Blog Archives

Benjamin Britten: “Many of the great things in the world have come from the outsider”

Benjamin Britten, mid-1950s

The most influential composer ever to draw English breath, Benjamin Britten did more for music in three active decades than all of London’s musicians in three centuries.

… “So many of the great things in the world have come from the outsider,” he reflected, “and that lone dog isn’t always attractive.” Like J.K. Rowling (and Mozart, perhaps), he was doomed to live out the greater part of his life under the burden of early success. Britten’s added tragedy is that he always craved an acceptance he could never achieve. To offset that despair, he decided to improve the state of music, and royally succeeded.

Benjamin Britten converted the former “land without music” into a powerhouse of innovation and enterprise whose musicians stand tall in the world, free of his shadow. He deserves to be embraced in his centenary year with universal gratitude and warmth, uncomplicated by any moral quirks and shortcomings. Great as much of his music is, the man has proved himself greater still.

— Norman Lebrecht, “Glorious Legacy of a Crabby Loner,” Standpoint, November 2012

Image by Yousuf Karsh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended Reading 32

This week: a report from Germany’s Der Spiegel about America’s awesome and incontrovertible decline; a summary and review of Morris Berman’s twilight-and-decline-of-America trilogy; thoughts on the rise of the new plutocracy; a lament for the science fiction future that never was, along with a profound and subversive sociocultural analysis of why it wasn’t; thoughts on the new art-and-entertainment category of “the upper middle brow” and its implicit danger as a spiritual narcotic; two cogent examinations of the meaning and fate of books; an article about the mainstream rise of the multiverse model of cosmology and its mind-blowing philosophical and personal implications; a speculation about the possibility that out-of-body experiences may really tell us something about the reality of disembodied consciousness; and a wonderful article by Erik Davis about the current renaissance of psychedelic research. Read the rest of this entry

Fuseli, Sleep Paralysis, and Horror’s Master Image

Just in time for the Halloween holiday, Ryan Hurd has published a horror-fied guest post by me at Dream Studies, his thoroughly excellent Website about dream science, nightmares, and related altered states of consciousness. The article describes my long-in-coming recognition about a very famous painting (you know the one; see above) and the way it has come to serve as a transformative nexus of dark meanings enfolding a vast span of unsettling subjects. Readers of my Liminalities column here at The Teeming Brain will find the article an extension of some of its major themes. Likewise for readers of my horror fiction.

Here’s a taste:

When I first started experiencing sleep paralysis attacks accompanied by visionary assaults from a shadowy demonic presence in the early 1990s, I was already a long-time fan and student of supernatural horror. I had grown up enthralled by horror stories, novels, and movies, as well as by nonfiction explorations of supernaturalism and the paranormal. I was also intrinsically interested in religion and spirituality. So perhaps it was predictable that my sleep paralysis encounters would hit right in the middle of all this and produce some profound emotional and philosophical effects. But what startled me as much as anything was the recognition, which didn’t arise until more than a decade later, that there already existed a kind of master visual image that united this network of concerns and sat at its center, acting as a nexus of nightmares and emitting cultural, psychological, and spiritual waves of dark inspiration.

… [Christopher] Frayling was getting at far more than he even knew or intended when he traced the horror genre’s origins to Fuseli’s painting, Mary Shelley’s waking nightmare, and the growing culture-wide ferment and foment at the turn of the 19th century that involved science, religion, art, literature, ideas about creative inspiration, and the growing recognition that the conscious “daylight” mind is accompanied and influenced — and is also, as shown in both nightmares and horror tales, menaced — by a subconscious or unconscious “nightside” realm of dreadful entity.

— Matt Cardin, “Nexus of Nightmares: Fuseli, Sleep Paralysis, and Horror’s Master Image,” Dream Studies, October 31, 2012

The daemonic discipline of Vincent van Gogh

The mythic potency of a life that is veritably (or literally) possessed by a daemonic creative force is beautifully and terrifyingly illustrated by the life, work, death, and legacy of Vincent van Gogh. So is the fact that a deliberate dedication to channeling this force through a discipline of strict technical training can result in artistic miracles, even as the merciless irruptions of the daemon’s uncompromising desires can contribute to the eventual upending of a person’s stability and sanity. As Dan Simmons writes in his essay about creativity and the daemon, “the true daemon dwelling in the Condition of Fire is an agent of transmutation, changing the poet or writer forever, creating Yeats’s ‘new personality’, a personality that is an opposing self, transforming the daemon into an energy in league with the writer’s most destructive muse, bringing forth a self-devouring force … The admission of the daemon itself into yourself…will take a terrible toll.”

This 2009 Smithsonian article on the exhibition “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night,” which was put on by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, offers a focused glimpse into van Gogh’s personal living-out of these realities. The author is New Mexico artist and writer Paul Trachtman.

