Monday, June 26, 2017

Matisse: Decoration As Art

Interior with Egyptian Curtain
By painting the interiors of his studio, populated with the objects he loved, did Matisse elevate decoration to the level of art? Or is it a false distinction? Beauty is beauty. The Boston MFA has a show (which I haven't seen yet) up called Matisse in the Studio, pairing many of Matisse's actual objects with paintings that depict them. One thing seems likely: that Matisse didn't love his paintings more than the objects themselves. Does love erase the dichotomy? Does an object have to be handmade to transcend the decorative? Is it the spark or breath of the unconscious that elevates things? The curtain clearly is equated with the tree seen through the window. Another distinction erased.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Hyperventilation and Violence

Conservatives were quick to lay the blame for the reprehensible shooting of Representative Scalise and other Republicans at the feet of Democratic commentators who in their opinion are "hyperventilating" over the threat Trump poses to the Republic, thereby inspiring that troubled nut job to act. Here's the thing: Everything that conservatives say qualifies as hyperventilating was the exact position the majority of Republicans held before Trump got nominated: that he is manifestly unfit for office; that he is an ignorant bully; that he shouldn't be trusted with the nuclear code; that his conflicts of interest are potentially the worst in US history; that he's a narcissist who delights in simplistically putting other people down; that he is compromised by ties with Russia; and so on. So now we are supposed to stop saying these things, though they are simply true, and that not saying them would be a dereliction of one's duty as a citizen.

The ironic thing here is that the left largely ended their infatuation with violence after the 60s. Now it's more of right wing thing. I don't think all those militia groups voted for Hillary. And it's not liberals who go around quoting Jefferson that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," or who glibly romanticize "second amendment solutions." To the extent that any group left or right thinks violence is part of the answer, they are to that extent mistaken. The commitment to nonviolence makes even inflammatory discourse possible.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Burning Musicological Question

A question for Pride Month: was Cole Porter just trolling everyone with "You're the Top"? Queer-savvy analysts feel free to weigh in.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Art of the Bridge: Bright Side of the Road


"Bright Side of the Road" is the springing, upbeat track that leads off Van Morrison's relatively unheralded masterpiece of 1979, Into the Music. Considering that '79 was the peak period for the Clash and the Ramones and the whole punk/new wave thing, it's understandable that Into the Music slipped through the cracks. But Van Morrison fans know it's one of his very best albums. For anyone interested in Van, I'd shortlist it along with Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Wavelength, and his live double LP, Too Late to Stop Now.

This song came up on my iPod this morning, and what jumped out at me, alongside its general effervescence, is how strong the bridge is. Classic song structure is defined as AABA, with A being the main verse and B being the contrasting middle section. A good bridge does a couple things. It takes the melody in a fresh direction, but it does so in a way that subtly leads or circles back to the verse, in fact making the verse feel inevitable upon its return. It also provides a lyrical contrast, often in perspective or tone. In "Bright Side of the Road," the verses for the most part come across as first person statements addressed to a lover. The bridge on the other hand is spoken from a reflective or dispassionate perspective, offering a big picture take on the human experience.

In this tune, the bridge appears twice. After an intro and two runs through the 16 bar A section or verse, the bridge comes in at about 0:54. It runs for 16 bars, followed at 1:16 by a return to the verse, now featuring call and response background vocals, which elevate the proceedings. Thus far, then, you have the classic AABA structure. From here on out, the song uses the A and B forms to different effect, deviating from the classic pattern. At 1:36 we get an instrumental interlude (a harmonica solo performed by Van), which consists of one 'A' verse of 16 bars. Then the bridge or B section reappears at 2:00 to take us out of the instrumental and lead us back to a concluding vocal run through the verse. This is fairly common strategy. After that last lyric verse, the song repeats the A section the rest of the way out, but now with Van riffing, the singers answering, and the band cooking their collective asses off.

One reason this period was strong for Van was because he had Katie Kissoon on background vocals and a horn section consisting of Pee Wee Ellis on sax and Mark Isham on trumpet. Kissoon is possibly England's preeminent background vocalist. Ellis played sax for James Brown, and Isham went on to a successful career as a soundtrack composer.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Evening Sky

Somerville, Mass, June 10, 8:17 pm

The Fragrance of the Invisible Flower

Judith Trepp, Open Circle, Nr. 2013-08-02, 2013, oil stick and
acrylic on paper, 38 x 56 cm. (15 x 22 in.)
I've got some exciting Art & Argument news. Over the winter my friend Judith Trepp and I published a monograph featuring her work called "The Fragrance of the Invisible Flower: Sources of Power in the Minimalist Works of Judith Trepp." When Judith shows at the gallery Art Market Provincetown later this summer, AMP will host a reception for the monograph, which features an in-depth essay I wrote about her paintings and drawings along with more than two dozen images representing Judith's most important aesthetic directions of the last twenty or twenty-five years. You can read about the Sunday, August 20 reception here. For those unable to attend, you soon will be able to order books here via Paypal.

Untitled, Nr. 2011-07-01, 2011, egg tempera, oil and oil stick on linen, 24 x 45.2 in.
The title of the book refers to a Sufi metaphor, which suggests that the presence of love in the world is the physical manifestation of the divine, rather like the fragrance of an invisible flower. One thing I realized upon completing the essay was that by focusing on the tangible presence of her work I was able to address spiritual matters without engaging in speculation. The works are real; the works are here; but like that fragrance their beauty seems to suggest another, greater reality just outside of our conscious awareness, just beyond our reach. I contend that it is the minimalist nature of the works that allows more mysterious beauty to bleed through.

Judith's work will be part of a group show at AMP, and she has titled her presentation Undertow -- nice and minimalist, and suggesting of dangerous power. The piece above is one of several Judith will be showing.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Autobiography Update

I'm making some progress on my autobiography. No, I haven't written anything yet, but I came up with another possible title: A Passion for Lost Causes.

My previous top contender is Good In Theory.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Ideology Is Monoculture

As Henry David Thoreau put it: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Fundamentally this refers to biodiversity. A wilderness area is much more stable and resilient than lands cultivated by human effort. The movement away from natural diversity is described as the movement toward monoculture. Metaphorically speaking, ideology is a form of monoculture. It narrows the intellectual and ethical options available within individuals, and requires more external involvement to keep it functioning. The whole thing is propped up by various control mechanisms -- the social equivalent of pesticides -- all of which bear the mark of authoritarianism.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Art Means Never Having To Say Should

If art is good for anything at all it's that it renders the word 'should' irrelevant. 'Should' is redolent of ideology and obligation, which stand in opposition to creativity. And so it was with a raised eyebrow and a moderately heavy heart that read about how the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (one of the country's top art institutions) agreed to meet the demands of local Dakota Native American activists to take down and destroy a sculpture by the artist Sam Durant, which he had intended as an exploration and condemnation of unjust executions in the U.S., including the execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862. Just as problemmatic (in my view) was the fact that the artist apologized for his "thoughtlessness" in including the Dakota 38 in the piece, and agreed with the activists that he should not have allowed the work to be shown without checking with them first. He is no doubt sincere, and as a well meaning person is alarmed that he was involved in perpetuating injustice as perceived by the Dakota. Ironically his intent had been to bring attention to injustices perpetrated by white supremacist culture and politics. It's his call of course, and it's not for me to say what he and the Walker should or should not do. Interestingly, when a Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney in NYC triggered a similar controversy, neither she nor the museum apologized or agreed to remove the painting. The museum will be holding a dialogue series on issues relating to the controversy, which seems a creative and conscientious response.

UPDATE: 6-5-17
Case in point. Critics said Hendrix should not have performed the national anthem as he did because it was disrespectful and unpatriotic. The aural equivalent of flag burning. That, of course, is an oversimplification of what Hendrix was up to.