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On negative space in the painting..

Monday, May 7th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — where might mist be the opposite of tree? ]
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When I heard the words “negative space in the painting” on MSNBC a couple of days ago I was intrigued — was this an unanticipated art program? Terrific! Next thought: the use of negative space is particularly noted in Japanese art:

In Japanese, ma, the word for space, suggests interval. It is best described as a consciousness of place .. the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision.

Here’s Wiki’s visual exmple:


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The Pine Trees screen is a pair of six-panel folding screens by the Japanese artist Hasegawa Tohaku. .. The screens are held by the Tokyo National Museum, and were designated as a National Treasure of Japan in 1952.

The ink-on-paper work depicts a view of Japanese pine trees in the mist, with parts of the trees visible and parts obscured, illustrating the Zen Buddhist concept of ma and evoking the Japanese wabi aesthetic of rustic simplicity.

Japanese classical aesthetics are subtle where Western modern aesthetics are obvious, deep where their Western cousins tend to the superficial, and while I wouldn’t care to elaborate on the definitions of ma and wabi, I don’t think “rustic simplicity” catches much of the resonance of wabi, and the phrase “Zen Buddhist concept” is on the clumsy side IMO — well, however.

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DT Suzuki‘s Zen and Japanese Culture was among my early purchaases as a young Oxford scholar with book money and BH Blackwell’s to plunder — and ma and wabi, along with sabi and yugen, rasa and raga, duende, lachrimae and mutabilitie — are among the art-induced mind-&-heart-states I’ve long found of impassioned interest.

For what “negative space” referred to on MSNBC, see the second post in this series of three..

Silence as protest and gift

Friday, April 13th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — on the frayed edges of music ]
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Silence is the exception rather than the rule — so much so that it’s notable.

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The bells of York Minster were silenced for a year in protest at the sacking of, as the Guardian eruditely puts it, “30 campanologists”. Bell-ringing is an ancient craft in the UK, mathematical in its combinatoric precision, glorious in its language and literature. Spanning the arts and sciences, it is thus a bridge between the two sides of that academic and popular schism or chasm which CP Snow famously described in his book, The Two Cultures.

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Mathematics and combinatorics:

The ringing of a peal or complete sequence of bells is a highly mathematized form of music, and the order in which the bells are to be rung — the method — can therefore be transcribed in graphical form:

Oh, the beauty in so musical a score.

I dare not show you a full extent — we might run out of pixels!

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Language and literature:

Truth (and the detested false), Grandsires, Triple Bob Major, oh, and Spitalfields Festival Treble Bob, and how could one forget Affpuddle Treble Bob Major..

Dorothy Sayers‘ novel The Nine Tailors has nothing to do with bespoke and everything to do with murder most fouldeath and detection:

In some parishes in England the centuries-old tradition of announcing a death on a church bell is upheld. In a small village most people would be aware of who was ill, and so broadcasting the age and sex of the deceased would identify them. To this end the death was announced by telling (i.e. single blows with the bell down) the sex and then striking off the years. Three blows meant a child, twice three a woman and thrice three a man. After a pause the years were counted out at approximately half-minute intervals. The word teller in some dialects becomes tailor, hence the old saying “Nine tailors maketh a man”.

The bell used in the novel for the announcement is the largest (tenor) bell, which is dedicated to St. Paul. Hence “teller Paul” or in dialect “tailor Paul”. Sayers is here acknowledging the assistance of Paul Taylor of Taylor’s bell foundry in Loughborough, England who provided her with detailed information on all aspects of change-ringing.

Scientific American adds other details, describing:

another time-honored tradition of bells, which frequently have nicknames and inscriptions, as if they were, indeed, alive.

For instance, in Sayers’ novel, the oldest bell is dubbed Batty Thomas, cast in 1380, and bears the inscription “Abbat Thomas sett mee heare + and bad mee ringe both loud and cleer.” (The oldest bell hung for change ringing that is still in use was cast in 1325; it is the fifth bell at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, Kent.)

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Argh, the lockout:

Enough of the beauty of the English bells. From the Guardian piece referenced in the upper panel, above:

But simmering tensions between the minster’s governing body, the Chapter of York, and the ringers came to a head last October when the band was summarily dismissed and locked out of the 15th-century cathedral’s bell tower.

