The Art of Friendship (h2so4 11)

I want to say that friendship offers us more hope than any other human relationship because it is not constrained by as many predetermined or otherwise loaded roles and expectations—we may each have our idea of what appropriate friendship behavior is, but deviations from this are not frowned upon by the outside world in the same way as are deviations in love, family or career path. In these latter terms, there is often some fantasy (or reality) of social regulation operating, one that reads any unseemly blip on its radar of normality as a threat—everything new is revolution, no? Such pressure is felt even by the most dedicated transgressor of society's strictures. I'm not one of these. I want to live in community as humans do while keeping possibility alive as humans must. Friendship enables this—it does the work of a double agent, offering an "institution" of support on which we can lean when facing life's pressures while it itself steers clear of these pressures by appearing to be ancillary and unthreatening, a mere "accoutrement" to what is "serious" in life.

I also want to say that this is both the grace and the burden of friendship, this very freeness of definition. If offers support but one must work to preserve it simply because it is not supported by an elaborate structure of societal expectation.

This is its paradoxical power, that it can be both the strongest and weakest of ties. Such power is to be found in every appearance that defies easy definition or the logic of first impression. "Definition" is always a meaning that is agreed to in advance or dictated by a source recognized as authoritative. In thinking of spaces that defy easy definition, love and friendship jump immediately to mind, as do poetry (by which I do not mean simply "verse") and art. I draw this relation between art and friendship on purpose.

I have been struggling lately to figure out where friendship fits. Obviously, it is important—we all have "friends," we go out to bars with them and make dinner dates and watch television with and buy birthday presents for these people. Sometimes we wish we had more or better or different friends, but everyone admits friendship as a value. That our cultural assumptions fail to do the real work of taking the role of the friend in a life into account is exemplified thus: who comes first? friend or family? friend or lover? friend or career? The obvious answer to any of these leaves the friend with the short end of the stick, or even wonders why the question was ever phrased—"these are different; they can't be compared (but the friend must wait)." And why is this so?

As I began by remarking, there is no structure to support friendship beyond our every conscious decision to do so. Family is taken for granted, is what you never had the choice about and rarely question, or is what you enter into in marriage, etc. Lover and career are also taken for granted, are thought of as things that each of us "should have." But these "takings for granted" are of a kind that, while they require love and ambition and caring and concern if they are to be at all worth attending to, nonetheless have structures of support ready for each of us to fall into. In the broadest possible description: A lover becomes your life-partner, husband/wife or roommate, has marriage vows and societal expectation, the very commonness of couples in support of it. A career fulfills personal objectives or gives you the resources with which to do this, is the goal you had in mind in school, forms the basis of a social life later, is the structure that governs most activities, if only because it takes up most of your time. Family claims you on holidays (or every day) and reminds you who you are, if you're lucky also supports you no matter who you are, and is a source of comfort you can always return to. A friend, however, is outside your love relationship, to the side of your career, and not a member of your family, no matter how much of an "honorary" role he or she plays in any of these areas. This essay means to reflect on the art of friendship.

I've been intrigued and inspired for the last few years by the work of an artist named Vik Muniz, born in Brazil, currently living, I believe, in New York City. His work is "postmodern" in the sense that it is a meta-statement, a commentary on its own form. He takes or finds photographs and then "reenacts" them in other media, photographs the new version, and then mounts these photographs of newly-rendered "photographs" as his art. So, for instance, a photo of a naked human torso, a rhinoceros, human hands or a bowl of eggs are rendered in dirt and leaves, in such detail that one thinks these are works in charcoal by a master. The Last Supper or a portrait of Freud is rendered in chocolate syrup. Homeless children are brought into being in the broken glass and left-over confetti of the day after Carnival. 

It is more than the absolute artistry of these pictures that makes them compelling, even haunting. Beyond being fascinating works of art in and of themselves, they embody a commentary on what we see, what we expect to see, and how those expectations indicate something of what we refuse to see. That which strains at the edges of a structure always reveals what we've already determined doesn't fit within it. This straining, and how it is important, speaks to the category of friendship, where and how it fits in a life. Be patient and I'll get there.

