As we age, I think many of our memories grow more poignant. We know in a way we haven’t before that the people, places and times represented by them won’t be repeated. Because they have that extra dimension, they’re more powerful. More moving. And therefore more important for art.
Pam Crandall went to the ER at something like 3 a.m. yesterday morning. She’d only been home a few days from a scary heart surgery in the hospital in Burlington. It might be pneumonia; it might be something to do with her heart. Pam is 84 years old and as hungry for life as anyone I’ve ever met. No 10-year-old, no sparkling 20-something has anything on her. When I visited her this afternoon and mentioned that I was off to St. Augustine, Florida next week, she murmured that she’d always wanted to go there. Maybe, sometime….
Pam was born and raised in the hard scrabble town of Hardwick, Vermont, the oldest of three sisters. It was a small town full of granite quarries. One of her favorite stories of late has been her early morning walk around town when she was five. She visited the neighbors, and sat in the big leather chairs in the inn. Her mother was still alive then and the story glows with her presence when Pam, the child, got home.
Her mother died when she was still a kid, and her growing up was hard. But she found her way to the big city of Burlington and the University of Vermont, and became a school teacher. A few years later, she became a teacher in Europe where she taught the kids of diplomats and ex-pats to think, and took them to see Mark Morris dance.
I first met Pam 20-odd years ago on Daniels Pond where she had a house across from the place we were renting for the summer. She was a big woman with a thick blond braid down her back, a face that with the braid looked Scandinavian, a ready smile, and a mellifluous voice. The braid is gone. She’s lost some inches, but she still has the smile and the voice. Today, when I write books and stories, I always show them to Pam because I know she’s read close to everything there is to read in English literature, and she’ll tell me what she thinks. When I retired, at 62, to write, and gave Pam my first book, she told me what I needed to know to write the next book, a better book. No one else managed to say it so I could hear it.
Pam is perhaps the only teacher I know whose students have kept in touch over the years, who have invited her to their homes and credited her with helping them find their way. They remember her toughness and discipline, and her enthusiasm for good writing, the arts, music, dance. When, in her seventies, she had a heart attack and stroke, she fought her way back—it took a year or more—but she wasn’t ready to die. There were too many songs, dances, pots and books in the world.
Pam is planning to go to Toronto this spring to see paintings that she’s only been able to admire in a book. I’m looking forward to her return. Who can I show the next manuscript to, if not to her? Who will go with me to three concerts a week this summer? Who will applaud wildly when someone on the stage hits a perfect long note?
I remember being outraged recently when some Republican (I don’t remember who it was, or the occasion) mocked the call for empathy in a government official. Now, David Brooks, in a recent column in the New York Times, cites studies that show empathy has been overrated. People who are empathetic are not necessarily more ethical.
It came as a shock to me. To me empathy has always seemed like the perfect foil to much of the world’s wickedness. But apparently, “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty.”
Furthermore, Brooks argues, “These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.”
I don’t want to debate him, he could be right. Maybe I’ve over-estimated the role of empathy in moral action. But it’s just so obvious to me that empathy is necessary to a civil society and to morality. Certainly, it’s necessary to art! Consider this wonderful passage of pictures and words from Maira Kalman’s book, The Principles of Uncertainty.
I’ve written about David Hockney before. Seventy-four years old now, he’s passionately trying to capture a world he’s obsessively curious about—the world around him—because there’s always “a lot more to be seen.”
In my last post about Hockney, I marveled at his use of computer drawing. He’s apparently still at it. Writes Martin Gayford, the chief art critic for Bloomberg News, in the September/October 2011 technology review:
He uses it as an electronic sketchbook; it’s always by his side. A steady flow of iPhone and iPod drawings —loose, free, experimental, and intimate, pop, sometimes every day, into the mailboxes of his friends and acquaintances. More than 200 are currently in mine.
However, Gayford’s article (soon to be part of a book), is about another Hockney endeavor. In order to better see the world, the artist has created a behemoth of nine cameras mounted on a rig which, in turn, is mounted on a vehicle. The cameras are set at different angles and exposures. Traveling a country road through grass, wildflowers and other plants, the result is what Gayford calls a “moving collage, a sight that has never quite been seen before.” It’s been described by Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy of London, as a 21st-century version of Durer’s Das gross Rosenfuck (Piece of Turf):
Durer used the media of the time—water color, pen, ink—to do something unprecedented: depict with great precision a little slice of wild, chaotic nature. He revealed what was always there but had never before been seen with such clarity. Hockney, in 2011, is doing the same job, using the tools of the moment: high-definition cameras and screens, computer software.
Hockney believes that the camera can never see what the eye does, and that it in turn has unduly influenced much of art (through the camera obscura in works that preceded the invention of the camera). The camera, of course, has one eye and the human being has two. But, Hockney has multiplied the two by many more and wants us to see much, much more.
