Sunday, December 1, 2019

What is Art?


I have been taking a course at the University of Maine on creative concept development.  In this highly political and charged times, it seems appropriate to ignore CNN and consider the definition of art.  In Art as Experience, John Dewy, a philosopher of aesthetics who gave the first William James Lecture at Harvard, makes the distinction between an object of art (a painting, a statue, a film, an installation) and the work of art.  He says that the work of art is active and experiential whereas the art object is physical and potential.  This spoke to me in the sense that the course has inspired me to the work of art even if the products I produce are not necessarily objects of art in the sense that I would put them on a wall and offer them for sale.  The exception is my poetry, which I have written throughout my life as my own reflective exercises in the sense recommended by Rita Charon for physician self-practice.  However, the course has convinced me to put my poetry on display as art objects whatever that means.  Not, however, necessarily my drawings and paintings; regardless of how much I enjoy making them. 

Dewey uses metaphors from physics to define a work of art.  He talks about the force of an object, which is interesting in that I had learned that objects have mass, but force is work done on an object.  Force is a vector, a verb, and not a thing.  He talks about energies issuing from experience which also seems odd, for it seems to me that it is energy that we experience and that moves through us, upon us, and around us.  He talks about mutual affinities and antagonisms working “together to bring about a substance that develops cumulatively and surely (but not too steadily) toward a fulfilling of impulsions and tensions (pp. 168-169).” That metaphor just didn’t work for me. For me, the act of making art is a way of exploring my world through means that are otherwise hard for me to access.  Poetry, for example, can capture a situation far more astutely and completely sometimes than prose.  A painting or a drawing can communicate an experience beyond the capacity of words.  However, the making of art is the making of a relationship.  It is a relationship between some of my internal characters with each other and with (sometimes) external beings (if we can ever understand the boundary between internal and external).  The visual arts in North America are a means of recording and communicating experiences without words.  When I communicate my experience to you, you have an experience.  The force lies in the communication and not necessarily in the object of art.  It’s a cultural artifact that people buy and sell these artifacts of communication, whether they be visual or verbal or otherwise.  We have constructed an entity which calls itself the art world in which people participate and decide what objects will be called art and bought and sold and what objects will be ordinary and valueless.  This is different from my reflective communication through whatever media of my experience in the world (including other dimensions).

Dewey says that the work of art is perception, and to this, I would add communication and reflection.  I recently asked a client who had been traumatized by the experience of two policemen coming to her door to serve her a subpoena to draw the scene.  She wanted to know why.  So you can fully experience it, I said. “You talk around it in a way that avoids integrating it into your life.  If you draw it, you will enter into it in a way that you understand it better.”  I showed her some drawings from William Kentridge, the South African artist, that are dark, done in black and white and grays with thick lines and an intensity that grabs one.  “These are what I imagine your scene with the police to be,” I said, “though you may represent them quite differently.” 

It’s also odd to me that her first response when invited to participate in an experience is to ask why.  Despite what I said above, I don’t fully know why.  I know that drawing evokes new perspectives and emotions for me than talking about an experience or writing about an experience.  I see it differently in the visual mode.  I can’t predict what the difference will be until I do the drawing.  I do understand that the various media in which we can represent and dialogue with our experiences and the beings, internal and external, who constitute our non-local selves give us different perspectives depending upon the media.  Since I have begun drawing and painting again, after a hiatus of many years in which I believed I was not sufficiently talented to be allowed to draw and pain, I have been noticing the details of the world differently.  In England, I drew sheep (which are everywhere).  I began to notice subtle details about their ears and the angles that their ears can form.  I began to notice the length of their legs compared to the height of their bodies. My perception had changed.  I also began to experience how different the world that we see is from the world of the drawing we render.  A relationship exists clearly, but it is not a one-to-one correspondence.  The world in the drawing is never the same as the world we see.

Dewey uses the metaphor of rhythm to take us deeper into the experience of perception that is a work of art.  Hee says that art depends upon and is grounded in the rhythms of nature.  He says that rhythms are “the conditions of form in experience and hence of expression (p. 169).”  He says that these rhythms become esthetic when the become a rhythm in experience itself. In this I didn’t really follow her.  Aesthetic philosophy can be dense and probably, to give credit to Wittgenstein, could be spoken more plainly.  We could just say that we call something an esthetic experience when we have a powerful communication with it, when it evokes emotions and meanings within us.  We probably don’t need the metaphors of physics to understand this, however fun they are to us.

Here is my poem. It was a response to her saying that non-art is a situation in which all the individual parts are floating in chaos and confusion because they are not integrated into a whole. I tried to describe that poetically but ended with a whole.  So, I disagree that it is possible for parts to be separate from the whole. 

The lamp floats above the wing of the plane and it’s all random where things go or stay and the man’s hands shake as he pours his coffee for perhaps he didn’t realize the separateness of it all especially the coffee.  It’s all coffee. Coffee is curiosity, tension, years of cultivation, the nemesis of Andrew Weil who thought it was evil. What would have happened had he found this exotic bean that could be brewed to awaken people in the mornings to their full senses and to participation in the world though I have stopped drinking coffee after the morning realizing that it’s water I need to stay awake and not stimulants in the coffee variety.  Eyes float above the coffee. People forget them as they rush to their jobs and their appointments leaving their eyes briefly cruising above the newspaper but how will they find their way to their trains subways trams taxis ubers lyfts and footpaths without their eyes which seem so crucial to urban navigation but that’s what happens when you’re in a hurry and can’t be bothered. As for myself I see the parts of the plane floating in the sky the jet engine the fuselage the cockpit the nose of the plane the wheels and the hydraulic brakes all those things that become a unified whole when appreciated as a plane but individually they’re just so many components.  I have been the same height for many years but I remember my acquaintances as taller. By the light of the sun and the moon everyone is intimidating me even those who have no right to make such a claim. I am seeking peacefulness in my daily interactions yet the parts of the room keep floating off and the tables go one way and the chairs another and the chalkboard starts to rise spilling the chalk on the floor and the coffee is rising.  Kindness seems to come with a price.  Love comes with ultimatums anger is our dominant emotion flowing forth like lava from an Hawaiian volcano in this moment now the floating parts of the airplane don’t frighten me as they once did.  I no longer fear walking down the floating jetway to the separated fuselage which has departed from its engines. The anger has left the boarding process though the eyes are still there security cameras operative scanning the crowd the pilots and the flight attendants flitting past the waiting crowd and it’s all so scattered. This world was not gentle to my father. But if only he had had the good fortune to meet me it might have mattered for us to converse. Our conversation might have made him softer. The airplane would not tremble in separate disconnected parts as it now does. The oxygen masks would have dropped down much later into the flight. The parts would come together into a smooth flight and visit. 

-       Or not.

The separation
Of all the parts
From the whole
Does not make
It real beyond
The illusions of
Your white picket
Fence mind
That boxes us into
Definitions like

-       What is art?

Blind epistemology is causing your philosophy to rot
Because you hide behind the language of the smart
I’m begging.  I’m pleading.  Why can’t you see that art is the people.
Art will resist ever effort to define it, will persist like the Berlin Wall
Which fell 30 years ago but remains a part of global consciousness.
Art is that which pierces the darkness with morning light
Art is the fleeting moments of ecstasy amidst the constancy of despair
Art is the clarity that overcomes our sight
In the dawn in the dusk in the twilight in the moonlight.
Art is your last breath and the compromise you make in that moment
Art is the sunset as your soul rises amidst the chaos of the world

                        Please don’t die a slave to philosophy.

A desperate unfinished poem sent to the God of Art when I was 17 and didn’t know that he was out on the town banging Persephone.

Art spends what should be a childhood
Pushing it forward into womanhood
So that it can be conceived and born again
Bearing the pain of childbirth to recover itself

Art is a man who can’t bear to watch its rebirth
The one who hides in the corner while the women
Do their work and when all is said and done
Art is called the weaker sex


            In deference to science.

There has been a dead bird lying flattened in defeat on the corner of college avenue and bathhurst where the street care stops.  Many days have gone by and how many people have passed it wondering how it died and thinking someone should really clean up that bird but it shouldn’t be me and it should be some unnamed part of City Government such as the department of cleaning dead birds off the street, whereas I wonder why I haven’t been the one to remove the remains of that bird, at least into the bushes of the funeral parlor or the Anglican Church down the block or perhaps into the gutter or the sewer but I have not stooped so low and I have not sullied my hands to do the deed and I have breathed away the guilt as any good yoghini for

That bird is art.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Thoughts on Indigenous Spirituality June 2019

Recently I took a class at the University of Maine on Gender and Religion, which helped me to better understand why women are so angry about the past. I learned that the women born into the “religions of the books (the Bible, the Q’uran, the Torah) have clearly suffered more over the years as a consequence of religion than have the indigenous women of North America.  This was certainly the case in China and India, as well.  Pre-Christian North American indigenous society was more flexible in gender relations than these other cultures.  Women had more choices.  There was not necessarily only one right way to do things. 

