art*thoughts


Leave a comment

Feminist impressions

I wrote this poem after being introduced to the art of Hung Liu and Kara Walker in a course called Women and Art. The sketch is also inspired by their work.
Woman

Sketch by Angela Anderson

I am the mangled feet

of grandmothers

the carcasses of baby girls,

casting shadows on a landscape

that smothers.

I am the sting of whispers

on the necks

of sisters,

whips cut horrors

into my way

back.

I am the breaking bones

of cousins

battered with stones,

pieces of my body

hitting blades of sorrow

yesterday, last century,

and tomorrow.

Raped, bent, abandoned,

and shamed,

I am woman.

I am maimed.


Leave a comment

‘The Birds’ as Hidden Drives of Women

In “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud identifies the mechanism of fear produced by horror stories as one that reveals what is hidden. The uncanny, he states, is something “which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (833). Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, is set in a time and place ripe with restraint. The small town of Bodega Bay harbors good housewives, mothers and teachers who smile while their eyes reflect less-innocent feelings centered on one man—the lawyer Mitch Brenner. When a deviant, cosmopolitan socialite comes to town to court Brenner, birds start flocking and attacking. Viewed through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny, the birds in Hitchcock’s film represent unconscious female drives, which once awoken through the arrival of a sexy stranger, threaten the psychic sleepiness of the shuttered community.

The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force.

In his 1919 essay, Freud traces the roots of the German unheimlich (uncanny) to two converging meanings: familiar and concealed (828). Unfolding narratives in The Birds provoke the tensions inherent in this meeting of terms. When the attractive Melanie Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay to surprise Brenner with a pair of lovebirds, the town’s folk glare, Brenner’s mother and ex-girlfriend act threatened, and the local fowl refuse to eat. The suspicion inherent in the tense behavior of the community suggests that there is something below the surface that should be guarded from strangers, like a family secret shared by the intimacy of a closed group. As the birds in the film become increasingly violent, the hidden motives in each woman surface through their tentative relationship with Daniels. Strained conversations and emotional outbursts unearth their jealousy and despair.

What is the source of their angst? According to Freud, “every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety” (833). To the housewives of Bodega Bay, Daniels represents a dangerous freedom. Her bold antics in pursuing Brenner are amplified by her reputation: according to a gossip column Brenner’s mother read, the socialite had once jumped into a Roman fountain in the nude. In Freudian terms, Daniels is what the housewives of Bodega Bay once knew and had to hide beneath their small-town social mores: the power of their own libidinal drives.

The menacing birds in Hitchcock’s film are the materialization of the women’s latent sexuality. At the local diner Daniels tries to convince an elderly female ornithologist that the birds attacked children at the school. The woman retorts, “Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss, they bring beauty into the world.” In other words, lovely creatures, birds or women, cannot be dangerous, and yet they are. The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force. Daniels becomes the focal point of the women’s hysteria as the avian horror plays out. A mother at the diner strikes out at the stranger: “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil!”

The Birds was produced on the advent of the sexual revolution in America, more than two decades after Freud’s death. Hitchcock’s “uncanny” portrayal of women’s sexuality as both familiar and concealed is placed perfectly in the tension between conservative 1950s and the liberating 1960s. At the end of the film, Daniels is driven by her bold curiosity to an attic room where the birds trap and ravish her. In a state of shock, she allows herself to be taken into Brenner’s mother’s arms. Tamed at last, Daniels smiles up at her—a good daughter’s smile. As Brenner drives the family out of town through a mass of eerily docile birds, the viewer is left to wonder if they will attack again.

Works Cited

The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 824-841.


Leave a comment

Art and aesthetic character

756px-isadora_duncan_1

Isadora Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)

Art is popularly conceived of as a finished work: the art object. People look at a painting or sculpture, read a poem or hear a piece of music and call it art. The products of artistic activities are indeed valuable independent entities in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller’s “art for art’s sake.” However, in order to understand and appreciate art broadly, one must go beyond the art object to consider the process of artistic creation that brought the artwork into being. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger argues that the artwork conveys the world from which it was born. That world—the inspiration, passion, hopes, and fears of a particular time, place, and condition—provides the emotional kindling for aesthetic activity, which is a distinct enterprise requiring certain qualities in order to engage in it. The world is constantly offering up inspiration, but human capacity to interact aesthetically with it varies from one person to the next and one moment to the next. What is the nature of this interaction between woman or man and the world that engenders art? By looking at the aesthetic character—the dispositions or ways of being that foster the pursuit of aesthetic activities—one can more fully understand the nature of art. Three key aesthetic qualities are openness and seeking, dedication, and expressiveness.

Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden.

Many philosophers have defined art as a medium through which man is connected to a higher truth. In Enneads, Plotinus characterizes beauty as the soul recognizing the “higher realm of being” in earthly forms. Clive Bell describes the state that art arouses as “aesthetic emotion,” an ecstatic response that is unearthly and sublime. Leo Tolstoy, who argues for moral aesthetic judgment, insists that art originates in honest inspiration, new and “dimly-perceived feelings,” which are directly connected to the artist’s heart. Whatever the source of aesthetic insight—the soul, truth, love, or genius—people must be open, receptive and seeking in order to connect to it.

The first dispositions required in the process of art are perceptiveness and reflectiveness, through which the artist or the viewer of art must search for something beyond the material, the obvious, and the everyday. Art often results from a momentary lucidness—an answer to a question of the soul. The open and seeking aesthetic character finds something in the world that resonates, often in a frequency that is beyond logic or reason. Plotinus describes how “sense-perception … gathers into one that which appears dispersed and brings it back and takes it in, now without parts, to the soul’s interior.” Man’s aesthetic eyes, heart, and lungs must be open, beating, and breathing in order to “gather” inspiration from the world.

The second challenge of art then follows: The artist takes that tenuous insight and makes with it something real. Therein lies the next important aesthetic disposition—dedication. In Art as Experience, John Dewey asserts that aesthetic value is directly correlated to the magnitude of vitality with which any object is made. In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan, one of the founders of modern dance, describes how she stood in an empty and silent dance studio with her eyes closed, perfectly still, waiting for an answer to the question: What moves me? When the answer came, she didn’t stop questioning. She worked for years to find, sculpt, and perfect her own dance facing down significant obstacles. Every artist acquires the skills of his trade, and he goes to work each day to turn inspiration into substance, to make the intangible tangible. Artworks may be described as divine, but they do not drop from the heavens. They are the result of human work done creatively and passionately. R. G. Collingwood argues that art lives in complete form in the mind, but art is never realized without physical effort. Art is a process and product of the mind, soul and body working in the material world—using matter to bridge the immaterial world of thought, emotion, and being. Art may well be connected to the higher-self—the soul—but it is more than prayer; it is creation.

To truly appreciate art, the art enthusiast must also invest her time and attention in a manner that requires devotion. She, too, must have an open, seeking mind and heart to embrace the worlds that art open to her—and while many people are content to appreciate art in the manner of Kant’s “free play,” making the effort to contemplate the artwork over time and learn about the artist, culture, and time period it was created in gives the beholder of art a deeper understanding and a richer experience. In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume expresses the importance of exercise in the art experience: “In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.” It is one thing to fall in love with an artwork and another to do the hard work of seeking understanding and discovering unseen nuances in the familiar.

What begins inside the artist’s heart, mind, and soul and develops in her studio is ultimately meant to be shared. The final aim of artistic creation is communication. Therefore, the third essential disposition of aesthetic character is expressiveness. Only through expression is the artist able to fully realize her work. Tolstoy frames the creative act of art as a struggle in which the artist attempts to build a bridge of understanding to his fellow man. For Tolstoy, successful art reveals the artist’s inner awakening sufficiently enough to bring about a similar feeling in all who receive his message. In Poetics, Aristotle proposes that drama serves man in his efforts to learn through affinity with tragedy, which imitates life. Art is essentially a cycle of giving and receiving: The artist gains insight through receptivity; he gives his time, talent, and effort to creation; he presents his work to his fellow man; the viewer receives and interacts with the work; and the artist gains new knowledge through the synergy. Without expression, the circle of art is broken.

