On Central European Summer Time twenty twenty-eight, twenty
ninth of June, the sun’s bandages nearly undone, war-painted
young promises celebrate the judgement of the World Cup semi-
quarter-something, while I, monospaced and well-tempered,
hold proceedings of my own, calling from the stand a
van Gogh, a van Etten, a Vandelay, to give their gold
tones that could be great, if not for what, and bringing
forth the painting by Mauve of three horses, with
their gentle men in stern clothes, throttling down
to the North Sea beach from the western dunes,
the gradient from flat white through never-ending
swelling and swashing, the limit point, six years
after Rimbaud’s poem about the childish smile of
the open-mouthed soldier, the dead young body
warmed by Atlantic sun, and since my skull got
cracked in the Rijksmuseum, I will wake up on
Monday morning with my hands tied, in a sepia
sarcophagus, with no blood left, only daily
news sites, gym shorts, in these low lands,
dreaming of no land, a sunken land, some
hushed zone where power is never up
there, nor down here but in the
surrounding waters, gentle and
still, in accordance with all
utopian logic, but then,
there will always be
tourists and cops,
and nobody will
be quite sure
it all, with the
Golden Age patina, the
windswept liberality, the
dunes, the sea, the masters,
and the gardens upon which I
am now tasked to judge fairly.
Does that make sense? No? Well.
“There’s no particular class of photograph that I think is any better than any other class. I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.” — Minor White
There is an embarrassment hovering around the use of Instagram and especially its infamous “filters,” that sometimes breaks into scorn. You can find such rants all over the internet. I believe this attitude to be ignorant, misguided, and harmful. Therefore I will write a few brief paragraphs in defense. This is not meant as a syllogistic proof of Instagram’s validity, but only a sketch that should suffice for an agreeable reader.
In fact, there is good and interesting critique of Instagram, such as Nathan Jurgenson’s essay on The Faux-Vintage Photo, but I always sense something curmudgeonly in such takedowns. So I offer my best attempt to redeem this popular form.
Instagram filters tap into some basic aesthetic pleasure. Maybe some people find them unappealing—and of course some, e.g., the notorious “Kelvin,” are just ugly—but generally, they look nice. If you want to argue that my perception is aberrant or unusual, that would be interesting, but without evidence to the contrary I will just take this as an axiom.
How do they look nice? They modulate. They’re invisible on their own. They preserve shapes. They only tweak hue curves, adjust exposure and contrast, and provide some vignetting. The optional borders are of course an abomination, and will not be considered further in this article. But the filters themselves are translucent. So it’s not like filters massively misrepresent the scenes depicted. It’s not a question of lying about facts.
My friend Elin has an Instagram archive that’s a true treasure. She goes with my brother on day trips in Sweden, and they both become transparent eyeballs, open to beauty, light, and harmony. As far as I can tell, she has an intuitive mastery of the medium. She uses the square format, the pushed contrast, and the modulated colors to bring back samples of quiet scenes from nature. Her pictures are contemplative and good-hearted, with purple-gold skies, hills, fences, roads, bridges, humans, windows, everything. I’m reminded of Emerson’s writings on nature and beauty:
“There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay. Even the corpse hath its own beauty. But beside this general grace diffused over nature, almost all the individual forms are agreeable to the eye, as is proved by our endless imitations of some of them, as the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat-ear, the egg, the winds and forms of most birds, the lion’s claw, the serpent, the butterfly, sea-shells, flames, clouds, buds, leaves, and the forms of many trees, as the palm.”
The Emersonian artist is a conduit for the beauty that’s inherent to the universe. She doesn’t read photography magazines. She might not know what a prime lens is. She doesn’t argue over Nikon or Canon. I think Elin’s phone is a natural tool, like Heidegger’s hammer, ready-at-hand to capture what she sees. What she does with it is life-affirming, expansive, and uplifting. Her style is distinctive yet unobtrusive.
In The Zen of Creativity, the late rōshi and photographer John Daido Loori describes how he came to love taking photos. He was a long-term student of Minor White, the great American photographer, who taught him to cultivate “a very receptive state of mind, not unlike a sheet of film itself—seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.” White also taught him to meditate. Loori did retreats in nature, spending a whole day photographing a single tree. Others have written about “contemplative photography,” taking photos as a way to attune oneself to the immanent beauty of reality. Too much talking about this kind of thing makes me feel queasy, but for me it’s magical in actual practice. It’s like taking my consciousness out for a leisurely stroll, out from the human-centric world, out from loneliness and thought.
To what degree can an Instagram user be considered to be the true “author” of his or her pictures? This is a fascinating question, obviously connected to traditional ideas of art, originality, and genius. If we temporarily bracket such ideas, it’s just a matter of producing and consuming pretty pictures of one’s life’s experiences. This would seem like a harmless and joyous way of communicating, in fact almost miraculous in its simplicity, ease, and delight. But when those ideas return, deeply-rooted as they are, we feel that making pretty pictures shouldn’t be so easy, and that Instagram pictures are pretentious, pretending to be works of art.
Tools help us establish our characters. Someone who has practiced long to learn the piano will merge with this struggle and the resulting possibilities of expression and become a “pianist” (the word sounds almost sectarian). Same with the carpenter, the programmer, the 3D designer, the chef, and of course the photographer. We exist as users of tools. They frustrate us at first, but as we get to know them, we learn to coexist with them; they reshape our muscles and minds. Art, craft, mastery: does Instagram insult these things?
Geniuses like Elin aside, I think most Instagram users are diarists and conversationalists rather than artists. Participation in “social media” could perhaps be thought of as a kind of performance art, but then all of life is a performance, and this is not new. Everything we do in the public sphere involves self-expression and self-creation. We improvise, we plan, we revise. We imitate each other, impress each other, dance with each other. This seems to be nearly the root of civilization itself.
A professional historian once responded to a question posed by a diarist. The question was, “In the future, what will historians want me to have recorded in my diary?” I found this a beautifully compassionate question. Many other people chimed in with some variation on the theme of recording significant political happenings and such. But the historian urged the person to simply take note of her daily activities, reasons for worry and joy, perhaps some thoughts. No need to explain one’s soul in detail; just make observations. This common stuff will not all turn to dust, it will be interesting and valuable.
Consider the prospect of finding a 100 year old Instagram account with a picture every day for three years with brief commentary by the user and some friends. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I am personally looking forward to getting a printed copy of my whole backlog, just as a personal relic, for looking back and remembering. I’d like small square printouts with maps on their backs. I do go back to old pictures a lot. It helps remind me of who I am, or who I was. It brings old friends back, old moments. It’s nourishing.
Instagram was recently bought by Facebook for a staggering sum. Such deals are always ridiculed, but these businesses make decisions based on self-interest, and they usually have some logic. Technologists often scoff at high valuations of companies with apparently simplistic technologies, but Instagram is not a “tech company” as such. It’s not Cisco or Microsoft or Oracle. It uses software to enable a certain activity, namely to fill their servers with an illuminated collaborative diary of millions of ordinary people. Why would this not be worth enormous amounts of money?
Personally, I think that the concentration of all this stuff with one private company is frightening and regrettable. But that’s not really what I’m trying to write about. I’m trying to write about what makes Instagram so appealing and successful. With anything that gathers such an energy, there must be something interesting or worthwhile.
Here’s a thought that I hesitate to bring up. I’m not trying to be crude or trivializing. But consider Anne Frank. Her diary was published without her consent, and we are glad for it. It is one of the most important documents of a world historical tragedy, and a major contribution to world literature. It is almost breathtaking to think about the possibility of finding hundreds of casual photographs from her life.
We must of course consider that her diary, as opposed to any digital media, is recorded on a medium that is durable, material, and cheap. This strikes me as a sad fact of our current recording methods. If we lose electrical power, our data is gone. If our digital media are neglected, they will become illegible. But this too is not crucial to the argument.
Most basically, it’s just a matter of appreciating everyday life as interesting, worth recording, and in some way beautiful. This comes from another source than the idea of “art,” which is often elitist and exclusionary.
At the Van Gogh Museum, I noticed that Vincent’s self-portraits were among the most popular objects. People really seem to like them; I know I do. But there’s also something peculiar about looking at them. I recognize the feeling from looking at selfies. It has to do with self-presentation. An anxiety regarding exhibitionism. Basically we fear selfishness or hubris. When I got back from the museum, I took my first real Instagram selfie. It almost felt illicit. “Am I really the kind of person who does this?”
Interestingly, some people seem to have no qualms about it whatsoever. This may be a generational question. As for Vincent, I have a theory. He explicitly saw portraiture as his highest calling, the most important and lively way to paint. To show human beings as they are, or as they present themselves, which may be the same thing, at least to a painter. I think his own body was basically just another model, and one that worked for free. In other words, it is not necessary to postulate egoism to explain self-portraits, nor selfies. It’s just a matter of portraying the world from all angles.
Of course it is also a matter of self-creation, the artist inventing a character, practicing it, performing it. But that’s wonderful. Throughout van Gogh’s letters, there is a delight in this kind of thing. It strikes me as one of the strong and healthy activities in his personality. And it seems like something that should be encouraged. I don’t think we should be afraid of it.
In a way, self-portrayal seems intimately linked with self-consciousness itself. We are astonished at reports of animals making even the crudest self-representations. Indeed, we are impressed when an animal even recognizes itself in a mirror. There can be no vanity to a creature that doesn’t know about itself, we think. Therefore we brace ourselves so as to not succumb to the temptation of checking ourselves out, thinking this will make us humble, or at least seem humble—maybe the ultimate vanity.
I would just like to strongly encourage all kinds of self-gazing, self-elaboration, and self-love, so long as one is open-hearted. What Derrida called a kind of narcissism that’s inclusive and grand. We’re going to need that shit after the collapse. We must be bold. The great bodhisattva Louis C.K. asked, why are so many people unhappy? Largely because we lack the means to love ourselves in expansive, sharing, kind ways, or because we feel thwarted in our attempts to do so. And self-portrayal can help with this.
Photos can be very unflattering. Many people are afraid of cameras. Everyone knows the feeling of seeing yourself in a photo and being embarrassed, even though it’s obvious that everybody else thinks the picture is just fine. Just like hearing one’s own voice. It’s unusual to experience oneself from that opposite angle. One fails to see the integrity between one’s appearance and one’s inner self. Like a weird flashback to the Lacanian mirror stage. When I take a picture of someone, I courteously delete it if the subject looks “funny,” which happens often.
I wonder if the culture of photography gives rise to a kind of identification of the static with the real, the still face as the true face, movement as illusion. Because all of us who often look funny on photos, we are actually beautiful always, as beautiful as any animal, waterfall, cloud. Our miniscule movements, our rhythms, are not accidental or superfluous; they are part of our whole gestalts, and we are beautiful as whole things. But photography pins us down.
David Foster Wallace wrote at length (in “E Pluribus Unum”) about the segregated class of beautiful performers, people with “the holiday in their eyes,” people who manage to be comfortable and charming on camera. In a hilarious chapter of Infinite Jest, he parodizes video conferencing by emphasizing the fact that most people are disturbed by the “gazing” aspect of it. He predicts a slippery slope of beauty-enhancing filters and forged avatars.
