Category Archives: General

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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Eyed

Sometimes a spate of occurrences becomes confluence. For me, a series of news stories and movies built from older news stories have been that confluence. In language, the two streams flowing together are best caught by two verbs, “survey” and “surveil.” Readers of Thoreau will, of course, see the link in the first word. Surveying landscapes of all sorts was both a living and a habit for Henry Thoreau, and I’m guessing that there were times when his watching made folks in Concord uncomfortable, but not, I think, in the way the intrusive second verb does.

I worry about photos.

It’s not the selfie I worry about; that’s just another form of handprint on the cave wall, runes on the rock, or paint scrawl saying, Kilroy was here. Sometimes I even link such markers with Thoreau’s opening apologia for the lens of “I” in Walden. It’s the other eye that bothers me, the Cyclops of camera peering (mostly down) from light poles, buildings, from the flying-eye drones, or set like a stoic beside the worn path in the woods. Why do we insist increasingly on such peering?

Always Eye

Always Eye

And then, there is the eye staring at me right now from top center screen. Is it off? Should I worry? Last summer, for the first time, I read of a writer who tapes a covering scrap over that eye, goes all Odysseus on it and blinds the beast…every day…just in case. And I looked up after reading, and I began to wonder…

Can you see me now? How about now? Now? I take some comfort in what a dull movie I’d be, what a sleep-inducing study. Still.

When I was a boy, my father became the family photographer, taking thousands of shots of us all. His always-request was that we look off into the distance, away from the camera, and we all grumbled at this posing, even as we waited avidly for the year-end albums that came of his hobby. There was also a mild discomfort in the uncertainty of what would appear when a photo was developed. How would you look? Who would you appear to be?

I recall, at some point, reading of various indigenous people who, when introduced to the camera, refused to have their photos taken because they felt the image-taker would steal their souls. There seemed to be a sliver of sense in this fear, not that soul would be stolen, but that it would be exposed. And later, as I began to take my own photos and looked especially at the portraits of Walker Evans and other “Depression-era—photographers,” I understood that exposure was the point. Catching people in ways that let light into the darknesses of their (and our) lives was the aim. I wondered then if this was a sort of stealing.

But all of this usual sort of photography was in service of memory – “Remember when…” No one was being recorded to control his or her behavior; no one was being surveilled.

Not so today, as recent revelations about broad habits of surveillance have made clear. This posting could now aim into the murkiness of CIA and corporate surveillance; it could consider the tension between freedom and safety. Surely my viewing of Citizenfour has intensified that thinking. I’m guessing I’ll go in that direction soon, just not today.

Here's Looking at You

Here’s Looking at You

Instead, I’ll go (with Henry) to the woods, where my habit of looking for lions shapes my mind and walking. To be clear, I know there are no lions (yet) in my daily woods, so this column heads into territory I hear of daily via the Internet. It considers the famous LA-area lion, P-22. Here’s a recent headline: “P-22 coughs up a hairball from the deer he’s eating.”

Caught at his meal by a trailside cam, P-22 stands, I think, for all of us being surveilled unaware, unblinkingly. Instead of walking our way to a fleeting sighting with its awakening frisson of closeness, we have bland recording; we have a hairball that must be hacked back up. Are we meant to see in such a monotonous, unblinking way? Without the effort of walking there? Should we too be seen this way by the lenses now everywhere in our lives?

As noted earlier, I feel ambivalent about the invasive nature of much photography, even as I look at its pictures with a sort of wonder and hunger to know. But what I’m certain I can’t sign onto are the unannounced lenses of an always-looking world, whether they are posted trailside or borne by drone overhead. I don’t like the certainty that I am always being framed even as I can’t see the framing eye. I like to walk to outlooks from which I can look out, survey a slice of the world. I don’t like the feeling that, as I walk, I am being surveilled.

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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.

image_1

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.

image

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden