February 8, 2014

An artsy-fartsy photo project lifts the lid on that "Death" box in your psyche, almost causes me to start another new blog, and gets us back to how John met Yoko.

"Philip Seymour Hoffman looks chillingly vacant in this tintype photo he posed for at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, just two weeks before his death Sunday from an apparent heroin overdose."

I had noticed that set of Sundance tintypes — here, at Esquire — but I'd passed on blogging it because it seemed artsy-fartsy. I like the one of Sam Shepard. That takes advantage of the effect nicely. (The movement of the subject causes the hair to resemble a white bird in flight.)

The Philip Seymour Hoffman one is among the best in the group, but how can you separate the old-timey artsy-fartsiness from all of your emotions in that box in your head labeled "Death" that this picture now opens?

But wasn't that the artsy-fartsy idea of doing tintypes in the first place — to take people alive today and position them in a past so long ago that they all look like people who must certainly now be dead and to plunge us into an angsty state of awareness that all of the pictures of ourselves and everyone we now love will some day be pictures of the dead?

Writing about these tintypes, I became sufficiently fixated on the word "artsy-fartsy" that I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. It's a fancied up variation on the older term "arty-farty," which is obviously a rhyming variation on the familiar adjective "arty." Now, "arty-farty" — which is defined as "pretentiously artistic" — is traced back to 1946:
B. Marshall George Brown's Schooldays xxxv. 141 They work in one of those arty-farty florists where they make you pay through the nose for a bunch of carnations.
"Artsy-fartsy" is more recent, going back only to 1962:
G. P. Elliott David Knudsen 75   How did your artsy-fartsy movies turn out?
You might also enjoy:
1984   A. F. Loewenstein This Place 31   This new one, Sonya, an artsy-fartsy feminist, the one thing their little staff had lacked until now.
Heh. I'm tempted to start another blog — what with yesterday's Palpable Bitchery — and call it The Artsy-Fartsy Feminist. But go ahead. You do that. Seems like too much bad drawing would be required. Or bad poetry. Or really really bad riffing on OED entries.

Now... as long as we're doing this... you can see why "arty-farty" — the 1940s creation — would lead to "artsy-fartsy," because "artsy" was already a word. It too came from the 40s. Here's the ur-quote for "artsy." It's from The Washington Post in 1947: "I wear Chinese pajamas while I paint and they're pretty artsy."

Does the Artsy-Fartsy Feminist wear Chinese Pajamas? 

"Even the cockroaches in his house are queer./Really, said Herschel..,—how artsy can we get." wrote William Gaddis, in "Recognitions" (1955). And John Lennon said "artsy" in his classic description of how he met Yoko:
There was a sort of underground clique in London; John Dunbar, who was married to Marianne Faithful, had an art gallery in London called Indica and I’d been going around to galleries a bit on my off days in between records. I’d been to see a Takis exhibition, I don’t know if you know what that means, he does multiple electro-magnetic sculptures, and a few exhibitions in different galleries who showed these sort of unknown artists or underground artists. I got the word that this amazing woman was putting on a show next week and there was going to be something about people in bags, in black bags, and it was going to be a bit of a happening and all that. So I went down to a preview of the show. I got there the night before it opened. I went in – she didn’t know who I was or anything – I was wandering around, there was a couple of artsy type students that had been helping lying around there in the gallery, and I was looking at it and I was astounded. There was an apple on sale there for 200 quid, I thought it was fantastic–I got the humor in her work immediately. I didn’t have to sort of have much knowledge about avant garde or underground art, but the humor got me straight away. There was a fresh apple on a stand, this was before Apple–and it was 200 quid to watch the apple decompose. But there was another piece which really decided me for-or-against the artist, a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a blank canvas with a chain with a spy glass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says “yes.”
Yes, yes, yes. Close that death box, get in your bag. Everybody's talking about Bagism. Everybody's saying "yes." You say goodbye, but I say hello. When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead. Now, get up, quit lying around, you artsy farters. Get out of your Chinese pajamas and put down that paint brush. Step away from the tintype camera. And just say "no" to heroin.


madAsHell said...

I think it's more fruitful to contemplate...Who was the Walrus?


Anonymous said...

Excerpt From Stephen King's "The Bag in the Attic":

...Yoko Opened the Edges of the Empty, Unassuming Bag, and a Brief Horrific Flash Passed before John's Eyes: the Open Bag was a Giant Gaping Mouth, Fierce Fanged Teeth Lining the Edges of its Red Gullet Like Some Serpentine Sea Creature From a Liverpool Sailor's Worst Nightmare.

(Come Inside, John: You Will Be Safe Inside)

...Smiling, Yoko Motioned for John to Join Her in the Bag: She Did Not See the Teeth, Did Not Smell the Foul Buttery Stench of its Breath.

"Come Inside, John," Yoko Said. "You Will Be Safe Inside."

(Yes, John: You Will Be Safe Inside: COME INSIDE.)

Yoko Laughed at John's Reticence. "John, it is Art, Art will Not Hurt You."

(YES, John, it is ART: COME TOGETHER.)

Oh, But John Knew: Art Could Hurt You, Art Could become a Hideous Monster and Make People Do Horrible, Horrible Things...

rhhardin said...

In college I took a pinhole camera (box with hole at one end) picture onto photographic paper of the oldest building in campus.

The "negative" I contact printed onto a positive, processed normally and then soaked in tea, distressed the edges, folded once or twice and then placed into an old library book.

Which is where it probably is today, unless they threw out the books.

rhhardin said...

Imus's Bernard McGuirk's theory of the death of Lennon was that the bullet was intended for Yoko, but Lennon bent over to pick up something she'd dropped at the last instant ("'Ere, I'll get that") and he took the bullet instead.

David said...

I do not think that killing Yoko would have impressed Jodie Foster.

Laslo Spatula said...

Re: "plunge us into an angsty state of awareness that all of the pictures of ourselves and everyone we now love will some day be pictures of the dead?"

I would add: the melancholy magic that the tintypes of the past possess comes in part from how relatively few of them there are. As such, they evoke archetypes as much as the individual: so that's how a true cowboy looked, that is how a well-to-do banker looked, a cattle baron, etc. Today there are so many photos of people available at every click or screen that they are interchangeable and mentally disposable: another photo of someone on vacation, another photo of a celebrity at an awards show,etc.

This is where the concept of authenticity comes into play: the tintype might very well be the only image ever taken of its subject, and thus it becomes the whole, whereas today there is one picture and then another, all taken with the awareness of what the camera captures and what we want it to capture.

Note that Althouse has had many photographs of herself posted over the years: candid, posed, alone, in groups, in the snow, by the water -- you can choose the image to feel most authentic from a multitude of choices. However, I believe that most readers, if asked to describe what Althouse looks like, would refer to the ever-present profile-with-scarf shot on the front page, unmoving, unchanging: it is, in essence, her tintype.

Laslo Spatula said...

I would also say that the closest thing to the tintype that we have had in (somewhat) recent memory is the Poloroid.

Laslo Spatula said...

Another thought on authenticity: the re-creation of the tintype look on modern subjects, such as the ones linked in the post, is artificial, a chosen effect, crafted and manipulated as art. It wants to simulate the past as an emotional device, not represent a current state of being. Photoshop has the Tool to blur, both literally and psychologically; maybe the next update will present the 'truth-remover' tool.

Laslo Spatula said...

Laslo, being artsy-fartsy.

Howard said...

Tintypes as a medium, are good for showing fine details with an interesting mix of hard and sharp edges. Also, it produces veils, streaks and swirls due to the process itself.

Many of the tintypes are quite striking, especially the older folks who sport their lifetime etched on their faces. Also, Maggie Gyllinhall has an old-timey look that works with this medium.

I'd say the artist bats about .300, which is excellent. Too bad she doesn't have the balls to destroy the 70% chaff.

I'm not sure if the artsy-fartsy streaks, etc are intended, accidents, intentional sloppiness or both. The Sam Shepard photo looks like it's trying too hard and should be destroyed. The PSH photo is a bullseye.

"They" say it takes two artists to create a work of fine art. One to create the object and the other to stop the first artist from overworking a piece.

Howard said...

Laslo:is artificial, a chosen effect, crafted and manipulated as art. It wants to simulate the past as an emotional device, not represent a current state of being.

This is a good point because there is an unfortunate tendency for artists to be "reenactors" (like the civil war buffs who play dressup with black powder). You end up getting banal crap like ARC:

However, just using a particular medium does not mean that the art cannot be modern. I do agree that that most of the linked photos are schmaltzy, kitschy, etc. However, there are some happy accidents that work well. Knowing it's an old-timey technique, it acts sort of like a time machine, making all of the portraits look like they are connected to the past and are already dead themselves: Flea, Kurt Russel, Anne Hathaway, Elija Wood, Glenn Close, Josh Wool, Wm H Macy, Diane Kruger, Jason Momoa, Astrid Berge.

These photos have a transcendent quality that Joseph Campbell describes in The Way of Art:

In the Hindu interpretations of art works of that kind such as fill most of the walls of our museums are called adershi, which is a word which means “popular,” “local,” and they are regarded as aesthetically insignificant. The object becomes aesthetically significant when it becomes metaphysically significant. That is, it is an order of something that speaks past itself–carries the radiance of the transcendent into the field of time. This is what its all about. This is why art is a sacred thing.