Thursday, May 22, 2014

Instructions for the Artist ~ No 7 ~ As carefully as if they were your own eyes

The seventh in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

' "Use the property and possessions of the community as carefully as if they were your own eyes" The tenzo should handle all food he receives with respect, as if it were to be used in a meal for the emperor.'

Communal ownership of property and possessions often leads to a diminished sense of personal responsibility for them. Replacements for broken items often bought without it hitting any one's pocket financially, means we stop knowing the actual cost of things. This means we value them less. A casual carelessness then creeps into people's behaviour towards community property. Though looking after things means they last longer and make the most of earth's limited resources, this can escape the notice of even the most environmentally aware of individuals .Everything we use, whether our own or a communal possession, ought to be given due respect and care.  If  you were to treat things 'as if they were your own eyes'. you wouldn't want to needlessly damage or render anything useless.

Countless lives, and  lots of human energy, resources, time and ingenuity have gone into the making of our possessions. Its hard to remember this when they're so easy to dispose of and replace them with newer more fashionable versions. Everything has its own value, not just because they are useful to us, but because they exist at all. A lot of sweat, tears and personal suffering, both current and historical, lie behind the making of most ordinary household items. Those who made these items are valuable because they've provided their time, energy and labour, they put something of their life into making them. What we choose to make with what they make, is only one aspect that brings value to them. To be unaware that value has other applications beyond use, shows a lack of imagination for the whole lineage of conditions that have ended in these objects being present in our lives, for us to use and delight in at will.

Our highly developed economy provides us with most things on demand, whether it be food or art materials. We don't have to wait above a few days for goods bought online to be delivered. This should be treasured and valued for the wonder and the boon that it is. However, fast service can become an expectation, and treated as if it were some inalienable human right. We don't like to be kept waiting in banks, restaurants or cinemas.  Speed of delivery has quickened our impatience, we become critical and intolerant of people and situations that take their time. Having to wait, to delay the gratification of our desires, does cultivate patience. We also value a thing more when it finally arrives, simply because we've spent time waiting for it.

Whether the meal we make is for ourselves, our friends or our community, our approach should be no different. We should make it as though it were destined for an emperor. This impartiality extends to the ingredients as much as to the cooked meal. Dogen follows this paragraph by saying 'Cooked and uncooked food must be handled in the same manner'  Raw vegetables are raw vegetables, cooked food is cooked food, each has its own qualities and value. In the same way, we should appreciate tubes of paint or brushes as much as what is painted with them. Our free market economy gives objects value on the basis that someone has made them, the object has a market and a profit can be made. In capitalist terms, value is always added   Dogen is saying something radically different, that value is intrinsic, a quality that everything possesses. The partial value judgements we make have no lasting bearing on the impartial true value of things.

However, to not value something at all is to be in a state of wilful indifference, to not notice. Its harder to treasure or take delight in things if you're blind to their value. To appreciate is to value, but you must first be able to notice, become aware, to take things in and see them for what they are. If we are taking things for granted, then there is an underlying assumption that they will always be there, or that their existence has no significance. To not value a thing existing means we are still in denial about the nature of reality, we dont want to acknowledge that our lives, and the lives of objects will shatter, be lost, or die. The way we view and judge objects mirrors that of our own life, we operate as if we and they are all eternal.

'As carefully as if they were your own eyes' requires us to change our attitude towards the realm of 'things.' Things, like people, break, become worn out or will die on us. Things are impermanent, so what we value today may not be here tomorrow. In our habitual haste we can lose our mindfulness, start to handle things roughly and without care, respect or awareness of their essential fragility. Our interactions with the world and with 'things' should be lighter and gentler in its tone and touch.  Behaving as if everything were as vulnerable, sensitive and delicate as an eyeball in the palm of our hand.

Valuing all things, obviously includes ourselves. Our own existence is a very precious thing, we matter, our life is valueable, is worthy of care and respect too. So 'as carefully as if they were your own eyes' is asking us to perceive, appreciate and respond to everything as if it were an intrinsic part of our own being. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

Instructions for the Artist ~ No 6 ~ In Spirit Different

The sixth in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

' Although the work is just that of preparing meals, it is in spirit different from the work of an ordinary cook or kitchen helper.'

Although an artist's work is just that of creating art, it can be in spirit different from the artistic work of an ordinary artist or creative individual. It's not that the work is changed in its form or content, but by the aim or purpose it is being put to. The purpose of the act of creation, becomes as important as the purpose of the completed artwork; to transform oneself, others and the world. This action and purpose of creation being the ultimate altruistic action.

Any artist wants through their act of creation to challenge, surprise and change his/her own percetions of the world, and through their artwork to challenge, surprise and change the perceptions of those who view it. This seems to be so for most truly creative acts. What is in spirit different here is that the change envisaged is fundamentally a spiritual one, to have a vision and knowledge of reality as it really is, to see the world as if through the eyes of an awakened being... a buddha. This makes every brushstroke, every colour chosen, and every composition desvised an activated insightful opportunity to enlighten self and other.

FEATURE 124 ~ St Vincent

The quirky and sophisticated style of St Vincent, aka Annie Clark, has been around for a while. The eponymously titled St Vincent is her fourth album, though it has all the freshness of a debut. Its obvious her collaborations with David Byrne have left their mark. The album St Vincent has at times that jerky off kilter quality which has shades of early Talking Heads, whilst remaining quite uniquely her own vision. Anyway, here are two of the best tracks from the album Digital Witness and Prince Johnny.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

ARTICLE ~ Instructions for the Artist ~ No 5 'Making a constant effort'

The fifth in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

' Making a constant effort to serve meals full of variety that are appropriate to the need and the occasion, and that will enable everyone to practice with their bodies and minds with the least hindrance.'

Every week I work for two days in Windhorse:evolution's kitchen. Although I only prepare vegetables, I can see that a cook has a difficult job to do. If they set the same menu each week, it simplifys the budgeting and planning, and provides people with familiar food. Yet, variety doesn't mean constantly familiar meals or perpetual innovation, but a interesting mixture where the familiar is refreshed by the presence of the new. It requires 'constant effort' to keep this balanced.  In these days of special diets, food intolerance's and differing ideas about what healthy food is, cooking any meal becomes logistically complex. No cook I've known achieves a balanced variation of meals every week.

Variety keeps us awake to what is happening in the moment. Routine, though a reassurance, can cloud perceptions, and even stop us looking beyond its often rigid constraints. An element of flexibility allows variations to enter into any creative act. Cooks also need to stay interested in what they are doing too. Though they must keep an eye on desires for the new and innovative getting out of hand and becoming the flourishing of their ego alone. Keeping a healthy productive relationship between self and other is never easy, requiring 'constant effort.'.

Within the unchanging regularity of a retreat programme, food becomes a focus for sensory stimulus. So Dogen sets some specific provisions, that meals should be 'appropriate to the need and occasion' and 'enable everyone to practice' with 'the least hindrance.' On my ordination course a number of my fellow ordinands were cooks. Cakes began to be conjured with increasing frequency, often without sufficient need or occasion to celebrate. Eventually the retreat leader put his foot down, and said, 'birthdays only guys'. The desire for stimulation through food, had started to interfere with the focus and intensity of the retreat. Eating cakes had become a hindrance rather than a useful leavening factor in the conditions for practice.

Even though no practical need propels artistic creation, an artist has nevertheless to apply 'constant effort'. Intermittent art practice can be worse than no practice at all.  If the flow between ideas and actualisation becomes fractured, creative interest dwindles. Consistency in application keeps any artistic endeavour alive and vital.  Variety has the same benefits and draw backs for an artist, as it does for a cook. Just repeating a working formula becomes boring for both artist and viewer. Predictability is artistic death.  Yet too strong a focus on being innovative can tip any originality into novelty seeking.

