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When I was barely an adolescent I read “Les Miserables” and the vast scope of the work caught my brain on fire.  It was like living hundreds–or maybe thousands–of lives over multiple generations.  We can (and will) return to that remarkable novel’s great themes of humanism, systematic oppression, historicism, Christianity, and economics (among other things), but for now I would like to concentrate on the first chapter of Book III.  The chapter is titled “The Year 1817” and it details what everyone was talking about in France in 1817.

Naturally, the excited 14-year-old me was hoping for soaring words about battle, republic, redemption, and perfect compassion, and so the chapter was an immense disappointment.  It was about the mincing affairs of unknown aristocrats and quibbles about fashion or taste which were utterly incomprehensible (and even more ridiculous).  Here is a random sample of this Bourbon Restoration word salad:

Criticism, assuming an authoritative tone, preferred Lafon to Talma. M. de Feletez signed himself A.; M. Hoffmann signed himself Z. Charles Nodier wrote Therese Aubert. Divorce was abolished. Lyceums called themselves colleges. The collegians, decorated on the collar with a golden fleur-de-lys, fought each other apropos of the King of Rome. The counter-police of the chateau had denounced to her Royal Highness Madame, the portrait, everywhere exhibited, of M. the Duc d’Orleans, who made a better appearance in his uniform of a colonel-general of hussars than M. the Duc de Berri, in his uniform of colonel-general of dragoons– a serious inconvenience.  

It goes on in this fashion for several pages. If you want the full effect, you can read the rest here (along with the other 1200 pages of the book, come to think of it).

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Now I can understand these words individually, and even piece together their social importance, but the sense of momentous grandeur is entirely gone.  This is, of course, as Victor Hugo wanted it.  His true story was about people vastly beneath the notice of M. the Duc d’Orleans.  To give the appropriate sense of scale, he needed to show how ephemeral the allegedly important and noteworthy people and things in a year actually are.  What is really important takes longer to comprehend—and even the consensus of history keeps changing as history progresses.  Naturally Hugo also wanted us to take a step back from our own time and realize that soon it will all be as dull, insipid, and inconsequential as the affairs of 1817.

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I really really hope you will take that lesson to heart, because most of our shared experience is made of flotsam—stupid tv shows, bad songs, political hacks who are already fading away, ugly fashions, and useless hype.  In 25 years, nobody but old fogeys and experts in early 21st century culture will have any idea who Beyonce is.  In a hundred years nobody will understand Facebook or Google.  Even if he destroys the republic and precipitates universal war, precious few people will recall Trump in 2217.  By next week we will have forgotten this accursed “Milo” (who, I guess, is a failed actor who pretended to be a Nazi to make money off of conservative frenzy?).  It already doesn’t make sense!

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As you proceed through the year 2017, hang on to the lessons of “The Year 1817”.  Most things that are current and fashionable and celebrated are useless piffle.  Celebrity culture has always been a meretricious mask used to defraud people of their money and attention.  The great are mostly not so great (sorry, Beyonce and Duc de Orleans), but beyond that, even the fundamental concept of current events or contemporary culture is predominantly a soap-bubble.  And where does that leave us?

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Marisol self portrait with sculpture

Self Portrait with Sculpture, Marisol, 1965

Sad news from the art world:  Marisol Escobar (who went by the single name “Marisol”) died on April 30, 2016 at the age of 86. Marisol was one of my favorite living sculptors.  She turned away from minimalism and conceptualism (the emotionally and intellectually empty aesthetic forms which monopolize contemporary art) and built her own powerful visual idiom.  By mixing ancient and modern forms (and joyously combining 3 dimensional sculpture with 2 dimensional painting), Marisol created astonishing portrait sculptures which capture the humor, heroism, and conflicted self-identity of America in the sixties and seventies.

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Women and Dog (Marisol, 1964, wood, paint, mixed media)

Although she is loosely affiliated with the Pop movement, Marisol based her sculptures on Pre-Columbian sculptural forms. Her sculptures of people are like a combination of giant ancient sarcophagi, wooden toys, and folk painting.  The rude forms are sometimes grotesque—but they capture true emotional intensity…and real humor (so much a part of life, but so infrequently seen in fine art).

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Dinner Date (Marisol, 1963. wood, paint, mixed media)

Just as three-dimensional objects have many sides: Marisol’s wooden people present different aspects of their identity from different angles—to such a degree that they have multiple faces or too many arms.  This multitudinous bricolage of overlapping identities was second nature to Marisol, a French Venezuelan who moved to Los Angeles as a teen ager. She was deeply involved in the private asceticism of Catholicism, yet she was also overexposed sixties celebrity in New York’s libertine art world.

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“Mi Mama y Yo” (Marisol, 1968, mixed media).

Her works often portray celebrities du jour—and the multitudinous juxtaposed iconography of the portraits gives insight into the strange stagecraft of fame.  In the portrait of John Wayne below, the famous actor has been grafted, centaur-like, to his horse.  Multiple blockish hands reach for multiple fake guns.  Only the solemn politician’s face and the quotidian cowboy boots seem real. The cartoonish formulaic aspects of Hollywood oat operas is combined with larger-than-life western iconography, which is combined with a real man.  The synthesis provides a surprisingly realistic and sympathetic portrait of the actor.

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John Wayne (Marisol, 1963, wood, paint, mixed media)

A famous anecdote about Marisol concerns her taking part in a panel discussion with four famous male artists.  She arrived wearing a white mask which she kept on during the discussion.  Marisol was a famous beauty and the crowd began to chant for her to remove the mask. When the hullabaloo drowned out the conversation, she untied the mask…only to reveal that her face was made up exactly the same way.

 

Her shyness and unease at the performative spectacle that is identity gave her unique ability to discern and portray the multiple faces–greedy, solemn, sly, sad, and laughing aloud–which we all wear.

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