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This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Things may be winding down for my mother. These three months of her limbo existence have been like watching a fall in slow motion.
I’m working on the part about meeting them at the door laughing.
On the topic of the current state of art education, here are a few highlights from School is Out: Rethinking Art Education Today, in Modern Painters magazine.
Steven Henry Madoff:
In recent years the role of the art school has moved to a position of prominence, pushed there by the encroachments of an aggressive marketplace and the professionalization of every aspect of the artworld, from the dominance of gallery and museum brands, to the cultural tourism of art fairs and biennials, to today’s art itself now so often created precisely for the scale, spectacle, and capitalization of these events.
To whom should the academy be responsible?…Should the art school be a research center that enlightens conceptual practices while de-emphasizing skills, or a course of study in entrepreneurship, presentation, strategic thinking, and other matters to prepare young artists for the ruthlessness of the market? Or is art school in the 21st century simply the physical surrogate of MySpace and YouTube–the spawning ground as social network?
It seems to me the most important thing about art school is the creation of a sympathetic ambiance, in which people feel comfortable and free to act according to their own instincts. You have to make a place where people feel at ease to be who they are, and bring what they have naturally in themselves to bear.
You can’t have a proper curriculum. There are no basic things. What’s basic for one artist is not basic for another. The amazing thing about young people is that they can jump in at a very sophisticated level, without actually understanding what they’re dong. Somehow that innocence also allows them access to something. And so a part of teaching is helping them to realize what it is that they’ve stumbled on.
We used to think in terms of “radical” or “not radical.” This is an irrelevant issue now. The question is: How do you come up with something that is identifiable as yours? It’s a logo-ing. It’s branding.
But one of the things that’s interesting about art is that it doesn’t necessarily follow the obvious, endless trajectory in one straight path. Some kid finds a way o refusing that is so interesting that it undermines all of this other thing.
You can’t teach art. That’s my premise.
More on this topic to come, like the rise of DIY schools and the art/literary/philosophical/educational gatherings.
DM, one of my favorite blogging buddies, is the voice behind the always thoughtful and provocative blog, Joe Felso:Ruminations. In a posting a few weeks back, he wrote about a book by Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. I ordered a copy without hesitating, after reading his inspiring riff about Hugo.
Now it comes with me everywhere. Biking to and from my studio, it is nestled in my backpack. I read it waiting in line at the bank and the last thing before falling asleep. I love this book.
There is something grabbing my collar and asking me to pay attention, and this book is at the heart of that pull. What that is, I’m not really sure. And to be frank, I don’t necessarily need to know, not now anyway. But a vague directional sense of where the fragrance is coming from might lead to something meaningful. Follow your nose.
For years I have found books about writing poetry more inspirational and insightful in my art practice than books written about making visual art. When younger artists have asked me for reading recommendations, my list is almost always in the literary/poetic/wisdom tradition rather than art history/theory/criticism. I am not and never have been a teacher of visual arts, so my thoughts about the state of art pedagogy are the views of a practitioner, not as a member of the “academy” (in its most catholic of meanings). But Hugo’s book is chock full of advice that is as apropos to a visual artist as it is to a poet. His approach walks between the need to be open, teachable and impressionable and having the “arrogance” (in its non-pejorative usage) to pay attention to and honor what your inner knowing is saying.
The latest issue of Modern Painters (great mag BTW) has a cover story featuring a dialogue between John Baldessari and Michael Craig-Martin called Class Dismissed: What’s gone wrong with art education. I haven’t read it yet (it’s right on the top of that tormenting and tyrannical Stack) but I will. The topic is snagging my attention in a way that I don’t think it would have six months ago. I have a vague sense that it would be useful to probe a bit further into the phenom of art education currently being carried out through an international nexus of art schools and institutions. Where does the search for wisdom fit into a contemporary art curriculum? Is that an inappropriate question to be asking?
I’m just beginning this line of thinking. More later.
I’ll end with an excerpt from another Joe Felso: Ruminations posting exploring ways of learning how to make (and/or teach) art. It seems apropos.
Bly prefers, however, the model of Ch’an Buddhism. “Their method doesn’t resemble a workshop,” Bly says, “They didn’t teach politeness or the smooth surface . . . [The teacher’s] plan would involve something entirely outside the building.” Bly imagines a teacher who rebuffs questions and sends students off to work for a few months to build something or go on a pilgrimage for a few years. When the pupil returns, the teacher’s job would be to be rebuff him or her again.
“One might tell a student,” says Bly, “After you have built your hut, translate twenty-five poems from a Rumanian Poet.”
“But I don’t know Rumanian.”
“Well then, that’s your first job. You learn Rumanian, translate the twenty-five poems, and then come back to see me, and I’ll tell you what I think about ‘the deep image.’”
I’m still pawing through a summer’s worth of half read New Yorker magazines. (My friend Lesli calls this perpetual battle with The Stack as the “tyranny of the unread”.) And to follow on yesterday’s posting that included an excerpt from an interview with poet/essayist Dan Chiasson, I found a June issue with an effervescent and insightful review of Les Murray’s latest book of poetry written by Chiasson.
Les Murray. Cantankerous, angry, pissed off “bush bard” from Down Under, whose poetry can oscillate from irritating to transcendent in a single poem. He’s a complex character, especially for my Australian friends who have their own love/hate relationship thing going on with him and his work for a long time. But I continue to read his poems and pay attention to what snags him.
Chiasson captures some of Murray’s whimsy and wordsmithing gift–a reference to an ampersand as “smugly/phallic…/in the deskchair of itself”; a bucket of fish waving “their helpless fan feet”; a spider that walks “in circles…celebrating/the birthday of logic.” This passage from the review, referencing poems from Murray’s latest volume, The Biplane Houses, was particularly poignant:
The most impressive thing about the new poems is their capacity, writing “with a whole heart,” to find the pathos in unlikely subjects. Keats once imagined that a billiard ball gets “a sense of delight” from its own “roundness, smoothness, volubility & the rapidity of its motion,” and there is something Keatsian about Murray’s ability to locate the precise affect in image after image. “Lateral Dimensions” might have been called “Afterlives,” since the poem imagines a series of alternatives, most of them bad, for a poet’s posthumous fate. Which of these two sorry creatures would you rather be?:
he wins every time
then back on the truck
only one car
of your amber necklace
holds a once-living passenger.
The destiny of poets is to be, like the rodeo bull, triumphant over and over at the same rote act (Matthew Arnold is always a winner when we read “Dover Beach”!) and, like the insect in amber, a primal speck, once alive, now merely a “passenger” in the history of culture. The alternatives in Murray are not pleasing—but perhaps you would prefer to be like the “newspapers soaked in rain / before they are read”?
No, I wouldn’t.
When the concentric circles closest in to consciousness are vibrating, there’s less bandwidth for the larger view. My commitment to political change, always an ambient ideal, goes in and out of sharp focus for me depending on what else is in the foreground.
There is also the additional burden of how art and politics coalesce. As a non-representational painter whose work is intended for entry through the body rather than the head, I have settled into a compartmentalized rather than collaborative approach. It’s like having two parents who won’t speak to each other and live in separate houses on either side of your own.
And on that theme I found an interview with Dan Chiasson, one of the smarter poet/essayists around these days (and local guy who teaches at Wellesley College). This excerpt is from Guernica:
Dan Chiasson: Every poet wants to have that great, transcendent renunciatory power of Whitman, the access to other sites and other persons, that amplitude, that confidence and authority as a voice. Even the most narrowly private or confessional poets want that. 99% of them didn’t get it, and that’s roughly the percentage of poets in any given mode that don’t succeed, so I don’t think confessionalism offers any worse odds than any other mode.
Lowell, for example, not only wants to write from the private, but from a self that is damaged and schismatic, and often he literally can’t participate in the common world because he’s institutionalized…As a model and as an aspiration, it’s the biggest thing in my writing life to think about him. I don’t know if I’m influenced by him line to line, but I would hope to have something of that intensity, seriousness, unabashed learnedness, unabashed Miltonic ambition but also confluence with daily life and daily kinds of language—all that seems still relevant to me.
