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Finding Squares

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson (Photo: Big Think)

Recently I wrote about Richard Diebenkorn and described how deeply his work and approach to life informed my way of art making and being in the world. In that post I referenced Adam Gopnik‘s description of squareness:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

I am drawn by this contrarian position as a way of navigating (avoiding?) a contemporary world of art that is overly fixated on the cool, the hip and terminally detached. Call me Ishmael? No, I’d rather be Square.

Maybe square is an apt code word for what matters most to me these days. And if square is my tribe, then I I can’t help looking for kinspeople. A high probability candidate is the extraordinary Marilynne Robinson, author of a new novel Lila and subject of a very thoughtful and sensitive portrait by Wyatt Mason that appeared in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday.

Admired by writers and readers for her exceptional literary gifts—she is the winner of many literary prizes for her previous novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home—Robinson is a rather singular figure in literary circles for her unabashed devotion to Christianity (she is a sometimes Congregationalist preacher) and her passion for John Calvin. That interest permeates her novels as well as her non-fiction writing including The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, and Mother Country.

Mason is a thoughtful writer, and in his piece for the Times he is able to portray both the delicate finesse and the fierce muscularity of Robinson’s mind. These words, elicited from her during the several days he spent with her in Iowa City, are memorable:

“One of the things that bothers me is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.”

“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive.”

“Being and human beings are invested with a degree of value that we can’t honor appropriately. An overabundance that is magical.”

“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world…It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’”

I am drawn deeply to Robinson’s version of squareness and her willingness to “sense a sacredness in things.” But I also resonate with the part of her that stays outside of life just a bit, a tendency to stand apart.

Mason quotes Robinson on this issue:

I have always been—always from childhood’s hour, as Poe would say—in the habit of feeling quite a stark difference between myself and the world I navigated. Which was any world I navigated. And then, at a certain point, I found out that that was a) very formative and b) probably an error, although it was that discomfort that made me feel like writing, the feeling of difference.

To the extent that I was ever an unhappy person, I was happy with my unhappiness…

People do things very differently…And it probably has to do with genes and child rearing and all sorts of things. But you can feel a distance as regrettable and at the same time take a kind of pride in it. The stalwartness of the self. That it can endure. And that even though you can kind of theoretically see how you could be more like the world that excludes you, you know that you can rely on yourself not to be…Somebody who had read ‘Lila’ asked me, “Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?” I said: “It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.”

In that same vein, Robinson reveals a few of her concerns for constructing the inner life. She shares a teacher’s wise words, valuable advice received when she was quite young: “You have to live with your mind your whole life.” Robinson elaborates: “You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”

Her devotion to building an inner landscape that is sustainably compelling and companionable 24/7 is the essence of the hermit’s creed. And with proclivities towards hermiting of my own, this is just one more reason why she feels like a cotraveler.

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Finding Wild

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A woman, alone, in the landscape (This particular one being my friend Ali Ringenburg at Deer Isle)

Two excellent books, both written by women, have the same title: Wild. Sheryl Strayed is American, and her book became an instant best seller (and soon a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.) Jay Griffiths is British, and she is not as well known to American readers. But both are gifted, informed writers who felt called—with very different intentions—to journey outside the familiar as a way of connecting with something primal in themselves. I loved both of these books.

Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2013) is a personal narrative of walking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Washington State in 1995. She was 26, had recently lost her mother and was untethered and at odds in her life. Aside from just a few dramatic moments, not that much happens over the course of her journey. But Dwight Garner nails the spirit of the book quite adroitly when he wrote, “This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound.”

Griffiths’ Wild: An Elemental Journey (2006) is the account of a more mature and self-aware consciousness. Griffiths began her journey when she felt lost, suffering through a dark and pathless depression. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t write, and it felt as if I couldn’t survive the violence of my unhappiness.”

This was the calling, the vehement, irresistible demand of the feral angel—take flight. All that is wild is winged—life, mind and language—and knows the feel of air in the soaring “flight, silhouetted in the primal.”

This book was the result of many years’ yearning. A longing for something whose character I perceived only indistinctly at first but that gradually became clearer during my journeys. In looking for wildness, I was not looking for miles of landscape to be nicely photographed and neatly framed, but for the quality of wildness, which—like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants—has a rising swing ringing through it. A drinker of wildness, I was tipsy with it before I began and roaring drunk by the end.

I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.

Griffiths is highly aware of the overplayed nature of the “solo journey,” negating any suggestion that she is participating in an old and hackneyed form (one that has often been the domain of Euro-American men). She is searching for something much deeper:

I wanted nothing to do with the heroics of the “solo expedition.” There was no mountain I wanted to “conquer,” no desert I wanted to be the “first woman to cross.” I simply wanted to know something of the landscapes I visited and wanted to do that by listening to what the knowers of those lands could tell me if I asked. I was exasperated (to put it mildly) by the way that so many writers in the Euro-American tradition would write reams on wilderness without asking the opinions of those who lived there, the native or indigenous people who have a different word for wilderness: home

From Intuit people in the Arctic I learned something of the intricate ice and how all landscape is knowledgscape. From whales and dolphins I learned how much we do not know, the octaves of possibilities, the maybes of the mind. From Aboriginal people in Australia i learned the belowness of things, how land is heavy with significance and how it sings…Everywhere, too, I learned of songlines, how people who know and love a land can hold it in mind as music.

Her adventures are many, with chapters that clump her journeys together under titles like Wild Earth, Wild Ice, Wild Water, Wild Fire, Wild Air, Wild Mind. Griffiths has many passages that capture a lyricism of voice that coexists alongside her harshly honest frustrations and her deep concern for the well being of our world. For example, on the sexuality of nature she writes, “To every monkey an erection; to every insect, sackfuls of eggs; … mushrooms conjugally fungal; every parrot on the squawk for it; every peccary rutting for it; every tendril internally sprung for it. Nothing unthrust.” On the topic of depression she writes that there is “no particularity, no peony, no pip, no piano, no parsley, no play.” On global warming she expounds, “Ice melts, language melts, a culture melts, a climate melts, and all the music, the songlines of ice-alive melt to the engineered unmusic, the silence of a melting world.”

Wildness has many layers, and it is a term and a state of mind that has many facets. Parallels run between these outward journeys taken by Strayed and Griffiths and the kind of experiences I often have while working in my studio (which of course is nothing like a wilderness setting.) The connection between these two concepts is more ethereal than direct, something that rings familiar even while being hard to describe in words. “The human mind developed in wilderness and needs it still,” Griffiths writes. She also includes a quote from the poet Gary Snyder that speaks even further into that commonality: “Wildness is the state of complete awareness. That’s why we need it.”

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Paul Éluard, surrealist and poet, famously said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” While culling through the Slow Muse archive, I also found the two quotes below from nature writer Ellen Meloy that weave into Éluard’s thread. Some of these are perennial themes: What it means to feel a sense of home, of being a part of something larger than one’s self; our sensory intelligence, and how it can be enhanced (or numbed); our relationship with earth, others and ourselves; the proximity to the ineffable and mysterious alongside our practical every day existence.

Earth, atmosphere, landscape, materiality—that is the domain that has been the primary source for my work. It is also a profound metaphor for belonging. Certain places speak to each of us personally, and the nature of that connection is outside of reason or language. It is, for me, just as Éluard has said—another world that exists within this one. And, as Meloy warns, “a failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”

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Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.

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For a homebody surrounded by the familiar or a traveler exploring the strange, there can be no better guide to a place than the weight of its air, the behavior of its light, the shape of its water, the textures of rock and feather, leaf and fur, and the ways that humans bless, mark or obliterate them. Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.

A few geographies that have spoken to me:

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Hampi, India

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

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Layton, Utah

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Alice Springs, Australia

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Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake, Utah

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Small Point, Maine

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For people who spend a lot of time alone—by design—and are avowed introverts, the concept of social activism is more of a theological commitment than a behavior. Like that person who hates going to the gym, I have an abhorrence for meetings. If a cause requires me to attend any, I’m a no. I believe in the planetary collective that encompasses all life forms, but I’m not so good with the large human gathering part. A recent post on Facebook captures that discomfort perfectly: INTROVERTS UNITE. Separately. In your own homes.

But I can read, and I do. And I can openly voice my support for what rings true.

Whether you are a brave trooper at the leading edge of societal change or a remote viewer like me, we all see a world that is in need of help. It has been a summer of difficult news, and feeling powerless is a standard response. What can one person do that really makes a difference?

My own answer to that question is actually more expansive and hopeful today than it was a week ago. I give credit fpr that shift to a “this will change the way you see the world” book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, by Charles Eisenstein.

