The Art of the Real

 

Aviary Photo_130247938124161624

Analytical writing ceases to be able to express what is real and what we know about it.

Christian Smith

What is a Person?

Christian Smith's statement is particularly true of writing about beauty. For beauty, as in this vase created by Mollie Curtis of Laguna, New Mexico, is something that must be encountered in the real of life. The moment I saw it, I couldn't take my eyes off it. It isn't just the pattern, but the creativity that went into it. All by hand. No template. No formula. As she told me, a blank slate when she began. Just imagination applied in shape and image. For me, this is symbolic of the real that cannot be put fully into words. It must be encountered, not simply observed.

It is, also, somewhat contradictory to think that writing about reclaiming the real is an act of reclaiming it. The real is something that can only be reclaimed in the world of experience, of doing, of action, in creativity and through change and transformation. It is more than what goes on in our heads. It engages the fullness of our body's senses, emotions and thoughts. It connects to the moment of encounter with past remembrances of similar encounters, and gives a grounding to understand our place in time and place. This is what it means to live in the real. It is full, complete, integral and alive.  

We do need words to help us tell the story that gives meaning to the work of art and to life as a whole. In many senses that story is a story of human encounter. This is why the best novelist creates for us a real world in our imagination. She elicits from us emotions and memories, images in our minds that create a world in which we are apart as the story teller proceeds.

Carried out in the fullness of our lives, the words come to us within a context that guides us to see how we can act, not just feel. To make a difference that matters, that gives meaning to the action itself, we must be engaged in a real context as whole persons. To reclaim reality today, we must articulate why it is necessary, and why we have a problem at all.

The Inadequacy of Analytical Observation

Christian Smith's statement above gets at part of the issue, that of treating reality from an analytical perspective. This is what Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist discovered as he studied the cultures of North Africa. He found that the analytical tradition that emerged out of the European Enlightenment two centuries before was inadequate. He writes,

Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a 'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges. 

Let's look at what he is saying here.

Objectivism is a belief that we can know something by standing apart from it. From the observers point of view everything is an object for detached observation and evaluation.

In its most benign sense, it is what the clinical lab does with the blood after your doctor draws it from your arm during your annual physical. Back from the lab comes a reading of your blood count that gives your doctor an indication of your health. However, as essential as this data is, it is your doctor's ability to see the whole context of your body's health that gives meaning to the data in the blood analysis. What matters is not an analytical reading, but a synthetic one that blends analytical analysis with an understanding of who this particular person is in their life context.

Detached observation and analysis has become the primary means for critics and commentators in the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and society at large to present themselves as authorities.  They speak with an air of authenticity. As alleged 'objective' observers, they claim to provide "objective" knowledge for the viewing public. They exist to inform us about the issues of the day, and guide us towards a "correct" understanding of events.

Watch them on television as they interview the subjects of their observations, the practitioners of whatever arena the commentators are observing and their condescension emerges. Because they are detached, analytical observers, they believe they are more honest, objective critics. Listen carefully to their questions, and a formula reveals itself. It is the formula of The Spectacle of the Real, that I've written about in this series of posts. There I write,

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

The problem is that there is an 'accepted' narrative, and an 'unaccepted' one. The former we must 'accept' on face value, because it comes from those who have been chosen as "authoritative" interpreters of events. In this sense, the real is not authentic, the 'narrative' is the substitute for the real. The acceptance of the broadcast narrative leads to an audience and a populace who are passive receivers, dependent upon their daily missives from the screen to tell them what is true and real. This is the nature of the world as a series of spectacles as French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord has written in his book, Society of the Spectacle.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

Life seen as a series of spectacles, without continuity or reality, but rather a bright, shiny appearance of something of significance.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, tells the story of the French Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. In that day, the public celebration of art was governed by the French government. An annual artistic competition called The Salon was held to determine the best (good?) art of the day. Repeatedly, the grand epic paintings of day were chosen, and the Impressionists paintings of ordinary life through very different images of color and technique were rejected. Gladwell writes,

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. Everyone at the Cafe Guerbois agreed on that. But the acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful, and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists' work. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impressionists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The Spectacle of the Real is a constant reminder to each of us that the world is a Big Pond, and we are all tiny minnows. We are dependent upon them for their observations to determine who we are, what we are to believe and how we are to live.

It is impossible with this kind of manufactured narrative-based, posed objectivity to establish a basis for understanding what is real. Every person has a 'point of view' that they use as the basis of their analysis. Everyone of us. We, each one, speak from a context that disqualifies us as objective presenters of reality. This isn't a problem, but a social asset. Our point of view is OUR perspective. Just as The Impressionists perspective was THEIR perspective.

