Education, J. Paul Getty Museum

Andrei Codrescu: The Art Lesson

Andrei Codrescu has some bad news for you. You, Web user, are running out of time. You may already suspect that you work for Mark Zuckerberg and your screens. But did you also know that you are on your way to becoming a body without organs, and from there to a finger that just types?

Don’t worry. We all are.

“Our free time is being extorted like never before,” said the modern-day Dadaist/poet/connoisseur of absurdities while speaking recently at Getty Perspectives, which invites provocative thinkers to talk art and ideas. “Technologies of time extortion have become extremely friendly,” he warned, “and the people who rob us very polite.”

“We’re long past reality having a competitor. It’s been defeated.”

There are, however, a few handholds yet to grab as we slip into this intoxicating virtual sea: The creative impulse. Art. Laughter. Absurdity. Silence. The body. Childishness. Extra-cubicle thinking. Saying no. Teaching.

Codrescu’s new book The Poetry Lesson (also the title of his talk at the Getty) is an impassioned tribute to that art, not as “pedagogical mode” but as generous interaction with other humans in all their brilliant, warm-blooded, maddening complexity.

Teaching, poetry, and creativity in any form are a “shortcut out of the prescribed and programmed spaces the thieves of time are making for us,” he explained. Teaching art isn’t just about how to make creative things; it’s about how to make a creative life. As his doppelgänger in The Poetry Lesson concludes, after a bout of despair:

And this is how poetry is taught, I replied with some satisfaction to all those people who, over the years, questioned the possibility of teaching poetry. In their minds few things were unteachable, but poetry was one of those. I wish they’d been right. Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.

At the Getty, Codrescu invited the audience to try this thread-pulling business, offering his services as oracle. Class asked questions, and Teacher responded with aperçus, other questions, and passages plucked at random from The Poetry Lesson and his previous book The Posthuman Dada Guide.

The questions were…creative. “What do you think about the possibility of exhuming the body of Jefferson Davis to run against Obama in 2012?” came the first. (Consult The Poetry Lesson for the answer; it has something to do with McDonald’s.) “Which is more dangerous, Google or beer?,” probed a Dadaist near the podium. Immediate response: “Google. Unlike beer, you think you can Google and drive.”

Confusing? Yes. But confusion is part of teaching, as Codrescu’s professor asserts when he calls teaching “leading students into a labyrinth of bones” (hence the praying skeleton on the book’s cover). We asked him why:

Earlier in the afternoon, we’d been trying in vain to get Codrescu to smile for the camera: never. “Smiling is the kiss of death for arts professionals.” Even for a humorist? “There’s nothing funny about what I do,” he deadpanned. Or asserted? With Codrescu, you can never be sure.

After all, these lessons come from the very same Codrescu who snapped up an iPhone on launch day and recently complained about hitting the 5,000-friend ceiling on Facebook. Absurd? Yes. Which is why laughter is such a great subversive tool.

Being around this level of Dadaist contradiction is thrilling—it makes you more porous to creativity all around you. I swore I heard the woman in front of me say to her friend, in a chipper tone, “the muskrat is rotting!” It sounded like a great line for a poem.

What's so funny? Andrei Codrescu against the Getty Center travertine.

What's so funny? Andrei Codrescu against the Getty Center travertine.

(Photo and videos by Steve Saldivar)

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      #ThyCaptionBe: Warnings to the Rich & Powerful

      You captioned this detail. And we’re revealing the full story now.

      It would be awesome if this was Medieval hangman, or a really awkward frat party, but it’s actually the result of a one-letter swap gone wrong in a book about the fates of the rich. 

      Here’s the full story:

      You sometimes regret what pops out unexpectedly when you open your mouth, but in this case, even the fish must have been quite surprised when a wooly lamb burst forth. 

      The stories in this text by Giovanni Boccaccio warn of the terrible fate that often awaits the rich and powerful. He uses here the example of King Polycrates, who tossed a ring into a river, hoping for good luck, and found it later in the mouth of a fish. 

      Someone got confused, though, and instead of a ring (in French, annel), what came out instead was a lamb (agnel). Apparently, neither the ring nor the lamb worked because the king was later hanged (background).

      #ThyCaptionBe is a celebration of modern interpretations of medieval aesthetics. You guess what the heck is going on, then we myth-bust.

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