I am Goya

Of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged

Till the craters of my eyes gape,

I am grief,

I am the tongue

Of war, the embers of cities

On the snows of the year 1941

I am hunger

Andrei Vaznesensky[1]

 [Phil, I was in the DC area last week, and stopped by to see our friend Rosemary Covey.[2] She has a brilliant, and as usual disturbing, new line of work; it’s topical, a “sign of the times,” you might say; and one piece in particular left me gob smacked. So much so, I might add, that I remembered an idea we had a while ago, but later discarded: i.e., to nominate annually some work of art that best exemplifies some of the worst characteristics of the human race.  

I know you think that’s too negative; that we should focus instead on the positive things in life; but I disagree. If you want flowers and ponies, or visions of the afterlife, go to the church of your choice.  Artists who spotlight the evil out there do us a valuable service. I’m thinking of a series of prints called Los desastres de la guerra[3] that Francisco Goya[4] produced in the early 19th Century. I understand they’re well thought of, even today. Certainly the Russian poet Andrei Vaznesensky knew about them. So one shouldn’t kill [or ignore] messengers simply because they bring unpleasant news.

I know we’re supposed to look for consensus before branching out, and art criticism definitely is new to our blog; so please run my idea by the others. If you [and they] agree the project is worth doing, then please do it. With a little research I’m sure the team will find a way to say something sensible. For my part, it’s hot and I’m heading to the beach. Ta, ta! See you in August!

Oh, and I’m emailing you the image that caught my attention. Rosemary says we can use it in the blog. I’m interpreting that as, “for one blog post only.” G. Sallust[5]]

Well, our illustrious founder has struck again. He’s come up with a project, delegated the work, and left town. Normally I don’t agree when he does things like that but he asked nicely this time and the picture he nominated is, well, extraordinary. Perhaps “arresting” is the better term. Anyway, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Just looking at it warps most of my ideas about what art should do; it’s brutal, graphic [of course it’s graphic; it’s a picture], and detailed, but not overly so. Much more detail and it would be pornographic, at least to someone of a certain mindset. This picture says its piece about the human condition, but stays on the right side of mental illness. Thank God for that. Now if our media would just do the same.

What picture am I talking about? We have a very good image of it, provided by the artist, that we’re posting separately, but at the same time as this commentary. The title of that post is The 2017 EZ2 Picture of the Year. As of now the picture itself doesn’t seem to have a name.

Let’s start with an admission. Unlike G. Sallust, I like “pretty” pictures. I’m in good company there; for centuries intelligent people treated art as something that lasts forever, at least in theory. “All passes,” said Henry Dobson. “Art alone [e]nduring stays to us, [t]he best outlasts the Throne …”[6] Or, more simply put: “Art is long and life is short.”[7] Of course that doesn’t apply to art materials. Ask any conservator what she [or he] has to do to keep things looking fresh in the museum.

Pretty pictures can be a refuge for the weary. Gustav Flaubert, a French author most of us read in college, thought art was something “to conjure away the burden and bitterness” of life.[8] Oscar Wilde, the English writer, agreed. He said: “It is through Art … and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”[9] That man could certainly turn a phrase, couldn’t he? And finally Saul Bellow, a modern novelist I like, put it best. “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer … in the midst of destruction.”[10]

I like it: To meditate or pray by looking at art. For sure you would need quality pictures for that. But that’s not the only view out there. Marshall McLuhan, for example, said that advertising was the greatest art form of the last century.[11] Fancy you or I meditating over some advert in Rolling Stone! If your significant other caught you staring at something like that, she [or he] might think you were up to nothing good! Then there’s our President, Donald Trump, who back in the 1980s said that deals and deal-making are his art form.[12] I’m not mentioning this simply to be facetious. My point is that there’s a whole range of opinions about art and how or why we make it.

We first met Rosemary Covey back in the early 1980s, when she had a very small studio in the old Torpedo Factory Art Center. By “old” I mean the building that existed before the renovation; the one that was far larger and, I think, full of asbestos. Anyway in those days she specialized in wood engraving, a wood cut technique that involved gouging fine lines in super-hard wood blocks. Those she would ink and print from by hand; and “by hand” I mean by laying paper on the inked block, then rubbing the paper with a wood spoon until the ink transferred. The whole process was laborious and accident-prone.

Eventually she went to a professional to print the larger things, but that was laborious as well, because she’s a perfectionist. So she moved on, bought a hand press, and did most of the print work herself.  Since then she’s worked with a variety of techniques, and today specializes in a kind of collage that utilizes her own images, rather than found objects, and painstakingly assembles, modifies and adapts them into a wholly different thing. The final products can be quite beautiful, or brutal, depending on her intent. But always they involve an enormous amount of effort and each, in my view, is its own thing. These originals are not reproductions although from time to time she has reproductions made from them.

So what did Rosemary Covey make with the Picture of the Year? Not a pretty one, that’s for sure. But there’s a view out there that art is anything you do to create order out of the chaos that surrounds. “Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.”[13] I think that’s close to the truth of her enterprise and this work.  She’s showing us an underlying reality of today’s world, and this time it’s bad.[14] Nobody should kill the helpless. That seems obvious, I guess, but judging from the headlines it’s not so to a lot of people. Hopefully they’re not all psychopaths and some can be made to listen.

But is this really Art?[15] Yes. “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man [or woman] go together.”[16] She’s done that with this work. And by the way, she ought to think about naming it. Francisco Goya has already taken No se paede mirar[17], but something more contemporary along that line might do.

There, that’s enough from me. Award confirmed.

 

[1] See ODQ at Andrei Vaznesensky, p.817, n. 1. He was a Russian poet, quite popular here in the 1960s. For more information check out the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Voznesensky . I don’t believe he was an art critic, but he did seem to know the artist Goya’s work pretty well. Goya’s famous for a lot of things, one of them being a series of prints on war. See note 3.

[2] She has a web site at http://www.rosemaryfeitcovey.com/ . There’s also an out-of-date write up on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary_Feit_Covey . Go to the website.

[3]The Disasters of War”.

[4] That’s Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, who is not to be confused with the food company. There’s a pretty good write-up about him in Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Goya .

[5] G. Sallust is our distinguished founder.

[6] See ODQ at Henry Austin Dobson, p.278, n 15. The full quote is: “All passes. Art alone, Enduring stays to us, The Best outlasts the Throne, The Coins, Tiberius.” Actually I don’t really think of Roman coins as works of art but, on the other hand, I don’t collect them. Dobson lived in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. You can read the essentials about him at Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Austin_Dobson .

[7] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 614, n. 32.

[8] See ODQ at Gustav Flaubert, p. 325, n. 16. The full quote is: “Human life is a sad show, undoubtedly; ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for people of feeling, than to conjure away the burden and bitterness.” It’s a translation, of course. Everybody knows about Flaubert but if you don’t, check out the Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gustave-Flaubert .

[9] See ODQ at Oscar Wilde, p. 835, n. 28, and p. 836.

[10] See ODQ at Saul Bellow, p. 66, n. 2. Most of Saul Bellow’s major works remain in print courtesy of the Library of America.

[11] See ODQ at Marshall McLuhan, p. 503, n. 17. The actual quote is: “Advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century.” Everybody in my generation knows about him, but probably no one else. If you’re interested check out his official site at https://www.marshallmcluhan.com/films/ .

[12] That’s from the 1988 book, Art of the Deal. You can also find the relevant quote in the ODQ at Donald Trump, p. 801, n. 16. “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully or write wonderful poetry, I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.”

[13] That’s from Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher of the early 20th Century. See ODQ at Alfred North Whitehead, p. 892, n. 14. If you want to know more about Whitehead the philosopher, start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/

[14] “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible.” See ODQ at Paul Klee, p. 407, n. 16.He was an artist.

[15] “The Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: It’s clever, but is it Art?” See ODQ at Rudyard Kipling, p. 453, n.19.

[16] See ODQ at John Ruskin, p. 660, n.3.

[17] That’s “one cannot look at this.” See ODQ at Francisco jose’ de Goya y Lucientes, p. 357, n. 15.