Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Dismissal of Beauty

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual,  only evil interesting.  This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”  
Ursula Le Guin  “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

One of the things I do is look for possible residencies or shows to enter, for which I apply and usually pay a hefty application fee as well.     A while back, I ran into a "call to artists" at a prestigious art center in which, as  part of their application process,  they posed a  question for artists applying  to answer as a consideration of entry.   

Here's the question:

 “This artist-in-residence will address whether the concept of beauty gets lost in the issues-based or medium-focused practice of contemporary art.  Does beauty still  have a place in creative expression? Is the contemporary definition of beauty different from classical beauty?
Is beauty relevant? Who cares?“

Huh?  "Is beauty relevant?  Who cares?"  

In Tom Wolfe's famous  critique of contemporary art of the 70's  The  Painted Word  he  argued that art was become literature, more a media creation of art critics than the artists themselves, who were (and still are) generally floundering about at the edges of society seeking any kind of identity, even one invented for them by critics.  (In the 80's, after graduate school, I went all over the country interviewing artists myself, trying to understand what the early  or spiritual roots of art might be.)  

In his introduction, Wolfe wrote that  he began his book by  settling into a Sunday morning with the  New York times like sinking into a familiar warm bath.  Then he encountered a paragraph in the Arts section that shocked him awake -  as he put it, a "satori flash". 

Such was my reaction to this question.  

“Does beauty still have a place in creative expression?”  

Let’s have that one again:

  “Does beauty still have a place in creative expression.”  (and by extension, since it is the opposite of "beauty", it looks like  the questioner assumes that   “ugly” evidently does have a place in creative expression.) 

And there it was again, the same reality-turned-on-its-ears aesthetic that inspired me to  run into the  woods and around the country after finishing graduate school.  The same artspeak   "what was that?" that still causes me to avoid Art In America  as if I could catch the measles.   But this time I think I will face my fear head on.
"They argue that what audiences deserve from any sensitive visionary is an assault on the senses that will degrade,  humiliate, and finally awaken the supreme aesthetic experience offered to the Western world through art - namely guilt.  But guilt is exactly the out we must not cop to if we are to survive."

Pierre Delattre, Beauty and the Aesthetics of Survival

Claude Monet, "Water Lilies"

night blooming Cereus
What then is  Beauty?  Thomas Aquinas saw beauty as having three properties:  integrity, proportion, and last, "the clarity and radiance of being.

The clarity and radiance of the life force, of nature, and of the human spirit participating within that brilliance.  

That which inspires us to preserve, protect, those moments that we remember.  Beauty thus can be understood to mean so many experiences that arise from the "radiance of Being" - grace,  serenity,  empathy, color, symmetry, tenderness, the imaginative synapse that can occur between lines of a poem, joining the poet and reader in a dimension of the imagination.  The awe of a storm clad sky advancing across the prairie, the bell-like call of a morning lark, the profound pathos of an exhasusted mother's face at childbirth, the wonder of a night-blooming Cereus opening at dusk, the brilliant play of color captured  by a John Singer Sargeant, or the moving symbolic imagery of a Frieda Kahlo.

 John Singer Sargeant
If not beauty, what is "relevant" to "creative expression"?   If we eliminate beauty from creativity, what are we  left with that is not "beautiful" but somehow more important? 

Politics. Guilt leading to despair and being called "realism".    Art that occurs by accident, made without intention.  Expressions and cries of pain (but never ecstasy, because happiness, let alone ecstasy, is somehow either stupid, or science fictional).  Art that grieves and rages and shocks. 

In fact, in a world that seems to be endlessly absorbed with a kind of adolescent rebellion complex, "shock" seems to be de rigour.   Shock chic. 

I am not saying that these aspects of creativity are not valid or should be censored.  But I am saying that there is a prejudice to beauty, to spirituality expecially, in our art world  that is almost an anti-aesthetic.  An aesthetic that  celebrates the qualities that are in opposition to "beauty" leaves the viewer with    violent, nihilistic,  meaningless, dark,  shocking, ridiculing, inhumane,  disgusting, intentionally incomprehensible.........and so on.  

