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The (in)famous Robert Benchley

Maybe there is something more than wry humor behind Robert Benchley’s oft-quoted quip, “The world is divided into groups: those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.” It is after all so comfortingly seductive, the beautiful symmetry of just two elegant and simple options. Like the essential elementalness of coupling, toggle switches and the American two party political system.

And yes, it is also a disastrously incomplete view of life. But its appeal is so endemic because the very structure of bimodality brings order to the chaos of our world. We have minds that have been designed for pattern recognition, with proclivities to make a map through the onslaught of random information and stimuli that come at us every day.

With that caveat, here is one of my favorite order-creating divisions:

Some artists can deal with bad art, and some cannot.

I have been operating from this premise for many years and was reminded of it recently while reading Jerry Saltz’s latest piece in New York Magazine. In a column that covers a potpourri of topics, he offered this personal note:

I see 30 to 40 gallery shows a week, and no matter what kind of mood I’m in, no matter how bad the art is, I almost always feel better afterward. I can learn as much from bad art as from good.

I am not in Jerry’s tribe on this one, and I never have been.

This distinction was demonstrated to me years ago when an artist friend and I spent a day together visiting galleries in New York. Nothing spoke to either of us. Driving back to Boston, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Wiped out. The experience of seeing so much misfired work had left me with bad art poisoning. But my friend had the opposite reaction. She was animated by what we had seen, excited to get back to her studio and do great work.

The difference in our responses was so striking that I decided to conduct a straw poll among my artist friends with this question: Does seeing bad art energize or enervate you?

My network of friends is far from scientific, but here’s what I found:

– Artists who are teachers have a personal immunity to art that is bad, early stage and/or student level.

– Artists who do not teach are prone to be more “sensitive” to bad work. Those who have a proclivity to art poisoning are not as drawn to classrooms or teaching.

What remains undetermined is which came first. Is immunity an acquired skill? It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

I am reminded of the explanation provided by artist Anna Hepler in an article by Sebastian Smee about why she left her secure and hard to come by teaching job. The pressure on her as a teacher to be didactic and to “uphold the holy mantle of authority’’ made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It pollutes,’’ she says, “and for me there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved.’’

Now she can focus, she says, on maintaining “a risk-taking state of mind’’ and on “really living something, not making work that is about something.’’

“If you’re going to embark on this process,’’ she explains, “you have to rely 100 percent on intuition.’’

No right or wrongs here, just the usefulness of knowing what kind of immune system you have operating.


Kevin Kelly and Steve Johnson (Illustration: Jason Holley, Wired)

This is a follow on to my earlier post about Steve Johnson’s new book, Where Ideas Come From.

These excerpts are from a conversation between Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, and Steve Johnson published in Wired:

Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections, in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.

Johnson: I was particularly taken with your idea that technology wants increasing diversity—which is what I think also happens in biological systems, as the adjacent possible becomes larger with each innovation. As tech critics, I think we have to keep this in mind, because when you expand the diversity of a system, that leads to an increase in great things and an increase in crap.

Kelly: Ten years ago, I was arguing that the problem with TV was that there wasn’t enough bad TV. Making TV was so expensive that accountants prevented it from becoming really crappy—or really great. It was all mediocre. But that was before YouTube. Now there is great TV!

Kelly: To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap. Another example is spectrum. One reason we have this great explosion of innovation in wireless right now is that the US deregulated spectrum. Before that, spectrum was something too precious to be wasted on silliness. But when you deregulate—and say, OK, now waste it—then you get Wi-Fi.

Johnson: This is another idea with a clear evolutionary parallel, right? If we didn’t have genetic mutations, we wouldn’t have us. You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.

Kelly: In my book, I quote the astrophysicist Paul Davies, who asks whether the laws of nature are “rigged in favor of life.” For my part, I think the laws of nature are rigged in favor of innovation.

Johnson: Life seems to gravitate toward these complex states where there’s just enough disorder to create new things. There’s a rate of mutation just high enough to let interesting new innovations happen, but not so many mutations that every new generation dies off immediately.

Kelly: Right. This is a big theme in your book, too—the idea that the most creative environments allow for repeated failure.

Kathleen Kirk’s post, Persistence and Patience, is a thoughtful description of how she ended up, after several career explorations, being a poet. In her graceful telling, she describes her many forays into other creative fields—music, art, theater, teaching—but none of them evoked the necessary persistence and patience in her that is needed to keep the passion fed and fueled when the work is hard and the way is difficult. Once you find your métier, something shifts. When you are wired for sound, you just have to let go.

