Learn the Art of Looking at Art with Gene Wisniewski

As Gene Wisniewski explains in the Preface to his book, The Art of Looking at Art, published in October by Rowman & Littlefield,

This book grew out of a seminar…. Entitled the Six-Hour Art Major…. Its ultimate goal is to help participants to understand art more from the artist’s point of view, by giving them the opportunity to experience a concentrated version of the typical art school curriculum. [p xiii]

The Art of Looking at Art is a book for those who, at whatever stage of life, have taken an interest in art—here the visual arts—but after a brief survey may be puzzled as to where to enter such a vast and complicated world. It is also a book for artists or art educators to gift intelligent and curious friends or family members who desire a primer in the visual arts, a single book that can serve as an overview, something comprehensive but condensed with well-chosen details and written with the layperson in mind. I would also argue it’s good for art experts as well. You may already know something about Michelangelo, but it just might be that he, the statue David, or the Sistine Chapel are cliches lodged somewhere in the back of your brain. Even experts may have looked so many times at the same things that they stop seeing them or worse start saying the things about them that everyone else has said: one big echo chamber. One must even learn how to see cliches. A fresh reminder of Michelangelo’s difficulties and superhuman dedication as told by Mr. Wisniewski will bring it upfront and alive.

An overview of this breadth is a tall order, perhaps in the end an impossible one, but Wisniewski has done an admirable job, an act of historico-cultural collage, weaving examples from the present day together with those from all periods of history across the globe (with a focus on Western art). As with any great act of collage, the trick is to pick the right examples and place them in a manner that satisfies the mind. To do this he brought his own extensive knowledge in the arts, as one who has studied it and made it, together with the patience of a researcher and the enthusiasm of an art lover. Above all it is his voice, his conversational tone, his wit, that will keep you reading. Wisniewski has a wonderful down-to-earth manner of describing works of art. The stars in van Gogh’s Starry Night look like “oncoming headlights through a smashed windshield” [p 156]. He calls out Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as the ugly thing it is—“The women look like they’re assembled from odd bits of cut-out construction paper, in tones of fleshy pink, brownish purple, and a color like raw pork chops” [p 141]—then explains why it’s a historically significant painting nonetheless. In the end he wins you over as the right kind of guide to reveal that the labyrinths of art can if not be conquered by one person then at least traveled not only with impunity but with delight and nourishment. In the process he provides practical insights on how to embark on these travels on one’s own.

Perhaps it’s the sense that a novice could use encouragement or reassurance that, even while the intertwining paths of art provide endless journeying, one need not surrender to a feeling of being utterly lost that he states at the end of the Introduction, “don’t worry—all will be explained in time.” An expert might smile at this statement. But the fact is, Wisniewski is not the kind of teacher who hits the student with a barrage of facts polished off with definitive explanations. What he does instead is to show that if one wants to learn how to really look at art one has to meet it halfway. You don’t just put yourself in front of a painting for what you “hope is an acceptable amount of time” [p 1] and wait for it to speak to you. Even a baseball game, Wisniewski points out, requires a knowledge of the rules to appreciate. Why should something as complex as a painting be approached in the offhand manner that art is whatever you like or everyone’s a critic? Lots of people play basketball too, Wisniewski points out, but there’s only one LeBron James. The more you know about basketball the more you appreciate why that is. If that is true of basketball how much more so in the vast world of art? Far from the pedagogue know-it-all, he’s the friendly mentor that you want and respect because he knows it’s challenging understanding art, and difficult to say the least living the life of an artist. In the chapter This Is Your Brain on Art he writes,

When an artist is that frustrated, getting a little distance and clearing their head is undoubtedly the wisest course of action. Is this what I do? Of course not. [p 131]

In fact it may be in part because of the vastness of the labyrinthine art world that the beginner despairs of even making the initial attempt. Wisniewski shows that an attempt can be made. The Art of Looking at Art is such an attempt. Meet it halfway, even when you don’t get it, even if your first reaction is repulsion, even if it seems an ocean too big and wild to dive into. You don’t have to be Michelangelo to make an attempt. But if you bring your own strengths and individuality to art, if you approach it the way an artist does it, with curiosity and a willingness to experiment, then you just might find it’s the adventure of a lifetime. This is the biggest lesson of The Art of Looking at Art, chockfull of juicy details, practical advice, wit, and a lifetime of experience.

