Half Of The People Can Be Part Right All Of The Time, or, Tomorrow’s Never What It’s Supposed To Be: The Asia Series

It was not that long ago that even well-off, well-educated members of western democracies did not take for granted two ideas that we now take for granted:

  • the conscious experience of being human (individually and socially)  will be a matter of creating and using new technologies, supplemented by  trying to analyze and critique these changes in consciousness as they occur, to ensure we own the technology and the technology doesn’t own us
  • this cycle of creating the new thing, then learning the new thing, then becoming the new mind in a new community adapted to the new thing, and ultimately trying to compose a bigger critical picture of this new mind/new community will be an unstoppable game of musical chairs.

I can’t exaggerate for someone reading this 10,000 years from now the difference between not taking this for granted and taking it for granted. I can’t exaggerate the difference between the simple envy and greed that once distinguished families who didn’t have  color TVs from families that did, and what we have now: the admonitions that not owning an iPad excludes me from a shared consciousness.  Not taking this for granted  makes me an enthusiastic reader for Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier helped pioneer virtual reality, and was winning round after round of musical chairs before most people knew the game had started. It’s too late, apparently, to put a stop to the game, but it’s just the right time to destroy our identities as winners or losers in the game.

The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits. Since people will be inexorably connecting to one another through computers from here on out, we must find an alternative.

Lanier proposes a peculiar humanism that would move me past submitting to being what a computer needs me to be, into a deeper and stranger realm where computers contribute even more to our human  irreducibles. Deep meaning and personhood are still viable conditions in Lanier’s world, where bits are illusions but also the elements of the inexorable way of things. From here on out myself and everyone who follows me will connect with each other through computers. (“‘Eternity!’” said Frankie Lee, with a voice as cold as ice.”)  Lanier’s book  offers a chance to renew the humanist verities of individualism, inimitable consciousness, and meaning that can’t be quantified. And we renew our humanism with digital tools that enrich consciousness and connection.

I think this kind of humanist prophecy has to come from a Jaron Lanier, someone so far into the machine with all their cylinders of consciousness working, that they can see it for what it is and not a dream. “Don’t go calling Paradise that home across the road.”  I get that this is home now. Do I still feel left out? It’s too late not to be: I’m already a creature of my world, I may have already  internalized the idea that consciousness will remain ineffable in my lifetime, and it will also become the competitive work of adapting to technology, and I might not keep up.

But there’s something else, and  I can’t resign to it. History to Jaron Lanier is what got us here. History is map and vehicle. If somewhere in his manifesto he conceives of history as singular and invaluable sites of consciousness that can be reclaimed–I don’t find it.  I’m starting to believe that the work of this reclaiming is not less frightening or exhilarating than blazing trails into futures outlined even as reliably as someone like Jaron Lanier can outline them.  Reclaiming in our terms the consciousness that both desired and created the Rosetta Stone, and making from that consciousness  something concrete and self-sufficient, is a kind of humanism I would like to get behind.

I brought all this pondering to the Gagosian Gallery on Saturday to see The Asia Series. By now the fur is flying–the paintings are copied from other images. The accusations are correct. The paintings are copied from other images. The response interests me more than the paintings do–the  volume of disgust and disillusionment.  Now, it would be hard for anyone to walk through the gallery and take it on face value that this artist painted these scenes from life. A robed Emperor? A silken demimonde reclining in an opium den? Kimono-clad women strolling through an exquisitely blooming forest? A peasant and his laden pack-animal lumbering along a road beneath a snow-capped mountain?  How many more cliches of Life in the Old Orient can you name? The most casual and uninformed viewer should wonder how just about any of these images could have been painted–in 2009 and 2010–from contemporary living life.

It took little work in little time to uncover and broadcast Bob Dylan’s deception or laziness.  What kind of hoax or betrayal is revealed so quickly and so easily? Is all the disgust based on presuming Dylan’s utter indifference to his counterfeits being outed immediately? Is the problem the belief that Dylan doesn’t care to offer art that matters the way he has apparently taught many thousands of people to care about art? (If you are among the few who are deeply and personally outraged on behalf of Henri Cartier-Bresson, then your moral compass differs from those whose deep and personal offense is directly bound to Bob Dylan’s breaking faith, period.)

The stink of indifference bothers me, and it’s an abstract stink, since the paintings themselves are not careless or indifferent. For the most part, the execution is confident, and the colors are spirited. The way the fleshtones are handled on the Cartier-Bresson knockoff are bold and interesting. The  Heian scene is sylvan and inviting. Which doesn’t relieve the stink, and doesn’t answer any question of originality,  but complicates our disappointment. What if the Gagosian handed visitors a statement from Bob Dylan affably letting us in on the whole thing: I’m trying to learn new techniques in acrylic and oil painting, and I practiced by copying images by artists I admire? That would relieve all the tsuris? We would be cheerfully saying Bob Dylan has quite a confident way with a brushstroke? And why? The object changes when the stink of indifference is sweetened by transparency?

