Masterpiece As Genre.

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Get rid of your hierarchies. Stop worshipping.

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus

Have you heard of Best Picture? It’s an award given to movies, right?

Wrong.

Best Picture used to be an award. Now it’s a genre.

Because now that the award has been around a while, people make movies with the intention of winning Best Picture. Such a movie is in the Best Picture genre.

I love the movie A Beautiful Mind—it’s technically perfect, and as someone whose mental health problems worsened after the movie came out, I’ve grown to love it for other reasons. And I love Ron Howard. He is one of my favorite directors. But A Beautiful Mind is a Best Picture. Yes, it won the award Best Picture, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It was constructed to be a Best Picture—the genre Best Picture. Some movies are made to win Best Picture—some are not. To win Best Picture, you have to a) cast Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, and Jennifer Connelly, b) get music by James Horner, c) photography by Roger Deakins, d) get so and so writers and a true story and e) fucking Ron Howard. I’m not demeaning these people. I’m a film lover. These people are gods to me. But A Beautiful Mind wasn’t made with the intention of being a great film—it was made with the intention of being a Best Picture. And it won the award, but that is incidental—it achieved inclusion in the genre of Best Picture. Even if it hadn’t won Best Picture, it still would have been a Best Picture.

There are other examples. Avatar was a pathetic attempt. A terrible movie. But obviously a movie intended for the Best Picture genre.


Now get rid of your hierarchies. Stop worshipping. Let’s take down another concept intended as a pedestal for holding greatness which is, quite simply, just a genre.

Some of you are going to have trouble with this one. But take the leap with me.

The masterpiece.

It’s not a value judgement. It’s not a bar to be vaulted over. It’s not an award—just as Best Picture is not an award.

It is a genre.

Just like a Best Picture film, a masterpiece painting or book or other work of art contains certain elements which put it in the genre of masterpiece. Winning Best Picture is not some random process. Neither is constructing a masterpiece.

Let’s focus on books. Consider As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and Fahrenheit 451. Forgive the American focus but I know American books best. Those aren’t my favorite books, but they are books which are universally considered masterpieces. If you disagree with that statement then we are too far apart and you might as well stop reading this post. You may like those books, you may dislike them, however those three books are undisputed masterpieces of American literature—but why?

They..

  • Discuss basic, gritty, core issues of human life in this society.
  • Push the boundaries of style/structure such that they are not quite what most people would even consider a book—maybe they’re 2% more than a book, maybe they’re 2% less than a book due to these experimentations, but they are a little off of what people consider a normal book.
  • On the last point but further: they are demanding to read, in their various ways. Like it or not, this is part of why people consider something a masterpiece. Look at Guernica. Look at Basquait. Are simple things considered masterpieces? Not really. Think of the book The Giving Tree by the master Shel Silverstein. It looks simple. But it has the same qualities as these other American masterpieces, not least of which is that for most of us, it is extremely demanding to read (emotionally). Consider another Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men. Seems simple, but it’s really, really not. Consider the pinnacle American fiction of this type: The Old Man and the Sea. Simplest plot in all of literature, right? No =)
  • On the previous point but closer: there is a reason I said 2% and not 20%. There’s a maxim that people with slightly higher than average IQs make good leaders, but people with very high IQs do not—because if your IQ is too much greater than your would-be followers, they don’t even understand what you’re saying, so you can’t lead them. I suggest that a masterpiece, while it may be far ahead of its time, while it may be long enduring, doesn’t push the envelope too far or else it can’t be recognized as a masterpiece right away. My best example of this is the film Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé. Normally I can feel confident rating a film on a five-star scale. With this film I can’t. It’s not three stars or fewer. It’s greater than four stars. But it’s not a five-star film—not because it’s less than five stars—it doesn’t even fit on the scale. It’s not a six-star film. It’s just not on the fucking scale. It does something so different that it can’t even be recognized as a masterpiece by most people. It’s in a different world than the world of ratings and masterpieces and successes and failures. It’s beyond a masterpiece—it’s hard for our eyes to even see. Almost 30 years after his death, Basquiat’s work is still hard for many eyes to see. Three decades after its construction, it shines too bright to be universally included in the masterpiece genre. He changed the picture by way more than 2% and it’s going to take a while for the world to come around on the recognition of that oeuvre.
  • Each work obeys a pacing, like the editing and music of a Best Picture.
  • Each is out of this world. Like a Best Picture, they are hyperreal. They are based on a world the reader/viewer easily accepts, but they quickly veer into territory that is totally unreal. They own reality—they do not bow to it.
  • They are kaleidoscopic. Like a Best Picture, they take an initial kernel of story or reality and spin it out way beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected. They are epic. You can give them previews that entice an audience that reveal 1/10 of the whole. They deliver. A masterpiece may leave you wanting more, but it always gives you more than you expected. Way more.

Right, so there are other qualities of art in general that I think place it in the genre of masterpiece, but those are a few to start with.

Come with me down this evil rabbit hole and stop thinking of masterpiece as a value judgement..and consider it just a genre.

Picasso’s Guernica

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Notary

“Let It Go”

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Metaphors for artists

Photo by Mr.Eneko via Foter.com under CC BY

This song was written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez in a single day. They specifically had in mind the voice of Idina Menzel (whose talent is shocking). The result is a song so good that everyone heard it so many times we started making fun of ourselves for playing it so much—it’s kind of like the Titanic of Disney ballads.

When I heard it in the theater, it hit me with such clear metaphors for my own art that I spent 20 minutes after the movie explaining my impressions to my mom, the only person in our party I thought might understand what I was trying to get across. When I was done, she said she saw some of what I was saying, but I knew by the look on her face that, as usual, I was still the queen of my own isolated kingdom which I permanently occupy.

What I’m saying is not that complex, but to get it, it helps to have gone through some of the artist’s journey. For the artists reading this, I will lay out my thoughts with no doubt they’ll resonate instantly and deeply with you.

Let’s follow the lyrics:

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
and it looks like I’m the Queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in;
Heaven knows I’ve tried

She is isolated because she accidentally let out her creative/destructive power. After being cooped up for years, the powers only got stronger—even when Elsa was young, her father remarked that they were getting stronger.

When provoked, she couldn’t keep it in—she’s basically like a bubble that will inevitably pop. She didn’t want to pop, but it’s her nature. A sorcerer does sorcery—it’s unavoidable.

This is like all of us, I think—we are each a package of potential that is unavoidable. We each have a nature, or a skill—just who we are—and that nature is like the shape of a particular tree..that’s the way we’re going to grow, and nothing can stop it, even if we were born under a sidewalk. We will grow through the concrete and become an oak, if we were born to be an oak. To try to stop it would be like trying to stop a flower from unfolding into its particular beautiful type. You just can’t.

Elsa was born with her powers (her father tells the king troll this). That was part of her seed. She was born a sorceress. She was always destined to grow up to be an adult one.

Elsa is still in turmoil about who she is. She has been denying her nature for so long that she has no way to be comfortable with it.

Don’t let them in,
don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel,
don’t let them know
Well now they know

“Be the good girl you always have to be.” Um. Well, Elsa’s powers are obviously not something she considers consistent with being a “good girl.” Magic is taboo in her kingdom. For an artist, this is about making controversial art—art that pushes the boundaries of your culture. The “good girl” idea is so loaded, I can’t imagine how repressive it must be for actual girls. Even as someone who identifies as male, I feel repressed by this concept.

You can’t survive in normal society if you’re not “good.” If you don’t dress the right way to work—or to a date. If you don’t conform to corporate norms, try getting a job. Try getting a job while you have a blog. It’s impossible anymore. We live in such a heavily conformist society that the slightest bit of eccentricity is considered crazy. We somehow have forgotten how damn eccentric were just about all the people who created the art and engineering that our cultures are built upon.

