The Pathway, 1: The Pathway Begins with Perception
From Vesperisms Season 1, Episode 4, April 2020
Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your hot beverage of choice, have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat! This is Vesperisms Season 1, episode 4: The Pathway Begins with Perception.
I owe you all an apology. I didn’t put out an episode last week, and in the podcast world, when you’re launching a new show, that’s a big no-no. Podcasters usually record and plan episodes in batches, which I did at first, but then…the world changed. The content that I had planned no longer seemed like it would serve you in the best way, and I had to change course very suddenly. Frankly, the issues I was thinking of even two months ago? It’s not that they’re not important or relevant. I’ve been thinking for years about these things, and as an author of historical fiction, I kind of naturally take the long view of things. But I needed to take a minute to rephrase the way I wanted to talk about things.
When I first conceived of the Vesperisms podcast, we were in a time of incredible division in our country. While we seem to have a welcome reprieve from that right now, I think it’s temporary. We’re going to emerge from this moment with the same need to move forward in a diverse, pluralistic society without fracturing. We’re sharing in a common experience at the moment, but six weeks in or so, we’re beginning to see that not everyone is having the same experience. It’s hitting people at some of those same pain points—social, economic, racial, philosophical, and political—and that’s where I think artistic thinking can help us out of a further spiral and into a position where we can be voices of positive change.
Remember that out of the ashes of the Great Plague in the 14th century emerged the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Artists and creative thinkers will always bring culture through crisis, but we have to harness our natural adaptability intentionally. We’ve all been given a luxurious gift in this moment: we’re forced to slow down and be a bit more introspective. We have the time to plan our adaptation and our emergence from this crisis.
So let’s journey together toward that end. And I’d like to invite you into the conversation. What is changing for you creatively right now? How are you adapting in ways you never imagined, in ways you think you’ll be able to sustain once society opens back up? Let me hear you in the comments below.
Here on Vesperisms, we began by laying a foundation of an artistic worldview with four “cornerstones”:
Artistic thinking is OPEN AND EXPANSIVE.
Artistic thinking is HUMAN-CENTERED.
And Artistic thinking allows for GROWTH AND CHANGE.
So now we’re going to do a deep dive into each of those principles, and for these next several episodes, we’re going to focus on the first principle:
Originally, I was going to do episode 4 on the topic of Freedom of Speech and Censorship. I’m deeply concerned about artists increasingly engaging in censorship, whether that’s self-censorship or calling for curtailments on others’ free speech. For me, it’s not a political question, even though that’s the realm through which most of us are encountering the issue right now in media. No—it’s a question of cutting the artist off at the knees, at the very time we are most needed by our culture.
But as concerned as I still am about that, I believe there’s some groundwork we need to do first to understand why our freedom of speech is so important. We only have 15 or 20 minutes together each week, so I want to offer you the opportunity to really chew on one premise at a time. I’m calling this series The Pathway, and it’s a simple way to understand artistic process and the need to fully allow for each step along the way.
So to understand The Pathway, let’s work backwards.
Creating a work of art, whether it’s a musical composition or a choreographed performance, is an action. What comes before an action? Usually, a conversation about it—with a planning committee, with a creative partner or critique group. Before that come the thoughts about the work. And before that comes perception.
Too often, we leapfrog right to the act of creating—and when we’re looking for podcasts or books or people to follow on social media, that’s the space we often encounter—the action. But there’s a whole pathway that needs to be understood.
First: We perceive. Then we think. Then we speak. Then we act.
Remember in episode 3, when we talked about embodiment? We talked about the five senses, the information we take into our bodies and perceive, before we can articulate anything.
Before we do anything creative, we perceive. Information or data goes into our bodies through the five senses. Even something we read has a visceral reaction before it has a mental one, doesn’t it?
I’ve said before that the nature of art is prophetic. Again, that has nothing to do with fortune telling or predicting the future. “Prophetic” means “seeing past.” Artists, by nature, pretty immediately perceive past the surface, or through the veil—whatever metaphor you want to use. Our conclusions about what we see may vary, but we agree that there’s something deeper to reality than what we’re given. We perceive something—we feel it to be true or at least it stokes our curiosity. It’s what people sometimes call “awe” or “wonder.”
I don’t know about you, but those two words always brought up feelings of shame in me, and not many things invoke shame in me, my friends. But I would hear people talk about having a sense of wonder and I felt like that never happened to me. Now, this may surprise you, but even though I’m a very passionate person, I’m not a very emotionally driven person. I don’t stuff my feelings or anything like that—it’s just that emotion is not my primary driver. That may run counter to the stereotype of artists, but, well, that’s what I’m here for, I guess. In the words of Her Majesty Lauryn Hill, “I get out of all ya boxes.” But I digress.
