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.

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"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”.

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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.

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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

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JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: “SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY” AND PRACTICE

The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity - our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)

 

Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”. http://www.vistazencenter.com/vows-and-precepts)

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmond

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“CREATIVE REFRAMING” IN ART AND LIFE

UNRESOLVED By Steve Wilson

Most visual artists would agree that how a picture is framed can alter its effect on viewers.  Likewise, performing artists have learned to take into consideration the larger context or setting on their performances.  Here I want to explore the concept of creative reframing as an essential element of “creativity”, both in the arts and everyday life.

The process of painting “Unresolved” (see photo above), was long and tortuous. When creating abstract expressionist paintings,  the artist must apply paint, look at the result and then, based on what is present on the canvas, add more paint or do whatever he or she feels necessary to move towards something they are pleased with.  A common issue for such painters is that they find different  aspects or sections of the canvas to be pleasing but feel that these elements do not work together to provide a finished piece.  My favorite painting teacher, Sally Pearce, used to say that paintings at this stage are “unresolved”; a diplomatic way of saying “get back to work”.

As I recall, the painting that I subsequently titled “Unresolved” was stuck at this stage for what seemed like a long time.  I liked it, but it just didn’t seem to be finished.  After many weeks of being unresolved (staring at it and thinking about it), I got the idea of putting the canvas on a large frame; once I had done that it occured to me to paint the word “Unresolved” on the frame.  That seemed to do the trick; I felt “resolved” and others, including Sally, liked the results.

I don’t recall this resolution coming in the form of an “eureka”-”sudden insight”  moment of the type discussed by Joshua Lehrer (see “Sudden Insight and Creativity“).  What I do recall is that eventually I put the painting aside for a while, and started working on others.  In other words, I “forgot about it”.  I stopped thinking about it and, according to Lehrer, that seems to be a necessary step for creative breakthroughs (or creative resolutions) of all types. Not thinking about my unresolved painting not only allowed me to be more present with my other paintings, it also set the stage for creative reframing.  In this case, it was literaly reframed, but this term can be used as a metaphor for a more basic psychological shift that can lead to creative solutions.

The term “reframing” has been a part of Western psychology and psychotherapeutic literature for some time now.  It is based on the rather simple idea that we “define” or “make sense” of each new situation we face based on past experiences in similar situations.  We “get stuck” or “have problems”  to the extent that our reactions to new situations are based on old experiences which are no longer useful or appropriate.  This is similar to the Buddhist explanation of how and why we “suffer”.  According to the reframing perspective, we “solve” whatever our problem is by shifting our perception and understanding of the situation we face.  To do this means to “let go of” our old frames, (i.e. our old perceptions and understandings).

Sometimes this “letting go” can happen by conceptual reorganization of the nature suggested in the old aphorism “when life hands you lemons, make lemonaide”.  Work with positive affirmations is an example of this kind of reframing.  However, more sophisticated approaches, such as that found in a variety of psychotherapies, provides an additional step; becoming aware of the “felt sense” of the problem.  An interesting article by David Rome  provides an overview of this approach with efforts to relate it to Buddhist Practice.    What seems to be the common factor in all the techniques of this types is

Gendlin's concept of "felt-sense" is introduced in his book "Focusing," (1978

learning to expand ones’ awareness to include bodily sensations.  By shifting ones attention to somatic and perceptual “signals” it becomes easier to “let go of the internal dialogue (or left-brain processing) that, in the name of “problem solving” tends to reinforce old perceptions and understandings that are based on our past experiences.

I’m convinced that creative artists, learn through practice to allow “creative reframing” to happen naturally.  They learn that bumping up against unresolved work (feeling frustrated when slogging through times of unresolvedness) is part of the creative process.  They learn to “trust the process”, finding ways of letting go of their preexisting frameworks and allowing an alternative frame to develop.  What they learn is to “drop into their bodies”, so to speak, and fully feel what is going on at each moment of the creative process and learn to trust that the process is progressing exactly as it should.  This entails fully feeling or being fully present with one’s “unresolvedness” at that point of the creative process.  Having this skill allows them to mitigate the nagging thoughts that support beliefs such as “I will never be creative again” or  thought like “when is this going to be finished?”.  In an earlier post called “Performer-Audience Communication”, I suggested that the artist’s “presence” can be felt by the audience, and being fully present with all aspects of the creative process should help this happen more often.

