On the Interpretation of Art, 27 April 2016

On the Interpretation of Art

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, some famous smart person once said. It’s cliché, sure. But it has broad implications in the interpretation of art. If beauty is something amorphous, changing from critic to critic, the same must be true of artists. With the artist seeing one thing, the beholder another, the totality of the image is resolved, with both sides in active union. Before this happens the work is incomplete. You know the fable of the falling tree; if sound is not heard, it is not sound, despite whether or not a tree falls through brush or disturbs the rest of the forest-making plants and animals around it uncomfortable. To a squirrel that lives in that hypothetical tree, it surely makes a sound when it falls and destroys her living room.

The point being, if the artist and the beholder see different things, surely the meaning of what is being seen must be different as well. Readers and patrons to art museums see much different creations than what was seen by the creators of them, and likely inspire different feelings. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning, it must follow, is in the eye of the person contemplating it. People complete the image by their affirmation of its quality. It is the same way artists and poets give us the material to define civilizations.

In a broad sense, an artist can be a painter, a musician, a writer, or a particularly good chef. All creators of work that exhibits the quality of expression are artists. As not all who paint or sing are artists, nor all who write, paint, or make music are artists. It hinges on how art is to be defined, and who is best capable to properly define it.

If the understanding of art is to be left to the artists, then an artist must attempt to define it. I think it’s better to define what art should do, and, rather than define it by description, instead show the effects that a work of art creates and define it by how well those effects are produced – empathy, beauty, understanding. Art, to me, is anything that engages feeling, passion, promotes empathy and demands understanding. It is something that breathes, something that demands to be seen or heard. The moment of realization is usually a painful one, as the easiest way to measure the effect of a work of art is to note when it starts hurting you. When you cry at the death of a favorite character, that hurt you feel is a symptom of experiencing art through empathy and emotion.

The best art is a type of art that shows depth of feeling and passion, something confers upon the reader a new understanding, an appreciation of something new and beautiful. The depth of expression is usually the measure of quality. It’s about emotion, in most cases, but expression isn’t limited to emotion. It runs the gamut of the human experience, from misery to euphoria and everything in between. Confusion isn’t a traditional emotion, but it can be tied to many, and is often the result of emotions in conflict.

Take Picasso’s Guernica, for example: it has the quality of emotional detachment, like looking at a newspaper reproduction of a tragedy. There are so many ideas, so much to see, that it’s easy to be numbed by the sheer noise of it. The technique of echoing or reinforcing a theme is common. With a painting that demands a wandering eye, when you don’t know what to look at, in a sense Picasso takes you to that confusing day in Guernica, experiencing the confusion of war, the smallness, the powerlessness, the horror. (The horror).

guernica_bw

The baying horse, screeching with its neck crooked out of joint, a spear in its chest from which spills indecipherable news columns—a savage critique on journalists who profit by such horror. But there is hope, a candle, soft-light in the soft hands of an angel above Picasso’s pyramid of death. This is in thematic opposition to the electric lightbulb’s imitation light; the electric eye that lights the scene.

To give this painting some context, here is what The University of Wikipedia has to say:
The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German air force’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.

Picasso painted scenes he may not have understood, believing the raid to haven taken place at night, for example, but his great gift and innovation was painting material not found in nature, giving more artistic license to indulge the imagination, if only loosely based on life or nature. This is where all great art begins and ends, in the imagination. Its power is measured by how much it works on our emotions from there, working on shaping us into more understanding, sensitive people.

To commit a scene to canvas is in defiance of nature, simply by preserving what is part of constant growth and change. This is a type of hope for the hopeless, that their wounds become a symbol that may move someone to a more humane consideration in the future. It also honors them, giving them a position in the public consciousness: Picasso’s brush does for those who died in Guernica what Antigone did for the honor of her dead brother Polyneices (and by extension, the nobility of death in our own lives) in Sophocles’ best play, Antigone.

