Twisted and Flowing

Recently I have been going through a difficult transition with my career. The stress of trying to fit myself into a box that I don’t desire, don’t feel comfortable in and don’t particularly see as a path towards growth and development has been one of the most psychologically difficult things I have had to deal with.

A few days ago I had a peculiar experience. Returning from work I could feel tightness throughout my back and shoulders, creeping up at the base of my neck and the back of my skull. It is normal for me to have stiffness, especially in the shoulders, often in the neck, but not like this. This was like being gripped. Instead of the usual awareness of being tight, this was an awareness of that tightness actually occurring and taking root in the moment.

There are a couple of techniques I have to handle physical stiffness. One of them is a simple conscious loosening of targeted muscles. When I was on my bike ride home and waiting at a stop sign I took a moment, tried to find some stability and began to consciously target and unwind the areas of tightness, hoping to off set the damage before it occurred this time.

To my great surprise the process of allowing my muscles to relax unleashed an immediate wave of emotion, sadness, the urge to cry. Surprised and ready to start biking again I stopped my meditation and the sadness went away, replaced once again and immediately with the same spreading tightness, though somewhat sharper this time.

I had heard about the relationship between stress and the body, about how emotions reside within us and are carried around by us in ways that are not normally considered when we think about emotions. All of us understand that tightness and stiffness, headaches and other such symptoms come hand in hand with too much stress. It isn’t as common to think about what anger, or sadness, fear or loneliness do to us physically.

When I had finished my commute I was in a pretty bad mood. I didn’t want to let the sadness overtake me on the way home because there was a lot to do in the time I had before the kids went to bed. I didn’t want to miss out on the part of the day I had been looking forward to, and I also didn’t want to have to explain what had been going on emotionally. So the tightness remained, a roadblock to my ability to function properly. It was perhaps a migraine, or very like one, and every moderately loud noise or bright light was piercing. I found myself unable to focus on more than on things at a time, especially noises, and had a difficult time concentrating.

Sleeping didn’t help either. I woke up the next morning with the same tightness, more settled in this time. The same general cloud of distraction had settled around me, and though I was less triggered by my environment, my overall energy, ability to think and focus were all diminished. It was a long day at work and I knew that this wasn’t going to be sustainable.

This time, on my commute home, when I was feeling like there was some space to be alone with myself, I concentrated on letting it all go.

I ended up sitting at the stop sign for much longer on that ride. As soon as I started to concentrate on letting my shoulders relax I felt the same wave of sadness, like the tipping out of a bucket. It wasn’t easy to start. The tears came, which is what my body told me it needed, but they came in waves, and I had to be intentional about maintaining focus on my muscles. After several minutes, however, it started to flow on its own.

Chinese medicine has for thousands of years described most of the ills that befall humans as blockages of energy flows. This is named as Qi, or Chi, and is broadly the circulation of vital energy throughout the body and the world around us. Qi has much in common with the circulation of blood, the circulation of air through the lungs, and all the bodily cycles which are occurring within us moment by moment. Naturally the inability to breathe, or the cessation of blood coursing through our veins will cause significant issues very quickly. Qi, however, encompasses energy which flows through us in ways that western medicine does not accept, or at least does not know how to get a handle on. Though the Chinese describe the cycle of Qi as flowing through bodily organs like the lungs, liver and heart, these are also metaphors describing the nature of the flow rather than a blueprint. At least not for someone who hasn’t been trained.

Problems arise when Qi stops flowing. When there is a knot, or a blockage or an impairment of the usual order. To be healthy is to be in balance and have all of one’s energy flowing properly.

My experience with sadness existing as muscle stiffness was exactly this, a blockage of my emotion. My sense of being trapped, my resentment, my frustration and my hopelessness were all valid feelings which I was not allowing myself to express. Instead of flowing out and through me, they had no path, no option, and so they dug themselves deep into my muscles and nerves. The energy from emotions cannot simply disappear. Blockages don’t simply evaporate. Sometimes they flood, sometimes they trickle, and sometimes time does heal a wound, but more often than not it is because we find outlets along the way. A true blockage will not leave until it is allowed to.

After allowing myself time to cry, and time to express some of the thoughts that I had been having, I found myself in a much better place. My external situation has not changed. The aspects which had triggered these emotions were still part of my life. I am still sticking to this path because of the logical and logistical reasons for which it makes sense at this time in my life, for my family, for stability and other reasons. These elements were also something I had named and discussed ahead of time. What I hadn’t yet done was allow myself the space to experience the emotions that went into those decisions. Just because I have a rational plan doesn’t mean that I need to be happy about it, or that choosing this path wasn’t painful. Carrying that emotion around with me compared to after letting it wash through me is dramatically different. Now, in a space where my head is able to reason, those decisions make more sense and carry more influence.

Feeling my emotions as they worked their way through my body was quite new, and has solidified my respect for the mind/body relationship. So much of what we carry around with us on a daily basis must be emotional and cognitive weight. I am not qualified to talk much about the psychological aspects, but it is clear to me that listening to the signals we receive moment by moment from our bodies can be a critical tool for identifying and addressing aspects of our mental lives of which we are not fully aware.

That emotions are able to affect us physically might seem distressing on one level, but on the other side of the coin it is greatly to our advantage. Whereas psychological issues may be obscure, subconscious and difficult to identify and untangle, physical issues can often be more directly identified and worked upon.

Since so much of our stress and other emotional weight ends up in our muscles it makes sense that stretching exercises like yoga can be so impactful. Massage is also an excellent tool, as well as the anecdotal evidence I have from others about how well acupuncture has helped. Many of these take time, space or money. I highly recommend having at least one of these in one’s life on a regular basis. Clearly they aren’t very helpful when one is in the moment or unable to make the time. I have a couple of simple “take-along” tools that serve me well. The first thing I have at my disposal are breathing exercises that help with focus, reenergizing and relaxing. I have heard them go by a few names, but I learned it from Yogabody as “Water, Whisky and Coffee Breathing“. Whisky breathing in particular is very effective to help relax the body. It helps set the ground for muscles to loosen up and is very effective when used in support of long-hold stretching exercise as well. Doing this breathing technique while mentally targeting tight muscles helps me to loosen up my shoulders during meetings, waiting in line or during any other small break in the day. The second technique I use regularly is a standing meditation called Zhan Zhuang. At its core this is a standing mediation in which one stands legs slightly apart, knees slightly bent, and tried to align the spine so that it sits comfortably stacked atop the hips. If done right the entire upper body hangs off of the spine effortlessly, while the legs remain firmly rooted in place. This builds muscles and stamina in the legs, but also provides an amazing opportunity to allows all of the muscle groups of the torso, shoulders, neck and head to relax completely. This is something that is very effective over a number of minutes, but even doing it while waiting at the checkout line, or any time one has a few minutes to stand , can help to mitigate tension. When used together with whiskey breathing it can quickly turn down the tightness in acute areas.

Embodied emotions are another clear signal that our minds and bodies are more unified than they are separate operations, as much of western philosophy has come to believe. As I continue to explore aesthetic knowledge, muscle memory and the ways in which we can experience the world other than through words, the more I am coming to see the intelligence and understanding which comes through all portions of our existence. Instead of us having a mind and a body, what we really have is a thinking body, a body-mind, of which our brain is only one part.

Learning how to identify and release these blockages of emotion is the first step. Allowing ourselves to feel them is what comes next. I have fewer words to share on this aspect. It is often uncomfortable and painful and feels extremely vulnerable. As the sadness was washing through me I felt unable to control it and had no idea how long it would last. I did know really know what to do, but letting it takes it course seemed to work well. Anything, so long as it was allowed to manifest itself the way my body required. I can’t say I have a lot of experience with my feelings. I am very sure that my relationship with my feelings needs to be rebalanced on the whole. This seems like a good next step in that process, providing vital perspective. One set at a time right?

Paying attention to how we are feeling physically is often much easier than trying to figure out how we are doing mentally. By spending time using some of the mindfulness techniques and trying to target physical symptoms we are also building aesthetic knowledge about ourselves. Like any form of practice, the more we seek to know our own bodies the more in alignment we will be with how we are feeling. This, in turn, will lead to a greater sensitivity and acuteness in how well we can perceive issues as, or before, they become more severe.

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or medical practitioner. I don’t have training in Chinese medicine or other therapeutic systems. I know what has worked for me and I hope that these techniques can be helpful to others. If you or someone you know is suffering from acute depression, anxiety or other situations which are making your day to day experience difficult and challenging your quality of life then I highly recommend seeking professional support. No one should be in this alone and there are resources and support groups available.

Beauty and Art in Relation

Emmanuel Kant laid out his thoughts about the nature of Aesthetics, and changed our perception of beauty for all periods that followed. To digest the question of “what is beauty” isn’t in my scope or my interest for this post. What I am interested in is Kant’s description of the aesthetic encounter, or what is happening when we encounter the world through framework not based on language or concepts.

Kant is interested in no less than describing how mankind interacts with the world in all aspects. He spend most of his energies speaking to the faculties and nuances of rational thought. When it comes to aesthetics, however, he describes the way in which we encounter the world unmediated by language or rationality of any kind. An aesthetic judgement is essentially our non-rational and non-judgmental response to the world which we are experiencing in the moment. It cannot be put into words but does provide us with an experience and a kind of knowledge. It also awakens our curiosity through the linking of our imagination and understanding.

Imagine our potential reactions to a great work of art by someone we have heard of as a great master of the brush. We may praise its masterful execution, or composition, color theory or novel use of narrative elements, but these are all intellectual judgements we have made using what we know about the artist, the technique or the context. When you stepped into the space with the painting or sculpture, how did it make you feel? What was the energy in the room? Did it take your breath away or quicken your pulse? Did you feel overpowered or overwhelmed? Were you drawn in to look at it from across the room without even realizing what you were looking at? The aesthetic judgement is how we feel before the words come, the initial buzz of excitement or halting of our attention. Nothing in the aesthetic can be explained to someone else. It is an unmediated encounter with the object. It might be more helpful to talk about it as a relationship with the object.

It is perhaps clearer to think of aesthetic reactions when we talk about the awe-inspiring or the wonderous in nature. A beautiful sunset or the sight of dramatic clouds sweeping across the landscape. These sorts of things, precisely because they have not be curated according to human rationality, make sense to us in terms of emotional reaction. Aesthetic knowledge, however, is not the same as having an emotional response.

Paying close attention to the details of a tree, to the heft of a familiar tool or how a certain ingredient blends with other elements of a dish are all forms of aesthetic knowledge. They are things that we know just as much (if not more) than facts and figures. The knowledge of the body lives with us in ways which often do not realize. Each time we interact with the world and make ourselves open to a relationship, we put ourselves in a position to gain aesthetic knowledge. Unlike data, the body seems able to hang onto aesthetic information more comfortably. While trying to juggle phone numbers, birthdays, appointments and due dates it is common to have something you just worked to remember fall right out of the head. Contrast that to what we think about muscle memory. There is a reason we use the phrase “like riding a bike”.

Beyond being able to ride a bike, or skillfully manipulate a tool, aesthetic knowledge seeps into us about relationships that exist in the world around us.

Like any kind of knowledge, aesthetic knowledge can be sought, gathered, consciously added to. Unlike what we learn through words, the lessons taught in a more visceral way are not always apparent, and the knoweldge we gain main not come readily to hand.

Having an artistic practice can be like having a gnawing question. If an artist has a practice, and this practice solves their problem, then why do they continue? Do they need to craft a cup out of clay because they thirst for water, or are they seeking something else? Is their pleasure simply in the making of the cup? For those artists who are seeking through their art, it is both the execution and the final product which can provide steps towards the solution. Trying out technique allows us to see what is technically possible, but the magic of actually creating something new is that we are provided with a further aesthetic subject from which to ignite our imaginations.

Is artmaking a physical pursuit of philosophy? A methodology for systematic questioning of our aesthetic relationship with the world? I believe that it is, and propose that it is something very helpful for our time and place. A world in which rationalism and conceptual studies are being rejected on the public stage, and experts are regarded with skepticism. Moving towards a new aesthetic understanding would encourage individuals to tune themselves towards beauty, and would encourage refinement of taste.

Could aesthetics philosophy be useful in a post-post-modern or post-deconstructionist world? Perhaps this plays well with the “earnest” arts categories in their overlap of seeking an authentic and non-ironic expression. Perhaps it is a post-words world in which we live, and a positive spin on a sort of “post-truth” experience. The caveat here is that the onus is on the individual to actually refine his or her taste, and not simply repeat back what the world is saying.

Perhaps in this way artists are a model for what that sort of knowledge seeking might look like. Art as a path towards aesthetic understanding. Art making and craft skills as a physical in-road, a non-verbal in road, to a non-conceptual encounter with our world.

One of the most promising aspects of Kant’s description is how much he hangs on this sense of “purposiveness” or inner directing aspect that is required in order to talk about art. This aspect is always included within any aspect of the natural world. Every tree and animal in its natural environment grows and develops according to its own inner purposiveness. It is related to the innate self-regulating “is-ness” of each unique aspect of the natural world. In judging taste for beauty, one is specifically looking to identify the underlaying purposiveness, or nature, of the thing. I personally find it very interesting to think about how this particular skill might come in handy as our society slips further and further away from nature towards a human-centric and human-built world. If we were all spending time looking at things for their underlaying nature, would it help us to formulate values and segment off those digital aspects which, in my opinion, lack that particular quality?

Naming the Shrines

Wisdom is knowledge that has seeped into the bones from the time and energy spent on practice. It cannot be taught, only pointed out. I have spent much of my time talking to myself about ways of knowing without giving myself the gift of practice.

Shinto is a Japanese religion centered around shrine worship, or the worship of places of great power and spiritual importance. I explored the idea of learning to respect one’s own personal shrines in previous post. Up until now I have cultivated a respect for those aspects of my life which carry an added depth of meaning, but I have done so in a passive fashion. When I find myself in the mood or the need to take part that is, rather than making the time to engage in those activities.

Stoics have been outspoken about the need for diligence. The importance of making a habit out of mindfulness. Common practices include daily contemplation exercises and journaling. Many wisdom traditions are centered around a regular meditation practice. The consensus is that one must remain consistent, whether it be daily or weekly, as long as it is something that can be continued over a long enough amount of time for the practice to develop into deep aesthetic knowledge.

Habits, as many of us know, are difficult to break and difficult to form. It is one thing to change when we are driven, but it is quite another to try and form habits when we do not feel compelled. Fascinating how “knowing” something intellectually often has incredibly little sway in comparison to “knowing” something viscerally. That certainly speaks to the importance of aesthetic knowledge and deserves a much deeper dive.

In order to help myself I thought it might be a good idea to make a list of the activities which I consider my personal shrines (activities which carry extra layers of meaning, and allow me to connect to the world around me). Hopefully with this list in hand I can pick some activities which I would like to add more purposefully into my life, and also make a plan for how and when I can fit them in.

I offer this in the public forum as a simple and practical way to start at the first step, since that is where I find myself.

My personal shrines:

  • Yin Yoga/Deep Stretching/Breathing Exercises – long hold poses and breathing exercises with the specific intention of increasing range of motion. Specifically helpful to counteract the effects of distance running on my hips and posture. Time required: 5 minutes per pose, suggested to do at least 15 minutes in a session, but 20 to 30 would be a good target.
  • Meditation – simple awareness and perception exercises, focus on the breath and the pattern of thoughts in passing, coming back to center. I have often sat for 12 to 18 minutes but have not yet developed a regular practice.
  • Reading – I get to do this for my classes and will continue to have the requirement, but I would like to do this daily. Reading before bed is relaxing but I often fall asleep before I would like to which means I don’t retain as much and it takes a very long time to progress.
  • Music – Especially classical, I have been pretty good about keeping music on in the house and have started to include it as part of my commute. This has been the most successful portion of my practice. An iteration would be to be more conscious about picking an artist or composer whose work I would like to become familiar with. Instead of letting the algorithm choose for me and not knowing what I am listening to I can pick an album.
  • Gratitude – Not something I have done very much, but something I am interested in consciously practicing. There is a great deal of research on the effects of this and I suspect that it would significantly deepen my sense of appreciation. Especially at this junction of my life when I am having trouble seeing the next steps, much less the path beyond.
  • Photography – this is a practice which always makes me feel better, connects me with nature and often provides a sense of belonging to something greater. Looking through the lens remains magical in a way that other things do not. My practice of late has been affected by many things, not least of which is complicated thoughts about photography as a means to an end either financially, artistically or professionally. I have unfortunately let negative thoughts about the purposelessness of this practice invade into something which does in fact mean something to me. Whether or not it has the ability to turn into anything other than that need not factor in if I can get over myself. Logistically this practice takes a bit of time (often, not always) and I prefer to do it when I am not rushed. Those sorts of moments do not happen often, and certainly not in a way I can predict.

The plan: In order to improve the sustainability of any practice I feel that it must be folded as gently as possible into what structure my life currently has. Here is a proposal for how this might work:

  • Commute time: Classical music and gratitude practice. Time is already dedicated and happens most days of the week, no significant changes needed.
  • Reading: Bring a book to work each day and use my lunch break to read. This gives me at least 20 minutes of time when I am awake, will keep me off of my phone. I have been surprised by how many pages I can cover in 20 minutes. It will also give me something to think about while finishing out my shift at work, as well as something to look forward to.
  • Stretching/Breathing: The most difficult one to work in but something that I know will be very helpful if I can keep it up. I was doing well making this happen while the children were having their dinner, but it hasn’t been regular. Until I have more daily regularity in my schedule this will need to be an act of willpower.
  • Photography: This, for the moment, will remain something that I do when I have the opportunity. Instead of holding myself accountable to make this happen I will try and think of it as a bonus, as something to grab hold of as a gift. Not doing this isn’t a sign of failure, and not making time for it is not neglect.

With compassion as a watchword, let me approach this plan with compassion for myself, and curiosity about what I may learn in the process.

The Abstraction of the Real

Jean Baudrillard describes our world as a nested, tangled, layered incomprehensible piling of Simulacra, or Simulations. He is describing a reality in which our perceptions of the world are contingent upon and directed towards meta-narratives that we have built around ourselves.

Our unceasing news cycle feeds upon stories of crime and corruption, which feeds into our perceptions about how much crime and corruption are out there, which in turn begins to influence legislation and social norms, which in turn generates more newsworthy content as the edges of new norms become violated or illuminated.

Our consumer habits are driven by the advertisements that we see all around us, targeted with precision to the things we are already curious about online, or have purchased in the past, and in turn new start-ups crop up to develop iterations of what they think that we think that we want, which generates more advertisements telling us about things that we didn’t know we wanted.

These narratives do not develop out of our encounters with anything grounded, but our encounters with narratives we have already been telling ourselves and each other.

Strangely, in such a world, our encounters with nature are also Simulations. Whether romanticized and sensationalized in documentaries or reality television shows, or balanced as exploitation against conservation, our sense of “nature” comes pre-loaded with baggage, context and history.

Against this backdrop, what does it mean to try and build a relationship? What would it look like if we could discard the rhetoric and the labels?

The strange twist of a branch, the nuanced rivulet twisted into bark and the subtle shifts of color within a single leaf. Our stories can’t prepare us for this, have no words for this. So real it stands oddly outside of what we call reality.

Unwrapped and immediate, abstract in its presence, though unedited and immediate in a way which cannot be denied.

Perhaps simply looking, really looking and allowing the object of our attention to actually be an object of our attention, could be the new avant-garde, the new abstract art, the new conceptual frontier.

What is Wisdom?

Can you explain complex ideas without using jargon or technical terms? Can you give someone a clear idea of what you mean in less than two sentences? I just had a masterclass in breaking down ideas to their core elements while playing a game with my six year old daughter.

The game “Oh Really” is a fascinating social experiment in which five cards are selected each round and players have to rank them in terms of most to least important. The content of the cards varies wildly from seemingly simple things like “teeth” or “heat”, to more abstract ideas like “patriotism”, “faith” or “wisdom”.

It is great fun to choose someone as the focus person for each round, and then all of the players try to guess how that person will rank whatever elements are drawn. While the most humorous elements occur when someone is trying to passionately explain why they think that “haircuts” are more important than “freedom of speech” (I mean, if you didn’t have haircuts then we would all just be incredibly shaggy!), what I found most fascinating and challenging was actually what happened before each round really got started.

As he placed each of the five cards for the round on the table, we had to run them by my six year old to make sure she knew what we were working with.

Here is the challenge that I came up against: how to describe some of these things simply, clearly, and in as few words as possible. Too much qualification, too many terms, and suddenly the description becomes top-heavy, awkward and anything but clear.

Sure, I can begin a long tirade about “wisdom” (which I did) and talk about philosophy and mysticism and experience and practice and having an innate sense of moral good, etc…but I have already lost myself. The need to qualify, to add another facet or flavor to round out the picture, these are things that point out just how little we actually grasp what we are talking about.

Enlightenment thinking and the purity of rational thought is about breaking down and defining everything until it fits neatly in a box. So much of the philosophical canon is simply people trying to tease out slight difference between theories. Certainly, there are implication about the mechanics of things, and whether qualities inhere in something as opposed to simply being projected onto them, for instance. In most cases, however, these nitpicking points don’t actually offer us a branch to hold on to. When we are living our lives, these nuances don’t often have an influence on the way we actually encounter the world.

Take, for instance, Zeno’s paradox. An archer stands at one side of the colosseum and fires and arrow at a target which stands across the space. Zeno states a simple logical fact which seems to lead to a paradox. He states that in order for the arrow to arrive at the target, it must first cross half of the remaining distance. Then, it must cross half of the remaining distance again. This halving continues. As there is always an amount of distance to be covered, and it is possible to always measure half of that distance, the loop seems to go on into infinity. The arrow can never reach the target because it must continue to cross half the remaining distance and infinite number of times. Even if the time required to do this is infinitesimally small, it is still an infinite amount of time, and therefore can never be achieved.

Of course this is absurd, hence the paradox, of what we can puzzle out about how we expect the world works and the bald reality of how it actually operates. So often our philosophy seems to be wrapped up in the way the paradox is written rather than accounting for what the arrow actually seems to do as it clearly crosses the space in a smooth and unhindered arc.

I believe that for many thinkers, perhaps due to the postmodern penchant for dismantling any and every postulate, there is an overabundance of caution for how one states a belief or a theory.

After my game had ended I continued to think about how I could have defined “wisdom” in a more concise way.

The best I have come up with is this: “Wisdom is the kind of stuff you know about life from having lived it, instead of reading about it in a book.”

Immediately the alarm bells start going off, and I want to clarify and add nuance, but then I feel like maybe I should stop myself.

It feels vulnerable to leave such a simple statement hanging out in the open, but I think I can stand by it. The longer it sits, the more I press and prod, the more comfortable I become.

My need to define and qualify everything is probably just insecurity coming through. It takes a kind of guts to state something with clarity, knowing that there will be questions, and “what ifs” and other kinds of challenges. Perhaps the insecurity is about my ability to answer those questions appropriately.

I think that this is an excellent exercise to try out on things we think we know.

Having to explain “generosity” and “politics” and “responsability” means clarifying it for ourselves.

There is a second reason that this is so important. The ability to present these ideas clearly, concisely, is a point of entry for others. My being able to explain “wisdom” to my kid gives her a frame of reference and an entry point. It puts the concept on her mental map, which gives her a destination to explore if she so chooses.

One of the things I find most frustrating about philosophy, and other academic fields, is that they are often presented in such a way that one feels unqualified to even begin to understand. The barrier to entry seems too high for many people who encounter these ideas without a knowledge of the context or the terminology. Even to build a knowledge of that terminology often requires a canon of historical and contextual knowledge. What might it look like if more people felt that they had footing to approach these concepts? What sort of insights would we be able to gain from those who chose paths other than the academic, but have still gained knowledge that bears sharing in the same conversation?

Try it out for yourself. Can you break down the concepts which you find more intriguing, which matter the most to you, into a simple phrase without jargon? How does it feel?

I may not be able to back much of this up with citation, but it is definitely something I have come to learn from my time living as opposed to what I have been reading in books.

The Once and Future Echoes of My Father’s Words

Grief and loss impact a life as a projectile. Often it is the impact which we notice the most; jarring, often spectacular, and difficult to look away from. More difficult to perceive is how our trajectories have been affected. Upon rebalancing our daily lives, more or less retaining a sense of equilibrium, we may never come to grasp how significant the change to our wider orbit.

The movement of celestial bodies, we often forget, occur in a complex three dimensional space. It is easier to imagine rings of movement occuring upon a plane of existence. Human lives also travel more complex paths than we are able to envision. For me, the impact of my father’s untimely death, ahead of a time of my life that was already poised as a pivotal transition, served to deflect the wide plane of my life’s orbit. Instead of traversing amongst others in what I imagined to be the normalized circumfrence of life, I found myself slipping below the plane of normalcy.

This perspective, traced out over my lengthening arc, has been forever tinted by our truncated relationship. His words and our time together continue to stand for me as ruins and echoes littered throughout the landscape. Within the dimensionality of our circuits I am beginning to see that traditional perspectives of “above” and “below” are interchangeable. Ruins may spark longing for the golden ages of times past, but they also, as incomplete potentialities, speak to a developing future. In this way they act as mile markers staked out upon the road ahead, shining in the dark, tiny lighthouses beckoning from the misty unknown future.

Eldena, 1824, Caspar David Friedrich

These thoughts intertwine with my current studies of art history. I am researching ruins and fragments as they appear in Romantic era visual arts. The example here, by Caspar David Friedrich, echoes on more than one level.

His work, however else it might have developed out of his natural inclinations for art making, would be forever sloughed off course by the death of his brother. An event on a frozen lake in which he also nearly drowned, but was saved, while his brother was not.

Many of Friedrich’s pieces relate what appears to be a struggle between structures and institutions which have been created by man, and a relentless overgrowth of wild nature. The struggle, really, isn’t depicted as it takes place. Rather, it is always depicted after the fact, once nature has reclaimed its spaces. Human structures in ruin provide support for the overgrowth, their former architectural duties having been long neglected.

Lives coexist in a shared space along divergent trajectories. In one view the human lives unfold presently, quietly, small figures unobtrusively going about their existences both comfortable within and oblivious to both the wild nature and the encompassing ruins which tower around them. The existence one leads in the current moment of perception, myopic to past and future, necessarily concerned with the previous and forthcoming footfall.

In another version of reality the past looms ever present, indeed framing, the happenings of the now. These figures, though blithe to the fragmented walls and broken arches, nevertheless exist within this windbreak. The moment unfolds according to a constructed history that beckons ever backwards. Shadows of what once were linger over each moment of the present.

My father was a man who knew how to listen. He appreciated a good story and would make himself open to receiving one when it presented itself. His words did not go before him, but always seemed to come after. His imagination slumbered with one eye open, waiting patiently for nourishment to arrive, ever ready.

His story was not kept behind locked doors, but he waited for an invitation in order to begin telling it. Without the right question he was not inclined to explain himself. About stories, however, he was often eager to share. To hear him offer up a bit of plot was to uncover a thread of excitement. It was by gathering these threads that I came to an understanding of who he was.

In the manner of detecting exotic particles, unable to observe the phenomenon itself, I learned what I could by watching how he interacted with stories.

The crumbling ruins of my past portray him seated in his recliner, book in hand, absorbed in ideas of the novel and fantastic. Fragments of him lay embedded in the soil around me, of a look or gesture, a secondary clue as to what his mind was engaged with. In many ways, while those elements remain as ruins of ruins in my landscape today, they were already ruins. I learned how to read these ruins even as they were being created, rubbing the patterns and documenting the dimensions of his life in order to build a model of the man even while he lived.

Returning to Friedrich’s depiction of ruins we see a third layer of existence beyond the realm of man. Each part of the image, man at present and man of history, are engulfed in the wild living and entangled reality of untamed growth. Nature itself writes and flows in a quantum state of superposition. Observe any detail of the work, a branch or leaf, and it can be made out in detail, static, unchanging. To focus here, however, is to lose focus there. Any point in the image which we are not currently paying attention to grows unchecked, flows, writhes, pushes its boundaries and moves towards its own realization.

The plants are everywhere and eternal. This growth exists equally in all times. To cut down the trees and raze the fields is not to eliminate them. It is merely an ebb in the tides of existence. Now the plants are dominant, now subdued, now expanding now cut back. The taproot, the eternal seed, exists outside of time, connecting our separate realities to an unchanging axis.