When he took up drawing and painting, his originality offended his teachers. One student later described the scene at the Antwerp Academy where van Gogh enrolled: “On that day the pupils had to paint two wrestlers, who were posed on the platform, stripped to the waist. Van Gogh started painting feverishly, furiously, with a rapidity that stupefied his fellow students. He laid on his paint so thickly that his colors literally dripped from his canvas on to the floor.” He was promptly kicked out of the class.

But alone in a studio or in the fields, van Gogh’s discipline was as firm as his genius was unruly, and he taught himself all the elements of classical technique with pains­taking thoroughness. He copied and recopied lessons from a standard academic treatise on drawing until he could draw like the old masters, before letting his own vision loose in paint. Although he knew he needed the utmost technical skill, he confessed to an artist friend that he aimed to paint with such “expressive force” that people would say, “I have no technique.”

… Among the artist’s last efforts was the tumultuous Wheatfield with Crows, in which dark and light, near and far, joy and anguish, all seem bound together in a frenzy of paint that can only be called apocalyptic. Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting it and died two days later. He was buried in a graveyard next to the field.

… [I]t was to the night sky, and to the stars, that van Gogh often looked for solace. The problems of painting night scenes on the spot held more than a technical interest and challenge for him. When he looked at the night sky, he wrote to Theo in August 1888, he saw “the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite.” When you are well, he went on, “you must be able to live on a piece of bread while you are working all day, and have enough strength to smoke and drink your glass in the evening … And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is almost enchanted after all.”

… In his last letter to Theo, found on the artist at his death, he had written: “Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it, and my reason has half foundered because of it.”

— Paul Trachtman, “Van Gogh’s Night Visions,” Smithsonian magazine, January 2009


Image: Van Gogh, “Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel,” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recommended Reading 25

We have quite a varied assortment of reading this week, including: an article about a brilliant reclamation of an abandoned Wal-Mart building for a wonderful counter-purpose; an analysis of Burning Man’s sociocultural-mythological function; a report on widespread distrust of the United States around the world; a fascinating interview with a psychologist on the nature and reality of synchronicity; news about the launch, in Poland, of the world’s first magazine devoted entirely to the real-world study and practice of exorcism; an engrossing essay by Jonathan Franzen about solitude, literature, and the inner life in today’s frenetically extraverted culture; a report on a visionary art community and project in Santa Cruz; reflections from poet Robert Creeley on the value of LSD to creativity; and an excerpt from Gary Lachman’s new biography of Madame Blavatsky.
Read the rest of this entry

Writing, money, art, society, and copyright: A tangled web

Recently in his blog for The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks — novelist, nonfiction writer, translator — has offered some strikingly interesting and cogent reflections on the relationships among and between art, authorship, law, money, ownership, individuals, and twentieth-to-twenty-first century sociocultural realities. Their background is, first, the rise of writing as “a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional,” and, second, the calling into question of current copyright laws and their long-term or even near-term viability as the opening of international publishing markets and the birth of the Internet have posed extraordinary difficulties for policing and enforcement, and also for the establishment of clear ethical boundaries.

In the last thirty or forty years, the writer has become someone who works on a well-defined career track, like any other middle class professional, not, however, to become a craftsman serving the community, but to project an image of himself (partly through his writings, but also in dozens of other ways) as an artist who embodies the direction in which culture is headed … It became clear that the task of the writer was not just to deliver a book, but to promote himself in every possible way. He launches a website, a Facebook page (I’m no exception), perhaps hires his own publicist. He attends literary festivals all over the world, for no payment. He sits on the jury for literary prizes for very little money, writes articles in return for a one-line mention of his recent publication, completes dozens of internet interviews, offers endorsements for the books of fellow writers in the hope that the compliment will be returned … [I]n the publishing culture we have today any idea that a process of slow sifting might produce a credible canon such as those we inherited from the distant past is nonsense. Whatever in the future masquerades as a canon for our own time will largely be the result of good marketing, self-promotion, and of course pure chance.

— “The Writer’s Job,” February 28, 2012

Paradoxically, then, almost the worst thing that can happen to writers, at least if it’s the quality of their work we’re thinking about, is to receive, immediately, all the money and recognition they want. At this point all other work, all other sane and sensible economic relation to society, is rapidly dropped and the said author now absolutely reliant on the world’s response to his or her books, and at the same time most likely surrounded by people who will be building their own careers on his or her triumphant success, all eager to reinforce intimations of grandeur … But if too much money can be damaging, dribs and drabs are not going to get the best out of a writer either … The key idea here it seems to me is that of a community of reference. Writers can deal with a modest income if they feel they are writing toward a body of readers who are aware of their work and buy enough of it to keep the publisher happy. But the nature of contemporary globalization, with its tendency to unify markets for literature, is such that local literary communities are beginning to weaken, while the divide between those selling vast quantities of books worldwide and those selling very few and mainly on home territory is growing all the time.

