seeking consilience


[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]

28 August 2014

I’m thinking about connectedness. Last week, reading The New Yorker, I ran across this great piece on memoir and social media—two topics that preoccupy me—and posted it to my Facebook feed. A few minutes later, my MFAW advisor, Michael Klein, commented that the author, Dani Shapiro, would be reading at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center the next night. The reading was coupled by an artist talk with Peter Madden, whose work I’d never seen, but which astounded me for both its poetry and materiality. His work’s sparked my imagination, and invited me to think about the relationship between my visual and literary work. For her part, Shapiro read the essay “Permission” from her new book, Still Writing, which feels prescient in light of Madden’s inspiration. So, I want to begin with permission: what it is, how we grant and receive it, and what it might mean in the realm of practice. Shapiro writes:

“Sure, there are advanced degrees in writing and various signifiers that a career might be underway, but ultimately a writer is someone who writes. And a writer who writes is one who finds a way to give herself permission. The advanced degree is useless in this regard. No writer I know wakes up in the morning and, while brushing her teeth thinks: Check me out, I have an MFA. Or for that matter, I’ve published x number of books, or even, I’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. There is no magical place of arrival. There is only the solitary self facing the page.” (p. 31)

“But when we give ourselves permission, we move past this. The world once again reveals itself to us. We become open and aware, patient and ready to receive it. We don’t ask why that particular slant of sunlight, snippet of dialogue, old couple walking along the road hand-in-hand seems to evoke an entire world. We give ourselves permission because we are the only ones who can do so. There’s a great expression in Twelve Step programs: Act as if. Act as if you’re a writer. Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. Don’t wait for anybody to tell you it’s okay. Take that shimmer and show us our humanity. That’s your job.” (p. 32)

While Shapiro is writing about writing, her thinking extends to a lot of the arts. When she tells us, ultimately a writer is someone who writes, I think of my friend, Rick Benjamin, who advises artists similarly: writers write, dancers dance, actors act, painters paint, it’s how artists work. There’s something seemingly simplistic about this, almost obvious, until you start thinking about it in relation to what you do. When asked if I’m painting, I’m notorious for saying, No. Then I add, except for that show of a dozen new works I put up two months ago. If I’m not immersed in the work, it doesn’t exist for me. And, too often, I allow this conceptual distance to blur my self-concept—and erode my sense of connectedness to my form, essentially undercutting my permission to live within my form.

I have enough perspective on my work style—which I might describe as episodic, intense, and eruptive—to be at peace with these matters, but sneaking suspicion is never entirely put to bed. I recently spent several hours with an exhibition of works by Paul Rizzo in Provincetown. He included a set of sketchbooks in the show, probably close to a dozen he’s filled in the last two years. Not only are they rich documents in their own right, but they tell a story of the artist’s development over that time, both in terms of the visual research he’s undertaking and in the sense of how his vocabulary and intention are aligning. While looking at Paul’s work, I again had to ask myself if I’m really a painter painting. Of course, especially in the realm of interdisciplinary practice and inquiry, the lines are never so sharply drawn. While I admire (and even envy) the intensity of Paul’s passionate relationship to drawing and painting, I realize that my development is evident in a different set of notebooks. And the connection I feel with Paul, beyond my desire to emulate his passion, is that we’re both committed to looking, and then looking again.

And this brings me to my recent reading of James Baldwin’s essay, “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel: An Address,” from the collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name, which I shared last week with the Critical Composition group study. Via Baldwin, it strikes me that looking is dialectical, both committing oneself to a practice of seeing (I’d extend this to listening, and perhaps all of the senses), but also to being seen. I don’t mean this strictly in the sense of establishing or finding an audience, but also in the sense of making your interior life accessible to others. Baldwin writes about this through the lens of risk:

“I mean that in order to have a conversation with someone you have to reveal yourself. In order to have a real relationship with somebody you have got to take the risk of being though, God forbid, ‘an oddball.’ You know, you have to take a chance which in some peculiar way we don’t seem to be willing to take. And this is very serious in that it is not so much a writer’s problem, that is to say, I don’t want to talk about it from the point of view of a writer’s problem, because, after all, you didn’t ask me to become a writer, but it seems to me that the situation of the writer in this country is symptomatic and reveals, says something, very terrifying about this country.” (pp. 150-151)

And he goes on to talk about the critical importance of taking those risks in the structured, contextualized and intentional ways that enable observation to become art:

“The importance of a writer is continuous; I think it’s socially debatable and usually socially not terribly rewarding, but that’s not the point; his importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe. It is a function, let’s face it, it’s a special function. There is no democracy on this level. It’s a very difficult thing to do, it’s a very special thing to do and people who do it cannot by that token do many other things. But their importance is, and the importance of writers in this country now is this, that this country is yet to be discovered in any real sense.” (p.153)

Most importantly, Baldwin ends his point with a call to discovery. He’s not simply suggesting that the role of the artist is self-revelation (although clearly he values that, too), but also the revelation of the nation. While it’s not evident from these passages, Baldwin is writing about race, and his essay reveals the problems of racism that affected his world while remaining prescient of the problems of racism that continue to affect ours. The power of his work is that, fifty, sixty-years on, it’s still discovering the nation.

And he’s not alone. After mulling these questions for several days, I ran across this interview with Claudia Rankine in last week’s New Yorker. Rankine is a contemporary poet, who found herself, via a pre-scheduled gig, in Ferguson, Missouri as the protests unfolded. In my mind, her discipline, developed over time and, again, with intention, allows her to be our correspondent in a transformational way. She’s able to narrate our world as it unfolds, put it into the broader historical context (as only, sometimes, the arts and humanities can), and invite us all into the process of revealing what this moment means.

I apologize if this letter seems to be a jumble of references and quotations. I hope you see my point. I’m not just sharing notes from my current reading. Each of the artists I’ve cited, in her or his way, is grappling (outside of the requirements of any MFA program) with our degree criteria. They’re engaged with the world, seeking consilience between vision and ethical engagement, wrestling with context, looking to the traditions and foundations of their form (when necessary, quarreling with them in thoughtful ways), and doing the work of building practice (which sometimes means allowing it to take them to unexpected and productively uncomfortable places). Each of them is committed to the on-going work of “building a portfolio”—which of course is what mature, completed artworks become.

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