Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 12

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.”

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.

Ann Hamilton
Ann Hamilton

Hamilton writes:

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.

Ann Hamilton, Untitled (body object series, 1984–1993
Ann Hamilton, Untitled (body object series, 1984–1993

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.

Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007
Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007

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.

Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007
Ann Hamilton and Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension, 2007

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.

BP

Why Our Partners Drive Us Mad: Philosopher Alain de Botton to the Central Foible of the Human Heart and How to Heal It

“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity.”

Why Our Partners Drive Us Mad: Philosopher Alain de Botton to the Central Foible of the Human Heart and How to Heal It

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” wrote the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in his treatise on mastering the art of loving. But not knowing how to be loved equally wounds us, and wounds those who try to love us.

Philosopher Alain de Botton has devoted the lion’s share of his life to exploring the complex psychoemotional machinery that, despite our best intentions, inflicts the wounds of love upon us and our partners. Decades after Willa Cather termed romantic relationships “the tragic necessity of human life,” De Botton writes in The Course of Love (public library) — his stunning meditation on the fragilities of the human heart, the source of his insight into the psychological paradox of sulking in intimate relationships and what makes a good communicator:

We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on came entwined with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes.

How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right — in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding, and reliable — given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearnt. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.

De Botton explores this central foible of the heart in a wonderful short visual essay for his School of Life project, with lyrical animation by Kathrin Steinbacher — an inquiry into how our early family dynamics shape our adult patterns of love, why our partners often drive us mad in consequence, and how to handle this inescapable fallibility of the human heart with gentleness and self-compassion.

The romantic story of love tells us that our search for a partner is inspired, above all else, by a desire to find someone who can make us happy. But the truth is a little more confused and peculiar, for one of the oddest aspects of love is that in tracking down a mate, we don’t, in fact, look out for just anyone who seems kind, good, and attractive. We look out for someone who can fulfill a number of pre-existing psychological requirements — which could include a subterranean appetite for frustration and humiliation.

We are constrained in our love choices by what we learned of love as children. Adult love is in central ways a search for rediscovery of emotions first known in childhood. In order to prove exciting and attractive, the partner we pick must re-evoke many of the feelings we once had around parental figures, and these feelings, though they may include tenderness and satisfaction, are also likely to feature a more troubling range of emotions.

[…]

Without being fully aware of our wish, we need our partner to have a failing that our parents once had, so that we can repeat a flawed but potent dynamic we once experienced as children.

[…]

It seems we are fated either to seek out the fault of a parent in a partner, or to mimic the fault of the parent with a partner. Either way, the fault of the parent remains central to our love choices. Without it, we may simply not be able to feel passionate and tender with someone. We might imagine we would only be attracted to admirable traits — to perfection, to very positive things about another — yet just below the conscious radar, it is the failings that lure us in.

In The Course of Love, De Botton offers a deeper dive into those complicated and frequently frustrating dynamics, as well as their most promising frontiers of redemption. Complement it with philosopher Skye Cleary on why we love, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance, and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, then revisit The School of Life’s wonderful animated meditations on the difficult art of self-compassion and how to stop letting habit blunt your aliveness.

BP

We Found a Hat: Jon Klassen’s Minimalist, Maximally Wonderful Parable of Transforming Covetousness into Generosity and Justice

“We found a hat. We found it together. But there is only one hat. And there are two of us.”

We Found a Hat: Jon Klassen’s Minimalist, Maximally Wonderful Parable of Transforming Covetousness into Generosity and Justice

“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be,” legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser observed in his conversation with Debbie Millman. One might say that it is difficult, perhaps even delusional, to elect perception over the hard facts of physical reality — after all, if there is only one apple in front of you, how could you perceive your way to having two? And yet the great physicist David Bohm, a scientist grounded in the fundamental building blocks of physical reality, articulated a parallel truth in contemplating how our perceptions shape our reality:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.

Beloved children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen explores this disorienting paradox with great subtlety, simplicity, and sensitivity in We Found a Hat (public library) — the conclusion of his celebrated hat trilogy, following I Want My Hat Back (2011) and This Is Not My Hat.

wefoundahat_klassen22

The story follows two turtles who discover a hat together — a very winsome hat, they both feel — and are suddenly faced by a practical predicament: There is one hat to be had, and two of them who want to have it.

Carrying Klassen’s minimalist, maximally expressive illustrations — entire worlds of emotion and intent are intimated by the turn of the turtles’ black-and-white eyes — are his equally spartan words, which envelop his protagonists’ interior worlds in sweetness and gentleness as he tells this touching story of covetousness transformed into generosity and justice.

wefoundahat_klassen1

We found a hat.

We found it together.

But there is only one hat.

And there are two of us.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you too.

It looks good on both of us.

But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not.

wefoundahat_klassen21

As the sun begins to set and the predicament remains unresolved, the turtles decide to leave the hat where it is and forget they found it.

wefoundahat_klassen23

wefoundahat_klassen24

wefoundahat_klassen5

wefoundahat_klassen25

wefoundahat_klassen26

wefoundahat_klassen6

But as they retire to sleep, the hat occupies their restless imagination. Like Dostoyevsky, who discovered the meaning of life in a dream, the turtles arrive at their solution via the nocturnal imagination.

wefoundahat_klassen27

wefoundahat_klassen7

wefoundahat_klassen28

Are you all the way asleep?

I am all the way asleep.

I am dreaming a dream.

wefoundahat_klassen29

wefoundahat_klassen8

wefoundahat_klassen30

What are you dreaming about?

I will tell you what I am dreaming about.

I am dreaming that I have a hat.

It looks very good on me.

You are also there. You also have a hat.

It looks very good on you too.

wefoundahat_klassen31

We both have hats?

wefoundahat_klassen9

wefoundahat_klassen32

wefoundahat20

Pair the warmhearted and wonderful We Found a Hat with Lemony Snicket’s Klassen-illustrated story The Dark, then complement its central sentiment with Annie Dillard on why generosity is the greatest animating force of art.

All page illustrations © Jon Klassen courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated