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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

19 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay: Robert Frost’s Letter of Advice to His Young Daughter

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“The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White wrote in the foreword to his collected essays. Annie Dillard sees things almost the opposite way, insisting that essayists perform a public service — they “serve as the memory of a people” and “chew over our public past.” Although he had never written an essay himself, the advice Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Frost (March 26, 1874–January 29, 1963) offered to his eldest daughter, Lesley, not only stands as an apt mediator between White and Dillard but also some of the most enduring wisdom on essay-writing ever committed to paper.

During her junior at Amherst College, Lesley shared her exasperation over having been assigned to write an academic essay about a book she didn’t find particularly inspiring. In a magnificent letter from February of 1919, found in The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1 (public library), the beloved poet gave his daughter sage counsel on her particular predicament, emanating general wisdom on writing, the art of the essay, and even thinking itself.

Five years before he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, 45-year-old Frost writes:

I pity you, having to write essays where the imagination has no chance, or next to no chance. Just one word of advice: Try to avoid strain or at any rate the appearance of strain. One way to go to work is to read your author once or twice over having an eye out for anything that occurs to you as you read whether appreciative contradictory corroborative or parallel…

He speaks to the notion that writing, like all creativity, is a matter of selecting the few thrilling ideas from the lot of dull ones that occur to us — “To invent… is to choose,” as French polymath Henri Poincaré famously proclaimed. Frost counsels:

There should be more or less of a jumble in your head or on your note paper after the first time and even after the second. Much that you will think of in connection will come to nothing and be wasted. But some of it ought to go together under one idea. That idea is the thing to write on and write into the title at the head of your paper… One idea and a few subordinate ideas — [the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them — not let them escape you… The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature.

The Frost family in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, 1915: Elinor and Robert, Lesley and Irma, Marjorie and Carol (University of Virginia Library)

Reflecting on his days as an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy, Frost points to precisely this over-and-above quality as the factor that set apart the few of his students who mastered the essay from the vast majority of those who never did. (Although by the time of his tenure the Academy officially accepted young women, Frost’s passing remark that his class consisted of sixty boys reveals a great deal about women’s plight for education.) He writes:

They seem incapable of the over-and-above stuff. I think maybe it goes on in their heads as they read but they are incapable of catching it. They are too directly intent on the reading. They cant get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn’t have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading. It may be a childhood memory; it may be some homely simile; it may be a line or verse of mother goose. They want it to be big and bookish. But they haven’t books enough in their heads to match book stuff with book stuff. Of course some of that would be all right.

Indeed, in many ways Frost’s advice on essay-writing is really advice on reading — that mutuality of thought between reader and writer, pulsed through by the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Echoing Virginia Woolf’s dictum on how to read a book, Frost offers counsel so passionate that it becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, barely punctuated:

The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse — give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together! Being careful to hold up our end and to do our part agreeably without too much contradiction and mere opinionation. The best thing of all is going each other one better piling up the ideas anecdotes and incidents like alternating hands piled up on the knee. Well its out of conversation like this with a book that you find perhaps one idea perhaps yours perhaps the book’s that will serve for other lesser ideas to center around. And there’s your essay.

He lands from this poetic elation into some practical advice:

Be brief at first. You have to be honest. You don’t want to make your material seem more than it is. You won’t have so much to say at first as you will have later. My defect is in not having learned to hammer my material into one lump. I haven’t had experience enough. The details of essay won’t come in right for me as they will in narrative. Sometimes I have gotten round the difficulty by some narrative dodge.

[…]

Take it easy with the essay whatever you do. Write it as well as you can if you have to write it. Be as concrete as the law allows in it — concrete and experiential. Don’t let it scare you. Don’t strain. Remember that any old thing that happens in your head as you read may be the thing you want. If nothing much seems to happen, perhaps another reading will help. Perhaps the book is bad or is not your kind — is nothing to you and can start nothing in your nature one way or another.

He interjects a meta-remark on the nature — and naturalness — of the essay form:

Of course this letter is essay. It is material that has come to the surface of my mind in reading just as frost brings stones to the surface of the ground.

At the very end, before signing off “Affectionately Papa,” Frost can’t resist taking a little jab at the essay, voicing the sentiment that seems to explain his own lifelong resistance to partaking in the genre:

I don’t know you know whether its worth very much — I mean the essay — when you have it written. I’m rather afraid of it as an enemy to the really creative writing that holds scenes and things in the eye voices in the ear and whole situations as a sort of plexus in the body (I don’t know just where).

Robert Frost with his daughter Lesley (left) and her two children, 1945

Lesley grew up to be an author herself, albeit not of essays — she published two books of stories for children: Really Not Really in 1962, published mere months before her father’s death, and Digging Down to China in 1968.

In its portly 850-page totality, The Letters of Robert Frost is a trove of writerly wisdom and heartwarming parental advice to the poet’s six children, of whom Lesley and her sister Irma outlived their father. Complement it with Frost’s beautiful poem on art and government, which he intended to but didn’t read at JFK’s inauguration, and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing in a letter of advice to his own daughter, then revisit this growing library of writers’ advice on writing.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Magic Boat: Brilliant Vintage “Interactive” Children’s Book by Freud’s Eccentric Niece Named Tom

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Visionary interactive storytelling designed to “delight and surprise,” with human tragedy on the side.

As a lover of vintage children’s books and analog “interactive” treasures, I was delighted to discover the unusual 1929 gem The Magic Boat: A Book to Turn and Move (public library) — a collection of poems, stories, puzzles, and interactive games designed to “delight and surprise” by Austrian illustrator, Art Nouveau artist, and children’s book author Tom Seidmann-Freud (November 17, 1892–February 7, 1930).

The book is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the author’s last name — while it’s reasonable to guess that Tom was related to the Freud, it’s rather surprising to find out that Tom was indeed the legendary psychoanalyst’s eccentric niece Martha, born Gertrud Martha Freud, who adopted a male first name and began wearing men’s clothing at the age of 15. In her late twenties, Tom met and fell in love with the writer Jacob (Jankew) Seidmann, and the two had a daughter. In 1929, Jacob’s publishing venture failed and he committed suicide. Several months later, Tom too took her own life. She wrote and illustrated The Magic Boat during that final year. A new edition was released in 1981 but the book is, sadly, no longer in print.

From a series of inventive word games to an unusual take on Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare to a promiscuous punching face-off, here is a woman whose ingenious interactive storytelling and paper engineering predated Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes by more than eight decades and Bruno Munari’s pioneering masterworks by three.

As I tend to do on occasion with such interactive vintage treasures, I’ve adapted the book’s movable magic in animated GIFs — which, of course, are not a substitute for its analog whimsy but, in lieu of surviving copies, a fun friendly ghost.

A pull-tab game of “Punch Judy” pits eight opponents — a sultan, a devil, a grandmother, a rich man, a Turk, a crocodile, a jester, and Judy — in sixteen possible punch-pairings.

The story after which the book is titled is a fable about a Chinese man who catches fish that magically transform into other things as soon as he pulls them onto his boat. But as soon as he takes his boat ashore, the magic disappears and all the wild characters transmogrify back into fish. To preserve this irresistible excitement, the old fisherman decides to live the rest of his life on the boat. Passers-by gather every day on the bridge to watch, bemarveled, as he catches fish that turn into “all kinds of wonderful things.” One can’t help but see a parallel to Tom’s own life in this story — a tale of transforming one’s assigned version of reality and choosing to live in that magical new version despite the real world’s disenchanted demands.

Complement The Magic Boat, which is hard but not impossible to find, with a graphic biography of the author’s famous uncle and this delightful vintage pop-up book about Leonardo’s life.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2015

What Mathematics Reveals About the Secret of Lasting Relationships and the Myth of Compromise

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Why 37% is the magic number, what alien civilizations have to do with your soul mate, and how to master the “negativity threshold” ideal for Happily Ever After.

In his sublime definition of love, playwright Tom Stoppard painted the grand achievement of our emotional lives as “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” But only in fairy tales and Hollywood movies does the mask slip off to reveal a perfect other. So how do we learn to discern between a love that is imperfect, as all meaningful real relationships are, and one that is insufficient, the price of which is repeated disappointment and inevitable heartbreak? Making this distinction is one of the greatest and most difficult arts of the human experience — and, it turns out, it can be greatly enhanced with a little bit of science.

That’s what mathematician Hannah Fry suggests in The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation (public library) — a slim but potent volume from TED Books, featuring gorgeous illustrations by German artist Christine Rösch. From the odds of finding your soul mate to how game theory reveals the best strategy for picking up a stranger in a bar to the equation that explains the conversation patterns of lasting relationships, Fry combines a humanist’s sensitivity to this universal longing with a scientist’s rigor to shed light, with neither sap nor cynicism, on the complex dynamics of romance and the besotting beauty of math itself.

She writes in the introduction:

Mathematics is ultimately the study of patterns — predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles… Love — [like] most of life — is full of patterns: from the number of sexual partners we have in our lifetime to how we choose who to message on an internet dating website. These patterns twist and turn and warp and evolve just as love does, and are all patterns which mathematics is uniquely placed to describe.

[…]

Mathematics is the language of nature. It is the foundation stone upon which every major scientific and technological achievement of the modern era has been built. It is alive, and it is thriving.

In the first chapter, Fry explores the mathematical odds of finding your ideal mate — with far more heartening results than more jaundiced estimations have yielded. She points to a famous 2010 paper by mathematician and longtime singleton Peter Backus, who calculated that there are more intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations than eligible women for him on earth. Backus enlisted a formula known as the Drake equation — named after its creator, Frank Drake — which breaks down the question of how many possible alien civilizations there are into sub-estimates based on components like the average rate of star formation in our galaxy, the number of those stars with orbiting planets, the fraction of those planets capable of supporting life, and so forth. Fry explains:

Drake exploited a trick well known to scientists of breaking down the estimation by making lots of little educated guesses rather than one big one. The result of this trick is an estimate likely to be surprisingly close to the true answer, because the errors in each calculation tend to balance each other out along the way.

Scientists’ current estimate is that our galaxy contains around 10,000 intelligent alien civilizations — something we owe in large part to astronomer Jill Tarter’s decades-long dedication. Returning to Backus’s calculation, which yielded 26 eligible women on all of Earth, Fry notes that “being able to estimate quantities that you have no hope of verifying is an important skill for any scientist” — a technique known as a Fermi estimation, which is used in everything from job interviews to quantum mechanics — but suggests that his criteria might have been unreasonably stringent. (Backus based his formula, for instance, on the assumption that he’d find only 10% of the women he meets agreeable and only 5% attractive.)

In fact, this “price of admission” problem is also at the heart of a chapter probing the question of how you know your partner is “The One.” Fry writes:

As any mathematically minded person will tell you, it’s a fine balance between having the patience to wait for the right person and the foresight to cash in before all the good ones are taken.

Indeed, some such mathematically minded people have applied an area of mathematics known as “optimal stopping theory” to derive an actual equation that tells you precisely how many potential mates to reject before finding the perfect partner and helps you discern when it’s time to actually stop your looking and settle down with that person (P):

Fry explains:

It tells you that if you are destined to date ten people in your lifetime, you have the highest probability of finding The One when you reject your first four lovers (where you’d find them 39.87 percent of the time). If you are destined to date twenty people, you should reject the first eight (where Mister or Miz Right would be waiting for you 38.42 percent of the time). And, if you are destined to date an infinite number of partners, you should reject the first 37 percent, giving you just over a one in three chance of success.

[…]

Say you start dating when you are fifteen years old and would ideally like to settle down by the time you’re forty. In the first 37 percent of your dating window (until just after your twenty-fourth birthday), you should reject everyone; use this time to get a feel for the market and a realistic expectation of what you can expect in a life partner. Once this rejection phase has passed, pick the next person who comes along who is better than everyone who you have met before. Following this strategy will definitely give you the best possible chance of finding the number one partner on your imaginary list.

This formula, it turns out, is a cross-purpose antidote to FOMO, applicable to various situations when you need to know when to stop looking for a better option:

Have three months to find somewhere to live? Reject everything in the first month and then pick the next house that comes along that is your favorite so far. Hiring an assistant? Reject the first 37 percent of candidates and then give the job to the next one who you prefer above all others. In fact, the search for an assistant is the most famous formulation of this theory, and the method is often known as the “secretary problem.”

But the most interesting and pause-giving chapter is the final one, which brings modern lucidity to the fairy-tale myth that “happily ever after” ensues unabated after you’ve identified “The One,” stopped your search, and settled down him or her. Most of us don’t need a scientist to tell us that “happily ever after” is not a destination or a final outcome but a journey and an active process in any healthy relationship. Fry, however, offers some enormously heartening and assuring empirical findings, based on a fascinating collaboration between mathematicians and psychologists, confirming this life-tested and often hard-earned intuitive understanding.

Fry examines what psychologists studying longtime couples have found about the key to successful relationships:

Every relationship will have conflict, but most psychologists now agree that the way couples argue can differ substantially, and can work as a useful predictor of longer-term happiness within a couple.

In relationships where both partners consider themselves as happy, bad behavior is dismissed as unusual: “He’s under a lot of stress at the moment,” or “No wonder she’s grumpy, she hasn’t had a lot of sleep lately.” Couples in this enviable state will have a deep-seated positive view of their partner, which is only reinforced by any positive behavior: “These flowers are lovely. He’s always so nice to me,” or “She’s just such a nice person, no wonder she did that.”

In negative relationships, however, the situation is reversed. Bad behavior is considered the norm: “He’s always like that,” or “Yet again. She’s just showing how selfish she is.” Instead, it’s the positive behavior that is considered unusual: “He’s only showing off because he got a pay raise at work. It won’t last,” or “Typical. She’s doing this because she wants something.

She cites the work of psychologist John Gottman, who studies why marriages succeed or fail. He spent decades observing how couples interact, coding and measuring everything from their skin conductivity to their facial expressions, and eventually developed the Specific Affect Coding System — a method of scoring how positive or negative the exchanges are. But it wasn’t until Gottman met mathematician James Murray and integrated his mathematical models into the system that he began to crack the code of why these toxic negativity spirals develop. (Curiously, these equations have also been used to understand what happens between two countries during war — a fact on which Fry remarks that “an arguing couple spiraling into negativity and teetering on the brink of divorce is actually mathematically equivalent to the beginning of a nuclear war.”)

Fry presents the elegant formulae the researchers developed for explaining these patterns of human behavior. (Although the symbols stand for “wife” and “husband,” Fry notes that Murray’s models don’t factor in any stereotypes and are thus equally applicable to relationships across all orientations and gender identities.)

She breaks down the equations:

The left-hand side of the equation is simply how positive or negative the wife will be in the next thing that she says. Her reaction will depend on her mood in general (w), her mood when she’s with her husband (rwWt), and, crucially, the influence that her husband’s actions will have on her (IHM). The Ht in parentheses at the end of the equation is mathematical shorthand for saying that this influence depends on what the husband has just done.

The equations for the husband follow the same pattern: h, rHHt, and IHM are his mood when he’s on his own, his mood when he’s with his wife, and the influence his wife has on his next reaction, respectively.

The researchers then plotted the effects the two partners have on each other — empirical evidence for Leo Buscaglia’s timelessly beautiful notion that love is a “dynamic interaction”:

In this version of the graph, the dotted line indicates that the husband is having a positive impact on his wife. If it dips below zero, the wife is more likely to be negative in her next turn in the conversation.

What all of this translates into is actually strikingly similar to Lewis Carroll’s advice on resolving conflict in correspondence. “If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe,” Carroll counseled, adding “and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards ‘making up’ the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly.” Carroll was a man of great psychological prescience in many ways, and this particular insight is paralleled by Gottman and Murray’s findings, which Fry summarizes elegantly:

Imagine that the husband does something that is a little bit positive: He could agree with her last point, or inject a little humor into their conversation. This action will have a small positive impact on the wife and make her more likely to respond with something positive, too… [But] if the husband is a little bit negative — like interrupting her while she is speaking — he will have a fixed and negative impact on his partner. It’s worth noting that the magnitude of this negative influence is bigger than the equivalent positive jump if he’s just a tiny bit positive. Gottman and his team deliberately built in this asymmetry after observing it in couples in their study.

And here is the crucial finding — T- is the point known as a negativity threshold, at which the husband’s negative effect becomes so great that it renders the wife unwilling to diffuse the situation with positivity and she instead responds with more negativity. This is how the negativity spirals are set off. But the most revelatory part is what this suggests about the myth of compromise.

As Fry points out, it makes sense to suppose that the best strategy is to aim for a high negativity threshold — “a relationship where you give your partner room to be themselves and only bring up an issue if it becomes a really big deal.” And yet the researchers found the opposite was true:

The most successful relationships are the ones with a really low negativity threshold. In those relationships, couples allow each other to complain, and work together to constantly repair the tiny issues between them. In such a case, couples don’t bottle up their feelings, and little things don’t end up being blown completely out of proportion.

She adds the important caveat that a healthy relationship isn’t merely one in which both partners are comfortable complaining but also one in which the language of those complaints doesn’t cast the complainer as a victim of the other person’s behavior.

In the remainder of The Mathematics of Love, Fry goes on to explore everything from the falsehoods behind the standard ideals of beauty to the science of why continually risking rejection is a sounder strategy for success in love (as in life) than waiting for a guaranteed outcome before trying, illustrating how math’s power to abstract reality invites greater understanding of our most concrete human complexities and our deepest yearnings.

Complement it with a fascinating look at what troves of online dating data reveal about being extraordinary, Dan Savage on the myth of “The One,” and Adrienne Rich on how relationships define our truths.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Artist’s Reality: Mark Rothko’s Little-Known Writings on Art, Artists, and What the Notion of Plasticity Reveals about Storytelling

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“While the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.”

“Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” Anne Truitt wrote in her endlessly insightful diary. If it’s true that what everybody wants more than anything is to be understood, then artists need that understanding more than anyone else and yet run the greatest risk of being misunderstood with every work they put into the world. What E.E. Cummings called “the agony of the Artist (with capital A)” is thus a product of being constantly haunted by the specter of that anguishing potential for being repeatedly misunderstood.

Few artists create work that embodies Leo Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” more perfectly than Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970). People frequently weep before his paintings — something Rothko saw as the same spiritual experience he was having while painting them, the ultimate act of understanding. And yet he knew all too well the other side of this coin, which he articulated beautifully in a 1947 interview in Tiger’s Eye magazine: “A painting lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.”

Mark Rothko

Unbeknownst to the world, and rather contrary to the Abstract Expressionist notion that paintings should speak for themselves, Rothko had begun crafting his own hedge against this death-by-misunderstanding several years earlier, in a series of philosophical reflections on art. Even his children were only vaguely aware of the manuscript, which was written sometime in 1940 and 1941 — long before Rothko reached critical acclaim — but wasn’t discovered until after his death three decades later. It was eventually published as The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory catalog of the ideas that preoccupied the legendary artist’s mind, setting forth his views on beauty, reality, myth, sensuality, the artist’s dilemma, the role of unconscious processes in creative work, and more. What makes these writings especially interesting is that Rothko produced them more than a decade before the paintings for which he is best known, at a time when he was still swirling around his own center and finding his voice as an artist — and yet the seeds for what he would blossom into are so strikingly evident in these texts.

