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With Everything but the Monkey Head 6

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

“For people like me, solitude is a victory.” – Karl Lagerfeld

Let’s talk marginality. It is a surprise, even to me, that I begin with that quote by Karl Lagerfeld. I do it reluctantly. Perhaps that is on me for having a preconceived notion of what a marginalized artist looks like, but Karl Lagerfeld just doesn’t match that conception. On the other hand, the quote itself captures the sentiment that I want to convey, the feeling of being outside, of disconnectedness, of the ability to conjure a positive outcome within a potentially negative space. These are the qualities required by those who find alternative paths toward accomplishing creative goals.

What is marginalization really about? Most dictionaries tell us that marginalization is a forced, and enforced, situation; that it is in various ways societal. My first query, in relation to that, is whether it is also possible for marginalization to be a choice, that is to be selected. For example, suppose I am born into a marginalized class. I am educated in an Ivy League institution, and then choose to continue my path back within that, or another, marginalized situation. Is that marginalized? Or is that hybrid marginalized? Or is it bringing homogenization to the margin?

Suppose I am born into the establishment but have personal feelings of disenfranchisement and ultimately choose to work outside of the system I was born into. Am I marginalized?

To step ahead for just a second, what is important to me and what I am ultimately trying to reach and understand here, and I am going to give this objective away to you up front, is how the work, say research work or artistic work, of a person working within the establishment, and the work of a person working in the margins, compares in terms of purpose, effect, and benefit to society. Put another away, can we generalize that people working within the establishment tend to do work that benefits and prolongs the status quo, and that people working in the margins do work that tends to alter that status?

Just to blow a theatrical fog onto that already murky statement, I attended the Voice Awards presented by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles over this weekend. One of these awards was given to Focus Features, the film company that produced such projects as Brokeback Mountain and The Danish Girl. Upon accepting the award, the CEO of Focus stepped out to state in no uncertain terms that Focus’s focal point is on the bottom line. What he didn’t seem to say clearly, but what I did take from that message, was that Focus had discovered that poignant stories about marginal characters had at least an equal, if not larger, popular draw than similar stories about mainstream characters. At the very least, they are moneymakers.

Within the article, The Institutional Margins of Aesthetics: A Study Proposal by Jozef Kovalcik and Max Ryynanen, are included the phrases: “Working in the margins.” and “Whether there are benefits in working in the margins.” Inherent in these statements are two assumptions, one, that creative people in the margins might actually be “insiders within their own milieu,” and two, that there might be “benefits” to being there.

First, it seems taken for granted that the margin is a place. It is a mental space, really a psychological neighborhood, for some a ghetto. One dwells there, creates an environment in which life, work, and social interaction has a specific meaning. It is this particular meaning which causes it to differ from establishment life. Everything about this meaning is in reaction to how others go about every day. It is a parallel life. Walking down the street is the same. Visuals are the same. Physical objects are the same. But how all these things are perceived is different. I just want to throw in that perhaps it is the gaze that is also different. But, basically, the interaction, how one who feels comfortable with how established society interacts with their environment, is internally different than one who feels unaccepted by that same environment – or who has chosen to dis-accept it.

It is this decision, or reaction, that is the space of margin. For some this space, this universe that is parallel to the assembly, that one walks while seeing things that are described by others in ways that one considers ludicrous, that one cannot believe he and the other are looking in the same direction, that they are talking about the same object, or the same person, as if that margin line – what if one were to straddle that line? Is that schizophrenia? – As if that line was the Berlin wall or the Wall of China. Was that Walter Benjamin, who Kolvalcik and Ryynanen perceive as a marginal character, walking in the arcades of Paris? Was he trying to describe the margin? Or find his way out?

But do you remember? Do you remember when Carlos Casteneda found Don Juan in Mexico City? (Yes, you found me out. I am just brazen and naïve enough to quote Castaneda.)  In a brown pinstriped business suit? What did he say? Something about being able to co-exist in separate worlds? The antonym of margin is center. So it follows that to live in the establishment is to be centered, while on the margin, I suppose, is on the edge? It feels like a defensive position, like watching ones own back, like having to explain oneself, while also believing in what one is doing. This is the state of non-acceptance.

And yet, many creative souls living in Marginalia, while despairing the lack of community, do not have the capacity for accepting it. This situation parallels the lottery winner who, having no experience with how to live with tons of bucks, is soon without them again. Creativity is their community. Silence is their cerebral milieu. The lottery is their utopia and yet their cesspool. And how do they attain this cesspool? By critiquing it. By trying to create a better cesspool.

And for just a moment, let’s go back to that Art PhD – and art research – and Cezanne. What do they think Cezanne was doing? And what were Picasso and Braque doing? What was Paul Klee doing? And Mondrian? Ana Mendieta? If not research.

Society, the center, at some point recognizes that, yes, this creative, living in the wilds of Marginalia, has come up with some interesting takes that could be capitalized. Let’s incorporate it into Centralia. And so these establishments take this Marginalia creative into Centralia, give her/him some capital, put him/her (lottery winner?) into the creative equivalent of a brown pinstripe business suit, and perhaps society itself becomes nudged ever so much toward a larger center, and maybe the margin, the enforced margin, becomes that much less of a space.

With Everything But the Monkey Head 5

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

On the other hand, isn’t it just the case that out of such concentrations as this new intensity in the arts (Kind of reminds me of that real estate bubble. You know which one.): art as investment, art as profession, art as achievement, art as academic qualification – out of all that sometimes come these great Chardinian-like im/explosions, these upheavals, that leave us, for just a moment, with the immense relief and gratification of knowing that we really weren’t all wrong; that there was, after all, something more important.

I am not one to spout Malthusian scenarios. Perhaps it is premature, or maybe I am just too reluctant to place my foot too solidly into such a disagreeable position. I would certainly not, given the array of daunting, if not just incomprehensible, fissures that are in real time erupting around us (pick one of any number), denounce anyone else for moving in that direction. Still, for the moment anyway, I am going attempt to stick with the wink/nod/glimmer/grimace kind of positivism that looks forward to something green sprouting in the freight yard.

The question for me and my kind is whether we will be able to recognize and/or accept that sprout. Since the beginning of the industrial age, just to start somewhere, these sprouts have generally been duplicitous. Technology has almost always been a double-edged sword; making our lives simultaneously easier and more difficult to navigate. No wonder there are those now finding solace in material(isms); perhaps in the vain hope that something outside of ourselves will come to our rescue and solve all of our profound dilemmas.

We will continue to maintain the hope of a better existence because we are able, as futurists articulate science fiction, to envision a more enviable condition; but we also know that we are required to cope with the infinite, sometimes absurd, variety of human behaviors, the ones that not only create rich experience, but also those, such as greed, anger, and distrust, that lead us to wars and prevent us from being able to distribute resources equitably.

I was once told, when I asked someone on what basis a particular decision was made, that it was made on “the rule of sense.” I always appreciated that determination, and have actually tried to confide in it. But it only takes an election season, or a session of congress to make me question it as a life rationale. The opposite of utopia is what? Cynicism?  And, like it or not, there seems to be no general agreement on sense.

This is it, reality: human, post-human, anthropocene, material (And yes I acknowledge that the earth will go on without us, but what does it matter?). Personally, I want to be on record that, at least for me, we cannot ignore the damage that continually rains on our psyches due to the supremacy, and the covert and incestuous nature, of capitalist consumerism. We can accept it and participate in it all we want, but I contend that such passive immersion reduces us. It is soma.

(Sigh.) Forget Chardin. Forget Malthus. Things will continue as they have for centuries and longer. It is the way of things. We careen from moments of joy, reside in staleness, slide into sadness, if fortunate into momentary despair. In that vein, the art world will continue on its several paths: including the capitalist/acacemic/beaureaucratic path we have discussed previously – and it should. This evolving establishment incarnation provides a vehicle for those who find joy and relish in such intrinsic energy and endeavors. Out of this might come ground-breaking, mind-opening research that aids us in seeing a clearer world. If “non-academic” artists are given equal opportunity to focus on studio research applications, as we also mentioned earlier, equally brilliant work might also prevail.

For others, alternatives will arise and/or be created. Some, those that provide promise of profit (in a general sense) will be capitalized. Others will be marginalized. That is not all bad. There are not only creative, but also radical, possibilities within marginalization. Not that one necessarily enjoys residing within that state of exclusion (and silence), but there is a certain freedom available in not having expectations written one-to-ten on a stone tablet.

With Everything But the Monkey Head 3

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

It appears that in ancient Egypt the onion was a primary source of divination. This worship seems to have arisen from the belief that its spherical shape and concentric structure might symbolize eternal life. Traces of onions were found in burial sites, as in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.

The onion itself, known as the common onion (genus allium), along with its brethren, the Japanese bunching onion, the tree onion, and the Canada onion, as well as the Egyptian onion; are typically fleshy, hollow, and cylindrical with one flattened side. They are at their widest about a quarter of the way up beyond which they taper toward a blunt tip.

The onion leaf grows out of a basal disk. As the onion matures food reserves begin to accumulate in the leaf bases and the bulb of the onion swells. In the autumn, the onion is basically a biennial but is grown as an annual, the leaves die back and the outer scales of the bulb become dry and brittle.

Onions, somewhat uniquely, have particularly large cells that are readily observed under low magnification. As a result, their cells are easily separated for educational, experimental, and breeding purposes.

Additional uses for the onion include:

Teaching the use of the microscope

As a moth repellent

To prevent insect bites

To promote hair growth

To reduce freckling

To polish glass and copperware

To prevent iron rust

To increase resistance to plant pests

To repel moles and insects from plants

As a yellow-brown dye

Ancient Greek athletes ate large quantities of onions, as they believed the onion helped to lighten the balance of blood flow. Roman gladiators rubbed onion on their bodies to firm their muscles, and, in the middle ages, onions were proscribed to facilitate bowel movement and erections, and to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebites, and hair loss.

Aside from its uses in cooking, one of the most common associations we have to the onion is its ability to cause tearing in our eyes, much as an artwork that may strike us very personally. This eye stinging induced by the onion is brought on by the release of a volatile gas: syn-propanethial-S-oxide. The gas is produced by a chain reaction that occurs as follows:

Chopping or cutting the onion damages the onion’s cells.

Enzymes (alliinoses) are released.

There is a breakdown of amino acid sulfoxides.

Sulfenic acids are generated.

1-propenesulfenic acid is acted on by lacrimatory factor synthase (LFS).

Syn-propanethial-S-oxide is produced.

Gas diffuses through the air and reaches the eyes.

The diffused gas activates sensory neurons.

Tears are produced.

Which in an obtuse, but also synchronic way, brings us full circle to the subject of cromniancy, divination by onion.

Again, there appears to be evidence that its sphere-within-a-sphere structure caused the ancient Egyptians to observe the onion as a much-revered symbol of spirituality and eternity. They would take sacred oaths while placing their right hands on the onion. They divined the weather, sought romantic advice, and answers to important questions by inscribing names or words on onions, placing them on sacred altars, and waiting to see which ones would sprout first.

One of the things that interests me most about this veneration of the onion is that such reverence seems to be based, as previously stated, on the spherical concentricity of the onion’s structure; yet this is a structure that, at least in those times, could never be completely observed.

In order to perceive the onion’s systematic yet harmonious structure, and its unique rhythms, even perhaps through our tears, it is necessary to abuse the object, perhaps to destroy it. Even then, as we divine ourselves into its secrets, we never see the entirety of each sphere, the inner and outer sides, as a whole.

I am personally struck by the qualities of a single horizontal slice, about 1/8” to 3/16” thick. I try to punch out each ring, wholly, in order to observe each ring’s singular dynamism. Yet I still imagine how wonderful it would be to hold, in the palm of one hand, the “unbearable lightness” of a single whole interior onion sphere, and in the other, equally comfortably, the nucleus of art.