Inner, not outer life

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Inner, not outer life

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aug 2, 2007, 11:59 am

In a discussion with Miriam, I mentioned what Carl Dreyer said about the necessity of "abstraction" for the artist. He said that "abstraction" is the way to artistic renewal. His concise explanation was "the artist must describe inner, not outer life."

This idea of the inner life is endlessly fascinating to me. We all have an "inner" and an "outer" life. In my case, I prefer to live my "inner" life as much as possible and often feel a great sense of resentment at being pulled out of it. As a writer, I am always trying to grasp the "inner" lives of my characters and to show that inner life through descriptions of setting, the characters' observations, and so on. I'd enjoy knowing what others think about Dreyer's statement.

aug 2, 2007, 12:17 pm

In Kokoschka's "the tempest" where the two lovers are shown reclining, and they are purported to be OK and Alma Mahler, the artist has shown both inner and outer life, and the figures are recognizable, even with the expressionism in the handling. It is a modernist but not an abstract painting. Their passion is expressed in the handling of the paint, and the distortion. I could give many other examples where realism has conveyed inner life. Vermeer, El Greco, the blue period picasso, chuck close. I could go on and on.

Redigeret: aug 2, 2007, 12:55 pm

Miriam, do you know where I can find Kokoschka's "The Tempest" online? I found this interpretation from Steven Antinoff of the AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW:

"In Kokoschka's The Tempest (also known as Bride of the Wind) Alma Mahler sleeps on the shoulder not simply of a man but of an artist: Kokoschka himself. We know from the discussions he had with his biographer J. P. Hodin that he felt his passion for her could destroy him as a painter. "In The Tempest (1914), he depicted himself experiencing the torment between his calling as an artist and love, creativeness and sex."15 Look at his face and body: this is a painting of a creator whose art gives him no rest, whose untenability as a man, despite his art, drives him to love. Love gives him no rest but threatens his art. In the world of this painting neither art nor love-nor their abandonment-will do."

Here we run upon some of the same things we've touched on before, the calling of the artist, the struggle to endure as an artist. The struggle to be human and to express humanity in art. Almost a chicken and egg struggle.

aug 2, 2007, 1:13 pm

Alma mahler was a femme fatale, a composer, a beauty, and very busy with her lovers. There is a funny song, I think from Tom lehrer:
Alma, tell us
all other women are jealous
which one of your magic wands
got you gustave and walter and franz?

Not to mention Kokoschka.After Mahler died, I think she married Franz Werfel of the Song of Bernadette and Jacobovsky and the Colonel; I don't think she married Oskar Kokoschka or Walter Gropius, the architect. What a life! And those are only the ones we know about. In the film "Varian's War where Varian Fry is helping European intellectuals escape over the Pyrenees, I think it is Lynn Redgrave that plays Alma Werfel.
You should be able to see a slide of the Tempest in your college art library.
I think Kokoschka may have told his biographer that it was torment, because he couldn't keep her and wanted to blame it on a philosophical problem!. I think psychological art criticism is pretty much nonsense. What does the work communicate to the viewer/reader/listener? Whatever the artist went through to produce it is irrelevant to the art itself.

aug 2, 2007, 2:42 pm

I looked in the art books I have here at the house and I don't have that Kokoschka painting. I have more art books at my office at the university, so I'll look for it there. I also must see Varian's War now. Miriam, you are full of surprises.

Now, about art criticism: we differ on that, too. It seems the only way I can connect to art is through criticism that delves either into psychology or mythology. The works don't come alive for me until I delve into the inner life of the artist and imagine (rightly or wrongly) what the artist was going through. This takes me through my own quirky mental terrain and shows me the way to create. It is just how I'm wired. Sometimes, I have an immediate reaction to a work, but my relationship with that work is never complete until I know more about the artist and the artist's struggles.

Redigeret: aug 2, 2007, 2:54 pm

I did find a copy of "The Tempest" here:

Of course I remembered it after seeing it. What a powerful work.

aug 2, 2007, 3:26 pm

In my training as a painter, it was important to my professors that the painting be intelligible without knowing who painted it, or when or why. They objected strenuously to the literary analysis of art. they wanted the art itself to convey what they called an 'emotional truth'. For someone like Joseph Albers in his color experiments (homage to the squares) or Donald Judds stainless steel boxes it was the thing itself and nothing else that mattered. of course if you are talking about Picasso's 'the absinthe drinkers' or munch's the scream, its a different story. Your take on art is so full of psychological angst and I have known artists in great trouble, who painted very sunny stuff. Your approach is through literature, and if it works for you, fine. But I don't think it is legitimate art criticism. Was Mondrian obsessive compulsive? Yuck.

aug 2, 2007, 3:49 pm

I understand what you are saying. I know that in the first half of the 20th Century, the emphasis was on "the thing itself." It is true of literary criticism, too. I understand the need for looking at art that way, leaving it unemcumbered with all the psychological baggage and angst. I mean, what else to do with DuChamp's urinal?

But while I find DuChamp's urinal playful and groundbreaking in what can be considered art, and while I find some excitement in that, it does not give me a feeling of wholeness. Nor do Warhol's soupcans. But on an intellectual level, I am enrichened by what they did.

