ELLEN LANGER ON THE “TALENT MYTH”

If you have been following my last few posts, you know that I have been riffing on the book On Becoming an Artist by Ellen Langer, a professional psychologist and amateur painter.  Langer suggests that painting and other creative arts can be a way of developing mindfulness and the path to a richer, more authentic and satisfying life.  As I mentioned in my last post, the author sees our tendency to compare ourselves with others and evaluate ourselves according, as the biggest block to developing creative mindfulness.  In this post, I will focus on one chapter where Langer tackles what she sees as the most damaging belief that prevents people from engaging in new activities such as painting.  Even though we understand that engaging in new activities can lead to a more rewarding life, we often avoid doing so because we are convinced that we have no talent in that area.   The name of the chapter from Langer’s book dealing with this is called “The Myth of Talent”.

WHO IS TO SAY WHO IS TALENTED OR CREATIVE?

In this chapter, Langer makes the bold declaration that: “Everybody has an equal talent for everything” ( pg. 171). Drawing upon the biographies of successful artists, and studies of artists, she concludes that creations by people generally seen as creative artists are more a product of learned skills rather the result of some inherited quality.  In other words, what we usually consider to be some innate or inner quality, is largely a matter of learned skills.  According to Langer:

“we usually impute to people who are very talented, like Picasso, a knowingness that he wouldn’t recognize as he embarked on a new work.  It isn’t that the talented “know” what they are about to do as much that they are willing to start something and see where it leads them.  We, however, tend to focus on their results and ignore the struggles, uncertainties and false starts.” (pg. 150)

Langer points to recent laboratory studies of Mondrian’s work that showed that he constantly scraped his canvases to revised his paintings until he was satisfied.  According to Langer, “Like all of us, Mondrian painted step-by-step, despite how he or anyone else might describe his work”  (pg. 159) The final product and the statements of critics and/or the artist, leave the impression that the work could only be the product of a quality (genius or talent) that most of us do not processes. The failure to grasp this error in logic, prevents countless numbers of people from trying activities that they might find rewarding and which could lead to their developing their own unique talent in that area.

 As the author points out, most of the artists now considered to be talented were not seen as such at first or even during their lifetimes.  Langer asks:

“Would we want to say these artists were not talented because they lacked audience appreciation?  Of course not, yet many of us consider their works and can only feel inferior by comparison……..By definition, “everyone can’t be great at something” if we think that is so. No. everyone can’t be equally great if we hold still a single criterion for evaluation.  But criteria can and do vary” (pg. 172)

With "mindless judging" most of us become convinced that we have no talent.

When we subscribe to a single rule or set of criteria, we are reacting mindlessly.  If the artists that are now considered talented had mindlessly accepted the current cannons on what constituted talent, they would never have begun their practice.  The whole point of Langer book is to  help her readers break through the kind of mindlessness that will deter them from trying something new and potentially rewarding; new activities that could possibly help the readers learn to become more mindfully creative.  One way Langer attempts to do this is by suggesting that they mindfully consider the consequences of exploring new creative pursuits This is nicely summed up when she asks:

“If I try, and fail, am I any worse off?  It is interesting exercise to attempt to do things we think we can’t do, but would like to try just for fun.  If we don’t globalize the result and conclude “I can’t paint (or more global still, I can’t do anything artistic) because I can’t draw this dog,”  for example, what is lost?  Whose affection is at risk?  What opportunity that we’ve counted on will not be ours? … (pg. 172)

I have personally found in my own painting process, that my most “creative” painting occurs when I am willing to take risks- doing something that I’d never seen done before or something that I knew could end up being considered “a mistake”.  Taking such “risks” is not easy and these kinds of risk never seem to go away as you develop as a painter.  Risking “failure”  is part of the territory but is also what makes painting (or anything else) a challenge and fun.  It requires a fundamental shift in one’s world view where we put our choices and our actions into perspective and to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Now, dear readers, “for your moment of Zen” (apologies to The Daily Show’s John Stewart) we will include one more quotation from Langer’s book.  It is a continuation of the quote I included immediately above where she is talking about taking chances to do something like painting which you have never done before.  Below she continues by  applying the same principles to life in general:

“Someone might point out that these examples are mere avocations, so with them there’s not much at stake,  Fine, now do the same exercise with matters we take to be more serious.  The results are not all that different.

To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something.  If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it.  If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently.  Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”

Wow!  Is she saying that we can stop worrying so much about how everything we do in life is evaluated and take risks to try new ways of being without worrying about whether we are judged by others to be a failure?  I think that is exactly what she is saying and I also think this is one of the key lessons that can be learned from practicing meditative disciplines like Zen.  I agree with Langer’s approach of starting your mindful practice in the so called “avocations” or “less serious” pursuits such as art.   As we learn to become more mindful in these areas, we are “practicing” so to speak for other areas of life where the stakes seem to be or actually are higher. It is for this reason that, at The Vista Zen Center, in addition to Formal Zen Practice a more informal practice is also emphasized. This informal practice is described on The Vista Zen Center Website as follows:

The second approach, “Genjo Practice” is concerned with a student’s engagements outside the traditional Zen setting. The students everyday lives become the focus of their Zen practice.

To facilitate “Genjo Practice” Jiyu Sensei encourages students to work with him focusing on a specific aspect of their lives. Often this will be something they love to do and will probably continue to do no matter what else is going on in their lives. For some students, this might be the time spent in working in a creative domain such as painting, poetry, or music. Or it might be home-schooling one’s children, taking care of the garden, or the livelihood that puts food on the table and a roof over their heads. 


Note that at The Vista Zen Center the “Genjo Practice”, which could be viewed as encouraging what Langer calls “creative mindfulness”, is practiced in conjunction with Zazen which is a more formal and specific mindfulness training.  In future posts, I will look at why I think this combined training program is probably more effective, at least for most people, than Langer’s approach.

And so there, ladies and gentlemen is Art and Zen Today’s moment of ZEN.

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ART, ZEN AND TRANSUBSTANTIATION: IT’S LIKE KIND OF CRAZY

Right after I posted the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? (see previous Post), my wife called me from Florida where she was visiting relatives.  She told me that she had just watched it in the company of her six year old grandniece, Catalina.  Apparently after viewing it, Catalina simply said “It’s like kind of crazy”.

 My painting teacher, Sally Pearce, once told me that the most useful critiques of my painting would come from children.  So it occurred to me that I should give this comment some thought.

First, Catalina’s comment brought to mind, a couple of similar comments I’d heard recently coming from fellow Zen students.  The first was elicited after the person had read the teachings of Buddha in the Diamond Sutra which includes the central Buddhist notion that what we think of as “self” is not real. The verse in question has Buddha saying the following to his student Subhuti:

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.””

The Zen student wrote me that the Buddha’s comments “sounds insane”.  Most of us would agree. (For more details see Discussion #3 on the FORUM page of this blog).

 The other comment was one of those commonly heard observations about the state of the world; i.e. “everyone’s crazy”. This student didn’t really say whether he considered himself in this category or not. Certainly one possible translation of the rapper’s dialogue in the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? could be “IT is crazy”, where IT refers to what Jiyu Roshi often refers to as “the whole ball of wax”. EVERYTHING’S CRAZY!

Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers, didn’t use the word “crazy” but did say that we all live in “delusion”.  And for those who are used to thinking that “enlightenment” is somehow an antidote for or the opposite of “delusion”, he argues that they are one and same.  Now, THAT sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  (If you haven’t already, you may want to check out an earlier post titled “SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY”)

Whether something is considered to be “good” or “bad”, “crazy” or “sane” or “enlightened” or “delusional” depends on how that “thing” is defined. As Dogen and many Western philosophers’ have shown us, definitions are not fixed and do not enjoy complete consensus as to their meanings.  This seems to be the point of Duchamp’s “Fountain”.

TRANSUSBSTANTIATION

In doing research for the video, I learned that Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by the concept of “transubstantiation“.  If you watched the video closely you saw that I played with this concept in the video.  According to Wikipedia this term was first, or most famously, used at The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) where it was stated that Christ’s “body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.” From this perspective, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and bread but are his body and blood, although in another form.  Later, more liberal interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion.  In other words it  is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

Here is how Duchamp used the term transubstantiation:

  • “The spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place… …All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
    • “The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel)” e.d. Michel Sanouille and Elmer Peterson,New York1973, pp. 139-140

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?”  His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators.  If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then  it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as  “just a urinal”.  If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of  “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art?  Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”.  As I suggested in an earlier post “Performer/Audience Communication“, some works of art allow the artist and the audience to share this unusual mode of consciousness.

————————————————————————————————————

"An Oak Tree" by Michael Craig-Martin

The piece pictured to the left is a continuation of Duchamp’s dialogue  by conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin.  His work “An Oak Tree”, installed in the Tate Modern consists of a glass of water, which the artist has declared he turned into a “full-grown oak tree”, “without altering the accidents of the glass of water”   Craig-Martin is claiming that, although the form of the piece looks like a glass of water, it is in fact or in substance an oak tree, which is transubstantiation of the kind that is central to the Christian doctrine.  Of course such work is likely to provoke remarks such as “Is it really art?” or “It’s like kind of crazy”.

————————————————————————————————————

Since Duchamp created “The Fountain”, artists of all stripes have been interested in exposing the tenuous nature of the distinction between art and all other aspects of life.  For instance, in “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life”, Allan Kaprow wrote:

“Consider certain common transactions–shaking hands, eating, saying goodbye– as Readymades (a term Durchamp used for pre-existing “art objects” like the urinal).  Their only unusual feature will be the attentiveness brought to bear on them.  They aren’t someone else’s routines that are to be observed but one’s own. just as they happen”.

What Kaprow seems to be saying is that living life attentively is making one’s life an art piece, which begins to sound  pretty “Zen-like”.   He strengthens this association by writing :  “Lifelike art in which nothing is separate is a training in letting go of the separate self”.  In the next Post, I will explore how the kinds of philosophical discussions prompted by Duchamp and others have been going on for centuries among Zen and other Buddhist’s philosophers.

————————————————————————————————————

The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in the mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation….” (Presumably Suzuki would agree that the same is true of a “Zen-woman”)

                                                        D.T Suzuki, Zen and the Japanese Culture

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.

WHAT IS IT (MARCEL DUCHAMP)?

Today’s post is just a video entitled “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)?”
After Duchamp tried to submit a urinal as a sculpture to a pretigious art show in 1917, the art world was never the same.
Several scholars have argued that Duchamp was a closet Buddhist and my video tries to make the case that his submission
of the urinal as a piece of art is a pure expression of Zen.  Please watch the video when you are not distracted by other things
and see if you agree.  The link below will take you to the video on youtube.  If an advertisement comes up, you can skip it and go straight
to the video but, oddly, the one I saw was sort of amusing and seems to fit with the video.  If possible listen through headphones
to maximize the stereo quality of the music.
Regards,
Steve
Click below to go to Youtube to see the video.

ART, ZEN AND TECHNOLOGY: A VISIT WITH SEAN VOISEN

Sean Voisen

Woody Allen once said that .“Eighty percent of success is showing up”.  I suspect the same thing could be said of Practice of any kind.  If so, perhaps the man pictured above can help you “show up” more often for practice.  Read on and find out more about this interesting fellow.

In the past, my Zen teacher, weary of slogging through my wordy essays, has asked me to sum up my understanding in a short Zen-like phrase.  If asked to do this for the past few posts on “practice”, I’d probably say that their main message is “just practice“.

Whether we are talking about artistic practice, meditation, or anything else, this is easier said than done.  Sean Voisen, a fellow member of The Vista Zen Center, has offered one solution to this problem in a post on his new blogsite called “The Koan”.  As I work on my next essay, which will focus on comedic improvisation, I think it fitting that I refer you to Sean’s site for a very different, but complementary perspective on Zen practice in contemporary society.

A Why in the Road

Sean, who works for Adobe, received a Master’s degree in the Art Computation Engineering Program at the University of CA, Irvine.   This program focuses on the interstitial areas between art and technology.  Drawing on this background, Sean offers a unique perspective on his study of Zen.  His blog posts offer fresh ways of thinking about Zen practice which I see as highly relevant to what I have been trying to express in my posts.

Below is a series of excerpts from a post titled “Quantified Awareness” which will give you a taste of what you will find on his site.

"Insight Timer", IPhone App.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve used an iPhone app designed specifically for measuring meditation every time I’ve sat on my cushion. The app is called Insight Timer. And I don’t intend to stop using it any time soon for one simple reason: statistics. Using charts and graphs, Insight Timer provides a detailed look at how often (or how little) you’ve been practicing in the last week, the last month, and the last year.”

“……..measuring my practice has assured a consistency of daily meditation more than any other methodology I have tried. And with meditation, consistency is key.”

“……Meditation, after all, is ultimately about developing greater awareness, and metrics simply offer another path. ……..Statistics shed light on phenomena we may otherwise never observe. Perhaps the great and ancient sages of Buddhist lore never recommended recording your daily practice down to the minute. But then again, they didn’t have iPhones.”

I’m certain that you will find this and Sean’s other posts of interest  http://thekoan.org/.  I’d also suggest that you check out some of his art/technology projects at:  http://sean.voisen.org   Below are some pictures and the descriptions of  Sean’s past projects, which I think provide a view of the intriguing spaces where art and technology overlap.  I’m delighted to see that Sean is now folding his Zen studies into this mix.  This, I think, will help bring Zen into the 21st century, which is one of the aims here at  Art and Zen Today.

Bluenumi

“Bluenumi”   began with the idea of creating an easy to assemble open-source kit clock that had nixie tube aesthetics, but without the associated cost or potentially dangerous high voltage. The result is a small, functional, and beautiful desktop clock featuring 100% through-hole electronic components that looks like a nixie clock, but can be built at a fraction of the price.”

Bluenumi

 

“The Uncanny Dream Machine is an exploration in computer-generated

Uncanny Dream Machine

dreamlike narrative. …… Embodied as a 1940′s-era wooden Philco radio, viewers listen to the machine as it reads its dreams over the airwaves. Knobs on the radio allow viewers to “tune in” to streams of consciousness delineated by various emotions — fear, anger, curiosity, joy, anxiety, worry, etc. — provoking conversations about the nature of emotion and consciousness in an otherwise unemotional, unconscious, and disembodied machine.”

Uncanny Dream Machine

“Mercury Retrograde is a hand-built nixie tube alarm clock……. The clock is an exploration of the role of intentionality in everyday objects, as well as an experiment in resistentialist behavior. In order to function correctly, it demands physical attention. Ignore it for too long and it begins to rebel, intentionally slowing its internal oscillations and waking its owner at inconvenient hours of the night.”

Mercury Retrograde

“Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness.”

Woody Allen

To leave a comment, click on the white bubble at the right of the title.  To make an anonymous comment, write “anonymous” when prompted for a name.  You can also send comments to me directly.

 

PAINTING AND ZEN PRACTICE IN POLAND: A VISIT WITH PIOTR KRYSIAK

I just spent a week in Texas visiting my grandsons and and then another week at The Vista Zen Center for a meditation retreat.  So, I am a bit behind in my blogging.  While I work on my next installment of the series on “practice”, I would like for you to visit with Piotr Krysiak, a  painter and Zen student from Poland.  Piotr has sent me several comments regarding Art And Zen Today and I have spend time roaming around his website (see address at  bottom).

Below  I have copied Piotr’s statement about his Zen and artistic practices as well as his background.  All of the pictures on this page are images of Piotr’s acrylic paintings, but these are just a few of many and I would suggest you visit his website to see all of his paintings as well as some interesting videos.  One of the things I like about his paintings is that they have both an ancient and contemporary quality to them: Zen art for the 21st century.

Piotr’s Statement

I’ve been practicing zazen for several years. Two times a day. Every day. Mainly to unprogram myself from what I have been suggested as good, bad, right, wrong, important, unimportant, fashionable, desirable, expected, valuable, mine. Unprogram from all that reaches me constantly – all the variable ideas that are only subsequent interpretations of reality.

 

Zazen causes disappearance of these conditions. The result is serenity. The combination of artistic practice and zazen gives the possibility to balance on the
edge which on one side enables to be consciously in the now while on the other leaves behind artifacts reminding of coming back to the now.

Copied from an email from Piotr 

About three years ago I went to a lecture about Zen. After the lecture there was a proposal to try zazen ourselves. I can’t really explain what happened but it just worked with me, just like that, simply sitting and thinking not thinking. Since then, I’ve been doing zazen twice a day, every day. I’ve noticed slow changes in my life. Like I was freeing myself from limitations I wasn’t aware of. I read a couple of books about zen and they simply pointed what I felt that day during my first zazen trial. I do believe zen is a constant work. I don’t have a teacher.

 Resume

MA – Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow

SELECTED EXHIBITIONS
2011 – Salted Candy, collective exhibition – Poznanska Galeria Nowa
2011 – II Triennial of Contemporary Polish Painting – Jesienne Konfrontacje,
collective exhibition – BWA Rzeszow, BWA Zamosc
2010 – New things, solo exhibition – Museum in Bielsko-Biala
2010 – Under, collective exhibition – Cellar Gallery, Krakow
2005 – Piotr Krysiak – painting, solo exhibition – Schindler Factory, Krakow

 

SELECTED COLLECTIONS
Museum in Bielsko-Biala
Dave Bown Collection, USA

Website:     http://piotrkrysiak.com/

Email:                   piotr.krysiak@gmail.com

 

The Artist is Present

I happened to see “Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present” on HBO the other night and would highly recommend it to this crowd of readers.  It is a documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art inNew York.  It is available on Netflixs.

The retrospective included either videos of or reenactments (using hired artists) of performances carried out by Abramovic over the course of her career.  Photos of some of those early performance pieces are included below, along with some commentary.

Marina plays "game" stabbing knife between fingers rapidly for hours.

“The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death ” self”

Marina on her relationship with Ulay.

 

 

Ulay and Marina screaming at one another as Performance Art

 

Performance piece with Ulay

   Abramovic lived on three connected platforms in full view of audience for 12 days.IN 2002 Marina lived for 12 days on three platforms in full view of the public. the ladders leading down from the platforms had rungs made of butcher knives.

A large part of the MOMA retrospective consisted of videos or reenactments of these and many other past performances by Abramovic.  However,the main attraction was the artist herself who sat motionless in a chair in the museum while gazing into the eyes of whoever wanted to sit across from her.  Thus, the title of the exhibit (and the documentary), “The Artist is Present”, was based on the fact that Marina was in the museum during every moment that the Museum was open during the 3 month exhibit; 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week.

The title seems to have a double meaning.  Not only was she present in the sense that she was there at  her show every hour of every day- something, I’m sure, no other artist has accomplished- but she was totally “present” with everyone who sat before her.

In the film, Klaus Bresanbach , the curator for the exhibit, said:

What is so beautiful about the MOMA performance, she’s treating actually every human being she is encountered with the same attention and the same respect.

 

As you can see from the photos, many of those who waited in long lines to be in Abromovic’s presence were profoundly affected.  Many people openly wept and I found one person online who descibed herself as having an “out of body experience” while gazing into the artist’s eyes.  In the film Marina says of those who sat with her:

  Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more.  It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

 In other words,Marina was being “in the present” in the sense that I talked about this concept in the earlier post “What the ______was that Video About?  In the film, Marina tells us:  It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing as an artist.  The most important is from which state of mind you are doing what you are doing, and performance is all about state of mind.

 It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself.  By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self.  This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation.  (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)

 

Zen Meditation

There is much about Abramovic’s art practice and her life that reminds me of  serious Zen practioners.  Consider this quote from the movie:

The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing.  It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell.  There’s no objects to hide behind.  You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.

I am sure that any Zen student who has sat for hours in a prolonged meditation retreat can relate to her description.

Although it is clear that Abramovic is aware of and has practiced various meditiation

Marina at the end of a day of sitting.

techniques, she does not identify herself as a spiritual seeker. As she said in a joint interview with Ulay:

…as we speak about a reserve of energy, about our bodies, you might think Zen Buddhism is behind our work, or other philosophies, but we’re really interested  only in  experience.” (http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=197&det=ok&title=MARINA-ABRAMOVIC-AND-ULAY)

Whether or not Abramovic’s art  is spiritual, it involves a practice that resembles what seems to be required in all genuine spiritual pursuits; the practice of raising ones awareness to the point where something new is a possible outcome.  This is nicely summed up in the movie when Marina says:

Artists have to be warriors.  Have to have this determination and have to have the stamina to conquer not just new territory, but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses.

This overlapping of spiritual and artistic practices is the central focus of this blog.

MY CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A CREATIVE ALIEN.

The title of a Documentary film about Sun Ra

 

In my last post I explored the creative benefits of being an alien from another planet, which is how the jazz musician Sun Ra saw himself.  In this post, I will examine how my creativity was affected by a “close encounter” with this alien.  In the next post I’ll look at what Jonas Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) says about the importance of such “close encounters” to the creative process, in general.  (Also see the “Caption Challenge” at the end of this post.)

Sun Ra and I both lived in or around Philadelphia in the 1980s.  A friend and I decided

Sun Ra with Mask

to go to a Sun Ra concert in neighboringCamden N.J.  It was held in a run down Community Center in the middle of one of Camden’s poorest neighborhoods.  There were supposed to be refreshments before the concert, but by the time we arrived the Arkestra had eaten their way through the goodies.  The concert was held in a small basement room with a tiny stage crammed with the band members wearing weird costumes.  I was not really a big fan of Ra’s music (and am still not) so what I remember best is just the sheer weirdness of the spectacle.

Tibetian Monks

At one point, about mid-way through the concert, Sun Ra got up from the keyboards and came down into the audience.  Shortly , each member of the band stopped playing and followed him down the stairs.  Soon the whole band was walking up and down the aisles chanting something  in unison. I could not make out the words at first since the band members were on the far side of the auditorium.  It was a simple, non-melodic refrain,  that had a hypnotic quality to it.  Because it was chanted in unison and Sun Ra and the band maintained a serious demeanor , I felt like I was witnessing some sort of mysterious ritual.  As the line of musicians came closer to where we were sitting,  I began to figure out what they were chanting with such solemnity.  This was the chant:  “Gonna rip the mask, rip the mask off Batman.  Look out Robin, gonna get you too”.

That scene has stuck with me over the years and, as you will see,served as an inspiration for my first music video.  Click on the link below to see the short video on YouTube.  At the end of the video, click on return arrow to finish reading this post and to respond to today’s “Caption Challenge

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkAPFPLiNoI&feature=plcp

After watching this video you may have the same kind of response as you did to the video featured in What the ____ is that Video About?, namely: “What the _____is this video about?”  Fair enough.  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post where we’ll return to some of the ideas put forth in Lehrer’s book.  Be sure to send in your caption for the image below, which will pop up again in future posts.

YOUR CAPTION HERE

SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY.

(Click on “Forums” on the menu at the top for a in-depth response to comments from Jane on “What the ____was that Video about?”.)

Of all the early jazz musicians, Sun Ra had to be one of the most “far out”.  He claimed that he was from Saturn, not from earth, and used cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry to preach awareness and peace. The notion that he came from Saturn seems to be connected to a profound altered state of consciousness experience he had while  in college.  Here is how he chose to describe it:

my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me……..They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.   Szwed, John F. (August 21, 1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80855-5

 

He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra is the Egyptian God of the Sun) and formed his “Arkestra” to help him spread his message through his music. The band members wore colorful  outfits that were a combination of African garb and space suits and  Sun Ra usually wore an outfit, with a headdress and flowing cloak.

The music they played was very complex and often atonal.  . But being in the Arkestra

House in Phila. where the Arkestra lived and rehearsed.

was a difficult way of life. The band members never made much money, and Ra demanded discipline and hard work. He banned drugs, alcohol, and women, and band members had to be available for practice around-the-clock.  This monastic atmosphere seemed to have been something close to what one might find in a Zen monastery.

One band member who had studied Zen before joining Sun Ra said that the leader’s use of non sequiturs and absurd replies to questions seemed to resemble the use of Koans and other responses observed among Zen Masters.       According to John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, the drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a profound change in outlook.    Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were;

 “very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.”Szwed, John F. , 1998). Space Is the Place.)

In addition, I’ve found numerous quotes from Sun Ra, like the one below, that could have just as easily come from the mouth of a Zen master.

“I’ve been to a zone where there is no air, no light, no sound, no life, no death, nothing. There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune. I’ve got to raise their consciousness, tell them about the wonderful potential to bypass death.”

Szwed, 1998

I’ve never been a big fan of Sun Ra’s music but was prompted to write about him for

Van Gogh, Self Portrait

several reasons.  One is to reiterate an observation I made in an earlier post (Waikiki, Dylan, Zen and the Spanking Monk) about the thin line that exists between madness creative genius and spirituality.  In that post I pointed out the problems in using such terms when talking about creative people, whether ourselves or others.

Secondly, his case seems to nicely illustrate what I have been writing about in the past few posts; namely “aliens”.  While I don’t believe Sun Ra came from Saturn or was teleported by aliens, he does seem to be someone who has consciously and adopted the position of  an extreme “alien” in society to support his creativity and spirituality.

Finally, I recently found myself influenced by a “close encounter” that I had with Sun Ra back in the mid 1980s, when he and I both lived in the Philadelphia area.  A friend and I attended a Sun Ra concert where I witnessed something that became the inspirational seed for one of my music videos.  I’ll tell the story and show the video in the next post. Peace!

THE “INNER ALIEN” AND CREATIVITY

CREATE A CAPTION FOR THIS IMAGE. PLEASE SCROLL DOWN TO SURVEY BOX BELOW.

Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté’, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.     Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

In my previous post (Aliens from Inner Space), I suggest that the term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  Generally, we do not want to be “alien” or “alienated” but the fact is that we all, at times, experience the discomfort and awkwardness of being a stranger in a strange land.  The concept of  “inner alien” is simply a metaphor that calls attention to that fact and to the positive possibility of such experiences.

Steve Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guy"

Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) begins his Chapter called “The Outsider” with this quote from Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up.  The chapter provides numerous cases where someone outside a field of knowledge is more successful at solving problems in the field than the so-called experts and where people having an interest in but no past knowledge about a problem come up with the most creative solutions.  This is why young people often appear to be more creative than old folks.  But, Dean Simonton, a psychologist studying creativity says that getting older does not inevitably lead to a loss of creativity. Lehrer quotes him as saying:

If you can keep finding new challenges, then you can think like a young person even when you’re old and gray.

Waikiki Creativity QuestLehrer also refers to considerable evidence that living in foreign cultures and being bilingual can stimulate creativity.  Such experiences, says Lehrer ….”endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings (p. 129). Lehrer ends this chapter with the following observation:

Knowledge can be a subtle curse. when we learn about the world, we also learn all the reason why the world cannot be changed…….We become numb to the possibilities of something new.  In fact, the only way to remain creative over time–not to be undone by our expertise–is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.  (p. 135)

To cultivate the “inner alien” takes courage as you must always catch yourself getting comfortable and consciously take risks by immersing yourself in situations that seem challenging.  I would suggest that artists, and anyone else who want to foster and maintain creativity, must make this process an integral part of their “practice”.  In the next post I will suggest that this is the main ingredient of any “spiritual practice. PLEASE

SCROLL DOWN FOR CAPTION CONTEST.

 

 

 

 

 

ALIENS FROM INNER SPACE

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about “aliens” recently.  Primarily because my brother Jim and I, who comprise the “band” called Shrink Wrap, were asked to play at an opening of an exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art called “Beneath Alien Seas”.  The exhibit consisted of “Light Sculptures created by William Leslie, in collaboration with Alessandra Colfi and Nathan Harrenstein.  Since it is hard to describe these beautiful and mysterious pieces in words, I’ve included a short video of clips and stills taken at the Opening.