A photo captures a moment of reality, no? A photo is the truth. We view it, it speaks to us, we assimilate its meaning, and we're done with it. But there is always more, and this is nothing new. The eye of the photographer: she sets up the shot; makes cropping decisions; chooses subject matter; perhaps takes the picture instead of interacting, lending a hand? Famous photos: children running, burning from Agent Orange; a lone student stopping a tank in Beijing; a street execution of a Vietcong suspect; a wartime kiss in Times Square—these are a few of the photos Muniz draws from memory (this time really drawing, with a pencil) in his "The Best of Life" series. News photos such as these, seen in the pages of Life magazine or in our daily newspaper, become part of our popular consciousness; we think we know them—and our memory of them is always yet another interpretation of the event we didn't witness in the first place, informed by subtle or not so subtle differences, another layer of distance. We see Muniz's drawings and we think they are the original photo. Until we see the original photo. And then do we think about the event itself?

"Postmodernism" or any kind of metacommentary is often criticized for denying the possibility of truth or stable meaning. The approaches, the language and techniques used by writers of these kinds of critiques rightly leave many readers annoyed or tired, wondering whether everything is meaningless, whether these writers think everything is meaningless, whether there is any possibility for ethical or other "serious" thought or action in this world. And yet, all is not wrong with commentary on what we accept as commentary, and this is what Vik Muniz shows us without words.

To accept a photographic representation as truth is to limit the truth of an event. To draw attention to this is to open up a closed field for commentary. Sometimes it is the very existence of something that doesn't quite lend itself to set forms of commentary that offers us the most possibility for hope in this world.

This is why the very lack of set structure is not the weakness of friendship, but the source of its power. It strains at the edges, overflows what we take for granted as the whole, and fills in places not recognized as empty. It can play many roles in a life, but is not so easily settled into one. If the expectations, possibilities of hope, definitions of ambition or goal admitted by society hit us at times as mystifying, worthless or even tending toward annihilation of the soul, then we can be sure that setting out to carve new roads within the categories already established as the glue of society is sure to be a labor of Sisyphus. That is no reason not to begin, OK? But it could be that friendship may offer possibilities or models for change that would be harder to begin elsewhere. Society is full of templates we are expected to fall into if we wish to proceed with relative ease through life. This is not all bad—convention is our way of living together; without it, we could not even have language. But we are too fond of ease, even when we don't see it overtaking us. I fear I am not the only person who has seen married couples (legal or no, gay or straight), or other established kinds of relationships, be they personal or "something else," relations between people having every intention of not becoming a typical no-longer-happy conjunction of individuals—of making a life of their own design, that does not stagnate or slip into unwanted templates—be hard-pressed to resist the pressure that everyday life and the words and gestures of unthinking others lay upon them. It is not only a question of personal strength, but of finding some means of institutional support where there is no institution. It is a question of keeping your important decisions alive, of revisiting them and revising them—this is the only way to have a living love of any kind. 

How often do we despair of life simply because we have neglected to enter the friend factor into our happiness spreadsheet? Not having a lover is not the end of the world. Not having a great job is not the end of the world. Not having a supportive family is not the end of the world. Being friendless, that is the end of the world (even Aristotle said so). So why are friends so often the first to be sent packing or the last to be remembered when something else comes up? Friends fall out as soon as we forget to reforge the place wherein they fit in our lives. Remember? They have no "natural" structure. But remember also--the link is only as weak as you allow it to become. "Natural structure" is a mechanism whereby we allow our choices to be set in stone to save the labor of keeping them alive. But one simply cannot have both absolute certainty and living love. Every human relationship must be continuously attended to if it is to remain a living one--friendship makes this reality ever-present when we are struck by how it must be attended to if it is to survive at all. What happens when you are "just" someone's friend? We all know the girls and boys who forget their friends when they meet their partners. The people consumed by their careers. People for whom what seems like blessing heaped upon blessing is not enough without fairy-tale love and fame or some such chimera of expectation. And we also know the burn-out at the end of these paths.

Of course a lot of this has to do with not being satisfied with what you have, always thinking that there is something better, and that "something better" must be what has already been defined by someone else for you as "what to achieve." The hope to escape this kind of conditioning requires 24-hour effort on the part of anyone conscious of the constant chipping away of (and at) our society's value structure, or lack thereof, at our more intimate knowledge of what matters. Society's picture of what a life should be is a snapshot, a representation, and this means: simplification, something which by definition leaves out much that is of import.

