January 2011

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Life magazine’s portrait of the Abstract Expressionist artists known as ‘The Irascibles,’ 1951. Front row: Theodore Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, and Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, and Hedda Sterne. (Photo: Nina LeenTime Life Pictures/Getty Images)

After writing my post earlier this week, Life’s Afternoon: Making Art in Old Age, about artists who produce great work later in life, stories and examples have been bubbling to the surface. Several emails came to me with suggestions. My friend Carl reminded me about Hans Hoffman:

I was planning to put in a vote for Hans Hofmann, one of our great post-WW II painters, one who gets better with each passing decade since his death in 1966. He had his first solo show here in 1944 when he was 64 years old. He blossomed in the 1950s, which was after his 70th birthday.

Another friend, George Wingate, sent me the link to an article that appeared in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, about the extraordinary Hedda Sterne. The Last Irascible by Sarah Boxer is a thoughtful—and inspiring—view into another artist whose output deepened over a lifetime. In Sterne’s case, her visibility never achieved anything close to the infamy of many of her male colleagues. So now, in addition to exploring and uncovering those artists who continue to produce great work, there is yet another vector to consider—gender.

It is Hedda you see at the top in the legendary Life magazine photo above. A Romanian exile who was married to the cartoonist/illustrator Saul Steinberg for many years, Sterne is the only one in the photo who is still alive. While she had a long and committed career as an artist, showing with the Surrealists as well as later artists, she does not seem to have been seduced by the ego and self promotion kool-aid that ended up being toxic for many of the Irascibles photographed above.

Regarding that infamous photograph, it is ironic that Sterne never really was an Abstract Expressionist. She walked in late as the photo was being staged, so the photographer put her at the back and had her stand on a table, towering over them all. Sterne told Boxer that the photo was “probably the worst thing that happened to me.” And the fellas weren’t too happy about it either. “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all…I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work,” says Sterne. “If I had an ego, it would bother me.” Plus, she adds, “it is a lie.” Why? “I was not an Abstract Expressionist. Nor was I an Irascible.”

From Boxer’s article:

What really distinguishes her is her refusal to develop what she tartly termed a “logo” style. And that refusal, Sterne said once, “very much destroyed my ‘career.’” Although Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons championed her, although major museums acquired her work, although Clement Greenberg praised her “nice flatness” and “delicacy” and Hilton Kramer mentioned her “first-class graphic gift,” and although she has had one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist (seventy years), she is hardly well known. That doesn’t bother her. “I don’t know why, I never was burdened with a tremendous competition and ambition of any kind…. There is this wonderful passage in Conrad’s Secret Agent,” she noted. “There is a retarded young boy who sweeps with a concentration as if he were playing. That was how I always worked. The activity absorbed me sufficiently…” What came through was an artist who, in contrast to almost everyone else in the “Irascibles” photograph, had effectively erased herself. Not only was she not an Abstract Expressionist; she was the anti–Abstract Expressionist, someone who had no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture… And at a time when just about every painter who mattered was a heroic abstract artist, or trying to be, she was not.

Sterne’s heroics were of a different order. When her marriage to Steinberg came to an end, a man with whom she was passionately in love, her response is a stoic one. She simply stated that their marriage was “sixteen years of infidelity…a kind of partly pleasant, partly difficult interlude” to a long friendship…there was no divorce. No anger. We went together to friends’ houses to tell them.”

Sterne’s response could be viewed as detached, but I read it as evidence that she was wired most primally to her own inner deep core. And regardless of this change in her living circumstances, she simply moves to a more reclusive life and continues to work.

According to Boxer:

By the mid-1990s, thanks to cataracts and macular degeneration, Sterne was almost blind. She stopped painting and began drawing—not with stronger contrasts, as one might imagine, but with white crayons on white paper, aided by a magnifying glass. She was drawing, she told me, “without any external stimulus, only internal stimulus.” But she was still a figurative artist, representing her own paling vision…”Drawing is continuity. Everything else is interruption, even the night and sleep. I walk in the house like a lion everyday to keep healthy. I work out. I defend myself. I’m “invalidated.” …I can die at any moment. But I still learn. Every drawing teaches me something…”

I want to be able to say that too, right up until the last day of my life.


