Work of the devil?

by Paul Burmeister

The proliferation of "Artificial Writing" destabilized existing power structures. The Roman Church, often in bed with Empire, was especially vulnerable. Of course the Church had a lot to lose when any university professor in the hinterland could post and publish against Church practice and tradition. But there were also those devout people in the holy orders who regarded printing as the work of the devil, its output to be devoured by gluttonous and lustful eyes.

Technology and displacement

by Paul Burmeister

Gutenberg's technological innovation did not result in a reduction of specialists; rather, specialists were displaced by counterparts. Copyists and illuminators were displaced by compositors and engravers. In a more direct exchange resulting from the innovation, type designs and page designs were at first intended to resemble the earlier model. Printed letterforms, carved and moulded, were quite similar in their appearances to those drawn with pen and brush.

I remember a time, not more than 30 years ago, when printing involved photo-typesetters, paste-up workers, color separators, and strippers. Desktop publishing quickly replaced all of those skilled specialists with a single person sitting at a single workstation.

Not all is gain (ever)

by Paul Burmeister

Gutenberg's technological innovation created losses, as well as much-celebrated gains. "Artificial Writing" put calligraphers out of work, damaging an honorable artform that has since been revived only locally and on a limited scale. Rosalie Moore's splendid Gutenberg in Strasbourg (1995, small print run by Floating Island), which is a series of narrative, episodic poems, proposes that the printer's "Secret Art" risked Gospel truth for the sake of printers' devils' profits. In the first episode, a master copyist complains, "Christ on his cross is not so sad a spectacle / As language misused, cramped and enslaved / In iron moulds and made to serve churls."
An overstated reaction to change, certainly, but also an age-old warning about what happens when a message becomes unmoored from its tradition.

Not just on the back of Luther or Gutenberg

by Paul Burmeister

In his marvelous history of Western cultural life Jacques Barzun wrote that Martin Luther's hope of reform may very well have floundered, if not for people who modified printing ink, people who developed better paper, people who designed pages, people who illustrated texts, people who ran print shops, and people who delivered sheets to distributors. Indeed, a multitude of vocations, many of them collected around the craft of printing and publishing, made possible the revolution that was the Reformation. Barzun: "Some notion of the force wielded by this new artifact, 'the book,' may be gathered from the estimate that by the first year of the 16C, 40,000 separate editions of all kinds of works had been issued—roughly nine million volumes from more than a hundred presses."

Methodology cures many ills?

by Paul Burmeister

Chapter 5, "Problems with Method," from Norman Potter's handy volume What is a designer (1969, 1980, and 2002) actually speaks to what may be essential values of methodology's use in the design process. The following are not directly stated; instead, I am proposing them quickly after having studied the chapter.
1. Methodology obtains optimum solutions much more frequently than non-methodological means.
2. Methodology is especially useful when the problem's complexity and intricacy require objective and deep thinking.
3. Methodology is to be favored over the genius of ego in many situations because methodology accommodates a greater variety of personalities and reduces the abuses perpetuated by ego.
4. Methodology is not as limited in its arsenal of strategies as one might think. Methodology can utilize many of the strategies employed by the intuitive and insightful ego.

As is often true

by Paul Burmeister

In his response to Michael Fried's essay on Barthe's punctum, James Elkins offers counter-perspective that I find to be true elsewhere, about other things regarded as iconic. Elkins writes, "There is perhaps no better evidence of the disarray of contemporary theorizing on photography than the fact that a book as problematic as (Barthe's) Camera Lucida is still read and cited as a source of insights about photography."
Often what we think we understand about a thing derives from an essentially problematic idea that over time has become an accepted body of biases? Elkins is to be commended for unpacking biases that have accumulated around the theoretical response to Roland Barthe's little book on photography. Elkins' discussion of vernacular photography is especially useful.

(James Elkins. "What Do We Want Photography to Be? A Response to Michael Fried." Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005.)

An old idea about "happiness"

by Paul Burmeister

Happiness has ancient pedigree as a virtue, and Aristotle's framework for happiness deserves frequent review. He was clear about happiness being an end and not a means, about happiness being a gift and not an achievement, and about happiness becoming and not securing. Aristotle knew happiness is elusive, and he resisted the temptation to simply equate it with experiences of pleasure or good fortune. What Stanley Hauerwas is helpful to point out (among other things) is that Aristotle warned against the extremes on both sides of any virtue: placing too much and too little emphasis on happiness is to be avoided by the virtuous person.

