The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

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A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

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In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

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Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

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Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

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Die Gestalt des Menschen

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

In Vienna, a little romance has blossomed between me and sculpture. It’s hard to say how this happened; it unfolded slowly, and now I am irresistibly drawn to these three-dimensional creatures that transform before my eyes as I circle them. So rich in possibilities! So imaginative in design! Endless drawings grasp after these bronze, marble and terracotta constructions, with each viewpoint a new vision, a new insight.

In one of his more lighthearted moments, Kafka, too, relished the magic of sculpture. Of a trip to the Louvre he writes in his diaries (p. 459-60):

‘Even when you walked around the Venus de Milo as slowly as possible, there was a rapid and surprising alteration in its appearance. … I should need a plastic reproduction to remember them, especially one about the way the bended left knee affected her appearance from every side, though sometimes only very slightly. …

The front view of the Borghese Wrestler isn’t the best one, for it makes the spectator recoil and presents a disjointed appearance. Seen from the rear, however, where for the first time you see his foot touching the ground, your eye is drawn in delight along the rigid leg and flies safely over the irresistible back to the arm and sword raised towards the front.’

The sculptor must be a mannerist, for in sculpture the figure stands alone, no background to compositionally support it. Perhaps a lute or some drapery bend space in the desired way, but these too mustn’t stray too far from the figure, and must be supported somehow. This is the human form at its most expressive! Extended arms in theatrical gestures; cocked hips and crunched abdomens; exaggerated sweeps of legs and improbable stacks of pelvises and rib cages supported by ruthless gravity but given wings by imagination.

Kenneth Clark (p. 357) surprisingly suggests that ‘to use the body as a means of expressing the anguish of the human soul is no longer a possible enterprise.’ He concludes his book The Romantic Rebellion with a chapter on Rodin, whose Eve I have been fawning over in the Upper Belvedere, seeming to situate Rodin at the end of an era in the expressive relevance of the human form. Perhaps he is historically correct in this; as Kandel (p. 215) argues, the emergence of modernism was signalled by the advent of ‘two broad, sometimes overlapping types of experiments, both designed to enlarge the viewer’s experience in ways that photography could not’: specifically, one loose camp of artists proceeded to dissect the physicality of painting, toying with perspective and form and such representational tools to produce something visually challenging. The second broad camp of artists used all available tools to explore the psyche, and the visual representation of emotions. Historically, then, there seems, in the wake of Rodin, no place for the realistic representation of the human figure when abstraction, symbolism and expressive distortions have picked up where he left off.

However, Clark (p. 357) offers an insightful reason for the impossibility of continuing Rodin’s powerful tradition: ‘We do not know how to represent the body and do not believe in the existence of the soul.’ The first contention seems fair, yet surmountable. It’s certainly more difficult now to learn solid draughtsmanship, and to be guided on points of form and anatomy, but schools exist, and individuals persevere. The second point is more difficult to dodge, and seems to resonate with Nietzsche’s fearless observation of the beliefs of his fellow human beings that God is dead. We are crying out for a new metaphor, a new way to describe that restlessness within us, that feeling intellect, that thoughtful sentience. We are wed to this earth by our bodies of dirt, held fast by gravity. But we feel more than mere pain and pleasure, and are propelled by more than instinct.

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Rodin’s Eve clings to the old metaphor but in a way unlike any other I’ve seen: her belly beginning to bulge, she clutches herself in shame and misery at the wounded world she is to birth. She shields her head, hung low and dark, with a hastily-sculpted hand, shying from the blame she is to wear for all of womankind for her curious and defiant actions. Not a seductive temptress proffering jewel-like fruit to her unsuspecting and guileless male companion, not a sparkling goddess of fertility; Rodin’s Eve probes the devastation of the first act in the tragedy that is our western metaphor and reveals that metaphor for the failure that it is, and the failure that it has forced us to be from the beginning.

