Dreams: Unconscious Creations in Art

Hi everyone! It’s a been a while since I posted anything new and as I’ve had troubles sleeping these past couple weeks, I’ve done a lot of thinking about dreams. I have both the blessing and the curse of remembering them vividly but they rarely ever effect my daily life. It’s difficult to imagine any of these dreams changing my life in any significant way, let alone impacting the world. For many artists, their dreams do just that and in the 1960s, delving beyond the realm of consciousness appealed to many people. What I find the most inspiring about these dream-stories is, these artists don’t incorporate dreams into their philosophy and, as far as I know, practice lucid dreaming. They simply stumbled upon something beautiful and decided to use it.

“It was fairly mystical when I think about it. It was the only song I ever dreamed.”

Paul McCartney, On Yesterday

Paul McCartney

One of the greatest songs McCartney ever wrote, Yesterday, came to him in a dream and it’s such a good song, it’s almost surprising that he admits it. Apparently, he played it immediately after waking up and feared he may have remembered it from somewhere else. The lyrics took awhile longer to come to him but I personally like the original filler, “Scrambled eggs. Oh, baby how I love your legs.”

Although I’m a major Beatles fan, I have to admit they were more arrogant than other 60s Artists (they were also about ten years younger than my favorite painters and experienced a wild amount of success much earlier in life.) I don’t believe dreaming art takes away from any genius or credit someone should receive but I can understand why that’s a popular opinion. McCartney could have easily attributed it all to his own genius, and although he still told a great story, it’s one that really connects him to these visual artists who valued dreams and ideas of art outside the self ( he was friends with Richard Hamilton and probably very aware of many artistic philosophies at the time). Whether he intended it or not, I think the story speaks to his belonging as a 60s artist at heart.

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns with Flag, 1955

In 1955, Father of American Pop Art, Jasper Johns had a dream where he painted the American Flag. Soon after he awoke, he painted it in real life and it went on to become one of the post famous paintings in post WWII art. If we examine the heavy paint blotches and the slight abstractness of the flag, we see again another blending between “art and life” or, if you are new to this blog, a kind of haziness that has the appearance of something from a dream-world. Johns often uses familiar symbols in his work that are up to the interpretation of the viewer. The American flag is a familiar symbol to everyone but it does not inspire the same feelings in all of us. Johns himself claimed to be objective towards this meaning wanting the viewer to interpret it however she wishes. At the risk of over-analyzing, we can think of the symbols in our dreams the same way. They are familiar to us and they likely mean something but what do they mean? Johns, of course, wasn’t bothered by this mystery. He used it to invite us into his work thus combining “art and life.”

What I love the most about these stories are dreams coming to the artists like opportunities. Instead of attributing it all to their own genius, they take a more humble approach and focus on the art itself. As I share more about these amazing artists, I hope it becomes apparent they never relied on genius as much as an appreciation for life and were genuine, even selfless, in that way. They appreciated things for existing and were inspired by a love of life which is something I want to do more often.

Opinion: Andy Warhol and Autism

According to some popular theories, Andy Warhol was on the Autism Spectrum. Although there is no way to test this, the “evidence” is quite convincing. Andy engaged in repetitive behaviors such as eating Campbell’s Soup nearly everyday and wearing only green underwear.  In addition, he struggled to answer interview questions ( it is unclear whether this is due to nerves or an inability to articulate his thoughts) and often had his muse, Eddie Sedgwick, answer questions for him. 

Andy Warhol and Eddie Sedgwick

Many of history’s most gifted and creative people are also believed to be somewhere on the spectrum including Albert Einstein, Lewis Carrol, and Issac Newton. Unfortunately, not everyone is sympathetic towards Andy’s possible condition.  An article from the Guardian I used as a reference for this post said, “For fans of Warhol, however, the suggestion that their hero’s view of the world was impaired by a mental disorder is upsetting. It undermines the idea that he knowingly shaped our understanding of pop art.” I don’t mean to suggest the author is unsympathetic as she clarified many Autistics are talented and insightful people within the article. I am personally disgusted by the idea Andy’s appreciation of everyday objects could be viewed as less meaningful because of a mental diagnosis that was also an incredible gift. For as great of an artist as he was, if he were autistic, I highly doubt that diagnosis “impaired” his view of the world but made it more magical. For most of us, eating a can of soup is nothing more than a mundane event. For Andy, just looking at a soup can was an incredible experience. He saw his everyday life as art and any diagnosis he may have does not invalidate that view.

Andy Warhol- Soup Cans, 1961

I do not want to minimize Andy’s struggles as a possible Autistic or at least a highly unique person, but I would like to see the mundane world with as much curiosity and enchantment as he did. The only glimpse any of us get into his mind is through his artwork and diaries, and if he did feel isolated in any way (as many Autistics do), I am impressed by the courage he showed by sharing himself and his work with the world. I taught swim lessons to autistic children for many years so I am aware of the signs and struggles of autism especially when it comes to verbal communication. When I pay close enough attention, I usually discover a child is trying to communicate with me in a different way like Andy did with his paintings.

If you read my previous posts, then you are familiar with the struggles of 60s artists to combine “art and life.” Andy had no trouble with this as it’s something he did naturally as his everyday life was already enchanting to him.

Although it is covered up in early art books, (those published in the 60s-80s), many 1960s artists struggled with mental illness and health issues or were a part of the LGBTQ+ community. We should not make these things invisible to history as they are important to the identities of the artists and, whether they are relevant to the artwork or not, should not be hidden in the “shame” of decades past.

The Guardian. (2020). Was Autism the Secret of Warhol’s Art? theguardian.com/uk/1999/mar/14/vanessathorpe.theobserver

Crow, T. (1996) The Rise of the Sixties. New York, NY: Harry N Abrams Inc.

The Music Of Silence

Hey everyone! It’s great to be back since I haven’t posted lately. I just finished my college finals yesterday which means I’m done writing essays (for now, at least) and I have more time to write about my interests. Today I’d like to shine the spotlight on an artist who inspired almost everyone I mentioned in writing so far. He’s a visual artist and a musician who taught at Black Mountain College and the New York School of Art; Mr. John Cage. Although his visual art is also stunning, I’d like to focus on his music for this post or more specifically his idea of silence. That’s right. He composed with silence. How is that even possible? Let’s look at his conception of silence and music first.

John Cage with popular teacher of Zen Buddhism DT Suzuki

To John  “music” is a relative term with many possible definitions. When defining it himself, he proclaims all sound is music. When defining it in terms of the larger culture, music is sound arranged in a particular pattern meant to inspire a particular emotion in the listener. Music, in the popular definition, doesn’t exist on its own. The sounds themselves don’t have meaning but we apply meaning to them. For example, a low note on the piano has no intention of sounding angry or sinister yet we attribute these emotions to it.  Is a sound not beautiful if it does not communicate with us or serve us in some way? John believed in the objective appreciation of sound and that all sounds could be enjoyed. In his own definition, any sound from the sound of traffic to rainfall to knocking on a door is music because it is potentially enjoyable so long as the listener is open to the experience. This is closely related to the Buddhist idea of mindfulness that fascinated him.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us.  When we listen to it , we find it fascinating.”

John Cage

Of all sounds, John’s greatest fascination is silence. He describes an experience where he entered an anechoic chamber; a room designed to be as quiet as possible. In it he heard two sounds; a lower one and higher one that an engineer told him were his nervous system and circulating blood. That’s when he realized no matter how quiet our surroundings might seem, there is always a source of noise.

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

John Cage

Unable to create a true silence himself, he could discuss the concept of silence in writings and lectures and was able to indicate a silence in sheet music. During his most famous performance, 4’33, the lengthy periods of “silence”,as indicated on paper, were inevitably filled with sounds from the audience such as coughing, sighing, or shifting in their seats. This led to a new definition of silence exclusive to his performances as unintentional sound (or sound that was not controlled for). This “silence”, brought the audience into the performance as any noises coming from them became part of the composition.

By including unintentional sound, John was applying a popular technique within the avant garde performance art group Fluxus, of which he was a part, encouraging audience participation. Artists within Fluxus shared a common goal of combining “art and life”. Like 4’33, their performance art incorporated the audience through participation and even social experiments. In these situations, if the actor is seen as creating art, then the involvement of outside life, the audience, is combining “art and life”. In addition, art one participates in becomes a life experience shared with the others in attendance regardless of how inspirational it is. Anyone who witnessed 4’33 not only experienced it as a performance but contributed to the composition if they made any noise.

John Cage at his avant garde performance, Water Walk. As you can see, he had a great sense of humor.

Ideas of “art and life” were shared by Pop Artists many of whom were John’s students at Black Mountain College. Instead of inviting the audience to participate, Pop Artists used images of everyday things or everyday life, such as Campbell’s soup cans, beer bottles, cars and swimming pools to combine “art and life.” Similarly, John used everyday sounds such as water dripping, ceramic pots shattering, and the sound  of footsteps to combine “art and life.”

Not only did John inspire Fluxus, Pop Art, and even more movements I haven’t mentioned yet, but his legacy lives on in many young musicians today including Glenn Kotche, the drummer from one of my favorite bands, Wilco. I just found out last week that he’s a John Cage fan! I am over the moon about it. I’ve had their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on vinyl for some time now and although Glenn doesn’t mention it, I can definitely see the influence of anything as sound especially in the tracks Poor Places and Reservations. So I’ll leave you with a quote of his I really enjoy.

He reinvented music by communicating that music is everything — ALL sound and silence, too. And he communicated trust.He showed how to trust and learn from the world that we live in: how to trust chance and the subtle cues that surround us every day. This is what John Cage communicated. Freedom.

Glenn Kotche

Blau, M (2012). 33 Musicians on what John Cage Communicates. Internet. Available from, https://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates accessed: April 27 2020

Cage, J. (1961). On Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Lushetich, N. (2014) Fluxus: The Practice of Non-Duality. New York, NY: Rodopi.

The Coolest Japanese Artists of the 1960s

I’m excited to introduce you to my top three favorite Japanese Artists of the 1960s! I got most of my information from Radicalism in the Wilderness by Reiko Tomii. If you are interested in contemporary Japanese art, this book is a must-have.

Matsuzawa Yutaka– This eccentric artist made it his life’s mission to create a universal language anyone could understand. After failing to do this through a symbol system, he transitioned to evoking feelings and creating shared experiences. He received a full-ride scholarship to study in the US and had a passion for quantum physics. He was also a believer in UFOs.

His most influential idea was a concept he called “psi” inspired by parapsychology. He believed humans have a sixth sense and this sense could also factor into enjoyment of art. His artwork included interactive puzzles, rituals, and repetitive patterns, meant to mentally engage the viewer. If these experiences were powerful enough, hopefully, they would employ the sixth sense that he believed could offer a deep emotional connection between all people.

Matsuzawa Yutaka, 1968

Yoko Ono– Although fiercely independent, this artist had deep contacts in the 1960s art community due to her involvement in various art movements from performance art, to visual art, poetry, and music. Her work encourages expression from the viewer either through visualization or direct participation. Despite most of her fame coming from her husband, former Beatle John Lennon, she is well known as an individual artist.

Prephapes her most famous work is her book of poetry, Grapefruit. The poems within it challenge the reader to visualize incredible or impossible things using their imagination. What I personally love about this book is, during the 60s many performance artists encouraged audience participation but only a select number of people could attend. These poems allow anyone to be part of the artwork without having to travel anywhere. They were also the inspiration for the lyrics in John Lennon’s greatest hit, Imagine.

It’s sad that the air is the only thing we share.

No matter how close we get to each other,

there is always air between us.

It’s also nice that we share the air,

No matter how far apart we are

the air links us.

Yoko Ono, Air Talk, 1967

Horikawa Michio– During the 1960s, avant garde groups were on the rise and many interested American artists went to visit these groups in Japan (including John Cage and Jasper Johns). This provided middle-school teacher Horikawa with the opportunity to influence not only the Japanese but people abroad. 

His most recognised technique was “mail art” where he would send poems, stories, or objects through mail. This reached people from all around the world who would occasionally pass on the letters or send something in return. He even sent a small black rock to US President Richard Nixon as a Christmas gift. This was symbolic of Horikawa’s disapproval of Nixon and his  “throwing a stone” at the president (he did not agree with Nixon’s involvement in the Vietnam war). With no explanation provided, this went over the president’s head and Horikawa received a thank you letter in return for the “thoughtful” but “unusual” gift.

Horikawa Michio, Stone, 1969 (Sorry I wasn’t able to find many pictures of Horikawa himself but the image of this rock ready- to -ship is amusing.

I hope you enjoyed reading about these artists! Whether you think their ideas are insightful or just plain weird, there’s no doubt they are/were interesting people.

Opinion: Japanese Art is Underestimated in U.S. History

Wherever the United States has been in contemporary art, Japan got there first. This is especially true of art movements in the 50s and 60s.

In 1950s America, Zen Buddhism became increasingly popular especially among young liberals and artists. The Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki is credited with “bringing Zen to America” through his books and lectures.  He met many important 1950s artists at a hangout in New York city called “The Club” where they would discuss philosophers, writers, and other artists. Notable members included John Cage, Marcel Duncamp, Alan Watts, and Ad Reinhardt.

During the 50s, Abstract Expressionism was the most popular art form and the community of artists involved enjoyed discussing and reading about Zen. In traditional Zen paintings, the artwork isn’t limited to the image but is something felt inside the viewer and doesn’t have to be naturalistic. The purpose of Abstract Expressionism is to evoke feelings in the viewer and it is never representational of real-world objects. Almost as if we borrowed an idea from the Japanese… While Zen art emphasizes the Buddhists ideals of harmony between all things, Abstract Expressionism is meant to convey an individual’s feelings.

Leading up to the 60’s, the most admired thinkers discussed by “The Club” were anti-intellectualists. These are thinkers who prioritize intuition and feeling over logic and often have a great respect for nature. Perhaps the most famous are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Not surprisingly, many artists in New York at the time (including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenburg), who later pursued Pop Art, overheard these conversations and showed appreciation for Zen. I can’t help but wonder  if the combination of Zen and anti-intellectual philosophy created a somewhat ironic uprising of the Pop Artists (who rebelled against Abstract Expressionism). As I explain in my post, The New York Theory, Pop Artists aimed to create art anyone can understand and valued objectivity in art. Although appealing to the masses isn’t expressive of Zen, the ideas of objectivity and including everyone in “fine art” are. For a movement that valued anti-intellectualism, Abstract Expressionists spent a lot of time discussing it. I’m not sure Pop Artists were impressed by that.

Composer John Cage with D.T. Suzuki

American and British 1960s artists received the most attention but many influential artists were Japanese.  Although Johns and Rauchenburg will forever be my favorites as the ones who introduced me to this beautiful world of art, in my personal opinion, Japanese artists  are the most thoughtful, radical, and underestimated. In my next post, I’ll introduce you to these extraordinary people!

Watts, A. (1958). The Spirit of Zen. New York , NY: Grove Press

Westgeest, H. (1996). Zen in the Fifties. Zwolle: Waanders Printers

Sarcastic 60s

Hey everybody! It’a been a long day and I don’t have it in me to write so I’m letting the artists speak for themselves. I love that these artists have a good sense of humor and speak fluent sarcasm (the Beatles were especially well-known for that). Hopefully, some of these interview responses will brighten your day.

Interviewer: How has success changed your life?

George Harrison: Yes

Interviewer: What was the reception like when you first started to present some of your art? Did people understand it?

Yoko Ono: Well, my parents weren’t happy I went into avant-garde.

Interviewer: You wrote in your book that the ocean terrified you when you first saw it.

Brian Wilson: Right. It’s a big body of water which scared me very much.

Interviewer: So you didn’t feel like a hero being an artist and working under great difficulty?

Robert Rauchensburg: Well, that’s much too easy of a way to be a hero.

Interviewer: There are those who say your work isn’t original.

Andy Warhol: It isn’t original.

Of all these responses, George Harrison’s is my favorite. I was listening to a radio talk show about him the other day when I found out his memorial tree was eaten by beetles. That seems pretty dark but maybe it was the ultimate joke because I can’t imagine a sarcastic person like him would miss the irony of that. Who knows. He might have been behind it.

The London Theory

Yesterday, we went over the most prominent theory of Pop Art, the New York Theory. Today we’re looking at a lesser-known but equally likely theory, The London theory.

To help  Britain face its incredible debt after World War II and to stop the spread of Soviet Communism, the United States started the Marshall Plan. Long story short, the plan helped get the country back on its feet and brought American media and advertisements with it. Younger generations enjoyed American comics and magazines but the older generations found them degenerate and materialistic. It’s important for us to remember while those magazines look retro to us, they resembled new and exciting technology back in the day.

Pepsi Advertisement 1957

Many of these young people,like Eduardo Paolazzoi, grew up in poor families who couldn’t afford  material things so they assembled colleges of magazine imagery to communicate their desires. If American artists were rebelling against the “fine art establishment” (Abstract Expressionism), then the British were rebelling against an older generation’s more conservative ideals.

Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything 1947

One of the most notable figures of early British Pop Art is Richard Hamilton (who later became friends with Paul McCartney and designed album covers for the Beatles). He originally studied at the Royal Academy in London but he became frustrated with its emphasis on 19th century classical art and was expelled. He later joined the Slade School of Fine Art where he meant an artist named Nigel Henderson and joined The Independent Group (it had a lot of artists who became quite successful).

Richard Hamilton, Just What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing, 1956

They held their first exhibit in 1951 (four years before Johns and Rachenburg shook the art world) and continued to shock and intrigue audiences with modern and even scandalous images. That’s the condensed version of the beginnings of Pop Art in Britain. To think a world renowned art movement began with a bunch of rebellious college students cutting and pasting pictures from magazines…

Collins, B (2012) Pop Art. New York, NY: Phaidon Press Limited (I didn’t need many sources for this condensed history but if you are curious about Pop Art, I highly recommend this book)