Art as Argument

What strikes me immediately about this painting is the continuity between background and foreground, between what we might call landscape and portrait. The blues of the water are repeated, albeit it with difference, in the dress of the woman. The orange of the ground — why is it orange? — becomes the orange of her face, the flesh of her leg. Even the strokes are of an ilk, as if the painter didn't stop his strokes between face and earth.

Here, the human is a form within a scape of other forms — trees, sea's edge, clouds, chair. The human is not a privileged moment. She may be in the foreground but that's just a matter of perspective, not of hierarchy. Come to think of it, would you call this a landscape or a portrait? It seems to me that, in this painting, the distinction between the two is always already effaced.

I find this painting a tad disturbing at first, perhaps, but finally exhilarating. It is post-human or pre-human or meta-human depending on your perspective. In this moment, it's all just forms. And what distinguishes the human form from, say, the land is its roundness. The human is not the top of the pyramid holding dominion over nature. The human is not the sanctified domain of consciousness, morality, intelligence. The human, rather, is that which tends towards curvature. This is not minor. Humans and land are not the same. But what distinguishes them is speed and shape.

Every image makes an argument. It takes up the world and massages it, plays with it, spins it, arranges it just so to make a new thing. Every image says, Here's the world. Some images are part and parcel of the state apparatus and hence regurgitate the already known, the existing structures of knowledge and power. Think about 99% of ads: the same old bourgeois family experiencing the same old emotions and activities. It's rare to see an ad and say, Uh, what the heck is that? Some images, meanwhile, are art and hence (re)create the world: Here's the world anew. Here's my world. 

Cézanne and Hockney.
How can you look at these and not see two different perspectives? Two different arguments about nature?
Two different argument about change, form, life?About painting and seeing and perspective itself?

For Hockney, nature is always a coming to, an emergence. There is no decay: Fall is the emergence of brown and branch. For Cézanne, however, nature comes to the fore and decays at the same time. 

In any case, every image makes some kind of argument whether it likes it or not. Every image makes an argument about the nature of forms, how they come into the world, how they interact. Think about Cézanne painting fruit. He doesn't paint an outline and then fill in the pear. There is no outline. Or, as he says, there are multiple outlines. Cézanne begins from the middle — a dab here, a dab there — until the pear takes shape, as if from the ether itself.

There need not be an object for an image to make an argument. Color field painters and Abstract Expressionists make arguments, too. How do the colors work together? How do the remnants of form form? Is this a world of collision and bleed? Of monadic, Leinbnizian harmony in which everything finds its place without collision? Is there such a thing as foreground and background? Diebeknkorn gives us space and distance but still effaces the background/foreground distinction. This is different than, say, Pollock for whom it's all the drip of clinamen amidst space that moves in all directions.  Or Miró who sees a lively backdrop for odd foreground shenanigans. The there's Calder who puts the whole thing in motion.

A work of art is, literally, a point of view. To see an image is to see someone else's seeing, to see their perspective on the world, how they see things happening, at what speed, to what end. Every image maker is a cosmologist and a philosopher making bold claims about the very nature of all things.

Of course, as the viewer of the image, you have a point of view, too: a seeing seeing. Different perspectives see different perspectives. For instance, if you're well versed in the history and theory of art, you'll see different things — how this artist relates to that artist; how this one is taking up that one's project and spinning it about. Me, I'm no art historian but looking at David Hockney's multi-photo images, it's hard not to see it as a seeing of Braque's cubism. And that might or might not be interesting; it depends on what you find Hockney and Braque to be saying to each other.

The one thing you never want to do is read the walls at a museum. Oy vey. It's inevitably filled with historical data. The artists was born here. The artists would take long walks here. The artists's father beat him here. Such perspectives, such points of view, look over the image all together to find the artist. But when I'm looking at an image, I'm looking at that image, not at the artist. That would be a different image all together for which I'd probably engage a different set of criteria to judge. This is not to say that biographical material is necessarily boring. It's to say that biographical material holds no sway over my perspective on the perspective of the artist. Such meta-data, or other-data, is another image that may or may not inflect my point of view.

Now, arguments need be so rigid and bold as making claims about forms and ethics of forms. An argument any image makes lies in its affective resonance. This is the mood of my world! I used to find looking at Francis Bacon's images awful for this reason: I didn't want to see flesh falling from bones. But, eventually, I came to love to see the world that way, as a darkly funny place of flesh smears. Meanwhile, Miró gives us all silly stars and playful shapes, mostly exuberant and happy to be alive.

