Gluing Toothpicks

A Note on Attending to Particulars in Art-Working

It is first of all our responsibility to set our intention right, as best we can, in the moment, and then to apply that intention to each encounter with the particular. By doing so the ‘overall’ intention will consistently also be right: when each present moment applies its highest intention to whatever particular confronts it.

What I mean is this. As an artist, you simply cannot manage an entire project at once. In fact, usually your experience is of moving one toothpick to the left by three centimeters, then moving it back, then doing that 1454 times until all the toothpicks seem to be in the right spot (and so long as you are alive, you can take another look…). But you simply cannot do all 1454 moves at once. Of course the mind is parallel processing many variables, deliberately and in reverie and everything in between, so ‘one at a time’ is not a limitation. But, materially speaking at least, we are creatures limited to changing one variable at a time. Even if these variables are as large as chapter outlines or the archetype-vision of what we’re doing, they are handled as variables nonetheless. Aptitude in art is perhaps the ease or flow with which multiple smaller variables can be processed and handled as one single variable. Nonetheless, as discrete vector-units of intervention, each variable lies on a continuum that includes the adjustment of toothpicks, for in art no decision is ultimately any less important than another, even though the scales and the breadth of interventions differ markedly. (By that I mean, even throwing a whole year’s journal into the bonfire, is but the adjustment of a variable.)

Yes we experience all these actions as a stream of creativity, jumping between scales and juggling all sorts of variables in non-linear fashion. But it seems to me this is a bit like how we see moving images in cinema: it’s just because our brains are processing the images slower than the image-stills are running past our eyes. Likewise, knowledge of our total endeavor convinces us that we know what we’re doing beyond the individual move— but what if we are simply entering into greater absorption in the work, through an unending series of intentional discoveries of the right move, one-time-each-time?

We have the experience of creating something as a whole event, and this is true insofar as something definitively new emerges from our hours focused on the work. But if we get to the granular analysis of what we’re doing, we realize there is no cap on the whole event: art-working is an open-ended series of discrete interventions, endlessly reworkable. At the end of each work session, we can only hope to have moved the work into closer accord with our ultimate intention. Meanwhile, the latter is only gradually revealed to us as we contemplate the work. What we are really doing dawns on us in this contemplation: we see where we can, and cannot, go further. Anyone who has had creative works resurrect themselves after years of dormancy also knows this: the purpose for things is reveals itself from the future, potentiality runs ahead of what we can handle. We live forward and understand backwards (Kierkegaard), and this is potently true in the creation of a work of art. But for the thing we are creating to eventually BE the thing we intend, we have to apply our (inevitably only partially realized) highest and most right intention now, toothpick by toothpick, across every scale.

(“Intelligence” is perhaps the ability to recognize the consequence of changing a variable on the whole, and thus the ability to integrate over the entire function, so that the variable-changing process becomes more adequate to the whole and more perfectly aligned with the ultimate intention. Intelligence touches on every aspect, from the most mental-spiritual to the most physical-practical: its goal is to see what IS and IS-not-yet about the thing, as accurately as possible, and intervene in the particulars from there. Think of Michelangelo taking away from the stone “everything that wasn’t David”…)

The trick to art, from this perspective, is to hold the transcendental intention or ultimate reason (and yes this can be Whim!) constantly in heart and mind, with every move of variables you make— and then just keep going, keep messing with things until they settle, and there is some pleasing, some tangibly fulfilling correspondence between intention and result. I admit this may be easier done in a medium like writing, where any change can be undone; sculptors and painters have a harder time, since one toothpick misglued can sour a whole set-up. But the principle in both cases is the same: keep making good moves until there are no more good moves to make. Then you’ll know that, at least for now, you’ve reached the limit of correspondence that can be attained. But this requires a vigilance over every variable, until one receives communication from the work itself that it really is finished.

Lastly and for clarity’s sake. By intention I do not mean some clear and distinct idea which we have in our mind that just gets translated into the material. On the contrary, the intention outstrips whatever we could consciously articulate about it prior to the artwork— because the articulation of the intention IS the artwork itself. For it is often the case that the artist suddenly sees in the artwork— as if for the first time!— the intention that had driven them all along. The ultimate intention takes shape, and becomes discernable, through intense and regular negotiation with particulars of every sort, at every scale. And so the best way to arrive at that ultimate intention, is to apply one’s best apprehension of it to the particulars. Consistently work from the highest intention, and the height of the work will reach you…

Feb 23, 2023

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