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Shadows on my studio wall

When artist Robert Knafo wrote to request a studio interview with Robert Morris, this was the response he received back. Knafo describes this as the best No he ever received. “I love how he calmly shoots the art documentary cliches, holsters his gun, and walks away,” Knafo wrote. “Thank you Robert for making me think again about what I’m doing.”

I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made half a century ago. Minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made yesterday. Contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art—either mine or others past or present–which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists or art historians about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of speaking. It is possible that I was led into art making because talking and being in the presence of another person were not requirements. I do not want to be asked my reasons for not having worked in just one style, or reasons for any of the art that got made (the reason being that there are no reasons in art). I do not want to answer questions about why I used plywood, felt, steam, dirt, grease, lead, wax, money, trees, photographs, electroencephalograms, hot and cold, lawyers, explosions, nudity, sound, language, or drew with my eyes closed. I do not want to tell anecdotes about my past, or stories about the people I have been close to. I refuse to speak of my dead. The people to whom I owe so much either knew it or never will because it is too late now. I do not want to document my turning points, high points, low points, good points, bad points, lucky breaks, bad breaks, breaking points, dead ends, breakthroughs or breakdowns. I do not want to talk about my methods, processes, near misses, flukes, mistakes, disappointments, setbacks, disasters, obsessions, lucky accidents, unlucky accidents, scars, insecurities, disabilities, phobias, fixations, or insomnias over posters I should never have made. I do not want my portrait taken. Everybody uses everybody else for their own purposes, and I am happy to be just material for somebody else so long as I can exercise my right to remain silent, immobile, possibly armed, and at a distance of several miles.

Some find this to be an unduly aggressive response. Others have pointed out that it speaks to the luxury of being an artist who is so famous he can do whatever he wants. All true. But the appeal for me is something deeper.

My fundamental experience has been that much of what makes art so compelling and important cannot be languaged or articulated. And shouldn’t. That isn’t a notion that is necessarily in fashion right now. As John Seed pointed out in his piece, I Don’t Deconstruct, this unwillingness may be the result of my coming of age when spontaneity and engaging with the ineffable were in vogue. Those art school values have been replaced with a deconstructionist/postmodern/intellectual approach to art making, all of it very language dependent.

From Seed’s article:

Being able to “deconstruct” requires speaking and understanding a certain type of language, and subscribing to certain intellectual theories. People who are comfortable deconstructing converse in a language I call “artspeak.” Artspeak is—for contemporary artists, curators and critics—what Latin was for Medieval priests: an esoteric language that separates and elevates.

Some art lends itself to talk, talk, talk. And that verbally enhanced visuality can be stimulating. But Morris’ list of things he will not do marks off a territory where engagements with visuality are free to be unexpected, compelling and mysterious. Much of the “retinal flutter” (Marcel Duchamp‘s term, originally coined as a pejorative but my favorite phrase to describe those transcendent moments) will continue to exist outside a languaged explanation. That flutter is ambient in its natural state, always a bit furtive and endlessly undefined.

(Thank you Mira Schor for sharing this memorable Morris-to-Knafo response.)

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From “The Shape She Makes” at American Repertory Theater (Photo: American Rep Theater)

Stories move in circles.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy and as hard as finding your way home.

(Quoted by Deena Metzger in Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey and attributed to A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance.

On the surface, The Shape She Makes (a world premiere presentation by American Repertory Theater in Cambridge) is the intimate telling of one woman’s life journey, Quincy Beth Harris. She is 11 years old when we first meet her, and already she is exceptional: She has achieved a perfect score on the Brackstone Math Test. But not all geniuses land in a family environment that nurtures their gifts, and Quincy didn’t score high on the Family Support Test. She lives with a dysfunctional mother, and her father abandoned them both when she was two. Her life is not going to be an easy one, and that path into adulthood is the subject of The Shape She Makes.

Quincy has a powerfully linear mind, but the telling of her journey does not follow a linear narrative. This is storytelling that intertwines movement, dialogue, music, pantomime. The blending of these many forms of expression feels effortless and unforced, and the rounded, full bodied nature of the narrative makes it easy to feel intimacy with a story that is so personal and also so heartbreaking.

Even the audience is a participant in this telling. When the story begins, we are asked to play the role of invited guests at a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Brackstone Math Test. (Sample questions from the test are included in the program.) Only eight individuals have ever achieved a perfect score in all those years, and honoring that achievement will be the highlight of the evening. Quincy is one. Her MIA father Bernard is another. Asked to speak on behalf of herself and her now deceased father, Quincy is forced to come to terms with the circumstances of her life and with who she has become.

