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The Fine Arts Are Alive and Well

In Fine Arts on August 28, 2008 at 3:04 am

This has been quite an amazing week for me. What started out as a few observations on my feelings about the fine arts (traditionally paintings, music, and literature, but evolved to include stage plays, movies and photographs and even silliness posing as art), turned into an opportunity to exchange ideas with a group of high school kids through a program called the Fine Arts Survey.

What made the week so amazing is that there really are kids out there who really do dig the arts, who enjoy discussing their ideas about what art means to them, or who aren’t afraid of asking the hard questions while they struggle to understand this little piece of a very large universe. And believe me, sometimes they can get pretty deep about nuances of meaning and the difficulties of seeing meaning in ambiguity.

I actually considered not posting my blog (What Makes Art, Music or Literature Great?) because I was concerned that nobody would read it. After arguing with myself for a couple of days (an argument I lost, obviously) I decided to post it with an apology. The apology was a short statement of what I perceived to be the facts, that I knew it would have limited appeal, and that we would get back on track next week.

Well I didn’t know, it turns out, and thank heaven that I didn’t act on what I understood to be indisputable knowledge of the facts. The arts are alive and well precisely because they are so open to interpretation, and anybody can have an opinion about what art is or isn’t, and whether or not it is great or not-so-great. We the people now have as much right to own the arts as the critics once did. And we are, as often as not, able to pick out greatness without the assistance of an expert.

I know that last statement scares my Western Civilization (PhD, Harvard) professor, and I still see a role for him (I will let you form your own opinion about what that role might be), but he is no longer the driver, he is no longer in charge. I guess you might say there has been a revolution in the last few decades and the good guys won. I guess you realize what this means … I take back my apology, and you will probably get another shot at expressing your opinions on art in the near future.

Click on the Copyright Statement if you want to start early.

Copyright © 2008 by Tad Laury Graham

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Self Help Experts, Gurus and Their Books (Revisited)

In Self Help on August 24, 2008 at 1:43 pm

This blog addresses some of the unanswered questions raised by the original (see “Self Help Experts, Gurus and Their Books”). It in no way replaces the original. Rather it augments and further clarifies some of the concepts presented in the original. By design, my approach is make no attempt to formalize the method. It discusses three principles that worked for me, but it avoids the appearance of describing a system because you must be the one to decide whether or not these general principles work for you.

Additionally, the approach is pragmatic. By this we mean that we have tried to focus on what works, without dredging up

The Three Principles Form a Repeating Cycle

[1] All of us make mistakes, but some of us have such low self-esteem that we get defensive and go into denial. When that happens, we lose our connectivity to others. This is true whether “others” are your boss, your co-workers, your spouse or your children.

[2] Being alone and ignored, our self-esteem gets worse, which brings on harsh judgmental, internalized feelings that we try to suppress. But we can’t suppress them because deep within our brains we accept that there is something wrong with us.

[3] This gradually leads us to the source of our feelings, which is usually ourselves, although sometimes we provoke a negative response from others (family, friends or co-workers) and misdirect the blame.  Either way, we are the root cause of our pain. To end the pain, we need to do two things: accept ourselves and accept our mistakes. Only then can we get on with resolving the problem.

The CYCLE in which we Find Ourselves

  • Begins with denial – We tell everyone who will listen, “It’s not my fault!”
  • Next we feel badly about ourselves because we have conflicting – denial slowly shifts to anger at self, often with feelings of being stupid or worthless
  • And finally we begin to sense that we can get back to “normal” – which we do by reinterpreting history, putting the event in the best possible light. This brings us back to Step One, where we wait for an opportunity to repeat the cycle
The Only Way to Stop is to Break the Cycle

[1] Accept responsibility while staying out of the blame game – most people will respect you for wanting to be part of the solution. Do not get defensive. The moment you do, you lose. If you are sincere and focus on the solution to the problem, you are less likely to be ignored and more likely to be given the chance to help fix the mistake.  Keep in mind that we learn from mistakes. No mistake means nothing learned. Nothing learned means you are doomed to repeat the mistake.

[2] Accept that your feelings are valid, but do not let them tell you what your next move is. If you deny your feelings, or if you do the opposite and let them do the driving, either way you lose – feelings associated with low self-esteem rarely change through analysis , but often change through trial and error. when we achieve a series of small successes. In the work-place, a small success might be praise for your role in a task. At home, a family member begins to spend more time with you because you have stopped yelling when they make a mistake.

[3] Stop evaluating yourself and others, and focus on the issues, problems, or task at hand – it’s the only way to get the little successes started in your life.

Here are Some Tools You Can Use to Improve Your Odds of Success

  • Postponement – Instead of letting your mind seize control and run you through the ringer, make an “appointment with yourself” to have this “conversation” in a day or two. Chances are good that you will forget to do it later; otherwise, postpone it again. If you do this, you will eventually gain control.
  • Forgiveness – Never blame anyone for your problems, not even yourself. Attack the problem, not the people. However, acknowledge your part in the mistake by letting others know that you want to help, and that you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. (Blaming is not Acceptance and vice versa.)
  • Focus on the Issues, the problem or the event – If you focus on people’s shortcomings instead, the result will almost always be that you fail to break the cycle.

Do not do any of this to prove anything to anyone. Be yourself. But recognize that humans need other humans in their lives to be happy. Some of us get this companionship through service to others, some get it through focusing on the family, some get it through work, to name a few. It’s up to you, but it should not be ignored because we all need to have someone we can go to, someone we can rely on to provide stability.

Finally, in my experience just because a person is having self-esteem issues, doesn’t mean that they need to let someone else step in and run their lives. It’s just exactly the opposite. Unless you are part of the cure, your self-esteem is not likely to show much improvement. If it isn’t your success, how can it be your improvement? Worse, if you rigidly adhere to other people’s advice, every time you make a mistake you will see it as failure, but if you are actively engaged in the changes you want to make, you are more likely to see mistakes as the price of admission.

Now here’s the beauty behind the beast:  there is no right answer. We aren’t all going in the same direction, with the same motivation. What you want out of life isn’t necessarily what I want, and vice versa. And ideally, we need to recognize some of the “happy mistakes” we make. I doubt that they are fully random. I like to think that once we begin to nudge the brain in the direction we have chosen for ourselves, that it keeps working the problem and sometimes even demonstrates that it’s getting the message.

NOTE:  As before, if at anytime you experience suicidal, homicidal, or otherwise destructive feelings towards yourself or others, then by all means see a medical doctor because your problem may require medical treatment.

2008-0824 Self Help Series # 002 Copyright © 2008,2012 by Tad Laury Graham.

What Makes Art, Music or Literature Great?

In Fine Arts on August 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm
Or Perhaps This One?

Would You Call This Art?

Recently, I heard that age old question again, the one that suggests that to understand art you need an expert who can explain it to you. Having just written a blog that rejects this idea for self help victims, I felt that I had to accept the challenge to address the same issue with regard to art, music and literature. I will admit some bias: I do not understand the idea of having little or no participation in the important events of my life, especially if the justification is because someone else is claiming to be an expert, and insisting that I don’t have the proper credentials for such things. I believe we lead better lives when we consider the advice of others, but make our own decisions. This is true whether we are talking with financial experts, medical doctors, or the gardener.

That said, back to art, beginning with an observation: to describe genius in painting in terms of brush strokes is like describing genius in literature in terms of typography, yet I’ve heard it said in a graduate class. The professor insisted that we cannot appreciate art without exercising our “higher faculties” (our intellect). “Great art,” he said, “is only knowable through an understanding of its period in history and its place in our culture.” If this were true, I suppose it would mean that we need several experts. In short he was suggesting that only an intellectual could reveal a painting’s greatness.

