Abstract Notions
Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing


What are we missing out on when we use our smart phones to pass idle time?

Recently, while eating lunch by myself at a local diner, I realized something that genuinely bothered me: I’m losing the ability to sit and do nothing. Where I used to be able to sit contently and simply daydream or observe my surroundings, I now feel anxious, restless, and awkward if I’m sitting alone with nothing specific for my hands or brain to do.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Looking around at the other solo diners that day, I noticed a common denominator: the smart phone. With sandwiches in one hand and thumbs scrolling through Facebook in the other, we all seemed incapable of disconnecting from our phones, even for a 15-minute lunch. That’s when it dawned on me that it’s entirely possible the most damaging effect of technology’s integration into our daily lives is that it’s replacing something many people have never thought was worth doing—sitting still and simply letting your mind wander.

As soon as I figured out what was going on, I put my phone away. But that’s when the awkwardness set in. If you want to feel out of place in a public setting these days, just start staring off into space or watching people as they walk by. Do it long enough and someone is liable to walk up and ask you if you’re feeling OK. That’s because we’re so accustomed to seeing people tethered to their smart phones—it’s the new normal. If you’re not killing time with your face fused to a screen, then you’re the weird one in the room.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice how technological connectivity is making it easier to disconnect from ourselves and each other in myriad ways. Late last year, comedian Louis C.K. shared his hatred for cell phones on Conan, and observed how we use technology these days to distract us from thinking about the depressing aspects of life. As he points out, taking on those thoughts head on is the only way to defuse them of their explosive potential.

My concern is similar to his, but with a twist. I worry that the more dependent we become on technology to help us pass idle time, the less likely we’ll be to allow our minds to wander in positive ways. It’s already become commonplace for parents to hand their kids an iPhone when they’re restless in the backseat or complaining of boredom. While I recognize the logic-enhancing and hand/eye coordination benefits of video games in young people, I can’t help but wonder how that constant stimulation is taking away opportunities for them to expand their imaginations, creativity, and overall mindfulness.

I’m noticing it in older generations, too. Just the other day, I witnessed a woman walking outside on a beautiful morning with her head down, reading a Kindle. Meanwhile, the natural beauty of her surroundings was going by unnoticed. While it’s true that she was engaging her imagination through the book, her brain was missing out on a different kind of stimulation—the kind you can only get when you allow yourself to truly appreciate the natural world we’re all apart of. And lest you think stopping to smell the roses or listening to the birds sing isn’t all that important, consider that establishing a true and lasting connection to nature may be only way we’ll be able to shake society’s general apathy toward climate change and make the real changes necessary to curb its impacts.

Which brings me to my favorite argument for why we need to spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen: how else can we encourage the cutting-edge ideas, innovations, and solutions that only seem to pop into one’s mind when it’s disengaged from a specific task and allowed to wander? I recently read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which is a fascinating rundown of the work habits of 161 of history’s greatest creative thinkers from Matisse and Mahler to Freud and Einstein. What stood out to me by the end was how many of them took time out of their busy days to take a walk or just sit and seemingly do nothing. Who knows how many world-changing ideas first made themselves apparent during those daily moments of stillness and contemplation? It suggested to me that what we consider “downtime” may actually be the access point to a higher plane of thinking—one that I’m hoping to find my way back into now that I’ve opened my eyes again to the world that exists outside of the phone in my pocket.      

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

See It Soon: Alexander Calder

Calder Flamingo

"American Masters" documentary captures the playfulness and whimsy of one of the 20th Century's greatest artists. 

In the pantheon of great 20th Century artists, perhaps no one continues to captivate audiences more than Alexander Calder. One look at the latest auction prices for his pieces certainly supports this notion, but there’s even more convincing evidence to be found in a place that most people may not automatically associate with Calder: the baby’s room. For hanging above most of the world’s cribs is Calder’s most popular and lasting artistic contribution, the mobile.

As the outstanding new-to-DVD documentary Alexander Calder demonstrates, it’s only fitting that a man who lived and loved life with the carefree attitude of a child should forever be connected with the wonderful distraction represented by the ubiquitous moving sculpture he invented. Calder was a man who used his endless supply of creative ambition to make the world a better place, whether it was through his moving toys, his mesmerizing circus, or his monumental outdoor sculptures, and this short film does an excellent job of illustrating Calder’s optimism and deep desire to give the world something magical to witness.

Growing up in a family of artists near the turn of the century and demonstrating a natural ability to make art at an early age, Calder seemed destined to become an artist, even if it didn’t figure into his ideal career plan. But false starts in several odd jobs soon forced him into realizing his destiny, and he learned to apply the engineering education pursued for non-artistic means to his creative craft. Considering the technical complexity underlying many of Calder’s estimated 16,000 pieces, it’s obvious that what appeared to be a time-wasting detour to a career in art ended up providing him with the know-how to make his sculptures seemingly come alive. The film also does an excellent job of showing how Calder was both a visionary and an adaptable artist; he was open to the work of others and was always looking for ways to apply what he liked about others work while still maintaining his own immediately recognizable style. 

Originally filmed in the mid-1990s and aired on PBS in 1998 as part of the “American Masters” series, the film is essential viewing not just because of the rare archival footage of Calder working in his studio but because of the priceless personal stories shared by the people who knew him personally, including family, artist Ellsworth Kelly, and playwright Arthur Miller. Their reminiscences paint the picture of man who not only matched the playfulness and whimsy of his creations, but was also as generous as he was talented.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Photo at top: Flamingo (1974)Alexander Calder; located in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago; courtesy Vincent Desjardins, licensed under Creative Commons

Celebrating the End of Time

end of time mettler

Fascinating associations abound in Peter Mettler’s documentary about how we perceive time.

Ever since it's become aware of it, humanity has been trying to figure out how to understand the concept of time. But for what purpose? Consider these three complaints related to time: 1) There’s not enough of it; 2) It moves too slowly; 3) We’ve yet to figure out how to repeat it or fast-forward our lives through it. The common denominator to these complaints reveals an ever-present and unfortunate characteristic of humanity—the desire to control.

This thought and many others came to mind as I recently watched The End of Time by Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler. In this visually-stunning and remarkably thought-provoking documentary, Mettler digs deep into the ancient question “what is time?” and makes some surprising observations and associations along the way.

Throughout the film, Mettler deftly demonstrates that answering that age-old question involves much more than proving Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; it means asking hard questions about our collective existence and the purpose we ascribe to our individual lives. Above all, Mettler challenges the viewer in myriad ways to take a step back, slow down, and ask themselves what’s more important: that we control time or learn to ignore it?

Mettler illustrates that pointed question by profiling individuals and communities dealing with specific characteristics of time. There’s Jack Thompson, who, for 30 years, lived a timeless existence in the shadow of a Hawaiian volcano, fully aware that one day lava would consume his home. His decision to stay while every one of his neighbors left was borne out of a deep desire to disconnect from the mile-a-minute lifestyle he saw in the modern world. The irony wasn’t lost on him that the Earth’s snail-like process of making new islands would eventually push him back into the fast-paced civilization he had hoped to escape. 

From Hawaii, Mettler takes us to Detroit—a city gutted by the negative side-effects of progress. Mettler points out that the technological efficiencies pioneered by Henry Ford initially reaped prosperity, but also sowed the seeds for the city’s demise. Ford’s assembly line may have saved time, but it eventually cost human jobs. The upside, as Mettler shows, is the blank slate that Detroit now represents for people interested in building grassroots communities that emphasize relationships with the Earth and each other over pursuit of profit.

A noted photographer, Mettler’s eye for finding the beautiful in the seemingly mundane is on full-display throughout the film and contributes to the film’s reception as experimental cinema more than traditional documentary. The End of Time is patient, contemplative, and artistic in its presentation, which has apparently rubbed many Netflix users the wrong way. Considering the subject matter of the film and Mettler’s not-so-subtle suggestions that humanity can offset the negative effects of progress by taking the time to reconnect with the world around us, the reviews claiming the film is “too slow” or “boring” demonstrate there’s a desperate need for our civilization to figure out how to slow down before it’s too late. Not only do the reprioritizations that Mettler suggests in this film hold the ingredients to solving many of our current global crises, they also suggest how we as individuals might be able to conquer clocks and calendars to live a more meaningful life. This poignant observation is summed up beautifully by Mettler’s mother at the end of the film. Though she doesn’t realize it, Julia Mettler offers the most sublime answer to the film’s central question. Rather than offer up a complicated definition of what time is or isn’t, she simply suggests that one should do their best to make the most of it. After all, while it may be fascinating to ask what time is, perhaps we’ll be better off when we learn to live our life as if time—or at least our perception of it— doesn’t matter.     

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

See It Soon: A Brief History of Time - Criterion Collection

stephen hawking

Errol Morris allows us to travel to the stars and beyond through the mind of Stephen Hawking.

Skywatchers and others fascinated with the mysteries of the universe have been experiencing exiciting times as of late. From last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson to the recent detection of gravity waves from the Big Bang, we seem to be living in a golden age of monumental breakthroughs that are helping us better understand the makeup and origin of the universe.

One of the figures responsible for making the complexities of the universe more accessible to the general public was Stephen Hawking through his best-selling 1988 book A Brief History of Time. While the theories expressed in those pages are remarkable on their own, filmmaker Errol Morris was even more interested in the man behind the theories, and brilliantly profiled the pioneering astrophysicist in a 1991 film with the same name. Now, nearly 25 years later, Morris’ A Brief History of Time has received a digital makeover and Blu-ray release by The Criterion Collection that ensures its availability to a new generation of watchers and dreamers.

As we discover through an included interview with the filmmaker, Morris was the ideal person to adapt this book for film. Most filmmakers would have agonized over how to understand and accurately illustrate Hawking’s complex theories about black holes and the expanding universe, but Morris’ previous education in the history and philosophy of science helped him make quick work of that aspect of the film and allowed him to focus on creative ways to help us better understand the man.

While the film features mesmerizing original music by Philip Glass, the focal point of the soundtrack is the clicker that Hawking uses to communicate with his computer. Though Hawking’s debilitating motor neuron disease prevents him from experiencing the physical world, Morris’ film shows how that’s only helped Hawking use his mind to explore the deepest reaches of the universe, and take us all with him for the ride. 

Photo courtesy Doug Whellen, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwilliams. He also paints and makes and music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Feeling the Power of Art

cleveland orchestra

Celebrating the art that pulls us in and doesn’t let go.

This past February, I had the opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams since high school: experience a live performance of Richard Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. That may not sound like much of a dream to most people, but that piece of music literally changed my life the first time I heard it. Not only did it spark my ongoing passion for classical music, it marked the first time that I actually felt the power of art.

The memory of that special moment is still vivid. It was 1993, and I had recently decided it would be cool to dive into classical music while the rest of my freshman peers were into hip-hop and grunge rock. While I enjoyed the likes of Bach and Beethoven, I wanted to dig deeper into some of the composers I wasn’t already familiar with.

At that point, my familiarity with Wagner started and stopped with “Ride of the Valkyries,” and I remember wondering if there was more to him than that ubiquitous piece. I picked up a greatest hits CD on a whim and let it play uninterrupted one Saturday afternoon while I sat in my bedroom playing video games. Within the first two minutes of Tannhäuser, I dropped the controller and just sat there listening to what was floating out of my stereo. It was the first time I experienced awe while listening to music, and the overwhelming beauty of the melody gave me goose bumps. Later listens have even moved me to tears, which has both fascinated and embarrassed me, depending on where I am when it happens.

NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich recently shared a similar story about the first time he was moved by a particular work of art. He writes that he was 8 years old at the time and visiting the Museum of Modern Art with his father one Sunday afternoon:

It was a woodland scene, a blur of greens, blues and purples, a tumble of rocks in the foreground, tall pines, branching into a blue sky, breaking up into arabesques. It had no people in it, no girls, nothing I recognized. But with a force that felt like a fist, it jerked my head to it—almost as if it were calling out, “You!”—like it knew me. Like it wanted to pull me to it and tell me something—something personal. But what? I had no idea. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Furniture, pictures, carpets had always stayed in their place, being, after all, things. But not this thing. It had power.

The painting that had taken such a hold of Krulwich turned out to be Pine and Rocks by Paul Cézanne–a picture that, to this day, still holds a captivating power over him whenever he sees it. But how does one explain why an 8-year-old boy with no point of reference to art or Cézanne would be so immediately and completely drawn into one of his paintings upon first sight? Krulwich offers an interesting theory:

We are born with a sort of mood in us, a mood that comes to us through our genes, that will be seasoned by experience, but deep down, it's already there, looking for company, for someone to share itself with, and when we happen on the right piece of music, the right person, or, in this case the right artist, then, with a muscle that is as deep as ourselves, with the force of someone grabbing for a life preserver, we attach.

What Krulwich describes here is the reason why humankind, for as far back as we can trace it, has found creative expression such a vital function. It’s one of the few ways our species can overcome the barriers of language, culture, and even time, to communicate emotions and big ideas that we all can inherently relate to. Even Wagner—a man whose reprehensible world view conflicts with the beauty of his music—was capable of making sublime art that speaks the universal language of all humankind—past, present, and future. It’s in his case that we see even clearer the true power of art: the ability of the message to transcend the messenger.

So this past February, as I listened to the visiting Cleveland Orchestra perform the Overture to Tannhäuser in the University of Kansas’ Lied Center concert hall, it was as beautiful as I’d always imagined it would be. I didn’t feel compelled to analyze or justify anything—I simply chose to listen. It was just me, the music, the goose bumps, and a Kleenex nearby, just in case.

What work of art has pulled you in and won’t let go? Share your story in the comments.

Photo credit: Cleveland Orchestra at The Lied Center, University of Kansas; courtesy of Christian Williams.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Read It: Art and Place

art and place

New book is an indispensable resource for those interested in site-specific art in the Americas.

One of my first memories of site-specific art was the untitled Picasso on display in Chicago’s Daley Plaza. While the busy streets and skyscrapers told me I was in Chicago, I didn’t feel the familiarity of my home city until I saw that sculpture. If it were ever relocated to a different city or even the nearby Art Institute of Chicago, it’d still be a Picasso, but much of what makes it so special to me and Chicagoans would be lost. In other words, it’s a piece that’s equally defined by its location as its creator.

It’s with that idea in mind that Phaidon has recently published Art & Place, a fantastic and comprehensive survey of site-specific art in the Americas. Over the course of 373 geographically-categorized pages and 800 color photos, the book is a virtual tour of more than 170 site-specific art works across North, Central, and South America. “Art made for a specific place can be the most spectacular, uplifting, and exciting art you can ever experience,” said Amanda Renshaw, editor of the book, a press release. “The format aims to bring some of the most extraordinary examples to life and enable most of us to visit these amazing places from home.”

double negative

While many of the works profiled are murals, sculptures, or elaborately decorated churches—all traditional forms of public art—the book excels at profiling land art and ancient works that may be unfamiliar to the general public. Full-color photographs and in-depth profiles of works like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (pictured above) entice the reader to figure out how they might be able to swing by some of these remote, yet profoundly interesting works of art that incorporate the unique landscapes of their locations.

The book’s presentation of the artistic expressions left behind by ancient cultures is also beautifully handled by the editors. As each section is organized chronologically by region, one can easily see how the earliest traditions influenced the next, and how later works reflected both the old traditions and the new influence of outside forces.  

Art & Place will be recognized as an indispensable resource, not just for its encyclopedic cataloging of site-specific art, but for the way it illustrates the visionary work of artists who use the earth as their canvas, as well as those who use public art to critique and enhance modern humanity.

Middle photo by focus c / bottom photo by Retis; both photos licensed under Creative Commons

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Preserving Our Art Spaces

vollis simpson

Some of America’s most interesting art isn’t hanging in a museum.

For most people, the phrase “art preservation” usually conjures the image of someone cleaning varnish off a worn painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or contemporary artists touching up a Renaissance fresco.

The common denominator to those images is the role that traditional showcases of fine art—like museums, galleries, and cathedrals—play in dictating what’s worth preserving. The truth is, though, that the vast majority of creative expressions never make it into one of those showcases, which means that there is a lot of potentially great art at constant risk of disappearing forever.

This is especially true in the United States, where some of the most interesting creative expressions you’ll ever encounter aren’t confined by the walls of a museum or gallery. From trucks in trees in Wisconsin to a gold pyramid house in Illinois to bizarre yard sculptures in Kansas, there’s likely something creatively interesting to appreciate within a short drive of wherever you live. Most of the time, this art is produced by people who don’t consider themselves artists, but are nonetheless driven by a deep desire to create. Regardless of how they identify with the art world, their work can often be just as moving as anything hanging in a museum. But because it’s being used or displayed outside in their yard, it’s often diminished to the point of novelty and rarely considered worthy of preservation. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.

Writing in Landscape Architecture Magazine (December 2013), Kevan Williams looks at how different communities have taken on the often times arduous task of preserving the local work of self-taught artists that fall outside of the mainstream. One example Williams cites is the new permanent home for the whimsical and mesmerizing whirligigs of popular North Carolina artist Vollis Simpson, which organizers hope will become a template for other communities to follow for preserving their local art:

Aside from the physical challenges to preservation that Williams points out in his article, one of the biggest obstacles I see to motivating a community to preserve its local art the Wilson County/Vollis Simpson way is appreciation of the art itself. We live in a society where people are more interested in being told what to value and appreciate rather than rely on their own opinions and preferences to make those judgments. In the mainstream art world, this dictatorial control manifests itself in the process of labeling and categorizing. It may seem innocuous to label the work of the untrained artist as “folk art,” “naïve art,” or, if they’re mentally unstable, “outsider art.” But what we’re effectively doing by allowing these categorizations to continue is make it easier for the public to view the work of formally trained artists as more valuable and worthy of preservation, reducing the rest to novelty or misunderstood nonsense.

One non-profit organization that’s been trying to change that is SPACES. An acronym for Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments, SPACES' mission is to catalog and document as many unconventional art spaces as possible such as Simpson’s whirligig park, Isaiah Zagar’s elaborate urban mosaics, and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, just to name a few. Through its website, SPACES hopes to educate people about the artists behind these unique places, and demonstrate that formal training isn’t a prerequisite for producing lasting and preservation-worthy works of art. 

Image by Government and Heritage Library, State Library of North Carolina, licensed under Creative Commons

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

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