Wednesday, May 27, 2015

D. T. Suzuki: Zen Isn't Self-Limiting

From the chapter "Satori, Or Acquiring a New Viewpoint" in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1964) by D. T. Suzuki:
With the God of mysticism there is the grasping of a definite object; when you have God, what is No-God is excluded. This is self-limiting. Zen wants absolute freedom, even from God. "No abiding place" means that very thing; "cleanse your mouth when you utter the word Buddha" amounts to the same thing. It is not that Zen wants to be morbidly unholy and godless, but that it recognizes the incompleteness of a mere name. Therefore when Yakusan (Yueh-shan, 751-834) was asked to give a lecture, he did not say a word, but instead came down from the pulpit and went off to his own room. Hyakujo merely walked forward a few steps, stood still, and then opened out his arms, which was his exposition of the great principle.
This is one reason I love the arts. One can express truth without it being reduced to a term, concept, or idea that is by it's very nature incomplete, even misleading. And that's what's great about a relationship with one's cat. Pure feeling can be expressed without having it ruined by words.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pear Blossom Haiku

Sharp gust of wind
A white pear blossom petal
Hit me in the face

Outside my window
A billowing cloud
Of white pear blossoms

White pear blossom petals
Mingle with cigarette butts
In the gutter

M. Bogen
May 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Attitude Adjustment With Rackstraw Downes

How often do we grudgingly put up with something because, well, it has to be there, it's a necessary evil in the scheme of civilization? Or how much do we pretend just isn't there? Sometimes when I'm driving and I see the ugly stuff in our built environment I try to wish it way -- like when I take the underpass beneath the hideous, elevated highway nearby, all rusted metal, darkness, and echoing noise. Not very Zen of me.

Spending some time with the work of Rackstraw Downes helps me adjust my attitude for the better. He paints the stuff I want to speed right past. I wouldn't say he makes these things beautiful (though in some cases the subjects are starkly beautiful, as in the empty office below), but he makes them worthy to gaze upon. And I wonder if when he is painting, say, the spiraling curl of barbed wire on a fence he actually does find the barbed wire pleasing. Maybe not. What we we can say with certainty is that the barbed wired is painted with as much care and commitment as would be given to the task of painting a pear blossom, a mountain stream, a portrait of a friend. The feeling I get is of embracing a subject -- an act that resides on a different spectrum than love and hate.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gary Snyder: "Source"

To be in
to the land
where croppt-out rock
can hardly see
the swiftly passing trees

Manzanita clans
cluster up and fan out their soils
in streaks and sweeps
with birds and woodrats underneath

And clay swale keeps wet,
free of trees, the bunch-grass
like no Spaniard ever came

I hear no news

Cloud finger dragons dance and 
tremble down the ridge
and spit and spiral snow then pull in
quivering, on the sawtooth

Clears up, and all the stars,
the tree leaves catch
some extra tiny source
all the wide night

Up here
out back
drink deep
that black light

From Turtle Island, 1974

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gillian Welch: One Little Song

While I get my thoughts together on the Mad Men finale, I'll wish all involved with the show many successes to come. This show was surely a high point in their careers. Can they top it somewhere along the line, or at least do more creative work? Of course they can. But there always lingers the fear, not just for the Mad Men crew, but for anyone involved in the spectrum of creative pursuits, that maybe the ideas have run out. Gillian Welch has some hopes for us all.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Waves of Japanese Influence, Sam Francis & More

Monet, 1875
Japanese aesthetics have impacted Western art at two distinct times, in two distinct ways. The first wave of influence, referred to as Japonisme, happened in the mid-to-late 19th century, the second in the mid-20th century. The influence of the first wave was more decorative, ornate, and Romantic, though not purely so, with influence evident in great works from Monet, Van Gogh, Whistler, and many, many more. Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art Nouveau movement also revealed Japanese influence. It was kind of a craze back then, socially speaking. The second wave was more Zen in spirit: it was minimalistic, calligraphic, and fit nicely with then-popular Existentialist philosophy as a means of directly apprehending life without overlays of socially- or ideologically-received prejudices. *

Two friends of Art & Argument, Robert Janz and Judith Trepp, create work that is sometimes inspired by this second, Zen-like wave. Robert was a young artist on the West Coast when Zen hit in the 1950s and 60s. Think D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Gary Snyder. His work often reflects or demonstrates the great Buddhist truth of the transience and impermanence of phenomena. Judith is younger, but has traveled to Japan any times. It is her minimalist, calligraphic work that really captured my attention when I first encountered her work a few years ago.