And let me be frank: the smarter or more talented a person is, the more likely they are to be eccentric, because they a) focus on their work rather than impressing others, and b) have enough presence of mind to know that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of them—it’s completely irrelevant. Like us, Elsa has been trapped in a conformist society where in order to survive, politically, socially, she has to conceal who she is, not “let them know.”

“Well now they know.”—And Elsa has a big problem.

I wonder what Francis Bacon’s mother had to say about his painting. Maybe the same thing my well-meaning mother had to say about my early writing. She told me, while I was still in middle school, after she read my first short story—uneasily—“This is good..but don’t show it to anyone or else they might wonder what kind of parents we are.” She was doing her best.

But that’s the “now they know” part for an artist—if your art is countercultural at all. Now they know..you’re not one of them. Now they know..you have opposing or just different ideas. Now they know..you’re not a pack dog..you’re an individual. This is one of the greatest crimes in our society—and if you don’t recognize that as a true statement, then you’ve obviously never tried it.

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore

It could be interpreted as an orgasmic statement!

But just keeping to art, to self-actualization, to the growth from acorn to tree..the thing is..it’s a one-way process. You can’t go back. You can stop—you can stall yourself—or you can go forward. Sadly for all of us, most people choose to stall themselves. Self-actualization is scary shit. Most people, once they realizing they’re doing it, throw on the brakes hard core. My dad did this. He actually told us: I am aware I could develop myself as a writer, but it’s too much work and [essentially] it’s too risky. God damn right it’s risky. That’s the whole point. Live as a lion or live as a mouse (no offense, mice=).

Elsa’s power is too strong for her to hold back anymore. I don’t believe she has a choice. She has to let it go. And I think it is the minority of artists who find themselves in this position—who basically have no choice but to throw away their entire social reputation and political and corporate and financial future because they are driven by an irrational conviction to create their art. These are truly dangerous—and truly powerful—people.

Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care
what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway

Right. So Elsa (the artist) commits to making her art oblivious to the reactions of others. She slams the door on their reviews. She envelops herself in the ecosystem of her powers and what they produce (in her case, ice magic—“the cold”). Others may be unable to live in the (intellectual, creative, controversial) conditions she can live in..but to her they’re no bother because (in her case) ice is her nature—it literally flows from her fingers. What is a deadly (intellectual) storm to others is simply home to Elsa.

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all

The artist must isolate herself. Unfortunately this is a mandatory part of the artist’s journey. This doesn’t mean that you have to move to a different country and change your name. But the fears that once controlled Elsa were born of her relationship with her society—and specifically her family. Her power accidentally hurt her sister!—of course she’s afraid!

If you make controversial art, you will scare your society and especially your family. It’s just part of how this works. Making scary art (being a sorceress) is harder for your parents to deal with than you joining an opposing political party.

Family is the ultimate culture. Reject culture=reject family.

You have to get away from your family to make art that is true to you (if you’re a visionary artist). This may simply mean minimizing the importance of the opinions of people you know—that’s creating distance. In Elsa’s case it’s a literal journey up the mountain. Those work, too.

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I’m free!

“No right, no wrong, no rules for me.” These may be the most powerful words in this whole song. Elsa (the artist) is in a morality-free zone. This is fairly heavy stuff for a Disney movie. But all art—all revolution—is an almost-complete replacement of near-universal ideas by ideas that were once marginalized. We are in a constant process of this happening. It is not bad—it’s the nature of culture. But it does involve upheaval, and while some of us handle total societal upheaval like eating an ice cream cone, most people are highly resistant to it due to fear of loss of self.

To create—to really create—it is necessary to be in a belief state exactly as described by the Lopez’s in this highly anti-cultural, radical, extremely bold lyric. It’s nestled into a seemingly sweet Disney song, but “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” is serious sorcery. And it’s the kind of sorcery you must embrace to be an artist.

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on

My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back, the past is in the past

Remember how I said that self-actualization was a one-way process? Here, Elsa declares that she’s never going back. I’m not sure if she is aware that going back is not even possible at this point.