I found Kirk’s point of view resonant with my own experience:

I get rejected, accepted, and published all because I am patient and persistent. I have lived through various “trends” in writing, waiting patiently until the thing I do can be appreciated and accepted once again. Beauty has gone out of fashion, and come back. “Nature poems” have been despised, but now everyone is “going green.” Some people equate simplicity of language with simplistic thought, and thus ignore me, while I have always found that the most complex thinking usually requires the greatest clarity of statement. I am not a flashy poet, nor a trendy or political poet. I write about what goes on around me, and inside me.

Paul Auster has said, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” I am committed to walking this long, hard road and have been on it, in my meandering way, for quite a lovely while.

From the Leonardo Drew exhibit at the deCordova Museum. Drew said he has noticed that the more he touches things, the better they get. (More about this amazing show coming here soon.)

This morning I tried to describe to my friend Linda how the energy in my studio can shift suddenly in ways I find difficult to predict or control. A form may appear quite by accident while painting that produces an unexpected sense of elation and expansion. Linda listened to my halting description of this instantaneous reaction and suggested that the relationship we have with visual imagery is more complex than we might have supposed. Yes, we are about the job of bringing new forms into existence. But there is the possibility that those invented forms are capable of entering into an esoteric dialectic, a back and forth that does not live in language as we currently use it.

This is an exchange that is subtle and rarely referenced in the art criticism and theory I have read. There are hints at this, like the following quote from Stevens (But of course! My favorite all time poet):

When I was a boy I used to think that things progressed by contrasts, that there was a law of contrasts. But this was building the world out of blocks. Afterwards I came to think of the energizing that comes from mere interplay, interaction. Thus, the various faculties of the mind co-exist and interact, and there is as much delight in this mere co-existence as man and woman find in each other’s company . . . Cross reflections, modifications, counter-balances, complements, giving and taking are illimitable. They make things inter-dependent and their inter-dependence sustains them and gives them pleasure.

–Wallace Stevens, 1940 Letter to Hi Simons

Thank you to such stuff, a wonderful treasure trove of images and ideas, for this memorable quote.

Frank Stella, Chocorua IV, 1966, Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas, 120 x 128 x 4 in., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Abuses of power and money, decisions made by self serving Philistines, the infuriatingly short sighted policies that have ramifications way beyond the bounds of the elite board room—nothing new in any of these themes. But the stories that touch my interest, art, still stick in the caw and won’t dislodge that easily. I am forced to ask the existential question of how should we respond to these flagrant travesties, especially given how many of them take place under wraps and are never really exposed?

My friend (and favorite curator) Carl Belz recently published an account that looks back to a Frank Stella acquisition that never happened during his last few months at the Rose Art Museum. (His account is here on the blog Left Bank.) His story will infuriate you if having access to works by an important artist within reach of Boston matters to you. The bad spin around Brandeis and the Rose (Battle of the Roses?) continues and Belz’s account is just one more peek into the complexity of doing the right thing in any environment—art, academia or politics—where doing good work and operating with high minded intentions are rarely rewarded.

Watching The Art of the Steal, the recently released documentary about the highly controversial move of the Barnes Foundation art collection into Philadelphia, is yet another example. Yes, critics of the film have pointed to its highly biased telling of a complex and extremely arcane tale that tracks the fate of an art collection valued at billions of dollars. But the villainy is profligate and plentiful no matter how much you skew for bias. When there is that much money at stake, you can’t keep treacherous vultures away for long.

The stoic’s stance. Is that the optimal response for any of us to take in the face of shenanigans this large in scope? Both of these accounts make me hot under the collar, but it is a heat that has nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do.

OK. That’s my rant. I’ll move on to something more positive tomorrow, I promise.

View of The Hill, James Magee’s masterwork in west Texas

I finally received my copy of James Magee, The Hill, by Richard R. Brettell and Jed Morse. This publication accompanies a show of Magee’s work currently on exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas through November 28.

The Hill is hard to describe. Yes, it is a structure constructed by Magee in the west Texas desert outside El Paso, and any number of words could be used to capture its essence: architectural, sculptural, land art, monumental, personal, esoteric, spiritual, minimalist, sublime, symbolist, open, closed. Other artists who touch into the transcendental come to mind as well: James Turrell, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Maya Lin, Nancy Holt, Olafur Eliasson, even Bill Viola.

From Willard Spiegelman’s description in the Wall Street Journal:

It consists of a quartet of 14-foot-high, flat-roofed buildings (one of which still lacks a finished interior), in a cruciform shape, sitting atop two intersecting elevated stone causeways. All is stone and metal. Light seeps through fiberglass panels from above. There is no electricity. Mr. Magee has done all the work, by hand, with the help of hired assistants who come and go. For the sake of the lucky visitor, they open and close the large metallic doors into the three edifices. Nondoctrinal religion, a pervading spirituality, defines the place and the experience of being there. Mr. Magee is the creator, the servant, the priest and—for the most part—the congregation.