Picasso’s mistress took several pictures of Picasso at work on Guernica and the painting becomes more and more confused and less optimistic as it progresses. Earlier drafts showcased a socialist fist thrust upward in defiance. This sense of winning the fight, if only morally, disappeared over time. It seems as though Picasso was being drained as he stood before such incomprehensible brutality. The eyes are tricked to follow those disjointed lines; the lines that lead upward to the consummation of imagination, expression, and technique. Creation, too, is a violent act.

The reception was lukewarm when Geurnica was unveiled at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, at the world fair in Paris in 1937. Historically Guernica has been interpreted as an anti-war protest, and many scholars have focused on the light, the electric-eye at the center, as it could be symbolic in a literary sense. The Spanish word for lightbulb is bombilla, similar enough to suggest correlation to bomba, the Spanish word for bomb. The perforation on the palms suggest the stigmata of Jesus, and is a likely homage to Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808.

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This painting was inspired by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon. Lit by a box lantern at the feet of the firing squad, it lights them from below and casts their expressions in shadow. At the same time, the on-canvas light source illuminates the line-up of riflemen, serving as a gesture, as a means to guide the eye from the muzzle of the rifles into the background. This works towards creating depth of field and breathing room for the characters depicted. Picasso later reworked the painting (to make it more Picasso-y):

korea2

In matters of subjective art, two reasonable questions arise: by what criteria is the quality of someone’s interpretation judged? And, more importantly, it’s a nonsense question with an accidental sort of wisdom. If the author of a painting or a polonaise or waltz intends no meaning at all, is there an objective meaning? Is it even possible?

The type of criticism we have for art are explicable only in individualistic terms, as each person brings their personality, their history, and their culture with them. Sometimes a painting or a song or smell can take you to another place, or bring images and other ideas to the fore of your consciousness, ideas independent of the work. It could be a sort of nostalgia, an effortless remembrance. In this fashion a work of art can become meaningful in a way independent of the artist’s idea and its representation.

Subjectivity means that meaning is not set or definite, a positive aspect of art and its interpretation. This is how we connect the dots we cannot see and, in some cases, may not even be there. It may have a definite meaning to the author, but it is ambiguous to us; and this is what makes art great, this ability to connect to it personally and learn something about ourselves in the process. The interpretation of a work of art often says as much about the critic as it does about the artist. That is instructive, in and of itself.

How to Be An Atheist (Without Being a Dick), 11 April 2016

As I have detailed elsewhere, I have never had a crisis of faith, any sort of religious belief system, and shortly after I was adopted, when told of Santa Claus, my first idea was to find a way to prove it — one way or the other — right or wrong — by setting up a camcorder (for you kids under … it was a large iPhone that couldn’t make calls or embarrass your employer). To look at that story, check out The Children Santa Cheated by clicking here.

There is a false and consistently demonstrated notion among members of the religious community that atheism is a strict belief system that denies goodness and man’s superiority over all animals and also women. The question is: are we born believing? The answer is, when I was three, I thought that deer were capable of flying around the world handing out presents to good little boys and girls. I believed that. It is a blank belief folder, instead of a named folder – it’s the best way to hide your porn. It is that atheism is a belief, or a belief structure, or that being atheist makes you less likely to value human life over the life of other animals. Not only is it not a belief, it is the de-facto nature of reasoning before the presumption to religiosity and divinity is imposed. Atheism is a religion if bald is a hair color. And yet, it is irresponsible, and wrong of non-theists to forever belittle and demean the beliefs of others.

          My atheism is not a flat denial of things beyond nature or understanding, it is the conclusion that I cannot believe in something as presented. It is the rejection of the specific, not the abstract, notion of a divine creator. My disbelief is in the specific, inasmuch as I don’t believe that history and biology needs to import a supernatural creator in order to be part of a divine, harmonious system. I believe in divinity; The Magic Flute, Mozart’s music, Beethoven’s sonatas, Einstein’s field equations, the all-mighty power of gravity – something that literally controls our experience of time – this is enough of the divine for any one human being to be getting on with. But I wouldn’t kill someone because they don’t like Beethoven, nor would I compel someone to worship him. After all, the definition of bullshit is what other people believe. 

