Silence in the head

Silence in the head

I had to find it, before I could work. I remember reading about an artist, I think it was Jasper Johns, who said regarding his alcoholism “I drink to kill the noise.” The rational mind sets up so many obstacles to understanding, making it hard to just be somewhere and experience what is happening there. I’ve never once tried to make a “statement” through a photograph, I’ve only wanted to show the things that pricked me, generated an interest in me, or more accurately, made me feel.

Art doesn’t say, it shows. That’s where the conversational metaphors for communication break down. Conversation, especially in one’s head, really makes you miss things. You concentrate to much on what is being said, and neglect what is being experienced. It’s distinction that is often taught in writing classrooms: “Show, don’t tell.” But as soon as an image appears in our heads, the only way to get it out is to tell someone about it. But that must come after the experience itself, otherwise you miss it. The bio piece on Johns I linked covers this well:

That distinction between saying something and being something corresponds precisely to Wittgenstein’s distinction between what can be said and what shows itself, and the point about art is that it shows rather than says. Johns’s sense of the distinction between saying and showing produced a memorable declaration: ‘When you begin to work with the idea of suggesting, say, a particular psychological state of affairs, you have eliminated so much from the process of painting that you make an artificial statement which is, I think, not desirable. I think one has to work with everything and accept the kind of statement which results as unavoidable, or as a helpless situation. I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or too artificial. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.’

Shortly after the recording ended, he added: ‘To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist.’

Emotional memory is iconic. I suspect that’s the land that I dwell in most often. I used to sit on the couch for at least an hour, in something akin to meditation, before I would go out and take photographs. I needed the time to finish those conversations in my head, to clear it out to make room for experience. When I would finally get there, I tried to be open like a raw nerve waiting for the electricity to strike, to pass through from my eyes to my fingers without hesitation or second guess. To really be there, instead of thinking about being there.

When I went back to school, I tried to do what everyone tells you to do. Take notes carefully, follow along in the text, and all that. It just didn’t work for me. When I discovered that I am different, that I can take in a complex argument at a glance without painstakingly jotting down all the details and noting and highlighting a text, I finally became comfortable with school. I do the same thing I did as an artist. I just clear my head, show up, and look and listen. That’s enough for me. I just make sure I’m there. Unlike most of my fellow students, I seldom write in my books. I write in my head.

When I became a teacher, I was given one piece of advice: “Bring yourself to class.” I knew exactly what that meant. You have to be there, and avoid getting lost in your concept of what a class should be, and just concentrate on what it is. You have to embrace that helpless feeling that asks what the hell am I doing here? You make it up as you go along, or at least I do, in response to what is happening at the time. I’ve got lots of “selves,” and I bring them all with me wherever I go. But I’ve got to shut them up most of the time, so I can hear what other people are saying.

There are different ways of killing the noise. I grew up reading Zen texts, matured using chemical enhancements, and returned eventually to a more idiosyncratic method of clearing my head involving a lot of blank staring, and an occasional cry. The question of meditation always reminds me of a funny story about Warren Criswell, a somewhat eccentric Arkansas painter. A student once asked him at a lecture if he used meditation.


Oh, meditation! Well, medication, yes. Meditation, no.