Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katherine Mitchell at Sandler Hudson Gallery

At Katherine Mitchell’s Sandler Hudson Gallery talk (12/19/09) an enthusiastic group of old friends and fans were treated to some background to new work, which was unusual for Katherine for its text-presence. In the course of the talk she read from some of the text that had worked its way onto the canvas and paper works in the show. The paintings still carried Katherine’s familiar visual dignity but I found myself scribbling notes when she read quotes from prominent thinkers. The thought occurred to me that here are really smart people putting their impressive minds to the issues of art, intuition, beauty etc; and yet what we end with is occasional insights embedded in an intellectual fog. I decided to explore this further.

Bertrand Russell said something to the effect that, in reading, what sometimes initially appears difficult is merely muddled. That’s the feeling I get when I read art theory. Donald Kuspit for example always seemed so erudite to me with his references to transcendental consciousness, meaning in art etc; He once wrote that what Minimal Art claimed as its project, being in the moment, is actually a memory of what just happened. It’s close to NOW but not quite. I thought that was insightful at the time but now it seems off. The thought about something that just happened is about the past but being here/now isn’t about thinking about being, it’s being itself which is nowhere else but now.

This goes a long way, for me, toward unmuddling what art is about. Some theorists claim that the primary attribute in Art, dividing good from bad, is a display of skill. Others dismiss this as conservative and actually an obstacle to authentic art. I would suggest that what people are after in this attempt to distinguish good from bad art is to articulate this: that art coming out of presence is recognized as such by those with ample grounding in being – those who have had the frequent experience of moving into the present where the enjoyment of being escapes motor mind.

If you’re not present you’ll be possessed by ego which means being judgmental, comparing, seeking to feel superior, thinking thinking thinking whereas if you’re present you’ll detect the authentic or you’ll recognize the inauthentic productions of the ego, or perhaps a mix. Just as the religious acolyte glimpses “god” but then becomes entangled in theology, so the art seeker glimpses authenticity and attempts explanation in the canon of aesthetics.

Croce talked about the difference between ordering a pizza and Shakespeare as being a matter of complexity not kind. The effort made to make sense of sensory data, to interpret the world to Croce was art at the most basic level. This appealed to me for a long time. Perhaps what he was attempting to describe was the act of creation that occurs out of the state of stillness or presence. In the now you enjoy, no need to do anything… until you are moved to a creative act. And that act reflects the intelligence out of which it flows, to which presence connects us, and is recognized by others when they are attuned to that intelligence through awareness, cessation of mind-chatter - obsession with past, future, fantasy and anxiety.

In support of this notion, one of Katherine’s sources, Cezanne, our father who art in heaven, cautioned, “One must eschew that literary spirit which is so often divergent from the true voice of painting…in order not to get lost too long in interminable speculation.“ The true voice of painting (creativity) is not thinking, nor suffering but being.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ways and Means

Beach Seen, oil painting by Tom Ferguson (images stolen from daughter's sketch books)

What is the best way to arrest our skid toward extinction? How to live an ethical life? How do we advance “spiritually”? How do we create the shift necessary to avoid nuclear war, war in general, alleviate poverty, eliminate pollution and unsustainable practices? I have always been suspicious of one-sentence answers to big questions but Tolle’s take on things overcomes my skepticism as it embodies the beauty of simplicity, a strategy to address the full range of important issues that plague the human family. As with all simple answers elaboration is required.

Seems whatever question you ask Tolle the answer is presence. How do I respond to my perception that the momentum of history is leading us toward extinction? That the quest for profits, power and privilege is devouring the life system? That the most successful in that quest use their considerable influence to insure that no alternative gets a fair hearing, that their preferred mode undergoes no serious questioning. This is accomplished via their ownership of media and disproportionate impact on the political system and other institutional life?

We can use our minds to create strategies to propagate alternatives, we might do that, what we are inspired to do out of presence is not predictable which is why Tolle doesn’t advocate specific actions like blocking logging operations, whaling ships, war materials and demonstrations. Get present, then, connected to the self-evident intelligence out of which flows evolution, you’ll know what to do. It could be those actions, it could be others, but it is known only through stillness.

On some level reality can be conceived as a frequency array. Human consciousness, or unconsciousness, can be seen as part of this array, anger vibrating at a different frequency than affection, judgment different from acceptance… and presence, the state of non-thinking awareness, is a frequency we can call joy or peace. An agitated angry self-righteous demand for peace is little different, frequency-wise, than a similar demand for war. The frequency array is shifted by mere presence and one’s contribution to that is the ultimate form of activism. Presence is the state we are in when obsessive thinking is stilled. That is attained by simply noticing the chatter, bringing it into consciousness where it dissolves.

Now in presence, in the stillness of being, there eventually comes an impulse, an enthusiasm to act and that is the answer to the question, what to do.