A little while back I attended an open house at the newly founded What Cheer Writers Club across the river in Providence. Half coworking space, half social center for the busy Rhode Island writing scene, it’s a fine example of the kind of voluntary social institution American society used to be so richly stocked with and needs so badly nowadays, and I’d encourage any of my local readers who happen to be authors, poets, playwrights, journalists, or content creators in other settings to consider checking it out. I spent a pleasant couple of hours there that evening.
While there, I had a conversation with an illustrator, a very good one. He’d attended the prestigious local art school, but went veering away from the normal avant-garde trajectory after one of his classes went to visit the studio of a big name painter (hereafter, BNP) down in New York City. One of the BNP’s many assistants walked the students through the process whereby the BNP produced his art. First the assistants came up with ideas and sketched them out, and the BNP glanced at the sketches and approved them. Next, the assistants prepared canvases the way the BNP liked them, and roughed out the paintings on the canvases. Once the BNP glanced at the canvases and approved them, the assistants then painted the paintings. The BNP then picked up a pen and signed each of the canvases, and away they went to be sold, as the BNP’s work, to rich collectors for jawdropping prices.
The illustrator-to-be was unimpressed by the prospect of going to work in this sort of artistic sweatshop, and even more unimpressed by the way that everyone else treated it as perfectly ordinary. The consequence was that he started asking the questions about art he’d been taught not to ask, and as soon as he graduated he ditched the kind of art that so often these days gets manufactured by the process just outlined, and launched what I suspect will turn out to be an impressive career outside the official art world. We talked about that, and about a number of other things relating to the art world, and one of the things he said has been circling in my mind ever since: “The reason so many people are into abstract art is that it’s impossible to fail.”
Let’s take a moment to unpack what’s being said here. Every artist in every medium has had the experience of having an artwork fail to measure up to the creative vision that inspired it. In that sense, sure, abstract art can fail. Every artist in every medium has also had the experience of having an artwork fail to communicate its creative vision to its audience. In that sense, too, abstract art can fail, and in fact does so far more often than not, though museumgoers are by and large too polite to point this out.
Compare a work of abstract art to a work of representational art, though, and there’s a dimension of risk that the representational artist accepts and the abstract artist shirks. Let’s say you set out to paint someone’s portrait. When you do that, your creative vision is no longer the only thing that matters. You’re not just expressing yourself, you’re expressing something that is not you, and you can succeed at that or you can fail. You can, for example, try to paint a likeness of someone and make something that doesn’t resemble the sitter closely, or at all. You can also paint a likeness of someone’s face that fails to catch any trace of that person’s character and personality and life—the things that a good portrait can express better than any photograph, and a great portrait can express better than a three-volume autobiography. What’s more, if you fail in either way, the failure is something that most people can see at a glance.
That’s the kind of failure from which a purely abstract approach to art protects you. Here as in the rest of life, of course, if you shut yourself off from the risk of failure you shut yourself off just as effectively from the chance of success; there are things you will never accomplish, things that are very much worth doing, if your sole criterion is that you’re not willing to fail.
This same sort of evasion has been taken much further outside the world of the fine arts. I hope no one will mind a reference to one of the subcultures I know best, the subculture of contemporary Druidry. In recent years there’s been a simmering disagreement among Druids about the handling of bardic arts such as poetry and music in Druid practice. Nobody argues that they don’t have a place—quite the contrary, the historic commitment of Druid organizations to the bardic arts, which goes straight back to the earliest days of the 18th-century Druid Revival, is more than matched by the present-day Druid scene.
No, the difference of opinion relates to the role of craft—that is to say, technical skill—among Druids who practice the bardic arts. In recent years, even fairly mild proposals suggesting that the development of craft should be encouraged by Druid organizations have come in for quite a bit of pushback. The substance of the pushback, based on the essays and blog posts I’ve read, is that it’s bad to encourage novice poets and musicians to develop their craft, since the only thing that matters is making them feel good about their creative activities, and talking about technical skill makes them uncomfortable. Therefore they should receive unconditional praise for their creative work, irrespective of its quality, and the huge and challenging issues surrounding the development of skill are casually dismissed on the easy assumption that the novices will pick up some degree of know-how by osmosis as they go.
There’s a lot of this sort of thinking in American alternative spirituality these days. That’s one of the reasons I stopped going to Pagan festivals. Too much of the poetry presented at your common or garden variety Pagan bardic circle can vie for banality and gracelessness with the worst verse in the history of English literature, and let’s not even talk about the droning of badly played guitars, the drummers with a severe case of arrhythmia, and the voices—dear gods, the voices, like cattle trapped belly deep in drying mud!
