September 20, 2019

A Few Thoughts on Cancel Culture

        Over the years I have featured the work of many “problematic” creators, from Nazi-sympathizing artists to sexist poets, but the rising tide now is “cancel culture,” which is the idea of boycotting the work and shunning the people whose personal behavior or opinions are considered unacceptable.  This can be a powerful way to stand up to injustice.  It can give those who feel victimized a sense of reclaiming power and agency.  It can bring larger social awareness to issues of prejudice or oppression, and to the specific crimes of specific celebrities.  It can cut down financial support for a hateful agenda.  It can  educate society about things that people find hurtful.  This is all Good.  But there are situations in which cancel culture is itself problematic.
        My first question is what we do about the work of those who are long gone?  Our cancelling of their work can’t teach them a lesson.  And what if the work itself is untainted by the sins of the creator?  With literature one might argue that it’s impossible for the writer’s prejudices not to contaminate the work (although I’m not convinced that this is in all cases true), but with visual art or, say, classical music, it’s much easier to feel that a work is beautiful, moving, and sublime, without there being any evidence of the artist or composer’s less admirable traits.  Is the art less beautiful if the artist has sins?  Does it lose its power when you remember that a mere flawed human created it?
        Then to focus in on these flawed humans (dead or living) and their less admirable traits… How bad do they have to be to be cancelled?  My belief is that there has only ever been one perfect Creator, and of course many people don’t believe even that.  So if no one is perfect, how bad is too bad?  Things may be clear at the extremes - that living artists directly profiting from their atrocities should be boycotted, while artists who simply failed to get along with their step-parents can probably still be accepted - but human behavior is a continuum, not a step function.  Do we cancel every single creator in Western Culture before, say, 1960?  Was there ever a single one who was not sexist and/or racist and/or anti-semitic and/or Islamophobic and/or homophobic and/or…?  Where do we draw the line?  And who gets to draw the line?
        And now let’s think about change.  Sometimes people change.  Sometimes people do actually learn and grow.  Cancel culture, with its instant firestorm outrage, leaves no room for this.  People are cancelled for past errors, whether or not they have since changed, and they are cancelled for present errors large and small, without the possibility of repentance.  Cancel culture’s purpose is punishment rather than rehabilitation, and scandal rather than education.  Something that can have so many positive possibilities in fighting society’s ills is all too often more of a sledge hammer than a scalpel.
        This can end up counterproductive, leaving people afraid to engage in dialogue or address thorny issues, damping creativity, and leading to a toxic environment where cancel culture is used as a justification to attack and demean anyone with whom there is disagreement.  Of course this is not how hearts and attitudes are changed.  Speaking for myself, I am quite certain that I have have not managed to get through the past almost-fifty years of speaking and writing without making statements that are offensive or hurtful to someone.  I promise you that whatever it was, unkindness and bigotry were not my intention, but I am ignorant about many things, and sometimes thoughtless, and often flippant.  If I do something wrong I would like my error to be explained to me so that I can try to avoid making the same mistake again.  I know education takes time and energy, and people get tired of having to educate ignorant idiots all the time.  I know that I don’t actually enjoy being criticized, and might be a little more prickly about criticism than I should.  But the question is simply: Which is more important to you, the grand rush of self-righteous outrage, or actually fixing the problem?
        Are there any ways to engage with problematic artists and art without either condoning the bad aspects or cancelling everything?  There’s a lot to think about, and this is just a short treatment of it.  I don’t claim to have covered all the issues or addressed all the concerns, or to be the first to have considered these questions.  If anyone has further thoughts, counterarguments, or reactions, I am open to hearing them.  I have merely laid out some of my own thoughts and reactions to this aspect of our current social environment, because it touches me closely.  Although I am small-time enough to fly under the radar of any huge backlash (I’ve never had a frontlash to begin with!) it is my job to lay myself open in many ways, and I do worry about making an inadvertent misstep, hurting someone’s feelings, and being branded as an irredeemably horrible human being.

[Picture: Desbrozando (Clearing) wood block print by Mariano Paredes, undated (Image from  Docs Populi).]

September 17, 2019

Nakayama's Horses

        Here’s another wood block print I saw in a museum this summer.  This is “Dancing Stallion” by Nakayama Tadashi (Japan, 1927-2014).  Nakayama worked with the traditional Japanese wood block printing technique of different blocks for each color, printed with a baren rather than a press.  However, unlike the traditional method, he did every stage himself, drawing, carving, and printing.  He also departed from tradition in his style, which was heavily influenced by Persian miniature paintings and Paolo Uccello’s Renaissance horse paintings.  The influence of Uccello is obvious in the subject matter of horses, but specifically in their monumental size and action, and in how richly decorated they are.  From the Persian miniatures Nakayama took the use of borders, rich colors, detailed patterns, and the use of gold and silver leaf.

        Looking at these pieces, it’s almost hard to recognize them as wood block prints because they’re so busy and detailed, not to mention quite large.  The one above which I saw was about 2x3 feet.  Some of Nakayama’s pieces have as many as 47 colors printed with 35 separate blocks!  I can’t tell how many blocks might have gone into these particular examples, but obviously it must have been incredibly laborious to build up a single piece from so many blocks, and Nakayama famously produced only a few editions of prints each year.  He was also especially famous for his horses.




        One particular recurring motif among Nakayama’s horses is the title “ema.”  The word literally means “picture-horse” and ema are wooden plaques displayed at Shinto shrines with prayers or wishes.  Horses are commonly pictured on these ema because horses are able to carry messages to the kami (spirits or gods).  The practice also spread to Japanese Buddhism.  So when Nakayama entitles his wood block prints “Ema,” he’s clearly giving the horse an extra dimension and significance.
        Although I like these pieces, in a way I don’t like them as printmaking, because it’s so hard to see the printmaking in them.  On the other hand, I can certainly stand in awe of the technical mastery required to produce them!

[Pictures: Dancing Stallion, woodblock print by Nakayama Tadashi, 1987 (This image from Azuma Gallery, as it was clearer than the photo I took in the National Museum of Scotland);
Running in the Afternoon, woodblock by Nakayama, 1974;
Blue Ema, woodblock by Nakayama, 1989;
Running Horses, woodblock by Nakayama, 1998 (Three images from Floating World Gallery).]

September 14, 2019

Dickinson's Fantasy

        Emily Dickinson (USA, 1830-1886) is an enigmatic poet, whose voice is unlike any other.  Although it’s clear that her imagination is rich, wild, and original, no one would characterize her as a fantasy poet.  She certainly does make use of fantasy images, as in
I started early, took my dog, 
And visited the sea; 
The mermaids in the basement 
Came out to look at me…

        Or this description of a storm
The creatures chuckled on the roofs 
And whistled in the air, 
And shook their fists and gnashed their teeth. 
And swung their frenzied hair. 

        But those instances are metaphorical, so for something truly out of the world of fantasy, we have to look at 
The only ghost I ever saw 
Was dressed in mechlin, -- so; 
He wore no sandal on his foot, 
And stepped like flakes of snow. 
His gait was soundless, like the bird, 
But rapid, like the roe; 
His fashions quaint, mosaic, 
Or, haply, mistletoe. 

His conversation seldom, 
His laughter like the breeze 
That dies away in dimples 
Among the pensive trees. 
Our interview was transient,-- 
Of me, himself was shy; 
And God forbid I look behind 
Since that appalling day! 

        What I find so remarkable and wonderful about this description of a ghost is its apparently benign presence -  so courtly and shy, even laughing rather than moaning or shrieking or behaving in any way scarily - and yet it nevertheless inspires utter terror.  This is a reminder that the idea of ghosts is frightening not really because they are harmful or evil, although certainly there is plenty of folklore and fantasy that portrays them as such, but because they are inexplicable, because they are from outside our own world and knowledge, and because they know and remind us of death.  And that’s enough to be appalling.  Capturing that simple truth gives this poem a serious kick.
        As for calling it “fantasy,” I don’t know how Dickinson herself viewed it.  Was it another metaphorical description, using “ghost” to get at some other idea?  Did she really see an apparition and consider this a literal description of a literal ghost encounter?  Or was she imagining what ghosts might be like in her life?