This theme occurred to me when I was looking into the work of Sam Francis this morning. Francis was born in San Francisco in 1923, so he comes by Asian influences naturally. His work is quite diverse, but I'll post a couple of works here that are relevant to this discussion. To see my previous posts on Janz and Trepp, click on their names in the Labels space below.

Untitled, 1959, ink on paper, 48 x 32 cm.

Untitled, 1984, acrylic on canvas, 41 x 26.7 cm.

* Mad Men reference: Burt Cooper, played by Robert Morse, was into both waves of Japanese influence. The set designers must have had fun creating his office.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Jung, Evil, & the Marathon Bombing

There's a strong sense or consensus that the actions of the Marathon bombers were evil. Yet I suspect that in their minds their actions were moral and just, with justice being the highest value that trumped all other concerns. That might be why, during the trial, the younger brother showed no remorse. In his book Jung on Evil, Murray Stein explores the great psychologist's thoughts on these matters.
The crusader spirit of someone identified with archetypal thoughts and values will argue fiercely that the ends justify the means and will overlook all countervailing considerations. . . . Now ordinary moral categories and the ego's ethical attachments are easily over-ridden in the name of "higher" (certainly stronger) values. And when these dubious higher values have been become the group norm, individual and collective shadows have found a secure playground. This is how evil is unleashed on a mass scale; it is individual shadow added to shadow and then raised to the square power by group consensus, permission and pressure.
By putting Tsarnaev on trial, instead of summarily executing him on the spot two years ago, the US followed the rule of law, which, for all of its flaws, does bring us in closer proximity to true rather than fanatical justice. As for the death penalty: if we feel it is unjust we must remove it as an option. That being said, we have a deep ongoing responsibility, individually and collectively, to understand our own motivations and our shadows. No person's religious or national affiliation exempts them. Stein tells us:
The first duty of the ethically-minded person is, from Jung's psychological perspective, to becomes as conscious as possible of his or her own shadow. The shadow is made up of the personality's tendencies, motives, and traits that a person considers shameful for one reason or another and seeks to repress or actually represses unconsciously. If they are repressed, they are unconscious and are projected onto others. When this happens there is usually moral indignation and the groundwork is laid for a moral crusade. Filled with righteous indignation, persons can attack others for perceiving in them what is unconscious shadow in themselves, and a holy war ensues. This is worse than tilting at windmills, and it ends up being morally reprehensible in it's own right. . . . A careful examination of conscience and of the personal unconscious is therefore the first requirement if one seeks seriously to do something about the problem of evil.
I would add that, because the task of identifying evil is fraught with pitfalls, if one is committed to justice it is wisest to also be committed to active nonviolence.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Don Draper's Big Lie

The bigger the lie, the easier it is to tell. The smaller the lie, the closer you are to the truth, which can pull you out of deceit like a magnet. Don Draper told the biggest lie of all. He became someone he wasn't. He lived the lie, and living it propelled him to the top of the advertising world. Before he was Don Draper he was Dick Whitman, and that man was a coward. On Madison Avenue, Don was revered as someone with charisma and a near mystical insight into human nature. But what he knew wasn't mystical. It was a con (as he himself acknowledges in the series' penultimate episode). A con is perpetrated by what is called a Confidence Man, who knows that a con works by giving people what they want. His main product was himself.

What makes things interesting is Don wasn't a con man at heart. And despite his reputation he wasn't smooth. Over the course of the years, Don's weakness and confusion would assert itself over and over, and if he lost family in the process, he managed through effort to remain who he wanted to be: Don Draper, Ad Man. The mystical sheen had long ago been replaced by a sheen of sweat, both literal and figurative. As the finale nears I hope Don can become someone new and better, maybe someone who exists right in between Dick and Don, since neither man is who he is. Actually in this last season, as he starts to detach from advertising he's become, of all things, something of a nice guy. I care about the other characters, of course, but the truth is that Mad Men has always been the Don Draper Show.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Grant Wood's Midwest

