Monday, September 24, 2012
Friday, March 2, 2012
On March 1, 2012. the comedy legend Paul Mooney had me laughing harder than I had in a very long time. The wicked genius was in top form as he proceeded to give the opening night Thursday crowd a three hour show! It was supremely funny, harsh, and fierce, sparing no one and leaving everyone's bullshit out in the open for examination.
Having long had a dream to watch a live Paul Mooney set, this was really a thrill. The best comedians are the dangerous comedians. Paul Mooney is the last living legend in this category. The others are all dead or just up and comers. Chris Rock may put on great thought provoking comedy shows, but they are a pale shadow of the visceral Paul Mooney experience, and he is certainly not dangerous.
Chris Rock is a big Hollywood star, and plays the game. Paul Mooney is too dangerous for Hollywood. He hits too hard and too revealingly. He even gets kicked off the stage at Harlem's famous Apollo theatre for talking shit about George W. and his mother Barbara Bush, offending the people at Time Warner who run Showtime at the Apollo.
Arriving at the Houston Improv, my wife and I saw taped up sheets of paper on the box office windows reading "Controversial Comedy Show Tonight," as a warning it seemed. To me that always reads more like a successful ploy to get me in! Having been very familiar with Paul Mooney this was just funny to me, but if I had not known of him I would have wanted to see the show just because the comedy club felt it had to warn people! It is amazing what a man and a microphone can do to strike fear in people.
The opening comedian and MC for the night came on around 8:00 PM. He was funny and lighthearted enough to get the crowd going. The second act was an older comedian from Dallas who was too corny and stodgy to get over in this crowd. When he finished, and the MC began to announce Paul Mooney the crowd went wild. The show we attended was the first night of a 3 night stand. On Thursday he had one show scheduled, but he was to do two sets on Friday and two on Saturday as well. We figured to go to the first show so we catch him at his loosest, which is what you want with the mature seasoned comedians. We chose well.
He got onstage instantly talking shit about how "they never listen, the bastards," complaining that they had put a stool on stage when he wanted a chair. After grabbing one from the crowd and getting settled in, Paul Mooney proceeded to riff on everything that crossed his mind.
One of the disappointing aspects of stand up comedy sometimes is when a comedian does a set that is filled with too many jokes or routines you have already heard. The great ones have so much on their minds that they can talk and make you laugh and rarely tread the same comedic ground. Paul Mooney did a very long set, longer than any comedy set I had even heard of, with the exception of Bill Cosby who regularly does 2 hour plus sets. Out of everything maybe only about 10% was material that I was familiar with. I could not stop laughing, and at times, could not muster a sound, because Paul Mooney walks that thin line between making you laugh and making you nervous! It was great.
Before I knew it my watch read 10:30 PM. Two hours, and he was nowhere near stopping it looked like to us. He kept riffing and making everyone laugh crazy even as the Improv waitstaff was cleaning the tables and putting up everything. People were checking the time and leaving because it was getting so late! The red light they flash to the talent to let them know their time is up had come on a while before, and then Mooney mentioned it. He said something along the lines of,
"That red light's been on for like fifteen minutes (actually more like 35 minutes - RXTT) but I don't give a fuck."
He then looked at his watch and his face appeared shocked. He exclaimed, "It cannot be 11:30, can it?" and many in the crowd went "Wha..???" loudly because they had lost track of time too!!! My wife turned to me with a look of shock, thinking that maybe it was around 10-10:15 PM!
A three hour Thursday night set by legend Paul Mooney. Amazing what $20 can get ya.
As we cleared out we went to the merchandise table where Paul and a lady who was maybe his road manager were selling CD's and DVD's of his shows. I saw one I had not heard yet from 1997 called "Masterpiece" and paid for it. The lady asked me my name and I said it, trying to pronounce it so she could easily understand, "Ro-Ber-To."
"Reeburra?" she asked and handed my CD to Paul Mooney. I repeated my name trying to correct her and saw Paul scribble something on the CD and sign his name. He looked at me as he handed it to me and said "Thank you."
I looked down and started laughing my ass off because he had signed it "ReBRA, Paul Mooney"
It was a great night and exceeded my expectations in every way.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
On June 10th of 2009 I saw a conversation between Buzz Aldrin, the famous astronaut, and Ernie Manouse, a local Houston journalist and broadcaster, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. On June 20th it was to be the forty year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Forty years since humans first touched down on a heavenly body other than Earth.
“Hopefully the wait will not be too long to have Mr. Aldrin sign my book. There are all sorts of people here. Half of them, like myself, are too young to have actual memories of the moon landing in 1969. There are myriad nerd chicks all over the whole theater. It does the heart good to see so many ladies into space exploration.
I wish I could go to outer space and go to the Moon. If I was on the Moon I would find an out of the way place with a lot of lunar soil and I would draw an angry picture in the soil for other explorers to find later! I would love to volunteer as an artist to meet any aliens we run across and have them share their species' art with me, so I could them talk about it to my fellow Earthlings.
There are so many people here that the ushers are seating them in the aisles, on the stairs. They are soon to start. We are so far underground in this auditorium that the cellphone reception is non-existent. They project images which will likely be included in the actual exhibition.
The conversation Between Buzz and Ernie goes well. Buzz is very funny and talks honestly about his feelings towards the current space program. I learn a lot and before I know it the talk is concluded. Now came the hard part.
I go out of the theater and head to the main level of the museum. It is there that the staff have set up Buzz to sign copies of his book. Seeing how long the line was made me think that nearly as many people waited in line during the talk as went to the actual talk in the auditorium. It was a long wait, and by the time I got up there Buzz was pooped. The man is in his 80's and it was getting late in an already long day.
I handed him my book and told him it was an honor to have met him and heard him speak. He may have heard me and he may not but either way I had gotten close to one of only a small handful of humans ever to set foot on another celestial body. I wish I had a weekend to hang with him so I could ply him with question after question. He would probably grow sick of me asking stuff but what an opportunity that would be!
Looking back I saw that Mr. Aldrin was going to still be signing books an hour or more into the night. I headed outside with my signed book, and looked up at the sky. It was like meeting Magellan, or Marco Polo. I got to listen to one of the greatest explorers in human history first hand. Quite a fun night.
