Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘interview’

19 FEBRUARY, 2014

Mark Rothko on the Transcendent Power of Art and How (Not) To Experience His Paintings

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“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

Between January and July of 1956, a pivotal point in art when abstraction and realism confronted one another in a particularly fierce conflict and fine art was exorcising its ambivalence about the “organic” and the “formal” on canvases the world over, the celebrated writer, poet, critic, and public intellectual Selden Rodman (February 19, 1909–November 2, 2002) engaged in a series of conversations with some of the era’s greatest artists. Among them was the influential painter Mark Rothko. Found in Conversations with Artists (public library) — the same magnificent anthology that gave us Jackson Pollock on art and mortality and Frank Lloyd Wright’s feisty critique of other architects — the exchange with Rothko is equal parts amusing and profound.

Mark Rothko

Unlike most of the other interviews, it didn’t take place in the artist’s studio — rather, the two ran into each other at the Whitney Museum Annual. Rodman recounts Rothko, who was generally “touchy about his work,” was in a particularly cranky mood, mad at his dealer for having given Rodman permission to reproduce one of his paintings in the book The Eye of Man. Rodman recounts the exchange:

“Janis had no right to give permission,” he said, adding that he’d contemplated suing both me and the publisher.

“You should have, Mark,” I said, laughing, “you should have. That would have given abstract expressionism far more publicity than I ever could!”

“You might as well get one thing straight,” he said, relaxing, “I’m not an abstractionist.”

“You’re an abstractionist to me,” I said. “You’re a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that?”

“I do. I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.”

Mark Rothko, No.5/No.22, oil on canvas (1949-1950)

Rothko then extracts from the particularity of his personal, momentary gripe a more general and timeless observation about the power of art, touching on Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and contemplating the psychological functions of art. (Even so, he still manages to scold Rodman in a charmingly curmudgeonly manner.)

I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

Conversations with Artists, should you be fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy, is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Art as Therapy, one of the best art books of 2013.

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24 JANUARY, 2014

John Updike on Making Money, How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things for Aspiring Writers to Know

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“In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

In 2004, shortly after winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, John Updike — who had also won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, among countless other accolades — gave an interview for the Academy of Achievement to discuss his views on writing, many of which he explored at greater depth in his superb 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness (public library), which gave us his timeless reflection on writing and death. Here are the highlights of the interview.

On his daily rhythm, adding to the stringent routines and offbeat rituals of famous writers:

Since I’ve gone through some trouble not to teach and not to have any employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch, so I work three or four hours in the morning. And it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases… I begin by answering a letter or two — there’s a lot of junk in your life as a writer, most people have junk in their lives — but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it steadily that you kind of forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it. . . . I’ve been maintaining this schedule since … 1957.

On doggedness:

It’s good to have a certain doggedness to your technique.

His advice to aspiring writers, including a sentiment about money that Michael Lewis would come to echo and which Muppeteer Jim Henson embodied:

Try to develop actual work habits and, even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say, or more a day to write. Very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So take it seriously, set a quota, try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. . . .

Don’t be contentious to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country and writing, as some would agree, is a capitalist enterprise… It’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience.

Read what excites you… and even if you don’t imitate it, you will learn from it. . . .

Don’t try to get rich. . . . If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or be a certain kind of lawyer. On the other hand, I like to think that in a country this large and a language even larger, that there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.

Complement with more invaluable advice to aspiring writers from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Josh Green, then bookmark and revisit this continually updated archive of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft.

For more of Updike’s wisdom, see his meditation on why the world exists and his little-known, lovely children’s book.

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17 DECEMBER, 2013

Dustin Hoffman on What It’s Really Like to Be a Woman

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Show this to every man, woman, and child you know.

Susan Sontag argued that the male-female polarization is among our culture’s most imprisoning stereotypes. Much has been said about how to be a woman and the problem of “women writers” and even how a woman is not to ride a bicycle, but what does it really mean to be male or female — not to look like a man or a woman, but to go through life as one, to be experienced by oneself and by others as a gendered being? At the heart of the film Tootsie, which premiered on December 17, 1982, was the inquiry of how one specific man’s life would be different if he — his person — had been born a woman. In this absolutely stirring short clip from an AFI interview, Dustin Hoffman explains, while fighting back tears, just how profoundly that seemingly simple question ripped open one of our culture’s greatest, most tragic wounds:

That was never a comedy for me.

Complement with Caitlin Moran’s excellent How to Be a Woman.

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