August 2012

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The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh

My longtime readers are familiar with my view of an art making world that is so striated that the layers often never even touch each other. For the alien who arrives on earth wanting to crack the code on what is going on with these humans and contemporary art, good luck making sense of its many faces. The rarefied strata of auction houses and by invitation only art events is its own unisphere. Meanwhile there are millions of fieldworkers sowing conceptual seeds, plowing the plein air furrows, harvesting the artifact grain, leveling the minimal fields for the inertia of winter.

Like Howard Zinn‘s wise reminder that the newspaper is a completely inaccurate portrait of reality (it’s where the bad news gets reported with little of the immeasurable good that happens every day), the point of view of the field workers is rarely heard. Meanwhile news about Jeff Koons, one of the many Kardashians of the art world, streams at us steadily.

So how refreshing to find someone who is speaking for the rest of us. Jeffrey Skinner‘s book, The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is a quirky blend of memoir, mentoring and comic musings on a life in the arts. While poetry has its own particular terrain, Skinner’s mapping of that territory produces useful guidelines for visual artists, musicians and other expressive aspirants. This is the first book I have found that is written to the middle of the spectrum, to those who are neither beginners nor celebrities. Full time field workers.

Also absent from this assemblage of wisdom and wit is the dour disappointment (or its variant, condescension) that can be sensed in other poets’ writings. For example, Donald Hall, a poet I admire, starts his collection of essays, Poetry and Ambition, with these words:

I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.

An ambitious project—but sensible, I think. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition–a modesty, alas, genuine…if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense. Of course the great majority of contemporary poems, in any era, will always be bad or mediocre. (Our time may well be characterized by more mediocrity and less badness.) But if failure is constant the types of failure vary, and the qualities and habits of our society specify the manners and the methods of our failure. I think that we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.

The field workers I know have no shortage of serious ambition. That is not the missing piece, Donald.

On the other hand, Skinner speaks to the practical, every day nature of an artist’s life. From his introduction:

Moderately successful poets have one recompense that more than rights the balance of unfairness, that keeps them hoping, and dreaming words, long after the realization that what they do will not lead to fame or money in this world, nor immortality in the next:

They get to write poetry.

That’s it, really. Sometime early in life moderately successful poets discovered the world and felt their DNA rise up and lean toward it like iron filings to a magnet.

And later:

Nothing in life is certain. It’s less certain as a poet. You have to commit to the uncertainty. You have to commit to unreasonable devotion, and to an art that, though practiced by many, is appreciated by very few…

Every (moderately) successful poet I know has taken the long view. What is the long view? Well, what it’s not is a stab at the art, a dabbling, a part-time avocation. Taking the long view has nothing to do with a desire for the cool of being a poet. . . . The long view is not an infatuation.

The book can be read in one sitting but the wisdom stays with you. Two thumbs up for anyone who has made creativity their life path.

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Golagai 2, from a recent painting series exploring orbs and fluidity

I arrived in Maine 10 days ago thinking a lot about two particular ideas culled from the book This Will Make You Smarter, a compilation of short but provocative answers to the Edge Question 2011: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The first was the answer to that question from Daniel Kahneman (and author of the book I read with fervor last summer, Thinking, Fast and Slow. The “focusing allusion” is that proclivity we all have to distort our read of the world because of a predisposed belief, idea or fixation. In his short essay Kahneman does his inimitable dismantling of common wisdom (for example: “When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.”) My interest in Kahneman’s focusing allusion is how it operates on a more personal. I shift my view of things constantly based on the last book I read, the last painting I loved, the last compelling analysis of the political landscape. I’m aware that I am susceptible but it happens anyway.

The second idea is from Charles Seife, author of Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. Seife’s essay is about the concept of randomness. From his essay:

Our very brains revolt at the idea of randomness. We have evolved as a species to become exquisite pattern-finders…Our minds automatically try to place data in a framework that allows us to make sense of our observations and use them to understand events and predict them.

Randomness is so difficult to grasp because it works against our pattern-finding instincts. It tells us that sometimes there is no pattern to be found. As a result, randomness is fundamental limit to our intuition; it says that there are processes that we can’t predict fully. It’s a concept that we have a hard time accepting even though it is an essential part of the way the cosmos works. Without an understanding of randomness, we are stuck in a perfectly predictable universe that simply doesn’t exist outside of our own heads.

Provocative ideas, both. But neither deterred my eyes from seeing the orbs and spheres I have been exploring in my studio everywhere in the landscape of Small Point. Whether micro and macro, they just kept appearing. And delighting me over and over again.

Martin Scorsese once advised a young filmmaker that “your job is to make your audience care about your obsessions.” What a great directive! So with that in mind, I invite you to take a look at one of mine.

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Taking a Break


Sunrise over Small Point Beach, Maine

I’m off the grid until August 29th. Enjoy the week everyone. I’ll be back after after 10 days, washed clean and deep by this glorious coastline.


Mark Rothko, at the Philips Gallery

Jonathan Jones, that no nonsense, speak your truth art critic for the Guardian, reported on his visit to the new Tanks interactive art space at the Tate Modern:

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett’s contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the “screening process”.

It’s probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

A certain class of art has moved “the art experience” closer to entertainment. I’m not against the easy pleasing of a confectionary offering—something light and fun can be a worthwhile distraction from the heavier parts of life—but at some point there is a need to advocate for the other end of the spectrum. Contemplative engagement with art rarely garners the same coverage as playfully theatrical events, events that are conceptually driven but often conceptually shallow.

There is room in our world for lots of types of expression. and I don’t think it is excessively curmudgeonly to ask for equal time.

Jones seems to agree:

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I’ve done my interactions.

Jones nails a nagging discomfort I have felt repeatedly. A set up like the one Jones describes IS patronizing. And it is that particular form of condescension that frequently turns me off when I visit similar interactive exhibits. Respect me as a viewer, please. The way a great painting respects me.

So yes, I’ll take that hour in front of a Rothko.

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Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love? The bower created by a male bowerbird.

David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms. In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?

Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.

One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.

In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?

From the book:

The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created—an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…

[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing—beautiful.

Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”

He also writes this memorable line:

I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.

This book is full of many treasures. I’ll be drawing from it in future posts.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

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Wasp’s nest: Entrances abound, but are hidden

Not Writing

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

–Jane Kenyon

This poem is so succinct and so artfully constructed. Haven’t we all had that daubing frustration of madly circling and yet not being able to enter in to where we need to be?

The texture of my life in the studio is like the texture of my life in general: full tilt highs, full tilt lows, and lots of miles in between.

I’m just back from three magical days in Vermont, visiting friends and basking in a landscape that is richly rewarding on so many levels. I didn’t miss being in the studio once. In fact this protracted channel change felt like much needed relief from a fierce summer stance to rouse the inchoate into form. But like the passel of children I parented years ago, those unborn works have no interest in commands or ultimatums when they are otherwise engaged. You talkin’ to me?

Patience and showing up every day. That’s all I’ve got. Chop wood, carry water.

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Robert Hughes (Image Courtesy of Robert Pierce)

Since Robert Hughes‘ death on Monday, the flinging has been steady. Quotes from his writing are all over Facebook and Twitter, and fortunately many of his pithy put downs are well within the 140 character limit.

Yes he was controversial. Yes he pissed a lot of people off. But the meanspiritedness of some remembrances has been surprising to me.

A good example is the obiturary that appeared on The Art Newspaper site, written by Donald Lee. Jason Edward Kaufman, contributing editor at Art + Auction at Louise Blouin Media, had this to say about the piece:

The Art Newspaper wastes half a two-paragraph obit snidely tittering about Robert Hughes having been a failed painter in his youth. This pompous, semi-informed, irresponsible mischaracterization does a disservice not only to an excellent critic, but to the newspaper (my former employer) and its readers. Imagine a two-paragraph obit of Kenneth Clark that focuses on his having written bad poetry in university. It’s mean and irrelevant.

By contrast Kaufman points to Richard Woodward‘s obituary in the Wall Street Journal as a more evenhanded remembrance. Here are a few samples from Woodward’s piece:

Robert Hughes, who died on Monday at the age of 74, leaves behind many admirers but few followers. The most feared art critic of his time, as learned as he was readable, he cultivated no acolytes who aped his opinions and verbal mannerisms, as did Clement Greenberg and Pauline Kael, critics of equal stature. Despite his professorial air, Hughes spurned academia and it has responded in kind. Future doctoral students in art history will likely dismiss his writings as those of a journalist and television personality, or climb the tenure ladder by trying to disprove his belief that the art of his time was mainly second-rate or worse. Unlike his fellow contrarian Hilton Kramer, who co-founded The New Criterion magazine as a forum for unfashionable high-modernist views, Hughes created no institutional legacy.

And this:

Tributes to Hughes have cited his withering put-downs, and they were indeed numerous and often salutary in their fearlessness and high style. He enjoyed deflating exalted reputations. The writings of the trendy sociologist Jean Baudrillard were dismissed as “sumptuous poppycock in the French manner, de haut en bas,” and he enshrined his skepticism about New York’s ’80s art stars in a 1984 Augustan satire titled “The SoHoiad, or the Masque of Art.” A public feud with Julian Schnabel entertained readers of art gossip for years.

But no one could doubt how ardently he believed in the soul-nourishing potency of art. His most euphoric books are those on two of its great art capitals, Barcelona and Rome. Skill at painting and drawing were his measure of artistic success, and he found it in the work of Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Philip Pearlstein, Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Philip Guston, R. Crumb and David Hockney…

By the end of his life Hughes knew how endangered, if not hopeless, his views had become. His elitist aesthetics and patrician diction supported a populist ethos that celebrated excellence in carpentry and art-making alike, and hoped to play down the role of money in ruling everything, a shaky position to maintain at any time and maybe impossible to duplicate by anyone brave enough to emulate his example.

Hughes holds a place in me because of his ardent, passionate defense of that “soul-nourishing potency of art.” I began this blog six years ago after reading a quote from him that became my talisman:

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.

That sentiment will continue to be a touchstone for what matters most to me.

Adieu Master Hughes. May you now truly rest in peace.

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John Cage and collaborator/partner Merce Cunningham

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson has been my mainstay for the last several weeks. Every page has now been marked and annotated, leafed through many times. This is an unforgettable, inspiring, deeply moving book about a towering and yet famously accessible figure. Larson weaves this story through written words by John Cage himself and the historical evidence of the network of extraordinary people that Cage knew, learned from, influenced and collaborated with. For anyone interested in 20th century culture, art, dance, music, cultural history, Buddhism, Eastern thought or the varieties of spiritual experience, put this on your list.

Larson is an art historian (longtime denizens of Boston may remember her writing for The Real Paper before moving on to Artnews and New York magazine) who changed the trajectory of her life by entering into Zen practice at Zen Mountain Monastery in 1994. From her unique dual perspective of seasoned art observer and practicing Zen Buddhist, Larson is the perfect chronicler of John Cage’s richly lived life and inspirational work.

Larson describes her undertaking of this project :

This book has been a fifteen-year journey into the world of John Cage, who was teacher to so many, and who taught me, too. As real Zen teachers do, he modeled a way of life for me. This kind of teaching doesn’t need physical proximity. It is best displayed within the life of the person who teaches. What choices did he make? Why did he make them? What questions did he ask? Cage modeled a life that lives on in the daily moments of those who knew, loved, and were taught by him.

There are so many ways to slice into this complex, multi-layered biography, and perhaps over the next few weeks I will write a few more posts that explore some of the many themes that weave their way through this book. But for now I start with Larson’s account of Cage’s existential dilemma while he was still a relatively young artist. In his words:

So what is beautiful? So what’s art? So why do we write music? All these questions began to be of great importance to me, to such a great importance that I decided not to continue unless I could find suitable answers…

I had been taught in the schools that art was a question of communication. I observed that all of the composers were writing differently. If art was communication, we were using different languages.