I’m looking forward to Gayford’s book because I have some unanswered questions. Apparently, science has just about concluded that the world we see is a complex creation of eyes, mind and external reality. It’s nothing like what is objectively there. (There is something! I guess.) And that makes me wonder what Hockney’s new invention is seeing. Can it tell us anything more about reality? Or about ourselves?
Last November, some maple sugar growers from my part of the world went to the Terra Madre Conference in Turin, Italy to share their experiences with what has come to be called the Slow Food Movement. The idea of Slow Food wasn’t new to me—in both California and Vermont, and I’ve been excited by the careful attention to good food and the rise of small growers and farmers’ markets. What I didn’t realize is the reach and popularity of the idea of “Slow”—Slow Parenting, Slow Travel, Slow Money, Slow Gardening, Slow Art, Slow Reading—even Slow Software Development. There are books, articles, blogs, exhibits, organizations…. It’s only been a few years, but the idea is in danger of becoming a cult or, at the very least—chic.
For someone who’s always aspired, not very successfully, to Fast, it’s a relief, even if we do seem incapable of having ideas without turning them into fashions and fads. Any day now I’m sure the notion of slow will be used by advertisers to sell any and everything, possibly even fast foods. The movement, of course, is a reaction to our cyber age, which in turn is the culmination an ever accelerating centuries-old march to Fast. It’s about time we slowed down enough, at the very least, to give our pace of life some serious thought.
The most influential book so far is Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness (2004). Apparently, he was moved to write when he discovered himself thinking about buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories. He suddenly realized that the pressure to speed had gotten so out of hand he was trying to cut short the very precious time he spent with his children at the end of each day. When I was ever so briefly a member of a writing group, I learned that there were contests to write stories of only 500 words, to write a novel in a month, to write a story about what ever the leader comes up with in ten minutes. I can’t do any of those and I’m not sure I should be able to. I remember when I wanted to learn everything there was to learn I watched a speed reader on a bus go through a Saul Bellow book in an hour-long bus ride. I envied him, but I knew that there was something not quite right about it. Something about feeling and understanding.
I have a friend who, without articulating it in slow movement terms, reads very specifically and slowly or, as Sven Birkerts puts it in The Guternberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, takes “slow and meditative possession of a book.” I’ve watched over the years as she’s read, not a whole book usually, but a few paragraphs of something especially provocative, and then read them again and again, studying them from every angle, making the ideas her own. She’ll be surprised to learn she’s been doing something for all these years that’s finally “the rage.”
The wonderful thing about the word “Slow” in all these contexts is that it’s come to mean more than slower-paced. A painting is to be contemplated and not just glanced at—we’re meant to discover its layers of meaning, to relish it, to respond to it. In the process of beginning research on this subject, I discovered Deborah Borlow whose blog, Slow Muse, is a marvel of thought on what slow means in art. Michael Kimmelman, art critic with the New York Times, is another thinker on the subject worth reading.
One of the oddest kinds of Slow turned out to be Slow Blogs. Well, why not? Blogging is like everything else in the world of cyberspace. There are many days when I feel I have little to say and wonder why I’m doing it at all, except that I’ve put pressure on myself to deliver. Apparently, some bloggers, giving it some slow thought, have not only slowed down, but quit. But the subject is one I want to take some time with, and so, in the interest of Slow, I’ll be putting up more posts on it in the next week or so.
On New Year’s Eve this year, I found myself at a party. The older folks (like me) mostly left around 10 or 11, while the younger people danced, drank and talked the night away. Of course, the two overlapped, and during that overlap, trying to make myself heard while indie rock pounded against the walls, I realized that I didn’t know how to act anymore. In fact, I felt like someone invisible. I found myself wondering if the 30s-40s people saw me and what they saw, if they did. Did they see 71 years old? Did they see a woman as old or older than their mother?
It’s hard sometimes to be elderly because many of us truly don’t know we are. I’ve known very few older women whose self image isn’t a decade, two, three or more younger than they are. I remember my friend Ada who fell in love with boys half her age when she was in her 50s: I understand her now when I didn’t then. I don’t feel that much different from the way I did at 30, 40 or 50. But I am. When I was 35, I could have taken to the dance floor and caused little comment. At 70 plus, will I seem inappropriate? Not to mention—breathless.
The music that night was very, very loud and rhythmic. About 50 years ago, music became louder and faster, and ever since people have gone hard of hearing at a young age. I know there are still slow songs and gentle music, but it seems to me much rarer than it was for people growing up in the 1940s and 50s. Were people just slower and sweeter then?
I’ve always moved more quickly than most of the people around me—walked faster, ate faster. I still do, though I suppose I’ll eventually slow down. But I wonder if there are some things I should start slowing for now. A few weeks ago I went to a slow dinner to hear about slow food and the recent global gathering of slow food producers in Turin, Italy. Eating slowly, especially when the food is local, fresh and wonderful, is an excellent idea.
Then today, I discovered James Elkins, an art critic and historian from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who blogs on Huffington Post. The subject of his post was “How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?” I discovered that I wanted to spend more time looking at pictures. Each picture. Elkins tells the story of an elderly woman who for decades had been coming came to the Institute three or four times a week during her lunch hour to look at one Rembrandt painting, “Young Woman at an Open Half-Door.” Elkins figures that’s 3,000 hours of looking.
But most of us look at paintings for only a few seconds at a time. Even at the Louvre, people look at the Mona Lisa. on average, for only about 15 seconds. On-line, and in this post, Elkins engages a 14th-century Sorrowing Madonna, a portrait that calls out for a long, searching view. “I have written about this image at more length elsewhere,” he writes. “Here I have just said enough, I hope, to suggest how a person might spend hours, and in the end years, in private communion with the figure in this painting. How long does it take to see this painting? A lifetime, more or less.”
Maybe, just maybe, this is a good time to slow down to taste, smell, eat, view. Maybe, that’s what I should be doing at 71. Although, for the present, I intend to continue walking quickly—I want to get there fast. I want to spend more time looking at whatever it is I’m walking towards.
I don’t usually watch television in the morning, but it was Saturday and it was on, and one of the morning hosts was doing a special on the increasing theat to privacy in our culture, especially because of the Internet, as well as all the cameras perched in stores, on city streets and highways. The consensus was that it’s too late to do much about it, either as a society or as an individual. The invited expert suggested we each had two choices: live with it or seek out a unabomber’s shack in the mountains somewhere.
But this invasion of privacy—which is presumably not of our own choosing—is only part of a much wider phenomenon, where the private has become increasingly public. Reality TV is the most obvious example, but the Internet and the newsstands are full of the stories of “real people.” The details of the lives of celebrities are the most sought after, but as a nation we avidly watch people “just like us” in small claims court, getting counseling and therapy from Dr. Phil, financial help from Suzie, swapping wives and getting makeovers.
According to Ben Yagoda in his book Memoir: A History, nonfiction currently outsells fiction four to one and “total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008.”
It may be that fiction has been threatened since 1966 when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, the original non-fiction novel, although other writers had already explored the genre. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay Pornoviolence:The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.
Much of our interest in the details of other people’s lives lies in our love of the sensational, and in what is, in essence, gossip. Most of us—even those of us who don’t want to admit it—like gossip. And even though it’s been characterized as mean-spirited, it just as often isn’t. It’s about hearing a good story, and even more, a story about someone we know, or feel we know. The key is that the story has to be entertaining, and it has to be about someone “real” that we feel kin to.
Gossip can’t be about fictional characters.
I still haven’t answered the question: Why are so many of us so thirsty for the details of the lives of others? And again: Why are so many of us eager to share our own? Is this a good thing?
I’m groping here, but I might be getting closer. Could it be that as we lose our privacy and our private lives, fiction seems less relevant? Could it be that we’re all in the media? We’re so immersed in the drama of it all. As people are sometimes said to say at the scene of a murder, “It’s so real. It’s just like the movies.” We can no longer contemplate our lives. We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.
Then again, maybe I just shouldn’t watch television in the morning.
There’s a public TV special on variety programs—Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett and the like—and near the conclusion a very elderly Sid Caesar argues that variety shows ended because of the TV remote. With the remote, audiences lost patience and variety shows depended on patience between acts and from one kind of act to another.
I don’t know whether or not Caesar is correct about variety shows. What interests me is that a simple tool like a TV remote could make such a difference in our lives and character. Have we all become impatient? Probably so.
One of the staples of comedy and cartoons is the missing remote. A lost remote can turn a TV viewer into a helpless, muttering and very impatient fool.
The mouse is a close cousin to the remote. I always click twice on my mouse in an effort to hurry it along. I will harass any computer when it’s slow to respond. It’s a habit that could have begun with the remote since the TV remote undoubtedly prepared us for the mouse.
We live in an age where all we have to do is press a button and our demands for the weather, for our mail, for directions to our local 7-11, even for a medical diagnosis, are met. Sounds like impatience to me.
We all expect our environment to be immediately gratifying. Like MacDonald’s. I like to think that the slow food movement might be one of the first phenomena to try and bring us back to reality. Other people, who are almost never that accommodating, are another healthy alternative to the technology that’s taken us over. Gardening is still one more corrective. It requires a lot of waiting.
So, while I will probably keep punching mice and remotes, I hope also to keep immersing myself in another older world of waiting, and even quiet frustration. As for art, it seems to me it can be slow or fast. It can be selfish or generous, patient or impatient. It will always be interesting.
Well, I’m finally back on the Internet. Somewhat intermittently, but here. I’m still handicapped. My wonderful scanner broke en route. My poor packing techniques, no doubt. Anyway, that will cut down significantly on the pictures I can include in these posts.
The intermittent quality of my Internet experience probably has to do with Hughesnet’s poor saucer. The thing is lost in a fog today, as am I. A cold low-hanging mist veils the woods around the house. Where I lived in California, being shrouded in fog was not uncommon, but I was surrounded by other houses and other people who were similarly cut off from the world. Here, today, my chief company consists of red squirrels and chickadees.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. What shall we call the world around us when it’s unfamiliar? “Surreal”signifies a weirdness that’s made up of unlikely combinations of elements. Limp watches in a barren landscape. A red PT Cruiser in the snow (okay, not yet, but soon!). Not altogether unlike my present situation, but the weirdness lies more in my not being used to my surroundings. I’m the odd element instead of the limp watch or the dirty red Cruiser.
When we’re used to things, when they’re as familiar as old clothes, old wallpaper or mashed potatoes, when day after day they lie close to hand—we wear them, live in them, eat them—we almost don’t see them anymore they’re so much part of us. Travel brings us to another reality where the houses may seem as unlikely to us as Dali’s limp timepiece. Where, if we’re not careful we could, like Alice in Wonderland, begin to lose ourselves.
The same phenomenon occurs when we buy something new. For a few hours, or even a few days or weeks, it keeps its newness and everything around it shares in the wonderful shine that new things have. But all too soon, it’s worn and familiar.
But back to the more wrenching experience of a new environment, an experience that reveals how vulnerable we are. How much our identity is wrapped up in places and their trappings.
And, in the case of artists of every kind, if they’re involved in bringing together what has been disparate, if they’re creating new places and new worlds, how very, very vulnerable they are!
A number of years ago I worked freelance for church organizations—not the kind that seem to always catch the headlines today—but the liberal descendants of the mainstream churches of the early 20th century who advocated a “social gospel.” Their mission, as they read the gospels, was to bring justice to the poor and dispossessed of the world. On the thirteenth floor of John D. Rockefeller’s Interchurch Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, known locally as “the God box,” where the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries gathered pictures, stories and evidence for the Christian crusade, a small room had been given over to shelves and shelves of old picture albums. They’d been collected in labeled barrels and kept at a nearby warehouse until then.
The albums were a wonder to me. The bulk of the best pictures were from the first few decades of the 1900s. They were brought together to advance what seemed to Protestant Christianity then like the coming of a new age of “justice rolling down like waters,” of “the new Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, the theme of much of the material was an evangelistic one, but the call for social justice was also central. What also pleased me was that many of the pictures seemed to have been collected for the sheer joy of viewing.
Among those pictures were dozens of photos by Lewis Hine, a passionate social reformer, who was educated as a sociologist but discovered that he could do more good with a camera than in a classroom. His pictures changed the child labor laws in the United States.
“I’m sure I’m right in my choice of work,” he wrote in 1910. “My child-labor photos have already set the authorities to work to see ‘if such things can be possible.’ They try to get around them by crying ‘Fake’ but therein lies the value of the data and a witness. My ‘sociological horizon’ broadens hourly.”
Or again: “The great social peril is darkness and ignorance. Light is required. Light! Light in floods!”
Hine’s pictures were perhaps the most effective of any in those old picture albums: they convinced Protestant churchmen and women to work for change. But many of the pictures in the books were there for the same reason. They were used in magazines and newspapers, in lantern shows and posters. Hines’ photographs, more than the others, have the distinction of having been taken by an artist. They were not just witnesses to truth. They were, and are, works of art. Their subjects served Hines’ stated purpose, but the photos themselves lived on afterwards, isolated, cut off from their original context of family, and often even of workplace. We admire them because they are beautiful, not because they brought about legislative change.
Which brings us to Susan Sontag’s rather more cynical approach to the photography of do-gooding crusaders in her influential essay, On Photography (1977). “Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both zealous and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, called humanism—which found slums the most enthralling of decors.”
I’m prepared to be cynical like the Sontag of the ’70s, until I find an extraordinary websight, http://www.morningsonmaplestreet.com. Its proprietor, Joe Manning, has been tracking down Lewis Hine’s children, one at a time, searching out their descendants, discovering their stories. “The stories, however long or brief, are what they are, and they help us to get to know a few people whose only public persona, for as long as a hundred years, has been a simple snapshot.”
I’m inclined to add: most people don’t even get that—a very public snapshot of themselves. And to praise photography: “Light! Light in floods!”
The old photo albums were full of condescension towards the poor; they objectified people; they isolated them from both their own worlds and the viewer’s. Many of them were as colonialistic in intent as their photographers. And yet, they were also a remarkable celebration of life. And I loved them for it.