12 June 2008

Revenge of the Round, Red Tomatoes

I believe the contaminated tomato debacle unfolding over the last week has something to tell us about the factory food system, which supplies much of what we eat. It is fascinating how this came to be embodied in the shape of our tomatoes. A lot of people are asking the question, just what kind of tomatoes are safe to eat? One answer, we are told by news and government, is to suspect our round tomato friends of harboring salmonella. I had to stop and ask why is this? Why round tomatoes?

Although the description has caused confusion, my first thought was that by “round red tomato” they were talking about the class of nondescript tomato one finds commonly in the supermarket produce section, piled high in a bin. Typically, these are large, as nearly perfectly spherical as the tomato board can blandish producers into making them, bland looking orbs sold in the supermarkets and funneled by the ton into the fast food system to be slapped onto burgers. They are the perfect food to fit the machine.

A second later, it occurred to me that if I were to go to my local farmer's market or farm stand looking for tomatoes and I found some decidedly out-of-round, oddly shaped heirloom tomatoes, that I could very likely be assured they were uncontaminated. They are too imperfect, too delicate for the factory food system, and very likely grown on a local farm or garden. Their shape was a key to identifying their probable origin in a distributed, local food system. By the shape of the tomato I could judge its origin and quality, since I knew that no sane commodity grower would grow such a tomato, unfit for the fast food joint, unfit for the average consumer (who has lost contact with farm and garden, with whole food) frightened by a few blemishes, odd colors or funky shapes.

I can't promise you won't get sick from locally grown tomatoes. The independent farm system creates something big agriculture lacks: firebreaks. The decentralized nature of independent farms and their localized customer base create firewalls capable of containing an outbreak. The factory food system grows enormous numbers of a single crop and distributes the harvest through a sprawling food processing system, which spreads and amplifies even a small outbreak in one field across the nation, into all sorts of processed foods, just as happened with contaminated lettuce. It is the nature of the system, which has only dominated for a handful of decades, that has changed our relation to food and presented this problem of “wildfires.”

Although an individual tomato patch might become contaminated, the effects would be isolated to the one farm or local area. There is far less chance of cross contamination on the way to market. The farm down, in the other state, the road is unlikely to suffer the same contamination. A farm depends on its reputation. Any taint or question about its food and the farm will be devastated. Independent farms rely on their reputation to bring return business, unlike big agriculture.

Perhaps it is fitting the warning comes in the form of these alien orbs, signaling with their perfect roundness and flashing reds, the revenge of the round red tomatoes. Although at first glance, the oddly shaped heirloom at the farm stand might seem more alien, those are the fruits that piqued my curiosity when as a child my parents took me to visit farm stands. They were outstanding in the multi-lobed beauty, looking ready to burst. They were bursting with flavor, at least when we got them home and started the barbecue.

09 June 2008

Haiku, Senryu or Other: Does expression or form matter most?

It doesn't matter to me whether I write haiku or senryu or whatever, as long as what I am writing is a satisfying expression of my need to share experience and thought. It would do no good to say a particular poem of mine is senryu and show me how to make it haiku, or to say I should withdraw it because it is not haiku.

It isn't the form of poetry that matters. I'm not trying to write haiku, I'm trying to express myself. That's a crucial difference. Beginners want to know how to write haiku. But I what I tell you is that you want to find the form that enables you to express yourself, not learn to write haiku or iambic pentameter. You need to learn from these forms the form that suits you best, or a form in between no one has ever imagined yet. Each form you may take something from, you may move toward one or the other, or among them, but there will be a form that liberates your expression and you should use whatever form that is. Haiku is the just form of expression that gets closest to perfectly expressing what I need to express.

Some of my poems may be failed haiku, but they are not failed expressions, if a poem I thought was a haiku, is not really a haiku, but expressed perfectly what I wanted to express, I am satisfied with not bothering to to classify or "correct" it to meet the requirements for haiku.

If making it more legitimately a haiku would improve that communication or expression, I would gladly do it, but without that reason, I would leave it well enough alone.

I am mindful when writing of an experience I wish to share, to write it as I think a haiku should be written, consisting of statements about concrete objects, which taken together erect in the mind of the reader a metaphor that creates a satisfying "buzz."

06 June 2008

Degas and the Little Dancer

I recalled the story of Degas's sculpture the Little Dancer the other day. For a long time I have looked upon it as an example of how creativity really works and some of the misunderstandings about creativity our society perpetuates.

It might surprise you to know that Degas was not a sculptor. Although he made a number of sculptures, none of them were ever shown to the public except for the dancer. For a long time Degas was frustrated that sculptors were failing to explore what we now call realism in sculpture. It appears that Degas' interest in photography may have inspired him to envision a new vocabulary for sculpture, which depicted the subject as it really was, instead of attempting to inspire people with an idea or vision of what ought to be. Most sculptors of his time continued to work in this tradition of heroic or uplifting sculpture. Oddly enough, this is akin to "socialist realism" of the 1930s, which demanded that art earn its living by bringing about social change or improvement in society, otherwise it was not worth the effort. If art was not uplifting the individual or society, it was not worthwhile. The art world was astonished by the little dancer, many critics were disgusted and offended by its realism. It was revolutionary and introduced realism to sculpture. Degas had a truly innovative vision for sculpture and despite not being a sculptor he decided that it would be up to him to realize this vision.

An article on Degas published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the quality of his work politely, saying "the artist's armatures were often inadequate." (Timeline of Art History, Edgar Degas (1834–1917): Bronze Sculpture http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/hd/dgsb/hd_dgsb.htm 2008). My understanding is that this was an understatement, that restoration artists working on the original wax sculptures found them to be very fragile, falling apart. This may be due to their intermediary role in casting a bronze, but I believe it is another piece of the puzzle demonstrating Degas was not a professional sculptor. It is believed Degas had help from friends who were sculptors from time to time while creating the Little Dancer.

There is a website, the Daily WTF?, devoted to sharing the coding mistakes (among other things like funny or confusing error messages) of naive, inexperienced or confused programmers. It occurred to me that if a Daily WTF? existed for sculptors when the Little Dancer was presented to the world, Degas would have made the front page. It certainly would not have met with approval from professional sculptors in his day. The site could be viewed as akin to group of master craftspeople getting together to laugh at the mistakes of apprentices and lesser craftspeople.

What is the lesson in all of this? What I came to understand was there is a difference between craft and art. Sculptors have "doing things correctly" as the measure of themselves and their profession. Sculpture should be done the "correct" way otherwise it should be regarded with contempt. Degas showed that one does not need to meet this standard to create a significant work of art that demonstrates the possibility inherent in a new artistic vocabulary, in this case, the introduction of realism into sculpture.

Degas was frustrated that sculptors were not exploring realism in sculpture. When he saw that they were not going to do something about it, he decided that he had to step in, despite not being a sculptor. The sculptors were capable of creating refined, polished, correct works according to their traditions, but they were not up to creating a revolution in art. In fact, their devotion to craft made it more difficult to (and less likely) to create an artistic breakthrough.

It happens that many good creative people restrain themselves out of fear. I know there are people who had ideas for innovative software applications, which were created in private but never released, because the code might end on the Daily WTF? Or whatever equivalent they imagined existed within the programming community at the time. They could have released their code to the wild and might have been influential and garnered attention for their work, but they failed to do so out of fear. This is not unique to software, but afflicts all creative activities.

It is the fear that you're not good enough to write a novel unless you're as good as the best novelist. It is the fear you're not good enough to make a film, because you're not as good as the best filmmaker. It is the fear you're not good enough to paint a significant painting, make a significant photograph, write a good story, because you're not equal to the best practitioners in the field. But that's not what art is about. Art is about the idea and you only need to be good enough to get a revolutionary idea across to succeed, not live up to the expectations of a craft community.

I am reminded of Edward Young's Conjectures on Original Composition appearing in a 1759 letter, he asks “why are originals so few?” His answer is that “illustrious examples engross, prejudice, and intimidate” creative people into silence. He goes on to say that we must not imitate the works of a great author, but should imitate the method or understanding by which their great works were arrived at. He asks authors to not become overawed by authority, to “let not great examples of authorities browbeat” you into dismissing your own ideas, your own creativity. He says we should “reverence” ourselves so as to prefer the “the native growth” of our own mind and “the man who thus reverences himself will soon find the world's reverence to follow his own.” Only by not being “strangers to our own abilities” and not “thinking meanly of them” can we learn to “cherish every spark of intellectual light.” Degas was an accomplished painter but not an accomplished sculptor, so how did he manage to revolutionize the vocabulary or sculpture? By not deferring to authority or exhibiting “diffidence” to his own ideas about what sculpture should be.

We teach people the wrong thing, we teach them to be perfectionists, to do things the correct way or not at all, but we don't teach them about Degas, we don't teach them that the creative act is more important than perfecting the craft, but then most people are engaged in some kind of craft or another, because that is where they derive their income and the world is mostly concerned with ensuring people earn a living. I know some people will argue that it is possible to perfect one's craft and to be a great artist. I am not arguing against that possibility, but it is rare, and doesn't apply to Degas.

Degas perfected his craft as a painter, but his ability to paint did not help or hinder his task of demonstrating the possibility for realism in sculpture, which required that he move into an area that was not his practiced expertise. He didn't have to perfect his craft as a sculptor to create a sculpture that was a declaration of a novel idea. Just as a sum can be greater than its parts, a lesser work can be greater than the best works of the day. It is greater because of its intellectual light, it's daring and reach, not the quality of its manufacture.