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From the archives: old essays on writing,publishing and literary criticism.

FROM THE ARCHIVES — old essays on writing, publishing and literary criticism.

THE DILEMMA OF MODERN BILINGUAL POETRY – VIRTUES AND INDISCRETIONS.

(Part one: the essay)

Bilingualism/multilingualism in written and performed poetry is a fascinating and complicated topic, encompassing many questions, including what type(s) and level(s) of writing does one assign one’s varying language capabilities, when and how one uses a translator or editor efficiently, questions regarding research of historical, cultural, socio-economic and geographical events when making references in poetry, politico-social sensitivities across cultural boundaries etc. Not to mention the appropriateness of using one language instead of another, and questions regarding market demands and specifications from publishers. The fact is that many poets are currently writing in languages other than their native tongues – for a variety of reasons, and with varied success.

I have been reading and hearing much “bilingual” poetry written and published by people from all over the world the past few years. Poetry writing is not a static process. Even excellent bilingual writers often work quite hard to find the right balance between artistic license, spontaneity, grammatical perfection, spelling, etc.; all the while retaining the special qualities that make poetry “literature” and universal while still achieving a personal form of ex-pression. My premise is that: a) all writers face the same challenges, b) bilingual ex-pression makes these challenges (and successes and failures) even more poignant, and that c) some authors have learned how to achieve a balance which works – both for themselves, and for their readers .. while others have not.

What strikes me about my own disposition towards bilingual literature is that it affords me an extra set of wings on which to soar .. high above the limitations that both I and others set for myself. I love to experience languages and “foreign” cultures, and find that multilingual writing gives me the opportunity to reach out to persons from many cultures on their turf – whether by way of publishing poetry in different languages, or by performing my poetry in different countries .. in Spanish in Buenos Aires; in English in Kathmandu (including reciting my poetry based upon local culture, with references to indigenous vernacular and customs); and at home in Norway: to expose the small Norwegian literary community to the larger world by reciting poetry in Norwegian, English and Spanish – all in one reading. That being said, there is (in all honesty) an element of “extreme sport” in it for me – as exemplified by my most recent poetry collection (“Three-legged Waltz”) which includes poems in Spanish, English and Norwegian – this because I enjoy testing out my interests and skills where other languages are concerned against the appropriate level/form of ex-pression; thus the “act of multilingual writing” becomes a statement and a form of ex-pression in itself. And yet, there are certain experiences that simply ache to be expressed in French or Spanish, or Norwegian .. and no Greek epic poem is really “Greece-inspired” in my mind if it does not contain some Greek words or phrases. Latin and Arabic and other languages are also subject to falling victim to my poetic palette. Of course, there is an enormous responsibility connected with such sport. Not only to try to get the grammatical and contextual elements correct, but also to firmly grasp and communicate across different cultures with sensitivity and just the right amount of “foreignness” to incite and provoke a stretching of minds and hearts within the readers and/or listeners. Poetry is not a precise discipline for most of us – it is full of abandonment, liberties and artistic license .. and at times error and foolhardiness.

My own experiences to date with bilingualism in writing have generally been quite positive. That is perhaps only because I have learned to “soar” as an international poet, rather than to continuously knock at the door of national and local arts institutions whose mandate and focus are often more nationalistic and transcultural rather than international. I have also gone my “own way” in terms of publishing – seeking out or being sought out by publishers who are culture-blind and truly international in scope, practice and philosophy. Such institutions are generally quite open artistically, but sometimes place much of the responsibility for bilingual/multilingual proof reading (regarding both language and cultural knowledge) in the hands of the artist – at least when one is writing in a “tongue” which is different than the “mother tongue” of the country where the publisher is physically situated. This is understandable in that many of these publishers are small press enterprises, with limited resources. Personally, I rather like having their trust, and being responsible for my own artistic ex-pression. Am I sometimes unsure? You bet! Especially when I write about politics or religion, or when I wonder if some socio-political themes acceptable in the Western world will be accepted in Asia or Africa . Poetry may be universal, but ideas and values are often culture-specific. It is that tension that makes bilingual poetry writing and performance a breathtaking sport for me, I suppose.

I do not speak, write or understand any language anywhere near “perfectly”. However, desiring to “get it right – both linguistically and culturally” – and writing with intent (and on a level commensurate with my linguistic skills and cultural understanding), is always a goal; if not an obsession when writing in any language. In spite of much research and proof reading, I admit that I do not always get everything perfect. It happens that I do misunderstand grammatical rules and indigenous nuances in foreign languages, or quite simply use the wrong word in the intended context. Free automatic internet translation services are rarely 100% reliable, and there exist inaccuracies in many internet articles. I have also experienced that proof readers and translators have sometimes disagreed upon how something is best expressed, creating even more insecurity on my part. And cultural references in poetry can also be problematic, since different persons observe and experience things through different eyes.

Yes, I do react sometimes when I read particularly and consistently faulty English which perhaps could have been avoided by asking (or paying) someone to proof read. This goes for native-born English-speaking poets as well as poets who do not have English as their first language. So much is lost for both the author and the reader in such cases – and quite unnecessarily so. But then again, not all speakers of English speak “the Queen’s English”, and if English may be prone to being used or interpreted differently from culture to culture then the same is certainly true for other languages. Here one must also differentiate between creative play with language and idiom, and plain oversight. Sometimes a poet is truly “ahead of his/her time”, and sometimes just blind to one’s own limitations. Learning to discern between oversight/inaccuracy, poetic doodling and literary genius is not always so simple (neither for poet nor audience) in a discipline where most every type of ex-pression is accepted – from poetic and rapturous prose to closely designed feminine rhyme. Creative doodling and oversight can – in fact – open up for new forms of ex-pression, understanding and linguistic permutations in literature, and inaccuracies can sometimes provide valuable learning about writing and one’s own levels of tolerance/intolerance.

So in summary, I encourage bilingualism/multilingualism with personal responsibility and growth. Expect that you will make mistakes sometimes, and that you may later discover that you have misinterpreted another culture’s idiom or sensibility in your writing. When reading the poetry of others try to evaluate some of the questions and challenges posed in this essay and the following interview against your own levels of curiosity and personal tolerances. Writing/art is about exploration, ex-pression and the criss-crossing of perceptions, and is – therefore – never a static process. And perhaps most importantly: don’t worry about becoming world-famous. Fame will find you if that is your destiny and disposition – no matter what language you employ.

To explore these issues a bit further, I have devised 10 sets of rather pointed questions; and I have asked five excellent international writers to comment on them, giving their “international” perspectives. Their varied comments and experiences are – of course – their own, and not necessarily those of the interviewer. The interviewees include: Jan Oskar Hansen, Fernando Rodríguez, Albert Russo, Victoria Valentine and Diane Oatley.

– Adam Donaldson Powell

The Interview

1) In an age of increasing bilingualism/multilingualism in written, performed and published poetry one might wonder what the drive or impetus is. Would you say it is: a) a need/desire to reach a global market; b) a need/desire to stand out from poets who are only writing in their mother tongue; c) a personal ego-trip or a form of literary “extreme sport”; d) an awareness that many things simply must be expressed in a foreign language; or e) all four of the/some of the preceding; or f) something else?

J O H: A sense of not getting anywhere in my own language. (A feeling of inadequacy, memories of failures and so on). And yes, reaching a bigger audience too.

F R: It is very candid to project an image, according to one’s original intention, in another language, where also, perhaps, a point of contact exists. The point of contact being between two languages; through language from the experience of the author who sails daily between these two languages. For me, actually, it is a way to sail strange waters in as much as sailing them has become a part of my homo poeticum, an important part of my writing identity. Sometimes I feel in Spanish and I write it thinking about Norwegian. For that reason my texts translated into Norwegian are an interactive work of cooperation and experiences, on a concrete linguistic existential level — between the author and his translator. To live in Norway , a small country where nevertheless so many languages co-exist, causes me to prioritize Norwegian, instead of English or French, for this same reason; not to speak of other romance languages, that in the text are nearer Spanish, my maternal language.

A R: I have indeed a strong desire to reach out to a global market; in my case it is not a sport and least of all an ego-trip but rather an existential need, for English and French are part and parcel of my mental (and I should add ’emotional’) structure, and if I don’t write in one language for a period of time, I feel like an orphan; for I consider both languages as my native tongues (my mother being British, and I have been educated in these two languages from the very start). Then comes Italian, my ‘paternal’ tongue (my father was Italian), and since I love languages, I also speak Spanish and German, and have a vernacular knowledge of Dutch, Swahili and Portuguese (which I can only read, but not speak). To stress my point, I would go so far as to claim that we, language speakers, are underprivileged, confronted with musicians, painters and sculptors, for they possess a universal language, which even the all-encompassing polyglot could never dream of achieving.

V V: I believe the driving force combines the desire to express and share one’s native tongue – a poet’s emotional fulfillment of delivering enrichment of their culture to another country (shout it to the world so to speak) – and of course, the accomplishment and pride of acceptance by other cultures.

2) Much modern-day poetry is self-published or published by altruistic small press enterprises, many of which do not have the resources or capacity for multilingual editing. This puts quite a bit of responsibility on the author himself/herself. What are the most common indiscretions or literary problems you have observed in poetry written in another language other than one’s mother tongue, and how might they be solved by the author/publisher? Are editors/proof readers/translators usually sensitive enough to the intended artistry of poetry, or do they sometimes tend to suggest changes which “flatten out” the intended meanings?

J O H: I rely on editors to take time to help correct my work; even if I self-published I would still need, if not an editor, a proof reader. But if my work is translated I would prefer that a poet do the work.

F R: The problem, if we can call it a problem – it is perhaps better to call it the requirements of the publishers – is one of referential order. When the language sometimes pronounces in that no-man’s land and of all which is multilingualism, the reading of the text is often, if not always, interpreted by the referring premises; either national references or those of a strictly personal nature; they also respond to an intention limited for reasons of market, ideology and, more rarely mentioned, religion. Even though a translator identifies himself entirely in his soul, or in the worst case, with an author who represents the contemporary ex-pression of the day, or as I said before, ideologically, the result is spurious for the simple reason that the contexts and the experiences are different. Consider, for example, the Argentine translations of the beat poets, or those passionate translations of the French symbolists to the Argentinean dialect. Still the remarkable translations of Borges to Spanish, are recreations of authors who he possibly considered translatable, but always from his own perspective of the literary world exemplified by Borges (known to the common reader as “Borgiano”). In my case, my translations into Norwegian are the consequence of a permanent dialogue between two languages where the referring ones are not so distant, for the simple reason that I have lived in this country for 22 years.

A R: Since bilingual, not to speak of multilingual editions, are not considered commercial ventures, they belong to a tiny, almost negligent niche in literature; and I admire the rare publishers and editors who devote their time, expertise and energy to producing such books or reviews. Small presses are usually very careful and do a good job editing, although, with the proliferation of Internet literary sites, there is a slackening tendency. A poet who writes in a language which is not his/her mother tongue should insist on having his/her work proof read and edited, and the more so if the work is self-published.

V V: Grammar, sentence structure and verb tense are issues I’ve encountered when considering bilingual/multicultural poetry for publication in my magazines and digests. I do receive a good share of ‘poorly written’ bilingual work (as well as ‘poorly written’ work in English). If any piece falls below Skyline Magazine standards, I would have to reject it. As an independent small press publisher, I do not have the resources to translate or critique. I never alter or correct any poet’s work, or dampen their ex-pression or enthusiasm. If I like a piece, and find a serious error, I would then consult the writer, but I must admit, I find ‘poetic accent’ charming and acceptable. My readers appreciate the talent and ambition of the multilingual poet. We would not disparage a poet for a misplaced preposition or for an improper tense. We are forgiving of the poet who is unable to afford an editor and/or translator. We herald the efforts of multilingual poets for their amazing ability to create texts in other languages and to persevere in a highly challenging venue.

3) It must be quite a sensational achievement to publish poetry in a language other than one’s mother tongue, or to have the freedom and dexterity to choose which language a poem or part of a poem or an entire collection of poetry will be in — without having to employ a translator. Can you comment on this “virtue”, and the exhilaration experienced when one succeeds?

J O H: When I sent a poem to an English magazine for the very first time, it was rejected; but the rejection was followed by a letter urging me to go on, telling me that I was on the right track and THAT was exhilarating. If I had not been so rudely rejected by Norwegian editors, I might not have undertaken some efforts which have, at times, been too absorbing.

F R: My poems which are written directly in Norwegian or English normally have been inspired by alcohol or by a woman; both agents of another euphoria which is more transitory than indelible; the result which normally has been rather more anecdotal than literary. I write in Spanish with translations to Norwegian and that is sufficient for me, so far. My first translated poems were motivated by the curiosity of my Norwegian friends, not so much in order to become acquainted with my poems in their own language, but perhaps to verify that I really am a “poet”, or to verify that my poetry was a serious talent or endeavour. I am equally thankful for the translations by two friends, Eivind and Lasse (whose last names I will not mention here), which I eventually added to a handful of poems that I later published under my own publishing seal, Círculo de Oslo Forlag (a bilingual edition, published in Spanish and Norwegian). Once published, I could verify that a large group of poetry readers exist in this corner of the world, and in spite of these rather modest publications, I received good commentaries and I sold out the complete edition. Now, that which for me is an apparent paradox, is that the most avid readers of these poems, have been those readers whose native language is Norwegian.

A R: Yes, there is a ‘freedom’ and an exhilaration in writing in another language which is different from the feeling one has, writing in one’s mother tongue. Having taught languages for several decades to adults, I observed a recurring attitude in the learner: as he/she progressed and got more fluent, he/she began to express him/herself in a manner which he/she could not in his/her mother tongue. There was a sense of freedom never before attained. Of course, writing is a much more serious enterprise, and the responsibility on the creator is proportionate to the endeavour.

V V: I can only imagine the gratification a multilingual poet experiences, who possesses the ability to compose expertly in more than one language without the use of a translator, and has been accepted into other cultures. It’s an admirable feat not easily achieved.

4) What are the literary career risks if one “fails miserably” — how forgiving and how understanding is the literary community (other writers, readers of poetry, editors and critics)? Is it perhaps acceptable to write some bad bilingual poetry, inevitable to perform some bilingual poetry badly but “unforgivable” to publish bad bilingual poetry?

J O H: To write second-rate bilingual poetry is not acceptable. A proper editor would not be influenced by that. I used to make that very clear in the beginning (my first wife used to say; “You write well for a foreigner”) and it never failed to send me into a deep depression. Failure! What can I say? Try, try again if you believe in yourself.

F R: In Norway I am considered a bilingual author, and I am treated as such in that my texts are published or read in both languages. As a bilingual poet, I am fascinated by the interplay between my original and the translated versions, and I enjoy seeing how the original becomes transformed through the translation process. As far as giving a specific answer to your question: if poetry is a form to exert freedom through language, this in one or another way is manifested — simply by the fact that the existence of the text is in itself a belligerent act. How then can we speak of good and bad poetry?

A R: It is always unforgivable to write poorly in whatever language one chooses to write. If one wants to start writing in another language, one has to be as precise and as scrupulous as possible, and never submit work for publication that hasn’t been reviewed by a native editor. I love the example of Joseph Conrad who started learning English in his adult years, and who eventually became one the great authors of the English language.

V V: I do not accept any form of poetry that I feel is below par for Skyline Magazine, regardless of who has written it. We have high standards for publication. I do feel however, that I allow more freedom of composition and poetic license to multilingual poets. As a publisher, I find no particular risk in doing so, as my readers appreciate the efforts of writers who undertake this difficult task. They are energetic and courageous, poetic pioneers, and should be rewarded for their extraordinary efforts. We must give them every opportunity to sharpen their multicultural writing skills and encourage them. Even in the face of failure, writing is a learning experience for all of us, in all cultures. There is always room for improvement and growth.

5) How important is it to publish in English today? What advice do you have for a poet who is writing bilingually, or who is considering writing bilingually?

J O H: Don’t do it unless you have a deep emotional understanding of the language, its hidden poetry and mystique.

F R: Very important, considering the legacy of the English language in literature; especially in poetry, where the references are unavoidable for any serious poet, not to mention that English is the first transactional language of the world, followed by Spanish. I believe that, under the eaves of Shakespeare and Cervantes, our foundation is very solid. I think about Isaac B. Singer who wrote his books in Yiddish with translation into English, where he worked quite closely with his translators. On the other hand, poetry translations done by poets usually are quite good – that is, as soon as one settles upon a species of dialogue between two poetic beings through language. Even so, the result is usually a transubstantiation of the poet, translated to the language of the poet who translates it. On the other hand, the perfect translator does not exist; to think the opposite is simply a projection of your own narcissism.

A R: The importance of writing in English depends on one’s ambition. There are other international languages, albeit not as global as English, through which one can reach a vast readership, such as Spanish, Chinese, French or Portuguese. That being said, I’m all for writing in one’s mother tongue, be it Urdu, Tagalog or Finnish, for diversity is what makes our world interesting and rich. Then, if you wish to use another more international language, in order to reach a wider audience, you have to face up to the responsibility of doing it in the best and most efficient manner.

V V: It is important to publish English today. It is important to publish all languages today, as nations are merging with more frequency. We must learn about each other, accept one another, for the advancement of all talents and cultures. Skyline’s motto and firm belief, from day one: Bringing The World Together Thru The Arts. We can help promote greater understanding and tolerance through literature and arts. I would encourage a multilingual writer to read the original texts and translations of other writers. Submerge themselves in all styles and cultures. As with any literature, study your market and submit accordingly. Multilingual writers should seek out publications that are familiar with and publish multicultural writing.

6) How do you react to poetry written in “poor English”, “poor Spanish” or “poor French” — are there certain limits as to what you can accept as a reader and professional, and how much “artistic license” should be permissible from a bilingual/multilingual poet?

J O H: Bad poetry is bad in any language. It must said that I used to be dismissive of some Indian poetry until I understood that they use the English language somewhat differently. One of my favourite poets is Pradip Choudhuri. I sometimes invent words if I can’t find the right one, and editors think it is I who gets the languages mixed up. But what is bad poetry? No one sits down and says: “I’m going to write a really bad poem”. Personally I dislike sentimental poems/dishonest poems/me alone against the whole world poems, and poems that contain filthy words when it’s not needed.and if I read another poem about the fucking moon, I’ll scream.

F R: Bad poets exist in all literature, but bad poetry is quite another thing. The challenging thing in reading so-called “bad poetry”, is to recognize the intention of the author and to identify its referential linguistics. One more reading, more even-tempered than critical, of that which is fixedly called “bad” poetry, can sometimes prompt us to play at reconstructing the original intention.

A R: I react badly, for as I said earlier, if one is not proficient enough, one has to do everything to improve his/her skills and consult an expert, and not submit anything for publication that is not near perfect.

V V: Although I am a perfectionist with my own written work, as a reader, I do not especially look for perfection, per say. I don’t dissect. This does not mean that I would publish ‘anything’, but rather that I find interest and beauty in words . and in a broad variety of material. As a reader and publisher, I look for meaningful, engaging literature-poetry of all genre that moves me emotionally, in all directions. I want to feel what the writer is expressing. I want to experience their words-to visualize their ex-pression. I can overlook minor bilingual/multilingual flaws, but I would reject anything hollow or barren, regardless of the writer’s nationality. Fine poetry must be intelligent, have a consistent flow and deliver a specific message, regardless of its origin. I think I would be less tolerant of “poor English” than poor multilingual writing. I’m sure this is because I deal more with American poets. I want to offer the benefit of doubt to the writer who is learning and struggling. They deserve it. It’s the ‘message’ I am seeking, and will give leeway on how it’s delivered, as long as the passion and talent are brilliantly engaged.

7) What do you think established large press enterprises think of and look for in bilingual poetry? Are they and/or most literary magazines in your country of residence open to publishing bilingual poetry, or poetry written by persons who have another mother tongue?

J O H: I live in Portugal . I sent an English-written manuscript to a publisher here in Portugal , but unless you’re very famous …… (To be dead is helpful too.) No one wants to know. I don’t really blame them. I have made attempts to write in Portuguese, but find the grammar too restraining.

F R: In Norway , as I also suppose is the case in other countries, there exists a cultural policy that in principle and aim protects its cultural values based on its historical and political traditions. Thus it is so that, according to these parameters, I believe that commercial publication of bilingual editions of poetry generally requires government support and mandates; and current national policy leaves little room for such at the present time. In Norway officially approved books are subsidized by the state with the purchase of a considerable number of each book to be distributed to various institutions of the Kingdom, such as libraries etc. As the press (as much as the magazines) has a certain influence in this country, they accordingly in one way or another respond to these directives most faithfully.

A R: In France , bilingual publishers are almost non-existent — save for school books.

V V: Although I cannot speak for other publishers, especially for the motivations of large publishing houses, I would assume they look for intellectual texts that are expertly translated and well written; employing the same standards they would use for English texts. I doubt they give much latitude to any writers. I would think they seek perfection. Publishing wonderfully-composed multicultural texts is an enriching experience for any publication, and large houses would strive for the very finest. I believe there is a flourishing market for multicultural texts in the USA , as for English writing in other countries.

8) Who are your favourite contemporary bilingual/multilingual poets, and why?

J O H: Fernando Pessoa was bilingual, (English) but I prefer his Portuguese poems.

F R: Kevin Johansen, because he is a not in actuality a poet, but rather a modern-day troubadour who moves between two worlds and two languages where he nicely shapes his condition for being and not being poetic – “non-poetic” I would say, with humour and distance. A distance which is signified by his Nordic origin, transplanted to the USA and Argentina . A sort of continual refugee – sometimes singing in English and sometimes in Castilian – constantly playing with questions about identity: ‘To be or not to be’. Do you happen to know his work?

A R: One of them is Adam Donaldson Powell, for he has the sensitivity and breadth which I find quite exceptional. His Weltanshauung is combined with an intelligence of the heart – in short, empathy. Great writers and poets cannot only be talented cynics, they have to show compassion, at least that is how I value great literature. And Adam Donaldson Powell has all of this combined in his poetic work – he is also an artist and a musician, which makes him a renaissance man.

V V: I can’t say that I have favourites, as I have had the pleasure of reading the work of so very many wonderful writers, but I would say that I am partial to those who create flowing, free verse. Amitabh Mitra writes wonderful poetry in English, his poems a strong reflection of his Indian heritage. I find his writing sensual and intriguing. So if I were to have favourites, Amitabh would be at the top of my list. I also admire the vision and work of Sheema Kalbasi, who is a human rights activist, poet and translator. Besides being multilingual, she is multi-talented! There are too many fine talents in this world to select just a few.

9) Do you feel that most contemporary literary critics and editors are well-enough equipped to properly judge your bilingualism?

J O H: Yes I think so. When I once wrote “THAT” instead of “WHO” about people my editor wanted to keep it in, but I refused. But there are magazine editors who reject my work point blank because it sounds “foreign”. But that’s okay.

F R: Surely there exist one — and perhaps several, who want(s) to believe, that he/they read(s) poetry in the secret catacombs of “true knowledge” — hidden to the public eye. These persons will always exist. They are the true critics of the future, those that read and write their critical commentaries in their own languages, including some languages and dialects which are in danger of extinction. But they will eventually appear upon the “great stage”, and they will re-take into their hands the pens which were snatched from them.

A R: No, they are indeed a rarity and we, bilingual/multilingual writers are often considered as mavericks, especially here in France.

V V: Unfortunately I am not bilingual, but have had two of my own short stories translated by the French editor Eric Tessier, and published in the esteemed French Magazine, Place au[x] sens. I am unable to offer an opinion as to whether or not other publishers and critics are well-equipped to properly judge bilingualism. However, I have found the editors and translators I have worked with to be competent, fair-minded and extremely dedicated.

10) Do you have other comments you would like to add to this discussion?

J O H: You have given me many things to think about. Both my collections “Letters from Portugal ” and “La Strada” had an editor. I’m lousy as a proof reader of my own work. The reason is that it is “right” in my head. I self-published a collection of poetry “Lunch in Denmark ” and only when the book was printed did I see the myriads of grammatical and spelling flaws. As an autodidact I’m feeling the language more than actually knowing it; that’s because I think in English sentences. The drawback is when I read Norwegian. I’m too critical of my own language when I read the news on the internet (for example Norwegian tabloids). They seem to be written to suit the lowest nominator; the language has been flattened. But having been away from Norway for so long my views could be old-fashioned. When writing in English there are moments when I don’t find the right word, but I don’t think about what it is called in Norwegian. I sort of work around and find an ex-pression that fits. English is an elastic language, but I still make so many mistakes. It always embarrasses me because I can see them when they are pointed out to me, and I spend much time kicking myself. I’m therefore glad when an editor takes the time (and indiscretions). But there are times when an editor proposes to change the ending of a poem, and that’s bloody annoying.

F R: Yes, I am done except for the following question: Which Norwegian poet, really fulfills the conditions of being both a catalyst and bridge for dialogue between two or more languages? I mean, a poetic catalyst that can create a multilingual arena in the Norway of today? Perhaps Erling Kittelsen, a true advocate for bilingual literature — both in Norway and in other countries.

A R: This discussion could never end, but I shall stop here.

V V: As the publisher and editor of Skyline Literary Magazine and A Hudson View International Poetry Digest, I am constantly reading stories and poetry. You would think that after a while, all would blend together and I would become desensitized. However, I’m still like a kid in a toy store when I read submissions – and a perfect description is that I become ‘overtaken’ by certain pieces – even ‘awed’. I am very emotional and crave the satisfaction of ‘words.’ I seek intense and intelligent-thought provoking, unique and intellectual writing. I find multicultural poetry to fulfill these requirements, more often than not. But again, I am a lover of the written word. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in my humble opinion; the wonder of words is a perceptual gift for both author and reader. Thank you for the opportunity and honour of participating in your interview and discussion concerning multilingual poetry.

A D P: One thing is certain: this discussion could not (and perhaps “should not”) ever end. I am truly impressed by the enthusiasm of the interviewees, their candidness and the many different perspectives and opinions given. I am also quite pleased to sense the high degree of dedication to “the art of poetry” expressed, given that poetry is perhaps not the most lucrative form for writing in this day and age. And finally, I am overjoyed to see that several international poets can affirm that poetry is still a vital art form in contemporary literature, and an important mechanism for communication and understanding between persons from diverse cultures.

