January 9, 2020


There's a little story that I've wanted to recount to you guys here in the weblog. I've been drafting it in my head several times over in the past few days. I'll jump to the quick to salve any impatience: basically, this is about a teachable moment. In the meantime, I need to dress the scene adequately enough for those in this audience who are not well acquainted with the sport of fencing.

I'm not good at sports, never have been. A quick shout out to the legendary Chicago podcast Bad at Sports, very well named. Growing up with a father who never exhibited an interest in sports, moving around as much as my family did and being preoccupied with drawing and making things instead of team sports (we moved around a great deal as a military family) and involvement with objects that were spherical or related shapes... well, all this and probably more disposed me away from any popular sport growing up.

By the time I joined the Navy, turning 18 in bootcamp, I started to build in all those modules that I thought a guy should have. My dad was the strong and silent type. Of course I loved and respected him but he wasn't the kind of father who did a lot of shaping of his offspring. "You're on your own kid" was something he would say from time to time, the first time when I needed help with math homework. His deepest desire was that I would follow him into his passion for nature, travel and camping... but I would prove to be a disappointment on this front. So, by the time was in my early teens, being on my own, having the responsibility to shape myself physically and mentally, I was on my own. That was alright, it was all I had ever known.

After a few false starts (tennis, racquetball), I focused in on the sport of fencing. I'm not sure where the impulse came from. The influence was probably from an Uncle who lived a vivid life as a student in the University of the Philippines that I had witnessed in awe as a boy. His bedroom in my grandfather's home was a veritable museum filled with artifacts collected from his adventures in the Philippine Islands, swords among them. Aboard the cruiser I was stationed, I learned that there were a few shipmates who fenced, mostly officers who had fenced in college. So when we made a port of call in Singapore in 1975, I bought my first set of fencing gear. It was two sets actually, mask, foil and vest. We would practice together on the helicopter flight deck and hangar of the ship. When the seas were rough, the pitch and roll was interesting.

Actual effective lesson based training happened in my university years. There is one fundamental idea that governs fencing: that at its' origin, it was a dueling weapon drenched in the stakes of life or death combat. Accordingly, when a weapon was presented with an extended arm, it is a threat that must be dealt with prior to any subsequent action. Otherwise, suicide either singly or mutually would result. Sword fighting as a sport wouldn't make any sense outside of this parameter. So it is indispensable that an extended blade must be parried before a counterattack.

The control of distance is essential to the sport. Advancing and retreating in mirror form, you always want to be an inch away from your opponent's reach. The lunge closed distance explosively. Correct posture kept one ready to lunge at any moment. Posture and stance holds you ready for a lunge at any time. Feet at 45 degrees to each other, heels below your shoulders, knees bent. You must advance heel to toe, retreat toe to heel. To lunge, your foil and arm flies toward a target on your opponent. Then imagine simultaneously kicking a dime forward off your front heel, while simultaneously straightening your back leg. Do this in a controlled explosion, flying, and your momentum will carry you a little bit farther than a simple extension, overcoming your opponent's control of distance and drive the point home.

Fencing is one of the martial arts. Comparisons to chess and boxing are not trivial. It's not unusual to walk away from a bout with bruises from the impact of the blade. Action and counteractions compound factorially at speeds at the threshold of perception. The target area of foil fencing is the torso, which is divided into quadrants. Only one quadrant can be defended at a time. There is a recombinatorial economy of limits in that an attack into one quadrant exposes all other quadrants to a riposte. When an opponent attacks, all their target areas are wide open. In the immortal words of Sun Tzu, all warfare is deception, therefore the feint is fundamental. This is when you let it be known that you will attack into one zone but you switch off to another in the blink of an eye. It's all about establishing patterns and breaking them. You're telling a story and as soon as it is taken for granted, you pull the rug out from underneath them... like a really good story. Like a really good fight. Fencing is mind versus mind and the foil determines who wins and who loses.

Fencers are covered in protective clothing nearly from head to foot. Since the action is vigorous, a bout leaves you dripping in sweat. From the perspective inside the visor's metal mesh, peripheral vision is nearly irrelevant. Advancing and retreating to control distance, lunging to close distance, one's eye is fixed on the tip of the opponent's blade and body language is the key to knowing where next their blade will go.

In Los Angeles in the late 80's and early 90's, I fenced at the Westside Fencing Center in Culver City. It was a place that was a home for Olympic fencers, actors and enthusiasts like myself. People there ranged in age from little kids to seniors, people from all sorts of professions gathered there, it was interesting to get to know them all. I took note how the older guys conserved their energy even as they fenced vigorous youth, employing the wisdom of the years. Usually, a member of the club would contract with an instructor, engage in lessons and fence with others afterwards. It was kind of like going to a dance where one asked for a bout, closing social distance. There was a colorful spectrum of characters available as instructors, some classical, some jaunty, some quiet and brimming with the promise of a well of hidden knowledge, some more modern in their background and disposition. They wore gear that was distinctive and eccentric but usually black. Some moonlighted in Hollywood, others specialized in the world of the tournaments regional and international, some were European and it mattered if they were from Italy or Hungary. Each had a peculiar character stamp on how they taught the sport and if you switched up instructors it was best to bear that in mind.

So it was that one day after my lesson, I asked a guy for a bout. There was a subgroup of fencers who were too old for the Olympics but they carried on in casual tournaments. The kids were frenetic and sloppy and the older guys paced slow although a few of them still could best you in a bout despite that. Between these extents were the formidable middle who possessed the energy of youth but were assimilating the wisdom of how to control it. This guy was in his upper 30's, an accountant and you could see this in his bearing and how he handled his gear. Meticulous. Fit. He seemed to have extensive experience in college, his gear was worn, battle scuffed and well broken in.

We got on the piste, connected our gear to the wire score system and pulled on our helmets, testing the connection by pressing the button of the blade on the conductive metal lamé vests, colored lights flashing. I rather like the custom of the salute with foils at the beginning and handshakes at the end, so civilized. When you fence someone for the first time, you advance and retreat cautiously, studying your adversary, looking for a pattern to break, exhibiting a pattern your opponent thinks he could break.

I held my foil and comported my posture in the manner of my instructor and I laughed about it, commenting to the accountant that this is like so and so's style. I remember holding an image of the instructor in my mind, chuckling about him and his eccentricities.

The accountant stopped and furiously pulled off his helmet, piercing me with a slam of his eyes, disgusted. "IS THAT WHAT YOU'RE THINKING?" That accusatory moment cut me to the quick. It seemed to have lasted forever. I'll never forget this. What the actual fuck was I thinking, indeed? He caught me trivializing the art and sport of fencing. My head wasn't in the game. I was being meta. Cute. I thought I was being clever. I wasn't there to fence but to charm him. This was less than being a bad sport, I was using sport as an instrument for other ends, no matter how intentioned. The accountant pulled his helmet on and we assumed the posture en garde. We resumed the game and I never forgot his lesson.

Dave Chappelle quoted Miles Davis as he accepted his 2019 Mark Twain Prize, saying to his audience: "It took me all these years to learn how to play like myself." I remember one of the first things I was told in art school: "Anything that you have made and anything you had thought has been made and thought before. Nothing is new. The sooner you realize this, the better off you'd be." At the face of it, this is not a bad method as standard pedagogical practice. It's important to disabuse complacency, to kindle ambition and self knowledge. But if I were teaching art school, I would add that with much effort, it is possible if not desirable to exhaust the catalog of influence and arrive at a place all your own. Actually, this is indispensable for an art career of distinction.

It was the hall of mirrors epoch of Postmodernism that folded the realms of imitation and distinction into each other, deepening the complexity of existence. I believe that the erasure of distinctions is the soul of Postmodernism. Rauschenberg's DeKooning erasure is a signal act of the age. Every argument requires artifice, every story exaggerates, omitting some elements, inflating others, coloring outside of the lines. Picasso famously said that "art is the lie the reveals the truth". The Postmodern argument forgot this, taking itself too seriously. Truth is denied in a Postmodern worldview. If you doubt this assertion, explain the widespread acceptance of the assumptions glowing within Francis Fukuyama's "End of History and the Last Man". The effect of this is that we have assumed deep down that we have arrived at the eschaton, the end of the world and final events of the divine secular plan. We have, in our vanity, legislated the end of cultural succession, a coup e'état of future world views. This is a time where Narcissism and Autism are handy descriptors of people and experience. We are by and large, trapped within the helmet of Postmodernity, amused by inside jokes and ironic inversions. Nothing new is possible. There is nothing that needs be done. This is popular opinion in the art world today. Talking about this mental and social entrapment is disturbingly surprising within my community, if not odious to them when they are confronted with it. The subject of Postmodernism is verboten. The subject of History is verboten. Everything is everything, nothing is more important than anything else and few have any critique to present to this remarkably stubborn circumstance. The lane of acceptable discourse is avidly enforced, blinders firmly in place. This long-in-tooth Postmodern world is a Steady State Universe, relentlessly expanding until the last photon winks out. It is indeed old, 60 years old if you date its inception to the entry of Pop Art.


To my fellow artists who might be reading this blogpost: what are you thinking when you are making art?

Posted by Dennis at January 9, 2020 10:29 PM

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