Abstract Notions

Editor in Chief Christian Williams on the avant-garde and the sublime in art, film, and music.


stephen hawking

Errol Morris allows us to travel to the stars and beyond through the mind of Stephen Hawking.

Skywatchers and others fascinated with the mysteries of the universe have been experiencing exiciting times as of late. From last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson to the recent detection of gravity waves from the Big Bang, we seem to be living in a golden age of monumental breakthroughs that are helping us better understand the makeup and origin of the universe.

One of the figures responsible for making the complexities of the universe more accessible to the general public was Stephen Hawking through his best-selling 1988 book A Brief History of Time. While the theories expressed in those pages are remarkable on their own, filmmaker Errol Morris was even more interested in the man behind the theories, and brilliantly profiled the pioneering astrophysicist in a 1991 film with the same name. Now, nearly 25 years later, Morris’ A Brief History of Time has received a digital makeover and Blu-ray release by The Criterion Collection that ensures its availability to a new generation of watchers and dreamers.

As we discover through an included interview with the filmmaker, Morris was the ideal person to adapt this book for film. Most filmmakers would have agonized over how to understand and accurately illustrate Hawking’s complex theories about black holes and the expanding universe, but Morris’ previous education in the history and philosophy of science helped him make quick work of that aspect of the film and allowed him to focus on creative ways to help us better understand the man.

While the film features mesmerizing original music by Philip Glass, the focal point of the soundtrack is the clicker that Hawking uses to communicate with his computer. Though Hawking’s debilitating motor neuron disease prevents him from experiencing the physical world, Morris’ film shows how that’s only helped Hawking use his mind to explore the deepest reaches of the universe, and take us all with him for the ride. 

Photo courtesy Doug Whellen, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwilliams. He also paints and makes and music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com


cleveland orchestra

Celebrating the art that pulls us in and doesn’t let go.

This past February, I had the opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams since high school: experience a live performance of Richard Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. That may not sound like much of a dream to most people, but that piece of music literally changed my life the first time I heard it. Not only did it spark my ongoing passion for classical music, it marked the first time that I actually felt the power of art.

The memory of that special moment is still vivid. It was 1993, and I had recently decided it would be cool to dive into classical music while the rest of my freshman peers were into hip-hop and grunge rock. While I enjoyed the likes of Bach and Beethoven, I wanted to dig deeper into some of the composers I wasn’t already familiar with.

At that point, my familiarity with Wagner started and stopped with “Ride of the Valkyries,” and I remember wondering if there was more to him than that ubiquitous piece. I picked up a greatest hits CD on a whim and let it play uninterrupted one Saturday afternoon while I sat in my bedroom playing video games. Within the first two minutes of Tannhäuser, I dropped the controller and just sat there listening to what was floating out of my stereo. It was the first time I experienced awe while listening to music, and the overwhelming beauty of the melody gave me goose bumps. Later listens have even moved me to tears, which has both fascinated and embarrassed me, depending on where I am when it happens.

NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich recently shared a similar story about the first time he was moved by a particular work of art. He writes that he was 8 years old at the time and visiting the Museum of Modern Art with his father one Sunday afternoon:

It was a woodland scene, a blur of greens, blues and purples, a tumble of rocks in the foreground, tall pines, branching into a blue sky, breaking up into arabesques. It had no people in it, no girls, nothing I recognized. But with a force that felt like a fist, it jerked my head to it—almost as if it were calling out, “You!”—like it knew me. Like it wanted to pull me to it and tell me something—something personal. But what? I had no idea. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Furniture, pictures, carpets had always stayed in their place, being, after all, things. But not this thing. It had power.

The painting that had taken such a hold of Krulwich turned out to be Pine and Rocks by Paul Cézanne–a picture that, to this day, still holds a captivating power over him whenever he sees it. But how does one explain why an 8-year-old boy with no point of reference to art or Cézanne would be so immediately and completely drawn into one of his paintings upon first sight? Krulwich offers an interesting theory:

We are born with a sort of mood in us, a mood that comes to us through our genes, that will be seasoned by experience, but deep down, it's already there, looking for company, for someone to share itself with, and when we happen on the right piece of music, the right person, or, in this case the right artist, then, with a muscle that is as deep as ourselves, with the force of someone grabbing for a life preserver, we attach.

What Krulwich describes here is the reason why humankind, for as far back as we can trace it, has found creative expression such a vital function. It’s one of the few ways our species can overcome the barriers of language, culture, and even time, to communicate emotions and big ideas that we all can inherently relate to. Even Wagner—a man whose reprehensible world view conflicts with the beauty of his music—was capable of making sublime art that speaks the universal language of all humankind—past, present, and future. It’s in his case that we see even clearer the true power of art: the ability of the message to transcend the messenger.

So this past February, as I listened to the visiting Cleveland Orchestra perform the Overture to Tannhäuser in the University of Kansas’ Lied Center concert hall, it was as beautiful as I’d always imagined it would be. I didn’t feel compelled to analyze or justify anything—I simply chose to listen. It was just me, the music, the goose bumps, and a Kleenex nearby, just in case.

What work of art has pulled you in and won’t let go? Share your story in the comments.

Photo credit: Cleveland Orchestra at The Lied Center, University of Kansas; courtesy of Christian Williams.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com


art and place

New book is an indispensable resource for those interested in site-specific art in the Americas.

One of my first memories of site-specific art was the untitled Picasso on display in Chicago’s Daley Plaza. While the busy streets and skyscrapers told me I was in Chicago, I didn’t feel the familiarity of my home city until I saw that sculpture. If it were ever relocated to a different city or even the nearby Art Institute of Chicago, it’d still be a Picasso, but much of what makes it so special to me and Chicagoans would be lost. In other words, it’s a piece that’s equally defined by its location as its creator.

It’s with that idea in mind that Phaidon has recently published Art & Place, a fantastic and comprehensive survey of site-specific art in the Americas. Over the course of 373 geographically-categorized pages and 800 color photos, the book is a virtual tour of more than 170 site-specific art works across North, Central, and South America. “Art made for a specific place can be the most spectacular, uplifting, and exciting art you can ever experience,” said Amanda Renshaw, editor of the book, a press release. “The format aims to bring some of the most extraordinary examples to life and enable most of us to visit these amazing places from home.”

double negative

While many of the works profiled are murals, sculptures, or elaborately decorated churches—all traditional forms of public art—the book excels at profiling land art and ancient works that may be unfamiliar to the general public. Full-color photographs and in-depth profiles of works like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (pictured above) entice the reader to figure out how they might be able to swing by some of these remote, yet profoundly interesting works of art that incorporate the unique landscapes of their locations.

The book’s presentation of the artistic expressions left behind by ancient cultures is also beautifully handled by the editors. As each section is organized chronologically by region, one can easily see how the earliest traditions influenced the next, and how later works reflected both the old traditions and the new influence of outside forces.  

Art & Place will be recognized as an indispensable resource, not just for its encyclopedic cataloging of site-specific art, but for the way it illustrates the visionary work of artists who use the earth as their canvas, as well as those who use public art to critique and enhance modern humanity.

Middle photo by focus c / bottom photo by Retis; both photos licensed under Creative Commons

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com


vollis simpson

Some of America’s most interesting art isn’t hanging in a museum.

For most people, the phrase “art preservation” usually conjures the image of someone cleaning varnish off a worn painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or contemporary artists touching up a Renaissance fresco.

The common denominator to those images is the role that traditional showcases of fine art—like museums, galleries, and cathedrals—play in dictating what’s worth preserving. The truth is, though, that the vast majority of creative expressions never make it into one of those showcases, which means that there is a lot of potentially great art at constant risk of disappearing forever.

