Saturday, November 17, 2018

Don't be an Intellectual Snob: Artistic Lineages, 80s Fashion Magazines, Information Entropy

I'm taken with Austin Kleon's idea of tracing our influences and the people who influenced them as a way of deepening, I think, our understanding of our own artistic impulses. I encourage people, even those who don't think of themselves as creators, to explore what it is that moves you.

Not feeling too well in the latter part of the week (it take about two weeks of non-stop activity and socializing for me to me remember why I've sworn off such things), I decided to start tracing my creative ancestry in order to keep myself in the game. What I have so far is woefully incomplete, but I'm pleased to see it still reflects my eclectic tastes. And while Google has done much to ruin the internet, there is something kind of neat about being able to see the influences of Tolstoy on a pre-delivered page.

Words, of course, are my thing, but it would be a sorry world if we all stayed in our lane (that applies to people in general as much as artists). I get a thrill from finding musical artists to fall in love with, and while I'm much more discriminating about the visual art I enjoy (I think I'm not unique in that; most of us have a "tighter" band of what we consider attractive visually than in the other arts), when I find a piece that speaks to me, I could stare at it for hours. So it's worth coming up with a list of composers and painters and tracing their pedigree.

The artist that first came to mind was Marc Chagall. For me, his art is perfect: whimsical, magical, visual fairy tales, and like the best of all fairy tales, profound in both its simplicity and surrealism (see Thought below). I remember the feeling I first had when I saw his art, as if the world was opening up to me beyond the clean, perfectly geometric lines I'd been told I needed to live in. This, of course, prompted me to place the memory in a specific time (aren't we all such linear creatures?), and where I saw him for the first time.

Antonio rocchi su dis. di marc chagall, le coq bleu, 1958-59
Le Coq Bleu, Marc Chagall

The answer was that the first time I saw his work was when I was twelve in 1985, shortly after his death, and the place I saw him was in Harper's Bazaar (and I'm pretty sure it was the May issue). Could it have been Vogue? Maybe, but it was one of the two, and I remember staring at those pages, completely entranced. It was definitely in a Harper's Bazaar that year that I read about the passing of Tennessee Williams, and with such lyrical quotes that I decided I had to read him, and soon.

As I thought about this, I remembered that this was just the first contribution, and I use that word without irony, that I got from the glossies. Trust me, I learned more about makeup application than was useful, but I also learned about literature and art; that's got to be part of the reason that I was enthusiastic about reading and watching things my classmates turned their noses up at, including Oscar Wilde. (That was definitely a Vogue contribution; the editors there were constantly mimicking his arch affect.) Just as importantly, I learned a lot about personal finance from Glamour, whether it was getting a binding estimate on moving cost's, or the merits of using the stock market index to find the best place to apply for a job (FYI, it worked). Finally, let's give it up to American Elle, who in its first year included a profile of Mies van der Rohe, making him sound like kind of curmudgeonly badass. Less is more, suckers.

Is saying I read the articles in women's fashion magazines the equivalent of saying you read the articles in Playboy? Probably. Is someone going to remark that I'm making women's magazines sound like the picture book equivalent of what one might get in a more "serious" magazine? Almost definitely--smart people can be pretty snotty.

A quote:
I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good.
--Mies van der Rohe

A thought:
He remembered taking a class in information theory as a third-year student in college. The professor had put up two pictures: One was the famous Song Dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, full of fine, rich details; the other was a photograph of the sky on a sunny day, the deep blue expanse broken only by a wisp of cloud that one couldn't even be sure was there. The professor asked the class which picture contained more information. The answer was that the photograph's information content--its entropy--exceeded the painting's by one or two orders of magnitude.
--The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu