Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Keep the faith; forget the rest!

Rule number 2 comes right after Rule number 1(which is that there are no rules). 

Rule number 2:make yourself; don't let anyone else make you anything, because they can't without your consent. Don't let anyone make you unhappy, or crazy, or the bad guy, or a guru, or a saint, or a black sheep, and especially: don't let anyone make you a rebel! Rebels are condemned to servitude. Slaves. B to the other's A. A goes left and B can only go right. That is the sad myth of the rebel. They will never be free; they will always be fighting for freedom, which of course means what: that they aren't free. This stuff bears repeating.

Art has always been the sanctuary of the rebel. Art attracts rebels like San Francisco attracts crazies. Where else can they go? But the rebel is a myth. The rebel is B to the oppositions A. The rebel is in opposition. Don't be a rebel! The rebel is the classic victim, just in denial. The rebel deludes themselves into thinking that they are powerful, when the opposite is true. They are the victim.

So many of us think everything is paper/plastic. That we have no choices. Just two options. Either/or. For or against. Paper/plastic. The classic Western dichotomy, although the Easterns have their version of the black and white polemic: yin and yang. The Greeks saddled us with this thing, this symmetry, this duality, this either or. But we have to consent to it to make it true, to make it our master. To say that it is the ultimate male construct probably goes without saying. It is the way our minds work best because it is the ultimate oversimplification, and the ultimate neurosis as a result. It is the ultimate mind game. Men have historically been frustrated by the failure of women and children to get on board with this. On board is part of it. It takes consent, or force.

It is the fork in the road. I'm really guilty of that one. I'm always talking about the fork in the road. It took my family to get me to get back to myself, to get back to my off-road self. Life often seems to place us at the fork in the road, but it is what one might call the established authority that wants us to accept this dilemma-oriented view of life. If we conform, make the correct choice, we are good, accepted, in the flock; but if we make the other turn, the bad choice, against the grain, then we are rebel, cast out. We are not free. Door one and we are embraced, door two and we get shunned. It doesn't matter what is behind either door, really. At a different time and place they can actually switch. 

Again, consent is the thing. I've told this story before. When I was a kid I didn't do my homework. I figured they took enough of my time when I was in school, and when I went home I had better things to do. I went in my studio and painted. At Exeter I did the same thing. It caused a stir. I skipped sports after lunch and went to the art building and painted. I made my own choice. I wasn't rebelling. I had something better to do. You have to just say get out of my way. People flip out. Teachers, headmasters, they flip out. Anarchy! What if everyone did that? That is always the argument, isn't it? Well, let's find out, no?

So was I oblivious? What is that? Can you be more aware by choosing a form of obliviousness? I believe we can choose to preserve qualities like innocence and this obliviousness. I think another word for these things might be faith. When you're out in the middle of the ocean or a lake, well, you could drown. What is going to get you to shore? Swimming hard, yes, but maybe not. If you can float, you can take your time and find your way. Floating is the best way to find your center, your breath, your faith. The "I can do this." You can't panic. You can't lose your breath. I know about this. I've drowned.

There is a cartoon of a guy in hell whistling and one devil says to the other "We aren't getting to this guy."  I've always related to it. I was that guy. It is the do your own thing no matter what or where you find yourself thing. It is survivors who didn't let surviving or the thing they survived define them; and these people are often described as people of faith. Faith is a hell of a thing, no pun intended. It is not rational. You get on a plane and it is a hunk of metal that sometimes goes down. Faith is not denial. Faith does not say we are not going to crash. Faith says, if we crash, then it has been a great ride! Faith does not mask reality. Faith accepts that thing about reality about which we have no control. I accepted the consequences of not doing my homework or not going to sports. You make your choices and you live with them. If other people are jumping up and down about it, well, that is their choice. We can't get caught up in what others are jumping up and down about no matter how much they try to make us.

So here comes my Richard Tuttle Asshole moment no. 322. It really bugged Tuttle that I didn't conform to these sorts of forks in the road. He would chuckle about my naive belief that I didn't have to be a rebel, that I just did my own thing. He called it me trying to change the system from within, which he didn't believe was possible.  Anyway, I wasn't trying to make that kind of change. The rebel kind. Richard was a rebel. So Richard would try to teach me some protocol. He even gave me a demonstration of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, complete with priceless tea bowls in his crappy 11th Avenue apartment where he lived like a hillbilly. He tried to impress upon me that if you didn't do the right number of turns of the bowl, you were insulting your host beyond belief. I didn't care. I wasn't impressed. Richard's neurosis was that once you know the rules you only have two choices; to accept or reject them. To go along or rebel. 