That is to say, the performers are not the only ones whose interests matter when it comes to the bardic arts. There are also the listeners, who deserve considerably more mercy than they’ve been accorded in recent years. One of the reasons that so many bardic circles are so awful is precisely that people who’ve put in the time and effort to develop technical skill in any art usually end up becoming sensitive enough to its absence that they won’t sit through two or three hours of sustained mediocrity. Think of it as Gresham’s Law of aesthetics: bad art drives out good.
Behind this whole phenomenon, though, is the same flight from risk discussed earlier. To contend with the development of craft in the bardic arts is to wrestle with something that is not you, and thus to run a twofold risk of failure. On the one hand, your poem or your song may be trite and stumbling, or fall into one of the other traps that lie in wait for the poet and composer; on the other, your performance may be clumsy or lifeless or just not quite good enough to reach your audience. You can flee from that risk by insisting that every work and every performance is as good as every other, and refusing to give craft its traditional place in the artist’s life—but if you do that, you pretty much guarantee that you will never be more than mediocre.
This same flight from risk appears all through contemporary life, but I’ve chosen to pick on the arts here, and that’s not simply because the conversation that launched this train of thought was focused on the arts. It’s fair to say that the rigorous, sustained, passionate pursuit of mediocrity is perhaps the most significant trend in the art world today.
The prestigious local art school where my illustrator acquaintance got his degree has an art museum attached to it, and that’s a good place to see that trend in action. For a small museum in a modestly sized east coast city, it’s got some amazing things on display—a huge and vividly crafted wooden statue of Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Sun Buddha of the Japanese esoteric Buddhist traditions, dating from the late Heian period; a fine collection of 18th- and 19th-century landscape paintings; a good assortment of other works from various high points of human cultural history. You have to pass through a gallery or two of modern works to get to the real art, but that’s just one of the things museumgoers generally have to put up with these days.
Before you get to the gallery or two of modern works, though, you pass by the space where temporary and traveling exhibitions have their home. Very often, this contains brand-new works, sometimes by senior students or recent graduates of the art school, sometimes by other artists on what passes for the cutting edge these days. The works on display there by and large have certain things in common. They’re technically crude—it’s rare, for example, to see anything in one of the cutting-edge exhibits that couldn’t have been made by a reasonably enterprising sixth-grader who’d taken a few art classes from the local parks department summer program. They’ve all got artist’s statements couched in a vaguely pompous prose style, so indistinguishable from one another that I’ve wondered more than once if every young artist on the east coast gets theirs ghostwritten by the same middle-aged hack in New York City. Aside from occasional nods to whatever social or political causes might be fashionable at the moment, they’re utterly self-referential, little bubbles of inaccessible meaning cut off from the rest of the cosmos. Oh, and they’re bland. Despite the mandatory parade of edgy iconoclasm, they’re stunningly bland.
All this makes perfect sense if you remember my acquaintance the illustrator and his encounter with the BNP and his artistic sweatshop. In today’s world, the fine arts exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing expensive collectibles for the rich. (The fine arts have always had this as one of their functions, of course; what makes the present distinctive is that currently, that’s their only function.) Thus it’s no surprise that the products of today’s art industry are as formulaic and interchangeable as decorative plates from the Franklin Mint. Nor is it any surprise that the producers of the collectibles in question, while acting out the traditionally edgy and iconoclastic role of artist, are careful to follow some currently fashionably formula to the letter, avoiding anything that might cause their products to be thought unsuitable by collectors, because that way they have some hope of paying off the loans that put them through art school. They cannot afford to fail—but this also means, of course, that they cannot afford to succeed.
Walk past the bland and self-referential collectibles with their bland and self-referential artist’s statements, and come with me to the sixth floor and the statue of Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Sun Buddha. The artist who carved it from great masses of cryptomeria wood didn’t leave an artist’s statement, but then he didn’t need to, as his work speaks powerfully for itself. We don’t know his name, or anything about his biography or his mind. It’s a safe bet, though, that he wasn’t interested in expressing himself. What he was trying to express, and did so magnificently, was the tremendous vision at the heart of Japanese esoteric Buddhism—a vision in which the manifested universe in all its awkwardness and ignorance is itself the play of infinite enlightened mind, symbolized by Dainichi Nyorai. Photos don’t do justice to the result; to sit in the presence of the statue—and the museum has sensibly provided benches to encourage museumgoers to do just that—is to brush against the edge of a serenity as vast as intergalactic space.
The artist who carved the statue of Dainichi Nyorai could have failed, and in fact there are other statues of the Great Sun Buddha that failed, that are trite, formulaic, sentimental, vapid. He, like his less successful peers, was trying to express something that was not himself, and that decision required him, and them, to embrace the inevitable risk of failure. Because he did that, and only because he did that, he was able to succeed.
Let’s go down to the fifth floor, and walk into one of the rooms of European art. Here’s a large luminous painting of Paris in morning sunlight as seen from one of the windows of the Louvre. The sun shines down across 19th-century roofs; the Seine flows placidly past; in the middle distance is the little neglected gravel bar where Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Templars, was burnt at the stake seven hundred years ago, and the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris rise against the morning sky. Again, photos don’t do justice to the painting; sit in front of it—and the museum has again provided a convenient bench to encourage this—and morning in Paris springs inescapably to life.
Unlike the artist who carved the statue of Dainichi Nyorai, Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, the painter of this vivid and meticulous landscape, is well known to art historians. Her works are found in a great many art museums, her biography can be looked up online, but like that earlier artist, she set out to portray something that was not herself. Failure was always an option; trite, formulaic, sentimental, vapid paintings of Paris can be found by the metric ton; but she took the risk, and so accomplished something that’s powerful and moving in a way that the collectibles downstairs can never be.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. Now it’s time to draw all this together into a shape from which we can go further.
Many years ago, a Seattle architect of Hungarian origins named György Doczi published an intriguing book on form in nature titled The Power of Limits. It’s an extraordinary and richly illustrated work, well worth close study, but one of the most important things in it is a simple passage of text defining a new concept, that of dinergy. Dinergy is the relationship between a force and a resistance that creates form. Think of a grass blade bending in the wind: the wind is the force, the structural integrity of the grass blade provides the resistance, and the result is the exquisite curve that marks the balance between the two.
Doczi spends much of the book showing the way that the geometries of nature—the shapes of leaves and shells, the proportions of tree branches and animal limbs—unfold from dinergic interactions between force and resistance. He then went on to show that the same thing is true of the products of human art and craft. I’m looking at images of several basketwork hats of the kind traditionally made by Native American peoples along the northwest coast. Their shapes, as Doczi demonstrates, follow classic dinergic lines. Deliberately? Yes, in part—the First Nations in question have richly developed artistic traditions—but there’s another aspect that unfolds naturally from the interplay between the resistance of the cedar bark and beargrass of which the hat is made, and the force exerted by the maker’s skilled hands.
As this suggests, handicrafts made using simple tools or no tools at all tend to follow dinergic patterns, so long as the maker is skilled enough to push the limits of his or her material without going too far. That’s one mode of dinergy as it applies to human creativity. A second mode comes into play when the maker tries to represent something—something experienced with the senses, such as the bear on a Tlingit totem pole or a spring morning from a Paris window, or something experienced the mind, such as the monstrous bird-spirits of the Hamatsa dances of the Kwakiutl people or the infinite enlightened mind of Dainichi Nyorai, it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s something distinct from the artist’s own creative impulse, something the artist can succeed in expressing, or not.
Alternatively, of course, you can flee from dinergy and avoid the risk of failure. All you have to do is refuse the interaction with something that is not you. That’s pervasive in today’s industrial societies, especially but not only here in the United States. Look at the cratered wasteland of our national politics, to cite a very different example, and what do you see? Groups of people who all insist in shrill terms that it’s utterly unreasonable to suggest that they should take into account people who are not them.
You’ve got Democrats braying at the top of their lungs that anyone who questions any of their preferred policies must by definition be an evil racist Nazi, and Republicans who trumpet just as loudly that liberalism is a mental illness. (This in itself marks an ironic shift; not that long ago, it was the Democrats who liked to insist that their opponents needed therapy and the GOP who reliably claimed that their opponents were morally evil.) Listen to both sides trying to claim they won the recent midterm election, and you can hear the terror of failure trembling in every word. Neither side can admit that the other side fought them to a draw, because that admission would force them to deal with the fact that the success of their cause depends on making their case to people who are not them.
It’s the same refusal of dinergy, the same flight from failure, and it produces politics just as ugly and irrelevant as the avant-garde collectibles you can see at the art museum of your choice. As art and politics, so every other aspect of our collective life: the frantic attempt to avoid the risk of failure by refusing to interact with anything you don’t control absolutely is a pervasive pattern in contemporary industrial society. A long time ago, philosopher of history Giambattista Vico pointed out that the arc of history, “the course the nations run,” begins with necessity and ends in madness. The particular shape that madness takes in the present instance isn’t hard to glimpse; what a return to sanity might look like is something we’ll discuss in later posts.