Guest Article: Transfixed, by Rob Nilsson

A guest article written by Rob Nilsson

To me, George Lucas’ Star Wars films are enormous cartoons. Funny mechanical characters and one dimensional human characters together create a supremely expensive (and lucrative) comic book view of life. As much as I used to admire Camille Paglia, when she calls Lucas our greatest living artist I think David Letterman might as well be Socrates. At that absurd level almost anything is possible.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Walt Whitman’s cosmic consciousness, Anthony Burgess’ created cultures and languages have no place in the Sunday morning funny papers, the ones the kids grab before the adults indulge in what once would have been a guilty pleasure. Today there’s no guilt in Dick Tracy. The parents have joined their children on a trip to the local museum where we find…Mirabile Sanctu!… that what we once thought was innocent fun, is now High Art. Except that there is no more High Art.

Alexis de Tocqueville was right. Our democracy has allowed a terrible thing to happen: a leveling of sensibility, a contempt for the work necessary to create a superior art culture, an excuse for adults to remain children, for children to father the family, and the museum and gallery world to laugh at the dearth of Art with cathartic depth.

I’ve re-read Re-Considering the Spiritual in Art, Donald Kuspit’s talk given at Virginia Commonwealth in 2003 which discusses Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky blames Western materialism for destroying the spiritual underpinnings of art and Kuspit traces this blitzkrieg of aesthetic promise to the present day where the avant garde has become the establishment and art has become a pop, hip-hop, and shop till you drop Hollywood mantra. Kuspit says that the word “spiritual” has a somewhat sophomoric tone in 2013 America and suggests the German word “geist.” He says that if we want to describe a person of depth and serious “spirituality” we might call that person a “Geistiger Mensch.”

Kuspit says, “The idea that the artist might invest his or her subjectivity in the material medium, which is what brings it alive—indeed, the idea that the artist might have a profound subjectivity, and to be an artist you have to be a certain kind of person, that is, experience the inner necessity of spiritual aspiration, and that the only person who can legitimately call himself or herself an artist is the person who experiences art as part of a personal spiritual process—this idea is discarded as absurd and beside the artistic point. Thus the apparently revolutionary materialistic conception of art is emotionally reactionary.”

I don’t speak German but the word “spiritual” does feel uncomfortable to me. Too many tie-dyed t-shirts, bubbler bongs, and self-authorized gurus come to mind. Too many football Sunday devout Midwestern Protestant ministers yammering on. I was confirmed in the Congregation Church of Rhinelander, Wisconsin and my mother later told me how phony I looked up there with my abashed piety. Maybe that one comment suspends in amber how she and my Dad advocated secular honesty. But as much as I think organized religion is usually a dangerous soporific, I am an unabashed believer in art as an experience which transforms, transfixes and amazes.

Maybe the way I put it isn’t delicate enough, nuanced, suitably hushed. But I think a more muscular, naïve, and enthusiastic approach is a good thing to promote in this country where many potential adepts are stopped from experiencing the power of Art either by turn-off-hip museum guides in pressed khakis or little old lady docents with decent ideas, and thereby discouraged from experiencing amazement at the raging color harmonies in Kandinsky’s early landscapes, the brutal candor and self revelation of painters such as Jenny Saville, the refusal to be duped by consumerism in the painful exorcisms of Francis Bacon.

Aesthetics are not effete to me, not exclusive and proprietary. When I look at a painting of Jerome Witkin’s I am filled with awe, energy, and hope. Here is an artist who wants to say it all, who neither spares our feelings, nor suspects we are too weak to receive his messages. He believes in the capacity of people to be “large” and to “contain multitudes.” In front of epic sized multi-canvas works such as his Taken, I feel like I’m being re-built in some way, that I know myself better and want my own work to be deeper, fuller, wilder, both more sensitive and less, an affront to some as it is an inspiration to others. I always think of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” when I look at Witkin’s work, or that of David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn back in the days of what was called the Bay Area Figurative Movement. They took the daring energies and free wheeling techniques developed by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning and returned the human figure to natural landscapes bathed in California sunlight. Visit the Venice Biennale, Art Basel or Art Basel Miami today. You’ll find that anything human (or anything like sunlight) is in short supply.

I like Donald Kuspit because he’s one of the few commentators on the current art scene who doesn’t like scenes. For him it’s not about the crowd, the herd, the literati and gliterati and what they do or say. He sees viewing art as an experience, a thing you do in order to know what you feel, or who you are. Emotion, intuition, whatever you want to call it, something inside you is responding, wind chimes in a hurricane, or a hurricane inside wind chimes. I don’t think anyone’s gone beyond catharsis as the ultimate goal for significant Art: “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Sounds dry, until you do the work which lets you experience it. Cinematographer Mickey Freeman calls it a “beckoning” and he’s not at all generous with it. He feels it or he doesn’t and he doesn’t lie. Over 14 films we’ve done together, and I think he’s mentioned two.

And for me, if I don’t wander in the Park City snow after viewing A Woman Under the Influence, wondering why, or cry on the shoulder of a woman I once loved on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson after seeing Wild Strawberries again, or had my life changed at the now vanished Bleecker St. Cinema where I saw Shadows and realized that film can be about the “you’s and I’s” of this world, then I may be watching good films or seeing good pictures, but I’m wasting my time. I don’t know what the word “spiritual” means but I think what it’s trying to describe is what I’d call the poetic impulse. To me, this is the overwhelm of sensory and psychic inspiration at something in life too powerful to bear without speaking out, singing out, painting out, getting it out in the form of Art. The universe’s natural processes are so powerful that if I ever do find another more powerful plane I can call spiritual, I’d welcome it. Maybe it would make me a better witness and hopefully, a Geistiger Mensch. Either way it’s a mission, a mission with a purpose. There’s a reason why Zen sitters seek satori. There’s a reason why there was once a four minute mile barrier, and now it’s closer to 3:30. We seed the clouds with our desire for some sort of transcendence, however momentary.  We hold our faces open to the rain and imagine the ultimate. I believe that poetry is the impulse, and that Art is the realized icon of our desire to know, to feel, to be.

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