The silencing of the York Minster peal is thus a case of a sacred sound being stilled by a secular — or at least unionized — silence.

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How opposite, and apposite, then, is the ringing silence offered by the youthful Quakers as a podcast in the second Guardian piece referenced (lower panel, above):

It’s not the most obvious subject for a podcast, but a group of young Quakers in Nottingham have recorded their 30-minute silent meeting so as to share their “oasis of calm” with the world.

In an episode of the monthly Young Quaker Podcast, called the Silence Special, you can hear a clock ticking, pages being turned and the rain falling, as the group meets and sits in silence at the Friend’s Meeting House in Nottingham. [ .. ]

The idea for the silent podcast first came from Tim Gee, a Quaker living in London, who was inspired by the BBC’s season of “slow” radio, which treated audiences to – among other things – the sounds of birds singing, mountain climbing and monks chatting.

Gee said he had wanted to “share a small oasis of calm, and a way to provide a moment of stillness, for people on the move”.

Jessica Hubbard-Bailey, 25, from the Nottingham Young Quakers, who recorded the podcast, said they had jumped at the opportunity to broadcast something “immersive and unusual”. She added: “We have very different ways of worship to most people of faith and we thought this was a really unique opportunity to give people a little slice of what the Quakers do. Also, we are really good at being quiet because we’ve made a practice of it and I think that is of value. These days everyone is so busy, everyone is working all the time, so it’s really valuable to have the opportunity to sit down once a week and just be quiet and listen.”

Listen? Listen to the birds, to the chattering monks — or to the still, small voice?

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Listen, in any case, to the sound of silence:

Just listen!

Time In all his tuneful turning (ii)

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Dylan Thomas’ vision of time to set beside Stephen Hawking’s ]
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I’m arguing here that Dylan Thomas is at least as great a thinker about time as Stephen Hawking, and his masterpiece, Fern Hill is my proof text to that effect.

I’ll borrow here from a piece I wrote called That HyperText is Linear: it’s the Northrop Frye applied to Dylan Thomas bit that’s of relevance here:

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I get much of my thinking in this area from the literary critic, Northrop Frye, who says somewhere that you can (and should) read a poem through from beginning to end, and that this will give you what he calls the “diachronic” meaning — the sequential meaning “through time”: but when you have done this, you should also perceive what he calls the “synchronic” meaning — the meaning that comes from the poem as a whole, with all its parts simultaneously present and influencing one another, in a way that is impossible in a first sequential reading, but is possible in a meditative way afterwards…

Take Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Fern Hill”, for example. It’s an incredible tour-de-force, moving from the poet’s sense of wonder and praise at the natural world around him in childhood, to the moment when time takes him

Up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand

and he wakes

to the farm forever fled from the childless land…

— his “lamb white days” are over, and he realizes finally that

as I was young and tender in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying…

That is, so to speak, the throughline, the sense of the poem from start to finish — as I child I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I was green and carefree: and yet, all the while, my childhood was slipping away from me, for Time itself held me green and dying…

That’s the “diachronic” reading…

But the “synchronic” reading is quite different. It doesn’t depend in the same way on a process through time. Instead, it works by the piling up of similar phrases:

the sun that is young once only…
All the sun long…
the sun grew round that very day…
the sun born over and over…

These phrases, scattered throughout the poem, seem to build on one another, almost imperceptibly, in a very remarkable way. Suppose that it was life, rather than the sun, that was at issue here:

A phrase like “life that is young once only” would clearly emphasize the freshness of youth and the decay that age brings — and thus be very much in line with the diachronic meaning of the poem. But a phrase like “life long” would emphasize the enduring quality in life, maybe even its eternal quality (“eternal life” even), while “life born over and over” would capture the cyclical feeling that’s present in the rotation of the seasons (and in the idea of reincarnation) — and “the sun grew round that very day”, while it doesn’t make sense to read it as “life grew round that very day”, clearly means that each moment is itself the moment of sunlight, in a way that’s akin to the zen sense of living in the moment…

So it’s as though the poem moves from beginning to end along a track that emphasizes initial innocence and its eventual loss: but read in the wholistic, “synchronous” sense, it quietly suggests that time can be viewed as a slowly entropic and degenerative process, as an endless and unbroken wholeness, as always and only the instant, and as a cyclical recurrence…

To me, that’s mind-blowing. Thomas isn’t presenting one of these as “the truth” — to the extent that there’s a “main” way to view time in the poem, it’s certainly in terms of a slow and not so slow process of the loss of innocence — but as four complementary ways in which we can see it. Four major philosophies of time in one poem, phrased in terms of the sun, and thus slipping almost unnoticed into our consciousness while we’re busy following the “throughline” or “plain sense” of the poem… four major philosophies, not contradicting one another, but spoken together, as in a polyphony.

There are some similar phrases relating to the moon, too, and they need to be similarly weighed and considered if you want to go deeper into “Fern Hill” — but that’s another part of the story, for another day…

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That’s from That HyperText is Linear, not currently available on the web.

Four major philosophies of time, each seen from a human perspectove, voiced together as a polyphony, and presented “subcutaneously” — beneath the surface of the poem, and of the reader’s conscious awareness.

That’s what I admire in Thomas’ poem, and what I would compare with Stephen Hawking’s analog of another great scientist’s “Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” — for the juxtaposition of Dylan Thomas vs Stephen Hawking is indeed an age-old one, finding its classic instantiation in William Blake‘s antipathy towards Isaac Newton.


William Blake, Isaac Newton, The Tate Gallery

I’ll let Alan Moore, he of the comics [Watchmen, eg], explain:

For Blake, the boundaries of Newton’s thought were the cold, stone parameters of an internal dungeon to which all humanity had been condemned without its comprehension or its knowledge. Despite the invigorating consequences Newton’s influence would have for a then-nascent industry, Blake would elsewhere describe this rigid and reductive pall as ‘Newton’s Sleep’, a drowse insensible to vision or to ethical restraint beneath which it appeared the world had fallen. Goya to the contrary, here the monstrosity was birthed not by the sleep of reason, but instead born from that sleep which reason represented. From our own industrially despoiled and bankrupted contemporary perspective, Blake’s view surely seems a product of extraordinary prescience rather than of the angel-addled madness which some of his less insightful critics have attributed.

Enough.

Shorts 5: Apocalypse to Almond blossoms

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly about beauty — let’s start with apocalypse and end with the blossoms, eh? reverse engineering! ]
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Hey!

Putin’s apocalyptic blackmail

In the Orthodox tradition, the Book of Revelations has not been among the most important texts. Yet there is something positively apocalyptic about the recent speech of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most important convert, Russian President Vladimir Putin. A nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile that could circumnavigate the planet avoiding US missile defenses! A nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine drone! And, most of all, a hypersonic “meteorite” too fast for American interceptors, a mighty ognennyi shar, a great “ball of fire”! (Jerry Lee Lewis was not credited, but then Putin’s Russia is not known for overly scrupulous honoring of property rights.)

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Jerry Lee Lewis ? That’s a pop refeerence in an otherwise serious context. Let’s see..

Pop paradise:

Religion (Zen??) in games:

Following the massive initial success of Alto’s Adventure, the team released a major update that added a Zen Mode to the title in 2016, which removed obstacles to create a more relaxing experience for players who simply wanted to drift off into the game world. It was around that time that Cymet moved his family from Vancouver to Toronto to work more closely with the team at Snowman, and he said that the ordeal helped “give me a sense of groundedness in this emotion we’ve tried to capture with the game, of going outside your comfort zone and putting yourself somewhere completely new that’s beautiful and interesting, and trying to find the beauty there.”

IMO, and with ref to the above and to zen, seeking beauty leads to prettiness, whereas seeking truth leads to beauty.

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Placing that game art in a binary context:

Adorno:

Like many émigrés, Adorno was initially disoriented by US mass culture, which had not yet overrun Europe as it would after the war. This disorientation became a principled distrust. He claimed that capitalist popular culture – jazz, cinema, pop songs, and so on – manipulates us into living lives empty of true freedom, and serves only to distort our desires. Popular culture is not the spontaneous expression of the people, but a profit-driven industry – it robs us of our freedom and bends us to conform to its needs for profit.

Scruton:

When Metallica appeared at the 2014 Glastonbury festival there was a wake-up moment of this kind – the recognition that these guys, unlike so many who had performed there, actually had something to say. Yes, there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop.

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Okay, and to close with authentic beauty, art, culture….

A brilliant DoubleQuote in a single tweet:

Encouragingly, there are just such blossoms outside my window.

Shorts 04: Books, and a personal pic

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick treasury of treasures, what else? ]
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Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion

Abbasid Baghdad did produce its own semi- legendary criminals. Many tales were told of the ingenious exploits of the ninth-century master-thief, al-Uqab (‘the Eagle’), among them the story of a bet he had with a certain doctor that within a set period of time alUqab could steal something from the doctor’s house. Although the house was closely guarded, alUqab drugged the guards. Then, posing as an apparition of Jesus and making use of hypnotism, he succeeded in stealing off with the dcotor himself.

Robert Irwin was an Oxford contemporary & fellow-traveller.

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Kim Wagner, The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857

In 1963, a human skull was discovered in a pub in south-east England. The handwritten note found inside revealed it to be that of Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in British service who had been blown from a cannon for his role in the 1857 Uprising, his head brought back as a grisly war-trophy by an Irish officer present at his execution. The skull is a troublesome relic of both anti-colonial violence and the brutality and spectacle of British retribution.

Ooh, grue! Cf. the food of that served in the Arkansas penal system.

^^

Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction

We know next to nothing about the author of the poem which has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400. In the early 17th century the manuscript was recorded as belonging to a Yorkshireman, Henry Saville of Bank. It was later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection also included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf . The poem then lay dormant for over 200 years, not coming to light until Queen Victoria was on the throne, thus leapfrogging the attentions of some of our greatest writers and critics. The manuscript, a small, unprepossessing thing, would fit comfortably into an average-size hand, were anyone actually allowed to touch it. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A X, it is considered not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but also as one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature; it now sits in the British Library under conditions of high security and controlled humidity.

Hat-tip: Hanne Elisabeth Storm Ofteland

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Rennie Davis, The New Humanity: A Movement to Change the World (Volume 1 of 3)

This first book returns to ‘Our Roots’ with a behind-the-scenes look straight from the eye of the social-change hurricane that swept North America during the turbulent times of the 1960s. Rennie Davis was the coordinator of the largest coalition of anti-war and civil rights organizations during that era. Now in vivid detail, he explains how the Sixties movement ignited and expanded, growing in strength and staying power. A compelling, riveting story, it was written to inspire today’s generation to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and arise again to change the world. Like a snowball tumbling down the mountain to become an avalanche that takes out the concrete wall of fear and divide, today’s movement will not be ignored or stopped.

This book is today’s must-read gift to yourself and your friends to uplift humanity and change the world.

Rennie is an old friend, story for another day. Hat-tip: Rennie Davis.

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This just in:

Bernard Faure, The Fluid Pantheon: Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 1

Written by one of the leading scholars of Japanese religion, The Fluid Pantheon is the first installment of a multivolume project that promises to be a milestone in our understanding of the mythico-ritual system of esoteric Buddhism—specifically the nature and roles of deities in the religious world of medieval Japan and beyond. Bernard Faure introduces readers to medieval Japanese religiosity and shows the centrality of the gods in religious discourse and ritual; in doing so he moves away from the usual textual, historical, and sociological approaches that constitute the “method” of current religious studies. The approach considers the gods (including buddhas and demons) as meaningful and powerful interlocutors and not merely as cyphers for social groups or projections of the human mind. Throughout he engages insights drawn from structuralism, post-structuralism, and Actor-network theory to retrieve the “implicit pantheon” (as opposed to the “explicit orthodox pantheon”) of esoteric Japanese Buddhism (Mikky?).

Hat-tip: just in from friend Gilles Poitras.

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Enough of books — heres a personal photo — friend Neil Ayer with a Rothka at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Au ‘voir!


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