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March 30, 2009

Not From the Strongest Light, But From the Pattern

The best movie I ever saw was the radio play version of Star Wars. 
     
I "saw" it while stretched out under the speakers on the floor of a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania one evening in July, 1981. This imagined Luke Skywalker-reality was far richer than what I had seen in a theater a year or so before. As I viewed distant planets on the screen of my mind, there were no continuity problems. I did not have to suspend my disbelief. And since the feelings I had about the characters I was hearing over the speakers were generated by me, not cued visually, I felt them to be utterly true. 
     
That same summer I visited a slaughterhouse and looked on as a cow got a metal rod punched into it's brain. No getting around what was true in that scene; the cow it was that died.
     
The best interview I have ever seen was also on the radio. It was on NPR's Fresh Air several years back, when Terry Gross asked Monica Lewinsky how she (Monica) knew Bill Clinton was truly loving her in the moment if she (Monica) could not talk to him or even see him, given the sex act she was performing on him...and that it was performed from beneath a desk. At this point, Ms. Lewinsky stopped the interview. 
     
The interviewer had asked an apparently unsupportable question, one that required an unvarnished look at the truth of a moment. Terry Gross had wondered aloud just how a person can imagine love is mutual when only one person has power, and the silence that followed that question was louder than any screed on the subject. The quieted Lewinsky had told herself that something was true (she was loved! she was satisfied!) which was patently and provably not. On the other side of the radio, I swear I could see her break.
     
I could understand her self-delusion. Because the real emotions are those that generate up from the dark, out of the whole story of the self. The fake ones, the tricky ones, are the ones you are told (or tell yourself) you should have, particularly in certain Lewinsky-like situations. And those are the ones that come with strings and strands and shame attached. Especially if you were raised to be a nice girl.
     
Bringing that recognition to the work of Making Art While Female means some undoing is required. 
     
Of course people do create art about fake things all the time. Just as people create fake lives or fake identities for themselves. And fake feelings. And women often are encouraged to express, at least situationally, required emotions. Because it just makes things easier for the group, somehow. 
     
But I don't believe one can paint about required or fake emotions and get anything like a good painting. Which gives me motivation to not dwell for long in required or expected or advised emotional responses; there is a cost, on several fronts. Bad art costs, as does the loss of self. And in the end, no other expected reality actually ever fits you. The one that fits, that generates the work of creative work, is only the one you have shaped. 

March 24, 2009

Keeping on the Beam

Artist Agnes Martin viewed painting as a means of staying in balance with the world, and as a means of expressing memories of joy. Not joy in the moment, but recollections of innocence and innocent feelings, unweighted emotions. For Martin, painting abstractions (as critic Holland Cotter put it once) "kept psychological chaos at bay, and it kept her on the beam. She hoped that her art would do the same for us." 
     
I take Martin's work over her lifetime as an extended act of generosity, because her choice to revisit emotional states and present them via abstraction provides the viewer with an open-ended invitation into somewhere other than the known universe. 
     
But this is a rare thing. Most of us figure out how to stay on the beam in very prosaic ways. An English professor of mine once claimed that receiving mail was what kept her on course, since it confirmed for her that she actually existed outside of her own mind. Zen master Robert Aiken discovered Buddhism while he was trapped in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, and this provided an inner order that sustained him in the midst of chaos. A friend (the mother of three) told me that for her, it was a nap and a beer a day. 
     
I witness the daily routines of neighbors, actions that seem essential for them to maintain. And like everyone else, I see the ordering rituals of commerce and religion and politics, furling and unfurling in front of us all, every day. All this makes me contemplate my own means for staying on the beam.
     
Apparently, the best of all balance-keeping devices is interaction with others. And the idea that inner balance comes from being seen and heard by others does seem a perfectly pleasant one. Unless you find being seen and heard generally unpleasant. And remarkably unbalancing. 
     
In that case, I find it's better to just let the paintings communicate in my stead.

March 20, 2009

All the Fools Will Understand

I read recently that the way to stay happy is to not think about the past or the future, and I have to admit reading that did make me momentarily happy, because it made me just laugh out loud. In this author's picture of how happiness works, he seems to imagine we can all achieve a pristine and unencumbered state of pure selfness. But wouldn't that take an unwavering will, and a sky-high dose of narcissism, to only think about the present, your own present? 
     
I doubt this is even possible to sustain, mentally...at least not for actual grown-ups. Or people who don't run bailed-out investment banks. Its not even chimpanzee-possible.
     
I also read recently a brief interview with philosopher Alva Noe where he describes his approach to thinking about thinking: "The classical picture of our human predicament is that we're all interiority and the world as far as we know is nothing but a source of impingement. We're bombarded with sensory stimulation, and insofar as we occupy a world with an independent existence and other people, all that is really sort of conjecture; we're trapped inside the caverns of our conscious mind. I'm offering a different picture, where the world and the others around us come first, and we are spread out and plugged in and implicated." So, in his "different" picture of how consciousness works, we are all...responsible?
     
