Last Friday I was asked by a colleague at work my feelings on Andy Warhol. I am not a big fan and said so. But when asked to elaborate I danced around ideas about his impact on art and even the personal impression he made on me during interviews. Something about the conversation struck me as not complete and over the weekend I poked and prodded it. I really engaged in Warhol, re-watched a couple of documentaries (Andy Warhol’s Factory People and Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture), really took a look at the length and breadth of his artwork online, and thought about the context in which he was making art. It was a decidedly aggravating process. I just don’t like him, but now I have a better idea why.

It seems, at least to me, that visual art (at least European-American visual art) up to Warhol and the “pop artists” included something more than the mere reflection of our everyday existence. Whether it was the medieval Pre-Raphaelites critique of mechanized society and longing for a reconnection with the natural world, the Impressionists democratization of light, space and social status, or the soul searching existentialism of the Abstract Expressionists, artists were striving to change, examine, and understand the world around them. Art was a striving for something and a catalyst of change. Warhol’s art is not that.

Warhol’s art was a reflection of popular culture and is now a reflected nostalgia for a particular period in time. It was not striving for deeper understanding. It cruises along the surface of American culture from the 60’s through the 80’s. He held up popular images primarily generated out of the consumerist attitudes that have dominated American life since World War II. The Campbell’s soup can, Marylyn Monroe, Elvis, Mickey Mouse were all consumer products that he repurposed. But to what end?

Was he criticizing popular culture? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it, he painted/ printed what he liked.

Was he glorifying it? Perhaps, in some cases definitely.

Was he using it to further his own fame? Maybe not in the beginning, but definitely as he went forward.

The fact is, he refused to tell us anything about his purpose, hiding behind an artistic pretension while breaking down the barriers between high art and art of the everyday. In the process he fully submerged art in consumerism. And his ability to make it look cool to do so has made it tough to make art that strives for something more and have it taken seriously. And this is what I don’t like about Warhol, I feel like he has undermined the “moral” power of art and replaced it with the power of the free market. In doing so he has contributed to a shift in the primary art question from “what does it mean” to “how much is it worth”.

Eric in a Word: effodient
Book of the Day: The Philosophy of History - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Song of the Day: Music is Ruling My World - Kutiman feat. Funk'N'stein and Karolina

Religious Figure of the Day: Qetesh
Sketch medium: graphite over tea spill on graph paper (approx. 3.5" x 4.75")


Illusion and the appearance of things

I’m just going to jump into my thoughts today before I lose the clarity in which they have struck me, although I must admit I do not know where they are going:

Existence can be defined as a being in a certain state, the existence of multiple beings is another aspect of this same state. Also, the nonexistence of a being(s) is an aspect of this certain state. The coming into existence of a being is merely the shifting from one aspect to another. While this makes sense to me theoretically, how “real” is this certain state? What are the implications of this concept?

To probe the latter question first, it suggests the presence of a wholeness or oneness radically different than our observed “reality” of differentiation. In other words, my culture (European-American) views “reality” as constituted of a myriad distinct elements. The statements relegate beings to a more minor role in existence. The core of reality is the state which is fundamentally singular with aspects dependent upon angle from which it is interpreted.
The problem with expressing this idea, is that English (and Indo- European languages in general) are by nature multitudinous. This is not surprising as language both reflects and informs how we experience “reality”. Yet the confines of this language structure, both in its organizing and explanatory principles, forces discussions of holistic “reality” into a discussion of a “model of reality” rather than a discussion of “reality”.

On the other hand, it has become increasingly clear over the last 100 yrs that our senses do not necessarily reveal the entirety of “reality” – just pick up a book on quantum physics. To further touch on quantum physics, at least briefly, let’s consider something easily observable, like a mountain, from a multitudinous stance. At first glance, a mountain appears to be an object (being) “full” in and of itself. Yet as we look closer the mountain is actually a conglomeration of countless diverse parts- stones, trees, roots, pebbles, dust, water, etc. Take a single stone from that mountain, it also appears “full” in and of itself, yet when viewed closely it is mad of smaller particles (atoms), and when they are viewed closely they are mostly vacuum, merely the space between electrons, protons, etc. within quantum physics there is a concept called “nonseparability” that in essence suggests that the all of these observable “objects” are not distinct objects at all, but rather exist only in as much that they are entangled with the state of the whole Universe.

But why, if everything is in essence entangled in a singular state, do we experience things multitudinously? My instinct, and I think there may even be a theory that lays this out in detail, is that it is so far beyond our abilities to perceive it in its full complexity. It is a limitation of our senses and mental capabilities. In other words, how we experience “reality” is too dependent upon our physical limitations for us to perceive anything beyond. Even the tools we make to expand our limitations must translate “reality” back into the confines of our limitations. I would also posit that if we did experience something outside our limitations, we would not know how to communicate it with any clarity to ourselves, and certainly not others. We would be forced to make the experience fit within our built in limitations and thus negate all that did not fit within those confines.

I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the religious studies point of view. Buddhists and various other mystics throughout history have been tackling this conundrum for years, within the confines of their belief systems, of course. They have their own methods of communicating and defining the disparity and techniques to break free from physical limitations and directly experience "wholeness" and/or "nothingness".
My final thought, why are we so focused on "breaking through" to ultimate "reality"? Why not revel in the inherent mystery of reality instead?
Eric in a Word: sockdolager
Book of the Day: Soul Made Flesh - Carl Zimmer
Song of the Day: I'm Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman - The White Stripes
Religious Figure of the Day: Sekhmet
Sketch medium: graphite, rooibos, white out, and blue marker on card stock


You get the ankles and I'll get the wrists

Over the last couple of days I have had an interesting email correspondence with a good friend of mine that touched on a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately- the apathetic approach of students (in a college setting) to their work. He teaches religious studies at a research intensive school and has come to believe that classes in religion at the school are “service” courses, meaning they serve as an elective, but have little or no bearing on their actual education. I have gotten a very similar vibe regarding my Drawing class, at least for about half the class.

I don’t mean to badmouth my students or his, the way our culture (both academically and beyond) is set up their response and approach is to be expected. You are encouraged to specialize and reserve all of your energy and time for that specialty. Courses outside that particular area have become almost vestigial. They are remnants of the archaic ideal of a “well-rounded individual”, an ideal that conflicts with the current role of “specialized individual” we are encouraged to play.

I have never fit into that role. My interests are too diverse and frankly so are my talents. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my strongest natural talent is to see and understand connections and patterns in disparate areas. In other words, if I had a super power it would be consilience.

What does this have to do with our students? Well, to quote my friend, regarding the degradation of written assignments, the problem

rests with a pedagogy that requires students to write in a style or genre (the argumentative essay) to which they are mostly 'tone' deaf and, moreover, will likely never reproduce outside of the university essay. I think this kinda makes the task rote for many and results in a lot of contrived or forced writing.

It is the same with our courses. Our particular fields, the academic study of religion and art, are probably as divergent for them as possible. Religious studies is by nature a practice in consilience and art-making tends to require using a different part of the brain than most other disciplines. They are not in essence straight forward, but instead require the repetition of two seemingly opposing steps – the expansion of focus followed by laser-like focus upon a singular idea, then the expansion of focus to look for other like patterns, then the bringing into sharp focus again, then the expansion….In other words, they expect a fastball and are thrown a curveball. It’s no wonder most students swing and miss.

Eric in a Word: favonian

Book of the Day: Adams vs. Jefferson - John Ferling

Song of the Day: Rock Box - Run D.M.C.

Religious Figure of the Day: Saint Roch

Sketch medium: graphite, ink, and white-out on card stock


Feeling a bit idealistic

I think a lot about what art can mean, what art should mean to those who create it and those who participate in it, and what art is to the culture it is made in. I constantly find myself returning to ideas I first encountered when reading John Ruskin’s works as a 20 year old. Through my eyes, Ruskin believes art (for creator and viewer) should be an event. It should lead you to a place outside of the mundane, profane world in which we live and to a place both sacred and more real. For Ruskin, and myself, art have a full and organic relationship – art is a means of connecting to the natural world, our place in it, and through it to that which is sacred.

For Ruskin, art is a barometer of the health of culture from which it derives, the greater the power of the art to connect you with your place in the natural world and the sublime the healthier the culture. Living in England during the industrial revolution, Ruskin was appalled by the mechanization of the culture and especially the people within his society. He stagnation and decay of art in his time period as a symptom of the decay of civilization and the modern factory, with its mechanized production and division of labor, as an almost insurmountable barrier between the worker and his work, preventing a genuine relationship, destroying any spiritual element and alienating the producer from the product of his hands. The products of such a system were stillborn, lacking the vital spark of true craft, reflecting the difference between a craftsman and machine. Workers had devolved from free craftsman to slaves of a mechanized society, denied individuality and severed from their full potential to create.

Outside of the implicit criticism of American society, what does this mean to me as an artist? I think artists have an obligation to create living art. Something that transports the participant/viewer from the insanity of our hyper-mechanized reality to a place where we can reconnect. Art should not be the mechanized churning of something that will sell. It should not be created as an act to shock, in the pursuit of something new for newness sake, or for the selfish promotion of ones career.

Art should create a resonance between its participant/viewers and the world they live in, the world they strive for, and their fellow creatures. It should motivate us to be better, to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, and to reject that which prevents these ideals.

Eric in a Word: unasinous

Book of the Day: The Ancestor's Tale - Richard Dawkins
Song of the Day: Undertaker Blues - Rosa Henderson and the Kansas City Five

Religious Figure of the Day: Juturna

Sketch medium: graphite and incidental ink on card stock stained with black tea and honey

Existential art

Recently, i.e. today, I have once again visited a conundrum that has plagued me since the beginning of my artistic awakening- how do you represent experience in the more static forms of sculpture, painting, or drawing? My thoughts seem to travel two interrelated and similar tracks on this and both raise more questions than answers.

My first thought process:
I am trying to replicate, or at least accurately express, an experience through participating in the experience of creating which will then be interpreted through the experience of viewing the creation. This strikes me as similar to translating from one language to another so it can be read in a third. It seems that anything that may survive from the actual experience into the creation of the work is undermined by the shift into the more passive context of observation from that of participation or creation. In effect, what the observer sees relates more to their own individual past experiences than to any experience I may have been trying to capture.

The second line:
I blame this train of thought on reading freakin’ Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf in high school - Watch what seeds you plant in fertile soil. They are both preoccupied with aesthetics, in particular when dealing with “lived” experience and the difference between imagination, creativity and perception. This thought process is based in a wider philosophical context wherein the world and our actions in it are interdependent, meaning that everything is dependent on others things in such a complex way that everything becomes subject to unseen effects and is not logically necessary- in other words, anything is possible depending… We make sense of experience in a discursive manner rather than an intuitive one, but this is a fragile way of operating as it depends upon the way we simplify and symbolize the complexity in order to function. When the natural complexity of life rears its head, or we look too hard at our symbols, our previous understanding can be cast adrift. How does this relate to my issue? Well, if we are unable to wholly experience anything, we are definitely going to experience problems expressing the fullness of an experience to someone who will not be able to fully experience our translation of the experience.

Look, I’m not sure what any of this means, but it has in the past driven me to create art that is more about creating a space where the observer/participant is encouraged to create their own “lived” experience of that space with minimal cues from me as to what that should be. This has often resulted in the bringing together of objects (made and found) and arranging them in such a way that they separate the space between them from that which is without. The participant in creating the interactions between the objects in effect creates a new work each time they shift their perception. The objects are not works alone or in a group, but only in their relationship to each other and the participant.

Maybe, today’s rumination is leading me back to this work and away from my one-off drawings, paintings, and sculptures.

Eric in a Word: lochetic
Book of the Day: Lives of the Artists - Giorgio Vasari
Song of the Day: Qué Onda Guero - Beck
Religious Figure of the Day: Teshub
Sketch medium: graphite on business card stained with black tea


To show or not to show?

Well, my head has begun to clear as the weather has started making the turn towards spring these past few days. With that, I have come to a greater clarity about my hesitation to enter the "gallery game". I want to state here, at the beginning, that I have nothing against nor do I feel superior to artists who make a living selling their work or performing their craft. Far from it. I think an artist should be able to live and work and concentrate fully on their art work. What I have a problem with is the incessant need to place price tags on individual work, or groups of works, thereby changing a piece of art into just another commodity to buy and sell. In the end, I think this cheapens the work of the artists by forcing an easily definable box around that which is not easily definable. It obfuscates and distracts those experiencing the work from the full impact and message of the work. In a bad analogy, it is like the use of thick black borders and capital letters used to express Surgeon General’s warnings, they overpower and thus obscure the true message.

This is my sole reason for no longer selling my work or continuing to pursue shows in “for profit” galleries. Although I am sure this will come off as both condescending and naïve, I find the commodification of my work seeps into the making of my work and undermines all my efforts. It leads to passionless work and half-baked concepts watered down by an effort to please rather than an effort to express in actions as hard as cannonballs. But, I do not want to hide my work away, either. Something better than the competitive and commodified artistic pursuit inherent in the gallery process that currently dominates how most artists display their work needs to be devised. I have come up with only a couple of options to this standard system, neither of which will lead to a “career” as an artist or allow me to live by my artwork alone:

1) Show my work in nonprofit or educational galleries only, like Tower Hill School where shows are matched with a guest artist lecture to the students.

2) Spread my art through gifting.

The first option is where I am once again heading. I like the fact that I can not only share my artistic expression with others, but do so in such a way that avoids the effects of trying to fit into a trend or sell my work. It also has the added bonus of usually allowing me to use my artwork as an avenue towards teaching about art, a growing passion of mine since I began teaching at the College of Southern Maryland. This is a heady mix indeed and one that I plan on imbibing more often.

The second option is what I have been doing since I began making art. It allows me to literally give a part of myself to others in my life. Not only am I sharing my art, but I am hopefully creating closer ties with those around me. And though this smacks of rampant idealism, it is particularly powerful to me the act of using my art to connect myself to others as a primary goal rather than as secondary to setting myself apart from other artists.

Eric in a Word: satisdiction

Book of the Day: The Enchiridion by Epictetus, tr Elizabeth Carter

Song of the Day: Baharim - Balkan Beat Box

Religious Figure of the Day: Nyx

Sketch medium: graphite and glue on Stride gum pack top (3.25" x 2")


Where is my head?

I have let this blog run fallow for almost two weeks now in the hopes that my brain would once again jump into life. That has failed to happen. I have spent the last few weeks mostly muddled and rampantly busy when not sitting jury duty, yet not a twitch of that mental acuity and spark that usually runs like a demented hamster on a wheel in my brain. It is disconcerting to say the least. I am used to fending off thoughts and observations, often four at a time, in order to focus on what I am working on. Now I am grasping in pea soup fog to function. I have struggled to even do my daily sketches, much less undertake more ambitious projects, or even crack my sketchbook otherwise. I am trying to approach this slow-down as a natural rest period brought on by February weather and the stress of life, but I am beginning to worry as I sit here staring blankly. Perhaps when the panic comes it will bring friends and I can get back to work.

Eric in a Word: kedge
Book of the Day: The Great Influenza - John M. Barry
Song of the Day: Wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down - R.L. Burnside
Religious Figure of the Day: Ereshkigal
Sketch medium: graphite on paper