Hanging out with artists in The Ark
The Ark was the birthplace of Duke basketball. Maybe conversations started there can ignite creative indolence and a truer excellence, too.
Read time: about 12 minutes. A meditation on loafing and the work of artwork.
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“The Ark” on Duke’s East Campus had been better kept than our old farmhouse was, and actually was a few years older, having been built as a gym near the end of the nineteenth century. Almost as long as I’ve been at Duke, dancers have favored the building’s forgiving wood floors. I remember dancers in the American Dance Festival practicing there in the summer’s heat, and today The Ark houses the dance department. The evening of April 11, when I walked in the front door into the expanse that was once the Angier B. Duke Gymnasium, I thought of old floors and their flex and life. They have been maintained, no doubt, at the urging of dancers.
I was going to a gathering of people who do “arts practices” — that is, they all engaged in doing art, though most of them also study art.
Duke basketball started in The Ark, and now the building lives to dance.
Old buildings with wooden floors seem to become even more supple as they age. Or at least their sag accentuates their spring. At my first step into the expansive room of The Ark, I recalled our first house. It was about a hundred years old, just a bit younger than The Ark. Fourteen-foot spans supported its floor, and they had spring galore in their spry old age.
At The Ark, I commented on the floor to someone as we chatted while imbibing drinks and nibbling fare that went way beyond the promised “lite refreshments.”
Artists talk about doing art
We gathered in a circle eventually, chairs and cushions and stools having been rounded up from the corners of the room. While everyone introduced themselves, I counted hastily with a sweep of my head. About seventeen or eighteen. Every one “practicing” some form of art. Dancers made up the largest cohort — handy for them to find the place and the refreshments. A handful of musicians, a couple of cinematographers, at least two game developers, a couple of digitally oriented visual artists, a poet. I write, but then I suppose that everyone else in the room does, too, and I do what might be called “industrial arts” in the Garage Mahal.
The reasons for the gathering: Meeting new faces, mainly, but also starting a conversation about where, why, and how arts practices happen at Duke. Or, as it increasingly seemed to me as the exchanges unfolded, where arts practices might root themselves more deeply into the life of our university.
Now, a few weeks after the gathering, the conversation returns to my mind.
One artist said that people need a place and a freedom not to do anything — to stop, to relax, to recover, to loaf, to hang out. There needs to be a place for such a thing to happen, a place intending that (or, I guess, nothing in particular) to happen. “Even in the gardens on a beautiful day, students are working on their laptops,” said one dancer in the group. “There they are, working on the next line for their CV, which was already longer than mine when they were admitted.” She raised her hands and pantomime-unrolled a long invisible scroll.
“What about having someone play guitar or something at a bus stop sometimes?” someone suggested. “Not a planned performance. Just playing for whoever wants to listen.” I thought that was a delightful idea.
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We had all seen students contend with endless pressure to produce and create. Last year in my seminar, I learned that two students had formed small startups even before they set foot on campus. One of them was balancing that business and student life, more or less precariously.
Few just “hang out,” not even at the bus stops. And I suspect that for many students doing nothing on campus during the day is a response to exhaustion and probably experienced with a whiff of guilt.
Of course, I don’t want to imply that arts practices are mere loafing, though I think we grossly underrate loafing. (Walt Whitman loafed, and it helped him.) As anyone who has tried the work of making art knows, arts practices are not just loafing. But my colleague’s comment about a lack of doing nothing highlights a problem that the arts practices have to contend with at a hard-driving and increasingly career-focused college campus like Duke. Time that might be spent in arts practice competes with the “serious” work of college, more and more defined by Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (and Medicine), fields that make up the dense black hole at the center of the galaxy of the modern university, at Duke and pretty much everywhere else. That center organizes and sucks in all that surround it, and the reasons for this are well known and often repeated: “Getting a job.” Money. Career. Security. “ROI.” With tuition what it is, “ROI” — “Return On Investment” — is a biggie.
In an environment where such purposes reign, an arts practice looks an awful lot like a purposeless distraction or a frittering dalliance — a weakness, sometimes excused by relabeling an arts practice as an academic study, which ends up feeling more like consuming art than making art. A consequence: “We have rich people in museums tell us everything about art,” as one artist wryly put it.
A challenge for those who want to share arts practices: How can arts practice be revealed as more than a divergence — indeed, not as a divergence at all — but as a rich and entrancing path? An enchantment differing from, say, the magic of physics, chemistry, or engineering, but one as rewarding and as essential.
The comment about creating a place somewhere for just being and hanging out — it struck me primarily as a means of regaining time. And in regaining time, having the freedom to be in time in a new, maybe even scarily liberating, way. This is not always easy for strivers.
Art work and artwork. Performing and studying.
People in the small circle at The Ark were keen to encourage the making of art, with an emphasis on the making — processes that also shape the maker — rather than on the artistic products that result. In some ways, arts practitioners can look upon their artistic work as evidence of an activity. The quality of the activity — its maturity, its sizzle, its newness, its reverence, its reflections — adheres to the product, and thus can instruct.
Art teaches even after it is made.
The making of art opens new strengths that feel substantially different from other academic study. Unlike endeavors that appear to go straight to STEM with all its promises, art caroms around in people’s lives. It caroms around in the cozy walls of academe as well, sometimes making college administrators wonder where art really fits. Is it an ornament, like a well groomed landscape? Something nice for the alums? A bit of glitter for a cultured individual?
That evening in The Ark, I thought of a rather worn theme: Steve Jobs studying calligraphy, of all things, and later observing how it was most important and useful to his work at Apple. Jobs wasn’t the only notable to take Lloyd Reynolds’ calligraphy course at Reed: poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen and software magnate Peter Norton did, too, though they probably got course credit of some sort. Jobs didn’t; he audited the course after he dropped out: “If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class,” he said.
