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How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting:
Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.
Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”
Robinson continues this line of thought:
The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.
Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.
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.
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.’”
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.
Two from Sean Scully:
The power of a painting has to come from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s not just an image; it’s an image with a body, and that body has to contain its spirit. A painting, really, is made by its reason for being there. What’s behind it decides everything. It’s not just a question of attrractiveness or correctness; it can’t be fixed afterwards or by additions. How it starts will define how it ends. So it’s the weight of the intention that defines everything.
My paintings talk of relationships. How bodies come together. How they touch. How they separate. How they live together, in harmony and disharmony. The character of bodies changes constantly through my work. According to color. The opacity and transparency of how the surface is made. This gives it its character and its nature. Its edge defines its relationship to its neighbor and how it exists in context. My paintings want to tell stories that are an abstracted equivalent of how the world of human relationships is made and unmade. How it is possible to evolve as a human being, in this.
A preoccupying theme for me lately has been the compelling (and at times, compulsive) nature of art making as well as the spiritual (and yes, mystical) sense of one’s daily effort being a “chop wood, carry water” undertaking. From Adam Davidson‘s admonitions in yesterday’s post to the wisdom offered up by Tom Nozkowski (see below for a list of links to those posts), I have been in an ongoing engagement with these thoughts.
Other artists are also compelled by these issues, and a very good source for insights about an art worker’s daily life is my friend Lynette Haggard‘s blog. Over the last few years Lynette has published interviews with a wide variety of artists. And while her format is standardized, each interview reveals the very personal way in which each artist finds—and holds—her or his place.
This morning I reread a piece Lynette wrote about San Francisco-based artist Howard Hersh (who is also a friend.) This passage felt like worthy wisdom for my day:
Hersh considers it critical to his creative practice that he spends time in his studio daily. Whether or not he picks up a brush to paint, or a pan to pour—he spends time there, living with his work and the process of making his art. Following his passion, this time spent in the studio contributes to a lifestyle of total immersion. This habit supports Hersh’s ability to have strong vision and awareness as he works.
My experience has been similar. Something happens when you show up regularly. It isn’t about number of brush strokes achieved or works completed. It is about priming. And that priming is happening on several levels.
That commitment to showing up is part of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien‘s Four Fold Way, a set of simple standards that apply to working in the studio as well as living one’s life:
1. Show up.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Speak your truth without blame or judgment.
4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome.
This is in keeping with the Zen koan I have quoted many times:
What do you do to achieve enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.
What do you do after you achieve enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.
Links to recent posts that include worthwhile insights into art making of Tom Nozkowski:
I spend a lot of time alone. But being isolated for most of the day doesn’t mean the mind stops chattering. It chatters constantly, but the dialogue is either internal (between entities whose identities are still undetermined IMHO) or with that object in front of me, the WIP (work in process.)
Is there such a thing as a dialogue carried on with a painting? This is hard to describe to someone whose thinking is precise and linear. But for many of us, the objects we make are conversational and they do engage in a back and forth of ideas, tensions, directionals, outcomes. No, they are not sentient beings. But maybe they are something else. Maybe they are a something that has its own dynamic arc of aliveness. Like I said, this is hard to describe.
Something that showed up in a conversation between painter Philip Guston and art critic David Sylvester touches into this if just obliquely. Here is Guston talking about the picture plane:
We were talking yesterday at the studio about the picture plane, and to me there’s some mysterious element about the plane. I can’t rationalize it, I can’t talk about it, but I know there’s an existence on this imaginary plane which holds almost all the fascination of painting for me. As a matter of fact, I think the true image only comes out when it exists on this imaginary plane. but in schools you hear everyone talk about the picture plane as a first principle. And in the beginning design class, it’s still labored to death. Yet I think it’s one of the most mysterious and complex things to understand. I’m convinced that it’s almost a key, and yet I can’t talk about it; nor do I think it can be talked about. There’s something very frustrating, necessary, and puzzling about this metaphysical plane that painting exists on. And I think that, when it’s either eliminated or not maintained intensely, I get lost in it. This plane exists in the other arts, anyway. Think of the poetic plane and the theater plane. And it has to do with matter. it has to do with the very matter that the thing is done in.
And later in the conversation, Guston shares a few more painterly insights:
It’s terrible to rationalize about painting because you know that, while you’re creating it, you can have all sorts of things in your mind consciously that you want to do and that really won’t be done. You won’t be finished until the most unexpected and surprising things happen. I find I can’t compose a picture anymore. I suppose I’ve been thinking about painting structures for many years, but I find that I know less and less about composing and yet, when the thing comes off in this old and new way at the same time, weeks later, I get it, and it arrives at a unity that I never could have predicted and foreseen or planned.
Ah, the love of uncertainty. The thrill when “the most unexpected and surprising things happen.” Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.
Guston could easily play with the notion that the working artist aspired to be a demigod and, as such, would have to experience a peculiar kind of hubris—Guston’s own idiosyncratic hubris. This was one of his most distinctive leitmotifs, expressed in another way when he spoke of “a third hand” doing the work. That metaphorical hand becomes shorthand for describing an experience every true painter knows—that of transcending himself and his tools, as if following some ancient imperative. Sometimes Guston couched these thoughts in terms of the Sung painters, whom he deeply admired. He thought they did “something thousands and thousands of times…until someone else does it, not you, and the rhythm moves through you.”
This passage is from Dore Ashton’s introduction to Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge. The mystical sense of this idea—not a quality I typically associate with Guston‘s approach—can also be juxtaposed to one of Guston’s favorite quotes that was inscribed below a self portrait by Giorgio de Chirico: “What shall I love if not the enimga?” Or also alongside another favorite from Franz Kafka:
The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.
Third hand interventions, loving the enigma, talking a path that causes stumbling rather than walking—they all speak to what passes through the mind during a typical week. And all of it is in an effort to reach that moment when you can feel yourself “sunging”—the exquisite experience of having a rhythm that is moving through you.