Friday, October 29, 2010


In which we find Maidman arguing, peculiarly, against himself.

So, many years ago, when I started dating my wonderful wife Charlotte, she said, "What do you want to do?" I said something along the lines of, "First I want to take over the world..." I lack many virtues, but ambition is not one of them.

Charlotte said, "Here's what I'm going to do for you. I'm going to set a bullshit alarm. And should you get successful, and you start doing some assholish thing, and it sets off my bullshit alarm, I will let you know."

Well, I can hardly be called successful, but Charlotte gave me a call yesterday and said, "OK, I read your last blog post, and it set off my bullshit alarm. Because really, what you're talking about here is a picture of a naked lady, and not an essay on intellectual history."

One would be wise to head Charlotte's hunches, on account of she is a smart cookie.

Nor was she alone in expressing this general idea. Because generously frequent commenters Ed and Fred, who I thought were my friends, had a few things to say.

Ed: "I love this painting, but you knew that. I love that you discover things about your paintings - and why you paint them the way you do - throughout the process. A lot of this is over my head and I'll have to read it a couple times more, but I wanted to chime in with congrats and to express my admiration for your painting and your ability and willingness to share your thoughts about it."

This translates from fake-humblespeak to: "I like that painting and the writing is interesting, but I'm not really buying your rationale."

Fred: "I kind of enjoy reading your thoughts about the dead end of reason and such, but when it comes right down to it you could forget about all that and I would still appreciate that you can paint a damn fine naked lady."

Fred is expressing an admirable willingness to shank your more unlikely ideas right in the gut, instead of sneaking up on you like Ed.

Well, I respect Charlotte, Ed, and Fred quite a lot, and I kind of set off my own bullshit alarm in the last post. Therefore, I thought it was worth going back and questioning exactly what I thought was true about that post. Because I do think it's true - but it might not be true in the sense of being literally correct, so much as being a legitimate but irrelevant way of thinking about the painting.

The problem here is the extent and nature of allegory in the visual arts.

Let me tell you an interesting story. I was tripping on LSD in Florida this one time -

Actually, let me tell you a different and completely unrelated interesting story first. Doctor Albert Hofmann, the poor sonofabitch who discovered LSD while trying to synthesize a fertility drug for Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis) from the ergot fungus, got some of his discovery on his fingers in 1943 and experienced peculiar effects. Science being somewhat more free-wheeling back in the day than it is today, he decided to follow up on his observation by, you know, making more of the stuff and eating it.

This led to the famous "bicycle trip," so-named because he found, after eating some LSD, that maybe it would be a good idea to go home and go to bed. So he rode his bike home, and once there, was either looking at a book of abstract art, or thinking about abstract art (I forget which - he recounts this story in his memoir). And suddenly, he thought, "I get it! I get it!"

What this tells us is that every goofball on LSD who has ever claimed they suddenly got abstract art (including me) is following in the footsteps of the first acidhead, who experienced the same hackneyed thing the very first time he properly tried the substance.

This is not unlike Christopher Walken already playing a deranged lunatic in Annie Hall, at the very start of his career, before everyone was like, "Oh, you know, Christopher Walken - deranged lunatic."

This tells us something valuable, if only we could grasp it, about abstract art, and about Christopher Walken.


- but back to my interesting story. I was on LSD this one time (an experience I recommend, but in the opposite of excess). And I was looking at this Man Ray photograph:

What I found myself thinking was this:

"At the base of her hair, her hair is separated into distinct clumps - this is the large number of analytic categories which philosophy and science present to us. They are orderly enough to be counted, identified, and understood. But as you pursue each one farther down its chain of logic and phenomenon, it separates into innumerable strands. Some of the strands mix with one another. And you finally get all the way to the bottom, where the fruits of reasoning are beyond analysis, beyond comprehension, and finally, beyond observation. This photograph could have been oriented the other way, so that we would see this falling from the top of the hairs to the bottom as a rising action. But Man Ray has positioned this woman with her face upside-down, and eyes closed, because he sees this progression of thought as a progression toward death. This image is a symbol of the blossoming of the seed of death that is concealed in the structure of reason."

That's what I thought.

A marvelous thing about LSD, you see, is that it collapses hierarchical thinking. Anything in front of you is the most fascinating thing ever; everything is important - it is all significant. It all carries symbolic significance. Thus, anything in front of you is connected to all other things you see and know. The drug triggers intensely metaphorical and cross-linked thinking, and eventually, it overwhelms your ability to process the thoughts tumbling across your mind.

Or it could just be me. Who knows? Perhaps it simply accentuates to the point of caricature certain tendencies one already has.

