Why do artists …?

Working in isolation and without an ordinary outlet seems to be uncomfortable to lots of people, but might be more familiar for artists and writers. Why have we been doing that kind of thing for so long? The question reminded me of an essay from some years back that took the form of a conversation among people waiting for an art class to begin, as told by a first-person narrator. It was the only piece accepted for this anthology that was told in a creative form.

Here are some lines from the ending of my essay “Reveyesed I’s,” written for the publication Creativity:

Just as Roger and Rose Ellen are leaving together, Roger turns back and looks at Marie. “Why did they persist? Why do you?” he asks.

“What?” asks Marie.

“Why do artists insist on making art, without pay or recognition?” Roger asks.

“Why is art made, when the artist is no longer employed to fill the needs of church or king? Why, when there are no animals to be entranced, no hunting spells to weave by firelight deep beneath the earth? When images can more quickly be made by other means?” the model chants.

“When there is no clear use for what they do?” Roger asks.

“The artist needs to get the intuitions of the mind outside, and see what they look like. Or hear what they sound like,” Marie answers.

“Thoughts grow and change as they emerge. The process of getting the images down is a process of knowing them better. It’s a way of coming to terms with the shifting and expanding nature of reality,” the model says.

“What does creativity have to do with reality?” Kay asks.

“I think that the relationship of art to reality lies in the creative act itself. It’s not in the images or other results produced. The creation of images is part of the learning process, not something carried out after it,” says Marie.

“Just for themselves, then?” asks Roger.

“Oh, no. The response of others adds to the meaning. When readers and viewers make their own meanings, they are also involved in the process,” says Marie. …

“But what does all of that have to do with living in the real world?” Kay asks.

“It is by focusing on the process of creating works of art, and by drawing the viewer into that process, that our arts represent the real world. They reflect the way that we function in that world,” says the model. She returns to her place among the still-life items.

The model sits still for a long moment, then shifts her position. She speaks slowly, “‘No longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work and the world, and thus to learn to invent his own life.’” She says nothing more. But that last, I am sure, was a quote from Robbe-Grillet. I shall have to look it up.

Marie nods. She gets slowly to her feet and gathers up her belongings. “My grandson is coming for me after class. But that’s still a long time off.”

“I’ll give you a ride home,” says Karen.

“Are there artists now, discovering?” asks Olivia.

“I hope so. I trust there must be,” says Marie. Once more, we glimpse through her glasses the multiple lights reflecting off her eyes.

Karen and Marie go out together. Kay and Olivia remain for a short time, talking quietly. Am I mistaken, or do I see there a slight glitter, a hint of a change in the eyes?

Then they, too, go out into the dark.

(See our Books and Downloads page for the whole essay.)

Pat

Collaboration and Creativity

I’m admiring the RC James song post of Wim’s poem, and other related pairs that show up on the Open Arts Forum (great place for creative people showing work and exchanging ideas). Collaboration can be like a conversation … Hey, is this what you meant? or How about this in addition to/instead of …? That can contribute mightily to creative experience when creativity is understood as not just a search for a way to express something understood but as a way of discovering more about whatever you’re reaching for. Probably musicians, especially jazz-inclined, get this better than those of us who use more stationary media. Not that either way of working replaces the other, but collaboration can open up possibilities in the process. Maybe it also readjusts our sense of how we function in the world.  — Pat

 

Three Double Takes

by Wim Coleman

1 allegretto

A zebra with a party
horn and hat has crashed
your thirtieth. This
creature was your friend
when you were three
and lived beneath the
checkered tablecloth
and would come up
from time to time
to munch with you on
globes of milk-drenched
Too-Sweets, but this
was not to be expected.

Hear the horn &
knit your brow &
turn & see &
nod as if you
understand &
turn away.
Your eyes pop out,
you turn right back
& stare amazed.

*

2 allegro

Her husband has
come back again
as you were raising
up your glasses
in a toast to
one another
naked in white
sparkling wine
swapping an
indecent ripe
Greek olive
faintly tinged
with feta. He
called her from
Tibet an hour ago.
This was not
to be expected.

Hear & turn.
Look & nod.
Turn away.
Beat. Beat.
Face react.
Turn again.
Stare afraid.
Beat. Beat.

*

3 presto

Death
has come
in a fake
tuxedo
t-shirt
with a
chainsaw
while you
were adding
a rhythm
section to
St. Matthew’s
Passion.
He calls
you by
a name
you can’t
pronounce.
This
was not
to be
expected.

Hear. Turn.
Look. Nod.
Turn. Six.
Seven. Eight.
Eyes pop.
Turn. Gape.
Stare. Six.
Seven.

Avoid Mere Self-expression!

Avoid mere4inThat’s a line that I once scrawled inside a paper sculpture—one of a series of artworks called “messages.”

Google “self-expression.” Today I got 2,480,000 results in less than a second. At a glance, it’s obvious that a lot of our cultural dialogue is dedicated to self-expression. A Wikipedia article connects it with a “creative class” of people who get to express themselves in their work. Centers, classes, and various kinds of gurus offer to teach people how to express themselves. And self-expression is highly recommended in discussions on leadership, spirituality, democracy, self-esteem—to say nothing of selling pitches for cars and clothes (which, of course, look just like a lot of other cars and clothes).

OK, so that could go on and on. Clearly, self-expression has many advocates.

First have a self. Wim reminds me of the observation—probably originally from Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way—that one must have a self to express. But that self must be an evolving thing. So we sort of dance around in circles—find self … express … find … express … Maybe that’s not a bad way to go about a creative life. (Though I must note that art galleries and publishers can resist the finding and expressing of a new self—they often prefer the repetition of whatever has already proved commercially successful.) Why should anyone avoid expressing the self?

Let’s get back to that word mere.

In essays, articles, books, academic research, and artworks, I’ve tried to understand, identify, and explain the creative experience. In my definition, “self-expression” is not nearly enough. Those very words seem to imply the expression of something you already know, and that’s what a lot of self-expression seems to be about. But as the expression of a self in a state of discovery it can become part of the whole creative experience. At that point, it’s no longer “mere.”

The creative experience is more like hanging off the edge of a cliff … or jumping off … or falling off. It’s risky. You’re writing about something you almost know, or barely know, but that you’re in the process of finding out more about.

Comments from other cliffhangers are welcome. —Pat

Gutenberg-Punk

“Gutenberg-punk?” you ask. It’s not a well known genre category—I Googled it and got precisely nothing. Perhaps that’s because, to the best of my knowledge, only one work in all of literature fits it. I’ll get to it shortly

In my post of December 10, 2012, I mentioned certain historical catastrophes that heralded the end of civilization, including poetry slams, back-of-the-book indexes, the death of Levon Helm, the Internet, and even writing itself. I conspicuously didn’t bring up the introduction of the printing press to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, which was perhaps the most notorious catastrophe of all.

By spreading literacy and information indiscriminately among the formerly ignorant, Gutenberg’s machine spurred the Reformation, unleashed the ideas of Copernicus, encouraged vernacular literature, and in myriad other ways provoked universal social chaos. The religious and political powers-that-were weren’t the only folks who were terrified. Philosophers also raised cries of alarm, among them the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) who fretted over the confusing and harmful abundance of books that Gutenberg’s gadget had turned loose.

But getting back to the title of this post …

Gargantua and Pantagruel, by the humanist priest/physician François Rabelais (1494-1553), seems to be the world’s sole example of Gutenberg-punk. Now Rabelais was no technophobe, and he had no fear of the printing press. I would even say that his entire encyclopedic novel—carnal, spiritual, cruel, compassionate, heroic, cowardly, vulgar, and sublime as it is—is really a celebration of the unfettered intellectual liberty and evolutionary potential let loose by Gutenberg. As one of his title characters puts it,

The elegant and accurate art of printing, which is now in use, was invented in my time, by divine inspiration; as, by contrast, artillery was inspired by diabolical suggestion.… I find robbers, hangmen, freebooters, and grooms nowadays more learned than the doctors and preachers were in my time.

Indeed, far from fearing technology, Rabelais seems to have had no fear of anything. For as the Russian critic Mikhail Baktin (1895-1975) put it in his own wondrous book Rabelais and His World,

this is a work in which fear is destroyed at its very origin and everything is turned into gaiety. It the most fearless book in world literature.

Not surprisingly, Rabelais found that timid humans wouldn’t do for his cast of characters. His protagonists had to be giants, preposterously huge in their appetites and curiosities, their very bodies containing vast and unexplored worlds and civilizations. Concerning a young giant’s education, Rabelais tells us,

As you may well suppose, Pantagruel studied very hard. For he had a double-sized intelligence and a memory equal in capacity to the measure of twelve skins and twelve casks of oil.

And then there’s the mysterious wonder-substance called Pantagruelion (a fanciful word for good old-fashioned hemp—make of that what you will!), so emblematic of the printing press in its capacity to unleash transhuman possibilities:

In a … fright the gods of Olympus cried: “By the power and uses of this herb of his, Pantagruel has given us something new to think about.… Perhaps his children will discover a plant of equal power, by whose aid mortals will be able to visit the sources of the hail, the flood-gates of the rain, and the smithy of the thunder; will be able to invade the regions of the moon, enter the territory of the celestial signs, and there take lodging, some at the Golden Eagle, others at the Ram, others at the Crown, others at the Harp, others at the Silver Lion; and sit down with us at table there, and marry our goddesses: which is their one means of rising to be gods.”

Arrogant and obnoxious? Certainly. Hubristic and profane? Without a doubt. Gross and scatological? Unless you’ve read it, you have no idea. But above all else, Gargantua and Pantagruel paints a picture of world overcome by a tsunami of pure Story, and it’s a genre unto itself—a Gutenberg-punk masterpiece. It evokes a crazed giddiness that many of us feel in the infoworld, that unchartable terrain that Pat and I once described as

an infinite ocean of uncut metaphor, a neuroelectric realm containing the absolute essence of literally everything.

And oh, for an equivalent cast of outsized monster-heroes to lead us into the dizzying evolutionary heights of our information age!

Of Dragonflies and Pepper Pods

220px-MatsuoBashoChusonjiIf you’re serious as a writer (or sculptor, painter, composer, fishing-fly maker, or anything else that involves creative work), you can surely remember some lesson from a master that had a lasting impact on your work. I was just re-reading Harold G. Henderson’s classic book An Introduction to Haiku and ran into this anecdotal gem about the Haiku master Matsuo Bashō:

One day, when he [Bashō] and [his young pupil] Kikaku were going through the fields, looking at the darting dragonflies, the boy made a seventeen-syllable verse:

Red dragonflies!
Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!

“No!” said Bashō, “that is not haiku. If you wish to make a haiku on the subject, you must say:

Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!”