09 July 2017

Beauty is a Bit of a Bore

Leslie Lawrence to Mel Alexenberg, Facebook, 5 July 2017
Hi Mel, I wanted to tell you that your work, which I learned about from Rabbi Susan Silverman, a former student of mine, has meant a lot to me. I discuss it in "Wonderlust," an essay published in my recent collection The Death of Fred Astaire: And Other Essays from A Life Outside the Lines.

Rooms to Dwell In

From the chapter “Wonderlust: Excursions through an Aesthetic Education” in The Death of Fred Astaire: Essays for a Life Outside the Lines by Leslie Lawrence (Excelsior Books, SUNY Press, 2016).

Beauty is a bit of a bore.  —William Somerset Maugham

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Kenneth Maue, not only because he taught me so much about teaching and living and making art, and about how the lines between these can blur, but also because, on the recommendation of a student, I’ve been reading Mel Alexenberg who reminds me of just how ahead of his time Maue was.

A cyber and public artist, as well as an art theorist, Alexenberg, author of The Future of Art in the Digital Age, gives me new lenses through which to view my own obsessions and forays. Drawing on the work of the theologian Thorleif Boman, Alexenberg contrasts the Greeks’ adoration of unified and stable “space-centered” art forms with the Hebrews’ preference for multi-faceted, dynamic “time-centered” forms. The Greeks, he believes, view the spiritual as existing “above the mundane,” whereas the Hebrews aim to “bring the spiritual down into our everyday lives.” Furthermore, Alexenberg contends that in our post-modern digital age we are going through a paradigm shift from Hellenic to Hebraic consciousness, a shift Maue foresaw in the ’seventies. “We are going through a profound change in our orientation within the world,” wrote Maue in Water in the Lake, “from a consciousness organized around structure to a consciousness organized around process.”

(You don’t have to be Jewish to have a Hebraic consciousness.)

“The story of the Jewish people,” Alexenberg reminds us, “begins with movement . . . with ‘lekh lekhah,’ a journey away from the safely familiar towards adventuresome freedom.” A psychological as well as a physical expedition, this trek takes us from a place of “narrow-minded thinking to a place where [we] can freely see.” Alexenberg continues: “The Hebrew word for ‘God,’ YHVH, is a verb not a noun, an action word not a thing.” He translates it as “Was-Is-Will-Be or Will Bring into Being.”

This leads Alexenberg (again channeling Boman) to another of his distinctions between the Greeks and Hebrews. The former, he claims, with their commitment to mimesis, charge their artists with making beautiful, harmonious replications of God’s glorious creations. The latter, with their emphasis on movement, want their artists—all of us, really—to replicate God’s work as creator and become “co-creators.” So maybe it’s not so farfetched to think He? She? needs my tinkering to be made manifest.

What’s more: Alexenberg describes Hebraic aesthetics as being “primarily about . . . opportunities for dynamic dialogue, expansive integral thought, and interactive experience”—precisely the same kind of opportunities Maue’s pre-digital age pieces provide.

Take “Non-Sequiturs,” a Maue piece I performed more than thirty years ago involving actual dialogue, albeit in an unusual form.
A group of players holds one-to-one dialogues in which each remark follows the preceding one in no perceivable way . . . Let the sentences be of as wide a nature as you can invent in terms of content, tone, and manner of expression.
“It’s sunny today,” your partner begins.
“Bears like blueberries,” you say, immediately realizing your tone (flat), your manner of expression (declarative), even your number of words is similar to your partner’s; furthermore, in content, there’s a discernible link—sunny days leading to bountiful blueberry crops and happy bears. So now you try harder, reaching for sentences from galaxies different from your partner’s. But alas, you are also becoming increasingly adept at finding links between these seeming non-sequiturs, so much so that you start to feel as if every thing is connected—every uttered fact, idea, or sentiment, yes; but also every body—animal, vegetable, or mineral.
I still remember one line from the dialogue I engaged in all those years ago: “When I was five my mother died and that same year my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.” These words, uttered without inflection by my partner, followed some vapid, factual statement I’d made. Though the rules of the game did not guarantee that our statements be true, I felt sure that my partner’s was, and I yearned for some permissible way to convey my sympathy. I don’t remember what non-sequitur I came up with, only the feeling that I’d succeeded as well, or better, than I would have with a more conventional response—if only because the prohibitions forced me to wait longer and think harder before speaking. I remember the feeling of closeness the dialogue engendered and I wondered if this was Maue intended.
What did Maue intend—with this piece and others? One piece asks you to say aloud the name of every person you ever met. Another tells you to put a book in your freezer and leave it there. Another to simply “vocalize” by dredging forth nonhuman or rather pre-linguistic, a-musical utterances, largely grotesque but embedded with kernels of gorgeousness.

In his essay “What Cage Did,” Maue says, “Cage’s music is like rooms to dwell in: places to be, less important for themselves than the life occurring in them. It doesn’t lift us out of our lives, into the artist’s feelings; it gives us who we are.” And so it is with Maue’s own pieces: Though they may not always fly in conventional settings, they give us who we are.

So who am I? Or, for starters: Where do I stand on the Hellenic–Hebraic spectrum?

With my still strong appetite for sublime “space-centered” art that displays the old Aristotelian virtues of coherence, harmony, balance, grace, etc., I haven’t yet abandoned the Greek ship. However, I think it’s fair to say I have at least one foot on the deck of the Hebrew one and may well be about to leap on. I’m wild about Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, not because of the beauty of its static form but because of all the Hebraic values it embodies. If a “viewer” sees merely the black slabs carved with names of the dead, she might say, as many have, “This is what won out over fourteen hundred others?” But if she goes there and takes her time, approaches from afar, enters the roped off pathway, notices the sudden hush, walks silently until confronted with the first slab; if she reads the names, pronounces the names, touches the indentation of a name, notices the reflection of the trees in the stone, notices her own reflection or that of a weeping woman, sees the boot left at the base, the bouquet, sees a child rubbing a name, feels the heat of the sun or the bite of the wind—she will experience Lin’s genius; she will know this is a monument that gives you not just itself in steadfast granite, but yourself changing as you move through time and space; it gives you not just the dead but the living in community with others and the material world.

Also calling me toward the Hebraic ship is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York and Frank Gehry’s in Bilbao, both of which Alexenberg mentions. The kinetic energy of those buildings affects the way I experience the art they display, much of which, in Bilbao especially, demands physical interaction, Hebraic style. Not much of it would be deemed “beautiful.” A lot of it aims to provoke and incite change. Some of it aspires to unite, to heal. Says Suzi Gablik, an artist Alexenberg quotes: “We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.” 

Once I might have been skeptical of art with a social mission, but the world is shrinking and blowing up, too. The cries of the world feel closer.

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