Σάββατο, 24 Σεπτεμβρίου 2011

Thoughts on modern art...

WARNING: The following entry is an interactive text; ergo, to appreciate the text in its entirety, you will require a pair of good loudspeakers or earplugs (and a substantial amount of time) and last, but not least: an open mind…

Before we begin, let us listen to some music…

Superb music, obviously! I am afraid that the rest of my entry will not be as brilliant as this piece, but please, bear with me my patient reader/listener…
I am aware of the general opinion artists have of critics. A critic – of any kind of art – is (allegedly) a failed poet, playwright, director, musician, painter etc. and being unable to succeed in a particular artistic field, turns to criticism and spitefully criticizes everything an artist (accomplished or not) does. In some cases this may be indeed the case. In others it is definitely not. But, being an artist myself – not an accomplished one, but still – I believe that the only valid criticism can come from the audience: If your audience comes to the theatre or the exhibition or the music hall and applauds your work, then that particular piece of art can be considered successful, no matter what the critics say. If it comes and is on the brink of throwing vegetables at you, you have failed, again no matter what the critics say… Now that I am done with my belief on what official criticism does to art, I will turn to the other fundamental question; the question that philosophers and artists and critics and audience alike have tried to answer (I am aware that I am leaving a lot of issues concerning criticism and critics out of the discussion, but criticism is not exactly my point of focus here. I simply make the point, because I am essentially going to criticize something.) That question is, of course: What the Hell is Art?
I will attempt to give my personal answer to that question, but before, why not take a break and listen to some magnificent music? 

Lovely, isn’t it? And, incidentally, partly the answer to the big question! Art, in my opinion always, is there to tell a story; happy, sad, violent, romantic, chivalrous, gory – it doesn’t really matter. And that story can have interlocutors or not; its heroes might be talking beasts or vampires (there seems to be going on a lot with vampires these days); it might be narrated in a short story or a five act grand opera; it might be hidden in the complicated verse of a poem or the final cut of a TV episode. But most importantly (to me, I will repeat it every time, as to avoid any misunderstandings) the receiving audience must “get” the story; it must be understood right away, no hidden games, no secret agendas! I do not mean that an artist has to serve us everything up on a silver platter. No, that would be preposterous, to say the least! Obviously the audience needs to burn some brain cells, otherwise there is no challenge to the whole game. And Art is also a game. But, what I do resent is having to read a “directions manual” before attending an arts exhibition in order to understand the artists’ concept. The other thing I absolutely hate is being confronted with all the disgusting and distasteful stuff that is replayed every single day in the news when I go to watch a play (or read a novel, see a movie, listen to an opera – anyone thinking about Berg’s Wozzeck?)
To give you an idea of “understanding”, take a moment to listen to this:
Do you “get” the music? I do not. At least, not without someone explaining the mathematics involved in this – and since I am no good at science stuff (except science fiction) it’s a lost cause!
My next objection is an emotional one. Before I explain, I invite you to listen the following pieces:
Did both pieces make you cry? Or not? Or, because you do not understand Italian, you cannot understand the meaning? If that is the case, then you have to check your ability to empathize. Theoretically speaking, both pieces should have triggered an emotional response, an even cathartic response! Without knowing what the text is about, the music itself should make you want to cry – if not cry, then something simpler, but still emotional. Now let’s listen to something different:
Brilliant, no? I do not expect you to faint, after listening to these arias (although no doubt in their own times, many ladies sure did…), but I do expect you to have felt a “rush of blood to brain”, perhaps even a strong agitation. Again you do not know what the arias are about, or where they fit in the respective operas they appear in, but you respond emotionally, and your emotions are positive – at least, I hope they are… Because the music is uplifting!
Consider now the following lines from Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme Liberata, canto 12, stanzas 52 and following: “‘You there, so out of breath,/what do you bring?’ He answers: ‘War and death!’/ ‘War, then, and death you’ll have. I’ll not refuse/your wishes,’ she replies and stands, cold-eyed. […] Well worth the clearest sunshine would have been/such marvelous deeds, well worth the highest stage./O Night, you who would keep that mighty scene/forgotten in you womb’s unfathomed cage,/grant that I now draw forth and in serene/daylight display it to a future age.” Continue listening to:
My quote gives you minimal information (although if you wanted, you could have googled the bibliographical input and have found out a few things, like who it is that is participating in this grand scene). Certainly, you will not deny, my fair reader/listener, that, those words uttered by the unnamed heroes can only mean one thing: Death! And if you are following my suggestion to listen along, you probably figured out from the music that, indeed someone dies (Clorinda) and that the duel is quite the thing! Also, you might have understood that the poet, Tasso, is not only very skilled (despite my rendering his Italian poetry in English – the new Oxford translation by the way of 2009), but feels along with his doomed heroes. So does Monteverdi’s music…Hopefully, so do you! And since I am talking about Death here, let me make a small deviation and recount a high school memory from literature class. I had the great fortune to be taught by a great teacher that year, in the 10th grade. She loved – and still loves, to my knowledge – literature deeply and she conveyed it to her students. We were discussing Dionysios Solomos’ grand and unfinished poem Ελεύθεροι Πολιορκημένοι (The Free Besieged) where one can find the following verse: “με του φτερού το σάλαγο και με κανέναν ήχο”, which crudely translated means “with the feather’s noise and with no sound”. I still remember the professor’s comment on that particular verse. She said that it was the best description of Death she had ever read. Myself, having found nothing that matches that description still, I too subscribe to that comment. It still gives me the chills when I think about it…
What have I been trying to prove with all the above mentioning of emotions? If you haven’t figured it out yet, I will immediately explain: It’s actually quite simple… Modern art repulses me! It disgusts me! It makes me question my humanity a lot of times and the humanity of the artist. Because, why must I walk into a museum and see a toilet on the wall of the exhibition and accept it as Art? It is distasteful to say the least, if not offending to some people’s idea of aesthetics… Or a bound dog, starving to death in front of an audience. I thought that gladiators and the like are a thing of the (not so glorious) past! Modern art, be it poetry, theatre, opera, music etc. makes me feel bad. And I do not want to feel bad when I go the museum, theatre, opera house etc. I want to be stimulated with positive thoughts, because I get enough depression at home from the news and the Internet. And I do dwell upon that misery at home, I shouldn’t dwell upon it in a place of Art. I am not saying that artists should do frivolous things. For Heaven’s sake, no! I have seen grim plays in such extremely well thought productions (obviously not in Greece) that I was literally ready to fall off the chair by the sheer amount of genius ideas! (Anyone thinking of Berg’s Wozzeck again?) Let’s lighten up the mood, I’ve ranted enough for the moment about misery…
I have reached that point where it is time for me to talk about the “break with tradition.” Whether we like it or not, Art has evolved by breaking the rules of its predecessors. There is no parthenogenesis in Art, as we all very well know. But let’s consider this: eventually, there will be no more rules for Art to break. And it is my opinion that this moment has already arrived; in fact it has been here for at least a decade! Music in general has reached its limits (now, of course they try to make “cosmic” sounds or whatever they call it); playwrights have talked about society’s issues in all possible ways; the cinema has realized its not going anywhere and is now turning increasingly to the creation of movies based on old time classics or comic book characters; the novel is losing its grip to the fantasy world of vampires, and their kin; and poetry is repeating its ideas all over again, because there are no more rules to be broken (they’ve tried it all, from no rhyme, to no verse, to writing/printing in a way that words create images etc.) And the only way representational art knows how to provoke these days is by displaying nudity and violence in places that cannot be considered museums or theatres, but “alternative venues”… Well, I have performed in one such alternative venue once, and let me tell you, I did not really enjoy the thing. And even those tricks to outrage the audience are no longer in vogue. The audience sees right through them… (Ok, maybe not the Greek audience. Remember Rusalka in Athens a few years ago and that homosexual kiss they had? No wonder no one performs R. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier in Greece…) It is also not a coincidence, in my opinion, that all critics demand of the directors a more personal, more psychological approach to what they do (this is one of the few things that critics say to which I agree.) Why is Harmony considered such a miasma by modern artists? “Miasma” perhaps is a strong word, but they do reject the notion! Of course they claim that they are in “communication” and “discourse” with their artistic past, that their break with it is only a new way of studying something old, but I don’t see it! At least I don’t see it without studying that manual I was talking about.
Obviously I am making myself sound extremely stupid. Claiming that I do not understand modern art, while indulging myself in texts of the Renaissance and the 18th century (no Romantics, please, I despise them!) I do understand modern art. Because I have studied it, even a little and I have formed my opinion that it is not user friendly. And it is not user friendly because it kills me inside. Before I go into that, let us listen to this – you probably have heard it before… at funerals!
(This lovely little arioso is actually a love confession to a tree!)
I was saying that modern art kills me inside. Well, it is true: Modern art compels me to reject my emotions, it forces me to shut my eyes before it, because I cannot stand its crudeness. It makes me want to vomit. But, kind reader, is this what our modern society needs? I claim the opposite: We need to reacquaint ourselves with our emotions; we need to take the time to say “Good morning, how are you feeling today?” We need to be able to talk about our emotions without any shame (and without paying an extra amount of money to the therapist…); we need to remember where we came from. Every day we are bombarded with terrible images on our TV and computer screens; the news have never sounded grimmer; our youngsters grow up not knowing what a “fairy-tale” is; our teenagers get pregnant or absorb themselves in a self-destructive and abusive relationship with violence, sex, drugs, alcohol and computer-games; we think that our “friends” are close to us because they “liked” a comment we made on Facebook; we measure popularity by our “followers” on Twitter, yet we do not know what they truly think about us; we have killed our respective native languages… Do you really need me to go on? Of course, one can claim that Art is the result of the society that produces it. But I know that there were times when Art was not only considered one of the most important things an individual could know, but that Artists could influence the opinions of politicians and leaders. We have allowed that power to move to the football clubs and their fanatics…
The last musical entry I will propose for tonight is Handel’s Verdi prati. Ι will give a crude translation, because I have a point to make. The aria says: “You green meadows and charming woods, you will lose your beauty. Lovely flowers, running streams, your charm, your beauty, will soon be changed. And everything of beauty will be transformed, and you will all return to the horror of your former state.”
Substitute the fauna with Art, Poetry, Theatre, Music, etc. and you have prophetic words that signify only one thing: deep down, and despite the cultural evolution of humanity, we, the people, remain, above all else, barbarians.
Good night, my dear reader/listener. I hope that tomorrow you will see the sun shining in a different light. If not, that is your choice. I rest my – admittedly – problematic case. 

Disclaimer: I do not own the music and videos displayed here. I make no profit whatsoever by their use. Their presence is merely educational.