There is a Daoist saying that goes, “Whatever can be taught is not worth learning.” It is a sobering thought, perhaps even a little cruel, as any insight that rings true feels. I don’t take it to mean that one should stop listening to others. Philosophically, Daoists are realists: they want to see things as they are in the world. And the reality is that, just because you stop listening, doesn’t mean people will stop talking—to you, at you, about what to do, how to do it, when to do it, who to do it to, and so on.
If it is a given that people will always have something to say about your business, how does one turn the jabber into something worth learning from? For Daoists, experience is key. Knowledge is not knowledge unless it is embodied in the stream of lived experience. The daily practice of living is what crystallizes the learning into concepts and ideas that inform one’s external acts. The aim of knowledge is experience insofar as knowing some-thing substantiates a material reality for how a person comes to live as some-one. Experience, on the other hand, is the origin of knowledge to the extent that a person’s reality is the grounding where one discovers and learns what makes life matter—from the inside out.
This Daoist notion that emphatically binds knowledge to experience is not unlike what ties artists to their work—at least in the case of artists for whom art is a matter of making work that remakes them. Of course, not all artists work like this; there are as many ways of making art as there are artists. But true as this may be, the truth is that artists all tend to follow the same basic assumption: artists make art and not the other way around. Artists make art as a means to tell us something: about themselves for instance, or others, or things that are important and useful to know about, the history or scene they wish to belong to, and certainly what is worthy of being art. Work like this can be experienced in a flash, because the form is merely a mannequin for what that “something” is, which drapes over the form like a dress on sale, waiting to be noticed. What matters most is the moment when one “gets it,” as if the value of the work depends on the recognition of whatever benefits and gains there are from what the artist is getting at. It is the art of advertising.
What happens when it is the making that instructs the maker? What happens when the art makes the artist? When I make a work, there is sometimes a turning point; a moment when the conceptual and sensuous materials bind in such a way that the composition begins to resist my attempts to shape it according to my original intentions, and develops, against my will, its own sense of what must be done in order to be itself. It doesn’t happen all the time. But when it does, I feel relieved, because it means the minutes, days, or years of working up to this point were worth the effort. But there is also a degree of despair, because the initial conception of how the work ought to be no longer holds sway in how it will continue to evolve. I am no longer the prime mover of the work. My directions are no longer followed. Beyond this certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.
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