May 12, 2009

Modes of Association

New research into memory (and the mapping of the brain's management of memory) has led to an astounding result: the development of an experimental drug that, when delivered to a certain area of the brain, could disable the connections between the cells that hold a memory within the brain, and effectively erase that memory and its associations. 
The positive spin on this development is that it makes it possible to think of a future where people are not plagued by addiction, for example, or traumatic stress. Which is a creepily delightful refutation of the mantra that everything happens for a reason...because now the things you didn't really want to happen to you, or didn't really want to witness, can be undone. But what if those memories you'd like to delete provide the underpinnings of your identity or your ethical conscience? That is a whole other sticky issue.
Memory is the field any artist plows through every day, turning earth to reveal the tender and the grotesque. I wouldn't choose to take the drug. Besides, while being alive means being conscious of self, it also means being conscious of (and taking in) how others' memories have shaped them, wounded them, strengthened them. 
About ten years ago, I sat in my friend Mary's living room and had an intense conversation with her house guest -- a woman in her late 60's who told me that her family had been murdered twenty years earlier. She explained that her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild had been at Jonestown and had been killed by Jim Jones. I'd never met anyone who had been so closely connected to that (or any) act of violence, and had no idea I ever would meet someone just sitting near me in a living room in Philadelphia whose adult life was so shaped by that experience.
This woman lived her experience, and I simply heard from her about it -- but my brain has retained the memory of her words, her face, the light in the room, the lumpiness of the couch I was sitting on at the time. The question is, what triggered the retention of that memory for me, the listener? The easy way out is to claim emotional impact, but this was not the first time she had told the story, and this was not a person I had any connection with before (or since) that day. In truth, I think it imprinted because it triggered a question in my mind; time froze there -- the light, the couch, her words -- and I knew she was describing anguish I have never (and hopefully will never) have to suffer about people I love, but I also knew she was talking about a kind of thinking that she could not understand. 
She told me she had never understood her child's commitment to the idea of Jonestown, and she also did not understand why people spoke about the victims there as if they were the agents of their own lives. And what imprinted for me as a memory was precisely that ethical quandary -- I too could not understand how people wind up in situations that demand an exchange of group acceptance for their free will. I think its what triggered my brain to retain the conversation, because considering will, agency, morality, and choice is what my brain has always spent a lot of time doing.
Of course, I'd want to give her the memory-erasing drug, to somehow ease the pain of her horrific loss. 
But I don't know that she'd choose the same. 

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. 

February 19, 2009

Upon Entering the Temple

"Most people just look to the left when they come in" said the security guard quietly, "and then they get up close to the Eakins and look at all the faces. Some of those faces are bored! Some of them are asleep, you know? People don't even really look at what's on the other wall. That's a shame." 
He pointed to the right, toward where I had been looking -- at H. O. Tanner's The Annunciation. "I see a lot in that painting. I like being in this room with it. I see a cross. Do you see that? Mary is so young but I think she is ready. People don't look." I agreed with him. And I felt a strong jolt of jealousy that he gets to look at Tanner's brilliant painting (which was the first subject I wrote about for this blog, on March 24, 2008) every day as he guards the galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
On this visit I saw more than I ever have before on the canvas. I saw Tanner's use of color differently; the section on the right of the painting, of a low shelf covered with a blanket, is a painting in itself -- an abstract color field. The blaze of light from the angel/heavenly idea on the left seems to transmute the blanket on the bed into thick curves and waves of yellow and white. Up close, the shape and tones of that light seem to actually generate the blanket, the bed, and the figure of Mary. Where Tanner has placed you as the viewer is also mesmerizing; this is a large canvas, and you are situated looking out of the darkness and up at the action. There is more abstraction and more action in the painting than I had remembered. Seeing it in person again changed both my thinking and my eyes.  
Talking with the guard made me also think on what is interesting to viewers about the Eakins painting The Agnew Clinic, beyond its historical significance to Philadelphia and Eakins' brilliant reputation as a portraitist. Of course, people do like to look at faces. And the viewer is situated in the stands of the operating theater, right there with everyone else. But the subject matter (for those of us who are not in medicine) could make one queasy; the female patient is having a mastectomy. And it evoked in me a very strange feeling, standing there in the center of the gallery, standing between two such powerful paintings of powerless women. 
The guard's observation about the standard mode of seeing in his gallery stayed with me for a long time. Like so many people, I search in my own past for inspiration, and this requires some willful revisiting. When this goes well, it too changes both my eyes and my thinking. When it does not, nothing changes, and the dull thump of the past just recurs, like a wet bath mat thumping around in the dryer. 
But I feel the thrill of consciousness when I can re-encounter a painting (or a piece of music, or a piece of writing) and it presents itself seemingly anew. Something is engaged, more space is made in my mind, and a habit of seeing or knowing is broken. 
That is a blissful moment.