Thursday, December 03, 2009

What's Best?

When I was a teenager I watched two of my older brothers have a heated argument over a pick-up truck. One of them was arguing for what he thought was the "best" truck, and the other claimed that there was no such thing, that the only thing there was, was the truck that was best for him. At the bottom of it was one brother telling the other that his truck sucked.

The rest of my family was bored and annoyed by the pissing match, but I was anything but. I knew that one was being a jerk and the other was taking the bait and being defensive. Still, the excuse for the argument fascinated me, and it fascinates me still.

See, I believed the brother with the shitty truck, but no one else did. Everyone else thought that there was such a thing as the "best" truck. They totally believed that, and the brother with a masters in philosophy and a law degree was left to piss in the wind while the one who never finished high school and was most likely high won the day.

Now I have been pissing in the wind on this one my whole life. There is no talking to people who think that there is an official best, and worse, that they know what it is, and worse still, that they know what's best for you. Like my brother who never finished high school. He knew. Never mind that he should have been on the other side of the argument, being the stoner and all. But if you asked me, knowing what is best for you is the secret to happiness. If you asked me, knowing what is best for you is the secret to life.

A few years after that argument I met Richard Tuttle, and he was talking about the same thing, only articulation wasn't his strong suit. In all fairness it is not an easy subject, and just yesterday I felt like an idiot trying to explain it to someone.

Tuttle introduced the idea of what's right into the conversation, exchanging right for best, as in " what's right for you." I sure wanted to know. I listened to him so hard it made my head hurt, and then I tried to explain it in an article I wrote about him for a local newspaper. Needless to say I made a hash of it.

Somehow it comes off as a defensive argument, like it did with my brother. There's what everybody knows, and then there's stubborn you. That's how I felt yesterday. And that's it in a nutshell; the whole world represents the objective truth, what everybody thinks, and up against that is the subjective, you, little ole you, what you think. Good luck with that.

You do it your way and to hell with you. It will be more than your piss in the wind. So how could you possibly be happy after that? How could you possibly be happy bucking all those who know what is best, and best for you? Reminds me of a Stones jingle: a man comes on the television...can't get no...

A few years ago, actually more like 15, I took this whole thing a step further. I started listening to something deeper when making important choices in my life. I started listening to the same little voice I listened to while painting. Not the official voice, the trained voice, the objective truth voice, but the other one, the one that just liked something because it felt like it.

No surprise, that little voice was just what was left of my voice period. After parents and siblings and teachers and bosses and friends and girlfriends and books and television and mentors and you name it. My little voice was my voice and I needed to start listening to it not just in a crisis or when push came to shove, inotherwords when I was forced to, but every day. Every minute of every day.

I started doing that. I made decisions that felt right for me, not because they were good on paper, but because they were good to me. People in positions of power will not approve of this. Having a mind of your own will get twisted into something bad. Doing what feels right to you will be twisted into something selfish. But you have to believe. You have to learn to hear your voice and listen to it and have faith in it. The consequences may be difficult. You may lose people you thought loved you; you may upset people who professed to have your best interests at heart.

On the other hand you may find yourself in a job that everybody else thinks is great. You may find yourself in a relationship that everybody else thinks is great. Pleasing yourself would mean changing your job maybe, or your work, or your relationship. If you do this you risk angering those who know what's best for you. But if they love you, if they are your true friends, they will understand.

If they love you and respect you they will trust you to know what's best for you and they will let you make the mistakes which will invariably happen. You won't always get it right, but you would be surprised. If you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need...

OK, I know I have a tangle of stuff here that is making me sound like an idiot again. There's the subjective vs objective choice, the whole lemming thing vs what I called as a teacher "it's ugly but it's mine," and then there is the how you know aspect, which probably sounds a lot like what people call judgment vs intuition. Throw in the group vs the individual and yes, they are all the same thing when you get right down to it, including the consequences the individual must face in dealing with the group.

The problems for the individual only begin when they learn to listen to their individual voice, which is not only what the artist depends on, it is what society depends on from the artist. Hamlet has always been an artist's guy. His soliloquy, well, that is the question for every artist. It is what Richard Tuttle was wrestling with when I met him. He was the "ugly but it's mine" artist and he thought I was too concerned with conventional ideas of beauty. What he didn't factor in was that I had grown up in Rome while he had grown up in New Jersey. We had different stuff in our blood. Ironically he committed the crime of thinking he knew what was best for me, an about-face or violation of his own core belief.

Happens all the time. He thought I was going through the objective to find the subjective, he drew it like going one way around a circle instead of say, the other, finding the objective through the subjective; finding the world around you by listening to the voice inside you instead of finding the voice inside you by going through the world around you. Looking inward vs looking outward. I think Richard Tuttle discovered looking inward, like a convert, twice born, where as I was born that way. It might make sense to balance the two, of course, but that is something else.

Still, you get the idea. Right? There's Frank Sinatra's "My Way," and then there's "My way or the highway, Buster!" There's the "no I in team," or as Michael Jordan put it, "but there's an I in win, coach!" That's the thing. At the back or front or bottom or top of every group there is an individual. It is really their way! Where the buck stops. Chief. Chiefs and indians. Coach and team. Alpha or beta. To be or not to be. The pack or the path. Their voice or yours! Their truck or yours! What's it gonna be, boy? What's it gonna be?

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Where Art Happens

Recently someone asked me why I don't teach my children "art." I was after all, they argued, an excellent art teacher at some top schools on and off for over twenty years. My last teaching stint was at RISD in the Foundation program a dozen years ago, and I quit to be with my family when my second oldest was born.

I've written before about the greatest lesson I learned as a teacher: how important it was to embrace the notion that you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink. When I was a young teacher I assumed that it was my job to get the horse to drink. My oldest helped me as much as anyone to let go of that assumption. He is now a painter and getting his masters at Columbia, and if I had tried to teach him anything he would be in banking.

These days I have taken this idea of "preserving the horse's right to drink when it feels like it" a step further; let the horse find his own way to the water! Or not! I tried to explain this to my friend. Yes, I have always shared the belief that you can't teach art, and was a teacher only to preserve this freedom. Which was why I quit teaching when I did; because I was uncomfortable with the charade. But now I really believe it. No way you can teach art, no way, and the very idea is offensive.

So of course this person asked me "then why art school?" I answered, "simple, art school gives you a chance to be doing the thing you love to do without worrying about the real world, and it allows you to be surrounded by people who care about what you care about."

No one learns anything in art school. Anything of value at any rate. At least not directly as a result of teaching. They learn by doing, by accident, by example. You can't teach that.

It always kills me when people talk about outsider and self-taught artists. Everybody is self-taught when it comes to art. Encouragement is the only thing that can make a difference, frankly. I got a lot of encouragement as a young artist, but I never learned anything from a teacher, not from Severini, not from Exeter, not from RISD, not from Richard Tuttle or Charles Seliger or Leon Polk Smith. Yes, they all encouraged me. Some wise person once referred to teaching as passing the poison. Truer words were never spoken. I spent two years detoxing when I got out of RISD. I was lucky, though, because I kept painting(the other day someone told me 1 in 10 kept at it after RISD). Nonetheless I'm sure I have poison in me still.

My kids get to see me painting in my studio. They get to see and be around the art in our home and gallery. They make stuff all the time. Over the holiday my oldest was home from school and he had everyone making collaborative drawings. Without question I was the weak link, the one who needed to get with it, the one who needed an attitude adjustment, the one who needed to lose the kind of excess baggage that we only pick up in school.

Who knows where art happens? And that is the beauty of it; no one.

-- Post From My iPhone