On art as Baron Munchausen’s pigtail

BaronMunchThere is an age-old paradox inherent in any attempt to “live a better life”, or “to better oneself” consciously: your life reflects who you are, and you are shaped by your life. To change your life, you’ve to got to change yourself; and to change your self, you’ve got to change your life; so where to begin? Whether you want to or not, you find yourself in the position of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by his pigtail (I believe this is called “bootstrapping” nowadays).

I was reminded of this paradox when I read the following passage from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on “Creativity”, where he explains why it makes sense — for any one of us — to study lives of extraordinarily creative people:

“Their lives suggest possibilities for being that are in many ways richer and more exciting than most of us experience. By reading about them, it is possible to envision ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence. <…> Indeed, it could be said that the most obvious achievement of these people is that they created their own lives. And how they achieved this is something worth knowing, because it can be applied to all our lives, whether or not we are going to make a creative contribution.”

Is it really possible to change one’s life in this way, just by learning how extraordinary people live theirs?

I believe it is, if only because sometimes it’s just a matter of removing a “blind spot”: you suddenly see a possibility for change in your environment — maybe something easy, small, seemingly insignificant — which will turn out to be a catalyst for further changes, in your life and in your self, the beginning of a new path.

What resonated with me most in Csikszentmihalyi’s book is what he says about the role of our visual environment: beauty not just a source of pleasure and fleeting enjoyment, but as a shaper of our thoughts and feelings. I did read before about stubborn scientific problems magically solved when a scientist all but gives up and goes on vacation to one beautiful place or another — but I used to assume all these stories were mainly about letting one’s thoughts incubate below the threshold of consciousness rather than about the role of beauty in this process.

I now think it might have been a wrong assumption. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“The belief that the physical environment deeply affects our thoughts and feelings is held in many cultures. The Chinese sages chose to write their poetry on dainty island pavilions or craggy gazebos. The Hindu Brahmins retreated to the forest to discover the reality hidden behind illusory appearances. Christian monks were so good at selecting the most beautiful natural spots that in many European countries it is a foregone conclusion that a hill or plain particularly worth seeing must have a convent or monastery built upon it.”

A possible reason for this, he suggests, is that complex and harmonious sensory experiences influence our cognition even when we don’t focus on them, and lead our minds to “novel and attractive patterns” — not a simple causal connection (just go to a beautiful place, and your mind will overflow with beautiful solutions and beautiful thoughts), but a connection nonetheless.   

Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888. Oil on canvas. 92.1 × 73 cm.

What, then, about art? — not as a grand transformative experience one might have in a museum, or in the Sistine chapel, but as something just silently present in the visual environment of your life, often below the threshold of conscious attention.

There is a chapter in Csikszentmihalyi’s book about what people make of their home (and office) environments — and this, of course, applies not only to extraordinary people, but to every one of us. He writes:

“In one of my studies we interviewed two women, both in their eighties, who lived on different floors of the same high-rise apartment house. When asked what objects were special to her in her apartment, the first woman looked vaguely around her living room, which could have passed for a showroom in a reasonably pricey furniture store, and said that she couldn’t think of anything. She gave the same response in the other rooms—nothing special, nothing personal, nothing meaningful anywhere. The second woman’s living room was full of pictures of friends and family, porcelain and silver inherited from aunts and uncles, books she loved or that she intended to read. The hallway was hung with framed drawings of her children and grandchildren. In the bathroom the shaving tools of her deceased husband were arranged like a tiny shrine. And the life of the two women mirrored their homes: the first followed an affectless routine, the second a varied, exciting schedule.”

Here, of course, there is no simple and direct causal connection either: its not like the homes of the two women created their lives all by themselves. It seems much more likely that each woman created her own home and her own life: the same difference between them that we see in their homes is also reflected in their lives. After all, we are who we are, and changing our home decoration won’t change that, right? We are back with Baron Munchausen, and his horse, and his pigtail…

But let me tell you a story about myself, and how home decoration saved my life… 

Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.
Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.

 In 1996, we moved to Germany because I accepted a job at the University of Bielefeld. This town, Bielefeld, had been almost completely ruined by the Allied aviation during the Second World War, and then rebuilt in the spirit of austerity and pragmatism: reasonably comfortable, but without a touch of beauty. We rented a furnished apartment; it used to belong to the owner’s elderly mother, and the furnishings reflected that — it probably looked similar to that old woman’s apartment visited by Csikszentmihalyi. I remember there were remote controls for the bed and for all armchairs and only one small writing desk (certainly not enough for our family of three).

I was completely focused on finding my way in the university, learning to teach  in a rather unfamiliar language, arranging my son’s school matters, dealing with the quirks of department head’s temperament, and so on, and so forth — the usual routine of life, made more stressful by the move to another country. Our visual environment wasn’t on my list of priorities. In retrospect, I believe I took it as an immutable fact of this new life, without giving it a moment’s thought.

But then we went to Paris for a few days, and somewhere, in a small street behind Musée d’Orsay, serendipitously found a small dark shop filled with heaps upon heaps of reproductions in various sizes. Believe it or not, the idea that we can add reproductions of our favourite paintings to our environment in Bielefeld had not even crossed my mind before this chance encounter — it was only then that I understood clearly what had been missing in my life all along.

Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918.
Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918. Oil on canvas. 45 x 56 cm.

I don’t remember how much time we spent there, browsing through all these heaps of prints, but we went away with several huge posters to bring back — Chagall, Matisse, Van Gogh —  most of them for our apartment, and a nude by Matisse for my office (the very anticipation of shocking my head of department was just too tempting to resist; to his credit, he took it in his stride, which had the unexpected effect of improving our working relationship).

Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.
Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.

It would be a lie if I told you that our life changed miraculously once these posters were hanging on the walls of our Bielefeld apartment— all problems resolved, stumbling blocks dissolved, research ideas flowing freely and happily. Not quite. But it had certainly become much more of a life: I was feeling more alive every day, there seemed to be more reasons to get up in the morning, more laughter, more research, more trips to beautiful places.

What is probably more important and more to the point, I began to see more aspects of my life as changeable: seemingly unbreakable constraints and routines were being gradually unmasked as limiting but transient illusions. To repeat Csikszentmihalyi’s words, I was growing more and more aware of “ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence”. Now — nearly twenty years since that trip to Paris — I see that my life and my self have transformed completely, or at least more than I could have imagined then; this seemingly small change opened a path to revitalising — and living — my childhood dreams.

Does it all sound like one of Baron Munchausen’s adventures?

Have I pulled myself out of a swamp by my own pigtail (which doesn’t even exist)? I don’t think so — I believe it was the presence of Matisse, Chagall and Van Gogh that pulled me out. Since then, I had never again forgotten that I need paintings on my walls to be alive, and our collection of printed reproductions had been constantly growing before (much, much later) I began to replace them with my own oil studies of my favourite paintings.

And yet I obviously used to have this “blind spot” before that visit to Paris: I didn’t see what was lacking, even though the depressing emptiness was right in front of me. That’s what I recalled when I read about this old woman living in a showroom of a furniture store — maybe it’s not really who she was at all. Maybe she could have lived a different life — but no serendipitous occasion had helped her to recognise a similar “blind spot”, to become aware of what’s missing, what can be changed in her environment.

 I wish I had a time machine to go back and give her the right poster for her wall — for some reason, I imagine a nude by Matisse might have amused her… After all, if it did amuse my department head in Bielefeld, then everything seems possible.


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If the dull substance of my flesh were thought: on painting sonnet 44

Lena Levin. Sonnet 44.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 44: if the dull substance of my flesh were thought. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013.

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 44


Where does landscapes’ power to touch our emotions come from — beyond the pure enjoyment of beautiful or exotic views, or comforting peacefulness of green pastures?

Painting this sonnet has given me a novel way of looking at this question, because the sonnet connects so sublimely sea and land — as elements of a landscape, and water and earth — as fundamental elements of life’s composition: the speaker’s woes, and the dull heaviness of his tears, are made of exactly the same stuff as the sea and land that separate him from his beloved. From this perspective, looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being.

For all its apparent pre-scientific naiveté, the theory of “four humours” recognises our essential unity with nature, in a striking contrast to the more modern experience of an isolated self.

Alan Watt writes in “The book: on the taboo of knowing who you are”:

“Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

But the sciences (be they modern or antiquated) cannot really touch us emotionally — after all, that’s not how they are supposed to work. One can read a hundred books about one’s thoughts and desires being — if not exactly air and fire, but some bundles of electrochemical activities in a highly organised lump of neural cells, which are themselves highly organised lumps of simpler elements —  and all this knowledge won’t change the emotional experience of lonely self in the slightest.

Poetry, though, is another matter entirely.

Letting this sonnet sink into myself, living with its change of rhythm from nimble jumps to heavy slowness, with its almost imperceptible transformation of see and land into tears and dullness, I cannot help but feel this unity, perceive it as my own experience. The landscape (or, more precisely, the seascape) that emerged as my painting translation of this  sonnet fuses together several of my own impressions associated with the images of distance, space, separation.   

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Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20"x16". 2013
Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20″x16″. 2013


Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20"x16". 2011.
Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20″x16″. 2011.




But the sonnet isn’t simply a poetic expression of the “four humours” theory with its inherent unity between man and nature. There is a tension between two world views, two experiences of self: the ancient identity of fundamental elements in all their manifestations (from sea and land to human woes and dullness) versus the modern separation between thoughts and flesh, which echoes the separation between the lovers. A clash between antiquity and modernity.

William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.
William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.

The process of painting reflected this tension: I felt it as a continual struggle between two opposing impulses: one drove me towards establishing a clear contrast between nimble thought and dull substance of flesh, while the other kept trying to obliterate these contrasts in favour of unity, to dissolve the self-imposed formal boundaries (which seemed increasingly artificial and simplistic). The painting, as it is now, emerged as a blend of partially erased pictorial contrasts — in the blue-green colour harmony, in the horizontally divided composition, in the opposing rhythms in different areas of the painting.   

Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.
Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.

In the end, the painting’s organising contrast, which clarified itself in the process, is between the heavy, cubist-like geometry with its hard, rectilinear edges — and the light, subtle, almost Turner-like build-up of closely related colours. Somehow — I cannot really tell why — this contrast stands, for me, for all the multilayered oppositions of the sonnet at the same time: flesh versus thought, water and earth versus air and fire, isolation versus unity, modernity versus antiquity.

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On the first performance of “Hamlet”

[content_band inner_container=”true” padding_top=”0px” padding_bottom=”10px” border=”all” bg_color=”#efefef”]This is an accidental post: a writing assignment for the course on “Hamlet” on FutureLearn.com I am taking (by the way, it’s a great place to learn). The assignment is to pretend to be an Elizabethan who has just been to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time ever. They asked to write as a blog post, and I decided the topic is quite fitting for my “Studio Journal”, especially because I just saw the old BBC production with Derek Jacobi… [/content_band]

I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on a new production of Hamlet — I saw it yesterday — but the only thought that’s floating in my head right now is that I couldn’t be more thoroughly confused.

The public — me included — seemed to expect a remake of Kyd’s Hamlet we remember from a few years back: an honest revenge play. We should have known better: one can always trust Shakespeare to introduce confusion, and befuddlement, and a heap of questions instead of answers and straightforward action.

It’s not that there is no action at all: everyone dies by and by; but — at first at least — most of its happens off-stage and to wrong people (the main villain is also killed eventually, but not before he has managed to bring about the deaths of almost everyone else, Hamlet included).

But otherwise — I felt as though we are witnessing not what is actually happening, but what’s going on in Hamlet’s head (interchanging madness and reason, without any warnings). First of all — what is this Ghost? Is he real or is he an illusion? The soldiers and Horatio see it, too — but then, why doesn’t the queen, in a later scene?

And where does it come from? From what he says it seems like he resides in Purgatory (“for a certain term”, if I remember correctly) — but don’t we, in our enlightened age, already know that Purgatory is a vile invention of Papists? What might Shakespeare possibly mean with this? And then Hamlet talks of death as of a country from whose bourn no traveller returns — and yet he seems to take the Ghost quite seriously (if not without some mistrust — quite justifiable, by the way, if you ask me).

Is Hamlet mad? He himself seems to think that he just “puts it on”, that he is “mad in craft”… But isn’t “putting it on” madness in itself — all it seems to do is to arouse the king’s suspicions, so Hamlet is constantly being watched — not the best way to accomplish his revenge, if that’s what he has in mind. It looked to me as though he has just found a pretext (for himself, if for nobody else) to let his inward storm of madness out — I know firsthand how tempting it might be when the whole world seems to crumble around you.

Why doesn’t he kill his uncle right after the play, when he is finally sure that the Ghost was telling the truth? Does he really believe that a murderer and a villain will go to Heaven? Or is he just more interested in having his say with his mother? Or maybe he just doesn’t like to kill (no wonder here)?

As I said, I am befuddled. All these questions just keep boiling in my head, as though I have become a bit of a Hamlet myself…

On Art as Möbius strip

In their recent book, “Art as therapy”, Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong write that the question of what Art is for “has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Do I share this feeling — and the accompanying reluctance to discuss this question?

Leonid Pasternak. Rilke
Leonid Pasternak. Rilke

I think so, yes: if someone were to ask me this question, “What is Art for?” in a personal conversation, I would probably feel awkward and look sheepish (or arrogant — these two are commonly confused). Questions feel impudent if you feel obliged to know the answer, but don’t. And so it is with this question: I don’t know the answer — even though, as a painter, I feel that I probably should have one ready. But then again, it may be one of the questions that don’t really have the answer; one may have to live the question, as Rilke said in a letter to a young poet. “Perhaps, — he continued, — you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

Perhaps I should just go ahead and memorise Rilke’s suggestion just in case someone asks me? Because insofar as I feel like I have lived into some answer to this question (an answer if not the answer), how can I put it into words? Try to put it in general, universal terms — and it sounds too audacious, too lofty, way over the top (I almost hear myself telling myself “Come off it” before I even open my mouth). Try to be more personal — but then the question feels way too private, the answer too intimate to be voiced (as though someone were to casually ask me to explain what it is I love about my husband).

Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863
Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863

And so, unfairly or not, but the question does end up feeling illegitimate and impudent — which makes it immensely tempting to resort to the familiar “art for art’s sake” adage; perhaps Kandinsky was right: it’s the best the age we were born into can attain to.

But there is the rub: we aren’t just born into this age; it’s also we ourselves who make it what it is, complete with its growing art-alienation (which may be but another aspect of the life alienation of the modern world). As Kandinsky puts it, “those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing.”  Or, in de Botton and Armstrong’s somewhat more detached language:

“We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur.”     

And this is what they propose to change with their concept of “art as therapy” — the concept of art as a “tool” that, like other tools, “has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” Art “compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

Lascaux animal painting
Lascaux animal painting

Metaphors are our way of understanding the unknown: we equate it with something familiar, something we feel we already know. “Art-as-therapy” is such a metaphor: therapy stands for a familiar, established way of healing human psyches — or, if we abandon Greek and put it in plain English, of healing our souls. If an artist were to tell you that he is out to heal and transform your soul (as Kandinsky does, by the way), it would likely sound pretentious and overblown to a modern sceptical ear. “Art as therapy” metaphor has exactly the same meaning, but adds a demystifying, comforting, almost “scientific” ring to it. Actually, I am hypothesising here, because I happen to be less familiar with (and more suspicious of) therapy than with art. After all, art has been around for fifty thousands years at least, while therapy is what? Barely one century old?

“Art-as-tool” is another demystifying metaphor; after all, we’ve got lots of tools for expanding the capacities of our minds — so art must be just one of them, something like an old-fashioned Google Search (in fact, compensating for the inborn weakness of human memory is the very first “function of art” discussed in the book; I suspect Google Search might be a more effective tool for this particular job).

The value of these metaphors (of which, as you might have noticed, I am not entirely convinced) will become clear (or not) in how well they “work”: whether they make their way into our shared worldview and help to decrease the art alienation in our world (and the book is filled with specific proposals to this end).

In the meanwhile, they made me think of another metaphor for art — something I could honestly say if casually asked what art is for. Here it is:

Art is a Möbius strip for reality.   
M.C. Escher. Möbius strip I. 1961

If you don’t know what “Möbius strip” is, it might not seem like a good metaphor. But you can do it yourself very easily: just take a paper strip, give it a half-twist, and then join the ends to form a loop. What happens is this: the paper strip now has only one surface. If you look at it at any specific point, it still seems to  have two neat sides — but follow it from this point with a finger tip, and it will soon find itself on “the other side”, without ever actually jumping from one side to another. With one movement, you have created an object with a single surface. And not only this: it now has neither a beginning nor an end. I still remember the sense of unbelievable miracle when my father showed me how it works (I must have been about five — one is eager for miracles at that age, but this one still stays with me).

But what does it have to do with art? The thing, our lives are happening in the constant state of duality — between spirit and matter, between soul and body, between consciousness and nature, between “inner” and “outer” (each age choosing its own terms).

Whether this duality is real or illusionary is an interesting question, turning the duality on itself: Does it reside in consciousness or in nature? Does it belong to the mind or the matter side of itself? And which of these sides is actually real? Be it as it may, we are stuck with it, because it is so deeply and unavoidably embedded in our languages: one cannot even begin to talk without, consciously or unconsciously, dragging the duality in. Notice how it is right there when de Botton and Armstrong explain the function of art (in the quote above), in this case opposing the mind and the body.

What art does with reality is exactly what a Möbius strip does: it temporarily banishes its duality. It gives the reality a half-twist and momentarily joins the ends. It quite simply, literally doesn’t belong to either side (or belongs to both of them, which is the same thing), however we define or describe the split: it’s the inner making an appearance in the outer, the mind shaping the matter, the subjective transforming into the objective (and vice versa).

As I was writing this, Maria Popova published a post about Anne Lamott’s book (“Stitches: a handbook of meaning, hope and repair”). Here is one quote:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is.    

This sense of connection comes, I believe, from the dissolution of duality — from connecting the two sides of life into one. That’s what Art is for.

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Kandinsky on “art for art’s sake”

[pullquote cite=”Wassily Kandinsky” type=”left, right”]…art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.[/pullquote]What is Art for? In their recent book, “Art as therapy” (Public library), Alain de Botton and John Armstrong write: “This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”. In my experience, this usually happens when people don’t know the answer but feel they ought to.

In the case of art, of course, we have this saying, “art for art’s sake”, to fall back on — originally a slogan of artists’ defiance of contemporary utilitarian and moral conventions, which has turned into a platitude over its almost two centuries long history. Wassily Kandinsky didn’t shy away from the question of what art is for, and this is what he had to say about “art for art’s sake” in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (Public library):

With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work. Connoisseurs admire the “skill” (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the “quality of painting” (as one enjoys a pasty). But hungry souls go hungry away.

The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.” This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called “art for art’s sake.”

These words of bitter indignation are for the viewers, but the artists aren’t spared either:

The artist seeks for material reward for his dexterity, his power of vision and experience. His purpose becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed. In place of the steady co-operation of artists is a scramble for good things. There are complaints of excessive competition, of over-production. Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of this aimless, materialist art.

Here Kandinsky is harsh, and unapologetic, but he certainly has a point (the century that has passed since the time of his writing has hardly improved the condition of art, and it’s easily recognizable). And yet later on, he mentions the idea of “art for art’s sake” with more compassion. He writes:     

Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul <…> If art refrains from doing this work, a chasm remains unbridged, for no other power can take the place of art in this activity <…> at those times when the soul tends to be choked by material disbelief, art becomes purposeless and talk is heard that art exists for art’s sake alone.

And then, in a footnote to the last sentence:

This cry “art for art’s sake,” is really the best ideal such an age can attain to. It is an unconscious protest against materialism, against the demand that everything should have a use and practical value. It is further proof of the indestructibility of art and of the human soul, which can never be killed but only temporarily smothered.

It’s not even only about “practical value”, I believe. The idea of “art for art’s sake” was the art’s revolt against the increasing identification of meanings with purposes (which, according to Hannah Arendt, foreshadows “the growing meaninglessness of the modern world”), an attempt to build a defensive wall around art. But while protecting art from meaninglessness, hasn’t this wall separated art from life itself?