The point being, I tend to see images in symbolic terms anyway; and I am using the instance of this Man Ray photograph to help explain exactly what this symbolic thought means for me.

The fact remains, however, that if you don't happen to be under the influence of LSD right this minute, you likely are not experiencing spontaneous symbolic visual thinking.

So what are we to make of this in relation to the visual arts? Good question. Writing, overall, is more amenable to involved symbolic association than pictures, I think. Consider this passage from Moby Dick, where Melville is both mocking and taking advantage of the lateral jump of symbolic thought. His ship, the Pequod, has a tremendously heavy sperm whale head attached to one side and a right whale head attached to the other:

"As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right."

It is a strange image - it might provoke you to laughter - but you can see what he's getting at. That's what makes it so wonderful, this creative leap he has made from the one to the other.

This kind of leap is natural to verbal expression, because words are the nest of reasoning and logic, including the intuitive and creative kinds.

In contrast, pictures involve direct perception. Direct perception is the home of linkage relative to cause-and-effect, not abstract theme. That is, it is easy for us to link a facial expression, to a cause:


It is easy for us to link a position of the body to an action extending in time before and after the immediate image, and the attendant emotions:

Giant psychopath eating person, Horror

But it is not so easy for us to grasp the symbolic meaning of a more abstract-analytic thematic scene, because it goes against how we visually process things:

What the fuck is going on here? Frankly, I don't have a clue.

Programmers call inelegant solutions to programming problems kludges. A kludge patches over an issue, just barely, but it's ugly. There is a kludge in the arts for the discord between the essentially literary nature of abstract-analytic symbolism, and the essentially concretized cause-and-effect nature of visual understanding. And that's attaching a symbolic image to a scene from a canonical book or story.

Now let's go back to this perplexing print:

It's a picture of the Judgment of Paris. Paris was a famously fair-minded (and studly) Trojan to whom Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, for complicated and improbable reasons, presented themselves so that he could tell them which was the most beautiful (I'd have gone for Athena without thinking twice). This incident, including as it does three hot naked chicks posing before a dude, is currently running a close second to Susanna and the Elders for the Suspiciously Overused Literary Image award in art history.

But this print, dating to sometime between 1510 and 1520, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi after a design by Raphael, does not include three chicks and a dude only. It includes Hermes - recognizable by his winged helmet and caduceus - Zeus, holding his characteristic thunderbolt - Artemis, in her funny moon-tiara - and so on. We can recognize all the figures in this painting, if we really want to (including which naked chick is supposed to be which goddess) because they all have an iconic image attached to them, each of which would have been familiar to educated contemporary viewers of the image.

This same mechanism is deployed in religious art:

St. Lucy, the one with the eyes on a plate

St. Agatha, the one with the boobs on a plate

St. Sebastian, the one with the arrows

Each of these saints has a story explaining the presence of these peculiar objects, which would have been known to the target viewers of the paintings. It has been argued, in fact, that this kind of iconism helped the Church to provide emotional resonance to Bible stories when preaching to the illiterate in the middle ages - the stories were known to the viewers, and the visual both reminded of the story, and packed the emotional wallop of the concretely visual.

This illustrates the second part of the symbolism-visual arts kludge: attaching an iconic object to a figure to place that figure in a shared narrative is only step 1. Step 2 is up to the genius of the artist - to allow us to understand the stated literary theme in a new way by providing the artist's own spin on the story.

Here is Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew:

In this work of sheer intimidating genius, we not only have Caravaggio deploying his cinematographic sense of light to illustrate the holiness of Christ, we have a new moral to the story. Which one is St. Matthew? Nobody knows. A vague gesture from Christ - a table of gamblers and crooks - a boy, two youths, a man, an elder - we don't know which one is St. Matthew. This table is all of humanity: gamblers and crooks, youth through old age - and any of them might be St. Matthew. Caravaggio takes this scene, familiar to his audience, and uses it to say: each of you could be St. Matthew. We are all fallen, all corrupt, and yet each of us is called. This is a mighty painting of the force of redemption.

But this entire genre of art, from the prancing-goddess school to the Christian allegory, depends on a shared knowledge of a common set of stories, and a shared willingness to suspend disbelief - to ignore the cognitive mismatch between visual knowledge and literary analysis. In this way, it's like accepting the absurdity of opera.

Now, this shared knowledge and shared consensus started to break down in the 19th century; to seriously break down, not just get tweaked at the edges by artistic smartasses.

Let's go back to the Raimondi print for a second:

Look in the lower right corner more carefully this time. Does that group of figures look familiar? You betcha.

Édouard Goddamned Manet, Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe, 1863. This painting has taken on an art-historical iconographic importance all its own. This is the painting (along with the Olympia) where Manet leads artists in issuing a grand "Screw you" to allegorical painting, from which allegorical painting has never recovered.

