Acts That Amplify: Ann Hamilton on Art, the Creative Value of Unproductive Time, and the Power of Not Knowing
“It is the task of the artist to lead the leaders by staying at the threshold.”
By Maria Popova
The daily act of living is the act of chiseling destiny through choice — from the bedrock of all possible lives we could have had, we sculpt with our choices the one life we do have. Those choices can be difficult or easy, conscious or not, made for us or made by us, but whatever their nature, they require a leap into the unknown. “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist,” Dani Shapiro wrote of the central task of the creative life, “is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” Because every life is an act of self-creation, such is the job of each one of us, whether or not we self-identify as artists.
We choose whether to be blunted or honed when we choose whether to hide behind false certitudes — for any understanding that claims to be final is inherently fraudulent in its finality — or to thrust ourselves into the open air of not-knowing, naked and vulnerable, and wear our goosebumps like a constellation of tiny medals awarded us for living with courageous curiosity.
Artist Ann Hamilton, a rare philosopher of forms, celebrates that choice and the vitalizing power of not-knowing as the mightiest fuel for creative work in an extraordinary essay titled “Making Not Knowing,” adapted from her 2005 commencement address at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know. You may set out for New York but you may find yourself as I did in Ohio. You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material. You may pick up a paint brush and find that your making is not on canvas or wood but in relations between people. You may set out to walk across the room but getting to what is on the other side might take ten years. You have to be open to all possibilities and to all routes — circuitous or otherwise.
But not knowing, waiting and finding — though they may happen accidentally, aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. (Fear springs from ignorance.) Not knowing is a permissive and rigorous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response. The responsibility of the artist … is the practice of recognizing.
Much of that recognition, Hamilton argues, happens in moments that bear no outward sign of productivity and yet invigorate the interiority of the imagination. In a fine addition to history’s greatest testaments to the creative purpose of boredom, Hamilton echoes German philosopher Josef Pieper’s countercultural case for why leisure is the basis of culture and writes:
Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general, but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between.
Simultaneously with the invisible work of the mind and spirit, animating the creative life is the tangible work of the hands, which have their own way of knowing. Hamilton writes:
A life of making isn’t a series of shows, or projects, or productions, or things: it is an everyday practice. It is a practice of questions more than answers, of waiting to find what you need more often than knowing what you need to do. Waiting, like listening and meandering, is best when it is an active and not a passive state.
In a passage that calls to mind Willa Cather’s insight into the crucial difference between productivity and creativity, Hamilton considers the lacuna between making and doing — between what it means to make art and what art “does”:
I asked my ten-year-old son, Emmett, what he thought art was for and he said, “Nothing.” He said, “It isn’t good for anything.” And as he saw my eyes roll back in my head, thinking, this is what you get from a kid whose parents are both artists, he quickly added: “Art just is.” He said “Art just is” with an assumption that, like breakfast on the table, it will always be there — a given of a culture. In my head, I could hear a voice saying in response to his confidence: “Yes, but…” Can I really believe … that all the collective acts of making carry a weight that can counter the acts of unmaking that accrue daily? For acts of making to be acts of resistance and tools of remembering, this given-ness has to be made and maintained, and to have room made for it.
Every act of making matters. How we make matters. I like to remember, and remark with regularity, that the word “making” occupies seventeen pages in the Oxford English Dictionary, so there are multiple possibilities for a lifetime of making: make a cup, a conversation, a building, an institution, make memory, make peace, make a poem, a song, a drawing, a play; make a metaphor that changes, enlarges, or inverts the way we understand or see something. Make something to change your mind — acts that amplify.
With an eye to Emerson’s abiding and vitally disquieting wisdom — “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — Hamilton cites the poet Ann Lauterbach and considers the essential awakening into which art unsettles us:
It is the task of the artist to make material form, to give it presence, to make it social; it is the task of the artist to lead the leaders by staying at the threshold; to be an unsettler in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our first public tricksters: “Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past.”
Complement with Georgia O’Keeffe’s kindred-spirited advice on what it means to be an artist, Marina Abramović’s manifesto for the artist’s life, and Mary Oliver on the artist’s task and the central commitment of the creative life.