*When something rises to a philosophically significant level of socio-cultural import, I write about it. And this year’s American Idol production defines the middle of our mass-media bell curve. This is one of the rare occasions in which popular entertainment rises to the level of fine trans-global public art.It’s clear to me that mass media and popular entertainment are the dominant art forms of the 21st Century. Acknowledging this requires a restructuring of our aesthetic conceptions toward an understanding of large-scale collaborative spectacle as the dominant paradigm of our postmodern world.Over 63 million votes established the soulful Taylor Hicks as our iconographic paragon of contemporary performance. This fact inspires me toward a greater acceptance of the value of the aesthetic will of the people.American Idol’s two final contestants, Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee, represented pop culture polar opposites. Katherine is a valley girl born and bred in a Hollywood suburb. Besides having the requisite vocal talent and exquisite appearance of the standard starlet, McPhee is expert in sexy poses, toothpaste-commercial smiles, and pouty coolness to which we’re so accustomed in mass media. On the other hand, Hicks, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, reflects the presentation and values of the majority of American citizens. The final contest was a duel between the ideal and the real.Aesthetics exposes a culture’s conception of the beautiful and desirable. Wednesday’s finale, in which the victor of the competition was revealed, exhibited a contest between the coolly presented and the soulfully rooted. In this instance, America chose what’s most real – inner vs. outer talent and beauty, the heart over the body, and the ineffable soul over the physical self. As an observer of contemporary culture, I’m encouraged by this turn of events. Hollywood is an interesting place to visit but I’m proud to live in Hicksville.*Image from graycharles.com.
Monthly Archives: May 2006
In the spirit of open and egalitarian inquiry, I urge you to delve into Keith Haring’s complex and mysterious imagery and create your own kind of meaning. This is the best way to respect the artist’s intention. He was sure we would find things in his work that even he had no idea are there.Begin with an image of a human infant. It is not moving toward us. It is not moving away. It proceeds parallel to the horizon and moves either toward the left or the right. The mere act of gazing upon this image illuminates it in the mind, bathes it in the brilliance of consciousness, and causes what began as a momentary external signal to be transformed into a mental image, capable of lasting lifetimes. It “lights up” our minds.Images of femininity, fecundity, and motherhood attach themselves to the concatenating processions of radiant infants, announcing their pre-eminence. They are frenetic, yet grounded on the earth, the planet of our perpetual rebirth. Ecstatic angelic creatures animate a blazing white void.Angels, dolphins, men, women, barking dogs, crawling infants, are animated with the forces of both Eros and Thanatos and energized by our conscious gaze. Combinations of symbols triggering potential meaning by their very interaction move from seeming randomness toward patterned relationship.Are the meanings intended? Are they inherent in the syntax? Are they our interpretations? The answer to these and all other questions regarding meaning is “yes.” Meaning arises as symbols are shifted, juxtaposed, interpreted, associated, experienced, and subjected to reflection. Now, to your ad hoc reflections upon meaning in Keith’s work add aspects of the contemporary technological landscape: televisions, computer screens, electric lights, atom bombs, and spacecraft. Mix in icons inherited from other symbol systems: the crucifix, question marks, spears and arrows. As the patterns become more intricate and the interrelations of signs more complex, potential meaning ineluctably emerges through our eyes and minds. Our minds are meaning creating engines that will create relationships between things simply because that is how we work.All this was mysterious to Keith. His spontaneous hieroglyphic language was, in many ways, as impenetrable to him as it may seem to us. He knew it had meaning – or more properly, potential meaning that would mean different things to different people in different situations. I helped him to become aware of the relationships his visual language shared with other pre-literate and post-literate visual cultures, their iconographies, and their systems of symbols and signs. We talked at length about the philosophical underpinnings of these cultural expressions and how their symbologies revealed something unique about those who expressed them and, perhaps, something about the universe. To be clear however, Keith saw these territories as identical.Haring saw ultimate significance in his pictorial language. He worked hard to comprehend it. Together, we pursued the mystery of it all. He died knowing the concatenations of meaning and interpretations of his work would continue. We had worked on the outline and shape of the key to those mysteries. I will continue to point to the fact that although it is different for each person who pursues it, the key exists. And, as in all things, its significance lies just behind our inherent veils of illusion. *Next: Continuing the quest for meaning*Images: Keith Haring, Bill Jones Dance Poster (3 details), 1982Collection: TFD
The Project/Keith/Art/MeaningOn Saturday, I returned with my drawing class to the Keith Haring exhibit at the Reading Public Museum. I said a few things about Keith, a few things about Keith and me, and a few things about how to experience meaning in the work Keith did during his tragically short creative life.Some of what I said reminded me of the ongoing project Keith and I were involved in for years leading up to the time of his death. Beginning with his exposure to Keith Sonnier’s thoughts on semiotics – the significance of systems of signs to human consciousness – Keith thought of his own work in a semiological context. A major part of the time I spent with Keith was involved in pondering and discussing signs and symbols and how they generate potential meaning. Originally, we thought we’d create a book that moved toward explicating the visual language he was creating and how it related to the philosophical core of our dialog. That was too limited a concept and finally we opted for an open-ended project that would not be held to a specific definition. In this way it could evolve and generate meaning as it proceeded.There is a sense in which this methodology exactly echoes its subject matter. That is what struck me on Saturday while describing to students how best to move toward a personal “understanding” of Keith’s work. These thoughts help me with my own work as well. The abstruse nature of my aesthetic conceptions reflects my method of creation by way of movement along a philosophical via negativa. I avoid specific definition of the meaning, significance, or nature of my work in order to allow it to be whatever it may become – without imposing upon it a limiting interpretation or explication. That’s the point at which Keith and I were of one mind. Creating a system of signs and symbols without imposing a set of specific definitions and grammatical rules allows the work to be immediately relevant to any individual person in any particular point of space/time. It also opens the way for transforming all conventional thought and experience into metaphysics.*Next: Initially approaching Keith’s work as a method of moving toward meaning..*Image: Installation View: Entranceway, Keith Haring: Journey of the Radiant Baby, Reading Public Museum (photo by TFD).
I’m publishing this to ensure that I will return to the subject described below and give it the attention it requires. It has always been clear to me that the conventional ego-based reasons for creating art are completely corrupt. To think that the great work of creative human beings is grounded in the desire to be rich, famous, and to “go down in history” is just too abysmal to accept.The desire for wealth motivates us because it is related to unburdening ourselves from the incessant harassment of our physical existence and our external social reality. It has nothing positive to do with the essential experience of making or experiencing art. To be famous is nothing more than strangers knowing some small aspect of a person’s existence. It has no value. “Going down in history” is just another palliative euphemism for concealing, rationalizing, and accepting the ultimately utter meaninglessness of death.The basic agreements that existed between Keith Haring and me had to do with the fact that we worked to express a vision that lies behind the veils of illusion that constitute quotidian reality. For both of us, this is the sole motivator when confronted with existence.I’m returning to the Reading Public Museum this weekend to view the current exhibit of Keith’s work. I intend to deal with the essential philosophical aspects of his desire to communicate ideas more true than our conventional ones. I will relate it to the progress I have made in understanding something of all this.This is why I do what I do. It is why Keith did what he did as well. It’s time to work harder to express something of what this it is all about – and how it relates to art and aesthetic experience.
there in solid blue air architecture of vapora buoyant white lake lacking shorelines moves cautiouslyas if aware of momentary dissolution*Words and image by TFD, 2006