Sunday, September 21, 2008

Are we what we like?

A very interesting coincidence of ideas has appeared in the press recently. On a CNN blog, research into what makes a conservative different from a liberal was discussed. According to a study by political scientists at Rice University, conservative volunteers for a visual experiment showed markedly different reactions to stimuli than their democratic counterparts. Conservatives were more disturbed by unsettling images such as wounds and spiders, whereas the others were less averse to ugly sights.This struck me as odd, as conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere tend to be more bellicose , and favour the bearing of arms , and the imposition of more draconian punishments than lefties do. Then I recalled an article in The New Yorker some months ago, where the critic, Peter Schjeldahl, said much the same thing. Conservative people, he implied, like an ordered and un-threatening world, where the viewer is in control of his circumstances, and he needs to take control if danger lurks. Liberal people are more open to "the other", and the" odd". Stimuli which provoke discomfort and fear in some people appeal to the curiosity of others. Obviously, the world needs both kinds of person, [ not that I, as a liberal, believe this for a minute!], and the Rice study suggests that our biases may be genetic. Knowing that this could be so may perhaps calm our exasperation with all those who say that their kids could outpaint Picasso , or that Wyeth is trite. We don't know what we like----we ARE what we like! But, oh, how we love those arguments!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mild Violence and Moderate Horror.

The B.B.C.produces some wonderful documentaries, yet somewhere in a back office sits The Official Stress Gauge. Is it a pleasantly middle-aged woman in twin-set and pearls, with a motherly concern for our emotional well-being ? Or is it a large machine, into whose maw are flung assorted tapes which are then passed through a politically correct robotic digestive system? She [or it] sends advisory notes to the printers of CD boxes. "Contains mild violence and nudity and moderate horror", says the blurb on my copy of "How Art Made the World". Everything except the integrity of words seems to be protected by this caveat. Okay, perhaps there are degrees of aggression and nudity----a badly thrown punch , or a breech-clouted bronze nude, but horror is not capable of polite qualification. Words like horror and terror, fury and ecstasy live on the far edge of language, occasionally enhanced by 'absolute' or 'total'. Better words exist for their less overwhelming emotional cousins, ----'fear', or 'anger', or 'joy', down to being 'scared' or 'cross ' or 'pleased.'

I suspect that my pedantic attitude towards warnings is because I probably don't want caveats for the arts. How can we be moved by the terrible beauty inherent in the arts if we are all kitted out in hard-hats and padded jackets? ....."Pssst," whispers the usher, "King Lear can be pretty awkward when he gets upset." ........ "Try to overlook the negative aspects of the Last Judgement, old chap" says a kindly guide in the Sistine Chapel, " these Italian fellows are inclined to be a bit over the top." ......"I suggest you leave during the slow movement, " advises the programme seller, "that Eroica can be a real tear-jerker."

No. Say : "The contents of this programme will probably disconcert you or move you. If you want anything less, we suggest a sit-com."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Missing More of Miami.

Miamians like designer dogs, great thoroughbred hounds , or little moustachio'ed things with hair-do's who live in handbags. They also like more exotic pets. There is the monitor lizard who sits in his owner's bike basket,his stubby legs on the handlebars, glaring with saurian splendour at passers-by, and flicking his purple tongue. There are the ones that got away. "White Ferret Lost. Reward" pasted to a wall. My favourites are the feral cats, bow-legged but unbowed, who lurk on the beaches and construction sites. What they think of the pampered pooches can only be imagined. As one dozes on the beach shadows pass over one's torpid body, and only by the sound can one tell if it is a 'plane overhead, or a pelican.

For a landscape artist, Miami has little to offer. There is only so much one can do with huge skies, indigo seas and palm trees. The only challenge left is to paint them worse than anybody else. The artwork that really conveys the sense of South Florida is the Mojito.An Everglade of muddled mint,a balmy splash of rum, the citron sharpness of lime, and ice-cubes that reflect stacked clouds and tranquil waterways to perfection. Order two, and look at one while you drink the other.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Missing Miami.

Leaving Miami is difficult. It is such a surprisingly gentle place. The Miami-Dade police reports in the local press are almost comical in their innocuousness. A pot-plant is stolen from a fourth-floor balcony, a car is 'keyed 'on Ocean Drive. All this seems a teeny-weeny bit wuzzy to South Africans . My theory is that CSI Miami and Miami Vice and other mayhem movies are made here precisely because the crew can romp off to party and return to find the tyres on their vehicles, and the contents safe.

Iwill miss the people. The very old man who sheltered with me in a bus shelter during one of Miami Beach's drenching storms. He moved his prayer-shawl to make place for me, and, tapping its plastic cover, said in mock reproach, "We go to pray while the ladies go shopping". I smiled and said, "I know. You thank God that you are not ladies", which made him chuckle happily into his orthodox beard. I did not even go on to beat him about the head with my view that patriarchs, of whatever stripe, makes the lot of women at best mediocre, at worst, vile, and then thank whatever gods may be for what they, as men , have wrought . Just goes to show how laid-back you become in this town.

I will miss the buses themselves. In rush hour they are filled with workers and scholars, tough, sunburnt women in hard-hats, going home from construction sites,beautiful schoolgirls yelling into their cellphones, strangers making faces at dark-eyed little Latinos sitting on their mothers' laps. Men wearing t-shirts with daft messages on them. One singularly robust lad had the word "Affliction" emblazoned across his chest. Why?During off-peak hours the bus becomes a Cuban Wrinklies' Club . The talk is lively and entertaining , even if I cannot understand a word ,and the hefty African -American bus driver treats us as if we are elderly babies in a vast pram. But more regrets tomorrow. I'm off for my last ride.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Perfectly beautiful.

Monday was a very good day. In the morning I was able to consider a work called "Monument" which Paul Stopforth produced as part of his Robben Island series. The shape of a blanket pin is transformed into something of land-art proportions, and one traces its curves as if one were reading a map. It becomes arcane and mysterious while remaining.....a pin. [ Some of Paul's work can be seen at]

Last night I listened to Michelle Obama's speech. I can just imagine the blog-mileage piling up as people try to describe it. One word will do : Perfect.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More than a leisure activity?

In a review of "Human ---The Science of what makes us Unique" by the cognitive neuroscientist Michael S.Gazzaniga,his colleague, Daniel J. Levitin writes; " Art may be more than a leisure activity. Artistic, representational thinking , could have been fundamental in making us the way we are. As Gazzaniga concludes 'The Arts are not frosting but baking powder'." [Memo to self: put that last bit on a t-shirt.]

But ----Art MAY be more than...? COULD have been fundamental in...?Come now, gentlemen. Don't be so diffident!That representational thinking is fundamental to the way we are is incontrovertible. As for suggesting that art MAY be more than leisure activity ! Think about Nuriyev and his corsaire, Richard Serra and his labyrinths, Wagner and his ring, Michelangelo and his scaffold.Or any of the rest of us amateurs or professionals at our easels, word-processors or pianos. It is demanding work, as rigorous in the need to find the right mark or word or sound as any science is. It has always been that way. Lascaux was not created by bored prehistoric teenagers eager to spray some graffiti. The arts may entertain , but entertainment is not its prime function. Communicating thoughts is. And always was , even in the days when we raced around the veld chasing our lunch.

People who want to see leisure activity should pop in on the staff at the White River Licensing Office. Eeissh!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Colours of Black and White.

I have been sunning myself on Miami Beach, turning from a shade of chicken polony to a shade of French polony, and pondering the nature of black and white. If the people on the beach with me stood in line from fairest to dark, an almost infinite gradation of human tones would present themselves .There is John McCain albino, and indigo plum, and all the rest are like an extravagant Starbucks menu with its lattes, its espressos ,its mochas, and the dolce de leche of my son-in-law's skin and temperament. On the news channels the droning goes on, however. Obama is black. Is Obama black enough?Is he Muslim? [A question not asked of McCain.] Is he a patriot? [Again, not a question asked of McCain.] Do we really KNOW him? Can we really KNOW him?