[Picture: Emily Dickinson II, wood engraving by Barry Moser (Image from R. Michelson Galleries).]

September 10, 2019

Printing Paisley

        In a bit of bonus Word of the Month, the ornamental textile design called paisley uses the Persian boteh, that curved teardrop shape, and its repeated patterns originated in India.  But in English we call it paisley after the Scottish textile-manufacturing town famous for producing such patterns (especially on shawls) in the 19th century.  (That makes the word an eponym.)  The better paisley shawls were woven, but cheaper ones, and patterns on cottons for other uses, were printed.  At the National Museum of Scotland this summer we saw some of these printing blocks.
        First of all, here’s a dress made of cotton printed in India.  This one, from c 1740-60, isn’t paisley, but is representative of the sorts of fabrics that the Scottish mills were interested in copying.  At the same time, though, this Indian design was made for export, and was thus influenced in its turn by British tastes.
        Now for the blocks.  There is a shawl in the background which is printed on silk, but not, as far as I can see, printed from the particular blocks in the foreground.  According to the caption, they are a set for a five-color design, and as there are four blocks in the set, I take the fabric background to be the fifth color.
        In a little fun with photoshop, I tried to recreate how this particular boteh might look.  The upper right block prints a solid background color.  You can see that the entire boteh shape is carved away and the entire background is left behind to print what I have made red in my recreation up above.  Next I “printed” the lower left block, in blue.  Third, the lower right in yellow.  The final block, upper left, tricked me.  When I went to add its design, it didn’t match up at all - I’ve put it off to the right, where you can see that it’s facing the wrong direction.  Then I noticed that there was another shape also on the same block, obscured behind the blocks in front, and that’s the one that matches up with the boteh I was previously building.  So I reconstructed it as well as I could and added that in white.  (I assume it has something with the little branch going off to the left, but as that’s entirely hidden, I don’t know what it might have looked like.)  Of course I could be totally off on the colors, although I tried to deduce from the stains on the blocks, but it gives you at least an idea of what those four blocks would look like when all printed together.
        I’ve never done too much with designing and printing multiple blocks for separate colors.  It just isn’t something I’ve been as enticed to work with.  Still, it’s cool to see how this design builds up.

[Pictures: Block printed cotton and linen textile from India, dress British, c 1740-60;
Set of hand printing blocks for Paisley pattern, and shawl of printed silk from Paisley, c 1870 (Photos taken by AEGN at National Museum of Scotland);
Photoshop design based on printing blocks, by AEGN.]

September 6, 2019

Another Harpist On My Theme

        A month ago children’s author and professor of literature Katherine Rundell released a book entitled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise.  I have not yet got my hands on it, but from the excerpts that have appeared in articles, she is most certainly singing my song - and singing it beautifully, too.
        Defy those who would tell you to be serious, those who would limit joy in the name of propriety. Cut shame off at the knees... Plunge yourself soul-forward into a children’s book: see if you do not find in them an unexpected alchemy; if they will not un-dig in you something half hidden and half forgotten…
        To miss out on something so rich, strange, varied and enticing in adulthood, just out of embarrassment or perhaps because it hasn’t occurred to you, seems such a waste. There is such joy to be had.
        So one point is simply the joy of children’s literature.  (The Good Stuff, of course!  As with anything, there's plenty of rubbish, as well.)  Some of this may be the joy that adult lit snobs sneeringly refer to as “escapism,” about which read my previous post.  A lot of it is the “wise” cynicism that believes misery is realistic while happiness is unrealistic, about which read this previous post.  There’s the puritanical suspicion that anything good and virtuous must be unpleasant, while anything you’re enjoying is probably some sort of sin.  But all of these attitudes are, quite simply, false.  As Rundell declaims, defy them!
        But there’s more than simply the potential for joy, as if that weren’t already enough.  Rundell reminds us that children’s books encourage us to long for impossible and perhaps-not-impossible things.  These things are, of course, the things worldly wise adults have all-too-often already given up on: justice, adventure, hope…
        I think there is a risk, in adulthood, through the compromises we make and the busyness of our lives, that we cease to cherish the imagination in the way we should. Because the imagination is absolutely essential for seeing the world truly.
        Writing books for children requires all the love, beauty, imagination, and hope that serious adult writers tend to leave out in the name of “sophisticated ambiguity” and “gritty realism.”  Which is precisely why adults should be reading them.