Context matters because it is the ground upon which we live in the real. The further we distance ourselves from the spectacle of manufactured opinion, the more likely it is that we will discover the value of our own opinion, and consequently begin to express it inways that are creative and elevating to the worlds in which we move.

It is important, therefore, that we own our prejudices, claim our perspective as our own, and speak and act from a standing position in the arena of life. In doing so, we are better able to engage in conversation and deliberation about the crucial issues of our time, because we are honest about our bias and perspective, and have the humility and self-confidence to listen, learn and engage with people of differing view points. But to get there, we must see clearly how objectivity is a mask for prejudice.

What is good art?

In college, I took one philosophy course.  It was on the philosophy of art. I took it because I was interested in art, especially the visual arts, and wanted to develop my critical faculties for understanding what I saw.  The professor told us, at the beginning of the course, that we'd spend the semester exploring art from the standpoint of what is 'good' as a way to get at what art is. What he did not tell us at the time, but became obvious, fairly quickly, was that he did not believe that there was such a quality as good.

As the semester proceeded, many of us in the class became increasingly aware that while our professor claimed an objective perspective as our academic authority, we students increasingly did not. Instead, we viewed him as a dishonest teacher of philosophy. Ultimately, it was not his stated position on 'the good' or art that disqualified him as a professor worthy of our respect and allegiance, but, rather, his constant denigration of students who saw things differently, who were trying to work out in their own real world context the meaning of art and the good. What I learned from that semester is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge, interpreted from within a person's own life experience.

Habitus

The issue here is not that we have opinions, but the relation that our opinions have to reality. Bourdieu writes,

... The theory of practice as practice insists contrary to positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded, and, contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in practice and is always oriented toward practical functions.

To know something is not to know it as an object, but rather as a part of a living context that is constantly in flux, always changing, and in which we live each day. To know something, anything, is 'to learn' to know it. This knowing is an engagement, or as Bourdieu calls it, a habitus, that involves us in the thing to be known.

These 'structuring dispositions' or habitus are the virtues that Aristotle writes about in his Nichomachean Ethics. Virtue is more than an ethical perspective as in "She is a virtuous lady" or "He is a good man."  Rather, it is a learned mastery of living. It is life as a craft to be mastered, a work of art to be created over the course of our lifetime. It is our capacity to live fully in a real world, with all its hardship of work, pain and suffering, along side the beauty and goodness that we can create through our own desires for meaning, connection and impact. Aristotle writes,

Virtue, then, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral.  Intellectual virtue owes both its inception and its growth to instruction, and for this very reason needs time and experience. Moral goodness, on the other hand, is the result of habit, from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos. This fact makes it obvious that none of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature, since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.

But the virtues we do acquire by first exercising them, just as happens in the arts. Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones ...

We don't know something because we read a book about it, or took a class on it. We know something by living in a learning relationship with it. Mollie Curtis did not wake up one morning and create beautiful pottery automatically. She learned over many, many years how to create a work of art as the one shown above.

The vase is a whole and complete expression of Mollie's art. It stands alone. It is does not need reference to anything else to be complete. It is not symbolic of anything. It is a work of art that is whole and complete in itself. As a result, it will be a lasting source of fascination as it resides in my home.

It is an expression of a creative life of integrity. Nothing artificial, nothing intended to push a perspective, just art for the sake of creating something beautiful.

 This vase is a product of the mastery (virtue) of Mollie's craft. It is good because it is a reflection of her learned skills. Goodness is another way of talking about excellence. As a work of excellence, it stands on its own, as a unique expression of the artist her self.

The Choice

Ultimately, it is not necessary to understand the inner workings of the Spectacle of the Real. All that is required to reclaim the real is to act, to create, to contribute to the world in which you live.

Start somewhere, and go where it leads. As you do, your world will expand. It doesn't expand by spending more time passively observing others expressing their 'authoritative' opinion. It does not because it lacks a context in which you live.

Plan each day to choose to do something that makes a difference that matters. By doing so, by focusing on creating impact, you turn away from a passive fascination with the spectacles of our time.

Ask yourself these questions.

Why is it important to understand why Mylie Cyrus has taken her performance craft in the direction that it has?

Why is it important to pick sides in the political games that Washington plays to distract us from what is really going on?

Why is it important to know how much money NFL quarterbacks make each year?

Now ask, how does this change my life, and especially what I'm going to do today?

More importantly, what will I do differently because of knowing more about these spectacular subjects?

Follow the desires that we all share. There are three of them.

