Category Archives: Arts

There Was An Artist…

A recent conversation sent me, as many do, to consider what Henry Thoreau had to say on the matter. The trigger-question was about what separates art from life. Or, put differently, how does an artist integrate her or his art with life? Or vice versa? This is an age-old question, but also one that each generation bumps into. And it seems more pressing with the proliferation of art objects and us. What’s necessary, and artist may ask.

It seems to me that Henry Thoreau saw his life as his primary artistic expression – “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art.” Thoreau sought to be awake to and to affect the quality of each of his days. He deemed being so awake and aware the hardest of assignments.

Yesterday, while I was walking, I mulled the question further. It strikes me that a problem with art is captured by the word “representation.” Thoreau, for example, wrote to represent the experience and experimentation that he sought out every day during his Walden years. But when we pull apart the word, we get re…presentation, or presentation of something again. So, in a representation life is not art, it is instead an attempt to present some of that life again.

I think that Thoreau worked on this question near the end of Walden in his story about the artist from Kouroo. This artist sets out to make a staff – note, it’s not a representation of a staff, but the object itself. The artist’s goal is that the stick be perfect, and he is willing to spend whatever time necessary to achieve that perfection, because, as Thoreau writes, “Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” p.326, (Princeton Edition)

As the artist sinks into his work, time disappears, dynasties fall, all of earth’s history passes by. I make of this that the markers – minutes, hours, years, etc. – of usual life vanish. And the artist enters a timeless act of creation. As he works, and whole eras and worlds go by, he concentrates on his staff; his whole life becomes the work.

When he finishes the staff, the artist looks up; everything is different. He is elsewhere. His staff is not a representation. It simply is, as is he.

So, perhaps when we create work in a way that means we “do nothing else in [our] li[ves],” the division between art and life disappears. We are present, as is our art.

There are also Thoreau’s thoughts about “volatile truth” at the top of page 325 in the Princeton Edition. Here’s he’s reflecting on the immediacy of creation and how its “residue,” the leftover language on the page, is inadequate to the moment it sought to capture. This again points to time’s passage as widening the gap between life (lived in the present) and art (re…presentation from the past).

And, finally, here’s a short scene from a recent visit to the Picasso Museum. Perhaps, it’s just me, but I find myself distracted from the art on the walls by the people surging around me; they seem to mimic the art, to take on its characteristics, but in more compelling fashion. Life becomes what I watch; I get separated from it. The distinction between what’s on the wall and what’s around me blurs, the framing gets rearranged. Then, I come to my senses.

 

Acrobat - Pablo Picasso

The Acrobat, Picasso, 1930.  My favorite piece.

 

At the Picasso

At the reopened Picasso
Museum, bobbing amid the incoming
tide near the man with the out-
sized nose and the woman tipped
sideways by her chest and
every one is breaking up is
about to leave the frame
when I smell the orange and
turn – the woman next to me
peels it idly (like any breaker
of rules); the whole room
rushes back into place.

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Teaching @ Distance

Words Over Water

The appointed time approaches. I am, I think, set. My notes are aligned before me; books I might need are at hand; I’ve changed from sweatshirt to collared one; my computer-camera is aimed my way, its mic amped up. And the sign we bought as this house’s first purchase will appear in the upper-left quadrant of the screen. SIMPLIFY, it says. Say it twice to make it quotation. A sign…and a command. Something to live up to. Nice touch, I think.

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An odd underwater sound, like air escaping from a submerged shoe, signals the start; I click the phone icon, and there in dark forms they are – my class. I think that phrase to myself, adding a question mark. I know one person in the room. The rest are there, I suppose, for the myriad reasons that bring us all to our commitments, largely to commitments made for us.

Some 3500 miles away, it is 4:30 in the afternoon, and outside the sun is leaving the city streets. Wine and cigarettes must issue a siren’s call. Here, I’m pressing into late morning, and our short sun is working on what little December warmth it can conjure. Coffee is still ascendant.

As ever, I think, noting that my eyes look squinty, my face puffy on the small embedded screen on my desktop. We are not made to be photographed by a camera looking up as gravity pulls us down.

But, having settled the lights in their Paris classroom and greeted each other, we say it’s time to begin. Here, I say silently, comes Henry, and I begin limning some of Henry Thoreau’s subtractive practices I’ve thought through during the past few days. “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art,” he wrote in Where I lived and What I Lived For. And a page later, he pounded twice on the nailhead of advice: “Simplify, simplify.” And then, a little later, for those resistant (or asleep) among us, he offered the repeating rumble-stroke of “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”

“That ought to suffice,” he might have said, laying down his hammer/pen and imagining us, his readers. “They should get that, at least.”

And, of course, they do get this pruning of life to its “necessaries” to make room for the work chosen, for the I-work of becoming and making.

As I talk and lay out a sketch of Henry Thoreau’s move to and “experiment” at Walden Pond, I begin to sink into the familiar rhythm of story and teaching. I read some more of Henry’s words, offering paraphrases on the side as I travel a good deal from line to line; I pause and scan the room before me. Teaching makes me alive to how Thoreau’s words may sound for others, what they may mean. But every so often, motion draws my eye outside the borders of the screen – birds arc toward the backyard feeder; a woodpecker hammers at a pine; the squirrel is back eyeing the feeder; I suppress the urge to chase. Good dog.

Strangeness settles over me. I was going to write, “an estranged feeling settles over me,” but that isn’t so. The familiar book, the voicing of tentative understanding, of question, the partly-visible audience in dark relief on the screen.

I ask a question and watch the familiar scene of students turning to each other to see who will speak – I’m at home in two places.

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December Immersion – from Walden to Paris

No, I’ve not been soaking in Walden water, or any other water, as our winter comes on, but I have been re-immersed recently in Henry Thoreau’s words. Prompted by an invitation to explain Thoreau’s experiment in living to 20 graduate students at Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastique (IHEAP) in Paris, I’ve returned to Walden, and, as always happens when I reread this deeply familiar book, I’ve been amazed by its insights and universality.

At the same time, I’ve been challenged by the “seminar” that lies ahead this week. Not only will it be via SKYPE, not for me a familiar way of being with others, but the group of artists from around the world I’ll be working with reportedly have only the slightest sense of who Henry Thoreau was. And, as added complexity, a number of them will be working in a 2nd language.

How to bring Henry into sharp and real focus in our 90 minutes?

IHEAP’s focus for this year’s program is a help: soustraire, or subtraction, as method for and in support of creativity and art is the year’s theme, and I’ve found it a fine lens for looking at Henry’s Walden experiment. After all, Walden is all about subtracting the usual or familiar from life in pursuit of awakening and then adhering to the real, and Thoreau, crucially, has to subtract the expected self in favor of finding a real self.

Hmmm…I’ve just reread the last sentence and found myself saying, “show me what you mean.”

Okay, here’s example: Henry Thoreau, possessor of exceptional physical and mental vitality, and – very rare for his day – a college education, would have been expected to be a central figure in Concord. He became just that, but not in the way local society would have imagined. Rather than becoming a “select” man of the town, at 27 Henry decamped for a nearby pond and set up solitary living. “What’s that Henry (or David) Thoreau up to?” many must have muttered. Added to that consternation was Thoreau’s determination to become a writer. “He’s gone off the tracks,” more than one Concordian must have declared. And indeed he had (as well as going off on the tracks, but that’s a pun only Henry would like.)

What more did Henry subtract from his life so that he might develop his insights and art? Here’s a partial list of identities not pursued or subtracted: husband, father, teacher, householder, pillar of town society, rich man, majority member, all-day worker, church-goer, elected official.

And what subtractions might you add to this list? Or remove from it?

Thinking of creativity and art as subtraction has been fascinating; it is, among other things, another application of Thoreau’s famous advice: “simplify, simplify”;  it is also acknowledgement that we are in need of less rather than more in this age of surfeit.

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