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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Joni Mitchell on Freedom, the Source of Creativity, and the Dark Side of Success

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“How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open… to encounter and to… be in touch with the miraculous.”

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Joni Mitchell by Jack Robinson | © The Jack Robinson Archive (robinsonarchive.com)

One of Mitchell’s most defining characteristics and a pillar of her artistic success is her unflinching integrity of vision — a creative compass that seems to always be oriented to her own true north and nobody else’s. Her own standards are the only ones she ever heeded and her own values the only ones she ever sought to measure up to. When Marom asks what gave Mitchell confidence through the ample rejection she faced early in her career, she speaks beautifully to the idea that the best art comes from a place of self-transcendence and is created for an audience of one:

I’ve never thought of that. I guess the only thing was being witness to my own growth. You know, I would suddenly see that, yes, the music was getting better, and the words were getting better. Just my own sense of creative growth kept me going, I guess.

Tuning into that inner voice, Mitchell suggests, was just as vital in her journey as tuning out the external noise that tried to drown it out — a practice arguably even more important, yet more challenging, for artists today, whose work is constantly offered up for external scrutiny online and off, through exponentially multiplying channels of exposure. Mitchell tells Marom:

My growth has been slow, like a crescendo of growth, based on my dissatisfaction with the previous project, where I thought was weak, not what the critics thought. The critics dismissed a lot of what I thought was my growth and praised a lot of what I thought common about my work. I disagreed with most of them. So I had to rely a lot on my own opinions, not to say that I wasn’t constantly asking them for advice and mulling it around, not dismissing it.

She revisits this notion of creating from a place of freedom rather than normative restriction based on the ideals and shoulds of others:

Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.

Mitchell’s creative source springs from precisely this feeling of miraculous, wholehearted aliveness. She tells Marom:

How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and to, in a way, be in touch with the miraculous.

Much of what we call “inspiration,” Mitchell suggests, is really the active practice of finding oneself by getting lost:

I think that as long as you still have questions, the child questions, the muse has got to be there. You throw a question up to the muse and maybe they drop something back on you.

'In the Park of the Golden Buddha,' 1995 | © Joni Mitchell (photograph by Sheila Spencer)

But Mitchell’s most salient reflection is also her most vulnerable. Looking back on her journey from poverty to affluence, from critical derision to acclaim, she speaks to the rather conflicted relationship many of us — especially artists of all stripes — have with success and its outward expressions, a tension predicated on the toxic myth that there is a nobility to poverty and that financial success necessarily detracts from the authenticity of the work.

When Maron notes that “once you’ve known poverty, it digs into you no matter how successful,” Mitchell agrees and admits to being “suspicious of wealth” because she had come from destitution. Looking back on that tipping point when she went from struggling artist to star, with the affluent lifestyle to boot, she contemplates the inner tussle of values:

I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success, even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to suddenly be driving a fancy car. I had a lot of soul searching to do. I felt that living in elegance and luxury cancelled creativity, or even some of that sort of Sunday school philosophy that luxury comes as a guest and then becomes the master. That was a philosophy that I held onto. I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter it, that luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it.

But I found that I was able to express it in the work, even at the time when it was distasteful to me… The only way that I could reconcile with myself and my art was to say, “This is what I’m going through now; my life is changing. I show up at the gig in a big limousine and that’s a fact of life.”

I’m an extremist as far as lifestyle goes. I need to live simply and primitively sometimes, at least for short periods of the year, in order to keep in touch with something more basic. But I have come to be able to finally enjoy my success, and to use it as a form of self-expression.

Leonard Cohen has a line that says, “Do not dress in those rags for me, / I know you are not poor.” When I heard that line, I thought to myself that I had been denying, which was hypocritical. I had been denying, just as that line in that song, I had played down my wealth.

Many people in the rock business [have] their patched jeans and their Levi jackets, which is a comfortable way to dress, but also it’s a way of keeping yourself aligned with your audience. For instance, if you were to show up at a rock and roll concert dressed in gold lamé and all of your audience was in Salvation Army discards, you would feel like a person apart.

