Beauty is the Absence of Ego

I have been fascinated by Emmanuel Kant’s description of aesthetic knowledge and the nature of “beauty” as outlined in his Critique of Judgement. He weaves a tight net of deduction and reasoning based on empirical understanding of the world and logical conditioning. His extrapolation on the quality of beauty itself touches on truths which are by their nature beyond words. In order to begin to describe the nature of beauty he first works to outline aesthetic knowledge.

This type of knowledge is essentially our experience of something as it arises within us before we are able to formulate analytical judgements. It is the physical and emotional things that we feel when we first encounter the world, and before we can begin to formulate words to describe it. These are visceral perceptions of our world that bring us a special sort of understanding and sense of our surroundings that is not mediated by words or rational thoughts.

Beauty, for him, is an aesthetic judgement which occurs within us as we encounter something outside of our selves in a way that transcends words. Or, more often, before those words kick in and begin to shape our experience.

This framing of beauty is something that we can only truly judge from within a wordless context or pure experience. Kant reserves much of his highest praise for nature, and works that share in the spirit of nature. To try and describe it more fully he outlines a quality of nature which he calls the “purpossiveness”. This is to be understood as as sort of self-organization or drive, or foundational quality. The attribute of being the way it is because being that is the way that fulfills its own purpose. The way that each element of a plant or animal has been crafted to support the sort of existence it requires within the context in which it lives, its ecosystem and biosphere.

That a blade of grass is the shape, color and texture which it is, is because that is the way that it needed to be given the resources it had and the environmental elements it was dealing with. There is nothing about the form of the grass, the experience of the grass, which doesn’t need to be there and isn’t linked back to its essential character.

That, for Kant, is something which can be said to be beautiful.

That word, however, that description, falls into the realm of rational thought and rational judgements. It isn’t an aesthetic judgment in and of itself. In fact, it is impossible to put an aesthetic judgement into words at all.

Beauty isn’t an attribute, it is an experience. It is placing oneself in relation to something in the world which is true to its own nature.

Finding aspects of our world which adhere to their own natures is actually very easy. Any natural element, from weeds in the sidewalk to rain puddles, to cracks in the cement are the way are given the context and innate attributes of how they came to be. These things cannot be other than how they are, and will always be fully what they are in this moment.

The difficult part of encountering beauty, then, isn’t finding things which are worthy to described that way, it is placing ourselves into an orientation to experience them as beautiful.

When we see a marvelous mountain, snow-capped against the blue sky and the deep shadowed valleys, that great grandeur and majesty absorb us completely; for a moment we are completely silent because its majesty takes us over, we forget ourselves. Beauty is where ‘you’ are not. The essence of beauty is the absence of the self.

J Krishnamurti

Words are the end of beauty, because as soon as we start trying to capture what we see in words we have ceased experiencing it in an aesthetic manner.

It is natural to document and describe the experiences that we have. There is value in passing on those descriptions to other people. There is nothing wrong with formulating arguments for why one does or does not appreciate a work of art, or a tree.

Those classifications, delineations and descriptions are not, however, beauty. Beauty belongs to each individual and only in relation to what they are having an experience with. Beauty isn’t a universal standard which can be tracked or passed from one person to the next.

Beauty hits us not in the consciousness but in the body. Think about a piece of music that gave you goose bumps, or standing in front of a work of art which literally took your breath away. Those expressions tap into the visceral experience that we all have had at one time or another. Whether or not we would describe that experience, that object we are encountering, as “beautiful”, the experience itself is the experience of a kind of beauty.

Kant would probably not have said this the way that I am, and certainly may have disagreed with much of this. However, based on how he has described the mechanism and orientation of aesthetic judgement, I can only arrive at these conclusions about the nature of what is beauty.

While we are surrounded by the potential for experiencing beauty all the time, we are prevented from it through the constant need to document, describe and rationalize everything which comes before us. Our ego, ever focused on self preservation in an increasingly complicated world, does not let down our guard long enough for us to simply be open to what is around us. Tuning ourselves towards greater awareness and mindfulness is helpful to allow distance between the ego and our perceptions of the world.

Beauty, finally, isn’t the elusive and rare quality to be sought out and prized within a handful of objects. It is possible to have an experience of the beautiful with the aspects of our world which are already around us in each moment.

The barrier to this experience is within ourselves. The ego, ever watchful protector of the “self”, judges the world in terms of usefulness and threat. Through ego we treat the world around us as either something to be used, something to be avoided, or unimportant.

It is only when we are feeling secure, satisfied, comfortable, loved, supported…that we are able to let down our guard and experience what is happening around us with greater perspective. In this mindset we are open to being more compassionate and supportive of others, and to seeing things for what they are.

An interesting additional benefit to cultivating mindfulness is that we are only able to experience moments of beauty when we are in a space to see our world the way it really is, and not the way that our ego categorizes it.

Mindfulness is certainly having a moment, thankfully, and for many excellent reasons. Add to this list the ability to leave your door open to beauty. Sink into the aesthetic knowledge of the world, the inherent purposiveness of the natural world especially, and you have the opportunity to be surrounded in a sea of beautiful encounters. Just leave the ego at the trailhead.

Aesthetics of the Unending

Exploring aesthetic theory of new media AI generative networks. Follow-on post from “Herding Electric Sheep“, which was inspired by the work of Refik Anadol Studio.

Anadol creates AI networks which, when fed data sets, are able to analyze and interpret the data into a new work of art. These AI networks are a type of GAN, or Generative Adversarial Network, which work against themselves to “learn” or “grow” and adapt. The artist/programmer defines the parameters of execution and can have significant to little influence on how the AI then processes the information. In the case of Anadol and information presented in artist statements, it seems that he and his team are highly hands-on in helping to curate and guide the AI responses into something which they find to be artistically “successful”.

In this article I want to explore some of the aesthetic choices being made by Anadol, as well as some of the questions that might arise around the art theory of his projects.

Some of these questions are specific to Anadol and his work, such as why the output of the systems looks the way that it does. Other questions are perhaps more general in terms of how AI systems are being put into use to generate spaces, contexts and content.

I am no expert in the technicalities of computer programming, nor am I broadly versed in AI. These questions don’t, I believe, require that sort of expertise in order to open up useful ideas.

Fluid Dynamics

Several of Anadol’s AI works (such as “Artificial Realities“, “Unsupervised” and “Renaissance Dreams“) are presented on digital displays which seem to depict shallow visual spaces. Within these spaces, opening into the image, are dynamic visual representations of colors and forms that are constantly in flux. Many seem to be presented as the surface of a liquid pool as it undulates and shifts in color and texture.

These representations are being generated in real time and do not repeat, as the AI continually churns out and adjusts the visual output. What is represented on the website is necessarily only a selection of moments preserved as still images, or short sections of video, which show how the visuals shift and change.

Underpinning these visuals are a curated data-set of visuals which have been fed into the machine. It is the selection of visuals as well as the setting of parameters which constitute what the artist is hoping to achieve.

For “Renaissance Dreams” the program was built around a data set of paintings created in Italy between 1400 and 1700 within what is generally agreed upon as the Italian Renaissance. For the MoMa show “Unsupervised” the artists was able to use a data set of all works cataloged within the museum. From these data sets the AI is “inspired” by and “learns” the images which it has been fed, and uses elements from those images to create something new.

It is a sort of meta-view of the works taken as a whole.

But what is the significance of the fluid dynamics of these representations? Certainly none of the works within the data set (from the Renaissance anyway) were video or contained actual movement of any kind.

As a method of constantly generating images one might see the need to move from one representation to another, the flowing makes conceptual sense but isn’t the most obvious option. Simply showing a slideshow, or using now-common animation techniques to simply morph one image into another, would have been just as easy.

Aside from flowing one image into another we are presented with the curious choice that these dynamic visuals would also appear to have dimension. Not only would they ripple and flow, but they would actually seem to splash out at us, undulate and roll in the depths.

What does watching psychedelic whitecaps tell us about the oeuvre of renaissance oil paintings?

I find both of these choices to be somewhat at odds with the projects as described. If we are interested in looking at what AI sees as connections between works which are static and two-dimensional, how are we to perceive these aspects when they are rolling and bubbling across the screen?

I see this as a problem of relations, in which the source material is so far removed from the output as to be unmoored and unable to hold dialogue with itself. It is interesting to know that these images derive from a meseum’s collection of famous works, but so far removed from our ability to make those connections that it might as well have derived from images of jelly beans.

As I will continue to push on, the capabilities represented in AI may be less limited in their technical abilities than they are in our ability to connect them back to useful relationships within our lived experiences as humans.

Content Unending

Not all of Anadol’s works take place as pools of liquid. Another version of the “Unsupervised” show at MoMa did take a two-dimensional approach to the outcome, with flattened images morphing into one another.

Removing the element of depth it becomes instantly easier to begin focusing on elements within the images that seem to be marks which might have come from human hands. At one moment the image may present itself as calligraphic textured brush strokes, while at another it might appear more as modernist color blocks. Some moments become more architectural before dissolving into impressionistic glowing patches without structure.

The content always shifts and changes. Seeing elements that remind us of other painters, or movements, time periods or locations, is where I found the most resonance with the piece. It was much easier for me to engage in a dialogue about how the work was interpreting the museum’s collection as a whole.

Like watching TV, or doom scrolling, the game becomes one of waiting for these next moment of connection to show up. If seeing an combination of visual elements forming on the screen which resonate with other works that we know is somehow satisfying, then I find myself waiting around for the next moment like that to occur. Thankfully the videos which have been posted are necessarily a very small portion of the “finished” work.

Why this interest in continuous generation of content?

This seems to be something which exists beyond the circle of AI in art, and appears as an element in other AI projects. Perhaps because it is because generation of the new from the existing is a major technical strength of the technology.

I suspect the desire to continuously generate new content is tied to the human desire for “more”. Why generate one image, when it is hardly any extra energy to generate 2, or 5 or 1000?

In the case of Anadol it seems as if continuous generation is also a hallmark of how the function operates. The AI, in a constant competition within itself, is adapting all of the time. Perhaps it is the only method by which one can truly appreciate the tools in real time. To see an image generated today will not tell us what it might have learned to generate tomorrow.

And yet, that is how every human artist must operate, only ever able to create what it is that they have been practicing to be able to create.

Never-ending art creates at least two significant problems.

First, the scope of the work can never be grasped as a whole. With not official end, and little discernable relationship between the visual representation of one moment and the next, it is impossible for the viewer to anchor on any sort of perspective or relationship with the work. Is it enough to watch it for one minute, or thirty, before one begins to appreciate it? Each analysis is pre-empted by the variations which have not yet come to pass.

Second, without an anchor point, it is impossible to hang analysis or interpretation on any one visual aspect. Much as I am struggling with here, the work itself becomes not only difficult to properly describe, but also difficult to internalize. No method of compositional analysis can be put into place, nor historical perspective, comparison to film or TV. Perhaps it can be compared to the never ending feed of social media, but it does so in the gestalt of its existence rather than in specific moments of representation.

In that context, anything that is unending and constantly in flux, could be read in the same manner.

If our interest is in exploring black box systems that follow their own rules about development, and do not cease to develop in the face of their own complex environments, we might be just as satisfied to spend time a garden.

Our entire world is a generative adversarial network of chaotic forces acting within their own systems. While it may be colloquial to think of our world as static and stable, the reality of any given moment is the struggle for life or decay of what has been constructed. What does the creation of a digital version tell us about the world we already inhabit?

In Anadol’s work “Artificial Realities” he and his studio create AI networks trained on images of coral reefs in order that they might in turn create digital versions of non-existent reef-like structures. The images do manage to attain a sense of beautiful structure that one might expect to find under the sea. Doesn’t it, however, beg a question about the alien beauty of the actual coral reefs which exist in the world around us? Rather than collect data to feed into an artificial version, would we not similarly marvel at the wonders of what nature has designed over millennium?

Computers can already be programmed to generate the structures of a reef based on the actual real world models of growth patterns. It is not a fundamental understanding of how they are created, or the inability to create convincing facsimiles which AI brings to the table.

The trick which AI seems to perform most uniquely, is the generation of novel versions of things based on parameters. It is the sheer scale and speed at which inputs can be developed into finished versions. What does the creation of reef-like structures (again, shifting and transient) tell us about the examples on which they are based?

Meta Scale

That line of questioning is where I find myself often getting stuck. AI can create outputs which are fascinating in their novelty, their newness or foreignness, and the magnitude of their presentation. That, however, presupposes that what is novel is also more worth while. It leans on the idea that something we have never before seen is valuable for that very reason.

What, for humanity, is novelty? It is not a question of basic addition. Adding one new experience does not always add new information. Humans learn new information within a context. We rely heavily upon stories and previous experience to integrate something new into the paradigm within which we operate.

If it was enough to read lists of dates, names and places, then history could be reduced to a list. For most of us we need to understand a broader perspective on the information. We need to think about the story, the origin, the driving factors and influential context.

Leonardo da Vinci was insatiable in his quest to learn about optics, anatomy, atmospheric effects and any number of other factors which go into how objects may be perceived under different conditions. He wrote about “composition” not as the orientation of different elements into a picture plane, but rather as the imaginative activity of the mind as it makes decisions about how a figure will appear on the canvas. For him, the act of composition required deep knowledge of the subject. It was an act of being able to hold the subject within one’s mind’s eye, not as the two dimensional perception that we see before us, but as a complete whole in the round. The artists greatest act, as I choose to read him, is to be able to take what we perceive and understand about a subject, and make mental adjustments to it so that it can be represented back to the viewer in a new configuration.

This conception relates two important aspects which I find missing as we try to align ourselves towards such works as we have been discussing.

First, the the knowledge with which the artist must operate should be as deep as possible. In order to build any knowledge, and in order to understand anything beyond rote memorization, humans need to build mental connections to that thing. We may develop knowledge through a number of different avenues, not least of which is a non-rational aesthetic understanding akin to muscle-memory or the lived experience we have working with the information in our daily lives.

Second, for Leonardo the act of composition wasn’t the act of the novel from nothing. It was the adjustment of what was known in order to present it in a new way, or the way most appropriate to the situation. The best leaps in understanding are not sudden exposure to what is alien, but incremental exposure to what we thought we new so that we can deepen our connection and understanding.

AI networks are often put to use in the analysis of massive amounts of data. In some of these cases the works were trained on hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of images. What they are generating out of connections made between those images, are visual solutions to questions that humans could not hope to pose, or understand the answers to.

In many ways, AI generated art seems so meta that only other AI networks could possibly have any sort of understanding of the results (though that sort of understanding is also beyond their capabilities).

Though fascinating to look at, I fear that the generated art works of this sort of programming is landing, if indeed it has an aesthetic value to be mined, at a level so far beyond human comprehension as to make it functionally inhuman. Pretty to look at, but ultimately less informational than an aquarium full of exotic fish. Staring at alien creatures from the deep at least comes with the limits of our scientific knowledge of, and aesthetic connection to, similar sea creatures and experiences in the ocean.

It is a tricky area to walk, for I do not want to deny aesthetic value to anything which exists alongside of us.

I do find it very difficult, however, to see where one might be able to form a meaningful connection with these works. Especially given their penchant for continual un-resting change at pace.

Perhaps we must simply keep watching in order to build up our experiences with this kind of art. I only fear that that instinct, to keep watching one more moment lest we pass up the one vital spark we have yet missed seeing, is more than anything a commentary on the attention-commodity marketplace, in which FOMO and click-bait have stripped the virtue from not-looking.

Herding Electric Sheep

Art made of visuals that continuously morph from one moment of semi-stability into the next challenge a view of what art is and is ultimately for.

Specifically I am thinking of the work of Refik Anadol Studio, which is generated by artificial intelligence networks based on specifically curated data points and controlled by aesthetic choices built into the programming as well as trained into the process itself.

Unlike the text-to-image generators which have broadsided the artistic community of late, these programs have not been created to come up with single visuals in any given style. Instead, they are groomed artificial intelligence networks which have been developed to continuously output what should be thought of as a “single” work of art, which is itself a product of the networks continuous development.

I have not had the pleasure of experiencing any of these works “in the flesh” so to speak during an installation. Rather, what is posted on their website are only instances of the artwork in action, recorded as videos and stills, showing moments of a never-ending visual production that is constantly coming into being.

The output is quite simply stunning, vibrant, mesmerizing even awe-inspiring at moments. It certainly fills a unique slot within what may become a novel frontier for art and computer science, which I believe is exactly what the artist himself is hoping for. It is undeniable that his work and collaboration with other leading figures within the technology and programming sector has already driven developments within AI performance, graphics processing and broader integrations of AI into different fields. It is a contemporary example of art pushing the boundaries of what is achievable, and causing waves beyond the world of pure aesthetics or the art market.

I have no interest in debating whether or not this is art, but I do want to lean into a few areas in which it has opened up room for exploring other aspects of art theory. Such as what it asks us to consider about aesthetics and intrinsic value, historical dialogue, and the nature of the medium. There are also some interesting questions around the artistic statement and execution of the piece which may have implications for the role that AI is playing in our lives.

As I frame my ideas on this topic I think I would like to outline the points below, and then take each one into an individual discussion during subsequent posts.

Questionable Aesthetics of Scale

For many of the works created by this studio the artifact output created due to the processing of information by the AI network is represented as a never-ending, never repeating, ever shifting digital visual.

What does it mean that the work has no beginning and end? What is the relationship between the moment and the “whole”? Or the speed with which it transitions from one instance to the next? Can we even speak in terms of instances, moments and fragments?

How is it possible for a human capacity for perception and attention can connect meaningfully with such a scale of representation? What does the desire for the never-ending, self-generating, perpetually perpetuating, say about the artist and the viewer?

Narrative Dissonance

Anadol has created several site-specific or topic-specific works. In fact, each work is built around a very specific narrative grain or purpose which is explained within the statement. Most of these ideas become embodied within the data set and grooming choices which impact how the programs process and from what they pull their “inspiration”.

For example, one artwork was built upon coral reef data in order that it could create its own versions. Another, as part of a MoMa show, used the museum’s catalog information as the raw data for fueling further outputs created by the AI. Yet another took its data from a bounded set of dates and geography limited to Renaissance Italy as a starting point to explore the meta implications of that era.

These networks are pulling form curated sources which humans have determined to belong together culturally (at least in the latter two instances). The artist hopes that, through our experience of viewing what the AI has dreamed up based off of these data sets, we will be able to read purposeful meaning into both the data sets themselves as well as the larger cultural artistic conversation.

Meaning, and narrative, depend, however, on some common ground of understanding. AI networks famously operate beyond the comprehension of even their creators. While we may understand the framework, the basic functionality and the input it does not automatically mean that we will be able to meaningfully comprehend the output of such an experiment. Is there meaning to be found here, or even inspiration? What value do such meta-analysis of culture bring to the larger conversation?

The Paradox of Control and Escape

Less specific to the art works in question, but resonant with similar approaches to the role that AI might come to play in our world, I feel that our uses of the technology highlight the strange ways in which we chase technology as an escape from ourselves.

In a world which is so highly connected (on an information and communication level), in which we can already see so many permutations of the human spirit at work, we seek to create entirely new spaces, experiences and ways of interacting. We seem not only not content to engage with the complexities of the world in which we find ourselves, but instead go out of our way to facilitate the existence of new worlds which have rules which we fundamentally cannot understand. We drown within the world of the real and seek to create new areas with their own fathomless depths.

As a cultural signifier of where we are as humans, what does the form of AI powered art say about who we are and what we are trying to achieve?

The Legacy Of Taste

The Development of Taste.

I have been teasing out what I want to say about developing taste and aesthetic judgment. There is something tangled up in this concept which I find incredibly important but am having difficulty dragging out into the light.

One aspect which I would like to hone in on is the role that taste plays in our day to day lives as a foundational, practical, tool for passing on quality.

When I am speaking about taste and aesthetic judgements, I am not quite talking about what people mean when they say someone “has taste”. What I mean is related to what we generally think of: a cultured sense of quality. Someone who appreciates classical music, fine wine and visiting the opera might be a dated central European caricature of what it means to have taste in that sense.

To say that someone has taste generally alludes to their qualities of judgment. It is a signpost for virtue, indicating that at the core of their being they are made of quality materials. For some reason it has been considered that those who appreciate quality must be able to do that because they themselves are of higher quality.

Well, I am not at all interested in the problematic issues which come from trying to assess the quality of someone else’s taste.

I’d rather focus on the mechanism for judging quality which we all possess.

For me, taste is the ability to reflect on what provides quality in our own lives. That may be the appreciation of classical music, or the hand stitching of fan-fic keychains, or engaging in ultimate frisbee. It is the ability to self-analyze how we are, how we feel, while being exposed to different situation.

Crucially, it must also include the shaping of behaviors. It is one thing to understand how spending our time exercising or eating more fruits and vegetables might have positive benefits on our lives, and quite another to actually integrate those choices into our lives.

Having taste is the quality of assessing the aspects of our lives that bring the most quality, and then also making the efforts to include more of those elements into our lives.

Exercising and building one’s taste is to leverage an innate quality, an innate mechanism, which all humans possess. It does not require formal training or genetic gifts.

What it does require are three costs which many people find difficult to pay:

  • Time
  • Vulnerability
  • Independence

In order to develop taste one must spend time reflecting on where meaning derives from. What makes them happy? What inspires them? Are there activities in which one engages and always feels energized, inspired and alive? What about activities (doom scrolling on social media) which always leave one feeling depressed, drained and unfulfilled?

Build upon what already exists. We can only judge the things we already engage in.

Vulnerability comes in when we are willing to consider that some of the decisions we have been making are not in our best interest. It is the ability to look at where we spend our time and energy where it does not serve us.

Some of this might be impractical, like the work we engage in. Certainly it is the rare few who are actually engaged in and inspired by what pays the bills. If we have the chance to change this we should, but knowing what to do instead, and actually making the career change are significantly more difficult obstacles.

We can change, however, the media we consume, the people we spend time with, the topics we engage in, our hobbies, our diet, our physical activity. All of these aspects have dramatic impacts on our wellbeing and most of them can be adjusted on our own time.

Sure, building the habits is difficult, but practicing the self-reflection is how we come to build a desire for change which can support those efforts.

Adapting our lives to new activities which adhere to a developed sense of taste will mean shifting the character of our time and energy usage. It will likely mean that we will engage less with aspects of society which many people value and take for granted. It will probably mean that the way one lives will seem “odd” to the mainstream. Having a strong sense of taste will make it clear to us why we live like we do, but it will not be clear to those around us.

This comes back to taste as something we assign other people. When our taste matches what society deems worthy, then we will be accepted. When our taste falls outside of those lines we will be misunderstood. Standing firm outside the crowd is not something easily maintained.

Taste as a Legacy of Knowledge.

In a recent conversation with artist, art critic and thoughtful human Eric Wayne he presented this simple description of what it means to be human which helped reframe an entire section of contemporary culture within my udnerstanding:

Our technology is way ahead of our morality, self-control, and maturity. The thing is, science builds upon generations, lifetimes, centuries, and thousands of years of technological development. But for us humans, each life starts from scratch, and we only have one lifetime to develop our own ability to participate meaningfully in life. We can’t inherit that ability from anyone else. We are probably no more unselfish or wise than we were a hundred years ago. That’s a fairly safe statement. It’s probably true for a thousand years, or ten thousand. But because tech builds and builds and we always have to start over, we have become like children with increasingly dangerous toys.

Eric Wayne

I feel the truth of this statement around me every day. It explains so much about he world we live in, especially the hyper modernized western world. Technology is the cause of and solution to each of our problems, and yet it is the age old questions of what it means to be a human which keep ringing in my ears.

Studying philosophy and art history is to keep in touch with those through lines of conversation. It is intriguing to me that generation upon generation continues to try and crack those same questions.

Is that really true, though, that there is no legacy pertaining to humanity that can be passed down from person to person? What about religion, spiritual traditions, philosophies?

Clearly, though they have been around as long as humans, we continue to struggle as individuals, and his point stands.

We may not have a science that pertains to finding meaning in one’s life, but I think that we do have practices. We have learned quite a lot about mindfulness, prayer, the powers of ritual and community practice. We have learned much about the value of having deep relationships and staying occupied with meaningful engaging hobbies.

There are magnificent treatises from each age which seek to combine and reframe spiritual understanding of our place within the universe.

Unlike science, we cannot simply download the manual and load it into the operating system. The problem is not that we don’t have the information, the problem is that the information comes in the form of Aesthetic knoweldge.

That is, knowledge which is wordless, embodied, practiced and experienced rather than passed on. It is knowledge which must be attempted so that it can be internalized.

The problem is also skepticism and scarcity of time. Realizing that trying new things might end up being a dead-end we first seek out what knowledge can be written. We read the reviews of religions and spiritualities, the first hand accounts of others who have gone before. A few bad reviews here, or conflicting accounts elsewhere, and we end up unsure of which direction to go.

Taste, as a mechanism for reviewing where meaning comes from and integrating it into our lives, is uniquely suited to helping us filter aesthetic knowledge.

It requires an investment in time, but is infallible when we open ourselves to what it brings to our attention.

We may not be able to build a purposeful life for society in the way that we can lay down a digital network. On the other hand, each person has the ability to tap into the cultural legacy which already exists. Taste is the conduit through which we can deepen our connection to meaning and the great cultural collective of aesthetic knowledge.

Two Types of Artist

When it comes down to it, there are really only two types of artists in the world. It is always a matter of how you cut it, but let me say right off the jump that not everyone who makes what we normally think of as art, or who works as a professional in a creative field, can be called an artist. Knowing what we’re describing here is going to be useful in defining how we think about the nature of art, and what making art means in our changing world.

I was started my art education taking classes which were mostly focused on technique. The weight fell heavily on what might be described as the “fine art” side of things, in which students were taught “core” technical skills related to drawing, painting and composition. Though I didn’t go far enough to hit many theory classes, the general perspective was this: that art was ultimately something personal borne out of the artist’s vision. The goal of art education was to provide the skills which would allow the artist to realize their vision in the most technically appropriate and skillful manner.

Later, when returning to art education, I found myself head first in a deep pool of design theory. Here the perspective was quite different. There was always an end goal, and end product and a problem to be solved. The best design was the one which elegantly solved the problem and clearly communicated the answer for the client to their chosen audience.

Between, and aside from, these two poles lay many other explanations for what art is or could be. Many artists describe themselves as process based, following rules which have been established to generate results which cannot be predicted. Others try and pull from a place of subconscious, to work without conception or to tap into a creativity they do not feel fully in control of. Others push the limits of their materials or find ways to disrupt the traditional methods of execution altogether.

It might seem absurd to say all of this and then try to narrow this down into two boxes, but here it goes anyway.

There are, in the end, only two types of artists: those who have a solid understanding and conception of their success metrics, and those who cannot fully describe what a successful work looks like.

I am inclined to think that what I learned of design theory was largely correct when it comes to art being created in order to solve a problem. For graphic design and similar fields these problems are handed to the artist from a client. For a fine artist the problem to be solved comes from within. It is easy to point out that an illustrator or designer is striving to create a solution which works for their client or project. Often the success metrics are clearly outlined in a brief and are reviewed at stages in which verbal criticism can be incorporated into a final version.

A fine artist, even one working from their own imagination, is not without their own design brief. They too have some sense of what it will mean for their work to be “finished”. They will have a sense of when they have achieved their goal, or will set themselves anew to the task of trying to solve the problem in a different way.

It might be tempting to point to someone who paints in a non-representational or abstract way and imagine that they do not have success metric in mind. Those artists still need to judge the execution of their craft. They still must assess what has been created and how, and determine whether it has become something which achieves these goals. It is not the case that these artists threw paint around and accepted whatever came out. They are still critical of the work that has been created.

One might jump on that point and bring up process artists, such as those who do paint pouring, or use procedural techniques to create images. Due to the nature of the process, these artists have no concrete idea how the final image will turn out, but that does not mean that they do not have a sense of whether it has been successful. Someone who creates images using paint pouring will know whether or not they executed the steps of their process in a way which fulfills their own guiding system. The judgment is not applied to the end product (often) but to the process of executing the image.

Even artists who rely upon dreams and subconscious, or automatic, drawing techniques will have a sense that they have captured something which is tuned in to those elements.

The artists may not be able to explain what they are looking for, and from the outside it may be impossible to discern where the line of successful execution lays. It does not matter whether any other viewer of the work has access to that sense of successful execution. Some artists will be able to articulate those aspects, and some will not. Both kinds are artists proper.

The core here is judgment. To be an artist isn’t to be tied to a technique or process, academic school of aesthetics, genre or similar classification. An artist is someone who uses their special talents and skills to solve creative problems while exercising their powers of creative judgment to determine the effectiveness of their results.

So what? How does this narrow anything down and what is it useful for?

It makes room for a vast array of art making individuals working on creative problems that don’t always have solutions that make sense to the rest of the world. It frees some traditional artists up from feeling tied to the materials that other artists use, and makes room to bring in a variety of creative artists who are not working using “accepted” methods.

Beyond that it also sets up a dividing line which cuts across industries and experience levels. Of all the people who are engaged in the business of generating visual assets, illustrations, motion graphics and other varies content elements, not every one of them should be considered an artist. There are many who, given the amazing accessibility of tools which can be used to quicky generate images, choose not to use their aesthetic judgment. There are many who churn out images and content without a critical eye for what is being delivered into our world and visual culture. If anyone is in the business of uncritically generating images or other visual solutions, and does not consider whether their creations meet their standards, then they cannot be called artists.

An artist is someone who assesses the success or failure of their work against a set of internalized aesthetic standards.

Artists who create work for themselves must be able to critically consider whether or not what they have created is appropriate to their vision or process. Artists who create work for others map the needs of the design brief onto their own set of standards. Even technical solutions must be judged internally to see whether or not they are successful.

Judgment cannot come from outside and does not reside within a brief. It is always a requirement that that artist make an interpretation of the brief, whether this is something they can describe or not.

