Scat Mask Replica VIII


How much money does the average Fortune 500 Company spend learning the mind of the consumer? How many psychologists, linguists, and marketers do their preferred research firms and marketing agencies consult before starting production on a commercial? Their job is to know what makes us laugh, what makes us cry, and what intrigues us long enough to pitch a product or idea. They also have the unenviable chore of finding a way to keep us from fast forwarding through commercials. The average commercial is thirty seconds long, so advertisers need to pack a lot into a tight space. With all the time, money, and information packed into one thirty-second advertisement, one could say that commercials are better than any other medium at informing us where our culture is. One could even go so far to say that each commercial is a short, detailed report on the culture. If that’s true, all one needs to do is watch commercials to know that the art of persuasion has altered dramatically in our post-literate society.

Booksellers argue that we don’t live in a post-literate society, as their quarterly reports indicate that books are selling better than ever. I don’t question their accounting numbers, but some of the commercials big corporations use to move product are so dumbed down and condescending that I wonder if fewer and fewer people are buying more and more books.

When advertisers make their pitch, they go to great pains, financially and otherwise, to display wonderful messages. They then hire a wonderful actor, or spokesman, to be the face of the company. By doing so, of course, the companies who employ the advertising agencies want the consumer to find their company is just as wonderful. If you’re not a wonderful person, their carefully tailored message suggests you can be if you follow their formula. If I am forced, for whatever reason, to watch a commercial, I find their pitches so condescending that they almost make me angry.

Thirty seconds is not a lot of time when it comes to the art of persuasion, so advertising agencies take shortcuts to appeal to us. These shortcuts often involve quick emotional appeals. The problem with this is that people who watch commercials adopt these shortcuts in casual conversations, and they begin using them in everyday life.

I find the quick, emotional appeals these research and marketing firms dig up so appalling that I avoid commercials as much as possible. I find the opposite so appealing, in comparison, that I probably give attempts at fact-based, critical thinking more credit than they deserve. I walk away thinking, “Hey, that’s a good idea!” whether it’s actually a good idea or not, I appreciate the thought they put into making a rational appeal.

Some quick, emotional appeals add crying to their art of persuasion. “Don’t cry,” I say. “Prove your point.” A picture says a thousand words, right? Wrong. We’ve all come to accept the idea that powerful figures and companies require an array of consultants to help them tailor their message for greater appeal. Yet, if one has facts on their side, they shouldn’t need to cry. They shouldn’t need to hire consultants, they shouldn’t need attractive spokesmen, and the idea that they “seem nice and wonderful” shouldn’t matter either. I know it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but I think the art of persuasion should be devoid of superficial and emotional appeal.

***

Marketing firms and their research arms also spend an inordinate amount of time discussing “the future”. Some ads intone their pitch with foreboding tones, and some discuss it with excitement. Our knowledge of the future depends on our knowledge of the past. As evidence of that, we look to our senior citizens. They don’t pay attention to the present, because they find it mostly redundant. “What are you kids talking about these days?” they ask. We inform them. “That’s the same thing we were talking about 50 years ago.” Impossible, we think, we’re talking about the here and now. They can’t possibly understand the present. They can, because it’s not as different from the past as we want to believe. The one element that remains a constant throughout is human nature.

You’re saying that all the change we’ve been fighting for will amount to nothing? It depends on the nature of your fight. Are you fighting to change human nature? If so, there’s an analogy that suggests, if you’re trying to turn a speedboat, all you have to do is flick a wrist. If you’re trying to change the direction of a battleship, however, you should prepare for an arduous, complicated, and slow turn. My bet is that once we work through the squabbles and internecine battles of the next fifty years, the future will not change as much as these doomsayers want it to, and if it does, it will probably be for the better.       

***

Brian Dettmer

How many people truly want to create works of art? “I would love to write a book,” is something many people say. How many want it so badly that they’re willing to endure the trial and error involved in the process getting to the core of a unique, organic idea? How many of us know firsthand, what a true artist has to go through? If others knew what they have to go through, I think they would say, “Maybe I don’t want it that badly.”

We prefer quick, emotional appeals. How many overnight geniuses are there? How many artists write one book, one album, or paint one painting to mass appeal? How many of them were able to generate long-term appeal? We should not confuse appeal with best seller. The idea of best seller or attaining market appeal is, to some degree, not up to the artist. They might have a hand in the marketing process, but appeal is largely up to the consumer. The only thing an artist can do is create the best product possible in the large and small ways an artist creates. In this vein, creating art involves a process so arduous that most people would intimidate most.

On the flip side, some say that there are artistic, creative types, and there are the others. There’s no doubt that there are varying levels of talent, but I believe that with enough time and effort most people could create something beautiful and individualistic.

Leonardo da Vinci was a talented artist, who painted some of the greatest pieces of art in world history. From what I’ve read about the man, however, he achieved so much in the arts that it began to bore him. After working through his apprenticeship and establishing himself as one of the finest painters of his day, he received numerous commissions for various works of art from the wealthy people and government officials around him. He turned some down, never started others, and failed to complete a whole lot more. One theory I’ve heard on da Vinci is that if he had a starving artist period, he probably created hundreds of thousands of pieces in that period, but that a vast majority of those pieces were lost, destroyed, or are otherwise lost to history. By the time, he achieved a level of stature where those in his day wanted to preserve his work, painting bored him so much that he created comparatively few pieces. Either that, or in the course of his attempts to create that elusive “perfect piece” da Vinci began studying the sciences to give his works greater authenticity. In the course of those studies, he became more interested in the sciences than he was in painting. These are just theories on why we only have seventeen confirmed pieces from Leonardo da Vinci, but they sound firm to me.

***

There is a hemispheric divide between creative types and math and science types. One barometer I’ve found to distinguish the two is the Beatles. So many types love the Beatles that we can tell what type of brain we’re dealing with by asking them what Beatles era they prefer. With the obvious distinctions in style, we can break the Beatles down into two distinct eras, the moptop era includes everything they did before Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the “drug-induced” era that followed. Numbers-oriented people generally love the moptop era more, and the creative, more right brain thinkers tend to prefer Sgt. Peppers and everything that followed. The moptop era fans believe the Beatles were a better band during the moptop era, because “they were more popular before Sgt. Peppers. Back then,” they say, “the Beatles were a phenomenon no one could deny.” Moptop era fans often add that, “the Beatles got a little too weird for my taste in the “drug-induced” albums that followed.” Although there is some argument over which album sold the most, at the time of release, it is generally argued that the latter half of their discography actually sold more than the first half. Numbers-oriented people should recognize that the latter albums were bound to sell more if for no other reason than the moptop Beatles built a fan base who would purchase just about anything they created after the moptop era. Those who lived during the era, however, generally think that the Beatles were less controversial and thus more popular during their moptop era, and if you’ve ever entered into this debate you know it’s pointless to argue otherwise. We creative types would never say that the pre-Sgt. Peppers Beatles didn’t have great singles, and Revolver and Rubber Soul were great albums, and we understand that those who lived during the era have personal romantic attachments to their era of Beatles albums, but we can’t understand how they fail to recognize the transcendental brilliance of the latter albums. We think the brilliance and the creativity they displayed on Sgt. Peppers and everything that followed provided a continental divide no one can dispute.

Further evidence of the popularity of the latter half of the Beatles catalog occurred in 1973. In 1973, the Beatles released two greatest hits compilations simultaneously for fans who weren’t aware of the Beatles during their era. The blue greatest hits album, which covered the 1967-1970, post Sgt. Peppers era has sold 17 million to date, while the red greatest hits 1962-1967, moptop-era album has sold 15 million. As anyone who has entered into this debate knows, however, it’s an unwinnable war.

Anti-Anti-Consumer Art


I may be in the minority, but I prefer the work of angry, bitter artists who are unable or unwilling to adjust to cultural norms. If I deign to offer an artist my bourgeoisie, Skittle-eating, domestic beer-drinking, and modern TVwatching opinion on their artistic creation, and they don’t hit me with a red-faced, spittle-flying, “Your opinions are excrement!” rebuttal, I might begin to question if they have the artistic temperament I require of those who lack any other means of venting their rage on the world than through artistic creation.

If I am to view their art in a serious manner, they had better view me as a symbolic substitute for the America-loving, God-fearing, football fan of a father they had, the man who ruined everything they held dear in their youth. I want them to view me as a symbolic substitute for the art critic who deigned to call their work pedestrian, the fellow artist who told them, “You’ll never make it in the art world,” or the art teacher who advised, “You might want to seriously consider changing your major to economics.”

The path to artistic purity is different for every artist, of course, but for most true artists, the primary motivation is not to create pieces consumers enjoy. For the great majority, the struggle of artistic expression is to locate and expound upon their individualistic interpretation of nouns (people, places, and things). While the idea that others may share a love for their interpretations might be exciting and fulfilling, it is not why they feel the need to express themselves. Outside adulation is of secondary concern to them, but it is also gravy. Some, however, create complicated pieces of literature or other forms of art for the expressed purpose of airing their complications. For these artists, the loathing they harbor for the common man’s opinion is so complete that they’re often looking at something else before we can complete our second sentence. Even authors of bestsellers, writing for the sole purpose of writing a bestseller, will argue until they bleed that their intention was not to create something consumers love. “I just happened to accomplish that,” they might argue, as if popularity was an inadvertent side effect of the quality of their creation. No matter how much we might disagree, we really can’t blame them for if they state that they intended to create a product of mass appeal, few would consider them serious artists.

If a starving artist declares how much they love their fans in their artistic statement and they’re hoping to one day see their art exhibited in a New York City gallery, they may do well to avoid the heartache, and headaches, and just consider another profession. If they have that mindset, it might behoove them to try out for the Atlanta Falcons instead. The chances are probably better that they’ll make that team than any team of artists considered for an exhibit in a New York City art gallery. A true artist can say they value input from those who have experienced their work, but they must word these critiques in such a manner that adamantly avoids any form of fan appreciation.

The best chance an artist has for achieving a spot in a prestigious gallery is to condemn everything purported by the consumer standing before them. Their best bet, in fact, is to find an artistic method of denouncing everything everyone believes in, to generate and work from an anti-consumer theme.

The anti-consumer theme has a timeless quality about it, one that goes to the heart of the artist. Its provocative nature does not yield to pop culture winds. It is anti-pop culture and a hot ticket in any era that appreciates its artists.

Little old ladies, in a blatant attempt to appear young and hip, will walk up to an artist in these galleries and try to find some way to tell the artist they find the most disturbing pieces in their portfolio, “Wonderful”, “Amazing”, and “Wonderful and amazing!”

“You are so not my demographic,” a true artist of an anti-consumer piece of art might say in the wake of such comments coming from a little, old lady. A vehement rejection of this sort could enshrine the artist in the word-of-mouth halls of the art world, and their opportunity for such prestige might increase if they added some sort of exclamation to that rejection, such as a healthy stream of spittle dropped on the little old lady’s shoes.