In the excavation I was doing on my father’s character I covered more territory than I understood. It wasn’t the content of his words that caught my memory. Indeed, though it rolls heavily off of my tongue to say it, I do not recall him in specifics. I recall him as a framework, perhaps, or a model, a flowchart. Place the input at one end and track the process by which one arrives at a result. To know him in this way was to understand something about what provided him meaning.

Crucially he demonstrated to me that there was meaning between us. My words, my thoughts, my imagination matter to him. The machine churned and the pistons fired and I had a sense of knowing beyond the face value of human communication. I could see the mechanism deriving fuel from content I had created, and it felt like touching the sun. Like something real.

I have always hung some significant portion of myself upon the hooks provided by others. My father has unconsciously left hooks for me upon his ruins. Rather than mourn the structures that once existed, I am coming to realize that they are still able to serve a purpose in my noon-time journey. Whether that be shelter from the barren landscape, or sun-dial markers upon which to orient myself, these ruins maintain their presence.

For romantic painters, writers, musicians and thinkers of the time period, ruins could no only exist in the past and the present. Melancholy crucially combines longing for the past with a desire for the future. To see something that once was is a stark depiction of change. Layered history necessarily leaves open an undefined future state.

To restore a ruin is not to resurrect it. Each stone may sit where it used to reside in relation to all of the others, but that does not mean that they retain a similar relationship to us. A building is only as meaningful as our collective understanding. Place the disparate branches and leaves of a fallen tree back in relation to one another and there will not suddenly be a return to form. No animating faculty continues as it once did, not in the same pattern.

A study in ruins as symbols of greatness reveals the relationships that we once had with place and space. To understand the function of a ruin as it was, and how it came to be what it is now, is to understand the continuity of activity which provides it with unique energy. Like the wild growth all around, which follows an internal unfolding, so may we place the fragments which surround is in relation to the future.

I hear stories now as my father heard them. I too slumber with one eye open for the things which my curiosity seeks to entrap. My father’s model overlays like augmented reality across my vision.

Above and below the nominal plane of existence I see these fragments and ruins intersecting our space. They carry me forward from within, and stake safe passage on the path ahead of me. I triangulate my position by looking simultaneously backwards and forwards from these points to map out a narrative which encompasses the life he lived and the paths he may have taken if given the chance. His loss bound me to these ruins, perhaps less like a projectile and more like a hewing together of sympathetic trajectories. Had he continued to live it would have been simple to draw a distinction between the path he charted and my own. Since that is not the case, to chart his future journeys and separate them from the paths that I walk will always be impossible. I do know that without these milestones and lights in the fog, my path forward would not have been possible in the same what that is has been.

To Remain Silent / the Worth of What we Create

When the pressing need to keep talking overrides the vital perspective that what one has to say isn’t worth saying, or, that saying something just for the sake of saying something is less educational than knowing when to keep quiet.

The old saying: “if you don’t have something kind to say, don’t say anything at all” ties in to this, but I don’t mean this to be about kindness.

Another linked idea is “art for arts sake”, which in this case should be more accurately stated “art for the sake of the artist”. How many artists out there are making things because NOT making things feels like failure? How many of us are filling the void with acts of creation? How much of humanity at large has been about bringing things into existence simply because it makes us feel less alone? Because the act of creation feels like an accomplishment, feels like a clear mark of achievement? This is at least partially about developing taste, the discernment required to understand the worth of what we are putting out into the world. To be able to make use of our creations as stepping stones towards our ultimate purpose.

I must be speaking from a narrow pocket of reality here. I must be one of the few artists whose creativity has been put to use for internal purposes, to explore my relationship to the world in which I find myself. In that regard, the purpose of my art can be analyzed apart from the market and the world of the consumer. For many other artists, the act of creation is the end goal, is their livlihood. To create is to live. They are making art which they enjoy for the use of others. There are no deeper questions here, no barometer for philosophical growth.

Does that excuse us, or alter the frame? What of the engineers and inventors, the food scientists and writers? Is the act of creation always a worthy end in itself? Or, should we consider the cradle-to-grave implications of anything we hope to call into being? Can we reframe our unique nature as creative beings to include increased discernment? What would it mean to only call into being that which passes layered levels of vetting, perhaps moral, aesthetic and philosophical?

Is this a saving grace of the looming meta, to give us a place in which our creations can flourish apart from “real world” impact? Of course there is still a footprint, but beyond that, in a purely zero-impact world, is there reason to consider why we feel the need to create and what purpose it serves? Is there potentially fruitful ground to cover when considering our sense of taste? Do we really know what questions we are trying to answer? Do we really know what avenues to pursue? Will the work we are following deliver us closer to our goal, or is it being subverted in service of someone else’s expectations?

If we aren’t creating, even if we are continuing to learn and grown and mentally “pursue”, can we still call ourselves artists? Do we need to adjust this term to separate those who produce work, from those who are merely seekers or philosophers?

James Elkins is a professor of Art theory, criticism and history at the School of Art Institute Chicago. He is a fascinating writer who has spent a good portion of his time exploring what it means to teach art including art theory and history. He is by no means fully on board with the way in which art is taught, and offers up some very interesting critiques about the state of art education, including the way critiques are conducted. Much of his writing is available from his website.

Along with the literary work he has provided for free, he has also made available a wonderful collection of youtube videos comprising a survey of key topics in art theory and art history. Watching these vidoes, each of which is generally about 20 minutes long, is essentially to attend lectures for an introductory survey class. The intention of this series is to provide general introduction for artists so that they can identify potential areas of interest and study which might inform their work.

Each video is categorized as either a theory or history video along with clear topic, so it is easy to find any topics that one might be interested in. Along with providing a solid background of where the ideas tend and originated, he does a great job highlighting developments of thought while providing resources and authors who might be useful to investigate further.

James Elkins – Concepts and Problems in Visual Art video series.

In the course of his series he takes time during video C28 to consider whether or not it is helpful, or desirable, for artists to study these theories at all. In the course of encapsulating his thoughts he presents two slides which summarize why it might be that students should avoid learning theory (or history). The slides below were taken from his video.

I found myself surprisingly indignant as he outlined these points. Though he does add some more context with his voiceover for these slides, the general bullets stand by themselves.

Without going into each one in detail I would like to highlight how they seem to fall into a couple of broad categories.

The last argument about learning history, and the first argument against learning theory both bring up the idea that when we are exposed to novel information, we run into the danger of being side-tracked by that discovery. Like falling down a wikipedia hole into the MCU, the multiple dimensions of art theory and the ever proliferating array of art movements already comprise too much academic information for anyone to meaningfully take in. As professor Elkins notes it can take a significant amount of study time for any student to get a solid grasp upon the core theory with which they feel their own work is trying to engage.

Perhaps a bit like someone learning a new language can’t be expected to read novels or write letters right out of the gate, an art student who sees potential in engaging with gender theory, post-modern aesthetics or questions of identity probably won’t feel confident creating work that expresses itself effectively in those areas until they have deepened their connection to the context.

Don’t we want those who are engaged with crafting our shared culture to do so mindfully? Don’t we want students who have spent time thinking about the ideas and work of other artists who have come before?

Elkin’s main fears for this point seem to be that diving into these vast subjects will take the artist away from the studio. It may sidetrack them from the creation of their own works.

Is time spent in the studio the best way for artists to discover themselves? It seems to be the general thought. University art departments, while often requiring the general education requirements for other degrees, still provide a silo of studio work time as the backbone. Art institutes, like the one Professor Elkin’s teaches at, provide even less extra-disciplinary experience for the artist to draw on. There is a lot to be said for becoming a master of the material, and for learning everything that it can and cannot do. I might argue, however, that the most interesting growth in any area comes when one must step beyond the traditional boundaries.

Which brings me back around to my initial questions. Is creating work for the sake of creating work a good end in itself? Is creating work even the best or most effective way to discover oneself, or one’s voice?

In an age of humanity that threatens to drown itself within its own creations, is there value in remaining silent? Is there honor in spending a lifetime crafting one piece, rather than hundreds of half-formed ideas? Can this be fulfilling or sustainable? Would anyone still call themselves an artist?

I don’t have answers to any of this, but these thoughts have been rattling me.

Slow Wisdom

Knowledge and understanding about our world come to us in many forms. Most often we learn new information through the fastest methods, which are words and demonstrations. Reading the description of a thing is often not as helpful as seeing someone else do that thing, and combining the two can give us a pretty good impression about what we want to know.

Humans, as creative colliders, use what we “know” to iterate new ideas into existence. When we learn new things we give ourselves more options from which to pull when combining ideas. What we “know”, however, and the reason I am putting it into quotes, is often the most basic version of information about a thing.

Words and demonstrations can only teach us so much. It is often quite a different thing to actually put what we think we know into practice. Take woodworking, for instance, in which I can watch a training video about how to turn wood on a lathe, and receive a very solid perspective on the steps and techniques required to accomplish what I need.

I could even transmit this knowledge to someone else as I have heard it, or throw it together with something new. If this how one turns wood on a lathes, then it seems reasonable that the same technique could be used to for turning other similar materials.

As soon as I attempt to put this knowledge into use, however, the limitations of that information come into full force. Even if I use the exact same materials and tools my demonstration, the actual feel of the materials and how it reacts, the muscle quality needed or the steadiness of the hand, the information about how imperfections in the material affect the process…all of these come into play and demonstrate how limited my perspective was.

This is certainly not to decry learning new things from videos, it is mostly to point out that truly understanding something, and truly “knowing” about something comes only through time spent doing that thing. This is because so much of what we call knowledge actually comes to us through our bodies. Through the memories we develop about how we handled previous versions of this activity. True knowledge lives not just in our minds but in our bones and muscles and nervous systems.

This is a large part of the reason why many trades required apprenticeship and hours or repetition. Only through actually performing the act over and over can one develop a broad understanding of what is going on, not just in the mind, but in the body as well.

What does it mean that humans are eager and clever and pass on information so readily through the simplest method possible? It means that we like shiny new things and have a short attention span. It means that we are eager to take new information, combine it into something (or take from it assumptions based on our beliefs) and then spread that second iteration out into the world.

Working in my current job, which is a painting shop environment requiring manual labor, I have come to see how my initial impressions are often misguided or flat out wrong. When I approach something new I develop many perspectives immediately, and part of my job is to think about ways to improve and adapt these processes by thinking of new solutions or adaptations. I often find myself suspending those initial ideas once I have begun actually practicing the process. Often, in fact, every time that I think I understand how to make something better, I discover after putting in more hands on time with the situation that there were factors in play which I wouldn’t have thought to take into account.

The process of gaining first hand knowledge over time through practice might rightly be called wisdom. In fact, that is probably my favorite definition of the term I have come across.

Many situations in which we initially perceived “problems” are the way they are due to other factors, often ingrained in the nature of the system itself. It is only our surface level understanding which has led us to making assumptions.

Trying to leap in and “solve” “problems” without having put in hours of hands on experience no only leads to solutions which do not actually solve the issue, or leads to a whole host of new problems.

In my experience I have been shown many times that the “problem” I am encountering and trying to “fix” is actually a feature of the product I am working with.

As a painter I am constantly playing with different materials, substrates and colors. Many of these designs have been developed by people who have gone before me, and it has been my job to figure out how they did what they did so that our shop can continue to make those designs more consistently or better than before. What often starts out in my mind as the “problem” which we are having with the design slowly becomes the core element of the design. Instead of trying to remove the obstacle I begin trying to figure out how we can use that nature of the design and better incorporate it.

Without hands on experience in our world we are simply lacking depth of perspective, and there are several problems that come along with that. The first one, as already stated, is that we often end up “fixing” a “problem” that didn’t really exist, and that fix often causes more problems down the line.

Another interesting aspect of gaining wisdom, is that it is a process of relationship between yourself and something else. All of the materials in the world around us are the way they are because of the unique forces and events which went into shaping them. The unbelievable complexity of our living world is what leads to the need for this slow wisdom, this building up of a relationship with materials over time.

What does this mean for the digital world which we are building? If everything programmed has developed from human thought processes, then does it have any of the inherent complexity found in natural objects? Can one develop the same kind of hands on wisdom about spreadsheets or social media feeds? Certainly one can gain more skills, but it isn’t as if these programs have their own nature, they are simply following a program. It doesn’t feel to me like learning the nuances of a program, no matter how complex, will ever be the same as gaining wisdom about physical materials, social interactions, or forces of nature. Kandinsky, along with a slew of other philosphers, poets, writers and artists, noted the way we perceive some things in our world as adhering to their own inner nature, an internal necessity, a sense of having a “soul” or some kind of sovereignty in our world as being uniquely unto themselves.

I would argue that the need to gain hands on wisdom from our world is due to this internal necessity which exists in everything around us. It is the inherently alien nature of our world, the inhuman element, which piques our interest and curiosity, and which can teach us the most about how we can be a part of this world.

A digital life, derived from our human perspectives, can necessarily not reach beyond them. Humans cannot create anything inhuman with its own “soul” and sovereignty, yet. Without that, what are we able to learn from the meta world we are building? Aren’t we simply looking inwards, shielding ourselves from the inhuman perspective?

The final point which I would like to bring up about slow wisdom, is that these hands on encounters with our world are often challenging, as well as educational. We are an adaptive species, and our history has been one of learning how to continue on in the face of constant change and external pressure. At least, that is what it had been for most of our existence.

Now, however, we have developed so many tools for altering the world around us in order to suit our preferred living style, we seem to have shifted the focus of our adaptation. Now, we are focused quickly on identifying things which are no ideal, which stick out as opportunities to make things better. Our work is put into shaping our world, in shaving off the rough bits which cause us discomfort.

As I noted before, my work has shown me that my initial reactions are often wrong. Shown me that the things I wanted to “fix” at first are actually the valuable bits. In most cases the solution is not to change the thing I am working on, but to change myself, and my perspective. Instead of manipulating the material I learn how to work with it, or around it, which often means adjusting the usual way I approach things.

Adaptation used to be this way, as our only recourse. It used to be that we spent our energies learning how to shape ourselves, to work on ourselves, to reorient ourselves. We had no power over the world. I am pretty convinced that what the wisdom traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism and the new mindfulness movements and yoga studios are trying to help us to do exactly this: to relearn the power of transforming ourselves rather than the world around us.

Original Sin and the Artist

“All means are sinful if they did not spring from the source of internal necessity”

Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912, p.176

In my search for interconnecting roads between art history, abstraction, spirituality, philosophy and art theory, I have come across a shrine hidden in plain view. Wassily Kandinsky, often cited as the first true “abstract” artist, wrote a seminal work at the beginning of the twentieth century which dives deep into the heart of pretty much everything. It is titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art and can easily be found in translation.

Aside from lucid predictions for the direction of art which have largely come to pass, he also outlines key language and concepts for dissecting and and talking about visual art. There is much here for the artist, art historian and philosopher. I would also argue, and plan to dig into with future posts, that this is also a work of profound spirituality.

What I want to draw out here is something which he couches in religious terms and can be useful in discussing artistic vision, style or voice.

Kandinsky believed that each artist must honor the internal necessity of each work the is created. This concept is to describe the unique expression of the piece as created through the relationships of color and form to each individual element and those elements to the whole. What a work of art ultimately says to the viewer is very complex, and will change over time. It will be affected by the culture in which it is produced, by the culture at the time it is being viewed, by what has gone before and what has come after, and the internal orientations and contextual baggage of the viewer.

All of this is to say that the artist can never be in control of how the work will be perceived by any other person. This is true as soon as the piece is finished, and remains true throughout all periods of time. There is no way for an artist to express the specificity of their internal view with a 1:1 translation. No matter how carefully we try to game out the relationships of form and color, or pay attention to the undertones of the cultural zeitgeist, our art will at best be an resonant echo of the idea we are trying to convey. As time goes on even a clear echo will fade and gain distortions.

We shouldn’t think this as a failure of the artist either. Kandinsky was clear about the underlaying theory about how form and color interacted. He was very interested in gaming out the relationships between elements on a canvas, and he advocated for the artist to be aware of these relationships. There is a science beneath it all, he would argue, which could be used to describe how the pieces of a work came together to provide meaning, or music. He found it very useful to describe visual elements in terms of musical elements. As he notes below, the form and color of a painting are what produces its sounds, harmonies and dissonances.

“…the same form always produces the same sound under the same conditions. Only the conditions always differ.”

Kandinsky, p. 170

The carpet moves out from under us even as we splash paint on the canvas.

The act of creation itself holds the key. Art, for Kandinsky, isn’t about the final product per se, but the act of expression, the coming into being of the work. The artists charge is to channel what it is they resonate with out into the world. That act, while it will necessarily take shape and ultimately be described in the language of forms and colors, must adhere to its own nature as a unique work.

When he speaks of “internal necessity” he is describing the unique character of a given work or art. Seeing it once completed, and through the lenses of our own time and place, we have to talk about it by describing what we can see. We can break down each piece into artistic school or movement, and describe it in terms of the social situation under which it was created. We can talk about influences on the artist, training and places that the artist travelled. We do these things and categorize works because it is all that is available to us. We, who did not create the work, are forced to look on from the outside like examining a crime scene. These elements have their uses and can provide their own insights which are valuable, but they are not themselves the character of the work of art. Just as a collection of anecdotes, a eulogy and an obituary are not a person who used to live and breath.

The artist is not bounded by these forensic tools when making the art in the first place. For an art student to learn from those who came before is one thing. It is very useful to understand how colors mix, how certain optical effects are achieved, and how similar visual problems have been solved. To copy those techniques in the hopes of achieving one’s own vision, however, is a fool’s errand. Again, Kandinsky talks about the sound of a piece of art. When we are trying to capture something that another artist has tapped into before us, we should be cautious of doing it in the way that they did it:

“…it is perhaps easier to achieve expression of the same sound by the use of different forms than by the repetition of the same form: a really exact repetition lies beyond the bounds of possibility.”

Kandinsky, p.170

Rather, he urges each artist to follow the unique thread of each piece. Instead of painting in the method of one’s teacher, an artist should follow the pull of the work of art itself that wants to be created. This will likely mean breaking from what has been done and trying something new.

“The artist should be blind to ‘accepted’ or ‘unaccepted’ form, deaf to the precepts and demands of his time. His eyes should always be directed towards his own inner life, and his ears turned to the voice of internal necessity. Then he will seize upon all permitted means and just as easily upon all forbidden means.”

Kandinsky, p.175-76

This brings us to our sins as artists. Rather than listening to our own ideas and the pull of the work as it struggles into being, we often try to wrestle it through the art that has come before. Here we are again, with the expanded version of the quote at the top of this article:

“All means are moral if they are internally necessary. All means are sinful if they did not spring from the source of internal necessity.”

Kandinsky, p.176

This may come from a place of fear, or insecurity. It may come from a lack of modelling and role models. For Kandinsky this version of sin is black and white but fluid. There are many reasons why a piece was not realized into the fullness of its being. Often this is because the artist has not had enough exposure to the appropriate ideas, or has not been shown what other avenues are possible.

In this way the sin of the artist is not a brand to be worn in shame, but a continual struggle which should push us to continually get closer. Like catholic original sin, I would argue, it is less the condition of being doomed from the beginning, and more the ongoing charge towards which we strive.

It is in the making of the art, the expressing what is already contained within the concept as it exists within each artist, that we are able to come into contact with creation and expression itself. Every piece is a new chance to come into contact with something greater than ourselves, and to learn something about that relationship.

To focus on the end result, the perception of our work, and our place in history, is to be caught up in a losing game. To try and grab hold of the river as it flows by, or to stop its progress by throwing masterpiece-anchors into the waves, is fruitless. It is a lesson in frustration.

If we can embrace the act of making and follow the unique threads of creativity which pull at us, then we can appreciate that this process is what is valuable. To be in touch with one’s own creativity, I would argue, is an irreplaceable blessing.

“And we see the common relationship between works of art, which is not weathered by the passage of millennia, but is increasingly strengthened, does not lie in the exterior, in the external, but in the root of roots – in the mystical content of art.”

Kandinsky, p.175

The Art of Anything

Art is a complicated word pretty much any way that we try to slice it. In this post I want to talk about a specific usage of the word “art” that I have recently come to reconsider, or perhaps more accurately, consider carefully for the first time.

The “art” of accounting, the “art” of basketball, zen and the “art” of motorcycle repair…we have a use for this word which is applied when we want to talk about the execution of a trade or skill that is not normally regarded as creative or artistic.

This usage might be defined like this: “the skillful execution of a trade which integrates more than simply successful application of technical knowledge” or perhaps more poetically “the execution of a skill which makes use of internalized knowledge in a way that is not perceptible to the outside observer”. These definitions will give us a starting point, but I don’t think they quite include what I am looking for.

Talking about the “art” of a trade seems to imply that the tradesmen is making judgments based on a history of internalized knowledge. It speaks to an application of skill that is not based solely on measurable data. The implication is that not just anyone with the proper skills could solve the problem in the same way, or with the same solution. Given two practitioners of a certain skill who are presented with the same problem to solve, we think of the one who uses either their long experience with previous encounters, or one who is able to intuit novel solutions, as the one who raises the skill to that of an “art”.

