Home

What we really need more of

December 7, 2016

I’m writing this one off the top of my head, no research, not a lot of links, etc., though I’ve written about the topic extensively in my book in progress.

A very young child appears on Idols or on YouTube and a talent is discovered. Take Jonathan, a three year old at the time the video of him was put online, ‘conducting’ a Beethoven symphony in the living room.  It was hysterical, but also so fresh, so open and completely uninhibited. Picking his nose (gratefully most of that was cut out), and at the end, losing his balance and giggling uncontrollably on his back on the carpet as only a 3 year old can.

Couple of years later- Jonathan at 5 in a tux  conducting a real orchestra, very serious.

First of all, a disclaimer here- in J’s case, I think there is a genuine desire to conduct, and the hunt for fame and money doesn’t seem to be the motivator. There is truly music singing in this kids veins. So please, if any of his relatives see this, don’t be offended. I’m sure he’s maintained a lot of his original purity.

I’m actually thinking less of him and more of the kids that appear on Idols, with their pushy parents, greedy for the recognition and money the kids talent can be used to gain.

What I’m trying to point out here is that important things get lost when what starts out as a gift gets turned into a commodity.

Having the ability to sing, conduct, dance, etc is a gift. It is connected to intimate internal values like life path and purpose. It needs time to develop and mature and become one’s own. Gifts are connected as well to the larger whole, our gifts are gifts to our community as well as for ourselves. In many non Western societies, the gift is how money and goods move around, and there are clear guidelines for how a gift is handled. Is it kept or passed on? Is it used up, is it used as a diplomatic gesture? There are myriad ways a gift travels and as many ways it influences what it comes in contact with. Gifts are powerful, they can awaken forces which contain the potential to incite or heal, to create or break connections, and more. They engage the imagination and call to unseen powers to participate in the giving and receiving.

In many folklore tales, hoarding a gift for one’s own enrichment is often the first step on a road to calamity. And we feel this-  we know why when something for the the good of the community is appropriated for personal use, it is wrong.

Lewis Hyde says that every artist labours with a gift. He names 3 ways an artist and gift interact: first is the gift of talent the artist has; the second gift aspect is developing the talent and engaging in the creative process, the artist moves to a new place; and third, the result or product of this process is also a gift. Hyde acknowledges that each artist needs at some point to find out how to keep the qualities of the gift amidst the inevitable pressure of interacting  with a purely commercial system.

When young Idols winners, or young, undeveloped art talents are pushed into the spotlight before the talent has matured, before the person himself is mature enough to understand the nature and application of their gift, then we all lose something precious. The artist and their work become links in the commodity chain, and the values change from giving, gifting, freedom of expression, taking risks, doing something for the love of it- to ‘What do I get for it?’ We all know what that looks like and there is really nothing new to learn from it. Same old same old buy and sell.

But next time you see a conductor lost in the spirit of the music, leading his orchestra to new heights, or an artist working on a project making urban wildlife habitats purely out of love for the animals, or anyone at all using their hands and skills for love and/or betterment of something, try to see what that does to you.

My experience every time is that it opens a place of generosity and inspiration in myself.

Isn’t that what we really need more of?

Advertisements

Slow art, soul art

July 18, 2015

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Who doesn’t have the ‘bread and butter’ part of their art practice? I sure did back in the 70’s when I made little landscape prints and calligraphy pieces to sell at art markets.

My husband told me of an artist who, a long time ago in Holland, was having trouble making ends meet. He set up a stand on the sidewalk and started making quick drawings of clowns for passersby. He did so well, he was able to finance his less saleable work.

Problem is when the clown drawings take over. When work made to sell becomes the focus, and not making work according to inner values, which then eventually may or may not sell.

Commodity art is a branch of business, like a supermarket or a clothing store. It operates on exactly the same principles- supply and demand, customer’s wishes are central, profit margins before quality. And virtually no ethical underpinning.

How does an artist let herself become part of this consumer chain? One current scenario is, the person has average or above average drawing talent and makes something which is trendy and appeals to a large public.

They have no trouble seeing their art as a product. For them, selling is just as exciting and challenging as making art. They are 100% dedicated to self-promotion.They are artists of business, rather than artists first. Mostly when they find something that sells, they keep working in that vein rather than taking risks and developing their art.

While they may start out making things that are connected to their own creative journey, they soon realise that to keep selling they have to make the kind of art their customers want. They’ve found that wholesale and licensing earn the most, and the fastest. Every piece of original art regardless of merit is unfailingly available as prints, phone skins, silk scarves, T-shirts, mouse pads etc..

Then they realize that they have now become administrators of a business, have to spend hours working the social media to keep up people’s interest in them and their products, and spend more hours (or hire someone) to package and post their work. They accept this and consider it the price needed to stay ‘on top’.

Eventually everything they do is in service to their career. As one artist put it, they have become walking infomercials.

Excuse me. But if an artist decides that this really isn’t what his heart was telling him when he first felt he gift of his art come through him, he’s the one that is supposed to be crazy???  I, and more than a few artist friends, when openly questioning this insanity have gotten flack for not being ‘realistic’ and realizing you have to have money to survive. But the core issues here aren’t just about money.

 continued in next post

 

 

Slow art, soul art II

July 18, 2015

please read part one, previous post first

So what is going on here?
There is a book called, ‘The Gift ‘by Lewis Hyde which exhaustively explores why art belongs to the gift and not the commercial worlds, and what is lost when we enter the market with a gift (I’ve written a series of posts on the book.) Basically, in gift cultures, to give something away freely was to enrich the tribe/community. A gift actually increased in value when given, and perished when held on to. Gifts and art were linked to something bigger than the artist- to the ancestors, to the spirits of the land, to the gods.
And in engaging in gift exchange, these large forces were also invoked. So that when you gave or received a gift, it connected you to the larger powers in the universe. Money exchange is anonymous and impersonal. But gift exchange in a small community creates a connection, a web of relationships. If I give something away freely, I create an empty place in my own life that will automatically be filled by the community.

Compare this trust that my needs will be met, with the desperation that so often accompanies selling art for a living in the above model.

The thing is, if you reject the pressure to commoditise your art and yourself, you are rejecting the main paradigm, the actual foundations of reality nearly everyone in this society is being run by. You are stepping off the path. You are dangerous. that is why when you start to withdraw from the accepted ‘way it is done’ people will feel threatened and try to make you feel like a fool.

What is actually happening is that one by one, people are starting to question the usual way of doing and thinking about things. Charles Eisenstein calls this familiar way the ‘old story’ and says we are collectively moving toward a ‘new narrative’. This is true for the arts as well. He also says that it is almost impossible to hold the new story alone. If you try, you will be drawn back into the old way of seeing things, either by peer pressure or money issues. The only way to create and hold the new story is through community – one more reason to talk about these things together and support each other in making unconventional choices.

There are many, many artists looking for new ways of working with their gifts. These channels are not yet in place as  secure money generating structures, but they are coming. Actually, it is artists like us who are questioning the current paradigm who are creating the new forms.

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
-Robert Hughes

I would call this ‘soul art’. It has a lot to do with Hyde’s idea of art being a gift:

There are three aspects of a gift involved in creating a work of art:

  1. The inspiration, vision or idea that makes one want to create.
  2. The talent and skills to  bring that idea into tangible form. The artist creates something higher than herself and is
    enriched by doing so.
  3. The work of art is offered to something larger than the artist’s ego- the tribe, community, the muse ,whatever,
    there is an acknowledgement and gratitude and releasing of the art so that it can enrich others.

This kind of art takes time and belongs to other natural processes which are of value and take time; healing, nurturing, tending, growing, creating. It is made as a response to an inner intention and is deeply engaged with the artist’s growth and development both in his skills and as a person.

Soul art, when shared freely with the community, creates nourishing relationships. Coming from the heart, it is naturally sustainable and in harmony with nature. It is made from the sense that what we have is already enough, so there is trust that we’ll find what we need rather than trying to manipulate, control and compete for it.

Hyde, in his book, admitted that we live in a reality where an artist needs to sell to live. He offers one suggestion- make sure your art is created in service to your gifts, to the higher aspirations of your soul and heart- where you take risks, don’t think about the market, where there is a pure, gift sphere to create from. Then, after, you can see if it has market value, sometimes is does, sometimes it doesn’t.

The art that matters to us, which moves the heart or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living…that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.
Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Nicholas Wilton’s most recent post gives food for thought, again. I find his sharings always thought provoking, and they definitely give me insights that help with my work. This one though, hit a nerve.

I happen to be wrestling just now with the part of my book in progress that is about art and livelihood. I’ve found a way to sidestep the money is good vs money is evil discussion by asking, ‘which story do I want my energy to contribute to ‘. It isn’t about money anyway, it is about creating meaning. What image of life do I want to strengthen by giving it my time and energy?’

If I jump whole hog into the art as commodity reality, then I am supporting an economy based on money as the bottom line for determining value. By proxy I am acquiescing to exploiting people and resources to get high profits. I am saying yes to non-ethical long-term negative consequences of short term thinking. I’m using my life to perpetrate a system I don’t stand behind in any way at all.

My heart, unlike Nicholas’s was never wholly into selling my art as a life goal. I wanted a more collaborative, connected, kind of art. I wanted to do good, add value to life, and there weren’t channels for that kind of socially engaged work until just recently.

What I get from Nicholas’s post and from his art, is that it isn’t a black and white thing. There are artists like him, who seem to be able to dance with the marketplace without losing the gift aspect of their art- the aspect connected to the muse, to the sacred, to the greater things. The kind of art that carries a connection with life’s mysteries and large questions, the kind of art that can soothe souls and inspire people to either make art themselves or make changes in their lives to let in more play, imagination, connection.

The danger in approaching art as commodity/product is that this aspect is too often lost in the fray to get the work seen and sold. An artist starting out with all her values intact can easily get overtaken by market values.

I guess this is the essence of my problem with saying ‘there is nothing BUT money in art’, it places art squarely in the marketplace. Seeing the world as it is now, in seeing old systems collapsing and creativity needed for renewal in every part of life, I would ask, do we need more art products? Or do we need artists leading authentic lives, creating from their heart and soul to bring these much needed values into the world? I learn from other artists all the time, that it isn’t either/or.

But I want to make a case for the alternative to seeing art, like everything else in this society, as a transaction.

 

 

 

 

 

Barry Lopez (source of photo)

Barry Lopez (source of photo)

Barry Lopez is one of the writers who has ‘accompanied’ me on most of my adult journey as an artist. (See my post Barry Lopez, A literature of hope ). He is a nature writer, but that short description doesn’t do him justice. He is also a poet who feels the pain of the Earth deeply. And, he is an artist who understands and exemplifies what art is for, especially in these times.

I love these artists and role models,who have sustained their passion and honed their craft over the years. They are gradually turning into our present day Elders. Hearing Gary Snyder or Barry Lopez speak unfailingly reunites me with the best in myself.

This morning I looked at an almost completed draft of my book so far and couldn’t relate to it. I’d momentarily lost my sense of True North, and wondered how I would finish it with this late-stage failing of nerve. Unable to write, I decided to do some research for a later chapter on ‘art and wounded places’, and watched several of Lopez’s talks. And one of them showed the way out of of my impasse. It gave me a new lens for looking at my work and lifted me out of the familiar contradictions I usually get caught in when stuck.

He spoke about story telling. He’d had a conversation with a traditional man,( I sense he meant someone indigenous), and asked if this man’s people made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction like we do in Western society. The man answered, ‘For us, the difference isn’t between fiction and non-fiction, but between an authentic and inauthentic story.

Lopez asked him the difference and he said, ‘An authentic story is about us.’

‘Yes?’, Lopez asked.

‘And an inauthentic story is about you’, replied the man.

Lopez had a crucial insight as a result of this conversation. He realised that the story you tell as a story teller is not worth our listening to if it is just about you. He said,’We don’t need to know about you, we need to know about us’. I think what he is saying here, is that a writer needs to delve down beyond the purely personal until he strikes something universal in human experience which will illuminate all our lives. Also, adding my own note here, if an artist is working with rage or pain, she has a responsibility to transform it before it hits the page. We all know how bad life can be, we have the mass media to tell us all about that.

It is the artist alchemist’s task to harness that personal negativity and transcend it, and to use it as raw material to craft images of hope.

Lopez says that an authentic story needs to do two things; first of all it has to help. And secondly it has to be about ‘us’.

I want everything I write to end with this note:’Here is what I saw, what do you think?’. Instead of saying, ‘Here is what I saw and this is what you should believe’. -B.Lopez

The writers, artists and musicians I’ve respected most and who have inspired me in my life so far, are growing older along with me. Like Barry Lopez, time and experience distil their youthful passion to a focused potency. I feel enormous wisdom radiating from these people. But even more than the understanding they have gained through living and practising their calling, they embody compassion.

Lopez said,’

I want more than anything to see people do well. I want to see people thrive. And the system I see in place all over the world is killing people. I feel that as a physical pain, as grief every day when I get up in the morning. What drives me is – if you’re going to tell a story, tell a story that helps. If you’re going to collaborate with directors, filmmakers, artists et , make common cause with people whose desire is to help.

Not to direct the show or tell somebody else what to think, but to behave in a helpful manner for the benefit of everybody.

(See the 3 minute clip of this talk here )

 

Colourful corner

Colourful corner

My writing time has been going into my book. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy making things with my hands as well as my head. Above is my favourite corner in the studio right now. And below, the wall above my work table showing some abstract acrylic paintings I’ve been working on, and a collection of crocheted mandalas mostly done for their colour combinations.

Wall above worktable

Wall above worktable

The rag rug has a story directly related to my book in progress.

The book is about the changes I’ve experienced and observed in the arts in the 40 years of my visual arts career. One thread is about my personal journey away from the life of an exhibiting artist and graphic designer towards a more socially engaged art. The second thread is about the role of the arts in times of transition and how the arts are changing to meet the needs of society now.

In the course of the writing and research, I’ve stumbled upon several wonderful examples of artists practising the new arts. Some are old heroes like Lily Yeh, but others are new to me and have in their own ways, ignited my imagination.

One of these people is Fritz Haeg whose work I came across when researching new art trainings and landed at the Mildred’s Lane site. Haeg trained as an architect but early on became deeply involved in questions of how we live, and how we create ‘home’ with what is around us.

This is short video is a good intro to his work. I was inspired by his huge rugs, finger crocheted from used clothes and textiles. They are 30m across, tour some of the major museums, and have been added to by people at each location. These warm objects invite sitting, reclining and meeting in an often otherwise sterile modern museum environment. People are invited to bring other home crafts related to food and gardening- what is growing in the garden that day, flowers found outside, preserved fruits, dried herbs. All are displayed on the rug, forming an intimate environment and what Haeg calls a ceremony in domestic living.

His other projects are as compelling- Edible estates was about turning unproductive suburban lawns into edible gardens and community meeting places. That is for another post.

Haeg says that his art is about creating at least part of an ideal life he doesn’t have (and which doesn’t exist in our society) yet. For me, and I think for him, too, that has to do with more nature in our daily lives, being closer to our food sources, and belonging to a close knit community.

I identify with this, and must say that by making a smaller version of his rag rugs myself, I feel like that ideal life is just a bit closer. Sitting on the floor of my studio, ripping strips of cloth to weave into my rag rug, I feel connected to his work in active way. And of course my friends and acquaintances are exposed to this as well so the inspiration keeps rippling outward.

Close up of cotton yarns and rag rug

Close up of cotton yarns and rag rug

Lucie, our fox terrier went immediately to my smaller crocheted rag rug in progress.

Lucie on rag rug in progress

Lucie on rag rug in progress

She looks innocent doesn’t she, but she occasionally has continence problems and when she got up, the rug was soaked through. Luckily it survived machine washing and drying. So now we know that.

And she’s not allowed on them any more.

Here is a detail of the crocheted one a few steps further along. They are so much fun to do. See Fritz’s tutorial to make your own. (The one shown below is not in the tutorial, but is just a simple crocheted spiral using narrow strips of cloth instead of yarn. It is really easy.)

Small crocheted rag rug

Small crocheted rag rug

Robert is gone. I thought I’d post the letter I, and thousands of other artists received, since it so beautifully conveys the generosity with which Robert graced the world. I never knew him personally, but his being in the world made a big difference to my life. This letter is from his daughter, Sara:
May 30, 2014
 
Dear Sarah,
On Tuesday morning, at 10:20am, Dad passed away. He was at home, surrounded by his family. My brother Dave’s Airedale, Stanley, lay on the floor nearby. This day was also my, and my twin brother James’s, birthday.
A few evenings earlier, Dad and I were sitting up together, discussing a favourite piece of music. “Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has the ability to take you from placidity to power in one sonic breath. It is music of dignity and strength, with primitive, energetic passages, evoking absolute beauty from the simplest of phrases. It brings up something that has everything to do with significance — squeezing joy and motif that you just can’t drop — it stays with you.”
I tapped along on his laptop as he riffed a stream of consciousness, his sense of wonder twinkling, then sparkling, his voice growing ever softer, his hand squeezing mine when we paused. “The thing about art is that life is in no danger of being meaningless,” he whispered. I remembered, again, the wonder of nearing the summit plateau at Lake McArthur, rounding a corner to the West Coast Trail’s packed, silvery strand and, moment by moment, the unveiling of the magic hour on the Bois d’Amour in Pont Aven, Brittany. A few more steps, a couple of breaths to our destination: a silent sharing in the marvel.
I thanked him for the millionth time. We all thanked him as he slipped away. “Thank-you, Daddy, thank-you.”
And what about your twice-weekly letters? This ardent epistolary friendship, this living commitment, a connection and conviction to the imagination and creative heartbeat, and to lifemanship? Dad wrote to you last October, after receiving his diagnosis, and since then we’ve solidified our intention. He wrote:
“From the get-go we have been aware of the value of these twice-weekly letters to artists and others. Sara has helped me with many of them. We’ve shared our artistic journey together and have often talked about this day. One of the ideas we’re tossing around is that she start off by writing once a week. The other letter would be a favourite previous one of mine. If we ran all my previous letters once a week, they would last for 27 years! Finding ourselves at new chapters in our adventure, we sincerely hope we can continue to be of service to you.”
And so, I’ll write to you. And you’ll get Dad’s letters, too. It will be my honour to do so, and will continue to be with the deepest gratitude to you, his friend in art.
Sincerely,
Sara
PS: “Over the days of this journey, a kind of energetic serenity has set in. Something happens with the mixture of space and time. I feel a sense of story. Others have told me you can feel it in your brush, and I do now. A family of mergansers swims close by — the young are almost ready to fly south. Perhaps you have felt it too — it has something to do with purity.” (Robert Genn, on the Mackenzie River, 2000)
Esoterica: Dad’s dream has been to reach artists of all stripes — individuals with a common joy, journeying in this life-enhancing, inexplicable affair of the heart. He wrote, “We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities — to get more joy and understanding from their own unique processes.” With this dream in mind, please forward this letter, or letter of your choice, to someone you think might find it of value. If one, or many, chooses to subscribe, we will exponentially widen — as a diverse and generous community of worldwide artists. “To float like a cloud you have to go to the trouble of becoming one.” (Robert Genn)
“Art is something else. Art is fluid, transmutable, open-ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.” (Robert Genn)

“We live our short spans in the vortex of a miracle, and while we may not be the center of that vortex, it is magic to be anywhere in there.” (Robert Genn)

“Love me truly!
Remember my constancy.
With all my heart
and all my mind
I am with you
even when far away.” (Anonymous text, Carmina Burana)

Subscribe, for free, to the Robert & Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letter.