Guernica: He was also someone who could, by bringing everything he had to bear on whatever was in front of him, write some of the most political and culturally relevant poems of the last century.
Dan Chiasson: Yeah, I know. And I sound silly to my own ears when I discuss politics. I mean, I feel like puking every day when I read the newspaper, but I haven’t found a register for writing about it, and I haven’t found a register for making it part of my poems. And I really admire his ability to do that. It may no longer be possible. The assumption of centrality that he could make, that gave his political poems and statements authority. I can’t think of anyone who has done it successfully for the latest round of awfulness, which is certainly at least as awful as what Lowell was dealing with.
The events in America now have the quality of things you would find out about long after the fact, and think: if only we had known. Well, we do know now. But what are we doing? Maybe a poet like Lowell brought America a little nearer to its boiling point.
An artist who can bring us nearer to our boiling point, now that’s a worthy goal…And last night I felt some of that flash point hope. Dear friend and documentarist Sally Rubin, on a visit to Boston from her new perch point in Los Angeles, showed us the promo piece for her new project, Ghosts in Appalachia. Sally and her co-director Jennifer Gilomen are exposing the ecological and human disasters associated with the rapacious coal mining practice called MTR, mountain top removal, particularly as it is being carried out in Appalachia. Sally’s commitment is to make a film that is personal and can put this story into its proper context of our unchecked and unconscionable energy consumption. It is a message that needs to be spoken clearly and seen by millions. Sally’s commitment to both art and political change puts her in a unique position to reconcile both houses.
To view the promo piece and read more about the project, go to Ghosts of Appalachia.
Sweet stars, I’ll ask
a softer question:
Moon attend me to the
end. I’m here alone.
The feeling that one is on the
edge of many things: that
there are many worlds from
which we are separated by
only a film; that a flick
of the wrist, a turn
of the body another way
will bring us to a new world.
It is more than a perpetual
expectation … it is richness
and yet denial, this living a
half a step, as it were, from
what one should be. The
valleys are always green,
but only the eyes, never the
feet are there … The feeling
is always with us.
A pure light came,
and stole me away
Books, a constant source of solace for whatever ails the soul…I am just now getting through Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, and I was compelled by hope expressed in a review of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Tree of Smoke. The review is written by Jim Lewis (whose work I have not read unfortunately) but who has written about the new novel with mastery. I was awed by Johnson’s book of short stories, Jesus’ Son, and this new novel sounds like a must read as well.
Here’s a few excerpts from Lewis’ review:
Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and “Tree of Smoke” is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop…“Tree of Smoke” is a soulful book, even a numinous one (it’s dedicated “Again for H.P.” and I’ll bet you a bundle that stands for “higher power”), and it ought to secure Johnson’s status as a revelator for this still new century…
Johnson has always been an elusive figure, one of the last of the marginal masters. He’s not a recluse, but he’s not out humping his ego, either: I’ve never read an interview with him (though I haven’t looked very hard), or seen a picture of him that wasn’t on one of his book jackets. More important, it has often seemed as if the books themselves — there have been six novels, a book of short stories and one of plays, three volumes of poetry and a collection of journalism — have bloomed spontaneously from the secret fissures that crisscross Americana: jail cells, bad neighborhoods, bus stations, cheap frame houses in the fields beyond the last streetlight. They’re full of deprived souls in monstrous situations, hapless pilgrims on their way to their next disaster. But unlike most books about the dispossessed, they’re original (how strange it feels to use that word these days, but it fits), and what’s more, deliriously beautiful — ravishing, painful; as desolate as Dostoyevsky, as passionate and terrifying as Edgar Allan Poe.
Johnson’s standing, then, is ideal for a writer today: ample respect from his colleagues and peers, a bit of support from institutions and a large following that has nonetheless left him vaguely outside of things. “Tree of Smoke” is a massive thing and something like a masterpiece; it’s the product of an extraordinary writer in full stride. But I can’t help hoping that it leaves his status unchanged. We don’t need any more novelist-performers or novelist-pundits or novelist-narcissists, but we very badly need more novelists who can write this well.
