Posts Tagged ‘Beauty’

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In a world daily ripped apart by violence, hatred, and pain; a world where religious zealotry and irrational dogma routinely takes precedence over love and respect; a world where individual achievement is routinely sacrificed on the altar of conformity; Newberry and his art shine like a spotlight on the all too often ignored values of individual human existence and the power of striving for personal greatness.

Every day, I live in the presence of an array of pastels, prints, and paintings that help me remember how beautiful and noble it is to strive to be one’s best. These are “Our Newberrys”. These are our inspiration.

I remember how touched Patt and I were when, as a show of compassion and concern following Patt’s breast cancer surgeries, Michael called to tell Patt he was naming one of his female nudes in her honor. That was not about money or publicity or the “trader principle” of his Objectivist ethics.  That was simply an expression of love from one individual human soul to another. We remember that to this very day.

I love the non-representational works, the Judaica, the sculpture, and, really, every piece in my collection. I even love my own glasswork and photographs. But, only Newberry reminds me, every day, that my individual human life has intrinsic value. For that I will always cherish his art and his friendship!

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Last night Patt and I had the rare opportunity to see Michelangelo Antononi’s film “L’Avventura” as a 35mm film print at the Northwest Film Center. It was shown as part of the Italian Style exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. A few years ago, I wrote of my love for Antonioni and his first color film “Red Desert“. Today, I’d like to tell you why L’Avventura is one of my favorite films of all time.

Antonioni seems, to me, to be the opposite of many earlier Italian filmmakers. Before Antonioni and his generation were the Italian neo-realists like Visconti and Rosselini. Neo-realist filmmakers share some common production traits such as using amateur actors, on-site cinematography, outlines instead of formal storyboards and scripts, socialist themes about the working class and their struggles, and the physical effects of historical events. As one would expect from the name  “neo-realism” these films were almost a form of interpretive historiography.

Antonioni’s films, however, use well-trained professional actors (Monica Vitti!!!), expensive locations, highly stylized aesthetics, upper class protagonists, and a strong focus on the psychological (versus physical) effects of events. To my mind , Antonioni is the antithesis of a neo-realist. But I love Rosselini, so, clearly being antithetical to Rosselini and Visconti isn’t what I love about L’Avventura. That is simply one among many of the things that makes Antonioni and this particular film, unique.

Honestly, L’Avventura is pretty light on plot-lines. But here is what Janus Films has to say: “A girl mysteriously disappears on a yachting trip. While her lover and her best friend search for her across Italy, they begin an affair. Antonioni’s penetrating study of the idle upper class offers stinging observations on spiritual isolation and the many meanings of love.” That’s the extent of it. The “missing girl” is “Anna”, her lover is “Sandro”, and the best friend is “Claudia”. Sounds pretty damn dull, huh? My wife sums it up even more succinctly. The Patt Bilow synopsis is this:

Anna disappears and Sandro is a scumbag“. You pretty well nailed the plot, babe. That is one reason I love you so much! 🙂

Seriously, though, the film does have a bit more structure than I’m flippantly implying. L’Avventura should be viewed more as a “composition” in the musical sense than as a traditional film. In that context, L’Avventura could be said to have five “movements”. Each movement, then, has it’s own unique mood and environmental structure. Each ends with some event that changes how we view the characters; each alters the narrative direction. This is not my own private analysis. It is widely accepted that there are 5 sections to the film.

  • 1. Anna goes to the Island
  • 2. The search of the Island, for Anna
  • 3. Claudia and Sandro follow Anna’s trail
  • 4. The new relationship between Claudia and Sandro
  • 5. The return

The film also has much more character complexity than simply to say that Sandro is a scumbag. He is. But he is also weak, more insecure than he is willing to portray, needy, and angry. Sandro cries at the end of the film and, oddly, Claudia comforts him. This implies that he is weak, lonely, and for all his money, alienated. So, frankly, is Claudia. After all, she does become Sandro’s lover much more readily than one would hope.

So, ok. Look… It’s not much of a plot. Surely, that is why it was booed at its first ever showing at Cannes in 1960. But, it does have structure and meaning; even if its greatest meaning is little more than to say that everyone suffers from post-modern alienation. There are more important aspects to the film and I’ll readily admit that it is not plot that makes L’Avventura great.

What then? Does it have a super-secret encrypted message? Well… I can’t answer that question any better than the greatest of film critics, Roger Ebert. In 1997, Ebert said this:

These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie. Only recently, seeing it again, did I realize how much clarity and passion Antonioni brought to the film’s silent cry of despair.

His characters were parasites whose money allowed them to clear away the distractions of work, responsibility, goals and purposes, and exposed the utter emptiness within. It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. “L’Avventura” becomes a place in our imagination–a melancholy moral desert.

This is not all that different from the many other interpretations which say that L’Avventura is a direct shot at the Italian upper-middle class who Antonioni the socialist really does dislike. But, when it comes to wasting time and money, the upper-middle class may also be an allegorical representation of a larger problem. I propose that it is. I propose that the film forces us to ask the larger question of meaning in human life in general. How do we make a meaningful life? Antonioni does not answer that. But he does do one heck of a good job of demonstrating that idleness, inaction, lack of productiveness, complacency, and meaningless sexual promiscuity are not the constituent parts. About that, we must ponder long and hard.

I still have not explained why I love the film. Unless I simply enjoy static plot-free films about angst, there must be more. So, let’s forget about plot and meaning; let’s focus on aesthetics. There are 3 fundamental aesthetic characteristics that make this film great. I’ll share them now. Hopefully, you will see why I’m in love with this film despite the minimalist plot and slow pace of its 473 shots.

1. Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to visual detail. As a competent photographer, I think I’m adequately trained to speak to the compositional style in Antonioni’s ouerve. I propose that if you were to print of every frame in L’Avventura, the majority of those prints would contain a near-perfectly composed image. That results from Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to detail.

2. Without being overt or cheeky, Antonioni uses superbly crafted iconography and even simple visual cues in very powerful ways. We begin to see this as early as shot 2. We can tell that Anna and her father don’t have a particularly good relationship because they speak to each other’s backs, with no eye contact. That’s not really the iconography I’m talking about but it quickly demonstrates how Antonioni uses imagery to tell us more than words or action.

Much of the visual, and even verbal, language that is used (in a much more advanced way) to depict allegory in L’Avventura comes from Catholicism. Last night, the entire theater laughed when Claudia, in shot 202, hands Anna’s father Anna’s Bible. He takes it as a good sign that she would not commit suicide. He says: “I believe than anyone who reads the Bible could never do anything so rash!“.That is a sort of verbal joke. But consider the later scene where Sandro purposely spills ink on a young architect’s drawing and then escapes a fight with the young man by scrambling into line with a large group of black-clad school boys and their priests. Ahhh! Saved by the priests!

But, by no means is all the allegory Catholic. In fact, the penultimate (and not so subtle) iconography comes at the end of the film where Sandro is represented by a church tower and Claudia by the cavernous womb of a church. Sexual allegory? Naw… never! 🙂

3.Antonioni borrows an almost anti-teleological aesthetic commonly used in Japanese literature and abstract expressionistic music like that of Morton Feldman. He spends more time on character and psychological effect than enacting plot and action. His camera often stays on a shot for several seconds after the action has ended; creating a teleological version of “negative space”.Like L’Avventura, Japanese novels are often also static, and the same is true of music by an abstract expressionist composer like one of my old teachers, Morton Feldman. like Feldman’s music and Japanese novels, the lack of a temporal dynamism in L’Avventura is actually the source of its utter beauty. Instead of bouncing through quick cuts and fast-paced action, the viewer must watch the film long enough to adapt to its pace and time extension; having settled in to the pacing, we can experience the subtlety and detail almost like a meditation on perfectly composed images floating in a clear lake of temporal stasis.

I don’t just make this stuff up. Antonioni himself explains his philosophy of time, events, and images in an essay called “The Event and the Image“. He states explicitly that he wants to present an “event” and then dispense with it quickly in order to use related images to depict the EFFECT of the event. In L’Avventura the “event” is the disappearance of Anna; the “image” is the entire remainder of the film; imagery and iconography are used to to explore the effect of Anna’s disappearance on Claudia and Sandro. It make for a very beautiful experience if you let yourself have the time to immerse in it.

