Monday, March 28, 2011

Adventures in Modern Art

People generally like art, if their consumption of aesthetic objects is any indication.  Artists of many traditions from all over the world have spent many centuries crafting images depicting the beauty of nature and the human form, and classical masterpieces remain the gold standard of virtuosity.  But for many, the landscape of modern art is often a strange and confusing place, populated by statues that look like melting rock formations and portraits that look like paint shop accidents.  To some people, it's art with an asterisk, requiring footnotes to be fully understood and appreciated.  And who's got time to do the research necessary to fully appreciate the nuances and complexities of a woman with eyes on the same side of her face?

Well, I don't know about you, but I love asterisks*.  And though the extent of my knowledge is not exactly omniscient, I have a deep intellectual affection for the goals, methods, and theories of modern art.  Modern art, by the way, is not merely a synonym for contemporary of 20th century art; it's a distinct mode of creativity that emphasizes experimentation and a search for new symbolic languages.  It's not the only way of doing art in the modern era, and it exists alongside both traditional methods and postmodern art (more on that later), but it is for my money the most interesting and fun to experience and enjoy. 

*Love 'em!

So, with a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I decided to share my love of modern art with you (whoever you are).  Here is an abbreviated guided tour of some of my favorite pieces within the walls of MOMA, with commentary and fuzzy reproductions from my horrible, horrible camera.  Do not be afraid of the weirdness.

The work of Henri Matisse demonstrates that modern art, as a whole, is not necessarily beyond comprehension: although it uses some experimental techniques with color to create a more engaging image, this really is nothing more than a still life of flowers.  I think.  I may be missing something (it happens a lot with this sort of art). 

Georges Braque was a cubist painter, and nobody knows it, because the word "cubism" is linked to Pablo Picasso in the public mind by some sort of insidious Pavlovian mechanism, even though Braque had as much to do with developing the style as Picasso did.  This painting is also essentially a still life, this time of a violin: the only difference is that, through the magic of cubism, we can see all sides of the violin at once.  Maybe you never wanted to see all sides of a violin at once, but now you have, and you have to admit it's kind of cool.

Speaking of Picasso, I have no idea what's going on in this picture, apart from an apparently deliberate attempt to drive the viewer insane with its impossible angles and that large lobe-thing coming from the blue woman's pelvis.  Kudos to anyone who can tell me what the hell that thing is, because it's creeping me out.

This is a painting by Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo and portrayer of Latin American working people, as rendered in broad colors and prominent geometric shapes.  That basket looks incredibly heavy; heavier, I imagine, than if the scene had been painted more realistically.  As for the fruits in the basket, they look delicious.

George Orwell once wrote, "One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being."  Witness now two fleshy, irregularly shaped objects spurting tiny streams of blood.  That faint humanoid shadow is apparently my reflection, and you should ignore it, unless you want to call it my first ever collaboration with Salvador Dalí.

 Most of Joan Miró's work looks busier than this, with lots of distorted shapes and animals running around in an attempt to disturb the bourgeoisie and their superficial lifestyles.  Here, he seems to be in a more relaxed mood, or at least that beady-eyed moon does.  Paintings like this are more about shape than content, which is good because I have no idea how to explain this content.  But I love Miró's shapes all the same.

Jackson Pollock is best known for "drip paintings," complete abstractions based on seemingly random paint splotches.  Here we see that there was more to the artist than that, as this piece clearly contains some images that sort of look like things.  There's some sort of secret code scrawled in the center rectangle, which if I had to guess translates into nothing particularly important.

This sculpture by Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, is one of the most famous and influential artworks of the 20th century.  Actually, it isn't, because this sculpture is not the original Fountain.  It's just a urinal.  The original Fountain is lost forever, because it too was just a urinal, and was probably thrown into the garbage once it was finished being scandalous.

Duchamp represents a type of art called Dada, which has been called the first postmodern art movement, because its central purpose was to remind museum-goers that everything they saw hanging reverently on the wall was bullshit.  And really it is, but so's everything else.  Let's look at more art.

MOMA has a room permanently dedicated to the art of Clyfford Still, presumably because he lived and worked in the Bay Area.  Most of the paintings in this room are very large and look like this, and are principally about color rather than shape.  Don't ask me how I decided that this one was my favorite; when all you have to go on is color, taste becomes inexplicable.

This painting by Robert Rauschenberg is an example of pop art, which uses elements of popular art in a "fine art" context for the sake of driving art critics crazy.  It's almost impossible to see in this picture, but embedded under the paint in this rather large multimedia collage are clippings from newspaper articles and funny pages.  Most of the comics are really obscure, but I'm fairly sure I found a few panels of Gasoline Alley.

Sometimes, an object is art because it is beautiful.  Sometimes, it's art just because the artist says it is (see Duchamp's work for more on that).  In the case, I was led to understand that this sculpture by Jackie Winsor, a complicated and impractical collection of sticks and yarn balls, is art because it was really, really hard to make.  And yes, I imagine that it was.

Janine Antoni made two identical busts of herself: one of chocolate, the other of soap.  She then deformed them both, licking the surface of the chocolate one with her own tongue, lathering the soap one in order to smooth out its features, in a commentary on the perceived dual nature of women in contemporary culture.  I think she could have gone a step further in switching the processes, but I guess nobody wants to lick soap, even if it is for the sake of art.

This is Robert Gober's pile of newspapers from 1992.  If you lean in closely, you can read articles about Bill Clinton being confronted by anti-abortion protesters.  This is the sort of the thing that history majors like me are intrigued by, though possibly not in the way that Gober intended.

There's actually a whole series of these on a wall in the gallery hosting works by Tobi Wong, a running commentary on gender relations in close quarters.  It's one thing to talk academically about how men and women interact in terms of power dynamics and expectations: the brilliance of modern art is in showing, rather than telling.  It's also in the production of insanely awesome novelty items like socially conscious His and Hers towels, which instantly become kitsch the moment someone has the bright idea to sell them.

This is a picture of a computer monitor, which shows footage from a robotic security camera hanging above the museum lobby.  Installed by Marie Sester and part of a larger exhibit on voyeurism, the robot shines a spotlight on the lobby floor and follows randomly selected individuals as they move about the room (or, if the viewer prefers, a target can be examined manually).  It's hard to see it here, but on this particular day the camera had a rather interesting subject: a couple stood in the lobby for hours, making out incessantly as fellow patrons wondered whether they were being punked.  There's no telling what the surveillance robot thought, but I can imagine the spotlight fell on them multiple times.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

WFJ Book Club #6: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

I imagine that most ordinary people do not miss the Cold War, particularly those who lived through it.  There's plenty of nostalgia for the idyllic 50s, the revolutionary 60s, the celebratory 70s; even the grimy, soulless 80's.  But I'm fairly certain there'd be even more nostalgia if not for the constant, invisible threat of fiery nuclear death.  Whatever the comforting symmetries of a bipolar world of super powers and proxy wars, the fact that it could all be brought down to distressingly symmetrical annihilation in about forty minutes is not the sort of thing most people dwell upon fondly.

It takes a special sort of mind to recall the Cold War as a joyous time; or maybe just a special sort of personality.  If there's one person who really enjoyed himself in the midst of a clash between two nuclear-armed alliances, living for the cause of one without fearing reprisal from the other, it must have been Che Guevara.  In his eyes, the Earth of the last century was the setting of a great adventure, and he had the honor of being one of its greatest heroes.  In his eyes, the transformation of not only the world's political system, but the common culture of humanity, was an achievable goal.  In his eyes, nuclear war was a small price to pay for the triumph of a beautiful idea.

It's often beyond our power to understand, but the Cold War was not merely a battle between two entrenched political ideologies.  There was another dimension to the conflict: between revolution and the status quo.  Politically, the Cold War ended dramatically in favor of the United States and its allies, but in the course of the century the status quo that those countries defended came mercilessly unraveled.  For the most part, this change was undirected, and brought the world a collection of petty monarchies and dictatorships.  But underneath all this was a force pushing for a unified, worldwide, and socialist revolution that would change the fate of humanity for the better.  Che was a part of that force, by his own intention, and if anyone could have made it happen it could have been him.  Unfortunately for him, in most cases it was the forces of chaos that prevailed.

