dorian gray is gay (and edward larson betrayed us all)

dorian gray as portrayed by hurd hatfield in the 1945 movie

dorian gray as portrayed by hurd hatfield in the 1945 movie

I’m re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I do every so often. In a scant few pages are packed philosophy and idolatry, a cautionary tale, a revelation of adoration, an abundance of clever wordplay, all wrapped up in gorgeous prose.

The book also was infamously used as evidence against Oscar Wilde during his trials. Using books as legal stichomancy is disreputable; but if certain passages were selected to condemn him, others can be pulled to defend him, and perhaps all artists.

In the story, Basil Hallward tells Lord Henry Wotton that he doesn’t want to show his painting of Dorian Gray at an exhibition because he’s put too much of himself into it. Basil says he has unintentionally revealed his artistic and personal worshipful admiration of Dorian, things he especially doesn’t want Dorian to know. If others were to see it, “…the world might guess it; and I will not bare my soul to their shallow, prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under their microscope.”

Basil goes on to say that artists should put nothing of their own lives into their work, and that art should not be treated as a form of autobiography. But of course we all do to some extent. Wilde did, too.

In order to create something beautiful and meaningful, revelations will occur. Some things can be cleverly concealed with a bit of creative manipulation, but artists will uncover parts of themselves, it’s inevitable. And, it’s intentional. Artists want to generate stories as experienced through their personal lenses. They create the path, and we navigate using our own perception. Neither has complete control of the exchange, and that’s what makes art beautiful, and imperative to human experience.

Those who hold nothing back willingly subject themselves to scrutiny, but the audience has the responsibility to scrutinize with the expectation of no absolutes, and refrain from censorship and misapplications. Without the synergetic relationship between art and audience, there can be no meaningful exchange.

As for those who try to use art against the artist, against others, and for dogmatic gain, they reveal an ugly image not of the artist, but of themselves. An idiot extracts what they please to uphold their own beliefs; a philosopher takes the opportunity to question beliefs. Why pander to ignorance, even to save judgement? At times, there may be little solace in knowing your own heart and head, but there is great dignity. In the end, that is what Wilde exemplified, and it has made him a champion as well as an artist.

spit out the kool-aid (it’s a sugary trap)

If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it—Robert Hughes

but is it art?

but is it art?

I just spent a depressing hour and fifteen minutes watching Robert Hughes’ documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse. This was made in 2008 – I’m always the last to discover nearly everything, and this is partially due to my avoidance of the media. That’s a choice, and I pay for it by remaining unconversant. But eventually I’ll come across things on a journey that is most likely motivated by a need for inspiration or a necessity of research, and that’s how I stumbled upon this documentary.

Hughes’ statement was made in the last few minutes of the program, which focused on the monetization of art, and art appreciation being usurped by monetary value driven up by clueless but rich investors rather than artistic merit.

I mostly avoid the media because nearly everything in it is scary and sad. The scene he painted for us is very scary, terribly sad, and that’s because it’s pretty accurate. It’s not a fantasy depiction of dystopian society, it’s fact. But this quotation, “If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it,” which is meant to denounce contemporary art, is, I think, somewhat missing its own point. Contemporary art is telling us loads about the world we live in. It’s a chilling point, but a precise one.

Modern humanities scare the shit out of me. I suppose that looks to put me squarely in the camp of those who shake their fingers and say “when I was young,” even though a) when they were young is was fundamentally no different, and 2) it’s a little early for me to be setting up my tent. Aside from being untimely, I’m also outside of my demographic in my tastes and viewpoints. I know this, and yet I solidly agree with him in my existentialistic way: Everything’s shit, it’s all shit, and we walk around with this shit on the soles of our feet, oblivious to the fact that we’re the ones spreading the stench.

I’ve tried really, really hard to understand contemporary art. I’ve studied and observed, and I want to see the meaning, the beauty, the reflective messages, but more often than not, I can’t. Hughes stood up and pointed out the nakedness of our praise, and that’s a brave action to take. He was not afraid to be loud, clear, and direct—the way he laid into Jeff Koons was turn-your-head-away “ouch!” And the really painful thing of it was the integrity behind the observation. I think Hughes earned the right to make his declarations based on his nearly 50 years as a professional art advocate and critic. And before you think, “50 years? Yeah, but he was ow-uld!” consider that he started out in the 60s, right when pop culture had stepped into the forefront of expression. He was a young man in the thick of it, so I think his perspective has a generous dose of validity.