But I’d like to modify his prediction. There will probably be a popular service in the near future to do video conferencing with Instagram-like filters. And it won’t devolve into a circus of increasing duplicity. It will just be a fun way for people to talk to each other, perhaps more playful than normal phone calls, which are often so sterile, utilitarian, and disappointing.
Post-processing is a crucial part of TV and cinema production. Not only for “special effects,” but also just to give a coherent feeling to the bland neutrality of the raw clips. Everyone has probably seen the striking difference in a “behind the scenes” video. Filmed material without postprocessing looks too dull, too awkward, too real. Maybe the cinematic quality of Instagram filters is totally obvious, but I hadn’t really thought about it. Reminds me of the song by Of Montreal: “we want our movie to be beautiful, not realistic.”
Movies and television have done a lot to improve the self-confidence of the human race, but also to distribute it more unevenly. I’m trying to build up the argument that access to cinematic filtering has some of the redemptive power implied in Nietzsche’s idea of justifying suffering through art, but in a way that’s more everyday and affortable than the highly skilled portraiture of someone like van Gogh, more democratic than the royalism of Hollywood.
That said, I’d also like to generally encourage the practice of having one’s portrait painted, perhaps by a local artist. This used to be a decent source of income for painters and a delight for the people who could afford them. Why have I never heard of anyone doing this for a hundred years? Are we so determined to keep fine art and life separate? I know Kramer did it in an episode of Seinfeld, and it was fantastic. We should also go ahead and make our own movies.
There’s another issue that’s often brought up. The fear is that someone busy taking photos forgets to actually enjoy the moment, because they are absorbed in a sort of escapist fantasy of future enjoyment. This is as ridiculous as the idea that van Gogh, standing out in a stormy cornfield, with his trembling canvas staked to the ground with several iron poles, was detached from life in the present, merely absorbed in his palette, his brush, and his canvas.
Of course, there are matters of social interaction and politeness. Sometimes one comes across as an obnoxious, weird, or invasive shutterbug. One should of course be appropriate with one’s shooting. This is a social skill like any other. But it comes down to basic respect and participation. And we can’t judge the whole phenomenon by its exaggerations.
There is no essential division between “life” and “art,” between “reality” and “representation.” Even Rembrandt’s canvases are chewed on by microorganisms and fade with exposure to light. A representation is both in the world and outside it, like language, a kind of fold in reality. The realm of “reality” is not as clear-cut as it may seem. The screen you are looking at now is the same kind of fold.
And consider looking into someone’s eyes, a real life someone, a friend or a lover. What do you see? Emptiness. They’re just holes for light. Lenses. Pupils don’t reflect photons. They’re wells. They’re invisible. The face-to-face encounter is overrated. It can certainly be lovely. But it’s also lovely to look at pictures. And even if we stare at each other, touch each other, we never really come through and know each other. We are always a few layers apart, seeing through our desires, our ideas, our expectations, communicating through media. Love does not require merging absolutely, just kind appreciation, and the willingness to see each other in a good light.
And that’s why I like Instagram filters.
This is my report from the hidden Catholic church of Amsterdam, Our Lord in the Attic, built and operated by Jan Hartman, a rich merchant, during the 1660s. Catholicism was banned since the late 1500s, so the industrious Jan bought three canal houses on the Oudezijds Voorburgval and joined the top floors into a house of prayer. It has been a museum since 1888.
But first I’d like to digress to write something about faith, religion, and atheism; show you a couple of Emily Dickinson poems; describe the early days of the Gothenburg Zen Center; and describe a recent Amsterdam meetup concerning “Atheism 2.0.”
I’m not the type of atheist to love atheism, to make a positive ideal of irreligiosity. I see it more as an unfortunate accident: I happened to be born and raised outside of any religious structure, and my conceptual worldview seems to resist most doctrine. Maybe I am genetically a smart alec and a devil’s advocate. In any case, I can’t seem to let my guard down long enough to be saved by Jesus—some kind of spiritual homophobia?
With these kinds of questions in mind, I attended a meetup last week, on the topic of “Atheism 2.0,” a ridiculous (and ironic) name for something articulated by Alain de Botton, a humorous yet sincere manifesto to let secular pursuits be inspired by religious traditions. The meetup, organized by a loose association called “Church for Atheists (+ agnostics + the rest of us),” took place in an obscure theater. There was coffee served out of a thermos, a subtly ecclesiastical touch. We watched de Botton’s TED talk, then did group discussions.
Afterwards, the coffee thermos guy turned into a bartender selling cheap Jupiler, and informal conversations blossomed in the hallways. I ended being part of a small clique formed of members from the English language discussion group.
Stepping out to share a smoke with another guy, Hilko, I discovered that he was a frontend developer, a Hacker News reader, and a dabbler in Clojure and Erlang. These attributes placed him within a pretty small circle of vanguard computer nerds. I was surprised at my lack of surprise to find such a character there. There’s an interesting diversity of spiritual interests that overlaps with nerdhood; not all nerds are Dawkinites.
Then there was Leah, a Bostonian med student studying in Amsterdam, having just moved here a week ago. She was cute, intelligent, and sympathetic. She asked me about Swedish culture, and I felt a strong desire to be warm and friendly as I admitted, “it’s generally cold, a bit timid, taciturn.”
There was also an older English gentleman—warmly irreverent, admitting to feeling a strong sense of “morality” in the music of Beethoven, laughing with grandfatherly equanimity at his family situation (his youngest daughter thinks he’s “just rubbish” for his ironic sense of humor). He was an eloquent speaker and frankly endearing.
But I can’t profile everyone at the meetup, I’m on a deadline here, so back to generalities. I’m trying to establish a certain subcultural perspective on religious faith as something lost, in the manner of a loss of innocence, a reason for yearning.
Here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson:
To lose one’s faith — surpass
The loss of an Estate —
Because Estates can be
Replenished — faith cannot —
Inherited with Life —
Belief — but once — can be —
Annihilate a single clause —
And Being’s — Beggary —
I am perhaps a beggar, wandering in places where I don’t belong, trying to extract some warmth and solace whereever I stumble. That is sometimes how I feel when visiting churches. I sort of bask in the reflected glow of a faith I don’t share. Here’s another:
A Door just opened on a street —
I — lost — was passing by —
An instant’s Width of Warmth disclosed —
And Wealth — and Company.
The Door as instant shut — And I —
I — lost — was passing by —
Lost doubly — but by contrast — most —
Informing — misery —
Could she be depicting lack of faith? Some people have the capacity to turn lack of faith into something almost saintly, at least grand and heroic: a doubtful struggle towards a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” Reading this poem, I am reminded of Christ walking with the cross, shunned by the householders.
Many of the people at the meetup described themselves as having been raised into some faith, then for one reason or another coming to doubt the validity of their churches, and leaving for the bittersweet pilgrimage of agnosticism. They seemed basically happy but longing for certain aspects of religiosity, curious to see how other people coped. As Alain de Botton puts it, “secular life is full of holes.”
One of the holes, de Botton argues, is in “civic life,” in particular social opportunities to meet adult friends. This is a well known problem. Finding new friends when you’re out of school takes effort, luck, and knowhow. Despite the Wi-Fi illumination of the smartphone, we remain rather aloof, tribal, anonymous. One theory calls it a lack of a “third place” between home and work, idealized by the Irish pub myth, the place “where everybody knows your name,” a Hobbiton inn, or even a place full of exotic strangers, like the Mos Eisley Cantina. A place to be a citizen out of uniform. A place to belong as a member of an urban, international community.
Maybe I’m just homesick? But my home towns weren’t much better. Who’s got time to hang out in a pub? Who can afford it? Plus to meet regularly in a beerhouse leads to alcoholism. One can also try the posh cafés that don’t know how to brew either tea or coffee and serve ridiculously expensive sandwiches. Good coffee places are judged only by the crema of their espresso and the frequency of MacBooks, not anything old fashioned like “community spirit.” It’s like a weird kind of consumer aristocracy. Friendships between economic classes must always be mediated through the choice of venue. The 18th century Enlightenment, including the whole French and American revolutions, was a result of cheap coffee in hospitable places, plus leisure time. We now have neither. Civic life, Twitter notwithstanding, is near extinct.
Well, anyway, I went to “Our Lord in the Attic,” a church-turned-museum in a block of canal houses in the middle of the Red Light District, that epicenter of old school lurid capitalism, pure trade in everything desirous, from steaks to joints to female bodies. It was a warm spring afternoon and everyone seemed happy. Whitman wrote “If I had known you I would have loved you,” and that’s how I always feel on such days, probably mistakenly. Europe’s largest Chinese Buddhist temple is also somewhere around here, and the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church. It’s a place of contrasts.
Our Lord in the Attic is a breath of virtuous air, an oasis in the sinful, tourist-packed district. But here’s my advice to you as a potential visitor: skip the audio tour. It’s not bad, and some info is rather interesting (e.g., which floor tiles are original, which drawer contained the priest’s underpants), but mostly it is slow-paced and rather dull. It seems to make the museum experience into a kind of didactic, school visit thing. I would have preferred to hang out in this museum without the buzzing presence of audio tour gadgets. Why not use the place as an actual church? It’s wonderful, though highly inaccessible to those in wheelchairs.
I can relate to the project of a half-secret urban church, because the Gothenburg Zen Center, until late 2013, had its city temple in a bottom-floor two room apartment on a second-hand contract. It was my first real contact with “religion” that I felt seriously interested in. And the underground mystique of gathering in an old apartment fit perfectly. Everyone was of course very friendly and lovely, and it reminded me a little bit about Fight Club. We were the small group of people who were clued in to the importance of zazen and kensho. This secret club mentality is of course a childish projection one is supposed to grow out of as soon as possible, but I admit it still excites me.
Zen is of course not illegal in Gothenburg, as Catholicism was in Amsterdam, but it is quite a niche interest. Many people come to introductory sessions but stop attending after realizing how boring it is to meditate. (Before realizing how wonderful it is.) The drop-off curve is notorious. It is not elitist, but it holds quite firmly to traditional forms, and avoids succumbing to postmodern demands of flexibility. If your legs hurt, then please just remain seated until the bell rings, it is good practice. And it really is.
For a while I was responsible for opening the temple on Sunday mornings. I would go there half an hour or an hour in advance, put on my thin brown robe, brew tea, and sit in zazen until the first buzz from the doorbell. One had to designate people for the various tasks, like timekeeping, incense lighting, and hitting the wood block. And then “lead” the actual meditation, which mostly involves keeping half an eye on things and opening the windows if it’s hot. It was a pleasant kind of responsibility, a chance to practice hospitality, practice at being an adult.
Our Lord in the Attic had a live-in priest. There are some guys and gals at the Zen center who would love to live like that. To be in the financial position to spend their days tending for the temple, making flower arrangements, accepting anyone who wants to come over for tea or zazen. This kind of life is completely appealing to me, that or being a monk.
Let me describe the experience of entering Our Lord in the Attic. You get your ticket at the front desk, and then you go up a flight of stairs. You see some regular old rooms from a merchant’s house in Amsterdam. Small beds, fireplaces, cupboards. A lobby, in fashionably symmetrical interior design, where Hartman would greet his guests, and then usher them up to the service, through a narrow flight of stairs in this cramped canal house, up into a marvellous Catholic chapel with a large altar, an organ, balconies. It’s quite breathtaking.
Our Lord in the Attic became unnecessary when Catholic practice was allowed again, and especially when the grand Basilica of St. Nicholas opened up in the same neighborhood, indeed visible from the windows of the hidden chapel. Yet it remains as a reminder of the possibility for non-mainstream assembly. Let’s gather at whoever’s got the nicest apartment to meditate, drink coffee, and plan the revolution.
Wordsworth wrote this in 1798:
It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before,
The red-breast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.
One moment now may give us more
Than fifty years of reason;
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above;
We’ll frame the measure of our souls,
They shall be tuned to love.
But then he also wrote, romantically, that “pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind.” Another clue to this British climate is found in T.S. Eliot’s lines:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
The spring may have come quicker than usual here in Holland, and it does not yet seem cruel. In fact this Sunday was a happy day for everyone I saw on the streets, a day of suddenly appearing outdoor seating, a day of skirts and sunglasses, a triumphant day. The world is still gyrating properly, the annual happiness has not been denied. I even saw someone eating ice cream. Sometimes the spring seems as though it is unfairly withheld, in a kind of run on the bank of mass-populous desire for sunlight, but not today. Today we were simply blessed.
And so I had decided to visit the Torture Museum. The idea of voluntarily entering a cold dungeon of materialized horror on such a pretty day amused me. I also figured that I would probably want to see it some day, and today’s mood might be the most pleasant backdrop for an experience that would necessarily include some amount of discomfort, or even fear.
Perhaps there is a logic to the prevalence of lurid, horrific tourist attractions, based on the pleasant relief one gets at the exit, when one steps out of the darkness into the soothing warmth of the city, like from a scary movie up into the afternoon.
Anyway, the Torture Museum turned out not to accept the Museumkaart. I flashed my PIN card to indicate a slightly unconvinced willingness to pay, by now rather excited about seeing the iron maidens and whatnots—but that too was impossible. I would have to pay actual cash to go in. Never mind, I thought, and headed out into the sun. What now? I have to do something for the blog.
Then I remembered that the Nieuwe Kerk, a short walk away, is supposed to have some kind of exhibition about Francis Bacon. The painter, not the scientist. Also known as the guy whom Margaret Thatcher referred to as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” I had some vague idea of Bacon as a subversive, discordant artist, somehow associated in my mind with Buñuelian torture, and I decided to do that instead.
The Nieuwe Kerk is only new compared to the Oude Kerk. It was completed in 1544 and treated roughly in the iconoclastic fury of 1566, then mostly rebuilt after the great fire of 1645. A rough life for this imposing structure. Through the years it seems to have lost most of its religiosity, too, and is now more of a museum. The interior of the church is quite impressive, especially the carved wooden artwork of the main pulpit.
The Bacon exhibition happening in the Nieuwe Kerk is a part of a series called “Single Masterpieces,” which now for the third time “presents a single masterpiece in the seclusion of its magnificent sanctuary.” The first was Rembrandt, the second Andy Warhol, and now Francis Bacon’s triptych In Memory of George Dyer from 1971. It is a triplet of large paintings depicting (or “exorcising”) the painter’s suicidal friend and lover. The figures are grotesque, fleshy, and anxious, in a way that the curator’s text describes as refusing the “golden horizon of salvation” that accompanies classical triptychs of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The curator also admits candidly that “the Masterpiece series is an attempt to compensate periodically for the lack of masterpieces in Dutch churches, a void left when widespread iconoclastic riots, the ‘Beeldenstorm,’ swept through the country’s churches, including De Nieuwe Kerk, in 1566.” Even before the painting is seen, this frames the issue in an interesting way. The display of the triptych seems to assume historic proportions, a significant move within the story of Dutch religion.
Here on the Dam plaza, the very nexus of tourist activity, it is also easy to associate the Nieuwe Kerk with spectacle. There was a boisterous performer doing something with a horse whip, a torch, and a boombox. And of course the horse taxis, the groups of sunbathing stoned backpackers, and the obligatory police bus, anticipating God knows what. Nevertheless, the church itself is rather quiet, spacious, air conditioned—indeed a sanctuary.
The Single Masterpiece is displayed inside of a kind of inner chamber bounded by a beautiful brass choir screen, like a holy of holies. The lighting is perhaps a little problematic, because the paintings are inside a big glass case, which reflects the brass choir screen and various other church extravagances, making it a little hard to see. But if you hang around for a bit and get familiar with the triptych, it comes into focus more clearly. I sat in the pews and watched it for a good while.
There’s also a slightly amusing phenomenon involving the guard telling off photographers, which I observed with a smug glee. I studied the guards’ movements for an opportunity to sneak a photo anyway, but they run a pretty tight ship.
Bacon took inspiration from sculpture. The figures in his paintings often come across as fleshy busts, meat statues against solid backgrounds, encircled and associated within geometric shapes, often struggling or fighting with the shapes, or cornered, surrounded, like boxers in a ring. Perhaps the glass and the guards are part of the exhibition. They surround the artwork with a “crown jewels” aura, the glimmer of value protected by violence.
In fact Bacon’s paintings score extreme prices at auctions. Given the utterly tragic story behind the painting, this all feels somewhat perverse. George Dyer was a petty criminal, a boxer, a complete stranger to the “art world,” who became involved in a very strange and unhappy friendship with Francis. They were lovers, and Francis’s many depictions of George seem to have played a role in their relationship, as a kind of aesthetic legitimization of his troubled manhood, or of his animalhood. Through a kind of atheistic crucifixion, his memory lives on and creates an enormous financial value.
