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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.
In writing Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?, John Berger has fashioned a book that is a hybrid cobbling of many facets of the his persona—memoirist, philosopher, art historian, artist, political essayist, cultural critic. Berger has a long history as a writer and a well recognized voice, so creating a category-busting book like this one is in some ways a perk that comes with his success. This is Berger doing his “the world according to me,” and the result is a quirky and very personal patchwork of stories.
In many ways Berger’s approach is more blog-like than it is book-like. The reader is invited to roam through Berger’s life and insights without the artifice of a recognizable template or format. Some parts are better than others, but there is much to recommend this unexpected blending of Bergerian insights and ideas.
(Note: Another very successful example of this wide angle viewing is Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting which I wrote about here.)
The fundamental armature of Bento’s Sketchbook is the writings of Spinoza. The Bento of the title, Spinoza spent most of his life—when he wasn’t working as a lens grinder—contesting Descartes’ mind/body duality. And sketching. And in spite of his refusal to publish his works during his lifetime, Spinoza’s writings survived (and ended up playing an influential role in bringing about the Enlightenment.) His sketchbook(s) however did not.
Berger steps in as if to offer himself as a proxy for Bento’s lost visualizations by assembling sketches from his everyday life. In the words of Colin McCabe: “What [Berger] is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza’s attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world.”
In an interview with Berger in the Paris Review, he described his own intentions for this book:
I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.
Spinoza gets embedded in the warp and woof of Berger’s personal encounters and stories. In an unexpected turn, those 17th century passages offer up a more optimistic view than Berger’s harsher personal sense of a world gone wrong, one that is neither fair nor hopeful.
But from time to time Berger steps away from the world’s troubles and contemplates the simple act of drawing. It is at those moments that he is at his most expansive.
When I’m drawing—and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning—I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning.
Thanks to the recent work of neurobiologists like Antonio Demasio, it’s now known that the messages which pass from cell to cell in a living body do so in the forms of charts and maps. They are spatial arrangements. They have a geometry.
It is through these ‘maps’ that the body communicates with the brain and the brain with the body. And these messages constitute the basis of the mind, which is the creature of both body and brain, as you believed and foresaw. In the act of drawing there’s perhaps an obscure memory of such map-reading.
As Damasio put it: ‘The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s map-making abilities.’
Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be compared with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.
When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…
Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…
We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisibile to its incalculable destination.
The freeform (non)format of Bento’s Sketchbook is appealing on many levels. But may I confess to a wandering eye? While reading Berger’s book I kept fantasizing about how much I would love to see a version of this from some of my most thoughtful artist friends. Berger is first and foremost a writer, and his drawings are uneven at best. A more gifted hand could shift the balance to equal parts words and images. Hey there Altoon Sultan, George Wingate, Miriam Louisa Simons, Sally Reed, Tim Rice, Rachael Eastman, Riki Moss, Holly Downing, Elizabeth Mead, Luke Storms, Holly Friesen, Walt Pascoe, Pam Farrell, Paula Overbay, Nancy Natale, Lynette Haggard, Tamar Zinn, Filiz Soyak, Ramah Commanday, Amani Ansari—something to consider?
The political campaign seasons that seize up our nation’s mindshare every four years have become a gladiator’s spectacle of showmanship and theatrics. The truth, whatever that may be, is not what anybody hears or expects from the political campaign process. And most of us watch with a tacit sense that this is a game, with rules, that is being played out in the public arena.
So encountering genuine candor in any form during the backdrop of a campaign season stands out in stark contrast. Over the last week I had three encounters with unvarnished opinions, and it felt invigorating.
Composer Philip Glass. The New York Times did an interview with Glass about his collaboration with Beck for reinventing pieces from his large body of work. “Rework: Philip Glass Remixed” features tracks by Amon Tobin, Tyondai Braxton, Beck and others.
Glass was self-effacing and wise when he talked about the creative process (far from the incessant self-branding and promotion that has become an artistic norm):
When I talk to young composers, I tell them, I know that you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it. But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change.
What do you both think about timelessness and your work, and how things in your work feel dated or not dated?
Glass: It all sounds dated. Because I can’t write that music again. I can’t write “Einstein on the Beach” again. I played from it in a concert the other day, and it’s like I never wrote it. My brain’s been rewired. I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I think that the music we write, it accurately reflects the way our brains work, and our brains are constantly evolving. Our brains are very plastic; they continue to grow.
How do you see the work that you did versus the work that you do?
Glass: I don’t mean to give you a Zen koan, but the work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don’t know. That’s why I can’t tell you, I don’t know what I’m doing. And it’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.
National Gallery (UK) Director Nicholas Penny. Charlotte Higgins highlighted some of Penny’s comments from a recent interview on her Guardian blog. Penny was ruthlessly honest about topics the taste makers usually steer clear of. It takes stones to speak like this to your colleagues:
On art forms he does not relate to: “The art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art. I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.”
On museums and the market: “Exhibition in a museum – and, even more so, acquisition – is an endorsement which has become a substitute for critical appraisal. There seems to be a belief that the reputations of artists in museums will never be challenged. This is a valuable myth for the market. It may be that once a certain amount of public money has been invested in art it will be valued forever. But I doubt it.”
On looking at contemporary art: “I try not to think of contemporary art as a separate category. I object to being asked whether I ‘like contemporary art’. The question betrays the assumption that one will look at the art of today without a critical eye.”
On meeting artists: “I think it is a mistake to suppose that meeting an artist would help to understand their art. The intelligence and imagination of many artists really exists only in what they painted or carved or modelled.”
Camille Paglia in Cambridge last night
Author and cultural critic Camille Paglia. Paglia was in town last night to celebrate her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, a populist approach to art history. (Paglia said she got the idea for a defense of art after listening to AM Talk Radio and hearing art consistently deprecated. “I wrote this book for home schooling moms, for those most alienated by art.”)
In her rapid fire delivery (she used more words in her 60 minutes on stage than any lecture I have ever heard) she waxed rhapsodic about what is so important about art. “Kids today are barraged by fragments. There is a discipline to the art of seeing. You must be alone and in quiet to really engage with a work of art.”
A well known atheist, Paglia was harsh on how secular humanism has been dismissive of spirituality and religion. “Spiritual themes are important, and current art historians do not deal with the spiritual.” Her book keeps that spiritual thread throughout her 29 essays stretching from antiquity through contemporary art. “Most people who deprecate the value of art do not get that Mondrian and Pollock also had deep spiritual longings and addressed those concerns in their work.”
According to Paglia, abstraction has never really been accepted or understood in the U.S. “In Europe art and art history are valued as cultural heritage. There is none of that in this country.” By writing specifically for those who are most alienated by art, she is convinced they can come to understand why art should be taught to children and valued in our lives. “Everything can be brought to bear in understanding a work of art.”
I have had issues with many of Paglia’s positions in the past, and I have read her wild rants about the hypocrisy of the academic world and the “Marxist” meme that still exists in many forms. And as entertainingly polemic as she often is, she also has an exceptional gift for populist advocacy. Her first foray into that advocacy was for poetry, Break, Blow, Burn. Now with Glittering Images she is focused on bringing the power of art to an audience who has written it off as effete, exclusionary and decadent. That is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Happiness studies (Is that a legitimate category of research now? I think yes) have produced results that often surprise me and feel counterintuitive. One well known study from a few years ago found that happiness is not just the product of a proactive program of self help books and positive thinking. It also is impacted by the collective. The phenomenon of happiness spreads through social networks like an emotional contagion. As one researcher put it, “How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends’ friends’ friends are, even if you don’t know them at all…And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse’s mood.” (An earlier post, Catching Some Happy, addresses some of the findings of that study.)
This phenomenon has naturally led to thoughts about what else might be operating in that emotional contagion model. What other emotions (or memes) are spilling over invisibly into our lives? Given the highly bipartisan state of our nation, it doesn’t seem to apply to political beliefs and our interpretive spin on reality. But what about the sought after qualities—bravery, inventiveness, resourcefulness, creativity, moxie–that are, like happiness, held in high esteem by everyone regardless of political affiliation?
I am operating in the zone of imaginative conjecture here but only because I am frequently inspired—deeply—when someone I know steps up and out of the quotidian and does something extraordinary.
I had just that experience this week when I received a copy of David B. Marshall‘s newly published book, The Lost Work of Wasps. Marshall became one of my favorite online connections when I discovered one of his blogs several years ago. He is a writer, artist and a teacher, and his posts on his most recent site Signals to Attend are full bodied, exquisitely wrought and always thoughtful. What I didn’t foresee was how transformed his jeweled insights—which I have been experiencing in serial form over time—are by taking up residence in book form.