Art is subjective, I’ve echoed that sentiment a million times, and I believe it. But it’s also become subject to a popularity contest driven by mob rule. Artistic culture is being piloted by publicity and profit—the very things it’s meant to analyse and decry. Scary and sad, scary and sad.

Why am I so obsessed with this? Because we’re standing around letting it happen, and I really do think that we, the non-moneyed masses, are better than this, and much more powerful than we believe. Unfortunately we’re also apathetic, and more than willing to go with the flow if it means we don’t have to pick up an oar and paddle against the current. Politically, artistically, theologically, we’ve castrated ourselves. And you know what? That sucks.

crushed as the goal is reached

the walk - falling leaves  Vincent Van Gogh

the walk – falling leaves
Vincent Van Gogh

I’m back in the mode of thinking about art. Fine art – paintings. Out of any artist I can come up with, Van Gogh’s art is the most intimately communicative of his state of being. You can see what he’s feeling in the colors he uses, the textures of the paint – not just the concept he wants to capture, but his emotions, his connection, his outward expression of inward perception. That’s why I love him so much, and why his art hits me right in the gut when I look at it.

When I saw my first Van Goghs at the National Gallery in London, I reflexively let out this little squeak, almost a distressed sound, and several people turned to look at me, probably to make sure I wasn’t about to upchuck on the heels of that crude display. Sunflowers, a chair, a pair of crabs – fairly simple, innocuous stuff, no hidden messages or symbolic meanings, no profound statements or grand, sweeping canvases, and yet, there’s a poignancy in these paintings, as if he’s left pieces of his self inside the images, with their shaky edges and thick slaps of paint.

One of my favourite paintings, not at the National but at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, is The Walk – Falling Leaves. I first saw a picture of this painting many years ago, when I was reading Jean Paul Sartre’s “Nausea,” and it seemed to me the perfect representation of Antoine’s confrontation with existence in the park, a sort of melding and separating that he experiences between himself and in particular, the trees, and describes as the melting of a veneer, a residue of “soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, a frightful, obscene nakedness.” He’s frightened, horrified, and also mesmerized and grasping for understanding within himself, in the deepest resonance he can manage.

Van Gogh’s paintings seem to me to exist on this level of revelation. In The Walk, the trees are lovely and majestic representations of a fall day, and also twisted and blackened around the edges and at the roots, grasping at the earth as their temporary death approaches. They are, as Antoine explains, a breathless understanding, a “belonging… that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea.” The objects and landscapes he painted belong in that same way: the chair a part of the quality of the man, the sunflowers a class of yellow objects, external things he managed to capture without changing anything in their nature. They live in a way that, as Antoine explains, inconveniences us – or me, at least. A wonderful, breathless, squeaky inconvenience.

I think that’s the best individuals can hope for when searching for some form of elevation. I think it’s a mistake to believe that a sense of achievement ultimately comes in the form of spiritual comfort. Or no, that’s not quite what I mean to say. I guess it’s the thought that we’re really getting anywhere by seeking comfort that is the mistake.

Not that I think Van Gogh was an enlightened man. I think he was a troubled man, battered by his own emotions and his inability to control all that he thought and felt, until he picked up his palette. Then, there is evidence of controlled chaos on his canvases. Controlled chaos is the true awakening of the “spirit” as it’s known. I’m not suggesting this comes with self mortification or the slashing off of body parts – not the sense of being in the way as Van Gogh felt himself to be – nope. Controlled chaos is the trick of it. To see with an “artistic eye” the abstractions of life, to allow ourselves to actively experience the horror, and obscenity and the nausea, and then to be able to find our way out of the park, stand opposite of the image, and smile back as it smiles at us. To be conspirators in the depictions.

That’s what his paintings are. That’s why they are so much more than paintings.

i sing the body electric

Whitman-leavesofgrassI recently watched a wonderful biography of Walt Whitman (American Masters). I knew beforehand about the significance of his lifelong work, Leaves of Grass, but I didn’t know anything about Whitman outside of what he presented through his poetry. He is the inspirational icon we all need, and this is why.

He came from a lower middleclass background, with little to inspire hope for something more. His father had big dreams, but became more and more bitter and unbalanced as he continually failed to fulfil them. He wasn’t a good example of perseverance and grace in the face of setbacks. But it didn’t discourage Walt. He maintained his own visions of success, incredibly lofty ones.

As a young man, he marched into the middle of New York with the idea of changing the world through his poetry. What? Really? Who the hell thinks they have the ability, much less the opportunity, to change the world through verse? Walt did. And though it took a lot longer than he had hoped, he did end up making a huge impact. Perhaps not world-changing, but certainly inspiring and thought provoking and incredibly forward thinking.

His first edition of Leaves of Grass was a small collection of poems, self published, with an irreverent full body sketch of Whitman in plain clothes and an almost cocky stance as the first visual. It was a “here I am” presentation that went directly opposite of the usual portraits of poets in their best clothes, and looking dignified in a cameo sort of way. It was a proper warning for what the reader could expect.

His poems gave the same full exposure to the workings of the human animal, mind, body, and spirit. There especially was a great focus on the body, the beauty of its functions, and how cleverly bodies fit together to precisely express what it is to be emotional, sensual, physical. And he didn’t hold back on claiming the same sensations, the same achievements of physical fulfilment between a man and a man. Whoa. In 1855, that took some great big balls. But if anyone was packing, it was the poet of the people, Walt Whitman.

The sheer force of the sensual experiences that he put forth – sensual in every possible connotation – brought tears to my eyes. Because how does a person live so boldly, so all-embracing, so fully engaged with the world? It would tear me apart to attempt such a thing. But his full-on embrace was the driving force behind his belief that he could be the Great American Poet, that he could put an end to the ills of mankind, including slavery, through his words. That he could so beautifully express love in all its varieties, and the sensuality of the grass beneath our feet, and the sky above our heads, and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by innumerable opportunities to engage our senses.

If that isn’t the world-changing model of how we should grab on and experience life – not just as observers, but as wholly committed participants… why finish that thought? It unequivocally is.

conversation with myself

foolSince I’ve already stepped out on a ledge, I’m going to take another toddle forward because why not. I’ve never known when to check myself, I’m a lot like The Fool in the Tarot deck – head in the clouds and blissfully unaware of where my feet are taking me. In this case it’s my words. They always have been my favourite mode of transportation, and like my feet, have an intimate relationship with my mouth.

I have a friend who is working on a thesis based around “dirty” books and how they’ve historically been dealt with by society and its laws. She’s exploring whether explicit sex is the last boundary in literature. I’m not sure whether it’s the sex itself or explicit sex as entertainment for the masses that’s creating a breach, but is it literary, or license?

Widespread exposure to sex via the Internet has made it safe (or at least convenient) for people to peek out of their closets and claim an interest, which in itself is a positive thing. But what are they meeting with on the other side of the door? I’ve been calling 50 Shades suburban porn – couch art. It has made the common denominator feel as if it has joined, at equal footing, a conversation that’s been happening around it all along. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. I mentioned in a previous post that the public has historically been unable to see brilliance from within its concurrent restrictions and opinions. Perhaps I’m having trouble seeing talent where I should, and that is entirely my fault. We’re at the foundation of new innovations to the written word, how it’s shared and enjoyed, and accepted by the public. Barriers have already been crossed and the question I have is this: is it freedom, is it destruction, both, neither – will it amount to anything? And ultimately, will it elevate us, or lower us?

Said friend mentioned Fanny Hill as parody of “sexually explicit virtue novels of the 18th century” as she put it. Everyone wanted to get their hands on it, mostly because they couldn’t – at least not without subterfuge, which is always a tempting little motivator. But what did it really do to advance literature? I’m still on my comparison of literature with other art forms, and as I said before, I think fine art had its revolution long ago. With installations such as Seedbed, I truly don’t know whether there are boundaries left to cross, at least not significant ones. What does that do to art?

But literature still does have clear boundaries between art and porn (even if it’s called by the more acceptable term, Erotica). So does film. As I told my friend, I find it very curious that literature and film are essentially neck and neck at the same signposts of restriction, when literature has been around for so much longer. One could argue that it’s because writing evolved along lines of religious representation, whereas film did not – but so did fine art. So why the discrepancy?

Does it have something to do with the written word as a common means of communication, which therefore has stunted its growth as art? Is the commonality the impediment? Or is it completely typical to disregard “impressions of sunsets” as having any value? Deconstruction is evolution in art. Fanfic is the new Fanny Hill – parody that has made a public splash, and found its defense in historical reference to having put access into the hands of the public via subterfuge. Deconstructed works of fiction. But don’t you need to understand the construction before you can successfully deconstruct?

Perhaps these works of 21st century Dada will ultimately have little effect on the ways we define literature. I’m not so sure. I think it will have a lasting and perhaps profound effect – I just don’t know what that will be, and it has me worried, because I’m already part of a much maligned genre of fiction that will not benefit from further compartmentalization. 50 Shadeseque writing is not empowering; it reinforces several long held—as well as a few brand new—stereotypes. That’s not something I care to see expanded. It’s the unenlightened contribution to a conversation that has remained incomprehensible not because it’s inaccessible – not anymore. But because it’s misinterpreted by those who will nonetheless interrupt the flow by diverging into tributaries that may or may not benefit the destination, unknown though that may be. Wherever it’s going, I’d prefer the momentum to be focused forward, and not diverted into little eddies of stationary movement.

sometimes a brick is just a brick: or, the incredible triteness of p33ning

Writing is my overriding passion, on which I spend most of my time and energy. But I also have a great interest in fine art, and I’ve spent years educating myself on different artistic periods and movements.

the lute henri matisse

the lute henri matisse

The Renaissance is overwhelming in the vast amount of sculptures and paintings produced, and I’ve just nicked its surface. I’ve spent a great deal of time enjoying the Impressionist period with its glut of bigtime artists, and the subsequent flow into modernism with Cézanne and Matisse leading the brigade. But I have danced around the perimeters of contemporary art, because for me, it’s a minefield.

It’s true that nearly every movement suffered through a period of adjustment, wherein art and artists were mocked before they were appreciated. New things are difficult to take in, and it does require dedication to receptiveness, and the trust that you will find the keys to opening those doors. I’m missing some keys.

le gerbe henri matisse

le gerbe henri matisse

I plunged in with Matisse, who showed us collage as fine art. There are certain shapes that repeat throughout his work, whether paint or paper, that make his evolution as an artist easy to follow. I have a great love for Picasso, which led me to his contemporary Duchamp, whose evolution was made in leaps rather than steps. He was a cubist painter who moved on to what he called Readymade art – he’s the one who signed a urinal and called it good.

Now, that was quite a jolt to the public. People hate to be jerked around, and that’s what it felt like to some – a twisted joke, making fun of their sensibilities. It was one of those Emperor’s New Clothes situations in the art community, where you were either going to join in the praise or fear for your head. Or miss out altogether.

fountain marcel duchamp

fountain marcel duchamp

The thing about Duchamp’s urinal was that it was legitimate, in that it was a new definition art. He saw it as engaging the viewer by providing an opportunity to view and define art from a different approach. He said he felt unmoved by these objects, and therefore instead of forcing us to praise the Emperor’s complete lack of clothing, we were allowed to stand back and make an assessment based on our own aesthetics.

I really am building to a point, here. Bear with me.

There have been standout artists in the time since Duchamp busted open those doors. Andy Warhol took everyday objects and arranged them in ways that we couldn’t help but notice, and therefore see in a different light. Jean-Michel Basquiat took graffiti and moved it into artistic statement. The thing is, there are a handful of standouts in a glut of artists. I know when I’m looking at a Basquiat, because there is unmistakeable skill in what he gave us. Put his work beside an admirer’s, and there absolutely is a detectible difference in the use of paint and form and space. We can’t all be geniuses.

untitled (skull) jean-michel basquiat

untitled (skull) jean-michel basquiat

So it is with much difficulty that I approach the majority of contemporary art. A signed commode does not speak of greatness to me, it speaks of a lack of originality. A dirty mattress shoved into a corner, a brick on the floor – to me, they read as jaded attempts to mimic a greater man’s work. However, I can’t believe that we’ve wrung all creativity out of ourselves, even as presentations such as these have me asking, “is that all there is?” Have we said everything, done everything? No. And there will be many more innovators who come along and pull us into something completely new. So far, with my present day view of what is and isn’t significant, I have largely been unmoved.

Sometimes, a brick is just a brick.

Which brings me to the second part of this diatribe: Are the plain bricks essential? Are they basic structures upon which the innovators can build their masterpieces? Or are they merely obstacles in the path.

david michelangelo di lodovico buonarroti simoni

david michelangelo di lodovico buonarroti simoni

I’m drawing a parallel between fine art and the written word, because I think the same factors apply. You have innovators and you have mimics, and in between there are perfectly acceptable, if not remarkable, stories to tell.

But there’s a new medium that is influencing our output and our standards, and I’m afraid it’s not all for the better. Epublishing is like Duchamp’s urinal. There is the initial innovation and the ability to engage the public in a way that has never before been explored, and then there is the ensuing onslaught of those who would sign their name to anything and call it good, not out of creativity, but because they can.

olympia edouard manet

olympia edouard manet

Finding your way as an artist is essential. There are a few prodigies, and there are a much greater number of those who work their way toward success. That’s true in any art form, including writing. But is it right to pull something half baked from the oven and serve it up to the public? Isn’t that detrimental not only to the artist, but to the audience? Standards will either drop to invisible clothing levels, or leave the public cold.

It’s freezing out there.

And I’m not happy about it, because it’s not the self published would-be artists—who have every right to hone their craft in whatever way they see fit—who are the problem. It is the proponents who are eschewing standards in favour of cheap and cheerful profit. It’s easy to do with a virtual product that requires little more than a push out the door.

les demoiselles d'avignon pablo picasso

les demoiselles d’avignon pablo picasso

And it’s definitely, definitely exacerbating the already existing obstacles in the path of certain genres. Genres that have a sexual focus. Genres that have gender centred focus. I don’t believe this is commode art, I never did. I believe there are innovators, and I absolutely believe there are great strides to be taken in introducing the public to new art forms, new thought processes, and a new way of engaging with the world.

It has happened before. The human body has long been revered as an artwork in itself. Prostitutes have become a revelation, their depiction a thing of beauty; urinals have become Fountains of forward thinking. Ugliness has been ground breaking and glorious. Defacing has offered statements of importance. In fine art, sex, along with several other plain and simple facts of life that have routinely been kept hidden, have become masterpieces of artistic expression. Why should the art form of words be any different?

nude descending a staircase marcel duchamp

nude descending a staircase marcel duchamp

But we have to respect it in order to elevate it. We have to revere it, and embrace the beauty in order to share it. We have to give the world something that will break through the barriers and allow others to see and experience in a different way. We have to believe in our art and respect ourselves as artists, and our venues and avenues must support that as well. We’ve got to step up and take control of what has become an increasingly precarious situation.

We’ve been used and abused as much as our subject matter, and the exploitation is becoming more and more mainstream. The more visibly prevalent it is, the more widely acceptable it becomes to marginalize. Those who have never before ventured beyond the black curtains are being introduced to a view that is the exact representation of their worst expectations, which greatly influences every subsequent encounter.

We don’t have to call it good, because I know we have something better to show for ourselves. We have prodigies and skilled artists and innovators who can lead the charge, if we as artists and champions of the art of words make it a priority to support them. Are we ready for a revolution? A Salon des Refusés for writers of debauchery, who are poised at the entry to a key shift in culture.

I think it’s time.

to be or not to be

How do we feel about author information? Authors are like painters and sculptors and filmmakers – they are not inseparably joined to the art, not physically. Not knowing who the artist is doesn’t detract from the significance of the piece. And I argue that at times, it’s preferable not to know. The freedom to be completely absorbed in the experience without intrusion. Yes, sometimes the artists are the intruders.

Does it matter that Caravaggio was an asshole or Truman Capote a sly little drunkard? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At least not at this point. Were Caravaggio alive today, we might have another view of his destructive, murderous temper. Distance can seal the gap.

And then there are the instances of a work being enhanced by the physical presence of the creator. Music is like this: people are interested in the performance, not just the music. Popularity of singers and bands often are not judged on the quality of work, but the allure of the presentation. If paintings and books were judged on the attraction of the artist, how many works would be rejected?

Truman Capote’s sensual author picture on the back cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms is what threw that genius of a writer into the spotlight. His work was worthy of attention, but the come hither look of the young author is in part what made the public, well, go hither and read his words. Would his popularity have been affected had it not been for that debut photograph? I’d like to think not. But soon his work was overshadowed by the troubled man beyond the pages.

Henry Miller, who was unmistakably a complete ass, became more charming once I saw an interview with him as a much older gentleman, that took place in his bathroom, of all places. Is he still an asshole? Yes. But now he is a forgivable asshole.

I had both condemned him and forgiven him long ago when I read his words. Words that made me want to slap the piss out of him, and also drew me in to worship. I wanted to lick those words right off the pages, no matter how tainted they were.

So does it matter? Are there forgivable and unforgivable sins? Is there a line to be crossed, a curtain which should be kept drawn? Pay no attention to the artist behind the art. The magic is in the meaning.