Monday, January 26, 2009
Have You Seen Jack?
I was reminded again what a funny business painting can be, like so many of the things we do, personal, creative, or business. When you start out it is all talk, all go, all yes! You might be listening to something else, some muse, some inspiration, some subject, some emotion, some idea, but it is the blank canvas that is doing all the listening at this point. Then along the way things start to change, and the talking has to give way to listening as the painting takes on a life of its own, and by the end it is all listening, all contemplative, all analytical. All over. When I start a painting you can't shut me up, but by the end I barely have anything to say, and for better or worse the painting is doing all the talking.
I try to change this a little. Slow down the inevitable. Maybe less talk at the beginning will lead to a more consistent give and take, talking and listening, throughout the process. More conversational. My friend, Julie Glass, cracked up about something I think she said Fran Lebowitz wrote, that people aren't conversational, that they don't listen, that they just wait their turn; that there is even no such thing as listening, but just waiting your turn. But if you're an artist, you have to learn to listen, don't you? How can you hear your own work? How can you answer if you haven't listened. Really listened.
It may be my nature, or it may be the nature of all the things we do. I don't know. My father detailed the cycle of any business enterprise in a book on management consultancy. It seemed pretty much the same. Enthusiasm marks the beginning of any creative undertaking. By the time the cycle completes itself, from conception to infancy to adolescence to maturity to old age, we find ourselves at the end, at the death of the thing. This is why I suppose the French think of the orgasm as a death; it is the end of love-making. So like the French to be so brilliant and yet so wrong. I'm not talking about Jerry Lewis either. I'm talking about love-making, and the thing that happens: conception. The beginning. Another Fran Lebowitz bugaboo: children who speak fluent French.
Speaking of getting it wrong. So many people don't get the dialogue thing. The conversation thing. The give and take. The talking and listening. Isn't this it? Everything we learn and love and live. Man vs. Society. Man vs. Nature. Man vs. Himself. Man vs. God. Isn't life just a dialogue. Isn't life just sharing? Aren't all those things just conversations? Society, Nature, God, the Self, the Other? Aren't we just sharing a conversation? Sure, sometimes it seems like we're the only one talking, and then sometimes it feels like we only get to listen, but isn't this it? Isn't it all about this connecting? Not so much connection, but connecting. Don't we just connect and then we die? Life of the bee, or something like that.
Oddly enough, I know very few artists who are good listeners, especially when it comes to other people's work. If you're talking about their work, that's different; they could leave something on the stove and let their house burn down, that's understood. But other people's work? No. I made a living listening to other people's work as an art critic/writer/reviewer, and artists always thought it was amazing that I could understand what they were up to. I just looked and listened. I didn't have some special gift. Just looking and listening. That was all that was required.
When I was a teacher RISD, my last act before I retired about twelve years ago, was to make sure that my students could listen by the end of term. They had no idea what I was up to. They didn't have the first clue how to listen, and they could not have cared less. I wanted to give them listening, knowing that that is what they really needed. To just pay attention. Don't take anything for granted and you'll be fine. Listen. I shouldn't have been disappointed that they just wanted their 'A' and they wanted it to be theirs alone; it wasn't enough to just get an 'A,' everyone else had to fail. Wasn't this the way I was? We all were?
But I did it. By the last class, outside on the grass on the RISD farm, I actually got them to be able to listen. I got them to be able to listen and like it. I got them to be able to listen to each other's work and talk about what they were hearing. Looking and listening are pretty much the same for me. Just goes in a different way. But they were listening and then talking up a storm. It was great. They got it, and they found it really exciting. No more sitting alone in the little cubicle of their own work, they got to be out there in the great give and take. It was pretty great! Then it was over and I haven't taught since.
But this is what it is about. Conversation. Not waiting your turn, not waiting for your chance to jump in and take over, not trying to hold the floor and not be interrupted, but give and take, the great flow of give and take. The two-way street.
I'll tell you what it isn't about, either: the one-way street. You hear this garbage all the time from the mitre-boxers, the ones who can only measure their way through life inch by inch. It isn't all about being the master. Being accomplished. Being the one holding the floor, doing all the talking. Being on top. This is so crazy. I remember when I was teaching and it was pretty much agreed by all my students (stupids) that you only wanted to be on top. Yes, again, it was a relationship thing. I could not believe my ears, but I was alone. Everyone agreed that no matter what, they would be on top and never be on the bottom. Losers were on the bottom.
At the time I was painting horizontal paintings with my eyes closed so that I could remove as much verticality and control from my paintings as possible. Having my eyes shut helped me to listen. Not just to the painting, or myself, but to everything. I had to keep this to myself of course because I was already alien. But these stupids of mine couldn't have cared less that being on top meant someone else had to be on the bottom, someone else had to lose, someone else had to fail, and presumably that someone on the bottom was their brother or sister in life. Just as long as it wasn't them. This is what they learned at home and in school.
Wouldn't you know that it was about the same time that Bush Senior said we should be a kinder, gentler nation and I knew then and there as the words came out of his mouth that we were in trouble: rich people need definition, they need poor people to make them rich, not just to work for them, but to make them rich by way of comparison, the haves and have-nots, through power, appearance, property, you name it. Well, my students didn't clue in that someone else had to lose so that they could win. Just as long as they got to be on top, got their 'A,' got their turn, got to talk, nothing else much mattered. No sharing, no connecting, no mutual respect, no mutual anything. A world of one-way streets. A world of one-way streets that don't connect. Artists have to listen to what they are doing and what they have done, and then listen some more. They have to listen to each other. If they are mitre-boxing instead, just checking out each other's joints, well then, they aren't listening. These former stupids of mine are now the artists, and teachers, and bosses, and parents, and politicians of the world. They're my neighbors. They're your neighbors! And we're all listening! We hope they are too!
I've got a painting on the line right now. It's hanging on the wall over there. It's talking to me. I'm listening hard. I'm happy to listen hard. I'm connecting/connected. I'm almost there, yes, I think I've got something to say. Yes. It is about that blue. That soaring blue. It wants to be like lightning in a night sky. It wants to spread its wings and lift the viewer high into the air, so that they feel the rush, feel the flood of ions, the electricity, the connection, the life! Now what have I got to say to that? Well, let's see!