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ON ANGELS AND THE ART OF POSSIBILITY

Paul Monk

 

 (Angels (they say) often can’t tell whether

they move among the living or the dead)”

 

Rilke, First Duino Elegy (1922).

 

            Mark Waller is an artist with a vision. He wants to generate what he calls ripple effects - when a small generous act prompts emulation in an ever widening circle. This brings into being possibilities barely conceivable by the person who undertook the first small act. Waller wants to turn ripple effects into an art form.

            A classic artist, struggling to gain recognition and to make a living to support himself and his young family, Waller used to imagine holding an exhibition of his work in New York before he died.. We all fantasise, of course, but his hopes are about to become a reality, in a way he had only dreamed about until about eighteen months ago.

            The catalyst for turning day dream into ripple effect project was a seminar in which Waller participated in 2001. One of the challenging commitments of the seminar is that participants would complete the four workdays of the program no matter what. If they miss one in their own city, they undertake to go anywhere in the world to complete the course.

            Waller’s wife, Nicole, gave birth to their second daughter the very day of the third workday, in August 2001, so he had to reschedule. His options were London, Houston or New York. New York appealed because of his dream, so he made arrangements to do the third workday in New York - on 21 September. He scraped together the air fare and booked his ticket. Then came 9/11.

            To Nicole’s alarm, her partner was undeterred by the destruction of the World Trade Center and insisted he would go to New York regardless - just because he’d said he would. The seminar was about being “unstoppable” and this was a chance to try that out. He took a flight to Tokyo, then on to New York on an eerily empty jumbo jet.

The workshop had been scheduled to take place in a seminar room at the World Trade Center, but it, of course, no longer existed. When he called the contact number he had, he was told that the workshop would be convened in a private apartment.

He arrived there to a hero’s welcome. All the other participants were New Yorkers and they were simply blown away, as it were, to think that an Australian would come half way around the world into the middle of New York in the wake of 9/11.

It was there that Waller came upon the idea of ripple effects. One of the other participants related how he had been challenged, in a seminar on money, to give away an amount that would make a difference to someone else and be a significant sum for him. Not having much, he gave $US30, to a school teacher who needed the money to get art materials for her class. The teacher’s mother was so inspired by of  this little act of generosity that she raised $US10,000  for the school.

Waller’s imagination lit up at this. He thought, ‘What if I was to arrange an exhibition of art work in New York - mine and others’ - and raise $A1,000,000 for the families of those killed on 9/11?’ Right there and then, in New York, he took on the project of bringing this about. The dream of ego fulfillment had become something much larger than himself.

In consequence, he found, to his consistent astonishment, that all manner of people were willing to lend a hand. One of them was a wealthy futures trader, who has provided a monthly stipend for each of three artists (the others having been enlisted into the project by Waller) to paint pictures for the exhibition.

The exhibition will run for three weeks, from 17 June, with a special opening day/night on June 21, at the Gelabert Gallery, 255 West 86th St, New York. The proceeds will no longer go to families of the victims of 9/11, because they have been taken care of by a multi-billion dollar US government compensation fund. Instead, Waller has expanded his vision even further. The proceeds will go to Oprah Winfey’s Angel Network, which gives financial support to people striving to better themselves but lacking the means.

Beyond the exhibition, though, Waller is working to set up an Australia-based foundation that will encourage and support ripple effect projects. This foundation would differ from the Angel Network in that it would encourage people to initiate projects that would benefit others, rather than simply themselves.

Sitting with Waller, in his Lennox Head studio, I was struck by both his quintessentially Australian character - blond surfie features, big hands, big heart, unpretentious  manner - and the straightness and purity of his aesthetic vision. There is no cocaine or claptrap in the man.

At art school in Melbourne some years ago, he rebelled against the Piss Christ nostrums of the self-appointed avant garde. He wanted to paint, not puke, he says. It shows in his work. He depicts the pure lines of objects with the loving eye and technical virtuosity of a human being at home in the world, not one wallowing in pseudo-sophisticated alienation.[i]

Expressionists would call his work nave realism, but therein lies its particular beauty. Alain Besancon, director of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, wrote last year of how appalled he had been by the Paris Bienniale art exhibition: “There were rooms capriciously strewn with debris, little piles of sand, roaring machines, charred objects, the macabre remains from some death camp, obstetrical objects to turn your stomach, a neon tube in a corner.” All in the name of avant garde art.

