to hell with solemnity and proper art

Artwork by Michael Leunig

 

In his scrumptious essay Regressive Painting and the Holy Fool, Michael Leunig  – Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet – speaks about the way our brilliant ideas often act to sabotage true creativity, leading us into frustration and disillusionment. But all is not lost, he suggests, for our temper tantrums can be the portal to the domain of the holy fool, and that’s the source of our authentic creative expression. The following is a short extract from the essay, which I posted recently at the awakened eye blog.  

It could go something like this: the painter might begin a piece of work with high hopes and set forth with an interesting or brilliant idea in mind, but all too soon the painting begins to fail, the idea collapses and ambition starts to sour.  The transcription from the intellect to the canvas is looking lifeless and artless, and the painter is starting to feel despondent.  It’s not working!  How often it is that the mind and the hand have lost touch with each other.

The painter redoubles all efforts but this only makes things worse and regression is happening as dismay and disillusionment set in.  Soon enough the painting is in a miserable mess and everything is in disarray. It looks awful and the painter is emotionally heavy with self-doubt and disappointment.  The worst has happened, the situation is lost and the painter’s ego is peeling away.

Little is it understood but at last the painter is breaking free, albeit a free fall – into a disturbing state of not knowing.  The regression deepens, reason has fled while tantalizing and delinquent infantile impulses are felt: the petulant desire to destroy the painting and get rid of the evidence; the painful reminder of inability and failure.

At this point one of the noble truths of creativity may begin to emerge: ‘disillusionment precedes inspiration and growth’.  So instead of abandoning the failure as many would, the artist recognizes an opportunity to be free and play about casually or recklessly in the ruins; to experiment and throw all cautious technique, all self criticism and high standards to the wind because now there is nothing to lose and nobody is watching.  Before long the painter has forgotten the failure and becomes absorbed in the anarchy of spontaneous gestures and spirited whimsical play.  The holy fool and originality are at hand. The artist is painting unselfconsciously and with happy abandon – and somewhat like a child.

To hell with solemnity and proper art; the joy of discovery is all that matters now; the unprecedented textures, the way the colours have by chance smeared into each other: beautiful startling subtleties and unimagined miracles small and large to delight or shock the eye.  And so it proceeds until the painter is staring in fascination at this revelation that the hands and impulses have created in a state of regression; a state that could not have been planned or organized – but simply happened when ego and ambition had sufficiently crumbled.

– Michael Leunig, Regressive Painting and the Holy Fool


I realise that many readers of this blog also subscribe to the awakened eye (nods and waves to you) and have probably read Michael’s essay.  But for those of you who haven’t, do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in his writing about creativity, authenticity, playfulness, wonderment, beauty, the holy fool, plus a selection of his whimsical artworks. Here’s the link:

on losing the plot and regaining the world of the holy fool

A couple more quotes – I can’t help myself, these are so cool…

The artist needs to know how to lose the plot
– how to not care and how to not know –
and how to actually enjoy that freedom
and understand what a blessed revitalizing state all of that mess can be.

The most joyous painting is not done for the art world, it is done for the inner world; it is a self delighting other-worldly thing – a getting lost in regression and solitude; a sub-literate, semi-delirious way to be with the spirited little fool in the depths of one’s being for a while – there to invent one’s art freely, and there to find enchantment, infinite surprise and the bright wondrous question ‘What is this?’

http://www.leunig.com.au

Michael Leunig Appreciation Page on Facebook


A Leunig post from the archives, 2010

artist, leave the world of art!


Michael Leunig, Holy Fool - Artworks

Holy Fool, Artworks, by Michael Leunig


 

every maker knows the feel of love

 

Every maker knows the feel of Love.

 

It’s the upsurge of

JOY

in your heart
when your gaze falls upon
your makings,
the makings born of an innocent mind

{ BEGINNER’S MIND }

and finds them pleasing.
And you wonder where they came from,
how they happened;
you listen closely as they whisper their story,
the story you had no intention
of telling – indeed, you never knew
until now, until your hands
tentatively, tenderly birthed its expression

IN THE DARK

 

And if your makings have no toe-hold
in the art market…?
Perhaps it’s all the better.
Then you know you’re on your true way,
(not merely a clone, a follower of fashion)
immune to the bleating of the corralled sheep
who claim to know what “real art” should look like.

You stand in your authenticity,
honesty,
impeccability.

You find you don’t mind
that your makings hold no commercial value,
have no relevance to the commodified art scene.

 

You know only one thing matters:
your devotion to

LOVE

You smile at your makings; you nod
knowing that regardless of the titles you gave them
their true name is Love
and they are part of a series that has no end.

 

Every maker knows the feel of Love.

 


Miriam Louisa Simons, Refuge Robe

 Refuge Robe, acrylics, pastels, metallic pigments, loose textured canvas, steel gauze
Private Collection. An offering made for dear friends who gave me shelter during troubled times.


The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
Carl Jung


I play with color: I love the subtle way it moves and the mystery of its interactions. I love tonal gradations.

I play with texture: I love the way texture reveals light, creates form.

Since color and texture are the agencies of light, I guess that means I play with light: I am a lover of LIGHT.

What is the feel of your Love? What do you love to play with?


 

a hunger for eternity

Mary Oliver articulates to perfection the way everything in the world appears to stand between the artist and his or her commitment to their passion – creative engagement with they-know-not-what. Don’t we all experience this: the expectation from our N&D, or our colleagues – and ourselves as well – that we can simply blink and materialise in the silent, open, receptive posture that invites our muse? That we can zip from chore to chore, demand to demand, and fit our engagement with creativity into time-slots in a diary? But it doesn’t work that way. And this, we find, is what those whose allegiance is to a tick-tock, product-driven, left-brain interpretation of creativity can never understand.

For our muse is a jealous lover; she demands sustained attention and even, dare I say – devotion. She isn’t easily coerced into our studio – or whatever creative playground we inhabit. She doesn’t respond to invitations but turns up willy-nilly. She seems averse to any kind of expectation that she will show up merely because we do… yet we must show up, regardless. We must show up and we must stay. And sooner or later, in our dedication, passion and sincerity, and with our “hunger for eternity” we will realise that our engagement is not just with some mythical muse, but with the ceaseless primordial creativity that is powering the whole glorious show.


This offering is reblogged from voxpopulisphere where it was posted with the title “The Artist’s Task”; the content was originally featured on brainpickings.  I’m sharing it here because Mary’s observations cause my head to nod (and their expression in her unmistakably poetic voice is a treat), and because I have a feeling that you – yes, wondrously creative you – will appreciate it too.


 

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo

 

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

From: Upstream, Selected Essays, by Mary Oliver.  Copyright 2016.


Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo. Source: brainpickings.org


In a similar vein:

the alchemy of creativity

wider wonderment; deepening devotion


 

the alchemy of creativity

As artists … we make artwork as something we have to do
not knowing how it will work out.

– Agnes Martin

 

Agnes Martin, Untitled 1960

 

Just when I began to doubt that I would ever write again on this blog – it being many moons since the urge to do so has visited – I find myself inspired by a post written by the insightful and meticulous artist Fiona Dempster on her blog Paper Ponderings. She opens with a quote from Anais Nin (see below) and offers her responses before summing up thus:

 

There is something in here I think that says that art is integral to our wellbeing;
and I have to agree.

– Fiona Dempster

 

A torrent arose from deep within as I read this: art is integral to our wellbeing. I was reminded of my own long path to this understanding. Being a slow learner when it comes to my own wellbeing it took decades to notice that if I was experiencing unease, confusion or frustration, the failsafe remedy was to enter creative engagement. In that engagement, that deliberate hollowing out of my mental marrow, all I need to know percolates up into presence and flows forth into my life. No effort required. As Jeanette Winterson observes, it’s simply humanity expressing itself.

 

Life has an inside as well as an outside. Consumer culture directs all resources and attention to life on the outside. What happens to the inner life? Art is never a luxury because it stimulates and responds to the inner life. We are badly out of balance. I don’t think of art / creativity as a substitute for anything else. I see it as a powerful expression of our humanity – and on the side of humanity under threat. If we say art is a luxury, we might as well say that being human is a luxury.

– Jeanette Winterson

 

I eventually learned that creativity is not a luxury for me; it’s a necessity if I am to remain sane. Creativity is integral to my wellbeing, and art is one way that creativity can shatter the granite edifice that is my conditioned thinking.

I was unspeakably fortunate to be assisted in coming to this understanding by physicist David Bohm, who would share his insights with us at Brockwood Park and patiently answer our questions. This morning, opening a notebook I kept at the time – twenty years ago – and rather grandly titled “Creativity and Consciousness”, I found these quotes:

 

For creativity is a prime need of a human being and its denial brings about a pervasive state of dissatisfaction and boredom.

Whenever … creativity is impeded, the ultimate result is not simply the absence of creativity, but an actual positive presence of destructiveness…

– David Bohm (with F David Peat), Science, Order, and Creativity, 1987

 

The need for creative thinking in every corner of our collective consciousness has never been greater. I feel a tide surging within, a tide that has been out for many years as other concerns consumed my attention. It is washing up an imperative to speak again on these things, to share the perennial wisdom of my teachers and voice my own.

 

I believe the most important thing for humankind is its own creativity.

– Dalai Lama XIV, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

 

Discovery is the beginning of creativeness; and without creativeness, do what we may, there can be no peace or happiness for man.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

 
There’s more to creativity, and in particular creative thinking, than is allowed by its current association with corporate concerns – “How can we harness creativity to make more sales?” There’s more to creativity than learning how to pass the time with recreational dabbling. These are not an elitist statements. If taken as such, a deep understanding of the dynamic of genuine creativity is shown to be lacking. Creativity shapes lives and cultures.

Genuine creativity is elusive. It lives solely in the present moment with no regard for past or future. It is outside of time altogether. In this context it is identical to what the sages call Reality, the Divine, Presence, Source. To be absorbed by it is to “unite” again with that which we never left and yet can never know – the Unified Field of Creation. Our whole self.

 

We do not escape into philosophy, psychology, and art — we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones.

– Anais Nin

 

Exactly. Creativity is no escape. Engagement with genuine creativity spurns the urge to retreat or escape from life. Rather, life is brought full-focus into the feeling realm and away from the head. For me a prerequisite to the engagement is that I take all the versions of myself – shattered or stuck or simply curious – to the altar of my worktable. I bring them to the space of unknowing and watch in awe as they disappear entirely.

The artist self? Nowhere to be found.

For me it’s essential to be artist in absentia if work that’s free from preconceived ideas and unsullied by the subtle yet persistent longing that my work be accepted / admired  / valuable / important. In other words: if genuine creativity is to be allowed space.

 

Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done. Therefore I must always do what I do not know how to do.

– Eduardo Chillida

 

The alchemy of this immersion in unknowingness – the blessing of creativity – is paradoxical: while disappearing the solid-state, separate “me”, it simultaneously fosters “me-ness” in the sense of rock solid authenticity. It shapes the unique no-thing that we are; it gives it whatever voice is true and appropriate as we navigate the world of appearances – the “outside”. In the process, it makes us feel more keenly alive, alert, aware. It brings the wondrous feeling that all is well with the world (after all) and a sense of order, rightness, blessedness prevails.

 

There is a curiously sharp sense of joy or mild ecstasy that comes when you find the particular form required for your creation: … the experience of  “This is the way things are meant to be.”

– Rollo May

 

Further. We eventually realise, if we look deeply enough, that the “outside” is not outside at all. Wherever we go / look / feel – there we are, fully displayed as a reflection of our consciousness. It’s so vital to “get” this, because here is precisely where the voice that sings through our “hollow bamboo”* has the power to change the world, i.e., consciousness. Not by our self-determined efforts – no matter how sincere – but by allowing a force incomprehensibly vaster than our minds can conceive to express, via our utterly unique constellation of skills and wisdom, exactly what it needs to. For this moment. For now.

Let us not forget that Creation set this whole scenario – whatever it appears to be– in motion.

Let us not forget that its agenda is beyond our cognitive capacity.

Let us not forget that it operates beyond the laws of physics and knows no degree of difficulty.

Let us invite that power to play as we turn up in our studio feeling shattered, depressed, blocked and confused.

And let us not forget that it will only show up when we disappear.

 

***

 

The final paragraph in Science, Order, and Creativity:

The ultimate aim of this book has been to arouse an interest in the importance of Creativity. Whoever sees this importance will have the energy to begin to do something about fostering it, in ways that are appropriate to the special talents, abilities, and endowments of that person. All great changes have begun to manifest themselves in only a few people at first, but these were only the “seeds” as it were of something greater to come. We hope that this book will not only draw attention to all the questions that have been discussed in it, but will actually begin the liberation of creative energy in as many of its readers as possible.

Amen.

And the last word…

 

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing.

Making your unknown known is the important thing.

– Georgia O’Keeffe

 


*Try this. This is one of the most beautiful meditations, the meditation of becoming a hollow bamboo. You need not do anything else. You simply become this, and all else happens. Suddenly you feel something is descending in your hollowness. You are like a womb and a new life is entering in you, a seed is falling. And a moment comes when the bamboo completely disappears.
– Osho


Painting by Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1960


Other posts and pages on this theme:

when the artist disappears, creativity radiates

and when I do that, I feel whole

salmon-mind and stream-ing


how was it for you?

 

I’ve been reading a great post from Maria Popova at brainpickings about the moment we recognise we are fated to become artists.

“How does one become an artist — not in a practical sense, not by some external measure, but by an invisible and intimate surrender to the creative impulse? It often happens in a single moment of recognition — a point of contact with some aspect of the miraculous in some aspect of the mundane, catalyzing an overwhelming sense of the unity of things and an uncontainable desire to emanate that sense outwardly; to share it, in some form, with others — whose otherness is suddenly dissipated by the very impulse.”

The article is about Patti Smith and her memory of this momentous recognition. It’s inspiring and wondrous. But it left me thinking, well, what was my big moment of recognition? How was it for me? Was it a single moment or did it unfold over time?

 

Wonderingmind Studio - Michael Leunig: Song

 

In my case, it was both. From tinyhood there was always an urge to be engaged in making for its own sake; I simply loved the way the world (and me as well) would melt into a timeless joy when I was ‘making things.’ In that innocent play I felt totally at home, totally ‘right’, fully fulfilled. (Years later I would realise that I’d always been driven by a mix of curiosity and wonderment – and that this mix had also driven the lifelong urge to understand that ineffable state.)

I was good at academic subjects, and at High School that meant focusing on language, math and science. But I was already seduced by the subjects deemed less worthy – by art and  craft and embroidery. I wanted to make, and to make art in particular, even though I didn’t really know what art was.

As a concession, I was allowed to take Art and Design as a ‘failing subject’ for my School Certificate (= O Levels) exams. What that meant was that if I failed in it, it wouldn’t matter because the other four ‘real’ subjects, which I would do well in, would carry me through. Since we had no proper instruction in Art or Design at my academically focussed school, I was set up to fail – I didn’t even know how to read the exam questions. And so it came to pass.

I was knocked back on my failure to answer the questions correctly. And that was my ‘tingle’ moment – that was when I raised my 15 year-old finger to the high priests of the art world and said stuff you. I didn’t have a clue what art was, I was ignorant of art history and criticism, I was a peasant kid in a tiny city at the bottom of the earth. But I knew what stirred my juice. It was the wonder of colour and the magic of making.

Yet even with that early recognition, it took decades for my via creativa to deliver me to full commitment to visual language as my mode of expression: to ‘out’ me as an artist. On the way I tried my hand at some amazing alternatives. Yet like an insidious addiction, the makings continued. And the hunger to be fully engaged in ‘art without apology’ was insatiable.

Eventually that hunger was satiated. There was no delivery to fame, although mini-fame fluttered for a while. I simply made my way by making, and by helping others know the joy of expressing with their own authentic voice.

It’s a long way back to that “stuff you” moment, the moment when that adolescent intuited that she would spend her life busy at an activity that for most of her friends and family (and society at large) would be both incomprehensible and worthless. Yet here I am, now in my 70s, and I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, making things turned out to be my holy pathless path, my Guru, and my gratitude is inexpressible.

I’d love to hear your own reflections: how was it for you?

 


Image: Michael Leunig, Song. I chose this image because it expresses so well the sense of wonder, fulfilment and sweetness that accompanies the visit of the muse (the little bird?)
http://www.leunig.com.au


True art does not look like art.
– Lao Tzu


no artist is pleased
creativity and autonomy