Everyday Poet, Everyday God

francis-and-dylanPope Francis is to the Vatican as Bob Dylan is to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Both represent a promise, long overdue, finally made real.

In the case of the Vatican, the overdue promise is to embody Jesus’s goodwill. In the case of the Nobel Prize Committee, the overdue promise is, in Alfred Nobel’s own words, to award a writer whose work both moved in “an ideal direction” and offered “the greatest benefit on mankind.”

I dare anyone to name the past three Nobel Laureates (Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro).  As a writer, it’s hard to benefit someone who has not read you. Harder still to benefit those that have not even heard about you. But Dylan, people know Dylan. They get Dylan.

To award Dylan is to award his audience. It is delivery to deliverance.

Just as Pope Francis’s gentle message draws the Catholic Church closer to love-hungry hordes, Dylan’s simple lyrics deliver art to culture-starved crowds. Dylan’s Nobel legitimizes the Prize for a population increasingly distant from the tangible, written word, and in doing so, gives new relevance to Literature.

Institutions must be commercial if they are to wield influence. Barely in time, the Vatican recognized that its message was lost without the right messenger. Apropos, the Nobel Committee realized that #trending is a good thing.

Photo Credit: Dylan’s photo is by Paul Natkin (Getty). Pope Francis’s photo is from the AP. 


Survival of the Horniest

During a recent blissful Sunday afternoon on a London rooftop a friend dutifully informs me that, from an evolutionary perspective, our happiness is problematic. He then plops open the book he is currently logging around town to the page above. 

Writer Yuval Noah Harari makes a good point: our evolution is not based on survival of the fittest but, rather, on survival of the hungriest, indeed, the horniest. 

Those of us who are most adept at wanting and finding instant gratification have a better chance of surviving and reproducing out in the wild. But, we are no longer out in the wild.  

Here, in an urban context, the constant need for instant gratification becomes a burden, one that hinders our ability to execute long-term plans, which are key to obtaining hapiness’ less attractive but more discerning older cousin: satisfaction. 

Our biological need to get fed and laid is the reason why Mick Jagger et al can’t get no satisfaction. Perhaps the results would vary if we gave vegan sober abstinence a try. And a try. And a try. 

The Difference between Coolness and Artness: What Turns Everyday Objects into Art


The Frieze says “Hi!” via Martin Soto Climent’s Frenetic Gossamer (2016). Photo: Skye Arundhati Thomas.

Inevitably, many of the highlights at this year’s London Frieze are works that turn common objects into art. To enter the Fair, visitors must walk by a courtyard and  up a narrow hallway where Martin Soto’s pantyhose installation cuts the sky into the vaulted Gothic cathedral lines of a sacred place of worship.

The Gagosian is the first gallery one meets, featuring the works of Edmund de Waal: white and black porcelain vessels and small objects arranged onto shelves of the same color. The fragility of the exhibit is humbling. Here is a work of pure, selfless devotion to the things made by Man. Here is a work that, for a change, does not lessen but, rather, heightens the role of that being who is always lurking behind at art fairs: The Collector. But, more on this later, much later.


Edmund de Waal, white sail (detail), 2016. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Immediately to the right of The Gagosian is London heavy-hitter Sadie Coles Gallery. Here hang several pieces by Scottish artist Jim Lambie. My favorite is Pin Code 3379 (2016), pictured below, which uses thousands of safety pins to hold together a torn navy blue canvas in lines that conjure a Scottish kilt. The scarred canvas belies the function of the safety pin, pointing a pricked finger at the past and present pains associated with Scotland’s national identity. It holds together, but at what cost.


Around the corner from The Gagosian is Hong Kong’s Simon Lee Gallery. On display here are works by the Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Her installation includes paintings as well as a massive pile of cobalt-dyed cotton in the center of the space. Looking at it feels menacing: at any moment, the strands of cotton might turn into tentacles and drag you in.  It is a great feeling.


But, then I saw the piece below by artist Haugeue Yang at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery. The S-shaped panel of small bells turns, making the piece jingle.  It was cool, sure, but I felt nothing. I began to wonder what makes a piece of art made from everyday objects successful? What is it that actually makes it art, and not just a cool thing to hang?


I’ve come up with two words that sum it up: sanctity and uncanniness. In order for a piece built with everyday things to “do” it, to interfere with a viewer’s emotions, it must transgress the sanctity of the objects it uses.  The bells in the piece above fulfill their intended purpose: they chime. Edmund de Waal’s perfect white vessels, however, will never be sipped. No one will slip Soto’s pantyhose on.

It is this transgression, this violation of an object’s raison d’être, that provokes a sense of uncanniness in the viewer. Something is off, and it is creepy.  

“Uncanny” was one of Freud’s favorite words. I really like it, too, because it identifies a feeling that eschews description. Olowska’s pile of blue cotton is terrifying. Why? It is uncanny. Why? Something is not right. What? The object and our expectations of it. Why? Cotton exists to make underwear. But, what if it does not? Then, maybe, we must probe our surroundings.

And, it is in that private, silent rereading of life that our chest encounters art.


No to New Neon

fullsizerenderNeon art began in the 1960’s when an artist named Dan Flavin first displayed it in a New York gallery. Back then neon was street, current and controversial. Indeed, The New York Times compared it to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal: “When Dan Flavin first brought [neon] into art galleries during the 1960’s, he was, in effect, doing what Marcel Duchamp had done with his ready-mades nearly 50 years earlier.”

1960 was a long time ago: 56 solid years have passed.

But, somehow, someway, neon art keeps making it into the world’s most prestigious booths inside the planet’s most important art fairs. And, there are usually crowds of people gathered around taking selfies.

My problem isn’t with abstract neon art, but with the textural variety. Once, fifty years ago, when neon was used to light up offbeat words it challenged the way people thought and created meaning. Now, several decades later, when neon is used to say cute things, it is just cute. And cute things belong in a corner restaurant, not in prime wall space at the London Frieze, which is where the works pictured above and below made their debut.

Illuminating a romantic phrase or a catchy word with bright neon can certainly be regarded as a creative act, but it should no longer be considered top-shelf art.

Indeed, if it’s not happening already, Urban Outfitters should soon offer a selection of aptly priced neon signs, and place them right next to the stacks of t-shirts that read: “Keep Calm and Blah Blah Blah.”

(Note: This text should in no way be construed as a diss upon the house of neon. I happen to love neon and consider it a wonderful, decorative part of life.)




The event of reading, of unearthing meaning applicable to life, is the only event of art. When reading is truly reading, then reading and writing are the same thing. 

Signs such as the one pictured above and below are not unevents in the event they transform walking into reading and reading into, eventually, writing. 

The Best Gallery in Paris

After three days of intense art immersion, I took the early afternoon off to browse the book stalls along the Seine.

Here, I found what I consider to be the most beautiful works of art in the entire ville.

A child-drawn cover on Raymond Quenueau’s “Zazie dans le métro,” one of my favorite books of all time. An incendiary color scheme on naughty Robbe-Grillet’s “La maison de rendez-vous.” Minimal design on numerous Becket covers.

But the beauty of these works lies not in their covers, which are mearly invitations to discover the magic inside.

The best works of art in Paris are the rows of words set down by gigantic French writers, found in the dishevelled stands along the Seine’s quais.

Below is a shot of Marguerite Duras’s “Le ravissement of Lol V. Stein,” which by its second page already sets the ground for decades worth of post-feminist, post-modern, deconstructive thought, art, fashion and life.