Saturday, October 31, 2009

What is Art, Part VI

October 31, 2009

[somehow this post never got published at the time it was written....probably because I am a computer dummy and let it remain in the drafts folder without realizing it...but here it is, in all its gory glory]

It seems oddly appropriate to be writing about the paintings of Jenny Saville on Halloween. But, first, I want to relate a brief anecdote that seems very indicative of the state of art today. A young bladesmith was staying with us overnight. He and I were collaborating on a series of pieces and he brought his art student girlfriend along. She has a nice presence about her, and we were delighted to meet her. At breakfast I asked her about her work and how much more time she had before graduating. This led to the fact that she was working on her senior show, the equivalent of her thesis. Of course putting up a show also entails explaining it, much in the same manner that one has to ‘defend’ their thesis. So, I asked how far along with it she was. As it turned out she was mid-process with organizing it, had chosen all the work that would be included, and it would only be a matter of a couple of months before her show. So, I asked what it was about. And, she looked at me with a puzzled expression, then said, “I haven’t got a clue.”

I smiled, sure that she must be joking. But, at that moment, I recalled seeing a piece on Sunday Morning. It was about the annual show at the Guggenheim for ‘hot young artists’, the ‘up and comers’. The interviewer was asking another young woman about her art, which was an installation encompassing an entire room of the museum. She did the same thing…looked him right in the eyes and said she had not the foggiest idea what it was about. Okay, what is going on here? Both of these artists had been through extensive art educations, both were seemingly far from novices in their chosen media. Both were in the position of putting their work in front of audiences….and both had apparently done their work so well that it bamboozled themselves as well as, potentially, their audiences. I say this only partly tongue in cheek, because to young art students it seems readily apparent that doing their ‘job’ means coming up with something that A) hasn’t been done before, at least not in that particular style, and B) is so obfuscatory and puzzling that it defies comprehension by the uninitiated.

Apparently, neither of these disarmingly honest women felt themselves far enough along to qualify as ‘initiates’ into the club of oh so wise people who look at the incomprehensible and comprehend it. In fact, a true initiate can spout volumes of ‘art speak’ in defense and explanation of such work. Kudos to these woman for choosing to be honest instead of being willing to lie and pretend they knew what they didn’t.

This is at the very core of ‘the game’. Artists like Lucien Freud and his army of clones, like Jenny Saville, have mastered this at the skill-level of a Fifth Avenue pick-pocket. And, young artists who are working towards becoming ‘great artists’ look around the art world and clearly see who is being rewarded for their efforts…not merely paid, but becoming multi-millionaire culture heros. It doesn’t take them long to realize that if they want to be initiated into this august inner-circle they will have to figure out how to twist peoples' sensibilities in knots too.

So, along comes this new generation of ambitious artists. They have teethed on self-interest…the artist as the center of the Universe…and they want material success, in fact, feel they are entitled to it. There is no room at the inn for anything approaching ‘ideals’. They are hungry and they are ruthless. They will do whatever it takes to get on top. And, Jenny Saville, an English painter, is quite happy to work hard at one-upping even the great Lucien Freud in his comparatively tame efforts to disgust and offend. Sweet Jenny paints very large canvases of people who appear to have just been beaten savagely, bloodied and stunned. Apparently, some of her subjects are close-up views of people who have just come out of plastic surgery. How clever of her.

She paints in a way that is coldly calculated to assault the viewer’s sensibilities on multiple levels. Some of her subjects appear to be corpses, others are wickedly dehumanized by having ‘target lines’ inscribed on their morbidly obese bodies, rendered as if they are billowing and bruised containers of lard. Some of her pieces are self-portraits, also presented in a calculated manner, intended to hammer the viewer. I come away with the distinct feeling that her 'pain' is not even genuine, but merely a contrivance to gain notoriety. It has become her trademark 'theme', and it is certainly her message, but it isn't either as deep or dramatic as her gruesome canvases would have us believe. We are not being asked to witness something authentic, but, like a Hollywood horror movie, to take a bath in the gory reds and morbid violets of her two-dimensional screams. She is flogging us, and demanding to be paid lavishly for doing so. She's far more successful as a sadist than as an artist.

Of course one can argue that she is giving us a front-row seat into the perverse regions of her psyche, a genuine insight into her personal weltanschauung, her very own little shop of horrors, and that this somehow broadens our understanding of the human experience. No sale. She just wants to win the game of who can shock an audience that is becoming increasingly jaded by continuous exposure to pathos in the news, and in the movies, video games and even in our own lives. Who can smash through our numbed out complacency? Succeeding in doing so is intensely rewarding, as mentioned above.

This also points to a pivotal fact in the underlying philosophy of today’s art: it has moved from being about life, nature, the human experience and a desire to deepen and enrich…to being all about the artist, and whatever pathos they can dream up to dump at our feet that will defy comprehension. “There, take that you idiots.” The only connection with an audience is either with other people who see life primarily in terms of their own damage, and with people who want to be seen as insiders because they can embrace and understand what the rest of us find repugnant. In some perverse way—in their minds anyway—that makes them members of an exclusive circle of insiders. The fact that they have sold this outlook to an audience who will pay millions for the perverse, is, to them, proof that they are right and the rest of us are simply ‘left out’, i.e. outsiders who will just never ‘get it’.

Know what? In the words of Mary Chapin Carpenter: "You can have it. I don't want it. When you've got it, I'll be gone." If the day comes that I can look at the vile art of somebody like Jenny Saville and pretend that it is somehow a useful contribution to the history of art…I will suddenly realize that the king had a new suit of magic clothes all along, and I was just too ignorant to see them.

In the meantime….uh, er, that his willie I see? Gawd, it’s so....tiny.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What is Art, Part V

October 28, 2009

Lucien Freud loves being an enigma. The grandson of Sigmund has been lauded and touted as, "Britain’s greatest figure painter", though one may assume there are people who would contest that idea with some vehemence. He has an enthusiastic following, some of whom would say he’s one of the greatest artists who has ever lived. These 'fans' might offer as proof of this the fact that his painting, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” recently sold for the highest price ever recorded for the work of a living artist: thirty-three million dollars. An image is included here for your delight…or disgust.

In order to understand why a painting that is so obviously trying to be repulsive has found not merely an audience, but has become so stunningly valuable, I have looked at Freud’s career as an artist and his life as a person. I looked at a book of his work put out by Taschen, but declined to give it a place on my bookshelf, unable to justify buying something that celebrates the repugnant. It would be akin to collecting dried fecal samples...because they are so "interesting". The simple truth is that Freud has become the poster-child for making art that reflects humanity back to itself in a way that shocks, repulses…and yet fascinates. It is a well recognized trait in people that when they are confronted by the darker side of life and the human condition that it has a magnetic appeal. We drive past the scene of a bad car accident, and almost unanimously we turn to stare. Part of us is desperate to get a glimpse of the pathos that has just occurred. It may be for lots of reasons, but, it is not separate from, for instance, the television news content that is so heavily loaded with stories of people acting badly. In fact, the more evil the actions being reported, the stronger the fascination people seem to have with knowing every detail. One blogger acknowledged Freud's importance and his genius, but then said, "But, I just can't get past the fact that his work is so hideous." If that is his reaction, then why is this poor fellow still willing to accord 'genius' to an artist whose lifetime mission is to offend? Why does he doubt his own genuine distaste on viewing the works of a 'great master'? What is wrong with this picture...literally?

I suppose it would be possible to argue that Freud is dedicated to making images that reveal the depth and breadth of the human condition, or--the one I really love--perhaps he is expanding our way of thinking about art and the human figure. But, it just feels like he is slapping us in the face for our weakness and our urge to ‘look away’. He wants us to stare, to be repulsed and yet to keep staring as if transfixed. Somehow he seems to be saying, “This is YOU! Drink deeply from this cup of woe, for it is who you really are.” There is a feeling of impending darkness--as if we are being given a glimpse of some arcane knowledge which is in need of an 'acquired taste' in order to understand it. This uncomfortable sense pervades almost all of the paintings he does. It seems almost a poetic irony that he’s the grandson of the psychiatrist who transformed—many would say for the worst—how we understand the human mind. If he was saying something empathic or genuinely insightful, I would have an easier time of it. But, he paints with a subdued palette of muddy colors that underscores the ugliness he is so fond of.

Diane Arbus spent much of her too short life photographing the people society considers to be freaks, and yet, she always seemed to be reminding us of their normalcy and that they are utterly human after all, not so ‘other’ as we have considered them in our ignorance. It is a sympathetic way of broadening the viewer’s perspective. Freud, on the other hand, is making ‘outcasts’ look as ‘other’ as he possibly can. He puts them in shabby beds, often with emaciated, dead-looking animals, surrounds them with a feeling calculated to make one’s skin crawl. And, he is daring us to look away, to deny the fact that they are undeniably human. But, it is NOT a sympathetic eye he has cast on these subjects. In fact, there is an aura of cruel disdain in his vision. He is not celebrating their humanity, far from it. Instead, he is casting them as pitiable and pathetic creatures in a depressing netherworld. Even his self-portraits of himself are imbued with a feeling that can easily pass for self-loathing. Reading about his personal life is like reading accounts of the Eastern Front in WWII. He has left a long trail of wreckage, rumored to have as many as forty illegitimate children, along with a host of failed marriages. He seems to be stumbling through his life just doing whatever is in front of him, all the while insisting on sharing his macabre vision of people and life as he does. In the topsy-turvey world of modern fine-art, is it any wonder then that he’s become a kind of cultural anti-hero? It just makes perfect sense that he would.

I am left with a feeling that inhabiting the inside of his head would be a massively depressing experience. But, I suspect that—now in his mid-eighties—he’s far too busy enjoying the legacy and the controversy he has created to be bothered by it in the least, quite the contrary, in fact. He’s like a man who pushes a jar towards you and says with a wicked smile, “Here, take a whiff.” And you just know that you are going to toss your cookies if you take him up on his offer….but, you do anyway. His is a world of foul body odors, the smell of decaying food in the sink, moldy sheets and musty, decrepit spaces where bad things happen. And we simply cannot pass up the chance to dive in.

