Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘Emotions’
Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.
Sunday, August 12th, 2012
Hope might seem a strange emotion to attach to the making and engagement of pottery. Yet I believe that this basic emotion is the very foundation of an affirmative grasp of life and all that it offers, including pottery. For me, it is also an essential outcome of memorable aesthetic experiences. Hope contains the remedy for despair. Much contemporary and post-modern art prefers despair and its more sensational aspects to the softer if not sweeter elements of hope. It is not sophisticated nowadays for artists to offer hope. Hope requires a greater investment and risk than despair. Despair is usually defined as a symptom of bad things that have happened to you or could happen at any time. Despair eventually leads you to an ever more dire condition. In the extreme, it can finally drive you to not caring. The doors and windows of your soul can close and the lights go out. Great art can lead you both places at the same time and in both cases the rewards can be great. This is a very delicate balancing act. To engage the sublime darkness of the human sprit in some metaphorical or aesthetic guise as created by an artist or author, yet find some fragment of hope in the very same place and circumstance is to my mind the highest form of aesthetic engagement.
Hope vs. Despair
Hope is something you have to handcraft and make for yourself and then implement it despite all the dire issues of your own existence. Despair arrives with the concrete evidence of hurt that has been inflicted upon you. Hope is projection of a wished for future that has no real guarantee. Hope is the yet unrealized emotion of a personal belief system that can have little basis in fact. Hope is always unproven. It cannot depend on the facts of the matter for its justification. Despair might entail an honest and realistic assessment of the situation. Hope always begins as an exaggeration, an inventory of the potential of undependable possibilities. Another advantage of despair is that it is far more dependable than hope. How we cope with despair is often far more revealing of our character than the unfulfilled dreams or illusions that hope can depend upon.
Despair becomes clinical depression when it appears to lack a basis for its existence but you cannot avoid its intrusion just the same. The circumstances of your present despair might well be the result of your own past errors. Given the common distribution of our fallibilities, how can we prove to ourselves and others that we even deserve to have hope? Another advantage of despair, when one surrenders hope, the pressure is off and any further injury can be received with a benign if not resigned submission. In that sense, hope requires a resistance of the soul, a determination to surmount difficulties that might seem at the time insurmountable. Courage is an ingredient of hope. Despair is often inflicted on the innocent and that innocence can only intensify the despair. Hope has to be earned if it is to triumph.
Human culture must provide us hope. I will go further than that and personalize this statement. Art has been a central source of hope throughout my entire life. Art contains the reservoir of resources that can give us reasons to live and to get up in the morning. For the potter to approach the wheel, there has to be some element of hope that the outcome will be worth the effort. To create art one has to believe that what comes out of that effort will make a difference in the world. I want to further explore why so much contemporary art concentrates on the dismal and dire aspects of human existence. I want to start with a short essay that got my dander up in regard to my present mood. It is in an anthology edited by David Beech, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”. It really set off my current funk about so much of what is happening in the arts today. It is a brief; one page essay by Robert Smithson titled “An Aesthetics of Disappointment”. Apparently Smithson went to an exhibit in 1966 in New York City and really disliked the show. The essay was a result.
Just a bit of background about Smithson. He was a seminal figure in the Land Art movement through the 1960s and 1970s, best known for ‘Spiral Jetty’, his 1979 “earthwork” in the Great Salt Lake, that was once covered by water but with the long drought in the West, is now visible and frequently visited. Apparently Smithson thought galleries and museum were ‘jails and tombs’, incapable of conveying the messy nature of reality. His ire was directed at an exhibit organized by an engineer that included artists involved in ‘experiments in art and technology’ I went to an website titled “Art Agenda” where April Lamm concluded that “For the most part the result of bringing 30 engineers together with 10 artists yielded performance kitsch at its worst.” Here is Smithson’s statement,
“Many are disappointed at the nullity of art. Many try to pump life or space into the confusion that surrounds art. An incurable optimism like a mad dog rushed into vacuum that the art suggests. A dread of voids and blanks brings on a horrible anticipation. Everybody wonders what art is, because there never seems to be any around. Many feel coldly repulsed by concrete unrealities, and demand some kind of proof or at least a few facts. Facts seem to ease the disappointment. But quickly those facts are exhausted and fall to the bottom of the mind. This mental relapse is incessant and tends to make our aesthetic view stale. Nothing is more faded than aesthetics. As a result, painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues. The more transparent and vain the aesthetic, the less chance there is for reverting back to purity. Purity is a desperate nostalgia that exfoliates like a hideous need. Purity also suggests a need for the absolute with all its perpetual traps. Yet we are overburdened with countless absolutes and driven to inefficient habits. These futile and stupefying habits are thought to have meaning. Futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. Yet the life-forcer is always around trying to incite a fake madness. The mind is important, but only when it is empty. The greater the emptiness the grander the art. Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity. Each kind of stupidity may be broken down into categories such as: bovine formalism, tired painting, eccentric concentrics or numb structures. All these categories and many others all petrify into a vast banality called the art world which is no world. A nice negativism seems to be spawning. A sweet nihilism is everywhere. Immobility and inertia are what many of the most gifted artists prefer. Vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, a few artists are on the true path of stultification.”
Thoughts on Smithson
I am not sure I understand exactly what are the specific elements of that exhibit that so offended Smithson. I am not sure it matters. I would extend his critical application to much of what goes for art today, probably including some of those aspects that he valued and would protect. He starts this essay and his collaboration with me within that very first sentence, “Many are disappointed at the nullity of art.” I frankly don’t know from the tone of his essay if he is agreeing or disagreeing with what he is stating. Is he being clever or satirical? Perhaps just furious and contemptuous? I don’t know and I don’t care. I find his next statement quite puzzling. If an incurable optimism is a mad dog, what kind of monster would represent nullity and futility? I also disagree with the face value of the statement. Where is this optimism he is talking about? I can’t find it in the cynical, aesthetic black holes of much of gallery art today. Yes, Smithson, many of us are very, very disappointed at the nullity of art. What a very good place to begin this discussion. I do wonder why his statement seems in style and content to serve that very same goal. Why would anyone, including the artist or poet, deliberately attempt through their art to disarm human beings of hope?
At some point, Smithson does annoy me. Is he being serious when he says that painting, sculpture, and architecture are finished? Maybe for him but not for me. His tone in this essay is part of the problem for me. Why is it so important to be so provocative? He utters absolutist statements like the one just stated, and then he criticizes the “desperate nostalgia” for the absolute in others. The artist as agent provocateur can be quite wearing on people’s nerves and became quite tedious. This can be true for writers who take the same pose too. Is art really now just a habit? He seems to insist that the only alternative to the present nullity is an unsatisfactory return to facts, the grounded absolutes of previous aesthetic dogma. I don’t agree. He makes two silly statements in a row – about the mind being important only when it is empty and the other about the greater the emptiness the grander the art. Is he just pulling my leg?
I think he must have learned this trick from Andy Warhol, a mentor of his at one time. Here again he is doing what he just earlier criticized in others – trying to “incite a fake madness” into a discussion where I would value his transparent honesty and informed point of view. Is he trying to prove by his own performance in this essay that “Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity?” I agree with his final thoughts about nihilism in the arts but I don’t think it is all that sweet. Yes, vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, but after a careful reading and re-reading, I share his general disappointment with the state of the arts but for very different reasons. I end up suspecting that it really serves his purpose to adopt a jaded, cynical disappointment that offers no hope beyond it. For me, he then becomes a part of the problem.
I have another anxiety in advancing my perspective on these matters. There was a whole range of conforming and conventional know-nothings out there who reject any innovation or experimentation in art beyond their fond memories of the covers of the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ by Norman Rockwell. Now their grandchildren collect the sentimental, mass-produced stuff by Thomas Kincaid. I do not equate great art with an illustrated realism nor limit my ceramic interests to the stark minimalism of the functional ceramic container as domestic appliance. Nor do I require or limit my received aesthetic messages to contain only good news or morale building opportunities. Hope needs rigor and complexity to makes a difference. It also needs the exuberance that comes from the expression of human feeling.
Tuesday, June 19th, 2012
I am assuming that all readers of this blog are fully consenting adults. I would require some kind of identification and confirmation of your adult status before allowing you to read further but my meager knowledge of computers and the way they work forbid such regulation. We have the generic question – what is the role of passion in the creative process, in the arts, and in pottery in particular? I will try to restrain myself and maintain my decorum and not embarrass myself or any reader of this blog in leading this particular discussion. Passion in the widest definition of that term would mean any behavior or state of being that demonstrated great intensity of feeling, an exuberant emotional state that can take on physical and emotional dimensions in terms of aroused or celebratory behavior.
The Art of Passion
I am trying very hard to think of any passionate potters I know, but perhaps that emotion was thought best displayed elsewhere and not in my presence. Can the pot show passion if the potter cannot? What form does passion take both in the making of the object and in the final artifact that comes out of it? Can passion be an innocent emotion devoid of sensuality or is passion displayed outside sexuality a very poor substitute or sublimation for the real thing? I do hope you are prepared for this discussion. Please put away anything that might distract you and really concentrate on helping me through this blog. I might be mistaken but I do believe I have some very passionate pots in my pottery gallery. It would be rude of you to inquire if this very old man responds in kind. A lot of people think passion is an unseemly emotion for old people to display in any form or kind.
Is passion an ordinary emotion that all of us display in doing what we love to do? I am a passionate gardener though I doubt that this emotion is visible when I garden. Surely someone can see me every morning in the front garden, look at the spectacular, blooming results of my devotion, and realize my emotional investment. First if all, there is a level of caring in passion, then joy in performing that function or performance, and finally results external to you that you are responsible for and fully justify your efforts. I think all of us can locate in our lives such attitudes and activities. Can such a demanding emotion in terms of energy and focus deteriorate into automatic habit? Can you really spend years of your life with that soggy clay getting your hands dirty on the wheel and yet declare your continuing passion with that experience? Sadly, we know that passion can dissipate and die when associated with other human beings, that has often been the stuff of great poetry. Can it also fade and decline in those things you do that once brought you the greatest joy? How do you protect and preserve passion – with both people and pottery?
Can’t any burst of passion directed toward those objects and subjects of desire become a potential source of great pain and loss if that source of desire is not accessible or obtainable? Isn’t it safer to play it cool, not get too invested, not to take a chance? Doesn’t passion have to be in some sense reciprocal in order to bring personal satisfaction? My garden, in late Spring, is now giving me, in return for my loving attention, the most beautiful and glorious flowers. You have to take a risk when committing to your passions, and the outcome is always in doubt. The bedrock of all passions is the fundamental passion for life itself. I still have it though it has been severely tested at times during my life.
Creativity and Control
When applied to the creative process, does passion lead to innovation and vivid expression or does it distort the artifact by its excess? Don’t most potters believe that they have to control the entire process, plan and design the result, ensure that everything remains predictable and reliable? Doesn’t passion mean at least a partial loss of control; letting go and allowing previously unknown and unruly feelings play a role in the creative process? Isn’t the very idea of mastery in craft defined by the conscious management of a supreme skill, which allows no irrational deviation? How can you combine skill and passion? Aren’t they very unlikely partners at the potter’s wheel?
Passion in the Past
Let us first examine the relationship of passion to sexuality and relate that to pottery. If we go back to classical Greece, we can see vivid portrayals of nude men and boys on some of their pottery. I remember taking a group of high schools students to the Getty Museum in Malibu, CA many years ago and walking them through the galleries that contained nude sculptures and pottery. Sure enough, it didn’t take a few of the adolescent boys very long to locate that pottery that illustrated the aroused affection of those ancient Greeks of long ago. As for Classical sculpture and contemporary pottery in regard to eroticism, this was what I said in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, about this matter, ending with a quote from a book by Paul Mathieu,
“The nose and the penis are always the first to go. Fortunately contemporary ceramics are replenishing the latter. A quick perusal of the classical collection of Greek and Roman sculpture confirms my observation. I have just finished “Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics” by Paul Mathieu. I hide the book from my grandchildren and guests, bringing back warm memories of the surreptitious concealment of certain magazines and illustrations in my adolescence. I have obviously underestimated up to now just how exciting ceramics really can be. I browse the book, with ceramic evidence of projected penis and dented vulva on countless objects across history and cultures. I do continue to be concerned about the future durability of contemporary works with potentially vulnerable appendages. I fully appreciate the importance of pottery and clay objects in human ritual and the analogous references to the human body in the form and function of ceramic vessels that connect ceramics to human sexuality. Mathieu further explains this idea:
‘…ceramic objects and human bodies remain basically interchangeable as the metaphorical level, but also through somatic analogies within forms and parts. Pottery forms are presentations, abstractly, of human bodies. Through touch and direct contact, they are experienced intimately by bodies, and their inherent functions mimic as well as support bodily functions. This emphasis on tactile aspects, on physical touch, differentiates objects from images, which operate solely at the visual level.’”
Admittedly, this is a major departure from the serving of tea in fashionable 18th and 19th century drawing rooms with an elegant porcelain teapot and delicate cups and saucers, all hand painted with bright periwinkles or other such pretty flowers. We have established, both in classical culture and in contemporary ceramics, that pottery has been employed to portray human sexuality as inspired by the primal emotion of passion. We simply cannot label these historical references of thousands of years of human civilization as obscene or vulgar. Many are sublime homage’s to the regenerative capacity of humans to reproduce and others are in themselves ritual objects of that same fertility capacity as symbol and metaphor.
Passion – Gender Specific?
At one time in Western culture it was thought that the very existence, much less the expression, of passion was strictly a man’s prerogative. In the same sense, it was once thought that women were reluctant participants in sexual activity, the price they had to pay for domestic stability and the attainment of motherhood and family. Women who did demonstrate passion were thought limited to those who had become fallen women, devoid of respectability and not the type who married but were kept in another capacity. We have largely forsaken these sexist notions in our society but the residue of these attitudes still haunts us today. It is particularly ironic that women were once thought inherently emotional and thus inherently unstable. Yet the one emotion they supposedly lacked by their very nature was the emotion of passion. In contrast, men were allowed to be emotional in their display of passion as an integral part of their manhood but socialized to suppress all the other emotions as unmanly. When you think about it, this cultural construction of the emotional makeup of humans by gender didn’t make any sense for either men or women.
In the next blog I will continue this discussion.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
After bringing up these unsavory attitudes toward sentimentality, I going to take the risk and confess that I too have critical reactions to excessively sentimental depictions in various artistic media. It is not for the same reasons as discussed above. A film I saw recently inspired my reveries about sentimentality. Judy and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends on New Year’s Eve. We went to a huge mall not too far from us located in an adjoining suburb, connected by the freeway that runs close to our house and goes through a string of suburbs on its way to Los Angeles. We saw the film, “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg. I had concerns about going to see the film, concerns about Spielberg’s tendency to make conventional Hollywood films even out of the most unconventional themes. We are due to see the play soon in a month or two. It originated in Britain and was adapted from a novel. I anticipate a very different experience with the play. The film served the standard Spielberg formula, with intervals of two rather brutal and realistic World War I battle scenes sandwiched between sentimental slabs of overripe storytelling lit by rose-colored skies. The visual scenes of the English countryside with those charming huts with thatched roofs have been seen before on calendars, jigsaw puzzles and on the covers of boxed candy. It was this combination of the inherent vulgarity of war and the sloppy sentimentality of the remainder of the movie that triggered the contents of this letter.
John William’s lush music lathered the film with sweeping and rolling romantic crescendos that constantly tugged at my heartstrings. Spielberg somehow succeeds in manipulating the audience to care only about the survival of the boy and his horse despite the graphic horrors portrayed of the war, bodies of young men piled in the trenches, rats gnawing corpses, all representing the bloody and savage end of prior European civilization. There is a faint and latent message embedded in the film that perhaps if men only loved each other as much as they loved horses we would have no more wars. It contained almost all the elements I dislike and find all too common in Hollywood movies.
I will offer this review of the film by Andrew Pulver, who, in the Tuesday 20 December 2011 edition of “The Guardian”, had this to say about the “War Horse”,
“Following hard on the heels of the rousing, if charmless, ‘Adventures of Tintin’, Steven Spielberg has opted for a lachrymose, buttery treatment of the Michael Morpurgo book-then-play, which is still packing them out in the West End. The original novel is famous for its horse-viewpoint narration, while the stage version is celebrated for its puppetry; Spielberg has jettisoned both of these (relatively) adventurous devices, and tells it pretty straight. But straight doesn’t mean unvarnished. From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this ‘War Horse’ is rooted in a buffed-up sanded-down version of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.”
I do appreciate that at least Pulver agrees with me on this film. I seem to have two choices in engaging the arts today. Most media in popular culture offers a variation of the sentimental to lure a big box office. The other box office strategy is the vulgarity of violence. The avant-garde in the fine arts regularly offers the vulgar, often under the cover of claiming satire, but most often merely adding to the towering modern and postmodern achievements of the vulgar. A few of the most highly successful artists in the fine arts today have managed to achieve a deadly combination of both. My aesthetic tastes and standards do not appreciate the domination of either possibility. I can tolerate elements of both present in the artifact or performance but only as counterpoints to some greater purpose or meaning. If I reject the sentimental and the vulgar as aesthetic standards, what is left for me? I do not find the vulgar offensive but rather banal when its need to shock becomes a desperate strategy.
I do often find the sentimental offensive, trying to deceive me into believing in the ultimate triumph of a happy ending that ignores the fact that we cannot escape death. Life teaches you that there are thorns even on something as beautiful as a rose bush. Sentimentality requires experiences that successfully turn past reality into today’s fiction. In this case the falsification of past life transforms present life into a romance. Sentimentality becomes the emotional cemetery for our lives, the buried memories that are awakened and sweetened with the help of stimuli created for that effect. Sentimentality wisely avoids the significant and focuses rather on those intimate experiences and relationships of personal lifetimes. To be sentimental one has to demand that your memories of the past promise to faithfully tell you loving falsehoods. Sentimentality lacks the resources to be profound. But it just might make life worth living for those of us who have known great suffering. Sentimentality often becomes a well-intentioned lie justified for the purposes of overall morale. The lie is in what is left out, the harsh and cruel aspects of the human condition. It a lie of omission, necessary for the sweet bits and pieces to triumph in the one sided presentation stacked to make you feel very, very good.
Well, I do seem to have rather definite feelings about the employment of sentimentality in the arts, don’t I? It appears that most people might well disagree with me. The film, “Warhorse” was nominated for best picture for an Oscar, although it did fail to achieve that goal. You might well think it is one of the greatest films you every saw. I need to argue a bit with myself about my critical attitude. To love is to feel sentimental. Not just at that moment of joyful revelation, but hopefully ever afterward. Children would not want parents who were not endearingly sentimental in their feelings toward them and demonstrative in displaying those feelings. Judy and I are going to have our 40th anniversary later this year in the fall. We have been planning a trip, maybe to Europe, to celebrate the occasion. I have a rich memory bank of our lives together, things we have experienced together over the years and now share in our fond recollections. These rich memories form a sentimental web that wraps around and bonds our present lives. Yes, yes, I also feel quite sentimental about my old Golden Retriever, Morris, and to remain completely candid for at least another sentence or two, even though it might weaken my argument, I absolutely adore my 19th century Royal Doulton pottery that has bright and pretty hand-painted flowers against deep blue backgrounds. Do you get the feeling that I am a bit conflicted about the whole subject?
That said, I am going to get back to critiquing sentimentality. I do get so emotional about emotions. I want to compare this sentiment with another quite popular element in our society and in our arts, and that is vulgarity. I have a deep aversion and prejudice of anything sentimental or vulgar that achieves great popular or commercial success solely because of those attributes. In our world today, too often vulgarity and sentimentality have ceased being authentic human emotions. Today the demonstration of the vulgar and the sentimental are commercial activities and these emotions and the behavior they inspire become contrived for profit in the marketplace. When something vulgar becomes successful or acceptable it stops being vulgar. When something sentimental becomes a success, it remains sentimental. Sentimentality can be bonding in forming a community of people. Vulgarity separates people and can be most divisive. The new or unusual cannot be vulgar on those grounds alone and should not alone be the cause of alienation. The greatest curse of sexism for both men and women is to charge that women are naturally sentimental and men are naturally vulgar.
Again I must retreat and reconsider my brash declarations of personal taste. Almost all great art, even including the French Impressionists, were once declared to be vulgar as compared with the traditions and practices at the time. Any innovation or change at first appears to be an insult and challenge to what went before it. Sentimentality has a generosity and kindness that can be therapeutic even though on occasion most unrealistic. Vulgarity can celebrate those essential animal lusts that are authentic sponsors of our passionate and excessive expressions. Sentimentality can be used to overly domesticate the unruly powers that make great art possible.
Some who might be amused or even perplexed that I collect pottery might charge that contemporary pottery is in itself a sentimental attempt to retrain an obsolete way of making things. Plastic is practical, modern and tough. It is only the nostalgia of yesterday – a key ingredient in sentimentality – that keeps us making and collecting something called pottery. Now, don’t get upset. You know I don’t believe that for a minute. But isn’t sentimentality a key element in ceramic traditions? Can we justify maintaining and continuing artistic legacies practiced over centuries based on such a defense of continuity and tradition? Is the only way to make pottery modern to take an abstract expressionistic approach and tear holes and punch dents in them just like you know who? (Initials P.V.) I do have some rather modern pottery in my gallery that I hesitate to pour liquids in because they might leak. Is leaking pottery just more modern and less sentimental than the old fashioned pottery that doesn’t leak? Many modernists would assert that to be sentimental is to be weak and that anything sentimental in a work of art diminishes its artistic value and rigor. But isn’t a love of humanity central to a love of the humanities? Should we be that judgmental of it’s appearance in our art and culture? Maybe I am just a softy after all.
I am not through yet with sentimentality. On to the third part…