FAILURE, MY BEGINNING
The music that we sense can never sound,
The images we'd shape can never be;
Knowing beforehand this futility,
We yet persist in littering the world with poems -
So many crumbling castles scattering dust
That dances in the sun and, settling, forms
Haphazard patterns, lovely, unforeseen,
So that, abandoning what we intend
Makes failure a beginning, not an end.
Perhaps, in the end, we don't get the Blue Flower; it gets us. Perhaps, if the self can't
grasp the Ideal, we need to grow beyond selfhood, surrendering old scruples, embracing
technology, and evolve toward infinity. This meta-human hope, vague but powerful, I would
reflect in the radical disfigurement of things I've made (such that what remains is both
unrecognizable and wholly contingent) - a disfigurement that obliterates the formal outlines
through which traditional art is known - endless color, music unabating. So that...
In ceasing to be merely me I'm free
As art transcends its old futility.
I wrote those words a few months ago, at a time of creative uncertainty during which the
familiar artistic paths had ceased seeming fruitful. I was considering a return to electronic
composition. But whereas, years ago I prided myself on being a purist, working from
abstract number relations and piling up sine waves to create original sounds "from the inside
out", I had newly become attracted to the idea of recording samples - a bell, a train's horn,
the wind, a voice - and manipulating them (as it says above, such that what remains is both
unrecognizable and wholly contingent).
At the same time I was struggling with such musical issues I had also reached a dead end in
painting (doubtless to Sue's relief, though she had never quite had the heart to complain
over the past three years as I spattered paint on myself, my clothes, our furniture, or to
discourage me from what she must have seen as the doomed efforts of a novice to create art
without experience, training, or a hint of talent in his first fifty years on the planet. Never
comfortable with a brush, I would scrape, dribble, fling and smear paint in the general
direction of the canvas; once I even resorted to stomping on the paint with both feet, like
Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops - all this in the twin hopes of circumventing my
technical ineptitude and facilitating a kind of controlled aleatory.).
The story of how I got sidetracked into painting in the first place, the strange tale of a man
accosted in midlife by what you might call seismic eruptions in the unconscious for which his
musical instinct had no adequate response - this story has been told elsewhere, and I will
not rehearse it here - except to admit that Dionysus got the upper hand of Apollo so that Sue
found that, rather suddenly, she was no longer co-habitating with Mr. Neat but with his dark
twin, Mr. Messy.
But - don't get confused - that was some years ago, and now, I mean, more recently, the
shifts in my musical interests have been mirrored in my visual art activities: I've become an
enthusiastic amateur photographer,and spend my idle time quietly taking snapshots and
reworking the images in the solitude of my computer: once again, Apollo reigns triumphant in
my heart, Mr. Neat in my home.
Now as I see it, there are three steps to an artistic photo. First you need to find an object -
something existing outside your private thoughts, not an abstract idea, not something that
emerges gradually as the hand and the mind explore color and space, but a tangible thing
(as, perhaps, you might find strolling along a quiet beach: a sun-bleached buoy, a small
pebble, a piece of driftwood, gnarled and worn). In my estimation such an object is not yet
art, it just is.
Second, you need to make a photograph of this object, a photograph which is not the thing
itself, but an image of the thing: it possesses neither texture nor depth, but suggests these
qualities. And neither do I consider this yet to be art, this mere image of the object. But if it's
less real it's more malleable.
And that leads to the third step, wherein the photo is altered, just like the recorded sound
samples - either with subtle provocation or beyond recognition. You find something, you
photograph it, and you change it.
Or maybe (the thought crossed my mind one day), instead of utilizing found objects, I can
resurrect and redeem those paintings I recklessly brought into being - those paintings
whose existence has become for me a daily source of emotional turmoil and discomfort!
In either case, I imagine this shift in interest (from the abstract and timeless toward what's
"incomplete, imperfect, impermanent" as the Japanese say) has to do with getting older, as
I've come to recognize those qualities in my work and in my self. But it seems to me that this
urge to metamorphose is evidence of a positive, creative impulse which apprehends objects
not only as auguries of dissolution but as beginnings, as raw material, as bearers of potential
for rejuvenation when they come in contact with the imagination.
Now I am aware that, in today's world the average twelve year old has both the technology
and the savvy to construct the kind of picture I am describing (cropping and zooming, filtering
and re-coloring). But does he have the taste of an artist, can he do it well? Or do such
questions betray an outdated manner of thinking? I often get the suspicion lately that, both
in music and in art, the old aesthetic categories are becoming less valid: We've always
assumed that if something were easy to do it couldn't have much worth, that there is a
connection between labor (think of Beethoven) and achievement (or Michelangelo). But if
the new technology liberates us from the need painstakingly to develop skills, is this really
"cheating"? It's only a matter of time, I think, before developments in genetic engineering
transport us beyond the realm of competition in areas such as intelligence and athleticism.
What will it mean then to be "smart" or "healthy"?
Or beautiful, as in a beautiful photograph? Are my pictures beautiful? Even to say they fail
would hold out the hope of such a condition.
I find them, at least, intriguing, and enjoy them in a strangely disinterested way. In their
contemplation I suffer none of the trauma parents endure watching their children, or poets,
painters and musicians their progeny. Hell, it's not mine anyway - neither the object found
nor the pre-packaged, thus impersonal, means by which I transform it, hence there's a
distance between it and me, and this allows for a somewhat detached appreciation.
But if the old categories are breaking down, perhaps such art opens up new ways of
understanding. If, for instance, you see only Green Pumpkin, you might not recognize its
source. In that case you'd be enjoying (or not enjoying) the image in the way one
experiences abstract art. But if you see Green Pumpkin in a sequence of related pumpkin
images (some more, some less traceable, so many variations on a theme), then your
attention would be divided between the desire to locate meaning (Ah, it's a pumpkin with the
color changed!) and your instinct for pleasure in the perception of abstract design (Ooh, how
nice - green!). Needless to say, once you start presenting images in calculated
arrangements, the possibilities for fruitful ambiguities increase.
It is not lost on me that the trajectory of my artistic development bears a resemblance (in a
miniature, belated, modest way) to the course of art history in the 20th century. My efforts in
painting relied on intuition and spontaneous inspiration, were fired by a search for the
sublime and ineffable, and were grounded in the hope of something like self-discovery - all of
which can be traced to the worldview of Abstract Expressionism, according to which the
value of a work increases in proportion to its originality. But the referential nature of my new
photo-work, along with its breezy acceptance of technological virtuosity, relate it to Pop-Art
and the Post-Modern world of uncertain values and humorous ambiguities. Or am I just
getting lazy, losing my edge, even my marbles?
In any case I know myself well enough at least to suspect that all of this may be temporary,
that it may only be a matter of time before those Dionysian forces lurking in my unconscious
gain ascendancy and overthrow the cool Apollonian order than reigns at present in my mind
and in my home. Only a matter of time before Mr. Neat is ousted by Mr. Messy whose
angst-ridden spatterings will challenge Sue's patience anew. But for the moment
everybody's happy, and it's my hope to make the most of it.