1. That our lives have personal meaning.

2. That our relationships are to be health and happy.

3. That we make a difference that matters with our life.

We all share these desires. They are part of what makes us human. And to flourish as human beings, we must find ways for these desires to live and find fulfillment.

Lastly, think for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you must believe, think or do. Stand fast as a person of dignity, with gifts to share, having a purpose that elevates your life and the lives of others.

This is how we create our lives as works of art that enable us to reclaim the real.

May this be true for you and all those whom you touch with your life's work.

*******

This post is apart of the Reclaiming the Real series. Links to the other posts can be found here.


What is Good?

Moran-sunrise -KathrynMapesTurner Moran-Sunrise by Kathryn Mapes Turner

This is the question that was the basis for the only philosophy course I took in college. The course, Philosophy of Art, I had hoped would explore the artist impulse that people have to create. And to be able to define what distinguishes a good piece of art from one that isn't.

Unfortunately, the course was neither about art nor how to distinguish what is good. Instead, it was a course in semantics, of how one talks about art, and why art can't be defined.

It wasn't that the professor spent portion of every class denigrating people who had religious faith. It was rather that we talked around subjects, never about them, and therefore never reaching a point of understanding or resolution.

He would take a seemingly innocent or benign idea, like goodness, and through a process of analytical reductive reasoning show us how there is no true idea of goodness. This simple and effective tactic left most of us in the class scratching our heads about what the class was about rather than questioning what we believed about anything.

For probably ten years, I would occasionally dream about this professor. Dream about us debating in class, and me changing his mind. I don't think the professor was so clever to think that he'd make philsophers of us all by tearing down our belief systems. Rather, I think he was convinced that truth could be understood in the analysis of language. And yet, that truth was not true in a values or universal sense, but true to the use of the words in that context.

I think he was an intellectual nihilist, yet did not live that way. He believed in something, and for him it was his art and athletic endeavors. It was what he truly valued. And I'm convinced they gave him a social context of friendship through which universal values were evident in their interaction.

What I understand today is that my professor's approach to understanding could not produce a kind of understanding that is whole, but rather small and fragmented. 

As a kid, did you ever take a part a toy, and then try to put it back together, only to have some parts remaining? The toy is something whole. Something more than the sum of its parts. Language is something whole, more than grammar and patterns of word usage.  

Say the word tide, and it conjures up a range of images. But you don't know what I mean. If I add high or roll to it, two very different images come to mind. The words are parts. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, chapters, and books are wholes. Not necessarily complete wholes, but some whole none-the less.

Art Loeb - Pisgah trailsTo describe the whole of something, or to describe an object as good, is not to describe its parts, but something else. 

For example, this image is of a portion of a map of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For many of you, it is just lines, shading, markers and names. You can tell it is a map, but it doesn't go much further than that.

The map can serve as a guide, an introduction, to what a person can find here on a visit.  Come this summer, you can visit the Fish Hatchery or swim in the cold waters at Sliding Rock or hike up to John's Rock. Each place is represented on the map. Each a place that has meaning for people who visit here.

For those of us who have spent time here, the map is much more. It is a visual connection point to memories and images of places, people, situations and experiences that we've had in locations noted on the map.

For example, just off the map image there is a place call Mt. Hardy.  Seen at the center of this picture.  Mt Hardy from Devils Courthouse 1 On the map, it is just a name of one of hundreds of peaks to climb. Yet, on a June night in 2003, it was a place of fascination and horror, as we watched lightning flash and strikes all around as a group of us camped.

The place on the map represents more than a name. It is something whole and complete, because we experienced it as more than a name on a map. It is a place that will forever stay with those of us who camped there that night.

When we say something is good, we are not trying to analyze its component parts to identify what makes it good. We are saying something about the whole of the object.

I'm convinced that human thought is rationalized emotion. We feel something, and our words provide us a way to connect with those deeper parts of our lives that we know exist, but have a hard to time expressing. We use things like maps and art to provide a connection between those parts of us that are only understandable as something whole and complete.

When we talk about what is good, we are talking about values that capture for us something whole and often times something that is greater than us. These connections, to me, represent the emergent reality that I wrote about here. We are not just our thoughts or just our emotions. We are not just a bank of talent or a fulfiller of tasks along an assembly line. We are whole beings who cannot be understood in any complete way by analytical reduction. Our wholeness rather is understood as unrealized potential within a particular setting. Wyoming When we look at a work of art, like this painting of Wyomng, that I found online many years ago, we can get really close and look at the technique of the artist, the picture fades and the brush strokes emerge. Then step back, and the picture takes on its wholeness again.

What is good about this painting can be described on many levels. There is the technique. The thematic material. The use of color and perspective. But all those are only parts of the picture. When they are all combined together, do they create a painting that we can say is good? Possibly, but it has a lot to do with the values that we bring to the experience.  And our values are products of our interaction with people in society.

I believe that our lives can be like this painting. Excellent in the execution of the brush strokes and use of color, but even more significant because of the picture itself. When we find wholeness in our life and work, we are more than the sum of activities that we do each day.  We become a work of art whose life and work is good. Create Goodness picture

When the Five Actions of Gratitude appeared in my mind one morning driving through northern Mississippi, this is the sort of thing I saw in the fifth action, Create Goodness.  A couple quotes from my Weekly Leader column.

The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle taught his students that “every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good….what is the highest of all practical goods? … It is happiness, say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness with living well or doing well.” By this he means that the actions born from our individual initiative, through our relationships, in our work and the daily course of our lives aim at goodness, defined as happiness or living or doing well in life and work. ...

Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in describing Aristotle’s thought on this point wrote,  “ What then does the good for… (humanity) … turn out to be? … It is the state of being well and doing well in being well … . “ The word that Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (eu-day-mo-knee-a), traditionally translated as goodness. Its meaning is much more complex that simply as an adjective for describing a piece of pie or last Sunday’s football game. It touches on ideas related to fulfillment, human flourishing, happiness and completeness. The good person is one whose whole life is an integrated combination of thought, feeling, initiative, interaction, and action, resulting a good life or good work, or a better product, community or world.

What is Good?

It is a life that is complete and whole, fulfilled, meaningful and makes a difference that matters. The good life is a complete and happy life.  It is a life connected to others just as their lives are connected to ours. And when we find that completeness, our lives are like a painting that evokes values that create goodness and elevate the lives of others. We also become like a map which is a reference point, an example, of what is possible, and for those who know that we have become a reminder of what the experience of a complete life is like.


What is Good?

Bloodline in the Rock - Mt Moran 2

The first and only philosophy class that I took in college was a course called The Philosophy of Art. In retrospect, I believe I took that class because I thought the class would be about something, not just ideas, but something tangible, like paintings or buildings.

I imagined looking at works of art to try to understand the artist's purpose. What I discovered was a class where we didn't so much discuss or debate, but were denounced for believing in values like the good or beauty. We were presented with as nihilistic and cynical view of art as you can imagine.  I came away from the class angry for the wasted time spent, and of my own inadequacy to offer arguments that countered the professor's own self-confident positions. 

For me, the question - What is good? - remains. 

It is through works of art that I reflect on this question.

For example, last year on a retreat, we were invited to paint a picture that would be hung with other pictures on a high wall in our church. The painting above was my effort.

Is it good? Technically no. Artistically, not really. It is realistic? No. Is it beautiful? No.

But does it have meaning for me? Yes. It does because it is representative of a place that means something to me.

The same subject in the hands of an accomplished professional artist looks like this. This is Moran Sunrise by Kathryn Turner of Jackson, Wyoming. It is of Mt. Moran, one of the mountains in the Grand Teton chain of peaks.

Moran-sunrise1824 - Kathy TurnerCopyright © 2009, Kathryn Mapes Turner Fine Art

Kathryn is good at what she does. Just as I can stare at that mountain for hours on end, I can do the same to her painting.

What is the difference between my philosophy prof who cynically tried to convince us that there is no way to determine what is good and a painting by Kathryn?

I believe it revolves around context. If your context is only the abstract world of ideas, then you can argue that good is non-existent, except for a good argument. However, if the world that exists outside our minds is the context, then we'll recognize that we are not the center of the universe, that we are part of something larger.

Recently, I came across a couple quotes, one by a 19th century German writer name Max Stirner who was popular at the end of the century.

"For me nothing is higher than myself."

During the 1905 revolution in Russia, Konstantin Somov wrote,

"I am delighted at every new victory of the revolution ... knowing that it will lead us not into an abyss but into life. I hate our past too much ... I am an individualist; the whole world revolves around me, and essentially it is no concern of mine to go outside the confines of this 'I.'

I think my philosophy prof would approve.

When we talk about What is Good?, we are talking to one another. We are communicating a wide range of impressions and feelings that seek logic, coherence and understanding. When Kathryn paints, she paints to communicate with people who may buy one of her paintings. They do so because some connection between the painter, the painter's purpose, and the world of awareness of the buyer has been reached.

To ask the question of What is Good? is to ask a moral question, a question about what we value. The answer to this question is a communal one, because for the good to be a real value is to see how it connects people together in a way that elevates their own awareness and their relation to the world outside their minds.

