A scrapbook of stuff I'm reading / looking at / listening to / thinking about...

Posts tagged "lawrence weschler"

Dec 11, 2012

The artist vs. the scientist

I am a scientist
I seek to understand me
All of my impurities
and evils yet unknown
Guided By Voices


Because artists and scientists don’t hang around each other quite enough, they accumulate odd imaginations about each other. Here a great scientist talks about an artist who imagines that scientists have a inferior imaginative take on things.

It was fun to find out while reading Lawrence Weschler’s books on Robert Irwin and David Hockney that both artists spent a good amount of time hanging out with scientists and felt a special kinship with them.

Robert Irwin in Seeing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Sees:

Everyone involved on a particular level of asking questions, whether he’s a physicist or a philosopher or an artist, is essentially involved in the same questions. They are universal in that sense… although we may use different methods to come at them…

The scientist in the video above is the great Richard Feynman. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

The way I think of what we are doing is, we are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world. People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No I am not. I am just looking to find out more about the world.

Hockney, in True To Life:

Finding out that [art and science are] not that different has been very exciting for me. The more I’ve read of mathematicians and physicists, the more engrossed I’ve become. They really seem like artists to me. One’s struck how it’s almost a notion of beauty which seems to be guiding them, how at the frontiers of inquiry, contemporary physics even seems to be approaching and acknowledging eternal mysteries.

Feynman explains why the unknown doesn’t bother him:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong… I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe…

This is very much the attitude that the writer Donald Barthelme said was essential to the creation of art:

The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do… The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing…

Irwin says the process of inquiry that an artist goes through is a lot like a chemist’s, in that “What you do when you start to do a painting is that you begin with a basic idea, a hypothesis of what you’re setting out to do,” and then the rest is a lot of experimenting and trial-and-error.

But there are some essential differences, mainly that it’s hard to retrace an artist’s thought process (although, some artists leave a better paper trail than others…):

“Once the scientist is finished, you can look back over his notes to consider the precise sequence of yes-no weighings which brought him to his solution. It’s all quite logical and structured… The artist, on the other hand, keeps no such record (although historians would love it if he did). Rather, he literally paints over his errors. Six months later, when you ask him, ‘Why did you stop there?’ and he replies, ‘Well, because it felt right,’ his answer may not seem acceptable from a logical point of view… but in fact it’s quite reasonable. Given the basic fundamentals, he’s tried just about every damn combination possible, every way possible, until he’s finally arrived at what makes sense to him. The critical difference is that the artist measures from his intuition, his feeling. In other words, he uses himself as the measure.

(Source: xyvch)

Dec 10, 2012

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees + True To Life by Laurence Weschler

Two fascinating books that really must be read together…1

When the artist David Hockney read Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin soon after its publication, in 1982, he telephoned the author to say that while he disagreed with virtually everything in it, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He invited Weschler to his Hollywood Hills studio to discuss it, initiating what has become a series of engrossing dialogues, here gathered together for the first time.

Weschler explains in the introduction to the Hockney book:

For some twenty-five years now, whenever I have written about one or the other of these two giants of contemporary art… the other one has called me to tell me, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” The two have never met or conversed in person (straddling that Southern California scene like Schoenberg and Stravinsky before them, each seemingly oblivious of the other’s existence though in fact deepy seized by the work); instead they have been carrying on this quite vivide argument for over two decades, through me, as it were.

It’s fascinating to juxtapose excerpts from the two books — there are so many things to cross-reference, so many subjects that come up again and again.

One thing that fascinated me is the way in which each artist’s process is driven by asking questions (both artists in the course of their careers have befriended scientists, and waxed poetic about the connections between science and art in terms of inquiry), but how the way each goes about his inquiry has direct economic implications.

At one point, Irwin talks about the importance of artists structuring their finances “in such a way that they do not have to rely on the sale of their art”: “Look…it’s really quite simple. Pursuing the questions which art provokes is a long-term activity that necessarily needs to be free of short-term measures and rewards.” This take is an outgrowth of Irwin’s process: he spends a great deal of his artistic inquiry not actually making anything tangible. In fact, his installations are of such a fleeting and ephemeral nature that “he simply was not producing much by way of salable items.” Irwin admits, “I spen[d] days, weeks, months finishing things no one is ever going to see,” and, “My stuff, my offering, for the most part simply isn’t going to be there to pass on because…almost all my more recent steps have essentially been erased.”

Hockney on the other hand, while working through his questions he is constantly making pictures, whether it be his photocollages, photocopier experiments, paintings, etc. He’s leaving a kind of paper trail behind, and a paper trail can be picked up and sold.2

  1. Oddly, my reading year has been a year of paired books: reading one book, then reading another that compliments it or cancels it out… 

  2. This isn’t to say he’s necessarily intentionally structuring his process in a way that produces salable items. (“I’m not so much interested in the mere objects I’m creating as in where they’re taking me, and all the work in the different media is part of that inquiry and part of that search.”) 

Sep 12, 2012
Looking, for Hockney, is interest-ing: it is the continual projection of interest.

Jul 23, 2012

Writer’s Blocks


This weekend my friend Austin and I were talking about writing, and I remembered an interview with Lawrence Weschler in The New New Journalism in which he talks about building with wooden blocks while he’s thinking about the structure of his articles or books. Here’s the passage, after he’s talked about his idea-gathering and information collecting:

Are there any activities that help at this point?
Two things. One is that I read a lot of novels. Writers like Larry McMurtry and Walter Mosley are especially good. I’m sort of like a bicyclist riding behind a truck: I want to get into the slipstream of that other narrator’s narrative. To get the feel of narrative, to be on the road, to remember what it feels like to tell a story.
The second thing I do is play with blocks. I have a very large collection of wooden blocks. Some of them are my own invention, and some of them are just rectangular.

These blocks belong to your daughter?
No, my daughter is not allowed to play with these blocks. They are mine.

And what do you do with these blocks?
Well, my wife, who is an important human rights monitor, and my daughter, who has been off at school, will come home and see the elaborate cathedral I’ve built on the kitchen table. And they’ll say, “We see you’ve been busy today.” And I have! Because although I’m not thinking about the material at all, I am thinking about structure and rhythm….

And how do these block structures get translated into writing?
I’ll be playing with my blocks and find myself thinking, “Hmm, I suppose if I put this part of the story in front of that rather than after it … That might be interesting.” And gradually I start to find formal issues of sequencing. Then I start to notice rhymes that I hadn’t noticed before.
For instance, when I was writing about Breytenbach there was a key moment in his story when he is being arrested at the airport and passes by a window in which he sees himself. I thought about what it might have been like to see himself at that moment. And then I remembered that in one of his poems he had a line about “South Africa is like the mirror at midnight when you looked in it and a train whistle blew in the distance, and your face was frozen there for all eternity, a horrible face but one’s own.” And I thought, hmm, if I put that quote next to that scene …
Now this gets really interesting. This is fun. And at a certain point everything flips around: I’m suddenly magnetized north rather than south, and everything else in the universe except the blank paper before me is north. I’m at my desk, and wouldn’t even notice if the house was burning down around me. And yet, I’m not interested in the material, I’m interested in the form. And the thing that is totally mind-blowing is that elements I put side by side for purely formal reasons turn out to be true about the real world. And this is because beauty is truth, and truth is beauty. It is the same kind of satisfaction that a mathematician gets out of an elegant proof.

Although the process sounds somewhat mysterious, and I’m not sure I would find it helpful in my writing, the important idea—that structuring writing is easier when you turn it into a physical activity—is undoubtedly true for me. I usually use index cards and shuffle them around, but using building blocks or Lego or even drawing a picture would probably work, too. The key is to get things out of your head and into your hands.

(All the interviews in that book are good, by the way, very focused on craft and would be of interest to any writer, not just journalists new new or old.)

Jul 22, 2012
Every narrative voice—but especially every nonfiction voice—is itself a fiction, and the world of writing and reading is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it. Human beings have glands and secrete all sorts of things. But the human mind secretes stories. We live narratives. That is the only way we know how to experience anything, and it is our glory.
— Lawrence Weschler, in the prospectus for his course, “The Fiction of Nonfiction,” quoted in The New New Journalism
Subscribe to my newsletter and get new art, writing, and interesting links delivered to your inbox every week.