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on

Based on what I said before, you’re probably not surprised that I find this metaphor, “That perfect girl is gone,” incredibly powerful. These lyricists have chosen such a well-placed metaphor (especially for a Disney movie) about one of the most iron-clad cultural expectations in existence: the perfect girl. To declare her gone creates a thousand implications for inhabitants of this society, one of the most important being the claiming of power by this little sorceress, this little artist..who is no longer little, perfect, or merely a girl—that most-controlled entity in our world—but a phoenix reveling in her own icy storm—or in our artist case, her countercultural or controversial art. Instead of society owning her, she owns herself—and that is the ultimate taboo.

The cold never bothered me anyway!

This final statement, for the artist, the sorceress, is her embracing her new life—which for the moment is on an icy mountain. But it’s ok, because she’s an ice magician.

In the same way, you, artist, have built yourself a kingdom—perhaps of isolation, but—out of the very intellectual ingredients you use in your art. You are not in uncomfortable territory. You only have the ability to do sorcery that was in your nature from your very seed..so whatever magical place you have built for yourself..is necessarily a place where you are right at home.

Writing roots

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Protector and friend

Page from one of my early notebooks

There was a writer on Twitter—initials CJ. I read CJ’s book. Thought it was raw. Thought it was true. A rare find—and so was CJ. We talked a little. And in our most important conversation, she was saying she wanted to get writing back to..back to..she wasn’t sure what. And I said, “Back to when we were in high school and we wrote in notebooks.”

And she said, “Yes.”

We weren’t trying to “get published” back then. We weren’t planning on showing those notebooks to anyone, except maybe half a page to our closest friends to explain our theories of the world.

We weren’t primarily writing those notebooks with the intention of sharing them at all—we were almost exclusively writing them for ourselves. High school was the wilds of Final Fantasy and Zelda, we were mages, and those were our goddamn spell books. We needed those books, not to impress anyone, but to survive.

That was getting back to the root of why we were writing in the first place, for me and CJ. We wanted to get back there. Fuck Twitter. Fuck the internet. Fuck publishing.

And then CJ really did fuck Twitter, the internet, and publishing—she disappeared. Deleted her Twitter. As far as I know, ended her blog. I can’t find her or her book anywhere.

Maybe she got back to her roots?

I remember when I decided to unpublish Things Said in Dreams, I got back to my roots and for me it was a big change in direction and it felt so good. I had been trying to “get published” for so long—assuming that’s what one did when one had written books—that I was on auto-pilot, and I had forgotten the root at which I had begun to write fiction:

When I was in the 5th-10th grades, I read the first books that made me idolize novels. I had never been so impressed with anything in all my life, than those first few great books—and I wanted to do it! Simple as that: I wanted to write a great book. And I may spend the rest of my life trying.

But notice:

Nowhere in the root of my desire did I ever say I wanted to publish a book. Nowhere did I ever say I wanted to be a famous writer. Those are fine for whoever wants them. But they were never in the root of what I wanted. Letting go of my list of literary agents, stopping all efforts to commercially publish my books, has felt right for me because it fits with the original idea of writing as planted in my head. Writing and publishing are distinct enterprises—I’m perfectly happy to be free of the latter.

Based on my brief but rich conversations with the author CJ, I have played extensively over many novels with my note-taking, outlining, and composition processes, sometimes taking a single-document approach that is very much like one of those messy, mage notebooks we all kept in high school—a garden of words and worms and moss and little sproutlings that with enough tilling and enough sunlight, sometimes turns into something readable and wild. And even though in some ways I’m moving into directions that weren’t even possible when I was in high school—I live-write every book now, showing my in-progress work at every stage in the composition process (so instead of being private, my notebooks are completely open)—I try to remain aware of that epiphany that CJ and I shared, and stay connected with the roots of my writing.

Writing for me first happened in the 4th grade, as journal writing—introspection that saved a sensitive boy from a harsh school, learning to talk hard situations out with myself in a little brown notebook my teacher gave me.

Then writing became a way to play with my bipolar disorder: listen to Michael Jackson and write poems, using both to amp up my mood to incredible heights—and to feel incredible sadness. A way to learn how to feel the highs and lows only a bipolar person can feel..and—to some degree—to control them.

Then came my notebooks. They were protector in school environments that continued to be too harsh for my sensitive head and heart to handle—and in a way they acted as friends when I didn’t have any.

Now I have written 22 books. And you know what? They’re the same thing to me now as my writing was in its root: introspection, a way to understand my emotions, protector—buffer between me and a world too harsh for me to interface with directly—and friends where friends are in short supply.

I don’t want that to ever change. I always want to be a black mage in a dangerous high school lunchroom, with my hoodie covering my head, roomy sleeves, carrying my notebooks containing spells that I use to keep myself moving and breathing and vital in an environment that, psychologically, spiritually, and intellectually..wants to kill me and every other creative person alive.

Tone as super element

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One aspect to rule them all

Paintings by Francis Bacon

In art, tone is a special super element that rules them all. There are many aspects to a work of art, some shared between media, some not. Painting has palette, shapes, form, depth, thickness of the pigment, composition. Dance has pace, fluidity, architecture, and many others. The classic elements of story I learned in school are character, setting, plot, point of view, and style. Here too there are many others: theme, scope, scale, variety in sentences, show versus tell versus suggest, who gets the last word, specific versus general, and zillions more. And there is the master element: tone.

Tone is special.

If you get tone right, it means—it implies—that you got everything else right.

You can’t get everything else right without also (as a matter of implication) getting tone right.

You know those old timey dolls where all the limbs are loose until you pull a piece of string, then everything tightens up into an erect figure? That string is tone.

(The first part of that video shows a doll kind of like what I’m talking about—I’ll try to find a better video.)

Tone is a master element in that it is so difficult to get right. Watching student films is an amazing example of this. Student directors, almost 100% of the time, completely miss the mark on tone. They try to make a scary scene..the audience laughs. They try to make a funny scene..the audience sits stone faced. When you try to achieve a certain tone as a student filmmaker, it is a very humbling experience. It shows how rare a skill effective filmmaking is. In fact, being able to get tone right is basically what makes a person able to make movies that work, versus not being able to do so. It is a meta skill that few people achieve consistently, and it is the mark of broad understanding and/or intuition. Try to make a short film that accomplishes a certain tone and see how elusive tone is.

Consider a movie with perfect tone: The Silence of the Lambs. You will not find a movie with more perfect tone—though many equal it.

Tone has lots of fascinating definitions, but a simple one is note. That is not much different than what I mean by tone here.

Silence hits a perfect note. It rings like a bell, all the way through the cycle of the vibration from impact to decline. In order for this to have happened, every other element of the movie had to hit a perfect note: story, script, acting, blocking, production design, cinematography, sound design, score, editing, casting, directing. Silence never messes up. Never. There are no “but”s about The Silence of the Lambs—no place where you say, Yeah, it’s a pretty good movie, but.. No. Everything is perfect, even scenes that are tone pitfalls, like the scene where the police bust in on Hannibal’s treatment of his mobile cell in Memphis. If there is a story god, then she designed that scene to be tone hell—a fucking bear trap. That is a scene that only the most talented team of filmmakers could have (and did) pull off, achieving perfect tone when everything about the scene invites it to be mistakenly humorous or cheap. They wisely based the key shot on the work of an unquestioned master: the painter Francis Bacon.

The position of Boyle’s body after Lecter has disemboweled and hung him from the cell was specifically based on the work of painter Francis Bacon.

Probably anything short of this technique would have resulted in disaster. But whoever made that decision knew they were in dicey tone territory, and falling back on Bacon’s established tone was a flawless move.

The movie I can think of that did this most quintessentially is Alien. Without the art of H. R. Giger, there would be no Alien. That art, and that look, is an integral part of Alien’s tone.

