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What catches the eye and entices the imagination is a mystery. What snags me and holds my attention is often a surprise. Why does India endlessly compel? Why are fluid dynamics and ferrofluids so mesmerizing? The landscape of the desert, what is it about that barrenness that keeps pulling me in? And what is it about language forms, understood or not, that are so provocative?

There is a context that can enrich the way these questions are considered. In his introduction to Between Artists, Dave Hickey does his usual—he provokes, prods and delights in describing how artists navigate a confusingly convoluted and quickly morphing world. Hickey is good at being the agent provacateur. He is also very funny.

One of his themes deals with the downside of postmodern trends:

In the late sixties…the ideas of the artists as an originative, independent, litigious voice in the forum of cultural politics became intellectually discredited…the artist became a mere cultural producer whose work constituted a “collaboration” with the culture at large….In this way the work of art, which had been rendered mute and symptomatic by modernist theory, remained mute under the new regime, a voice symptom, while the artist, who had previously been allowed the occasional cri de coeur, was rendered mute as well…

This disenfranchisement of the artist’s voce is the consequence of a failed project by pop, minimalist, and postminimal artists in the late sixties to suppress the artist’s presence in their work, so the work itself might speak to its beholder—so the work itself might comment on the cultural context we all inhabit, rather than reflexively referencing the artist…So the artists of the sixties…strove to cleanse their works of the allegory of the self, sought to present their works as public declarations as transitive, rhetorical instruments of advocacy in the forum of cultural politics.

Hickey goes on to make his case with that Hickeyesque hyperbolic intensity and flair. What is an artist today? Where does art making fit in the cultural landscape? According to Hickey, the interviews in this book (which I have recommended earlier here and here) demonstrate the fact that it is not “high art” and that rarefied construct that have driven artists to their vocation:

Again and again we discover that the “threshold experience” of these artists took place on the street, that it has little or nothing to do with the experience of high art within the confines of high culture…most artists become artists because they find the art available to them unsatisfactory. “Artists make things because they want to see them,” Terry Allen remarked…”They make the art that’s not there for them to see.”

Artists, says Hickey, are the hedgehogs in Isaiah Berlin’s famous hedgehog/fox analogy, and these interviews speak to that reality. “They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation…We get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.”

What a welcome injunction: Fill it.

Ferrofluids: Images made with magnetic fluids and magnets

(To watch the creation of this image in action: click here)

Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.

–From The Triggering Town by poet and teacher Richard Hugo

I love this book. Opening it up to a random page before heading to the studio is to find a heartwarming wink, an approving nod, a much-needed nugget. It is at times like these, when undercurrents are relentless and unpredictable, that koan-like guidance can steady the vessel. And often the steadying of the vessel is as simple as lifting the hand off the rudder and being willing to just drift.

Here are a few more:

Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work.

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost…It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.