Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

04 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Work Through Difficulty: Lewis Carroll’s Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block

By:

“When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”

In addition to having authored my all-time favorite book, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was a man of extraordinary and frequently prescient wisdom on matters of everyday life — his nine commandments of letter-writing offer timely insight into how we can make modern digital communication more civil, and his four rules for digesting information are a saving grace for our age of information overload. In The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download), this blend of timelessness and timelines so characteristic of Carroll’s thinking comes vibrantly ablaze, but nowhere more so than in an 1885 letter to one of his child-friends, a young lady named Edith Rix.

Carroll addresses the age-old question of how to overcome creative block. More than a century before psychologists identified the essential role of taking breaks in any intense creative endeavor, and long before our earliest formal theories about the stages of the creative process, Carroll offers spectacularly prescient counsel on how to work through creative difficulty and seemingly unsolvable problems — a testament to the fact that in the study of creativity, psychology often simply names and formalizes the intuitive insights artists have had for centuries, if not millennia.

Carroll offers young Edith three tips:

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.

His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:

My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.

In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”

Illustration by Tove Jansson for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the beloved author’s thoughts on happiness, morality, religion, identity, and much more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then fortify this particular bit with the psychology of the perfect writing routine and more ideas on overcoming creative block from Brian Eno, Carole King, and some of today’s most exciting creators.

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.

02 FEBRUARY, 2015

How Ursula Nordstrom, the Greatest Patron Saint of Modern Childhood Stood, Up for Creativity Against Commercial Cowardice

By:

“Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults.”

Hardly anyone has raised more conscientious, imaginative children than legendary Harper & Row children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910–October 11, 1988), who brought to life such multi-generational classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964). Nordstrom was more than an editor to her authors and artists — she was often their therapist, confidante and friend, and always their creative guardian and greatest champion. Above all, Nordstrom was a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience, to which unimaginative grownups so often lay perilous claim, and of the artist’s creative integrity in the face of growing commercial pressures toward marketable conformity and safe, commodified, politely pedestrian storytelling. Modern childhood’s most benevolent patron saint turned out to be a childless gay woman living through the height of consumerism in America and yet managing to envision, publish, and defend children’s books that were not forgettable commodities but masterpieces that stood the test of time and enchanted generations.

Her deeply lovable spirit blossoms in the pages of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — an endlessly rewarding volume by children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, which also gave us Nordstrom’s heartening New Year’s resolution, her feisty response to a conservative librarian who had tried to censor Maurice Sendak, and her witty, wise, and prescient lament about the state of publishing.

In July of 1966, twelve years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nordstrom corresponded with the author about his book Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, which she was about to publish with illustrations by a young Maurice Sendak — an artist whom she nursed out of insecurity and into genius, perhaps more so than with any of the other now-legendary artists and authors who came of age under Nordstrom’s wing. She writes to Singer:

To see Zlateh the Goat taking shape, becoming a book children (and their parents) will read and love for generations has been a tremendous experience for me. I think your stories have inspired some of Maurice Sendak’s very finest work. All of us in the department love your book… I think it’s going to bring you a special sort of happiness too.

Half a century before Sendak, already a cultural icon, scoffed at the artificial divide between “children’s” and “adult” books in his final interview, Nordstrom adds:

You’ve wondered why Sendak didn’t do adult books. And once you asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an editor of adult books. But most adults are dead and beyond hope after the age of thirty, and I think with Zlateh you will find a new and marvelous audience. God knows too many children’s books are routine, cynically produced, coarsely promoted. But Zlateh is a complete success artistically.

But her most fierce and emboldening defense of creative integrity against commercial cowardice came more than a decade earlier, shortly after her famous lament that what children read, and thus what shapes their minds, is being decided by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” In February of 1954, Nordstrom received a letter from a Harper & Row West Coast salesman named Jim Blake, reporting of an unpleasant encounter with a “cross buyer” who had complained about How to Make an Earthquake — a sweet, irreverent faux-activity book by the uncommonly original Ruth Krauss, in the vein of How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, featuring such how-to activity ideas as making a “tunnel of love for kittens without a mother” and balancing a peanut on your nose. The indignant buyer had found some of the activities inappropriate, betraying a profound inability to comprehend the subtle humor of Krauss’s book and her deep respect for the child’s imaginative freedom.

Nordstrom, a lifelong guardian of childhood’s imaginative inner world, replied to Blake with an exquisite defense of Krauss — an author whose magnificent collaborations with young Sendak are among my all-time favorite children’s books — and of the broader spirit the buyer had failed to understand, let alone appreciate. More than seven decades later, in an age when so many writers and artists are being squeezed out of their creative vision and vigor by “mediocre ladies in influential positions,” Nordstrom stands as our most heartening example of what it means to stand — and stand up — for all the right things.

She writes:

I am crushed to the ground and I bleed at every pore when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager: “I wonder if the book couldn’t stand a little editing if it isn’t too late.” It is too late for any changes and lateness aside, if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don’t know … and most grownups don’t know. As for “a little editing,” well, Ruth has written a lot of books for us and it has been an exciting and rewarding experience for me, as an editor, to watch her grow and grow and develop and go deeper and deeper. I respect her instinct and her final judgments and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with the talent — and I’m only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent.

Of course — and this is both the great gift and the great tragedy of this letter — Nordstrom’s ability to recognize creative talent and stand behind it, wholeheartedly and resolutely, is itself a monumental talent of increasing rarity. Those who possess it are few and far between, but when books are born out of it, it shows and never fails to delight.

And yet Nordstrom, a woman of unrelenting compassion, recognizes that her West Coast colleague is just trying to do his job and “sell a few books,” so she offers:

Can’t you tell some of those rather limited and thoroughly grown up adults that it is about time THEY accepted and trusted Krauss? … What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t?

Nordstrom is especially adamant about not dulling Krauss’s creative edge by forcing her — or any of her authors — to conform to a template that has proven successful in the past:

She doesn’t do the same thing over and over and if she ever starts she won’t be Ruth Krauss. She’ll always be good but when she stops blazing new trails … she won’t be the writer she is now.

Most of all, however, Nordstrom stands up for Krauss’s ability to bridge the child’s world and the adult’s:

Grown-ups and children together with a Ruth Krauss book can be closer than they can be without a Ruth Krauss book… I don’t know how important adults and children feeling closer together is but I guess it wouldn’t do adults and children any harm not to feel far apart for a little while, just long enough to enjoy a Krauss book together.

Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults… Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers — which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, this is so close to children, so exactly right, so damn warm and perfect that any little child can’t help but feel happier at the moment when it is read to him. “Happier” isn’t the right word. I guess I mean that “or whatever is your talent” can’t help but make any child warmed and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered.

[…]

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.

Nordstrom’s point — like so much of the enormous warmth and wisdom collected in Dear Genius — transcends this particular incident and even the general question of creative integrity in children’s books, and reminds us that being bewitched by wonder in any of its permutations requires precisely such an admission of not having the answers to everything. Just ask an astrophysicist.

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 JANUARY, 2015

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mark Strand on the Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe

By:

“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

In the 1996 treasure Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same invaluable trove of insight that demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius and gave us Madeleine L’Engle on creativity, hope, and how to get unstuck — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 prominent artists, writers, scientists, and other luminaries, seeking to uncover the common tangents of the creative experience at its highest potentiality. Among the interviewees was the poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) — a writer of uncommon flair for the intersection of mind, spirit and language, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and served as poet laureate of the United States.

For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

Illustration by Bárður Oskarsson from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book about making sense of mortality. Click image for more.

But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:

[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.

Echoing Chuck Close’s notion that the artist is a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver — a quality recent research has emphasized as essential to success in any domain — Csikszentmihalyi adds:

The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People.' Click image for more.

Strand speaks to this himself:

One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.

Like T.S. Eliot, who championed the importance of idea-incubation, Strand considers the inner workings of what we call creative intuition, or what Virginia Woolf called the “wave in the mind”:

I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.

And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:

To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.

Driving, coincidentally or not, is also something Joan Didion memorably extolled as a potent form of self-transcendence, and rhythmical movement in general is something many creators — including Twain, Goethe, Mozart, and Kelvin — have found stimulating. But perhaps most important is the general notion of short deliberate distractions from creative work — something more recent research has confirmed as the key to creative productivity.

Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:

Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.

Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:

Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence“the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity remains a must-read and features enduring insights on the psychology of discovery and invention from such luminaries as astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

For more of Strand’s genius in the wild, treat yourself to his sublime Collected Poems (public library), released a few weeks before his death.

The opening piece in the collection, which is one of my all-time favorite poems, offers a remembrance particularly befitting in the context of Strand’s lifelong serenade to mortality:

WHEN THE VACATION IS OVER FOR GOOD

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

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.

12 JANUARY, 2015

Some of Today’s Most Prominent Artists on Courage, Creativity, Criticism, Success, and What It Means to Be a Great Artist

By:

Wisdom from Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Damien Hirst, Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, and more.

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you…” And yet, as human beings, we orient ourselves in the darkness of the unknown by grasping blindly for familiar points of reference, seeking to construct a compass out of similarities and contrasts relative to our familiar world, and out of those we try to construct a framework for what we call success. This is especially true of such nebulous subjects as art, where there is no true North, no universal gold standard of success, so we seek tangibles — like the market — to orient ourselves in the maze of merit. The result can be a great crisis of confidence in artists and a great arrogance in audiences, leaving us still more unsure, as individuals and as a culture, of what makes great art and what it really means to be an artist.

In 33 Artists in 3 Acts (public library) — a belated but wildly worthy addition to the best art books of 2014 — journalist Sarah Thornton sets out to answer these delicate but crucial questions by peering into “the nature of being a professional artist today” and “how artists move through the world and explain themselves” via visits and conversations with such titans of contemporary art as Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Laurie Simmons, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Cindy Sherman. Thornton spent four years traveling several hundred miles to interview 130 artists, of whom she chose 33 — those most “open, articulate, and honest,” who fall “at diverse points along the following spectrums: entertainer versus academic, materialist versus idealist, narcissist versus altruist, loner versus collaborator” — hailing from five continents and fourteen countries. She then divided the great sensemaking task of her project into three umbrella themes — politics, which examines the relationship between the artists’ work and their ethics, attitude to power, and sense of civic responsibility, with a special focus on freedom of speech and human rights; kinship, which explores the ecosystem of peers, influences, and patrons of which Art is woven, all the way from the large-scale creative lineage of inspirations to one actual nuclear family: photographer Laurie Simmons, painter Carroll Dunham, and writer-actor-director Lena Dunham; and craft, a survey of the practicalities of art, from skills to routines to studio spaces.

Thornton writes in the introduction:

Artists don’t just make art. They create and preserve myths… In a sphere where anything can be art, there is no objective measurement of quality, so ambitious artists must establish their own standards of excellence. Generating such standards requires not only immense self-confidence, but the conviction of others. Like competing deities, artists today need to perform in ways that yield a faithful following.

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s wryly wise assertion that “all the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others,” Thornton — who later notes that “everyone’s personal history is a creatively edited story” — adds:

The walk and talk of an artist has to persuade, not just others but the performers themselves. Whether they have colorful, large-scale personas or minimal, low-key selves, believable artists are always protagonists, never secondary characters who inhabit stereotypes. For this reason, I see artists’ studios as private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief.

