Archive for the ‘Design & Wine’ Category

Music & Time

In all the visual arts we are able to perceive the entire work at once so it is the relationships between all the components, isolated in a single moment of time that works upon us and determines our response to the whole. For painting, photography, sculpture, interior design, architecture and every other art which involves the creation of a physical entity this is true. This is not true for music.

Yes, a given chord or combination of sounds in a given moment, C, E and G, for example, played simultaneously, will affect us and in a particular way that differs from, say, B, E & G, but the great impact music has upon us is in the succession of sounds – how a sound we are now hearing relates to the sounds we just heard. This involves all manner of psychological experiences including anticipation, recognition, distress, appreciation, resolution and so on. It also involves, it is ardently to be hoped, the experience of beauty, in time, by the relationships created by hearing the sounds through time.

Take Greensleeves, or Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, for example. How one note moves to the next and to the next until it completes its phrase and leaves us with an experience of the whole, experienced through time with the aid of memory is what brings to us the experience of beauty and pleasure and happiness.

Which to me seems to indicate that music occupies a different plane or dimension than the other arts, though what this difference is I cannot at this time begin to know. I have long believed that music is the language of emotion and emotion is the perceptive faculty by which we perceive all relationships, and consequently, the faculty by which we apprehend and appreciate all art. Music speaks directly to our emotional (artistic) intelligence without interpretation from other faculties, such as the left hemisphere of our brain.

It must be that the music we create reflects the natural functioning of our memory – our music matches our capacity to relate through time or the duration of our ability to hold in mind one sound no longer sounding while attending to a related sound we are now hearing. Probably, were we possessed of more durable memories – minds that could hold something no longer present vividly for longer durations our music would be extremely more complex.

Which reminds me of the all-night ragas of Indian music. Total appreciation of these highly structured yet highly improvised musical concerts builds over hours as earlier developments of the music transform into utterly unforeseen expressions (for both performers and audience) relating quite specifically to the earlier expressions yet ‘saying’ something more or different yet completely related, much like the sorts of intellectual conversations we are capable of and at times enjoy in the West only through that other faculty more developed, possibly, in the Indian culture – emotional perception.

To put this a little differently, a Sitar and a Tabla player can carry on a very long conversation, ‘speaking’ to one another through their instruments and music much as we carry on long discussions on certain topics.

Anyway, this is design and wine time and my glass is empty.


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I never write to this post without having enjoyed at least two glasses of wine.

We can find it in anything, from a one inch long, pewter bottle opener that so simply and easily does what it was designed to do, to a concert hall which can be filled with as many people who want to attend and all can hear the performance well. We miss it in most things, from a lamp shade that fades in color to a computer program with glitches, and everything we encounter, through any of our senses falls somewhere on the scale of really bad to excellent. What determines where? And who decides?

Ultimately, the user, (she who experiences the given thing, piece of music, hall in which it is played, airplane, service on the airplane, coffee pot, automobile, pot holder,  etc. to infinity – is who decides. The ‘end user’. What determine the  criteria by which it is judged?

Bought a pizza tonight from the Greenwich House of Pizza. I drove miles out of my way to do that because their pizza is, well,  excellent. That is, it is the best I have ever had, with more flavor, including delicate herb seasonings, fresh ingredients for the toppings, not canned, great crust,homemade sauce, etc…

The pizza is excellent because everything that goes into it is the best quality but more, they are combined by the hand of someone who has been making pizza for decades, the owner, not an Italian but a Grecian woman. She learned how to make pizza as good as it can be made and cares enough about that level of quality to ensure that all her pizzas are of that quality.

George Gurdjief once said that he could work with any man who could do something well – such as make a cup of coffee well. This is the thing, it seems.

If you do something well it is because you have a high standard and chances are excellent that if you do one thing well you do many things well, or try to, and can learn to.

Anyone who practices a profession knows how difficult excellence is to achieve. It is the ultimate goal. But excellence is not perfection.  What is perfect cannot be bettered and what cannot be bettered has reached the end of its evolution. Perfection is an insane notion and even more insane quest. Excellence, on the other hand…well, would we all could create and experience more of it. What has this to do with beauty and art and design? Everything…More on this to follow.

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Not everyone can draw at the level of Da’Vinci or paint like Turner yet people crave creative expression. Bernard Berenson, art historian of the early and middle 1900’s remarked about Picasso, that it was clear he could not draw like the masters so sought another method of expression. He wasn’t alone.

Many thousands can’t come close to past masters and if they tried to present true representationalism they’d fail when compared to those greats.  This is no doubt one of the causes for the manifold expressions we find today under the broad banner of ‘Modern Art’.

People need to express. But by removing themselves from known categories and creating new categories, modern artists have in one stroke removed a standard by which their work can be measured. So now, anything goes, and how is it to be evaluated? Is it all at the same level, this odd, difficult to comprehend (or even describe) art?.  Seems awfully hard to say, but knowing what I know of people and abilities I have no doubt there are people creating in this new (relatively, I mean – since the early 1900’s, let’s say,) genre, who are able to produce astonishing works that posses the essence of what makes art, art.

And then there is just what seems to be nonsense. But, as I say, there is no standard by which to judge and who is doing the judging?

In times past, a work of art could be evaluated by quality of representation, balance, unity and all the principles which apply to traditional art. New art, or experimental expressionism has no such benchmarks by which it may be measured. Let’s look at a few.

modern sculpture

Modern sculpture at Salem Art Works (SAW)

Here’s a flamboyant piece. On its way to becoming…something. How about if we apply traditional principles, say, Unity. Is it of a piece? That is, do all the components contribute to its overall impact?

Ah well, hard to say. There are circles and angles, straight lines and organic shapes…this one is beyond me. But to hazard a guess, I’d say,  if its intent is to create the sense of ludicrous idiocracy, then I think it succeeds admirably. But is that fair? There is an enormous lot of work in this piece. Welding, cutting, engineering. If nothing else, this piece has allowed someone the opportunity to utilize those skills in a non-functional manner – in the creation of a non-utilitarian work. But I don’t think it’s art.  Let’s try another.

This contemporary piece below sits on the lawn in front of a Victorian era B&B. Like it?

Obviously it wasn’t meant to harmonize with the building behind it, nor with the theme of gracious, elegant living that structure is supposed represent but maybe it was the contrast that was wanted. Whatever. I could go on in this vein but I won’t. Looks like nonsense to me.

modern sculptur

A modern sculpture in front of a Victorian B&B

Below is another piece also as SAW. I was looking around at the numerous sculptures and was struck by this next one. It has flaws, that is, it seems weak or undeveloped in parts. but I liked it.

Whoever made it captured aspects of the real being, especially in the face and ferocity of the struggle the cat seems to be involved in.

So, though this is a contemporary work. The artist has rendered a creation that refers to real life, to a real thing. Is that important in art? Even modern art? That it at least refer to some reality of which we may all partake?catfirece1

I think that is an important question in the descernment of the value, the legitimacy of modern art.

To hazard a guess, I would say this is about a fierce struggle of a wild nature to escape its chains. And it seems to capture this well. Is that then what art is? The representation of some potentially universal reality through some medium?

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Not about enameling

I do enameling. Enameling is an ancient art form which involves fusing ground glass to metal. I work in copper and at my level it isn’t exactly an art form – more of a craft. I make enameled what I call WaterFlowers for my fountains. But like the title says, this isn’t about that

beauty and art - enameled copper leaves

enameled copper leaves - glass fused to copper

Part of the multi-step process of enameling involves painting a gum over the piece to be enameled and then sprinkling powdered glass onto the piece. So as not to waste the powder that doesn’t land on the piece, you put two pieces of glossy magazine pages under it. The bottom stays where you place it and prevents the top one from picking up any foreign matter from the surface they’re placed on. When you’ve finished sprinkling the powder onto your piece (which will then go into the  enameling furnace to melt the glass to the metal), you pick up only the top, glossy magazine page, fold it in half and pour the excess enamel powder into the container it came from. You use glossy because the fine enamel powder slides easily from it.

So, in doing this today, I came across ads on the magazine pages I was using. All the pages I was using showed men and women in a resort location being massaged. They were smiling. They looked happy, these massagees. But I couldn’t help but think (this is me, who thinks about the reality of death daily), is this then the ultimate enjoyment? I mean, is this what life is about? The incongruity between my awareness of our mortality and that pleasure seeking was startling.

So, musing along now, into my third glass of wine, I’m wondering: What would this life be like if more people sought, for their down-time, their vacations, instead of the pleasures of the body, the elevation of the [spirit, self, soul, emotional life…] whatever term fits in there best for you. If more people pursued some form of art, lets say. How can people on their way to the grave feel they have the time to lay around in an artificial paradise getting stroked?

Winston Churchill wrote many books and one was on recreation. In it he said that recreation wasn’t doing nothing, it was doing something different. We refresh from doing different activities or following different pursuits, not by laying around doing nothing. He painted. Watercolors. Was quite good too.

But let’s be fair here. Vacations can be fun and fun is necessary. The body needs its pleasures – that’s part of life and an important part. And the body needs to feel good. It’s hard to appreciate beauty when your in pain. ..Or is it? Listen to this.

I was working in the back greenhouses of a nursery years ago with Jesus (that’s heysus) who was terribly hungover at the time. He kept going outside to be sick. Heysus was a woman’s man. He loved women and they loved him back. He’d spent the previous night drinking and making love and today he was ill.

We were sorting through 4 inch pots of Fuscias in preparation to transplanting them to larger pots. There must have been several hundred of them. They all looked pretty much the same – same number of leaves, of flowers and buds, all about the same size.

Suddenly Jesus calls me over. He says, Keith look at this. It is beautiful. I went over to the pallet he was working on and looked at the plant he was pointing out, surrounded by all the other plants just like it. It was beautiful. There was nothing I could point to – it had no more or less leaves or buds or flowers than any of the others. In purely statistical terms it was identical to the other two hundred ninety nine – but it was beautiful. It had a kind of glow, I don’t think I would have seen, but Jesus, in his deplorable state saw, and valued. I later came to understand this in this fashion: Jesus’s normal perceptive mechanisms were not functioning well, but he had a peripheral vision that was functioning and that is what detected the vibrancy in that particular plant. Or, all that was left of him was spirit and spirit saw spirit?

I had a similar experience years later in a country club I worked at, Chartiers Country Club, I believe it was called, outside Pittsburgh. My boss came up from the kitchen to where we worked (called the men’s locker room). It was where the male golfers went after golf, got changed and ate and drank. I was a waiter there for a brief time. He said the soup today was beautiful.

Beautiful? I went down to look. The soup was beautiful. It was a vegetable soup and it was beautiful. It glowed, somehow.

I served that soup to a number of golfers that day and each one said the same thing. “This is beautiful.” Every one of them said just that.

So what was that? Both the Fuscia and the soup had a vitality, a vibrancy, what in the East is called ‘Prana’ that I personally can’t account for but it was there and it made all the difference.

Can this be designed in? Possibly. Vitality or vibrancy is definitely a quality in beauty, often as a consequence of the combination of overall harmony containing rich contrasts – but maybe this vitality is a principle of its own.

I don’t have a moral to this story. But I think its telling – something.

ceramic fountain


An indoor fountain in the making with an enameled copper waterflower


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Ornament & Art

I’ve often wondered how ceremony came into being. You know, a line of men on the right holding banners, matched by an identical line on the left and in front of them trumpeteers, also lined up perfectly. A red carpet is rolled out and the King struts down it with someone holding the train of his royal robes. Who figured all that out? It’s the same thing we see in any institution or well established organization when they have their functions. It had baffled me for decades. Until I wrote my last book, Hardscaping.

I was working on the last chapter entitled Structure as Ornament and looking through some images I had and I realized that ornament follows order and art follows ornament.

Beauty & Art

Order leads to ornament and ornament to art

The image above represents this in the world of things but the same thing applies to ceremony.

First there is order.  With some dignitary –  like  a King  –  in the vicinity you can’t have people all running about so someone, maybe the people themselves, bring order. The get themselves still, respectful. The natural next step is to bring that order to the level of ornament. Line them up nicely, make a formal space for Mr. King to walk through. But this happens to be a very good King. People Love him,  and they want to express that so a couple of guys who see his robes dragging on the ground (and who happen to be in good favor with their King) get behind him and pick them up and walk proudly behind their King. (Interesting notion here someone might take up – how elevated emotions may give rise to formality, decorum and art.)

I think it is very interesting how closely connected order seems to be to art – how, it seems, order is a precursor to ornament and ornament gives rise to art.

Here’s my thinking. We make order, perhaps, because it is easier to function in and ordered environment. It is more efficient, it takes less time looking for things (think about your office) and there is less stumbling over misplaced objects (the kids playroom) and so on. It seems to me, the way we work is then someone with a more refined sensibility, probably a female, not only puts things in order, but she arranges them nicely, by size  or color, say.

And that gives someone the idea of making something that has that outline or those qualities or color combinations and low and behold, a work of art is born. Ah, well, here’s a rub. Does art arise from the impulse to elevate what is before us?  Or does it perhaps arise to recreate an elevation we have already experienced, as, perhaps in nature or an experience of divinity? Or is it the impulse from that dimension of ourselves which is elevated (some may call this the soul, or Self), seeking to be, to express itself, to manifest? I go with this latter but for me, the jury’s out. Likely it is all these causes and more.

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