Technological conceptualism made unusually vibrant at Denver MOCA's Now? Now!

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Exhibition labels – those little placards on the walls beside the thing part of the art – are no longer optional to conscientious looking. In the imagined past, we might have taken in a landscape and breathed, “Isn’t that lovely? Just look at those brushstrokes!” But the priorities of contemporary art have foreclosed on this option. We might even go so far as to define contemporary art as that species of aesthetic work (as opposed to modern, folk, etc.) for which the label is as important as the specimen. Otherwise we risk missing the conceptual forest for the material trees.

Since the 1990s one of the more dominant strains of new work has been a technologically-oriented conceptualism that — if it doesn’t dispose of humanity altogether: the bodily, the gestural, the domestic – finds its importance only in the way those bodies have extended themselves through technology, a technology well-removed from the state of nature, the nuts-and-bolts of existence, anything a patron could begin to brim sentimental over.

Such art is often interested in incorporating materials not typically found in an art gallery, at least not 25 years ago: open source models, industrial units, server platforms, new plastics. At its best, such work lays bare the hidden cables that stitch our new world together, make us suddenly hyper-conscious of the pattern of which we form a part, an invisible part. Exhibition labels are doubly important in such work: without the ideas behind the work, which almost always require spelling-out, we have nothing.
More… “Immaterial Worlds”

Earthworks, new and ancient, and the art of disappearance

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THE FACE OF THE EARTH
Earthworks, new and ancient, and the art of disappearance
BY STEFANY ANNE GOLBERG

On the day we went to see the Great Serpent Mound, the rain plunged from the sky. Lightning shot down to the cornfields and made the cornfields roar. Everything was dark. Guides recommend that you come to the Serpent early or late in the day, when shadows alongside it are deep and the winding shape becomes bolder. But on the day we visited, the whole of Ohio was shadow, save the neat green grass of the Serpent’s skin, which was oddly bright.

When the first European settlers came to farm southwestern Ohio, they found earthen lumps scattered all around the land. They did not know what these lumps could be — some farmers went about flattening them, others farmed around them. In the 1840s, a local doctor and a newspaper editor from the town of Chillicothe investigated the mounds. They discovered wooden structures inside, built to house the dead of Native tribes whose names are lost to us now. Jewelry and effigies were placed around the cremated remains to keep the spirits company. Then the Mound Builders covered over the structures with layers of soil and sand. As the generations passed, new dead were buried on top of the old, and more earth was put on top, until the mounds grew higher and higher and the little wooden structure collapsed within.
More… “The Face of the Earth”

In the United States, social debates are really about the clash between custom, creed, and contract.

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A caricature of Edmund Burke, customary moralist

The passion surrounding the so-called “social issues” in American politics, from reproductive rights to gay marriage, is exacerbated by the fact that to some degree “the issue is not the issue,” as the Sixties slogan held. In other words, what is really at stake is not merely the nominal subject of the debate, but also a clash of worldviews.

The United States, like other offshoots of Europe and Europe itself, is the heir to three distinct moral systems: custom, creed, and contract.

Custom is the source of one kind of traditional morality. What is right and what is wrong is determined by tribal tradition, as passed down by one generation to the next.

While customary morality in one form or another is as old as humanity, creedal morality — the ethical system of organized, scriptural religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is only a few thousand years old. Writing is a technology, and there could be no scriptural religions until that technology had evolved. Furthermore, scriptural creeds require at least some of the population to be literate. Only agrarian or industrial societies have sufficient surplus to support a specialized class or caste of clerics to serve as the guardians and interpreters of the sacred texts.
More… “The Clash of the Three Moralities”

Style cannot be imposed upon a work; it grows out of the work.

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If you missed part I of Kelly Cherry's examination of writing style, read it here.
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And now, to examine an entirely different style, consider this line from Ben Marcus’s experimental and lovely first novel, The Age of Wire and String, published in 1995. The author’s postmodern premise is that when we look at an object, our desire destroys it. It opens thus:

This book is a catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond, into the arrangements of states, site, and cities and, further, within the small houses that have been granted erection or temporary placement on the perimeters of districts and river colonies. The settlement, in clusters and dispersed, has long required a document of secret motion and instruction — a collection of studies that might serve to clarify the terms obscured within every facet of the living program.

He includes a kind of mini-dictionary with which we can interpret the very short stories in eight sections that make up the book. Sadness, the dictionary tells us, sadness “can be eradicated with more of itself, in which case the face results in a placid system coursing with water, heaving.” A “wind bowl” is a “pocket of curved, unsteady space formed between speaking persons.” “The mother” is “the softest location in the house.”
More… “…And How To Get It”

On James Merrill (and myself) in and out of the classroom

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STRANGE ATTRACTOR
On James Merrill (and myself) in and out of the classroom
BY JUDITH MOFFETT

The story of my 28-year friendship with James Merrill begins in April 1967 at the University of Wisconsin. Merrill was in Madison to teach a creative writing course in poetry. I had entered Wisconsin’s Ph.D. program the previous fall as a Teaching Assistant, bringing with me a bachelor’s degree (majors in English and philosophy, minor in biology) from Hanover College in Indiana, and an MA in English from Colorado State University. These were the nether regions of academe; Wisconsin was a decisive step up for me. I had just turned 24.

In those days the English Department was quartered in Bascom Hall, a picturesque old building crowning a hill above the city of Madison. The underclass of first- and second-year teaching assistants, who were paying for graduate school by teaching freshman composition, shared a big office on the third floor. My desk formed one corner of the block of desks pushed together in the middle of the room; a tall, slender second-year man called Steve Yenser occupied a desk facing the far wall. Merrill had admitted several TAs to his poetry course, including the two of us. Until the notice went out inviting students to apply for the course, I had never heard of James Merrill or read any of his work, though he had just won the National Book Award (whatever that was) for a poetry collection, Nights and Days.

We at Wisconsin were lucky and knew it; creative writing courses given for credit were not common on the campuses of that time. And I had experienced something in college that may have intensified my eagerness to get into this one. For five weeks during the spring of my senior year, a poet called Lionel Wiggam1 had been in residence on the Hanover campus. The arrangement was informal; his job had been simply to give a reading and make himself available to student writers. From this availability an odd relationship, platonic but intense, had formed between the two of us, eventuating in a scholarship for me to the 1964 Indiana University Writers Conference, where he was on the faculty. Three years later we were still corresponding. At 50 or so Lionel had published a slim volume, The Land of Unloving, in which some poems from a precocious, decades-earlier collection had also been included. His lyric verse was deft but dated. His startling handsomeness, somewhat marred by bad teeth (slightly protruding, with gaps), had qualified him at one time to model aftershave and menswear; for years I owned a little black-and-white stand-up poster, purloined from a barber shop, on which Lionel pondered the dilemma: “Which Stephan’s dandruff remover is right for your hair?” The mysterious mutual attraction continued to fascinate and perplex me, and the mask of sophisticated posturing to frustrate me. I didn’t know how to make Lionel feel safe enough to show me what was behind the mask, yet faith in his essential goodness made me want to confirm it, reassure him, convince him to stop hiding, from me and from everyone.
More… “Strange Attractor”

Style is the struggle for clarity.

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Part I of a two-part look at style examines Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Henry James. Watch for Part II, ...And How To Get It in the coming days.
An old window with some panes frosted, some panes clear, and some panes broken.

Almost the first thing a reader notices about a piece of writing is its style — unless the style is transparent. Transparent prose is prose that lets you see the object before you. It has often been referred to as a window, for the window in no way obstructs your view. Indeed, it serves the view, quite as if it were a humble attendant.

When we speak of style, then, we usually mean prose that obstructs the view. But of course, we do still see something of the object in our line of sight (i.e., the sense of the sentence). How, then, is the object — the view, the sense — obstructed? By details of the sentence that yank our attention away from the sense, if only momentarily. Puns, alliteration, syntactical flourishes, words that call our attention to themselves are some of the details that can do this. Such details are, of course, snappy, playful, poetic, even enlivening, and the reader who reads them, if that reader wishes to be a writer, is apt to think, I’m going to get me some of those!

And why not?

There is no reason why not. But the getting of them is harder than one might think.
More… “On Style…”

Art's not dead. It's much more complicated than that.

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“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Virginia Woolf. She was referring to the effects on culture of the controversial exhibition, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists,” organized by her friend and fellow modernist, Roger Fry. Woolf’s statement gives some credence to the argument made by Michael Lind in this journal in which he describes an irreparable change that he believes happened in the world of art at a particular point in time. He locates this change earlier than Woolf: in the beginning of the 19th century, when, he says, rich capitalists began to replace elite representatives of church and state as patrons of the arts. He also condemns the change, where Woolf doesn’t (she, after all, was central to it). Indeed, Lind’s essay is a tantrum on the subject.

I’ve had such tantrums myself, so I understand where he’s coming from. But that doesn’t mean I think he’s right. Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching undergraduates for over 30 years and have gone through all the phases — irritation, disappointment, anger, disgust — at the benightedness of youth and the crassness of contemporary culture. I’ve come out on the other side with something akin to a perspective. I get how Lind feels — but I think he’s wrong.
More… “Artful Artlessness”

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If you haven’t seen the photos of Pluto, go look at them. If you have, go look again. The NYT has packaged them beautifully.

Also: how Pluto changed how we saw the solar system, and why we’ve never lost our enthusiasm for space travel.

Collector’s Weekly on the existential conundrum (and history) of the American waste-paper basket.

Gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman’s portraits of birds on the verge of extinction.

Nabokov said there is no reading, only rereading. Tim Parks doesn’t quite agree, but thinks he’s found the key to an illuminating reread, practicing with The Waste Land and Mrs. Dalloway. •

In Cleveland, the ghost of d.a. levy is everywhere, even animating MOCA Cleveland's summer show. But what is it that makes the poet's legacy endure?

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HOW TO REMAIN HUMAN
In Cleveland, the ghost of d.a. levy is everywhere, even animating MOCA Cleveland's summer show. But what is it that makes the poet's legacy endure?
BY MORGAN MEIS

A young poet killed himself in Cleveland on November 24, 1968. He did it with a .22 caliber rifle he’d owned since childhood. In the years leading up to his death, the poet often demonstrated to friends how he could operate the gun with his feet and put the muzzle against his forehead, right at the spot of his “third eye.” The poet’s name was d. a. levy, as he liked to spell it (he was born Darryl Alfred Levy). He was just 26 years old when he died.

Just a year before his death, levy was arrested by the Cleveland police. He’d been indicted in 1966. The specific charge was “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” At a poetry reading, he allowed juveniles to read work deemed obscene by city officials. levy’s own poetry had its share of bad words, sex, and drugs. The poet was a public advocate for the legalization of marijuana. It all seems rather tame by today’s standard. But in Cleveland in 1968, the d. a. levy affair created quite a ruckus. His arrest brought national attention. Guys like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder got involved in the case, advocating for the dismissal of the charges against levy. The call to “legalize levy” became a rallying cry at protests and on t-shirts and flyers, not just in Cleveland but around the country.

After his death, many people in Cleveland adopted levy as a kind of local hero. And there it should have ended, if history is any guide. A young poet takes his own life. A city mourns. The relentless wheel of history churns on, forgetting as it goes.

This summer, however, there is a show at the museum of contemporary art in Cleveland with the title “How To Remain Human.” That’s a line from one of levy’s poems. The poem is called “Suburban Monastery Death Poem.” It is 13 pages long. The poem is mostly a long rant about Cleveland. It is also a tortured love letter — as are most rants. It contains passages like the following:
More… “How To Remain Human”

Mary Ellen Mark photographed people on the fringes. But her goal wasn't to provoke sympathy or create distance.

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Mary Ellen Mark, 1940-2015

In a photograph titled “Ward 81″, a woman sits on a bed. She is young, a teenager. She sits cross-legged and wears her clothes and hair like a teenager would. The wall behind this teenage girl is covered in pictures. The pictures, magazine cutouts, are taped to the wall and some of the edges have been carefully rounded with scissors. There are pictures of animals and a picture of a tree. Below a picture of the Mona Lisa the name BRENDA is written in marker. In this room that could belong to any teenager, the walls are strangely close. The bed is pushed up to the radiator and the metal headboard is too white and plain. The young woman’s eyes are blank—one eye tilts toward her nose. Her left arm is outstretched bearing the evidence of self-inflicted wounds and on the wall above the radiator, also written in marker, are the words, “I wish to die.”

This photograph was taken by Mary Ellen Mark, who died on May 25. Mark was adamant that her work be called documentary photography. “I’m a documentary photographer,” she told Bomb magazine in 1989. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to be; that’s where my heart and soul is.” The word “document,” when applied to photographs, conveys the sense of proof, evidence, testimony. A document is an affirmation of the subject being documented — a proof of that subject’s existence, if nothing else. A documentary photograph says, “here is the object or person that existed when this photograph was taken.”
More… “Monsters and Men”