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One morning beginning to notice
which thoughts pull the spirit out of the body, and which return it.
How quietly the abandoned body keens,
like a bonsai maple surrounded by her dropped leaves.
Rain or objects call the forgotten back.
The droplets’ placid girth and weight. The table’s lack of ambition.
How strange it is that longing, too, becomes a small green bud,
thickening the vacant branch-length in early March.
I’m on a Hirschfield run, reading After as well as Nine Gates, her essays on poetry. This morning this poem just stayed on, lingering long.
In her New York Times review of the new book by Nicholas Delbanco, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Brooke Allen makes it clear that she, like me, was excited about the topic. Making art when you are older: What shifts? What shows up? What happens to our expression as we age?
While Allen wasn’t satisfied with Delbanco’s undertaking (and put a call out for someone to take on the topic and do it up right), her review is full of memorable commentary. She includes reference to a famous poem by Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom With Time,” that speaks to what can happen, how there is a “distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials”:
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
Delbanco’s book questions why some artists continue to produce great work in their later years (such as Matisse, Monet, Picasso) while others hit a high point when they are young and then give in to the slow entropic demise of growing old. This old vs new productivity was the topic of a fascinating book by David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and his approach to the topic is quantitative and linear. It is a valuable lens on a topic that still, in my opinion, is full of mystery and the unanswerable.
A passage from Allen’s review is worth keeping in mind:
Delbanco treats his material in anecdotal fashion and draws few conclusions from his research, though clearly some generalizations can and must be made. Look at Michelangelo’s half-finished “Slaves,” apparently struggling to escape their blocks of marble; Titian’s “Death of Actaeon”; Verdi’s “Otello”; Liszt’s “Czardas Macabre”; Francis Bacon’s minimalist late works. All these suggest that the aesthetic of old age involves a slimming down and stripping away. Delbanco does remark on this syndrome in individual cases: he is surely correct to emphasize, for instance, Monet’s “Nymphéas” and the other late-period Giverny works, in which, “if his vision now was less than 20-20, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy.” He discusses the same qualities in “The Winter’s Tale” (though Shakespeare, dead at 52, was not quite old even by 17th-century standards): “The late plays,” Delbanco observes, “are less sequence-bound or yoked to plausibility. It’s as though the peerless artificer has had enough of artifice.”
This is true, and Delbanco offers one intriguing explanation. In youth, he posits, “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” It is a profound observation; with time and age, the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward. But this is surely not the only reason for the concentrated effect of late style. The simple specter of mortality must count for something: as Samuel Johnson remarked in a different context, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And then there is the radical shifting of perspective and values brought about by age, something to which people past their 50th birthdays can attest. Delbanco quotes Carl Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
I was so struck by Allen’s phrase, “the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward.” That’s a shift I can attest to.
Follow up on an earlier post: Chloe Veltman has written a very good piece in the Times highlighting the two shows I reviewed here (Reporting on the Other Coast) currently on view at MOCA Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I am always pleased to see increased commentary and coverage of the left coast art scene. It’s my home town bias speaking.
Penelope Lively has a view of memory that reflects my own beliefs about this extraordinary thing we can do with our minds. In an article in the Guardian by Sarah Crown, Lively’s view is stated clearly:
“The idea that memory is linear,” says Penelope Lively, crisply, “is nonsense. What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.”
I have read a few of Lively’s books—they are well written and veddy English—and remember in particular her novel Moon Tiger. The protagonist is an aging historian named Claudia Hampton. In this excerpt from the book, Claudia speaks for Penelope and for me:
Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once. The machines of the new technology, I understand, perform in much the same way: all knowledge is stored, to be summoned up at the flick of a key. They sound, in theory, more efficient. Some of my keys don’t work; others demand pass-words, codes, random unlocking sequences. The collective past, curiously, provides these. It is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. My Victorians are not your Victorians. My seventeenth century is not yours … The signals of my own past come from the received past. The lives of others slot into my own life. I, me. Claudia H.
Haven’t we all known those people who remember everything in perfect sequence? My friend Richard’s father could retell his experiences of being in France on D Day with such accuracy when he was in his late 80s, never missing a detail or a time stamp. I can’t do that about yesterday let alone an event that happened when I was a teenager. I used to think it was an artistic liability but now I have come to believe it cuts through the population in general. Natalie Angier, the gifted science and health writer at the New York Times, is wired like me too. (And yes, I have to admit I was comforted by having her in my camp.)
And as the haunting (and I do mean haunting) film Memento points out, what are we if not an assemblage of our memories? That movie, structured backwards like a plate broken into shards, was the most visceral encounter I have ever had to what Alzheimer’s might be like.
The politics of art. That isn’t my field, and yet it is. I listened to the back and forth about arts funding during the Stimulus Bill discussions with mixed emotions. Sometimes the arguments rang true, sometimes they didn’t.
The fact is that OF COURSE we need to fund and support the arts. Those who think otherwise are living in a state of disconnectedness. But for me the operative question is how do you do it? What does “supporting the arts” really mean? Whether your nut is $50 million or $500 million, how do you decide where best to invest? And in this difficult economic environment, what would be the most stimulative approach? And how do you deal with that nasty problem of elitism, perceived and/or real?
Greg Sandow, an arts writer I follow, wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his claims, but I found his point of view provocative and worthwhile. See what you think.
People in the arts had a triumph.
They got culture money into the stimulus bill — but not without a fight. The House, in its version of the bill, gave $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, increasing its budget by more than the third. Then the Senate took that out. Arts advocates mobilized, made phone calls, asked supporters to make some noise. And lo! The final version of the bill restored the funds.
Arts advocates, from Robert Redford to the president of New York’s Lincoln Center, are celebrating now. But I wonder, in a still, small voice, if this is really such a victory.
For one thing, in the larger scope of things, it’s not much money. Fifty million dollars, in a hastily assembled $800 billion stimulus, is just a bubble on a wave. It’s a rounding error, a random fluctuation. It doesn’t mean that arts support runs deep and strong. The battle for the arts has been going on for decades, and in my view — as a person in the arts myself — the arguments we make aren’t nearly strong enough
Take the economic argument. That took center stage in the Battle for the Stimulus. The arts, we like to say, create jobs and bolster the economy. That’s prominently argued on the Web site of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. The nonprofit arts, the site insists, generate $166 billion in economic activity each year, and offer the equivalent of full-time employment to 5.7 million souls.
But does this mean — as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D., N.Y.) told the New York Times, after victory was won — that “if we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art”? Well, hardly. Let’s not get carried away. Not even Americans for the Arts suggests such a thing.
And unless you go all the way with Rep. Slaughter, the economic argument for arts support has a hole in it. Other things have economic impact, too. Why choose the arts? All of Michigan is suffering because the auto industry collapsed.
Arts advocates also love to say that arts generate indirect spending and employment. In that same Times article, Kate D. Levin, cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, said that “even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.” But that’s true of any business. In New York, it’s virulently true for Wall Street, whose sickness hurts all sorts of New York enterprises, from real estate to small businesses in the financial district. (Even culture!) This, in fact, became an argument in favor of those hated Wall Street bonuses. Without them, New York’s economy is reeling.
But then the choices that our nation has to make go even further. The San Francisco city government is facing a $576 million budget deficit. Cuts have been proposed, some involving public health. For hours at a meeting of the city’s Board of Supervisors, there were protests from advocates for homeless people, medical clinics that serve the poor, and many other worthy groups.
So somebody proposed an alternative — cut funding for the symphony and ballet. The matter hasn’t been resolved, but would you like to be the opera representative, arguing to keep your funds, with people from endangered clinics in the room?
And what if those clinic workers and others like them say the arts have a lot of money, and that they largely serve an upscale audience? Arts advocates hate that kind of talk. It’s not correct, they say. It’s anti-arts, anti-intellectual.
But let’s not underestimate how persistent those perceptions are, especially when reality at least partly seems to back them up. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera sells some of its tickets for as much as $375 each and has board members who make million-dollar gifts (or, in one case, a $25 million gift — an overflowing cornucopia). In 2006, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the New York Philharmonic paid $2.8 million to its music director and $864,000 to its CEO.
The Met, of course, has huge expenses, as does the Philharmonic. Both can say they’re paying what the market charges for the talent that they need. And the Met, on top of that, is in financial trouble. But will everyday Americans jump up and down for joy if the Met gets extra funds while public health is cut?
The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings, in a world where popular culture — which has gotten smart and serious — also helps bring depth and meaning to our lives.
That’s the kicker: the popular culture part. Once we figure that out, we can leave our shaky arguments behind and really try to prove we matter.
It’s hard to not be cynical when the talking heads announce that the US economy is “officially” in a recession and has been since December 2007. The absurdity of not being able to name what everybody knew until a year after the fact is one more piece of what feels like the cold-blooded machinations of manipulative forces that have no interest or relationship with any of us down here on terra firma trying to live our lives in the day to day.
I’ve written here before about how artists are so far down the food chain that the market fluctuations that are causing such consternation in the upper echelons don’t trickle down that far. Not one to bitch and moan (having been raised in the “no whining allowed” tradition of my pioneer ancestors), I’m still challenged by what that means, living one’s life day to day. What it means, and what is meaningful.
I am guessing that there are as many answers to that as there are thoughtful, conscious people doing it. Here’s an excerpt from a very thoughtful and conscious friend, Riki Moss. A recent escapee from city dwelling and moving with her husband Robert to the wilds of Vermont, Riki is a touchstone for me in a number of dimensions. A visual artist as well as a writer (her new novel, An Obese White Gentleman in No Apparent Distress, will be published in January 2009), politically active but careful in channeling the rage, a consummate lover of life who bonds deeply with humans and with four leggeds, Riki has inspired me just by letting me watch the way she lives. And her art, so connected to the earth and what it sheds with unquestioned abandon, continues to move me. Perhaps her words will touch you as well.
Do we/did we have such power as to shove down with our heavy corporate boot the essential creative spirit of the entire planet? In my lifetime, in America, spirit rose in the sixties, hit the ceiling in the 80’s, was bought out in the 90’s and hid under a rock until the crack in the uber culture widened enough for it to seep through; nature abhors a vacuum. Up here, we are giddy with reality. We’ve turned off the Market Watch and put our noses to the ground sniffing for rising spirit. Personally, we notified the neighbors and formed a sangha in the living room, walking meditation around the depot on the covered deck. Noticing the rain dripping off the studio roof. Listening to the dogs along the road barking from their safe kitchens. To a horse whinny from the back field, smelling the wet hay.
A turning away from the despair of the species to what—not hope, because hope means hoping for something—but turning attention to what’s here. You, of all the artists I know, understood all along what to listen for, dig down to reveal, not succumb to disappointment.
So I find myself dragging home the fall down/cut down boughs of trees. The one in the studio is twelve feet tall. I make paper. I carefully wrap the wet sheets around the branches, feeling the bark, the knobs, the rivulets, the wounds. The feeling is of bandaging, of putting something back, of making a record, a map, a mold. Every ridge of the form is picked up by the paper. I wait weeks. As the cast dries, the paper shrinks, stretches, breaks open in places. I’m learning about nurturing, about taking responsibility for what has been killed for my table. Eventually, the bandaged tree hangs from the ceiling growing white as a bone. I get on a ladder and start cutting the cast open. With the right cuts, the paper is flexible enough to twist off. I lay it on a table and gently tape closed the open cuts, slowly reconnecting the sides with strips of wet paper. In the end, there is the cast of the tree, smaller and white, leaning against the mother tree.
Close up of a Moss creation. To see more of her images, click here.
I have shared the poetry of Juan Ramon Jiménez here before (most recently on September 3), and recently I have been even more compelled by his work. Poet Robert Bly’s volume, Lorca & Jiménez, brings together the works of these two extraordinary Spanish poets and offers a window into the creative context of Jiménez’ view of poetry.
With his usual poetic license and metaphysical intensity, Bly compares Jiménez’ work with that of Nerudo and the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (who, though extremely gifted, suffered from depression and ended his life in 1914):
Neruda and Trakl take all their weight as men, and put that into their poems. Their love goes out as a form of occult energy into boulders, river barges, crumbling walls, dining rooms, women’s clothes. When they step back, they leave the energy there. Their poems lie there separate from them, massive, full of grief. To Jiménez writing a poem means something entirely different. For him a poem has ecstasy: that is the difference between poetry and prose. Living as a poet means feeling that ecstasy every day of your life, every hour if possible. A poem flies out of the poet like a spark. Whatever the poet writes down will be touched with ecstasy—the poem will therefore be light, not light in a sense of light verse that avoids seriousness, but light as a spark or as an angel is light. With one or two fewer words the poem would leap straight up into the sky.
The heavy poems of Trakl lie brooding in alleys or on mountain tops, and when the reader walks up to them they hardly notice him: they feel too great a sorrow. Jiménez’s poems on the other hand are nervous and alert, and when we come near, they see us, they are more interested in us than in themselves—they try to show us the road back to the original ecstasy. The poems are signposts pointing the reader back to the poet, that is, back to the life from which the ecstasy came.
And regarding Jiménez’ subject matter, Bly makes this observation:
We can understand the subject matter of Jiménez’ poems if we understand that it is in solitude a man’s emotions become very clear to him. Jiménez does not write of politics or religious doctrines, of the mistakes of others, not of his own troubles or even his own opinions, but only of solitude, and the strange experiences and the strange joy that come to a man in solitude.
I found this passage deeply moving. This is, after all, what I have wanted to achieve with my visual work. It is a strange joy, indeed.
I’ll also share one last passage from Bly’s short essay about Jiménez, partly because it is just about the most romantic thing I can imagine. I never used to be schmaltzy, but aging has its own way of juking our personality traits and leaving us to wonder, just what kind of person am I really? So I’ll own up if you do, too: Ladies, just ask yourselves honestly if this account doesn’t break your heart:
His love for his wife was one of the greatest devotions of his life and he wrote many of his poems for her. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1958, his wife was on her deathbed; he told reporters to go away, that he would not go to Stockholm, that his wife should have had the Nobel Prize, and that he was no longer interested. After his wife died, he did not write another poem and died a few months later, in the spring of 1958.
Here are two examples of his poetry:
I Took Off Petal After Petal
I took off petal after petal, as if you were a rose,
in order to see your soul,
and I didn’t see it.
However, everything around—
horizons of fields and oceans—
everything, even what was infinite,
was filled with a perfume,
immense and living.
I Am Not I
I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see.
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.
I just returned from three days in Maine. My friend Katie is part of a family that has been going to the same hidden spot–Maine’s largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline–for four generations, and it is through her that I came to know and love this exquisitely unpopulated, shimmeringly pristine beach.
Everything here revolves around the tide chart. When the tide is out, the beach is wide and long, like a moonscape that has no end. Walking along the water’s edge, it is easy to believe you and your friends are the last people left on the planet. But when the tide returns, everything disappears completely. The expanse of sand is swallowed whole. And no matter how many times I have watched this slow rhythmic flow of water in and then out, in and then out, I can’t quite believe something could change that drastically, right before my eyes.
It is a beach of extremes. And being a person who has a natural proclivity to excess, I bonded with this place immediately. It is the place I think of when I long for peace. It gets carried around inside me the way Yeats described the lake water at Innisfree, a sound he could always hear inside himself, “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”
The eternality of that stretch of beach–or my imagined concept of it–was altered this weekend when Katie told us about a new and unexpected development. Last season a storm ripped out an entire area of the shore that had always been covered with beach grass. That event, plus others that may have contributed to it, precipitated a major change in the placement of sand. Like water, sand has its own kind of fluidity. When existing patterns in stasis are disrupted, it can carve a new cliff or leave the old beach altogether, exposing an underbelly of rocks and boulders too heavy to choreograph a migration of their own.
Of course the children of the children of the children of the families that first began coming to this place are questioning what might causing this. No one remembers the beach being so disrupted this dramatically. Is it global warming, or nature’s own hand cycling through a larger arc the way fires can clear a forest and rejuvenate the ecosystem? Is it a beach retaining wall that inadvertently disturbed the esoteric sand flow? No one knows for sure, but the concern is palpable.
