Conditioning

In regards to my last post: I’ve conferred with some people who knew Jack Fisher, and I may have mis-remembered parts of the story. Although those who knew him agree it sounds like something he would do, no one else can place the painting that I recall. His daughter says it’s possible I saw a sketch or preliminary painting that Jack never completed. (She definitely recalls how much he abhorred the water tower!) If so, perhaps his talking about the possibilities of the composition made an impact on me, even if the work itself was a watercolor sketch that never made it to canvas. Entirely possible.

The point of my post remains the same, however–that “ugly” things can be understood in ways that may offer new perspectives on what we consider beautiful.

I guess what I am trying to get to qualifies as a kind of conditioning. That’s now a therapeutic approach to teaching people how to overcome, say, a phobia of airplanes or elevators. You put your toe in the water, so to speak, or learn about the thing that causes fear. And knowledge can overcome fear. Not always, but often.

Inadvertently, I discovered conditioning on my own, when I was about twelve. I decided to study some things I was afraid of–spiders, bees, darkness–and managed to unlearn the fear. It does not work with everything: I’m still acrophobic.

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‘Lunchtime Atop A Skyscraper’ Charles Ebbets, 1932

My biggest fear was one most human beings acknowledge–the fear of death. From the time I was quite small, I worried and feared and had trouble getting to sleep because my mind raced around the Big Unknown of what it would be like to die. Many years into my adult life, I decided to explore that fear through my usual method: self-education. I read novels and medical texts and philosophy and religious works in the process. Finally, after visiting an ICU many times during the serious illness of a best-beloved, I decided to sign up as a hospice volunteer.

It’s one way to face death–one sees a great deal of it in hospice care. But the education I received from other caregivers, from the program instructors, and from the patients and their families, has proven immensely valuable to me. Am I afraid of death? Well, sure; but fear of death (thanatophobia) no longer keeps me up nights. I possess a set of skills that helps me recognize how individual each death is–just as each life is. More important still? I treasure and value the small stuff more and am less anxious about the Big Unknown. It’s going to happen, so why agonize over it? This is conditioning. For me, anyway.

Conditioning does not have the same meaning as habituation, because conditioning requires learning and is more “mindful” than habituation. Habituation occurs when we just get accustomed to something and carry on; perhaps we repress our emotions or our values in order to do that carrying on. People can habituate to war, poverty, all kinds of pain, and can make not caring into a habit. We are amazing in our capacity to carry on, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. Getting into the habit of warfare, hatred, ignorance, hiding our feelings, or other hurtful behaviors is often easier than getting into more helpful habits like daily walks. I do not know why that is.

I am, however, endeavoring to condition myself to stay awake to new perspectives, to stay inquisitive, to plumb the world to find, if not beauty, at least understanding and compassion and gratitude. Maybe one day I will even manage to get that perspective from somewhere very, very high up…    [yikes!]

 

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L’enigma

“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.”

This quote is attributed to Giorgio de Chirico, favorite artist of my poetry mentor & best pal, the late David Dunn. I like the way this idea is phrased (it may be the translator, it may be de Chirico): to live as in a museum; for a museum’s purpose–behind its collection, curation, and presentation–is simply to offer up items for the community to observe.

Paolo Baldacci makes an argument for de Chirico as “the first conceptual artist” that I find intriguing if ultimately unconvincing. There is merit, however, in considering the artist’s “surrealist era” paintings as conceptual in the sense that experiencing the work unsettles the viewer, distorts her sense of the real and requires her to enter the world of the painting with its enigmatic strangeness. And to observe without knowing, exactly, what it is she can see.

Artist Deborah Barlow, on her blog Slow Muse, has some words worth reading on the subject of “not knowing” that visitors to museums and galleries, and those who can view the world as an immense museum of strange things, may recognize. Barlow suggests that there may be an “essential incomprehensibility” in the acts of art-making and path-making as the human being moves from the known to the not-known. The enigma, as de Chirico terms it. The ambiguous and uncertain, the experiment, the unanswered question.

David Dunn often wrote letters to me in which he expressed his occasional discomfort with words, with sentences and language; he wished he could paint or play a musical instrument–felt that jazz might have enabled him to enter the enigma more fearlessly, as his jazz heroes did when they jammed and improvised.

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“L’enigma della Oro” (1910)

We wrote about writing, often. Poetry–and the problem of saying the unsayable. Lately, I feel almost ready to retrieve his letters from the box where I’ve kept them for 20 years. My personal museum, those old letters. My immense museum, this strange, strange world.

A poem that offers entrance into a potentially uncomfortable world–by Luisa Igloria on Dave Bonta’s via negativa site: click here.

 

Transitions & ambition

letter I
have maintained this blog pretty regularly, for years now, writing about books and poems and gardens and teaching, examining the concept of consciousness and trying to plumb–from a novice’s perspective–the brain’s wiring and functions. I suppose I am seeking a kind of “interdisciplinary” approach in these posts and in life: a philosophy of values that considers the arts, aesthetics, evolution, biology, social structures, neurology, consciousness, physics, etymology, pedagogy, ecology, and compassion (have I forgotten anything?) in a distinct but expansive method of living in which I can situate myself and which might guide my behavior as I make my life-long way through the world. If, by some chance, my words influence a reader–so much the better; this is, after all, a public space (WordPress.com).

Like many people who use social media platforms for their writing, though, I have a mixed view of its suitability as a medium and of its perceived necessity for contemporary writers. My purpose, originally, was to practice writing prose and to promote the arts and the natural environment as necessary complements to and instruction for the development of empathy (compassion) and metacognition in human beings.

The blog has been reasonably suitable for practice; it gets me writing what is basically a brief essay on a more-or-less weekly basis. It has several thousand “followers,” but only a handful of readers. [I can discern this through the statistics page on WordPress, though I don’t check often.] In general, I use this platform mostly as a way of “seeing what I think,” and it serves that purpose, too.

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I have come to some conclusions about the problem of consciousness (and about whether it actually is a problem) through the reading and experiences of the past ten years or so. Those conclusions are, however, private ones. While the process of discovery and inquisitiveness works in a public forum, the takeaway remains, for this blogger, a thing carried within.

But.

~~

But other blogger-writers have influenced my thinking about what a public forum such as blogging or Facebook can do for the writing process. Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria, as well as Michael Czarnecki and Lou Faber–among others–promote by example the option, and value, of publishing new or unedited, unfinished, partially-revised work. Granted, not all of them have thousands of readers who weigh in on criticism or encouragement; but the very process of making public the work-in-progress seems to me to be courageous. This may be because I am a wimp, or it may be because the social aspects of the vaunted “po-biz” have dampened my willingness to show a kind of transparency in my writing methods.

I am not on the tenure track and will not be teaching in an MFA program, however, so why would it matter?

Therefore: be prepared, oh limited but blesséd audience. I may begin to foist upon you the recent sad, sad poems I’ve been writing–in draft form. Or I may begin to reveal the poems from my seven-years’-unpublished manuscript online. Or I may, like Luisa and Michael, begin to blog “a poem a day” (unlikely, but…). It seems to me that a transition is in order here. And that stands as my writing ambition for the moment, as autumn makes its way toward the solstice and I face another stack of student essays to grade.

 

 

 

 

Backstory, continued

What brought the idea of backstory to mind was a poem of mine that recently appeared in Peacock Journal’s  print anthology. The poem appeared last year in the journal’s online site. (See: “Imagined Painting of Mary Magdalene Bathing.”)

A friend read the piece and responded to the poem by saying, “This is a beautiful poem. It’s so visual–also, different the second time you read it. And I know how interested you’ve always been in saints and iconography and art, but where did you come up with the idea of imagined paintings? What’s that about?”

This is the best kind of question, as far as I’m concerned. It is a question about ideas, not inspiration or meaning or even craft–though I love questions about craft. It does beg the writer to reveal, however, a bit of the story-behind-the-story/poem/narrative, etc.

“Backstory” may seem self-explanatory. It’s a term used more frequently in drama, particularly screenwriting. Poetry critics are less inclined to employ the concept because–see last post–it is too easy to fall into explaining the poem, which is generally considered a no-no. My friend, however, is a reader and not a poetry critic. I felt free, therefore, to address the question on a personal level.

As my good friend knows, I have been intrigued since adolescence by the art and iconography, the symbolism and the stories of the saints, despite my Protestant upbringing. I love art, aesthetics, and the divinely natural (empirical, phenomenal) World and feel an ambiguous but compelling relationship with myth, religion, history and a culture I cannot escape. And I have imagination.

I began writing about a saints in less-than saintly pursuits. The idea interested me. Surely the saints could be imagined as real human beings, not only as intercessionaries between the human realm and Heaven. I wrote about St. Sebastian purchasing a tunic, Saint Agnes braiding her mother’s hair, and St. Anthony fetching a pail of water. Saints as human beings (rather than as symbols, icons, and religious items) led me to the depictions of saints in art as other-worldly, pure, suffering, or in all ways saintly; and I entertained thoughts of paintings I had never seen but would like to see–theoretically-possible paintings. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene bathing–would Da Vinci have painted it? Rubens? I can only imagine. The poems are a kind of ekphrasis.

I wanted to be a painter when I was a child. This imagining may be as close as I ever get to realizing my youthful ideals.

~

There is not much more backstory than that. None of it leads to meaning or interpretation, although the story above may cement some allusion or confirm referents in the reader’s mind. I hope, however, that the backstory here might interest one or two readers enough that they pick up a book on Renaissance or medieval art, on hagiography or history. Or perhaps someone will go to Amazon.com and purchase the anthology at the link above.

Thank you, friends in literature and imagination.

 

 

 

About art (a poem)

While trying, I fear in vain, to tidy up and organize my poetry files, I came across this poem composed before 1997. Despite its flaws, I decided that rather than revise I should post it here, because it offers a narrative about how a person–shall I specify, this particular person–might come to love the wide, multicultural, historical, spiritual, experimental, transcendent “world” of art.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)
A Life Saved by Art

The library’s card catalog led me
to shelves of art books: oversized, glossy-paged,
crabbed with tiny, inarticulate commentary
about volume, form, structure,
perspective, light and shadow,
innovation and rebelliousness
and the emotive content of the line.

What did it mean? I was eleven.
I made a hagiography based upon
the beauty of still things, life arrested,
mid-gesture, on canvas, wood, stucco,
merging all my saints and artists into
a collage of stories as naive
as Rousseau’s jungle scenes–

but I believed Rousseau, and Breughel
and the intimacies of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba
and the endless processions of amazed Magi
through the narrow streets of precarious Italian towns
and Degas’ women tying up their hair
and the rich invitingness of Gauguin’s flowers
and the stark heart of Georgia O’Keeffe–12-01-05MagiFraAngelico

I believed I would learn to comprehend my life,
put it into perspective through
Giotto’s tiny and exquisite backgrounds,
Dürer’s precise grids, believed I would discover
an understanding of the abstract.
I wanted to be transformed through art,
the sanctity and structure of the line,
and, through them, out
of the coming confines of adolescence.

I forget so much of what I learned,
but still I possess Arles, and Athens,
the buff-colored pages of
Da Vinci’s notebooks, ink and ideas:
ink which now sprawls abstract upon the page
while I consider the emotive content
of each line–and brilliant fields of color
daubed in wild and perfect order:
a moment, a childhood, a life
saved by art.black-hollyhock-blue-larkspur-georgia-okeeffe

~ © 1997 Ann E. Michael

~

There are better poems about art (even by me); but I treasure the yearning outlook this piece suggests, and its tendency toward overstatement as well.

Synthesis & coincidence

&&001“and per se and”

Ah, synthesis! The conjoining and combining of objects, ideas, theories, values and systems, arts, media, experiments, research, disciplines, metaphors, symbols, rhythms, patterns, DNA, et (“&”) cetera.

Synthesis can be planned, hypothesized, purposeful–and it can be spontaneous, unexpected, coincidental. There are times when I feel as though the overlapping and intertwining of experiences seems to have been somehow “planned by the cosmos” (or some higher power); but coincidences occur more often than we think, especially when our consciousness is primed to make connections.

I have primed my own brain, recently, to synthesize thinking about aesthetics, neuroscience, the arts, philosophy and consciousness. So it should not surprise me–though it does!–that the books I have recently been reading connect many threads of my thought, including other recent readings. For example, Martha Reineke’s Intimate Domain: Desire, Trauma, and Mimetic Theory is an exploration of family “romance” in psychoanalytic theory that draws on Freud and Girard; but because Reineke uses Girard’s early writings as her basis, she cites Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology quite often. Furthermore, mirror neurons and the place and operations of consciousness appear in her claims and explorations in this (difficult) text. Mirrors and mimesis, minds and spirits…Gabrielle Starr’s Feeling Beauty, which I’ve mentioned in recent posts, examines the art-body-mind connections in neurological domains and mentions, more than in passing, the phenomenological aspects of the experience we term “art.” Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1983, though I read it last month) also wove itself into my thinking as I read Starr’s more current book. In addition (oh, there’s always an “in addition” with synthesis), I am re-reading Csikszentmihalyi’s classic, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The states humans experience when we work hard at challenges we enjoy, such as art-making, are deeply connected to our brains and also rooted in our bodies.

So there is a coming-together, a process not unlike chemical bonding, that all of these texts and ideas produce in my mind. This post is one outcome, I suppose. But there will be others.

~

From Carl Sandburg’s “Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry” (1928): “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

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Studio. Space.

Contemporary artist and blogger Deborah Barlow writes: “A studio, like a womb, is a vesseled space, a geolocation from which one’s work, intentionally free of its context, can emerge.” http://www.slowmuse.com/2013/11/25/up-stairs-in-sight/

In another recent post, she talks about artists’ decisions about whether or not to offer studio tours, and art critics’ decisions about whether or not to visit studios. The critics she mentions (Saltz and Smith) prefer not to see the studios of artists whose work they are reviewing. The sense I get is that the critic needs more objectivity–a disinterestedness–and that a working artist’s studio is a personal space, one through which perhaps the critic might learn too much (context? biography? vulnerability? …one wonders).

I wrote my graduate thesis on how time works in poems, and for a long time I considered writing a followup on space in the poem, particularly the kind of vesseled, nested, interior space to which Barlow alludes (and Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space).

What spaces are conducive to the creative process? Such variety! I have friends who love to write in diner booths or cafes, and others who need complete silence, no distraction (Annie Dillard wrote in a closet; Robert Frost in a shed). One writer I know must be in bed to write. Another must be outdoors. The place matters to many people–but not to all of them.

Writing’s different from painting, sculpting–arts that require at least a few tools at hand.

But some of my writing friends need a computer, or a candle; a pencil and a legal pad, or a fountain pen and a spiral notebook; a bookshelf; darkness; classical music, or the blues.

I don’t really have a studio these days. Maybe it is time I lent my mind to carving out a creative space? –Somewhere nestled, vesseled, interior: (A Room of Her Own).

Below: A location…space, intentionally free of context.  🙂

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