Eisenstein is a self-styled voice—he is neither a traditional academic nor a journalist—and yet he has written a book that is fearless in its examination of the large arc concerns of life. He has a penetrating and exacting mind, and he speaks truthfully of our world’s woes. But his approach is also humble, personal, transcendent and thoughtfully hopeful. The short chapters have one world titles like Separation, Despair, Miracle, Hope, but they string together and form a compelling narrative of how we collectively transition from the old, outdated story of ourselves—separateness, scarcity, fear—to one of interconnectedness and collaboration.

There is nothing new about this idea. It is almost a refrain. Anticipating the critics who accuse him of being naive and/or too New Age-ish, Eisenstein addresses those reservations head on and bravely makes a case for how to shift out of a narrative that isn’t working into one that can. The way he has framed this conversation speaks powerfully to me.

A beautifully written review of the book by Bayo Akomolafe at Kosmos captures the unique spirit of Eisenstein’s approach:

What differentiates this book from other attempts to define a finer world lies in the path that he adopts—through the soft spots of our collective feeling. Instead of academic posturing or intellectual bravado, Charles brings us a book that unashamedly ‘feels’—a well-rounded voyage that satisfies at levels often ignored by today’s prophets of change. Don’t be fooled though: I do not at all mean to suggest that this book is puff and smoke. Charles’ intellectual perspicacity will bend your mind like dried crayfish. Through our shared grief about the failed promises of modern civilization, his words seep through the gridlocks of expertise and the trapdoors of cynicism with a strange potency that is difficult to mimic. His noble intent? To guide us into what a different world might look like, to ‘trick’ our senses into believing it is not as distant as we conveniently let it be. Charles proceeds to describe, with a refreshing sense of vulnerability and self-awareness, what living in a new mythos might look like—even while confessing his relative non-readiness and disinclination to fully occupy it…

In fact, this book is a celebration of the ordinary—ennobling what seems to be the commonplace—while pointing out how unfathomable it really is. In the marketplace of glossy ideas, I think the most profound thing that can be said about a book is that it hardly begs the question of its necessity. Paradoxically, it is that very characteristic that makes it a powerful paean to your very present breathing moment and a rapturous adventure into the next.

This is not a book full of clichéd warnings and blue sky pronouncements. In fact Eisenstein self-effacingly places himself alongside the rest of us in the fragile complexity of life. We all struggle with what to do to make things better, and our response is often to do something just to be doing. Eisenstein advocates a different approach. He suggests just siting in the silence of the not knowing and listening in the stillness about how to proceed. Of course I resonate with this technique. It is one many artists learn early on and hone with time. Increasingly the silence holds the answer about where to go next, how best to move forward.

Eisenstein describes our current time as the end of the age of the guru. A new way of seeing the world is emerging in people everywhere, simultaneously. Enlightenment, he says, will be a group activity. And yet his message is very personal, a kind of blueprint for seeing more clearly where our thoughts and attitudes are still caught in the old ways. There is room in this story for everyone including the nonjoiners, the nonconformists, the introverts.

My rhapsodic response to this book has been met with a somewhat cynical eye by several of my friends. Their response has reminded me that visionary and idealistic manifestos have been seriously overplayed in our lifetime. Just another one of those? Hope followed by disappointment has worn all of us down, and moving to skepticism quickly is self preservation at this point. But I am reminded of a line from the I Ching: “Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd.”

Every page of my copy of this book is underlined and annotated, and I have started reading it one more time. (For a horizontalist who loves to cover a lot of territory, rereading is not common.) I can already see how it has changed the way I view myself, my world and the future.

Sharing this book with others is as collective an act as I can embrace.

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“Desert Breath,” land art in the Eastern Sahara Desert in Egypt. Two spirals emanate from a circular depression 100 feet in diameter. The installation occupies over a million square feet of desert and can be viewed from the air. Artist Danae Stratou, designer and architect Alexandra Stratou, and architect Stella Constantinides created the project between 1995 and 1997. It has since been left to slowly disintegrate. (Photos: Laughing Squid)

Those who know me well know of my passion for Fanny Howe—her poetry and her prose speak to me deeply. One of my favorite Howe essays, “Bewilderment” (included in her book, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life) is a particular favorite, and one that I go back to again and again.

In this passage she turns to dreams and how they engage with us. Her descriptions are so closely aligned with how art comes into being in my studio. There is a dialogue and a dance happening every time I encounter a surface that is asking to be engaged in the process of becoming something else.

