Maskman's Follies by William Osborne
I just took a look at the photos of Norman's newest masks, including Buddha BigEars, who is truly beautiful and theatrical. I look forward to seeingthem in action. For a long time I have been thinking about the larger meanings of "folly", and these masks, and things Norman has said about being non-verbal, seem to fit into those thoughts. I think folly is of the utmost importance to artists, and I would like to try to explain why.
Norman suggests he meets the challenges of critical discourse by creating icons that reflect archetypal, pre-verbal knowledge. One might call this a language of folly. You might also say he puts on a show, "Maskman's Follies", a "personal articulation" beyond the limiting strictures of language. He describes this work as being an answer that is "no answer at all". He then asks and answers a question: "...what's an answer that's not an answer? Oh, rivers - rivers of tears, of smiles, of dancing termites chewing up bits of nanoseconds experienced inside another river flowing toward eternity. Buddha BigEars is listening."
Like any good Maskman or Maskwoman, he is speaking the language of fools, a language of folly. Folly is an an act or instance of foolishness. It also refers to costly undertakings having an absurd or ruinous outcome. We also have a performance genre referred to as follies, an elaborate theatrical revue consisting of music, dance, and skits. Folly can also be a perilously or criminally foolish action, associated with evil, wickedness, lewdness, or lasciviousness. The concept of folly raises some questions. Who decides what is absurd? Who tells us what is foolish, criminal, wicked, or lascivious? We quickly see that folly is culturally conditioned. Folly is breaking from the paradigms we are told to live by.
That is why we need artists like Maskman speaking the language of fools. Art in its best sense is actually folly, a costly undertaking that is absurd, something that allows us to momentarily break out of the controlling and stulifying paradigms of our social and cultural conditioning. (That is also why it is sometimes called criminal, evil, and lascivious.) The value of Deep Listening, for example, is its utter folly, the way it leads us to listen with abandon, to transcend the deafness of cultural conditioning. It takes us on a date to the biggest show on earth, The Follies of Life, the three ring circus of sound.
Norman's work is deeply influenced by this aesthetic(?) concept. His pre-verbal language attempts to reach this direct, unmitigated connection with his environment. "Maskman's Follies" move us beyond such deafening mental constructs "logical" discourse, rationality, and traditional music.
Inevitably, however, there is a subtle, implied verbal message in Norman's posts. (How could there not be?) He is hinting that discourse is divisive and leads to dangerous delusions (e.g. "trivializing appropriations"), because you cannot separate object analyzed and subject analyzer. When analyzer and analyzed are two, the ego persists in its function of differentiating and prevents the emergence of what Norman infers to be a higher knowledge; whereas non-differnentiation, or the "answer that is no answer", seeks to break down the boundaries between analyzer as subject and analyzed as object. He is telling us that interpenetration of the two gives rise to a mind of harmony and the attainment of creativity.
This raises some complicated questions. By challenging the authority of language, does Norman break down the masks of our cultural folly only to replace them with disguises of his own? Is the entire concept part of the Buddha-mask that is now only part of a semi-avant-guarde western cultural paradigm that has existed since about 1950? I don't know. But Norman is probably correct when he suggests that the immediacy of listening (Buddha BigEars) reveals the nature and meaning of existence better than the dissections of discourse ever will. I would only add that meaningful discourse must also listen deeply. Without listening deeply, meaningful discourse cannot even exist. Will Buddha BigEars tell us that true discourse is first and foremost deep listening? Even if our words are hardly more than the rattling of cane, they bring us together and allow us to share in our human condition.
There is another message inherent in Maskman's Follies (that beautiful show behind the big, cheesy red and white sign flashing the words "Normanland" and accompanied by a $25 Casio synth while drifting down the rivers of infinity). It is their folly that so attracts us to people like Norman or Abbie (Conant), or why people gather around Pauline from all over the world. We admire the controlled folly with which they try to live their lives. As Norman's dreams and masks illustrate, folly is recognized as the wisdom of fools.
Folly also shapes cultural history. We see that what begins as fatuous, gradually becomes the new paradigm we live by, the powdered wigs, the fox trots, or the cadaillacs with big Sputnik fins. Then by the same path of rivers within rivers, cultural paradigms (follies) return to their fatuous status, this time as outdated. What, for example, is more "follyful" than Gothic cathedrals? We look at the infinitude of gargoyles, saints, Popes and angels and celebrate not so much God as the folly of the human spirit. Righteousness is temporal, but folly is eternal. History is a chronicle of human delusions. This is why Norman rejects language in a certain way. Is it a wonder that Buddha BigEars communicates with a kind of eternal silence? What are words in the light of infinity but the rattling of cane?
It is this fatuousness, this folly, that has shaped the history of music. That is why some Italian decided to rub horse tail hairs over cat intestines stretched taut over a poorly varnished pine box to make music using a tonality created by a harmony of spheres revolving around the earth like a big, godly clockwork. (And you think Cage is weird.) It took a lot of history and culture to build up such folly? But what would our lives be without it? Folly is why a distinguished musicologist like Jann Pasler goes to Rose Mountain and has a group of adults feeling leaves and bark with their hands so that they can listen to the voices of trees. And it is why a famous composer I know gets a whole audience of cultured, educated people to start making burps and rasberries with their mouths in a concert hall.
The most ironic paradox of being is that our lives are given deep meaning by the sheer folly of our existence.
Norman's speechlessness tell us that folly is the preciousness of life. And paradoxically, that is why we need the humanism of Deep Listening. It protects the folly of life and being.