Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

08 MAY, 2014

Lynne Tillman on What to Say When People Ask You Why You Write or Make Art

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“Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write… but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature.”

What compels writers to write, to trek to the desk day in and day out under the self-elective mesmerism of their unrelenting routines? George Orwell attributed the impulse to four universal motives, and Mary Gaitskill listed six. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love. And yet there remains the unsettling sense that any answer is manufactured, the product of either overly self-conscious deliberation or the whims of a fleeting mood — the sense that no one quite knows.

Count on Lynne Tillman, one of the most fiercely fresh idea-jockeys of our time, to address this sidewise yet with profound precision in one of the twenty-nine fantastic essays in What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — a collection of short meditations on art and literature, spanning everything from to New York to Kafka to the resounding silence of John Cage. In this particular essay, titled “Try Again,” Tillman recounts a question she received — a rather common question — after an event at NYU’s creative writing program: An aspiring writer asked her to impart the single most important learning from her writing career thus far. This invariably bleeds into the same old question of why a writer writes. Tillman reflects:

No one strong-arms you into becoming an artist or writer—most often you’re dissuaded—and volunteers who bemoan their chosen gig seem disingenuous. Visual artists are often called to account for their choices and asked to defend their positions. Few occupations other than finance, politics and crime entail this reckoning. Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write, and many feel the pointlessness of their self-chosen jobs, but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature. Faith itself will be tested.

Lynne Tillman (photograph by David Shankbone)

Tillman, who later invokes Samuel Beckett’s famous dictum — “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — speaks to the value of failure in creative work:

A comic gets rid of bad jokes, or is a bad comic, though failures might make it into the act, since they’re at the heart of funny. Comedy wouldn’t exist without failure, especially that of other people. Writers may publish idiocies and artists make dull objects, and some of this work may be celebrated as good writing or art. Some write more and more books, hoping to get it right, often digging a deeper hole to fall into. Success itself can be a rut, since, it’s said, it breeds success, so might condemn an artist to doing the same thing forever.

She circles back to the original inquiry:

To the question about my best lesson for younger writers, I answered: “Don’t expect that being published will make you happy.” I didn’t mention the inevitability of rejection, luck, money, nepotism, etc. Before my first novel appeared, I’d naively believed that being published would compensate for every bad thing. In those pre-publication days, my writing was for me, I was its only reader, and I could believe it was without sin.

At dinner with my artist friend, I told him I didn’t know if artists owed anyone an answer or what a writer’s responsibility to readers was, if there was one. The ethics of these peculiar relationships remain conundrums. Notions of service to the field may not matter, if the proof isn’t in the pudding. Anyway, writers and artists are not voted in or out by an electorate, though institutions — including collectors, gallerists, publishers, art magazines, critics — do vote but not in a transparent manner, not democratically. It’s insisted there is a public for art, but those who remark on it generally presume themselves separate from it.

Working with words and pictures engages artists and writers in a world they didn’t make, to which they may or may not contribute.

Ultimately, Tillman offers not an answer but an approach, a strategy for addressing the question — one borrowed from tactful avoidance tactics of the British, which she marveled at during her time living in London:

I didn’t understand the British use of “I don’t mind” to mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe.” The phrase seemed to allow for ineffable negotiations between people, though. “I don’t mind,” I saw, opened a conversational door through which either party could leave, without embarrassment. But it was hard for a foreigner to use, because it’s part of a British dance whose subtle moves are learned from childhood. The British also sometimes avoided answering direct questions. I loved that, it was so un-American, and now I sometimes do it in New York, where people expect answers. I change the subject or pretend I haven’t heard the question, and watch surprise or chagrin appear on faces. It’s a liberation from others’ nosiness, a freedom I never expected. I recommend it, with reservations that will be different for each person, discerned only through trial and error.

What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is a wonderfully enriching, comfort-zone-expanding read in its totality. As an important aside, I noticed that the book has fallen prey to a man best described as a professional Amazon troll, who has authored more than 400 mostly one-star reviews that have received a 90% unhelpfulness rating from the community. Because Amazon’s star-ratings are algorithmically enacted, unmoderated, and don’t even factor in the helpfulness quotient — which would, come to think of it, offer a rather simple fix — such trolls end up hurting writers and in turn hurting readers by warping and skewing the community’s ability to assess a book’s true merit. So if you find yourself reading and enjoying Tillman’s book as much as I did, do consider leaving a rating that offsets this mindless trolling.

Thanks, Craig

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07 MAY, 2014

Vincent van Gogh on Art and the Power of Love in Letters to His Brother

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“Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!”

“You can only go with loves in this life,” Ray Bradbury memorably proclaimed. Whether love be bewitching or tormenting, whether pondered by the poets or scrutinized by the scientists, one thing is for certain — it is art’s most powerful and enduring muse, fuel for the creative process more potent than anything the world has known. A poignant testament to this, and a fine addition to history’s most beautiful reflections on love, comes from iconic painter Vincent van Gogh in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — a lovely slim 1976 book that traces “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh” by culling his thoughts on love, art, and turmoil from his letters to his brother Theo, which were originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh. The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

In one letter, Van Gogh extols the grounding, self-soothing quality of love’s intrinsic wisdom:

Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

It was certainly an armor he needed — he lived his life in poverty, and the residents of the town where he settled in his final years petitioned to have him evicted from the artist commune he shared with Paul Gauguin and two other artists, on account of his madness. He soon moved into an asylum, where he continued to paint. Another letter to Theo rings with the paradoxical poignancy of desperation and resilience:

What am I in the eyes of most people? A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have. Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

And what a heart it was. In a different letter, Vincent relays to Theo the consciousness-expanding capacity of love — which Kierkegaard so eloquently captured — at the dawn of a new love affair:

Since the beginning of this love I have felt that unless I gave myself up to it entirely, without any restriction, with all my heart, there was no chance for me whatever, and even so my chance is slight. But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean, must I consider this when I love? No, no reckoning; one loves because one loves. Then we keep our heads clear, and do not cloud our minds, nor do we hide our feelings, nor smother the fire and light, but simply say: Thank God, I love.