Richard Ford and Frank Bascombe

by Paul Burmeister

It's been at least 25 years since I read the fiction of Richard Ford. Last month I found a bargain-priced copy of Let Me Be Frank With You (2014) and am just about finished with it. Previously in these posts, I've highlighted great paragraphs; Ford's book is littered with great paragraphs.
The excerpt quoted here, in fragments, is an example of his keen and witty realism. He puts together sentences and episodes that achieve more than the sum of their parts.

On another occasion, when I noticed Sally staring at me in the undisguisedly estimating way she's lately adopted, she said—wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something bad—"Sweetheart, have you ever thought of writing a memoir? Your life's had a pretty interesting trajectory, if you ask me."
This is not true at all. . . .
"Not really," I said in reply to the memoir-trajectory suggestion. I was at that moment on my knees, tightening a threaded drain-collar under the kitchen sink,  where the coupling had leaked and rotted the floorboards. . . .

The problem with superlatives

by Paul Burmeister

Just started paging through a book in which the editor quotes another source to claim, "_____ is probably the greatest painter of the last one hundred years." Thirty years after the claim was made, I wonder if the original writer would repeat it, especially since the claim is now 10 years past the era spanned by "the last one hundred years."
It's easier to justify a superlative judgment when applied to personal favorites than to critical assessments. While I believe something extremely rare and precious should be connected to "the greatest" in any domain, I have much less confidence in my own judgment of superlatives as I get older. The impulse to put together lists of superlative subjects is less attractive.
I'm more interested in those things that I return to repeatedly, that draw me to them in a way that I can't resist. My favorite American painters of the last one hundred years would include Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, and Philip Guston. Especially Guston. Oh, and Fairfield Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, and Marylyn Dintenfass. (And I regret not to include a host of illustrators, such as Arnold Lobel, Maurice Sendak, and William Steig.)

And my memory fails. And there are so many "greatest" that I have not seen.
 

What is lost

by Paul Burmeister

Ross Feld has quoted Philip Guston, from an essay in which the great painter wrote, "I do not see why a loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart."
Guston wrote this while painting in an abstract mode, and the quote demonstrates why Guston's willingness to be self-critical allowed him to maintain a lifelong independence from theoretical blind alleys. Eugene Victor Thaw referred to Guston's relationship to Abstract Expressionism as a "friendly proximity."
What interests me is that Guston acknowledged loss and its resulting grief, in a way that must not have been popular at the time and that gains credibility in retrospect.

Crucial differences

by Paul Burmeister

For example . . . in his 2002 essay on Jon Schueler ("American Painter"), art historian Gerald Nordland recounts how John I.H. Bauer found a crucial difference in the two generations of Abstract Expressionists. The older, earlier generation aimed "to reduce complex subjective impulses to marks upon canvas"—putting priority on self and the act of painting. The younger, later generation was alert to nature and "more objective than subjective" about what was observed in nature. Schueler (1916-1992), a member of the second generation, was deeply influenced by J.M.W. Turner. The earlier generation practiced a mode that was aligned with the theories of Clement Greenberg, and to unashamedly speak of historical influence was not encouraged, One view of the later generation is that they were able to organically break away from the limitations of Greenberg's dogma and acknowledge genuine sources without being anxious about originality.

Lessons not learned

by Paul Burmeister

In his article, "A City for Poets and Pirates," (the theft issue of Cabinet) Reinaldo Laddaga recounts how writer Gabriele D'Annunzio was able to lead the Italian Regency of Carnaro. There are two unlearned takeaways or lessons from Laddaga's snapshot history.

Consider this excerpt: "(The small army) entered Fiume, whose non-Slavic population initially received with euphoria the arrival of this strange leader (D'Annunzio) who had never governed before, who had the vaguest political ideas, and who seemed to be mostly occupied in the tiring task of self-glorification." D'Annunzio's short-lived occupation of Fiume occurred in 1919. We don't ever unlearn the failing of human ego?

Secondly, Laddaga calls out the often overlooked relationship between the avant-garde and progressive socio-political movements wanting to cure the world. In my opinion, this destructive relationship applies broadly to many movements of youthful idealism that are ultimately focused on correcting perceived ills and injustices—they devolve into spectacles, far removed from whatever degree of virtue inspired them.

Talent and potential

by Paul Burmeister

"I might have been a good painter," wrote a mature painter to his friend, the writer John Berger. This quote is tucked into Berger's essay, "On the Difficulty of Being an Artist." (Permanent Red, 1960, 1979) This essay is followed immediately by another, "Artists Defeated by the Difficulties," in which Berger used Naum Gabo, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet and Barbara Hepworth as examples of people whose art demonstrated wasted talents and unrealized potentials. Berger explained the self-imposed isolation of Pollock's genius: "Finally in desperation he made his theme the impossibility of finding a theme. Having the ability to speak, he acted dumb. . . . If a talented artist cannot see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs, if the situation is as extreme as ours . . . His talent will reveal, in other words, how it itself has been wasted."
Berger, a Marxist, is taking the long view of the artist's relationship with culture. He is writing from the perspective that sees artists being obligated to their public and community: the artist must be a whole person who recognizes what all people have in common and who possesses confidence in the optimistic desires of his species.

I remember my painting professor, Robert Grilley, dismissing notions of potential, asserting that people and their talents are what they are. In the realm of teaching and learning, I tell my own students that I agree and disagree with my professor's assertion, appealing to my positive experiences with coaching in the broadest sense and qualifying Grilley's remark by applying it to the student's mode and not that of the teacher. Grilley was correctly suspicious of the individual's reliance on feelings about their unrealized potential; I don't think he was strictly advocating for an elitist judgment held in the power of the teacher—in fact, he was patient with the results of my own naive optimism.

Having been duped

by Paul Burmeister

Unpacking my studio this morning, I sorted through a box containing smaller boxes of duplicate slides. There were probably over 500 duplicates to sort. Painful work—reviewing 30 years of image-making, most of the originals since discarded or unaccounted. And feeling exhausted by remembering all of the manual labor required by duplicates: taking slides and bracketing exposures, sending good exposures to a duplicating lab, typing up labels individually, and affixing dots to the lower left corner of each mount. . . . and then putting together portfolios of 20 slides and mailing them off, to have the majority of them returned with formal rejection notices. From this morning's work, I kept a few small boxes, two dupes of each image. I'm not sure why.

What's in a name

by Paul Burmeister

I am prone to anxiety resulting from my perceptions of abuse perpetrated by exercises of nominalism and equivocation. Today's New York Times includes two stories about naming. First, on A3, it's announced that thyroid tumors have been downgraded; they will no longer be classified as cancer. What had been called "encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma" will now be referred to as "noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillary-like nuclear features." I am not making light of this. The domains of science, where names have crucial significance, have little use for rhetorical devices. Second, on A12, there is a story about the Czech Republic's desire to change its name to Czechia. While this effort, with its impassioned voices on all sides, has motivation related to branding or identity, I think the debate is good to remind us of the importance of names.  

Monk's durability

by Paul Burmeister

Here is an avid jazz listener's proof of Thelonious Sphere Monk's (1917-1982) genius as a composer. First, nobody questions a collection of Monk interpretations, and how many other composers in the idiom receive as much attention for single-album concepts? Second, the inclusion of a Monk tune on a mixed program is usually a solid choice because his tunes attract listener interest naturally. Third, any single Monk tune usually survives a wide variety of interpretations and treatments.

I'm not a player nor do I have more than a dangerous knowledge of jazz theory, but it seems to me Monk's maxim, that the inside of tune makes the outside sound good, speaks to why his melodies are so attractive to players and listeners alike. "Monk's Mood" is a personal favorite, of which there are more than 50 versions currently available on iTunes, and Terry Adams has recently released a version on Talk Thelonious.

Camera Lucida, Part One

by Paul Burmeister

Having just completed a close reading of Roland Barthes' landmark, Camera Lucida (1980), I offer here several questions from my notes on Part One. Camera Lucida is divided symmetrically into two parts of 24 short sections each; the first part is a meditative, often digressive speculation on the nature of photography.

Is Barthes truly able to overcome his habits of intellectual construct and of reductive theoretical system? As Michael Fried has noted, what authority does Barthes have if Barthes' own proposal makes every viewer's interpretation of a photograph equivalent to every other viewer's? Are we to be persuaded by force of Barthes' ego, his pedigree as a leading theorist, even in a domain where he is fond of calling himself a child and primitive? How does the reader understand Barthes' use of "absolute subjectivity" and "affective consciousness," apart from Barthes' body of work?

Certainly, there are beginnings—what Geoff Dyer calls "setting-forths"—in Part One that are flawed.