          If we grew up without a cultural presumption to religion and its most common tenets – that of an omnipotent, all-powerful, omniscient, super-fabulous creator; the appeal to fear and desire – I think it would be a strange artifact for the modern world to encounter. If we grew up in a world without a societal presumption to religion, to an afterlife, to Gods and demons, how would religion emerge in a world without it? Well, it had to have done before, as cultures existed before and without the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What was unique in these ideas, and what cultural conditions nurtured the dissemination of these beliefs until they were made into laws? The difference is between faith and belief, philosophy and theory.

          What do you believe and why do you believe it?

          I believe that something can come from nothing. I have a reason and a legal biological precedent.

          At one point your father was not alive. That first number on his gravestone, that’s the moment he became a thing. As in, before that number, he was inside of your mother. He existed, but he didn’t have the mechanisms in place that would one day help create you. You did not exist before he existed, and at a point in time he was not in that point in time, meaning he did not exist, came into existence, and then because of this, you did. At the core of everything we passionately believe is something pretty ridiculous.

          I believe that tiny tiny tiny things called particles put together the universe using electrical information exchange. I cannot see them unless I squint really, really hard. I’ve seen some really lovely equations. At its core, this belief is based on how musical Feynman and those guys were in their mathematical language. Mathematics and chemistry are rare in that your theories can be proven within hours, maybe days; if you want to add phosphorous to a flaming methane slab, you will get results. If you say that you can calculate the distance between stars by beginning with the axiom that light travels at a finite speed, it has covered x amount of space in x amount of time, this gives us distance.

          If you propose that Napoleon quietly cultured a restoration of Monarchy by throwing the battle of Waterloo, your historical treatise will either be slightly interesting but never really verifiable but ultimately interesting, kind of. Someday documents may be found to verify that Napoleon was auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick film during the entire thing, and you’ll be proven right. If you claim that you can use a type of sand called silicon to store information, the veracity of that claim can be put to trial by combat immediately. If the numbers don’t work, they don’t work; and Napoleon was actually just an egotistical genius who thought he could defeat the world with a French army. That’s not neat and tidy, like fusion, numbers converting into explosions of solar energy. Maybe not everyone looks at e=MC2 and hears strange music and thinks, this is truth. This is right. And at its core, that’s objectively ridiculous and cute. Tiny particles can collide in the right way and create a sun, but a guy can’t fly a sleigh with reindeers.

          I was born into a culture that supported the notion that people could know what is objectively unknowable. What I call unknowable I think unknowable because I know of no way as of yet that can render empirical evidence, evidence that I could know it to a degree that I’d kill somebody to prove it. If the sun is not green, and e in fact equals nothing squared, nobody will be hurt. Unless that equation is just the representation of a cosmic process that could be turned into a weapon to destroy worlds. And it did. It is the equation of death. F=ma is romantic, Force equals mass times acceleration, a tenant of Newtonian, pre-Einsteinian motion. That works for me. That follows.

          People who don’t know me or what is and is not right, in my estimate, believe their duty lies in helping me. By sharing stories. Turns out, that guy is the reason for everything and all I have to do is make a pinky promise not to think differently and I’ll get to see my father again! It sounds too good to be true! It does not follow. It sounds like somebody had the wish before the wishmaker, and just granted the wish without ever paying for it. It’s an IOU – one eternity of happiness and stuff with angels and harps.

          Imagine:

          You are born into a culture without deeply entrenched systems that purport to know what is objectively unknowable:

          1) Death is not explained or given special emphasis, notice, and is treated as a matter of small moment;

          2) No one tells you stories about ancient scriptures, the varying interpretations inherent therein, and the world is without mythology and theology;

          3) There will be questions seemingly without answers: metaphysics is – essentially – the academic discipline of formalized nonsense – despite it being very somewhat sensical. Philosophy is the religion of the secularist world. Philosophy is religion without pronoun bias. Religion is built upon philosophical questions, or at least what can be presented as answers to philosophical questions.

          4) A philosopher emerges triumphant among a sea of otherwise more or less like-minded people within a small geo-political sphere of influence. How does the philosopher, not too different from the others in thought, come out on top of all the others, spread the message, and use the message to form a system of behavioral guidelines and control?

          5) Appeal to the naturally cultivated fear of the unknown in everyone, and replace the unknown with a presumed known, and give it an ominous, not quite provable but not easily refutable construct: you make it above nature. Once an idea becomes above nature, it loses the weakness a mere philosophy would have as criticisms based on and in nature can be dismissed for an idea ‘above-nature.’

          6) The appeal to fear and the appeal to hope have to be simultaneously triumphant and condemnatory; there are different types of fears in human lives, some of which are cultivated in various ways for different reasons, but there are deeper fears than, say, losing wifi signal. For example, there are different categories for fear: among them are the most preternatural of all: the super-fears. These all have to do with what has been chalked up to evolutionary baggage, accumulated over our species’ time on this planet: drowning, burning, falling, etc.

          7) An above nature idea is contrived as such to debunk criticisms prior to the criticisms being made, and ideas within the philosophy are put in place to intentionally pre-bias those who subscribe to the above nature idea by hinting at types of attacks the ‘non-believers’ will make against the idea. This is where the philosophy and the philosopher begin to morph into a theologian and a theology, a religion. The structures made by and maintained by human beings are fallible, and no one’s philosophy of life, if an asterisk must be added* will be taken, spread, and used as a means to justify that structure.

          If in religious texts, the prophecies and fables and parables – all of what makes up the religion part of it – is prefaced as ‘this is what we, as a group, think is correct’ – the zeal and importance behind its spread, I’d imagine, would be a lot less zealous and important. If the philosophy is the work of a mere man, it is up for review and subject to a type of scrutiny that faith and belief sets itself apart from.

          At what point does a philosophy become a religion?

          Imagine if Nietzsche, one of the most popular Western philosophers in history, hadn’t written Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the character of a prophet as a poet and dramatic device and instead wrote the same work under his own name and claimed divine inspiration. The text would have had the same words, but in the guise of a religion, the work would no doubt attract followers, followers who would codify which parts of the work were actually legitimately divine and which parts weren’t, which parts should be made into law. And there it is: the moment philosophy becomes religion is the moment when its messages, attempted teachings and morals, become the basis for laws – laws which are to be applied to those who believe as well as those who do not. If you disagree with Albert Camus that the nature of reality at its core is absurd, there is no system in place to make sure that you are punished for thinking this way. Because there is a subtle difference in the shift between philosophy and religion and it’s somewhat subtle: the language changes from, ‘I think this is so,’ to, ‘I believe this is so,’ and more dangerous still, ‘I know this to be so because of reasons outside of the realm of nature and human experience.’

               How philosophy becomes religion.

          To differentiate himself from the others, a moral or metaphysical philosopher will invoke the supernatural, something beyond logic and nature to circumvent the part of our brains that evaluate ideas in the context of how they work within the natural, real world. Second, the use of fears – the most primitive fears like drowning and fire, most commonly – are used as a means to give incentive for believing and a warning about the consequences of not believing: pandering to our most base desires, living forever, a reuniting with our lost loved ones, never having to face the horror of an indifferent universe, and in the same paragraph using the most base of our fears as a way to short-circuit our logical processes and reason, the type of reason with which we try to rationalize other ideas: like evolution, gravity, etc.

