Working Where and When We Can

Working Where and When We Can.jpg

Nonconformist Art

The Museum of Russian Art in my city has a new exhibit, "Concerning the Spiritual in Russian Art." The 70-piece exhibit is owned by the Kolodzei Art Foundation, which has over 7000 works in its collection. The foundation was started by Tatiana Kolodzei when at the age of 17, in the 1960s, she started buying pieces of “nonconformist” art that couldn’t be shown in the museums and galleries. The art was considered nonconformist because of abstract form and spiritual (ie, religious or metaphysical) content. Tatiana and her daughter Natalia, who now runs the foundation, were at the museum for the opening reception, which my husband and I attended. Natalia spoke for a few minutes about the exhibit and its history, while Tatiana held the grandbaby. She was dressed in black and charcoal, with sunglasses, a black hat, and black scarf. It was fun to imagine her at 17 in her clandestine mission to find and save art that didn’t fit the anti-spiritual Soviet regime.

I went back last week to have another look at the exhibit; each piece offers so much to think about. For example, there are several crucifixion paintings by Tatiana Levitskaia that were so dense with symbolism and meaning that my friend and I thought we could maybe stand there for hours and not exhaust all there was to see in just those canvases. I read on a plaque by her work that she was involved in the “Bulldozer Show,” which I had not even heard of before. I learned there that an unofficial outdoor art show in the 70s had been completely destroyed, with all the art bulldozed into the ground, because it was of this nonconformist spiritual variety. There’s a wall-sized painting of the prodigal son parable, “Return of the Prodigal Son” by Olga Bulgakova, which is probably the most powerful depiction I’ve ever seen of this story.

The exhibit gets its name from the book by Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a book that had a big impact on me when I read it about five years ago. Kadinsky saw the duty of the artist as spiritual. Art for art's sake, even when the higher ideal of "beauty" is wrapped up in that vision of art, is insufficient to deliver spiritual meaning, to avoid having "hungry souls go away hungry." Spiritual feeling must be in the artist in order for it to be conveyed in the art. Kadinsky believed that abstract art has the greater potential to express inner spiritual feeling compared with representative art because abstraction allows for mystery, for epiphany, even within the context of the most everyday actions and objects. But the spiritual feeling can only arise when the artist's spiritual feeling has been legitimately quickened and when the artist, in turn, constructs the work to evoke spiritual vibrations in the soul.

Here are a couple passages from Kandinsky’s book:

"The work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way. From him it gains life and being. Nor is its existance casual and inconsequent, but it has a definite and purposeful strength, alike in its material and spiritual life. It exists and has power to create spiritual atmosphere; and from this inner standpoint one judges whether it is a good work of art or a bad one.”


"It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand.

Related post: The Art of Work


Private Notes

I’ve long been a fan and proponent of carrying a notebook or index cards in one’s pocket or handbag. Last week the value of these hidden notes struck me again. I was quickly reading through a set of little notebooks that I’d carried in my purse over the last several years (photo above) and was amazed by how many random lines on their pages had become key sentences in essays or blog posts. Often those thoughts were written in the car or when waiting for a movie or something else to start or in church.

I’m always intrigued by what kinds of little notebooks people use and how they use them. Joan Didion wrote a classic essay on the subject, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which you can find in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

“We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

Several years ago I posted something here about an essay of Mary Oliver’s in which she talks about her pocket notebook. From "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air”:

"For at least thirty years, and at almost all times, I have carried a notebook with me, in my back pocket. It has always been the same kind of notebook--small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn....I don't use the pages front to back, but randomly, in a disorderly way. I write wherever I happen to open the notebook. I don't know why this is. When the notebook is fairly full, I start another....Both the shorthand and the written phrase are intended to return me to the moment and place of the entry. I mean this very exactly. The words do not take me to the reason I made the entry, but back to the felt experience, whatever it was. This is important. I can, then, think forward again to the idea--that is, the significance of the event--rather than back upon it. It is the instant I try to catch in the notebooks, not the comment, not the thought."

Of course, making notes of quick thoughts is easy to do on a smart phone, but there’s still something about the handwritten or printed word that an electronic file can’t duplicate. Charles Simic wrote a piece recently on The New York Review of Books Blog in defense of the little notebook, “Take Care of Your Little Notebook.”

“No question, one can use a smart phone as an aid to memory, and I do use one myself for that purpose. But I don’t find them a congenial repository for anything more complicated than reminding myself to pick up a pair of pants from the cleaners or make an appointment with the cat doctor. If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class. Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing than typing the same words down, since writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.”

One of the sections in my book Just Think is about this very thing so I’m not really saying anything new here, but sometimes it’s good to underscore something tried, true, and so very simple.


Reading Stack: Torn

With the current controversy about Yahoo CEO’s decision to disallow all telecommuting, it’s been interesting to be in the middle of reading Torn: True Stores of Kids, Career & The Conflict of Modern Motherhood (CoffeeTown Press, 2011). Torn is an anthology edited by Samantha Parent Walravens with essays contributed by women in that active parenting age group. Some of them go into an office every day, some work a job (employed or self-employed) from home, some have put their work life on hold, but for each of them, the scenario they’ve chosen isn’t easy, particularly in this economy. If you see a woman carrying a baby or holding the hand of a little boy or girl, say a little prayer for her, whether she’s at the park or on her way to work. And as demonstrated last year by another public figure, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who told her story to The Atlantic (“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”), the difficulty of the decisions facing women who are mothers doesn’t get any easier when the sons and daughters are teenagers.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the position of figuring out how to make it all fit via all kinds of fixes: convince the boss to approve reduced hours, negotiate a job share, bring work home, work fewer days but longer days, work weekends, work at night, race to work the minute the bus pulls away, race home to arrive the minute the bus pulls up, bring work home (and pay sons money to let me work without interruption for a specific interval unless of course they were bleeding). The best fix was when I negotiated a telecommuting arrangement back in about 1993, the first ever for the large healthcare system I worked for, which I sustained for about 6 years, getting more done there than I ever could at the office, before resigning to become self-employed. If I were one of Yahoo’s employees right now I’d be devastated. I hope the slackers that Yahoo is probably trying to weed out quickly get on their way so that those employees who can do it well and take it seriously can get back to their home desks.


Final Word

This passage from Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions seems an appropriate final thought today.

“Rarely is it possible to study all the instructions to a game before beginning to play, or to memorize the manual before turning on the computer. The excitement of improvisation lies not only in the risk involved but in the new ideas, as heady as the adrenaline of performance, that seems to come from nowhere. When the necessary tasks of learning cannot be completed in a portion of the life cycle set aside for them, they have to join life’s other tasks and be done concurrently. We can carry on the process of learning in everything we do, like a mother balancing her child on one hip as she goes about her work with the other hand or uses it to open the doors of the unknown. Living and learning, we become ambidextrous.”

–Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions