Lisa Hanawalt (The Bat Segundo Show #502)

Lisa Hanawalt is most recently the author of My Dirty Dumb Eyes. Please note the prefatory reading contains wild and rambunctious horse noises to simulate accompanying images in audio form.

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Author: Lisa Hanawalt

Subjects Discussed: Language that perplexes Planet of the Apes aficionados, revolting against natural euphony, being a native Californian, San Francisco Bay Area people who end up in Brooklyn, Alternative Press Expo, Buenaventura Press, how UCLA grooms its art students, immersing yourself in the comics scene, the disadvantages of hyphenates, drawing animal humanoid figures, being a “horse girl,” the best horse sounds, interspecies relationships, childhood notions of marriage, crawling around on all fours, having parents as scientists, taxonomic qualities in genotypes, the inspirational qualities of illustrated guides, the single comic strip as batty syllogism, unlimited space, The Vow, “based on a true story,” scribbling notes after seeing a movie, War Horse, imagining that you’re a horse, venturing into surrealistic realms to get into personal truths, Hanawalt not drawing herself, Julia Wertz, how voice translates generic labels, artists who lean too much on pop culture, the horrors of Slate Culture Gabfest, recap culture, the artistic response as a way to avoid pop culture trappings, Hanawalt’s toy fair report, why the tangible and the physical is more rewarding than the pop cultural, going into a war zone, Sarah Glidden, Israel, being shy around strangers, David Foster Wallace, the comics answer to the footnote, the animalized person as a form of armor, ribald sexuality, wedding registries, seeking permission to draw friends within pieces, varieties of “in vino veritas,” art professors who are obsessive about faces, teachers who are too nice, sculpting, dogs who bark once a day, taking a break from two-dimensional work, visual cues from movies and visual cues from comics, having friends who are comics, the toy company pecking order, why power structures are interesting, commenting upon politics, the advantages of presenting yourself as an idiot, the New York Times‘s veto of “butt turkey,” restrictions from family newspapers, balancing artistic integrity and paying the rent, being read comics by her dad, not leaving the house, living in Greenpoint, shifting from hating to loving New York, anxieties about public transportation, the hermetic seal of a car, the use of colors to enhance personal stories, the unsettling nature of sickly blues, the pristine look of Apple advertisements, white space, enhancing Ryan Gosling’s costume in Drive, deepening visual observations with the sartorial, the pleasant sounds of dogs lapping at water, Roger Corman’s Twitter presence, judging people from what they wear, paying attention to men’s clothing, best dressed cartoonists, how Jason Diamond dresses, Johnny Negron, how people get offended by everything, feeling like you’re on display for putting yourself out there, blocking people, the appeal of lines, silly statistics, the New York approval matrix, and infographics as the perfect joke structure.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the title. Because in light of the Planet of the Apes story you have in this, I kept thinking that your title was My Damn Dirty Eyes.

Hanawalt: (laughs)

Correspondent: It’s like you deliberately designed a title to make Planet of the Apes fans, to just throw them off. I’m not sure if that was conscious.

Hanawalt: I didn’t even think about that until now. You just blew my mind. I didn’t think about that.

Correspondent: Especially since there’s the Rise of the Planet of the Apes review. And I was thinking…

Hanawalt: And that’s something I say to my boyfriend. I call him, “You damn dirty ape!” Whenever he’s doing anything.

Correspondent: So you generally say “my dumb dirty” instead of “my dirty dumb”? How did that get swipped? Swapped?

Hanawalt: It’s Dirty Dumb, right?

Correspondent: Yes, it’s Dirty Dumb.

Hanawalt: I actually tried it both ways and I just liked the way “dirty dumb” sounded. I thought “dumb dirty” is the more natural way to say it. But I just like…it sounded like a musical. Dirty Dumb. Dirty Dumb. I don’t know.

Correspondent: You were revolting against natural euphony, basically.

Hanawalt: Yeah. I guess so. People keep switching them in reviews and stuff.

Correspondent: I was determined to get it right.

Hanawalt: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Correspondent: So you went to UCLA. And I’m a fellow Californian.

Hanawalt: Oh!

Correspondent: Although I was a northern Californian and you were a southern Californian.

Hanawalt: No, I”m from northern California originally.

Correspondent: You are!

Hanawalt: Yes.

Correspondent: Where were you at?

Hanawalt: Palo Alto.

Correspondent: Palo Alto! Oh my god, I was born in Santa Clara.

Hanawalt: Whoa.

Correspondent: So we’re Bay Areaites.

Hanawalt: Yup.

Correspondent: So how did we both end up in Brooklyn? You first. Actually, you only. (laughs)

Hanawalt: (laughs) Me only. Well, I met my boyfriend. So that was big.

Correspondent: Oh! Well, I met a girl too. Oh my god.

Hanawalt: It’s a good reason to move.

Correspondent: How did we not run into each other until now?

Hanawalt: I don’t know. But that was not the official reason I moved for a long time. Just in case it didn’t work out. I didn’t want to say that. So I said it was to become part of a more vibrant comics community in Brooklyn, for more people of my age making comics here.

Correspondent: How did we not run into each other at Alternative Press Expo?

Hanawalt: I’ve been there.

Correspondent: I’ve been there multiple times. I covered it. I would go and I would interview everybody. Every person with minicomics there.

Hanawalt: Really? I used to go every year.

Correspondent: I went every year too. And I miss it. It was great.

Hanawalt: I would table with Buenaventura when I was there. I think I went 2008, 2009.

Correspondent: Yeah. Just a little after I did.

Hanawalt: We just missed each other.

Correspondent: We just missed each other. Well, now we’re talking.

Hanawalt: (laughs)

Correspondent: So you went to UCLA.

Hanawalt: Yes.

Correspondent: And you wanted to become a part of a comics community? Is that how you ended up in Greenpoint?

Hanawalt: Eventually. When I was at UCLA, I thought I wanted to be like a studio artist. Like an actual gallery painter. And that’s what they were sort of grooming me to be. But I guess once I graduated and didn’t immediately become a famous painter with solo shows in Chelsea, I was like, “Oh, I guess I’ll keep making these comics that I make at Kinko’s and write with my friends. Then eventually I got more into the comics scene as I started going to conventions and I met my first publisher.

Correspondent: So it was really kind of an accidental existence going into…

Hanawalt: Yeah, it was.

Correspondent: I read one interview where you said you didn’t feel that you were a cartoonist.

Hanawalt: Oh really? Did I?

Correspondent: Yes. You said that in 2010.

Hanawalt: Oh, I guess I changed my mind about it.

Correspondent: You are officially a cartoonist.

Hanawalt: Yeah, I do. You know, I make comics. If people ask me if I’m an artist, an illustrator, or a cartoonist, I say that I’m all three. And depending on my mood, I’ll introduce myself as one of the three.

Correspondent: And you can’t just call yourself a hyphenate or something.

Hanawalt: No, it’s just too complicated. And at that point, people — their eyes start to wander and they lose interest in talking with me. So….(laughs)

Correspondent: So what was the first animal humanoid figure that you ever drew? I was curious about that. They’re throughout your work. And I’m wondering when you started putting, say, lizard heads on regular people or pop cultural figures. Things like that.

Hanawalt: I started drawing cats as people when I was like five or six. And I was drawing myself. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a black cat that was also a human who wore an orange Hawaiian shirt. Because I was really into Weird Al Yankovic at the time. So I would draw my self-portrait as a black kitty cat. And then later I started drawing horses as people. When I was like seven, eight.

Correspondent: I know you were a “horse girl.” What does that entail? Did you ride horses? Did you enact a life as a horse? Did you do a lot of horse sounds? “Neeeeeeeeeigh” and all that?

Hanawalt: Yeah. I was a cat girl until I took my first riding lesson at eight. And it set off a bomb in my brain. And I just was like “Horses! Horses! Horses! I want to marry a horse. I want to be a horse. I just want to…”

Correspondent: You want to marry a horse?

Hanawalt: Yes. I used to want to marry a horse. I asked my mom if I could and she was like, “Maybe that will be legal someday.” She had a very…

Correspondent: A lax view on bestiality.

Hanawalt: I guess.

Correspondent: Interspecies relations.

Hanawalt: I didn’t know at the time that marrying kind of meant that you were sexually partnered.

Correspondent: Oh, it was a more romantic image!

Hanawalt: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I was only six or eight. And I just wanted to be linked with a horse forever.

Correspondent: It’s sort of that moment where you’re playing with Barbie and Ken in the Dreamhouse. Then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh! They’re actually going to have sex as well.”

Hanawalt: Yeah. You figure that part out later. But yeah, I made a lot of horse noises. I drew horses. I crawled around on all fours.

Correspondent: Do you make horse noises to this very day?

Hanawalt: I can make a snorting sound. [highly commendable snorting sound]

Correspondent: Oh! That’s pretty good.

(Loops for this program provided by HardstyleRythm, ShortBusMusic, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #502: Lisa Hanawalt (Download MP3)

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Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Wait in line for a few hours, saunter into a dark and expansive theater where you’ll be standing anywhere from five to forty-five minutes to take a seat (all depending upon how polite or mercenary you are), and settle onto one of the couches (partitioned in sets of three) once a stranger has had enough. But be careful with the way you spend your time. Because once you leave the area, whether for snack or bathroom break, there’s no coming back unless you stand in the snaking queue again.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock may favor the determined, but it’s something of a rigged game. Supply and demand is carefully calibrated by making the seats precious real estate. It’s a perfect laboratory for behavioral economist Dan Ariely to conduct new experiments. Yet the clips of people standing on train platforms or waiting in sordid rooms may strengthen your resolve to stay on your feet. Still, after a few hours, the impulse to slump into the next free seat only increases.

Inside the room, the projected images are recognizable and faintly exotic, liberated from cinematic sources both pop and obscure, and ineluctably locked into the very minute you are experiencing. At 3:00 PM, Woody Allen shows up for his appointment with Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and the joke about Sorvino’s prostitute telling Allen that she has “a great sense of humor” after showing him a clock with two fornicating pigs gets a new context. Little changes with Harold Lloyd’s famous clock-hanging moment, but when Peter Parker is fired for delivering a pizza late in Spider-Man 2, his fate at the hands of spoiled materialists is crueler because we are more aware of the temporal qualities.

Then there are the cinematic moments in which one was never especially aware of the time in the original context, even when clocks were heavily involved. Cathryn Harrison throws an old woman’s alarm clock collection out the window in Louis Malle’s Black Moon, but did the actual time ever really matter? Patrick McGoohan secures the electropass watch to escape the Village in “Arrival,” but without the roaring white balloon or Number Two to taunt him, he could very well be confused with a disgruntled bureaucrat. Jack Nicholson’s droll wooing of Ann-Margaret as he sings “Go to the Mirror” in Ken Russell’s Tommy becomes less about seduction and more about a doctor using time as sparingly as possible. When we see Nicholson again in a clip from About Schmidt, waiting for the last moments of 5:00 PM to tick away on his last day in a drab and lonely office, I couldn’t help but wonder if his fixation on time caused him to lose Ann-Margaret.

I had feared that The Clock would be a Wagnerian bauble: a novelty requiring only time and fortitude to embrace its contextual charms. But I discovered that Marclay’s massive opus tinkered not only with my passion for cinema, but upon my temporal prejudices. I experienced an undeniable joy for kitsch upon witnessing a preposterous fight scene from MacGyver and realized that my reverence for a certain period of 1980s cinema was more bountiful than expected. Yet I felt somewhat saddened when the film denied me clips of people fleeing the workplace after 5PM. I have always felt that there was something romantic about people liberated from their daily capitalist commitments to live out the true joys of their lives, but I didn’t feel The Clock properly acknowledged it. We do, however, see a moribund commuting moment on a packed subway. And I did notice that Marclay included a sad quotidian moment from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing. So clearly the assumptive fault is mine.

The Clock isn’t just about exposing our our enslavement to time. There is an inescapable physical component to this endurance test. If you are with friends, you may end up leapfrogging from couch to couch, slowly traveling back to your dear companions initially stranded in the IKEA archipelago. Because you are among an artistically sensitive crowd, you may find yourself throwing your dark coat over your head with a theatrical whoosh (as I did) to stub out the searing light from your phone as you text your coordinates to the people you came with, hoping that they will find you later. I witnessed some couples squeezing closer together, and I could suss out the degree to which friends wanted to be together by the way they raced to seating that had just opened up. But when a clip from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom played, stretching my mild voyeurism onto the discomfiting canvas of Carl Boehm’s hungry and sociopathic eyes, I become consumed by tremendous guilt in watching other people. If cinema was a communal experience, why should I have to be punished for it? Was there something pornographic in being curious about others? Or was The Clock something of an impetuous tot stomping its feet for attention?

I did feel that The Clock was very much a pleasant narcotic that was difficult for me to resist, yet these social concerns recalled Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a sidescrolling video game art project which confronts the manner in which you parcel out your life and pits individual ambition against love and communion. After nearly five hours inside Marclay’s fish tank, I was confident that I could spend at least four more, despite the fact that I had not slept much. But my companions had maxed out and I did not wish to abandon them.

We went to dinner. I had no desire to look at the time.

The Bat Segundo Show: Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #456. She is most recently the author of The Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can start a Kickstarter campaign for someone to send him tequila money.

Author: Molly Crabapple

Subjects Discussed: Daily walks to McNally Jackson, the logistics of setting up the Week in Hell experiment, the logistics of sneaking people and materials in a hotel, eluding maids, Philippe Petit, the similarities and differences between photographers and visual artists, conversation and dreams as inspirational forces, aerial hoops, the Internet as an idea source, prototypes of the Week in Hell experiment, the necessity of changing up artistic routine, Susan Sontag, education as a birthright vs. education as an adult, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dick Clark’s death and those who shamed people on Twitter for not knowing who Dick Clark is, the infinite storehouse of online knowledge, the benefits of accordion players in producing art, Kim Boekbinder, how performers inspire Crabapple, drawing faceless girlthings with parasols, Crabapple’s tendency towards the curved line, Scarlett Takes Manhattan, drawing an undersea Algonquin roundtable, Alexander Woollcott, illustrating in response to current events and the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks squid, Occupy Wall Street, pigs and depraved nightclubs, the first animals Crabapple was drawn to, the allure of drawing grotesque items, allegorical pity parties, bitching about people who are more successful, a thought experiment involving Napoleon having a pity party, despair, self-pity, and depression as inspirational forces, Kay Redfield Jamison, not having down time, avoiding repeating yourself, Damien Hirst, unethical business practices, saying no to certain corporate clients, feeling bad about drawing a topless picture of Hillary Clinton for a conservative publisher out of financial desperation, the lines between the artistic and the commercial, whoring out your heart of hearts, the myth of artistic purity, Howard Roark and the Randian ideal, nude modeling, the need for expensive promotional campaigns, how a young and emerging artist who can’t do nude modeling can survive when she first starts out, retail jobs, New York as a place hostile to certain strains of art, Zoe Strauss, being declared “not a real artist” by The New York Times Book Review, Luc Sante’s Low Life, whether research bogs down art, and the value of lipstick planted upon art.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of this Week in Hell experiment. The first thing I have to say, in seeing the television covered up and in seeing the thermostat on the wall, what negotiations were there with the hotel management to actually allow this to happen?

Crabapple: Oh, we didn’t ask the hotel.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh, you didn’t? They found out while it was happening?

Crabapple: They didn’t find out at all.

Correspondent: Really?

Crabapple: This was entirely surreptitiously.

Correspondent: Wow. (laughs)

Crabapple: I will probably send them a copy of the book. The reason was that we initially wanted to do it at another hotel and we had all this money from the Kickstarter. And we were like, “Golly, mister, here’s $4,500 to do our crazy art project.” And they were like, “Oh no! You must speak with our creative directors to see if you’re in line with our creative vision.” And I thought that was bullshit. So I just dressed up like a fancy person and borrowed a Ralph Lauren suitcase to hide all those rolls of paper in.

Correspondent: Really? (laughs) It’s like a bank heist.

Crabapple: We totally ran it like a bank heist. Snuck everything in. Told the maid not to come all week.

Correspondent: Was that the 57 minutes that you spent eluding the maid, which you refer to?

Crabapple: Yes! Exactly!

Correspondent: Wow. So you actually had to plan this like a bank heist. I mean, I understand. I’ve done some of these interviews in hotels and I’m told that I can’t actually sit down with these microphones with another person. Just having a conversation. So why did you have to go ahead and do this almost like you were shooting without a film permit? What steps did you take to plan this bank heist?

Crabapple: So me and Melissa, who’s my amazing assistant.

Correspondent: Yes.

Crabapple: Who is actually the brains behind all of my harebrained ideas. We made a long list of everything that could possibly go wrong. We did everything from testing the right type of tape to hold the paper off, that wouldn’t peel off the paint, to getting the right fancy people suitcases. So we wouldn’t look all sketchy sneaking into the Gramercy Park Hotel with duffel bags.

Correspondent: Did you have any consultants say, “Hey, you actually look professional enough to pass muster with the scrupulous guards”?

Crabapple: (laughs) What was so funny was that I had this whole outfit, which can only be described as rich people’s whore.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Crabapple: It was all Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuittons and shit. And I went in and everybody is wearing sweatpants. And I was so disappointed.

Correspondent: Well, these tests about not peeling the paint off the walls. And the paper itself. The specific markers you used. I’m wondering. What were the logistics here? I’m really curious.

Crabapple: The paper and markers?

Correspondent: Yeah. How many types of paper did you have to go through?

Crabapple: We didn’t go through types of paper. Because I got that sponsored.

Correspondent: Okay.

Crabapple: It was more — Melissa’s whole wall was covered with different strands of paper being held up with different types of tape.

Correspondent: Fantastic. What other logistics were needed aside from this? Anything else that you’re missing?

Crabapple: We had tons and tons of friends sneaking in the entire week and we found a back staircase for them to sneak up. Because we didn’t — I mean, especially when we had the wild closing party.

Correspondent: This is like Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Center. How he had friends gradually get all the supplies up over the course of several weeks in advance. Was it similar here?

Crabapple: It was kind of like that. I even had one of my friends go into the hotel, looking super-sketchy so that he could see how much scrutiny he would get.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really? Did you have any input into his skeeziness?

Crabapple: No, we just went with his natural dress.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. I got it. Now for many of the visitors who came into this hotel room during this week, I’m wondering if you asked permission to draw them. I mean, this raises an interesting question for me. Because you have one particular drawing that’s part of this elaborate project where you have the photographers, who are drawn like lizards to your friend. Because they’re ogling her with their cameras. And so I’m wondering. This made me think. How much is any artist, who illustrates or sketches or paints, different from, say, a photographer of any stripe? What are your thoughts on this? And what are your thoughts in terms of drawing people at will who happen to come into the room? Or was that the agreement for anyone who came through the room?

Crabapple: Well, people usually want to be drawn by me. But that’s actually an awesome question. I’ve always thought that the instinct of the photographer and the visual artist are very similar — in that we’re generally twitchy weirdos who want to hang out with the cool people and we use our camera or our sketchpad as a way to kind of bribe the cool people to hang out with us. But the thing is that photography has become so ubiquitous that people don’t feel impressed anymore by having their picture taken. And, in fact, it can become like really grabby and soul-stealing. Like — I used to march a lot at the [Coney Island] Mermaid Day Parade and sometimes there would be such a crush of photographers — like yelling at you how to pose and demanding that you arch your back this way or demanding that you look at them — that it wasn’t a fun thing at all. Whereas most people only get drawn a few times in their life. So it still has a novelty to it. And I’ve always kind of used my sketchpad as this key to sneak into scenes where I really didn’t belong.

Correspondent: But stealing another person’s soul. It seems to me that you’ve always been very conscious about this. Even from the Dr. Sketchy stuff. So my question is: how do we return the balance so that the person who is photographed or the person who is drawn actually feels comfortable and doesn’t feel as if she has her soul stolen through the process of art?

Crabapple: Well, with me, what I always try to do is I always try and capture the person’s personality, as well as just how hot they look. Like when I did the picture of Stoya on that door, I’m talking to her. And I do like her beautiful, beautiful, perfect, mathematically perfect face. Then I also — since I’m friends with her, I draw her making her own costumes — she’s a brilliant costumer — and on her aerial hoop. And then I talk with her. And she complains about obnoxious photographers. And so I draw them swarming around her.

Correspondent: So much of the input came from what she was telling you. As you were actually drawing her.

Crabapple: Exactly. It was just as much a portrait of our conversation.

Correspondent: In terms of the hoop, that was based off of memory. Did you have any source material for that?

Crabapple: That was based off of memory. I’ve seen a lot of aerialists in my time.

Correspondent: You note that you were drawing the top of the wall at the very beginning of this. So that you would have some inspiration for your dreams. And it seems to me that between that and the influx of stories that you had plenty of inspiration. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do if you run out of ideas to sketch during this situation?

Crabapple: I asked the Internet. I had a livestream going along. And my livestream audience would be saying, “Draw hippos on the moon! Draw undersea Algonquin round table!” And I would put that in if I was running out of inspiration.

Correspondent: So did you feel that sometimes the list of suggestions was too intrusive a presence? Or there were a lot of bad ideas sifting through this? Were you playing Beat the Clock because you had only a week to cover this entire surface?

Crabapple: There was a certain amount of Beat the Clock going on. I drew pretty much every waking hour. Like in the back of all my glamorous friends partying, there was usually me standing up on top of a shelf frantically sketching things.

Correspondent: Really? Well, were there any trial runs of you sketching things? Like say in your bathroom for half a day? Or anything like that?

Crabapple: I was at Stumptown Comics Festival. They had me as a guest. And I didn’t want to sit behind a table and sign things. Because I don’t know. I felt like I was at a craft fair or something. So instead I was like, “Why don’t you just hang up a giant piece of paper where my table would be and I’ll just draw on it over the course of the convention”? And I did a six foot by six foot drawing.

Correspondent: So that was the trial run.

Crabapple: That was where I got the idea.

Correspondent: Were there any other runs before that? Maybe three by three?

Crabapple: (laughs) That’s just my career.

Correspondent: Exactly. So what do you need often to keep your routine changed up? I mean, you suggested that this was the end of a particular period in your life. It was sort of your renouncement of pen and ink. How often do you need to change things up in order to stay fresh as an artist? I’m curious. Do you anticipate the next move? Does it come organically? Do you just do it and it becomes ambitious by default?

Crabapple: I’m not a very thoughtful person. And I’m incapable of thinking in Five Year Plans. And also I’m kind of young. So I don’t really know — like I just don’t have that many periods in my work. I don’t know. I was in this deep fucked up almost clinical depression when I was 27. And I don’t know why. My brain was just wonky. And I needed to do something to do violence to all of this stuff in my art that I was tired of. And this was how I did it. And I’m sure I’ll need to do it again. But I don’t know when or how.

The Bat Segundo Show #456: Molly Crabapple (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Eric Kandel

Eric Kandel recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #452. He is most recently the author of The Age of Insight and was the 2000 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Checking his brain in for artistic purposes.

Author: Eric Kandel

Subjects Discussed: The interdisciplinary possibilities in Vienna 1900, Gustav Klimt, Berta Zuckerkandl, how Rokitansky’s leadership at the Vienna School of Medicine influenced Freud and numerous others, Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, how the beholder plays into artistic representation, Semir Zeki and the Kanizsa triangle, how the brain distinguishes between artists based on cues, the effect of Klimt’s Judith I upon the brain, unity between the science and the humanities, Leonardo da Vinci’s reliance upon anatomy, two-directional relationships between art and neuroscience, the region of the brain that is devoted to facial representation, prosopagnosia, autism and empathy, theory of mind, Freud’s “Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood,” Freud and art history, Alois Riegl’s historic and critical innovations, external coherence, the futility of psychoanalyzing an artist when he’s dead, Ernst Gombrich, modern cognitive psychology emerging from Freud, an artist’s biographical details in the relationship between art and neuroscience, Kokoschka’s The Wind’s Fiancée and Schiele’s Death and the Maiden, recruiting different parts of the brain to respond to different emotional states, how the brain responds to exaggeration and hands, faces and the inferotemporal cortex, caricatures and the brain, autism and responding to bodily motion, James-Lange theory, Walter Cannon, Hugo Critchley, how much we presently understand the insula, top-down processing, the universal functions of art, Dennis Dutton’s two views of art (the mind as a blank slate, art as an instinctive evolutionary trait), Arthur Schnitzler’s interior monologues, whether art can be on the same evolutionary level as the opposable thumb, retinal ganglion cells, Stephen W. Kuffler and on-center and off-center neurons, Mach bands, the dalmatian illusion, how the brain uses contrast, Ramachandran and peak shift, gestaltian intake of faces, the symbolic value of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and when reductionist approaches to science are helpful.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You point out quite early on in this book that there was something about the liberal intellectual spirit in Vienna 1900 that permitted all these fascinating interdisciplinary possibilities. You have the Vienna School of Medicine, which becomes this vital part of culture for Viennese artists and intellectuals. You have Klimt, who’s studying biology informally with Berta Zuckerkandl and he also has these amazing three panels that he does for the University of Vienna. As you point, they are rejected for being too radical, too pornographic, and too ugly. So just to start things off here, and we’ll get into the science in a bit, what specific factors do you feel allowed this golden age of collisional ideas to happen? I mean, from the vantage point of the 21st century, what lessons can neuroscience and biology take away from this really flourishing period?

Kandel: I think what is really so important is, as you pointed out, that there was an interaction between science, literature, and arts that was really unusual. And this began with the School of Medicine, which had great leadership at that time. Under the leadership of a guy called Rokitansky who introduced modern scientific medical practice by developing clinical/pathological correlations to a more systematic way than it had ever been. He felt that when you listened to a patient’s heart and you hear an abnormal sound, you don’t know which valve it’s coming from or exactly what is the disorder of the valve. And so he collaborated with a clinician. And the clinician described the patient’s sounds from the heart and the lungs in great detail. But if the patient died, they collaborated together to do an autopsy on him to figure out exactly what valve was involved and how. And that gave rise to the scientific medicine we now practice. And Rokitansky realized that the truth is often hidden from the surface. And you have to go deep below the surface to get there.

And that is a metaphor that influenced Freud, that influenced Klimt, that influenced all of these people. That surface appearances are misleading. They were also influenced by Darwin and they realized that humans are wonderful creatures, but they involved from simple animal ancestors and we have instinctual drives that we share with other animals. And Freud picked this up — he was sort of the Darwin of the mind — and realized that when human beings interact, they interact through surface appearances. There are a lot of processes that are hidden from them. The unconscious mind, which he really developed in great detail. And these ideas were also picked up by the artists. They were in part influenced by Freud, but in part on their own. So Freud had a very good understanding of many aspects of the human mind, but didn’t understand female sexuality at all. Klimt had a very profound understanding of female sexuality and in his drawings of women, which are absolutely just marvelous, he depicts women having their own independent sexual life, masturbating, pleasuring themselves without the presence of a man, without feeling obligated to look out at the viewer, as if that was the necessary thing for satisfying them. They could have their own fantasy life. And also that eroticism could be fused with aggression, as in a very famous painting of Judith and Holofernes. So he had tremendous insight into the human psychology. This was carried further by Kokoschka and Schiele, two of his disciples if you will. Kokoschka focused this self-analysis on himself. This analysis on himself showed how his own unconscious processes were recruited, realized that he could depict adolescent sexuality. He was the first artist to depict adolescent female nudes, pointed out sexual struggles between really young children. He has a very famous painting of the Stein children. A brother and sister. Both aggressive and erotic components involved in their interaction. And then finally Schiele, who studied himself almost exclusively, using himself as an object for exploring unconscious mental processes. Just an extraordinary period.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, let’s talk about Egon Schiele. His self-portraits in the book, many of which expressed, as you were saying here, this eroticism, this anxiety. In the case of Self-Portrait with Striped Armlets, it depicts him as a fool. He depicts himself as a fool. So his anxiety may very well evoke this fear in the beholder, or the viewer. But there’s a difference between what Schiele experienced and what he chose to express. So it’s possible that he may have exaggerated or distorted.

Kandel: Oh, there’s no question. I mean, I think what he tried to depict is the essential anxiety of modern man. And he depicted this in a lot of artificial ways in order to bring them out. He was very much influenced by Charcot and the postures that people could assume while under hypnosis. And he actually postured in order to convey these emotions. And also he was shocking. He painted himself masturbating in the mirror in order to make clear that no emotion is alien to him. And he’s willing to share that with the beholder.

Correspondent: Well, if a painting is a buffer between the artist and the beholder, how do scientific developments account for what the artist withholds or decides to distort? Or what the beholder might in fact misinterpreted or be tricked into interpreting? There are many illusions in this book too.

Kandeel: This is, of course, true. The sign of a great painting is its ambiguity. It allows you and me to bring different things to bear on it. And depending upon our relative sophistication on a particular subject, or a particular sub-subject, we would interpret it in different ways. So I think this is part of the greatness of art, that it allows different people to bring their own experiences to bear on it in an individualistic way.

Correspondent: The key element in assessing the relationship between art and neuroscience is the beholder. Now Semir Zeki has argued that the Kanizsa triangle, where we see these three…

Kandel: These illusory contours. They’re not there. We make them up. Zeki, of course, one of the pioneers in visual perception, is in an ideal position to point out that the brain is a creativity machine, which art historians in Vienna 1900 began to appreciate. That we don’t reproduce in our head what we see in the outside world. That’s not a detail of reproduction. We construct it. We take it apart. And we build it together again. So the beholder undergoes a creative process that parallels what the artist undergoes. It’s an amazing set of insights.

Correspondent: And that Zeki experiment is one example of the beholder responding to cues. Zeki also discovered in another experiment that no matter what type of art was presented to the subject, the same areas of the prefrontal cortex are going to light up. So if the biology of beauty, as you write, has varied very little over the centuries and also across cultures, my question to you is why are these cues and our biases so universal? I mean, how does the brain distinguish between, say, Klimt and Hopper?

Kandel: Well, it clearly sees different forms. But that does not mean that those two painters can evoke certain common responses. And what you’re seeing is the common responses. There are also distinctive elements between the two. So there’s a loneliness that Hopper depicts that you never see in Klimt.

Correspondent: You are very precise when speculating upon Klimt’s Judith and its effect on the brain. You write that the gold hues, the soft body, and the colors trigger the release of dopamine and that Judith’s sadistic gaze might release norepinephrine. And this demonstrates that art has an effect on neuroscience. But it also seems to imply that this connection is almost a one directional flow. In light of E.O. Wilson’s hope for unity between biology and the humanities, and in consideration of the impact of Freud’s ideas have had on the Viennese Secession, I’m wondering how 21st century neuroscience has an effect on art in the other direction.

Kandel: You mean, how neuroscientists are likely to influence the arts?

Correspondent: Exactly. Anything on the level of how they influenced in Vienna.

Kandel: As you pointed out, it’s very easy to see how art influences science. Neuroscientists consider it as one of the great aspirations of the field to understand how we respond to works of art, how artists and how creativity takes place. What can art historians and artists take away from neuroscience? Well, Leonardo da Vinci spent a lot of time dissecting bodies when he was interested in getting a realistic depiction of human form, of people walking, of just how the various bones go together in order to form the body, and he learned an enormous amount by studying anatomy. So the hope is that as we know more about the biology of creativity, we know more about perception, we will excite artists to think about new art forms that may bring those things out even more effectively. Also, if they learn one of the kinds of stimuli that really turn on different regions of the brain, they might be able to play upon their skills to bring out those things even more. So one would hope this would be a dialogue that would go in both directions and have some impact on art as well.

