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At some level, everything is of interest to the eye…a view of one corner of my studio space

How do artists work? In a recent posting on Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski makes the case that as mysterious as the creative process is, it is that which people most want to know. And that interest exists in spite of the fact that most artists don’t really even know what their process is.

Some may say they know and wax on about their creative process. But in my experience the best you can do is create a convenient narrative. Our mind (or part of it) wants to be able to sense a path or a plan, to grab on to some sense of order in even the inchoate zones like creativity. But whatever story you tell it is just one version of the journey that actually lives in a Rashomon of valid narratives, all of them incomplete.

For example, Dobrzynski includes a quote from Georgia O’Keefe about her process:

I have picked flowers where I found them, have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.

(This appears in the catalog for an upcoming show in Santa Fe, O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials.)

Dobrzynski goes on to describe O’Keefe’s way of working:

O’Keeffe was very organized. She placed her drawings in named file folders, took photographs of her still subjects from many vantage points in different light, trimmed her brushed meticulously, and so on. Associate curator Carolyn Kastner, who organized the show, told the Associated Press that she looked hard for something “messy,” but could not find a thing.

There is value in seeing an artist’s work space. It is yet another clue in the back story but just that—only a clue. Over the years I’ve visited hundreds of studios, and each tends to speaks to the highly personal journey that is happening in that work space. Mondrian came to his studio every day in a suit and never spilled any paint on his attire, an approach I have always found resoundingly impossible to imagine. On the other end of the spectrum, some artists epitomize the old saying, “An artist is just someone looking for somewhere to store stuff” and have studios that might qualify as reality TV hoarding. My friend Nancy Natale has posted dramatic “studio before” and “studio after” photos right on the home page of her wonderful blog, Art in the Studio. She may have changed teams at some point.

And as for me, I don’t know for sure which team I am on either. My studio has two parts—one is ordered and relatively presentable, the other wildly chaotic, messy and (in my mind) chock full of possibility. I always seem to opt for the both/and.


Being at home in a layered reality…The view through the rooms in Stephanie’s magical Rockport home

I’ve confessed here before to the paradox at the core of my art making and blog writing persona: I don’t believe art can be parsed and analyzed in language the way other topics can be. But there are words and languaged explorations that inhabit the borders of that non-languaged land and are of interest and value. This blog is about the content that lives in that liminal zone, bordering the border and at home along that edge.

Laurie Fendrich is a blogger on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm site and has written about the “deafening silence” she encounters whenever she writes about art. When the topic is politics, the switchboard lights up and everyone wants to log in on their opinion. Why so little commentary when the topic is art?

A lot of people can’t understand how art of any kind conveys meaning. At its best, it seems to sit there, or hang there, waiting to be contemplated for some sort of aesthetic pleasure. What else is there to say about it? At the same time, many are terribly intimidated by art—especially modern and contemporary art. They find they don’t like it, but worse, they’re annoyed that they don’t “get” it. It seems as if it’s part of a club they aren’t allowed to join. Tethered as they are to their preconceived ideas about what a painting should do (it should be beautiful, or at least good-looking, or it should tell a story, or be noble, or be about flowers, or the Bible), a lot of people think modern and contemporary art is nothing but one enormous joke. Since this is hardly the kind of thing sophisticated people want to admit, they prefer to keep quiet about the subject.

But Fendrich goes on to point out another aspect that impacts public interaction with the visual arts. This is one that particularly resonates with my views:

For aesthetic taste to broaden generally requires a lot of serious, direct experience with art—lots of time hanging around museums, galleries and artists’ studios. It helps to read about art, or listen and talk to people who love it, or are at least involved in it. Yet even then, and even among the educated elite, only a relatively small group of people do any of these things on any kind of regular basis. People in the humanities (where you’d think you’d find a lot of people who pay attention to art) are frequently just as alienated, flummoxed or indifferent to art as the masses that are obsessed with pop culture. The stock and trade of academics is words, not images, and for all their ability to analyze culture, academics are mostly blissfully ignorant of what it takes to make something that becomes a part of culture—a work of art, or a product of scientific inquiry and experiment. For all their study of ideas and actions (artistic or otherwise), and all their inventing of explanations and theories about what creative people do, in both art and science, they rarely ever try their hands at creative work.

On the consistently interesting blog Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski has written a thoughtful response to the difference between talking about politics and talking about art:

Fendrich almost makes that reticence a virtue as she dissects why everyone feels so free and almost obligated to talk about politics: “For most of us, talking about politics has become merely another means of self-expression — another way to yell (if we’re bullies), rant (if we’re full of tension), sound reasonable (if we’re nice people).”

But that has consequences: “People eagerly opine about politics because talking about politics today has deteriorated into nothing but a game of chatter–a way of responding to the unsettling modern world that seems so devoid of much that’s beautiful or good.”

So cheer up, art-lovers. Would you rather have a lot of people blather on and on about something, even when they don’t know much, or remain quiet because they don’t know much?

More specific to my particular concerns, a comment on Dobrzynski’s blog left by “Joan” captures many of my feelings with this thoughtful note:

The only language that really touches the purposes or heart of art is poetry, not analysis. Why? Because a work of art isn’t a response to a rational question. I don’t mean by that the arts are irrational. If a work of art does emerge from thinking, it is born from the place where thinking comes to a sort of intellectual dead end past which it can’t verbally go. Is America so materialistic it has forgotten that there is meaning apart from rational thought or the work and progress of science and technology?…The heart of art is non-verbal, experiential, practical, and non-commercial. Why blab about it- unless you’re an art student or artist talking to other artists, deeply involved in discovery about what it is and how it is, that you are doing what you are doing??

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The new Poets House building in Lower Manhattan near the Hudson (Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

As the plethora (din?) of voices and venues in the online free for all continues to expand exponentially, it is so helpful to have your own trusted list of favorites. Judith H. Dobrzynski is one of mine. Her blog, Real Clear Arts, covers a wide expanse of topics that, strangely enough, consistently interest and compel me. She’s brilliant, with polyglot expertise in so many different fields. Is this a case of a mind meld in the cybersphere? It would be too self-serving to say so out loud, so maybe I’ll just whisper it.

Her latest post, You Don’t Have To Be A Poet To Love Poets House, is a good example of our passion overlap. In existence for 25 years and lodged in various locations around Manhattan, Poets House has now relocated to a deluxe new home in Battery Park City, on the corner of Murray Street. And the success of this venture is no small feat—Poets House raised $11 million for developing the interior, with funding from both public and private sources.

From an article in the New York Times:

“The goal of the place is to make everyone feel that poetry belongs to them,” said Lee Briccetti, who has been executive director for 20 years. “Anyone can come and experience poetry in a new way that will deepen their relationship to language…”

“There has been an upswing in the appetite for poetry,” said Kate D. Levin, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner. With the advent of poetry slams and spoken-word events, she added, poetry has “moved away from an association with a rarefied crowd to a more populist world and the Poets House folks are tapped into that.”

Dobrzynski ends her posting with her report of a comment made to her about Poets House by Boston-based poet Robert Pinsky: “God bless the caretakers; Poets House is a caretaker.”

Caretaking. That’s something all the arts could use a lot more of.