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The (in)famous Robert Benchley

Maybe there is something more than wry humor behind Robert Benchley’s oft-quoted quip, “The world is divided into groups: those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.” It is after all so comfortingly seductive, the beautiful symmetry of just two elegant and simple options. Like the essential elementalness of coupling, toggle switches and the American two party political system.

And yes, it is also a disastrously incomplete view of life. But its appeal is so endemic because the very structure of bimodality brings order to the chaos of our world. We have minds that have been designed for pattern recognition, with proclivities to make a map through the onslaught of random information and stimuli that come at us every day.

With that caveat, here is one of my favorite order-creating divisions:

Some artists can deal with bad art, and some cannot.

I have been operating from this premise for many years and was reminded of it recently while reading Jerry Saltz’s latest piece in New York Magazine. In a column that covers a potpourri of topics, he offered this personal note:

I see 30 to 40 gallery shows a week, and no matter what kind of mood I’m in, no matter how bad the art is, I almost always feel better afterward. I can learn as much from bad art as from good.

I am not in Jerry’s tribe on this one, and I never have been.

This distinction was demonstrated to me years ago when an artist friend and I spent a day together visiting galleries in New York. Nothing spoke to either of us. Driving back to Boston, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Wiped out. The experience of seeing so much misfired work had left me with bad art poisoning. But my friend had the opposite reaction. She was animated by what we had seen, excited to get back to her studio and do great work.

The difference in our responses was so striking that I decided to conduct a straw poll among my artist friends with this question: Does seeing bad art energize or enervate you?

My network of friends is far from scientific, but here’s what I found:

– Artists who are teachers have a personal immunity to art that is bad, early stage and/or student level.

– Artists who do not teach are prone to be more “sensitive” to bad work. Those who have a proclivity to art poisoning are not as drawn to classrooms or teaching.

What remains undetermined is which came first. Is immunity an acquired skill? It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem.

I am reminded of the explanation provided by artist Anna Hepler in an article by Sebastian Smee about why she left her secure and hard to come by teaching job. The pressure on her as a teacher to be didactic and to “uphold the holy mantle of authority’’ made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It pollutes,’’ she says, “and for me there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved.’’

Now she can focus, she says, on maintaining “a risk-taking state of mind’’ and on “really living something, not making work that is about something.’’

“If you’re going to embark on this process,’’ she explains, “you have to rely 100 percent on intuition.’’

No right or wrongs here, just the usefulness of knowing what kind of immune system you have operating.

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Seeking enchantment—here, there, everywhere…The Great Haul, a site-specific installation by Anna Hepler at the Portland Museum of Art. The light becomes crystalline and kaleidoscopic through the layered netting of meshed plastic.

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We have an innate capacity for remembering and imagining places. Perception, memory and imagination are in constant interaction; the domain of presence fuses into images of memory and fantasy. We keep constructing an immense city of evocation and remembrance, and all the cities we have visited are precincts in this metropolis of the mind.

Literature and cinema would be devoid of their power of enchantment without our capacity to enter a remembered or imagined place. The spaces and places enticed by a work of art are real in the full sense of the experience. ‘Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provide it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, anguish which has turned into yellow-rift of sky’ writes Sartre. Similarly, the architecture of Michelangelo does not present symbols of melancholy; his buildings actually mourn. When experiencing a work of art, a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and percepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.

Another memorable quote from Juhani Pallasmaa, from Eyes of the Skin. So many concepts to consider here: Our capacity to imagine, remember and inhabit a space; the metropolis of the mind, built from every city we have ever visited; the power of enchantment that is elemental to art; the aura that surrounds a work of art; the interplay of our own emotions and state of mind with (and on) a work; encountering ourselves in what we see.

And not surprisingly, Pallasmaa’s small book functions for me as a work of art, enchanted, possessing its own aura, providing a reflection that allows me to encounter myself. It continuously speaks to me, holds my attention.


Homage to Ucello #4, Anna Hepler (Photo: Courtesy of Karin Thomas)

I have written about Sebastian Smee’s review of Anna Hepler’s show at the Portland Museum in an earlier post but there’s another passage in that article that has continued to hold my attention. Hepler’s approach to her work and to teaching runs close to my own views, and is worth sharing here.

Meghan Brady, an artist and a friend, describes Hepler as “a question-asker and a seeker. She’s not satisfied by taking things at face value. Instead, she’s always turning the issue at hand upside-down and inside out in an attempt to see it from a fresh vantage point.’’ Hepler adds, “I do like that idea of really going with something until you reach a conclusion, or a point of exhaustion.’’

And on the subject of teaching, I found commonality in Hepler’s conversation with Smee:

She insists she would have answered questions about the sources of her work quite differently a year, or even six months ago. Why the change?

“It had a lot to do with leaving academia,’’ she says. Hepler gave up her teaching post at Bowdoin about a year ago, having taught there for six years on a part-time basis. She was given the chance to teach full time on a tenure track but, she says, “I knew I didn’t want that.’’

The pressure on her as a teacher to be didactic and to “uphold the holy mantle of authority’’ made her increasingly uncomfortable. “It pollutes,’’ she says, “and for me there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved.’’

Now she can focus, she says, on maintaining “a risk-taking state of mind’’ and on “really living something, not making work that is about something.’’

“If you’re going to embark on this process,’’ she explains, “you have to rely 100 percent on intuition.’’

That’s just about the best summation of my own resistance to teaching. While many of my friends have figured out how to do it—how to teach and be a maker—it was never an approach that rang true for me. Not every artist signs up for the “100 percent intuition” path, and perhaps, in the spirit of Robert Benchley’s famous truism*, that is the operative deliminator. But this passage from Charles Burchfield’s journals (my paean to his current show at the Whitney is here) fits well in this conversation: “The subconscious mind seemed to be in complete control—and I did unpremeditated things which later turned out to be exactly right.”

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*Robert Benchley, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, once stated this truism: The world is divided into two groups—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.

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