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Rodin’s truth is ugly, but apt and timely. The man himself says (in Kandel, p. 103), ‘There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth.’ Rodin himself begins to turn inwards in a way that aligns with the Viennese expressionists, including Schiele and Kokoschka, who ‘produced work that boldly challenged the aesthetic focus on beauty and the association of beauty with truth’ (p. 102), and who themselves turned inwards. Interestingly, however, while their paintings distorted the human figure, they relied heavily on gestural symbolism within the figure, returning again and again to the expressiveness of human hands, as well as playing with the meanings implied by awkward angularities and physical relations between figures. I return again and again to Schiele’s The Family in the Belvedere, where Schiele, ape-like, drapes his protective but awkward arms around his wife Edith, who sits serenely between his legs, where she received the fruit of his loins, and her own legs are parted, knees raised high, to introduce their inquisitive child into the world from between her own fruitful thighs. There is a vulgarity in this, but a beautiful honesty relevant to the age. And it is not thoroughly severed from the knowledgeable representation of the human form (Schiele’s anatomical knowledge is always prominent), though it distorts and in some ways caricatures.

Schiele, then, provides an apt example for Nelson’s (p. 179) admonition ‘that we acquire no more technical sophistication than we need,’ or, rather, that we make use of it no more than we need. In this sense, academicism in our drawing is only relevant insofar as we need it to achieve our ends. ‘The purpose is always the nub of the discussion’ he continues; ‘and a focus on technique without a corresponding dedication to the purposes which it might serve strikes me as idle.’ Nelson is right to emphasise the motivation for our learning, though it is difficult to see how a thorough education could be ‘idle’ in any sense. Setting our goals and aiming no higher precludes what we might have gone on to achieve if we’d only allowed ourselves the resources. It seems far less limiting to me to learn all you can, and watch your own purpose emerge out of your unfettered abilities.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

And as Scott Breton argues, these age-old skills do not confine the artist to endless similitude: ‘Drawing the figure in the classical sense, is not copying.’ Rather than agreeing on a standardised visual notation, artists with such training are each attempting to use the most convincing tools at their disposal to fulfil their individual visions: ‘It is an attempt at integration, a kind of improvisation and simplification in real time, that brings together gesture and body language, anatomy, design, form and character. … From beginning to end, good painting is a process of creative integration of elements such that the alchemy of their mixture makes the gold the artist was grasping for: the gestalt, the intangible story.’

Kandel (p. 103) notes that art, throughout history, has appealed to the same emotions in people, and yet we are never satiated, we continue to be enthralled by art. New art finds new ways to ignite old passions in us, and we don’t feel deceived by this, but rather seek it out. Riegel (in Kandel, p. 104) suggests that it is the task of the artist to teach people to look afresh, to find the truths—age old or relevant to our own age—for themselves.

The figure remains as prominent in art—fine art, commercial art; digital art, photography, painting, sculpture—as ever. The body speaks to us in profound ways, through facial expression and body language, through idealisation and imperfection, through age and gender. Let us hold fast to the expressive figure and our ability to represent it, but let us forge new metaphors and search out new truths. God is dead; man is not.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Dangerous liaisons

Les liaisons dangereuses c Samantha Groenestyn

Les liaisons dangereuses © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

The winds of change bring not just cooling Autumn rain, but also new adventures: within a month I will be leaving warm, sleepy Australia for sparkling Vienna. I’ll be trading rough and ready Brisbane for a (the?) global cultural capital, whiling away my hours swooning over paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, spending my evenings at the opera, and doing some Very Serious Painting over gold-leaf-flecked cakes and creamy coffee.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Having recently finished an ambitious book that links together art, neuroscience, psychology and Vienna, I am filled with confidence at a new aspect to my direction in life. Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present talks intelligently to the reader, delving into current brain research and treating Freud’s brazenly novel ideas with honest admiration for what they set in motion. Plus, it is illustrated, with Klimt’s dreamy paintings and Kokoschka’s and Shiele’s charged paintings an optically pleasing counterbalance to brain diagrams and psychology flow-charts in the quest for the unconscious. The most striking thing about the book is that Kandel does not have to draw tenuous threads through these diverse fields: He simply situates them, historically, in one small city of two million people at the turn of the twentieth century, and unfolds a narrative of minds fertilising one another in an intellectually electric environment.

Austrian Parliament

Austrian Parliament

That environment was cultivated in a very specific way. Vienna in 1900, argues Kandel (p. 499), ‘provided a social context—the university, coffeehouses, and salons—in which scientists and artists could readily exchange ideas.’ He cites Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon several times, and the luminaries she drew together, such as Klimt and Rodin. He writes extensively of the influence of Rokitansky in the Vienna Medical School, and the social connections struck up through the university between faculties. Vienna was a small place, something like Brisbane, and one can imagine the intimacy—in Brisbane there is a joke that there are only two degrees of separation between all of its inhabitants. Importantly, Kandel (p. 499) points out, scholars of the sciences and arts alike were united by a common interest: that of ‘unconscious mental processes,’ enabling a true dialogue of benefit to all parties.