Using the template first used by Yoshida Kenko, a 14th century Buddhist monk who assembled a collection of his brief essays into a book called Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idelness), Marshall has found a container for his wide angle mind and eye. By combining words with his own drawings—he calls them “doodles”—The Lost Work of Wasps can be read in a linear fashion or in random access, Hafiz style. (In the Persian tradition, personal questions are answered by randomly opening the Oracle of Shiraz’s book of poems to find the answer.)
The idea of borrowing Kenko’s format may sound like a bit of cleverness, but it is neither manipulative nor misused. It is actually a perfect fit for the way Marshall’s mind moves from one concept to another. And having his thinking flow in my hand feels very different than scrolling down through his posts online. Blogs have their own footprint. So does a book.
I know this is obvious but I keep being surprised when I am reminded once again of how forms affect content. It’s like the experience of trying to move a small artwork into a large format and finding that it just won’t translate. Lyric isn’t epic, intimate isn’t high drama, and a book feels and reads differently than a blog.
And what a boost all of us get from Marshall’s bravery and vision. The spillover of creative resonance is like getting order for free in chaos theory. Thanks David, and congratulations.
Holly Brubach has written a compelling take on novelist Orhan Pamuk‘s latest book, The Innocence of Objects. This latest publication is a catalog of the contents of a museum Pamuk conceived in tandem with the writing of his last novel, The Museum of Innocence:
Every item in its collection, assembled over more than 10 years, figures in a memory Pamuk invented for the characters he imagined. “I had the feeling that focusing on objects and telling a story through them would make my protagonists different from those in Western novels—more real, more quintessentially of Istanbul,” he writes.
Brubach takes this cue and explores the relationships we create with things. She points to the paradox of a culture that is being urged to live in the present moment while supporting a multibillion dollar self storage industry and airing popular reality shows about hoarders. “Modernity means overabundance,” Pamuk says. “We are living in the age of mass-produced objects, things that come without announcing themselves and end up on our tables, on our walls. We use them — most of us don’t even notice them — and then they vanish without fanfare.”
Pamuk’s introduction to “The Innocence of Objects” concludes with his own manifesto. Tenet No. 3: “We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company or species. We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane and much more joyful.” Tenet No. 11: “The future of museums is inside our own homes.”
In deciding how to display the things he acquired, Pamuk was struck by “their loneliness,” and it led him to “the shamanic belief that objects too have spirits.”
I’m in that tribe, the one for people who have experience with the power of objects. For those of us who fill our homes with art and collect for the sheer pleasure these objects bring, that goes without saying. My life is full of embodied artifacts that speak to me every day. And believe me, paintings DO get lonely. I’ve seen how much a work can change and come into a breathtaking liveliness just by giving it objects to converse with. That is the curator’s gift of course, but it happens in my studio all the time.
This concept of the power of thingness is constant present for me. Out of curiosity I went back through my previous posts, and there are so many that touch into this idea. Clearly this is a primal meme for me. The list of previous Slow Muse posts is included below if it is one of yours as well.
The Power of Things
Strauss writes in a way that his responses to a particular artist’s work often have a universal quality. His best responses to work are ones I seek as well.
For example, in talking about the paintings of Ron Gorchov, he describes a response I seek constantly when looking at work:
Ron Gorchov’s paintings are among the most fully and graciously embodied being made today. They engage our whole bodies from our first encounter with them and sustain this engagement over time. You have to move to see them, and when you move, they come alive. With one’s whole body involved, the mind is also free to move, and does…
On one level, everything is visible in Gorchov’s canvases: the staples fastening the linen to the frames, the backs of the shaped frames themselves, the palimpsests of drawn and redrawn shapes. But when the shapes and colors, and we, begin to move, a new music begins. With drips, washes, and tension-breaking, the conversation between liquidity and quiddity, or luck and mastery, comes into play. “The music of painting comes from manipulating space,” he says, “and from letting the colors sing.”
And the quote Struass places at the beginning of this piece by Paul Valéry is perfect: “The Day and the Body, two great powers.”
How the body participates in the art experience can play out in many different ways. Sometimes it is overt, intense and dramatic. Sometimes it is subtle but burrows into us with fierceness. But connecting deeply and authentically, that is the full body experience. In Roberta Smith‘s memorable line that describes what she looks for—“art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand”—speaks to that as well.
My personal interest is to create work that is experienced in the solar plexus, not just the cranium. How to make that happen using a visual language that does not include representation is its own challenge. From my most recent post, this quote from W. S. Piero has become a kind of mantra for my time in the studio: “Certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation…today’s artist sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’”
The Fundamental Group, an up and coming Berlin architecture and design studio started by Gunnar Rönsch and Stephen Molloy, was named after the concept from algebraic topology that describes complicated 3D surfaces.
The Fundamental Group’s mathematically inspired approach to design would appear to be in opposition to the way I work and paint. But there is a mysterious roundness operating in the world of ideas that can bind the two extreme ends of a spectrum into a continuum. The Fundamental Group has posted its precepts on its site, and this is just about the best manifesto I’ve ever read. So much of what they are describing maps to my own inner directed creed of how to see, conceive, invent, make.
THE FUNDAMENTAL GROUP is a collective making mathematically inspired architecture, furniture and artefacts. We are motivated by a passionate belief that objects trancend the physical, that they reflect rules of geometry and space, and that they engage the mind. We play with scale and repetition to draw out the abstract qualities of well loved materials such as oak, and explore the possibilities of new materials like polystyrene and expanded steel mesh. At THE FUNDAMENTAL GROUP there are things we believe and principles we hold dear. These drive our output. Everything we make is an epistle. Now go ahead and read our manifesto.
LOVE PATTERNS AS THEY LIVE & GROW IN THE MIND
Children look at things for a very long time, One never forgets the curtains in the playroom or the pattern on the tiles on the floor at church. Seeing part of a pattern one begins to subconsciously grasp the rules that lead to the arrangement of the whole. The pattern develops in the mind, growing beyond the unique. When information is arranged into a pattern, it opens up the source of its logic, allows the observer to plug in, gives access to the rules, and invites development beyond the static. It is through processes like these that we lean in close to nature, which is nothing if not a clamorous a symphony of growth patterns.
PARDON YOUR MISTAKES FREELY
Do not attempt to overcome your animal instincts. When we shelter, we are building a nest. It is a sort of bricolage, you gather things that provide comfort, convenience, and that have a sentimental value. Things from your childhood, those teraccotta tiles that trigger memories of your first independent thoughts, are part of that. Accidents of personal history a very important. When it comes to giving form to the world around us, it is important to honour your mistakes. True beauty is when you can forever complete the incomplete, for yourself. Curate your mistakes, be proud of them, and arrange them for maximum effect. If you have a wooden leg, wave it.
HEAVENLY ORDER ESCAPES EARTHLY FORCE
Minimalists would have you believe that order is an absence of clutter. This is not the whole truth, it’s more like giving up half way. Order is a word that has very many meanings. When we design, we order elements. This means giving each element a role in a hierarchy, exploring and defining the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole. Beauty is attained when the relationship of the parts to the whole is in harmony, but beauty without force is a bore. There is a theory that the nearness of chaos, but it’s avoidance, gives force. We subscribe to this, and we also propose the inverse – that it is the nearness to order, but it’s avoidance, that gives beauty.
HAPPINESS IS THE LONGING FOR REPITITION
Learning and growth occur in repetition. It is beacuse repetition is sometimes mindless that it is valuable. Every time you read a sonnet or play a sonata it is different. Small flaws occur which can change everything. When we compose our pieces, we are driven by rules. But it is important to pull back from a total expression of those rules. We believe that it is the role of the beholder to draw the principles of a piece to her own conclusion. While care is taken to balance elements, and we usually come very close to symmetry in our work, we leave room for active engagement, rewriting the ending, allowing for the integration of personal narratives. A valuable posession is more interesting the thousandth time you look at it than on the day you bought it.
HEAL AND TRANSFORM
You haven’t really owned anything until you have fixed it. Trans-form: Beyond the form. This does not mean change in the binary sense, left rather than right, but it means going beyond. The attainment of perfection, were it possible, would be a sort of death. We seek perfection, we are driven to excel, but it is the process through which perfection is sought that ennobles us and elevates our state. Escape the cycle of tiredness, ennui and dissillusion by embarking on a life long transformation.
This is powerful language, and it is also language that is poetic, clear, inspiring, scintillating. What a find.
You can see more of The Fundamental Group’s products here.
Thanks to my smart and savvy friends Rachel Levi and Jessica Bridger for bringing The Fundamental Group into my awareness.
One of the most important books of my summer was about John Cage: Where the Heart Beats, by Kay Larson. (Read my initial post about the book here.)
I have been a long time fan and admirer of Cage. But Larson’s book shortened the distance between the myth and the man himself. As is often the case with any good biography, you walk from the reading with a connection that feels personal and almost intimate. That may be imagined, but something in me has shifted permanently. And that’s the gift.
So it is time to begin again. Summer is now, for us Americans, officially over. Here in Boston the students are back, a transition that is as difficult for these late adolescent invaders as it is for those of us who are here year round. (We are pretty sure that every U Haul truck in operation was blocking a street somewhere within one mile of Commonwealth Avenue this last weekend….) The nights are cooler, the days are shorter. So begins the perennial reminder of those rhythms larger than us, of moving from out to in, of the silent synchronization, unrehearsed, that strips down minion trees to their winter underwear.
So here are a few quotes from Cage that were helpful to me this morning. Please feel free to add some of your own.
What I’m proposing, to myself and other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude – that you act as though you’ve never been there before. So that you’re not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before.
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.
Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.
As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency.
Art’s purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens.
What right do I have to be in the woods, if the woods are not in me.
One shouldn’t go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there.
Out of the work comes the work.
The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh
My longtime readers are familiar with my view of an art making world that is so striated that the layers often never even touch each other. For the alien who arrives on earth wanting to crack the code on what is going on with these humans and contemporary art, good luck making sense of its many faces. The rarefied strata of auction houses and by invitation only art events is its own unisphere. Meanwhile there are millions of fieldworkers sowing conceptual seeds, plowing the plein air furrows, harvesting the artifact grain, leveling the minimal fields for the inertia of winter.
Like Howard Zinn‘s wise reminder that the newspaper is a completely inaccurate portrait of reality (it’s where the bad news gets reported with little of the immeasurable good that happens every day), the point of view of the field workers is rarely heard. Meanwhile news about Jeff Koons, one of the many Kardashians of the art world, streams at us steadily.
So how refreshing to find someone who is speaking for the rest of us. Jeffrey Skinner‘s book, The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is a quirky blend of memoir, mentoring and comic musings on a life in the arts. While poetry has its own particular terrain, Skinner’s mapping of that territory produces useful guidelines for visual artists, musicians and other expressive aspirants. This is the first book I have found that is written to the middle of the spectrum, to those who are neither beginners nor celebrities. Full time field workers.
Also absent from this assemblage of wisdom and wit is the dour disappointment (or its variant, condescension) that can be sensed in other poets’ writings. For example, Donald Hall, a poet I admire, starts his collection of essays, Poetry and Ambition, with these words:
I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.
An ambitious project—but sensible, I think. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition–a modesty, alas, genuine…if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense. Of course the great majority of contemporary poems, in any era, will always be bad or mediocre. (Our time may well be characterized by more mediocrity and less badness.) But if failure is constant the types of failure vary, and the qualities and habits of our society specify the manners and the methods of our failure. I think that we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.
The field workers I know have no shortage of serious ambition. That is not the missing piece, Donald.
On the other hand, Skinner speaks to the practical, every day nature of an artist’s life. From his introduction:
Moderately successful poets have one recompense that more than rights the balance of unfairness, that keeps them hoping, and dreaming words, long after the realization that what they do will not lead to fame or money in this world, nor immortality in the next:
They get to write poetry.
That’s it, really. Sometime early in life moderately successful poets discovered the world and felt their DNA rise up and lean toward it like iron filings to a magnet.
Nothing in life is certain. It’s less certain as a poet. You have to commit to the uncertainty. You have to commit to unreasonable devotion, and to an art that, though practiced by many, is appreciated by very few…
Every (moderately) successful poet I know has taken the long view. What is the long view? Well, what it’s not is a stab at the art, a dabbling, a part-time avocation. Taking the long view has nothing to do with a desire for the cool of being a poet. . . . The long view is not an infatuation.
The book can be read in one sitting but the wisdom stays with you. Two thumbs up for anyone who has made creativity their life path.
A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs
at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.
This poem is so succinct and so artfully constructed. Haven’t we all had that daubing frustration of madly circling and yet not being able to enter in to where we need to be?
The texture of my life in the studio is like the texture of my life in general: full tilt highs, full tilt lows, and lots of miles in between.
I’m just back from three magical days in Vermont, visiting friends and basking in a landscape that is richly rewarding on so many levels. I didn’t miss being in the studio once. In fact this protracted channel change felt like much needed relief from a fierce summer stance to rouse the inchoate into form. But like the passel of children I parented years ago, those unborn works have no interest in commands or ultimatums when they are otherwise engaged. You talkin’ to me?
Patience and showing up every day. That’s all I’ve got. Chop wood, carry water.