Looking at Waller’s paintings is very refreshing by comparison. Though it may seem extravagant to say so, this is art in the great tradition of Raphael and Michelangelo - the superbly “realist” masters whom the abstract expressionists have spurned for a hundred years. It caresses the eye, rather than assaulting it.

 The leitmotif of his pictures for the June exhibition is angels. Angels redolent of those in Caravaggio’s St Matthew[ii]. There is an innocence and beauty to his work, though, which is almost pre-Raphaelite in manner. One thinks of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini.[iii] But with this difference: Waller’s angels have a healthy Australian beach beauty to them, not the pallor of the Romantics’ nostalgia for the Age of Faith. There’s a good reason for that. His models are beautiful Lennox Head girls, not reworked icons from the book of the dead.

It’s worth reflecting on the angel motif without cynicism. Rainer Maria Rilke evoked angels as a central motif, particularly in his Duino Elegies.[iv] His use of angels, he wrote in 1925, “has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven.” Rather, he claimed, “The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, appears already consummated.”[v] Waller’s angels are not as fateful as those of Rilke, but there is a certain elective affinity between them. The key is in Rilke’s expression “transformation of the visible into the invisible.”

Put another way, Rilke’s words might be rendered “the bringing into being of whole new possibilities out of what is merely the case”. That’s the philosophical maxim at the heart of what Waller calls his “ripple effect project”. It has its roots in the seminar Waller was completing when he got his flash of insight about ripple effects, in New York. The seminar was something called the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, the fourth component in a self-development course called The Curriculum for Living.

The Curriculum, is the foundation course of San Francisco-based Landmark Education. It introduces people to a specific vocabulary of transformation, in Rilke’s sense, of the visible into the invisible. It’s most fundamental defining concept is “possibility”. Possibility as the redeemability of  the past or of the inert ‘facts of the matter’ through a new opening into the future. The insight at work here is redolent of Nietzsche’s maxim, “To redeem those who lived in the past and to recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I will it’ - that alone should I call redemption.”

Angels, of course, are the messengers of the possibility of redemption[vi]. That’s always been their role in Christian theology and art. That’s why they are present in Mark Waller’s exhibition paintings. Hovering over a lake and creating ripples merely by dipping her toes in the water walking a city street and stirring ripples in the very pavement, sitting on the crown of the Statue of Liberty, his angels stand for the uncanny, emergent nature of human being in the world. They do not stand for fact. They stand for the light around the edges of the facts.

We are language animals who have radically transformed ourselves and the face of the earth through our capacities both to see and to say things differently. Yet we are forever in need of being called and recalled from our inert ways of being into what is (often barely) possible for us. The horizon of the possible, where believers have so often experienced God and religious ecstasy, is where the angels come from and it is what they lead us towards.

That is how artists, poets and theologians might express it anyway. We each bring a certain semantic ballast to how we see (or say) things. It shapes what we see. What shapes the way I see Waller’s nave realist paintings, what lights them up for me, is a kind of Rilkean religious vision. It is a religious vision wholly free of dogma, consisting only of a luminous way of being in a wholly real world.

Beyond the exhibition, Waller’s aesthetics is, I suspect, full of creative possibilities, because it is, in the best sense of Nietzsche’s expression, a very ‘Yea-saying’ art; not a burned out art, sunk in narcotic illusions or narcissistic nihilism. One can well imagine the cynical and pretentious sneering at this. Let them.

What of the seminar that inspired Waller? Many years ago, in the early 1970s, there was a seminar in San Francisco called est. There is a folklore about est, urban legends, some true, some apocryphal. It was the creation of a man who called himself Werner Erhard[vii].

William James, I think, would have found both est and the Curriculum for Living of considerable philosophical and psychological interest, but he died decades before they came on then scene. However, an interesting philosophical witness to both the original est seminar and the life of Erhard was the mainstream American philosopher William W. Bartley III. He participated in a Erhard seminar in 1972. His 1978 biography of Erhard sprang from his own questions: “It is successful. But is it serious? Is it a fad? Or something of more enduring value?” His conclusion was rather striking and bears directly on the nature of Waller’s current enterprise.[viii]

Bartley recalled George Santayana’s distinction between two traditions in American philosophy: the genteel tradition and the spirit of aggressive enterprise. “The American Will”, Santayana had commented, “inhabits the skyscraper. The American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion”. Wrote Bartley, “The genteel tradition and the colonial mansion represent the polite yet censorious, conventional yet pretentious, terribly earnest, sterile and unhappy American intellect and its agonized conscience.”

Bartley found Erhard intriguing in this context. “For I was a genteel philosopher, [but] this was vital and living philosophy, philosophy in the raw.” Erhard, he wrote, was “anything but genteel. In the whole est approach…there is a mocking, an irreverence, a satire, a humour reminiscent of Lenny Bruce…highly intrusive and very ‘down’.” And in this context, Bartley found “a psychological space…a roominess that I had not previously experienced.”[ix].

Reading Bartley, a serious philosopher, one finds a man who had been, in Leonard Cohen’s words, “starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true.”[x]  He himself saw both religious parallels and philosophical themes in the training.[xi] That’s surely intriguing in itself. Listening to Waller, one gets a similar sense, a generation later, of someone rejuvenated by the seminar program that evolved out of Erhard’s ideas. In his case, though, the Cohen line that springs to mind is “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”[xii]


 

[i] For a longer account of my own aesthetic philosophy - the background against which I appreciate Waller’s paintings - see my essay ‘Looking Into the Forbidden Image’, Quadrant, June 2002, pp. 47-49.

 

[ii] Ernst Gombrich The Story of Art,13th edition, second impression, Phaidon, Oxford, 1979, p. 13. The likeness is especially striking in the early version of the painting, of 1598 (Plate 15).

 

[iii] Ibid. p. 405, Plate 334. The Virgin in his Rossetti’s painting looks especially pallid and anemic, which is to say ‘holy’ in the ascetic and Romantic sense. The contrast with Waller’s tanned and sexually alluring angels is unmistakable. Perhaps, after all, it is an error to describe Waller’s work as at all pre-Raphaelite. His is the sensual eye of Raphael (1483-1520) himself. As Nietzsche quipped over a century ago, “Raphael said Yes. Raphael did Yes. Consequently, Raphael was no Christian.”

 

Giorgio Vasari long ago paid a similarly lavish tribute to Raphael, which is worth citing in the present context. “Nature sent Raphael into the world after it had been vanquished by the art of Michelangelo and was ready, through Raphael, to be vanquished by character as well. Indeed, until Raphael, most artists had in their temperament a touch of uncouthness and even madness that made them outlandish and eccentric; the dark shadows of vice were often more evident in their lives than the shining light of the virtues that can make men immortal…One can claim without fear of contradiction that artists as outstandingly gifted as Raphael are not simply men, but if it be allowed to say so, mortal gods…”. Vasari Lives of the Artists, a selection translated by George Bull, Penguin, 1975, p. 284.

 

[iv] Rainer Maria Rilke Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by A. Poulin Jr., Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1977, 205 pp.

 

[v] There are many lines in the First Duino Elegy that hint at Rilke’s appreciation of the angelic orders.:

 

And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders?

 Even if one of them suddenly held me to his heart,

I’d vanish in his overwhelming presence.

Because beauty’s nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear,

And we adore it because of the serene scorn

It could kill us with. Every angel’s terrifying.

 

Begin again. Try out your impotent praise again;

Think about the hero who lives on:

Even his fall was only an excuse for another life,

A  final rebirth…

 

Isn’t it time our loving freed us from the one we love,

And we, trembling, endured: as the arrow endures the string,

And in that gathering momentum becomes more than itself?

Because to stay is to be nowhere…

 

Angels, ( they say)  often can’t tell whether

They move among the living or the dead.

 

[vi] The word ‘angel’ is, of course, derived from the ancient Greek word angelos, messenger.

 

[vii] William Warren Bartley III Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man, the Founding of est, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, 1978, 279 pp. Bartley’s other books are: The Retreat to Commitment, Morality and Religion, Wittgenstein and Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic.

 

[viii] Bartley’s personal experience of the est seminar was so powerful and his reflections on that experience so interesting (given his background and competence) that they are worth transcribing her at length, since, unfortunately, his biography of Werner Erhard  has been out of print for many years.

 

 “I first heard about est on a rainy afternoon in March 1972, in the office of a medical doctor in Berkeley. I was at that time living in Pennsylvania, was visiting in California for a few months, and had sought out the doctor on the advice of a friend. My complaint was simple. I had had insomnia for nine years, and had been taking sleeping pills and tranquilizers daily since the spring of 1963. One becomes habituated to these drugs - their effect wears off - and it was time for a change. I asked the doctor, an attentive, vibrantly youthful man in middle age, to prescribe a new sleeping pill for me. His eyes sparkled with amusement.

 

He told me that he would be happy to prescribe some sleeping pills for me if that was what I wanted. ‘You don’t have to take sleeping pills. You don’t have to have insomnia’, he told me. What I could do, he explained, was to take a training course in San Francisco. It lasted two weekends; it cost only a few hundred dollars. And on completing it, I would no longer have insomnia.

 

What the doctor said sounded preposterous. I had already taken my insomnia to psycholanalysts. I had had a Freudian analysis and also a Jungian analysis. Both had benefited me and neither had touched the insomnia. During my Freudian analysis I explored my childhood memories and sexuality. And at night, when I could not sleep, I thought about sex. During my Jungian analysis I explored archetype and symbol in my own existence. And at night when I could not sleep I would think about archetype and symbol. I had spent thousands on these analyses. Far more than the comparatively modest cost of this training.

 

I enrolled immediately, by telephone from the doctor’s office. There was no reason in what I did: I was desperate. To be dependent on sleeping pills and tranquilizers is a living death. I would have done anything for a good night’s sleep and - more important - for a day free from the stupor of those pills. I would have tried anything to try to free myself from the pretense into which these drugs forced me. I was a professional philosopher. My job was the life of reason; it was my vocation to be alert. Yet the theme of my life had become the concealment of my stupor - the appearance, not the reality, of alertness.

 

Two weeks later I began the first weekend of the est training. By the end of the second weekend, I no longer had insomnia. I no longer take pills of any kind…

 

The est training of April 1972 began in the ballroom of a hotel on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, and was presided over by a strange man with the unlikely name of Werner Erhard. Werner - as everyone soon began to call him - baffled me. I could not place him - socially or intellectually. For one thing, he came without trappings, without white coat, long flowing robe or three piece suit. He was dressed simply and informally in an open shirt and dark trousers. Clean shaven and neatly groomed, he wore an ordinary pair of brown loafers. His trousers were sharply pressed and his shoes were brightly polished; apart from that, there was nothing distinctive about his dress. He could have been Jewish, yet neither his speech nor his mannerisms suggested that. Intellectually, he was even more puzzling. His grammar was peculiar; he repeatedly said ‘different than’ and he used first person pronouns as the objects of prepositions, mistakes that a formally educated person would not make.

 

Yet by the time of our first break, about four hours after he had begun to talk, it was clear that we were in the presence of a man of great resources. He seemed to move among the two hundred and fifty people seated in that hotel ballroom with a repertoire of emotions, arguments and responses that fitted no pattern yet was always on target. He exuded power yet had an unerring sensitivity to everyone in his vicinity. With every person who presented him or herself to him, he dealt differently. There was no “routine”, no set technique or response. At times, he seemed callous - as with a woman who was wallowing in self pity. To those who jumped to her defence, he observed that giving her sympathy was like giving alcohol to an alcoholic. With those who used argument and intellectual structures as protection against their feelings, he displayed brilliance. He had, as it turned out, immense stores of information, and juggled with abstract ideas of physics and philosophy as if they were toys. He would puncture reason and logic with reason and logic - and then stand back to mock the process. To those who tried to please or impress him or to catch his attention, he was politely indifferent - meanwhile leading them into their own special trap. At other times, as some of the group began to “get off it”, to emerge from the network of self-deception in their lives, he became gentle and compassionate, even mothering.

 

He punctured illusions. He unmasked motives. He probed rationalizations. He laughed at hypocrisy. As he worked with us, he discerned character, motive, even life story almost instantaneously. He appeared to know what one was going to say and immediately understood what one did say. He seemed, moreover, to be able to say almost anything to anybody: there was no domination in his unmasking of facades.

 

Sometimes, what he said seemed calculated to evoke pained or shocked  or surprised reactions from the group. As we reacted, he pointed out how easy it was to ‘push our buttons’. Yet nothing anyone could to ‘get back at him’ seemed to work. Trainees would yell, curse, weep, protest, become indignant, sulk - and he would, chuckling, lay bare the ‘payoffs’ in these reactions. In his actions and observations, there was a combination of warmth, personal control and spontaneity not to be acquired through sheer self-discipline, repetition or imitation.

 

He stood in front of us - this tall, slender, immaculately dressed, blue-eyed man - in full view, for sixteen hours each day, two successive days in a row. Not once did he leave the room for food or rest. Not once did his attention or concentration slack. He had virtually total recall of anything said to him by a trainee and would refer back to things said earlier with minute accuracy. He remembered why each of us had enrolled; and he knew what we thought our problems were. At midnight he seemed as clean and well-pressed, and as fresh, as he had been at eight o’clock that morning. Like most things he did, this was also a kind of…demonstration.

 

Werner was young - he was thirty six then - yet he seemed at once a child and, Merlin-like, an immensely old and wise man who had experienced everything and seen through everyone. In that hotel ball room, he created  a complex psychological space, in which I sensed a roominess that I had not previously experienced.”

 

[ix] “Resistance and the need to dominate and be right destroy your ability to allow things to be” Werner told Bartley in 1977. “When you have no ability to allow things to be, you have no ability to be responsible for them as they are. When you cannot be responsible for the way things are, you have no space. When you have no space, you have no ability to create. It is in creating that you establish true independence.” Bartley Werner Erhard p. 24. 

[x] Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Culture places before each of only one task: to promote the creation of the philosopher, of the artist and of the saint within and without us and thus to contribute to the perfection of nature.” Erhard came to something of this perspective. As Bartley wrote, “When he presents his own philosophical perspective, Werner loves to use an image from the writings of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein spoke of philosophy as a ladder that one uses to climb. The image is an ancient one in Western philosophy, going back to the Hellenistic Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus. It has also been used in the yogic tradition. Werner’s point is that you’d don’t agree with or believe in a ladder. You climb it. And if it breaks you get a new one. Thus, to treat his philosophical perspective as a system to be believed, or to be committed or attached to, is to miss its point. As he puts it, ‘The truth believed, is a lie’.” Op. cit. p. 181.

 

 The Leonard Cohen words are from his lyric ‘Master Song’ (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1968) and come from the following verse:

 

I loved your master perfectly

I  taught him all that he knew.

He was starving in some deep mystery

Like a man who is sure what is true

And I sent you to him with my guarantee

I could teach him something new

And I taught him how you would long for me

No matter what he said, no matter what you do.

 

[xi] The most famous intersection of the two is surely Zen Buddhism. Many of its insights had a major influence on the evolution of Werner Erhard’s thinking in the years before he created the est seminar. As he told Bartley, “Of all the disciplines that I studied, practiced, learned, Zen was the essential one. It was not so much an influence on me; rather, it created space. It allowed those things that were there to be there. It gave some form to my experience. And it built up in me the critical mass from which was kindled the experience that produced est. Although the est training is not Zen,nor even anything like it, some features of est resonate with Zen teaching and practice. It is entirely appropriate for persons interested in est to be interested also in Zen. While the form of Zen training is different from the form of the est training, we come from similar abstractions.

 

[xii] If you interested in finding out more about the Ripple Effect Project or the Ripple Effect Foundation, contact Philippa Drynan, in Sydney, on 02 9386 9474 or at pip@triode.net.au.


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To see more of Mark's work please visit his online gallery