On being an artist

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.

Why don’t I “put myself out there”? The usual accessories of an “art career” — gallery representations, art competitions, solo shows: I neither seek nor want any of this. Why?

And, more interestingly perhaps, why this question bothers me at all — enough to be writing this?

An easy answer to the second question is that there is a social pressure to “put yourself out there”, to do all these things. That’s what professional artists do, that’s what gives you the “title”. In fact, there is a belief system in which it’s only recognition by the “Art World” that transforms what you are doing into “Art”.

But not only is this answer easy, it is also “lazy”, because, in the final analysis, I “generate” this social pressure myself — through books I read, mail lists I subscribe to, websites I visit, and so on. Nobody else can put this pressure on me if I don’t cooperate.

It won’t be too hard not to feel it (which will make it, for all intents and purposes, non-existent). Even if I don’t want to withdraw from all these networks of information completely (because there are other reasons not to), it should not, in theory, be a problem to tune myself out of this pressure — just like I am tuned out of loads of other things that neither interest nor “trigger” me in any way.

But it doesn’t work this way: although I am genuinely not interested in all these career opportunities, but I still do put all this pseudo-social pressure on myself, and, what’s more, I am as genuinely curious about why it is I am not interested.

I see it as a contradiction, a tension — something to explore and to live through, if only to know myself better. But it is also possible that this — relatively superficial and personal question — covers a deeper and more general one hiding behind it, just out of mind’s reach.

So why does this question bother me?

The usual suspect is fear: it’s often our fears that make us avoid something we really want.

So maybe I really do want something of a “successful art career”, complete with solo exhibitions in prestigious spaces, but I am scared of it, too. Scared, perhaps, of being somehow hurt in the process — if not me as a whole, then my ego at least. This suspicion is not something to be cast aside lightly, even if I don’t seem to feel this fear, because fears have a way of camouflaging themselves. It’s way too easy to rationalise a fear as something more respectable. So I’ll leave this possibility open for the time being — it may be that what bothers me here is the fear of fear, the suspicion that I am succumbing to a fear without realising it.

The other usual suspect is contribution: if an artist is supposed to make a contribution to the world, and to art, then the work needs to be seen, right? If nobody sees it, then it might as well have never existed at all. If I believe my paintings can contribute something, then I should really care about shows and “exposure” — so why don’t I?

Well, that’s not quite the case — because I do show my stuff on the internet. It’s not exactly the same thing (or rather, absolutely not the same thing) as seeing paintings “in person”, but there is an option of visiting my studio, or getting paintings sent over to your home to live with. Letters I receive from people who live with my paintings on their walls are often filled with such depth of emotion and vulnerability as to leave me in no doubt that the paintings do their work — that some sort of contribution does happen.

But still — shouldn’t I make more of an effort to “be seen”, to make it easier for people to see my work? And aren’t shows, and other conventional kinds of exposure, the only way to do so?

The problem is, there are just too many shows. Too many people trying to be make a contribution by being seen (and not enough people trying to see). Collectively, we create a visual equivalent of a room in which everyone is shouting in an attempt to be make easier for others to hear them — and this noise all but drowns any real potential for contribution.

To my own surprise, this metaphor — the image of a room filled with shouting people — revealed, for me, the real question; the real, general tension hiding behind my personal turmoil.

This is a tension between two concepts of art, two stories.

In the familiar, old story, few people are artists — those who can show something for others to see; there are artists, on the one hand, and audiences, on the other. This is the concept embodied in nearly all existing frameworks and social structures known as “Art World”.

The alternative concept is that being an artist is the only way to being fully human. I would call this a “new story”, except it was created in Ancient Greece. This is how Gottfried Richter describes this insight in “Art and Human Consciousness”:

“<…> the human being who simply gives himself up to the workings of the forces of life remains dull, passionate, immoderate and akin to the animal. Whoever simply shoves these forces aside in favour of the spirit may gain clarity and a measure of morality, but he also becomes a withered intellectual and can never be sure that they will not come back to him some day and exact a terrible revenge. The man who really overcomes them and attains his freedom is the “muse-filled” or artistic human being who stands in the middle between the other two like Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, who sat over the pit out of which the dragon’s vapours rose and at the same time received inspiration from the divine forces coming down to her from above. This is man between the animal and God, where the breath of freedom blows that becomes one with a higher necessity.”    

However old, this insight has never been more relevant and urgent than now, when the rise of productivity and automation is rapidly freeing human beings from the necessities of labor. But it doesn’t really “fit” the established social structures — if we try, the result is the room where everyone is shouting, and no conversation is possible. The ideal world, a world in which everyone is fully human, needs another, new way of being an artist, neither attached to nor defined by result-oriented things like showing work to audiences and being accepted by the art world.

And for this new way of being an artist to emerge, it needs to be found and explored — and that is, I guess, what I am doing, and a conventional “art career” just doesn’t fit the bill.

In search for meaning in the realm of freedom: Hannah Arendt on the threat of automation

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s “The human condition” (1958) — on and off over the last couple of weeks, because it feels, most of the time, like a very depressive read, a look into a bleak and hopeless future of the humankind.

She writes about severable foreseeable events that threaten this future, and by now, one of them has already happened — or rather, is happening right now:

This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

It may not feel like this liberation is happening right now — especially not to someone working long hours in a soul-deadening job and/or struggles to make the ends meet. But it is here, we are living it — even if this dream sometimes feel like a nightmare, showing itself in the threatening guises of unemployment and decreasing labor participation rate (so that “job creation” — making new opportunities for labor out of thin air — is perceived like a most useful activity). By the way, another well-know face of this dream come true is procrastination: one doesn’t procrastinate about something one is really bound to do by life’s necessity; procrastination is a sign of freedom — of a freely made choice to do something.

A slightly more “advanced” version of a society liberated from labour was (rather vividly) imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 dystopia, “Player Piano”. There, nobody needs to worry about paying their bills, and most people don’t need to do anything — everyone has enough to consume; but, contrary to all expectations, this doesn’t make the liberation from labor feel like a dream come true either, because life becomes meaningless.

The threat, then, is not automation per se — the threat is our inability to find meaning in the realm of freedom from necessity. That’s how Arendt describes this threat:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

I feel this painful contradiction every day; I am living it. I dropped out of “labor force” quite a few years ago, and, apart from a few smallish household chores, I don’t really need to do anything which would qualify as “labor” — that is, anything necessary for the process of life. For all intents and purposes, I am living in the realm of freedom from life’s necessities, and my private realm of freedom is filled with painting, reading, contemplation, and love. Surely, nothing could be better.

But this lack of need for me to do anything often feels like it’s me that is not needed, and then the realm of freedom appears to me as the barren desert of uselessness and meaninglessness. I can probably think of myself as one of these few solitary individuals mentioned by Arendt in passing, those who still “consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” (I have to, if only because I am not making a living). But an activity qualifies as “work” only insofar as its result enter the public realm — insofar as they are shared and, at least to some extent, seen.

And so my days are split between painting and this (blind and somewhat desperate) quest for contribution, for action, for participation in life. A search of how to share whatever it is I have to share — is it a search for meaning in the realm of freedom, or a quest to be bound by something, not so weightlessly and carelessly free? It requires some willpower and effort to drag myself away from the realm of freedom towards the whole range of different attempts to transform what I am doing into “work”, into something that has an existence, a way of being, in the public realm. And yet I keep doing it… all the time feeling that I would rather just paint privately and be free.     

I came across an interesting idea on Scott Young’s website the other day: if you work at home, he says, stop counting your work hours. Instead, maximise the free time — the time that remains when the necessary daily “work” tasks are taken care of. This idea brought this contradiction into the light of clarity: if I think of painting as “work”, this advice makes no sense at all; painting is something I want to be doing, not something I want to get done. It can only happen in the realm of freedom.

Arendt acknowledges that the artist is, in a sense, exempt from the general trend:

… we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society.

But this seems to have changed: the society’s verdict is now that the artist, too, has to either “make a living” or be condescendingly relegated to the status of “hobbyist”. Arendt writes about this change:

The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness. In these theories, which by echoing the current estimate of a laboring society on the theoretical level sharpen it and drive it into its inherent extreme, not even the “work” of the artist is left; it is dissolved into play and has lost its worldly meaning. The playfulness of the artist is felt to fulfil the same function in the laboring life process of society as the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby fulfils in the life of the individual.”

But here, I think, there is a glimpse of hope: a hope to turn the threat into a challenge, a way to perceive the liberation from necessity for the wished-for paradise it really is. What we lack, after all, what makes this wish come true into a threat is just the knowledge of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won”. The search for this knowledge one of the greatest challenges of our age, and the artist’s playful labor might just be one of the seeds from which it will emerge.

On Future as the source of energy for Present

If you have read my last letter, you already know about my plans for the “Sonnets in Colour” website in general, and this blog in particular. In short, I will be working more on the static (non-blog) component of the website, while the blog will transform into the studio journal it was always meant to become (rather than just a temporary container for essays intended for the static part of the site). So if you want to follow the evolution of this static part (which will be more like an evolving book than a blog), I’d love you to subscribe to the newsletter.

With this clarification, on to my studio journal.

Lena Levin. Le Petit Prince. 20"×16". 2012.
Lena Levin. Le Petit Prince. 20″×16″. 2012.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about future, much more than usual (it doesn’t mean I haven’t been painting — this process is essential for my well-being and overall sanity, whatever else I do). In recent years, I’ve grown increasingly addicted to living in the present, but there is no contradiction here — and that’s what this post is about.

In a sense, it’s a follow-up from my last week’s post about sonnets fifty and fifty one, where I arrived at the metaphor of future as nesting Matryoshka dolls, all contained in the present. This metaphor, and its (as it were) “practical” repercussions, have been incubating in my mind the whole week. I want to share the result with you, in case you might find it helpful in your own life. There is nothing new here, strictly speaking, but somehow I found the nesting dolls metaphor extremely useful for visualising these ideas.

So let’s imagine four nesting dolls (I’ve given them names, so that — if abbreviated to their initial letters — this whole little theory of mine would read “P-L-A-Y”).

The largest one, containing them all, is the present — your here and now. Let’s call this doll YOU.

The smallest one, hidden deep inside YOU, is a greatest, brightest dream you can imagine. Let’s call it PARADISE.  You can imagine this Paradise, even if imperfectly, but you have not the slightest idea how this future can come to pass; it is something barely possible, or might even seem downright impossible. The only important thing about it is that the very image, however imperfect and unrealistic, creates a kind of fire within, a wave of energy and joy, the sensation of being fully alive (just like it happens in the fifty first sonnet — in winged speed no motion shall I know).   

It’s not a “goal” (let alone “smart goal”), because you have no idea how to get there. And even though you can imagine this future, and yourself in it, it feels like daydreaming — and it’s quite likely that it will never happen exactly the way you imagine it. But it doesn’t matter. The purpose of this dreamy bright future is just to sit there deep within you, not as a goal, but as a source of energy (or motivation, in more practical terms).

Lena Levin. Sonnet 59: That I might see what the old world could say. 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 59: That I might see what the old world could say. 2014

I think we naturally have something like Paradise within in childhood, but many of us gradually lose this innermost “doll” as we grow up, and the future turns from the source of energy to the source of anxiety.

And, let’s face it, the imaginable future inevitably grows shorter as one grows older, and thus it might seem increasingly ridiculous to dream up something you don’t know how to achieve. And yet the whole point of the Paradise doll is its presence (within the present). It is something to reimagine from time to time, not something to attach any specific plans or timeframes to. Just reimagine and then let go.

So what about two intermediate dolls?

I’ll call one of them LEAD (not in the sense of “metal”, but “lead” as an initiative in action; to tell you the truth, I just haven’t found anything more appropriate which would start with “L”). It’s not unlike Paradise, but bigger and more easily “visible”, less deeply hidden. This future might feel more like a goal: something you know, or at least have some idea, how to achieve. You can imagine it in a more detailed and realistic way and it certainly feels possible. There can be, of course, many Lead-like dolls nested within one another (but not too many; otherwise, the whole metaphor deteriorates into obsessive planning).

And the other, still bigger one, I’ll call ARIEL. Ariel is almost as big as YOU — its the future of the next moment, the one that is becoming the present right now: for me as I am writing this and getting to the next sentence, and for you as you are reading it and your eyes glide to the next line. In short, it’s the future that flows directly and immediately out of the present, the one which is (almost) fully within your conscious control.

The key aspect of my Matryoshka doll metaphor is, of course, nesting: my dolls contain one another. In other words, they are all aligned. It is only if they are aligned that the innermost one, the image of Paradise, really works as the source of energy for the present. In this present, in the hear and now, Ariel can either be aligned with Paradise or not, and it fully depends on YOU.

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). 2014
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). 2014

The thing is, even if I don’t know the roadmap to Paradise, even if I can barely see it, it is still very easy to feel whether Ariel is aligned with it or not.

In this particular here and now, I know with certainty that if Ariel is still writing this post, it is aligned with my personal Paradise — but if I succumb to the occasional temptation to browse Internet, then it isn’t. See, it’s only if my Ariel still contains my Paradise that Paradise is right here within my present. Paradise not really a future, its the innermost part of the present. If I stray away, it dissolves into thin air, it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

As for you, if you are reading this (still reading!) just because you have succumbed to a similar temptation, then maybe your Ariel is calling you back to what you were doing before that? Here, I’ve done it: have you ever read a blog post which would in effect advise you to stop reading itself?

But if — just if — this reading feels like it may help you align YOU, your Ariel, your Lead(s) and your own Paradise, then this post has fulfilled its purpose.

By the way, it might seem that I am advocating the “delayed gratification” idea here, but nothing could be further from the truth. It would be, if my Paradise involved mindless Internet browsing, but it doesn’t. If anything, it contains a complete freedom from this particular temptation. Thus, in choosing to stay focused on writing, I bring this aspect of Paradise, this particular “gratification” right here to the present. If, on the contrary, I had chosen to go look what’s happening on Google+, I would have delayed it indefinitely.


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On freedom, art, and danger

Boris Nemtsov surrounded by riot police

“Our inheritance comes to us by no will-and-testament,” 

I came across this aphorism by René Char, a French poet and writer, in Hannah Arendt’s books (she mentions it on more than one occasion), and it keeps recurring in my mind, like a line from a forgotten poem, like an answer to a question I haven’t yet asked.

Char was writing about his experience in the French Resistance: French intellectuals who were thrown, unexpectedly, into the realm of political action discovered that

“<…> he who joined the Resistance ceased to be “in quest of [himself] without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction,” that he no longer suspected himself of “insincerity,” of being “a carping, suspicious actor of life,” that he could afford “to go naked.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4),

And in this new, naked state of mind, they have been “visited by the apparition of freedom” —

“<…> without knowing or even noticing it, [they] had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear. “At every meal that we eat together, freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4)

This was their unexpected inheritance, accidentally found in the time of darkest crisis: both a state of an individual mind, and a “public space”: a space of interaction, the medium in which communication can happen, where a genuine connection can exist. Arendt calls it “the lost treasure of the revolutions” — because it seems to come into existence only in times of political crisis, and then disappears again in the trance of day-to-day “normal” life.

We don’t have a name for this experience; it’s absent from our languages. Arendt equates this namelessness, the elusive nature of the “lost treasure”, the non-existence of will-and-testament for it, with a failure of the Western intellectual tradition:

“Without testament or, to resolve the metaphor, without tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it. Thus the treasure was lost not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future. The loss <…> was consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory, which befell not only the heirs but, as it were, the actors, the witnesses, those who for a fleeting moment had held the treasure in the palms of their hands (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, pp. 6-7).

I have had a similar experience — this glimpse of freedom, and the naked reality of being — during the collapse of the Soviet Union, three days in August 1991, filled with danger and hope, when its future was decided on the streets; and then it was lost, as though in an unfathomably stupid nightmare.

But I am writing this just a few days after Boris Nemtsov, one of the very few people who had not lost our shared inheritance, was murdered under the walls of Kremlin. But there is a recurrent theme in all obituaries written by those who knew him personally: he has always been incredibly, overwhelmingly alive; someone even said: almost indecently alive, as though echoing René Char’s metaphor of going naked. All through these last days, mixed with sadness and anger, I’ve been feeling something else — a sentiment I could not recognise at first, so out-of-place it was. I now know that it was envy: Boris Nemtsov won in this game of life, because he has never lost the treasure of freedom, and nobody can take this victory away anymore.

Why is it, I wonder, that some people can keep the treasure alive, while others lose it, or never find it? I recall another similar experience, from even earlier times. Back in the years of the Soviet Union, in its freezing and thoroughly false public atmosphere, I was growing up in an oasis of free thought. My father organised a “home seminar”, a small public space where people could come and talk freely. It was about everything really: history, philosophy, mathematics, art, memoirs, poetry, politics. That space was free from political pressures, from ideological and social considerations of academic and literary carriers, fashions, conventions. It wasn’t going to advance anyone’s career in any field; quite the contrary: unlicensed by the omnipresent totalitarian state as it was, participation could easily put one in danger. But people would come, because they needed this breath of the fresh air, this space of freedom.

This was an atmosphere quite different from anything I knew later, in a variety of seminars and conferences all over the world, where the politics of academia was always present, in one form or another. It is, as they say, “the real life”: nobody can afford to go naked in real life. But Hannah Arendt is right: it is not the “adversity of reality” that makes one lose the treasure of freedom. The atmosphere of modern free world is by no means more adverse to freedom than the Soviet Union or the German occupation of France. But is it just a failure of intellectual tradition, the lack of “will-and-testament”? Come to think about it, it may also be the lack of courage — why else would we seem to find the treasure of freedom only in the darkest times, when there is nothing to lose?

A couple of days ago, Google+ brought me a link to Steven Kotler workshop on flow states (or “optimised brain performance”) on the Big Think website. What caught my attention in this workshop was Kotler’s emphasis on risk and danger as “triggers” for flow states: essentially, he says that we need danger to be at our best (and also at our happiest). The danger need not be physical — social and emotional risk-taking has the same flow-inducing magic in it — but it must be danger nonetheless. This, I feel, is the missing piece of the puzzle — when everything seems well, safe and secure, it takes willingness to put oneself in danger to find the treasure. Paradoxical as it sounds, it’s easier when the times are perilous and dark. It’s not just the lack of intellectual tradition, it’s also the desire to feel safe that keeps one from finding the treasure of being alive.

There is a striking similarity with the experience of art, another “lost treasure”. It might seem that this inheritance, at least, has been properly cared for: stored, catalogued, exhibited in museums, performed in symphony halls, printed in numerous editions, and, more recently, added to the mind-staggering web of knowledge given to us by the internet. But no: although it is here, for all to read, see, and listen, this treasure, too, came to us without will and testament. We have a whole vocabulary of names for forms and genres of art, for its styles, techniques, and epochs, and libraries filled with books of art history and criticism, but there is really no proper word for the genuine experience of Art, which opens the way for the same apparition of genuine freedom, the reality of being alive, to the incomprehensible place where the mind of an artist connects with the mind of the beholder, beyond the usual capacities of language.

It may sometimes seem as though each of us can stumble on this treasure only by luck, because there is no “will and testament” to tell us how to find it — a problem recently raised by Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong in “Art as therapy”. They write:

“Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our relationship with art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”.

There is a truth in this, but, again, it’s not the whole truth. There is no doubt that the experience of art can be facilitated by a tradition of appreciation, by art education, but, in the end, it’s also a matter of courage, risk, and danger.

Just like the apparition of freedom comes in the darkest political times, when there seems to be nothing more to lose, so the genuine experience of art often touches us in the darkest valleys of our lives, in the midst of emotional turmoil, loss, mourning, grief. But when all is well, when one feels emotionally safe and secure, this experience is easily lost, and art degrades into a matter of entertainment, luxury, taste, style, technique, social status, small talk. It takes willingness to risk one’s emotional stability, to put oneself in danger of sorrow; otherwise, the door remains closed, the apparition never comes. It’s not unlike the risk Vincent van Gogh took when he opened himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence — the beholder’s share in the risk is not as huge as the artist’s, but it’s a risk nonetheless.     

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