Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Divided Self

[Francis Bacon, by Lucian Freud]

I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.

--Ovid, The Metamorphosis (qtd. Jonathan Haidt)

About two months ago, my girlfriend and I broke up and I picked up smoking after five years.

I must have forgotten how long life actually is. Because I believed I would never pick up another cigarette again. During my five year stint of no drugs, no alcohol, and no cigarettes, I also practiced meditation daily and didn't eat meat. And I exercised six days a week.

There was a beautiful discipline to my life. My body was trim, my mind was clear, my goals were within reach.

I look back at the era of my rigid self-control and wonder. I wonder if I was happier living in a healthy body. I wonder if I truly appreciated my health.

I remember the lifestyle demanded an inordinate amount of work and conscious effort to maintain. But there was also an energy that helped me along, a natural stimulant my body must have been producing to keep me so focused.

And now?

Now I'm chain-smoking, staying up late, and eating poorly. I'm also less concerned about having the occasional drink or the occasional joint. What happened? Where did I stumble and fall?

It seems I covered the territory of the sober, the nicotine-free, and salubrious, and now I'm flirting with the other side. Maybe life is better--or easier--caffeine-addled, ignorant, and undisciplined.

Things must have not been so wonderful before; otherwise I never would have forsaken my wholesome lifestyle. There must have been some boredom or irritation with that life to dissuade me . . .

In my current wasteland of petty vices, I find no shortage of problems. But that also seems to be the advantage. My physical concerns take up so much of my attention that I have little time to ruminate on emotional setbacks.

This question of the divided self has been revolving in my mind. Only because the division is so painfully obvious when you want to quit smoking.

Last night, I laid in bed, after having my last cigarette of the day.

"That's it. You're done. You-are-done. No more smoking!"

And it made perfect sense at the time because my lungs practically felt like I was experiencing the onset of some mild form of emphysema; short, shallow breaths, the body convulses with cold-like symptoms.

I got out of bed and put the Nicorette gum I'd bought two weeks ago on the dresser drawer. This pantomime of quitting, these small, ineffectual acts--I'm familiar with. I've thrown away a dozen ashtrays and several full packs of cigarettes before pathetically searching the garbage to recover them.

Morning came, and of course I remembered last night's ordeal, wanting desperately to quit. The gravitas! The suffering! I recalled it but I walked past it as one walks past a store window on their way to work.

How could it be happening again? I'm lighting a cigarette, I'm inhaling, I'm even enjoying the damn thing in a sick sort of way.

But my mind--changed. It must have. It changed over night. Because in the morning, I didn't feel the same emotion, the same devotion to quitting, the same visceral disgust.

Instead, in that languid mood of not caring, I drifted to the garage, the place where I go every morning to smoke a cigarette.

It makes me curious that we have these unconscious desires which are essentially controlling us. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt compares the self to a rider on the back of an elephant. He writes:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

But the power to change your life is real.
I know it's real because I've changed my life before. I used to be a drug addict.

But life is long and nothing stays forever. We may think we will never waver, that we will stay married until death, that we'll never go back to smoking or overeating or compulsive shopping.

But we do. To waver is only human. And these decisions to quit, to change, to reform, to improve, I want to embrace them--and more than that--I want to seriously carry them out and change my life.

But it is perhaps wiser to have the knowledge that someday, no matter what changes I do happen to make, I'll have to start at the beginning again.

My Response to a Reader's Comments (about this essay)


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Magic and the Subconscious in Michael Cheval's Art

[Comparative Analogy II by Michael Cheval]

One of the pleasures of writing art reviews is that the writer gets to enter the world of the artist’s creations. Obligingly, the reader follows as the writer gently leads her into another dimension, another continent of possibility. Perhaps no other living artist deserves a guide, a shaman, for his works than the Russian master, Michael Cheval.

I am no shaman; but I will lead.

I set out to write illustration art reviews for Escape into Life, but inevitably I stepped into a brier patch of fine art, notably Cheval’s. The instant I saw his work, I knew I had to write about it. The images had cast a spell on me . . .