Jon Lee Anderson, the author of the book I had the pleasure of reading, is a lucky biographer: the kind who has the opportunity of writing about a fantastic subject, a public figure with extensive documentation who nonetheless defies easy categorization.  Che embodies that sort of figure very well; in fact, he does it better than any one person really should be able to.  It may not be settled in the record whether Che was a good guy or a bad guy, but I gathered the distinct impression that he must have been one or the other - and that is peculiar.  Heroes and villains are constructions of fiction, defined completely by their motivations: actual human beings tend to be indecisive, and vacillate from one opinion to another.  To write about a real person as synchronized with a cause as Che Guevara must feel in parts like writing a novel.

It's worth remembering that he died a thoroughly unpleasant death, but up until the end of his life Che seemed to exist in a state that I can only interpret as joy.  He wasn't tormented or held back by demons from his past: such things were inconveniences at the most.  From the moment he could move about independently, he hurtled effortlessly into the future.  And unlike most restless youths, Che found an ideology that he could believe in total, and followed it into a life of adventure.  The philosopher Sartre reportedly called Che "the most complete human being of [the] age," and if that means anything, then it certainly means it was a fine thing to be Che.

Che's absolute belief in Marxism and his remarkable degree of self-purpose are twin pillars holding up what might seem to be an impossible personality: I've never met anyone in real life as focused, disciplined, and still as idealistic as Che reportedly was.  Of course he had his rascally, irreverent side, a trait common to many young men in the world.  Discovering someone's youthful excesses, or their enduring taste for all things bawdy, usually tends to make that person more relatable and human, contrasting with a more mature, public persona.  But in Che's case, the overriding impression is that it was all the same to him.  I don't think his private life contained a single major embarrassment for him, at least in the sense of causing any intrinsic shame.  No youthful indiscretion could possibly derail the public Che.

If life were more like a novel, I might say that the Cold War was a setting especially constructed for the likes of characters like Che Guevara.  In reality it was the other way around, another remarkable reminder of a disturbing truth.  Most of the things we regard as exceptional are products of conditions that range from uncomfortable to horrific; there's no adventure without danger, and no Che without a clash of ideologies under the shadow of atomic doom.  If there is such a thing as providence in human history, it shows itself in providing for great characters to act in great moments.

Of course, Che's life is not a novel.  Like all human lives (especially those cut short), there are loose ends and inconsistencies that fail to resolve themselves.  But life is the instructor of art, and in terms of drama and meaning, few lives have been more educational.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Rabbit Bar

A little grey rabbit hopped into a bar, as it often did.  Per usual, the rabbit ordered a pile of carrots which the bartender delivered raw, unsliced and undiced.  It wasn't a huge pile because the rabbit wasn't very big, but even so the furry creature would spend the better part of an hour most evenings gnawing on those orange roots, quietly crunching them between its little buck teeth.  Once it had finished, the rabbit would typically sit on the bar (not at the bar, because it could not reach the carrots from the bar stool), and watch attentively whatever was playing on ESPN.  The bartenders generally tolerated the rabbit's behavior; keeping freshly-dug carrots in stock was little trouble, and the rabbit was well behaved (even its feet were remarkably clean, which is a tall order from most small mammals).  Moreover, it was a reliable paying customer, and consistently settled its tab and tipped generously.  In any event, after an hour or so of sports the rabbit would usually order one last carrot “for the road,” and hop back out of the bar, presumably to its remarkably tidy burrow.

