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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Miracle, Hope, but they string together and form a compelling narrative of how we collectively transition from the old, outdated story of ourselves—separateness, scarcity, fear—to one of interconnectedness and collaboration.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.

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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.

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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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Book S
A page from “S”

The concept of an artifact—material, touchable and therefore commodifiable—has been a controversial issue in art circles for a long time. For some practitioners, the highest and purist artistic expression is one that happens without a footprint or “residue.” The absence of a material object d’art speaks to a devotion to the experiential and a commitment to stepping away from the shackles of commodification, from the sullied commerce of buying and selling unique works, from the corruptibility of materiality.

Art without artifacts—as is often the case with installation and performance art forms—has found another permutation in the emergence of the Internet over the last 20 years. In this new arena, art forms take on a disembodied existence that lives outside of time or physicality. These new modes of expression are available 24/7, endlessly repeatable, often free or priced for mass consumption, and accessible anywhere by anyone with a digital device.

For many of us however, artifacts have a power. That power is elementally linked to materiality and the fact that a thing can possess a set of actual coordinates in the space/time continuum. Just as online sex is a something but not the same something as sex with another real human body, the concept-only art expression is not a replacement for an object-based one.

Books and publishing have also been caught up in a version of this essential tension. For some people the digitization of content eliminates their need for that physical object called a book. Others, like me, take more of a both/and stance. Digital delivery works just fine for some content. But there are also circumstances where content delivery cannot be satisfactorialy digitized. Art books, like the catalogue raisonné, are better when delivered by way of an object in the hand. So is content that invites—and deserves—a conversation with the reader in the form of margin notes and commentary.

The latest book object that could never be experienced in digital form is the product of a mind not usually equated with artifact-driven art: J. J. Abrams, the famous (and at times controversial) genius behind Alias, Lost and Fringe among many other television series. Written by Abrams and writer Doug Dorst, S was “born out of an idea of a love story and the notion of celebrating the book as an object,” Abrams said. “In a digital age, it’s a distinctly analog object. It felt romantic to me.”

Of course Abrams never does anything old school, and S is not a traditional romance. Nor is it a normal book. Rendered with extraordinary detail to resemble a well worn library volume of a novel called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka published in 1949, the bookness of the project takes on a completely different form. The author and the novel are fictional creations, as is the complex and engaging artifact that uses a book format to deliver something much more multi-layered. Marginal notes are scribbled on every page in two distinct handwriting styles. Slipped into the pages throughout are tokens of the extracurricular ephemera from the lives of these two readers—handwritten letters, postcards, old photographs, newspaper clippings, a map scrawled on a coffee shop napkin. The authenticity and attention to detail is breathtaking.

The annotators are one Jen and Eric, two students who are fascinated with Straka and the novel. As the reading progresses we watch them fall sweetly in love. But the joy of this book, amazingly, does not require a linear reading of the multi-threaded narratives. At Thanksgiving this year we had guests from Greece, Italy, Venezuela, Norway and Israel. Everyone, regardless of English language skills, was fascinated with S. This is an experience that is enchanting to everyone. And it comes because you can hold it in your hands.

The universality of appeal reminds me of Sleep No More, the theatrical production by Punchdrunk that was staged in Boston and then New York. In this full immersion production, the audience is pulled into an alternative realm, one that is full of magic and evocation. (The root theme is Macbeth and so the leitmotifs include witchcraft, murder, brooding Scotland castles and madness.) While this production requires the complete conquest of an entire building, every room is painstakingly constructed to create a richly detailed, deliciously visual staging that each member of the audience can interact with at her own pace. As large scale as the theatrical intent of Sleep No More is, the stunning attention to detail is what has stayed with me years later. Meticulous recreations make it easier for the mind to let go of its predetermined sense of the world and ease into saying, this is real.

Abrams has shown his mastery of puzzles, mystery, and creating a believable other reality in TV and cinema. That he turned those energies to a book project of this scope is thrilling to book lovers like me. What a celebration of books, reading, publishing, invention and yes, artifactness.

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The Graces, David Salle, 1991 (Photo: Christie’s)

Journalists are their own category of beings. While I respect the ones who do their art and craft with skill, I’d rather wrestle with a big game hunter. In the words of Adam Kirsch, “Goodness, which we praise so highly in life, is infertile terrain for a writer, whether a novelist or a journalist.”

And certainly Janet Malcolm, well known for her many years at the New Yorker, is one of the best. But as she has said herself in a Paris Review interview, “I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a ‘helping profession.’ If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take.”

Malcolm’s latest compilation, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, is revelatory on many levels. The way in which she “takes” what her subjects don’t know they are letting her have says a lot about her as well as them. She is crafting and weaving while she is delivering up her content. As Ian Frazier suggests in his introduction, “Over and over she has demonstrated that nonfiction…can rise to the highest level of literature.” These essays are more than mere reportage. Much more.

My favorite piece so far in the book—I haven’t yet finished them all—is the title essay about artist David Salle. Written over a number of years during the early 90s when Salle was falling out of favor after a decade of art darlingness, it consists of forty-one of her “failed” attempts to profile Salle and his work. This faceted, “cut and paste” approach is pitch perfect given the subject matter. In the words of reviewer David Starkey: “Because she has looked at the artist and his work through so many different lenses, one comes away from the essay with a fuller view of Salle’s work than could have been found in any mere puff piece.”

I have never been a David Salle fan. In fact I have been more aligned with his vociferous detractors including Robert Hughes and Arthur Danto. But while Malcolm refers to her fragments as “false starts,” memorable passages abound and reveal her subject matter as well as her own point of view:

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Paintings like Salle’s—the unabashed products of, if not vandalism, a sort of cold-eyed consumerism—are entirely free of any “anxiety of influence.” For all their borrowings, they seem unprecedented, like a new drug or a new crime. They are rootless, fatherless and motherless.

***
Writers have traditionally come to painters’ ateliers in search of aesthetic succor. To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to a place where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured.

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He also once told me of how he often gets lost as he paints: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.”

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Only the most pathologically pure-hearted writers, artists, and performers are indifferent to how their work is received and judged.

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In 1992 and 1993, I would visit him at his studio, and we would talk about his work and life. I did not find what he said about his work interesting. (I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting), but when he talked about his life—especially about his life as an unsettling presence in the art world and his chronic feeling of being misunderstood—that was something else. Then his words took on a specificity, vividness, and force that had drained out of them when he talked about art.

***
“Why do you give all those interviews?”

Salle thought for a moment. “It’s a lazy person’s form of writing. It’s like writing without having to write. It’s a form in which one can make something, and I like to make things.”

***
Toward the end of a long series of interviews with the artist David Salle, I received this letter from him:

“After the many hours of trying to step outside of myself in order to talk about who or what I am, I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and in life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and liter-mindedness—to insist on and live the life of the imagination. A painting has to be the experience, instead of pointing to it. I want to have and to give access to feeling. That is the riskiest and only important way to connect art to the world—to make it alive. Everything else is just current events.”

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Carl Belz, my kind of thinker (Photo: www.berkshirefinearts.com)

How do we currently write current art’s history? How, given its elastic chronology and ever-widening geographic reach, its self-consciously elusive look, the multiple urges and identities and media it comprises? How, in the absence of a canon of artists around whom a history might be structured, its sources and development traced, its context established, its achievements described? How, in the face of its censure on quality distinctions, its scapegoating of formalism, its dismissal of originality and artistic intent? How, in other words, do we write art’s history within the broader context of postmodernism’s prevailing hegemony?

So begins Carl Belz*’s most recent posting on Left Bank about two recently released books—Invented Symbols by Alex Katz, and Bad Boy: My Life On And Off The Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone.

Belz continues in this vein:

Our unwieldy culture and its academic strictures increasingly nudge us to write the history of current art not from the outside in but from the inside out, personally and informally, more often than not via the autobiography and the memoir, genres rooted in direct experience that is unique to the individual writer. In doing so, our voices may be unauthorized by institutional structures, but likewise are they unfettered by those structures and the conventions they embody. In the publications considered here those voices richly inform our understanding not of any classroom theory about art’s making but of its day-to-day studio practice – the actual source material upon which any history of painting during the second half of the 20th Century in New York City must ultimately be based.

Belz’s suggestion that a better (different? more compelling? more authentic?) version of art making would emerge if we were to shift our view from the outside in to the inside out is yet another example of a move towards dismantling the old order. This drift towards the non-canonical is something I champion and applaud. My most recent—and frequently referenced—canon-busting example has been Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-sponsored mega exhibit of Southern California art that was staged at 200 venues in 2011. As a result, the decidedly New York-centric version of American art over the last 50 years is being revised and recast.

More evidence of that new inclusiveness: The two best shows in New York City this summer are James Turrell at the Guggenheim and Ken Price at the Met. Both are California artists, and their sensibilities reflect their origins from a different coast. Peter Schjeldahl‘s review of the Turrell show in the New Yorker captured some of that difference with this statement: “Compare the dreamy sorcery of Turrell’s installations with the blunt self-evidence of fluorescent fixtures in [Dan] Flavin‘s light pieces. At no other time have the sensibilities of America’s Atlantic and Pacific cosmopolitan antipodes stood in sharper contrast.”

Belz’s post doesn’t focus on this issue of California inclusiveness. Instead he insightfully contrasts the highly personal and revelatory memoirs of two well known artists, each of them sharing very distinct views of their career and the art world they inhabited. This thoughtful piece is worth a read, start to finish, for anyone who is compelled and provoked by these issues. After I read a piece by Belz, I immediately want to get to the next one. And the one after that.

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* If you are not familiar with Carl Belz, you can acquaint yourself by reading the posts he has published on Left Bank. Carl was the Director and the Curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University from 1974 to 1998. He also taught art history, and legions of his former students still rave about his classes, his charisma and his passion for art. I consistently connect to his sensibilities and am always interested by what he has to say about contemporary art issues. I consider him a valued and intelligent friend.

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