Anyway, I thought for years that “awe” and “wonder” were things I was failing at as an artist. Like I wasn’t doing enough to drive myself into a sufficient emotional state to experience this transcendent condition.
But I remember when this struck me in an entirely new way.
A couple of years ago, I was in the south of England, on a research trip to Jane Austen’s house. I was staying up the road, and I had an extremely lovely country walk to the house every day. It was just around this time of year: very early spring. The huge flock of sheep in the field was getting ready to lamb, the air was crisp, everything was coming alive, and I felt very physically—bodily—connected to that place, as I often do in England.
I passed by one particular tree that had tiny new buds on it, and I stopped suddenly, as a question formed in my mind: “I wonder if these buds will become flowers or leaves?”
That was it. In that moment, I realized, that’s all wonder and awe are—curiosity. Just an open question. Wonder and awe are just…walking around, through this physical world, allowing yourself to be a walking question mark. Allowing perceptions to absorb into you, not glancing off—but not drawing conclusions too quickly either.
This is one of the reasons why artists are often seen as subversive or rebellious. Often it’s just that we’re asking questions that others are too busy or unaware to ask. We’re trying to explore and integrate what we perceive. We’re trying to keep that veil lifted just a little bit longer to that bit of revelation we’ve received. When artists are properly aligned and open to this process, we don’t take things at face value, and sometimes that means we don’t do what we’re told, because we want space and time to go deeper.
Even someone like myself, who works for clients, will try to find a way in beyond the brief. The client brief is a summary, like when I walked past that budding tree. For two days, I only perceived the category “tree”, before I stopped to really see it. So when I get an assignment, I let the brief bring up questions. I look for nuance. I read between the lines. What’s the reality beyond the summary? What’s the source? What are the implications?
You see, when we short-circuit this pathway and try to get right to conclusions—whether it’s creating a piece too soon, or talking about something too soon, or even drawing thought conclusions too soon, we undercut our process. We cut ourselves off from our own perceptions. And we need every individual artist to trust that they bring a perception to the world that only they can, that’s an integral part of the whole. Just like your body is unique, the way the world intersects with your body is individual, and it’s necessary.
Anyone can read the verse from Genesis that says “The Lord formed man out of the clay”, but it takes Michaelangelo’s perception to see the Ancient of Days touching fingertips with Adam. It takes Giotto’s nuance to show, for the first time in the Western canon, the depth of grief at the crucifixion.
Maria Abramovic’s piece, The Artist is Present, is a piece that continues to stay with me, especially in this time of social isolation. It met a primal need for connection in people, and that’s why we still talk about it: The longing to be seen, to be present with others. She allowed that perception, that set of questions, to follow through logically to creating the work that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010.
There’s a Jessye Norman performance of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen that I return to again and again. You just can’t have a 20 year old coloratura sing it authentically. Jessye is just old enough to perform the piece: her voice is at its prime of richness, not yet agèd, but her life experience is sufficiently mature to convey a lyric like:
I am lost to the world with which I used to waste much time…I am dead to the world’s tumult and rest in a quiet realm!
…along with the complex melancholy of the tune. It’s all about timing, about not letting a work come to fruition prematurely.
This week’s recommended read is My Name is Asher Lev, one of my favorite novels, by Chaim Potok. It’s a narrative of an artist’s life from childhood to young adulthood, and it’s all about perception and timing: the way Asher Lev is perceived by his conservative religious community and the way he perceives himself. It’s full of the unexpected, and Potok’s verbal timing is mature and precise, the result of honing his craft and process.
I want to leave you with a thought to chew on. Where might you be undercutting your own perception, and putting thoughts, words or actions into place too soon? Once you perceive something, and a question arises in you, how quickly do you numb yourself or suppress your curiosity, and move on to the next step?
Depending on how much of a verbal processor you are, the move from perception to the action could take seconds, hours, or years. Years are helpful when the questions are complex, like creating an entire body of work. Seconds are helpful when an immediate injustice is present, like someone being attacked. The problem arises when our sense of timing is out of whack.
Learning timing is the process of acquiring wisdom. We stand by dumb-faced when someone berates a stranger at the post office, but we jump impulsively and emotionally into an immediate Tweet about a complex social or political issue that we don’t fully understand. That’s the reason why artists who get political too fast often produce work that’s un-engaging or off-putting. We think we’re being brave by creating work in the name of shock, and then we say it’s the viewer’s fault when they’re repulsed or dismissive.
I’m not saying that work created with immediacy is invalid. I am saying that artists have to make sure their timing gauges are properly calibrated.
We don’t want to waste our time creating work that evokes a split second reaction that’s then just as immediately forgotten. We want our work to endure. Perception has to be rightly metabolized before it is released as an ultimate act. But first we have to allow ourselves the time and space to perceive. We have to allow ourselves to become the question mark.
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