Surrender to the Wind: Sarah Lewis on The Rise

When we speak about human creativity in all of its permutations, we use terms like success and failure, challenge, setback and triumph. But as art curator and critic Sarah Lewis explores in her protean new book, The Rise, these words often don’t adequately capture the way persistence,  doubt, surrender and the play of imagination all take their places in the generation of new ideas and inventions. Following a trail that leads her from from archery to polar exploration, from laboratory science to filmmaking,  Lewis sets out to chart “the improbable ground of creative endeavor” on a dazzling narrative journey that evokes the work of Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Solnit, and Matthew B. Crawford.

The Rise takes the form of a tour through the minds, work and words of men and women, across the whole spectrum of human endeavor, from Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, to the groundbreaking choreographer Paul Taylor, to a high-endurance explorer and a pair of Nobel-winning physicists.  Introducing readers to “target panic” and the Zen mastery of competition archers, the “mind-pictures” of Frederick Douglass and the strange crucible of the “crit” through which working artists refine their visions, Lewis upends familiar notions of where our stories begin, and what it means to follow one’s vision.

I spoke with Sarah Lewis in Manhattan, on a recent bright winter morning, about The Rise and how she came to follow her own vision of its shape.  The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review:   Can we begin with the genesis of The Rise, how and why you started this project?

Sarah Lewis:   I could not have started this project without being in the arts. Working as a curator at MoMA — prior to that working at the Tate Modern, and teaching at the Yale School of Art —  put me in a position where I was constantly in artists’ studios, and would often see, if they’re a painter, a back-turned painting in their studio that they wouldn’t want to show me, but I had a sense that they weren’t going to burn it either. That sense  — that something that was kind of not quite right, potentially failed, was still critical for what they did want to show me — got me thinking about the true genesis of innovation, and what we don’t often honor, which is as integral as the success that might have come from it or the discovery that might have come from it. I started to wonder: if we believe that improbable advantages, and irreplaceable ones, come from failure on the journey to creativity and mastery and innovation, is it true in those sorts of fields alone, or whether it was true more broadly.

BNR:   Did you begin with the idea that this would be a project about artists and how they work and then it expanded from there? Or from the beginning did you think, “I really want to go well outside painting and sculpture and those sorts of things”?

SL:   From the very earliest stage, I always knew that I wanted to be very broad. But I felt that the entry point needed to be about the artistic process, again, because it’s where we see most instinctively this idea playing out. The question for me became: Could I show the true arc of innovation as it relates to, say, scientific discoveries, or the genesis of architectural feats, or other things, with the same sort of granular focus. That’s what I hope that the book achieved.

BNR:   I think it does — by looping around in such a resolute way, away from success, and back to questions of failure, the kind of obstacles that are part of every artist’s and every inventor’s or scientist’s experience.

SL:   Exactly.

BNR:   I wonder at what point did you say to yourself, “This is going to be a book about failure as much as it is about success?”

SL:   You know, in some ways, I’ve been writing this book since I was around 17 years old with that in mind. I wrote my Harvard College application essay about failure and my own ambitions…as I saw them back as a teenager. [LAUGHS] So that’s just to say, I’ve never seen them as separate. So it wasn’t a matter of saying, “oh, let’s look at that other distant category that’s separate from mastery or success/failure.” I’ve always seen them as connected. It was Martin Luther King Day a few days ago…

BNR:   And you have some interesting thoughts about him, and how failure and resilience played out in his career.

SL:   That’s right. But what I don’t mention in the book, though, is the moment where I knew that I was going to write the book, really (one of many), and that was when I went to look at his papers on display at Sotheby’s before they were being auctioned off. His report card was shown among these papers. I remember glancing at it and thinking, “Let me just look away,” trying to quell this sort of prurient interest here… But I noticed that there were two C’s. The fact that there were these two C’s (and I think that was the lowest grade) made me wonder what they were in — and those C’s were Oratory class.

So that was the moment where I thought, “We’re not telling the full arc of people’s lives here.”

BNR:   In talking about him, you do relate the story of his stutter, which perhaps interfered with his graded performance in an oratory class in the 1950s. You can imagine someone getting marked down for not getting past their speech impediment completely. But what’s very moving in the story that you relate is when he left behind that impediment. I forget who it was that asked him about this.

SL:   Harry Belafonte.

BNR:   Yes: Harry Belafonte asked him about this, and why he was able to leave it behind. He said, “Once I accepted death, I stopped being bedeviled by these things, and I am not afraid of these things any more.”

SL:   Yes.

BNR:   You really do feel like suddenly you’re in  very deep water in a moment like that.

SL:   That’s right. That moment is really about what surrender means, and he embodies it best… That chapter looks at the way in which surrender is not a moment of giving up, but giving over to something much larger.  In this case, for King, it is the fact of death. Ultimately, conquering that can obliterate fear of anything else. Because that’s the ultimate fear. In the book, I look at surrender as a way of gaining fortitude in circumstances that seem to present challenges so overwhelming that nothing can be done about them, such that resisting them takes away the energy that you need to figure out what to do about them.

BNR:   You talk about surrender in a number of contexts, one of which in the context of combat and martial art, and you talk about Aikido, which brings a marvelous perspective on force and resistance and surrender. Surrender becomes something that’s required in order to take in and transmit the energy that you need to overcome, so pushing back at your opponent just winds up depleting you of the resources that you need to move on.

SL:   Absolutely. That is one of my favorite passages in the book. It was the most cathartic to write. I processed my own compound grief through it, in having lost so many friends when I was relatively young, in my own twenties. It helped me understand, in talking to Wendy Palmer, an American Aikido-ist, why this technique of surrender is so vital. Because when you do stop resisting something, you stop giving it power, even the kind of death-lock that grief can have over you. Wendy Palmer gave me this beautiful analogy which I write about in the book. She invites you to grasp two glasses, one that contains water and one that’s empty. If you hold them without any tension, you can sense their relative difference in weight. As soon as you start to tense, you really can’t any more. When we allow tension or resistance, we lose access to our internal resources. That’s what surrender is about. It’s not a giving-up, but a giving-over, a giving over to all these different circumstances, such that we can keep enough of our capacity to be able to confront them.

BNR:   There are things that we see only as forces working against us, and then we can re-experience them as something that can take us someplace new. You open that chapter with the last line of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

SL:   That’s right.

BNR:   It’s a very powerful ending to a powerful novel, in which there is this fusion of the magical and the everyday, and Milkman takes the leap, whether literally or symbolically: “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.”

SL:   Morrison’s quote succinctly describes the Aikido move of life, the power of surrender — that we derive undaunted power when we give over to a force far beyond us. I am also glad that my subconscious threw up the memory of her particularly powerful line because including it in The Rise had a second layer of meaning for me as an author. I wanted to make sure to have black figures included in my book tout court, as one friend put ;it. In other words, I wanted to make sure that black voices were seen as bearers of a universal message. It is still sociological challenge, to get people to see black voices as ones able to speak about the universal experience.

I also chose the quote because Morrison said that Song of Solomon let her make “a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one.” I derived inspiration from her in my challenge to write about Ben Saunders’ attempts to re-father himself, in a sense through Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Yet, when I was writing the chapter about Ben Saunders, my mind went to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I must have been overwhelmed by the odds that Saunders faced, because what I recalled and thought I knew by heart: “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it,” was in fact misremembered. (It should be “air” not “wind”).

BNR:  Saunders really is an extraordinary figure.

SL:   He is, yeah. So the chapter begins and ends with his journey to the North Pole. He is the third person in the world to go unsupported, on foot. He’s currently in Antarctica, trying to replicate Captain Scott’s failed journey there, and he might just do that. He experiences what is so magical and mysterious as well, which is to exist on a continent the size of the United States, but which is not just one ice-sheet ; it’s multiple sheets of ice that are constantly moving. To be able to trudge for 12 hours in sub-50-degree-Celsius temperatures, with hundreds of pounds on your back, and to you realize that you’ve drifted backwards the entire time, in the opposite direction of which you wanted to go, was psychologically so difficult for me to comprehend that it just felt like an alien experience. To then sleep, because you need to refuel, and then realize that, in so doing, you’ve erased your gains from the previous day. It’s enough to just to make you wonder how he’s still sane!

So that line from Song of Solomon came to me because he has found a beauty in the experience that he’s gone through, in surrendering to the fact that you can’t control the way the ice is going to flow on the ocean, and it would be futile to try. So what can you do? Well, you can enjoy the fact, as he says, that it’s always going to look unique every time you’re walking forward, and it’s always going to be unique to you, your journey. You can learn to appreciate that fact and all the beauty that comes with these unexpected moments.

BNR:   It’s in your description of Saunders and his explorations where you zero in on the implicit question: “What’s this for?” We know we can track ice with satellites. We can take aircraft to the South Pole. We don’t need these sorts of solo human endeavors for the scientific reasons that partially made them exciting in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

SL:   For Ben, it’s really about an exploration of human limits and our internal capacity. As he says, in the nineteenth century, we knew more about the moon than we did about those frigid planetary climates, the North and South Poles. Now we know all that we probably can with our technology. We don’t need one man trudging to help us discover more. We no longer are in a position where nations are racing each other to plant flags on each pole, which was a focus of national tension in Edwardian Golden Age exploration.

He looks at the term “explorer” as one of colonial chest-thumping. He sees himself more as a craftsman or an artist. I think that is because it’s about a soulful pursuit. Of course, there’s a huge physical element. But this is more about reaching an inner frontier that you thought existed, and going beyond it.

Now, he is doing this, of course, for that personal reason. But what I believe is so fascinating about his life is how it inspires others to discover their own frontiers as well.

BNR:   The biographer Richard Holmes has written a marvelous book called The Age of Wonder — I don’t know if you’re familiar with it…

SL:   I am familiar with it, yes.

BNR:   In that book, Holmes brings together the threads of the literature of that era, specifically the poetry, with the scientific endeavors and scientific investigations into chemistry and electricity and many aspects of the natural world, and the Romantic drive to exploration.  Writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth saw these things as important because they were investigations of what they saw as the human soul essentially.

SL:   Exactly. You can choose many things to help you confront a certain frontier. But failure is built into in the process of this arduous pursuit, both spiritually and psychologically and physically. Failing to come close to a goal can offer a forward thrust of moment. In fact, all of his feats were the results of really a near-win, because he wanted to cross the North Pole actually and go beyond it, but he ended up not making it, so he reached the North Pole. But when he achieved this feat, there was this framed report card on his desk that his teacher had written…she essentially said, “Ben will never do anything that will amounts to anything… Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile…”

I think it’s important to make sure we’re clear here. We’re not talking about achievement, really, are we? Because achievement doesn’t necessarily come with risk or the potential for failure.

BNR:   Some things can be achieved with very little of those kinds of experiences behind them.

SL:   He feels as if being able to push past it allows him to understand his own capacity… I think it’s a beautiful way of living.

BNR:   It is. You just closed the book, and so we got another look at the cover, and it reminds me that we haven’t yet talked about the title. You make a remark in the book that “success” is sort of an insufficient word for what you want to investigate in The Rise. You’re very happy to talk about, among other things, failure and setback — but “success” is not the opposite that you’re looking for because it’s too static.

SL:   Yes.

BNR:   Whereas the title of your book is The Rise, which suggests a dynamic. At what point did that title come to you and how did you settle on that term?

SL:   That’s a great question. It came to me in a number of ways. I’m laughing, because the true moment was actually listening to… I don’t listen to a lot of sports, or watch a lot of football games, but I had a football game on and I was thinking about this book, and trying to figure out a word for what I was describing. A team quarterback was answering the question, “Well, what are you going to do?” They were just defeated; I can’t remember what team it was. He said, “Well, we just have to rise up!”

I remember thinking that’s the word for what I’m describing. “The Rise” with the definite article in front of it. It’s no longer an exhortation to really…

BNR:   Get up off the ground.

SL:   Exactly. “The Rise” I believe speaks to what’s timeless in our human journey. We do build on these improbable, seemingly failed foundations — I mean, in terms of just the way the planet is constructed. Virginia Woolf’s kind of “crumbling and renewing” that I quote is a way to describe how this earth was created.

BNR:   Certainly how the ground that we walk on, which is constantly being…literally plates of the earth’s surface, one is diving underneath the other while mountains are being raised up elsewhere.

SL:   Every metal in our earth is from a dead star. Everything is a function of this dynamic of creation, decline, and renewal. So that was part of it.

But I wanted to also make sure, in every chapter that I wrote, that the animating force was honoring the capacity of the human spirit. For me, the term “rise” suggests what our natural instinct always is — to be buoyant in some way.

Then finally, watching these archers at Columbia’s Baker Field here in New York made me think about the arc of how it is we hit a target.

BNR:   Let’s talk a little about the archers. They are the opening of the book, and it’s both a fascinating scene and an instantly resonant one, because archery has played such a role in philosophy and poetry and art in many cultures. Both Western and Eastern cultures have looked to archery for metaphors and understanding. How did you come to the idea to go out with the archery team and see what they were doing?

SL: I approached this book clearly as a literary enterprise, but I did bring a curatorial eye to it. As a curator, I’m always looking for what we’re failing to see. That’s the question I’m always asking myself, such that it will be worth someone’s time to come to the museum or to look at it. In this case, I felt that we were not looking enough at a story like Ben’s, and certainly not looking at what is behind this timeless pursuit of hitting a target as an archer. What are we doing with the bow-and-arrow still in 2014? Why is this of interest to people?

There was a New York Times article about target panic, about this team, the Columbia varsity team — which happens to be all women, in fact, for no other reason than women are the ones who are the best in that arena at Columbia right now, for whatever reason: It’s open to men as well. I was struck by this idea of target panic, the idea being that you can train for so long, such that you might forget to focus on process — how it is that you need to stand, what you need to do to align your scapula to really master the pose, so that you one day might be hitting gold, and the next day your arrow is going to end up in the parking lot or somewhere really distant from the target, because you’re just not thinking about process.

No one can quite figure out what it is — this is what I found out by doing a lot of research from the Mayo Clinic and other places. They don’t know if it’s some form of choking, or dystonia, or another kind of hiccup. But people, when they get it, it’s hard to get over. You have to go back to basics, and you have to mime the motions from the very beginning — kind of relearn it.

BNR:   Pitchers in baseball talk about this as well the mystery of pitching, and the ineffable quality of doing it well, versus suddenly, one day, not having your stuff anymore.

SL:   Absolutely. That’s what brought me up to watch them that day. But what I realized as I watched them that my entire interest had to do with what they were displaying, which was a kind of mastery. It was at that moment when I realized that I wasn’t speaking about success as much as mastery. If you just freeze-frame on an archer hitting a 10, I realize that moment, that’s success. It’s event-based. But it’s fleeting.

BNR:   It doesn’t have much to offer us other than the spectacle of a marvelous feat.

SL:   Right. Success is also something that the external world confers on you.  Mastery is something else. It is, as I describe in the book, this ever-onward-almost, knowing that you just hit a 9 and you really could have hit a 10, or you just hit an 8 that could have been a 9, and so on.

That journey, I believe, is what thriving is about. It’s what the animating force behind endearing careers is about. It’s frequently hidden. What is required to sustain mastery is oftentimes hidden. It’s certainly hidden up at Baker Athletic Complex, so much so, that the person who tended the grounds didn’t even know the archers were practicing, and was bewildered that I was there.

We live in a culture that doesn’t focus as much on these moments where you’re really learning a trade or learning a skill, but it doesn’t give you glory immediately.

BNR:   We use the word “pursuit” almost unconsciously. But when one steps back to it, it feeds into what you were talking about now and so much in the book, which is the value, as well as the pleasure, and both of those things together, in the act of pursuing. There’s an exhilaration and an aliveness that only really kind of happens in that moment.

SL:   Yes. Intrinsic value is what we’re also talking about. To be able to extract that gains that come from so-called failure (I’ll say, because I don’t think it’s the appropriate word after writing this book), you have to love it from an internal level. If someone is forcing you to extract gains from failure, it’s a very different process.

BNR:    This leads me into asking about your chapter “Beauty, Error and Justice,” because in a way that is the most audacious section of the book, bringing ethical ideas into play and introducing Frederick Douglass to illustrate your  understanding of “the rise” in its moral application. Did you know you were going to include Douglass and his work in this book when you started? Or how did you come to that decision?

SL:   I wrote this book partly in tandem with the dissertation that is now in manuscript for Harvard University Press. It comes out about a year after this book. That work focuses on Douglass. It just occurred to me as I was writing them in tandem that Douglass needed to enter the frame here. It might be audacious to the reader, but to me, it’s seamless. Or it was required. Because the moment in which Frederick Douglass is speaking about the power of aesthetic force and the way in which you can overcome fractures, ethical fractures on a national scale, is when America was in its moment of its greatest failure, during the Civil War. When that occurred to me, I thought, “Well, why not bring him into this?” I speak about another timeless figure. I speak about Samuel Morse. So it made sense, at least in terms of the arc of lives that I was looking at.

I do something probably audacious by any measure, which is that I withhold the fact that I’m speaking about Douglass for a long time in that chapter.

BNR:   I had to put it together myself just a little bit, and then I realized that you’d done that intentionally.

SL:   I did. I stand by it; I’m sure other writers or editors would have done something different there. But I do feel that our perception of who Douglass is — any reader’s perception, really — would have made understanding what he was arguing for in those speeches, called “Pictures of Progress” or, alternatively, “Life Pictures,” something that they might not have grasped. People might have just skipped over because they thought they knew who he was and what he would have said.

BNR:   Assuming it would boil down to a passionate speech against the evils of slavery and the importance of emancipation and the ending of the Confederacy.

SL:   Right. But Douglass wanted to speak about pictures, and the power of “thought pictures,” as he calls them. What he meant by that is the power of aesthetic force can conjure an image in the mind that can create a vision to overcome failures of any kind. That’s radical, I think, in its poetic power and its true power. I think it’s what we’re living out, and have, from environmental movements to the abolition of slavery.

I talk about the way in which the description of a ship, the slave ship Brooks, shows with graphic precision the inhumanity of the slave trade, in a way that no form of argument could have done. The limit of rational argument is something that we’ve been grappling with since Aristotle. It’s an age-old question. What are the limits? Where does the power of the arts come in to help us push past those limits? Douglass is picking up that mantle — I wanted to make sure that I showed him as the philosopher that he was as well as the orator and the abolitionist.

BNR:   Here’s the slightly uncomfortable question that I wanted to pose back to you — what about when aesthetic force may not be ethically neutral or always ethically good? The obvious examples might be in the films of Leni Riefenstahl. Aesthetic force does have power. Does it always have a power to take us in directions that are really good?

SL:   This is a question that I was asked, actually, when I was presenting this as a work in progress. Now, I think it’s important to be clear. Douglass wasn’t solely pointing to photography or the power of prints, and saying, “These images are so powerful that they alone can help us pass these ethical failures.” He was talking about what actually goes on in the mind when we look at something that’s so forceful and powerful that we have a reaction to it, one that in that moment expands our world and gets us to see that we ourselves have failed in our perception of things. So he uses this term “thought pictures.”

Now, I could probably write the same chapter using examples of propaganda, for example, that make the opposite point ethically, that would have, say, denigrated different individuals. Because I think that Douglass’s point still remains, which is that you could still look at these images and have a thought picture in your mind, because they’re so forceful, that I still believe that it ultimately goes in the direction of justice. Martin Luther King saw life in this way; as he said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards of justice. The work of the imagination is part of the reason why.

BNR:   He [Douglass] mentions music, too, and you bring in how important the music of Louis Armstrong was to  Charles Black, who argued Brown vs. Board of Education.

SL:   That’s right.

BNR:   It’s a beautiful passage, the suggestion that, in this way that isn’t literal or simple to translate, in experiencing the power of Armstrong’s music, Black got launched on a path that took him to where he wound up as a lawyer.

SL:   Absolutely. So no, it’s certainly not simply the visual arts. That example really could have been the spine of the chapter as well, that moment where Charles Black goes (and he’s a high school student) to this dance in Austin, and he’s so struck by this trumpeter (he doesn’t know it’s Louis Armstrong) that he realizes that segregation is wrong. It was 1931. He recognized genius coming out of Louis Armstrong’s horn, and he realized that, if this man is a genius, then we have committed an ethical failure in this country.

But it actually speaks to your previous question, because in that moment he was with a friend who listened to the same music and was impacted, but instead… He said an epithet about Louis Armstrong, a racial slur, and shook his head, as if kind of clearing it from the image, and walked away.

BNR:   It was just befuddling that someone he could denigrate in his mind so strongly would, at the same time, be producing this music. And you’re suggesting that’s emblematic of the imaginative failure and the nature of the fact that so many of our cultural failures are failures of the imagination. We can’t reimagine the terms that we have become used to, to match up to the reality that’s presenting itself to us.

SL:   Exactly. I’m actually doing an event about the power of the imagination, based on this Douglass chapter, for one of the book tour events — at the Public Theater, which was ever so taken by this idea. That really is it. So it doesn’t so much concern me that there is a dark side to the power of pictures, or thought-pictures really, because what I think is happening here is we’re looking at the way in which the imagination cannot be defeated, and the thrust that imagination does tend to go to is towards justice — overall.

BNR:   It comes back to the idea of the arrow’s bending flight.

SL:   That’s right. To have that, to pull back enough to see it from that perspective, is what I wanted to try to do in the book.

BNR:   I want talk a little bit about the way the book concludes. The book has many excursions into the arts, of all kinds. But you’ve been a curator of visual arts, so it comes in that second-to-last chapter, your last full-length chapter, “The Grit of the Arts.”

SL:   Yes.

BNR:   This is a subject that has come up in a number of places over the last few years, the role of grit in our creative lives, the importance of it, how we might have been failing to see it as an important part of development, or had neglected it for a while, and it’s something that, in the 19th century, was actually talked about more as an important aspect of character. As a curator, as an arts educator, how has that changed the way that you’re seeing your field now? Do you look at artists and think, “There’s grit? There’s someone who needs to find grit?” How is that playing out in your experience?

SL: The process of making, even if you’re not an artist, teaches what very few experiences other than that can, which is about… It teaches you discernment. It teaches you agency. It teaches how to fully see. So the value of the arts, I believe, is tied into that. It is a really difficult skill to master, to learn when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

BNR:   I’m glad we got to Kenny Rogers in this conversation. I was worried we’d never get there.

SL:    Well, that’s a quick way to summarize the distinction  between grit and dysfunctional persistence.

That’s the reason for writing that chapter. Angela Duckworth, who has been doing much of the pioneering work on grit, has found it to be the best predictor in terms of educational settings for achievement, above and beyond IQ or standardized tasks. But the question still is: how do you cultivate grit? She doesn’t know, and says as much. No one does. But I believe that the way in which we do cultivate it is through the very opposite of what we think grit is, which is the arts.

People feel the arts are a place where you can go to escape the difficult, dogged pursuit of something else in your academic life, where you can just kind of escape into the arts. I think the opposite is true — in part because of what you have to withstand in order to improve your work.

BNR:   The grit matches up with the critique — what art schools call the crit — and you have to take in the crit and not be destroyed by it, somehow be able to internalize it and move on.

SL:   Yeah. I’ll tell you a story that I didn’t write about in the book. But I just came back from doing a talk at Sundance, the film festival there, with Robert Redford, Dave Eggers, Charles Limb, Jill Soloway and Chris Stone. The panel was inspired by the book, and looking at failure and creativity. Robert Redford shared that when he was very young, he was doodling instead of paying attention in a class, and the teacher said, “Bob, what’s more important than listening to the lesson right now?” She said, “What are you drawing?” The whole class was laughing at him. He said, “Well, these cowboys, and they’ve got all these Indians…” To me, it kind of sounded like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But the class loved it so much that the teacher granted him 15 minutes every week, I believe, to talk through his art. He said that saved him. But being able to not disintegrate from the critique, from people laughing at his work and the teacher sort of making fun of what he was doing, was key.

Now, artists deal with how to handle critique on a heightened basis, when you’re in an MFA program or if you’re an artist having a crit of your work by a curator. As Lisa Yuskavage said, it’s kind of like the nightmare of standing nude in public, except you add a scale to that to that nightmare. It’s very difficult. It’s highly performative. You have typically all of your peers around you, largely the full extent of the faculty critiquing your work for 45 minutes to an hour, and for the majority of the time you’re not saying much of anything, so your work is speaking for itself.

The goal is to find that bit of feedback that helps you. But in order to extract it, you have to first let people walk around your work as if it’s the circumference of a circle, and really look at it from every angle. And how often is that done in any other field of endeavor? To really, really critique something. We’re not talking about beta-testing something, putting out two web pages and figuring out which is better. No. This is letting people really state honestly if they think this has any merit, if they think this has any merit, if they think you should pursue this path at all — and what they think does have merit. The trick is to know that they are not making your work. Only you know what your true intentions are, and how far away that is from the effect of your work. So then you have to take all that information and find the agency to then use it for your own goal.

That requires maturity. It requires grit. It requires a sense of interconnectedness, to know what your true intention is, and it’s not something that I feel can be taught any other way. Because we’re looking at the process of making, imagining, inventing. It’s what the arts, I think, have to offer that we are lost without ultimately.

BNR:   It suggests, too, that one of the enduring myths that we need to call into question is the myth of the “artist.” That is, that there is a person whose genius is such that they know how to survive this, that they can weather these things with their vision. Of course, there are these people, and you feature many of them in the book. Paul Taylor being a sterling example — someone who has revolutionized dance, but had to do so through this pursuit through almost the most disintegrating criticism of his vision.

SL:   Yeah, absolutely.

BNR:   We can’t deny that these people exist, and we want, in fact, to give them as much possibility and freedom to work as we can. But it sounds like what you’re suggesting is that we are in danger of saying only those people who can really self-identify, or that we can identify as belonging to that category, ought to be working in these ways at all, a instead, to really take back artistry as a fundamental facet of our lives.

SL:   That’s it. That’s exactly it. In fact, there was a line that I did take out of the text, because it felt like it’s its own book to state this. But at one point, I did mention: If this is so critical, if the arts are so critical, it’s not simply because artists are so important for our culture. It’s because creativity is how we all create our lives in our fullest way. But to have to defend the idea that creativity is part of everyone’s life felt like it was another project.

 –January 24, 2014