What IS it with white people?Why do we give such sinister importance, such weird power to a skin tincture? Obama is of mixed parentage, so why is he regarded as black? Why isn't he as readily classed as white? He is a mongrel, like the rest of us , although critics point out that he vacations in Hawaii and went to Harvard so he must be 'elite'. This charge is particularly amusing coming from rivals who own multiple homes and forget that sons of single parents tend to fashion their own silver spoons.The attribution of colour and its presumed characteristics in the twenty-first century is becoming more obviously irrelevant by the day. To my mind, the really interesting thing about Obama is his mother, a woman of the much-derided 'hippie' generation, a generation that looked at war, and love , and the tribute that citizens are asked to pay ,with unfettered gaze. It wasn't all about sex, drugs and Rock and Roll. A lot of us remember our youth [and even Woodstock!] with affection and self-respect .It will be interesting to see how a gifted child of our times manages to clean up the mess he will inherit.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Second thoughts on those elusive landscapes

When I now think of the sea off Kilkee House on Paradise Island I imagine it as a sort of Prospero's Island with our petite hostess as Ariel . And at last I can see who could paint it----Howard Hodgkin . He paints as Nigella cooks, succulently , deliciously, reaching into his palette with forkfuls of thick colour If I had a Hodgkin on the wall I would remember not only the Bahamas but all the fine,fat places in which I have luxuriated. So I don't have to do it [I am gloomy puritan after all] but I can access the delight he provokes whenever I want to. Memo to myself---get a Hodgkin print. Likewise Paul Stopforth creates not just the wind and the light, but the very smell of kelp and cheap soap in the cells of Robbin Island. For a moment the viewer becomes Nelson Mandela.

As for the Himalaya , I'll have to listen to Sibelius and study Buddhist images and read Hopkins until one day I work out how to get that terrible splendour onto canvas. Or not. The good thing about being as artist is that you are never going to get it right. You are, however, going to die trying and I really cannot conceive of a happier fate.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Images impossible to capture.

Swimming in the sea off Paradise Island in the Bahamas while thinking of another far-off beautiful place made me realise again how unsatisfactory landscape painting can be, how one wants to escape the anecdotal or the topographical and capture what is THERE.Seascapes don't do it for me.I want to describe the wet , salty,weightless feeling, the shadows of seaweed [or leopard rays!]and the sweetness of emerald and turquoise so intense that no self-respecting kitschmeister would dream ofconcocting it for fear of being thought vulgar. It brought to mind the other place, the Himalaya, my favourite part of the earth, and the terrible drama that was being enacted on K2 as I swam. Climbers stuck without hope on that vast mountain's upper reaches after a "cliff of fall frightful"had destroyed a route of fixed ropes,swallowing some and trapping others.

In the good hotels of Kathmandu are a great many competent, even impressive mountain-scapes but they pale to banality in the face of what one sees and what one knows.Mountains are not topography, they are theatres in which the absurdly ambitious pit themselves against the elements and sometimes against their own humanity.When catastrophes occur mountaineers are as adept as anybody else at playing the blame game.Mistakes will be pointed out, countries will blame one another for incompetence or foolhardiness,but the dead will still be dead.And the living----?Sometimes I wonder about them. Not long ago, on Everest, a climber justified her climbing past a woman who had collapsed and was barely alive. The climber went on, justifying her action as 'triage' which I always thought meant helping the injured who have a chance of surviving when confronted with more than one victim.I have never understood it to mean walking past the only person in extremis because you wanted to get to the top.What achievement can excuse the failure to stop and hold the dying person's hand ?How can a mountainscape contain the elements of such a tragedy,? [and , perhaps, the unrecorded times when such courtesy WAS shown .]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Talking Pictures

Talking Pictures

About twenty years ago the Broederstroom Press published a book of essays which now reads to me like a blog-in-the-making. I wrote it on an old typewriter in the early hours of the morning in an attempt to clarify certain ideas. At least, that was how I saw it. Friends and colleagues understood it to be a continuation of my opinionated ranting after they had sensibly crept off to bed.

The ideas have changed a bit, as has my own history and that of South Africa and the art world, but my passion for making things has not, nor has my interest in encouraging neophyte artists.I spend a good deal of my time debating the niceties of drawing and painting with a group of talented amateurs, and would like to experiment with a blog format as a way of pinning thoughts down and engendering debate----a conversation which will not necessitate my getting dressed [which bit of denim today?],combing my hair [a pointless and vainglorious exercise],cleaning the windscreen of my car and suffering the social phobia which wraps my soul like a poultice.

Some of the subjects I dealt with all those years ago should be treated anew.The post-apartheid, post-protest -art world needs a new lens, as my eyes do, and becoming a crone has afforded a different perspective.The daughter who has taught me the use of a computer has created an archive of my work which has immeasurably added to that perspective.Now let's find out what,if anything , I have to say!