[Picture: Dingbat from Chap-Books of the Eighteenth Century, by John Ashton, 1882 (Image from Internet Archive).]
Rundell’s quotations from The Guardian, 20 April 2019.

September 3, 2019

Pape on Paper

        This summer we visited quite a few museums, including Tate Modern in London.  There weren’t many block prints on display there - in fact, I noticed only this one: Weaving, by Lygia Pape (Brazil, 1927-2004).  Maybe I wouldn’t have picked it out if I’d had whole galleries of relief prints from which to choose, but in the Tate’s world of big, bombastic, attention-seeking pieces, I hailed the sight of this small print as a welcome oasis.  The horizontal lines are restrained and restful, but imbued with enough of the natural wood grain and natural hand-carving not to seem overly mechanical or restrictive.  The way the geometric shapes fit into each other without quite blending into larger shapes gives it subtle interest and a sense of dimension.  The caption implies that each of the shapes was a separate block, and while some of the blocks could be arranged spontaneously, some must have been planned to fit together in certain ways.  I’m pretty sure that the long rectangle and pair of triangles at the top and bottom (in other words, the top three shapes and the bottom three shapes) are the same three blocks, printed twice each on the paper.  I can’t determine whether any of the other triangles are duplicates.
        Back home I looked up Pape and more of her art and found that I’m honestly not much enamored of most of it.  She was, it turns out, a member of the “concrete art” movement.  Concrete art, according to Wikipedia, “intended to defend the objectivity of art through paintings that ‘have no other significance than [themselves].’  It forbade the use of natural forms, lyricism, and sentiment.”  While I have no objection to art having no other significance than itself, I figure once you’ve left out natural forms, lyricism, and sentiment, you’ve got nothing worthwhile left.  Besides, what’s this nonsense about the “objectivity of art”?  The whole point of art is how uniquely subjective it is.
        But let’s look back at Pape’s piece once again…  Wood grain is most certainly a natural form.  The idea of weaving certainly has some lyricism.  The suggestion of textiles, with their human creation and intimate human use, can’t help but at least hint of sentiment.  So Pape, though a card-carrying concretist in the 1950s, was clearly not following their ideals as deeply and wholly as she might.  And indeed in 1959 Pape signed the Neo-Concrete Manifesto, which remained wedded to abstract, non-representational geometry, but embraced art’s relationship with the organic, the human, the meditative, and the importance of its relationship with the active viewer.
        All this sounds rather artificially intellectual to me, and indeed downright dreary. I want to cry, “Stop pontificating and justifying and posturing, and just make something you enjoy, to share with others so that they’ll enjoy it, too!  Is that so hard?”  But Pape said, “To me, art is a way of knowing the world… to see how the world is… of getting to know the world.”  And I guess when it comes right down to it, if that’s really what she was doing, and if for her the way to do it was through concrete art and neo-concrete art, then I’m not going to complain.  So here are a couple more I like, as well.




[Pictures: Tecelar (Weaving), woodcut by Lygia Pape, 1957 (Image from Tate);
Tecelar (Weaving), woodcut by Pape, 1958 (Image from artbook);
unknown woodcut by Pape, unknown date (Image from Artwell Guide).]