Susan Sontag on the Need to Recover Our Senses

Susan Sontag on the Need to Recover Our Senses

“Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience… What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” -Susan Sontag

In Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” she provides a new framework for appreciating artworks, one that explicitly denies the need for critical assessments of the works in question. Sontag wants us to experience art and be enlivened by it. She argues that to overanalyze it is to diminish it.

Oddly, I sometimes find myself interpreting my paintings after I make them (as was the case with the new painting posted here). When I am in the act of making a painting, I don’t want to think too much. Ideally, I let the brush guide me and when this occurs and things go well, the paintings somehow have the power to inform me about their meaning.

Back to Sontag’s famous essay… I love that an esteemed writer and intellectual is advocating for less thinking and more seeing, hearing, and feeling. I think artists and all makers can learn from her. “What’s important now is to recover our senses.” Thus, when you’re making a painting, running for public office, or launching a new product, ask how you’re helping the people in your orbit to see, hear, and feel more.

Marketing is often described as an art and science. I’m good with this description, but I’d like to emphasize that the art part of the equation requires a different sensibility. Instead of looking for “triggers” that will “lock in” the “target,” you’re looking for big ideas that will touch and move people. Moving people to care and to believe comes before moving them to buy, vote, join, or give.

Sontag also makes a salient point about the need to cut back on content. We, the inhabitants of these Internets, have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the call to publish persistently or perish. By flooding our readers, customers, or constituents with too much matter, we’re making it harder for them to discern what matters.

Doubly Impressed by The Baker Museum in Naples, Florida

Doubly Impressed by The Baker Museum in Naples, Florida


When we were in Naples last December, we visited The Baker Museum. It was my second visit of the year and most of the artworks on display had been updated since my first visit in July. A couple of the new exhibits made a notable impression on me—“The Art of Food” and “Botanical Evolution” by Tamara Kostianovsky.

Text art by Jenny Holzer

The Art of Food exhibit at The Baker features works from Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and other famous artists. I was impressed by the entire collection and intrigued by a simple-looking piece by American artist Jenny Holzer. Since the 1970s, she has been experimenting with the use of language in public spaces.

The line displayed on the plaque above is from a poem she wrote called “Survival.” I’m struck by the line itself, as it says so much in just 10 words. When seen on the wall of an esteemed museum like The Baker, the words are magnified in importance.

Maybe to some, a plaque doesn’t seem like art at all. Maybe it reads more like literature or advertising. Maybe we don’t have a definitive answer for what art, literature, or advertising is. Maybe they all blend nicely at times.

Of this, we can be sure… Kostianovsky’s artworks are pieces that only a visionary artist with exceptional hand skills can make. Standing there gazing at her pieces is powerful. According to The Baker, her suspended cow carcass sculptures demonstrate the artist’s concerns about consumption.

Part of “Botanical Revolution” by Tamara Kostianovsky

I like artists who challenge my thinking and expand my worldview. Artists who make me think, wonder, and appreciate their gifts and exceptional minds. In different ways, Holzer and Kostianovsky both take me to a place of awe and inspiration.

What Else I’m Learning While I’m Learning to Paint

What Else I’m Learning While I’m Learning to Paint

I started painting again. The impulse seemed to emerge from nowhere or maybe it came from someplace deep within.

When I’m painting, I’m able to get into the zone right away and let myself go. For the most part, I find it’s an unrestrained act to make a painting. This is different from writing, which I come to with training, expectations, and thus some level of built-in stress.

I’ve relied on words for so long—to express myself and also to make a living—that I now need another non-verbal means of conveying my ideas. And when I pick up the brush and begin applying the paint, I’m not thinking about doing it right, or who I will impress with my style. I’m doing it for the joy of doing it.

“Waking Bear,” acrylic and watercolor on canvas by David Burn

Some of my efforts are better than others. As with any creative effort, only a small percentage of the raw ideas and new works are worthy of appreciation and sharing with an audience. The rest is practice.

When the practice is painful, it may be a signal that you’re playing in the wrong sandbox. Ideally, the practice is something that calls to you. This is what’s happening with me and the act of painting. I’m being called to create by a new Muse and thankfully, it’s a joy to put in the time, get in the zone, and let spontaneous things happen from moment to moment.

