Sunday, November 22, 2009


Questioning Definitions

There are a few famous lines that each of us hold close to our hearts, that came to us at just the time we needed to hear them and seemed novel and revolutionary. A transforming phrase is a work of art in a concept. When Malcolm X said,” You don’t have to accept anyone else’s definition of who you are”, I was stirred to my foundations. For someone who had been defined by others at every turn, others’ plans and expectations meant to fit me into a narrow cultural slot, it was a shocking thought that took hold and shook me out of the hardening mold. In varying degrees we all grow up surrounded by cultural templates to which we must conform. Serious labels with ominous definitions are slapped on behavior that doesn’t fit the template, doesn’t fit into the cultural machine. This is one of the problems with the old machine paradigm that holds that everything can be explained by the limited actions allowed by the particular function of a part in the machine. It reduces the complex human person to a mechanical function in one of the accepted roles the society and culture has scripted. Parents are agents of the culture and do what the culture says must be done, but in the process young people are bound, limited by standards that signify their unimportance. In Susan Sontag’s novel “In America”, after a young man kills himself the protagonist thinks, “How I wished I could have explained to him that he didn’t have to be what he thought himself sentenced to be. For isn’t that why one thinks of ending one’s life?” and later she wrote, “Happiness depends on not being trapped in your individual existence, a container with your name on it.”
A theme that is emerging in some students’ work right now is emancipation from these limitations. They are creating new images for spirituality, trying to enlarge their view of being in the world that includes vast space, the universe within and without, commingled with ourselves. This is exactly the shift of values that can bring us back into harmony with our environment. Once we are identified with a larger whole it becomes difficult to violate any part of it, because it’s part of us. It makes us joyful (stimulates endorphins) when we help others because we are interdependent. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated nature of existence.”
Discussion of art in class is richer because multiple minds thinking together can arrive at ideas that depend on the interstimulation. The web is the metaphor, and the capacity to weave new connections infinite. Not limited by the definitions of a profit driven society we can experience the beauty of being within and throughout an interconnected whole.
James Hillman said that he often thought it wasn’t that his patients were sick but that they’d failed to adapt to a sick society.
The age of competition has made a mess of things, an arms race, war after war, corporate subterfuge, steroids in sports, the proliferation of cheating on every front because winning is seen as the highest value. Apathy and cynicism are pervasive. Because of the limitations of the roles within this system, human beings haven’t begun to realize their potential. They’ve been locked in a conditioned mindset that sabotages growth.
Just like art can change the way you see something, one sentence can be enough to unlock our chains. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s the first step to building new ways of seeing ourselves. If you think people should be kinder, more sensitive, then be kinder and more sensitive. The young people of today are the front lines in a change in consciousness, and a shift to an age of cooperation seems inevitable. They know there is more to being human than the definitions they’ve inherited, and I’m excited to see the changes they will contribute to a new way of seeing our potential as a species.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


The Center of Art

In counseling a committed and highly original student concerning the fact that in class discussions no one said anything about her work, I suggested pushing the emotional content. She has beautiful technique and important things she wants to show, but vision depends on having an inner template, something to connect it to that we understand. Her imagery was too unfamiliar, too outside the known, to pull them into its world. But no matter how foreign the imagery, if the emotions sound a chord, we connect and keep looking. The arrangement of light, color and forms in space registers as a feeling before we identify what it is. We orient ourselves automatically to being in a place and for the time our attention is absorbed by it, a painting is a place. Our relationship to where we are is central to navigating life and is therefore the most potent of all metaphors. Neurologist Antonio Damasio wrote, “Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, was the idea of the body being a certain way.” Emotional life starts with where we are, and that’s a statement that can be taken at multiple levels.
The plane we stand on is hugely important to our sense of where we are in space. In a famous experiment called the Visual Cliff, newborns of many species, including human babies, were presented with a particular visual situation. A cliff with a checkerboard pattern was covered by strong plexiglass and at the other side was something that smelled good to eat to entice them to cross. Even with the tactile evidence of a clear barrier that would keep them from falling, not one of them was willing to cross. One of the researchers painted a trompe l’oeil version on the nursery floor when they had a baby. Sure enough, even though it was just paint and the baby could feel solid floor, the baby wouldn’t crawl across it. We inherit a physical responsiveness to our sense of the plane that supports us and adjust to it instinctively. Adults thought nothing of walking on it, which suggests how powerful learning about illusions can be in helping us recognize them and not be taken in. It also shows us that we can overcome inherited responses to the world, an idea with far reaching implications. Knowledge permits us to stand outside of our immediate circumstance and reflect from a distance before acting.
Being outside the mainstream offers a different overview. So much of the greatest art comes from the fringe, the outer perimeter of society, the pain of disconnection often motivating the expression. The mythic theme of separation, ubiquitous in great literature, is what we all deal with to some extent, perhaps much more than we realize. When we see it expressed in art, there is consolation in the shared experience even when the particulars are different. The insights offered by art become part of our sense of where we’ve been so enlarge the territory of our understanding.
When Paul Miller, aka DJSpooky, gave the keynote speech at the Transformations Conference at MICA this past October, he said black art had moved from the fringe to the center. I thought about it for days afterward and couldn’t help but think it has always been at the creative center, though not necessarily recognized as such. Being on the outside may be a necessary condition for offering something new to art. Achieving perspective on a difficult circumstance requires getting beyond it. As a jazz fan all my life, my focus has always been on the innovators, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, so many, who found new ways to express the struggle of being and understood the feeling of separation in a more overt way than the more privileged part of the population. To feel the separation more acutely intensifies the need to go inward. Van Gogh was not part of the mainstream art of his time but his paintings help us feel that sense of being passionately alive. James Baldwin spent much of his life abroad, not given the stature here he deserved, yet reading his work is like experiencing a force of nature, so intense are the feelings expressed which bring my own feelings more intensely to life. Through great art, we learn the most important lessons of being human, how we feel and where we are. Just like history describes the events of a time, art shows us what it feels like to be human. It brings us together in the heart of human experience.