Nowhere is this interplay between the public and private personae more central to the process and product of art than in performance art itself. For her now-legendary 2010 MoMA show The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović — an artist who sees “immaterial energy” as her medium and believes that “nonverbal interaction is the highest form of communication” — sat in a wooden chair for more than 700 hours as she offered “unconditional love to complete strangers” — some half a million of them, many of whom were moved to tears in the presence of such piercing intensity.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, performance, 2010, duration: 3 months, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

But for the grand dame of performance art herself, the experience required a Buddhist-like quality of presence, a Buddhist-like attitude of welcoming everything that is. She tells Thornton:

Your shoulders drop, your legs swell, your ribs sink down into your organs… When you have so much pain, you think you will lose consciousness. If you say to yourself, ‘So what, lose consciousness,’ the pain goes away.

But Abramović, who indeed heeds the teachings of Tibetan monks, seeks not the showmanship but the higher purpose of such experiences. Her medium is, above all, the human spirit — something she handles with meticulous care and deep respect, with staunch opposition to nihilism, and always with an eye toward the essential sense of purpose that nourishes the human experience. That her art would take on the hues of a secular cult is neither accidental nor surprising. She tells Thornton with conviction “like a hurricane-force wind”:

Many people spend so much time doubting. Before you choose a profession, you have to stand still, close your eyes and think: who am I? … You know you are an artist when you have the urge to create, but this doesn’t make you a great artist. Great artists result from the sacrifices that you make to your personal life.

She sees the role of the artist as E.B. White saw the role of the writer, and as William Faulkner did in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, extolling the writer’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Abramović tells Thornton:

The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic. Our society is in a mess of losing its spiritual center… Artists should be the oxygen of society. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, Day 1 (Photograph: Marco Anelli courtesy of MoMA)

Perhaps because these deeper desires for meaning are so quintessential and universal, Abramović echoes young Virginia Woolf’s belief that all art merely imitates nature and negates the notion of creative influence between artists:

I have never been influenced by another artist… I like to go to the source, to all the places in nature that have a certain energy that you can absorb and translate into your own creativity as an artist.

And yet, as an artist who wholeheartedly embraces her contradictions — Abramović is a vegetarian, doesn’t drink, fasts regularly, yet freely admits to loving fashion — she acknowledges the arrogant myth of originality:

We can’t invent anything in this world which is not there already. It’s about seeing in a different way. Anything that is revolutionary is in front of your nose and it is never complicated. But you don’t see it until you have a safe mind. Performance can help people to get into a state of mind to perceive the simplicity.

Even so, Abramović is a relentless proponent and practitioner of self-reinvention and risk-taking as the ultimate duty of the artist:

When you repeat, you really lose respect for yourself… For me, the studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution. Nothing new happens. You don’t surprise yourself. Artists are here to risk, to find new territory. Risk, especially when you are a known artist, includes failing. It is an essential part of process. Failure is healthy for your ego.

Ai Weiwei, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,' 1995

Chinese artist, authority-provocateur, and human rights activist Ai Weiwei has made risk-taking his medium, having dedicated his life to challenging his country’s long history of muffling free speech under a blanket of government propaganda and outright, often militant suppression — a mission that has landed him under arrest, led the Chinese authorities to completely wipe his writing from the country’s patch of the internet, and on one occasion resulted in undercover police pulling a black hood over his head, throwing him into a van, and driving him to a hotel two hours away, where he was kept for two weeks before being transferred into a high-security military compound to endure more than fifty interrogations while handcuffed to a chair. He tells Thornton via translator:

Criticism and finding trouble is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.

But it was precisely this trouble-finding creativity that his father, Ai Qing — who was among the intellectuals exiled during the anti-rightist campaign preceding China’s Cultural Revolution — tried to discourage in young Ai, adamantly demanding that his son be anything but an artist. Ai Weiwei tells Thornton:

He always said forget about literature or art. Be an honest worker. [But] I became an artist because, under such pressure, my father still had somewhere nobody could touch. Even when the whole world was dark, there was something warm in his heart.

And yet under threats from the Red Guards to punish his family, Ai Qing gave up poetry and ended up cleaning the public toilets in a village in a remote Chinese province. Ai Weiwei recalls:

Only in the movies or in the Nazi time could you see things like that. It was very frustrating because this man was not a criminal. But people threw stones at him; the children used sticks to beat him; they poured ink on his head — all kinds of strange things in the name of justice and reeducation. The village people didn’t even know what he had done wrong. They just knew he was the enemy.

This early and deep sense of injustice became the raw material for Ai’s art and the lens through which he views the role of art in society, and yet he describes himself as an “eternal optimist” and tells Thornton:

Art is a mental activity, an attitude, a lifestyle.

With an eye to the endangered art of being alone, he considers the relationship between art and activism, the fusion of which defines his own work:

If you have never felt lonely, you should become an activist. Loneliness is a valuable feeling. Artists need to know how to walk alone.

His views on fame both parallel Einstein’s and better honor the complexity of the subject as he tells Thornton:

It comes too quick, too much. It is kind of ridiculous but I have good intentions. Fame needs to have content. If you use it for a purpose, it becomes different. So I am very happy that I have this chance to always speak my mind.

Although he recognizes the great hunger for commercial success in art today, Ai’s opinion of such aspirations is unambivalent. Thornton writes:

In his opinion, to be a “business artist” requires two qualities: “emptiness and shamelessness”… Emptiness and shamelessness are not uncommon in Western art, I say. Some of the most successful artists appear to be nihilists who don’t believe in much other than themselves and the luxury goods market. Ai nods. “For them, art has become pure play, lacking any essential truth,” he says.

This unflinching dedication to truth shows in Ai’s definition of authenticity, which he offers Thornton after a moment of reflection:

[Authenticity] is a habit. It is a road we are comfortable with.

[…]

Being somebody is being yourself. An artist’s success is part of the downside. You can lose yourself. Being yourself is a very difficult game.

Painter Carroll Dunham offers a complementary perspective on this delicate relationship between sense of self and artistic success:

A long career in the art world is hard on the ego.

[…]

The most fun time to be an artist is when you are young and when you are old… Getting through the weird middle period with a sense that you’ve kept growing is a challenge.

Laurie Simmons, 'Love Doll: Day 27/ Day 1 (New in Box),' 2010

Photographer Laurie Simmons — Dunham’s wife and the other half of their self-described “classic extrovert-introvert couple” — considers the trajectory of one’s relationship with criticism over this long game of an artist’s career:

When you’re younger and get a bad review, you think they hate you. It’s the recovery time that changes. You have to know how to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back to work. That’s the key to maturity. It’s what divides the artists that do what they do from those who are not up to it.

[…]

When you are younger, you think about eradicating self-doubt. But, as you age, you understand that it is part of the rhythm of being an artist. As I get older, I have developed my ability to examine self-doubt in private, to play around with it, rather than push it away.

Echoing Sherwin Nuland’s undying wisdom on what everybody needs, Dunham considers the heart of what makes criticism burn:

Negative commentary makes you feel misunderstood. So I often say to myself, “Apparently, I haven’t been clear enough with you people!”

[…]

Interesting artworks are always hypotheses about what an artwork could be… Why would anyone think that new art should resemble what art already looks like?

Echoing Jeanette Winterson’s spectacular meditation on art and the arrogance of the audience, Dunham adds:

The general public doesn’t understand art so they think that a con has been perpetrated on them.

And yet artists, he suggests, do perpetrate cons when they take market over mystery and deploy cheap tricks like surface shock value in lieu of deeper inquiries into the human experience, which is itself shocking in a much more profound way:

Shock is just another move in the entertainment complex. It’s bullshit. Who are you supposed to shock? Rich hedge fund managers? Do you find the fact that you’re going to die shocking? I do. Art can bracket those human conditions. It can cause you to have a moment of insight.

In those moments, Dunham argues, the viewer is rolfed by creative communion with the artist:

You know the difference between a soothing back rub and truly deep bodywork. The latter is not pleasant while it’s happening but afterward you feel quite changed from it. Shock, awe, whatever. I’m not looking for a back rub from art. I’m looking for something that feels like it matters.

Simmons adds a piercing articulation of the great, disquieting fact of creative work, embracing which sets great creators apart:

Any work that is really great hovers between terrific and terrible.

Calling to mind Amanda Palmer’s exquisite definition of what makes one a “real” artist, Dunham later adds:

There is this reverb. You have to make art to be an artist, but you have to be an artist to make art. It’s about getting your self-representation and your actual activities into alignment. I’ve gone through moments where I thought ‘I hate this, I don’t want to do it anymore,’ but I always come back to the fact there isn’t anything else that would better suit my sense of who I am.

It’s hard to imagine that such strong opinions and unflinching dedication to the integrity of art wouldn’t be passed on to Dunham and Simmons’s daughter, Lena Dunham — herself one of the most courageous creative mavericks of our time. In a testament to the notion that parental presence rather than praise fosters a healthy relationship with achievement, Dunham — who defines creativity as “an ineffable bug that takes you over but also something that you can learn” — reflects on the creative conditions and conditioning of her childhood:

I was given the tools, the space, and the support to do whatever I wanted. New approaches to old problems were encouraged… My parents taught me that you can have a creative approach to thinking that is almost scientific. You don’t have to be at the mercy of the muse. You need your own internalized thinking process that you can perform again and again.

She considers the rewards of the creative life:

As an artist, you get the opportunity to write the world — or create the world — that exists in your fantasies. It’s a really beautiful thing to do.

But beautiful as the overall sense of purpose might be, the fantasy-world of this inward gaze often requires being intensely present with one’s darker demons:

The kind of shame I deal with in my work is about returning to the scene of the crime with all my senses operating. I agree with Woody Allen’s theory that tragedy plus distance equals comedy.

(It should be noted that Dunham’s conversation with Thornton took place before Woody Allen rendered himself existentially disagreeable“nauseating,” even — to Dunham and to many of us.)

Legendary Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni — whose inclusion in Thornton’s survey springs from her belief that “curators are vital cocreators of the myths” — offers a complementary take on this notion of art as a conduit to self-knowledge, folding into it a necessary dissent with our culture’s dominant definitions of what makes an artist:

Our media understanding of an artist as a successful professional who makes entertaining objects that sell for a lot of money is very restrictive. Artists are people who do things with images in order to understand the world. They have a fierce desire to know themselves.

In a related sentiment, Turkish filmmaker and contemporary artist Kutlug Ataman elegantly captures the essential tension between culture and commerce with which all artists must tussle:

Art that goes forward can take a long time to be understood, whereas art that moves sideways — that is just elaborating — can be very commercial… As an artist, you have to decide which way you want to go.

That choice is often mired in the question of originality — something that recurs across Thornton’s interviews, and a subject of ambivalent skepticism for artists long before Mark Twain’s famous proclamation that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Visual artist and composer Christian Marclay offers an insightful perspective on this role of the borrowed and the begotten in creative work:

Am I being original this morning? You sense the wonder of discovery when you’re doing something that feels new… But, who knows, maybe someone has been there before. Every image that I use is from someone else. But you can be original in what you steal and how you display your bounty.

33 Artists in 3 Acts is a superb read in its hefty totality. Thornton herself embodies what one of her subjects, the great Italian curator Francesco Bonami, observed of his profession — that curation is “about taking care of the artist” — as her own immeasurable insight on the creative experience illuminates and elevates the artists who entrust their ideas in her care.

Complement this treasure trove of wisdom with Teresita Fernández’s spectacular commencement address on what it means and what it takes to be an artist and Dani Shapiro on the ultimate task of the artist.

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.