Archive

Tag Archives: engagement

I am writing this for myself; you needn’t read it. Usually, if I include myself in a piece I write, it is only to provide a personal angle on a wider, more general point that is the purpose of the text. I try not to intrude on your patience. But here, I really am writing for myself: If you continue reading, you will be eavesdropping on thoughts not aimed at you. 

One of my granddaughters is currently on an archeological dig in Peru, part of her university studies. I wrote her saying this could be a life-defining experience for her. And that began my thinking: What have been those life-defining moments for me? I don’t simply mean chronologically, such as we all encounter as we age through our existence, such milestones as going off to school, turning 21, getting married and divorced, suffering job interviews and eventually retiring. No, I mean those episodes that bend the twig so the tree is inclined: Those things that turn us into ourselves rather than into someone else. 

I could start, like David Copperfield, with “Chapter 1: I am born.” Not for the mere fact, which is universal, but for the inheritance I was given in the womb of the random pairings of genes that govern a good deal of my personality, abilities, and inclinations. I began not ab ovo a blank slate, but with bits of genetic material that came through my parents from their parents before them and so on, tracking back, if I had the means, first to Africa, and then beyond to single-cell beasties in the pond water, and before that to the prokaryotes and lithotrophs, the bacteria and the original amino acids, some semblance of which are still floating in my chromosomes, like genetic homeopathy. This ancestry is still there in every cell of my body, and they all have a “life-defining” push and pull. 

Beyond that, the first experience I had that altered my life was going to school, and not just the school, but the going. From kindergarten on, I walked to school every day and home again. It was a mile from home to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School, and I soon began to take “short cuts” home each day, which were new routes often so far out of the way, I actually went through neighboring towns on my nostoi. These routes served two functions: first, that I avoided the routine and the boredom that ensues; second, to explore the wider world and see what else was out there. I have continued to explore and to avoid routine for the rest of my life. 

Then there was the moment I learned to read, although I cannot remember a time I couldn’t. But there was the discovery of the school library, which was also the town library, in the basement of the Charles deWolf Elementary School (we had moved). I read every book I could find there, subject by subject. Third grade was devoted to dinosaurs. 

After that, the next turning point, I believe was in third grade, when in art class we were asked to draw Christmas trees for the holiday. I earnestly built my tree up with a trunk and branches, which curved upward, as they do on a fir tree. My teacher told me I was wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate how a Christmas tree really looked, making the familiar diagrammatic greeting-card or cookie-cutter shape.

I was outraged, because I had looked at Christmas trees and I knew I was right and the teacher was wrong. So much for any trust in authority. I took from this a trust in my own observation. This would also later lead me to mistrust many mere conventions that were widely taken to be iron-clad  truths. 

As much as I loved grammar school, I hated high school. Most likely, it was just a victim of my adolescence. I studied and learned the things that piqued my interest, and ignored subjects that bored me. Concomitant grades. I got many an A in hard subjects and too many a C or D in subjects I found boring, badly taught, or otherwise had little interest in. 

But two events aimed my life in new directions. First, I worked on the student newspaper, expecting to be its photographer. But I wrote two stories for it, and both won state-wide awards. I didn’t know then I would become a writer.

The second was finding a girlfriend, who, it turned out, would go on to become a professional bassoonist, and while we were courting, we listened to classical music. I remember fondly sitting on her parents’ couch with her, spooning to the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My homelife was oddly devoid of music. I was insufficiently stimulated by the popular music of my time and my own parents seldom listened to any music, except what turned up on TV variety shows, and so, becoming exposed to serious music was a revelation. I became not just a writer, but eventually a classical music critic for my newspaper. 

In college, the single most important thing was a class in English Romantic poetry, not so much for the poetry, but for the hard kick in the pants I got from the professor. I was always a smart kid, and was used to knowing how to get good grades, i.e., how to give the teacher what he or she wanted. I knew all the usual tricks. But somehow this professor didn’t want me to give him what he wanted. My first paper came back with a D-minus on it. What is this, I thought. I gave him back what he said in class. But what he wanted was not some rote lesson, but rather he wanted me to engage with the material. It would not have mattered if I was completely wrongheaded, if the wrongheadedness evolved from a genuine dive into the poetry, paying attention to what was actually there. The D-minus was like the slap a doctor gives a newborn to begin life. 

In a way, this was simply a reinforcement of the Christmas tree lesson: Trust yourself. Not arrogantly or stubbornly, but as the starting point. What the book says, or the teacher, must at least at the beginning correspond to my own experience. I may later learn more, and expand my horizon and discover my own ignorance, but the start is myself and my serious engagement with the material. Lesson: Pay attention. 

This has been the first of the two greatest lessons of my life. No: three. 

One other thing happened at college: A friend who had a horrible family turned out not to have a horrible family, and the ruin they had planned for him turned out to have been the psychiatric help I didn’t know he needed. It was another sort of kick in the pants: Things are not always as they seem; there is always more context and backstory than you have access to. This lesson was reinforced a few years later when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which hit home like a ton of bricks. I had been Darley, I had been Balthazar, and the omniscient view of Mountolive does not exist in the world outside fiction. I was suitably chastened and forever after not so cocksure of myself or anything else. 

I skip over my first marriage and the birth of my son, because I was too young, ignorant and callow to understand any of it at the time. The marriage lasted just three years. Suffice it to say that I was repaid karmically in my next relationship for my callousness and unrecognized cruelty. 

I then lived with an exceptional young woman for seven years. I was settled into that relationship for the duration. My life was mapped. That is, until she told me she had decided to marry someone else, a shock that blindsided me and knocked me off kilter for at least five years, during which I left the state, moved to Seattle and tried to find another life to lead. I was a lost soul. 

I shared a house there with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. It was across the street from the zoo, where I found work at the snack counter. The WMOM, who had written several pornographic novels (the first, Sixty-Nine In-Laws, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), was already a published author, and I learned from him a thing or two about writing. I had been so immersed in literature, that when I wrote anything, it was like I was trying to be part of a university curriculum. I wasn’t writing for readers, but for libraries. The WMOM instead wrote quickly, facilely and more like he spoke than like Strunk and White instructed. I learned not to take my words so seriously, but to have fun with them. 

I read constantly, and among the formative books were virtually everything Henry Miller ever wrote. He reinforced the lessons I learned from the WMOM and taught me the importance of flow — that the writing could pour out like spring water. It’s a lesson maybe I’ve learned too well. 

Incidentally, the WMOM has cleaned up his act and is now one of the literary lights of Seattle. Unfortunately, his writing has become so literary as to be almost unreadable. It’s like we exchanged places. 

I practiced writing through letters. I wrote everyone and frequently. I kept carbons of them all. In March of 1978, I pumped out 500 pages on my aqua-colored portable typewriter. The nozzle has been wide open ever since. 

I had a brief romance in Seattle with a zookeeper. The relationship ran hot and cold, and made no sense to me: Did she like me, or did she not?  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to move back East. Only years later did I discover the tragic situation that she was in, and the trauma she had suffered and never told me of. It once again underlined the truth that we never know the whole story, and we should never judge, for we are ignorant. 

This was the second most significant lesson, which I was given reinforcement any number of humbling times. I hope I have learned to wear my nescience gracefully. 

Back in North Carolina, I was close to homeless, and my best college friend and his wife took me in. I lived with them for a year and a half, at their sufferance. They saved my life. But I then found my real wife. We were together for more than 35 years until her death two years ago. 

That encounter was the single biggest thing that happened in my life. In an echo of the English Romantics professor, she forced me to take seriously the fundamental questions of living and to give up any lingering glibness I wore.

Ignorance is about the only thing I had no knowledge of when I was young. I had an answer to pretty much everything. Now, I realize that if I knew a lot of facts, it wasn’t because I was smart, but because the facts stuck on account of my brain being gummy. A collection of facts is not only meaningless, it also prevents learning. When I was a young man, I must have been insufferable. 

I did manage to make some spare change in bar bets. But what I learned from my wife was not so much how to think outside the box, but rather to remain ignorant that such a box even existed. She was the single most intelligent person I ever knew, although that fact might not be immediately apparent when you first met her. She was likely to say the most incomprehensible things, and only if you argued with her — sometimes for two days at a stretch — did you come to understand exactly how brilliant and insightful — how comprehensible — those odd things really were. 

She admitted that she had once been intimidated by my command of facts, but, the longer we lived together, the more I came to value my own ignorance, and the more freely I came to answer, “I don’t know.” She once told me her disappointment. “You used to know everything,” she said. Well, now I don’t. 

She also made me live up to my ideals, and she made me aware, not immediately, but over the long haul, the vital importance of family, and being constantly concerned for someone else’s welfare. The lesson came into profound use as she became increasingly ill and I had to care for her. What she gave to me by her slow decline is inestimable. The greatest hours of my life were those I was able to give to her. I would have given every hour I had, past and future, if she could have lived. 

Her death was the last — or at least the most recent — life-defining point, as I watched her go and came to realize, not something so stale as that life is short. We all know that, especially the closer we come to the end. But that there is little but breath and metabolism behind all that we love and care for. Take that away, and we stare at the void. 

And I can never be vain about my abilities or accomplishments, because not only will my breath and metabolism fail, but that the entire Earth has a sell-by date, the sun, the stars and the universe all sing the lines from Brahms’ German Requiem: “dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.” 

What I could not have imagined coming out of college is that there is nothing distressing or mournful about this, but rather that I have a small, an infinitesimal part in a vast cosmic dance. 

The value is not in the result, but in the engagement. Gratia Rudy. 

wall panels

Two of the most common complaints I heard at art galleries were: “My kid could do that,” and “It’s the emperor’s new clothes.”

As far as the first, I suspect the kid could do that, although the parent could not. Kids’ art is amazing. As for the second, it implies that the artist is somehow hoodwinking the public, setting out to create something to “fool the rubes.”

But in my 25 years of being an art critic and seeing hundreds, probably thousands of shows, I have to say I cannot remember a single example of an artist deliberately scamming the public. On the contrary, no matter how godawful the art, how silly the conceit, how pretentious the content, every single one of them was utterly sincere.

The issue has been raised by my former esteemed colleague, Kerry Lengel, on his Facebook page: “What percentage of Modern art was created for the sole purpose of making rubes like me scratch their heads and go, ‘Whuh …?’ ” Included is the above photo of a four-panel Minimalist artwork. He seems to have addressed this question specifically to me.

My initial response to his percentage question was “13.7 percent.” But that was merely facetious. He suggested 40 percent. But my real answer is closer to zero.

This is not to exonerate all the really bad art that hangs on gallery and museum walls, but to claim that the miserableness is not by intent. Remember the rule of thumb: 90 percent of everything is crap. (Others calculate that at 99 percent, but I’m not here to quibble).

Nor am I going to argue that many arts professionals aren’t gargling jargon and hiding behind graduate degrees and claiming to have arcane knowledge the ordinary art goer is not privy to. Any profession has its shibboleths. I have complained many times about the ridiculous text that curators post beside the art on the wall, claiming all kinds of political and philosophical content in otherwise simple imagery. Such content may or may not be there, but if it isn’t communicated by the art itself, what good is having an explanation next to it?

The academic and intellectual world has been infected for the past 30 or 40 years with “theory,” and it has deracinated a good deal of the art, both by explaining away the work, or by substituting theory for actual experience. There is much to be learned from deconstruction or semiotics, but it cannot replace just looking at the art itself. All theory is an attempt to replace living experience with dry words. Language is a way to tame the effusive and prolific chaos of human experience. It is a map instead of a voyage.

(I thank goodness that we seem to be leaving the constipated orbit of post-structuralism. I could never understand why we should take seriously any theory that by its own tenets is meaningless. It has been one of the least helpful things the French have ever given us.)

Let’s take a look at the four wall panels above. First, they aren’t just any colors, but specifically the primary colors of the additive color system, that is, the colors in your TV and computer screen. The blue isn’t any blue, but the almost purple blue, the red is a tomato red. If you look closely at the colors and try to ingest them the way you might a salami sandwich, roll them around on your eyes the way you might roll that deli meat on your tongue, you can simply enjoy their intensity. They are a pleasure to look at.

But they may also make you consider the difference between the mediated world of digital experience and the sensuous world that you float in daily. The artist could have chosen the printer’s subtractive primary colors (the colors of the printed page), cyan, yellow, magenta and black (abbreviated to CYMK, where the K stands for black).

wall panels cmyk

So, they are not just any colors. You bring to the art your knowledge of the color choices you use daily on your iMac, the same way you bring your knowledge of biblical mythology to the paintings of Titian, or your knowledge of the French demimonde to Impressionists.

Further, the rectangular shape of the canvases (or panels, I can’t tell from the photo) is the shape of the pixels on your TV or computer screen. If you look with a magnifying glass at the screen you can see them lined up in register. These four panels seem to be about something, not merely four panels of random colors.

What you make of all this is up to you, but you should not simply dismiss the art. I don’t want to make to great a claim for this specific piece of art, but the artist clearly had something in mind.

What we are asked to do by any piece of art is to take it seriously. We may ultimately decide it belongs with the 90 percent that deserves to be flushed away, but we haven’t earned the judgment unless we first allow ourselves to assume its sincerity (even when it is clearly an ironic comment). It’s the art world equivalent of “innocent until proven guilty.” Admittedly, it can sometimes be a short trial, but it shouldn’t be a lynching.

It should also be noted that there is a difference between liking a piece of art and appreciating it. We all have tastes and sometimes we like vanilla and don’t like asparagus. But we can recognize that some people love the vegetable. Liking is not a judgment, it is an expression of personal taste. There are many works of art I recognize as important and distinguished but that I have no taste for. I have a personal animus toward all Victorian literature. Can’t stand the stuff. But just because I was put off Dickens by being forced to read Oliver Twist in eighth grade doesn’t mean I think Dickens is no damn good. I just don’t resonate to Victorian writing. I don’t enjoy Browning, either, or Hardy. Liking is merely personal; quality is something else.Holzer

Samuel Coleridge says somewhere in his Biographica Literaria that there is a difference between “gustibus” and “gusti.” De gustibus non est desputandum, he says is merely the personal liking and disliking of something, but taste, he says, is not like that. It can be cultivated and developed.

I remember recoiling at the rather glib statement by artist Jenny Holzer that “Money creates taste.” That should be, “Money creates fashion.” Taste is something else. Just ask Donald Trump.

Taste requires engagement. Spending time and effort. It is not a question of academic degrees, but willingness and openness; and an ability to forget the myriad conventional categories we have been ground down by. Art that is unfamiliar is usually art that is going somewhere beyond the norm, and invites us to go with it.stella-flowers-italy-1931-copy

So, if you don’t recognize value in the four panels of color on the wall, this should be a sign that you should stop and plan to spend an hour with it trying to figure out what the artist might be attempting that you cannot understand with the speed and alacrity you might get the punchline of a New Yorker cartoon. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2014/07/10/how-to-look-at-a-painting/ )

Engagement — not in the Sartrean political sense, but in the sense of spending your time and attention — is the bottom line both in making art and in perceiving it. Let it absorb you as you absorb it. Seek the pleasure in the simplest things, such as the green; not just any green, but this very specific green. Taste it in your eye. For the time you stand in front of it, let the painting or sculpture, or installation, be everything in the world, a funnel into which you pour your whole life experience, and let it come back out in a torrent.

Obviously, you won’t get the big reward every time. Some art is thin gruel. But you should never just assume it is pabulum. It just may prove worth your time.

futurismo

Patience is a virtue, they say, although you could never tell it from watching a driver hit the speed dial on his cell phone while in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.

If it is a virtue, it is one of those quaint, Victorian or medieval virtues, like chastity or temperance, that seem completely beside the point in our modern world.

Ours is a world of channel-surfing, of Federal Express, of 24-hour Wall Street, of the Concorde. drive thru holding bag

When e-mail isn’t fast enough, we invent instant messaging.

Admit it: Haven’t you left something behind at Safeway because you just didn’t want to wait in the line?

Children cannot wait to be teenagers. Teenagers cannot wait to be adults. They are all in over their heads and don’t know it.

Adults cannot wait for the traffic light to change and gun their engines. They run up escalators and microwave their instant coffee.

If they could make their clocks run faster, they would.

And what do they gain by racing through the day?

A few moments to squeeze in something else too hectic to notice as it passes by.

It is our national impatience on each Election Day that we want to know the results before the ballots are actually counted. How has that worked out?

Don’t blame the media: It is our demand for instant results that drives the networks.

But, on the other hand, we should blame media. drive thru sign

I don’t mean “the press,” for which “the media” is often used as a synonym but rather the actual mediums of communication: the television, the computer, the iPhone.

We live in two competing time realities. Media time rushes at the speed of the electrons that form it.

Our computers run at a speed clocked in gigahertz, and if tomorrow they run at terahertz, we’ll trade in our outdated desktop.

But underneath it, there is the time that there has always been: The solar time that is barely perceptible, plodding at the pace of starfish crossing undersea rocks.

In our media experience, everything flies by, helped by keyboard shortcuts.

It confuses us into thinking we live in a fast-paced world. But we don’t. We live in a slow-paced world that is chronicled by ever-faster media. A day still takes a full 24 hours to cycle.

Because so many of us work on computers and spend our leisure time watching video screens, it is easy to mistake the mediated world for the real one. We are social creatures, and the means we have created for communicating with each other can seem primary rather than derivative. cell phone pix

Our new gospel might read, “In the beginning was the flicker.”

The problem is that the faster we speed up our interaction with the world, as mediated by our technology, the less we are actually engaged with the world we live in. Instead, we are engaged with our iPhones, leaving our world to fend for itself.

This was brought home all the more forcefully the last time I went to the zoo.

We visited with a friend’s 8-year-old boy and watched as he paced from exhibit to exhibit, looked in for a maximum of 10 seconds and moved on to the next animal.

Trained by the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, he expected instant animal action: The big cat should roar, the antelope should pronk. That is what they do on television, where all the “boring parts” are edited out. lions sleeping

The zoo, because it was there, in real time before his eyes, was a terrible disappointment. He hadn’t the patience to stand for a half-hour in front of the exhibit to see what animals actually do, as they sleep, scratch their furry behinds and tear the rinds off tangerines with their teeth.

The result wasn’t just boredom. It was a failure to identify with the animals, to scratch his bottom like the monkeys or to feel his own teeth in those tangerines. A failure of empathy.

What he sees on television are just pictures: information he can manipulate.

There is nothing human about it. It is experience as flat as the video monitor. But there in front of him at the zoo, if he had the patience to see it, is a 3-D world, one infinitely complex and fascinating. It contains not only unexpected behaviors, it contains sounds and — most pungently — smells that the iPad experience cannot deliver.

At such times, we can recognize that impatience is a vice. It blocks our understanding and our growth as humans. It diminishes the world and worse, shrinks our engagement with it.

The reverse is also true: The reason that patience is a virtue — and one worth cultivating even in the 21st century — is that it provides a chance to escape our egos.

It gives us the opportunity to empathize, at real time and with real beings, so that we may act morally and ethically.

Patience allows you to seep into the world and become part of it instead of just moving it efficiently from the in-box to the out-box, stamped by your momentary attention.

Instead of making life boring, patience makes it exciting and keeps us involved in it.