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October 31, 2005
Being Tired and Feeling Down
In a flophouse room
At the epicenter of America
A neon sign blinking red
Through the cold window
He sits quietly
Like a small idea
In a vacant mind.
At earlier times
In other rooms
Seemed like birds sitting
In fragrant orchard trees
Making a few concluding remarks.
Or how as evening fell,
The sky tore open
Like a fisherman's net
And the brilliant moon swam out.
But that was then
And this is now.
October 30, 2005
O' What a Tangled Web They Weave
From the perspective of creative fantasy, one might think of a tangled bush or a tangle of bushes as a metaphor for what some might think of as a mulitiple personality disorder. Or perhaps, more correctly, as a cluster of traits that resemble what some have claimed to represent a "multiple personality disorder."
Such a tangle is at the same time a thicket, which adds multiple dimensions to the metaphoric interpretive possibilities. Elaborations of these thoughts will follow in updates and revisions of this post, as significant national political events continue to unfold and come to light.
There presently appear to be many faces to the present political administration, and to the leader of that administration. None of them are particularly benign. One almost imagines that if our current President were completely alone in the Oval Office, the door would be closed with a sign reading, "Please knock to see who's in." The Emperor fiddles while his nation burns. And, it seems to be more and more possible that he and some members of his own ruling party are the very ones carrying the torches.
One might suddenly be struck with images of Richard Nixon wandering the White House halls at night mumbling nonsense to the pictures on the wall. Are there any who worry that we are veering dangerously close to a totalitarian regime, all the while championing "democracy" around the world? And who among us are truly brave enough to express those worries?
Ponder these possible indications that this regime is spiralling out of control:
The disastrous lack of response to Hurricane Katrina's devastation.
Harriet Miers' undeserved nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The embarrassing mind of the man who nominated her.
The indictment of I. Lewis Libby, Chief Advisor to V.P. Cheney.
Libby's legal defense: "I can't remember."
The mystery of why Vice-President Cheney has not yet been indicted.
The mystery of why Carl Rove has not yet been indicted.
The investigation of Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist.
The indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The finding of no evidence of WMP in Iraq.
The death count of more than 2,000 American soldiers' in Iraq.
The evaporation of the Consitutional separation of church and state.
The Evangelical Christian control of the American government.
The Evangelical Christian domination over the President's mind.
A tangled Bush tangling ever-deeper into a thicket of deceit and profound malevolence. Are we perhaps in the stranglehold of a present-day duplicitous version of history's "tricky Dick"?
October 28, 2005
Rosa Parks: A Belated Tribute
The late civil rights icon Rosa Parks will be the first woman to lie in state in the U. S. Capitol Rotunda, a tribute usually reserved for presidents, soldiers and politicians.
Both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives have voted to honour Parks with this extraordinary national homage.
Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who helped spark the U. S. civil rights movement when she courageously refused to give her seat on an Alabama bus to a white man 50 years ago, died on Monday at the age of 92. Shamefully, she died in a state of almost total poverty, with none of the major human rights organizations offering to provide even the smallest amount of financial support to meet her meager, basic living needs in later life.
"The movement that Rosa Parks helped launch changed not only our country, but the entire world, as her actions gave hope to every individual fighting for civil and human rights.
"We now can honour her in a way deserving of her contributions and legacy," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
According to the Architect of the Capitol, the Capitol Rotunda has been used for this honour only 28 times since 1852. Other Americans so honoured have included Presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and World War II General Douglas MacArthur.
On December 1, 1955, Parks, a 42-year-old mild-mannered seamstress living in the racially segregated south, boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her refusal to give up her seat to a white man led to a subsequent boycott of the city's bus system by black residents,which was led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who became a central figure in the fight for equal rights for blacks during the 1960s.
October 27, 2005
Making Amends: Remembrance of A Model Scene
There are moments when the sudden recollection of a "model scene" from our past activates, as in the following moving poem, the wish to make reparations for unkind actions that we might have inflicted upon important relationships in our lives.
This poem has, for me, an especially dramatic impact, because it is a reminder of the many humiliations that we, perhaps unintentionally, too often inflict upon young persons.
IT ALL COMES BACK
We placed the cake, with its four candles
poking out of thick soft frosting, on the seat
of his chair at the head of the table
for just a moment, while we unfolded and spread
Spanish cloth over Vermont maple.
Suddenly he stepped from the group
of schoolmates and parents and family friends
and ran to the table, and just as someone cried
No, no! Don't sit! he sat on his chair and his cake,
and the room broke into groans and guffaws.
Actually it was pretty funny, we all
started yelping our heads off, and actually
it wasn't in the least funny. He ran to me,
and I picked him up but I was still laughing,
and in indignant fury he jabbed his thumbs
into the corners of my mouth, grasped
my cheeks, and yanked - he was so muscled
and so outraged I felt as if he might rip
my whole face off, and then realized
that was exactly what he was trying to do.
It came to me: I was one of his keepers,
his birth and the birth of his sister
had put me on earth a second time,
with the duty this time to protect them
and to help them to love themselves,
and yet here I was, locked in solidarity
with these adults against my own child,
hee-hawing away, without once wondering
if we weren't, underneath, all of us, striking back,
too late, at our parents for humiliating us.
I gulped down my laughter and held him and
apologized and commiserated and explained and then
things were right again, but to this day it remains
loose, this face, seat of superior smiles,
on the bones, from that yanking.
Shall I publish this anecdote from the past
and risk embarrassing him? I like it
that he fought back, but what's the good,
now he's thirty-six, in telling the tale
of his mortification when he was four?
Let him decide - I'll give him three choices.
He can scratch his slapdash checkmark,
whose rakish hook reminds me
of his old high-school hockey stick,
in whichever box applies:
__Tear it up ___ Don't publish it but give me a copy
___O.K. publish it on the chance that
somewhere someone survives
of those said to die miserably every day
for lack of the small clarifications sometimes found in poems.
By Galway Kinnell
The New Yorker Magazine
October 23, 2005
LeRoy Whitfield: A Hero for Our Times
LeRoy Whitfield, a writer who focused upon the battle against AIDS among African-Americans, has died after living 15 years with the HIV virus, all the while steadfastly standing by his commitment not to to take HIV medications. He was 36.
Whitfield, a contributor to Vibe magazine, died Sunday at North General Hospital in Manhattan from complications related to AIDS.
"He was unusually committed to exposing the truth about AIDS in the African-American community, and he was unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom," Keith Boykin, a widely-read commentator on race and sexual orientation, wrote on his Web site.
Some might doubt the wisdom of one of the conventions that Whitfield challenged or defied after being diagnosed with HIV in 1990, namely the use of antiretroviral drugs. It is true that there are number of known side effects associated with HIV,which range from fatigue and nausea to blurred vision. However, it is also now known that additional psychopharmalogical interventions are able to manage or even ameliorate most of those side effects quite well. Therefore, this observer worries that Mr. Whitfield's personal commitment against the use of antiretrovial medication may have conveyed a dangerous or damaging message to those very groups to whom his work was devoted.
In fact, toward the end of his life, LeRoy Whitfield expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of his decision. "My T-cell count has plummeted to 40, a dangerously all-time low, and my viral load has spiked to 230,000. I've argued against taking [medication] for so many years that now, with my numbers stacked against me, I find it hard to stop," he wrote in the August issue of HIV Plus magazine. "I keep weighing potential side effects against the ill alternative, opportunistic infections and I can't decide which is worse to my mind. I just can't decide." This is perhaps where a steadfast commitment at some point manages to cross over a fine line and becomes a dangerously maladaptive personal obsessive defense, riddled with a deep sense of personal doubt that, in turn, makes it almost impossible to carry out adaptive decisions.
Nevertheless, from a more generous, broader perspective Whitfield will be remembered for using his personal experiences, including relationships with both men and women, as a prism to clarify many of the larger issues surrounding the disease.
He linked AIDS among African-Americans with public housing, poverty and violence, which he said contributed to the rise of HIV in the African-American community. He also debunked the absurd notion, voiced by a number of African-American tunnel-visioned and paranoid groups, that AIDS was a "white conspiracy" to spread the disease among blacks.
"Widespread violence, for example, is not a reality in upscale gay communities. Gay white men do not overpopulate public housing. Gay communities have no shortage of HIV services nearby," he wrote in the September 1997 issue of Positively Aware magazine. "AIDS is the gripping issue of the gay community. For African-Americans, it's the atrocity du jour."