Can Zen help one get in touch with the body?

It should be of no surprise to readers who have seen earlier posts, that I find some interesting parallels in the practice of Zen and other spiritual pursuits. The chief tool for the Zen practitioner is Zen meditation or Zazen.  The essence of Zazen is letting go of the internal dialogue or thought trains ,which generally are the focus of our attention,

especially when we feel unresolved.  As with the Western psychotherapeutic techniques alluded to above, Zazen entails a shift in attention away from the mind to include bodily sensations that are always present but often ignored in each and every moment of our lives.  According to Will Johnson,  “The sitting posture itself can be a kind of crucible for burning off the tensions and restrictions to body and breath that all too often keep us lost in thought and unaware of feeling presence.”

While this is easy to talk about, being able to do this on a consistent basis, in a variety of situations, requires years of practice. The result, however is the “awakened person” referred to by Jiyu Roshi or the “autotelic personality” as described by Dr. C.  For me, all these terms refer to someone who has developed “creative reframing” or “refocusing” skills; skills that allow them to circumvent or, at least, minimize suffering as they move from situation to situation.  The ability to “let go” of or “forget” old ways of reacting based on past situations, allow them to  be flexibly adaptive as new situations arrive.  In other words, they become more creative; able to respond rather than react to each new moment.  Rather than holding on to old experiences that allowed them a momentary experience of “flow”, having these skills allows for a natural life flow of the type described by Jiyu Roshi, a flow based on being present-awake-alive, no matter what situations arise.

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THE ART OF “RIPPING OFF”: SUN RA, DYLAN AND CREATIVITY

See entries to the “Caption Challenge” at the end of Post.

In last weeks post, you saw a video which was built on Sun Ra’s cryptic chant ” Gonna rip the mask, Rip the mask off batman.  Look out Robin, gonna get you too.”  At the time, I had no clue what the chant was about.  Similarly, when I made the video (over a year ago), I was not clear what meaning, if any, I was trying to convey (for a more in- depth discussion of the place of meaning in art read the exchange on the Forum page of this blog.)  In writing this post, I may have some to a better understanding of both the original chant and my video.  Let me know what you think of my interpretations.

As I looked at this video last week, I was struck by the realization that it would never have existed if I had not had my close encounter with Sun Ra over 20 years ago.  This realization, was sparked, in part, by having read Jonas Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works.  Lehrer starts off talking about the importance of the brain in the creative process.  But, the bulk of the book is about how we enhance one another’s creativity by being interconnected.  Lehrer refers to Bob Dylan’s compositions to make his point:

….the original folk compostion is obviously there, a barely concealed inspiration. While it would be easy to dismiss such songs as mere rip-offs–several of them would almost certainly violate current copyright standards–Dylan was able to transform his folk sources into pop masterpieces.  (pg. 246)

I’m not comparing myself to Dylan but “ripping-off” Sun Ra’s “rip off” chant was the start of a chain of associations that led to the final creation.  When I started the video, I felt that visual images of just Batman and Robin would get boring.  The Lone Ranger was an obvious addition, since he was a childhood hero for me and he wore a mask to rip off.  I had no idea what Sun Ra thought his chant was about but to me it entailed stripping superheros of their authoritative mystique. If so, I thought, why not incorporate other figures who might be seen as superhero, even though they don’t wear actual masks.  So Bush and Obama came to mind first and then Buddha and then Christ.  Now clearly, all these “superheros” are not the same.  They don’t all have actual masks and for others the mask is simply a metaphor for our conditioned persona.  One might argue that Buddha and Christs, as “authentic persons”, should not have any masks at all to be ripped off.  In their cases, I believe that the mask stands for all the expectations and perceptions that are piled on them by many of their “followers”.  Within the Zen tradition, it was legendary Chinese Zen master Lin Chi, who encouraged his students rip the mask off the historical Buddha (See Quotes from Lin Chi to the right) .

Having entered into issue of spiritual authority, I realized that the essence of most spiritual disciplines is to strip/rip off the conditioned trappings that make up our persona (ego) and that it made complete sense to include myself among the heros needing a mask removal.  The last part of the video attempts to convey that beneath our individual masks, we are all the same and we are all “authentic”, like Christ and Buddha.

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to substitute ”creative” for “authentic”.  Free of conditioned expectations or assumption about who we have to be, we can be truely creative in fashioning our own lives.

 

I’ll bet that that is the meaning behind Sun Ra’s silly chant.

 

Caption Challenge Results

This picture shows performance artists Hsieh and Linda Montano who spent one year between 4 July 1983 and 4 July 1984 tied to each other with an 8-foot-long rope. They had to stay in a same room while not allowed to touch each other until the end.  Below are the captions sent in for this image.  The next post begins a series on performance art

1. Being in a relationship.

2. Married Bliss.

3. “Give me two more inches please.”

4. “Let go that rope”.

5. The tug of war event was not very popular at this year’s picnic.

6. “Want to jump rope?”

7. “Coz I’m so tied, tied of waiting-

Tied of waiting for youuuuuu.”

8.  “Whatever.”

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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

WHAT THE______ WAS THAT VIDEO ABOUT?

I’ve received lots of feedback on the video contained in the the last blog post, and none said anything like  ”I loved your video, I couldn’t stop playing it over and over”.  Most of the comments I received I’ve placed in one of two categories:

1) What a Yucky experience!

2)  What the ______ was that all about?

The two are interrelated but let me start with “What the ____was that all about?”  I relate to this question as I imagine that I’ll be thinking something like that to myself during my final minutes here on earth. I think this is another way of asking “what does it all mean?” Whether talking about art, Zen or life in general, this is an important question and one that is hard to answer.

Whenever I’m asked what my art means, I think of Choreographer Isadora Duncan’s response to a similar question.  She said “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

Or, what about this?  People say that what we are all seeking is meaning for life. I think what we are really seeking is an experience of being  alive……Joseph Campbell.

I  get it. There are things in life and art that are hard to put into words.  On the other hand, we humans need to communicate about things- that is how we connect- and so I can not completely dismiss such queries.  Even though he disputes the importance of meaning, Campbell’s quote above provides meaning. As Lehrer points out in Imagination: How Creativity Works, both the right and left brain is integral to creativity. Often we artists don’t want to explain ourselves because we are just lazy.

Ok, so I’m  going to try to energize my left brain and try to provide an answer to “What the ________was that all about?”  For this video, the meaning for me is something that  evolved over time.  The best I can do is tell the story of how it evolved.

Most of my paintings have been abstractions using forms and colors etc. that I found pleasant or attractive.  I was not concerned with telling a story or with making commentaries on suffering.  There were a couple of exceptions, one of which was a collage/painting of a woman who looked very sad.  Most of the woman was painted except for the nose, eyes and mouth.  For these features, I pasted on cut-outs of these parts from an enlarged photograph’s of my wife’s face. My wife is not a sad person but the result was a very sad looking woman.  That prompted me to glue dowel rods vertically on the frame so she looked like she was in jail.  When finished, I concluded that , in some vague way, the piece said something about the way we all restrict ourselves by putting up conceptual barriers;  nothing very original and based primarily on my study of Zen.  I called it “Zenda Gets Blue Sometimes” (see painting below).

