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Pearls from artists* # 482

One of Viscarra’s masks at MUSEF La Paz

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Devils’ heads with daring and disturbing eyes, twisted horns, abundant grey hair and hooked noses hang on the blue walls of Antonio Viscarra’s house. Long benches covered with old, multi-colored cushions in Bolivian motifs surround the concrete floor of the small room. Several dozen of these hanging faces, which seem to watch in silence from the darkness, are ready to be used in festivals and traditional dances.

The maskmaker or “maestro” as he is called, lives [deceased now] in the area of Avenida Buenos Aires, far from the political and administrative center of the city of La Paz, but rather at the very center of the other La Paz (Chuquiago in the Aymara language) where many peasant immigrants have settled, and which for that reason, is the center of the city’s popular culture.

Viscarra is the oldest creator of masks in La Paz, and his work has helped to conserve, and at the same time to rejuvenate, the tradition of using masks in Bolivian dances. If economic progress and alienation have contributed to the excessive adornment of new masks with glass and other foreign materials, Viscarra, in an attempt to recover the distinctive, original forms, has gone back to the 100-year-old molds used by his grandfather. His work has been exhibited in Europe, in the United States and in South America, Most important, however, is that Viscarra is transmitting his knowledge to his children, ensuring that this form of authentic Bolivian culture will never die.

…Viscarra inherited the old mask molds from his grandfather and was told to take good care of them because some day he might need them. After keeping them carefully put away for 50 years, the maestro used them again for an exhibition of masks prepared in 1984, slowly recreating the original masks, beautiful in their simplicity, in their delicate craftsmanship and in their cultural value. In this way, the masks which emerged from the old molds are regaining their past prestige and importance.

Antonio Viscarra, The mask Maker by Wendy McFarren in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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Pearls from artists* # 441

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant, and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, smiling children. This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence.   

… The worries about prettiness are twofold. First, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘You don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ – a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity (primarily economic, but also moral, political, and sexual). The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to mitigate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy 

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Pearls from artists* # 421

Mexico City

Mexico City

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The economic meltdown that followed the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929 shattered the country’s faith in itself.  With one third of the country unemployed and droughts devastating the Midwest, many Americans doubted their ability to endure and triumph.  More than ever, as the American novelist John Dos Passos asserted, the country needed to know “what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.”  Guided by the Mexican muralists, whose art they had ample opportunities to study in reproduction and exhibition, American artists responded by seeking elements from the country’s past, which they mythologized into epics of strength and endurance in an effort to help the nation revitalize itself.

Thomas Hart Benton led the charge.  Long a vociferous critic of European abstraction as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people, Benton hailed the Mexican muralists for the resolute public engagement of their art and for portraying the pageant of Mexican national life, exhorting his fellow American artists to follow their example in forging a similar public art for the U.S., even as he firmly rejected the communist ideology that often inflected the Mexican artists’ work.  African American artists were likewise inspired by the Mexican muralists’ celebration of the people’s fight for emancipation.  In creating redemptive narratives of social justice and liberation, artists such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence transformed that struggle for freedom and equality into a new collective identity, one that foregrounded the contribution of African Americans to national life.        

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 404

"Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58" image, 50" x 70" framed

“Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″ image, 50″ x 70″ framed

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Before we can even think of ecological rescue, global disarmament, or economic reform, we must find a way back to what science fiction writers call our homeworld.  The term encompasses more than the biosphere; it also includes our homes, our places of work, our  communities, families, friends, and lovers.  It includes our technologies and tools, the physical body, the sensible soul, and the unconscious psyche.  We need a faith to restore our capacity to feel, to affect and be affected with the same passionate intensity as our forebears, whose powers of feeling astound us so in the records and art of the past.  The death of affect, to borrow a phrase from JG Ballard, is the true catastrophe of our spectral age, our spiritual Hiroshima.  It makes questions such as whether life’s riddles are answered at the Vatican, in Tibet, or by the Large Hadron Collider utterly meaningless, since it removes the ground we need to pose such questions in the first place.  Neither religion nor science can give us back the ground.  Only the imagination can.  Only art can mend the rupture of the soul and the world, the body and the earth.       

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Pearls from artists* # 198

"Troublemaker," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Troublemaker,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom.  All he needs is a pencil and some paper.  I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money.  The good writer never applies to a foundation.  He’s too busy writing something.  If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom.  Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.  People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand.  They are afraid to find out how tough they are.  Nothing can destroy the good writer.  The only thing that can alter the good writer is death.  Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich…

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer.  If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything that can help it much.  The problem does not apply if he is not first-rate, because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

William Faulkner in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited and with an introduction by Malcolm Cowley

Comments are welcome!

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