According to the 2000 Census, African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. However, they have accounted for 40 percent of the 929,985 estimated AIDS cases diagnosed since the first ones were reported in 1981 by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
A Chicago native whom Boykin remembers as a man with "beautiful locks" and "an infectious smile," Whitfield attended the University of Chicago and then later worked as an associate editor at the Chicago-based magazine Positively Aware and as a community educator for Positive Voice, an AIDS awareness organization.
He moved to New York in 2000, contributing to Vibe and becoming a senior editor of POZ, a magazine aimed at providing support for HIV-positive people.
Among his admirable ventures was a trip to a South Dakota prison to interview Nikko Briteramos, a black young person who had been convicted under that state's HIV transmission law.
But in the end, Whitfield was forced to focus on his own illness, while writing about it. He dubbed himself the "Marathon Man" after a Harvard Medical School researcher studied him as a rare longtime HIV survivor who had "never popped AIDS meds", as Whitfield wrote three years ago in a POZ article.
The doctor "has stopped short of shakin' a Magic 8-Ball to understand specimens like me," he wrote. Whitfield himself attributed his survival to "better nutrition, good exercise and a low stress level."
Revised Adaptation from:
Newsday, copyright 2005
October 22, 2005
Arthur Garfunkel: Belated Gratitude
What follows are a number of reminiscent thoughts about an early friendship, an open letter of thanks to Arthur Garfunkel.
Arthur, I have often thought about the gratitude that I have always harbored for what you gave me, I'm sure unknowingly, during our friendship in New York. But now, for some reason, I have come to actually feel that gratitude. An interesting reversal of things, for we often struggle to attach thoughts to our feelings, rather than, as in this case, suddenly experiencing the feelings associated with a thought.
I remember our first encounter, when I was a relatively unimportant assistant director in the financial aid office at Teachers College, Columbia University. You came into the office and described how you had just returned from England, where your first album had been released to little critical acclaim and little general notice or popularity--a "flop". You had decided that, in the face of this seeming musical failure, you would turn your attention to becoming a teacher, to helping children.
Young and really knowing little, in my position at Teachers College I had quickly figured out how to help a prospective student fill out his/her financial aid application in a way that made it a "slam-dunk" success. So, in a way, I think that I helped to provide you with some sense of safety and comfort during a period of some significant disappointment and dispair. And you hid it well. I remember, with great humor, your asking me if I wanted to join your new back-up band. "But what would I do?", I asked. You replied, "Play the guitar, of course." "But I don't play the guitar," I responded. "Oh...," you said.
About a month later, the album was released in the United States, instantly becoming a monumental success: "The Sounds of Silence." Suddenly, you were on the royal road to national fame and significant financial wealth. And I was off to a an unplanned journey to becoming a teacher for the poor and later, a psychoanalyst working with young people suffering from disturbed emotions. As our lives took different paths, my memories of you have always remained with me.
"The Sounds of Silence" and your later album, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," have always been quiet inspirations to the way in which I have always worked with young people. And now I actually feel the gratitude toward you that has always been a part of my reminiscent thoughts about you.
Arthur, thank you very, very much.
Some observers are speculating about a number of very curious events that have been occurring behind the scenes at the University of Chicago. There was the widely publicized dismissal from the University's Department of Psychiatry of an internationally renowned psychiatrist, with the University later officially admitting that the action had been taken without cause; the documented admission of "no cause" for the dismissal was formally published in in at least one of Chicago's leading newspapers (The Chicago Tribune). It was intriguing to note that this newspaper article was never mentioned in the section of the University's website devoted to recent publications about the University.
The dismissal of this eminent psychiatrist almost immediately resulted in the leaving, en masse, of a number of important members of that Department and their move, as a body, to another major university's medical school. The Department of Psychiatry has been decimated; some perhaps overly-optimistic observers are hoping that, at this point, things are just about as bad as they will get.
Not much later, there was an announcement of the sudden, seemingly unexpected resignation of the University's current President, which was especially peculiar since it "just happened" to coincide with the stagnation of the University's current two billion dollar fund drive.
However, the latest incident at the University has burst plainly into public view, i.e., the denial of tenure for Daniel Drezner, assistant professor of political science:
"I shouldn't be doing this. I'll be going up for tenure soon."
It was with those words of self-reproach that Daniel Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, inaugurated his Web blog in September 2002.
As thousands of his online readers know, Mr. Drezner didn't heed his own advice. Instead, he rose to blogosphere prominence. His site is perhaps the most widely read blog focusing on the international political economy, turning scholarly research on issues like outsourcing, the politics of trade, and monetary policy into pieces of analysis for a wider audience.
Mr. Drezner's first blog entry came back to haunt him: Recently, his department informed him that he was denied tenure and would have to look elsewhere for a job. Usually, a scholar who is denied tenure assumes that the decision was simply a reflection of a department's assessment of scholarship. In this case, Mr. Drezner and others are wondering whether the blog may have had an impact on his tenure status.
News of his tenure denial has struck a nerve in the growing community of academic bloggers, who are aware that blogging can be a double-edged sword: a powerful way to communicate scholarly ideas to the public and increase name recognition, and a risky venture in a field where every idea - even those roughly thrown together at 3 a.m. - matters.
While refusing to go into specifics about Mr. Drezner's tenure case, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Chicago, Dali Yang, dismissed the notion that his department considered Mr. Drezner's blog in making its decision. "I can assure you it's not specifically about the blog," he said. [Note the obviously devious response: "not specifically"].
Academic bloggers interviewed say the most common problem they face is convincing their colleagues that their online activity does not come at the expense of scholarly research. While some of the nation's most prominent scholars have started their own blogs, most notably Chicago giants Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and Richard Posner, a federal judge, blogging is still perceived by some academics as a slight activity lacking in intellectual value.
Another blogger, Sean Carroll, a physicist at the University of Chicago who was [also!] denied tenure in May, said some of his colleagues have the opinion that blogging means "spending time as an educator or a public intellectual that you could be spending as a researcher." Mr. Carroll, who contributes to the science-themed blog Cosmic Variance, said he "balanced things fine, but there was a question of what other people think." He defended his contributions to the blog, which joyfully tackles topics such as extra dimensions of space, dark energy, and galaxies, as "part and parcel of being a professor," giving him a powerful tool to interact with other physicists and to communicate complicated subjects to the general public.
Colleagues of Mr. Drezner insist that he has sustained an impressive level of academic output since starting his blog. He's published essays in refereed journals, such as Political Science Quarterly, and has written pieces for other prominent journals, including Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. He's also completed a book titled "Who Rules? The Regulation of Globalization," for which he received an advance contract from Princeton University, according to his curriculum vitae.
The debate over academic blogging has been a heated one in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, where a passionate response was elicited from an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, Henry Farrell, who contributes to the blog Crooked Timber. "To dismiss blogging as a bad idea altogether is to make an enormous mistake," he wrote. "For these academics, blogging isn't a hobby; it's an integral part of their scholarly identity. They may very well be the wave of the future."
Revised by the Author, 10/22/2005
October 16, 2005
The Truman Show: "Capote"
Phillip Seymore Hoffman is starring in the movie,"Capote", which is scheduled to open this week. The film documents the triumphs and ultimate self-destruction of Truman Capote
. Film critic Roger Ebert has proclaimed that, "If there is such a thing as a lock on an Oscar nomination, Hoffman has one; in a year rich in performances, his is remarkable."
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TRUMAN CAPOTE
"Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act."
That quip exemplifies the acerbic humor of Capote, who became an icon of pop culture during the 1960's and 70's.
He was born on September 30, 1924, as Truman Strekfus Persons in New Orleans, later taking his stepfather's surname and reinventing himself as Truman Capote. He stated that his height was 5'3" ("tall as a shotgun and just as noisy"), although it was well known that he was much shorter than that.
Southern literary lion Tennessee Williams was a distant relative, and his childhood friend Harper Lee used Truman as the basis for Dill in her novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
His most famous work was "In Cold Blood" (1965). Other well-known writings included his first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" (1948), the novellas "The Grass Harp" (1951) and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1958).
Capote appeared in Neil Simon's film comedy "Murder by Death" (1976), for which he received a Golden Globe nomination as best new male star. He also appeared in "Annie Hall" (1978), turning up in the film as a "Truman Capote look-alike."
