Category Archives: Writing poetry

Culture Is Always Arising

LH_Lear_Rothko-21-225x300When I lived in Cambridge, Mass., I had the good fortune to live around the corner from Lewis Hyde and his wife, writer Patsy Vigderman. Lew was recently in Los Angeles to talk about his new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, and television legend Norman Lear held a book party in his honor–this is a snapshot of Lew in front of a happy Rothko that hangs on a side-wall in Norman Lear’s very large home.

Common as Air is Hyde’s third book. His first two (The Gift and Trickster Makes This World) are cult classics among artists. Hyde writes about ancient ideas and inheritances with startling freshness. There are anecdotes and shards of autobiography in his writings–his persona is of a scholar in a thicket of tangible ideas. He’s at home in both secular and sacred realms and brings the past into the present with alacrity. His arguments take the form of stories.

In his introduction to Hyde, as moguls settled into chairs and ingenues draped themselves on the stairs, Norman Lear spoke about our culture being “gobbled up.” He was hosting this book party because “of the importance of Hyde’s ideas….”

“Culture is always arising, and those who participate in its ongoing creation will rightly want to question any cultural expression that comes to them wrapped in a right to exclude,” Hyde writes in the first chapter of Common as Air…which is also Book of Questions.

It took Hyde six years to write this 300-page book. He gave Lear’s guests a nutshell version in his 20-minute talk, tracing ideas of copyright, notions of creativity, and examples of enabling and disabling protocols of ownership. Hyde’s an autodidact with a lyric poet’s style and sensibility. He puts pressure on words, squeezing meaning from etymologies, shifting social contexts, and sensitivities. His vocabulary re-animates old words and presses them into service in a multiplicity of meanings. Early on he states, “I want ‘common’ to be available as a verb….”

He looked a bit of the Trickster at Norman Lear’s house–a disruptive presence among Hollywood types. He spoke of ideas as belonging to all of us, and he referenced the founding fathers’ notions of property-rights as material goods. He quoted Jefferson: “Ideas cannot in nature be the subject of property,” Jefferson wrote. (JEFFERSON! I might add, slave-owning Jefferson!)

The founding father that Hyde gravitates toward is Benjamin Franklin. In a chapter entitled “Benjamin Franklin: Founding Pirate,” he describes Franklin’s attitude toward his own contributions and inventions as not being about self-promotion but for “the common Benefit.” Franklin shared ideas freely, and he absorbed ideas quickly. He did not hoard what he knew, and he did not personalize it either. “He understood, first of all, that scientific claims do not depend on particular scientists; the more personal the origin of the claim, in fact, the more likely its errors.”

Lewis Hyde’s arguments are critiques of the commodification and distribution of art as product. Questions of Intellectual Property become increasingly fractious as experiences of art become virtual, as we take the body (video games) and the object (the book) out of the experience (somatic?) of art. Lew wanted some resistance, and Los Angeles should have been one place to receive it–but he received only sanguine admiration for the sacrifice he’s gone to in creating this argument. At Norman Lear’s pad he was talking to artists, actors, and entertainment industry visionaries. Gore Vidal was there as well, and at the end of the evening Lear asked Mr. Vidal to speak. Gore Vidal spoke of Benjamin Franklin, bringing us back again to that founding pirate. Everything seemed possible.

This idea that the self, that the ego, that the personality needs be distilled out of the work is longstanding. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T.S. Eliot states: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

Past Lives

PastLives1-300x200Amy Gerstler & Alexis Smith recently spoke about the art of collaboration at the Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City.   This installation is part of a larger exhibition, one that focuses on Portraiture.  They re-mounted part of their show “Past Lives” which is a psychically charged stage set that creates the effect of a mythical classroom. There are more than a dozen children’s chairs, all of them beaten up by generations of children.  The text on the wall summons up the commingling of past and future—there are horoscopes and hints to the Fates of all of these children. A blackboard tilts in one corner of the room, full of cryptic writing in strong slanted penmanship.

Alexis Smith and Amy Gerstler
David Ulin’s “Writers and Their Influences” class and Brighde mullins’ “Ekphrasis” classes turn out to hear poet AMY GERSTLER and visual artist ALEXIS SMITH talk about their collaboration at the Honor Fraser Gallery.

Of their collaboration, Alexis Smith said that she and Amy summon up or create a third person – and this person is the real artist behind the work. “We make-up a third person, who is not a collage artist or a poet,” Alexis said.

That idea of a persona who is a sculptor, and who comes into being because these two are collaborating, is such a fanciful idea.  It’s also a perfect way to think about the combined forces that these two artists generate in making this Magic Schoolroom.

ALEXIS SMITH’s work has the kind of wit that undermines the status quo. Her collages always seem to use language, and to summon up great writers.  Indeed “When I met Alex she was only working with dead writers—Whitman, Raymond Chandler, Borges, Longfellow, Kerouac,”  Amy said.  Amy said that she wanted to hang out with Alexis, but the only way that could happen was if she worked with her on a project.

“She worked all the time, and I realized that I wouldn’t get to hang out with her unless I collaborated with her,” Amy said, revealing the foundation that I suspect is at the heart of every true collaboration—affinity.  Part of that affinity probably has to do with Alexis’ immersion in writers.  “Over time, the images beat out the words,” Alexis said.   Later she said “I want to see what I can do without the words.”

A thousand startling juxtapositions animate her pieces.  It’s an eccentric (a word that Alexis Smith used) body of work, an insistent one from what I’ve seen, and it makes demands on a viewer.  You have to put a kind of mental pressure on the images and language for them to release their often funny, always critically sharp, punchlines.  The pay off is often that feeling of consolation that someone else sees the inherent absurdity in certain manifestations of culture and capitol and the types of manipulations that we are all prone too, since we are so often in a prone position as consumers.

The audience included the MPW class on Ekphrasis that I taught….and once again the word Ekphrasis came up for discussion.  It is a pretentious-sounding word, but it is an accurate one, one that means “description” in Greek. And, after all, as Wallace Stevens noted “accuracy of observation is the equivalent of thinking.”  Amy noted that Alexis’ process is a sort of “reverse ekphrasis.”  This brilliant observation drew no response from the audience but bafflement, but I know what Amy meant.

Both Amy Gerstler and Alexis Smith are profoundly inspiring and startling thinkers. To see the collusion/collision of their sensibilities, you need to see it in person.  And to linger—and to read the wall text which will reveal to you the whimsical darkness and levity that Amy Gerstler is so good at capturing:

Has no morals. Suffers from migraines. Refuses to bathe.

Talks all night. Broke new ground. Lost 50 pounds. Hates her

Name. Humiliates his children. Can’t sit still. Published

Eighteen novels. Can’t eat seafood. Lies to everyone. Gets lost

often.  Finds motherhood fulfilling. Succumbed to smallpox. Sees the

future.

–wall text from “Past Lives”