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Thanks moms; thanks pops

Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre, and his brother Tyree, far right

The The Defiant Ones on HBO is a stirring documentary that made the hair on my arms stand up, exactly the way Dr. Dre got “goosechills” on camera as he remixed a favorite track from the past. The show humanizes this billionaire rapper in a way I haven’t seen since I spotted the snapshot of Nas when he was seven on the cover of Illmatic. That moment in the documentary, with Dre in thrall to a song from his past and the hair prickling on his arms, reveals the endearing nerd, the Dennis Wilson-obsessive, inside Dre—and, even moreso, within his business partner, Jimmy Iovine. An inner nerd drove each of them to the success they enjoy. Iovine’s incessant, fanatical, round-the-clock pursuit of production excellence resulted in a string of incredible career breaks as the skinny brilliant studio rat adjusting the mixer for John Lennon, Foghat, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith, all of that just a launching pad for the success that followed. He and Dre both had the drive of Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash: a kind of zombie apprenticeship to an insatiable talent.

My first taste of Dre was his work with Snoop Dogg on Doggystyle. That mashup of funk and hiphop into a nasty celebration of gangster pleasures reminded me immediately of my forgotten delights in Johnny Guitar Watson back in the 70s. In both cases, funk and G funk, it was fun transgression, the way rock had once been a slightly forbidden pleasure. You knew it was just wrong, as it made you grin. Tipper Gore aside—remember her campaign against all of the foul language?–if you’re rapping, you can pretty much get away with anything. All is permitted, and so we’re free to enjoy all that badness vicariously, a musical day off from your own well-behaved boogie life. Along with Nirvana, it felt like a cure for everything that had happened to music in the 80s other than the rest of the bands that emerged out of punk.

Hiphop had been keeping alive the worship of a certain kind of beat that had been the soul of rock and roll when it began and had gotten harder and harder to find in pop. With Dre’s work, the limbic brain woke up and started listening again to that sliding, continuous throb, like a boa constrictor.  I’m creepin and I’m creepin and I’m creepin. Dre may be the man who turned the sub-woofer into the  essential component of a stereo. He altered everyone’s expectations of how music ought to sound, with that subsonic rumble in your chest. Nothing else in the genre sounded that lush and three-dimensional and perfectly mixed. He combined the bass foundation with an unexpected combination of sounds to generate his trademark slow, steady flow: the high synth treble organ note like a muezzin calling Snoop to the mic on Nuthin’ But a G Thang, and the minimalist quality of all the instrumentation, just barely enough to establish the sound, pulling you along into their words. Yet behind and beneath it all is the constant minor key of all the melodic elements, the sobering backdrop of sadness. Still Dre, nearly a decade later, starts with that little cluster of notes, again a minor key chord that could have been plucked from a ukulele or a harp’s tiniest strings, not exactly the sort of sounds one would expect from rap. With the alternation of those two chords, the sorrow of life steps into the foreground, as prominent as the rapper’s voices, saturating their boasts with a haunting apprehension of loss. That’s Dre’s shy intelligence: he and Snoop act like the baddest asses alive but it’s against an orchestration that mourns for the world around them as they brag about surviving it. He gives you the whole picture of what they were representing, even though they weren’t living the street life. What else is there to that track but those two voices, the quiet drums, a bass line, and that little sequence of notes like a hornet buzzing in and out of earshot? Only Spoon can leverage so much out of such a restrained matrix of sounds.

Snoop brought his slinky, louche aura of ganja and gin into the enterprise and somehow the partnership generated Doggystyle, with a sound that felt totally unprecedented when I first heard it. Much of it was just an act, a representation of what they saw around them. Decency is always Dre’s default setting: the only drive-by shooting on his rap sheet led to an arrest for firing paint balls at bus stops. And even behind Snoop’s criminal persona, his good-heartedness peeks through in his cameo turn on Gang Starr’s In This Life, where you can hear him speak sotto voce about his struggles without any of the posturing. As Dre’s business annexed more and more of the street, along with the guns these new players carried, Dre stuck with it, seeing the conflicts through to their bloody conclusion, and then he pulled back toward his roots.

What I love most about this documentary are the early little glimpses of the family life you get in the upbringing of both Dre and Iovine. Behind the G (as in genius) you’ll discover the decency of a middle-class parent devoted to raising a good kid, not a star. Jimmy Iovine’s father was his best friend. The kid couldn’t finish college, couldn’t hold down a job, but he finally connected with The Record Plant and the owner took him on as his protégé, though “puppet” would be a better description. Iovine says that Roy Cicala turned him into an extension of Cicala’s brain. “He would teach you by working through you,” Iovine says. He sat at the console and simply did whatever Cicalo dictated, turning all of the other man’s production intelligence into Iovine’s muscle memory. One day the studio calls Iovine’s family—an Italian Catholic clan in Brooklyn, sitting down for the holiday dinner on an Easter Sunday, no less—and the studio said they needed him to come down and work. His parents let him go, despite the fact that the whole extended family would be there for the meal. They cared that much about his hopes and dreams. And he was eager to go, which was the test he passed: his reward was that John Lennon awaited him in the studio. From there he went on to one success after another. Yet after being fired by Foghat, he came into the studio and went into all-or-nothing mode, working on his own, experimenting, tinkering, inventing projects for himself after hours, studying, studying, studying, slaving through every waking moment, all on his own with no reward for any of it—and Patti Smith was watching it all from the hallways. She’d never seen anything like it. Secretly, she picked him to produce her next record, without anyone at the studio knowing what the two of them were doing, after hours, on their own, sub rosa. Because the Night emerged because Iovine had the nerve to ask Springsteen to give it to Smith. After that hit, people recognized her on the streets of New York. Everything else he accomplished came from the same obsessive, round-the-clock work ethic, and it gave him a confidence in his own judgment about what to promote.

When Dre’s mother is on screen, you realize that he grew up in the same kind of sheltering, nurturing home. She cared about him more than anything in her life. He talks about how he went into a club in his teens and, for the first time, heard a DJ scratching, and that single moment turned him into a different person: “It fucked me up.” He became totally obsessed with DJ-ing. So his observant mother bought him a mixer. He retreated to his bedroom and spent hours, days, mixing, and she couldn’t have been happier. “If you can hear them, you know where they’re at,” she says. Practice, practice, practice, and more practice. “Whenever I was home, I was practicing,” Dre says. “My mother was really happy about it.“ As she puts it: “All day I could hear the music blasting, and he asleep with the headphones on. I just took them off. I didn’t know how to turn anything off.” Then Dre’s own turning point came at Eve After Dark, a teen club in L.A. Alonso Williams remembers when Dre somehow took over the turntables and combined “Mr Postman”, a throwback to the Sixties, with a newly released “Jive Rhythm Tracks 122”. He wasn’t even working for the club, had just talked his way through the door, and then somehow talked his way to the DJ station behind the turntables. The video in the episode shows him wearing a purple silk outfit that made him look like a disco surgeon—and when he synchronizes those two songs, the whole club quits moving. All the dancers and the owner just stop and listen. It was his first time behind the turntables anywhere outside his bedroom. As Williams says, “People were still groovin’ but they were groovin’ confused.” The innocence and pure fun of the whole scene at that point comes through as a revelation: back then, hiphop was joyful and playful, nothing more than a new way to deliver the beat. (Lately, Chance the Rapper has brought some of that innocence back into the game.)

The most significant moment, for me, in all of this happens after the club shut down. Dre’s mother arrived to pick up her boy and take him home.

A few nights ago, Ice Cube was a guest on Fallon and, unrelated to the HBO documentary, he talked about his own childhood. His father and mother had always been supportive of his work, but when N.W.A. became huge, his mother would quietly come to him and ask him if he couldn’t try to tone down the lyrics just a little. “She was sweatin’ me. I guess she was getting’ sweated by her church friends. Mom, we’re NWA! They were always supportive of what I was doing, as long as I wasn’t gang bangin’.” He wasn’t going to change anything, of course, but in a way she was bringing him back to his inner home. None of these guys have forgotten the universal, conventional values that made it possible for them to become the people they became. Like Mos Def’s Umi Says, this HBO show, along with everything else it represents, offers a shout out to the moms and pops. They deserve it.

Stop moving

Scott Alan Adams Sr., George Bush

Jim Mott paid a visit last week and we talked for a couple hours, as he sat in one of our Adirondack chairs and sketched a bit of what he saw in the yard, probably some of the birds attracted to our feeders. He was wearing a Red Sox cap someone had left in his car once, and was in a good mood, thanks to the fact that he has a job working with a nature conservation group to supplement whatever he makes from his art. Most of the time, Jim trades his paintings for room and board, when he’s in his Itinerant Artist mode, but he also sells and has a show coming up with several other regional artists. It was a good conversation, and here is some of it:

JM: On those rare cases when I sit down and really draw something it’s so refreshing but it’s hard to make myself do it. I do a sketch and think maybe I’ll do a painting from it and then I see everyone else holding up their phone cameras. Working from sketches, we’d be doing art the way we did it thirty or forty years ago. Richter certainly relies on photography.

DD: Richter’s name has come up a lot in the past few days. I was just emailing with Rick Harrington who was talking about how he’s been watching Richter’s videos. And I was emailing this morning with Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli and we were talking a little about Richter.

He does those big squeegee paintings which I really like.

I do too.

