On moving forward through difficult times, part five: Why Culture Matters

The hound in the wood

I'm popping into the studio on a Saturday to recommend a superb article by Frank Cottrell Boyce on "the generosity of art," a discussion ranging from the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to the value of gift exchange, reading Heidi, and the poetry of Philip Larkin.

If you read nothing else this week, please do read this. It's an important piece. And so inspiring.

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The genius of the community

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Bluebells in a Devon wood

In his fine book of conversations with writer & naturalist Barry Lopez, who has long been one of my guiding lights, William E. Tydeman quotes these words from a talk Lopez gave at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 2004:

"I have been puzzled and troubled all my life by the idea of individual genius. In my experience those who are most comfortable with this characterization are often the people who are least aware of how their work has benefited from the support of others. In my view they are always ready to accept full credit for the quality of an individual vision but are vaguely contemptuous of the idea  that something they've made is not fully their own, that it is partly due to the way people support them and also to something unknown moving through them.

Tilly in the bluebell wood

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"We say Bach is a genius," Lopez continues. "But when Yo-Yo Ma finds two different interpretations of the Sixth Cello Suite, what is Ma? I don't mean to be academic here or to play games with concepts of originality or interpretation. I'm saying something much simpler, or, you might say, more naive. It is my view that individual genius is a gift, that the gifted personality is a manifestation of a kind of genius that belongs, finally, to the community. The genius is in us.

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"In ensemble art, the theater, dance, the music of the quartet, the trio, the orchestra, it is easy to see that one person is not responsible. It's harder with painting, photography, or writing. Why pursue this distinction? Because in a celebrity-driven culture like ours, claims to originality and genius seem curiously misplaced. Historically, humanity has more often benefited from the genius of the community than from the genius of the individual. And people with no faith in their own wisdom in hard times have perished waiting for a genuis to appear and lead them.

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"I believe in the singular vision of the individual artist," Lopez makes clear. "If I am honest, I would have to say I accept the artist's occasional disregard for community, the neglect of spouse, of children and parents, that this obsession sometimes entails. But there is a line here. What does the community gain by your work and what does it lose?

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Conversations with Barry Lopez

"The line I draw for myself is, I know, subjective and probably inconsistent. What is more on my mind these days about this though...is this. If humanity is [ecologically] imperiled, shouldn't our investment in the work of artists include more than it does? Shouldn't we be underwriting collaboration and cooperation? If, as the poet Robert Duncan has said, 'The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate,' shouldn't we be thinking more about a wisdom revealed in the mounting of one communal voice...?

Window to the Otherworld

Window to the Otherworld

Conversations with Barry Lopez by William E Tydeman

"In some strange way," Lopez concludes, "I think we are at a cultural crossroads today where the primacy of the individual is concerned. If we are endangered as a culture, do we need to ask ourselves what price society pays for our vigorous support of individual visions? I don't know. I do not really worry about what other people are doing. In my own life, however, I am suspicious of this idea, the primacy of the individual, despite my Enlightenment upbringing. So, I am trying to explore the disquieting dimensions of my own ego."

Writing notebookThe passage quoted above is from the introduction to Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination by William E. Tydeman (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from David Whyte's What to Remember When Waking (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. Related posts: On the Care & Feeding of Daemons & Muses, Gift Exchange, and Knowing the World as a Gift.


Gracious Acceptance

White Tower by William Bailey

The other side of the coin from the art of gift-giving is the less heralded art of gift-receiving; and in order to live a balanced creative life we must practice both with equal skill. But as Alexander McCall Smith points out (in Love Over Scotland), the act that he calls gracious acceptance is "an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving."

"Until we can receive with an open heart," notes psychologist Brené Brown astutely, "we're never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help."

"Human life runs its course in the metamorphosis between receiving and giving," the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote; and art-making, too, thrives in the space where giving and receiving dance in partnership. We take in the gifts of inspiration, shape them to our purposes, and then pass those gifts along through our stories, paintings, and other creative works.

Ceremony by William Bailey

To be skilled in the art of "gracious acceptance" is to be wide-open and receptive to the gifts the muses bring, and this skill, it seems to me, is helped or hindered by one's perception of the emotion of gratitude. There are those for whom gratitude is an uncomfortable, weakening, even shameful feeling; while others of us experience gratitude in a warm and positive manner, perceiving its ties as chords of connection, not heavy chains of obligation.

The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's novel Open House is clearly in the latter camp: "I made cranberry sauce," she tells us, "and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they'd slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries."

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Mary Oliver, too, is a writer who seems to follow Meister Erkhart's dictum that "if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough" -- for every poem she writes is a hymn of gratitude for the commonplace marvels of daily living. Take her 1992 poem "Morning," for example:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Still life by William Bailey

Art-making, like gift giving, requires two separate actions: giving and receiving, both of them equally important. We breathe in the world and push it out again: inhaling, exhaling; the cycle kept in motion; never resting for too long on one side and not the other. The perpetual giver, like the perpetual receiver, is an artist (and a person) out of balance, in danger of draining the creative well dry. It's hard work, and it's humbling work, to master both roles equally, including whichever one we find the hardest -- but that's precisely the task that art (and life) demands of us.

"The reality of all life is interdependence," notes cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives."

"When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully," says Maya Angelou, "everyone is blessed."

Still Life by William Bailey

The quietly beautiful still life paintings here today are by the American artist William Bailey. Born in Iowa in 1930, educated at the University of Kansas, Bailey is now Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale University.

Still Life by William Bailey"Morning" by Mary Oliver is from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.


Gift exchange (and the making of art)

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I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that has just passed. Here in "Austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are precarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year. At Bumblehill, we celebrate Winter Solstice and Yule rather than Christmas, and focus on feasting and doing things together as a family. Our gift-giving is the simple (but loving) act of distributing little packages of home-made kiffles: each cookie filled with the talk and laughter we share in the long day it takes to make them all.

I love the act of gift-giving (at any time of year), but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend, especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

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Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

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 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration comes from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "To put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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Recommended reading and viewing

The Wire Fence

In several posts over the last couple of weeks we discussed the history of the Enclosures here in Britain (in which millions of acres of Common land were transferred into private hands for the profit of the few), and how this affected folkloric traditions dependent on the Commons and communal ways of living.

The selling off of the UK's public lands, resources, and services continues to this day, of course. I recommend "Pete," a short video by Matt Hopkins that has just been posted on the Aeon Magazine site, looking at the loss of communal spaces and affordable housing in London -- and how this effects young people, including those making attempting to make their living in the arts. Which is never easy at the best of times....

Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, is well worth a read on the subject of modern Enclosures too.