On the Value of Art

We should think of art as an activity and not a product. The value of art to a culture comes from its work in illustrating and communicating symbolically the meaning and importance of a culture’s way of life. Art should be considered both literally and symbolically, as it works simultaneously by substantive representation and by implication and suggestion. What is suggested and therefore inferred is not comprehended literally but unconsciously, both in the individual and in the collective consciousness of the culture. Art provides thoughtful but also inconsiderate access to the unconscious and subconscious mind. It does this through pretending or pretention. All art is pretentious. Art begins with the childlike acting of let’s pretend.

The monetary value of a work of art, hundreds of millions now paid for a painting, does not speak to the value of art as it works in a culture. Anyone can engage in art, and everyone does. If we think of art as an activity (and not a product), we see the audience engaged in the work, not just watching or listening, but as part of its ongoing creation, and we see the work as a work in progress: vibrant, aging, deteriorating, fading. That is beauty.

To say that all art is pretentious works as follows. One year, I went to a local barber to get my hair cut. As Ring Lardner explained in his short story “Haircut” (1925), the participation in the activity of art makes the audience part of the work’s creation. (Sometimes, a visit to a barber can be as bad as having to go to a dentist.) In the barbershop at the time of my haircut, there happened to be three of us: the barber, myself, and an apparent friend of the barber. On the wall opposite the barber’s chair I sat in, hung a small, representational painting of a snow capped mountain. The barber proceeded to explain the painting’s merits. He said, “Put a photograph of that mountain next to that painting and I defy you to tell me which is which.” Of course, neither the painting nor the photograph was the mountain, but a pretension of the mountain. What the barber as art critic appeared to value in art was literalism. But in spite of his efforts, no mountain filled his barbershop.

Also implicit in my barber’s criticism is a theory of value and values. What we value, as individuals and as a culture, is simply what we want, what we desire, both consciously and unconsciously. But what we want is not always good for us. And by good here we mean healthy, life affirming, balanced, unpolluted, not harmful to ourselves, others, or to our environment. Cars, for example, in that context, are not good for us, yet most of us want one and can hardly imagine getting around without one. We might even say that all means of transportation are bad for us, even walking. Transportation is fraught with risk. We should sit at home and do nothing. But when the asteroid hits, it will hardly matter where we are or what we are doing. And what we value is transportation, and we work, ostensibly, to make the modes safer.

When we engage in activities that are not good for us we experience the irrational or nonrational. What the barber valued in art was more than simply representationalism, but rationality. He apparently felt that art that expressed or provided access to an irrational or nonrational experience was bad art. By the way, throughout the entire haircut, the barber enjoyed a cigarette that in between puffs sat in a green ceramic ashtray and emitted a wavering column of smoke that from my vantage point produced in the mountain a volcano effect.

We value looking inside of things. We want to see inside a mind. Thus we undergo psychoanalysis or some sort of therapy. We want to see inside our body. Thus we undergo a colonoscopy or get an MRI or an X-ray. We want to see inside our psyche – thus we read and write poetry. But notice the metaphor may not work there. The psyche is not inside, but outside. It’s all around us. And is it good to see inside of things? Are not these things closed up for good reasons? What happens when we intrude? Is that the purpose or effect of art – to look inside of things, to see what has been covered, hidden, kept secret?

There is no hierarchy of values. When we speak of family values, we point to what a unit of culture wants, and, again, that want is not necessarily synonymous with good. We value high school sports, football. Football is, at least arguably, not good for us – it’s not a healthful, balanced sport. It’s not a good investment. But football is a family value, of much importance economically and emotionally, of current US American experience. But we might think of football as an art form. As an art form, uncovering the irrational, we might find in football some of the hidden expressions and meanings of our culture.

When we speak of the value of art, we want to avoid a hierarchy of values. All values are equal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, often illustrated in pyramid illustration, as useful as it might be, underscores the culture’s competitive nature, which art undermines. For art is not competitive. And where there are art competitions – they have nothing to do with art.

A long married couple, having worked hard lifelong, now retired, would like to spend some leisure time in appreciation of a bit of what they think of as high culture. They buy tickets, from an ad received in the junk mail, to the local opera, where they experience the same family arguments they’ve live with these past 50 years, and hear the same folk songs they grew up with. They don’t understand a word of it, but they know someone is pissed off and another is beside themselves with grief and regret. Still another gloats, and another is mean and prods. And the couple, dressed to the nines for the experience, enjoy a glass of champagne in the lobby at intermission. They look around at the other opera goers and don’t recognize anyone. They each visit their respective lounges where they see someone in a full size mirror, a person they hardly recognize. And suddenly the value of art dawns on them, in the latrine at the opera.

Out of Key


“Out of key with his time,” Pound wrote, recognizing what might be said, regardless of form, is relegated in time, if not immediately, to the dustheap of the wasteland of the “botched civilization.” What was he trying to save? He had fallen out, had a falling out, and now has fallen even further. “Wrong from the start,” he said. Not to mention the end, the end of ages.

Only as commodity does art (music, poetry, sculpture) find its audience which values what the gatekeeper says. While art that is profane, outside the edifice, plays in the pocket, in key with its time.

We thought that had all been resolved by the Beats, where jazz and oral poetry, improvisation and play, not in big halls or while wearing wigs of beauty, but in the dive bars and rundown cafes in the skidrow of literature.

“…brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back…” (Joyce, FW).

En Plein Air

An urban photographer idling along on foot
found a plein air painter her portable kit
easel, small canvas, box of luscious bright wet
paints open and with one brush loose and light
all the motion in her wrist at the edge of the street
like frosting a cake her subject the poet
scribbling on a napkin at a sidewalk cafe table
sitting cool under an umbrella saturated scarlet
his poem about a live oil painter out and about
creeped up on cautiously for the stolen
image no one likely would object.

The Ant, 1998 (transl. 2021)

The Ant is a nickname for Delia Del Carril, second of Pablo Neruda’s three wives, and the title of her biography, by Fernando Saez, translated into English by Jessica Sequeira and published by Fiction Advocate, a small alternative press producing e-books and excellent quality paperbacks. As an enthusiastic follower of Jessica Sequeira’s work, I early ordered and read The Ant and considered a long reflective review comparing Delia to Joyce’s Nora, whose fictional biography I read and reviewed back in April (Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial). There’s almost no basis for comparison. Delia was a wealthy and influential scion world’s away from poor Nora, and she would be cast aside by Pablo, her junior by two decades, for the younger Matilde. But Delia and Nora were born the same year, 1884, and both married men who grew to gigantic proportion in the country of books. Both were dedicated to and sacrificed for their husbands, who, it might be argued, scarcely deserved their affection. But that is love. That Pablo was no saint should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his poetry or his Memoirs. Likewise, Joyce was no saint, at least not one likely to be canonized in the eyes of Holy Mother Church. Yet both Pablo and Joyce seemed to possess boundless capabilities (some might say disabilities) for love and love’s expressions. Time is the great canceller of the postage stamp that is literature. “Neruda participated in a bohemia of bars and poverty” (86) – places from where Joyce also drew a good amount of inspiration. “Could there have been two people any more different [than Pablo and The Ant]? It’s difficult and risky to explain the origins of an interest, the unthinkable reasons that bring a couple together and make love possible. The mystery of why him, and why her, can lead to a number of questions without answer, in which there is surely more absurdity than logic” (89). “More absurdity than logic” – how’s that for a definition of literature? But don’t we go to literature to find the logic that might displace the absurdity of our lives? In any case, apart from the absurdity of the love story, there are good, practical reasons for reading Saez’s The Ant: to further our understanding and appreciation of 20th Century thought and expression; for an inside view of the history of politics, art, economics, and the geography of Chile and Argentina; and it details the ins and outs of the lives of artists and the families and friends they choose to live and correspond with. It’s possible that Delia and Nora might have met one another. They may have both been in Paris at the same time, where circles of expatriates, artists, and bohemians of both wealth and poverty often overlapped. If they did meet, would they have recognized one another? What would their talk have been about?


“Loomings” is the title given this now completed painting, shown below in various work in progress stages. The piece is 24″ x 36″ x 1&1/2″. For the first time, I used Lukas BerlinWater Mixable Oil Colour” paints. I did not mix in any water. Though I have wall-hung the painting, the paint is still wet, but not dripping wet. It will take up to a year to completely dry, as discussed in the info. pdf linked above. I like the paints. Will experiment with mixing with water next time. The canvas stretched on wood frame was purchased used for $5 at a garage sale last summer. The black showing through, mostly around the edges, is from the original painting, which I mostly covered over, beginning with a squeegee wash of titanium white acrylic. “Loomings” is the title of Chapter One of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” An alternate title I had considered was “Sailboat with Umbrella.” But that seemed too specific. One wishes not to disambiguate one’s paintings no more than one’s poetry.

At the Intersection of Above and Below Ground

Geomicrobiologists now claim life underground exceeds in size, diversity, and span life above ground. What is life? It might be easier to simply say Earth is alive, all of it, including the rocks. And does extraterrestrial life exist? Well, we exist, we think. It now appears planets are living beings. Universe is alive. And that’s not counting the ghosts.

According to scientist Karen Lloyd, quoted in The Guardian: “The strangest thing for me is that some organisms can exist for millennia. They are metabolically active but in stasis, with less energy than we thought possible of supporting life.” That describes a teacher I had in high school.

Meanwhile, in the basement studio, located at the intersection of above and below ground, I’ve continued to work on cutout paintings. The photos below detail the evolution of a recent graffito work:

Sitting Out: Painting in Progress

Portlanders love to sit out. At sidewalk cafes, outside pubs, in their yards or drives. On porches, decks, balconies. In parks. On special occasions, neighbors will close their street to cars so they can sit out in the middle of the block at improvised tables in whatever chairs seem to turn up. The atmosphere of a street closed to cars turns surreal in these times. Maybe because it rains six months out of the year, Portlanders don’t take the perfect evening for a sit out for granted, but they’ll even sit out in the rain, huddled beneath coats and blankets around a fire pit or under overhead standing outdoor electric heaters.

The current painting in progress is tentatively titled, “Sitting Out.” It’s 3 feet by 5 feet, stretched canvas. I’ve used acrylics, oils, and oil pastels, applied with brush, palette knife, or directly out of the tube. The grandgirls have been involved in this painting as well. Chloe is responsible for the bottom left, raspberries at the top of a green hill, ZZ for the sky and bottom right umbrella and blue chair seated with a red figure. Layer upon layer. Things get covered up. Sometimes it’s a mistake to cover something over, but you keep working. A canvas of this size is not inexpensive, but we got this one used at a garage sale for $5. We painted over the old painting, but ZZ wanted to keep some existing red roses in the bottom right hand corner, so we tried to preserve those.



Our studio, such as it is, is located in the basement:

The grandgirls are back in school now, and I’m working on the sit out painting in the basement alone. Last night I added the black umbrella outline with the broken stretchers pointing upward in the middle left. Had the girls been there, they would have booed this change. I need to figure out a way to cover it up without ruining the horizon line below it, which tops Chloe’s field.

Below are two pics of Portlanders sitting out on the sidewalk and in the street corral of a corner restaurant:

And we’ll close with this pic of a sit out zone in an unused portion of a driveway, Ollie waiting patiently to be taken for a ride: