Category Archives: aesthetics

Not What, But How

Back in the 1970s I made my first trips to New York city as an art student, and one of the artists who attracted me most, and who has remained a major influence for me, was Richard Foreman. I bought a copy of his book Richard Foreman, Plays and Manifestos (NYU Press, 1976), and couldn’t help but notice that there on the cover of the book was an illustration of a theatre by Robert Fludd, one that I first saw in The Art of Memory by Frances Yates.

Now, the image on the cover would have been enough to sell me on the book, but Foreman’s texts were so focused on exactly where I wanted to focus, on that moment where one notices. It isn’t a scientific type of focus or noticing. It’s a noticing where one suddenly finds oneself aware that one had been carrying around a conceptual frame that was not synched with what one was confronting, and then one notices that frame shift so that one is suddenly resonant with that confrontation. What happens in this type of noticing, is that one is not so involved with WHAT something means, as one is with HOW something means.

After a lifetime of focusing on how things mean, it is a response that is always ready to erupt. If one continually had that as an initial reaction we would not survive–we’d get hit by cars while staring at the walk/don’t walk signs, instead of just waiting for the proper sign to blink on. But it is a response that occurs enough with me that it is my main source of humor, and I’m sure I annoy many people with my deliberate misinterpretations of statements. It’s not that I think I’m clever, my mind is just constantly looking for the pun, the parallel meaning, the unintended wordplay, and it goes there first. I live in an alternative universe.

Here is a note in one of Foreman’s “manifestos” from the book: “Write by thinking against the material. Since you don’t want to convince self of your vision, etc.–but to let it be informed by the disintegrating non-moment”.

For me his plays throw everything at each other so that all of us–and I believe Foreman himself as a viewer–is actively engaged in trying to find anything that makes sense. With no traditional story or narrative, objects are present as objects, and only on occasion, seemingly unconsciously, they collide with the right object and a symbol radiates from the crash. And as the symbol emerges from our suddenly noticing, from an otherwise noisy but meaningless stage, we are able to better notice elemental aspects of our “making sense”.

In October, Foreman premiered a new film “Once Every Day” at the New York Film Festival. He was interviewed by the critic Amy Taubin. Here it is:


Last Mistake -> Next Content

Narratives are interesting because as we go through life, we’re always looking for navigational strategies… how do we move from what we’re doing to what to do next?

Narratives, and (with language) syntax, and (with painting) edges, and (with music) modal and rhythmic modulations–these are all models for how we can change our lives. They let us sample the feel of the change before we try them.
And so we look at the form and map it, and the map becomes the cognitive model–as well as the model in sensory memory–and we use the hints from those internalized maps to navigate the now time.
Of course, acting in the world isn’t entirely a matter of conscious choice. Even navigating using such models isn’t necessarily conscious, any more than a syntactical map is conscious, or our reaction to a sensory stimulus.
Art working provides an opportunity to consciously examine media for models of action that we can use outside of those media.
In his 1970’s book Beyond Modern Sculpture, Jack Burnham wrote about a goal of art being to make a model of what it is to be human. He noted that there had been a change in how that was handled, moving from an image/icon of a human, to a model that acted in the manner of a human. There was a shift, for a while at least, from picture of to art-as-process. This certainly extended to areas of robotics, and to algorithms.
I’d like to postulate an art-making ¬†model derived in part from Burnham’s text. It’s this:
The artist models what it is to be human. The artist, through experiencing the piece and its reception in the world, finds a part of the model that didn’t work. That mistake becomes the subject of the next piece.

Learning and Communing

In reaction to Judith Warner’s good post:
The Shame Game – Judith Warner Blog –

I absolutely support Michael Moore. But I see an addiction supported by people and media that forces statements into dichotomies. One should find a common ground because that is usually the first step to breaking apart a false dichotomy that is presented by ideologies, media, talk-show hosts and, yes, directors.

Overgeneralized dichotomies are useful for focusing on a topic or problem. But if you stop your understanding there, you are stopping at the level of chiche. Once you have a topic in focus, go in closer and see the real landscape, the real texture and anthro-poetic STUFF that you don’t see from the conceptual distance. Use the dichotomy as a target that lets you destroy the myth.

People should be in school long enough to learn how to learn, and practiced enough at it to be addicted to it. Getting out after one only learns to cast or repeat cliches is a waste of time, and in my opinion, dangerous to the world culture.

Lastly: I believe that Michael Moore goes beyond his bravado–his films have matured greatly from his early work. I love his statement that communism isn’t the opposite of capitalism, democracy is. The statement reframes an old argument and dares you to come inside for the argument. That is honest filmmaking.

Art Process

Seen from a certain perspective, the generation previous to mine defined Existentialism, and my generation could take that focus and explore it as an art practice. Not just that existential moments existed, but that one could develop their poetry for ourselves.

Art, then, not as a hobby for distraction, and not as a career, but as an ongoing project of creating an image of what it means to be human. And whatever aspect that is the least successful for your last piece, that becomes the focus of your next piece.

So this process, repeated throughout a lifetime, leaves a crumb trail of portraits, and of course the sequence itself is as interesting as any one piece.

The creation of the work requires a certain seriousness of purpose…although I don’t mean the type of seriousness that many people think of with art. I mean serious, I mean dedication to the series. Not a flake. And that’s different than a dilettante, and where the dilettante and the artist part paths.

The younger someone is when they begin the art process, the deeper it sinks, and the longer it has to mature.

I was speaking with my friend Ethan Place the other evening, and we both knew people who had put off facing their meaning their whole lives, until they retired. And when they finally retired, they didn’t know what to do. Sometimes they just die, for no apparent reason.

Children know instinctively what to do, they intuitively create art, and their laughter marks the moments that they perceive–it’s all so amazingly natural. But people, one bit at a time, step away from that natural inclination to create, to grow the self. And life, when its distractions recede, becomes empty. There is no vector into the future, there is only the past and the empty room of the present.

There are many lives that are just too hard, and a person who is living through one of them may not have the ability or time to create. But where did gospel come from, if not sung by those who had the hardest lives, least time, and didn’t even own themselves? Or the British and Irish tunes, rebirthing in the poor Appalachians? This isn’t just a rich man’s game.

What is it that causes us to want to shy away from meaning?


Anaesthesia, the lack of all aesthetics. The problem isn’t having bad taste. It’s having no feeling. I look over my life, and my biggest mistakes were when I just didn’t feel enough to correctly guide my actions.

My Father an electrical engineer, once told me that he considered metaphor basically a mistake. He was an analyst (and an excellent one I believe), but didn’t like feeling things very much unless he’d had a drink. But feelings rising in him were almost always smothered by a rush of anger. For him anger was a circuit breaker for feelings.

I think my seeing this as a trait/strategy led me to want to find an alternative in metaphor. For this purpose, for me, metaphor works because it comprises a meaning that no longer exists when the components are split. The division kills the phenomenon. Metaphors, symbols and meaning float for me above their component atoms, like the cloud of percussion attack sounds float in the air above the pitches of Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments. And while analysis may stop the meaning, it does not prove that the meaning doesn’t exist.

Once I understood this, I could make peace with my dad’s analysis, and place it in relation to my Mother’s art. And I made the choice to create meaning wherever and whenever I could, because it was as important as creating anything else in this real world.

Collect Edit Project

When I regularly made films and videos, I saw a three-part sequence to most compositional strategies:

1. Collecting the elements to use

2. Editing/modulating the elements

3. Projecting/presenting the piece.

The problem I saw was to make each stage creative, so that none was assumed or just mechanical. So collection for me was to always have a camera with me, shooting what appeared between me and the world, and the real finds were exposures that had an existence and received meaning only as it was captured through a set f-stop, shutter speed and lens length.

The edit was a juxtapositioning of elements, so the collection of stuff could be staged for the presentation, but not necessarily fixed for that presentation.

The projection could involve many aspects: what you projected onto, the relationship between projection speed and previous collection speed, image against image and sounds, words against image, and all those Eisensteinian montage strategies.

The music I was making offered itself in the same way: capture or generate sounds, modulate and mix them through electronic modules, and when presenting again do a live mix through electronic modules. Today the heightened interest in electronic/acoustic performances underlines the power of creative integration of these three steps during performance.

Today, working with Premiere, with Sonar, and with The Mister Edgars, questions of strategy come up again for me. How each step of the creative process can be kept from being mechanized, and instead can speak to us as we engage it. And again: to have the engagement reveal the possibilities of beauty that we have always previously missed, so that we’re more aware of it as we kick through the world.

After the parabola of a lifetime, I now reinterpret Duchamp and Cage for the central importance that beauty has in their work and writing. They needed to get away from using the word, Duchamp hated the concept of taste because, I believe, it represented how enculturation stopped perception. But now I understand beauty to be positioned as a pair of lights at the edge of what one understands, registering action at the present position of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. It is that cliche’d culture only if one doesn’t attend to it, try to make it speak, smear yourself in its sensuality so that you can through experience come to perception, and through perception bump those lights and the zone outside as you claim your site. Like a baby that laughs when it learns, we’re charged with beauty when we perceive. Nothing to be ashamed of here, nothing to hide from. And the question’s not “Why bother?”.