It is true that my take on art is full of angst. I am not much drawn to sunny stuff. It is as I say in my profile, my artistic life is fueled by dismemberment and regeneration. That is what excites me. In order for me to create, I have to go with that. So I have formed a relationship with all art that is not so much academic as very personal.

Miriam, I am finding you to be such a treasure. Please don't abandon me even if you think me guilty of wobbly thinking!

Redigeret: aug 2, 2007, 7:41 pm

When I talk about the 'thing itself' I am definitely NOT talking about furlined teacups, or Duchamps urinal or Warhol's soup cans. Political arguments against materialism and commercialism, and spoofs of advertising have been popular, and Rosenquists cartoons and Lichtenburgs painted bed, or his goat with the rubber tire around him are not what I am talking about. Skipping surrealism, pop art, and things that just epater the bourgeousie, I think there is still room for legitimate, serious, deeply felt painting. I happen to like Philip Pearlstein, Alfred leslie, Chuck Close and Alice Neel for contemporary portraits, self portraits and nudes. NOT URINALS AND SOUP CANS. REALLY. THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEANT BY THE THING ITSELF.!!!!!!!!!!!!! tHINK OF THE SCULPTURE OF hENRY MOORE OR JACQUES LIPSCHITZ. tHE THING ITSELF AND NOT SOUPCANS. Think of one of Modigliani's orangey nudes. Gorgeous.
If the way you look at art helps you write novels, that's great for you and you have all the right in the world to do it, but I don't for a minute think it is the way to understand what the artist did. Not what he/she felt or didn't feel, but what was produced. This is also true of the New Criticism, where we were forbidden to read biographical material as a help to understanding the literature. Prurient interest, gossip, curiosity, ok, but evaluation? No

Redigeret: aug 3, 2007, 12:16 am

Wow, I really rang some bells with the urnials and the soup cans! Look at all those exclamation marks (smile). Okay, now we understand each other about "the thing itself."

So let me now seek to clarify what we've brought up about experience and evaluation. I don't want to stray too far away from the purpose I set up for the group. I'm more interested in exploring passions rather than methodology. But we've let the methodology cat out of the bag, so I must clear things up, if I can.

I wouldn't describe my interest in the lives and mental states of authors / artists as prurient.

I think you are right that I often experience art in literary terms. Art is a drama and each artist has a narrative: the narrative of his or her life. I don't think of my interest in the narrative of their lives as being prurient, any more than I think of reading any great novel or biography as being prurient. The narrative of an artist's life drives my interest and understanding, helps me to empathize with the artist and the artist's works. It makes the works alive for me.

It is not as if I look at Picasso's relationships with women or Rothko's depression or Theodore Roethke's struggle with bipolar disorder with a wink and a nudge. But these narratives do give me insights into their works and makes the artists human to me. I enjoy making connections. I'm interested in how art, literature, history, philosophy, psychology, etc. connect. That is my nature, to assimilate, not to narrow down and focus.

Artists' narratives (of which their works are a part) give me the courage I need to be an artist. I can see their struggles, what they overcame, what temptations they underwent, how they struggled to find their style or their voice.

I'm not sure if "evaluating" is what I'm doing, at least not in this group. I'm more talking about "experiencing." It's not just that the way I think about art helps me to write novels; it helps me to experience the artworks.

When you say you are "wallowing" in poetry, I want to shout, "Wow! Tell me more about THAT!"

However, back to methodology. There are several methodologies currently in use that do purport to evaluate writing and art.

I can't fully experience Kahlo's paintings without knowing about her injury or her troubles with Diego. I can't fully experience Pound's Cantos without knowing about his incarceration in Italy. Hart Crane's "The Bridge" doesn't come fully into focus unless I understand what kind of world he (and other Modernists) were living in. Crane's homosexuality, depression, drunkenness all play a role in the arc of his life and work.

I know all the things you are saying. New Criticism and "the thing itself" were still very much in vogue when I came through college, and they alienated me. I was the good student, made good grades, created the papers using the proper critical modes of evaluation, but it never felt authentic to me. I have a BA double major and two Master's Degrees, so I've written a lot of those papers. Somehow, I was still able to keep a spark of my original passion for these things, even as I wrote dry papers that got A's. What saved me, perhaps, was the passion of some of my professors who clearly loved their subject. I think people's temperaments determine how they need to experience and evaluate things.

I am thankful for the training I received in critical thought. That was valuable. New Criticism helped me to look carefully at texts. But now it is recognized by many critics that New Criticism had its drawbacks, that it left out too much. There are many ways to look at texts. To leave students with the idea that this is the only way to experience or think about texts (or art) can be hurtful, I think.

In our classes in literary criticism now and in our anthologies, many ways of evaluating are discussed and practiced: New Criticism, Psychological Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Gender Criticism, Mythological Criticism, Historical Criticism, Sociological Criticism, Biographical Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism, and so on. Each is valid in its way.

There are also a variety of methodologies for evaluating art, which (I think) mirror the literary methodologies, at least somewhat.