Category Archives: You’ve Got to Check This Out

Utagawa Hiroshige (YGtCTO #171)

Ishiyakushi

from the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road (Tôkaidô gojûsan tsugi no uchi), also known as the Gyôsho Tôkaidô

Print by Utagawa Hiroshige

We love visual stories. That’s why museums put those long descriptive placards next to the hoary portraits. Without a story, it’s just someone’s ancestor wearing a costume with all the interest of your neighbor breaking out the photo albums during a Super Bowl party. Realistically, some of the stories don’t help. Honestly, we don’t know these people and we’ve seen old Chevy’s before.

Just as Renaissance tapestries with all their built-in action garner far more interest than a portrait of a long-dead duke beside a globe, Hiroshige attracts the eye because of the inherent story behind the picture. Photography is frozen moments, generating the most excitement the finer the moment is cut between one action and the next. We can see what precipitated the moment and imagine what follows.

Utagawa Hiroshige

Ostensibly, Hiroshige made pictures of mountains and roads (among so many other things). He was a print-maker trying to make sales. If you asked me for a picture of a mountain, then it would be in the center of the page. With a little luck, I could persuade you that it was covered in snow. I might get away with one big line curving up and then down. All done. No action on anything less than a geological scale. (“Wait for it… wait for it…”) Realistically, I’m not sure how much better it would get if you asked for fifty drawings of a mountain. I would probably break out the big box of crayons.

Please understand

that this is not about usage of raw materials. Hiroshige mastered that, but he was not alone. This is about composition, which is where inspiration passes through innate artistic sense to power the imagination. Surely, he possessed the technical skill to create what he envisioned- but that vision in the first place is the miracle.

I see this picture and I want to pull on a coat. I want to get inside and sit beside the fire with a hot drink and good companions. The action has involved me.

Film has reduced our exposure to the tales available in static images. We give up picture books at an early age. Even our comics (serial and in the newspaper) have simplified their images while requiring multiple panels to impart information. The ability to absorb a story in a single imprint is a gift that has driven our survival as a species. That’s how we know what is going on- a single facial expression or a sudden flight of a bird. We receive more and more information in our visual stimuli and understand less and less.

Our art may claim to reflect the speed of society, but reaction to the world is a responsibility sometimes better left to moments of contemplation.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 129 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.

Images may be subject to copyright.

Emily Dickinson (YGtCTO Words #57)

I taste a liquor never brewed

Poem written by Emily Dickinson

I don’t know. She seems happy enough to me.

Isn’t that the thing about Dickinson? She was a recluse who tied up her poems in tidy bundles with bows, squirreling them away in her trousseau? She was one part crone, one part crazy cat lady, and one hundred percent spinster. Some unknown party found her poems after her death and recognized her genius, revealing it to the world. Huzzah and hallelujah.

When you think of the great hermits of history: Dickinson and Buddha, right? One wrote some of the best poetry of the 19th century and the other founded a religion. Even Thoreau would wander into town and stir up trouble every now and then.

Of course, it’s this kind of horse hockey that makes young artists think they have to indulge in bad behavior and live like misanthropes. The path of the ascetic is the true path to enlightenment and true enlightenment is the only path to great art and true art is the only path to recognition, ideally posthumous.

Any brief overview of Dickinson’s life puts the lie to her being a shut-in. She may not have traveled the country like Mark Twain, but she was never going to stand on her rooftop and declare her genius to the world. She hung with family and friends. Dickinson wrote a lot of letters, which was what you did if you wanted to communicate with anyone. Then they wrote back. That was a social life for a vast swathe of humanity.

Emily Dickinson

She didn’t marry. Neither did Jane Austen. Clearly, they must have had to make the choice between art and marriage. Fortunately, we no longer judge women on that criteria.

Oh,

let’s just take a moment and dry our eyes from all the laughter.

She didn’t publish. What sort of artist hides her light under a bushel? Perhaps we’re talking about the sort of artist who gets tired of editors messing with her verse. Sure, she might have loved self-publishing.

She seemingly cared little for posterity. The miracle here is that her verse was saved from the fire. At her request, her correspondence was burned after her death. Wouldn’t you just love to shake the hand of Lavinia Dickinson for not over-interpreting her sister’s wishes? On the other hand, consider whether or not you want someone to clear your browser history and sent email folder after you die? Essentially, this was the pre-digital equivalent.

To my ear and my heart, Dickinson is one of the two or three greatest poets in the English language- maybe the only one that I would name alongside Shakespeare. A world without Because I could not stop for Death and A Bird came down the Walk and I taste a liquor never brewed hardly seems the same. Whatever she thought of posterity, we’re fortunate that posterity took matters into its own hands.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 130 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.

Images may be subject to copyright.

Tom Waits (YGtCTO Music #57)

Innocent When You Dream


Song written and performed by Tom Waits

The revelation of pop music for me was not the Beatles or the Stones or even the Who- none of the Brit invasion. Psychedelic rock, punk and new wave were all wonderful. Even disco had a point that could be felt. In so very many ways, every change to rock and roll has relied on visceral appeal. It just reached right into your body and grabbed one or more organs.

No, the shock was the unapologetic intelligence of Tom Waits. That first exposure was like an inoculation. It prepares you for more, though you’re not really sure what you’re in for. It might be really good, but your ears were not really expecting what they just heard. No matter what your steady diet of music had been, this is not expected.

Smart kids have always been attracted to music. Plenty of brains have gone into the past century of recorded music, from Giorgio Moroder and Christoph von Dohnányi to Joe Strummer and Madonna Louise Ciccone. But nothing like the lyrics and musical settings feels like Tom Waits. Except…

Tom Waits

Something about his songs feels like moments of 20th century literature distilled through Kurt Weill. I don’t know if you need to like the Threepenny Opera before you can enjoy Tom Waits, but I don’t think many people dislike only one of them or vice versa.

So, a light went on.
I wanted to ascribe terms like “epic” and “poetic” to those first doses. But that was not really the case with the works of William Burroughs or Kurt Vonnegut or Raymond Chandler. Moments felt important because they touched on the personal. Perhaps the minutes of our lives could be epic, but really that was subjective.

If the printing press and mass productions taught us nothing else, it was that we could all create art for group consumption and people would, in fact, consume it. While we grapple with the implications of the direct delivery systems now in place for art, people like Tom Waits presaged the struggle of the subjective and the objective in popular art.

The playful word games of Bob Dylan became dense images about non-traditional subjects. The musical arrangements incorporated sounds (including that voice) which required surrender from the audience to a newfound beauty. The style appealed to those with a taste for the unusual- the very audience who had made all those odd books so popular in earlier decades.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 131 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.

Images may be subject to copyright.