This is not a critique of Bacon himself, just an ironic feeling I get when I attend the exhibition. And maybe I should not be too concerned with the biographical details. Focusing on the personal dramas of the painter is a way to avoid confronting the artwork itself.
Gilles Deleuze, in his book about Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, almost completely ignores the story of George Dyer. Instead, he tries to read the internal logic of the paintings themselves, with only a general sense of Bacon’s “life story.”
“Bacon harbors within himself all the violence of Ireland, and the violence of Nazism, the violence of war. He passes through the horror of the crucifixions, […] or the head of meat, or the bloody suitcase. But when he passes judgment on his own paintings, he rejects all those that are still too ‘sensational,’ because the figuration that subsists in them reconstitutes a scene of horror, even if only secondarily, thereby introducing a story to be told: even the bullfights are too dramatic. As soon as there is horror, a story is reintroduced, and the scream is botched.”
The forces that Bacon paints are violent, horrible, and disturbing. But Deleuze places him in a line of painters who illustrated “force” in a general sense. For example Cézanne, rendering the “folding force of mountains, the germinative force of a seed, the thermic force of a landscape,” and Van Gogh, painting “unknown forces, the unheard-of force of a sunflower seed,” and Van Gogh’s great inspiration Millet, who said that a sack of potatoes carried weight in the same way as the Eucharist offertory, and so as a painter of gravity he painted them the same.
I found it a rather beautiful experience to view this “Single Masterpiece” in the Nieuwe Kerk. The whole idea of just showing one work basically appeals to me; I never like having to choose. This presentation encourages you to sit down and just be affected by the painting in a relaxed way. There’s nothing else to see, no hurry to get to the next thing. It’s almost like a concentration exercise.
It is also a way to discover what Deleuze describes as the weird vibrating polyrhythms of Bacon’s paintings. The basic attendant rhythm of the horizontal repetition, and the frozen, static, jagged movements of the figures. Sitting down in front of the triptych, as my eyes jump between the frames, there is some kind of communication between them. It really becomes like an altarpiece, a site of prayer.
In The Open: Man and Animal, Giorgio Agamben meditates on the way humanity engages in “anthropogenesis,” the creation of mankind out of the animal, and the lingering question of man’s animality, and the way this has been expressed in the Western traditions, especially within Christianity. Art played a major role, and I suppose Bacon is a late expression of this struggle.
In the time of the Renaissance, Agamben says, there was a “humanist discovery of man […] the discovery that he lacks himself, the discovery of his irremediable lack of dignitas.” For the humanists, this became a clarion call for self-invention and creativity. For Bacon, it seems rather less optimistic. Deleuze explains:
“[…] what Bacon’s painting constitutes is a zone of indiscernibility or undecidability between man and animal. Man becomes animal, but not without the animal becoming spirit at the same time, the spirit of man, the physical spirit of man […] the common fact of man and animal […] man is coupled with his animal in a latent bullfight.”
This theme was picked up by Erica Fudge in a 2010 essay called Why it’s easy being a vegetarian. She cites Barthes’s wonderful essay on the mythology of steak in French culture: “the heart of meat, it is meat in its pure state; and whoever partakes of it assimilates a bull-like strength.” She goes on to claim that “ontologically (if not always practically), [it is easier] being a vegetarian than being a meat-eater,” since for vegetarians, the rule for what’s kosher is trivial: we basically just eat anything that doesn’t run away or scream. Plutarch described the vegetarian’s big question to the carnivore in Essay on Flesh Eating:
“How could his eyes endure the spectacle of the flayed and dismembered limbs? How could his sense of smell endure the horrid effluvium? How, I ask, was his taste not sickened by the contact with festering wounds, with the pollution of corrupted blood and juices?”
Francis Bacon said in 1965:
“I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. […] Of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.”
If you go and check out the Bacon exhibition, you can then move on to The Butcher on Albert Cuypstraat for dinner. This American-styled burger joint features large, haphazard patties grilled in plain sight, and the entrance is graced by a hanging cow. Only 100 meters away, Burgermeester’s walls are covered with bovine photos. There seems to be a Baconian trend of flesh depiction in Amsterdam burger culture. There is meat everywhere I go. Fudge concludes:
“So perhaps I have to acknowledge that being a vegetarian is not easy after all, because if we were all vegetarians that would bring with it a radically new sense of who it is we imagine ourselves to be. And that new sense has a potential to be disturbing because it might force us all to acknowledge that, as a man called Bacon once said, we are all meat. And who – or what – would we be then?”
I left the Nieuwe Kerk with an awakened curiosity about modern art. The sun was still blessing the city center with a soothing afternoon glow, “each minute sweeter than before.” I went to have some falafel. Mmm, you know it’s good.
It turns out that this weekend I’m hosting a couple of couch surfers, friends of a new friend, all the way from Florence. Amal, who is a traveller and student of language philosophy, plus Giuseppe, a painter, are a wonderful duo and very pleasant guests.
They had been to Rembrandt’s old house on Friday, and today they were going to the Rijksmuseum. Giuseppe especially wanted to see a certain painting by Rembrandt. I went to the Van Gogh Museum, since I had been reading his letters to Theo and preparing to write this.
Both museums are on the Museumplein. We walked there, and before we went our separate ways, Giuseppe told me that once when van Gogh visited the Rijksmuseum—right before he committed himself to the asylum—he refused to leave at closing time, consumed with intense study of a Rembrandt, and bit the staff who dragged him out. Amal promised to try to avoid this situation.
Giuseppe’s English is a little rusty, and my Italian is nonexistent, so Amal is acting as a translator, which is fun. Her translating, a kind of bilingual echo, is an acknowledgement that what I say makes enough sense to cross the language barrier. Our voices filter through her and become softer. Our sentences are reshaped and distilled, as if via a kind of human telegraph—one who often seems amused at our communiqués.
The three of us went out last night to drink some whisky—Amal’s choice—and talk. I noticed right away that Giuseppe’s painterly gaze was studying the surroundings and the locals. A tall Dutch woman was dancing and smoking in a retro black & white outfit. He estimated her shoe size, probably a 46. There was also a dancing man with a bandaged leg, another picturesque figure.
I mentioned I had been reading the letters. Soon after, they asked “So why do you love Vincent van Gogh?” This seemed like a loaded question. Maybe they mistook me for a more devoted disciple than I really was. In any case, I remembered Vincent’s advice to Theo:
“It is good to love as many things as one can, for therein lies true strength, and those who love much, do much and accomplish much, and whatever is done with love is done well.”
I quickly reasoned that it would in fact make sense for me to love Vincent van Gogh, and answered with a somewhat improvised reason, though it was quite true. It starts with a guy named Frank Morton.
An older friend of my brother, Frank is a bluesman from Sandviken, my hometown. He sings of the local working class, the underdogs, the outsiders. He also dabbles in oil painting, doing remakes of Iron Maiden album art, which is apparently quite lucrative. Years ago he wrote a song called “Sång till Vincent,” a reworking of Dylan’s “Song for Woody.” It’s an homage to van Gogh and everyone else who “walked the hard road.” Frank told us about Vincent’s letters, and it became evident that the painter was a real hero to him.
Frank is also something of a conversationalist, a barfly, and a character. He reminds me of Joseph Roulin, the Arles postman from van Gogh’s portrait:
“The man is a well-known republican and socialist, argues quite well and knows a great deal.”
I remember a conversation between me, Frank, and Daniel, my brother. It was a summer night and we were playing pool at the 8-Ball, which is where one usually went in Sandviken after midnight when every other place closed. Daniel and I had been reading up on Wittgenstein, and gave Frank a kind of briefing, the gist of it. Frank is always eager to absorb pertinent intellectual gossip.
We came to discuss a certain point, literally a parenthesis in the Tractatus, proclaiming the secret identity of ethics = aesthetics. Crudely put: the good is the lovely; or, to act well is to act beautifully. At least that is how we experience it. The convivial atmosphere invited us to treat wild ideas as if they were certainly true, and Frank was delighted about this proposition.
There’s a lot of moral feeling throughout Vincent’s letters, often connected with his views on art. It would be awkward to try to express this feeling in terms of either pure ethics or pure aesthetics. It has probably been written about in the literature on van Gogh, of which I am sadly ignorant. Bear with me as I try to explain it anyway.
As I see it, it calls for a kind of ideal of harmony, or mutuality, between two elements that I’ve come to think about as “earth” and “life.” These two elements are associated with the past and the present, respectively, and also with other dualities: darkness and light, background and foreground, countryside and city, and so on. This scheme may seem very general and abstract, not to mention vague. But I can’t help seeing it like this.
The earthly landscape symbolizing the past is a theme of The Spell of the Sensuous, the book by David Abram I keep coming back to. He asks: “Where, within the visible landscape, can we locate the past and the future?” The answer, inspired by Heidegger, might have appealed to van Gogh:
“Of course, we may say that we perceive the past all around us, in great trees grown from seeds that germinated long ago, in the eroded banks of a meandering stream, or the widening cracks in an old road. [But primarily,] what we commonly term ‘the past’ would seem to be rooted in our carnal sense of that which is hidden under the ground—of that which resists, and thus supports, the living present.”
The theme of the ancient ground that “supports the living present” is all over van Gogh’s paintings and letters. For example, in The Potato Eaters, the nutritious nightshade tubers from the underworld shine like moons and exhale life-giving steam, as the peasants (with heads “the colour of a good dusty potato”) share familial warmth.
“I very often think that peasants are a world apart, in many respects one so much better than the civilized world. […] I’ve tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labor and – a meal honestly earned.”
As his style develops, the “nostalgic” element fades away, and the gestalts of plants, people, houses, and things come to the foreground as alive, strong, and vividly present. He explains to Theo:
“If one draws a pollard willow as if it were a living being, which after all is what it is, then the surroundings follow almost by themselves, provided only that one has focused all one’s attention on that particular tree and not rested until there was some life in it.”
Here’s van Gogh praising a fellow artist:
“Even when he draws bricks, granite, iron bars or the railing of a bridge, Meryon puts into his etchings something of the human soul, moved by I know not what inner sorrow.”
This “inner sorrow” is also vivid in van Gogh’s paintings. It’s one reason his later landscapes are so fascinating and disturbing:
“What I want to express, in both figure and landscape, isn’t anything sentimental or melancholy, but deep anguish. In short, I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.”
Yet in this too, the harmony of darkness and light plays its part:
“Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”
How can one find this musical harmony—and keep it? This seems to be Vincent’s great ethical-aesthetical question, the struggle of his tragic life.
Early on, van Gogh worked as a preacher in Dordrecht, where he fell in love with the light’s “golden glow,” painted by Aelbert Cuyp, one of his heroes from the Dutch Golden Age. Vincent’s sermons were inspired and beautiful, as sermons often are, full of warmth and intensity, playing a kind of divine lead melody over the chthonic chords of the rural earth.
"From infancy we grow up to boys and girls – young men and women – and if God spares us and helps us, to husbands and wives, Fathers and Mothers in our turn, and then, slowly but surely the face that once had the early dew of morning, gets its wrinkles, the eyes that once beamed with youth and gladness speak of a sincere deep and earnest sadness, though they may keep the fire of Faith, Hope and Charity – though they may beam with God’s spirit. The hair turns grey or we lose it – ah – indeed we only pass through the earth, we only pass through life, we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth."
He wrote to Theo about a “longing for religion among the people in the cities:”
“Many a worker in a factory or shop has had a strange, beautiful and pious youth. But city life sometimes removes ‘the early dew of the morning.’ Even so, the longing for ‘the old, old story’ remains. What is at the bottom of the heart stays at the bottom of the heart.”
It’s fascinating to follow how Vincent’s outlook changes as he becomes more a city man, through his years in Paris, hanging out in coffeehouses with new friends like Gauguin, Monet, Seurat, and Pisarro. A still life painted in memory of his deceased father, also a preacher, makes the contrast explicit: the painting shows a large, heavy Bible on a table next to a novel by Zola named La joie de vivre. Still, he retained a love of Christ, “the artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh.”
I, like Philip Lopate, fell in love at first sight of Bresson’s 1950 movie Diary of a Country Priest, and any number of Bergman movies, not to mention Pär Lagerkvist's anguished poems. Unfortunately, my lack of faith prevented me from becoming a Christian pastor or monk. Instead I took up Zen. Van Gogh also went through a period of admiring Japanese wisdom:
“If we study Japanese art, we discover a man who is undeniably wise, philosophical and intelligent, who spends his time – doing what? Studying the distance from the earth to the moon? No! Studying the politics of Bismarck? No! He studies … a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants – then the seasons, the grand spectacle of landscapes, finally animals, then the human figure. […] So come, isn’t what we are taught by these simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?”
When I started doing Zen meditation, I sometimes evangelized about it to my brother, as condescendingly and repeatedly as Vincent when he writes to Theo with life advice:
- “smoke a pipe when you are downcast;”
- “dispose of your books;”
- “do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire;”
- “go on doing a lot of walking & keep up your love of nature;”
- “enjoy yourself too much rather than too little;”
- “don’t take art or love too seriously;”
- “go and fall in love yourself and tell me about it;”
- “become an artist;”
and so on. There is a lot of advice in Vincent’s letters, much of it eminently worth following. Here is my favorite, a perfect remedy when life seems barren:
“Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you like some imbecile.”
Indeed, just slap anything on. This too combines the ethical and the aesthetical. He goes on:
“The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. […] Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, disheartening, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily.”
This might not be a foolproof method for attaining serenity, but it’s a way to create motion, shake things up, probe the possibilities of this world. It is basically why I moved to Holland, and why I started this museum series. I think it is excellent advice. In the words of The Mountain Goats:
do every stupid thing
that makes you feel alive
do every stupid thing
to try to drive the dark away
let people call you crazy
for the choices that you make
climb limits past the limits
jump in front of trains all day
and stay alive
just stay alive
I have decided to spare you my theory about van Gogh as the ur-hipster. But he was undeniably a freelancer, a starving artist, and something of an outcast. He didn’t like job-seeking or sucking up to company managers:
“Now, one of the reasons why I have no regular job, and why I have not had a regular job for years, is quite simply that my ideas differ from those of the gentlemen who hand out the jobs to individuals who think as they do. It is not just a question of my appearance, which is what they have sanctimoniously reproached me with, it goes deeper, I do assure you.”
He was deeply confident about his own artistic ability, even so confident that he could write clearly about his need to get better. He kept making paintings even as Theo failed to sell them. Not because he shunned making money, but because:
“what I’m trying for is the shortest means to that end – on the understanding that the work is of genuine and lasting merit, which I can only expect if I put something really good into it and make an honest study of nature, not if I work exclusively with an eye to saleability – for which one is bound to suffer later.”
As for the madness he would develop later, he was conscious about the Romantic idea of the mad artist, but didn’t subscribe to it. He viewed his “episodes” as temporary aberrations, clinical in nature, not essential to his character or art. Throughout his life he managed his melancholy moods by travelling, working hard, being outdoors, and so on. In short there is much to learn from Vincent’s attitude.
I have talked about the past and the present in van Gogh’s paintings and letters, but there is also the future. He was enthusiastic about the future of art, eager to help prepare the ground for later generations of artists:
“There is an art of the future, and it will be so lovely and so young that even if we do give up our youth for it, we can only gain in serenity by it.”
And aside from art, he reckoned that earthly life itself must have much in store:
“Science – scientific reasoning – strikes me as being an instrument that will go a very long way in the future. For look: people used to think that the earth was flat. […] Life, too, is probably round, and much greater in scope and possibilities than the hemisphere we now know.”
Indeed the world seems to have changed a lot since van Gogh’s days. Have we finally discovered life’s true shape? Well… we have seen past some horizons. These hopes of van Gogh and the other fin de siécle artists were interrupted by the world wars and generally thwarted by greed, corruption, and stupidity. But still, the world has in many respects become more open and more delightful. I think these artists helped pave the way for that. I guess it makes sense that our most sacred museums are devoted to modern artists.
It’s quite amazing that a museum about this “shaggy sheepdog” is now Amsterdam’s most famous museum, indeed on the European top ten, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rijksmuseum that he loved.
And it’s beautiful to see the long entrance lines (especially since Museumkaart holders skip ahead); to hear parents with their kids explaining certain paintings; to see a triptych of grey-clothed girls giggling at one of his selfies (one lingered longer—why?); and just to know that van Gogh’s struggle became, somehow, globally meaningful.
“What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity or an eccentric or an obnoxious person – someone who has no position in society and never will have, in short the lowest of the low. Well, then – even if that were all absolutely true, I should one day like to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric, such a nobody.”