Eventually, his jet-set friends, whom he betrayed in "Answered Prayers", vehemently turned against him, triggering his professional and personal decline. He died from a drug overdose on August 25, 1984, at the age of 59, in the home of Joanne Carson, former wife of Johnny Carson, the late, long-time host of "The Tonight Show."
October 08, 2005
Peace and Calm
And then there are those times for a peacefully calm rest:
The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground--from rock, plant, tree, or tower.
At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye
Bent earthwards; he looks up--the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away,
Yet vanish not! the wind is in the tree,
But they are silent; still they roll along
Immeasurably distant; and the vault,
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its unfathomable depth.
At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.
Studs Terkel: A National Literary Icon
, now approaching the age of 94, has just published his latest book, "And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey." In addition to Terkel, Chicago has been the home or springboard for many other American authors of great renown, including the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Dreiser ("Sister Carrie"), Phillip Roth, James Purdey, James Farrell ("Studs Lonnigan"), Saul Bellow, Richard Stern and others. However, for some fifty years, Studs Terkel's works have consistently served as a testament to the voice of the common man, imprinting that voice upon the national and international "minds."
Studs' works have included, among many others, "Division Street: America," "Hard Times," "Working", "The Good War" and "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession." He has been the recipient of many national awards for his works, including the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards.
For those familiar with his work, it should come as no surprise that the hallmark virtue of Studs Terkel's newest oral history, "And They All Sang," is its limitless breadth of spirit. The book collects more that 40 interviews conducted over the past 50 years with singers, musicians, composers and producers for the daily radio show that he hosted on a Chicago's radio station, WFMT-FM. WFMT had it's humble beginnings in a small studio located in the basement of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry; over the years, it has grown to be a nationally reknowned voice for the fine arts, receiving numerous prestigious national broadcasting awards.
In Terkel's latest publication, there is no shortage of major musical figures, or of insightful observations about their music. Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespi, Woody Guthrie, Ravi Shankar and Aaron Copeland constitute just a sampling of the musical legends with whom Terkel engages, and their remarks alone--about their own work and the creative process in general--make this book well worthwhile. But far more valuable are the inspiring assumptions upon which these converstions are based.
We live in a time of bitter partision devisiveness, where forms of communication have evolved into seemingly ever-expanding, microscopically defined segments. The intention of this activity appears to be to assure that increasingly intolerant audiences will always be guaranteed the opportunity to never, or at least only rarely, encounter an idea, person or political/cultural perspective with which they aren't familiar or that they don't already like or embrace.
To say the absolute least, that is not the way that Studs Terkel has approached the world. He has always approached his work from the viewpoint of an opportunity to speak to other people as a journey of discovery, an adventure, a continual fountain of fulfilling surprise. His books have always been triumphs of simplicity and basic human virtue. They are firmly bound to Terkel's coviction that if he treats his subjects with respect, listens carefully and attentively to what they have to say and takes their concerns seriously (though never humorlessly), they will repay him with honesty. His newest book, "And They All Sang," comes closest to capturing what Terkel has always achieved in his writings, which are both wildly ambitious and yet as casual as can be.
The singing metaphor in Terkel's latest work comes ever-closer to describing how he has achieved his singularly magnificent approach, functioning almost like a producer, working behind the scenes to coax extraordinary spoken performances from his subjects. His goal is to elicit arias in speech. And, like most great producers, he is essentially content to erase his own participation and permit his subjects to shine through him, as if his role is utterly transparent. Of course, it is not. Terkel has achieved the perfection of the art that conceals art. In fact, to appear casual in approaching very serious matters is a very difficult task. And because Studs likes to make himself appear invisible, his occasional interventions have always been some of the more delectable and inspiring pleasures in his interviews and writings.
In conclusion, it has always been the common human voice that Terkel has drawn out and captured. Underlying the conversations that he has presented over the years is the trust that people can come to understand each other, and that the more understanding that we are able to achieve, the better off we will all be. It is a faith that has been tested and has stood the test. Studs has lived through, and often written about, the Depression, World War II, the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts and blacklists (which Terkel personally experienced), the civil rights struggles, Vietnam and 9/11. He continues to hear and listen to America, and the world, singing.
October 07, 2005
Creativity: Further Notes
Corneria City Palace
Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.
Above is another computer rendering by the talented young artist presented in the previous posting. This rendering is, in contrast, much more colorful (emotional). On the other hand, it conveys a sense of anger (bright red object in lower left corner) about feeling contained, isolated or not accepted within larger interpersonal social contexts, represented here by the image of a large, diverse city. In addition, the theme of placing the rendering, as well as the one in the previous posting, in the "futuristic" realm may suggest at least one of two things. First, the focus upon a world of the distant future may be a defensive way to provide a sense of distance, a temporary sense of relief, from having to face difficult or serious issues confronted in everyday life. On the other hand, the emphasis upon the futuristic theme could also suggest the capacity to maintain a sense of hope about positive prospects that might lie ahead in one's life.
Again, turning to a more theoretical perspective, there is a revolution underway that will affect the way in which human beings describe ourselves and, through that, the ways in which we relate to each other and the way we organise ourselves. On an even deeper level than the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, this coming change will alter long held and sometimes 'sacred' perceptions of the self. It will change the way we perceive our perceptions. In so doing it will also alter the way we look at and understand art, which is the main theme this discussion.
The revolution is arising from recent explorations into the functioning of the brain. Only in the last 15 years or so has it come about that new thought and new technology have, hand in hand, begun to enable us to see into the brain in greater depth than ever before and to discuss in more detailed terms subjects once held to be the intuitive realm of art. We are now beginning to be able to look at the very building blocks of what/who we are, the terms with which we describe ourselves, those things which give us our essential sense of identity.
Specifically, there have been renewed investigations about certain mechanisms in the brain which allow it to fill in missing information, make generalisations and, where large gaps in sensory input exist, to actually impose objects on the perceptions. The objects dredged up from the memory by the brain and projected onto our perceptions then appear to fit seamlessly into the real world.
For example, how might the brain deal with seeing a cat's tail sticking out from behind a sofa. One might speculate that what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past. Each time anyone of us encounters an object, the visual system begins a constant questioning process. Fragmentary evidence comes in and the higher centers say, "Hmmmm, maybe this is an animal" Our brains then pose a series of visual questions: as in a twenty questions game. Is it a mammal? A cat? What kind of cat? Tame? Wild? Big? Small? Black, white or tabby? The higher visual centers then project partial "best fit" answers back to the lower visual areas including the primary visual cortex.
In this manner, the impoverished image is progressively worked on and refined (with bits filled in when appropriate). These massive feed forward and feedback projections are in the business of conducting successive iterations that enable us to home in on the closest approximation to the truth. To overstate the argument deliberately, perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input.
This capability of the brain to impose what it deems to be a useful reality on a given set of sensory perceptions is an underlying theme of how, from the viewpoint just described, this particular brain function is fundamental to our understanding of art and ways in particular that some visual art uses it in making its effects. There are many examples now of brain function which show conclusively that those solid and unshakeable images of the self we have clung to in the past are not what we presumed them to be. The relationship between what is out there in the physical world and how we describe it to ourselves were once seen to be in some kind of balance. It seems now that that balance has shifted--the weight is now overwhelmingly on the side of the brain--inventing reality and projecting what it needs-- and can get away with--onto an indifferent and in the main unresponsive universe.
In the diverse range of ideas which have been used to describe the universe and our place in it something similar would seem to be happening. If one attempts to describe the physical world, which one would reasonably think is actually unknowable, incomprehensible and for the most part indifferent to one's actually being here, then one is describing what amounts to a blank screen onto which one can project whatever is most useful, or that which a person most desires to be there. This projection is only limited by the information received from measuring the screen, i.e., scientific descriptions of the universe and in most cases these can be, and often are, ignored anyway.
One can see in the creative arts something that is not only similar to this process, but which seems to be an exact enactment of it on a smaller, but no less significant scale. The blank canvas, the empty sheet of writing paper, the blank stave or silence itself being not a metaphor but an exact image of the blank universal screen and our filling in of these spaces to be the exact same process, not a metaphor for or symbol of it.
So what is going on in this process and what is its significance? What are the desired projections artists have needed to see on this blank screen? What do they need to see in this strange mirror? The many possible answers to these questions seem to revolve around two fundamental desires: the need for personal identity and a way of coming to terms with the world. Perhaps most of the projections made by human beings actually contain a combination of these two desires. With this in mind, when we project onto our artists' screens we are therefore telling a unique, unrepeatable and unforeseen story. In this sense every work of art may in some way be seen as a self-portrait, a unique set of projections.
Although these projections are unique they do fall into categories--much like books in a shop. There are the equivalents of thrillers, science fiction or historical novels. But also the sets which our projected stories fall into are not necessarily narrative. They manifest themselves in art as images of many kinds--each type corresponding to the particular person's need for identity and, of necessity, each involving a way of dealing with their perceptions of the world. We must remember that while these projections are always personal and related to individual experience and are therefore part of the process of self-description, they reveal themselves in projections of universal and archetypal images or processes. (Whether these are innate or not is a complex question and would need a further essay to examine it in depth).
Some of these images embody certain emotions and sensual experiences that we find pleasant or even ecstatic. For example, the representation, recreation and amplification of sensual and sexual sensations which can act as a hiding place, or at least a holiday resort, from the world. The great tradition of sensuality in French culture is a case in point. From the Impressionists such as Matisse, the over-riding projection is of images of sensual luxury which has been used as an escape from the drudgery and the horror of everyday life. Other projections would be of images which, while presenting a fragment of the identity of an individual, might enable us not to escape from life by limiting our relation to it, but to engage with the world in as complete a manner as possible.
I want to look the case of autism for the moment and in particular savants. People with autism often suffer from a deprivation of the socialising and communication skills that could enable them to take part, with real depth, in consistent relationships with others. In some cases though, it confers on a few of them some extraordinary abilities. For example, some savants display phenomenal ability in mathematical calculation in extraordinarily specific fields. One boy could tell the time of day to the exact second without looking at a watch. Another could generate an eight digit prime number with ease in a second or two. Some can, on one hearing, reproduce a Chopin waltz note perfect. Others can accurately draw an extremely complex scene, say the New York skyline, after one brief look. With those on a higher level of the autism spectrum, in particular Asperger's syndrome (often with Superior to Very Superior intelligence ranges), what is produced truly art, it does transform and communicate.
Perhaps for many artists, the effort to transcend the trivialities of everyday life would benefit from attempting to strip away mechanisms of distortion and see the world in part as the savant sees it. This would mean not only tearing down the social niceties and manners of peer groupings, as well as accepted reactions to things, but also making an attempt to approach and disturb the unconscious filters, barriers and means of projection deep in the brain. I think art, by certain techniques, can do this. In this sense, one is faced with those incomprehensible questions which the adept is told to contemplate in their search for enlightenment. The famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is a perfect example. I think that what happens here is that the brain is presented with something it cannot deal with, a paradox, and in the small silence that ensues while it wrestles with this surreality--in that silence or shutting down of the logical, filtering and projecting systems in the brain --the whole world rushes in as it is--as it were without comment from the occupied grey matter.
It's as if while the brain was scratching its head we suddenly see a chair as a chair and the sky as the sky without intervening distorting mirrors. The result of this is a distancing of the perception from the emotional reaction to it. And in this distancing one sees clearly, at the same time, the "just-so" world and the responding self. What we would seem to be doing here is to be introducing a third eye--a dispassionate witness within the brain --a "super-superego." This seems to me to be part of the process which leads to what in other cultures has been termed enlightenment and which we might term awareness in existence. This state is possibly the best we can hope for in our lives and an object worth pursuing. This sudden apprehension can initially be only fleeting but by practice one might retain the situation for progressively longer periods.
The artist is attempting to make an object which displays an expression of personal identity either by a narrative description of their perceptions or by creating an object which might help them to come to terms with their existence. These attempts are made through the creation of works of art, which make their effects on internal mental life by playing with and using those perceptual/thought functions and systems described earlier, and which manifest themselves in archetypal images and processes.
In terms of the viewer, one way of confusing the brain in the presentation of artistic images is by playing with the brain's capacity to fill in gaps. When an artistic creation is presented that allows the viewer to fill in the gaps left by the artist, deliberately one would hope, the subsequent projection from the viewer's mind into these holes makes them a co-participant in the creation of the image. The work then has the ability of not only being a projection of the artist's consciousness but also at the same time that of the viewer. This technique, certainly much more common in Chinese and Japanese painting than in the west, makes for a powerful impact. In this case, not only would the image induce a fracture between perception and emotion, the viewers' own "ghosts" have been let out to roam around the structure before them. The artist's self-portrait becomes a mirror for the viewer.
Perhaps the question most urgent at the bottom of all this is "What is the basis of our actions?" The truths that are being revealed should liberate us from old, outworn, damaging and often imposed self images. We are being handed the power not only to create ourselves, but to recreate ourselves (and that over and over again). The work of the artist of the future should be to consolidate that liberty, to insist on the complexity of things, confirm the uniqueness of the individual and above all to invent relevant stories for all of us to use in the journey to self-consciousness.
Adapted from a research article on
the brain and creativity
Gary Kennard, 2005.
Creativity: More Than A Young Savant
Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
The computer rendering by this talented young artist is a striking image, even taken at the manifest level, with the clear contrast between the starkly white snow juxtaposed by the powerfully distinct dark mountain arising from it. Attempting to extract the underlying meanings of the rendering, from a deconstructivist point of view, one is tempted to focus initially upon the white snow and the simplistic phrase "pure as the driven snow." However, thinking more in terms of interpenetrating dualities, white can be interpreted as anger and opposition, while the dark (or black) color of the mountain symbolizes constraint of emotion.
Taken together, from my own speculative view of this graphic rendering as a reflection of the young artist's strivings for identity, it seems to represent his efforts in one very important element of those strivings, specifically the attempt to achieve ever-stronger constraints or controls over the enactment or expression of his tendencies to be oppositional and/or angry. Of course, it should be made clear that my own interpretations of the underlying meanings may be quite different from the artist's own understanding of them.
Turning to more theoretical post-modern perspectives regarding the pre-requisites for higher levels such talents for creativity, one concept emphasizes our forgetfulness, a kind of amnesia about the details of our past. This propensity for amnesia is proposed to be the fountainhead of art and human creativity, and the recognition of this human forgefulness, a form of creative dissociation, is a sunburst of insight into our artistic creativity
Human amnesia, our propensity to forget particulars of the past - is nothing less than our freedom to create. For example, it is exactly because we cannot remember the details of the full moon of last Friday in color, size, texture, or intensity, that we are liberated to construct it. Whether out of of "cartilage and glass, wire and papier-mâché," ot oil paint and canvas, color and illusion, the creative process is called into play to fill this lacuna, and the artist is thus made legitimate.
The creative process is not simply a massing of data (if it were, empirical science would reign supreme in our art galleries and exibitions), but one rather of abstraction, a reductive process which imposes a shape to the material that embodies its meaning. This imposition of the design and will of the artist upon the stuff of reality, known as the creative art, is directly related to the loss of memory. Shape-giving would be impossible without the loss of particulars, the tyranny of infinite data. So much of the lauded sense of "perspective" and "vision" found in our artists and savants is dependent on creative amnesia, their ability to decipher patterns and discard dross. At base, to abstract, in its primary sense, means to concentrate on the essential qualities, to find the essence, and present it in an intelligible manner.
To the extent that the past is largely a creation of the present, given form from this point of vision, amnesia is the cause, the license, the will to create. Yes, memory is an associated process of creating the past. Amnesia is not anti-memory, nor does it necessarily "crumble the geometry of things and create a world of strange relationships and dissociations in space and time.” Ultimately, however, it is exactly the force of power of amnesia which liberates the mind and sensibilities, which allows us to create the geometry of things and find through the process of abstraction exactly those relationships in space and time where meaning resides.
In effect, our very process of thought is grounded in the manipulation of inputs, of grabbing on to this and throwing out that , of unconsciously and consciously forgetting the inconsequential. Much of the strength in the vision of creative amnesia, sometimes described as a creative form of dissociation, is its inherent life-enhancing quality. The process of abstraction and ideation is thoroughly an affirmation of the human condition, the power of human assertion in the face of infinite chaos; the search for salvation through the affirmation of self. Ultimately we become our own creation.
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