Mindsight

Alberto Giacometti lived most of his sculptor life in a Paris apartment/studio, without hot water or a bathroom.  Brother Diego was his foundry assistant. He chain-smoked 4 packs a day, and wore the same grey, herring bone suit,  24 hours a day. He would buy a new one – same color, same style – once a year. He went to restaurants for his meals, bistros and clubs for drinks and conversation, and brothels now and then.  He was very upset when prostitution was made illegal.  He worked in his studio all night, and slept most of the day.  He married late, reluctantly, and enjoyed mistresses.  He had no children.

To Giacometti, life was magical.  He saw wonder in everything.  He believed in the intense significance of his feelings, and in the possibilities of the mysterious.  He savored primary sensation.  Attracted to the surrealists, he at first painted and sculpted as they wanted, from the psychological, the philosophical, and the political.  But it really didn’t take him where he wanted to go.  Existential angst, he realized, was not political, or philosophical, or, for that matter, anything new in human history.  And it wasn’t artistic.  He moved on.  Andre Breton, their commandant, wanted a discussion.  Giacometti escaped.  “No, that won’t be necessary”.

He discovered an obsession “to represent what I see”.  Not what his eyes see, but what he sees.

For years he tried and failed.  Constantly studying people on the street, and in conversations, he was drawn to the misfits and histrionic types, people who played out their selves, up front, unaffected.  He would pose his models for hours and days on end.  All night he would attempt sculpture,  only to destroy it in the morning, unsatisfied.

His friends and family lost confidence.  He seemed more and more a lost eccentric.

At times, having looked so long and so hard, he would feel an entranced  loss of the thoughts and identifications of what he was seeing.  The work would take  control.  Expressive shapes and proportions would emerge.

he found to his amazement, and to his consternation, that the sculpture grew smaller and smaller.  The smaller it grew, the more troubled it became, yet he could not keep if from shrinking. The sculpture itself seemed to determine in advance its appropriate size, would accept no alternative and compelled the sculptor to comply.”

Training builds creative and perceptive skill.  Practice areas of the brain become . . . swollen.

The posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain known to be important for memory, is bigger in London cab drivers than in most people.”

Attending a play in a theatre in Paris, looking at the stage and then at the audience around him, he had this realization that he was seeing differently, in some new way, “not like a camera“, but in dimensions of space and time, . . . with a strange sense of becoming.

His work became art,  sculpture with the essentials of human form, intention in posture, purpose in motion, all with an aura of being and becoming

. . . what you see with your mind.

Immortal

In 1800, Daniel Steibelt, a celebrated European virtuoso, came to Vienna to duel Beethoven in an ‘improvisation contest’.  With great pomp, in the first round, he won.   Beethoven was not much interested in trying to impress aristocrats.  For the second round, Steibelt was puffed up enough to use Beethoven’s own music in his challenge.  This was a. . . mistake.  Incensed, Beethoven snatched up Steibelt’s own music sheet, marched to the piano, turned the music upside down, went on to mock Steibelt’s ostentatious style, and then transform Steibelt’s  music into a dazzling composition.  Steibelt stormed out, refused ever to oppose Beethoven again, and eventually exiled himself to St. Petersburg, . . . for the rest of his life!

Such was the great Beethoven.  He came to realize that he had achieved absolute musical mastery.  He knew that he could do . . all that can possibly be done . . with music.  Only a master genius can know what that is like, to have no peers, and no hope of being fully realized, in your own lifetime.

In 1802, in his ‘Heiligenstadt‘ Will and Testament, found only after his death, Beethoven resolved his loneliness and melancholy, and dedicated himself to music.

Little was lacking to make me put an end to my life.  Only art held me back, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth

And so ‘bring forth’ great music he did, for the rest of his life, taking long walks, writing down the music as it would came to him, in ever present notebooks, absent minded, stubborn, and eccentric.

His music is his autobiography.  Hear the pain, in the Moonlight Sonata. The love of his life told him no. Feel the anguish in Pathetique.  He realizes he is going deaf.  The notes in these pieces are as much like words as any sounds can be, . . .the language of a human soul.

The true artist has no pride.  He sees unfortunately that art has no limits.  He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”

On May 7, 1824, perhaps the greatest day in the history of music, at the Karntnertor Theatre, in Vienna, he performed his last symphony, unaware, in his deafness, that he had raptured the audience and brought down the house.  In its beginning, this symphony is thunderous, and startling, then it is combative and retreating, then accepting and aching, and then, like his life, transcendent in catharsis and joy, culminating in a . . . song,  a song with an sweet, resonating melody that anyone and everyone can keep in their heads, and sing, . . .forever.  On that night, in that theatre, Beethoven gave the everyday world, crafted with the greatest possible musical genius of any human composer, a magnificent and yet wonderfully simple, everyday, popular song.  And we have been writing and singing popular songs since.

Sir Paul

Across the way from his childhood row-house home, across Strawberry Fields, Paul McCartney met one John Lennon. Both of their mothers died while they were teenagers, both of their fathers were musicians. Lennon-McCartney wrote and performed songs, and the whole world went . . .crazy . . .over their music,  and still does.

Paul is charming, kind, a devoted father, a faithful husband, a very successful businessman, and a Brit who honors his queen. He has always loved his Liverpool past.

“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies”

He has lived 50 years of magic – wealth, fame, exhilarating creativity, and bittersweet pain and loss.

He still can’t read music.

What ever is the gift for songwriting and singing, Paul has it.  He gives commanding concert performances, like a gifted athlete.   He sings his solo career songs, yes, but with Beatle songs – which he is careful to do as they were originally done, . . . he brings down the house. . . . still.  It is the Beatles music that carries gloriously on, ever ecstatically received.

Paul McCartney is reticent with personal feelings, and superficial in person.  He barely seems to know Paul McCartney.  “Maybe I’m amazed” . . . . maybe?  He just never wants to get deep.

“the fool on the hill sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.

Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say”.  ‘Was I harking back to my mum? he asks.  Who would know?  Few realize that his song ‘Blackbird’ was written to console african-americans after the death of Martin Luther King.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly“.

He can’t explain his creativity – or doesn’t want to. “I’m very lucky with my voice, I have no idea how it happens“.  Songs just come to him.  He dreamed the melody for his greatest song, ‘Yesterday’, the most recorded song in history. He spent months sure that he had heard it somewhere before, trying to find out where.

Paul has this mastery of melody, how it forms and carries a song. His best songs feel already known, like they could be no other way.  The words, by themselves, have almost nothing there.

there is an unmistakeable sadness in McCartney’s gaze and muted manner“.  John Colapinto,  The New Yorker,  June 2007

He was unable to reconcile with the bruising John Lennon, before his death.  And there is the losses of his mother and wife, both in the full of their lives,  to the same disease.

For well you know that its a fool who plays it cool, by making the world a little colder”  – Ironically, it was John Lennon who wanted this line kept in the song.

Above all the acrimony and nihilism of his times, he holds out, decent, and up beat.  The spirit of a 19 year old Beatle lives on.

I’m never going to believe I’m 70.  I don’t care what you say.  There’s a little cell in my brain that’s never going to believe that“, Rolling Stone, March 2012

In the time of animals

1.5 million years ago, pre-modern hominids moved out of Africa, migrated across the Levant, into the Caucasus, past the Carpathian Mountains, north of the Danube, and on to the great vast “mammoth” steppe of grasslands, and great herds of animals.  This is where the big brain hominids could hunt and eat the big stomach mammals who lived on the grasses.  This huge savannah, which stretched across Europe and Asia and the Bering Sea land bridge all the way to Alaska and northern Canada, nourished these hominids who eventually became the Neanderthal, who then flourished in the southern temperate regions, north of the alpine mountains, along the north and south valleys of the Pyrenees mountains on the present day border of France and Spain, and west to the Atlantic.  This was the garden of eden. It was the time of the animals.

And then modern humans came, leaving Africa some 100,000 years ago, again traveling thru the Levant and on to the steppe, and then west and east, all the way to Australia.  In southern France and central Spain, about 40,000 years ago, they encountered the Neanderthal, and over next the 12,000 years, as the modern humans flourished, the Neanderthal retreated, first into small areas of France and Spain, and finally to a last stand near Gilbraltor.

We have no archeology of a war.  Neanderthal had bigger brains, and stronger bodies, but modern humans had something else, and that something gave them larger group cooperation, better tools, more successful hunting.  They unleashed a veritable ‘explosion’ of cultural creativity.

In the river ledge caves of the valleys of the Pyrenees, at Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira, and many others, there is the luxuriant, compelling art of these pre-historic modern humans.  There are life-size paintings of running, prancing, rearing, and charging horses, bison, tigers and reindeer.  The animals are regal and robust, boastful and healthy, herding and crowding, standing off and mocking.  They are relishing their lives on these great, lush grasslands, with gleaming eyes, suspicion, intention, pride, and fear.  They own the world. Their human artists hold them in awe.

It was the mind’s eye, in these caves, that painted these paintings. Modern humans had something new. They could hold their visual memories, consciously, long enough and intensely enough to recreate the vivid images of these animals in the darkness of the caves.  And not just descriptive details, . . no, also details of salience – posture, emotion, and personality.

Intelligence is the strong use of memory.  It is rich retrieval of memory, conscious analysis of memory, and parsing of the key elements of memories.  This power, the artistic power, the power of the mind’s eye, is the new power that came with modern humans.

Modern humans made success in virtually all of the ecological niches of the world, harvesting the bounty of wild animals.

And then, 10,000 years ago, from the fertile crescent came the farmers, and the Anthropocene, the time of humans, began.

Architecture Artist

“. . a building has to start in the unmeasurable aura and go through the measurable to be accomplished. . . . the only way to get it into being is through the measurable. . . . in the end when the building becomes part of living it evokes unmeasurable qualities.”   Louis Kahn

Aesthetic creation invariably entails combined, patterned arrangements of essential elements, in spatial and temporal form, that evoke sensual and emotional and thoughtful experience.  There arises, in some mysterious way, joy and meaning.  People differ in their capacity for aesthetic enjoyment.  There is music, visual art, sculpture, literature, drama, and even food.   And there is place – architecture. Louis I. Kahn was an artist of architecture.

This small, strange man with a burn-scarred face practiced architecture in Philadelphia, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. In the documentary film, My Architect, his son Nathaniel tells us his story. Louis Kahn had three separate families. . . simultaneously, . . .and he never owned or drove a car. He died a lonely, premature death in a Philadelphia train station.

In the early 2oth century, building materials – steel, glass, and other metals – became available in stronger and more diverse components, and this had a sudden and dramatic impact on the possibilities of architecture.  These materials made possible a quick and easy facade design, with artificial size, space and suspension.  The result was, well, . . . Modern . . . architecture: buildings that were new, dazzling, and original, but so quick and easy as to be able to hide structural methods and ignore thoughtful human purpose and scale – which they often then did.

Louis Kahn visited the ruins of ancient Egypt, and Greece, and Rome, and found inspiration. He saw in the ancient buildings that architecture could have “a sense of eternity, of timelessness, and of unchanging perfection.” He called this Monumentality.  Buildings could have gravity, and architects could deliver more than just what seems needed:  “Need comes from the known.  Supply only what is lacking brings no lasting joy. Did the world need the 5th symphony before Beethoven wrote it?”  “Give spaces as much nobility as possible, change corridors into galleries, lobbies into places of entrance”.

Above all, for Louis Kahn, buildings should reflect how they are made, and materials should be used in compliance with their natural character, revealing the methods of the builder.  Support and weight should be visibly sensible.  “No space is an architectural space unless it has natural light“. Architecture should enhance human community.  He lost an early battle to keep the automobile out of central Philadelphia design.

At the Kimball Art Museum . . .the Salk Institute . . .the Bangladesh National Capital . . .the Fisher House, one can feel Louis Kahn’s enduring gift, a timeless aesthetic of space.

the Bangladesh National Capital at Dhaka possesses a monumentality unlike anything to come before in the history of architecture – at once ancient and modern, literally hand-built largely of modest, locally produced materials, . . .its spaces are scaled to the highest aspirations of humanity.”  PhaidonLouis I. Kahn, Robert McCarter, 2005.

Nowhere Man

John Lennon, The Life Philip Norman, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw the photograph

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

People differ in their need for stimulation.  There is the nerdy kid who can’t tolerate a rolling coaster ride or a scary movie, and there is the test-the-limits thrill seeker like John Lennon.

John Lennon relentlessly sought sensation, and defiant self expression.   He got himself into trouble, all the time, and pulled others into trouble with him.  Paul McCartney’s father called him “that Lennon”. He was precocious – with drinking, with drugs, with sex. He was also intelligent, and artistic. He liked imaginative writing, had a talent for music, and a sense for authentic, emotional expression. He took the time to learn the craft of playing guitar, writing songs, and singing, and he became very good.  Rock and roll was it, he went crazy for Elvis Presley. Listen to Elvis in ‘Trying to get to you’, you will hear the Lennon inspiration.

I was a rhythm guitarist. . . I can make a band drive” . . He rejected any aesthetic of thinking – “that excellentness which I never believed in“.  He disliked Paul’s literary songs.  “I go for feeling“.

He could also be mean. He truly was “a jealous guy“, ever fearful of being up-staged.  He was quick with the verbal put down, and created bully loyalty. He could be violent with alcohol. But he was also an engine for success. He was bold and could drive a crowd.  He could be endearing and needy and funny. Women were drawn to want to care for him.

He suffered boredom like some ghastly memory, and seemed haunted by loss.  As he achieved phenomenal success, he found himself maddingly unsatisfied.  There is a pained disappointment in his best songs.  He was just not able to find peace of mind. He descended into out-of-control pill taking, drinking, marijuana, LSD, and heroin. When Yoko first met him, she found he would wake up and take “handfuls of pills”.

His recklessness cost Lennon/McCarthy ownership of many of their songs.  He betrayed friends and mentors – Brian Epstein, George Martin, and sadly, Paul.  His interviews have blame, special pleading, and self pity.  He would both decry fame and stoke it.  Being lionized while feeling empty made him cynical.

Who was John Lennon?  Creative, engaging, and appealing, but also disturbed, difficult and ultimately tragic.  He could not achieve inner reward.  For someone fantastically famous and wealthy, one of the luckiest people on the planet, he was unfulfilled.

He’s a real Nowhere Man

Sitting in his nowhere land

Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view

Knows not where he’s going to

Isn’t he a bit like you and me?


Neil Young

There was a time when rock-and-roll fostered truly original, creative art. Young people from nowhere, like Neil Young, with a talent for guitar, an honest voice, and a gift for ballad phrases and melodies, wrote and recorded great songs, not knowing really how or why. They expressed the angst of nobody-ness, and in turn achieved somebody-ness, even became rich, and it all added dimension to their art. They were too unsophisticated to be inauthentic, too inspired to be contrived. They could express the Everyman soul of doubt and insecurity. Unsure and yet on the big stage, they were drawn to the comfort of drugs and learned the despair of getting hooked. They lived and learned fast.

My life is changing In so many ways

I don’t know who to trust anymore

There’s a shadow running thru my days

Like a beggar going from door to door”

A Man Needs A Maid

Neil Young was born in Canada, grew up with a divorced mother, was a high school drop out. He was ungainly and quizzical, with a druid-like countenance.  He had a peculiar falsetto voice, and a unique strumming style of guitar, pushing and pulling at the chords and notes, and he wrote songs.

The Needle and the Damage Done is one of his best songs. Written in the news of a fellow band member who has died of a heroin overdose, the song captures the haunting, sad consciousness of giving yourself away to getting high, the utter domesday of that path.  One senses the despair of the frightening ease in which drugs help you do the very worst, feeling alright as you do, but also horrified, and unable to stop at the same time, like leaning over and falling off a cliff. With drugs you debase yourself without feeling like you care, even though you do, and there is no lonelier feeling. You give yourself away. This song is the lonely howl of that wolf.

The song doesn’t really begin and doesn’t really end. The chords are simple, and they climb and descend, and the rhythm repeats and backtracks, like addiction itself, like trying to walk home, intoxicated.  The singing and the guitar come together and separate and come together again with a fine craft.

This isn’t a song written by a song writer trying to write a song. This is a song that comes to an artist ready with the skills to put down, all at once, words and music together, as he feels it.  Neil Young, and others like him, somehow got there.

“I sing the song because I love the man

I know that some of you don’t understand

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done

A little part of it in everyone

But every junkie’s like a setting sun”

Leonardo from Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, The flights of the Mind, Charles Nicholl, Penguin Books, 2005.

During his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci was not considered the greatest visual artist of all time.  No, his personal lot was difficult, and endlessly trying.   He was an illegitimate son, a homosexual, a genius without peer, and always dependent for financial support on petty, vain, narrow-minded, and falsely pious rich men of medieval Italy.  He suffered fools continually.

A genius can’t really know what non-genius is like, and so life is puzzling, other people are baffling. The genius feels oppressively different and lonely and can be driven to seek expression, if not in this life, then for in the future.   This is how it was for Leonardo.  His work speaks to us 500 years later. His genius was visual, as Mozart’s was sound, his creativity futuristic, astonishing the world to this day.

“My advice is not to trouble yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind.”

Three paintings:  The Lady with an Ermine, La Belle Ferronniere, and Mona Lisa are exquisite masterpieces. Leonardo presents his subjects radiant, unposed, mysteriously bemused, elegant, and subtly but powerfully defiant. We look at them, and they look at us.  We sense that they are unmistakenly people, individuals with thoughts, and hurts, and hopes, individuals who have a story.  There is a feeling of intrigue, something has happened. Leonardo doesn’t just capture pose, and clothing, and expression, he captures mentation, one can feel them thinking.  And they have dignity. Leonardo feels for them, and wants us see and feel for them also.  They are prisoners of sorts, sexual prisoners, sold into marriage by their families, to rich, older men.  They are confined – perhaps like him – by sexuality, the circumstances of the times, by the mediocrity of the powerful.  And so, too, with his Jesus. In The Last Supper, his Jesus is a person, not an icon.  This Jesus has resignation, disappointment, regrets, friends, and human needs, and is resigned to being misunderstood.

Leonardo’s paintings are astonishingly few. Late in life he regrets this, yet one senses that an element of purpose limited his output.  A subtle protest, perhaps, as if he felt it a blasphemy to give his artistic gifts over to the despicable, undeserving wealthy.  He was most proud of his work on medical illustrations, created from laborious dissections of human cadavers, carried out in the hospitals full of the unpretentious, common humanity.  He hoped to aid medical knowledge and treatment. This was his way to contribute his talents to the deserving.

Leonardo sensed the mystical in visual experience.

“Observe the flame of a candle and consider its beauty.  Blink your eye and look at it again.  What you see now was not there before, and what was there before is not there now.  Who is it who rekindles this flame which is always dying?”

Tambourine Man

March 1966

Playboy:  you’ve said you think message songs are vulgar.  Why?

Dylan:  “Well, first of all, anybody that’s got a message is going to learn from experience that they can’t put it into a song.  I mean it’s just not going to come out the same message.  . . .you’ve got to respect other people’s right to also have a message themselves.”

Bob Dylan went to the University of Minnesota for less than a year.  He read Immanuel Kant’s  A Critique of Pure Reason and then quit.  Kant talked of the ‘understanding’ as opposed to the ‘reason’.  By the ‘understanding’, he meant the a priori – the instinctual knowing that a human is born to have without being taught.  His deep belief is that art, any art, that is true, speaks to the ‘understanding’, and not to the ‘reason’. He tries to convey this to Playboy, without success.  In the process he reveals – and it is startling to see it now in retrospect – that he had this conviction about art and his intention to honor it in his work, at a very young age, after barely growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, after just a short time in college.

In this interview he continually rejects categories, particularly political categories, and intentions or plans for his artistic direction.  The interviewer just doesn’t get it, and Bob is forced to give diversionary answers to questions he has already answered.

I’m not an IBM computer any more than I’m an ashtray.  I mean its obvious to anyone who’s ever slept in the back seat of a car that I’m just not a schoolteacher.

Dylan is trying to say that he will follow his muse, here and now, using his medium.  He won’t describe its meaning or its effect on others.  It is not about descriptive words, he is saying, or that is what it would be – descriptive words.  The song art will either grab you or it won’t.

Colleges are like old age homes” – anything that blocks one’s access to the ‘understanding’ is deadening, a form of suicide.  “Protest” music – “topical” music – is dead music because it is applies reason to the artistic process.  What is reasoned cannot communicate with the understanding.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me” – this is his plan – to follow his artistic intuition and communicate to those who will hear it.  That is all an artist can do.

“I don’t know about other people’s sympathy but my sympathy runs to the lame and crippled and beautiful things.  I have a feeling of loss of power – something like a reincarnation feeling”. His urge is to Surrender to an inner sense.

He seems to know there is a price.  People want explanation, they want certainty, they want to belong. They will seek to believe in order to belong.

Dylan is willing to be disappointing.  He is willing to pay the price.  He has paid the price.

I wouldn’t think twice about giving a starving man a cigarette.  But I’m not a shepherd.

Hoping for Spalding Gray

“Tell me a horror story, Daddy”.

“. . . Look around you, son.  . . . What do you see?”

There is the abyss, the secret that life is ultimately empty and meaningless, that none of us really matter.  It is that existential horror of being.  We could dwell on it, but that would make it very hard for us to live.  Life is tragic, it is full of loss, it ends in death, it can be unspeakably cruel. Yet most of us seem to rather easily avoid thinking about it.  Somehow, we keep up optimism, and have a trust that horrible things won’t happen to us.

Some people simply can’t ignore this horror of being, and when they are also exceptionally perceptive and insightful, they can live with a deep and puzzling loneliness of being different, a gnawing sense of being unable to have validation.  They often try, sometimes in charming and creative ways, to reach ‘normal’ people, but they fail and have despair.

Spalding Gray comes to mind.  He invented the creative monologue.  He gave us lively, theatrical expositions of mental journeys, musings, perplexity.  Over and over he portrays deep experience, combined with a sense of missing attachment.  He has some kind of inability to feel comfortable the way everyone else seems to feel comfortable, some kind of disconnection with himself.  He recounts life episodes of failing to act in his own best interests, like when he can’t bring himself to be on the Johnny Carson show.  He is not sure why he is who he is.  “Why don’t I have children?   Was it a decision I made or did it just happen?” He feels lost, and is puzzled that others don’t feel lost also.

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, presents a retrospective of his work, Spalding Gray: Stories to Tell. Actors read poignantly and theatrically from his journal notes. Spalding is delightfully animated with wonder, doubt, and chagrin.  We learn that he was annoyed, indeed obsessed, by his step daughter’s repetitive playing of the bouncy song “I get knocked down, but I get up again da da da da da da da da da”. Spalding mocks this. He derides it.  It is funny, but he is emphatic. He wants us to know about this.  He wants us to know that his song really, really gets to him.

Having children is an element of reprieve for him, but ultimately he can’t go on.

The program ends with a large screen photo of Spalding.  In full view he is there – his puzzled, glint-eyed, emphatic, dramatic, funny, bemused expression.  He makes sense.  There is a sense of relief for him, gratitude, and even joy.  He can be known after all, he is seen.  It is all the more precious as we know he was never sure.