When my son, Noah was at University, (Georgetown) he called, very excited, to tell me about a lecture he’d just heard by his Major Professor (German Lit.), G. Ronald Murphy, SJ. Father Murphy specialized in German Fairy Tales and later on, as he became a family friend, would unweave and reweave those stories, familiar to us all, into tapestries of Medieval wisdom. But the lecture coming over the phone line, through my son, was the story of knowing, understanding and realizing, a three part epistemology from Father Murphy. It was a simple thing, but as I stood listening, tethered by a cord as we were in those days, I felt like an old time helmeted deep-sea diver with the air-hose going all the way back from California to DC; a vitality I still can breathe and cherish thirty years later.
The three parts are Knowing, Understanding and Realizing. For example: you can know a lot of things like: Dolphins are Marine Mammals who breathe air and suckle their young. You can understand Dolphins are intellegent creatures by testing their memory & learning, and apply the test in puzzle solving. But you realize Dolphins are capable of a thing like Art and artfulness when you see a trio, two males and a female in a triple helix sex-dance twenty feet below you, the males with stiffies, the female coy; all of them moving in a winding Bolshoi-grace. She’s blowing bubbles to envelope the trio in silver raiment as they wind and wind along. This realization came to us snorkeling off the coast of Zanzibar. To be with the Dolphins in their liquid 3D world took Judith and me on a trip out of the circus-act Dolphins and into something like True Grace. We were witness to a poignant, inacted love story. A realization that has stuck as a true realization does.
In the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you’ll find the most gripping drama of how “Black Lives Matter.” It is a reality we will to come to terms with. Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis will have you sweating and pining for racial justice in America. I’ve used the still of Boseman in the brick silo he’s broken into, having broken down a door, trying to break out. But, he has broken into a hot airless chamber of nothing but more pain. This hit me like a ton of those bricks as I watched the dramatic fulcrum of the play teeter-totter in a wrenching “show-don’t-tell” trap so many African Americans feel. Talk about knowing something with your body! You really moved into knowing with that scene. But, beyond the play’s intended message (which I took to heart), I also took it personally, as I remembered my young years trying to break into that strange world of “Art Degree Zero” I found myself in. And there, in that brick silo, I got to realizing something about what I was called to do..
Studying Art, I only wanted to make visible what I felt was worthy of the long haul of Art. I was trying to intellectualize my way into something that felt true for Art making because it was such a confusing time (’66 to ’73)—confusing EVERYWHERE! EVERYONE! I thought I could think my way into making good work. I was choosing to only read things that would re-inforce beliefs I already had. Trying to be smart, I had put myself into a brick silo. “Art Degree Zero” says, that we are at the end of the great Modernist experiment, all the tinkering to acheive advanced Art had been gizmo-ed into the final blow-up with Jean Tingely’s Homage to New York—the Self Destructing Machine.
In the courtyard of NY’s MOMA, Tingely had constructed a contraption of smoke bombs, fireworks, motors and wheels of all kinds into a whirring, shaking rattle-trap that did self-destruct. The smoldering junk pile was swept away by NYFD and we were ready for a new dawn, new day. But what? All that was left was a kind of joke-y poke-poke-poke at the notion of art itself. Andy Warhol trots in with his Brillo Boxes in 1962. When 500 “influencers” of the Art World were asked, “What is the most influencial work of the 20th Century?” The answer came back Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain—a standard urinal signed R. Mutt. Har dee har. Andy goes on a “talk show” (Merv Griffin 1965) and refuses to talk. It’s all Campy Fun, but isn’t Art supposed to speak to a higher sense of being, rather than lavishing praise on Pop Culture?
What to do? OK, I’ll make my own joke. I set out to learn watercolor. Nothing could have been further from the high-minded business of Serious Art than watercolor painting. I was living on Cape Cod at the time—a hot-bed of watercolorists painting scenic seashores, their efforts strung up on jaunty clothes lines at the Sunday Church Bazaar (in fact I had a postcard of one of those church-yard watercolor shin-digs stuck on my grad. school studio walls). I’ve got it! As an Art Degree Zero move, I’ll paint my own Cape Cod Scenes and string them up in a White Wall, tony gallery. I was in it for the jokes, just like ol’ Marcel Duchamp and Andy.
In 1974 I painted what I call My First Watercolor. (see post….) I continued wrestling with my high art angels and my har dee har campy-punky angels, even though by 1980 I was established as a watercolor painting instructor at the local JC. It wasn’t til a trip to the Mt. Shasta Basin, where at the Tule Lake Wild Life Refuge, the final realization landed in my body. There, you can feel in your chest, the thunder of 10,000 (20,000 wings) Snow Geese taking off all at once.
I’d been an art-school diletante to the max. Dipping into Philosophy where it suited me, to prove my points about the nature of art. Levi-Strauss, Deluze, Derrida, all the existential, hard to read stuff that got us to the post-modern condition where meaning was conditional & provisional. It was cool stuff to know, at least when someone dropped a name you had an inkling there was something of importance. One of the names was Maurice Merleau-Ponty and I wish I’d taken the time to dive in more deeply back then. I could have saved a lot of head scratching. “…the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body — by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he or she experiences.”.
I had stepped out of a knowing into an understanding and finally, into a realization, lasting and effervescent.
Merleau-Ponty himself refers to “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break…” This is eco-phenomonology at its most essential. Feeling the thunder of 20,000 wings, and feeling it in the primal volcanic landscape of Shasta, makes Merleau-Ponty a true realization. A real eco-phenomonology of spirit…Time to get busy with picture-making.