Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

26 AUGUST, 2015

Amanda Palmer’s Extraordinary BBC Open Letter on the Choice to Have a Child as a Working Artist

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“We’re artists — not art factories.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández wrote in her devastatingly beautiful meditation on being an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth … will also become the raw material for the art you make.” And yet we continue clinging to limiting ideas about what it means to be an artist. Our bipolar culture renders the choice not to have children a controversial act of courage while at the same time pitting parenthood against other aspects of personhood, including the identity of being a creative warrior, and insisting that there is an inescapable tradeoff.

In April of 2015, musician Amanda Palmer received a letter from a self-proclaimed “fan” affirming one of every artist’s worst nightmares — the “fan,” also a woman, argued that Palmer’s newly announced pregnancy would be to the grave detriment of her art; that, what’s more, it was a form of perpetrating fraud on her fanbase by accepting Patreon micro-patronage (I myself am a proud supporter) for art bound to devolve into motherly mediocrity. The “fan” seemed unaware that the history of creative culture is strewn with brilliant women who had children without compromising their genius — from Susan Sontag, who entered motherhood at the age of nineteen and went on to become one of the greatest intellectual titans of the twentieth century, to Patti Smith, who became a mother at forty-one and has continued to bestow her brilliant badassery upon the world in the decades since, often performing with her daughter.

At a live recording of BBC’s excellent Four Thought, Palmer addressed the “fan” in a vulnerable, courageous, and unflinchingly loving open letter that speaks to the mire of cultural complexities in reconciling one’s new identity as a parent with one’s lifelong identity as a working artist.

When you’re a crowdfunding artist, it shouldn’t matter what your choices are — as long as you’re delivering your side of the bargain: the art, the music. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re spending money on guitar picks, rent, printer paper, diapers, college loans, or the special brand of organic absinthe you use to find your late-night muse — as long as art is making it out the other side and making your patrons happy.

We’re artists — not art factories. The money we need to live is often indistinguishable from the money we need to make art.

[…]

I’m just about to jump into this net that I’m praying will appear to catch me, my art, and this baby — all at the same time.

A full transcript of the reading can be found here. Join me in weaving that art-affirming, life-affirming net under Amanda by supporting her on Patreon — the payoff is reliably magical.

For a complement and a counterpoint, see some equally courageous perspectives on the choice not to have children, then revisit Amanda’s suddenly triply poignant reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” and her fierce performance art piece for the New York Public Library’s children’s book donation drive.

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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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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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03 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on True Genius and the Crushing Illusion of Inferiority

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“When one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.”

“Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer,” Melissa Pritchard observed in her beautiful meditation on art as a form of active prayer. But for French philosopher, political activist, and mystic Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most lucid, luminous, and gravely underappreciated thinkers in human history — sainthood was more than a metaphor for her approach to writing. Weil endures as a rare kind of modern saint — a person who lived with absolute conviction and lived that conviction absolutely, not merely as a detached intellectual abstraction but as practical concreteness into which she threw all of herself, frail body and formidable mind.

To better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil — who had graduated with a degree in philosophy after placing first in the competitive national university entrance exam; Simone de Beauvoir placed second — quit her teaching job and labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year, despite having a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches. Although she was a proponent of nonviolence and was in poor health for the entirety of her short life, she volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and beseeched an anti-fascist commander to let her assist in a mission to rescue a political prisoner, knowing it might cost her her life. Upon returning to Paris, she continued to write passionately about war and peace, labor rights, the moral responsibilities of science, and countless other subjects the ultimate aim of which was a more exalted humanity.

As she lay dying of tuberculosis, exiled in a British hospital, she defied the doctors’ orders by refusing to eat more than the rations her compatriots in Nazi-occupied France were given — a solidary self-sacrifice akin to a saint’s, and one that accordingly resulted in her death. Albert Camus proclaimed her “the only great spirit of our times.” The influential Canadian philosopher George Grant considered her “the supreme teacher of the relation of love and intelligence,” a singular spirit marked by the rare combination of a “staggeringly clear intellect with something that is beyond the intellect — namely, sanctity.”

In the spring of 1942, a year before she fell mortally ill, Weil penned a long letter to a dear friend and confidante, the theologian Father Perrin, which she considered a sort of “spiritual autobiography.” It was later included in the posthumously published Waiting for God (public library) — one of the most ennobling texts our civilization ever produced.

In a particularly poignant passage from the letter, Weil looks back on her life and contemplates the nature of genius. Although she had a great reverence for giftedness — having witnessed it since a young age in her brother, the influential mathematician André Weil — she believed genius was not a passive function of talent but an active and transcendent search for truth:

At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Vincent van Gogh’s touching letter on finding one’s purpose“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” he wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Weil adds:

After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside…

Under the name of truth I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of a conception of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.

Complement the immeasurably enriching Waiting for God with Weil on making use of our suffering, science and our spiritual values, and how to be a complete human being.

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