The Usefulness of the Cup

For those of you who don’t know it, Bruce Lee was not just THE master of kung fu. He was also a great thinker. An indication of this is of course how he critically analysed classical or traditional martial art forms such as karate and kung fu and deconstructed them to create the belief-system, Jeet Kune Do. I like to think of Jeet Kune Do as a postmodern take on the traditional fighting styles.

BRUCE LEE – Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember finding karate really boring and stifling when I practised it as a teen. I lasted about a year and then left the dojo. But in my room and at the local gym,  I would continue to follow Bruce’s heuristic method of martial arts. This is the notion of self-knowledge through self-discovery.  Essentially the idea is to be able adapt to specific situations and opponents/attackers.  There are no katas or set moves, so there are no fixed stances as in classical martial art styles. Lee believed fixed stances and forms were rigid and had no place in martial arts. They are inflexible to change, and do not represent actual fighting situations. In Jeet Kune Do, drills are used that are fluid and alive and always changing. This is why I say that Lee’s thinking about martial arts was postmodern: it presents many solutions to many questions, and is never fixed.

Interception is the leading principal of  Jeet Kune Do. This is reflected in its name which means ‘Way of the Intercepting Fist.’ If you are merely blocking an attack it means you are at a disadvantage.  You are only reacting to the attack, reactive instead of being pro-active. It is better to simultaneously block and strike, or even better, to just hit first. The physical goal of Lee’s art is perpetual development of physical speed, timing, footwork, coordination and power.

 

In order to understand it, Lee advised emptying yourself. He uses an analogy to explain:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too…” and so on. Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. “Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!” “Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

So for Lee the usefulness of the cup is its emptiness. As an artist this is a philosophy I ascribe to: as student, teacher and practitioner.  If you want to learn, first acknowledge you know nothing. Empty your cup. Then learn by allowing yourself to be filled from the source you have come to. After that you can take what you have learnt and make it your own and pass on what you have learnt. I still do this as a Masters student .  As the poet, Keats, once proclaimed:  My Imagination Is a Monastery and I am its Monk.

As a lecturer though, I warn my students not to get so focused on the tasks that the art degree sets them that they forget to experience the sheer joy of their journey: the joy of learning, of making, and of doing this with people who are like-minded. But I mostly remind them of their love of art and how it feels to express themselves visually.  Bruce Lee again illustrates this beautifully using the analogy of a finger pointing to the moon:

Please do not take the finger to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light which illuminates finger and all.

Go to Lee’s official site if you are interested in finding out more:

https://bruceleefoundation.org/2016/05/whatisjeetkunedo/

The reason learning has been on my mind recently is because I have been, over these past 3 months, hectically involved with university matters, both as student and as lecturer. It is quite a surreal experience to be both. You become very aware of the symbiotic relationship involved in the learning process. It is rarely a one way thing.

I recently had to attend a postgrad seminar as a requirement of my Masters degree. As I presented an overview of my dissertation to the university board a part of me reflected on my students’ experiences and what they must feel when facing my fellow lecturers and me.  Faced with the arduous task of attempting to make the connections between my theory and my art-making understandable to a group of professors and doctors, I felt a huge wave of empathy roll over me for my students. I have been in the fortunate position to have been the student, then the lecturer, and now both the student and lecturer. And isn’t that just how life should be?:  to be open to learning, to be willing to pass on knowledge, to share experience. Most important is to acknowledge when you do not know something.  Not knowing is OK. What is not OK is ignorance. Ignorance is you assuming you know more than you do. Prejudices and racism originate in ignorance. Be a better person than that.

Four of Six

Two weeks left until my performance at the artSPACE durban Gallery!! And two weeks left of my 40 day fast! After my performance I am sooo dashing off to the nearest pizza place for the cheesiest pizza they have to offer!

A lot of my students are writing their theory exams at the moment while completing their practical assignments for final exam assessment. An art degree really is a very tough academic pursuit! I feel their pain; not only because I have gone through it myself but because I am still experiencing the same with my Masters. I am engaged in the process of writing the review of literature for my area of study which entails analyzing the research and readings I have conducted for a period of almost 2 years now, and then, utilizing my findings and conclusions, constructing an argument. This is really, in my opinion, the toughest part of the dissertation. Everything rides on you getting this right! Why do I say this with such conviction? Well, if your research has been shoddy or lacks focus as well as intensity, then your conclusions are questionable and your entire argument is weakened or even becomes invalid. You will lack conviction because, believe me, there is no winging it with a document of between 50 000 and 100 000 words. So yes, I have been busy with that, but in addition, I have to work on my practical component too. This upcoming performance is part of that component. If Art is not for sissies, Academic Art is a bully on steroids; truly brutal, belligerent and unrelenting!

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As I mentioned, my students are writing theory exams at the moment. Two of them are in their 3rd and final year and are writing on Modernism and Postmodernism, and Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. These are really complex and theory-dense modules which is probably why you only deal with them in the final year of your degree.  So I was trying to get across to them the concept of ontology and the idea of an aesthetic essence in art. I thought I would share it with you because in having to explain it, it made me revisit these theories myself. This is why I love teaching art. Not only do the students keep me on my toes and in touch with the contemporary, but they also ensure that I continue to involve myself in thinking about ART. They keep me current. OK, so let me tell you about Ontology: at its simplest it is the study of existence and the experience thereof. It originates in Ancient Greek philosophy where Plato created his ontological argument. He called it the Theory of Forms. Essentially, the Form (capital F) of something was its essence, whereas, the form (lowercase f) was the actual physical representation. He used this idea to separate man’s soul from his body, and explain the idea of the soul in a quantifiable way. Can you see how that can be applied to art? The form (the physical artwork) and the Form of the artwork (the aesthetic essence). The ontology of art considers the matter, form, and mode in which art exists. Works of art are social constructs in the sense that they are not natural but human creations. In this way art is imbued with an aesthetic essence. The point I want to make is that, in my opinion, if an artist is to truly call himself or herself an artist, then they need to consider the aesthetic essence of their work. And aesthetic essence does not mean “pretty” or “cute” or “nice”. If you are doing that then you are in all likelihood a decorator, a graphic designer, an illustrator or a hobbyist. And there is nothing wrong with earning a living doing that or merely enjoying the “just doing” of it as a hobby.

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Being an artist is not easy. I know! I do a lot of things in order to pay the bills so that I can make the art I want to make. One of those things is part-time work for one of the departments at the University of Pretoria, creating illustrations for their textbooks. You have to pay the bills! BUT I don’t call it art because for me that work I am doing is lacking in that ontological essence. This essence comes from something being truly unique. Imagine standing before Starry Night or the Mona Lisa, or witnessing a Marina Abramovic performance in the flesh. There is a certain awe or emotion that one is bound to experience in the presence of something like that. It is the fact that you are in the presence of an original, a one of a kind, which creates ontology and imbues something with an aesthetic essence. This is one of the reasons I love performance art, because each is a truly one-of-a-kind work of art and completely original. They are by no means all successful works of art but they have ontology in buckets full! Look, perhaps I am coming across as being elitist, judgmental, critical etc. but I believe that there has to be some sort of system of worth, and the assessing of it. And, yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, if you are an educated or discerning art appreciator, there is no way you can say that Mickey Mouse has the same aesthetic essence as the Mona Lisa. Logically this has, of course to do with rarity, Mickey having been reproduced innumerable times in all formats while there remains only one Mona Lisa. But it is more than that, it is the ritual of the artist which is evident in the Mona Lisa and not in Mickey that is also the difference. And more importantly, it is the artist’s intent that makes the difference that matters. A general clue is if you are hoping that your work suits someone’s colour scheme in their lounge or blends in a foyer or that it will look cool on a t-shirt then you can kind of take for granted that aesthetic essence has been sold out. The street artist, Banksy, very cleverly plays with this whole idea of ontology while critiquing mass media, advertising, and commenting on our postmodern society and the idea of selling out to the all mighty dollar, pound, rand (insert your currency here).

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To end off I am going to leave you with this:

“Inspiration comes and goes, creativity is the result of practice” – Phil Cousineau

Practice, Make, Do! And by all means paint the odd unicorn or fairy…but if you do, OWN it! Own it like “Las Vegas” Elvis owned those capes he wore with those legendary jumpsuits of his!

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The King and Third Year Theory Exams

My third year exams begin tomorrow with a theory exam on Pop art and consumer culture. The focus of my study for this particular module was one, Elvis Aaron Presley, the King! I am a huge fan, so I really have enjoyed this module, and am actually looking forward to the exam tomorrow. I thought I would share with you my essay assignment, for which I received a really good mark. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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Assignment: Pop Art and Consumer Culture.

I will select one social icon which appears in three paintings by different Pop artists and which represents consumer culture and awareness in one way or another. Within a Pop art framework I analyze these paintings in terms of the above and locate them within an historical understanding of the consumer culture.

Although Pop art is said to have originated in Britain, it was in America that it took root and, via American artists, came to real prominence. This was American Pop that was full of confidence as a result of early American artists who had asserted themselves against Europe and its influences, and mirrored the rise of the United States to the position of the leading nation of the world. America, after the Second World War, experienced unprecedented economic growth with accompanying rises in mass production and mass consumer market, each driving the other. CW Mills notes: “…at the heart of ‘mass society’ are mass media and ‘wanting and not having of commodities and of women held to be good looking’” (Mills: 318). The consumer culture that Jean Baudrillard theorised about, and which artists such as Warhol commented upon and criticised with their work, is a significant feature of Pop art; the taking of ordinary and everyday objects and playing with their import by situating it within an art framework. It should be remembered that these Pop artists were also refuting Modernism, and thus establishing themselves as anti-Modernist with these actions and works. French theorist, Baudrillard, said “our society has given rise to a general aestheticization…it is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity”, his conclusion however is, “that great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world” (Baudrillard 1994:16).

Andy Warhol revised his famous prediction of “everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes” in 1979, claiming “I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, ‘In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous’” (Warhol 1979:48). At the very essence of these predictions is that of instant recognition, and it this fame (we sometimes forget that the word familiar is a poor cousin of the word fame) of everyday objects and of celebrities that he juxtaposed and critiqued with his techniques of reproduction and mass production. It was Neil Gabler, culture critic, who commented that Warhol made soup cans into celebrities and celebrities into soup cans (Gabler: 1998). There is one social icon, in my mind, that is the epitome of this juxtaposition of those two words: the banal familiar and the desirable famous and all those two words encapsulate. He…or rather, it is one, Elvis Aaron Presley, born 8 January 1935, died 16 August 1977, and he has been referred to as the Big Bang of the world of music. John Lennon is often quoted as saying that before Elvis there was nothing. Elvis, Alan Clayson, the writer, says “…left such an indelible impression on the complacency of post-war pop that his own later capitulation to it was dismissed initially as the prerogative of glamour…his omnipotence is such that veneration has yet to fade…” (Clayson: 1). “…they will be afraid that for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state and aught to be prohibited” (Plato: 109). These words of Plato could almost have been written by the thinkers of the day about Elvis, he was seen as such a threat by the establishment in the 1950’s.

Elvis’s transformation from this anti-establishment figure to a social icon and consumer product, a brand, if you will, I feel, parallel’s the rise of popular consumer culture in America as well as the expansion of multinational corporations. In fact, in my opinion, apart from Coca-cola, he has remained one of the most lasting, recognisable brands world-wide. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time: serendipity. The infant Pop culture was in search of a face that consumers would be able to identify with, and who better than Elvis: the rags to riches white boy from humble origins, polite yet dangerous, sweet yet sexy, adored by both mothers and their daughters.  Christin Mamiya, an art history professor and published author, says that in America in the 1960’s “[mass] consumption took on overtones of a national religion.” (Mamiya 1992, 3), she says that advertising was “a form of religion” that promoted mass consumption to the point that it became like a “body of doctrine” (Mamiya 1992, 18). Therefore Pop Art was not merely a commentary on “marketing, advertising and the mass media” but a product of them (Mamiya 1992, 18). America had usurped Europe as the centre of the Art world now she searched for royalty of her own, and the King was born!

Oedipus (1956-7) Ray Johnson

 

 

Ray Johnson (1927-1995) said of himself, “I am the only painter in New York whose drips mean anything”, drips which run like tears of blood from the eyes of Elvis in his work, Oedipus (Elvis #1)  (1956-57) (Figure 1) (Gablik 1969: 17). Oedipus was a mythical Greek king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, upon discovering the truth his mother kills herself while blinds himself. Knowing this, I feel that Johnson is perhaps criticising the so-called ideal normal patriarchal family units of the day and of the American dream, and hinting at the dark undercurrents of suburban life. Perhaps it also reflects his own male, love-hate feelings with regards this icon of heterosexual America. Another signifier Johnson uses are the irregular collaged shapes which fill the space in front of Elvis’s mouth, perhaps I feel, an indication of his ability to make real the words he sang, as the embodiment of Dionysus, Greek god of ecstasy and ritual madness. Johnson’s moticos as he called them, of the 1950s, celebrity collages which included James Dean and Shirley Temple, were “a precursor of the post-modernists” according to art journalist John Suiter (http://www.warholstars.org/andywarhol/articles/rayjohnson/ind.html). His tinting and rubbing of the surface of the Elvis image gives it the intimate feel of an image in someone’s personal diary, feminizing it with a rose hue in the process as well. It has been claimed that much in the same way Pop art was a reaction against the genius, white, heterosexual male dominated art of the Modern Abstract movement, so Johnson and his contemporary, Andy Warhol, with their homosexual orientation, also used their art and their vision to undermine the patriarchal association of authority, power and masculinity made by society with regards its icons.

“The Colonel’s vision of the future centered on mass exposure…television was key to the deal. The Colonel realized it…” (Guralnick 1994: 240). Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, realized that television was at the centre of media culture. It was in fact this medium that robbed Elvis of his vital individuality, which was compounded by the commencement of his career in Hollywood in 1956, followed closely by his taming and final assimilation into society and popular culture with his conscription into the US Army in 1958. Ironically in the decade of the youth, the 1960s, and time of individualism and non-conformity, which he had played a large role in igniting, Elvis spent his time making formulaic movies and recording accompanying weak soundtracks. However, although this all may be true, this was an Elvis, who at just twenty-eight, had his Heartbreak Hotel become the biggest-selling record of 1956, had recorded seventeen number one singles and seven number one albums; starred in eleven films, made countless national TV appearances, tours and live performances; earned millions of dollars; and was instantly recognized across the globe (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 2). It was this Elvis that Andy Warhol (1928-1987), certainly taking inspiration from Johnson’s moticos (the two moved in the same circles also), focused on when he created his Elvis portraits in the early 60s. There is none of the intimacy, however, of Johnson’s Elvis; this is Elvis, the icon, the Silverscreen god!

 

Double Elvis (1963) Andy Warhol

In Double Elvis (1963) (figure 2) Warhol appropriates the image of Elvis, the gunslinger from the movie Flaming Star (1960); the source image is a publicity still for the movie. Warhol recognizes “not only the product itself, but also the means of consumption – in this case society’s abandoned deification of Elvis” (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 4). Warhol dilutes this totem by replication and multiplication as well as questioning the icon’s authenticity. This duality is further underlined by his use of a silver medium, Warhol says, “silver was the future, it was spacy – the astronauts wore silver suits…and silver was also the past – the Silver Screen…and maybe more than anything, silver was narcissism – mirrors were backed with silver” (Warhol 1980: 85). Thus the glamour and artificiality of the cinema is presented to us and mirrors our sense of what is real and fantasy back to us as the viewer. In addition Warhol also creates in the viewers’ minds the image of that of film on the reel, jumping or sticking in a projector, a strong sense of movement (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 5).

Why does Warhol specifically select this image to deify? The image carries with it a wide array of thematic concerns: there is Elvis, the man and legend. There is our sense of our mortality as we face Elvis’s guns heightened by the premise of the cowboy confronting the wild frontier fraught with life-threatening danger.  “With Double Elvis we are confronted by a figure so familiar to us, yet playing a role relating to violence and death that is entirely at odds with the associations entrenched with the singer’s renowned love songs” (Sotheby’s Catalogue 2012: 4). As in Johnson’s Elvis, there is also a code that would not be accessible to general or normal heterosexual society, that of gay society: the macho cowboy in gay erotica as an object of desire and the doubling of the image to signify two men coupled (Collins 2001: 54).

Self-portrait with Badges (1961) Peter Blake

 

 

 

 

Blake’s (1932-) Self-portrait with Badges, 1961 (Figure 3) is in stark contrast to the previous two works discussed, not only because of the nationality of the artist (British), but because it is, as the title denotes, a self-portrait. Instead of Johnson’s intimate, personal take on Elvis or Warhol’s deification of the King, Peter Blake presents himself as the fan in the tradition of homely British portraiture. Blake places himself in front of a dilapidated garden fence with indistinct trees, while he stands upon dingy, almost-barren ground. His figure is disproportionate and provincial, and reminds one of the awkward snapshots taken by family members of family members. It has also been said that it references both Jean-Antoine Watteau’s (1684-1721) Gilles (c 1718-19) and Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-1778) Blue Boy (1770); a wan, weak and vulnerable personality in costume seeking external approval (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/feb/02/art).

Blake’s attire is distinctively American while his badges further underline his cultural allegiance to the United States in the portrait: the two that stand out compared to the others because of their comparative size, are the stars and stripes badge and the Elvis badge. In his right hand Blake holds an Elvis fan magazine which is positioned just below the stars and stripes badge. Blake is in effect commenting on the fact that the two are interchangeable; Elvis and the American flag, both icons and representative of a nation. He is also, I feel making a comment on the fact that although British pop came first it is American Pop which is in the ascendency. In fact Pop, even British Pop is focused on American culture. He is quite literally drapped in “the red, white and blue”. In the work, Elvis is even more so, presented as a product or commodity, he is a badge, a banner, a magazine cover. There is a distance between viewer and the icon that the other two works do not allow, Pop observing Pop, consumer for an instant detached from product and cast as observer.

 

In conclusion it is important to remember that celebrities are quite possibly the most powerful social icons of all, Pop artists recognised this fact and utilised it with great effect in their works. “There is a reason why US Weekly, People and other celebrity-centric magazines devote whole sections to what celebrities are wearing, and where to buy it.” Celebrities are often cultural “gatekeepers,” and create “a direct line between creative producers, gatekeepers, and consumers” (Currid 2007, 141-143). The promise of a perfect, affluent future and its easily available consumer products was in fact ambivalent; both dream and nightmare. The resultant waste problem of this newly created disposable society was accompanied by demands for great social change within it as well as fears of its failure and destruction. This duality, as Pop artists were acutely aware of, was infinitely multiplied and highlighted in icons such as Elvis, and thus furthered their role as cultural gatekeepers as well as the bearers of messages and lessons to their worshipping public.

Illustrations

 

Figure 1:  Ray Johnson, Oedipus (Elvis #1), 1956-57 (available at http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/08/11/arts/11vass_ready.html)

 

Figure 2: Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Double Elvis, 1963, Silkscreen ink on aluminium paint on primed canvas, 83 x 81 1/2 in, Private Collection (available at http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2012/contemporary-art-evening-n08853/overview.html)

 

Figure 3: Figure 3: Peter Blake (1932-), Self-portrait with badges, 1961, oil on wood, 174.3 x 121.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London. (Available at www.turnercontemporary.org)

Bibliography

 

Alloway, L. 1974. American Pop Art. New York: Collier Books.

 

Baudrillard, J.1994. The Transparency of Evil. London: Verso.

 

Boorstin, D. 1961. The Image: a Guide to Pseudo-events in America. New York: Vintage Books.

 

Clayson, A. & Leigh, S. 1994.  Aspects of Elvis. London: Sidgwick & Jackson

 

Collins, B. Dick Tracy and the Case of Warhol’s Closet. American Art, Autumn 2001

 

Currid, Elizabeth 2007. The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Gabler, N. 1998. Life: The Movie. How Entertainment Conquered Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/feb/02/art (accessed 2012/08/16)

 

Guralnick, P. 1994. Last Train to Memphis Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

 

Hughes, R. 1997 (1982). The Rise of Andy Warhol Pop Art: a Critical History edited by Madoff, SH.  Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of College: 375-384.

 

http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/decade60.html (accessed 2012/08/24)

 

Mamiya, Christin 1992. Pop Art and Consumer Culture: American Super Market. Austin: University of Texas Press.

 

Mills, CW. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

http://www.msu.edu/course/thr/431/BirthofTragedy.pdf (accessed 2012/08/27)

 

Plato. 1998. The Republic. Pennsylvania: Pennyslvania State University

 

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction

New York | 09 May 2012, 07:00 PM | N08853  (available at http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2012/contemporary-art-evening-n08853/overview.html)

 

Warhol, A. and B. Colacello. 1979. Andy Warhol’s Exposures. London: Hutchinson.

 

Warhol, A & Hackett, P. 1980. POPism: the Andy Warhol Sixties. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

 

http://www.warholstars.org/andywarhol/articles/rayjohnson/ind.html (accessed 2012/08/09)