The fragmenting world around us: randomness, error, & ego

Jasper Johns

“We cannot be random in the same ways as the world fragmenting around us, but we can engage the randomness, not merely react to it, with our powers of spontaneity.” – Lebbeus Woods

I love Lebbeus Woods. His artwork — theoretical architecture, implausible spaces — alternately reaffirms and feeds my personal aesthetic. I’ve always been drawn to sharp lines (ha), but also to the imperfections in sharply drawn lines. Hard angles that break off in unexpected directions, or layered forms à la Jasper Johns’s stacked numerals. The seemingly perfect black mask of type on a white page; it’s rough imperfect surface when magnified.

What does that have to do with randomness, or spontaneity? I suppose it’s in the way we/I/you often intend on creating something polished, and how more likely than not the thing comes off less so, and we/I/you are forced to adjust to and accept that surprising product. When I was a kid I was frustrated by my ability to perfectly envision a thing — a skyscraper, or a person (I was fond of drawing aggressively muscled superheroes) — and my inability to render said thing on paper. I could never draw images as they existed in my mind. Was it a failure of my hand to do what my brain intended, a lacking in talent, or some other kind of cognitive dissonance? (When realist painters approach a canvas, what kind of image do they hold in their head? Is it perfect? Is it hyper-perfect in order to compensate for unavoidable transmission errors?)

At a gallery a while back (I can’t recall where, or who the artist was) I saw an exhibition of drawings where the artist had attempted to draw unaided some simple form — a diagonal line, a parabola, a circle, a bisecting line — in black ink, and then gone back and drawn the actual, accurate line (with the aid of a ruler or compass) in red ink. The artist’s unaided attempts were consistently fractionally off; sometimes the margin of error was much larger. The resulting work was unexpectedly elegant, and made me want to run home and try the experiment myself. I still haven’t, but I still intend to.

Woods’ quote reminds me of all this. Of the vanity of perfection and the charm of unexpected error.* Of having to improvise our path in a world where the patterns are still, and may forever remain, unknown to us. Also of having to learn to do away with jealousy, forgive myself for past mistakes, and peer with nervous eyes into my uncertain future. (My current Big Fear is that the post-grad school world will be just like the post-undergrad world. Ugh.)

* I’m really only speaking of things connected to art here. Imperfection in space flight, or driving, or hard math kind of sucks.

Translation issues and St. Augustine’s “Confessions”

After several false starts, I am finally reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. This is not normally the kind of book I would pick up for leisure, but it’s part of a course I’m doing this semester called “Literature of the Quest.” I’ve bought and returned the book THREE different times in an effort to find a translation that I like.

The Vintage edition was quite good, and certainly had the best preface (a thoughtful, informative essay by Patricia Hampl), but the pagination was totally off. My professor was using a Penguin Classics edition, so I ran out and bought that instead. But as I’m following along in class, I realize that we can’t possibly have the same version of Confessions, because not only is the pagination different, but the passages he’s quoting sound nothing like the corresponding passages my book. What the hell?

I finally got a close look at my professor’s copy, and it turns out Penguin currently has two editions of Augustine’s Confessions in print, with very similar covers. The newest is translated by Garry Wills, and for the record, I am not a fan. The other is translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin and has a delightful painting by Fra Angelico on the cover. Though it’s an older translation, I find it superior to the Wills. Wills’ style is just bulky. I wish I could provide some examples — there were many, many — but I’ve already returned that edition.

I have other thoughts on translations, especially the “new” “fresh” “etc” translations that seem to be hitting the shelves these days, but I’ll have to save it for another day. Got to get back to that pear tree.

Ada Louise Huxtable in the NY Times

“My view of architecture has not changed. It’s the current scene that has changed. Architecture is a very real and important art; it affects us all so directly. You must judge it in terms of problem-solving in this uneasy, difficult combination of structure and art. My feeling is that criticism is not looking at this — it is treating architecture as eye candy. When you combine new technologies with loosening all the dogmatic rules of modernism, you have opened the world wide to greatness and horror. And that’s what we’re producing now. It’s a terribly mixed bag.”

from: NY Times