Sometime later, a group of artists at The Vista Zen Center were asked to put on an art show at the annual Anti-Trafficking Awareness Walk” sponsored by Soroptimists International of Vista.  Not having ever thought of depicting or commenting on human trafficking in my art work, I chose a couple of paintings, including “Zenda Gets Blue Sometimes” to display at the exhibit. A picture of the painting was included in an article on the Walk published in the Union-Tribune..  In a backhanded way, I had produced art that meant something and not a particularly pleasant something.  I was left with the weirdness of having a painting constructed out of parts of my wife’s face as a poster for the victims of human trafficking.

The artist’s at the rally also set up a tent intending to call to mind the reality of human trafficking.  The tent contained a circle of chairs around a small empty bed with a teddy bear on it.  Viewers were invited to sit in the tent and “bear witness” to the horrors  of human trafficking.  Again, I saw that art can be something more than just pretty pictures and that there may be some value in creating yucky images; bearing witness to the reality of horrors that our culture would rather forget.

Later, when I started making art videos I began working with abstract and engaging imagery combined with spacey music, similar to my paintings.  However, I was struck by the narrative potential of video and began wondering how I could combine pleasant and unpleasant images in the same video.  Life consists of both of these poles and, as a Zen student, I felt that I needed to embrace both. The video in question is one of my experiments in this vein.

The title of my video “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing one Sees” is also the title of Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin. It is clear from this book that Irwin believed that the viewer is the key ingredient in the “seeing” of art and that he hoped to create art that had a “presence” for the viewer.  For Irwin this meant that the art should help the viewer let go of or “forget” about its meaning.

Garden Designed by Robert Irwin

What does the video mean?  Life is sometimes Yucky?  More than one viewer tried to speed up the video or turn in off turning the realistic beating clip.

So, yes the video was supposed to be yucky.  But, as the title suggests, there is more.  I was interested in whether  I (and others) could basically forget the Yucky feelings and thoughts, if presented with something comparatively pleasant and distracting.?

In the art world, as well as the Zen world, we talk a lot about being in the present moment which inevitable means letting go of thoughts and expectations about the past or future. Zen writer Eithe Dogen wrote

To understand the Buddha Way is to understand the

Self.  To understand the self is to forget the self.

                                                   

When we forget the internal dialogue that fuels our sense of self, we actually are remembering something as well.  We remember the joy of doing something just for the pleasure of it.  Yo Yo Ma told  Lehrer that he always tells professional musicians to aspire to the state of the beginne where one plays only because it feels good.  This sounds a lot like Suzuki’s “Beginner’s Mind.  But, we might also remember the unpleasant sensations of earlier times.  In fact, I will argue in future postings, that we need to experience the unpleasant as well as the pleasantness of being in our bodies.

The kind of remembering that happens by forgetting the ordinary self reminds me of the Shamanic use of the term “remembering”.  According to Eliade, prospective shamans in a variety of cultures have a dream-like experience, either while sleeping or triggered by illness or hallucinogens of being torn apart (“de-membered”) by a spirit or wild animal.   Later the person with have a “re-membering” experience, ” which leads to a feeling of being whole again and becoming a shaman. By facing the unpleasantness of our somatic being, we are free to experience the joy of the same.

In “forgetting” self-concepts, we open ourselves to a wider, more wholistic experience of whatever is happening.  Lehrer, who sees this forgetting as an important component of creativity, cites Yo Yo Ma as having the ability to forget himself when performing and remember the joy of simply playing the cello.

Most artist speak of their practice as their meditation where they can forget themselves by playing in the present moment and hoping that those who view or hear their work will also forget their ordinary selves and “be in the moment” if only momentarily.

That’s the reason the video begins and ends in a museum or gallery.  In-between are potentially positive and negative experiences that mirror our everyday lives.  But as I’m sure you know, no song or painting or performance can pull us into the present if we are not willing or able.  A new painting hanging in our house may transfix us for a while but before long it is likely to become another piece of furniture.

Meditation and other spiritual disciplines can help us learn techniques for being in the present moment at more and more times as both pleasant and unpleasant  present moments roll by.  In so doing Life becomes Art.

 

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REMEMBERING/FORGETTING RODNEY KING

 

 

Last April was the 20th anniversary of the LA riots that flared up after the acquittal of the policemen accused of beating Rodney King.  Last week, Rodney King died.  Usually information like the foregoing is followed by a call to reflect and remember.  So why would I add “forgetting” to the title of this blog?

Hearing of King’s death while I was reading  Lehrer’s book  Imagination: How Creativity Works, reminded me of a video I created last year called “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”, which references the king beating.  What is the connection between Rodney King and Creativity?  Well, it is a bit of a leap, but I thought it might be fun to take it together.  If you’re game, you need to watch the video which is sort of a hybrid between a psychology experiment and an artsy music video (Music composed and created by Jim Wilson).

Here’s what I suggest.  Watch the video first and then use the questions  below to reflect on your experience.  If you have already seen the video, I don’t think that will spoil the experiment.  Those watching it for the first time may want to watch it again after going over the questions.

In the next post I will attempt to tie things together, referring back to Lehrer, Zen literature, Shamanism, Yo Yo Ma and contemporary artist Robert Irwin.

CLICK LINK BELOW TO WATCH VIDEO

LOOK AT THESE QUESTIONS AFTER WATCHING THE VIDEO. THE QUESTIONS ARE BASED ON COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS I’VE RECEIVED FROM THOSE WHO HAVE ALREADY SEEN IT.  THERE ARE NO RIGHT ANSWERS.  PLEASE SHARE ANY INSIGHTS, SUGGESTIONS OR QUESTIONS IN THE REPLY BOX BELOW.  MY FOLLOW-UP BLOG WILL BE HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY THE FEEDBACK I RECEIVE.

1) Did you come to realize that segments (#2-5) before and after the original news clip of the beating (#1) were abstractions or distortions of the news clip?

2) At what point in the video did this happen?

3) How did you feel when you viewed #1 (the original clip)?

4) After you came to the original clip in this video, did you continue to see images of the beating and how long did that last?

5) Towards the end were you able to “forget” about the images in the middle of the video or did you try to hold on to  the images from the original news clip?

6) If you felt some sense of unease while watching the news clip (#1), how long did that last?

7)  Did you feel manipulated by the video?

8)  Should art manipulate our emotions?

9) Which of the following statements best reflects your opinion:

A)  Art should help the audience forget their own and others’ suffering for a while.       B)  Art should heighten our awareness of our own and other’s                                  suffering for a while.                                                                                                   C) Both A and B above.                                                                                                  D)  Neither A or B above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ART, ZEN AND CREATIVITY

 

In my last two posts, I’ve been exploring some key points made by Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  At the end of this post I  will provide the answer to one of the word problems  (Marsha and Marjorie) that researchers have used to study how the brain comes up with creative solutions to problems. (By the way, there is a hint word contained in the body of this post, just in case you did not solve the problem.)

But, first want to take a slight detour.  Feedback (thank you, by the way) from some readers suggests  that it might not be so obvious to everyone as  to how or why creativity is relevant to either art or spiritual practices.

What Lehrer, and most others, mean by creativity is the creation of something that is new or novel.  Artist, by definition, create objects of art, but these objects vary widely in terms of their creativeness, in the sense that we are talking about it here.  There are a few artists, like Picasso, who, have  prompted “paradigm shifts” in art.  However, any particular piece of art , whether produced  by beginners or masters, could be judged to be more or less creative, depending on whether its creator found ways of introducing novel features into the artwork or not.

Those who regularly surprise themselves (and others) with works that are different in some way from what has been their norm, may be said to be more creative.  It should be said, however, that there is no direct correlation between an artist’s creativity, as defined above, and it’s  appreciation or demand by those who view, read or listen to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Ok.  What about the relationship between creativity and spiritual practices?

I will focus on Zen here, because that is what I know the best.  Generally Zen can be described as a way of life (a set of practices) intended  to minimize the suffering of the practitioner and others.  The process of moving towards this goal is often described as an “awakening” or “liberating” process. Art and Zen are not the same thing, but I find it helpful to see both as involving the possibilities of becoming more creative.

Suffering in the Buddhist tradition is seen as caused by ignorance.  This not does not mean the same thing as stupid.  Rather it refers to the tendency for us humans to be unable to see and thus ignore the fact that we are intimately interconnected with everything else.  Thus, we go throughout life with our self-centered notions of how our lives should flow and inevitably these plans and expectations clash with reality.  Because of this limited perspective, we suffer.  This is an oversimplified discussion but the length of this post would be tripled if I were to go into the topic with any depth.

Homer by Picasso

In the arts, creativity entails finding ways of going beyond limiting old habits and perspectives.  I would suggest that this is exactly what happens by practicing various spiritual disciplines.  In Zen and similar Buddhist meditative practices, the goal is to go beyond the limited viewpoints bound around the notion that the self is separate from others around us.

A key component of Zen meditation  is learning how to let go of the left-brain problem-solving processes that Lehrer says limits creative insights.  Zen Koans like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” also entail “giving up” looking for rational solutions.

For the Zen practitioner, the goal is not to produce a new product but to produce a new self which is capable of meeting each new life situation, as it arises, by responding creatively rather than reacting through old patterns of behavior.  Throughout the hundreds of years that Zen was developed in China and then Japan, Zen students have also practiced various arts. It seems likely that the general creativity developed through Zen practice could “spill over” into artistic practice as well and vice. versa.

I think this is the same idea that D.T Suzuki was trying to express in rather awkward and sexist language in this quote from his renown book Zen and Japanese Culture :

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 transnsforms his own life into a work of creation.…..” (pg. 17).

PUZZLE ANSWER:  Marsha and Marjorie were triplets.  Lehrer reports that the researchers using these kinds of insight problems found that indirect hints often help the subject find the solution.  That’s why I included the work “tripled” above. Let us know how you worked with the problem.

 

 

 

SUDDEN INSIGHT AND CREATIVITY

I just finished reading a new book titled Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, an editor for Wired Magazine.  Lehrer has a knack for combing through a lot of highly technical material on the major factors affecting creativity and bringing this information to life for the reader.

I want to start with the flashy and mysterious aspect of creativity; those moments where new insights, inspirations or ideas suddenly appear out of the blue.  As an artist and a Zen student, I think this material is highly relevant to my practices.

Looking at both antidotal and experimental evidence, Lehrer found that these moments of insight nearly always happen once we relax and stop trying to solve whatever problem we are working on.  I’ll say some more about the scientific evidence behind this observation in a later post, but at this point I want to tell you about a personal experience with insight problem-solving.

Everyday during lunch, my 97 year old mother and I work on one of the three cross word puzzles she tackles per day.  Prior to her moving in with us, I had no interest at all in doing cross word puzzles, mainly because I could never get them started.  However, by lunch time, my mother usually has a pretty good start on a puzzle and with some letters present, I’m able to give her some help, especially on clues that related to pop culture or technical terminology. She good at coming up with words that are no longer used much and she knows many French terms.  Anyway, together we make a pretty good team and usually manage to cooperatively solve each day’s puzzle.

The other day we had completed a puzzle but were unsettled by one of the answers we provided.  The clue for a four word Across was “Shopping Center”.  Based on all the words we had answered going Down, the answer to this clue ended up being “pees”.  We were certain that our vertical answers were correct and could not understand how “pees” would be the correct answer to “Shopping Center”.  Not only did it not make sense but it also seemed a bit risqué for a cross word puzzle.

After a while, we both agreed that the puzzle creator had simply made a mistake and I went into the kitchen to clean up the dishes.  For a few minutes I thought about whatever it was I was going to be doing next, but then, all of a sudden,  it came to me why our answer was correct.

See if you can get it.  When you do, please leave a comment and describe how you came up with the answer.   I’ll provide the answer in my next blog post and say a little about why I think this kind of problem-solving is related to art and spiritual practices.To leave a comment, click on the title of this post (written in red) under “Recent Posts”  in the upper right hand corner of this page.