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Shoji Hamada

How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting:

Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.

Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”

Robinson continues this line of thought:

The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.

Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.

Smells like hell but taste like heaven, or as one writer aptly described the dual pleasure and pain of the durian fruit: “It’s like eating the most delicious custard out of a toilet bowl.”

It’s something I think about frequently: What if you really dislike an artist—or a thinker—in their real life form but you admire their work?

This morning the New York Times’ The Ethicist addressed the question, “Can I politically disagree with an artist and still love the art?” (In this case, posed by a political conservative who is troubled about liking the music of Bruce Springsteen.)

That’s an ongoing issue for me with the inimitable Nassim Nicholas Taleb*. His ideas provoke, excite and expand my thinking. I loved reading The Black Swan, and now I am winding my way through his latest, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

Here’s a brief description of his latest all consuming theory from the Guardian‘s recent review:

The core idea behind this book is simple and quite enticing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb divides the world and all that’s in it (people, things, institutions, ways of life) into three categories: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. You are fragile if you avoid disorder and disruption for fear of the mess they might make of your life: you think you are keeping safe, but really you are making yourself vulnerable to the shock that will tear everything apart. You are robust if you can stand up to shocks without flinching and without changing who you are. But you are antifragile if shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face. Taleb thinks we should all try to be antifragile.

While the ideas presented are provocative, the book itself does not offer a crisp delivery. I agree with reviewer David Runciman who describes it as a “big, baggy, sprawling mess.”

And it isn’t just the book structure that detracts from the content. It is that damn persistent Taleb personality thing. This is a game of whack-a-mole where that annoyance won’t stop showing up. The title of John Horgan‘s review for Scientific American says it well: Nassim Taleb Is Annoying, but ‘Antifragile’ Is Still Worth Reading.

This isn’t a new problem of course. Horgan offer up a list of similarly difficult but provocative thinkers, many of whom I too have found compelling:

Reading Taleb, I am reminded of other big-egoed thinkers: The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who like Taleb emphasized life’s randomness, or “contingency,” as Gould put it. (I summed up Gould’s view of life as “shit happens.”) The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, who fashions his neologisms into grandiose diagrams of existence. The anarchist Kirkpatrick Sale, who rails against the tyranny and corruption of big governments and corporations. The journalist Kevin Kelly, who extols the chaos and freedom of decentralization over top-down control. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who cherished his status as a cross-disciplinary maverick and had a knack for gnomic aphorisms. The psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna, who shared Taleb’s obsession with novelty.

In short, Taleb resists categorization. If I had to pigeonhole him, I’d call him an anti-guru guru. That is, he mercilessly bashes other gurus, pundits and prophets and warns you not to fall for them. He depicts himself as a brave, lonely truth-teller in a world of fools and frauds. In so doing, he becomes a guru himself, with a cult-like following. Many gurus—from Socrates to Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the most successful gurus of the 1960s—have successfully employed this anti-guru schtick.

I have come to refer to this twosidedness as Durienism, named after that unforgettable Asian fruit that both delights and disgusts.

Even so, I am already aware of how much this book has shifted my thinking about the way things unfold in my studio. What ways of working are fragile and easily destroyed? What thrives on change and disruption? As Taleb writes, “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes a fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them.” I’m no fragilista, but I am also looking for even better ways to explore and play with that edge of uncertainty.

*Previous Slow Muse posts about Taleb:
Tinker Away
Kahneman, in the Studio

All the world as seen through the lens of a crystalline polythene grid of air pockets

“Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has her theme. She should move around in that theme.”

So claims Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. Similarly, artist Lucian Freud was reported to have said, “Everything is autobiographical, everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.”

One last example, and a memorable one: Willem de Kooning, suffering from dementia at the end of his life, continued to paint in that de Kooning signatory style. Brain dysfunction be damned, his work was coming up from somewhere deeper. Or different.

Be like me. See the world through my eyes. It is an elemental aspect of an artist’s consciousness. And the edge between objective and subjective is often an invisible boundary. Can we ever see it, that line where our own proclivities end?

After all, there is a long list of behavorial biases that can alter our ability to see/understand/perceive/comprehend with clarity. Here’s just a few from Psy-Fi’s much longer list:

Ambiguity Aversion: we don’t mind risk but we hate uncertainty
Babe Ruth Effect: winning big but rarely beats winning often and small
Bias Blind Spot: we agree that everyone else is biased, but not ourselves
Confirmation Bias: we interpret evidence to support our prior beliefs and, if all else fails, we ignore evidence that contradicts it
Familiarity Effect: being familiar with something makes you favour it
Fundamental Attribution Error: we attribute success to our own skill and failure to everyone else’s lack of it
Galatea Effect: some people succeed simply because they think they should
Hindsight Bias: we’re unable to stop ourselves thinking we predicted events, even though we’re woefully bad at predicting the future
Inter-group Bias: we evaluate people within our own group more favorably than those outside of it
Introspection Illusion: we value information gleaned from introspection more than we value our actions
Sharpshooter Effect: beware experts painting targets around bullet holes
Survivorship Bias: this is an error that comes from focusing only on the examples that survive some particular situation
Titanic Effect: if it can’t sink you don’t need lifeboats
Tragedy of the Commons: we overuse common resources because it not in any individual’s interests to conserve them

During the last few months I have been tunneling deeply through a massive project. An intensity of focus has been needed to get it done, but it comes at a cost. During times like these, my ability to parse the world in general becomes impaired.

I’ve been in that place before. When I had my first child, the world outside my home ceased to exist. If you didn’t wear a diaper and weren’t sleeping in the crib in the room next door, you just didn’t get any air time. I am grateful for the remembrance—and reassurance—that normalcy does return. Eventually.