If someone is making visual solutions without passing judgment on them before handing them off to a client or putting the out in the world, then this person is no artist. They are simply an image generator or content creator. Indeed, that title itself focuses fully on bringing new content into existence, without any reference towards whether or not that content has achieved a threshold of quality.

Why is the realevent? For this just the reason stated above.

Our world is such that we are drowning in content. Much of it has been created thoughtlessly to fill ever expanding spaces of our digital lives.

If someone is making visual solutions thoughtlessly then they diluting the richness and value of our collective visual culture.

There may not be many areas of overlap between all artists, but I believe that the most critical key element is a exercising of internalized aesthetic judgment. We need visual solutions which are oriented both towards practical client needs and towards internalized self expression. In both of these cases we need artists who concern themselves with the quality of their craft. Whether this means engaging deeply with their process, their subconscious or trained technique, it will result in something which has the ability to nourish others.

Just like comparing vitamin rich whole foods to cheaply processed empty calories, so too is the comparison between thoughtfully birthed art and design in comparison to throw-away images.

Drawing a distinction between artists and non-artists is to also highlight the sort of arts that we consume and allow to be consumed. Paying more attention to quality and design is a way of tuning our sense of taste.

The realm of aesthetic judgement is not reserved for artists alone. It may be what defines them, but the viewer must also learn to exercise this skill. We may or may not be privileged to know what an artist was thinking about their own work. We may have an artist statement with carefully crafted conceptual outlines, or we may have only the word “untitled”. We may encounter visual assets in advertising, video games or printed ephemera. We may be able to discern the amount of success achieved by the graphic as it works on us as a consumer. We may find ourselves inspired, energized or otherwise nourished by the work, or we may find that its influence passes us by. What matters is that there is a potential for meaningful engagement which does not exist in works that were created by an image maker rather than an artist.

The Intrinsic Meaning of Art – Wingless Pegasus

One thing I love about WordPress and the blog environment is when good conversations and idea can bounce off of each other in just the right ways to drive curiosity.

Two threads came together for me recently. Each started in a very different corner of my perception and came together with a significant crash.

The first thread came from a long-running interest I have been developing about the life and photography of Minor White. He was an American who taught and practiced photography for much of his career on the west coast. He was working during the middle of the twentieth century and was highly influenced by the work of Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. The list of influential photographers whom he taught and mentored is significant. Aside form teaching he was also a founding editor for Aperture magazine, in which he contributed many fascinating articles about the theory and philosophy of photography. He was very influenced by the mystical, and became something of a photography guru during the later portion of his life, gathering a group of passionate individuals around him to talk about the power of photography to communicate deep truths.

Minor White, Sandstone formation Point Lobos “Returning Wave”, 1950

The second thread has been several in depth, thoroughly presented and thoughtfully critical pieces written about the rise of AI art generators which are being written by Eric Wayne. The latest (as of the end of January 2023) is titled “AI Won. Human Artists and Humankind are Defeated“. Mr. Wayne is a contemporary art critic and artist who is very concerned about the place of the artist in today’s world.

These two threads came together for me while discussing some of the implications raised in the article linked above.

To summarize the points of this conversation that I felt to be at core issue (they are worth reading in depth if you are interested in hearing two slightly different takes on how art may or may not exist in a post-AI world): On one side of the discussion is the cold hard reality that AI is not (and will continue to become) much better than humans at content creation in nearly all forms. Art and image creation are already incredibly advanced, and have improved dramatically within only a matter of months. The writing on the wall is that AI will very soon be able to generate better art than humans ever could. Indeed, AI will generate better art than we may ever be able to conceive of. On the other side of the conversation I argue that the output, the image generated, is somehow different than “art” in some sense. I argue that the intentionality of the artist must have some influence on the experience of something as art. Both of us agree that there is a challenging aspect related to viewer response. Namely, that some AI art will certainly be impactful, inspiring and moving for human viewers, even if it was created “without” intention in the sense that I was alluding to.

Certainly many of the discussions happening now have significant emphasis placed on the origin of the work. Many people feel comfortable saying that they will never purchase AI art, and will never appreciate it as much as they appreciate art create by a human. The problem with this is that there is currently no way to know. The quality of production is so good that the majority of AI generated images cannot be discerned from those created by a human. Certainly, if someone tells us where the image came from it will color our perceptions, but should it? If a picture moves us, then isn’t it art?

James Horton, “A Beautiful Woman with Rose”, created using Midjourney and edited using Stable Diffusion application.

One particular quote from Mr. Wayne is what helped set off this blog post:

Art has intrinsic value. Disqualifying AI art, poetry, musical compositions, etc., because they are by AI is a disservice to art and art appreciation. We have this happening already where are is being judged by the biology of the artist.

Eric Wayne from “AI Won.”

Hold that thought, I’ll come back.

Thread three was the slow burning experience I have had trying to live the life of an artist creating original work not for a client, but for myself. Granted, as an unsuccessful working artist who perhaps never put in the 110% effort required to make it work, you can take my words with a grain of salt. I did spend a few years surveying the landscape, however, and trying to figure out what it would take, before realizing that what it would take wasn’t something I felt confident about executing.

The internet, as with any tool, provides benefits and drawbacks. It has never been easier, as an artist, for work to be shown to millions (or billions) of potential fans. Never before has any artist (and I mean literally anyone who is making art) had the audience that is now available. The cost and barrier to entry is laughingly minimal. One doesn’t even need a domain or web page, just a social media presence and the cell phone camera which is often attached. Suddenly anyone, anywhere, can see what has been created.

On the flip side, the competition for views has also never been so unbelievable. Every artist is trying to be the one who gets noticed, and every viewer is daily learning how better to skim quickly through visual content. Being seen is no longer enough. Viewers see thousands of images a day, sometimes in a sitting, and even the most awe inspiring and jaw-dropping pictures can be double tapped and passed on without much thought.

Making a connection with the viewer seems like it would be easier, and yet, how is it to be made?

Back to Minor White. As an editor at Aperture, and an art theorist, he too was involved in many discussions about what art was, who it was for, and how to look at things. In fact, his discussions about art are significantly skewed towards how to look at images. I have covered a few of his critical exercises in previous posts with the titles “Conceptual Awareness”.

Minor White, and his emphasis on how to look at images, was heavily influenced by one book about art criticism which I just finished reading. It is titled “Wingless Pegasus, a Handbook for Critics” by George Boas and was published in 1972.

Boas, George. Wingless Pegagus: A Handbook for Critics.

The book is an attempt to describe and illuminate the many ways which art has been seen to provide value throughout different times and places. It is at its core a psychological and philosophical text about how humans interact with their world.

I don’t think it is difficult to see how complicated assigning values can be in terms of humanity, and art especially. Values are a product of the individual upbringing of each person, coming from their cultural background and then blended in with their individual experiences. It is a hallmark of the modern world and taken for granted that each individual is a unique universe unto themselves with an inner life and way of thinking that is theirs alone. We already accept that any two people who look at the same scene may come away with two different interpretations. Indeed, this is celebrated (in the west) as something that itself is to be valued.

Knowing how fickle taste can be, and living in a globalized culture in which so many different worldviews and perspectives may come to bear on each piece of art, how can we expect to find any underlying value which is inherent within the piece itself?

Two common areas in which many people have tried to pin value into the work itself are: the skill demonstrated in its creation, and the time spent on its creation.

Skill is quite interesting because it too changes with taste. Which artist was more skillful, Leonardo, or Van Gogh, or Picasso? Each style has its own rules and difficulties and requires different skills. Does it even make sense to compare? In the time of its painting, according to an article included at the end of Boa’s book, the Mona Lisa was praised on its completion for how incredibly life-life, “living”, the woman in the painting looked. Despite this, hardly any mention is made of the painting for hundreds of years after, and it is not included on lists of masterpieces from those centuries. It is not until someone writes again in the 1700’s that it comes back into circulation. In fact, it isn’t until critics of the nineteenth century analyzed it with a strong emphasis on the hidden psychological meanings did it start to develop the cache which it continues to have. In this case, what it is famous for now can hardly be the exquisite brushstrokes and technicalities. That skill didn’t change and yet did not speak to centuries of people about the inherent value. Similarly, though we may praise it now, very few people who actually go to see if (even those who try to see it) will never be able to identify that level of skill because they won’t be able to get close enough to apprehend the details. If skill carries value, then why do we value something which we cannot appreciate (except through anecdote) as being skillfully created? Why wasn’t it immediately and forever more a masterpiece?

Similarly, and in reverse, even art created with exquisite skill and technical aptitude may not inspire or engage with the audience. Other forms of image making, such as non-representational art, or forms of process art, or found art, do not rely upon technical skill in the same way. It may be the case that the skill being executed is a skill of perception, or curation or conception. All of these, while they may be trained and put to challenging use, are very difficult for the viewer to gauge or grasp.

That values by which art is judged come from the unique individual and their background, as well as their placement within a society. Values may be shared more broadly amongst people within a group so long as they share significant social values which make the translation possible. For instance, the majority of Medieval paintings were intended to support the words of the church by illustrating and aiding communication of the sermons and the message. In that context, the work of art can speak similarly to many people. That same work, seen now especially if it has been removed from a church, is being seen by a plurality of cultures, ages and backgrounds at once, and certainly means different things to different people.

George Boas ends his book with this summary of his journey through where human values about art seem to come from, concluding that it is simply not possible to find any universal and shared value that isn’t tied to changing modes of thinking. He suggests:

The critic therefore, if he is wise, will confine himself to explanation, interpretation, analysis and give up praising and blaming, legislation, evaluation. He will cease the attempt to communicate the ineffable and resign himself to a world in which there is an insoluble residuum of irrationality.

Boas, George. “Wingless Pegasus, A Handbook for Critics.” Baltimore, MD. The John Hopkins Press, 1950.

This is what jumped to mind upon reading Mr Wayne’s remark that “Art has intrinsic value.” Perhaps it was no meant to identify a specific shared value, or even a value which can be quantified. Perhaps it is a value which applies to a specific time and place.

Returning to my struggles with presenting my art in a contemporary market might be helpful.

It is already the case, I feel, that being an artist online is to be in competition with impossible odds. There will always be someone who spends more time than you, who has better skills that you, who came up with a similar idea first. Despite the changes in appearance, there is still actually very little new under the sun. It used to be that one could be the best in one’s niche, but now each niche has been filled. To find a new one means shaving off imperceptible spaces between others that have already been carved out. I feel that we didn’t need AI to disrupt the modern artist. Artmaking in today’s world is already a situation in which the artist has lost before even setting foot on the stage.

In order to have one’s art seen and appreciated in a global social media marketplace, one may be supported by many fellow artist mentors, marketing gurus and social media experts. Though their credentials differ, there are some interesting overlaps in what they say.

Artists who seek to make their own work and represent themselves to the world are really trying to sell themselves. Having a brand presence, being a strong brand, is key. Advice varies in detail, but generally they seem to agree on a few key points:

  • Show something of yourself, of the human behind the art.
  • Know what audience you are trying to reach, and have an idea of what kind of person you think your art might speak to.
  • Don’t try to cater to everyone, and keep your message consistent.
Splash page for Stop The Starving Artist by Lennon Bone, a website geared at helping artists find their tribes and those who will appreciate their work.

I understand from the side of the viewer how this works. There are several artists whom I follow that have caught my eye over a period of time and many works presented. I may be drawn in by one image, but it is only after I have seen several do I start to get an idea of what the artist is “about”. By seeing them working at visual problems in their own unique ways I get a sense for what they find important, what they struggle with and where they find meaning in the work that they do.

It seems that being an artist today has a significant amount to do with selling yourself, rather than your art. Or perhaps, selling your story with the help of our art. When people buy your art, they are actually buying into your story.

At least, that is how I have often heard the narrative. It has a nice quality to it as well, in that it encourages the artist to lean into their own unique voice, and medium and technique. It also doesn’t require that everyone appreciate the work that you do. With so many people out there, the goal is to find your tribe, rather than convince everyone.

This aspect of “artist as brand” has become quite popular within the last few generations, even in the analogue world. Minor White spent a good deal of time arranging and rearranging photographs into “sequences” which were meant to stand together, or at least be read together, rather than focusing on individual images. This has continued, and is easily seen in the amount of photography art books which are on the market. Artists are also seeing great success selling sketchbooks. These point further towards the affect an artist has being tied to who they are as a person, as well as the work they are creating.

Perhaps this is a key to the new sense of value in art. Value transferred to the artist which encompasses not only the specific intention and method for creating any given piece, but their approach to artmaking as a whole.

Is this what we mean by inherent value within the art itself? Can art have inherent value for one tribe and be overlooked by others?

What about images that move us even when we don’t know the artist or how it came to exist? What about images that spark our sense of beauty or wonder even when they happen to be from the hand of an artist we do not respect as a person? Artists are already in a situation in which, despite having more potential viewers than ever before, they struggle to explain why they are creating the images which they do. Have we ever really been in a world where artist intent made that much of a difference? Have we always lived in a world in which we only like the images that appeal to us on a more instinctual level?

To quickly round up where I find myself in this discussion and begin to bring it to some sort of conclusion:

  1. AI text to image generators have the potential to upend how art is being created in many industries, including independent artists who are trying to discover and represent their own voice and style.
  2. Even before this, with the rise of social media and the wave of modernist art movements the place of artists has become more ambiguous. Artists have more potential viewers than ever, but also much more competition, and often eyeballs on their work for fractions of a second at a time while scrolling through a feed.
  3. The values we place on art come from the complex and unique set of circumstances which we all find ourselves in: our place in the world, our time in history and the unique experiences we have had growing up. Values can be shared by a group for a time, but change and flex and often do not mean that same thing to different groups. The value of an individual work of art does not seem to be fixed within the work itself, but must be somehow constructed in relationship to the viewer.

These three elements point to two conclusions I have come to about art in the contemporary situation, and in relation to AI text to image generators.

First, AI entering the scene isn’t fundamentally changing our relationship to art as much as I thought. This is mostly because it has already been very difficult for artists to control their own works and how they are distributed to the world. It is already very difficult for artists to find a tribe who appreciates their style and is willing to pay for it. It has also been very difficult to tell their own stories about why they are making what they are making.

An artist using AI to explore a certain theme is actually not at much advantage in this sphere. They may make one or two stellar images, but it will only be through the repeated body of their work which others will come to value their art at a deeper level. If they continue to turn out work that speaks together within that same narrative and stylistic structure, then they are clearly tapping into something true to themselves and artistic in its own right.

Second, AI image generators might actually be helpful when it comes to meaning making in a strange way. The sheer speed at which they can create images is going to test the limits of what we are already experiencing on a daily basis. Or, perhaps not, as I cannot image how to fit any more visual information into my day as it is. We are already creating works at a blinding pace without this technology.

When we think about what value art brings to our lives there should be some optimism here. If art does not carry any inherent value which can be “discovered” and shared amongst all people, then there is no gatekeeper and no litmus test for who can and should appreciate art. Though it may sound depressing to think that artistic value only exists for each person or small communities, that can actually be a great thing.

