Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

31 MAY, 2013

Patti Smith Reads Her Poetic Tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, Plus Her Handwritten Verses

By:

“Blessedness is within us all.”

“The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise,” Coleridge asserted. “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man,” Wordsworth famously proclaimed. Nowhere is this dual definition more ablaze with life than in The Coral Sea (public library) by the eclectically brilliant Patti Smith — a breathtaking collection of prose poems exorcising Smith’s profound grief for her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Her short foreword stirs the soul intensely:

The first time I saw Robert he was sleeping. I stood over him, this boy of twenty, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled. With few words he became my friend, my compeer, my beloved adventure.

When he became ill I wept and could not stop weeping. He scolded me for that, not with words but with a simple look of reproach, and I ceased.

When I saw him last we sat in silence and he rested his head on my shoulder. I watched the light changing over his hands, over his work, and over the whole of our lives. Later, returning to his bed, we said goodbye. But as I was leaving something stopped me and I went back to his room. He was sleeping. I stood over him, a dying man, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled.

When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote. Then I took the pages and set them away. Here are those pages, my farewell to my friend, my adventure, my unfettered joy.

At the recent opening of exhibition of the same title at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center — which also gave us Smith’s delightful lettuce soup recipe for starving artists — I recorded Smith’s moving reading of some poems from the book and photographed the handwritten originals of the poems, below, on display at the CAC.

I had the pleasure of hearing — and, to our shared delight, recording — Smith’s reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

The Coral Sea is sublime in its entirety, as is Smith’s album of the same title.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

31 MAY, 2013

The Duality of the Adventurer’s Spirit: A 1929 Meditation on Our Core Contradictions

By:

“One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers.”

“The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself … these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have,” Joss Whedon told graduating seniors in his fantastic 2013 Wesleyan commencement address. “This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. … If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace.”

In Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure (public library) — a 1929 collection of short and exquisitely written biographical essays on the lives of such famed adventurers as Alexander the Great, Casanova, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, and Isadora Duncan — William Bolitho celebrates the contradictions and bipolar tensions that live inside and often drive even history’s most celebrated heroes:

In the titanic works and events of our day there is the same hostile co-operation of runaway and stay-at-home, the same cult-struggle with the same enigmatic goddess, who asks all and gives all. History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers — she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.

These inner conflicts, he argues in a passage Anaïs Nin noted in the fifth volume of her diaries, are the core of the Adventurer’s spirit, and what sets the hero apart from the villain is the ability to channel this bipolar energy into a generative force rather than a destructive or self-destructive one:

The Adventurer is within us, and he contests for our favor with the social man we are obliged to be. These two sorts of life are incompatible; one we hanker for, the other we are obliged to. There is no other conflict so bitter as this, whatever the pious say, for it derives from the very constitution of human life which so painfully separates us from all other human beings. We, like the eagle, were born to be free. Yet we are obliged, in order to live at all, to make a cage of laws for ourselves and to stand on the perch. We are born as wasteful and unremorseful as tigers; we are obliged to be thrifty, or starve, or freeze. We are born to wander, and cursed to stay and dig. We are born adventurers. It is this double-mindedness of humanity that prevents a clear social excommunication of the adventurers. If he fails he is a mere criminal. One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers. Society’s benefactors as well as pests. These are men betrayed by contradictions inside themselves, a social man at war with a free man.

Perhaps most poignant of all are Bolitho’s closing words, which, in addition to echoing Virginia Woolf’s meditation on imitation and the arts, remind us that as much as we may fall for reductionism, human character is irreducible and full of flux, a fluid self that warrants defending:

Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model. There is, therefore, in religion and ethics always art; personality has to be simplified, wired; both its incidents and its results theorized and coordinated before it can awake that only instinct working to our own advantage with which we are endowed: imitation.

Twelve Against the Gods, if you can find a surviving copy, is well worth a read, not only for the enlightening histories but also for Bolitho’s timeless observations on the most enduring and universal aspects of human nature. Complement it, if you haven’t already, with Whedon’s spectacular speech.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 MAY, 2013

The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius

By:

On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.

[…]

Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.