Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Generosity of Strangers Open Thread

I'll admit it up front. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for all things Irish. From the opening chapter of Leon Uris's Trinity, in which Finola tells Liam to spread the word that Kilty has died ("Be sure to go to the byres and the beehives and let the cattle and bees know that Kilty Larkin is gone."), to the sheer genius that was the wit of Oscar Wilde, to the awesome certainty in the order of things demonstrated by this hilarious Quentin Crisp quote:
"When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, 'Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don't believe?'"
My first love was Irish (we had been together about 7 years when he passed away, about 10 years ago [yes, I'm that old]), and I was best man in the wedding of a dear friend whose Irish clan held the kind of parties in the hotel all weekend that nearly got us kicked out repeatedly.

So it's probably no surprise that I simply adored the charming independent Irish film "Once," which won the Oscar for best song this past year. We only watched it last week on DVD, but I can't get its haunting melodies or simple beauty out of mind. The Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly," was one I had heard a few times before watching the film, never quite understanding what all the fuss was about. Then I saw it performed in context and I nearly lost it:

Watching this scene, two things became clearer to me. First, the song is about hope. Second, this scene is about generosity. The guy had only just met this girl, and here they both were sharing through their music, so generously, and both obviously getting as much as they were giving.

But I've got a busy schedule, and so, as I tend to do in such situations, I set out to exhaust my interest by learning as much as I can (as to find something mundane and/or off-putting within the entire effort to break its spell on me) and tucking it safely under my belt where it wouldn't keep haunting my thoughts. In one interview I saw with Glen Hansard on the Today Show (see You Tube version here), I thought I found that mundane thing. In response to receiving a new guitar by a stranger who saw him in concert (it had belonged to her deceased husband), he finally crossed the line and left the realm of inspiration and entered the land of trite (whew, I could move on). In response to the notion that giving is its own gift, he said:
"I'm a real believer in...when something comes into your life, the best way to hang onto it is to pass it on."
"Groan..." my inner cynic thought. (To quote the Magnetic Fields again, "Drag another cliche howling from the vaults.") What a fantasy...what does that even mean? The best way to hang onto it is to keep those who would take it from you at bay.

Then, this morning, I read the Appreciation on the editorial page of the New York Times, that Maura Casey had penned on the reportedly fearless (and unrepentantly atheist) Irish Times editor and columnist Nuala O’Faolain, who passed away at 68 last week:
There was little comfort, though, when she revealed her terminal cancer in an interview last month on RTE radio in Ireland. She confessed that she felt shattered by the pointlessness of it all. “It amazed me how quickly life turned black,” she said. Beauty, she said, meant nothing; she didn’t believe in the afterlife. “I can’t be consoled by the mention of God,” she said. She wished everyone who believes “every comfort,” but, she said, “to me, it’s meaningless.”

Typically, in discussing her impending death, Ms. O’Faolain didn’t cover her experience with the veneer of denial, or even the faintest glimmering of hope. She was heartbroken to leave her apartment in New York, with its yellow curtains and books. “I know loads and loads of songs, and what’s the point of it all?” she said. “So much has happened, and it seems such a waste of creation, that with each death all that knowledge dies.”
And then it hit me. The true fantasy is the notion that you can hang on to anything (of any value) in any other way but passing it on. The day will come when it's time to tell the bees and cows about your passing too, and then what? All that knowledge only dies if you horded it. If you shared it, then it wasn't a waste, because you've spared someone else the trouble of learning it the hard way that you did.

Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that this is why I gravitate to artists. The act of making art has often been described as a gift, but it's a gift that embodies what the artist has learned, his or her knowledge, and encapsulates it in a form that is easy to pass on. In fact, it's made specifically to pass that knowledge on with or without the artist still being here, and as such becomes a gift all the more generous because it's a gift to strangers.

I know I've dived head first into icky touchyfeelyville with this post. Feel free to batter it back to cynicism. If you can.

Labels: art appreciation


OpenID ericgelber said...

"I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it. Everybody is a real one to me, everybody is like some one else too to me. No one of them that I know can want to know it and so I write for myself and strangers."

Gertrude Stein (a famous Irish writer)

5/13/2008 09:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. This, I understand. And I relate to it much more than a comment like "psst...the Andy Yoder is a particularly smart buy at the moment...you heard it here first, which frankly leaves me flummoxed. I can be a bit of a nihilist, so the comment that art is some sort of (synctretic?) summation--and gift to others--is enough to brighten my morning.

5/13/2008 09:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does this mean we are finally admitting that Bourriaud was off the mark when he said "[art]is not an immutable essence?". I wonder how relational aesthetics would account for that lump in my throat?

5/13/2008 09:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

psst...the Andy Yoder is a particularly smart buy at the moment...you heard it here first, which frankly leaves me flummoxed

In the interest of helping Momenta raise money, I'm comfortable with what I did there, but understand your objection

5/13/2008 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron Wexler said...

I'll take that magnetic fields lyric and add an non-cynical one...
"Summer, summer, summer's
Gonna turn into fall
You and your baby doll
Better go to the beach 'cause
Love is lighter than air
It floats away if you let go
Love is ligher than air
It rises through the falling snow"

appropriate because towards the end of Nuala O'Faolain's life she said that the only thing that still brought her joy was music.

5/13/2008 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

As someone who was raised (irish) catholic, I have always thought of artmaking as a vocation, in some way related to other "vocations of faith": you are turning your life over to something that is bigger than you are, and you spend your life giving that "something" to others.

5/13/2008 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel like alot of people get something out of my work by seeing it in the venues where I show it which at this stage of my career, are mostly free venues. For me, art is also my life's work, intellectual heir, and legacy. It's a spiritual axiom, to give something away in order to keep it. but Is it Irish?

5/13/2008 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

Oh, and great post, Ed. Bravely transcending that New York fear of sentimentality, if only for a moment.

5/13/2008 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Anonymous 9:48:

Relational aesthetics is about the lump in the throat, in fact (and I don't even like the stuff, really). You know, like, people coming together, relating to each other. Of course, art is a mutable thing. This is what we're talking about.

I'M SO SICK OF ALL THESE ANONYMOUS PEOPLE. Just make up a name already. It's hard to take you people seriously.

5/13/2008 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

er...I would encourage people to make up a name as well, but more so that we can tell them apart. As much as it's annoying that anonymous commenters are generally the ones making the most obnoxious comments, sometimes they also make the most poignant ones.

This blog service doesn't permit me to eliminate the anonymous option as far as I know, and it's important to me than everyone feel welcome (until they royally piss me off, anyway), so I'd have to disagree that anonymous comments shouldn't be tolerated.

Again, though, for the sake of keeping them straight, do consider a pseudonym.

5/13/2008 10:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for this beautiful post.

An anon above said that they consider their artwork their heir, their legacy. A lot of artists don't have children; they leave their legacy in their work. I should correct that to say a lot female artists don't have children. Historically, male artists can have children and still give their all to their work because, well for obvious reasons. Wifey takes care of that mundane stuff while Mr. Genius does the important work.

Oh, now I've gotten sucked back into the real world, pried from your lovely life-is-beautiful moment. I can only keep the cynicism at bay for brief periods.


ps: you are very well preserved. Unless you met your first love at age 10 or so.

5/13/2008 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

oops, sorry- this is me...

Anonymous said...

I feel like alot of people get something out of my work by seeing it in the venues where I show it which at this stage of my career, are mostly free venues. For me, art is also my life's work, intellectual heir, and legacy. It's a spiritual axiom, to give something away in order to keep it. but Is it Irish?

5/13/2008 10:25:00 AM

I think I read somewhere Mary Cassatt saw her work as her legacy which gave me permission to feel the same way- what is life about anyways? How can you not think about and try to answer some of the bigger questions in life as an artist?

5/13/2008 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Albert Einstein described belief in God as "childish superstition" and said Jews were not the chosen people, in a letter to be sold in London this week, an auctioneer said Tuesday.

The father of relativity, whose previously known views on religion have been more ambivalent and fuelled much discussion, made the comments in response to a philosopher in 1954.

As a Jew himself, Einstein said he had a great affinity with Jewish people but said they "have no different quality for me than all other people".

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
So there you have it, thankee you kindly, EINSTEIN.

5/13/2008 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who believes that energy once created never dies, i get a kick thinking Ms. O'Faolain's first thought in her evolution would be 'Oh Fuck!".

Good post Edward, I liked "Once" but didn't love it, maybe just my mood that day but I did enjoy the video clip.

---- ondinenyc

5/13/2008 11:17:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Speaking of male artists fobbing off of their wives...

5/13/2008 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

this post reminds me of something someone said to me at the opening reception of my solo show in nyc at the fountainhead gallery in december- something to the effect- all your sculptures look so happy and good- you must not be from nyc!

but on the topic at hand- i thought only the suburbs had the 'hoarding in/protecting oneself like a king in a castle while keeping out the enemy' vibe- aren't urban areas more open to outsiders?

5/13/2008 11:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re zip's post:

Go Al! You rock!

Oriane, another non-believin' jew

ps: love that O. Wilde anecdote.

5/13/2008 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not sure I know that Einstein was wrong about that, Zip. I grow more and more atheist the older I get.

Then again, I watched my first love (an Irish bricklayer with zero respect for authority in that way that only the Irish have and, I thought, zero belief in God) turn back toward the rituals he had reluctantly learned as a boy in Mass toward the end of his life. It actually made me furious at "God" (if He could be blamed) that He would break this brilliant force-of-nature of a man as the cancer wrecked his 6'4" frame. "How freakin' dare You humble him this way?!" I howled. I wanted to overturn the table of candles in the Cathedral where I witnessed him returning to these comforts, knowing that were he not dying, he would have still scoffed at them.

So, now, I simply don't know. Maybe there is a God and my growing atheism is merely anger at a Being that will exist long after we're dust. An anger at a Being that survives the strongest among us. Ms. O’Faolain didn't cave, though, and I respect her for that, but I wonder too whether she'll find that she should have.

5/13/2008 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unrelated: Rauschenberg just died.


5/13/2008 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

From your blogger dashboard chose settings-Comments second setting down Who Can Comment?

choose one

Anyone - includes Anonymous Users
Registered Users - includes OpenID
Users with Google Accounts
Only members of this blog

but I have a feeling you already know that, but it leads into a response to

First, the song is about hope. Second, this scene is about generosity

And the ever important Third

today you chose hope over cynicism
as anyone can on any day

Choose to let anonymous comments because you understand you can't just stop the bad anonymouses without loosing the good
cannot silence anothers voice without loosing your own

from Joseph Campbell

where we have thought to find an abomination
we shall find a god
where we have sought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves
where we have thought to travel outward
we shall come to the center of our own existence
where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world

and from Einstein

"My religion consists of a humble admiration of the unlimitable superior who reveals Himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God."

Al wasn't an Atheist, and quite resented when Atheist tried to use him to their end.

Thanks for the hope

5/13/2008 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

David Brooks gives us an update on what is now old-school atheism in his Times op-ed piece today entitled "The Neural Buddhists"


5/13/2008 11:43:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I don't buy the formula:

making art=having children

more later...

5/13/2008 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

making art is a legacy in that you will live on forever in your art- in much the same way as having children is a legacy and you will forever live on in your children- but i also agree with you, esp as a woman since my pieces are figurative when people say off handedly, they're like your children- i think no, they are not.

5/13/2008 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

But sometimes MAKING a work of art is like giving birth.....

5/13/2008 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric, I'm not saying it's a formula. It's obviously more complex than that. But is something analogous there, maybe not for everyone.

I was all set to go on record as saying that David Brooks is a pompous ass, but after reading his oped today, I have to say, on this particular issue he's not his usual pompous ass self. Hell must have frozen over. OMG, there IS a god afterall! David Brooks is not ALWAYS a pompous ass.

Oriane Stender

5/13/2008 12:30:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

To have all, give all to all.
--The Course in Miracles.

Maybe there is a God and my growing atheism is merely anger at a Being that will exist long after we're dust.

Ed, God is not separate from us. We are part of the mind of God. These bodies, here, are nothing; they're just training grounds for our minds. And when we stop hoarding and give everything, we are free.

And now I see that someone else already linked to David Brooks, so I don't have to prove my sanity by doing so.

5/13/2008 12:50:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"But sometimes MAKING a work of art is like giving birth..."

I have witnessed the process of giving birth close up on two occasions and I have to disagree with the above statement. I have struggled with making a work of art on many occasions but the process of giving birth and making a work of art are very different, as are the processes of making art for many years and trying to raise children. Sorry if I am being too literal.

5/13/2008 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...


Perhaps I was being too broadly metaphorical. Or perhaps it varies with one's process. I make work that generally takes from 3-10 months, ends with about 2 weeks of sleeplessness, only to collapse, exhausted, when it is finished. When I awake, I can't believe that I made the thing in front of me, and it takes a few weeks to physically recover.

It's what I imagine giving birth must be like.

5/13/2008 02:11:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I know the metaphor of giving birth is important to many artists so I am not going to argue the point ad nauseum. Also, giving examples of the differences between the two won't do the trick either. So let us just say that we have different opinions.

5/13/2008 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

How can this have turned to a debate on god and has of yet no one points out G-O-D spelled backward is D-O-G.

that's why so many were initially so upset with Senior Vargas..;)

5/13/2008 04:50:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

It’s less a question of whether there is or isn’t a God, but what your definition of God is. Classic atheism seems less a denial of the divine than a rejection of the structures inherent in manmade religion. Marxist atheism simply seeks to replace the god head with Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Post-Modern atheism fills the void with doubting rhetoric.

God provided for art in the master plan, but unfortunately didn’t provide for a reciprocal level of appreciation. Standing in front of great art is one of the best assurances I’ve found to confirmed some notion that there is a God and that some people attain a state of grace regardless of definitions.

5/13/2008 05:51:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Ultra-cynic Mark E Smith of The Fall wrote in one of his songs: 'When I am dead and gone, my vibrations will live on.'

He's referring to the vibrations of the needle in the groove of the record, not some vague spiritualist nonsense.

I call my philosophy common-sense nihilism (and see nihilism as a positive thing). All we know is that we're alive now. You can't bank on any kind of afterlife. Only you can give meaning and purpose to your life.

5/13/2008 06:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...


5/13/2008 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger concrete phone said...

Rauschenberg removes his shoes, now he takes his watch off.

5/13/2008 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

I already miss him.

5/13/2008 10:35:00 PM  
Blogger L.A.Moore said...

Art, like love, are often the hardest parts of yourself to give.

5/14/2008 08:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, good post Ed. My best friend of some 15 years just recently died. He was a brilliant artist and writer. This art stuff doesnt really mean all its made out to be. We want so bad to elevate people, but really everyone is capable of good art. Lives are more real. Cynicism is a childs tantrum.

5/14/2008 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 9:28,

Condolences on your friend's death.

I'm trying to reconcile "he was a brilliant artist" with "everyone is capable of good art." That second statement is something that is predicated on your definition of art. I agree that all people have the potential for expressing some kind of creativity, in some field, and that potential is often not nourished or actively and harshly discouraged early in life. But I'm not of the "everyone is an artist" opinion. It sorts of devalues what we as artists do. As an artist friend once said to me, lots of people say, "oh my five year loves to draw - he's an artist," but you don't hear anyone saying, "my five year old loves to argue - he's a lawyer." (Uh oh, I'm back to cynicism already. Damn!)

Of course the word "art," and therefore the word "artist," has many usages, unlike the word "lawyer." So in the broad sense of the word, yes, everyone could be an artist.


5/14/2008 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

anon 9:28,

Condolences on your friend's death.

yes...my deepest sympathies as well.

5/14/2008 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

Cynicism is a childs tantrum

Spot on Anon 5/14/2008 09:28:00 AM

but really everyone is capable of good art

I agree, as everyone is capable of love, as god is love so goes art.

IMHO the reason this song is so haunting is I don't know anyone who got into art because they were a cynic, we are all romantics, dreamers and visionaries all, the cynics as Anon put it are throwing tantrums, usually because they don't have what they want, get enough attention, or the world isn't the way they want it to be. its the attitude of if I can't have it no one can, try to denounce it, cynicism is a kind of denial, a loss of faith even if that faith is art. The most profound epiphany about god for me was the ability to reconcile the word itself and kind of re align its meaning from that of a noun to being a verb, from a summoning of an entity, (as an artist it used to be an old bearded man in flouncy clothing hovering above our heads) to a way of being, revealing oriental philosophical learning that got lost in Occidental religious dogma.

It actually made me furious at "God" (if He could be blamed)

I never met you Ed, and I wouldn't pretend to understand what it must have been like to watch someone you love deteriorate before your eyes and lose them, I have been through my own loss and understand the anger, the confusion and pain, it's quite the descent into hell. in my own case the surprise was that I never lost faith, I discovered that even when I did questioned it or attempted to destroy it, that as long as there was that battle it was still there, and it survived and lead to the ability to be able to enjoy a spring day, to joke, and laugh, appreciate life and remain open to love.

The kind of faith I'm writing about is being in darkness and knowing there is light and searching for it, Cynicism is just seeing the darkness.

and judging by your posts I would say you came back from hell and there still is a flicker of a romantic flame and sharing it fearlessly on your blog is a way of sharing that experience and shining a light that can reach someone in darkness and help them find their way.

5/14/2008 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

sharing it fearlessly on your blog is a way of sharing that experience

Thanks for the very touching comment Joseph (I appreciate it).

My original thought in sharing here was to keep his story alive by sharing it/passing it on. He was a remarkable human being. I'll share just one story (one of my favorites). Like I noted, "T" had no respect for authority.

He was paradoxically terrified of flying (I say paradoxically because very little less frightened him and indeed once when we found ourselves in a fight situation, the poor idiot who struck him first went down, out cold, with one punch from my guy).

But we lived on separate continents for a while, and so he mustered up his courage and booked a ticket on British Airways to come visit me in DC. Because the worst parts of flying for him, however, were the take off and landing, he took a flask of courage to ease himself through the anxiety of the period right before take off.

As fate would have it, the plane sat on the tarmac for over two hours after they closed the door, during which he emptied his flask, and, being the good Irishman he was, decided the entire flight should join him in a sing-a-long.

This pleased the other passengers none too much. The flight attendants patiently asked him to refrain and he agreed, shooing them away with his hands and charming smile. After a while, though--the plane still not moving--he realized his flask of courage was dry and so decided to open the Duty Free bottle of Wild Turkey he had bought for me. The flight attendants rushed over, insisting "You can't open that until you reach America, Mr. Mc[withheld]."

"Sure, sure," replied, shooing them away again. As soon as they were a few steps down the aisle, though, he cracked it open.

Within 10 minutes there were two security guards ushering him off the plane, one on each arm. He towered above them as they tried in vain to get him to go quietly, pleading with him "Come on "T". Come along T," all the way up the aisle.

"Don't call me "T," you fucking midgets," he bellowed in reply.

Shortly afterward he called to let me know not to meet him at Dulles.

"They threw me off the frickin' plane," he explained.

"Who...what...how do you throw one off a plane?" I asked.

He retold the story, and I was too upset he wasn't coming to see the glorious humor in it all (and doubt I would have had I been a fellow passenger on that flight either), so I called British Airways, full of bluster, and yelled my way up the food chain until I reached a top supervisor.

"What is wrong with your people?" I insisted. "Aren't they trained to recognize and deal with passengers who are terrified of flying?"

"Mr. Winkleman," her cool British voice responded. "You weren't there."

"Fair enough," I said and hung up.

"T" did eventually make it over to visit, without further incident...not on the plane, anyways.

5/14/2008 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

see, what might have been a lost memory has a new life

5/14/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

A drink to lost friends, loves and artists.

Here's a good lyric from Jape

We're all just floating


5/15/2008 02:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to give away some small drawings. nothing fancy.

send a mailing address to:


5/21/2008 07:15:00 PM  

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