Two years ago I was up late with a friend in Paris. He’s not a musician, and I was trying to explain Morton Feldman’s late style to him, using metaphor. I was struggling. I picked up a small plant nearby, and started rotating it slowly in my hand. ‘It’s like you’re looking at an object from different angles. You’re looking at the same thing, but your perspective is slowly changing. It never quite looks the same.’ I put the plant down.
‘Do that again’ he said.
‘What? The plant thing?’
‘Yeah’ he said.
I did it again, feeling self-conscious and foolish.
‘Hmm’ he said, pensive. ‘You should come talk to my students about Feldman in Geneva. I think it would interest them.’
I assumed our empty whiskey glasses were the reason for this sudden proposal; I didn’t take it seriously. ‘Sure. Sounds like fun.’ We started looking for late Feldman on YouTube so he could hear the music.
Two months later, I was in Geneva. It was January, and the cold rain was coming down in sheets. It was midnight. I was starting to wonder whether this was such a good idea. How many times could I tell my plant story during a one-week workshop?
The following morning I told a two-hour version of my plant story to a handful of graduate students at the HEAD – Geneva University of Art and Design. At first, their body language told a story of ambivalence. But as the time passed they started getting focused and asking probing, intelligent questions. They were intrigued. It was exciting.
What struck me about the young artists’ questions is how much I learned about each of them from the questions they asked. It turns out that when you don’t know much about a subject, you compare it to something you know. Chances are, you have a framework for understanding the things you know, whether you realise it or not. I have a music framework, and each of them has an art framework.
But what was interesting is that each of them had a different, idiosyncratic framework. One young artist was focused on masculinity and sleep, so the information I offered was filtered through those conceptual lenses. Another artist was interested in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. One young woman writes elaborate fairy tales as part of her work. Another young woman was keen on film. She immediately had ideas about how to present Feldman’s music in videos.
Meeting these young artists was doubly exciting. First of all, it’s a delight to meet such an eclectic group of young people, and have the opportunity to talk with them at length. But there is a second, more rewarding reason, which I came to understand only later: meeting inquisitive people that don’t work in your field gives you an opportunity to rethink the framework you use to understand your own.
It turns out that meeting interesting new people who work in domains you know little about is a very effective way of bringing new information into your intellectual orbit. Reading books and doing research are important too, but the initial spark often comes from people, and a little spark can go a long way. When you expose yourself to a critical mass of new people, and thus new information from outside your specialty, you start to gain distance from the collective opinions of your peers and tastemakers.
You start to realize that, when it comes to many things, there is no good reason why people believe certain things, or do things a certain way. Often they are just continuing a tradition, ie doing things as they’ve been done before. When you meet the right people, your framework takes new data into consideration. The picture gets more complex, and deeper. Questions are raised, and the answers are nowhere in sight. But whereas before you might have been intimidated, now you engage even more.
These conversations, while seemingly innocuous and often lots of fun, can lead to real psychological, and thus artistic freedom. Choices that are difficult to make because of the pressure to conform suddenly become easier. You start to develop your own peculiar perspective. You blend your specialist knowledge, gained from decades of experience, with random bits and pieces you’ve absorbed from improbable sources. The texture of your knowledge becomes richer.
I now understand perfectly well why John Cage and Morton Feldman spent so much time discussing art and ideas with artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston in New York in the early 1950s. Feldman wrote: ‘John [Cage] and I would drop in at the Cedar Bar at six in the afternoon and talk with artist friends until three in the morning, when it closed. I can say without exaggeration that we did this every day for five years of our lives.’
It’s a good thing that I don’t live in Geneva.
'Detours Which Have To Be Investigated', an art book, CD and DVD in homage to Morton Feldman, published by HEAD - Geneva, is out now. For more information see the press release. You can buy the book from www.mollat.com