This is especially true in the United States, where some of the most interesting creative expressions you’ll ever encounter aren’t confined by the walls of a museum or gallery. From trucks in trees in Wisconsin to a gold pyramid house in Illinois to bizarre yard sculptures in Kansas, there’s likely something creatively interesting to appreciate within a short drive of wherever you live. Most of the time, this art is produced by people who don’t consider themselves artists, but are nonetheless driven by a deep desire to create. Regardless of how they identify with the art world, their work can often be just as moving as anything hanging in a museum. But because it’s being used or displayed outside in their yard, it’s often diminished to the point of novelty and rarely considered worthy of preservation. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.

Writing in Landscape Architecture Magazine (December 2013), Kevan Williams looks at how different communities have taken on the often times arduous task of preserving the local work of self-taught artists that fall outside of the mainstream. One example Williams cites is the new permanent home for the whimsical and mesmerizing whirligigs of popular North Carolina artist Vollis Simpson, which organizers hope will become a template for other communities to follow for preserving their local art:

Aside from the physical challenges to preservation that Williams points out in his article, one of the biggest obstacles I see to motivating a community to preserve its local art the Wilson County/Vollis Simpson way is appreciation of the art itself. We live in a society where people are more interested in being told what to value and appreciate rather than rely on their own opinions and preferences to make those judgments. In the mainstream art world, this dictatorial control manifests itself in the process of labeling and categorizing. It may seem innocuous to label the work of the untrained artist as “folk art,” “naïve art,” or, if they’re mentally unstable, “outsider art.” But what we’re effectively doing by allowing these categorizations to continue is make it easier for the public to view the work of formally trained artists as more valuable and worthy of preservation, reducing the rest to novelty or misunderstood nonsense.

One non-profit organization that’s been trying to change that is SPACES. An acronym for Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments, SPACES' mission is to catalog and document as many unconventional art spaces as possible such as Simpson’s whirligig park, Isaiah Zagar’s elaborate urban mosaics, and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, just to name a few. Through its website, SPACES hopes to educate people about the artists behind these unique places, and demonstrate that formal training isn’t a prerequisite for producing lasting and preservation-worthy works of art. 

Image by Government and Heritage Library, State Library of North Carolina, licensed under Creative Commons

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com


William S. Burroughs art

Lawrence, Kansas commemorates the 100th birthday of a counterculture icon.

When I tell people that I live in Kansas, I’m quick to follow that I live in Lawrence, Kansas, which tempers an initial reaction that’s usually rife with references to farms and flat land.

If they’re a college basketball fan, they’ll recognize Lawrence as the home of the Kansas Jayhawks—one of the sport's most successful programs. If they’re a history buff, they’ll recall Lawrence’s role in the Bleeding Kansas days preceding the Civil War. And if they’re someone in love with literature, Lawrence usually brings two names to mind: Langston Hughes and William S. Burroughs.

While Hughes spent his earliest years in Lawrence, Burroughs made it his home for the final 16, and finished some of his most popular works there, among them the Red Night trilogy. His presence in Lawrence made the city an essential destination for a who’s who of late 20th century counterculture, and most longtime locals have a fun story to share about running into Burroughs in unlikely places, such as the cat food aisle of his neighborhood grocery store.

Thanks to the savvy advice of his caretaker and companion, James Grauerholz, Burroughs spent his years in Lawrence collaborating with contemporary musicians like Kurt Cobain, filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, and artists like Keith Haring, effectively gaining a new generation of fans. One could argue that if Burroughs’ years before Lawrence were spent establishing himself as a visionary writer, thinker, and artist, his years in Lawrence were spent ensuring that no one soon forget who he was or what he did (and continued to do) thanks to Grauerholz's guidance.

Considering the integral role Lawrence played in Burroughs’ life, it’s been great to see all of the various ways the city is celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday this month. The epicenter of the celebration is the Lawrence Arts Center, which has put together an outstanding exhibit of the visual art that comprised the majority of his creative output in his final years. Featuring a variety of paintings and mixed media pieces from spray-painted doors to bullet-ridden wooden planks, it’s clear by looking at his art that his sharp wit, deadpan humor, and satirical nature weren’t just characteristics of his unique writing style.

The topic of Burroughs’ relevance was the focus of a panel discussion I recently attended at the Arts Center featuring Grauerholz, Burroughs’ biographer Barry Miles, and Ira Silverberg, one of Burroughs’ literary agents. Over the course of the discussion and audience Q&A, it became clear to me that the attention still bestowed upon Burroughs is indicative of the lasting impact he’s had on our culture. From breaking down the walls of censorship through the publication of Naked Lunch to constantly challenging his readers to question authority, the panel pointed to multiple examples of how Burroughs’ influence has spread far beyond his well-known association with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the other Beats. “Burroughs was one of the first to attack control systems and challenge you to find out where your information is coming from,” said Miles. “Unlike other Beats, he’s the only one that remains truly relevant.”

Aside from the role Lawrence played in Burroughs’ life, the panel also spoke at length about the growing international interest in his work, which has made it possible to continue printing new editions of his books (Grauerholz mentioned that Burroughs’ books have been translated into at least 30 different languages), as well as comprehensive biographies such as Miles’ latest: Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve Books, 2014). At more than 600 pages, Miles’ book is an incredibly detailed but fascinating look at the circumstances and events that shaped Burroughs’ world view and provided the framework for his work.

As Burroughs’ work continues to find new audiences, it’s important to recognize the role that those who knew him personally continue to serve in keeping his work alive and accessible. “Today, we are rebuilding the audience for Burroughs,” said Silverberg. “If there aren’t people maintaining the legacy, there isn’t one.” To take Silverberg’s point a step further, when an artist is no longer living and their output ceases, it’s the responsibility of those who hold their work in high regard to pass it on and keep it alive—an obvious, but oft forgotten notion. To that end, Grauerholz recently donated Burroughs’ last journals, edited manuscripts, and other notes and letters to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas—a move that not only ensures future academic study of Burroughs, but one that perpetuates Lawrence’s role as an essential destination for those with an interest in discovering the man and his work. “William spent his last years, wrote his last books, painted his (first and) last paintings and jotted-down his last words in Lawrence, Kansas,” Grauerholz said in the KU news release announcing the donation. “So the city of Lawrence, and the University of Kansas which is the heart of our community, deserve to have the last word on Burroughs’ life and works.”

Illustration by Christiaan Tonnis ("William S. Burroughs" / Video / Laserprint / 2006), licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.


james benning

American independent filmmaker reconnects us with life in the moment.

My first experience with independent filmmaker James Benning was a short clip from his film 13 Lakes (2005). Shot on 16mm film—Benning’s medium of choice for the first 40 years of his career—13 Lakes is just what the title suggests: 13, ten-minute scenes shot with a stationary camera near 13 different lakes.

For the first three minutes or so, I found myself fidgeting and wondering if there was going to be any “action.” But then, I gradually relaxed and focused on the sound of the water lapping a rocky shore. Then I noticed the clouds slowly shifting from one side of the frame to the other, their reflections dancing on the surface of the water. Eventually, I realized that what first appeared to be a static scene was actually constantly moving, and I was mesmerized. Without all of the effects, dialogue, and direction I’ve become accustomed to seeing in film, Benning’s documentaries require a different kind of attention—the kind that offers us that rare opportunity to slow down and experience life in the moment.

It’s an opportunity that I remember having quite a bit as a kid. Whether it was reclining in the grass to make pictures out of the clouds, being fascinated by the snaking plumes of smoke and steam that seemed to punctuate every drive through the parts of Milwaukee and Chicago where I grew up, or people-watching in the mall while waiting for my mom on a bench, there always seemed to be ample time to allow myself to become fixated with the little details and fleeting thoughts that I hardly find time to notice these days. Benning’s films remind me that it’s still possible.

