Thursday, January 9, 2014

Art and Fear, Some Notes (Part I)

I'm reading a marvellous little book called Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.  It was recommended to me by Hillary Rettig who I've never had the pleasure of actually meeting or working with but whose newsletter I have the good fortune to be on.

Here are some choice quotes and then, time permitting, some thoughts.

The Topic:

"This is a book about making art. Ordinary art...not made by Mozart.  Making art is a common and intimately human activity...This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do.  It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work."

The Nature of the Problem:

"Making art is difficult.  We leave drawings unfinished and stories unwritten.  We do work that does not feel like our own.  We repeat ourselves.  We stop before we have mastered our materials, or continue on long after their potential is exhausted.  Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed."

This really resonates, for me, not only in terms of capital A art, but in terms of my own "work" which is anthropology, reading, and writing.  And now, of course, its as true for my *&%% applications to the Master's Program in Social Work as my Thesis.  Beginning writing, polishing my writing, and finally, choosing when to end my writing has always been incredibly painful for me and has always happened on someone else's timeline, not my own.  My department actually had to call me when my dissertation was (finally) due and demand I turn it in. I'd tried to miss the deadline again to take the pressure off myself and they woke me up at six a.m my time and said, basically, "we aren't going to let you blow your deadline. You missed the deadline and we are holding it open so send that fucker in."

Speaking specifically of Art, and not (say) of work done in the sciences or social sciences, the writers say:

"It may have been easier to paint bison on the cave walls long ago than to write this (or any other) sentence today.  Other people, in other times and places, had some robust institutions to shore them up: witness the Church, the clan, ritual, tradition. Its easy to imagine that artists doubed their calling less when working in the service of God than when working in the service of self."  

I could quibble with that or start a conversation about what it means to do sacred, or propitiatory, or invocatory, or negotiatory, art or art as personal narrative within a familial setting vs art for the market in a subsistence or feudal economy but I won't. I love the image and I find it provocative.

"Not so today.  Today almost no one feels shored up. Today artwork does not emerge from a secure common ground: the bison on the wall is someone else's magic.  Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.  Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next.  Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself."
On Art and Talent:

"Yet even the notion that you have a say in this process conflicts with the prevailing view of artmaking today--namely, that art rests fundamentally upon talent, and that talent is a gift randomly built into some people and not into others. In common parlance, either you have it or you don't--great art is a product of genius, good art a product of near-genius (which Nabokov likened to Near-Beer), and so on down the line to pulp romances and paint-by-the-numbers.  this view is inherently fatalistic--even if it's true, it's fatalistic--and offers no useful encouragement to those who would make art.  Personally, we'll side with Conrad's view of fatalism: namely, that it is a species of fear--the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak."

 I have two sets of thoughts on this--one, I read these words and think about my struggles as a professional, or to remain a capital P professional while I've been outside the paid work world for so many years.  I'll have more to say about that later.  The second set of thoughts is that the realm of that which is Art and that which is creative is so, so, so, much more extensive than I thought.  As I read ahead in this book I began to recognize the creative impulse in my own life and how I have (more or less successfully) carried it through in my life as a mother and, though I gag a bit saying it, as a person making a haven in a heartless world, a hearth that is always burning, a place of retreat and renewal in a workaday world.

One of my arts--though its not seen that way in the world--is for raising children.  I've been working at this task for 17 years now and although its repetitive and filled with seemingly bureaucratic or administrative tasks like set up and clean up, buying boots and washing clothes, making a million meals and wiping up projectile vomiting, it seems to be going very well.  The end product is not a single, finished "thing" but an ongoing relationship with another human being, and the joy of it has to be found in the process which you either love or you don't.

One reason you can't focus on the "end product" is that, with luck, you won't see the end at all.  I come from a world of ordinary tragedy.  My sister died when I was eight and she was six.  My husband's niece died when she was nine and my own daughters were six and four.  Having lived in Nepal I well know that this is merely ordinary tragedy.  There are greater and more horrific ones every day.  But, nonetheless, I have always known, since before my oldest daughter was born, that this life, this relationship of mother to child, was incredibly precious, fragile, temporary, and to be loved from moment to moment and not only in retrospect.  Of course that is incredibly hard to do since we are always living in the past and the future--worrying about what we did wrong that led to the present difficulty, and trying to stave off future harm, or bring about future bliss, by making the right choice right now.  This is something I see all the time with the young, first time mothers, with whom I work.

It is only in reading this little book on Art, however, that I have come to recognize my approach to this process of mothering as, essentially, artistic--hard, focused, playful, creative, improvisational, process oriented, repetitive, respectful of the materials, experimental, always pushing the boundaries of my talents and the materials (the children).  There are even occasional "performances," one might say, holidays, meals, recitals, when the children and the family rush to finish some kind of piece of culturally significant meaning.  In that I think we are very like the imagined cave people making their bison and hand paintings on the wall.  Or a medieval village operating in sacred time and space, enjoying a local festival for its own sake and not as a performance for others.   We rush about together, enacting family solidarity and making a sacred space for the meal, or the recital, and then we all throw ourselves down and do the thing and then clean up and start again on the next thing.  (This is especially true of something like Passover, which combines elements of everything from religious ritual to theater to family play, but its true on another level for every family meal we have and every little family ritual from the way we read books at bedtime to the way we now watch particular tv shows (Fringe, The Americans) or live theater (a lot of Shakespeare) together.

Even though this book came to me as a revelation its not like I did not already know, in my bones, what was in it.  This perception--that art, as life, is what you make of it not the perfection of the end product--is pretty much received wisdom by this time, isn't it? Its certainly the basis of some important works in child rearing, for example, such as "Raising Lifelong Learners" and even, I would argue, "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, How to Listen so Kids will Talk."  Both these books and many others reflect a belief about the world and about children which assumes we can't know, a priori, what the finished product should look like--and neither can the child. There isn't always going to be a single right answer or a single right choice in the world and, in any event, we are not going to always be there to supply the motive force or the judgemental voice pushing the child (or the evetual adult) into doing "the right thing."  There isn't going to be one kind of good person or perfect adult--just a person who can continually grow, connect, engage, mature, love, and share in a wide variety of circumstances and in the face of adversity.  I could write an entire essay on the contrast between this viewpoint and that of more authoritarian or (in this country) christianist theories of child rearing such as that of the Perls.

In the realm of education this is especially true.  I was definitely raised in the era of the romance of the talented prodigy. Certain things, like language, math, and art were believed to be the purview of the super talented.  Skipping grades, just "knowing" how to do something, having perfect recall or being fast at learning something were considered attributes of the good student and something that the rest of us simply needed to acknowledge and move aside for.  If you had a talent for something, you would work hard at it and get good grades, if you didn't have a natural talent for it, you plugged along without much help until you finished the minimum required and then you dropped it, with a sigh of relief.  This is as true for "art" classes which were under attack when I was in school in the 60's and 70's as it was for mathematics, language, or music.

In a revolt against this we sent our children to an alternative school (not surprisingly, since there's nothing new under the sun, my great grandfather was one of the exponents of the Modern School Movement and most of the "new" educational philosophies are drawn from this now rather old movement).  So, for my daughters, the emphasis has always been on process, not product. On learning to use mathematical concepts and numbers as everyday tools and for play, not merely to pass a test.  The result are two children who are extremely comfortable with working through things that they don't already know, with slowness, with the act of doing math rather than merely getting the right answer.  Not that it hasn't always been a struggle--in fact this quote from Math Babe's essay on the topic came to me because my youngest daughter, in her new school, was falling into the trap of regarding math as something that "good" mathematicians do "fast."

Here’s the thing. There’s always someone faster than you. And it feels bad, especially when you feel slow, and especially when that person cares about being fast, because all of a sudden, in your confusion about all sort of things, speed seems important. But it’s not a race. Mathematics is patient and doesn’t mind. Think of it, your slowness, or lack of quickness, as a style thing but not as a shortcoming.
Why style? Over the years I’ve found that slow mathematicians have a different thing to offer than fast mathematicians, although there are exceptions (Bjorn Poonen comes to mind, who is fast but thinks things through like a slow mathematician. Love that guy). I totally didn’t define this but I think it’s true, and other mathematicians, weigh in please.
One thing that’s incredibly annoying about this concept of “fastness” when it comes to solving math problems is that, as a high school kid, you’re surrounded by math competitions, which all kind of suck. They make it seem like, to be “good” at math, you have to be fast. That’s really just not true once you grow up and start doing grownup math.
In reality, mostly of being good at math is really about how much you want to spend your time doing math. And I guess it’s true that if you’re slower you have to want to spend more time doing math, but if you love doing math then that’s totally fine. Plus, thinking about things overnight always helps me. So sleeping about math counts as time spent doing math.
Mathbabe's observation about math is, in essence, the basic observation that the Artists make in Art and Fear.  If you want to be doing this thing, whatever your creative format is, you have to want to do it a lot.  Both because doing it a lot is necessary to doing it well, and because--hey, its your life, if you aren't enjoying it you are wasting your time.

Hopefully Part II will come over the weekend.

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