Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Emerson and enthusiasm

January 23, 2012 - 5:51pm -- Carol Diehl

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.


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