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Category Archives: Visual Arts

Disappearing and Reappearing

Shells, fossils, and china chits with their own submerged existence.

On my way home yesterday, I heard an interesting little spot on PRI’s The World about some 17th-century treasures being found in the drought-lowered Vistula River in Poland. Large pieces of marble sculptures, even fountains, had been looted and loaded onto barges by Swedish invaders, but not all these transports made it back to Sweden. Historical reports show that at least one, perhaps overloaded and too heavy, sank in the Vistula. It waited close to 400 hundred years at the bottom of the river. (Another article from the Irish Times and video from MSNBC here.)

I’m hard pressed to explain why it is that I find such relics of the past so fascinating, but I do. Even when I’ve spent days meandering along lakeshores in Pennsylvania or scrounging around the edges of strip mines in Tennessee, I have always been moved by the bits of water-worn china and glass and by the fossils of creatures long gone. Whether it was a family trip to Chucalissa, a hike through the abandoned homesteads of Cataloochee, or a school trip to Ft. Loudon, I always marveled at the lives people had once led, at how things had changed and how they had stayed the same.

Today, I think one of the things that I appreciate about the recovery of these lost objects in Poland is the way they tell the story of things that existed without public fanfare for so long. They existed just as much at the bottom of the river for the past 350-plus years as they do now that they are at the surface.

One of my colleagues, Pat Rushin, this week also greeted the news that one of his screenplays, The Zero Theorem, is in pre-production with Terry Gilliam (who also directed the recently discussed Brazil). In a sense, this is another hidden treasure finally rising to the surface. This screenplay was written years ago, and was once previously slated for production, and I like thinking about how it had value all the years that it waited for its current attention, and how it will go on having that value long after it is made as a film and does or doesn’t fade from view.

As artists, we have to believe in our work no matter how much attention it gets in any given moment.

And we shouldn’t let attention that we (or others) may get as determinative of our value, even though that is the only measure that is clear and too often, unfortunately, the only measure by which we are judged. The knowledge does not diminish my happiness for Pat’s success, but I try to remember that time hides beauties, time reveals treasures. They exist either way.

Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears

An image from Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011.

A Joyous Crybaby reader out in California emailed me the other day and asked if I had ever heard of Laurel Nakadate. He said that my blog reminded him of her work 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (performed in 2010 and first exhibited in 2011). No, I didn’t know of her, but I looked her up, and Nakadate’s work in photography, video, and film is fascinating. Thanks, Christopher Wu, for pointing her out.

Whereas I thought about making myself cry every day for a year, Nakadate actually did it, and 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears records that experience. In fact, she notes in this interview with White Hot Magazine:

the original reason why I started this project—I was looking on Facebook and on other websites and I was seeing how everyone fakes happiness all of the time. I mean, is it really true that all 3,000 of my Facebook friends are happy every day? ‘Cause according to their pictures they are! I just thought in direct retaliation against the concept that we should fake our happiness every day to present the right façade perhaps I’ll deliberately turn the other way and take part in sadness each day and see where that gets me.

It got her somewhere indeed. She notes that the project had the following effects:

* Though the project was “grueling” and “hard,” she grew “to depend on the consistency of the daily performance” and gained “more comfort than I imagined it could bring.”

* She began to think of crying in a different way, less as a “tsunami” and more just “a fluid thing that occurs, … a part of living.”

* People have started talking with her more freely about sadness and her art has started “a conversation about a taboo topic.”

So today I share with you the work of Laurel Nakadate. Photos from this project are available in book form, with an introduction by wonderful writer Rick Moody, as well as a sampling in this We Find Wildness blog post. She is represented by Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

Franz Liszt’s Orpheus & Travels in Time

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While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.

I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.

Goethe’s garden house in Weimar, Germany.

It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)

It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.

We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.

Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.

Three Stories About Poop

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From an 1899 edition of The Emperor’s New Clothes, illustrated by Helen Stratton.

Today, I take a turn from the sacred and beautiful (kd lang, Leonard Cohen, Maya Lin, Pablo Neruda) to the profane and silly. It is time for a summer change of mood.

I have always loved Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In my younger years, I identified with the child who cried out, when no one else would, that the Emperor was “wearing nothing at all.” Now that I am older, I sometimes still identify with the child who finds the b.s. absurd and sometimes with the naked Emperor—if only the world could see my finery even though it exists mostly in my mind, if only I didn’t wish to believe in a more wonderful version of things than what is true.