In this respect, his paintings are like some literary novels that seem to need to push us toward witnessing the seamier side of life. “Here, step-up and have a good look. Is this your first autopsy?” And, interestingly, now mainstream entertainment is doing exactly the same thing. The CSI shows--now three of them, each with its own unique visual style--are all very popular and their ‘mission’ is to immerse the viewer in the blood and guts of violent crime. The special effects people have pulled out all the stops to do this. We can now follow the bullet that killed the victim as it passes through her vital organs and comes to rest in her spine. We watch as a poison turns the victim’s lungs into blisters that drown him. It might pass for sadistic pornography, if it weren’t all so ‘neat’ and detached.

As I said before—and will doubtless marvel at again and again—art mirrors a society back to itself. And we—by our proclivities and choices as to what art we glom onto—make an ongoing decision as to what image of ourselves we want to embrace.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What is Art, Part IV

October 26, 2009

A few days ago a friend sent me an article clipped from the New York Times, printed on October 16th 2009. It’s an op-ed piece by Denis Dutton and you can read it in its entirety here: (you may have to copy and paste this link, as I have still not figured out how to get a hyperlink into this blog format….sorry)

It touched me personally because he cites research that identifies Acheulian hand-axes found in the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa as dating back some 2.5 million years, long before verbal language existed. Okay, that is pretty amazing by itself, but he also says that scientists studying these earliest of tools now believe they may be the very first art-form created by hominids. According to Dutton’s sources many of these early pieces have been found in un-used condition, as indicated by the freshly knapped delicate edges. Some are too big to be practical as hand-axes, so the inference is that they were made as objets d’art , to be cherished and to express something more profound than an object created purely for utilitarian purposes. I immediately have this image of this being--a half-primate, half-human missing link kind of creature--crouched in a cave, grunting, snorting and chortling as he bends to his work on a richly colored piece of stone, exercising great care and skill in order to create something ever so much more than a simple using tool.

I say this is personal for me because I made edged objects for about thirty years. I was a professional knifemaker, and the pieces I created came into being primarily to express something, rather than to be purchased and used as knives. My final piece had a blade forged from shrapnel found in the forest near Bastogne and was delivered with a complete portfolio, including poetry, photos, and an essay. I always thought—and still do—of the knife/axe, as the first tool, and as the only tool you would really not want to be without in a survival or wilderness situation. And, there were days when I grunted, snorted and chortled as I bent to my work.

Dutton goes on to say that scientists believe what these ancient craftsmen were expressing with these objects had everything to do with the highly developed skills required to make them, and that many pieces were made from extraordinarily beautiful stone, clearly had extra effort and care taken in their creation. In other words, in pre-language hominids it was already recognized that making something with your hands that embodied beautiful execution and handsome materials was a way of expressing themselves. I would dearly love to know how these articles were treated after being completed. Were they given to loved ones…or to dominant members of the band….or held as property in common, as a kind of icon….perhaps the makers used them as a way of bartering? What became of them will never be known, but because the delicate edges of these pieces do at least tell us that they remained out of circulation as tools, this certainly implies that the first art-form had an audience of ‘collectors’ who appreciated them for their aesthetic properties, more so than for their utility.

Amazingly—at least to me—Dutton puts these proto-art pieces alongside the works of Damien Hirst, whom some may recall is the conceptual artist responsible for putting a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde on the market as art. BTW: It garnered TWELVE MILLION bucks at auction. You may already have guessed it was not his one and only such offering. The redoubtable Herr Hirst has most recently offered mocked-up medicine cabinets for sale. And, the most recent auction brought just under $200K for same. Yes, it looks just like a medicine cabinet you would find in many bathrooms, with glass front and typical bathroom, hygiene and health products on display. How coy! But, Dutton’s point is that such inane conceptual pieces actually have begun to seem inane, even to at least some of the anointed cognoscenti, apparently, especially when you begin to compare them with objects made with genuine skill and caring, out of beautiful materials….even those made by our hairy distant cousins who had yet to create words…but whom, I will bet, had more sense than to defecate in their own caves the way the New York art world is.

Along the way Dutton reminds us that these days a conceptual ‘artist’ need not actually have hands-on their art. I must have been dozing off when they covered this part of being an artist in college. He or she needs to merely generate the clever idea and then turn it over to a suitable facility—an atelier, a construction contractor, whomever has the skills, tools and materials the ‘artist’ is lacking—then pay for and inspect (one hopes) the finished product…and ‘product’ seems exactly the right word to describe the result of this process. Damien Hirst is identified by Dutton as being the ‘richest’ artist alive today. And, in terms of the traditional definition of what constitutes an artist, he is nothing of the sort. He is a clever idea man, nothing more. He has learned how to market sly and oddly unappealing items for such massive sums that the salient fact about them has become simply THEIR PRICE. A dead shark in a tank only becomes a real head-scratcher, when you learn that some idiot has paid $12 MILLION BUCKS FOR IT. And the fools who will pay millions for his cunning brain-storms, are accomplices in his scam. It is a house of cards, however. And, as Dutton points out, at some point the obvious will become…well, uh, obvious.

I burst into a guffaw on reading Dutton’s closing remarks: “….I can’t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners, and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner and wondering why.” Congratulations to Denis Dutton for penning such a keenly insightful piece.

And, on that day, those of us who have been pointing at the king all along and remarking on his obscene nakedness will simply smile and walk away. Art is not valuable, nor necessarily even really ‘art’, just because some self-serving artists, gallery owners, and curators have put it in front of us and told us it is.

And, apparently, even cavemen knew this.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Death of Honor, Part 2

My father’s generation grew of age during the Great Depression, then they went off to save the world from fascism, and came home to work hard at realizing the American Dream. All of this deeply impacted how they ordered their priorities and right at the top of their ‘What is Important’ list is personal integrity. When I was about ten, my father handed me something he’d clipped from Readers’ Digest: “The Ten Points of Personal Integrity”. All of them were obvious, but he clearly wanted me to know that this was something of utmost importance, not just to him, but to anybody who wanted to consider themselves a decent human being. I carried that list in my wallet for years, until it finally disintegrated into small flakes of blurry print.

For the so-called, “Greatest Generation” personal integrity is not merely an after-thought. For them, it doesn’t matter how much money you have amassed, how many accolades in the workaday and professional world have been bestowed, how finely and elegantly one has adorned their life with all the accessories of material wealth. All that is just the window dressing of a person’s life. What matters is that you are an honest, trustworthy and decent person.

I grew up in a community and segment of society in which I was exposed to a large number of people who had a great deal of money. Even as an adolescent, it was boldly apparent to my young mind that most of them were struggling to be happy. Many of the men drank too much, and it was often whispered news from my mother that poor so and so had had a ‘nervous breakdown’. This is so far from what most people imagine being rich would be like that I continue to marvel at why so many people think that obtaining material wealth will solve all their problems. Sure, it would be nice to not have to worry about bills being paid, but, the acquisition of true affluence is an illusory goal. It makes only the most vain and self-centered people happy, mostly because they are foolish enough to think that bathing oneself in luxury is what constitutes happiness. For a young soul--still wet behind the ears in terms of their spiritual evolution--perhaps this will suffice for a while, but there comes a day when all the STUFF just seems meaningless. And, one might suddenly wonder why they were so foolish as to think they could buy happiness.

Eventually, a person will look at the world around them, and see that many people are suffering in a myriad and terrible ways…and at that point, it becomes just a little difficult to continue playing in your own pristine sandbox, as if all of THAT didn’t exist. As a soul matures, their deepest passion and utmost concern becomes how to participate in the world appropriately, not how to isolate themselves from it. An old soul wants nothing more than to make a difference, and knows that true happiness lies in doing whatever is within their power to weigh in on the side of compassion and Oneness. Such a person automatically assumes that we’re all in the same lifeboat, and nobody should think they will survive if it sinks. Therefore: BAIL! In whatever way one is intuitively guided, one needs to commit their energy to making the world a better place.

But, we’re living in a world where a new generation is taking up the cause of endless acquisition, bottomless consumption, luxury beyond imagining. These ‘young Turks’ want it all, and, amazingly, they believe they are entitled to it. Yes, they actually believe that it is their right to plunder society at large, whether it be as financial managers, as investors, or as owners of piratical businesses…it is their RIGHT. They have a belief system in place that has given them permission to act as modern day pirates. Perhaps being a Wall Street hedge-fund manager is how they sail. The top such pirate last year made 3.4 BILLION….uh, that is three THOUSAND, FOUR HUNDRED TIMES A MILLION buckaroonies, folks. In his mind, I have no doubt, that was all justified. The list is endless. There is an ad on t-v presently reminding us that one particular health insurance CEO makes $57,000….PER HOUR. Hey, good on him. And, does his company pay him such a lavish salary because they have figured out how to meet the needs of their insurees….or because they have figured out how to deny as many of those needs as possible? You guess.

The sad truth is that this new generation of robber barons are feeding on us. We be the flock of wooly-boolies down there in the field, and they be the pack of wolves who have figured out a myriad of ways to eat mutton. But, let’s bring it down to a more personal level, just in case you haven’t watched a loved one die because an insurance company wouldn’t cover them…or because somebody couldn’t afford insurance at all.

In a society where the primary goal of a host of people is to gain the upper hand, regardless of ethical and moral considerations, the rest of us are indeed the prey. Once Honor is dealt a final death-blow, relegated to obsolescence, all bets are off. The kids who are presently cheating their way through college will not suddenly become honest and forthright professionals. They have already chosen the path of least resistance and will continue to do so…because to do otherwise requires a deep and abiding conviction that Honor, personal integrity, is critically important to life. To live your life according to a moral code, with Honor, requires effort and even courage. Nobody said it was the easiest way to go. They will be the next doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers and business people who shape how our lives are lived, not just their own. It will be their approach to their own lives that impacts every single person, because we are all intertwined to a degree that it must.

Here’s an imaginary example, though I have no doubt that it mirrors a real situation out there somewhere...perhaps many: A woman goes to her doctor, and has her annual mammogram. It is sent over to the doctor’s office and somehow gets buried in a stack of paperwork. (You know this is way too believable, right?) When it is finally seen, it has a warning from the radiologist attached to it saying that he/she has some questions about it and that a follow-up should be done. But……months have passed….and now it appears that the woman has developed breast cancer at a level that could be difficult to treat with good odds of success. She had assumed that no word from the doctor's office meant her mammogram was normal. The responsibility for this woman’s safety has been undertaken in such a sloppy fashion that now her life is possibly in danger. And, the first thing that occurs to the doctor is, “Holy s—t! This is going to be a law-suit.” So, measures are taken to obscure how badly the ball was dropped, and the emphasis is immediately on how to minimize liability for the doctor and his/her practice. The woman could even lose her LIFE, because self-interest has greater weight than doing the right thing.

Now, take this single example and extend it out across the professions, the trades, the business world…and you will begin to see an apocalyptic vision of what our lives will become, if Honor is truly beaten to death. Living in a society where people are out to preserve their own interests, to accumulate all they can, even at the expense of others, and where a Machiavellian sense of “…do whatever you need to do to accomplish your goals” predominates, will be a nightmare. The quality of life that we have cherished so much, that we have spouted about as being the highest in the world, that we claim is available to anybody who reaches for it, works hard and is a good person…will evaporate.

We are already seeing the signs of this transition. Over 60 million prescriptions a year are being written for anti-depressant drugs. More and more of them are being prescribed for CHILDREN. The American Dream is already on its way to becoming a nightmare, all we need to do is sit back and let the lowest, greediest and most lustful instincts of a few, become the predominant life philosophy of the majority and we’ll be there.

Honor evolved for pragmatic and very necessary reasons. It was early on recognized as the ‘glue’ that would allow a body of people to become a community of individuals who all depended on each other. That has not changed. What has changed is the overriding acceptance of this knowledge being replaced by a growing rejection of it. The credo of materialism has given birth to its natural offspring, GREED. Without constraints, without the knowledge of how harmful this will be, greed will continue to be adopted as the most appealing approach to living. We are continually immersed in a warm, aromatic bath showing us what the joyful bliss of having luxuries would be like, from the latest greatest piece of technology to twitter our senses, to the most powerful and glamorous vehicle, the right house, the best vacations...and endless stream of, "Yes, yes. I want it! Oh, give it to me", STUFF. People sit in their humble homes and see an endless stream of ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ paraded across their screens. So, of course kids grow up thinking that this somehow constitutes a system of values. This is the ‘default’ viewpoint in the absence of a more clear knowledge of what it takes to become a truly successful person. With the dissolution of so many families, with electronic media doing the bulk of child-care, with the disappearance of the church, tribe, village and sense of belonging…to anything….is it any wonder that it would come to this? My then 14 y.o. grandson, in California, was asked what he thought about getting his driver license and it somehow came out that he wanted a Cadillac Escalade…but, there was no idea that he would have to do anything at all to get it. Holy Cow, Batman!

How sad is this? Many members of the Greatest Generation with whom I have spoken about these changes not only agree that this is what is happening, but have even said they will be glad to be out of here. They have come to the conclusion that their legacy is being ignored and that the 'new way' is so far from what they believe America could be that it will be a relief to be done with it. Many just shake their heads, and a few have tears in their eyes when we speak about this.

In the next installment of this series we’ll take a look at our options. They aren’t as simple or clear as one might suppose.

Murad Sayen, in Maine

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Death of Honor, Part I

October 13, 2009

This is not intended as an academic dissertation. You will not find any footnotes or other documentation, because it is merely my own opinion, formed from a lifetime of observation and consideration of the world around us. It, more than anything else, is a projection of what will happen if some changing trends in our society do not mollify and head back in a direction that honors our past and the social convention most often referred to as “honor”.

What is Honor, yes, with a capital ‘H’? It is the feeling that a person is obligated to ascertain and then act in a way that is consistent with the greatest good…for all humanity. It is NOT acting out of self-interest, or in the interest of a limited grouping of souls. Hitler had the German people believing that their interests came before anyone else’s and that absolutely whatever was necessary to pursue those interests was justified. We know the results of this all too well. Honor requires that a person make an effort to discover what the best course of action in any given situation would be, as determined from a humanistic and even a spiritual point of view. It is most certainly NOT a ‘religious’ viewpoint; that is presently being perverted as badly as the Nazi goals were. Radical followers of not just Islam, but any religion, have a common tendency to consider their perspective to be the single correct path, rendering all others not merely flawed but even evil. In the minds of the leaders and followers this apparently justifies unbridled cruelty and violence as they pursue their own self-interests under an umbrella of piety and sanctimony. When will the world begin to realize that religion that is pursued in this fashion is a form of collective mental illness?

It is always possible to listen to one’s conscience. Yes, we have discovered endless ways to disarm and otherwise stifle the conscience, but, if we allow the Heart (most often identified as the seat of not only Love, but of the conscience as well) full scope to operate without perverting it, each of us has an in-built moral compass that will immediately tell us what is right. The answer erupts virtually instantaneously, as a set of bodily feelings, and mentally, as a simple but profound knowing, and is beyond quibbling or debate when it does. We do not have to make a list of pros and cons, weight possible consequences, or anything that requires logic and a process of deciding. We are confronted by a situation and we just KNOW. It really only becomes complicated when we toss in a body of thought, with rules, principles and goals. That is where the perversion begins. So, let’s take a look back at how the concept of Honor began—in my own opinion—and what is becoming of it at present.

