What follows is the preface of a book that I’ve just had printed, featuring a fifteen-image photographic poem of mine, The Arcane Machine. The book is 10×10″, 34-pages long, including this preface, the photographs (with their titles on facing pages), and bio notes. It has a matte hard cover, and it can be ordered through my photography website, http://www.lawrenceruss.com , by “ordering” the last image (which is of the book’s covers) in the Portfolio named (you guessed it) The Arcane Machine. (The portfolio on the website contains only a selection from the images in the book.)
ABOUT THE ARCANE MACHINE
I’d be lying if I said that I came up with some idea for this portfolio. The machine in the title of this book was once used for hauling boats out of the water at a tiny boatyard with a single dock. I’d photographed the machine before and seen it many times. But until this summer, most of the machine, including its motor, had been covered with a large sheet of canvas. One day in July, I went to the boatyard with no artistic purpose in mind. Still, when I saw the whole machine uncovered for the first time, with its intricate, archaic motor, I was intrigued. Before I had any conscious thought of it, this series had begun, almost of its own accord.
I didn’t spend much time at the yard that day, but before I left I snapped a few full-length and side-view shots of the machine in daylight. When I viewed the digital files that night, the images were dull, but I thought, Hmmm, let’s see what might come if I light the machine with flashes. I returned with more gear: a Canon 5d Mark II with a 17-40mm lens, a Canon 5d Mark III with a 70-200mm lens, five Speedlite flashes with PocketWizard radio triggers, a few short light stands, some flash modifiers. My interest in the subject grew as I saw, moment-by-moment, what resulted and what might be possible, as I stood, sat, lay, or crouched (getting a bit nauseated from my cramped contortions), taking photos a few inches or feet from the machine.
What you see in this book isn’t what you could have seen with just the human eye in natural light. For example: without a wide-angle lens and the upward angle at which I aimed it, only a foot from the subject, the cover photo of this book would not have had the sense of space and size, of an expanding “universe,” that I believe it evokes. Without using flashes to light the machine, you’d see only a small fraction of the color and texture that the flashes revealed. The flashes also made minuscule specular highlights, which I’ve mostly left, like little stars.
What matters most, though, is the end result — the experience that these photographs create in you.
Too often, we say things like “just a machine” or “just a dumb animal” or “just an ordinary man.” Too often, we think only “beautiful things” are beautiful. In thinking such things, we can make ourselves bored, disappointed, prideful, even dangerous. For me, this broken-down, corroded, obsolescent machine proved an inspiration. The images that grew from it partake of the machine’s components, the components of my past and my psyche, an array of texture and color and shapes, an atmosphere of shadow and silence, and who knows what else from art history, outer space, or the spirit — and now, from whatever gifts you bring to these images, whatever they give back to you.
I don’t know how many “favorite” photographs I have, but I know that one of the frames in my sanctum of photographic love holds Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed.” It’s clicheish to say that you could look at a particular artwork every day of your life and never grow bored with it. In fact, though, I can pretty much say that truly of “The Unmade Bed.” A postcard of it has been pinned to the corkboard that’s hung in every office I’ve occupied since I got my last diploma. Whenever I see that card, it draws me away, into its lyrical silence.
Why do I love it? What our conscious mind grasps and can tell about such things is only the fractional edge of an ocean that stretches out endlessly, through our experience and emotion and ideas and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-causes. Still, I’ll try to describe at least some of the features and factors and facets of my ardor for “The Unmade Bed.”
Its atmosphere is the first thing that absorbs us. The contrast in the print is moderate, like music turned low. The scene feels private, intimate. Most of the bedroom is dim or dark, and the light is softly diffused. There are plenty of curves, but no right angles or sharp-cornered shapes in view. And we’re alone in the room. We see no person, just clues to who was there and what may have happened before we looked in.
As our view moves outward toward the edges of the frame, the light diminishes gradually, the bedsheets and blanket grow darker. What we see most clearly, the folds of the upper sheet and especially the flat sheet below, are like the space inside the periphery of attention in a loving gaze or in making love; everything outside tends to blur or vanish.