As a writer, I am always fascinated by the vagaries of human behavior, and the way that expectations interact with interpretations often rises to the top of the list. Saturday, when Bruce and I drove around Orlando doing errands, we stumbled into a set of humorously-themed reminiscences about this very thing and had a good laugh.

* * *

Much can be disguised with chocolate.

When I was growing up, we fortunately had lots of books around the house, and one story from one of these books came back to me when I was broken-hearted by a hapless fellow during grad school. I recalled the story from one of Willie Morris’s memoirs about growing up in Yazoo, Mississippi—probably his first, North Toward Home. Morris would later become well-known for his book and the subsequent movie My Dog, Skip, but even earlier he was fond of tales of rambunctious shenanigans from an earlier era. He particularly loved dog stories.

The vignette involved a schoolteacher or some other figure of authority who had punished Morris as a boy. He struck upon a perfect revenge, and wrapped up a beautiful package that he sent as a gift through the mail: he filled the pretty little box with dog shit from his faithful companion pet. Appropriate hilarity ensued.

I never acted on my own desire for revenge—such pranks are no longer considered harmless—but I spent a good bit of time fantasizing about taking cat turds out of the litter box with toothpicks, slicing them up, and dipping them in melted chocolate so they would look like fine homemade candies. I just knew that if I left a pretty box of these bon-bons on my ex-boyfriend’s front porch, he and his housemates would dig right in. This household of men-boys had several female “friends” who would leave homemade goodies and farm produce for them in a hippie-cool people-alternative culture version of the age-old adage that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Over and over, I imagined the horrified surprise on the faces of those guys—the way they would smugly accept the anonymous gift, thinking it their fine lot in life to have such offerings at their doorstep, how whoever found it would show it to the others and they would gather around for the greedy unwrapping, how they would ooh and ahh, and then one would reach out with his long fingers and pop a candy in his mouth. I even thought that perhaps I could make the turd bits small enough that it would take a few bites for reality to dawn.

Sometimes, even I, all Miss Genuine though I generally am, see the advantages in creating mistaken perceptions. This little idea made me laugh enough to get me through a tough time.

* * *

“It’s too big to be a dog’s.”

My step-granny’s face expressed genuine horror one morning when she returned from a short walk before breakfast. One summer week in the sleepy year before I finished high school and went off to college, Billie and my granddad were visiting from Middle Tennessee. She stood in the kitchen with her mouth open in disbelief.

“What’s wrong?” my father asked her.

It was as if she had lost the ability to speak. She started and stopped a few times. Finally, she shook her head, and said, “Well, I don’t know how to say this. But apparently someone—some person—has taken a crap right out in the middle of the street in front of the mailbox. It’s too big to be a dog’s. Who would do such a thing?”

“What on earth?” My father frowned and looked at my brother and me, as though we would know. Shocked horror went around the table. My brother and I were “good kids,” and we’d grown up in suburbia, not a Willie Morris small town.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Granny Billie said, her pretty mouth pursed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She shook her head. Since Billie was a nurse, we knew she had seen her fair share of human excrement and should be a good judge.

After breakfast, my father went out with a spade and bag to clean it up. He eventually returned to the house as stunned as Billie. “It looked as though someone just dropped it right there,” he told my mother in hushed tones.

The incident haunted us all for several days—a tiny bit like having a cross burned in your yard, I thought at the time. Who could hate us so much? Since we didn’t have any real candidates on a list of enemies that bitter, we speculated that someone else had been out walking and just had an overwhelming urge, barely getting their trousers down in time. But we couldn’t imagine that they’d leave it there or not at least dash behind some shrubbery. Billie quit taking morning walks, and we all stayed just a little closer to home, the mystery hanging in the air as thickly as any smell.

A few days later, however, we learned the truth—our neighbors the Griegers had just gotten a new German Shepherd after the death a few weeks earlier of old Blitz. The dog evidently was adjusting to a new diet with prolific poops and was still oriented toward using a paved kennel-floor for his business rather than woods and leafy ground.

The question remained, of course, why the Griegers, perfectly respectable folks who we knew quite well, had left it there. I have to say that we always wondered. I still do.

* * *

Since Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, it’s hard to determine the bounds of art.

One semester when Bruce was living in New York city on a sabbatical from Augustana College where he taught, his friend Keith visited him from Alberta. They embarked on a tour of numerous art galleries, painting being Keith’s profession, and gallery walks being one of their favorite city activities.

At one point, they stepped into a vast, echoing gallery space and began walking around. No one seemed to be there—not a gallery clerk in sight—but a large pile of what was apparently dog poop sat neatly in the middle of the floor, still seemingly steaming.

Bruce looked at Keith, and Keith looked at Bruce, and they both looked at the pile. There were several sculptures scattered about the room, and they looked to see if any of the others had kinetic properties such as steam or smell. They leaned over the pile to see if it might be made of anything but the real stuff.

Was it dog poop or was it art? They didn’t feel quite sure and laughed over the conundrum.

Soon enough, the gallery host returned to the room and came toward them with the usual slightly officious style. As he crossed the expanse of floor toward Bruce and Keith, his eyes encountered the pile, and he jumped back with a gasp.

“Oh, my,” he said, “how awful.” He ran to the back for a roll of paper towels and a mop.

* * *
Sometimes, I try to remember that even mis-apprehension can be productive, as long as it makes us wonder about the world around us. This week, I’m going to remember these stories and try to take a closer look around. Even though I am a devotee of something called “the genuine,” it is good to remember that it’s a wonderful and often hilarious part of life that things are not always what they seem to be.

Memorial Day and Maya Lin

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Most of the time, our remembrances of those who have fought in wars are characterized by respect for bravery and sacrifice and ambivalence about the existence of these wars in the first place. I don’t know whether it’s actually true that previous generations didn’t feel quite so much ambivalence, though that is the story we are told: World War I and World War II were seen as “necessary” and “moral,” whereas once the United States launched itself into Vietnam, and, more recently, the Middle East, our government has had less clear and lofty purposes.

In the U.S., civilians have been sheltered for a long, long time from the brutal day-to-day realities of war. We haven’t had an official war on U.S. soil since the Civil War ended in 1865, and nearly eighty years had already passed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and then landed troops in the Aleutian Islands the following summer. Seventy years have now passed since then, with only 9/11 as a major attack on U.S. soil.

But, as Edna St. Vincent Millay once noted in an untitled poem, “Peace / Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War / Somewhere progresses.”

Indeed, much of the world is caught up in war on any given day.

In my own family, on this day, we honor the memory of my grandfather, Robert Kelly Roney, Jr., who fought was sent to North Africa, then Europe, during World War II and came home full of shrapnel that remained in his body for the duration of his life. He did not often tell the story of his shrapnel, at least not to me. In our family, the women were “protected” from these details.

On the other hand, he would sometimes tell the story of the deceit and betrayal that he experienced at home before his service and after his return from the battlefield in the figure of his father-in-law and employer, Edgar, more commonly referred to in the Southern way by the initials E.A.. While R.K. was gone to the front, E.A.’s vegetable canning factory was investigated for nefarious practices. As part of the “war effort,” the canning company provided a certain portion of its goods to the military—to be shipped overseas as rations or used in bases to feed training soldiers. My grandfather had managed the factory before his departure, and it appalled him to later learn that his father-in-law had established the practice of sending cans filled with water, devoid of food.

R.K. would shake his head when he told this story, and you could always see his amazement at the idea that a soldier in the field might open one of these cans hungry, perhaps very hungry, and remain that way. As a veteran himself, he felt this at a personal level. It was as if his own father-in-law had left him to starve on the battlefield.

Perhaps that was precisely what E.A. hoped—that somehow R.K. would see a familiar can label in the mess hall or trenches and then find nothing. The two of them had been in conflict for some time—over a woman. I didn’t understand the implications of the story for many years, but many’s the time that R.K. would tell us the tale of how, one night as he worked late in the office of the plant, pouring over the books, his pencil rolled off the desk. He leaned down to the floor to retrieve it when a bullet smashed through the window and whirred over his head.

“It must have been just a warning,” he would grin at my brother and me, “because it was only the one shot. But I lay on the floor for quite some time waiting for more.”

We would gasp at the excitement of it, never fully comprehending the breadth and depth of the story. The canning factory would burn to the ground in time to make the investigation about the empty cans moot, my grandfather would suspect insurance-fraud arson by his father-in-law, my grandfather and great-grandfather would part ways, and my grandparents’ marriage would break irrevocably and forever apart.

My grandfather would nod at us and warn us about the wars at home, but not about the wars overseas. Later, when my brother grew up, they would share some war story sessions, but not me. I was left with the domestic discord.

Perhaps that is one reason why the story of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial so stirred me when I was a young woman studying art in college. It’s hard to imagine now the uproar that greeted the news when her design, selected as the best from the 1,442 submissions, was revealed to have been created by a 21-year-old female—one of Asian descent and one still an undergraduate student (albeit at Yale). By now much of the ugly outrage, though mentioned, has been sanitized in writings about the memorial, but in the early 1980s—both after the design selection was revealed and after the memorial was built and opened to public view in 1982—the memorial stood to harsh criticism, racist and sexist commentary, and a deep questioning of what the purpose of a war memorial is.

Perhaps most importantly, several veterans groups spoke out to the effect that the memorial constituted one more insult to their service in a war that the nation had ultimately turned against. Instead of honoring the dead, they felt that its underground structure indicated shame and an attempt to erase their honorable service. (This video is clearly a student project, and flawed, but contains one of the best overviews I could find and the second half shows some footage of the vitriol and misunderstanding to which Lin and her design were subjected.) This was the cause of the inclusion of the more traditional figurative statue that stands behind and off to the side of the Wall memorial. The Three Soldiers statue was added to appease those who wanted a more “heroic” monument. Even that became a battle, as its proponents insisted it should be placed above Lin’s Wall, at its apex, which would have completely defeated her artistic vision of a wound in the earth that would represent the solemnity of the loss of soldiers’ lives. Fortunately, Lin prevailed.

By the time The Three Soldiers was completed and unveiled in 1984, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993, they had taken on an appropriate secondary role. Maya Lin’s work of landscape art had won over almost all who experienced it first-hand, and it has over the years evoked the most amazing response of any war memorial on earth.

I will never forget my first visit to the Wall, shortly after its installation. I remember approaching it along a sidewalk through the park setting of the Mall, past the Washington Monument and through the peaceful green of the trees and grass. Gradually, I went down the long, sloping walk. At first, it felt simply as though I were passing a short retaining wall, but then I was down in the vee itself, the noises of the city dropping away to silence, the wall rising above me, the names shocking in their specificity, my face reflected back at me from the shining, black granite, the names imprinted on my face.

Even then, there were already offerings placed near these specific soldiers’ names. Even then, people searched for the names of their loved ones and caressed them when they found them. Even then, people wept over these names, and took rubbings of the names to take home. Even then people felt more connected to this memorial than to any of the stately ones scattered nearby and towering over the pathways and picnics. This memorial took my breath away. I felt as though I myself had died and was being buried along with every one of the men and women listed there.

The Wall taught the country that it was not the individual veterans who should be held accountable for any war, whether a just or unjust one. It changed our discourse about war and its effects, it publicly personalized the act of memorialization, forced us to face the complexities of a national politics reliant on a background of war. It did a lot, perhaps more than any other single piece of art in the contemporary world, while at the same time demonstrating clearly that gender and ethnicity (and even youthfulness) were not determinative of power or understanding. Alas, it could not also bring about the end of the institution of war itself.

May we all honor those who have served, while at the same time supporting efforts to find another way of negotiating our world.

* * *

It’s difficult to find a good video online that summarizes the impact of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial. The one I featured above is from the 25th anniversary of the memorial. There also exists a good full-length documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, directed by Freida Lee Mock and released in 1994.

This video uses some clips from that film to talk about a PBS veterans storytelling project.

Here, there’s a pastiche of several parts of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, with great commentary on the memorial. Goes on to discuss other memorials that Lin has designed, including the Civil Rights Memorial.

This one is a tour through the memorial site on a very cold day. Not professionally made, but a good overview if you’ve never been there. It’s even interesting that the wind, so annoying in the early moments, dies down as the camera enters the deeper part of the memorial, clearly demonstrating its quieting effect.

The offerings left at the memorial are discussed here.

Three Pentagon-sponsored videos that relate to the memorial:
Part 1: about the history and effect of the memorial
Part 2: about veterans who embraced the memorial by designing an offering of a specially made Harley-Davidson motorcycle
Part 3: about schoolchildren visiting the memorial in recent years

A veteran describes the effect of the memorial, as well as Footnote’s development of a program to document veteran stories.

Jason deCaires Taylor

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Jason deCaires Taylor's underwater sculpture Vicissitudes.

I’m at the age where I have a huge backlog of memories and experiences to draw on. One thing that this means is that usually when I post something here about an artist, a movie, a book, or a poem, I find myself going over and over again to the well of my old favorites.

It’s wonderful, however, to add new favorites, and Jason deCaires Taylor has become a new favorite. A former student of mine recently posted a photo of Vicissitudes on Facebook (thanks, Niah), and I was captured enough from that small image to look up more about his work. Time will tell, not only if he remains a favorite with me, but what will happen to his beautiful and moving underwater sculptures.

Right now, however, I can say that I think a lot about them is really, really great. Visually, even in video rather than on site, the combination of the human figures, the blue waters that surround them, and the living fish and other creatures that move around them is stunning. For another thing, they have a practical purpose—because he is concerned about the endangered status of the world’s coral reefs, Taylor structures his sculptures to foster coral growth and hopes that they will help to form the basis of new reefs. Taylor uses live models to make plaster casts and then concrete figures of great diversity and simplicity. Even a few years after their placement under water, the figures show all kinds of changes, and their impending and ultimate obliteration forms a commentary about the human place in the world. There’s a sense that humans who don’t face up to their own eventual death and the fact of their fleshy nature are very wrong. And yet, the sculptures are gentle and loving as well—they mourn our eventual passage all the while demonstrating its inevitability.

Welcome to a new favorite. There are several wonderful galleries of photos on the website (here’s one on The Silent Evolution, and check out others from the galleries tab), but please don’t skimp on watching the videos. They are very different from the still photos, and the sea flows through them.

Imitation Isn’t Always the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Ernest Hemingway with his son John Hadley Nicanor (Bumby), 1927.

One semester I had a student who turned in a story that I believed was plagiarized from Hemingway. The student had frequently spoken of his admiration of the minimalist master, and the story he turned in had the tell-tale traits, at least superficially. I had seen (even assigned) emulations before, but usually they were ham-fisted, amateurish, and identifiable as copies. Usually my students couldn’t keep their own personalities from peeping through. I had also seen completely plagiarized stories—once a student had turned in an entire Stephen King story with even the title intact. So I began searching for this Hemingway story.

I couldn’t find it. And I had to admit that if I couldn’t find it, the student probably hadn’t found it anywhere either. Creative writing students seldom plagiarize, and in my experience they never do so with enough leisure to hide their trails. The story, I decided, also didn’t quite have the Hemingway attitude toward women. I finally came to the conclusion that this student had just written a very good stylistic emulation of Hemingway. The following year I had him in another class, and by then he had begun to write like himself.

This is the usual trajectory for writers. But it might be different for a talented painting student.

At any rate, the production of fake manuscripts by dead famous authors is not a big business. It’s been known to happen, but the difficulties seem to surmount the temptation. Even though the Antiques Roadshow estimates that the lost suitcase of a pile of Hemingway’s manuscripts might reap $3 to 4 million if it was ever found, no one has tried to fake it. Instead, literary hoaxes tend to be more of the James Frey variety, with an author claiming a realm or set of experiences themselves that are false. These are the cases that seem to most common in accounts like Melissa Katsoulis’s Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes.

However, in the world of the visual arts, this kind of forgery is not at all uncommon. It’s one of the fundamental differences between the various arts, and it is based on the reproducible nature of the written word and music. Original manuscripts and scores may be valuable, but the real money is in an original artwork like a painting. A literary work may be experienced a million times over with the same power even from a cheap paperback copy, and the power of music lies in the details of its performance, but the original painting can only be experienced first-hand, in person, in the flesh. Even rough, imperfect, one-of-a-kind preliminary sketches made in preparation for prints can take on more value than the prints that were their ultimate end.

The New York Times covered such interesting happenings in the art world this week, with a different kind of retrospective from that of Cindy Sherman—an account of what is evidently a fraud perpetrated on the art world for nearly twenty years. A small-time art dealer, Glafira Rosales, is now tangled in legal troubles for numerous paintings she sold as works by some of the best-known Modernists—Rothko, Motherwell, Diebenkorn, de Kooning, and Pollock. Ann Freedman, former president at the famous Knoedler gallery, was evidently drawn into the fraud, bought several of the paintings herself, and helped to sell others for millions of dollars. Now Knoedler has closed and many of the paintings’ purchasers are suing for their money back.

And yet, the case points out the extent to which artists can be imitated, just as writers can. Pastiche, in fact, frequently forms part of an artist’s tutelage, and sometimes people are very good at it. What is viewed as a helpful learning practice becomes criminal, however, if someone gets too very good at it. And in the art world large profits can be had in this way.

In the recent case reported by the Times, there is no conclusion. No forger has been revealed, and some still claim that these paintings might, somehow, be authentic, even though some of the paints used in them were not available commercially at the dates they were claimed to have been painted. But I am compelled to think about that forger or those forgers and how he or she or they decided to produce these masterful paintings and put masterful names on them. These are paintings that fooled some of the world’s experts, and someone decided that money and the satisfaction of skill and cleverness would prevail over someone’s performance of his or her or their own talents. Well, being able to fool the experts is, I suppose, a talent of its own.

I can see the appeal, actually, of working for a fame in someone else’s name.

Of sticking it to an art world where fame and income are restricted to a very select few even though many have talent to spare.

Of playing a trick on a universe where work that is done out of deep, self-motivated reaches of the imagination is then commodified and traded like so much chattel.

And yet…

There is such a hateful despair in the theft involved. It’s hard for me to see one artist doing this to another or to herself or himself.

These cases seem to me to illuminate the chasm between the two channels of art: the need to communicate through whatever medium, on the one hand, and the business of buying and selling and making contacts and fostering fame on the other. It’s not a new conundrum, and different writers and artists and musicians have answered it differently over the centuries.

For myself, it is true that I would love to sell another book sometime, to be paid for my labor. But that isn’t why I do it. I watch so many of my cohort desperately scratching at the door, and I both admire their business sense and wonder what their work would be like without it. Obviously, balance is in order—I would not have all my writer friends starving and homeless, and I would enjoy a world where expertise and skill in the arts were respected far more than they are these days. I know that a lot of writers, musicians, and artists do what they think they have to do to survive and thrive. But I would not have us all pretending to be Motherwell or Rothko or Hemingway, in either name or fame. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the artist who engages with the world without constantly grasping at fame—whether in his or her own name or that of another—is all the more free to pursue the ragged path of art.

Cindy Sherman

A new exhibit recently opened at MoMA—a retrospective of the work of Cindy Sherman, photographer and chameleon extraordinaire. Sherman’s work is about as different as can be from that of Vivian Meier and Elsa Dorfman, two other photographers I’ve admired on this blog. Meier took gritty street portraits, Dorfman takes posed but simple and direct studio ones. Both of them have taken self-portraits, but most of their work depicts others in frank and realistic modes. Sherman, on the other hand, has used herself as a model for decades and has explored the idea of identity with a variety of costumes, wigs, make-up, props, and atmospheres.

Though on the surface a self-portraitist, Sherman doesn’t really consider most of her work self-portraiture. Rather, in her photographs she tries to take on personae and explore stereotypes and images, especially those of women. They are, in other words, fictional self-portraits. Or just fictional portraits with herself as a stand-in for others, though no doubt there is usually an element of herself in them too. Recently, for instance, she has been playing with stereotypes of aging and the various ways in which wealth can distort a woman’s life, both obviously questions that must be close to her as she approaches 60 a very successful artist.

One of the things that interests me the most about Sherman’s work is that, while her work’s intention is to disrupt female stereotypes, many of her photographs remain so sexy. She has indeed done series of works that are disturbing and that examine the nastier side of the human body, but in these she did not use herself as a primary model. This NYT review of the new exhibit at MoMa points out that this work is also largely ignored in the retrospective.

Sherman is clearly capable of extensive use of prosthetics and appearance-altering make-up. But she focuses these efforts on her face. She dresses and poses her body in a variety of ways, but she shops for costumes that fit her naturally thin shape. She is supreme at creating bulbous chins and noses, opulent lips, and even prostheses that augment her breasts, often in disturbing ways. Yet Sherman has never (as far as I know) done much to alter the traditionally attractive profile of her body.

There seems to me a deep irony in the fact that much of the work of this woman whose goal and mission has been to upturn stereotypes of women can still be viewed somewhat pornographically. Yes, it is a pornography that points out the complicit nature of the viewer, and it may therefore be unsettling. But even now that she’s exploring “women of a certain age,” they can be strikingly strong and fit, as is Untitled #466, which MoMA uses as its representative work on its page about the show and which depicts an imposing woman in a flowing aqua gown. Or like Untitled #463, in which Sherman has superimposed four images of herself dressed up as party-going friends with manicured nails and bare-shouldered clubbing outfits (included in this slide show).

That’s one reason I was so interested in the discussion of the evolution toward paunchy of one recent character (starting about 4 minutes into this terrific 20-minute art21 video). I would love it if she would push this even further and do a “fat women” series. It would be fascinating to see how such work would be greeted.

What I have always valued about Sherman’s work is the same in-your-face quality that makes them honest even though they are contrived. Amid all the various rather dumb debates about fiction vs. nonfiction in the writing world, the world of visual art has been playing with the categories often more successfully. Sherman has stood for me as a hinge between the two genres. She is a person who uses fantasy to tell the truth, at least a certain truth, about the women she becomes. There’s an intellectual honesty that can sometimes disappear from written fiction, but a self-awareness and playfulness that sometimes is absent in memoir. And there’s always this fascinating remnant of herself in her pictures, a remnant she uses rather than denies.

Additional imgaes/videos:

Excerpt from documentary on Sherman’s work by Paul Tschinkel, about her early work (about 4 minutes).

Art21 excerpt about her “fashion” photography (about 3 minutes).

The full PBS Art21 interview (about 1 hour).

An amateur video of a visit to the current MoMA show by James Kalm (not a great video, but fun to “be there,” about 16 minutes).

New York Magazine review with a good, short slide show.

Google images of much of Sherman’s work, for a sampling.

What Comes After Valentine’s Day

Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, c. 1650, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Are you ready to make plans for New York now?” Bruce laughs a little hopelessly as he asks.

I feel the panic rise in my throat like a hairball, even though we are lying in bed. He thinks that a trip is in order for me to meet with my new editor at Oxford and with my agent, who has been unwilling to give me the time of day. He thinks my new relationship with Oxford will make her take notice. And last year we missed making our usual annual pilgrimage to see our dear friends there because I’d had a brain hemorrhage.

Bruce loves the city, loves clearing away all travel challenges with his efficient handling, loves touring galleries, sitting in cafes, and walking the bustling streets, hour upon hour. He loves the atmosphere of culture and excitement that we just don’t have in the city where we live, which is a suburb through and through. He loves to fall into step with our friend Craig, their long legs matching in pace and rhythm as they talk about Kant or Hegel while John and I try to keep up behind them. He loves revisiting his favorite painting in the Met, Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, and holding my hand while we stand in front of the soulful eyes of a man long since dead whose pain and dignity we can still feel. He and I both love that a slave could hold himself so proudly, undaunted by the injustices of his world.

Last time we flew to New York, however, my feet swelled so badly I had to get a new pair of shoes. Now I have been diagnosed with arthritis in my right foot. Now I have mysterious and as yet undiagnosed damage in the left basal ganglia of my brain. Six months of doctor’s appointments and tests later, and I still feel uncertain in the world. I want to stay close to home.

So I cry and tell Bruce that I can’t do it. Not yet, while I don’t know what the future holds. I tell him angrily because I am afraid. I tell him that I know he wants to travel—he wants to take me to Berlin this summer and to Kenya someday soon—and that he may have gotten a bad deal when he married me just two and a half years ago. It has not been a very romantic time since we got married, especially the past year and a half since the brain hemorrhage—and now all this.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I may just have to travel by myself.”

I know this is his attempt at letting me off the hook, but it makes me cry harder. It makes me angrier.

“Oh, great,” I say. “It’s not like I don’t want to go. Don’t you understand? I can’t physically do it. I can’t pound the concrete with you and Craig. I can’t stand for hours on the hard museum floor. I will be in agony if I try to do that. But being left behind doesn’t sound like that nice of an alternative.”

We lie silent for a few minutes as disability wafts over us in the air from the slowly turning ceiling fan.

It is a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, but the day after I have a lumbar puncture scheduled for an analysis of my cerebrospinal fluid. We have no plans to celebrate the love holiday. We both know that it is a marketing ploy, and we agree with efforts to knock back the Romantic-Industrial Complex. We have also each spent enough Valentines Days alone over the years to have experienced the whole thing as yet another competitive way for some people to feel superior to others—“I’m loved and you’re not. So I’m a better person. Hah.” We are aware of all of that, but we also are just tired and distracted by my health and other depredations of things we hold dear (like our lives’ work in higher education). These things put a damper on the mood.

Bruce is no Newt, but I am also well aware that the divorce rate is higher among couples where one member becomes chronically ill or disabled, and I am well aware that men leave disabled women more often than the other way around. I have also been rejected many times in my life, and I wonder whether Bruce wouldn’t be happier with a spryer partner.

“You may not like this idea,” he says, and I steel myself. “But what about seeing the museum in a wheelchair?”

It is not what I feared, but exactly what I’d been thinking about myself—ways to make things at least somewhat possible. Accommodations, I’d told myself, that’s the key.

“I like it just fine,” I say, and I hear Bruce sigh a little with relief. “I mean, it’s not thrilling, but I have no problem with having a chair to sit in while I look at paintings.”

“We can just take cabs everywhere,” he adds.

“I like it,” I say. “You know, that seems a lot better to me than your leaving me, either on all your travels or completely.”

“That never occurred to me,” he says. Even though this is only one of the reasons I love him, it is a big deal. Maybe one day it will never occur to me either.

Vivian Maier and Art for Art’s Sake

Vivian Maier self portrait from John Maloof's

Bruce is in the kitchen sharpening our old, dull knives on the electric knife sharpener he got me for Christmas. It was nice that we both got and gave several presents that we will clearly share and share alike. We had a lovely day yesterday—a quiet morning together, an afternoon buffet and more gift opening with family and step-family, and an evening with our friends D and T at their new home, eating a little chicken curry and sharing the results of last week’s baking. We watched a digital fire on the TV screen since it is much too hot in Florida these days to even think of building a real one.

In the afternoon, while we were at Rick and Susie’s, I brought up what was probably my favorite gift this year—a book of photographs by Vivian Maier that Bruce had secretly ordered for me last April. Rick was still experimenting with a new remote device for their TV, and Bruce pulled up a slideshow of Maier’s work while we sat chatting, to test out the slideshow function on the remote and to show everyone what we were talking about. Soon everyone was mesmerized by the images on the screen. There are several portfolios on and on I find her photos truly stunning.

Maier provides a good bridge for me between the fleeting Christmas holiday and the looming New Year’s one. Though the spreading recognition of her work probably won’t make any of the mass media’s “Top Events of 2011” lists, I consider my learning of her work one of my favorite discoveries of the year.

In fact, it was early in 2011 that I first heard of Vivian Maier and shared on Facebook this news report from WTTW in Chicago. Attention to her work has continued to grow this year, including a more recent report on CBS News (sorry about the unavoidable ad). More details of her life have emerged.

It’s interesting to me that, on the CBS video, gallery owner Howard Greenberg says repeatedly that Vivian Maier was “certainly no amateur.” In fact, what inspired me most about her story last year was that she was entirely an amateur. She took photographs not for any monetary, professional, or reputational gain. She took photographs because this was how she saw the world, because she was an artist and she clearly loved the art.

Amateur status has come to mean to most people an inferior result, but what Vivian Maier gave to me this time last year was a way to see my way forward through a return to working at my art because I love the activity, not because of some elusive potential professional gain. That is the more precise definition of the term “amateur,” and it suits Vivian Maier perfectly. She was an amateur who was also a master, and what she spent her time and effort on was her work, not on self-promotion or networking or salesmanship.

There’s a bit of a tragic element in that, as she died shortly before her work began receiving its due, and we all tend to assume that she would have enjoyed the recognition. But for all artists, it is difficult to sort out the love of the work and the daily practice of the work from the attention-seeking. Where is the right balance? We don’t know whether Maier ever walked into a gallery and showed her prints to a dealer, but it seems highly doubtful. Instead, she emphasized the “10,000 hours” of practice that are necessary for anyone to become a master at something and that Malcolm Gladwell noted in Outliers.

So I have found a new twist on the phrase “art for art’s sake.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was used to indicate the opposite of social realism or other art with a moral or instructional purpose and was often used to criticize work like photography that contained an element of social commentary. Today, I have taken to using it to indicate instead the opposite of art with a commercial or professional purpose. Politics was once taken to pollute art, but now it may be the rank commercialism of all forms of it that corrupts it as much as politics does.

Vivian Maier took a lot of photos of poor people. She shows them in positions of vulnerability, their shoes worn, their faces dirty, their bodies thin and damaged. Yet, we see that same sense of vulnerability in the more well-off ladies with their fox fur stoles and businessmen with their white shirts. As an artist, she is a great equalizer, and I do think that her humanitarianism these days takes on political implications. Yet her pictures are never didactic. They simply open us to the world that was. And she never worried about offending or pleasing a patron or buyer. I think that shows in her work. Her devotion to her art, rather than to a career, will inspire me for a long time to come.