Category Archives: Art

Tradition and Modernity

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November 27

Let us go back to the old ways, the traditional ways, a time when all things were in harmony and expectance. Tradition is thought of as an idyll, a resting place.

But how can one locate tradition? Is authentic tradition the times of a century prior, two centuries prior or the times of an even more distant past? Tradition sinking into the depths of the dark pools of time achieves the recognition of veracity. But despite its unchanging fixedness (reification) in the imagination of a people, tradition thought of in this way does not exist, and it is not but a dreamland of placid peace created from an overflowing feeling of nostalgia, and the desire to sleep tranquilly.

Tradition outside these floating cloudlands of sleep is in a state of movement, moving everforward in a state of becoming. Tradition flows freely, constantly created by the members of a community, who also flow freely in and out, adding, deleting and changing old habits. “Authentic” tradition is a label, a creation of the modern era to find fixation in the vertiginous postmodern era lacking a stable authority, creating this nostalgia for the unexperienced past.

So within tradition there is no respite, as restless transformation engulf the pleasant memories of the well gone past, forcing the drowsy bedridden into anxiety in confrontation with the unknown.

Then what does it mean to be modern? Kundera’s formulation in L’Immortalite concludes that to be modern is “to be allied with one’s own gravediggers.” To be modern is to live and create the future, like Miles Davis who destroyed and innovated past the foundations of jazz that he himself created.

Eternal youth is not found in the clean refreshing springs of a hidden fountain in distant lands. Eternal youth is found in a pit, attained only by actively digging deeper and deeper, until the digger is eventually consumed by a quaking mound of earth.

Art and Democratic Production

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S. Eliot writes:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead… what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new… the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”

The artist is in dialogue with his predecessors, in dialogue with the whole cultural tradition, and each new work is not an isolated phenomenon but a piece that is connected to the whole and has the ability to transform the whole tradition with its emergence. Thus the artist to T. S. Eliot is a figure charged with a great responsibility in every single one of his creations, a responsibility not to himself but to his predecessors stretching back millennia of other great creators. With the advent of technology there has been a democratization in artistic creation. Whoever has an internet connection can now claim to be an artist and artistic creation becomes about a short-sighted expression of the self. Everyone is now a creator, an artist, but how many know the great responsibility they are charged with, while they chase their 15 minutes of fame?

Democratization through technology has not only affected production, but consumption as well. While works of art were initially like private conversations happening between the educated, wealthy elite, greater advancements in technology have allowed the ‘rabble’ to join in and listen. The printing press brought literature to the masses, $15 will allow the bored consumer to spend an evening at the cinema, and music has experienced democratization in consumption as well, as Kundera relates with the invention of the radio in L’ignorance:

“Already in 1930, he [Schönburg] wrote : “Radio is an enemy, an enemy without pity that avances irresistibly and against whom all resistance is without hope,” it “force-feeds us music, without wondering if we have a desire to listen to it, if we have the chance to receive it,” so that music became a simple noise, a noise among noises.)”

Music, which has become noise, is now a hodgepodge “where everything gets mixed without one knowing who the composer is (music-turned-noise is anonymous), without one distinguishing the beginning or the end (music-turned-noise does not know form) : the dirty water of music where music dies.”

What is art now but mere distractions for facile consumption and immediate forgottenness? No longer is it an extended conversation among distinguished luminaries lighting up the present to bring it forward into the future, the work of men and women who have vanquished Time and conquered death with their creations, which are the greatest achievements of a culture or a people. Now it is merely a commodity with a short shelf life, a hit of non-thought and momentary bliss into a fifty shaded world rooted in the groundless present, an isolated ephemeral manifestation of mediocrity.

While consumers and creators of the democratic arts drink to their inability, bathed in the drunkenness of the forgotten present, in an inebriated fiesta of mass consumption and gaudy glitter, the great wonders of cultural achievement lie forgotten a short distance away, accessible to any who are willing to sober up and walk to the public library…* (to be continued)

 

 

*a manifestation of the same mechanisms of technology and democratic production!

 

Translations from French:

“Déjà en 1930, il [Schönburg] écrivait: « La radio est un ennemi, un ennemi impitoyable qui irrésistiblement avance et contre qui toute résistance est sans espoir » ; elle « nous gave de musique […] sans se demander si on a envie de l’écouter, si on a la possibilité de la percevoir », de sorte que la musique est devenue un simple bruit, un bruit parmi des bruits…“

“où tout s’entremêle sans qu’on sache qui est le compositeur (la musique devenue bruit est anonyme), sans qu’on distingue le début ou la fin (la musique devenue bruit ne connaît pas de forme) : l’eau sale de la musique où la musique se meurt.“

 

Reflections on Lawren Harris

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Quite fortuitously had I been reading Slavoj Zizek’s Event in the TTC on the way to the exhibition “The Idea of North” for the works of Canadian G7 painter Lawren Harris as I read on page 22: “One possibility is that the immensity of the natural world, in its merciless indifference, has nothing to do with the concerns of human beings… the second half of the quote from Job, how the morning stars sing, reminds us that the appreciation of wonder and beauty is also possible. We may lose our ego in nature’s indifference, but we may also lose it in nature’s magnificence. Do we see the world as heartless or as sublime? [italics added]” Quite fortuitous indeed, as these were not Zizek’s words but the words of David Wolpe, who Zizek quoted in one of his stream-of-consciousness like ramblings that demonstrated the breadth and depth of his readings.

Lawren Harris (bear with my dearth of knowledge of his work and Canadian Art in general) experienced and imagined the ‘North’ to be a spiritual milieu in great contrast to the suffering of life in modern cityscapes, like Toronto where he lived. His paintings reflect the immensity of the North, as his tableaus reflect the intercrossings between the artist and the landscape, resulting in strong spiritual shapes of powerful cool colours in conversation with light and darkness. With the light and the darkness I felt both formulations of the natural world described in the first quotation, in the light that of an evocative intersubjective unity and in the darkness a cruel indifference. A painting like Lake Superior (c.1923) (pictured above) contains the contradiction of unity and indifference in a single frame, with the heavens opening up, peeking through the cracks of dark clouds to illuminate the boulders in the lakes in a transcendent oneness, while on the left side darkness reigns, dark shapes forgotten in the non-sight of the obscurity, empty and cold in its separation from the subject.

Both ways of viewing the natural world resonate with my experiences. Following one of Camus’ elaborations of the Absurd as “cette confrontation désespéré entre l’interrogation humaine et le silence du monde,” (this desperate confrontation between human questionings and the silence of the world), there is evidently an uneven separation between the human subject and the natural world. In contrast to this desire for clarity, a desire to move past causal explications towards comprehension, man is left without response. The natural world operates following its own whims forever heedless to our desires. Gazing up at a bed of stars on a clear moonless sky away from the city, face to face with countless glittering lights spread across a pitch black canvass, one can feel the smallness of personal existence under the unresponsive immensity of the heavens. In the grand scheme of things, if we took into account the supposedly billion galaxies in the universe each with (on average) a billion stars each, and in between, nothing but darkness, an unimaginably vast blank empty space, what stops us from concluding that man is only a cosmic accident, an unlikely result of probability, existing without a greater meaning or purpose? Past all my anthromorphic attributions (as I have described the natural world as “operating” following its own whims, and being “heedless” to our desires), the natural world and the universe just is, a constant series of effects and events, in contingent movement.

At the same time, within the same unresponsive natural world one can find acceptance and past separation, unity. A couple of days into a week-long Zen Temple retreat I undertook in the mountains of Korea after graduating high school, I remember suddenly experiencing a shift in the way I experienced the world. Within the horizontal flow of time I felt a vertical, qualitative dimension. In the next few days I lived in brief encounters with the “no-mind” state, the temple’s Head Masters told me about, a state that opens up after one stops thinking and starts being. The “no-mind” state is a shared state with the universe, and in this state I felt unity and harmony and beauty, a lived sense of the sublime.

With these oppositions in mind I enjoyed the rest of Harris’ tableaus of the North, these mysterious cold spaces of emptiness and profundity.