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Engraving depicting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, circa 1650. Photograph: Kean Collection/Getty Images. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was an English aristocrat, poet, essayist, playwright and scientist. At a time when most women writers were publishing anonymously, Cavendish published under her own name. She wrote about gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her book, “The Blazing World,” is an utopian romance and one of the earliest examples of science fiction.

It’s a topic that has been discussed endlessly: The historical absence of women artists (as well as writers, musicians, philosophers and playwrights). In 1971 Linda Nochlin published her seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The conversation continues.

Siri Hustvedt‘s recent novel, The Blazing World, steps into that space with a fresh take on a theme that just doesn’t go away, and should not. The novel tells the story of Harriet Burden, an embittered middle-aged female artist whose experience of being dismissed and unseen becomes so unbearable that she stages three exhibits where she does the work and a man takes the credit.

Burden has the financial resources and art world connections to pull off a ruse of this scope since her recently deceased husband was a wealthy gallerist and collector. While Burden’s plan is to expose the hypocrisy and bias of the art world—Hustvedt has some exceptionally bitter passages to describe the banality of evil in that world that will make anyone familiar with that demi-monde smile in recognition—her plan backfires badly (as such schemes are inclined to do.)

The novel is constructed as a postmortem scholarly artefact consisting of various texts including Burden’s diaries, critical assessments of her work, interviews with friends and eyewitnesses. Assembled several years after Burden’s death, her work is finally being seen and applauded by the very world that dismissed her during her life. What emerges in the course of the novel is the portrait of a brilliant and creative powerhouse whose career and reputation were thwarted by the art world’s sexism and prejudices.

From Fernanda Eberstadt‘s review in the New York Times:

Whereas the homely, middle-aged Harriet had been dropped by galleries because her work was deemed “high-flown, sentimental and embarrassing,” not to mention painfully earnest, no sooner is her art signed by a 24-year-old “hunk” than it wins sold-out solo shows and critical raves. More damning still, even once Burden is outed as the true author, reviewers and gallery owners refuse to admit they’ve been had. As one journalist puts it, “A 50-ish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodigy, can she?” Like so many inconvenient women before her, Burden is labeled a hysterical fantasist…

Despite her XXL personality and her formidable intellect, Burden, like many of the heroines in Hustvedt’s fiction, has spent her life fighting to win the approval of cool, remote men, subordinating her own ambitions to play perfect daughter, “wife and helpmeet.” Burden’s “burden,” we come to realize, is not simply that she is a woman but that she has chosen to marry a rich, much older art dealer. It’s no surprise if the artists she entertains in a Park Avenue apartment boasting a Paul Klee are more interested in whether her husband is going to buy their work than in asking after hers. Only when her husband, the aptly named Felix Lord, dies and the 60-something Burden has fled the “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets” in Manhattan in favor of a grittier life in Brooklyn’s Red Hook does she feel emboldened to restart her own career, this time under assorted male personas.

Harriet Burden has her self destructive tendencies, so this is not a simple case of discrimination. Too tall and physically imposing, she does not possess the marketable physical presence and image that gallerists are looking to promote. She is also too smart for most of them, a quality that goes down differently from a woman than it does from a man. In Hustvedt’s hands, Burden’s brilliance is a way to play out many of the intellectual themes that Hustvedt touches on in her other books—the philosophical writings of Edmund Husserl, perception science, psychoanalysis, gender studies, the work of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (whose work is referenced in the book’s title.) Hustvedt’s writings tend to include a heady component, which I find enriching.

Hustvedt’s descriptions of Burden’s work and process are highly conceptual. She does not have an ear (or eye?) for the aesthetic concerns that most artists struggle through. As as result, that one aspect of the book feels slightly flat and vaguely inauthentic. But Hustvedt speaks masterfully to the peculiarities of the art world and its point of view. Here are a few passages that were particularly salient.

***
From Burden’s diary:

I suspected that if I had come in another package my work might have been embraced or, at least, approached with greater seriousness. I didn’t believe that there had been a plot against me. Much of prejudice is unconscious. What appears on the surface is an unidentified aversion, which is then justified in some rational way. Perhaps being ignored is worse—that look of boredom in the yes of the other person, that assurance that nothing from me could be of any possible interest.

***
From art world denizen Oswald Case:

She quoted Freud, big mistake—the colossal charlatan—and novelists and artist and scientists no one’s ever heard of. She dripped with earnestness. If there’s one thing that doesn’t fly in the art world, it’s an excess of sincerity. They like their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.

***
From Burden’s daughter, discussing her gallerist father:

In order to sell art, you had to “create desire,” and “desire,” he said, “cannot be satisfied because then it’s no longer desire.” The thing that is truly wanted must always be missing. “Art dealers have to be magicians of hunger.”

***
From Burden’s childhood friend, psychiatrist Rachel Briefman:

Without the aura of greatness, without the imprimatur of high culture, hipness, or celebrity, what remained? What was taste? Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?

***
From Burden’s lover, Bruno Keinfeld:

After a while, the injustice of it all, the sick, sad misery of being ignored, cracked her heart in two and demented her with anger. I wanted her to fight on, but she decided to walk through the back door and send someone else around the front.

***
From Rachel Breifman:

How do preposterous, even impossible ideas take hold of whole populations? The art world was Harry’s laboratory—her microcosm of human interaction—in which buzz and rumor literally alter the appearances of paintings and sculptures. But no one can prove that one work of art is truly superior to another or that the art market runs mostly on such blinkered notions. As Harry pointed out to me repeatedly, there is not even agreement on a definition of art.

***
From Burden’s diary, on the 17th century intellectual (and of course misunderstood) Margaret Cavendish:

How to live? A life in the world or a world in the head? To be seen and recognized outside, or to hide and think inside? Actor or hermit? Which is it? She wanted both—to be inside and outside, to ponder and to leap.

That last question is one that every person as well as every artist must ask. This book is an extraordinary exploration into the complexities of that choice.

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Jerupassage
Passageway in Jerusalem

I just returned from journeying eastward. We spent our first week in Israel for a wedding (mazel tov, Idan and Shelly) and then to Rome for a crash course in all things Roman thanks to our favorite art historians, daughter Kellin and her husband Sean.

Roman ingenuity and technological prowess are staggering when explained by experts, and the ancient Roman sense of beauty and proportion are still larger than life. Being guided through such a highly textured and layered city was even more fun when we were joined by my niece Becca and her friend Taylor.

The theme of this adventure for me seems to be, “The Flow of Time is Pretty Much Incomprehensible.” Is it possible to really grasp what it means that Jerusalem is a city that is 6000 years old? Or can anyone really get the span of time between our lives and the pre-Common Era remnants of the Roman era scattered over the Forum and the rest of the city?

It usually takes a few days for fluid language skills to re-emerge after full immersion experiences like these. Please bear with me. I should be back in a more loquacious state in a day or two.

In the meantime I am sharing a few photos. Many of these images juxtapose the old with the new, capturing moments when I found it just as easy to believe in the simultaneous/parallel universe model (the “multiverse”) as the protracted linear time line we have fashioned for our story of human history. Seems to me that either explanation is reasonable. One thing I do know however: I love soaking in all of it—the old, the new, and everything in between.

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Candles in the Church of the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem

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Junk shop in Jaffa

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Pavement in Jerusalem

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Old City, Jerusalem

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Jerusalem

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Bauhaus, Tel Aviv style

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Tom Friedman installation, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

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Bialik Square, Tel Aviv, a blend of Bauhaus, Eclectic and International style architecture

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Engraved floor in Jerusalem

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The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

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Stairs near San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

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Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

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Madonna dei Pellegrini by Caravaggio (in Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Rome)

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Beverly Pepper sculpture at the Ars Pacis in Rome

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Book loving Becca

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Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI museum of contemporary art in Rome

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Inside MAXXI

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MAXXI and beyond

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Roman street

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When Rome was sacked by the imperial army of Charles V in 1527, a cheeky soldier scratched a message on the frescos at Villa Farnesina making fun of the Pope who went into hiding

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Listen up

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Huang Yong Ping’s exhibit, “Baton De Serpent,” at MAXXI

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Roman facade

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Late in the day along the Tiber

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Viewing frescos at Villa Farnesina

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Roman Forum

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Near the Coliseum on the Sunday before Epiphany

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MAXXI lobby

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A Richard Diebenkorn moment: Reflections on the exterior of MAXXI

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My granddaughter Siena tangled up (joyously) in lights

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.

— Garrison Keillor

Compulsory is a good word for this time of year. So is paradoxical. While the holiday percussiveness is pervasive, I still keep looking for some quiet, a bit of solitude, a calming moment.

Prioritize quiet mind. That’s all. Prioritize quiet mind.

Stop the mental noise several times a day. Long periods of up to an hour are excellent. If not long periods then short periods are excellent. But have a plan. Ten minutes of just looking at flowers. Five minutes of cloud watching. Ten minutes of sitting with your eyes closed watching your breath. Six minutes petting the cat or dog. Read something spiritual that truly inspires you to think about your own divinity. During these times never, ever, think about what needs fixing or your “to do” list. If you have trouble keeping the “monkey mind” at bay, keep a mantra handy. Interrupt the monkey mind by repeating a phrase such as “God is love” or “I love cool water”. Give yourself permission to believe that quiet mind is a mind which heals everything.

Other than a general sense of well being, you may not notice a change in your life right away. However, after the gestation period of a few weeks or months you will gain what you have been looking for. A healed mind heals a world.

— Paxton Robey

I am heading east for a few weeks. I will return to Slow Muse in mid-January. Happy New Year everyone.

Pale Ramon

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One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world’s first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history’s first true moon map. Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

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Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ depicting Wright’s trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies. Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

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NASA’s 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Courtesy of USGS/NASA

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A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested. Courtesy of the Huntington Library

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, by Michael Benson, may look like just another Abrams coffee table book, one of those volumes that are heavy on pretty and light on content. But this book is no “beautiful blank.” Benson has assembled a stunning compendium of our longings as humans to outpicture, navigate and model the cosmos of our physical world. It is such a profound passion in us, that will to bring sense to what we can, in reality, only partially grasp.

From Maria Popova‘s excellent overview on Brainpickings:

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope…humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time—a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness”…This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

As an epigraph to his book, Benson includes an appropriately paradoxical and lyrical quote from Italo Calvino. This passage captures the poetic nature of that irresistible but essentially furtive presence, that something that we desperately long to “grok” but cannot. It’s too all too immense, too beyond our puniness.

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

The collection of images is so varied and enchanting they are museum exhibit worthy just based on their visual power. But underneath all that delight there remains that haunting search so exquisitely captured in the final stanza of Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West (which is, after all these years, still my favorite poem):

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

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Looking closely at a recent painting

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

There is so much in this paragraph I find compelling. What actually is the “formal imagination”? And what is that distinction between what happens prior to seeing and the very act itself? Every maker, writer, artist straddles the essential tension of attention and how it comes through us, but it is difficult to describe.

That issue of attention correlates with a passage from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

After reading that quote, a friend added this insight from the Persian poet حافظ Hafiz: “What we speak (or listen to or believe without questioning) becomes the house we live in.”

The “house we live in” is a perpetual construction site. Our thoughts, attention and actions constellate a space that is our artistic/emotional/spiritual/ consciousness habitation. While Hafiz is being metaphorical, the power of the form around the form—the self inside its house—has been particularly visceral for me as we live through the chaos of renovating the back rooms of our IRL home.

