The Master Narrative
We start by dipping our toes into the ocean of art history, with the concept of the "master narrative." Even in the age of the Internet, this narrative and its friend – artistic genius – can be pesky bedfellows to your creativity. Where does this narrative come from? Is it still relevant? And how can we keep our creativity in the present? Whether you know nothing about art, or you're an artist who just wants to be remembered after you're dead, this episode is here to offer another way of thinking about making.
Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari
Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari
Do you guys remember the numbers station from LOST?
It’s the radio station that the passengers of Flight 815 discover after crashing on an uncharted pacific island. A lot of unsolved metaphysical mysteries happen on the island – the smoke monster, the man in black, Jacob, the time they got stuck in the 70s during the Hollywood Writers’ Strike. Do you guys remember that? It was such a phenomenon: a network drama trying to bring us a philosophical framework in a post-9/11 America.
Did it succeed? With that IDK, but it was memorable, some would say iconic. But for some reason what I remember the most from LOST was the number station. Numbers Stations are a real thing that originated during WWI but came into heavy use during the Cold War. They’re short-wave frequencies that list off a series of numbers, and they don’t reveal what the numbers refer to, where they’re broadcast from, or who they’re broadcast to. That’s because they’re encrypted codes, meant for spies who then their own codebook, to break the code.
Why this thing – that I’ve never seen in real life, and only remember from a mid-2000s TV show – has stuck with me, is because it’s become a very useful mental image for thinking about art-making and creativity, when I get really hung up and blocked on the idea of creative genius and the master narrative. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today! So put a post-it on numbers stations, and we’ll come back to it.
Hi Hello. Welcome to 1-800-POWERS. I'm your host, Lex Brown. I know we're finally doing it. We're finally in the pod. When I step out of the range, yo it’s ova. I'm 99% sure that if you're listening to this, you know me in real life. And you know, I'm dedicated to the abstraction of thought, to weaving concepts together through the understanding that we're people with bodies and through the various structures that make our world.
I stay dedicated to where life doesn't make sense. Turn the page to the fact that McDonald's exists as a part of the Milky Way in the visible universe. And this podcast about all that. We’re going to talk about art, and capitalism, and spirituality, and the planet and what it is and how it is to just be alive. Whoa. You can never turn it off. It’s full-throttle baby.
I'm so happy that you're here. Before we go deeper into the episode, I just want to give some backround about how and why this podcast is here now, because it relates to the topic.
Do you know how hot it was this summer? Okay, types into Google. How hot was it this summer Answer? Hotter than it's ever been before. Record heat waves swept to the nation, swept our neighbor to the north, swept our neighbor to the south, and it was hot AF. It was I cannot go outside even though I've been quarantining all year. Hot. It was like, what are you going to do with your life re-evaluation hot because the temperature is alarming.
In the midst of this heat I was working on solo show, Defense Mechanisms, open at the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, and as I’m recording now, the show just closed at Deli Gallery. Making the work was such a journey but really what took me by surprise is what happened after the work was done. I thought it was the end, but it was actually just a very weird middle.
Once I finished and the show was up: I thought I would automatically feel happy, satisfied, proud. I thought all of my positive mental attitude that I built up was here to stay. WRONG! My body and brain were still going 90mph but the wheels had fallen off a few exits back. I was totally drained. And I got really mad I needed to recover and take care of myself, but I didn’t know how to actually do that.
Maybe you can relate to this, if you’re a person who doesn’t really know how to rest. It’s like emotional insomnia, and you’re so aware of state you should be in that you can’t get into it. and after creating this beautiful work, I kind of created the conditions for my own illness. And I got the flu in August. During which, I found myself in an emotional freefall unlike any other I have experienced before. Which is saying something, so it kind of checked me. And part of the freefall was not being able to come to terms I brought myself to this moment, and this moment was exactly opposite from all the positive things I thought I would feel. Summer flus already feel punitive, but this really felt like damn. If all this positivity leads to this Oof. I don’t know what’s around this corner.
So when I was sick there was a lot of time for ideas to just percolate and bubble and foment inside of the three day fever dream I had where I also watched all two seasons of Succession, just straight through, a lot of time to think about things. And something emerged:
Deep creativity – whether creating the relationships, opportunities, growth, or a specific project – inevitably brings you in uncomfortably close contact with deep desire, and inevitably fears of failure and disappointment. And I really contended with some fears in the proces of making the piece Beyond Red that have to do with art history. Beyond Red a large print on paper that’s a cherry maroon shade of red. And because it’s just red it brought up so many questions of value that visually, conceptually, personally, financially and socially all wrapped up in one piece that is visually as simple as it gets
And the way in which all those perspectives are wrapped together is the answer to the question: what’s “Beyond Red?” And these are the ideas I want to directly share, and have conversations about. And in my fever, and the global heat. I realized It’s literally too damn hot for me to not make some of these connections explicit. It’s too hot for me to hold back, and I miss performing. And there’s so much conversation to be had. And yeah, it’s too hot not to have it.
So I hope this podcast can be that voice of solidarity for your shadow, that audio companion to your creative process, no matter what kind of process you’re in. And we learn something along the way, omg let it be known now the knowledge is not comprehensive. That’s why we’re here for dialogue. And of course fun. *fireworks* yay ok memoir over.
When you study art academically, at least back in late oughts, we learned about it through the these progressives periods of aesthetic developments that can be called the master narrative, a term that great because it goes three ways.
There’s the master narrative: as in the notion of mastery, that as people we are working towards attaining mastery of a craft or knowledge. More importantly, that mastery can be attained.
There’s the Master narrative: as in the master and slave. Fun fact, in the early days of regulating the clock system, Harvard literally sold time. Through a set of clocks called the Master clock and the Slave clock. Where ever there’s a master, a slave is always implied. In a master narrative we are only getting the story dictated by those who hold power through an oppressive system. And it is the narrative of why and how they are masters.
And then there’s the master Narrative as in the dominant type of story, the type of storyline with the most authority. The narrative form that carries the most weight over other storylines. Which in our time, would probably be the narragive arch known as the Hero’s Journey. A lot of people have come to see that as the essential or only story arch. Or in American songwriting the structure: verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus is kind of a master narrative.
Within the master narrative of art, the myth of the artistic genius is written. Whether or not you feel knowledgable about art, I think we’re all indoctrinated into this myth in American culture, because American culture reveres the idea of the genius in general, particularly the industrial genius but also the political genius, the literary genius, and the athletic genius. So the idea of the genius gets a little extra oomph in American culture, as opposed to other cultures that might value the civic or spiritual value of art.
The standard canon of this Western genius, could start with the pre-Renaissance, guys. Now you know the Renaissance guys, even if you think you don’t because, they’re the same as Ninja Turtles, Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, to name a few just before those guys were some other guys that had name brand appeal, Giotto, Cimabue, Duccio, and others. If they’re at the beginning of this Western canon, the genius with a knowable name canon maybe starts there-ish and I would say ends with Kara Walker. That feels appropriate. I think she ended it, decades ago. That checks out.
If you don’t know Kara Walker’s work it’s highly recognizable. She does many things but what she first became known for are her wall paintings which depict challenging, violent, disturbing, sexual, sometimes terribly funny and fucked up imagery of racial dynamics in America, particularly of the plantation. They’re black silhouettes on white walls. So formally speaking, when you look at the flatness of those pre-Renaissance guys, the Green Jesus and Mean Mary guys, then you go fast forward through the ages, all the periods of art that have been canonized by historians – the impressionists and the pointilists and futurists, the WPA, the harlem renaissance, ab-ex identity politics, etc. and at some point we get to Kara Walker’s utterly flat cutouts of colonialism. And I think that’s the end of the coffee table book. As far as a cohesive volume of time. And the book would be called Genius Artists With Names You Know from Green Jesus and Mean Marys to Kara Walker. And now we have the internet and there’s more names than you could ever comprehend.
Why end my figurative coffee table book with Kara Walker? There are plenty of contemporary artists who are peers of hers, who have contributed so much during the same time and after she first made her mark with those silhouettes, and done so less didactically. Why not Kerry James Marshall, for example, another significant artist who had a huge, traveling retrospective in 2017 called Mastry… Kara Walker’s work speaks literally, as literally as possible to the master narrative with the depiction of slaves and masters. And that literality is significant in a narrative which is about art, but actually takes its form in literature. That Also she’s giving me gender so that dialectical journey from renaissance man is complete.
Where does this figurative coffee table book start? The person widely known and credited with beginning it is Giorgio Vasari. He was a 16th century Italian artist, who wrote a book in 1550 called Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, and it gave birth, in a very masculine way, big dick energy way to modern art history. Here’s a selection from the preface:
I know it is an opinion commonly accepted among almost all writers that sculpture, as well as painting, was first discovered in nature by the peoples of Egypt; and that some others attribute to the Chaldeans the first rough carvings in marble and the first figures in relief; just as still others assign to the Greeks the invention of the brush and the use of colour. But I would say that design, the basis of both arts, or rather the very soul which conceives and nourishes within itself all the aspects of the intellect, existed in absolute perfection at the origin of all other things when God on High, having created the great body of the world and having decorated the heavens with its brightest lights, descended with His intellect further down into the clarity of the atmosphere and the solidity of the earth, and, shaping man, discovered in the pleasing invention of things the first form of sculpture and painting.
Who will deny that from man, as from a true model, statues and sculptures were then gradually carved out along with the difficulties of various poses and their surroundings, and that from the first paintings, whatever they might have been, derived the ideas of grace, unity, and the discordant harmonies produced by light and shadows? Thus, the first model from which issued the first image of man was a mass of earth, and not without reason, for the Divine Architect of Time and Nature, being all perfect, wished to demonstrate in the imperfection of His materials the means to subtract from them or add to them, in the same way that good sculptors and painters are accustomed to doing when by adding or subtracting from their models, they bring their imperfect drafts to that state of refinement and perfection they seek.
So he’s saying that art already exists in nature, much like mathematical relationships, and the artist merely translates this entity that is art much like math is a language that translates relationships in the physical world.
I think it’s interesting to notice how structurally it begins with Egypt and then God is in the middle of the passage, after the Egyptians and Assyrians. Because Egyptians and Assyrians made art. Right. But the Egyptians made art before the Christian god was invented. So the missing sentence here is: then a Christian God was designed. He said “God Designed” but it’s really a christian god was designed. And the creation of that Christian God allows us to do a whole bunch of stuff, including talk about the divine hand of these here church backed-artist. And so, even in this foundational text for art history, its authority is tied back to the authority of another book, the Bible.
Vasari’s book was commissioned by the Medici, an extremely powerful and influential Italian family who gained their power through banking, rather than warfare, marriage, or inheritance, and ruled from Florence for 300 years. Their primary clients were the Pope and the Catholic church so, big buckaroonies there, and you can thank them for all of the pigment and the stones it took to make that beautiful Renaissance art. So from the get go you have this fusion between religion, books, and capital. Over the centuries, these roles of support and funding once only held by monarchs, and private patrons, would come to include collectors, corporate collections, museums, and institutions.
Fast forward to today, being an artist, alive: making art. Maybe you think about this history. Maybe you have denounced it long ago, but there’s still this specter of the Book of Names.
And knowing this, you may spend your time wracking your brain for a more unique approach with material or a more refined conceptual subtlety, more effective community engagement or a more passionate abandon. Whatever is your pleasure.
And if you’re one of these people who cares a lot about art despite everything in the art industry that can get your soul, if on top of that you get caught up in this idea of needing to enter into this historical this narrative in order for your work to be valuable, you can really end up stilting your actual creativity, you can end up in a state of poor physical or mental health and you just expend an enormous amount of like free, powerful potentially radical creative energy.
I think it’s easy to forget that the past is made after it already happened. So it’s one thing to be influenced by history and try to innovate and learn from that. It’s another thing to judge yourself, in your creative process by how you think what you’re doing in the present will be seen in the future. Right? Because just as there’s no way to predict the future, there’s no way to predict how something will be considered once it’s the past.
By no means am I saying throw out the master narrative and the knowledge of how it was created because it’s so important to understand how cultural eras don’t just come after one another, they come out one of one another. I think we’re coming out of something and we don’t quite know what it is yet.
And we’re in this intermediate stage where sampling, to borrow the hip-hop term is the primary aesthetic mode of the last decade. And I think it’s because we live in this really interesting time when our ability to communicate digitally with each other, despite the algorithmic control, has brough into form, into massive form the complexity and agency of self-definition.
And that formalized a lot of complexity that was always there, but now it’s in writing on so many different platforms and each platform has its own logic. For example, the logic of twitter is very different from the logic of the self-published memoir. And so there’s all this formalized complexity.
And in the last few years we’ve seen how that complexity can be manipulated so easily. And so the sampling, the return of the 90s, the 80s, the 70s, I wish the 60s would return. Everything that was written in 1964 was way more radical and incisive than how people talk about things now.
But the sampling is a way to contend with the complexity because We know what we’re coming after but not out of. we don’t know what we are. There’s discomfort in that loss of orientation. Which social media takes advantage of by trying to exacerbate your insecurities sometimes to great political ends.
︎When I think about art the role of art today, I think about conversation, decomposition, and telekinesis, but I mostly think about how we can orient each other in perceptual space. There’s something about the numbers station: the repetition, the encoded information, the person at the receiving end having the other side of the code, that makes a more useful mental image than a green jesus coffee table book.
Because there’s no timeline for the numbers station – getting preoccupied with a timeline and where you fit into it, means pre-emptively trying to predict the past. Right? Just as we can’t predict the future, we can’t predict what will be constructed as the past.
The number station also speaks to not knowing or having control of who you’re reaching having incidental audiences or having a broader concept of a creative intention. Living in a time where we do have to process the novelty of information, it’s very grounding to think about the messages, gestures, forms and ideas that don’t have expiration date.
︎Which is good news because we actually need to be reminded of everything important all the time, like daily, sometimes hourly. Like, we have to remind ourselves to drink water. And that’s if you have the access to it. That’s where we’re at. We’re at water.
Through thousands of years of development we’re still at basic understandings. We’re still at abuse is cyclical. We’re the sun provides power. We’re at Oh We all breathe air? And the air is connected? There are civilizations that knew that before There are messages and ideas that need to be brought into form all the time, lest they be forgotten. So this seems helpful and urgent.
Basically I’m just trying to hype you up because these incels are so much better at that and I’m sick of it. I need people who care about shapes, colors, tempo, harmony, emotions, and critical thinking. I need y’all to rise up.
I need you to know that you’re already important. Where artists direct their skillset is one thing but the skillset itself can be very powerful with intentions of empowerment. Our power as artists comes from living, whether it be the divine, the sublime, or big fave, THE VOID, and the material, and the transactional, and the political. It’s that ability to be a conduit through the senses through which others can recognize their own perception and existence. That’s what gives art power.
Number stations were used in war. And war is a more practical context for art than the coffee table book when there is always a war going on in the present. There’s always a conflict about control and joy and health and resources. And who is human. And more. And those conflicts all understood and legitimated through the senses.
So when you feel a conflict between making and not making, Do not be so naive as to think that that internal battle is somehow completely unrelated to other conflicts. You don’t just have a creative impulse and then talk yourself out of it without having learned how to talk yourself out of it. Insecurities are directly tied to social constructs that come from someone’s agenda. And again, if they weren’t so powerful, why would facebook have so much power.
Is your art going to literally stop a bomb from dropping. Propbably not, it’s not impossible, but it’s the transformation in consciousness in making art that is powerful, not the combativeness. It’s the synthesis. So if you ever get stuck on this historical narrative, remember that the narrative is not politically neutral and it is powerful to focus on what the creative spirit in you wants to feed and nurture in real time, at the atomic level of making that is no bigger than the palm of your hand, in the daily act of living creatively.
Which is exhilaratingly rich permission if you can keep it at the forefront of your mind. Which you can’t, and neither can I, because we’re a human.
And that’s why you need this one particular numbers station which is 1-800-POWERS and I’m your host Lex Brown!
I had to talk about the form within the form because I don’t actually know how to tell stories, I just know how to say here’s the acorn, here’s the tree. That’s all the answers period. Here’s the tree and here’s the apple and she said eat it. And he did. So? And we’re here. And sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s wonderful. And either way, apples taste good and they’re good for you.
So the questions I leave you with are:
- In what area can I accept more joy, ease, and growth by not needing to be the expert, the genius, or the lone creator?
- Where in my life can I use the wheel instead of trying to reinvent it?
If you want to send feedback for this episode or thoughts for the next one, you can email me. Please share this podcast if you liked it and thanks for listening. May the power be with you.