Well, someone always gets to have the last word. The person I have chosen to conclude this discussion with her remarks is the esteemed international poet/essayist/translator Ms. Diane Oatley. Her commentary follows:

Concluding remarks by Diane Oatley

Question no. 1:

For me it is a very simple matter of actually achieving proficiency in more than one language and where it becomes an artistic challenge to explore the experience of writing in both. I have also been interested in combining two (or more) different languages in a performance or written context as a means of exploring the resonances that arise between the different languages. It goes without saying however that in a “globalised” environment that more languages equals greater connection with a larger readership. For me it is not about ego. Poetry writing has never been something I have consciously “chosen”: I began writing poetry in Norwegian (my second language) simply because the poetry began “coming” to me also in Norwegian. Always for me the artistic considerations and the context are key – who is the audience you are trying to reach, what are you trying to express and how can you best achieve both.

Question no. 2:

I agree with AR. This is a given: the author needs to be at all times aware of his/her own limitations and it surprises me as well that anyone submits anything to a publisher/editor without having shared it with at least one other writer. There comes a point in the writing process where even when one is writing in one’s own native language that one needs input from others, simply because one lacks the necessary distance. What one does with the input is up to the writer but resistance only aids the creative process – being put in a position to reconsider and defend one’s artistic choices is very healthy and can only improve one’s work. The minute I read anything on the Internet or otherwise in English that is peppered with spelling mistakes and missing punctuation or worse just poor language I lose any interest in the content (I stop reading in other words). We are language professionals – this is our craft and it goes without saying that if one has any respect whatsoever for the art of poetry one also understands the complexity of poetic language and how fragile is the structure of a truly successful poem. A single syllable out of place can deconstruct a poem in its entirety.

Question no. 3:

The work I have done where I have used two languages has always been in connection with performances and the feedback has always been extremely positive. This has meaning for me only to the extent that I feel that I have realised my own artistic objectives with the project at hand.

Question no. 4:

Define “bad”. Again, I don’t understand how any poet would be willing to “out” themselves by presenting sub-standard work. For me it comes back to a sincere interest in the craft of writing in itself: why are you doing it? For attention? Then I guess you deserve what ever fall-out comes your way. Writing in a second language does not in my mind imply a lowering of standards in any sense. I am interested in reading good literature. Period.

Question no. 5:

I don’t think it is important to write in English, but then I am a native English speaker so perhaps there are issues here that don’t effect me and of which I am unaware. Personally I am witnessing the Norwegian language slowly deteriorating due to the incorporation of anglicisms and this is sad. I like Spain /the Spanish because they are so perversely obstinate about doing everything in their own language.

And my advice for bilingual poets is to follow the urge but if your urge is based on a desire to make a lot of money you are deluded.

Question no. 6:

See my response to question 4. There is an enormous potential here, in the sense of a non-native language poet being able to enrich and make contributions to the second language through their work. This however is only possible to the extent that they master the second language sufficiently to actually write poetry. First we walk, then we dance. First learn to write a decent sentence. Then you can think about writing poetry. Faulkner maintained that poetry is in fact the most difficult form of writing and I tend to agree. But then I guess it depends on your definition of poetry: I am so not interested in sentiment or political statements broken down into lines on a page. For me this is not poetry. For me poetry always functions at the level of language, the poet seeks to transgress and bend the rules and conventions of language at many levels (semantically, in terms of syntax and rhythm). As such it goes without saying that you must first know the rules in order to break or bend them or even play with them in a meaningful manner.

Question no. 7:

Bilingual editions are like exotic flowers. There is very little money to be made on them and if poets are smart they will understand this. As difficult as it is to publish poetry in general, bilingual editions are that much more impossible. I think poets need to think outside of the box here too, and be willing to explore other alternatives (self-publishing, performance works, visual presentation). I am also interested in simply creating beautiful books – a bilingual edition holds a unique potential here and it is up to the poet to explain and promote that potentiality and not least have fun with it!

I think as well that for poets there is an enormous potential here for creating meaningful and political constellations among ourselves − an international forum whereby we can enhance, experiment, discuss and support one another in our work. I would love to collaborate for example, with a poet working in a language that I don’t master − do readings together, or create texts using two different languages. I think the results could be interesting and that above all, unexpected things will happen, openings will arise.

Question no. 8:

Beckett. I also want to say the French writer Hélène Cixous but she has actually only published one bilingual edition that I know of – and she was not personally responsible for the English language text (someone translated from the original French). It was however, a beautiful book/translation and I loved reading the two texts side by side in the respective (French/English) languages − I think I will never finish with that text (“To Live the Orange “, “Vivre L’Orange”).

Question no. 9:

No, I don’t think so and mainly because it is a rarity and an innovation also. There remains an enormous conservatism within the literary community and poets suffer from this. Again, we need to take responsibility for this and surely the work will speak for itself? If there is an audience, we will reach it. I think there is a need for a discussion regarding why in fact bilingual editions are even interesting. Given that the world is getting smaller, certainly there are more and more writers functioning in more than one language. What are the potentialities here in terms of artistic ex-pression? That is the interesting question for me. The book I had published through AIM Chapbooks in 2003 was an attempt to explore this – as I did not create a two language edition per se, but wrote two different poetic texts that spoke with one another and where one could also read each individual language text as a poem in its own right. This for me is an interesting point of departure, more so than a two language edition which essentially is only meaningful in two senses: 1. It makes the work available to a larger readership. 2. It opens for a discussion regarding the translation of poetry.

I am more interested in seeing the two respective languages in action, as it were, at the same time. How do they resonate against one another in interaction? Ideally I feel also that there is an affect that arises here which inevitably enhances the spatiality of a poetic ex-pression, a dimension which I feel is increasingly lost in much of the poetry I read. And actually, in Norway this type of (bilingual) ex-pression is possible because most Norwegians who read poetry have a good working knowledge of English (which is my mother tongue) and are able to understand enough to get something out of the experience.

Question no. 10:

Proofreaders charge by the hour. They are not expensive. Use one. It will take a proofreader two hours to get through a 100-page poetry manuscript. For me it is completely irresponsible even self-destructive not to recognize that A WRITER CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT DO EVERYTHING! Any good editor knows this. You create the art; get a second or third opinion from someone qualified on the content and/or language.

Keep editing (are you in a hurry? Take the time with your craft!!!). And then hire a proofreader. If you are broke, trade proofreading favours with a colleague.

Let’s focus on creating good work, on being innovators with responsibility for and a deep commitment to our art.

PLAYING WITH THE MULTILINGUAL by Adam Donaldson Powell (Norway)

From “Le Paradis”, a tri-lingual novella with bilingual poetry by Adam Donaldson Powell:

“Il fait chaud aujourd’hui. Tu n’as pas soif?” asked Erik.

“Afaitu is in one of his serious moods today. He has been trying to get in touch with his spiritual ancestors, and is therefore staying away from the Devil’s brew (you know: pia). But I am certain that he would like some cold water and a joint,” said Eperona with a playful snicker.

“Pakalolo? Sorry man, I wish I did have some marijuana. But I do have some bottled water with me and (of course) a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Will that do?”

Afaitu graciously thanked his Swedish friend for the water and a cigarette, while suggesting: “Hey, why don’t we take my boat out to a motu and spend the afternoon just chilling out? We can pick up some sandwiches and fruit, and perhaps even some mahi mahi on the way.”

“Mahi mahi sounds good to me,” said Eperona in his slightly post-adolescent manner … grinning, while adding: “and some more beers too!”

Afaitu shot his two-year younger friend a pretend-stern look, and then broke out into laughter.

“What? What did I say that is so funny?” asked Eperona, himself unable to keep from smiling. Erik thought he had been left out of a personal joke, and his eyes quizzically darted from Afaitu to Eperona, finally resting on Afaitu.

“It is nothing, my friend. You have been exactly the same since you were sixteen years old: the joys of your life are so simple. As long as you have fish, women and beer, ‘tu es au paradis’!” replied Afaitu, smiling and throwing a pebble at Eperona.

“Hey, cut it out!” retorted Eperona, as he playfully wrestled Afaitu onto his back, pinning him down with his muscular arms and shoulders. “And speaking of women … should we invite some to join us? What do you think, Erik? I know this hot …”

“Merde! What a fucking braggart. Don’t listen to his crap talk, Erik,” said Afaitu while pushing Eperona off of himself. “You would think that Eperona is the biggest stud and womaniser in the whole of French Polynesia.”

“Et alors!” joked Eperona, now standing over his two friends and thrusting his hips and groin forward in repeated erotic movements – half dance and half sex simulation.

“Damn, Eperona! You look like a raerae or a mahu impersonating an amateur Polynesian dancer for tourists,” shouted Afaitu … causing Erik to laugh and Eperona to pounce on Afaitu again.

“Amateur? Raerae? My uncle is a raerae, so I take that as a compliment. In fact, you should BE so lucky! Here … I will show you how a ‘raerae’ fucks a titoi (a wanker). Roll over … I’ve got something for you!” cried Eperona out as they tussled; and all three men laughed uncontrollably.

From “2014”, a multilingual and intergalactic novella by Adam Donaldson Powell:

“Ha konwe ilucó Zeta, saj juhe la” (“Greetings our Zetan friends in Spirit, we wish contact”) repeated Eonurai telepathically in Vegan (the language used by the Greys), directing her energies toward the constellation that was home to the Zeta Reticulians. “Ha konwe ilucó Zeta, saj juhe la” . “If you can hear this message, then please respond. This is Eonurai from Terra, with an important message to you from the Intergalactic Higher Command.”

“Ha konwe Eonurai-at. Saj miile ennwo. Len em Cuezpå. Ken ta sommo ?” (“Greetings she who is Eonurai. We are listening. This is Cuezpå. What is your message ?”) replied the Zetan on the receiving end of the telepathic communication directed at the Zetan Central Command Headquarters.

He then added: “Not to be disrespectful, but we speak English quite well here at the headquarters. Perhaps we should continue in English, as it would be more convenient for us. Your accent is a bit difficult to decipher telepathically.”

– – – – – –

Authors who write bilingually or multilingually usually employ one or more of the following alternatives:
1) to write and publish a work in one language, and then to adapt the work into another language and then publish it again in the new language;
2) to write sections of a work (usually poems) in one language, and repeat all of them into one or several other languages within the same book;
3) to write sections of a book in different languages, sometimes repeating the same small works and sometimes combining adapted and other works in the different book portions;
and
4) combining several of the above-mentioned techniques in the same book, and/or over a progression of books.

I employ all four approaches in my literary publications, and public readings – usually writing in English, Spanish, Norwegian and French, but also occasionally using bits of text in Greek, Arabic, Latin and other languages where appropriate.

Why do I find this fascinating ? First of all, we live in a globalized greater society today where many persons speak and understand multiple languages to various degrees, where few speak “the Queen’s English” anymore but rather national and local adaptations of English, French, Spanish and other major languages, where several individuals and groups of expatriates, immigrants and persons who have lived in many countries and cultures quite naturally employ several languages in the course of a simple conversation – you can hear it on the streets and busses in major cities all over Europe: persons in dialogue with another, in person, or on the cell phone, switching over from Urdu, West African dialect, French or Spanish to perhaps Norwegian, Swedish or Danish, and then to English, and back again. I enjoy matching this phenomenon together with the adjoining mixtures of culture – both as experienced by natives, by immigrants in their new countries of residence, by tourists who are experiencing and learning about other cultures … and also in culturally-hybridized forms, just as hybridized language today.

Secondly, by presenting the reader with this new globalized multilingual and multicultural reality, I hope that several persons will find interest in learning new languages (other than British and North American English) and that many will also begin to challenge their local and national perspectives on world culture today … and tomorrow.

This is not a “new” genre; as many authors throughout history have played with using different languages in dialogues within the same work; and bilingual and multilingual adaptations in all possible forms is as popular today as ever before (especially in the international haiku network). However, the intent to use this literary form to reflect a modern globalized and mixed up cultural and linguistic world is a fairly new concept. We are moving from national literature in translation to multicultural/multilingual literature and “global literature”.

The challenges for writing and publication are immense. Writing generally requires much decisionmaking, and when the question of merely choosing one’s target audience is suddenly opened up to something greater than primarily the English-speaking, French-speaking or Spanish-speaking world, the writing challenges increase proportionally. No longer is it good enough to find the right translation of Hindu ritual texts in the local dialect as practiced in Kathmandu (as I discovered in my book “Rapture”), but I needed to find a dialect that would be understood and accepted by all Hindus in Asia. In the end I opted to translate some of the special texts back to English, both out of global linguistic and religious-cultural considerations. There are many decisions that have to do with level of language used, grammatical and punctuation rules used (for example, which language’s rules should be followed in a manuscript that should show consistency ?), and the complexity of the text and story/poetry, decisions that have to do with whether one wishes to present a culture as a native might or as the outside world peering in (complete with stereotypes that are both promoted and challenged), decisions that have to do with political, religious and cultural values mirrored on all levels and in all perspectives (locally, nationally, internationally, and globally) and the accompanying perceptual differentiations therein, problems with getting language and cultural consultants, editors and colleagues to agree upon the “best” or “most correct” way to translate or adapt a text into another language … and then to arrive at the best possible compromise for presentation in the final book, finding a publisher who will take a chance on publishing a book where he or she does not understand all of the languages used and does not have staff or finances to check every detail in several foreign languages used … and the added responsibility this places on the author. There is much research, much reliance upon others, much insecurity and a lot of adrenalin that flows with expectation until the book has been on the market for at least a half year without a major international scandal or crisis having occurred. Words are not merely “words”, you see. Words have incredible power.

However, the thrills of doing this kind of global writing are also enormous. One gets the feeling that one is truly both “reaching across the world”, and “binding the world together” – contributing meaningfully and intentionally to global communication and understanding through literature. And the mental calisthenics can only be compared to successfully completing a long distance race with hurdles all along the way. It does get confusing sometimes. You need to have a solid base line – as in music – to hold it all together, but the “dance” itself is mesmerizing and offers countless possibilities to both fall on one’s face … and to get up again, and (at times) to soar through space like an eagle – with a view of the world rarely acknowledged in the hub bub of day-to-day situations.

It is my hope that more “global literature” will be written and published in the near future – including the employment of international cyberpunk and international urban dialects as language forms. Language is changing daily, and authors need to keep up … and stay ahead artistically. This is just the beginning of a whole new world of literature.

— Adam Donaldson Powell, 2008

A LITERARY CRITIC’S LAMENT … for fellow book reviewers, authors and publishers

While many authors of books of poetry, short stories,novellas and essays are concerned with the problems with getting such books sold I would point out that:

  • 1) people are reading such works today, but many are just not spending money on literature unless the author in question is a celebrity or a newly-discovered “sensation”; and
  • 2) many authors underestimate or forget about libraries as important institutions, and of the inevitability of electronic publication taking an increasingly larger place in book publishing.

To make one’s living solely from book publication is not something many of the world’s authors can boast of. Most modern libraries are now digitalizing their collections so that they are available to multitudes. Try to get your books into local and national library collections. Libraries and national archives will have your books in their collections longer than private individuals, and they can be potentially read by several persons long after you have left this world. Many small press and independent publishers find their authors on the internet. My publisher in India – Cyberwit – found me on the internet, and extended an invitation which I accepted. The rest is history, including eight publications with Cyberwit.net to date. Use the internet wisely … and you will be noticed.

Another thing: I note that many new authors-to-be seem to be offended when asked to share a tiny bit of the initial production costs for their books, when asked to help with marketing efforts, when offered an electronic publication first – in order to test out the market before eventual print publication … GET REAL PEOPLE! It is not ALL about YOU! Writing is an art form; but being an author is a career and a business. Put in the work, prove yourself, pay your dues, build up interest for your work, cultivate a clientele for your writing. That royalty contract you dream of can be yours if you approach the business of being an author in a professional way, and exercise patience. There are small press and independent publishers out there who are looking for the right authors “to work with” (not just to publish); and there are still some reviewers (like myself) that are working to present your books to the world.

That being said, publishers and reviewers of books of poetry, short stories, novellas and essays seem to be fewer in number than previously, and because production and marketing costs are often higher than possible sales profits in the short run, the author must expect to do more than merely write “a good book”. He/she should actively participate in the marketing process and use all possible venues (of which there are now many in this world of internet, Facebook, Twitter, networking sites, blogs, etc.) to market their works. If mainstream publishers are to prioritize these genres then sales must go up. If small press and independent publishers are to survive and compete with mainstream publishers for readers then they need the help of both authors and reviewers.

That being said, serious reviewers of books of poetry, short stories, novellas and essays do have their own issues … some of which are important for authors to be aware of:

  • 1) the fast-paced world of today demands perhaps a new discussion regarding kinds of literary reviews that are produced, and their function. In my opinion, for most literary journals there has to be a happy medium between the overly-academic reviews of the past decades and the one paragraph summations that tell you nothing about why the reviewer feels the book has or has not literary quality – a type of review which is popular today also because of limited space in magazines, periodicals, journals etc.
  • 2) I feel that it would be quite interesting with a discussion amongst literary reviewers about the subject and the art and the occupation of reviewing. What standards, ethics, guidelines are in place today? Is reviewing a thankless job or a useless occupation? What are the important elements of review-writing today as opposed to before?
  • 3) How do reviewers today feel about and tackle the difficulties: in placing reviews, in being honest vs. taking care of the author’s or publishers feelings and needs: communicating the importance for the author of having balanced reviews and not just raves, the stupidity of authors flooding the internet with half-assed reviews of their books so that good ones are not interesting for publication, the problems involved with getting too close to the authors or publishers who wish to influence reviews or publish / quote only the most positive commentaries in order to increase sales etc.
  • 4) How do reviewers feel about communicating to authors and publishers the importance of choosing the “right” reviewer – especially for the first review of the book? Serious literary journals rarely publish reviews of a book that has already been reviewed by several other persons and published all over the internet, or books that are more than one year old (yesterday’s news). Difficulties in getting reviews placed in serious literary journals has an effect upon serious reviewers as well. Reviewers are also interested in “discovering” a unique work of literature or a new exciting author, and being the first man/woman out with a review. I always “google” authors that ask me to review their books to see how many other reviews are already on the internet. And I sometimes decline to review a book if there is little chance of getting yet another review published. There are exceptions: new genres of literature, new voices that are so special or avantgarde that they deserve a multitude of critical perspectives, and simultaneous multiple reviews from reviewers in different countries and in different languages upon worldwide book launching etc. Each reviewer must (himself/herself) judge the marketability of a review of a particular book vs. the importance of doing a review anyway either for the sake of supporting a particular work of importance or presenting one’s own literary skills in an essay about a particular work.
  • 5) Is it appropriate for a reviewer to ask an author to tell about his/her marketing plans? I do pose such questions, as it tells me much about the kind of review to write, about the necessity of eventually writing a review that can be tailored by the publisher to be shorter if necessary – while still respecting the context of the criticism, and also much about the longterm motivation and investment the author has. I often review interesting authors more than once in their literary careers, addressing changes and growth and development in their styles from book to book. If the author or publisher is “clueless” about marketing strategies and how a review will be used, then writing a smashing or well-written review can be a waste of time, as most reviewers are constantly looking for more places and more prestigious places to publish their reviews, and the competition is very stiff. Often we compete with ourselves between the various reviews that we write and submit.

Nowadays, many good authors have also been reviewers. Why is it that many reviewers get burned out so quickly? It is perhaps in part due to some of the issues that i have cited above? The job of the critic is to write literary criticism, and selling the book and holding the authors’ hands etc. is really not our problem. It is – however – our problem to get our work published, and in good/appropriate literary journals, newspapers, magazines etc.

And what about the ethics of charging for book reviews? Many housewives make extra cash by writing short summations of books for large corporations in the USA, and make 50-75 bucks a shot. Good literary reviewers of small press literature usually work for free (unless commissioned to write a scholarly essay). Should reviewers get paid? If so, then by whom – the publisher, the author, the marketing company? And what are the possible ethical conflicts involved in that?

Some authors are highly sensitive to negative criticism, but yet authors crave assessment and “validation” … another interesting topic: the psychology of reviewing and desiring to get reviewed. Are some authors simply not “mature” enough for constructive criticism? And are some reviewers too closed-minded and old-fashioned in their likes/dislikes? I encourage all reviewers to publish their philosophy of reviewing, what they look for etc. from time to time. This will help authors not only in their choice of a reviewer, but also give many authors some helpful insight in their approaches to their own future writing.

How relevant is contemporary literature in non-English language countries for today’s global young people? Should all contemporary literature of quality only be in English? To be honest, in today’s international market publishing in English gives the greatest possible world public … albeit entails much competition. However, the reason that I employ multilingualism in most of my works is to reflect how today’s world is and also to drive up interest in other languages and cultures instead of the standardized/Americanized supermarket culture that is replacing everything all over the world. This is – however – hard work for everyone … but especially for you the author. Do not expect that a small press or independent publisher has the staff, the resources or the knowledge of several languages. This is a genre that most mainstream publishers will not even touch. Be willing to work long and hard with special publications, and be patient with and courteous to your publisher. Small press and independent publishers are more often than not only 1-3 persons dedicated to keeping new literature “alive”.

If you as a reader or reviewer do not understand or know a word (in your own language or another) in a book … then look it up and learn something damnit! People are sometimes lazy and impatient in today fast-paced world society. And authors need to remember that every word is precious. Published writing should not solely be an act of self-gratification or literary masturbation. People do not have the patience for it. Choose your words carefully, and economically. Novelists can learn much from good poets and short, short story authors.

Another thing: let’s bring back the novellas. In today’s society they must be perfect for the on-the-go reader. The problem is that most publishers will not publish collections of novellas, nor will they publish prose that is less than 50,000 words because the book binding should be a certain width to be visible on bookstore bookshelves etc.

I am initiating this discussion because I feel that authors and publishers need to understand what reviewing is like in today’s world: what makes reviewers tick and continue to review etc.

  • Adam Donaldson Powell, 2010

LITERARY CRITICISM: A FEW INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS
BY ADAM DONALDSON POWELL

Much has been written regarding the history and development of literary criticism, the present “crisis” precipitated by trends and practices in the areas of publishing, marketing and distribution, as well as challenges posed for literary criticism by electronic publishing … including a renaissance of the age-old questions regarding which persons are qualified to write literary criticism, and the purposes and goals of good literary criticism.

All of these topics, themes and discussions are actual and important today. My main concern is to provide authors of literary works (poetry, short stories, novellas, essays, novels etc.) and independent presses and facilitators of self-published books of quality with a new form of literary criticism: which is informative, which incites debate, which challenges author and reader, and which provides entertainment, but which at the same time functions as a marketing tool and an opportunity for authors to consider their own development and accomplishments from the perspective of another literature enthusiast. I review both first-time authors and authors who have written dozens of books, assess individual books as well as compare several books by the same author, and sometimes follow a specific author’s development from book to book.

All literary criticism is subjective by definition. However, it can be helpful for both author and readers of literary criticism to discover new ways of perceiving their own writing, and writing in general. I am not an English professor, or even an English major. I am an author, and yet another who constantly struggles with the same questions, choices and challenges all authors confront. It is my experience that reviewing others’ writing gives me greater insight into my own. This is (for me) an ever-going process of personal and artistic development.

I am often asked what I look for in poetry books that I review, or consider reviewing. There are many poetic forms being used today, with many hybridisations. There exists both a sense that there are “no rules” anymore and, at the same time, there are some unspoken literary guidelines that determine the probability for successful literary communication — beyond the subjective, and questions of personal taste. I believe that it is important for me as a reviewer to restate what I look for from time to time. As I have written elsewhere, I look for many qualities including: evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art — beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement — enabling the reader’s “inner artist” to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process.

I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in “or ignoring” traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.

So writing is not a static process … and neither is literary criticism. While much criticism for first-time authors can be similar, it must be kept in mind that 1) there is no definitive “correct way” of writing, 2) criticism is personal and subjective to a large degree, and 3) there has never been a “perfect” book (and never will). I do not personally believe that writing a perfect book is an all important goal. Constant experimentation with technique, style, form and language is the real key to self-development and literary development. A not so well received book can be preceded by one or more very well received ones — who is to judge what is “good or not”? And the perhaps “not-as-good” book could teach author and reader much more than the “good” ones.

That being said, I do believe that literary criticism should be balanced — pointing both to that which functions well for the reviewer, and to that which the author might consider developing further or experimenting with in another way in future writing. Every now and then an author gets a complete rave of a review from me, but that is often because the author has managed to impress me in any of many ways that demonstrate overwhelming strength, courage, openness, visual imagery, musicality, movement, theatricality and/or originality … perhaps because I happen to resonate with the author at that particular point in time in regards to a certain form of expression or quality. There is no formula, there is no real checklist or form … it is an objective/subjective process.

Getting reviewed is exciting — for the author, the publisher … but it is also exciting for me as a reviewer to experience the reactions of author, publisher and reader, and to see if my comments help to incite further enthusiasm and growth in the author, and to incite potential readers and new publishers to consider the author and his/her book(s). And yes, I am always curious as to whether (or not) the author and others share or understand my experience of the work in question. A work of art is “after all” a vehicle for mental, emotional and soulful transport, taking each of us to our own self-designed destinations. Reading a work of literature is “at its best” a dialogue between author and reader.

Lastly, I would like to say that I consider literary criticism to be an art form in itself — a form for expression that is constantly stretching and yawning, recollecting older traditions and recognising the contemporary and the visionary in authors, and sometimes making associations between diverse forms of artistic expression and artistic disciplines. However, reading a book review or a piece of literary criticism is no substitute for reading the book, and is not a prerequisite either. Literary criticism is only a personal guide and commentary … a short essay containing the reviewer’s thoughts and reactions to having read a work (or works) of literature by another author.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

The path to becoming an author … a labour of love and persistence.

It sounds great doesn’t it … to finally be able to say “I am a writer!” when people ask who you are, and what you do. Of course it does. Writing is an age-old and honourable profession. But how do you react and answer when people ask you the next logical questions: “Do you sell a lot of poetry, short stories, essays and novellas; and do you make your livelihood from writing?” I can sense many of you getting a stomach ache or a mild headache already now. Why is that? Everyone knows that many of the most famous works of art and literature that have survived the trials of time and history were made/written by persons who “struggled” to make ends meet as artists/writers during their lifetimes. Many of the greatest works in the history of fine literature were initially self-published. We all know that collections of poetry, short stories, essays and novellas generally do not make many publishers, book distributors, bookstores or authors rich and famous. In fact, some might argue that it is easier for a “celebrity” who has never before written a book to get it published and sold, than a seasoned author of “non-commercial” small literary forms (i.e. non-novels, non-cookbooks, non-travel books, non-biographical exposés of the rich, famous and powerful etc.). We know that it is primarily small press and independent publishers who take on most of the challenge and burden of making certain that our literary “genre” does not disappear along with other “endangered” species; and we know that they struggle with trying to keep their heads above water financially, as well as with trying to get our books reviewed, distributed and accepted by bookstores .. and even accepted into the collections of public libraries (it is not always easy for publishers or authors to get their books into public libraries these days either).

Yes, we know that this is a labour of love – both from author, publisher and reviewer, and also from some small, independent and alternative bookstores. We know (deep down inside our selves .. way down there, where we “live”) that the chance of our getting “discovered” by an agent while sitting at a café, or being asked to appear on a prize-winning reality show contest because we are “great poets” is relatively small. Why then do many of us still maintain the “dream” that all really talented writers will eventually get discovered by a mainstream publisher, and be offered a fat contract with a cash advance? Why do many of us still equate cooperative publishing with the old “vanity publishing”? And why are so many of us still sceptical to even established publishers who ask us to share a wee bit of the burden and responsibility for getting the books published, marketed and sold?

I have reviewed and edited many manuscripts and books over the years; and I have several books and other publications to my credit. I am no expert, and I am not world famous as a writer or reviewer, but I do have several years experience and I know the stories of many writers from across the world. Just having published one, two, three .. or even fifty books is no guarantee that you have “made it”. Small press/independent publishers need to be able to show good sales statistics and potential for good future sales when they are looking for partners in distribution, in marketing and among bookstores. Obviously, these small press/independent publishers (those most likely to accept and publish your books) do not have the necessary resources to do all of this work without your assistance (and if they did the costs would be astronomical for all partners in the publishing process, further affecting book sales because of the high production, distribution and marketing costs).

So what can you as an author do to help? I have listed seven simple suggestions:

1) Read submission guidelines … read submission guidelines .. read submission guidelines! Do your research when looking for the “right” publisher .. right for your work, right according to your expectations and resources, and also because it is essential to ascertain that the kind of work that you write is appropriate for that particular publisher and his/her/their image and customer base. Read their submission guidelines, and if still in doubt then send a query.

2) Make certain that you have “something to sell”. Do not overburden publishers or reviewers with half-finished manuscripts or manuscripts in desperate need of basic editing and re-writing. Do your job .. and then submit your best work for consideration. Producing a flawless book is difficult (if not almost impossible), however we authors must not expect that small publishers necessarily have the resources needed to guarantee that all of our factual references will be corroborated, that our usage of foreign languages will be confirmed as accurate, or that they can take responsibility for small errors we as authors have missed when reading through and approving printers’ proofs.

3) Try to avoid acting like a diva. You are not the only talented poet or short story writer out there. Just because your book is accepted by a publisher now does not necessarily give you any solid guarantees for the next submission (unless you are so proven in regards to huge sales that major publishers trample each other to death to offer you long and successive book contracts). In short, be patient .. and be nice. There are not many publishers who are open for unsolicited submissions from authors of short literary works, and the queues of writers wanting to become published are long. Remember the ex-pression: “Your reputation precedes you” .. because it is a small community.

4) Be patient, and open for constructive criticism regarding shortcomings and advice regarding how you could improve upon the manuscript. Although you may be rejected by a publisher or a reviewer once or one hundred times, that does not always mean that you will not eventually get published. Few publishers, editors or reviewers have time to give constructive feedback regarding writing or concrete reasons for rejection. However, if a publisher, editor or reviewer does take the time to give you such feedback, consider yourself fortunate; and by all means take the time to evaluate the relevance of the feedback for yourself and to attempt to make required/suggested edits (that do not compromise the intention or integrity of your literary work, of course).

5) Help your publishers and yourselves by constantly improving on your literary/writing skills AND your marketing skills. Keep expanding your contact network (locally, nationally and internationally), help your publisher(s) by providing them with information they need regarding “realistic” places to send reviews of your work to, possible distribution venues; and by making public readings of your work and interviews with the local media where you mention your publisher, and even asking your local and national libraries to take in copies of your book(s). Distributing “author copies” of your books to persons who might help your career by remembering you in respect to some opportunity in the near or distant future is also a very good investment.

6) Regarding multiple submissions to publishers and reviewers: always ask publishers and reviewers how they feel about this. Some do not mind as long as you inform them; and others would prefer to know that all the energy and work they are employing to consider publishing your work (a huge process in many cases), or to write a special review of your book, will result in the publisher or reviewer having “first choice” and an exclusive on showing/reviewing the work of a “new-found genius”. I – as a reviewer – am not so interested in writing a review of a book that I know several others are in the process of reviewing simultaneously. Many magazines/journals of literature wish to be the first to carry a review of a newly-discovered talented author. And many of the relatively few magazines that print serious literary reviews are so bombarded with unsolicited review submissions that many reviewers consider themselves lucky if they get a solid rejection letter or e-mail … often we get no response at all. So it does not always help with simultaneous submissions of manuscripts, or simultaneous multiple reviews. Don’t “spam” the market .. plan your strategy with alternatives to plan A, plan B and plan C. And by all means, let your publisher and reviewer know if you have personally sent a review or press release out to magazines/journals for publication .. or even published them on your own blogs. This will make it easier for the publisher and reviewer to keep track of who has received promotional materials, and to avoid uncomfortable questions from others they have had contact with who may coincidentally discover that the review has already been published by another/others. Every submitting author should expect to be “googled” by queried publishers, distributors, reviewers and others.

7) And finally – and perhaps most important – know your work, your characters, your plot .. and be prepared to answer questions about why your book is important, and how it is different from much else on the market today. Have you ever gone to a modern art exhibition and wondered why a particular artist bothered to make that piece of art? Well, millions of potential readers, and a handful of publishers/editors/distributors/reviewers are wanting to ask you the same question.

Writing is romantic and fun .. and creative …. but there is a business side to being an author as well. All the wonderful work you put into writing a good piece of literature is lost if you do not manage to get it published, reviewed and sold. This is as much a labour of love and persistence for publishers, editors and reviewers as it is for authors. Remember that; and set your ambitions accordingly.

– Adam Donaldson Powell, author and reviewer 

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL ( Norway ) is a literary critic and a multilingual author, writing in English, Spanish, French and Norwegian; and a professional visual artist. He has published five books (including collections of poetry, short stories and literary criticism) in the USA, Norway and India , as well as several short and longer works in international literary publications on several continents. He has previously authored theatrical works performed onstage, and he has (to-date) read his poetry at venues in New York City, Oslo (Norway), Buenos Aires and Kathmandu (Nepal).

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T. Wignesan interviews Adam Donaldson Powell.

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T. Wignesan (Parisian author) has interviewed me on behalf of my publisher Cyberwit.net:

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS —
T. WIGNESAN – ADAM DONALDSON POWELL.

T. WIGNESAN: I – WHY WRITE?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: In all honesty, I did not choose to write; the writing chose me. It is both a passion and a necessity for my survival and expression; in addition to my personal contribution to the development and advancement of art, society and humanity. I do not worry about becoming famous. Being famous with the goal of ego gratification is a “useless occupation”.

I am but one small cog in a very big wheel — the Wheel of Existence; on the same level of significance as any other entity in our Universes … forever expanding and contracting in consciousness, expressing a myriad of ideas, emotions and behaviour patterns, and forever breathing the Eternal (the Breath and Essence of God). Surely, I have my own take on Existentialist and Nihilistic philosophies but my only “Truths” are my thoughts, words and actions — in each moment. And for me, each moment is the sum of the Whole of Existence, in any one instance in space and time, and from my individual perspective — which is co-created (together) with my environment. Thus to me, writing is breathing Creation. And the Spirit and act of creation are the seeds of renewal/renaissance, and the dissolution of concepts of past, present and future as well as the idea that anything is separate from anything/anyone else. By being creative I assert my role in the ever self-defining Divine project called Existence.

As regards celebrity, I actually know a bit about that having had many years where I was recognised from TV, newspapers etc. as an activist and artist/author. Sometimes it was pleasant, and there have also been incidents where I felt threatened when recognised as “that person”. Public personalities are clothing/roles that are taken on, but they are not the individual’s personality. Therefore, for me, fame is not a goal — but it can be a condition and lifestyle to which one must adjust and which bears great responsibility.

T. WIGNESAN: II – “Why write” does touch on both the personal motivations for indulging in words and having them bound in book form metaphorically by one’s own hand, just as much as they apply to the broader objective perspective in the light of the great masters and teachers (who never wrote – some likely were analphabète like Akbar – down their most influential teachings) who have for – better or worse – given us our ever evolving world: Zarathustra, the Hindu Rishis, Moses, Buddha, Mahavira, Christ, Lao Tse, Confucious, Bodhidharma, Mahomet (I’m not sure about the Hebrew prophets). The Tao Te Ching and the Confucian Analects cannot be legitimately attributed to the authors’ own hands.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: My writing is “published” in many formats: in books, in my paintings, on the internet, performed onstage etc. Books once represented a form of “permanence” for authors but now many libraries are digitalising their collections, bookstores have limited space and are selective with regards to which authors, titles and subject matters they give space to as well as impose limitations on how long a book can take up shelf space. In the fast-paced technological life of today authors must also adapt to both changing markets and publication arenas, as well as how to meet a public that is “on the run” and multi-tasking. I do not personally own many books anymore, as I have given away hundreds to libraries, organisations and private persons. Knowledge and joy should be spread around — not hoarded, and left to gather dust.

T. WIGNESAN:
Does one need to have something to say in order to want to write?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: No, not all writing is meant to be read by others, and by the same token not all writing has to have a serious message. I have written poems and made paintings that are essentially about nothing important, and also minimalistic works about “Nothingness”. However, longer works such as short stories, essays, novellas and novels would generally require a purpose that is larger than that of eg. a “haiku moment” — in order to hold the attention of a reading public.

That being said, I love to test out variations on minimalism in my novels; deciding myself how much descriptive verbiage I offer the reader, when and where. This in order to seduce the reader into an active role as co-creator of “the story”; and, yes, on “my terms”. In that way I can interact with the Reader who accepts what is written and how it is presented, and then suddenly meets upon a provocation that was embedded within the presentation all the while. That is Art imitating Life, n’est-ce pas?

This minimalistic style is closely related to my own philosophy of extreme art and literature. “Extreme literature” can be philosophical, political, religious, sexually-oriented, profane, or just downright “dangerous” because it rocks others’ boat(s) personally. Not all literature is “pretty”, and even humour can be considered provocative. Many authors have works they (and others) consider to be “extreme”. All throughout the history of art and literature, artists and writers have pressed against and played with society’s tolerances – in both “liberal” epochs, “conservative” epochs and (as now) in states of “moral confusion”, where Western concepts of freedom of speech sometimes butt against national and local cultural mores and social politics; and where danger lurks and thrives on non-specific and situational social codes and fears.

The concept of “EXTREME ART AND LITERATURE” changes all the time. What is actually “extreme” today – in a mixture of globalised, regionalised, nationalised and localised perspectives? My own opinion is that “extreme art and literature” today takes its starting point in the accepted banalities of everyday life, experiences and consciousness on the respective and combined levels (social, philosophical, political, economical, sexual and spiritual). Contemporary “extreme art / literature” no longer attempts to shock in an obvious way, but rather entices the public to feel that he / she is a “member” of the experiential understanding and consciousness, only to interject a “triggering” aspect that creates a sense of uncomfortableness caused by the realisation that one has been busted by a banality. These “trigger mechanisms” are (in fact) integral parts of the art itself – often passing by in fleeting moments, sometimes blended in with an obsessive and “flat” (journalistic or photojournalistic) expression or a long tirade of banalities that do not even pretend to be surrealistic. These small “electrical shock” triggers will hopefully ignite an inner experience within the public so that the viewer / reader begins to investigate his / her own personal reality, his / her actual contributions to a collective reality and hopefully to re-evaluate his / her own concept of what one prefers to create as an individual and collective reality. The illusion of spiritual and emotional separation (the illusion that we are all separate, individual and self-sustaining entities that can determine our roles on Terra or in the Interlife totally without contact or influence with / from others) is a vital element here, and that common illusion is therefore “fertile ground” for artists. Here we artists and authors can play, provoke, prevaricate, entice, seduce and fool the audience to believe in us as a part of “themselves”, and then trigger the reader / viewer to consider the possibility that there might be (in fact) a miscommunication or misconception running loose … a sense of everyday reality that is inconsistent or which has consequences that one was never aware of.

Perhaps the most meaningful and interactive way to help another person to “wake up” from their perceptual drowsiness is to enter into their everyday dreams and illusions (their banalities) and suddenly say “BOO!!!” Artists and authors who attempt to shock through their art with the blatantly obvious, often thus fail to explore and exploit the deeper, symbolic depths of the subconscious and the more mystical elements that make up our everyday and banal thoughts, activities, attitudes etc., and therefore are denied “personal access” by some viewers / readers who may consider the art to be too intellectual, too elitist, too directly confrontational, or too foreign.

Sex and religion are often used today in art and literature as “shock elements”. It is not necessarily sex or religion which are provocative or interesting in themselves, but rather the unspoken and quietly accepted perceptions that we chain ourselves to unquestionably, and which can totally be set in chaos just by the artist and author changing or adding one simple element or context that we do not feel belongs in our reality-defining “picture”.

“Extreme art and literature” is thus not blatantly provocative in itself; it rather shows the audience the possible ramifications of acceptance, non-involvement, personal meanings and behaviour by confronting us with triggered or mixed in “extreme” moments, and then lets the audience choose to begin its own personal creative life process of evaluation and re-creation (if desired) … without commentary or guidance.

When I presented myself to Marina Abramovic as a “retired activist” she responded by asking me if an activist can ever be finished with activism. Of course, she is right. The process of rebellion is nothing more than one intermittent set of activities and actions in a constant redefining and assertion of the Self, both individually and collectively. Art is the ultimate expression of the process of rebellion. If an artist loses that quality, he/she “dies” in a certain way. My art and literature are not just extensions of me … they are my created persona: a sweet mixture of heaven and hell, with a pinch of banalities for flavouring.

T. WIGNESAN: (b) Does the old dictum: “Poetry is made with words, not ideas” still apply?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: What is a poem? It is definitely not a daydream. A poem is a carefully constructed literary bonsai, cultivated with loving discipline and good planning. The air of spontaneity and dreaminess is only an illusion, and it is the result of great craftsmanship. Yes, poetry is comprised of several tools; and words are perhaps the most important device. But words, silences, punctuation, structure, rhythm, colour, sounds, visual associations etc. all play together in order to make a successful piece of writing. Poems are essentially just one facet of the diamond; of a story; of a possible reality. Do poems represent ideas, and are they made with words? Yes, of course. But a successful poem is an instance of Déjà vu— often recognisable beyond the words alone.

T. WIGNESAN: III – You have now given us your “cosmovision”, as Carlos Bousoño would describe it, a philosophical standpoint that is rich with implications for art and literature – “extreme art and literature” as you put it – which impinges on the average individual’s (average reader or viewer’s) reality with its consequential attributes of jolting consciousness through the shock of subversive “trigger mechanisms” (to be read also as “rebellion” against the norm or status quo?) — all of which makes of you a veritable activist. Now, how do you transcribe this engagé attitude to the specifics of writing, on the one hand, your own considerable output and, on the other, appreciating the works of others?
In my view, judging by your critique of my books, you have willy-nilly chosen the psychological approach to aesthetics and hence the overwhelming impressionistic taint in your pronouncements. Not that they are not valid – far from it – but it would serve to clarify your ultimate critical stance(s) if you could elaborate on your acceptance or rejection of the critical concepts of “affective fallacy” as opposed to “intentional fallacy”.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: Hmm … Wimsatt and Beardsley on intentional and affective fallacy. First let me respond to your premise that I have “willy-nilly” chosen a psychological approach to aesthetics in my criticism of your novels. Since you have taken my criticism of your novels as an example, I will answer you in the same fashion.

In my opinion many of your novels (that I have read) have an exciting underpinning of the existential and psychological, if you will — a degree of playing with the minds of the reader(s) … perhaps sometimes seeking to test or out-smart him/her. There is nothing wrong with that; it is fairly common in literature. I would classify that as an “intention”, supported by various situations, emotions and feelings illustrated in certain ways and with certain styles of writing. Obviously, when I become aware that the twists and turns that you often create in your stories are finely tailored then I instinctively begin to evaluate both the literary mechanisms that you are using and their degree of success for me as Reader. To me, art is not entirely (or even primarily) accidental — but rather is based upon ideas, intentions and plans for execution. In addition, I personally believe that all art created is in part biographical — i.e. possess some thoughts, experiences, personality traits, memories etc. known, imagined or dreamed about by the artist/author. Art is by nature both subjective and objective. That means that art is not just public, but also personal — to the author, and to his/her audience who must process the effects of the information, visuals etc. in relation to one’s own personal framework of ideas, attitudes and experiences. For me, assessing the success of a work of art is by nature based upon whether or not the perceived intention of the representation “works for me”. Why? Because I am both subjective and objective in my attempts to find meaning and personal relevance in a work of art that I am inviting into my consciousness. But it is not enough to merely say that “I do not like it because it does not work for me.” I should hopefully be able to relate what does not appeal to me/function for me — and why. I do not particularly like much modern rhyming poetry, and I can explain why in both subjective and objective (technical) terms. So yes, I do offer authors and publishers bits of objective and textual criticism … i.e. criticism based upon the relative success of technical aspects of the writing, style, form, etc. However, my job as a literary critic is not to serve as a professor of creative writing and to go into great detail about what exactly does not work (for me) technically. That is not popular with the writers, nor with the publishers — who want a positive review that will help to sell books, rather than a critical one (which potential book buyers may want). Often I write those comments in a separate note to the publisher and author. Usually authors are thankful — both for my insights, and that it is done in that way.

I list quite specifically what I look for objectively in my answer to the final question.

T. WIGNESAN: IV – Correct me if I’m wrong, I would have thought what gives your critical responses to any creative work depth and infinite modulations is your own trained ear for music. You are an accomplished pianist, and in your own words have avowed having earned – by more than half – your income in New York by playing at restaurants, bars, weddings, etc. Do you agree?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: While I studied piano under some well-known concert pianists for several years in New York City, and before that played the violoncello in a youth orchestra, I would be the first to take issue with being called “an accomplished pianist” or an accomplished anything else. Back then — in New York City — everyone I met was an artist, a writer, an actor, a musician etc., and thus the “litmus test” was earning at least part of one’s income in that profession. Being a musician, artist, actor, writer etc. is a job — in fact a 24-hour job which includes many hours of practicing, rehearsing, thinking, and planning before a final work or performance is executed. It is a work that is never finished, because the possibilities are endless and the Mind of an artist never seems to stop chattering. In my own mind, each poem, story, novel, painting is part of one larger ongoing work of art — that of me reacting to Life and my environment(s).

For me, the transition from classical music to poetry and then to painting was fairly natural and logical. In all of those art forms ideas are converted to pictures and sounds which evoke a myriad of reactions and recognitions in the viewer/audience. Each artistic discipline requires a balanced combination of technical skills, some understanding of the history of artistic traditions throughout modern history, and the ability to translate abstractions into suggestions of something seemingly “tangible” to our senses, recollections and feelings. So, in that sense, yes I can agree that much of my sensibility as regards visual art and literature (especially my poetry) has its nascence in music — sounds, rhythms, colour, speed, action, movement … all interpreted within (and sometimes beyond) an ever-evolving framework of techniques and styles pressing toward new forms of expression. To me, art (performance or visual) is not about being or becoming “accomplished”. One never fully arrives as an artist, as there is always some new peak to climb — stumbling, crawling, and running towards an infinity that can never be reached, by definition.

T. WIGNESAN: V – What may your thoughts be on these heroic couplets? (This is not a required “test”. You are welcome to ignore it.)

One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit:
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confined to single parts.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: Ahhh — excellent! — an excerpt from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”. Well, T. Wignesan, as you well know these lines must certainly be judged in the larger context of the poetic work — namely the importance of self-knowledge (rather than mere literary theory) to criticism, as well as understanding that individual tastes and preferences of both Critic and Artist have both their limitations and their “genius”. However, in my opinion, because all art forms have history (of style and technical development, culture and politics), being an artist can also be considered to be an expression of a “studied and skilled science” that is heightened by intuitive and philosophical genius.

I personally believe — and have stated many times as a literary critic — that it is important to periodically specify what I personally look for in literary works that I am asked to comment on. I believe that it is important for the Reader both in relation to understanding the nature and framework of my criticism, and also as a possible “guide” for aspiring writers who wish to look beyond so-called “standard rules of writing” in their understanding and assessment of possibilities in their own artistic development.

I have written the following (several times) regarding what I aspire towards in my own writing, and what I also look for in the work of other writers whose work I have been asked to comment on: “I look for many qualities, including evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art – beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – enabling the reader’s ‘inner artist’ to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process. I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in – or ignoring – traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.”

As to whether literary criticism is, in fact, a “science” or a literary art form in itself, well, I think it can (and perhaps should) be both.

T. Wignesan (for Cyberwit.net) – https://www.cyberwit.net/authors/twignesan
August 31, 2017 – Paris, France

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I Stillhetens Tid.

“I Stillhetens Tid” (In the Time of Silence), stilleben, 50 x 50 cm, oil on canvas, 2022.

“I Stillhetens Tid”, er en semi-realistic / abstrakt geometrisk fremstilling av mørketiden vi finner oss i etter to år med COVID-19 pandemoni, krig, sosial-politisk tilbakegang, ultrakonservatisme, økonomisk nedgang … og de mange trusler som hersker (miljøkriser, energikriser, vannmangel, matmangel, konkurser, dyrearter som dør ut med mer). Vi kjenner godt på teppet av mørkhet som demper optimismen, samt skyldfølelser. Ja, det er vi mennesker som har satt verden i krise, og Yin-Yang syklusen sitter nå fast i Yin delen. Det virker håpløst, og tegningen er skrevet på veggen. 

Denne stilleben setter fokus på våre ønsker om å gardere det grunnleggende: det enkle og sunne, stillhet, mindre forbruk av elektrisitet og varmeovn, og sikkerhet. Er vi stille nok kan vi forhåpentligvis redusere risiko for noen katastrofer i øyeblikket. Mørkhet og stillhet er da en trøst, mens vi forsøker å bevise overfor oss selv at “dette går nok over”. Men innerst inne vet vi at vi har gått for langt, og at livet på Jorden aldri igjen blir som før. 

Og det kan være bra, hvis det får oss til å endre på våre tanker, mål og vaner.

Her har det også vært viktig for meg å gi stillebensjangeren en ny funksjonalitet utover naturalisme og teknisk bravader, løfte dens betydning til moderne stil og en mer sosiopolitisk kommentar.

… og så dekker vi bordet med to (overmodne) paprikaer i en treskål, på en enkel hvit duk, demper lysene og prøver å overbevise oss selv om at selv en liten bot kan gjøre en forskjell.

English version:

“In the Time of Silence”, still life, 50 x 50 cm, oil on canvas, 2022.

“In Stillhetens Tid”, is a semi-realistic / abstract geometric representation of the dark times we find ourselves in after two years of COVID-19 pandemonium, war, socio-political decline, ultra-conservatism, economic decline … and the many threats that prevail (environmental crises, energy crises, water shortages, food shortages, bankruptcies, animal species dying out and more). We are well aware of the blanket of darkness that dampens optimism, as well as feelings of guilt. Yes, it is we humans who have put the world in crisis, and the Yin-Yang cycle is now stuck in the Yin part. It seems hopeless and the highly-probable outcome is written on the wall.

This still life focuses on our desire to preserve the basics: the simple and healthy, silence, less consumption of electricity and heating, and safety. If we are quiet enough, we can hopefully reduce the risk of some disasters at the moment. Darkness and silence are then a comfort, while we try to prove to ourselves that “this will pass”. But deep down we know that we have gone too far, and that life on Earth will never be the same again.

And that can be good, if it makes us change our thoughts, goals and habits.

Here it has also been important for me to give the still life genre a new functionality beyond naturalism and technical bravado, elevating its significance to modern style and a more socio-political commentary.

… and so, we set the table with two (over-ripe) paprikas in a wooden bowl, on a simple white tablecloth, dim the lights, and try to convince ourselves that even a small penance can make a difference.

Version française :

“In the Time of Silence”, nature morte, 50 x 50 cm, huile sur toile, 2022.

” In Stillhetens Tid “, est une représentation semi-réaliste / abstraite géométrique des temps sombres dans lesquels nous nous trouvons après deux années de pandémonium COVID-19, de guerre, de déclin socio-politique, d’ultra-conservatisme, de déclin économique… et des nombreuses menaces qui prévalent (crises environnementales, crises énergétiques, pénuries d’eau, pénuries alimentaires, faillites, disparition d’espèces animales et plus encore). Nous sommes bien conscients des nuages sombres, ainsi que des sentiments de culpabilité.

Oui, c’est nous, les humains, qui avons mis le monde en crise, et le cycle Yin-Yang est maintenant bloqué dans la partie Yin. La situation semble désespérée et l’issue hautement probable est écrite sur le mur.

Cette nature morte met l’accent sur notre désir de préserver les éléments de base : la simplicité et la santé, le silence, la réduction de la consommation d’électricité et de chauffage, et la sécurité. Si nous sommes suffisamment silencieux, nous pouvons espérer réduire le risque de certaines catastrophes du moment. L’obscurité et le silence sont alors un réconfort, tandis que nous essayons de nous prouver que “ça va passer”. Mais au fond de nous, nous savons que nous sommes allés trop loin, et que la vie sur Terre ne sera plus jamais la même.

Et cela peut être une bonne chose, si cela nous fait changer nos pensées, nos objectifs et nos habitudes. Ici, il a également été important pour moi de donner au genre de la nature morte une nouvelle fonctionnalité au-delà du naturalisme et de la bravade technique, en élevant sa signification à un style moderne et à un commentaire plus sociopolitique.

… et donc, nous mettons la table avec deux paprikas (trop mûrs) dans un bol en bois, sur une simple nappe blanche, nous tamisons les lumières et nous essayons de nous convaincre que même une petite pénitence peut faire la différence.

Versión en español:

“En el tiempo del silencio”, bodegón, 50 x 50 cm, óleo sobre lienzo, 2022.

“In Stillhetens Tid”, es una representación semi-realista/abstracta geométrica de los tiempos oscuros en los que nos encontramos después de dos años de pandemónium COVID-19, guerra, decadencia sociopolítica, ultraconservadurismo, decadencia económica… y las muchas amenazas que prevalecen (crisis medioambientales, crisis energéticas, escasez de agua, escasez de alimentos, quiebras, extinción de especies animales y más). Somos conscientes de la nube oscura, así como del sentimiento de culpa. Sí, somos los humanos los que hemos puesto el mundo en crisis, y el ciclo Yin-Yang está ahora atascado en la parte Yin. La situación parece desesperada y el resultado, muy probable, está escrito en la pared.

Este bodegón se centra en nuestro deseo de preservar lo básico: la sencillez y la salud, el silencio, la reducción de la electricidad y la calefacción, y la seguridad. Si estamos lo suficientemente tranquilos, podemos esperar reducir el riesgo de algunas de las catástrofes del momento. La oscuridad y el silencio son entonces un consuelo, mientras intentamos demostrarnos a nosotros mismos que “ya pasará”. Pero en el fondo sabemos que hemos ido demasiado lejos, y que la vida en la Tierra nunca volverá a ser la misma.

Y eso puede ser algo bueno, si nos hace cambiar nuestros pensamientos, objetivos y hábitos.

En este caso, también era importante para mí dar al género de la naturaleza muerta una nueva funcionalidad más allá del naturalismo y el realismo técnico, elevando su significado a un estilo moderno y a un comentario más sociopolítico.

…y así ponemos la mesa con dos paprikas (demasiado maduras) en un cuenco de madera, sobre un sencillo mantel blanco, atenuamos las luces e intentamos convencernos de que incluso una pequeña penitencia puede marcar la diferencia.

Versione italiana:

“In Stillhetens Tid”, natura morta, 50 x 50 cm, olio su tela, 2022.

“In Stillhetens Tid” è una rappresentazione semi-realistica/astratta geometrica dei tempi bui in cui ci troviamo dopo due anni di pandemonio COVID-19, di guerra, di decadenza socio-politica, di ultra-conservatorismo, di decadenza economica… e delle tante minacce imperanti (crisi ambientali, crisi energetiche, scarsità d’acqua, scarsità di cibo, bancarotte, estinzione di specie animali e altro). Siamo consapevoli della nube oscura, così come del senso di colpa. Sì, siamo noi umani ad aver messo in crisi il mondo e il ciclo Yin-Yang è ora bloccato sul lato Yin. La situazione sembra senza speranza e il risultato, molto probabilmente, è scritto sul muro.

Questa natura morta si concentra sul nostro desiderio di preservare le basi: semplicità e salute, tranquillità, riduzione dell’elettricità e del riscaldamento e sicurezza. Se siamo abbastanza silenziosi, possiamo sperare di ridurre il rischio di alcune delle catastrofi del momento. Il buio e il silenzio sono allora un conforto, mentre cerchiamo di dimostrare a noi stessi che “passerà”. Ma nel profondo sappiamo che siamo andati troppo oltre e che la vita sulla Terra non sarà più la stessa.

E questo può essere un bene, se ci fa cambiare pensieri, obiettivi e abitudini.

In questo caso, per me era anche importante dare al genere della natura morta una nuova funzionalità al di là del naturalismo e del realismo tecnico, elevandone il significato a uno stile moderno e a un commento più socio-politico.

… e così prepariamo la tavola con due paprika (troppo maturi) in una ciotola di legno, su una semplice tovaglia bianca, abbassiamo le luci e cerchiamo di convincerci che anche una piccola penitenza può fare la differenza.

Versão portuguesa:

“No Tempo do Silêncio”, naturezas mortas, 50 x 50 cm, óleo sobre tela, 2022.

“In Stillhetens Tid”, é uma representação semi-realista / abstracta geométrica dos tempos negros em que nos encontramos após dois anos de pandemónio da COVID-19, guerra, declínio sócio-político, ultra-conservadorismo, declínio económico … e as muitas ameaças que prevalecem (crises ambientais, crises energéticas, escassez de água, escassez de alimentos, falências, extinção de espécies animais e muito mais). Estamos bem conscientes do manto de escuridão que amortece o optimismo, assim como os sentimentos de culpa. Sim, somos nós, humanos, que colocámos o mundo em crise, e o ciclo Yin-Yang está agora preso na parte do Yin. Parece desesperançoso e o resultado altamente provável está escrito na parede.

Esta natureza morta centra-se no nosso desejo de preservar o básico: o simples e saudável, o silêncio, menos consumo de electricidade e aquecimento, e a segurança. Se formos suficientemente silenciosos, esperamos poder reduzir o risco de alguns desastres neste momento. A escuridão e o silêncio são então um conforto, enquanto tentamos provar a nós próprios que “isto vai passar”. Mas no fundo sabemos que fomos longe demais, e que a vida na Terra nunca mais voltará a ser a mesma.

E isso pode ser bom, se isso nos fizer mudar os nossos pensamentos, objectivos e hábitos.

Aqui também tem sido importante para mim dar ao género natureza-morta uma nova funcionalidade para além do naturalismo e da bravata técnica, elevando o seu significado ao estilo moderno e a um comentário mais sócio-político.

… e assim, colocamos a mesa com duas paprikas (demasiado maduras) numa tigela de madeira, numa simples toalha de mesa branca, apagamos as luzes, e tentamos convencer-nos de que mesmo uma pequena penitência pode fazer a diferença.

Versió en català:
“En el temps del silenci”, bodegó, 50  x 50 cm, oli sobre llenç, 2022.

“In Stillhetens Tid”, és una representació semi-realista/abstracta geometrica dels temps foscos en què ens trobem després de dos anys de pandemònium COVID-19, guerra, decadència sociopolítica, ultraconservadurisme, decadència econòmica… i les moltes amenaces que prevalen ( crisis mediambientals, crisis energètiques, escassetat d'aigua, escassetat d'aliments, fallides, extinció d'espècies animals i més). Som conscients del núvol fosc, així com del sentiment de culpa. Sí, som els humans els que hem posat el món en crisi, i el cicle Yin-Yang està ara encallat a la part Yin. La situació sembla desesperada i el resultat, molt probable, està escrit a la paret.

Aquest bodegó se centra en el nostre desig de preservar allò bàsic: la senzillesa i la salut, el silenci, la reducció de l'electricitat i la calefacció, i la seguretat. Si estem prou tranquils, podem esperar reduir el risc d'algunes de les catàstrofes del moment. La foscor i el silenci són llavors un consol, mentre intentem demostrar-nos a nosaltres mateixos que “ja passarà”. Però en el fons sabem que hem anat massa lluny, i que la vida a la Terra mai no tornarà a ser la mateixa.

I això pot ser una cosa bona, si ens fa canviar els nostres pensaments, objectius i hàbits.

En aquest cas, també era important per a mi donar al gènere de la natura morta una nova funcionalitat més enllà del naturalisme i el realisme tècnic, elevant-ne el significat a un estil modern ia un comentari més sociopolític.

…i així posem la taula amb dos pebres (massa madurs) en un bol de fusta, sobre unes senzilles estovalles blanques, atenuem els llums i intentem convèncer-nos que fins i tot una petita penitència pot marcar la diferència.

🇳🇴🇺🇸🇫🇷🇪🇸🇮🇹🇵🇹

Playa de Adarro, Vilanova i la Geltrú
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Pussy Riot.

The East Village in NYC is credited with being the birthplace of punk music, which was popularized at CBGB club in the mid-1970s. Allthough I lived in the East Village at the time, I attended my first punk rock concert tonight here in Oslo, some fifty years on in time: Pussy Riot. In this way I continue my support of dissident artists inside Russia, and non-politically vocal Russian international artists in the West who are met with skepticism — solely because of their nationality. While I admit that art and sports (like all else) can most often be political, and is used in political marketing and propaganda, I maintain that sportsmen, artists and composers who have nothing to do with the current politics in Russia should not be generally and arbitrarily penalized. I have recently attended many concerts featuring Russian artists, conductors and composers, as well as Ukrainian artists in temporary exile in the West due to the advent of war while on tour. I am against war in general, and I am against the current Russian aggression in the Ukraine in particular. We who are outside of Russia need to consider that this Western censorship of all Russians who do not risk their lives (and those of family members) by publicly denouncing him and his regime actually serves Putin’s (and other such regimes’) program very well, because they then can gain even more control over free thinking, and this control thus can become institutionalized. Putin’s regime could point to foreigners’ hatred of Russians in order to reinforce nationalism, and to destroy any possible notion of hope outside of what he offers them.

Boycotts of artists because of their political leanings is in itself a controversial issue, due to the inherent nature and function of Art, as well as the theoretical right to self-expression. Governments have always used art as propaganda and have at the same time often condemned/punished artists whose art was/is deemed a threat to their political agendas. Socio-political public response to political art is conditioned by events and mores of the time, and is also individual and selective as it is not uncommon to direct and base like and dislike of art and literature upon personal experiences and preferences. 

Are Art and politics really inseparable? And does political art not serve society both as a promoter and provocateur of discourse, and as an historical recording of the temperature of society at the time? Much of my art and literature is unabashedly political. That is, in my opinion, not only «my right» but also «my chosen obligation». And I too have reacted critically against art that is racist, sexist, anti-lgbtq, disrespectful of handicapped persons etc. But I prefer to boycott the actual work of art in question, and question its actual functionality, rather than condemn the artists’ right to express themselves. We all have different tolerance levels and our own personalized visions of «a more perfect society and world»; and moreover, acceptance of Art is by definition individual and largely subjective, when not otherwise influenced by political correctness of the era.

Here is an excellent article on the history of censorship:

https://nextbigideaclub.com/magazine/dangerous-ideas-brief-history-censorship-west-ancients-fake-news-bookbite/28327/

These are difficult issues. To me, the insistence of some that Art and sports should never be political is as fruitless and naive as the insistence that one is «colorblind» regarding persons with another skin color and from other cultures, sub-cultures and nationalities. Furthermore it is a lie, and an insult that condemns others to «not being seen» as an important part of human and social diversity. We are human. We are all different. And we must learn to deal with the pleasures, pains, conveniences, and inconveniences of the Human Predicament.

Pussy Riot has trouble in Switzerland:

https://www.blick.ch/schweiz/westschweiz/genf/in-handschellen-abgefuehrt-drei-pussy-riot-mitglieder-in-rubigen-be-verhaftet-id17832607.html

The performance was great, and the audience loved it! They told the story of the Moscow cathedral action, their arrest and trial, their time in prison in the Urals, their release … and then about Russian resistance, Putler’s lies, the young Russian soldiers suffering in the war etc. — with constant video footage, music, dance, etc.

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LA CONDIZIONE DELL’ESSERE UMANO …

LA CONDIZIONE DELL’ESSERE UMANO …

La condizione dell’essere umano contro l’improbabilità che gli obiettivi diventino realtà in futuro.

“Se potessi, allora lo farei / allora potrei” era un’espressione piuttosto comune per la mia generazione. Era l’epoca delle speranze e dei sogni illimitati. Era un’epoca in cui si potevano seguire semplici formule (di … filosofia, scuola, laurea, lavoro a tempo indeterminato, matrimonio, Chiesa ecc.) e si aveva la certezza che le proprie aspettative sarebbero state soddisfatte e realizzate. O almeno così pensavamo. 

Oggi sembra chiaro che la formula, il sistema, il modo di pensare, i processi e gli obiettivi abbiamo tutti dei difetti… e che il futuro del mondo e dell’individuo sia tutt’altro che certo. I giovani di oggi vivono in un mondo diverso, forse un mondo privo di permanenza e indifferente ai sistemi dei valori della mia generazione e di quelle precedenti. 

Li capisco. Come “hippie originale” negli Stati Uniti, ho apprezzato gli approcci radicali al dissenso e ho abbracciato le applicazioni pratiche dell’apprendimento universitario superiore tradotto in culture e dilemmi della vita reale. Avevo sia l’istruzione che gli obiettivi e i mezzi per raggiungerli. 

I giovani di oggi si trovano di fronte a un futuro diverso, in un pianeta morente dove la sopravvivenza quotidiana è ancora meno certa rispetto all’epoca della guerra fredda e della minaccia nucleare. La sperimentazione della mia generazione delle droghe, come mezzo per espandere la coscienza rispetto a prima, ci sono lasciato il posto all’uso di droghe e alcol come mezzo per ignorare la realtà sensate. Oggi ci sono più regole senza senso di prima, tutte basate sul denaro e sull’economia. Ciò che non è proibito sarà presto richiesto. Le proteste di piazza non sono più efficaci o politicamente corrette. 

È necessario un cambiamento sociale di base, più che mai. Come cambierà il nostro mondo e la nostra coscienza mondiale questa nuova generazione? La mia generazione di ex-Hippy attende la risposta.

MENTRE ASPETTIAMO.

Pazientemente – in piedi,

disperati di credere in Dio,

nella giustizia e nell’umanità.

Ripetutamente – soffriamo

la nostra stessa ignoranza

e immobilità.

Ammirevolmente – diventiamo martiri,

e cerchiamo di alleviare il nostro dolore

con la santità e la riflessione.

Inevitabilmente ci vendichiamo,

con le stesse tattiche

dei nostri aggressori.

È – ci vergogniamo

di tutti coloro che pensavano

fossimo straordinari.

Spesso, ci aspettiamo

che sia il mondo a riconoscere

le loro critiche errate.

Ironia della sorte:

non impariamo nulla,

e non dimentichiamo o perdoniamo.

  • Adam Donaldson Powell

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Non sono un esperto.

NON SONO UN ESPERTO. 

Non sono un esperto

ma piuttosto un novizio 

che sta studiando duramente 

per imparare l’italiano semplice.

Non sono sempre corretto 

e non sono perfetto. 

Soprattutto quando studio 

il congiuntivo e l’imperfetto.

Ma la vita è una danza

Su spine e rose. 

Il loro dolce profumo  

mi spinge ad andare avanti quando 

il cammino è duro. 

I vecchi come me conoscono 

una sola verità: 

che la vita non è fatta 

per i principianti. 

Ironia della sorte, i piaceri più grandi 

della vita sono quelli dei debuttanti: 

la prima volta che si cammina, 

la prima volta che si parla, 

la prima volta che ci si innamora, 

il primo orgasmo, 

la prima volta che si ha un figlio, 

il primo matrimonio… 

e forse anche la prima volta 

che si sogna in italiano.

— Adam Donaldson Powell, Lugano 2022

Back to traveling and foreign country residencies. This year: France, Monaco, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and the Arctic … and soon Carnaval in Brazil. My bucket list goal of learning seven languages is also well in progress: Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Norwegian, English, French and Italian.

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Les nuages — à la fin des temps…

Quel sera notre poison de prédilection ? Que disent les nuages ?

Climate change, nuclear war, global economic collapse, anarchy, another Corona virus … What will be our poison of choice?

saturn’s blues.

when the moon is in Fresno

and the sun sets a purplish

haze over early-autumn skies,

the cold winds of Hell

breathe heavily against

the hopes of local heroes

and the women who made them.

farmers stare off into the fields

without realizing, and housewives

pull their young close to their

bosoms – suddenly and

without explanation.

intuitively they sense the onset

of a long and severe influence;

a time of hardship and hindrance

when the faith and courage of

more than a few good men

and women are put to test.

the carousel is out-of-control,

and in the whirlwind confusion

crops will fail, loved ones will

pass away, jobs will be lost

and the simplest of dreams will

be stifled by saturn’s blues:

a mocking nursery rhyme telling

of horror and despair, and sung

over and over again with endless

variations on the same cruel theme.

(from Adam Donaldson Powell’s “Collected poems and stories”, 2005.)

CLOUDBURST.

breakdancing clouds
laughingly roar
with all the grace
of shattering glass.

(from “Collected poems and stores”)

SHELTER.

When dusk acquiesces
to the shelter of night,
overpowering the
songs of crickets and
silent movements
of creepy-crawlers,
a quiet calm
overtakes
the ruminations of
my psyche
allowing soul regression
to dance
in the matrix
between experience
and remembrance.

FRAGMENTS.

Dulled slivers of emotion
no longer entangled with
words flutter and scurry
out-of-sequence.
Once air-bound, the
footloose fragments of
a life gone past seek
resolution and release by
eluding recognition and
assuaging the sharpness of reality.
And quite relentlessly these
now-transformed bits of
parchment confetti find new
definition by recreating history.

(from “Three-legged Waltz”)

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Art is constantly changing …

Art is constantly changing, according to many factors; and as perceptions of the Human Condition have changed over time, so has Art. The presentation of subjective/objective figurative art reflecting “inside looking outward vs. outside looking inward” has also changed over time in relation to the theme, style, and techniques used.

The attainment of more knowledge invariably opens for more understanding of the complexities of that which one has yet to comprehend: “the more I think I know, the more that I understand how little I actually know”. And that is certainly the case with me as I begin to wind down my #ArtSafari of Europe’s greatest painting and sculpture collections … in my attempt to understand the art historical influences behind my own art, and Western contemporary art in general. These influences are both obvious, and not-so-obvious, and they span many epochs of human individual and collective development.

Art is largely both a reflection of human consciousness of the period, as well as resistance to the known … and — perhaps at its very best — a push for changes in Human Consciousness. I am fascinated by the roles of economic theory, religion, politics,  psychology, and Human vs. God Consciousness throughout art history. The classical, Baroque and Modern periods alone have heralded enormous art stylistic and technical movements (oftentimes back and forth) between levels of abstraction, subjectivity vs. objectivity, realistic vs. semi-realistic, degrees and expressions of the geometrical/technological, dependent upon these conditions and influences. The Church, political ideologies and artist/art benefactors have historically influenced who and what art succeeds in the various periods — be they Classical and Baroque, or Impressionism, or art inspired by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions or political movements such as Socialism.

The dark paintings from earlier epochs were certainly influenced by the ravages of eg. The Plague and constant warfare, both of which have essentially since been eradicated and lessened by advancements in science and technology. With modernity, the ability of artists to travel in order to learn, borrow and steal techniques, themes and styles of artists in other countries has accordingly steadily increased to a larger degree, and faster — thus resulting in more universal imagery. Previously, religious Christian myths were largely spread through art commissioned by the Church, and later political ideologies have been spread universally through technological advances and politico-social movements such as Socialism and Liberalism.

Figurative paintings have likewise successively become realistic, abstract, and now semi-realistic … and back again … due to many developments eg. photography, Realism as a movement and ideology, and advancements in human psychology … as well as industrialization. All of these advancements have over time affected what artists paint and the styles and techniques employed, eg. Malevich-Impressionism-Cubism-Photorealistic paintings … and onwards to today’s figurative subjectivity, where the introspective Self has a greater role than in many Baroque religious works where subservience to God has greater significance than humans as complete entities unto themselves (today). For example, much of  Caravaggio’s art was created for exhibition in churches rather than in other environments such as art museums, urban environments, on the Internet, etc. I believe that the effectiveness of his intimate dark backgrounds works quite well in the dark environment of churches where contemplation on the hopelessness of the Human Condition is solely eradicated and consoled by salvation and penitence (by way of allegiance to God/the Church); and that this was the intention of both the artist and those who commissioned these works. While I admire many of Caravaggio’s paintings that I have seen in art museums, those that I have seen in darkened churches carry a mystique that enhances his ingenious work with Light and Darkness.

Likewise, new technologies and digitalization have greatly influenced the current trends of mass-producing photographed copies of paintings influences both styles, techniques; and the art market — in ways that far exceed the reach of numbered etchings, printmaking, and photography of yesteryears.

As perceptions of the Human Condition have changed over time, so has Art. My #ArtSafari project — visiting Europe’s most notable art museums, churches with art masterpieces, art galleries, street art, and contemporary artists’ studios, has thus left me with many questions that influence my own understanding of my generation’s art. One example of questions might be the effects of Lutheranism upon religious painting. I have seen many religious paintings where known personalities of the day had been inserted into biblical/Christian mythological settings, thus elevating these persons’ status to a level closer to the Divine. This could perhaps be seen as a form of blasphemy by some non-Catholics. (Olivia Facini has published a very interesting article entitled “The Impact of the Protestant Reformation on Renaissance Art”, which I recommend.)

Other questions might include queries as to back and forth and inter-national approaches to the realistic vs. the less realistic in figurative art etc. And yet other questions are related to how art is developing as regards today’s challenges and understanding of Consciousness from subjective and scientific perspectives and understanding, eg. the perception of the world as being flat influenced art previously; but new scientific, economic, political and psychological understanding also influences art today. Since the Industrial Revolution, infotech, biotech, and technological advancements have also influenced perspectives on the Human Condition — and the way art is made and presented.

This journey has influenced my own art as regards experimentation with various styles, themes, and techniques. Here are just a few of my paintings that are influenced by science, infotech, biotech and the New Human Consciousness / New World Consciousness that I see unfolding at a galloping pace:

 

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “The making of a Replicant: Human Pod Project — developing embryos”, oil on canvas, 65 x90 cm., 2019. This challenging work — both conceptually and technically — is a commentary on biotechnology and the future of human design and reproduction.

 

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “X, Y and Z Generations … in Troubled Times”, is a series of three self-portraits, challenging the ways I see myself vs. the ways I wish others to see/experience me. Today’s challenges are many, and the successive generations barely have time for needed self-reflection in the face of the daily, fast-changing technological, climate and other challenges. In this painting, I invite the viewer to face himself/herself in this world where faces and Art are often just another image. I personally experience this painting as scary and uncomfortable. What I mean by saying that the painting is “scary” is that it confirms the dilemma that I face in today’s crazy World — an “unfinished symphony” that is essentially never to be totally understood. There were never to be any figures totally painted because the pictures represent people/humanity/me in development and unraveling. The pic of me all dressed up in a fur coat is the “show guy” presenting himself to The World … (x-generation). The y-generation me with the green face is the creative and thinking me — absorbed in my own thoughts and ideas, but battling against those imposed upon me by living in The World. And the z-generation is me blocking out and hiding from The World, the mental bombardments of images, coined phrases, propaganda, advertisements, and the glaring and oppressive heatwaves and sunlight, etc. That image is in the largest state of disintegration, the skin coloring depicting a body that is almost lifeless and the head partially covered by a veil of mourning. Of course, all of the images are (as is the Internet, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, mainstream media and alternative media) manipulations — leaving out ears (i.e. really hearing and listening) and other details in order “to guide” the viewer into focusing upon the sunglasses, clothing, and accessories (headlines) instead of seeing the person (content) inside … and we are consequently in a continuous struggle for self-marketing and esteem vs. incompletion and dissatisfaction with systems of ethics and values that both constrain and embrace us. The painting is “The Scream” that was never really expressed outwardly. And the minimalistic pastel-colored background is the general environment of denial — “everything is normal” — that acts as a sedative, more than inspiration. NB. See Urban Dictionary for definitions of Generations X, Y, and Z.

 

“Talking heads / Social media”, 65 x 90 cm., oil on canvas, 2018, is all about “the Internet and social media buzz” (slander and gossip, #hatersgonnahate, #lookatme etc.) in black and white.
Painting: Oil on canvas. “Photo booth”, 90 x 65 cm., oil on canvas is about the “old-style” selfie-taking … sitting in a photo booth and being photographed three times. I have attempted to duplicate the feeling of taking photos in a booth — all the same, yet slightly different — in order to capture the spontaneity, subjectivity and self-appraisal of The Moment. I also wanted to play with “graphics” in a painterly and semi-realistic way that explores the nakedNess of the experience of being trapped in a box, with little room or time to vary sitting position and expression.
    Emptiness giving birth to Nothingness, oil on canvas, 100×80 cm.
“Being = Nothingness”, 40×40 cm., oil on canvas, 2017.

 

E is greater than mc squared – Time travel is indeed possible!
“Papa volante / Papa imbronciato”, olio su tela, 50 x 50 cm.
«Secundo fluctus» (Second Wave), 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. The theme of this self-portrait is the impossible dream that is never finally achieved — no matter how much success we or others may think we have achieved, the dissatisfaction is always there. That has been the plight of most artists throughout human history; and it is no less today — for artists, and for non-artists. The tremendous Saturn-influence enveloping us at this time insists upon the renewal of our dreams, our motives, our ways of seeing, acting, living … imposing a heavy reality check upon us all. It is not all negative from an overall perspective, but it takes a higher degree of ingenuity, creativity, and persistence in order to create the much-needed and long-overdue New Consciousness. This dark expressionist self-portrait entitled “Second Wave”, provides a subjective inside-looking-out acknowledgment of the present experience. The intention is to document the thick muddy gelé of fear + careful hopefulness that we are all enduring in this Winter of darkness. The observant viewer will note that the face is itself a mask, as is the masking Darkness.
“Coffin Portrait / Lockdown — Summer fun”, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., 2020, the second title is perhaps self-explanatory. But it doubles as a Coffin Portrait (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffin_portrait). This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.
Featured

Mon journal intime.

MON JOURNAL INTIME:

un défilé de trente autoportraits subjectifs;

réalisés avec différents styles de peinture abstraite.

COMMENTS BY THE PAINTER.

The intention behind my paintings (notably my self-portraits) is to explore storytelling through visual imagery, accompanied by short essays. I have approached self-portraiture in numerous and various styles; and always in my own way. The paintings are essentially free-standing, but after having gotten so many questions about both what my inspiration behind my paintings is and about how I achieved various effects, I have chosen to supplement my paintings with texts which address these questions. In addition, I wish to underscore the various levels of decision-making in both Art and Literature, along with the technical effects used to achieve the intended results. It is — as always — up to the Viewer/Reader to judge the degree of success achieved in their own eyes. My Art and writing are always meant and designed to invite the Viewer and Reader to participate emotionally and to encourage his/her own creative responses to my creations and ideas. Throughout the ages, interpretations of artists’ and writers’ aims,  goals, and approaches (as well as the meanings of our work) have been left to critics and Art Historians. Artists and writers have been generally encouraged to remain quiet about their own work. Times have changed, and I choose to give both visual and literary hints and signposts regarding my thoughts, techniques, styles, and processes. In this way, I am better able to show the core of Art, Literature, Poetry, Dance, and Music — which are interrelated in the cognitive and subjective creative processes. My novels and poetry have always been “cinematic”, and it is also that aspect that I reinforce in my present work. At the same time, each painting approaches the various ideas, themes, and questions from a different style of painting — ranging from abstract to semi-realism. I experiment constantly with degrees of realism — making certain to stop short of too much detail, which decreases both subjectivity and space for the Viewer to participate with her/her own thoughts and recognition of personal experience. The essays are essentially free-verse poems, where the cognitive and technical discussions meld together with the subjective and visual imagery in the texts. Here poetic meter is more internal meter, and conceptual groupings of ideas are equally important as the choice of descriptive poetic imagery in the form of words chosen. This is all a continuation of my aforementioned philosophy regarding “Extreme Art and Literature”, which is based on the idea that Extreme Art and Literature today are not blatantly shocking in intent or effect; but rather quite “normal” in the expression of collective and individual ideas and technique but which contain a slight twist which evokes an element of slight surprise. That can be in the form of an unusual idea, color, stylistic decision, or anything else that causes a ripple in the way we think we see things. That momentary minor provocation is enough to incite in the Viewer and Reader a pause and reassessment of his/her own set perceptions. It is there that Creativity has its Renaissance within us as individuals, and then eventually in a collective sense. 

