Wednesday, October 20, 2010


“Inspiration, Instigation and Interaction: The Relationship of the Artist to the Audience, Reader or Viewer”

(This is the talk I prepared for "The Intentional Conversation," sponsored by Marymount College at the Los Angeles Cathedral yesterday, Tuesday, October 19, 2010. I decided, once I got the sense of what was needed, to discard what I'd written in favor of a more informal introduction. But I thought it would do no harm to post it anyway.)

I’m a writer. I’m known principally as an art writer. I have been writing about art and artists for a good number of years. For many of those years, I was employed in academia—a one-time professor of Comparative Literature, a one-time Dean of Otis Art Institute and Dean of the Arts at Loyola Marymount University. I like to think of myself as a recovering academic. For the past nearly 25 years, I have been fully employed and disastrously underpaid as a freelance writer.

My most recent book is called “Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad With Commerce.” It’s relevant to our theme today, because it’s about the predicament of the artist in a cultural climate in which celebrity and money count for more than skill, or dedication, or substance, or any of those other values we normally associate with art.

How many creative people of all kinds—writers, painters, actors, musicians, dancers—are cut off from an audience these days because they lack the track record of established financial success, or the celebrity of, say, a John Grisham… or a Sarah Palin? There is a myth abroad to which some artists and some writers subscribe: they say, “I do it for myself.” No, I do it to communicate something “of myself” to my fellow human beings, and I ask that they share of themselves with me.

Many years ago, I found myself in a workshop at the Esalen Institute led by a Huichol Indian wise woman. It was one of those no-accident accidents. I had gone to Esalen to lead a workshop myself, but it had not attracted sufficient interest so I was at a loose end for the weekend. And this seemed like an interesting thing to do.

I actually remember nothing about the workshop except for a single moment. The shaman was talking about the Huichol Indian custom on the arrival of a new child. Instead of “giving the child a name,” as we do in our Western culture, the Huichols wait a while and then ask the child this question: Tell me who you are.

And this was one of those great moments of epiphany for me because I realized that this was exactly what I expect of all good art and all good writing. I want you to tell me who you are. I want to tell you who I am. This, as I see it, is at the center of all human communication. It has been the focus of everything I have written since; and, looking back on it, I realize that it was the secret intention of everything I ever wrote.

I say this with the realization that the goal might seem a small one—even perhaps a self-interested one. But here’s my thinking: the first step in telling you who I am is the inner journey, the journey into the depths of the self. And the closer I get to the core of self, the more I discover about the humanity I share with you; the humanity I share with every other human being. The more I’m able to tell you who I am, the more you will recognize yourself in me, the more we will come to a common understanding. And the same is true, of course, from the other perspective: the more you can tell me about yourself, the more I stand to learn about me. I see myself in you.

As I said at the start, I am known chiefly as an art writer, and people are often curious about what kind of work I respond to, and why. It’s simple, really. I respond to work that tells me who the artist is. And I don’t necessarily mean the story of their life—though that may be a part of it. An artist who paints abstractions may just as easily be telling me who they are. It may be necessary to make a deep inner journey to come to that abstraction. The evidence of the journey will make itself known to me, if I take the time to look and listen to what the painting has to tell me.

And then it comes to writing about the art I like. I long ago learned this adage as a writer, and it has always been my touchstone: How do I know what I think ‘til I see what I say? So the process of writing is also an inner journey. It’s a journey whose vehicle is language and whose destination is unknown until I reach it. It’s an attempt on the part of this “me” to come to a place where I share common ground with that “you” you’re telling me about. It’s a place that, in another aspect of profound and authentic human relationship, is called by another name.

It’s called “love.” It may be shared with a single person. It may be shared with many. It’s a mutual act of giving, an act of generosity which brings the greatest rewards when practiced with the most open of hearts. This is the place where we can be our most perfectly human selves.

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