Now, how do I get on one of the new flights to the Moon? I think that sending a trained artist to outer space would be such an amazing thing. The images created by an artist would add so much to our understanding of what it really is like to be there. Photography does not do the experience justice. Maybe I should petition the government to create an astronaut-artist position!
What if our Earth is the only planet out of the trillions of possible planets that could exist that has managed to beat the infinitesimal odds and created life, a new form of matter that has the ability to understand and alter itself and everything around it? If every variable that could possibly have affected the path to life is accounted for, then the likelihood of the occurrence of life on this planet is near impossibility.
Just because we find life here on Earth does not mean we are likely to find life anywhere else in the galaxy because, for the most part, the Earth is a closed system. Comets, asteroids, and other such features of our solar system can definitely strike, and therefore interact with, the Earth. They have been doing so for the entire existence of the Earth. They as well as the myriad influences the Sun exerts upon our planet are part of the whole package. In a sense it is our solar system that is closed.
How do you get people to think about this? How do you get people to understand how deeply fragile it all is, to truly accept it? And, by that token, how do you make people understand the near infinite level of responsibility that we humans, with an unprecedented capacity to affect and understand ourselves and our universe, have for the care, maintenance, survival, and dissemination of life through our universe?
By the latest estimates, the visible universe is somewhere around 14.5 billion years old. For all we know this could be a very young age for an Universe. It has taken that long, that massive an expanse of time, for one of the trillion planets to create lifeforms capable of spreading Life not only across planets but across solar systems, through the galaxy, and maybe in the far future, across the sickeningly vast abyss between galaxies themselves.
The universe as we know it could last another 14 billion years, or it could last 100 trillion years. Unimaginable expanses of time. We humans can barely wrap our minds around the concept of a “lifetime's” worth of time (averaging between 60-90 years) Beyond mathematics, the age of our Universe and it's possible lifetime may as well be infinite.
What could life become if we help it to populate the cosmos? Life is as cruel as it is beautiful. It is as joyous as it is meaningless. Spreading life means spreading death. This would be no different than having children. When we procreate we do not know what the future holds for our offspring, but we do know it will hold it's fair share of pain as well as joy. This does not keep us from birthing a new generation. The same should apply to spreading life through the galaxy.
Humans are the first and so far only species on the Earth capable of analyzing and altering the world around us in endlessly new ways. Other animals change their environment, beavers, bees, elephants, but they do so as a result of just a few instinctive urges, and do not do so solely to see what happens, like humans often do. We can not only imagine change, we can effectively cause change.
The spread of life would be done through microorganisms. Humans find hardy single-celled organisms that live where no oxygen exists, where no sunlight reaches, where there is no available food. These organisms would be prime candidates for the spread of life. If an array of craft were launched from Earth, each containing mechanisms which would allow for the dispersal of their contents when they have reached a far away planet, we could germinate the cosmos. We could send a batch of heat-resistant, sulfur-digesting bacteria to Mercury for instance, or a batch of algae that lives in deep dark ice to Neptune. We could try to match the bacteria to a planet whose composition most suits it.
The rub is that it took over 3 million years of microbial life to develop complex multi-cellular life on Earth. It will likely take just as long or longer for life to develop complexity on these new outposts. In fact, life may never develop beyond the single-celled stage, but so what? What a triumph it would be to seed any type of life anywhere. The Earth is at any time one stray comet away from mass extinction. If an event is big enough Life itself may only survive in single-celled organisms here on Earth. We must guarantee that life as we know it continues.
There are many people who suppose that life on Earth came across the wastes of space aboard comets or asteroids during the early Earth's near-constant bombardment. Others suggest that perhaps some other ancient and powerful civilization put life here on Earth, seeding it as I suggest seeding other planets. To this day there is no acceptable explanation for why the first DNA molecule came into being. We have been able to recreate the conditions in the early Earth and all we can create are amino acids. These are the building blocks of DNA but to get to the helical complexity of the DNA molecule from the far simpler hydrocarbons known as amino acids is a quantum leap we do not yet understand.
For all of our interplanetary exploration, we have barely scratched the surface. The likelihood exists that we will find microbial life in our Solar System. If this turns out to be the case then we can compare that life to our Earth life and see whether we are fruits of the widespread nature of life in the Universe, or, if our DNA was tampered with somehow. The tough part will be in convincing those in charge of discovering such things to share them with the rest of the population.
Our Milky Way galaxy is estimated to be around one hundred thousand light years across. That is an average size for a galaxy, as far as we have been able to determine. This average sized galaxy is composed of billions of individual stars, with thousands being “born” every day. The immensity of our galaxy is nearly incomprehensible. To think that there are billions of galaxies of all types out there in the vastness of space just boggles the mind. It truly is a limitless fountain of possibility.
Friday, January 20, 2012
# 1 – Organization
I am not the most naturally organized of humans. However, collecting records have taught me that proper care and storage of a collection requires diligence. It takes a lot of time to maintain a constantly used collection in it's proper organizational structure, especially if you want ease of access.
Every collector has their own chosen way to organize what they collect. I have a large 5' x 5' square shelf unit from Ikea. I arrange my records alphabetically by either the musician or the group, and within that subset I arrange the records chronologically, which helps me place the records in context to each other. I have created filing labels to mark my collection, so the individual letter's are easy to see.
Some musical groups have a more extensive archiving. Sonic Youth, for example, have been making music together for over thirty years. Since they are my favorite band ever, I try to collect as much of their output as I can. Because of this I have divided their records up by studio releases, SYR releases, full-length bootleg releases, 12” singles, 10” singles, 7” singles, group side projects, and individual side projects, all in respective chronological order. It is where my anal-retentive obsessive side is allowed to shine. Believe me when I say my Sonic Youth collection is not yet complete.
# 2 - Patience
The world we live in does not place a premium on patience. Music consumption these days is no different. We want the world and we want it now. That's what Jim Morrison sang. Living that way burns one up. Jim did not make it to thirty. Collecting records is a compulsive hobby, driven by desire. Whether that desire is for the music itself, or the fetishized object that is a rare gate-fold album, it is omnipresent.
When looking for old, out-of-print records I must have the patience to look through hundreds or thousands of records before finding one I want to spend money on. I may run across multiple copies that I do not buy due to scratches, damage, etc. Sometimes I find records that I have been looking for actively for several years. I still have dozens on my personal wish list yet to find. Only patience keeps me from going crazy when looking through a record convention's worth of bins and boxes!
Apart from the acquisition of the records, the enjoyment of them requires patience. Records are fragile and need to be well-kept. Playing them requires careful handling of the media and equipment, even with the simplest turntables. Listening to records I have collected is not just about wish fulfillment. For every album I listen to and instantly connect with, there are two or three that take multiple listens, allowing for time to do it's thing on the brain. “Difficult” music, whether Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, or Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising requires patience to at first understand, and then secondly to enjoy what is being given to your ears. Records, due to their nature, are more likely to be played straight through than CD's or digital media. Having a little button that instantly skips anything your ears find initially off-putting does not teach patience, but the exact opposite, a sense of entitlement due to an inflated sense of self-worth that breeds urgency and instant wish-fulfillment. Good things take time.
#3 – Collecting is a lonely existence
Due to it's time-consuming nature, the hobby of collecting becomes quite a solitary enterprise. The enjoyment of the collection can happen alone on in social settings, but the acquisition of the individual items is done by you alone. If you are lucky you have a few friends who are also bitten by the same collecting bug and who are willing to go with you and spend hours browsing through old, dusty, shitty records hoping you find something golden.
Even then, you may end up actually interacting with them just a few times an hour, because you are focused. You are flipping two separate boxes of records with both hands, scanning with your eyes like some sort of factory machine designed to spot imperfections, only you are looking for perfection, or at least that cool album by Miles Davis where he sang with the Muppets. (Does it actually exist?) The joys are solitary too. Those same friends you go record shopping with may scoff at your selections, and often will. The joy and pain are yours and yours alone.
As the collection grows it begins to take up actual living space around you. The pride in such a collection is again just yours alone. Your loved ones may admire and enjoy your collection but it is not their collection. It has not been built up by them through hundreds of trips to record stores, garage sales, or record conventions. Those long car trips were made by you. Those shelves or cases or boxes were arranged by you. The knowledge of it's totality exists solely in your head. As you have had to add new records to the already arranged stacks you sort through them, again and again, seeing older records as old friends, much like people see their books. You know exactly where to reach to find the real favorites among the bunch, either because you play them often or because you like to pull them out to show off to fellow collector nerds.
If you think collecting something like records or books or stamps is a lonely thing, imagine the worst aspect of collecting, those people who collect whatever is en vogue currently. For a brief period of time people such as those who collected Beanie Babies flourish among what seems like a ton of other people sharing your passion. It seems that what is being collected actually matters to normal people. The prices go through the roof for the rare ones. It can be quite a rush for some. The ride always comes to an end and usually way too soon for most people's tastes. Those collectors are then left alone, with no collecting pals, with a collection of shit they overpaid for and which will likely never see an increase in value within their lifetime. That is truly lonely.
# 4 – Value exists in your own head
Everything you value, every single tiny bit of worth you see in anything is purely a product of your own creation. How did collecting records teach me this? For one thing, record collecting shows you how value itself is an ephemeral illusion. What is worth money to one person is worthless to another. What is worth little today is a sought-after collector's item tomorrow, and vice-versa. Value does not exist independently of everything else. Value is a purely subjective idea, dependent on everything from rarity to condition to location. Because of this, record collecting needed to be about something more than just the accumulation of monetarily valuable objects for me. The value of the records lay in how I chose to think about them.
This applies to every aspect of life where value judgments must be made, and it informs what becomes meaningful to me. I am better able to understand what is really important to myself, because I know that I am the only one who sees it that way. What I find valuable in life is important because I find it valuable, not because the value is an inherent quality. This can refer to anything from Unsane's music to what restaurants I enjoy. It has allowed me to try and resist the throngs that are seemingly swept away every second of their lives by what others consider valuable. It has also sucked in that part of the joy of music is sharing the love of it with others. It is sad seeing whole chunks of one's record collection becoming slowly forgotten by the world around you.
The sad truth is that everything is forgotten in time. Even those people, places and things that become legendary are remembered erroneously, their true selves forgotten in favor of an easy to tell legend. Someone like Robert Crumb, who amassed a definitive collection of very early delta blues 78's, lives in a world within his own mind, enjoying a music that most of the world has forgotten existed. Upon an owner's death, some collections are kept intact as historical archives, others are sold off to other collectors in auctions, and yet others are disposed of as if worthless, for a collection is only important to those who know and understand it's contents. That is the ultimate loss of value, knowing that your collection may well end up discarded after your death. These thoughts come to the true hardcore collectors.
With such heavy shit it is a good thing music is so fantastic!
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
There are three kinds of people in the world. Those who love music, those who like music, and those who do not enjoy music. That last category does not concern us. People who do not enjoy music of any form, who claim outright to dislike music, are quite the mystery in and of themselves, but let us talk instead of the differences that arise between those who love music, and those who merely like music.
A music lover will hear a new song and, if the song strikes their fancy, will then proceed to seek out more of that artist/group's music. Enjoying that, a music lover will keep an eye out for more and more of that person's music, as long as it continues to entertain them. They actively seek more, eventually amassing some type of collection of that artist/group's music. This process may take years and can allow that artist's music to become a deep and meaningful part of someone's life.
A person who merely “likes” music, as opposed to loving it, will hear a song that strikes their fancy, fall in love with it, listen to that one song constantly, suck every bit of juice out of it until it is as desiccated and tedious as a song can get, and then move on to the next tune that happens to hit their ears. Some effort may be made towards seeking more music from the same artist, but usually, once it is seen that the other songs do not sound like the one that hit them hard, that person is willing to move on to a new tune. This method of ingesting music can create some very strong sense/time memories, due to the overload of the music on the brain over such a short and intense period of time.
