239 Things

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239 Things

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Ladies and gentlemen, little artists!

When I was asked to speak to little artists today, I immediately thought of Wilhelm Reich. Rede an den Kleine Mann (Listen, Little Man!) leapt from the deep recesses of my memory. It had been years since I’d thought of this text, the heart-cry of a Polish-Austrian sex therapist. It wasn’t so much the starting point of the text (the little man suffering under the big man,) that made an impression on mebut rather its approach. By speaking directly, man-to-man, Reich ingrains into the little man that his trivial life of servitude is wholly self-inflicted.

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist

Little man! Reich calls out, you close your eyes because you’re frightened to death of how small you are, you despise yourself and are most at ease in the role of the beloved slave. You’ll take what you’re given, but you, you only give what is demanded of you. The truth irritates you, and you dislike those who strive for freedom. Instead, you spend all day practicing life tactics. You don’t believe that anyone sat at your table could ever be capable of achieving greatness, yet you’ll believe what you read in the paper without scruples. If you were given the choice between a visit to the library or witnessing a fight, you’d choose to see the fight. And of the big men, you don’t see the truly big men, just the quasi-big who surround themselves a lot of little ones. “Rede an den Kleine Mann” continues on this tangent throughout the whole text. Reich empathises with the addressees because within him, too, resides the little man. However, he sees no worth in half-hearted methods and so he positions himself as a severe yet just father. And that’s just as well, because Rede an den Kleinen Mann thanks its quality to this strictness, despite it hardly being read anymore now that the little man is near extinction.

How different the situation is for the little artist is! The little artist truly is alive, and speeds himself to the auditorium when he hears of a talk especially for little artists.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artist! I call out, every dream of a becoming a grand artist will be met with a hundred cold showers! It’s far easier to rid yourself of the little man in you than the little artist. The little woman in you can be made into a hundred big ones, but the little artist in you won’t ever even be made into one big artist.

Do you remember, little artist what you said at that party, on the boat, after your graduation? “Now I’m an artist,” you said, with that strange combination of self-ridicule and pride. The relativity of your words was obvious, the realisation that this was only just the beginning, that the word artist was still too pretentious and that you only meant it in the sense of the comedian, the singer of songs, the actor in the cabaret. At the same time, you sounded so sure of yourself, as though you’d already moved on and only spoke in literally translated English sentences like “Now I’m an artist.” As if you’d mentally crossed the borders of this puny Dutch city-state, and were already well on your way to becoming a global artist.

This conflict you showed there, dear little artist, is not coincidental or only applicable to you; it seeps through all that is art. There’s the little art, the drudgeries that are mocked, cursed and hushed; and then there’s the big art, declared holy to the extent that it’s beyond reach. The no man’s land between the two is vast as an ocean and impossible to oversee in its totality. The one art is seen as absolutely worthless, and any investment in it seen as money wasted. And the other art is so costly that the even the largest fortune pales in comparison.

You, little artist, might try to cross that ocean in a rowboat. But even if paradise descends on Earth, you’ll still have to make do with what you have as a little artist. You’ll always be kept little with an iron fist without mercy, without sympathy. Herein lies the difference between the little artist and the little man. The little man stayed little because he was poor and powerless. He was able to climb up the ladder, pull himself together, and expand his power and market value. In this way, he could overcome the little man in him.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artists, on the other hand, will never be able to overpower the little artist in them. They'll stay little forever, because they have to start all over again with every new artwork.

True art is invented artwork by artwork. Art refuses to climb, is indifferent towards power, and refuses to pull itself together. Those little artists who think themselves capable of influencing their own market value are victims of the Great Postmodern Misunderstanding that claims artists to be tradesmen.

Not a hundred workshops in art management, nor a hundred networks, oh little arts, can exceed your market value past the size of a lottery ticket; only the lottery owner and the notary could influence it. Little artists who can't understand this haven't overcome the little man in them yet. The little man did useful things, these useful things could be magnified and used in transactions.Art, however, is of no use. Useful art is not art.