Contemporary aboriginal women are remembering the power and knowledge of their maternal ancestors.  For example, the words of a song, “Okisikôwak,” written and performed by the indigenous women’s music trio, Asani, enunciates these memories:

Those very same hands stroke the face of a child
Warrior within, not meek or mild
Every step that she takes is clearing the way
Inspiring a change, for generations today.

Women were seen as warriors, every bit as much as men.  During the worst periods of government oppression of aboriginal people, Shalin Jobin tells how the women kept their knowledge and power alive through the stories they carried and passed to future generations (see Chapter 2, written about her Cree ancestors in Kermoal, N., Altamirano-Jiménez, I., & Altamirano-Jimenez, I. (2016). Living on the land: Indigenous women's understanding of place. Edmonton, CA: Athabasca University Press).  Jobin writes how the residential school system aimed to create a “double consciousness” in which the indigenous person could not help but look at himself or herself through the eyes of the colonizers and that her ancestors resisted this double consciousness through their commitment to the stories.

Raymond Bucko's book, The Lakota Sweat Lodge was his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Nebraska, where he currently (unless he has recently moved) teaches (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).  Bucko’s book also speaks to the flexibility and lack of a hierarchy of North American indigenous spirituality. Each family does things differently and it’s always correct for those who do it that way in the place where it’s done.  However, were he to write this book today, he would need a new title.  Elders tell us that we should not refer to this ceremony as a “sweat lodge.”  The word in Lakota is inipikaga, which is best translated as “revitalization ceremony.”  We hear that the Jesuits called this ceremony a “sweat lodge” because they saw sweat.  For the Lakota, this was not sweat, but was toxins exiting the body in its process of revitalization. In Bucko’s book, he discovered that no right way to do a sweat lodge exists.  He discovered that no central authority existed to say what should be done and that each family does things a little differently, though some basic similarities are present.  He similarly writes that no central authority exists for deciding what Native American spirituality is.  Felix Cohen is correct, I believe, in saying that Native Americans in the United States are at the bottom of the pecking order.  What happens to Native Americans will happen to other minorities eventually.  Bucko makes the point that this insanity of the governmental imposition of Christianity began at least as early as the time of Thomas Jefferson's presidency.  It actually began much earlier.  An infamous community in Massachusetts began to hang Indians who weren't Christians around 1640.

Bucko made another point that hit home -- that the contemporary pan-Indian identity arose as a shared opposition to the European invasion.  The shared reality of the oppression eventually led to a shared response, though not until the 20th century.  In the 19th century, tribes were still working against each other with one tribe serving as scouts or helpers to the U.S. Army in attacking their traditional enemies.

Before the Blood Quantum Act of 1904, no concept of being half-Indian existed.  One was either a member of the Nation or not.  During the time of the forced march of the Cherokee to Oklahoma (The Trail of Tears and Death), the head chief of the Cherokee, John Ross, would have been only 1/8 Cherokee by today's standards.  By the standards of that time, he was 100% Cherokee.  In 1904, the U.S. Congress invented Native Americans as a separate breed in the same way that horses or dogs are considered as half this or half that.  The goal of the blood quantum system was to eventually eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Here's how it works.  If a Lakota person marries a Cree person, then their children are only half Lakota.  They are also half Cree, but that doesn't make them 100% Indian.  It leaves them half-Indian.  Then if the child marries a Crow person, their children are only 25% Lakota.  One more marriage to a non-Lakota and this person is removed from the BIA roles, even though they have only married other Native Americans.  It actually doesn't matter if they marry a non-Indian; anyone outside the tribe counts toward diluting the percent Indian.  What is amazing is that the numbers of Native Americans are growing anyway.  This is because of young women having multiple children.  Bucko quotes Marshall Sahlin as describing the extended kinship Native American family, which is inclusive of everyone.  That seemed entirely accurate to me, though he left out the dogs. 

O'Brien calls attention to the tremendous abuses of the Franciscans, which virtually destroyed the tribes of California.  Schooled by the Spanish Inquisition, the methods of the Franciscans were brutal.  The Jesuits were more subtle, but ultimately equally destructive, for they engaged in epistemological genocide, the destruction of people's ways of seeing the world. The New England Protestants created towns for indigenous people to shed all of their culture and religion and completely embrace the ways of the colonizers.

However, indigenous North Americans had difficulty relating to the religious ideas of Europeans.  The idea of a collection of rules that determined one's afterlife seemed absurd. In all the traditions I know, everyone goes to the spirit world and no punishment is inflicted there.  Whatever evil one accumulates in this life is left behind.  We are all so much better in the Spirit World.  The conflicts and disharmonies of this world are left behind.  The emphasis on eternal punishment would not fit within the Native American world view.  I can remember my grandmother telling me, if there were a hell, it would be here on earth.  The Creator wouldn't make such a thing, she said.  The idea of a limited number of spirits seemed strange as well.  Everything has a spirit.  The Visibles have spirits and the Invisibles are spirits.  The idea of limiting eligibility to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost seemed bizarre.  Also, the idea that one needed a priestly intercessor to speak to the spirits for one would have seemed equally bizarre.  However, many people converted out of necessity and continued their indigenous spirituality while tolerating the religion of the colonizers.  Others were so hopeless and distraught that they accepted the beliefs of the conquerors entirely.

The Indian Civilization Fund Act of 1819 provided money for Christian clergy to proselytize indigenous people and to create boarding schools to teach Native children English, the Christian faith, and European methods of farming. Here was the government violating its own principals of keeping church and state separate.  O'Brien describes Major John Chivington of the U.S. Army, who orchestrated the Sand Hill Massacre, in which he killed almost 400 Cheyenne, mostly women, and children, and then mutilated their sexual organs and scalped them to display to cheering crowds in Denver.  He was chided by the Army but not punished.  The Chief of the Cheyenne was in favor of peace and was flying an American flag at the time he was killed.

The Cherokee had tried to emulate the Europeans in every way but giving up their sovereignty, even to the point of changing their gender relationships and becoming patriarchal, though this strategy did not succeed in preventing the forced relocation to Oklahoma. 

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 established a large reservation for the Lakota, which was progressively whittled down, especially with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.  Gold was the worst-case scenario for indigenous people in North America.  Once discovered, the rest is downhill.

In the indigenous cultures of North America with which I am familiar, Creator is genderless.  Gender only enters later in the process of elaboration of creation.  Some versions of the Maine creation stories have a male creator, but these have clearly been shown to be revisionist stories influenced by Christianity.  Some people think that the Lakota have a male creator, because of the use of the word tunkashila, which means grandfather.  However, elders have explained to us that the elders of the time of first contacts were trying to explain their concepts to the Europeans and actually said, "your creator loves you as a grandfather would love his grandchildren," which is a powerful concept in Lakota kinship systems.  They didn't mean to say that the creator was a grandfather.  They abandoned this attempt at an explanation when the Europeans misinterpreted them.  Now the word Dakuskanskan is used, which is the proper term.  Literally, it means that (plural) which is the whitest.  The best interpretation of this is the spirit which is higher than the highest of the sky spirits. Similar, some people misstate rocks as grandfathers.  We hear people talking about bringing the grandfathers into the inipi ceremony (the hot stones).  They are not actually grandfathers, either, for the proper word is inyan, which means stone.  Stones are considered to be masculine and are the oldest inhabitants of our world, which is why perhaps the ancients thought to explain to the Europeans that they were like grandfathers. The Europeans didn’t understand that the Lakota were using metaphors, perhaps because they couldn’t step away from their assumption that indigenous people were primitive and stupid.

While rocks are male, the earth is considered feminine.  However, in Lakota, Dakuskanskan, has a male messenger Tate, or the wind, and a female messenger, Wohpe, or the White Buffalo Calf Woman.  In a famous story about the creation of the four directions and time itself, Wohpe is sent to the earth to tell Tate that it is time to create the four directions because people are coming, and they will need time and direction.  

There is a famous women's song associated contemporarily with Sissy Goodheart of Yates, North Dakota, that tells how women are sacred for they give birth to the Nation through their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.  The song says that they are the heart of the Nation and are asked, therefore, to bring their highest selves to their task of being the heart and soul of the people. 

Paula Gunn has written about the respect which women received and the sacredness of menstruation and of the power of menstrual blood.  In the Lakota language, one word is used to refer to things of power and mystery, which is wakan.  This word can be translated as holy, sacred, or mysterious.  There really isn't a word that corresponds to the usage of the English word "taboo."  The word wogluze refers to something sacred or forbidden, a spiritual taboo or ceremonial restriction (as a certain animal or animal part that cannot be eaten because of a vision one has received or things that are forbidden to do during a pipe ceremony).  The other word is wahtani, which means to fail to perform a vow or to violate a tribal law.  However, in my experience wogluze is never absolute, but always subject to exceptions and alterations.

Problems are rampant in European translations of indigenous languages as in North Dakota, where a word that meant "lake of the spirits," was translated as "Devil's Lake," which is the current name of that town and that lake.  The general understanding is that one doesn't mess with things or beings that are wakan, unless one has a full understanding of how to use that medicine or power.  The word for power and the word for medicine are the same also.  I know women elders who have the power to work with menstrual blood and women with menstrual disorders, and I know male elders who stand in awe of that power.