“West Texas Cash Machine,” acrylic and watercolor on paper by David Burn

I’m about seven weeks into this new practice. I make about two paintings a day, working with acrylic and watercolor paints on paper and canvas. Many of the ideas for the paintings come to me just before I start to paint or after a few brushstrokes.

Some Clear Benefits of Painting

I’m excited to paint because it’s good old analog fun. Plus, when I’m engaged in the act of painting it helps me:

  • Practice being present and sharpen my focus
  • Learn to make the best of my mistakes (there’s no ‘delete’ button when painting)
  • Accept that it’s not all about the outcomes—it’s about experiencing flow during the acts of creation
  • Stay in touch with my true passions
  • Reaffirm that I can learn to do new things (and perhaps, in time, learn to do them well)

My interest in painting has also reignited my interest in art history and the works (and lives) of several of my favorite artists. I am now hungrier than ever to know more about Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinski, Amedeo Modigliani, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and several others.

I feel like the works of these masters influenced me long before I picked up a paintbrush, and now that I do have a paintbrush in my hand, I’m looking again, but more intently at their brushstrokes, colors, subject matters, and the techniques that made their paintings extraordinary.

–> See more of my paintings on Flickr.

Young Americans Challenging High Technology

YACHT lights me up. Their grooves are infectious and the meaning in their work is at times profound.

I know this is high praise for any artist, but it’s not everyday that a New New Wave band with deep philosophical underpinnings kicks ass like YACHT kicks ass.

“The Earth, the Earth, the Earth is on fire. We don’t have no daughter. Let the mother fucker burn.”

Pop lyrics with juxtaposing ideas. That’s fresh. “Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans make anthemic power jams, play them backwards and soak them in nearly-psychedelic cherry cola inspired live shows,” writes IFC.

“Utopia/Dystopia” is my favorite song right now. Which is kind of amazing considering I generally do not enjoy techno. Of course, YACHT can’t be defined merely as techno. The band is clearly borne of DEVO’s rib, and I respect their weirdness and ability immensely. But there’s more here. YACHT makes you dance and feel good — all while thinking interesting thoughts.

According to YACHT’s Mission Statement:

YACHT is a Band, Belief System, and Business conducted by Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans of Marfa, Texas and Los Angeles, CA, USA. All people are welcome to become members of YACHT. Accordingly, YACHT is and always will be what YACHT is when YACHT is standing before you.

In addition to five studio albums, YACHT is the author of The Secret Teachings of the Mystery Lights: A Handbook on Overcoming Humanity and Becoming Your Own God, which you can download for on iTunes.

Evans is also a well respected science writer, who “examines the intersections between art, science, technology, culture, and all the lunatic fringes in between.”

Alas, YACHT believes, as I do, in the power of place. In fact, they operate in a Western American Utopian Triangle of their own making — with Marfa, Los Angeles and Portland as the three points in their geographic/geometric formation. My own Western American Utopian Triangle is configured differently — with Omaha, San Francisco and Seattle as my three axis points. Either way, I am charmed by the idea of a vast spiritual territory and the exceptional work of this provocative band.

How Adams’ Arrived At His Endless Horizons of Meaning

Thanks to advances in point-and-shoot technology, everyone’s a photographer today, or so we imagine. Of course, taking pictures for fun is a different practice altogether than making images of artistic quality with a camera.

For more information on the latter, please see the following documentary from 1958 about Ansel Adams’ technical approach to photography.

“Perhaps music is the most expressive of the arts,” suggests Adams. “However, as a photographer, I believe that creative photography, when practiced in terms of its inherent qualities, may also reveal endless horizons of meaning.” Indeed.

Adams proved his belief over and over again, as he traveled the American West with his marvelous eye and technical skills. He helped us see Yosemite and the West in new and unexpected ways. He helped us get to know and cherish our most magical lands. That he accomplished this with the help of technology goes without saying, but I marvel at the analog nature of it all and the manual labor involved.

