THERE IS MORE THAN ONE CONTENDER for the title “Full Service Artiste.” At least, H. Niyazi thinks so. Niyazi is the invaluable art history maven and pundit behind Three Pipe Problem, a lively blog aka 3Pipe.net. He nominates David Lynch, included on 3PP’s posted list of key topics—Caravaggio, Georgione, Titian, Vermeer, et alia. (Just why Lynch is sneaked in to the pantheon is something to take up with 3PP. I am just telling.)
If you are old enough to remember Twin Peaks, a top-rated TV serial in the 1990s, you should know Lynch. He was co-creator of both the show and its signature score. Lynch is also a filmmaker, director, painter, and—as night follows day on the LA celebrity circuit—an evangelist for Transcendental Meditation. [Remember that? Mia Farrow, the Beatles and assorted ashram groupies were into TM back in the '60s and '70s.] Think of him as the Tom Cruise of TM. For Cruise, its Scientology; he and Lynch are down adjoining rabbit holes.
Niyazi is much taken with Lynch, not as a pseudo-Tantric conduit of beneficent cosmic forces but as a director:
David Lynch is one of the most intriguing film directors of the modern era. From arthouse masterpieces to big budget sci-fi epics, Lynch manages to stamp his own style into every frame. It is hard not to watch a Lynch creation and feel his presence, something which not too many other directors can boast of.
If you have missed Lynch’s movies, especially ones that have become cult classics [Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive], it is enough to know that he has been dubbed “the Renaissance man of American filmmaking.” Much as I like going to the movies, painting matters to me more. So, forgive me if I skip over his contribution to the history of cinema and go straight to his contribution to art history:
Lynch attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at the same time as Vincent Desiderio. It does not look as if they attended the same classes. Here is Desiderio:
And here is Lynch, again:
This is the kind of anti-art that removes itself from judgment. It can be promoted or ignored but it cannot be judged on visual criteria. Pundits and commissioned apologists can support it on the basis of that all-purpose solvent, expression. But imagination and expression are not the same. There are many kinds of expression. Burping, passing wind, twitching, cramping, blinking and other involuntary actions are all expressions of something. So are bad teeth, sour breath, broken fingernails and stains on your shirt front. Why the visual equivalent of uncontrolled, unmediated action—impulsive mark-making—should pass as art is a question for cultural historians.
It is impossible not to wonder what the presumptions of TM play in Lynch’s brand of self-exhibition on canvas. Western civilization’s contemplative tradition runs deep. Its post-war turn to the East, still fashionable after 40-50 years, is a variety of escape from the demands of its own heritage, one rooted in an understanding of transcendence far richer than what is on offer in TM class. It is rooted, too, in the recognition of a Reality that cannot be mastered. The Christian contemplative understands that man is oriented toward an end. He invests himself with meaning by seeking to unite himself with his end, which he calls God.
TM is misnamed. The TMer transcends nothing. Each individual is his own gigantic enterprise who dives into himself to find the divine within. His inner divinity is a mirror image of the naturalist’s inner ape. Neither interior entity requires recognition—nor an accompanying reverence—for truths outside oneself. TMers are devoted to their own functioning. By contrast, the Christian contemplative is pledged to spiritual plenitude, an ascension. [To be loudly distinguished from TM's enthusiasm for levitation.]
Ultimately, TM is a utilitarian doctrine. Jeremy Bentham would have approved, most likely. TM reduces time-honored meditative techniques to a material means to reduce stress and anxiety. Where would art be if stress were eliminated? If there is anything that serious artists need it is a certain anxiety over the worth—the transcendent value, if you will—of their work. And a serious culture requires a corresponding concern. Without that saving disquiet, there are only the blessings of promotion and the market. Not quite an avenue to the good.
Lynch is certainly entrepreneurial. And for a man devoted to stressless bliss and more bliss, he drinks a helluva lot of coffee: 10 to 20 cups a day. He supports his caffeine habit with his own brand of coffee (David Lynch Organic Coffee, $20 a pound, available from Amazon). How much Elmer Gantry is there in Lynch’s tax exempt, nonprofit foundation, with its Maharishi-ish programs for global health and serenity? How much does Lynch pay himself as founder and CEO of a high-sounding but screwball charity with megalomaniacal ambition? (Lynch hawks TM as a cure-all for women, Native Americans, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, depressed teens, any mental disorder you can name. It does not mention coffee nerves, though.)
In sum, David Lynch as a painter is, at once, a specimen of pop-culture inanity and an exploiter of it. Much like James Franco. Movie-making aside, Lynch is most interesting as a shrewd operator—the embodiment of a more complex form of creativity than art buffs acknowledge.
Note: H. Niyazi responds in the comment section with a succinct statement of why Lynch earns a place alongside Titian, Vermeer, et alia.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey