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I found an extraordinary essay by Steve Baker titled “To go about noisily: clutter, writing and design.” I’ve been mulling over the issues he raises for several weeks and I am still formulating my thoughts on this topic. Clutter: It’s a much more complex topic than those hoarder reality shows would suggest. When I come to some clarity, I will write more about Baker’s essay.
But an epigraph from Schopenhauer that Baker uses at the beginning of his piece caught my attention: “The surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment.”
Really? My first response was, that’s not about me since I don’t pick up a book every time I have a free moment (but how about every other?) In all seriousness, my thinking life is best described as hybrid vigor: I am happiest when there are other points of view to consider. I like an idea landscape richly textured, and the origin of the flora and fauna doesn’t matter to me at all. The Schopenhauer approach is too stark and monastic to appeal to my pluralist (or as some would say, excessive) tendencies.
And what’s more, the best ideas stand up well over time, and they can still feed you when you come back to them later. A good example is this quote by W. S. Piero from his book of essays on modern art, Out of Eden. I first posted it on Slow Muse in 2007. When I ran across it quite by accident this morning I wanted to share it here again.
Why are the jets and emulsive tracks of paints in Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 so compelling? It’s not only because he was creating a greater plasticity of space and laying out dozens of contested fields of formal activity where disintegrating patterns pitch against imminent, struggling stabilities. There’s something one can’t reduce satisfactorily to formal terms. In 1964 the Romanian-born Eliade, who was a great admirer of his countryman Brancusi, spoke of “nonfigurative painters who abolish representational forms and surfaces, penetrate to the inside of matter, and try to reveal the ultimate structures of substance.” In order to talk about Pollock, and Rothko for that matter, in other than purely formalist vocabularies (and to avoid the useless argument that both were representationalists masquerading as abstractionists), we have to…talk about the sacred and the mundane. Eliade also says that non-representational art corresponds to the “demythologization” in religion advocated by Rudolph Bultmann. As Christianity may dissolve the images and symbols of its traditional narratives to confront once again the freshness of religious experience in our secular, materialistic time, 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. Moreover, he says, today’s artist “sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’ The time of the epiphany has not yet arrived, or does the world truly have no face?” I think Pollock and Rothko worked to paint that facelessness. For Rothko it was toned with a magisterial, voluminous solemnity. For Pollock the tone was one of self-devouring conflict.
Gerhard Richter‘s abstract paintings are a visual feast of complexity and depth. Using a massive squeegee that he carefully pulls across an enormous paint-laden surface, Richter enables the imagery to bubble up from below. The visual effect is stunning. While a whole generation of painters have emulated his oleaginously lush technique, nobody does it quite like he does.
Now Richter has found another way to explore the complexity of the abstract image, but this time creating enchantment with a more mathematical, structured approach. In a new publication, Gerhard Richter: Patterns: Divided, Mirrored, Repeated, Richter has parsed the surface of one of his paintings to create a thick book of textured explorations.
This description of his process is from the book promotional material:
Richter took an image of his work “Abstract Painting” (CR: 7244) and divided it vertically into strips: first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, up to 4,096 strips. This process, involving twelve stages of division, results in 8,190 strips, each of which is reproduced here at the height of the original image. With each stage of division, the strips become progressively thinner (a strip of the 12th division is just 0.08 millimeters; further divisions would only become visible by enlargement). Each strip is then mirrored and repeated, producing an incredibly detailed patterning. The number of repetitions increases with each stage of division in order to make patterns of consistent size. The resulting 221 patterns are reproduced here on landscape spreads, making for a truly extraordinary reading-viewing book experience.
This project is fascinating and provocative on a number of levels. The book is a visual feast just on its own terms. The parsing of a shared reality object—a painting—into its multitudinous parts is a variation on the legendary video made by Ray and Charles Eames, Powers of 10. Starting with a couple picnicking by the lake, the view of the image shifts outward until our galaxy is just one speck of light among millions of others. Then, returning to earth, we move inward, down to the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule in a white blood cell. Everything is multiple, many, complex.
But Richter’s book also brings to mind Eastern meditation practices, like the descriptions of esoteric meditations techniques that train a seeker to hold the image of an elaborate structure in the mind in its fullness, down to the tiniest ornate tendril. Or the way trained eyes can look at the 2-dimensional structure depicted in a Buddhist tangka and visualize it in its 3-D fullness.
As many mystics have documented, going into a mystical state is to pass beyond the opposites of the world, to experience the union of those opposites in a “radiant burst of energy.” Milarepa‘s wisdom is that all things are present in all other things. “The state of non-duality, wherein all opposites, even good and evil, are seen as unity.”
I am left with a profound sense of how objects can become a source of power, wisdom and expansion—an idea in keeping with the spiritual intentions of many who pursue abstraction. But it is also the insistent reminder that connectedness is also fundamental, even in the face of this flourish of extravagant visual expansion.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson has been my mainstay for the last several weeks. Every page has now been marked and annotated, leafed through many times. This is an unforgettable, inspiring, deeply moving book about a towering and yet famously accessible figure. Larson weaves this story through written words by John Cage himself and the historical evidence of the network of extraordinary people that Cage knew, learned from, influenced and collaborated with. For anyone interested in 20th century culture, art, dance, music, cultural history, Buddhism, Eastern thought or the varieties of spiritual experience, put this on your list.
Larson is an art historian (longtime denizens of Boston may remember her writing for The Real Paper before moving on to Artnews and New York magazine) who changed the trajectory of her life by entering into Zen practice at Zen Mountain Monastery in 1994. From her unique dual perspective of seasoned art observer and practicing Zen Buddhist, Larson is the perfect chronicler of John Cage’s richly lived life and inspirational work.
Larson describes her undertaking of this project :
This book has been a fifteen-year journey into the world of John Cage, who was teacher to so many, and who taught me, too. As real Zen teachers do, he modeled a way of life for me. This kind of teaching doesn’t need physical proximity. It is best displayed within the life of the person who teaches. What choices did he make? Why did he make them? What questions did he ask? Cage modeled a life that lives on in the daily moments of those who knew, loved, and were taught by him.
There are so many ways to slice into this complex, multi-layered biography, and perhaps over the next few weeks I will write a few more posts that explore some of the many themes that weave their way through this book. But for now I start with Larson’s account of Cage’s existential dilemma while he was still a relatively young artist. In his words:
So what is beautiful? So what’s art? So why do we write music? All these questions began to be of great importance to me, to such a great importance that I decided not to continue unless I could find suitable answers…
I had been taught in the schools that art was a question of communication. I observed that all of the composers were writing differently. If art was communication, we were using different languages.
The answer came through an Indian friend, Gita Sarabhai. Steeped in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Gita answered Cage’s question with this: The function of art is to “sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”
From Cage’s journal:
I was tremendously struck by this. And then something really extraordinary happened. Lou Harrison, who had been doing research in early English music, came across a statement by the seventeenth-century English composer Thomas Mace expressing the same idea in almost exactly the same words. I decided then and there that this was the proper purpose of music. In time, I also came to see that all art before the Renaissance, both Oriental and Western, had shared this same basis, that Oriental art had continued to do so right along, and that the Renaissance idea of self expressive art was therefore heretical.
Cage becomes particularly compelled by Indian aesthetic theory and an art that measured itself by its reflection of the immeasurable. And to that end Cage wrote:
I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs. I felt that if he did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, his work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.
And this deeply moving quote from Cage on the last page of the book:
We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.
Cage’s evolution as an artist, particularly his merging of wisdom traditions with creativity, is a personal and inspiring narrative. But in addition to a biography of Cage, this book is also a profound contemplation of the spiritual dimensions that can characterize an artist’s life. Larson delivers on the title of her book by all counts.
Photo credit: Joe Bonomo from No Such Thing as Was
For years I have been a fan of The Edge, John Brockman‘s website/movement/salon writ large/community. Feel like you need a lift, something to perk up your day? You can stop in and wander that site and invariably leave with ideas that are new, provocative and thought-altering. It is cross disciplined, highly interconnected and holistic thinking at its best.
Every year a question is posed that then gets answered by a wide variety of thinkers. Earlier this year Brockman published a book of the answers to the question for 2011: “What scientific concepts would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” In this question a “scientific concept” can come from any discipline—philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence—as long as it is a rigorous tool that has broad applications and can be summed up succinctly.
This Will Make You Smarter is full of gems. I’ll share a few favorites here and going forward. An early entry to start it off:
Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education: no matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.
Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know that they are constructing models rather than revealing reality…
The rest of us, by contrast, often engage in a kind of tacit chronological exceptionalism. Unlike all those suckers who fell for the flat earth or the geocentric universe or cold fusion or the cosmological constant, we ourselves have the great good luck to be alive during the very apex of accurate human thought. The literary critic Harry Levin put this nicely: “The habit of equating one’s age with the apogee of civilization, one’s town with the hub of the universe, one’s horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread.” At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.
—Kathryn Shulz, from her Edge answer, “The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science”
Kathryn Shulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”
Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”
I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.
“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.
Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:
I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.
That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.
But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.
This is a postscript to yesterday’s post with more on the theme of the usefulness of downtime…
Sam McNerney has posted a piece on Big Think called Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much in which he highlights the results of several recent studies on focus and creativity.
We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse. Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process.
The research McNerney describes helps explain why “prodigiously creative” people have a proclivity for generating solutions to complex problems spontaneously. As one researcher puts it, “This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”
Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack…let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone—there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”
Tim Kreider‘s opinion piece in the Sunday Times, The ‘Busy’ Trap, is a timely summertime reminder of how easy it is to lose touch with our own rhythms, our own pacing. Kreider, a writer and cartoonist, has written an admonition that runs counter to the prevailing—and increasing—trends in our culture to overbook, overextend, overcomplexify.
And it isn’t working.
I have been an artist for 40 years. And the longer I am at this vocation the more I understand how critical it is for me to pull away from that workaholic, perpetually in motion mentality. And as regular readers of this blog know, I consistently advocate stepping away from the should have/could have/would have’s to listen more carefully to that inner sense of balance. Isn’t it possible to be productive and also make room each day for the quiet mind? I’m still a beginner at figuring out what this looks like for me. But I am devoutly devoted to finding out how.
A few excerpts from Kreider:
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work…The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it…Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth.
My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love…Life is too short to be busy.
Discovering the selfless nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket’s being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance—the everyday vigil we sustain to confirm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a fluid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a fluid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.
I just began reading Sakyong Mipham‘s book, Ruling Your World. This passage rang true. Ah, that state, the fluid situation.
This is a continuation of the theme from my previous post…Here are a few more passages from Ambition and Survival, Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman. His insights into creating—poetry and painting share so many aspects in that regard—as well as a childhood spent among fundamentalist Christians (I grew up in the Mormon faith) speak deeply to me.
On the discipline of preparedness:
I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I’ve never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn’t recognize as discipline. It is, though. It’s the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It’s the discipline of preparedness.
On growing up within the Christian fundamentalism of West Texas:
I grew up with a notion of radical conversion, a sudden, sometimes ravaging call for which the only answer was your life.
The religious extremity, the way some people seemed to have looked too long at God as into the sun, so that everything they saw subsequently both was and wasn’t that blaze. You must be born again. For most people this happened in puberty, and may be seen, of course, merely as one religion’s way of trying to restrain the animal volatility and confusion of that time, the body’s imperatives countered by God’s.
I’d seen my share of people…using God like a drug to both heighten and dull a reality that’s too ordinary and painful to bear, and i’d seen my share of people…who had turned his annihilating loneliness into a spiritual mission.
On moving beyond the religion of one’s childhood:
It seems that a god possessed ecstatically, as mine was in my childhood, not by books but in my blood and bones, would make a hard departure. I can’t find the scar, though, and I’ve done some serious searching. I’ve begun to wonder if doubt, like grief, is less one moment you can point to, one would you can heal, than all the moments of past and future, memory and imagination, into which that doubt, that grief, has blend. Iv’e begun to wonder if the god I knew so bodily and utterly in my childhood could ever be completely gone.
At some point, though, that whole visceral energy of image and language, that charge with which my childhood was both enlivened and fraught, became mere myth and symbol, as if the current simply went out of them. That is happened so easily, was so devoid of crisis, might argue that my faith had no real purchase on me; that I seem prone to periods of apparently sourceless despair might argue the opposite. At any rate, whether that loss is cause or effect, whether it has infiltrated my life in other ways or is merely one dimension of a wide loss, which I would call consciousness, the fact is I don’t give myself over to much. I don’t trust.
A ringing headache…persisted…as if my brain were a bell that God, running out of options, sometimes strikes.
I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.
Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.
There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:
Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.
There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.
What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.
If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.