The Bat Segundo Show #451: Eric Kandel (Download MP3)

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Don’t Give Up

It is a late hour, or, rather, an early one. But then it’s possible that the hour I am writing this post matters very little to you. Nevertheless, I announce my temporal bearings not to recuse myself, but to put this post into some kind of perspective. I am now pondering a future without the delightful band, Blah Blah Blah, who recently announced on their MySpace page that they had given up. I’m saddened by this news. I am now very worried about all the other artists out there who are now considering giving it all up. I am concerned about a world in which anyone who beats their drum just a tad too fast or plucks their guitar just a tad too originally for the marketing people to understand throws in the towel.

Well, I am urging you not to give it up. Yes, times are tough for all of us. But it is very important for you to go on. To work in some form. Even without compensation, if that’s all there is for a time. Even if you only half understand what it is you’re all about. Even if you’re not quite sure what your work amounts to. Even if nobody gives a good goddam about how hard you’ve toiled over your sentences, or how difficult it was for you to insert that subtle chord change in that song you uploaded somewhere that only five of your friends listened to. All this is work. It’s supposed to be difficult. But it becomes even more difficult once you realize you’re living in a society hostile to nearly anybody who decides to live this kind of life.

Being an “overnight success” is a myth. The ones who made it did so because they were stubborn, hopelessly devoted to what they could offer the world. They carried on and became better at their craft. Some of them didn’t even know it. Most of them were misunderstood.

Understand that I am not advocating mediocrity. I am merely telling the truth. The market is not interested in taking chances on anyone who deviates from the formula. The market is hedging bets with the veterans, no matter if they are washed up. There are a few coins to be loosened from the sofa, but it takes some skill to survive on those coins. The true artists will find a way to carry on, because that is what they are and that is what they’ve been reduced to. This is the unwavering itching at the bottom of the artistic soul. Scratch it at your own peril. You’ll know if you can’t stop scratching. And if you have even a scant success, you’ll certainly appreciate it more than the dilettantes.

Similiveritude

The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!

— Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamus”

There exists a maximum amount of prearranged information, cultural reconfiguration, and other artistic offerings that one can ingest before it becomes necessary to splash bracing water upon one’s face (or, to take this idea further, to permit dollops of grease to crease one’s cheeks because of a self-administered oil change in one’s figurative vehicle). This is where the frequently overlooked human experience comes into play. By venturing outside one’s domicile or spending time with other humans commonly referred to as “friends” (as they are specified in the parlance of our time), or by participating in intimate activities that involve getting out of the house because the windows have fogged up and nobody wants to talk about the pleasant musky odor known to cause roommates to scurry, one can encounter a new sheath of information or perhaps a sequence of events that is not as neatly contrived or as conveniently cross-referenced as the hallowed narrative construct. The real world is refreshingly anarchic and, depending upon your degree of involvement, can prove to be more interesting than the cultural item that purports to represent it.

It is for these reasons, among many, that books which cannot live up to life must be thrown across the room. It is for these reasons, among many, that one should strive to emerge beyond the house, speak on the phone, meet up for coffee with deranged but amicable individuals, chat up strangers, and otherwise own up to one’s responsibility to live, lest one takes the hypothetical hurling of the book across the room too seriously. (It is a mere parabolic flourish, but a pugilistic passion not to be entirely discounted!)

We speak of verisimilitude, but we don’t speak so often of its dreaded cousin, similiveritude. And if you don’t know what similiveritude is, it is not because I have coined the word. (As it so happens, I am not the originator. At the risk of adopting Googleveritude, another nonsense noun unfound through Googling, one encounters only two search terms for “similiveritude.” Some gentleman named Felix appears to be the first to bandy this about. So I’ll give Felix the proper plaudits — congrats, Felix! you were the one! can I have your baby? — and carry on with this febrile exegesis.)

You could very well be a simiiveritudinist, but you may not know it. And if you still don’t know what this word is, well, then you haven’t been paying attention to all the phonies and the charlatans laboring at “art” who refuse to admit that they have no real understanding of the world they live in, much less an emotional relationship to it. It is quite possible that they may capable practitioners of verisimilitudinous art, but this intuitive connection may very well be dwarfed by academia’s rotten institutional walls.

For the similiveritudinist, life must not only reflect art. Art is the very life itself! The similiveritudinist gravitates to an artistic representation in lieu of a stunning natural moment. He may attend an artistic function, hoping that it will fill in certain ontological vacuities from not thinking about or otherwise ignoring the world. The similiveritudinists talk with others, but the conversational topics are limited mostly to art. My empirical state has revealed that similiveritudinists are found in greater frequency in New York than in San Francisco. Similiveritudinists may be socially maladjusted, apolitical, asexual, or otherwise fond of keeping their noggins lodged inconsolably in the sand. Understand that there is no set formula here aside from highly specialized chatter. They may create callow games like “Name That Author” and they may put up photos on their websites of otherwise pleasant individuals who appear more bored than a silo stacked with accountants on the eve of the apocalypse. They may spend all their time occupying movie theaters — and I have seen more than a few etiolated souls who live for the New York Film Festival’s darkness over the past few weeks — but they cannot confess that they have enjoyed something, nor can they be authentic, stand apart, or otherwise inhabit the variegated identity within. They may indeed be employed primarily as critics, lacking the heart, the soul, the tenacity, or the talent to make a strike for the creative mother lode. The pursuit of art is, in the similiveritudinist’s mind, always a serious business. The worst of the similiveritudinists will thumb their noses at genre, popular art, or anything sufficiently “lower.” (This works, incidentally, both ways.) They believe that art, serving here as a surrogate plasma, must always be high, and that anything that falls beneath these cherished standards should be disregarded. They have perhaps inured themselves to the pleasures of a commonplace flagrance or the joys of a small child laughing as a sun sets over the playground. Joie de vivre? Try joie de livre! The similiveritudinist’s vivre, scant as it may be, is likely to be the hell of other people.

