perfectly useful concentration

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

 – Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Anne Stevenson, Jan. 1964

In the same boat: It’s very interesting to see how Bishop, in this short and powerful statement, parallels experiencing & creating art i.e. the perceiver & the artist; we are both looking for the same thing – a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson says, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

Mark Doty, The Art of Description, 2010

Maybe it’s possible to – instead of Doty’s “the artistic process” – describe the self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration as the aesthetic moment, a place where artwork and receiver fuse.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

The next step could be – and here I’m bringing Damasio into the party – to evolve out of the fuse = become selves (again); to separate emotion from feeling. For neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli, say for example art. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. This is what happens in what I termed the aesthetic moment.  Feelings occur after (according to Damasio feelings occurs after emotions) we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of pleasure, fear, joy etc.

Mind begins at the level of feeling. It’s when you have a feeling that you begin to have a mind and a self.

In short: Art is about loosing and creating self …

finding words, creating subjectivity

From a bold perspective; would it be possible to claim an affinity between the ideas of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and the poet Lyn Hejinian? Comparing how they both present making art as a way of making subjectivity makes me think they might approach a similar conclusion from different points of view.

Here is Lyn Hejinian:

The desire that is stirred by language is located most interestingly within language itself—as a desire to say, a desire to create the subject by saying, and as a pervasive doubt very like jealousy that springs from the impossibility of satisfying these yearnings.

In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceives there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world—to close the gap between ourselves and things—and we suffer from doubt and anxiety because of our in­ability to do so.

Yet the incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other. The undifferentiated is one mass, the dif­ferentiated is multiple. The (unimaginable) complete text, the text that contains everything, would in fact be a closed text. It would be insufferable.

The Rejection of Closure (1985)


I died for beauty

beaumontjones says: 

I love Billy Collins’ poem Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’. The language is simple, light-hearted and beautiful. Collins’ poem itself is as layered as Dickinson’s garments. He leaves us with no easy interpretation of his own or of Dickinson poems. Rather, he opens up spaces for speculation about the woman herself and her poetry.

You can find the Billy Collins poem at the end of this post, but first Dickinson:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth – the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.




Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least –
I’m going, all along!

- Emily Dickinson


And here is Billy Collins:


First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

- Billy Collins

art & affect

continuing my research on the importance of art -


(Oh, I know – some of you are more than sick and tired of this, if you are amongst the exhausted ones; please visit again later!)

Here we go: I went to Alain de Botton, I read his book and visited his exhibition, and even went public with my findings. All this because I find his insistence on the meaning of art in our daily life – his focus on the relation between art and audience – of greatest importance. I also find this very same relationship to be under-valued in todays art world. I appreciate de Botton’s focus

– but;

I am not convinced by his model or method. I find de Botton to be too instrumentalistic. This is how he present his ideas himself:

This book proposes that art (a category that includes works of design, architecture and craft) is a therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort and console its viewer, enabling them to become better versions of themselves.

A big problem for me is that I, even if I disagree with de Botton, haven’t yet come up with an answer to my own question(; … the question of the importance of art). I know a lot of reasons, but I’m trying to build something bigger here, I’m trying to go universal … – it is as if I have to leave my Cartesian brain at home to come up with new and better ideas, new and better language for my feelings …

So why not give in to affections – ?!

Here is Chris Townsend:

There are some works of art that are better written about than seen, though that writing may be only marginally more or less accessible than the art in question. There is a great deal of contemporary art where, through the cultural attenuation of its capacity to apprehend images, to understand historical contexts, to think critically for itself, an audience is thrown back upon the hermeneutic activity of specialists who tell it what to think, how to feel.

Bill Viola, Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 © Bill Viola Studio

There might be a parallel between art and theory here, as if we have painted ourselves into a corner. I do believe that art is of another quality and importance than science and research. The two fields are filling different needs. I don’t thing it is satisfying for the audience to be thrown back into hermeneutic activities, I believe we go to art for something else, something different. We go there, to art, to be transposed out of the ordinary, out of our more or less well controlled minds. I think we have to talk about AFFECT – .

If Great Art is Dead, Who Cares?

in the words of Ellen Dissanayake:

If we now abandon the ideology (or religion) of art that temporarily replaced the ideology of religion, is it enough for us to replace both of these – religion & art – with wit, in the form of clever humor, clever amusements, and with-it-ness?

Our abandonment of false truths may indicate our intellectual advancement, but the maladies in our social and personal lives suggest that we are not for the better of it.

I acknowledge the vitality and creativity in popular culture, but I wish these did not have to be at the expense of Great Art. … The ultimate concerns of the human condition are not addressed with even gritty, realistic cop and lawyer shows, popular songs, or homilies for children.

In the absence of traditional religion and its rites, Great Art provides awareness of the most thoughtful and serious response to such inescapable facts of life as love and loss, abandonment and despair, regret and hope, success and failure, and the ineluctable satisfaction and frustrations of living with others.

In the end each of us is ultimately alone in our own unique, desiring, precious, and perishable being. Through the ages Great Art, like religion before it, has been concerned with that fact, and the ramifications of that fact, which will never change.



“My work is beautiful”

Artists hate the word beauty, especially German artists. If you wanted to be really hated in Germany, then you would say, “My work is beautiful.” German artists believe in ugliness and nastiness. I think beauty can be something extremely important in our lives. And it’s not true that this is naive. This is what is the most needed: inner beauty and outer beauty, which is an incredible challenge for us.


- Wolfgang Laib