alcoholics synonymous

So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed? We’re just having fun / We don’t care who sees / So what we go out? That’s how it’s supposed to be / Living young and wild and free.                –  Bruno Mars

I had a person in my life that drank too much, who very much needs/needed to stop drinking. To describe it any further would be a waste of words. I’m going to somewhat unjustifiably use that as a hook to tell a famous tale from Japanese folklore, which, like several stories from my own personal mythology, can also be blamed on alcohol. I know this won’t help said person with their problem – nothing I do ever has – nor are they likely to ever read this post, but maybe I’ll find some catharsis, and maybe you’ll like the story.

The story is called “Shutendōji” after the lead villain, a monstrous ogre-king who abducts young girls and seals them in his mountain fortress, before such misdemeanors are brought to an end by our dynamic hero. What might seem a straightforward tale of good’s triumph over evil is actually something far more complex.

The story is set in the mid-Heian period (about 1000AD), in the reign of Emperor Ichijō (r. 980-1011). Everything was going swimmingly until maidens kept disappearing from the capital. I doubt anyone would have cared except for the fact that they were beautiful (obv.) and perhaps even more significant than that, daughters of the aristocracy. There was widespread and general upset about this until one particular daughter, the beautiful and only child of the Minister Kunitaka, went missing; he was beside himself with despair, and enlisted a fortune-teller to divine the fate of his nearest and dearest. Learning that she has been kidnapped by an ogre-lord and imprisoned on Mt. Ōe (or Mt. Ibukiyama, depending on your source), he relates the whereabouts of the missing girls to the Emperor, who duly agrees to send the legendary demon-slayer Minamoto no Raikō to accomplish the search/destroy/rescue mission.

Raikō agrees and sets off with his loyal band of merry men, including his legendary “Shitennō” (Four Heavenly Kings): four warriors not-so-humbly named for the guardian-deities of the four directions in Buddhism. Setting out on their trip, they decide to disguise themselves as itinerant mountain priests, and head to the demon’s stronghold. The demon king is named Shutendōji 酒呑童子, which means “Drunken acolyte,” a not-insignificant detail that will come back to haunt us later. Meeting three old men on the path who offer to help them, Raikō realizes that they are in fact the deities of the respective shrines the warriors visited in preparation for their mission. Honored by this divine assistance, they gratefully receive advice, holy armor, and poisoned sake with which to vanquish the demon, who is famous for his fondness for alcohol.

Further along the path, the men meet a young girl washing bloodstained robes in the river, a haunting image that was depicted numerous times over the centuries; touching for its depiction of such an ordinary act of laundry made grotesque by her circumstances, and charged with eroticism for her revealed white arm, an unthinkable transgression for an aristocratic girl from the city, who would never perform such a task or expose her body in such a way. With horrifying regularity, the demons would seize one of the captive ladies and take her to a place called the ‘jail,’ where they pressed her body for blood. This they then served, calling it “sake.”A magic potion kept the woman from dying, so that they could press her several times, but eventually they butchered her and served her flesh, calling it “fish.” The girl tells the warriors that she, and many others, are captive in the demon citadel – their bodies are forced into presses and their blood drained to be served as sake, a torture that is inflicted upon them several times whilst keeping them alive, or their limbs may be severed and served up as delicacies in the demon banquets, whilst they wander limbless. The band promise her they will release the girls, and after a scuffle with the doorman, the ogre Shutendōji’s curiosity outweighs his caution and he lets the men inside.

Skeptical of the men’s identity (he even accuses them directly of being the dreaded Raikō and his Shitennō at one point, an accusation that Raikō successfully refutes), he tests them by offering them the unthinkable – cups of blood and severed limbs, sure that their refusal will reveal their heroic identity. Though he can have no doubt about where these can have come from, Raikō waves away the demon sent to prepare them, and chugging back the blood, quickly slices the limbs into strips and literally wolfs it down. Taken aback, Shutendōji reminds the visitors that since there is no deception in the demon world – those of his kind are categorically incapable of lying – he will accept them into his company and take them on their word. He gratefully accepts the sake his visitors have brought and gets down to the business that he likes the best, drinking – not knowing that this “gift”is a divine elixir than will poison a demon such as himself [n.b. this is *exactly* like casting “holy” on an undead enemy in a videogame].

how would you like your steak sir

how would you like your steak sir

As he starts blacking out, he heads to his chambers, and peeking through the doors the warriors see him in his true form, as a giant red ogre, rather than the human-ish shape he had presented them with before. The three deities appear once more to smash down the magical doors, and Raikō and his men bind Shutendōji with magical chains and cut off his head. The head goes wild and attacks Raikō, and were it not for the magical helmet provided by the deities, that would have been the end of him. Our heroes kill the other demons and rescue the girls, sending them back to the city and their families.

But it’s not a happy ending for everyone. On the way out of the castle, the warriors see stacks of decomposing corpses of the girls they were too late to save, and even more gruesomely, see a girl with a missing arm and a leg – these are the limbs served to the men just hours before, prepared and consumed by Raikō himself. Sure of her imminent death, she sends a lock of hair back to her parents, so they know that she was thinking of them and so that they have something to remember her by. But how will the men know where to send it? In a brilliant twist of irony, she tells them her name, she is the daughter of the Minister Kunitaka, the man who started it all.

Like most people who hear it, I’m fascinated by this story. It’s so morally ambiguous. Of course we know who the goodies and baddies are, those categories are not truly called into question, but even within those parameters there is a great deal of flexibility and moral ambiguity that may make us view the actions of Raikō and his companions, not to mention the fate of Shutendōji, with some measure of uneasiness. Raikō’s readiness to eat human flesh, which turns out to belong to the very girl they were sent to save, is the most obvious example. Is it really necessary for him to do this? It was obviously a very expedient means to gain the demon’s trust, but Shutendōji’s shocked reaction suggests that despite his offer, he wasn’t expecting Raikō to actually accept it. Perhaps marshaling arguments about their (pretended) priestly status and prescriptions on the consumption of any meat might have taken longer, and have been riskier, but it also wouldn’t have required our hero to, you know, EAT SOMEONE. Especially since the eating of human flesh is precisely the is the unthinkable evil that Raikō has been sent (by the Emperor no less) to stop. Of course, the assistance of the deities makes them complicit to some degree, and as readers we are assured that we are cheering for the right side.

I also feel uneasy about the pretending part. Of course they need to access the ogre’s complex somehow, and dressing up as mountain ascetics is a pretty good explanation. I didn’t think anything was questionable about the ol’ Stormtrooper ploy until the parts when Shutendōji reiterates the lack of betrayal in the demon world – demons cannot lie. C’mon, that has to tug on your sympathy strings a little bit. In some versions of the story, we hear more of Shutendōji’s side – how he came to be the monster the world sees him to be. Initially an acolyte in a temple (hence his name), his wild lusts and desires saw him ostracized, and rather than try to guide him on the path to salvation he was repeatedly expelled from religious institutions. Persecuted, he fled the capital and entered the mountains, drawing his kind closer to him that they might live in community with each other. This is not an attempt to exonerate his acts, by any means, but it is still an extraordinary nod in that direction. In some versions of the story, it is revealed that Shutendōji is really an incarnation of the arch-enemy of the Buddha, who throughout his countless lifetimes is destined to repeat an evil fate. Not only does this render his ‘evil’ choices as fatalistic, cosmically out of his control, his existence has repeatedly served, and is possibly even purposed, to bring about the enlightenment of others, through the trials and tribulations they endure at his hand. These variants emphasize that Shutendōji’s behaviour is not by choice, but by design. Some presentations really emphasize his human side, and his name emphasizes nothing so much as a young boy who has gone astray, fallen victim to a poison from which many suffer.

The representation of the Japanese imperial court and the noble warriors fighting on its behalf as the force of all that is ‘good’ becomes a troubled one, because the voice of the doomed ‘evil’ oni resonates throughout the text as the voice of the marginalized other, excluded from their domains of cultural and martial virtue. I can’t help but sympathize with a character that is brought to its ultimate demise through exclusion and deception.

So what is the moral of the story? There doesn’t really have to be one. I just find it reassuring that even in folktales, which usually provide us with paradigms of noble and evil behaviours, sometimes we can find cases that are closer to our own grey-area experiences. Do the ends justify the means? How about when we are confronted with the (very visceral) casualties of our choices, however noble our purpose? And what of exploiting the weakness and abusing the trust of our enemy? And oh yeah, don’t forget that Raikō voluntarily ATE THAT LADY.

Once, I wanted this story to tell me that I could save that person in my life, doing whatever it takes, by any means necessary. I don’t think it does.

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an officer and a gentleman

書厚故不貴。

If you are familiar enough with Japanese to suspect that the above sentence isn’t Japanese, then you’d be right. Or, mostly right. Kindof. It’s a sentence of written in a weird Japanese-Chinese mule-child language known as kanbun, which I have had the joy and curse of studying this semester.

Why does such a language exist, you may feel entitled to ask. Well, Japanese is complicated and this tendency goes way back. Before it’s introduction from China in the 4th century, Japanese people did not have a written language. Apparently, messages were communicated through knotted cords, although I can’t imagine you could say very much with a series of knots on a rope. But then I’m not very imaginative. Curiously enough, the Incas had a similar, if not more sophisticated system with quipu.

But that’s another story. Anyway, the point is Japanese people couldn’t write and when they saw the Chinese could it was all very exciting, and the immediate response was to adopt this new, shiny thing from the continent. However, someone was clearly very enamored of this idea and really ran with it before thinking it through – Japanese and Chinese have almost nothing in common. Little things that might make such a procedure plausible, like word order and er, grammar. Rather than just rip it up and start again, Japanese developed ingenious means to render Chinese intelligible, or, to put it another way, read Chinese script AS Japanese. Confused? Good. Imagine reading a sentence written in German and ignoring German pronunciation and word order completely and actually just saying it in English. Wait, that’s too easy because German and English share the same alphabet. Think Russian. Imagine reading a sentence written in Russian and ignoring Russian pronunciation and word order completely and actually just saying it in English. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

There was no Martin Luther to insist on the use of a vernacular language, so Japanese people used both Japanese and Chinese writing systems in tandem for centuries, each with their own functions, associations, and pitfalls. Kanbun was the written language of the elite, used for official documents and military histories, and regardless of how you feel about that (me = contemptuous), it is interesting. Modern Japanese uses thousands of Chinese characters, interspersed with (two) very simplified syllabaries. Learning Japanese would probably be a lot easier if there weren’t three different writing systems, if was started from scratch in the beginning. But then kanbun wouldn’t be part of my degree requirement and I’d have one less reason to feel superior.

So, what does it mean? Well, if I shove in some Japanese particles and other miscellany into the sentence above, we get:

“Just because the book is thick, doesn’t mean it’s of value.”

It’s good advice.

Not that I like to complain (snigger) but I am ending another semester of classical language study, with only the promise of next year’s literary Chinese lessons to further depress me. For the present class, I’m back with the Professor who attempted to teach me classical Japanese last semester, a process roughly akin to pushing a (thick) book through my forehead. He additionally struggles through a translation seminar on The Tale of Genji with me once a week, valiantly persevering in the face of my unfathomable density. Sometimes he laughs at my jokes, sometimes he glances at me with muted displeasure. Mostly it’s a relationship of mutual perplexion. This sagely professor’s comment: “In the past we have always managed to have an exam, and people have more or less passed.” This isn’t very reassuring. The kanbun textbook is also very thin, and I don’t have a proverb for that.

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the mark of the fan

“Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it becomes absurd.” – David Lynch

I’m so old-fashioned and boring sometimes. When I occasionally claim to like modern art it’s only when it’s of a type that makes a deliberate and obvious reference to something old skool that I know I like already. Otherwise, I sympathize wholeheartedly with the common view that modern art is incomprehensible – I just don’t “get it”, whatever that means. Sometimes this is fine, and I like looking at it anyway, but most of the time the thought makes me uncomfortable – we’re all afraid of things we don’t understand.

fanboy

Case in point: one modern Japanese graphic artist that I have a squishy spot for, Takeda Hideo (1948-  ).

A series of his prints that I like in particular take as their base complex tattoos that are the symbol of the gangster class in Japan. Here, tattoos are wrapped around fleshy and confrontational bodies in often complex configurations that emphasize repetition and pattern, like echoes of the tattoos themselves.

Sorry, backtrack – it’s called the Gempei series and is based on a medieval war epic based on true events in the late 12th century, the Tale of the Heike (‘Gempei’ is a shorthand configuration of the characters used for the two clans in the war, the Taira and the Minamoto). I can tell you about the Tale of the Heike some other time if you’re interested, but the central theme of this huge and complicated war narrative is impermanence and the meaninglessness of our actions – first the Taira clan defeat the Imperially-backed Minamoto, only to be defeated by them in turn twenty years later. Despite being a glorified account of idealized warriors and their conduct in battle, this is a tale with an overtly Buddhist message; that of impermanence, or mujō. Nothing endures, the mighty will fall.

when two tribes go to war

The title of this post is the title of one of my favourite images in this series, an illustration of a well-know episode from the tale that has been referenced countless times in poetry and images for centuries. At this point in the narrative the Taira clan is once again forced into retreat, and they withdraw to their boats in a frenzied flight from the Minamoto. Defeated, but not without pride, a lady on board holds out her fan as a challenge to the enemy soldiers. In response, the young and skilled archer Nasu no Yoichi hits the target to the amazement and disbelief of all those who witness it, whether enemy or ally. Readers of the tale will know that this is the Taira’s final retreat. They escape to the southern tip of Honshū only to be followed by their enemy like Nasu no Yoichi’s arrow, and are decisively destroyed by the heroic general Minamoto no Yoshitsune at the battle of Dan-no-ura. All the elements of the traditional story of bravado and exchange are present in Takeda’s print, but they are highly stylized. The waves are identical in pattern to the blue-ink tattoos on many of the warriors in the series, and the white foam is nothing more than the repeated grasping hand of the fallen Taira soldier. The Taira boat is reduced to nothing other than the mast to which the woman clings; her role in this version grossly over-emphasized. Her voluptuous body is as tempting as the challenge offered by the display of the fan itself. But her challenge will be answered and her inevitable vanquishment is already known to us – the once mighty Taira will fall.

night light

Visually, just one of many interesting things about this series is the way that the warriors are not wearing any armour – aside from their elaborate helmets, most of the warriors are sccantily clad, if at all. What they are wearing are the elaborate full-body tattoos that are most commonly associated with the criminal class of organized crime in Japan, the yakuza. Such tattooing was not contemporary to the period of these wars, becoming popular only much later in the Edo period (1600-1868). So why does Takeda depict them here? One possible explanation is that many of Takeda’s cartoons are concerned with absurdity, such as the neighboring image from his collection Opera Glasses (1977). His prints are often concerned with motifs of violence and cruelty, and his open claim to be a sadist is perhaps another means of incorporating his humour into his work. He has stated his interest in pointless struggles that humans undertake in the name of their blindly-chosen goals. This fits together perfectly with the theme of impermanence in the Tale of the Heike, and is surely a contributory factor in the success of the Genpei series.

On a more practical level, Takeda argues for the importance of colour to his cartoons (he describes himself as a cartoonist, and not an artist), and the use of tattoos is a wonderful way to achieve this. In real life, these prints are breathtakingly vivid, and even in reproduction their graphic intensity is nonetheless apparent. [I hope so anyway. I took these pictures myself a few years ago, so any poverty in these images is, as always, my bad. Better images probably exist elsewhere, but these recall to me a pleasant afternoon spent by myself crawling over a scratchy carpet in a museum storeroom photographing them for my own amusement. So, deal with it.]

In my real life, I primarily study the print culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and my interest in warrior prints is sparked by their huge increase in popularity at this time – how we can give a sensitive account of the rise of warrior imagery amongst a commoner class during an extended period of peace in which the ruling samurai class had been reduced to an impoverished bureaucracy. Amongst the artists that I study, the fall of the Taira is a popular visual iconography, a tradition that Takeda himself recognizes in his work. The continued idealization of this warrior past in the present day is also interesting, and Takeda provides a commentary on this fascination by including the absurdity of this phenomenon within his prints. I think the Genpei series is wonderful, and I find many other things to like in his other work… but I understand that sadistic violence made ludicrous is not to everyone’s taste.

Conclusion? I would very much like you, dear readers, to buy me a print from the Gempei series. Such a print and/or a Teddy Ruxpin are the keys to win my cold, black heart. However, I am aware that, tragically (for me in particular), neither of these are sensible or likely purchases. It’s important to recognize your own absurdity.

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it’s black and white.

According to those mysterious creatures that I like to term other people, hardly anything is.

I’m often (quite accurately) accused of posing everything in extremes and refusing to see the grey areas on any given topic, particularly when it comes to other people’s behaviour, and specifically when it comes into conflict with what I have decided are my interests. This charming foible of mine is partly attributable to the fact that I am stubborn and self-absorbed, but also because I can’t help but think that anything other than a firm answer is just lazy. I am impatient. Hurry up and think about it properly and come back to me with the answer that I want to hear please. Thx.

I chose to write my seminar paper this semester on Jakuchu’s woodblock printed books, Genpo yōka 玄圃瑤華 (1868), which to my great relief, is executed entirely in black and white. Image. Background. Ne’er the twain shall meet. You’d think that would make things simple. Produced by the so-called takuhanga technique in simulation of Chinese transfer rubbings made from stone steles, this ehon (picture book) is composed of forty-eight designs of plants and insects – all executed in reverse image, rendering the background in black and the design elements left as negative white space, some accompanied by inscriptions in cursive script of Chinese characters.

Jakuchū was a member of an artistic and social community and some of its constituent groups that met on a regular basis in and around Kyoto to exchange ideas and objects of interest, and to produce collaborative works. These groups admired, and in part aimed to recreate, the cultural conditions of the Chinese intelligentsia. However, there was no social class of men of letters in Japan, no national examination system, and no comparable sense of common endeavor for an educated elite. Artists in Japan who aspired to Chinese cultural ideals were therefore not equipped with the same set of social coordinates as their imagined Chinese counterparts, and Japanese painters were often oblique to many of the presuppositions about Chinese men of letters. For instance, as a member of the merchant class by birth, according to the neo-Confucian Tokugawa government’s four-level status hierarchy of warrior, peasant, artisan and merchant, Jakuchū’s inherited position was officially despised. However, in addition to the official vertical system of status, artistic and intellectual communities were able to establish horizontal networks that made it possible to transcend the official system in productive, if limited, ways.

Believe it or not, but these prints fit into this social landscape. Jakuchū was acquainted with several prominent figures in the Kyoto artistic scene and was a member of several groups centered around the influential figures of Daiten, Baisaō Kō Yūgai (1675 – 1763) and Kimura Kenkadō (1736 – 1802). As with these figures, Jakuchū’s identity was both group and self-fashioned according to various prototypical models of the ‘gentleman scholar’ in what was considered a very common, axiomatic way of being a cultured individual, according to various typologies developed by the 8th century in China. Genpo yōka, like other of Jakuchū’s works, was created within this social field of practice in which artistic production took place in a discursive space amongst like-minded individuals, and in which participation came to represent a whole lifestyle that was imbued with poetic sentiments and gentlemanly ideals. Members would gather together in these groups, sometimes in Chinese dress in the manner of Baisaō, to enjoy steeped tea and savor Chinese verse, art treasures and the Confucian classics — in short, to become erudite and cultivated, and to share a common interest in the culture of China, though one which was very much internalized, lacking as they did the actual means to travel there.

rubbed up the wrong way

So what makes these prints “Chinese”? The technique used to produce the prints in Genpo yōka is a variation of a practice that originates in China known as takuhon in Japanese. With its origins in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), it was primarily used for reproducing by transfer the inscriptions incised on monumental objects, such as bronzes or steles, and became a widely used printing method in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1844). These works of reproduction (see left) served as important objects of commemoration and transmission for the original monumental work, that nevertheless recorded a particular moment in that object’s life in full recognition and appreciation of the stone’s current state of erosion. There is a sense of directness and immediacy in this process as the practitioner must come into close physical proximity with the original object. These steles were destination sites for scholastic pilgrimage, and since a rubbed impression was by necessity created by someone who had actually visited the stele, the print transmitted and commemorated the authority of the original object and this journey.

By the takuhon method, wet paper is pressed against the inscribed stone surface to allow the paper to partially sink into the recessed areas of pattern or text. Whilst the paper remains on the surface of the object, ink is applied to the paper by rubbing – with the result that the recessed portions remain blank. This produces an exact image of the original design when the paper is subsequently removed. Takuhon printing is fundamentally different in technique from conventional Japanese woodblock printing in which paper is laid on the surface of a previously inked block and rubbed from the back in order to produce the image. Ink is applied to the raised areas of the design, which correspond to the carved outlines of the original image; i.e. it is a relief printing process. Takuhon, by contrast, is an intaglio print process, where the design is carved into the wood. In both processes, the design would first be created by the artist with a brush as an ink drawing on paper which would then be applied to the woodblock prior to carving.

The resulting prints could then be collected together and used for copy books for calligraphy, forming collections of reproductions of calligraphic or pictorial models worthy of emulation by aspiring students. Although this technique initially involved rubbing from stone objects, Jakuchū’s takuhanga prints play on this conceit by their production from carved woodblocks by an analogous process. Whereas ‘ordinary’ copy books attempted to imitate ink painting through xylographic means, Jakuchū’s takuhanga works aim to imitate an impression from stone by designs created by brush and ink. The prints themselves are reminiscent of the textural surface of stone, as the mechanical process materializes the paper and makes us aware of it as a physical surface, giving it an almost sculptural appearance. The white lines that provide the areas of detail on many of the designs appear as though etched into a surface of black paper, in what could be interpreted as a (re)creation of the stele’s stone face.

But it isn’t just the images that allude to Chinese precedents – the inscriptions that accompany some of the designs in Genpo yōka are short statements that allude to Confucian aphorisms, or majestic-sounding titles for common specimens. For instance, the humble and commonplace maize plant is given the elevated title of ‘Ripening Jeweled Grains’, and though its companion is a beetle, it is the kabuto mushi (‘King of insects’). These inscriptions grant lofty associations to features of the ordinary environment, and reflect the way in which Jakuchū and his group conceptualized the natural world around them by re-envisioning the Japanese ecology according to Chinese scholastic values. Similarly, the four-character title, evocative of Chinese precedents, refers to a garden on one of the peaks of Mt Kunlun in China, which was the residence of Taoist immortals and reputedly filled with spectacular flowers and rocks. Although an actual place in the Central Asian Mountains, Mt Kunlun is more generally associated with the paradisiacal home of the legendary Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu. In this way the title refers to a common literary archetype of the home of Taoist immortals.

This is a funny title given the way that the plants are depicted, as what strikes the viewer is Jakuchū’s emphasis on decay – although this is a common visual motif in many of Jakuchū’s works, it is shown here to an extreme degree. Each of the plants is shown with numerous round holes as a product of insect predation, or other signs of loss and natural decomposition. We can attribute this tendency to several factors; one being the purely aesthetic consideration of the visual appeal of breaking up a simple monochromatic image. The decomposing nature of the foliage also helps to showcase the takuhanga technique, with the increased number of raised edges and indentations giving a pleasing visual effect.

Whatever Jakuchū’s original motivation for creating Genpo yōka, it did achieve a measure of success as a volume of artistic transmission. It was later anthologized and reproduced in woodblock printed books using the standard relief printing process. And in its most modern incarnation, it is the subject of a paper I am grooming for eventual publication. I will try my best to say something concrete on this issue one day, malcontent as always to hide behind ambivalence. Since no one has written on this work before in English, I have an enormous amount of freedom to say whatever I like. I find this more terrifying than liberating. I’m aiming to straddle that fine line between inane and outlandish. Watch this (negative white) space.

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out of left(ist) field

“‘Reality,’ sa molesworth 2, ‘is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'” – Nigel Molesworth

Skating (1877)

I know it’s not what you signed up for, but I will be breaking all the rules and discussing a work by the French impressionist painter Édouard Manet. The painting on the left, to be precise. Why? My answer to this, as to many other questions, is because I am being made to. Forced by the bourgeoisie powers that rule the Gormenghastian institution of which I am a member to give a presentation about it in terms of a Marxist theory of (art) history.

Of course Marx never wrote any such thing as an aesthetic theory, he was far too busy impregnating housemaids or drunkenly smashing streetlights on Tottenham Court Road with his mates (oh the things I learned majoring in political and Marxist philosophy at undergraduate), and then he wrote some political stuff, or so I have heard. Given the cultural significance of artworks and artistic institutions in history, a Marxist theory of art is something that subsequent scholars have tried to formulate ever since. And this is partly the problem, and what is now causing me to regret choosing this week’s topic from amongst the available options; Marxism is emotive, and we’re all guilty of picking and choosing from Marx’s writings to say whatever it is we want him to say. Marx’s words have been used and manipulated by a great number of people for their own goals, not all of whom have even attempted to remain loyal to his intentions.

But I have never been one to keep my mouth shut when I should (for reasons ranging from irrepressible childish excitement to my jaw-dropping ignorance), so I may as well stick my oar in. Briefly stated, Marx’s beef was that economic theorists wrote about human production in a way that made bourgeoisie property relations and private capital seem natural and universal, rather than just a particular state of affairs specific to capitalist society*. Right now, capitalists own the means of production (like factories and raw materials), but it is the working class that actually produces commodities (iPods, Ed Hardy clothing) whilst receiving almost none of the profit (dolla). This matters for art because the state of affairs in the legal, political and cultural spheres of any society are ultimately conditioned by the economic relations that describe the conditions of production. Without wishing to destroy the intricacies of Marx’s arguments – looking at the art of a period can tell us about the class relations of a culture that produced it in very specific and determined ways. For instance, Greek art is grounded in Greek mythology, which for the Greeks was a systematic attempt to understand the world, to rationalize the relations between men and between man and nature. What was revolutional about Marx’s way of looking at the world was that he didn’t think society was the way it was because men thought about it and had decided – it was society (as the conglomerate of relations of production between men) that determined the way men thought about the world.

The German Idealist philosopher Hegel (1770 -1831). Not as much fun at a party as he looks.

This might not seem like much now – society is always telling me how to think about things, so what, big deal – but at the time it was a denial of the commonly accepted Hegelian notion that it was the ultimate and unstoppable force of man’s Will that shaped the world. If Marx’s emphasis on the ultimate explanatory power of economic relations between producers is too much for you, remember that for Marx they were literally everything. He had kept hold of Hegel’s idea that man comes to know himself by expressing his identity and difference to other things through what he produces. What we make and how we make it, how we use it and who we give it to – production governs our relationships with other people, which are active every moment that we live in a society.

Anyway, the painting and that. With its emphasis on ordinary subject matter, the changing qualities of light, and above all, movement, impressionism seems to be orientated around the momentary position of a mobile spectator. The painting above shows a young and stylishly dressed young woman, holding the hand of a small (blurry) child in the lower left, with the titular skating rink in the background. Impressionism, as an expression of modernity, often depicts informal occasions such as this, inhabiting the new world where social classes came together in previously unimaginable proximity. After Haussmann renovated Paris in the 1860s, spaces were created in which life was lived in public, spaces outside of the control by the state, where individuals exchanged views and knowledge – and more importantly, made a spectacle of themselves. Other people have written about Manet’s style in much more elucidating ways than I could here, so I will defer, and get back to the theoretical yawn-fest.

here's looking at you

T.J. Clark, a Marxist art historian upon whose writings my presentation is based, tries to show how Manet’s pictures are a reflection of modernity as it was experienced in that period, when people were just coming to grips with all the changes that it brought. Clark uses a lot of salon criticism in his analysis – by looking at the critical reception of an object in the world of salon, for which Manet created his paintings, he hopes to reconstruct what these paintings meant for the people who viewed them. This would be highly unoriginal and mind-blowingly boring if it wasn’t for the fact that he is looking for specific types of criticism, the kind where the critic goes into some kind of hysterical hyperbolic rant that seems completely unjustifiable if it were based only on formal artistic considerations, as it purports to be. I mean, art can be good or bad, poorly executed or magnificently rendered, but you don’t have to freak out about it. And freak out they did. Critic and public alike went completely mental about Manet’s Olympia of 1863, showing a courtesan lying naked on a couch. It wasn’t that she was a courtesan or that she was naked, or even that she was both, as all these things had been done before. It was that she was so shamelessly so – there was no attempt to keep the naked female body safe and non-threatening by putting it in the guise of a mythological figure, anonymous and depersonalized. The critics weren’t scandalized by the content as such, they just couldn’t work out what they were meant to be looking AT. No, this was terrible, she had the personalized features of an actual woman, and she was looking right back at you, AND she knew exactly why you were looking at her and at other nudes like her. And it wasn’t because you liked the classics.

Clark likens his analysis to a Freudian one, whereby it is the episodic outbursts in a person’s psychological history that point us to the deeper workings of the unconscious. If we look for the psychotic breaks in the critical narrative, what disturbs the status quo will by extension tell us what the status quo really is, or at least how it was perceived to be. I think this critical gaze is encapsulated in our painting by the primly dressed figure on the right, who looks out towards us, mirroring our own gaze, but whose eyes are fixed on the fashionable dressed young female subject. The young woman, wearing makeup, jewelry, and elaborate clothes, is still a mother, bringing her child to this place of social transgression. Basically, she’s a MILF, which was even less appropriate then than it is now. She is a member of the petty bourgeois, a new social class with aspirations higher than its roots, the bearer of modernity. I think the staring figure on the right is somehow the key to this painting, and my presentation will be a statement of this fact followed by disconnected sentences and wild gesticulation as a form of argument in my usual manner.

Marx had some pretty good one liners, but there is one that stands out in light of all the negative ends to which his words have been bent towards (no doubt including formulations of a Marxist history of art such as the one above). After witnessing the self-serving and bitter power-mongering that led to the split of the French Revolutionary Party, Marx commented “If that is Marxism, I am not a Marxist.”

Although it is probably comparable, I am not yet so deeply entrenched in the internal politics of the art history department or the academic community at large to gauge the level of internecine warfare, and I still don’t know if I really am an art historian. I’ll leave that for the critics to decide.

*If at any point you disagree with my formulation of Marx, please write a detailed account of your own position and its deviances from mine, making sure to cite your sources (in the original German if possible), roll it tightly into a tube, insert it into a bottle, then throw it into the *?#%@-ing sea.
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a sense of perspective

Be careful how you interpret the world:  It is like that. – Erich Heller

Regardless of how true to life it might seem, looking at a landscape painting is not like looking out of a window the same size as the canvas. Perhaps we think that strict adherence to Western perspectival techniques, rooted firmly in geometry, make our representations the closest approximation to the way things are that we can realistically achieve. I recently read a classic work in the art historical canon, Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, which gives an account of why we think that that is the case, and also why it is not necessarily so. Bear with me.

things get further away

‘Perspective’, as a graphic device, is something that out eyes construct from the relationship of the shapes that they are presented with, it’s not something that is actually out there (or in there) in the picture. There is actually nothing ‘natural’ about vanishing point perspective, it’s an imposed rationality ushered in in the Renaissance. And since humans had been blithely making pictures for millennia beforehand, we can safely assume that other methods have been perfectly acceptable at one time or another.

