Brain Pickings

Search results for “Adrienne Rich”

Turning Trauma into Power: Marina Abramović on How Her Harrowing Childhood Became the Raw Material for Her Art

“You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Although creative history is littered with tortured geniuses who survived terrible childhoods full of abuse and violence — take Franz Kafka’s abusive father or Maya Angelou’s rape or Eve Ensler’s trauma — and although my own early years contain elements of these experiences (sans the subsequent genius), I am not one who romanticizes pain, upheaval, and adversity as prerequisites for success. That said, I do find tremendous value in reading about celebrated creators who persevered through traumatic childhoods — first, because to anyone who has ever been stymied by crushing circumstances, these stories offer assurance that it is possible to have a deeply fulfilling life despite the cards one has been dealt; secondly, because these personal accounts yank into question the privilege narrative of our almost automatic assumption that those who have attained public recognition and its capitalist byproduct of financial success must be living charmed, untroubled lives. These stories are, above all, a sometimes jarring, sometimes gentle reminder to heed the words of 19th-century Scottish writer and theologian Ian Maclaren (often misattributed to Plato): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This is why I found myself at once deeply moved and hugely heartened by artist Marina Abramović’s contribution to Getting There: A Book of Mentors (public library) — a stimulating compendium by lawyer, photographer, and writer Gillian Zoe Segal, illustrating the notion that “success comes in a potpourri of flavors” through a tasting menu of wildly diverse success-stories by such cultural icons as inventor Craig Venter, mayor extraordinaire Mike Bloomberg, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, composer Hans Zimmer, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and billionaire-philanthropist Warren Buffet. (I’d be remiss not to point out that only a quarter of these featured success-models are women and only one is a person of color — a fact stated not as self-righteous criticism, for I did enjoy the volume, but as an unrelenting reminder that we can and, in fact, must do better if we are to have a truly diverse and inclusive cultural rhetoric of success.)

Marina Abramović, ‘The Artist Is Present,’ performance, 2010; Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Her formative years, while heartbreaking, are not entirely unusual for those of us raised in Eastern Europe — while Abramović’s experience is undoubtedly a function of her parents’ particular personalities, it also reflects more general cultural pathologies related to discipline and the chronic denial of emotional reality. She recounts:

My parents were both partisans and national heroes. They were very hard-core and were so busy with their careers that I lived with my grandmother until I was six. Until then, I hardly even knew who my parents were. They were just two strange people who would visit on Saturdays and bring presents. When I was six, my brother was born, and I was sent back to my parents. From that point on, my childhood was very unhappy. I grew up with incredible control, discipline, and violence at home. Everything was extreme. My mother never kissed me. When I asked why, she said, “Not to spoil you, of course.” She had a bacteria phobia so she didn’t allow me to play with other children out of fear that I might catch a disease. She even washed bananas with detergent. I spent most of my time alone in my room. There were many, many rules. Everything had to be in perfect order. If I slept messily in bed, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night and order me to sleep straight.

Illustrating just how reality-warping such parenting is and how hungry for affectionate care such systematic deprivation leaves the child, Abramović relays the reverse reaction she had to an experience most children would find utterly distressing:

When one of my baby teeth fell out and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, everyone thought I might have hemophilia so I was put in the hospital for a year. That was the happiest, most wonderful time of my life. Everybody was taking care of me and nobody was punishing me. I never felt at home in my own home and I never feel at home anywhere.

And yet under these harsh conditions, Abramović had no choice but to cultivate a skill fundamental for creativity — that vital capacity for “fertile solitude” and ability to do nothing all alone with oneself.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall from ‘Pecan Pie Baby’ by Jacqueline Woodson. Click image for details.

Isolated from other children and condemned to forced aloneness, she began drawing daily — one of the few activities her mother supported — when she was only three. Drawing became a lens through which she saw and understood the world. She relays one particularly formative experience:

One day I was lying on the ground looking up and a few supersonic planes flew over me and made these incredible lines, like drawings. I watched them appear, form, then disappear; and then the sky was blue again. It was incredible. I immediately went to the military base and asked friends of my father’s if they could give me twelve supersonic planes to make a drawing in the sky. They called my father and said, “Get your daughter out of here. She is completely nuts!” But after that, I never went to the studio again. It was almost like a spiritual experience, and I realized that I could make art from practically nothing. I could use water, fire, earth, wind, myself. It’s the concept that matters. This was the beginning of performance for me.

Her first steps in performance — something that wasn’t considered a form of art at the time — were often public stumbles. But despite frequent ridicule and criticism from the press, she continued to push her physical and mental limits, putting on provocative performances that challenged our core assumptions about what art is supposed to be. (As Neil Gaiman urged in his fantastic commencement address on courage and the creative life: “When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art… IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art.”)

Meanwhile, already well into her twenties, Abramović was still living with her parents and was still being constantly punished by her mother, who continued to beat her and even burned art she made. In a sentiment painfully familiar to those who come from similar circumstances and cultures, Abramović reflects:

It never even crossed my mind to leave. At the time there was really no other choice. Several generations in the same house was how people lived in Eastern Europe.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from ‘The Book of Mean People’ by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for details.

And then something literally life-changing happened: On her twenty-ninth birthday, Abramović received an invitation to perform on a Dutch television show. She recounts:

When I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, I was met by another artist, a man named Ulay, who was to be my guide. We discovered that we had the same birthday and much more than that in common. We immediately fell terribly in love. I returned to Belgrade, but we got lovesick and planned to meet in Prague, which is between Amsterdam and Belgrade. We decided we would live together in Amsterdam and work together too. It was one of those magical moments where everything comes together. So at twenty-nine I ran away from home to live with Ulay. I literally escaped. My mother went to the police, told them that I was missing, and gave them a description of me. The police officer said, “But how old is she?” When he learned I was twenty-nine, he made my mother leave.

Invoking Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” Abramović considers how deeply the human spirit is imprinted by those early experiences and how challenging it is to inhabit one’s freedom once the despot is removed from the picture — something as true politically, for countries newly liberated from dictatorship, as it is personally, for those who break free from abusive relationships:

At first, I had trouble adjusting to my newfound freedom. While on one level I hated and rebelled against all my restrictions in Belgrade, both the political control and my home life, I also fed on them. In Amsterdam I felt the need to create my own restrictions and started building instructions for myself in my performances. To this day, every performance I do is based on discipline and specific instructions that have to be executed in front of the public. It’s become the frame I make my work within.

One essential commonality emerges between artists who struggled before finding success. Like Patti Smith, who was homeless and starving for years and yet thought of herself not as a homeless person but as an artist who hasn’t yet found her muse, Abramović made no compromises about being a full-time artist:

All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant or do any other job, so Ulay and I decided to live together in a van. It was the most radical but also the simplest decision I have ever made. It was really the only way we could exist. We had no money and the performances we did hardly paid. We lived like that for five years and it was bliss!

And yet this ecstatic romance eventually came undone and the couple began to drift apart. The heartbreak of the farewell and its actual performance were commensurate with the magnitude of how their love had begun:

For eight years Ulay and I had been requesting permission to do a performance piece on the Great Wall of China. Our plan was to start at opposite ends, walk toward each other, and get married when we met. By the time the Chinese finally said yes, our relationship was over. I have never been one to give up a good opportunity, so we decided to still walk toward each other but say good-bye instead when we met. It was extremely painful. To make things worse, I knew at the time that Ulay had made his Chinese guide pregnant and would soon be having a child with her.

What began as a fairy-tale romance ended in a nightmare. Abramović was forty and even though she felt “fat, ugly, and unwanted,” she had only one choice in order to go on — make good art. She brings the journey full-circle to the determinative experiences of her childhood, attesting to the fact that great artists spend a lifetime making power from their wounds:

When I was growing up, my private life was not valued. The noblest thing one could do in my family was to sacrifice everything for a cause. Art became my cause and it’s still everything to me. I dedicate all the energy in my body to my work and have completely sacrificed a more conventional personal life for it. I have no partner and no children, but I’m very proud of myself for always doing what I want, no matter what the cost and no matter how long it’s taken… I wake up in the morning with this urge to create; it’s almost like I am in a fever. Every single day is structured. I work, work, work, and my curiosity never ends.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

With the wry self-awareness of those who have found a way to transmute their vulnerability into art — “Maybe all of our coping mechanisms are our artwork,” my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton once said to me — Abramović adds:

I’m also like a clinical case: If you don’t get love from your family, you turn to other things to get it. I get the love I need from my audience. Without the public, my performances wouldn’t exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world.

And yet that public love and its tangible material rewards are — must be — only a byproduct of the private passion driving the artist. Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent letter of life-advice to his son when the young man was headed to art school, Abramović cautions:

When a young artist comes to me and says, “I want to be famous and rich,” I ask him to leave because this is not the reason to make art. Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve. Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.

Noting that art is sometimes rejected not because it is bad but because it is “ahead of society” — “the function of the artist in a disturbed society,” she has asserted elsewhere, “[is] to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.” — Abramović adds:

The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America. This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that?

Complement Getting There with wisdom on life from the sagest commencement addresses of all time and some timeless resolutions from humanity’s greatest mentors, then revisit some of the most celebrated artists of our time — including Abramović herself — on courage, criticism, success, and what it really means to be an artist.

BP

Nobel-Winning Playwright Eugene O’Neill on Happiness and the True Measure of Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

[…]

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

Complement Posterity with more enduring fatherly wisdom on life, including Ted Hughes on nurturing one’s eternal inner child, F. Scott Fitzgerald on what is worth worrying about in life, Charles Dickens on cultivating kindness, and Jackson Pollock on falling in love, then revisit Anton Chekhov — whose sensibility O’Neill’s is often likened to — on the eight qualities of cultured people in a letter of advice to his younger brother.

BP

Beware of Beauty Overload: The Adaptive Eye of the Beholder

How sensory adaptation is compromising our experience of love.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her indispensable meditation on the psychology of beauty. But beauty’s primal appeal and its polarizing power on our inner world has a dark side. In a chapter unambiguously titled “Why Playboy Is Bad for Your Mental Mechanisms” from his altogether engrossing book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Nature (public library), Arizona State University psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick explores how overexposure to beauty makes us recalibrate our own criteria for what is beautiful to a point that harms human relationships and even our experience of love.

He describes a curious experiment inspired by his own everyday experience as a graduate student twenty years earlier, when he caught himself noticing a disproportionate number of attractive female students in the crowd passing by during campus rush hour. Fascinated by this phenomenon of extreme selective attention when it comes to beauty, Kenrick decided examine it empirically two decades later as a formal researcher and replicated his youthful ogling in an experimental setup:

When we strained our subjects’ attentional capacities, we found exactly what I had suspected several decades before: Men overestimated the number of beautiful women (though their estimates of handsome men were unaffected). Female subjects also overestimated the frequency of gorgeous women in the rapidly presented crowds, but they did not overestimate the frequency of handsome men. The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good-looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing.

But pointing to other research he has conducted with his colleague Sara Gutierres, Kenrick argues that “an overdose of beauty might have ill effects for both sexes, albeit different ones for women than for men.” Citing Harry Helson’s famous 1947 theory of sensory adaptation, which holds that we make psychological adjustments as we match new forms of stimulation — hot or cold, salty or sweet, heavy or light, etc. — against our adaptation level, he began suspecting that sensory adaptation might be at work when it comes to our judgments of beauty. So Kenrick and Gutierres set out to test the idea:

In our first study, [we] asked people to judge an average-looking woman after being exposed to one of two series of other women. Half the participants judged the target woman after seeing a series of unusually beautiful women; the other half judged her after seeing a series of average-looking women. As in the case of expose to extremes of water temperature, exposure to extremes of physical appearance affected people’s judgments of what was average. As we had predicted, an average-looking woman was judged significantly uglier than normal if the subjects had just been gazing at a series of beauties.

Josef Albers: ‘Homage to the Square’

Another study sought to assess whether these same processes played out in our judgments of people we know and love. Under the pretext of conducting research on “community standards of aesthetic judgment,” the scientists told participants they were collecting opinions from a random sample of students to settle an ongoing controversy about what is considered good and bad taste in visual art:

Subjects in the control group first judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings such as Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. The men in the experimental group saw centerfolds from Playboy and Penthouse; the women saw handsome naked men from Playgirl. After they had looked at either paintings or centerfolds, we asked our participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. Again, there was a cover story — that psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty. To test which side was right, we told them, we needed to know about the extent to which their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds.

Once again, the results displayed a curious gender difference:

Men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.

Playboy December 1972

What the study suggests is at once obvious and ominous: Exposure to beautiful women changes people’s reference points for what is beautiful. Kenrick considers the implications for men:

The harmful side effect for guys … is this: Real women … do not look as attractive once the mind has been calibrated to assume the centerfolds are normal. And for guys in relationships, exposure to beautiful photos undermines their feelings about the real flesh-and-blood women with whom their lives are actually intertwined.

(It turns out, then, that Esquire’s 1949 dating tips were not only amusingly appalling in their sexism, but also scientifically off in advising women to only bring their most glamorous friend to a double date.)

But lest we’re too quick to assume men are the only ones who conform to the worst of their gender’s stereotypes, women didn’t fare much better when the experiment was repeated with power rather than beauty as the variable:

Seeing a series of socially dominant men undermined women’s commitment, just as seeing attractive women had done to men’s.

But what could be driving this toxic allure of beauty? Kenrick suggests a biological basis for our sensory receptors, which evolved to make our ancestors aware of opportunities and threats while looking for mates in a world very different from our own — but amidst today’s media overstimulation, he argues, our natural mechanisms are overwhelmed and begin to malfunction. He likens our relationship with beauty to our relationship with food:

In a sense, the images from Hollywood and Madison Avenue are analogous to the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The tasty flavors and images tap into mechanisms that were designed to promote survival and reproduction in a much different world. Consume too much, though, and it may be harmful to your health.

Like Clay Johnson did in his information diet guide, Kenrick suggests a cure that is at once obvious and onerous, simple but certainly not easy, and altogether necessary for the sake of sanity:

So what’s a mortal to do? Are we helpless in the face of our evolved mechanisms, which may lead us astray without our conscious awareness? Not completely. People who understand the dangers of overabundant fats and sugars can control their diets. People who understand the dangers of an overabundant diet of mass-media images can stop gorging on Playboy, People, Sex and the City, or Dancing with the Stars.

It may sound simplistic, perhaps, but at the heart of this empirically grounded suggestion is the idea that our beauty diet is just one of the harmful habit loops we can rewire if we remember that, as William James famously put it, “we are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is absolutely captivating in its entirety, exploring such fascinating subjects as the relationship between sex and religion, the psychology of homicidal fantasies, and the missing bricks in Maslow’s classic pyramid of needs.

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 receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.