The Opposite of Rational is not Irrational

Why spend any more time on this idea of — coming to the end of dualistic thinking? As we have been talking about this til it cloys; but, this divide of the sciences and the humanities continues to energize thinking for trying to understand our role as artists. We’ve read a lot about this as the curators of our own parkland installation at Art Mind Park and in our studios.

For an unequivocally straight forward way of thinking about this comes from the recent The Dawn of Everything (Graeber and Wingrow 2021). An anthropologist and archaeologist look at human history. But, we feel an essay or two from the perspective of the practitioner, will add to the conversation. We recently had a visit from a relative who is a bona fide “gifted person” who excells in Math and Debate. Obviously, the smartest guy in the room. In his looking around our studios, he seemed completely baffled. As we talked about our work he brought out his phone device to do a little fact checking on what we had to say about our intensions and what we were stating as our motivations. We encourage this kind of hard look, sifting through our non-rational guff.

Since C.P. Snow’s famous “The Two Cultures” essay (1959), in which he lamented the great cultural divide that separates two great areas of human intellectual activity, “science” and “the arts.” Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. And, yet even in Steven J. Gould’s (a rationalist of the first order) last book, on the subject of the divide, The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister’s Pox, Gould admits at one point, “I am completely devoid of imagination.” Gould is a researcher—a re-searcher. As Picasso famously said, “others search, I find.” Gould is the great scholar of the History of Science and the go-to for explications of Evolutionary Theory, but he is not a maker person. He is one who relies on what he can search out, and in that he’s a genuinely creative person. But not a maker person. And then, as Wallace Stevens says in his poem A Plain Sense of Things : “…the absence of the imagination…had Itself to be imagined…” Here’s the whole thing:

The Plain Sense of Things
BY WALLACE STEVENS
After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

A couple of stand-out images from the poem••• “No turban walks across the lessened floors”…and •••”…silence of a rat come out to see,” are the poet’s prodigious imagination at work and, if you can let these lines in, they make the poem a thing of real beauty; evocative, maybe of your own experience of seeing a rat poke its nose out, or maybe reading about a turbaned pooh-bah strut around. Making pictures in your mind. I could add many of Stevens’ poems, as he was the supreme cheer-leader for the imagination. I would recommend his A Necessary Angel for a full series of essays on the imagination—that necessary Angel—if you get through it, shoot me an email for a lively discussion. It is also true that Stevens was a formidable litigator for the Hartford Insurance, Co. A foot firmly planted in both worlds.

So it seems to us so obvious, the opposite of rationality is this thing we call the imagination. And, isn’t art making a kind of language of the imagination with its own grammar? Steven Pinker has written lately about the rational mind in a couple of books: Rationality and Enlightenment Now. They are worthwhile, speaking about the gifts of our clear thinking: increased general health, improved living even for our bulging population, that, as of 1970, on the DC Mall, that first Earth Day, Paul Erlich moaned, there was “a coming doom of Apocalyptic proportions.” I was there that Spring day in DC for his speech and felt doomed. I also heard Cesar Chavez speak that day, as a palliative, saying, “Love will win the day”. —more on that in another post—Pinker argues strongly for the rational mind; that things have really improved due to the rational mind. At this date, in 2022, I would have been a dead man, twice-over, were it not for the medical advances of modern medicine, unheard of, not yet imagined in 1970. Even too, avoiding some grim surgical procedures a couple of times with simple “non-invasive” laparoscopic surgeries, and most recently a new-fangled brain surgery cured my stumbling walk and clouded thinking (my big joke here, oft repeated, ad nauseam—”I no longer need a doctor, I need a lawyer ’cause I feel I’ve made a jail break”(…this joke is going down to silent retirement at its condo in Del Boca Vista, Basta!)

So, Yay! for the rational mind, but how do you plug into this imaginal world? Is there training available for those rational folks who simply don’t get this art thing? How to bridge this divide for a general population. Pinker has written a web article —We Make Art Because We Can in which he lays out, beautifully in his cogent prose, how, while Art may not be an aspect of our selection as the most successful species, it sure makes life worth living even in difficult circumstances. I like what he has to say, please follow the provided link. But he is lamentably short on describing where Art comes from as an undeniable part of our genome. All the members of our local “tribe” sure get it, our friends and fellow practioners. By tribe I mean practitioners who have the long-haul in mind, who are bent to the task on a daily basis, because if you take it seriously, you do it every day. (even for 10 little minutes)

120 notebooks…I have been keeping steadily since 1967

I know so many folks who have done exactly this, some wildly successful, but mostly those quietly keeping at it…I have, Judith has, for over fifty years, every day, EVERY DAY! (even for those 10 little minutes) and the rewards are so much more than simply regarding a trail of solipsistic pebbles shining in the moonlight to show us where we’ve been—in these notebooks there are ideas stretching to the future. They are a monument to a creative life lived every day. As our dearly departed friend, psychiatrist, Dr. Sterling Bunnell, Jr, said, “If you feel the call to this creative life as a vocation, and act on it each day, you add a spoonful of being to the Island of the Self. If you ignore that call, you toss that spoonful into the sea where it disappears forever.”

What is this Island of the Self? What is that spoonful? Who lives on that growing Island, who doesn’t? Doesn’t everyone, by the mere fact of being a Homo Sapiens gain you residency on this Island? Well, yes, though it takes effort and if there is such a thing as talent, it is the talent for following your inner urgings. This is important. My own father had this talent. You certainly wouldn’t recognize him as an artist with philosophy on his mind. He was business-man. His self-described talent was what he called “smelling gun smoke.” He could sniff out a deal and act on it. He was a bit of a gangster (not in any criminal sense, though awfully tough to grow up with—we became great pals later on), but who always had WIN!! on his mind. He was in the mundane auto-parts business, but when someone came to work for him who showed drive and ambition, he would use his established banking connections to set that person up in their own business akin to his own distribution model of selling “parts” as he called it. Paint store, electrical supply, etc. and serve as advisor. When I was just graduating college, I noticed, he had gone from the plain dark suit to tailored, jazzy, extravaganzas, had joined a ritzy golf club, and was out-of-town more than he was in, with many trips to Europe and Asia. “What happened to you?” I asked. “Well, all my orchards have all born fruit,” he smiled with his smirky, quiet grin. He’d created the model for today’s Venture Capital. All the people he had funded had payed out handsomely. Never set foot in Business School. Does this bridge the “The Two Cultures?” That famous essay by C. P. Snow lamenting the impossible project of joining the culture of the rational and the culture of the imaginal?

Leon knows what you are thinking, do you know what you are thinking?

In another move, not at all rational, but ended up being an “Island Building” venture, he created a program whereby his customers could accrue “points” toward a vacation by increasing their purchases. Now, his customers were the repair shops, smaller satellite auto-parts stores, gas stations in the downstate region of Illinois—cornfields and factories. Leon called them “shit-kickers”, but anyone running a business was exalted in his mind, so he loved them. So, the vacations he took them on were to, for example, Rome, Switzerland, London. “I’m taking the shit-kickers to Rome,” he announced, “Want to come along? Maybe you could tour some of them around the Borghese Gallery…” I did. You think anyone would go anywhere else for their parts after an al fresco lunch on the Spanish Steps?

Leon loved classical music, a love he gained from his boy-hood Saturday nights listening to Opera on the radio with his mother. When he came home from his work, he would turn on the FM, to the hushed announcers intoning…”and now, from Rigoletto.” He was a life-long subscriber to the symphony. I once asked him what instrument he’d take up, and he gave me that look you see in the photograph — “The conductor, of course.” Leon ended up on a very big island. I took from his idea of “smelling gun smoke”, to start my own business. That’s another story.

We feel this Island is the treasure house of Ali-Baba’s Cave, “Open Sesame,” the dead man’s chest full of gold and the trip to the desert island to follow the treasure map to dig it up. And wondering about the “why bother?” question, especially if you don’t find yourself as one of the arrived and anointed, not making ga-zillions off of your art. Not a featured artist in the “glossies.” It just doesn’t make “sense” to continue with this everyday-ness. Does it?

Another oft-repeated joke, that I feel I can, with this essay, retire to South Flah-rida—”I’m working on my magnum opus, A Manual for Art Instruction… called “17,455, Easy to Follow, Fully Illustrated, Step-By-Step Lessons on How to Make Art” or, was that lessens?…But rather than retire the joke, I’m thinking I may really want to write the thing—It seems to actually be a work in progress in these pages. Now all I need is the cover. But to get the idea, the one lesson worth following is, DO IT EVERY DAY. That’s it. Looking at an actuarial average life-span, you probably do have that 17K+ days as a dedicated person, to keep at it. Judith has done it, exploring the idea of Duration. Her projects extend over time, like her portrait project whereby she made a 30″ x 22″ painting of her alter-ego 4 times a year plus a short video of same, and she did it for 25 years—finished in 2021. Wound up with 100 paintings and an 1 1/2 hours of video. She made a bracelet depicting Earth’s geologic eras. She made a series of watches with no hands, only paintings under the crystal, called “Timeless Timepieces”…she’s currently working on a series of portraits of anonymous faces, one a day, for a year. “You go, girl!” doesn’t even scratch the surface of this dedicated woman. Lord have mercy on such a one as her.

My own “jam” is Bricolage, finding and putting things together, following Jasper Johns’ dictum—”take an object, do something to it, do something else to it.” I truly know, understand and realize that the objects in this phenomenological world are alive. Everything!

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Houston Smith was a visiting professor at GWU. As a college freshman, I took his class on Comparative Religion. Professor Smith was best known for The Religions of Man (1958), which has been a standard textbook in college-level comparative religion classes for half a century. In 1991, it was revised and expanded and given the gender-neutral title “The World’s Religions.” The two versions together have sold more than three million copies.

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In that class we learned the first religion was certainly Animism, the recognition that everything in this world and in our minds, is alive, and worthy of worship, so often seen as ontologically inferior to rational thought, being full of suspect beliefs, superstitions; coincidence, full of signs and wonders, meant-to-be-ism, serendipity. Very crunchy-granola in today’s parlance. Looking at the story of The Three Princes of Serendip, from whence we get our word serendipity we find the story of “The Search” as an archetype. It’s a Persian story, mentioned also in the Jewish Talmud and in Voltaire’s story Zadig. I like the Princes’ story because it bridges the gap of Art and Science. Depending on the version, the basic story is a search for the unknown. The dramatic fulcrum of the search is based on clues the Princes gather along the way. The Princes are tasked with finding a Magical one-eyed Camel, uncovering clues. For example, they know they are on track because the grass on one side of the road is longer, hence the one-eyed camel has traveled here. They never do find the Camel, but they do find the world and learn how to be effective rulers.

In my own search, I have been keeping those notebooks since 1967 as a well-worn habit. This is a recommended way. Most creative people I know keep a notebook. Comics are notorious for keeping a notebook to record their bits that can occur on the slightest whim, and vanish like blowing dust if not written down. Comic Larry David has a whole hilarious episode devoted to the loss of one of these precious notebooks. I left one of my books in a airplane seat-back pocket and felt its loss as a death. It was 90% full. A yawning gulf of an unknowing black hole opened whenever I thought of it. I grieved its loss as of the loss of a friend. It’s also my habit to write my ID, name, etc. whenever I start a new one. A few weeks later, my book arrived by mail courtesy of United Airlines which I received as a resurrection. Milagro!! So much of the contents of my notebooks is gibberish babel, of course, but to have this one back felt like a stepping stone in the swift river to get me safely across. The notebooks are stepping stones leading to future work not a “DEAR Diary, I was done so wrong”…or, “For dessert, I had a delicious créme brulée…”I had one of those sad-Sally notebooks, kept at the behest of a marriage counselor, to write down all my feeeeelings. That was a dreadful moment, I burned that book.

So, back to Bricolage—I fill my studio with objects, stuff I’ve found digging in the garden, things Judith and I have found on the beach, mostly things I’ve created along the way as I draw and paint, cut out and scattered around the studio tables. So to this Animist thing—when these pieces come into a visual rightness, they attain an Animistic verve. They come alive for me. I rely on that sense of “rightness” to collate the pieces into an object that has meaning. It’s this visual rightness that is the spinning spindle of meaning realized. Any writing or titling of the pieces comes ONLY after they come into their visual form. Then, they have meaning for me and hopefully for some imagined viewer. Back in the 80’s when I was doing hand-drawn lithographs as a way to expand my income, I made an image of a female Mallard as a kind of coat of arms, a flag of sorts, I titled it “Camus’ Flag Flaps Animism.” Meaning the oldest philosophy, Animism was waving with the current philosophy Existentialism. A little too esoteric even for my own britches, I’m still sitting on a whole bunch of copies…

Camus’ Flag Flaps Animism 12 color hand pulled, hand drawn lithograph 28″x 35″ 1984

We’ll let Hal Sirowitz sing us out with this poem from 2007 …thinking too much? Oh! Daphne Duck!…it still is nice to look at, though.

The Benefits of Ignorance

If ignorance is bliss, Father said,
shouldn’t you be looking blissful?
You should check to see if you have
the right kind of ignorance. If you’re
not getting the benefits that most people
get from acting stupid, then you should
go back to being what you always were –
being too smart for your own good.

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