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Gombrowicz on Beauty

Art is what we do. Culture is what is done to us.
—Carl Andre, 1967

I have concluded my second tour of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary but I don’t know how to conclude my notes. Reading the Diary was a consistent challenge, so the difficulties of “absorbing” it linger. But Gombrowicz’s challenges are of a nature that defy absorption, if by that we mean we have learned a lesson and can sum it up and those tidy phrases can stand in for the book itself while we move on to the next one. If we have been paying attention Gombrowicz has contrived to prevent our fixing his text into a final form that can be a stand-in or represent the text itself. We will have to let it irritate us. We will have to go back and reread it. We will have to live with it.

What else is behind his deeply ambivalent attitude toward the fine arts? He is a novelist first and foremost and certainly that medium was his chief tool in making himself, in building himself a citizen of the world. And while it is true he did not disparage the art of novel making nearly to the extent he did the other arts, one can’t help but sweep all of the arts into his overall view that life takes precedence over any of the final forms of artistic statements.

I do not believe that long box-office lines can lead anyone to art, one has to make it oneself, I want to see it not on the stage but in eyes, smiles, lips, and speech. . . . [p 141 This and all subsequent quotations from Diary Volume Three, Northwestern University Press]

Pictures, statues, and other wonderful things exist only so that people know they exist . . . and one does not pay any more attention to them than one pays to radiators and ventilators. [p 152]

I began today’s entry with a quote by Carl Andre from around the same period as Gombrowicz’s final Diary entries not to contrast and compare the two* but because I think Andre’s statement perfectly encapsulates a primary Gombrowiczian idea. There are worlds in those two brief sentences, and we get an idea of those worlds when we read Gombrowicz. I am made by the world in ways and to degrees that I find unacceptable. How can I fight back? How can I make myself? How can I exert an influence?

It is far more important that I make art than remain an observer of art that has been made. And it is imperative that I recognize the importance of life over art, life before art, life first. I don’t live to work. But I have a job to get the money to live. And I’m not alive to be an artist. But I make art to help me live.

That should be enough to “conclude”. But the pebble is still rattling in the can and I haven’t even addressed it in these notes. One has to look at Gombrowicz’s fascination for youth, for the beauty of youth, for its inferior and indefinite qualities. One has to look at the way in which being an artist was for Gombrowicz tied to a fascination for youth.

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2 Minutes & 3 Seconds

No one tells me when to fly
2 minutes & 3 seconds
on a white plastic shield
so long’s it’s not an N95
can’t stand’em, won’t face’em
I’ll sit here & won’t budge
till I’m diametrically opposed
to this position
& then I’m steadfast
in flight from definition
through the screen holes
of media scrutiny
a genuine fake
till I’ve licked up
claimed for mine
the trodden people’s
sweet time.

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Fine People on All Sides

A Tale of Two Heathers
in memory of Heather Heyer

In this world we do not speak of Heather’s tears.
She was not crushed on Fourth and Water
by a Challenger in burning Fields
of white crosses emboldened
by a president who cannot assess the potency of words
on a populace of persons but not a People.

We the people have no statuary.
All parks are emancipated from bad art
and all eyes are on the global snapshot:

e pluribus unum.
Fields do not drive, but grow.
In our world, Heather lives.

The “Unite the Right” rally took place on August 11 and 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists clashed with “counter-protesters” and one of the latter, Heather Heyer, was killed on the 12th when one of the former, James Fields, drove his car into them. Trump released a statement that day condemning hatred “on many sides”, not calling out white supremacists in particular. On August 13 a WH spokesperson claimed that Trump was condemning white hate groups and he in fact did so the next day. But the day after that, Tuesday August 15, he walked his comments of the previous day back, reiterating his “many sides” position, making his infamous “very fine people” statement.