There is magic in this artwork. Not only are the paintings populated with magical characters, court jesters, and magicians themselves, but a supernatural magic suffuses each painting like the flower juice Oberon orders Puck to drop into Titania’s eyes as she’s sleeping in Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Love-in-Idleness” is the name of the flower in the play. Likewise, Cheval’s artwork conjures visions of supernatural spheres, doorways into parallel realities, and glimpses into absurdist theaters.

Absurdity is Cheval’s main subject. But he creates his own definition of absurdity, which his paintings seek to reveal. To Cheval, absurdity is a “game of the imagination, where all ties are carefully chosen to construct a literary plot.” In addition, he says that absurdity is “an inverted side or reality, a reverse side of logic.”

Cheval’s works are grouped into themes; "Nature of Absurdity", "Eternity of Absurdity", "Illusions of Absurdity", "Reality of Absurdity", and "Sense of Absurdity".

The shape of a dress or a faucet will become another object, a surreal object, such as a table or a horn instrument; but it will retain the original shape of the dress or the faucet. Such are Cheval’s games of the imagination; we do not always know what we are looking at. The eye must adjust to the picture object-by-object as it simultaneously takes in a new chessboard of reality.

Despite the illogic pervading the works, there is a coherency of representation. The heightened realism reminiscent of 17th century Dutch art does just that—the precision knits our illusions together to such a degree that we see Cheval’s paintings as actualities playing out in another dimension.

There are so many delectable images on Cheval’s website, and a viewer can spend hours looking at them, lost in a labyrinth of dreams; but for the sake of review, I will talk about two of my favorites.

[Air of Attraction by Michael Cheval]

Let us begin with the little boy in the jester’s costume holding a lute, and with the slightest turn of his head, looking outside of the painting. The painting is called, “Air of Attraction.”

It seems he’s sitting on a green velvet pillow in the middle of a dirt road. But the dirt road, like the boy himself, is illuminated by sunshine, and green plants and grass grow right beside him. The boy’s costume is distinctive. He wears a floppy jester’s hat with four prongs and jingle bells on the end. He wears white stockings and purple knickers, and his dress seems more meant for the royal court than the middle of a road. But there he is, playing his lute and dreaming off into the distance.

Gravity or the lack thereof plays a large part in Cheval’s parallel realities. And here we see some apples on the ground (obeying gravity) and one apple floating above the boy’s head (not obeying gravity). The boy doesn’t look at the apple, but just under it; his gaze fixed by an innocent daydream as he plays his instrument. We almost hear the measure of delay between the plucked strings and are drawn along with him into a current of distraction.

And what does the title mean? Perhaps the “air of attraction” is how involuntary attention comes across us like a spell and makes us all children for its duration. The child represents this phenomenon best because it is during childhood that we are engrossed in our games and our imaginary worlds. Moreover, the painting has an intangible quality of air; the sunlight on the dirt, the bright colors of the boy’s costume, the boy’s eyes lost in distraction, the floating apple; all of these elements conjure a sense of the ethereal. It is as if a supernatural law is guiding our distractions and attractions.

[Lullaby for the Hero by Michael Cheval]

We move to our next painting, “Lullaby for the Hero”, and in this case our hero is another little boy. A mime in gold and crimson-striped tights and regal Late Stuart costume holds the boy in his arms. The boy is dressed in armor and a royal blue cape; he holds a lance pointing down and stares directly at us. The mime is looking off to the side. It appears as if there was some horseplay, the mime has just picked the boy up off the ground, and now the scene is fixed in stillness. The knocked-over chair suggests this earlier bit of chaos.

The boy’s sister (presumably) holds a magic wand and looks dazed by her own magic. She is in the picture but not in it. Her gaze betrays her. She wears a baroque pink dress with a collar. Contrast her eyes, mesmerized--to her brother’s eyes, which are alert and aware of us. The toys on the floor of the children’s playroom, a wooden rocking horse with a bicycle chain, a globe, alphabet blocks, and a train, are like riddles. Why is there a toy train if trains haven’t even been invented yet? And what century is this exactly? The costumes seem to place it in the 17th century, but did they even know the world was round at that time?

And then, the most powerful image looms in the background. The wall of the children’s playroom is a gray-scale mural of a war battle with men on horses. A violent, bloody scene, it reminds me of the Shield of Achilles in Ulysses. The shadow-play over the gray-scale mural adds to the gloominess of it. The mural is actually Leonardo Da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari".

The connection between the boy’s play-armor and the “real” battle on the wall has many different connotations. Does the mural forebode a war that the boy, when he grows up, will fight in and perhaps die? Or is the mural there only to reveal the other side of child-hero's play world? Could the children be acting out an adult world in their playroom? And if so what does the little girl in pink represent? She doesn’t seem to belong in the “real world”. But the boy, who stares at us, knows he belongs.

The mime is a particularly evocative figure to me. My mother was an oil painter and she used to dress up in a mime’s costume and paint herself, looking into a mirror. I remember her with the white face makeup and the blank, bemused expression just like the mime in “Lullaby for the Hero.”

Who is singing the lullaby?

The mime is the artist and his song breaks the boy’s fierce play-acting; the song puts his wild fantasies to rest. He is only a boy-hero for now, not a real hero yet.

In his essay, “Abusurd Intacta,” Mark Gauchax writes:
Instead of relying on cultural sources, he (Cheval) explores deep motives of unconsciousness that are easily understood because they are universal, regardless of one’s geography, experience or knowledge. His paintings lead their independent life. Outside of time and space, this artist spends too much time communicating with specters.

The few cultural and historical references we have in Cheval’s paintings, 17th century dress, courtly figures, jesters, are all jumbled. The narrative is not linear; as Gauchax writes, the paintings cut through historical time and the probabilities of space. What we connect with, then, what we make sense of, is our own subconscious.

As the mime in “Lullaby for the Hero” becomes my own mother who has passed away, I slowly begin to see myself in every little boy that Cheval has ever painted. And the magic, Oberon’s magic, Cheval’s magic, Shakespeare’s magic, is the belief that I am represented here, and here, and here . . .

Michael Cheval's Website

Friday, May 22, 2009

What does a Global Collectivist Society look like?

Whatever it is the Internet has created--this force moves with light-speed--and I argue it will ultimately surpass the traditional "failed" economy, leaving mega-institutions and mega-corporations to operate, if they operate at all, in a second, inferior space.

What does this new economy look like? How does it function differently from capitalism? And what are the changes in social behavior?

This month's issue of Wired magazine hints at some of the distinguishing features of a "new new economy" (Chris Anderson's phrase). Anderson writes:
What we have discovered over the past nine months are growing diseconomies of scale. Bigger firms are harder to run on cash flow alone, so they need more debt (oops!). Bigger companies have to place bigger bets but have less and less control over distribution and competition in an increasingly diverse marketplace. Those bets get riskier and the payoffs lower.
And then Anderson quotes venture capitalist Paul Graham who says, "It turns out the rule 'large and disciplined organizations win' needs to have a qualification appended: 'at games that change slowly'. No one knew till change reached a sufficient speed."

I'm not going to pretend that I'm an economist; because I'm not. But what I will do is tell you my experience.

I am witnessing an extraordinary level of collaboration and connection between strangers over the Internet. Many of you know that I run an Arts and Culture webzine called Escape into Life. Part of my job is to find writers and artists to feature in the webzine. I speak to scores of individuals each month asking for their participation in some form, whether it is posting their artwork or asking them to write articles.

Ten years ago, communicating with a stranger over the Internet and asking them to do an assignment for you was unheard of. I'm not paying these writers and my site barely gets 200 hits a day. My influence is virtually nil. And yet, I am greeted with interest and excitement when I tell people I would like them to contribute.

