In John Logan’s Tony award-winning play Red, Mark Rothko delivers a steady stream of tough love lessons on the meaning of art to his young studio assistant. Advice is rarely this engaging, provocative and timeless.
It’s a category all its own, giving advice. And advice in a field like art where transgression, the driving need to dismantle the previous generation, and pulling something out of nothing are de rigeur is particularly hard to give and hard to hear. Maybe this is more extreme for fierce autodidacts like me who never gave anyone else a seat at the head of my table.
But ambient wisdom (rather than the personal kind) is useful, and Red is full of it. So is the commencement address given by Richard Serra to Williams College graduates in 2008. Here is a passage that caught my eye when I reencountered it in my increasingly bottomless TO READ file today:
Rather than being told which tools are available for which ends it is more useful to invent your own tools: As Audre Lorde has pointed out, “ … the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Rules are overrated. They need to be changed by every generation. That is your most important mandate: If it’s not broken, break it. One way of coming to terms with the prevailing language of a cultural orthodoxy is to reject it. It may be necessary to invent tools and methods about which you know nothing, to act in ways that allow you to utilize the content of your personal experience, to form an obsession and to cut through the weight of your education. Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a foundation that is rigorous, incontrovertible, and, in fact, to some degree repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Don’t confuse the obsession of repetition with learning by rote. I am suggesting a form of inquiry, a procedure to jumpstart the indecision of beginning.
The solution to a given problem often occurs through repetition, a continual probing. The accumulation of solutions invariably alters the original problem demanding new solutions to a different set of problems. In effect, as solutions evolve, new problems emerge. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work.
There is enough here to fuel me for weeks.
I am off to New York tomorrow but will be returning to Slow Muse on Wednesday.