— “Does Money Make Us Write Better?” July 20, 2012

Copyright…is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter … Copyright gives the writer a considerable financial incentive and locks his work into the world of money; each book becomes a lottery ticket … [C]opyright keeps the writer in the polis, and indeed it is remarkable how little creative writing today is truly revolutionary, in the sense of seeking a profoundly different model of a society … As soon as we put it like this, as soon as we imagine, or try to imagine, the extraordinary confusion, creative and otherwise, that might occur, the many and fragmented ways people might enjoy and share and despair of putting together reflections and entertainments in words for each other, you can see that it is not going to happen; there is still an enormous demand for the long traditional novel, for works that reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time and achieving some kind of wisdom or happiness through many vicissitudes. There is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative, whether it be the endless Harry Potters or the Millennium trilogy; if to have that experience we have to guarantee a substantial income to its creator then society will continue to find a way to do that, in the same way European soccer clubs still find ways to pay exorbitant salaries to their star players. Copyright, we see, is not essentially driven by notions of justice or theories of ownership, but by a certain culture’s attachment to a certain literary form. If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.

— “Does Copyright Matter?” August 14, 2012

IMAGE: Joseph Severn, “Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound,” 1845, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

O (Omicron) (SHORT FILM)

As with “Sight,” the short science fiction film that we highlighted as one of last week’s video offerings, the best way to watch the wonder that is “O (Omicron)” is probably to go into it “blind,” as it were, without knowing anything about it in advance. Both visually and musically, it’s a dazzling and overwhelming piece of work that demands full, undivided attention, and also a good set of speakers or headphones with the volume turned way up. For a first viewing we recommend simply letting it envelope you, while bearing in mind that there’s a clear guiding vision behind it, and a dystopian SF-influenced one at that. The Huffington Post’s Andres Jauregui captures the general vibe when he asks, “What, apart from visiting the H.R. Giger Museum, could come close to approximating the sublime thrill of running for your life inside an alien space ship? Well, for starters, there’s ‘Omicron’ … Paired with its own soundtrack, the overall effect is immense, immersive, and slightly terrifying.”

Also note that while a person would be forgiven for thinking the environment the film depicts is a purely virtual/CG creation, such a person would be wrong. This is actually a real-world installation, created via projection-mapping technology, that you can visit in person, and this fact makes the whole thing all the more striking (see the notes below).

“O (Omicron)” is “a permanent installation directed by Romain Tardy & Thomas Vaquié,” who explain the project’s inception in a June 18 blog post:

Last year, we were approached to create our first permanent installation for the new museum of architecture of Hala Stulecia, in Wroclaw, Poland. The piece — that we called O (Omicron), is actually the last part of the visit, and a way to create a link between the rich history of the building and the present times, by turning this massive concrete structure into a lively architecture.

They also explain its setting:

When opened, Hala Stulecia was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. With a diameter of 65m it was home to the largest dome built since the Pantheon in Rome eighteen centuries earlier. The Centennial Hall was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. It is reasonable to think that when Hala Stulecia was built in 1913 Max Berg’s ambition for his construction was to pass the test of time. What could have been his vision of the monument in the distant future? How did he imagine the olding of the materials? The evolution of the surrounding urbanism and populations?

Centennial Hall after renovation in 2009 and gate to zoo in Wrocław.

And its conception:

The piece proposed for the Centennial Hall of Wroclaw is based around the notion of timelessness in architecture, and the idea of what future has meant throughout the 20th century. Taking the 1910’s as a starting point (the dome was erected in 1913), historical and artistic references were used to reveal the architecture of the space, its timeless and, more surprisingly, very modern dimension. A deliberately minimalist visual aesthetic allowed to highlight the very architecture of Hala Stulecia’s dome and re-affirm its place at the core of the piece. Minimalism also appeared to be the most appropriate means of conveying this idea of future at different periods of time (from 20’s/30’s anticipation film to more contemporary productions ). But the use of these references was not simply formal: the vision of futuristic totalitarian societies seemed to echo back real moments in the history of the building, warning us against the dangers of an idealized vision of the future.

And its awesome music:

Inspiration for the music composed by Thomas for this project was found in both orchestral work, echoing the colossal size of the architecture, and electronic textures, evoking the action of time. The score also tried and recreate a sense of evolution of the materials used for the dome structure, and their sonic aging.

And its guiding vision:

By using references such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the utopian projects of Archigram to confront the different visions of the future at different times, we were interested in trying to create a vision of a future with no precise time reference. A timeless future.

There’s also a fascinating “making of” film to accompany the main project. If you’re like us, watching it and reading all of the above will make you want to go back and watch the main piece again in order to see its meaning newly illuminated.