The photos in the book by Tom Jenkins are sumptuous, with deeply saturated color. The high contrast light is particularly dramatic in large format as is the intoxicating absence of anything human. Jenkins’ photos capture a haunting timelessness that is reminiscent of the mystery of the ancient Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert or the incomprehensible grandeur of the Neolithic stone circles that dot the Celtic coastline of Great Britain.

It is a singular accomplishment. And not surprisingly, the Marfa-style art pilgrimaging has begun. And who would not want to experience this setting? I would love to be able to visit in person some day.

James Magee

Turns out Magee’s story is much more complex than it might appear. Magee (who looks more like one of the prospectors in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre than a sly art world type) actually has more in common with the persona-bending Marcel Duchamp than meets the eye. In an effort to answer to all of his many parts, Magee has invented two other artists, one male and one female, to drain off the parts that would not blend into the supramacist purity of The Hill. These two artist personas, Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield, have successful careers making and selling art that is unrelated to the numinous perfection of the Hill. While some may view that splintering as a from of deception, I have come to think that Magee found the perfect solution to the many and often conflicting force fields that most of us carry inside. Approaching his artmaking in multiple has allowed him to craft something extraordinary and other worldly while still having a rooted existence on the terrestrial plane.

The value of this approach is described well by Pamela Petro in her piece for Granta:

Annabel is pure colour. She’s the gendered expression of place and time: Juarez nights and the desert at dusk and dawn, Pickerel Lake in Michigan when Jim was a kid. Horace (born in Chicago in 1932, as one catalogue notes) is campy and allusive; if sex doesn’t spill onto the surfaces of his work, it roils beneath.

There is no home for these passions in the exacting geometries and grave dialogues of The Hill. Rick Brettell says that ‘Annabel and Horace are necessary because they keep The Hill pure. Horace is a queen who likes to work on shower curtains. So God bless Horace from keeping The Hill free of shower curtains’.

The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.

Another view of The Hill

Portion of an image by Anna Hepler from her show at the Portland Museum of Art this summer

This unexpected report from the New York Times: Jane Moss, vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, talks about her ideas behind the 3 week long White Light Festival, an event that is explicitly based on a primary theme of spirituality: “Many if not all of the answers to one’s own life actually lie inside ourselves. I believe deeply in having access to, and spending time with, one’s interior life.”

From Steve Smith’s article:

Insisting that she is no Luddite, Ms. Moss singled out the omnipresent siren call of cellphones, BlackBerries and similar electronic gadgets as a possible barrier to inner contemplation and artistic communion. “If you’ve got 423 e-mails to answer or you’ve got 12 texts coming in, there is enormous seduction in that,” she said. “You’re being productive. You’re busy. You’re important.”

Breaking with that incessant barrage, Ms. Moss suggested, is an increasingly urgent objective for many harried professionals, herself included. That she conceived of this festival during a yoga class sounds too good to be true, but is.

“It was in those classes that I just had this moment,” Ms. Moss said, “and it sounds really ridiculous, but it was this moment of thinking, ‘Beethoven can do this for you too,’ and that we were somehow not articulating the ultimate power of what music is.” Conceiving a festival meant to illustrate and support that idea required a shift in curatorial philosophy…

Uniting it all is Ms. Moss’s fervent belief that beyond aesthetic concerns, music has a distinct capacity for offering transcendence.

“To me the ultimate success, I suppose, would be that you, the listener, fall in love the way I do every day of my life,” she said. “If I were able to give that to people — that, ‘Oh my God, this music makes me feel whole,’ for maybe only two hours — that would feel good to be able to do that.”

Jane Moss’ credo from the White Light Festival website:

The White Light Festival is our new annual fall festival focused on music’s transcendent capacity to illuminate our larger interior universe. In this inaugural season, we explore the spiritual dimension of music as manifested in different cultural and musical traditions, from masterpieces of the Western classical canon to Muslim and Hindu musical linkages in northern India and the mystical minimalism of the Baltic region.

We invite you to extend your White Light experience through a variety of free events, including discussions with the participating artists, in-depth explorations of festival themes, and informal post-performance parties. We hope these musical encounters will enable you, if only for the course of an evening, to experience moments of connection and wholeness in an increasingly frenetic and fragmented world.

The Festival will run from October 28 through November 18.

At a AAAS meeting back in the 70s, I remember hearing Stephen Jay Gould outline the then new theory of punctuated equilibrium. In addition to the long periods of statis in the evolution of a species, Gould also demonstrated his belief that evolution was like a many sided polygon wheel—it doesn’t roll forward smoothly but happens in discrete chunks.

