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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

17 AUGUST, 2015

Louise Bourgeois on Art, Integrity, the Trap of False Humility, and the Key to Creative Confidence

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“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”

French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010), nicknamed Spiderwoman for her iconic large-scale spider sculptures, is one of the most influential creative icons of the past century. She survived a traumatic childhood, which — as is often the case for great artists — became the raw material for a lifetime of art, and no less than a lifetime of creative tenacity is what it took for her to attain formal acclaim: Bourgeois had been informally admired in the art world for some time, but she was seventy-one when she received her first major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Celebrated as the founder of confessional art, she mistrusted words as an adequate medium for conveying one’s innermost ideas, yet she began keeping a diary at the age of twelve and never stopped. Dualities permeated her work — destruction and creation, anguish and happiness, violence and tenderness, loneliness and communion — but she was, above all, a woman of crystalline conviction and artistic integrity. Nowhere does this come more blazingly alive than in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory volume, which came about after curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist visited Bourgeois in her New York apartment in 1994 for a series of interviews; over the course of them he discovered a trove of previously unpublished notes, letters, fragments, speeches, and poetical writings by this enigmatic, luminous mind.

Bourgeois was also immensely insightful about the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of art, wise beyond her years since an early age — something best captured in the correspondence with her friend and fellow artist Colette Richarme. Although Bourgeois was seven years her friend’s junior, she often took on the role of a mentor and offered advice that was perhaps directed as much at herself as it was at Richarme. In a letter from March of 1938, 26-year-old Bourgeois — still an aspiring artist herself — writes:

You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.

A few years later, Bourgeois gives herself a more expansive version of the same advice in a barely punctuated passage from her diary:

A painting must not be a battlefield it must be a statement. Set out with something to say and not with the vague desire to say something. Things never simplify themselves they always complicate themselves on the way from the brain to the canvas. Set out, taking your precautions.

[…]

You have to realize that you aren’t working in a blind way for the good of humanity in general. You have to set up a scale of objectives and values and work systematically.

In another letter to Richarme from early 1939, Bourgeois offers a timeless piece of advice on the trap of false humility and the key to creative confidence:

To convince others, you have to convince yourself; and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude — in that it is inevitably superficial — is not helpful to creativity.

In a letter penned shortly after she moved from Paris to New York at the age of twenty-nine, Bourgeois recounts the transformative experience of visiting a Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — the very institution that would stage her own first retrospective more than four decades later:

There was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso here (forty years’ work). It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month. Complete shutdown. I cleaned brushes, palettes, etc. and tidied everything.

[…]

I’ve seen some things recently that are so beautiful that I can’t find any strength or self-confidence.

Writing of a newly published monograph of Van Gogh’s work, which she had just received, Bourgeois echoes the same sentiment:

What wealth!! What can one add that is new when there is such genius around? If art is for personal satisfaction only, it is too much of a selfish pleasure.

Meanwhile, her native Paris was mere months away from being occupied by the Nazis — a constant backdrop of impending destruction and devastation which Bourgeois, like all artists creating in a wartime climate, had to reconcile with the creative impulse. In the same letter to Richarme, she laments:

I have been listening to political discussions, conversations whose sole aim is to conceal the frightful term “neutrality.” I assure you, it’s useful living abroad: it helps one to understand how propaganda and false information is circulated for whatever secret purposes.

That summer, writing again to her friend as Paris already lay occupied by the Nazis, Bourgeois captures the malady of American media that afflicts us in ever-proliferating forms to this day:

I don’t know what to say about the behavior of the Americans. On the whole they are irresponsible. The newspapers, without exception, are trying to mold public opinion. The news they carry is correct, but the slant they put on events is tendentious — or, most of the time, false.

Bourgeois saw art as the most potent counterpoint to society’s falsehoods — a supreme reach for truth, which she espoused in her own work and found in the work of the artists she most admired. Much like her compatriot André Gide, who extolled the creative value of sincerity, she believed earnestness and integrity were essential to true art. That is why she saw Picasso — an artist who never compromised in his art, a rare beacon of sincerity amid a culture of cynicism — as her “great master.” In a diary entry from March of 1939, she writes:

Picasso paints what is true; true movements, true feelings. He is sane and strong and simple and sensitive… Picasso is an enthusiast. He says so, and that is why his works are young. Skepticism is the beginning of decadence. It’s a form of abdication and bankruptcy.

Like many diarists — including her compatriot, the great painter Delacroix, who used his journal as a form of self-counsel — Bourgeois urges herself:

Never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first… All movements painted by Picasso have been seen and felt; he is never theatrical. The Surrealists are theatrical. New York painting, the painting that wants to be or is fashionable, is theatrical. Theater is the image of life and Picasso sees life or rather reality! Keep your integrity. You will only count, for yourself and in your art, to the extent that you keep your integrity.

It is astounding how aptly this applies to writing, journalism, and the media industry as well — the very mecca of agenda-driven opinion-manipulation, which Bourgeois had previously lamented. So much of what passes for journalism, triply so in our day, is “theatrical” — from the customary clickbait of headline composition to the glaringly performative gimmicks of cat listicles. In this new context, Bourgeois’s words resonate as an even more powerful incantation for writers, artists, and journalists alike: “Keep your integrity.”

Louise Bourgeois: 'Self Portrait' / Cat. No. 324.2/VIII, variant, 2006 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

But integrity is something that takes place as much within the artist as it does around the artist — it is both a function of one’s interior personal commitment and, to borrow William Gibson’s marvelous term, of the “personal micro-culture” in which one immerses oneself. I have long believed that nothing sustains the creative spirit more powerfully than the sense of belonging to a circle of kindred spirits — something seen in such heartwarming affinities as those between Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.

Bourgeois, too, intuited this deep connection between artistic integrity and creative kinship. In August of 1984, already well into her seventies, she writes in the diary:

I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely.

To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer… Audience is bullshit, unnecessary. Communication is rare; art is a language, like the Chinese language. Who gets it? The deaf mutes in the subway.

Reconciliation is the sweetest feeling.

Louise Bourgeois: 'Mercy Merci,' 1992 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

In another diary entry penned three years later, she revisits the subject with even more piercing poignancy:

You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one.

Louise Bourgeois: Writings and Interviews is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe on public opinion and what it means to be an artist, Denise Levertov on how great works of art are born, and Henry Miller on why good friends are essential for creative work.

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14 AUGUST, 2015

Vacation and the Art of Presence: Anaïs Nin on How to Truly Unplug and Reconnect with Your Senses

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“As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”

If leisure is the basis of culture, how can we harness its true rewards given our pathological addiction to productivity? That’s exactly what French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin — an enchantress of love and life, a woman of extraordinary cultural prescience, and one of the most dedicated diarists of all time — explores in a portion of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5 (public library).

In the winter of 1947, drained by the bustle and constant striving that drives life in New York, Nin took a holiday in Acapulco, Mexico — still a mostly undeveloped patch of wilderness, on which the Hotel El Mirador had been built as twelve rooms on the edge of a cliff just a few years earlier. She was immediately struck by the world of difference between the local way of life and the obsessive living-making of the workaholic culture from which she had taken respite.

Three decades before Susan Sontag lamented the “aesthetic consumerism” of vacation photography, which commodifies the experience by prioritizing its record over its livingness, and more than half a century before we came to compulsively catalog every private moment on the social web, Nin writes:

I am lying on a hammock, on the terrace of my room at the Hotel Mirador, the diary open on my knees, the sun shining on the diary, and I have no desire to write. The sun, the leaves, the shade, the warmth, are so alive that they lull the senses, calm the imagination. This is perfection. There is no need to portray, to preserve. It is eternal, it overwhelms you, it is complete.

Nin had many friends of color in an era when that was rather uncommon for the average white person, and saw white Americans’ and Europeans’ way of life as a rote existence greatly inferior in its sensorial unimaginativeness compared to the cultures from which jazz, the art-form she most admired, sprang. Faced with the radically different disposition of the Mexican locals, she considers what they know about living with presence that the society from which she escaped does not:

The natives have not yet learned from the white man his inventions for traveling away from the present, his scientific capacity for analyzing warmth into a chemical substance, for abstracting human beings into symbols. The white man has invented glasses which make objects too near or too far, cameras, telescopes, spyglasses, objects which put glass between living and vision. It is the image he seeks to possess, not the texture, the living warmth, the human closeness.

Illustration from a rare first edition of Nin's 1944 short-story collection 'Under a Glass Bell.' Click image for more.

Many decades before we became transfixed by the glowing screens of our devices, which came to interfere with the very basics of being a city life, Nin adds:

Here in Mexico they see only the present. This communion of eyes and smiles is elating. In New York people seem intent on not seeing each other. Only children look with such unashamed curiosity. Poor white man, wandering and lost in his proud possession of a dimension in which bodies become invisible to the naked eye, as if staring were an immodest act. Here I feel incarnated and in full possession of my own body.

Four years later, Nin returns to Acapulco and is once again enchanted by the aliveness that its invitation to presence awakens in the spirit:

To me Acapulco is the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success in money, the continuous contagious presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals who want to become known, to be in the limelight, noticed, as if life among millions gave you a desperate illness, a need of rising above the crowd, being noticed, existing individually, singled out from a mass of ants and sheep… Here, all this is nonsense. You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body… As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.

Complement The Diary of Anaïs Nin, full of wisdom just as electrifying and alive, with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, the elusive nature of joy, and what maturity really means, then revisit Josef Pieper, writing around the same time, on how to reclaim our human dignity by mastering leisure.

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12 AUGUST, 2015

Sylvia Plath’s First Job: How the Beloved Poet’s Formative Experience as a Farm Worker Shaped Her Writing

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“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are.”

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) began honing her craft by reaping the creative rewards of keeping a diary from a young age and was barely a teenager when she first started writing poetry. By the time she graduated high school, she had amassed dozens of rejection slips and only a few acceptances. Young Plath studied both carefully and noticed a curious pattern — much like the response her first tragic poem had garnered, her sadder pieces tended to be the ones accepted, while her more exuberant and joyous poetry and prose ended up rejected. It would be quite crass to seek in this a direct metaphor for Plath’s life — certainly, despite her enormous capacity for livingness, Plath perished by her own hand; but had she not held on to that very capacity for joy and wonderment, had she not defended it tirelessly against the behemoth of her mental illness, she may have lost the battle far sooner, without gifting the world some of the most beautiful poetry ever written — the very record of her tussle with light and darkness.

Nothing fed Plath’s appetite for exuberance and light more powerfully and enduringly than her formative first job as a farm worker, which she took with her brother the summer after graduating from high school in 1950. It made so strong an impression on her that fragments of it slipped into her writing throughout her life.

Sylvia Plath's high school graduation portrait

In an entry from her scrapbook-journal, included by her mother in the preface to the posthumously published Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us the young poet’s thoughts on writing as salvation for the soul — Plath recounts that creatively and spiritually invigorating experience:

And so there are summers every year, but the one which brought my first job is unique. Warren and I went up to Lookout Farm [in Dover, Massachusetts] right after I graduated… Every day we biked up together early in the morning, left our bikes at Wellesley College usually and hitched a ride with one of the other hands. I can never go back to those days spent in the fields, in sun and rain, talking with the negroes and the hired hands. I can only remember how it was and go on living where I am… But … this Farm Summer will always be The First Job and the sweetest.

In an unpublished manuscript, included in the letters volume, Plath reflects on the experience:

I am now firmly convinced that farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are. As you work side by side in the rows, your hands move automatically among the leaves and your thoughts are free to wander at will. What, then, is more natural than to drift into conversation with your neighbor? It is really amazing what a receptive ear can do by way of encouraging confidences…

One of Sylvia Plath's little-known drawings. Click image for more.

That First Job sprouted Plath’s ongoing fascination with botany and her love of the land, which she would come to channel both in her poetry and, perhaps most directly, in her little-known drawings. But the farm work was also the seedbed for her first true sense of professional success: The experience produced a poem and an article, both published in The Christian Science Monitor — the first major publication not only to accept Plath’s work but to embolden her with a note from the editor: “We hope that you will try us again soon with articles and essays for these columns.” Only a year later, she was already seen as someone “born to write.”

In the closing words of that seminal article, published under the title “The Rewards of a New England Summer,” Plath captures the spiritual awakening kindled by that formative farm job, channeled with the same pensive beauty that marks her poetry:

When you see me pause and stare a bit wistfully at nothing in particular, you’ll know that I am deep at the roots of memory, back on the Farm, hearing once more the languid, sleepy drone of bees in the orange squash blossoms, feeling the hot, golden fingers of sun on my skin, and smelling the unforgettable spicy tang of apples which is, to me, forever New England.

Letters Home is a devastatingly beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on the spiritual rewards of housework, then revisit Plath on life, death, hope, and happiness, her breathtaking reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids.

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04 AUGUST, 2015

Nobel Laureate André Gide on What It Really Means to Be Original and Goethe’s Paradoxical Model of Creativity

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“If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it…”

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own,” Montaigne wrote in pondering the illusion of originality half a millennium before our contemporary theories of how creativity works. Mark Twain was equally derisive of the conceit that anything we create is truly original, while Henry Miller bluntly asked, “And your way, is it really your way?” And yet there exists in the human spirit a strange and immutable impulse to answer with a wholehearted, indignant “YES!” as we continue holding the nebulous notion of creative originality as one of our highest ideals.

That nebulous notion is what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951), who received the Nobel Prize for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” explores with precisely such keen psychological insight throughout The Journals of André Gide (public library) — the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books, and the same indispensable volume that gave us Gide on the vital balance of freedom and restraint and what it really means to be yourself.

Gide was one of history’s many celebrators of the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but what makes his journals particularly compelling is his dedicated discourse with the nature of the mind itself, constantly contemplating the inner workings of our highest human faculties — originality, the imagination, and the machinery of the creative process.

In a diary entry from September of 1893, under the heading “Rule of Conduct,” 24-year-old Gide writes:

RULE OF CONDUCT

Originality; first degree.

I omit the lower degree, which is mere banality; in which man is merely gregarious (he constitutes the crowd).

Therefore: originality consists in depriving oneself of certain things. Personality asserts itself by its limitations.

But, above this, there is still a higher state, to which Goethe achieves, the Olympian. He understands that originality limits, that by being personal he is simply anyone. And by letting himself live in things, like Pan, everywhere, he thrusts aside all limits until he no longer has any but those of the world itself. He becomes banal, but in a superior way.

It is dangerous to achieve too early that superior banality. If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it, or else it is pitifully dissolved and is no longer even original.

Whence the two states: first the state of struggle, in which the world is a temptation; one must not yield to things. Then the superior state … which Goethe entered at once and hence, refusing himself nothing, could write: I felt myself god enough to descent to the daughters of men.

Complement this particular passage from the wholly excellent The Journals of André Gide with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of originality and poet Mark Strand on the heartbeat of creativity.

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