When I've had my teeth cleaned, I've sat, over the course of 40 years now, in a pastel-painted room that broadcasts the unchanging soft rock playlist of The Wave
02 | 18
Ten thousand flowers in the spring,
the moon in the autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter;
If your mind isn't
clouded by uneccessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
When I've had my teeth cleaned, I've sat, over the course of 40 years now, in a pastel-painted room that broadcasts the dispiriting soft rock playlist of The Wave radio station. The room features a Wassily Kandinsky print on the wall in front of the chair (Aquerell Aus Dem Gastebuch, 1925). On the wall parallel to the chair is another print from the early Bauhaus years, Paul Klee's Bild Abenteuer Schiff, 1927.
My dentist is a frugal man, and the stasis of this exam room has been broken only by the installation of new ceiling tiles in 1995, insisted on by the landlord as a prelude to a dramatic rent increase.
Strangely, while I'm very fond of my dentist - and we've had the most intimately musing conversations over these years - it's notable that the only topic that came close to art was his great enthusiasm after seeing the film The Baker Boys, (whose two brothers were played, appropriately, by the actor brothers, Jeff and Beau Bridges). Aside from the luminous presence of a young Michelle Pfeiffer, my dentist's affection focused on the love-hate tensions between the two jazz musician brothers. These tensions reflected those with his own brother, with whom he shares the dental practice, inherited from their dentist father.
The two brothers’ chair-side manners are quite different. (Brothers often don't influence each other - as I can attest from my own two-brother family).
This background - the two very different prints - (I would've preferred to have the fanatically hypnotic Klee in front of me) - the two dentist brothers, and the long scraping of my teeth against the torturously anodyne background of The Wave, often lead me to consider the idea of Influence in general - which qualities in art and life turn one on, which leave one cold, and why. Lists are easy, for me endless, but a grappling with qualities is a bit more daunting.
"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of the night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
-The Myth of Sisyphus,
"To suceed in life, you must give up the things you do not like. Give up doing the things you do not like to do. You must find the things that you do like. The things that are acceptable to your mind."
The 'subject' of Agnes Martin's drawings and paintings is the agony - and ecstasy - of concentrated physical work. Against the current rage for 'makers' and 'maker spaces,' the discipline of her bodily engagement with each line upon line of a lifelong opus is one of the most raw and subtly radiant celebrations of pure Making - and its price - that the modern world has.
"Just because you don't take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."
"There can be no question of holding forth on ethics. I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules."
-The Myth of Sisyphus,
With the French existentialists - Merleau-Ponty (pic), Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Bachelard - came the still-neglected thesis that the realm of human experience is a study of its own: phenomenology;
A study better approached through literature, poetry, empathetic observation, and the school of hard knocks than through the blinkered lenses of social studies, science, or religious doctrine. Rooted in the skepticism and free-living curiosity of the Greeks, Montaigne, and Voltaire - and embracing the same sense of absurdity: after all, we die - the existentialists projected the value of self-defined work, engagement, and struggle as sources of spritual endurance, with no guarantees of righteousness.
"There is no longer a single idea explaining everything, but an infinite number of essences giving a meaning to an infinite number of objects. The world comes to a stop, but also lights up."
-The Myth of Sisyphus,
Every halfway decent film, that's not a string of manipulative cliches, offers a chance to live one's life again, in another body, place, time, situation. It's a window of empathy onto the lives of others-as-oneself.
Because its absurdity is so deeply grounded in the quotidian details of its reality, every halfway decent film, when the lights go out, fixes our gaze, as our gaze is fixed, nightly, in fantastic dreams.
In films that have endured in my own canon, one senses an awakened awareness to impending doom, (our
universal fate). This awarenes beats like a heart - (according to Godard: Truth at 24 frames per second). It brings with it desperation, longing, perplexity, and - when the film-maker is wise - a form of amusement, a grasp of destiny's cruel jokes: a provisional triumph of the spirit.
Directors of these would make a long list, but would include Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, pic), Wong Kar Wai, Kurasmaki, Ozu, Cassavetes, Bela Tarr, Jim Jarmusch - all refusing technical cinematic bombast in favor of deep, slow vision.
A PAIR OF MUSICIANS
"And songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic."
"If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years."
“Suffice it to say Dylan is a planet to be explored. For a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and a saw are to a carpenter. I like my music with the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in — so the bootlegs I obtained in the ’60s and ’70s, where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs.”
If there's any doubt to the hard-working scholarship that's always under-pinned Dylan's work, his serialized Theme Time Radio Hour is a map of regard and influence, of how good work is built on the respect, and embrace, of all the goodness gone before. And is there a better living exemplar of sustained musical intensity? Of how many variations there can be to raw simplicity?
"To me, [Dylan] makes William Shakespeare look like Billy Joel.”
There's been so much critical quibbling about Maria Callas. What year did her voice start to fail? Could she have gone on longer without a broken heart? Whatever. I can barely listen to another soprano sing opera. None come so close to divinity.
"No iron can enter the heart as icily as a period placed in time.”
The moment is real. Things count. And in this resonant, dangerous space, permeable to all the accidents of nature, we have some hope, literally, of having the world revealed to us, as in a dream. Things won't come out well; but how many beautiful and graceful ways are there for things not to come out well? It's useful for an architect to study great writers for how they achieve not only the narrative function story-telling, housing a plot in time and space - but how they make an art of the tools, the poetry, of their craft: the sound, rhythm, and patterns of words and phrases.
(Tolstoy, Melville, Isak Dinesen, Graham Greene, Nabokov, W.H. Sebald, Amis, Houllebecq, Krasznahorkai, and a big handful of crime writers, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard....)
THE RESONANCE OF ARCHITECTS
In designed contemporary environments - quite often targeted, for budgetary reasons, to scenography, spectacle, and brand standards - qualities so diligently pursued in the other arts can be harder to find - the inclusiveness of scholarship, an embrace of the contingincies of nature, finesse in the craft, and a combined sense that things are both at stake and a great deal of fun at the same time.
The master of it, in his details, was Carlo Scarpa, whose narrative eccentricity was matched by his mathematical precision of proportion (pics: details from Castelvecchio and a gate).
This sense of careful weaving, (Gottfried Semper's thesis: the literal origins of architecture), also appears in the craft- and place-rooted architecture of Wang Shu and Amateur Architects (pic), and, more abstractly, in the intensifications of urban compression in many of Japan's residential architects (pics: Sou Fujimoto and Kiroaki Ohtani, both refusing digitally-assisted journeys 'out-of-the box' in order to study and nurture the orthogonal urban condition the more richly).
Plutocrats and their politicians, scientists, and technocrats are, increasingly, striving to control and re-invent the context, replacing diverse public spaces with spectacles, knowledge with data, labor with robots, diversity with monopoly, and citizens with disembodied consumers.
Meanwhile, the universe refreshes its context every night, and every morning.
In all of the artistic work that's touched me most, there's a refusal of fashionable cant, an embrace of the good nature that remains, a modesty of invention, (say, a single turn of the screw), an embodiment of an urgent and ebullient spirit in the rhythms of the work, and a knowing of the price that one has to pay in deep, dark mining to find some part of bright beauty.
Well: this is the illlusory hem of the skirt that one always seeks to roll the stone towards.