Through receptivity, engagement and interaction with the world, aesthetic character facilitates perpetual discovery, development, and achievement. Heidegger argues that by bringing to light the constancy of being surrounding and inherent in substance, art illuminates the world in the entire context of its being. Art has the power to reveal truth, even the mutating truth of changing constants, because it is a creative act. Knowledge is a constant process of building understanding and letting go of old ideas to make room for new.

Art is a human activity and occupation. It demands certain human qualities. Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden. It struggles to bring knowledge from the murky depths of being to the surface, so that man can understand himself and others. The fact that artists and art enthusiasts exist and share a common aesthetic character demonstrates that human beings are intrigued, impassioned and propelled by self-examination. Through art man learns about his spirit and its connection to the material world.

In his Berlin lectures published in Introduction to Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel emphasizes that self-reflection is the essence of the human spirit. Art philosophy approaches man’s contemporary sacred needs and allows art to maintain its spiritual relevance, he argues. Through self-reflection, aesthetic experience provides what Aristotle refers to as catharsis: feeling, sensing, but also knowing about the self and the world. By understanding and nurturing aesthetic character, man can secure and augment the important endeavor of art, the value of artworks, and the interactions of art maker and viewer—a worthy conversation toward understanding and appreciation of the precious subtleties of life.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. Liberty Online. Jawaid Bazyar. 1995-1999. Web. 20 January 2013. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Aristotle/Poetics.htm.

Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” Art. New York: Chatto & Windus, 1981. 15-34.

Collingwood, Robin George. The Principles of Art. Chap. 7. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1938. 125-152.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980. Chap. 1-2. 3-27.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Chapters 1-3.” Introduction to Aesthetics (Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of 1820s). Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. ”The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. A. Hofstader. Lectures 1 & 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 32-48.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965. 231-255.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Trans. J. C. Meredith. Sections 1-14, 16, 23-24, 28. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Plotinus. Enneads. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Vol. I. Section 6. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. 229-263.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Letters.” On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 26-27. Trans. E. Wilkinson & L. Willoughby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. 191-219.

Tolstoy, Leo. “On Art.” What is Art? and Essays on Art. Trans. A. Maude. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. 46-61.

 


Leave a comment

Intimacy betrayed: Nan Goldin’s ‘Nan and Brian in Bed’

hb_2001-627-lg

“Nan and Brian in Bed,” Nan Goldin, 1981 (www.metmuseum.org)

In 1981 Nan Goldin took a snapshot of a woman and a man in bed. The photo, simply titled “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became part of an epic artwork she called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which came to represent the post-punk era of hard drugs and sexual indulgence. But the work was intensely personal. The woman behind the camera and in the bed was Goldin herself. The intention of her photography was to chronicle her relationships in all their intimate, stark moments (Goldin, interview). In doing so, she brought to light much more than the details of a subculture. As her camera captured Brian with his back turned and her narrowed eyes watching him, she made public a typically private experience of women as gendered beings. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became the signature image of Goldin’s Ballad, exhibited internationally and published in a book by the same name. Goldin’s photo stands out in a world of representation dominated by the male gaze, in which women want nothing more than to be looked at. In “Nan and Brian in Bed,” Goldin is doing the looking, and what her eyes see challenges universal ideals of gender intimacy.

“Nan and Brian in Bed,” was created in Goldin’s signature style of informal photography using available light and non-posed subjects in intimate spaces. The imperfections—slightly grainy with unlit corners—give the photo authenticity: This is a moment of life and truth. She has invited the viewer into her bedroom where Brian sits on the edge of the bed holding a cigarette to his mouth, absorbed in his unreadable thoughts. The sharpest focus and brightest light fall on his face; the largest shape in the foreground of the photo is his unlit naked back turned to his lover and the camera. In the background, Nan’s reclined body is obscured by a dark robe. Her face on the pillow gazes up at Brian with a hard look of desire.