No, it doesn’t. Our relation with the artist changes, and here is an artist whose audience constructs relations to him fraught, fraught, so fraught with values and ethics and feelings. I happen to share the ignorant persistent nightmare that a consciousness may emerge in a computer and humankind will lose the musical chairs game forever. But if that awoken computer will be fluent in ethical and emotional conflicts and anxieties like the ones that sprouted immediately in response to Bob Dylan’s paintings,  then for the love of god, may the poor digital thing have pity on itself. And to someone 10,000 years down the road,   I say, This mess is what humanism looked like. And many of us wouldn’t have it any other way.  If we’re lucky, you’ll care enough to reclaim our messy consciousness and make something of it.

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12 thoughts on “Half Of The People Can Be Part Right All Of The Time, or, Tomorrow’s Never What It’s Supposed To Be: The Asia Series

  1. Although I do care deeply, too much, about the work of Bob Dylan, fortunately I do not much care about his paintings. They could never really be anything other than peripheral to his main work. The fact that he has essentially copied the work of others, without having announced it, though, and given the various plagiarism scandals which he has already dealt with in recent years, is pretty damn pathetic. Either he doesn’t care at all, beyond the cash his paintings might bring him, or he is using the outrage which he surely knew this would cause as free publicity. Either way, it isn’t worth our attention. He is just kinda wasting our precious time.

    This news comes as I am in the middle of watching Renaldo and Clara, another chapter of the Dylan saga which, although much more interesting than the Asia Series, can really make you wonder why you are bothering. But there is enough there to at least engage your mind, and get you trying to figure out what on earth is happening in the film, and maybe even why. These days, though, too many of his games are not even remotely interesting. Cynicism and perversity seem to have overwhelmed him in old age.

  2. The problem for me is there is nothing at all cynical about these paintings when you are standing in front of them. They are so appealing, and with such an appetite for color, and so–vivacious. There is nothing puerile or inert or cryptic about them, which is what I can’t stand in so much postmodern appropriation, may it rest in peace. These paintings are confident and alive, the very opposite of a waste of my precious time. And any charge of plagiarism is not valid here, and any charge of deception is dubious, since it was a matter of minutes before the sources for the paintings were discovered and revealed to the entire world. My feelings about the paintings seem oddly different than my feelings about the songs, and are asking me to think about the difference between paintings and songs.
    I certainly can’t agree with you about Renaldo and Clara, which is more moving and enjoyable to me every time I see it. It’s a shame you find so much that is pathetic/cynical/perverse in Dylan now, when he must have given you much of the opposite in the past. Maybe best to stick with what you personally do find meaningful/unperverse.

  3. I saw the paintings last Saturday and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed seeing them and how much I enjoyed them as paintings, not just paintings by Bob Dylan. I assumed they were based on drawings he did. Now that I know that they are based on photographs that someone else took I must confess that it doesn’t make a bit of difference about how I feel about the paintings. When I look at the photos and paintings side by side as the NYTimes presented them, I see two entirely different works of art. The paintings, for me, somehow, convey the meaning of the photos? Convey the artists’ impressions? And that must be what it’s all about.

  4. Yes, plagiarism holds no water here. And I’ve found that past accusations of “plagiarism” against Dylan are toothless and disingenuous grabs for a moral high ground from people who feel they’ve been tricked, disillusioned, cuckolded by an artist with whom they believed they had a certain kind of relationship. In the case of what he does with song lyrics and Chronicles, this is, to me, pure philistinism. For me personally, the paintings felt different–partly because they really do have a stronger presence on the wall than I expected. I expected to respect and enjoy them, but they’re actually better than that, and I failed to notice the absurdity of not questioning the *immediacy* of a Chinese emperor.

  5. I’m not sure whether I will be able to. I can say to anyone reading this that Sean Wilentz is a wonderfully engaging and responsive speaker, and worth your time. His ardor for the topic and the work of Bob Dylan is transparent. He also enjoys questions and comments, so don’t hold back if you’ve got something you want to put to him.