In 1987, when I finished my MFA, the word "beautiful" or, worse, "illustrative"   was a dirty word  in the academic art world.  Apparently it still is.    Students were taught to emulate their teachers in achieving bodies of work  that held  "depth".  But what was depth?  Too often, it was reduced to obscurity, like the Emperor's New Clothes, something that only the very, very erudite could fathom.    

Read a few "artist's statements" at any major museum, and you will see what I mean.  Huh?

In graduate school I remember one student who entered the MFA program a talented  realist painter.  By the time she had her MFA show, her work was large white and black canvases, blank except for a few gestural marks and an occasional word, buried in the field of the canvas such that it could not actually be read, just suggested.   I guess it could be said, her new work left a whole lot more to the imagination.  Another student spent the entire program in the morgue, drawing corpses, some in the process of dissection.  And another finished the program with huge wall pieces that were composed of the bones and dried skins of dead animals (horses in particular) that she found in the desert. They were corpses ("artifacts") of animals found in the desert that had been transferred to a canvas or presentation board and hung on the wall.

I  am not saying that these works were without value  because they were hard to look at, disturbing, or incomprehensible without their written  narratives (which also can  seem pretty darn incomprehensible).  In fact, as Wolfe pointed out in The Painted Word, much art now is very dependant upon the narrative to be comprehensible at all.  

But I am saying (and 30 years later I still feel politically incorrect in doing so) that these choices of  subjects by young people beginning their careers reflects an aesthetic they were encouraged to pursue over others.  I was busy painting Goddesses, and inspired by Starhawk and New Age, and no one knew what to make of me.   Somehow I squeaked through the program, finding at least one feminist art historian who liked them.

I remember my own "ah ha" during a painting critique.  Up for discussion was the work of two students, both equally competent painters.  This was the height of New Age, and one body of work was about ecstatic visions the artist was having, visions of flying, being infused with light, and heart imagery.  The other body of work was painted in dark colors, and was full of disturbing sexual imagery -  vagina dentata, and  a tree with bloody dismembered penises.  

Virtually all the class, and particularly the teacher, found the later work "powerful".  And virtually all the class, as well as the teacher, found the former body of work "illustration" and "sci-fi".  (In the fine  art world, to call a painting  "illustration" is perhaps one of the highest insults.)  Since I loved the first artists paintings, I wanted to know why no one else seemed to think they could be taken seriously.  Was it the colors, style, technique?  No, and no.  Finally, it turned out that it was the content that could not be taken seriously.  

In other words,  we could believe in the truth of pain, and psychological and erotic dismemberment, but ecstasy belonged to fantasy.  

That set me to wondering about many things, and set me on a course to discover other, perhaps earlier, purposes of art and the creative process.  It was my privilege, in the late 1980's, to share conversations about art, spirituality, and cultural transformation with some extraordinary artists, travelling across the country to meet many of them.   I realize  now I was trying to understand my own reasons for making art as well. 

Below is a traditional Navajo  prayer  I sometimes read as a way of understanding how to "walk" in the world.  The Navajo celebrate, with the  turning directions, the  continual motion and transformation of life.  From the "house of Dawn" to the "house of Twilight" we can choose to realize beauty all around us, and their  understanding of "beauty" means all that is good, beneficial, worthy of gratitude.

"In the house made of dawn
in the house made of evening twilight,
in beauty may I walk
with beauty above me,
with beauty below me,
with beauty beside me 
I walk with beauty all around me
With beauty it is finished."

.......Navajo (Din`e)

Frank Martin

Image: ©2000 Frank Martin
"The Whirling Log/Tsil-ol-ni"
A story used in Navajo healing ceremonies
Sandpaintings help restore hózhó, an idea related to such concepts as "beauty," "blessing," "holy," and "balanced." But this middle ground is difficult to maintain and may vanish because of witchcraft or the violation of a taboo. "Don't throw a rock from a mountain," adults admonish children. "The Holy People put it there and might be angry." Only those willing to risk losing hózhó ignore this sort of advice.

A Navajo plagued by the loss of hózhó visits a Singer, or medicine man (though sometimes a woman), to restore the cosmic balance. The Singer has served an apprenticeship to a knowledgeable elder and obtained the power to prescribe the proper sandpainting ceremony for curing a patient's ills. Each of the five hundred different sandpaintings catalogued by anthropologists—perhaps half of those in the tribal repertoire—belongs to a "Way" received from the Holy People.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Leo Kottke and "Pamela Brown"

With the "pause" of the Covid19 Crisis, we all seem to have more time to contemplate, remember, and reflect..............I was surprised when I found myself humming a song by Leo Kottke that I haven't thought about since the 70's, as my first husband took the album when we divorced in 1979!  I just felt like sharing it here because it is just such a perfect homage to the serendipity that forms our fates, or better put, our storylines!  

For that matter, I guess I haven't thought about Paul in a number of decades.  We parted young and amiably, and not too long after I was gone he met his life partner, they got married, and we long ago fell out of touch.  But thinking of serendipity, and for that matter, Leo Kottke's Pamela Brown,    there is a perfect woven fabric of story-threads in our brief time together as well.  

Paul and his best friend Peter were from Canada, near Toronto, and after graduating, decided to take his volkswagan bug and go to Mexico.  They drove down the California coast and visited the famous political hotbed of Berkeley, where their car broke down.  I was living in a warehouse with a lot of artists in Berkeley then (back when there actually were warehouses and arts districts full of artists).  In those days if you had a volkswagon  you were politically correct to fix it yourself, and there were do it yourself manuals for "The People's Car" .  In Berkeley there was a garage where you could also rent space to work.  So Paul and Peter decided to hang out in Berkeley for a while while they fixed the Volkswagon.

Meanwhile, I and my artistic comrades were planning our Warehouse Halloween party.  I had a young man who was going to join me at the party, and on the other side of town,  Paul had met a woman who invited him to come with her to the same party.  The party was a great success, but both of our prospective dates didn't show up, and Paul and I got together out of sympathy.  

In the course of our time together in Berkeley, Paul's brother, David, came to visit and decided to remain in San Francisco, where he became a photographer.  His younger sister, Pat, also came to visit, and became a nanny for one of the artists in the Warehouse, and ended up meeting a young man from Sri Lanka there.  They married, and she moved to Sri Lanka with him, and they had three children.  And Peter, Paul's travelling friend, met Belinda while in Berkeley - they married and had a son.  Paul and I left Berkeley, and moved to Wisconsin, where Paul remained, met his future wife, and together they eventually moved to Texas.

So............Paul, Peter, David, and Pat never went back to Canada.  Marriages happened, and children were born.  New careers.  All because a car happened to break down in Berkeley, and I and Paul got dumped by our dates for a Halloween party.  Serendipity!

Friday, May 8, 2020

New Masks that Await Their Stories

"Mask for the Crossing of Dimensions (Center)"

Years ago I heard a famous Hopi potter talk about how many of the intricate designs on her bowls just "turn up" in her dreams,  and "bother her" until she makes them, and then they finally leave.  I  was very seriously and academically trying to figure out if  art could be "shamanic" at that time - this very simple explanation of visioning by a revered Native artist stuck with me.  No fuss, no muss, just day to day "instructions" that the artist received and translated into bowls that were full of "mana", full of essence.  

"The Healer (East)"  

It's been many years since then, and I find that I also seem to get "downloads", images that pop into my head, and won't go away until I make them.  I suppose it could be said that I'm a kind of mask shaman, although at present I have no tribe to serve, which I find frustrating.  Still, here is a collection of masks that came from.........well, I don't know where, but they wanted to be made.  I am hopeful that those who can use them, and find their stories, will turn up on the horizon in the future.  

"The Maker (South)"

Because masks are meant to be participatory, "vessels for story, vessels for transformation, vessels for invocation".  As I myself so often have said.................

"The Oracle (West)"

There is one last mask I need to make in the series, for North, and that would be "The Reaper",  the function of psychopomp, the one who helps people to make the transition from this life into the next.  Instead of a skull, I see a face with butterflies all around it. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Remote Viewing the Future with Stephan A. Schwartz

I find the interview below with a famous explorer of the paranormal and consciousness studies fascinating. Stephan A. Schwartz has extensively worked with the phenomenon of Remote Viewing and non-local consciousness since the early 70's, and the predictions he collated from hundreds of participants then for 2050, while unimaginable then, have, as he says in this 2017 interview, "come true" now. Among the things that remote viewers saw back then: the submersion of the entire state of Florida, virtual reality, the end of the Soviet Union, the breakup of the USA into politically independant bio-regions, religious terrorism, cities under domes because of increasing heat, and corporate ownership of governments.
(Recorded on February 5, 2017)

Stephan A. Schwartz is a Distinguished Consulting Faculty of Saybrook Institute, the columnist for the journal Explore, and editor of the daily web publication His other academic and research appointments include: Senior Fellow for Brain, Mind and Healing of the Samueli Institute; founder and Research Director of the Mobius laboratory. His government appointments included Special Assistant for Research and Analysis to the Chief of Naval Operations in the 1970's during the Cold War. Dr. Schwartz was the principal originator of research using Remote Viewing in archeology, and in the course of his studies used Remote Viewing to locate Cleopatra's Palace, Marc Antony's Timonium, ruins of the Lighthouse of Pharos, and sunken ships along the California coast.

He is the author of more than 130 technical reports and papers. His Books include: The Secret Vaults of Time, The Alexandria Project, Opening to the Infinite, and The 8 Laws of Change.
In the video presented here he discusses a project in which he was engaged from 1978 through 1996, at a time when Remote Viewing was being funded by the military. In one aspect of his work he asked individuals who attended his workshops and conferences to envision life in the year 2050 through his standard Remote Viewing protocol. He describes the care that he took to avoid suggesting answers himself. The astonishing results consistently described situations that have turned out to be true or possible for today, but were hard to imagine as probabilities in the 70's and 80's when he was doing the research. Among those "impossible" remote viewing trends was the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the development of virtual reality, and the submersion of the entire state of Florida due to Global Warming.
This interview is through New Thinking Allowed, and the host, Jeffrey Mishlove, PhD, is author of The Roots of Consciousness, and Psi Development Systems. Between 1986 and 2002 he hosted and co-produced the original Thinking Allowed public television series. He is the recipient of the only doctoral diploma in "parapsychology" ever awarded by an accredited university (University of California, Berkeley, 1980).

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Coming of the Summer................

"SO SOME OF us are now learning to listen in to and maybe even converse with the elemental utterances of things that don’t speak in words, tuning our ears and our skin to the discourse of multiple other-than-human beings: each redwing blackbird or storm cloud or naked chunk of sandstone jostling with the rest of existence." ......David Abram

The long, hot, introverted summers of Tucson are, like the long winters of the North lands, a time to go inside (quite literally), to  retreat.  With the Pause and strange Silence of the Covid19 Crisis, this seems particularly apt.

It is true, the advent of Summer can sometimes be rigorous, but life here has its own rythems, and just like living in a very cold climate, you adapt.  Then, and provided you have a good cooling system, you can quite learn to enjoy this time.  There are so many plants, flowers, and animals that come forth in the summer - they are citizens of the desert, and it is their time.  Yesterday, for example, I saw a tortoise on my walkway!  Everybody is up by 5:00 when it's cool, and by noon you're inside.  After the sun goes down people emerge again.   The hot desert moon hangs, intense in the heat, over all, and walks in the desert can be very magical indeed.  Just bring water, water, water, because one quickly learns here that without water, there is no life.

A truly Ambitious Agave getting ready to Bloom
Hot or not, it is still almost summer, and the adapted life of the desert is responding.  May is hot and yet, it is still Spring.  

