Make Better Assumptions [on Two Artists Tuesday]

go away 1 copy

As a kid, riding up the mountain to Central City (long before it morphed into a casino town) to visit my great aunt Dorothy and uncle Del, I’d always look for the hermit. With my face pressed to the window I’d scan for him.

Perched precariously high above the creek, his shack seemed in constant danger of sliding down the mountain. The only thing holding it in place was the cascade of rusting bean cans that he’d tossed over the edge after each meal. Decades of cans. And, every once in while, I’d catch a glimpse of him.

He was uniquely grey; his clothes, his long miner-forty-niner beard, his pallor. He was always standing still, looking over the canyon. I don’t think in all of my rare glimpses that I ever saw him move. I wondered if he’d just thrown a can over the edge. I wondered if in his moments of standing-stillness he pondered how he came to be the hermit in the canyon. If life forged him into a hermit or if he came into the world wanting to be alone. I wondered where he got his cans of beans. It was a great mystery that I spent long hours considering. Hermits are not known for shopping trips into town and it was long before the age of home delivery. Where did he get his money to buy all of those cans? Was he a wealthy miner, a Howard Hughes type who retreated into a paranoid seclusion? Who facilitated his solitude?

I am mostly an introvert so his retreat from society fascinated me. I’d try ‘hermit’ on like a costume. He wasn’t a monk though I wondered what he did all day; contemplation had to be on the list of things to do. I wondered if his shack was filled with paintings or wire sculpture, a reclusive Alexander Calder? A disenfranchised artist (now, there’s an oxymoron!) I wondered if his shack walls were lined with good books.

I wondered, if I climbed up the mountain to his shack, would he meet me with a shotgun and tell me to go away? Or would he welcome me and tell me that he’s waited a lifetime for someone to come for a visit? I liked the second scenario but the realist in me knew it would be the first. He was grey because he didn’t want to be bothered. He was alone because it was not safe to be in relationship. It’s always easier to close the door and growl than it is to open it and ask, “Can I help you?”

We see this sign often. It marks the door of a house on the road to one of our walking trails. In the absence of a canyon I suppose the only thing to do is paste your anger on your door. Every time I see this sign I wonder what would happen if love came knocking?

 

read Kerri’s blog post about GO AWAY

 

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Unify

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

a watercolor from 2003, House On Fire

Stay with me. I actually have a point.

If ever I teach actors again, or coach people in any endeavor, or communities/businesses seeking betterment, I will only have two things to teach: 1) Grounded-ness and 2) Focus placement on the unifiers. These two concepts are really  one looping concept but for ease and the sake of being understood, I will offer them independent of one another.

As focus placement goes, an actor on the stage has two options and depending on the focus placement they choose, they will either create the play or destroy it. A focus on how they look or sound or feel destroys the play. It is a self-focus in an art form of relationship (all art forms are made vital in relationship). A self-focus breaks the relationships and effectively locks the audience out of participating in the story. It makes the actor giddy with fear, easily distracted, alone. Conversely, the actor can focus outside of themselves, on the other actors on the stage, on the energy between, on their pursuit. An outer-focus creates relationships and serves as a magnet that pulls audiences into the story. It facilitates participation, creates relationship, and shared experiences. It unifies. Literally.

The actor who listens to him/herself pulls up their root. They unground themselves. The actor whose focus is outward, who is actively pursuing relationship, creates grounding. In fact, they must be grounded to create vital relationships. It is a first principle. Grounded-ness begets grounded-ness; it unifies. It strengthens. It invites. It clarifies truth.

The same principles apply off the stage or out of the studio. It is, however, more complex off the stage. It is much, much, more sticky.

And here’s the point: It has been said that nothing is better at uniting a community than having an enemy. It’s true. A common enemy provides an outer focus. It provides another team to defeat. It works so well that leaders across the ages, leaders who would otherwise look insipid, leaders who, like a bad actor, have a self-focus, a control need, have concocted all manner of enemies. It is a deflection. It works for a short while but what starts as false unity strips a community of its true binder. It separates and splits. It diminishes. It destroys.

Here’s the sticky part. One of the oldest tricks in the book for controlling a community is to split them, to locate the enemy within the community. And then, for good measure, magnify the split. In the early colonies – that ultimately became The United States of America – it was a strategy known as The Giddy Masses (see Ronald Takaki’s excellent book A Different Mirror). Make the people giddy with a false enemy. Uproot them. Deflect them so they cannot join in relationship and be strong as a community. Self-focused leaders cannot survive a unified, healthy populace. It is a strategy: separate the people so they cannot see the movement of power.

Today I started to read the news but stopped after only a minute. Building walls. Expelling Muslims. Enemy creation everywhere! Fox news and MSNBC are great giddy creators. It’s a bad story poorly told. It weakens all players. The primary actors do harm to their audience. Grounded-ness, a first principle, can only come to all when the actors choose to focus on the relationships, see the unifiers, to create rather than destroy. Groundedness comes when the audience engages, questions what they are being told and open (rather than close) their minds.

Grounded-ness. Focus placement on the unity. The principles that make great art also make great society. Fear, the province of the bad actor, the lot of a passive audience, although temporarily effective, can only destroy the play.

Save

Save

Look To Each Other

my latest work-in-progress

my latest work-in-progress

Josh laughed from the back seat of the car. He read aloud the text that made him laugh: I’m in MoMA (the museum of modern art) and someone dropped a glove. Now, people are walking around it because they don’t know whether it is art or not!

I’ve spent a goodly amount of my time on the planet in museums of contemporary art and know that most folks passing through the museum have the same confusion about the pieces on the walls. What makes something art and something else not-art?

Almost a century ago Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal in an exhibition and gave it the title, “Fountain.” At the time it was scandalous and now represents a major milestone in art history. Today, a urinal in a museum exhibition would get the same treatment as the glove on the floor: confused consideration. Is it or is it not art? The beauty of the glove moment, the thing that binds it to the urinal moment, is that, in both cases, the gallery goers looked to others, perfect strangers, to ascertain a proper response: it is art if they say it is. Art, in this case, is an agreement.

This agreement, looking for approval about how to behave when confronted with the art-or-not-art question may seem superficial until you consider that recently people in Paris lost their lives over a disagreement of what was art and what was not. In recent history (2001), the Taliban destroyed centuries old giant statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley. They considered the statues idols (not art) and dynamited them off of the face of the earth (I will leave you to discover and ponder the irony between my Paris and Bamiyan Valley examples).

the words written into my work-in-progress

a close-up: the words written into my work-in-progress

Art is meant to open our perspective, to make us question, to help us see. A society that is capable of seeing is also a society that is capable of questioning; they go hand-in-hand. Questioning is always present when people are growing – so is art. Questioning also begets tolerance – it requires us to doubt our perspective and consider the view from someone else’s shoes. In these times when I hear someone bemoan the end of civility and the horrors in the world, I wonder if they’ve argued to cut art from the schools or  recently attended a concert to hear music to move their soul. Art is dangerous to leaders who like their people blind. Art is offensive to people who want their community thought-less. I delighted that somewhere in the world, in a museum of modern art, a group of people walked around a lost glove and looked to each other for guidance.

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