Once a music lover has exhausted the available music of a given artist/group, they will then investigate further. Are there other bands that sound similar, or have the same vibe whose music may be good too? Maybe this band was influenced by some musician previously unknown to you? Have these musicians ever played in other groups? Questions such as these allow for new music to expand the musical map in a music lovers brain. Previously unseen connections are brought to light. Sometimes a certain recording may become more meaningful to you, and others may lose some of their luster when compared to previous acts. One never knows what will arise but there is always more to explore. This creates a deep connection between the music lover and the musicians involved, as their individual contributions are explored and analyzed.
The “Liker” of music does not concern themselves with any of this. Instead of looking for more music by the group that made the song they heard and loved the “Liker” waits until his sources provide him with a new tune by that artist. These sources can range from their favorite radio station, to their favorite nightclub, from friends to the television. And, if the next song that comes down the pike is a stinker? No problem, because the “Liker” is not personally invested. There are more songs every day. Because the “Liker” does not actively expand their mental sonic map as the music lover does he never develops personal connections to the creators of the music itself, just to the individual songs. If an artist has a lot of hits then the music “Liker” will feel a bigger connection by virtue of exposure. Otherwise, they move on to the next hit by the next artist. Either way, the names and careers of the musicians involved in crafting the hits are unimportant, and do not factor in the “Liker's” enjoyment of the songs they like.
A music lover becomes more willing to accept musical risks taken by their favorites. They would expect nothing less. Solo records are seen as an intimate view into one member of a favored musical group. In an odd irony, music lovers also appreciate any artist who fiercely maintains one style as their own through the ever-changing musical fadscape. In other words, a music lover accepts what a musician gives them on the musician's terms. Of course it is judged and examined and compared but it is given a fair shake.
Music “Likers” sometimes infuriate music lovers because they see no value in the deeper analysis, which to them seems like an obsession with the unimportant parts of music. The “Likers” love the songs, and will love the songs forever. Music lives in the moment, more so than most other art forms. Recorded music is not music until it is vibrating the air through some mechanism or other. It is to be enjoyed in the moment, to be danced to, to serve as the background to life. This is a different and quite valid joy, but it does not allow for one's brain to interact with the minds making the music, only to react.
There is no correct way to enjoy music. There are only more ways to enjoy music. Everyone begins as a music “Liker.” Even people who consider themselves musically sophisticated originally just listened to what they liked and sought nothing more. Liking music is the first step to loving music. It is not always easy to be a music lover, and a lot is asked of you if you are one, but like all things, the reward is as great as what is put into it. Music is humanity’s best friend and deserves to be loved.
Almost everyone, at some point in their lives, has amassed a collection of something. Some choose baseball cards, others postage stamps, and yet others collect driftwood. The possibilities are endless for collecting. A collection does not have to have any inherent monetary value. It can be a collection for purely emotional value. Most collections however, straddle both these worlds.
Take, for example, someone who collects vinyl records, as I do. There are items in my collection that are prized for their rarity, or the cost incurred in acquiring the item. Others are prized because the music contained within is emotionally important to me. Yet others are kept because of the cover art, or innovative packaging. This is true for most types of collecting.
The trick lies in knowing when a collection is complete, or as complete as you are gonna get. There are only so many Sonic Youth records one can acquire, before it becomes more of an exercise in completism than an enjoyable pastime. There are only so many shoes a woman can buy before the ridiculousness of hundreds of pairs for just one pair of feet becomes self-evident. Many collectors fear this. Once they have amassed the collection, it is more favorable to them to then sell it to others, allowing the new owners the same thrill they received previously. They then go on to collect something else. Even if they do not get rid of the previous collection, they begin with a new collection right away.
Many collectors have several groupings of things they collect. The greatest collectors will go on to donate their collections to museums or institutes of higher learning, allowing the public to share in their acquisitions. Others hold onto them with a strong grip, to the grave. These are the collectors who blur the line between collecting and hoarding. They become so obsessed with acquiring any and all ephemera associated with their particular collecting “jones” that they lose sight of the true goal, which is to take enjoyment from the collected items! Certain people get so protective of their collections that they barricade themselves in their home, adding layers of security, until they must feel like they are living in a prison of their own making.
The odd part is that while two people may share the exact same delusional drive to collect,the one that gets anal-retentive and creates displays and keeps his items spotless and in perfect condition, all sterile and unused, the masses see as normal! The people who clutter their lives with the collected items, whose homes look more like a child's room than a museum, are seen as warped, sick, maybe needing help of some sort. While they are both worlds apart in appearance, their inner lives are probably very much alike. It is a near-delusion, the mania of a collector in the full throes of the hunt, and not for the faint of heart.
Is it that a person who hoards seems to give no thought to the actual care and maintenance of what they hoard? Collectors take great care in buying the right furniture to display their collections, oftentimes having cases and shelves custom made. Hoarders seem to be satisfied with the ownership of an object, and do not seek to properly organize. Their organization mainly consists of grouping like items together, with no consideration to the decay or damage caused to the hoarded material. A collector would be shocked at such ill treatment of their prized possessions. Where does the line exist? It may be a far blurrier line than ever imagined.
If not yet established and known, an artist is forced to ham it up, to create a persona that screams “artist” and yet that is refined enough to appeal to the wealthy patrons, who are the only people these days who really spend any money on art. Regular people spend money on decorations for sure, but spending $200 at Ikea to decorate a room is a lot different from spending $800 on a single painting, which is why the world of Fine Art is a lofty one, at least from the point of view of the major supporters. One has to make an impression on these people, people for whom superficial impressions are their very existence. However, most artists are mercurial, self-guided people to whom superficiality is a chore.
The public is fickle, and it wants it's next flavor-of-the-month now. This used to consist of finding and supporting an artist whose work was innovative, fresh, exciting. Now it more and more seems to consist of finding an artist who is an interesting personality, or who has a bizarre back-story, or who comes from the lowest of means, yet who looks and acts and carries themselves in a way fitting with the posh company that is the customer base.
In nearly any endeavor, it is important to present yourself in a manner which will benefit you and allow for others to trust you enough to give you their money. This is just a part of life. To be a doctor you must look the part as well as have the necessary education. To be a cop you have to walk differently than regular people, as if you are always enforcing the law. To be an artist, you need to be able to socialize and converse with people whose educations and refinement are of the highest order. This can be a hard thing to pull off for an artist whose life is spent absorbed in his art. Many artists have issues with social situations which is why they put themselves in their work, and ask that that be judged that way. However, to socially please customers is part of the requirement, even if it kills a little part of you.
You see, the art-buying public is not just buying artworks. They are also buying a connection.
There are many stories of how an artist's gallery will sell a work of theirs under the stipulation that the artist go to the purchaser's home and discuss the work and themselves with the buyer. Some people are just curious and want to know more about you, while others are using you to entertain their friends at a dinner party with conversation. It can make an artist feel like a tool, just as easily as it can make an artist feel appreciated.
Many are purchasing the work of a new artist either with the hopes of owning what could become very valuable in the future, or to gain the cache that comes from being among the perceived elite who are savvy enough to buy valuable things early, before the teeming masses get their mitts on it. An artist truly has little choice as to who purchases their work, and why. The only option available is to not sell the work, which is financially unthinkable for many artists who live off of one or two large sales a year, if they are lucky.
Once the work is sold the artist has to live with the fact that it may go up in a place of honor in someone's home, or it may just get stacked in a closet somewhere. It may be displayed in a horrible frame. It may be destroyed by accident or negligence. It may never see the light of day again. For an artist who has put part of himself in his work, this is a terrible thing to have to live with, but it must be accepted if one wants to continue. The life of an artist seems to be one of endless heartbreak.
Even if an artist gains quick fame the expectations just rise up afterwards. It is never enough to continue in a given vein, not for the art world. They want to see you expaqnd and grow and challenge yourself. These are all code words for "we do not want to see the same thing twice." The art world does not take the time to truly appreciate an artist's work, before it is seeking different work. This gives a premium to an artist like Damien Hirsch who just comes up with a new wacky idea every year and "surprises" the art world with it. It does not, however, allow for an artist to develop his voice slowly, through trial and error. It must be great the first time and every time thereafter.
There are many reasons why one rarely reads about happy, well-adjusted, fulfilled artists. Even the great Picasso was tormented and alone much of the time. It takes balls to choose such a life.
Images are powerful things. It is no mere coincidence that much of the modern human brain is devoted to the processing of visually received stimuli. Our eyes are our best developed sense organ. Because of this, our images have grown ever more sophisticated as the full extent of our visual power is utilized. The growth appears to be exponential, mirroring much of human development. This growth can be charted like much of history by following the high water marks.
BIG IDEAS come into the world of the visual image when society needs them. The outdated imagery that was supplanted by the development of three-point perspective in paintings existed for millenia before. Flat, two dimensional imagery, in which size was indicative of status as opposed to a true measure, and which represented ideas as opposed to visible reality was the norm for most of the world's visual artists. This was true in the cultures of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Europe, Africa, etc., and speaks of the aims of the visual image in those cultures.
I am not referring strictly to the content of the artworks, to the subject matter. I speak instead of the means available to the visual artists to make their point as those points relate to the culture at large. Let's look at ancient Egyptian art for example.
In Egypt's Old and New Kingdoms the use of visual art was mainly to serve the Pharaoh, the Temples, and the wealthy by spreading propaganda. Whether this was religious propaganda or political propaganda is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the art was straightforward, simple enough for even illiterates to understand the message being imparted. The images were in grids, demarcating a rigid stasis. Egyptians believed their leaders were gods on Earth. They believed in the endless cycle of life, mirroring the Nile river's yearly floods, in which everything plays it's proper part, and the people are but miniscule pawns in a much larger story being played out by the elites. In a desert the only constants are the magnificent terror of the Sun and the durability of stone. Everything else is in flux. Death can come on the back of a locust swarm or the mouth of alligators. Disease is a curse and death is a time of judgment. Life must have seemed so hard to ancient Egyptians. It was so brutal and short that their whole culture became one of worshiping death, or at least the state of being called “dead.”
Could this be why their art is so rigid? Egyptian visual art which survives shows actions, events, places, personages, and tells a narrative story, which can also be read allegorically. It does not place any importance in portraying motion, or the passage of time. It focuses instead on the action, and what that action means. The images do not care about relative size, and are so stylized and formatted as to make it impossible to differentiate between the carved figures. This problem is solved by the use of the cartouche. These are symbols that name the important figures in the artwork, such as pharaohs, gods, etc. The lower classes are portrayed by their jobs, not by anything individual. The artworks themselves were constructed to last for eternity, since whatever one was buried with would be what they enjoyed in their afterlife. Stone carving thus becomes the critical art form for the times. It allowed people of power to inscribe the walls of their death chambers with every possible thing they could ever desire in the afterlife.
These are means to an end. The Egyptians truly believed that birth determined one's life and that the individual will was but an afterthought, in many ways mirroring the modern Indian culture and caste system. Life was just a way-station which would present a person with the challenges, and the person's decisions concerning these challenges would then be judged upon one's death. Of course the art also showed you how to react to the challenges of life, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Egypt flourished for millenia with few challenges to this art ideal.
Much of the ancient world worked this very same way. The art served the ruling classes whims, allowing the mass illiterate poor to share in the legends and myths of their culture without having to actually read the source material. Art then served the purpose of pure narrative and allegorical communication from one group of elites to another group of subjects.
As society changes the purposes of art change as well. What used to be something only the aristocracy or royalty could indulge in now became accessible to the just plain wealthy. The houses of the wealthy became the showpiece for their new found appreciation of art, usually centered around portraits of themselves and their relatives which granted the subject a grandeur and power through it's very existence. Art became personal. It was not long before a new middle class of people was created. These people, not wealthy nor poor, but with enough money to afford some of the nicer things and the education to appreciate them, were the ones that opened a floodgate.
The visual image gained wider and wider exposure. Because of the new audience, the art changed as well. Images became appreciated more for their ability to describe and show the real world than for their symbolic and propaganda uses. Since in art everything builds upon everything else, the early reasons for art still exist and will always exist. They are only supplanted like an onion skin atop an onion skin by new demands placed on art. It all builds a framework of visual reference. Regular people were now exposed to more visual imagery than ever before and therefore the sophistication of the audience grew and grew.
