Category Archives: Art’s Objective

Why do anything?

Sometimes life can be discouraging, cause for despair even. Maybe your health is failing, maybe a dear friend committed suicide, maybe an employer screws you over. Nobody listens to you, nobody is paying attention. And the question may arise: why do anything at all?

I have asked it many times before. Why indeed? And the answer is always simple: because it’s possible. It’s still possible that this time something will relieve the pain, something beautiful will come of it, someone will be touched or even moved by what I still had the courage to do.

It’s interesting that the Latin word “posse” (to be able) and its relative “potens” (able, powerful) share “poti-” as a root (or “posis” in Greek, or “patih” in Sanskrit), meaning “lord” or “husband”. That’s just what it does, life: it expresses itself endlessly. And the process is not some superficial affair. It is a dedicated marriage, an ongoing union.



Some artists look to complexity as a way of improving their art. In music, more complex rhythms and harmonies are considered a sign of sophistication. In my view sophistication takes the form of increased simplicity at least as often as increased complexity. Moreover, sophistication is rooted in experience, whereas many forms of complexity are little more than an intellectual effort.

I like that the origin of the word “sophistication” is in “sophism”, the use of argument solely to deceive. It reminds me of Zen koans that trick us into going beyond the intellect toward real enlightenment and inspiration.

Box vs. Bowl

A box is shaped around its content; a bowl shapes its content. A box is designed to fit into a space with other boxes; a bowl is awkward and outstanding. The content of a box is padded, sealed; the content of a bowl can breathe. To get to its content a box is irreversibly altered; a bowl is emptied and filled many times over. A box inside a box disappears from view; a bowl inside a bowl is elevated. A box can be flattened without breaking.

You may have something substantial to offer. Are you making bowls, or boxes?


Research found that people shown silent videos of piano competitions could pick out the winners more often than those who could also hear the music. The actual competition winners were only correctly identified by those who were randomly assigned the silent videos. When the volunteers viewed video with sound, the accuracy dropped back to chance levels that were also found listening to sound alone. The findings were quite surprising, especially because both trained musicians and those without training had stated that sound was most important for their evaluation. The study concludes that the best predictor of a winner’s musical performance was the visible passion they displayed, followed closely by their uniqueness and creativity.

Everything is mimicking competitive sports it seems: politics, performances, artistic expression, even sharing moments of happiness in our lives with an online group of friends. When I pick a movie at the local video library, there are usually two, often more, Hollywood films with the exact same theme and even the same plot. At work, we jealously guard our ideas for the next season until the day of the press release. Artists, writers, composers, we are all guilty of trying to “get there first”. Our motivation becomes murky and our priorities become skewed, to say the least. What we sacrifice, if not originality, is openness, kindness, generosity and humility; too high a price to pay.

My teacher, an accomplished musician and an original and independent artist, recently rewrote a whole movement from his most recent piece, prompted by a casual conversation we had. He did this without losing his integrity, his authority, or the respect and admiration I have for him. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Universal Experience

portrait of my father

The other day at the Crocker Art Museum, I was moved to tears seeing this painting by Stephen Kaltenbach.

An artist appears to have authority while being doubtful inwardly, seeking aimlessly sometimes. He or she is sensitive to subtle, intimate experience yet publicly consistent, impressive even. Then there are the moments when vulnerability and clarity coincide and the personal becomes universal.


What is obvious to you might not be obvious to everyone else. In fact, what is obvious to you might not even be true. Some art seeks to battle complacence with newness, pushing the boundaries, shocking the bourgeois; a more effective antidote, available to a real artist, would be to see the familiar with fresh eyes, to find mystery in what is obvious to almost everyone else.