Saul Steinberg and Hedda Sterne in front of one of Steinberg’s drawings, circa 1945. (Photograph by George Platt Lynes from the estate of George Platt Lynes

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A Map to the Next World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once we knew everything in this lush promise.

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

An imperfect map will have to do little one.

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

There is no exit.

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh courage glimmers from planets.

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

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

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

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

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

We were never perfect.

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

We might make them again, she said.

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

You must make your own map.

–Joy Harjo

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

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

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Monet at Giverny

In her New York Times review of the new book by Nicholas Delbanco, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, Brooke Allen makes it clear that she, like me, was excited about the topic. Making art when you are older: What shifts? What shows up? What happens to our expression as we age?

While Allen wasn’t satisfied with Delbanco’s undertaking (and put a call out for someone to take on the topic and do it up right), her review is full of memorable commentary. She includes reference to a famous poem by Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom With Time,” that speaks to what can happen, how there is a “distillation, a new intensity, a sloughing off of excess and ornament in favor of deep essentials”:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

Delbanco’s book questions why some artists continue to produce great work in their later years (such as Matisse, Monet, Picasso) while others hit a high point when they are young and then give in to the slow entropic demise of growing old. This old vs new productivity was the topic of a fascinating book by David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and his approach to the topic is quantitative and linear. It is a valuable lens on a topic that still, in my opinion, is full of mystery and the unanswerable.

A passage from Allen’s review is worth keeping in mind:

Delbanco treats his material in anecdotal fashion and draws few conclusions from his research, though clearly some generalizations can and must be made. Look at Michelangelo’s half-finished “Slaves,” apparently struggling to escape their blocks of marble; Titian’s “Death of Actaeon”; Verdi’s “Otello”; Liszt’s “Czardas Macabre”; Francis Bacon’s minimalist late works. All these suggest that the aesthetic of old age involves a slimming down and stripping away. Delbanco does remark on this syndrome in individual cases: he is surely correct to emphasize, for instance, Monet’s “Nymphéas” and the other late-period Giverny works, in which, “if his vision now was less than ­­20-20, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy.” He discusses the same qualities in “The Winter’s Tale” (though Shakespeare, dead at 52, was not quite old even by 17th-century standards): “The late plays,” Delbanco observes, “are less sequence-bound or yoked to plausibility. It’s as though the peerless artificer has had enough of artifice.”

This is true, and Delbanco offers one intriguing explanation. In youth, he posits, “it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold.” It is a profound observation; with time and age, the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward. But this is surely not the only reason for the concentrated effect of late style. The simple specter of mortality must count for something: as Samuel Johnson remarked in a different context, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And then there is the radical shifting of perspective and values brought about by age, something to which people past their 50th birthdays can attest. Delbanco quotes Carl Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

I was so struck by Allen’s phrase, “the act of showing becomes increasingly subordinate to the act of making, and gratification turns ever further inward.” That’s a shift I can attest to.

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A common theme in my postings over the last few weeks has been the very basic question, “how are we to live?” While it is sometimes hard to be objective about the prevalence of a trend when it is a topic you yourself are interested in (I call it the “car buying syndrome”—all of a sudden the type of car you are considering starts showing up everywhere) it does seem to be a topic of increased interest in the culture in general. I referenced several new book titles that address various aspects of these concerns in my earlier post, The River of Knowledge, as well as a few inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s very successful book on Montaigne, How to Live (here and here.)

In writing about her review of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller for the New York Times Book Review, Bakewell states her belief that “philosophy is poorer when it loses sight of the messy lives of those who do the philosophizing.” And certainly her book does a great job of bringing together the events of Montaigne’s life with his philosophical writings. “Montaigne’s idea of philosophy, which he inherited from the Greeks and Romans, was mainly of a practical art for living well,” says Bakewell. “It would have seemed odd to him to spend all day studying philosophy in a university classroom, but then have to go to a bookstore’s self-help department to find a book on how to cope with bereavement or depression.” Bakewell’s answer to the query of how to live? “Let life be its own answer,” she said. “You learn to live mainly by living — and making a lot of mistakes.”

More “how to live” wisdom showed up in James Ryerson’s essay, Thinkers and Dreamers. Posing the question, “can a novelist write philosophically?”, Ryerson quotes novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. The two pursuits are contrary, says Murdoch in a BBC interview from 1978. Philosophy uses the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, and literature calls upon the imagination to produce something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world.

Murdoch’s distinction between philosophy and fiction applies to life in general it seems to me. The conscious—and conscientious—deployment of our analytical and imaginal skills is an ongoing balancing act. In my case the “mysterious, ambiguous and particular” is where I spend most of my time. For someone else, it may be the reverse. In spite of my own proclivities, I want to be competently bilingual. And as Bakewell suggests, you learn how to do that by living your life. And by making lots of mistakes.

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Winter light in Amory Park, Brookline MA

James Elkins is a tireless advocate for seeing—not just looking, but seeing. A professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Elkins writes books about art that anyone, artist or otherwise, will find compelling. His books (there are nearly 20) range from How to Use Your Eyes, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, to Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook For Art Students.

This fall Elkins has done four posts on Huffington Post addressing a variety of art related topics like How to Look at Mondrian, How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?, Are Artists Bored by Their Work? and Looking at the Sky. Ice Halos: Divine Signals Or The Ultimate Art Installation?

There is much to be said in response to each of these postings. But given the recent snow storm that passed through Boston, this last topic is of particularly interest. After reading his article I feel as if I have been given a whole new set of tools with which to look at the winter light and sky.

Sampling:

Why choose ice halos? Why not start with landscapes, faces, or bodies–things that are more common in art? Because ice halos are a spectacular example of our blindness…ice halos are the exotic winter cousins of rainbows: both are caused by water suspended in clouds, but ice halos appear when the water has frozen into tiny crystals.

The halo [pictured] is called the twenty-two degree halo. (It should have a more spectacular name, but that’s science for you.) It appears mostly in the wintertime, when it is very cold and the air is dry…The twenty-two degree ice halo is very large; it is a different creature from the aureoles and brownish-blue coronas that sometimes form just around the sun or moon. Twenty-two degrees is double the spread of your hand at arm’s length, so the halo is a little overwhelming, as if it were somehow very close to you.


Twenty-two degree halo (Photo: James Elkins)

Elkins goes on to elucidate a variety of light phenomena that we have to train our eyes to see such as twenty-two degree parhelia, or “sun dogs,” and sun pillars. In researching this phenomenon Elkins read up on the scientific explanations. But his conclusions are similar to ones I have come to as well:

A number of physicists have worked on understanding ice halos, and in 1980 Robert Greenler wrote a book that explains virtually all of them…But in the end, it is a little sad to see nature explained so efficiently, so ruthlessly. My favorite parts of Greenler’s book are the moments when he admits defeat. I don’t mind the science: it’s interesting, but it has very little to do with the experience of looking. Sometimes I read about the latest observations and research, and other times I am more interested in what Keats called negative capability: I suspend my desire to understand all these things in terms of hexagons, reflection, and refraction. I no longer believe that my fascination is answered by diagrams of ice crystals.


Types of ice halos–a sky full! (Image: James Elkins)

No, diagrams don’t do it. Not in the least.

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One of my favorite spots on the web is the annual World Question* presented by The Edge. Each year a provocative question is posed, then answers flow in from every profession and point of view. It is a fascinating cross section of thinking, perspectives and insights.

The question being asked for 2011 is:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

The answers posted are rich, varied and unexpected. And there is very little overlap. If you are compelled by ideas, reading through them all will be a terrific adventure. Here are a few excerpts that stood out for me:

***
Linda Stone, former executive at Apple and Microsoft:

Suspending Disbelief

Projective thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono to describe
generative rather than reactive thinking…

Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing
case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of
intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is
expansive, “open-ended” and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the
context, concepts, and the objectives…

When we cling rigidly to our constructs…we can be blinded to what’s right in front of us.

***
Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants:

The Virtues of Negative Results

We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That’s a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced.

***
Alison Gopnik, author of Philosophical Baby:

The Rational Unconscious

One of the greatest scientific insights of the twentieth century was that most psychological processes are not conscious. But the “unconscious” that made it into the popular imagination was Freud’s irrational unconscious — the unconscious as a roiling, passionate id, barely held in check by conscious reason and reflection. This picture is still widespread even though Freud has been largely discredited scientifically.

