December 3, 2007
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.
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 railroaded. 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 records 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’
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 suddenly 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.
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, doctors, 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.
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 those 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.
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 noise 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.
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 included 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.
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 inmates 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.
Then 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.
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 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, exercise 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.
Only 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 may 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”.
“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 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.
“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 plantation 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 25,000 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, Brussels, 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 anything 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.
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:
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.
November 20, 2007
Visions aren’t the simplest of all things we have to deal with. Commercial visions are Big Business in a confused, surreal sort of way. Conglomerates, corporations, companies, politicians, police chiefs and postal workers seemingly can’t live without those pay-per-view mass market visions. Creating, making, faking, enforcing, stealing, distorting, maintaining and hiding behind visions can be an everyday task.
Visionary consultants enjoy visions of corporate money mountains to be liberated. Visionary self-help authors improve us while cashing our checks. Famous visionary seminar personalities smile at us from the podium, counting heads and the evening’s take. Visionary leaders can send us to war, death and hunger, chanting poll numbers. Other visionaries bore us to death. Visions are not easily shared and not always friendly companions. It’s a good thing there is help available to sort things out. Check out the small list below – if you don’t find the right choice – just keep looking. Someone will knock on your door.
How about getting expert advice by hiring Andre Agassi, Bill Clinton, Bob Costas, Jay Leno, Lance Armstrong, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michelle Akers, Magic Johnson, Big Bad Voodo Daddy, Alec Baldwin, Dave Barry, Neil Armstrong, Angela Bassett, Ken Riley, Chevy Chase, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Wolf Blitzer, Paul Reiser, Dr. Phil, Mick Fleetwood, The Zippers, Paula Zahn, Ann-Margret, the B-52’s, Asleep At The Wheel, The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Dog The Bounty Hunter, Goldie Hawn, Drew Carey, George Foreman, Jerry Seinfeld, Shaquille O’Neal, Tom Jones, Yao Ming, Barbara Walters, Ellen DeGeneres or perhaps Tina Turner. You will end up delighted, motivated, reborn and very broke.
Enron had a vision – hit California widows as hard as inhumanly possible. Microsoft had and has a vision of invincibility as did IBM and Saddam Hussein. Harley-Davidson (“HOG”) has a vision of stopping those darn oil leaks. George W. Bush has many visions – none good, legal or comprehensible. Oil companies envision new holes in the Arctic, pumping the heck out of them till nothing is left but pollution, garbage and extinct species. British Prime Minister Chamberlain declared his vision of peace in our time in 1939 after giving away Europe to the evil visions of Adolf. Bill Clinton had and probably has visions that we won’t talk about in this family friendly medium. I’m not sure about Hillary’s vision or those of Monica, Kathleen, Gennifer, Elizabeth, Sally, Dolly or Paula. Etc.
There are religious visions, often referred to as miracles, such as the awakening of the dead – Jimmy Carter being a good example. Sometimes dreams are viewed as visions. Other times they are nightmares – such as the images of Ann Coulter or Geraldo. Some visions are expressed by speaking in tongues – consider Donald Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara or Alan Greenspan. Perhaps it is the mystical experience of seeing the supernatural, such as Elvis still being Big in Las Vegas, or being a supernatural being, such as Michael Jackson or the Alien II monster. It might be a person or thing of extraordinary beauty, such as Howard Stern or Paris Hilton. Some say it is the mark of unusual competence in discernment or
perception; intelligent foresight: a leader of vision, such as Michael Brown of FEMA (or his bosses), Ken Lay or Kim Jong Il.
How about the visions of sub prime mortgage companies of recent fame? Tobacco companies? Alberto Gonzales’ vision of US sponsored torture? IRS visions of you and your returns? The dreams of Iraqi refugee women serving as prostitutes in Syria? Al Gore’s vision of immortality? The Giuliani vision of no jay-walkers, no decadent art and a Disneyland America? The aspirations of Homeland Security. The Visionary Wars on Terror, Muslims, Immigrants, Gays, Science, Pot Smokers and the Teletubbies. There is no end to bad and misguided visions. Just look around you.
The Goodness of Visions
There are other kinds of visions than the bad, the ugly and the many. Those of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, John Steinbeck, Lord Byron, Jimmy Stewart and Norman Mailer (always remembered). Bono envisions an AIDS free Africa, a vision not shared by Drug Companies. Here are some more such suspects: Rubens, Miro, Aristotle, Miles Davis, Gustaf Mahler, Jack London, Fjodor Dostojevski, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There’ll be more about the two last names as we go along, this being a photo blog. These visions are not bought in a parking lot like some already mentioned. Nor are they brought on by grandiosity, greed, confusion, mental deficiencies, crack cocaine or troubled childhoods as some others are.