Yes, yes and yes to not needing any more performers, pundits or narcissists masquerading as writers. (Same could be said for visual artists. Enough already.)
So here’s a bit more about Lewis, from the editors of the Book Review:
Jim Lewis…is only an occasional book critic. “My idea of hell is being obliged to have something to say about everything that comes around. To be constantly assigning value to this or that,” he said by e-mail. “I just don’t have that many opinions. On the other hand, when I do feel strongly about something, it’s a great pleasure to take some time away from the things I’m otherwise absorbed in to say so. Get up on my hind legs and holler: it’s invigorating, and it can be a lot of fun.”
Lewis, who is working on what he describes as a “gnostic novel about New York,” had this to say about Denis Johnson: “He’s one of the writers whose works I find I can’t do without. There are a few of them — J. M. Coetzee, Mary Gaitskill. Maybe there are more than a few. They seem to write at right angles to everyone else, and while I don’t always admire everything they do, I find them inescapable: they demand attention. Their worst work is worth more to me than other people’s best, and their best is something I will always carry.”
“Another way of putting it,” Lewis added, is that “Mike Kelley once said that he made art in order to give other people his problems. Johnson is one of the writers who has succeeded in giving me his.”
Some great language, no? What a phrase–writing at “right angles to everyone else.” Indeed. And making art to give your problems to somebody else. Love that! Besides, anybody who applauds Coetzee and Gaitskill is a cotraveler IMHO. Both are on my list of Top 10 Authors (that’s a vague thing, it doesn’t really exist except as a notion.)
When I wrote about Heather Mains in the posting below (Another Library Gone), I did it from the sorrow of an exile. I had been hearing about gatherings of Heather’s friends in Toronto where stories about her had been shared. But I was in Boston, a candle burning of one. But the comments left by many of her friends on this blog, sharing thier own stories and impressions of her life, created a unique circle of Heather storytelling. Reading these words has been deeply comforting to me. Thank you to all of you who left your thoughts and have created this cyber-proximity with me.
Below is the text from one of the last emails several of us received from Heather. I read it over and over again. Written just four days before she died, it captures some essence of Heather that I want to keep with me for the rest of my life.
I got up a few times last night to view the beautiful eclipse of the full moon.
It was very strange to see, what looked like a moon lit from below, was actually a shadow coming down from the top. It set in a shadowy veil. Wow.
When I went back to bed at 6am, it was turning orange.
I finished the cycle of the eclipse in my dream.
Heather (the purple flower in the green field)
This is a time in my life when the message seems to be, don’t get too comfortable in that chair, you’ll be getting up again. And again.
Yesterday I received word that my friend Heather Mains died in a kayaking accident. We spoke just a few days ago about my pending trip to stay with her in Toronto, both of us so pleased to finally be seeing each other after a long hiatus. I am full of grief, loss, sorrow.
For those of you don’t know Heather, hearing about her wide ranging accomplishments is a very limited portrait of this extraordinary human being. When I first met her she was a graphic designer and wisdom seeker who just happened to also be a former Olympian bump skier. Everything about her was relentless and passionate, and I liked her immediately. After giving birth to her first child, she got religion about women and birthing options. She became a doula and a spokesperson throughout Canada for new and better approaches to childbirth.
Over the last few years she expanded her advocacy to socially conscious marketing and communications design through her company, Duegood. She shared her campaigns and causes with so many of her friends, and it was impossible to not be inspired by her tirelessness to make life on this planet more sensible, more hospitable and more human-centered.
The best way I know to honor Heather is to ask the tough questions, to be tenacious in bringing about change, and to encourage others to participate in the vision of a better world.
Once again, Laurie Anderson’s words come to mind:
When my father died we put him in the ground.
When my father died, it was like an entire library burned down.
A few links about Heather:
Her letter about choice in childbirth published in the National Post last year
A personal account of her role as a doula during a difficult pregnancy and birth: