Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

15 JULY, 2014

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

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“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.

From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

[...]

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

[...]

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.

When asked whether he ever finds that “hard labor” enjoyable, Cohen echoes Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and creative labor and considers what fulfilling work actually means:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:

It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

What a beautiful testament to the creative spirit and its true motives, to creative contribution coming from a place of purpose rather than a hunger for profit.

Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.

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14 JULY, 2014

Mocha Dick: The Story of the Real-Life Whale That Inspired Moby-Dick, Illustrated

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“Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.”

In May of 1839, Herman Melville found himself riveted by an article in the New York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker about a “renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers” — a formidable albino whale named Mocha Dick, who had been terrorizing whaling ships with unprecedented ferocity for nearly half a century. Twelve years later, the beast was immortalized in Melville’s Moby-Dick, a commercial failure in the author’s lifetime that went on to be celebrated as one of the Great American Novels and is among the greatest books of all time.

Now, five years after self-taught artist Matt Kish illustrated every page of Moby-Dick, children’s book author Brian Heinz and artist Randall Enos tell the story of the original white whale behind Melville’s masterpiece in Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury (public library) — a captivating picture-book “biography” of the monster-turned-literary-legend, from how human aggression turned the “peaceful giant” into a ferocious beast to his first recorded attack near the South American island of Mocha off the coast of Chile to the final, fatal harpoon blow.

Suddenly, the whale burst through the waves, his jaws gnashing in the foam. One sweep of his flukes hurled the craft high into the air, spilling the crew into the sea. Twenty-six pairs of teeth as long as a man’s hand clamped down on the boat. The huge head shook savagely until only splinters remained. Then the whale disappeared in the twilight. The remaining boats plucked up their comrades and rowed briskly to their whaler. Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.

Randall’s gorgeous linocut collage illustrations, to which the screen does no justice whatsoever, lend Heinz’s lyrical narrative dimension and magic that render the end result utterly enchanting.

Mocha Dick is an absolute treat from cover to cover. Complement it with Moby-Dick in Pictures and Debbie Millman’s handmade homage to the Melville classic.

Images courtesy of Randall Enos

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11 JULY, 2014

Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

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A visual “autobiography” of the legendary polymath that grants equal dignity to the grit and the glory.

Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep.” And how blazingly awake he was — his Vitruvian Man endures as one of the most iconic images of all time, his visionary anatomical illustrations changed the course of modern medicine, and he knew how to play the long game of the creative life.

Perhaps this is why in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-forties, the celebrated British cartoonist Ralph Steadman developed a great obsession with Leonardo. He began to paint the polymath’s fanciful inventions, as well as countless drawings of Leonardo himself, and eventually even travelled to Italy to stand where Leonardo stood, seeking to envision what it was like to inhabit that endlessly imaginative mind and boundless spirit.

In 1983, more than a decade before he illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm and exactly ten years after his visual interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Steadman released I, Leonardo (public library) — a remarkable “autobiography” of Da Vinci as imagined by Steadman, written in the first person and illustrated in the cartoonist’s unmistakable style. Funny, poignant, sometimes gory, sometimes optimistic, always intensely intelligent, Steadman’s story stretches from Leonardo’s boyhood experiments to his dying words, granting equal dignity to his triumphs as a genius and his doubts and disappointments as a human being, to the grit and the glory.

Steadman writes in the introduction:

In the Middle Ages the world was still flat, the center of the universe, ruled by villainous warlords, witchcraft and alchemy, superstition and disease. Few dared ask the question “What are the elephants standing on” for fear of being soundly whipped and told to shut up and keep rowing… Not a good time to be born poor, though no worse if you were born a bastard, rich or poor.

[…]

Leonardo da Vinci was born twenty years before Michelangelo in 1452. Knowledge through experience was his maxim and his experience showed him that man was not what he appeared to be, despite the prevailing atmosphere of fine thoughts and high aspirations. Yet the purity of his painting set the divine standard of Renaissance art — and of any art for that matter. I believe he preserved intact a part of his private self which found an outlet in his more personal notes and drawings… The wealth of his activities overpowered those who revered him, so that they were virtually unable to employ him. If that were not disability enough, his most beloved disciple kept from the world his inheritance, the notebooks which contained the essence of his master’s spirit. Like a guard dog he hoarded them all his life. After his death they were dismembered and dispersed, only to be rediscovered four hundred years later in a world where Leonardo’s ideas had already come about.

Much of Steadman’s narrative is woven from Leonardo’s own musings, collected in his Thoughts on Art and Life (which is available as a free download and highly recommended). Take, for instance, this passage accompanying Steadman’s terrific drawing of Leonardo’s optic studies:

The eyes … are the chief means whereby the understanding may most fully and abundantly appreciate the infinite works of nature.

The eye counsels all the arts of mankind … it is the prince of mathematics … it has given birth to architecture and to perspective and to the divine art of painting. Painting encompasses all the ten functions of the eye, that is, darkness, light, body, color, shape, location, remoteness, nearness, motion and rest.

Because of the eye the soul is content to stay in its bodily prison, for without it such imprisonment is torture. Who would believe that so small a space could confirm the image of all the universe?

All those coarse jests inside the court serve now to lash my pride. His Holiness the Pope surrounded himself with none but craven guzzlers, gross pretenders and a host of fawning dignitaries who grimaced through their days at court with no more grace than beggars I had entertained in days gone by — though they had neither choice nor wit to rise above themselves and in that they had a reason.

Oh that I had ways to surely serve their putrid masquerades and twittery to make a dragon from the very menagerie within the Vatican itself.

If I could take for its head that of a mastiff or setter, for its eyes those of a cat, for its ears those of a greyhound, with the eyebrows of a lion, the temples of an old cock and the neck of a water tortoise.

O vile monster! How much better it for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives.

Complement I, Leonardo, a masterpiece in its own right, with The Provensens’ spectacular vintage pop-up book on Leonardo’s life and legacy, then revisit Steadman’s sublime illustrations for Animal Farm and Alice in Wonderland.

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