A Message From Cat

Cat, who hates the evil thing that makes noise and bright lights (ie: the camera), was too lazy to slink away when I started taking pictures yesterday. I thought that was very sweet of her. Doesn’t she look sweet? And not annoyed at all…

She’s told me that, in exchange for her services as a model, I should remind people that TSWCE is on special offer until Friday. Save 42% and make a cat happy.

What… you say you’ve already got a copy? Mhm… well, then go and get another. Or get one for a friend. Or a family member. Or that random person that you saw on the bus yesterday. No… not that one. The one that smelled of cheese. Think of it as a post-thanksgiving-pre-christmas-gift. Our cat overlords will be pleased with your purchase.

Art of the Present

This work of art (I’m in a charitable mood) is called “Schwarze Tafeln”, which basically means “black panels”. And this object really is what it says on the box. There are five of these, they look absolutely identical and they’re simply cardboard squares stuck onto big metal frames. And I hate them. They symbolize all that is wrong with modern art. We saw these things when we went to the Frankfurt museum of art, the Städel, the other day. They’re the work of a Frankfurt-based artist named Peter Roehr and they’re exhibited in a bright and shiny and simply humongous new wing of the Städel that deals with “Gegenwartskunst” (Art of the Present). And the sad thing, the really depressing thing, is that these weren’t even the worst things on display, but merely the ones that I can rant about the easiest. The artist,  who died in 1968, apparently said that this work is supposed to express the meaninglessness of modern art, but seriously, if you say that about your work you’re just not trying hard enough. You also don’t do another 599 pieces that express exactly the same. To be fair, if he had said that this piece symbolized child starvation in Uganda, I wouldn’t have bought it either.

I can’t quite fathom the mind of an artist like Peter Roehr. He died young. I shall refrain from any jokes, because he died of cancer, a fate that no one deserves. And yet, at the relatively tender age of 24, he managed to produce more than 600 works of art. Had a writer produced even one tenth of that in a full life with 40 good working years, many would call him a hack. Now, that may or may not be true, but what does it say about Peter, and his 600+ works? We seem to accept this number, even if accomplished in such a short time, much more readily when it comes to paintings. Yet no one ever seems to consider the assembly-line-esque conditions under which these works must have been created. Did Peter Roehr, or any of his ilk, really put any heart or effort into those works? Some say that anything is art, but I disagree. I like my art to be pretty; that’s a subjective statement, but on a more objective level I also like my art to mean something. Not “mean” as in “this painting is about child starvation in Uganda”, but as in something that took thought or effort or skill.

My viewpoint isn’t easily quantifiable. It is obviously silly to say that something that took ten minutes to make isn’t art, but something that took 10 minutes and one second is. But still. Peter Roehr was active as an artist from 1962 until his death in 1968. That makes, if one assumes a steady output of 600 works total, one object every 3 days. That’s an awful lot, I’d say. And as we’ve discussed above “it symbolises ze futility of art” doesn’t really cut it for me.

So what makes you tick, Peter? Greed? Maybe. I’m not sure. Some people need to have creative output, I get that. I don’t suspect my musings on the subject will get me anywhere, at least not anytime soon. If there’s an afterlife I’ll pop the question to Peter in a few decades or so. I hope he has a satisfying answer. Until then I remain vaguely puzzled at the mystery of Peter Roehr and why people seem to think his “Schwarze Tafeln” are the bee’s knees.

Slight change of subject: I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately, mostly because I’ve been wondering about ways to sell my own art. Am I too modest or too arrogant? How much is too much when it comes to the price? Peter was too arrogant, I’d say, but the opposite isn’t great either. I loved making the Compendium entries, and they helped us out of a terrible fix monetarily, but we sold them barely above what it cost us to produce them. What is the artistic value of these drawings outside of this highly specialized context? I have always felt (unlike my friend Peter, I assume) that it is hugely important to give value for money. The thought of overpricing my works is horrifying to me. The thought of somehow grossly overestimating their artistic worth even more so. No-one likes pretentiousness, least of all me. I erratically oscillate between self-doubt and confidence. To make it worse, I don’t only have to think about my own skill, but also about what other people will consider art. Judging from what we saw in the Städel… a whole lot, and not much of it looks like what I do.

Sigh. Another question with no easy answers.

What I was going to say, before I got hit by seven tons of self-doubt, is that I’ll also have a lovely, more general, article about modern art for you tomorrow. So be sure to check back!

No Bears But Lots of Beaver

So I’m reading A Son of the Circus by John Irving right now. I used to love Irving, but as I grow older (and have more Irving reading experience) my opinion of his books has shifted from “wow, this is some crazy imaginative shit” to “oh bother… another story about bears, midgets, rape and weird sexual disorders.” Irving is the Joseph Beuys of the writing world, and his fat and honey are bears and prostitutes. I suspect a lot of people feel that way. The rest probably haven’t been paying attention.

I have, at this point, read 30 pages of A Son of the Circus, and although the story hasn’t even properly begun yet, the book is already worthy of review.

The circus referred to in the title is an Indian circus, so this book’s ursine content is probably relatively low. As a matter of fact that’s the reason why I chose this novel over the other Irvings that are still loitering in our bookshelf, a low bear quota is always a plus. It’s got midgets, though. Let’s see how Irving will manage to annoy me with those.

