Human beings seem to be inveterate makers of pattern, whether musical, visual, or verbal. The people who hollowed out the bird bones and cut holes at regular intervals were also making stunning pictures on the walls of caves and, I have no doubt, singing songs to their children and telling each other stories. All of these activities have pattern making at the heart. Other animals can recognize patterns in the world around them; human animals seem to be the only ones compelled to consciously create patterns — in the air, on the walls, with their voices.
I’ve just been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s delightful little book, The Art of Syntax — another in Graywolf’s really excellent The Art of series* — in which she makes explicit the patterns and variations in several poems serving as exempla.After all these years of writing poetry, Voigt’s little book excites me about what originally excited me — making shapes with words. With James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, Voigt’s book would serve the intermediate student of poetry as a fine introduction to the art.
*Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, another entry in this series, is a rich source of insight about the textures of literary fiction.
There’s a show at MOMA I’d like to see, of James Ensor’s proto-modernist paintings. I find my own aesthetic roots in the period of western art and literature that runs from the end of the 19th century through the First World War — the period of what is sometimes called High Modernism. The NY Times reviewer, Holland Cotter, calls Ensor “an aggrieved traditionalist with a pop culture itch,” words that I might apply to myself. Ensor also labored all his life away from the centers of culture where artistic reputations were made. Ensor strikes me as paradigmatic of modernism in his combining of high and low culture and his subversion of technique by technique. [A barely adequate Wikipedia entry here; Google image results here.] One loves the old modes and methods even when they are no longer viable and one is reduced to parody and pastiche.
I’m not going to link to the photos / video of artist Habacuc’s work. If you want to see a dog starving to death as an art installation, you can search on the name.
Proposal for funding: An art installation: Guillermo Vargas Habacuc comes to my house & we tie him to a tree out back without food or water. My dogs & I watch from the deck as he starves to death. They bark at him & I jeer, but soon we grow bored & he dies in loneliness & terror. Certainly the authorities would have no objections since this would be an art installation.
Note: Looking around a bit more, I see that the artist has issued a series of statements defending his work. It’s hard to know what to make of them, but even the most recent in which he says he is trying to call attention to the plight of stray dogs makes no logical, aesthetic, or moral sense. Why not a street urchin with AIDS? Why not a torture victim? You want to call attention to the plight of stray dogs in Costa Rica? Go rescue one, provide veterinary care, and if it is “going to die anyway,” comfort it as you have it put down. Photograph & videotape tape the process & show that work in the gallery. Any real art — even the ugliest & most painful — must spring from some source of compassion; otherwise, it is merely egotism, voyeurism, exploitation, sensationalism, stupidity in various mixtures & combinations. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).