"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Symbolic Color and Hard Content

Last week I got an invitation to review the latest issue of Hand/Eye from Annie Waterman. If you aren’t familiar with Hand/Eye, check it out. This issue is devoted to Global Color and the photos alone will knock your socks off. Icing on the cake that the writing is solid, too.

Activist Mary Fisher writes poignantly about red. It was timely. I was coming off the second week of my 2011 Mastery Program and we discuss strategies to take work deeper. Participants are charged with assessing their own symbolic use of color. Sure, there are cultural and societal memes related to color - holiday colors, Halloween colors, colors for weddings and mournings. But each of us has a distinctive color vocabulary - one that’s personally symbolic. If we don’t analyze it intentionally, it operates in our work by default.

So what does blue mean to you?

India Flint wrote about her iceflower recipes and she’s always a good read. Author and Fulbright scholar Catherine McKinley describes the rich black mourning cloths in Ghana as one of her most memorable textile encounters, and shares her memories of the funeral of a friend’s husband with Hand/Eye readers.

Emotion. The profound power of color and pattern and making. Color is a life lesson. The essays from Hand/Eye this month are contributions worthy of rumination.

The profound power of making and art. Color and emotion. A rich and offensive - even frightening - mix for some viewers, and perhaps by association, for some artists.

There are various sorts of controversy in the art world. Some of it is manufactured. Stunts by artists who are 99% personality and 1% art. It takes all kinds. What about artists who want to comment on sensitive topics in their work? A discussion in class focussed on work that references the destruction of the World Trade towers. On the anniversary of 9/11 artists’ responses to the loss were featured on Facebook and on the front page of the major newspaper in Seattle. When is work honor, when is it an invasion of privacy and when is it shameless self-promotion? Are images of people jumping from collapsing buildings ever legitimate subject matter for a work of art?

I suspect each reader will have his or her own opinion of this, and it may be based on how close to a tragedy he or she is. Hard to have an impersonal opinion when the tragedy is personal.

And what about the potential to be criticized or ostracized because of work you’ve made? We’re all familiar with the idea of being politically correct. If I make art that offends someone’s sensibility, will it impact my ability to make a living? Am I morally obligated to make it anyway? Andres Serrano is an artist who has spent an entire career challenging societal and religious norms and it’s probably safe to say that viewers either hate his work or love it, but the reaction is never neutral.

Recently a colleague wrote to say that a piece of hers - which featured an AK47 gun and real letters from soldiers (some of which contained profanity) - was returned by an exhibition that accepted it, before the exhibition had actually been mounted. The work was considered inappropriate. It was probably the profanity that blocked the piece from exhibition, since the venue was a family oriented one. Or maybe it was the anti-war sentiment of the piece.

My friend questioned whether she should continue with the theme. I wondered how she could not. It’s hard reality that difficult work may not find an approving audience or a welcoming venue. But hard work still needs to be done.

Challenging viewers is one of the honorable duties of a committed artist. But shock value has to be handled carefully. In my opinion, it’s morally wrong to use shock value just to provoke a reaction and draw attention to yourself. On the other hand, the world can be an inhospitable and unjust place. Not every artist feels compelled to address this in her lifetime, but if it’s the call you get, you must honor yourself, and answer.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Being Distinctive

What are artists really seeking if it isn’t a way to better marry meaningful work to enjoyable work? Far too often, we pursue work that doesn’t have any personal significance. It isn’t distinctive in any way. Satisfying work begins with being able to start from meaning to create a work that seamlessly interprets your ideas OR it is work driven by a set of processes you love. In this case meaning is eventually unearthed as the work unfolds. Either way is satisfying. Any artist can start from either place, based on the goal at hand.

It takes a lot to be distinctive. In a recent class we tossed out the word unique because it’s cliche’d in this culture. But you could try it on for size by asking - what is unique about your particular take on a subject or process. Loads of people know how to do shibori. Loads of people know how to put dye on a screen and let it dry out so that it can be reactivated and printed later. Lots of people are thrilled by bubble wrap as a part of this printing. But technique has limitations. Most of it looks the same. If I line up fifteen samples of breakdown printing in a row, will I be able to tell who made what? Highly unlikely. The technique itself isn’t that distinctive.

And then there are artists who got there first. Nancy Crow appropriated and perfected improvisational piecing. Jan Myers Newberry has taken the use of shibori in quilts to a masterful level. Trying to outdo either of these masters is not for the faint hearted. I don’t think it can be done. So the point is - what are you going to do with a technique to make it distinctively your own?

There’s a lot of bad art in the world. There are bad paintings and bad art quilts. We don’t want to lose track of the basic reality Don Henley tapped when he wrote “You never see a hearse with a luggage rack.” My bottom line is the importance - the value - of the process. What you learn from engaging with materials. How making defines, refines and reshapes the core of your soul.

You may never achieve anything that is as famous or perfect as a Nancy Crow quilt. We’re not all visionaries. But you have a right to create distinctive work and this is a worthy goal. You’ll be more likely to succeed if you align your preferences, skill sets, and goals with what you care about. Because it is what you care about that makes work distinctive.

And it’s not just about content. You may care deeply about color or pattern or line. Passion is not predictable. It’s personal.