An Artist Revisits “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
While stumbling around in the art world, I finally tackled Pirsig’s rambling autobiography that includes a review of classical Greek philosophy, and more importantly, tries to reduce and unify all human thought to its source which is zen. And approaching the book from an art perspective, I found his discussion of “quality” or “gumption” to resonate with my experiences of inspiration and creativity.
Quality is something everyone can recognize but cannot define or teach. We experience this quality when we first conceive of a subject, massage the scene in a sketch, stumble upon a technique, or arrive at a solution to some troubling problem. Zen is that state of mind from which our inspiration springs. One sees zen in many creative endeavors such as the composition of a song, the creation of a new business, religious clarity, or love of another.
Pirsig advises, when faced with a motorcycle problem, one must spend time looking and waiting. I recall a professional artist saying he spent more time thinking than painting. in art this means meditation, as “thinking” can be easily contaminated by the rules we have been taught or other social motives. Our thoughts become dominated by the rules we learn from parents, teachers and peers; for example the rule “it must look like a physical object”, or “it must qualify you for a job”. Ignoring these rules is hard and requires tuning into an inner nature, valuing our sensations or feelings over thought, reacting rather than planning. This will not guarantee quality but it takes a step in that direction. Picasso said it best, and I paraphrase, “it took a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child”.
When impulse and training coincide, true art may flourish in a zen moment. For we cannot escape our training, our culture, our history. My art teacher once said “context is everything”. For art or any creative event to have meaning it must relate to the other elements of our lives. Neuropsychology has proven our perceptions are guided by a powerful pattern recognition system. Our mind seeks to identify known patterns in order to react properly. In art there must be a balance between the familiar pattern and the surprise. This balance can only be found intuitively and individually. No art critic can tell you where your quality is, only where it is for them. However, we all wish to communicate with others, and therefore feedback can reveal the patterns that are best recognized by others.
In music the most popular tunes are those with repeating patterns. However, the mind becomes bored with too much repetition. When a musician plays an altered version of an old song, incorporating his unique voice into the familiar pattern, then some zen has emerged. Inversely, the zen listener may react to a familiar pattern or tune by noticing something different, by “hearing for the first time”, by connecting a new riff or sensation with that great body of patterns already installed in his mind. The child psychologist, Piaget, noted that when a child connects a new idea with his existing understanding, he laughs.
The role if the art teacher is fascinating and challenging. Is the teacher a disciplinarian or an inspiration, a therapist or trainer? What can be taught is analysis, rules and techniques. The human relationship with ones teacher transcends the rules.The great trend in western civilization has been to quantify, measure and define everything, to mass market. Pirsig describes in detail the limits of the scientific and logical methods and concludes that quality is overwhelmed by data. You may have noticed that businesses don’t answer phones anymore; its done by electronic algorythm. Where is the quality in communicating your concern with another living mind? I must warn that quality, like nature, will not in the end be ignored. Pirsig recalls a period in his life as being “the wolf”, the one who refuses to accept training, the revolutionary, the devil’s advocate, the outsider. Primitive societies which struggled daily with nature, freely indulged in superstition, magic, myth, and irrational values. They adpoted animal personas because they were in communion with animals. Many modern artists have touted the value of primitive art. Their zen was in the context of a wilderness envirnment. Our zen is in quite another context and I think we lack the perspective to evaluate the patterns inherant in our society.
It is difficult within the limits of language to provide a sure path to finding your zen and putting it in perspective with your history and training. I find that spending time alone is essential. Others have argued that seriously adopting any of the many spiritual practices is the way. Each must find his own path.
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