Some things are different.
Here is one such difference. Visions associated with art tend to survive much longer than the others. Many value related observations of art versus the more mundane visions of toothpaste manufacturers exist. Art does carry a special banner. Art visions, for instance, outlast most cheese burgers, cheese burger consumers and their makers. Art may remain alive for thousands of years. Take that, Letterman, KFC or Rudy G.
Creativity is our second mini subject. As with visions, it is a slightly suspect subject. G.H.W Bush did not favor it and his mighty son does not consider anything as far out as ten letters (or so; 9? 11? duh). The subject of creativity is just not quite as distinguished as “visions”. There are creativity consultants – some bearded and smelling of pot – that usually can’t demand as high fees as the visionary celebrities. Not that they don’t try. But somehow creative thinking or activity ranks way below the vision thing. It doesn’t have quite the ring to it.
In some cases, creativity leads to unorthodox, independent and hence dangerous thinking. Rarely is “different” a good thing. Microsoft Office, for instance, is a given part of almost any organization. That Open Source stuff is not to be trusted except by creative and visionary accountants. Where is the business model? What’s that insane “free” price tag? What if some one expected me to work for free? Damn Commies and Deviants. And how about those crazy blog writers and their silly for-free thoughts. Free is madness. Madness is bad. Obviously, blog writers are mad. A few are creative, making them even badder.
Of course, the above are just some examples of feelings running amok. It can go the other way, too. Just consider the “Creative Writing” classes of many fine institutions that possibly are anything but creative. What about the 281,524 book titles listed on Amazon as “creative”? Bring your reading glasses for treasures such as “Creative Abundance: Keys To Spiritual And Material Prosperity”, “Right-Brain Styles for Conquering Clutter, Mastering Time, and Reaching Your Goals “, “The Tongue: A Creative Force “, “Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain”, “Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden: Making Pots, Planters, Birdbaths, Sculpture & More”, “Creative Whack Pack”, “Creative Recycling
in Embroidery” and “Creative Interventions for Troubled Children and Youth”. Here are some naturals: “God’s Creative Power Gift Collection; God’s Creative Power Will Work for You; God’s Creative Power for Healing and God’s Creative Power for Finances”. If that doesn’t do it for you, there are 281,510 other titles to enjoy and prosper from.
There are Creative Investments, Labs, Commons, MP3 players and sound cards. Singapore has singapore.creative.com, complementing their vision of a spit and butt free society. How about Creative Advertising, Interactive Media, Multimedia and Creative Linux. Creative Good, Screen writing and Adobe’s Creative Suite. Most are quite creative in taking your money but perhaps not in much more than that.
There’s some evidence madness and creativity go well together. Van Gogh certainly was both. Idi Amin and Bébé Doc Duvalier were both quite nuts but not creative except perhaps in murder. Lennie Bernstein – quite sane as well as very creative. Boris Yeltsin – mad but reasonably good at conducting large orchestras without falling down too often, pulverizing his own Duma and occasionally, creative dancing. By comparison, Putin seems neither-nor everything. Sort of like a pair of empty shoes. Like those of Mitt Romney, Keanu Reeves, Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore, Goofy and Dick Cheney. Anyone home?
We’ll return to the subject of madness in art in a later post.
French chefs create meals worthy of Michelin stars but not your cholesterol count. Cops create an illusion of safety. Insurance companies claim you are in good hands while envisioning saving you 15% in 15 minutes. Reality shows, thieves and politicians demonstrate creativity in lying, cheating, stealing or writing blogs. Democrats are creatively adding taxes for those not giving them money; Republicans are creative in reducing taxes for whoever gives them money.
Creativity and vision have some things in common. One is that the combination can produce great art. Another is that no one knows exactly what either is. There are scores of definitions of both vision, creativity and, let’s throw this one in – innovation. These definitions are all less than adequate. Many are simply self serving.
But most of us recognize creativity and pure vision when we see or otherwise experience it. Such recognition is personal, biased and not always logical. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci is a great example of creativity in just about ever one’s mind. But for what? His airplane thing never flew. He is not the one that invented the Camera Obscura. Already mentioned – Leonard Bernstein certainly was creative but how many of us still sing “Maria” in the shower? How many really admire the creativity in the unusual minds of Mel Gibson, Anderson 360, Martha Stewart, Larry King, Dean Martin, Victoria Beckham, Twiggy or Tom Cruise? Yet we somehow know what creativity is. Just don’t look too closely.
In previous posts, I’ve preached how nothing is what it seems. Light is just a perception, colors don’t exist; cameras lie, eyes and brains fool us, themselves and others. Our familiar three dimensional world isn’t actually three dimensional. Al Gore did not invent the Internet or Global Warming. Hitler was not the first practitioner of genocide. Bush did not create state sanctioned torture all by himself. Elvis is really quite dead. Romance does not lasts forever. O. J. is guilty. Churchill was not a teetotaler. This blog may not exist – you think you read it as I believe I write it. Fool’s Paradise.
Visions, Light, Distortions and Dimensions
Here is the crudest possible perception of a photo: It is a static two dimensional image of a scene as it existed in the briefest moment in time. Those characterizations are not true in the simplest amateur point and shoot cases, much less in any photographic piece of art. The amateur may well successfully capture something of precious value to the intended audience. The fine art photo will probably be viewed by a wider audience, presenting a sophisticated, multidimensional and unique experience.
As part of a series, this essay contemplates what makes a great photo. What does it take to make one? I’m writing as a photographer, not a viewer. Viewers will get something out of it as well. This is not a technical how-to article. Look elsewhere for ideas on f stops, flash settings, rules of thirds, the zone system or Photoshop secrets. Instead, enjoy some rather unconventional ideas that reduce the mysteries of shooting great photos (for you) while preserving the magic (to your audience):
- Understand your very own vision. Explore it. Let it happen. Persist. Ignore the gurus.
- Photography is about distortions and abstractions, not reality. Break the boundaries.
- Light is the basis of all photography. Understand light. Knowing about color helps too.
- Photographs are multi-dimensional. Use that. Think beyond two or three dimensions.
Simple, isn’t it. I’m just kidding. It’s really, really hard to shoot a good photograph. It’s really, really absurd to reduce the magic of art into a few simplistic “rules” as shown above. As you will find out, these simplistic rules are not simple at all. But they are doable and real. Try it.
Success in any endeavor depends on self knowledge. In art, self knowledge defines the artist’s work and is reflected in vision statements and the work processes. Some people require formal vision statements, detailed plans, rules and so forth. To others, it’s all an intuitive process. Right or left brain, there is a process. The photographer who understands visions and methodical executions is much more likely to shoot and produce great and lasting photos.
Take wedding photographers, often following a written script: shoot bride; then bride and mother; add brother; add step father, grandmother and former boy friend…. Do Ceremony, Chicken Dinner, First Dance, Wedding Cake, Uncle Ben Ejected, Limo here, Limo there, Collect Fee and Get Out. Not much of a vision but certainly a partial plan.
Another extreme case is the amateur’s random path without a plan but with plenty of heart and soul. Masterpieces are not likely but it may not matter. A fine art photographer may spend years coming up with an original vision, acting accordingly in a consistent manner. The sports photographer follows the script. Portrait makers deep-six the wrinkles. The paparazzi covers the beat, avoiding bodily harm if possible. Guess who has the greatest chance of shooting something worthwhile to a knowledgeable audience. All do, of course – that’s who. Most photographers are quite similar to the monkey hammering away towards the Shakespeare play. That random path without a plan is more common than any admits. So what?
Many of us look for the middle ground as we deal with the “process thing”. Formalize some aspects to keep on track, be flexible in other aspects to encourage new ideas. The process is vital; the form it takes is personal. It pays to be a bit weary of the random path. Expecting no effort is the true loser.
Whether on paper or in one’s head, the creative process depends on a few basics. I’m sure Ansel Adams (who had to write technical books about his processes and thought patterns) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (who neither wrote technical books, nor volunteered to verbalize his processes) both, consciously or not, considered many of the points to be covered in this series.
Artistry contains two uniquely personal components beyond that vision thing. The first is creativity. Creativity hangs out with that artistic vision. The second is innovation. Innovation makes creative ideas become real, actual works of art. Most artists create art that is unique and very different from that of the next guy. Yet the basic creative thought patterns tend to be similar. Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson created art with almost nothing in common except cameras were involved. But read some of their thoughts and you will find great similarities, not in everything but in spirit:
Ansel Adams said:
- In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular…. sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.
- All I can do in my writing is to stimulate a certain amount of thought, clarify some technical facts and date my work. But when I preach sharpness, brilliancy, scale, etc., I am just mouthing words, because no words can really describe those terms and qualities it takes the actual print to say, “Here it is.”
- When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
- Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Do these subjects move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?
- I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term – meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching – there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.
Henri Cartier-Bresson said:
- They asked me: “‘How do you make your pictures?” I was puzzled and I said, “I don’t know, it’s not important.”
- I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life -to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
- This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.
- If the photographer succeeds in reflecting the exterior as well as interior world, his subjects appear as “in real life.” In order to achieve this, the photographer must respect the mood, become integrated into the environment, avoid all the tricks that destroy human truth, and also make the subject of the photo forget the camera and the person using it. Complicated equipment and lights get in the way of naive, un-posed subjects. What is more fleeting than the expression on a face?
