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Do: Sol LeWitt’s Electrifying Letter of Advice on Self-Doubt, Overcoming Creative Block, and Being an Artist

“You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool.”

“The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together,” Vincent van Gogh wrote in contemplating principles, talking vs. doing, and the human pursuit of greatness in a beautiful letter to his brother Theo. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her memorable letter to Sherwood Anderson about success, public opinion, and what it really means to be an artist. But how does one keep a solid center of principled conviction while at the same time expanding outward into widening circles of growth-impulses, always reaching for the unknown without letting competence fester into complacency or perfectionism become an anchor of stagnation?

The answer to that, and to other elemental perplexities of the creative life, is what the artist Sol LeWitt (September 9, 1928–April 8, 2007) offers in a spectacular 1965 letter to the trailblazing sculptor Eva Hesse, whom he had befriended five years earlier. Hesse, a disciple of Josef Albers and a pioneer of the postminimalist art movement of the 1960s, began suffering from creative block and self-doubt shortly after moving from New York to Germany with her husband. She reached out to her friend for counsel and consolation.

hesse_lewitt

The masterpiece of a response LeWitt wrote on April 14, 1965 was later included in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the magnificent anthology edited by Shaun Usher, which gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s luminous assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Hemingway’s tough-love advice on writing and life to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In his impassioned five-page missive, which remains the closest thing to a personal creative credo LeWitt ever committed to words, the 41-year-old artist writes to Hesse:

Page 1 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Page 1 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

Dear Eva,

It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just

DO

In a sentiment that calls to mind the central Buddhist notion of shunyata [emptiness] as a wellspring of wisdom, LeWitt urges Hesse to cease overthinking her art and abandon her attachments to what it must be:

Page 2 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Page 2 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing — clean — clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful — real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever — make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to

DO

LeWitt reminds Hesse that perfectionism kills creativity and, in a parallel to Jennifer Egan’s assertion that bad writing is “a way of priming the pump” for great writing, urges her to surrender the addiction to good work and use the bad as a springboard into the great:

Page 3 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Page 3 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working — then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to

DO

Echoing O’Keeffe’s insistence that the discipline of being an artist is about “catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life,” LeWitt concludes:

Pages 4 and 5 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Pages 4 and 5 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible — and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can — shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.

[…]

Much love to you both.

Sol

The following year, Hesse created “Hang-Up” — one of her most acclaimed and admired sculptures, of which she reflected:

It was the first time my idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through… It is the most ridiculous structure that I ever made and that is why it is really good.

This was LeWitt’s advice, made tangible and given form.

The two artists remained close friends and creative kindred spirits, exchanging ideas and influencing each other’s work, for the remainder of Hesse’s short life. She was slain by a brain tumor in 1970, at only thirty-four. Two days after her death, LeWitt created “Wall Drawing 46,” which he dedicated to his friend. With its minimalist multitude of textured non-straight lines — a graphic element he had never used before — the piece was a significant aesthetic shift for LeWitt, who would go on to incorporate non-straight lines in his subsequent work, crediting Hesse’s influence.

Wall Drawing 46
Wall Drawing 46

Complement this particular fragment of the endlessly rewarding Letters of Note with Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies” for overcoming creative block, John Steinbeck’s disciplined cure for self-doubt, and some of today’s most celebrated artists on creative courage and what it takes to be an artist.

Thanks, Wendy

BP

Leo Tolstoy on Love and Its Paradoxical Demands

“Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in the present has not love.”

Leo Tolstoy on Love and Its Paradoxical Demands

Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910) began tussling with the grandest questions of existence from an early age. As a young man, he struggled through his search for himself, learned the hard way about the moral weight of immoral motives, and confronted the meaning of human existence. By late middle age, his work had gained him worldwide literary acclaim, but had also managed to antagonize both church and state at home — the Russian government found his social, political, and moral views so worrisome that they censored him heavily and threatened imprisonment, while the Orthodox Church was so offended by his spiritual writings that they eventually excommunicated him.

What his homeland withheld the world gave and gave heartily — especially England, where a small but spirited Tolstoy fan base had mushroomed. The author’s devoted secretary and supporter, Vladimir Chertkov, who had landed in London in 1897 after being exiled from Russia, invested his resources and his enthusiasm for Tolstoy’s writing in the Free Age Press — a visionary publishing outfit he founded in Dorset, as spiritually and morally idealistic as Tolstoy himself, dedicated to promoting “reason, justice, and love” and “spreading the deepest convictions of the noblest spirits of every age and race.” The Free Age Press operated from the belief that life has an essential spiritual dimension and that “man’s true aim and happiness consists in unity in reason and love in place of the present insane and unhappy struggle which is bringing and can bring real good to no one.”

The Free Age Press was also a pioneering model for a culture built on sharing rather than ownership and on the understanding that sharing itself is what gives rise to culture. Their original mission statement read:

We earnestly trust that all who sympathize will continue to assist us in circulating these books. No private person has benefited or will benefit financially by the existence of The Free Age Press; the books are issued free of copyright, so that anyone may reprint them who wishes; and any profits made (necessarily small) will go to assist the same work in the Russian language. For the hundreds of kindly letters received from all parts of the world, and the practical help in publicity which has enabled us to circulate upwards of 200,000 booklets and 250,000 leaflets since July 1900, we are very grateful, and tender our hearty thanks.

Vladimir Chertkov working at the Free Age Press workshop, 1902
Vladimir Chertkov working at the Free Age Press workshop, 1902

The press began publishing Tolstoy’s spiritual and moral writings — works bowdlerized or entirely unpublished in Russia in his lifetime — standing as a powerful testament to Neil Gaiman’s assertion that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.” Among the most widely circulated of these works was Tolstoy’s On Life* (public library), originally written as Tolstoy approached his sixtieth birthday in 1888.

In one of the most poignant chapters of the book, Tolstoy examines our gravest misconceptions about love — what he bemoans as “the confused knowledge of men that in love there is the remedy for all the miseries of life,” which stems from our insufficient curiosity about the true meaning of our lives. At the center of his argument is a conceptual parallel to the ethos of the Free Age Press — the insight that sharing only increases the sum total of goodness; that the ownership-based impulse to withhold diminishes it; that love, in its grandest sense, is never a zero-sum game wherein the love we extend to one being is at the expense of another.

He writes:

Every man knows that in the feeling of love there is something special, capable of solving all the contradictions of life and of giving to man that complete welfare, the striving after which constitutes his life. “But it is a feeling that comes but rarely, lasts only a little while, and is followed by still worse sufferings,” say the men who do not understand life.

To these men love appears not as the sole and legitimate manifestation of life, as the reasonable consciousness conceives it to be, but only as one of the thousand different eventualities of life; as one of the thousand varied phases through which man passes during his existence.

[…]

For such people love does not answer to the idea which we involuntarily attach to the word. It is not a beneficent activity which gives welfare to those who love and for those who are loved.

Our self-harming delusions about the nature of love, Tolstoy argues, spring from our over-reliance on reason, which is invariably an imperfect faculty and can be led astray by our misbeliefs. (His compatriot Dostoyevsky had addressed this in a beautiful letter to his brother half a century earlier.) Tolstoy writes:

The activity of love offers such difficulties that its manifestations become not only painful, but often impossible. “One should not reason about love” — those men usually say who do not understand life — “but abandon oneself to the immediate feeling of preference and partiality which one experiences for men: that is the true love.”

They are right in saying that one should not reason about love, and that all reasoning about love destroys it. But the point is, that only those people need not reason about love who have already used their reason to understand life and who have renounced the welfare of the individual existence; but those who have not understood life and who exist for the welfare of the animal individuality, cannot help reasoning about it. They must reason to be enabled to give themselves up to this feeling which they call love.

Every manifestation of this feeling is impossible for them, without reasoning, and without solving unsolvable questions.

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Tolstoy’s 1852 book Nikolenka’s Childhood

Tolstoy turns to the central paradox of reconciling our inherent solipsism with the ethos of universal love. (Twenty years later, he would explore these issues in his little-known correspondence with Gandhi, with whom Tolstoy shared a profound spiritual kinship.) He writes:

In reality every man prefers his own child, his wife, his friends, his country, to the children, wives, friends, and country of others, and he calls this feeling love. To love means in general to do good. It is thus that we all understand love, and we do not know how to comprehend it in any other way. Thus, when I love my child, my wife, my country, I mean that I desire the welfare of my child, wife, and country more than that of other children, women, and countries. It never happens, and can never happen, that I love my child, wife, or country only. Every man loves at the same time his child, wife, country, and men in general. Nevertheless the conditions of the welfare which he desires for the different beings loved, in virtue of his love, are so intimately connected, that every activity of love for one of the beings loved not only hinders his activity for the others but is detrimental to them.

In a passage that calls to mind Hannah Arendt on the humanizing value of unanswerable questions, Tolstoy considers the inquiries that result from this paradox:

In the name of which love should I act and how should I act? In the name of which love should I sacrifice another love? Whom shall I love the most and to whom do the most good — to my wife, or to my children — to my wife and children, or to my friends? How shall I serve a beloved country without doing injury to the love for my wife, children, and friends?

Finally, how shall I solve the problem of knowing in what measure I can sacrifice my individuality, which is necessary to the service of others? To what extent can I occupy myself with my own affairs and yet be able to serve those I love? All these questions seem very simple to people who have not tried to explain this feeling they call love — but, far from being simple, they are quite unsolvable.

Out of these unanswerable questions, he suggests, arises an awareness and, finally, an acceptance of the multiplicity and variousness of love. This, in turn, furnishes the understanding of love’s essential nature not as a hypothetical conceit but as an active state of being — or, to borrow the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s term, “interbeing” with others — necessarily grounded in the present moment:

The demands of love are so many, and they are all so closely interwoven, that the satisfaction of the demands of some deprives man of the possibility of satisfying others. But if I admit that I cannot clothe a child benumbed with cold, on the pretence that my children will one day need the clothes asked of me, I can also resist other demands of love in the name of my future children.

[…]

If a man decides that it is better for him to resist the demands of a present feeble love, in the name of another, of a future manifestation, he deceives either himself or other people, and loves no one but himself.

Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in the present has not love.

On Life is a spirit-rousing read in its totality. Complement it with Tolstoy on personal growth, human nature, how to find meaning when life seems meaningless, what separates good art from bad, and his reading list of essential books for every stage of life, then revisit the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s timeless experiment in love.

* Curiously, the 2009 digital edition of On Life by an English publisher called White Crow Books bears this affront to the spirit and explicit anti-copyright ethos of the Free Age Press: “All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction, in any manner, is prohibited.”

BP

What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart

“The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing.”

What Makes a Hero and the True Measure of the Human Spirit: Walter Lippmann’s Stunning Tribute to Amelia Earhart

What is it that gives the human spirit wings to soar above the trenches of tradition, above the flatlands of convention, above even the highest peaks of the probable into ever-greater altitudes of possibility?

That’s what the great journalist and essayist Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) explores in a beautiful piece published in his New York Herald Tribune column, Today and Tomorrow, on July 8, 1937 — six days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind a decades-long comet tail of courage that has since inspired generations.

Lippmann’s requiem, eventually included in The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy (public library), stands as a counterpart, perhaps even a precondition, to Alexander Flexner’s wonderful defense of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.” What Lippmann crafts is a beautiful case for the usefulness of useless curiosity and courage, through the sieve of which all truly useful knowledge and human achievement must pass.

Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann

Half a century before Joseph Campbell conceived of his eleven stages of the hero’s journey and before pioneering biochemist lamented how how the excessive pragmatization of science is sapping its courage and poetic curiosity, Lippmann considers the heroism of unbridled curiosity:

I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.

But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger numbers who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done.

Writing on the cusp of World War II, Lippmann admonishes against mistaking force for fortitude and argues that “synthetic heroes” and “men in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guards” are the measure not of humanity’s strength but of our weakness. Heroes like Amelia Earhart offer a different, truer conception of courage. He writes:

It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart

Lippmann ends with a sentiment that transcends Earhart’s particular feat and extends to triumphs of the human spirit as diverse as the invention of the world’s first computer, the first polar expeditions, and the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime:

The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.

Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.

No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.

All of Lippmann’s cultural observations gathered in The Essential Lippmann emanate these transcendent overtones of lyrical and lucid idealism. Complement this particular portion with this modern manifesto for nurturing tomorrow’s Amelias and Earhart herself on marriage, motivation and human nature, and sticking up for yourself.

For a contemporary embodiment of Lippmann’s “useless, brave, noble… divinely foolish… very wisest” pursuits, devour the exhilarating story of LIGO and the quest to detect gravitational waves.

Thanks, Dawn

BP

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