Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

January 23, 2012

Kenneth Noland, 1961.
Synthetic polymer paint on unprimed canvas.
Museum of Modern Art, New York

After talking about people becoming curmudgeons and losing their edge, my intention today was to write a post about how to keep one’s edge—that is, if we knew what that term really meant. For me, it’s about keeping one foot ahead of myself, keeping my life and work alive and growing, staying excited about everything I’m doing. In the manner of self-help books, I started a list of things one could do toward that end. But first I went to the gym (for me, staying in good physical condition is number one) where, on the white board, was a quote:

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm Ralph Waldo Emerson

A great way to start things off, I thought, and being enthusiastic about Emerson, I wanted to read more. The Internet, however, is awash with unattributed quotes: we know so-and-so said something, or is said to have said something, but where? It’s as if all we’re interested in is finding some cute quote with which to kick off a commencement address (or a blog post). Although it was posted thousands of times, only one site, Wikiquote, listed the source, the essay, Circles (full text here), which I double-checked by opening up the complete Essays on my iPad (a free download, BTW) and typing “enthusiasm” into the search function.

But enough of my research methods. Really what we’re talking about is personal progress, and in our culture we tend to see all progress, personal or otherwise as linear—the idea of doing better and better, of topping our last effort.  Emerson’s idea is more gentle and expansive, i.e. circular. Some excerpts:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. There is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning: that there is always another dawn risen….there are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.

The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet…New arts destroy the old…. 

Every thing looks permanent until it’s secret is known.…
(Hopefully this is true of the corporate regime, which hasn't changed--it's the same as it was last year--but since September is now seen in an entirely new light.)

There is not a piece of science but its flank may be turned tomorrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called names of fame, that may not be revised and condemned.

Fear not the new generalization. Does the fact look crass and material, threatening to degrade thy theory of spirit?  Resist it not; it goes to refine and raise thy theory of matter just as much.

Whew! So much for Damien Hirst and his silly spot paintings: may they represent the flaming-out of art world materialism.  Sometimes things have to reach their nadir before being reborn. As Peter Schjeldahl put it so beautifully, “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth.”

So when we go into the studio, or wherever, we can take comfort in this :

Our moods do not believe in each other. Today I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thoughts, the same power of expression tomorrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall

Emerson was famous in his lifetime, but while he was writing it, did he know that his words would still have resonance 200 years later? In a blog post?

And as far as keeping your edge:

The difference between talents and character is adroitness to keep the old and trodden round, and power and courage to make a new road to new and better goals.

The lesson in all of this is, go for whatever turns you on because you can’t second-guess the culture. Notice that predictions no longer work—not that they ever did, but we believed in the illusion. Probably the biggest change in the last ten years is that everyone knows that we know nothing about the future. Under these circumstances, all we can do is do whatever it is we do with the greatest enthusiasm—and hope for the best.

* * *

Another Emerson quote about enthusiasm, often mistakenly linked with the other, from a source I was unable to track down:

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your mind. Put your whole soul to it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic,
 be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object.

October 4, 2011
...prompted by querying an undergrad friend the other night about his first assignments in painting. Last week the class was to paint a still life with subjects of their choice, while including some kind of organic material and a black and white photo, and this week they’re being asked to paint the sky. While I’ll always leave open the possibility that the teacher is inspired and I just don’t get it – it does happen! (see the post below) – I’ll also continue to agitate for students’ prerogative to choose their own subject matter. After all, if I wanted to encourage a kid’s sense of personal style, I wouldn’t start by having his mom pick out his clothes. To continue the analogy, the still life assignment is like saying, “You can wear anything you want as long as it’s from the Gap and has short sleeves.”

What is the most important ingredient in making a successful work of art? INTEREST. Art is hard (and then you die, as they say) and what drives it is DESIRE, a feeling not usually successfully generated by what someone else wants. Art happens through imagining an outcome and wanting so badly to see it realized that you’ll try anything, do anything, to make it happen, including starting over if the first, second, third, or hundredth attempt doesn’t succeed.

The other reason for choice in subject matter is to establish from the beginning that execution and concept are intertwined. Technique is simply the vehicle that allows an idea to reach its fullest potential. How is it we think we can expose students to a bunch of techniques using our ideas and just assume that afterwards they’ll find their own concepts to attach to them? Do ideas generate techniques or do techniques generate ideas? That’s a chicken-and-egg question.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching art like it’s 1890.

So what is a teacher’s role? Unlike some others, I believe we do have a purpose, which is to expose students to new ideas, new methods, and also validate theirs—help them to “detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [their minds] from within,” as Emerson would say, as they develop their creative intuition and artistic idiosyncrasy.

And, yes, art history is useful as long as we’re not using it to impress upon students what the culture has valued in the past, but to stimulate what’s already percolating so they can supersede it.

Needless to say, I did not share my opinions with my student friend. And while I found the sky painting assignment BEYOND BORING, I will admit to having done one:

 Carol Diehl, Gloria, 2007, oil on panel, 12" x 12".
June 1, 2011
This looks to me like a diagram for negotiating the Creative Age. By William Kentridge at Marian Goodman, exhibition through June 18th.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. My frustration in the toy store (see the post below) had less to do with gender stereotyping or even materialistic messages, than my inability to find anything that would 1) interest an intelligent five-year-old for more than two minutes and 2) not clutter up the household with ugly shit.  Believe me, if I'd found a girly girl toy that was really cool, I would have bought it. 

However the plethora of toys that narrow, rather than facilitate, the imagination are symptoms of a larger issue, which I’ve finally realized is behind the intention and philosophy of this blog: the increasing tendency to see information as an end in itself, valued over creativity and imagination, even experience. I have nothing against information, but it’s simply another commodity, absolutely useless unless you do something with it.*  I saw a magazine ad for an investment firm that boasted, “We take the emotion out of investing.” Well if investing could be reduced to a set of rules, anyone with the right computer program could make himself rich.  Instead what I’d look for in an investment counselor is someone with imagination and intuition, who has the ability to understand (imagine) my lifestyle and needs, and who’s had enough experience to trust his or her hunches (what are hunches, anyway, if not the ability to recognize and respond to positive and negative emotion?) to successfully negotiate the market.

This issue is also behind the crisis in medicine, which is slowly, very slowly, coming to recognize that “the test of replicability, as it is known…the foundation of modern research” is fallible:

(From The New Yorker): Replicability is how the community enforces itself. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. Most of the time, scientists know what results they want, and that can influence the results they get. The premise of replicability is that the scientific community can correct for these flaws.

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.  (Read more…)

Hence the rise of artist’s statements, museum wall text, and pre-concert lectures, all attempts to reduce to information experiences which, when at their best, are ineffable—emotional rather than intellectual.

The valuing of information over creativity and experience are also part of the current crisis in higher education, in all education:

(From The Nation) Online courses, distance learning, do-it-yourself instruction: this is the future we’re being offered. Why teach a required art history course to twenty students at a time when you can march them through a self-guided online textbook followed by a multiple-choice exam? Why have professors or even graduate students grade papers when you can outsource them to BAs around the country, even the world? Why waste time with office hours when students can interact with their professors via e-mail? (Read more…)

[So as well as substituting information for experience, we also expect to substitute online teaching relationships for those that are face-to-face.  Where does it stop? With online marriages? How about Skyped parenting? If we have the whole world to choose from, surely there’s someone in India who’s a better parent that you.]

Instead of getting rid of primary school playgrounds, eliminating liberal arts programs, and emphasizing rote like the Tiger Mother, we should be doing the opposite—because, without our recognizing it, the Information Age has segued into the Creative Age. There’s no longer such thing as career or even information security, and starting right now everyone has to be an entrepreneur. That’s what recent college graduates are finding out, that there’s no safe job to slip into, no set path; they have to make the whole thing up.  As do we. Those of us who’ve been at whatever it is we do for any length of time, have to completely rethink it—and furthermore, understand that this process of reinvention is not going to stop.

This rapidly changing world is one for which artistswho have always had to make it upmay be the best prepared.

Who knew?

*This idea is not original. In Self-Reliance, Emerson calls “spontaneity” and “instinct” the “essence of life.” “We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition,” he says, “whilst all later teachings are tuition.”