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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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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28 MARCH, 2014

Grit and the Secret of Success

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How to cultivate the character quality that predicts excellence more than any other.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. “You have to finish things,” Neil Gaiman advised aspiring writers. But while our cultural history may brim with creators who intuited the importance of doggedness in success, it wasn’t until recently that psychologists were able to ascertain the science behind this intuitive observation. We now know that genius-level excellence takes enormous dedication and that the impetus to reboot from autopilot is crucial to reaching such a level, but arguably the most significant work in the field comes from pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth, who came up with the notion of “grit” — that very doggedness essential for success — and went on to receive a MacArthur Genius grant for her research.

In a recent success-themed episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz — which, by the way, is absolutely spectacular and well worth subscribing — Duckworth challenges us to reconsider our culture’s definitions of “success” and shares her findings on the character trait that appears most essential for attaining it. Duckworth’s work is a centerpiece of Paul Tough’s remarkable and incredibly important book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (public library), and is also a prominent part of Sarah Lewis’s fantastic meditation on creativity, mastery, and the gift of failure.

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.

Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

A few years ago, I started studying grit in the Chicago public schools. I asked thousands of high school juniors to take grit questionnaires, and then waited around more than a year to see who would graduate.

[…]

Half of the questions on the grit questionnaire are about perseverance, right. “I am a hard worker.” “I finish whatever I begin.” The scale is five points. It goes from “very much like me” to “not at all like me.” “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” “I don’t give up after disappointment.” And “I’m diligent.” The more you say, that’s very much like me, then the higher your grit score. Turns out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure. Things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe kids felt when they were at school.

One of Duckworth’s most important points, from both a practical and big-picture point of view, has to do with her advice to parents and educators about cultivating grit in kids — she points to Carol Dweck’s seminal insights about “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets as the key:

So far, the best idea I’ve heard about building grit in kids is something called growth mindset. This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed. That it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.

Dive into Dweck’s pioneering work here, and see How Children Succeed for the broader implications of this research, not only in cultivating gritty kids but also in our everyday grownup lives.

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28 MARCH, 2014

March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media

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A humbling reminder that self-righteousness is the enemy of compassion and judging another human being’s private struggle is a disgrace to our own humanity.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the devastating dawn of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse behind her house never to emerge alive. A relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth had finally claimed her life. She left behind a remarkable body of work — from her poignant diaries to her magnificent essays to her little-known children’s books to “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — and a cohort of heartbroken friends, but the most stirring thing she left behind was her suicide letter to her husband Leonard:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

What made the letter especially heartbreaking, however, wasn’t just that it embodied so excruciatingly modernity’s tragic epidemic but also that its fate reflected the ugliest aspects of media and journalism. In Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), scholar Sybil Oldfield notes that after Woolf’s letter was made public, members of the British press took it upon themselves to bestow upon the beloved author a last judgment — a painfully ungenerous one. On April 27, a month after Woolf’s death, The Sunday Times ran the following self-righteous evisceration by a Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln:

Sir, — I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest on Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was “undoubtedly much more sensitive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world to-day.” What right has anyone to make such an assertion?

If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more “sensitive,” have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil.

Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of “I cannot carry on?”

Mrs. Hicks’s ideals of love and faith, apparently, did not include empathy. Upon reading this, Leonard Woolf was so appalled that he immediately sent to the newspaper an emotionally charged fact-check rebuttal:

I feel that I should not silently allow to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the “terrible times” through which all of us are going. For this is not true… Then newspapers give her words as:

“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.”

This is not what she wrote: the words which she wrote are:

“I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”

She had had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her life, and she felt that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she has ever said prove that she took her life, not because she could not “carry on,” but because she felt she was going mad again and would not this time recover.

But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Times reprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.

The incident is particularly unsettling for two reasons: At its root is a testament to what a cruel and indiscriminate predator depression is, capable of consuming even humanity’s greatest minds, yet the uncompassionate response illustrates just how poorly we understand the condition. Above all, however, embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right. One can only hope this awareness has evolved for us, both as a culture and as individuals, since Woolf’s time.

Afterwords is a moving read in its entirety — sample it with these letters of condolence from some of Woolf’s famous friends, including T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, and H.G. Wells, then see Patti Smith’s moving remembrance of Virginia.

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