Image: Centennial Hall in Wrocław and Zoo Wrocław 1 by Robert Niedźwiedzki via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons

135 Shots That Will Restore Your Faith in Cinema (SHORT COMPILATION FILM)

Quick: What’s the common theme linking The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Baraka, Koyaanisqatsi, Days of Heaven, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, What Dreams May Come, Legends of the Fall, Lawrence of Arabia, El Topo, La Dolce Vita, The Tree of Life, Chinatown, Barry Lyndon, Hero, Kagemusha, The Black Stallion, Vertigo, Manhattan, Apocalypse Now , 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Last Picture Show, Raging Bull, and Brazil?

Answer: They’re all featured in “135 Shots That Will Restore Your Faith in Cinema,” an eight-minute compilation of cinematic paradise edited by Jason Bailey, with music by Clint Mansell (from the movie Moon) for Flavorwire.

Here’s how Bailey explains the origin of the project:

A couple of weeks back, we posed a rather massive question: “What are the most beautiful movies ever made?” We came up with ten candidates of our own, but you, the readers, really stepped up, with over 100 commenters (and counting) offering up their own nominees. There were so many great suggestions, in fact, that a simple follow-up post seemed inadequate; instead, we got our hands on our original list, our runners-up, and your picks — a total of 86 movies — and put together some of our favorite images from them for this week’s video essay, a celebration of cinematic imagery that’s particularly needed in the midst of summer blockbuster season.

We think the result is beautiful, and we gladly direct you to it. Note that there’s also an alternate annotated version that identifies each film.

Recommended Reading 20

This week’s recommendations cover the history of Wall Street’s addiction to inhumanly fast and economically abstracted trading practices; the history of “dark money” in American politics, culminating in the current game-changing dominance of hidden funding; the rise of real-life “cyborgs” via the burgeoning body-hacking movement; a couple of considerations of what it means for human social and personal existence to be wired into a digital social network of ad hoc spying and self-promotion; a look at the rise and definition of “knowledge art” in an age dominated by objectified scientific understandings of life and reality; a look at the meaning of art in light of evolutionary biology; an opinion piece from The New York Times lambasting the “positive thinking” movement as exemplified by Tony Robbins; and links to podcasts on “recovering environmentalists,” Jung and synchronicity, and findings from the new scientific study of the biological unconscious with neuroimagining technology.

Read the rest of this entry

The rise and fall (and rise) of artist and magician Austin Osman Spare

If you haven’t heard of Austin Osman Spare — or even if you have — the video below makes for fascinating and revelatory viewing. It features author and magician Alan Moore, as well as other knowledgeable figures, discussing “the virtually unknown but enormously talented Edwardian artist and magician Austin Osman Spare on The Culture Show from the BBC.”

If you’re keen to learn more about AOS, I recommend the really excellent profile of him that appeared last year in The Guardian (“Austin Osman Spare: Cockney Visionary“) in tandem with the detailed article about him at Wikipedia. The former tells the least you need to know in its teaser: “Austin Osman Spare was hailed as the next Aubrey Beardsley, but died in obscurity. Since then, he has had a cult following, but his art is finally gaining wider popularity.” The latter fills in the other crucial aspect of Spare’s significance at the end of its first paragraph: “In an occult capacity, he developed idiosyncratic magical techniques including automatic writing, automatic drawing and sigilization based on his theories of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious self.”

Beyond this, a pungent paragraph from theGuardian piece condenses everything that’s really and enduringly fascinating about him:

However notable some of Spare’s art might be, his memory has been kept alive for many years more by cultists than art lovers. He was influenced by the supernatural currents of his early youth, including theosophy and spiritualism, and he was briefly an associate of Aleister Crowley, the self-styled Beast 666, before they fell out. Spare’s innovative approach to magic was a brilliantly self-educated attempt to manipulate his own unconscious, giving his wishes the demonic power of complexes and neuroses and nurturing them into psychic entities, like the old-style idea of familiar spirits.

As for his recent surge in popularity, the BBC program preserved in the video above is actually implicated in it:

Spare has been taken up by graphic novelists and experimental musicians, and it looks as if his art is finally gaining wider recognition outside the occult ghetto. A Spare exhibition late last year at the Cuming Museum in south London was so popular — helped by a piece on the BBC’s Culture Show — that timed admission had to be introduced, and there is a further documentary in the offing later this year. The serious recognition that largely eluded him in life seems to be coming at last. At the very least, he deserves to be recognised as part of what Peter Ackroyd has described as the “Cockney visionary tradition”. In the words of one of his obituaries (“Strange and Gentle Genius Dies” in the Evening News), “You have probably never heard of Austin Osman Spare. But his should have been a famous name.”

Against all odds, it appears that Spare’s star is really and finally rising.