The beginning of agriculture stems back to the so-called Fertile Crescent, the area roughly defined by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq. It is thought that the land there was so amenable to growing crops that the heretofore nomadic hunter-gatherers of the region had the epiphany that they would have a better chance of eating regularly, not to mention do a lot less wandering about, if they could plant and harvest their food. As this caught on and took hold, suddenly these people could not only remain in one place and become agrarian, but they realized the need for permanent settlements and began building villages, then towns and eventually cities. Of course, if you have something worth raiding, there would always be those who would rather have your food, and not have to gather or grow it themselves. So the need to collectively defend their settlements grew out of a critical need for mutual protection. And the idea of standing military was born. There had been warriors in every culture since their inception, but now it was desirable to become more formal and organized, build defensible strong-points, eventually fortified towns and cities.

I spent three years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman (without going to Vietnam, however, despite being on orders for it FOUR times). Ultimately, I became an instructor at the Infantry School at Ft.Benning, and I learned that the lynch-pin of military discipline and the ability of a military unit to function effectively is the willingness to both trust and to sacrifice. If you don’t trust your leaders and your platoon mates, morale will be so bad that the unit’s ability to fight on any effective level will be poor to non-existent. Much of the willingness to obey orders comes from a deep feeling of brotherhood, and a consequent willingness to die for your squad-mates. There is no place in a good military unit for a person who operates from self-preservation and self-interest. In fact, the U.S. Army is full of leaders who are very good at spotting such individuals during the first phases of training and they weed them out whenever possible. The term “Section 8” refers to a discharge under the grounds that the individual is simply “…unfit for military service”. It isn’t disciplinary, merely pragmatic. If such a person does make it to a combat unit, they will often find themselves pulling permanent K.P. Nobody wants to go into combat with someone who is just out to save his own butt. Trust me on that.

As the centuries passed, warrior cults, and the armies they were a part of all around the planet, developed their own codes of conduct. These codes all have in common the idea that loyalty, along with courage, is paramount, and to act in a less than loyal or brave fashion is simply unacceptable. Some traditions have practiced this at a very stern level: the samurai being the most rampant example. The samurai warriors’ code of Bushido required a warrior who disgraced himself to commit Seppuku…to slice his own gut open with a small dagger, a Tanto. The motto of the Nazi SS was, “Mein Ehre heist Treue”, approximately: “My honor is my loyalty”. No veteran who fought against them, however odious their Nazi ideology, will deny that they were among the best fighting men in the world. Both Samurai and SS culture were perversions, however. Both were mis-used by the political overlords above them to accomplish self-serving goals.

Honor is easily able to be misappropriated under the banner of a political system, or a religion whose leaders are acting in a political fashion. The people in charge simply obviate the subjugant’s conscience, and replace their ability to make decisions with an iron-clad form of brutal discipline. The leadership, however perverse in its goals, substitutes unbending loyalty for the ability or--more exactly, the RESPONSIBILITY--to use one’s conscience to determine what is right and wrong. My reading has indicated that many of the Germans who were involved with the direct prosecution of the Holocaust had qualms of conscience, but they were able to set them aside in most cases because Hitler had decided what was ‘right’ for them. One of the most common Nazi slogans was, “Hitler orders, we follow.” Just possibly this was such an excruciating example of humans behaving in an unconscionable way that it will remain a painful history lesson we pay attention to…for at least a few generations, please.

But, we now live in a world beset by terror, committed in the name of a religion whose very name means, “Peace”. How can this be happening? The mechanism is identical to that used by the Nazis…and too many others. The Imams, Sheikhs and Mullahs who have substituted their self-serving interpretation of the Koran for anything that is recognizable by mainstream Muslims are telling their legions of followers what is right, as they see it. And, as we know too well, that is a heavily skewed and perverted understanding of anything approaching compassion or wisdom. If Mohammed were to return today, I feel absolutely confident that he would be outraged by the behavior that is being committed in his name. Heads would roll, alright, but it wouldn’t be those of innocent women and children and other non-combatants.

So, I hope that we have at least established that Honor is a noble impulse to do the right thing in any given determined by the wisdom and compassion of one’s own conscience. And it is apparent that it must always be treated with a cautionary vigilance to ensure that it has not been co-opted by those who would mis-use the courage and loyalty of people who serve under their authority. Now let’s take a look at how this long-standing concept has arrived in the present.

On September 11th, 2001, the whole world stood witness to both deeds of a horrendous nature, and subsequent deeds of such an Honorable nature that it brought tears to our eyes. The highjackers labored under a false notion of honor that allowed them to target thousands of innocent people, of all ages, any gender, ethnicity and nationality. They were dupes who had been led to believe that what they were doing was somehow noble and heroic. It was simply not so. Anybody watching the towers fall felt sickened by the knowledge that this was an intentional act. But, in a space of mere minutes, the firefighters, medics and police who responded were thrust into a situation where it quickly became apparent that just doing their duty would very likely cost many of them their lives. They did it anyway. To save people they didn’t even know, these men and women are willing, on a daily basis, to sacrifice their lives. And, over 300 did on that terrible day. This, then, has become a living and vibrant example of what it means to follow a code of Honor. In the aftermath of that terrible day the letters, “FDNY”, have become almost synonymous with selfless sacrifice.

And, yet, we are now living in times when a significant portion of our population is actively deciding that such a code is obsolete.

In fact, I do not believe it is at all hyperbolic to say that Honor—as a coda and a guide for how one should behave--is at the very least ‘endangered’, if not actually dying out. In these times we have a host of people who grew up believing that the American Dream means to get what you want, and let the devil take the hindmost. Do I really have to cite examples of this? Okay, but just a few of the most stunning ones: Enron, where Robert Ley was ordering his employees to not sell their company stock holdings…as he unloaded his own out the backdoor. Then there is the ongoing behavior of health insurance companies as they place corporate profit on a higher level than the lives of those they collect money from, supposedly and expressly for the purpose that they will be there for them when the need arises. Does it really get any worse than this?

Cheating on college campuses has sky-rocketed in recent years, because students who would like to think of themselves as ‘good people’ are caving-in to the idea that they have to set aside their personal integrity in order to be competitive for grades. People who have been raised to believe that what you own is more important—much more—than how you go about getting it, will stop at nothing to acquire what they have come to see as simply what they are entitled to. And, that means that Honor, and all it stands for, has become an impediment…just a big fat inconvenience. Anymore, if you listen to their logic, Honor has become an obsolete and arcane concept that is more for Boy Scouts than for the real world of making a living.

In part two, we will begin to look at what the greater implications of this are for all of us.

Murad Saÿen, in Maine

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What is Art, Part III

For parts 1 and 2, please go to

October 18th 2009

What is Art, Part III

In a recent conversation with a friend, I was struck to hear him say, “Who cares if a bunch of scam-artists sell worthless crap to some people with too much money and too few brains? Art has become irrelevant to most people.” Holy Cow, Batman!

I ‘m an artist. What does that say about my lifetime of effort if he’s right? And, sadly enough, on some levels, he is. But, lest I ‘eat the Luger’ in a fit of hopelessness, there’s hope. I am, and will remain optimistic that fine-art, especially the visual arts, can recover from a century of confusion and foolishness. [See Part I, if you don’t know what I am referring to, please.] The fact is that the arts—including literature, drama, music, and all the visual arts—are the most important way in which a society both gains insight into itself, and is able to imagine what its potential is. Unless we are in a constant state of introspection, looking with acute curiosity at ‘who we are’--and are willing to see some aspects that we find distinctly repugnant, along with those we can admire--we are essentially BLIND.

It is our artists, in every medium, who hold up a mirror and reflect back to us a vast and multi-faceted image of ourselves, on every possible level. The arts deepen and inform, in infinite detail, the sense of ourselves that we could never develop without them. Would you really want to create a composite of the state of the human beings based on the news? If that was the full extent of how we were able to perceive ourselves, I project that the suicide rate would go through the roof. More and more people I meet are sick of seeing almost nothing but pathos and misery on their t-v, in their papers, and on the web.

When we consider the arts, however, it’s a whole different story. It is through the arts that we enter into a creative space in which we are able to dream of what we might become. Without doing so, we would surely limit ourselves to mindless repetition of the patterns of the past. Whether you’re an avid reader of fiction or non-fiction, there is a steady stream of new books that can give you a powerful experience of any and all realities that have ever, or will ever exist. Think about it. Between all the various genres of writing you can experience ANYTHING at all…no limits apply to our ability to imagine moving towards a better world, better lives for people around the planet. Of course, the inverse is true as well, and there is a lot of energy put into a nightmarish vision of the future. Each person gets to choose how they want to envision and project what will come of themselves and of the entire planet.

This is equally true of cinema, which, of course, draws heavily on books for its material. A movie can transport you to any point in the real or imagined time-space continuum and then tell you a story that can amaze, enlighten, or of course, horrify. Contemporary storytelling typically offers some kind of resolution that allows you to walk out of the theater feeling okay, maybe even great. Lately, however, a genre is gaining traction that lets you down at the end, leaving you to walk out of the theater with a feeling of hopelessness. Have you seen “No Country for Old Men”? While it will never be accused of being a formula ‘feel good’ movie, at least it tells a story in which the humanity of the characters is portrayed and explored in a believable way. There is, however, a creeping tendency in literary writing to slap the reader up-side the head and leave them with the notion that, “…life sucks, deal with it.” And, while this might be more true to how life is for most people, I find it depressing and serving little purpose in helping the reader/viewer to come to terms with life. I mean, do you really want to avail yourself of stories that leave you feeling that life sucks? What’s the point?

Novels and movies that portray life as an endless treadmill, with only pain and disappointment waiting to pounce on us, are essentially the same as paintings that make you feel inadequate, or worse yet, BORED. Conspiring to portray such storytelling as ‘cinema verité’, and novels as ‘literary’ is no different than giving museums entire wings dedicated to paintings and sculpture that have no real meaning. And just because a few supposedly ‘wise’ and knowing critics assign meaning to them, does NOT mean that it is there. They are part of the scam too, and perhaps they even believe what they are spouting is some form of arcane wisdom. And, Bernie Madoff thought he was actually making money for his investors, right?