Well hello, Professor Noe. Welcome to connected-to-others-land. 
     
Lately there have been too few representatives from that land on the national stage (or at least getting coverage in the press) and too much analysis of those who have been shoved out of their "self-matters" reverie and find themselves suddenly, shockingly implicated in the human condition. Coupled with this is the silly mantra of "specialness" that seems to be repeated about these types, particularly when defending extraordinary pay for their money skills. 
     
Obviously I am not in finance, and given my chosen profession, one can rightly assume that I am generally unmotivated by material gain. So, to that argument, I offer the words of a much more enlightened ambassador from connected-to-others land, Richard P. Feynman: "I don't believe that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math, and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it's no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, 'What one fool can do, another can.'  What we've been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn't studied it, but it was fools who did it, and in the next generation, all the fools will understand it."
   

March 12, 2009

In the Apparent World

When I am not being particularly kind to myself, I get concerned with comprehensibility. A common enough activity, I suppose; people do seem to spend a great deal of time framing themselves for others. And reframing themselves, too
     
When I am stuck in that, I tend to mentally categorize my work into pleasing, clear compartments -- paintings of places, paintings about people, etc. And as soon as I think that, I realize I've reduced the work down and it is now edible. In one bite. Three-course-dinner gum.
     
A sticky form of punishment, this creative self-reduction. And reducibility does not breed contentment, or promote more creativity, in my case. It just makes me feel dead.
     
Titles are tricky, then; I don't strive to be obtuse when I name work, I just tend to reach for something clear out of the nebula of thought and feeling and visual cues that make the work. At Deer Isle (above) is a good example. 
     
The colors in this painting do not correspond to the colors of that place. When I first saw Deer Isle, Maine, the summer I was 14, it was a brilliant cloudless day, all blue sky and green trees. The colors and shapes in the work don't correspond, either, to the physical place I was in when I painted the piece decades later. If the work is about anything at all, it is about a moment of consciousness I had that day, sitting on a hill looking at the harbor.
     
When I got home from Maine that summer, I told my big sister Ann that I had figured something out about God on this trip, that I could now "get" why people believed God existed -- it was because such beautiful, idyllic places existed. This was not something I'd given much thought to previously, the why of belief. But I felt aware that summer of a way of thinking which I did not share, but could appreciate. Sort of like realizing what it is that two friends in love see in one another. A recognition that beauty could open up, and even sustain, a spiritual belief.
     
High school came, and I put that thought away for quite awhile -- another thing people do, often to our own detriment. But it reappeared when I was in my studio, about five years ago. I started thinking about the why of beliefs (any beliefs) and all of the moments and elements that cluster to form a sustaining idea. 
     
If I believed in the spirituality of nature, that moment at Deer Isle would have been a springboard (and a reinforcement) to a lifetime of belief, since I spend a great deal of time in and observing the natural world. If I believed in a deity, the existence of this peaceful-looking place, aglow in the summer light, would have been a confirmation, and would have been confirmed repeatedly by my encountering other idyllic places over my lifetime.
     
What I knew -- what I felt to be true for myself as a 14-year old girl -- was that an ideation did not, and likely would never, sustain me. But I could suddenly see how it could be sustaining to others.
     
And what I recognized so much later, at age 38, is that moments of quiet and aloneness were the thing I craved most (and enjoyed with delicious abandon) as a child. Time away from my large family provided clarity and calm; time alone generated wider thoughts and more compassion for others than time with them ever did. And now here I was, all grown-up, alone in my studio, standing silently in front of an empty canvas. Gazing. 
     
And after a time, the canvas became inhabited by a summer day when something made sense and I felt connected to the lives of others even though I was alone. And the canvas became, in turn, every known place, every clear thought, every memory, every loss -- the moments and elements that have clustered to form my own sustaining idea. 
     
And my hand reached out for a tool. And colors got chosen, and forms took shape. And when it was done, clear, balanced, enough, it was done. A painting of a place.

March 6, 2009

Boarding Passes Out, Please

Enthralling as it can be to watch the offended reactions people have when certain taps stop flowing and it is revealed that the well is dry -- when a certain way of being can't be taken for granted any longer (as if taking for granted is ever the right way to go?) and those who have been masters of taking become furious -- it is exhausting too. 
     
Because the rest of us have been here all along unable to escape the ceaseless noise that greed generates, we're already tired. Listening to the fury now really just wears one out. And makes one hope for the return of the fulfilling quiet that comes of being sustained by what you already are. 
     
In silent (and thankful) celebration of even the slightest possibility of that return, I re-read Seamus Heaney's poem, From the Republic of Conscience
     
The airport in this wonderous republic is "so noiseless that when the engines stopped/I could hear a curlew high above the runway." 
     
In this place there are "No porters. No interpreter. No taxi./You carried your own burden and very soon/your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared."
     
And it is a place so remarkable and humbling that "At their inauguration, public leaders/must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep/to atone for their presumption to hold office."  
     