The giant saguaros produce a  crown of beautiful white flowers which quickly become sweet purple fruits (native people make wine and preserves from them) and you see la Paloma, the desert doves, feasting on them. The doves make their mournful call, but actually it's a mating call. 

Agaves shoot up enormous once in a lifetime blooms, a pole of flowers that, when finished and gone to seed, marks the end of their lifetime, their one and only Masterpiece. 

Suddenly I find my garden and feeders full of baby birds as well, and busy finches.  The males sit on the fence glaring (if that is possible) at my cats, chirping over and over:  

"CAT!  It's a CAT!  CAT!  Watch out!"

My cats ignore them, although the Kamicaze swoops of the bigger and more aggressive Mockingbirds they find hard to ignore, and often hide under a chair or two to escape his vigilance.

 As May advances into June, the veneer of greenery in the desert dies back, waiting for the monsoons to come in July, when suddenly,  the vast storms roll in every afternoon, thunder and lightning, pour down floods that disappear within an hour or two...............and almost overnight the desert greens with seeds that have been dormant all year, waiting for this time.

It's easy to live inside of apartments, cars,  cyberspace and televisions today, immune to the subtle voices of nature, the "great conversation".  Because I'm a gardener, I seem to always have an ongoing wonder at my rooted "friends".   I remember when I was living in upstate New York, and suffered from asthma.  Every morning I would walk out into my garden and there would be mullein plants, springing up in very odd places I had certainly not planted them.  A herbalist friend remarked, seeing this phenomenon, that the spirit of the plant was trying to help me out.  Mullein is specifically useful to people with lung problems, both as a tonic and as an herb to smoke that clears the lungs.  A true Medicine Plant, a generous plant, responding to my need.   How often do we take the time to thank them?  We don't even notice............but our ancestors did.  


I had that same experience with "fairy circles", also in New York.  We lived on 40 acres, and I remember, being very involved in Pagan spirituality, I was eager for "signs" in the fields of Devas.    I left offerings, I talked to the trees.  And sure enough, there were a number of times when I would take a walk and see grasses grow up in pretty clear circles.   Fantasy on my part?  Maybe, but other people saw the  "circles".  I like to think the fey folk were saying hello.

Mushroom Fairy Circle (not my picture)

The Desert too has its spirits, its Numina, and if you listen, you can converse with them.  Friendliness has much to do with opening the conversation.  Every season I am honored when my  my Night Blooming Cereus cactus put on such a spectacular show.  I pat the cactus in the morning, thanking it for giving me such beauty.  I am often astounded to see buds, even a rare fruit, in what seems to be out of season on it.   Coincidence?  Maybe the cactus just likes me, and is responding to my great appreciation for its artistry.  Why not?  As an artist myself, I know I respond to appreciation.  What is a flower, but the Masterpiece of a plant, a great big shout of Joi de Vie?

Night Blooming Cereus
The Chance To Love Everything
by Mary Oliver

All summer I made friends
With the creatures nearby –
They flowed through the fields
And under the tent walls,
Or padded through the door,
Grinning through their many teeth,
Looking for seeds,
Suet, sugar; muttering and humming,
Opening the breadbox, happiest when
There was milk and music. But once
In the night I heard a sound
Outside the door, the canvas
Bulged slightly – something
Was pressing inward at eye level.
I watched, trembling, sure I had heard
The click of claws, the smack of lips
Outside my gauzy house –
I imagined the red eyes,
The broad tongue, the enormous lap.
Would it be friendly too?
Fear defeated me. And yet,
Not in faith and not in madness
But with the courage I thought
My dream deserved,
I stepped outside. It was gone.
Then I whirled at the sound of some
Shambling tonnage.
Did I see a black haunch slipping
Back through the trees? Did I see
The moonlight shining on it?
Did I actually reach out my arms
Toward it, toward paradise falling, like
The fading of the dearest, wildest hope –
The dark heart of the story that is all
The reason for its telling?
Found Poetry:"The Barbed Heart Finds Refuge Among the Palos Verde Forest"