Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, “Man with a Violin” (1912) and “Man with a Guitar” (1912)

The paintings themselves, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Man with a Guitar | Man with a Violin

Simple enough, right? The first step to understanding something is to depict it properly. You’re an artist of staggering genius and people around you are playing instruments. Just paint them in the act, while the tunes reverberate in your ears — oh, but how will you convey, how will you remember, how will you explore their actually making music?

Picasso’s “Man with a Violin” (1912) and “Man with a Guitar” (1912) are not only exercises in Cubism. They are portraits with a particular purpose, devoted to rendering the fusion between artist, artist’s tools, and the resulting product. I am not speaking any less than literally here: distinguishing the violinist from violin and the guitarist from guitar in both paintings is impossible. In “Man with a Violin,” one can see a small foot at the bottom of a triangular-shaped compound. Through a mess of thin, vertical rectangles, the triangle shape lends itself to a strong sensation of ascent. Slightly above the foot are the sound-holes of the violin, then at the tip of the triangle, towards the top of the canvas, there’s part of a face and, cast off to the right, an ear. The nods to human form, the rectangles reaching, the compound pointing, blues, darks, and browns dominating the palette: it isn’t hard to conjecture a violinist trying to create a transcendent tune despite himself. He’s reaching, and maybe the colors — I’m thinking the blues and the darks — create a melancholic mood. I should add the rectangles, narrow and numerous, also give an impression of horizontal movement, as if a head is bobbing or an arm going back and forth. Still, the tight triangular structure makes this “motion” a refinement.

Perhaps “Man with a Violin” is about the struggle refinement and structure barely conceal. The man with a violin is broken, reconstructed with his instrument and tune. In “Man with a Guitar,” the guitarist has completely disappeared into a brighter brownish, silvery structure. The shapes composing the painting are wider, more horizontal: they’re the bricks of an ancient temple. In the center, something resembling stairs leads to something resembling an opening. The body of the guitar and the man himself have reconfigured into this quirky yet seemingly sacred building. For me, this evokes the layering of intricate melodies and variations. At some performances, the music surrounds you, and it’s like you’re entering another space entirely.

But does that mean the artist has truly disappeared into his art? Someone might blurt that the “Man with a Guitar” represents an ideal that the “Man with a Violin” fails to reach. I think the paintings call for more conjecture, but not quite that one. At some level, they push us to guess what music the musicians played. The violinist, maybe a longing, sad tune that displayed his virtuosity. The guitarist, maybe an elaborate one, traditional or classical. None of this can be proven in the least, of course, but this sort of consideration underwrites my thoughts above. The portraits, then, are about how we conceive people. We do so through their production, and that is just as faithless to them as it is faithful. In that sense, the fusion of painter, his tools, and his painting can be better approached. Picasso doesn’t really depend on brushes, paints, or canvas, but he does depend on his style. He communicates through his fragmented, complicated constructions, and in that sense, resembles the musicians. He is present in the work, regardless of how visible or invisible he is there, regardless of how different each of his paintings are.

Kay Ryan, “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It”

I confess my knowledge of Aristotle is on par with my knowledge of nuclear physics. It’s nearly non-existent, even though I’ve spent considerable time studying Xenophon and Plato. Still, some stray bits and pieces of Aristotlean reasoning have stayed with me. One is the idea that a political regime taken to an extreme is no regime at all (e.g. insist on too much democracy, and you get tyranny). Another I’ve put as a maxim: you shouldn’t reason the same way in emergencies as you do in normalcy. A country fascinated with having as leaders generals and businessmen who have leveraged bankruptcy to their advantage, then, obsesses with the notion that knowledge is a panacea, able to solve any problem at any time. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Insist too much on the solution and the actual problem becomes obscured. Kay Ryan, in “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” dwells on how artifacts of bad reasoning stay with us:

We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen. It’s awkward
to have to do one’s
planning in extremis
in the early years –-
so hard to hide later:
sleekening the hull,
making things
more gracious.