- To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values.
It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.
To both photographers, the making of a photograph was a spiritual act, an inner conviction and a desire to abstract essence beyond the material world. Neither of them mentions tools or techniques except to say those are not important. I’d imagine they would not agree on whether a particular photograph is great or not. They had vastly different approaches to just about any lower level photographic technique. But the basic creative thought patterns are quite similar. Let’s consult some other photographers:
Other Photographers Said:
- “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”; “What moves me about…what’s called technique…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.”-Diane Arbus
- The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework – that to me is the art of photography. -Berenice Abbott
Here is some more wisdom:
- Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term – selectivity. -Berenice Abbott
- “I discovered that while many photographers think alike when it comes to equipment and chemistry, there are seldom two who agree on anything when it comes to what constitutes a good image.”; “Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”; “Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” -Peter Adams
- “What is right? Simply put, it is any assignment in which the photographer have significant spiritual stakes… spiritually driven work constitutes the core of a photographer’s contribution to culture.”; “What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”-William Albert Allard
Vastly different personalities, drastically different views of the world and what makes a good photo, the creative thinking remains quite similar. It got to be a point in there, somewhere.
So what’s the fuzz?
What makes art special? Somehow art is more powerful than your average concept, be it Mission Impassable IX, Chicken McSluggets, Senator Hillbilly Clanton or the new Ford Swahili or motivational celebrities. The Ford Swahili is concept tested for years, rolled out on national TV, O% Financed, Traded in, Traded out, then disappearing into a final life as Haitian cabs. Millions may be made and sold, congesting highways, polluting the air and killing some of its owners. Then when it is over – it really is over.
The art of Ansel Adams has a permanent home of sorts in San Francisco. Not many of you have a clue where that is located. Some of his photos hang in museums around the world; others are in private hands. The University of Arizona safeguards the treasure. There are no trade ins, financing campaigns, concept tests, TV ads, marketing budgets or salesmen in smart looking Kmart suits. Occasionally some Adams collection hits the road, visiting Spokane, WA; Saarbrucken, Germany and La Rochelle, France. The local newspapers may cover the event in, say ten sentences filed next to the dog show listings. Most TV reporters never heard of Ansil Adam. Yet the people show up in droves.
Some time ago, I spent a weekend trying to get into a particular Chicago Art Institute exhibition. I never made it – too many lined up in front of me, day after day. It would have been far easier to get into a Bulls, Bears, Whitesox or Cubs game or the Jerry Springer & Winfrey Shows. The Rush Street Clubs or lunching with Richard Daley – much easier, I imagine. Dinner reservations with Charlie Trotter, Rick Tramonto or Grant Achatz – piece of cake by comparison. I’m sure the Art Institute spent some marketing money but that’s not what created the draw. The art created the draw.
Ansel Adams is a name with considerable recognition. Hillbilly Clanton would love his numbers. Now, Adams did most of his famous work in the 1940s and 1950s. Do you remember which was the best selling car in 1954? The top chart song of 1942? The 1938 Senator from Indiana? The dominant fall fashion colors of 1948? The favorite milk shake in 1935? Me neither. Most of us recognize an Ansel Adams picture, though. At least I do.
Adams survived the wear of time together with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig who died in 1941, Coca Cola (there are always exceptions), Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Winston Churchill. Adams’ 1941 Moonrise, Hernandez, NM photo coincided with the premieres of Citizen Kane, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Dumbo. Bob Hope started his USO shows lasting the next fifty years. 1941 saw Hasselblad opening up a shop in Sweden. The Wehrmacht used plenty of Leica III’s. Joe Louis held on to his title six times. Those are some of the memorable events.
But did you know that Cecil Brown won the 1941 Peabody Award for reporting the news, that Jimmy Dorsey did Green Eyes and Bing Crosby crooned Dolores. Other forgotten songs include “It’s So Peaceful in the Country”, “The Hut-Sut Song”, “Cow-Cow Boogie” and “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi”. Packard Clipper cars sold well as did the Hudson Coupe and Cadillac’s 2-door Convertible. The Cheerios brand was introduced. The radio show Melody Ranch with Gene Audrey, Hopalong Cassidy and the Grand Ole Opry shows all did just fine. The Emerson Phonoradio ($49.95) was enjoyed by many but is long gone. Few of us ponder the Ecuador-Peru Border War considering Pearl Harbor, the Germans just outside Moscow and U-boats sinking everything afloat. So much gone without a trace or regret.
Perhaps it is real simple. Things that deserve to last over time do indeed last. All the junk deserving nothing receive nothing and go away. Surely it’s not that simple. If that was true – would we have to suffer macaroni and cheese, Strauss waltzes, grits, yodeling or Jerry Lewis? I think not.