Just Start

Sunday, 22. May 2022 22:20 | Author:

One of the things that makes creatives creative is the abundance of imagination. We can hardly close our eyes without seeing images, stories, ideas; then we open our ideas and they disappear as quickly as they came. Often they come in the twilight as we are drifting to sleep, in dreams, in daydreams, when we are bored. Those of us who are lucky or who have enough foresight or who have enough discipline will quickly make notes to record these images, ideas, and stories. For others of us, they just disappear.

What do those of us who manage to get these products of the imagination down on paper or into a computer or tablet do with the list once we have it? Often the answer is “very little;” it turns into a list of potential projects, and there it sits. These potential projects often remain potential and are never really realized as projects. Is it just procrastination or some other reason?

For some, it is our working methodology: we hesitate to try to actualize potential projects because we cannot see the end of the project, so we think we don’t know how to begin. That is, we need to know the outcome before we begin the project. Unfortunately, most of our imaginations do not produce project ideas and images fully developed; it is up to us to take the snippets we dream and develop them.

This cannot happen unless we actually pick up the brush or pen or camera, or keyboard or chisel and actually make a start, trusting in ourselves to develop the project wherever the material takes us. That’s the hard part: beginning the journey of creation without knowing either the location of the end or what the end actually is.

But it’s how we have to do it—if we are ever to create anything. It’s the trusting the process that’s difficult. Many of us think that we will only get as far as we do when we put the thoughts into our potential projects list. And maybe that will happen, but what is more likely to happen is that in actually beginning the project, new insights will develop. We will begin to see where the material might go and we will choose which of the branches to follow, and then even more ideas will develop and we will see further down the path of development. And then finally we will be able to see the end. The realization of the project becomes about discovery.

And the good news is that, at any point in this discovery process, we can go back over what we have already done and edit it, making it better, more meaningful, more stimulating, more engaging. Of course, the edits will alter the course of the project, and thus the final outcome.

But what if development stalls? What if the discovery process fails before we reach the end? We do the same things we do when any project stalls: we examine the project to see if it’s really a failure, we salvage what we can, and we deal with it.

We are still in a better position than if we were waiting around to begin—because we have done something. As basketball and hockey fans will quickly tell you, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The quote is most often attributed to Wayne Gretzky, but regardless of who originally said it, it applies. No matter how creative we are, we cannot realize a project unless we actually start on it.

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Art Can Do That

Sunday, 8. May 2022 23:36 | Author:

At one point in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, the main character, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who is on a train headed to New York City opens a book and begins to read, “trying to forget who he is and where he is and what he’s doing for a little while.”  He succeeds. Books can do that. Books can take us into worlds that are fantastic or realistic or horrible or joyous or curious or delightful or romantic or…. When we read, particularly when we read fiction, we become completely lost to ourselves; our surroundings seem to cease to be. We ourselves seem to completely disappear, overtaken by action and characters and ideas in the world of the book. And that, very often, is completely wonderful.

The same sort of thing happens with plays and movies. We find our surroundings fade as we focus on the stage of screen, and fade further as we become interested in the characters and their behaviors that we find there. Then as the film or play progresses, we begin to disappear as our whole attention is focused on the characters’ development and the unfolding plot. And once again we have been removed from out every-day existence in our every-day world and immersed in a fantasy or a war or a mystery or an intrigue radically unlike our own lives.

Music transports us in slightly different ways. When we read or watch movies or plays, our bodies are passive, however, in the presence of music, our bodies very often are moving to the rhythm of the music, whether that movement is tapping our feet, moving our hands to the beat, or giving our whole body over the musical experience. Regardless, we still have many of the same responses. Our self-awareness is diminished; our thoughts turn from ourselves and our every-day worries to a complete oneness with the music. There may be visual aspects as well as aural to complete our engagement with the performance, so that all of our senses are completely focused on the event.