The bar's regular patrons also tended to tolerate the rabbit's presence, though not as readily as the well-tipped staff.  It was not very sociable and had a reputation for being difficult to approach.  Many were unconvinced that having a rabbit on the bar was a hygienic practice, even when the spot was thoroughly wiped down with Windex after each visit: occasionally, idle threats to contact a health inspector were heard.  But for the most part, the people were content to leave well enough alone, even if they all thought that the rabbit was kind of a jackass.
On this particular evening, a semi-regular called Marley noticed the rabbit as it began munching on its carrots.  He'd seen the little animal there before, sitting in its regular spot (human customers were rarely inclined to take it) at its more-or-less regular time.  On this night, however, the scene struck him as slightly more bizarre, and he questioned whether it fit with the bar's hip, casually masculine image.  Marley was a slightly smallish young man, and ordinarily he did not concern himself with the social lives of rabbits, his mind being fairly well occupied with college, girls, and potato chips (though not necessarily in that order). 
But this night, perhaps due to the influence of an extra-potent gin and tonic, and having nothing better to do, Marley decided to take his seat next to the rabbit.  Looking down over his right shoulder, he could see the animal slowly munching its carrots, its little rabbit nose quivering with every bite.  Moist bits of vegetable clung to its whiskers, but the rabbit fastidiously cleaned them clean with its paws. 
“You know,” said Marley, “they have carrot-flavored drinks.  I'll bet they could even mix it with a little booze.  Would you like to give that a try?”
The rabbit stopped eating and tilted its head slightly (it didn't need to turn its head completely, because rabbits have eyes on the sides of their faces).  It glanced up at Marley with a single beady eye, crinkled its nose once, and after a moment's silence, said very distinctly, “that sounds absolutely disgusting.”
Feeling slightly offended, Marley turned his eyes to the row of tequila bottles on the back shelf.  “Sorry,” he said, “I just thought, you know, this being a bar, you might want to drink something.  Didn't realize you didn't like booze.”
“Who said I don't?”  said the rabbit.  “But have you ever tried alcoholic carrot juice?  It makes you feel like an infant.  A drunken infant.”
“I was only trying to be nice.  Rabbits don't have bars, so...”
“Do me a favor and quit patronizing me, OK?”
Of course, by this time the regulars had taken note of Marley's attempt at reaching out to the reticent bunny.  You might suppose that they would have shown great interest in this, as most had scarcely heard the rabbit utter more than two words in a given day.  However, it happened that the Trailblazers were doing particularly well that night, and it was generally assumed that the rabbit would still come back the next day, so why bother?
Marley was starting to think along similar lines, having met with only contempt for his efforts.  Thinking it best to cut his losses and take off, he put on a brave face and offered a brief apology.
“It's alright,” said the rabbit.  “You didn't know.”
“Good.  I mean, Thank you.”
“Now buy me a drink.”
“I, what?”
“I don't buy my own drinks.”

A moment later, the young man and the rabbit were seated across from each other in a small wooden booth.  This was completely unprecedented and did manage to turn some heads: most patrons could not see a reason to buy a round for an animal with such poor manners.  Some speculated about Marley's ulterior motives, but the generally whispered agreement was that the poor boy had gotten himself into a sticky social situation, one that couldn't have been anticipated or easily escaped.
Marley wondered if he wasn't too drunk already, as the rabbit sipped from a small saucer of scotch whisky (rabbits, lacking thumbs, do not take well to cups or glasses).  How much does it take to get a rabbit drunk?  What would that even look like?
“You're welcome,” sighed Marley.
“I didn't thank you,” said the rabbit.
“You know, rabbit, you're kind of a jackass.”
“That's what I hear.  I've got big ears, you know.”
“And it doesn't bother you, being the biggest jackass in the whole bar?”
“Every bar needs a jackass.”
“No, every bar has one.  They'd all be better off without them.  You're really cool with that?”
“Thanks for the scotch.”
“Ugh.  You're welcome.”  He took a hearty swig.
“Well, for what it's worth,” said the rabbit, pausing a moment to push the saucer away with its nose, “you're probably the nicest guy in the whole bar.”
“I don't think I know what that's worth.”  He really didn't (and neither do I).
“Well I don't usually say things like that.  Guess I'm a little drunk.”
“I'm not surprised: that's a lot of whisky for such a little rabbit.”
“Actually, I'm not drunk at all.  I just figured you couldn't tell the difference.”

Another round went by, and then another, and the hour grew later all the while.  The bartenders noted that the rabbit had never stayed that late before.  It had never drunk or socialized this much, and a few rumors floated around to the effect that this was a different rabbit altogether.  This was ridiculous, of course (the bouncer had checked the rabbit's ID, same as usual), but something did seem very different.  Everyone, staff and patron alike, wondered what Marley could tell them about the animal's change of habit.
“Why don't you ever talk to anyone here?”
“Nobody wants to talk to me.  They just want to know why I'm here.”
“Well, that's a start, right?”
“Not really.  It's like, can't a rabbit spend an evening watching sports and eating carrots without having to fuckin' justify it to everyone?”  The rabbit actually was a little drunk now, but visibly trying to keep its composure.
“People are just a little curious.”
“People are just jerks.  Especially men in bars.  No offense, guy.”
“Uh, none taken.  But hey, some of them are alright guys.  I bet if you'd make friends with them, they'd think you were an alright guy, too.”
“Not likely.  I'm the biggest jackass in the bar, right?”
“Well, yeah.  True.”
“Plus, I'm a doe.”
“A what?”
The rabbit rolled her eyes.  “A female.”
“Wait, really?”
“Yes, really.  I think I would know.”
“Why didn't you say so?”
“You didn't ask!  It's not like I was fuckin' hiding it!  What does it matter, anyway?”
“Well I guess it doesn't...”
“You know, I can hear everything people say around here, and every night it's 'that rabbit's such a jackass.'  It sucks, but at least it's slightly better than being called a bitch all night.”
“So... you are hiding it?”
“Whatever.”  The chill in the air was deadening.
“Fu-uuuck,” sighed Marley.  He ordered up another round of drinks; he had a feeling they were going to need them.

“I don't usually stay out this late,” said Marley.  “I don't usually get this drunk, either.”  It was nearing midnight, but as far as his level of intoxication, it's difficult to say for sure: both speakers were doing their very best to look sober in spite of themselves.  It's fair to say that both were at about a seven out of ten: far enough gone to set foot in the Land of Lush, but not yet far enough to establish permanent residency.  The rabbit called for some water.
“Got things to do in the morning,” she said, “so might as well keep the damage to a minimum.”  Of course, by this point, words like minimum were coming out as a sleepy string of indistinct nasals, but no one made much of that.  After all, it was a victory night for the Trailblazers, and most of the patrons were in much worse shape.
“What've you got to do tomorrow, anyway?”
“Rabbit stuff.  Stuff that rabbits do.”
“Like, hop?  Burrow?  Raise dozens of children?”  Rabbits are proficient breeders.
“Fuck you,” was her sole response, as she stained her nose with scotch again. 
“No, fuck you!” he said, more than a little upset.
“Uhm, and... I bought that drink!”
“You certainly did.”  She paused a moment to rest her eyes a moment, opening them halfway and closing them again.  Her ears were drooping slightly, and she looked like she was tiring out.
“Hey, how're you holding up, anyway?  I didn't know rabbits could drink that much.”
“Me neither.  This has been a learning experience for every... hold on, my nose is wet.”  She stopped to rub her nose with her paw.
“I wonder if it's because you're a talking rabbit.”
“Maybe, but that doesn't make any sense.”
Marley decided not to dwell on the matter of determining which part of his theory failed to make sense; it didn't seem like a worthwhile use of his time.  “Hey, is this sort of like that one story?  That one story where, like, the princess is turned into a rabbit, and she has to like, kiss a prince before midnight if she wants to turn back.  Or whatever?”
She tilted her head a moment and thought about the question.  “No, I don't think so.  I don't really like princes stuff.  Tiaras don't fit on my head; I don't look so good in pink.”
“Oh.  Whatever.”
“What story is that, anyway?”
“Uh, the Rabbit Princess?  Or something.  I think I might have been thinking about something else.”  And he probably was.
“You're silly.”
“Yeah.  Hey, how do you know a crown wouldn't fit on your head, anyway?”
“My head's pretty small, dude.”

The rabbit hopped back slowly from the ladies' restroom, taking care to avoid the careless, stomping feet of the now thoroughly disinterested bar patrons.  Returning to her seat (and then to the tabletop), she found her companion looking considerably droopy about the ears, his composure clearly unsettled.
“You alright?”
“Uh, yeah.  I am,” he said, vainly trying to focus his eyes.  “I should probably go soon.”
“Yeah, you look like you could use some sleep.  Let me give you some money for a taxi, since you bought all those drinks for me.”  She took out about fifteen dollars and pushed them across the table with her nose toward Marley.
“Thanks.  Uh, where did you..?”
“Where did I what?”
“Never mind.”  He really didn't know how to ask such a personal question.
“Well, I should get going too.  Busy day tomorrow, you know how it is.  But hey, tonight was fun!  Nice to have someone to talk to who isn't a total jerk.  Maybe I'll see you around sometime.”
“Yeah, that's cool,” he said distractedly.  Marley clumsily pocketed the grainy bills without looking at anything in particular.  “Hey, what's your name anyway?”
“Bunny,” she said, lapping the last of her scotch from its saucer.
“For real?  That's your real name?”
“No.  God, can you imagine?  My real name's Bernice.  My friends call me Bunny.”
“Oh, OK.  Bye, Bunny.”
“Later, dork.”  Bunny hopped down from the table (it was sort of a crash landing, but no harm done) and returned to the bar.  As usual, she ordered one last carrot “for the road,” and requested to settle her tab.
“Are you going to be alright out there?” asked the bartender.
“I'm fine, I'm not driving.”  The rabbit left a twenty-five percent tip and promptly hopped out the front door just as she always did (not in a perfectly straight line, but nearly close enough).  She did not say goodbye on her way out.
Marley stumbled lightly across the floor to close his own tab, and a daunting tab it was: seven gins and tonics and five saucers of scotch whisky.  The bartender, a blonde woman who looked to be in her late twenties, gave him an ironic (but warm) smile.  He gave an expression in return, one he thought was a smile, and deeply hoped looked halfway-sophisticated.
As she ran his credit card through the machine, a young guy leaned in to ask Marley a question; his breath smelled of Jägermeister and nachos, and Marley was mostly sure that he didn't know him, but maybe they'd taken a class together at some time, maybe.
“Hey,” slurred the possible classmate, “what's the deal with that rabbit?”
“Uhm... he's kind of a jackass.”  Marley took back his card, signed his receipt, and after a bit of careful math, left an approximately fifteen percent tip.
“Yeah, I know, right?”  The young fellow returned his attentions to his friends and his terrible drink, and paid Marley no further mind.
Fortunately for Marley, there was no need to call a taxi: a few cabs were already parked outside, idling in the rain and awaiting a few easy fares.  A Budget Taxi sedan waited a few paces from the doorway, ready to transport weary travelers home from the Land of Lush.  Marley sauntered over to that taxi, deftly commissioned a ride, and took his place in the passenger's seat with a definitive lack of grace.

“Rough night, kid?” the driver chuckled to himself, sliding the clutch into gear.  His vehicle smelled of cinnamon and other gentle spices, but this was the least of anyone's concerns.

“Uh, yeah.  I just spent a couple hours drinking liquor with a rabbit.”

“A rabbit?”

“Yeah, a rabbit.  With ears and stuff.”

“Damn kid, we need to get you home.”  He drove a little faster now.

“Didn't you see it?  It hopped out a few minutes before I did.”

The driver gave Marley a skeptical look (longer than he should have, since he was supposed to be driving a car).  “I think I'd remember seeing something like that.  No, the last thing I saw come out of that door before you was a girl.  A mousy-looking girl, kind of small, kind of bitchy looking.  She had glasses and a denim skirt on.  She was pretty cute , actually.  Are you sure you weren't having drinks with her?”

“Nah, man.  I think... I think that girl was sitting at the bar all night.”

“Oh.  Well, I definitely didn't see a rabbit come hopping out of there.

Marley rolled his eyes in disbelief, becoming momentarily distracted by the bulbous reflections of the streetlights in the window.  In a moment he said, “Maybe you're the one who needs to go home tonight, guy.”