsider Neurosurgeons. Outsider Bloggers most likely are quite a large group. It depends on how you classify people. I suppose my point is that classifying people is a futile exercise. There are some trivial classifications that are real. If you lost a leg you are a one-legged individual. If you were born in Moscow, Idaho, you are an American citizen. But if you claim such classifications can be extended to your credit rating or artistic ability, then you are on a slippery slope.

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