April 2011

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I live with the nonchalance of the witless, clutching at unsupported convictions on matters political, religious, and social, about which we can know nothing except what we interpret from our impaired position behind the curtain, everything mediated by the brain, everything adrift in the cosmos.

This dark edged sentence appeared in a recent email from my friend Andrew. He’s got a way of seeing that comes in strong and stops me short. But always well crafted. He does words so well.

But he isn’t far off from recent findings in neuro research. Evidence is emerging that substantiates his view of brain function that is undaunted by the force field of our personality or impressed in any way with our precious determined will.

From a review of David Eagleman’s new book, Incognito, by Laurence Phelan in the Independent:

When Galileo observed that we are not, in fact, at the centre of our solar system, man’s initial shock at the dethronement gave way to an exponential increase in his awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe.

In Incognito, the neuroscientist David Eagleman argues that something analogous happened in the 20th century. What Freud intuited and neuroscience has confirmed is that the vast majority of your neural activity occurs at levels for which the conscious you, “the ‘I’ that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning”, just doesn’t have security clearance. “The conscious mind is not at the centre of the action in the brain; instead, it is far out on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity …. A mere 400 years after our fall from the centre of the universe, we have experienced the fall from the centre of ourselves.”

Things which seem to come naturally to you, such as instincts, appetites, perceptions, desires and motor functions, seem so, not because they don’t require much brain activity, but because they’re the product of neural sub-routines that run more efficiently when the conscious mind isn’t invited to get involved. A large part of Incognito is dedicated to the ingenious experiments, fascinating behavioural quirks, and bizarre case studies from which we can nevertheless infer what’s going on in there. For example, why can’t you tickle yourself unless you’re schizophrenic; how do Parkinson’s medications cause compulsive gambling; and what’s going on when a patient has Anton’s syndrome (the failure to recognise one’s own blindness), synaesthesia (the condition in which sensory perceptions are blended, such that one might hear a colour), or alien hand syndrome (which is much as it sounds, and disturbingly like a scene in The Evil Dead)?

So where does free will come in? What about creativity, the extraordinary occurrence of genius, or the prescient abilities of psychics? I like living with mysteries, so knowing the definitive neural place of residence for these really unexpected aspects of an individual isn’t what I care about. What concerns me is generic, widespread human behaviors that are unconscious and deadly, like being a species that continually reverts to war and destruction, or cannot grasp the need to preserve the health of the world. Sometimes the only response is to just beam me up Scotty.

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*This may be a dated reference. You might need to have come of age in the 60s and 70s to recognize this reference to legendary routine by the Firesign Theatre. It was great stuff back then and still a reasonable observation.

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Yet another excerpt from the interview with Ted Kooser (see the post below as well) in Guernica magazine. This one is about yield:

If you can find two poems in a book, it could be a pretty good book for you. You know, two poems you really like. There are some poets who are fairly big names in contemporary poetry and who write a book and I might like three or four poems in the book, but the rest of them don’t appeal to me personally; but I think that’s the way it really ought to be. I think it’s really a rare thing to like everything that somebody has written. And often—you’ve probably had this experience—you see a poem in a magazine that you really like and you order the book, and it happens that that’s the only poem in the book you like. But that’s probably the way it ought to be. It would be the same way in buying paintings. You find a painting that you really like and you don’t necessarily like the rest of the person’s work at all.

Kooser’s admonitions are a good mantra for managing expectations in general: Two poems in a volume of poetry it is a good book. Just two paintings in a show is a connection. Two tracks you respond to on a music release is a score.

This acceptance of lower yields has a lot in common with a memorable piece written by Linda Holmes called The Sad, Beautiful Fact the We’re all Going to Miss Almost Everything. Like Holmes, I want to read/see/hear/experience everything. Which is a totally irrational wish. We have limits, people. Serious limits.

With so many options and way too many channels available to all of us, we need a strategy for managing. Here’s hers:

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time…

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

Holmes’ final word is another mantra for managing:

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

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Drift

We live in an age where pluralism and inclusiveness are the norm (Tea Party excluded), but disenfranchising divisions are still occurring. Music, visual art, poetry, prose, architecture—all the artistic métiers have within their creative borders a whole slew of tribes that speak their own patois. Look at the language barrier that exists between two people who might have gone to art school together—a gifted landscape painter and an installation artist with a political agenda, for example. They share almost none of the same concerns, intentions or audience. And certainly music is also splintered. Many classical musicians I know have no interest in studying jazz or other new musical forms. Creative gated communities get built and then thrive in their own microecosystems.

In addition, there is the added issue of audience division. How many times have I heard an self-professed lover of art talk about feeling disenfranchised by contemporary art conventions, or a long time symphony fan who feels alienated from modern musical forms? Many.

In an interview in Guernica magazine, poet Ted Kooser talks about the continental drift he has seen in the domain of poetry as well:

Ted Kooser: Every poet gets to choose what kind of community he or she serves with the poems, and it’s true that there is a community for very difficult, challenging poetry. It’s a community that’s established itself over the last 80 years, that was originally, in effect, really started by Eliot and Pound. They believed that poetry ought to contain learning, that it ought to rise upon all the learning that went before. But there’s always been the other strain; there’s always been what I would call the William Carlos Williams strain, in which poems of simplicity and clarity are valued by a different community. I was talking to Galway Kinnell one day, and he said that there was an audience for poetry up until about 1920 and then, from that point on, the poets and the critics drifted.

Guernica: Do you have a sense that in some ways, maybe these two different strains of poetry—if you want to think about it in that way—will be reconciled?

Ted Kooser: I don’t really know that they need to be reconciled. There are going to be poets in the middle ground—and, frankly, I’ve written some poems that are in the middle ground—who are in between very challenging and abundantly clear, but there’s a tremendous investment in the challenging poem, and it’s been going on so long that the whole infrastructure supporting it, a lot of critics and theorists and so on are deeply invested in maintaining that status.

Kooser’s point is well taken and applies to more than the world of poetry. Reconciliation between splintered artistic factions is not reasonable given the investments already made to keep those exclusive enclaves enfranchised. The middle ground approach he references might also be a position in itself, a way of navigating between disparate neighborhoods while not taking up residence in any of them. Which is another strategy to consider.

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A vacant loft in Chelsea that we just happened upon recently. Ah, the provocation of empty space. It always excites my “if only!” energy.

Often discussed, but still a furtive topic: How does an artist finds his or her voice? An identifiable style, that creative stride that becomes signatory?

The search for that essence is part of what gets tracked by art historians in studying the trajectory of every canonical artist. When does it appear? How does it come to be? Who are the influences from which it is fashioned?

As I said, it is furtive.

David Orr begins his recent review of two books of poetry by Matthew Zapruder and Rachel Wetzsteon* with his take on this topic:

According to conventional wisdom, younger poets are engaged in “finding their voices” — a process often described in terms that make it seem like a cross between having an epiphany and having an aneurysm…

Many readers think of a poet’s distinctive style as being “found,” rather than, for example, “built.” They suppose it arrives as “an unstopping flood,” rather than in dribs and drabs and half measures. They believe it’s a matter of, yes, inspiration.

And in some ways, it is. But it also isn’t. The achievement of a style is like the achievement of an individual poem writ large: it’s a delicate balance of confidence and guesswork, as the writer simultaneously relies on what’s worked in the past, bets on what might work right now and tries to leave a little room for things that might work in the future. It’s like baking a pie with a recipe in one hand and a wish list in the other. Some poets manage the feat in their first books (Bishop), others take a couple of outings to get things right (Larkin) and still others pass through multiple styles over the courses of long careers (Yeats, Auden). The process is fascinatingly byzantine, but it’s not really a matter of “divine prompting”; rather, a poet arrives at a style through the same combination of staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.

“Staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.” In other words, the rag and bone shop plus a dose of good fortune. If only that was all any of us ever needed to achieve the convergence of our work and our imagination. Meanwhile, it’s chop wood and carry water.

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* Rachel Wetzsteon is a poet I have written about a several times here:

Meanwhile’s Far From Nothing
One More From Rachel’s Hand
Throwing up a Curse That Comes Back a Blessing

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Robinson Crusoe Island

Has it happened to you yet? Have the plethora of responses to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, worn your interest thin? If yes, then this isn’t for you.

I am not yet finished observing and partaking of the phenom that is DFW, of the increasingly long shadow that has been building since his death by suicide two years ago. Watching the reach of his influence is like watching waves that impact waves that coalesce and become new systems with new patterns to discern. I can’t think of an analogous literary chaos theory quite this complex.

(Note: Not all of the reporting has been paeans to our dead hero. No less than Geoff Dyer has written My Literary Allergy in Prospect magazine, saying “the work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hives.”)

Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the New Yorker’s Journey issue, “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude” is a paean of sorts. It features his escape-from-life journey to the island purported to have been the actual location of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe off the coast of Chile. But of course, being Franzen, it is oh so much more than a travelogue and birder’s journal. His commentary covers the history of the novel, its role in our cultural development and yes, some thoughtful comments about his friend David Foster Wallace. Before departing on this remote getaway, Franzen is given some of DFW’s ashes by his widow to distribute in that remote spot.

The piece is worth a complete read for its many fine qualities. One of those fine qualities is its willingness to fling open the doors of the perils entailed in the creative life. There are certain writers who, from time to time, will take their readers on a factory tour of their rag and bone shop. For some it is a need to elucidate their battle with their demons, be they depression, addiction, isolation. procrastination, prevarication. William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Les Murray’s Killing the Black Dog are elegantly written descriptions of each writer’s horrific battle with crippling depression. For Franzen it is a struggle with many of the same issues that DFW had in extremis and that, in the end, he could no longer battle.

In addition, there is that salient eye for the larger arc concerns that makes Franzen’s fiction so compelling. Here’s a sample of the Franzenesque vision that sees crossovers and implications in everything around us, physically and conceptually:

As the novel has transformed the cultural environment, species of humanity have given way to a universal crowd of individuals whose most salient characteristic is their being identically entertained. this was the monocultural spectre that David had envisioned and set out to resists in his epic “Infinite Jest.” And the mode of his resistance to that novel—annotation, digression, nonlinearity, hyperlinkage—anticipated the even more virulent and even more radically individualistic invader that is now displacing the novel and its offspring. The blackberry [an invasive species] on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive, which, instead of mapping the self onto the narrative, maps the self onto the world. instead of the news, my news. Instead of a single football game, the splintering of fifteen different games into personalized fantasy-league statistics. Instead of “The Godfather,” “My Cat’s Funny Trick.” The individual run amok, everyman a Charlie Sheen. With “Robinson Crusoe,” the self had become an island; and now, it seemed, the island was becoming the world.

Leave it at that.

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Sebastian Smee (Photo: Boston Globe)

What great news—Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Boston Globe, has won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Hats off!

Smee is the first art writer at the Globe whose opinion has mattered to me. His reviews are carefully crafted and thoughtful. And as knowledgeable as he is about contemporary art, his writing is engaging for anyone to read. With the current oversupply of mandarin, self-referential, “for the cognescenti only” art criticism, Smee goes against that trend. In their announcement of his selection, the Pulitzer board pointed to Smee’s “vivid and exuberant writing about art’’ and his knack for “bringing great works to life with love and appreciation.’’ All true. Refreshingly so.

On a more personal note, I have been carrying on my own “dialogue” with Smee over the past few years on Slow Muse. So much of what he has written has been noteworthy to me, and the following posts all make reference to his writings:

Chilhuly at the MFA
Mark Bradford: Silent Strength
Stella, Smee and Subjectivism
Bad Art Poisoning
Liang at the ICA
Doubters
The Intuition Deliminator
The Fundamental Geometries
Fascination of Feeling: Pick One
That Damned Underbelly
Fairey: The Conversation Continues
Elizabeth Peyton: In Between
Tara Donovan

For those of you who are not familiar with Smee, here’s his bio from the Globe:

Sebastian Smee is the Globe’s art critic. He joined the paper’s staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. Before that he worked in London, where he was art critic at the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper, Modern Painters, and Prospect magazine. In 1994 he received a bachelor of arts degree, with honors, in fine arts from Sydney University. He reviews books regularly for the Spectator and is himself the author of books and essays on the British painter Lucian Freud as well as “Side by Side: Picasso v. Matisse.”

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Both/And

Emily Dickinson wrote, “My business is circumference.” What a wonderful image and phrase, and so Dickinsonian in its simple but powerful directness. (And what a master of the small she was. She described herself as “New Englandly”—her language pared down to essentials, her verses modest in size. As Barbara Novak points out, “Modesty and understatement are not necessarily incompatible with vastness. As Gaston Bachelard has suggested, ‘The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.’”)

For Dickinson, being the circumference is to circumambulate around the mystery at the core of life, to be an ambient witness to what we may not understand completely. Dickinson—and many of the Transcendentalists who lived in nearby Concord—is drawn to an “urge towards empowerment through dematerialization” (Novak’s great phrase).

More from Novak’s book, Voyages of the Self:

She was, it seems to me, quote often precisely that blend of Puritan and Transcendental so frequently found in the American self. When she writes “There is no first, or last, in Forever,—It is Centre, there, all the time”—she is very close to Emerson’s soul that “circumscribes all things” and to his idea of the mind which “with each divine impulse…rends the thin rinds of the visible and infinite, and comes out into eternity.”

This tendency towards dematerialization is a common trope in Western thought, not just among Transcendentalists. It’s an old problem, that mind/body split, and it stands in high contrast to the concept of the Dark Feminine as embodied by the Black Madonna. While the Emersonian model is achieving wisdom and transformation through a lifting up and out of the body, the Dark Feminine achieves its brand of transformation by going down deep into the experience of the flesh. The Dark Feminine (in any of her many manifestations including Kali, Lilith and Crow Mother, for example) is both creative and destructive at the same time. This is not a tame or well behaved woman.

From an interview with Andrew Harvey in The Moonlit Path:

The birth in Her was simultaneously the destruction of all fantasies and an initiation into the divinity of the body, and the divine secrets that consecrated, Tantric love reveals about the body and physical life when transfigured by spiritual passion…I have experienced how She is the birthing force of authentic divine humanity. What She does to birth it is to destroy all the fantasies that block the transcendent as well as destroy all of the fears, loathing, self-hatreds, and all of the terrors of the body that block the glory of the flaming out of the body’s own most sacred truth…

If you are addicted to transcendence, you may have a certain kind of realization of divine Being, but you can never have the realization of divine becoming that belongs to the Mother and is the Mother’s supreme gift…the Black Madonna requires the most searing imaginable abandon and the most extreme imaginable plunging into the total embrace of Her conditions.

The fierce and fleshy presence of the Black Madonna is in complete opposition of our timid Belle of Amherst, trussed into her famous white frock and living in self-imposed isolation. The paradox is that I am drawn to both. Deeply. My passion for Dickinson is life long. Twenty years ago I became fascinated with the Black Madonna and made pilgrimages to her sacred sites in France, Switzerland and Spain. Once touched by that wildness, if only peripherally, you just can’t go back to living small.

The pull between these two transformative energies is something I feel constantly in the studio. From the out of body ascent upward to the deep dive into the dark contours of the flesh, paintings emerge for me by toggling back and forth between these two poles.

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Brace’s Rock, by Fitz Henry Lane (1863)

Barbara Novak begins her book, Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature, with an exploration of the problematic concept of self:

The idea of self is…an artificial construct…Yet the word is common enough even in everyday usage for a cultural community to agree, to some extent, on a kind of consensus. There is something within every human being that we commonly call a “self.” Loss of that self is generally considered a grievous wound. Its willing surrender, on the other hand, can be considered in religious and philosophical terms, a blessed arrival at another state of being. In some instances the self is conflated with the idea of soul.

With that as her starting point, Novak then charters an unexpected journey. An art historian by training, she has paired writers and artists who share particular similarities. The couplings are in some ways surprising: Copley and Edwards, Emerson and Lane, Whitman and Church, Homer and James, Pollock and Olson, among others. But insights emerge from these partnerings that are fresh, provocative, meaningful.

Novak locks in on a few salient themes that are rooted in the early American experience:

This book came into being out of my initial interest in what I have called the “erasure of self” so prized by the early American Puritan culture and in its visual manifestation in some images from the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. I then discovered that the ostensible erasure of self was not so much a loss as a transfer, at times a transfer into matter or object, into “things,” and through erasure of the artist’s signature, “stroke,”to an ostensible larger self referred to by Emerson as the Over-Soul. So one subtext here might be the role of “things” as they relate to self in American culture.

That’s a compelling theme to me, and one that has a long lineage. Novak rides it out thoughtfully and thoroughly, from Edwards to Emerson, from Dickinson to Olson. A good read for writers, readers and artists.

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Atesse, from a recent series of paintings

One aspect of having online access into every nook and cranny of the world (as well as the latest thoughts of millions of bloggers) is being able to see into the extraordinary range of human passions. I’m not referring to the largest engine of human cyber passion, pornography, but the myriad of quirky unexpected subgroups. Now every person whose is just crazy about 12th century Scottish coins or training small dogs to knit scarves while pushing a baby carriage can find each other and convene.

It does cause me to pause and wonder just what it is about a particular activity or field of study that captures the passion of a person. There are the large rivers that carry lots of us, like being a sports fan. Then there are the smaller streams that we might have believed were just rivulets only to discover lots of other people floating along that same waterway. I know a guy whose many eccentricities have included a life long passion for airlines. It didn’t stop at hanging around airports and tracking the serial numbers of American Airlines jets: he would force his wife and family to spend their vacations near the bone yards of retired jets so he could keep track of his favorite planes. One of the first things I discovered when the web became ubiquitous was that plane spotting is a huge passion all over the world and not as peculiar a passion as I would have supposed.

My passions are more familiar but they run deep. I have been painting since I was 17. I have never grown tired of making or looking. It is the first thing on my mind when I wake up and has been for most of my life. There’s just no logical explanation for how deep a passion can run.

I thought of the nature of passions reading David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s new book about poetry, Beautiful and Pointless. From the review:

In the end, poetry matters to the people it matters to for the same reason that anything appeals to anyone, which is that they love it. Orr uses the title of the poet Edward Hirsch’s book “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry” to suggest that people who fall for poetry fall hard. In a book filled with excellent quotations, he surprisingly doesn’t cite James Dickey’s line — “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe” — but essentially his book says just that.

This will come as no surprise to many. But what makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

Which brings to mind a few lines from one of Mary Oliver’s most popular (but still memorable) poems.

From “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

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Chihuly installation in the new courtyard of the MFA

A new exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture has opened at the MFA. People who are new to his work are often full of awe and delight. I remember feeling that way too when I first encountered his wildly expressive, technically mind-boggling, larger-than-life work. There was nothing quite like it. And his color sense was (and is) extraordinary, so I wasn’t surprised when Judy Pfaff, an artist whose work I adore, went out to study with him at his Pilchuck Glass School.

That was over 20 years ago. Since then I have seen Chihuly installations all over the world. Now I am just not that interested in seeing more. Over exposure? Too much of the same thing? I’m not sure if I have a full explanation.

Sebastian Smee, my favorite reviewer at the Boston Globe, expressed a similar response. He does acknowledge an upside to Chihuly’s work: “Chihuly makes spectacular art. Grandiose and eye-catching, his work is made to interact with architectural or natural environments, and aims squarely at seduction — the seductions of color and form and, not least, of virtuosic technique. It is, one might say, celebratory art.” But he begins his review of the show with this question: “Is it unfair to describe the majority of Dale Chihuly’s glass-based work as tasteless?”

Ah, there’s that squirrely term, taste. Squirrely and yet such a pervasive element in any aesthetic assessment. I’m full of strong opinions about art—as are most artists—and of course those opinions are influenced by my concept of taste.

This is Smee’s take on that issue:

Taste, after all, is a social concept more than an aesthetic one, and is beside the point when judging serious art…And yet, the two concepts — art and taste — can never be completely separated. And if taste is primarily a function of social life, the truth is that Chihuly has for a long time now been a social sort of an artist…

I have no quibbles with Chihuly’s factory-style operation, his terrific rate of production, or his immense popularity. None at all. Nor am I bothered by the general absence of ideas in his work: I am all in favor of senseless beauty, and would prefer it any day to most of the brittle, air-filled intellectual meringue that goes by the description of conceptual art.

It’s the works themselves that I find so off-putting. And again and again I find the problem with them is that they are tasteless.

They’re tasteless in the way that a 15-course meal might be tasteless, or a garage with a dozen Ferraris, or a wardrobe with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Too many of them derive their raison d’etre from numbers and scale, rather than from any kind of inner purpose. They don’t understand restraint. Even when they do give off a whiff of minimalist intent…the combination of materials feels willed and strangely arbitrary.

You sense that if something is outlandishly ambitious, or if it is going to be technically difficult to do, that will be enough reason for Team Chihuly to do it. Make it big, make it bright, make them say, Wow!

I get what Smee is saying, and I am in basic agreement with his point of view. But for me that last line captures something even deeper, a crucial element that seems to be off base here: intent. My personal test for potentially powerful and moving art is often based on the Smith Doctrine*: Art made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. And by that measure this isn’t it.

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* The Smith Doctrine: Roberta Smith first published that memorable phrase in the New York Times in February 2010. Since then I have referenced it many times on this blog. My original post is here.

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