The line between study and doing lands in different places for different arts practices. Dancers, for example, study dance in a manner that overlaps close to indistinguishably with doing dance; perhaps the performing arts generally have the advantage of being able to hinge study with doing so tightly. A contrast might be those whose focus is imagery or, for that matter, texts. They might think that study and doing are cleanly separable activities.
But I doubt they are separable, or at least I think the body is best enlisted into the activities of study. For when we do, we also discern more clearly.
I thought of a humorous (and perhaps apocryphal) story about Louis Agassiz, the first professor of zoology and geology in North America. He supposedly said, “The best thing to use to repair an eyeball is a sharp pencil.” A mischievously formed sentence, perhaps, but true, even if he never said it: Agassiz would give his students pickled specimens to draw, in order to sharpen their powers of observation. And if they drew insufficiently, they drew again and again.
And music? What childhood piano player, guitarist, singer, or violinist hasn’t thought that they can experience music better, know it and feel it better, because they have also struggled to make an instrument sing clearly and expressively?
Coincidences of reading
This essay lurked in the back of my mind, and actually I didn’t expect it would emerge at least for a while. I did read two books this past week that made me think more seriously about it. Sheila Liming’s Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time and Patrick Bringley’s All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me.1
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Bringley’s book offers us a perspective we might not have even thought about: the view of the mostly invisible uniformed museum guard (a “supposedly unskilled worker”) on the objects of his attention: the museum, its visitors, and its art. The role has definite perks tied to abundant time with works of art. Bringley spent ten years of eight- and twelve-hour days as a guard at the Met.
One of his favorite assignments was at the Met’s short-lived Met Breuer satellite site, which opened up in 2016 with an exhibition called Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Bringley describes it as “a high-concept show exploring art that was abandoned before completion or else has some conceptual claim to being still in process.” He reports that “the public is really into the show; it reaches and tickles a part of their brains that museums usually leave dormant.”
Standing guard, he sees a visitor in a T-shirt (“Illinois Makes Time for Fun,” it reads) closely looking at Jan van Eyck’s unfinished Saint Barbara. No, the visitor is not just looking, “he’s having his mind blown, and it isn’t matters art historical or theological that are blowing it.” The reason, Bringley suspects, is that the piece shows “the most immediately relatable quality of any exceptional object: that’s it’s a job well done (or in this case, a job well started).” The T-shirted guy wraps it up with a word muttered aloud — “Beautiful” — and heads off to look at something else.
Bringley watches this all with a certain pride, and I think his privileged perspective as museum guard lets him witness an essential bond that makes museums worthwhile: the tie of visitors’ personal experience with the work — that is, the making — of art. Making profoundly means “relatability.” Bringley writes:
We all know what it is to produce something with care and skill and patience, so that in the end it is better than it really has any right to be. We all know how difficult it is to get really good at anything, what hard work is required and how much effort lurks behind the appearance of effortlessness. I suppose I’m proud because it’s something that, for all our faults, we humans so often do: produce better stuff than is altogether reasonable.
He later observes “that it isn’t enough to learn from finished works of art in all their perfection. I should keep in mind the toil these works entail. One good reason to look at someone else’s creation is because you’re studying how you might build something yourself” (my emphasis).
Of course, museums are great places to “hang out,” at least for most people. Maybe you need to excuse those with errands and agendas: art historians doing their research, schoolchildren with assignments, the reluctant comers-along who resist opening their minds. But many go in and wander around, eventually giving up a quest to “find bearings” in a place that might be as expansive as the Met.
I can’t help but think that what Bringley observes is somehow set up by places where people release agendas and take time — in short, “hang out,” often with others. The museum is what Ray Oldenburg labelled a “third place” which Sheila Liming concisely defines in Hanging Out. They’re “not homes (‘first places’) and … not places of work (‘second places’),” she explains; rather “they are accessible, affordable, lively, and, above all, public arenas in which people are permitted to congregate without deferring to stated terms of inclusion or exclusion.”
Liming’s book was the other one I read lately, and it made me think again about the meeting in The Ark. Liming calls her book a manifesto, and it seems particularly pertinent to the busy-busy world of Dukies, who have in many cases pushed away opportunities to hang out. Liming nails the reason, too, when she observes in the book’s opening pages that “one of the biggest hindrances to hanging out … is rooted not just in the demands of work but in the blind drive toward ceaseless productivity, even when ‘work,’ in a formal sense, is not even supposed to be part of the equation.”
She invites us to rediscover “the creative nature of indolence: creativity takes thought and thought takes time. What I’m arguing for here,” she writes, “... is the reclaiming of time, which is both the essence of hanging out and its main ingredient.”
Bringley and Liming touch strings that accord with ones plucked by the circle of artists in The Ark back in April. The strings play familiar notes: a desire to reclaim time, to counteract the corrosive influence of busy-ness, to open new opportunities for creativity and joy — in short, to become more human.
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Tags: art, arts practice, STEM, education, Duke, loafing, hanging out, indolence, creativity, making
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
Bringley, Patrick. All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me. First Simon&Schuster hardcover edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.
Liming, Sheila. Hanging out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2023.
Maybe at a Duke bus stop, we should do this. “So often we avoid looking at each other… But if we can all slow down and really SEE each other - just like you two just did - we can change this world from the inside out.” MacNaughton, Wendy. “The Most Important Response to Our Work Is Our Own.” Substack newsletter. DrawTogether with WendyMac, April 30, 2023.
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. YouTube video, 2016.
I’ll be reviewing both of them here in the future. Liming’s book is on the schedule for summer 2023, and Bringley’s for early 2024. In fall 2023 I’ll be reviewing Thomas Hine’s Populuxe (1987).