Leonard Cohen and Joni at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival | © David Gahr/ Getty Images

Despite how gradual her rise had been and how emblematic of the idea that the myth of the overnight success is indeed a myth, Mitchell recalls the hollowing feeling of beginning to feel separate from her audience by a magnitude of wealth. And yet she finds her peace in a rather Zen-inspired perspective, one where everything that is is welcome as it is, allowing experience to unfold without the layering of judgment. Seen that way, poverty and affluence, like meeting and separation and like most seeming polarities in life, are two sides of the same coin, two dimensions of the human experience, riddled with many of the same anguishes and anxieties. (Henry Miller touched on this beautifully in his 1935 meditation on money, through the parable of the factory owner’s predicament.) Mitchell tells Marom:

I’m still searching for meaning and purpose. You know, people have a funny idea that success, [that] luxury is the end of the road. That’s not the end at all. As a matter of fact, many troubles begin there. They’re just of a different nature.

I’ve had the experience of poverty, middle class, now extreme wealth and luxury, and that’s difficult too.

Echoing Georgia O’Keeffe’s ideas on mental toughness, she adds:

I live in a beautiful place, like it would be a dream place. Many a day I walk through it and don’t see anything… If I have to live with less, I can do it easily. I can live with much less. As a matter of fact, for my nature, it’s too complicated to have so much because I can never find anything. [laughs] That’s a silly little problem but you don’t need that much. It’s a big headache… I like the luxury of having a swimming pool. But if I could have a shack or a tent down there next to my swimming pool, I’d be very contented. [laughs]

But her most eloquent and sensitive articulation of these ideas, fittingly, comes from one of her songs — “The Boho Dance” from her 1976 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns:

You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave
Don’t you get sensitive on me
’Cause I know you’re just too proud
You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now
Even if good fortune allowed
Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it’s stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it out of your eyes

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a magnificent read in its entirety — a rare glimpse into the inner world of a rare kind of genius. Complement it with Leonard Cohen on the key to the creative life, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, Pete Seeger on the myth of originality, and Carole King on overcoming creative block.

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Susan Sontag on the Perils of Publicity in Creative Work

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“Publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist.”

When Harper’s Bazaar editor Leo Lerman approached Anaïs Nin about profiling her in the magazine, she declined in an exquisite letter, lamenting the way in which such forms of publicity flatten a dimensional and ever-evolving human being into a static, salable story. But publicity — particularly interviews, profiles, and public appearances — has another, perhaps even more perilous demand: It distracts the artist or writer from the very work that sprouted the demand for such interviews, profiles, and appearances in the first place and takes him or her away from both the contemplative space and the dogged dedication that produced that work.

Who better than Susan Sontag to speak to this paradox with piercing poignancy? In the excellent Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library) — which also gave us the story of how the celebrated writer possessed New York and subverted sexual stereotypesDavid Schreiber cites Sontag’s eloquent disdain for publicity as a special form of toxic people-pleasing from a 1969 interview with NBC’s Edwin Newman:

I think publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist… It always is a problem. Because even if it’s good, the extent to which you get all this attention is an extra thing for you to take account of. You start thinking about your work as an outsider — you start being aware of… what other people think of you. And you become self-conscious… It’s taking your attention away from your own business.

Schreiber adds that Sontag resented giving interviews for the tabloid press and television, a medium for which she reserved special contempt and called “the death of Western civilization.” In declining such requests, she would often remark, “Beckett wouldn’t do it.” (Indeed, many of life’s perplexities snap into uncompromising clarity when approached with a lens of “What would Beckett do?”)

Complement with Sontag on the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the gap between love and sex, beauty vs. interestingness, education, stereotypes, literature and freedom, and why lists appeal to us.

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Art, Life, and Setting Priorities

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“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.”

In her heyday, Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was written about as America’s first great female artist. The great social critic Lewis Mumford once remarked of a painting of hers: “Not only is it a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul which distinguishes important communications from the casual reports of the eye.” In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Exactly thirty years earlier, her career had been catapulted by the lovingly surreptitious support of her best friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had assumed the role of agent-manager and secretly sent some of O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings to the famous 291 gallery owned by the influential photographer and art-world tastemaker Alfred Stieglitz — the man with whom O’Keeffe would later fall in love. Upon first seeing her work, Stieglitz exclaimed that it was “the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long time.”

