Notes On Dialogue

Now comes the honorable Stringfellow Barr, a passionate advocate for the liberal arts as embodied in the so-called “new program” (conceived in 1937) at St. John’s College. Though dating from 1968, Barr’s Notes on Dialogue remain timely and incisive, though he does not mean to cut nor sever.

We have come to know St. John’s College quite well in recent years; if there is any hope at all for our wounded republic, we will need such places, colleges where members of younger generations learn how to exercise their responsibilities as true citizens; colleges that explore and celebrate the arts of freedom.

In a world of violent screams and shouting matches pretending to be politics, we will need to resurrect the polis. For that delicate task, we will also need to remember how to listen, how to reflect, and how to serve each other – and labor together – in dialogue. Unrealistic and utopian, you say? Yes, of course; for the road of the “realists” leads ever more deeply into the abyss.

In the interests of fanning embers and generating a few moments of warmth in front of an oncoming blizzard, we publish a few excerpts together with exquisite images from the hand of Jiri Anderle, borrowed from the collection at the Baruch Foundation.

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The Drum Major Instinct

We urge close consideration of MLK’s searing speech on the drum major instinct. May each word burn through the present spiritual darkness. A few excerpts are transcribed below, together with images researched by DP. No further editorial comment required; MLK says it all.

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HOMAGE TO MLK (HOWARDENA PINDELL 1968)

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GUNSHIP/EAGLE/PILOT/VICTIMS (NANCY SPERO, 1968)

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LANDMARK (ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, 1968)

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The Prophet in Madinah

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As the world descends into increasingly vicious cycles of violence and revenge, we urge sustained meditation upon these wise words of restraint from Abdul Malik Mujahid, who chairs the Board of Trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions:

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Further along, Mujahid expands upon the Prophet Mohammad’s aversion to violence, and his commitment to a true sanctuary of peace.

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Each one of us can withdrawal from this toxic nexus, and pursue an ethos of tolerance, compassion and peace. Only through such conscious detachment might we pursue a true global sanctuary of peace.

Finally, to those who believe that gratuitously insulting other religions provides some sort of perverse proof of our intellectual freedom:

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Somewhere Else

AN EXCELLENT PLACE TO BUILD YOUR BRAND

AN EXCELLENT PLACE TO BUILD YOUR BRAND

As artists brand themselves with the hot irons of so-called creative entrepreneurship; as “likes” clicked through in a heart beat or a bot beat replace critical appraisal backed by a lifetime of careful study; as networks of contacts replace communities of creative engagement; as museums of fine art sink into the vast data mine of market analysis; as poetry recedes from any public consideration whatsoever; through all this blare and blather, we bend our ears to the wise voice of Ursula Le Guin, in remarks delivered while accepting a way overdue National Book Award.

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The entire address is well worth the six minutes. We excerpt two passages below, together with several other snips from her website, closing with the magnificent poem, Crow. Maps of imaginary elsewheres complete the montage, with editorial captions added by DP.

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SCHEMA FOR A MEMORY THEATRE

FREE FORM SCHEMA FOR A MEMORY THEATRE

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THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

INTENSELY LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

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ANOTHER KIND OF LIFE

ANOTHER KIND OF LIFE

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A COMPOST OF RICH DARKNESS

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Cycles of Life

We begin our navigations through the year 2015 with a few questions for artist Rebecca Clark, whose quietly magnificent drawings exemplify the deep journey of self-realization that was described by Arne Naess in our final post of 2014; we celebrate her work among our many sources of joy, as we move into the dense fog of the coming year.

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FAMILY TREE, 2014

DP:     How would you describe the genesis and inspiration for your recent drawing, Family Tree?

REBECCA CLARK:     The genesis of Family Tree has its roots in Annapolis, Maryland, where I spent my childhood exploring the woods and creeks along the Chesapeake Bay near my house.  The natural world was where I was happiest, and the local plants and animals were my friends. They taught me much about life. Those early years spent immersed in nature formed the foundation for a visual vocabulary that I was able to tap into many years later.

My drawings are meant to convey not only the beauty, but also the sacredness of the natural world.  To that end I use circular forms, such as dandelions and spider webs and bird nests, as symbols of cosmic mandalas echoing the cycles of life.  In Family Tree the rings suggest a nimbus rendering sacred all life of the wood.  Trees are magnificent examples of the interconnectedness of life.

TREE OF LIFE

TREE OF LIFE

Inspiration for Family Tree was gleaned from many sources, in particular the art of Giuseppe Penone, David Nash, William Willis, and Bryan Nash Gill.  The ancient, enduring pines drawn along the top periphery were very directly inspired by similarly craggy trees I’d seen in paintings of the Upper Peninsula by Tom Uttech, and globe drawings of the Sespe wilderness by Russell Crotty.  Equally inspiring were these words from Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Green Memories’ entry in his incredible book, Children of the Days:

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The wild animals, presented in silhouette across the outermost bark of Family Tree are all our relatives – or “mitakuye oyasin,” to borrow from the Lakota prayer of oneness and harmony with all living creatures.

DP:     You reference the influence of devotional panels on your own aesthetic, and there is a lovely devotional quality within your drawings. Yet there is also a strong sense of grief, an awareness of disappearance. 

RC:     I’ve always been drawn to devotional panels, prayer books, and books of hours – but especially those by the 15th & 16th century Northern masters.  I’m moved by the intimacy, the honesty, and the purity of spirit that they convey.  There’s no other art that evokes the numinous for me in such visceral way.

Only two exhibitions have ever brought me to tears.  One was a small showing at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam of Vincent’s pencil drawings, in particular his devastating Pollard Birches from 1884.  The other was curator John Hand’s 2006 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, which included masterpieces by some of my favorite artists – Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Albrecht Bouts, Quentin Massys, and others.

Upon walking into the gallery, what immediately struck me was the small scale of the panels, and yet the quiet power that emanated from them.  Here were these exquisitely rendered paintings, housed in lovingly constructed frames of highest craftsmanship, intended as objects for personal meditation and reflection.  Imagining the labor that went into each detail was cause enough for awe. But oh, those clear, rich pigments applied with such sublime subtlety!

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These are not gaudy paintings.  They are luminous.  The reward for slowing down, taking the time to peer into these encased worlds, and reflect upon the messages being conveyed is to walk away with a secret.  An inner glow.  Diptychs from this time were meant to be viewed, then closed and clasped shut, thereby demanding a personal and direct experience.  These are not showy objects for vainglorious display.

Many works from this period include the Latin inscription memento mori, ‘remember that you will die,’ often accompanied by skeletons, as a reminder to consider the vanities of life and the transience of earthly goods.  In the outer panel of his Braque Triptych, Rogier van der Weyden painted the skull of his patron, Jehan Braque, resting against a brick symbolizing the rich man’s industry in life.  On the inner panel is a portrait of the living patron.  Can you imagine that today?

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OUTER PANELS OF THE BRAQUE TRIPTYCH

Unlike the more dramatic and emotionally charged religious paintings from the South, the art of the Northern Renaissance was reserved and reflective.  The subjects seem to carry a quiet acceptance of grief and resignation to sorrow.   It’s as if they possess some deep understanding of It All.  An acknowledgement that life is suffering.  It is very Buddhist, and in that sense – and you’ve only made me aware of it now – I suppose I’ve transferred that sensibility onto my own drawings.  “An awareness of disappearance” is a beautiful and appropriate phrase.

WING (detail) 2011

WING (detail) 2011

DP:     In the philosophy of deep ecology, there is the idea that rather than humans endlessly elaborating and imposing stories upon other forms of life, we need to refigure our connections to all living things, in ways that celebrate the natural world without consuming it for our own use, to advance our own narratives. Your work seems to embody an ethic of restraint, a conscious practice of withdrawal from the venal games and vanities of the contemporary art world. 

RC:     My art is a reflection of my personal philosophy, which very much resonates with Deep Ecology. Drawing for me is an act of devotion and withdrawal.  It’s very personal.  I honor the natural world by rendering it truthfully, without embellishment or sentimentality.  Like haiku, the beauty is contingent upon what is left out, the negative space.  Which, I suppose, is a good metaphor for living: Less is More.

With the exception of two drawings from my Anthropocene series – Oblivion and St. Francis in the Age of the Sixth Mass Extinction – I avoid humans altogether.  We’ve celebrated ourselves enough during our brief and destructive time on this planet.  I’m grateful to DP for introducing me to the remarkable essay by Aldo Leopold Thinking Like A Mountain.  That says it all for me.  Humans are hell-bent on DOING, not BEING. It’s been one big ego trip. And now we’ve DONE ourselves in.

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BEE 18 (Pilgrim), 2011

As for the venal games and ambitions of the contemporary art world, my BS detector immediately goes off when I read about yet another celebrity artist who is “speaking for nature.” Such arrogance!  Since the animals have no voice, they can’t object to these egomaniacs using their “cause” as currency. Environmental art has suddenly become hip and lucrative.  If you can sell your art for extravagantly high prices, while at the same time appear pure and make a Wall Street banker feel better about himself, well that’s a win-win, isn’t it!  But when you’re playing with the big dogs, you’re deep into the deadly game of unfettered capitalism, the ultimate goal of which is to destroy every living thing on this planet.

I hold very high standards for artists because I believe they should be the tribal mystics, the shamans, the truth-tellers.  We need those types more than ever today, and yet so many artists are lured by the glitter and gold of the corrupt contemporary art star world.  Remember that scene from Easy Rider when Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson are talking about the idea of ‘freedom?’  “… talking’ about it and bein’ it – that’s two different things, I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.”   That’s the way I feel about mixing art and money.  It’s a slippery slope.  I maintain that art is a Gift – as in Lewis Hyde’s definition – and it should be cherished as such.

HOWL (for Jesse)

HOWL (for Jesse)

As far as my own art goes, I am still learning to think like a mountain.  Nature is the greatest teacher and, as long as it lasts, the lessons are free. I think Walt Whitman sums up how I feel about the world:

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Sources of Joy

We end map III of our navigations in Desperado Philosophy with excerpts from an Arne Naess talk first presented in 1986, articulating ideas that grow in resonance with each passing year within the ongoing ecocide. The images document Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater reef sculptures, about which we will have more to say in 2015; among our many sources of joy, even as the oceans suffocate in plastic.

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Slavery, Violence and Capital

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We write today to urge careful consideration of Edward E. Baptist’s recently published The Half Has Never Been Told, above all in the context of recent racial violence in Ferguson and elsewhere.

Through careful analysis of family plantation records, Baptist demonstrates the centrality of slavery within the booming expansion of the American economy during the 19th century:   “In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation. The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”

Baptist offers a concise summary of his research in an excellent interview in Kirkus, excerpted below for DP readers.

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After publishing an obvious and misleading hatchet job of a review, The Economist magazine issued a rare apology:

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Alas, even the apology skews understanding of Baptist’s powerful historical argument, namely that slavery was an immensely profitable and dynamic structural feature of American economic expansion, establishing patterns of dependency, violence and abuse that persist into the present; not Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit nor the expansion of freedom in pursuit of our manifest destiny, but rather the vast fortunes extracted by way of the “whipping machine” of slave labor and racial subjection.

That violent legacy remains deeply embedded within the American brand.

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After the White Noise

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Reactions to the release of the long-awaited Torture Report (or at least its executive summary) are extensively documented elsewhere. Having spent countless hours over the past three years investigating various dimensions within the lengthy and extensive history of American torture, we offer a few remarks:

1. Much of the discussion appears to accept a false premiss that the torture techniques documented in the report constitute some sort of historical aberration resulting from the panic and chaos of 9/11. This is very definitely not the case. Alfred McCoy has researched the deeper (and darker) history in meticulous detail, most recently in Torture and Impunity.

Beyond the actions of the CIA, many of these techniques (such as stress positions and sexual humiliation) have been widely used throughout American history against Native Americans,  slaves, incarcerated prisoners and political dissidents. Further, our history of torture certainly does not end with the human species; indeed, many of the techniques described in the report derive from behavioral experiments conducted on dogs and other animals.

2. The discussion has also assumed a tone that suggests that torture in the United States has been eradicated through the waving of some magic Presidential wand. This is, alas, another self-serving delusion. As Rebecca Gordon so brilliantly recounts in her recent book Mainstreaming Torture, such practices have become so widespread one might conclude they have become part of our “national DNA”.

As  Gordon points out on her own blog:

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3. We also take note of the constant refrain, from the oval office and elsewhere, that while those who implemented this brutal regime of torture may have made mistakes under desperate circumstances, they are nonetheless to be honored as patriots. Such claims are false and deceptive. The only patriots in this wretched story are those few who courageously refused to participate in these illegal and abhorrent practices.

Returning to Rebecca Gordon, in her essay for TomDispatch:

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Finally, a poem has just been brought to our attention, as published on the Guardian website from Iraq veteran Brian Turner:

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Nothingness

A correspondent has alerted us to a “performance” by the celebrity-artist (?) Marina Abramovic. At first we thought that the press release and “show” must be some sort of hoax, expressed through outpourings of philosophical gibberish. Surely this must all be some sort of sly spoof on the narcissism and grandiosity of the Art World, right? Alas, the artist appears to be offering her painfully vapid “energy generator” in all earnestness:

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PREPARATIONS FOR A FORCED INTROSPECTION

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EVIDENCE FOR AN ART OF NOTHINGNESS

Leaving aside her complete lack of understanding of what she refers to as “Tibetan teachings of oneness”, Ms. Abramovic appears either ignorant of or indifferent to the actual history of sensory deprivation as deployed within the present “no touch” torture regime of interrogation and incarceration. We have explored these histories in more detail elsewhere. A concise summary from the peerless historian of our distinctly American brand of torture, Alfred McCoy, follows below:

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THIS IS NOT A PERFORMANCE

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A DISTINCTLY AMERICAN ART FORM?

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Returning to Ms. Abramovic in light of this history, we need only quote from her own press release:

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Shatter the Hologram

A faithful DP correspondent encouraged us to bend an ear towards a distinctive American writer whose bravely contrarian voice, though widely known abroad, remained marginalized in the US during his lifetime: Joe Bageant.

Among Bageant’s last writings, notes for a series of lectures delivered during 2009 offer a critique of human arrogance resonant with the writings of deep ecologists such as Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess, yet with a feisty polemical edge that also brings Edward Abbey into the mix.

We excerpt a few of the final paragraphs for DP, with images from the studio of Morgan Bulkeley, whose entire body of work represents both a revolt against manufactured reality, and a celebration of our deep connectedness with all living things.

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