But how about arts that are more static, such as paintings, photography, and sculpture? We find that much the same thing can happen. We can get lost in a piece of static art just as surely and completely as we can in a more dynamic piece. Whether it’s the use of color or line that engrosses us or the composition or the detail, each piece of visual or plastic art has its own appeal, and many pieces have such an appeal that we need to spend some time with them. It’s why galleries and museums have strategically placed benches—so we can be comfortable while we are contemplating the work on display. It’s quite easy for many of us to become so absorbed in a photograph or sculpture or painting or drawing that we momentarily lose the use of our unoccupied senses and even become temporarily detached from our immediate environment.

It’s one of the undeniable appeals of art: the facility for involving us completely, for taking us, at least temporarily, out of ourselves. Most of us appreciate a respite from our everyday lives, no matter how pleasant or rewarding our actual lives may be, and art provides not only an escape but completely engaging experience that often returns us to the real world more enriched than when we left it.

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Narrow Your Focus

Sunday, 24. April 2022 22:26 | Author:

We in educational theatre teach actors not to generalize. There are no generalized actions, emotions, or situations. Everything must be specific: the given circumstances must be specific, and the actors’ responses to those circumstances must be specific as well; this sometimes gives rise to some very specific emotions which are tied to the situation being acted.

It occurs to me that this need for specificity is required in other arts as well. It would be beyond difficult to compose generalized music, or to create a generalized dance. In other arts the difficulty may not be quite so obvious. For example, many are the authors who begin generalized written works only to find out that such are not only difficult, but generally uninteresting. The same holds true for any work of art. Artists need to know not only what they are trying to say, but must decide very specific aspects of that subject. To say that one is writing a play about business in America is a very nebulous thing; to say that one is writing a play about the machinations that go on in a real estate sales operation is a much more specific and practical thing that is far more likely to result in a significant, compelling dramatic work.

The same is true, of course, of painting or photography or poetry. To be really viable, the work of art, and thus the artist, must be very specific, very focused. It is only through the explicit that we can say the things that actually need to be said—without generating a generalized work that, even if well-reasoned, will fail to hold the audience.

But what if artists want to tackle large subjects? How should they handle that? The answer is to narrow their focus, hone in on specific aspects of the topic they want to broach, and by creating detailed and focused work, reflecting the larger topic. For example, can there be any stronger anti-war statement than an artwork which depicts specifics of human suffering as the result of war? Can there be a stronger indictment of unethical business practices than a work which portrays the human cost of such practices?

Not only can focusing on specifics make the work stronger, it can aid the artist in creating the work. Many times, one of the problems of the artist is having too much material to deal with, particularly when trying to tackle a big subject. Focusing on one specific aspect of the subject can help the artist limit the subject matter so that it is easier to deal with; the artist can focus on a singular part of the overall topic instead of trying to deal with a massive subject area that defies organization.

Concentrating on one aspect of a subject can also keep the artist on track in terms of realizing the project. The artist can check the relevancy of parts of the project as they are assembled, thus preventing digressions and irrelevancies.

So instead of wandering aimlessly around a topic or area of concern, artists who narrow their focus have a much greater likelihood of producing really concentrated, meaningful art than those who do not. It is certainly something to consider as we contemplate our upcoming projects.

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The Art is Not the Artist

Sunday, 10. April 2022 23:32 | Author:

Serendipitously, in the middle of a conversation about “terrible people” making good art, I received a text telling me that playwright director David Mamet was/is a supporter of Donald Trump. Evidently, Mamet had done an interview with Bill Maher, and his political leanings, of which I had known for some time, came as a surprise to many people. Clearly, one of these was the person texting me, who is an outspoken liberal, and who was using this discovery to put Mamet into the category of “terrible people,” or at the very least, “terribly misguided people.”

Of course, the judgement that anyone is a terrible anything is subjective. It depends first on the judge’s point of view. To some, a person’s political leanings make them terrible. For others, it’s their behavior. Equally subjective is the definition of what constitutes terrible beliefs or actions. Third is the assumption that the judge has the “correct” view of what is right and wrong, what is desirable and what is not. And fourth, of course, is another assumption: that the judge has all the information on the subject at hand.

Once we’ve gotten past the subjective areas of such judgement, the question of the proper response comes up. We all know that one of the most frequent responses is the knee-jerk response to “cancel” the individual in question. For example, in the case of Mamet, a number of commenters to the Tweet said that they could no longer watch his films or plays because of this new knowledge. Some even said that this knowledge changed the meaning of his work which was created long before his political views shifted to the right.

We incorporated this “new” information into our conversation and continued. We discussed instances where really excellent art was produced by people that most would consider “terrible.” The facts of the artist’s life did not really impact the art work itself. In fact, in most instances, the personal proclivities were not apparent in the work at all. The conclusion was that it is probably better to try to separate the art and the artist, and that while neither of us would condone nor excuse bad behavior, once the art was created, it was no longer part of the artist. Therefore, it should be evaluated on its own merits rather than as an appendage to the “terrible person” who created it.

Separating the art and the artist is, of course, easier to do with artists who produce physical artifacts: plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, film. In the case of actors and performers, the separation is much more difficult, since the artifact and the artist are inseparable. Additionally, there seems to be a difference between artists who integrate their bad behavior with the work process, and those whose objectionable conduct happens away from the creative process.

It also seems that society is much more likely to forgive transgressions if the artist involved is dead. Also it seems that the further removed in time society is from the artist and the transgression, the easier it is to overlook terrible behavior. It turns out that a number of revered past artists were terrible by many standards, and society, which is quick to cancel contemporary artists who exhibit bad behavior, simply looks the other way in hindsight.

This is not a simple issue. It must take into account the art, the artist, current society, as well as the observer/judge’s own beliefs and biases. There may be no right answer. I am convinced, however, that the art and the artist are not the same and that to judge one in terms of the other is to do both a great disservice. And even after we separate the art and the artist, we must respond to both; how we do that is up to each individual and depends on who we are and how we relate to both the artist and what they create.

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When Artistic Growth Stops

Sunday, 27. March 2022 22:55 | Author:

One of the things that seldom comes up in discussions of art and creativity is the growth of the artist. And that’s a bit surprising given that growth is absolutely necessary for an artist, and a lack of growth may well end an art career.

There are a number of reasons that artists fail to grow. One may be that they simply run out of new ideas. Another is that they may find themselves repeating work they have already done. Yet another is that the conditions under which they work suppress growth. A fourth is that some event in the artist’s private life impacts the artistic side of their life in a negative manner. Certainly burnout is a cause of lack of growth. And, of course, there are other reasons, and combinations of reasons.

Then there is the problem of what actually constitutes “artistic growth.” A number of Internet articles discuss artistic growth, but what they are really discussing is the development of artistic skill in children, which is not useful in this context. And then there is the issue of different artists and theorists defining “artistic growth” in different ways. Bryan Mark Taylor says that growth comes from practicing rather than performing. Willa Cather says that artistic growth is a “refining of the sense of truthfulness.” I have often said that I never did a project from which I didn’t learn something, and thought for a long time that that was an indicator of artistic growth; I have since come to think of it as more than that, but I am convinced that learning is a component.

Lack of artistic growth can be very frustrating to artists. Some say it feels like writer’s block except that it continues over multiple projects. This frustration can be compounded by a growing lack of interest in the work as well as a growing lack of confidence. And that leads to a downward spiral for artists. So then the question becomes how to maintain artistic growth. One suggestion that I give to my students—for other reasons—is to find something in each project that piques your interest: some emotion to explore, some technique to resolve, some springboard for research. This often works for individual projects, but what about a larger problem that spans different projects?

Caleb Vaughn-Jones, writing for the blog, The Future Muse offers some suggestions in two posts: “Artistic Growth: The Journey to Artistic Fulfillment” and “3 Tips for Creating Original Music.”  There are other suggestions as well: Look for inspiration outside normal channels. Get involved in a workshop either physically or virtually. Talk with colleagues about what they are doing and what they are getting out of it; again, this can be physical or virtual. Read a book that you’ve put off reading. (I have not found creativity self-help books very useful, but you may.) Take a sabbatical. Pick a radically different kind of project. Try a project in a different venue. Do a project in a different medium. If you are working for a company or a school, consider another place of employment. And there are certainly other approaches. Some of these are extreme, but extreme measures may be called for, depending on how important the creation of art is to the particular artist; the alternative is to stagnate artistically.

