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Posts Tagged ‘interviews’

31 MARCH, 2014

Agnes Martin on Art, Happiness, Pride, and Failure: A Rare Vintage Interview with the Reclusive Artist

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“We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.”

“Her art has the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer,” a New York critic once remarked of legendary abstract-expressionist painter and reconstructionist Agnes Martin, as known for the transcendent power of her signature minimalist paintings as she is for being an incredibly reclusive, reticent, and media-shy artist, yet remarkably eloquent on the rare occasions she gave an interview, at once poetic and philosophical. Arguably the best of those was conducted by the prominent music, dance and art critic John Gruen in 1976, when Martin was sixty-four, and is found in Gruen’s The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) — an altogether magnificent out-of-print volume fifteen years in the making, featuring conversations with such creative legends as Saul Steinberg, Francis Bacon, and Roy Lichtenstein.

Agnes Martin

Gruen prefaces the conversation with a backdrop of what it’s like to be in Martin’s singular presence:

To meet Agnes Martin in person is to be in the presence of an austere and primitive sensibility — a presence that yields a slight sense of apprehension. Her appearance recalls photographs of Gertrude Stein at her most reserved and diffident.

Once they engaged in conversation, Gruen found her to be an artist who “rarely answered direct questions, but spoke in oracle fashion on matters that seemed applicable to the life of the artist” — all the while “nervously twisting and retwisting a white paper napkin.” Indeed, Martin’s meditation on the spirit of art exudes extraordinary timelessness and insight:

Toward freedom is the direction that the artist takes. Art work comes straight through a free mind — an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better.

Martin, who was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, echoes Alan Watts’s admonition about the ego and continues:

You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn’t so easy. It’s pride and fear that covers the mind. Pride blinds you. It destroys everything on the way in. Pride is completely destructive. It never leaves anything untouched. First it takes one way … telling you that you’re all right … boosting up your ego, making all kinds of excuses for you… It takes a long time for us to turn against pride and get rid of it entirely. And, of course, with every little downfall of pride, we feel a tremendous step up in freedom and in joy. Of course, most people don’t really have to come to grips with pride and fear. But artists do, because as soon as they’re alone and solitary, they feel fear. Most people don’t believe they have pride and fear, because they’ve been conditioned on pride and fear. But all of us have it. If we don’t think we have it, then that’s a deceit of pride. Pride practices all kinds of deceits. It’s very, very tricky. To recognize and overcome fear and pride, in order to have freedom of mind, is a long process.

Martin revisits the notion of solitude as the cleansing ground of the mind when she considers what separates artists from other people:

If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. … When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own.

Possession of one’s own mind, Martin argues, is the heart of the creative spirit, so she rebels against the notion of influence:

I don’t believe in influence. I think that in order to be an artist, you have to move. When you stop moving, then you’re no longer an artist. And if you move from somebody else’s position, you simply cannot know the next step. I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you’ve made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don’t say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don’t say that change isn’t possible in your course. But I do believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we are born to do sooner or later, anyway.

In a testament to the power of grit and repeated failure as the path to creative success, Martin reflects on her own painting process with an insight that applies to just about any field of creative endeavor:

You’re permanently derailed. It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint.

[…]

For months, the first paintings don’t mean anything — nothing. But you have to keep going, despite all kinds of disappointments.

When Gruen inquiries about how Martin spends her days, she reveals herself to be an outlier on the spectrum of famous creators’ sleep habits and contributes to the eccentric daily routines of artists:

I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three in the afternoon, without any breakfast. You see, I have a visual image. But then to actually accurately put it down is a long, long way from just knowing what you’re going to do. Because the image comes into your mind after what it is. The image comes only to help you to know what it is. You’re really feeling what your real response is. And so, if you put down this image, you know it’s going to remind other people of the same experience.

First, I have the experience of happiness and innocence. Then, if I can keep from being distracted, I will have an image to paint.

It is Martin’s absolute conviction in creating out of happiness and with joy — a culturally necessary antidote to the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, and a conviction shared by other such heartening creators as Ray Bradbury, Alice Walker, and Anna Quindlen — that leads her to share her curious conspiracy theory about Mark Rothko’s suicide, which she considers incompatible with the exuberant transcendence of his art:

Mark Rothko’s painting is pure devotion to reality. That’s what it is! I wish you could publish that I don’t believe for a minute that Rothko committed suicide. Nobody in that state of mind could. He was murdered, obviously… by the people who have profited or have tried to profit. Why, Rothko might have been the happiest man in this world, because his devotion was without mark or stain. He just poured it out, right from his heels!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vision for her own most iconic paintings — her ethereal geometric line-grids — sprang out of a similar “pure devotion to reality,” right out of her own heels, as it were. She recounts, in near-synesthetic terms:

One time, I was coming out of the mountains, and having painted the mountains, I came out on this plain, and I thought, “Ah! What a relief!” (This was just outside of Tulsa.) I thought, “This is for me!” The expansiveness of it. I sort of surrendered. This plain … it was just like a straight line. It was a horizontal line. And I thought there wasn’t a line that affected me like a horizontal line. Then, I found that the more I drew that line, the happier I got. First I thought it was like the sea … then, I thought it was like singing! Well, I just went to town on this horizontal line.

She adds an admonition to those who interpret — and thus misinterpret — her work to be about structure rather than about this underlying feeling of expansive happiness:

I’ve been doing those grids for years, but I never thought “Structure.” Structure is not the process of composition. Why, even musical compositions, which are very formally structured, are not about structure. Because the musical composer listens all the time. He doesn’t think about structure. So you must say that my work is not about structure.

Martin returns to the essential question of what defines the artist:

We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.

[…]

The artist lives by perception. So that what we make is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. It’s all about feeling… everything, everything is about feeling…. feeling and recognition!

Complement with this rare 1997 video interview with Martin, then treat yourself to The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists, which is an absolute treasure, should you be so lucky to find a surviving used copy.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Alice Walker on Creativity

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“Creation is really a sustained period of bliss — even though the subject can still be very sad.”

To wonder what creativity is is among the chronic perplexities of the human condition. We’ve dissected its four essential stages, outlined its five steps of idea-production, and expounded theories about how it works. And yet the nature of creativity eludes us, perhaps because somewhere between the myth and the mechanics lies the simple truth that the creative spirit flies by its own accord, is accountable to no one, and differs for everyone.

In this lovely short segment from PBS’s American Masters, part of a feature documentary, one of the greatest writers of our time — the prolific and Pulitzer-winning Alice Walker — reflects on the nature of creativity with a beautiful and culturally necessary antidote to the “tortured genius” myth:

Creation is really a sustained period of bliss — even though the subject can still be very sad. Because there’s the triumph of coming through and understanding that you have, and that you did it the way only you could do it — you didn’t do it the way somebody told you to do it, you did it just the way you had to do it. And that is what makes us us.

In her altogether superb 1983 prose collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (public library), Walker considers a darker aspect of creativity amidst a cultural context of oppression, as she contemplates what “creativity” meant for Black women two generations earlier, who stifled their muses as they themselves were being stifled by the gruesome grip of slavery — women who “were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste” as they were being “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release”:

What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.

[…]

How was the creativity of the Black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years Black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a Black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist. Consider, if you can bear to imagine it, what might have been the result if singing, too, had been forbidden by law. Listen to the voices of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin, among others, and imagine those voices muzzled for life. Then you may begin to comprehend the lives of our “crazy,” “Sainted” mothers and grandmothers. The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short Story Writers, who died with their real gifts stifled within them.

[…]

Therefore we must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers knew, even without “knowing” it…

Complement with more notable thoughts on creativity from Leonard Bernstein, Charles Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, William S. Burroughs, Ira Glass, Albert Einstein, Neil Gaiman, T.S. Eliot, and other cultural icons.

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2013

William Faulkner on Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life

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“The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”

When The Paris Review launched in 1953, it revolutionized the art of the interview. Over the decades that followed, the revered publication offered unprecedented glimpses of literary history’s greatest minds, which yielded such timeless gems as E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer and the daily routines of famous authors. But among the Paris Review’s most radical interviews was one with William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), conducted exactly four decades after his days as a Jazz Age artist and nearly thirty years after he penned his little-known children’s book, published in the spring of 1956. Found in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Malcolm Cowley on the four stages of writing — and also available online in the Paris Review archive, the wide-ranging interview explores with curmudgeonly conviction everything from the secret of great writing to the purpose of art to the meaning of life.

Faulkner begins with a case against the artist’s individual ego, citing the controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship and arguing instead that art transcends the artist:

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.

When asked whether there’s any formula for being a good novelist — a timely question in our age of endless appetite for the odd habits and practical advice of famous authors, as if replicating those would somehow effect genius — Faulkner shoots back a crankily argued case for work ethic and creative doggedness, taking Zadie Smith’s contention that a writer should be resigned “to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” to an extreme:

Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Drawing by young William Faulkner. Click image for more.

When the interviewer inquires about the best environment for a writer — something to which E. B. White famously replied that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — Faulkner illustrates his point with a personal anecdote that outshines even his typical penchant for being a provocateur:

Art is not concerned with environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.

So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

When the interviewer follows up on the mention of economic freedom, asking whether it’s essential for the writer, Faulkner shoots back with his characteristic absolutism, adding to history’s most memorable definitions of art:

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something. If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are.

Drawing by young William Faulkner. Click image for more.

Despite the questionable comment on gender, Faulkner adds a poignant meditation on the false deity of prestige and how chasing commercial success warps a writer’s gift:

Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.

Faulkner furthers his point about integrity vs. success in addressing whether working in the movies can help or hurt a writer:

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much. The problem does not apply if he is not first rate because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

When asked about the role of technique, Faulkner scoffs and offers some advice for aspiring authors, later echoed in Neil Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on making mistakes, calling for a curious blend of humility and arrogance:

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.

Illustration from William Faulkner's 'The Wishing Tree.' Click image for more.

Reflecting on whether writing should be based on personal experience, Faulkner offers his trifecta of literary essentials, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s model of the four people every writer should be:

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination — any two of which, at times any one of which — can supply the lack of the others.

He shares his secret to writing a great story:

A story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

Most poignant of all, however, is Faulkner’s meditation on the meaning of life:

Life is not interested in good and evil. Don Quixote was constantly choosing between good and evil, but then he was choosing in his dream state. He was mad. He entered reality only when he was so busy trying to cope with people that he had no time to distinguish between good and evil. Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move — which is ambition, power, pleasure. What time a man can devote to morality, he must take by force from the motion of which he is a part. He is compelled to make choices between good and evil sooner or later, because moral conscience demands that from him in order that he can live with himself tomorrow. His moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream. … The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

Complement with the curious and controversial story of Faulkner’s only children’s book and treat yourself to the irresistible boxed set of the best Paris Review interviews, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

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