Category Archives: Art

Arse Longa, Tvita Brevis

Last week I was directed to this wonderful page in the scholarly demesnes of the Interwebs: a collection of graffiti from the walls of Pompei, preserved along with everything else at the time of its cataclysm. The sentiments expressed range from the banal (“Romula hung out here with Staphylus”; “Marcus loves Spendusa”) to the confrontational (“Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!”) to the aphoristic (“Once you are dead, you are nothing”) to the obscene (“On June 15th, Hermeros screwed here with Phileterus and Caphisus”), along with combinations of several of the above (“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog”) – in other words, almost exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see scrawled in Sharpie on the walls of your local underfunded public restroom or city park. There’s perhaps more emphasis than in modern times about who was taking a dump where (“Anyone who wants to defecate in this place is advised to move along.  If you act contrary to this warning, you will have to pay a penalty”) but, on the whole, it’s an almost comfortably recognizable litany: expressions of love, boasts about getting laid, grousing about the bad service, dirty gossip, and, of course, complaints about all the graffiti.

We would find the people of the ancient world to be alien and incomprehensible in many ways, and startlingly familiar in others, and which cultural mores fall into which category isn’t always what we might assume. But what strikes me (as was noted in the comment thread where this link came up) is how much this reads to modern eyes like a sort of classical Twitter, or Texts from Last Night – brief, on-the-spot records of lives in progress, little triumphs and humiliations and quarrels and public notices. The next time you hear some blowhard talking about how our culture is going to hell in a handbasket because of texting or tweeting, think of the Pompeians, who would surely have taken to smartphones with the same enthusiasm they seem to have had for wine, buggery, and crapping in public.

It’s hard to say what we can point to as universal human qualities, but I think, now that we have the miracle of literacy, we’re likely to want to use that incredible tool from time to time to record and share quotidian things, and to pass notes to each other about socializing and carousing and screwing and poop. And well we should; there’s room in the world for all of it, “high” and “low” sentiments and everything in between. Anyone who tries to tell you different is being an insufferable snob. (I suggest outing them as such on the wall of the bathhouse.)

Fame Fame Fatal Fame

So my fellow blogger Elly Zupko made a post recently that put forth some impassioned-but-not-unreasonable arguments that the policy of many book review blogs to refuse consideration of self-published works might just possibly be worth a second thought. Elly is herself an independently-published author, whose first novel The War Master’s Daughter was recently brought forth into the world and is seeking its intended audience; she will be the first to admit that this was a plea out of self-interest at least as much as anything else. As occasionally happens amid the chaotic tides of the Web, the post picked up some unexpected momentum, and it turns out that some of the folks in the book-reviewing regions of Outer Blogistan were less than pleased to find an upstart asking, with insufficient demureness, for a seat at the table. So it came to pass that Elly awoke one day last week to find that a small but nontrivial portion of the Internet had been dropped on her head.

Now, Elly is a friend and a sometime colleague, which is why she gets the relaxed-and-groovy first-name treatment here; but, full disclosure aside, I find myself more inclined than not to be sympathetic to her cause here. While a few words in her post may have been impolitic – a point she concedes with no small grace in her followup – even this might be understandable given the frustration self-published authors can face in being taken seriously. While it’s true that writers who self-publish have too often been the exemplars of neither art nor decorum, anyone who finds themselves judged out of hand, over and over, by the worst examples of the group they represent has some leeway, I think, to be intemperate once in a while about it.

(Beyond the cut: Legitimacy, opportunity, gatekeeping, and the dilemma of the inner six-year-old)

Column of the Infinite

I was musing the other day about how “Eli, the Barrow Boy” is possibly the definitive Decemberists song because it has star-crossed lovers and death by drowning and Victoriana and a Doleful Ghost, which reminded me of one of the things I often come round to thinking about as both a consumer and creator of Art. It’s one of those “there are two kinds of people” constructions that’s nonsense as soon as you give it any real scrutiny, but as wrong-but-useful models go, it’s at least an interesting place to start meditating.

So, broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach creating and building a body of work. The one most people tend to admire more, at least at a glance, is the one typified by David Bowie and Neil Gaiman and the late John M. Ford, where the creator reinvents their work (and, perhaps, self) with each new project, rarely or never covering the same territory twice. This is very ambitious, and impressive, and unquestionably challenging; and the three examples there are certainly among my heroes and inspirations. My hat’s absolutely off to folks who can manage this protean, dynamic, ever-progressing approach.

But there’s also what I’ve come to think of as the Brancusi school, where an artist returns again and again to a handful of subjects to ring changes on them and explore new permutations on old themes. And I’ve come to realize that I have just as much admiration for creators who follow this path, the ones who wear their obsessions on their sleeves. My grandfather was certainly one of these – quite possibly a Brancusi follower in a literal sense.1 Lots of people on my bookshelves are as well: Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Patricia McKillip.2 And some of the music I most adore was created for projects centered around a single artist’s obsessive vision, like Current 93’s David Tibet or the Bevis Frond’s Nick Saloman.3

I take some comfort in this because I know in my own work (and work-in-progress) that I’m a Brancusi. I really can’t help myself, even as I’m aware I’m doing it; I look at my notes for future projects and I can see the patterns starting to form there, little singularities whose event horizons I’ll be unable to pull away from. I expect this will also be somewhat true of what I write here. (Hey, there’s a reason I chose the name I did for this blog.) So it’s probably good for me to take stock from time to time how many of the artists who inspire me have similar threads that run through so much of what they create. If nothing else, it gives me permission, in case I need it, to quit worrying so much and just embrace it.


1 The Ray Gallucci ouvre is woefully underrepresented online, but his work is full of riffs on the same organic and quasi-organic shapes: circles and globes, spines and branches, layered strata, extended tubes.

2 Barker’s repeating themes, of course, are transformation, the intersection of beauty and monstrousness, the parade of the strange, and the secret otherworld. Barron has been noted for his exploration of the devouring cosmos, the hidden invading swarm, and the loss of self that happens when humanity comes face-to-face with the outer darkness. And McKillip has come back to the idea of the shapechanger so many times that her work is practically modern fantasy’s Metamorphoses.

I was going to put Grant Morrison on that list, and I think he very much belongs among the Brancusians; but damned if I can sum up the thread in his metatextual batshit mysticism enough to say why.

3 I mean to come back to these guys in more depth in future posts, but briefly: Aside from the way he’s made the through-line of his musical career the exploration of his very personal and idiosyncratic spiritual journey, Tibet gets extra credit for actually signposting some of his recurring motifs by making them into mantras that get repeated from one work to another. I’m not entirely clear on what “the inmost light” means when he says it, but I know it’s an awfully important idea to him. Saloman has a long list of interesting fixations, but I especially think there’s a very serious paper waiting to be written about the use of water as both a nurturing and destructive force in his work.