IMG_2487

I find a deep richness in Kathryn's art. It is personal because it is a picture of this place that is special to me.  It connects me to more than a physical place of beauty. It also connects me to people that I've met in this place. Some who have become life long friends.

For something to be good, it needs to reach inside us and connect us to some reality or truth or value outside of us. This is what great art does. And remarkably so, it is something that we can all achieve. We do not have to have professional talent in order to create works of art that have the ability to make connections. It certainly helps.

My advice is find yourself a way to express yourself artistically, and share it with others. Shared it not for the accolades that may come, but to create the deeper connection that is represented in the purpose of the art that you've create. And good it will be.


Becoming a Linchpin - An Interview with Seth Godin.

Seth Godin has a new book coming out in a few days - Linchpin: Are You Indispensible? Here's a little taste in this  interview with Seth.

In the interview Seth expresses his desire that people decide. In essence make a choice. This what I mean when I say that leadership begins with personal initiative.  The industrial age was one of passivity, compliance and dispensibility. 

This isn't just about the individual's responsibility to act. It is also about how the failure of our current organizational structures to be sustainable. When downsizing is your only hope for sustainability, then you know the problem is the structure not the people. It is a tacit admitting that we don't know how to utilize the full talent of our people to create a profitable organization.

I look forward to reading Seth's book. I felt that his Tribes book was the most important leadership book in a generation. I'm certain that Linchpin will carry its momentum futher.

HT: Bernd


Bloodline in the rock

Over the weekend, we attended our church's annual congregation retreat. This year's theme was Play, and we played in many creative ways.

Bloodline in the Rock - Mt Moran 2

Drawing and painting on the form of a small Greek cross was one of activities. The collection of pictures will be brought together into a larger painting to be hung in the church in the future.  I painted two of these pictures.

Bloodline in the rock is of a mountain in Wyoming of which I'm particularly fond. Mt. Moran, in the Grand Teton range of Jackson Hole, is a mountain of massive granite which has a diabase basalt dike of reddish brown lava that cuts vertically through the mountain.  I find its presence endlessly fascinating because it represents to me how good things can rise up from the hardness of life. My picture is more of what the mountain represents to me, than a picture of the mountain itself.

In much of life, when we try something new, we are taking a risk. Risks are inherent in life. Do we accept these risks as a way to expanding the range of our expression, or as an unavoidable facet of life?

Andy Goldsworthy is a sculptor who uses natural materials in extraordinary ways. In his video Rivers and Tides, a sculpture that he has been working on falls apart in the wind, he says,

"When I make a work, I often take it to the very edge of its collapse; that's a very beautiful balance."

Here is Goldsworthy creating an arch out of stone, and toward the end of the video removing pieces of it to see if it will collapse.


As in art, so also in life, translating what we see in the natural world into expressions of our passion and commitments enable us to see more of who we are in the context of the world we live in.

Cairn of Fire 2

Having painted Bloodline in the rock, and then introduced to Andy Goldsworthy by our artist guide, I decided to paint another of my favorite objects, a simple rock cairn.  I called it Cairn of Fire.

What did I learn from this little experiment in artistic expression? It really helps to be an observant person. We see things as objects, like a mountain or a pile of rocks. But we don't normally see the interrelation of the parts. For example, in trying to draw a cairn, I knew that the typical cairn is not uniform, but very eclectic. What I did, as a result, is try to draw the stones in the cairn very quickly so they would not be uniform. 

The ability to see what is there in the picture is no different than seeing and hearing what is going on around you. Learning to observe is learning to be a better communicator. To observe is to shift one's attention away from your own thoughts to what is happening in front of you.

Whatever you think you see or hear is a perception of what actually takes place.

Mt Moran close up


Bloodline in the rock is not an exact representation of Mt. Moran. The lava dike on the mountain is visible in the circle.  My painting is my perception of the mountain that you see here. To see it with the human eye, rather than through a photograph is to see it differently. In this shot, it seems insignificant. But to stand here by Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton National Forest and look at it, the dike stands out much more.

What I learned from playing with paint, a brush and some crayons is that we can learn to express ourselves in new ways. This is important if we are to communicate what is important to us.

I encourage you to take a pencil and quickly, in a manner of a few minutes, draw something that matters to you. It won't be perfect because there is no such thing in art. I once heard it say that a work of art is never finished. I think this is also true for our lives. And the more we test the boundaries and horizons of our expression, quite possibly as Andy Goldsworthy has learned, we'll find a very beautiful balance that will enhance the quality of our lives in ways unimaginable right this moment.