What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

A Christmas message

Philosophers, mystics, and even cognitive scientists seem to agree that there is no reality, that it’s all an illusion.  The vague, ambiguous category of persons called neuroscientists will take it a step further, and insist that consciousness itself is an illusion.  If you ask them what, exactly, is it that’s having the illusion, if not a consciousness, then you’re subjected to that look that combines disappointment, concern, and pity.

And yet, If I’m driving my illusion down the road, I can’t steer it into your illusion coming the other way without resulting in the two of us having substantially the same illusion about the outcome.

On the other hand, if the whole thing is my illusion only, conscious or not, I am, in effect, God. In which case I refuse to generate a Son just to send him down for you to torture to death and then coopt for your own purposes.

Merry Christmas.

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Plain English

Why can’t people just say things in plain English?

I’m glad you asked, because there are several good reasons, not the least of which is that no English sentence is equally plain to all native speakers of English.  This is because of the wide diversity of regional and cultural dialects in the language, and the equally diverse personal experiences that make up our knowledge of the world.  Throw in the typical ambiguity inherent in popular definitions and usages of English words, and you are already at a disadvantage before you even get started.

But even beyond the vagaries of the language itself, there are very good reasons to state things in ways which might leave the average person exasperated.  The most obvious example is legal language, which also happens to be the most often disparaged.  This is a context in which ambiguity can cause real and serious problems. The solution is carefully and laboriously defined terms which evolved through a long process of eliminating alternative meanings. Obviously, this sort of thing can be used to confuse as well as to enlighten, but it’s main goal is to forestall as many misinterpretations as possible.

There are plenty of examples of obfuscation without resort to fancy language, by the way.  I need only point to the President Who Shall Not Be Named.  As a matter of fact, it is exactly his kind on confusion that legal jargon attempts to avoid.

Or, put another way, jargon is nothing more than saying exactly what you want to say, and only exactly what you want to say.

Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.

 

Technology: who needs it?

First of all, let me say straight out that I am against all these new fangled ‘improvements’ on things that were working just fine.  Remember the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  It seems we have long since forgotten it, in our haste to make things easier and more productive.  We may gain a second or two, or reduce energy expenditure by a point or two, or allow more people access to some particular process or commodity, but at what price?  Do we really gain anything if we have to sacrifice ancient wisdom and tradition to get it?  Or give up our long-held values, our ways of testing the worth of ourselves and our families to ‘spread the wealth?’  Whatever happened to the concept of  earning wealth?

Take, for example, the bow and arrow.  Easy as pie.  You just pick it up, insert an arrow, pull the string, and point it, and presto!  you’ve killed something.  What could be easier? Anybody can do it.

And that’s the problem.  With a spear, you had to have some skill.  You had to calculate the distance to the animal you were hunting, figure the arc to make the spear end up at the level you wanted to strike the animal at, or at which you wanted to strike .. oh, never mind.  And not only that, you had to have some strength.  It was bad enough when they came up with the atlatl (is that a dumb name or what?)  Now, with the bow and arrow, all the strength you need is to pick the damned thing up, put in the arrow, and point it at something.  Is that the kind of man we want to encourage?  Is that who’s going to get us out of a jam when we’re attacked by enormous beasts?  Or when someone makes a really stupid comment around the fire?

I will just ask you this and leave it at that: when you’ve stolen something or insulted someone, who do you want at your side, a spearman or a ‘bowman?’

Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?