on deftness
by Kye Nelson

Mastery is often thought to be of discipline-specific skills and knowledge.

When knowledge and skill-set were finite and didn't often change, this definition could be meaningful. But when both knowledge and skill-set are changing daily within a discipline, it begins to be clear that what makes someone a masterful practitioner within a discipline lies in a different order of knowing. I do not mean to imply that discipline-specific skills and knowledge are not important: far from it. I would not want to go to a doctor who did not have these things solidly. But ideally I want a doctor who has something more than this, as well.

There is already theory which takes a broader view of what mastery could mean. For professionals, at least, it is sometimes thought to lie in certain habits of thought, rather than in the specific content which is thought about. Here, already, we begin to be able to cross the boundaries of disciplines. But in this view, what is thought-about is still passive and inert. Such a perspective leads straight to the experience we have all had in doctors' offices, of being more a passive object than a living subject.

And what of the deft baker in the bakery? She is also masterful. But a description which centers on habits of thought--as thought is publicly understood--misses most of the baker's masterfulness. When mastery is defined in terms of thought the baker becomes invisible. Her mastery doesn't receive the same order of respect as is given to the doctor. Unseen, she often loses access to part of her essential human dignity and worth, at least publicly.

Donald A. Schon is one theoretician who does pay attention to the continual sensitive adjustment of a skilled practitioner in a given discipline within a new situation, and his theory of reflection-in-action begins to make room for tacit bodily knowledge which sensitively responds to a situation. He says, "It is our capacity to see unfamiliar situations as familiar ones, and to do in the former as we have done in the latter, that enables us to bring our past experience to bear on the unique case. It is our capacity to see-as and do-as that allows us to have a feel for problems that do not fit existing rules." (in The Reflective Practitioner, p140).

But even with Schon the emphasis is on seeing what we have already seen before-not on the way that that which is not known here, that that which is not like what we did before, can itself guide us very exactly in our doing here, now. Of course it is true that part of what guides us as skilled practitioners is seeing an instance here of what we knew before. But this is not all we are guided by, else a discipline could never exceed itself.

The guidance that the work itself gives us here, now, is similarly invisible in the way that the visual arts as a discipline are presented, as they are here: "The artist is motivated by feelings about a subject (which we shall call the "what"). That subject may or may not be a representational likeness. The artist then manipulates the artistic elements (line, shape, and so on) to create a kind of form (the "how"), that will result in the desired content (the "why"), one that expresses his or her feelings. In this process the artist attempts to make all parts of the work mutually interactive and interrelated-as they are in a living organism. If this is achieved we can call it organic unity, containing nothing that is unnecessary or distracting, with relationships that seem inevitable." (Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice-Ocvirk, Stinson et. al. eds, p18).

But in the preceding description there is no inherent life or organic unity in the subject itself, before the artist imposes it-and there is no guidance from within the subject, for the unfolding of a work of art into (or from) such an organic unity. In this view, the livingness of a work of art is only imposed by, or comes from, intention.

But mastery is more than knowledge, more than skill-set, more than habits of thought, more than being able to see this as if it were that, and more than the capacity to intend and impose some kind of unity on a subject. Mastery is at least a certain kind of relation to a thing-itself-happening. It is at least that body-sureness that comes from understanding that a thing-itself-happening both knows just what needs to happen and also shows just what to do. And it is knowing how to stay inside of that happening.

If mastery is understood in this way, then the knowledge and skills that are actually used in a situation arise from, are inherently responsive to, and become a continuing part of, a thing-itself-happening:

As a teacher, I am in interaction with this right-now experimental wondering-what-would happen which is part of the larger playing-out of this student's perpetual interest in the interaction of water and paper and his compulsion to explore the implications of what he observes, forms the basis of my interaction with him in this moment. As a painter, my own long exploration of the relationship between light and line informs (but also is informed by) this present drawing of the shadow on the wall across from me, cast in early morning by that tree outside this room which casts a shifting pattern through these blinds.

Whatever is right here unfolding (this doing over time, in interaction with this something that is coming-to-be from one's doing, here, now) becomes the ultimate, and valued, source of our knowing exactly what to do. This painting as it is being painted by this painter (or this house as it is being built by this builder, or this loaf of bread as it is being baked by this baker, or this story as it is being told by this storyteller, or this theory as I am writing it now, or any thing-itself-happening-that is, anything which is coming to be) can now be understood as inherently being, in itself, an organic unity or livingness that is always more than prior knowing and intention, though it does, of course, include them.

Matisse does approach this territory when he says: "Nothing, I think, is more difficult for a true painter than to paint a rose because, before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted." (in Matisse on Art, ed. Jack Flam, p148)

When an artist or baker or builder or writer stays inside of this ordered unfolding that knows and shows, then a work-any skilled working-both is an art and also creates art which can be great, even if what is created is as transitory as a loaf of bread. When we see this point clearly, then anyone who knows the art of staying inside an unfolding story in this way can become visible to us in their mastery. The master carpenter becomes visible together with the architect. The waiter who deftly attends us and plays his part in this work of art that is the entire experience of eating in a great restaurant, becomes visible together with the master chef, and the sous-chef, for without the waiter, we who eat do not exist in our particularity for those who cook. When we step back and become aware of the processes of creation happening all around us, and give the whole of these processes their proper weight, then the whole of human participation in the process of creation regains its essential dignity.

Now the focus can shift to describing characteristics of such a relation, so that it becomes findable by another person.