The lifetime of letters between the two women, full of O’Keeffe’s spirited expressiveness and peppered with her delightfully defiant disregard for punctuation, is collected in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — a revealing look at the inner life of one of the past century’s greatest artists, brimming with her unfiltered views on art, work ethic, love, and life. It is also the record of a remarkable and somewhat tragic friendship, which suffered a profound rift when Pollitzer’s warmhearted and generous biography of O’Keeffe was met with indignant disapproval by the artist. (“You have written your dream picture of me — and that is what it is,” she wrote to her friend in rejecting the biography. “It is a very sentimental way you like to imagine me — and I am not that way at all.”) Even so, for more than thirty years the two women held up mirrors for one another in a most Aristotelian way, using the reflective veneer of their surface differences — Anita with her wholehearted emotionality and faith in the bountifulness of the universe, Georgia with her fierce self-protection and fear of emotional vulnerability, regulated by a formidable work ethic — so that each could reveal her true nature and, in the process, shed light on the other.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Pollitzer’s most vitalizing effect on O’Keeffe was the ability, through the sheer force of her own vibrant aliveness, to pull out of her friend a rejoicing in the full act of living, the kind of “spiritual electricity” essential to great art. O’Keeffe knew and valued this — early on in the friendship, she wrote to Pollitzer: “You are certainly a great little girl — I love the way you just bubble with life — and the enthusiasm of living,” and later, “I haven’t found anyone yet who likes to live like we do.” But she expresses this most exquisitely in a letter from August of 1915. At 27, Georgia — already a formidable presence at that age, typically dressed in tailored suits and immaculate white shirtwaists, with hair pulled back in a disciplined bun — writes to Anita:

Your letters are certainly like drinks of fine cold spring water on a hot day — They have a spark of the kind of fire in them that makes life worthwhile. — That nervous energy that makes people like you and I want to go after everything in the world — bump our heads on all the hard walls and scratch our hands on all the briars — but it makes living great — doesn’t it — I’m glad I want everything in the world — good and bad — bitter and sweet — I want it all and a lot of it too —

Such realness of living was essential for O’Keeffe’s values not only as a person, but also as an artist. Later in the same letter, condemning another artist’s affectation, she writes:

I believe an artist is the last person in the world who can afford to be affected.

Embedded in young O’Keeffe’s worldview was a certain quality of grit, the character trait we now know is the greatest predictor of success. In a letter from September of that year, she makes her determination unequivocal:

I believe in having everything and doing everything you want — if you really want to — and if you can in any possible way… We just want to live dont we.

But O’Keeffe balanced this voracious appetite for freedom and unburdened living with a keen awareness of the practicalities of life and the quintessential tussle of the creative life — the struggle to integrate making art with making a living. She writes to Pollitzer:

You see — I have to make a living

I don’t know that I will ever be able to do it just expressing myself as I want to — so it seems to me that the best course is the one that leaves my mind freest … to work as I please and at the same time makes me some money.

If I went to New York I would be lucky if I could make a living — and doing it would take all my time and energy — there would be nothing left that would be just myself for fun — it would be all myself for money — and I loath — If I can’t work by myself for a year — with no stimulus other than what I can get from books — distant friends and from my own fun in living — I’m not worth much…

But a few days later, O’Keeffe reaches a depth of despondency that testifies to Anaïs Nin’s memorable point about great art being the product of emotional excess. Writing to Anita, she despairs over the psychic drain of apathy:

One can’t work with nothing to express. I never felt such a vacancy in my life — Everything is so mediocre — I don’t dislike it — I don’t like it — It is existing — not living — and absolutely — I just wish some one would take hold of me and shake me out of my wits — I feel that insanity might be a luxury. All the people I’ve meet are all right to exist with — and it is awful when you are in the habit of living.

And yet O’Keeffe’s ambivalence about emotional intensity is clear — without it, she feels vacant; with it, she feels out of control. In a letter from October of 1915, she lovingly but sternly scolds Pollitzer for what she sees as emotional excess:

You mustn’t get so excited… You wear out the most precious things you have by letting your emotions and feelings run riot at such a rate… Dont you think we need to conserve our energies — emotions and feelings for what we are going to make the big things in our lives instead of letting so much run away on the little things everyday

Self-control is a wonderful thing — I think we must even keep ourselves from feeling to much — often — if we are going to keep sane and see with a clear unprejudiced vision —

I do not want to preach to you — I like you like you are — but I would like to think you had a string on yourself and that you were not wearing yourself all out feeling and living now — save a little so you can live always —

'Blue and Green Music' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921

Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s spectacular letter of advice on art and life to his teenage son — “The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.” — O’Keeffe adds:

It always seems to me that so few people live — they just seem to exist and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t live always — til we die physically — why do it in our teens and twenties…

For her part, Pollitzer echoes Seneca’s memorable wisdom on living wide vs. living long and responds: “I’d lots rather live hard than long.” But for O’Keeffe, the task of living hard is to be attained no matter the circumstances — in a prescient letter from the same month, fourteen years before O’Keeffe would move to the remote Southwest to live a solitary life, she writes:

I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.