          The reason evolution is not a belief in the matter that a religious ideal is a belief is a simple, but critical departure: the presumption towards evolution was not a societal movement based on conditioning, it was a widely rejected, ridiculed, and maligned idea. By the time I studied evolution on a University level, it seemed to not be any great leap of faith to follow Darwin’s reasoning as reasoned in his On the Origins of Species. It is not an appeal to the suspension of our belief in the reasoning process. It is not preached as a philosophy – although it certainly was considered natural philosophy – but as a scientific, testable hypothesis. It is believed based on whether or not it can be shown. Reality is something that keeps happening when you stop believing in it.

             Atheism is a response to the specific, to one account of an omnipotent being, and the rejection of it having been shown as proof. If a singular document is the source for proof of that same document, you have what we call in academia, bullshit. Do not seek to convert the world, because fighting fire with fire only ends up burning everybody. Fight fire with water. Fight cruelty with kindness. Fight hate with love. Fight injustice with justice. Fight ignorance with the spreading of knowledge. And in the fight against ignorance, start by fighting your own. Nobody is helping anyone by assuming superiority based on religion (or the lack thereof), do not become the very thing you sought to oppose — the rigorous and zealous attempt at converting or otherwise demeaning those with whom you disagree. In other words, those who would presume to make atheism a movement or a condescending roommate to the world, just stop being dicks and tend your garden. You’re making heathens look bad.

Real Fake Doors & the Authenticity of Fiction,4 April 2016

I recently had the chance to check out the hit television series, Rick and Morty. Now, I’m a huge fan of science fiction. It has always allowed people to look forward and to imagine how human beings would react to the unknown and unfamiliar. The tradition is ancient; the many instances of prehistoric human beings imagining the future. The ancient aliens phenomenon is simply, and effectively reduced to the simple and unavoidable truth: even our ancestors wrote science fiction.

The reason for its enduring popularity is this forward looking ideal, as It allows us to examine our nature, our past, and look to the next step in evolution and consciousness, our interaction with technology, and to other aspects of life that, in the realm of literary naturalism, are rarely explored. But the idea behind all fiction is the doorway, the doorway to empathy, to understanding the world in unique and imaginative ways. But it is a false construct, a portal, and rarely has the degree of depth and texture of the real world.

Naturalism and psychological realism are both ways by which we look through the eyes of others and learn something new and exciting about ourselves. Science fiction extends the possibilities of examining humanity.
In Rick and Morty, the characters are put to extremes you’re unlikely to find in Mansfield Park.

In the first season episode ‘Interdimensional Cable’, Rick replaces the cable box in the Smith family with a device that allows for the viewing of programming from an infinite number of parallel realities. Jerry, Beth, and Summer latch onto a property of the device which allows for them to see alternate versions of themselves – Real Fake Doors – which, itself, appears during the same episode as a commercial, advertising literally fake doors.

This has the effect of connecting the stories, providing a thematic link to the experience going on in the other room, where the Smith family is realizing how different their lives might have been had Beth not gotten pregnant. Jerry discovers that he’s a movie star and director, Beth finds a version of herself who has realized her dream of practicing medicine (on humans), while Summer… sees herself playing board games.

After Summer decides to run away and start a new life for herself (doing something with turquoise) while Jerry returns to the living room, where Rick and Morty are watching Ball Fondlers, as Beth remains in the kitchen, drinking wine and looking through a real fake door into a life without Jerry and subsequently without a family. In the living room, Rick and Jerry remain in the living room while Morty goes to convince Summer to stay with the family.

While flipping through channels, Rick and Jerry come across a low-speed chase involving an alternate Jerry, who shows up at beth’s alternate self, which she is watching through her goggles. She hears the doorbell ring and finds Jerry on her step, crying and pleading his undying love for her. She puts away the goggles – the REAL fake door in the episode, and opens a real one – reconciling with Jerry as Summer has been convinced to stay home, to give her family another chance.

The sci-fi tropes – alternate reality, space travel, time travel, interactions between humans and nonhuman beings and cultures and lets us look through these Real Fake Doors to see something true about the world and who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. And sometimes we need to put down real fake doors and open a real real door, the doorway to the world.