Art

Oscar Wilde and The Irony of Atonement

wilde-fansEngland feels really bad about what it did to Oscar Wilde.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that they just posthumously pardoned him, along with thousands of other gay men. The apologies continue at the National Portrait Gallery where portraits of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are being displayed side by side to mark society’s change in attitudes. The Evening Standard reports that this is part of a show marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

We’ve come a long way since William Powell offered to paint Wilde out of his “A Private View at the Royal Academy” in the wake of Wilde’s trials.

There is a small irony, however, in using Wilde to celebrate the 1967 change in the law.
If Wilde had been tried under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967,  he would have received a five year sentence rather than the two year sentence he did under the LaBouchere Amendment. The law that decriminalized gay sex set the age of consent at 21 and almost all of Wilde’s partners mentioned in court were younger than that, the youngest being sixteen and seventeen. (In 1994, the age of homosexual consent was lowered to 18 and then, in 2000, to sixteen bringing it in line with the age of heterosexual consent.)

To paraphrase our president: Who knew that history was so complicated?

Poets’ Protest

Exist Beautifully

Even were it not for my forthcoming book, I believe I would be thinking of Oscar Wilde now more than ever. We live in an era, especially in the United States, in which the only politically valid argument for anything is an economic one. We are forced to argue that it is good to have public parks, and that attractive architecture is better than ugly not because it is nice to have a place to relax or because it is better not to have to live in an unattractive environment but because these things will attract the right kind of people and promote economic growth. F.S. Michaels calls this the “Monoculture.” I call it “Yucky Framing.”

The Monoculture, the requirement to use this yucky frame, makes it difficult to argue that anything has value that does not “promote growth,” “make us more competitive” or create jobs in the private sector– or indeed in certain limited parts of the private sector. (See Film Jobs are Jobs, and Job Creators for more on this.

So why shouldn’t art have to pay its own way? The danger in a world where only the most commercial survives is that the culture feeds upon itself. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic. There is a very wide difference…

Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter… Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.

The reason to create art is that art is created. Business exists to allow human beings to prosper, human beings don’t exist to allow business to prosper.
Tonight poets will be protesting the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Many will shrug and say “what’s the big deal?” The budget for the NEA is miniscule, and, as The Hill reported:
No artists will go broke without the NEA; at its demise, the agency offered direct support only to a handful of the nation’s writers.  All other artists had been federal grant-free since the mid-1990s.  Many artists of all disciplines, though, had been paid by organizations through NEA-funded projects, often the least commercial venture in a company’s annual season.  It is likely that the work of artists, already governed almost entirely by the marketplace, might have to veer even more toward the commercial.
This last observation is important. The reason to support the existence of art that does not naturally flourish in the free market is because we need some voices that challenge the Monoculture.
Yesterday I was reading Vaclav Havel’s letters. His 1975 letter, addressed to the general secretary of the Czechslovak Communist Party, Dr. Gustav Husak, argued that those who wish “total control over society” try to suppress culture in order to suppress its “differentiated inner development.” In it, I heard echoes of The Hill’s lament on the potential loss of the NEA.
The wheels of society continue to go round even without all those literary, artistic, theatrical, philosophical, historical and other magazines whose number, even while they existed, may never have filled the latent need of society… How many people today still miss those publications? Only the few tens of thousands of people who subscribed to them–a very small fraction of society. Yet this loss is infinitely deeper and more significant than might appear from the numbers involved…It is simultaneously, and above all the liquidation of a particular organ through which society becomes aware of itself…For we never know when some inconspicuous spark of knowledge, struck within range of the few brain cells, as it were, specially adapted for the organism’s self-awareness, may suddenly light up the road for the whole of society, without society ever realizing, perhaps, how it came to see the road…they fulfilled a certain range of society’s potentialities…
But of course, those at the top of the social pyramid, regardless of the social structure, are invested in the social balance remaining as it is and in people continuing to think in ways that support the status quo.
There is little I can think of at the moment that is more subversive than the notion that one does not have to be anything but only to exist beautifully.
For additional articles on this theme, see:

 

Yucky Framing: Why Creators Create

I’ve been reading a number of articles on copyright today, trying to parse the complexities of the ownership of materials of various authors long gone.

I came across a quote in an article on the Nova Southeastern University blog.

Now do we want creative people to keep on creating, even when they reach an advanced age? You would think that we do. Stephen King is 66 years old. Would we like him to continue to write creepy stories? Of course we would. Neil Diamond is 71 years old. Would we like him to keep writing songs? You bet. Would they continue to do so if they knew their copyright would soon die with them? Probably not.

Now, I don’t want to wade into the larger point of this article or the debate over the appropriate length of copyright. (So you know, I am in favor of shorter copyright terms similar to the 1909 act giving creators a temporary monopoly in order that they could eat while creating new works.)

What I want to address is this rather strange notion of what inspires artists to make art. Can you imagine any reasons, besides money going to their estate, that a 71 year old song writer might write a song or a novel? I certainly can.

If you were not discussing copyright and you were asked to make a list of reasons would “so the estate will keep having money” be first or even near the top? I’m guessing you would say “to have a legacy” or “to be remembered” or “so their work might live on beyond them.” Maybe to express what they have learned over the course of a lifetime, or because they still love making art.

In essence, these discussions always break down for me when they start from what I believe is a faulty premise– that artists create the way bankers invest, motivated entirely by the profit motive. Very few of us are motivated entirely by the profit motive in anything we do.

 

Do What You Love. The Money Won’t Follow.

There was an excellent review of the series Mozart in the Jungle in the L.A. Review of Books today. Although it is framed as a review of the series and a comparison to the book on which it is based, it is more than that a consideration of the state of arts funding in the 21st Century and that strange drive that pulls artists towards a careers that requires a vow of poverty of its practitioners and how the ethos that certain careers should be done for the love not the money can be used to exploit idealistic workers. (This is a particular pet peeve of mine as you can see by reading any of the posts tagged with “love and money.”)

It’s also very funny, because it’s built out of a hilariously unanswerable question. Why make art that no one wants to pay for?

It’s unanswerable because there is no reason; it is, literally, an irrational thing to do. And irrational people are at their funniest when they insist on continuing, and when — in order to continue — they must insist that doing so is the only reasonable thing to do. In this way, the show is a comic saga about art during our austerity, about the survival and suffering of the artistic vocation in the face of the endless and remorseless de-professionalization we are experiencing, as, year after year, it gets harder and harder to make a living doing the things you love.

Film Jobs are Jobs

I read an article this morning in the Christian Science Monitor with the title “Should Innovation be Tax Deductible.

The issue is whether Congress should amend the tax code to give companies engaging in research to pay lower taxes on the profits of such activities. Supporters of the idea believe it will increase innovation at home and keep well-paying research jobs from going overseas.

I am not going to offer an opinion on the proposed legislation itself, beyond saying that the argument presented against the idea in the article seemed to be to be less than persuasive. It consisted of the notion that corporations would abuse the benefit by re-classifying various activities in order to qualify for the incentives.

This is what corporations do. Saying that there should not be any incentives in the tax code because corporations will work around them is like saying we should not have speed limits because people will drive faster than them anyway.

But that is not what I am here to talk about. One particular paragraph caught my attention:

For example, a 2004 effort by Congress to lower tax rates for US manufacturers expanded far beyond lawmakers’ original definition of “manufacturing,” Mr. Gardner notes. “When the dust settled, the final law expanded the concept of ‘manufacturing’ to include roasting beans for coffee (an early example of the lobbying clout of Starbucks) and film and television production. When policymakers initially began discussing the manufacturing tax break, few would have imagined that the Walt Disney Company would reap more than $200 million a year in tax breaks for ‘manufacturing’ animated films,” he wrote…

What bothers me here is the mocking of the notion that television and film production deserve to be classified as “manufacturing.”

Manufacturing is making something as contrasted with agriculture (growing something) or service. Now I will be the first to admit that the Walt Disney Company is far from being a struggling entity in need of government assistance. That is not the point.