What has changed? Are we acting differently toward each other as a result of social technology?

I think everyone would agree that social media and Internet collectivity is changing the order of society. We don't know the extent social media will overturn aspects of the traditional marketplace, but we are seeing some interesting results.

As a professional blogger and social media freelancer, my work puts me at the center of a perfect storm that is leveling the playing field between institutions and individuals. These days it seems like the bigger you are, the worse off you are; and the tighter your network, the smaller your scope, the better you'll fare.

The New York Times talks about the influence is starting to have on the publishing industry because digital books for the Kindle are expected to be cheaper. The publishing conglomerates don't want to lower their prices, but the people demand that they do; and is actually putting their ass on the line, taking cuts from sales, because they have more faith in their new economic model then the economic model of corporate capitalism.

It's ridiculous to pay $15 for a digital copy of a book anyways. The article suggests that eventually the publishing houses will bow to Amazon's pricing just as the music industry did to the i-Tunes store.

Mega-corporations cannot compete with the innovative technologies of startups. And as Paul Graham keenly points out--they cannot keep up with the speed. It's like waking up from a long sleep and finding yourself in a new location. The landscape has drifted from a physical location to a digital one. And in the digital world, the same rules of purchase simply do not apply.

With behavior changing between individuals toward a greater collectivist spirit, and prices changing to accommodate an economy based on the decentralized power of millions of small companies, it is not hard to foresee a time when nations become artifacts.

We are working together with people from all over the world to create, produce, sell, share, trade, hire, and invent. A global collectivist society is not a science fiction utopia but an emerging reality and I can't wait to see myself as a citizen of the world.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Is the Internet Killing Culture?

[The Age of Civilization by Jan Soucek].

I have a confession to make.

I haven't been able to finish reading an entire book in over three months.

My compulsive and ardent participation on the Internet, writing blogs, commenting, publishing poems, and reading others' work, seems to have something to do with this.

Mostly my reading these days is confined to the well-written columns of The New York Times. I am a New York Times enthusiast and reading the newspaper coincides perfectly with my short span of attention.

A couple weeks ago, I grew interested in the phenomenon of "mass amateurism" on the Web and I wanted to investigate it. I asked a couple prominent literary bloggers, Nigel Beale from Nota Bene Books and Andrew Seal, from Blographia Literaria, to write essays for the Arts and Culture Webzine I edit, called "Escape into Life."

In Nigel's essay, he quotes the author Andrew Keen from "The Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture". And while I won't re-quote Keen here because the message is in the title, I would like to respond based on my own experience of the last couple years, and how my behavior has changed in regards to the medium of the Internet.

From college onward, I delved into literature as if it were a contact sport, devouring the classics with fervor and intensity. I majored in English, which gave me somewhat of a background in reading these authors, but I went beyond my studies to read European classics most of which weren't taught in my classes.

I loved French and Russian realism. I relished the imaginative powers, the ability of these great writers to create worlds inside their fiction. My favorite authors were Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola in the French tradition; and Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov in the Russian.

Literary realism became my opium; I seemed to be able to live off of it forever; indulging in these beautiful and convincing worlds. Intoxicated I would spend days in the library reading, losing track of time and forgetting everything that pained me in my trivial life.

The days of literary intoxication may be over, however. I recall them with a sort of nostalgia but I can no longer enter those worlds. I refuse to abandon myself to them; I don't have the patience to read Zola's meticulous story-telling or Tolstoy's epic handling of characters and events.

What has happened since? Have I changed? Have I lost my ability to engage in culture and art?

The Internet has definitely changed the way I read and what I read. But it has also changed my view of myself from a passive receiver of "culture" to an active participant and creator of it.

In many ways, I've become the epitome of the amateur artist on the Web. I publish everything; poetry, essays, novels, even some sketches. And like many bloggers, I bask in the freedom to express my thoughts, my impressions, my art.

I poignantly remember a creative writing college professor once telling me--after I announced my desire to become a professional writer--"You won't publish for another ten years. I've seen the corpses."

And so, now it is with a certain exuberance and defiance that I publish freely on the Web, all with the click of a button.

To me, the proliferation of artistic expression, the videos on YouTube, the online novels, the loads of bad poetry, cannot be equated with a loss or diminishment of culture but instead a replenishment of it. "More artists, more culture," I say--even if the great majority of those artists are naive and unskilled. The individual acts of creativity, that's what's important, and with more people creating, I see the phenomenon of mass amateurism as a boon.

The novel I'm reading now--when I take the time to read--is called, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. While I've lost my attention to read classical literature, my attention seems to be on par with the requirement for contemporary novels and non-fiction. Any casual observer of the novel by Geoff Dyer will recognize that he is no Balzac, no Chekhov, no Flaubert. Contemporary novels are infinitely easier to read than classics, especially the ones that make it on the New York Time's "Bestsellers List".

But I'm glad I have my Geoff Dyer book to read for pleasure, because I can't possibly focus my mind on War and Peace. My level of attention simply will not allow it. I'm still nostalgic for great literary works, and knows well that I still like to buy them, but do I read them whole? No. I can't finish them.

The Internet is a medium of conversation and expression. It is participatory. Reading a whole stack of books by myself does not seem conducive to a lifestyle that clings impulsively to a MacBook throughout the day.

The question then becomes: Is art and literature in the modern age diluted? Is it watered-down literature?

We hear about the death of American poetry, the death of criticism, and the death of the American novel. And increasingly, international audiences are finding it harder to relate to literature in America (see the New York Times article, "Yet Once More a Laurel Not Bestowed").

The Internet may not be entirely responsible for the supposed death of the arts in America, but there is a certain insularity to American prose and poetry that not a lot of international audiences "get" or appreciate. I think too much of contemporary writing is abstract or superficial; it lacks the density of great works of art.

And yet, ironically, my faculties have gone down for appreciating those great works, and I'm more likely to pick up an amusing and mildly thought provoking novel--nothing too serious or intense.

[The Great Illusion by Jan Soucek]

But there is another side to my (subjective) experience on the question of whether the Internet is killing culture. While my dedication and commitment to literature has diminished, my attention to visual art has increased. Escape into Life attempts to merge literature with the arts. My mother was an artist and I have a great admiration for visual expression.

I believe the Internet has in fact expanded my capacity to appreciate and discuss art. Never before have I had so much art to look at and admire, to study and remark on.

With this discovery, I have begun writing illustration art reviews for the Webzine. I take it upon myself to find outstanding illustration artists on the Web, both award-winning and amateur artists, and I write detailed accounts of their work. This practice has definitely enlarged my "culture".

Not only am I writing about artists, but I'm having an exchange with them, developing a social network and fostering relationships with people who share the same interests.

This, I would say, is not an act of "killing culture"; but an act of embracing it, an act of helping it flourish and grow.

One commenter (@TheDarkEngine) writes, "But when 'mass amateurism' is accepted as the norm by the culture at large, it may lose its critical abilities."

TheDarkEngine is right when he says that critical abilities are necessary to judge cultural works. My optimism for capital "C" culture in regards to the Internet is that I believe we can sharpen our critical abilities by discussing which amateur and non-amateur poems, novels, and visual works warrant our attention.

The critical faculty will not "atrophy" (TheDarkEngine's word) if we actively take part in organizing art and criticism on the Web and talk about it. The proliferation of voices must enter some kind of filter and that is the task of educated readers and the artists themselves.

We can point to the success of one body of "amateur" work; which is Wikipedia. Wikipedia proved that amateurs can in fact trump their professional counterparts with the advances of social technology. Old-school critics who defame literary bloggers may underestimate the value of the many over the one. When this essential quality of the Internet gets overlooked, it may appear on the surface that the medium is not producing anything valuable to culture.

The many voices of the Internet is the Internet. The play of educated and non-educated voices, the high and low, the critical and non-critical, this is the essence and to reject the essence is to reject a large portion of human activity at present. Social technology--and all of the Web's manifestations--are becoming inseparable from culture.

The Internet demands some degree of participation from everyone--whether its reading a blog post, commenting on one, or rating that commentator's comment. But everyone can choose their level of participation. Together, the collective efforts of individuals, small web publications, large media outlets, Wikis, forums, social networks, bookmarking sites, determine the shape and trajectory of culture over the Internet.

With each new medium that comes along, some Ivy League professor will exclaim that culture is dying as a result. Culture is not dying; it's transforming in unpredictable ways, unexpected off-shoots, and amazing digressions. The audiences and the consumers of art, and the creators themselves, may not look the same. But who ever said they should?

And who ever said Culture is static?

More Essays by the author at Escape into Life


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oliver Dominguez

Versatile artist, who studied at Ringling College of Art and Design, moves effortlessly between local-color city scenes and classical, elegant depictions. Most recently, his work was featured in the show for the Society of Illustrators at Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles.

“Time is important to the artist.” Thus reads Dominguez’s website; he’s quoting himself. Judging by his works, the artist must use his time wisely because he’s achieved something brilliant.

Many of Dominguez’s editorial works involve people in urban settings. The street scene is his dominant subject matter. In these scenes, his ability to capture the city in a single, telling moment takes us beyond the usual territory of the illustration and into something wider, like a painting. The city characters are at times done in meticulous detail, in which we gather their personalities and situations; at times in a sort of caricature that gives exaggeration to the scene; or crowd depictions where colors and patterns come out more than faces.

Norman Rockwell’s influence on Dominguez’s illustrations is by no means veiled, and Dominguez himself credits Rockwell as being his greatest inspiration. Departing from his Miami-influenced urban subject matter, Dominguez illustrates 50’s era children in overalls and flap-hats, and in one picture, a nun brings out a basket of oranges into a schoolyard. Adults are often missing from the picture or placed just outside of it--we see the bottom half of their bodies or merely their hands. In “Hunger”, a bunch of scalawag kids rush up to a plate of cookies held out by a mother. Each one of these works of narrative art conjures up a story, with a dynamic moment of action and intensity.

But my favorite Dominguez illustration evokes neither the urban “local-color” nor the Rockwell type portraits, but a very classical and exotic art. “Walking a Monk” is the perfect example of this original style I’m referring to (done with acrylic and graphite on illustration board).

I love the layout of the picture. It begins with the subtle background, the wide stone staircase, the tilted umbrella over the shoulder of the sauntering monk, and then the massive body of the spangled tiger. Using this layout, our eyes naturally follow the stairs down, we glimpse briefly at the face of the monk--and everything converges in the marvelous beast.

The movement is precise. The tiger’s midriff turns inward as its hind legs and lavish tail swing in the opposite direction. Notice the perfect placement of the tiger’s front leg extending forward. In fact, a fine balance of opposing angles hold the illustration together. The monk and the tiger look in opposite directions. The monk looks up into the top left-hand corner of the picture while the tiger looks down to the bottom right.

Dominguez’s work has such marvelous coloring and impeccable detail that the sheer absurdity of the picture can easily go unseen. This is a monk walking a tiger on a leash. How improbable! How absurd! And yet in this improbable and exotic scene there is a thematic and metaphorical unity. The saffron robe of the Buddhist and the tiger’s coat, in a way, mirror each other. The billowing of the monk's robe makes the distinction between the two figures almost untraceable. They seem one, in this provocative, energetic moment.


This is the third in a series of illustration art reviews for the Arts and Culture Webzine, Escape into Life. If you are interested in writing reviews on illustration art, please contact me. More reviews can be found at Escape into Life.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Occasional Jerk

On another blog of mine, a commenter left a reassuring bit of advice to me under my post, "What is it to be an artist?". I'll quote verbatim:

Yeh. You're not a writer. Hard to imagine how you'll become one. But the first lesson you need to learn is to focus on the most basic components of your craft first -- which means sentences and fundamental grammar. Forget about those wise-ass quotations from real writers. You're a million miles from there. Walk before you run.

And my response?

Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.

That's Kurt Vonnegut.

Doubt, Mr. Toast, is natural for any writer or artist. I'm not ashamed of my doubts about my writing; in fact, I embrace them. This seems to be difficult for people like yourself who pretend otherwise.

I know I'm a writer. Freelance writing pays my bills. I write for law firms, non-profit organizations, and companies.

The post was asking the question, "Am I an artist?"

But judging by your posts, Mr. Toast, you seem to delight in flinging venom at other writers. Such as Nigel Beale from Nota Bene Books, who happens to be writing the next article for Escape into Life.

A little more investigation about the anonymous jerk on the Internet will reveal one thing.

You're not alone. He does this to everyone.

Mr. Toast (happens to think he's a literary luminary) and enjoys, yes, downright relishes, telling people they suck at what they love to do.

I'm not going to reference his website here because he doesn't deserve the attention, but on countless posts people are leaving comments on his blog basically to tell him to fuck off.

The occasional jerk is not a new phenomenon. There were jerks before the Internet and there will be jerks after it. But cyberspace, and especially the blogosphere, does lend itself to the flourishing of these trolls.

From Communities in Cyberspace, by Peter Kollack,

Even a casual trip through cyberspace will turn up evidence of hostility, selfishness, and simple nonsense. Yes the wonder of the Internet is not that there is so much noise, but that there is any significant cooperation at all.

Having recently indoctrinated myself into Twitter, I was surprised to find out not how much vileness and stupidity there was but just the opposite. I discovered a spontaneous overflow of conviviality and mutual interest.

Twitter forms a different ecosystem than the blogosphere. Because the posts are so short, it is less a reflection of one's self (although it can be, of course) and more an interaction with the community.

I'm addicted to Twitter. I love the simultaneous conversation with hundreds of people. Amid the noise, you sense a spectacular driving force of mass communication upturning all of our notions about what it is to communicate.

The occasional jerk shows up on Twitter as well, I would imagine. But there's nothing like a blogger who insists on drawing attention to his own blog by making rude comments on other people's blogs.

He is alone in his self-hatred.

In this post, "The Blogosphere is Full of Jerks", Dave Schuler writes:

Finally, there’s the jerk, the individual who contributes nothing positive to the common objective but is always ready with a put-down for those who are trying to accomplish something.

And here:

You can’t remonstrate with a jerk: the jerk can always respond with more of the same. The only alternatives are to become a jerk yourself or to shut up and take it in silence.

I've only come across the occasional jerk. Mostly, however, I find people who are generous with their support, thoughtful, and interested in what I'm doing. If they're not interested in what I'm doing, they'll go to another webpage. Which works out. Not everyone shares the same interests.

What I love about Twitter is that you can find people with your same interests and follow their conversations. To me, Twitter is the best tool to find a niche group of like-minded individuals.

But I haven't met any real jerks on Twitter or anywhere else on the Web, with the exception of Mr. Toast. There is a word for that kind of behavior. Misanthropy.

I don't claim to be a brilliant writer. I used to force myself to write. I disciplined myself to sit down for five or six hours a day.

But nothing came of it because I did not have the endurance to write fiction that way. Lately I've kept myself open, and the writing seems to happen on its own. I don't need to set a schedule to write poems every day. When I have a poem inside of me, it simply comes out. The same goes for my novel.

I'm interested in the question of mass amateurism on the Web. Because I think that I may be an amateur poet, amateur blogger, amateur novelist and amateur everything else for that matter.

When we're young, we imagine becoming great. All I wanted to do was become a famous writer.

There are many excellent writers, many excellent artists. The Internet reveals the abundance of them. My own little world is put into perspective. I do have a contribution to make, but so do others. "Wow, look at what they're doing."

I tend to develop tunnel vision about my own abilities. When you're confined to your own work, whatever it happens to be, you forget about everyone else.