This sort of thinking is a trap of course. The great philosophical trap. It is a closed construct. You can't get on the outside according to the powers that be.  Faith here is absurd. Faith is anathema. It was to Tuttle. Bush thinking: you're either for us or against us. He, Tuttle, tried to teach me some reality, some "ways of the world" stuff,  some protocol, some etiquette, some manners that my parents had apparently overlooked. He was so frustrated that I failed to accept the logic of this "the way things are done" stuff that he thought was so inescapable, that he finally shunned me. His parting words were scribbled on a drawing he sent me:"I don't want to be your alter ego." How telling. How perfect. 

Of course  I never consented to be his alter ego, anymore than I ever consented to do my homework. This was not my idea, it was his. I couldn't make him be my alter ego. That required his consent. He set himself up as a guru all by himself. He misunderstood my curiosity. I never consented to the guru thing. I had something better to do. I was being his friend. One of many, of course. I often refer to him as my one and only mentor precisely because he turned out not to be a friend. I knew plenty of older artist friends who somehow thought that they were my mentors, but not so. I only thought of them as friends. I suppose it would be accurate to describe Tuttle as someone I once knew a little that talked with me a lot. And I liked that. I like conversation.

But...consent is the thing!

Make yourself. Don't let anyone make you anything. If that makes you weird to them, then so be it. It doesn't make you weird or a rebel because they call you that. This is your life. If you are an artist you can do what you like, what you believe, what you love, what you are curious about, what you can imagine, what you feel. You can do what you feel like. I grew up being constantly informed that doing what you felt like was bad and selfish, and having a mind of your own was not a good thing but instead a nuisance. 

I didn't conform to these people, but I didn't rebel either. I just did what I did, and strangely enough always managed to prove them wrong, without intending to do so. I had better things to do. Your choices don't have to be to conform or rebel. Life is round. It is a rainbow of colors. If everyone in the room thinks you should be one thing or another, that is their problem. If they get angry, or punish you, or shun you, that is their problem. It only becomes your problem with your consent. Don't give it. Have faith. Have better things to do. 

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Beyond Work

We have no use for things that don't work. That's understood. Cars, lamps, plumbing, and yes, even paintings, they have to work or we have no use for them. They are just wasting space. Garbage. 

There are a lot of people who only talk about whether or how paintings work, however, and I find this at the very least, distasteful. I can't help it, it's just something you don't talk about as far as I'm concerned. Again, I don't know how else to say it; it is in bad taste. I heard about someone who on their blind date couldn't accept a gift of chocolates because it gave them, you know, I'm sorry, I can't even spell the word. It isn't squeamishness, we all get it, know about it, but you don't talk about it, especially in the same sentence with chocolate! These are plumbing issues! You just see that they are taken care of. Things have to work. It is understood.  Beyond that we have to be... beyond that. Needless to say the blind date didn't get to first base.

The same is true in painting. These people who talk about whether and how something works don't get to first base. The critics, and teachers, and students, and artists who talk about this stuff never understand why they never get asked out again.

Painting, even when it is about nature, is the language of the unseen. It is what people need to be talking about but never do. It is like love. No one, except maybe the French, ha ha, talk about it. You have these people who meet, apparently fall in love, shack up, get married, move to the burbs, and the subject never comes up again. It is why they are together in the first place, but it never comes up again and they wonder why they go insane. Just yesterday I heard about a person who makes her children play an instrument. They have to take lessons and practice. No talk about love. Loving the music. Loving the instrument. Loving the sound, the way it makes them feel. It's like they want them to be able to do it without love in the first place, so that when they let the love die, they won't miss it. Again, needless to say, the kids quit their instruments and music as soon as they could.

This was another asshole moment, number 489, that I had with my mentor, the artist Richard Tuttle, when I was a very young painter.  He had the same protestant hang-up work ethic thing. He hated these people who loved art and loved making it. Of course I was one, and he hated that about me and tried to grind it out of me. 

If this guy on his blind date had spoken the language of love, he would be shacked up right now with a do not disturb sign on his door. Art is like the language of love. You have to be there, or you're just crazy in the burbs.

