A Humble Trick to Happiness

There’s a lot to do in Belgium these days about so-called workable, meaningful and adaptable work. We should all work longer, yet potential employers fear less productivity and discriminate against candidates from 47 onwards. With a ‘normal’ trajectory, you should be about halfway your career then – another twenty years to go! At the same time long-term absence through sickness or burn-out has never been higher. And yet the ceo of a large employers’ federation managed to comment on the national radio that with burn-out, the problem isn’t work – but all the other activities that fill people’s free time. No outcry followed.

There is also little sense that this discussion (and the action, with yesterday a national manifestation against the government measures concerning work), should be about what the good life consists of. The Flemish suicide rates are about one and a half percent higher than the European average, for women Flanders sits uncomfortably in the top together with Lituania and Hungary. Apparently we have the wrong attitude towards finding help and our problem solving behaviour and communication aren’t good either. Just today the media were already happy that the number of Belgians who take antidepressiva stagnated from 2014 to 2015. This ‘happy’ news is rather sour when one considers that’s still one in ten, or a rise of 16,5% in 10 years’ time. And it suggests that we, as a society, have learnt to accept this sorry state of affairs.  

Yet ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ is everywhere you look and compared to previous generations we have armies of ‘health workers’ in the broadest sense of the word at our disposal. Surely all the attention to positive psychology should offer us all we need to improve our psychological health? happiness-industry2In The Happiness Industry William Davies forcefully questions that: emotions have simply become a new resource to be bought and sold.  In a sense capitalism has further expanded. What the system used to regard with suspicion – feeling, friendship, moral responsability, creativity – have now all been co-opted for the purpose of maximising profits. It seems that there is nothing that cannot be instrumentalized. And all this is done via a psychological approach which, because of its individualistic focus, does not need to acknowledge a larger ideological framework. Attention is simply displaced.

Meaningful work, in the Belgian government’s terms: workable work, seems laudable in the view of so many unhappy workers. But the fact that its twin, adaptable work, is virtually always mentioned in the same breath, raises suspicion: are we talking about the well-being of people – or of the system? How come this discussion doesn’t include an analysis of underlying economic or social causes? Why do we hear so little about the societal sources of this state of affairs? When and how did it happen that the collective is reduced to the point that it’s not even mentioned in talk about trends which by definition cannot be individual? In a similar vein as the ceo cited earlier, some psychologists concluded after the economic crash of 2008 that the problem was not the bank system but the emotions of the bank workers. And since how you feel cannot be argued against, it’s conveniently insulated from all debate.

Happiness is not divorced from the material conditions in which we live. Intuitively we all know that it’s bound up with our activities, whether work or otherwise. It is not a mere subjective affair.  Yet that’s the way it’s presented – and very succesfully it is too. We all seem to have incorporated the notion that our psychological state is 1) very important and 2) our very own individual responsability. We’re thrown back at ourselves to improve things. And lo and behold, there is a whole new ‘industry’ that is devoted to our well-being, that offers this training, that method, this diet or supplements, that course of action, that will raise our level of happiness. The offer is there, manifold. If you’re still not happy, evidently it’s your own fault.

I have very mixed feelings about this. Davies’ argument is compelling and I do believe the discussion about the good life should also be conducted at a collective level. Yet when one feels unhappy, surely it’s legitimate that one tries to do something about it. I too aim to improve my well-being in a variety of ways. And I do think it’s mostly up to me. That makes me so to speak a collaborator who maintains the Happiness Industry as Davies describes it. Is there another way?

Just last Saturday I was at a workshop where someone asked for a “simple trick when things do not go well”. In managerial terms this would be a ‘quick win’. How could you be against that? But this is of course a rather desperate question of someone who may not be able to carry all that individual responsability. And I saw many people in the room nodding as if to say: yes, I feel the same and I would like to know a way out too. There was, not surprisingly, no answer: if we no longer believe in the collective, there can also be no straightforward recipes that work for everyone.

Yet commercially the myth of the collective booms. Especially the immensely popular literature on self-help and well-being thrives on the assumption that one size may fit all. Read this book and the world will change for all of you. It’s telling that Gretchen Rubin apologises repeatedly in The Happiness Project that she tells her own story, in the hope that it may be inspiring for others. happiness-projectAlthough not really unhappy, she concentrated for twelve months on how to improve the quality of her life. Within a carefully chosen theme per month she defines a number of very concrete aims – and reports honestly on their realisation (or not). Inez van Oord, creator of the successful magazins Seasons and cirkelHappinez, combines in If Life Is a Circle (in Dutch) her individual story with a more generalistic approach.  I personally think The Happiness Project works better: the individual account is indeed inspiring. It’s not a ‘simple trick’ that everyone should follow blindly, it’s an open invitation to explore possibilities on the basis of what they did for the author. General recommendations so often are, well, so very general that they cannot drag you into action. Rubin also doesn’t claim any quick wins, her story is one of careful thought, concentration and persistence. 

I too have my own personal list of “tricks” for “when things don’t go well”. And among the most effective for me is being creative. Of course that begs the question: what is ‘being creative’? Recently I expressed my incomprehension about wanting to make your own jam – when there are so many delicious jams to be had, without much effort apart from choosing from the bewildering offer. The reply was swift: and why would anyone want to make one’s own clothes or jewelry? Point taken! It’s irrelevant what it is, as long as it works for you. And in the quest for your own set of tricks, it’s inspiring to learn how others found and or changed their expression of creativity.

In the already mentioned Why We Make Things kornPeter Korn relates how he started off as a self-made craftsman who really struggled to continue to learn ànd to find appreciation for his craftsmanship. Yet he ended up as an school administrator, creating the circumstances in which others can learn and create more at ease. To the repeated critique that he denounced his creative mission, he replies that he is still being creative, albeit in a different way. I love this story, especially because it shows how narrowmindedly we usually interpret creativity. And how broad its range can be.

The creative process is a mystery. And unless we’re talking about out-of-reach artistic genius, I sincerely believe anything can be a source of inspiration. The point is to be curious and explore, whether in terms of subject, materials, techniques – or all of them at once. It’s about focal attention to the point of reaching flow. It’s about activities that we want to do well for their own sakes. It’s about slow time or kairos in which we may see a glimpse of the good life. 

For me, creativity is (among others) about fabrics and fibers. So let me show you some humble craft examples. They’re mostly imitations in the sense that I tried to reproduce an existing design or object into felt. They’re certainly not perfect. But I made them thoughtfully, with care and attention. And the necessary persistence tricked me into more well-being. 

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Probably the most famous mouse in the world,
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needlefelted on a brooch for my godson who finally enjoys reading thanks to Geronimo Stilton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A delightful trumpet playing pig,
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and her needlefelted sister. Especially the jaunty legs were a challenge 😉
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And surely other animals can play an instrument too?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Or what about a piggy bank?
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Perhaps its decoration suggested that I should be saving to buy a house.
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I bought a silk scarf instead and created my very own felt Monopoly street.

 

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The humble guardian angel is mine,

 

 

 

 

 

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my niece made the painting. How delightful that she turned the colours around: she found her own expression of creativity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the process of making these things I was happy. Because they were gifts and or home decoration, I hope the happiness contained in them spreads wider. And that might be a very humble contribution to making well-being a collective objective again.

Be Your Own Spider

You’ve already noticed that I read ecclectically ;-). How do I choose, you may wonder. Well, sometimes a book is recommended, by a friend, a reviewer I trust, a bookseller. Other times, I simply go into the bookstore and I let myself ‘get caught’ – by a cover for instance. Or by the back cover, a much underrated part of a book! Take this example:

blauw7Years ago I saw this picture in a bookshop in Amsterdam and I was intrigued. I bought the book 😉

In this volume of a series on important late 20th-century artists, Louise Bourgeois, a French-born American (1911-2010), takes centre stage. She is a complex artist. She seems to explore any medium at hand to develop her artistic vision:lb-boek1 the richly illustrated monograph shows sculptures, paintings, prints, installations … and fabric works! The blue figure, which turns out to be called Endless Pursuit (2000), is only one of many examples of the sampling tendency in Bourgeois’ work: the taking apart of existing materials in order to invent new possibilities. The same applies to the fabric works below, all Untitled (2000/ 2001/ 2000). How delightful for instance to turn old tapestries into a modern totem. But I knew nothing of the background of the artist or what she tried to convey. I also had a sense her work was ‘difficult’.

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Remember the pastel colours, they return later 😉

totem1Or perhaps it simply wasn’t for me at the time.

 

I forgot about the book and about Louise Bourgeois.

 

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The original ‘Lullaby’ is a series of 25 silkscreens Bourgeois made in 2006.

Until this Spring at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna: imagine my surprise that the artist whom I had considered difficult, had become the subject of a children’s book! Amy Novesky’s book is attractively illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault – but I didn’t recognise the images: there are much more colours ànd textile references than I remembered.

I did get a summary of Bourgeois’ life story, with a prominent role for her mother’s tapestry workshop. There is also some reference to the dysfunctional family in which she grew up, with Bourgeois’ father rarely at home (his philandering remains unmentioned in this book) and her mother dying when she was still a student.

I was intrigued again. And discovered yet another book, entirely devoted to her ‘Fabric Works’.  There I readlb-boek2 that in a virtually artless period (1955-66) Bourgeois returned from New York to Paris and opened an antique shop specialising in children’s literature and illustrated books. The children’s book with her story is not so strange after all! Alas I must omit a lot of Bourgeois’ multifaceted work: my focus here as in Cloth Lullaby will be textile.   

Louise Bourgeois has had a long artistic life. But recognition only arrived in the late seventies, with her definite breakthrough on the international stage with a retrospective in MoMu in 1982. It seems that recognition also ‘liberated’ her in the sense that she could finally comment on the artistic translation of the psychic wounds of her childhood. Yet many commentators insist that her work is not so much autobiographical as it is archetypical: it refers to universal themes as fear and hurt – and the need for recognition. As Bourgeois put it herself: “All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs we have. It’s about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognised, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognising oneself.” (LB 1988)

What is fascinating is that it’s through fabrics that Bourgeois attempts to recognise herself: she ‘sculpts’ with her own old clothes and turns them into records of her emotional life, into self-portraits in fact.

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Blue Days (1996)
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Detail of Cell Clothes (1996): “The cold of anxiety is very real.”
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Femme-Maison (2001)

 

 

 

 

 

The body is also omnipresent in Bourgeois’ work. She strongly believes that emotions live in the body – strong, intense, past and present.

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Untitled (2002)
Arched Figure 2004
Arched Figure (2004)
The Child 2003
The Child (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

And her representation of memory and emotion is very much determined by her use of colour. She herself says: “Color is stronger than language. It’s subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, medition, and escape.” Note how much this runs parallell with the analysis of Michel Pastoureau which I mentioned earlier! “Red is an affirmation at all cost – regardless of the dangers in fighting – of contraction, of aggression. It’s symbolic of the intensity of the emotions involved.” (LB 1992)

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The delightful textile book, The Waiting Hours (2007)
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One of the so-called Cells: Red Cell (Child) (1994)

Would it be disrespectful to call Bourgeois a colour funda-mentalist? 😉

 

 

Red is omnipresent in Cloth Lullaby, presumably to indicate the intensity of Bourgeois’ artistic endeavour. This is no art pour l’art, the artist is deeply and personally engaged with the universal themes she explores. lullaby-clothesIn fact, the particular, such as the usage of her own clothes, gives body to the universal. As Novesky puts it: “Louise gathered all the fabric of her life […] and she cut it all up. And then she spent the rest of her life putting it back together again.” That seems like a fair synthesis. In the family business 17th- and 18th-century tapestries were repaired and resold: rentrayage, to make things whole again, is a dominant theme in Bourgeois’ work. The technique of assemblage that is so present conveys a deep urge for ‘wholeness’ that appears forever elusive and invariably infused by anguish. Her personal unhappiness is never very far way, yet she keeps exploring the hope that the damage can be undone or patched up. This is the driving force, the ‘endless pursuit’ illustrated earlier, behind everything she made: can one recover from the past? Is it possible to put back together the fragments that loneliness and neglect have scattered? In other words, taking clothes apart refers to Bourgeois’ fears of abandonment and disintegration. And sewing them back together is a form of reparation.

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Untitled (2005)

Cloth Lullaby rightly gives Bourgeois’ mother a very prominent role. In her pursuit of reparation the artist herself shifted her emphasis from the theme of the neglectful Father, to the capable Good Mother – patient spinner, weaver and sewer. It is not difficult to see how the background in Arsenault’s drawing (left) refers to a spider web (right) such as Bourgeois produced time and again. The reference is very much deliberate: “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.” (LB 2007) Clearly this is what Bourgeois strives for: to let go of the anger and start again. It may be an endless pursuit but with every work the artist attempts to capture the past and thus allow a new present, to be her own repairer. 

The spider features largely in the artist’s work since first drawn in 1947. Seen over time, the changing forms of the creature reflect the development in Bourgeois’ oeuvre itself. The ‘Spider Works’ – and they are many – are both about fragility and about self-protection. 

The spider enters Bs work 1947)
The first appearance (1947)
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Spider, sixty years later (2007)

The spider is a symbol of learning: one can capture one’s psychological condition and repair emotional wounds so as to rebuild the web of one’s life. Is it surprising then that the spiders turn (in)to tapestry?