I assume that the reason Congress wanted to lower these tax rates was to keep jobs in the United States. Well, television and film employ a lot of people– real people who buy houses and cars and go shopping and raise families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics motion pictures and broadcasting show an annual average of 20,869 employees and total annual wages of $1.55 billion.

They make a product that American consumers value so much we spend an average of five hours a day watching it.

When you think of the movie industry, you probably imagine actors and directors. But it takes a lot of people to make a movie or a television show from caterers and hair-stylists to construction workers and lighting technicians.  USA today recently cited the film industry as an area of growth for blue collar workers in an otherwise fairly stagnant economy.

Atlanta needs construction workers, lighting experts and others to work in its fast-growing film industry. Skill is required, but not necessarily film experience for the 77,000 film workers (average pay $84,000) and support personnel in 2012, who turned out movies such as The Fast and the Furious and The Hunger Games franchises, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

The good news is that film production is still less outsourced than some other industries. About 65 percent of the big, profitable “Hollywood” productions are still made here– although tax incentives from other states have taken a lot of those jobs away from California.

Mr. Gardner, quoted above, particularly mocks the idea that tax breaks were intended to benefit the making of animated films. So it might be worthwhile to know that animated film-making is starting to move overseas in a big way. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

Extremely generous subsidies in Vancouver, British Columbia enticed Pixar Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks to open satellite locations in the Province in 2010…Sony Imageworks decided to double the size of its studio space in the city and grow its Vancouver workforce from 100 people to more than 250. In January 2014, Sony Imageworks announced layoffs at its Southern California facility and that it was shifting more positions to Vancouver. As the workforce in British Columbia grows, it shrinks in California.  In 2012, DreamWorks Animation announced plans to open a studio in Shanghai, China… Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said the size of the studio in China could eventually surpass DreamWorks’ headquarters in Glendale, California, which employs more than 2,000 people. It appears job growth is happening in the animation world, but it’s happening in places like China, not California.

Are those 2,000 jobs not American jobs? Are they less worth keeping here than jobs making mechanical devices?

The reason, I think, it is easy to mock making cartoons as an example of manufacturing (in a way that I doubt one would mock the notion of, say, software as manufacturing) is that it falls into that broad category of “the arts.”

It is the same mindset that says giving a rich person an incentive to build a sports stadium is an investment in economic growth whereas giving funds to build a fine arts theater is supposed to be philanthropy and charity. Making music, dance, theater is art not commerce. It should be done for love not money.

I don’t know whether we need to give tax incentives to large corporations to keep them from moving overseas. If we do, though, we should care about the jobs making film sets as much as we care about the jobs making automobiles. Most of us spend more time each day using the film-makers’ products than the car-makers’.

 

 

 

To Be Forgiven for Fame

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

 

640px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_by_Washington_Allston_retouchedSamuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his own epitaph. Years of addiction to opium, debt, illness and divorce had not dulled his instincts as a poet. He summed up his life with a beautiful chiasmus “That he who many a year with toll of breath/Found death in life, may here find life in death!”


He adopts a humble tone “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.” (One is tempted to wonder how sincere his humility was, given that this epitaph is carved in stone for posterity.)


The line that jumps out at me today is “mercy for praise- to be forgiven for fame.”
(There was a time when poets were famous.)


It is a strange request, as praise and fame are not something you do, but something others bestow upon you. He is being asked to be forgiven for how he was received by other people.
To be forgiven for fame is not something modern western people often ask. Leo Braudy writing in The Frenzy of Renown observed, “John Lennon of The Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus. As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: if Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”


Few of us hope that when we die our stories will not be told.


The book The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration by Peggy Hadden suggests artists use a quest for immortality as a driver.


 “Thus, the desire to break out of the limits of our life span prompts us to create, to leave something behind us… None of us thinks of retiring from making art. It seems too much like living itself. Visiting a museum is not like going to see dead people. Rather, it is like going to a place where we can instantly revive the artists, hear their views, see what they have to say. To be included in their midsts would be a way to live forever.”
The book then goes on to some other source of inspiration without having the candor to note that very few artists will actually achieve this or to give any thought as to what aspect of the artist really can live on or whether the artist would recognize or approve of the story future people tell about her.


Reaching the end of his life, Coleridge came to believe that this type of immortality was a chimera. That kind of renown does nothing to extend the life of the artist’s soul. If posthumous reputation exists at all it only preserves the public persona, the false self, its posing and vanity.  The only real “life in death,” he says is through Christ, and so he asks or mercy and asks, with some urgency, that his readers do the same.

Fame, Free Fall and the Size of the Frame

April is national poetry month. Last year I posted a poem each day. They were the least viewed posts I ever put up! So this time around I am going to do something a bit different and use various poems as a jumping off point for further reflection. Today’s poem is Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—-

We have an amazing capacity to remain blissfully unaware of other people’s struggles and suffering. Hardships we have not personally experienced are unreal to us– invisible famines. We have stuff to do. We are focused and busy. In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, a team of researchers had seminary students plan a talk and then go to another building to deliver it. En route they passed a man in distress. Half of the students were told they would be speaking about seminary jobs, the other half were told they would be speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The researchers wanted to know if concentrating on the parable of the Good Samaritan would make people more likely to offer aid. It didn’t. What did impact the likeliness the students would offer to help was how much time the students thought they had to get to the other building and give their presentation. When the students thought they had lots of time 63% of them offered to help, regardless of the topic of their talk. When they thought they were in a hurry only 10% offered to help.

Researchers have also found that the more people there are who witness an event, the less likely anyone is to offer help as everyone assumes someone else will do it. Scientists have tested this, but artists already sensed it. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone in town knows that a member of their community is about to be murdered. No one wants it to happen, including the killers, and yet no one manages to stop it. The very fact that everyone knows seems to persuade each individual that it won’t actually happen.

And the old masters understood it. About suffering, they were never wrong.

A few days ago, I wrote about our oft thwarted desire to be seen and noticed. “We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.”

149120_10150089505605948_5921817_nAnd yet our life and death battles take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

We live in a culture that places a high value on fame, on known-ness. This value is in direct proportion to the anonymity most of us feel confronted with among so many neighbors who do not know us at all.

I propose that our desire for fame is not really a desire to be observed. It is, rather, a desire to be the central figure in the painting on the wall of the Musee des Beaux Arts and not the guy who happens to be steering his boat completely unaware that a moment of mythic significance is happening right beside him. We want to believe that we will be the central character in the novel and not the friend who appears in one scene on page 285.

We want to have the sense that he dramas of our lives matter. We do not want to accept what Shakespeare’s assessment in MacBeth that:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

People seek fame in order to feel that their lives matter.

“I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention… And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine.”-Adam Ant, “Stand and Deliver”

The quest for fame often leads to disillusion. In the immortal words of the philosopher David Bowie, “Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” (Yeah, actually, I have never understood what that song was talking about.)

Even though he may fool his soul, the rock star looks flash and grabs your attention for only a moment. Even in the brief moment that the star has attracted your gaze, you only see a shadow of the man behind the mask. The public goes on with its day to day tasks unconcerned with the life of the artist who creates the image.

The star trades some of his or her privacy for a species of known-ness that fails to live up to its promise. As the ploughman labors on, Icarus falls from the sky after flying too close to the sun.

Is there an answer then to this crisis of meaning?

In my first novel Angel, I wrote the following epigram: “Where does a mountain end? Mountains draw our focus to their snowcapped peaks and present us with the illusion that they are isolated, individual objects. We send postcards and take pictures and try to put a frame around them. But whatever border we create for the natural object we fine beautiful is our own projection. The mountain spills out in all directions. It dips into the valley, which rises to the next peak There is no place where you can stop and say, ‘The mountain ends here.'”

In other words, what appears in the center of the painting depends entirely on where you place the frame.

Around you at this moment are a few people who do take an interest in your victories and struggles. Your immediate family: your parents, spouse, children, lovers, intimate friends. It is a small world, to be sure, but a loving and compassionate one. It is here that you find the people who will stop plowing if you are plunging from the sky.

When you start to feel unnoticed and invisible, try a smaller frame.