Life as a ship should imply sailing over waters calm and harsh. I don’t know about you, but for all of my life I’ve been hammered with “How will you survive?” even in situations where I was doing perfectly well for myself. In this case, life as a ship takes a distinctly different shape: The first fear being drowning, the ship’s first shape was a raft. Fear means panic, and panic means throwing any old thing together, including something that cannot possibly suffice for the future. The raft was hard to unflatten after that [drowning] didn’t happen.

So Ryan starts with three ideas which expand upon our Aristotlean maxim. First, if you build from your fear and your fear only, you’re doing hack work. You’re not actually building anything useful for later. Second, you’re not appraising the situation correctly. Maybe drowning was a legitimate fear, but you exaggerated it at the expense of every other concern. Finally, what you built not only fails to suffice for your journey, but must be replaced.

Regarding that last thought: you still have to float. You can’t just throw the raft away. The fear of drowning was legitimate enough. It’s awkward to have to do one’s planning in extremis in the early years — so hard to hide later. This doesn’t mean Aristotle was wrong and people with advice at their worst are right. It’s more like this: no matter what, we’re going to be informed wrongly, stuck with some degree of fear or panic and reliant on some relic of it. (It goes without saying that anyone who wants to compare one person’s pain with another’s offhand is a complete idiot. What goes for normal situations always looks superficially similar to deadlier ones.)

So we’re stuck. We’ve got some fear, some bad reasoning, hiding in our reshaped ship. Is papering this over a denial of reality? If we sleeken the hull, making things more gracious, are we failing to be true to ourselves? These questions don’t really follow from Ryan’s treatment of the problem; “awkward” planning in early years, it being “hard to hide” the faults later — these concerns indicate a disposition which wants to change, which wants to solve problems. But I think those of us who get nervous can identify when we’ve wondered whether our fears, our worries, are something more permanent we can’t deny. Ryan implies an answer to this through the title: “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It,” we are committed to being works in progress. As a result, grace is possible. We can be gracious, as long as we are willing to recognize our rough edges, how we’ve been wrestling, consciously or not, with our own formation.

Ha Jin, “Because I Will Be Silenced”

Express yourself in a manner so quiet that anything you say seems understated. With that tone established, make a radical claim, that your few words try to do nothing less than “break the walls that cut off people’s voices:”

Because I Will Be Silenced (from Poetry)
Ha Jin

Once I have the freedom to say
my tongue will lose its power.
Since my poems strive to break the walls
that cut off people’s voices,
they become drills and hammers.
But I will be silenced.
The starred tie around my neck
at any moment can tighten into a cobra.
How can I speak about coffee and flowers?

I’m curious as to how the stark, plain language creates a sense of understatement, and further, what that could mean. I want to express myself in the manner of this poem. I wish I could quietly say profound things, declare my powers and limits, then illustrate the difficulties which underlie any profundity.

If I could, I would be a better democratic citizen. The plainness of the poem starts with a sincere belief in equality, that sacrificing to stand as one is true freedom. Once I have the freedom to say / my tongue will lose its power. The poet contends his words empower others at the expense of the power of the words. Once your attack on censorship, your timeless defense of the right to speak, has become the rule, it falls into disrepair and disuse. This poet does not think of himself as conferring immortality through his craft, but instead sees his words as disposable.

At best, his words are tools, drills and hammers others employ to break the walls that divide them. Since my poems strive to break the walls / that cut off people’s voices, / they become drills and hammers. He doesn’t see himself as any kind of hero, but someone striving, striving to give others things they themselves will use. The plainness of the poem hides, again, a teaching which might stun one trained in classical literature: the rhetoric to defend freedom is no rhetoric at all. All that matters is that the poet tries, that others’ voices are cut off by walls, and drills and hammers are available. He can justify his treatment of the grandest themes by making humble claims.

It is precisely the humility of the claims which causes them to be silenced. Plenty have waxed eloquent about things which caused the displeasure of people with power. Family members with no boundaries, despotic states, and majorities who have willed themselves tyrannical see the threat as mere openness. Tyrants in families shelter their families, despots arrest crowds and journalists, and majorities make the reasonable illegitimate, elevating the absurd. But I will be silenced: the worst part is that you will utter words, and they may be forced into meaninglessness. The starred tie around my neck / at any moment can tighten into a cobra: in the very sense you speak for many, speak for a diversity, you are at risk of poisoning yourself. Your speech is not your own.

All of this leads to a complicated conclusion. How can I speak about coffee and flowers? Free people should be able to speak about whatever they want. People who love freedom, even if they don’t have it, need to be able to celebrate life’s graces. Yet only speaking of “coffee and flowers,” celebrating the world too much, allows no less than totalitarian societies to justify themselves. They can say that happiness and security are far more valuable goods than freedom, as everyone can attest to the value of happiness and security. How can I speak about coffee and flowers? One has to keep saying “freedom,” over and over, reaffirming one’s commitment and sincerity. Otherwise, it is possible that one will not become many, or an I becomes a We.

Blog in Review: “a discussion which consists of nothing but denial,” 6/21/17

These “blog in review” entries are really tough. I want to make them both personal and worthwhile, drawing new connections for what I wrote, connections I didn’t see before. My hope is to be useful to me and you. Unfortunately, because I rarely have given those connections sufficient thought, I end up writing something horribly convoluted. – Still, the practice of writing about one’s writing is a good one, so the struggle continues. –

This latest round of blogging started with me talking about Nietzsche and the experience of reading. Nietzsche didn’t speak about reading directly, but about the value of Bizet’s Carmen over against Wagner’s operas. I do think his remarks add up to a serious consideration of how we respond to art, and not far from the question of how Bizet’s opera works is the question of how Nietzsche’s own text is supposed to work.

Then I talked about Kay Ryan’s “The Elephant in the Room,” a little protest poem walking through whether we’re in denial, or having a discussion, or having a discussion which consists of nothing but denial. It’s about politics in the largest sense, I feel.

Later on in the week, I couldn’t help myself. William Carlos William’s “This Is Just To Say” was getting mocked on Twitter for the millionth time. I get it people: you know exactly one poem. Congratulations. I felt a defense of the poem was in order — I mean, if you’re addicted to House of Cards, “This Is Just To Say” is definitely an exercise in subtlety.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “kitchenette building” provided the occasion for me to speak about our society’s worst sins directly. I followed it up by writing on Emily Dickinson’s “The power to be true to You” and Issa’s “Napped half the day,” which are about the expectations we hold for ourselves. It’s remarkable to me how sometimes, expectations are terribly oppressive, and yes, society uses them to hurt us as individuals. Yet at other times, expectations are almost entirely an existential crisis, nearly too personal to communicate. It’s so strange that after thousands of years, there are no clear lines to help us make better distinctions, but solving our problems requires a substantial degree of “winging it.”

My last entry was on a few words of Seamus Heaney’s, and it speaks for itself. I think you’ll find it complements most of what I’ve been thinking through in this written record.

from Seamus Heaney’s “The Digging Skeleton”

Drawings touched with an odd beauty
As if the illustrator had
Responded gravely to the sad
Mementoes of anatomy --

- Seamus Heaney, from "The Digging Skeleton"

Creativity comes with a burst of emotion, some think, or stems from a mystical power that should evoke the strongest emotions.

I’ve had these lines from Heaney sitting in my drafts folder for months now. As an illustrator draws, his pencil gives more than precision. Every stroke responds to what he depicts; he tries to grasp how a body is, and finds each part of that body a sad memento, a reminder of aging, mortality, and the harshness of circumstance. He generates an image from an attempt to apprehend being, and the funny thing is where the truth of art lies. It doesn’t lie in a sort of strict fidelity to how the eyes use light and the brain and nervous system craft an image. Instead, the artist, a human being, responds gravely to another’s tragic situation, seeing it reflected in his physical constitution, and this is the only thing which can be rendered true. We have no objective verification of what the artist saw, only what the artist actually saw.

What’s “odd” about these drawings on which Heaney remarks is that the relation between art and life has revealed itself. We look at things every day and do not quite realize how we are looking at them. From here, Wittgenstein’s statement that moral judgments are indeed aesthetic judgments seems fairly obvious. I know that can be taken too far: plenty of people think that if the culture is a certain way, that makes everyone moral. Heaney’s lines can serve as a corrective to that notion. The heart of any moral sentiment is in the response. Dictation, by definition, would seem in essence to be contrary to morality.