A thing-itself-happening displays an ordered unfolding which is a knowing of just what needs to happen and a showing of just what to do, out of which comes the authority of the hand that does. It is a pattern which can be gathered-up, and a story which we can only tell by staying inside of it and feeling the layers within it. Our exact doing is how we stay inside this story: with this precise kind of movement which takes no time at all because it's happening so slowly, and with a sure body-inhabiting which unfolds the old familiar form just-so in a new shape. And this kind of following anticipates, but doesn't hamper, a thing-itself-happening. Such an exact doing is itself a thing-itself-happening, and as such it, too, displays an ordered unfolding which is a knowing of just what needs to happen, and a showing of just what to do.

It's knowing this form, and playing with it. Even though it is the first time one has ever done exactly this, one feels the authority of one's hand which knows and shows. One feels a familiar gathering-up of the pattern that has happened just this way, time after time. But there is also a characteristic almost-anxious feeling of being poised over an empty space where this time is not like anything before.

Something coming into existence-a thing-itself-happening¾itself knows and shows. Deftness is staying inside-with one's own body-doing-the palpably dense and precise sense of what-happens-next as this, coming-to-be right now, guides its own forward movement.

Though this palpable sense of what-happens-next is an inner sense, felt within one's body as it moves and does, this sense comes from, and is findable in, the actual which has happened and is now happening-in certain little details like the way the sunshine is dancing on the windowsill as the wind blows, or this somehow-thick sentence, just read in an email which is part of this very human interaction between the two of us, or this mushroom which I am cooking for supper and which has a so-faint lemony woody nutty fragrance-little details which, when one slows down enough to take them in in their never-before particularity, have an almost luminous quality. One feels 'Oh! There is this!', and one wants to touch it, to respond to it.

One's exact responding to it, in allowing it to structure the moves one makes, is a sort of homage to this thick almost-shiningness.

We have brought home a funny new kind of mushroom from the store. I cut open the mushroom, and in cutting I smell its fragrance, then "smell" and "taste"-in an inner act which responds to that precise fragrance-the way that a little garlic and butter would come together with that subtle smell. So I mince a little garlic very fine and add it to the mushroom now gently cooking in some butter.

I smell the actual smell of butter, garlic, and mushroom now together, and in response add just this amount of fresh-ground pepper. I notice next how a green apple, sliced very thin, would with its crisp sweet-sourness complement this barely-musky richness of mushroom-garlic-butter-pepper. And cutting open such an apple, I make every slice of it thin just-so, so that the crunch of apple between teeth will be a delicate experience, neither texture nor taste overwhelming this subtle mushroom.

When one's doing happens in this way, one experiences a palpable quality of just-so-ness to each move as it comes, alongside the in-here body-sense of the thing-itself and what-happens-next which I am matching with my doing, and which comes in response to this emerging actuality.

But sometimes I smell the smell of this dish cooking and it smells good to me but not yet balanced and complete-but I don't know yet what would complete it. Rather than settling for an abstract idea of what is needed, I can stay with the smell and taste of it as it is, incomplete. Sometimes I simply smell it, taste it, and keep noticing it as it actually is. Sometimes I might open various bottles of spices, and smell them alongside this incomplete smell. Would that do it?-no. Or this?-still not it. What about this?-closer, but… Perhaps this time, the dish remains close to completion but not actually complete; good… but not finished. There is some move that would be right, but it is not yet clear exactly what that move would be. I may finish the dish with the spice that came closest, even though that spice wasn't exactly what the dish called for. (After all, we do need to eat!)

Staying here with the actuality of something as it is does build something, even when this particular work doesn't quite come out right. One learns, from staying inside a thing-itself-happening, something of what it has to show, even when one cannot finish the work as it could be finished if one knew the right move to make.

There is something more about sufficiency and about what it means for an artistic work to be finished. A painting can be a taking-off place for a next painting which further develops it. Or, one painter looks at a painting by another, and is moved to paint a new painting "In homage to…" The new painting doesn't take away from the finishedness of the original painting, but it is also clearly a going-on-from.

When the process of painting this painting is going on, it makes a space where it goes out ahead of itself. It's an opening of a great many possibilities that cannot be fulfilled here, though this painting does fulfill itself. It fulfills itself and also it's out in front of itself. So it's impossible not to go on being a painter. What is out in front has to be followed.

When I finish a painting, or any creative work, there is a sadness that comes. This painting (or writing, or thinking, or…) process at each moment opens a huge space of possibilities. Being inside that space is what staying-inside-of-it means. And that space of possibilities comes-with the finished work When a painting is finished that space is not gone, and is not satisfied.

Deleuze, writing on aesthetics, says "It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed, or identical… The world is neither finite nor infinite as representation would have it: it is completed and unlimited. Eternal return is the unlimited of the finished itself… Re-petition opposes re-presentation… Repetition is the formless being of all differences, the formless power of the ground which carries every object to that extreme 'form' in which its representation comes undone." (in Difference and Repetition, p57)

Yes… but this "unlimited of the finished itself" is not arbitrary: not actually formless in practice. It is, instead, a not-yet-formed which is implicit-in, and which continues-on-from, that which is already formed.

Kye Nelson is a collaborative consultant, artist, and thinker. Find out more about her consulting work at www.workingprocess.com or contact her for information on workshops or consulting at 210/413-4339, info@workingprocess.com.

This material © 2001 by Kye Nelson. All rights reserved.

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