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Monsieur Cezanne

January 17, 2014

It is good to be painting again and at the same time studying Cezanne’s life and work. The book I’m reading is coffee table format from Taschen publishers, it was originally German and I’ve got the Dutch translation from the library.

First stage, roughing in the colours

First stage, roughing in the colours

So much to say, where to start.

This stage of a painting is my favourite, everything is still open.  The composition is solid enough to hold it, and the subject familiar enough not to pose too many technical problems. I love it as it is, it hardly needs anything more in some ways. The eternal dilemma, how to work on anyway, and keep the original freshness.

All the while, I’m thinking about Cezanne on 2 levels- personally, how it was for him as an artist, and technically, how did he solve this, what brush strokes did he use and when, how did he apply paint, how did he use colour?

It was really tough for Cezanne as an artist. His father wanted him to work in the family banking business, his home life in general pulled him emotionally this way and that. He made some truly awful paintings in the beginning! We rarely see those! It wasn’t that they were just immature, (they according to his biographers are packed with symbols representing his inner conflicts), they are dark, and not particularly well painted.

Early work of Cezanne

Early work of Cezanne    Source   

What is so inspiring about his life is the gradual inner transformation he underwent which enabled him to gain the discipline to really work at getting his emotions under control, and to finally devote himself to his art despite huge lack of self confidence.  All this was reflected in the growing stability and harmony of his  images.

His relation to the Impressionists is a whole other story, and just as riveting from the point of personal transformation, individuation and art. Mostly he was a loner, following his heart, weathering rejection and ridicule, carving out his own path with very little respect or support from all but a few of his peers. His brush strokes are born out of this, forming the beautiful, strong and rhythmic surfaces of his mature paintings. Everything works, the compositions, unity of colour, application of paint- and he had to fight for all of it, most often working alone in uncertainty.

Chateau de Medan, Cezanne

Chateau de Medan, Cezanne   Source

So back to me, one of Cezanne’s countless students from afar, more than a century separating us, but still feeling his presence close. How do you apply paint, how do you handle a patterned cloth, indicate the pattern but not lose the light and dark movements of the folds? How do you define an edge, how do you apply the paint and keep the stroke fresh and separate yet have it harmonise with the strokes next to it and the painting as a whole? Monsieur?

And this is a difficult stage of a painting, the part where by making a few decisions you instantly eradicate the infinite futures of your painting and limit it to one outcome. My heart always sinks a bit when  I start to apply thicker paint, my own limitations are more evident, and the lofty hopes I had at the beginning start to come down to earth more. Oh well, the way to get to your work, the bright, soaring, uniquely own work you were born to do, is simply to do the next painting.

Stage 2, starting to apply thicker paint

Stage 2, starting to apply thicker paint

I’ve been working on a book for the past years on and off. It is about why art is important and what its worth is outside of an economic one. Lots of the posts in this blog have been exploring this topic (see, for example the categories art and the market or art and healing).

The deeper I go into it, the more I see that it is not an isolated issue, that the changes needed and indeed happening in the arts are changes happening in every sector and will shake this whole society to its roots.

That is why it feels on topic to talk about an amazing TV program I saw here in Holland this week. Here is a link if you are Dutch. It was called ‘Transitions’ and addressed the present crisis and the creative initiatives happening at grass roots level to come out of it. Actually the projects in the program were not about ‘coming out of a crisis’ but creating a new way of living in society.

The main focus was on Jan Rotmans, professor of Transition studies in Rotterdam. He says that in Holland there are maybe 10,000 creative people who are thinking and acting in a completely new way,, outside the existing paradigm. They are the tippers (ie causing the society to tip into a new way of being),  and the thinkers so far outside of the box that the box doesn’t even exist.

Rotmans says we are in a crisis that is different from any before, that this sort of crisis happens once every 100-150 years, and

it isn’t that we’re living in an era of change, but in a change of eras.

Briefly, this is a deep  and far reaching systems crisis- we are in a transition period between a consumer society and a sharing society.

The program focused on 5 different projects each in a different sector- healthcare, energy, urban design, building, and mobility.  For example, the neighbourhood care project (Buurtzorg) now in every city in Holland and soon to be picked up by the US, Sweden, and Japan. Jos de Blok’s simple idea is to put the responsibility for care and the organisation of care  back into the hands of the professionals who do it,and cut out managers and middle managers. It is based on small local groups of nurses and social workers who hire and fire, manage their schedules, and pay system etc. This saves money and  improves care. And it works.

Another project brings people who want transport together with those who are offering it – a new kind of carpooling, but via internet. Poeple make a profile, there is a feedback system, the payment goes via the site. (Toogethr.nl  – founder Martin Voorzanger) Voorzanger says,

the trend is toward trust not only being a condition for a sharing economy, but the new currency as well.

If people increasingly barter, trade, rent- they take their consuming into their own hands instead of buying from big companies. then this will be the real economy and we’ll stop measuring in terms of economic growth.

The new values emerging in all these initiatives are trust, connection, community building, self sufficiency, sustainability.

So yes, it is crisis, and at the same time it is an incredible opportunity to build new ways of relating to each other, using energy, living in neighborhoods, taking care of each other, and getting what we need in terms of objects and services.

The arts too have a role to play in this transition-  as tools to assist and catalyse transformation in times of change.

So I’ll be writing more about this topic in future posts, and hopefully one day gather it all together in a book to give hope and inspiration to everyone whose heart has been touched by music, painting or other arts. And whose heart, like mine,  is breaking when they see how marginalised and commercialized the arts have become in this soulless society we’ve all created together.

We are capable of better, I know it.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ  Milenko, I’ve done a lot of work in the community as a healthcare artist and workshop leader. I find that after these excursions out to the community I need to draw back into the private world of my studio and create art to refresh my inspiration so I can go out again.
Do you feel a similar need? If so what do you do to recharge your batteries?
Or is the work itself energizing enough for you?

MM  I could do better with refueling. Having a small nonprofit means hustling for grants, giving talks, doing business development, participating in the larger network of volunteers and non-profits, and, of course, doing projects.

In the last year alone we built six gathering places and, in addition, led community engagement processes in several more neighborhoods. Last year’s work created copious stress; now we are taking steps to slow down and pace ourselves a little better.

For me personally, that means spending time with family and friends. I also bicycle and walk, and I disengage my brain by playing and watching soccer. I also do watercolors and ink drawings—quick art making that can be squeezed into my tiny periods of free time.

SZ How do you see the relationship (if any) between ‘art as calling’- passionately devoted mature artists working to high standards, vs the democratization of art where everyone is an artist?

MM Both modalities are important; in my work I practice both. The goal of my community work is to create shared ownership and for that to happen I do not present myself as an artist. I do not want people to feel they are my assistants. Rather I treat them as colleagues whose artistry may be different from mine, but is equally important and valuable. I invite their input at every stage of the process and together we figure out things faster.

I define success by how much we can accomplish with the limitations of each project: budget, site, available time, volunteers, contributions, and talents. Within that larger process, my artistic skills are called forth and I engage with that process deeply and passionately just as any artist would. So I don’t see that ‘art as calling’ and ‘everybody getting to be creative’ are in conflict.
Although many artists work in solitude, I work with many people in situations that are often chaotic and require constant adjustments and flexibility. But in the end, we are all artists.

I strive for conditions where the best of each of us can coexist, where people are talented together. When I can, I gladly draw on the talents and expertise of others.

photo Hannah Hess

SZ The art academies I‘m familiar with are oriented to producing star artists, and the students have that goal too. They are learning about competing and entrepreneurship. What should art education look like in our changing times?

MM In the Seattle area, where I live and work, this isn’t the case. The design schools at which I give occasional talks are all about community and sustainability.

I think the age of egomaniac artists, just like the age of political tyrants, is winding to a close. Collaborative practices will gradually become the norm, and schools will teach collaboration.

Collaboration’s purpose is to relate to each other in such a way that typically irritating differences can be transformed into valuable gifts.

To turn differences into gifts requires strength and flexibility. It involves the confidence to express ideas and the humility to adjust them to those of others’. This requires us to stand in one’s center while falling into the unknown-a demanding circus act.

I feel the hands and bodies are getting neglected in art training. Kids in the United States spend eight or nine hours a day staring at screens – computer, phones, TV – that ultimately function as a buffer through which life is perceived. This creates a more virtual brain circuitry, and the delusion of the familiar, meaning that if I read about something I’ve done my part about the issue.

Art is not about information, it is about meaning, about taking intuitions and information and making internal sense of them.

This is hard and courageous work, and demands that our whole beings are involved. Artistic work should produce three results: a new artwork honoring a new insight, a new artist who uses the process of creation to ‘incarnate’ this new insight into her enriched being, and a community renewed by the artwork. This, in essence, is the purpose of any creative act and hands must be an integral part of the work – something different happens in the brain when the hands, heart, and brain work together.

I feel myself to be less the artist leading a project and more the chef at a community feast: the ingredients are brought to the table by many participants and someone needs to figure out the recipe, one that won’t poison people, one that will be tasty and nutritious. It comes down to synthesizing the gifts of a lot of people.

Continued in Interview part 2

Another important point David Gauntlett makes concerns the democratisation of art.

Make it yourself/ourselves

He sees our choices of media, art and culture up until now limited to either the mass market channels (TV, newspapers,magazines) OR,  more distinctive but elite ones (such as the artworld’s system of ‘star’ artists and international galleries).

But now, in the ‘middle ground’ between mass populist culture on one hand and exclusive elitism on the other,the ‘make it yourself’ ethic is emerging as a viable alternative with its own products such as YouTube videos, photo sites, craft fairs, guerilla gardening and interventions, eco-art, etc.

Previously, to get your work out in the world, you had to be an artist where ‘having the right education, sponsors and jargon are necessary markers of worthiness’.  Galleries, art and literary societies, publishing companies etc., all have their own gatekeepers. Creative people without the right credentials were/are denied the channels for sharing their work.

But now, anyone can get their work out there without worrying if the credentials are worthy. Regarding the internet:

The relevant filters now operate after, not before publication. (Clay Shirky)

Continued in next post.

I recently received a link to an article which contained some useful information but the underlying assumptions were disturbing to me.

The article is basically a long pep talk for artists and designers whom, the author cites, seem to regularly get taken advantage of by their clients, and rarely make serious money.

There is good advice in there, but I have a real problem with the basic tone, which is so aggressive, it comes close to cancelling out any of the useful points.  What disturbs me about this is the arena in which this young man has chosen to operate. It frames business as war where only the powerful can win and the weak (or good soldiers as he calls them) always get taken advantage of. The business concepts on which the arguments are based assume the worst about human nature so that all the tactics presented are about self-preservation and intimidating others before they get a chance to intimidate you.

The author spends a lot of time explaining how to force others to meet your needs, and how to demand respect.

Well, respect can’t be ‘demanded’, it needs to be earned. And nowhere in his 15 page article did I find a word about respecting your client- her intelligence, his creativity, her ability and desire to create a good working situation for you.

Words such as fight, attack and escalate are used regularly throughout the article.
Business as self-preservation and getting ahead at all costs, and being able to dropping the right influential names, and mentioning one’s 5-6 figure monthly salary, are presented as The definition of success. It is a paradigm which is unfortunately so widespread that most people can’t even see that this is a choice.

My experience is that if you live in a world defined by these parameters, this is exactly what you will get; you’ll feel pressured to always maintain a warrior stance in order to survive. And you won’t be able to see kindness and generosity, even when it is right under your nose, because you won’t be looking for it.

There were a few things I did like about the article, scroll down to see next post.

Nicholas Roerich

This is the 3rd post based on Lewis Hyde’s book, ‘The Gift’.

Another insight brought by reading Hyde’s ‘The Gift’ is that we artists, by identifying solely with the market limit the circulation of the gift. I mean, that by painting with the idea of selling that painting solely in order to make an income we are limiting the nourishment and gifts that painting could bring us.

In Hyde’s discussion of gift exchange in tribal societies, there is always a greater force involved in the cycle of giving and receiving of gifts, it might be the gods, the ancestors, the spirits of the forest or rivers,  or the greater community.

He then makes the connection to an artist ‘labouring ‘with a gift. When we are deeply into our work, something happens- time evaporates, problems recede, all that exists is this sense of being at one with the work and with the world. This state is known in modern times as ‘flow’. At those times art reaches beyond the personal ego and touches something universal which is then embodied in the artwork.

For anyone who has experienced this, there seems to be a magic to it, as if ‘it wasn’t me who did the work’. The feeling is as if we have opened and received a gift.

What Hyde has made me think about is this: if, through my art making I have been blessed to touch on such a gift, then there is something bigger than me at work here. That means that if I work consciously with this gift element and am grateful and humble in its presence, I let this all expand beyond my own personal ego boundaries. It isn’t mine alone, and it doesn’t need to nourish me any more beyond the experience of the making.

If I don’t demand from my creative gift work that it also earn my living, I am not limiting it to being a mere product.I release it into the larger domain, and from that domain I will in turn be nourished.

I have experienced this countless times, when working on non remunerative art, suddenly a windfall will appear from an entirely unrelated area.  As if by putting clear and true energy out there in one form it almost always comes back in another.

Russian artists Nicholas Roerich said something to the effect of , ‘Create, create, create, and don’t worry about the bread for the morrow, in creating you will nourish and be nourished’.

I’m not saying it is easy or instant. It is never easy. But by using this philosophy as a point of departure for making art, I come into a state of trust rather than one of worry, stress, scarcity and competition.

Feeling lack and tension around money? these thoughts really help.

Continuing on with excerpts from Lynne Twist’s, ‘The Soul of Money’: (once in a while slightly paraphrased)

Our attention enlarges and enriches our experience of whatever is before us. We have the opportunity to direct our attention in the way we relate to money…

When we allow jealousy, envy and resentment  to become the focus of our attention we become jealous, envious and resentful people with our money.

When we direct out attention to creativity, courage, and integrity, we become expressions of those qualities in whatever we do in our interactions with money.

When your attention is on what is lacking and scarce- in your life, in your work, in your family, in your town- then that becomes what you’re about.

That’s the song you sing, the vision you generate. You engage in lack and longing and what’s missing, and you call others to that same experience..If your attention is on problems and breakdowns with money…that is where your consciousness resides…. No matter how much money you have, it won’t be enough. No amount of money will buy you genuine peace of mind.

Yikes, I sure have fallen into that trap lately.

If you are interested in how to climb out of this very common and debilitating state of mind, read on in part 3.

last part of 3 part series

My bulletin board with the Wage Peace poem in 3 panels

It has to matter to you
To matter to anyone else, it has to matter to you first. Really matter.

If it doesn’t, then you will not be able to keep calling up the discipline, commitment and caring that are needed to bring an idea into the world.

I always wondered if I had anything to ‘say’ in my art. I basically just love materials and colours.Is that enough? But asking if I have anything to say as an artist may be the wrong question.

‘Do I stand for anything in my life?’is the question we need to answer first to make art that matters to us, and ultimately to others.

It should be for something else, too, besides you
This is a tricky one because it reflects the changing meaning of art in our times. Art is not just a product meant to further your career; it is a powerful force that can be used to bring renewal to a society, and transformation to an individual.

Yesterday I heard a writer say that he’d seen a modern interpretation of an opera, and when he walked out of the convert hall he felt ,’washed clean’. Art can do this for people. I feel that though your art first has to spring from your soul’s calling, that it may also need to have some social context. Maybe through the purity of the work, it will uplift people on its own.
But seeing art as in service to the community can open up all kinds of new creative channels for everyone. See Arts & Healing network for examples of projects where artists use their skills in a community, cultural bridging or healing context.

Do the footwork
Dream big, work hard, be nice.

This is the motto of a designer I recently heard interviewed. You need to do the work. Period.

Take the time to let it grow
How can you know, when you first start out as a sculptor, for example, where you will end up?

But traditional business demands a 5 year plan mapping out an unmappable trip.
Starting out as a creative person is like embarking on a magical mystery tour – every day. Your work direction may take you into sculptural therapy with blind people, it may take you into ecovention projects, you may team up with some architects and sculpt integral elements of buildings.  You need years before you know what it is you are actually doing. And building a business takes time because Read the rest of this entry »

Suzi Gablik nails it again

January 31, 2011

Regaled by marketing strategies for artists, websites for selling your work more effectively etc, I am always gratified to find some support for the view that this all leaves out a great portion of what art’s purpose is.  I have found staunch support for this view, once again from a long-standing heroine of mine, Suzi Gablik. I came across an article of hers recently which completely confirms my own take on the subject, so I’ll share some of it here, paraphrased.

There are two predominant schools of artists right now, the familiar autonomous artist, isolated from society, working with an art ‘in defiance of the social good and without any moral earnestness’. And secondly, artists who want art to have some socially worthy agenda outside of itself.

Old art systems and networks (dealer-curator-museum-critic) are not serving the new impulses in the arts, and they are showing signs of strain. New networks and collectives are emerging in the internet, creating a completely new context for art and artists. 

Gablik sees signs of art becoming ‘purposeful’ again. All her professional life she has been writing about alternatives to art as a commodity and has been considering art in the context of spiritual and moral values, not just commercial ones. 

Arts and ethics have been split for a long while, but now ‘a more ethical artistic vision is already functioning among us’.  She cites examples like Adbusters, and the Greenmuseum– artists who are taking a stance on some social or environmental problem and using their creativity to bring healing, understanding, and awareness into that area.

All of this clearly represents a critical shift in the definition of an art object. These networking social activities, which integrate complex strands from many disciplines into an open unity and bridge many different areas of knowledge, also require a real rewiring of institutional DNA. Specialization has been displaced by another organizing principle—decentralized creativity—in which the individual artist becomes a structural component in a society of selves that fit their contributions together in mutual enrichment.   

Gablik sees the period of ‘value free experiment coming to an end’. And that the overspecialisation and division of professional fields is being gradually absorbed by an intimate connection of all fields to each other. She sees us all moving toward an understanding that art is integrated into all aspects of life and all aspects of life are contained in art.

For the whole article click on this link  – Suzi Gablik   Beyond the Disciplines: Art without Borders.

Holland has elected a right leaning government. To make up the huge financial deficit, they are proposing drastic cuts to art/culture budgets. The main Radio Music Center (Muziekcentrum van de Omroep (MCO)) would be eliminated. And would take with it, the Radio Choir, The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Orchestra.  All these major bodies of music are responsible for countless performances live and on TV and Radio throughout Holland.

Next, 1/4 of the libraries would be closed- Holland has 1100 public libraries and 4 million members.  The libraries to be closed down would be the small village and town ones. Nearly half of the library members are school kids. So in effect, this act would cut deeply into the education of the next generations.

The present government has called art a ‘leftist hobby’. And this is what I want to address. Because this idea is not new and has been lurking under the surface for decades.  Now, because a populist party has gotten a lot of votes and is represented in the government, these things are being said openly.

As an artist, passionately devoted to art as a necessary transformative and healing force in the society, I want to say that nevertheless, I can sympathise with some of these views.

The arts have been corrupted by huge egotism and excesses by certain artists. They have lost touch with their purpose and have become associated with the intellectual elite. They have, instead of remaining visionary and commentating on the society, been completely absorbed into the values of the day, which are purely and exclusively commercial.

They have become distant from everyday life and from normal people.  Because the arts, at their core deal with the bigger mysteries of life, they can’t be measured or their effects proven, and this society undervalues anything that it can’t quantify.

These issues are so deep and all encompassing that no argument about the worth of art can progress without touching on core issues involving the meaning and value of human life.  So you quickly come into the no man’s land of spiritual principles and philosophical questions. And sadly, you lose most people at that point.

This issue of cut art subsidies is nothing less than the issue of how we give meaning and value to our lives. So it can’t, as has been the case for probably the last 70 years,  be tackled at the symptom level.

Continued in part II below.