Saturday, November 7, 2009

Toward Pretensionism 4

Now, something has to be said about my appreciation for the Lichtenstein piece. I was able to enjoy it because despite the origins of my artistic impulses, in my pursuit of craft I have developed an understanding of and appreciation for more formal values in the arts.

Composition, color, technique -- these all have meaning for me. Before I studied art, they influenced my reactions to particular works, but that influence was on a subconscious level. Initially, my interest was in image and narrative content.

And these elements are still central to my appreciation of the visual arts. But now I'm able to enjoy art on another level. Which brings me back to one of my difficulties with fine art -- it the problem with me, or is it with the piece? Is it possible to reach the point where you can in good conscience reject a work on any other basis than, "It didn't do much for me?"

Here's the rub. In works in any media where content is important, I feel a lot more comfortable passing that kind of judgment. 'Was the content effectively conveyed?' is a question I can usually answer with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

But in an arena where formal values are paramount? I can have an opinion -- but I can't pass judgment. And this leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

So. On to the artworks that brought me to the gallery.

The two exhibits of Asian photography caught my interest, involved me -- but now that a few days have gone by, the only pieces that have stayed with me were a number of works dealing with landscapes as abstract images. I can still call them to mind, still recall the emotional state they evoked. In particular there was a series of photographs of the sun on the ocean that evoked a distinctly nocturnal atmosphere. They were beautiful dreams, and I won't forget them.

But the Richard Avedon show... that was something different. As I said, I was in an emotionally distraught state, and I found many of his works to be shattering. There was a wall of small, fairly conventional portraits that did little for me, and many familiar images, such as Nureyev's foot, seemed clever but trivial after the works that most affected me.

These were the large-scale portraits. In photograph after photograph, one was left with the sense of direct contact with the subject of the portraits. Every physical detail of the people portrayed was mercilessly, almost surgically, laid bare. I was reminded of scientific illustration where the absolute specificity of the subject was the only goal of the image. This was heightened by the consistent use of spotless white backgrounds. Every wrinkle, every blemish, every line generated by habitual facial expressions and every bit of physical damage endured by the subjects was there to be seen, inspected, measured. Everything that could be seen was seen in microscopic detail, in black-and-white, with a clarity impossible in live observation.

These were images of the human animal, wounded, wary, vicious, and unconquered.

The subjects returned the gaze of the viewer -- or the photographer -- with no more mercy than had been shown to them. These were images of successful people, people who had achieved, and they seemed haunted. I have no way of knowing how much of this came from the subjects, how much from Avedon, how much from me, but my emotional response was that these were people who had been shattered by trauma and yet refused to die, survivors of a prison camp or a battlefield. I read the names, the professions -- and it grew on me that the horrific environment that had stripped these people of joy and left them hardened against its unrelenting power was the world of privilege of which I am fearful and jealous. Or, more simply, the world.

Then in a smaller area off of the main exhibit, I found two portraits that nearly brought me to tears in a public space.

Not to go into it too deeply, but some of the most important influences on my writing came out of the social group known as the Algonquin Round Table. When I used the word 'shattering' to describe the emotional state this exhibit induced, I was referring specifically to the portraits of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Levant.

Humor has always been my first line of defense. And both Parker and Levant are best known for their humorous remarks, their one-liners, and in both cases their humor is known for its cutting qualities. These portraits showed their subjects without that armor. The results were heartbreaking, horrifying, appalling.

Dorothy Parker has always struck me as a failed talent. She produced some excellent light verse, a few first-class short stories, and a large body of entertaining critical writing. None of these have struck me as a true fruition of her potential abilities. Like many of my other favorite writers (I use the term 'favorite' as contrasted with 'most respected.'), her story is one of great gifts compromised by lack of discipline, self-indulgence and self-pity, bad habits, and most distressingly, lack of vision.

Ms. Parker's portrait broke my heart. Her self-imposed isolation had left its mark on her features. The set of her mouth, her eyes -- a lifetime of unrelieved bitterness and the kind of misanthropy generated by disappointment in oneself had branded her. It was an unfair portrait. To deny her the consolation of wit was genuinely cruel. This was not a portrait of Dorothy Parker; it was a portrait of her shadow, of a woman stripped of her saving graces.

This cruelty was nothing next to that shown to Oscar Levant. Unlike the other portraits in the exhibit, this one was blurred by motion. Blown up to twice life-size, mouth open, lunging forward with his remaining teeth on display, I was -- and this is my cruelty -- irresistibly reminded of an elephant in agony, bellowing in pain and rage. The image was monstrous, almost inhuman. It was a dying thing, the human animal in defeat, the other side of the first photographs in the exhibit. To associate that image with the gentleman whose witty comments I'd been reading my whole life was a reminder of the inevitability of death and decay, that there is nothing we can ever do to distance ourselves from the traumatic corruption of the body.

After this, I'd had enough Avedon. I was not in a state to re-inspect the works I'd seen once. It was time to move on.

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