Art Can Happen to All of Us

henri_cartier_bresson011Henri Matisse, by another Henri (Cartier-Bresson)

  Art is a fundamentally undemocratic process. It can be deliberate, raw, tortured, beautiful, cynical, strange, stunning, gorgeous, contradictory, but it is not decided by committee.

  Maybe that’s an old-fashioned view – the world after all is connected now and everything seems designed by a collective or at least that’s the utopian idea behind the society many people wish to see.

  However, art as such is not a part of the collective realm of commerce, economy, society, politics or religion, but a voice and a place that stands – by its very necessity – apart from all that. It is what allows a work of art to comment or reflect on any other of the elements of our existence. It stands at a remove.

  It may be a Utopian remove, a locked ivory tower of the senses and perceptions, or it may be the cold and harsh voice of a hermit or the unconcerned voice of a self-absorbed wanderer, but it is a deeply necessary aspect of life, this remove from the bustle and self-importance.

  It’s a playground of the imagination, but it’s also a hall of sometimes distorting, sometimes deeply truthful mirrors. A necessary mystery, because it allows for quiet and reflection.

  From a very regular and normal point of view it certainly seems superfluous, especially if it doesn’t sell, but that is missing the point completely. It is superfluous, but at the same time it is our own greatest achievement, because it is a reflection of self-awareness and presence, of what we like to call out own humanity.

  Art creates a place where we can reflect on our own actions, as an individual or a species, look for answers and alternatives or simply amuse or scare ourselves by those puzzling mirages that we observe, forgetting that they are ourselves.

  Art is not defined, it happens sometimes and sometimes fails to happen. It can appear for moments in a soap opera or in any circumstance of our lives or it can be there permanently, for a mind open to watch out for it.

  To decide by committee what art is and what not, to imagine that any label would turn something into art or turn something away from being art is a ridiculous notion. To teach somebody what is art and what not is equally ridiculous. To imagine that something is and always remains art, ridiculous.

  But a moment of openness can turn errors into art, mistakes into fantasies, small moments into something meaningful.

  Art, in short, is something that happens to all of us, but is not something that we can get together and nominate to appear.

I Do Not Own You

The model of relationships that we in Europe – or more broadly, the Christian world – follow is relatively peculiar because I can see in it no advantage except from the point of view of commercial relationships.

  I think it was instituted in an old patriarchal society where you would marry into money (the girl’s family having the initial disadvantage of fielding all the cash) or use marriages increasingly as a means to do nothing but cement relationships between powerful and wealthy families. Why two individuals would decide on a marriage, that is an exclusive union that brings with it unnatural strains and few advantages except perhaps the illusion of permanence, is a puzzle to me.

  There is love, of course, and love binds, as people say. But I consider love to be better expressed in acceptance than in acquisitiveness. To allow someone to be who they want to be is a greater expression of love than saying I want to own you.

  So why enter into an agreement of mutual ownership? Business and tax reasons? Comfort? Laziness? Or actually Love? Puzzling, isn’t it?

  I’m not saying that it is an unnatural thing for two people to decide they want to spend their life with each other – this is a wonderfully beautiful thing – but to artificially limit this by inflexible borders is what I find unnatural. Perhaps it is my nature as a traveler, but I find borders to be woefully artificial things.

  I also wonder how much of a role egoism plays in creating relationships that consist of mutual contracts of ownership. I believe that it is true that I define myself through you, that is, through all the yous that I meet in my life. If you are an expansive and free-willed person, so will I be. If you are tied down by my own wishes and desires, what will you be?

  Also, there is a purely mathematical element involved here. If it is possible for two people to coexist and cohabit, it is possible for three people to coexist and cohabit. If it is possible for three people to coexist and cohabit, it is possible for four people and so on. The variables increase, but the essence remains the same.

  I do not simply mean a collection of sexual affairs – that is something that is possible within or without any framework of relationships and requires very little imagination (it helps if you’re moving around, though). I am thinking about alternative models of human and also sexual relationships.

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  Of course that is complicated, requires a lot of investment and understanding and imagination. It also requires you to think differently about ideas of ownership, especially about the strange concept that you can own another person and make decisions for them. It requires you to water down your own ego quite a bit and accept the presence of other people in your mind and heart.

  I am simply ruminating here – when we are young we are implanted with these ideas of ideal relationships and unfortunately it is almost always the same model that causes lots of heartache, guilt and secrecy and suppression of desires while wanting nothing but exclusive happiness. But ideally, I think, the world is full of possibilities for relationships in all forms, shapes and colours. Some might be brief and highly sexual, others slow and deep, others friendly, light and puzzling.

  Permanence or something lasting might develop out of some, but not because we cast the image of permanence on top of them, but because we look back and forward and realize that there are trails in both directions.

Sorry guys, we haven’t got enough inches

This is an excerpt from a lecture Alan Watts held in the Seventies. We are still that stupid today, perhaps even more so

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“Somebody once suggested, by saying that thought is a means of conceiving truth despite the fact that it’s an extraordinarily useful faculty. But in quite recent weeks we’ve had an astounding example of the way mankind can be bamboozled by thoughts.

There was a crisis about gold and the confusion of money, in any form whatsoever, was wealth, is one of the major problems from which civilization is suffering because way back in our development when we first began to use symbols to represent the events of the physical world we found this such an ingenious device that we became completely fascinated with it. In ever so many different dimensions in life, we are living in a state of total confusion between symbol and reality.

And the real reason why in our world today, where there is no technical reason whatsoever why there should be any poverty at all. The reason it still exists is people keep asking the question, “where’s the money going to come from?” Not realizing that money doesn’t come from anywhere and never did, except if you thought it was gold and then of course to increase the supply of gold (use that to finance all the world’s commerce) prosperity would depend not upon new processes for growing food in vast quantities or getting nutrition out of the ocean … no, it depends on discovering a new gold mine.

And you can see what a nonsensical state of affairs that is because when gold is used for money it becomes, in fact, useless. Gold is a very useful metal for filling teeth, making jewelry and maybe covering the dome of the capitol in Washington but the moment it is locked up in vaults in the form of ingots it becomes completely useless. It becomes a false security, something that people cling to like an idol: like a belief in some kind of big daddy-o god with whiskers who lives above the clouds. All that kind of thing diverts our attention from reality. We go through all sorts of weird rituals … the symbol in other words gets in the way of a practical life.

So, you remember the great depression. I expect a number of you around are old enough to remember the great depression when one day everybody was doing business and things were going along pretty well and the next day there were bread lines.

It was like someone came to work and they said to him “sorry chum but you can’t build today, no building can go on, we don’t have enough inches.” He’d say, “what do you mean we don’t have enough inches, we’ve got wood haven’t we? We’ve got metal, we’ve even got tape measures.” He’d say, “yeah, but you don’t understand the business world, we just haven’t got enough inches. We’ve used too much of ‘em.”

And that’s exactly what happened when we had the depression. Because money is something of the same order of reality as inches, grams, meters, pounds or lines of latitude and longitude. It is an abstraction. It is a method of book keeping to obviate the cumbersome procedures of barter. But our culture, our civilization is entirely hung up on the notion that money has an independent reality of its own.”

The lecture is called “The Veil of Thoughts” and you can find it here

A completely different perspective

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 How about a completely different perspective? Imagine yourself as an imperialist, as someone who pushes European values called democracy, free market, political self-determination on people whose national and cultural ways of thinking have no room for these concepts. Not, mind you, because they are – a despicable term – backward, but because their society developed along different paths. They simply have different values.

  A Westerner (a collective term that is just as racially bizarre, shallow and useless as the terms Asian or African), unable to recognize those different values, considers the absence of the only set of values he recognizes to be primitive. He exercises himself, huffs and puffs, schemes and oppresses until he has created a framework that he can recognize as culture. Of course it is, in many cases, a framework that because it is unnatural requires an inordinate and inhuman amount of effort to maintain.

  The prevailing feeling – and it is a feeling that most of us who are born in the “civilized” world of the West share – is that the world is something that has to be fought against, that there will be inhumanly strong resistances against whatever we do and that, in order to be properly human, we constantly need to be on our guard and constantly need to fight.

  So we fight. We fight against hunger, against corruption, against someone else, against ourselves if there is nothing else to fight. And we consider this constant state of paranoia and agitation to be normal – if it wouldn’t be there, we’d have to invent it. We create purposeless rules and declare them the law and then find ways to circumvent the law because after all the law is purposeless and cruel. But we cannot change it to something more humane, because that would be cheating and it would deprive the generations of people who have insinuated themselves into the law of their rightful income and livelihood. Just imagine if everyone could make up their own laws? What sort of world would that be?

  Yet that is exactly what happens. Every single person makes up their own laws, depending on their experiences and influences, their dreams and their frustrations.

  I wish that people would understand – and not fear – that we live in a complete and beneficent state of permanently fluctuating anarchy. That we need not fear those numbers (of debts or statistics) or those ideologies, but that we simply need to understand and adapt.

Veiling the Senses or How to see more clearly with your eyes covered

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Staying in Morocco for a longer time has some interesting effects on a solitary traveler. Women soon come to appear as either marvels or mirages. This is something that was rather similar to my experiences in the more conservative parts of India.

They are always or almost always veiled, unless you are in a big city. The colours they wear are usually not lacking beauty, but are not attractive in the sense that your eyes are drawn to them. They are like muted flowers, veiled and shrouded. Sometimes the veils and shrouds are remarkable and stunning and sometimes they fuel only your dreams. One can only guess at most women’s physicality and that does heighten the senses for a man (I can already hear the chorus of complaining voices and how I tolerate and even praise a despicable male-dominated culture, but I am simply reporting how it felt to me) and creates a different kind of focus.

We men are easily distracted animals. Parade a beautiful woman in front of us and we forget what we were about to do. Without sexual impulses – of which there are many in daily European life; for example, on the airport in Milan, I held a Playboy magazine with shaking hands, glancing over my shoulder like a nervous schoolboy as I gingerly leafed through it; but even perfume ads are clearly sexual, the women looking as if they are about to melt in a sensuous orgasm brought on by the inestimable delight of that scent, I suppose – without sexual impulses, I mean to say, we focus on other things, we truly do.

In me it brings out a certain poetry. Moments become heightened, there is a feel of male camaraderie and companionship in the air, also a feel that emotions are allowed to run their course and male emotions tend to be more sluggish and slow and much more hesitant to unfold. Things take on a different sense and the more beautiful it is to meet a woman and even share a few words with her.

Women and men, you see, do not walk together and rarely talk together in public. Women are colourful or colourless bundles or beautiful framed eyes or even faces. They are dreams, because unless a man is married or goes to a prostitute, he will not see a naked woman…and few sights are more beautiful to a man (well, to me, I know some men prefer different sights).

Nakedness, however, has degrees. Once I went into a riad to talk to the owners and in front of me was a beautiful young woman who was working there as a maid. She has taken off her veil and it took me some strength not to stop and stare at her. Her hair, the way it framed her face, the ease of her features and the way she held herself. It seemed both secret and alluring to me. Later, after seeing the riad, I came down the stairs and saw a woman with a headscarf. I greeted her and she said, “C’est moi.” The beautiful young maid appeared from her features. It took me a moment to recognize her, as if she had become a different being by putting on her scarf.

So I suppose it may be in some cases. The veil is not always a prison, but sometimes a refuge. Men will consider an unveiled woman fair game, because of the different sensitivities as to what nakedness is. Fair game does not mean rape or molestation, by all means, since we are now in a culture where everything apparently needs to be taken to extremes, but simply an attempt to get together with that woman, subtle or unsubtle. Of course how much that affects each woman differently is unknown to me.

Islamic literature, poetry and even history have an immensely deep sensual side to them. We psychologically trained Westerners have the tendency to say: of course, they sublimate all their suppressed desires, but that is perhaps because we usually allow desires to run rampart in some ways. We feel better with explanations that tear away everything, but in a world where veils are prevalent, the senses are keener. Mysteries are appreciated because they speak to the imagination rather than the intellect.

Live, of course, is more multifacetted than most literature or poetry. It can be traumatic and altering if one has forcibly torn a veil from one’s face. Of course it is also traumatic and altering to be wrapped in something that one does not want around oneself. I wish everyone the patience and clarity to discern which situation is which and become aware what constitutes the veils you like to draw around yourselves, whether you are women or men.

Suffering and Beauty – on the Ethics of Photography

I often think about the ethics of photography, about the lines that should not be crossed (or if, in rebellion against your own feeling of shame, they should be crossed) and about the dignity of your subject.

My own photographs cannot be said to be very striking or insightful, I think. They are in part superficial, momentary, sometimes beautiful and I hope that I manage to portray the dignity of the people I choose to photograph, and their sense of themselves as well as their joy. I do not photograph intellectually and I do not seek out suffering. If there is anything I choose to photograph, then it is the joy and wonder of travelling, of seeing the world, rather than of thinking about it.

  Photography, respectable photography, seems to be concerned with suffering. How a person goes through agony, madness, disease and ultimately death or how they take on the cruelty of the world, which does not care about them. Because these, or so the images would suggest, are the cornerstones, the irrefutable realities of our existence against which all other things pale and wither.

  Respectable photography, like respectable philosophy, has long dealt with ideas of despair and emptiness, a world devoid of god. It is a strange dogma, this stubborn existentialism, the idea of the purity of hopelessness. I do think that our time demands a more diverse approach, a more open and flexible philosophy, an eye for not only the connectedness of all things but also the contradictory nature of everything.

  Suffering is only a part of the truth, if I may use this heavy word.  The world, in my experience, is never clear. There are hundreds of contradictory emotions and impressions floating around at every moment and if one has clarity it is only the clarity of one’s own emotion. Speaking as a photographer, that certainly makes for effective images but they are rarely truthful.

    There are no pure, undiluted moments. Not even in despair. You have to look for them and keep all the other moments out, because they might change the mood. I am still looking for the photographer who aims to show glimmers of hope in desperate situations or moments of strange, unsuitable, contradictory emotions.  A photograph freezes the moment and makes it eternal. The man in agony is not in momentary but eternal agony. This, I think, is why I would like to see more contradiction. Because it increases the awareness that moments flow and change.

  Having travelled extensively in Asia, I have seen instances of disease, famine, despicable living conditions, depression, gruesome accidents and death. But I would not decide to photograph such moments, unless I would aim to show the human dignity that must be there underneath.

  To me it seems as if there is an accepted image of suffering, a representation of it that will reflect upon the photographer and bring him some sort of twisted glory. Prize winning photographs depict unspeakable horrors because unspeakable horrors, especially if presented artistically and resonantly, sell and find an audience.

  I find there is a danger in this. It creates expectations and desensitizes the audience as well as the image maker – the next reportage must be more shocking. The photographer becomes a seeker of gruesome images, no longer because they are a reflection of the truth, but because they have become the world in which he is successful. It also strips the subject of the image of dignity. The subject becomes an object of pity and a canvas on which one can project many things, one’s own fear of the primitive side of man first among them all.

  But is a beautiful image more truthful? Is beauty truth, as the old adage held? No, of course not, but it is antidote to an ethic and aesthetic of suffering.

  If you want to have a truthful image of Asia or of Africa, look at images taken by Asian and African photographers and try to see through their eyes. Look for photographers who have managed to get rid of their own cultural lenses or have understood them insofar as to make them unimportant.

  Many of the greatest photographers have taken time to develop an understanding of the person or the situation they want to photograph, along with all the contraditions and complexities. It is as simple as that. My own photographs do not even begin to measure up to such a standard, but I think it is a direction worth taking.