Large-bodied, socially withdrawn and shy, the sole caretaker for her aged and cantankerous mother, Quincy at middle age is a believable outcome of difficult circumstances. But her razor sharp intelligence is still in tact. What would it take for her to change this trajectory? At one point Quincy says, “There are two things that are incontrovertible in life. One is that the ocean accepts all rivers. The other is that we fashion who we are.”

But do we? There are large questions at the core of this production, ones that explore how childhood determines the outcome of our lives, about how capable any of us are at changing. While that may sound like the stuff of Oprah daytime TV human interest, The Shape She Makes brings us into an intimacy that is neither maudlin nor manipulative. This is a life portrait that breeches the barriers of viewership and detachment. By using so many forms—dance, theater, music, image—all delivered up by a talented cast, we are inextricably pulled into a circle of deep caring.

Conceived over four years by Susan Misner and Jonathan Bernstein, The Shape She Makes maximizes their collective gifts. Misner is a dancer and an actor (most recently she stars in the FX series, The Americans) and Bernstein is a director who also teaches theater at NYU. Life partners for many years, Misner and Bernstein have crafted a thoughtful, intelligent, emotionally fine-tuned and memorable new hybrid storytelling form. Let’s hope there are more collaborations coming.

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An angled view of a new piece, “Mangalat”

Kathleen Kirk’s post, “Persistence and Patience”, is a thoughtful description of how she ended up, after several career explorations, being a poet. In her graceful telling, she describes her many forays into other creative fields—music, art, theater, teaching—but none of them evoked the necessary persistence and patience in her that is needed to keep the passion fed and fueled when the work is hard and the way is difficult. Once you find your métier, something shifts. When you are wired for sound, you just have to let go.

I found Kirk’s point of view resonant with my own experience:

I get rejected, accepted, and published all because I am patient and persistent. I have lived through various “trends” in writing, waiting patiently until the thing I do can be appreciated and accepted once again. Beauty has gone out of fashion, and come back. “Nature poems” have been despised, but now everyone is “going green.” Some people equate simplicity of language with simplistic thought, and thus ignore me, while I have always found that the most complex thinking usually requires the greatest clarity of statement. I am not a flashy poet, nor a trendy or political poet. I write about what goes on around me, and inside me.

Paul Auster has said, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” I am committed to walking this long, hard road and have been on it, in my meandering way, for quite a lovely while.

[The text in this post is from the Slow Muse archives, originally published in 2012.]

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Brian Eno (Photo by Matthew Anker)

A category of music referred to as “ambient”—made popular by musicians including Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, The Orb, Aphex Twin, Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh—is often coupled with the music of the “holy minimalists”—Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, Alan Hovhaness and Sofia Gubaidulina. Whether electronic or contemporary classical, the ambient/holy minimalist spectrum of sound often aligns with visual art that has a meditative or contemplative component IMHO. Emphasis on the IMHO, since this is my own subjectivity speaking. Others may not find a commonality there and even resist coupling music and art in that way. But these are the composers whose work I listen to a lot in my studio and whose music has inspired me and my work for many years.

What I did not realize until recently is that ambient music was first created by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp in the early 1970s while they experimented with tape loops and repetitions. What I also never realized until recently was that Brian Eno was a serious art student before he moved into sound, and his strong visual education has informed his later works in a number of ways.

The astounding breadth of his expressive talent, both in music and in the visual, can be seen in a new book, Brian Eno: Visual Music by Christopher Scoates with contributions from Brian Eno, Roy Ascott, William R. Wright and Steve Dietz. It’s a stunning object, this book, and the evolution of Eno’s work makes for rich viewing and reading. The monograph covers more than four decades of Eno’s music and his museum and gallery installations. These achievements are accompanied by exhibition notes, pages from Eno’s exhaustive sketchbooks, and a host of never-before-seen materials.

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Clearly affected by seismic shifts in the art world of the early 60s, Eno moved into new forms of expression early on, and these explorations led to his primary career as a musician. But his creative approach to all forms has a singularity to it.

On The Polymath Perspective Eno discusses how he views the variety of expressive forms:

I think that sex, drugs, art and religion very much overlap with one another and sometimes one becomes another. So I thought, “What do all those things have in common?” The umbrella that they all exist under is this word, “surrender” because they are all forms of transcendence through surrender. They are ways of transcending your individuality and sense of yourself as a totally separate creature in the world. All of those things involve some kind of loosening of this boundary that is around this thing you call “yourself”…

This idea of surrender has become more and more what I’ve been thinking about for the last few years, and I’ve been wanting to make both visual art, which I do a lot of, and music, which says to an audient, “This is where you can surrender!” I consider surrender an active verb, in the sense that you have this spectrum ranging from control to surrender, and the model of post-enlightenment man is that we’ve become better and better at control. If you think of our distant genetic past, most of our time was spent around the surrender end of the spectrum because there wasn’t much we could control. We were at the mercy of weather, creatures, geology, geography and everything else. We had to learn to surrender in a situation because when you are powerless, your option is to go with the flow and learn how to navigate it. That’s what I call active surrender.

By taking surrender out of a primarily religious context, Eno defines the term as a domain of mastery that artists of any stripe can use powerfully. In an interview with Eno that I heard recently he continued on this theme and advised paying attention to those who are good at surrender, not at control.

To that end, Eno collaborated with a German composer Peter Schmidt in the 70s to develop a very John Cage-inspired conceptual art piece, Oblique Strategies. Comprised of 115 cards that are randomly accessed like the I Ching, Oblique Strategies offers suggestions and instructions that can be used to break through a creative block, to approach a problem in a new way, to generate new ideas. These suggestions are apropos to any artistic endeavor, offering a timelessly playful approach.

Samples from Oblique Strategies:

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“Ekka,” a newly completed painting (33 x 47″). An art collector had this to say when she stopped by my studio recently: “Lately I have wanted to just quietly commune with a work of art. I am not interested in deciphering references or spending time getting the inside jokes. I just want to find a work that I can sit with alone in silence and feel a connection.” What a heartening thing to hear and very close to the way I choose the art that I want to look at every day.

Theater director extraordinaire Anne Bogart recently wrote a post, Direct Encounter, about attending a theater conference where a young presenter announced that she would not be using PowerPoint in her talk. Bogart was thrilled to hear this young woman declare that she and her generation were moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understood how much more effective it is to speak directly to an audience.

The bullet points, charts and graphs that fill those dreadful and horribly overused PP decks (and which led to the infamous phrase, “Death by PowerPoint”) actually activate a very small part of the brain, in particular the areas that process language. When you watch a PowerPoint presentation, your brain shuts down its other functionalities.

How different things are when you use metaphor, storytelling, and emotional exchange, says Bogart. “Stories are journeys of the mind that provide the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. If I can engage a person’s imagination, I will have managed to link our brains one to the other. Our brains are synchronized. We are literally sharing brain activity.”

While Bogart makes her case for the full-bodied richness of the theatrical experience, her pitch is an articulate advocacy for direct encounters in every field of artistic expression. Because so much creative expression now is excessively curated and over-mediated, getting to an authentic, unmediated place requires conscious effort.

Case in point, Bogart shares this anecdote:

In Paris, in 1971, writer Deirdre Bair met with Samuel Beckett to request permission to conduct extensive interviews with him for what would become a definitive biography about the playwright. Beckett granted Bair consent but on the condition that she not tape-record their conversations or even take notes while together. Bair agreed nervously. During their nearly three hundred interviews, she listened closely to Beckett who described countless details about his life and work. Then she rushed back to her hotel room to quickly tape-record her memories of Beckett’s words that day. From this she constructed a readable and consequential biography published in 1978.

Perhaps Beckett understood that an unmediated connection between Bair and him would reap more riches than standard interview techniques that depend upon recording and recounting. Perhaps he trusted the event of their human connection from moment to moment more than any act of reported facts. Perhaps what happened between them, together with Bair’s reconstructed memories of their direct encounters, is what makes her biography of Beckett successful and interesting.

While the visual arts occur in a domain that exists outside the spoken/written language zone—for the most part— other factors obscure connection in that world as well. Exclusivity, self-referentiality, meta meanings and other obscurant scrims can make it difficult to achieve that direct encounter Bogart speaks about. Many an eager and open viewer has left an exhibit feeling exempted and alienated from work that appears to be the exclusive province of a limited and rarefied cognescenti.

The solution is not to dumb down a body of work with languaged explanations. Simplification of that nature flattens the potent and richly layered experience that the visual can offer, stripping it of its unique potential for mystery and evocation. The best solution is a two fold one, where both the maker and the viewer take a step towards each other in that numinous space that exists between them.

Some will find this to be nothing more than an idealistic notion. But I don’t see it that way. I have been an artist for a long lifetime, but I still have to work at being an open and trusting viewer. It is easy to fall into suspicion and cynicism, wary of being manipulated or played. As an artist and as a viewer of art, it is a daily discipline to speak it true, to get as close to that direct encounter as I possibly can. It’s a skill set, not a given.

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Mar Jee 3, from a recent series

I have been spending some time contemplating where working and mystery coalesce. Here are a few thoughts about that by way of some wise practitioners…

Shaking the Tree

Vine and branch we’re connected in this world
of sound and echo, figure and shadow, the leaves
contingent, roots pushing against earth. An apple

belongs to itself, to stem and tree, to air
that claims it, then ground. Connections
balance, each motion changes another. Precarious,

hanging together, we don’t know what our lives
support, and we touch in the least shift of breathing.
Each holy thing is borrowed. Everything depends.

–Jeanne Lohmann

Jeanne Lohmann is a Quaker poet in her 90s. Her deep respect for the mysterious parts of life is evident in this poem. But she also speaks to the fundamental nature of making art itself day in and out: “What is the spiritual practice of poetry? I think we fool ourselves with such divisions, separations. Practice is practice is practice, and requires us whole, body and breath that animates.”

“Practice is practice is practice.” Reading that line reminded me of yet another quote about the need to do the yeoman thing, this one by David Rakoff:

The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.

There is a tacit invitation to hold that taut point between the ineffable and the day-to-day necessity of practice, practice, practice. That pull is an ancient and essential tension, one that has been explored in every spiritual tradition both East and West. That is a pivot point many artists know about as well, one that defines their own very personal and often private wisdom path.

And yes, everything DOES depend.

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A display at the Museum of Innocence, titled “Istanbul‘s Streets, Bridges, Hills and Squares,” (Photo: Jackie Nickerson)

Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (whose books include My Name is Red and Snow among others) is an advocate of small museums (a topic I wrote about here.) We live in an era of mega-museums that work hard to reach the everyday person, and often that sends the experience in the direction of the shopping mall rather than a contemplative public space. As Pamuk has written, “Museums must not confine themselves to showing us pictures and objects from the past; they must also convey the ambiance of the lost time from which those objects have come to us. And this can only happen through personal stories.”

That is easier to do in a smaller venue than a large one, and in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine Pamuk highlights some of his favorite small museums—the Gustave Moreau in Paris, Bagatti Valsecchi in Rome, Frederic Marès in Barcelona, Rockox House in Antwerp, Mario Praz in Rome, and his own Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. (I have to a few of my favorites to this list: Musée Guimet in Paris, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.)

Given his passion for the small and more intimate museum experience, Pamuk began thinking about creating one of his own. He started collecting objects from everyday life in Istanbul. As these objects accumulated in his home, he found a story emerging. That story became a novel, The Museum of Innocence, and his collection of carefully chosen objects are now housed in a museum of the same name.

The fundamental difference between the Museum of Innocence and the other small museums that have inspired me is the fact that, unlike Gustave Moreau or Mario Praz, the people whose objects and images we look at in this museum are not real, but fictional. I love to see visitors tricked by the reality of the imaginary characters’ slippers, playing cards, cutlery, ID cards and even their cigarette butts, to the extent that they forget that the characters in the novel are invented. And whether they’ve read the novel or not, I’m always glad to see visitors discovering firsthand that what is being displayed in this museum is not simply the plot of a novel, but a particular mood, an atmosphere created by objects. And when they ask me why I’ve set up this kind of museum, I respond that it is because I love small museums that bring out our individuality.

Pamuk’s advocacy of the small museum experience parallels a number of other trending ideas that speak to a more individually curated, non-canonical, personal form of expression sized for one human at a time. The very idea of “the canon” and how we engage with it has been questioned throughout the modern era. (For those with literary interest, two excellent essays responding to the 20th anniversary of Harold Bloom’s release of The Western Canon can be read here.) But in an era of blockbuster museum shows and epic-sized undertakings, a call to the more intimate and personal is a refreshing counterweight.

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Detail from one of my recent painting series, “Angaris”

I recently found two statements about painting by Australian artist Helen Johnson that were very resonant for me. While Johnson’s work has identifiable content, her approach and attitudes are aligned with my work as a non representationalist.

First, her description of painting from a roundtable about painting in Frieze Magazine:

Painting is a space for the critical deployment of ambiguity, wit, failure and unknowing. Being a painter today doesn’t mean seeing painting as some kind of anachronistic refuge, or thinking that the modernist project of the medium can be rehabilitated, or even continue to be flogged. I am interested in the complexities, loadings and problems of painting as devices for producing meaning today, informed by a new range of conditions. I am not interested in using painting to defend itself, make statements or draw conclusions, but to open spaces for reflective thought, where a multiplicity of positions can be recognized, particularly as a means of resisting the imposition of a fixed narrative.

This passage is from Johnson’s artist statement which is so much better than most efforts in that category of writing about art that is often so tired and trite. I really like her directness and her awareness of contemporary contexts:

Painting serves as the primary ground of my practice, though the approaches I take seek an understanding of painting as a loaded medium operating on new terms in a post-medium condition…Painting is an interesting vehicle for me because it is loaded, neurotic, problematised, a market force, scattered, essentialised and recomplexified, loathed, able to operate simultaneously within and beyond itself, able to be beautiful and horrible at the same time. My approach to painting divagates from a grounding in figuration in search of a space of pluralism and openness, where the privilege of the subject becomes slippery. A gesture, alive in one painting, might be deadened through mechanised replication in the next…Construct and intuition ask questions of one another. The space of painting is for me a space where seemingly incontrovertible things are constantly being reconsidered, put into new relations with other things, where slippage is always present. In this regard it is a useful space for thought.

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Boli (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Bolis are abstract figures that are from the Bamana culture. The basic form, a bit like a simplified cow, is made from mud, eggs, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, honey, beer, vegetable fiber, and cow dung.

The role of the boli is to regulate energy, whatever is moving from the universe into this world. In Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book of essays, Wonderful Investigations, he sees the significance of the boli beyond its singular cultural context:

It is an object that keeps in balance a force, a spiritual energy, which unbalanced, could damage the world. Its likeness to a cow belongs to this world, this earth; its unlikeness to the cow belongs to the other world, the universe. It shares in both, and the oddity of its form is a result of the accuracy with which it performs its work. The boli is a form that attends to its own formlessness. It shows the body at the point of pivot between two kinds of existence. It shows the cost of belonging to two worlds simultaneously while being able to fully exist in neither. It is the object as threshold, a door which is open only by being closed. It is a symbol. It’s life is a symbolic life and brings us who believe in its power to our own symbolic nature.

Beachy-Quick is a poet, and he draws a provocative comparison between the boli and a poem (which, for me, is a reasonable stand in for many different types of works of art):

The poem on the page is no principality. It does not make a distinct place in the world, not does it make a distinct place of the world. It is not a site to travel to, not a place of destination. Rather, the poem denies location because it acts—as the boli figure acts—as a nexus between worlds, taking part in both worlds but belonging to neither, a threshold in which one must learn to uncomfortably dwell.

Given this view of things, it is not the reading a poem for understanding that is difficult, says Beachy-Quick. The harder task is to learn to read so that you can enter the environment that the poem opens up. “To think of poetry as an environment, as a space of initiation, is to learn to read so as to lose a sense of meaning, to become bereft of what it is we thought we knew, to lose direction, to become bewildered.”

We enter into a work of art to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess beforehand. We enter to be asked “a question we will not ask ourselves otherwise, a question that begins at the point of our certainty.”

These are such apt descriptions of what happens when we engage with a finished work of art as well as what we hope can happen in the making itself. Stepping beyond our certainty is what’s necessary for admission into that mysterious non-place between worlds.

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Sign post encountered on a hike in New Zealand

Jim Collins is a business writer whose target audience is usually not visual artists. But wisdom has leaky margins and the best crosses the categories. In a recent essay Collins writes:

A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit— to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.

Another business author, Matthew May, has his own anecdote of this wisdom:

I was working closely with the senior leadership of a very large and successful Japanese company. I had been hired to help it develop new ideas and strategies in the United States, but was struggling with a particularly difficult project that required me to reconcile two completely different perspectives. (Eastern and Western ways of thinking are often at odds with each other.) I found myself at a standstill.

I must not have done a very good job of hiding how useless I was feeling, because a 2,500-year-old snippet of Chinese philosophy found its way to me anonymously, via a handwritten note on a Post-it stuck to my work space.

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” it said, capsulizing teachings of Lao Tzu. “Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

My first thought was, “Someone wants me gone — I’d be more useful that way.” But as I read it again and thought about it, lightning struck.

It dawned on me that I’d been looking at my problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what not to do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, I was able to complete the project successfully.

Even though the idea of subtracting things every day was thousands of years old, it was still radical to me.

To complete this trifecta of business wisdom that is also useful for creatives, here is Amber Johnson‘s report on how Mike McAvoy, president of the satirical news source, The Onion, views this issue:

It’s this business process of “whittling down” ideas that is most transferable to other companies, McAvoy told the audience. He offered a simple two-step process: “First, get a lot of good ideas. Then reduce, reduce, reduce so your final ideas are really great.”

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary”. As so many pithy statements go, stating it simply does not make it easy.

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