8/03/2014

brief comment on the Steinberg video commentary

I'm going to try to describe what I hear him saying, translating into my own language and thus into the mess of metaphors I use when thinking about these things. 

Steinberg of course says it all very simply and elegantly. I suffer from a tendency toward a formal and pedantic style, at which, trust me, sometimes even I am rolling my eyes, even as I'm typing the very words!

If you find my commentary to be over-complicating and obscuring the whole matter, please don't mind me and just stick to the video. My goal with the commentary is first to think through all this for myself and by spending time writing it all out, to really deepen my own practice. The "waking up" I talk about in Part I is what I'm after, and right now these notes are doing it for me. The reason I'm putting it on this blog in order to bring some attention to ideas in the video that I think others will find useful and illuminating. Also, by putting it on the blog I hope to give myself more reason to stick with the project.

Please send in your comments, corrections, etc. 


Commentary on Saul Steinberg Talks (1967) Part I (third draft)

(see previous post for video)
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0:00-0:29

I. WAKING UP

“In the morning, they get up and they work.”

-What follows is a description of S.’s morning routine. The simple wisdom of what he is going to talk about is how to arrange the conditions of mind and materials so that one can avoid a lot of complications and friction and frustrations and instead one can simply wake up and begin to work.

“It’s a necessity to work a few hours.”

Artists/writers/etc. often talk about working in the morning because there is a special kind of state of mind in the morning which is conducive to work. But this sentence holds a more general sense too. For "them," what is necessary is to work a few hours. That's the whole point, that's the first thought of the day—"it is necessary to work a few hours." Not all day, but definitely for a few hours.

“And drawing is my way of, um,* explaining to myself what goes on in my mind.”

[*or is it "drawing is my way of MY ARM explaining to myself..."?]

-The drawing is a method of introspection, of seeing into his own mind. (Drawings can also have other functions, such as looking more deeply at the external visual world, or expressing emotions, etc.) So for S. the world of the drawing is like a mental world, his own mental world. It’s not merely the visual world of depth and shadow and texture. Or we could say his mental world will be given depth and shadow and texture. His mental world and "shadows" and "forms" are all being brought together, given the qualities of each other: “drawing is a way of thinking.” This is obviously evident in S.'s drawings and work.

But why feel the need to "explain to myself what goes on in my mind?" It's not just idle curiosity, an intellectual exercise. Nor is it vanity or narcissism or psychoanalysis, etc. Artists, like most people, start the day somewhat bewildered: "what am I doing? what should I do? what's going on?" 

For the artist, the work itself is the place to go to wake up. For S. the drawing—both the activity and the thing itself—is, like meditation, a “mirror” for his mind. A way to figure out what's going on in there. 

Like meditation, S. wants the activity of drawing to reflect his mind in "real time." One can only do it by doing it right now. Later, one can look back at the drawing as a kind of record, or map of the mind, but this isn't really the point. It's best not to worry about "does this drawing reflect my mind, or not?" or how good a job you are doing. One should clear one's mind and make a drawing. The drawing itself will teach you. The activity itself, of making the drawing, of getting the mind and the hand working together, interested in each other, is the point, is its own reward.

“I start with the idea of a drawing. I have an appetite to make a drawing.”

-The right conditions for drawing/working are twofold. The "appetite" is first.

I think it's best here to interpret what S calls "the idea of a drawing" and the appetite as basically the same thing. It would be wrong to say S. already has an idea before he starts, in the fully-formed sense of "a drawing of x in the style of y using the material z," something like that. I think it's best to interpret these two sentences together, as describing the same thing. He's really saying, "I start with the idea of [doing] a drawing."

It's hard to know where to start. Without some basic idea/form to start with, you have nothing, just an intention to carry out an activity. The possibilities of form and content are endless. Some people might want, in the abstract, to do a drawing, but when they're faced with endless possibilities of what to do first they might grow weary and give up here and not begin at all. They lose their appetite.

(note added 2017--Strange the word, "appetite." It suggests that one is hungry, ready to feed. But creating a drawing is not like "feeding," is it? Maybe in the sense that Ajaan Geoff means when he talks the Buddha talking about "feeding" on concentration in meditation as alternative food to what the mind usually wants to feed on--?)

Appetite here means there must be an intention to create some form, and to stay with the activity of creating some form, as it unfolds in the process of drawing, come what may. In other words, an appetite to enjoy watching and participating in the unfolding of something, some drawing. To open oneself to the process, and be ready to stick with it. A good way to stick with something is to enjoy sticking with it, and a good way to begin something is to anticipate the enjoyment one will get from sticking with it. 

Another way to think of this would be that one needs to have a desire to carry out the actual physical actions of sitting, breathing, concentrating, moving the pen, creating the drawing, and to anticipate all this with pleasure.

“I have everything looking at me: paper, ink, pencil, and so on.”

-The other pre-condition of the working day is having the materials ready-to-hand. Appetite is the mental half, materials is the other. S.'s paper, ink, pencil, and so on "look at him," greet him like friends. There is no conflict or struggle with the materials. This should already be taken care of. If it isn’t, the desire to draw will be frustrated.

Maybe you have a hard time getting to work because you really haven't taken the time to figure out what materials you need, and you don't have them ready-to-hand. They shouldn't be "organized" in the sense of "visually organized." One's studio should be definitely be "messy," but only in the sense that everything is where it's most useful. If papers everywhere on the floor makes working easier right now, because you need to constantly refer to them, then they should stay there. So you need first to get the material conditions in place, before you can work. So that you can begin drawing without having too much friction, too much frustration: “where is this, where is the…?” etc. The working area should be organized according to the logic of ready-to-hand. One shouldn't have to stand up and walk around the house looking for every little thing one needs, interrupting the flow of concentration. This is crucial because the pleasure of concentration, of "flow," which is the fuel that keeps the work going day to day, week to week, keeps it worthwhile. If distractions and interruptions are constantly frustrating the flow and pleasure of concentration, work starts to seem like "homework." It is very difficult to sustain an "appetite" to do homework.

Your morning routine should be a good routine, a routine you enjoy, a routine that frictionlessly wakes you up to the enjoyment of concentration, the unity of mind and activity, and frictionlessly transfers you into the working part of the day.

Once you're concentrated, in the sense that your mind and your body and what you are doing are unified, and you're happy to stay there, then the rest can take care of itself.

next:
II. THE WORK