Through it all, what matters is how to bring something substantial into existence. I am reminded of literary critic Christopher Ricks‘s litmus test for how to recognize value in art: “That which continues to repay attention.”


Simone Weil


Eva Hesse

The writer Simone Weil died in 1943 at the age of 34. In spite of her short life, her legacy is a rich one, spanning a variety of métiers including philosophy, Christianity, theology, social justice, mysticism. And even though her life’s work was from her point of view of a god-centered believer, the atheist icon Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

Another young German woman, the artist Eva Hesse, also died at the age of 34. Like Weil, her short life had more than its fair share of difficulty and suffering. Also similar is the world’s steadily increasing interest in her body of work. With only a ten year career, Hesse was influential in the move from Minimalism to Postminimalism. Writing about a recent retrospective of her work, art historian Arthur Danto addressed “the discolorations, the slackness in the membrane-like latex, the palpable aging of the material…Yet, somehow the work does not feel tragic. Instead it is full of life, of eros, even of comedy…Each piece in the show vibrates with originality and mischief.”

I am amazed by the legacy of both of these women even though their work is not similar in nature or outlook. Each achieved extraordinary depth during lives that were improbably and tragically shortened. Spending time with either body of work is a sober reminder that suffering is perennial and life is short. That what you do each day is what matters most.

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering,” Weil wrote.

Christian Wiman, also an admirer of Weil, responded to this statement in his essay Love Bade Me Welcome:

I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable…I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

That last line is a Taoist-like insight: the need, every day, to break ourselves apart and start fresh. That is a concept that speaks to me deeply.

But is it true, as Wiman claims, that it is not possible to be conscious and comfortable? Maybe it is the word comfortable that leaves me looking for some wiggle room. What about being conscious and accepting, in the spirit of Wendell Berry‘s admonishment to “be joyful though we have considered all the facts.” Still finding my way through that one.

Note: This post first appeared on Slow Muse in 2012.

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View of the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake

One of my favorite stories was told by Laurie Anderson about an interview she conducted with John Cage for the Buddhist publication Tricycle many years ago. A great admirer of Cage, Anderson was desperate to ask him the really BIG question: Are things getting worse or are they getting better?

Cage, ever the sage, responded with a gentle assurance. “Of course things are getting better Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”

I have thought of that response so many times over the years. There are small patterns and large ones, and our perceptive skills have difficulty with some of the larger arcs. It’s like the difference between weather and climate: We all know about weather, but we struggle to understand and truly perceive the concept of climate.

One friend refers to this as the “watching the tides” syndrome. As each set of waves comes to shore, big ones intermingle with smaller ones. But the larger pattern of the tides is also happening at the same time. That pattern requires patience and a knowledge of what to look for.

Many arcs of change are operating in our lives all the time. Some have patterns that make them difficult to discern until suddenly they seem to appear fully formed. My personal experience with this kind of surprise is what can happen in the studio. Your old reliable processes can hold you in a perceptual stupor until something emerges that shifts everything. Paying attention to what is a familiar way of working and what is in fact emergent is part of the practice.

This kind of vigilance resonated when I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Understanding “New Power”, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. It’s worth the read in its entirety but here is one passage that spoke particularly to me.

A much more interesting and complex transformation is just beginning, one driven by a growing tension between two distinct forces: old power and new power.

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The old way of working becomes currency by default. All the more reason to lean into what is more a current, like water or electricity. And of course the idea of being a channel is right in line with my way of seeing and making.

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Stillness, wherever: In this instance, the sunset from Carmel Beach, California

Pico Iyer is a very known travel writer and observer of the world. His most recent book, The Art of Stillness, is an invitation to his readers to choose the best destination of all—Nowhere. Going nowhere, says Iyer, “just may be the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.”

This may be surprising travel advice from a man who has indulged his oversized Wanderlust for most of his life. But in this slim book Iyer steps away from his adventurous observations of the outward bound life and turns his gaze on his own interior landscape of being a writer.

Writers…are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, it to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

The battlefield of sitting still is even more complicated by a cultural milieu that increasingly mediates against any stillness in our lives, ever. And yet every maker—writers, visual artists, musicians—knows how essential it is to get there.

Unfortunately, once you do achieve a sitting stillness, that doesn’t mean you’ve arrived.

Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen: there’s nowhere to hide there…A life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many nights alone in the dark.

One of my running themes on this blog has been the parallels between the creative life and the life of contemplation. Iyer turns to that path for clues as well. He spends time in monasteries and retreats. Drawing from anecdotes of several well known contemplatives such as Leonard Cohen, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson and Matthieu Ricard, Iyer learns by studying their patterns.

One of the first insights is that things are not as they appear. Iyer quotes Thomas Merton: “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.”

Nowhere has its own time zone and climate system, a place where the rules are a bit different. Near the end of the book Iyer shares his own wise advice, words that resonate with my experiences in the studio:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere—by sitting still or letting my mind relax—that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

Making space for the unbidden: That’s a worthwhile mantra for what studio time is all about.

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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—”Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

***

If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

***

There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

***

And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

***

“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

***

If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

***

For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

***

“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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When is it too much text? (Photo: bodyartforms.com)

As long as I have been making art—and eight years of writing steadily about art-related issues here on Slow Muse—I still struggle with how words and the visual come together.

One part of me is convinced that the great visual experiences cannot be harnessed into words. That’s the part that finds the current proclivity to align every visual object with an accompanying text just plain tiresome.

From The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones:

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

There is another side of me however that loves words and is so grateful when they open and expand my experience of seeing. My mother tongue is visual, but gratefully I know some word people too. Currently working on a catalog for an upcoming show, I have been completely enamored with the wordsmithing skills of my essayists, Linda Jones Gibbs and Kathryn Kimball. These “word wizards” tend to be writers who love art, not artists who can also write. They know how to craft words that deepen and enhance a visual experience, something I simply am not able to do with a sense of personal satisfaction.

Gilda Williams has written a small and important book that addresses many of these current word and image issues. How to Write About Contemporary Art, published by Thames & Hudson, is smart, fast and well written (but of course). It is also beautifully designed by artist/designer Sarah Praill to be highly readable and visually engaging. (More books like this, please.)

Williams presents the complex landscape of writing about art with the expertise of a seasoned tour guide, breaking the tangles down into comprehensible chunks. There is the issue of art criticism after the Clement Greenberg era. There is the increasing trend to use words to bring conceptually challenging contemporary art closer to larger and less familiar audiences. There is the delineating difference between explaining and evaluating (which, while important, is “in practice, porous” in her view.)

She can also speak about the shortcomings of the art writing without being condescending or unduly harsh. Fear, says Williams, is the real root of bad writing:

Much contemporary art-writing remains barely comprehensible…contrary to popular belief, most indecipherable art-speak is not written for the purpose of pulling the wool over non-congnoscenti’s eyes. On occasion art-impenetralia is penned by a big name, attempting to mask undeveloped ideas behind slick vocabulary or hawking substandard art; but the worst is often written by earnest amateur art-writers, desperately trying to communicate…the cause of much bad art-writing is not so much pretentiousness, as is commonly suspected, but a lack of training.

(Note: What a great neologism, “art-impenetralia.” Sounds like a salacious act!)

Williams also has her list of worn out words and phrases which should be left out of any writing. (We could all add our favorite frayed terms to this list as well):

subversion
disruption
formal concerns
displacement
alienation
today’s digital world

This is a worthwhile read for writers and artists, especially artists who struggle with how words can respectfully and meaningfully coexist with their visual work. This is as close to an art writing style guide as I have seen, and a worthwhile add to my bookshelf.

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