The webzine I edit, Escape into Life, is helping me appreciate the greatness in others around me. By writing illustration art reviews I have a chance to step outside of my narrow world and look at what others have built, what others have created.

I can't think of a better antidote to the occasional jerk: Appreciate someone.


More Essays . . .

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lee Li Xian

Self-taught illustrator from Singapore who studied Apparel Design and Merchandising at Temasek Polytechnic. Her works are incredibly original.

On Behance, a creative portfolio network, Xian's collections are arranged by thematic title, such as “My Machine Pal” (sample above) and “Color me and tell me I’m Colorful”. These unassuming works have a striking originality. Evocative of children’s book art, and done mainly in watercolors, there is a subdued, non-aggressive quality to the illustrations, but the themes are often complex and thought-provoking.

Right now I’m looking at “My Machine Pal” and Xian's art has so many connotations with our modern age of technology and gadgets. It doesn't take a leap of the imagination to realize that many of us are “closest friends” with our machines. Take away my cellphone or MacBook and watch all hell break loose. I'm emotionally connected to my machines. Xian's work captures this reality so well--and it is her unfeigned, guileless style which makes me smile at my own absurd behaviors. Her work brings me closer to myself and my own reflections. It is not an overt conceptual statement; it is merely suggestive and light-hearted, though pointing to a deeper truth.

In the collection "Color me and tell me I'm Colorful," Xian goes further with coupling an adult motif and a guileless, childlike style. The grotesque and bizarre enter the picture. A creepy, big-bellied man with one black pupil and one blue looks up at us. Presumably dancing a jig, he bounces (the curlicues are shown) on wooden shoes as if on a pogo-stick. His ragged mustache, hanging down like seaweed, adds to the overall creepiness of this watercolored leprechaun. What a wonderful sense of style Xian has--to put a tightly-wrapped argyle shirt and knickers on him!

He may be winking at us or he may be leering upwards. This half-menacing, half-sweet depiction frightens while at the same time evokes a latent sympathy for the character. The rest of the illustrations in the collection seem to depict lonely characters, either monstrous-looking, crying in panic, or staring into the back of a mirror and appearing in the opposite end.

I love the white space around the illustrations. The watercolors are brought out by that white space, and the overall effect is one of incomplete beauty. Like a child's notebook where each page has one sparse drawing on it, Xian's art mingles innocence and emptiness while conveying an original intelligence.


This post is the second in a series of illustration art reviews. This month Escape into Life, Arts and Culture webzine, will become a permanent hub for illustration art reviews. If you would like to write reviews for us, please contact me.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Yuko Shimizu

Celebrated illustrator who has won countless awards and her works have appeared in Playboy, Time, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and on several covers of Neil Gaimen’s Sandman.

Shimizu did this drawing for PlanSponsor. The article is about choosing between two difficult choices. Of the scores of fantastic illustrations on Shimizu's site (and I looked at a lot of them), this one jumped out at me the most.

I have always been attracted to fine lines in illustration art and Shimizu's brass diving helmets have an unmatched realism that seems to reside in the perfection of her lines. While at the same time, the underwater scene has a dreaminess to it.

Two children hold each other’s helmets and water ripples from the whirlpool they stand in. Tiny pink mushrooms fall from under their masks. The two colors which vibrantly play off each other are the pink of the mushrooms and the brass of the diving helmets.

I love the bubbles emitted from the mask and the long tubes stretching through the water and out of the illustration. The children are connected by their hands holding each other’s masks and though we cannot see their faces, we sense the human element underneath the masks, the eyes gazing at each other.

The black and white stripes of the old-fashioned bathing suits also has a startling charm. This illustration achieves its poignancy by combining the antiquarian and the surreal.

You can find more of Yoku Shimizu's works at her website.

Escape into Life, a literary arts community for illustration artists and online writers will soon be dedicating reviews to outstanding illustration art and hosting a forum. This post is the first in a series of illustration art reviews.
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