Many of these self-portraits are COVID-19-related paintings — a documentation of my own and others’ pandemic thoughts, fears, hopes and experiences.

COVID-19 has been quite the challenge for most of us. The idea of sacrificing the illusion of freedom in order to secure survival has been difficult for many in the Western hemisphere to accept for more than a few months at a time. Our forefathers have accepted such in times of war, but we have difficulties accepting that we are “at war” with The Virus — and that it is a result of “our own doing/undoing”. Here, I have chronicled some of my own perceptions, feelings and experiences during the 2020 COVID-19 challenge:   

“Corona: In the Eye of the Storm (We Can’t Breathe)”, oil on canvas, 61 x 61 cm.

1: “The Mask”, 65 x 90 cm., oil on canvas, 2019. 

Painting: Oil on Canvas. This caricature is a humorous piece, made as a reaction to artists’ and writers’ predators and “home-boys” — CRITICS, both professional, and those self-made experts who always seem to “know best” regarding what good art and literature are, and how they should be made (known signature styles by famous dead artists and writers, repeated and copied — over and over again). “My ‘style’? I react vehemently to being conveniently labelled as ‘this, or that’; just as I rebel against the so-called ‘rules of painting’, or ‘rules of writing’ … or ‘political correctness’ etc. Actually, it is the audacity of these concepts that annoys me. The need for others to classify me, my art, my writing … or anything, is surely an indication of their own egotism, insecurities, limitations and weaknesses. The closest relevant generic style classifications might be perhaps ‘abstract’, ‘colour field’, ‘geometric’, ‘abstract expressionist’, ‘minimalist’ etc. But I always find my own ‘mix’ … with limitless variations. My art and writing are meant to be different and new; and pleasing, challenging and annoying — at the same time. But in the end it is all about The Mask.” — Adam Donaldson Powell

2. “Eternal Sleep — Mors Vincit Omnia”, 80 x 60 cm., oil on canvas, 2021.

  “Eternal Sleep — Mors Vincit Omnia”, 80 x 60 cm., oil on canvas, 2021.

One of the largest challenges for an artist is possibly that of deciding / daring to envision and portray oneself as dead. While Death itself is a fascinating theme for many artists, the psychological and superstitious reasons for not painting oneself as deceased keeps many artists in lockdown as regards trespassing and overcoming this mental and emotional hurdle. On ne peut pas vivre sa vie en ayant peur de la mort. Mais soyez assuré que la mort l’emporte sur tout, y compris la peur. You cannot live your life being afraid of death. But rest assured that death wins out over everything, including fear.  

 

3. “Choosing a COVID-19 Vaccine — The Three Prisoner Problem”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

“Choosing a COVID-19 Vaccine — The Three Prisoner Problem”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

From 1957 to 1980, Martin Gardner had a monthly column in Scientific American magazine where presented mathematical games. One of these games was the Three Prisoners Problem. Here is the problem explained in Wikipedia:

“Three prisoners, A, B, and C, are in separate cells and sentenced to death. The governor has selected one of them at random to be pardoned. The warden knows which one is pardoned, but is not allowed to tell. Prisoner A begs the warden to let him know the identity of one of the two who are going to be executed.

“If B is to be pardoned, give me C’s name. If C is to be pardoned, give me B’s name. And if I’m to be pardoned, secretly flip a coin to decide whether to name B or C.

“The warden tells A that B is to be executed. Prisoner A is pleased because he believes that his probability of surviving has gone up from 1/3 to 1/2, as it is now between him and C. Prisoner A secretly tells C the news, who reasons that A’s chance of being pardoned is unchanged at 1/3, but he is pleased because his own chance has gone up to 2/3. Which prisoner is correct?”

In this 24th self-portrait I create a new problem and dilemma: given the known and unknown information regarding COVID-19 vaccines today, which vaccine do we choose in order to better survive the pandemic?

Here the images resemble cut-outs that are cocooned within a violent and haphazard mass of white noise. The questions are many, and the possible consequences are yet unknown. Should I take a vaccine, or not? And if so, which vaccine is the right one (and the safest) for me? The whiteness promises hope and security, but the internalized drama is almost overwhelming. The seemingly unfinished background of the painting is by no means uniform. The sharp edges from the palette knife reveal both urgency and random underlying patches of darkness, both of which threaten to challenge the assurance of science. The message is clear: “Time is short. Humanity is at a crossroad. Choose your fate, and live or die with the consequences.” 

4. “Flying/Pouting Pope”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

“ Flying/Pouting Pope — Papa volante/Papa imbronciato ”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

This raw, figurative painting is a significant update (if not a re-interpretation) of the original surrealistic exercise in “Flying Pope” by Ban’ya Natsuishi. The painting pictures myself in a self-portrait, looking up toward a skeptical and pouting Pope Francis who is flying high overhead — in the heavy fog-ladened and snowy Winter sky — while gazing nervously down at The Plague/COVID-19 Reaper, who is partially-concealed in shadows … lurking, and ready. The painting exhibits social distancing, as all three protagonists are deep within their own thoughts and concerns, but well aware of one another. One can wonder why the Pope has no one in his hot air balloon. But his job is perhaps not to save lives or souls, but rather to communicate the Love and Blessings of God Almighty to us … regardless of our individual fates. The ice-crystallized and sometimes violent brushstrokes of the white Expressionistic background voice a hurried sense of panic and trauma, but yet with a sense of being trapped in a padded cell, or in a vacuum — with a sense of helplessness not unlike that of experiencing a train wreck in slow motion. The effect is a disassociation between the figures, and from the Viewer to the protagonists. The figures capture the eye, but the only one who looks back at the Viewer is The Plague Reaper, whose blackened eye sockets are a real danger for the careless, and for the overly curious. The blank expanses in between the figures make the painting feel at once both unfinished and yet complete; it is an unfinished symphony — that can never be final. While the heavy abstract fog may perhaps impair our visibility immediately, we do not need to use our eyes to know that The Last Word is but an oxymoron; or thought expressed all too quickly. And that the apprehensive silence of the white expanse tells us much more Truth than the protagonists ever will. One thing is certain, the freezing cold ice crystals thickening the air and the three protagonists huddling within their own individual consciousness give little immediate sense of hope or solace.

5. « Shadow » – 影, 65 x 90 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. 

Painting: Oil on Canvas. « Shadow » – 影, 65 x 90 cm., oil on canvas, is a black-grey-white over-sized portrait-study aiming at depicting deep thinking. The semi-realistic style aims for simplicity and shadow play, with a minimum of detail and light. The focal point of the exaggerated eye serves as a portal into the Inner Self. The darkness provides a sense of intimacy, privacy, secrecy and protection. There is solace in the shadow.
“La enfermedad necesita soledad …
y demasiada soledad genera enfermedad.”

— Adam Donaldson Powell
 
 
 

 6. “Don’t Ask!”, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm., 2020.

Painting: “Don’t Ask!”, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm., 2020.

DON’T ASK.

please don’t ask me how I am;
you can’t really expect
me to be any different
than I was yesterday.
we’re all really quite normal —
me, myself and I, and in
spite of our narcotic state can
be up and down simultaneously.
and don’t look at me too long;
I despise those “I know
how you must be feeling
eyes” and concerned tone.
why must you always misconstrue
the way my gaze avoids yours?
my anti-social disposition is
intended to protect you from us.
no — it doesn’t help to
speak slowly, pronouncing
each word with the sweetened
diction of a nun or nurse.
I honestly can’t tell you how to
act, for I have trouble enough
getting us to agree about
how we’ll shield you from me.
it’s really best to let me volunteer,
lest my unbridled demons unleash
their flame-throwing dragons to singe
the delicate threads of your own ego.
and you, so footloose, must avoid looking
back into the darkness whose glittering
maze of mirrors encapture those who poke
their noses where they don’t belong.
go ahead — ask me how I am …

7. “X, Y and Z Generations … in Troubled Times”.

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “X, Y and Z Generations … in Troubled Times”, is a series of three self-portraits, challenging the ways I see myself vs. the ways I wish others to see/experience me. Today’s challenges are many, and the successive generations barely have time for needed self-reflection in the face of the daily, fast-changing technological, climate and other challenges. In this painting I invite the viewer to face himself/herself in this world where faces and Art are often just another image. I personally experience this painting as scary and uncomfortable. What I mean by saying that the painting is “scary” is that it confirms the dilemma that I face in today’s crazy World — an “unfinished symphony” that is essentially never to be totally understood. There were never to be any figures totally painted because the pictures represent people/humanity/me in development and unraveling. The pic of me all dressed up in a fur coat is the “show guy” presenting himself to The World … (x-generation). The y-generation me with the green face is the creative and thinking me — absorbed in my own thoughts and ideas, but battling against those imposed upon me by living in The World. And the z-generation is me blocking out and hiding from The World, the mental bombardments of images, coined phrases, propaganda, advertisements, and the glaring and oppressive heatwaves and sunlight etc. That image is in the largest state of disintegration, the skin coloring depicting a body that is almost lifeless and the head partially covered by a veil of mourning. Of course, all of the images are (as is the Internet, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, mainstream media and alternative media) manipulations — leaving out ears (i.e. really hearing and listening) and other details in order “to guide” the viewer into focusing upon the sunglasses, clothing and accessories (headlines) instead of seeing the person (content) inside … and we are consequently in a continuous struggle for self-marketing and esteem vs. incompletion and dissatisfaction with systems of ethics and values that both constrain and embrace us. The painting is “The Scream” that was never really expressed outwardly. And the minimalistic pastel-colored background is the general environment of denial — “everything is normal” — that acts as a sedative, more than inspiration. NB. See Urban Dictionary for definitions of Generations X, Y and Z.

8. “The Scream” (Isbad), 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.

 

Painting: “The Scream” / “Isbad”, 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.

“The Scream” (Isbad), 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.

My twentieth self-portrait is entitled “The Scream”. This painting is inspired by Edvard Munch’s iconic painting of the same name, and Marina Abramovic’s fantastic work based upon Munch’s painting. There have been countless interpretations of Edvard Munch’s famous painting. Here I have presented the theme as a self-portrait (in semi-realistic style) which is (like the original) based in Norway. I have subtitled the painting “Isbad” (Ice bath) which is a Nordic winter ritual entailing skinny dipping in ice cold water. Ice bathing is a very old tradition in the Scandinavian countries, and it has a reputation for being both healthy and cleansing. The painting’s protagonist (me) screams in initial shock at the severity of the experience.

9. “Memoria di Capri – la grotta azzurra”, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., 2020.

“Memoria di Capri – la grotta azzurra”.
Un autoritratto di me che prendo il sole e ricordo il mio giro in barca all’interno della grotta azzurra.

10. “Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020.

“Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020, is self-explanatory at first glance. However, here I have left certain features slightly unfinished: the naked eyes, the disintegrating painted frame etc.; this to suggest vulnerability and a sense of incompletion. COVID-19 presents the unanswerable questions of how effective we really are at masking fear of the unknown, and which “me” peers out from behind the superficial protective covering. This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.

11. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Psycho”, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm., 2021.

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Psycho”, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm., 2021.

This self-portrait explores many questions, including the suggestion that a degree of psychosis can be a defining element in creative genius, as well as containing hints of visual processing abnormalities, visual stimulation, perceptual aberrations and hallucinations, color preferences and phobias, and moreover the difficulties in identifying a «psycho»; who most often looks “normal”, and whom many interact with — some even on a daily basis. With the preponderance of mental illness, a worldwide change of Consciousness, and increasing tolerance for being “different” than the norm, being «a little psycho» is becoming the «new normal». More and more persons are owning up to their extrasensory perceptions (ESP), clairvoyance, encounters with extraterrestrials, speaking in tongues, hearing voices from Spirit Guides, automatic writing, painting and composing. Some artists (such as myself) get ideas and “coaching” from guides (both known, and not). It is not always easy to sign some of my own paintings because sometimes they (works of Art) literally paint themselves due to the energies that join in the process. It is perhaps understandable that some psychotic persons refer to themselves as “We”, rather than in the first person (I). 

12. «Grotesque / Falling down the Rabbit Hole», oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

«Grotesque / Falling down the Rabbit Hole», oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

«Grotesque», oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

“Grotesque” is an architectural painting, depicting an abandoned villa in ruins. The painting derives its title from the terracotta grotesque on the facade of the building, which is a miniature self-portrait of The Dreamer. Underneath the grotesque of the sleeping dreamer is the inscription «Domus Somnia». This painting is about a nocturnal journey where the dreamer, who has been out walking about, suddenly comes upon an inviting and dilapidated villa — empty and door-less. As in many dreams, the structure is both familiar and not to the dreamer. Here, there is a head-on frontal perspective which is at once both two and three dimensional, and almost cardboard-like, thus accentuating the fragility of this mental architectural construction — which can change or disappear in a fleeting second. Even though the columns and steps at the entrance show signs of a dizzying slight sway forewarning collapse, the Dreamer cannot resist entering through the dark portal — unwitting that he is soon to fall into a bottomless void of Darkness. Should the dreamer allow the building to collapse before entering and rather move on to another dream sequence in this nocturnal journey, or should he play out his role as The Fool and hope that he can wake himself up when necessary?

Nocturnal Journey.

In the twenty-fifth hour,
as sleeplessness concedes
to Jungian twilight,
the inviolate ticking
of the bedside clock
betrays consciousness
with sinister rhythm.

It is a requiem of
abandonment, whereby
unprotected souls are
magically ushered to
the threshold of time’s end.

Clock hands melt into
surreal images of groping,
disembodied appendages which
pull me down into the
infernal swirling oblivion.

I seem to fall forever;
plummeting past floating
sandstone ruins, through
prehistoric jungles and
at last into a vast galaxy
of translucent emerald shards.

The heartbeats of innumerable
still-terrified predecessors
urge me to scream before
striking bottom, and I
awaken in a panic: grasping
for the luminous dial
of my unwitting timepiece.

— Adam Donaldson Powell, “Collected poems and stories”, Cyberwit, 2005.

13. “Photo Booth”, 90 x 65 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.

Painting: Oil on canvas. “Photo booth”, 90 x 65 cm., oil on canvas is about the “old-style” selfie-taking … sitting in a photo booth and being photographed three times. I have attempted to duplicate the feeling of taking photos in a booth — all the same, yet slightly different — in order to capture the spontaneity, subjectivity and self-appraisal of The Moment. I also wanted to play with “graphics” in a painterly and semi-realistic way that explores the nakedNess of the experience of being trapped in a box, with little room or time to vary sitting position and expression.

THE DEVIL.

Beware.
The dark one
Lurks not in
The shadows,
And not amongst
Your friends
Or enemies.
Beware, for
His evil lies
Within you,
And eagerly
Awaits release
By descendents
Of Pandora.
Beware of
The road to
Inertia and ruin,
So carelessly
Littered with
Temptation and
Obsession.
Beware.
The self-centered
And worshippers
Of false splendor
Can expect
Little more than
Disappointment.
Yes. Beware
Of darkness ..
And beware
Of mirrors …
But most of all
Beware
Of the devil
That you are.

(Copyright Adam Donaldson Powell, excerpted from “The Magical Tarot”, “Collected poems and stories”, 2005.)

EL DIABLO.

Ojo.
El Oscuro
no reside en las sombras,
ni entre tus amigos
o enemigos.
Ojo.
Sus mentiras malvadas
cerca de ti,
ansiosas
esperan a ser liberadas
por los descendientes de
Pandora.
Ojo.
Con no caer en el
camino hacia la inercia
y la ruindad,
O a ser atacado brutalmente
por la tentación y la
obsesión.
Ojo.
Los egoístas
y los adoradores
de falsos esplendores
pueden esperar
poco más que
decepciones.
Sí, hay que tener ojo
ante la oscuridad …
Y ojo con los
espejos …
Pero más que nada
Ojo
Con el demonio
que eres tú.

(Copyright Adam Donaldson Powell, “Three-legged Waltz”, 2006, trad. de María Cristina Azcona, Argentina)

14. “Le vieil homme dans la Lune”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

“Le vieil homme dans la Lune”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

 

Mankind’s fascination with the Man in the Moon represents a beloved age-old archetype which still incites curiosity, mystery and self-reflection. Whose image is it that stares back at us so intently … peering into our subconscious with existential defiance? We see a face … because it is a face. My face; your face. Yes, those mysterious shadowy craters are our own, mirrored and reflected back to us. Every full moon we are reminded to look inward and at the same time to experience both universal humility and personal strength. The image is in fact neither male nor female … nor transgender. For me, he is myself — an old man, aspiring to become as balanced as The wise Old Man in the Moon. His important reminder that Life is not for novices is key to both survival and Dreams. This message is broadcast through the Moon’s own mirrored image, expanding and strengthening itself manifold. If you listen closely the you may hear his mantra: “I.AM”.

«Breaking through», oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

15. “Breaking through”, 50 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2021.

“Breaking through”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021, is a black-and-white minimalistic self-portrait about breaking through the barrier of White Supremacy. The white barrier seems impenetrable and all-consuming, and the only ticket is convincing Supremacists that non-Whites are enough like them to warrant acceptance. But acceptance is neither a given, nor guaranteed to last. Like with immigrants in a new country, being accepted as “one of us” is a constant battle — often stretching over several generations. Non-Whites will never be Caucasian, no matter how much we try to pass as white. Thus, Non-Whites must learn “grayness”, as bleaching our skin and talking like a native does not remove one’s Blackness, Latino-ish, or Asian-ish. Therefore the self-portrait is in gray tones. But when breaking through we must carry our Blackness with us, and thus we must also break through the stereotypes and xenophobia used against us.

This is a two-sided painting. The back side shows the back of my head:

«The back side of it all», 50 x 50 cm., oil on canvas.


16. “Secundo Fluctus”, 50 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2021.

«Secundo fluctus» (Second Wave), 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. The theme of this self-portrait is the impossible dream that is never finally achieved — no matter how much success we or others may think we have achieved, the dissatisfaction is always there. That has been the plight of most artists throughout human history; and it is no less today — for artists, and for non-artists. The tremendous Saturn-influence enveloping us at this time insists upon the renewal of our dreams, our motives, our ways of seeing, acting, living … imposing a heavy reality check upon us all. It is not all negative from an overall perspective, but it takes a higher degree of ingenuity, creativity, and persistence in order to create the much-needed and long-overdue New Consciousness. This dark expressionist self-portrait entitled “Second Wave”, provides a subjective inside-looking-out acknowledgment of the present experience. The intention is to document the thick muddy gelé of fear + careful hopefulness that we are all enduring in this Winter of darkness. The observant viewer will note that the face is itself a mask, as is the masking Darkness.

17. “Jeux d’eau – une forte pluie est imminente”, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm. 

“Jeux d’eau – une forte pluie est imminente”, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm. This is a self-portrait in black, white and grey tones, featuring a cameo of myself lost in thought; and frozen within a simple abstract-minimalistic backdrop of an overcast day in January with an imminent threat of rainfall. Here, the holiday celebrations and New Year’s resolutions are put on hold, acquiescing to reflection and the early stages and impulses of new creativity … and ultimately leading to a Renaissance of self-definition. It is a visual representation of aloneness, which is more characterized by the promise of fulfillment rather than loneliness. It is … perfection.

The painting is inspired by my poem of the same title:

jeux d’eau.

jeux d’eau ;
dégel du printemps :
gouttes d’eau,
parfois en cascades …
beau à regarder.
et pourtant fascinant de voir
comment ces jeux d’eau
peuvent à la fois
donner une nouvelle vie,
et nous soutenir …
mais quelque fois aussi détruire
beaucoup de ce qui est
naturel et artificiel …

from my book: « Jisei », 2013, Cyberwit publishers.

“Threesome — Me, Myself, and I”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.

18. “THREESOME — Me, Myself and I”, 50 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2021.

This is my twenty-fifth self-portrait, featuring two headshots in profile, and which are facing another straight-on headshot. The intention is to simulate an age-weathered Warhol-era Pop-Art silk-screened graphics poster background, with the figurative images in a style that might be reminiscent of charcoal and oil stick sketches. Here pop-art meets and confronts the classical-modernist sketching class. Having resided just a few blocks from Warhol’s studio, I never once wondered about or marveled at the co-existence of these two art worlds in the same neighborhood. Life and Art were a cross between a busy beehive and an everyday circus back then. But all worlds met up at nighttime … at bars, rock, punk and New Wave clubs, discotheques, coffee shops … and sex clubs/gay saunas.
This naked and introspective selfie-study is a commentary on the Artist in social distance isolation, and is in reality a subjective investigation of oneself. How does one see and perceive oneself privately — through different angles and profiles — like when we look into a mirror?

“Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable”.
— Cesar A. Cruz

MIRROR OF DARKNESS.
Quite enraptured by my own image

in a Mirror of Darkness,

I abandon both reflection and shadow

for a glimpse of the Unknown.

The night offers no refraction other than

the glint of an inner eye:

Yea, the paradox of Blindness is revealed

through discovery of Self alone.

(poem and oil painting by Adam Donaldson Powell)

Comment: 

I identify enthusiastically with Frida Kahlo’s comments about her own self-portrait series:

“This is my ongoing self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques. I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone because I am the person I know best. I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling. Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is a strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.”
— Frida Kahlo

I have gained much inspiration from visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and several other art galleries and art museums in Europe whose exhibitions and permanent collections feature portraits. As a result, figurative art and portraiture have become new and exciting genres for my own artistic expression. While I cannot say that I am following in Vincent Van Gogh’s footsteps by painting self-portraits, I do see the value in doing so to chart my personal and artistic development. These self-portraits teach me much as regards technique, and they allow me to explore many diverse painting styles — as I attempt to “redefine portraiture” in a contemporary sense — meaning incorporating portraits into contexts with relevance to far more than myself alone, and with styles that range from caricature to semi-realism.

Perhaps like the self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, my own painted selfies also reveal where my head is at — and rather candidly — at any given point in time. I have painted twenty-one self-portraits to date. More are certain to come.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

NB. Van Gogh painted more than thirty self-portraits in the last five years of his life. Rubens painted seven self-portraits. Rembrandt painted more than forty self-portraits. And Frida Kahlo painted fifty-five self-portraits.

19. Madre e Hijo, 60 c 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.


“Madre e Hijo”, 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. This new self-portrait is based upon a photo of myself as a three-year-old, together with my mother, in 1957. This, my nineteenth self-portrait, is a somewhat simple, but poetic (Stimmung), light impasto, semi-realistic painting, which is partly inspired in theme by Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Sun” (“Solen”, 1909), which also is a homage to the Sun; and Picasso’s many mother and son paintings. But here, rather, the sun takes on an all-pervading expression of hope, realignment, and healing after a period of intense challenges and changes, as it is symbolized by a double-sun which burns through the gloaming of our somnolence. The twilight blue background, painted with soft velvet texturing, hints as well at blankets of both sky and sea; giving a sense of opportunity, expansiveness, and profundity. I have avoided common clichés such as red suns, piercing sun rays, and the sun setting in landscapes or seascapes, and I have instead painted the background in a way that implies parched earth reflected blue by the expansive twilight sky. This vision is delightful but within its mysteries lies a reminder of an inescapable Truth: even the best moments of our lives are but temporary. The figurative renderings are composites of our features then and in later years, extrapolated from an old sepia-print daguerreotype from the mid-50s. I tried to capture the unspoken worry in the face of the Mother, from various life challenges: the Cold War, divorce, etc.; as well as my own exaggerated quirkiness — not unlike The Fool in the Tarot — unwittingly joyful, but like the Mother, trying to smile somewhat forcibly for the photographer. In the original photo, the smiles are beaming and beautiful, but here I wanted to reach beyond the moment in between the coaxed frozen smiles elicited by the photographer; resulting in a universal archetype all can relate to (contortions included). These altered faces are painted and shadow-masked in desert camouflage-style; thus alluding to the understanding that major efforts must be made in the face of conflict and struggle. This is accentuated by the purposefully uneven border around the portrait, which is wavering and stretching toward the sun — in hope of the best future for her son. And at the same time, the lifting of the corner can be interpreted as the eventuality of the photographed moment blowing away with the Winds of Time, and being quickly forgotten. I have in this way attempted to move beyond the photographic portrait, and capture the emotional and psychological attributes behind the photogenic smile, posing questions as to the truest image: that in the photograph, or in the painting which goes beyond the photographic still moment. The theme, the style, and the liberties of portrayal taken are also a nod to Pablo Picasso’s transitional portraiture. It was in that same year (1957) that Picasso started his huge series based upon Diego Velazquez’s iconic “Las Meninas” painting (1656). Picasso’s politically confrontational series was painted twenty years after Guernica (1937), and it continues the political protest of said earlier painting against the mistreatment of Republicans in Spain under Francisco Franco. And it was Franco who ruled Spain with his iron fist when my family moved to Madrid, just a few years after the photograph was taken.

NB. My mother was herself a realistic painter, and she accessed personal strength and resolve through presenting herself outwardly as “unflappable”. Thus, admissions of internal struggle were rare; and worries and problems were protected by an underlying “on the need to know” basis of secrecy. She would never have presented herself publicly as she was on the inside … and the contortions of her own life were severely controlled under the mask of the enigmatic strong and beautiful Black Woman archetype. It was ultimately the source of her successes and of her undoing. I was her confidant from an early age. And she often commented that she and I “grew up together”.

In addition, this relatively New Mother and Son duo are also hoping that the tomorrows in their intimate relationship might forever be filled with dreams of Promise and Light. Life is a beach; and the sun shields us until the arrival of Darkness. This is echoed in the word “Cuando …”, hinting at the title text from a major popular song from my childhood years in Madrid, Spain, just a few years afterward: “ Cuando Calienta el Sol”: Cuando calienta el sol aquí en la playa; Siento tu cuerpo vibrar cerca de mí; Es tu palpitar, es tu cara, es tu pelo; Son tus besos, me estremezco, oh, oh, oh …

And on another level, this painting also serves as a commentary on those moments where we take a step back (voluntarily, or not) in order to catch our breath and to reflect upon our state of mind, and of the future of our world and humanity in the always instructive Yin – Yang cycle of existence. Moments of respite allow us to enjoy the spoils of our labor and folly, and to assess our learning, forgive and heal ourselves from our egocentric and careless transgressions … before we once again challenge ourselves and our environment in Life’s seemingly never-ending cautionary tale.

THESEUS 1: APPEAL.

Lulled by the gentle
Cradling of the waves
And the soft shimmer of
The early morning moon,
The sleeping ship coasts
Upon the foamy crests
In dreamy quietude.
The insouciant reverie
Is dutifully maintained
By the mesmerizing
Tonalities and rhythms
Of creaking planks
And ocean spray.
And keeping sole watch over
Survival and expectation
Are a lunching rodent
And the insomnious Theseus,
Kneeling in silent supplication
To the celestial guardians
Of love and beauty.

DAEDALUS 3: ELEGY.

Icarus, my son —
In all honesty, I guess we were
Always walking on the edge.
Suspended tautly between highs
And lows, we feared mediocrity
More than imbalance.
For us, the challenge was but
The means of attaining individuality;
A space unto ourselves and
Forever out of reach of
Those who dreamed but
Never dared to risk.
We soared like eagles and
We fed on desires that
Sting the heart, yet
We neither gave nor received
Beyond our passion for
Excellence through solitude.
And now that I have witnessed
The birth of my conscience,
There remains no other recourse
Than to re-invest myself in
The ongoing saga which is the
Phenomenon of life.
Heretofore, I’d always thought
That phenomenon is emptiness;
But having now lost all
That has been dear to me —
I realize that emptiness
Is a kind of phenomenon.

(From Adam Donaldson Powell’s “Collected poems and stories”, Cyberwit Publishing, 2005.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

20. ”COVID-19 — fini les bises à la pelle !”, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm., 2020.

”COVID-19 — fini les bises à la pelle !”, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm., 2020, is a self-portrait of myself hesitating to kiss my own death skull, and is surrounded by a ring of blue roses.

The blue roses symbolize the unattainable; here, an unfulfilled love-moment that is even too complicated to be described in words because our natural habit of performing the delicious bises à la pelle is abruptly stopped by the cold mental forewarning that “some doors should never be opened”. There is nothing to say, save perhaps “Oh, I almost forgot.”

This is, indeed, a challenging conceptual and technical study and essay. The image of a person kissing a death skull is an age-old meme (if not a cliché). Here the twist is to play on the concept of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whereby the death skull is the mirrored image of my true Self — i.e. that part of me that always remains constant, regardless of the « accoutrements » of fashion, disposition, or aging. In the Age of COVID-19 a simple kiss on the cheek can become the shovel that digs our own grave… Indeed we must all face our own Death, with eyes open or shut. And yet Death finds meaning only against the background of Life, though measured in mere years or breaths. Just as Light has no significance without shadow or Darkness, we cannot live Life fully being afraid of Death. On ne peut pas vivre en ayant peur de mourir …

In the immortal words of John Donne:

Death, be not proud

BY JOHN DONNE

Death, be not proud,

though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful,

for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more;

Death, thou shalt die.

21. «Il tessuto dell’uomo», oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., 2020.

«Il tessuto dell’uomo», oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., explores Florentine textiles and the noblemen who adorned themselves with them. On a more conceptual scale the painting alludes to «the fabric» of humanity itself.

22. «Vanishing Act», 46 x 55 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.

Vanishing Act, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020.

«Vanishing Act», 46 x 55 cm., oil on canvas, 2020, is a raw self-portrait about being careful what we wish for. While many would wish for the rapid disappearance of the CoronaVirus (COVID-19), it would presently seem more plausible that such reference be most applicable to the Fade-Out Star (R Coronae Borealis). In the upper left corner one can barely make out a vanishing star, consumed by the Darkness of Uncertainty — truly Hell in its most natural form. The raw background hints of that in many well-known paintings by Old Masters, but here there is a messy disharmony that is threatening to consume the figure in the painting and the viewer — like an unavoidable train wreck … in slow motion. There are many important lessons yet to be learned from the COVID-19 experience. It is karmic, and in that understanding lies a solace that enables us to adapt to both life during struggle … and to the inevitability of Death. The figure — itself already vanishing behind protective gear — is waist-deep in the mire, but is yet optimistic — if not aloof to the dangers of chance and folly. The true challenge is perhaps not how quickly or how completely we can return to normality, but whether the former normality is actually the problem itself.

23. “The making of a Replicant: Human Pod Project — developing embryos”, oil on canvas, 65 x90 cm., 2019.

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “The making of a Replicant: Human Pod Project — developing embryos”, oil on canvas, 65 x90 cm., 2019. This challenging work — both conceptually and technically — is a commentary on biotechnology and the future of human design and reproduction.

24. «Beauty and the Beast — the kiss of the fairy», 70 x 50 cm., oil on canvas.

Beauty and the Beast — the Kiss of the Fairy.

«Beauty and the Beast — the kiss of the fairy», 70 x 50 cm., oil on canvas. This playful self-portrait evokes fairytale analogies by way of combining semi-realism with cartoon-like expression. It is a story about love and friendship, and of eyeing boundaries and possibilities. An older man and a younger woman — both with their respective charm — in perfect dialogue, and yet each with secrets to be shared when the time is right. Unlike Edvard Munch’s dark painting entitled “The Kiss”, in this light-humored painting the kiss is not about becoming lost in one another, but rather about the play of friendship and flirtation.

“La mort rappelle une vie passée”, 60 x 80 cm., huile sur toile, 2020.

25. “La mort rappelle une vie passée”, 60 x 80 cm., huile sur toile, 2020.

“La mort rappelle une vie passée”, 60 x 80 cm., huile sur toile, 2020. Voici un nouvel autoportrait, qui est surprenant, puissant et bizarre. Il présente la mort — symbolisée par un crâne. Ètonnamment, le crâne ouvre sa fermeture éclair pour révéler sa dernière incarnation … c’est “moi”, bien sûr.

26. “Entre Nous et Eux”, oil on canvas, 90×65 cm., 2019.

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “Entre Nous et Eux”, oil on canvas, 90×65 cm. is about keeping a frozen smile and trying to remain “politically correct” in a Western world that is literally under “cultural attack” by the sheer numbers of refugees and immigrants, and further complicated by European countries’ relative naivité and unpreparedness for multiculturism. It is therefore that the background resembles the Norwegian, Czech, Russian, French, Dutch, British, US etc. flags with the red, white and blue colours … but which are are increasingly inundated with falling leaves which eventually become lively foreign objects, cultures, traditions, religions etc. — and all the while with more and more persons competing for celebrity, money, resources, ideologies and power etc. It symbolises an irreversible shift in cultural and social values and traditions, and the tensions churning and burning underneath.

27. “Roll of the dice: The dilemma of losing our sense of touch”, 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.

Roll of the dice: The dilemma of losing our sense of touch, 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. COVID-19 can affect our senses, notably the sense of taste and the sense of smell. But avoiding the virus also entails restrictions upon another important sense: that of touch. Scientific study indicates that affectionate touches can affect the nervous system’s rest and digest mode, thus reducing the release of stress hormones while bolstering the immune system, and stimulating brainwaves that are linked with relaxation. This self-portrait (my sixteenth) is a commentary on the dilemma of avoiding touch, an activity which we sorely need in order to boost our life quality, our sense of well-being and our ability to maintain a strong immune system. We take chances with a mental roll of the dice: “Does this person have COVID-19, or not? I need to give and receive handshakes and hugs. But do I dare do so … or not?!!”

28. “Mindfulness”, 55 x 46 cm., oil on canvas, 2018.

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “Mindfulness”, 55 x 46 cm., oil on canvas, is a semi-realistic and naivistic self-portrait depicting a meditative state. This was my very first self-portrait. 

29. “Portrait in Blues”, 40 x 40 cm., oil on canvas, 2019.

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “Portrait in Blues”, 40 x 40 cm., oil on canvas, is a self-portrait mimicking Van Gogh’s self-portrait series of himself wearing a straw hat — but in a modern abstract expressionistic style in a symphony of blue tones.

“The unraveling”, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm., 2021

30. “The unraveling”, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm., 2021.

The intention behind my paintings (notably my self-portraits) is to explore story-telling through visual imagery, accompanied by short essays. The paintings are essentially free-standing, but after having gotten so many questions about both what my inspiration behind my paintings is and about how I achieved various effects, I have chosen to supplement my paintings with texts which address these questions. In addition, I wish to underscore the various levels of decision-making in both Art and Literature, along with the technical effects used to achieve the intended results. It is — as always — up to the Viewer/Reader to judge the degree of success achieved in their own eyes. My Art and writing are always meant and designed to invite the Viewer and Reader to participate emotionally and to encourage his/her own creative responses to my creations and ideas. Throughout the ages, interpretations of artists’ and writers’ aims,  goals, and approaches (as well as the meanings of our work) have been left to critics and Art Historians. Artists and writers have been generally encouraged to remain quiet about their own work. Times have changed, and I choose to give both visual and literary hints and signposts regarding my thoughts, techniques, styles, and processes. In this way, I am better able to show the core of Art, Literature, Poetry, Dance, and Music — which are interrelated in the cognitive and subjective creative processes. My novels and poetry have always been “cinematic”, and it is also that aspect that I reinforce in my present work. At the same time, each painting approaches the various ideas, themes, and questions from a different style of painting — ranging from abstract to semi-realism. I experiment constantly with degrees of realism — making certain to stop short of too much detail, which decreases both subjectivity and space for the Viewer to participate with her/her own thoughts and recognition of personal experience. The essays are essentially free-verse poems, where the cognitive and technical discussions meld together with the subjective and visual imagery in the texts. Here poetic meter is more internal meter, and conceptual groupings of ideas are equally important as the choice of descriptive poetic imagery in the form of words chosen. This is all a continuation of my aforementioned philosophy regarding “Extreme Art and Literature”, which is based on the idea that Extreme Art and Literature today are not blatantly shocking in intent or effect; but rather quite “normal” in the expression of collective and individual ideas and technique but which contain a slight twist which evokes an element of slight surprise. That can be in the form of an unusual idea, color, stylistic decision, or anything else that causes a ripple in the way we think we see things. That momentary minor provocation is enough to incite in the Viewer and Reader a pause and reassessment of his/her own set perceptions. It is there that Creativity has its Renaissance within us as individuals, and then eventually in a collective sense. 

Self-portraits enable me to approach many questions through my own eyes, thus allowing my own world view to meet and butt against collective perspectives, mores, and values. In order to inspire a renaissance in my own ongoing creative processes, I must allow myself to “unravel” from time to time. Accordingly, if I wish my Art and Literature to inspire new creative perceptions and ideas in others then I must also incite unraveling of closely-guarded assumptions about oneself, me, and the World.

I have approached self-portraiture in numerous and various styles; and always in my own way, for sure. This time I have explored Post-Impressionism, but in an updated fashion which is a step away from the works from the early 1900s. The “extreme art” element here is actually not the unraveling head; which is a popular theme in Surrealistic Art. Surrealism had its beginning at the tail end of Post-Impressionism, so in that regard, it perhaps could be seen as “extreme” by the established Post-impressionists and Impressionists in their hey-day. Surrealism is a standard and non-extreme expression of art today. But here the “extreme” and unsettling elements are the turquoise blue eyes on a Black man, as well as the unsettling naked look on his face — as though he is neither surprised nor alarmed by his unraveling. In addition, when things fly apart it is usually a traumatic experience. Here, instead, trauma is nullified by the serene and fluid background, which is as gentle as a brook or a summer sky. And just as an artist must acknowledge and wrestle with the aesthetic problem of naturalism versus abstraction, thus — here — the Mind of the Viewer must reason with human experience and memory … and in the world of extreme Art two plus two do not always add up to four. The image is even more dramatic in that the unraveling process is at the beginning stage, rather than totally realized. The Viewer can thus recognize the quiet panic that ensues when he/she knows that all is about to spin out of control. 

The painting is meant to be disconcerting, if not startling under the surface. In today’s society the “Beautiful People” are those who are strong on the inside, albeit possibly seemingly emotionally approachable externally. I have presented myself in various ways through my self-portraits. Here I am neither in control over my psychology, nor am I emotional (human?). That, together with the turquoise eye color, almond-shaped eyes, twisted and flattened features that are almost mask like, and elongated forms (à Dali, Picasso, Chirico etc., who succeeded the post-Impressionists), creates an « alien » (alienating) effect that is uncomfortable. It is not so weird that it is unacceptable, but rather strange in a way that invades the consciousness. Alas, that Devil is also a part of me.

BONUS: WORKING MY WAY OUT OF THE COVID-19 MENTALITY

« Bellagio — l’estate della mia rinascita », 50 x 60 cm., ilio su tela, 2021.

«Bellagio — l’estate della mia rinascita », 50 x 60 cm., huile sur toile, 2021.

Questo autoritratto impressionista raffigura una classica immagine di fine secolo (1900) in una bella giornata estiva a Bellagio. La tela  dipinta estende la sensazione di una dolce brezza e di un delizioso calore vibrante. È dipinto nello stile di un artista di strada – come uno schizzo veloce e intuitivo.

” Imbarco sul treno della Belle Époque “, olio su tela, 40 x 40 cm., 2021.

“Imbarco sul treno della Belle Époque”, olio su tela, 40 x 40 cm., 2021.

Sono ancora infatuato dagli ultimi autoritratti di Freud. Trasudano cruda onestà da un pittore che ha ammesso di aver sempre lottato con l’accettazione di come appare realmente nei suoi dipinti. Le scelte che ha preso nell’accentuare le rughe, le ombre a volte poco lusinghiere e troppo elaborate, e i toni cupi della pelle che sembrano come se il processo di pittura stesse prosciugando la vita stessa da lui … È questa intimità che desidero esplorare in questo autoritratto. In questo quadro guardo indietro – verso i primi ritratti di Lucien Freud, e un’espressione più leggera, meno cupa, e leggermente umoristica e sorridente. I modelli di Freud non hanno quasi mai sorriso o mostrato emozioni. In questo autoritratto esprimo la mia euforia di poter viaggiare ancora una volta — attraverso un cartone animato … sto riscoprendo il bambino che è in me.

NB. Le orecchie sono lasciate fuori. Non voglio sentire parlare di COVID-19. 

La ribellione degli artisti contro la creazione di un’arte universalmente bella è comprensibile, così come il desiderio di ridefinire l’estetica e la definizione di ciò che è veramente bello. Molti artisti hanno esplorato l’estetica dell’arte bello-brutto. Alcuni deformavano leggermente corpi o volti (per esempio El Greco, Botero, ecc.), mentre altri usavano astrazioni più severe (per esempio Picasso, Francis Bacon, ecc.). Tutti hanno affermato di dipingere ciò che hanno visto realmente, e anche molto onestamente. Picasso e Bacon sono così astratti che non sono più disarmanti per gli spettatori di oggi; questo perché l’arte “lontana” ora ci fornisce in qualche modo una distanza emotivamente sicura. Ma quando Lucien Freud adottò il suo allora nuovo stile naturalistico con pennellate audaci ed esagerazioni di rughe, orecchie che sporgono troppo, e una qualità senza vita nel colore della pelle, espressioni del viso e del corpo dei soggetti, ecc, entrò in un nuovo territorio psicologico nella sua arte. La mente e l’ego gravitano verso il naturalistico, ma allo stesso tempo sono respinti da deviazioni palesemente consolidate. È come guardare in uno specchio che amplifica tutti i nostri difetti, o temere che un bambino ci faccia qualche domanda imbarazzante su noi stessi in pubblico. Una volta ho visto una mostra a Londra con decine di fotografie di Diane Arbus. All’inizio il suo lavoro era eccentrico e intrigante. E dopo un po’ è diventato sempre più inquietante per me come spettatore. Era – come molti dei ritratti successivi di Freud – “troppo onesto”. Così dolorosamente onesto che non volevo più accettarlo come credibile. Beh, sappiamo come sono andate le cose con Diane Arbus….

«I motivi personali possono facilmente trasformare la passione per essere troppo onesti in una forma di disonestà.»

“Over there: Le rêveur américain”, huile sur toile, 40 x 40 cm, 2021.

“Over there: Le rêveur américain”, huile sur toile, 40 x 40 cm, 2021. Ce portrait est peint avec l’ADN du modèle.

Le rêve américain est en constante évolution. Certains Américains se tournent vers l’Europe pour y trouver une inspiration et un soulagement – des conflits nationaux et de l’isolement COVID-19.

“Ce que les autres pensent de toi ne te regarde pas.”
— Ru Paul

UNE AUTRE AMÉRIQUE.

Peu d’Américains savent
que le visage de Miss Liberty
est celui de la mère d’un Français.
Comme les foules d’immigrants qui
délaissèrent le vieux monde
pour le nouveau,
nous aussi, nous considérons
ce choix merveilleux
à travers un regard quelque peu enfantin :
“Voleur de bétail, gigolo, banquier,
présentateur de télé, flic, pédé, punk ;
clocharde, nouveau-né bâtard,
agent de change,
ramoneur, médecin, avocat,
plombier, ivrogne.”
Oui, Oh Amérique, nos yeux sont
tous rivés sur toi …
avec la tarte aux pommes de maman
qui attend, encore fumante, sur la table
de la kitchenette,
et la jolie voisine à nos côtés.
Une nation, qui croit en Dieu,
jusqu’à notre dernier dollar
si péniblement gagné.
“Attention au précipice …
un dos brisé est si dur à réparer !”
Mais les fils de Genet sont
on ne peut plus reconnaissants
à ceux qui — deux sur mille –
traversent fréquemment les océans
et qui rêvent …
d’une autre Amérique.

(adapté de l’anglais par Albert Russo)

Copyright Adam Donaldson Powell, excerpted from “Collected poems and stories”, “Three-legged Waltz” and “Gaytude: a poetic journey around the world”).

Dans ce portrait de R. Davis (USA), je continue à repousser les limites du semi-réalisme et de l’abstraction, dans un mouvement audacieux vers le naturalisme classique … avec un accent d’impressionnisme. Davis rêve de traverser la grande mare – vers l’Europe. Les cartes postales de style impressionniste représentent des scènes miniatures de la gare centrale de Milan, du bord du lac à Saint-Moritz et de la station balnéaire de Saint-Raphaël.

Cette peinture m’a présenté un assortiment de défis impliquant de nombreuses décisions techniques et stylistiques, afin d’atteindre le meilleur équilibre possible entre les composantes figuratives et paysagères; et un effet subjectif global qui confirme l’action de la rêverie. Les cheveux de Davis sont peints avec son ADN, ce qui donne une signature personnelle supplémentaire – en plus de la mienne en tant qu’artiste.

— Adam Donaldson Powell

Now, if you think you have «seen it all» then check out this great art video on YouTube:

https://youtu.be/viyufRQKlto

Featured

Dialogue with an Art Historian — Part Five.

Dialogue with an Art Historian — Part Five.

 

 

The dialogue:

In spite of a long history of non-photo realism in modern art, many if not most persons are still hung up on realism in painting OR impressionism, as being “good art”. They fail to understand that Impressionists, Cubists and the many other “modern” styles of painting were explorations of the no-man’s land in between realism and abstraction. For many artists painting a photo realistic painting is a useless occupation, which is more concerned with technical accuracy than artistry. I have always been fascinated by this no-man’s land, and explore variations on both the abstract and realistic edges of the continuum. I have gotten some criticism for painting in a semi-realistic style — and I ignore much such unsubstantiated criticism because it has nothing to do with the art itself, but rather with the viewers’ inability to see beyond a photo or Instagram/Facebook doctored images of “perfection”. My goal is always to approach portraits both as recognisable renderings but also as subjective composites of how I see the subject at hand. Sometimes, like in the experience of Picasso and Kahlo etc., caricatures and near-cartoonish styles are the chosen expressions — because they can thus de-weaponise the personal vanity, and create an easier passage into the complex personality of the subject. At other times the semi-realistic features approach realism more intentionally. People need to get into their consciousness that what they think they and others see is not necessarily self-evident. 

Even realistic portrait painters “improve upon” their subjects. It is high time for art viewers to wake up, and give themselves and non-realists a break. Painting style is much more of a choice than many give artists credit for. It is not always that artists are not capable of painting in a certain way after years of technical practice, but that we see things differently and choose styles that help us in the intended expression.

Unfortunately, this perceived demand from viewers of art and art customers also encourages many artists to copy the styles of celebrated dead artists literally rather than to use them as a departure point for one’s own originality. Many renowned artists and composers have made works “in the style of …” but here they clearly contribute their own unique interpretations. Copying the styles of famous artists, composers and authors has long been an important part of the technical learning process, but originality and risk-taking must eventually prevail if one desires acclaim and recognition as an original artist.

Another question is the taboo against talking about, writing about or “explaining” one’s art. This is to be left to critics and art historians. I rebel against that personally. Many have asked me where my ideas come from, or what a painting is about. These are valid questions that help viewers and readers to understand the wealth of ideas with which artists grapple, and the “explanations/commentaries” by the artist can both inspire others and provide a better basis for criticism: has the author achieved his/her goals? That is truly a better basis for reflection and criticism than comparing living artists with famous dead artists.

How do you react to these questions as an art historian and as an artist?

 

 

See this article about Picasso’s portraiture:

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/30/pablo-people-picasso-national-portrait-gallery

 

See my own semi-realistic self-portraits, and portraits of others, here:

https://adam-donaldson-powell.blog/2020/10/22/self-portraits/

 

 

Here are some examples of my own works in the “no-man’s land” between realism and extreme abstraction:

«Secundo fluctus» (Second Wave), by Adam Donaldson Powell, 60 x 50 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. The theme of this self-portrait is the impossible dream that is never finally achieved — no matter how much success we or others may think we have achieved, the dissatisfaction is always there. That has been the plight of most artists throughout human history; and it is no less today — for artists, and for non-artists. The tremendous Saturn-influence enveloping us at this time insists upon the renewal of our dreams, our motives, our ways of seeing, acting, living … imposing a heavy reality check upon us all. It is not all negative from an overall perspective, but it takes a higher degree of ingenuity, creativity, and persistence in order to create the much-needed and long-overdue New Consciousness. This dark expressionist self-portrait entitled “Second Wave”, provides a subjective inside-looking-out acknowledgment of the present experience. The intention is to document the thick muddy gelé of fear + careful hopefulness that we are all enduring in this Winter of darkness. The observant viewer will note that the face is itself a mask, as is the masking Darkness.

Crumpled paper (Oil on canvas).

 

Tribute to Malevich (Oil on canvas).

“Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020, is self-explanatory at first glance. However, here I have left certain features slightly unfinished: the naked eyes, the disintegrating painted frame etc.; this to suggest vulnerability and a sense of incompletion. COVID-19 presents the unanswerable questions of how effective we really are at masking fear of the unknown, and which “me” peers out from behind the superficial protective covering. This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.

 

Aged stone (Oil on styrofoam).

 

Spring snow (Oil on canvas).

 

Love Illusion, 65×90 cm., oil on canvas.

 

“Haiku”, 65 x 90 cm., oil on canvas, is a textured abstract work that explores the haiku moment of fallen cherry tree blossoms scattered by the wind:
cherry tree blossoms
scatter beyond all fences.
kissed by a mild breeze.

 

“Coffin Portrait / Lockdown — Summer fun”, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., 2020, the second title is perhaps self-explanatory. But it doubles as a Coffin Portrait (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffin_portrait). This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.

 

 

Soul evacuation, oil on canvas, 100x150x8 cm.

 

“Patch of grass”, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm.

“Ground Zero — the day after”, 55 x 46 cm., oil on canvas

 

Nightfall – with Winter giving way to Spring, 50×50 cm., 2017.

 

“Being = Nothingness”, 40×40 cm., oil on canvas, 2017.

 

Painting: Oil on Canvas. “The making of a Replicant: Human Pod Project — developing embryos”, oil on canvas, 65 x90 cm., 2019. This challenging work — both conceptually and technically — is a commentary on biotechnology and the future of human design and reproduction.

 

Time travel (oil on canvas, 40 x 40 cm.)

 

And some examples of my art photography:

Ricardo:

Regarding the first of your three points that is focused on non-representational art and the apparent phenomenon of the general public’s reluctance still to accept it, I have to admit that I am not au courant with contemporary art trends or attitudes to them.  I actually imagine that the tastes of “the public” have in fact expanded in numerous directions in the last twenty years and that what they might be reluctant to accept is not non-representational art but conceptual art.

But first: “the public” I think we’re really talking about are the relatively well-off who can afford to buy art and/or the well-educated who have had some exposure to “fine art” and maybe its history.  I suspect that much of the rest of the public are indifferent to the trends in fine art as defined by the intellectuals who “deal” with its history and/or its commerce.  Given my own lower middle-class upbringing in a small town of 5,000 in a rural northwestern area of New Jersey three quarters of a century ago, my outlook is conditioned by that experience as much as by my Ivy League education.  

I sense that “realism” or naturalism versus non-representational art is not an issue these days, as I said above.  Younger nouveau riches who want to decorate their lofts or townhouses undoubtedly “appreciate” non-representational art for its decorative possibilities.  In a sense, it’s non-controversial:  your guests aren’t going to argue over the morality of a large canvas with splotches or stripes of color applied to it as opposed, say, to a painting by Balthus.  On the other hand, so-called conceptual art is not something I imagine many wealthy younger professionals wanting to buy or to place in their abodes.  Conceptual art may be created using “realistic” objects, indeed, objects taken from everyday life (pails, mops, bales of hay, gigantic stuffed animals, mechanical detritus, soiled rags, etc.) but that stand for or suggest ideas or concepts that are either not at all clear or, if understood, not something one would want to spend time talking about at a cocktail party (if one had the space in one’s home to arrange the items that constitute the artwork).

In terms of portraiture and people’s response to your own work, I can imagine that the choices made in creating a portrait are things that an owner of the work might well not mind having people discuss, especially if the portrait is of a known personality (including, e.g., the owner/patron).  That personal relationship to a work of art could generate all sorts of interesting discussion and be a discussion that was/is forever renewed.  Certainly in the context of portraiture, non-representational techniques could well be questioned by even sophisticated viewers depending on their acceptance of the artist’s stated or implicit goals and their own view of the subject’s persona (and what the ‘aim’ of a portrait should be).   This is quite different, it seems to me, from talking about a non-representational artistic “vision” of, say, a countryside or a bowl of apples.  Somehow, there’s less “invested” in the outcome than in a portrait.

Your point in your third paragraph about “copying” of another artist’s style and the fact that this has been done for eons is well-taken.   And it goes beyond just “style” but subject matter and composition and all sorts of other aspects of a painted work.  I recommend a wonderful book by Elizabeth Cropper about a 17th century dispute whether an Agostini Carracci altarpiece picturing the last communion of St. Jerome was copied by another Italian in Rome at the time,  Domenichino.   (She points out the subtle differences between the versions that would allegedly have been noted by an informed viewer at the time that would have been sufficient to cause the Domenichino version to be as valued as the Carracci.)  And there’s an old story about Cocteau, who welcomed a guest into his apartment one day and the guest espied a work hanging above his mantle and exclaimed, “That’s a Picasso, isn’t it?”, whereupon Cocteau replied, “Yes, it is. I did it myself.”   In other words, copying was and presumably still is ok in Western (and Chinese?) art, as long as the newer work reflects some ingenious modification or addition to the earlier one.  But, again, this assumes an informed and wise viewing public.  (I’d point out also how Picasso deliberately took earlier artists’ works, such as those of Velasquez, and re-created them in etchings that were clearly not meant to be pure copies.  And Rembrandt liked the works of Hercules Seghers so much he copied it and even reworked an etching plate created by Seghers.  And way back in the early 1500s, Andrea del Sarto was asked to copy a painting by Raphael of Pope Leo X and two relatives so that it could be given via a third party to the king of France as “the real thing”.  It’s hard to tell the difference between them!)

In your fourth paragraph, you raise the issue of whether visual artists (and perhaps others, such as poets?) should be “explaining” their works, or at least their goals, in text that accompanies the work in question.  And, if so, what’s the purpose of that?  As you well know, many decades ago there was a movement in literary criticism to divorce all discussion of a writer’s biography from the work itself.  The work should stand on its own without further explanation.  The discussion then swung the other way around:  at least in literary criticism or history the author’s biases and background ought to be revealed so that the reader of his text could take that into account in considering how the author’s views might have been affected by matters beyond the pure intellectual consideration the author brought to the project.

This question actually brings us back to my first point in the first paragraph above: conceptual art was not welcomed with open arms by the buying public precisely because it took a few pages of text, often, to explain what in the world the artist was intending to do!  The assumption was, if the point was that obscure, then the artist was a kind of elitist who was not worth one’s time or money.  Maybe the same approach might be taken in regard to modern “free verse” poetry:  if the allusions and references are so obscure that an ordinary reader can not figure out what is being said (and why), why bother with it?

But I think the kind of “explanation” you refer to – and sometimes write – is a little different.  The text is as if a docent/guide was looking over our shoulder adding interesting pieces of supplemental information to the viewer: information that is not necessarily discernible otherwise but which helps explain the choices the artist made and the original goal of the work.  Absent such explanation, the work can still be “appreciated”, but the artist’s textual supplementation can enrich the experience.  And there’s nothing wrong with that (unless one takes the position previously mentioned that those who believe themselves “purists” invoke: the work stands on its own or dies.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

( photos: street art in Paris (Belleville) )

 

Adam:

First of all, l would like to thank you for your thoughts regarding these timeless questions which have never been — and perhaps can never be — resolved with objective satisfaction. Judgment concerning artistic expression is by definition ever-changing — both for artists themselves, art collectors, art educators, art historians, and the general public. What and how artists create (conceptually, thematically, and technically) and how that art is perceived by others is a complicated issue and is influenced by many personal and societal/historical factors, ranging from personal appeal to politics. For me, the greatest value of art history and art criticism is perhaps that of allowing individual works and artistic styles to be “categorised” in a longer perspective, divided up into “periods”. This can be both positive, instructive and useful, as well as “leading”. Ideas are often quite competitive and, like with all else, the creative interpretations of art historians and art critics is also in part driven by the desire to identify with or argue against accepted trends of perception and analysis. It is not always easy to see previous periods of artistic expression and output solely in the context of the actual periods in which works were made, and including the socio-political and historical events that the artist conformed to or rebelled against. We are all deeply ensconced in our our personal experiences of the present, and our interpretations and likes/dislikes are intrinsically connected with the present day … as well as our own exposure to different artistic expressions, art forms, education about art and art history, and what we have heard or read about art and artists. This applies to all: artists, “art lovers and enthusiasts”, those with university education, those without, persons who were exposed to art from an early age in their home and school environments, art collectors … and those who rely mostly upon their own intuition, i.e. that which for whatever undefinable reasons seem to appeal to the viewer personally. 

While I support the “right” of all persons to have their own personal likes and dislikes, as an artist, writer and former musician I am always interested in hearing what appeals to (or does not appeal to) individuals from all niches of society — including their reactions to my own art. I have the impression that many (if not most) are unable to objectively express why they like or do not like individual artworks or genres of Art. This is perhaps not to be unexpected. Art is often meant to be inspirational or confrontational — appealing to or provoking human experience and psychology. However, I would presume to say that many (if not most) artists desire more solid (i.e. “qualified”) feedback than we often receive. I am always open to (and seek criticism of my own Art and writing), and I was a literary critic for many years. I listen to what is being said, review its relevance to my own work within the larger and more specific intentions and ideas that I have had … and then I make decisions based upon whether or not I feel that my intentions and ideas were successfully communicated to the general public. Sometimes I make changes in my approach to individual works, and sometimes I do not. I am always thankful for constructive input. That being said, I also know that much of the public’s likes and dislikes cannot be influenced by myself or my Art alone … and trying to “win over” supporters in that way is never a goal of mine. My art is ever-changing and evolving, as it should be. And every work of art that I produce is part of an interconnected continuum and process; i.e. an extension of the previous work(s). This is perhaps basic for most artists, and can be observed in the progression of technique, and also in recurrent themes, ideas and style considerations. I have the understanding that much of what we like or dislike is “learned”/acquired. If an artist, composer or author is understood to be “good”, then the disposition is sometimes to accept that their entire output as seen in published books, recordings or presented in art museums must be equally “good”; and if we question individual works then we truly fail to understand them. This is not only restricted to intellectually-complicated works such as much contemporary conceptual Art, or challenging works such as Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”, or even works by many contemporary classical composers. Sometimes we do lack the intellectual experience, education and foundations to understand complicated works of Art; and sometimes the Art presented is “the Emperor’s new clothes” — not necessarily because the artist desires to trick the viewer, but because we artists sometimes stretch our ideas to our own intellectual and technical limits, without regard for accommodating the public along with us on our exploration/journey. That is a “right” of the artist, and of the museum/art gallery that presents and attempts to sell the works in question. However, we must also allow for the possibility that not all art or artists that have achieved celebrity through sales of works for millions of dollars/euros or that have been selected for purchase by art museum is necessarily among the “best” — now, or perceived as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). Art museums and their boards and curators have their own agendas, which include among other things to educate, inspire, provoke, challenge and stretch the perceptions of the public. I will go so far as to say the same regarding Art Historians and Art Critics. Consider the source, the agenda … and follow the money!

It is not unknown to me that art collectors are often interested in buying art as an investment. Unfortunately, that is a risky investment if you do not have the economy or Time to wait for the value of purchased art to mature. I have had those discussions with my own customers, and seen it with collectors of much more renowned artists — including art collectors who have purchased works from “rising stars”, but who have not really liked the work and have accordingly stowed it away while patiently waiting for the chance to resell it. I personally encourage my own customers to buy what appeals to them personally, and even to change the art in their personal environments as their own needs and perceptions change. I do the same in my own personal environment, which has well over 100 artworks by myself and others. 

While my own more complicated artworks are often best understood by other professional artists, I have also encountered a few artists that are as opinionated and influenced by norms as some in the general public. This is perhaps to be expected, as we artists are both subject to the same influences as others in society … and because we can often be both “accepting” of other styles, genres and techniques AND intent upon the directions we have chosen personally. Some persons are simply not moved by non-representational Art. Some persons just do not like conceptual Art, or geometric Art, or art that is neither fully realistic or abstract. It is not within their current frame of reference. And the same can be said about persons who like certain works of art without being able to justify it objectively. Must they be able to do so? Perhaps not … but as an artist I am always curious. Many years ago, after a concert I have given in New York City, I was approached by a person in the audience who congratulated and praised my performance. I was silly enough to ask: “What appealed to you most, and why?” (I sincerely wanted feedback.) The answer I received was: “Oh, I just love Brahms …”. I was a bit disappointed. But I was primarily disappointed in myself for not giving this person the space to just enjoy the effect of my music. On another occasion I observed a person in the audience at a performance I attended at Carnegie Hall following the recital with the musical score in hand. I was aghast, thinking that that would be devastating for me as a performer. But who knows what the intention of the score-reader was? Perhaps he would give the performer objective and constructive criticism after said performance?!!

As regards acceptance of non-representational Art today, I would agree that there is today much more tolerance than previously. But tolerance is not the same as acceptance or understanding, or even the Will to understand. This is also true of semi-realism. I have seen the numbers of artists working in semi-realism increase over the past decade. And why not? We have run the gamut, otherwise: from New Primitive Art, to Geometric Art in several modern and post-modern periods, re-discovery of realistic techniques as employed by the Old Masters, photo-realism, many other forms of Abstract and Conceptual Art. So why not explore the psychological “no-man’s land” in-between? All the rest has been evaluated, judged and categorised “to Death”.

I would also like to comment on the rather common criticism that “good Art” is art that one oneself cannot do. I have heard this many times — mostly by non-artists, but also by one or two elderly / Old School artists. Art is about ideas, as well as technique. It does not matter if another artist could have done a work that equals the technical aspects employed in an artwork. What matters is that that particular artist found and executed the idea in her/his own way. The same regards persons who dislike an artist because of what they have read or heard about him/her as a personality — either through written criticism, gossip or conspiracy theories. I react to some ideas presented by artists in their artworks, but if I do not personally know an artist then who am I to judge their art based on gossip or conspiracy-theory-based hatred? Again, often artists intentionally provoke in order to inspire questioning and thought. 

In summary, I would repeat that these issues and questions are complicated and perhaps unresolvable. Individual artworks are perhaps sometimes less important than the effects of the ideas presented — both in the present, and over time. 

As regards “copying”, making excellent copies of the work of others, as well as making and selling printed copies of one’s own work for quick sales to persons who cannot afford original paintings, is not my thing. I do understand that there is a market for such, and that the technical challenges for copyists can be exhilarating. I have written many times previously on this blog that I fear that the market for lesser-known artists who are trying to sell original artwork can be constrained by these activities. But, as stated above, there are many art buyers who want renowned artworks on their walls — even though they are not originals, and have little value. These are not my intended viewing or buying public. 

As an artist who is interested in Art History, I always approach art museum exhibitions by looking at the artworks in questions and only then do I read the usually sparse information provided by the museum. I am most interested in the year the work was made (this in order to gain historical and socio-political context and perspective), and then I sometimes read the title of the work … but not always. More interesting to me are the art curator notes about the artist and his place in art history — and these I usually go back and read after I have studied the works in question. I — like many viewers — often wonder what the artist’s own ideas, goals and inspirations were. With the www we can today read these “notes” written by artists themselves online, and get both perspective and insights that we would otherwise not have access to. My own “notes” tend to be a combination of the philosophical and technical ideas explored and employed. They are — in a sense — artworks (art essays) in themselves. Would I post these on the walls of an art gallery exhibition? Probably not. But it is great to be able to post them online, rather than trying to answer questions regarding my inspiration and techniques in one or two quick and hurried sentences at a gallery opening. But then again, describing  one’s own art can be fatal:

https://aha.confex.com/aha/2019/webprogram/Paper25013.html

Okay, so let me pose the question that many of us want to ask:

How does your work as an Art Historian and your study of Art History affect your own art?

 

Ricardo:

The question of how my own art work has been affected by my study of art history is one I have not previously considered.  Although my formal study of art history began at Hunter College at the City University of New York in 2007, in one sense I have been studying it all my life, just as I have been creating art nearly all my life.  As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a small, rural town in northwestern New Jersey in the 1940s and 50s.  Although New York City was only 60 miles away, we lived in a totally different world.  In Sussex County there were more cattle than people in those years!  Our cultural outlook was limited.  Nonetheless, in elementary school there was always a class in art-making.  I recall that in fourth grade my mother marched me to school one day to demand of my art teacher an explanation why her brilliant little Michelangelo had received only a “C” grade in art class!  The explanation of the somewhat flustered young (male) teacher: I hadn’t grasped properly how to draw things in perspective.  The human figures in my landscapes were much too out-of-proportion for their placement in the scene: Some too large in the background, some too small in the foreground.  I don’t recall my mother’s reaction to this explanation, or my own.  I think that, deep-down, living with an authoritarian father, I always detested having to follow anyone else’s rules, including, apparently, the rules of perspective.  (Yet I did in most aspects of my life hew all too closely to the rules; but that’s another story.)

From an early age (6? 7?) I started creating my own comic books.  Comic books and cowboy movies were my escape into different realities.  My mother saved one of my comic books and gave it to me years later. I even learned how to create 3-D drawings for my comics, with near-parallel red and blue outlines of the figures and settings that, once you put on your 3-D “glasses”, gave the wonderful illusion that you were looking at scenes with real physical depth.  (So much for the need to utilize “perspective”!)   And I recall one time at a Cub Scout function that a “real” artist had been invited to, my scrawl on a large pad of paper was transformed by him into a pleasing female figure that was judged best of all the scouts’ scrawl-derived works and I won some sort of prize!   I also did paintings while in elementary and high school, none of which survive.

And, somehow, I must also, on my own, have read about art and its history in books.  I was what was then called a “book worm”.  Other classmates were athletes, I was a scholar/artist.  I edited the school newspaper and was in charge of our high school class’s yearbook, with cover design and layout created by me. I say I must have read about art and its history on my own because in college I never took one art history or art studio course.  Yet when I was on a Fulbright scholarship to France post-graduation in 1964-65, I had the leisure to create more paintings of my own and created a few that were in the style of famous artists:  Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse.

In the decades following, during my career as an international lawyer, I was able to visit many art museums throughout the world that I might have otherwise overlooked:  the large Sao Paulo museum with its excellent if ill-maintained collection, the one in Dublin, others in Stuttgart and Hamburg, as well as more recognized collections in London and Paris.  And on vacation trips, I kept returning to Italy and viewed the ubiquitous art that makes that country so precious: that in small and large churches and cathedrals and old municipal buildingsAssisi, Siena, Todi, Perugia,Arezzo, Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome.  Those visits and my (self) education encompassed, of course, the buildings themselves and their statuary and decoration.

 


My own art production peaked in the late 1970s and 1980s, including my introduction to print-making.  This medium became a kind of obsession, as it combined my love of drawing with production of “real” works of art! (In that time, drawing had not yet come “into its own” as a category of fine art divorced from its function as preparatory to painting or other large works in other media.)

 

But I must admit that throughout all this stimulation of the right side of my brain, my left was not always in gear:  I did not really consider what kinds of choices the artists had made, what types of considerations beyond creating “beauty” and fulfilling commissions led them to create the forms they had made or the materials they had used.  But creating art of my own, I intuitively grasped that not all media were appropriate for one’s expressive needs:  drawing and its extension, print-making, had limitations of size; sculpture required expensive materials and hard, physical labor and long training; frescoes meant you had to work quickly with a sure hand; silver point allowed for no errors; watercolor : ditto.  

The study of art history helped to “organize” my thoughts about the art that I had been viewing for half a century, and its “development”.  It engaged that left side of my brain and got it working when I thereafter viewed new or previously-viewed art works.  

But I resisted, and still do, engaging the left side of my brain too much when creating my own art.  I am drawn to (pun) recreating on a two dimensional surface what I see before me – transforming my visual reality into something preserved on a two-dimensional sheet or canvas (alas, no more 3-D efforts…yet).  The work produced then becoming a record of my “feelings” when creating it and of the point in my life when I did so.  

Thus, the small still life I painted while in Lyon on my Fulbright year recalls that blessed period of introduction to my “second home”: France.  The print of faceless men in a claustrophobic bedroom space: the late 1970s in crime-ridden New York and the part of gay life relegated to the piers and trucks and warehouses on Manhattan’s West Side.  My drawn self portraits from one of my sketchbooks: the “down time” at home that I had in 1979 due to hepatitis.  A faceless portrait of my boyfriend, now husband, Jay created in a store front pottery workshop in our Greenwich Village neighborhood in 2005: the excitement (and fear) of entering into a new intense relationship with someone I did not yet know.

Jay’s later training and career as a photographer has led me to a new appreciation of that medium, and helped further train my own “eye” (“training” that is even more acute than what viewing works of artists such as the Impressionists or the Northern Renaissance painters had accomplished), i.e., how to “catch” the moment, the beauty surrounding me in Nature wherever and whenever I may be outside our apartment in the City, or along the marshland near our Westhampton home, or looking up at the sky out of any window in any building anywhere in the world.  Likewise, my drawing sessions with watercolorist-friend Nathalie at the Quogue Wildlife Preserve on the East End have helped “focus” my view, as has a friendly comparison by each of us of the other’s accomplishments.  

So, in a sense, I’ve been “studying” art all my life, with a more organized approach ensuing when I studied for my MA in art history at Hunter.  Perhaps I’ve divorced too much the study of art and art history from my efforts at creating art – indeed, I’m not sure that “creating art” is a good term to describe what I was aiming at — but certainly each has “informed” the other (to use a current, fashionable term that grates on me for some reason).   And that’s all to the good!

NB. Ricardo (Rick) has also recently translated Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s « The Little Prince » from original French to English.

Available at Amazon.com.au

 

(Photos of Ricardo and Adam at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Norway, 2019.)

 

NB. Examples of my criticism of books and art can be found elsewhere on this blog. I always try to give the author/artist an understanding regarding what my criticism is based upon. Here follows an example of this approach and critical philosophy:

I am often asked what I look for in poetry books that I review, or consider reviewing. There are many poetic forms being used today, with many hybridisations. There exists both a sense that there are “no rules” anymore and, at the same time, there are some unspoken literary guidelines that determine the probability for successful literary communication – beyond the subjective, and questions of personal taste. I believe that it is important for me as a reviewer to restate what I look for from time to time. As I have written elsewhere, I look for many qualities including: evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art – beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – enabling the reader’s ‘inner artist’ to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process.

I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in – or ignoring – traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.

So writing is not a static process … and neither is literary criticism. While much criticism for first-time authors can be similar, it must be kept in mind that 1) there is no definitive “correct way” of writing, 2) criticism is personal and subjective to a large degree, and 3) there has never been a “perfect” book (and never will). I do not personally believe that writing a perfect book is an all important goal. Constant experimentation with technique, style, form and language is the real key to self-development and literary development. A not so well received book can be preceded by one or more very well received ones – who is to judge what is “good or not”? And the perhaps “not-as-good” book could teach author and reader much more than the “good” ones.

– Adam Donaldson Powell

 

See my photo documentation of street art in Oslo! 

 

Featured

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Four — On Patrons, the Church and Artists in the Renaissance Era

“Flying”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021. Adam, the artist, inserts himself into a contemporary religious painting.

 

 

 

Ricardo:

 

The Visual Artist in Western Society

As for visual artists and their status: I believe that, contrary to some historians, they were never “anonymous” — we just don’t have historical records, so their names are unknown to us. But artists as creative beings (and I’m including of course architects) necessarily had a reputation once their works were seen in their own time. And, in one way or another, they always “advertised” their existence and skill(s): an interesting essay by Meyer Shapiro that analyses the role of the artist in tenth and eleventh-century France suggests that the better ones were well recognized and in demand and their roles as visual interpreters of Church tradition and dogma were part of their skill, even if they weren’t themselves members of religious orders. (See M. Shapiro, “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art”, reprinted (pp. 1-27) in Romanesque Art (George Braziller, NY, 1977).) And early in the Italian Renaissance, we find Giotto signing a painting of St. Francis from about 1300 (now in the Louvre).

So, the apparent uniqueness of the modern obsession with “fame” is perhaps overstated.  

As courts developed in the major cities in Europe during the Middle Ages and bourgeois classes grew thanks to increased commerce, trade, and worldwide exploration, the demand for and ability to pay for sophisticated, often opulent works of art likewise increased. Naturally, artists sought commissions from the newly-wealthy and powerful, since artists were trying to make a living. Partly impelled by a desire to earn more money they sought more prestige, as well. Some were able to align themselves with Humanist scholars whose writings became as valued as the Church’s theologians. All classes became interested in Europe’s debt to their Roman and Greek ancestors. Scholars kept finding and reproducing texts from ancient times that had been long thought lost and ancient artworks kept being dug up (the most famous find, in Rome in 1506: the Laocoon, a sculpture that is a Roman copy, mentioned in an ancient text by Pliny the Elder, of a Greek original and, as the text indicated, signed!)

Scholars fleeing the Ottomans in the Near East in the later fifteenth century brought their knowledge of Greek with them, as well as ancient texts.

This interest in the Roman and Greek past naturally was picked up by visual artists and, so, beginning especially in the early 1400s, aspects of Roman architecture began to be found in the frescoes and panel paintings and in the designs of new buildings themselves.  Rulers as disparate as the Gonzaga in Mantua and Rudolph II (HRE, 1576-1612) delighted in being identified in their artists’ works for it associated them with the glories of Rome in one way or another.  

Of course, the concept that Rome and its heritage was somehow “lost” and then refound during the early Renaissance is a bit of a legend without much basis. Monasteries and other centers of culture in the Middle Ages preserved some of the Roman heritage and there’s certainly evidence throughout that writers and artists still reflected on that history.  To cite just one example, in the Morgan Library the Stavelot Triptych, created around 1155 AD, on its side panels contains miniature silver columns with Corinthian capitals and bases evoking Rome and the Constantinian era, consistent with the period of the legends depicted in enamel roundels on the panels.

The clients’ idea of having themselves pictured via portraits in painted works — both secular and religious — seemed to develop slowly in the early 15th century, but then caught on. So we find in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in SM Novella in Florence on the life of the Virgin (ca. 1490) various Florentine “notables” in the crowds attending the various episodes. The work was commissioned by a banker of the Medici’s, Giovanni Tornabuoni (contract signed 1485). In the ducal palace in Mantua we find a room frescoed by Mantegna in 1464-75 with the Gonzaga ruling clan prominently displayed on several of the four walls. The semi-private functions of the room, the Camera degli Sposi, helped to create an air of exclusiveness that was meant to impress viewers with the wealth and cultural prestige of Gonzaga without an overt or gaudy display. 

It’s common in art history to teach that the first profile bust in marble since the end of the Roman Empire was done by Mino da Fiesole in 1453. Appropriately enough for our purposes and point of view, it was a portrait bust of the son of the patriarch of the Medici’s in the 15th century, Piero de’ Medici, who de facto ruled Florence 1464-69. The sculpture is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. This would have presumably been for display in the patron’s home and not publicly. The great ‘boom’ in portrait art in Florence in the mid to late 15th century was featured in a recent Met Museum exhibition.

Even in Northern Renaissance art, we see contemporary donors or clerics being portrayed in historical or Biblical works. Thus, there are several masterpieces showing Chancellor Rolin of the Duchy of Burgundy, including one by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1435) where he is shown kneeling in front of the Virgin and child!  Hans Memling painted an altarpiece of the Crucifixion (ca. 1470) where the patron/donor, a cleric named Jan Crabbe, is seen kneeling at the base of the cross, while on the side panels (now at the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC) are his mother with her patron saint and his brother with his. There are countless other examples of donors being pictured within scenes that nominally are set in Biblical times but feature contemporary architecture and cityscapes.

Presumably, the Church in Rome had no problem with this. It was certainly a way to encourage the spending of large sums by patrons or wealthy clerics in order to have colorful works of art created which could adorn their churches (sometimes inside chapels ‘owned’ or sponsored by the patrons). For the Strozzi family, rivals but sometimes allies of the Medicis, in their chapel in SM Novella, Filippino Lippi painted a fresco (1502) depicting a legend of a saint’s deeds and pictured in it a very elegant Moorish man, wearing an extremely tall turban, which seems to be a portrait of Filippo Strozzi’s Moorish slave.

And, as you pointed out, artists took the opportunity to represent themselves as well as their patrons in some of these scenes. So, it’s thought that the man on the right peering out at the viewer in Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1475, Uffizi) is Botticelli himself!  Likewise, we probably see Pontormo among the men holding the dead Christ in his “Deposition” in Santa Felicita (1528) in Florence.

Presumably, this reflects that by the late 15th century the most well-known artists had gained a status well above that of a mere member of a workmen’s guild (painters and sculptors often were lumped with other trades in large guilds). When they did have their own guilds, artists often used it as a way to keep out competition from artists emigrating from other cities or regions.

Certainly, your thought that being seen via portraiture in a painting of a Biblical scene might somehow suggest to the patrons that they were that much closer to Heaven is a correct one. I always found it somewhat amusing that this same thought led many aristocrats and members of other privileged classes to attempt to be buried in floor tombs within the church and as close to the altar as possible!  

The Maggiore chapel in Santa Croce, Florence, has frescos by Taddeo Gaddi’s son, Agnolo Gaddi, painted in the mid-1300s.  Agnolo was considered the artistic heir of Giotto.  The fresco is notable for details and curiosities that have nothing to do with the legend’s iconography.  In it, you can spot portraits of Taddeo, Agnolo, and Giotto.

I’m sure that artists were not oblivious to the concept that one way to gain business was to suggest to a wealthy patron that he/she commission works for a church in which the patron would also be pictured. But my sense is that the wealthy and powerful did not deal directly with artists and that agents or bureaucrats or scholars affiliated with the circle or court of the patron would have both recommended the artist and perhaps negotiated with him over the details of the work. Italy has a particularly rich archive of contracts for artistic works (the Northern Renaissance countries don’t) and in some of the contracts, there is a fairly precise description of what the picture should look like and what colors and materials were to be used (to impress one’s neighbors you’d have the painter use a blue made from lapis lazuli — extremely expensive — with gilding throughout; in the Middle Ages the gilded area often suggested Heaven).  

We should remember that painted images were not the highest form of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the Middle Ages and Renaissance/Baroque: you showed you were especially wealthy by owning woven wool tapestries and sculptures (including table-sized ‘miniature’ bronzes by the likes of a sculptor dubbed “Antico”). Thus, the Medicis were sufficiently wealthy to commission Donatello to create his sculpture “David” that was probably intended for a garden. And the Medici pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create “cartoons” for 10 tapestries (based on the book of Acts in the Christian Bible) that were sent to Brussels for weaving around 1516. All European rulers of stature until the 18th century owned often large numbers of very expensive tapestries.

Granted, these were the wealthiest and most powerful of secular and religious figures who had vast amounts of assets to draw from to pay their artists. By the seventeenth century, in more bourgeois societies such as those in the Dutch Republic cities, status seemed to depend more frequently on your ownership of paintings, including the new genres of landscapes and still lifes.  

Nonetheless, the Roman Church and its new orders such as the Jesuits continued to commission large projects, including the frescoing of ceilings and domes of newly-built churches, such as the dome of the Jesu Church in Rome. 

In terms of when the concept developed that “Art is an Elite Business”, it depends on your viewpoint.  As noted above, the artist was not necessarily the one creating the impression that his works would lend status to an owner. It partly required a knowledgeable patron with intelligent advisors to commission the type of work that would reflect grandly on the patron. Michelangelo gained his fame from the Pieta, the David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, all commissioned by “the Church”, though the ceiling reflected on the apparent good taste and sagacity of Pope Julius II, who also commissioned his own tomb from Michelangelo that Michelangelo was working on fitfully for decades after the Pope’s death. By the time the Pope commissioned the ceiling, Michelangelo was already “a rock star” and many of the era’s notables were nearly begging Michelangelo to make even a drawing for them.  

So, by this point in the sixteenth century, some artists had received the kind of acclaim we see today and could almost literally “name their price”.  What Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) spawned in his work on the lives of the painters and sculptors (1550; 1568) – a view of art as a kind of competition judged by people who did not have to be either artists or patrons – created a new profession: art critic, someone who was a kind of intermediary between the patron and the artist.  Was this the beginning of history’s tendency to “forget” certain artists who were not deemed of the highest rank, even though their works might well be worthy of attention and provide joy to those who beheld them?  (Vasari, of course, was himself an artist and architect, but that was not a requirement for art critics in succeeding centuries.)

But to answer your main query: Yes, clearly wealthy families or individuals hoped to gain both public prestige and a step up on the ladder to Heaven by commissioning frescoes and altarpieces that were, indeed, very visible in a church setting and, thus, would be viewed by other citizens who undoubtedly would marvel at the amounts spent by the patrons (often chapel-owners) to have had such magnificent works created. And some of the works of course involved sculptural settings and statuary/busts for their own tombs in a church if they were so fortunate as to be permitted such a permanent “residence”.  

The Roman (Catholic) Church clearly favored this approach and during the Counter-Reformation and Baroque periods, their churches became almost over-burdened with decoration. As you’ve noted, certain break-away sects among those that came to be called “Protestant” were more ascetic in their approach and, hence, we have the wonderful paintings of white-washed, brilliantly-lighted (via clear windows, not colorful stained glass) interiors of Dutch churches by numerous seventeenth-century Dutch painters. (See The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic, by Angela Vanhaelen, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 2012. 222 pp, 56 illus. ISBN 978-0-271-05061-4).     

Certain Protestant sects, such as the Lutherans themselves, came to accept aspects of the decorative scheme and theology of the Roman Church and so permitted painted pictures, even of saints (the cult of saints had been roundly criticized in the initial phases of the Reformation).

But one senses that the patrons and artists were less likely to try to be “show-offs” publicly in the context of a Lutheran or Reformed church.

Again, this was a period when the opulence of art went back into private, but now bourgeois, residences (parallel to the palaces of the Medici, the Strozzi, Sforza, and other Italian wealthy families).

Collecting:  An Aside

As one of your points suggested, we shouldn’t overlook the idea that “consumers” of art drove the market, too. Commissioning or buying “fine art” was not always an aesthetic decision per se, but, rather, made in order to have something in one’s home that was deemed by others to be desirable.  Around the time of the Renaissance, the idea of forming collections of things as a goal in itself – pictures, tapestries, gems, items related to amateur scientific study, medallions, small bronzes, etc. – seemed to gain momentum. Vasari, an artist, and architect, was also an avid collector of other artists’ works, especially drawings. Reasonably well to do people who could not afford oil paintings much less tapestries, could perhaps afford drawings or prints. In any event, all these “objects” that were collected presumably meant to the collector that he had a certain prestige as a member of the cognoscenti by virtue of ownership of multiple numbers of fine visual works by more talented individuals who were acknowledged as such by the arbiters of taste at the particular moment in history when the collecting was carried out.

Given the secularization of society in general in the 18th through 20th centuries, religious art tended to be accorded less value than before and artists sought fame and fortune through portraiture and decorative floral and other still-life paintings and “genre” painting. (Mythological and historical paintings were still acquired most often by institutions.)  So the Church had less influence on the picture- and sculpture-making. Thus, artists threw their lot in with the nouveau riche and bourgeoisie.

One might have expected that extreme times would have brought changes in art – the subject matter, even the materials. After a wave of neo-classicism in 18th century Europe (France, especially), the French Revolution might have been expected to overturn all aesthetic “norms”. Instead, it seems to me that artists were wary about trying anything too new that might be deemed “aristocratic” and literally be a risk to their lives (at least in France). Even in French “satellite” countries, like parts of Italy, we see more “classicism”, such as Canova’s pure-white marble sculptures.  Elsewhere, like England and Germany, there develops a Romanticism that seems to be a “cry” back to the calm of pre-Revolutionary times rather than a direct response to the Revolution and its ideals and chaos. There were notable exceptions, of course, such as the work of the brilliant English poet, painter, printmaker, publisher William Blake.  


Adam:

Thanks, Ricardo. That was awesome!


This intriguing article is a good one for those interested in more information on this and related topics:

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-italian-renaissance-wealthy-patrons-art-power

Do read this excellent piece on the history of Renaissance art:

https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/renaissance-art

Here is more about the evolving status of Italian Renaissance artists:

The escapades of Isabella d’Este — a Renaissance art collector:

http://www.italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-8/essays/isabella-deste-collects/ 

For those interested in more information about the Northern Renaissance, and about the Protestant / Lutheran Reformation and its effect upon Church and Religious Art, check out these excellent links:

http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/protestant.htm 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_in_the_Protestant_Reformation_and_Counter-Reformation

https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/the-northern-renaissance/ 


“Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020, is self-explanatory at first glance. However, here I have left certain features slightly unfinished: the naked eyes, the disintegrating painted frame, etc.; this to suggest vulnerability and a sense of incompletion. COVID-19 presents the unanswerable questions of how effective we really are at masking fear of the unknown, and which “me” peers out from behind the superficial protective covering. This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.
Found in an old chest — cartoon from 1987, but still relevant today.
«Il tessuto dell’uomo», oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., This self-portrait by Adam Donaldson Powell explores Florentine textiles and the noblemen who adorned themselves with them. On a more conceptual scale, the painting alludes to «the fabric» of humanity itself.

NB. Photographs and paintings by Adam Donaldson Powell. All references and links are credited to the best of my ability. The artist who made the cartoon is unknown to me (unfortunately), but the magazine name is above the artwork.

 

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Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation.

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation. 

 

I have a further follow-up to your previous questions regarding comparing artists from different eras. 

I think there’s a basic problem in comparing artists, either in their own era or with respect to artists in other eras. Certainly, it’s interesting to try to detect “influences” (e.g., Japanese prints on some of Van Goghs later paintings). But ultimately, as you well know, what’s key in a work (to my mind) is the ‘sensibility’ (for lack of a better word) of the artist — to his materials and to himself (his soul, if you will). It’s that kind of ‘expression’ that subtly appeals to many of us, even if unconsciously.  That sensibility may involve her/his reactions to events of their time, their era — political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. But, even if a detailed analysis by a critic or art historian can seem to “tie” aspects of the artist’s work to public events or other artists past or present or things happening in the artist’s life, an exercise that seems peculiarly satisfying to other critics, art historians, and even the public, the final reckoning is the viewer’s/receptor’s “reaction” to the work. When you stand in front of the work, it’s just you and it. And each viewer brings her or his own ‘baggage’ — life experience, viewpoints, mood, preferences.  

That’s why, as I stated earlier in our exchange, I have a healthy suspicion of the whole idea of “judgment” in relation to art-viewing and discussion. Yes, I think one can speak intelligently and even non-judgmentally about one artist’s use of a medium vs. another’s. In an online discussion of “The Renaissance of Etching” (a Met exhibition and catalog last year), recently held in connection with the International Print Dealers Association ‘fair’ here in New York, it was interesting to hear several of the 3 member panel note that Durer’s few etchings reflected someone not comfortable with the medium but, rather, who must have preferred engraving (hence, he made only a few etchings). This is a probably historical fact, and interesting in itself, but should not necessarily ‘cloud’ our view of his etchings. What is our personal reaction to these etched images? Can we look at them and ‘appreciate’ them without drawing on our knowledge of how spectacular his engravings are? (Probably not….but we can still appreciate his effort at employing a new technique … and maybe enjoy the images themselves without any comparison with his other works … or with other artists’ etchings.)

As I stated earlier: it seems to me this idea of judging artists and eras began with Vasari here in the West and has not always been helpful in our attempt to understand what really happened in various eras of Western history in the visual arts. (If that’s what we want to understand.) We’ll always have a view skewed by what earlier critics and historians have determined was good or bad and by the ‘canon’ that they have implicitly created. This may leave we who are readers and observers without a real understanding of what earlier societies ‘valued’ in the visual arts and who they thought were good and not so good. A totally comprehensive overview of any era’s visual output is probably not practical, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to get a ‘broader’ view of all that humanity has accomplished — to the extent we have the time away from our own work!  

Adam:

Artists and writers are a cross-section of society … with diverse political affiliations, social and moral values, and financial connections. While I affirm that all artists and writers have a right to their own views, I do wonder whether critics, art historians, museums etc. might have an obligation to present the artist in a context which gives insight into the connections between who they are are personalities and the art that they produce. But what are the boundaries of accountability — for art and literary historians, of critics and teachers, of publishers … and of artists? This includes the many instances of artists, writers and musicians who supported their sponsors in order to gain renommé, political and financial gain, and artistic opportunity. Is there a difference between that and museum benefactors who are known for politics and investments that are no longer politically correct? 

I have pointed out Gertrude Stein’s (and other famous authors’) fascist leanings previously. What do you think of the survival of her art collection purely due to her support of Petain? Is it excusable? How do we separate our valuations of famous writers and artists from their “madness” and opportunism as persons and personalities? Does genius supersede all judgment? 

I have personally reacted to known artists and writers who have expressed themselves to the media and in their art and literature in ways that I considered to be derogatory to women, to persons with physical handicaps, etc.; and I have also defended artists’ and writers’ right to self-expression, but only as far as I feel that s/he makes an attempt to present the case and give context to their xenophobia and/or other discriminatory perspectives … rather than merely make bombastic presentations in order to shock and provoke. This is a sensitive issue and has perhaps always been so. 

Ricardo:

All good questions. In the contemporary scene: what should we make of art museums and others being renamed because the benefactor was tied to Big Pharma ‘pushing’ of opioids, especially oxycontin? Or of the Princeton School of Public Affairs being renamed from the Woodrow Wilson School to a more innocuous generic name after Wilson’s terrible racism was (re)exposed? And what can we say about artists? Should we disavow Caravaggio’s works and importance because he was a murderer? (Many artists were at that time, including Cellini … self-admitting in his autobiography). I think the works have to stand on their own … including Wagner’s. But with sharp-eyed observers pointing out aspects (if any) that may deliberately expose their (now) abhorrent views.

Adam:

Yes, we are all responsible: in our creations, our judgments, our criticisms, our thoughts, our actions, and our non-actions. Existence is an exercise in creation. My most valued compliments regarding my art and literature have been when viewers/readers have told me that my work and ideas have sparked creative thoughts, artworks, and writing in their own lives. I mean for my own work to be an existential and philosophical “dialogue” with the Viewer/Reader … a dialogue that can continue in his/her mind, and thus further, in many forms and perspectives throughout the planet. In that way, we are all inescapably artists/writers/philosophers etc. And we are all responsible. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’homme est condamné à être libre”, a concept which resounds in his “L’Etre et le Nèant” and in his “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”. In his novel “Nausea”, Sartre played upon René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) with his own discourse: “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think anymore, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”. 

 

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Dialogue with an Art Historian — Part Two.

Dialogue with an Art Historian — Part Two:

The Creative Space, Consciousness and Initiative 

Adam:

It occurs to me that the treasure chest / vault of art themes, representational images, style periods — along with political, geographic, economic, social status and, yes, art political history — all have created an overall “consciousness” from which all past and future Art ideas are created, “re-discovered and re-hashed”, either through copying of already copied ideas and images … or made with a smug emphasis upon finding one small quirky “style difference” that would promote one to the annals of art history fame. Perhaps it really is true that all images have been created previously, and that no ideas are truly original? But, as with the age-old discussion of whether or not paintings on canvas are now a “dead art form”, the moment one makes such an assertion a “new modern icon” is thrust forth by media, art galleries, art critics, and museums — all of whom are dependent upon finding a newly discovered icon to become the saviour of periodically declining art markets.

Ricardo:

I’m not sure whether all images have already been created/found, but in one form or another I think all ideas and theories ABOUT visual art and its history have already been propounded. There’s nothing new to say, but to make a living, critics and historians dress up in new, bizarre outfits ideas previously (sometimes way long ago) already published.

Adam:

So, where does that leave us? Is the problem our expectations, our restlessness and need to create more hoopla than necessary — rather than just enjoy Art in evolving forms, formats and styles? Is the problem obsession with money and fame? Are too many artists deluded into thinking that art is for most people more than “a business”?

Ricardo:

I think this all should leave us all (artists, “receptors”) in a very vital, refreshing position.  Isn’t it wonderful to be able to recognize and acknowledge that there is wonderful art being created by millions of people every day, not just by those judged by a small coterie of critics and art historians to be worthy of notice?  We’re able to say, “I really like that”, without immediately judging ourselves, not to mention the piece itself:  Am I being art-historically-critical enough in approaching this? Can it match the best of what I’ve previously seen? If it’s any good, why hasn’t it been noticed before?  The latter question can be asked of artists both known and unknown from the last 500 years, the first two can relate to contemporary works one may see.

It’s an incredibly freeing approach for one’s viewing self.  In my case, for example, I marvel at the creative instincts and talents of the children and young teenagers who participate each year in a project sponsored by the Morgan Library that encourages the production of self-illustrated books by youngsters. Their imaginations are amazing, and their skill at combining colors and forms in imaginative ways are eye-opening. 

Likewise, I’ve been startled by the number of impressive, beautiful, pleasing lesser-known works by well-known artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, together with works by many lesser known (or unknown to me) artists (many from Scandinavia) from that period, whose works have been discovered in digital form and “posted” online on Instagram by one of the Instagram subscribers whom I’m “following”.  

In other words, any sense of “guilt” or doubt in our own critical faculties can be lifted if we embrace the idea that we all (can) make “Art”.  Yes, beauty is “in the eye of the beholder”, and that’s a good thing.  What I enjoy, you may not.  We shouldn’t be counting “likes” for every created work that appears and thereby try to assign a value to it.  Nor should we follow the contortions of art critics or historians who are forced at this point to try to create new issues or “problems” in art (historical and contemporary) to write about.

Which isn’t to say that their input isn’t itself enjoyable and worthy of consideration.  But not to worry if we don’t get their arguments, or agree with them.  It’s the art that counts, no matter who makes it or who purveys it.  That realization may be one of the beneficent aspects of social media (though the reverse could also be something that social media ends up creating — i.e., an atmosphere of hyper-criticism, as in our politics……which doesn’t lead us to avoid social media, just to take certain content “with a grain of salt”).

Adam:

Interesting perspectives, Ricardo. Your praise of Instagram for promoting visual art has intrigued me, as it is something I have thought about.

Many are suspicious when I admit that I gave up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram many years ago, for reasons varying from being weary of censorship, haters and trolls, to many of the arguments listed in various articles on the Internet. I have enough to administrate with my five blogs and websites, and my email networks. But I am also intrigued by the structured brevity mandated by Twitter and Instagram, and the experiential effects and consequences of cooking so much information down to a word count or a single image. How does that lead and limit our learning, thinking and perceptions? When is an image just another flash in a semi-conscious and babbling stream of visual over-consumption or garbage? And when does Instagram satiety interfere with our own desire to be creative in our art and lives, without undue influence that threatens our own originality? I tend to avoid art museums and art galleries at certain stages of my creative processes, in order to escape possible influence. The constant deluge of images on the Internet and social media treasure trove can be both a blessing and a bane. 

With no curator or gallery owner to control the volume of images presented, how important is self-limitation and self-protection on Instagram?

Ricardo:

I wouldn’t use any of these sites for anything too complicated or ‘deep’. Instagram for me is merely a kind of cyberspace ‘gallery’ with photos of works of art or buildings or monuments that I can skip over quickly if I’m not interested.  Likewise with Facebook.  I’m always amazed when people get excited over its political ‘content’ because my mind (and eyes) are used to ignoring anything but the messages and pictures from friends that I want to hear from.  One doesn’t have to be ‘sucked into’ all the other stuff going on.  So, for example, I shuffle through Instagram to find postings by the woman (who is herself an artist, apparently) who has been finding and posting on Instagram all these paintings that I love to see.  Or maybe the Morgan’s postings, or the Frick’s or the Medici Archives Project’s.   Not so hard to do.

Adam:

It sounds as if you have good control over what you take in. And you have a viable and healthy plan for how you approach social media. The cyberspace — like Art History — is crowded with imagery, impressions and impulses. In your field — which involves looking at art in historical and systematic ways — having an orderly approach must be essential. For me — as an artist — I feel that I must keep one eye open at all times. This is because the impulses in my environment are often the seeds of future artworks.

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Dialogue with an Art Historian: Is Art Always Useful?

I am quite interested in voicing my opinions, in my art and literature, and also about art and literature. One of my regular discussion partners is an art historian (Ricardo). We approach many topics and themes and enjoy our “popcorn for the brain”-banter. Here is a short extract from a recent discussion that began with attribution of style definition and concepts by museum curators, art critics, and artists … and proceeded to historical perspectives regarding valuation, commercialization, and politicization of Art throughout the ages, and especially in the present. I will — for the sake of simplicity and for practical purposes — subtitle this extract “Is Art Always Useful?”

Adam:

I would love to read an art history piece addressing the question of when an idea in artwork becomes monotonous (same repeated image, same colors, same image in fourteen color variations, etc.), and why (eg. commercialization, over-exposure of the artist or style or theme, weak ideas and images that are not deserving of repetition, etc.). Works by many artists — living and not — and in all styles and periods could be examined here, Klein, Warhol, Rothko, Pollock, Basquiat, Munch, iconography, many medieval paintings, as well as impressionistic ones. And a curated exhibition exploring this topic would be excellent: whose work survives the test of several hundred years, and whose will not? What are the expectations and needs today as opposed to previously? How do attention spans compare among audiences? And finally a study of how long people spend gazing at various artworks, and which exhibitions are done within a very short amount of time? Does cramming art spaces with too much art have a negative viewing effect? Could art museums improve upon their presentations by having simultaneous online and in-museum exhibitions, whereby curator questions are drafted online and the same concurrent museum exhibitions provide a more limited visual experience of selected works?

And regarding the question of museums’ search for relevance:

Museums are struggling for relevance, are desperate to meet the younger generation’s interest, and to compete with speculations of art galleries and Internet trends. But they now risk making themselves even more redundant than before. All major art museums have huge inventories of works that are rarely shown. Surely showing these works is more interesting than beating a dead horse by trying to capitalize on fads. Moreover, the attempts to give more relevance and significance than is deserved to certain fads and trends are tiring for audiences. How many retrospectives and themed exhibitions of the works of Mapplethorpe, Basquiat, Warhol, Rothko, Picasso, Pollock, Banksy, etc. do we need? The same is true of art galleries that show an artist collection of the same image in a series of multiple colors. Once you have seen one work there is no need to see several more of the same. This is laziness on the part of the artist, and a case of promoting “the emperor’s new clothes” on the part of the galleries. Also, many museum presentations are a far stretch in regards to their political agendas. There is so much more and better that could be done. I have seen much graffiti art — on the streets, in art galleries, in curated museum exhibitions, on the Internet, etc. Is the reputed relevance not now rather overstated?

Less is often better. And not all “art” deserves a constant promotion. Every museum must have and show its Picasso works, but not all of the acquisitions are first-rate, significant, or even well-made. Like Warhol, fame, and money led him and many other artists to become “hacks”, to repeat themselves, and to sell things they were less proud of. And newer generations strive to copy their styles and make “knock-offs” of their signature works as short-cuts to creative expression and to pay their bills. True enough, many famous artists are propelled rather unnaturally and undeservedly, while some others’ hard work goes largely unnoticed. “When you are hot you are hot, and when your period of popularity is over and the crowd is pushed on further you are no longer hot.” The Internet exacerbates this problem.

I have many questions and ideas.

 

Ricardo the Art Historian:

All very good questions and ideas.

 

Well, now we are having fun! I pride myself on all art and objects in my home being functional and utilitarian, due to limited space. The implication is that all objects are also chosen for their esthetic and artistic qualities, and the ways they can complement one another.

 

Ricardo:

I guess I didn’t mean to suggest that what we call “art” has to be utilitarian. I suppose an economist might take the position that anything someone spends money on or otherwise acts to acquire and which gives them pleasure — esthetic, intellectual, “I can afford this and you can’t”-satisfaction, etc.) is, from an economic standpoint, utilitarian….it keeps the wheels of commerce churning. And certainly, there are and should be all types of “art” — confrontational, challenging, mysterious, didactic, tendentious — as many types as there are tastes in the consumers and other “receptors”. And I’m reminded of the debate about Matisse’s declaration that he made art to “soothe” those viewing it**…..and so in the ’20s, his art seemed to become “decorative”…..both developments (his statement, his colorful, soothing paintings and, eventually, cut-outs) raising some minor storms from critics. By the way, I meant to mention a wonderful observation by the critic Clement Greenberg sometime in the early or mid-1950s to the effect that he almost regretted that the Renaissance had put so much emphasis on perspective and the idea of looking through a window onto the scene depicted…..half-musing what the development of art might have been without that kind of focus and objective.

** The Matisse quote: What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

 

Adam:

I must admit that the Andy Warhol and Basquiat period confounds me now that it is at a distance. I was — like you — in Manhattan during their time, and also during the time of many other now-famous artists of that era. In Manhattan and in Los Angeles it was common to see these persons, to cross their paths on the streets, at parties, at restaurants, etc. and there was a sense of respect for their personal space and experience. I never idolized them as persons or as artists, and their work was for me just one of their many expressions; and not unlike the clothing they preferred to wear, the night clubs and discos I saw them at, and so on. Everyone was “an artist” back then; and a few “made it” (i.e. made most of their income from their art). It seemed almost coincidental oftentimes, dependent upon who you knew who knew someone, being in the right place at the right moment in Time, etc. rather than one particular person’s art being greater or better than that of all others. I could not — and did not even think about trying to — compare one artist with another. Personal expression and uniqueness were paramount; and one’s artistic personality was a large part of one’s art. Graffiti was everywhere back then. I did not evaluate if it was “Art” or “Vandalism”. It was just part of the background to the constant Entertainment Show going on all around us, and which we were a part of — regardless of whether we considered ourselves as artists, or not. When Basquiat teamed up with Warhol the social protest/vandalism (reminiscent of Michael West’s “Blinding Light” painting which pre-dates Basquiat) made its way into the prestigious art galleries and art museums. While graffiti was by no means “new” or revolutionary art, the concept of taking it inside was novel. Warhol was a businessman who knew how to make lots of money, and who loved doing that. I will always wonder what Warhol and Basquiat had within them beyond the commercialized expressions of protest (Basquiat) and everyday iconography (Warhol). What would they produce today? I suspect that Warhol would have long since moved on to video/film, photography, and computer art. I suspect that perhaps Basquiat did not have so many more ideas beyond what made him famous. That is all well and good. Everything in its time. It is increasingly difficult to compare art — not only in the same few decades but also over centuries. It is perhaps akin to trying to decide who is the G.O.A.T. (the greatest of all Time) in any discipline, sport, or art form. But comparing artists working within the same basic styles and within the same time periods is rather possible. Perhaps that is the foundation of comparative Art for art historians? But, back to Basquiat. After his fame, many other artists moved from the streets and walls inside of galleries and museums. And as they did so their graffiti art became more and more stylized and commercial. Graphic representations with accompanying tagging dumbed down the previous abstractions so that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet had mental and financial access to these politically-correct posters that were mass-produced. Now, the trend is again returning to selling original works at art auctions and museums. But I question whether such art is really a significant style in the greater context of art history. Graffiti in prehistoric caves, in ancient Italy and Greece … and even in dilapidated neighborhoods in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, NYC, etc. can often be much more “primal” and evocative than many of the works commanding exorbitant prices at Sotheby’s and museums. Michael West’s paintings are powerful because she speaks to herself — about her experience of her existence and environment — rather than making her art into a speakeasy. It is that introspection that makes her own “rage” a different kind of abstract protestation. Perhaps a more powerful and primal expression than that of Basquiat and those who have followed him. Her work — like the early, pre-splatter works by Jackson Pollock — has a vibrant primal quality that is, to me, closer to being an original style — even though she was greatly influenced by a few of her close artist friends’ styles. Today it is common for contemporary artists to name their styles (which is perhaps often preferable to being pigeonholed and typecast by art historians and gallery owners). We can be quite creative at putting together hyphenated known style categories in questionable combinations. Just as vague and intentionally meaningless as much gallery show bullshit written in invitations to vernissages. Or artwork titles. My question is more and more, does any clean style exist today? Is it desirable to have only one style anymore? I dunno. But I think more and more that historical social and political context is equally important (if not more so) than style classifications. Most art is situation-inspired and thereby specific to an Era, rebellions, or promotions of then-current modes of expression and themes. Perhaps that is equally interesting to talk about rather than merely style and technique? I note that modern art museums are moving increasingly in that direction in curating their exhibitions. Historical and sociopolitical context is now allowing art museums to be social learning institutions, and thus more relevant for today’s audiences.

 

Ricardo:

Yes, to all you brilliantly have written. I find some contemporary curating a little too “politically correct”-intended as they pair works from different eras or centuries in one space. Implying what? That artists respond similarly in different times (to what, tho?) as evidenced by a similar style or subject matter or use of materials? So what, I say? What’s your point, dear curator. Or maybe a curator is using artworks like a poet uses words, to express herself/himself? I don’t think they’d ever admit that, but choice, by its very nature, involves the curator’s thought, emotion, outlook, intention. On balance, I think we’re in an age of cultural confusion and drift. New means of expression, like iPad art, may yet come to dominate the “art scene”.

 

Adam:

Exactly my point. Let contemporary artists talk about their art and process, and let the public decide if it achieves its goals — if there are any beyond mere pleasure. But here art critics are equally to blame.