Art gains meaning and value when come into relationship with it. It might be shallow at first, but can deepen as we come to understand more about the work. A backstory and artist intention do not anoint a work with significance, but can provide us a new way to look at the piece and cause us to ask more interesting question about it. Historical or cultural context can do the same and give us broader perspective. Looking at the work in relation to other works by the same artist and other artists will also lend new meaning.

Rather than coming in and either seeing the value or missing it, we are able to build that value with the art. If we desire it.

How we choose to interact with art is up to us. What we choose to give our time and attention to is up to us. AI art isn’t a monolith sent to crush us. It is simply more images in our feed that we can choose to deal with as we want. If we find something interesting it is up to us to learn more about how it was made and why. If it was generated through a text to image bot then it is up to us to determine what the means. Perhaps there is still value there, or perhaps that is a roadblock to further understanding.

Our consumption is based on our taste, which we are at liberty to develop and exercise. If we want more meaningful art in our lives we need only go and get it. For individuals and society as a whole, what we surround ourselves can be a reflection of our taste rather than what other people want to feed us. If we decide to curate that mix that we consume then we can choose to partake in what brings us value and adds meaning to our lives. Art can and will have the value that we determine it does if we make time to build a relationship with it. The tools and the tech don’t determine it for us.

AI Art | Aesthetic Judgement

Like any new technology, AI art generators will affect different types of artists much differently. To speak about it as a monolith is misleading and unhelpful. To ban them outright is missing the point.

For someone who really wants an image and would normally hire an artist, they now have the opportunity to create versions of this image through an AI art generator. By inputting a string of written prompts the tool will produce several outputs which can then be iterated on through subsequent changes to the written prompts. This does not guarantee that the end result will adhere to the appropriate finished qualities which the user had in mind, but the quality of these tools in reproduction of various art styles and “realistic” representations is stunning.

The issues which are currently being raised around whether or not AI art generators are unethical and dangerous apply blame to the tool while failing to properly account for the intentions, skills and relationships brought by those who use them. My intention here is not to specifically fight for one side or another. Rather I would like to point out aspects of how AI art generators might disrupt the art world in ways which I have not yet seen discussed. I would also like to use this development in technology to highlight the relationship each of us has to art and media. There are important discussions to be regarding aesthetic judgements and the development of taste. Perhaps a different perspective on our relationship to tools such as this will be helpful in framing different conversations.

On Impacts to the Art World:

To speak about the world of Art as a unified field is highly dubious. The variety of ways in which visual media integrates into our lives is too varied to account for. From online ads, to branding to conceptual work, to video games and immersive experiences, to icons and navigation of our digital and embodied spaces, to visualization of information, and yes, to works of “fine art” intended for the gallery or museum, artists operate on a broad spectrum. Each with their own intention and relationship to both their tools and their final products. The following categories are certainly not exhaustive, but representative in the ways which AI art generators might have different sorts of impacts on the art world.

For many artist whose main income and focus is to generate images based on design briefs, this may well cause significant disruption to their industry. Concept artists, for example, are primarily impacted in many ways as this is specifically what they have been hired to do: turn concepts into images which do not yet exist. For these artists, crafting the images themselves may no longer be the primary focus of their job. Instead, one might imaging the concept artist needing to become an excellent interpreter of how the AI model receives textual prompts. Rather than skills in kit bashing and painterly rendering, the concept artist might need to become an expert at synonyms, historic artistic styles and vernacular relating to setting and mood. Given the extreme amount of examples which may be generated in a short period of time and the ease with which they can adjust and readjust the prompts, the concept artist will need to demonstrate excellent taste and refinement. No longer will it be a matter of generating “something” which captures the spirit, but rather the *exact* right look for the application. This exercising of aesthetic judgment will never be replaced by anything other than the creative mind which holds the unrealized vision up for comparison.

For illustrators working in commercial industries the challenge may be quite different. It is possible to imagine that some designers will be able to generate their own work without hiring out to an illustrator. Many others, however, will still need someone to provide them with collections to sell on fabric, home goods and other accessories. The market currently doesn’t have any particular favor for artists who create works digitally, through photography, or using paint and canvas. The value of the artist is that they have created a range of images which can be licensed regardless of initial medium. While many traditional artists working in the industry might bemoan the challenge of creating individual works themselves at a moderate pace, when another artist might leverage the power of AI generation to develop a broad swatch of designs in a sort amount of time. What of the artists working in watercolor who can only create so many images in a month as compared to their counterparts working digitally, who can create and edit multiple colorways simultaneously at much greater speed? Describing the unfairness of the tool in such terms would not be an addition to the conversation as it already exists. It has never just been about the efficiency of the tools. It is the ability to visualize the designs in the first place which sets these artists apart. Just because someone is holding the most expensive paintbrush, poised over a primed canvas and prepared with the finest oil pigments does not mean that they have the ability to generate an image others will appreciate, much less license. Even typing in “floral patterns” to a generator isn’t worth much. Choosing the best and most interesting, and being able to describe exactly what one is looking for requires artistic skills which are valuable. Whether an artist is able to submit one collection, or thirty, doesn’t ensure that their designs will be picked up.

Artists whose work is individualized as a personal expression may not see any threat. Indeed many artists have begun to explore the possibilities with which they can create new sorts of art with the aid, or even collaboration, of neural networks or deep learning systems. In more mundane cases there are also artists using image generators as a starting point from which to further develop their own works. Perhaps a bit like paint pouring or working from digital photographs, they don’t see the generator as a final product, merely a tool used to create the foundations for their own inspiration. For some artists who are posting works created through a generator, even if they do no other editing work afterwards to alter the returned image, this is still the creation of art. Knowing how to get a desired response out of an image-making tool through careful trial and error is still a craft of its own. Like paint pouring or other sorts of process art, there is a fine balance between controlling the inputs and being surprised by the outputs. The same could be argued about photographers. Just because they were in the right place at the right time to capture an amazing shot, does that mean that they are artists, or just lucky? Is it really different to talk about the understanding of a camera and the patience to wait for a subject in comparison to talking about how one learns to manipulate a generator? Certainly these conversations were had at the beginning of the twentieth century about those who “just snapped pictures” as opposed to being “real” artists. As in the examples above, the shift turns again on the importance of taste. Knowing what results are good and discerning where the real gems are amidst the hundreds or thousands of lackluster images.

On Intention:

The primary point I would like to focus on in this discussion revolves around intention of the artist. Is an artist someone who happened to create something which other people find value in as art, or is the artist necessarily someone who set about trying to create a work of art?

Is an artist hired based solely on their technical skills, or on their vision, or their ability to translate the abstract into a tangible end result?

Is the architectural draftsperson as much of an artist as the graphic designer who can adhere creatively to rigid specifications? Is the illustrator who can ink or color the pages of a graphic novel with consistency and style in the same category as the HVAC engineer who can adapt functional and elegant solutions to any convoluted home layout?

Are artists who bring their own inner worlds to life, advise other artists or outline future potentialities more artistic? How do we place style over content? Is it more artistic to represent something which has never before been grasped, or to present the familiar in a way which it has never before been experienced?

Do not misunderstand me. This is a rhetorical exercise and not a ranking of artistry. Depending on the final execution I am very happy to see the work of an HVAC technician as more artistic than that of an illustrator who is phoning it in. The sliding scale on which each artist falls does, however, impact their relationship to technology such as AI art generators. Those artists whose time, energy and employment rely upon technical execution, conceptual generation, layout or other technical aspects will be significantly impacted by this technology since it overlaps so wholly on top of these skills. Artists whose role relies upon their judgement, vision and narrative ability may see little impact, or even more opportunities.