I taught critical theory for several years to MFA students — fine arts, not writing. And rather than have students write papers, I'd have them create art as their arguments about texts and ideas. I didn't have time to teach them to write. And while we tend to view writing as some kind of primary skill, it seemed unimportant to those making images. After all, art is quite an articulate mode of argument unto itself.


Taste, or Y I Do

I first heard Jethro Tull when I was 11 or 12.  That's one of the benefits of having older siblings: you hear things you might not otherwise hear earlier than you might otherwise hear them. When I heard "Aqualung" — the album, not just the song — I was versed in the ways of Fleetwood Mac, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits (a new band at that time).

But Tull was fundamentally different. Sure, I was captivated by the album cover which folded open, an uncommon trait among single albums. But I was intrigued by the fact that the album was making a concerted argument about religion (pro-God, anti-Church). I think I was as much intrigued by the fact that it was making an argument as I was by the argument itself.

And then there was the music. The album as a whole careened between whimsical, acoustic guitar ditties and blistering, electric rock. But even individual songs careened, suggesting an imminent chaos, potential collapse, the world giving way. It was alternately whimsical, angry, sexual, goofy.

I quickly moved into the rest of the Tull oeuvre and was taken. I love that phrase, to be taken by something. It's so palpable. There was an undeniable resonance — call it a metabolic resonance — between Tull and me. That surging syncopated movement that was so articulate: everything from the flute licks to the distorted guitar to the lyrics was making a complex argument. It was self-aware, filled with irony and double entendres. It was light and heavy at the same time. Above all, I think, was that it was controlled but also on the verge of being out of control. The music just moved well with me at that time, with how my adolescence moved.

The things I really love are uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar. They tend to speak a dialect I didn't know I knew. I am — we are — an infinite set of possibilities that is always changing. Such is the way of becoming. I don't know what I might become or, better, how I might become. And yet I have a style; I have taste. There are things I go to and that go to me; I take and am taken. I spit out certain things not necessarily because they're good or bad but because I can't stomach them. My kid cringes at mushrooms. The only album I ever returned after buying was Elliott Smith — not because it was bad but because it moved badly with me. There was a melancholia there that simply did not resonate with me. I've kept records I think are banal but innocuously so. Elliott Smith is not innocuous. His combination of affective intensity and speed fucked me up in a bad way.  It's not that it made me sad; I like sad music. It's that it made me sick.

There's a reason we use the word taste to refer to all things that enter our bodies: it's all a matter of digestion, of how our bodies can digest this or that.  I love cheese, stanky ass cheese, but it does foul things to my constitution. According to Nietzsche, this is a sign of an ill constituted person: I enjoy things that make me sick. That, alas, is bad taste. But I've trained myself not to eat it.

When I got to college, Tull was not "in" — it became a more private pleasure —so I soon found REM whose "Document" had just been released and remains an astounding album that shakes me to my DNA. I've dated many women who really hate Michael Stipe's voice; it rubs them the wrong way. But he melts me, usually ("Everybody Hurts" is so bad, so absolutely horrendous, it almost erases an oeuvre that runneth over with resonant gems. Its crime us unabashed bathos.) Showing my age, I will admit that I still crank up this or that REM — "Fables," "Reckoning," "Automatic for the People" — and dance about.

But when I was 17, REM didn't move me so much. It didn't have the mania my taste demanded. My body was still quite wiry. I needed something like Tull, something careening. I found it in Throwing Muses. And, despite musical dogma and absurd categories and genres, Throwing Muses and Tull are quite similar: careening, syncopated, smart, passionate madness. Both bands veer in and out of chaos and back into exquisite melody. And back again. Such is my taste, what moved well with me, what drove me, excited me, made me feel healthy. It would take some bodily changes, a slowing down, before REM's jangly pathetic melodies vibrated at a frequency my body wanted to digest. Taste forges the series — at once predictable and unpredictable — that constitutes a person's way of going. A certain thing becomes Coffeenesque. 

This is the first song, post-Tull, that resonated with my DNA. This was 1988, a lifetime ago, but this still riles me up, makes me vibrate at a very high frequency.

