Sunday, September 20, 2015

Life, The Matrix and Everything Part II

Orientalism and cultural appropriation at its best;
T. E. Lawrence striking a suitably romantic pose.
I've been prattling on about outsiders and the role they play in our conception of self and reality. For anyone who's still with me, here is the second story that illustrates my point. It's a fascinating example of how we manufacture reality and create our idea of what is normal.
It's recounted by T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") in his classic book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. While planning his next foray into what were the outer fringes of civilization from a Western standpoint, Lawrence was canny enough to know that he'd need to bring back a visual record of his travels among the wildmen who inhabited the uninhabitable desert.

Abd el Rahm, by Eric Kennington (1920)
One day, he came across an artist called Eric Kennington at an exhibition of paintings created during World War I, when the young artist had enlisted with the 13th Battalion London Regiment and been sent to fight on the Western Front. Kennington was a member of the Royal Academy and an official artist commissioned by the British Government in both World Wars, and was by all accounts a solid portraitist. Lawrence was so impressed by his work that he invited Kennington on his next campaign into the desert in 1920, where he painted numerous sensitive pastel and watercolor portraits of the characters they ran into. 

Another of Kennington's indecipherable scrawlings,
this time of Muttar Il Hamoud min Beni Hassan (1920)

To the Western eye, they're beautiful and naturalistic renditions, but when Lawrence showed the Arabs their portraits, most of them failed to recognize that they were images of men - let alone paintings of them! They blinked and stared blankly, spun them around, flipped them upside down and handed them back. One of them even hazarded a guess that it was a camel because the line of the jaw looked like a hump. Lawrence and Kennington were gobsmacked. The two dusty, sun-burned white men were utterly alien to their Arab hosts because the cultural signs of Western art were completely unintelligible, and therefore had no value whatsoever. 

The peripatetic DH and Frieda Lawrence, mid exile.

Outsiders may enable us to see ourselves, but our desire to experience alien-ness in the World is always conditioned by an instinct for self-preservation that keeps us within our comfort zone. It’s not really the void we’re after, but a safe approximation. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff during a storm and watching the smashing of the waves against the black wall. All we really want is a quick selfie and a nice dry car to jump back into. Only a madman would throw himself off the edge. 

When the poet DH Lawrence went on his “savage pilgrimage” - a self-imposed exile from 1919 to the end of his short life at the age of 44 in 1930 - he was in search of fulfillment from a life outside industrial western civilization. His wanderlust took him to Sicily, Ceylon, Australia and eventually New Mexico. He found bits of what he wanted among the peasants of Germany, Italy Mexico and India, but towards the end he grew disenchanted with his “savages.” He even seemed genuinely surprised when it turned out that “their consciousness is so different from ours that there’s scarcely any possibility of communication.” [i]

          If the outsider cannot render nature tame in our eyes, cannot “soothe our imagination,” then she must at least be able to speak of its strangeness in a language we can comprehend. Van Gogh spent years vacillating between desiring acceptance from the Salon and railing against it. His search for a style meant tiptoeing the line between being originality and commerce.* He couldn’t know that the actual myth he was creating around himself centered on his tense temperamental dis-ease with the world, that the key to his fame in the public's eye was the fact that he could never fit in. Van Gogh would never be allowed to fit in because we need our outsiders to stay strange so that we can feel less so. He could never paint nature in a way that satisfied him, because being true to his vision would mean being incomprehensible to others, while seeking recognition from others would mean faking his art. When William Styron wrote DarknessVisible, his deeply personal memoir of madness, he said, “never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is madness.”[i]

Van Gogh's Starry Night, the quintessential image of a world on the edge of falling apart.
Attempts to fully describe the madness of depression necessarily fail to grasp its true nature because they rely on words, and words fall miserably short. It’s like trying to describe the color blue to a blind person. The madness of depression is “so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description.”[ii] Any transcendent experience percolates down through the civilized consciousness before it’s capable of being communicated, but something gets lost in translation. People who experience profound states of being often find it difficult to locate words that accurately convey the intensity of what happened to them. It’s as if the words reduce the experience. The outsider who is capable of mediating between both worlds does not fully live in either one; she’s suspended in Dante’s purgatorio. Anyone communicating the depths of insanity cannot doing so from within its dungeon. Communication is only possible if we’ve stepped back from the void, otherwise its language is utterly incomprehensible.

Skrik, or The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch’s iconic painting known as The Scream, instantly recognizable to any highschooler, was originally titled The Scream of Nature (Der Schrei der Natur) and holds a special place of fascination, revulsion and horror in the minds of the public. Skrik is its Norwegian name; it describes more of a screeching banshee wail than a scream. But the title is unimportant; it’s a visual language of alienation that we can all understand. This is what it looks like when you cannot control your place in the world, we think. The sky bleeds and nature melts. 

On May 2 2012, it went to the auction block at Sotheby’s. Bidding started at $40 million and quickly shot up from there. At the 12 minute mark, a phone bid came in that brought down the auctioneer’s hammer and caused dumbfounded gasps around the room: Leon Black had given the final offer of $119,922,500.[i] Otherness is something we’re evidently willing to pay very good money to possess, or perhaps more correctly, to circumscribe.

With The Scream, Munch gave us a world that coincided with what our vision of strangeness is. If it was truly strange, we wouldn’t have been able to understand it at all. That Munch’s painting had an audience at all was a good sign on two fronts, not least for the man himself. Whereas many inmates in the asylums of France cowered incommunicably in darkened corners, Munch, fortunately, was still functional on some level. It also meant that society had progressed to the point where it was willing to at least imagine what a “madman” like him had to say, if only because his work subscribed to the stereotype of the Disturbed to a society that was newly and romantically inclined to want to investigate such extremes of character. That The Scream exists in no less than four versions – two pastels and two paintings – should suggest to us that Munch had enough wits about him to know he was on to a good thing. A few years previously and he’d have been discarded and left to rot in an asylum, and so-called inspired lunacy bedamned. Meanwhile, for the liberated societies of Paris and Berlin, wildmen, savages and the mad were being dragged along for the ride as contemporary representatives of our evolving conception of wildness, and as mute witnesses to the changing whims of Western fashion.

The Scream is a stunning painting to be sure, but is it really worth all that money? I believe its popularity derives at least in part from the same mechanism that was at play in the contemporary popularity of Medieval accounts of monsters at the outer edge of the map. The Scream is a first-hand account from the outer fringes, which lends it the weight of authenticity, but at the same time it is a madness that we can all understand.  Looking at the painting, we can see straight away that it conforms to standard Western notions of the landscape. There’s a clearly defined background, middle distance and foreground, containing the screamer in a paroxysm of emotion that verges on cartoonish. The sky is primary red, immediately recognizable in the West as the customary color of distress. Even Munch's choice of medium and standard portrait format are all signs that are utterly ordinary. In fact, the painting is striking precisely because it is so instantly readable. 

It conforms to a stereotype of the outer frontier of consciousness that we created to define us, the viewer gawping from the outside, as not mad. That’s not to question Munch’s motivation as anything but a genuine quest to express the anguish he was feeling at the time, but the stratospheric sum paid for his painting should alert us that there’s something deeper at play.

...and The Scream becomes a meme

In the end, Munch’s painting is never so different that it’s incomprehensible – as Kennington’s portraits had been to the alien society he'd found himself in. If Munch had been a true outsider, as Kennington had been to his Arab hosts, it would never have caused such a circus at Sotheby's. 

Munch’s colors might be inverted but his forms are still recognizable to us because The Scream is a visual idiom with which we are familiar. Its nightmarishness signifies this side of the boundary between reality and dreams, between order and chaos. Through it, we define the edge of normality by witnessing its transgression. But disturbing as it is, Munch’s world has failed to completely fall apart. It's popularity lies in its power to uphold our manufactured, pre-conceived stereotype of what is normal, what is real.

* Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo are filled with the anguish it caused him to sit between two stools.

[i] Lawrence, DH, “Apocalypse,” from the foreword by Richard Aldington, Penguin (1976) Pxvii
[i] Styron, William, “Darkness Visible,” Vintage (1990), P47
[ii] Styron, ibid. P7
[i] Crow, Kelly "Munch's "The Scream" Sold to Financier Leon Black". The Wall Street Journal, (11 July 2012).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interesting approach to understanding; which adds to my search for what they call "your image" at the art schools