The moments at which word-definitions fail us do not show the hopelessness of these meanings but rather point to the excess that word-meaning can only "represent." Sometimes word-meaning is the translation of the difficult-to-speak into speech. All translations necessarily leave something out but also offer new possibility—they are our hope of communication. Any lover of art or music or anyone who has been in love knows the truth of this, that there is something that exceeds every recording or description of a "meaning," and this is not chaos or the impossibility of art or love, but the very possibility of its existence, of its importance to us. Again, what does it mean when I am "just" someone's friend?

At the exhibit at ICP Midtown, New York, the six sugar children—Vik Muniz's portraits of children of sugar cane workers rendered in sugar on black paper, then photographed—were displayed next to a stand that supported six jars of sugar, each bearing the small photograph that the sugar portraits were modeled after. The jars each contained the amount of sugar it took to compose the portraits. The base of the stand bore a translation of a poem, "O Açucar," by Ferrera Gullar:

In remote places, with no hospital
or school,
men who cannot read and die of hunger
at 27 years of age
planted and harvested the cane
that will become sugar.
In dark refineries,
lives, bitter
and hard
produced this sugar
white and pure
that sweetens my coffee this morning in Ipanema.

The photos comment on the ability of the photographer to photograph and then leave behind without a second thought the lives of people everywhere; the renderings of the photos in sugar comment on what we think photography is, what we think representation is—that it is the truth bared before us, without need of further commentary; the sugar used to render these representations comments on "what makes possible" the lives of the children pictured; the poem tells of what we value in their existence, and what we might never think about. This is not overtly political art. I've seen the sugar portraits before without the jars and the poem. They are works of art, visions of tremendous beauty that don't need any accompanying text to make them speak to us. But whether they speak at all and what we will hear will depend very much on the extent to which we rely on accustomed structures of thought when we draw our conclusions. The same could be said of the value we place on friendship. The snapshot is the easy answer. When we expect too much ease, we take easy meaning from the world, and that meaning becomes our world.

As Vik Muniz writes, on the wall, almost avoided by me as that icky art-text I dread at every museum: 

...The good actor lets you experience the play while the bad actor lets you experience the theater itself. I think of my photographs as very short plays, sometimes a fraction of a second long, in which a bad actor, say, soil, thread, or chocolate, performs the role of an object, person or landscape only for the lens of the camera. I cast bad actors because I don't want people to simply see a representation of something. I want them to feel how it happens.

Representation, structural assumption, interpretation, these are all ethical decisions we rarely think we've made. But we have always made them. Every relationship is a work of art.

And, whether we remark on this or not, our behavior gets for us in return what we deserve. Our inner lives, the kind of possibility we envision, the kind of friendships we might have, all are informed by these decisions, conscious or not. These show us our assumptions about what is real and what is of value. What keeps friendship alive? Effort (and love, which is a more pleasant form of effort). It is the problem of structural lack. If you are to make your friendships real and important, you will need to forge the space for them within your many life choices. Of course, one of the graces of friendship is understanding—that, at times, you can leave a friend aside because you have to do something difficult, and that will be understood. There is a fine line between assuming an understanding and taking for granted, and I leave the troubling of that line to you.

And of course I'm no stone-caster, am as guilty as the next of not making effort. I've been reminded recently of the absolute blessing it is to put effort into friendship, and this writing is a meditation on that. For even the most solid and massive friendships have a breaking point. My meditation is also mournful of mistakes I've made.

In every photo as in every true friendship or love there is something that exceeds the possibilities of representation or thorough description in words. We can't change that, nor do we want to. Truth, after all, need not rely on representation, and the deepest truths may not. This essays asks that we remember that representation is secondary presence, re-presentation; it is not the truth, and we cheat ourselves when we settle only for its meaning.

A friend feeds us with the silent glance that says it all, for good or ill. The one-word joke that would take two hours to explain (and even then would be hardly worth explaining). Trust with secrets. Courage to bear shame and weakness. The shorthand language that makes life easier in times of joy and times of pain. Acceptance even when we've behaved abominably. Honesty, and just the right amount of lack thereof in times of travail. The whole world so full of possibility for no other reason than that this person exists. My friend. How could this be easy? And yet, even the most difficult things are made easier in the presence of a true friend.

[©1999, Jill Stauffer]