May 18, 2021

Memento Mori



Life is short, art is long.

"All this, and then you die."

I forget when and where I was when these words first surfaced in my mind. I do remember that it was a moment when a vast panorama of nature was before me. Or am I sweetening this thought? I'd like to say that it was in my Navy days. The endless horizon of the Pacific has this power. But ultimately I'm not certain of the moment of its appearance. However, the thought had held fast. Every so often with long periods of time between, it arises gently as if in a whisper.

Maybe there are artists who care less if their works survive their author. I don't think I've every met such a person. I'd say that the assumption is so universal that we underestimate the temerity of the proposition. The immensity of immortality, even a cheap one that lasted only a generation or a century, is the presupposition of every artist.

We expect to freeze time when an art work leaves the studio. When a collector buys a piece, frames it, guards it jealously, donates it to a museum powerful enough to protect it, it is expected that entropy will be arrested with care. It is such a strange assumption that this is so. Defying degradation. It amounts to resisting gravity, denying the universe, challenging nature. We raise our tiny little fists against eventual heat death of the cosmos and we do it all as a matter of course.

Of course.

Of course, that scenario is the province of the successful artist. Of the thousands of artists graduating out of the graduate art schools in my country, of the millions worldwide, every year, multitudes beyond measure over recorded history... the ones who were graced with recognition and protection are but a sliver of the whole population. All art is in movement. The dark alternative to the chain described above, studio-gallery-collector-collector-museum... is the trajectory from the studio to the living room wall or bedroom to a closet or garage or storage space to a landfill. Even in the better scenario, a museum always has the option to exercise its right to deaccession.

We know only a fragment of the art of antiquity. Museums are filled with pieces dug from landfills. Civilizational keepsakes, their collections are fragments of fragments of what art originally existed. Sculpture and architecture survive the elements best, most paintings are lost save the ones who were fortunate to be buried under volcanic ash or sand or who used a coffin lid as a canvas. Until recently, we thought that Greek sculpture was created and celebrated in pristine marble. We were unaware that they were colorized. This misgiven idea of fidelity to materials even spawned the Arts and Crafts movement, not that that was a bad thing. There was much we didn't know. Cave paintings are universally praised and crowds have to be restrained and limited so that even their breath won't degrade the pigment. Imagine the strong possibility that prehistoric humans didn't restrict their painting to the dark inner recesses of underground chambers. Imagine the whole open prehistoric landscape painted lividly. And now this is gone, available only too fancy.

If mankind was predisposed to surrender to the futility of making art that survived their author, what kind of pathetic existence would that be? In my home, we have a small painting made by my mother in law. It hangs by the entrance. It is a scene of her children walking the surf line of a beach, backs to the viewer, wind pushing their hats back on their heads. Even given that most every day we hustle in and out of our apartment blinding past that little painting, there yet exists times when we stop and look at the traces of the hand who made it, missing the mind and presence that made it. Ok. Let's not call it immortality. Let's call it survivability. Scale that up to civilizational levels. A world that did not believe in the value of a keepsake would be a bleak and even brutal place. There would be no museums. No music. No souvenirs. No sentiment. No love.

Memento mori. Remember thou art mortal.

When I read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, I was initially attracted to the message, of the importance to live in the moment, to savor life as it is lived, the importance of tempering the appetite if only to keep such appetites from destroying themselves. But when I came to his passages about the worthless of ambition, the artist within rebelled. Stoicism for artists is good for survival in their meantime but in terms of posterity it is a sapper of energy. Without meaning to be mean, but wasn't the lives of Aurelius and Seneca bracketed by despots? This detachment and reserve did little to curb the appetites of those who could have been influenced to have used some tempering themselves? In this regard, Stoicism feels a bit selfish. Or maybe the personal philosophy of the likes of Caligula, Nero and Commodus was an inversion of Stoicism? Remember thou art mortal, so get you some.It's like the fabled Ring of Gyges, a license to act with impunity since the sentence of death comes for everyone virtuous or not.

Artists by their nature struggle for recognition. We expect acknowledgement and acceptance when we graduate from grad school. If that doesn't happen in the first five years, we set our horizon for another five, then ten, then twenty. Sometimes, we see exhibitions that salute the "overlooked artist" in their 80's or 90's. Is it just me or doesn't every artist who witnesses this feel for a fleeting minute that their accolade came too late, that the tip to the waiter was mean and chintzy? Failing all these stops, the artist hopes for posthumous recognition. Ah, their work was meant for a future audience. At this point, the work of art must argue for its own survival moment to moment.

Posted by Dennis at 7:16 AM | Comments (0)

May 9, 2021



I'm getting back onto the saddle.

New format: a summary upfront and a party in back.


It's time to blow the rust off this weblog.

The wretchedness of the past year wasn't the prime cause of the growing torpor of my activity in this blog. Blogs are an artifact of the first decade of this century. By the middle of the second decade, the idea of social media accelerated into tighter, more restricted formats such as Twitter and Instagram. With the rise of "social media influencer", the idea of celebrity became democratized beyond the 20th century concept of the celebrity. It was another kind of gold rush where everyone felt the pressure to network into the masses inhabiting social media. Face to face social relations became refracted into the screens in our hands. Body language, facial expression, the give and take of conversation was traduced into a pixel processed jpeg plus diminishing lines of text.

Because I had initially resisted the reductive abstraction of communication, I had entered the fray late. It didn't help that I was throwing cold water on the enthusiasm of my friends in this arena by disputing the claims of the authority of social media in the role of self promotion. It was clear to me and there was little I could do to convey this persuasively to others that the people who were successful in social media were either teenagers (girls, specifically) or those who had already garnered their own audience prior to their entry into that realm and thus had enough leverage in the form of social capital to multiply their market of attention. In the first case, sexy youth is a prime driver in all markets and in the latter, the fire that is past the tinder phase can only grow stronger as the logs are added.

There too is also the problem of enslavement. The empires of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have us chained to the oars of their triremes. They buy out their competition (and simultaneously, the upstarts sell out) and corner the marketplace of attention. We slaves think that the service is free and that we are assisted in connecting with our friends... and to be fair, we do but albeit in a diminishing manner.

The rich got richer. Funny, how that happened.

And then came the pandemic and we were thrown all the more into the propulsion of the trireme. Online meetings such as Zoom and Ring have displaced corporeal face to face. Office life has been relocated into the home office. Business attire only has to serve the angles of the camera. At the moment of this writing, New York City suffers 7 million empty square feet of office space. It will be interesting to see how much of this will persist after the world opens up again.


I'm re-engaging this weblog.

A friend echoed others when he gently suggested that keeping track of what I do in this medium is challenging due to my tendency to logorrhea. Spontaneously, I remember the occasional discomfort of friends when I tend to use a vocabulary that's occasionally richer than what is typical. My Filipino grandfather used to boast (he had a big personality) that his command of the english language was superior to most Americans. I feel his gene.

The plan going forward is to have my cake and eat it too. Long form in the extended "click to read more" section and an abstract summary up front. You see, it's easier for me to write as I please with a minimum of edits on the fly. I anticipate that the blogging will be more fluid this way. The problem that grew in the past was an expectation of delivering some kind of finished product and editing takes time. Editing is what real writing is. I don't do enough of it to qualify for the title.I don't think that what I'm doing here is writing of any caliber comparable to the writers that I respect.

New format = abstract + aria.

The thing is, I'm not getting younger. I'll be 65 at the end of this summer. As the grave looms, so does the need to leave more of a trace of myself as I can. A trace that is, beyond the physically persistent existence of an art work, an object that will be tasked with arguing for its' own survival.

Posted by Dennis at 5:10 PM | Comments (0)