I introduced the term “splendid isolation” with a sense that the two words/concepts making up the term seemed inherently incompatible…that the shining forth of splendor and the attention drawn to such shining forth might undermine the notion of isolation, thereby making the term internally contradictory. Upon thinking about the components separately and, in this post, in relationship one to the other, I have come to a much different conclusion. Far from being add odds, the terms need each other, creatively speaking. I think that my error was to associate both of the words with the same object…the artist. The artist is the source of splendor as he/she as his or her genius radiates forth in the work. So too is the artist the bearer of the isolation…an isolation which creates the conditions necessary to be said genius. But, my experience tells me that this is the wrong way to look at all of this.
The artist does not pursue his or her own genius. That is a romantic notion that has received intellectual and critical support from those oftentimes orbiting the arts but not working within them. Instead, the artist pursues the making of the work. The work thusly well made utters forth its being-madeness with a burst of splendor. The artist does not pursue his or her genius. The artist makes according to how he or she makes. Anything that comes from that is purely secondary. Oftentimes, the secondary usurps the primary, especially in the popular imagination. Sometimes, because of the association with the splendor and the relationship to it, the secondary becomes understood (even by the artist) as the primary. St. Anthony of Egypt sought out the desert as a means to union with the divine. He did not search out the title or the fame or the biography. The splendor radiating from the pursuit brought all of that along with it. So too with the true artist.
I think part of the difficulty is simply that it is much more alluring for the young artist to pursue genius as a goal than to pursue the discipline of making according to his or her own being. It is much more interesting to write biographies about the inner struggles of genius (a genius often defined at its core as one who scoffs at the notion of discipline and assumes genius precisely in the ridicule of said discipline) than the technical innovations and manipulations of making. And so the cult of genius ascends. The simple notion of making…wherein the maker seeks to allow the work to shine forth at the risk of his or her own disappearance…seems cold, clinical, almost inhuman…to serve a thing. That reminds me of a story. I had a couple of works in an exhibition in Cleveland when I first moved back to Akron. A local professor of fine arts from a local university approached me with a self-assurance akin to arrogance…his position and customary role as imparter of wisdom to the uninitiated fully exposed like the tail feathers of the male peacock. He said to me: “I find your work cold.” I said: “Thank you.” Set aside what I thought of his work and of the arts as instructed in the university setting, my mind instantly flashed to a quote that I recalled from Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.”
I would now like to address the role that isolation plays in the creative process. And I am particularly interested in the subject because a good number of the people in the creative fields thought it a death sentence for me to leave the fertile streets of New York City for the barren desert of Akron. Recently, a person from Los Angeles who I met in San Francisco, directly stated as much when she said that I was lucky to be from Akron, assuming that I had been born here but had escaped. Ironically, all the art that she had admiringly commented upon only moments earlier had all been conceived and executed in Akron. Probably more properly put, it had been conceived and executed because I was from…living and working in…Akron.
To begin the discussion of my isolation in to the suburban desert of Akron and the relationship of this fact to my creative process, I begin by stating that it is definitely an isolation and that I experience Akron as a creative desert. Some days, as the reality of both of these facts grows on me I grow so discontent with my situation and so irritated by both the personal isolation and the cultural isolation, that I want to scratch every last inch of flesh from my body. The energy stalks in me like the “tyger” in Blake’s famous poem from the Songs of Experience. It is a genuine discontent…a genuine sense of dislocation…a genuine hate for my circumstances and even for the self that sought out these circumstances so as to be able to paint. I begin to hate the very fact that I am an artist at all and begin to hate the cruel reality that I cannot see myself as anything else and so am doomed to the state of discontent.
So, wouldn’t the easy solution be to change this external circumstance and so rectify the inner discontent. The problem: my experience has been that I have never been as fruitful in my work…in terms of individual concepts for individual paintings…in terms of the progression from one concept to another in a single body of work or between bodies of work…in terms of the technical development and attentiveness across all of it. I blossomed in very real ways when I came to Akron, and I cannot ignore that reality. I cannot ignore that the unique crescendo of energy caused by the isolation has proven to be a source of great fruitfulness. I makes me stalk, back and forth, behind the bars of my cage. It makes me put all my attention into every brush stroke so as to hope to have some relief from the massive build-up of energy. And when it is all over, when the work is complete, I get to stare into that sun I mentioned at the end of the last post…to look at the splendor of the form of the work…and it all seems so worthwhile. And so, I do it again.
At some point in my experience of this process, I recalled a passage from a book by Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, that I had read some time before I moved back to Akron. It states: “Isolation by a secret results as a rule in an animation of the psychic atmosphere, as a substitute for loss of contact with other people. It causes an activation of the unconscious, and this produces something similar to the illusions and hallucinations that beset lonely wanderers in the desert, sea-farers, and saint. The mechanism of these phenomena can best be explained in terms of energy. Our normal relations to objects in the world at large are maintained by a certain expenditure of energy. If the relation to the object is cut off there is a ‘retention’ of energy, which then creates an equivalent substitute.” And so on…. Jung, I am just noticing as I type, even goes on in the next paragraph to refer directly to the famous apparitions of St. Anthony of Egypt. So, as Jung says, there is a retention of energy in the likes of wanderers in the desert, sea-farers and saints…and artists living in suburban Akron.
Jung opens another possibility when he makes reference to St. Anthony of Egypt. He takes as his source for the reference the amazing book by Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and not the original hagiographical work by St. Athanasius. Why is this important? Flaubert was a creator. Athanasius was not. Flaubert understood the implications of isolation on the creative life. He famously stated that he wanted to be orderly and disciplined in his daily life so that he might be violent and original in his art. Akron creates the most orderly and disciplined life, and in so doing it creates violence within…not the kind of violence that seeks harm to others, but the kind of violence present when atoms collided at the beginning of the universe. Akron is order and discipline and boredom. Akron seeks to limit me in every way…to crush me. And in so doing, it liberates me…transforms me. And I hate it. And I see the value of it. So I just allow the discontent to wash over me like the titanic waves over a lighthouse. I just take it. And I want to scratch my skin off and gouge my eyes out and going running like a madmen until I can run no more. But I know that it will do no good. So I just stay here and take it and make art…better off for having ended up here in the desert that is Akron.
After a brief aside, I wanted to return to the parts of the term “splendid isolation” taken separately in this and the following post. Then, in a third, I want to address the significance of the sum of the parts as it relates to me and to my creative endeavor in Akron. First…splendor.
My association with the aesthetic category of splendor came during my junior year of college. While taking a class during the first semester that dealt with artistic endeavors in medieval Europe, primarily book illumination, I came across a book of photographs by a French photographer named Lucien Herve and introduced by architect, Le Corbusier. The book was entitled Architecture of Truth and was published at some point during the 1950s. Anyway, if I recall the experience correctly, I remember being enthralled with the introduction written by Le Corbusier wherein he creates an aesthetic hyperlink between the religiously motivated aesthetic of early Cistercian monastery builders and the then-contemporary aesthetic for truth in materials and purity (severity…I remember Bernard of Clairvaux as being quoted as saying that all the young men entering the monastery should leave their bodies outside as they had no need for them inside the walls.) of vision and form. That resonance between seemingly discontinuous periods of history noted by Le Corbusier prompted me to take up the investigation of early Cistercian architecture during the independent study work of my second semester junior year.
During the pursuit of my independent study, my professor gave me a book by Umberto Eco titled Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages so as to give me a solid foundation of aesthetic issues as understood in the terms of the time. What happened, however, was that I began drawing hyperlinks myself between the understanding set forth in Aquinas and Albertus Magnus and, ultimately, Aristotle and my conception and understanding of modern art and of contemporary art and, most importantly, of myself as a potential maker of things.
Very generally, the notion of art at the time involved an orientation in the maker to make that which he/she was making well. To make well…a process governed by a virtue known as art. It involved no moral component as an accompanying virtue, prudence, was the virtue which governed doing. The artist makes well. The governing principle of the making did not reside in the maker but in the demand put on the maker by the nature of the thing to be made. The maker existed as servant of the thing to be made…a conduit through which the urge to exist of the thing passed. When such an urge met with a proportioned and rightly ordered existence through the process of having been made, it was endowed with form that was accompanied by a clarity…a splendor…a resplendence: “The nature of the beautiful consists in general in a resplendence of form, whether in the duly ordered parts of material objects, or in men, or in action.” (Albertus Magnus, from The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Umberto Eco, p. 112.) Even more importantly, Eco later notes that “resplendence must be understood in a sense that is strictly ontological and objectivist. It does not refer to the knowing subject. Resplendence is not the expressiveness of an object with respect to someone or something else. It is, rather, a clarity which belongs to the order which the object possesses; it can be identified as the property through which being manifests itself.” (p. 114.) For me this became the following understanding…the artist makes the thing according to the ultimate demands of the things…the artist is a necessary conduit for the proper arrangement that ends in the making of a thing that radiates a splendor reflective of the thing itself and not the one making the thing. So, for me, the vision that happens in the first instant of the thing to be made is the guiding principle and demands absolute faithfulness regardless of the nature of the demand. It is not a romanticism or a subjectivism…it is an honesty to something outside of myself that needs me to come into being. The reward is in the making as the making brings me in proximity to the splendor…the making demands that I look into the Sun.
Thus far I have spoken in the most general terms about myself and my experiences of that self and the endeavors in which that self is engaged. And I intend to resume that discussion shortly, but I wanted to move from the theoretical and the general to the pragmatic and the particular. I wanted to put forth an image of the painting on which I am currently working and have been working consistently since February. The subject of the painting is a costume worn by my daughter for Halloween nearly two years ago. I have a lot to say regarding the subject…regarding the painting…regarding the method of the painting’s production, but I want to address much of that upon completing the painting. In a month…or two. So enough talk. Please look to the next post for the image as I have not yet figured out how to publish a photo of adequate image size in conjunction with an accompanying text.
When I set about the project of a painting I usually receive the pleasant vision of the Possible in one ecstatic moment and then I spend the next 3 hours or 6 weeks or 9 months working to put before my flesh and blood eyes on linen what flashed before my mind’s eye. At its most basic level, the labor over time seeks to recover even a fraction of the taste of the sensation experienced in the initial moment. At least that is how it works for me.
With this writing thing, however, I am working quite differently…much more organically. I am taking one step…that step is suggesting the next step…and all of the steps are in the dark, so I can feel my foot rising and my leg stretching forward, but I am never quite sure exactly where it is going to land.
I mention this as I am having that experience with the development of this post. I wanted to address the nature of the isolation that I experience in Akron, and I wanted to seem clever and give the post a snappy title. “Splendid Isolation” popped into my mind immediately. The more I thought about the title in relationship to the post that I hoped to write, however, the more problematic the very nature of the title became…and I mean problematic in the very best Houdini submerged in a tank of water bound in chains type of problematic…existentally problematic.
The very notion of splendor suggests a movement outward…an explosion of super nova proportions. The very notion of isolation suggests a containment…the gravitational embrace of a black hole. At some level the two words contained in the term seem to be moving in opposite directions. Now, I am stuck inside the term itself and can’t move forward until I have made my escape. I cannot write the post that I set out to write 30 minutes ago. First…splendor…second…isolation…third…why it even matters.