The main thing is to break whatever patternw are causing the lack of growth. Since lack of artistic growth bridges multiple projects, there will be patterns, although it may take a bit of time to suss them out. Then if becomes a matter of picking the solution, or combination of solutions, that works best for the particular artist involved. Lack of artistic growth is not a simple problem and may not only take some time to acknowledge it, but require a variety of approaches for a solution.

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When You Don’t Like the Art You Make

Sunday, 13. March 2022 22:46 | Author:

It happens. Sometimes we make art that we don’t really like. This happens for a number of reasons. The work was a consignment piece; we made the work because it was on the schedule; the work didn’t turn out the way we expected; the reasons go on and on. But it feels strange to have made something and realize that you really don’t like it.

So then what do you do? There are a number of choices: you can destroy the piece, if it’s physical. You can rework the piece if there is sufficient time. You can put the piece into the world, but take your name off of it. You can call it a failure (even if it’s not really) and learn from the experience. Or you can recognize that you cannot love everything you make, let it go, and move on to the next project.

This happened to me recently. I directed a show, a musical, and it turned out to be not one of my favorites. There were a couple of reasons: one was the structure of the play; it was more a concert with narrative inserts than a real play, and it was not a show that I would have voluntarily gone to see had someone else staged it—not to my taste. But it was on the schedule and so I directed it. And it was successful. The intended audience showed up and—judging from their reaction—thoroughly enjoyed the show. And through it all, I nodded, and smiled, and said “thank you” when people told me how good it was.

And it was a good show. We worked the script to capitalize on its strengths and minimize its shortcomings. The musical direction was excellent, as was the band. Choreography, though minimal, was exactly what was necessary. The performers were precisely what the script needed to bring it to life. It was simply not to my taste. A valuable lesson I learned long ago from a visiting professor of English literature was to be able to distinguish between art that was good and art that I simply didn’t like. I learned that my liking or not liking a piece of art had no bearing on whether the art was good. That is determined by standards outside of individual likes and dislikes. So despite it being not to my taste, I did the best job directing that I could do, and even came to like certain parts of the show.

Like all artists, I would like to love everything I produce; however, it doesn’t seem possible, particularly when there are so many considerations in determining what projects one works on. So I think that if we are artisans as well as artists, we do pretty much what I did, or tried to do: make the project the best we possibly can. Put it out into the world. Accept whatever the reaction happens to be. Move on to the next project. Maybe it will be one that we can love.

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The Sensitivity Police

Sunday, 27. February 2022 21:53 | Author:

A while back I sent out a non-fiction book I was working on to readers to gather some feedback. Most of the feedback was extremely useful and supportive. One reader questioned some of my work on the grounds that if I were to publish the book as written, some of it would offend the target audience. Since the reviewer was a high school teacher of grades 11 and 12, I listened: the target audience was college freshmen and sophomores or at least people of that age. While some of her comments rankled, after some conversations I saw her point. She was “in the trenches” with the precise students who would become my audience, so her insights into their ways of thinking and responding were quite useful. I modified a number of sentences in the book based on her input. Some I left alone; to change them would have been to completely change who I am. Those parts that I changed certainly modified who I “am,” but did not significantly alter the content; more extreme changes would have completely altered the content and the voice of the author.

I did not mind making the alterations; the edits had purpose, and that purpose served to broaden the prospective readership; they were, to my mind, practical.

This is not necessarily the case with other authors’ experiences with readers, particularly “sensitivity readers.” For example, Kate Clanchy detailed her experience with sensitivity readers for her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me in her essay “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature;” it was not a happy one:

They [sensitivity readers] have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement. Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2). Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Clanchy is not the only writer to have trouble with sensitivity readers. Consider the experience of Ryan Holiday or the findings of Zoe Dubno. While many writers consider sensitivity readers acceptable, perhaps even desirable, for children’s or young adult works, they find these same readers anathema for adult work.  Clanchy, for example, says that since her book was meant for an adult audience, “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be.”

This does not stop publishers from employing them. There is a great concern with “online outrage,” which can, if fact, affect the bottom line. And, from a publishing viewpoint, that’s what it’s all about. From an artistic viewpoint, it’s another thing entirely. Art, some say, is supposed to challenge and disturb. This applies not only to written art, but to painting, photography, sculpture, dance, and any other art you can name. Making art acceptable to everyone, will certainly broaden your audience, and should, theoretically, help your sales. But does it make your work better? Are those really sales that you want, or would you rather retain some vestige of your artistic integrity and identity?

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Unfinished Projects

Sunday, 13. February 2022 17:27 | Author:

We all have them: unfinished projects cluttering our hard drives, taking up valuable physical storage space, stacked in the corner, piled on shelves, heaped in closets. Whether it’s incomplete canvasses, photography projects, incomplete stories or essays, unfinished musical compositions, or partially-realized sculptures, they all take up some sort of space and add clutter to our creative lives. As we begin to think about moving forward in the year, perhaps it’s time to address the issue of unfinished projects.

They exist for any number of reasons: in some cases, we simply ran dry or hit a wall, and decided to set them aside until we could have a new outlook. In other cases, we lost interest. In yet other cases, newer projects claimed our attention and we more or less forgot these that we left by the wayside. Whatever the reason, we left these projects uncompleted, but kept all the materials, “just in case…”

I am not suggesting that we need to complete all our unfinished projects or throw them out, but rather that we should review them—to determine which are still viable and which should be consigned to the trash. Actually, there are more gradations to our evaluation than just those two. We might review our incomplete projects and decide they go in one of several categories:

  • Finish this. Whatever has caused the incomplete nature of this project is no longer valid, or whatever has caused the lack of completion is no longer effective. We can see a path to the accomplishment of this project, so we should put in in the queue of projects scheduled for completion.
  • It needs more work. This type of project is not yet ready for full development, but might be put into a category of those that we work on in between other projects. Adding a little here, editing a little there, continuing the project, but not in full active mode.
  • Save the embryo. This project started with a solid idea, but the reasons it is incomplete far outweigh the good idea. The best thing that can be done is to salvage the idea and perhaps install it in another project that does not have the attendant problems; this will allow us to discard all the extraneous material, and, in effect, begin again.
  • Not yet. The idea is still solid, but the block to completion still exists. We can see where this project wanted to go and realize that the reason it has not gone forward is still valid and standing in the way of completion. This project goes back into storage for a time.
  • What was I thinking? This project was simply a bad idea from the outset and stopped for a reason, and whether the reason is still valid or not, the project itself is not worth the effort it would take to revive it. We can see if any of the pieces can be salvaged and perhaps recycled into other projects, either existing or future. The rest can be eliminated, allowing us to reclaim the storage space the project is taking up.

What we might do this year, and perhaps annually, is review our unfinished projects, categorizing them as noted above or according to whatever scheme we find useful. In this way we can reclaim both good ideas that just need further work, and space that could be put to better use. And we can unclutter our creative environment.

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When Arts Intersects Politics

Sunday, 30. January 2022 21:29 | Author:

Art and politics sometimes intersect, but usually those intersections are not highly publicized. The opposite was true this week with a great deal of publicity going to not one, but two incidents of intersecting art and politics. These instances are different, but both deserve examination.

One instance involves singer/songwriter Neil Young and the media platform Spotify. Young became aware of COVID-19 misinformation being spread by “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, also carried on Spotify. Young essentially gave Spotify an ultimatum to remove Rogan’s podcast or lose Young’s music. Spotify chose to keep Rogan and began to remove Young’s music.

It was then that things began to happen: Joni Mitchell said that in solidarity with Young she would remove her music from Spotify. Mitchell was joined by rock musician Nils Lofgren while others voiced support. Not only are artists pulling their music from Spotify, but subscribers are cancelling subscriptions to the streaming service, even some who are using the free version, and, perhaps more significantly, Spotify stocks fell 12% during the week. At this writing, things are not looking great for Spotify.

