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Every once in a while a book comes along that is so provocative and powerful that it becomes the epicenter of a major change in thinking, both personally and in the world at large. I’m sure you have your list which may or may not overlap with my own, but here are three I have had a relationship with for a lifetime:

The Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, published in 1962. Kuhn was the first to offer to concept of the paradigm shift, a concept that has been completely co-opted in our thinking and language. This was the first book I read that laid out the nonlinear nature of scientific research and the role of consensus in establishing a theory. Reading this book at age 17 launched me into a lifetime fascination with the history of science.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, published in 1977. Written by an architect, this book became a primer for any complex (and often engineering) task including urban design, software engineering, pattern recognition and yes, painting. This one led to a full shelf of brilliant books by Alexander.

Abstraction and Empathy, by Wilhelm Worringer, published in German in 1907. First exposed to this book by my professor Nan Piene while in college, Worringer’s concepts that two poles in art—abstraction (which at that time was primarily non-Western art) and empathy (European realism in the main)—are both in operation in us. Written before Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Kandinsky and Malevich explored nonrepresentationalism, this doctoral thesis is deeply prescient and still provocative.

It looks like I have a new title to add to my Hall of Fame list. Daniel Kahneman‘s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has that provocative and fundamentally paradigm shifting (thank you Kuhn) power. And what’s more Kahneman has created a vehicle for his ideas that is well written, designed for optimal understanding and irresistibly engaging.

Kahneman (who BTW was the first psychologist to win the Nobel prize for economics) offers a model for clarifying our multitude of mental processes and gives the two primary structures names, System 1 and System 2. System 2 is the conscious, thinking mind, the one that works slowly, using reason and analysis. This is our reasonable and thoughtful identity. System 1 is all that automatic and instantaneous processing, the one that has opinions and reactions that may not be logical at all but are part of our pattern-detecting survivalism. System 1 works with whatever information it has and works fast. The fact is we as humans need and use both systems. It is the misapplication of those tools that is the problem.

Kahneman takes the reader through a series of exercises that demonstrate how quickly System 1 will lead to inaccurate conclusions. He also shows how the slower more thoughtful System 2 just can’t react as quickly in certain life threatening circumstances as that instantaneous, pattern recognizing System 1. And unlike the arrogance and narcissism inflicted on the reader that has turned so many away from Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s otherwise fabulous book, The Black Swan, Kahneman places himself right alongside the rest of us in exposing how the human mind is wired to make faulty calls and misreads. We are all bozos on this bus, or so it seems!

I am only about half way through the book so there is still more juicy bits coming. But here’s why I am writing about this book prematurely: I am longing to have an in depth discussion with my art making, poetry-writing pals about how creativity calls on both System 1 and System 2. Since reading this book I have tried to observe my decision making in the studio, to track the play of these two impulses. I have a sense that being more observant of those flips and switches could lead to new ways of working, new ways of seeing my work as it unfolds. So yes I would love to explore that territory with Maureen, Nancy, Pam, Marcia, Altoon, Andrew, Thalassa, Alaleh, Lorrie, Luke, Walter, Holly, David, or you.

More on this for sure.

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Isabella Rossellini as a spider

This is just too entertaining to pass up: Isabella Rossellini has gone public with her ongoing fascination regarding the sex life of insects. Put together as a series of shorts called Green Porno, the project features the beautiful Isabella herself playing a variety of insects in their mating glory. My favorites: Worms, whose plethora of equipment (they are hermaphrodites) puts on quite a show; and the Praying Mantis, whose head eating during the act of sex is compellingly portrayed.

Sundance Channel

(Thank you to the ever-resourceful Sally Reed for sending this link to me.)

My friend D at Joe Felso: Ruminations calls it a “find”: Coming across a blog quite by surprise that speaks to you. My most recent online discovery is lies like truth by Chloe Veltman, a writer and musician.

Here’s her excellent blog credo:

These days, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fantasy. As Alan Bennett’s doollally headmaster in “Forty Years On” astutely puts it, “What is truth and what is fable? Where is Ruth and where is Mabel?” It is one of the main tasks of this blog to celebrate the confusion through thinking about art and perhaps, on occasion, attempt to unpick the knot.

In the epitaph to a collection of writings by Harold Clurman, the great theatre director and critic quotes Picasso: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” and Macbeth, “I … begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.” What I love about art is its way of messing with the truth — of telling us what’s really going on in the world through the medium of fiction. Call it the Matrix Effect or what you will, it’s a powerful sentiment.

One of her most recent posts draws parallels between the physical symptoms of indigestion and mental indigestion, both potential causes for insomnia. I am a periodic sufferer of insomnia, so I’m paying attention to her prescriptions:

Even if a person maintains a healthy diet and his physical digestion is in good order, he can keep himself up all night with his brain chewing endlessly over the previous day’s activities, cogitating about what lies ahead or attempting to make sense of how the world works. This is mental indigestion. The cogs whirr and it’s impossible to push the off button and sleep.

Perhaps the same thinking applies to emotional and intellectual indigestion. To avoid “chewing” thoughts and feelings over in the middle of the night, a person might try being less busy (“eating less,”) taking more time over their activities throughout the day (“eating more slowly”) and/or avoiding going to bed in an over-stimulated state by chilling out with a glass of wine and a trashy novel, having a bath or playing with the cat (“not eating for several hours before bed.”)

Now needed: A how-to on increasing the cinematic and special effects of the nightly dream show.

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It is a strange and esoteric chemistry that moves the inner dial of our moods. Who hasn’t taken a micro-second whipsaw ride from ebullience to hopelessness? For me, some days in the studio are all flow. On others, nothing goes right. If only I could clear a pattern headed in the wrong direction as easily as the horse’s snort described in Alexander Star’s New York Times review of Daniel Lord Smail’s new book, “On Deep History and the Brain,” (cleverly titled, I Feel Good).

Here’s a sample:

Why do horses snort? Sometimes, at the approach of a stranger or the appearance of a plane high above the pasture, a horse will widen its eyes, flare its nostrils and send a stuttering column of air out into the world. On other occasions, horses have been known to snort for no reason besides their own boredom. By suddenly creating a sound, the slack-minded horse elicits an automatic “startle response” — flooding its brain with chemicals, delivering a jolt of excitement and relieving, at least for a moment, the monotony of a long day in an empty field. The horse has in effect fooled its own nervous system — and benefited from the self-deceit.

If horses can alter their own brain chemistries at will (and have good reasons to do so), what about human beings? In “On Deep History and the Brain,” Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history can be understood as a long, unbroken sequence of snorts and sighs and other self-modifications of our mental states. We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing…

Ever since the invention of agriculture, Smail claims, we have seen “an ever greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms.” Some of these mechanisms Smail refers to as “teletropic”: they work primarily to affect the moods of others, stimulating a wash of neurochemicals at a distance. A baby cries and arouses its mother’s instinct to care; a priest intones a Mass and relieves parishioners of stress hormones. The modern era, however, belongs to what Smail calls “autotropic” devices, devices that alter our own moods. In modern Europe, coffee from the Arabian peninsula became a stimulant to “mind, body, conversation and creativity” for the rich and the mercantile. The cultivation of sugar on Caribbean slave plantations made cheap rum freely available, further inebriating the working classes. Individuals became ever more expert at changing their own chemistry, sometimes just for the pleasure of modulating one set of sensations into another. But ingesting substances was only the beginning. The same era saw the rise of novels and erotica, shopping and salons. Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood; indeed, in the 18th century, their impact was often likened to a fever, jeopardizing readers’ purchase on reality and their physical strength. In the age of Enlightenment, man overthrew kings and subjected himself to mild and intermittently pleasurable addictions.

Of course, there was more to the Enlightenment than that. It’s not clear how a neurohistorian of the future would treat attitudes and beliefs alongside cravings and moods. Nor does Smail directly address the larger implications of what has been called “the psychoactive revolution.” What happens when we learn not just how to alter our moods but also to identify the chemical and electrical constituents of our experiences while we are having them? Is there a price to pay when we make the care of the brain a pre-eminent virtue?…

Smail focuses more attention on the “pursuit of psychotropy” than on its consequences. Still, an intelligent disquiet runs through these pages. As we “grow numb to the mechanisms that stimulate our moods and feelings on a daily basis,” we ceaselessly shift from one device to another. The prospects for human foresight and self-knowledge would seem dim. In the 1860s, Walter Pater wrote that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Has art become superfluous? Smail suggests we are all the choreographers of our own chemical dance, enjoying the “spikes” and “dips” as they follow one another, and simply for their own sake.

I love the Pater quote in the last paragraph–art offers “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” So Zen, yet so long ago.

Ever since it was first published in 1998, Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, edited by Bill Beckley with David Shapiro has been my primary text. This collection of essays brings together the thinking of artists and critics on the greatly misunderstood (and much maligned) topic of beauty.

Uncontrollable Beauty embodies many of the reasons why I began blogging in the first place. It speaks to what was not being paid attention to, written about, dialogued, analyzed or acknowledged in the contemporary world of art.

Here are some excerpts from that collection:

Agnes Martin: When I think of Art, I think of Beauty, Beauty is the mystery of Life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.

Peter Schjeldahl: ‘Beauty is Truth. Truth Beauty?’ That’s easy. Truth is a dead stop in thought before a proposition that seems to obviate further questioning, and the satisfaction it brings is beautiful.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: In the art world, the idea of the beautiful is always threatening to make an appearance or comeback but it tends always to be deferred.

Santayana: To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.

Louise Bourgeois: Beauty? It seems to me that beauty is an example of what the philosophers call reification, to regard an abstraction as a thing. Beauty is a series of experiences. It is not a noun. People have experiences. If they feel an intense aesthetic pleasure, they take that experience and project it into the object. They experience the idea of beauty, but beauty in and of itself does not exist. Experiences are sorts of pleasure, that invoke verbs. In fact, beauty is only a mystified expression of our own emotion.

So I was particularly delighted to add a new volume to my favored bed stand stack–another articulate defense of art that is not just cerebral, conceptual, emotionally detached and non-retinal. Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (which was first published in 1992!) approaches philosophical aesthetics from an unexpected point of view. She does not approach art as a scholar of visual language but as an ethologist and anthropologist. Her claim is that art is as intrinsic to human life as other observable behaviors like the proclivity to ritual, play, seeking sustenance. This tendency in us to “make special” is biological and as Dissanayake has termed it, “species-centric.” She spends several chapters of her book examining the anthropological parallels of art in other cultures, but it is her extraordinary skill at seeing through the vacuity of postmodernism in the visual arts that makes this book a terrific and reinforcing read for anyone interested in these issues.

Here is an excerpt from her preface that captures much of her basic argument:

While artists and art teachers might especially welcome a biological justification for the intrinsic importance of their vocation, everyone, particularly those who feel a loss or absence of beauty, form, meaning, value, and quality in modern life, should find this biological argument interesting and relevant. Ironically, today, words such as beauty and quality may be almost embarrassing to employ. They can sound empty or false, from their overuse in self-help and feel-good manuals, or tainted by association with now-repudiated aristocratic and elitist systems in which ordinary people were considered “common” for not having the opportunity to cultivate appreciation of these features. But the fact remains that even when we are told that “beauty” and “meaning” are socially constructed and relative terms insofar as they have been used by elites to exclude or belittle others, most of us still yearn for them. What the species-centered view contributes to our understanding of the matter is that knowledge that humans were evolved to require these things. Simply eliminating them creates a serious psychological deprivation. The fact that they are construed as relative does not make them unimportant or easily surrendered. Social systems that disdain or discount beauty, form, mystery, meaning, value and quality—whether in art or in life–are depriving their members of human requirements as fundamental as those for food, warmth, and shelter.

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Ellen Dissanayake

It is an easy seduction for an artist–any artist–to complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated. But according to Oliver Sachs (by way of Trevor Hunter’s excellent blog, New Music Box,) musicians may have a neurological right to that claim:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.

But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.

This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.