The “unconscious” that has actually led to the greatest scientific and technological advances might be called Turing’s rational unconscious…The greatest advantage of understanding the rational unconscious would be to demonstrate that rational discovery isn’t a specialized abstruse privilege of the few we call “scientists”, but is instead the evolutionary birthright of us all. Really tapping into our inner vision and inner child might not make us happier or more well-adjusted, but it might make us appreciate just how smart we really are.

***
Richard Foreman, playwright:

Negative Capability Is A Profound Therapy

Mistakes, errors, false starts — accept them all. The basis of creativity.

My reference point (as a playwright, not a scientist) was Keat’s notion of negative capability (from his letters). Being able to exist with lucidity and calm amidst uncertainty, mystery and doubt, without “irritable (and always premature) reaching out” after fact and reason.

This toolkit notion of negative capability is a profound therapy for all manner of ills — intellectual, psychological, spiritual and political. I reflect it (amplify it) with Emerson’s notion that “Art (any intellectual activity?) is (best thought of as but) the path of the creator to his work.”

***
Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist:

The Lure Of A Good Story

Various concepts come to mind for inclusion in that cognitive toolkit. “Emergence,” or related to that, “the failure of reductionism” — mistrust the idea that if you want to understand a complex phenomenon, the only tool of science to use is to break it into its component parts, study them individually in isolation, and then glue the itty-bitty little pieces back together. This often doesn’t work and, increasingly, it seems like it doesn’t work for the most interesting and important phenomena out there.

***
Christine Finn, archaeologist

Absence and Evidence

I first heard the words “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” as a first-year archaeology undergraduate. I now know it was part of Carl Sagan’s retort against evidence from ignorance, but at the time the non-ascribed quote was part of the intellectual toolkit offered by my professor to help us make sense of the process of excavation…Recognising the evidence of absence is not about forcing a shape on the intangible, but acknowledging a potency in the not-thereness.

***
John McWhorter, author of That Being Said

Path Dependence

In an ideal world all people would spontaneously understand that what political scientists call path dependence explains much more of how the world works than is apparent. Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.

The paradigm example is the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboards…Most of life looks path dependent to me. If I could create a national educational curriculum from scratch, I would include the concept as one taught to young people as early as possible.

***
Scott D. Sampson, author of Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life:

Interbeing

Humanity’s cognitive toolkit would greatly benefit from adoption of “interbeing,” a concept that comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his words:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in [a] sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either . . . “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have a paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are. . . . “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.”

Depending on your perspective, the above passage may sound like profound wisdom or New Age mumbo-jumbo. I would like to propose that interbeing is a robust scientific fact — at least insomuch as such things exist — and, further, that this concept is exceptionally critical and timely.

***
Marco Iacoboni, author of Mirroring People

Entanglement

Entanglement is “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein liked to say (he actually did not like it at all, but at some point he had to admit that it exists.) In quantum physics, two particles are entangled when a change in one particle is immediately associated with a change in the other particle. Here comes the spooky part: we can separate our “entangled buddies” as far as we can, they will still remain entangled. A change in one of them is instantly reflected in the other one, even though they are physically far apart (and I mean different countries!)

Entanglement feels like magic. It is really difficult to wrap our heads around it. And yet, entanglement is a real phenomenon, measurable and reproducible in the lab. And there is more. While for many years entanglement was thought to be a very delicate phenomenon, only observable in the infinitesimally small world of quantum physics (“oh good, our world is immune from that weird stuff”) and quite volatile, recent evidence suggests that entanglement may be much more robust and even much more widespread than we initially thought. Photosynthesis may happen through entanglement, and recent brain data suggest that entanglement may play a role in coherent electrical activity of distant groups of neurons in the brain.

Entanglement is a good cognitive chunk because it challenges our cognitive intuitions. Our minds seem built to prefer relatively mechanic cause-and-effect stories as explanations of natural phenomena. And when we can’t come up with one of those stories, then we tend to resort to irrational thinking, the kind of magic we feel when we think about entanglement. Entangled particles teach us that our beliefs of how the world works can seriously interfere with our understanding of it. But they also teach us that if we stick with the principles of good scientific practice, of observing, measuring, and then reproducing phenomena that we can frame in a theory (or that are predicted by a scientific theory), we can make sense of things. Even very weird things like entanglement.

***
Barry Smith, writer and presenter, BBC World Service series “The Mysteries of the Brain”:

The Senses and the Multi-Sensory

For far too long we have laboured under a faulty conception of the senses. Ask anyone you know how many senses we have and they will probably say five; unless they start talking to you about a sixth sense. But why pick five? What of the sense of balance provided by the vestibular system, telling you whether you are going up or down in a lift, forwards or backwards on a train, or side to side on a boat? What about proprioception that gives you a firm sense of where your limbs are when you close your eyes? What about feeling pain, hot and cold? Are these just part of touch, like feeling velvet or silk? And why think of sensory experiences like seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling as being produced by a single sense?

Contemporary neuroscientists have postulated two visual systems — one responsible for how things look to us, the other for controlling action — that operate independently of one another. The eye may fall for visual illusions but the hand does not, reaching smoothly for a shape that looks larger than it is to the observer.

And it doesn’t stop here. There is good reason to think that we have two senses of smell: an external sense of smell, orthonasal olfaction, produced by inhaling, that enables us to detect things in the environment such food, predators or smoke; and internal sense, retronasal olfaction, produced by exhaling, that enables us to detect the quality of what we have just eaten, allowing us to decide whether we want any more or should expel it.

***
Neri Oxman, architect

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Preceding the scientific method is a way of being in the world that defies the concept of a solid, immutable reality. Challenging this apparent reality in a scientific manner can potentially unveil a revolutionary shift in its representation and thus recreate reality itself. Such suspension of belief implies the temporary forfeiting of some explanatory power of old concepts and the adoption of a new set of assumptions in their place.

Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than the state by which they may appear or thought to be — a rather ambiguous definition given our known limits to observation and comprehension of concepts and methods. This ambiguity, captured by the aphorism that things are not what they seem, and again with swing in Sportin’ Life’s song It Ain’t Necessarily So, is a thread that seems to consistently appear throughout the history of science and the evolution of the natural world. In fact, ideas that have challenged accepted doctrines and created new realities have prevailed in fields ranging from warfare to flight technology, from physics to medicinal discoveries…

It Ain’t Necessarily So is a drug dealer’s attempt to challenge the gospel of religion by expressing doubts in the Bible: the song is indeed immortal, but Sportin’ himself does not surpass doubt. In science, Sportin’s attitude is an essential first step forward but it ain’t sufficiently so. It is a step that must be followed by scientific concepts and methods. Still, it is worth remembering to take your Gospel with a grain of salt because, sometimes, it ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa, it ain’t necessarily so.

______
*The World Question Center is part of Edge Foundation, Inc., an organization with a mandate to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.”

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I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.

–Paul Cézanne
January 19, 1839 – October 22, 1906

A birthday commemoration to an artist whose work just keeps speaking to me. This love affair started when I was a teenager, and it has never tired.

And yes yes yes to the sentiment of this quote.

(On a more topical note, the homage to him on the Google logo today was a heartening thing to see.)

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My three children—Clate, Kellin and Bryce—in the 80s

As a species, we’ve been about parenting for a long, long time. For all the effort we have put in to rearing and raising our young, we still don’t agree on how best to do that job. But then again, there is little agreement on how to pick a partner (and who should do it), how to choose where to live, what to do for a job and how to optimize our health. Let’s face it: There’s a lot of basic stuff we don’t understand.

Trends in parenting are particularly fascinating because more than the other great unanswered questions, these tend to change with every generation. And it is so bloody loaded. How you raise your children speaks to the moral and lifestyle issues that everyone in every generation has to navigate for themselves. Anyone who grew up during the Mad Men era of the 60s remembers the easy disregard that children garnered, so boomers tried to raise their children with lots of self esteem and personal expression (while searching for that for themselves at the same time—with predictably mixed results). “Baby on Board” Gen-Xers, referred to by some as the “mommy war soldiers” go postal with each other over formula and diapers. For many of the young mothers coming up behind them there is a return to older values. These younger women, many of them part of the Mommy blogger subcluture, value the “New Domesticity”, crafting Martha Stewart perfect worlds for themselves and their children with fierce drive and determination. And then there are the books that become lightning rods for a particular parenting point of view such as Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua; The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin; and Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.