Christopher Rothko — the artist’s son, who was six at the time of his father’s death — considers the book’s significance in the introduction:

Like music, my father’s artwork seeks to express the inexpressible — we are far removed from the realm of words… The written word would only disrupt the experience of these paintings; it cannot enter their universe.

And yet these writings compel and fascinate us in a way that my father surely would have wanted… His words might be outside his artwork, but they communicate philosophies he still held dear even after paint became his sole vehicle for expression.

Mark Rothko, 'Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red' (1949)

Although Rothko was “explicitly a painter of ideas” and his works held “only the most general clues,” his son likens the magic of this book to “being given the keys to a mystical city that one has been able to admire only from afar.” And yet he cautions that these writings were never intended, nor should they be interpreted, as a guide to understanding Rothko’s own art:

Divining meaning from a painting is not so simple that it can be codified in a book, and Rothko certainly would not have wanted such a guide to his work. So much of understanding his work is personal, and so much of it is made up of the process of getting inside the work… He cannot tell you what his paintings, or anyone else’s, are about. You have to experience them. Ultimately, if he could have expressed the truth — the essence of these works — in words, he probably would not have bothered to paint them. As his works exemplify, writing and painting involve different kinds of knowing.

[…]

I think he kept the book to himself because he feared that by offering people the beginning of an answer, or the illusion of an answer, to his artwork, they would never find a more complete one, perhaps never even ask the necessary questions. Regarding his own work, at least, he would have been concerned that he could set people running down the wrong paths, moving blindly with their little bit of knowledge, when ultimately, if carefully regarded, his painting spoke for itself. He knew of this danger and was therefore guarded in discussing his work, often finding that, the more he said, the more misunderstanding he generated. He did not wish to short-circuit the process by which people came to know the work [because] he knew just how rewarding the process could prove when one was fully engaged in it.

Original manuscript page from 'The Artist's Reality'

This might explain why the artist never made the manuscript public in his lifetime, although he did promise it to his chosen biographer — an expression of Rothko’s ambivalence, which his son captures elegantly:

Even as he feared the public, he desperately needed them to bring meaning to his paintings. [And yet] even after he had received significant adulation, he still feared, constantly, that his painting would be misunderstood and ultimately violated by an uncaring public.

That is perhaps why one of the book’s strongest undercurrents is Rothko’s nostalgia for Renaissance art, coupled with almost an envy for the veneration conferred upon those artists by their culture and “the way in which [they] could draw upon a cosmos ordered by its own internal logic.” His son writes:

This is what Rothko wished for: to paint the truth as one feels it and to win love and respect in one’s own time. He, too, wanted, a world where the artist is king and his output a matter of great expectation and excitement.

[…]

My father was first and last a painter… His painting always was, and would remain, about ideas. The writing of the book was simply a different way to get them out into the world.

[…]

He discusses art as an observer, not as one actively engaged in the processes he describes.

And yet the book is all about his artwork.

Mark Rothko, 'Orange and Yellow' (1956)

In the first essay, titled “The Artist’s Dilemma,” he considers the cultural stereotypes surrounding the artist:

What is the popular conception of the artist? Gather a thousand descriptions, and the resulting composite is the portrait of a moron: he is held to be childish, irresponsible, and ignorant or stupid in everyday affairs.

The picture does not necessarily involve censure or unkindness. These deficiencies are attributed to the intensity of the artist’s preoccupation with his particular kind of fantasy and to the unworldly nature of the fantastic itself. The bantering tolerance granted to the absentminded professor is extended to the artist.

[…]

This myth, like all myths, has many reasonable foundations. First, it attests to the common belief in the laws of compensation: that one sense will gain in sensitivity by the deficiency in another. Homer was blind, and Beethoven deaf. Too bad for them, but fortunate for us in the increased vividness of their art. But more importantly it attests to the persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration, finding between the innocence of childhood and the derangements of madness that true insight which is not accorded to normal man.

Of course, based on what the decades since Rothko’s writings have revealed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, we now know that behind society’s “persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration” is a more complex reality. But Rothko’s most urgent point has to do with a different kind of myth surrounding the artist — society’s often ungenerous assessment of the artist’s legitimacy as a worthy member of it, which Jeanette Winterson touched on in her brilliant remarks about “the arrogance of the audience” and which Amanda Palmer captured in asserting that “when you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy.” Rothko writes:

The constant repetition of falsehood is more convincing than the demonstration of truth. It is understandable, then, how the artist might actually cultivate this moronic appearance, this deafness, this inarticulateness, in an effort to evade the million irrelevancies which daily accumulate concerning his work. For, while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.

Reflecting on his previous eras — particularly his beloved Renaissance period, which he saw as “an age when the rapport between the artist and the world seemed to have been ideal” — Rothko considers how the role and status of the artist differed then:

What abetted the artist in his little game was the dogmatic unity of his civilization. For all dogmatic societies have this in common: they know what they want. Whatever the contentions behind the scenes, society is allowed only one Official Truth. The demands made upon the artist, therefore, issued from a single source, and the specifications for art were definite and unmistakable. That, at least, was something … one master is better than ten, and it is better to know the size and shape of the hand that holds the whip. In a master, definiteness and stability are preferable to caprice.

In a remark doubly poignant today, amid our culture of countless self-appointed critics broadcasting their individual dogmas from countless platforms, Rothko contrasts this uncapricious unity with the schizophrenic truths to which contemporary art is held accountable:

Today, instead of one voice, we have dozens issuing demands. There is no longer one truth, no single authority — instead there is a score of would-be masters who would usurp their place. All are full of histories, statistics, proofs, demonstrations, facts, and quotations… Each pulls the artist this way and that, telling him what he must do if he is to fill his belly and save his soul.

For the artist, now, there can be neither compliance nor circumvention. It is the misfortune of free conscience that it cannot be neglectful of means in the pursuit of ends. Ironically enough, compliance would not help, for even if the artist should decide to subvert this conscience, where could he find peace in this Babel? To please one is to antagonize the others. And what security is there in any of these wrangling contenders?

This explains much of our modern people-pleasing epidemic and its soul-crushing effects. Two decades earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe touched on this toxic aspect of public opinion in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, as did composer Aaron Copland the year of Rothko’s death. But Rothko points to one particularly perilous side effect to our culture’s fracturing of artistic and moral truth:

In matters of art our society has substituted taste for truth, which she finds more amusing and less of a responsibility, and changes her tastes as frequently as she changes her hats and shoes.

Mark Rothko, 'No. 16' (1961)

In another of the essays, Rothko’s reflections on plasticity — which he defines as a sense of movement, a quality that “gives the sense of things going back and coming forward in space” — actually offer a potent analogy for the key to great storytelling in all forms. More than half a century before what we now know about the psychology of flow in everything from writing to game design, Rothko writes:

In painting, plasticity is achieved by a sensation of movement both into the canvas and out from the space anterior to the surface of the canvas. Actually, the artist invites the spectator to take a journey within the realm of the canvas. The spectator must move with the artist’s shapes in and out, under and above, diagonally and horizontally; he must curve around spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down inclines, at times perform an aerial feat of flying from point to point, attracted by some irresistible magnet across space, entering into mysterious recesses — and, if the painting is felicitous, do so at varying and related intervals. This journey is the skeleton, the framework of the idea. In itself it must be sufficiently interesting, robust, and invigorating. That the artist will have the spectator pause at certain points and will regale him with especial seductions at others is an additional factor helping to maintain interest. In fact, the journey might not be undertaken at all were it not for the promise of these especial favors… It is these movements that constitute the special essentialness of the plastic experience. Without taking the journey, the spectator has really missed the essential experience of the picture.

The Artist’s Reality is a magnificent journey from beginning to end. Complement it with this rare interview with Rothko on the transcendent power of art, then revisit other timeless reflections on art by Jeanette Winterson, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, E.E. Cummings, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

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