It’s not easy to throw things away. Not for some personalities. That ugly fabric, there might be a use for it. The sandals that don’t look as fresh as they did, maybe I’ll use them for a walk on a rainy day when I don’t want to ruin my new ones. Single bed sheets-I don’t have a single bed anymore but they might do in a pinch. Not the fitted one, perhaps, but surely that top sheet can be useful?
Throwing things away means so many things. It means that you no longer have a purpose for the thing, and maybe it was a mistake to buy it. The notion of ‘mistake’ is a loaded one. It suggests fault as much as trial and error; waste and a carelessness in decision making. Perhaps it is the refusal to admit an error that keeps one from throwing something away. Do we live in an environment of our own making? One that we have outgrown? Is our childhood dresser still in our adult bedroom? Does our clothing fit well, or did we miss the fact that it is no longer flattering?
Mistakes can weigh heavily on the soul. Maybe that’s why, when I am exploring fabric dying with a squirt bottle and a damp cloth spread out on plastic on my table I am reluctant to toss an ugly piece. It really was beautiful just moments ago, before the dye spread into such dark blotches. The mountain scene looked stark and powerful against the old tweed. The tweed was a previous mistake, dyed while being washed in proximity to one of another color and hence condemned to practice. Why don’t I declare ‘uncle’? Sometimes my art studio resembles the house where Dr. Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two carried on a rampage.
Not yet prepared to toss my ugly fabric I wait before making the final judgement that is actually already obvious. I go through the motions of washing the cloth in cold water to set the dye. Then I dry it and iron it, my playful joy fading with each step. I still won’t let go. It’s as if my beautiful mountains remain there somehow hidden by the color’s violent expansion. Finally, with relief and determination, I toss the stuff. My good sleep the night before and the fresh morning light helps me. I am immediately relieved. It’s gone! I can begin fresh. There is a much nicer piece pinned to my bulletin board (a success by the way! I used a neutral fabric to upholster a half inch piece of foam insulation. With two panels I was able to create a wall-sized surface on which to pin my work.)
Art is a series of decisions. Which lines to keep, which to cut away or paint over. How to frame. The glass artist, Catherine Newell, showed me how to create a frame with four strips of cardboard. She showed me how to move it around on my image until I found the portion I liked. There is a moment, when you make a choice, that the soul says, ‘Ah, that’s it!’ This satisfaction, mysterious and certain, offers relief to the wandering soul. We seek harmony and meaning-the reflection of certainties deep within us that we long to see and express.
There is always a movement toward simplicity that acts on the underside of an acquisitive society. Perhaps it is the medicine needed by the capitalist world where every open public space is littered with advertisement. Marie Kondo urges us to keep only what ‘sparks joy’-ruthlessly tossing everything else. She is followed with ardent fervor. Those who succeed in attaining her stringent discipline of discarding are new people, converted, with thanks, to the Spartan school of beauty and need.
Others long for a tiny house, seeking a cure to their malaise by purging their excesses: get rid the thousand moments of self-indulgence that now lay scattered in ever too small spaces! In my art, I too, purge. That added bloat of spread dye, the extra embellishment that ruins a piece, the interesting turned grotesque by too much texture-all swept away once I resolve myself to the rule of rendering only what is needed, and not more.
Aristotle compared good writing to the human body. In the body every part has a function. There is nothing in the body that is not needed. When we see the slim and fit we enjoy, not just lustfully, but as meaning. Socrates, when he described the levels of representation, used the body as an example of an early representation. What is wanted in the Form of the Good is first seen in the athlete.
The Shakers, too, discovered purity in vision by removing all excesses. Who doesn’t sigh in relief upon seeing their simple, elegant forms-inventions dictated by use and translated into graceful wooden tools, baskets and chairs. Their barns, tall and regal, stare out at us with faintly stern but edifying grace. We hunger for something that their song suggests, “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free…”
One of my own feelings about art is that it should be beautiful. A simple enough statement, perhaps, but witness the expanses of idiosyncratic art. Art made as self-expression where beauty is not relevant. Art that is there to express the strange, or the different for difference’s sake. On the other hand, art that depicts the universal has staying power through the centuries. The essential in art parallels the universal in philosophy, where the mind can finally come to rest. Picasso’s mother and child is every mother and child. Rembrandt’s woman is every woman.
A temptation might be to throw out the idiosyncratic. Are the wrong lines of our lives merely self-insistences? Do we reveal our misguided visions by elevating out individual significance over the universal? Are we all just bad art?
To answer this we have to turn to the mystics. It is not our goal to eliminate ourselves in service of the real. That is the failure of religion. Rather, it is to step aside so that the real can appear. Here, truly, is the ultimate mystery. How are we ourselves representations of the Real? Can we know ourselves as both ‘this one’ and Self?
I throw out more of what doesn’t work. I am energized. I assign myself the task of finding peace in the balance of colors, the allure of space. I will work until my mind finds peace even if that means I will work for a very long time.