Books

The dialogue between art and brain science, Kandel (p. xvi) explains in his opening comments, is of mutual benefit because these two fields ‘represent two distinct perspectives on mind. Through science we know that all of our mental life arises from the activity of our brain. … Art, on the other hand, provides insight into the more fleeting, experiential qualities of mind, what a certain experience feels like.’ Where Freud could envision an idea of the unconscious that appeared to fit with his experience with his patients, and where brain science could seek to explain why these mysterious patterns exist, Kokoschka could, through his expressionist brushwork and symbolism, explain these concepts visually. Klimt’s art in particular drew on his knowledge of emerging science, and symbols of fertility permeate his paintings while visually describing sensuality in a very moving way. Kandel (p. 507) traces right back to da Vinci, who ‘used his newly gained knowledge of the human anatomy to depict the human form in a more compelling and accurate manner.

Bibliothek

Bibliothek

All of this work chips away at the same problem from different angles, giving us different ways in, providing different insights, recording different aspects of our experience of our own minds. In a context where the work of these various fields can influence each other, new questions can arise; the cumulative body of work can grow in ways that each strain could not achieve independently. ‘It is quite likely,’ Kandel (p. 506) argues, ‘that finding new interactions between aspects of art and aspects of the science of perception and emotion will continue to enlighten both fields, and that in time those interactions may well have cumulative effects.’

Wiener Rathaus

Wiener Rathaus

Kandel (p. 501) asserts the need for a ‘third way, a set of explanatory bridges across the chasm between art and science.’ He envisions this third, conciliatory way as enabling discussion between heretofore restricted intellectual fields—a modern salon, centred around the universities (p. 505). It is at this point that I realise the immense value of the position I inhabit. A philosophy graduate, still tied up in the university, romantically partnered with a quantum physicist and able to move freely in these academic circles, I am also a painter, spending much of my time in the company of artists of an especially intellectual breed. While the Atelier exists outside of the university, it seeks to fulfil aspects of artistic study that I would venture that the fine arts in the university context in Australia cannot: pursuing excellence in practice and rigorous analytical thinking wholly tied up in that practice, not in conceptualising about social commentary or confusing the viewer through impenetrable artist statements and other trickery. Bringing these minds together—painters, philosophers and physicists—is about the noblest cause I can think of.

Sculpture

This work is already underway, in the coffee shops of Brisbane, in parties in old Queenslander houses, and in the old bomb factory warehouse that houses the Atelier. Ryan recently instituted a public lecture series at the Atelier, where intellectuals of all fields are invited to talk to artists in the spirit of collaboration. Jacques enthusiastically gave the first talk a couple of weeks ago, introducing current ideas in physics that might meld with ideas in art (you’ll be able to see his talk here soon). Ian Neill followed with a presentation on academicism in art. Rumour has it that Kari Sullivan will be sharing some linguistic observations pertaining to art, and that others have thoughts on the haphazard modern art education contrasted with the rigorous and ordered education of music, and the critical value of the peer review system sorely lacking in the visual arts where any amateur can demand respect. The topics are endless, the speakers willing, and the growing audience is stimulated.

Streets of Vienna

Streets of Vienna

Most of all, I intend to continue to open my home—be it in Brisbane, Vienna, or anywhere else in this intellectually vibrant world—and share tasty food, abundant wine and fierce discussion with passionate thinkers in all fields. Consider this your invitation.

Arches

* Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

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Reclaiming ‘work’

Analogue stack © Samantha Groenestyn

I like to work—I love to be thoroughly occupied, engaged in a task, thinking it through and acting it out, seeing it to completion. But the word ‘work’ has been taken from us. ‘Work’ no longer defines a task laboured at, that draws on our carefully developed skills. ‘Work’ is inherently a repulsive word, a heady amalgam of ‘obligatory’ and ‘distasteful’ and ‘repetitive.’ It’s that adult commitment that we must attend to day after day, on someone else’s terms, that esteems us as worthy members of society. Though we are at it all the time, we separate it from our ‘real selves,’ the ones that go home and live honestly in private.

The Ancient Greeks lauded the public life as the pinnacle of existence. Domestic life provided comfort and refreshed one for public duties. Our modern democracies reverse this: the private life is prized above all else. We work to support our private lives. We hope that our job might contribute some good to the world, but above all, we hope to fund our houses, our renovations, our growing families and their electronics fetishes. We don’t pride ourselves in our work. We pride ourselves in our homes.

Joanne Faulkner* (p. 62) words it thus:

Against Locke and Rousseau, Arendt laments the ascendancy of intimacy and the modern notion that the true self can be expressed only in the private. In the capitalist age, the development of the sphere of intimacy, along with an emphasis on wealth and accumulation, has given rise to styles of life that isolate people from one another. In search of freedom, enjoyment and self-expression, what we find is consumption. Hobbies and leisure replace work, a more subversive (Bakhtian) mode of play, and dialogue as a means of self-discovery.

Perhaps it is because we have lost control of our work. We lack the autonomy to perfect our craft; our boss defines the limits of our work and thus our ability to perform at a level that engages us or gives us something to be proud of. Ashamed of our fruitless efforts, we turn inward, to the home, and fill it with goods that demonstrate our skills and taste. Locked up in bland plastic-clad offices, we dress our houses up in fittings from Italy; serving microwaved lasagne in a café, we cook elaborate meals in our own homes. Home becomes the only place we can express ourselves.

But, you object, work is not about expressing yourself. Of course, when I microwave the lasagne, I feel not a bit like myself. My ‘real’ self doesn’t own a microwave, and doesn’t miss it. But microwaving lasagne is not my work. It’s what I do for money, but it’s not my craft that I am pouring my skills into. The master craftsman does express himself in every product he carefully produces. Every Stradivari violin is purported to sound like a Stradivari, because a man devoted his life to crafting musical instruments of incredible quality. His work is an expression of himself, not an imitation of someone else or a strict adherence to procedure. Greatness does not come from adhering to guidelines.

To reclaim ‘work’ and reattach it to our expressive labours, we need to uncouple it from financial reward and associate it instead with personal improvement and the products thereby produced—be they scientific ideas, violins, or works of art. I work every day. I work at my technique, I work on my concepts, I produce finished paintings. Some of the days, I have to set my work aside and follow strict directions in exchange for money, but I know the difference.

 

This order reads: ‘One-quarter strength skinny latte, half strength decaf long black.’

If you drink this coffee, you might not really be a grown-up. Stick to chocolate milk?

 

* Faulkner, Joanne. 2011. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Qu’est-ce que vous faites dans la vie?

Surrealism © Samantha Groenestyn

None of us are so much deciding what do be or what to do with our lives as figuring out how to be or to do it.

When your small, past self was asked what it intended to do once it was a fully-fledged rational being, I’m sure it had a clear idea. It may not have had a title for it, but your child-self (and yes, I usually refer to children as ‘it’) quite probably imagined spending the day in one or several particular ways. Jen Bekman’s younger self knew she just had to have a job reading magazines—an ambition surely scoffed at, but she now makes a living doing essentially that, as well as running a gallery and selling prints online through her 20×200 project.* As a child, I usually worked myself to exhaustion at my little square table, passing out, crayon in hand. This ought to have been a clue.

Somewhere on our path to rational-beinghood, we learn to quantify occupations differently, and to the detriment of our own clear thinking. Presented with a list of jobs on a job search website, one gets all sorts of silly ideas like, ‘I think I want to edit books. That makes money,’ simply because these jobs are advertised. (I think editing is a fine career—only, for myself it would be a stepping stone and is thus a distraction since it requires further training).

What we really want to ask ourselves is this: ‘Hey, future self, how do you want to spend each day?’ Shall I get up and rush to the city by train, reading classics on the way, get coffee with a friend and then sift through reports until morning tea, eat a piece of cake at my desk, respond to some emails and spend the rest of the day compiling a team work plan? In fact, I think I would rather read blogs over cheesy toast, read some illustration books, work on some thumbnail sketches and concepts and, after a leisurely lunch on the veranda, spend the afternoon painting, thank you very much. Step away from the what and concentrate on the specifics of the how.

Truth: most of us know, even if it’s a deep dark secret, how we want to spend our time. I know your friend knew since the age of twelve that he was going to be a theoretical physicist, and that made you feel indecisive and as though you got off to a shaky start. But your friend was just lucky to have a name for what he does, rather than a vague desire to write in some capacity, and some ill-defined sense of connecting people, and an obsessive love of magazines. Think about this: Jen Beckman has built her career based around the internet, and when she was growing up there was no internet save the scary military kind completely lacking in a graphic user interface. Maybe your career doesn’t exist yet, but your interests and skills do, and you ought to invest in them with every quantum of energy in your being.