If you’re thinking that my wild ruminations here emerge in response to Horace Engdahl’s remarks concerning the current state of American literature, well, your hunch is partially correct. Michael Orthofer, a gentleman and a scholar, has already exoriated Mr. Engdahl quite nicely (as well as Adam Kirsch’s equally myopic remarks, which are perhaps a tad more pardonable because Mr. Kirsch is now out of a job and must now consort with the rabble, surviving hand-to-mouth like any other cultural freelance writer; which can’t be easy, because I suspect that many of us live more frugally and enthusiastically, and certainly less similiveritudinously, than Mr. Kirsch). So my specific reaction to Mr. Engdahl’s words isn’t quite necessary. Mr. Orthofer has already gone to town here. But I suspect that Mr. Engdahl and I might share a few grave concerns over the similiveritudinists who have invaded American literature. The crux of his criticisms suggest very highly that he may be an asshole, but he is thankfully not a similiveritudinist.

To live for culture is not enough. Culture is no replacement for the real thing. It is a helpful prism with which to find and divine certain meanings, but it is only one great piece of the living puzzle. And Mr. Engdahl is quite right to suggest that certain literary clusters within the United States have become too isolated and too insular. Did Jonathan Franzen read any other emerging author aside from the tepid name he picked from his middlebrow hat when he was asked to name his 5 Under 35 choice? We’ll never know, but his choice, which discounts the dozens of emerging voices who currently write for life and passion, is clearly that of a similiveritudinist. Likewise, David Remnick has been foolish enough to suggest that none of our celebrated writers are “ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.” This is clearly the remark of a tony avocet too terrified to leave his golden perch. A casual saunter through any three city blocks reveals this ruddy symbol of the beast, the hellish mire of advertising that threatens to subsume all human moments. Has Remnick’s annual $1 million salary prevented him perhaps from, say, properly understanding what it is like to live under $30,000 a year? Or to work two jobs? Or to toil in the service sector?

If you do not know why you must tip a waiter in cash, but you can cite pitch-perfect passages from Milton, you are a similiveritudinist. If you do not know the price of a package of hamburger buns, but you’re not keeping track of how much you are blowing at Amazon, you are a similiveritudinist. If you have not skipped a meal so that another mouth can be fed, but you can describe the precise cordial to go along with a slice of pecan fig bourbon cake, you are a similiveritudinist.

Similiveritude represents everything that is wrong with American literature. Not all American literature falls under its terrible influence, and there are many literary advocates who understand its proper secondary place. To cure a similiveritudinist, you must ensure that this reader doesn’t just have a clue, but maintains an open and genuine curiosity about everything. To listen to a stranger because you are interested. To view the book as something that may be real in feeling but unreal in execution. To accept that something crazy, whether it be an elaborate series of footnotes or a moment of magical realism, is meant to happen in a book from time to time because the book is not real. More important than a critical scalpel hoping to be absolute in its appraisal is the idea of whether or not the book is applicable to the human heart, and whether or not this applicability feels intuitively true. From here, reasons and justifications can be loosened, with enough wiggle room to involve the reader.

Last month, Nigel Beale saw fit to tsk-tsk me because I had enjoyed a story involving an unhappy housewife having an affair with a 1,000-year-old woodpecker, and it had provoked an emotional reaction in me. It goes without saying that woodpeckers do not live this long and that most lonely housewives would settle for a Hitachi Magic Wand over a cuckolding canary. But the point here is that Mr. Beale, despite being a good egg, could not get beyond his own personal definitions of literature. And I fear that Mr. Beale might dip into the similiveritudinous deep end of the great literary pool because of his inability to (a) read the story to see what I’m talking about or (b) consider the story on its own terms, despite the unconventional sexuality presented. It is not a matter of Mr. Beale liking or disliking the story. That is his choice. But it is the instant dismissal of the story, and the dismissal of my reaction, that is the issue here. It would be no different if I were to dismiss a reader for, say, enjoying a James Patterson book. Now personally I loathe James Patterson’s work. But a reader has the right to have an informed reaction, even a positive one, and we have the obligation to listen to that reader’s reaction before chiming in with our own. Because there might be some intriguing personal reason for why someone prefers the story with the woodpecker or the James Patterson novel that represents a peculiar commitment to life.

Of course, abandoning similiveritude or listening to the other’s viewpoint doesn’t mean abandoning one’s artistic faculties. It merely means placing a particular way of living first: keeping an open mind and ensuring that the careful intake of culture remains a thorough but secondary occupation. What I am calling for here, quite optimistically, are more Renaissance men to inhabit a society in which there are no limits or barricades to one’s curiosity, a nation that counters charges of insularity with limitless interest, a country that can make Mr. Engdahl’s half-true claims utterly fallacious. It starts with the end of similiveritude. It continues with a series of upturned ears. It ends with an army of pro-active thinkers who value life first.