I’m used to watching this film on a Criterion Collection DVD. Watching the 35mm film print was both good and bad. It was good because it is historically significant and film does have a particular look. Unfortunately, I sometimes found it difficult to read the white subtitles. Also, I was a bit surprised at the lip sync issues and how much the audio synchronization problems bothered me.That is just a characteristic of the available technology. Still, there are plenty of films from long before 1960 that have well dubbed audio tracks. I do have to say, though, that even with the poorly sync’d audio track it was sure a blessing to get to see a film print of one of my all-time favorite flicks!

All-in-all it was a great thing to see L’Avventura on film. Thank you to the Northwest Film Center for showing it, to the Portland Art Museum for letting members in free, and to my lovely wife for being the only friend interested in coming to watch it with me! Now I need another 2 1/2 hours to devote to this film.  I really want to go back to my DVD and watch it with the secondary audio track; therein my old friend and video professor Gene Youngblood provides a play-by-play commentary. It might be time for some serious cinematic geekdom!

THANK YOU, THANK YOU THIRD ANGLE! The “Made in Italy” concert, in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum is one of my top 3 favorite shows you have ever done. For the record, the other two were Rothko Chapel (also with PAM), and China Music Now (with the Portland Chinese Garden). This time, though, I learned a lot as well as listening to what I already love.

The evening began with one of several pieces I’ve never heard, Dallapiccola’s 1951 piece for violin and piano called “Tartiniana II,”  , The piece is a tribute to Baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini. It was programmed first as a sort of bridge between the 20th century and the long history of Italian art music. Personally, this was the piece I found least interesting but I’m not sure i could have selected a better piece to bridge the centuries and I totally get why Ron chose it.

For me, the evening just got more and more interesting as the show continued.

I was most excited to hear the 3rd piece, Berio’s lovely tribute to Martin Luther King, “O King”. It seems to me that Berio is terribly under-performed since his passing in 2003. I’m biased about this piece for 2 reasons. First, it is a chamber setting of music that also serves as the second movement of Berio’s “Synphonia” which I think is one of most beautiful things to ever come out of the late 20th century. Second, Berio is one of the few 20th century composers who I deeply admire but who I was never able to meet. I came close once, when my uncle Mel and aunt Joey took me to see the LA Philharmonic perform several of his works, including my favorite Berio piece “Linea”, conducted by Berio himself. So, basically, I went into the evening expecting to grin for 5 minutes while “O King” was performed; and grin I did.

Backing up a step, I’ll also mention a really amazing piece that I’ve not heard since my college days in the B304 electronic music studio: Luigi Nono’s “La Fabbrica Illuminata,” This is a piece for tape and voice that comes out the electro-acoustic and musicque concrete movements of the 50’s and 60’s. It was realized in 1964 as a protest against Italian factory working conditions. Nono is one of the guys we got to study, moment by moment in Barry Schrader’s electronic music classes because Nono was one of the first composers to create electronic music. Before there was such a thing as 5.1 and 7.2 multichannel audio systems, we used to create music for 4 track tape. Nono’s tape was made from the sounds of factory worked workers that were electronically processed. The recorded material was played back through a very solid 4-channel sound system that reminded me exactly of the old Quad recordings that we used to make. If enough time has now passed that one can call electro-acoustic music “authentic” then this performance surely was.

Even though I was excited to again hear Berio and Nono performed live, it was the 3 final pieces that really made this an extra special evening for me. This is because I found something to adore in each of 3 works whose composers I knew noting at all about. The 3 pieces were “Ganimede”, a 1986 solo viola piece by Fausto Romitelli; Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Ultime Rose”, for voice, cello, and piano, from 1981; and a 2010 piece called “Gr…” for solo bass flute by Oscar Bianchi. Each of these compositions demonstrated the extraordinary innovation that only Third Angle has to guts to include in it’s programming. Romitelli gave Charles Noble a chance to use almost every extended string technique in existence. Bianchi did much the same for the bass flute. And, Sciarrino, surprised me with an extremely beautiful use of cello, some really well timed vocal cues from the piano, and a third reason to respect any vocalist with the guts to tackle contemporary music.