For now I have two other bones to pick with this novel. One of them, the smaller bone, is that the book is set in India (a country in which Irving has spent under a month in his entire life) and has an Indian protagonist who was schooled in Austria (another Irving favourite) and lives in Canada. And like all good transcultural protagonists he’s uncomfortable in Canada, feels alienated in India, and is generally at odds with where he belongs and who he is. And while I’m sure that there are plenty of similar people out there, people who for one reason or another have left their country of origin and now have trouble settling down and adjusting to a foreign culture, I think that this has become such a cliché of modern writing that it should be outlawed. Ask anyone who’s studied English Lit with a focus on transcultural studies. If they’re clever they’ll tell you that you can’t poke a stick at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who’s written extensively and stereotypically about this subject. If they’re less clever they’ll tell you that Mr. Irving is writing the shocking truth about these poor, uprooted people.

But that’s a minor complaint. Here’s the bigger one:

The 30 pages of A Son of the Circus that I’ve read make up three chapters. The first one concerns itself with how wonderfully quirky and eccentric (with just the right dash of melancholic) our protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is. And that’s okay. The second one briefly tells the story of Farrokh’s best friend, a dwarf, and how they met. Then, somewhat less briefly, it relates the story of how Farrokh once broke his nose on his best friend’s wife’s vagina while in a trapeze safety net. See what’s wrong with that? A lot, seems to be what comes to mind. And it gets better. Chapter three is all about Farrokh being at a private golf club and contemplating an image of the founder’s wife, Mrs. Duckworth. Mrs. D., now long deceased, apparently had a slight problem with exhibitionism. And Farrokh, his imagination now sufficiently fueled by this titillating bit of information, spends about five pages musing about the feel, bounciness and general aerodynamics of Mrs. Duckworth’s breasts. Now… see what’s wrong with that?

I’ll tell you. Why, for the love of all that’s good, do modern writers need to obsess about sex like that? I’m not a prude, really, but I find this fixation somewhat disturbing. What happened to good old “plot”? Rhetorical question, I fear. Plot’s out of fashion, because plot means talking about the world, and civilisation, and meaning. Maybe even politics (gasp!). So instead sex has become the written equivalent of what in theatre is “naked man and a projection”. It’s what once was new and daring, something to shock the elderly out of their stupor, and what’s now so commonplace that it has become the new establishment. Absurdly, sex has become safe, and plot has become something uncomfortable. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this, Solar by Ian McEwan had similar problems, but this morning while talking to Jonas I suddenly happened across the explanation. And I was astounded. It’s nothing but fear of plot. A story allergy. A postmodern disease, if you will. It permeates modern literature and sucks all meaning out of novels. I wonder what Freud would make of this.

Now, I’m not saying that A Son of the Circus isn’t still going to get around to having a little bit of plot, if there’s time between Farrokh thinking randy thoughts and all the embarrassing accidents that are bound to ensue, but I still think the absolute vacuum of meaning generated by these opening chapters is worth noting. I’ll continue reading, if only because I hate not finishing a book. Check back in a week or so to see how it went.

Death

My grandmother died today. Just like that. She wasn’t sick, not that anyone knew of anyhow. It just happened. One minute I’m calling my mom about meeting up later, the next minute mom calls me back to tell me that my gran just died.

I really don’t want to write anything about how it happened. Or when. Or who showed up to express their condolences and what they said. It really doesn’t matter. All that is family business and it doesn’t contribute anything to what kind of person she was. What I want to say, what matters to me now, is the following:

We weren’t close, to claim so would be hypocrisy. To say that I am grief-stricken would be false. I’m in mild shock. I still say “my grandparents” not “my granddad”. My brain hasn’t quite caught up with the present. But, at the end of the day, she was kind and she genuinely cared for her family. And the most surprising thing, given just how German she could be, was that she had a real sense of humour. She could make me laugh.

A Quick One

Fifteen
And we’re back in Germany. Seems like we’ve only been gone for a few minutes. The weather is abysmal, gray and wet and cold, and it’s impossible to imagine that just a few days ago we were in 35°C and the sun was shining. I have to force myself to be creative, drag the words from my mind and cast them on the page before they get washed away by the gray.

I’ll do my best, though. I’ve finally, after what seems like aeons, started working on my book again. And the list of blog posts I’ve been meaning to write is by now longer than a Patrick Rothfuss manuscript. (I’m mostly linking to this because, well… Christ, Patrick, learn to edit, that thing is like the literary equivalent of the bloated, rotting carcass of a whale!) Life stubbornly keeps happening. Movies and TV shows are being watched. Books are being read. Games are being played. Food is being cooked. So there should be plenty to write about.

Here are a few short things that I need to mention before I slink back to my novel:

  • New images on Flickr. Yay. This time with lots of scary monsters.
  • Jonas has some nice and sad thoughts on austerity and how it affects people and animals in Greece.
  • Animals again: read an interview with Julian the Announcement Fox over at LandsOfDream.net
  • And lastly I’ll leave you with a link to an amazing cartoon by XKCD. Get a snack and some lemonade, take plenty of time, and enjoy.