How and why do we like the things we like? It's this impossible but actual calculus of elements that make your heart and belly and loins and blood go: Yes! That! I see it as a matter of resonance and shape, a kind of four dimensional puzzle of vibrations and forms that move together well — or don't. We are these shapes and speeds and we desire certain shapes and speeds that resonate well with us. Well, hopefully. Sometimes there are things that seem to resonate with us but kill us. It's a matter of shape and speed and intensity and propensity. REM makes me vibrate more slowly, less manically than Throwing Muses. What drives me is different from what drives you.

But this doesn't mean taste is subjective. It means taste is particular, a matter of how my body goes with other bodies — their speed, intensity, temperature, density. Do you like light and airy sponge cakes? Or do you prefer them rich, flourless, and chocolate? Sushi? Or a hot pastrami ruben? Of course, it need not be one or the other. I, for one, like both. But sushi tends to move better with me and so I've trained myself not to reach for the Russian dressing but for the wasabi. It's not that I experience a different sushi than you do; it's that I experience sushi differently. That may seem pedantic but wars have been fought over much finer distinctions.

Needless to say, there are historical, cultural, ideologic reasons I resonate with Throwing Muses and not, say, NWA (both ascending at the same time). But that seems, well, obvious and not that interesting — at least not for this discussion. (As you can tell, I've developed a taste for the m dash and an increasing predilection for parentheses.  This tells you, the reader, a good amount about my constitution. I rarely just finish a thought; I qualify and extend with more words than some might deem unnecessary. I've always preferred Nabokov to Hemingway. I am, needless to say, a prolific pooper — never quite finished with what's I've consumed. Which is why I watch what I eat in every sense — from meat and melodies to books and people and ideas.) Where was I? Oh, yeah: the nature/nurture distinction is specious: we are as we go which includes our intestines and our address. I am this way of going. To reduce me to category is dehumanizing, fascisitic even (This is not to discount class or socio-cultural analysis only to remember that it has its time and place.)

I love walking through a museum, flipping through an art magazine, scanning a radio and looking for something that resonates with me. Ah! There! That! Stop! Often, we skip right to things we already know, to the dialect we already speak. I remember going into the Tower Records on 8th Street in Manhattan and heading right to the Tull section — to look at the albums I already owned! We pass over the country music radio station or symphony of strings or, depending on your tendency, the indie whine or rap polemic. This is why I don't enjoy going into a random bookstore or music store (one or two still exist). How would I know to pick up anything I don't know? The title? The cover? Oy!

(Aquarius Records in San Francisco is different: they write elaborate reviews to entice different tastes. Many years ago, before the dawn of responsibility, I used to go into Aquarius every day and ask them for new music. They'd play me this — No, too boy bandy! Then that — No, too spacious. Eventually, they learned my taste and no longer had to play me anything. They simply put aside records for me which I'd buy without hearing. Like any relationship, we had to work together to get to know each other, how each other moved, how each other made sense of things. I can safely say that my relationship with aQ was more beautiful, honest, and rewarding than any relationship I've had with a woman. Indeed, I had a woman recently scream at me for not liking Italian food — which makes me shit like a banshee. aQ wanted to serve me music I loved; this woman hated that I had taste that differed from her. Needless to say, aQ is still in my life....)

To me, the pleasure of scanning the radio or shelves is to find those things I wouldn't think resonated with me, to be lead astray so I can discover other fuels for my engine. What some might think a silly pop film (Gore Verbinksi's "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, for instance, or Jason Bourne or "Kung Pu Panda"). A pop 40 song (Lourde's "Royals"!). The rap the kids love so much (Kendrick Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle.") It's so delicious to find something you love outside of your socio-cultural-historical place or simply outside your familiar wheelhouse. Jerked chicken hearts! Yum! I didn't know I could digest this! A new source of fuel!

To find something new that resonates with you is downright exhilarating. Suddenly, you discover new ways of your own going. What's beautiful about taste is that it does traverse race and class and genre, that I can find myself resonating with the music of gay, black rappers and feel right at home while feeling worlds away. I didn't know I could do that! That I could digest that! That that could drive my little engine, too! 

Nietzsche says that good taste is liking those things, instinctively, that make you healthier and more vital. Bad taste, meanwhile, is instinctively reaching for the things that make you sick. We all know these people: they absent mindedly reach for another Dorito even though they're rotting from the inside out and you kind of want to retch. Or they return to the men or women who abuse them, one way or another. I, without doubt, have not only been attracted to, but actually dated, terrible women who have eaten at my very being (they may very well say the same about me). It's ugly in every way to witness in ourselves as well as in others: it's to watch someone deteriorate before your eyes. 