The Old Masters managed to combine everything art is about and still explore new paths, new ways to make their art suit their purposes. The discovery of three-point perspective shone a light upon all the previous images. Those with proper perspective are obvious to the eye, to anyone's eye, for perspective allows to the tricks one's eye plays to be used for the full effect of the painting. After a while, any artist not working with proper perspective, or at least faking it as well he could, was considered “naive,” a backhanded compliment which essentially means, “your art is good for someone who knows nothing about art.” This becomes the main driver behind the visual image for centuries. Each new generation perfecting the techniques and ideas that allow for the art required by the times.
Artists are always at the vanguard of culture. Sometimes it is an idea that drives them to new places and sometimes it is a new media. Around 150 years ago the first tube paints were being sold, as the industrial revolution modernized and streamlined the means of production the world over. No longer did artists have to painstakingly prepare and manufacture their pigments and paints, or hire a crew of assistants to do so. The artists was freed to take his canvas and turn art from an indoor endeavor to an outdoor pleasure. Nature again became the main inspiration. These artists could go out into the world with their easel and paints and create artwork of immediacy. A preliminary sketch of a painting which used to take weeks could be done in hours, and many painters began to appreciate the beauty inherent in artwork that sought not to minutely recreate the nature before them, but instead to capture in colored paint, the way light played upon the world.
This was a very big conceptual leap forward. It was pushed along by the science of the times as well. People used to believe everything was what it was innately. A red jacket was a red jacket. A white egg was a white egg. Science showed that, as far as optics are concerned, common sense is useless. A red jacket receives white light, absorbs every color wavelength except red, and bounces red back at our eyes. Our brains then say, “this jacket is red. Paint it red.” Painters early on realized that the nature of the light greatly affects the nature of the color of an object. Morning light would make a red jacket appear violet, whereas overcast light would make the red appear toned with grey or black. Color is created in the eye. Someone like Monet would paint fast, loose, to catch that one specific light effect he sought to recreate in the viewer's eye. Painters were literally trying to paint light.
As the society progresses it absorbs the lessons of artists, and accepts them as truths. Society is stupid that way. Instead of understanding that everything works in a continuum and that nothing end and nothing begins and that one idea does not replace another, society dumps old ideas as fast as new ideas come. These new ideas are then treated as the new dogma. Society is stupid and slow and ignorant and will always need art to show the way to new thought. The problem lies in that society gets more and more rigid and therefore more and more resistant to the changes brought about or implied in artist's work.
These artworks were among many chosen 70 years ago by the National Socialist Party of Germany as being decadent and obscene. They were not decadent nor obscene because of puerile content, or nudity or offensive imagery. These artworks were dangerous to that totalitarian regime, just as dangerous as art remains today for totalitarian governments worldwide, because of the IDEAS.
Ideas in art are pulled by the artists from the meta-structure of humanity's total consciousness. Artists draw material and inspiration from places they do not even register. The entire world feeds their minds. An artists of any type is like a tuning fork. A tuning fork can be made to vibrate by another tuning fork being struck and brought near it. They do not have to touch. One fork vibrates the air and the air then vibrates the previously inert tuning fork. Now imagine an artist, a creative person, whose entire day is composed of endlessly varied stimuli affecting him or her in ways so subtle they may not be apparent for decades. Subtle, yes, but powerfully affecting nonetheless.
As the world turned industrial, and life moved from the pasture to the chaos of urban city living, certain artists felt the pull towards a complete dismissal of representation. They sought truth and beauty in the relationships of colors, lines, shapes, hues and tones. They did not seek to represent anything at all. To them, abstraction was a perfectly natural response to a world ever more constrained, ever more visually cluttered. A day's walk in any city would flood the mind with more visual imagery than a year spent on one's country farm. Imagine what that would do to someone extra-sensitive to stimuli of any sort. It only makes sense that artists sought to escape into pure abstraction.
Abstraction may seem to negate all the rules art had come to be built upon, but it is, in fact, just the end result of the path those rules laid out. Painting involves using colored material to create an image. The relationship in a still-life between a vase, let's say, and a tablecloth is one of color. Color, and how it is placed, defines boundaries, depth, texture, and light, as well as serving allegorically as a symbol. Pure abstraction engages a viewer through the same means as a representative image. The goal is different thought. Representative imagery needs to evoke the actual structure of the world. Abstraction seeks to create a new world to be judged by the aesthetics of the art of painting itself. In an era where anyone can create a near perfect representational image (photography) painting needed to create a sense of it's own value apart from pure documentation.
Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, etc., were all attempts to create art that allowed the artists to define art itself, or at least test the boundaries. They set their own rules, or tried to, but these rules were still only workable in direct reference to the boundaries they sought to replace These boundaries are the boundaries demarcated by culture and society itself. The past 200 years have seen the Industrial Revolution change not only art but the viewers of art and the artists as well.
Currently, we are in the midst of another whirlwind change in society, and therefore in humanity. The ability to have the vast sum of human knowledge and endeavor accessible from anywhere on the planet has affected artists greatly. If you think the Industrial Revolution brought chaos and infinite new experience, you will not be ready for what our cyber world is bringing us. If done right, this tool will increase the sophistication of everyone with access to it. Every image ever seen in a museum is available to be viewed through technology. Some artists are using the web itself as an art form, and others are turning into Luddites, afraid of being replaced as image makers by computers, or worse yet, regular people. All this is causing a new change in art.
Art can no longer be just representational, or abstract, or low-brow. Art needs to point the way to the future, good or ill. It needs to change itself to show the way to humanity. What is needed is a new Meta-structure for art. Artists have seemingly exhausted every combination of media, size, shape, color, etc., available for a two dimensional visual image. What has only been tried a few times, by artists such as M.C. Esher, is to create imagery, a new art essentially, which does not depend on the “normal” human points of spatial reference.
