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John Cage and collaborator/partner Merce Cunningham

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.

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Simone Weil


Eva Hesse

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.

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.

–Sakyong Mipham

I just began reading Sakyong Mipham‘s book, Ruling Your World. This passage rang true. Ah, that state, the fluid situation.


Christian Wiman

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.


From the tomb of Hafiz at Shiraz, Iran

Gurus and teachers. Having one is a given in most spiritual paths, common in many cultures and certain professions. But because I was never a good candidate for the disciple path (according to my mother, my resistance to authority was well developed at three years old), I never did the artist/mentor thing. It is probably the core reason why I have never wanted to teach and have kept my distance from any established spiritual tradition. What has worked so well for many just isn’t a fit for me.

But my library is full of advice, wisdom and insights from extraordinary minds. A book is the perfect delivery mechanism for those of us with power over issues: It neutralizes what would set us off in the flesh, and makes it easy for us to pick and choose at our own pace, on our own terms.

There are many artists in the Boston area who studied with Philip Guston while he was at Boston University. I have had extensive conversations about Guston the Teacher with Bruce Herman, chair of the Art Department at Gordon College, and more recently with David Goldman who teaches at North Shore Community College. When I hear their stories I am grateful that my exposure to Guston has been limited to his work and his writing. I am very sure I would not have fared well interacting with him directly. He was difficult. He was dogmatic. But he was also a gifted artist.

The book of his collected writings, lectures and conversations edited by Clark Coolidge is full of his koan-like art wisdom. I keep it close at hand and use it daily. This is my own version of the Persian tradition of consulting the Oracle of Shiraz, Hafiz, a popular method of divination that consists of thinking of a question and then randomly opening up Hafiz’ book of poetry. The answer is believed to be there on the page.

I am not looking for divination so much as I am in search of an operating frame for my day in the studio. The Guston book delivers again and again.

Here’s a Gustonism from the catalog for a 1958 show at the Whitney called Nature in Abstraction:

I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.

I think the only pressing question in painting is: When are you through? For my own part it is when I know I’ve “come out the other side.” This occasional and sudden awareness is the truest image for me. The clocklike path of this recognition suppresses a sense of victory: it is an ironic encounter and more of a mirror than a picture.


Philip Guston the teacher


Cawdra 1, from a new series

Maureen Dowd, the waspishly wicked op ed writer at the New York Times, has periodic moments of reverie between her excoriating defamations of politicians. In a column that appeared in December, she touched on a theme that has been a steady leitmotif of this blog: silence.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”

Schlossberg said that, for a long time, art provided the boundary for silence, “but now art, in some cases, is so distracting and intense and faceted, it’s hard to step into a moment. Especially when you’re always carrying a microcamera and a screen all the time, both recording and playing back constantly rather than allowing moments of composition and stillness when your brain can go into a reverie.”

Focusing on the newly released “silent” film The Artist, Dowd addresses the power—and risk—of using silence in an artistic statement. The film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius, participated in an early screening of the film by teenagers. Afterwards they approached him and thank him for letting them “hear the silence.” “I compare it to the zero in mathematics,” said Hazanavicius. “People think it’s nothing, but actually it’s not. It can be very powerful.”

Thanks to my friend and artist Tim Rice (who I met through Slow Muse) for flagging this article.


The inimitable Thomas Derrah plays Mark Rothko in the Speakeasy’s New England premiere of Red, by John Logan. The play runs through February 4th.

In John Logan’s Tony award-winning play Red, Mark Rothko delivers a steady stream of tough love lessons on the meaning of art to his young studio assistant. Advice is rarely this engaging, provocative and timeless.

It’s a category all its own, giving advice. And advice in a field like art where transgression, the driving need to dismantle the previous generation, and pulling something out of nothing are de rigeur is particularly hard to give and hard to hear. Maybe this is more extreme for fierce autodidacts like me who never gave anyone else a seat at the head of my table.

But ambient wisdom (rather than the personal kind) is useful, and Red is full of it. So is the commencement address given by Richard Serra to Williams College graduates in 2008. Here is a passage that caught my eye when I reencountered it in my increasingly bottomless TO READ file today:

Rather than being told which tools are available for which ends it is more useful to invent your own tools: As Audre Lorde has pointed out, “ … the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Rules are overrated. They need to be changed by every generation. That is your most important mandate: If it’s not broken, break it. One way of coming to terms with the prevailing language of a cultural orthodoxy is to reject it. It may be necessary to invent tools and methods about which you know nothing, to act in ways that allow you to utilize the content of your personal experience, to form an obsession and to cut through the weight of your education. Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a foundation that is rigorous, incontrovertible, and, in fact, to some degree repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Don’t confuse the obsession of repetition with learning by rote. I am suggesting a form of inquiry, a procedure to jumpstart the indecision of beginning.

The solution to a given problem often occurs through repetition, a continual probing. The accumulation of solutions invariably alters the original problem demanding new solutions to a different set of problems. In effect, as solutions evolve, new problems emerge. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work.

There is enough here to fuel me for weeks.

I am off to New York tomorrow but will be returning to Slow Muse on Wednesday.


Carbon Dioxide Ice in the Late Summer


Fan and Dust Devil in Deuteronilus Mensa


Jumbled Terrain in Ius Chasma

There are mornings when language just isn’t of service to what is happening in the interior landscape. So it is ironic that in the language-centric world that is most online environments, the “out of language” still sneaks in. So thank you to my Twitter feed for taking me to an extraordinary site and the source of the images above, HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment: “Explore Mars, one giant image at a time” from the University of Arizona.

As for an appropriate language compliment to this feast? Quotes from Richard Tuttle. Consider it a kind of language version of a musical score for viewing.

***
In our culture, imitation-based experience dominates reality-based experience. I find this an awful thing. But there are artists who know from the bottom of their souls that art is about the experience of reality. The reason we have art is because you can’t get a real experience from the world.

***
Time and time again, the intellect robs the creative.

***
In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else.

***
The three things that interest me are the silence, the interest, and the invisible. The quieter side of things. The subtle emotions.

***
An artwork is actually an accounting of all four elements, though no artist, no matter how hard they try, can bring them in perfect balance. They are arranged subjectively, finally.

***
When I think of the particular similarity between my work and that of Matisse, I like to think that in both you see water washing away the tears of life, but in his case that brings you to earth; in mine, to the air. is literally the idea of a finite thing having an infinite range of appearance or expression because of its inseparable relation to other things, which is what water is — its relation to other things.

***
Where the wall meets the floor is a special kind of zone. It’s a de-militarized zone. I’ve always hated plug-in art, because, at its best, a Flavin piece, it implies a whole stretch of dependence and very interesting questions about the link: artwork and society. I’m not interested in this. It’s already been done so well. The question is, what the light is in a piece. In those pieces the key thing is “shadows.” Here, something inside the piece is making the shadows. It’s about having discovered another dimension into a piece. The solution here is to plug into something outside the artwork.

***
For someone to ask me what is beauty—I really don’t have any idea. Trying to do what it is I want to do, I think, eliminates, or tries to eliminate, beauty as much as possible. If it comes back or it happens naturally—the way you put a coffee cup on a table…. Beauty is somehow a trail you create through your work that’s left behind like a snail leaves its ooze. Where you’re going has absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to do with beauty.

A Map to the Next World

In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map
for those who would climb through the hole in the sky.

My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged from the killing fields,
from the bedrooms and the kitchens.

For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.

The map must be of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light.
It must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.

In the legend are instructions on the language of the land,
how it was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.

Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the altars of money.
They best describe the detour from grace.

Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; a fog steals our children while we sleep.

Flowers of rage spring up in the depression, the monsters are born there of nuclear anger.

Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to disappear.

We no longer know the names of the birds here,
how to speak to them by their personal names.

Once we knew everything in this lush promise.

What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the map.
Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us,
leaving a trail of paper diapers, needles and wasted blood.

An imperfect map will have to do little one.

The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood,
your father’s small death as he longs to know himself in another.

There is no exit.

The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine —
a spiral on the road of knowledge.

You will travel through the membrane of death,
smell cooking from the encampment where our relatives make a feast
of fresh deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.

They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.

And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world there will be no X,
no guide book with words you can carry.

You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song she is singing.

Fresh courage glimmers from planets.

And lights the map printed with the blood of history,
a map you will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.

When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers
where they entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.

You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.

A white deer will come to greet you when the last human climbs from the destruction.

Remember the hole of our shame marking the act of abandoning our tribal grounds.

We were never perfect.

Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth
who was once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

We might make them again, she said.

Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.

You must make your own map.

–Joy Harjo

Thanks to my friend Carey Bagdassarian who began his extraordinary essay, “Mathematics, God, or Magic?” with a line from this poem: “For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.” That sent me scurrying off to find out more about Joy Harjo and her poetry. In addition to writing poetry, Harjo is a musician and a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation who often references the landscape of the Southwest and the complex relationship between nature and humans. She has been the recipient of numerous awards including the American Book Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships and an honorary doctorate from Benedictine College. She now lives in Honolulu.

Bagdassarian’s article appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Bellevue Literary Review.

As unpleasant as air travel has become, it still serves up that delicious, “put your headphones on and block out the world” slot of time to just read. This weekend it was spent devouring Sarah Bakewell’s captivating and award winning book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Always on the lookout for innovative ways of sharing, expressing and communicating, I found Bakewell’s format well suited for our current style of information ingesting. Ideas are chunked into chapters that can be read easily from start to finish on a subway ride or in a waiting room. Perfectly sized at blog post plus, each chapter is one of the many answers Montaigne offered to his overarching question: How to live?

A few of my favorites:

Don’t worry about death
Pay attention
Question everything
Keep a private room behind the shop
Wake from the sleep of habit
Reflect on everything; regret nothing.

In each chapter we learn a bit more about how Montaigne employed his point of view. While moral dilemmas interested him, Montaigne was less compelled by what people should do. His focus was on what they actually did. His voice is so refreshingly nonmoralistic or instructional; he observes everything—other people, animals and himself—with a spirit of compassion, non-judgment and genuine delight.

Bakewell’s approach allows her to deftly bring 16th century France right up close to the window of our own world. From her introduction:

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention…This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not exited forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne…

Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it. Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds…A member of a generation robbed of the hopeful idealism enjoyed by his father’s contemporaries, he adjust to public miseries by focusing his attention on private life.

In some ways Montaigne is a writer for middle age. I remember first reading his Essays when I was in high school. But the wisdom is the kind that rings true later in life, after you’ve explored a thousand ways things DON’T work. His willingness to say “who knows?” to just about everything (and that 100 years later enraged both answer-crazed thinkers like Descartes and Pascal) is a way of living in a world being torn apart by extremism.

A few excerpts:

Montaigne…proved himself a literary revolutionary from the start, writing like no one else and letting his pen follow the natural rhythms of conversation instead of formal lines of construction. He omitted connections, skipped steps of reasoning, and left his material lying in solid chunks, coupe or “cut” like freshly chopped steaks. “I do not see the whole of anything,” he wrote.

“Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide but as deep as I know how. And most often I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view.”

***
How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison. To quote Hugo Friedrich…Montaigne had a “deep need to be surprised by what is unique, what cannot be categorized, what is mysterious.”

***
As T. S. Eliot also remarked:

“Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.”

Ah Montaigne, beloved master of the both/and.

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