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in 2003 its body has become tapestry.
Spider 1997
In 1997 the spider protects the tapestry in a cell-structure,

 

 

As a patient spider Louise Bourgeois relentlessly re-created the past: her entire oeuvre can thus be interpreted as work-in-hopeful-progress. And the great news is: she did recover from her childhood traumas and her artistic intensity grew more gentle. This is illustrated by the change in the colours she used: pastels enter the scene and mark the transition from an aggressive fury to softer, more accepting emotions. As Bourgeois explained herself: “Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self.” (LB 1992)

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An early occurance in: Pink Days and Blue Days (1997),
pastel4 2002
pink weaving in: Untitled (2002),
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completed with ‘pods’ in: Untitled (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spider 2007
Now pastel & soft (2007)

The best illustration of Bourgeois’ growth and achievement is the conversion of ‘her’ spider. This is why the pastel spider adorns the cover of The Fabric Works: it illustrates almost intuitively the path that Bourgeois has travelled personally and artistically – and both very much linked. Spider (2007) is widely understood as an ode to her mother. The drama of the separation, from her father as well as from her own self, is resolved. She can allow softness both in material and in colours because she has allowed it into her own life. From 2005 onwards, the long journey of suffering thus has reached a ‘wholesome’ conclusion: “To create is an act of liberation.”

Liberation is also letting go. Once more Louise Bourgeois: “Fear is a passive state. The goal is to be active and take control … If the past is not negated in the present, you do not live. You go through the emotions like a zombie, and life passes you by.” (LB 1998)

The historian in me is not sure that the past must be negated: to explore it may of itself enable an active life. But I was (and am) inspired by Bourgeois’ emphasis on taking control over one’s emotions, on awareness and self-careThis is the essence of mindfulnessAnd I let myself further be inspired when in a box installation I explored the concept of letting go and its promise of repair.

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The central image is based on a nightmare that kept repeating itself years ago: I’m a child standing in a room full of grown ups and I’m being attacked by a crow. The adults ignore my anguish. I can’t understand why I’m being abandoned and neglected. Feeling utterly lonely I fear disintegration when the crow would get to me. And “the cold of anxiety” is “very real” indeed. Until I discovered in yet another repetition of the dream that there was a door behind me – and I myself could open it and let in the light, which scared off the crow. I never dreamt the dream again.

 

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The fun of assemblage: actually Icelandic fish skins to be recycled into fish ‘leather’,
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a holder to fix rainpipes,
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and a crystal ball that was the centre piece of a discarded chandelier.

 

 

 

 

 

Any box installation uses assemblage, here of photos taken long ago and of objects mostly found at car boot sales. Together they create a new ‘whole’ – and express the hope of wholesome integration. In reality I was being torn by conflicting loyalties – and feeling utterly alone, surrounded by non-understanding and disdain for at times clumsily expressed sensibilities. Conceptually this installation is about the function of agency in the integrating process: if we actively acknowledge our fears and emotions, they loose their at times disabling power over us and we can let go of them. The past need not control us, we can learn from it. We can be our own spider and through the process of reparation, weave a ‘new’ life. Or to confuse the metaphors, the installation suggests snakeskins, symbol of renewal. In that new life, we can practice self-protection better: the pin of the ‘neck collar’ indicates where one’s boundaries lay – don’t come closer. And good self-care further promotes growth and enrichment which will strengthen the light and colour in our lives. “Being a self” is difficult. It’s a mission the ‘endless pursuit’ of which may at times be intense, painful, angst ridden, complicated, unrecognised, discouraged. But it’s also the herald of purpose and meaning. And I believe it to be worthwhile. 

I found the accompanying quote on the blog of Bart Moeyaert, writer and artistic leader of Flanders & the Netherlands being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in about a month’s time. The quote needs a little explanation: in Dutch the word for ‘glove’ is composed of two words, being ‘hand’ and ‘shoe’, hence handschoen.

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You think of letting go, and you draw a glove.

In the installation I visually separate the two again – and concentrate the notion of self-protection in the needle felted hand. It’s obvious that Bourgeois’ spiders served as inspiration. I very much intended to associate the spider-hand with Bourgeois’ emphasis on the possibility of reparation and thus integration and wholeness. Whatever caused the ‘darkness’, the hand can let in the light. It’s also the tool par excellence to repair and make things. And being ‘assembled’ from wool, the self-care it administers is naturally gentle and accepting. Agency is very much part of life-in-hopeful-progress.