December 2007

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Innovation. It is the subject of IBM ads that air during football games as well as a constant issue for anyone who is a maker of poems, paintings, music, theatre.

A recent article in the New York Times captured some of the occupational hazards encountered by those who have to deal daily with what does not yet exist. Although the article is primarily geared for innovation issues within a corporate setting, it raises relevant concerns for the soloist as well.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge…means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path…

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems…”

Here is Rabe’s advice for how to find zero-gravity thinkers:

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

That’s what the poets in my life are–my very own zero-gravity thinkers. They work in a related area but not in my specific field. They force me to look at the world differently.

Now the question I have is this: Can a visual artist do the same for them?

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One of my Christmas gifts from my friend Cindy was Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, a book of poems by Pablo Neruda translated by Stephen Mitchell. Based on my preliminary reading of a few of my favorite Neruda poems in this volume, thumbs up.

Here’s a sample comparison of Mitchell’s translation with a popular translation of the poem, Ode to Ironing. See what you think.

Ode To Ironing
by Pablo Neruda

Poetry is white
it comes dripping out of the water
it gets wrinkled and piles up
We have to stretch out the skin of this planet
We have to iron the sea in its whiteness
The hands go on and on
and so things are made
the hands make the world every day
fire unites with steel
linen, canvas and calico come back
from combat in the laundry
and from the light a dove is born
purity comes back from the soap suds.

(Translated by Jodey Bateman)

Poetry is white:
it comes from the water covered with drops,
it wrinkles and piles up,
the skin of this planet must be stretched,
the sea of its whiteness must be ironed,
and the hands move and move,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are made:
hands make the world each day,
fire becomes one with steel,
linen, canvas, and cotton arrive
from the combat of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born:
chastity returns from the foam.

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

“Holy surfaces.” “The skin of this planet must be stretched/the sea of its whiteness must be ironed.” “Chastity returns from the foam.” Yes.

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In responding to my previous post about theory and art making, Elatia Harris left a comment that is so full of potent issues I felt it needed to be brought forward, into the headlights. She touches on issues that many visual artists (including myself) mull over, struggle with and voice frustration about. I don’t necessarily agree with Elatia’s conclusion, but I also don’t have a hard and fast answer that satisfies me.

So much has been written about authenticity in aesthetic philosophy in all its various meanings, but here I am referring specifically to the use of the term that speaks to Peter Kivy’s definition of authenticity–faithfulness to the artist’s own self, original, not derivative or aping of someone else’s way of working. In this definition, authenticity is being committed to personal expression, being true to one’s artistic self rather than to the precepts of a particular tradition or -ism.

With as open-ended a definition as that, it is still fair to ask, What IS authenticity? How do you know when you have it and when you do not? There’s no answer that satisfies that question for me. I put it in the same category as a question that is often asked of painters and poets and that cannot be languaged: How do you know when a work of art finished? (Well, it feels balanced. It stops complaining. It hums. It radiates. What can I say?)

Similarly, authenticity in all its inchoate splendor is as close to a religious creed as I have when I’m in my studio. Like a lot of things in life–love, grief, ecstasy–we keep being tempted to define these powerful experiences in language, but they will not abide.

Here’s Elatia’s comment:

For my painting career, I tried to remain outside theory while including it in my awareness. I didn’t want the pigeon-holes for myself, and wondered why anyone would tolerate them. This is quite different from failing to value consistency or vision, and it also never left me feeling at an emotional disadvantage when I painted or thought about painting. After all, if you cannot or will not say what you are as a painter or how you are affiliated with other painters doing work like yours, then you are trusting your instincts, and instincts tend to be rather unfriendly to theory.

But I have to look at where all this got me — all this rejecting of -isms and refusing to be an -ist. I created a great deal of confusion in the minds of viewers — critics and other intellectuals, friends, gallerists, potential clients. I seemed never to represent any “flavor of the month” they could believe in, or to be a part of what they could understand as the coming thing. And I misunderstood how much the classification mania of the art establishment drove the career progress an artist could make. Perhaps one can’t ever truly be outside the system — only irrelevant to it. Post-modernism engineered a slow breakdown of these taxonomies, but then became, itself, theory-ridden.

I saw the way I negotiated all that as the price of being authentic, and even from this distance I still see it that way. Authentic, yes. Intelligent, no.

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Sun through the gazebo in Skaneateles

I drove to Syracuse last weekend to retrieve my daughter who just completed her first semester of graduate school. Her plan for recovering from a string of all nighters reading Leonardo’s notebooks and researching the driving force behind the Maniera style was to spend the night in Skaneateles, one of the most precious exemplars of Picturesque Americana. With two feet of snow falling in just 24 hours, we had the town to ourselves and spent most of the day sitting by a roaring fire reading and talking.

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Kellin in Skaneateles

She leaves for Florence in a few weeks, so I am the lucky recipient of some of the heavier books that won’t be making the trip with her. She gifted me with a fabulous and immense tome, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent Leitch, General Editor. This is the best overview of critical thinkers I’ve ever found. (If you know of a better one, please let me know.)

From the introduction:

In recent decades, theory and criticism have grown ever more prominent in literary and cultural studies, treated less as aids to the study of literature and culture than as ends in themselves. As Jonathan Culler notes in “Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions”, “Formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but…now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism…”

Some literary scholars and writers deplore the shift toward theory, regarding it as a turn away from literature and its central concerns. These “antitheorists,” as they are called, advocate a return to studying literature for itself—yet however refreshing this position may at first appear, it has problems: it itself presupposes a definition of literature, and it promotes a certain way of scrutinizing literature (“for itself.”) In other words, the antitheory position turns out to rely on unexamined—and debatable—theories of literature and criticism. What theory demonstrates, in this case and in others, is that there is no position free of theory, not even the one called “common sense.”

As is often the case for me, I find many parallels in the visual arts. The inability to be “theory free” is what I have often called the fashion paradox: You can never not make a statement about yourself based on the clothes you wear. Saying you don’t care is still a fashion statement, albeit often a bad one.

Right now the wide ranging field of the visual arts is riddled with holes left from a thousand theoretical pot shots. It is too easy to become jaded and disinterested as the theoretical battles continue to rage. It is also too easy to operate from the assumption (a false one) that you and your work exist in some untouched and untainted space. There’s no such thing and never will be.

It is easier however for me to read about the complex battles of deconstruction and poststructuralism, reader response theory, subjectivity/identity when the material being discussed is language based. It’s like watching your neighbor struggle with the ice and snow and forgetting momentarily that you have the same task to do as well.

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Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

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View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Snowfall

Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand

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Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called Buzz Machine that deals with blogging and the state of media practices. Like most bloggers, I am fascinated to watch the way the blogging phenom continues to propagate, morph and constellate. Jarvis’ blog is a good place to start if you want a catalog of opinions on where some informed types think this is headed and how blogging is interacting with other expressive forms.

This excerpt from Buzz Machine is by Andras Szanto (who teaches at CUNY in the journalism school):

The blogsphere today is more or less where the arts were circa 1975. It’s a realm of new opportunities, naïve expectations, and faux democracy. It’s smack in the middle of that euphoric moment that every innovative movement goes through before it makes its own peace with the status quo. Back in the seventies, it seemed everything was possible in the art world. Anything could be art and “everyone an artist,” as Beuys proclaimed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this pluralist nirvana. Three decades later we are seeing an unprecedented institutionalization and commercialization of art. The entry fee into a successful art career is a $60,000 MFA. And while laissez-faire rules, aesthetically speaking, who can doubt that the artists being seen and heard are the ones who have the muscle of major galleries, presenting institutions, and distribution companies behind them. From the cloud of unbounded opportunity has emerged a new ironclad structure, no less selective and, in its own way, constraining than what had come before. To some degree, the very scale and openness of postmodern culture have mandated these new filters and hierarchies. And so it will go with the blogsphere. When the smoke clears, we will be back to listening and trusting a finite number of voices. We will depend on them, and we won’t have time for many more.

In the interest of full disclosure, Jarvis did not agree with Szanto’s assertions. His response to this excerpt was, “I’ll disagree. He assumes that there is still a scarcity of gallery walls. No, there’ll only be a scarcity of money.”

As always, it depends on your point of view. From where I sit, an oversupply of gallery walls is not the problem. (Could it ever be?)

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Empty Space, By Anne Hamilton

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Modernism, Part 2
Here are a few more selections from the Mia Fineman/Peter Gay book discussion from Slate. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

Though I don’t think Pop Art brought about the end of Modernism by democratizing art, I do agree that Modernism suffered a kind of slow death in the early 1960s. The primary cause of death—and I’m certainly not the first to suggest this—was the steady assimilation of Modernist avant-gardes by mainstream institutions like museums and universities, and by the market. By the 1960s, Modernism had metastasized into the official culture of art. The shock of the new had grown old, and Modernism’s taboo-shattering transgressions gradually evolved into the highbrow equivalent of classic rock.

