August 4, 2011

Ideas as Opiates

The gentleman seated to my right on the plane was thirty-ish, white, anxious looking, and gripped in both hands a fairly new copy of 'Atlas Shrugged'. A representative sample, right there next to me! So of course I had to ask. He said he was reading it to "understand some things" but that he had his own criticisms of both the content and the writing style.
He also had, it turns out, a lot of criticisms about society in general, and public education in particular. Probably not so fun for him, then, to realize he was sitting next to someone who is working on a doctorate in urban education. Tough for me too, I guess, though our long and rather far-ranging talk did help the time pass. And eventually, I know I'll paint it.
Watching the recent debt-ceiling dance made me recall that plane ride conversation, and made me reflect yet again on how people perceive and use power, political and otherwise. Or rather, how people perceive their own powerlessness, and how they react to that feeling. And how I myself react to that feeling.

Mark and I used to live in techno-land, on the other coast, where everyone has gadgets and things hum. We used to live in an epicenter of techno-hubris, too. And now we are on the other side, in Philly. Or "reality" as I call it. And reality here is complex and messy and slow. Here, I have a student job processing quality-of-life surveys of people with intellectual disabilities, people who survive only through the largesse of the county and the professionalism of their care staff. Yesterday I reviewed a survey completed (with the help of her staff) by a middle-aged woman who is both severely intellectually impaired and a quadriplegic. She lives in a small group home and she functions however marginally in the world only because her elderly parents engage with her staff to make sure she has growth occasionally going outside.

I have had so many conversations with conservative-types, mostly men, over the last 10 years -- people who are, by any objective measure, possessed of tremendous social capital and power. They tend to protest that their power is threatened at every turn, and they object outright to living in a social order that, through things like public education or healthcare, diminishes their domain. The Rand-fan on the plane certainly perceived things this way. Which makes me wonder about their egos, as well as my own.

Part of me did want to just punch the guy. But a greater part of me wanted to hear why he thought what he thought about his own situation in life, because I need to know how they think. Just as I need to know how the actually powerless (whether in group homes or at Roxborough High) are impacted by his kind of thinking. Comprehending how the relentlessly self-referencing see the world matters. Because, it seems, they are making all the policy decisions now.

April 6, 2011

The View From Where You Start

If one encounters the contemporary art on display at Dia:Beacon with one frame of mind -- say, a frame that holds that much of what populates the contemporary art world is MFA-ratified forms of creative masturbation -- then when one enters this pristine, white-walled space and sees a quantity of what seems to be puerile content, that assumption may seem valid. But if one encounters the artwork at Beacon with another frame of mind -- a frame that holds that all one is about to see, upon entering the galleries, are individual visual forms of feeling, creative expressions of how an individual artist manages emotional reality -- then it is a pretty fascinating trip.

Painter Agnes Martin's work, on display in a mini-gallery at Beacon, is quiet and soothing. She seems to view emotional life as a constant stream of data from which one can take small snapshots, or in which one can create small pauses, and she captures this in pale lines on canvas. For Richard Serra, the sculptor of massive steel forms, emotions seem to be heavy obstructions in the path of thought. Some of them are totally impenetrable, and some of them need to be entered into -- but even then your perceptions trick you (you may think you are going up or down when you are actually level) on the path to comprehension. With his massive wall drawings, Sol LeWitt presents the emotional life as that which under girds all, as if feelings are all we are constructing and conveying, all the time. Sculptor Louise Bourgeois' hanging organic forms (and the giant spider that takes up most of one room) seem to say that over time feelings may dement you, and possibly devour you, unless you see them for what odd things they are. And Gerhard Richter's installation of reflective glass panels surrounding couches in a huge, well lit room conveys the very essence of it all: your feelings are self-created, and it is to yourself you should look for explication. And in fact, in his room of calm reflection, that is unavoidable.

One can maintain this frame of mind towards much of the work at Beacon. Bruce Nauman's neon/object installations and videos (in the basement) seem to convey that since feelings "live" in the dark they are not really comprehensible, and when exposed to the light, they are overwhelming and offputting. Dan Flavin's light installations: feelings make sense only in retrospect, when you look back at the entirety of the room they inhabit. Fred Sandback's string frame installations: emotions are an entirely imaginative act. On Kawara's series of paintings of time increments: feelings are moments in a series, and are not connected to anything other than time. And Michael Hiezer's imposing and creepy 'negative' sculptures cut into the gallery floor: don't get too close to feelings as they may swallow you whole.

There are a myriad of ways to interpret the abstract constructions and paintings at Dia:Beacon, of course, and that is the joy and the terror of abstraction. Your own free will is in play in each and every encounter; you are never simply acknowledging familiar landscapes. But weirdly enough, on this trip, I wound up doing just that. After exploring the art, we sat on the bench outside the building for a time, watching the Metro-North trains going by below us, looking at the boats on the Hudson, and it was all beautifully, richly familiar.

March 10, 2011

Houses of Being

Because I can intend to imagine a space or time or experience differently than what I observe or register daily, the exercise of imagination is not inherently liberating.

And it strikes me too that to create a new known (to imagine a world in the mind's eye) with the goal of deeply knowing that place and returning to it whenever one desires is a form of... serious conformity. Which is why Inception was such a drag. The outcome of this type of imagining is that the grooves of thought are dug in, and as a result I can re-enter a space I have built in my imagining whenever I choose and so re-encounter the same emotional state that "comes with" that imagined space. The movie playing in Donald Rumsfeld's mind, of his imagined Iraq-war world, is a great example.

But to me, the exercise of imagining an object or place (or, frankly, re-imagining my own history) is actually the exercise of creating an imagined self.

This imagined self is made in a space just beyond the gorges of the mind (those really deep grooves which are carved from rivers of repeated, maintaining thoughts) and beyond the tracks of the normative, regulated, constrained, social. The intention in this kind of imagining is never to make it familiar and known, not to cut the groove too deep, but simply to experience this other self, or moments of non-selfness. Simply to experience unboundedness.

I think this is why creative types tend to not have fixed imaginative spaces but rather push forward to create new spaces (new selves) all the time; we are constantly cutting new grooves. The desire is always for more. We find no real comfort dwelling in the known knowns. And I am, even as I gain in age and experience, still mystified by those who do find such comfort.

Martin Heidegger once wrote that "Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home." (A very self-serving point of view, for a philosopher.) Heidegger was identifying what was in his perception the core of being -- language use as a sort of universal proof of conscious thought, of aliveness. The function of this seems to be to ratify a static sense of purpose. To ratify that being is about doing the thing that makes one feel as if one is in one's true home, or is protecting one's true home. One could insert any number of things into that quote (faith, sex, money, a political affiliation) and it would be equally self-serving.

But what if being a guardian of one house is a prescription for mental atrophy? What of being, aliveness, and consciousness and endeavors into the wordless? What if, because we perpetually think, the houses of being are infinite?

January 25, 2011

The Angular Distance

A few years back I had a weirdly visceral experience of nostalgia while just walking across a post office parking lot. We'd been living in Seattle for about 4 years, and rather than get used to the place, it seemed that as each day passed, I felt more out of synch. My intellect said time would ease the feeling but I doubted this.

Then that day, a sunny-ish day in a soggy Seattle fall, I walked across the parking lot and I was hit by the smell of wet leaves. And I mean hit; I stopped short, and breathed in...and then I was crying. Not sobby crying. Just weeping a little. Something, some feeling of loss which I did not understand at the time, mixed with a powerful memory of playing in leaf piles in the front yard growing up, mixed with another memory, of the briny smell of the Long Island Sound, came up and out and stood in front of me and blocked my way for a moment. And this is a "something" I've found impossible to paint.

There I was, four years into painting full-time, just past 40 years old, and I missed home? That moment, I now know, was the beginning of a process. The feeling remained beneath the surface for some time, and then with our relocation to California, it seemed to literally run my mind. And my tongue. When we visited the east coast this fall, I looked out the train window at one point and randomly blurted out to my husband "Hey, there's home!" -- not consciously knowing what I was looking at, just the places blurring by, all those towns on the once so-familiar train line.

That feeling is extant, and it has come to matter dearly. So now, due in no small part to the fact that my husband is a remarkable person, we have rearranged our life. After 10 years of living and working and learning and painting on the west coast, we are off, in a few weeks, with our things in the big yellow truck, driving 3000 miles, heading for the east coast. For home.