But anyway, that’s all I have to say: there are elements of art, and then there are super elements. Tone is one of the super elements. If you got tone right in your art, then you got everything else right. It is a master key, a linchpin, a keystone. It is the string running through those silly limp/tense dolls: if it is pulled tight, then by definition so is every other element.

A blast from the past (visual art)

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Drawings, paintings, and photographs from about 15 years ago













Just going through old photos and I copied out some that caught my eye. I said I would only post about writing and mental illness on this profile, but I’ll justify posting these by saying that instead of writing I can sometimes mean art—and this is some of the kind of art I used to do.

That’s color. Here’s black and white.









Those drawings I did one summer in Philadelphia. My sister and I split a row house in South Philly and it was so hot that I would get up early to go to work to be in the air conditioning, and stay late at work for the same reason. But on the weekends I would take off my shirt and spread these huge 24″ x 36″ pieces of paper out on the kitchen table and do drawing after drawing after drawing, literally sweating on the paper, just to have something to do to keep my mind off the heat. Of course, looking back, those were excellent times =)

What the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’re entirely themselves. They’ve got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and..if it’s authentic and true you will feel it in your nerve endings.

David Foster Wallace
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Extremely thankful for the comments on Authonomy

Dream, Hate, Love, Psychology, Self, Writing

Thank you to people who have given me comments on my book.  I’m appreciative for the feedback and it’s encouraging to me.  I haven’t been writing.  I’ve been watching Olympics and playing Wii golf and making things in C.  I’m not sure what I’m going to keep doing.  I’m feeling pretty reflective tonight.  I’m cultivating a certain mood.  One day aside, this last month has been extremely balanced, which is no accident and does not come easily to me.  I’m going to be an uncle in a few months.  I want to be a good uncle.  I want to be loving and present but only in ways that are desired.  I’m tired of being angry with people.  I think that I’m at a place in my life where I still think that, if people are to be measured, that there is a lot of suckage going on, in me and others.  But I’m tired of measuring it because I don’t like the way it makes me feel.  That doesn’t mean that stuff doesn’t suck when measured, it doesn’t mean that.  All it means is I’m no longer measuring.  Is this the fatality of growing older?  I don’t think it is exactly.  This is a release, and a surrender.  You could call it a sadness except it without the emotion of sadness…it is a loss, an intented loss, a desired loss, a calculated loss.  What I want now—what I want in a day—is balance, simplicity, and, essentially, art.  I want the art of washing dishes, the art of shoveling snow.  I want the art of writing and reading and reflecting and programming and building and creating things, and talking with the people who make sense to me, who are cut from the same fabric as me.  I’m not sincerely interested in impressing other people, I have found, at 32.  Psychologically, that’s not my real need.  In domains where I have made half-steps because I was only in it up to the point where I proved that I could accomplish whatever end, that was about showing myself that my belief in me was well-founded.  I don’t have to do that now…because I have over and over successfully proven to myself that I can do x,y,z…and I have over and over found that proof to be ultimately unassuaging.  It doesn’t mean what I thought it would mean.  I think I am now free to play.  Everything I said was shit, was shit.  I was as right about all that stuff as it’s possible for a person to be right.  But it doesn’t make me feel good.  This doesn’t fix anything.  The world really is in a terrible shape.  Parts of it are in wonderful shape.  A lot of it is in terrible shape.  That is all true.  But I don’t feel like I will try to fix it.  That is not, before anyone suggests it, some attitude that represents maturation or mellowing or growing up.  There is a distinction between pessimism, apathy, defeatism, and yet still between self-care.  I will never give up on the world.  I also won’t delude myself about its state.  What I will do, what I am doing, is—while I’m adding to it in the couple of ways I know how—I am drawing inward, letting a shore buffer me from that crazy world that I love and that, as best I can, I make things for.  I have dreams that dogs I love are biting me.  That imagery fits here.  For some, the advice is not to bite the hand that feeds you.  Right now, for me, it’s to protect your hand from the mouth of the dog you love.