Which brings us to my next question: What comes next? In your final chapters, you entertain the possibility of a Modernist revival, pointing to the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry as works that carry the torch of Modernism into the 21st century. You end the book on a personal note, describing your experience of a recent visit to Gehry’s titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You convey your enthusiasm for the “wealth and elegance of the forms” through loving descriptions of the building’s “assortment of curves, of weight-bearing, slightly twisted pillars, of curved internal bridges, of enticing balconies, all of them enlivened by museum-goers wandering about the spaces.” Your verdict: The museum is a “Modernist masterpiece.”

Now, Gehry’s Guggenheim is surely innovative and thrilling to behold, but is it Modernist? Like many independent-minded artists, Gehry doesn’t like to be connected with any particular style or movement. Nonetheless, his work has been widely discussed in terms of architectural Postmodernism, and even more specifically, in terms of Deconstructivism, a style that arose in the late 1980s and is often associated with the work of Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid, among others. Like these architects, Gehry rejects the Modernist principles of “form follows function” and “truth to materials.” His designs represent a radical departure from the straight lines and ordered rationality of International Style architecture. So, I wonder if you could say a little more about why you consider Gehry’s Guggenheim to be a Modernist, as opposed to a Postmodernist, work? And more broadly, I’d be interested to know what you think of Postmodernism as a term to describe the cultural and stylistic tendencies (like irony, fragmentation, hybridity, and self-reflexiveness, to name just a few) that have surfaced since Modernism’s demise in the 1960s.

Peter Gay:

As for Gehry and Postmodernism. Early on, I wrote a chapter on Postmodernism, which particularly worried and incensed the academy. I therefore decided not to get involved in quite another fight. I greatly enjoyed and enjoy Modernism (whether Picasso or Virginia Woolf or Orson Welles) but thought that Postmodernism was a fad and would not last forever. So I gave up writing about it and threw away the chapter. I don’t call Gehry Postmodern. I agree that he is unwilling to be enlisted in any school or category. He tries in the most interesting way to fulfill the client’s needs. But as distinct from Postmodernist architects like Eisenman and Libeskind, he does respect form following, or at the least not offending, function. To judge from his recent (say last quarter-century) designs, he does not construct things that simply play games or impose their moral prejudices on the public. Thus Eisenman’s balconies in Tegel or Libeskind’s voids, areas of devout silence (where you are supposed to feel terrible about the Holocaust), make demands on the public that Gehry and others like him would not dream of making.

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Mia Fineman, art critic at Slate, employs a more dynamic approach to the slightly tired category of the book review. Her approach is to write an email to the author and then post the exchange. This can go back and forth several times, and the conversation that results is more multifaceted and provocative than one hand clapping, so to speak.

In Fineman’s exchange with the esteemed historian Peter Gay about his latest book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, some memorable ideas and questions surface. I’ve extracted a few below. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

What you come up with are two defining attributes, which you believe all Modernists share: first, the impulse to break rules and flaunt conventional sensibilities (which you call the “lure of heresy”), and second, “the commitment to a principled self-scrutiny, which entails an exploration of the self.” As you take us through the lives and work of many of Modernism’s most influential figures, it’s easy to see how some—like Baudelaire, Picasso, Le Corbusier, or John Cage—manifested both of these attributes.

Peter Gay:

By and large, Modernists presupposed a cultivated audience. And difficulty meant “high” art against “low” art. Marcel Duchamp’s more or less deliberate attempt to destroy art as such with his readymades, for example, shows that Modernist artists knew perfectly well that their audience would probably be limited. Duchamp, it seems to me, was contemptuous of, or indifferent to, “ordinary” viewers, whether in museums or at art dealers. He took above-average risks, and essentially looked for the elite audience to understand them. Artists like Duchamp split the public into three rankings: the vulgar masses (no real interest in art); the well-to-do middle-class (smaller than the vulgarians but still sizable, and not really, truly in love with art); and the elite (which comprehends the difficult art that avant-gardes present to the world without apologies or explanations).

More to come…

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Matins

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

Louise Gluck

I’m in one of those phases where language, spoken or written, feels like a sock that doesn’t fit around the heel. There are times when just digging, whether for weeds or clover, is the only gesture that feels authentic. And in that silence I can detect the slow shifting of a hibernating beast, my own, moving in its lair down deep in the earth.

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Vespers

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

–Louise Gluck

“I am responsible for these vines.” That line has been echoing in me today. A quiet contemplation of which vineyard, where, and what is needed. And an answer to that question that changes every day.

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