In many ways, O’Keeffe implicitly offers the art of living as the answer she poses to Pollitzer about the nature of art itself:

What is Art any way?

When I think of how hopelessly unable I am to answer that question I can not help feeling like a farce… Ill lose what little self respect I have — unless I can in some way solve the problem a little — give myself some little answer to it.

A year later, O’Keeffe would revisit the question with a remark that falls between the sincere and the sardonic:

I don’t know what Art is but I know some things it isn’t when I see them.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

And yet O’Keeffe learns the invaluable art of embracing the unknown and writes to Pollitzer a few days later:

This feeling of not knowing anything and being pretty sure that you never will is — well — I might say awful — if it wasn’t for a part of my make up that is always very much amused at what out to be my greatest calamities — that part of me sits in the grand stand and laughs and claps and screams — in derision and amusement and drives the rest of me on in my blundering floundering game — Oh — it’s a great sport

A month later, O’Keeffe revisits the notion of wholehearted living and touches on the presently trendy concept of “work-life balance” — a rather toxic divide, I believe — writing to Pollitzer:

Haven’t worked either since Monday and here it is Saturday afternoon — Ive just been living. It seems rediculous that any one should get as much fun out of just living — as I — poor fool — do — … Next week Im going to work like a tiger.

[…]

I wonder if I am a lunatic… Imagination certainly is an entertaining thing to have — and it is great to be a fool.

Though O’Keeffe was known for her unflinching work ethic — an artist who, dissatisfied with the quality of commercially available canvases, began stretching her own — she never abandoned this exuberant joy in the art of living. A few days later, in November of 1915, she writes:

I just cant imagine anyone being any more pleased and still being able to live.

But O’Keeffe’s greatest feat was in bridging her discipline with her dedication to wholehearted living. In December of 1915, a period when she was particularly short on money, she writes to Pollitzer:

Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.

Still … I sometimes think its almost a sin to refuse to satisfy yourself.

Even so, O’Keeffe isn’t free from the self-conscious guilt we tend to experience when we feel unproductive. A few weeks later, still unhappily stationed at her teaching position in South Carolina, she captures this moral struggle in rather strong language:

Its disgusting to be feeling so fine — so much like reaching to all creation — and to be sitting around spending so much time on nothing —

I am disgusted with myself —

I was made to work hard — and Im not working half hard enough — Nobody else here has energy like I have — no one else can keep up

I hate it

When able to bridge her love of life and her love of work, however, O’Keeffe captures the exultant joy of creative flow and self-expression beautifully:

Ive been working like mad all day … it seems I never had such a good time — I was just trying to say what I wanted to say — and it is so much fun to say what you want to — I worked till my head all felt light in the top — then stopped and looked… — I really doubt the soundness of the mentality of a person who can work so hard.

'Red Hill and White Shell' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1938

O’Keeffe would go on to create for herself the kind of life and environment best suited for such delirious and dogged application of her talent and work ethic. Like another great artist, Agnes Martin, who memorably asserted that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” O’Keeffe mastered the art of solitude by deliberately avoiding social distractions to make art always her priority. In a Saturday Review profile piece Pollitzer wrote of her friend in 1950, she quoted O’Keeffe as saying:

I know I am unreasonable about people but there are so many wonderful people whom I can’t take the time to know.

In a 1958 letter to Pollitzer, O’Keeffe, by that point in her early seventies, speaks to her priorities directly:

Most of the time I am alone with my dog and think it is fine to be alone — I have been working and rather like my doings — I really work like a day laborer — have been preparing canvas and it is really hard work but Im determined to prepare enough to last four or five years so there will always be lots of empty ones around. Im even going to frame them and back them so there will be nothing left to do but the paintings… My life is good — and I like it. The dog and I have a walk almost every early morning and again at sunset — He just now banged on the door to tell me he was ready to come in and go to bed.

But perhaps the single most piercing sentiment, the one most vividly expressive of O’Keeffe’s lifelong priorities, comes from her notes on the very artifact that caused the demise of her friendship with Pollitzer — the biography O’Keeffe deemed wholly unrepresentative of her spirit. One of her many corrections on the manuscript reads:

I do not like the idea of happyness — it is too momentary — I would say that I was always busy and interested in something — interest has more meaning to me than the idea of happyness.

What an exquisite way to capture the idea that happiness is found in being intensely present with one’s experience.

Complement Lovingly, Georgia with O’Keeffe’s passionate love letters to Alfred Stieglitz.

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