Sunday, August 30, 2015

Krishnamurti On Creative Discontent

Robert Janz, black poster paint on torn posters, New York City

Krishnamurti was one of the more unusual spiritual teachers of the 20th century. As a young boy, in 1909, the Theosophists tabbed him as the next great spiritual teacher, a divine avatar even. Then, in 1922, he lapsed into a series of comas, which he described as a state of mystical union with "another world that is beyond all thought." After this he seemed to radiate some sort of spiritual power, and the Theosophists and others began to view him in messianic terms. But this struck the newly awakened Krishnamurti as wrong, and he refused to see himself in these exalted terms. He went on to become a sort of non-guru who urged direct experience with life. His book Think On These Things provides a nice introduction to his thinking. For example he talked about creative discontent:
Creativeness is not merely a matter of painting pictures or writing poems, which is good to do, but which is very little in itself. What is important is to be wholly discontented, for such total discontent is the beginning of the initiative which becomes creative as it matures; and that is the only way to find out what is truth, what is God, because the creative state is God.

So one must have this total discontent -- but with joy. Do you understand? One must be wholly discontented, not complainingly, but with joy, with gaiety, with love. Most people who are discontented are terrible bores; they are always complaining that something or other isn't right, or wishing they were in a better position, or wanting circumstances to be different, because their discontent is very superficial. And those who are not discontented at all are already dead.

If you can be in revolt when you are young, and as you grow older keep your discontent alive with with the vitality of joy and great affection, then the flame of discontent will have an extraordinary significance because it will build, it will create, it will bring new things into being. For this you must have the right kind of education, which is not the kind that merely prepares you to get a job or to climb the ladder of success, but the education that helps you to think and gives you space -- space not in the form of a larger bedroom or a higher roof, but space for your mind to grow so it is not bound by any belief, by any fear.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Soft Southern Winds in the Live Oak Trees

You learn stuff when you travel. For instance, during our recent trip down South I finally learned what a Live Oak tree is. It's a remarkable tree, with strong serpentine branches that radiate out maybe thirty feet or more and sometimes dip so low to the ground that a kid could just jump right on without a boost for some first-rate climbing. Visually, the branches present a pleasing tangle that Brice Marden might admire.

Every time someone would point out a Live Oak to us I would start reciting in my mind the chorus from the great Don Williams hit, written by Bob McDill, "Good Ole Boys Like Me."
I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the Live Oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me (Hank and Tennessee)
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be
So what'll you do with good ole boys like me?
This is a song much admired by songwriters, and rightly so. And I confess that I've become a bit obsessed with it over the last couple weeks. So much exact and diverse imagery and reference matched up so well with such a strong melody. I like to see how McDill solves the puzzle of keeping everything flowing and coherent, fitting lines together in service of the story. Especially cool is how he tosses in Hank and Tennessee as sort of a parenthetical aside. Speaking of references, I now know what a Live Oak tree is, but I had to look up Cape Jasmine and John R, the former, according to Wiki, an evergreen flowering plant with "heavily fragrant white summer flowers," and the latter a DJ who rivaled Wolfman Jack in the 50s as a popular DJ playing black R & B music and employing hip street talk as part of his on-air personality.

It helps to know the background of how McDill came to write it.  It was 1980, and America was infatuated with all things Redneck, from "Smokey and the Bandit" to "The Dukes of Hazzard." Good Old Boys were big. So McDill thought to himself, Well, I'm a Texan, born and raised, but I don't see myself in this fad. So the song is an attempt to tell the story of a Southern man whose story doesn't revolve around the usual cliches of guns and Confederate flags and pick up trucks.

I chose this obscure version by Brad Paisley because I love the way his voice soars when the chorus comes around, especially for the third and final time. It feels earned, and true -- for him and Bob McDill, and for all of us, Southern, Northern, and everywhere else outside and in between. We're all gonna be what we're gonna be.

Chris Roberts-Antieau's Outsider Fabric Art

When I was traveling through Europe by train I followed the advice to never stay or eat too close to the train station -- higher prices, lower quality. Well, a corollary is that you're not going to find much good art in the tourist part of town. Our time in the French Quarter seemed to bear that out. On Royal Street you can find many boutiques with fine antique objects, with some fine antique painting thrown in. A half mile away, on the other side of Jackson Square, there are numerous art galleries, including the gallery of the late George Rodrigue, whose "blue dog" series of paintings has become a cultural touchstone in the region.

For the most part the galleries didn't speak to us, but we did like the Antieau Gallery, the namesake of Chris Roberts-Antieau, whose work is also a strong visual presence in Nola, having graced Jazz Fest posters and the like. She is actually from Michigan, though the French part of her name might suggest otherwise. Her work is fabric-based and resides at the sophisticated end of the spectrum of outsider-visionary art, a mode that substitutes exuberance for the straightjacket of MFA theorizing and gains energy via freedom from niceties such as perspective (and possibly even good taste). I loved her Blues series (that's Muddy waters below), but all of her work is intriguing and engaging. A framed letter from Bill Clinton hanging on a gallery wall near the door indicates that he agrees.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The French Quarter

Early in our visit to New Orleans, I decided to check out Bourbon Street. I saw three cops on horseback just sitting there chatting. And I thought to myself, When you are a cop on Bourbon Street you must have a different threshold of what constitutes an infraction. Once off Bourbon Street, things in the French Quarter were pretty quiet, even elegant. I'm guessing that since we were there off season, the Bourbon Street spillover was minimal. In this environment, my focus went to the beautiful architecture and the deep sense of history. It isn't only New England that has roots going way back.

The night before the wedding, the rehearsal dinner was held at Antoine's, celebrating 175 years of continual service. The wedding itself was held Saturday evening in the St. Louis Cathedral, first built in 1718, and expanded and rebuilt in 1850. As we stepped out of the church, a brass band was playing, and we proceeded to do a second line parade through the French Quarter. The bride and groom, Megan and Todd Ledet, even made it into an AP wire photo! What an experience. We shook our handkerchiefs and people came out onto the balconies to cheer us on. For a short time, we were in the center of things, and it felt pretty good.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Pleasure and Joy, Post-Katrina

Our trip to the French Quarter of New Orleans last week for a family wedding coincided with the 10th anniversary of Katrina. Aside from chatting with cabbies about it, our experience wasn't about that. It was about celebration. In other words, we experienced the city that the filmmaker Les Blank dubbed as Always for Pleasure. Is that a bad thing?

When we returned home on Wednesday, the latest New Yorker was in our mailbox. It's devoted to post-Katrina analysis, with a heavy emphasis on the lack of economic progress for the poorest residents (mostly black), the evils of gentrification, and the fact that so many former residents now live in places like Houston, never to return. Reading this, I felt that while it's hard to argue with those bleak facts, it seems reductionist to focus just on this part of life. Were the upbeat locals we met, like Wesley the Chief, decked out as he was in his fabulous festival costume, fooling themselves? I doubt it. I think they are smart enough to know what injustices exist within their community, and committed to doing something about them, but wise enough to not give up on enjoying life, when possible anyway.*

And, after all, the New Orleans tradition is in so many ways about joy, isn't it? Loving food, music, dancing, and companionship is a way of loving life itself. People down there have known hardship for a long time, way before Katrina. Why give up on joy now? Before we went down I psyched myself up by listening to Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. I would have to say that joy is the dominant vibe of this classic 1950s recording (as well as his whole body of work). Of course, Louis was accused of "Tomming," but I think it's condescending to suggest that he didn't know what the score is. And if he was ever insincere in his entertaining, which is speculation, I doubt he was any more insincere than we all our in our public personas. Above I have posted the YouTube of the performance of "Loveless Love" from Plays W. C. Handy. It's a blues that displays the kind of joy that can bring you to tears, especially beginning at 3:01.

More reflections on the particulars of our experience to come. But I felt I should address the joy and injustice thing first. I'm especially eager to talk about the post-wedding "second line" parade through the Quarter!

* Actually, come to think of it, the Mardi Gras and parade groups are called "social aid and pleasure" clubs. So that's pretty explicit.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Turrell Light Tunnel at the Houston MFA

Since we were all the way down in New Orleans for a wedding we decided to swing over to Houston to see some friends. They work at the Houston MFA. One of the highlights of our tour of the museum was the James Turrell Tunnel that connects a couple of their buildings. Stunning in person, it actually reproduces really well in images. It's cool the way human figures become silhouettes and how the colors constantly shift, slowly. I want to learn more about his methodology.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Big Chief, Wesley

This is a guy named Wesley, one of the Mardi Gras chiefs. He meticulously sews his costume over the course of a year, and when it isn't festival time, he hits the streets for a little income, just like musicians do. He earned the modest money we tipped him in exchange for this photo. He made our trip, really. Wesley was most gracious, and thanked us for coming all the way from Boston to visit his town. The pleasure was all ours, we assured him. He also mentioned he's been featured in documentaries about his culture. I'll keep an eye out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reporting From Nola

Coming up later this week: reflections from our recent trip to New Orleans. No time right now to get into it, but I can say that you will enjoy the French Quarter the most if you don't mind getting hugged by a happy drunk carrying a bottle of champagne at 4 in the afternoon as you are waiting to get onto the hotel elevator. He wasn't sure if he was going up or down and I guess it didn't matter.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ornette: "There Is Nothing Else But Life"

At the tribute concert for Ornette Colemen held in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in June 2014, just one year before he died, the jazz master told the assembled: "There is nothing else but life. We can't be against each other. We have to help each other. It will turn out like you will never forget it." A simple message, but the one he chose to share after more than eight decades of living, when he knew lots of people were listening. This is what humanism is. Humanism doesn't have to be for or against God or anything like that. It just puts the well-being of our fellow humans over various abstractions. Or, as peace proponents in Isreal and Palestine say: "People not places." Does this mean in my formulation that a physical place is an abstraction? Well, it is when it's viewed through the particular religious lens that says that the place, because it is sacred, is worth killing over. Ironic.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Writin' Is Fightin'

So said the wordsmith Muhammad Ali, who knew his way around the ring and the language. My question as of late has been about fightin' with words. How can words confront without shutting people down? And more personally, how should I understand the "argument" part of my blog name? I've got a lot of combative thoughts I don't want to include here, or want to but am not sure I should; not sure they would strengthen the site. Now, I'm always making arguments for the art, music, and poetry I love. And I do take an occasional aesthetic swing at stuff I hate, like the Grammies. And sometimes the noise around politics gets so loud I feel an obligation to say something. I mean, certain issues intrude and must be dealt with. So this question shall remain open.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Joseph Cornell: Master of Bricolage

Has there ever been a more masterful artist of found objects? Sometimes considered a surrealist, Cornell was sympathetic, but his temperament didn't lend itself to sensationalism. He favored elegance. Each day Cornell scoured the streets of NYC for objects, then meticulously gathered and cataloged them at his home in Queens, so that he could always reach for the perfect piece. Birds and maps and doll heads and jars were among the core elements of his vocabulary. I just saw an article that observed that collage art was the precursor to sampling, which revolutionized music when it burst out of the Bronx in the 80s.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sascha Feinstein: Blues for Zoot

The Swiss artist Judith Trepp recently shared some recollections with me of Provincetown in the 50s and 60s, where she and her parents, who were part of the arts community there, would summer each year. I knew about the visual arts and literature scene of P-town in the early days Hoffman, Kline, Bultman, O'Neill, Williams, and on and on but didn't realize until Judith mentioned it that many of the great jazz figures of the time would come through P-town every season and perform at the Atlantic House bar. How could I not know this! She mentioned Zoot Sims in particular, which sent me a-Googlin', which is how I landed on this great poem by Sascha Feinstein (from his book Misterioso). First a word about Zoot. He plays in the classic mid-century "swing-to-bop" mode. Often he sounds a bit like Coleman Hawkins. In this clip, where he is absolutely cooking, I hear a little Paul Gonzalves and Ben Webster. But no matter. Zoot is one of those players I can always identify within a chorus or two, the mark of a true jazz giant. A word about the poem. It's a mash up of memories of his father and Zoot mixed with meditations on the noble futility of hero worship and nostalgia. The last line is a killer. Oh, and Judith mentioned the softball games, too.

Blues for Zoot

They had crew cuts then, puffed cheeks like kids
spitting water: Al Cohn and Zoot Sims spouting tenor saxes
on the cover of You 'N Me, my dad's original pressing;

I hoped they'd sign it. Zoot clouded the room,
smoke fading his face, milky freckles. In five years
he'd die of cancer, and maybe he knew, maybe I knew,

because instead of looking into his eyes, I stared
at his shoes, then thought of the Kenton band, Zoot forgetting
to wear socks on night, how Stan said he'd have to leave

if he couldn't dress right. Next gig: still no socks,
and Zoot he rubbed shoe polish on his ankles. backstage,
when I met him, his pant legs hung too high, and I could see

blue socks, even a hole, his striped pants thin and washed-
out. Al put his horn down, scribbled his name, walked a way.
But Zoot checked out the tunes and brushed his fingers

across the photograph. He said, Man this is old,
and I thought he meant, Where'd you get this, kid? I told him
my father's name, Provincetown summers, the fifties,

how they'd play softball. Zoot closed his eyes, hard 
to think back so many years, until, looking up somewhere
in the room, he said, Oh yeah. I'm not sure what I wanted

to hear, perhaps just my father's one-liner, Good-tempered 
stuff, and lousy playing. He'd talk about artists, sculptors.
When Mulligan and Sims played at the A House

Dad would say, they'd hit with us, and I'd always ask for
the Zoot story. Herman Cherry pitched that day, he'd begin, 
Franz Kline at first, Sims led off. From the bench,

Mulligan yelled, "Give 'em Hell!" so Zoot smiled, and Herman
picked up a softball. He'd pause as though he needed to,
ask if I wanted to hear it all again. We had painted

this grapefruit with white acrylic, black scratches
for stitching. Herman lobbed it slow, a moonball,
and you could see Zoot's eyes get big. Then he really

connected  THWACK! We'd laugh, his hands rapping
the table. There's this burst of fruit and juice,
little pieces of white paint sailing down the third-base line!

Zoot just dropped his bat and said, "Shit" he rubs
his hands and laughs, glances at the liver spots
on his knuckles, and says, You should have seen his face.

When I met Zoot Sims twenty-six years later, I wanted to ask
if he remembered the sound from that day at the plate.
Or how it felt to be one of the Four Brothers. Instead,

I watched his pen sign the photograph, his fingers holding
the jacket for a last look. Here, he said, collector's item,
and before he turned, reached out for his yellow horn,

I shook his hand. Christ. What else was there to do?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Violet Light Is Real

When we were out in P-town a couple weeks ago I was looking at some impressionist oils, a strong tradition out there, and thought to myself, as I always do, Aren't they overdoing it a bit with all those cottages and landscapes glowing in purple light? I mean, I know light has amazing qualities, but still. The following week, back home again, I looked out the kitchen door one evening, and everything was glowing violet and purple. There it was. You learn the best when you are at first mistaken, which means that henceforth I'll no longer underestimate the power and varieties of light.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Allison & Marley: Pessimism vs. Optimism

Mose Allison sang: "I don't worry 'bout a thing / 'cause nothing's gonna be alright."

Bob Marley countered: "Don't worry / 'bout a thing / 'cause every little thing / gonna be alright."

As prognostication, it's hard to say who's correct. As a guideline or mental outlook, pessimism and optimism both have their merits. Psychologists have shown that if you imagine a particular worst-case scenario but then envision yourself surviving or transcending it, that can have a salutary effect. I guess this would be called a modified pessimism. It's a technique best invoked in the particular, though. As a general mindset, I think optimism is better. Norman Cousins wrote that:
the main characteristic of pessimism, like cynicism, is that it sets the stage for its own omens. It shuns hope for the future in the act of denying it. It narrows the field of vision, obscuring the relationship between the necessary and the possible.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Provincetown Artists: James Balla

James Balla has lived in P-town for 30 years now and produces a steady output of abstract works that are varied in expression, ranging from the precise to the imprecise, the hard-edged to the fluid, sometimes combining these directions, as in the small works shown here. They are a mere 6 x 6 inches, but really pack some wallop. (Some of his pieces in this style are quite large.) We own the painting shown above. It's animated by an immensely dynamic composition, and it represents the aesthetic that Balla has dubbed "divide and dissolve." John Waters, who is a friend of James and his partner Albert Merola, refers to the slightly druggy quality in his work. Hey, we call that nostalgia! (Click below on Provincetown in labels to see more P-town artists.)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Meditation and Social Change

You might have noticed that "mindfulness" meditation is having a moment. I've seen a number of fairly breathless feature stories about how this kind of meditation can have real benefits for personal growth and professional performance. They present this as a new story, but mindfulness meditation has been a part of the social-cultural-spiritual landscape in the US since (at least) the 70s. Allen Ginsberg famously became a student of Chogyan Trungpa Rinpoche, whose book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a classic of modern Buddhism, and founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder to bring Buddhist mindfulness practice into relationship with the creative arts and various strands of psychology. Shambhala Publications in Boston publishes Trungpa Rinpoche's works and many, many related titles. Mindfulness meditation is also known as vipassana meditation, and grows out of and is associated with various schools of Tibetan, Zen, and Theravda Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been promoting mindfulness as a secular, stress-relieving activity since 1979.

OK, enough context-setting. Mindfulness meditation is misleadingly named, since the objective is not to fill the mind, but to empty it of thoughts. More specifically, one purposely engages in not thinking. Instead, one observes thoughts and lets them dissipate and go when they inevitably appear. You learn to settle the "monkey mind" and to not neurotically latch onto thoughts, which is a crazy-making activity. You learn that thoughts are not "yours," but ephemeral phenomena, like all of existence. Mindfulness urges a simple focus on one's breath.

So once the mindfulness stories reached a certain threshold, a minor backlash ensued, saying that meditation is fine and all that, but what good will it do in terms of social change? What will it do to rectify the crisis of Black incarceration or mitigate climate change? Well, put that way, not much. What it will do is to make one less reactive, and therefore better able to make decisions and act in ways less dictated by fear and confusion. In becoming an observer of one's own mind, one can become more aware of the shadow self, thus becoming better equipped to make the distinctions that are essential in the fight against evil and injustice (a topic I discussed here).

I think a more self-aware, less reactive populace will make for a better world, but I don't think we can say, nor would we even want to be able to say, that a meditater will end up voting a certain way, that meditating will turn someone into a global warming activist or the like. For many concerned with injustice, this isn't good enough. The spiritual or meditative approach to social change relinquishes an attachment to particular outcomes, even as we pursue certain goals. It holds that people who are less susceptible to propaganda and fear-mongering, people who are less prejudiced and more open, will have the capacity to contribute to a more just world, even if we can't say exactly what it will look like. Meditation is not a substitute for social action, but rather a foundation to help ensure that our social action is clear-eyed and effective.

For the record, while I have practiced mindfulness meditation on and off for many years, including at Naropa, I now practice mantra-based meditation, which focuses the mind. This is another way to get rid of neurotic thinking, and has the benefit of inviting positive vibrations. A phrase, I might add, that I use without irony!