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Creativity, the Commonplace, and the Cosmos: Joseph Cornell’s Formative Visit to the Hayden Planetarium

Perspectival awakenings in the “blue dome, silhouetted city sky-line fringing it, and the gradual appearance of all the stars in the night sky to music.”

Creativity, the Commonplace, and the Cosmos: Joseph Cornell’s Formative Visit to the Hayden Planetarium

In the spring of 1919, as the world was shaking off the debris and despair of its first global war, the queer Quaker astronomer Arthur Eddington left England to traverse seas and meridians and blood-stained borders in an ambitious expedition to observe a total solar eclipse in order to prove correct, at the risk of his own reputation, the controversial theory of a ridiculed German Jew. Eddington’s historic observation of totality confirmed his instinct, confirmed relativity, catapulted Einstein into global celebrity, revolutionized our understanding of the universe, and united war-torn humanity under the same sky of elemental, astonishing truth.

But however much the telescopic perspective might lavish us with self-transcendence, it is only a temporary transcendence — the human animal is not marrowed and tendoned to roam the vast vistas of universal truth for too long before growing paralyzed again by its invented parochial partialities.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Solar Soap Bubble Set Series), 1955

Within a generation, as the world was being savaged anew by its most bloodthirsty war yet, the artist Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903–December 29, 1972) leaned on the cosmic perspective for a different kind of coherence, infusing astronomy into his visionary shadow boxes: reliquaries of the mundane washed up on the shoreline between memory and dream, discarded fragments of this world assembled into portals to another — a world of our world, yet more magical, more mystical, more immortal in its obsolescence; a world wrested from an uncommon imagination. “I certainly was not relaxed or comfortable in his presence,” Susan Sontag once remarked of Cornell, “but why should I be? That’s hardly a complaint. He was a delicate, complicated person whose imagination worked in a very special way.”

Joseph Cornell, Soap Bubble Set, 1949-1950 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

On a warm and clear summer Tuesday in 1941, as WWII is rendering the present unbearable and the future uncertain, Cornell voyages first into the human past and then into the remote consolations of spacetime in a journal entry included in the out-of-print treasure Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files (public library):

A suggestion of that wonderful feeling of detachment that comes over me every so often — a leisurely kind of feeling that seems to impart to the routine events of the day a certain sense of “festivity.”

[…]

Into the city and all the way up to the Museum of the American Indian to find it closed! Compensation in the buoyant feeling aroused by the buildings of the Geographic Society in their quiet uptown setting. An abstract feeling of geography and voyaging I have thought about before of getting into objects, like the Compass Set with map. A reminder of earliest school-book days when the world was divided up into irregular masses of bright colors, with vignettes of the pictorial world scattered, like toy picture-blocks.

To recompense the failed Native American art field trip, Cornell decides to head to the Museum of Natural History and forage for inspiration there. In a burst of spontaneity, after hours of copying Native designs into his sketchbook beneath an old oil painting of “an Indian princess” at the museum library, he decides to make his first visit to the museum’s now-iconic Hayden Planetarium, then just a few years old.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. (U.S. Department of State / Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation)

Not yet aware of how that extemporaneous encounter would foment the future of his art — as we rarely are of our most catalytic inspirations the moment we encounter them i the wild — Cornell writes:

The Planetarium was another moving experience, especially on the second floor with its blue dome, silhouetted city sky-line fringing it, and the gradual appearance of all the stars in the night sky to music.

He finds himself tuning out the bland educational lecture — “there is enough reconstruction of the night atmosphere and really so well done, to offset it” — and lets his imagination voyage into the celestial splendor. In a deeply pleasing parenthetical wink, penned long before the world had awakened to Hedy Lamarr’s contribution to science, he adds:

(Yesterday I was trying to fit Hedy Lamarr into Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite garden, without success. She was more at-one today with the night sky of the Planetarium. I wish she could have done the lecturing, with her wonderful detachment.)

Upon returning to Earth, he immediately moors the conceptual quickening of the cosmos to the empirical materiality of his art, already foraging for objects at the museum that would invoke the feeling-tone of the celestial spectacle, already constellating those objects into shadow-boxed poems in his mind’s eye to invite the same transcendent cosmic perspective:

The astronomical paraphernalia: charts, transparencies, broken meteors, and especially compass curios (also armillaries, telescopes, etc.) are intriguing. Arranged in cases in the hall around the circular hall. On the amid floor a particularly fine set of murals of the zodiac, picked out in white on blue. The nicest rendition of the Gemini I’ve seen.

Joseph Cornell, Solar Set (Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation)

Although the night sky had fascinated Cornell since childhood, it was this visit to the planetarium that made astronomy a centerpiece of his art for the remaining three decades of his life, both as an object-category to for his boxes and as a sensemaking framework for the miniature cosmogonies of meaning nested inside them.

Joseph Cornell, Observatory Series: Corona Borealis, 1950 (SFMoMA / Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation)

Nearly a century later, in another uncertain present amid another moment of cultural tumult, the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory emerged from the kindred sense that we may never know what child might step into the dome of possibility to become the next Eddington, what young artist might grow bewitched by the science and splendor of the cosmos through the telescope to become the next Cornell, or how many generations of human eyes and minds might look through the telescope to transcend the smallness of perspective that makes us draw imaginary lines of unbelonging beneath this boundless shared sky.

BP

How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

“Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection.”

How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

Since we first came down from the trees, we have been looking at them and seeing ourselves, seeing lush metaphors for our own deepest existential concerns — metaphors for the secret to lasting love, metaphors for what it means to live with authenticity, metaphors for finding infinity in our solitude.

Trees have been of especial enchantment and self-clarification to artists. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.” Two centuries later, the visionary Agnes Martin first dreamt up the spare visual poetics of her grids while “thinking of the innocence of trees.”

But no one has intersected the canon of sylvan metaphors with the canon of theories of creativity more insightfully than the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (December 18, 1879–June 29, 1940) did in a 1924 lecture about the creative process, later adapted into the now-iconic essay “On Modern Art,” posthumously published in 1948 as a slim, lovely book with a foreword by the great English philosopher, anarchist, poet, and art historian Herbert Read — a man who so ardently believed that “art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality” — and included in the 1964 anthology Modern Artists on Art (public library).

Little Painting of Fir-Trees by Paul Klee, 1922. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Considering “those elements in the creative process which, during the growth of a work of art, take place in the subconscious,” Klee likens the artist to a tree and writes:

The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he guides the vision on into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and space, so with his work.

Tree Nursery by Paul Klee, 1929. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

But the work of art, Klee cautions, is not a direct translation of the subconscious — it is rather the work of a transmutation for which the artist is both the agent and the vessel:

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce divergences.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion.

And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules — he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.

Complement with Pablo Neruda’s love letter to forests and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit other immensely insightful reflections on the creative process and what it means to be an artist by Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mark Rothko, Robert Browning, Wassily Kandinsky, W.S. Merwin, Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, and James Baldwin.

BP

Proust on the Essence of Creativity and the Hallmark of Artistic Genius

“Genius [consists] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”

Proust on the Essence of Creativity and the Hallmark of Artistic Genius

The word empathy entered the popular lexicon in the early twentieth century as a term to describe the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into the subjective world of the artist, where you encounter yourself afresh and emerge with your own world enlarged, your own experience enlivened. Every transcendent song or painting or poem that enchant us has sprung from some element of its creator’s life — some profound event or some mundane moment, which one subjective consciousness has endowed with a supranatural halo of meaning and encoded the meaning into music or color or image that staggers another with its beauty, its private resonance, its elemental truth. That, after all, is why art moves us, what art is — the transfiguration of the personal into the universal, of the mundane into the miraculous.

Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) explores this transcendent transfiguration with characteristic sweep and splendor of sentiment as he contemplates the essence of creativity and the hallmark of artistic genius in a passage from Within a Budding Grove (public library) — the second volume of his colossal seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, which has helped artists survive prison camps and prompted philosophers to consider the ultimate test of true love.

A century after Schopenhauer made his classic distinction between genius and talent, Proust writes:

Genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power.

In a sentiment Charles Bukowski would echo decades later in his magnificent poem “so you want to be a writer,” Proust argues that genius is similarly not a matter of ideal conditions or optimal power, but of transformation by way of unselfing:

The men* who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.

Complement with Beethoven and the crucial difference between genius and talent, then revisit Proust on why we read, how the mind can obscure the heart’s wisdom, and what art does for the soul.

BP

The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”

The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

“Life loves the liver of it,” Maya Angelou observed as she contemplated the meaning of life in 1977, exhorting: “You must live and life will be good to you.”

That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left Pittsburgh, where he was attending art school, for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:

This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.

In a passage of extraordinary precocity, he echoes the young Van Gogh’s reflection on fear, taking risks, and how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and considers how the trap of self-comparison is keeping him from developing his own artistic and human potential:

I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.

And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:

I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:

I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.

In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:

It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.

But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:

Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.

Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:

I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.

Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”

In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:

I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.

By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:

I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.

After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:

Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.

But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:

I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.

Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.

Couple with Drawing on Walls — a wonderful picture-book biography of Haring inspired by his journals — then revisit a young neurosurgeon’s poignant meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his own death, an elderly comedian-philosopher on how to live fully while dying, and an astronomer-poet’s sublime “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

BP

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