As AI generators become ever better at filling roles which were traditionally focused more on technical skills and rendering, it will become less of a marketable skill that one can hand-render in perfect perspective.

On the other side, lowering the bar on ease of image creating to such a low level also creates the issue of determining what to create, in which way and for what purpose. Perhaps the creative teams will pivot to be more focused on the vision rather than the execution. Perhaps the intangible artistic skills will become more valued. Anyone can type prompts into a generator, but only someone with the right creative vision will be able to put together the concept with an appropriate manifestation.

On Theft, Intent, and Style:

The issue of artists’ works being fed into the data pools which help these generators learn new skills is certainly worth keeping at the forefront of discussion. Serious issues related to the intellectual property rights need to be addressed as we move quickly into a world where many such collisions will continue to challenge our current ways of thinking. It isn’t new that artist styles have been co-opted by others and essentially stolen. The pace, and ease, with which others can use AI to co-opt signature styles does create a uniquely challenging situation for independent artists. Theft is theft, whether the person using the AI generator understands that or not. What is unclear, however, is whether an artist should be able to stake any claim on their “style”. Where does one draw the line to determine whether another artist, whether painted by hand or through a digital tool, has copied someone else’s style as opposed to adapted it? If the crux of the argument comes down to intent, then perhaps it would be possible to enforce such a move as logging textual entries as they are input. If someone is including the names of specific artists when crafting their prompts, that could be a clear line demonstrating intent which could aid in enforcement. On the other hand, using the phrase “in the style of” shouldn’t always be seen as theft. How many musical artists have written their own works in the style of Bach, or Mozart or the Beatles? This sort of blending of inspirations is a cornerstone for how art develops and evolves. Artists, as humans, can only work with inputs they have already absorbed. Incremental development relies upon styles, techniques and content which has been previously integrated into the psyche of the artist. In this way the AI generators are not unlike the working mind of many artists.

To be caught up in a battle about what sort of art is being generated is to substitute any final representation of a style as if it were on equal footing.

Many have asserted that AI art has no “soul” as compared to a human artist. If that is the case, then where is the worry? If it is self-evident that this form of art is simply not as good, then we will automatically dismiss it when we see it. That is, of course, to confuse form as content, amidst a variety of other factors. Just because a work is created by a human doesn’t make it soulful, nor does every work created by a master of their media automatically a masterpiece. If I were to encounter an image which moved me, opened me up to new ways of looking at the world, and continued to live in my subconscious even after the encounter, I would be happy to think of it as art, no matter how it had come into being.

Artistic Judgement and Individual Taste:

Even writing the words “the cat is already out of the bag” is something which I don’t find particularly helpful, but I also believe that it is an important truth. In the long history of technology there have been vanishingly few times in which it was possible to close pandora’s box. Once something has been created and let out of the lab, there is simply no getting it to go away. Like social media, like cameras on our phones and the internet in our pockets, there is zero chance that AI created art is going to reverse course and diminish from culture.

The current pain points revolve around infringement of rights for independent artists due to the work of several bad actors. The technology certainly makes this easier, but hasn’t created the problem. Future concerns, I believe, are going to come as the technology begins to disrupt the many industries which make use of visual artists in a variety of capacities. In some cases this will allow for artists to relieve themselves of menial and unrewarding “artistic” tasks, while for others it will mean the end of a job, and for others still the opening of new frontiers not yet imagined.

Beyond all of these issues I see a larger disruption. Even in our world as it existed before this technology became widely available we have been drowning in visual content. Our ability to reproduce and display images has been increasing, and this technology removes certain roadblocks at the level of content creation. Any bottleneck for image creation that currently exists due to lack of available artists or simply production time is about to be dramatically reduced. Not only will this make content creation faster, but it will also allow content creation by those who have not been trained, or indeed, might not even be particularly interested in crafting a piece of quality. A similar analogy might be drawn to the recent rise of applications such as Canva, which tout their ability to make anyone a graphic designer.

This increase of the total volume of visual information and the increased frequency with which it scrolls through our feeds each day is a much more potent threat to our collective sense of aesthetic judgment. What counts as good, as passable, as eye-catching, as shocking, have already become diluted into a slurry of questionable value.

Developing a strong aesthetic judgment will be a key skill in this landscape. Not only for the artist but for anyone interested in consuming artistic media of quality. While there is much discussion about AI generated art has no “soul”, I think that we need to reconsider writing off an entire segment of visual culture based on how it was produced. The value of a work of art, or even of a working image, does not derive from any one area. Indeed it can be different for each viewer, and different within a specific context. This has always been the case, even if we tend to think of “good” taste in terms of what is shown in museums.

It is not interesting to look at the taste of a culture, especially since it seems very little value has been placed on this aspect of western culture within the last several decades. That is also why it is important to clarify what I mean by taste. Not that generalized ability to know what a society thinks is good, what the experts have deemed worth looking at, or what the critics understand to be important, but a personal sense of taste for each individual. Taste is the ability to discern for oneself what creates, sustains and nurtures value within an individual life. It is a continuously developing skill which grows through exposure to art and self-reflection. Unlike academic knowledge it cannot be picked up from a book or handed down from a teacher. It must be cultivated consciously through practice.

Simple questions may help the individual to think about what visual information they are consuming. Some questions like: what was my initial reaction to the work? Why did I choose to spend time looking at this particular work? Did it stop me in my tracks, or did I single it out for attention? Did it bring me a new perspective? Did it challenge me? How did it make me feel to experience it? Would I find it interesting to experience it again? What specific aspects of the work continue to stick in my memory, if any? Is it something I find myself wanting to share with others? Did it trigger any ideas or spark me to action in any way? Did it increase my connection to others, or make me feel more isolated? Did it make me want to learn more about the artist(s) who created it?

These sort of questions can help point out as much about us as about the works. Indeed, taste isn’t the development of an aesthetic framework which exists outisde of the viewer. Taste is developing a sense of our own values. It is a way of discovering more about ourselves, specifically what sort of art influences us and why we think that it is important.

Developing a strong sense of taste helps one to choose how to spend time in the world. Naturally, as taste develops, each person will spend more time around media, situations and people that foster their values, challenge them in healthy ways and add meaning to their lives. Conversely, aided with a strong sense of taste it is much easier to know what aspects of media or activities do not further, develop or challenge one. It becomes automatic to let those unhelpful and time-wasting aspects of life fall away.

The result of more people consciously developing their sense of taste will be compounded: First, the individuals themselves will be able to navigate a multifaceted and variegated world with confidence while maintaining connections to that which brings them meaning. The more individuals who develop and act on their sense of taste will ultimately shift the baseline for public media as a whole, for they will not wish to create media which does not meet their standards, and nor will they wish to consume it.

AI art generators are going to cause dramatic changes to the ways in which art is created and will have impacts for artists in a variety of ways. AI art, however, is not itself valueless or base or secondary just because of the tool that was used. It is simply more incumbent than ever that each of us spends time developing a sense of what our values are. Not just in art, but in all aspects of life. It is only the person who knows where and why to spend their time who will not be swept away by the torrents of cultural media which are already pouring down on top of us each day. Part of those values will naturally have to do with how we come to value artists themselves and what role we foresee them having in society. Where technology infringes on that role in illegal or discriminatory ways we must be ready to step in and create space. That likely doesn’t mean, however, the elimination or boycott of AI generated art. It requires a reorientation towards how we view, consume and value art and media of all kinds. The art that springs from a culture, the representation of that culture in artifacts, is not the “creation” of that culture, it is a reflection of it. We live in the world that reflects who we are. The only way to change that is to change ourselves.

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.