Nevertheless, from time to time, a little artist in his rowboat will unexpectedly arrive at the shores of the big art. After all, the prize money has to fall at some point on one out of every hundred thousand lottery tickets. But generally speaking, the little artist will have to rack himself just like the little man: he'll have to slave away, to sweat, and to toil. For eternity, because the little artist will never disappear. That's just the way it is, the little artist will suffer forever and ever. And all this suffering is no guarantee for great achievements, however much a pity this may be for the Tenacious Romantic Misunderstanding. The one that says that blood, sweat, and tears suffice to make an artwork regardless if no one sees it, understands it, or buys it.

Little artist! No life is more frustrating, thankless, yes, inhumane than yours! You're at the very bottom rung, holding on to the top and there's absolutely nothing in the space between. All that keeps you going is hope, "hope, the wings of all time," as the little poet says. But hope for what? Don't say you hope for greatness, dear little artist; or worse yet, that you hope for fame. You cannot strive to be great, greatness emerges all on its own. Instead of trying to defeat the little artist in you, you're probably better off dispelling the great, famous artist stuck inside your head.

All you can really want is to live for art, to work, to make something, then make something better, invent an artwork, and then invent another artwork. The only thing you have to want, is to want to know. Wanting to know, knowledge, the rest is irrelevant. The nature of that knowledge or where it comes from is irrelevant. There's as much to learn from a good fistfight as there is from the library.

The legendary world champion boxer, Muhammed Ali, once delivered a speech to the students of Harvard University. He said: 'In my own way, I've studied a whole lot. But that's not what people pay for, people pay for follies. The wise man can play a fool, but the fool can't play a wise man. I play a whole lot."

Please understand little artist, Muhammed Ali, he’s a great artist,..


Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano
Grand Tour souvenir, small items
Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano

The Grand Tour, a journey to discover the classics, the arts, and social conduct, was exceptionally popular with the British upper class. When in the 18th century, Oxford and Cambridge lost much of their esteem many aristocrats decided to send their post-Eton sons off to explore the world instead. Their accrued knowledge and life experience would prepare young men – and from the 19th century onwards, women too – for key positions in society. Most travellers were younger than twenty, no more than boys for whom sowing their wild oats was implicit on their journey: the first lessons in love and gambling learnt.

Paris, and especially Italy, were the most important destinations on the Grand Tour. Travelling was time consuming and programmes were filled to the brim. Usually, the Grand Tourist’s voyage would last anywhere from six months to two years. The Venice carnival, Easter in Rome, an erupting Vesuvius had all to be seen and taken in.

To ensure the Tour’s success, the young traveller was assigned a bear leader (chaperone.) This would often be a man who knew their destination well and would show the little lord his way. Depending on the budget and the duration of the voyage, the Tourist might have been escorted by one or more chamberlains and a coachman. Many travellers hired a local to make sure that there would be at least one member of the party who could make himself understandable. The family’s foreign relations, local guides, or antiques dealers provided tours and introductions.

The Grand Tourist found himself in an endless stream of site seeing; too much, perhaps, to remember upon his return home. For this reason, most travellers wrote letters home or kept a travel log.

Of course, souvenirs that served as tangible memories of the trip were acquired along the way. Sometimes these would be original antiquities, other times the Grand Tourist would buy (scale) models of artworks, architectural structures, monuments, sculptures in bronze or marble, prints, drawings, paintings, and so-called dactyliothecae, made especially for this purpose.

The souvenirs gave status to their owners, acted as ‘conversation pieces’ during dinners with relations, friends, family members, and illustrated the Tourist’s gained knowledge and experience. Ultimately, they were used in art education and had a great deal of influence on the development of art and architecture. Every important art academy in the 19th century owned a collection of plaster sculptures, cast from famous sculptures from antiquity.

Grand Tour Souvenir: Hercules Farnese
Grand Tour Souvenir: sculpture
Grand Tour Souvenir: model of a temple
Castle, nightclub, palazzo.

Esquire, duke, baron.

Industrialists and rock chic.

Jazz pianists, acrobats, Coco Chanel.

Eight hundred quart bottles of the finest champagne, sparkling in the morning sun.

The soft caress of mink and sable furs.

Tuxedo and black tie.

Celebrities flanked by a leashed cheetah or lion cub.

The squirrel monkey painted blue on the shoulder of the host, the dazed boa constrictor nestled in the bosom of the marquis.

Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior.

Salvador Dali’s walking stick of old Catalan walnut, tapping the beat of a waltz; red ants crawling between the space in the double glazing of his spectacles, Amanda Lear at his side.

Walking, arm in arm, with Kees van Dongen, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp: the Count and Countess of Noialles.

‘A lost world,’ as Nicholas Foulkes describes the costumed balls once popular in the world of the old nobility, haute bourgeoisie and artists.

‘Holding a ball is not the same as having a ball’’, Baron De Rothschild declared in the memoirs he wrote towards the end of his life as a banker. The wealthy lover of extravaganza carefully summed up each step necessary in the preparations for a successful costumed ball; from the table arrangements to the flower pieces, the proper lighting and decorations to the choice of invitees and the menu. As Rothschild describes, it appears that the organisation of a high concept party is equally complex and complicated to that of a museum exhibition, military operation, or theatre piece.

The host or hostess must never lose sight of the ultimate goal: the escape from grim reality through jubilant escapism. ‘Is it not our duty to,’ wrote Rothschild, “each to their own style and taste, enrich life with all that is superfluous and lush, and to embellish it with those few short flashing moments of elusive beauty?’

The ball as a carefully orchestrated moment of ecstasy, a whirlwind of luxury, beauté, volupté, a hyper stylized flight into another time, a finely construed Gesammtkunstwerk, as ephemeral as the thin fragrance of a jasmine perfume from the Shanghai delta... to escape one’s self is to live twice as intensely.

Style is everything, wrote gutter poet Charles Bukowski (‘Style is the difference, a way of doing, a way of being done./Six herons standing quietly in a pool of water,/ or you, naked, walking out of the bathroom without seeing me.’)

Style is what makes the ball’s invitees different from the ordinary man.

Style is what restrains the partygoers in their costly costumes from degenerating into a dishevelled drunken stupor.

You won’t find them in a back alley with their black tie hanging at their navels and besmirched with stains from the evening's lobster meal, torn spaghetti straps fluttering in the cool morning breeze, shouting from rooftops or stumbling through hysterical androgynous declarations of love for Amanda Lear.

In his erudite study of the sociology of the ball, Nicholas Foulkes comes to the conclusion that he who dons the costume of a seventeenth century sun king, disguises himself as Baron Charlus from Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, or she who makes herself up to be a mysterious princess from beyond the Bosphorus finds their delirium within the perfection of their stylization.

He selected photographs from parties including the Romanov Ball in 1903 in Saint Petersburg, where almost every guest was a member of the Russian nobility, and the Proust Ball, organised by Rothschild in 1971 where a curious mix of low nobility, pop stars, children of the Extremely Rich (‘spoiled brats’) and famous writers and movie stars dotted the ballroom.

The Proust Ball is where royal photographer and aesthete Cecil Beaton viciously mentioned Elizabeth Taylor’s shockingly vulgar appearance, ‘a geriatric Cinderella with plump, rough hands and an oversized diamond hanging around her neck.’

After this, Rothschild said, it seemed as if an end had come to an era.

The temporary nature of the ball is similar to the temporary nature of intoxication. All that remains is, cliché of clichés, the memories. The after images that nestle themselves within the hard disk of the mind are those of the hypnotic mise-en-scène, the decor that immerses the guest into another time period, not to mention the artful delights produced by the Chef, the blindingly beautiful costumes and the quicksilver je-ne-sais quois sensation so characteristic of all festive occasions where champagne flows freely.

It’s precisely this fleeting, short-lived moment that photographers like Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Baron de Meyer and Horst P. Horst managed to capture, in a way so very different from the average party.

Take a look at the footage reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, shot by Jacqueline de Ribes, cousin of Count Étienne de Beaumont, the mastermind behind many widely spoken about balls from 1915 to 1955. At Don Carlos de Bestegui she appeared thrice, flanked by two women of the same height and posture, hidden behind identical masks, dressed in the same gowns, adorned with the same jewels and headdress. An impressive feat at styling, a perfect disappearing act of the ego, a true work of art ‘that comes to life for merely a few hours, that illuminates the night in all its multicoloured splendour and is doused by the first light of the slowly creeping grey-pink dawn’. And that’s exactly how it must have been. What a shame we weren’t there.

*Nicholas Foulkes, Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century. Assouline Publishing, New York, 2011.

Foulkes wrote the luxuriously published Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century, in which nine legendary balls are examined in word and image.