This is bad taste, liking things that make you worse. Something about that Dorito or extra shot of bourbon or that woman does indeed resonate with me but in a way that destroys me. I think about alcoholics: they are fueled by the very thing that kills them. Sometimes, that's just the way things go: the drunk's engine is, as Nietzsche might say, ill constituted. Good and bad taste are matters of the highest order. Taste is a matter of health, of ethics, of life itself.  Do you desire things that drive life? Or do you desire things that kill life, shut it down?

What Nietzsche argues is that the aesthetic — the things we like — is not superfluous or after the fact of our being. On the contrary, we are what and how we like what we like. We are this way of going, of making our way through the world. And taste is what leads the way, that interface with the world that reveals and defines our constitution.

Of course, we change over time. Our metabolism speeds up or slows down. We can train ourselves to be other, to desire other things — not to always drink eight bourbons in a row; not to immediately go after the nuttiest, most available lay at the party; not to eat gluten or dairy. Train ourselves to enjoy things that actually make us healthier. Nietzsche says that the strong are artists and their bodies, the canvas: they keep working it over, whipping it if need be, to make it beautiful, vital, a work worthy of life. To breed good taste is an ongoing practice.

Every day I ask myself of each thing I want to eat, drink, of each person I want to see or fuck: Does this make me better? Sometimes, I answer no and consume it anyway. Such, alas, is my weakness. But I believe I'm asking the right question.


The Extraordinary Event of Everyday Cinema: The Beautiful, Strange Films of Marc Lafia

This is an edited excerpt from a forward that introduces, and attempts to frame, a soon-to-be published monograph 
dedicated to the films of Marc Lafia. 

We watch videos all day on YouTube, Facebook, Vine, Vimeo. The recorded moving image has shifted from over there on the big screen to right here in front of us, always. Recording and playback have become ubiquitous, networked, and computational.  We live within a cinematic infrastructure: everyone recording, editing, distributing, viewing all the time. 

And yet what we call our the so-called movies remain, for the most part, univocal and monumental: big stories that move in one direction. So-called indie films tend to be even more monumental. I'm thinking of "Little Miss Sunshine" with its paint by numbers narrative of bourgeois redemption. On the other hand, Gore Verbinski's "Pirates of the Caribbean" films are multivocal, unsettling, post-internet films — and smart as heck, to boot. My point being that being monumental is not just a matter of money, special effects, or indie cred. Films today may include ubiquitous recording as something to represent—think of the Jason Bourne films or Catfish—but those films themselves remain monumental. What is "Catfish" but one big D'oh! moment? (Please note: this does not make them bad movies. I am not passing aesthetic judgement. I, for one, loved those Bourne films, perhaps even more than my son did.)

My point is that how we watch "movies" is different than how we watch videos every day on our phones — and that the way we watch on our our phones might be interesting, might open up new possibilities of cinema. Hopping about the interweb, we enjoy all these snippets and moments that present a character in motion, living a life, not cohering into a linear story. I see your Facebook posts of this or that; maybe a tweet here or there; a few images of you at a party, with your kids, drinking a martini, mugging with Snoop Dog. I keep hearing Christopher Moltisanti kvetching about his lack of an arc. But, today, we don't create or expect an arc as much as we expect a splattering of moments, posts, tweets, Instagrams, Vines, comments. What can we learn about cinema from how we watch our iPhones?

The always-on recording of the social Web is fundamentally changing our way of standing toward the image, toward ourselves, toward each others. And yet when it comes to watching “movies,” we have very different expectations—not just in terms of craft or quality but in terms of what counts as real, as scene, as screen, as a film.

As a trained filmmaker who once made feature films, Marc Lafia has no doubt been afforded new methods and undeniable freedoms by new media. He doesn’t need six truckloads of booms, cables, and grips—not to mention a truckload of money. He has an idea; puts together a cast; and films wherever he is—usually the streets of New York.  Often, he has actors film themselves on their own, armed with some kind of instructions and a small HD camera. His process is open yet exact, somewhat “scripted,” always developing, adjusting to circumstance.

But this is not an inexpensive way to make a so-called indie film with quirky characters and redemption narratives. This is not a way to make a film on the cheap and avoid the Hollywood scramble for money. For Lafia, new media means new ways of going. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, new media offer a line of flight from the state apparatus of the film industry. The everyday tools of cinema breed a different kind of cinema, with different narrative strategies, different notions of character, a different interplay of ideas, scene, and even screen. Lafia’s films do not as much use or embrace new media as they are of this everyday cinema. This is not simply a new way of recording: it is a recoding—of cinema, of narrative, of self, of life.

I want to call his films a cinema of the event in which the very act of ubiquitous recording creates something new —new ways of knowing, of being, of looking, of living. The camera in this digital age is not a means of mediating an encounter or representing reality. I'll remember this moment forever! Click! On the contrary, the camera is constitutive of the encounter. It doesn’t just record something else happening over there; it forges events in which it is a player right here. The camera doesn't come after the fact; the camera's presence helps forge the very nature of the event itself: we are always already recording and hence acting accordingly.

Lafia's brilliant "Hi How Are You Guest 10479" explicitly takes on the always-on camera of the social Web as we watch a woman alone her in Manhattan apartment seek intimacy and connection through adult chat rooms. At some point, it occurs to the viewer that there’s no cameraman there. The incredible Raimonda Skeryte is not just the actor: she sets the scene and records herself. It's an elaborate Instagram selfie.

Hi, How are You Guest 10497
from marc lafia on Vimeo.

This is the condition of cinema today: we are all actors, filmmakers, editors, producers, and distributors. As we are all folded into the cinematic event, what is real and what is fiction becomes irrelevant, not because the recording and the flesh are the same but because the recording is real, too. The camera doesn’t capture action that’s been scripted elsewhere; it’s not an illustrated storybook. As we all relentlessly record ourselves and are recorded, we become part of the cinematic fabric of life, the spectacle of which we are both constituent and constitutive.

These conditions demand a new mode of film. The contemporary French philosopher François Laruelle writes of the necessity of addressing immanence via immanence in an immanent manner, not allowing for an all seeing purview. . . .” And that is precisely what Lafia gives us: films of the cinematic everyday using methods of the cinematic everyday. Here, there is no outside the gaze, no all-seeing director behind the camera, no fourth wall. If monumental cinema stands back and films what’s over there, Lafia’s everyday cinema flourishes within the infinite web of lenses and screens, within the relentless event of recording, not as his subject matter per se but as his formal approach. 

“Hi How Are You Guest 10479” is not a recording of the event of social media, as if Lafia were trying to put a finger on the pulse of the kids today. This is not old media capturing new media. What Lafia does is operate within the world of the always-on camera, the camera that we first read about in Bergson’s Matter and Memory and which, with the rise of the digital, became externalized: from our heads to the world and then, as Debord notes, back again. There's no arc. It's all just moments here and there, some more intense than others, some more poignant, some adding up, some drifting away.

No, Lafia’s films are not about this new world order. They are of this new world order, of the always recorded, always played back world: of everyday cinema.

The cinema of the right here, of the everyday, involves a shift in the economy of the screen, the scene, the story, the character, and the affective experience. This is what makes watching Lafia’s films so uncanny: they operate in a functional and affective space that is at once known and unknown, everyday and extraordinary, familiar and unfamiliar. There are threads of story but his films operate more like social media, a smattering of moments, of posts, woven together to forge this experience. Characters and actors blur into each other without fanfare and pretense; this is simply the condition of everyday cinema. And the affect is intimate, at times uncomfortably so—intense, inchoate, confrontational. 

This everydayness of our social media creates a pervasive recording environment that is very much alive. Recording and screening are always right next to us, with us all the time. It is continuous—with itself as well as with the so-called real. We act now as though a camera were always present because, alas, a camera always is present. Lafia is tapping into the vast, living, breathing cinematic organism that our world has become. We live in a cinematic experience that is always already happening.

And, for Lafia, this introduces new possibilities of film. A hard and fast story line rarely prevails. Rather, all sorts of things happen that are unexpected and unpredictable. Everyday cinema is more like a conversation than a story. We don’t need that old standby, the suspension of disbelief. All we have to do is go with the flow of images, a flow that happens on multiple screens and in multiple times simultaneously. If cinema has always told us stories about ourselves, inflected how we imagine ourselves, this new cinema offers new kinds of stories, new ways of imagining ourselves, new modes of perception and relating, ones that are vital and relevant to the now.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...