Receiving a compliment from a little, old lady must put an anti-consumer artist in an awkward place. Most artists feel a reflexive warm glow rising whenever they receive a hard-earned compliment from anyone, but the non-conformist artist knows better than to concede to some display of it. The intention of their creation was to reject everything most consumers hold dear, its purpose was to disturb the little old ladies of the world, and its goal was to shake up her conformist mindset. To hear that such a woman allegedly gets the artist’s attempt to disavow and denounce her generation –the generation that the artist purports screwed us all up with their toys, and wars, and unattainable gender-specific imagery– must be vexing for the artist.

Thus, the best way to handle such a situation might be to spit on her shoes. An enterprising, young, anti-consumer artist might even want to create such a scenario in which such an opportunity will arise. They might want to use a found-footage, shaky cam method of capturing the scene for a publicity junket. The artist who pulls such a situation off might just become the talk of the town if she managed to pull it off.

“Did you hear what happened when some old bag complimented Janice on her anti-fifties piece?” other artists would say to one another. “She spit on her shoes.” If such an incident made it through the artist community grapevine, it could become part of the artist’s folklore.

Criticism from some remnant of the 1950’s would be the next-best reaction for the angst-ridden, bitter, angry, anti-conformist artist. “Good, it was meant to unsettle you,” the artist could say. “Its purpose was to cause you to reexamine all the harm your generation has caused us.”

If the patron is not of the fifties generation and they deign to criticize anti-consumer art, they might want to consider the idea that they might be part of the problem. The artist might instruct them to venture outdoors more often to find out what’s going on in the world, or they may want reexamine the full scope of the artist’s narrative. The sociopolitical theme of anti-consumerism invites and hopes to incite criticism, because it is immune to most criticism by its very nature. If that were true, why wouldn’t a curator want their gallery lined with anti-consumer pieces?

The anti-consumer artist doesn’t have to worry about using current products in their projects either, for an anti-consumer artist can employ whatever consumer-related products are necessary to denounce the ethos of an era. A pro-consumer piece does not have such allowances, for to try to create an artistic expression that professes an enjoyment of Superman cereal, the consumer must have some experience with Superman cereal, in order to relate to the theme. That piece will likely evoke little more than some elements of quaint nostalgia. If the artist is unwilling to include some underlying, angst-ridden subtext regarding all the ways in which eating Superman cereal created unrealistic expectations in the patron’s mind and thus messed up that patron’s childhood the artist can be sure the piece will not fetch the kind of price that a bitter, condemnation of being forced to ingest the cereal (and thus the ideals of Superman as well), will.

Is there a sliding scale on anti-consumerist statements? I’m sure many anti-consumer artists would love to know it. If their piece contains subtle, sophisticated irony in its anti-consumer theme, with an ironic twist, what kind of return can they expect for their time? Are vehement declarations of such themes more profitable? Does the price point increase in conjunction with bullet-point adherence to the sociopolitical, anti-consumer theme?

The amount of anti-consumer art for sale in a gallery can be overwhelming, for this has become the most consumer-related, rebellious, radical theme for starving artists to pursue. In fact, “What are you waiting for?” might be the question that fellow artists and curators have for those who hold out. They might even inform the holdouts that anti-consumer art has become the safest theme to explore for any artist that wants to have their work exhibited.

Curators don’t have to worry about fads or trends in the art world, for the very idea of fads and trends violate the anti-consumer artist’s tenets. All a curator has to do is rotate collections of anti-consumer art year round, and their gallery can exist in the radical, counterculture milieu 365 days a year.

How long have anti-consumer pieces held primo spots in top galleries around the nation? One would think the ubiquity of this anti-consumer theme in art galleries would invite a rebellion that would expose it as the market force it purports to detest. It would take a rebel willing to expose the counterculture in their work, regardless of how it affects their pocketbook, because the current art world would not view their work favorably.

As such, framing the concept of their piece would provide an obstacle for the rebel. The rebel would have to word their artistic statement carefully, for it would be career suicide to have their anti-anti-consumer art confused with pro-consumer art.

Grimace-e1414637657704

“Eat at McDonald’s”

“It says ‘Eat at McDonald’s,’” a curator might say with absolute disgust.

“Right on,” the anti-anti-consumer artist would reply. “It’s my attempt to highlight the stereotypical art of anti-consumerism. My portrayal of the McDonaldland character Grimace is used as a vehicle for the larger idea through which I attempt to explore the tendency our counterculture has to use social media and propaganda to prescribe narrow, contrived definitions of art to individuals and the nation.”

The hip, avant-garde patrons of an art gallery would be prone to view the anti-anti-consumer artist’s piece as a stab at consumerism that contains sophisticated irony. They might consider it quaint, hilarious, and an incredible salvo sent to consumers around the world, the people who really don’t get it.

If this anti-anti-consumer artist was available for a Q&A session, and the artist made the mistake of imploring their artistic friends to accept their anti-anti-consumer theme for what it is, the hip, avant-garde smiles would likely flatten. Some might consider the piece obnoxious, and they might even consider the anti-anti-consumer artist a whore for corporate America.

“I just want to celebrate the history and tradition of the McDonaldland character Grimace,” the anti-anti-consumer artist’s intro would be. “My painting is an effort to explore all the joy and happiness Grimace has brought to so many lives.”

“Is that sophisticated irony?” the patrons would ask.

“No. It’s an anti-anti-consumer theme that I am attempting to explore here.”

“So it’s … a pro-consumer statement?” one of the more obnoxious patrons might say to intrude upon the artist’s pitch.

“Good God, no!” the artist must respond, if they hope to generate the amount of interest that might result in a sale.

If the anti-anti-consumer artist has the artistic temperament of one who doesn’t care about the sale, however, and they’re able to maintain focus on the artistic theme, they might have to engage in a substantial back-and-forth with the patrons of their piece before they conclude that the artist isn’t putting them on or being obnoxious.

As stated earlier, being obnoxious in an anti-consumer theme is not just acceptable it’s expected. Stubbornly pursuing an anti-anti-consumer stance, however, will cause others to deem the artist obnoxious and pro-consumer.

Thus, attracting patrons to the anti-anti-consumer exhibit would not even represent the beginning of the artist’s problems, as no self-respecting curator would deign to display their work. I’m guessing most curators aren’t bad people, and they might even have some sympathy for this anti-anti-consumer artist’s frustrations. If the curator’s knowledge of the industry was such that they knew enough about it to be objective, they would probably sit the artist down to inform them of the inner workings of the industry.

“I know you are a passionate artist,” the curator might say, “but you really should reconsider this whole anti-anti-consumer theme. I know you built it to counter the counter, but you should know that this will not play well over the long haul. If you want serious cachet in the art world, there are two genres to consider. These genres include art built on an anti-consumerism theme and the anti-consumer works that are vehement in their theme. I suggest you drop this whole anti-anti-consumer artistic statement and make it known that your work contains a subtle, sophisticated irony with an anti-consumer twist, if you ever hope to sell anything.”

If the anti-anti-consumer artist somehow managed to achieve some degree of success with their theme, they would likely become the scourge of the art world. At some point, fellow artists would also approach the artist, as a coalition of condemnation for the audacity of the anti-anti-consumer theme. “You’re ruining this for all of us. Why would you do this to us? What do you think you’re doing?”

The anti-anti-consumer artist should look them in the eye and ask, “Is that subtle, sophisticated irony?”

Artistic Images vs. Artistic Creations


Imagine that someone tells you that an artist’s self-portrait is now on sale.  “Who is it?” would probably be the first question you ask, and if it turns out to be the work of a relative unknown, “What’s his story?” would probably be your next.  If the answers to these questions aren’t very satisfying, all of your follow up questions would probably involve the story behind the particular self-portrait painting in question.  If these questions yield no satisfactory answers, your final question might be, “Why should I be interested in this piece?”  The quality of any artistic piece is subjective, but most art enthusiasts generate enthusiasm based on a number of factors, most of which have little to do with the actual quality of the piece.

It may be a little unfair to criticize the desire some art enthusiasts have for “a story”, or more information, of a self-portrait of a relatively unknown author before vesting any interest in a piece, but in the case of artist Bryan Lewis Saunders such interest has been generated.  This event leads to the question, how does a relatively unknown artist generate interest in his work?

That’s easy: paint a masterpiece.  Most works of art are not masterpieces, however, and they fall into the subjective, relative arena of appealing to the patron on some level.  Very few pieces of literature, musical productions, or sculptures are so great that they can attract an audience without a great accompanying story.  Most art falls into the middle ground of subjectivity, and it’s that subjectivity that requires a great story we can identify with, or that which tantalizes us in some fashion.

Computer Duster (2 squirts)

Computer Duster (2 squirts)

The self-portraits of Bryan Lewis Saunders appear to be –to the non-enthusiast crowd– marginal works of art at the very least.  For those that are interested in making their own determinations on his art, these works can be viewed here and here.  In the second link, and in Jon Ronson’s piece on Mr. Saunders for the Guardian, you can learn of the story behind these self-portraits, and how they involve Mr. Saunders doing roughly fifty different self-portraits on fifty different drugs, be they of the prescription or controlled substance variety.  This story has generated a tremendous amount of interest in Mr. Saunders, and his work, and it appears to have added tremendous value to his pieces among the chichi crowd that wants to have his story hanging on their wall.

Let’s say, for a moment, that I’m right about the artistic merit of Mr. Saunders’ work, and the greater value exists in the narrative.  Are you one that would love to give that narrative to visitors of your home?  Are you one that would love to have a Saunders hanging above your shabby chic armoire, so that you could say, “Mr. Saunders did that while wrecked on the prescription drug Klonopin, otherwise known as Clonazepam.  And let me take you down the hall here,” you say with excitement.  “This is Mr. Saunders interpretation of himself after experimenting with butane honey oil, and in our master bedroom is my personal favorite that Mr. Saunders created after taking 250mg of Cephalexin.  He actually mixed some of the cephalexin into the painting with water and a watercolor pencil.  It’s the prized piece of my Saunders collection,” you say with pride.

If your audience isn’t necessarily impressed with the paintings, they would probably find the narratives so exotic, that they probably wouldn’t want to discuss the actual artistic merits of the piece.  They also probably wouldn’t want to enter into a moral discussion of recreational drug use, and how your piece seems to glorify it in some way.  Most people do everything they can to avoid appearing puritanical, and they want others to perceive them as hip and cutting edge.  That having been said, if the pieces are as marginal as I believe them to be, most of your friends will silently wonder if your interest in the narrative may have clouded your judgment.  They would probably not call you out on it, however, with something along the lines of: “So, if it came out that Mr. Saunders was actually completely sober when he did these pieces, would you feel like you were robbed?”

What if you spoke to the author of the painting, at a gallery that presented his work, and you found out that he was actually a loving father of four that had a full time job as a UPS truck driver, and he did the particular piece you love on a caffeine buzz, as a result of putting down an extra cup of Folger’s, and the only reason he came up with the whole “drug thing” was to build some sort of mythology that his artistic career lacked.  Would you give that narrative to prospective admirers?  What if it turned out that this author had a sensible haircut, wore Levi’s jeans, and spoke in a manner that never wavered from the Queen’s English?  How would you enhance your admirer’s enjoyment?  What if your friend didn’t enjoy the piece you purchased, what kind of defense would you have?  What would it say about you that you even purchased such a piece?

