That Spot (the one between necessity and free will)

I’ve been suffering a recent issue with an itchy spot on my back. Right where I can’t get at it. Since no one including me seems to have a proper back scratcher anymore (did somebody confiscate all of those?) I’ve had to improvise with one of those triangular rulers that became popular at the time of America’s refusal to go metric. It works really well as a back scratcher by the way. And probably easier to find than an actual back scratcher in case you need to know.

That spot, which goes off daily like clockwork, is currently my morning companion of irritation. Kind of like an annoying relative who overstays a visit. And now it has come to also represent another resilient pest: my need to tell you what I’m thinking. Neither seems to want to just go away so here we are then.

“It doesn’t work in theory, only in practice…”. I love that phrase. Switches up the familiar order. I came across it in a description of the Church of England’s struggle with outmoded traditions and doctrines. It’s flips around the old cliche and becomes descriptively potent across a whole spectrum of habitual behavior. Like the high school prom for instance. We still return to this hidebound ritual even though its function as cotillion and precursor to marriage has long since faded. We do it even if we don’t know why.

A friend wrote a thoughtful post where he asked questions about the origins of his ethical sense since he wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household. He wondered; “Are people good because they are Christian or do they become Christian because they are good?” Great question. I tried my best to answer and promptly wandered into the nether land of the good vs evil puzzle.

But another one of his questions scratches today’s itch even better: “How much conscious choice do we have in becoming who we are?” This speaks to the question of free will. Now we’re talking about a much easier subject right? Good thing I love this stuff and have lots of time between breakfast and lunch.

We sense free will. We operate as if we have it. Then we learn that this might not be true by instruction and analysis. The science of cause and effect says “Nope”. Evolutionary psychology says “Sorry, only passing on the genes matters!”. Chemistry is action/reaction. Physics offers a small out with indeterminacy but even that is only a way to draw a line from A to B.

Another leg under free will that gets blasted away (free will is the Many Legged Beast after all) comes from the spiritual teaching of the need to release the ego. If, as the sages tell us, ego is an illusion created by the “I” that doesn’t exist, then free will is just so much salt spray on the wave of existence. Or something like that.

So am I free? Not if I have to scratch that damn itch.

And not if I have to clean the house today. But if I don’t and instead go into my studio and make something out of stuff that has no reason to exist other than I willed it to be, what is that? Tell me that I am doing it to gain attention from the opposite sex in order to propagate my genes and I’ll tell you that boat has probably sailed. Say that I am still only making art because I’m operating on a remnant of that dynamic and I’ll tell you quite plainly that while that explanation might have descriptive value it has nothing whatsoever to do with the internal dance of consciousness that is the creative process.

Maybe this is all just mental yoga. All I know is that the experience of free will is real and performs psychic and physical transformation in me. The “fact” (if you will) of determinism is descriptive and has great explanatory powers. But it is true only if it is generative and speaks to richer complexities, and not just dismissive of the valid and fully operative processes of consciousness.

Now I’m going to go lick a begonia.

Layers

 

I am building layers in my studio. My recent efforts in surface design involve pattern creation using stencils that I cut in acetate which are then used to print color onto fabric. I rotate the stencil (in this case a loose grid of rhomboids) and repeat the printing process with a second contrasting color. I use translucent dyes which when layered create a third color. In this case I started with a bright red-magenta and overlaid a muted blue. A lovely purple happened where the colors overlaid. 
 
In thinking about mental patterns and the benefits that arrive by allowing for the possibility of changing them, I recognized this artistic exercise as illustrating this process. The third color that appeared, the purple, was not possible without first creating one pattern and then starting completely over with another. The color also wouldn’t appear as visually striking if the colors weren’t profoundly divergent (red and blue).
 
Our patterns of thought have a certain beauty. They can be regular and uniformly pleasing. But a much more powerful and interesting thing happens when two opposing patterns interact. These interference patterns bring us a new level of understanding. They tease out something new that wasn’t in each pattern individually. Something emerged from the interaction. The overlayed patterns form points where they conjoin to make new information.
 
 

The Smell of Fresh Donuts

There are two types of people in this world, those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t. Well I think there are two types, except I also think that sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other.

If you don’t agree with me, you might want to read something by someone who thinks there is only one type of person in this world. Go read an article written by someone who thinks everyone in the world likes french fries. He would argue that those fries elicit a positive response from a set of receptors found in virtually every human subject. They are located in the brain’s “Fried Food” region. That region is mapped to the same spot in every human brain, with a neural connection the size of a T1 cable to both the salivary and the “Get in the car and go” regions.

I’m suddenly having a difficult time concentrating on the point I’m trying to make about there being two types of people. By stating the opposing view using the best possible argument I’m trying to remain true to the Socratic Method. But there’s a problem. My counter argument happens to involve something so distracting, so crisp and irresistible. So yummy!

By now it should be patently obvious that there are two types of people, those who stopped reading this to go to McDonald’s to get some french fries and those who didn’t. But why didn’t you? And why didn’t I stop writing? Well my reason is that I…must…continue…this blog. Those who left to go out for that universally scrumptious fast food did so because they became engaged with the image of “golden fries in that familiar red-box” that leapt off the page at the mere mention, and by now have followed it to its natural conclusion at the local franchise. The expectation of that predictably delicious experience in deep-fried comfort food was just too darn tempting to leave alone as unfulfilled temptation.

Okay, who’s left here? We few, we superior few. We are the ones who have not given in to gratifying the signals from our brain’s fried food region. So we must be looking for something else. And here I’d like to talk about a slightly different area of the brain: the area identified by leading scientists at a major university as “art receptors.” These areas turn on or off within seconds of encountering a new piece of art and result in either “Like it” or “Don’t like so much.” And though its possible to adjust this initial response through familiarity, or by providing background information on the artist’s intent, it remains exceedingly difficult to reverse that first impression. And I would argue that in the current era, this area of the brain has formed a major neural pathway to the fried food region.

This is not a man thinking about donuts. What were you thinking about?
This is not a man thinking about donuts. What were you thinking about?

So the art theory that makes the most sense to me is this: the art that I make should have something about it that is the equivalent of a fresh donut. Something irresistible. Not that the process should involve actually making donuts since that would entail developing a separate business plan. And not that the work should really be in any sense a meal of empty calories. This is about providing a certain initial attractive element, akin to the smell of fresh donuts.

And now the corollary to Dave’s Theory of Art: the smell of fresh donuts must be, in the end, false advertising. Once you’ve got people’s attention, once their noses are fully engaged with the idea that a good thing awaits, something else should be ready to emerge. That irresistible smell of fresh donuts must be the hook that grabs our curiosity. But that “something else” should be a real idea. That idea can start somewhere familiar and inviting… but it should also invite us to go off at some point, somewhere strange and surprising.

So there are certainly at least two types of people. But the real difference comes when you think about those types; there are those who think we are always only one of them, fixed and permanent. And there are those (like me) who think about what it might be like to be both of them.

Abstract Railing

I have a bias towards representational art and I confess to spending a lot of time and energy railing against abstract art because it seems so self-serving and narcissistic. I must also cop to a pet peeve about artists (seeing as I am one); we tend to be one self-important bunch of rascals! The very last word in this trend towards personal vision and individual inspiration seemed to me to be the abstract artist, operating in blissful isolation, creating pure sensory experience.

It made me weary, all this effort to be so darn pure and elemental. As if we could all do without the subject matter if we only tried. Is there anything really ultimate about art history? What’s with this idea that we are one some one-way ticket to art purity? There’s nothing necessary about reducing art to pure form, whatever that may mean. Anyway, I don’t see history as unidirectional. That’s only a generalization after the fact. Actually, I think we’re all headed in multiple directions simultaneously.

So my philosophical breakdown with much of modern art, whether it be abstract or arch-conceptual, is that it operates in isolation… the old “art for art’s sake” argument. I began calling this inward trend of art, “The Cult of Subjectivity” because it seemed to stem from some foregone conclusion about the nature of perceptual reality. All this talk about “it means whatever it means” just gave me digestive distress. I really refuse to believe that. Mainly since I know that shared meaning exists, and that we consistently tend towards it.

I wanted my art to hone closer to something like true communication. My concept of art had to do with becoming engaged with the world, creating a personal vision, then sharing that personal vision with others. And it all happens by way of the process of commenting and developing images of the world around us that have the potential to explode into new vistas.

But I am now learning that what has been known familiarly as “non-representational art” is in truth anything but. And it has changed my militant anti-abstract art stance. This idea came to me in the following way. Our minds are arranged so that we can never leave visual information undefined. Visual information is biologically vital to our survival. Words can be ambiguous and they can remain paradoxical. Visual information causes the human mind to drive inexorably towards meaning. And so, we make references. No matter what flavor of color-field, action-painting, “elemental art” abstraction we may confront, our brains will forever carve out some sort of subject matter. There is no such thing as non-representational art.

I came across an old piece of art journalism recently that helped me work out these anti-abstract devils. The author defined abstract art as “multi-referential”. Now there’s a thought; multiple-meanings are inherent, the salient meaning waits to be summoned forth in the course of the viewers exploration, by employing a personal frame of reference.

Kind of like representational art.

Drawing the Line

Artists draw a lot of lines. Lines are stories. Lines travel. And if its true what they say that happiness lies not in the destination but in the journey then lines might just be happiness. Lines can connect.

Lines also delineate. They can close in on themselves to suggest shapes. They can form borders. Inside/Outside. This/That. Here/There. But if you leave the line open around a shape then inside gets out, outside comes in. If you turn the border between shapes ninety degrees then the slash becomes the hyphen; This-That (this is that), Here-There (here is there).

Popular song shows us how we use the word to say all kinds of things:
“There’s a thin line between love and hate.” (similarity)
“Send me a postcard. Drop me a line.” (a message)
“The Witchita lineman is still on the line.” (the wait)
“Don’t hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself.” (the pretty lie)
“Because you’re mine, I walk the line” (fidelity)

Lines can be regimental. Everybody line up. Fall in line. The line shows us the norm. And that’s all you’ve got until you learn to draw your own. If you can draw you’re own line then you are an artist, whether it’s a piece of art you make or a piece of your own life.

Well you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, right? Seems almost arbitrary. Might as well be here, I guess. Like you should have drawn it earlier but now you’ve let it go and you’d better draw it now before things really get out of hand. Like you’ve got no choice but to draw the line. Why can’t you just NOT draw the line?

Not an option I guess. The artist in me just has to draw his own line. The line describes me, leads me, becomes me. I draw it, or it draws itself, depending on my view of the event at any particular moment.

Life has a way of becoming fragmented and diffuse but when that happens it helps to start drawing lines between things. Sometimes those lines need to delineate, make shapes, create borders, add clarity. Sometimes those lines make connections, suggest relationship, show us the unity of the parts.

All in how you draw the line.