That got me to wondering: how intellectual is a picture? It seems to me that the very nature of a picture is anti-intellectual in that it is primarily visual, emotional and sensual. It’s strongest appeal is on a gut level. I suppose it’s true that a picture can make a statement, but I think a large number of people would have to agree on the meaning of that statement for it to have any validity. And how intellectual can you get, when a picture-as-statement is only an instance in time, frozen in some sort of suspension of life?

Augsburg, Germany, by Krasnysky

How About This One?

To over intellectualize our view of art requires the mind to build a construct for interpreting a 2-dimensional flat world to create the illusion of more than is there. The buildings above, for instance, were painted by an architect who understood and used perspective to create the feel of 3-dimensions.  A tentative conclusion is that technique is perhaps the intellectual part.

If that were true, however, then craft is more important than message and that would imply that the painting exists primarily for intellectual reasons. Art becomes nothing more than the illustrated history of desicated concepts, more fully explained in the footnotes of old philosophies, histories, and formal religions. There are more important uses for the intellect. I would argue that the intellectual approach to painting should be secondary to the sensual experience of vision and emotion.

A picture makes you feel something about it. Even one replete with intended symbols must be taken in for itself, in totality, apart from all else except for ones own raw experience. And if the observer has not yet had sufficient experience to which he or she can relate, that person will not be able to fully appreciate the art work and can only talk about it in general terms. We will come back to this point. For now, however, let’s just say that the intellectual part seems to be associated primarily with craft.

Before we further pigeonhole an artist’s work through classification (e.g., assigning it a place in history as part of a movement), and before we start discussing its similarities through comparative intellectualizing (also called the study of art history), we need to let it work on us. Only when it gets into our gut and works its way around our more visceral feelings will we fully digest it. Without this direct “experiencing,” we might just as well begin without the picture. I would further generalize this assertion by saying, in contradistinction, that we cannot underrate our “lower” faculties, or we might as well dismiss all art forms.

Paintings have been found on cave walls, such as those at Lascaux, that were created more than

Room of the Bulls, Lascaux

Room of the Bulls, Lascaux

17,000 years ago – long before written history, and long before the intellectuals stepped in to explain their historical context, or to speculate on the role they might have played in early French culture. Most of us can make the connection between our distant primitive relatives and our contemporary families without assistance. Most of us would stand quietly in a place like this and feel the personal nature of the experience, might feel some emotion from crossing 170 centuries to see ourselves in the faces of these primitive tribes.

I would say that the Intellectual approach is not the only method, nor necessarily the best method, to understand our physical world. Words in fact are not the primary medium. Indeed, a great deal of cerebral activity is pictorial imagery, and a great deal of art is understood through this imagery (including the big three:  paintings, music and literature).

Next, I would suggest that it is fairly easy to find the association of this image-generating mechanism in literature, through the act of reading, i.e., we “see” images in our minds when we read. The author can’t tell us everything or the fictional account would be very long, and very boring. The reader has always been assigned the task of filling in where the author leaves off, though perhaps it is difficult to understand this when we are surrounded by video, movies, television, and other visual media devices that do this for us. Literature with a “big-L” is meant to engage us emotionally, unlike “small-L” or genre (which is intended to be just for fun, such as science fiction, detective stories, romances or westerns).

The same line of reasoning can be used for music.  You can take almost any piece of symphonic music and the composer will describe the real world events that inspired the music. And often we find ourselves listening but imagining visual affects, such as shifting colors (amorphous) as the mood of the music shifts. Additionally, music affects our emotions through hearing, but we also feel a sensual quality while listening, which in its most intense form can be experienced by standing too close to a modern rock band and feeling the sound waves bounce off our internal organs. Again, in spite of the differences between how we hear music vs see art, we are back to the emotional and sensual experience.

I do feel that there is an intellectual component to virtually all art forms, although not a little effort has been expended in recent years to break away from underlying structure and to introduce free form approaches. But this has driven our appreciation of these modalities into an even lesser appeal to large numbers (without the interpreter).  One can argue that we have freed the artist from arbitrary constraints, or maybe that the artist has sold us down river – depending on your point of view.

In my opinion, it doesn’t much matter which because I make the claim that art is personal and appeals differently to different people. The more intense the appeal, the more personal it is. In my view, greatness with regard to art is an opinion. The larger the number of people who share the opinion, the greater the work of art. And this cuts to the chase. Great art is ALWAYS an opinion. So the answer to our question is: You make great art great, by expressing your opinion.

There was a time when art was for the privileged, when you and I did not get to vote because we didn’t belong to the club. But that time is likely gone forever. For now, it is one person, one vote. Almost nobody argues the point. Not sure how to vote? The first picture is Picasso’s Three Musicians. And the second picture is Krasnyansky’s Augsburg, Germany. Does that help? It shouldn’t make any difference, but it’s O.K. if it does because you are not alone, and it’s your vote to use however you choose.

There are those who point to this trend and pronounce that art is dying or has already died. If art is dying, this isn’t the reason. The cause is self-pity. The humanities can only be destroyed if we let it happen. Art today tends to reduce the state of man from heroic to pitiful, no longer depicted as stately, no longer waging the eternal battle for universal principles; in other words, it is the artists (not the scientists) who have sold us out … depending on your opinion.

Text Copyright © 2008 by Tad Laury Graham

Pictures appearing herein are very low resolution, small copies of the originals, used for educational purposes only. It is likely that they are under copyright (this is unknown) or some other form of protection, but are used herein consistent with the protections and laws that govern copyrights.

Reflections on Life (Part 1)

In Meaning of Life on August 6, 2008 at 11:14 pm

The “Quest” does not give life meaning, but neither does inward direction. The quest is a group hug, seeks to understand meaning through group effort, pushes outward into life for answers to the question. Inward direction seeks meaning through personal, individual experience. Whether you believe in creationism, evolution, or modern physics, the basis for “discovering” meaning in life is a belief system.

But what if there is no meaning? Perhaps no meaning is the meaning. What if we are here to give meaning to life? Then each of us would construct our own definition in any terms we choose. These terms must only be consistent with other individual choices, and could be valid even though other choices coexist throughout the universe. Maybe this is what we mean by free will, which by definition is free choice.

  1. We can verbalize what we think we are, but the facts may not bear out the verbalization. The only fact of which I am certain is that I am uncertain. I refuse to drift. I need to do something, and at the same time, nothing. On some level I want to be reserved, but passionate. Being reserved minimizes mistakes, but somehow lacks commitment. Passion exposes. I may be afraid of that exposure?
  2. If we believe that all of our problems are the result of one specific person, event or issue, then we miss the point. Chances are that they are due to the belief that they are the result of one specific person, issue or event. Our attitude affects our reality. We can see this in others without much difficulty, but when it comes closer to home, it becomes a bit more cloudy.
  3. What I mean by this idea that we create our own reality is that because we act as though the belief were the reality, in effect it is. And we tend to seek out friends who reinforce our beliefs, with the result that we muddle through life without any real insights about where we are going and how we intend to get there. It’s our choice, of course. If we choose to muddle through life, no one has the right to say that we have made the wrong choice.
  4. If we work in demanding careers, then we get wrapped up in only one highly specialized aspect of life. We commit to understanding life through a distortion. Most of us have heard this expressed as, “a surgeon sees every solution in terms of cutting the patient.” We are what we do and what we have done. We must name what we have done as truthfully as possible – we cannot know where we are going in a cosmic sense until we know who and where we are.
  5. When I say that I am what I have done, I do not mean that getting caught up in activity is in any way a definition of me.  I mean what I have done in comparison with what I think I am or have done. It is likely that one cannot inflict his or her personality on others without closing doors and losing friends. But if one does not, then the wrong doors open and one either changes into something he is not, or loses something because he cannot change.  What he loses is him or herself – either way.
  6. Although I will always believe that military service helped me to grow, there are those who profess to have hated every minute of their enlistment (same experience, different belief system). If you hate a thing enough, it becomes a part of you. It becomes so much a part of you that you never shake it. That’s one reason why those who really hated it still wear parts of their uniform; it is also why they often go back … those who hated Vietnam the most, seem to be the ones who voluntarily returned. Like the moth to the candle.
  7. Hating prevents growth, which gets in the way of going forward. You must identify with your demons because they personify the rejection of something that is a part of you. The more you reject what you hate, the more it becomes a part of you. Only when you accept what you hate will you be able to let it go. Disillusionment is catharsis, even if it only results in a new illusion that is closer to the truth.
  8. We are all brought up to believe that we are just a little better than the next person – which ought to tell us something. The thing that is “better” is usually expressed as personality, or some extension to personality. But the measure of a person’s value can only be seen in totality if viewed in proportion to the number of enemies he or she has made because otherwise they are simply reflecting back parts of others. It is only when you are not a reflection that you become an individual because it is only then that we see your true uniqueness, i.e., that part which is your own personality. Of course, this can be carried too far. For example, if one is role playing and mistakes the role for the reality.
  9. Rebellion is a feeble means to represent ourselves as individual or unique, for we end up becoming like so many other “rebels” that it defeats the purpose. It is only through the natural expression of our personalities that we actually become individualized. On the other hand, I do not think we ever express our true selves to anyone, unless we wish to run the risk of ending our relationship.
  10. The whole notion of being “individual” suggests that two different people must have two different personalities. The “opposites attract” theory. And if each personality were truly different, this would result in difficulties in just getting along for any length of time. I suspect that this is why people who have known each other for a long time fight or argue, and why people “change out” their friends, sometimes many times, without really being aware of the underlying dynamics.

We can will all we want, Rollo May, but we are still impotent if we will an illusion. Not everyone must face his demons.

2008-0815 Random Thoughts Copyright ©2008 by Tad Laury Graham; adapted from my personal journals, dated November 1970.

Some Thoughts On Raising Children

In family on August 2, 2008 at 12:26 am

I find myself sitting here and thinking about my relationship to members of my family. In particular, I remember something of how love was expressed between parent and child, between child and parent, and between siblings.  I came to some conclusions that I think might be universal, and therefore might be worth sharing with prospective new parents.

In general, the positional nature of parents to children influences the nature of the love experienced between them. Parents (unless dysfunctional) probably feel unconditional love for their children, while children feel a mixed, dependent love for their parents. Parents are seen as the creator (perhaps somewhat god-like); children are the created (weak and dependent).

It is perhaps difficult to see ourselves as giants who can be threatening at times and playful at other times. There may be occasional resentments on the part of children, owing to the behavior of such powerful parents, which is aggravated by what may seem capricious and unjust treatment. Whereas, parents would feel some pride, reinforced by the knowledge that what they do for the child is actually rational and necessary.

It would be my guess that children, who are totally dependent, cannot love independently of this dependency. They most likely love for “things” and feel that parents love for “performance.” They see their parents as withholding love for unsatisfactory performance, rather than as administering punishment for guidance. And I think that when one loves through dependence, one cannot help but resent the dependency.

Lastly, I notice that siblings are often in competition with each other. If one of them feels he or she isn’t getting their share, mainly of attention, they can get pretty rough on a brother or sister when the parents are looking the other way. What amazes me is that when you question them, they give a pretty convincing argument that either it didn’t happen or someone else started it.

There must be a message somewhere in these observations. Let me suggest that this is at least a pretty powerful indicator that spanking children, especially the very young, is both a waste of time and perhaps a form of child abuse. I also suggest that maybe we shouldn’t push them too hard in the development of academic skills in the early years, but that we encourage participation in group behaviors and focus on developing social skills – not that we ignore the academic skills, but that they develop in a context of having fun. What’s your take?
2008-0802 Raising Children Copyright © 2008-2010 by Tad Laury Graham