Nobody talks about this stuff though. They just talk about whether things work. Dry basements. That sort of shit. Sorry.  That's the thing, no one ever talks about what's on the inside. They act like THAT is in bad taste. Fine to talk about plumbing, but dont' talk love. That is the messy thing. 

Everybody is just talking about the wrapping on the package. You meet people, and you can see that they have maybe taken care of their exterior. It is painted. Pretty front door. Maybe some nice plants or flowers, but what women don't understand about men is that men are going to have to go inside at some point.  When men grow up, smarten up, they start getting hunches about what it is like in there before they rush inside. Young men and fools rush in. What is it like in there? Who is home? Is it warm and sweet and smart and comfortable, or is it icy, is there a cold draft, is it dark and scary, is it toxic? Is there screaming coming from the basement. The same is true for men, of course, and the complaint is that usually the door is rusted shut and the lights are out. Better to just sit on the porch.

The really tough thing about painting is that for all the talk about good art, and good painting, when mercifully you get past the part about whether it works or not, it is really subjective. It is about whether you like it or not. It is. You can't get around this. Nobody wants to admit it but it is true. It comes down to whether or not someone likes it, and who those people are. Are they people in high places with power? That's all. Are there enough people in high places with power that like it? Lots? This is hard for people to accept. It is just the way it is. Now there are lots of reasons why people like things, and it is a little like the sausage metaphor, you are happier not knowing. 

That's the thing. People don't want to know. They want to get in the car and have it drive. They want to turn on the light and read. They want to flush the toilet and have that bad stuff gone(except the French, ironically. They interpret their shit because it tells them what is going on with their health and well-being)! People want to have a painting sit there and work!( The fact that the French can talk about love and art might explain why they are so smart, dammit,  and why everyone, even Republicans, love Paris.)

You make paintings and either people go or they don't go. They like them or they don't. The other stuff is politics and power. Everyone likes a winner. If you are a winner, they like you no matter what. They want you around. They want it to rub off. But painting is not a race. It is not a contest. You can't cross the finish line first. When it is all said and done it is just whether what you've done is appreciated by the people looking at it. And then of course, who are the people looking at it. If you're making sushi for people who want pizza you're going to have a lot of rotting food on your hands. Either make pizza, or move to somewhere where people love sushi, OR, just make enough sushi for yourself because you're the only one whose going to be eating it. Makes sense, right. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. You can make the best sushi in the world but if they want pizza you're out of luck. You can't force people to eat anything. 

So don't think you're going to win people over to your sushi if you make enough of it. I know artists with warehouses filled with sushi hoping everybody is going to start appreciating it; and then of course they will be ready. Hey, I make sushi because I like it, and I make enough for me and my family and friends.  I don't expect to have anyone else like it. I don't suffer because no one else likes it. I only suffer if people I care about who I think care about me are unkind. I don't care if they don't like my sushi and would rather have pizza. I figure they aren't going to starve. You can get pizza anywhere. 

Just for the record, if people want pizza, then pizza it is, no ifs, ands, or buts. Love that pizza. I would never suggest in a million years that they shouldn't want that pizza and want sushi instead. Also, and just as important, artists want people to eat up what ever they are making whether it is pizza or sushi. They want people to eat it up, love it, rub their tummies and beg for more and tell their friends! Of course this is true! Never believe otherwise.

There are other questions of course. Like the questions of the day. What's in the air. What's on our plates. But in the end we do what we do. Morandi painted jars through two world wars and I think there was a shift in hue. James Joyce's wife asked him why he didn't write books people wanted to read. Well, the answer is simple. He had bigger fish to fry. He was writing for literature and for history(if you look back you'll see that a lot of that kind had to self-publish to get their work in print) , and that is a whole other blog.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Original Sin

As an artist your best friend is self-awareness. You need to know your weaknesses as much and as well as your strengths just the same way that an athlete must. How else can you grow and get any better?

What am I talking about? Every field has some version of this idea that we are imperfect, and that only by paying attention to this imperfection can we not only function, but thrive. Catholics have original sin, the Greeks had the Achilles Heel, psychologists have normal neurosis, basketball has the weak side, the military has the weak flank, literature has Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and environmentalists have the carbon footprint. Everybody has a carbon footprint; it is just a question of how bad it is. Everybody is neurotic, it is just a question of how neurotic. And here is the kicker; everybody has an asshole! 

The point about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is that the more you fake it, the more you pretend that that asshole isn't you, the worse it gets. You will be an even bigger asshole!

Artists, unfortunately, are treated like children a lot of times. Creative creatures who know not what they do. Not only does this not have to be, it isn't in the artist's best interest.  I have a hard time believing that artists are better artists because they are more self-delusional. The notion that if an artist knew better they wouldn't either be an artist in the first place, or they would somehow be a lesser artist, is absurd.

The other day I had someone praising me for the good things I had done for them. It was a scary and sobering moment, for them and me, when I just told them I was just trying to follow the Golden Rule: treating other people they way I would like to be treated. By saying this two things happened. First I came down off some pedestal that this person was trying to put me on, and second, by coming off that pedestal and being just like them, I raised a second question, which was why weren't they thinking and doing the same thing. It was an icy moment. I knew it and they knew it, although I had never intended it, and they never acknowledged it. I didn't realize the implications of what I was saying until I said it. In an instant I made them look bad. In the process of being real and not letting them put me 0n a pedestal (a way of  distancing me and my good deed), I made them look worse. I was doing right by them, and the question then became, then hung in the air like a bad smell, were they doing right by me, and if not, why not?

This was an incredible revelation for me. It explains a lot. Like why no good deed goes unpunished and why half the time the first thing that happens is that the person pisses on you for doing right by them. I couldn't figure this out for the longest time. These things are connected. Do you see the connection? 

Running out the clock is not an option. If you do that in the Hindu world you reincarnate as a lower form of being. You go backwards. Denial makes that happen. Faking it makes that happen. Feeling sorry for yourself: being the victim when you're really the bad guy, makes that happen. Dressing things up instead of undressing them makes that happen. Undress them and you know what you've got, you know where you stand.

I have to say that some of my favorite people have been assholes. The kind that don't hide it. I felt I could generally expect better things from them. I could hear the truth from them. I could know where I stood. I think people in general like these people for this reason. Even Marilyn Monroe, who was so beautiful to so many, really got to people because she exposed her vulnerability. She was amazing, but she wasn't perfect, she showed us her weakness. 

The wheels are coming off the wagon these days, and maybe they will all come off. All of these "perfect" people have been or are being exposed. Regular people feel better for it. The genius Madoff is really a crook. Martha Stewart is a phony and a bitch. Oprah Winfrey has food issues. Barry Bonds took performance enhancing drugs. America has been exposed to the world. We're a mess. If we keep faking it or even worse, fake it more, we'll be an even bigger mess. We're becoming Dr Jykell and Mr Hyde.  Our cover-ups and double standards have not just widened the schism,  they have enlarged our collective asshole. Instead of the Golden Rule, we apparently live by something more like: what's in it for me.  When Jimmy Carter challenged us to be more self-aware as a country, we threw him out and hired an actor to take his place. It is clear this president intends to challenge us as well. 

Self-flagellation and regrets aren't the answer. Feeling bummed out about our weaknesses and mistakes just reinforces them. As artists we have to see what we do in the clear morning light. We have to think harder about the quality of the meal we are making, not just how it tastes, and how it makes us feel, but what it does to make us better. Tolstoy laid it out there: art is food for the soul. Yes, we are all sinners, we all have Achilles's Heels, we are all neurotic, we all have carbon footprints, we all have assholes. What are we going to do with that? Dress it up, fake it, or look hard at what we are doing as artists and do the right thing, what ever that may be.

So what are we doing as artists? Are we trying to be successful? Are we trying to be famous? Are we trying to carve out a piece of turf for ourselves and then hold on with all our might? Are we lashing out at an unfair and uncaring world? Are we goofing off? Are we waiting for the bell to ring/running out the clock? Are we sugar coating a dog turd? Are we wacking off? Are we moralizing/preaching to the choir? Are we keeping to what we already know? Are we trying to shock? Are we pandering? Are we hiding out? Are we sulking? Are we sheep, or worse, lemmings? Are we taking stuff for granted? Are we stubborn instead of determined? Are we in it for ourselves? Are we poison instead of elixir? Are we problem instead of solution? Just how much of an asshole are we? Are we wasting our time? Are we sharing? Are we using our gift for giving or are we just blowing our own horn? Are we making really good soul food? Are we?