April 2010

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My friend Kathryn walks her road in the fields of Cumbria

I do not believe in creation, but in discovery, and I don’t believe in the seated artist but in the one who is walking the road. The imagination is a spiritual apparatus, a luminous explorer of the world it discovers. The imagination fixes and gives clear life to the fragments of the invisible reality where man is stirring.

—Frederico Garcia Lorca

Walking the road. In all of its many manifestations.

And for now, I am walking the road on the left coast for a week. I’ll be back online May 5.

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Are you a hayfever sufferer? We’re a large tribe to be sure, some of us extremely burdened with this hypersensitivity to those tiny wind-born genetic delivery devices called pollen. But after watching Science Friday’s cheery video about the clever strategies employed by pollen grains to survive their difficult journey to wherever, I just can’t be angry at them. They are too beautiful and way to smart.

Case in point: When the pollen grains begin their journey aloft, they actually fold up, not unlike origami, to preserve the moisture on the inside. Then when they arrive, voila! they are fully fleshed again. Some fold up like deflated beach balls. Others use the apertures on their surfaces as folding sites. Every one is a wonder.

It’s so intriguing you might want to watch the video more than once, seasonal allergy sufferer or no.

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Desert landscape near Alice Springs, Australia

I’ve gone through creative dry spells. Everybody does, but when it is happening to you, it is hard to not take it personally and forget that the condition is common. It is easier to talk about it when the episode is over. It’s a little like childbirth: Give me a while before I tell you about how it was to deliver an 11 pound child.

Reading through the rich responses to Jerry Saltz’s recent posting on the reality of being an artist (here) started me thinking (again) about the highly interior and intensely private nature of the struggle for flow. So many artists owned up to and spoke about their experience with such candor, and I was deeply touched by many of their words.

One writer included a link to Susan K. Perry, a psychologist and writing consultant, who is also the author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Over the years Perry has collected a list of the most common fears that lead to creativity blocks:

The worry that the work isn’t good enough
The fear that I have no talent.
The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won’t like it.
The fear of appearing foolish.
The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it’s done.
The fear that I’ve wasted my time.
The fear of offending somebody.
A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
Feeling I’m in over my head, that I won’t be able to do this without appearing stupid.
The fear that I’ll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.

Does anyone ever conquer all of these demons? Probably not. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?”

Perry points to another writer’s insights:

The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have “this part in their brain” that allows them to turn off thoughts of “what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around.”

Wallace at first figured “this stuff” doesn’t occur to professionals, then added, “but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.” Such self-consciousness, he said, is “literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights.” Wallace couldn’t turn it off and gave up tennis.

One of Perry’s suggestions for dealing with the feeling of being frozen by a fear: Trivialize the task.

I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.

It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you’re doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Because you can’t fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.

In a different post Perry compares creativity to making love. That’s extra credit reading.

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Connecting—in the dark, in space, in time

Some of you are part of the Jerry Saltz Facebook Tribe. And what a tribe it is, nearly 4600 strong and growing daily. For those of you who are not, here’s my take on what Jerry is doing on Facebook: By operating as more of an art advocate than art critic (Saltz does in fact write art reviews for New York Magazine) and by being such a sincere, passionate and personal voice, he has hobbled together the most diverse, non-hierarchical, lively artist community on the Web. He’s the best art troubadour I’ve ever known. And as one commenter pointed out, FB is perfect for artists—”you can participate in the discussion but then step away when you want to work, all the while in your pajamas. And you don’t have to smile.”

A few days ago Saltz posted this message:

Mia Pearlman asks “about the REALITY of being an artist. NOT career stuff, resume, etc. But the day-to-day stuff no one EVER tells you about: the studio; finding inspiration; fallowness; fear; isolation; rejection; being broke, hating yr work; creating community. What do you know now about the reality of being an artis…t that you wish you knew then? How do you sustain the rollercoaster craziness of being an artist?”

So far that question has garnered 427 comments, some of them so insightful, inspiring and wise I had to assemble by own abridged version to refer to when I’m feeling blue. Perhaps you’ll find some solace in these comments as well. (Out of respect for the respondents. I have omitted individual names.)


hmmm, not sure I would have even understood “then” what I know now. But, even the crummy moments are mine – all mine – and that ONE piece, or ONE moment, or ONE inspiration makes up for all the other stuff. Well – most of the time anyway. OK, well SOME of the time. Oh, every now and then.

That it never gets easy. You can never really relax, you’ll never feel like you’ve made it, no matter what you achieve it will never be enough. In some ways that’s great, some ways it’s torture. Also, if you want to have a family, and you are SURE you want to have a family, then go ahead and make babies. Don’t listen to anybody’s BS about how having a family will ruin your career.

I draw at least 2 hours everyday whether I’m inspired or not. It’s a part of my routine like the way other people go to the gym. I don’t believe in inspiration or muse at all.

One of the hardest things for me to learn was how to build faith in my process (and myself), that it would lead somewhere good eventually, even if I felt totally weird about my work, or hit blocks, or got rejected from 7 residencies in 2 months, which happened, or couldn’t get anything done for one reason or another, or wasn’t interested in what everyone else thought was cool. I gave myself a lot of grief and agony that was just wasted energy. And once you get the faith you have to keep it going—its an ongoing process over many, countless, ups and downs. But it makes those openings wayyyy more fun!

it seems counter-intuitive, but I now consider a good day job to be one of my most important tools: it enables me to be an artist by paying my rent, supplies, healthcare, time-off etc. My energy/anxiety is now spent on making the work rather than how I’ll afford to live. I’m much freer to really explore where my curiosity and imagination lead me, which is one of the true beauties and joys of being an artist, IMHO.

What I wish I had known earlier: that you can’t just create, you have to put yourself in people’s faces so much that they have to pay attention to you and what you’re doing.

i don’t ask if its sustainable, i just show up everyday and work hard as hell.

when i get depressed/emotional/feeling inadequate (often), i remind myself that i am blessed to be CHOOSING this wondrous and crazy intense life/style. and that that choice is actually empowering. and then i find a way to get back to work.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am creating a talk for art students, artists, etc about this very topic, because I think most of us are totally unprepared for the reality of being an artist. No talk can replace going though it oneself, and its different for everyone, but at least people can feel less crazy and isolated in the process, like I did. Plus, aren’t we all curious what other people do in the studio, how often they go, how they come up with ideas, etc? SO: I would be happy to quote anyone here and give full credit, but if you do not want your name to be used that is fine, just let me know.

I totally agree about inspiration—or as my Mom, who is a writer, always said: TUSH IN CHAIR. Or, you can’t write if you’re not at the desk. That said, I get most of my ideas when I’m cooking or on a walk—I find time away from the work to be absolutely integral to my process. And I no longer feel guilty about it!!

My advice follow through on every hunch- trust. Be resourceful use street smarts, appreciate others, know thyself to thine own self be true. Show up, get busy and work for the cosmic good. Surround yourself with people who you are a support to -and are supportive of your talents and abilities. Let others help you. Love what is.

It took me about twenty-five years to realize that being an artist is being a self-identified member of a tribe. Your importance, relevance and status in the tribe depends on how much you support the tribe. Petty squabbles and disagreements over aesthetics and other artistic stuff is fine, even fun, but if you’re looking for affirmation from outside the tribe, forget about it because most of those people couldn’t give a crap about you, unless there’s money involved. The only people capable of appreciating what you do as an artist are your tribe members. It’s a weird tribe, but it’s our tribe.

Here’s one: if you think while making a piece that “this’ll be the one that makes me a success/gets me a show/everyone will love (or hate)/will take me to the next level” that piece WILL SUCK. In other words, its like sex: don’t over think it.

Yes, every time I think I have really struck gold–no one else ever sees it.

See the glass as half empty and convince yourself that only you have the genius to fill it to the brim. Be uncontained by the logic of others. Never censor what comes freely. Quit living within the expectations of others. Never allow yourself to get comfortable. Never confuse your idea of personal success with formulae belonging to someone else. Feel encumbered by the need to make work so badly that you wish you could die to escape the finality of completing the work. Be thankful that you are not dead yet. Be delighted by something, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, once a day. Once a night. Once a week. Once in a while. Recognize delight when you experience it. Name your own terms and keep them to yourself.

I wake up relieved that I trusted myself to know that I wanted to make art. I never really feared being poor, so being pathetically broke at times is manageable. Even though I have never experienced any kind of success as an artist, I remain excited about the next painting. I am happy knowing that my drive to create is not dictated by the need to be an art star. I would tell myself as a young artist not to worry, you will be o.k.

The reason I say we have a good life is because we are choosing it. No one would be an artist unless their life depended on it. The rest is individual and to each his own. I remember my crossroads decision to step into that arena about 20 years ago but I was making art since childhood and knew my life would be defined and sustained by something creative. But it is not about “fame” or “money” although that can be the carrot at the end of the stick. It has to come… See More
from the daily work and pleasure of sharing,receiving and making a creative life. I think that there was a book with a title like “The Art of Every Day Living” written by Gerhard Richter.

I had been working hard in my studio last week and yesterday I could not pick up a brush. Ten minutes moved like 2 hours of agony, I felt frozen. I realized that the work is mental and my brain did not want to work. Then I started cleaning up the studio, and then… it clicked. I worked I found a slightly different rhythm than I had previously. I am in a different stage in the work and the transition was hard. It’s not verbal or terribly predictable. I found myself coaxing myself with: “You know this feeling”

Learn your craft. Bond with other explorers. Love their success. Don’t be swayed by trends. Know that critics, curators, etc. are the scaffolding. Read widely but include Clausewitz and Sun Szu. Embrace mystery and revel in ambiguity. Be kind. Never give up.

Art chooses us- we do not choose it. It is not a profession but a life. If one is fully committed day in and out and can find supportive friends, mentors and peers it is never lonely. It is often difficult to be the artist and the business person because they require such different hats. I believe we should do what we each do best and collectively will be happier and most successful. Part of more is better than all of a little.

what i have learned. never give up. if you throw in the towel, pick it up and use it the next day. dont skimp on materials. if you have no money, use what is at hand or make it about that poverty. invention and experimentation. sabotage every other career path so that art making is only focus. find your comrades. dont wait around, make your own opportunities. always have a studio even if you have to drywall over a window in the rented apartment. romanticize your life.

For myself art has always been a primary relationship- and all that entails. Love, suspicion, fascination, surrender, growth, commitment, disgust and on and on. But always there, loyal and demanding. It grows when I give of myself and has never let me
down, even when I’ve pimped it for cash.

What I find the trickiest part of all of this is that it is so individual. Each one of us has our own work, our own vision and our own path. Not knowing is part of the process. It takes a LONG time to ripen and arrive, if ever. Being sensitive and being bold just seem like incompatible qualities yet these are just the 2 pieces that are required to be an artist. Never quit.

it’s weird, when i think about my life, i’ve always been capable of LONG periods of isolation. and I still am. but out there, in the fly over zone, i only wanted to associate with the coolest people, and those people i love being around. your peeps. and the best thing about the art world is EVERYONE is a TOTAL SNOB!…and opinionated as hell, argumentative, sexy, (a little crazy) and REALLY COOL! that’s what i mean, it’s a community of cosmopolitan hermits!

While my snob side thinks I’m an “artist”, the down to earth side is more “a worker in the arts”. Because of my background and the process of grinding out work though, the side that wins out is “the worker in the arts”.

I think you need to stop worrying about what other people think of you and just ask or say what you want. One of my major rules in life (and art) is only listen to the people you respect. What the others think/do/say/etc I could not possibly care less.

Time teaches you to not be so up about success or so down about failure. To accomplish goals, it is better to remain on an even keel. I think of Clinton and Obama. They remained cool and on task throughout their trials and tribulations.

I don’t know what “Beauty and the devil are the same thing” means, but I do now that for a lot of artists of my generation the discovery that beauty was something to be embraced and not feared was a godsend.

My friends and family expect me to be a bad-ass prairie dog optimistic seeker of beauty.

Re- Beauty- I felt like art tried to make me feel alienated- like nothing- for so long- Personally, I don’t want to be made anymore alienated then I already am- I write this in my artists statement- there is so much ugliness in the world- I need beauty to pull me through- really- It can be strange and dark and real and haunting- and still be beautiful- I am not looking to turn over rocks to find ugliness so I can be a too cool for school artist- I need to find the beauty in the world- it helps to mitigate the deep sadness and cruelty I see in the world-

“Be willing to be stupid” is good advice for anyone. Seriously.

Another thing that no one really talks about, but it is absolutely true, is that how successful one is as an artist – measured by conventional standards of success- is determined in equal parts by your talent and by your ability/desire to be social. I wish someone had taught me earlier how to re-define the definition of success for myself to allow me to be less social. Not that I would have listened…

I didn’t do ANYTHING people are supposed to do and so far it hasn’t hurt me: didn’t go to grad school, read a bunch of theory, be friends/associate with anyone I didn’t actually like, go to lots of openings or art parties, live in an “artist” neighborhood, have a studio in a big studio building, join a crit group, sleep around, do drugs, kiss ass, etc.

Maybe trite but Walt Whitman: ‘If you can see (the path) laid out in front of you, then you can be sure it’s someone else’s path.’

Also, a professor alerted me to this, but I recognized it as the moment I maybe really was an artist. You look at other people’s work and love it, and kinda wish you made work like that, but in the end you are powerless to make any work but your work.

in times when I haven’t been able to make “art” per se I have done many creative things that have gotten me through. Being an artist is hard enough without people judging who is or is not an artist and whether you do/think/produce enough to qualify. I once didn’t have a studio for a year and a half and it was super tough but being an artist isn’t always active or visible—there is also a subconscious percolation of ideas, taking in info and inspirations, reading, learning and figuring shit out, without which the art could not happen. You can draw all day every day, doesn’t mean the work is any good.

I remember Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Become Responsibilities” As I sputtered along that became more true, Also the puttering, the procrastination and anxiety of starting a fresh work. Worrying about the idea, the intent, the constant failure of the work, the corrections, again the responsibility of continuing because there is no other alternative. the conviction that you will get it right and the bifurcation that you and it will collapse into a total dung heap. The few instants of success keep you going through the miles of failure. I knew this with out knowing it when I was a crude nascent stick-in-the-mud student and the years of practice has led me to “Oh Yeah, I know what this is” a comfort and a curse.
I wouldn’t do anything else.

the art work has nothing to do with the art world although they share a common denominator- art

Walt Whitman’s poem “No laborsaving machine” answers what I grasp as our REALITY:

No laborsaving machine,
No discovery have I made,
Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest
to found a hospital or library,
Nor reminiscence of any deed of courage for America,
Nor literary success nor intellect, nor book for the bookshelf,
But a few carols vibrating through the air I leave,
For comrades and lovers.

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As hackneyed as it may be to wirte this, I adore Jane Austen. I will state up front, I am not a member of the ultimate fan club, The Jane Austen Society. (Is it true they gather monthly in period clothing to discuss textual differences in editions of Mansfield Park?) But Pride and Prejudice, as both a book and a cinematic experience, has moved into the mythic realm for my extended family. Watching the A&E production has become a holiday ritual, and the households of each of my six siblings have a copy in their DVD collection. A healthy majority of my 45 nieces and nephews can recite along, line by line, verbatim. The G-rated equivalent of the Rocky Horror participatory cinema experience.

We know all these and oh so many more:

From the first moment I met you, your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others made me realize that you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.

You mistake me, my dear. I have the utmost respect for your nerves. They’ve been my constant companion these twenty years.

An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. –Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?

It goes on…

And what do you know, another biography of Jane was just reviewed in the TimesHow Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman. The reviewer is Sophie Gee.

It only makes me love Jane more to read about her cleverness in a letter to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh who was also a novelist. Upon hearing that he had lost some chapters of his manuscript (back before computer back ups) she reassured him that she did not purloin his pages:

“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

Gee goes on:

The “little bit of Ivory,” frequently quoted to describe Austen’s virtuosic miniaturism, started out as a self-deprecating remark to a much younger, less talented relative who would later become her biographer.

In her account of Austen’s rise to international celebrity, Claire Harman…wonders whether Austen’s comment reflected anxiety about the “sustainability of her gift and the degree of ‘labour’ it required,” or whether it was simply a way of reminding James Edward that she was a master of her craft and he a mere novice. Harman’s reading of this, and of all Austen’s literary utterances, is that it reveals a writer consciously controlling her creative persona. The Austen of Harman’s book is unlucky at times, fortunate at others, but always aware of herself as a professional, despite her provincial, domestic environs.

Virtuosic miniaturism. Great phrase for a timeless writer.

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Crop circle, 2009

Cocktail party show stoppers, of which there are many, include any mention of a proof for the existence of god, the possibility of aliens in our realm and the supernatural creation of crop circles. Bring up any of these topics and the air in the conversation deflates instantly. It is the spoken equivalent of uncontrollable flatulence.

This used to perplex me before a friend explained that most artistic personalities tend to seek after the uncertain. They are quite at home in the domain of the inchoate and the nonlinear. But other personality types find that track abhorrent, and moving away from that path is a form of self preservation. This was helpful to hear and further proof that the adage, “normal is me”, is our perpetual tendency to get blindsided.

So indulge me for a moment while I make my case for the existence of “other” energies in our sphere. As I have gotten older I have become even more conscious of how little I truly understand about life. Older and wiser, I have adopted a two-pronged pragmatism for viewing any idea presented to me.

My creed:
1. Anything is possible.
2. You don’t have to understand something to say yes.

As a result it is easy for me to hear the stories from my friends in New Mexico who happen to live in the zone that has the most UFO sightings of anywhere in the world. Or to feast on the visually lush crop circles (which now are showing up in rice paddies and ice flows as well). And to be interested in books like The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, by Paul Davies.

Davies is a Brit (a special kind of credential for the rational, wouldn’t you say?), a physicist, cosmologist, popularizer à la Carl Sagan who has written 20 books and done radio documentaries for BBC and Australian TV. He is also the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University which seeks to “create new and exciting ideas that push the boundaries of research a bit ‘beyond.’ ”

In a review of the book in the Times, Dwight Gardner puts Davies’s queries into perspective in relationship to SETI:

The scientific project known as SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — began in earnest 50 years ago, when an astronomer named Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope toward a few nearby stars and began to sift through the aural static. A half-century later SETI has matured and remains a bustling enterprise, even though it no longer receives government financing and even though E. T., if he’s out there, does not appear to have Earth on his speed dial…Davies’s new book…is a birthday card of sorts to SETI, an appraisal and acknowledgment of the interesting (if quixotic) work the project has done thus far.

Gardner makes the book sound very readable. (But I’m an easy sell!):

More saliently, for the purposes of this book, Mr. Davies is chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, dedicated to thinking about how Earthlings might react, and how we should react, to a signal from beyond. He’s an interesting and sometimes funny thinker on this topic…As it happens, Mr. Davies is an interesting thinker about nearly every aspect of our search for other intelligent life in the universe. “The Eerie Silence” may reprise material from his earlier books and lean on the work of futuristic thinkers like Freeman Dyson and Raymond Kurzweil. It gets moderately woo-woo at times, too. But Mr. Davies is smart enough to coax you rather slowly out onto the mental gangplank with him, from where the view becomes genially starry and mind-bending.

The problem with SETI as it’s currently conceived, in Mr. Davies’s view, is that it has been blinkered by anthropocentrism, the assumption that alien beings will be anything like us. He quotes the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, who remarked that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

We must “jettison as much mental baggage as possible,” Mr. Davies advises.

I’m for that.

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And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling?

This koanic line from Bashō became the thread through a variety of impressions and images for me this morning.

***
When The Shoe Fits

Ch’ui the draftsman
Could draw more perfect circles freehand
Than with a compass.

His fingers brought forth
Spontaneous forms from nowhere. His mind
Was meanwhile free and without concern
With what he was doing.

No application was needed
His mind was perfectly simple
And knew no obstacle.

So, when the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

No drives, no compulsions,
No needs, no attractions:
Then your affairs
Are under control.
You are a free man.

Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.

The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.

–Chuang Tzu, translated by Thomas Merton

***
I heard the nun Joan Chittister on Easter morning tell a story from her book on gratitude about the fierce warload who had run every villager out of town except for a fearless monastic, whom he demanded be dragged to his feet. ”Don’t you know who I am?” he thundered. ” I can run this sword through you without batting an eye.” The nun replied, “Do you know who I am? I can allow you to run your sword through me without batting an eye.”

–In a message from my friend Kathryn Kimball

***

New work: Bulae, 2010

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The Thinkers: From left, Slavoj Zizek, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler and Cornel West discuss ideas in the documentary “Examined Life.” (Photo: Zeitgeist Films)

The title of this post of course is making reference to the famous line from Plato about unexamined lives not being worth much. That phrase was also the inspiration for Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” in which a slew of philosophers are given 10 minutes and asked to explain, in simple terms, their particular area of interest. Taylor states her challenge up front: Is it possible to move the experience of contemporary philosophical thought (which lives primarily in the form of written text) into everyday language? It is an interesting challenge, and some rise to it better than others. Avital Ronell speaks about meaning, Peter Singer on ethics, Martha Nussbaum on justice, among others. Oh, and of course, the inimitable Brother Cornel who gets to address the big one—TRUTH.

I agreed with the portrayal of Cornel’s guerilla style soliloquizing (he appears in snippets throughout the film) from A. O. Scott’s New York Times review of the film:

Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose back-seat ramblings punctuate the film (everyone else has a single, uninterrupted minicolloquium), clearly takes great pleasure in talking, and it is hard not to share it, at least in small doses. A man of great, one might say compulsive, erudition — not one to drop the name of a single great writer, composer or sage if five are available — he makes the case that thought can be a kind of performance art.

All in all, the film is worthwhile viewing. And there were moments when I was caught quite off guard. Like when Ronell quoted Derrida saying that if you are a person who has a good conscience, you are worthless. No one who is aware and paying attention can believe we have ever done enough to care for the other, she paraphrased. Good reminder, not that I’m swimming in any abundance of smug self satisfaction. But it hit me straight on. As was intended.

As a sidebar, a piece just recently appearing in the New York Times, The Examined Life, Age 8, deals with teaching young children about philosophy. It is an interesting variation on the film’s premise.

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Plate XXII: “[The Milky Way] a vast Gulph, or Medium, every way extended like a Plane, and inclosed between two surfaces.” From Thomas Wright of Durham’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750). The Warder Collection

Michael Kimmelman’s piece in the Sunday Times, D.I.Y. Culture, touches on themes that I have been mulling over for a number of years. First there were the concerns that world cultures were being mowed down by the homogenization of the American consumer machine that co-opted everything in its path, from music to food to jeans. In that scenario, the internet was seen as just one more invasive agent destroying cultural distinctions.

Then there was the backlash view, one that pointed out that the internet has actually served to enhance subgroups and microcultures, allowing them to create a presence with a virtual footprint (which, in some cases, is the only footprint possible.)

Kimmelman places his bet on the latter point of view:

Nationalism, regionalism and tribalism are all on the rise. Societies are splitting even as they share more common goods and attributes than ever before. Culture is increasingly an instrument to divide and differentiate communities. And the leveling pressures of globalization have at the same time provided more and more people with the technological resources to decide for themselves, culturally speaking, who they are and how they choose to be known, seen, distinguished from others.

Culture means many things in this context, but at heart it is a suite of traits we inherit and also choose to disavow or to stress. It consists in part of the arts. It is something made and consumed, in socially revealing ways.. Anyone may now pick through the marketplace of global culture.

This may sound like the essence of globalization, but the fact that everybody from Yerevan to Brasilia, Jakarta to Jerusalem, knows songs by the Black Eyed Peas or wears New York Yankees caps doesn’t mean that culture is the same everywhere.

The common denominator of popular culture — which these days encompasses so many things that you could even include all sorts of high culture — seems to have just intensified the need people now feel to distinguish themselves from it. And global technology has made this easier by providing countless individuals, microcultures and larger groups and movements with cheap and convenient means to preserve and disseminate themselves.

Kimmelman’s article features his personal observations of differences in the culture of his new home town, Berlin, as well as insights from time he spent in Gaza. Because he is primarily an art critic, he also has strong words about how art functions as an element of the cultural mix. (I liked this line a lot—”Art may challenge authority; and popular culture…but art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has.”) This concluding thought was a poetic and useful way to think about things:

Hollywood and Broadway, the major museums and art fairs and biennials and galleries, buildings designed by celebrity architects and the music business are all the traditional focus of big media, and they tell us a lot about ourselves. They constitute our cultural firmament, the constellation of our stars. But scientists say most of the universe is composed not of stars but of dark matter. It is the powerful but invisible force that exists everywhere and requires some leap of imagination on our part, some effort, to identify.

Most culture is dark matter.

This seems timely given the recent claims that our universe just may be sitting inside a wormhole which sits inside a black hole which sits inside another larger universe. A Russian doll scenario that can hurt the head to unravel. Maybe it is just a call to pay more attention to dark matter, to the great unseen, to the stealthish realities that we cannot fathom with our every day senses. All so deliciously mysterious IMHO.

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Remember the jam experiment? Actually it was the work of Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist who convinced a luxury food store in Menlo Park to test customer responses to jam samples. Sometimes there were 6 choices, other times 24. What Iyengar discovered was that lots of options drew more shoppers over to the display, but after sampling the shoppers who chose from the smaller number were 10 times more likely to actually make a purchase. In other words, 30 percent versus 3 percent. Too many options appear to make it more difficult to make a buying choice.

This experiment has been co-opted and retold over and over again. Iyengar says that it quickly moved into the public domain and then other people would tell her what her research meant. “The study hardly seems mine anymore, now that it has received so much attention and been described in so many different ways,” she said. “From the various versions people have heard and passed on, a refrain has emerged: More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfillment or happiness.”

Iyengar has written a new book that takes that line of thinking to an even deeper, more nuanced place. From a review of Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing written by Virginia Postrel in the New York Times:

More choice is not always better, [Iyengar] suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”

Iyengar actually moves her research into interesting territory. For example she compares the issue of choice for religiously observant people versus those who have no imposed code of behavior. What she found was that the prevalence of rules does not rob people of a strong sense of their options. While those who follow a religious path have fewer choices, that commitment to a narrow code seems to empower them and give them a sense of control over their lives.

From the review:

Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?

Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”

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