March 4, 2009

Ourselves a Sphere Behind

Father George Coyne is the Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, a Jesuit who is intrigued by space, and a very funny person. He posits that, since the universe is very star-filled and star-generative (and contains lots of the stuff necessary to star-making, like helium and hydrogen) then the universe is very fertile and undoubtedly contains recognizable, comprehensible life...even though it took 13 billion years to make an amoeba. 
     
Dr. Lynn Rothschild is an evolutionary biologist and NASA Research Scientist (and also a very funny person) who posits that, since life really doesn't do anything it doesn't have to -- since research shows us that life is basically lazy and just sort of takes advantage of situations which arise -- then life elsewhere in the universe, if it exists, will most likely be adapted to its situation and is probably unrecognizable to us. 
     
Father Coyne has said that "Through physics, biology, mathematics...we put the universe in our heads." I imagine Dr. Rothschild would say that we're just on the cusp of learning to read the universe, a fact which concerns and impacts the universe not a whit. 
     
I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Rothschild and Father Coyne speak at an event recently, and while the content was not as combustible as, say, CPAC, the science presentation did make me think about the political gab of late -- and of Rush Limbaugh in particular. I think he'd be a Father Coyne fan. Both men talk similarly about a way of seeing, and both talk with real conviction and a commitment of purpose. 
     
I get oddly fascinated when I listen to true believers (whatever their conviction) describe the world as if all others are blind. Fascinated because I recognize that it is important to them to see the world in the manner they do, and also because there is such an ego investment in persuading others to see in this same way. The current Chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, a creationist who used to "believe" in science, puts it this way: "If evolution is development of life through unguided natural processes, how can we be made in the image of God? How can humans be worth anything?"
     
This fear-inducing question of human worth seems to be the issue which guides the vision. And it seems that the question of worth is the issue that guides Rush Limbaugh and dittoheads, true believers, conservatives, and the Bernie Madoffs of the globe. Because how can humans be worth anything without control over bonuses, without control over government spending, without control over contraception, guns, how we see God, how we see the future? Isn't a serious ego investment and a projected morality required, even demanded, in order for the community of humans to really live? How could it even be possible that people exist just within the context of their time, adapting and evolving, unguided? 
     
And yet...here we all are. The universe around us is filled with the detritus of exploded stars, which is both background noise and also the fuel for the creation of more stars. I don't know exactly what happens to the exploded ideals or beliefs of those who find (or lose) a true vision, but I imagine that detritus is all around us too -- and Rush would have you believe that background noise must be yelled over in order to be reformulated. 
     
But while some talk and challenge and attempt to define the whole universe as a human-centric thing, billions of stars just go about formulating themselves, from their own context, in their own time.

March 2, 2009

The Ineradicable Stuff

I am not sure if one really can orient time to oneself, but I sure do love thinking about that weird idea. I painted about that too, a few months ago, in black and white and tones of gray for some reason, and I am still chewing. 
     
The scheduled accumulation of segments of time (the goings and comings of daily life) and recognition and response by others of shared time - these things tend to center time on the self. But I don't really understand why this should be so.
     
The conception of time was radically different to past generations. And that makes me wonder, has the portion of the human brain calculating and marking time been honed to center time on the self as some kind of a survival tactic? 
     
Proust famously (or infamously) created a lot of writing about the fluidity of time, but he was writing in his own time about his attempts to center time onto himself, without the aid of an external scheduled accumulation of time segments (i.e. an office job) or recognition and response (i.e. interacting with kids and friends). He had his memory only. Unlike pretty much anyone alive today. I suppose memory can serve a similar function as recognition or response; you tend to mark and center time on yourself when remembering past events...but to what end? 
     
Is engaging in one's memory an action taken for self-awareness alone, or is there another function? And do our minds jump to recounting experience when there is some slippage in the present marking of time? And why is there slippage anyway? Is it caused by stress, or joy, or other people, or is it just an outcome of being conscious?
     
So I wonder about the reasons for dwelling in memory. And what is the best reason to dwell in the moment? And why do we do both?
    
It can seem (especially when I watch the freaky spectacle that is "American Idol" or hear stories from friends with very small children) that for some, the essential function of just being awake is to center time itself around one's own needs and wants. 
     
I imagine that visually as a clock with hands not pointing to the recognizable numbers on its face, but rather pointing outwards, towards oneself...and while time moves forward, some kind of force (well, a whole lot of self-interest, I guess) must be exerted on those outstretched clock hands, in order to maintain the focus of time on the self. 
     
For others, especially those engaged in thinking about solutions to conundrums in physics or the search for life elsewhere, time seems to be a thing that is wonderfully vast and entirely impersonal.  
     
And for some others of us, the sense that time or forward motion has stopped (in moments of great feeling, while creating, when seeing differently) is what makes one conscious of time at all. And that consciousness can be imagined visually as of a kind of sphere of unchanging stuff that surrounds and holds you as you clearly, viscerally, wordlessly experience whatever it is that you are experiencing.