It is my sincere belief that we ought really be concerned with how to get paid for what we do. This is what we really mean when we say we are trying to figure out what to do with our lives. We already do fabulous things that other people get paid for every day. Some people get paid to read magazines. And I bet you pay to read magazines. Time to get creative and show the world why they should take our interests seriously, and why our interests should be our nine-to-five.

Debbie Millman interviewed Jen Bekman on her ever-entertaining segment Design Matters, through which I learned everything I know about Jen Bekman.

I’ve spent many a happy hour in a tree in the past year. The above tree is in St Kilda, Melbourne. I usually take a good book (here, Leonard Cohen), or someone to k-i-s-s.

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Living intentionally

Cloves © Samantha Groenestyn

Never seeing the person you love again—this is the harrowing reality facing Ira in Discover Love, a performance I had the privilege to see the Belarus Free Theatre perform last night. After a lifetime of struggle, poverty, and surviving with barely a moment to talk, Ira’s husband Tolya is kidnapped and executed. Giddy childhood memories, the street community, falling in love with her physics teacher—a rich patchwork of a life is stitched together like Ira’s grandmother’s cheerful patchwork quilt, with vibrant dancing, a haunting ocarina and a box of oranges. All is dashed when one life out of so many is removed.

Somehow it seems like the very struggle for existence makes life richer and more meaningful. The poverty, the daily resistance, the bold eastern European culture set amidst the repression of a former Soviet republic have a guilty romanticism. When another man approaches Tolya and asks him to leave Ira, Tolya quietly, in his beautiful curling language that sounds like softly warbling doves, explains, ‘I love my wife, and we have struggled so much to be here now. It would be best if you left.’

Somehow, the idea that such passionate, salt of the earth people could want our gaudy consumer-driven lives, could want to move to such a bland, banal country as our own, is a let down. Yes, we have opportunity, and wealth, and freedom to choose—freedom, indeed, to perform theatre, while members of the Belarus Free Theatre are exiled from their own country—and we would never wish the agonies portrayed in Discover Love on our brothers and sisters abroad. But what is this fine line between living hungrily, purposefully and meaningfully, and living under hardship and fear? Is it possible for us to live so intentionally in complete freedom? Our freedom makes our challenges trifles. If only we could learn from Tolya that ‘one shouldn’t cry over trifles’.

The resounding declaration from Discovering Love is that ‘Every person is free. No one rules over anyone else.’ Not husbands, not employers, not states.

Source: Brisbane Powerhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discover Love is showing at the Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre until Sunday 19 February, 7.30pm; Sunday 1pm, 6pm, with a free Q&A session following Saturday’s performance. $25-$30.

* Our homemade spice rack, replete with old cook books from my mum.

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A beginning

Today marks the beginning of my new career. I think I’ve finally happened upon one to really sink my teeth into for the next few decades. I’m setting up shop–as an illustrator.

Atomic © Samantha Groenestyn

Above is an early effort at gouache, a posterised ‘hyper-J’ at a New Town cafe–Atomic–last year. The breakfast there was amazing. My eggs came with dukkah and olives. The walls had images painted directly onto them. The coffee was good.

Now, due to the lack of illustration courses of any variety–university, TAFE–in Australia, excepting one in Melbourne, which is very far from me, I am teaching myself. While I take a part-time graphic design class at a local commercial arts college, I wouldn’t say there’s much guidance or even emphasis on illustration. The real reward for doing such courses is that you become a certified Adobe CS user. No, it will just be me, my pens, pencils, paints and imagination–and many books.

In one of these books I stumbled across the following declaration from illustrator David Lucas, and pushed myself to adhere to it:

It is a huge mistake for me ever to let money worries rule my decision-making. They are a factor of course, but must not be allowed to dominate. In my experience it is vital to aim high, both artistically and in life. I generally find that if I raise my sights, events conspire in my favour–fate smiles on me. If I am too cautious things begin to unravel.

This is, broadly, my outlook on life–work the hardest you can, strive for the best thing you can think of, and things will come together, you’ll find a way.

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Unconventional resumes

When people make a decision to dramatically change their course in life, it is seen as both admirable and inferior. Perhaps it is admirable because it involves making oneself ‘inferior’—materially depriving oneself and taking oneself out of a linear career path. Dreams are not always enough when healthy salaries and CBD offices are on offer. Doing what you are passionate about can mean less nice clothes and less restaurant dinners. And being held in lesser esteem by people with ‘real’ jobs and mortgages.

What does it mean to make such a decision? Once you ‘work the restlessness out of [your] system,’ can you ‘settle down and get a job at a good firm somewhere’? Will Holman believed as much, and set off in search of adventures rather than accepting a standard architecture job following work placements. His essay in Design Observer is lengthy, but worth the perseverance. He details the incredible experiences he has had in ‘social design’ in place of a corporate graduate role, the endless loading of his old Corolla and criss-crossing America to take up internships and longer term positions at Arcosanti, Rural Studio and YouthBuild, followed by some freelancing and furniture-making. Though he had every opportunity to do things the sensible way, Will forged his own path, driven by a passion for getting his hands dirty and by a belief that design can respond more ethically to the needs rather than wants of the world.

His choices echo the catchcry of the First Things First manifesto, originally penned in 1964 and updated in 2000 in Adbusters, signed by ‘graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators.’* Any recent graduate might find themselves crying, ‘There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills!’ when faced with the sheer futility of the corporate job they have taken.

There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. … We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication—a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.

Reading this declaration, the beginning of a critical, theoretical design book (a rarity amongst the pared-back descriptions of colour theory and typography), brought back a flood of memories from my first effort at design school, a time of reading dystopian zines and anarchic cookbooks and Adbusters, of sitting in the library reading Marx and critiques of consumerism. This was the first time I made a hard left: On being told by my lecturers that I was destined for advertising, I signed up for a degree in philosophy.

Caroline Fryar, whose endless sock-knitting I ploughed through bemusedly, and whose enthusiasm for spinning I sympathised with, turned a hard left from academia. Destined for postgraduate research in all manner of classics and ancient Greek and linguistics, Caroline happened upon her plan B of ditching university to be a shepherdess. Having innocently found her blog while searching ‘knitting,’ and seeing that she described herself most prominently as ‘farm manager,’ my curiosity was piqued—how did she get here? The answer is simply this: She saw an ad. She applied for the job. She got it, and, brushing off the constant questioning of ‘aren’t you wasting your education? your brilliant mind?’ accepted it.

How crazy is it to walk into class and answer your professor’s ‘So, how’s your future looking? Hear from any schools over break?’ with, ‘Um well actually I am going to go be a shepherdess instead!’ ?

‘Well, that’s a surprise! …and I did just have you all read the Eclogues over break.’

While the world at large says things like, ‘good on you for following your dreams,’ it stomps on us as it turns its back on us. Following your dreams is good because it makes you happy to do what you most want to do. Following your dreams is admirable because it’s hard. Following your dreams is hard because most people don’t, and because most people put up with something else, that something else becomes the norm which then makes it hard to stray from the standard path.

Yesterday, I quit my job. Which is to say, I gave notice, and will finish in two weeks. This means my days will soon be freed up to do all the things I most want to do—productive, creative, challenging things that are rewarding for me but not considered of equal monetary value as the screwing around I have been doing in my highly-paid job. Leaving that job is in every way unconventional, reduces my security, and makes my life thoroughly unpredictable. But for now, that hard left feels good.

Will Holman admits, ‘My unconventional resume has proven to be a liability in a competitive job market; architecture firms I’ve interviewed at are looking for people with traditional commercial experience and advanced software skills. … This situation is of my own making, and I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken — forward, sideways or backwards — but I do wish there was more allowance in the licensure process for unconventional paths like mine.’

I don’t know how things will work out for us unconventional types with ‘holes’ in our resumes and educations—presumably we succeed or we end up homeless, with nothing. Then again, I was homeless for several months during the past year despite my job security and respectable income, so who is to say that one path is more stable than the other? I know that I’m doing what I need to do, because with only one lifetime in which to be as rad as possible, I don’t want to disappear into the faceless piles of perfect resumes.

* Looking Closer 4 Critical Writings on Graphic Design. 2002. Eds: Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller. Allworth Press: New York.

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Career progression

‘Higher’ level jobs all seem to involve more planning, strategy and coordination than actual performance of a job. One might be a builder, but as the boss, one has to get plans approved by the council, visit the tile shop to order in the correct tiles, calculate all the bricks needed to construct the house, and present quotes to potential clients. The ‘higher’ up a builder is, the less cementing bricks to other bricks and nailing wood to more wood he or she does—those ‘lower’ jobs can be left to day labourers and contractors.

But what if you really just like building? At some point, we each have to make a choice about what it is that we enjoy and value, and construct our own hierarchies. Of course there will always be chains of command, with a boss-figure directing subordinates, with one person overseeing other people’s work because that person has the broader picture. But we need to separate that functional structure from our own conception of the value of what we do.

‘The modern era is often described as a skills economy,’ writes Richard Sennett* (p. 37), ‘but what exactly is a skill?’ It is assumed that the more skilled one is, the more advanced in one’s career one ought to be, with more responsibilities and more strategic influence. But skills, Sennett argues, are more about problem solving through repetition. One acquires them through a learning process of repeating a task until something ‘clicks’ and then repeating it some more until one finds better ways of doing it. ‘Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving and opening up occurs again and again’ (p. 38).

If one is at a point in one’s career that enables one to simply focus on the job rather than fighting with peripherals, one is far better positioned to develop these skills. What’s more, one is more likely to be enjoying it, since one signed up to be a builder / illustrator / physicist, and thus is likely inclined to prefer building / illustrating / theorising about physics more than chasing clients or applying for grants. Actually completing the tasks presents challenges that give a sense of achievement once overcome, once problems are solved. And the longer one lingers at this ‘lower’ level, the more refined one’s skills will become.

It is possible that the world isn’t entirely composed of people who like to use their hands when solving problems. Perhaps some people really do get a kick out of hands-free strategising, at a safe distance from the dirt. If your skill is really and truly administration, well, good for you. But I would never esteem you as being far above labourers, researchers and painters simply for your overarching role in an organisation. The little people have these skills too—only they know where the real satisfaction in work lies, and it’s not at the top.

* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin Books: London.

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Blind Man’s Bluff

Today I witnessed a heartbreaking scene. Arriving late to the bus stop, hot and out of breath, I came suddenly to a halt behind the man before me, who was standing to rigid attention like a soldier, in dark shades. This image of power was subverted by the tapping sound of his cane, seeking the doorway of the bus.

The elevated platform found, the gap navigated by feel, he stepped up bravely into the bus and forcefully slammed his face into the metal bar that divides the doorway. His glasses clattered to the gutter and he immediately crouched, his face caught between a self-effacing smile and a grimace of pain. The bus driver’s face was the ironic mask of the helplessness that is induced by the helplessness of another.

I picked up the man’s glasses, halting his unknowing search with a brush on the arm. As he inclined his head towards me, I noticed his eyes were held tightly shut, as though he kept all his secrets behind them. Slowly he found his way into the bus, to a seat at the front quickly vacated by a young girl with eager sympathetic eyes.

The poignancy of the situation struck me at first, accentuated by the sound of the clang as his head collided with the metal bar, still ringing in my mind’s ear; how something ordinarily hilarious became, through a simple twist, incredibly tragic. He was clearly new to being blind, awkwardly discovering a new universe in which he was utterly powerless and beset by obstacles invisible to the seeing person. He must still remember the joys of sight so keenly, I thought, that depression must surely loom over him every day. Yet here he was, ploughing into poles so that he could learn to be blind and not be helpless, unable to do something as simple as catch a bus. I wanted to help him, to be his friend and make sure that he got to wherever he was going; my heart went out to this unfortunate man.

But this led me to reflect: surely others felt as I did, swept up in a noble desire to be of assistance? And I had helped already, in a small way, by handing him his glasses – and that girl had helped him by giving him her seat. And at his destination, I felt sure, someone would surely help him find his way to where he was going. He was after all endearing to people in the way that he quietly struggled, trying to shrug off his blindness even as it surely crippled him. He had a nice face and was well dressed, and he invited help without asking for it; he would make many friends, I felt sure, if he didn’t have them already. I was suddenly filled with a conviction that in spite of his problem, partly because of it, he would be just fine. My initial piercing sense of tragedy for this man faded, replaced with nothing but optimism. But the memory of that pang of empathy still troubled me with a question:

Who, if not the blind, really deserves our pity?

In the end, I can’t help but feel that it is more the people who are unafflicted by troubles that deserve our pity the most; the ones who can see, but don’t know where to look; the ones who inspire no sympathy yet suffer the burden of potential; the ones who, because of their mediocrity, have nobody to guide them and no defined path. I reserve my despair for them.

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