Friday, January 30, 2009

To Thine Own Thing Be True

Do your own thing. The Sixties catch-phrase divided people back then, but it had its legions of disciples and champions(I actually saw the original Off-Broadway production because a friend of mine had one of the leads). Now it seems positively distasteful and even un-patriotic to mouth the words, and I'm afraid we may be going from the frying pan into the fire. How could it get worse? Well...

Do your own thing. Absolutely essential to the artist, but I would like to include everyone else. Why? The four words say it. Do: action. Your: we're not talking about your parents, your teachers, your boss, your friends, your partner, your commander-in-chief.  Own: your baby, your dream, your precious, your song, your heart, your dance, your thing. Thing: passion, pursuit, challenge, kick, itch, vision, mission, yaya, what makes you tick, what gets you up in the morning, what matters, what you care about. Despite that or because we live in this world of oppression, repression, obligation, prescription, redundancy, duplication, imitation, and restriction, doing your own thing is not only necessary, it is vital. We are nothing short of cattle being lead to the slaughter from cradle to grave. 

I know a lot of people who don't do their own thing. Their lives conspired to deny them this freedom, this power, this voice, this destiny. They couldn't and wouldn't know where to begin to find this in themselves now. Which means, of course, more beer for everyone else.

The cool thing about being an artist is that in that little time and space that is your studio, you have the promise, power, and permission to do your own thing.  No one likes you for it. It's costing them beer. In your studio you can do what you want, when you want, how you want, why you want, etc.  It is a powerful thing. Writers can do it too, of course. The blank pages of a book can become anything. Funnily enough, besides artists in their studios and writers in their books, only dictators and warlords have this kind of power. No wonder some world leaders get rid of artists first. No wonder that other world leaders have so much admiration for artists. This also explains why being an artist has such a high price. No one likes you for it, and no one wants you to get paid for it. Makes sense. Artists cost people beer, after all.

Do your own thing! And make it a good thing! Make it a makes the world a better place own thing! Right on!

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!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Aziz, Light!

We're brought up to analyze, criticize, and complain; and we feel entitled; we feel empowered!  BUT, life comes "as is."

We think we are in control, but we aren't. What we do have control over is ourselves. That is scary, right? Because most people realize on some level, that in fact, they don't seem to have the slightest idea how to control themselves. One remembered dream tells us that. Most of us would like to control the things we can't, and turn our backs on what we can. 

BUT, life comes as is! The weather, people, movies, and yes, art! Arguing with any of it is like shooting yourself in the foot: a waste of your valuable time and energy! 

As an artist you have control over the time and energy you put into your work. Everything outside of that is out of your control. Pretty much everything, anyway. You can count on it. What you can control is the question; and here is the hard part. If you don't like something: don't do it, don't eat it, don't look at it, don't take it, just walk away. Just do something else. Arguing with life is a waste of time, and... it is negative!

I lot of people thought I was some kind of rebel when I was a kid. When you're a rebel, you are locked in conflict with something else. I wasn't. If something wasn't working out, or to my liking, I just did something else. I just had something better to do. For example, when I was a pre-teen, I didn't do school; I didn't like school, but I didn't sit around whining about it; I did something else instead. I didn't give school another thought. I put my energy into painting because at the age of ten I was lucky enough to have a studio the likes of which I will never have again. OK, it was on Via Margutta in Rome, giant windows, tall, beamed ceilings, and outside was the Pincio, the western edge of the gardens of the Villa Borghese. It had been at one time Raphael's studio, and all the artists called me Il Piccolo Raffaello. Ok, so I definitely had something better to do!

But as an artist we can't get caught up it the way things are supposed to be. It is a delusion we will never escape. Things are as they are. I also learned that in Italy. You do what you can do. Things are as they are. Que sera, sera. You do what you can do. Smile and wave, Boys, smile and wave!

Now have I been blindsided by this stuff? I stand here guilty as charged. I once tried to hold on to a relationship that was over, because I thought it was "supposed to be." Really thought it was supposed to be. Almost killed me. It was a hard lesson. Crazy the way we think we can want what we want. Do I have other examples? Plenty. How long have you got?

In the end all I could do was pick myself up and clean up my own house. Open some windows. Get the pizza boxes off the sofa. Clean up the shit on the floors! I had absolutely no control over anything else. If someone loves me, they love me, and if they don't; they don't. That's amore!

So if some gallery wants to show your work, they will. If they don't want to, they won't. Maybe you can win them over, maybe you can't. BUT: THEY ARE IN CHARGE! I can't tell you how many times I have seen artists try to take charge in a gallery situation. SURE AND SUDDEN DEATH! Always. It's THEIR gallery. THE GALLERY IS IN CHARGE. THE GALLERY IS IN CHARGE. THE GALLERY IS IN CHARGE. Never forget this and you will be fine. 

I see people trying to take charge all the time in situations where they are not in charge, and anything but in charge. These people keep bumping their heads up against this wall and never get it. If you are not in charge, don't argue, don't pick, don't do anything but say yes; or go elsewhere. It is comical really, but a little sad. 

Life is delicate. Life is complicated. Life is chemical. Forget "supposed to be." There is a show up right now a bunch of people think is important. The artist is supposed to be famous. He deserves to be famous and successful and everyone should buy his paintings. Sounds stupid, but this happens all the time. People really fall into this trap-- all the time! Smart people. Really. Maybe it will happen, and maybe it won't. Que sera, sera! Aziz, Light!