Wild at Art

It’s with pleasure we introduce another guest blog by regular Bear Skin contributor Damien Shalley:

Damien Shalley” TM is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ultra-Precision Heavy Manufacturing Concern, Fukuoka, Japan.  He owns a secret stash of the discontinued cologne “High Karate” and its successor fragrance, “Mucho Macho”.  He would like to test the legal limits of the theory that all men are created equal, especially when he’s wearing his cologne. Damien Shalley is not “feeling the Bern”, but does sometimes experience a mild rash.  If he owned a sinister cat, he’d call it Chairman Meow.

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Wild at Art – Visual Artist Gottfried Helnwein

by D. Shalley

(Thanks to Coco)

Vienna, Austria: one-time epicentre of European high culture, birthplace of psychoanalysis, safe ground for Nazis during the Second World War.  This unique milieu created (and continues to create) a distinct sensibility within the Austrian national character.  Less precise than the Germans, more artful than the Swiss, highly aware of the past yet forthright defenders of their independent future, Austria today is a wealthy nation with an important role in the modern European Union.  Yet students of history who visit the country often describe it as eerie – almost like a historical haunted house – a physical representation of the darkness at the heart of the human condition.  Visitors can feel the ghosts of “old Europe” roaming.  They are present in the architecture, in the monuments, in the confronting history.  And from such frighteningly fertile ground, great art grows.

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Gottfried Helnwein is Austria’s most successful modern art identity and a major celebrity on the global art stage.  He has been described as the artistic manifestation of Austria’s post-World War Two social anxiety, confronting hidden guilt and exposing it to unflatteringly bright daylight.  He involves himself in many different forms of visual art; oil and watercolour paintings (including portraiture and landscapes), drawings, photography, installations, and even theatre and film.  He is noted for his photo-realistic oil paintings, as well as his expressionist pieces using acrylic and ink.  He became well-known for photographic prints featuring celebrity subjects and is regarded as a stylistic influence on modern rock video imagery.  The predominant theme of his work is the intersection of purity and corruption, where goodness and guiltlessness are confronted or co-opted by an often disguised evil.  A signature theme of his work is the approach of malevolence towards an unknowing child – innocence meets the armband.

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Much has been made of the fact that Helnwein grew up in post-World War 2 Vienna, in a German-speaking country that collaborated with the Nazis and witnessed terrible atrocities.  He acts as a tour guide through realms of unnecessary human sadness and also chronicles how easily beauty can be destroyed.  He is a perceptive documentarian, contrasting the banality of evil with the innate beauty of goodness.   This beauty is easily damaged, often severely, but it retains unmistakable nobility.  A pre-eminent motif is his use of stylised military looks and the sense of authority these impart.  He leaves viewers to determine for themselves the moral implications of the imagery.

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Many of Helnwein’s painted works are unusual in that they feature a photo-realistic style most identified with classical art, a style that fell away almost completely in the modern era.   After the invention of the camera, artists chose not to depict (this task was now redundant), but rather to express.  Techniques other than direct, naturalistic representations of a subject were favoured.  As such, a new art movement was born – “Expressionism.”  Helnwein, however, manages to straddle both worlds comfortably.  His striking “classical” representations, particularly of children’s faces, are noteworthy because they are uncommon.  The seldom-seen becomes the cause célèbre.   And yet he also freely creates expressionist works, typically mixed media pieces on canvas using acrylic and ink. (Ironically, he often also uses a camera for this purpose).  Helnwein is so proficient in this style that he was once described as the heir to throne of European expressionism.   Either way, he is capable of delivering a jolt to audiences – sometimes one of joy at beauty, sometimes one of shuddering recognition that innocence is always at risk of predation and that evil can appear before us in disguised forms.

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One of Helnwein’s most famous and evocative works is “Epiphany 1 – Adoration of the Magi”.  (This is one of three “Epiphany” works, but it is the most well-known).   It is an astoundingly beautiful and simultaneously chilling work, overtly referencing famous German and Dutch nativity scenes.  However in Helnweins’s painting, the baby Jesus is not being offered tributes by wise Magi.  Instead, he is surrounded by S.S. officers (the Waffen S.S. operated in Austria to horrifying effect).  The infant they admire is a strong-willed child, alert and knowing.  Mary is depicted as an idealised Aryan, a perfect Germanic female.  The child is standing, his pose is determined.  The officers offer him adulation – the Reich has its’ Fuhrer.  The piece was instantly controversial due to a misguided belief that it represented a tribute to Nazi ideals, whereas it was actually an attempt to skewer such ideology.  The Simon Wiesenthal centre praised the work.