I suggest you check out the video before reading on.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3V7o07bN2Q&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVRR6l491Aafe34H23PwdNA

After we played for the Opening, my brother wrote on his facebook page:

      

       This was the first time I can remember being

       asked to be as “out there” as possible.

       “Alieness” accomplished (I think) and great fun playing for

       such a progressive crowd.

This was the first gig we had played in a long time where we both felt completely free to play the “weird” music that we both enjoy. We don’t play together often but coming together to create music is how we have been bonding together as brothers for many years.

Like many kids with no siblings, I had an imaginary playmate, who I called “Jim”.  So, when my brother came into the world, when I was 5, my parents decided to named him after my “playmate”.  I think for most kids at that age, the sudden appearance of a sibling seems pretty incomprehensible and miraculous.  This was all the more the case for me as it seemed that I, somehow, had something to do with the Jim’s manifestation (perhaps my first “ego trip”).

As a toddler, Jim slept in a crib like that pictured above, with bars all around and wheels on the legs. Whenever he woke up, Jim used to grab onto the bars and shake the bed furiously, like a disgruntled prisoner hoping to shake loose the bars of his cell.  If you read my brother’s posts on Face Book, you will see that things have not changed much.

My first memory of my brother is being awaken in the middle of the night by the sound of Jim’s shaking  crib.  Not being fully awake, I opened my eyes and saw him moving the crib  across the wooden floor, inching closer and closer with every violent shake.  In my memory, he had sort of maniacal grin and bright gleaming eyes.  Peering through the bars of the crib he looked like something from “elsewhere”.  He was from “elsewhere” but it turned out that he just wanted to play with someone in the middle of the night.

 

Before we took up instruments, our play together usually consisted of  putting on shows for the family or friends.  This flair for the dramatic was perfected in capers designed to torture a long series of babysitters.

Having materialized my own personal playmate out of my imagination, it was only natural that I directed these events. I was the schemer and instigator and poor Jim, always the “team player,” would carry out my plots and usually get the blame when caught.  Our most famous caper was when I talked him into letting me tie a rope around him and lower him from an upper story window.  I don’t recall how I secured him, but Jim managed to swing back and forth in front of the large picture window in the living room below where the sitter was watching TV.  I imagined him looking like Mary Martin flying across the stage in the play Peter Pan, but to our elderly babysitter it was a reason to retire from the babysitting business.

 

When Jim and I periodically come together as Shrink Wrap,  weirdness usually ensues, and so it was extremely gratifying to be able to draw upon our “inner aliens” and feel that we fit right in at the “Under Alien Seas” event.  As you can see from his design for the cover of a Shrink Wrap CD, my brother’s “inner alien” is not far beneath the surface.

http://www.amazon.com/Neural-Connection-James-Wilson/dp/B00009V3L0

The term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  In my last post, I mentioned that Theolonious Monk was part of a subculture that valued being “far out”.  We all have stories about hearing music or a musician when we were young that had a life-changing effect on our lives.  Monk was one of those musicians.  When I was 10 or 11, I often listened to  a crystal radio set that I had build in bed under the covers.  The set was able to pick up stations from an incredible distance away.  One station I listened to was WLAC (I think) in NashvilleTennessee, where I first heard blues and what was, at the time, called “race music”.  I also recall hearing Monk on a station that played jazz and probably was located in Cleveland.  Hearing any jazz at that time was a novel experience but when I heard the melancholy yet joyously weird sounds of Monk, I realized for the first time that there was a whole other world “out there” beyond the boundaries of Fremont, Ohio that  needed to be explored.

In the next post, I’ll explore the importance of deveoping our “inner alien” in the practice of Art and Zen. By the way, do you know who is posing in the photo below?  Another Brother from Another Planet?  Maybe.  I’ll reveal his identity as I further explore the realm of “inner space” in upcoming posts.