I’m not sure what this post will be about. Trying to avoid predictions, and all that.
There’s something about intention that’s been lost in my focus on finding a way to look at action without intention, putting will into the background.
We have wills. The will-to-live, for instance, is universally lauded. It’s only problematic when it’s a cancer-cell’s will or a persistently virulent parasite’s will-to-live we are dealing with. That’s at the center of why human will has become fraught with – I was going to say peril, or inconsistency?
Funny that inconsistency is not something I usually see as problematic. It’s a sign more of a too-narrow view rather than of whatever judgement it seems to lead us to make….
While painting I have intentions. Some are, many, perhaps most, are hidden from my open awareness, but I know they are there, caught in fleeting side-glances, the way so many important realizations are made. Others are quite direct. These intentions are coupled with fluency, with the threat or promise of virtuosity. If they “flow” from the hand as though I were actually carving space with my brush and “making” a wave or a flank or a nose directly; then I respond to that fluency with a joyful sense of having come into synchronization between what I intended and what I’ve accomplished. Underneath this “achievement” there is a lurking danger. Hubris calls. It becomes hard not to claim “ownership” of the result. At that moment a “higher” judgement seems to fall and the fluency, the virtuosity – a performance virtuous – ends in an abrupt collapse and the next series of actions trail into incoherence, often destroying most or all of what’s been made before.
On top of this dynamic there is a curious lag that can occur – and seems to occur most often when the virtuosic action has gone beyond what I can encompass with my awareness at that moment. There is a life then in the work developing beneath the brush and within the skin of paint that is a curious blend of a perceptual “healing” and a physical knitting together of the surface into new forms and sensations of light, atmosphere, wholeness that cannot be arrived at any other way.
This lag has to be dealt with. One’s first feeling is that the strokes have gone wrong. Instead of that sense of effortless will turning into action and arriving at a result, there is a strong sense of vertigo, an unpleasant feeling of having gone off into random action with a chaotic result. When this happens the temptation to stop, to scrape it all away, to negate what’s happening by an act of overt will; is strong.
If we can resist this temptation, either out of some vague premonition or from recent experience that this feeling has led to good results in the past, on stepping back there is a moment of healing and knitting that happens before our eyes. I use the term healing to mean the action of an organism to re-order itself to fit its purpose after a trauma. This is apt both for the physical act of the surface skin of paint melding and coming to a new state, taking in whatever action of addition, subtraction, melding, or juxtaposing we’ve just done – a process that has a time scale of its own and that goes on over a period up to a year or more, though as with any organic physical process, it starts out fast and global and fades off into a slow and subtle tapering away until a relative stability has been reached.
Another process is going on at the same time, with a similar trajectory. Our perceptual organs, from cones and rods to neurons, right on up to our entire organism and all of our faculties, goes through a process of acclimation to a new dynamic, attempting to make sense of what’s there in front of us, taking cues from memory, not only of what we thought was there before, but all of our past experiences and scraps of memories that might somehow be relevant. The stir of creativity we feel while writing, composing, or painting, sculpting, dancing, talking, acting…; is in large part the pleasurable yet unnerving sensations this activity inside of us brings forth. This is the “action” in the old macho term, Action Painting. This is what has me breathless, heart-pounding in the glory of painting. This is what culminates in my athlete’s exhalation, “Fuck Yeah!” as I sit or stand back and see a new “reality” forming before my eyes.
There is also the potential and reality that many times, as these parallel processes play out, overnight let’s say, when what had seemed vibrant and alive is now faded and dormant, if not moribund. This is a normal part of the action of painting. The work is “telling us” what is lacking – if we are able to set aside preconception or belief, that aspect we bundle into will when we say that we are being willful and contrary to what is actually confronting us. This could be a clue to unpacking what is “wrong” with will, from what just is.
The lessening of what we thought we saw, is an opportunity to build on what is there. We are again at the point of action or not-acting. We have again to come to terms with, not only whatever “disappointment” we feel at being disillusioned of what we had been happy to have won; but also with how to proceed. The spiral has turned and we are back at that part of the cycle where we began, but we are not back where we started! The most fundamental miracle the privileged surface-of-attention that is a painting brings us is that it holds its history there within it, and each new action adds its blend of intended and unintended consequence to what was there. The context this generates is always shifting in a dynamic made that much more complex by the delays and lags and knittings and healings of surface and awareness.