Joe Biden cited those comments on the 15th of August as marking the moment he decided to run for president. In the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump, September 29, 2020, Trump responded to a question about race relations by talking about law and order, and when specifically asked to condemn white hate groups he refused to do so. Instead his, “Proud Boys stand back and stand by” comment was widely received, most significantly by the Proud Boys themselves, as a call to action, to stand by and get ready.

Days later cartoonist Scott Adams remarked that it has been debunked many times that the “very fine people” statement was a failure to condemn white supremacist hate groups, suggesting that reading the transcript reveals it unequivocally. Trump lost his vote, he claimed, because of the president’s failure in the debate to point out the lie that he had not condemned white supremacist groups. And if one goes to the full video of the press conference one can read thousands of responses that echo Adams’ claim: Trump did indeed condemn white hate groups. And you’ll find the same sentiment by conducting a simple search on Twitter, call it the “fine people hoax”. In this scenario the news media hates Trump, distorts his messages and spreads lies. Every day the left repeats the lie—‘Trump said neo-Nazis are very fine people; Biden’s campaign is based on a lie’.

According to Adams nothing would have been easier than pointing out the lie in the debate, it was “money on the table”. And Trump could easily win his vote back. All he has to do is say the magic words. Words, the right words at the right time, would seem to matter.

Any account of the events in Charlottesville on the 12th of August reveal an explosive and chaotic scene. Trump’s words, all of them, from one day to the next, did not quell that disturbance, but let it burn and arguably disturbed it further. His words did not serve to heal and unite even when—and you can read the transcripts—he specifically calls for healing and uniting. Why is it that he did indeed condemn white hate groups but that message has been completely buried? Adams and other conservatives put the blame entirely on the news media. And they might not be blameless. But you can read the transcript. More importantly you can view the video of the full press conference. Condemnation of white hate is not the overriding theme that emerges. And the image that some Trump supporters would like to promote—of a fair-minded man finding good and bad on all sides—does not stack up either. The net effect of Trump’s words is as chaotic as the events in Charlottesville on that day. 

It all hinges on the phrase “fine people” and what defines a fine person to you. According to Trump—it’s also in the transcript—Robert E. Lee is an example of a fine person. Removing a monument to him is tantamount to “changing history” and where will it end. Jefferson and Washington were slave owners, will we remove all statues of them? Unite the Right demonstrators carried confederate flags, swastikas and chanted racist slogans. It was one of their number that killed Heather Heyer. And in that context Trump was quick—aggressively so—to bring the counter protesters into the same plane of blame as Unite the Right. They shouldn’t have been there. They didn’t have a permit. They were shouting, rude, aggressive. In doing so he brought Washington and Jefferson onto the same moral plane as Robert E. Lee. The message that comes through is not condemnation of white supremacy, but sympathy for support of a monument to Robert E. Lee and an aggressive, driving concern to direct blame toward the other side, those protesting a proud display of white power. The message comes through loud and clear: sympathy and support for a history of white dominance. Yes, even though the words are there: white supremacists should be condemned. Trump buried his own words. In like manner he capitulated to the outcry against white supremacy in a tweet on the 14th of August, and then buried his own statement the next day. He’s erratic but in the end clear about where his sympathies lie.

The argument that Trump is fair-minded, that he looks at blame and virtue on all sides, seeing bad and fine people everywhere—just doesn’t hold up. If his sympathies lie with white supremacists—despite tepid and equivocal condemnation—if honoring a monument to Robert E. Lee is equivalent to being attentive to historical accuracy, then “making America great again” can seem to be advocating a return to days of white dominance. Fine people on the other side of this view have reason to be concerned. At the very least, any Trump supporter who maintains that their president is not racist must admit that as long as these interpretations are so prevalent among those who have seen the unedited videos and read the transcripts, then Trump is a poor communicator, lousy at uniting the people, a terrible leader and does not deserve a vote.

I’m on the side of those fine people who, however flawed, still reach for a United States. There was room here for understanding, however polarized “right” and “left” seem to be. Missed opportunities all around. Bad moves by fine people on all sides. At another time, in another context, the statue debate has genuine merit. But we need a better president and a climate of civil discourse for that.

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Fine People Standing By

The eagle has landed
her eggs out of range
of a store pecked to death
with Proud Boys
standing by

The torch is out
words read back to front
no one whispers, no one listens
in the howl wind
of dreamless flightless

Day is dark
the smear of searchlight
whites out slices nets
mockingbirds silent
in self censure

The experiment is over
the art of improv lost
for drum and fife
sparrow song swamped
by the trump of goose-step

Time to step it up
or ship out
get in or fall down
flip a bird or fuck yourself
get orange, get brash, get on board

Cuckoo chimes
a record thirteen
all other ways of looking
dangerous, obsolete, broken
set your clocks back
ninety years

It’s going to be great
again pigeons panic
just more drama
peeps all love that
close your eyes
open wide

This is a crude poetic reworking of a crude poem-thing published in Unlikely Stories shortly after the 2016 election. I wrote the earlier, less pessimistic version on November 16th, 2016. I am less hopeful after last night’s disgraceful event termed a “presidential debate”, neither presidential nor a debate.

No doubt many of my fellow Democrats will say this is not the time to express doubt. They will say it is time to get behind our candidate and push for all our might for the desired outcome, that any doubts expressed now can only help Trump. But I am not and never have been a good foot soldier. It is not just that I believe the Democratic Party has been out of step for five years. More importantly it is that I see the same factors in play now that ushered Trump into power four years ago. The Democratic Party as a whole has not mitigated them. Factions within the party have recognized the problem, but the party as a whole have not rallied to address them. And now, here we are. And look who’s standing by, ready for a fight. Are you?

Fine progressives have not owned up to their addiction to outrage and their willingness to be flung via social media any way Trump blows. Call him stupid, call him inept, but one thing he’s expert at—pushing your buttons. Fascism can be defeated before it grows by not reacting to it, the way a plant deprived of water withers. They helped him win the election in 2016 because they couldn’t stop saying his name. And they still don’t know how to fight him. The more they react in anger the more aggressive he becomes. If he wins reelection the fight will be immeasurably harder. I am speaking openly now because in the near future this mockingbird may not be able to sing freely. Go ahead and laugh, but the president is calling on his Brownshirts, and what are you doing about it? The opportunity to advance culture via thoughtfulness and emotional discipline may pass. And then it will be flesh against flesh. It’s the ultimate irony: progressive Democrats react in unchecked anger when they should stand back and be thoughtful, and they act with their brains when they should go with their heart. Their undisciplined passions help fascism win battle after battle, and then they pick the wrong candidate when they vote, because, thinking they’re mature and sober, they have to reason out who has the best chance to win. I have called every move Trump has made, and now one of my worst fears is coming into view: the rise of left-wing militia groups. Trump lied last night about their clear and present danger. But they may very well come, and when they do they will say they have no choice, it is about survival. They will be living in Trump’s world by Trump’s rules. He is winning.

It may be too late to stop it. The mockingbird is my spirit animal for many reasons. One is that mockingbirds, when they have to, will stand up to animals many times their size. I hope I have that kind of spirit when I need it most.  

I am voting for Kamala Harris, on the Biden ticket. His choice of her has been his best move. I am voting for the future. Biden is a good man and can steer the country toward a better future. I am voting for hope and love. I am voting my heart.

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Poem on the Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I built a machine of words.
It did its job.
It worked its grease
and when it became dry
it was anybody’s business
to speak.
Every time the first time.
Every time different.
It lived as long as it could.
It hung on.
Oh how it hung on!
“Past its prime” or “a miraculous stretch”
figures of words circling outside the mechanism–
these and others
like clouds of flies, really,
or just clouds
always passing
where we strain to look
through tears,

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Rivers and Mountains – John Ashbery (1966)

New genetic digital edition of Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’:

1960s: Days of Rage

“Charles Bernstein just made an announcement about an exciting new project that just went live on the web: a ‘genetic’ critical edition of John Ashbery’s long poem ‘The Skaters’ created by Robin Seguy.  It offers digital versions of earlier drafts of the poem along with the final published edition, so you can follow along and see how the poem as we know it emerged, along with all sorts of other data about it (including an index, word frequency charts, and so on). This site will be invaluable for anyone who wants to study the poem in detail or learn more about Ashbery’s writing and revising process — without having to spend days in the archives at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, where Ashbery’s papers are housed.  It’s also one of the first and most successful examples I’ve seen so far of a scholar bringing the new tools…

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Waiting for the Barbarians, a film of missed opportunities

In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.—J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

By now fans of J. M. Coetzee are aware that a film version of arguably his best novel has been released and that Coetzee himself wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately they may also be aware that the film has not been very well received. One of the great advantages of prose fiction is the ability to dive deep into the thoughts of a character. This is what drives the novel Waiting for the Barbarians. It cannot be done very easily in film, however.

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Gombrowicz on Time

I look out the window toward the neighbor’s house. When we moved in it was painted pink. In my mind’s eye it is always pink. How many years has it been blue?

It’s one of the best passages in Gombrowicz’s Diary—when he accepts the Ford grant and embarks on a ship to Berlin after twenty-four years in Argentina. “Rousing space provokes time” he writes, “this whole ocean is made more of time than of boundless distances . . . .” (Volume Three, p 73) In the haste of departure he had forgotten cash and faces the journey with a few pesos in his pocket. Disoriented, confused, excited, he paces the deck after? during? a thunderstorm and tries to glimpse the answer: who is this new Gombrowicz in transit, neither before nor after? He glimpses instead a small round object on a deck plank: a human eyeball! Whose could it be? he inquires of the gum-chewing sailor on the stairway. Dunno, the sailor replies. The eye had been there all day and he would have picked it up but he’s not allowed to leave the stairs. When an officer appears Gombrowicz tells him about the eyeball. “I’ll be damned!” the officer exclaims, but the howling wind makes further conversation impossible. Was it real? Did he see it? Did he actually have these encounters with the crewmen? Or is this disengaged human eye roving over the planks of a ship’s deck an image for Gombrowicz’s own unmoored conscious center?

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Gombrowicz on Limits

Painting is one great resignation from what cannot be painted. It is a cry: I would like to do more, but I cannot. This cry is oppressive.
Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Volume Two, p 49

“I would like to do more, but I cannot”—is this not of the essence of being human? I would like to do more but I cannot. I know because I’ve stretched myself as far as I could go, just before breaking, and I cannot go further. We are limited beings. We discover our many limits in many ways through the years until everything we know fails. Painting, like everything else human, is limited. Yes, that’s my counterargument. That and this: once while discussing painting with an art student I said, ‘painting is as complex as you want it to be’. I meant that the potential complexities are as infinite as color itself. I think that many people begin to practice a craft such as painting or playing a musical instrument and give up after wading in so far because they despair of how much there is to know and learn. Despite this there are things painting cannot do—produce a sound, for example. Look in any direction, any lane you choose will provide unique opportunities while excluding others. Regardless of where you might move there will be limits.

Boy, if you thought Gombrowicz was hard on poets, wait till you get a load of what he thinks of painters. It is the poorest art in its means of expression, an utter failure, since the essence of life is movement and painting cannot convey movement, cannot convey reality since reality is all-encompassing and it can only show one tiny frozen appearance, and abstraction is even worse because in failing to paint something it paints nothing, then tries to claim this nothing is everything. Painting is a failure and a sham—worse than poetry.

Gombrowicz, it must be said, is insufferably arrogant in his attitude toward poetry, visual art and modern music.

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