On first viewing, Benning’s films bring to mind the experimental films of Andy Warhol, specifically, the epic test of patience that is Empire (1964), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this July. Compared to Warhol’s eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building at night, Benning’s films seem like a Michael Bay blockbuster. But the similarity I see between Empire and Benning’s work is that the filmmaker is asking the viewer to not only focus on slight changes and subtle details, but to let the mind wander; to use the films as a springboard for daydreaming. Still, the fact that they require patience and a different level of attention has attracted the criticism that they’re slow. In a recent interview with Nick Bradshaw of British film magazine Sight & Sound (October 2013), Benning directly challenges that critique: 

“I always believe that any learning comes through concentration and patience, and that you have to train yourself to have that patience and to perceive. That isn’t slow to me, that’s hard work. It may be slow in the movement of things but it isn’t slow in the stuff that’s going on in your mind when you watch something for a long time and you see very minimal changes: you start to learn from that.”

A quick search for “James Benning” on YouTube will yield plenty to whet your appetite. While I only found a short clip of 13 Lakes, Benning’s fascinating Ten Skies (2005) is available in full. Like 13 Lakes, Ten Skies rewards the viewer with that rare opportunity to step off the carousel of modern life and find majesty in the mundane:

If the small sampling of his work on YouTube piques your interest, the Austrian Film Museum is planning on releasing his entire body of 16mm films on DVD—an essential project that will not only preserve Benning’s early work, but make it available to a much wider audience. While those DVDs are currently only available in non-U.S. format, increased demand for them in the States could eventually change that and introduce Benning to an audience outside of the film students and documentary buffs that already hold his films in high regard.

Photo by Manfred Werner, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.


City Lights

Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of pantomime gets the much-deserved “Criterion treatment.”

In 1928, while the rest of Hollywood was scrambling to incorporate speech into motion pictures after the immediate success of The Jazz Singer, Charlie Chaplin was busy making yet another silent film: City Lights.

Fully aware that technology and audience preference were about to make his particular craft obsolete, Chaplin focused his tireless nature on creating a film that served as both his final ode to the art of pantomime as well as a thumb to the nose for anyone who thought talking would make film more entertaining. The end result is a masterpiece of filmmaking that is just as effective at drawing laughs and tears as it was when it premiered in 1931.

Everything that made Chaplin a delight to watch is on display in City Lights, from slapstick to sight gags to moments of incredible poignancy. And tying it all together was Chaplin’s remarkable ability to know just how to tug at the audience’s heart strings one moment, only to turn the action on a dime for a laugh.

I think a film that’s been out for 81 years eclipses the statute of limitations on “spoiler alerts,” but if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip past this paragraph. Otherwise, here’s a recap of the plot: Chaplin’s Tramp encounters, and quickly becomes smitten, with a blind flower girl who mistakes him for a wealthy man. Meanwhile, the Tramp saves an actual rich man from suicide, for which he is eternally grateful, but only when he’s drunk. The Tramp’s friendship with the drunk rich man helps perpetuate the illusion that he’s wealthy in the flower girl’s eyes, and the Tramp makes it his ultimate goal to help her solve her financial difficulties as well as regain her sight. Maintaining a friendship with the rich man proves difficult, but pays its dividends in the end when the man gives the Tramp enough money to help the flower girl financially, just before regaining sobriety and accusing the Tramp of burglary. After serving several months in jail, the Tramp—ragged as ever —happens upon the flower girl, who now has sight and her own flower shop. She’s been waiting for him to return, but has no idea about his real identity. What happens next is one of the most powerful moments in film history, and the perfect ending to a masterpiece:

Considering how well this film has stood the test of time, it’s only fitting that it has received the “Criterion treatment” in an expansive Blu-ray/DVD issue that features a magnificent digital restoration of the film and soundtrack, as well as numerous special features that shed more light on Chaplin’s state of mind as he crafted what many consider his magnum opus. I found the included documentary featuring Wallace and Gromit creator Peter Lord to be particularly enlightening, as he breaks down some of his favorite scenes and shares from a filmmaker’s perspective just how brilliant Chaplin was. This is essential viewing for any Chaplin aficionado, and well worth every penny.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

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