This idea was very provocative to me, and I have never forgotten the image he drew on the wall. Movement and change have their own constraints. It was actually comforting at some level to think about progress happening like this, one face of the polygon at at time.

Steven Johnson, author of a number of books and most recently Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, has a similar view. “Adjacent possible” is a phrase first used by biologist Stuart Kauffman and makes the claim that only certain next steps are feasible at any given time be it science, technology culture or politics. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

Johnson’s approach offers another explanation for why discoveries often happen simultaneously, like sun spots being seen for the first time in 1611 by four different scientists in four different countries, or the identification of the DNA double helix. It isn’t just “zeitgeist” but the adjacent possible happening everywhere. Good ideas says Johnson are “are built out of a collection of existing parts.”

From a review in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman:

What all this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

I have a restlessness that constantly moves between two extreme nodes—from the “language is useful” end of the spectrum to the “language is not useful” at the other. When you find yourself hovering closer to the latter, the chatty wisdom of someone like Tom Robbins can feel comforting. Here’s one from my ever-reliable wisdom source, Whiskey River, that made my day a bit better.

If you need to visualize the soul, think of it as a cross between a wolf howl, a photon, and a dribble of dark molasses. But what it really is, as near as I can tell, is a packet of information. It’s a program, a piece of hyperspatial software designed explicitly to interface with the Mystery. Not a mystery, mind you, the Mystery. The one that can never be solved.

To one degree or another, everybody is connected to the Mystery, and everybody secretly yearns to expand the connection. That requires expanding the soul. These things can enlarge the soul: laughter, danger, imagination, meditation, wild nature, passion, compassion, psychedelics, beauty, iconoclasm, and driving around in the rain with the top down. These things can diminish it: fear, bitterness, blandness, trendiness, egotism, violence, corruption, ignorance, grasping, shining, and eating ketchup on cottage cheese.

Data in our psychic program is often nonlinear, nonhierarchical, archaic, alive, and teeming with paradox. Simply booting up is a challenge, if not for no other reason than that most of us find acknowledging the unknowable and monitoring its intrusions upon the familiar and mundane more than a little embarrassing.

But say you’ve inflated your soul to the size of a beach ball and it’s soaking into the Mystery like wine into a mattress. What have you accomplished? Well, long term, you may have prepared yourself for a successful metamorphosis, an almost inconceivable transformation to be precipitated by your death or by some great worldwide eschatological whoopjamboreehoo. You may have. No one can say for sure.

More immediately, by waxing soulful you will have granted yourself the possibility of ecstatic participation in what the ancients considered a divinely animated universe. And on a day to day basis, folks, it doesn’t get any better than that.

–Tom Robbins, from “You gotta have soul”, Esquire, October 1993

A Disappearing Number (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

National Theater Live brings stage productions in London to cinema settings around the world, and the most recent was a broadcast of A Disappearing Number, a production by Simon McBurney’s Complicite Theatre Company.

This latest play offers up a meditation on a variety of themes but is primarily structured around the abstraction, beauty and mystery of mathematics. Interlaced through this big arc concept are the stories of fictional and real individuals, most notably Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan, the South Indian math savant, and his English advocate G. H. Hardy. Infinity becomes a character in this play and the primary tool for moving the action outward and into the transcendent. As the mathematicians in the play tell us, numbers are a gapless continuum—an infinity of infinities—and a similar linkedness creates an unbroken stream that connects us to each other, whether still in bodily form or not. A Disappearing Number feels less like of a play than in invitation to surrender to a guided meditation on concepts that are much larger than our lives and yet so deeply felt.

I have only seen one other McBurney production—Mnemonic—but his theatrical approach in both plays feels like a blended weave of several trends: the idea-centric style of Tom Stoppard, the theatrical physicality demonstrated in the work of PunchDrunk, the deft incorporation of multimedia to support rather than dominate the overall experience. McBurney’s work seems to always begin with the personal (a narrative or an idea that may seem small) and then spends the duration of the play expanding that particular into a transcendent communal. The explorations keep moving outward, centrifugally, and the end of that journey is far from that quiet starting point.

I like this closing paragraph from a review by Alexandra Coghlan at the Arts Desk:

There is an elation, a freedom about this incredibly precise drama that is intoxicating. Surrender yourself to its freefall of images and ideas and it repays the trust tenfold, bombarding you with suggestions but rarely imposing conclusions. Above all, A Disappearing Number is a translation of the beauty of numbers and abstraction for the layman, a concept much attempted but rarely successful. Simon McBurney’s is theatre at its most inventive, drawing connections and making relationships in a way that both G H Hardy and Ramanujan would surely have understood.