Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THE ART CROWD

What a pleasure to engage in conversation!  Saturday morning, I was invited to a session of The Art Crowd, a kind of salon, hosted for more than twenty years by our friend Phyllis Lutjeans.  Phyllis has been a lively, activist presence in the Southern California art scene for decades now, and her home is chock-a-block with the work of artists to whom she has, in one way or another, lent her support.  She lives and breathes art, as naturally as most of us breathe air.

So it's an honor to be invited to a session with her group.  As I told her, quite sincerely, after she had introduced me, I have spoken in many different venues over the years, and hers is the best.  She attracts people who are not only interested in art and ideas, but eager to discuss them.  This was my third "appearance" there, and it's never a one-way street.  There are always questions, comments, arguments from a group that, by body-count is relatively small--up to twenty or so people--but yet fills the space of her living room.  And not only with their physical presence, but their energy, so that the space feels notably "crowded", appropriate to the title that she gives her continuing series of events.

I had planned, as usual, to read a few passages from the book and then open things up for questions and comments.  No such luck!  I'd barely introduced a couple of ideas and had not even read a single paragraph before the questions came.  We talked and talked.  About masculine sexuality, of course, because that's what the book's about; but also about a wide range of other things, from profoundly personal experiences of life to the larger issues of our time--social relationships, politics, religion, war...  It was only towards the end that I offered to return to my original plan and read a couple of passages from the book, and found the group to be an attentive and appreciative audience.

So thanks to Phyllis!  I admire her energy, her constant engagement with art and ideas, her ardent desire to share it all with others.  Her gift is one she shares with many notables from the history of Western culture.   I think, for example, of the extraordinary Gertrude Stein, who hosted her salon in early 20th century Paris, attracting the great posts and artists of her time.  I'm no Picasso, of course.  Not even an Apollinaire.  Still, the spirit of generosity and the embracing of ideas is not that much different.  I'll hope to find an occasion to be invited back to The Art Crowd one of these days.

Monday, April 20, 2015

HEIFETZ: GOD'S FIDDLER

I was left with a feeling of great sadness after watching Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler in the PBS series American Masters the other night.  No doubt at all that Heifetz was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.  The music that was featured in the program was a reminder of his prodigious skill with the instrument he was able to play already at the age of three.  It brought wonder and joy into the loves of millions of his fellow human beings.  No doubt at all.  The sadness had to do with his isolation as a man, the absence of intimate relationships in his life, the alienation from his children...

Two things about the program stood out for me.  One of these was his response to his first negative review.  He had been performing to rapt, worshipful audiences since the age of five.  He arrived in America in his late teens for what was initially intended to be a brief concert tour, but the Russian revolution intervened, and this country became his new home.  Once here he was seduced, it seems, by his first taste of freedom from the strictures of his musical education and the social mores of his country of birth, and flirted with the fame and fortune that opened up the possibility of a whole new life for him.  He began to skimp on the discipline of practice, and to coast along on the strength of his natural skills.  Until that negative, frankly scolding review, which he could have dismissed with the arrogance of youth--but chose, instead, to listen.  He later described it as the turning point in his life as a serious artist.  He became that phenomenon, Heifetz.

But at what a cost.  This was the second thing that stood out.  He had three children, by two marriages.  He had no interest in them, established no relationship with them, virtually disowned them.  Both marriages failed--the program did not discuss the reasons for their failure, but it is easy enough to suppose that it was partly because of his exclusive dedication to his art, partly because he was unable to allow anyone to get really close to him.  The backstory: once it became clear that, as a child, he had enormous talent, far beyond the capacity of local teachers to nurture, he was sent, at his father's insistence, to the conservatory in St. Petersburg, to study under Leopold Auer, the greatest teacher in Russia at the time.  He was nine or ten when he left home.  His father accompanied him, but needed to return to the family from time to time; and, when he did, instructed his son to remain alone in their St. Petersburg apartment for days on end, and to hide away in a closet whenever he heard approaching footsteps or a knock at the door.

A terrifying experience, then, for a ten year old.  Along with the disciplinary demands of his education as an instrumentalist, this surely left him powerfully fortified against the external world.  Those many who knew him--colleagues, students, acquaintances--describe him universally as a man to be feared more than loved, remote, unapproachable, cold, unreceptive to the warmth of human contact.  To judge by the ample footage of film that followed his career, his international travels, his home life (he himself was an avid photographer and amateur film-maker), he rarely allowed himself a smile or a touch.  As Itzhak Perlman noted in an interview--one of the many performers who learned from him and worshipped his example--he channeled every last ounce of his passion into his performance.  Virtually none of it was allowed to spill over into his life.

The Heifetz I saw in this documentary, then, was a damaged man--a truly great musician, but a man who, for whatever reason, sacrificed a great deal of his humanity to his art.  It's a not-unfamilar story. There remains that great, persistent, unanswerable question: to be the great artist, must one surrender everything else in life?  Must those who love you suffer from your neglect as you pursue your vision?  I suppose the answer is always going to be different for different individuals.  But in this case, as I say, I was left feeling sad.  Sad for Heifetz.  Sad, too, honestly, for myself, for having shared for so many years some part of that remoteness, that unapproachability, that armor that protects the heart from the threat of human contact.  And for having surrendered what I judge to be too much, and yet never quite enough to become the "great writer"--if that was what was needed.  For not ever knowing quite whether I had that greatness in me, and for lacking the courage, the conviction, the discipline, the peristence--sometimes I think the selfishness--to find out.  Over "art", I have always chosen life.

So there it is--a rather profound and eventually response to an excellent documentary.  I end up unsure whether to praise the man, or pity him.  What's left is the music.  Is that in itself, I wonder, enough?  It's only art.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

Meet Carm Goode.  Or Miles Forthwrighte.  Or should I say "and," since they appear to be one and the same?  Here they are:

Image courtesy of Future Studio, reprinted with permission

You'll note that Carm seems a jovial enough fellow, Miles a bit of a curmudgeon; Carm a free spirit, Miles clearly academic.  Which seems to be how they work, not so much in collaboration as in friendly (?) contention with each other.  They make their appearance at art openings and receptions--these are sometimes called "performances"--but, despite promises for public debate, never both at the same time.

Carm seems the more active and creative of the pair, Miles more the critic.  Carm specializes in the design and creation of covers for found books, which are the objects on display on the walls at Future Studio, the offbeat gallery in Highland Park where Stuart Rapeport and Amy Inouye hold court with a pair of rather oddly assorted dogs and a plethora of also oddly assorted collectibles.  (Disclosure: Amy, a book designer by craft, designed my own two most recent books.)  Their current show is "Thirty-Nine Books, Part II."  Was there a Part I?  I don't know.  It's possible.  Is there a sly reference in the title to John Buchan's "Thirty-Nine Steps"? I don't know, but given the bibliophile bent of Goode/Forthwrighte, that too is possible.

For Goode, books are clearly a source of creative joy.  He plays with the relationship between the content of old volumes--picked up, I can only imagine, in some esoteric bookstore--and the covers he creates.  Of particular appeal to The Buddha Diaries, for example, is "Buddhabux: The Currency of Spiritual Wealth"--a spoof not only on the spread of popular "spiritual" fads but also on the power of money in today's political and social culture.  The front cover offers the display of two elaborately-designed Buddhabux banknotes, while the back cover blurb (as is the case with all Goode's covers), is an elegantly-written satirical passage about the relationship between said spirituality and cold hard cash.  

And... "How To Change Your Mind" is a spoof on pop psychology, specifically the Gestalt variety that blossomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  "The Seven Lost Muses" lists the inspirational (but hitherto neglected) Inne-Briana, Errora, Mortislina and others...  Philosophical and psychological studies blend the serious with the hilariously absurd.  Fiction blends cheerfully with fact, and actual "literature" with pure invention--and we never know quite where we stand between the two.  The ground shifts constantly.  And Miles is sure to poke his nose in here and there with a wry, acerbic comment on Carm's work, or a book of his own ("The Third Person, In the Shadow Of..."--presumably Carm Goode).

As always, satire has a serious purpose.  We are asked to consider the injustices of our society, the absurdity of a good deal of popular belief, the pretensions of science and religion.  What's astonishing is the encyclopedic nature of Goode's reach.  His "Official Catalogue of The Aperion  (look it up!) Bibilotheque" is a "Library of Actual, Theoretical, and Partial Books (...) devoted to exploring the prior conditions for understanding The Human Condition."  It's the product of a rich and infinitely curious imagination, as is the collection of samples offered on the Future Studio shelves.  Go see for yourself.  You might even change your mind.  though I'm not sure about what.





RECORD OF MIRACULOUS EVENTS... Book Review

Record of Miraculous Events in Japan: the Nihon ryoiki, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press

Writes Haruo Shirane in his "Introduction" to Burton Watson's translation of this Record of Miraculous Events..., it was "compiled in the early Heian period (794-1192) and is "Japan's first anecdotal (setsuwa) literature."  It therefore occupies an important and influential place in Japanese literary history--and, since these are Buddhist stories, intended to be instructive of the dharma, in the history of Buddhism as it came to be practiced in Japan in later centuries. As such, its place in the canon of Japanese literary and religious studies is assured.

That said, let's look at it from the point of view of the lay reader--one who is not principally a student of either of those areas of scholarship.  In this light, my first observation is that this is not a book to be read from cover to cover.  Its many parables--teaching stories--risk losing their charm and become repetitive if you read too many of them in succession.  They were passed on in an oral tradition, and eventually written down (by the monk, Kyokai) for the edification of people at a time, and in a culture, very different from our own.  Much of their charm, to the contemporary reader, lies precisely in their evocation of so foreign and formal a cultural environment.  They read, in a sense, like fairy tales.  To read of gods and devils, of magical powers and the casting of spells is for us a very different experience than for those for whom the stories were intended.  We read them without fear and trembling, but rather for their literary charm, for their metaphorical delights, their seductive quaintness, and no longer to be instructed in the Buddhist values they embody.

The lesson of these tales is a simple and repeated one: it is the law of karma.  No good deed goes unrewarded, no bad deed unpunished.  The good deeds most frequently include filial duty and acts of kindness, as well as the more conventional recitation or copying of the sutras, fasting, and sacrifice; the bad ones, acts of violence and cruelty, disrespect for parents, adultery, theft and murder.  Visions of paradise alternate with visions of hell--the familiar fires, for the most part, and the burning of the flesh.  Souls, upon death, transmigrate into new and different life forms--animals, plants, and existence in different social status.  Some for the better, others... not so much.  Class hierarchy is strictly observed, and the rehearsal of heritage and family associations an important part of each story.

For the lay reader, then, these stories amuse, enchant, sometimes delight, but eventually, even in their drama, there is a sameness to them.  The book is a wonderful addition to the bedside table, to be picked up from time to time to indulge in the pleasure of a couple of stories, picked at random, to be transported into a magical world far from our own, but a world that operates according to its own laws, its own social mores, its own logic.  It also reminds us, importantly, to renew our awareness of the way that karma operates in our own lives and our contemporary world, though perhaps generally with less dramatic distinctions between good and evil than we find here.  The simple lesson that what we prefer, these days, to call "skillful" actions lead to results that bring greater happiness into our lives, and that unskillful ones invariably land us in trouble, is a truth that bears repeating.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

THINKING/NOT-THINKING

Pursuant to yesterday's entry, I've been thinking about not-thinking and not thinking, and the distinction between the two.  Not-thinking is purposeful, mindful.  It's a mind-opening process, focused and non-judgmental.  Not thinking is merely irresponsible, inattentive.  It leads to broken dishes, spilled glasses and various other stumbles.  At its worst, it leads to car crashes and other disasters.

I try to do as much not-thinking as I can.  Instead, I catch myself doing a lot of not thinking.

Thinking is not so bad.  I do a lot of that, too.  I try to do it, especially, in full consciousness.  When I'm not conscious of the process, my thinking goes off in directions of its own, and often off the path. I call that "distraction."  A nice word, when you think about it.  "Dis", and "traction"...

The mind is a wonderful thing to watch.  What just popped into mine is that memorable saying of Dan Quayle's.  Remember? "What a terrible thing to have lost one's mind.  Or not to have a mind at all.  How true that is."  He was trying to remember the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: "A Mind is a terrible thing to waste."  How true that is.

Which is on my mind this morning.  I think.