I saw some of his photo-real paintings in Chicago.

We talked about that.

Up close the presence of the paint is so sublime.

I think he focuses a lot on the quality of the surface. I think he’s looking to Vermeer and Old Masters for the photorealistic paintings. He gets that very soft edge.

But what makes the paint feel so there is that there’s such a sense of material. Its like the feel of something done with limestone.

Rick and I have talked about our disappointment with Walton Ford’s paint. You stand back and it’s one hell of an image and it really works, but the love of the paint doesn’t seem to be there. You can see the paint and it’s very evident; it’s a jumble of paint up close but it doesn’t have that quality you’re talking about. But it works.

This is a distraction but you’ve probably seen this book. (Jim handed me a coffee table book he’d brought with him, a catalog of George W. Bush’s portraits of war veterans.)

No. Oh, Bush. Oh, those are good! Those are better than I thought. Huh. Good for him.

It’s such a bizarre thing.

Well, Churchill.

But he’d never painted before. There’s a strong sense in my mind that he’s doing it as a kind of atonement, but it’s cheerful.

It reminds me of Philip Burke. 

After he started to paint he started to notice that shadows weren’t shadows but colors.

These are way better than I thought.

He said, “I became comfortable with the idea of tones and values.” Wow.

This one, he’s just pushed that so far that it’s interesting. It’s like Lucien Freud.

Freud is one of his models. You’ve got a president who started war and now is painting. These are all guys who have come to his treatment center. Damaged.

We were going to talk about social media vs. painting. 

I used to focus more on social media as a horrible thing. It’s fun to get likes and so on, but it takes you away from yourself. I was thinking about digital photography, the way everyone depends on it to process the world. You see people holding up their phones everywhere.

I depend on digital photography for my work. But social media is turning it into a stream of sensations. I can’t tell if my A.D.D. is age or because I’m media-saturated. But you probably aren’t as exposed to media.

If I go on Facebook, I’ll be off in a minute or I’ll be lost for an hour or two. I don’t go on more than every few months.

I post pro forma stuff. I’m not using Facebook at all. It’s just a sign that I’m still here. There is something good about it. Nancy uses it with more personal interest than I do. It really keeps her in touch.

If I put in any amount of time I feel so thin and out of touch with . . . meaning. My wife writes really well and does beautiful posts and she designs them to be liked and they are liked. It’s hard to say. I’m naturally resistant to change and a little bit of a Luddite but a painter I admire said I was her favorite painter, but other than that the things I like are talking face to face or wandering at night in the city and being surprised by effects of shadows. Social media, it’s kind of like drugs. I remember hearing one of the Rolling Stones say that it all depended on whether you can handle it.

Had to be Keith.

Social media, if you can handle it sure.

Nobody is talking about painting as a counterforce to contemporary media. It really is. It’s a still, focused activity.

It’s working with real material.

The physical world.

My philosophical orientation is that spiritual growth comes through working with your material. You are a material thing. You work with it. Dematerialization isn’t spiritual.

Disembodied. That’s interesting. That’s Matthew Crawford’s view. He wrote those two phenomenal books. He’s essentially a philosopher, became a motorcycle repairman. He’s a phenomenal writer. That’s what he’s exploring, the nature of physical awareness and intelligence. That is what gives you a glimpse of something more, or what seems to be more. The subject of spirituality, the spiritual dimension of art—it’s such an overused term—is something I’ve been wanting to write more about. For me it has to do with the limitations of the conscious mind. It’s complicated.

It is. But rich, though.

For me, it all has to do with gaining some kind of humble perspective on the nature of your conscious mind. That’s the crux of it. When you are able at some point to realize that your mind is constantly misleading you because you are so focused, this ability to shut out almost everything but what you are paying attention to. That’s the problem. Painting doesn’t actually eliminate that, it intensifies it, because you are paying attention to very small things and screening everything else out, but in the end you create something that has the ability to convey something larger. You get a glimpse of wholeness. That’s psychological, though I think of it as spiritual, but maybe that’s a meaningless distinction.

Say more.

Hmm. It’s funny that I went through a period in my teens where I had a very nihilistic period. It wasn’t voluntary or angry or a response to what I was going through in a conscious way, that I was rejecting all values as some kind of choice. It was the classic existential crisis in a way: the impossibility of meaning, any kind of fixed or absolute meaning. It was a sudden certainty about the impossibility of meaning. I struggled with that for years until I had an insight that this was my individual mind that was putting me in this box, not necessarily the nature of things. Even if I couldn’t imagine meaning didn’t mean it wasn’t there. That was like turning a corner, or completely turning around: the sense of of course, how could I not have realized this?

Some philosophers might go the other way and say, everyone wants meaning but they aren’t open to the reality that there is no meaning.

Yes. The total opposite. Postmodernists you mean. It came from reading Kierkegaard. The Sickness Unto Death. He was saying that despair doesn’t know it’s despair. Despair hides itself from itself. It’s like denial in the recovery movement: he was describing something like that; you think you know what’s happening but you don’t. Being in that state hides itself from you. That was something that had never occurred to me. I’m in this state, and I don’t know it because I’m in that state. For Kierkegaard, we are all in that state, everyone. The only way out of that state is not through your own effort, because any effort arises from the state you are already in. Any effort to construct meaning arises out of this ignorance of the state of your own consciousness. I started painting in this period, not thinking that it had any meaning, but because it was an instinctive response to this lack of meaning. Then I began to see that maybe this activity was a way of grappling with this, a way of reaching out for meaning without thinking it’s possible or having to know what it is. Everyone is such a positivist. Everyone has to be so certain about everything. I’m uncertain about everything, and I’m totally comfortable with that. Uncertainty is the nature of things. The certainty isn’t what counts. It’s the sense that you can have faith in a meaning you can’t grasp.

I’ve been listening to this learning series, great works of English literature. This nice English man has this line I can’t remember where he keeps going back to the Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge. He talks about meaning that can’t be rationally explained or grasped, but can somehow be glimpsed now and then. I like that. I was thinking about doing night sketching and why I’m drawn to that, and I guess it’s why someone is drawn to painting in general. It goes back to Kierkegaard’s phrase about being transparently grounded in the absolute. In college that was my favorite phrase from him, because it seems so cool. That’s what’s happening in the art process.

You become transparent to what is happening in the process, what’s being conveyed, without your intending to convey it or knowing what you are conveying in a conscious way. You’re not putting it in there. You’re the window that lets it come into the work.

He calls it the absolute; you call it a glimpse of wholeness.

All of this is so contrary to what everyone thinks when they think about the art world now.

I’ve internalized a lot of art history, but whenever I write an art statement I’m always drawing from literature or the Bible, even though I’m not really religious, or from philosophy. It’s always this other realm of people trying to figure stuff out, poetically related to that unknown, which is meaningful.

I’m constantly seeing things in literature or philosophy that have more to do with art than most of what gets written about art. What some novelist has said, or whatever, and how that reflects the process of painting or what goes into a painting.

The writer or painter or theologian are all after the same thing: to make sense of all this.

The craving for meaning. Wittgenstein would say that what you’re asking for is so nebulous . . what you’re pursing doesn’t exist. Your mind craving something because of a confusion that arises from language. I’m not really sure that’s actually what he felt.

So much of the talking and thinking about meaning, a little of that and I go away feeling empty.

Right. That is the point. As soon as you consciously pursue this thing, you have this . . . this need for what it is we’re talking about, but as soon as you start focusing on it, defining it, it disappears. It can’t be an object of conscious pursuit, but it can be there in the pursuit.

One of my most positive art experiences was the year before I started the itinerant project, I went to Provence and lived with this family. Landing in France and taking this train to their town, I was overwhelmed by doubt and lack of confidence and sort of swimming or drowning. But I started sketching out of habit. I started to feel connected and feel good and just by making these little marks that showed mountains and trees. You like Ai Weiwei.

Yes. I follow him on Instagram.

His work can be political but it’s more.

Yes, it exceeds the metaphor. The intent. It goes back to desire. This is where I agree with Donald Kuspit in Idiosyncratic Identities. It has to come from eagerness, desire. You can’t say I’m going to do this to have an impact, a social impact. I’m going to be a social justice warrior and make art so that life gets better and so on. That’s one way of intentionally choosing: the other is to do something you don’t want to do in order to sell. But if it’s physically enjoyable and fulfilling somehow, it’s alive. The only way to make it alive is to blindly do what you really want to do. You do that. You paint exactly the way you want to paint. This is the way you respond to what you see. It’s the way you make a painting.

The Itinerant Artist Project arose as something I felt the need to do. If I analyze it I could market it better for its relevance.

I don’t see a problem with that.

But then I think what can I do differently, what can I do next. I don’t really love painting.

You say that. I feel the same way. The anxiety before you start painting.

I don’t really know what to do sometimes, but I feel better once I’ve done it.

I often don’t want to sit down and paint, but as soon as I do, I’m into it. Being done is the best part. It’s satisfying seeing it emerge. It’s a balance between the tedium of the labor and the satisfaction of seeing it done which is continuous.

The day I accepted my job I went to the studio and started doing black and white and gray marks in conversation with one another and it was something I wanted to try. I hadn’t been able to do a painting in a long session for a long time but I did some of these for days. I didn’t care if anyone else got anything out of them because I had a job now. The element of . . .

. . . not having to get results . . .

Right, it was just a process.

It’s all about process for me in two different ways. One is I have a technique, a method now and get the results I want by sticking to a certain process. There are surprises and I’m always improvising along the way. But the other work I started earlier this year are these small paintings of bowls, looser, less detailed and faster and it’s much more about the freshness of the paint. Like premier coup. I did maybe six and one I felt was the best got into two shoes. It’s in North Dakota now. When I did them I thought these probably won’t get into shows or sell. But that hasn’t been true.

You really wanted to do it.

Exactly. I forgot about productivity and sales and shows and yet the response was there. I’m going to alternate between the two modes, very realistic and this new way forward. For years and years I had given up mostly on that path.

I’d like to find a path. I have so many that are just one or two but I can’t do it again.

In this recent effort there were two or three that really succeeded out of eight. The others were good, but they weren’t what I was trying to do. They may have succeeded in a way I didn’t intend or understand.

How do you connect with people? The question is how do you reach people.

My attitude is that you put it out there and if they find it, great. If they don’t, that’s fine.

My parents were activists so I always have the sense that if something’s wrong you have a movement.

I guess so. I can see that. I can see that with a smile. Like, Stop Moving. The Stop Moving Movement.

I’m going to steal that. That’s great.

Enough with the moving images.

I’m in a show in August at Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs.

It’s a great gallery.

I’ll be in a group show. A couple people are really good and they sell a lot. I have a lot of work still to do for it.

I’d be interested in seeing the abstracts you’ve been doing.

I really like them, but when I put my glasses on yesterday, a month later, I realized they weren’t as good as I thought.

That’s often the case with anything.

I don’t feel that “landscape painter” captures much of what I’m about. These black and white ones put me all over the place. For the show, there are so many paintings I want to do.

How many do you have to do?

He just wants little ones. I imagine if I can do ten or twenty that would nice. I’ve only done one that I like so far.

You could do twenty in a month. Are these all from life? Do you take photos?

Sketches and photos.


The sublime and the beautiful revisited


In the The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, Iris Murdoch rexamines an aesthetic distinction that most people would associate with Edmund Burke—how what is beautiful and what is sublime occupy completely different modes of human experience. Her subject is Kant, though, and Kant presented Burke’s distinction in a slightly different way. For Kant, art creates a beautiful object, worthy in and of itself. A painting doesn’t instruct, or serve any purpose at all, but is a self-justifying object where human imagination and understanding come together in harmony. A work of art, by definition, has to be entirely intelligible, in this view—or, rather, its value resides in its intelligibility, even though it has nothing specific to say. It just is, and that’s enough, the way things in the world are what they are and are nothing else—and you recognize and appreciate it immediately for what it is, as you would a flower or a vase. It is what it is, transparently beautiful, and that’s quite enough. Kant isn’t interested in what doesn’t surrender to reason—reason equals freedom equals virtue. Moral choice for him was the exercise of reason, cutting through the murk and mess of individual human experience and emotion, facing toward what was universal and just plain reasonable, so that the individual could act on that knowledge. Beauty, in art, is the experience of seeing a hint of this order, this understanding, shine forth from something created.

With the sublime on the other hand, Kant follows Burke’s earlier distinction: it is an experience of the tension between reason and what’s beyond its grasp, the threatening mystery and magnitude of nature. In that confrontation between understanding and what resists reason, intransigent and hostile and overpowering, there was a thrill in which a human being feels gratified at being free of that threat, of being guided by the “dignity of reason” in the face of the inaccessible and inhuman snow-covered Alpine peak. Half a century later Melville felt only dread, even horror, at the whiteness of the whale—inscrutable, blank, pitiless, and alien. (That shift, the rise of dread and despair, in Melville and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche–and I suppose you could go on indefinitely with other figures, Munch and the expressionists and so on—would seem the most significant development in 19th century culture, emptying out into the angst and nausea of the existentialists.) Kant would have smiled with bemusement at Melville’s anxiety: Herman! Buddy! You’re troubled by the color white, sailor? Really? A color? For Kant, humanity transcends nature because we can establish and affirm what is intelligible and therefore superior to the opacity of the natural world, and thus exercise our freedom from it and give it meaning—which sounds very much like an apology for what we are now doing in science and technology and nearly everywhere else in our postmodern realm. We’re remodeling the unsatisfactory natural world, to our liking, along with human nature itself, as the genetic code becomes our sandbox. Good luck with that.

Murdoch takes Kant’s idea of the sublime, though, and brings it down to earth—what replaces the implacable and opaque in nature becomes, for Murdoch, the other human being. The woman in the seat next to you on the flight is just as stubbornly resistant to human will, and just as confounding to one’s solitary comfort as the vast silence of the starry sky. And yet with the passenger staking her claim to both armrests in 13A, you have a choice to make: you can tolerate and understand her or you can hate her. There’s no avoiding her, unfortunately. Loving her is probably out of the question, unless it’s a flight from New York to Sydney and the conversation takes a novel turn. By contrast, the Alps don’t care how you feel about them. She takes Kant’s acknowledgement of the way in which the world resists understanding and turns it into a certain kind of attention and the moral choice that can flow from it. For her—her essay was published in 1959—what Kant saw in the individual’s uneasy relationship with nature’s power transfers directly into what’s missing in contemporary art, especially fiction. For her, most fiction, and by implication other art forms, avoids this uneasy apprehension inherent in Kant’s notion of the sublime when applied to other people. What gets written is either a self-absorbed elaboration of the author’s own experience or obsessions—stripped down into mythic form—The Stranger or The Catcher in the Rye—or else it’s a thin journalistic/political account of contemporary life, full of verisimilitude, with characters that serve whatever predetermined purpose the novelist has in mind for them. Given that choice, she prefers, say, the pointlessness of The Catcher in the Rye. Yet, for her, the greatest novelists, such as Tolstoy, created a world populated by characters whose reality vastly exceeded whatever purpose they could have served for the writer—they demonstrated that the author succeeded in the heroic effort to forget himself by imagining, making real, other human beings completely distinct from the author’s personality. Their reality was the achievement, not anything the author wanted to say by making them real. And this is the heart of Murdoch’s entire philosophy: a human being’s greatest progress in realizing what is good comes as a consequence of being intensely aware of anything other than the self, but best of all, other human beings. That effortful awareness makes love possible. And one of the ways this love can manifest itself is by creating art—the most powerfully moral form of art being fiction. Updike criticized J.D. Salinger for loving his characters more than God loves them, but Murdoch would say there is no such thing as loving one’s fictional creations too much, as long as they aren’t just your avatars.

For her, George Eliot and Tolstoy and Jane Austen, were the masters of this self-effacement—Shakespeare even more so, as a playwright. She moves back and forth between philosophy and fiction/art, pointing out that you can find the same dichotomy among the philosophers, like Sartre and even Kierkegaard, on one side—the spiritually solipsistic freedom of the individual wrestling with God or just the contingency of life—and the linguistic philosophers like G.E. Moore or Wittgenstein, who seem to simplify all agonized moral choice by ironing out the various meanings of the word “good” in ordinary human language. (Admirably she gets through the entire essay without ever quoting Sartre’s famous “hell is other people.”) Define your terms and the way becomes clear; simply figure out what the “good” means in any given usage of the word and then do it. She doesn’t put it that simplistically, but makes it sound just about that dry and lifeless and easy. To know what’s right will lead to doing it—that idea goes back to Socrates. For her, in this choice between what she recognized as the two dominant modes of philosophy, what got lost was the problem of other people, all of those beings who exist and have needs beyond the boundaries of the thinker’s head and whose behavior creates dilemmas that can’t be solved by thinking about them, or making choices, in isolation. And doing what’s right, even when you know it, is generally a challenge for nearly everyone. And this is precisely what was getting lost, in her view, in fiction—the necessity of getting to know people who are completely different from you and wrestling with the demands for attention they place upon you, demands for sympathy, for action. For Murdoch, the art of the novel peaked with George Eliot and Anna Karenina and then began to decline.

Hers is an intensely moral vision of life. So it’s no wonder that the person who is missing in all this—a novelist she so strenuously avoids mentioning—is Proust. In Proust it all comes together in a way she probably wasn’t able to acknowledge—mostly because in Proust, as in Heidegger (whom she didn’t grapple with until it was too late in her career), an explicit concern with morality is almost entirely absent. Proust improvised an astonishingly complex social world from his own experience while obsessively examining a kaleidoscope of subjective, finely-calibrated emotional experiences—a fractal vortex of internal states (mostly having to do with sexual jealousy) of mind and heart. For Camus, Proust was the best example of the ideal of the artist who refuses the intellectual/philosophical extremes—he explores the rain forest of his own inner life and the inner life of others without ever going so far as to become a surrealist, and he constructs a beehive of human beings around his narrator, who give the reader a sense of the real, actual, objective world, though his approach never becomes journalistic. He embraces a poetic and yet exhaustively observant Middle Way. His characters are probably the most complex creations in all of fiction since Hamlet. But there is no moral dimension to his world—Harold Bloom puts him almost in a class by himself in Western literature, linking him to the Hindu sages, having recognized some fundamental unity in the good and bad, life and death. He looks past it entirely and gives to his characters his dispassionate and tolerant and inexhaustible curiosity and delighted awe—as if each human being, no matter how depraved or perverse or silly and shallow or great and admirable, were equivalent to a work of art so fascinatingly intricate and integrated that to pass any sort of moral judgment on his or her behavior would overlook that character’s marvelous complexity. The rain of his rapt attention falls on each of them, the just and the unjust, in equal measure. In a way, Proust sees people with the same detached but avid delight that a collector of insects brings to his display case, and yet he’s anything but detached about human life—the slippery, fluctuating continuum of feeling and intuition are almost all that matter in his world. It’s his medium. What’s diminished in Proust isn’t just the moral dimension, but love which is more than erotic compulsion or emotional dependency. As Bloom points out, the only real love in the novel is evident mostly in the narrator’s relationship with his mother and grandmother. To say the least, his vision lacks a certain friendly warmth, and so I think Murdoch, whose philosophy is all but Christian—a sort of gospel of goodness and love without God—had to avoid grappling with this figure who did exactly what she required by creating a multitude of unpredictable, living human beings, each dramatically distinct and independent from the author himself. He has no designs on them, they are allowed to be simply what they are, the sprawling mess of their behavior seeping like colors of the rainbow throughout hundreds and hundreds of pages, free to do whatever they most naturally do, because the huge novel is orchestrated almost without a plot. The problem for her had to be that Proust didn’t recognize the significance of moral choice—we are what we are, and it’s a marvel, for better or worse. He was a mystic for whom paradise is everywhere, in all the minute particulars of the world around him—completely out of reach to his purposeful, everyday (and moral) mind, but present everywhere in the pages of his book. Proust’s creative relationship to the world is, for me, identical with a great painter’s who presents the world–his or her world–just as it is, for its own sake, without any agenda or purpose other than to make it alive and real.

Jean Stephens

A detail of Summer Storm by Jean K. Stephens, one of many great paintings on view at Oxford Gallery in the summer show.

Americas 2017

Chevron Bowl, oil on linen, 12″ x 16″

Chevron Bowl and Red Bartletts will be on view at Minot State University in the Northwest Art Center’s Americas 2017 from August 15 through September 28.

Red Bartletts, oil on linen, 10″ x 18″

Chevron Bowl was included in an exhibition at the New Jersey Center for Contemporary Art late last year. This is the first exhibition for the pears. They are both part of my effort, in parallel with the more highly realistic work I do, to experiment with a faster, simpler, and in some ways more painterly method–closer to Dickinson’s premier coup paintings, as he referred to them. In this work, I’m thinking always of Fairfield Porter, the perceptual painters, and, inevitably, Matisse. The aim is to keep a fairly tight sense of draftsmanship with a greater focus on value and color rather than detail and line–even though crisp delineation is always there in some areas of the work. I was very happy with the results in Chevon Bowl, and loved the outcome with the pears as well, though it ended up being more consistent with what I traditionally have been doing.

Butler award

Breakfast with Golden Raspberries, detail. oil on linen, 22 x 46, 2016.

I was honored to be informed that I won Director’s Special Mention at the Butler Institute of American Art’s 81st Midyear Exhibition for “Breakfast with Golden Raspberries.” I had intended to attend the opening this year, but was sorry to miss it, coming back from California two days later. Hard work is rewarded: it’s probably the most labor-intensive painting I’ve ever done, with some areas that needed reworking repeatedly. From what I can tell, at this distance, it looks like a fine show, and I may get there to see it, yet.

Emperors of ice cream

Two Flavors (Ice Cream Cone), Wayne Thiebaud 2003

I’ve often talked with Bill Santelli about having personal, felt rules, a set of boundaries for how I paint, which create a skeleton of principles around which to make a picture I want to see–which is my first rule, actually, to paint only what I really want to look at, with almost no other consideration. It’s odd, but I can stray from this rule so easily, for one reason or another, without quite being aware how I’m gradually drifting from the delight of the true path. For a while, Bill tended to push back whenever I asserted this and then began to understand what I meant. This was no surprise since his work operates so obviously in accord with what I was saying; I think it was just that he bristled at the onerous associations he had with the word “rules.” Today, I heard the same kind of idea expressed in an interview on All Songs Considered, put into our larger nihilistic, postmodern predicament of having the license to do anything at all and call it art. It was a comment during an interview with the members of Phoenix in a discussion of the French band’s new album, Ti Amo:

The issue is that there are no more limits, in terms of music. Everything is possible. Most of our time we spend in the studio we spend it to create a frame, just to have . . . limits, so we have something coherent in the end.

All of this seems related to Kandinsky’s idea of “inner necessity,” the desire that impels you to make art in a certain, individual way–and the long search to come upon that feeling of necessity. To discover that internal compass, Phoenix will come up with a single image, like a high concept for a movie, around which to create an album. I loved hearing how the spirit of the new Phoenix album, the aesthetic of its overall sound, was centered on the gestalt, the feel, of ice cream. There was something so Thiebaud about that, to embrace that spirit, especially in Paris, of a particular kind of lush pleasure as a guiding aesthetic for a new album in this era of political vitriol and spurts of terrorist violence. It struck me as a radical affirmation of joy in art, for its own sake–like Matisse cutouts or Agnes Martin’s glowing stripes. That’s a delight to the ears of this painter who continues to paint his share of confection and candy.

We could not have released this kind of record in a period of relative happiness. We needed the darkness to come up with this naive and joyful music. We didn’t control it. It’s just what happened. We write music not really knowing what we’re doing, but when it’s done, we realize . . . we have a safe harbor for ourselves. We have hope. It’s uncontrolled.”

Those words almost sum up what I expect and desire from the unknowing act of painting, naive and joyful and willfully ignorant of whatever others think painting needs to be–how “important” it should strive to make itself–in order for the work, when it’s done, to be exactly what I want to see, even if I’m the only one who’s looking.

Art at the X

Spiral Bowl with Flat Screen, oil on linen, 16" x 24"

Spiral Bowl with Flat Screen, oil on linen, 16″ x 24″

I’ll be showing Spiral Bowl with Flat Screen at Xavier University Art Gallery’s “Art at the X” from Aug. 25 through Sept. 22. It’s been a number of years since I’ve shown there, and I’m happy to be joining the exhibition again.

Art and consciousness


The past two years have been a desultory mix of so many obligations that it has been nearly impossible to hew to a daily painting discipline. Typically, I’ve enjoyed two months of fairly uninterrupted work and then faced a month when I might have only a few days available for painting–earning some money as a writer, putting in time as a caregiver for my parents, working on our house, visiting my kids in California. As of this June, though, I’ve been able to paint every day and should be able to stick with this schedule into the foreseeable future, with only some short breaks here and there. It’s put me in a much better mood, in general, though that’s tempered by the fact that I’ve reached a point where I’m more critical of the work I’m doing, as I do it. I keep wrestling with a specter of what I recognize as a hyper-sensitive discouragement about results, when the results are actually perfectly fine because what I’m doing and seeing in the work is part of the evolution, the path. Ironically, I feel as if I’m at a threshold where my methods and skills are such that I can reliably do certain things now that weren’t possible before, so I have to fight an impatience that arises when I’m not surprised by what I’m doing. (I’m still struggling as I go, facing uncertainties, but it’s more within a broader range of confidence, so my success at this or that doesn’t impress me as much.) I need to be patient and do what I know how to do for a while, consolidate what I’ve learned about how to paint, in order to build a body of work over the next couple years–which means I have to fight the impatient urge to push past this stage into something a little bolder. More on that later.

Meanwhile, in an email alert from Open Culture, I learned that I can listen to hours of Joseph Campbell lectures for free now on Spotify. Quelle pleasant surprise. I immediately started listening to his lectures at Cooper Union in the late 60s, and after only a few minutes Campbell got right to the heart of the matter and confirmed that I will have some pleasant hours ahead of me:

One of the problems man has to face is reconciling himself to the problem of his own existence, and this is the first function of mythology is that reconciliation of consciousness with the mystery of being, not criticizing it. Shakespeare and his definition of art where he says, art (or the art of acting,) holds the mirror up to nature. It is a perfect definition I would say of the first function of mythology. When you hold a mirror up to your self, your consciousness becomes aware of its support, what it is that is supporting it. You may be shocked with what you see; or you may be pleased that you become aware of yourself, your consciousness becomes aware of that darkness, that Being which came into being out of darkness and which is its own support. The first function then of a mythology is the reconciliation of consciousness to the foundations of being and the realization of their mystery as something that consciousness is not going to be able to criticize, not even going to be able to elucidate, not even going to be able to name. It is something beyond naming, beyond all definitions, and when that is lost one loses the sense of awe, which Goethe calls the best thing in man. One loses the sense of gratitude for one’s privilege of having a center of consciousness aware of these things.

Art is not thought

Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Thoughts on how not to think, from Agnes Martin:

The life of an artist is a very good opportunity for life.
When we realize that we can see life we gradually give up the things that stand in the way of our complete awareness.
As we paint we move along step by step. We realize that we are guided in our work by awareness of life.
We are guided to greater expression of awareness and devotion to life.

You must say to yourself: “How can I best step into this state of mind and devote myself to the expression of life.”
You must not be led astray into the illustration of ideas because that is not art work. It is ineffective even though it is often accepted for a short time. it does not contribute to happiness and it is finally discarded.
The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.
Dependence on intellect means a consideration of observed facts and deductions from observation as a guide in life.
Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from awareness of beauty and happiness.
To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.
You have to hold your mind still in order to hear inspiration clearly.