Music is and has always been a huge source of consolation, joy and even bliss for people. Most of us have our favorite genres and artists and we listen to music wherever we are, if at all possible. Nowadays—with the advent of the I-pod and Mp3 files, etc—it’s pretty much an integral part of our lives. And, there is something for absolutely everybody, from gospel to rap, from Beethoven to the Beatles. Avant garde music has plumbed the depths of what is possible with sound. But much of it is simply so boring or annoying that it hasn’t found an audience beyond a few people who must also like modernist painting….and dead German philosophers.

Then we come to painting. Ouch. As a lifelong painter myself, it is painful to feel that the greatest paintings happened centuries ago. And, if you take a good look at the entire history of painting, it’s even possible to argue that the purest, and most stunningly beautiful paintings were done on cave walls, by Cro Magnon people…from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago!

When I first saw images of the cave paintings of Lascaux, I was mesmerized. The animals were graceful, powerful, almost alive. Much of the greatest painting that ensued never accomplished the same level of elegant simplicity and power.

But, if you give yourself the great gift of a reasonable exploration of the history of painting, there are many, many stops along the way where one can see that skill and the mastery of the materials and subject matter was elevated to a level so high that no contemporary painter will ever match it. Yes, that is my honest opinion. A system of rigorous screening, preparation, training and apprenticeship existed that was capable of creating artists who had astonishing abilities to use pigment on a surface. You simply cannot stand in front of a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, a DaVinci, or a hundred others, and say that any living artist could do what you are looking at. They cannot.

Then we walk to the modernist collection in name your great museum. And, the dream is over. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth century, a sudden shift occurred. You can read an excellent explanation of it on, a website dedicated to supporting the return of traditional values in fine art, especially painting.

And, the rest, as they say, is history. Part I of this series has dealt with the great scam that has been perpetrated by the art world for the last hundred years. If you agree that this is what has happened, read on.

Although you wouldn’t know it from looking at Art in America, a magazine that chronicles the pathetic state of the art world today, it is still possible and, in fact, more important than perhaps at any time in history, to consider that along with making art, comes an ethical code: Artistic Ideals. Once art was misappropriated by those who would have you believe that it’s not for ordinary folks, the idea that painting served anything but the greed of the gallery owners and the cause of the artist’s ego, became laughable. Now it was for the ‘insiders’ and its only ideal was to get recognition as the first step in becoming a valuable commodity that ‘knowing’ collectors would pay handsomely for.

In the coming paradigm shift, painting will return to its longtime role as a source of enrichment for our society at large, and become a meaningful way of communicating once again. We have had this taken from us by people who did so for self-serving reasons. Critics like Clement Greenberg were merely snobs who used their critical credentials to look down on mainstream society. When Greenberg first began to gain traction as an art critic he held up Modernism as a way of resisting ‘kitsch’, and was the first to popularize that term. He argued that by maintaining an elite world of painting--which cleaved more and more to lofty flights of rhetoric in order to justify its supposed superiority—it would keep the art world from plunging into the abyss of mediocrity. He was saying, essentially, that we need to remain above the ordinariness of ordinary people. And, along with this endorsement of elitism, he and his colleagues roundly condemned any artist who was capable of communicating on a level that most people could relate to, like Andrew Wyeth, for instance.

Life in these times is fraught with challenges. For most people, these are hard-times. With all the demands and stresses of modern living, who needs painters to be putting up work that baffles, insults, pontificates and generally obfuscates life itself? Their cloistered little world is becoming increasingly ridiculous and irrelevant, while at the same time more and more people are once again embracing the fact that beauty is NOT irrelevant. Art is humanity’s gift to itself. It always has been, right up until a hundred years ago. And, now we need it to be that great blessing again. We need the return of paintings that can take your breath away, bring tears to your eyes, create a feeling that, even with all its difficulties, life is doable, an opportunity to experience being fully human, and, very often, a great blessing.

Mission statement

This blog is linked to my site: It has been created to allow me easier access to posting entries. As always, my goal in putting up my own thoughts is to share my own personally derived opinions and views, in the hope that it will offer the reader some insight into their own life and times. We are all here on this planet like people sharing a lifeboat after a disaster at sea, and how we act and even how we think has an impact on everybody in the lifeboat, to one degree or another. What we do as individuals ultimately becomes a chip in the human mosaic and affects the overall image of The Humans that we are all co-creating. I have a deep-seated belief that we can be of value to each other as we each try to solve the problems and puzzles presented by our own lives and life at large in these times.

For me--as both a life-long artist, and as an 'ethicist'--the ways we express ourselves through our creativity, and how we treat each other are the areas of primary concern. I will be putting up material that is based not on concepts I have read, but on my own personal experiences of my life. Naturally, some people will take exception to my opinions, and that is of course fine. But, please don't expect me to spend time rebutting or defending what I have learned.

About me: you can read an in-depth bio on my website--mentioned above. I am an artist, photographer, writer and have a degree in the philosophy of ethics. My primary focus at age 64 is fine-art painting, but I have always been an observer of life in all its amazing nuances.

Murad, in South Paris, Maine October 18th, '09