This word came back to my attention through the clever use of abstraction in a conversation between two educators working across the borders of medical education and museum education at the University of Rochester. Part of the challenge that spurred this conversation was around the diminishing “art” of bedside manner. The history of medical education and the issues surrounding it have been wonderfully summarized and presented at the link below, along with the developmental offspring from their conversation.

Specific to the conversation was their description of how bedside manner used to be taught, especially in the nineteenth century, before the advances of science brought many more metrics and observations to bear on the practice. The education used to be comprised solely of time spent shadowing other medical practitioners who had to carefully observe their patients at the bedside. They had no tools to measure blood pressure, oxygenation, acidity or the like. What they did have were their own powers of observation, and the backlog in their minds of patients and treatments that they had encountered before. As medical science began to produce reams of quantifiable data about a patient, the doctor’s education began to shift away from personal observation of the patients themselves. Instead of spending many hours observing and interacting with patients, doctors were spending more time learning how to analyze data.

The “art” of medical practice seems to be strongly linked to this internalization of information through careful observation. This way of talking about the “art” of any trade rings very true for me, and pulled me in to writing this article. Perhaps the core foundation of any trade being executed as an “art” is the application of personal knowledge supported by close observation of the technical issue at hand. This sort of “art” isn’t about creativity in the way that we traditionally think about it. It certainly isn’t about aesthetics, or the outward appearance of the activity. It seems to be about time and experience, coupled with attentive presence of mind in execution.

Maybe we could say: “the application of lived knowledge as adapted to a unique scenario”.

This makes sense in many cases, and certainly passes a basic sniff test when we think about why we use the word in contexts for technical trades. After all, we would never say that a robot arm in a factory is applying the “art” of welding car doors on. We might, however, use just that phrase when dealing with a human whose work is to refurbish antique vehicles. In one case the correct technical application is enough. In the other, an individual is using their perception and experience to successfully apply their technical skills to a unique problem.

Okay, we may have something of a definition, and we may have outlined how this terms is being used, but why is that important?

Well, what happens when we turn the conversation around again? What does it mean to think about the “art” of fine art? The “art” of painting, or sculpture or modern dance? Perhaps it is simply a redundancy, or perhaps it relates to a mindset undertaken in the production of the work. Certainly, by the definition above, it simply means creating the work mindfully using ones gained experience. That, however, doesn’t capture the use of the word “unique” in the definition. This is a key piece for me. To use ones gathered knowledge and skills in the solution of a unique (read perhaps ‘new’ or ‘novel’) solution, then we are into territory where one is pushing the limits of what they have done before. It isn’t enough, in this definition, to simply use one’s experience and skills to churn out paintings, or sculptures, or whatever the chosen medium might be. There must be an application of skills towards something untested. It isn’t in this sense “art” if it isn’t challenging and it isn’t “art” if it doesn’t provide opportunities to grow and develop.

There may be a tendency here for people to try and relate this to the war over labels between what is art and what is craft. It might be tempting to say that this idea is exactly where the line is drawn between the two, and that those who create crafts are merely churning out works that do not meet these criteria. I would challenge this line of thinking immediately. Indeed, of the many artists I have seen who are involved in craft, they are often most decidedly challenging themselves with a very specific goal aimed at pushing the limits of their skills. Many craftspeople undertake projects solely because of the novelty and the challenge. Partially this is due to the linkage between crafts and “hobbies”. Many people take on a hobby with the specific intention of honing or learning a skill and are therefore involved in the definition I have set out that is executing “artfully”.

Where does this leave the traditional artists? Certainly many are working with the same diligence and focus, and truly executing their work “artfully”. It seems to me that there are many, many more than might like to admit it, who are trapped in an awkward and negative cycle with their art. Many artists work within their comfort zones, rather than pushing them. Many create what they think others want, whether to gain likes and attention, or to mimic the popular styles of the moment. Many have found something that seems to work and are simply rehashing the idea over and over again with slightly different trappings. This isn’t a situation that is unique to the fine arts by any stretch, but I do think that many artists are caught up in a particularly interesting conundrum, partially accounted for by the terminology within which they work.

The use of the word art as both process and product has perhaps diminished the particular qualities of each usage. Anything that is labeled as an object of art broadens, and perhaps makes shallower, the total pool of potential art. Famously this includes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as well as a mass produced urinal and works of art including human feces. I am not interested in debating the use of the word as it accounts for the end product. I do think, however, that there is something very interesting that happens as we talk about the use of the word as it pertains to the act of creation, the process of working “artfully”. Again, this usage does not rely upon an outcome, and the result of working “artfully” does not necessarily create a work of art.

What does it do for us to draw out the process of working “artfully” as its own defined process? How does it help anyone to create a more crystalized definition for language that has been traditionally used as a flavor-adding descriptor?

If we focus only on working with “art” or “artfully”, then we are suddenly talking about entire spheres of activity across all walks of life, social situations and industries. Indeed, suddenly we are talking about nearly any human activity. It is a fundamental shift that moves the focus from result to process. It liberates the discussion of art and makes it accessible for anyone to partake in. What would it mean for those who currently think that they are not in creative positions to think about the “art” of their jobs? If anything can be done in a manner which encourages us to engage at a deeper level, then we might reframe our thinking about many other aspects which are related.

What sort of education changes might be required in order to help children prepare for discovering the sorts of things that they find engaging? What sort of value changes would occur if we came to expect that someone would approach their work in an “artful” manner? Success might be regulated on employment happiness and fit, rather than output.

I know from my time in the corporate world, that those who were engaged and interested in their jobs did not need outside motivation in order to perform. What they needed was support so that they could pursue their jobs in the ways that they wanted to. Sometimes I could give perspective, and help them to find different ways to think about how their skills fit into the structure, but I could never force them to become more engaged. In fact, some of the most talented people I met were the ones who moved on to other fields. Often, this was a personal choice, it was an end result of bad fit between what engaged them, and the work that they happened to be doing. Rather than try to break people like this down so that they will fit into the mold, I can imagine companies actively working to shift talent around internally and even encouraging employees to seek elsewhere, with transitional support.

What would this mean for the people who currently call themselves artists, if suddenly everyone began to seek the “art” in their own industry? I imagine it might be liberating. Unlike those who are in more standardized industries, the artist would be limited only in their own curiosity. Artists might feel more comfortable breaking out of their self prescribed medium in order to fully follow their internal compass, without fear that they are straying too far from the center of “fine art”. Those who were interested in mass manufacturing and consumer work would be able to enjoy knowing the process that the process they follow is as fulfilling as sales of the end result.

These things can, of course, the true no matter what labels we use. The words themselves are not revolutionary enough that a shift would move the world. What is important is to remember that our concepts, beyond the words, need not be solidified into the forms in which they currently exist. It is difficult to shake up the current shape of our thoughts.

I offer this thought experiment as a way to look back at something we think we know in order to gain a new perspective.

As one final thought, I find it especially poignant that shifting the focus from output to process is something that resonates very well with many mindfulness traditions, including Buddhism and Taoism. Working “artfully”, no matter what the activity, is the way of the sage. To be able to find engagement and the challenge of growth no matter what one is doing, whether that be sweeping the floor or coding databases, is the way to finding value and center purposefulness in one’s life. If we were all able to engage with our work and activities artfully it would have much more profound implications for how we structure the values within which we live our lives.