Friday, January 13, 2012
It does seem to be that once the switch was made in humanity, the portrait became ubiquitous. To have a portrait of oneself was a sign of opulence, of modernity. The detailed studyof the human face, and the ability to portray that in paint, granted the powerful with a new tool. They could use portraits as propaganda. Whether this meant crafting a relief sculpture of the Ceasar for their coinage, which everyone would see and admire causing them to associate their ruler with their money, or whether it was a painting commissioned to commemorate a coronation, instantly granting it's subject the grandeur of royalty, the portrait was subservient to the whims of man.
Formal portraits have lost their power in an age of quick reproduction. Photography allowed the masses to obtain lasting images of themselves and their loved ones. Portrait paintings became out of fashion, while portrait photography exploded. Ancient man would see our world today and marvel in fear at our reckless use of images. As a species we create and display more portraits every day than could be imagined by our ancestors. We just call it "advertising."
While some may think this would be the death of the art portrait, I find it to be beneficial in a very specific way. By taking the requirement of exact reproduction away, photography leaves space for painters who can use their art to convey something deeper than mere surface. When the Outer is fully examined, it is the Inner which truly informs. Ancient man did not seek to portray an individual human. He sought to portray an idealization of a human for the benefit of all. Modern painters seek to paint the inner truth of their subjects, thereby granting them some semblance of immortality. The focus of portraits has shifted many times in the past and will shift again. That is a given. However, the past history of portraits does not necessarily point to their future. There is still endless room for innovation and creativity. That is the challenge to the modern artist, for the obsession with the human face continues unabated.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
When an artist or a group of artists shows their work somewhere, and holds a reception/opening/event to bring people there, their hope is for an audience to show up, look at their work, and hopefully appreciate it enough to want to purchase it. For many this process is very intimidating. It should not be. I am here to help.
What should you expect from an art opening?
Let's take, for example, a group show held at a local gallery. Most art openings are free-form events, intended to allow the public to come and go as they please. There is no pressure to be there “on time,” unless it is so specified in the announcement/invitation. There is no cover charge. There may be a cash bar or there may be complimentary refreshments served. The artist(s) and/or a gallery employee are usually there, ready to introduce themselves, as well as discuss any questions you may have about their work. This type of interaction is a welcome thing for most artists, as we rarely have the opportunity to interact with the consumers of art. It is completely cool to go up to the artist and introduce yourself, and comment on their art, or ask any questions.
Think of an art show as a communication format. The artists want to communicate with you through their art and through their words. The viewing public is also given the chance to communicate what the work is or is not to them, and if they love it, to purchase said work. Aside from that, there is a communication that happens between the patrons themselves. Art is intended to move the heart and/or mind. You are there to see if this art does this. At the very least, you will be entertained. Not bad for FREE.
What is expected of you at an art opening?
First of all, your very presence. As stated before, art does not live in a vacuum. It is your eyes and minds (and in many cases, all your senses) that are asked to participate. Of course, your preparation can aid in this, but it is not mandatory. You do not need to know the latest art movements, or any art movements at all, to enjoy an artwork or an art show. That does not mean that preparation will not come in handy, but that is up to you. What you really need is an open mind, uncluttered by the bullshit of the day. This is ideal, but we all know life does not often allow for the ideal. The beauty of art is that it will communicate what it can, to whom it can.
This is the beauty of living with art. You can look at it regularly in different light, in different states of mind, in different emotional situations, and get fresh insight. At a gallery show, this must obviously be limited, but that is part of the process. You cannot just hop into an art gallery, look at everything in a quick overview, and then leave right away. Not if you expect to actually create a mental dialogue with the art being shown. It takes a bit of time. First impressions are only enough for superficial matters. Art is deeper than that, otherwise it is just decoration.
Therefore, go to the gallery, walk in, take a casual stroll through and look at each work of art. Note what impression it makes on you and move on to the next. Keep your ears open for anything you may find interesting, such as who the artist is, and if she happens to be discussing her work. Sometimes the artist will give a small speech/statement discussing their latest work, or the direction they are heading in. Listen to them. See how this applies to the art you have looked at.
Go around again. Take a second look at everything. See how your impressions have changed or remained the same. No one will bother you for staying too long. No one will bother you for only staying 15 minutes. However, you must give the art a chance to speak to you, and this cannot be accomplished with a cursory glance at everything and a quick exit. There is usually some form of literature provided, either by the gallery or by the artist themselves. This is a good place to learn more about the artist and their work. There is likely to be some sort of sign-in sheet where you can provide your email and receive updates from either the artist or the gallery.
How do you find time for art shows?
The joy of an art show is that you can access it at your own pace. You can use a visit to an art gallery opening as a precursor to a night out, as a great conversation starter among friends. You can swing by an opening after dinner on a Friday or Saturday night, and enjoy a drink while walking off some of dinner and feeding your mind a bit. Some people frequent art shows regularly, and use them as their socializing routine. Like-minded people enjoying art can be a very fun pastime. You can also hit several openings/shows in sequence and explore the full gamut of what is being offered on any given day. Hell, if you need a small break waiting for the traffic to die down after work, go to the art show! Kill an hour looking at art and then head home with a full mind. Even if the art turns out to be horrible, at the least you have something new to grouse about!
So many people are curious about art, and the art world itself. Yet, the very nature of it makes the art world appear to be an elitist situation, where only the informed and worldly and educated snobs of the world are welcome. This is really not the way it is, just the way it is portrayed in mass media. Most art openings are such casual affairs, and your presence means a lot to those showing work. Remember, if you like something, and can afford it, go ahead and buy something. Sometimes prints are available, or smaller works at a reduced price. The goal is for the art to communicate to someone enough that they wish to own it, and live with it. That someone could very well be you. If you have no money, feel free to enjoy the art anyways. Exposure is the goal of every professional artist, and while one person may not purchase something, their favorable comments about the art or artist can provoke others to buy work, or to come to the next art show. Share what you find. Talk about what you like or do not like. That makes you a part of the art world, and just as important a part as the artists and gallery owners. Go forth, and do so with confidence. The art world is waiting for your input and participation.
When the Houston Oilers left town, the football soul of the city of Houston was nearly destroyed. In Texas, football is king, above all other sports. In Houston, after a great run of seven straight playoff appearances, we were spoiled by our team's success. Their departure was heart-rending to someone like me, for whom American football was their sports passion.
Having moved to Houston from Ponce, Puerto Rico, I was just an 8 year old kid looking for something to latch onto in this strange country. Pro football was a spectacle, and even though it was nearly incomprehensible to me at that early age, I felt a connection to the violence, the speed, and the grace exhibited by these athletes.
Over the next 16 years, I became a Houston Oilers fanatic. When it was announced that they would be leaving for Tennessee, I feared Houston would end up like Los Angeles, a giant city with no pro football team. It was a long seven year wait, but the NFL informed the country that the 32nd franchise in the NFL would be granted to Bob McNair, and the city of Houston. It was a glorious day. It was also the first notice that we would have to endure years of futile effort and poor play.
The two NFL teams added before the Texans, the Caroline Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, both had varying degrees of success early on, but they crashed and burned soon after. The Houston Texans were a bit different. We began our first season with a rookie quarterback who was more concerned with his hair than with his studies. The Texans lost ugly for years. It was so bad that at the stadium, the crowd would cheer heartily for first downs, not touchdowns, as that was the only thing the team seemed capable of.
It has been a full decade of Houston Texans football, and the team has finally made it into the post-season. It was not pretty this season. The team suffered through the loss of their starting and back-up quarterbacks (Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart), their starting running back (Arian Foster), their world-class wide receiver (Andre Johnson), and their 1st round draft pick linebacker (Mario Williams).
This seemed devastating at the time, but the team has managed to tough it out and win despite these heavy casualties. As a fan, this is a most exciting time.
No one expects the team to do anything special in the playoffs. We are likely to be seen as cannon-fodder for the more powerful and well-established teams. This is something that Houston fans are accustomed to. Even so, it feels great to have been rooting for this team, taking as much joy from the small victories as we can, and seeing the recent results. The greatest compliment an opposing team can say about one's team is that they are a "team no one wants to face in the playoffs." I think the Texans are one of those teams, and the city of Houston is riding a football wave that began with the University of Houston and hopefully will end with the Texans making a deep run into the playoffs. Dreams are coming true people!
It is a bit hard to believe we are bound for the NFL playoffs. I remember an evening after work about eleven years ago which found me in front of a large stage in downtown Houston. The new team owner and the President were unveiling the new teams name, logo, and uniforms. At the time the name seemed bland, vague, and non-threatening. Football is controlled violence and the names should suit the intended goal. The logo was fine but seemed like an obvious ploy to subliminally attract University of Texas alumni, with it being just the head of a long-horned cow. The team colors were even more of a disappointment. The whole red, white, and blue color scheme was already in use by many other teams in the league, and seemed like such a safe, middle-of-the-road decision. Boring.
The team in those first years did resemble my first impression of the colors, logo, and name. We were a boring team to watch. Painfully boring. Boring like the early 80's Seahawks, or the Buccaneers in the 70's. Each game was just a new example in ineptitude. Shitty teams would beat us by 30-40 points. It was all quite painful, but it was Pro Football, and the team could only improve, right? Ten years later, it seems that all our patience is being rewarded. We have a fabulous running game, a league-leading defensive unit, and a team that believes in itself, willing to step up and make plays when the starters get injured. We now have a Defensive Coordinator who is as good as they come, to match our offensive minded Head Coach. It is a great time to be a Houston Texans fanatic.
It is now January 2012, and the Texans' first playoff game is ever-nearer. The elation felt by me as I wrote the above material has degraded to a low murmur of fear. The past three games have shown the world a Texans team incapable of scoring touchdowns against three of the most inept teams in the NFL. Three losses in a row, two at home to deeply inferior teams, and a backwards slide into the first ever playoff game for this franchise. It makes me sick.
The whole city of Houston is still trying to pretend they have hopes for our playoff-bound team, but it is all a barely held-together ruse. We are all football people here in Texas and even the most disinterested Houstonian knows that our Texans team seems a fraud. We can pride ourselves on the league's second best rushing attack, and one of the league's top defenses, but how hollow does that feel after these last three weeks?
I do not know if it is our team, or our coach, but we lack the killer instinct. Our team's attitude implies a group of overachieving mediocre talent happy to luck into a year where everything comes together to essentially hand the Texans their first division title. Peyton Manning's injury single-handedly submarined the once-mighty Colts. The Titans barely finished above .500 with an over-the- hill QB and a brand new coaching staff just learning the ropes. The other division team, the Jaguars, could do nothing but rush the ball, and failed to win even a third of their games. This was the GOLDEN SEASON damn it!
The Texans should have gotten it into their heads that this was their season to shine. Even with all of our injuries, and there have been a ton of critical ones, our team at the 2/3 mark of the season looked lean and mean, saying all the right things, and manhandling opponents like the cream of the AFC South crop we truly seemed to be. Is it because, having achieved the first goal of reaching the playoffs, the team just lost it's fire? Great teams do not lose their fire. Great teams take pleasure and pride in defeating their opponents and showing football mastery while doing so. To come out as they have done for the past three weeks, and play as if they could just turn "it" off and on like some sort of motor was just pathetic. It disgusted me to see how insipid the passing attack was, how unimaginative the running game became, how tepid our defense proved to be.
A team does not have to win all their games by double digits, or even win all their games, to earn respect. However, a team has to come out competitive! Our Texans have not, and what makes them think that they will somehow be able to just "bring it" on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team we barely managed to defeat when we were actually playing decent? Many pundits made a stink about how the Texans fans booed the team at the end of the first half against Carolina. They do not understand that the people of Houston are football people first and foremost, and that we respect a team that carries itself with the heart of a champion. A champion does not play it's first home game after clinching the playoffs and a division championship and go into the half losing 21-0. That is an insult to the fans. If the fans seemed ungrateful, it is not for lack of achievement, but for lack of effort, and the team needed to hear that. If the team was somehow upset over being booed, then they need to play better. It is as simple as that.
I can tell you for sure though that Reliant Stadium is going to be insane this Saturday, but if the team comes out limp and unsure, if they allow the opponents to put up 21 unanswered points, the hometown fans will boo heartily. Houstonians can smell a sports fraud a mile away.