We use our tools and our training to see the world and to make meaning of the world we see. It seems fair to ask how our modern technology is aiding or clouding our vision as artists and as people. Let’s consider that filmmakers Orson Wells and John Huston never had the benefits of digital cameras or editing suites. Same with Adams; yet the visions shared by these masters are impecable.

Likewise, America’s greatest writers are from a time before the widespread adoption of the computer. Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and hundreds of other American classics were not made with the powerful tools of our time. They were written longhand prior to being transcribed into a manuscript.

My point here is there’s something valuable to be gained by knowing, honoring and practicing the old ways. I’m not writing this article by longhand, nor am I putting it through several rounds of edits. Be that as it may, I know that process and revisit it frequently.

Source: Open Culture

Steve Jobs, An American Original

Steve Jobs, An American Original

“It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” -Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs passed away from a rare form of cancer last week at the age of 56. Since then, I’ve read a handful of articles about the man and the impact he made on modern culture. Maybe you have too.

The one article that stands out for me is by Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York magazine. He helps us understand Jobs by revealing the connection between Jobs and Edwin H. Land, the “genius domus” of Polaroid Corporation and inventor of instant photography.

Land, in his time, was nearly as visible as Jobs was in his. In 1972, he made the covers of both Time and Life magazines, probably the only chemist ever to do so…

Both built multibillion-dollar corporations on inventions that were guarded by relentless patent enforcement. (That also kept the competition at bay, and the profit margins up.) Both were autodidacts, college dropouts (Land from Harvard, Jobs from Reed) who more than made up for their lapsed educations by cultivating extremely refined taste.

Land, like Jobs, was a perfectionist-aesthete, exhaustively obsessive about product design. The amount he spent on research and development, on buffing out flaws, sometimes left Wall Street analysts discouraging the purchase of Polaroid stock, because they thought the company wasn’t paying enough attention to the bottom line. (When a shareholder once buttonholed Land about that, he responded, “The bottom line is in heaven.”)

In other words, both men were difficult to work with, which is something corporate culture seriously frowns upon.

I also took note of some articles where Jobs is not saluted for his singular vision, work style nor his enormous contributions. Free software advocate, Richard Stallman, wrote, “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.” Clearly, Stallman has another, more radical, vision for the advance of digital culture, and it’s a vision where sharing is central to the enterprise.

Michael Wolff of Adweek also has some bite in his eulogy.

The rebel and poet and romantic figure, was, too, an authoritarian and despot. Microsoft, heretofore the gold standard in corporate hegemony, was left looking like a disorganized and mealy mouth liberal regime next to Apple’s ultimate dictatorship.

The irony of Jay Chiat’s “1984” Big Brother Apple ad was most of all that Big Brother turned out to have a great sense of style.

Dictatorship seems like a poor word choice, as I believe Apple employees are free to quit their jobs whenever they feel like it. Wolff also says he argued with Jobs when he met him years ago. Why anyone other than Wolff would care, I can’t say.

On a more positive note, Jobs’ friend, the great ad man Lee Clow, wrote in a memo to staff at TBWAChiatDay (Apple’s long-standing ad agency), “He was the most amazing person I have ever known. He was a genius. He was an innovator. He was the best client we ever had.”

The man’s legacy will no doubt be discussed casually and seriously for years to come. Some will insist Jobs was a humanitarian, others will only see the draconian nature of the corporation he led to unquestionable greatness.

In 1985, Jobs said about his hero, Edwin Land, “The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.” It’s a great point. We need American inventors like Land and Jobs to inspire millions of others to pursue their own dreams and to make things that deliver utility and beauty. We do not need them to coddle the press, or cut corners on the path to perfecting their offerings.

Eccentric America Meets Mainstream America In Portland, Oregon

Eccentric America Meets Mainstream America In Portland, Oregon

Men’s Health named Portland, Oregon “America’s Most Patriotic City.”

The magazine came to its conclusion after factoring the number of registered voters who turned out for state and federal elections in 2004 and 2008, money spent on military veterans, percentage of residents who volunteer, and finally, sales of fireworks and U.S. flags.

