Magda, a Tai Chi friend and I were sitting outside in the late spring sun at a wonderful sheltered café yesterday after class.  We were talking about the discipline of learning Tai Chi.

I keep seeing parallels between tai chi and calligraphy. But I get stuck on the fact that Tai chi demands a traditional repetition of form, as does calligraphy, but with calligraphy I find this restrictive and with Tai Chi it is not.  I guess I feel that the goal of learning calligraphy is to not just parrot the letters but to eventually use them to express yourself. So creativity is a goal for learning the technique. With Tai Chi, creativity isn’t a goal, but still something similar is at play here .

Magda commented that the deeper you get into Tai Chi practice, the more you realize that learning to do the form (Tai Chi ‘form’ is the sequence of movements) is not the end goal.

She pointed out that through disciplined practice of Tai Chi, you move beyond the form. You no longer have to think consciously about the movements, the movements become a channel for the energy as it moves through you and around you.  But to experience this one first has to master (to some degree) the movements.

Our whole class is at the point where we can all do Tai Chi in a flowing decorative way that would impress anyone who knew nothing about it.  And every new student aspires to this goal of external appearance and achievement. But once there, you either quit because as a goal in itself it is dead ended. Or you hit a wall because you realize how little you really know.

If you stay with the practice regardless, and just keep going, eventually it all opens out again in a new way. Your teacher points out how the tineist adjustments to thought and movement can radically change your experience of your own body and thus the form.  It becomes an ongoing journey of learning and deepening.  The form is not the end goal, but the medium for discovering about energy as it flows up from the earth through your body, or from the stars down to your toes. It teaches you about how your joints function, and how to use them better, You learn how to distribute your weight, how to hold your head, how to maintain a relaxed tension deep in the muscles, so every gesture is loaded with grace and power.  Tai Chi touches on so many aspects of life: your health,  your emotional well being,  your balance,  how your body uses energy, your concentration, your mental picture of yourself, how you relate to the space around you, how you stand and walk, how you relate to others, your weak and strong points. It is endless.

I suppose calligraphy too could be approached as a spiritual practice of sorts.  Because in the end, all these disciplines- Tai Chi, calligraphy, dance music, writing, alternative therapies, etc,  are just keys to universal truths that seem to run throughout all of life. You just have to be alert to them, and practice seems to be one effective way of achieving that.

Thank you for coming to our show today.

There are two art worlds; The first one  is the world full of hype, attitude, jockeying for position, celebrity artists, and jacked up prices.  There are  opportunists, including many artists,  who have made obscene amounts of money in this arena- Damien Hirst and his diamond skull are one example. But Hirst would not have been able to play his elaborate game, if there hadn’t been a context for it in the insanity of the contemporary art world.

The way I see art has little  to do with this aspect of art as commerce.   Like countless other artists working today, I work quietly outside of the spotlight to follow my inner vision where it will lead.

The majority of artists  work at poverty level, but they keep going. With little or no government or social support of any kind, in a world where art at best is seen as some sort of luxury irrelevant to real life, these people keep on a true course anyway.  What are they doing, why is the strength of their vision indispensable to human society if it is going to survive these times?

In short art is the last domain of the soul in our society. Artists work in order to bring human qualities into this cynical hyper-technical, soulless society- this wasteland we’ve created together.  Every day artists perfect technique, make things that take time, strive for excellence, create meaning, preserve stories, and nourish fantasy and imagination. Are these things not as important as the newest model of the iPod? If there weren’t music there would be no need for new technology to play it!

Life evolves through creative processes. Creativity is what brings change, growth and renewal to individuals and systems. If children learned to think creatively in schools do you think our systems would be as rusted up and rigidly stuck as they are now?

The creative process is finding its way into, among others, the health care systems. Why? Because creativity is in itself a healing process, it makes whole. It continually reconnects us with the best in ourselves that we may recognize and express it. Our economic system tells us we are inherently greedy and selfish. The arts remind us that we are compassionate, and altruistic at heart.  Music, art, theatre, poetry literature tell us that there is greatness  and beauty in humans, in each of us.

When you look around at our art today, you may wonder how you will know it is good. But you do know. Art isn’t good or bad, it is true (or not). Look at a picture and try to feel what was true for the artists, does it speak to some truth in your own soul?

Reclaim your right to determine what is beautiful or meaningful to you, don’t go by some external authority’s word.

You can look at all this work for free. But you can do something fine for yourself and for art if you buy something as well. If you see a piece that makes you light up inside, then buy it. James Krenov, a master cabinetmaker said that buying fine art or craft, you get a piece of an honest artist/craftsman’s life. A slice of their unique story, a gift that has been given to them and now lives on in your life.

By buying an art work that has meaning for you, you are adding to the meaning of life, you are suporting art as a repository of soul and human culture, and you are making it possible for the artist to surive materially so she can keep on working.

I was invited to donate some artwork to a charity art auction. I gave two rather large pastels, and to my surprise and disappointment, they were returned to me unsold.  The work wasn’t  my very best, but  it wasn’t  bad either. It was certainly many times better than the visual vomit I’d recently seen on some gallery walls.

What was happening here?  The best-seller from the auction was a woman who is always in the local papers with her art.  Other pieces that sold were by ‘names’ known in the art world locally.

Therefore, people only bought art  because they had seen the artist in the media, therefore that was Real Artist, and the work must be ‘good’, or at least a good investment. 

How did we all get to this point? When did art become an exclusive domain where only the initiated few are in the know and everyone else has to trust an expert’s judgement to tell them whether the art they were looking at was ‘good’ or not?

 There is a long answer and a short one. The long one can be read in Suzi Gablik’s,’ Has Modernism failed?’  Here is the short one:

Artists work in the realm of  intangible realities, and these are relegated to the margins in our society (ie, you can’t make money with them very easily, and they have no recognizable function).  Because children get no structural education in creative process, most grow up ignorant of art processes;  then the arts are delegated exclusively to the artists.   

Artists work from an inner vision, rather than an external criteria. Therefore in most cases the authority for judging the work is artist herself, or fellow artists, or art critics.  To people not versed in symbolic language and gesture, much art is incomprehensible using logical faculties. But art speaks to the right brain sensibilities which in most people are underdeveloped.  It takes time and a certain sensitivity to get inside an artwork to the point where it will speak to you.  Very few people have developed this quality of attention. So we get a siutation where the average person is left on the outside of the arts. 

Various sensation seeking  artists have abused this situation in the past, by creating purposely horrible, vulgar,  or vacuous art- sometimes as a statement, but also as a way to shock and gain media attention.  All of this behaviour is supported by our commercial, greedy, sensation-oriented society. If that weren’t in place certain artist personalities couldn’t play into it.

But most artists are dedicated individuals who work quietly in their studios creating beautiful meaningful objects. They don’t make waves, so are invisible.  These artists in the past usually had a few regular buyers, enough to meet their survival needs anyway.

But these days, art is so completely accepted as a product, that unless the artist is adept in business, there is no way to earn even a minimum income from one’s work.

Going back to the auction, the art that sold was by recognized artists because people have abdicated their right to judge whether they find a piece of art good or not.

This implies that other professional artists, as good as or better than the more media -visible ones,  need to work at making a name in order to sell their work. ‘Making a name’  is a dialogue between wallet and wallet. Art is a dialogue between souls.

From Lewis Hyde’s  book, ‘The gift, Imagination and the erotic life of property’:

A work of art is a gift, not a commodity…Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange .


Why I do my Tai Chi

May 2, 2009

I am currently writing an article for a professional journal on dementia care. It is about the creative process in relation to this area. And I am having a hard time. So much of what I want to say, even though it is about intangibles, has been proven out by my day to day experience as an artist. Yet will require practical reasoned out arguments to explain this to  a scientifically educated public.

What they need to do to understand what I’m saying is not read an article, but pick up paints and tackle a canvas, or move to music, or sculpt a piece of stone.

Artists learn to value process over product, that is where the learning and alchemy take place. What touched me so profoundly in the ‘Cellist of Sarajevo’ was the huge power of an intended gesture. The cellist himself probably didn’t even know exactly why he put his life in danger every day for 3 weeks to play in a war zone- to memorialize people he didn’t even know. The ‘why’s’ are not important. What was important was the potency of such a commitment, and the way it touched and transformed countless others.  Music was a perfect answer to, ‘How can we overcome hate , fear, and death?’

There is a YouTube clip which shows Antwerp train station, busy and noisy. All at once, a song from a musical plays over the loud speakers. About a minute after that,  one of the travellers breaks out in a dance, He is joined by a little girl;  the dance, beautifully choreographed and obviously  professional, takes on more and more people, until there are probably more dancers than public.  It is a heart stopping moment of beauty and seeming spontaneity.

One of the more dull comments under the clip asked,’Well, what was the purpose of this’?  

We need to leave behind our literal mindedness and make room for poetry and enchantment in every day life.

What is the ‘purpose’ of doing my Tai Chi in the mornings when I don’t feel much like it?  Do I do it for the positive effect it is supposed to have on my health? Or as a meditation? Or as a routine?

 I do my Tai Chi because I do my Tai Chi.  And once in a while, I do my Tai Chi as a prayer to life, or a memorial to  a dead friend. And I do the movements to reconnect me to the place that has nothing to do with writing articles, ageing, career, household tasks. It is the part that is one with the new cherry blossoms, the waves in the sea,  the hiss of stars on a summer night. The big sun and big moon and all the seasons.

And I remember.


May 2, 2009

Continued from previous post,  The Cellist of Sarajevo.

What is a wasteland?  A place where people live inauthentic lives.

How do you heal a wasteland?

Live an authentic life. (Joseph Campbell)

When you do your art, you need to do it for one reason, and one reason only. Because it is important for you to do it.  And when you look back on your life, you will remember how you were true to your vision and you will be content.

People may not understand your gesture or your painting, but those ready for it will be moved. They will be led back to the best in themselves and their belief in the ‘capacity for good’ in the world and in themselves will be affirmed. 

Art is the language humans use to create meaning.

What could be more important now?  In her poem Wage Peace, Judyth Hill answered the terror of 9/11 by urging us to pick up our tools. She was asking us to create authentic work and authentic lives.

Your art isn’t about how many hits your site gets, or about an award, Twitter or Facebook popularity contests. It isn’t about being the next hype on Etsy. Your art could be about  about healing yourself and your world.  Each of us has the choice to live in the Wasteland or change it.

During the siege of Sarajevo, a concert musician was witness to a shelling just outside his building. 22 people standing in line at a bakery were killed.

He responded to this event by taking his cello out to the scene of the massacre and playing Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings for 22 days: one day for each victim of the shelling. He was aware that he was in direct line of more shelling and easy prey for snipers.

Steven Galloway wrote, ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’,  based on this story.

Somehow this writer has captured the essence of why humans make art and how it affects us at our deepest core. 
Arrow,  young woman turned sniper in an effort to protect the city from the army that holds Sarajevo in siege, is appointed to protect the cellist during this strange ritual. 

‘The cellist confuses her. She doesn’t know what he hopes to achieve with his playing. He can’t believe he will stop the war. He can’t believe he will save lives’.

She wonders if he is insane but doesn’t think so. She has heard him play and the music moved her profoundly.

‘She tells herself she will not allow this man to die. He will finish what he is doing. It isn’t important whether she understands what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. She does understand it’s important, and that is enough.’

Later Kenan,  a middle aged man, on a dangerous and harrowing journey through the bombed out city to collect water for his family, hears faint music. He follows it for a few blocks and comes to the spot where the cellist is playing. Several people have gathered around and are listening quietly.  He had heard of this from someone and at the time had thought it a bit silly, a bit maudlin:

‘What could the man possibly hope to accomplish by playing music in the street. It wouldn’t bring anyone back from the dead, it wouldn’t  feed anyone, wouldn’t replace one brick. It was a foolish gesture, he thought, a pointless exercise in futility’.

None of this matters to Kenan anymore, he stares at the cellist, and feels himself relax and the music seeps into him’.

 While he listens, he sees in his inner eye the buildings slowly losing the scars of bullets, they are covered with smooth plaster and paint, windows reassemble, around him people stand up straight once again, and their faces gain colour.

Kenan watches as his city heals itself around him. The cellist continues to play…..

‘Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears.  [all the violence and hatred she had witnessed and taken part in] could not have happened. But she knew these notes. They told her that everything had happened exactly as she knew it had… No grief or rage or noble act could undo it. But it could all have been stopped. It was possible. The men on the hills didn’t have to be murderers. The men in the city didn’t have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn’t have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that’.