THE “INNER ALIEN” AND CREATIVITY

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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

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BLOGGER’S BOTTOM SPANKED BY MONK

Monk On the Cover of Time Magazine

I would love to be able to see the mental images conjured up in readers’ heads by the title of today’s post.  Was I really spanked by a Monk?  Yes, by Thelonious Monk to be precise.

Monk was one of the first jazz artist I heard as a kid and is regarded by many to be one of the early geniuses of modern jazz.  The incident I am about to relay came to mind several times while reading Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here is the story of my intimate encounter with Monk’s creativity.

Soon after my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in 1967, Thelonius and his band played at “The Showboat” on Lombard St. for three straight nights. We attended all three nights and became friendly with Charlie Rouse, Monk’s sax player and the other band members.  Over the course of three nights, we also spent time drinking with Baroness Nica Von Koenighswarter, who was friend, patron and caretaker to both Charlie Parker and Monk.

The stage in the Showboat was behind the bar and behind the bar stools, separated by a narrow walkway, were stadium-like seats fitted with tables.  To get to the stage, musicians enter the club like any customer, and climb a short flight of stairs at one end of the bar.  For all three nights we sat at the bar with the Baroness and other avid Monk fans.                                                              

Baroness “Nica” and Monk

The first night of the series, Monk arrived about an hour late, long after his band had gone up on stage ready  to play.  When Thelonius finally entered the club, he carried a long-handled shoe horn from his hotel.  As he stepped through the door, he immediately tucked the shoe horn under his arm, like a riding crop or swagger stick, and began marching around the club.  For another 30 minutes he strutted around with the shoe horn – back and forth along the bar, and up and down the bleachers- like a general in the Prussian army.  At first it was entertaining but as the club owner got more and more irradiated, the audience began to grow impatient as well.  All the while, his band watched their leader from the stage with their instruments ready.

Eventually, after much pleading from Rouse, the Baroness and the owner, Monk went to the stage and started playing the first tune.  He placed the shoehorn on the music stand of the piano and began playing as if nothing unusual had happened.  However, when it came time for his solo, Monk stood up, grabbed the shoehorn and used it to peck out his solo, one key at a time.

If you know Monks music, you can imagine that the solo did not really sound that unusual as he sometimes played one-fingered solos.  After, his solo was finished,  instead of sitting back down, he backed up a bit, knocking over the piano bench.  He then moved away from the piano, doing his little “Monk dance” across the stage (see short video clip below).

http://youtu.be/-Dz6AqP-LKg

That night I was sitting near the end of the bar, close to the steps going to the stage. Fueled by the many cocktails consumed during the long wait, I charged up the stairs with the intention of picking up the toppled piano bench, while Monk did his dance.  As soon as I leaned over to pick it up, I felt a sharp sting of the shoe horn across my rear end.  Much to the delight of the audience, I had been touched by genius.  As would be expected from Thelonious Monk, the Melodious Thunk of the spank fit right into the tune they were playing.

The next night, in talking with the band members, it was revealed that Monk had been high on “speed” and that , after the gig, he had been remorsefully “crying like a baby”, according to Rouse.  I’ve thought a lot about that night since then, wondering exactly what  we had witnessed.  Was it:  Drug abuse?  Monk’s creative genius?  Showmanship? Psychological disorder?

 

I will take a stab at my interpretation in the next blog.  To get to the bottom of this(excuse me-I couldn’t resist), I’ll be going back to Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works for some help.  In the meantime, let me hear your interpretations, theories, reactions and stories.

 

 

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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