Friday, March 21, 2014


It's a haunting, daunting question.  We usually use it to challenge someone's overly inflated ego, their high opinion of themselves, when they're "getting too big for their boots."  Do I remember it from a John Lennon song?   (Yes, it's Instant Karma... "Who on Earth do you think you are?  A superstar? Well, right you are.  And we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun...")

And of course that's all we are, stardust, accumulating moment by moment into the constantly shifting forms we assume for the journey through our lives.  As to the rest, we are who we think we are--no more than the fabrication of our minds, a projected image on the screen of who we want to be, or alternatively fear we might be.  The flesh and blood part of us is transitory, no matter how long it lasts, the reality of at most a hundred years or so--or, in the thirteen point something billion-year history of the universe, by a factor millions of millions less than the blink of an eye.  A fast fleeting reality, then; and as such, the illusion of an illusion.

Still, the question popped unbidden into my head as I woke this morning.  Who do you think you are?  The context?  With my assistant, Maggie's help I have been sending out emails to museums and colleges, some on the East Coast, some on the West, hoping to attract interest in the presentation I have devised for a public lecture/demonstration, based on the One Hour/One Painting experience.  The latter, for those unfamiliar, is an hour-long exploration of single painting, combining the time-tested skills of meditation (closed-eye) and contemplation (open-eye) skills.

I have been offering these sessions for years now, in museums and galleries, mostly in the Southern California area.  I think--there I go!--that it's a great teaching piece, something I have learned for myself and am eager to pass on to others.  It's not only a great way to look at art, it's also a great way to learn the value of paying that kind of mindful attention to everything else in one's life.  Those who come to a session invariably have good things to say about the experience, and it's gratifying to know that I have managed to open a door for them.

But "One Hour/One Painting" works best only for relatively small groups.  How many people can sit in front of a single painting on the gallery wall, with the kind of sight lines needed to explore its surfaces as exhaustively as I intend?  The maximum, I've found, is a couple of dozen participants, give or take.  So something in me (ego? altruist? teacher? attention-getter?) wants to take this visual adventure further, to reach more people, and expand my reach to the East Coast, particularly New York, still the epicenter of the art world...

Call it ambition, call it intention, I don't know.  It's just something I have in heart and mind to do.  So I have devised a way of bringing the "One Hour/One Painting" experience to larger audiences, in this lecture/demonstration called "Slow Looking: The Art of Looking at Art."  As I envision it, it will allow me to use the technology of power point and a big screen to project images, rather than an original painting.  Pixels, I know, lack the substance of oil or acrylic paint, so the experience will necessarily involve more preaching than practice, more teaching than experience; but at least I should be able to convey something of the benefits of slowing down and paying attention (in this case to art) in a culture that seems too often to value speed and surface.  I believe it's wanted and it's needed.

But here's where the "who do you think you are?" conundrum sneaks in.  I think I have something of great value to offer and put out the offer into the world, and in response receive... silence.  I encounter the great, echoing void.  Though I have been writing articles and reviews for national magazines for decades, I can't pretend to have the "name" that generates instant--or even slowly dawning!--recognition.  Even in my own small corner of the art world, where I have somewhat greater name recognition, eliciting a response is problematic at best.

People everywhere are busy, naturally, with their own preoccupations and priorities.  And in part, of course, it's the competition.  There are so many brilliant minds out there in the public speaking market who have something of real value to offer.  Then there are the financial contingencies to be reckoned with: everyone is strapped for funds in the cultural world--schools, college galleries, museums... The steady withdrawal of public funds from the arts since the 1970s, has let to an increasing reliance on other than public resources--private patrons and supporters whose priorities must now include world poverty and hunger, medical research, and other pressing issues.

In which broad and increasingly urgent context, of course, I am brought face to face with that question: Who do you think you are?  So this was what I was wondering about this morning as I lay in bed, after waking with those words echoing in my mind.  Who do I think I am?  Which brings me back--my mind keeps coming back to this--to the question raised not long ago in my exchange with Ken McLeod: "When you say you see Peter, what exactly do you see?"  First thought: I see an image of what I imagine myself to be.  Second thought: well, actually, nothing.

Here's an invitation: try it for yourself.  Who do you (really) think you are?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Who am I", or "What ..." v. "Who do I think I am?"