  6. I’m not quite sure what you are saying Nina. At first I thought you were upset with Bob, then it seemed like you were upset with the critics and now it seems like you are outraged, disgusted and disillusioned with Bob and what you are terming a hoax, indifferent, a betrayal, a deception of laziness. Yet art history is filled with paintings copied from the works of other painters/paintings. Van Gogh painted dozens of copies of Milette’s work- right down to the colors, clothing, settings, poses, complete reconstructions- and he copied the work of others as well. There are many other well respected artists, even those called masters throughout the centuries who have perpetrated this great hoax, this indifference and laziness- despite their paintings being masterpieces. Why are the accusations against Dylan not leveled at these same artists? Perhaps because it is a known practice- or was. Perhaps because these other artists produced masterpieces. Perhaps because in our day and age people enjoy “Gotcha” about “celebrities” lives more than the actual experience of living their own. Perhaps just because it is Dylan, who always seems to be a lightening rod drawing to him the ghosts of electricity- positive and negative.

    There is also a history in art of one artist using a different medium in response to another work or to bring another dimension to another piece of art. Traditionally the written word in response to visual work* as well as the reverse was the norm. Increasingly one medium in response to another has become the accepted.

    *See Ekphrasis
    There is another term that I just can’t think of at the moment.

    Anyway, as I said I am not sure if you are damning Dylan for his perceived shortcomings or our gadget world which provides instant information and allows everyone and her mother to voice an opinion. In either case, always enjoyable to read your thoughts.
    I have been looking for conversation about this topic from recognized artists or art historians but haven’t found anything yet.

  7. Many thanks for your extensive reply here. I’m very grateful that you called me out on my confusions. I greatly confused myself. I’ve been following Dylan’s painting-life with so much interest and pleasure–I have been loving the way he’s teaching his eye and his hand to capture these rich visual moments in his wandering life. Up till the Asia Series, the paintings have all felt like intimate, energetic snapshots that really quiver with the feeling of holding on to a passing moment–whether this experience of time in painting/drawing is conventionally impressionistic is interesting to me. I’ve also been watching his increasing confidence with his compositions–arrangements are stronger. And then my first chance to see these up close and personal, just a subway ride away, was thrilling–and indeed, the paintings have such vitality, and such variety of tone, it is not easy to visit the gallery and expect to spend ten amusing minutes seeing the products of Bob Dylan’s hobby–the paintings will reach for your attention and hold it longer than you might have expected. So with all that, I felt disappointed to learn that the paintings were a kind of exercise, something I thought one would do in a studio class, to practice a technique (knowing nothing of what a painter does). I wanted the fresh felt glimpses of life that the earlier paintings offered. I went back with printouts of the Leon Busy Opium photo, and the Cartier-Bresson. Dylan’s take on the Leon Busy photo makes the scene a true mystery, the blurred objects have a dreamlike allure that suits the topic more evocatively than the recognizable jumble in the photo. The woman in Busy’s photo is a costumed-doll who serves as one more prop in the scene, but Dylan’s woman looks out at the viewer with awareness, and her hair and simple robe are more natural and seducing than the dress and hair of the woman in the photo. So yes, Dylan’s painting has a presence and allure that the photo doesn’t. Where I wanted windows on lived life fluttering by Bob Dylan’s eyes, I got art for art’s sake–at a level of technical seriousness that is impressive and curious. His eagerness to become a seriously competent painter is right there,
    You definitely helped me see that this kind of homage of one visual medium to another has a tradition in the visual arts that I didn’t know about. And it was the sense that I was being given exercises instead of creations that bothered me, this seemed on an abstract level to be lazy and divorced from the freshness of vision I loved–or thought that’s what I was loving– in the Drawn Blanks and Brazilian Series. And the dissonance between that kind of abstract disappointment and the sheer pleasure of standing in front of the paintings was quite an itchy scratchy feeling. So that’s where I was. If this makes any more sense. And then in comes pouring the vitriol from people without any particular interest in painting, or in Bob Dylan’s paintings, but with leonine reflexes for leaping upon anything Dylan does and disembowelling it. I would like to hear more from serious artists on this topic, and far less from the usual suspects. So thank you so much for weighing and taking the time. I think as far as the Lanier goes, I wanted to say something about the Vision Thing of a visionary like jaron Lanier not having enough room for historical consciousness–and Bob Dylan does offer such experiences of historical consciousness (a vile phrase that I am sure Mr Dylan would sniff at if he even cared to waste the oxygen). I sure didn’t manage that, but maybe I will give it a try in a future bit of thinking-out-loud.
    Thank you again.

    • Thank you for being interested in Montague Street! I’ve gathered and edited the content for the third issue, and I’m working to get that out by January. We do have an embarrassment of riches for this issue–I’m pleased to offer an original essay by Steven Heine (author of Bargainin’ for Salvation, a fascinating look at Dylan’s work through Zen philosophy), another ingenious exploration by John Gibbens, and rich examinations of Born in Time, Kaatskill Serenade, and Brownsville Girl, by writers I’m delighted to introduce to readers, and plenty more. As soon as the issue is ready, I can start *advertising* it here and elsewhere. Thanks again for your interest.

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