Writing is a lonely sport. The cursor blinks menacingly on the empty background, angry photons burning trails onto doubt-filled retinas. What will appear is unknown, something between garbage and genius, or worse…nothing. When all seems lost, inspiration flutters down like a timorous butterfly. And like magic, writing begins, timid at first, then braver, growing into a furious boldness that seems uncontainable, then finally peters out to a whisper. It is a type of alchemy, lead into gold – sweet torture.
Where does inspiration come from, and with it – courage. Courage? What is brave about banging on a keyboard? Fear permeates the creative processes, scratching roughshod into a reluctant spirit, stealing jewels from the claws of a sleeping dragon. It is not the fear of a known physical force, injury, pain or death; it is far worse. Physical wounds heal. It is the fear of having nothing to say, of having an empty soul. That is truly awful.
I lost a dear friend recently. She was an artist. She inspired me to write, encouraged me when things seemed at their most difficult. “Touch it every day.” She would say. “No one knows where creativity lives, it is a job, and if you don’t show up, you cannot succeed. You must set the table if you expect your guests to arrive.” She was right, it is a job, the most difficult one possible. To be honest all the time, to never accept compromise, cowardice or timidity, to stare into blinding infinity and pull something from nothing. To never give up, knowing that there is no end to your journey.
The muses of creativity care nothing for our pain, discomfort or insecurities. They kick at our heads when we are sleeping, driving or eating dinner with friends. Like selfish children they demand our attention RIGHT NOW, not when it is convenient or expedient. Ignore them and they will dart away like frightened deer. Maybe they’ll come back in a day, a week, maybe never. Obey their cruel reason and be rewarded with something new, the blissful loss of time, but also with more insanity. Because the muses are insane, exquisitely beautiful crazies.
Science would have us believe we are bundles of chemical reactions, an accident of evolution that created consciousness. All that we call beauty is just a hormonal reaction to certain frequencies of light and sound. But that doesn’t explain Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven; where did they get their inspiration to bring such sublimity to the Earth. Science stumbles at the gates of art and we have to look beyond the mundane explanations of logic, through the iron bars of rationality into the swirling mist of creativity – where the muses dance.
Polyhymnia, sacred muse of poetry, and her eight sisters live beyond the limited mind. They kiss our eyes when we sleep, pulling us into the soul-ripping abyss. They temp us with words, shapes and colors, impossible ideas that would make others scoff or shrug. Inspiration is their paint and we are their canvas. One only needs to step aside, lower one’s head in humility and accept their gifts. Gifts that must be passed on or fester like rotting fruit.
© Jay Magidson, 2017 (In loving memory of Eva Cellini, my beautiful muse)
The Ego and Nothingness
The ego, the mortal self, keeps us alive, chooses how to negotiate the material world. What if we want to reach deeper, to the spiritual world, the unseen? Science tells us there is only the undiscovered, that which only needs research and more knowledge, that all things can eventually be explained, that it is the ego which strives for explanation. Religion tells us that the unknown must always be unknown, that it is the domain of God and can never be explained and we must accept it on faith or we can never approach God’s kingdom, that it is God’s will which must trump the ego. But both approaches leave no room for the skeptical thinker who believes in something greater than what we can see, and something more spiritual than a personal God who appears to be more like a petulant parent than a supreme being. I am that thinker.
So where do I go? I read spiritual books and meditate without much reward. I am told that one must quiet the mind to hear the soft voice of the spirit. I don’t hear much. I am told that the ego is the enemy of spirituality, that the ALL is too large to hold on to personal desires, even those to be spiritual. That to be fee, one must give up desire, self, effort. To be creative, one must give up creativity. Sorry, but I don’t get it.
Why is all this here, then? Why make it so hard? If the Universe wants us to come back to our spirituality, why hide it so thoroughly? If enlightenment is the goal, why have so few achieved it and taught so few behind them? It can’t be very important to the Universe, or it is extremely patient. Because at this rate, it will be billions of years before many of us reach this enlightened state. Unfortunately, we are likely to blow each other up long before that.
So what now? Give up, bury myself in materialism, hedonism, science, become a strident atheist? That doesn’t sit well. Religion? Too childish, too full of division, envy and hatred. No thanks. But I still feel that pull of the beyond. So how do I use that, get there, get where, for that matter?
Here’s my decision – uniqueness. I believe the Universe is infinitely creative, that it makes each of us unique for a reason. I think it does so out of boredom, that our searches are a form of entertainment. Imagine being infinitely powerful, all knowing, all seeing, all everything. It would take a lot to entertain you, to surprise you, wouldn’t it? What’s more entertaining than a few billion confused and bumbling humans trying to figure out why they are alive, given just enough intelligence to stay alive and question, but not enough to get themselves out of their situation. How many people have begged God for an answer to why there are atrocities, why a child dies at the hand of murderer, but allows the murderer to go free? What kind of loving God would allow wars, murder, rape and a million other horrors? God doesn’t, we do. There is this infinite expanse of possibility; I call it the Universe for lack of a better explanation. The stars and space are only a tiny part of the Universe. It is ALL. God, as we have described him, is puny, limited, angry and vengeful. We are God, the Universe is far beyond that.
So I don’t say that we give up, but we grow up. Drop our childish notions of a petulant, angry God that sits on a throne judging and judging. We don’t pray to a man in the sky who listens to a billion whining children (we are better off praying to ourselves), and we don’t try to understand an infinite intelligence that could create all this, it is simply too far beyond our capacity, and we don’t crawl back into our caves and make up stories about tree spirits and sun gods. Instead we grow up, realize that we are each given a spark of this infinite creativity, that we can use it to expand our uniqueness, that we must stop groveling and own our godliness. We must each create to the best of our capacities. And if we die in the end and merge with the infinite, wonderful; or if we die and it is no more than a light being flicked off, so be that too. In the meantime we will have lived and we will have stood tall in the face of infinity, stood, not cowered. If that amuses you, mighty Universe, then let me be the best entertainer you ever saw.
© Jay Magidson, 2013
To the Artist
Here’s to the artists who have come before, the brave ones who ignored convention, broke down the walls and crashed the barriers that slowed the progress of art; to the ones who faced public ridicule and even risked their own lives for the realization of their vision. And here’s to the artist of the future who will see what has never been seen and reveal it to all. For it is these men and women of profound courage who will one day redefine beauty itself and offer it to a world hungry for the sublime.
© Jay Magidson, 2013 (published in Madness of the Muses, 2013)
Where Are Those Sculptures Anyway
Aspen is such a great place. Just when you are running out of ideas to write about, they go and put sculptures in the malls. Thus creating controversy, discomfort and anger, all the emotions we associate with fine art.
First, before I get to the meat of this article, let me share my story about thistles. I recently bought a house with a bit of land. Anyone in this valley that has any dirt near their house, knows they will be fighting thistles. So one day I got into it with gusto and glee. I took out the hoe which I honed to a razors edge; so sharp it could fell a small tree in a stroke.
If you have had the joy of attacking thistles, you know they are tough plants. Their stems become as fibrous as bamboo. Thorns, spikes and barbs emanate menacingly from every surface. If you don’t remove the roots completely, they come back twice as thick and mad for revenge. To make it worse, their roots go all the way to the molten core of the earth.
Anyway, as I’m hacking and killing, it suddenly struck me how beautiful these plants are. They are so sturdy and resilient, needing little water and soil, protected utterly from animals. They are beautiful the way rocky cliffs and tigers’ claws are; perfect in their function, no element of waste.
Art can also be thorny. Sometimes it is like the thistle, so annoying and bothersome that the beauty is hidden beneath the barbs.
On the cover of both daily papers were pictures of one of the new sculptures recently approved by the city’s committee for the public arts. The Aspen Daily News photographed it from below making it look like a 12 foot high devil emerging from hell. The Aspen Times photographed it head on, giving it a more sedate look.
Several merchants gathered a petition for the removal of the sculptures. Several others liked them. The major complaints from businesses were that these sculptures might hurt their sales, or that they didn’t have the opportunity to use the space for their own wares.
Have you ever sat on a committee and tried to agree on anything? The fact that something actually got approved, paid for and installed is a miracle. If they added the opinions of 35 gallery/art critics with vested interests in showing their own artists; there is no doubt in my mind, there would be no art, good or bad, on the mall.
I read these stories on Thursday, without having seen the art. I expected to see 40 foot towers of ragged edged, rusty steel dangling with impaled children and small fuzzy pets writhing in agony. Instead I had to ask were the sculptures were, because I didn’t see them at first. What I found were several mildly interesting figurative sculptures. They were quite tame and completely non-controversial from my point of view. I feel they are good for such a limited budget and in a town of such strong opinions.
Every time someone creates something in Aspen, someone else always thinks it is 1) a conspiracy done in secret, 2) designed to harm them specifically or 3) patently unfair. For those of you complaining: did you petition the city for funds and space to place art? Did you volunteer dozens of free time hours to review submissions and possible sites?
If the people involved get crushed with negative criticism, they will simply quit. Why not allow something new to exist that can’t possibly harm you or your business? This way it at least opens the door to more and better work in the future. This program is experimental and young, it could die before it tries anything really interesting. Consider the alternative, everyone’s differing opinions forcing only gridlock. Nothing gets tried, nothing gets accomplished.
Lighten up, get over it. It’s done and it isn’t bad. Take a deep breath and try to see art. If you can’t, don’t look. The only way to create something everyone in Aspen will like, is to make an 11,000 foot mountain with ski runs and a gondola on it.
© Jay Magidson, 1996 (Published in Magidson’s weekly column, “Art, See,”Aspen Daily News, Roaring Fork Sunday, July 21, 1996)
Dada is Not Your Father
Dada /’da:da:/n. an early 20th-c. international movement in art, literature, music, and film, repudiating and mocking artistic and social conventions. The word Dada was named by random choice from a dictionary.
Dada itself feels nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing
It is like your hopes, nothing
Like your heaven, nothing
Like your idols, nothing
Like your politicians, nothing
Like your heroes, nothing
Like your artists, nothing
Like your religions, nothing
Dada’s earliest appearance traces back to Zurich at the beginning of World War I. Displaced artists refugees and pacifists fled to Switzerland. Their disillusionment with western enlightenment, industrialization and aristocracy was profound. A deep disgust of middle class thinking and mediocrity drove these artists to a sense of there-is-nothing-left-worth-saving. Art as a thing of beauty to please the aristocracy became vile – a thing to be condemned and exterminated. Art would be used “to destroy art in an artistic way.”
Dada was a marker, delineating the past from the present, innocence and childhood from reality, unfairness and ugliness. Dada was a child becoming aware that his parents are not perfect infallible beings but humans with ugly habits and failings; the knowledge which makes him hate them without understanding them.
The Dadaist strove to be paradoxical. Once they were understood, by nature they had to change, to keep the viewer off balance. One artist described it as if a rug was being constantly pulled out from under us and we continued an odd dance.
So it was the paradox that characterized Dada. If art was a product, reflection or a support of a society that was criminally implicated, then it must be dismantled. But wasn’t this art as well, and a reflection of society’s disillusionment with the past. Herein lied the paradox which made Dada a rich art movement, albeit a difficult one to define.
The Dada credo “everything the artist spits is art,” became profound in its implications. Suddenly anything could be called art. Historically unacceptable techniques and materials became fair game. Dadaists ascribed artistic qualities to the “Found Object,” “the Ready-made,” and “Collage.” To take an ordinary object and make it art was a fundamental change in the way art was perceived. The viewer has been challenged ever since.
In 1917 Duchamp submitted his sculpture “Fountain” to the Independents Exhibition that same year. The sculpture was a urinal turned on its back and signed “R. Mutt.” When his sculpture was rejected by the hanging committee as being a plagiarism and a plain piece of plumbing, Duchamp replied:
“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object. As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given, are her plumbing and her bridges.”
Dada was by no means simply a movement of the visual arts. Poetry, graphic arts, film, theater and demonstration were very much a part; and to the founders of more significant influence. A technique called automatic writing was created. The artist kept his consciousness out of the way and simply poured forth words. Also a poetry was formed out of the sounds of letters. The letters were arranged and read phonetically, the sound was the poem.
All these types of art were meant to disturb the subject. Max Ernst when asked of his work during the Dada period, replied, “The work I produced in those days was not meant to please but to make people scream.”
Dada because of its reactionism, anger, anti-art stand was destined to be short lived. In most countries it simply disappeared as artists became fascinated again with creation and less interested in destruction. World War I ended and the rebuilding of a war-torn Europe began. Dada continued tumultuously in Paris into the early twenties; but almost all the painters distanced themselves from the movement. They were being drawn to another, more visual group – the surrealists.
The two movements co-existed for a brief time. Surrealism thrived and grew and survives to this day, but of course, that is another story to be told next week.
© Jay Magidson, 1996 (Published in Magidson’s weekly column, “Framed, Aspen Daily News, March 21, 1996)