The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art.

The composition and title of Goldin’s photo leads the viewer to imagine the actions that led up to this moment: the quintessential post-sex cigarette. Once intimately entwined, one imagines, the two figures are now separated and introspective. Brian has moved on to his next kick, and Nan contemplates the object of her own “dependency.” The look in Nan’s eye, and the view from her camera, imply the duality of dependence: desire and guilt, love and hate. This duality is echoed in the two predominant colors of the photo, black and golden red.

The casual nature of Goldin’s photography can be attributed to her own attitude toward her documentary project. In a 2013 video interview recorded by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Goldin says, “I didn’t really care about good photography, I cared about complete honesty.” She traces that focus to her family’s reaction to her own sister’s teen suicide when Golden was eleven. “The family was very revisionist, so what happened didn’t happen,” she says. She decided she wanted expose what happens in private spheres. Goldin’s Ballad became the “proof” of her experiences that “no one can revise” (Goldin, interview).

Based on this personal crusade for truth, her work is intentionally and fearlessly autobiographical. Goldin ran away from her suburban home at fourteen and subsequently found a new family among drag queens and underground club subcultures of Boston and New York City (Garratt). The friends she lived with during this period and their uncensored lives of sex and drugs were the raw subjects of her photos, which probe the limits of relationships in all gender variations. A pivotal connection in this urban tribe was with her boyfriend, Brian, the central figure of her 1981 photograph. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” literally represents a moment in Goldin’s life, when Brian turned his back to her to smoke a cigarette. The image illustrates a mundane yet poignantly familiar scene between men and women, and it heralds the ultimate fate of the lovers who were torn apart by the “conflict inherent in relationships between men and women” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy).

The unflinching autobiographical approach to her photograph allows her to articulate the mechanics of gender that normally remain in the darkness of the bedroom. In the introduction to her book, Goldin writes, “The friction between the fantasies and realities of relationships can lead to alienation or violence.” The fantasy of “happily-ever-after” romantic love between men and women is challenged in the recognizable moment of tentativeness captured in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” The positions represented in the photo are antithetical to the promise of enduring passion, yet so familiar they are stereotypical: A man has sex and turns away, while the woman wonders if the love she feels is returned or only leveraged for sex. The photograph represents a moment of doubt and incompatibility between the sexes that is typically unacknowledged in mainstream imagery.

Nan, in the photograph, is the dependent female, gazing up at her prince of the urban underworld with a mixture of need and regret. Yet, the fact that Goldin is also behind the camera demonstrates female agency: The viewer sees this break in romantic narrative through the woman’s own eyes. She is the active viewer and recorder of her own life. The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art. Brian becomes the “alien other,” the object of a woman’s gaze (Adams 99). However, Brian’s nudity is very different from that described by John Berger in “Ways of Seeing.” Unlike the reclining, receptive female nude, “offering up her femininity as the surveyed,” Brian is turned away from the observer, unaware and unavailable (Berger 55). What Goldin captures in “Nan and Brian in Bed” is the difference between male-created fantasy and feminist reality: Men portray the world as they wish it was, but this woman shows it the way it is. By making public the honesty of this intimate moment, Goldin demonstrates the strength of her own vulnerability in acknowledging the duality of dependence.

Although she claims no motivation beyond the desire to document her life and relationships, the power of Goldin’s honesty is proven in the enduring relevance of the photo (Garrett). The power of her truthfulness is also evident in the violent rage it caused in same man who claimed to love her. “The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote in the book’s introduction, “My written diaries are private; they form a closed document of my world. . . ” Her relationship with Brian ended after he read her “private” diary, burned it, and beat her up. In another photo from the series, Goldin looks directly into the camera with curly hair, bright red lipstick and bruises around her eyes. “Confronting my normal ambivalence had betrayed his absolute notion of romance” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). The photographer was brave enough to show the world that love is not always the romantic love of male-dominated social narrative. Sometimes love is hate, and sometimes it is a bad habit—an itch one cannot scratch because it is fabricated by chemistry and fallacy. After the beating, Goldin slid into the depths of drug dependency, a period of her life she characterizes as “very, very dark” (Garratt).

The awareness of the artist’s personal journey through sexual and drug dependency, and the significance of her photography in relation to a history of male-centered imagery, lends deeper meaning to Brian’s turned back in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” It signifies society’s cold shoulder turned on those who had expected deliverance through the myth of male/female intimacy, a myth which often leads people into small, dark rooms only to find the ambivalence, isolation, and violence Goldin articulates.

“When I was fifteen,” the artist writes, “the perfect world seemed a place of total androgyny, where you wouldn’t know a person’s gender until you were in bed with him or her. I’ve since realized that gender is much deeper than style” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). In a similar sense, “Nan and Brian in Bed” reaches beyond its iconic nature as a symbol of an era of irreverent youth. The photograph demonstrates how some rules of behavior are so deep that it takes a brave and honest diary of intimacy to tease them out.

Works Cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. The Methodologies of Art. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2010. Print.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972. PDF.

Garrett, Sheryl. “The Dark Room.” The Guardian 5 Jan. 2002. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Goldin, Nan. Interview by the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” MOCAtv on YouTube, 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

Goldin, Nan. Introduction. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture. 1986. PDF.


2 Comments

A Black Mole Comes to Tea with Artist Fleur Spolidor

“Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

fleur Spolidor Alice and the Bubble acrylic on canvas copy

“Alice and the Bubble” by Fleur Spolidor. Acrylic on canvas.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with artist Fleur Spolidor at her sunny Peninsula studio to learn more about her work. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and we were sipping peppermint tea at a her work table, smeared with a satisfying coat of clay and paint, when she spotted a small creature scuttling across the pavement outside and disappearing down a hole in the grass.

“Is it a rat? No, it’s a little mole!” she cried, recognizing its long pink snout. We went to investigate.

It was a deliciously serendipitous beginning to a two-hour dive into the fantastical, beautiful, and sobering “Alice” series. Lewis Carroll’s famous girl in a blue dress who fell down a rabbit hole takes on multiple personas in a set of acrylic paintings, digital images, and mixed media pieces.

One of the things I love most about Spolidor’s Alice in her varying forms – girl, woman, half-sea creature – is what she shows us about life in the Bay Area. All the ironies that have probably made us all, at times, feel like we have fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in some nonsensical non-reality: housing prices, tech versus culture, fighting for women’s rights in the 21st century, just to name a few.

Fleur Spolidor Real Estate Rabbit Hole

“Real Estate Rabbit Hole” by Fleur Spolidor. Acrylic on canvas.

The themes are thought provoking, but the artist says that she invites people into her artworks with beauty. “People need pleasure to approach the vision,” she says. “If you make people feel at home with some aspect of an artwork, you can get them to listen to what you want to say.”

What could be more familiar and likable than Alice and her adventures? A girl who is a little off kilter but never truly undone by even the maddest hatter?

Spolidor generously spent the morning with me explaining how she creates the beauty in her lush backgrounds, the strong lines of her figures, and the joy she finds working with brushes or iPad and printer. We talked about the playfulness in her works, but also their context in our experiences as contemporary women.

My goal is to write and publish more about her work. I’m looking forward to following her Alice on many more adventures. Hopefully there will be more visits by small burrowing creatures along the way. And tea parties, of course.

Spolidor_Sweet Tooth

“Sweet Tooth” by Fleur Spolidor. Digital painting.


Leave a comment

Dancing with uncertainty

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May argues that creativity is dependent on the limitations of human existence: it is the confrontation with borders that inspires people to push against them. “Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem,” he writes (114). The partners in this tension can be envisioned as imagination and trepidation, energy and lethargy, life and death. May describes them as freedom and restriction—the infinite possibility of the imagination and the unyielding reality of mortality and all the lesser restraints (115). At the meeting of these unlikely consorts emerges the struggle that bears the most beautiful fruits of human activity: art, science, design, and all other occupations that generate new directions in the way we think, express ourselves, and live our lives.

For psychologist Carl Jung this struggle operates on a societal level: the artist is a conduit for the vision of mankind, which rebalances the collective psyche. He describes this as an enormous and difficult task: “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire” (230). Creativity is the harder choice, but it’s also the more rewarding path for the individual and for society at large. To deny creativity is to go to the eight-grade dance and stand against the wall. To practice “creative courage,” as May calls it, is to navigate an awkward body under the lights and eyes of our peers to the groove of life—to dance with uncertainty. All people experience pain due to their limits; the artist transforms pain into joy. The dancer creates grace through movement; he defies gravity with his own volition; he smiles in the face of his own immortality.

cropped-screen-shot-2014-04-15-at-10-41-59-pm.png

Me dancing in a park in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2007 with my group beebop-n-butoh.

But the dance of creativity is not a dance of chaos. It requires a frame, a practice, the daring of disclosure, and the willingness to express. In other words, creativity demands the contributions of both partners in the dance: discipline and freedom. The four elements above are key to the creative process: the artist must begin with a dedicated space, fill it with a structure that nurtures openness and intention, take the real risk of exposing her deepest and most honest impressions, and offer the resulting creation to the world that gives it a life beyond the inventor.

By frame, I refer to the practical, physical aspects of the creative space. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Implied in Woolf’s political statement about creativity as opportunity, is the fact that the creative act requires time (money) and space. More specifically, space represents solitude and silence, which are imperative as a basis for creative inspiration. Mozart writes, “Where I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly” (34). A writer’s frame may be a room, as Woolf suggests, or a laptop on a table for a dedicated hour. While writing poetry for my creative project this semester, I found the space I needed by opening my computer, setting my intention to write, and tuning into my own body. Even at busy times in a home with children, I found a quiet corner and projected an air of solitude that kept distractions at bay. In Fearless Creating Eric Maisel calls “hushing” the most critical exercise in his book. “Find a quiet place,” he advises. “If there is no quiet place in your environment, that’s your first task, to make a haven in which silence is available” (5).

I propose that this quiet place is both the physical space the artist occupies, as well as her own body, which houses all the psychic, emotional, and spiritual aspects of creativity. As Yeats implies in his poem “Long-Legged Fly,” creativity must originate in the individual: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence” (109). The silence from which creativity is born requires a physical frame of space and time that is dedicated to the creative act and has multiple layers, beginning with a quiet mind, a still body and a calm haven—a room, a table, a yoga mat, or an open road. With practice of internal silence, a skilled creator can find solitude wherever she roams.

“Hushing,” as Maisel calls the kind of silent, meditative state that opens a channel of reflection and inspiration, is one of the disciplines or methods of creativity that fill the creative space. Silencing the mind and tuning into the body, allows the artist to sample fuller dimensions of experience that encompass all the senses. In “Three Pieces on the Creative Process,” Yeats reflects on “The Thinking of the Body” and his own response to two paintings in his house: “Neither painting could move us at all, if our thought did not rush out to the edges of our flesh, and it is so with all good art” (106). Art demands a physical presence and a physical response, which requires less emphasis on thinking and more focus on feeling and sensing. For most modern people, this is not a natural state of being, but one that must be sought and practiced.

Silence allows creative inspiration to emerge from the subconscious: the words of poetry come through the physical senses, the deep gut feelings into the quiet mind. As I practiced silence of mind and sensation of body in writing poetry, I thought about the poet A.E. Housman’s description of the process of poetry making as a “bubbling up” of sensation: “…so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss…the pit of the stomach” (91).

But listening is just one half of the practice of creativity. As writer and artist Jean Cocteau suggests in “The Process of Inspiration,” it is all too easy for inspiration to remain in the half-shadows of sense perception: it’s the work of the artist to drag the vague beginnings of creation from the dark into the light. “To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying around the dream of a play or a book,” he writes (80). This is why the artist must fill the creative space with tools and techniques for acting on what he senses. In the case of poetry, the active half of writing requires putting down words; arranging, rearranging and substituting them; reading them aloud, acting them out, drawing them in shapes on paper, or typing them. Conscious effort must add the spirit of “whatever it takes” to give birth to art from the deep amorphous pool of subconscious experience. Passive listening and active articulation make up the two aspects of practice required in the creative process.

The frame and practice elements of creativity relate to the discipline side of the dance – they are the banks of the river, to use May’s metaphor. They are the tools an artist uses to tame and shape the wild rush of imagination and inspiration. But without the spark of spontaneity, the daring of uncovering the less civilized impetus of art, creativity would not produce its many splendid things. Maisel addresses “wildness” as a fundamental element of creating without fear. It’s “many faces,” according to Maisel, are “passion, vitality, rebelliousness, nonconformity, freedom from inhibitions” (12). He literally encourages artists to create while naked the way Georgia O’Keeffe was found painting in the nude. Getting naked in the creative process is a way of tapping into the reality of who you are. It’s about allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of yourself to be revealed in your work. The artist who dares to expose her authentic truths must confront and move through the anxiety of uncertainty. She must ask tough questions: what will I find out about myself; will it be accepted and understood by others? True creativity cannot skirt these questions without denying its products the power they deserve. Poetry often taps into those unsaid thoughts and intimate feelings that are too frightening to express in everyday conversation. It challenges the poet and the world he lives in, by pushing at the borders of the mundane and acceptable. As I worked on my collection of poems, I found that their entire force was aimed at dredging up, exposing, examining and crafting the perceptions that I otherwise carry silently in a secret part of myself. As May writes in The Courage to Create, the essential element of creativity “is the freedom of artists to give all the elements within themselves free play” (76).

Yet, it’s not enough to put the most beautiful and honest revelation in a frame and hang it in a basement. Creativity is not complete until it is shared. As Valéry writes in “The Course in Poetics,” art is the very exchange of voices—“It is the performance of the poem which is the poem” (99). One of the biggest revelations this semester came from sharing my poetry collection and receiving the responses of readers. How could so many different interpretations, impressions and meanings be evoked from one poem? What sprang from a deeply personal experience of a single individual grew exponentially as it was experienced and processed by those who were on the receiving end of this sharing.

Both these last elements—exposing yourself honestly and sharing the inspiration you have crafted with the world—take a lot of courage. They are the elements that require freedom despite our uncertainty.

I return to the significance of May’s statement about limits and creativity to define a few parameters of the human condition related to creativity. People are emotional creatures: they love deeply and feel strongly despite the fact that nothing in life is permanent. Furthermore, humans have limited knowledge and free will but limited powers—they act but cannot know if their choices are right and cannot control the outcome of their actions. As people move through life they gain knowledge and experience, but if they are open, they also become more acutely aware of how little they know or control as they move steadily toward the ultimate limit of life. The question emerges: what will a person do with her finite time on earth?

To live creatively is to embrace these margins, to live passionately knowing the value of time, health, love, and giving. Experience tells us the difference between love and hate, warmth and aloofness, kindness and greed. As people age they get harder or softer; they brace themselves to avoid pain, or they open themselves up to the experience. Grandparents shower their grandchildren with love; they express their love more easily because they know how precious it is. Creativity is expression—it’s action, but it’s also receptivity. Like breath itself, creativity is taking in and giving out. It’s being open to the unknown, to the spontaneous, the unpredictable—embracing the unforeseen. It’s dancing with the limits of life and the fears those limits evoke. But the dance of creativity is more like ballroom than a rave: you have trained all the moves in the studio and know your partner well, but you must let the passion guide you into unknown territory to be great. You have to dance on the edge.

Works Cited

Cocteau, Jean. “The Process of Inspiration.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 79-80.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “Psychology and Literature.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 217-232.

Maisel, Eric. Fearless Creating. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995. Print.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “A Letter.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 34-35.

Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 92-105.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. The University of Adelaide, 4 March 2014. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/index.html&gt;

Yeats, William Butler. “Three Pieces on the Creative Process.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 106-109.


Leave a comment

Freeing the Body as revisionary art

 

freeingbodysketch

Sketch inspired by Marina Abramovic’s Freeing the Body, Angela Anderson

In 1976, performance artist Marina Abramovic danced for eight hours until she collapsed.

It was one performance of a three-part conceptual artwork called Freeing the Body, which sought to empty the mind, body and voice of the artist. Although Abramovic has rejected the feminist label, Freeing the Body demonstrated a revisionist spirit that was central to second wave feminism (Baker). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar write about the dynamic that historically lead women artists into “a battle for self-creation” in The Madwoman in the Attic (1929). Women who dare to write or create in a patriarchal society are forced to revise their own image, they argue. In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom. This conscious reduction of self symbolizes the female artist’s “revisionary process” (1929).

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic stretches the surfaces of her identity—physicality, memory and expression—until they are reduced to a blank slate, which the artist calls freedom.

According to Gilbert and Gubar, the woman writer’s struggle “ . . . is not against her (male) precursor’s reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization” (1929). In Freeing the Body, Abramovic covers her head and dances naked to an African drum until collapsing. The viewer sees her female form in motion, driven on by the beat until it falls. The faceless body is “freed” through the artist’s command—to dance until it can no longer function. Symbolically, the body represents Hegel’s slave to the mind’s master, which is set free through work (Phenomenology of Spirit). Abramovic has rendered her working female form useless, thereby reaching a state where new purpose can arise. It is a radical demonstration of redefining the self, which Gilbert and Gubar say is essential to creation of a new vision, one that must reach beyond female anatomy.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar quote Adrienne Rich on feminist revision: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction . . . an act of survival” (1930). In the second part of her artwork, Freeing the Memory, Abramovic sits in a chair with her head tilted back while she speaks a free-flowing stream of words for one and a half hours until her mind goes blank. In this performance, the artist traverses her memories until she bankrupts yet another part of her self. She reaches back in her mind to come to a place where she can “see with fresh eyes” through emptiness.

Women artists on the quest for recreation are the girls in “The Red Shoes” of Anne Sexton’s poem who illustrate the “hidden but crucial tradition of uncontrollable madness” by taking apart their bodies, say Gilbert and Gubar (1935). The third part of Abramovic’s work, Freeing the Voice, the artist lies on her back and screams for three hours until she loses her voice. To the audience, the artist might appear mad, the performance an exorcism of the hysterical female Gilbert and Gubar refer to in their text (1932). Yet, her aim is to exhaust yet another instrument of expression—one that is clearly connected to both mind and body as evident in the physical and mental effort involved as she pushes out each cry.

In Freeing the Body, Abramovic dismantles her own body to reach a point she calls freedom—a freedom of all that has been written in the nerves, muscles and brain tissues of her body. Her art is conceptual, but she uses her own flesh to make her point. The fact that the artist did this performance piece in the 1970s during second wave feminism is significant. She showed the world that a woman with red shoes could dance herself to freedom: She could take control of her own identity—her self—and traverse its realms to find a new place free of their influences.

Works Cited

Abramovic, Marina. “Four Performances 1975-76.” YouTube. July 15, 2013. Web. November 10, 2013.

Baker, Katie J.M. “Marina Abramovic Isn’t a Feminist.” Jezebel. July 30, 2012. Web. November 11, 2013.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1923-1938. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 541-547. Print.