Before Manet, everyone agreed that a female nude could legitimately and innocently be taken to mean all sorts of things apart from a naked lady. After Manet, a nude was necessarily a nude first, and all those other things second, and only half-heartedly, or smirkingly, or unconvincingly.

This represents, in one way, a masterstroke of progress: that women can no longer be taken as symbols first, but rather must first be understood as people, even if we mean people in a fairly exploitative sense.

In another way, it represents the decline of an entire mode of thinking: of seeing the world not as a concrete event only, but as a kind of chalice holding great and incorporeal themes, filled with meaning and significance beyond the physical.

Back to me.

Living, as I happen to do, after Manet, it is essentially impossible for me to show the innocence of a Raphael or a Raimondi. It is impossible for everyone; some artists are trying to paint in that mode, but it never quite works.

At the same time, it is essentially impossible for me not to think like Raphael and Raimondi. I am so constructed as to have a literary-analytic way of thinking, LSD or no LSD, which applies itself to my writing, my film work, and my painting alike.

I recognize and respect that the themes I discussed in the Alley painting do not necessarily inhere in the painting itself. They inhere in me, and inform how I paint the painting. They are what Stephen Wright and I agreed to call the ghosts of information: the invisible traces of intent and understanding which work (hopefully) to increase the density of meaning in a piece of art, but which cannot necessarily be explicitly derived from the art.

But let's step aside from this allegorical intent for a minute. I am, of course, a follower of the physicality of the flesh itself, in all of its glowing majesty. And there is a more minimal position on the significance of the flesh which I hope we can all agree on - a position derived from that awe-inspiring secular Bible, the works of Shakespeare:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither.
I differ from Hamlet in two regards - I am less frequently prone to the dark side of his analysis, the dust side. And I cannot hold with the distinction he makes between all the items on his list of glories, and women. His list applies to men; women are a second thing, undescribed. For my part, this list must apply to women, or it cannot apply to anyone.


  1. First, I’m honored to be mentioned in your blog, accusations of sneaky fake humblespeak notwithstanding.

    I found this interesting: “A marvelous thing about LSD, you see, is that it collapses hierarchical thinking. Anything in front of you is the most fascinating thing ever; everything is important - it is all significant.”

    All symbolism aside, I had a related experience during my single adventure with psychotropic drugs. Some college friends and I ate some mushrooms and went to a big outdoor party at a frat house. A brightly lit rectangle of people in a spotlit yard, all dressed in Hawaiian themed garb, and when we approached I noticed something odd.

    I could hear every voice in that yard. Every conversation from the one right next to me to the one in the far corner, was in my head at the same volume, the same emphasis. It all blended together into an incoherent babble so disconcerting that I would walk up to a person and watch their mouth and try to hear their words, but all I heard was the same babble now coming out of one mouth. It was uncomfortable. But I thought about those observations when I read about your thoughts.

    I know that wasn’t the point of your post. But I genuinely do need to read it again a time or two before I comment on the rest.

  2. Ed, Daniel; here is something you may have seen. If not, it is particularly interesting when considered in terms of objective/subjective thought, Dr. Roger Sperrys work, the work of Dr. Eric Kandel today, and the big 21st century holy grail question "what is consciousness?"
    I am reminded of Thomas Aquinas "Man is situated ontologically at the juncture of two universes, 'like a horizon of the corporeal and of the spiritual."

  3. I'd like to apologize for my tardy replying here. I had a sudden-computer-death event this week which, let me tell you, sucked. I'm back online now, if somewhat denuded of data. Ed, thanks for sharing your mushrooms story. I've only had mushrooms twice but I really liked them - like LSD without the hyperactivity and sense that you were taking a substance that really had it in for your spinal cord. Your auditory hallucination reminds me of trying to talk (to my mom) on the phone while I was on acid. I had a feeling that the sound was decomposing into waveforms at separate wavelength ranges, each of which I was following individually, and I couldn't really add them back together to form a single comprehensible sound. So eventually I gave up and explained that it was a really bad line.

    McG - I haven't had a chance to watch the video yet (I'm usually online at a public coffee shop, without earphones). I'm skeptical of any scientific effort to say what consciousness "is," since by my lights it is fundamentally distinct from any of its physical manifestations which might be amenable to what we consider to be empirical scientific investigation. I will give you this though - that Thomas Aquinas was pretty clever. I love the quotation, and I'll check out the video.

  4. Daniel- we might be of the 'same mind' on this. :] It's not really an attempt to explain consciousness as much as it is a first person account of something, but it speaks to the post a bit. More later. Cheers.