So what’s wrong with thinking that vanishing point perspective is simply the best, that it’s better than all the rest? For one thing, vanishing point perspective presupposes that the viewer only has one eye. As often as I talk about how much I want to be a pirate, I do at present have two eyes, as does most of the population. Two spatially separated, continuously roaming eyes construct the environment around us very differently, although that difference is something we have come to ignore in artworks. We are familiar with the effect of holding something flat and fairly thin perpendicular to our face – it suddenly doesn’t seem flat as the far sides appear to spread out from each other as our brain synthesizes the competing images it receives. This simple but not insignificant outcome renders single vanishing point perspective, with its presupposition of a single mastering eye, as incredibly unnatural. But since the Renaissance we’ve been gung-ho about rationalism in general and vanishing point perspective in particular, becoming so well-schooled in it that we now think of it as natural.

Despite the allure of mathematical rigor and the perfect representation of space offered by vanishing point perspective, there have been modern alternatives. In the 20th century there were critiques conducted from various angles, such as the challenge presented by cubism. Other methods saw the fracturing of cityscapes into component parts and an emphasis on the phenomenological perspective – what it was like to move through these spaces, to live in and experience them, rather than how they ‘really are’. Impressionism had called attention to the surface of the artwork; it self-consciously made it known that the artwork is a surface, and not a window onto some objectively existing reality. Modernism also highlighted the materiality of the work by placing a greater emphasis on the ‘madeness’ of the canvas, in order to lessen its capacity to create an illusion. In this way the criticism of an assumed monocularism developed into a critique of occularism in general, examining the contingency of sight and challenging its privileged position over other kinds of sensory information. There is no seeing without a physical eye to see – sight is an embodied function that cannot be divorced its instantiation as just one faculty of a living, breathing animal.

This is still a world away from the ancient period, where different sized figures indicated their relative importance, not their constructed distance from the viewer, and depth was instead indicated by overlapping the pictorial elements. So what happened between then and now? Panofsky argues that the way we render perspective changes as our knowledge changes – that the manner in which we form our representations is an instantiation of a much broader conceptual system. The way we thought about the world around us changed in the Renaissance, and so our way of rendering it also had to do so. Sight is then a psychological process, and major shifts in the modes of artistic expression occur when the old means of representation no longer reflect the way we feel about the world at large. This interpretation of the way that artistic approaches change has been adopted by subsequent scholars with their own agendas; Walter Benjamin, for example, argued that the photographic artform, as a product by and for the masses, is a socialist media, and the way in which it has transformed our understanding of the reproducibility of artworks (art is no longer the domain of the privileged) demonstrates that our collective cultural consciousness is ready for the inevitable arrival of socialism. The movements between artistic media are not just particular manifestations of a larger conceptual shift as they were for Panofsky, since Benjamin includes this within the wider sphere of a social and political consciousness. What is being argued by almost everyone is that artistic movements are just the tip of the cultural consciousness-iceberg.

European bridge over Chinese water by a Japanese brush

All of the discussion above has been generated through the required readings for my art history methods class. As you might have gathered, this is entirely preoccupied with Western art historical practices and so I mostly sit in petulant silence. Occasionally I will tentatively raise a paw (or otherwise shriek indignantly across the table – I am a wild and inconstant thing) when the imbalance seems maddening and I think that an example from Asian art could provide an interesting counterpoint. Western linear perspective, for example, was introduced to Japan in the eighteenth century and was most quickly adopted in the woodblock print medium. But things are never as simple as all that, and one artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, blended Chinese didactic tales with Western perspectival techniques. This manner of expression was adopted precisely because of its novelty, its foreign-ness, long before it was fully understood or properly articulated. It didn’t seem that the old modes of representation had been proved inadequate just yet, since works in the old formats continued to be produced for a couple of centuries. Indeed they still are, if we want to see the ‘superflat’ works by Takashi Murakami as a continuation of a Japanese artistic lineage characterized by the strength of its graphic design.

superflat style

There are all sorts of other talking points too. For centuries artists in Asia have attempted to depict the progression of time in only two dimensions – in narrative handscrolls as we move from right to left, unrolling the story as we go. Frequently we encounter the appearance of the same figure in more than one place in the visual field of single vertical hanging scroll, as we construct the flow of time for ourselves as our eyes travel from one vignette to another. And so on and so forth.

But I have decided that it’s ultimately counterproductive to make these references in class. Much as I want to represent my unfashionable field (and mostly because I enjoy being a nuisance), touching on these differences without having the chance to explore them is just making Asia ‘exotic’ and strange in the best 19th century Orientalist tradition. Which is not very helpful for anyone. I have spent (considerable) time thinking about how I could bring this Western-centred regime down from the inside (I’m talking about my class, not the US).

1. Surly 2. Mean 3. Vicious 4. Brutal

I still haven’t thought of anything, which is disappointing not least because it would have been the kind of caustic remark that I would have liked to have ended this particular diatribe on. In the process of writing this, however, I realized that I enjoy this kind of debate – in class I wasn’t necessarily thinking about circumventing it the entire time, which upon reflection, is somewhat of a novelty. Maybe I should change my perspective, if my old way of thinking about the world doesn’t work any more. Revolutionary though this could be, maybe, just maybe, everything doesn’t suck ALL of the time, and my default setting doesn’t have to be combative.

I think I need a lie-down.

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heart of darkness

Hito o omou / Kokoro wa ware ni / Araneba ya / Mi no madou dani / Shirarezaruramu

Is it then because / this heart of mine that yearns for her / Is not within me / That I do not even know / How I am lost in darkness?

Love is a strange thing in medieval Japanese poetry. Given both the huge number and variety of poems devoted to the topic, however, we can find many things we recognize, such as passion, excitement, and the frustration at the onrush of sexual desire. But Japanese poets always found separation more poetic than reconciliation, and since poems were often sent between lovers as the primary form of communication, it’s not surprising that most of them are concerned with the pain of being apart.

And here is the crucial point – the word koi, which has come to mean ‘love’ in modern Japanese, had entirely negative connotations in the medieval period. Being ‘in love’ refers to the feeling that one person has for another when they are separated; a feeling which is essentially suffering, and the lover wishes themselves to be rid of. Preferably this is by coming together with its object, but sometimes just to have it go away. There is no sense of the lovers’ joy of being together, curled up like cats under a blanket before a log fire, or kicking through the autumn leaves and eating pastries outside quaint cafes on hidden sidestreets off Parisian boulevards whilst staring into each others’ eyes dreamily as charming French children chase each other through cobbled alleyways, giggling…charmingly. Medieval Japanese poets were having none of that greetings card gag-fest. Being in love meant to be dejected, lost and confused, turned everywhichway by your own frustrations, but unfailingly ending up thoroughly miserable.

An illustrative example from our (my – same thing) favourite poet, Ono no Komachi:

Kurogami no / Midare mo shirazu / Uchifuseba / Mazu kakiyarishi / Hito zo koishiki

I fling myself down / Heedless of the wild disorder / Of my long black hair / And soon I am yearning once again / For him who used to stroke it smooth

Having tangled hair was no throwaway statement for the Heian period Japanese woman. Japanese love poetry can be characterized by the general absence of statements in praise of physical beauty – whether the subject is male or female it is almost exclusively the poet’s own feelings that monopolize the verse; we find no praises of elegant limbs, fresh complexions or well-turned ankles of the sort that abound in European poetry. The one exception to this would be hair. Hair (long, black, shiny) was considered to be the defining characteristic of a woman’s beauty – in fact this is often the sole marker in contemporary literature mentioned as determining it. A woman’s hair was the woman, and women went to extraordinary lengths to ensure it presented them in the best light. Older women used wigs and hair extensions as age took its toll, and since the state of one’s hair could be used to characterize a person, crazy women in medieval paintings can be identified by their wild, unkempt manes.

serious business

Just like today hair in disarray could reflect a lack of interest in one’s own appearance- if you’ve lost your lover who is there to impress? But more meaningfully, hair was used in poetry as a symbol of the relationship, with disheveled hair not only signifying the morning after a night of passion, but its tangled state a reflection of the emotions of the heart. This state of agitation is another level up from the more restrained ‘elegant confusion’ by which we can categorize some literature, as reading these poems often gives the feeling of the author’s temporary dementia.

So can this different sense of love mean anything to us? (again, I mean me). After we grammatically analyzed Komachi’s poem in class, translated it, talked through the various syntactical nuances etc., my professor read it aloud again and tears came to my eyes so fast that it was physically painful. Someone used to brush my hair for me too and remembering that hurt, hurt badly. But don’t get out the violins just yet – most artistic traditions make a career out of ladling on the misery with a spade, so it’s pretty certain that something you read somewhere will resonate.

mad hair = mad woman

But in any case this got me to thinking about the poem more that I might have otherwise. Hair is a brilliant metaphor, enchanting the men who lust for it, and entrapping them within it in equal measure, just as its tangles represent the disordered heartache of both parties. The verb madou in the opening poem means to go astray, to lose one’s path, and by extension to become lost in the blindness of passion. This loss of control often took on the broader Buddhist meaning in these poems of a departure from the path of enlightenment. Human relationships can connect us together, but like hair, they can also tangle us up. The error of human attachments was a theme ever present on our poets’ minds, and this becoming ‘lost’ in love’s confusion has important connections to the Buddhist concept of the darkness of the heart, or ‘kokoro no yami’.

Since Buddhist doctrine assumes human attachments to be delusion, a way of darkness, it is not surprising to find that love’s path often leads to the world of dreams in these poems. We have seen before that love affairs were a real possibility in the dreamworld, possibly linked to the feeling of the confusion of fantasy and reality we experience when in the presence of a lover. These dreams were somewhat of a hot topic at the time, and it seems most people had an opinion on them. Some poets maintained that if just changing your sleeping positions didn’t do it, turning around and sleeping the other way in your bed could bring them about. The phrase ‘turning up one’s sleeves’ in poems refers to the sartorial method that could also reportedly bring about this effect; Komachi got so desperate sometimes that she tells us she would wear all her clothes inside out to go to bed (please try this at home, conclusions on a postcard). There were also contemporary debates about who exactly was the progenitor of these dreams, whether the intensity of your feelings for someone could cause you to visit them nocturnally, or the opposite, that someone’s feelings for you could cause you to dream about them. Which obviously means something when the dreams stop. If the dreams do not come from one’s own heart, but are born from the heart of one’s lover, then the absence of these dreams would imply that they no longer care about you. However you look at it, unrequited love is kind of rude.

I have had to become used to a life sleeping alone, or rather, since it turns out that I cannot sleep alone, become used to a life of not sleeping. I can well understand the sense of ‘love’ given above; I don’t want it either, and I think I’m ready now for something to replace it with. As the nights are getting colder, maybe a hot water bottle would do it. Or a puppy. Maybe I should just cut all my hair off.

Definitely puppy.

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