Some seasons are more afoot than others, and this is one of those. I’m in Asia again, returning on February 22.
The ease of viewing contemporary work today is staggering. The steady flow of images on Facebook, Instagram and online art sites brings thousands of images from all over the globe into easy view every day. When I first started as an artist, new work came to me through two or three art publications, gallery visits or the occasional invitation to a friend’s studio. This change in exposure is exponential.
In all this art viewing, some work speaks to me and some does not. Often however I see new work that I admire, and at times my admiration can spill over into the personal, taking the form of comparing or self questioning: How does my work stack up? Is this better at doing what I am trying to do than my own?
For years I have been advocating the importance for an artist to possess a strong sense of self direction and clarity. It now seems that being connected to one’s essence is more important than ever. It is in that effort that I preserve my studio space as a barrage-free safe zone. Of course new ideas and approaches are constantly being explored, but bringing them into the process of my work is a delicate, alchemical thing. I have learned from experience that it must be done with care.
I thought about that as I read a short piece by Sarah Manguso, Green-Eyed Verbs, which recently appeared in the New York Times. (Her book, Ongoingness, knocked me out when I read it last year, written about here.). Her topic is the envy that writers (and by association, other creatives) harbor towards the work of others. As she did in Ongoingness, Manguso fearlessly turns us over for a ventral examination of those darker underbelly issues of life. In her hands that exposure isn’t harsh, hurtful or demeaning. It is more like a good scrub, a much needed grooming of that hidden side of us.
In her article she talks cuts through the admiration and envy to what really matters:
I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. This feeling depends on admitting to myself that I had an idea of how it should turn out, and that some part of me is trying to reverse-engineer the piece I admire. Some vocations demand this exact strategy: Builders, surgeons and chefs must do this. Writers, though, must not. Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.
The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.
It’s a simple test, and it brings me back around to my own grounded place.
Surrounded as we are by great works—languaged, visual, aural, all of it—we do need a tool or aid that can help us hold the balance between admiration of others and devotion to our own work. “The way to honor great work is to love it, then turn away from it as you write,” Manguso advises. “No imitation, no pastiche.”
She goes on:
All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.
“Allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor.” A beautiful description of humility.
And humility is, as my regular readers know, a favorite theme. A search on that term produced a list of nearly 20 previously written posts. So here’s one more.
The term highbrow was first used in the late 19th century, a reference to the arcane practice of phrenology. In this head measuring methodology, people of intelligence were believed to have a higher brow line. While phrenology was eventually discarded as pseudoscience, “brow-ness” continued as shorthand for measuring artistic and cultural sophistication.
That stratification began being actively dismantled 30 years ago (with books by Lawrence Levine, Peter Swirski, John Seabrook, among others) and those distinctions have melted away. Art making, music, theater, writing have all increasingly pulled in resources from every end of the creative spectrum.
From his New York Times piece, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow — Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?, Thomas Mallon put it this way:
The sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. To some extent, people used to settle on a brow for themselves and then pattern their reading and viewing and listening accordingly. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience never had trouble doing that in the course of a single evening, laughing at rustic horseplay and thrilling to lyrical declamations in the same production.)
Two theatrical events in Boston this past week speak to that browlessness. One is a playful and inventive “adaptation” of Twelfth Night performed by London’s Filter Theatre at ArtsEmerson. This muscular and well-honed ensemble takes a Shakespeare favorite and turns its underbelly to the upside. The set looks like a disordered recording studio, and the staging appears casual, disengaged and haphazard. Inspired by Virginia Woolf‘s claim that the play “seems to tremble perpetually on the brink of music,” sound becomes the essential through line. I’ll never see Twelfth Night the same again.
The other is Nice Fish, at American Rep. A collaboration between actor/director Mark Rylance and Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish has just one stage set: out on the ice. Rylance and co-star Jim Lichtscheidl play two ice fishing friends who, as they tend to their fishing rods, talk about their lives. Their words are primarily prose poems by Jenkins. Buried in the commonplace of Jenkins’ everyday speech are larger questions. But the transcendent sense of things is subtle and mostly stays below the surface, much the way the life teeming under the ice is implied and only occasionally exposed.
Nice Fish feels like a blend of a whole bunch of memes most of us recognize—the existentialist stupor of Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, the wacky but endearing quirkiness of the Coen Brothers‘ Fargo (both the movie and spin off television series), the simple truths in the everyday of Thorton Wilder‘s Our Town, the Midwestern self-parody of Garrison Keillor‘s A Prairie Home Companion, the All-American réalité of Cowboy Poetry and poetry slams.
But Nice Fish is more than an assemblage of contemporary cultural reference points. Having been trimmed down and tightened up after its earlier run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the play achieves a memorable balance between the light and the heavy, the silly and the serious, the mundane and the poetic. A tangible air of affection for the material permeates the production. Rylance and Jenkins both have connections to the Midwest—in spite of Rylance’s “veddy English” reputation—and they have become good friends during the process of working on the play (Rylance has famously recited Jenkins prose poems as his acceptance speeches at several award ceremonies). Even Jenkins himself comes on stage to play a role. What’s more, the play is directed by Claire Van Kampen, Rylance’s wife. Nice Fish is unpretentious, made by hand (a high compliment in the art making world) and sticks to the ribs.
Rather than the popular brow-busting term nobrow, I prefer thinking of Nice Fish—and other artistic efforts that draw from a wide range of influences—as full brow: something for everyone.
Here’s a sampling of Jenkins’ sensibilities:
by Louis Jenkins
Older people are exiting this life as if it were a movie…”I didn’t get it,”
they are saying.
He says, “It didn’t seem to have any plot.”
“No.” she says, “it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused…and there was way too much sex and violence.”
“Violence anyway,” he says.
“It was not much for character development either; most of the time
people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who.”
“The whole thing lacked subtlety.”
“Some of the scenery was nice.”
They walk on in silence for a while. It is a summer night and they walk
slowly, stopping now and then, as if they had no particular place to go.
They walk past a streetlamp where some insects are hurling themselves at the light, and then on down the block, fading into the darkness.
She says, “I was never happy with the way I looked.”
“The lighting was bad and I was no good at dialogue,” he says.
“I would have liked to have been a little taller,” she says.
Note to potential theater goers: This isn’t a fast-moving, laugh-a-minute kind of play. One friend saw it when she was jet lagged and had a hard time staying engaged. It is best seen when you are rested and relaxed so the pleasures can be found in this slower paced, pared-down production.
Twelfth Night is at the Paramount Theater in Boston until January 30. Nice Fish is at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge through February 7.
English sculptor Phyllida Barlow (no relation to me although I would love to claim her as a kinswoman—after all, so talented AND she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin) has captured an essential distinction in just two sentences:
Things aren’t just visual. They are sensations of physicality.
That “sensation of physicality” calls to each of us in its own way. I am inexplicably drawn to images of planetary bodies, our own as well as those now being captured of our entire solar system by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
I’ve been studying these images for years, and the most recent addition to my library is a stunning small book, Earth & Mars: A Reflection, by Stephen E. Strom and Bradford A. Smith.
Both Strom and Smith are life long astronomers. Some years ago Strom expanded his mastery into photography, publishing a number of books pairing his images with poetry and text. In this book Strom and Smith have coupled these two planets, Earth and Mars, in an exploration that is both artful and scientific. Bringing together stunning images with thoughtful and informative essays, this book is a deep dive into that stunning “sensation of physicality”.
In the introduction, Strom shares his personal connection to these images:
I could not help but be drawn to the commonality of motifs manifest in the martian and terrestrial images. That these patterns are manifest on vastly different scales on different planetary surfaces speaks to the profound beauty inherent in forms that results from the action of universal physical laws over time and space and the interaction of the classical elements: earth, fire, air, and water.
Why did these patterns call to me so strongly? Is it the rhythmic repetition manifest in the ripples that are the inevitable by-product of the motion of air over a sand surface? Is it the fractal character of the channels produced by ancient martian rivers or the spiderlike patterns produced by the interaction of carbon dioxide with the fractured martian regolith? Is it the simplicity or universality of these landscape patterns that are somehow imprinted in biological or cultural deep memory? I invite the reader to explore these images and the aesthetic questions they raise.
How reassuring: A scientist articulates feelings that I have had repeatedly, that sense of recognition and connection with these images. Strom’s legitimizes that sense with his reference to biological or cultural deep memory. Yes to that.
The book is divided into four sections—earth, fire, air, water—and an essay by Smith begin each one. Written for comprehension but also with respect for the mystery of how earth happened to have been made inhabitable, these essays left me feeling a reverential respect for overcoming incredible odds. How fragile it all is, the chances of a planet ending up with water.
In Smith’s words:
At first, both planets acquired substantial atmospheres and oceans of liquid water. Our more massive Earth, however, would retain most of its atmosphere and water, while less massive Mars would lose much of its atmosphere and most of its water. Over time, both Earth and Mars would experience a series of surface-altering processes, including impact cratering, volcanism, tectonics, and erosion by wind and water—but on vastly differing scales. These divergent processes have been responsible for the two completely dissimilar planets we see today, one water rich and life bearing, the other cold, dry and forbidding.
I love this book. I’ve already bought one copy to keep at my studio as well as one for my library at home. This is pure resonance for me, a source book for many of the images that just seem to emerge as I work.
And as an added bonus: Through this book I was introduced to this exceptional online catalog of images: HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). 40,000 images to feast on and freely available for all.
A special thanks to artist and friend Diane McGregor for sending this to me. (She does have the inside track to all this since brainy Bradford A. Smith is her husband.)
Dave Hickey has written about art by cantankerously taking down the academic art establishment, languaging his outrage in a spectrum that ranges from snarky to lyrical, oscillating in tone between a Walt Whitman-like effulgence to just one more Western cowboy dopey dude. He’s not my favorite critic (that spot will always be held by Carl Belz), but I agree with him more often than not. What’s more, I always read what he writes. And given his refusal to engage in the mumbo-jumbo terminology of Art World Mandarin, he reaches a larger audience than most art writers.
His latest book is 25 Women: Essays on their Art. For the most part these short pieces were previously published, commissioned by museums and galleries, so the tone is one of appreciation and advocacy rather than critique. I don’t know every artist included here, but the book is full of those Hickey moments that no one else can deliver.
“Most of my favorite people are women,” he proclaims in the introduction, which might surprise some of his detractors who think of him as just more more white guy art critic. But two deceased women appear larger than life as his reasons for writing this book: the curator Marcia Tucker (“my first rabbi in the art world”), and his own mother Helen Hickey, an academic and an artist with whom he had a very difficult relationship.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Hickey wrote the book “because I couldn’t find one book of collected essays out there about women artists. There’s a lot of books about menopause, and a lot about how you get a gallery, but nothing seriously addressing the work women make.” May this be the first of many.
Two of my favorite essays in the collection are, understandably, artists whose works have influenced my own: Joan Mitchell and Vija Celmins. Hickey captures essential qualities in Mitchell’s work with epigrammatic clarity: “She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just with the speed of it.” On Celmins: “Celmin’s work for all its coolness is always haunted by an atmosphere of loss.” Hickey pairs Mitchell with words from Catullus (“I hate and love. Perhaps you’re asking why I do that?/I don’t know but I feel it happening and I am racked.”) And for Celmins, he turns to heavyweights Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “History is always written from a sedentary point of view, even when the topic is nomads. What is lacking is a Nomadology, the opposite of a history.” These pairings felt pitch perfect.
I resonated with Chloe Wyma‘s conclusion to her review in the New York Times:
Hickey is neither art criticism’s reactionary philosopher king nor its populist Robin Hood, but a sensualist with an acquired taste for art that is resistant to interpretation and unapologetically elitist, a term he halfheartedly redeems as a positive value. He’s a colorful essayist and a perceptive critic. His popularity points to a real problem: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. Those who don’t cringe at the mention of identity politics, who maintain hope for art as a space for beauty and justice, pleasure and politics, would do well to borrow Hickey’s tools to dismantle his house.
Ain’t it the truth: Many people feel alienated by contemporary art and the obscure, pleasureless language that encrusts it. I’m grateful to Hickey for offering up something else.
Being a “retinalist”—one who has given the eye primary sovereignty—I live knowing that at any time or any place, something I see can airlift me instantly into some new unexplored territory.
An occasion for airlifting happened last weekend. Emily Nelligan‘s work was hanging on the wall right as you walked into the You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 Portland Museum of Art Biennial. I would not have expected a grouping of small (7 x 10″) charcoal drawings to have been the source of a powerful (and welcomed) disorientation. But it was.
Nelligan, 91, spent most of her summers on Great Cranberry Island in Maine with her husband, illustrator Marvin Bileck. She has said that she finds it hard to draw anywhere else, and most of her work over the last 50 years has centered on that evocative, foggy landscape.
The need for color disappears in Nelligan’s works. Originally drawn to charcoal and writing paper because they were less expensive than paints and canvas, Nelligan soon found herself at home with this simple medium. Using only charcoal, erasers, cotton swabs and her fingers, her drawings capture a quality about that coastline that I recognize. While her work comes directly from her encounter with the landscape of Great Cranberry Island, these drawings fall somewhere between representation and abstraction. They are full of evocation, depth, mystery, silence.
From an article about her work in the Free Press (Maine) from 2013:
While there are no direct precedents for Nelligan’s work, she speaks to traditions rising out of late 19th-century tonalism—Whistler’s gentle admonition that paint “…should be like breath on a pane of glass”—as well as the organic abstraction found in early 20th-century American modernism. For instance, Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds, the “Equivalence” series, or Arthur Dove’s glowing orbs in indeterminate space. Nearly dumbstruck, as have been other notable critics in front of Nelligan’s drawings, Maureen Mullarkey can only invoke liturgical metaphor: “If the ancient canonical hours could be observed by images instead of prayers, here they are.” Some drawings convey the impenetrable darkness of dense fog enveloping the island at night. In others, there is a quality of moisture-laden light, of breaking dawns and distant clearing. Littoral immanence. And we cannot help but wonder if the drawings in this exhibition, mostly created after the death in 2005 of her husband of nearly 50 years, aren’t in some measure prayers and homage to their long life together.
That Nelligan-induced altered state spilled over afterwards when I visited with two Portland-based artist friends, Munira Naqui and Rachael Eastman. Both are, like Nelligan, masters of dark effulgence. The emergent is present in their work as it is in Nelligan’s, and experiencing that on a daily basis is a reminder of why I am both an artist and a collector.
More about each:
Kyna Leski is a teacher, architect and artist. Her book, The Storm of Creativity, is a thoughtful journey through the process of bringing something into form that does not yet exist.
Leski does not take an authoritative approach, gratefully, and she leaves lots of room for her “map” to speak to the highly personal nature of creativity. But her categories—which are each a chapter—make for a good list of guide posts:
Creativity as Storm
Gathering and Tracking
Perceiving and Conceiving
Here is a sampling from Leski on the subject of pausing:
You can treat your pause as the opposite of other stages of the creative process…Instead of connecting, take a break. Not tracking, but being tracked by the exact idea, answer, insight that you were seeking and tracking. Rather than gathering, let go. Instead of paying attention, be distracted. No propelling, but stopping the current motion of the process. “Sleep on it.”
I see pausing as an opportunity to see external to the frame you have already established, to allow new stimuli to enter the creative process, to prompt another idea. It is a chance to step off the reiterative track of logical decisions. It frees you from the concrete and reintroduces abstraction. It can be the chance to transform what you are working on through connections not previously made. By stopping, for whatever length of time, you weaken your willful grip, and can become more open and more open minded.
That’s good material for my week away from the studio.
Thank you to my friend Jan Baker for sending me this book.
Diane Paulus‘ theatrical vision and aspirations are the driving force behind some of the most successful “immersive” theater events in Boston since she took over as artistic director of the A.R.T. at Harvard*. While previous productions have offered the audience an invitation to participate in these dramatic excursions, the latest Loeb Theater offering isn’t asking politely. From the minute you arrive at the theater, your sovereignty of audience detachment is snatched from you: The entrance and lobby are now a war zone, lost in stanchions of plywood, plastic sheeting and haphazardly affixed Russian posters. Once inside, the theater has become a 19th century Russian drawing room with red velvet curtains and paintings hung salon style, floor to ceiling. The audience is sitting everywhere, alongside musicians and sets, embedded between arabesques of thrust stages and platforms. But this isn’t a pure period-themed creation. It is a rhapsodic and random mashup from Russia’s volatile history over the last 200 years.
Because this time round, it is all about Russia. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, billed as an “electro-pop” opera, is based loosely on Leo Tolstoy‘s masterpiece, War and Peace. And like Tolstoy’s massive novels, Great Comet wants to take you over, body and soul. Once this show begins, you are irrevocably on a wild theatrical jalopy ride that can’t help but be funky, full-bodied and fun.
Great Comet brings Dave Malloy‘s work back to Boston once again. Most recently he did Ghost Quartet, Beowulf and Three Pianos (about Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle). As a composer and writer, Malloy speaks to his own proclivities:
I can’t help but notice that almost all of [my work] is adaptions of classic works…there is such rich opportunity for humor and illumination through anachronism, colliding time periods to both highlight the similarities and revel in the bizarre and subtle differences between then and now…too often for my tastes, adaption can rely too heavily on trite ironic distance and parody; for me, the more rewarding choice is always to take these tales at face value, and work to unlock their secrets for contemporary audiences in ways that are joyful, surprising, and ultimately cathartic.
Colliding time periods, humor and anachronism are Malloy’s steady tools. The language, costuming and staging move between early 19th century Tolstoy-esque to present day. Lyrics often speak to our cooly detached, postmodern mind sets:
this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
And it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
Everything will be clear
The singing, dancing, music-making and audience involvement (be ready for Russian potato and cheese concoctions delivered right to your seat) make Great Comet irresistibly fun. How lucky we are to have these theatrical options in Boston. But like attending one more party where the extrovert takes over and entertains us endlessly, the more introverted, subtle, introspective theater experiences are also needed in a city’s theatrical offering mix. As is my perpetual plea on this blog, the both/and, please!
Great Comet runs through January 3 at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge Massachusetts.
*In addition to the perennially running The Donkey Show at Oberon Theater in Cambridge, other immersive theater offerings from Paulus’ years at the A.R.T. have been reviewed on Slow Muse:
Sleep No More My all time favorite in this category. (A version of this production is currently running in New York)
Charlene Spretnak is a scholar who has blended interests. She has written books on ecology, ecofeminism, politics (she is a cofounder of the Green Party in the US), art, and spirituality. With a formidable CV and a demonstrated knowledge of art and art history (she has taught art history, inter alia, at the California Institute of Integral Studies), she is not a member however of the anointed art world cognoscenti.
Which is probably why she could write the book I have been waiting to read for years.
The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, is a much needed counter punch to the predominant narrative about modern art that has squelched this particular story line. While Spretnak does not embrace a conspiratorial view as to why the spiritual has been eliminated from the etiology of contemporary art, she is very thorough in demonstrating that the denial has been both deep and wide. By going to original sources and finding statements made by many prominent artists, both historical and contemporary, she successfully uncovers a significant interest in the spiritual aspects of art making.
As Spretnak begins to unravel this buried story line, she asks a number of her friends—John Walsh, the director of the Getty Museum at the time, and art historian Peter Selz—why the spiritual was frequently denied or squelched. Both answered that question with the exact same words: “We just weren’t taught that way.” With a generosity others might not embrace, Spretnak points to experiments in psychology that have demonstrated that “once someone is educated in a particular frame of reference during his or her formative years, subsequent events and information that do not fit within that framework often do not register.”
Spretnak does nail a few particularly guilty parties, deservedly. Alfred H. Barr, Jr, the first director of the Museum of Art, curated an exhibit called Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. In that show Barr presented an entirely formalistic interpretive framework for the new art, influenced as he did so by Heinrich Wölfflin‘s principles of “scientific art criticism.” Barr asserted, amazingly, that cubistic and abstracted art arose because “the artists had grown bored with painting facts, that is, naturalistic forms.”
Although his exhibition displayed numerous paintings by artists who had published clear statements about the metaphysical meaning of their art, those were not referred to in his essay in the catalog. The spiritual dimension was simply removed from serious discussion of the art. Not only was this exhibit influential in New York but it then traveled to six cities. By the 1950s the entire history of modern art was framed by the premises of formalism…In this exclusively formalist narrative, the subject matter of the paintings, whether it may have been spiritual or otherwise, is entirely beside the point.
And then of course there was the legacy of formalist art critic Clement Greenberg.
The general attitude that denies a spiritual dimension in modern and contemporary art has, according to Spretnak, “wobbled” a bit in the last few years and is less severe than it was in the 50’s and 60s. But Ken Johnson, writing in the New York Times in 2005, still observed that “Academic art historians and critics still tend to discourage talking seriously about the spiritual in art. But considering how many artists continue to be motivated by spiritual urges, however the word spiritual is defined—this is something worth discussing.”
How that word is defined IS an issue. At a time when religion and spirituality take on so many connotations, it can be problematic. “Some feel the term spirituality has been so stretched out and bounced around by pop culture and the media that it has lost any substantive meaning.” Wisely Spretnak turns to her friend, artist Richard Tuttle, to craft a more useful definition:
Given the vague, and sometimes trivializing, uses of the term in recent decades, I appreciate the artist Richard Tuttle’s comment to me on this matter: “What I want more than anything is a definition of spirituality that is trustworthy.” Indeed—and to be so it must necessarily extend beyond a focus on the self to a sense of our embeddedness in the larger context: the exquisitiely dynamic interrelatedness of existence, the vibratory flux of the subtle realms of the material world, and the ultimate creativity of the universe. The cosmos is infused with an unfolding dynamic of becoming and a unitive dimension of being. Spirituality is the awareness of and engagement with that unity and those dynamics.