I've been visiting family for a few days back in Illinois, from whence I came. Part of my time has been spent in the Quad Cities, which straddle the Mississippi, two on each side. Cultural tidbit: one of the four cities is Rock Island, immortalized in Lead Belly's rendition of the old folk-blues railroad song, "The Rock Island Line." In terms of visual art, the task of immortalizing this region fell to Grant Wood, who grew up a hundred miles or so from Rock Island, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Wood, of course, is best known as the painter of the iconic "American Gothic," which featured a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact husband and wife farmer team. But if Wood's portraits tended toward the austere, his landscapes did not. They are rounded, fecund, embracing.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All

A number of years ago a co-worker me asked me what swing is exactly. Taken aback a bit at first, I realized that for Boomers and younger, swing was never a popular form of music (and, no, the LA "Swingers" revival of the '90s doesn't count). But after a little thought I recommended the classic Billie Holiday sides with Lester Young et al. as the essence of swing. But now whenever I think about her question, and I still do, I think the best, most efficient way to start a journey into swing would be to listen to Frank Sinatra sing "Fly Me to the Moon" with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1964.

It has all the necessary elements: the walking bass moving up and down through the chord changes right on the beat, the light bouncing feel, the hip syncopation, the crescendos and decrescendos from the band. Fun fact: This arrangement was created by Quincy Jones, who was a full-bore jazzer in his earlier years. When Q finally connected with Michael Jackson, it's safe to say he knew about star power.

Watching the new HBO documentary "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," I gained more appreciation for Sinatra's life and career. A kid from Hoboken, he was a working pro by the age of fifteen and never even finished high school. I knew he was an idol and sex symbol for the bobby-soxer girls, but I never realized that the mania was equal to Elvis and the Beatles. Ultimately,  the heartbreaker got his own heart broken in the 50s by Ava Gardner, and his music took on a deeper, jazzier, hipper tone -- the Sinatra that lives in our imaginations. Personally I have a hard time seeing what all the fuss was about prior to this time.

Back to this business of swing falling out of favor. It's not just that the new generation in the 60s was indifferent to the music (other than blues and folk) that came before it (since everything was felt to be "new" and "unprecedented"), but that Sinatra was actively hostile toward rock. A man of incredible taste, he just couldn't appreciate the hippies -- at least in the plural; he did marry Mia Farrow after all. The upshot is that by the time the 1970s came around, everything Sinatra stood for was ripe for Bill Murray's devastating Saturday Night Live parody of an unctuous lounge singer.

In time, all things merge, and led by the late career success of the great Tony Bennett, who was never hostile to anyone, people of all generations came to love Sinatra and his new-era acolytes like Michael Buble' and Dianna Krall. Now that the dust has settled, I'll argue that Sinatra is the true King, not Elvis. The proof is in the singing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Kerouac Performs the Ending of "On the Road"

There was a Kerouac quote in this week's Mad Men (“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”), which reminded me of this clip, which shows what we mean by the musicality of language. Best jazz with spoken word performance I've ever seen. This is from the Steve Allen Show, a precursor to Johnny Carson. It's cool the way Steve does his intro over music, too. You are cordially invited to indulge here in some mid-century hipsterism.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Girl on Tricycle: Living Large

A few days ago I saw a little girl riding what appeared to be her first tricycle. She was out in front of her parents by a few feet, grinning and focused intently on the handlebars and the pavement that receded beneath the front wheel as she rolled forward. Nowhere on the planet is any person having a better time than this girl is, I thought. Plenty of people are having just as good of a time, but not better.

As adults we capture the thrill of speed and movement through activities such as skiing or mountain biking. Some experience vehicular thrills throughout life, driving fast, high-end cars. Objectively, the thrill of driving a NASCAR vehicle at nearly 200 MPH in heavy traffic is greater and more intense than that of being on a kid's three-wheeler. Yet, subjectively, I doubt that the NASCAR driver is more happily engaged with life than little kids are when they make the stupendous transition from walking to rolling.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Still and Still Moving"

Judith Trepp, Untitled, 2009, egg tempera, oil, and oil stick on linen, 35.5 x 43.2 inches

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
 Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

This is the conclusion of "East Coker," the second of Eliot's "Four Quartets."
Read my previous "East Coker" excerpt here.
Ed. note: Eliot's poem is left-justified.