Archive for January, 2013

'Betty and the black dog' by Varg Vargas on salvaged Indian wooden cabinet door, spray paint and found objects.

A few times a year, for no emotional reason, out of nowhere, I get depressed. My “medicine man” theory is that it is tied into my gut and there is certainly some science to back that up. My genetic bad stomach is often acting up around the same time the depression shows up and the chemical difference along with the symptoms of the tummy trouble generates the glum. Again, just my theory.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression, his “black dog” and though it wasn’t he who originated it (Wikipedia credits his childhood nanny), his use of it helped spread the metaphor. It seems to me the use of the black dog probably sprang from British folk lore in which black dogs were used to symbolize more than anything else, apparitions and death. Both metaphors are apt. The ghost symbol fits because the condition seems to be controlled by something else, something unseen and beyond control. The death symbol fits because life seems not worth living. More on the latter a few paragraphs down.

During my unfortunate descents into chemical depression, I am allowed by the Universe to walk around in the skin of a person who can’t just “snap out of” their mood by going on a roller coaster ride or for a long walk on the levee or buying a pair of boots.

It’s pretty terrifying.

The most disheartening aspect of the black dog is the immediate awareness of it upon waking. In the first few moments of the morning (or early afternoon), I know it’s there. It’s not a physical feeling like a headache or a sore throat. It’s not within my five senses. I feel it, but not on my skin. It’s a presence, like something pressing down on me. This is a pretty accurate image.

I call the first few minutes of any day my “coming to terms.” Overnight, I have departed this Universe and ventured out into the ethereal and, upon waking, returned again. In that first 15 minutes, the Universe is recreated again and I sort through what has been unsorted. Is it all the same? What’s different? Where will I go. What will I do? What has happened? For the depressed person, this space is occupied by the black dog convincing them that getting out of bed would be the worst thing they could possibly do. There is defeat from the onset.

So they eventually rise and the black dog follows. They walk around with what I call “the filter.” A mask over everything that makes it all shit. A very dangerous, utterly uncondensed philosophy that consumes everything. All colors are desaturated. All enthusiasm is unwarranted. It’s all a cliche. Everything is finite and meaningless. Songs ring flat. Supper can’t be indulged. Company is a hardship, awkward. Relationships strained. Most bitterly for me, I see the Earth is as it will inevitably will be, a lifeless ashen rock. Then, just behind the bright faces of my friends and family are the images of their fetid, rotting corpses. Children are not the hopeful energetic inspirations but rather wheelchair bound and broken.

And this is everywhere. The black dog is a loyal dog. It follows.

Gratefully, I am only visited by it perhaps twice a year, sometimes less and never for very long. Whatever brings it, takes it away and I have not been able to conjure up why it enters or leaves. Some suggest probiotics will balance out the production of serotonin in my lower GI tract. Imagine that. I swallow little sprites that I go into my gut and fix my soul. Our Universe is so folk. We think sometime sit isn’t but it is.

There are so many others for whom the black dog is a regular visitor.

Its wiser, more knowing companions know it well. And they endure it with a bedrock truth that its effect on them is just a spell. A “spell” that is something they are under the influence of but also a “spell” that is something that will go away with time. They will eventually “come around” but certainly can’t “snap out of it.” But after many years and many visitations, they never do really overcome it as much as they simply just endure. They often bravely forgo medication because it makes them robots, incapable of feeling anything at all.

But younger people, whose human spiritual development has been arrested because of this black dog, who perhaps don’t have the spiritual armor against it, who perhaps don’t have supporting figures in their lives, who are misunderstood, who are self medicated, seeking solace, who have been victimized, whose failure to thrive proceeds for decades, for these sons and daughters the black dog’s visitation is most delicate and critical. They forgo medicine for ego, convinced nothing is wrong.

I have so much empathy for them all. To help me cope with this, I made “betty and the black dog.” Beware the black dog brothers and sisters.

After five years of working alongside, being associated with and thankfully developing friendships with visual artists, and since I avoided art school where perhaps a lot of this comes from, I find myself a bit vexed by a certain impulse I’ve noticed in them from time to time: Many deeply want to commodify their work, desperately want to commodify their imagery. And I don’t mean make a lot of money creating work after work of art and developing a great body of work in collections everywhere. I mean the opposite. I mean transforming their imagery into aprons, coffee cups, calendars, greeting cards, puzzles…schlock basically.

This isn’t the growing development of an artist through years and years. It’s getting good enough to create a singular image that everyone wants and then just creating that image over and over again for as much money as possible.

I can certainly see why. It’s more money for less work, an enterprise I have jokingly said I have desired for many years. You create one image that gives people their emotional need (“This New Orleans scene makes me soooo happy! It reminds me of when I was there!”) with their practical need (“How am I going to keep this food from getting all over my clothes? I know!  An apron!”) and that is where art gets very lucrative. But it certainly isn’t the only way to do so. Look at Rodrigue, who has done well for himself while doing his best to control his imagery and, time-after-time, rejecting the commodification of his Blue Dog image. But then, the richest painter of all time did indeed do this and made a ton of money in the process. Though, he wasn’t spiritually rich.

I always wondered why Rodrigue never made a Blue Dog plush. Now I know. He “kept it real.”

What has happened time after time though, in conversation after conversation with artists, has been this alpha priority, over being compelled by the Muse, to commodify the art from the get-go. There is no bliss following. I have even spoken with a fellow salvaged-wood artist who was looking into making resin renderings of his wooden wall hanging sculptures. That’s fake, plastic salvaged wood made in China. Some artists want to find that image that sells and mass produce it either by making those awful “series” of prints or by putting it on as many Chinese-produced products as possible. Ties, mousepads, iPhone covers, if you can put R2-D2 on it, they would put their art on it. At that point, is it really art anymore? Or is it a product? And is the artist a producer?

For something to be mass-produced and to be successful, it needs to be a pretty tame image. It can’t really challenge you in any way. And it must be consistently appealing. So no one is really evoked. The person buying it is safe. The artist / producer is safe. Whoever the third party is, is safe.

And let’s not forget this third party. Or the fourth party. Or however many parties there are going to be between the artist and the buyer. By the time the art lands in the buyer’s hands there will be such a separation between the artist and buyer they will relate to each other about as much as they relate to the Chinese factory worker making the shit.

And I suppose that is ultimately what is bothersome to me about mass produced art and it’s commodification. It’s also why Jackson Square or any outdoor market is such a great place to buy and sell art. There is a direct connection between the artist and the Universe he or she is tasked with capturing . You meet the people and if you did your job right, you exchange an idea or two with them. It’s suspicious to me why this richness would want to be exchanged for some other kind.