Too often, the definition of art is conflated the image of art, and we like those images to be festooned with notions of troubled, reclusive individuals that suck in a potent drug at high volume; and we prefer them unhappy, inconsistent, singularly focused, and driven by the vagaries of the heart as opposed to a concrete, rational mind.  We want to hear that our artists are so singularly focused that don’t understand how toasters work; that they didn’t know how to tie a tie, until they were forty; and they don’t understand the intangible merits of kissing.  The only images we want in artistic profiles are those of quirky individuals that never learned how to fit in with society properly.  The normal person that happens to have a creative flair about them are just not very interesting, so we choose to believe that all artists, true artists, fit an image we’ve constructed in our head.

If you’ve ever watched a docu-drama about an artist, you know these images well.  By the time these movies are over, you’re left with the impression that it’s far more virtuous to be labeled a creative genius than it is to create art.  The constraints of these entertainment vehicles being what they are, the director cannot have a 90-minute movie about a guy painting.  That wouldn’t be very entertaining.  It might also be just as boring to have the characters sitting around discussing interpretations of the pieces, but when the directors of these movies portray the polar opposite, and focus on nothing but the narrative behind the artist, and the subsequent image of the artist, the notion of the narrative of art being more important than art is fostered, until it’s possible that some truly brilliant, yet unnaturally normal artists could remain obscure.

Those of us that have heard about the near divine inspiration that informed the masterpieces we all know, occurred within an elegant hotel room that overlooks the streets of Pamplona, Spain –where the running of the bulls occurs– begin to question these narratives after hearing them for the thousandth time.  Is it a marketing campaign that they use to influence the perception of the final product, or do some people really go to “different places” and receive a degree of insight into the human condition that overwhelms them to such a degree that a seemingly inhuman masterpiece is born?  It’s possible, and it’s likely that it has occurred on occasion, but for the most part, most art is created in boring places, on the backside of all of the mundane routines, and the dogged determination that has persevered through all of the trials and errors that eventually led to a product that an enthusiasts might find so pleasing that they litter their walls and book shelves with them.

Artistic brilliance can be defined as an individual perspective of the world, and the presentation of said material.  It can come from the most unusual places, but it can also come from such usual places that it doesn’t fit the mold of artistic brilliance.  Does this presentation of material require a narrative, does a well-crafted, somewhat spruced up narrative make a final product more beautiful or more interesting?   Maybe, maybe not, but I’m sure that every mid-level artist that has made their way into the chichi art world would tell you, it doesn’t hurt.

Mr. Saunders work can be used as the idyllic form of the mold, but it shouldn’t suggest that there is any less merit to the artistic creations Mr. Saunders decided to produce.  That’s his art, his niche, and it’s what he does, and how he perceives the world through a purposely unfocused lens.  What should bother anyone attempting to create art is the manner in which the world views the artistic world.  If you create an excellent piece of do you have to indulge in mind-altering substances to tantalize the imagination of the chichi contingent, or should you just lie and tell them that’s what you’re doing?  My advice would be to do the latter, and simply give them a narrative to sell to their friends.  Your art may be better received for it, and you may be invited to live the artistic life, for the chichi crowd is vehemently against drug-testing, even if it means that they’re being duped into believing in it.

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?


Those of us who are always on the lookout for edgy, racy content have heard the term “Joycean” thrown about with little discretion over the years. Critics appear to be enjoy using the term than they are in properly applying it to the product they are reviewing. The question that those of us driven to the source would have for Joyce, if he were still alive, is: Were your final two works the most erudite, most complicated pieces of fiction ever written, or were they a great practical joke played on the literature community to expose these reference makers and your elitist, scholars for who they are?

James Joyce

James Joyce

Readers who seek to up their erudite status by reading difficult books, have all heard of Joyce’s final two works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Some literary scholars list the books as some of the most difficult, most complicated works of fiction ever created. Some of us have attempted to tackle them as the challenge that they are, others have attempted to read them for entrance into their subjective definition of elite status. Most are confused and disoriented by the books, but some have the patience, the wherewithal, and the understanding of all of the references made, and languages used, in these books necessary for total comprehension. Those readers either deserve a hearty salute, or the scorn and laughter that Joyce provided, as a gift to the havenots, who openly admit that they don’t understand these books.

I don’t understand either of these books, and I have gone back numerous times to try to further my understanding. Some have said that Ulysses is the more palatable of the two, but I have found it to be too elliptical, too erratic, and too detail-oriented to maintain focus, and I have purchased three different aides to guide me through it. Some of those same readers readily admit that Finnegans Wake is ridiculously incomprehensible.

Most people enjoyed Dennis Miller’s tenure as an announcer on Monday Night Football, but most of those same people complained that they didn’t understand two-thirds of the man’s references. I didn’t keep a journal on his references, but I’m willing to bet that at least a third of them were Joycean in nature. Miller stated that his goal, in using such obscure references, was to make fellow announcer Al Michaels laugh, but any fan who has followed Miller’s career knows that he enjoys the motif he gains by using complicated and obscure references to make himself sound erudite. There are, today, very few references more obscure than those who recall the work of James Joyce, a man who described his last book, Finnegans Wake, as “A book obscure enough to keep professors busy for 300 years.”

Andy Kaufman referenced James Joyce when trying to describe his method of operation. The import of the reference was that Kaufman wanted to be a comedian’s comedian, in the manner that Joyce was a writer’s writer. He wanted to perform difficult and complicated acts that the average consumer did not understand, and the very fact that they didn’t “get it” was what invigorated him. He wanted that insider status that an artist uses to gain entrée to the “in the know” groups. After achieving some fame, audiences began laughing with Kaufman in a manner that appears to have only bored him, and he spent the rest of his career trying to up that ante. By doing the latter, we can guess that there was something genuine about Kaufman’s path in that he was only trying to entertain himself, and his friends, and if anyone else wanted on board that was up to them. Perhaps, Joyce and Kaufman shared this same impulse.

Anytime an artist creates a difficult piece of work, there is going to be a divide between the haves (those who get it) and the havenots. When Mike Patton formed the band Fantomas, he never did so with the illusion that he was going to unseat the Eagles Greatest Hits, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, atop the list of greatest selling albums of all time. He knew, or should’ve known, that he was playing to a very select audience.

What is the audience for such difficult subject matter? Most people seek music, as either background noise, something to dance to, or something to tap their finger to. Most people read a book to gain a little more characterization and complication than a movie can provide, but they don’t want too much characterization, or too much complication. Most people only buy art to feng shui their homes. Most people don’t seek excessively difficult art, and those who do are usually seeking something more, something more engaging, and something more provocative that can only be defined by the individual. The audience for the difficult generally have such a strong foundation in the arts that they reach a point where their artistic desires can only satiated by something different.

Yet, different can mean different things at different times to different people. Different can be complicated, and discordant, but it can also be limited to style. At this point in history, it’s difficult to be different, in a manner that cannot be called derivative of someone or something, so most people seek whatever separations they can find. When the latest starlet of the moment twerks in a provocative manner, has a construction worker find her pornographic video, or accidentally has her reproductive organ photographed, we know that these are incidents created by the starlet, and her people, to get noticed after they have exhausted all other attempts to be perceived as artistically brilliant and different.

There are also some other artists who are different for the sole sake of being different. This is often less than organic, and it often disinterests those of us seeking a true separation from the norm, because we feel that this has been thoroughly explored to the point of exhaustion. Andy Kaufman created something organically different that can never be completely replicated, in much the same manner Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Patton, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David did. Can it be said that James Joyce’s final two books were different in an artistically brilliant, and cutting edge manner that all of these artists’ creations were, or were James Joyce’s writings more symbolism over substance? Put another way, was Joyce a substantive artist who’s true messages need to be unearthed through careful examination, or was he simply twerking in a provocative manner with the hope of getting noticed by the elite scholars of his generation after exhausting the limits of his talent in other works?

Judging by his short stories, James Joyce could’ve written some of the best novels in history. Those who say that he already did, would have to admit that his final two works were not overly concerned with story, or plot. Those who defend his final two works would probably say that I am judging Joyce’s final two works by traditional standards, and that they were anything but traditional. They would probably also argue that the final two works sought to shake up the traditional world of literature, and anyone that dared to take up the challenge of reading these works. They would probably say Joyce sought to confound people, more than interest them, and if they did concede to the idea that the final two works were different for the sole sake of being different, they would add that he was one of the first to do so. Those who defend his final two works say that they are not as difficult to read, or as complex, as some would lead you to believe. These people suggest that reading these two works only requires more patience, and examination, than the average works. Anyone who states such a thing is attempting to sound either hyper intelligent, or hyper erudite, for it was Joyce’s expressed purpose to be difficult, complicated, and hyper-erudite.

To understand Ulysses, one needs an annotated guide of 1920-era Dublin, a guide that describes the Irish songs of the day, some limericks, mythology, and a fluent understanding of Homer’s The Odyssey. If the reader doesn’t have a well-versed knowledge of that which occurred nearly one-hundred years prior to today, they may not understand the parodies, or jokes Joyce employs in Ulysses. Yet, it was considered, by the Modern Library, in 1998, to be the greatest work of fiction ever produced.

“Everyone I know owns Ulysses, but no one I know has finished it.”  —Larry King.

To fully understand, and presumably enjoy, Finnegans Wake, the reader needs to have a decent understanding of Latin, German, French, and Hebrew, and a basic understanding of the Norwegian linguistic and cultural elements. The reader will also need to be well-versed in Egypt’s Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, The Bible, and The Qur’an. They also need to understand the English language on an etymological level, for one of Joyce’s goals with Finnegans Wake, was to mess with the conventions of the English language.

Some have opined that one of Joyce’s goals, in Ulysses, was to use every word in the English language, and others have stated that this is a possibility since he used approximately 40,000 unique words throughout the work. If this is true, say others, his goal for Finnegans Wake, was to extend the confusion by incorporating German, French, Latin, Hebrew, and other languages into his text. When he did use English, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce sought to use it in unconventional and etymological ways to describe what he believed to be the language of the night. He stated that Finnegans Wake was “A book of the night” and Ulysses was “A book of the day”.

“In writing of the night, I really could not, I felt, use words in their ordinary connections . . . that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again . . .  I’ll give them back their English language. I’m not destroying it for good.” —James Joyce on his novel Finnegans Wake.

This use of the “language of the night” could lead one to say that Joyce was one of the first deconstructionists, and thus ahead of his time by destroying the meaning of meaning in the immediate sense. Those obsessed with James Joyce could interpret the quote, and the subsequent methodology used in Finnegans Wake, to mean that Joyce had such a profound understanding of linguistics that normal modes of communicating an idea, bored him. He wanted something different. He wanted to explore language, and meaning, in a manner that made his readers question their fundamentals. Readability was not his goal, nor was storytelling, or achieving a best-seller list. He sought to destroy conventions, and common sense, and achieve a higher realm of perfect, in which timeless abstractions cannot be communicated to those who adhere to common sense. This makes for an interesting conversation on high art, and philosophy, but does it lend itself to quality reading?

“What is clear and concise can’t deal with reality,” Joyce is reported to have told friend Arthur Power,  “For to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.”

In the modern age, there is much discussion of the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. That particular discussion revolves around economic distinctions, as it has for time immemorial, but in the Joycean world, the gap involves those who “get” his works, and those who do not. Those who get it usually prefer to have deeper meanings shrouded in clever wordplay. They usually prefer symbolism over substance; writing over storytelling; and interpretation over consistent and concretized thoughts.

The two schools of thought between the haves and the havenots can probably best be explained by breaking them down to the Hemingway manner of writing and that of Joyce. Hemingway wrote clear and concise sentences. Hemingway stated that his methodology was to write something that was true:

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”—Ernest Hemingway.

Putting Joyce’s final two works through the Hemingway school of thought, one could say that Joyce’s methodology was: Some of the times, it’s more interesting to make it false and let others define it as true. 

“Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating? … Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk.” —James Joyce

Those of us who have had a deep discussion, on a deep, multifaceted topic, with a deep thinker know that sooner or later a declarative distinction will be made if we stubbornly insist that we are not wrong. “You don’t get it, and you probably never will,” is something they will say in a variety of ways. We all know what it feels like to be summarily dismissed as an anti-intellectual by a deep thinker? Those who aren’t snobbish in an anti-social manner, often avoid openly dismissing us, but even the polite snobs give us a vibe, a look, or a chuff that is intended to let us know our place.

“Well, what do you think of it then?” is the response some of us have given, after being backed into an anti-intellectual corner by deep thinkers.

If they are an anti-social, elite intellectual snob, they will say something along the lines of: “I simply choose to think deeper!” It’s a great line, and it purportedly puts us stubborn types in our place, but it’s a self-serving non-answer. Those of us who are more accustomed to interaction with deep thinkers, will then ask them to expound upon their complicated, deep thinking? Pushing deep thinkers deeper will often reveal a lack of substance beneath their piles of style, and the careful observer will find that the results of their deep thinking is no deeper than the deep thinker cap they wear to the pub.

A number of attempts at reading Joyce have led me to believe that he probably didn’t have much substance beneath his piles of style, so he muddied the waters of his message with puns, songs, gibberish, abstractions, foreign languages, and overly complicated complications. He did this, in my opinion, to conceal the fact that when compared to his colleagues, he didn’t have all that much to say. If that’s true, he was definitely artistically accomplished in saying it.

Who can forget the many sayings that Finnegans Wake dropped on our culture, such as the transcendental sound of the thunderclap that announced the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden:

“bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!”

What about the mirthsome giggles we have had in social gatherings with the catchphrase:

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Or the ever present: 

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of sings (please stoop), in this allaphbed!  Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?”

If you just read those sentences three or four times, and you still have no idea what it says, and you just went back to read them again, because you want to be a have that “gets it”, you’re not alone. If these passages were merely anecdotal evidence of the difficulty involved in reading Finnegans Wake, that would be one thing, but these difficulties litter just about every sentence of every paragraph of the book, as evidenced by the exhaustive assistance provided at the site Finwake.com for readers who have no idea what this writer is going on about. 

Finnegans Wake is reported to be in English, but it’s not the standard version of English where words have specific meaning. The “language of the night” was intended for linguists who are tired of reading words that have exact meanings, and it was intended to be playful and mind-altering, and rule breaking. James Joyce made references intended to be obscure even to the reader of his day who may not have Joyce’s wealth of knowledge of history, or the manner in which the meaning of the words in the English language have changed throughout history.

“What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear.” —James Joyce

James Joyce was a stream of consciousness writer who believed that all “mistakes” were intended on some level that superseded awareness. In the 500+ page book, Finnegans Wake, Joyce found 600 errors after publication. He was informed of some, if not all of these errors, and he was reported to have fought his publishers to keep them in. Later editions were written to correct many of these errors, and provide readers “the book in the manner Joyce had intended.” If Joyce didn’t believe in errors, however, how can those who corrected them state that the corrected edition is the definitive edition that “Joyce intended”?

“The man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and portals of discovery.” –James Joyce

Throughout the seventeen years Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, he began to go blind, so he had a friend named, Samuel Beckett, take dictation over the phone to complete the novel. At one point in this dictation setting, someone knocked on Joyce’s door.  Joyce said, “Come in!” to the knocker, and Beckett wrote the words “Come in!” into the narrative of Finnegans Wake. When this error was spotted by Joyce, and the confusion was sorted out, Joyce insisted that Beckett, “Leave it in!” On another occasion, when a printer’s error was pointed out he said, “Leave it. It sounds better that way than the way I wrote it.”

There are three different versions of the text: The first and second are the editions that Joyce submitted for publications with all of the errors intact. The third edition has the errors that the editors located, and the 600 corrections that Joyce spent two years locating, corrected. Some would have you believe that first two editions are the definitive editions, but you have to be a Joyce purist to appreciate them.

Can it be called anything short of egotistical for an author to believe that his subconscious choices and decisions, are somehow divine? If, as Joyce said, and Picasso later repeated in regard to his paintings, mistakes are portals of discovery, then we can say that’s great, and incredibly artistic in the process of creation. To leave it in the finished product, however, and subject your readers to the confusion, just seems narcissistic. “Here’s what I was thinking at the time,” Joyce is basically telling his readers. “I don’t know what it means, but this is a higher plane of thinking than simple conscious thought. Isn’t it magical? Maybe you can make some sense of it. Maybe you can attribute it to your life in some manner.” This method of operation may say something profound about the random nature of the universe, but when we’re reading a novel we don’t necessarily want to know about the randomness of the universe, unless it’s structured in a manner that leads us to your statement. 

Not everyone can write a classic, and some realize this after a number of failed attempts. Once they arrive at this fork in the road, they can either write simple books that provide them and theirs an honest living, or they can grow so frustrated by their inability to write classics that they separate themselves from the pack through obscurity. The advantage of creating such an alleged contrivance is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder can assign their own relative beauty to it. Some would say this is the very definition of art, but others would say even that definition has limits. Some would say that the most obscure painting is art, because they “see it”, where others see only schlock for elitists to crib note to death, until meaning is derived.

James Joyce is considered the exception to this rule, fellow writers have told me, and if you are going to attempt to write an important novel in the 21st Century, you had better be familiar with him. I’ve tried, and I now believe that I’m destined to be a havenot in the Joycean world … even with Ulysses. The question that arises out of these ashes is, am I going a long way to becoming more intelligent by recognizing my limits, or should it be every aspiring intellect’s responsibility to continue to push themselves beyond any self-imposed limits to a point where they can finally achieve a scholarly understanding of difficult material? If this is a conundrum that every person encounters when facing challenges to their intelligence, is Ulysses, or more pointedly Finnegans Wake, the ultimate barometer of intelligence, or is it such an exaggerated extension that it had to have been a practical joke James Joyce played on the elitist literary community to expose them as the in-crowd, elitist snobs that they are when they “get it” just to get it. Do they really “get it”, or are they falling prey to Joyce’s clever ruse to expose them as people that “get” something that was never intended to be “got”?

How to Succeed in Writing VI: Follow guidelines, and let your freak flag fly!


Mike Patton

“There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way!”  My Dad used to say. “And you always choose the wrong way!”  All artists have a natural proclivity to doing things the other way, a different way, and “the wrong way”.  Those who want to write a best-seller, sing a top 40 song, or sell a mainstream painting, study up on the trends of the market, and they have all their formulas for success spelled out for them in the various “self-help” guides that are available in the marketplace.  Artists, true artists, are the freaks, the odd balls, and the weirdoes of our society.

If these artists didn’t have certain predilections in life, they probably would’ve been better athletes in high school, and more popular, and less inclined to eventually have the angst that drove them to do what they would ended up doing.  They probably would’ve made better employees, better spouses, better parents, and better people.  Their people probably would’ve enjoyed their company more if they fell in line with the practiced repetitions that led to better muscle memory in all these avenues of life.  They probably would’ve been happier people and fit into society better, but they chose a different path in life.

Marcel Proust

“Everything great in the world comes from Neurotics.  They alone have founded our religion and composed our masterpieces,” –Marcel Proust.

To say that an artist chooses his path in life is a bit of a misnomer, for most artists fell into expression as a form of therapy.  They’ve usually had an incident, or a series of incidents, that they couldn’t quite get past in the accepted ways, but they made decisions on how to deal with them in their own way.  Most artists didn’t “reach out” for others to help them deal with that which plagued them, or if they did they recognized the fact that most people don’t care about other people’s problems.  Either that, or they didn’t receive any satisfaction from sympathetic responses.  Most artists internalized their pain, until it exploded into some form of expression.

Expression meant free-form expression to them early on.  It meant being outrageous, and offensive, and playing the game by their own rules.  If they had good mentors though, they learned that much of this resulted in sloppy and undisciplined work.  The whole reason they entered this field of expression was to expunge the toxins they had coursing through their veins, but their mentors told them there were rules and guidelines to doing this properly.  Most artists angrily accepted that fact.  They believed that artists should think outside the box, but they learned that true artists would eventually have to know what was in the box is if they ever hoped to violate it properly.

A friend of mine is not artistic, but he reads a lot of novels, and he knows their rules.  He also gets bogged down in details.  He circles offensive material, and he suggests that I delete, or edit, those portions.  He doesn’t know art in this sense, and he doesn’t care.  He knows the rules of society, and how those rules were applied by Hemingway and Faulkner, and he knows I’m offensive.  This friend wouldn’t be able to write one word of fiction.  He could get so boxed in by the rules that every word would be written, edited, and then deleted.  He would write a novel that would be as entertaining as an instructional manual for a park bench, or the proper use of fly paper.  He would’ve made a better editor, if he came to that crossroad.

The differences between an individual who knows the rules, but doesn’t know how to apply them in an artistic manner, are the differences between an artistic writer and an editor.  Take a look at some of the names of the people who have written the articles on developing the perfect character, or the most dynamic conflict.  You’ve probably never heard of them, for they know as little about writing an artistic novel as you do.  Some people are excellent editors and teachers, but they know little to nothing about being an artist.  The opposite is usually true of artists, and this is why freelance editors are making such a great living in the age of the rule breaking, freelance eBook writer.  It is also why the advice of most artists, such as myself, is to just do it.  Don’t talk about writing, don’t hold yourself up as a writer when you don’t write, and don’t complain about the arduous process involved.  Just do it!  Doing it, will help you figure out why you can do it or not.  The other important note on this topic is that those who teach can’t teach you how to write your novel.  They can give you general guidelines that you’ll need to know, but they can’t teach you the art of writing, and the art of letting your freak flag fly, in the vein that you’ll  learn by just doing it.  I’m not saying that their advice is without merit, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the detail.