Over the last nine years of writing Slow Muse, the theme that underlies so much of what I have covered is in line with Spretnak’s definition of spirituality. This book codifies the many urgings, intuitions and personal proclivities that I have tried to assemble in the content of this blog. So of course I have marked up and underlined every page of this small book, and I read it through twice as a way of grounding Spretnak’s arguments into my nomenclature. Many of her chapter heads are useful categories for moving through a landscape that can feel a bit muddled. Esoteric spirituality, allusive spirituality, the spirituality of immanence—these are useful terms.
This isn’t a book for just browsing. There is so much of value on every single page. The quotes Spretnak has uncovered from several of my favorite artists are ones I’d like to memorize as a way of reminding myself what this mysterious process is really about—not just for my kind of art making, but for the art making of so many others as well.
Once the evidence is truly acknowledged, the history of modern art looks quite different from the proscribed narrative. It is less a linear account than a richly varied landscape, made verdant in numerous places by the great underground river of the spiritual in modern art. Hence the aim of this book is rather like the process in ecological restoration known as “daylighting” underground streams by removing the cement culverts that enclose them and allowing them to be seen in their natural habitats.
I can’t imagine a single reader of Slow Muse who wouldn’t love this book. Finally, the daylighting has begun.
This most recent trip to India, South Africa and Turkey brought me into even closer proximity to some of the most persistent, larger-than-life issues like belonging, tribalism, identity, belief. In looking at those enormous ideas more closely, it is impossible to not see just how fragile—and unavoidably subjective—our methods for assembling a sense-making narrative actually are. In addition to the horizontal axis of present day travel that makes moving from a predominantly Hindu culture to a predominantly Muslim one—as well as the doggedly bifurcated post-apartheid world of South Africa—so easy, I was also influenced on this trip by the additional vertical dimension of the past. Digging down into the history of ancient cities that once flourished along the Aegean coastline—Pergamon, Ephesus, Didyma, Miletus, Priene, Magnesia— those same questions take on another set of meanings.
My reading on this trip was also part of that questioning. The historical account of World War I, Lawrence in Arabia, written by Scott Anderson, is a compelling explanation for the complexity that is still being sorted through in the Middle East. Quite different in intention but thematically linked in an unexpected way is an exquisite novel by Lily King, Euphoria.
King’s book is a historical novel based in New Guinea in the early 1930s involving anthropologists Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future partner Gregory Bateson. As pioneering anthropologists they are eager to crack the code of how human society and culture are mapped. They felt they might “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” The character Nell (based on Mead) craves that rare moment of euphoria when she first feels she truly understands a place. “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” she says. “But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl…The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ” She observes that at about two months into a new environment, the culture begins to make sense. “It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”
This runs alongside a thoughtful passage from the writer George Saunders in his conversation with Jennifer Egan in the New York Times:
We are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery—religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is ‘effective’ (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human.
To round out this meditation on how hard it is to make sense of our world, present and past, I have just one more excerpt to share. This is from an extraordinary review by Irshad Manji of two books, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, and Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks:
Enter Jonathan Sacks, a former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his sobering yet soul-stirring new book, “Not in God’s Name,” Sacks confronts “politicized religious extremism” and diagnoses that cancer crisply: “The 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning.” Given that “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” and given that believers are proliferating, Sacks predicts that the next 100 years will be more religious than the last. Bottom line: Any cure for violence in God’s name will have to work with religion as a fact of life.
That is where Sacks’s brilliance as a theologian radiates. He thinks two matters need tackling. There is “identity without universality,” or solidarity only with one’s group. Then there is “universality without identity,” the unbearable lightness of humans in a transactional but not transcendent world. Sacks wants to preserve the joy of participating in something bigger than the self while averting the hostility to strangers that goes with tribal membership…Meanwhile, back at liberal democracy’s ranch, we must “insist on the simplest moral principle of all…If you seek respect, you must give respect.” This does not mean always having to agree, but it does mean viewing one another as worthy of candid, constructive engagement.
God bless the don’t know mind. Which for me is code for “Keep talking, I am trying to understand.”