The Topic Was Devotion, and I Asked Susie Lee for a Transcription of Her Talk, It Was So Good
by Jen Graves
on Sat, Aug 17, 2013 at 10:08 AM
At the Hedreen Thursday night.
This fine weekend, I would like to recommend a piece of reading to you. It's the talk that visual artist Susie Lee gave on Thursday night at Hedreen Gallery. She'd been invited to present on the subject of devotion by Rebecca Brown, who read two tremendous short stories for the occasion.
For anybody who cares about art, artists, relationships, how tempting it is to give up sometimes, and how much you're capable of when you don't have to be afraid of being abandoned, Lee's words are after the jump. She's allowed us to publish them; otherwise, they'd only exist in the memories of the people who were there and I didn't want that to happen.
The ongoing art exhibition Devotion at the Hedreen, curated by Brown, is up through August 29, with three more evenings of presentation on the theme including Riz Rollins, Evan Flory-Barnes, and other devoted ones.
Lee started out with definitions by other people about devotion, then she began with her own:
These are eloquent, generous, from the gut definitions….And after weeks of mulling and thinking about this, I get the sense that devotion is…..really hard.
I’m just not good at the—stick to it—grit your teeth and hang on— for better or worse—kind of thing.
I just like better.
I wondered how I could possibly pull off a talk about devotion with sincerity or perspective except one at arm’s length, and then—-I found a loophole.
The notion of devotion implies nothing about the object of that devotion. Devotion, unlike many other types of generally positive relationships, doesn’t have to be a two way street. It can definitely be, and perhaps often is, a one-sided affair.
For example, consider parents, pet owners, and spiritual followers. The objects of their devotion— children, pets (especially cats or shiba inus) and God, don’t have to, cannot, or feel no need, to reciprocate.
I can be in this category.
Therefore, the title of this talk is: The Possibility of Being Someone Else’s Object of Devotion.
* * *
I came up with a theory that, for a relationship with me to stick around, in the middle of an argument, when I say, frequently, “I’ve had it. It’s over. We’re done,” the other person would need the ability to say, frequently: No, I’m not giving up.
While disagreeing with another complicated person is often turbulent, a heated argument with a Korean temper is EPIC. It’s as if we channel thousands of years of oppression through one loud voice in one sitting. Couple that with my impulse for logical proofs, what you have is a furious dissertation in which I become more and more convinced of my rightness of our wrongness. And then— the walls go up, the exit strategy is implemented, and my face goes blank.
In a sensible world, the reasonable thing to do is walk away, but if we pursue the thought exercise on this theory, let’s say there is a form of this person who maintains an underlying hum of “No, this is still worth it…”
I hypothesize, that as a consequence, this might, at first, unsettle me, and that pause would be just enough to derail my own predilections. I suspect that these episodes will come back to me, and that sometimes, I might re-evaluate my previous stance and think that maybe, at least once in awhile, I had been a bit of a shit. Not like a sociopathic shit who uses shittiness as a form of control, but just an imperfect shit who opted for an imperfect, suspicious, and hostile response.
Now let’s go further. Let’s imagine a series of these mutated forms of engagement where I say, “No, now it’s really over.” and the other person says, “No, let’s stick this out.” At some point, it becomes ridiculous to keep saying the same things, so the guard is lowered. You sense that you can be imperfect and vulnerable, and when that vigilance isn’t needed, other things can occupy that psychic arena.
Imagine that with a child or a pet or a cause.
It’s like a particular comfort that goes beyond verbal comfort (texting “Hey, how are you?) and physical comfort (like a hug), it thrums like a low bass note that is not registered but affects one’s physiology : “I’m here. I’m not leaving. (Maybe I’m not always sure why) but I’m going to keep not leaving. Please stay.”
* * *
I have another theory. It begins with the conjecture that we want to believe the people who choose to be artists must also have devotion. Devotion to craft, to a practice, to a singular idea. Art and devotion have this spiritual bent, and even today we still consider creative people as symbols of society in the form of harbingers, mirrors and augurs, so we want devotion to be integral to that mystical, committed package.
So is that part of what distinguishes the artist that lasts and those that fall away? Or the art star whose every word we devour from the everyday, nobody artist? Is it that one channels intense devotion and stick-to-it-ness, and the other less so?
Us magazine contains a section called “Celebrities Just Like Us” which is relevant here. The artists who last or who are famous probably have the same issues of lack of funding, management disasters, and bad ideas, just at a larger scale, but what they also have, a thousand times more, is people devoted to them and their work.
I don’t think it’s their devotion that carries them; it’s the momentum of others.
So the more interesting investigation is the consequence of devotion to artists and societal devotion to cultural integrity and humanity. When there are people in your life that say, “This thing you do, this is worth it, and we want more,” it amends an artists’ inner toxic thoughts and provides great comfort.
Because again, when we don’t worry about irrelevance or being forgotten, we dismantle the defending and justifying and putting up guards and build the capacity to take risks; collectively we can become more courageous and ruthless and sensitive. We can be vigilant about an exacting process that nevertheless seeks serendipity rather than efficiency. When others believe in creative risk-taking, we can not just tackle low-hanging fruit, but push back on a world that is surveilled, hacked, and profit-maximized. We have the space to negate being dead while alive. We can try to be more real.
And unlike the hypothetical, masochistic romantic partner, I do have people, a small number, who are devoted to me as an artist, and I stand here continuing to make work because, when I argue that I want to give up, that it’s not worth it, that it doesn’t matter, they say: Please stay. So if you know artists, know that this might be where they begin. Artists make great objects of devotion.
And as a nod to Seattle U, imagine the ultimate object of devotion, God, in whatever embodiment you choose. Then in this line of thinking, when you’re devoted to God, you give comfort to God, which allows God to be a little more courageous, a little more vulnerable, and possibly, a little more real.