I especially want to send our some kudos with respect to my last statement. In the cases of the Nono piece, the Berio piece, and the Sciarrino piece, I was tremendously impressed by Soprano Catherine Olson. Although a soprano, not a mezzo like the genius I’m about to mention, Ms. Olson’s body language, and to some extent her vocal technique, reminded me of the great interpreter of Berio and Maderna, the wonderful Cathy Berberian. This might be my imagination since Berberian died when I was just out of college, but I could see Ms. Olson singing Berio’s “Circles” and I’d go to hear her do so in a nanosecond!

Mentioning Berio’s great muse, Cathy Berberian, brings me to one last thought. You have perhaps noticed that I have said nothing but positive things about this concert. There is really nothing bad to say. So, I’ll leave you with my one issue. Noticeably absent from this program was the music of Bruno Maderna. I always feel like Maderna is noticeably absent whenever Berio stands alone as Italy’s preeminent contemporary composer. So, if I could add anything to a nearly perfect concert, it would be one extra piece representing the work of Maderna. But, there is only so much one can handle of cool contemporary chamber music. So…. I’m letting it slide and just going to say….

Bravissimo 3A!

I remember once telling my old tabla teacher, Taranath Rao, that I had wrestled in high school. I recall being quite surprised to find out that he too was a youth wrestler! I’ll never know whether I could have out-wrestled guruji; but I surely know that it would take me another hundred lifetimes to become even one thousandth the tabla player that he was.

I also surely know that I was very blessed that a man in the direct lineage of the Farukkhabad Gharana of tabla masters would be willing to take, as a student, a 20-year-old composer of electro-acoustic music who had neither the tenacity nor the aptitude to become an accomplished hand-drummer. The fact is, I began studying with Taranath because I “wanted to learn something non-Western” and because my friend Amy (who was an accomplished percussionist) was going to study tabla – and I thought Amy was cute.

Over the years that I knew Taranath, he became far more that just a path to “something non-Western” and a reason to hang out with Amy. He became one of the great influences on my life. This is not because I would ever become a particularly good drummer but, rather, because knowing him led me to both my interests in India and to a realization about what a truly joyful human being could be and how precious it was to know one.

Taranath Rao was born one hundred years ago today, March 6, 1915, in Mangalore India. His uncle, A. K. Rao, was an accomplished Indian violinist and his own father, Ramarao Hattiangady, was a percussionist and an actor. Because of these family members, Taranath received some very early exposure to musical genius. Taranath first studied tabla with Vishnu Goakar. He learned mridangam from his own father.  Ultimately Taranath studied with Shamshuddin Khan, who he first met while on tour with the great master Abdul Kareem Khan. There is an old story about Shamshuddin Khan that says his hands were so light, and his drumming so effortless, that anyone sitting behind him could not even tell when his hands were moving and when not. Clearly my guru learned this lesson well; sadly, I did not.

Taranath moved to Bombay around 1932 to study art. Shamshuddin Kahn didn’t have time to take on new students so, first, Taranath studied with pakawaj master Subbarao Ankolekar who also player tabla in the style of Delhi gharana. It was not until almost 7 years later that, in 1939, Shamshuddin Khan could make time for Taranath. He had found his guru.

Though having begun to master the Delhi gharana, his discipleship under Shamshuddin led him to another stylistic lineage. Through a history that I honestly do not know well, my guru Taranath, is directly in the discipleship lineage of the fathers of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas.

I studied with Taranath from 1979 or 1980 through 1982. He taught me a tremendous amount about drumming and about the theory of North Indian rhythm. He also taught me about joy, love, and humor.

We used to joke with Taranath because he had difficulty pronouncing the letters W and V in English. He once told us how important rhythm is to Indian music by saying that “Music contains rhythm like the waves are in the ocean.” We kept asking him to repeat the word “waves” as if we did not understand. Finally he said” “WAVES! WAVES!… V-A-V-E-S!” He was just awesome!

Taranath had some physical problems by the time I knew him. That is actually what brought him to the US. He could no longer play 5 or 6 hour-long concerts. He could still, however, perform at a world-class level for our American-style 2 hours shows. Because he did not drive, one of his students would typically pick him up and bring him to school. Of course, that left us open to a variety of alternative plans. One of these was to show up, as a group, to pick him up. This could result in quite a wonderful dining experience when we would, just by the stroke of luck, be invited to dinner.

Once, on his birthday, Taranath received from his students, a 1/2 gallon bottle (I think) of Chevas Regal. This was an extra entertaining evening because we had not only the joy of Tabla lessons and dinner, but also the great Joy of watching Taranath’s wife (who we all called “Mami”) walk around offering up whiskey from that big bottle. What do I remember that made that so entertaining? Well… Guess what LETTER the word “Whisky” starts with? That right! “W“! Mami, like guruji, couldn’t pronounce the letter W! So, she walked around the room offering us “‘Ski?” “‘Ski?”, “‘Ski?”

Those were some fun times. But there is one memory that cemented the memory or Taranath in my mind, for life. Not long before guruji died I was in Los Angeles and went to visit CalArts, where I had studied with Taranath. This was either 1990 or 1991. I was walking the halls, giving my wife a tour, when I met Taranath with one of his newer (younger) students. I had not seen him in something like 7 or 8 years. When he saw me, he got the most priceless smile on his face. He nearly ran up to me and embraced me. He turned to his student and then back to me. With one of the most genuine smiles I have ever seen, the great Pandit Taranath Rao, direct descendant of the the leaders of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas, looked at me and said “Look at you!” and turned to his student and said of me “HE was one of MY STUDENTS TOO!!!” Rarely in my life have I been so warmly embraced.

And so… on this 100th birthday of one of my favorite men of CalArts, I think of Taranath Rao with the same warmth and love that he last embraced me, those many years ago.

Jai Guru!

I think it’s a great day in the music world when a recording of Byzantine Chant makes it into the Billboard top-10. So, first I want to congratulate my pals at Cappella Romana for hitting #8 today on the classical chart with their recording “Good Friday in Jerusalem“! Perhaps it’s funny that a Jewish dude is happy about a recording of music for Good Friday. After all, the story from whence it came is not particularly kind to my people. Still, gorgeous music is gorgeous music no matter what tradition spawns it,

Good Friday in Jerusalem” is a magnificent recording. It is acoustically stunning and has a very solid foundation in scholarship. Singing early music is not simply a matter of reproducing pitches. It is very much the product of study and research, at least when done well. This I say because the techniques, intonation, vocal style, and performance practice is variable and subject to much speculation. You can’t just grab a page of neumes and chant away. Eastern Orthodox, more than most early music, takes a lot of research.

I remember being in music history classes in the 70s and the pride i felt in understanding the parts of the early Catholic Mass and the divine offices. But, the fact is, everyone with a degree in music has to study that. We think we know a lot about early Christian music but, guess what? We are not as smart as we may think. Indeed, we do study a lot of church music… WESTERN Church music! But, when I look back at my old music history text books, I see not more than a few pages on the other half of the early Christian world… EASTERN church music.

It is important to remember that, just like we Jews have both a European Ashkenazi Jewish civilization and a different but equally compelling Middle Eastern Sephardi tradition, the history of Christianity includes both Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. They are not the same and the Eastern tradition is not as well-known. But Eastern Orthodox music, with its microtonal tunings, sometimes less consonant interval relationships, foundations in both rhythmic and melodic “modes”. and characteristic drones, or “isons”, is at least as interesting as (arguably more interesting than) its western counterpart.

Cappella Romana’s “Good Friday in Jerusalem” is a superb example of just how lovely this music can be. It was recorded in a Church at Stanford and engineered by some clearly acoustically savvy members of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). It was created, structured, and directed by UBC Musicologist and CR Artistic Director Alexander Lingas, And it was sung by a very talented subset of a very talented and multifaceted vocal ensemble. In short, it is one of the best recordings of Byzantine church music you’ll find.

Definitely worth a listen. Personally, I want to see them get their Grammy! Check it out.

Bill Viola is among the leading video artists in the world. Some would say he is “arguably THE leading” video artist but I simply can’t accept the word “arguably”. When one thinks of video art, perhaps Nam June Paik, or Ed Emshwiller, or Kit Galloway, or Dan Sandin may come to mind. Paik may even be a contender, or even the winner, as best known among them. But to my mind, the work of no one who has ever touched a video camera can compare with the magnitude of the work of Bill Viola. Bill’s work is unique within the discipline of video art. Sometimes the pieces that Bill has created in the last decade or two are referred to as “moving paintings”. To my knowledge, no one creates anything like Bill’s work and no one uses video in a manner so emotive and so painterly. For this reason, I am more than mildly excited that Bill is not only among the 2011 Praemium Imperiale Laureates, but is the Praemium Imperiale Laureate in PAINTING!

Bill Viola’s work has been shown on virtually every continent. He has received awards from  institutions as diverse as art institutes and MIT. But leave it to Japan, where the aesthetics of emotion, subtlety, and sensitivity in art are most respected, to finally recognize the true underpinning of his work – Bill Viola is a PAINTER!

I first met Bill Viola in 1979 or 1980 thanks to the CalArts School of Film and Video and to Mr. “Expanded Cinema” himself, Gene Youngblood. Before any of us had color TVs (okay, a slight exaggeration, but only just) Gene was predicting the future of the moving image and the eventual merging of media technologies. Gene wasn’t always exactly correct, but he certainly was closer than almost anyone else. He predicted that we’d all one day have cable (or satellite) television and that it and computers would one day merge. He really is an amazing man. Besides, how many people do I know who actually knew (well) both Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand! But, I digress. My point is simply that Gene knew, back in the 1970’s, that Bill Viola would lead that pack. That is why Gene would regularly invite Bill to speak in his classes, and to show his work. To this very day, Bill’s video “Hatsu Yume” is my favorite of his earlier pieces; not because it is visually stunning (which it is), or because it is brilliantly communicative (which it is), or because he got to do it on a quite impressive grant from Sony (which he did), but because I remember sitting on the floor in class watching Bill spend inordinate minutes adjusting the television on which we were to watch the tape. Like everything about Bill Viola, it had to be both technically and visually perfect.

I never gave up on following the work of Bill Viola. I saw it in museums and I remember one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen in an LA art museum in the 80’s. I remember the first time I was transfixed by “He Weeps for You” and the first time I sat in “The Room for Saint John of the Cross“. But nothing prepared me for the visual experience that finally turned Bill from my “favorite video artist” to my favorite artist in any medium. That experience came at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles where Bill showed the body of work collectively known as “The Passions“. It was at that show where I learned that video could be so emotional and so passionate that it’s impossible to avoid tears. It was at that show where I saw that video could be quintessentially painterly. And, it was at that show where I experienced my favorite of his pieces, and my favorite work of visual art: the “Five Angels for the Millenium“. In fact, On February 17, 2003, I posted this (which I can’t believe is still there!) to the Getty Center Website: “I was in awe. I’ve seen every piece of Viola’s since the 70’s when he’d come to lecture at Gene Youngblood’s video art classes. When I saw The Greeting I thought that Viola had reached the zenith of his career. But I was wrong. Silent Mountain still resonates in me many days after seeing it. And if Silent Mountain resonates, then I don’t even know what to call the feeling that Five Angels for the Millennium left me with! Transcendence maybe. The joy of knowing that man can be uplifted. Needless to say, I love this show.” To this day, I stand by that reaction.

So I have to share just one more non sequitur. I had very little time to see the Getty show in 2003. I got to the center at exactly the time that the show was to open,  on the first day of the show. The bad news is that they were opening the show 2 hours late because the first 2 hours were devoted to a press tour. The good news, and amazing blessing, is that when I told someone in the gift shop that I’d studied with Bill, she took me up to the gallery and let me in to the press event.  Yes, I had only 2 hours to see the show. But much of those 2 hours was spent getting a private tour with Bill. So, perhaps those 5 angels like me as much as I liked them!

Now, all of these stories bring me back to my original motivation for writing this post. The work of Bill Viola has been a part of my personal aesthetic for most of my adult life. I’m sure that he has no idea who I am. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the pride I take in recognizing his genius over 30 years ago; the joy I take in watching the body of work that I respected back then grow into one of the most visually amazing bodies of work in western art culture; and the growth that I, myself, have received from studying with Bill, following his work, and making the moving image and Bill’s “moving Paintings” a part of my own process of self-examination and my understanding of aesthetics, emotion, and the world.

Congratulations Bill!

I have no shortage of philosophy, economics, and political science books sitting here in my home office. If you know me, even casually, then it won’t surprise you to know that most of them are about rationalism, personal responsibility, individualism, and free market economic systems. You know: A shelf on Mises, every book by my guru Robert Nozick, a bunch of Rothbard, some David Kelley – books like that.

Then, of course, there is the other side of the room, which houses the 3 shelves of books on Judaism.  Here is my Stiensaltz Talmud; my book of Hebrew Ethical Wills; a bunch of Buber, Rozenzweig, and Heschel; some siddurs; and most of the other things you’d expect.

Now…. the Jewish books and the other books I mentioned are indeed, on opposite ends of the room. This is because (even though the whole foundation of the Classical Reform movement in Judaism proposes to be rooted on integrating Judaism and enlightenment rationalism), I just don’t think that rationalism and religion mix. Stephen Jay Gould tried to let that be okay by simply calling them “non-overlapping magisteria”, but I don’t buy it. Never the less, I keep them apart.

Then, though, there is this funny little bookshelf that, but for a couple books by Umberto Eco and another book on semiotics, is devoted entirely to……………….. Roland Barthes.

Now… I’m not supposed to like Barthes. He’s not Jewish and he is about as Socialist as those post-enlightenment French philosophers come. You’d think that a guy who likes Barthes would have some books by Rousseau, and Kant, and Marx, and Lyotard, and Derrida, and Foucault. But, I don’t.  So, as a good self-conscious examiner of life, I have to ask myself : “why Barthes”?

I was introduced to Barthes in College (no shit). I had a linguistics professor who used “Mythologies” as the primary text for a course. Thinking I was supposed to be studying linguistics, I didn’t get “Mythologies” at all. Then I remembered I was in an art school, taking a class from someone who’s primary interest was in 20Th Century writing. That explained it all! This wasn’t going to be about phonemes, it was going to be about philosophies of LANGUAGE.

There is a whole group of thinkers out there who I don’t really respect because I can’t understand what the hell they are talking about. This obviously included Derrida and Foucault. Admittedly, this lack of comprehension may be my own fault – after all I’m not a philosopher. But, I need to give myself a little more credit than that. After all, I understand Nozick, and Popper, and even Habermas, just fine. So, it’s not that I’m too stupid to understand Foucault. It’s that I can’t bring my mind to believe that reality changes depending on the language with which you express it. I don’t get it and I basically don’t feel like trying. Once Nozick wrote “Invariances” I did not need to figure anthing else out. I had my philosophy.

But Barthes? Barthes??? Barthes is all about language.Why don’t I hate him? Why do I love his writing? The answer comes down to this:

“That is why childhood is the royal road by which we know a country best. Ultimately, there is no Country but childhood’s.” L’humanite 1977

“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas I do”. “The Pleasure of the Text 1975

“… language is a kind of natural ambiance wholly pervading the writer’s expression, yet without endowing it with form or content: it is, as it were, an abstract circle of truths, outside of which alone the solid residue of an individual ‘logos’ begins to settle.” Writing Degree Zero” 1953

“These same photographs, which phenomenology would call “ordinary” objects, were merely analogical, provoking only her identity, not her truth, but the Winter Garden Photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.” Camera Lucida 1981

You can barely even pick up a book by Barthes, open it to a random page, and find something other than an amazingly beautiful use of the language he so loves. Admittedly, the English translations are something less than their French original sources. After all you simply have no English word that means what the French word ” jouissance” means. We English speakers are just not cool enough to come up with a single word, usable in polite company, that means “I get so much pleasure out of this that I think I’m having an orgasm”> Only French can give us that!!! None the less, even translated, I can’t read Barthes (even when I disagree with him or can’t quite figure out what he’s saying) without smiling. Smiling; because Barthes so loves language that he makes everything he says into a perfect art object.

I think of Barthes writing like I think of Antonioni’s film making. You may get bored watching L’Avventura; you may think it’s plot is slow; but you can’t argue with the amazing fact that every single frame in the entire film is a perfectly composed photograph. I watch that film, time and again, for it’s visual jouissance 🙂 It’s just perfect in its beauty.  To me, that is exatly the same with Barthes writing. Every word = perfection.

Sometimes I read Barthes and I get so much pleasure out of it that I think I’m having…………………