The other incident involved Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. On January 10, the McMinn County, Tennessee, Board of Education removed Maus from an eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, citing concerns about “’rough, objectionable language’ and a drawing of a nude woman.” Spiegelman called the decision “myopic,” noting that he could believe that the word “damn” “would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own. Regarding the nudity, he said the image in question was “tiny.” He went on to say, ”you have to really , like, want to get your sexual kicks by projecting on it.”

There was, of course, and immediate backlash, and not only in the local area, where a book giveaway is in progress, a church plans discussion on the book’s themes, and a professor plans to offer free classes. A comic-book store in Knoxville is giving away copies of the book to interested students. The story of the ban and the backlash went international.

Naturally, interest in Maus has shot up around the world. Many outlets sold out. Before this week neither Maus nor The Complete Maus, which includes a second volume was in the top 1,000 books on Amazon. By Friday Maus was No. 12 on Amazon and shipping in mid-February. By Sunday, it was a “#1 Bestseller” and shipping in late February to early March. So by “protecting” eighth-graders, the McMinn County Board of Education has almost guaranteed those students would read one of the free copies which suddenly became available, and has rekindled world-wide interest in a classic book about the Holocaust, which, in turn, will raise Holocaust awareness.

The final outcome in both of these instances is yet to be determined. Indeed, there may be no “final outcome.” But both incidents have already raised awareness that has both political and artistic implications. (I know that I have a sudden yen to revisit both Neil Young’s music and my copy of Maus.) Artists in both incidents have publically stated their opinions and have garnered significant public support. And that is enough to give one hope.

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Art Can Provide Respite

Monday, 17. January 2022 23:58 | Author:

Sometime it gets to be too much: the world, the increasingly disturbing political landscape, the equally disturbing growth of social injustice, and so on. It weighs on us; it unsettles us; it depresses us. And perhapsthose are appropriate responses. Even if we’ve already done all that we can do and contributed all that our budget will allow, it still becomes a lot to handle and continue our day-to-day existence, particularly if we are empathetic people who believe in rights and democracy. But what should we do?

One choice is to ignore the politics and the current social climate all together. Don’t listen to the news, don’t subscribe to political/social feeds. Cover our heads and let the world go by. That is indeed a solution for the individual, but it has the downside of political and social ignorance. Admittedly, what we don’t know can’t bother us—until it does, until laws change, and the behavior of those around us changes so that it finally impacts us. Unfortunately, if we didn’t see it coming, we will have done little to protect ourselves or others. Ignorance may be bliss, but only for a short time.

Another way of avoiding the world is to occupy our minds with non-news activity so there is no time left to pay attention to ugly side of things. We spend our time scrolling TikTok, Instagram, Twitter feeds that are carefully curated to present us with nothing more challenging than cute cat pictures. And our minds relax. Again, until something actually impacts us; then we feel blindsided, because, well, we have been.

Some take refuge in art, either making it or enjoying it—or both. Those who completely lose themselves in either activity are no better off than those hiding their heads, but this approach seems more rewarding than mindless scrolling.

Perhaps a more balanced approach is called for. Stay aware of the current state of affairs, but when it becomes too much, turn up our interest/participation in art. We can immerse ourselves in art, either in making our own or appreciating another’s for a time to restore our sanity.

One caution: we might do well to avoid that art which serves social justice. As Joseph Horowitz, writing for American Purpose, says in his article “The Arts and Social Justice: Bedfellows?”:

Does art serve social justice? Does social justice serve art? My own impression is that much of what today passes for politically aroused art fails to transcend journalistic agitation. It does not linger in the mind and heart. It does not furnish the ballast associated with great literature and music, paintings and sculpture. That equation is traditional. It may also be indispensable.

If we take some time to indulge in either making or enjoying art that is not relevant in any sort of political or social sense, but rather “lingers in the mind and heart” if only for a brief period of time, we might find respite from the grim insanity of the world today. And we could all use the rest.

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