The answer came through an Indian friend, Gita Sarabhai. Steeped in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Gita answered Cage’s question with this: The function of art is to “sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”

From Cage’s journal:

I was tremendously struck by this. And then something really extraordinary happened. Lou Harrison, who had been doing research in early English music, came across a statement by the seventeenth-century English composer Thomas Mace expressing the same idea in almost exactly the same words. I decided then and there that this was the proper purpose of music. In time, I also came to see that all art before the Renaissance, both Oriental and Western, had shared this same basis, that Oriental art had continued to do so right along, and that the Renaissance idea of self expressive art was therefore heretical.

Cage becomes particularly compelled by Indian aesthetic theory and an art that measured itself by its reflection of the immeasurable. And to that end Cage wrote:

I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs. I felt that if he did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, his work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.

And this deeply moving quote from Cage on the last page of the book:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

Cage’s evolution as an artist, particularly his merging of wisdom traditions with creativity, is a personal and inspiring narrative. But in addition to a biography of Cage, this book is also a profound contemplation of the spiritual dimensions that can characterize an artist’s life. Larson delivers on the title of her book by all counts.

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Photo credit: Joe Bonomo from No Such Thing as Was

For years I have been a fan of The Edge, John Brockman‘s website/movement/salon writ large/community. Feel like you need a lift, something to perk up your day? You can stop in and wander that site and invariably leave with ideas that are new, provocative and thought-altering. It is cross disciplined, highly interconnected and holistic thinking at its best.

Every year a question is posed that then gets answered by a wide variety of thinkers. Earlier this year Brockman published a book of the answers to the question for 2011: “What scientific concepts would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” In this question a “scientific concept” can come from any discipline—philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence—as long as it is a rigorous tool that has broad applications and can be summed up succinctly.

This Will Make You Smarter is full of gems. I’ll share a few favorites here and going forward. An early entry to start it off:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education: no matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.

Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know that they are constructing models rather than revealing reality…

The rest of us, by contrast, often engage in a kind of tacit chronological exceptionalism. Unlike all those suckers who fell for the flat earth or the geocentric universe or cold fusion or the cosmological constant, we ourselves have the great good luck to be alive during the very apex of accurate human thought. The literary critic Harry Levin put this nicely: “The habit of equating one’s age with the apogee of civilization, one’s town with the hub of the universe, one’s horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread.” At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

Kathryn Shulz, from her Edge answer, “The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science”

Kathryn Shulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

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Contemplating the Spencer Finch installation at the RISD museum

There is a long history in the modernist tradition of assuming the beautiful must be a lie and that ugliness must be evidence of truth. One can understand the origin of this idea in a reaction against ossified academic standards, and simultaneously a revulsion against the hypocrisy of society. The modern world has seen more systematic moral dishonesty than any previous age, from Victorian moralism to political propaganda of all sorts and the manipulations of contemporary commercial culture.

But it is nonetheless a fallacy, like the mistaken assumption that cynicism is more likely to be correct than good faith. We have to reflect that if optimism can sometimes be stupidity, pessimism can often be cowardice. Hope and aspiration, even idealism, can be powerful forces for understanding the world; beauty, when real and not illusory, can be the deepest manifestation of the real. Truth, above all, is profoundly complex, and is never found in the self-indulgence of nihilism.

–Christopher Allen, from a review of artist Berlinde de Bruyckere

This quote came to me by way of one of my most treasured “we met online” friends, Miriam Louisa Simons. A woman of many parts, she is, among other identities, an artist, writer, mystic, visionary, teacher and friend now living in Australia.

She has aggregated an effulgence of insights and advocacy for nondual awareness. Explore that world at any of these Simons-created wisdom depots:

the awakened eye

the awakened eye blog

wonderingmind studio

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