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Artist Anne Truitt on Vulnerability, the Price of Integrity, and What Sustains the Creative Spirit

“It is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation.”

Artist Anne Truitt on Vulnerability, the Price of Integrity, and What Sustains the Creative Spirit

Art, at its most potent, springs from the artist’s longing to bridge her private truth with the truth of the universe and transmute it into a public form that beckons forth the private truth of the viewer. This forceful yet delicate dynamic was at the heart of Patti Smith’s beautiful childhood anecdote of the swan, but no artist has captured it more powerfully than the visionary mid-century sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) — a woman of enduring insight into the creative experience and the human spirit, which her training as a clinical psychologist allowed her to articulate with uncommon elegance and lucidity.

Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966
Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966

In a 1982 diary entry from the altogether magnificent Turn: The Journal of an Artist (public library), Truitt recounts the unexpected and electrifying revelation that overcame her as she faced her own work in a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art — a deeply personal experience that, like so much of her writing, captures a profound universality about being an artist:

When I entered the gallery in which my sculptures are installed, I fell back — actually stepped back — before the force of my own feelings distilled into forms rendering visible their own beings. Tears rose to my eyes and from that freshest of feeling the unchangeable and unchanging truth: I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.

The greatest point of vulnerability for the artist is that all private integrity is always subject to public misunderstanding, that the impulse toward the former must necessarily concede the possibility — the likelihood — of the latter. Truitt laments the inevitability of this Catch-22 of creativity:

The world can make no meet response to art. Praise can miss the point as much as a casual remark such as I overheard last night: an impeccably turned-out gentleman bounding up the stairs to the gallery exclaimed over his shoulder, “And now to see the minimalist — or maximalist!” He had all the relish of a casually greedy person with a tasty tidbit in view; he was on his way to gulp down my life with as little consideration as he would an artichoke heart.

Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973
Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973

And yet the blessing and burden of the artist, Truitt reminds us, is that she has no choice but to incur the risk of being so misunderstood and commodified — for that is the price of integrity. “Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” she had written a decade earlier. And now, facing this major showcase of her work, she revisits the point from another angle:

Do I wish, can I afford, in my own limitations, to continue to make work that has such a high psychic cost and stands in jeopardy of being so met? Do I have a choice? I do not know. Neither whether I can further endure, nor whether I can stop. The work is preemptory. My life has led me to an impasse.

What sustains the creative spirit through this uncertainty, Truitt suggests, isn’t the awareness of standing on the shoulders of giants — of all the artists whose lives are a testament to the burden being bearable and even transcendent — but of standing alongside those giants, shoulder to shoulder:

In the course of wandering the museum until I could decently leave, I confronted a Cézanne and felt as if a muscular hand had taken mine and Cézanne stood beside me, grubby with clotted paint, silent in his own life, impelled by its force to record it.

While it is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation, there is a freemasonry among us. We stand shoulder to shoulder, generation to generation.

To read Truitt’s Turn a generation later is to take her hand and be guided in sublime solidarity toward an assuring awareness of just how intimately entwined the trials and triumphs of the creative life really are. Complement it with Truitt on the cure for our chronic self-righteousness and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist, then revisit Teresita Fernández’s extraordinary commencement address on what it really takes to be an artist.

BP

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.”

The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

“Stories,” Neil Gaiman asserted in his wonderful lecture on what makes stories last, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” But what is the natural selection of these organisms — what makes the ones that endure fit for survival? What, in other words, makes a great story?

That’s what the great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), who revolutionized cognitive psychology and pioneered the modern study of creativity in the 1960s, explores in his 1986 essay collection Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library).

Jerome Bruner

In an immensely insightful piece titled “Two Modes of Thought,” Bruner writes:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.

Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.

[…]

A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct.

Art by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Bruner notes that the Western scientific and philosophical worldview has been largely concerned with the question of how to know truth, whereas storytellers are concerned with the question of how to endow experience with meaning — a dichotomy Hannah Arendt addressed brilliantly more than a decade earlier in her 1973 Gifford Lecture on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning. One could go even further and argue, after Walter Benjamin, that the product of the analytical mode is information, whereas the product of storytelling is wisdom.

Bruner calls these two contrasting modes the paradigmatic or logico-scientific, characterized by a mathematical framework of analysis and explanation, and the narrative. Each, he argues, is animated by a different kind of imagination:

The imaginative application of the paradigmatic mode leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis. But paradigmatic “imagination” (or intuition) is not the same as the imagination of the novelist or poet. Rather, it is the ability to see possible formal connections before one is able to prove them in any formal way.

The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily “true”) historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place.

[…]

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that story must construct two landscapes simultaneously. One is the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a “story grammar.” The other landscape is the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

Bruner considers the singular landscape of narrative:

Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case.

[…]

We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must “be” to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.

But this matter of intention remains forever mediated by the reader’s interpretation. What young Sylvia Plath observed of poetry — “Once a poem is made available to the public,” she told her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” — is true of all art and storytelling, whatever the medium. Bruner considers how the psychology of this interpretation factors into the question of what makes a great story:

It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader’s interpretation “maps” on an actual story, does justice to the writer’s intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture. But in any case, the author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory. So “great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination. One cannot hope to “explain” the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist “explains” what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it… All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader’s interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

This essential “subjunctivity” is the act of designating a mood for the story. “To be in the subjunctive mode,” Bruner explains, means “to be trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties.” Out of this drive toward unsettled possibilities arises the ultimate question of “how a reader makes a strange text his own,” a question of “assimilating strange tales into the familiar dramas of our own lives, even more than transmuting our own dramas in the process” — something Bruner illustrates brilliantly with an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan from Italo Calvino’s masterwork Invisible Cities, which takes place after Marco Polo describes a bridge stone by stone:

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

Bruner extracts from this an allegory of the key to great storytelling:

But still, it is not quite the arch. It is, rather, what arches are for in all the senses in which an arch is for something — for their beautiful form, for the chasms they safely bridge, for coming out on the other side of crossings, for a chance to see oneself reflected upside down yet right side up. So a reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches is some broader reality — goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning.

As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a “reality” of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, “What’s it all about?” But what “it” is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own.

Bruner concurs with Barthes’s conviction that the writer’s greatest gift to the reader is to help her become a writer, then revises it to clarify and amplify its ambition:

The great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a remarkable read in its totality, exploring the psychological realities of language, thought and emotion, and the self. Complement this particular portion with Susan Sontag on the task of storytelling, Oliver Sacks on its curious psychology, and Martha Nussbaum on how it remaps our interior lives, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.

BP

Yoko Ono’s Playful and Philosophical Action-Poems About How to Live with Greater Attentiveness to the World

“Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe. Thank the tree in your mind for showing us how to grow and stay.”

Yoko Ono’s Playful and Philosophical Action-Poems About How to Live with Greater Attentiveness to the World

In 1964, artist Yoko Ono (b. February 18, 1933) published Grapefruit — a collection of her poems, drawings, and instructions for life, constituting a sort of whimsical activity book for grownups. Nearly half a century later, on the eve of her seventieth birthday, she released a sequel titled Acorn (public library) — a new set of “action poems” bearing the same sensibility of irreverence and earnestness, subversion and sincerity. Aswirl between them are Ono’s distinctive dot-drawings — abstract three-dimensional shapes reminiscent of Thomas Wright’s pioneering 18th-century depictions of the universe.

Fusing the playful and the philosophical, the pieces are grouped into sets according to the attentional focus of their particular activity — the sky, the city, the seasons, the home, the sounds and sights and sensations that surround us. Undergirding the poems is a robust optimism and a meditative quality that accomplishes the seemingly impossible — inviting deep reflection not through the weight of analytical reason but through the levity of intuitive insight.

SKY PIECE I

Towards the end of the Second World War, I looked like a little ghost because of the food shortage. I was hungry. It was getting easier to just lie down and watch the sky. That’s when I fell in love with the sky, I think.

Since then, all my life, I have been in love with the sky. Even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was always there for me. It was the only constant factor in my life, which kept changing with the speed of light and lightning. As I told myself then, I could never give up on life as long as the sky was there.

Tell us when you first noticed the sky.
Tell us when you first noticed that the sky was beautiful.

WATCH PIECE I

Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe.
Thank the tree in your mind for showing us
how to grow and stay.

EARTH PIECE I

Listen to the sound of the fire burning
in the center of the globe.

SKY PIECE V

Autumn

Imagine running across a wheat field
as fast as you can.
Imagine your friend running towards you
as fast as possible.

Imagine the colour of the sky. If it’s clouded,
see if there are any blue spots.
If it’s clear,
see if there are any clouds.
If it’s stormy,
look out for thunder and lightning.
If it’s snowing,
take your coat off
so you can wrap it around your friend.

SOUND PIECE VI

Summer

Tape the sound of your baby son crying.
Let him listen to the tape when he is
going through pain as a grown man.

CLEANING PIECE II

Make a numbered list of sadness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is sadness.
Burn the list, and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.

Make a numbered list of happiness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is happiness.
Compare the mound of stones to the one of sadness.

CLEANING PIECE III

Try to say nothing negative about anybody.

a) for three days
b) for forty-five days
c) for three months

See what happens to your life.

CLEANING PIECE IV

Send a note of appreciation to silent courageous people
you happen to have noticed: parents, teachers, shopkeepers,
street cleaners, artists, etc.

Keep doing it.
See what happens to the world.

Complement the thoroughly wonderful Acorn with Wendell Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being, then revisit John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s animated conversation about love.

BP

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