Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mental Nomad

Every once in a while I write a blog post on a single theme, like that last one. It seems the rest of my posts ramble from one topic to another. This will be one of those, the latter rambling type.

One reader of that last post responded with some interesting ideas. He thought I'd been too apologetic, pointing out, in his words, that "I don't think men need to explain why they enjoy the female nude. At all. It's how it's supposed to be." True, true. But I think the point I was really trying to make was about objectification, and even about its uglier relative, coercion. How does one appreciate the female nude without making women feel like objects to be manipulated or consumed? How does one appreciate the female nude and even make women feel empowered or glorified through that act? This conversation is necessarily a bit imprecise because I was talking more about the nude in fine arts, but I think you get the picture. The artists I touched on, Jassans and Helmut Newton, did in fact work with live nude models. And the choices they made in HOW they transformed those women into works of art have implications along this continuum that runs from objectification to glorification. 

I think that last post was in fact a bit influenced by the then-recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein's lecherous secret life, and the news on that theme has of course worsened considerably since then. It's all a bit hard to stomach... for me anyway. Christina says she is not surprised; that that's how the world is, how it works. But it's news to me... at least the scale of it. 

Another interesting point which was brought to my attention about my last post is the possible connection between my appreciation of beauty and my father's profession, which was that of a plastic surgeon. In fact his specialty was "facial rejuvenation," or, in common parlance, making people more beautiful. Even though as I write this it seems the connection might be an obvious one, in fact it did not actually occur to me until brought to my attention by a reader, and I'm still not so sure if the connection is meaningful. My investigation into beauty, my interest in it, is more about the universal appeal of it. I suppose that I'm operating from the preconceived position that the appreciation of beauty IS universal, and not just the special purview of plastic surgeons and their families. Certainly there's enough literature out there on the topic of beauty, not to mention the way we are all constantly bombarded by imagery of the beautiful, to bolster this idea that its appeal is universal. That is what I find interesting. And while it's true that between the ages of 8 - 10, approximately, I served as my father's operating-room photographer (an interesting fact in and of itself, if you ask me), I feel the lasting imprint of that experience had a lot more to do with an appreciation of anatomy and the mechanical nature of the human body than anything having to do with beauty. But who knows... it's an interesting connection to ponder.

The connection to my dad actually seems stronger in the department of appreciation of the nude within the arts. Like many fathers of the 1970's he somewhat unashamedly had copies of Penthouse and Playboy sitting around the house from time to time.. (my, how times have changed!) At one point in my late-20's, I stumbled across the work of a certain Ron Embleton in a bookstore in Los Angeles. Mr. Embleton was a stupendously talented English children's book illustrator who also did a stint at Penthouse magazine in the 1970's, producing exquisite gouache paintings for a comic strip called "Wicked Wanda." (The titular character, Wanda, was incidentally a very empowered woman who toyed capriciously with men, all while barely dressed!) I had forgotten about Wicked Wanda for 20 years, and seeing those images in that book in LA produced in me one of those rare, wonderful experiences in which the sudden rush of memories transported me back to my 8 or 9 year-old self. In those days in LA I was making good money in the film industry, and managed to subsequently purchase 6 original Wanda paintings, which are still the pride of my small art collection. I'm not sure what this story says other than that I've always appreciated the female figure, even as a boy. Now that I think about it, Kodiak is growing up in a house in which I try to normalize a "pure," Jassans-like appreciation of the female figure. Maybe times don't change that much.

OK, on to another topic. We've only been here in Berlin about 13 weeks, but that has been long enough to see some of what is annoying or frustrating about Germany (remember Germans' propensity for honking?) But... I've lately begun to notice some of the things that actually do work well here. Ironically, and just to get it out of the way, I'll start with... traffic!

The experience I particularly want to relate is that of driving in traffic in the more suburban outlying areas of Berlin (such as Zehlendorf, for instance... which is where we live.) What I like about the experience of driving in these areas is that no one ever seems to be in a hurry. I emphasize the word seems because people obey the rules, dive the speed limit, wait their turn, and yield to oncoming traffic when the road narrows, whether they are actually in a hurry or not. Of course I have no idea if everyone plans their days so damn well that literally, no one is ever in a hurry, or if on the other hand they simply rank courteous driving as more important than getting there on time. On the highways and the bigger roads in Berlin one does occasionally see someone driving aggressively, but its not common. After driving for a decade in LA, where literally everyone is in a hurry and they will cut you off whenever they think it might gain them a second, the experience here is downright civil. Christina talks a lot about the "We mentality" of Europe versus the "Me mentality" of the States, and I think this is an example of just that. It does put the honking into a slightly different perspective. Here in Germany there are rules, those rules are trusted to ensure that things work smoothly, and people have no qualms about letting you know if you are breaking the rules because they want everyone to follow them so that things can continue to work smoothly. Hence the honking. It strikes me as quite possible that the impulse to notify rule-breakers of their infractions might just be intensifying in these years, as the Germans feel the influx of new residents in their country who might just not "get it" yet. An instinct for following rules can certainly have its downside (Hitler, anyone?), but that's beyond the scope of this post. It seems to work for Zehlendorf traffic.

Which leads me to the highways. Driving on the highways here is a joy, for several reasons. First, no speed limits, at least in most places. Second, people drive well. They merge to the right when a faster car comes up behind, and expect others to do the same. Third, no cops. Seriously. Compared to the police presence on the highways in the USA (which is just one dimension of the pervasive fear culture over there, if you ask me) the experience is really low stress. Fourth, no fucking billboards. None. They seem to understand that advertising is visual pollution. The only signs you will see on the road are traffic and directional signs, and the occasional public safety messages, which I happen to like and find pretty effective. This one...

shows a crying young lady, presumably at a funeral, and carries the message "Finger off your cell phone." Pretty good. I find highway driving here far preferable to the US.

Home construction here seems to be carried out by silent little gnomes. The house next door to us is under construction and we never hear a damn thing, even though progress is being made on the house. They had a large 4-story tall construction crane assembled in the yard... and then one day it was gone. We didn't even notice them taking it away. I think this is another example of the emphasis on civility and quality of life, here embodied by the virtue of being quiet.

Yogurt. Damn, do they do yogurt well here. After trying many different brands, we've settled on this one, Lobetaler Bio. 

Their normal offerings are wide ranging, our favorites being Lemon, Bitter Orange, and Peach / Passionfruit. I really love their special seasonal offering Apple / Plum, which is perfectly seasoned with hints of Cinnamon, Anise, Clove, and Black Pepper. And these tubs are €1.89, a far cry from the $5.99 we are used to paying in Taos.

And well, the only thing they might do better than Yogurt is Beer. I'm a dark beer guy, and these labels show the variety of what I've been able to buy and try, just from the local supermarket. 

You can see that every single one of these is either a Schwarzbier or a Dunkel (Black beer or Dark). This variety really brings into clear focus the tragedy befalling the States in the last few years. Everyone over there is so in thrall to that supremely shitty and undrinkable abomination known as IPA that they can't seem to brew anything else. When was the last time you went to a craft brewery in the USA and had a Schwarzbier? A tragedy, I tell you. Anyone at TMB listening?

OK, shift gears. Burning Man. Life of an artist. 

The announcement of the Burning Man theme (which I mentioned briefly 2 posts ago) has been a good thing for me. A bit of a kick in the pants, as they say. The theme is "I, Robot." Naturally, I've forced myself to try to dream up sculptural work along the lines of this concept, and it's been strangely easy to do. The ideas have been coming fast and hard. While the biggest challenge for me is usually thinking of something that I feel is worth building, during these last few weeks it has been at least as much of a challenge to winnow down the field of ideas into the truly good ones... the ones I'd want to build.

(I want to point out here, as a side note, that in the course of researching topics related to robots I have come across the potentially very alarming issue of Artificial Super Intelligence, or ASI. It is scary shit. Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates, among other less well-known but equally smart people, are sounding the warning. Sam Harris, who I love and think is a genius, has this good talk on the topic)

The contrast between the difficulty I often feel trying to dream up ideas and the relative ease with which they've occurred to me after the announcement of the Burning Man theme points towards some interesting questions and observations about what it's like to be an artist. A quick analogy I can make to cut to the point here relates to the amount of self-direction required when one is an employee of a company. In this position (and I have been there; I know whereof I speak!), one typically has a degree of autonomy and self-direction, but it is usually in the form of how to solve a problem or complete a task. The task itself is normally handed down from above. The work is performed within a framework which defines the goals. This makes it relatively easy to "get to work" reaching that goal. 

An artist, on the other hand, must often define the goal (which is normally the work of management) and then also achieve the goal. For some reason the image of a nomad comes to mind; the artist as a nomad wandering around his/her own mental landscape trying to find the goal, trying to identify what might constitute art that he/she wants to see in the world but hasn't found yet, and must therefor make. A framework to guide that process can be quite useful. Some artists presumably work from within a framework like: "I'm only interested in painting beautiful big-eyed young girls with cats," which must make the process of defining the goal on a painting-to-painting basis almost a non-issue, allowing he/she to just get to work. (Oh my god I hate those paintings.)

For a while now I've felt like a nomad, wandering my inner landscape trying to find something meaningful, and... to my credit (I guess) I have found some themes and ideas which feel meaningful to me. Despite the pitfalls of that nomadic, framework-less approach, I think it does open up space... space in which to find something which is actually personal and meaningful. But it's definitely not the easier approach. The framework, on the other hand, short-circuits the nomadic method and, at least based on my own recent personal experience around the Burning Man theme, can provide a narrower focus within which the ideas can come faster. Clearly there are pros and cons to each approach. It does raise the possibility of self-defining a framework as an avenue out of the nomadic method, when that isn't working (which happens sometimes, believe me). I guess that "self-defining a framework" could be seen as simply a variation on the nomadic approach; after all, you're still doing the work of management. But I think if the theme is broad and rich, then... it just might work. I'll let you know if I ever try it.


I do feel myself easing out of my artistic dry-spell, which is nothing but good news. The "threat of a lawsuit" situation which has been hanging over my head for almost 2 years is close to wrapping up, which is also great news. I will be able to furnish a few more details on that sorry story soon, when it's all over. Christina and I have gotten involved with a collective art-space here in town called KAOS, which is great. Christina is there as I write this, working on a new sculpture. They are operating in the great "young people rent a warehouse, bring in some tools, make art" tradition which used to be going strong in the USA but I think is now starting to falter a bit under the pressures of gentrification and the Ghost Ship tragedy

Not too long ago I finished this little piece 

which doesn't really have a title yet but might be called "Tree Legs." I just made that up. This piece cracks me up.

And I'm working on a new clay portrait, which is getting close to finished. 

I figured out that I can use the pottery kiln at Kodiak's school to fire this, which is awesome. This piece hasn't really taken all that long to do and I'm happy with it so far. I will post pix when it is done.

My relationship to Berlin continues to be somewhat ambivalent, and actually sort of perplexing to me. It's got so much culture and so many resources, yet it somehow doesn't gel for me the way Barcelona did. Maybe it's the lack of charm? Anyway, that's a topic for another post. 

It's been nice to spend this time with you, my reader, and I hope you are well!