Commitment as a Path To Greatness

Life is short.  Paint everything blue.  This is the bittersweet story of the artist Yves Klein, from whom we have much to learn about commitment and maximizing our time on earth.

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In 1947 three teenagers lay basking on a beach in the South of France. They had become close friends at school while all sharing a love for Judo and the arts.  Full of youthful arrogance, these three boys vowed to divide the world between themselves.  The young sculptor named Armand Fernandez chose the earth.  Claude Pascal chose the domain of words, and Yves Klein committed to take on the sky.   If this sounds like a creation myth, that is because, in a way, it was.

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Yves Klein, Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue, 1960

With the sky as his mandate, Yves Klein got right to work. Two years after that pivotal moment at the beach, he summoned the infinite with an ethereal performance piece called “Monotone Silence Symphony”.  Following the minimalist symphony and a Judo focused sojourn in Japan, Yves Klein held his first exhibit of monochromatic paintings in Paris. For his next show in 1957, he narrowed the focus down to one single hue: the color blue.   For Klein, this color represented the concept of the void.  He was interested in how its quality of pure energy was in tension with the materiality of the physical art work.

“At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” – Yves Klein

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Yves Klein, Monochrome bleu sans titre, 1959,

Now known as “Yves Klein Blue”, this vibrant color had once existed only in the form of raw pigment.  Klein became obsessed with the lapis lazuli like quality of the ultramarine powder, and engineered a way to keep its luminosity while transforming it into paint.

From the get-go, Klein understood how to make an impact in the art world, and in turn his rise to success was astonishingly direct.  After the heralded blue paintings, Klein went on to explore the relationship between the physical and the void by staging performance pieces in which he used naked bodies as vehicles for paint application.  He also created painted sculptures and other conceptual performance works.  In the field of photography, Klein published poetic series called Saut Dans Le Vide, which shows him swan diving into the open air.

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Tragically, with a new wife and his first baby on the way, Yves Klein had a fatal heart attack at the young age of thirty four.  It is astounding to contemplate the targeted impact that he made with his brief time on this earth.  The commitment and focus with which he approached his life and career seems almost prophetic- as if he was well aware that the clock was ticking away, and that he needed to triage the situation.

Throughout his time, Klein stayed profoundly committed to the sky and its metaphysical implications. His mission was to outsmart mortality, and his method was to paint the world the color of eternity.

When I see Yves Klein blue I am reminded of life’s brevity, and the mandate to be focused, courageous and to make bold propositions in life.  We are all living out our own creation myths- the question is what piece of the universe will you be responsible for?


CREATIVE EXERCISE:

This exercise is inspired by Yves Klein’s passion for the color blue.

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Join The Creative Hours community. Share your experience!

email us thecreativehours@gmail.com  or post using hashtag #TCHblue


Further reading and supplies:


Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers : With the Void, Full Powers includes examples from all of Klein’s major series, including his Anthropometries, Cosmogonies, fire paintings, planetary reliefs and blue monochromes, as well as selections of his lesser-known gold and pink monochromes, body and sponge reliefs, “air architecture” and immaterial works.

 

Over Coming the Problems of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein The first complete collection of the writings of the visionary French conceptual artist Yves Klein (1928–1962) published in English translation.

 

 

Ultramarine Blue Pigment Oxide Mineral Powder Life is short, paint everything blue.  It is fascinating to think about the relationship between raw pigment and paint.

Yoko Ono and how teachers dislike creative children

Yoko Ono’s birthday is today, and she is 83. The daughter of a Buddhist and a Christian, and born into a wealthy family in Japan that moved back and forth to the United States, at a very yound age she started creating some of the most radical and avant-garde art in the art world. Her art work is sometimes beautiful, sometimes shocking, sometimes whimsical, sometimes tragic. She invites people into her work, to participate in it. She would ask people, for example, to imagine a painting in their minds, rather than painting it. The audience in her 1965 performance “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall was persuaded to cut off her clothing piece by piece. And of course she was also singing, once upon a time, with John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band. She is as prolific today as she ever was.

Yoko Ono performing "Cut Piece" at Carnegie Hall in 1965
Yoko Ono performing “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall in 1965

In many ways Yoko Ono embodies the project of The Creative Hours, in that her conceptual art challenges people to see and think differently, and seeing and thinking differently is the golden road to creativity. In her book Grapefruit, a “book of drawings and instructions” she asks readers to “Watch a movie without looking at any round objects”, or, “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” In her more recent book Acorn, she instructs “Count all the puddles on the street / when the sky is blue.” Ono is different from others, and has struggled with criticism and ostracism her whole life–even being blamed for breaking up The Beatles–because her way of thinking and being were divergent from the norm. But her difference is also the very root of her brilliance and creativity.

Reading an interview with her in Songwriters on Songwriting today, this passage caught my eye:

When Yoko Ono was a child in Japan, her writing was rejected by teachers who objected to the fact that it didn’t fit into existing forms and that she had no desire to make it fit. “It’s not that I consciously tried not to conform,” she explained, smiling, “I was just naturally out of the system.”

This is often the experience of creative children. And it turns out that in fact teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary. 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking, and yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service, most creative children are different, like Yoko Ono.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.

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For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient. You have to be a strong character to stay creative in a classroom that thwarts the very thing it purports to serve.

But being disliked, even hated, is something artists often face. At one time Yoko Ono was “arguably the most hated woman in the world”, as pointed out in an article about last year’s exhibit Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971 . The sense of being outside, or against, or in the shadows, or wrong is often part and parcel of the creative life, for better or for worse. And Yoko Ono embraces this. Her works allow that dislike, rejection, scorn, even hatred to enter in. They do not defend themselves against them. Look at Cut Piece, Rape, Painting to be Stepped On, and Painting for Cowards in which the artist performing the work shakes people’s hands through a hole in the canvas. The courage of her work is its vulnerability.

Whatever happens to the artist, starting young, starting in school, no matter the pleasures of creation or their rejection and resistance, no matter the joys or trials, all of it is inspiration and fodder for great art.

Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964
Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964