To be sure, Van Gogh has the prudence to recognize that friendship is at least as great a gift as romantic love. In another letter, he tells Theo:

Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is every deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, these open the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. Where sympathy is renewed, life is restored.

And in another still:

Love a friend, love a wife, something, whatever you like, but one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper, better, and more.

This all-inclusive approach to love — this casting of a wide net of affections — is something Van Gogh believed wholeheartedly, and something Ray Bradbury would come to echo a century and a half later in telling aspiring writers, “I want your loves to be multiple.” Vincent writes to Theo:

It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!

And later:

The best way to know God is to love many things.

Van Gogh sees the human capacity for love as integral to the creative process:

In order to work and to become an artist one needs love. At least, one who wants sentiment in his work must in the first place feel it himself, and live with his heart.

Van Gogh's first sketchbook from 'The Secret Museum.' Click image for details.

Indeed, it is this capacity for love — for living from one’s heart — that sustains the artist through struggle and rejection. In another letter, Van Gogh writes:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

For Van Gogh, this heart-first approach to art and life was the root of all that is worthy. In another letter to Theo, he articulates what might well be his deepest underlying credo:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.

Though long out of print, surviving copies of My Life & Love Are One are still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with a peek inside Van Gogh’s never-before-revealed sketchbooks, then revisit Susan Sontag on love.

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06 MAY, 2014

A Graphic Biography of Warhol

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Who shot Marilyn, and other illustrated anecdotes of Warhol’s fallible humanity.

As a lover of graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain, I was delighted for the release of This is Warhol (public library) — the first installment in a new series of graphic biographies of thirty famous artists by Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram. What makes the concept especially appealing is that, unlike most art history books, which tend to be either dry textbooks to be studied or lavish monograph-artifacts to be owned and admired, Ingram’s approach embodies Tolstoy’s assertion that art is about emotional infectiousness. She tells a living story, at once illuminating and vibrantly human, rather than weaving a static tapestry of facts. The result is a book that’s inviting without compromising its intelligence.

Alongside Ingram’s exploration of Warhol’s life and times — from his upbringing to the founding and denizenry of the Factory to how the “electric information age” shaped his aesthetic — is appropriately poptastic artwork by British illustrator Andrew Rae.

One of the most amusing anecdotes bespeaks how fluidly Warhol moved between art and life — how swiftly he integrated the two and how he experienced the latter as a smaller concentric circle that belongs, always and at all costs, inside the latter — but also how profoundly the backstory affects the way we confer value on art:

Four Marilyn silkscreens feature bullet holes through the idol’s forehead. How this came about is related by one of Andy’s groupies: “One day, Dorothy arrived, dressed in leather, with several friends in leather, and a Great Dane in his natural leather pelt. She peeled off her long leather gloves, pulled out her pistol, aimed at Warhol. Then at the last split second she shifted her aim to the stack of Marilyn Monroe portraits against the wall and fired.”

“Dorothy” was Dorothy Podber. When she left, Warhol turned to Billy Name, and said, “Please don’t let Dorothy do that again.” Once described as a “marvelous, evil woman,” Dorothy had a serious drug problem, and for a while she ran an illegal abortion clinic. She was banned from the Factory. The incident was a foreboding warning — four years later Factory-goer and feminist Valerie Solanas would enter the factory and shoot Warhol in the chest. Warhol decided that the damaged canvases should not be repaired. Sold as “The Shot Marilyns,” they raised the highest prices of all the Marilyn portraits.

Many of the stories, besides satisfying an art-lover’s craving for trivia factlets, speak to larger truths about the creative process — both Warhol’s own and in a general sense. For instance, the impetus for his famous 1966 Silver Clouds installation is a testament to the “slow churn” of creativity and the subconscious, long-term incubation of ideas: The idea for the show came to Warhol from a tea party he had attended at Salvador Dalí’s hotel suite a year earlier, where he had seen silver balloons floating around the room. Ingram, with her gift for metaphoric thinking that runs throughout the book, brings this back to Warhol’s biography:

There is an inherent fragility about the [Silver Clouds] installation: some balloons burst, all of them eventually deflated. The scene at the Factory was another silver bubble waiting to burst. For years the silent Warhol had held everyone’s attention. However, by the mid 1960s, as one reporter tells, “The waspish, silvery-haired Maharishi was in trouble, deep trouble. His world suddenly stopped caring, stopped knowing.”

Alongside Warhol’s ample commercial work are some of his side projects, such as Wild Raspberries, the little-known illustrated cookbook on which he collaborated with his mother and the legendary interior decorator Suzie Frankfurt.

Warhol’s world was the original golden age of the selfie, and the artist was among the first to embody what Susan Sontag would later call the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography. Ingram writes:

The self-portrait is a radical piece of art that embraces popular culture. Warhol uses a photo booth — the public camera found in railway stations and shopping malls that delivers cheap photos, “four-for-a-quarter” — and finds beauty in the throwaway, the intense, almost square frame and the sequence of stills, depicting a development in time.

Warhol promises nothing more than what the photomat delivers: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” However, that glossy surface is provocative. Described by many as a mirror, Warhol reflects the vacuousness of modern society in high resolution.

This is Warhol comes from British independent publisher Laurence King, who previously gave us the magnificent Saul Bass monograph and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King

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