Portland wins lots of media contests and has long been the darling of The New York Times, but this new designation from Men’s Health Magazine is surprising to me, for Portland is home to lots of free thinkers. Of course, free thinkers are the people who make America great, but they’re often marginalized in favor of another, simpler view of patriotic Americans.

Speaking of Portland’s free thinkers, I met Jeffrey Thomas at Meatapalooza on Wednesday and just days later a huge, flattering feature by D.K. Row appears in The Oregonian on Thomas.

Row is the paper’s art critic and he asks Thomas, a former art dealer, some great questions about the art of selling art.

Q: Can you remind us how tough it was to sell art back in the ’80s here in Portland?

A: Remember, this was a timber economy and in the 1980s, Oregon went through its first of many recessions. We went through three years of lapsed timber sales; this little business called Intel was just starting up, so we really had no tech industry. Interest rates for houses were 12.5%.

So it was a tough time to get interest in cultural activity. There was a lot of money in town but you did not show it. It was very old school WASP. Nobody showed their wealth; no one supported anything. There was this anti-philanthropic thing going on. You just didn’t show that you had money. That made for a tough environment to create cultural activity and awareness that would draw people here.

Q: And people think it’s tough now.

A: It was nothing like it was then. There was just no cultural awareness. It was a country club for a few families and everyone else was part of the working class. There were few galleries, and only a handful of people interested in them.

Today, Thomas is a producer and photographer’s rep for Polara Studio. His Polara bio says, “…in his mind every day is a birthday party, which sort of explains the applause and flowers that he constantly showers upon everyone around him.”

Thomas is @bonegypsy on Twitter.

When Advocacy Is Advertising

Nau is a Portland-based active wear company that makes gear for “artists, athletes and activists out to unfuck the world.” I would have chosen a different way of expressing that sentiment, but I do hear what Nau is saying and I count myself among the people they’re trying to reach.

When you visit Nau’s Web site and click on “Collective Stories,” you’ll find an archive of videos that showcase the concerns of Nau employees and their customers. For example, here’s a piece on Salmon Nation and Salmon Nation Artists Project CD:

I like how Alexa Wiley Pengelly, one of the CD’s producers says, “Culture is alive. It is found within experiences and moments passed down and shared by our elders, civic leaders and creative communities, connecting people to the land.”

I also love the paintings of the mighty fish by Mimi Matsuda.

Oregon Creatives Get Their Group On

Oregon Creatives Get Their Group On

Laura Oppenheimer of The Oregonian put together a feature article on the efforts being made by Portland’s various creative communities to unite and successfully promote themselves.

salon owner, Kahala Orian, sporting a knitty

Here, Oppenheimer shows the two ends of the local spectrum:

If you picture the creative economy as a continuum from corporate giants to part-time artists, Nike inhabits one end. Oregon’s largest company employs more than 6,000 people at its headquarters, on a college-size campus near Beaverton.

A notch away from Nike is the advertising firm that branded it: Wieden+Kennedy. Columbia Sportswear Co. and Adidas USA round out the huge names. A slew of midsize companies design clothing, sports equipment and buildings, make movies and computer games, and promote it all to the world.

To explore the other end of the continuum, you could’ve walked down Southeast Belmont Street last weekend, past coffee shops and neighborhood bars, across from a retro arcade and a vegetarian diner, into KOiPOD salon. The owner, Kahala Orian, hosted a craft show called Handmade for the Holidays.

More than 20 entrepreneurs covered card tables with knit hats, soy candles and hand-stitched pillows, while a DJ wearing giant silver headphones spun tunes.

The article also explores how Steve Gehlen and Tad Lukasik are launching Oregon Creative Industries “to connect people online and in person, lobby for resources to help business grow, and to make creativity the state’s economic signature.”

OCI is a startup in the non-profit sector. They’re looking for volunteers to help grow the business, if you’re interested.

Cold Snaps

Cold Snaps

Yesterday was a dramatic weather day in Portland. Given the unique conditions, photographers throughout the city took to the frozen streets to document what they saw.

PDX Pipeline has a great recap of the day in pictures and Tweets. Additionally, Flickr groups sprung up to capture the day in images.