December 2012

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Taking a Break

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain (Photo: Kindra Clineff)

I am out of town until January 2. Slow Muse will return in 2013.

Happy New Year to all my friends and readers.

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Officially known as ACT-CL J0102-4915, the galaxy cluster has been nicknamed El Gordo. “This cluster is the most massive, the hottest, and gives off the most X-rays of any known cluster at this distance or beyond,” said Felipe Menanteau of Rutgers University. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Hughes et al, Optical: ESO/VLT/Pontificia Universidad. Catolica de Chile/L.Infante & SOAR (MSU/NOAO/UNC/CNPq-Brazil)/Rutgers/F.Menanteau, IR: NASA/JPL/Rutgers/F.Menanteau)

Slow Looking, a new book by Peter Clothier, is a meditative invocation to slow way down and connect deeply and profoundly with the world around us. Clothier (I have written about him previously here) is focused on the impact of slow looking on art and how frequently we do not allow ourselves to really see. As a “reformed art critic,” Clothier shares his personal recognition of how easy it is to fall into that “not really seeing” stance:

It was once I began to learn about the value of paying attention, then, that I began to take more careful note of how I was looking at art. It disturbed me more than a little to realize that I could easily walk into a show at a gallery or museum, take it all in—so I thought—speedily and efficiently with my discerning eye, and then go home and and write about it. So it was disconcerting to catch myself, sometimes, spending more time with the wall label than with the painting I was going to write about…

The impediments, as I see it, are threefold: there are in the first place, innumerable distractions. Then, too, we bring mind-sets along with us, which prove to be nothing but a cause of distortion. And finally there are mental fabrications: we often just make stuff up; we see those things our minds invent for us, rather than what is there in front of us, real and evident.

It is easy to get lazy about looking. And for those of us who are makers with our very specific and well developed aesthetic proclivities, Clothier’s description of perfunctory viewing hits home (for me anyway.) It is easy to dismiss art that comes from outside my very elaborate value system. Way too easy.

To address these issues, Clothier combined his interest in meditation with his passion for art to offer up the notion of “One Hour/One Painting.” It is a simple exercise to be sure, and not necessarily a new idea. That was the assignment I received as an art student when I asked my professor what makes a Rothko painting great. His response was simple: “Go sit in front of it for one hour. Then let’s talk.” It worked for me. Completely.

So why stop at art? One hour of looking deeply at anything is transformative. One of my other favorite places for deep looking is NASA’s steady stream of images from space. Conceptually and visually, there’s plenty to contemplate. How appropriate that David Grinspoon begins his enjoyable and informative read, Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, with this quote:

Penetrating so many secrets,
we cease to believe in the unknowable.
But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

–H. L. Mencken

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Top End Australian Football Association Preliminary Final

On paper, Peter Clothier‘s career looks like that of a successful academic. He was an art school dean at USC, Loyola Marymount and Otis Art Institute. He published numerous books including art criticism, poetry and memoirs. So it was refreshing to read his book of personal essays, Persist, and to find out he wasn’t inclined to the academic life in the least. And what’s more, he figured out rather late in his career that he wasn’t an art critic either.

Clothier describes an experience he had a few years ago when he submitted a draft review of an art exhibit to a New York publication. The reviews editor wrote him back and said she was hoping for something more “blatant.” That didn’t sit well with Clothier:

I had different, even conflicting thoughts about what I’d seen at the exhibition in question. My response to it had been a subtle exchange between head and heart, and I had wanted, in my review, to say something about the subtlety of that exchange. I had brought with me no latest theory about painting, no set of standards by which I could measure out the paintings’ quality or their relevance to current discourse. I was actually not the least bit interested in proclaiming them good or bad—or anything in between. I was interested in the subtlety of my entire reaction, an integration of body and feeling, mind and spirit, and in using my own art—writing—as a medium through which to give expression to that complexity.

This experience was a turning point of Clothier. He came to understand that criticism was neither appealing nor interesting to him, that the whole orientation of criticism was anathema to his way of thinking and being. In the course of that realization, he came to understand what his mind actually does best:

I have settled for another way of thinking about art writing that feels comfortable to me. I like to think of myself as a translator. I have played with this notion for quite some time now, even though it might seem an odd one when applied to writing about visual art…Translation, especially the translation of poetry, involves an act of experiential empathy, a kind of identification that requires not the suspension of self so much as the merger of self with another. It’s kind of making love, a way of opening to another and giving voice or vision to that other through oneself. It’s the work of a medium. So that’s what I do instead of criticism…

I, for one, am happy with these small flashes of wisdom that I’m granted nowadays; and, with a slowly, slowly more appropriate sense of who I am and what I’m given to do, I have chosen to release myself from the struggle to write criticism and to shed the uncomfortable guise of being a person I do not feel myself to be.

Encountering that level of openness and vulnerability in anyone is striking and it is rare. While I am neither an art critic nor an academic, I don’t imagine those qualities are conducive to success in either of those fields. So it is was not surprising to discover that Clothier now describes himself as a “reformed academic” and has crafted a much more self directed life which includes blogging, meditation and workshops. His blog features a tagline that seems like an indicator of his truth north: “An aspiring Buddhist looks at art, books, and the vicissitudes of life.”

I have thought a lot about Clothier’s self disclosures, particularly while I have been reading the spectacular, insightful, deeply provocative—and yes, very academic—book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, by Sianne Ngai. I’m not finished yet, but every page I’ve read so far is covered with annotations and underlines. Ngai is an English professor at Stanford, and she is so unabashedly brilliant it almost blinds the reader (me) to take all of her thinking in. I absolutely adore reading this book.

And yet it is completely alien to my way of viewing art, making art, creating order in the chaos of 21st century life. Finding Clothier’s book and reading it at the same time has provided an unexpected counterweight. Clothier’s honesty and clarity about his natural inclinations of mind and spirit have helped me feel comfortable claiming a spectactor’s status for myself. Sitting in the stands and watching an extraordinary and esoteric sporting event—like a game of Australian rules football–can produce a lot of passion and pleasure without any longing to play the game yourself. Like Clothier, that isn’t my way or my inclination.

Meanwhile there are many games and many seats. I’d say that’s a win/win.

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Golagai 2, the painting source for the new heading above

Update for my readers: The URL for Slow Muse has changed from to An automatic redirect has been placed on the old site so it should be seamless for all subscribers.

This should make access easier in the long run, and I hope it didn’t cause any disruption for you. Thanks!

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Shoji Hamada

How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind:

Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.

Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”

Robinson continues this line of thought:

The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.

Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.

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Smells like hell but taste like heaven, or as one writer aptly described the dual pleasure and pain of the durian fruit: “It’s like eating the most delicious custard out of a toilet bowl.”

It’s something I think about frequently: What if you really dislike an artist—or a thinker—in their real life form but you admire their work?

This morning the New York Times’ The Ethicist addressed the question, “Can I politically disagree with an artist and still love the art?” (In this case, posed by a political conservative who is troubled about liking the music of Bruce Springsteen.)

That’s an ongoing issue for me with the inimitable Nassim Nicholas Taleb*. His ideas provoke, excite and expand my thinking. I loved reading The Black Swan, and now I am winding my way through his latest, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

Here’s a brief description of his latest all consuming theory from the Guardian‘s recent review:

The core idea behind this book is simple and quite enticing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb divides the world and all that’s in it (people, things, institutions, ways of life) into three categories: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. You are fragile if you avoid disorder and disruption for fear of the mess they might make of your life: you think you are keeping safe, but really you are making yourself vulnerable to the shock that will tear everything apart. You are robust if you can stand up to shocks without flinching and without changing who you are. But you are antifragile if shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face. Taleb thinks we should all try to be antifragile.

While the ideas presented are provocative, the book itself does not offer a crisp delivery. I agree with reviewer David Runciman who describes it as a “big, baggy, sprawling mess.”

And it isn’t just the book structure that detracts from the content. It is that damn persistent Taleb personality thing. This is a game of whack-a-mole where that annoyance won’t stop showing up. The title of John Horgan‘s review for Scientific American says it well: Nassim Taleb Is Annoying, but ‘Antifragile’ Is Still Worth Reading.

This isn’t a new problem of course. Horgan offer up a list of similarly difficult but provocative thinkers, many of whom I too have found compelling:

Reading Taleb, I am reminded of other big-egoed thinkers: The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who like Taleb emphasized life’s randomness, or “contingency,” as Gould put it. (I summed up Gould’s view of life as “shit happens.”) The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, who fashions his neologisms into grandiose diagrams of existence. The anarchist Kirkpatrick Sale, who rails against the tyranny and corruption of big governments and corporations. The journalist Kevin Kelly, who extols the chaos and freedom of decentralization over top-down control. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who cherished his status as a cross-disciplinary maverick and had a knack for gnomic aphorisms. The psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna, who shared Taleb’s obsession with novelty.

In short, Taleb resists categorization. If I had to pigeonhole him, I’d call him an anti-guru guru. That is, he mercilessly bashes other gurus, pundits and prophets and warns you not to fall for them. He depicts himself as a brave, lonely truth-teller in a world of fools and frauds. In so doing, he becomes a guru himself, with a cult-like following. Many gurus—from Socrates to Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the most successful gurus of the 1960s—have successfully employed this anti-guru schtick.

I have come to refer to this twosidedness as Durienism, named after that unforgettable Asian fruit that both delights and disgusts.

Even so, I am already aware of how much this book has shifted my thinking about the way things unfold in my studio. What ways of working are fragile and easily destroyed? What thrives on change and disruption? As Taleb writes, “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes a fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them.” I’m no fragilista, but I am also looking for even better ways to explore and play with that edge of uncertainty.

*Previous Slow Muse posts about Taleb:
Tinker Away
Kahneman, in the Studio

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All the world as seen through the lens of a crystalline polythene grid of air pockets

“Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has her theme. She should move around in that theme.”

So claims Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. Similarly, artist Lucian Freud was reported to have said, “Everything is autobiographical, everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.”

One last example, and a memorable one: Willem de Kooning, suffering from dementia at the end of his life, continued to paint in that de Kooning signatory style. Brain dysfunction be damned, his work was coming up from somewhere deeper. Or different.

Be like me. See the world through my eyes. It is an elemental aspect of an artist’s consciousness. And the edge between objective and subjective is often an invisible boundary. Can we ever see it, that line where our own proclivities end?

After all, there is a long list of behavorial biases that can alter our ability to see/understand/perceive/comprehend with clarity. Here’s just a few from Psy-Fi’s much longer list:

Ambiguity Aversion: we don’t mind risk but we hate uncertainty
Babe Ruth Effect: winning big but rarely beats winning often and small
Bias Blind Spot: we agree that everyone else is biased, but not ourselves
Confirmation Bias: we interpret evidence to support our prior beliefs and, if all else fails, we ignore evidence that contradicts it
Familiarity Effect: being familiar with something makes you favour it
Fundamental Attribution Error: we attribute success to our own skill and failure to everyone else’s lack of it
Galatea Effect: some people succeed simply because they think they should
Hindsight Bias: we’re unable to stop ourselves thinking we predicted events, even though we’re woefully bad at predicting the future
Inter-group Bias: we evaluate people within our own group more favorably than those outside of it
Introspection Illusion: we value information gleaned from introspection more than we value our actions
Sharpshooter Effect: beware experts painting targets around bullet holes
Survivorship Bias: this is an error that comes from focusing only on the examples that survive some particular situation
Titanic Effect: if it can’t sink you don’t need lifeboats
Tragedy of the Commons: we overuse common resources because it not in any individual’s interests to conserve them

During the last few months I have been tunneling deeply through a massive project. An intensity of focus has been needed to get it done, but it comes at a cost. During times like these, my ability to parse the world in general becomes impaired.

I’ve been in that place before. When I had my first child, the world outside my home ceased to exist. If you didn’t wear a diaper and weren’t sleeping in the crib in the room next door, you just didn’t get any air time. I am grateful for the remembrance—and reassurance—that normalcy does return. Eventually.

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