Monday, June 28, 2010


When I was sorting some magazines, I ran across two issues of “Sculpture Review” with covers that seemed to be good illustrations of suggestive ambiguity. This magazine is produced by The National Sculpture Society and dedicated to recognizable figures though not necessarily absolutely realistic and not necessarily contemporary. Most of the images are human (you can’t very well sculpt landscape) but maybe primitive or experimental. It is not necessarily the most realistic that are the most effective.

Consider these two: Fall, 2006, shows “Behold the Boy” (Ecce Puer) by Medardo Rossi (1906) made of beeswax over plaster. 17 1/2 high. Sweetly blurred, we see an unformed child.

Winter, 2006, is dedicated to memorials of Genocide, Holocaust and War. This is the head of "Proeizione" by Novello Finotti. (2004) Bardiglio Marble, 10 feet high. The skull yet has a human personality.

Richard Stern
introduced my writing class to the idea of this ambiguity (which is exploited by the post-moderns) by asking us to read a short piece by Robbe-Grillet. It is simply a description of a room, but by using our tendency to project emotion and meaning onto objects, it is menacing. A pillow shows a staring owl. A window is cracked. Things on the table are askew. One expects a shot to ring out. The younger members of the class had trouble understanding. To them, a cushion was a cushion. Or not. They were still at the stage of labeling taxonomy. Some people never get past that and do their morality the same way: it’s either good or bad. No in-between, no mitigating circumstances.

They understand gender the same way: you’re a girl, go to the kitchen. You’re a boy, go to the garage. And yet they have learned that stereotyping is bad, which muddles them until they decide “you don’t fit the system, so go away. I don’t like being confused.”

We live in confused times. Maybe we always do, but right now we seem to be in the midst of crashing surf as the cultural patterns of historically and geographically defined cultures must compete for resources like oil and water, damaging the earth that holds them. Thinking, recorded in art (and that includes writing), can help to at least keep track and sometimes to reassure. Certainly the Old Testament has leapt back into meaningful life as the same terrain becomes a battlefield again and the same commandment-based fundamentalism must go head-to-head with scientific enlightenment ideas about what it is to be human on a planet with no gods.

We know enough to identify diseases that would probably have been simply mysterious plagues in the past, things like leprosy or AIDS, and yet we don’t quite know enough to prevent or cure these diseases and must hold everyone in a kind of chronic suspended animation while we wait. In the meantime the rising tide of environmental contamination laps at our dinner tables.

Did you read the story about the sperm whale tissue assays over the weekend? While we obsess over the BP oil spill, we are destroying ALL the life in the sea. The very fact that we have the ability to dart whales in the Arctic to get tissues samples, can analyze that tissue for trace elements, and that the results are expressed with mathematics expands the incredibility of what was done. Few of us have ever darted a whale. We are conscious of the specific, the perceptible, the personal, the sensory. Big global forces like weather change or the state of the national economy are too ambiguous, too contradictory. How do we know who’s right?

To keep from getting paralyzed, we need some sure things. That makes everyone susceptible to flat statements from authority figures, whether scientists or politicians. The advertisers have taught the nation’s ambitious to use fear to sell: fear of stinking, fear of ostracism, fear of being out-dated or unloved or poor. We’ve been so well taught that emotion is meaningful that reasonable, patient, measured men just look stupid to us. Why doesn’t Obama get angry at that oil spill? Where’s his heart? Doesn’t he REALIZE?

Rarely do artists make big flat statements. More often they aim to arouse a way to think by using sensory markers, like the furnishings in an ordinary apartment. We confront a direct experience instead of an algorithm.

There is another responsibility for art and that is to give courage to be different. It is effective enough that artists are notorious for being uncontrollable and eccentric. (In fact, some people cash in on the uncontrollable, addicted and eccentric part of the image without ever creating any art at all!) In some times and places such a personality is demonized and excluded. (Like now. And like the Fifties.) At other times and places the same personality is celebrated. (Like San Francisco in the Sixties and Seventies or Paris in the Thirties.) What’s funny is that the artists sometimes change places, so that Kerouac or Ginsberg or Wilde or -- come to that-- Shakespeare, are brushed off as losers but then later dusted off as geniuses. Last year’s bold tough innovative general is this year’s loose cannon.

From the artist’s point of view, part of the ambiguity is never really knowing whether they are bum or prophet. They must concentrate on the work itself without considering whether it will make them famous or they will soon be lost. But they also need to think sharply about what the work is saying in the world. Art changes people and can lead them in new ways. It gives them something specific and sensory to understand. This is one reason art is sometimes considered a therapy. It is not about fear -- it is about vision.

Today on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” a three part series by Barbara Bradley Hagerty began. It is about brains, specifically the brain of a man who studies murderers and discovered that his brain is exactly like theirs.
James Fallon kept this secret for a long time because people are so inclined to jump to conclusions without considering circumstances that he could easily have been labeled a murderer in spite of his non-violent personality and his many contributions. We’re always looking for obvious markers. This one is serious enough that in some cultures people might be inclined to give all babies brain scans and kill any that had this pattern, the way some peoples used to kill twins at birth because they were “unnatural.” As it turns out, other factors are the “warrior gene” that regulate serotonin in the brain, and abuse or violence in one's childhood. "And fortunately, he wasn't abused as a young person," Diane [his wife, who has known him since she was twelve years old] says, "so I've lived to be a ripe old age so far."

The commentors on this story so far are interesting. Some said this is just a gimmick to sell more pills, some said the whole thing is a fraud, several said the idea lets people off the hook for their own behavior and that sociopaths “enjoy” killing, and some pleaded for a better society, one where the atypical and “free wheeling” person can find a way to be a contributor. I’m waiting for the next two installments.

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