A Quest for the Quiet Mind: Can the Art World Make Room for Sincerity?

Agnes Martin in her NY Studio 1960. (Photo Alexander Liberman. Source unknown)

“There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall…,” wrote Agnes Martin. “Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it…as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean. It’s not about facts, it’s about feelings….A definition of art is that it makes concrete our most subtle emotions.” (Agnes Martin in her NY Studio, 1960. Photo Alexander Liberman)

A Quest for the Quiet Mind

Our lives are made up of a series of these moments—intimate encounters with beauty, strangeness, horror, or mystery that forever change us. One of art’s most profound characteristics is that it can be the catalyst of that shift. “We are only alive to the degree we can let ourselves be moved,” writes Lewis Hyde (a quote I am particularly fond of and also included in my 2Paragraphs piece). The opposite of such evolution is stagnation. Depression. Hopelessness. The death of possibility.

Increasingly, these intimate, unexpected encounters are in short supply. One of the greatest downsides to being constantly plugged in is that it is harder and harder to create this quiet, open state of mind. (It is the old Buddhist analogy that equates the busy mind with a silty pond that has been stirred up. But when the water is allowed to become still, the silt settles and the water becomes clear again.)

This quiet mind is not only essential for encounters with art, but also for our everyday interactions with people, nature, work. In other words, life.

How can we possibly be “moved,” as Hyde says, when our minds are busy scanning emails, text messages, and our ever-growing to-do lists? How can we have a real conversation with someone when we are distracted by the dings and pings coming from our cell phones or when we are “waiting to talk” instead of actually listening? How can we decide what we truly believe on a certain issue if we are merely spouting back what we have read on Twitter or in our favorite media outlet (whose viewpoints are most often aligned with our own)?

Receptivity: In Short Supply

Quiet and stillness are in short supply, but so is open-mindedness. Too often we consume culture and use it as a badge of superiority, instead of seeking out the genuine exchange. We attend dinner and cocktail parties armed with a litany of trending topics and canned opinions. (And I must credit my recent conversation with writer William Powers for this brilliant insight.) We fear looking ignorant or foolish more than we desire revelation. Receptivity is under threat. 

We need to seek out “intimate, unexpected encounters” more often, and this can only happen if we clear and create the necessary physical and mental space. Isn’t it time to inhabit our real lives again, to court play and surprise, whether it is through books and art, travel, making new friends, having a meandering, late-night conversation, watching the moon rise, or simply listening and speaking the truth at a dinner party or staff meeting?

Such experiences may not spawn tidy bullet points on our to-do lists or make us feel “productive,” but that is the exact reason to do it. Because these rare exchanges are pregnant with possibility. It is within these spaces that true revelation and innovation occur. And, as research is proving, it’s also good for our health, physically and mentally.


(Photo source unknown)

“The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.” -David Foster Wallace (Photo source unknown)

Can Art Make Room for Sincerity?

The response I gave to the 2Paragraphs assignment (included below) describes only one revelatory moment art has given me in my life. It’s the reason I will defend, embrace, support, and engage with the arts until the day I die. It isn’t fashionable or hip to say that, I know. I am walking a fine line here; I’m on the verge of tripping and unwittingly plunging head-first into a gooey morass of sentimentality and New-Age mumbo jumbo (and isn’t that stumble what so many artists and art critics fear most?).

In a world obsessed with auction prices, bestseller lists, and what Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are wearing to Art Basel (or not wearing, as in the case of their recent, controversial music video for West’s song Bound 2), sincerity appears to be a silent minority. But is this actually true? Do most of us really prefer corporate spin, celebrity gossip, and hipster irony? Or is it simply harder for us to drown out the noise?

The late David Foster Wallace understood that irony and cynicism have their limits. In his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he argued that our culture’s real rebels were writers and individuals “who treat…plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue:

Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.

If you were asked to describe the art work that has affected you most profoundly in your life, how would you answer? Your comments are welcome below.


The "Bloody Lane" at Antietam, a sunken road that became so crowded with dead bodies that the Union had to stop their advance. That, and they were actually slipping in pools of blood at the base of the road. (Photo by Mathew Brady, 1862)

The “Bloody Lane” at Antietam, a sunken road that became so crowded with dead bodies and pools of blood that Union soldiers during the Civil War had to stop their advance. (Photo by Mathew Brady, 1862)

Photographers: What image has affected you most profoundly?

From 2Paragraphs

by Michelle Aldredge

Boys sleeping on Mulberry Street in New York City (Photo by Jacob Riis from How the Other Half Lives)

Boys sleeping on Mulberry Street in New York City (Photo by Jacob Riis from How the Other Half Lives)

When I was a girl, my father kept a book on documentary photography in his office. I remember sneaking in, sliding the book from the top shelf, and looking. There were certain images I returned to again and again: Mathew Brady’s photo of dead Civil War soldiers on the battlefield of Antietam; Jacob Riis’s picture of squalid living conditions in New York City’s slums; Walker Evans’s image of poor sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama; and Nick Ut’s famous photograph of a screaming, naked, 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running toward the camera after a napalm attack burned her village, clothes, and body. Growing up in a strict, religious household in Georgia (before the Internet), these forbidden photographs were riveting and disturbing, their effect nothing less than sandpaper against my skin. I knew my father had been to Vietnam, though he never spoke of it. Was this the kind of violence he saw? Was this what the larger world was like? A confusing mix of awe, fear, pity, and outrage welled up inside me.

What happened next is what happens with most famous images in our culture–the photographs became so familiar that they lost their bite. What was once radical became commonplace. But two years ago, when I first saw these rare color photographs taken by Farm Security Administration photographers in the early 1940s, I was reminded of that book in my father’s office. Russell Lee’s photograph of a homesteading family in Pie Town, New Mexico, stung me like a hornet. In vibrant Kodachrome, these migrant workers, Japanese Internment Camp prisoners, farmers, and families seemed more contemporary. More real. More like us. The gulf of time and over-familiarity closed. Suddenly, it was 1940 and I was sitting right across from Jack Whinery and his family in their radiant calico, suspenders, and stripes. The writer Lewis Hyde once said that we’re only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved. This quality also defines great art. Whether an image makes us feel pleasure, discomfort, or outrage, it temporarily lifts us from the apathy of our daily routine. It’s like a pinch on the back of the arm. When we feel it, we know that we’re awake.

You can read the responses of 13 other artists in the full 2Paragraphs article here.


Jack Whinery, homesteader, and family. Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. (Photo by Russell Lee. Photo and caption courtesy the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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By | 2016-11-18T15:57:11+00:00 03.09.14|Images, Process, The Complete Creative, Words|6 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Anna Dibble March 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Again, an extraordinary post, Michelle. The search for the quiet and open mind. My husband, who was my world along with my work and the dogs, died a little over a year ago. It was one of those ‘moments’ that will forever change me. Within all the pain and suffering I’ve been fortunate to approach this new life with a renewed sense of simplicity, wonder and awareness. Hyde’s quote reflects my current life precisely. And ‘Art’ is the catalyst. Not only to be moved by others’ work but, as you say so well: ” We need to seek out “intimate, unexpected encounters” more often, and this can only happen if we clear and create the necessary physical and mental space. Isn’t it time to inhabit our real lives again, to court play and surprise, whether it is through books and art, travel, making new friends, having a meandering, late-night conversation, watching the moon rise, or simply listening and speaking the truth at a dinner party or staff meeting?” So, this post also describes my current life exactly. My challenge is to follow this particular star long after the shock of my personal ordeal begins to mellow. Thanks. This stuff needs to be repeated over and over in our times.

  2. Abby March 10, 2014 at 11:29 am

    The Bloody Lane… I was visiting the beautiful south and wandered around different battle fields, trying to understand. When i came upon this ditch, this photograph was on a display at the top. It all then became so very real, the so very pointless war, so filled with sorrow, such devistation, this photograph is itself, a stab in the heart. And yes, holds the very moving qualities you discuss. Thank you.

  3. Donna Barkman March 10, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    The photograph of the homesteading family is powerful in its portrayal of both the adults and children looking shocked and yet stalwart as they survive the hardships of moving West, with little or no help and with little or no resources, save themselves. I don’t know who wrote the caption, but it follows the prescribed tradition of naming the man, full name, and then identifying the others only as “his.” I am dismayed that women and children are so rarely recognized as equal human beings in photographs, whether archival or modern news photos, but only as appendages of a man with a full name. Why not Mary and Joe Doe and then, if there’s room, and if children’s are there, name them too. One never sees “Mary Doe and her husband.” Doubtless, in a homesteading situation, the women/wives carried the burden equal to the men/husbands. Please, Gwarlingo, if it’s in your power to write captions for photos, please name all in the photo equally, and not as people “owned” by the named male. Thank you.

    • Michelle Aldredge March 10, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Donna. You are certainly right that women bore as much of the burden as men when trying to create a new life out West. The caption (and all of the captions in my story on the color FSA photos) were taken directly from the Library of Congress’ archive. In many cases, the captions came directly from the photographers. I have checked the LOC’s website again, and unfortunately there is no (easy-to-access) record of the names of the Whinery family. I have removed “his” from the phrase “his family” out of deference to your complaint, but I’m afraid I can’t add the names of the individuals in the photograph since they are not available.

  4. Alex Clark March 10, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    As a visual artist, a painter, this discussion resonated deeply. Especially the part about the necessity of listening carefully to your time, your peers, and responding with the truth as you perceive it, regardless of what others my think. My personal hero has always been the German draftsman and painter George Grosz, who urged artists to use their skills (however weak in comparison to those in power) to speak for their fellow human beings, To enter into the life of your time and take an active role in attempting to move society progressively forward.

  5. Marilyn McCabe March 13, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Masaccio’s Adam and Eve’s Expulsion from the Garden lives in my mind’s eye. Adam’s head-lowered grief. Eve’s wail. It’s shocking to me, this naked depiction of emotion. I wish for my own work to be so unguarded.

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