Art, and Artists Making Art

This is a copy of my paper on the relationship
between art and brokenness.


Brilliant Insane Genius Lunatic Creative Mad-as-a-March-Hare
Inventive Abnormal Artistic Nuts Innovative Just Plain Crazy

I am writing this, in part, to satisfy my own curiosity.  I have heard the idea that genius and insanity were linked, in one form or another, all my life.  Whether people claimed the two were flip sides of the same coin, that the relationship was cause–>effect (though it is never clear which is the cause and which is the effect,) or that there is some as-yet-unknown neurological or genetic link; the effect is the same. Both the general public and artists of all stripe seem to buy into this notion at some level – if not consciously – then lurking somewhere just below the surface.  This presupposition changes the way we, as artists, think about our work and our existence; and it certainly has an effect on how we, and our work, are perceived by the public.

I believe the best potential counter argument to this culturalized belief is the claim that humans are, without exception, all broken or damaged.  We all experience pain, loss, damage, broken faith, unfortunate circumstances and misunderstanding; of the world around us.  We all experience death, fear, anger, and sadness – and some experience much more than others.  We all enter the world made of chemicals, genetic patterns, electricity, water, and breath – and the world being what it is, we all enter with glitches, skips, breaks, gaps and holes.

In reading about and considering the very full lifetime of work by artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), it is brokenness and the damage of her early life which is trackable in her art – not insanity. In fact, her genius is tied most closely to her handling and expressing her own past, rather than some Freudian suppression of it.

According to Leonard Cohen’s poem Anthem: “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”  (This is a kinder and more optimistic view than Yeats’ entropic fatalism of The Second Coming, which observes that “things fall apart.”) It’s true. Things do fall apart. Entropy is a real thing – but the more complete truth is that as humans, we have some say in how and where entropy moves, and whether we are engulfed by it or ride it like a wave.  If our inevitable brokenness is where “the light” gets in – whether it is the light of innovation, invention, and creation; or the light of faith and hope; it is this shared crack in everything that makes it possible for us to minister to each other by way of cathartic Dionysian ritual (theater/art), the spiritually cleansing catholic confessional, or the psychologically purifying  therapist’s couch.  We may not be able to control what happens in the world around us, or what happens to us; but, we can control how we respond to it.

And it is that response which makes Bourgeois such a glorious counter-example to the presupposition of insanity/genius.  In her own words,

All my work in the past fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood….  My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.

At first glance, we might assume from this that Louise lived an enchanted childhood. The reality, however, is that the magic of her childhood was made up of a revolutionary feminist mother who did her duty by her husband and had two children, then left him to find himself a mistress. Further encumbrances of motherhood were not on Madame Bourgeoise’ list of coming events. The mistress also served as a live-in caretaker for the children, tutor, and governess.

Strident and independent Mother was foreign, cold, and absent; the Mistress was a villainous pseudo-stepmother; and father was not just cold, but abusively cruel to the children born so dutifully by his ultra-social wife. This was a house full to the brim with angry, self-serving adults, and a couple of clueless children who only pieced together the truth of the arrangement as they entered puberty. The only magic I found in this childhood is the near miracle that there were no poisoned apples, huntsmen, or cinder-covered hearths involved.  Louise left home in her teens to paint live in a house full of surrealists in Paris (the house full of surrealists.) Not surprisingly, hardly anyone noticed she was gone.

It is only been in the last 200+ years that painting could be thought of as self expression.  As soon as the self, the mind, and the intentions of the artist began to become important players in the making of art, all sense of trade and craft disappeared from all the arts. Meaning became the subject of a work of art rather than some object or model being copied.  Since this was happening just as the unconscious mind, mental health, and general psychology were creeping into everyday the 1st World cultures, it’s no wonder that artists were perceived as breaking the rules and wandering into the sinful landscape of the criminal and insane. Vincent van Gogh was the poster-boy for the insanity/creative genius camp right up until the culture of the 1st World grew and discovered he might have been bipolar or schizophrenic. Then he became the poster boy for physical chemical imbalance. Whether it was a serious food allergy, and/or PTSD/abuse/neglect-induced fugue states, those are late 20th and early 21st Century understandings of his life.  The more we learn, the less insane, criminal, sinful, and weak van Gogh looks. (see Wilfred N Arnold’s  Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity for more on van Gogh’s relationship to his own biology.)   At the beginning of the 21st Century, Vincent is an unfortunate victim.  If we could choose for him and pick a different century for him to be born, would we give up his art works in order to allow him a peaceful, balanced life?  Is it a fair trade?

Louise Bourgeois, on the other hand, turned those magical, mysterious, and dramatic bits of her childhood into art by choice – by all evidence, fully aware of the metaphorical connections between her art and her past.  Her cold, alien mother became Maman (colloquial fr. for mother)

"Maman" sculpture by Louise Bourgeois

the giant spider that seems to wander through forests of cement and steel.  Her installations are   experiences to be fashioned between the individual and the place/object.  They are her home.  Her rooms.  Places of memory and rite, built to elicit feelings and ideas to be shared between the artist and the single audience member.  She has built these places and made this art so people will understand and build relationship through these intensely personal conversations. We all experience her isolation and loneliness with her – and we recognize it because we have felt it, too.  Bourgeois’ father appears in her art – though not in the dramatic and shocking form of her monster mother.  Instead, his presence is felt in these rooms and in many of her other installation. He is a tangle of objects and a claustrophobic lie of a room.  He informed Bourgeois through every action and word that being a girl – a woman – was to be grotesque, useless, ugly, ungrateful, unwanted, foolish, stupid, and disgusting.

Red Room installation, by Louise Bourgeois

Listening to Bourgeois as she demonstrates her father’s trick with the tangerine reveals a pain so deep that after 7 decades – it still reduced her to a weeping child.  There are some pains – some breaks and rips in our being – that, like a wicked witch’s spell, never lose their magic.

The Father and the Mother are responsible for Louise Bourgeois reaching out to communicate with the rest of the world.  Had they been loving and affectionate – she might never have picked up a paintbrush or sculpted a frail hand.

Why?  Because there is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.  It’s the light (energy,) memory, and emotion that travel through those cracks that connect us. That’s where we meet –and where communication happens.  Those universal cracks are where art does what art does, and where artist and audience share and survive together.

I believe that the question about the relationship between genius and insanity is an old, out of date question.  It presupposes that what is not normal can be labeled criminal, insane, sinful, stupid, useless and/or weak. But that’s a 19th century understanding of normal – and a 19th century understanding of insanity.  By starting with the wrong question – there is no chance of finding a right answer.  The real question artists, critics, audience, and history have to start asking has to do with understanding and choosing how to express and relate to our own individual and cultural breaks, cracks, quirks, skips, and bumps.  What is the relationship between brokenness, health, and the making of art, invention, and creativity?

I know that we must have care with the words we choose and the presuppositions we make.  If we start with the question: What is the relationship between brokenness and making/creating (or just between brokenness and art), then we have changed the playing field of presuppositions.  Brokenness carries a few negative bags of its own – but it also carries the solution for itself: it carries the presuppositions of repair, mending, re-finishing, correcting, and healing. A broken pot can be fixed.  A broken window can be replaced and made good as new again.  A broken person can be brought back to health.  An insane person just gets more insane until s/he finally succumbs.

Some people presuppose that artists and other creatives somehow experience more deeply.  They are especially sensitive and have a stronger emotional life than an accountant or a short order cook.  I have no idea how true/not true those assumptions are.  But I know that artists in all the arts find a way to express what is inside their own minds and guts in a way that is recognizable and creates a link to others through Leonard Cohen’s cracks.  I don’t believe artists make art as a means of self-therapy (though it may sometimes happen as a side effect) – but I do think there is something to be said for extending a helping hand to all those accountants and short order cooks through art, music, story, poetry etc.

Art requires us to be generous and to be able to need without shame, simultaneously.   This is a very great evolutionary step.

As for how my own thoughts and self expression relates to the life and art of Louise Bourgeois, I suppose the first point of contact is that we share some of those “magic” childhood experiences.  There is something about profound neglect and intentionally inflicted pain that is, as Bourgeois says, never lost.  What we choose to do with those experiences makes the difference between her building giant, alien looking mother-spiders, and Van Gogh at his most disturbed eating tubes of chrome-yellow paint.  While Louise Bourgeois spent the first 30 years of her 70 year career just learning to use her tools and talent to express what was going on in her mind; I spent those 30 years learning what was going on in my mind, and about the minds, motivations, and puzzlements of others.  It has only been the last 5 or 6 years that I have begun looking for materials to start creating expressions of those things.  I am just now comfortable with the tools of the trade.  But like her, I know the language of metaphor.  I understand the layers and pieces of the puzzle, and I have a long-running intimacy with opening boxes.  Communication, in whatever form, has always been the crux of what I have done, said, made and searched out.  Whether that ultimately makes art or not is another question.  But it is certainly fun trying.

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I don’t talk much about the people who shaped my interior world…

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 12:18pm
Leonard Cohen is one of them. 

Back before anybody knew what dyslexia was — I was bluffing my way through high school, unable to read more than a few word clustered together before losing the sense of it. What I did well was listen — to the point that I practically memorized everything teachers said so I could pass tests. When I was 16, I heard a student read a poem by Leonard Cohen.

I found a bookstore and bought the first book I ever owned — his collected poems. And I read the first poem I’d ever read (of my own free will) — Suzanne. As it turns out, poetry is easier to read (short lines and lots of breaks) so his poetry practically taught me to read, and gave me access to someone else’s thoughts and ideas for the first time.

At the time, I didn’t realize he was also a singer, so the first 15 years of my relationship to Cohen was strictly as a poet, rather than as a singer-songwriter. In fact, the only poetry I ever quoted to people was his. One New Years, as is our tradition, we had question for the New Years book and the main one was to quote the words/lines/lyrics that matter most to you/define your life — and mine were the words from the second verse of Suzanne.

When I woke up — sometime in the mid ’80s — I was working 16 and 18 hour days, sometimes alone in a huge laboratory facility, and I would keep the radio on very loud to drown out the silence. In the early hours of the morning, our local Public Radio station played Cohen singing “Take this Waltz” — Leonard Cohen’s translation of Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s poem, set to a beautiful waltz. And again, he transformed my world.

For nearly a decade, I though I must be the only person alive who knew this secret — that Leonard Cohen sang all these beautiful poetic songs in his deep, raspy, barely melodic voice, but with the emotion and transcendence of a holy man.

While watching the West Wing one night — a remarkable script unfolding — I suddenly began (along with the whole world) to hear an amazing voice singing “Hallelujah” which has since become the song 3 generations most associate with Cohen. Within a few months, I’d heard it in 3 more voices as part of the soundtrack to a variety of television shows and movies, including the childrens’ (and their parents’) animated hit, Shrek. On Youtube, you can find over a thousand voices more (from great recording artists, to IDOL winners around the globe, to every Jack and Jill with a mic on the computer), each with their own interpretation, their own style, and their own backstory reason for wanting to sing it. The results range from absolutely breathtaking (k.d. lang) to absolutely heartbreaking (Bob Dylan) to forlorn andnn melancholy (Rufus Wainwright and John Cale) to sacramental (Espen Lind and his 3 Norwegian buddies) to outrageous and mysterious (Bono). There are hack commercial versions, like Britan’s IDOL, Alexangra Burke, and wretched covers by teens and self-agrandizing ameteurs singing in churches and basements everywhere. And it’s approaching such a depth of interpretation that it could displace Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday”, and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as the most recorded/covered song in history.

So many singers have covered “Hallelujah” successfully (or not) that I started trying to figure out why. First, it’s deceptively simple. Second, it can be played on practically any string or keyboard instrument (probably not so well on the winds.) Third — the lyric (the poem) is so full of emotion that it practically demands access to the humanity in all of us.

When Cohen was young, he sang it as a love song/broken relationship; when he searched for God, it became a religious anthem (though most religeous singers have to rewrite some of the lyric or risk offending their conservative audience;) when he grew older — and the world with him — it became a global anthem of loss, and faith, and mourning, and hope. From 2, to 4, to 6 — he wrote something beautiful that every singer wants to sing, and every heart wants to hear… Amazing

A note about Youtube and the virulent internet: Because John Cale and Rufus Wainwright were the most well known versions of the song for many years, many people (not professionals) assumed one or both of them had written Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In the last couple of years, when so many of the covers were posted on Youtube, it was erroniously attributed to one or two others — and those mis-attributions spread like wildfire. Now, well over 1/3 of all the recordings of the song on Youtube either list Cohen as a peripheral name associated with it, or with no credit to Cohen at all. I don’t know how this gets corrected — ignorance is a difficult crime to prosecute. Just remember the poet and the heart that created all Cohen’s songs and lyrics.

It is almost impossible to distinguish between the words and the poet — and it should be.

The old man in the gray hat.