As we all know, a dream hesitates. it doesn’t grasp, it stands back, it jokes, it makes itself scared, it circles, and it fizzles.

A dream often undermines the narratives of power and winning…

A dream breaks into parts and contradicts its own will, even as it travels around and around.

For me, bewilderment is like a dream: one continually returning pause on a gyre and in both my stories and my poems it could be the shape of the spiral that imprints itself in my interior before anything else emerges on paper.

For the spiral-walked there is no plain path, no up and down, no inside or outside. But there are strange returns and recognitions and never a conclusion.

Spiral walking! I love that phrase. Howe then combines the concept of the spiral with the mystic tradition of the maze, another invitation to be in bewilderment:

The construction of high-hedged mazes is a concession to bewilderment, just as Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty rises and sinks under the weight of Utah’s salt water—both site and non-site—a shape that must turn back or drop off—that can climb and wind down—that has noetic as well as poetic attributes, miming infinity in its uncertain end.

The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others—places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.

And even if it is associated with childhood, madness, stupidity, and failure, even if it shows not only how to get lost but also how it feels not to return, bewilderment has a high status in several mystical traditions.

The definition of bewilder is “to cause to lose one’s sense of where one is.” It is a collapse of the referential and an invitation to sustain tetherlessness. Bewilderment “breaks open the lock of dualism (it’s this or that) and peers out into space (not this, not that.)

Mystics get this. I think many artists do too.

[Note: You can view Desert Breath from Google Earth here.]

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Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian)

My respect and admiration for the writer Rebecca Solnit is long standing. The author of many extraordinary books, she posted a short essay online a few years ago that went viral immediately. No wonder, since the title captures in one phrase an experience that every woman I know has had, and continues to encounter in spite of everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Men Explain Things to Me.

In a new collection of seven essays that takes the first as its title, Solnit has allowed gender to be a leitmotif that strings these insightful explorations together. As much as I enjoyed the title essay in Men Explain Things to Me, my favorite in the collection is Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, a rich blend of the fearless probing that characterizes the minds and writings of Solnit, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag. And because the inexplicable has been a leitmotif for me these eight years of Slow Muse posting, exploring the realm of the inchoate in company with these three is pure pleasure.

Solnit begins with a Woolf quote: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” The future is an unknown and should be just that, a radical idea in a culture that longs for control, prognostication and predictability. Solnit then quotes wilderness survivalist Laurence Gonzalez: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” It is our nature to be fearful of the unknown ahead, and often it feels easier to choose to be oblivious. When a plan (or a belief, or a relgion) becomes your safety net, you see what you want to see. It is the job of artists and explorers, says Solnit, to let go of preconceptions and to walk into the unknown with eyes open. Relentlessly.

When it comes to the work we do and the positions we take, we cannot see the larger arc of these actions. Solnit shares a conversation she had with Sontag about taking a political position:

I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile: that you don’t have the memory of the future, that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be: and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. That is when the words of so many writers often resonate most.

Every artist who is digging deep in the work they do comes up against that unknowingness with every gesture, with every word. Solnit’s insights resonate for me as an artist, but they also speak to anyone struggling for truth, justice and equality. You know who you are.

To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.

Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.

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Detailed views of some recent paintings that I hope suggest a layered and complex reality

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Science has always wrestled with the idea of an immaterial will, or agency, at work in the universe, and for centuries it was thought to be expressed through the “laws of nature.” God might be dead, but he rules on, or so it was thought, through his immutable laws. It turns out, however, that those laws are at best crude averages, rough generalizations. Take a more fine-grained look, or develop more sensitive instruments, and things get more interesting. At the smallest, quantum, level, there are no laws at all, only probabilities. An electron can be here, there, or both places at once, very much as if it had a choice in the matter…A hint of—dare I say?—animism has entered into the scientific worldview. The physical world is no longer either dead or passively obedient to the “laws.”

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The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.

These two passages are from one of my favorite recent reads, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Living With a Wild God (which I wrote about in more detail here.) This book has been met with mixed reviews, and some of Ehrenreich’s longstanding fans of her approach—no bullshit, straight shooter—consider this book a wrong step into the mystical and the non-substantiated. For many, science is the religion of our era, and Ehrenreich has committed a heresy.

Whether the issue is science, politics, lifestyle, religious practice or art making, I am frustrated by the concept of dogma. There is not just one way to know or understand or do, and my inner agent provocateur gets called up when that is not acknowledged. Bring up the topic of crop circles or alien contactees around physicists and scientists, and they can’t depart your company fast enough. Once they are “Vaticanized” and ordained into their profession, spending any time in the mysterious (and at times mystical) fringe would be career suicide. Science has rules, regulations and practices, and if you break out you are marked.

And even though some have expelled Ehrenreich from the clan of the anointed, it may be that the reductionist/scientific stance is actually softening just a little. Ehrenreich describes how much the practice of science has changed over her lifetime, and her insights dovetail with those expressed by another scientist willing to step into the arena of the unanswered and unknowable, Alan Lightman. In his recent book, The Accidental Universe, Lightman (who is both a novelist and theoretical physicist) devotes an entire chapter to discussing what he terms the “spiritual universe.”

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We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

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There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.

Lightman has been part of a group of scientists and artists (centered in and around Cambridge MA) who explore contrasting beliefs and disparate ways of knowing. He and his friends are “fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.”

His solution has been to distinguish between the physical universe—that “constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study”—and the spiritual universe, the territory of religion and the nonmaterial. “All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis,” he writes. “Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.” For Lightman, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual universes mirrors the essential tension of the personal and the impersonal. While the spiritual universe is perceived by many to hover out just beyond our personal being, the evidence of that universe is extremely personal.

The personal and the impersonal, the willingness to acknowledge a multiverse of more dimensions than we can see or measure—these are expansions in thinking that have import on more than just the practice of science. As Ehrenreich put is so eloquently, the playfulness appears to be unquenchable, dogma be damned.

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Dave Hickey
Dave Hickey (Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art)

Most of us have a list of our “personal perennials”—those writers, artists and musicians whose works continue to delight, engage, astound, connect. My loyalty to my list runs deep, and there is nothing you could say to sway me from my devotions. They are my inner circle, my carefully selected cotravelers.

Bad boy and art critic Dave Hickey is on that list. My copies of his books, from Air Guitar to The Invisible Dragon to his latest, Pirates and Farmers, have underlining and comments scribbled on every page, their covers crinkled from repeated reading. Some people I know are tired of his tirades and his over the top condemnation of the monied art world, academia, phonies and bad art passing as good art. I get that.

But here’s the thing: For those of us who approach art making with a larger than life devotion and seriousness that has more in common with spiritual aspirants than with hip urbanites, this is a hard time to be an art maker. Money, glamorous commodification, ego and market manipulation increasingly drive the stratospheric world of gallerizing, auctioning and art fairing. More Wall Street than Rothko’s Chapel, that world’s glitter garners visibility and fascination because it is so excessive.

Nothing that happens in that realm however has anything to do with what many of us spend our days doing. If devotion to your work is what you do, you do it quietly and without fanfare. Hickey’s insouciance serves to clear the air of that ambient toxicity. Reading him actually helps me stay focused and steady in my work.

In this latest collection of essays Hickey writes about the difference between the art of Southern California and New York City, particularly during the Minimalisms (they are different) that emerged in the 1970s. He writes about Las Vegas, art collecting, taste, style and the difficulty in assessing the quality of a work of art. Through it all, he is wild and he is funny.

Here’s Hickey doing one of his Hickey things from the book title’s essay:

All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers. They are very different kinds of creatures, and some pirates even recognize the importance of farmers…Farmers on the other hand, always hate pirates…

Never forget that one of the chief causes of personal unhappiness in the US of A, where farmer culture is all but hegemonic, is the denial of pirate identity, because farmers always know who’s a pirate. Pirates don’t always know what they are.

It is very important to know which you are, says Hickey. “There are many unaware pirates, however, in workplaces around the world, who wonder why they are never invited to the weenie roast. They are pirates, but they just don’t know.”

Argh!

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The New York Times named five novels as the best of 2013. Amazingly, two of them—both written by women—are about art and art making: The Flamethrowers*, by Rachel Kushner, and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was enchanted by both.

While Kushner’s novel takes place in the art world emerging around Soho in the 70′s and the Red Brigade years in Italy, Tartt places her tale in a post-9/11 world. Her novel begins with a terrorist explosion in the Metropolitan Museum that takes the life of the mother of the book’s lead character, a twelve year old named Theo Decker. He escapes the wreckage with a small painting in his satchel, the tiny 17th century Dutch masterpiece of a bird chained at his foot: The Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius**.

From this starting point Tartt unfolds an orphan’s tale that blends the 19th century charm of Charles Dickens and the Bildungsroman genre with very American and contemporary themes: East/West tension (large stretches of the book compare the various worlds of Park Avenue and the Village in New York City with the foreclosed wasteland of suburban Las Vegas), the lost boys archetype, addiction, materialistic obsession, and the arcane international underworld of the Russian mafia. But amid these familiar memes Tartt keeps a thread taut: art has a power, mystery and immortality all its own. And although our lives are often broken and wildly out of whack, any of us can and are touched deeply and personally by great works of art.

From Ron Charlesreview in the Washington Post:

The Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.

Without sounding preachy or pedantic, Tartt aligns the essential importance of art with our troubled and existential world. As the book comes to a close Theo articulates his hard won understanding of that. This passage is a memorable one:

The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful. Resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution,. There’s only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later…

I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at last my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature.

And this passage, a simple description of where art resides:

I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

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*For more about The Flamethrowers, read this Slow Muse post, This Flashing Present.

**The actual painting hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer. While famous in his own lifetime, he died very young in the famous Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 that destroyed a great deal of the city. Most of his works were also lost in that catastrophe.

talent2.natechristopherson
Illustration for the essay, “Talent,” from Amy Leach’s “Things That Are.” (Pen-and-ink drawing by Nate Christopherson, courtesy of Milkweed Editions and the artist)

I have been reading nonstop while my hand heals since there is really nothing I can do in the studio. The body does this part all on its own which, like a stubborn child, will not be swayed by bribes, threats or entreaties. When the wound is healed the wound is healed, and not a day sooner than that. So I am digging deep into my stacks* until I am summoned back to work.

While my current rash of reading has leaned toward art, art making and a search for what is transcendent in the visual arts (which is a set of interests that may not appeal to all of my readers), I did read one book that I do believe will meld more easily with a variety of predilections and categories of interest: Things That Are, by Amy Leach. This is a slim book, but Leach is mesmerizingly gifted at pulling you into every one of her 26 quirky, brilliant and beguiling essays. Part science writing, part poetry, part literary mastery in miniature, this is a genre-defying collection. As Julian Gough put it in his Guardian review, “Leach’s writing is very much of now, when postmodernism is merely the sea we swim in, almost invisible to us. High and low cultural references snuggle up in the same paragraph. The realistic coexists with the mystic. The scientist lies down with the poet.”

Let me tempt you with a few Leachian nuggets:

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Sometimes it avails to be a goat. When the grass withers away in Morocco, sheep will stumble dully along, thinking horizontal thoughts. No grass … no grass. But goats look up, start climbing trees.

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Other lizards hide by crypsis, or blending in, like Neptune keeping secret among the stars until 1846. Some lizards look like leaves and some like tree trunks and some like thorns and some like beetles. The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.

***
Another reason to suppose that jellyfish sense light is that they live in light, like tomato frogs and bears and grass. Even grass senses light, although slowly, while light is meaningless for tapeworms. Light sponsors its own comprehension.

There is one more passage from Gough’s review that really struck me. It helped me realize something about this book that is actually quite singular:

Many literary writers are mournful, looking inward and backward; some complain quietly to each other about digitisation, about technology, about change. But the scientists are gleefully looking outward, forward; talking to the world. As the scientists take energy from the colossal expansion of the known universe, the literary writers risk being sucked into a black hole of irrelevance. Leach connects these two worlds; one negative, one positive. That generates the current which invigorates her sentences. She is a scientifically literate, literary writer, gleeful and outward looking.

Gleeful and outward looking indeed. That’s an approach that I want to embed in the way I approach my life and my work. Leach’s book embodies that in a way that feels legitimate and authentic, in a way I hope I can model in my own way.

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*Some of my readers really care about books and will ask me for titles. I’ll make it easier for them and for myself since if I don’t write these titles down here my “ran out of RAM a long time ago” memory may forget how delicious they were. So here is my recent list:

Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium, by Thomas McEvilley

The Art of Small Things, by Jon Mack

9.5 Theses on Art and Class, by Ben Davis

Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist, by Robert Wuthnow

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, by David Wojnarowicz

The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett

Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, by Alexander Nehamas

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, by Jane Bennett

Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations, by Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruh

Why We Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn

Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual, by Lynn Gamwell

Paths to the Absolute, by John Golding

(A special thanks to Ted Stebbins who recommended the last two books to me, ones I would never have encountered without his help.)

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