25 October, 2008

The Primacy of Rope in Japanese Aesthetics

Ages before the Pharaohs used it to construct the Pyramids, thousands of years before Oppian of Corycus described its use in fishing nets, and about the time humans started using vessels to cook and store goods, the Japanese were adorning things with rope.

Japanese pre-history is divided into what in Japanese archeological terms is called the "Pre-ceramic" period, and the "Jomon" period. The molding and firing of clay was a monumental technological advance among ancient peoples, and in the archipelago of Japan the ceramic arts may be said to mark the beginning of permanent settlement and the birth of an aesthetic culture. The Jomon people are not only credited with the first manufacture of serviceable clay pots, but at a very early stage of the technology’s development began decorating what they were making.

The first potsherds found in Japan were undecorated and date to the late Paleolithic period, approximately 15,000 years ago. The relative paucity of fired bits of such vintage suggest that while firing clay was known among Pre-ceramic peoples in Japan, the carrying of earthenware vessels was impractical given their nomadic ways. Based on the scant evidence, it is not well-established whether the Pre-ceramic peoples of Japan produced vessels or implements of some other unknown utility. The crude contour and smallness of the Pre-ceramic craft does suggest either a very prosaic or experimental view of the use of low-fired ceramics (see Kainer, Simon, "The Oldest Pottery in the World", Current World Archaeology, September 2003, pp. 44-49). However, the advent of pottery in Japan attends the first permanent settlements, the founding of agriculture and advances in social organization that would be understood as characteristic of the ascendant Jomon culture.

The elevation of pottery as a vital economic good during the 10,000 years of the Jomon period established one of the earliest man-made mediums of self expression, and a living cultural tradition still prized in modern Japan. Along with the pots themselves was something of far greater interest for our purposes here, namely, the ideas being expressed. The word Jomon is from the Japanese for “cord-marked” or “cord-marking,” or in some translations “rope-marked.” Whatever other practical uses rope may have been put to in Jomon culture (and one assumes that such uses were many), its entire epoch in Japan has been distinguished in name and artifact by an affinity for rope as an aesthetic good.

Japanese Pre-history, Briefly

It was on the Kanto plain in the vicinity of modern Tokyo that the first shards of Jomon creativity revealed themselves. Evidence of human habitation on the land mass that is modern day Japan dates to over 30,000 years ago during the last ice age when sea levels were significantly lower and temperatures much cooler, and Japan was connected to the Korean Peninsula and southern Siberia by several routes, or possibly a single expansive land bridge. The remains of flint tools consistent with late, or upper, Paleolithic technology have been found of the northern island of Hokkaido and the central island of Honshu, placing their makers not only in Japan, but also identifying them as nomadic hunter-gatherers with much the same seasonal ranges and tribal behaviors as their brethren to the west.

In most archaeological schools of thought pottery making is associated with the advent of agriculture; the fact of a harvest understandably necessitates a means of storing same, and thus does pottery appear in Mesopotamia around 7500 B.C.E. as grain cultivation developed and spread. The shard record reveals that the peoples of pre-literate Japan, however, began experimenting with pot making as early as 13,500 B.C.E., long before agriculture is known to have been introduced to Japan. The record also states pretty plainly that during this time these same people still organized themselves in small groupings, were nomadic and moved with the seasons following game. What small examples as exist tend to point to the manufacture of fist-sized spherical pots of no discernible utility - not capacious enough to store rice enough for even a single person’s daily needs, nor robust enough to use over an open flame. It is possible, therefore, to suggest that, in addition to being hard evidence of the earliest ceramic technology, pots were cast for their own sake since they lacked conceivable utility. It was, one could allow, something of an art in a primitive (but nonetheless rigorous) sense of the word. Evidence from later Jomon periods would elaborate on this idea.

Pottery making is one of the markers of the Neolithic era in human history. We’ve already noted that the advent of ceramic technology in Japan reaches back to the upper Paleolithic era and may be the bridge event that prompts most scholars to suggest that the Mesolithic era of human technological development does not apply to Japan – culture went from Paleo to Neo directly. The heirs to the “Incipient” Joman, so-called owing precisely to their pot making, were the Jomon proper, literally, the “people of the cord.”

To be continued...

12 October, 2008

Red is the New Black

I read a scathing indictment of stalking-horse Sarah Palin by Naomi Wolf, whom I respect but whose writing I often find perversely reactionary within the feminist canon. In this recent essay, Wolf makes a good case for the Rove/Cheney Axis having picked pliable Palin (chummy in that hillbilly Bush way and, based on her flirtatious body language, an equally adept liar) as the perfect tool and the solution to an overly principled John McCain. While I agree with and find interesting Wolf's central thesis concerning affable, weak figureheads and creeping fascism (although she goes a little histrionic toward the end of her essay) her blundering use of "S and M" as a kind of reactionary adjective for the embrace of threatening (capital B) Black accoutrement by modern police forces demonizes not only SM but fails (since no one has ever been stomped to death under an SMer's jack-booted heel) to draw a sufficiently grave image in the reader's mind of the potential threat of a full fascistic bloom.

As agents of the state go the great historical exponents of aggressive black paraphernalia are, of course, the Gestapo (Geheimestaatspolitzi or Secret State Police) and their superiors in the Schutzstaffel, the SS, who did indeed fetishize their costume. "Costume" is a fair characterization of high-ranking Nazi regalia owing to its operatic presentments, fussy personalization and lack of uniformity, but the black ensemble of the SS was originally designed as a uniform by SS officer Lars Bonne Rasmußen, introduced by Heinrich Himmler and manufactured by Hugo Boss. Although the Waffen SS (the "armed" combat corps, frontline ideological police and, later in the war, the field extermination squads for the "Final Solution") persisted in black colors throughout the Nazi era, domestic SS enforcers began moving toward Herr (army) feldgrau (gray-green) as the black uniform became increasingly identified among the German Volk with capricious, even gratuitous, bullying and corruption (see the excellent BBC documentary series War of the Century for the Nazi view of art as political legitimizer, and also Peter Cohen's brilliant Architektur des Untergangs ("Architecture of Doom") for a penetrating overview of the totality of the Nazi aesthetic, blackened and otherwise. Finally, Albert Speer's memoir, Inside the Third Reich, illuminates the dark power of perception management and the depth of public docility martial bombast can engender).

Ignoring Nazism, Wolf's one nod in the direction of meaningful Fascism/black associations is toward Mussolini's "Blackshirts", but even that's wide of the mark as the Blackshirts were the voluntary militia arm of the inchoate Italian Fascist movement - not state-sponsored, certainly not when they were founded, and then only tenuously once Mussolini came to power. Before the Nazis claimed legitimacy in '33 the SS were Hitler's personal bodyguard - the Brownshirts, however, did most of the stomping. With respect to state-sponsored thuggery Wolf has missed the SS/Gestapo connection utterly in favor of prosecuting a parochial antipathy against SM - a stateless social group, a culture if you like, and at best (giving Wolf the benefit of the doubt) an NGO - that advocates consent as among its first principles and has never had any material effect on anyone not in its own ranks.

Naturally I'm sensitive to such misappropriations, especially from the political camp to which I claim some allegiance, but it's I think instructive to note Wolf's use of the the stalking horse metaphor ("FrankenBarbie") for Palin, a device Wolf (like Rove) seems quite content to use when it advances her own demagoguery against "the other", in this case SM. It's no less mendacious, in my opinion, than the kind of rabble-rousing currently deployed by the Republicans desperately flogging a insubstantial connection between Barack Obama and one William Ayers, neighbor and one time party host to Obama, and a former member of the Weather Underground (known as "subversive" when they were active, but now conveniently called terrorists (in the present tense) by McCain, Palin and their acolytes).

Of the independently verified vacuity of a Obama / Ayers cabal McCain says "We need to know that's not true." Sure they do. For a generation, arguably since Nixon (who birthed the culture wars), conservatives in this country have needed to know that the truth is whatever the pathocracy tells them is required to control and banish "the other". What a pity that Wolf should stoop to the same ponerological tactic in her Palin/Black/"S and M" conflations.

Wolf could have set her "FrankenBarbie" arguments to right by simply stating that Palin and McCain have a lot to gain by steering attention away from Palin's hardwired associations with the Alaskan Independence Party, which advocates violent secession of Alaska from the Union and at whose conventions Palin has spoken more than once, as recently as this year. Better still, such red herrings distract from Palin's active membership in certain radical congregations of the Assembly of God church, which makes no secret of its lust for Armageddon and its aim in the meantime to install a theocracy in the US. Then there's McCain's memorable turn with as Number 1 of the cast of The Keating 5 at the outset of the last major bank failure, forgotten only to those now voting for the first time.

Regrettably, Naomi Wolf sees intellectual honesty in likely the same way Karl Rove and Dick Cheney understand it, as a trap that confounds the efficacy of spurious associations made to fan righteous fear among true believers, such as the Obama / Ayers canard, or, as in Wolf's case, the fusion of "S and M" and Fascism.

06 October, 2008

Brooklyn est Arrivée (Fine Art 103?)

I like to think of this journal as having nominally to do with rope and it's eroto-mystical potentials, but it is, I think, slowly shaping up to be something to do with art and aesthetics too (albeit often run through a mangle). Maybe the bottom line is infected by the virus - likely less-dormant in me than in most, for it is indeed present in all - that resists the conventionalizing, commodifying and homogenizing blandishments of the dominant corporatist paradigm (capitalist that I am, I do have a lively and legitimate conflict theorist in me).

Now and again, but rarely, an artist perfectly encapsulates the resistance and thus the essentially humane act that is art-making. One is less likely to find game-changing art in a museum, for once it has made it that far it has been thoroughly vetted and assigned a value. It has become the convention in which it now floats, a host rather than fundamentally immune. Some artists are conscious of this progression and harness it to wryly humorous effect, such as in the case of Damien Hirst's $200M two day Sotheby's auction , held in bold defiance of the standards and practices of the broker/dealer/gallery model, or even more obviously in the impish indifference of Takashi Murakami to the art world's tut-tutting of his branding efforts. His recent show at the Brooklyn Museum was titled © Murakami.

But the guy you'll never see in a museum (unless he's doing a stealth installation) is Banksy. His metier simply doesn't allow for segregation, although it is happily and fittingly ghettoized. We here in (relatively) humble Brooklyn now have a few insights from the elusive savant of aesthetic subversion to show for having kept our house welcoming (but not so tarty that Banksy's elegant lipsticking were not juxtaposed on any less than an authentic pig).