The smooth transitions between shadow and light evoke a feeling of gentleness and, in this case, even tenderness. At the same time, the curving folds of the upper sheet remind us of sexual movements, of the curves of the female body that we imagine has recently lain in this bed, where a woman has left a few hairpins on the sheet.
Those hairpins, though small, are the center of our attention. The waving folds of the upper sheet surround them as hills surround a small cluster of houses in a valley. The pins are the most sharply-defined objects in the scene, showing all the more clearly because they’re placed on the brightest area in the image. They make us think of a woman unpinning and taking down her hair, for sleep or for love. The number and size of the pins imply (at least to a “layman” in matters of female grooming) the luxuriance of the hair that they held. And their lying together as they do suggests the care that the woman must have taken in laying, not tossing, them down. Our response is subtly affected as well by the pins not lying dead center in the scene, but “modestly” to the side, cradled by the upper sheet that surrounds and rises behind them.
All of these things make for an experience of sensuousness, not sensuality; of savoring, not ravening; of grace and quiet and attentiveness.
You feel, indirectly, the loveliness and gentleness of the woman who was in this bedroom just a while ago.
In part, I love this photograph because for me it’s a mirror in which I see my wife’s reflection. When it comes to why we love certain works, we can’t overlook their reach into the personal particulars of our lives and our selves. In a poem of mine (“The Wedding Poem”) that was first published in the year after my wife and I were married, I quoted another artwork that I love, a poem by the 9th-Century Chinese poet, Chang Hu (translated by Witter Bynner), that’s the literary kin of Cunningham’s visual image. Both works are sexy without being showy, and both embody an irresistible tenderness of spirit in the artwork’s maker as well as in its subject.
And beneath your talk I could see
the woman of that Chinese poem that I love:
When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.
I’m gratefully moonstruck, as I have been for years, by the lovely folds, dim light, and loosed pins in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph; by Chang Hu’s compassionate heroine, removing her hairpins by a moonlit window; and by the glorious, unpinned hair of my own gentle beauty, pictured below, glowing in a new scene of moonlight and shadow:
Irony: don’t let yourself be controlled by it, particularly when you are not actually writing. In the moments when you are are, try to use it as one more means of getting at life. When irony is used as a pure instrument of thought, it is pure, and there is no need to be ashamed of it. But when you sense it is becoming too intimate, and distrust the growing friendship, then embark on great and serious matters, in the face of which it becomes puny and helpless. Try to get at the depth of things – that is one place irony never goes down to. . . .
- Rainer Maria Rilke
When Robert Bly quoted this passage in his magazine, The Sixties (originally, The Fifties, and later, The Seventies, etc.), much of the poetry favored by the New York publishers, The New York Review of Books, and the Northeastern academics was dry, intellectual, allusive, ironic. In the same issue of his magazine, Bly published his influential essay called “The Dead World and the Live World.” He contrasted the favored poetry in English unfavorably to poems that breathed deeply, poems that brought us “news of the universe,” poems like those of the ancient Chinese and Japanese, or of modern Europeans and Latin Americans like Rilke, Trakl, Jimenez, Lorca, Neruda, Transtromer. Poems with music, insight, imagination, tenderness and humility, passion and compassion.
The poetry he was challenging was ego-bound, rationalistic, showily cultured, culturally smug, and sometimes emotionally violent.
Well, we are, for instance, more multi-cultural (though not necessarily at any great depth) in the world of photography these days, but what I’ve just described from the world of mid-20th-century British and American poetry has its reflection in what is currently favored by the movers and shakers of Chelsea and the hipper centers of photographic academe: the allusive or “sampled,” the post-critical and anti-“modernist,” the self-consciously diffident and “sophisticated.” We have too many artists whose work and conduct seem to say, “Hey, I’m existentially and spiritually shallow — and damned proud of it.”
We see far too much work based more on so-called ideas than it is on anything else — ideas that frequently are thin to say the least, sometimes positively (or negatively?) sophomoric. Like the idea that to photograph yourself dressed up as a member of the “opposite” sex is to raise “important issues of gender and identity.” Or the idea that to make a completely uninteresting photograph in superficial imitation of a great photograph is to raise important “questions” about values or culture, about the etiology of the image or the ontology of its author. A few years ago, when my wife interviewed young photographers chosen for “25 under 25,” some of them were quick to tell her that the ability to write a provocative description of what you claimed to be making was more important to success than was the quality of the images themselves.
We need to appreciate the implications of Rilke’s observations about irony and depth for our world of contemporary photography, just as much as the literati of the early Sixties needed to take them to heart and soul themselves. Oh, forgive me, I forgot that those latter “concepts” are out of conceptual fashion. As though fashion is ever anything but a passing breeze at which the frivolous and ambitious snatch.
This post concerns a rare sort of case in “big market” criticism, and a rare opportunity to see what often goes on behind the critic’s mask (even when that mask stays more firmly in place than it did in this instance). In this instructive case, the critic was Andy Grundberg, writing in Aperture (#199, Summer 2010) about the photographer Robert Bergman.
Mr. Grundberg has credentials to burn, including years of writing reviews for The New York Times and various awards, including the prestigious Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. Part of what made this case exceptional was that Grundberg was being called upon to judge a photographer who did not himself come packed in the usual steamer trunk plastered with the names of recognizable schools, galleries, former teachers, commendatory reviews of past exhibitions, etc. As Grundberg himself was to point out in a lame and irrelevant defense of his critical misdeeds in this matter, Bergman didn’t come entirely out of nowhere: he had published a book of his work in 1998, with an introduction by the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison, and, more importantly for an art critic, with an essay of praise from one of the greatest art historians and writers on the visual arts of the 20th Century, Meyer Schapiro.
Nonetheless, these were sparse pickings compared to the usual graduation from a trendy art school like CalArts, the usual history of representation by AIPAD galleries, and the usual list of solo exhibitions on several continents — the kinds of things that would almost always trail behind a photographer that someone like Andy Grundberg would be reviewing for a journal like Aperture. In Grundberg’s frame of reference, Bergman “spr[a]ng] onto the art-world stage like Athena from the head of Zeus.” Bergman, already over 60 at the time of the review, was only just then having his first major solo exhibitions, at the National Gallery of Art, the Yossi Milo Gallery in Manhattan, and the P.S.1 branch of MOMA. In relative terms, and in Grundberg’s estimation, Bergman’s resume left Grundberg naked in judging the work before him.
To understand my reactions, you’ll want to read the full text of Andy Grundberg’s review:
One of the curious things that will strike you about this review is that, in fact, Grundberg never gives his considered response to the quality of the work itself, and, therefore, also gives no substantive reasons for such an evaluation. But that central omission isn’t the major vice of the review. What Grundberg’s remarks remind me of is a common emotional phenomenon that we’ve all witnessed any number of times. A person does something hurtful or harmful to another person for petty reasons — of insecurity or jealousy or suspicion, or just for the pleasure of wielding power over another human being — and the perpetrator, consciously or semi-consciously, feels ashamed of himself for doing it. And then he resents the victim whose very presence now discomfits him so.
What we see in Grundberg’s review, I believe, is anger at the artist for “coming to him” with so little respectable baggage, “expecting” him to take a critical stand with little by way of badges or prior testimonials that might prop up the critic’s position. And so the dubious review, though void of genuine critical judgment, is full of petty sniping at Bergman for the crimes of asking to be praised without having climbed the usual rungs of career advancement, for achieving some notoriety only at an “advanced age,” for using less expensive equipment than do most current critical darlings, for photographing (and failing to label for Grundberg) people whom Grundberg regards as foreign to his own social circles and station. Sarcasm and scorn run through Grundberg’s piece like sewage through a drainpipe.
Grundberg disdains Bergman for his “ink-jet-produced” prints and for their being “moderately sized.” I expect that Grundberg would deny his haughty tone and intent, but anyone who reads his review attentively can’t miss it. He implies that no one who was any good could have escaped greater critical attention and approval for so long. Really? Melville after publishing Moby Dick? Dickinson? Kafka? Charles Ives? Eugene Atget?
Bergman has been on the scene since the 1960s and been taking color photographs since 1985. . . It seems a tad curious, then, that scarcely anyone had heard of Bergman before this show, much less seen one of his pictures.
Perhaps the photography world is larger than we think, or perhaps there’s still room for genius to emerge at a late age. Both are comforting thoughts. Nevertheless, there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter day Bowery Bum photography.
Grundberg can’t even keep himself from insulting Bergman’s subjects, repeatedly. “For the most part, the people appear to be downtrodden, or at least on the outs with conventional society; more than a few seem afflicted with a wasting disease.” He talks as though they are a bunch of derelicts, far outside the pale, no doubt, of tony galleries and the holy precincts of monied Manhattan. Yet I would venture a guess that Grundberg himself has known more than one friend, relative or colleague with a wasting disease. And I would bet that he’s seen, as we all have, bitter, disappointed, addiction-addled, depressed people in every walk of work and life, including “the art world.”
(And, please, for heaven’s sake, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the arts should know how often the majority of contemporary critics not only have missed genius when it appeared before them, but have disdained it in proportion to the degree of its greatness.)
At the same time, the floundering Grundberg resents Bergman for not helping him out by labelling his subjects, by telling Grundberg enough for Grundberg to know what he should think about them. “Unfortunately it is impossible to verify any of the questions a viewer might have about these people, since Bergman calls each image ‘Untitled’ and provides it only with a date. No name, no location, no facts except those given by the lens. . . .”
Grundberg condemns Bergman in part because Grundberg himself apparently hasn’t considered the possibility that Bergman saw these people, or that someone like me would see these people through his photographs, as fellow human beings, as people with loneliness or disappointments or bitterness or sorrows like our own — not just pathetic victims of “foreign” wars or fates. Grundberg’s talk of Sontag and critical “issues” are quite beside the point. I would bet that, at least until the fashions change, he’ll think that we should all be applauding those “deadpan” portraits in which the living are posed to resemble corpses or cardboard cutouts.
In Grundberg’s view, it’s bad enough that a nobody like Bergman should want his work displayed prominently despite his age and his relative lack of social success. But Grundberg is equally incensed that a respectable institution like the National Gallery would put Grundberg himself in a position to have to use his own eyes and judgment and whatever humanity he possesses without the armor and aid of received opinion:
Is it any wonder, then, that Bergman’s professed ambition was to launch his exhibiting career at [the National Gallery], and with a one-person show no less? [Quelle horreur!] But the real wonder is that the museum collaborated [String the both of them up together!] in this willful and seemingly quixotic enterprise. [Hey, we can't let people into the club when they haven't played by the rules!]
Yeah, let’s flog this Bergman bastard in the public square, along with late bloomers like Julia Margaret Cameron and other mere 35mm-shooters like Cartier Bresson and Josef Koudelka. For that matter, how dare the likes of Munch or Goya ask us, from the grave, to concede their greatness after years of their contemporaries’ critical neglect?
My main purpose here, though, isn’t to pillory a particular critic in a particular instance, but rather to give a warning against blind concession to artistic authorities, a caution to be wary of the hidden insecurities, confusions and pretenses of credentialed experts . Let this be another call to careful and wary examination, to reading between the lines, to giving no due to mere uniforms and medals. Trust your own response to the pundit as well as to the art.
The comic bit, on which there’ve been many variations,goes something like this: A Hollywood pitchman addresses a group of studio execs, exhorting them, “I’m tellin’ you this project is box office gold! It’s like Godzilla meets Terms of Endearment!”
We’re supposed to smirk at the crassness of the agent’s tactic, at the “jurors'” implicit fear of the new. We disdain the smug moneymen who won’t sign on without warranties from market research and sales data, who don’t have time or tolerance for anything complex or profound. The joke mocks the workings of commercial pop culture.
But the same timidity and conformity holds sway in the halls of high culture, too, including the corridors of photography criticism, journalism, and judging. (“Wow, I love those Cindy Sherman sex photos! They’re like Hans Bellmer meets Bozo the Clown meets Joel Peter Witkin.”)
I wrote in a previous post how a famous poet warned his students that 95% of criticism is more harmful than helpful to our understanding and, more important, to our experience of art. What he then went on to explain was that most critics, most professors can’t really deal with the living reality of artworks, can’t perceive the life that’s in them, can’t illuminate how the artist generates that life in a reader or a viewer or a listener. And, he said, that’s partly because professional commentators, like other people, are afraid of the painful emotions, the inexplicable and uncontrollable realities, that great art lays bare. We’re often disturbed by what great art implies and what it seems to demand. In his poem about an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rilke captured how all the parts of the statue, even in its headless state, blazed with undying vitality, seeming to say to its viewer, as Rilke wrote in his poem’s last line: “You must change your life.”
Ever since caveman-times, no doubt, people have tended to huddle around communal fires for warmth, for mutual comfort, for survival. We would all like the support and good will of our fellows. But if we covet those things too much, we betray ourselves, we fear being too original or honest, we shun certain people or ideas just because the group won’t accept them.
What many artists don’t realize is how much power such basic emotional cravings and fears have over the art world, including its leading critical writers, judges, gallerists, and curators. My early mentor in poetry, a famous and “politically” savvy writer who had worked as the poetry editor for prominent magazines and publishers, shared with me this insight into the editorial process: He said that editors, like other people, are insecure and afraid to step out on their own, nervous about exercising independent judgment that might draw the scorn of others in the literary food-chain.
Whenever you make a submission to some judge or judges — for an exhibition, a grant, for publication or awards — and whenever you see the results of such judging, you should keep this in mind.
That same mentor of mine also told his students, in the first session of his class on Yeats and Joyce, “I know that these authors can be difficult at times, and I know that no matter what I tell you, you’re going to read criticism about their writings. But when you do, I want you to remember that 95% of it is going to be pretentious junk that will muddy your experience of these works, not improve it.”
Some critics are more insecure than others, of course. But too often we forget to consider their flawed and frail humanity when looking at reviews or juror’s selections. Let me give you a couple of examples in which two of our prominent art critics displayed their fear and trembling when faced with the possibility of leaving the circle around the fire.
I’ve read pieces by these two critics that I thought were, in whole or in part, insightful or eloquent or gratifying. My point here isn’t to condemn them, but to pull back the curtain of people’s unwarranted deference to titles and reputations like theirs.
My first case involves Roberta Smith, a visual arts critic for The New York Times. With respect to two of the most notoriously successful and fraudulent characters in the world of contemporary art, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, she has, on more than one occasion, written refreshingly direct statements about what crap they’ve put on public display. And you feel, “Great. I’m glad that she’s telling it straight.” But then, as you go on reading her review, there comes a point at which she starts to take it back. There comes a disappointing “But” or “however.” And her resolve starts to disappear in smoke.
If she held her initial course, she would likely offend not only the owner of the gallery that represents both Koons and Hirst — Larry Gagosian, one of the richest and most powerful gallerists in the international art market — but the many directors of art institutions and the many rich collectors who have spent millions of dollars on works like Koons’ basketball floating in a fish tank or Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (a kind of pornographic object for oligarchs). She would also be insulting the many foolish, albeit erudite, critics who have praised Hirst’s severed cow-halves suspended in tanks of formaldehyde or Koons’ ceramic renditions of a plastic inflatable dolphin or the Pink Panther embracing a topless buxom blonde. If you want a perfect, laughable, example of the profundity of Koons’ approach and accomplishment, follow this link to one of a series of his commentaries on his “works” (Koons provides only basic concepts, while an army of artists and art students “execute” his products), as published in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/03/arts/20090703-vogel_6.html
Okay, forgive me. I’ve “borrowed” and recast this title from the short poem that W.B. Yeats wrote for his tombstone: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” You know, when you’ve been the greatest 20th-Century poet writing in English, there’s at least a decent chance that the epitaph you labored over will in fact be carved on your stone. But even in a case like that (and Yeats did get his wish), there’s no guarantee. And you might say that certain kinds of common and commonly-worthless guarantees (what you might call social signifiers of value) are my subject in this post.
Some of us were loved very little by our parents, some not at all. Most of us weren’t loved by them nearly enough to satisfy our needy childhood hearts. What’s more, most of us never fully wake up to that painful truth, because the things that it seems to imply about our worth, our ability to inspire love, and our chance of surviving are unbearable to us.
But the degree to which we won’t wake up to that gnawing reality will be the degree to which we go on “looking for love [and satisfaction] in all the wrong places.” Most of us, in self-defeating self-protection, project our futile desires and delusions onto the world around us. We want the approval of anyone who looks like a parental figure and we want to be vindicated in our projected delusion that we can trust them, that they care about us, that we can replicate our family home in our marriages or in our work or in our social group, but that this time we’ll have a happy ending. We’ll get what we want and what we really deserve.
And even though cynicism has grown from the revelations of scandalous misconduct everywhere from Wall Street and the Oval Office to the Vatican and the ministry of Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, we continue, on the whole, to expect the holders of high office to be well-informed, worthy of their positions, and concerned about us and the general well-being. We expect experts to be expert and professionals to be professional. In our realm of photography and the other arts, most of us expect that prizewinners deserved their prizes, that prominent curators and gallerists know great art (and awful art) when they see it. We have to get over these assumptions. Yes, sometimes such people have indeed earned their honors and merited their good reputations. But only sometimes.
Though it places a greater grief and responsibility on us than we may want to shoulder, we have to do our independent best to look beyond the medals and titles to what lies behind them. I always feel a combination of rueful amusement and sadness when I hear a fellow artist puzzling in dismay over why some artist who appears to be meritless, even ridiculous, has been given a famous award or had one of his works sold for an absurdly grand sum of money. Hey, really, why, for instance, would Christie’s or Sotheby’s take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to show us the ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp, produced by the Jeff Koons factory, on which the distinguished auction house placed an estimated selling price of $10-15 million dollars?
I have two things to tell you, for your benefit (I hope), from my fairly wide-ranging experience with different fields and with people at different “levels” within those fields: in academia, government, business, law, poetry and photography; with FBI agents, prize- winning authors, governors, and Teamsters.
Society works to make us believe that we’re small, insufficient, that we have to run on the fumes of worldly ambition, that we’ll be doomed if we don’t buy what it sells and strive for its peer approval and prizes. On the other hand, countless religious texts, artworks, books of psychology and philosophy throughout the centuries have tried to tell us what a crushing load of crap that is. Yet despite the fact that in books, in films, in history, we see the story of our deeper and grander struggle, and even though we smile or applaud like mad when the movie hero or heroine triumphs, we fail to see ourselves — I mean, really see ourselves — in those dramas.
Don’t we realize what’s being shown about us when Luke struggles to believe that he’s strong with the Force, or when Neo flinches from the notion that he’s really The One and not just some corporate cog named “Mr. Anderson”? (And it isn’t so much a matter of “believing in yourself” as it is of believing what is in you and what you are in — what your self truly is.) Most of us never escape that cage of socialization and skepticism. We’ll nod our heads as we watch Julius Caesar or read the Gospels, yet we’ll still refuse to heed our spouse’s intuitions or the warnings in our dreams: We’re like Julius Caesar, continuing on his way to the Capitol despite Calpurnia’s alarming dream. We’re like Pontius Pilate, ordering the strange Galilean to be scourged and crucified despite Mrs. Pilate’s warning not to harm “that just man” because she had “suffered many thing in a dream because of him.” We’re too worldly, too sophisticated, too afraid of embarrassment to turn aside just because a still small voice speaks to us out of the shadows.
For some of us, it might be valuable enough that certain photographs can help induce a state that leads us to write an inspired line of poetry. But that’s not the end of the matter, not the limit of what is tapped when we can summon the genie from the invisible spaces inside the bottle. Many of the most important successes that I’ve had in legal practice weren’t born from deductive analysis or legal research. While I could explain why a strategy might work, or, afterwards, why I thought it had worked so well, the plan had simply come to me — while shaving or driving or thinking about something else — just as a line of poetry might.
Most of us have heard the stories from science and technology, too, about great discoveries that came through one of those sudden flashes from Who-Knows-Where. The ground that proves fertile may have been watered with study and training, but the plant works its way up, unseen, in darkness. We’ve all had moments of inspiration, and if you’ve paid attention to them, you know that they come to you as much as from you.
Not from just reading, but from my own experience, I know that the state that I keep describing, the state that certain photographs can help to induce, is brother or sister to states arrived at in other ways as well: by Zen meditation, by Tai Chi practice, by intense surrender to certain works of music, by sustained contemplation of the forest or the sea. Such states are sought and used in order to help Japanese businessmen solve corporate puzzles, to help hospital patients to endure their pain, to help wu shu practitioners break piles of bricks without injury to the hand or head that delivers the blow.
But the danger of this kind of “practical” testimony — about things that you might become able to do — is that it can become a kind of spiritual materialism. As Zen masters sometimes say, the meditative state is the goal in itself. That state of deep calm and tender alertness and rich satisfaction is both a door and a corner of the great hall into which it leads. It’s a part of the antidote for war and cruelty and greed. To the extent that we can find joy in the sound of wind through the woods or breath through a bamboo flute, or glory in a green pepper edged with light, we won’t feel impelled to murder others in order to multiply wealth that we already have, or to beat up strangers or foreign countries in order to prove that we’re “real men.”
One of my favorite photographs is a Bill Brandt portrait of the writer Robert Graves, seemingly caught in the state that I’ve described, disturbed in the act of artistic creation. The image rivets me. I recognize what’s happening inside it. Look at those eyes. They’re pointed at the camera, but they’re still staring elsewhere, wide with seeing or searching for marvels.
Shadows or darkness, fog or cloud, curving shapes, blurred or fantastical objects. Why should photographs with elements like these help to bring on that state of deep calm and heightened sensitivity that makes the Muse more inclined to visit?
I think it’s partly because they mirror conditions and circumstances outside the artwork that bring us to the border of our deliberating, daylight minds: walking through the streets at night or through woods in deep shadow, letting our sight and hearing absorb whatever comes in our solitary quiet; or lying drowsy in our darkened bedroom, drifting into daydreams or sleep. Art is one way that we can see what lies beyond the flashlight’s beam, reach into that invisible or half-visible place where so much is born and so much is decided.
Research has shown that people who make an effort to remember their dreams right after waking, especially if they try to write them down, will remember their dreams more often, and will remember more of what happened in them. But we don’t need scientists to prove to us that doing a thing repeatedly makes us able to do it more readily or easily; that muscles and memory — and, I believe, intuition and imagination — grow stronger the more they’re used.
I believe that this is also true for repeatedly visiting, experiencing, giving yourself to the kinds of art that carry us into those mysteries of the unconscious or whatever we might better call it. In Norse mythology, the king of the gods, Odin, who had the gifts of vision and poetry, rode a magic eight-legged horse. That steed, Sleipnir, could carry him across the borders between the various realms, of gods and frost giants and fire demons and the dead. As with anything else, the more we ride that border-crossing horse, the better we ride it, and the more swiftly and farther it’s likely to take us.
And why do I care so much, why should you care about riding across those borders? Because that place across the shadowy bridge is where we can discover our greater selves, our greater lives. After all, what do we think those gifts and treasures in the folk tales are all about? Over there, in the forest of intuition, in the scenes of paintings, in our dreams, is the place where the mythical creatures live and act out our battles with each other and with monsters and tyrants. If we see the vampire or the Cyclops clearly “over there,” we may recognize them in our “daily life” (we’ve all met them) and may be more likely to escape the temptations and dangers that they bring. In that place (though, of course, it isn’t exactly a place) is the soil in which our most powerful fears and desires, our most glorious insights and revelations are rooted. It’s the universe, the universe that stretches out from where we stand, from the little place of our planning and striving.
(If you click on the image below, you may even be able to see the plane’s noselight a little.)
At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.