I kept thinking about this business of sand, flow, patterns, predictability. I once heard Frank Herbert speak about the genesis of his infamous Dune sci-fi series. In that lecture he said the entire epic storyline came to him when he was living on the Oregon coast and carefully studied the life of sand. He became mesmerized by the complexity of its existence. I was young at the time and I didn’t really understand how provocative that one concept could be. I’m older and wiser now, and it is possible for me now to imagine how a legendary series of novels could emerge from that seminal observation of nature at work.
I was also reminded of what Robert Smithson said in relation to his Spiral Jetty project:
Time is always there gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts about where we think we’re at. It’s always there, like a plague creeping in, but occasionally we try to touch on some timeless moment and I suppose that’s what art’s about to a degree, lifting oneself out of that continuum.
Schooled by sand, indeed.
There are a number of threads in this piece that would be worth some time to delve into in more detail (like which species are self aware and recognize themselves when looking at a mirror), but right now I am going to just focus on just one—the human relationship with reflective surfaces.
Here is an example:
Researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.
“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.
But then it gets even more personal:
In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,”…Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.
How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”
The article goes on to explain why the version of ourselves that we see in the mirror is always exactly one half our actual size. (I know this sounds counterintuitive, but consult the article for the full scientific explanation.) So not only do we misread our relative attractiveness, we also misread our size.
Does this give you a sinking and slightly sickening feeling that we can ever really “get” who we are? For a number of reasons I found the results of this research deeply uncomfortable as well as unnervingly accurate. How many times have you misread how you look? Misjudged those new glass frames only to discover, $400 later, that they look terribly unflattering on your face? How many times have you bought that dress that you swear made you look sleek and sexy in the dressing room but in subsequent photographs your rear end appears hopelessly jumbo sized? It just isn’t possible–we cannot be objective when it comes to that other self that lives in the virtual reality we call our mirror image.
Maybe it is just one more aspect of ourselves we cannot ever see accurately. My friend Linda once said, “I wish someone had given me ‘the paragraph’ when I was younger.” I asked her what “the paragraph” was.
She said, “All your friends know your strengths and your weaknesses. They could, if they were so inclined, give you a one paragraph description of who you are that yes, could be painful, but could also be very helpful in how you live your life. But you rarely get that insight. It just lives out there. Maybe, if you are lucky, you’ll find someone who will give it to you. Or maybe you will actually find it yourself.”
I’m feeling more sympathy for my cat, not a member of a species that is self-reflective, who cannot see her “self” in a mirror and generally gives it little of her attention. Maybe I’m just one tiny step beyond her, seeing something I think is me that is, in fact, far from the paragraph I really need.
I am devastated to learn that one of my favorite American theatre companies, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, is being forced to close.
The Minneapolis company headed by theatrical visionary Dominique Serrand has been coming to Cambridge to collaborate with the American Rep Theatre for years. Their style is highly physical, visually stunning, with a group of actors that are so blindingly gifted it leaves you shaking your head at the concentration of talent. They are professionally trained singers, they dance and move with effortlessness AND they can act.
The productions they have brought to Cambridge have left me in awe. A few years back they brought a stellar Molière’s The Miser. Two years ago they mounted a theatrical performance of Bizet’s Carmen. Last fall they went all out and with a pair of productions that combined Mozart with two of France’s greatest writers. “Don Juan Giovanni joins Don Giovanni with Molière’s Don Juan to form a cross-country road trip that skewers notions of love, sex, and hypocrisy; Figaro unites Mozart’s sublime Marriage of Figaro with Beaumarchais’ revolutionary comedy of intrigue and seduction.” (Am Rep program notes.) Both of these works were a fresh retelling of old, familiar tales. They found that perfect pitch between a hat-donning homage to the past and a new 21st century retelling.
When news like this surfaces, it is hard to not slink down into a blue mood. Or to have to ask, once again, what is wrong with this picture? How is it we live in a world that can’t keep Serrand’s company afloat but can keep producing bad reality TV shows and mindless movies?
Note: I’ve excerpted an excellent blog posting about Jeune Lune’s demise on Slow Painting from Chloe Veltman. If you want to know more about the details regarding the closing of this remarkable company, read it and weep.