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“Epiphany I – Adoration of the Magi”

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“Epiphany III – Presentation in the Temple” is more obvious but equally sinister.  The “Epiphany” pieces were created between 1996 and 1998 and obliquely represent a repudiation of Nazi ideology.

 

Helnwein’s eerie “Mickey”, a gigantic portrait of the Disney mouse, is one of his signature pieces.  It puts a subtly disturbing spin on an iconic character.  This is Mickey as a symbol of “corporate paedophilia”, an antiseptically clean yet totally duplicitous creation.  This Mickey consumes your childhood and infects your future.  Mickey is depicted in greyscale, perhaps in the way an adult might perceive a faded childhood memory. He is a representation of the past, of childhood innocence.   But his smile is sinister.  Helnwein’s Mickey is the representation of your “now”, the terrifying reality of your oppressive adulthood and your eventual extinction.  Helnwein’s work reminds us that, all along, Mickey has hinted at the things to come.  We were just too consumed by his omnipresent, corporate-funded charms to pay attention.

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“Mickey”

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Fascist symbols: overt and covert?

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In his early career, Helnwein created a watercolour painting entitled “Peinlich”.  It depicts an innocent baby girl holding a comic book.  She is pretty and doll-like, but a horrible cut deforms her face.  It destroys her beauty and along with it, her future.  Her adulthood won’t be Disney-esque.  “Mickey” and “Peinlich” share undeniable artistic DNA.  Interestingly, it is common to hear Euro-Disney World referred to by locals as “Mouse-chwitz”.

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“Peinlich” 

 

Helnwein also exhibits fine art photography and has ventured into portraiture, working with commercial rock acts like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson.  He became so famous in his native land that he moved to Ireland in 1997 to escape public attention.  (He still lives there today with his family – in a castle no less).   Primarily a European art star, in 2004 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco opened Helnwein’s first U.S. exhibition, unsure as to the extent of his American fandom.  One hundred and thirty thousand people attended.

As part of his exhibitions, Helnwein enjoys placing his artworks in the public sphere.  He sometimes creates enormous photographic representations of his works and posts them in open spaces.  An impartial observer might concede that scale of some of this public art is truly spectacular.

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Helnwein remains highly productive and his Belgrade exhibition “Between Innocence and Evil” opened in late 2015 to positive reviews and considerable attention.  He is highly regarded by many prominent artists – including creative people in fields such as film and literature – and has created a powerful global reputation that will ensure an enduring legacy.  His daughter Mercedes is also an accomplished visual artist.

Robert Flynn Johnson, curator of Helnwein’s breakout 2004 U.S. exhibition, summed up the artist by declaring that we are the subject of his art, or more precisely, the vagaries of our collective human condition. Helnwein expresses this through an avatar – the child.  According to Johnson,

 The metaphor for his art is the image of the child, but not the carefree, innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead creates profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative images of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within. [“The Child – Works by Gottfried Helnwein,” The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2004, pp 9–23].

Helnwein’s children are soulful representations of profound inconsistencies at the heart of the human condition.  Damage the children, damage the world – and the damaged world will damage the children further.  What would Sigmund Freud, Vienna’s other favourite son, have made of this?

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Selected works

Between Innocence and Evil
One man exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Nov 2015 – Jan 2016

Helnwein
Retrospective at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, 2013

Face It The Child, Works by Gottfried Helnwein
One man exhibition, Lentos Museum of Modern Art, Linz, Austria, 2006

The Child, Works by Gottfried Helnwein
One man exhibition, San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, 2004

Gottfried Helnwein Retrospectives

Angels Sleeping, Rudolfinum Gallery Prague,2004

Monograph, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 1997

Ninth November Night
Documentary – A Commemoration of the 65th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Los Angeles, 2003

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The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough [1890-1915] is an anthology of comparative mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

The book is in fact 12 volumes which analyse the narratives and rituals of the ancient world. Its central thesis is that originally, religions were fertility cults concerned with cyclical seasons. These cults revolved around concerns of life and death and almost universally featured the worship of and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was most often the incarnation of a dying god, who perished at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

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Frazer proposed that mankind has progressed from magic through religious belief to scientific thought, however this legend remained pervasive into the 20th century, Frazer’s own era. He cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and drew parallels to Jesus Christ.

The book scandalized the British public when first published, as it equated the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection with the pagan religions. Nevertheless, it soon became a staple of anthropology and comparative religious curricula.

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The book’s title  The Golden Bough, refers to  the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, [Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI] who leaving Troy after its destruction travels to Italy and founds what will become Rome. He is aided by the 700 year old sibyl of Cumae, who agrees to escort him into the underworld to find his father. To achieve this, Aeneas must pluck a branch of the Golden Bough, a sacred tree that only the gods can access. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite assists him to pluck a branch of the tree and with it and with the help of the sibyl, he descends to Hades unscathed. There he greets the ‘shade’ of his father who shows him the river Lethe, or forgetfulness and beyond it where all the spirits of the unborn await. There are Aeneas descendants, among them great men such as Romulus and the Caesars who would one day rule Rome. Aeneas’ father also points him to the Gates of Sleep through which he can return to the living.

Virgil’s narrative highlights a few interesting things about the motif of the dying king, or the hero who descends into Hades and returns.  First, it is a classic hero journey, as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]. The hero journey, also called the monomyth, is a narrative pattern favoured by storytellers, film-makers and script writers the world over. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Second, Virgil connects the hero journey to the World Tree, The Golden Bough or the divine Tree of Life. This common motif of ancient narratives connects the realm of the divine, the gods and their garden of Eden or paradise, to Earth. The branch or fruit of of the tree of life bestows immortality and so is restricted from mortal access. Access to life and thus to this tree becomes of obsessive interest to ancient heroes.

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What does all this mean and what importance does this narrative resonance have at a time such as Easter?

Many point out that Easter coincides with the pagan festival of the first full moon of Spring. Thus, the celebration of the death of a supposed god-king,  who later was resurrected to restore life to earth and to humanity is easily explained away as simple anthropological pattern that people of  a more scientific age should be well beyond.

But this is where things begin to go a bit strange.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish full moon celebration of the passover, a feast which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Far from celebrating the sacrificial death of a god-king, the Passover celebrates the merciful sparing of the people of Israel from a plague of death in Egypt by the sacrifice of a simple lamb.

Within the ancient near eastern context, rich with narratives of dying and rising god-kings, Zoroastrians and Jewish narratives resonated with a typological hero, a servant king, who would bring peace and end the cosmic cycle of death and mend the polarities of light and dark. This king, the anointed mashiach or messiah, would not only restore life, but end all wars, suffering, illness, death and sorrow. While it was acknowledged that this king was a servant and would suffer, this king would also be politically significant and liberate the Jewish people from their bondages.

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When devout Jews of the first century AD declared the Jesus of Nazareth was this promised anointed one, the uproar and dissent caused within the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean caused even the Imperial Rulers to complain and seek to suppress it [Divus Claudius,  25].

Most significantly what this shows is that the Jewish people were the least likely people of the ancient world to equate a man to God, or to conflate pagan mythology of a dying and rising god with the advent of their mashiach.

Historians have posited that claims of Christ’s divinity or evidence of the resurrection were laid-over first century accounts of Jesus of Nazareth to satisfy mythical types. However, this too has been shown to be quite unsupportable. The earliest texts which report eye witness claims of Christ’s death date from the first century and the debates and unrest caused by the earliest followers of Christ are supported by secular historians such as Claudius [above] and Tacitus [Annals XV.44], Suetonius [Nero 16] and Pliny [Epistulae X.96].

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The fact that hundreds of so called eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ were persecuted and willingly died to maintain this claim, caused unrest across the whole Mediterranean region and resultant persecution by the authorities.

So what can we make of these seeming contradictions? The Christ narrative seems to comply with mythical archetypes which resonate throughout world literature and point to cosmic reconciliation of death and rebirth. However, within the Jewish context, the claim that Christ fulfilled messianic hopes of ending the struggle between dark and light, restoring peace, ceasing the cycle of death and bringing peace – was vehemently opposed by large portions of the Jewish community and yet defended to the death by others.

It is perhaps what CS Lewis refers to when he states:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens —at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  ~ C.S.Lewis [1970] God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Rather than simply assuming, Christianity, like any mythical belief, has roots in pre-scientific questions of death and rebirth, winter and spring, Lewis shows how in fact, the poetic resonance of myths and legends of all eras and cultures, created a prophetic typology, pointing forward to a solution to a cosmic and unsolvable problem.

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That solution came at Passover about 30AD, when a man died a criminals death. His blood not only averted the Plague of Death on humanity, but also initiated the release of humanity from slavery into glorious freedom.

His resurrection caused a radical revolution in the lives of his 500 odd followers and eye witnesses, who radicalised by the realisation of the fulfilment of all messianic hopes turned the world upside down in a quest to share the news, not only with the Jews, but with the whole world.

Because it has been the whole world who has been dreaming of this miraculous solution since the beginning of time.

 

 

Why Teaching Poetry is so Important

The article below by Andrew Simmons was published in The Atlantic on April 8, 2014. It’s linked here below verbatim.

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The oft-neglected literary form can help students learn in ways that prose can’t.

 

16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.

This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.

High school poetry suffers from an image problem. Think of Dead Poet’s Society‘s scenes of red-cheeked lads standing on desks and reciting verse, or of dowdy Dickinson imitators mooning on park benches, filling up journals with noxious chapbook fodder. There’s also the tired lessons about iambic pentameter and teachers wringing interpretations from cryptic stanzas, their students bewildered and chuckling.

Reading poetry is impractical, even frivolous. High school poets are antisocial and effete.

I have always rejected these clichéd mischaracterizations born of ignorance, bad movies, and uninspired teaching. Yet I haven’t been stirred to fill my lessons with Pound and Eliot as my 11th grade teacher did. I loved poetry in high school. I wrote it. I read it. Today, I slip scripture into an analysis of The Day of the Locust. A Nikki Giovanni piece appears in The Bluest Eye unit. Poetry has become an afterthought, a supplement, not something to study on its own.

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In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text.

Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions.

Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit.

All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.

I have used cut-up poetry (a variation on the sort “popularized” by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) to teach 9th grade students, most of whom learned English as a second language, about grammar and literary devices. They made collages after slicing up dozens of “sources,” identifying the adjectives and adverbs, utilizing parallel structure, alliteration, assonance, and other figures of speech. Short poems make a complete textual analysis more manageable for English language learners. When teaching students to read and evaluate every single word of a text, it makes sense to demonstrate the practice with a brief poem—like Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses. Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry, wrapping frequent asides in parentheses and leaving last lines dangling on their pages, period-less. In “next to of course god america i,” Cummings strings together, in the first 13 lines, a cavalcade of jingoistic catch-phrases a politician might utter, and the lack of punctuation slowing down and organizing the assault accentuates their unintelligibility and banality and heightens the satire. The abuse of conventions helps make the point. In class, it can help a teacher explain the exhausting effect of run-on sentences—or illustrate how clichés weaken an argument.

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Yet, despite all of the benefits poetry brings to the classroom, I have been hesitant to use poems as a mere tool for teaching grammar conventions. Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that,

…literature should be mystifying.

It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly. I am confident my 12th graders know how to write essays. I know they can mine a text for subtle messages. But I worry sometimes if they’ve learned this lesson. In May, a month before they graduate, I may read some poetry with my seniors—to drive home that and nothing more.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

  • Andrew Simmons is a writer, teacher, and musician based in California. He has written for The New York TimesSlate, and The Believer.

 

What is so great about Snapchat?

The story teller in me finds this review of Snapchat, and its power to threaten ubiquitous social media platforms such as Facebook, very interesting.

As a neophyte Snapchat user what I can ascertain the key appeals to be, are:

  1. It’s ephemeral nature. Disappearing snaps and stories create a compulsion to share and view immediately.
  2. Stories. Adding a series of snaps to a story, shared for 24 hrs, invites followers into a narrative account of an experience.

Tell your friends a mini story about your day?! Awesome.