Regular themes appear in my work; a love of squares, layers on top of layers, patterning, colour intensity, depth and contrast, to name but a few. I have a conscious intention to develop and experiment with these themes in each painting. Most of my artwork requires me to be methodical, to do a lot of preparation and take pains over the details of its execution. This is the zeitgeist, my love for detailed work, that seems to manifest whether my creative activity is art, writing or knitting.

Any conception about being freer or more spontaneously expressive, has frequently hindered or blocked the channels that my creativity flows down. A commonly held myth for what an artistic process ought to be like, is that it should be a spontaneous expression from an artist's depths. Actually, the creative act is frequently much more extended and considered than that What is expressive or spontaneous manifests in quite a wide variety of forms. Though technically controlled, my finished work is rarely cold, lifeless or lacking in visual energy. As long as I stay aligned with and respond cleanly and unselfconsciously to impulses, my finished pieces of art can become possessed of a life affirming warmth and vibrancy.

I do, however, like introducing elements of chance, like choosing colours by random methods, or deciding where elements are to go by rolling a dice, or following the advice on Eno's Oblique Strategies . This I find helps relax any desire I might have for complete control over the final outcome. For an artist, the 'needs and occassions' are found by responding to what arises unbidden from the moment, whilst staying aware of when more consciously deterministic motivations start narrowing the scope of an artwork's evolution. Once our ego takes over the artistic process, the pursuit of fame and novel concepts, will not be far behind.  When any creative expression turns into a selfish desire, this hinders that expression from being of spiritual benefit.

Other 'needs and occasions'  do need to be taken into account. An artist's spiritual life cannot be built on creativity alone. Other elements need time and effort too, such as one's relationship with a partner, friends and family. Efforts of the imagination require frequent internal and external watering to prevent them drying up. Activities such as meditation, devotional practices, walking in nature, viewing other people's art, reading poetry, going to the theatre, sometimes simply doing nothing for as long as possible or giving oneself permission to take unstructured time for reflection, are all creatively beneficial. These things 'need' to find there 'appropriate occassion' too. A rich creative life is fed by a variety of activities, as long as the pursuit of them isn't an aversion to getting down to 'just painting.'

No one has a burning need to see art, human life can survive very well without it. Any artform has to actively seek out its own audience. It can only become 'a finger pointing at the moon' provided the viewer is there, ready, receptive and doesn't walk straight by. Art has the potential to communicate, once the person and the moment for it coincide. If an artwork points towards something beyond ordinary perception, then a variety of forms, connecting with a need, finding the right occasion, and enabling practice by being unhindered, are important here too. Ugliness and offence erect barriers, hearts and minds close and receptivity becomes rigidity. To open hearts and minds you have to present a beautiful vision, a new aesthetic variation for the visual senses and spirits to be drawn towards.

Sometimes, when I think about my art, I do wonder 'what am I creating this for? or 'who am I creating it for?' Creating any art can become like farting in a private enclosed room. No one knows you are there, or what you are doing, or whether what you are doing matters one jot. If art remains only for oneself, then its right to question what its for. If its entirely for one's own fame, praise, adulation or self-glorification then apart from those short term impermanent gains, what is the point? Art has to be created with the intention of benefiting others beyond the confines of ones own life. It is the altruistic aesthetic action of any trainee Bodhisattva.

FEATURE 123 ~ Lucius

Emerging from somewhere in Brooklyn come Lucius. Built around the sublime twinning of their two lead vocalists, they are simultaneously retro and effortlessly contemporary. Here they sing Go Home in a video from 2013, and Turn it Around on Later with Jools Holland this year. Their lead guitarist twiddles some Robert Fripp like fuzzed tones in the background, whilst the two women up front do their glorious thing. Judging by even eartlier stuff the identical dyed blonde hair and dresses is the result of recent record company grooming, but musically they seem to me to not need such blatent window dressing. Having sampled their album Wildewomen, its doesn't quite capture the sparseness or thrilling spark that these live recordings do. Something important really did get lost in the mix.