Thursday, March 05, 2009

Just Do It

People will play golf, even if they aren’t Tiger Woods, but longevity isn’t sustained in poetry. Poets won’t write for a lifetime if they can’t see themselves as the next Ashbery? Except, poets certainly do write for lifetimes, with or without Orr’s knowledge, and they do so without worrying about winning the gold cup or whatever prize golfers aim for. There is no set goal in the “game” of poetry, though Orr’s comparison sets the terms as such (i.e. John Ashbery’s Library of America collection). How do sports metaphors of the competitive masculine variety so often wiggle their way into measuring poetry and her cultural cache? What team am I playing for again? Where’s the goal line? Who do I have to smear to get there? Are my subjects suitably dainty as I take up the stick?

(Amy King, "On Greatness & Them That Do It")

Back in about 1997, I participated in the Tempolabor, a weekend event organized by the curator and editor Clementine Deliss, with talks, presentations, and discussions attended by a multitude of artists, curators, and art critics (I was there because I had translated for art catalogs, including for Clementine's magazine Metronome).

For me, the most memorable event of that lively weekend came during a discussion after a talk. I don't remember whose talk it was, or what it was about, but it led Nebojsa Vilic, a Macedonian art historian and curator from Skopje, to give an impassioned, extemporaneous comment on the theme of "Just Do It!"

In the international art world in the nineties (which I grazed a bit in my role as a translator for catalogs), a common issue was whether "anything goes." The boundaries of what could be considered art had been pushed back so far that it seemed like there were no longer any boundaries to push back, as if it were really true that anything could be art.

Vilic's comment was an attempt to downplay the sense of crisis that many of the Tempolabor participants associated with this theme. His analogy was the "Just Do It" commercials that Nike was running at the time. Artists (and curators and critics) should stop worrying and "just do it." The issue was not whether "anything goes" but whether each particular work worked. That's the gist of what he said (at least as I remember it).

Vilic's speech was vigorous and passionate, and I might have remembered it just as well even if it had not triggered a further comment by the Basel artist Eric Hattan. Eric liked the simile, but he pointed out an important difference between Michael Jordan and an artist. No matter what route Jordan took in doing what he did, the goals of "just doing it" were always the same: to score baskets; to win games; to win championships. In contrast, the artist who "just does it" must figure out the rules of each new work from scratch; whether the work is process or product, or some combination of the two, the goals are not known from the start, but only realized through the making of the work.

... for even as golfers are folowing their game’s rules, poets are making their own ways, similarly and separately, differently and communally, as multitudes and as individuals, sans a set standard of formulas and rules. Golf goes after stroke counts and a finish line. Poetry goes after life and everything the concept entails. Greatness certainly is not the little box declaring a winner vis a vis book publication or any golden laurel leaf. Poetry is not merely words on a screen/page or how dramaticaly the poet lived her life. (Amy King from the same post)

Or, to quote two of my touchstones:

Nicht um anzukommen, sondern um aufzubrechen, nicht um Erzählung, Roman oder Buch zu werden, sondern um in Bewegung zu sein und möglichst auch zu bewegen.

Not to arrive, but to set out, not to become a story, a novel, or a book, but to be in motion and, if possible, to move. (Anne Duden, my translation)

Das Schreiben ist notwendig, nicht die Literatur.

Writing is necessary, not literature. (W. G. Sebald, my translation)

Between them, Duden and Sebald articulate why one writes: to write. Not to arrive at a goal, not to publish, not to become "literature"—not to be "great."

(Credit for stimulating this memory goes not only to Amy King but also to Adam Fieled and Joseph Hutchison.)


Donald Brown said...

I think the aspect of "Just Do It" that does apply to the arts is suggested in the passage from King you quote: one "does it" for its own reward, never knowing what its ultimate value will be for anyone else. In that sense, the exhortation "just do it" does encompass the arts, sports, any endeavor where "not doing it" means quitting, stopping, getting out, doing something else. Obviously, I take the "it" as referring to some task -- whether practicing a sport, the guitar, or taking up a pen to write on a blank page.

Obviously, not all who "do it" in that sense will be Michael Jordan or John Asbery or Jerry Garcia, but that's not really the point of doing it. One becomes such a practitioner in part because of the joy or challenge or meaning that others find in what one does.

swiss said...

i tend to think that the michael jordan comment is somewhat disingenuous because, certainly visual artists, performing at a similar level are definitely not 'just doing it' as part of some internal or external exploration.

plus, and i'll refer to recent comments i made about douglas gordon's zidane, as regards performance, i think there's an awareness by sports performers and their crowds (as opposed to viewers) of sport, in this case football, as a metaphorical arena, with the crowd active within in its creation raqther than passice like theatre audiences. again barthes tour de france as epic springs to mind

incidentally one of my favourite evocations of sport as art is the film 'the final test' in which a young poet is desperate to meet his poetic hero but finds that all that the older man wants to do is see his father playing his final cricket match.

gentle and, in places, unintentionally hilarious, it's rather lovely and available on dvd. i must now buy it!