There is a range of “remedies” to the various levels of “problems” we discover at these times. Often there are little spots that tell us they need to be “knocked down.” They are “out-of-place.” Or they are too strident. Touching them will often bring about an amazing change to another passage of the painting, or even the entire painting seems to right itself and take-in a sharp inhalation of breath! Most often when a passage seems pitched too low, it’s in making an adjustment elsewhere that “corrects” it and let’s it sing.
No matter how much we “know” that change affects the entirety of a whole and that a subtle negation can be a strongly powerful act of invigoration to that whole, it is so hard to suspend our urge to take ever more “bold” actions, in a crescendo of striving to ramp up an outcome only to find this leading to a quagmire….
On-the-other-hand, even these occurrences, these accumulations of “errors,” will lead to an enriching of the final work – IF we are able to handle our reactions and settle back down into a humble, open, and expecting attitude in front of what remains.
This practice of painting puts us into a world in which we have doubt and certainty, will and acceptance. We are thrown into experiences where we are rewarded by being able to see these as continuities and not polarities. There is a powerful hint of what this means in deKooning’s crucifixion drawings and the insight of Jung into crucifixion as a martyrdom to polarity.
We act out of a life-or-death sense of struggle that we have put upon the act of painting. It is life or death in that it is a chosen dedication of all we have, our time, attention, and effort to do this and not something else. Dedication is a self-imposed life sentence!
This is what a practice entails, what a practice gives us in return is that it opens us to an arena of action that is, and is not, a matter of life-and-death. If we make a “mistake,” we don’t die, or we haven’t actively participated in the slaughter of others, but we have also felt the experience in a way that is reflective of “real” life or death struggles. In a complex and nuanced fashion we are exposed to, not a “rehearsal” for those situations, so much as a rhyme, a reflection of them. This gets to the root of the powers in rhyme and reflection, and all the other attributes of any privileged surface-of-attention, whether a painting, a page, or a proscenium….
There is a world of distance between this entire enterprise and the Machiavellian attitude behind “sowing doubt.” An adept at such a discipline will recoil at the entire set of assumptions behind a strategy of sowing doubt. Here is a “real world” pay-off for all the sacrifices of dedication. There has built-up an instinct, let us say a re-invigoration of an old instinct, beaten out of us by the ruthless over time. It is a combination of distaste, an actual bad taste, a revulsion at a shameful way of behaving. And there is a closing-off of any willingness to take any other fruits of that world-view on face value. In some way this returns us to that condition of confident naiveté that might have existed before civilization’s pull took us all in or killed off those who resisted.
Balance, the suite of perceptions and responses we use to keep our selves upright as we proceed, is strongest when we have internalized an instinctive sense of perception of disequilibrium and reactions of compensation. We are least balanced when we have to stop and “think” about any part of the process.
Our civilized selves have been steered at every turn to distrust our sense of balance and to put our faith in something or someone who will use our instability to put their will above our own. Sowing doubt, now a growth industry even as the entire concept of this kind of asymmetric growth is collapsing all around us; is the last refuge for those who would attempt to maintain advantage and control. They push and prod us at every turn, and they have so much at their disposal to dominate our attention and keep us playing their game. On top of that, we have our own insistence, towards justice, let’s say, that leads us to want to resist. To resist through confrontation, by refutation, be playing the same games only from the “other” side.
Funny how hidden in plain sight at the basis of the cults of Jesus is this image of the crucifixion. He was, it’s said, crucified in our stead. There appears to be a wonderful truth in that, if we take his martyrdom to have been upon a polarity, say of Good and Evil. This was to have liberated us from having to repeat the same sacrifice, this was to have brought us to a new life, after the collapse of Antiquity and all of its failed assumptions.
There were glimmers of this insight buried throughout the history of that religion. They are conspicuous by their rarity, their marginalization from the central narrative that was so quickly, and so vehemently, skewed so as to bring the advantages back to the ruthless, those who would never abandon their insistence on the necessity to pin ourselves to the nearest polarity and hang there in a violent agony they could profit from. This provides us with the first lesson of all insightful individuals; learn from their lives, and run from the institutions developed in their names!
Honing these instincts removes us from the spell woven to trap us. It sidesteps those who would sow doubt, not by claiming any certainty; but by giving us experience of what it is like to navigate conflicting urges and expectations, reactions and responses, so that we can find our own balance without leaning on the crutches of dependency offered us, and forced on us, either if we accept them or reject them. These instincts give us the power to step aside, to go-on our own way.