At the same time these parenting issues are being vociferously discussed,* other books question the core values of our culture in general. Just a few recent titles addressing these larger issues include You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle; and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

So David Brooks’ is right in line with the trend with his soon to be released book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. In his recent piece in the New Yorker, Brooks questions the qualities that we value most in our culture by profiling those individuals who did it all right, “by the book,” and are now considered successful members of the “Composure Class.” Brooks isn’t so sure, nor am I, that these values produce the types of individuals our world desperately needs now. A sampling from that article:

The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be…

Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

And this memorable passage:

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived… “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

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* For a glimpse into the level of passion with which these issues are being discussed, you might want to read Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs by Emily Matchar (on Slate) and then scroll through the comments (over 300 as of this posting). Whoa. Hit a nerve or what?

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The Poet with His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

–Mary Oliver

For years my longtime friend Andrew sent out a Sunday morning letter. His poetic insights are always exceptional as are his observations about life. Because Andrew is less of a talker and more of a writer, I have come to rely on those Sunday morning notes to have some sense of the weather patterns forming over his inner landscape.

A few months ago the weekly notes went dark. Too difficult to keep up the commitment? No longer personally enjoyable? Time for a brief hiatus? I wasn’t sure.

But this morning an email from Andrew appeared. I sipped it slowly and carefully, painfully aware that this may be all I get in 2011. Although I can only hope more are coming.

In addition to including the poem by Mary Oliver, Andrew offered his commentary. Too good not to share.

I had come upon a pretty poem by Mary Oliver making her usual argument, that mankind squats like some unrecycled mason jar on an otherwise untouched hill in Tennessee, giving nothing back. It reminded me of a Robinson Jeffers poem in the Oscar Williams anthology of modern poetry from my teen years when I favored strong statements: “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.”

Nature’s hard edge is an appealing ethic. But our weeping is merely the human sound of Nature and as authentic as birdsong, The whine of living is the whirr of our machinery processing the ramshackle software we inherit from eons of earlier generations, a wiring of infinite complexity, mis-coded with contradictions that set us each at individual civil war, but with marvelous power to create.

The poem denigrates human tears, hanging like drab shower curtains between us and nature’s bright river, which leaps “like crazy” through open air in its “jubilation and water fun.” Of all animals, we are singled out, for inhabiting skins of dirty logic and delusion. Yet the feathered bird that sings its birdness does so with limited self-awareness. In contrast, our tears — which fall in dull sheets and hit ground in shapeless splats — originate in a thought, de novo acts of creation. Each salty drop is shot with awareness.

As opposed to the pretty mouth of self indulgence mentioned in the poem, I prefer my own image for the complications of consciousness: Maggie Tulliver plunging her hair into a basin of water to spoil her mother’s hope of curls that day and then, in ill humor at her scolding, retreating in furies of tears to the attic, where she keeps a large wooden doll. At times of overwhelming need to act vindictive, she will drive a nail into dolly’s forehead or grind its unprotesting head against the wall. I adore Maggie, falling in wide-eyed abandon down the deep well into womanhood…

Even in confusion and guilt, we are a necessary step in the direction of God. The placidness of the thrush is already available to us in more primitive layers of our brain. We are in part made up of Oliver’s bird, clean as an arrow moving to its fated target. We are also in part Yeats’ different bird, gold enameled, the artifice of supreme imagination.

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Pointing

I’m short on words these day. Sometimes language goes flat for me when I need to hibernate or retreat from everyone and everything. Sometimes it happens when the center of gravity in my life becomes extremely image-based. Sometimes it is a sign of a nascent percolation deep inside, that odd sense that something is showing up and it just won’t allow visitors. Not just yet.

So those are good times to just point. And here are a few:

A good review of the National Theater’s production of Fela!, broadcasted internationally through the efforts of National Theater Live (we saw it at Coolidge Theater last night) on the wonderfully named blog, Monobrow.

A thoughtful piece about wisdom and babes by friend Sally Reed on her consistently well done site, Butter and Lightning.

A wonderful poem by blogger/poet/curator/entrepreneur/friend Maureen Doallas on her best of everything site, Writing Without Paper. This poem features Clydesales, one of my favorite metaphors to describe those of us who were taught the virtue of hard work, often with blinders.

And thank you to Lynette Haggard, an artist and writer who periodically interviews other artists. She recently did one with me on her blog, Lynette Haggard.

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