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.

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