Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Frazetta, Reality, and Presence

Let us consider a larger issue that lightly touches on aesthetics, a dab of philosophy, and a bit of critical thinking. Bear with me for a few paragraphs.

A friend was in the Louvre recently and showed me a little video he shot with his phone in the room displaying the MONA LISA. No one was looking at the oil. There were at least a hundred people in the room. Everyone was looking at his or her phones. Most were sending text messages. The MONA LISA was a secondary consideration at best. These people did not want to SEE the MONA LISA. They just wanted to SAY that they were there, in proximity to her. Hence, all the furious texting going on. I ask the question: Does the MONA LISA still exist as a world masterpiece charged with the energy of history’s opinion that it is a life-changing cultural monument for the ages? Do masterpieces still exist? Can they exist in this new cultural/technological, anti-intellectual climate? The great writer G.K Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” If we lose the primal experience of art, then are we not losing our souls as men? Are we not being diminished?

This is a serious issue. I think that reality itself has become degraded.

The ability to see, to concentrate, to deliberate are becoming lost skills. The cultural formation provided by schools has become cheapened. Traditional education has been lost and obliterated, replaced by easy training and easier grades. Traditional concepts and values that can be traced back to Socrates have been replaced by a rampant ethical relativism and cheaply applied multiculturalism. A graduating class at Oxford University was recently told: “Your four years of education should teach you one thing, namely, the ability to distinguish between reality and bullshit.” The distinction between appearance and reality is a problem as old as humanity itself. All the great philosophers, writers, and poets deal with it constantly. It is critical now. Reality is being lost, replaced by a false reality with false values and hidden truths. Great men with vision and integrity have been replaced by a new breed of sophist with no respect for truth or tradition, self-aggrandizing and self-promoting pundits without character or substance. These are the leaders who are fabricating our new reality and manipulating our perceptions and values. The very meaning of what constitutes “culture” is changing before my horrified eyes. In the 1960’s, eminent scholar of culture and technology, Marshall McLuhan, predicted that the various forms of media would become increasingly dominant and transform all aspects of our lives. He has been proven true.

As video games become bigger, louder, more “real”, the nuances of nature herself become devalued and degraded. Our perception is changed; it is watered down; its compelling force is lost. Does anyone walk without an ipod or phone in their ear? Does anyone drive without being on the phone? Is anyone solidly “IN THE WORLD” any more? The meaning of time itself has been compromised. Time is a continuous parade of present moments. The past is a mountainous anchor; the future is something to hope for. The “present” is all we have; it is where we live. It is the rich juice of life that flows from the present moments we occupy. Art should force one to be “in the moment”, to exclude all else, to drink deeply of the richness presented. This is being lost with multi-tasking and the constant assault of data and communication. Aggrandizing data has fully replaced the intimate pleasure of richly experienced knowledge and wisdom. The present has been cut apart and distilled. Its rich energy replaced by cultural facsimiles. We are blasted by the incessant drumbeat of technological cacophony that directly destroys the integrity and full richness of the present moment. The present becomes distilled, fragmented, and denatured. The result? The art of living is being lost. We seem to be turning our backs on one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given. If I recall, the poet T.S Elliott asked: “Where is the life we have lost in living?” We are, indeed, living half-lives half-lived.

I was recently hiking in Monument Valley in Utah. A more magical place simply does not exist in the United States. The Navajo nation built a hotel right in the valley. It is a spectacular spot with amazing light, color, and vistas that constantly change. While standing there on the edge looking at this vast immense beauty I looked around me. All the other tourists were sitting down looking away from the valley and, once again, making phone calls or texting. To me it was almost a sacrilege. I felt profoundly sorry for all the people that could not muster really serious appreciation for this magical gift in front of them. Again, nature has been devalued and marginalized in human perception. I have stood in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait in the National Museum and been transfixed by its power. The psychological intensity present in that paint is nothing short of miraculous. During my graduate student days in Toronto I was graced to see Vermeer’s GIRL WITH PEARL EARRING as part of an exhibition at the ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO. I carry that haunting image with me every single day. It buried itself deeply into my soul. It is, at once, a deep pleasure and an enduring mystery. Often I use it as my wallpaper and deliberate upon its intensity and effect. Another example is the great CRUCIFIXION scene by El Greco in the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART. It is a masterpiece that overwhelms the viewer. There is so much there, so much passion, symbolism, and resonances to the deep past. It is profoundly human, profoundly moving whether you are Christian or not. It is that mysterious quality that all great art has from the caves of Lascaux and Altamira to a great Frazetta Conan. Yes, of course, I place Frazetta in that great line of world-class creators.

The Frazetta sketch sheet I reproduce at the top of this essay is a masterpiece. It is alive! It is three dimensional, a living world to enter. Frank labels it as his favorite rough. It is the study he did for the MASTER OF ADVENTURE paperback cover. He was very pleased with the study. He even mentions it during Russ Cochran’s interview in volume 3 of the ERB LIBRARY OF ILLUSTRATION volume. The original explodes with energy and is steeped in atmosphere. The colors are subtle and carefully blended. It is a multi-media candy store of pencil, watercolor, gouache, and oils. Frank took great pains to get the figure of Tarzan bellowing at the moon just right. The composition is seamless perfection. When looking at it in the original, one can really feel the jungle and viscerally respond to Tarzan’s wild presence. The music Frank chose to mention at the top of the page was something he was listening to at the time of its creation. The music is very moody and mysterious, a perfect blend with the setting. The final painting is different. Frank added a bunch of animals. He clogged-up the visual space. It was not a success and he knew it. He quickly repainted the whole scene, keeping only the foreground limbs and adding a standing girl. It was very unusual for Frank to go from a perfect idea and have it lead to something so poorly expressed in the final stage. I never asked Frank about that. I assumed it was a sore point with him.

Can collectors and art lovers of the last few generations really appreciate a work such as this? The mindset now is clearly different. I have seen the changes and they are striking. Ebay has turned one-time serious collectors into flipper/dealers. Speculation and investment rule the discussions. The art takes a back seat to tertiary considerations. Intrinsic artistic quality is replaced by the soft comforts of pursuing nostalgia. If someone today holds onto a work of art for one year, it is almost miraculous. When the hunt is over the art loses its cache. Is the art less satisfying now? It’s no longer needed for aesthetic gratification. The pursuit and acquisition of art has replaced the supreme satisfaction of owning it and LOOKING AT IT! A quick profit and on to the next piece. A good scan will suffice, or a good xerox. The appeal of authenticity, the touch of the hand, the living applications of color, are being lost or, at the least, greatly compromised. The nature of art itself has become transformed. The Japanese had a phrase: That is a work of art one can die for. The meaning is that seeing that work of art is so completely satisfying that death would not seem wrong after seeing it. Today, that type of aesthetic intensity has been replaced by a quick museum walk-through and a few side-glances, or, perhaps, a completely mitigated experience replete with museum talking sticks spouting generic patter to the dutiful, wooden-eyed listeners. That type of environment does sicken me greatly. Critical thinking, cognitive attentiveness, and intense concentration become transformed. The great French philosopher, Etienne Gilson, has said that a human being can only appreciate one or, perhaps, two masterpieces in a given day. That level of concentration, contemplation and deliberation is long gone. And, of course, most modern art is not deserving of that time investment anyway. Frazetta is the exception here.

Back to our main point…big or little, sketch or finished oil, a masterpiece can be defined as the amount of pure authentic life is transferred to the viewer. If art can be considered a flow of soul from the depths of the artist’s imagination to the paper or canvas, then a masterpiece is present if that work is pure, not derivative, and sings with the powerful imaginative voice of the artist. It is an artist discovering perfection within himself and giving birth to that perfection in his studio. As another great French philosopher Jacques Maritain explains, an artist has a flash of creative intuition within him that generates the birth of art. Life is born and, at the same time, new beauty is given to the world. The world becomes enlarged by this. Human life has been touched, expanded, deepened, and transformed. Great art is fully transformative. Frazetta has done this on many occasions. He has achieved perfection. I have seen people cry once they entered the old Frazetta Museum. They were so immediately and profoundly touched, that their emotions were spontaneously unleashed. It is an amazing sight to see. I’ve seen it happen several times. Great art has a special “presence”. There is no other word that describes it better. Art engages us; its presence exerts a hold on us; it penetrates us and thoroughly enhances our lives. Thomas Aquinas describes it this way: “Actualitas rei est quoddam lumen ipsius. The actuality/reality of a thing is, in a way, its light.” Beautifully expressed is it not? The actuality, the very reality of something, is a light that reveals the world in its majesty and beauty and truth. Yes, it is mysterious. We are talking about a phenomenon that really does transcend language. Words are but one type of communication. Truth is transmitted by many different modes of communication, i.e. sculpture, poetry, music, etc. We are on the outside looking in, trying to express something that cannot be logically explained. Thank God for the mysteries around us. We must be sensitive to them, cherish them. They push us to a creative apprehension of life. We cannot lose that. If we lose the world, then we also lose our basic humanity, our magical souls. The great German poet Holderlin summarizes it quite succinctly:

“Poetically man dwells.”

©2011 Dr. Dave Winiewicz