“This time, however, my fear was a true novelty. It came from an unknown part of the world and hit me in an unknown part of myself.”
Carlos Castaneda

Journey to Ixtlan

Dear Paul Graham, Attn. Art


Dear Paul,

I have recently begun to reluctantly follow on some technology/startup/vc reading. I came across your writing and YCombinator.  I have read numerous articles you wrote, I have drawn some ideas and found some inspiration in them. When I came across your article How Art Can Be Good I came to a stop. My initial response was objection to your writing –  and I almost engaged you in a confrontation. I wanted to show you that you are wrong – that you do not know what art is. But to do this I would have had to claim that I do know what art is – and nothing could be further from a truth. So I let the energy you stirred in me continue to brew and eventually settle. Now that it has, I feel that I can write with a positive note and establish a connection with you rather then form an opposition. Responding to your article has actually consolidated some ideas that I have been carrying with me – so I am thankful for your contribution in crystallizing my thoughts and forming a stage for their expression.

Because we are exchanging throughts and words – I will start by making an appeal to the intellect. I am enlisting the help of others to do this. I would share with you a few books I carry with me which have contributed both to my understanding (or interpretation) of the world and my love and appreciation of it. I found these books both intelectually stimulating & captivating and spiritually inspiring. I doubt I can communicate their ideas any better then they already do:

  1. What is Good? The best and most inspiring answer & discussion I know about this comes from Robert Pirsig. His first book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance explores a concept of Quality. It sheds some interesting light on subject-object metaphysics which were a crutch in your writing and comments discussion. The sequel Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals though leans more to the intellect and less towards inspiration further develops the ideas and shows how they can applied in day-to-day life.
  2. What is Art and how does it relate to an audience? I am now reading I haven’t completed it yet – but it is great reading and insightful – Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa. Shahar loaned it to me. I think it will shed new light on your concepts of a relationship between audience and artist.
  3. What impact Technologists have on Technology? Alan Cooper, a leading figure in software design wrote The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. He writes about a “Jet Test” that separates developers (and technologists) from people (users).

I believe that any objective discussion of art is both sterile and futile. I believe that art is a shared  experience – as long as it remains in the realm of experience. Once the experience has faded (it always does) what remains is an idea about art – a personal interpretation. It may sometimes resonate with a truth – but it is never a truth in itself. Therefore in words I can only talk about what art is for me.

For me art is a unique experience and activity. Art is an opportunity to take a shot at experiencing dynamic quality. When I am artistically involved I feel completely immersed and involved in what I do. I feel vital and focused. I usually create in bursts – artistic activity burns my energy fast. I find that ideas and actions appear out of nowhere – an unknown that goes beyond my understanding and beyond my mind. I feel inspired and often that inspiration will affect those that are with me (and vice versa). Art is a commitment to identify and act on a clear choice that appears before me. When others are involved in my creativity (as is usually the case) I feel a special kind of intimacy. Art is a relationship of appreciation and gratitude. I cannot open the door to art without conscious involvement of my physical body. Thankfully, art remains a mystery.

For me art is not something to understand or talk about. Art is a place where my mind cannot go (when I am lucky it may at best be able to follow). Art is a place where there is no undo – every choice is non-recurring. Art is an occurence in which curisoity outweighs knowledge. Art is not about pleasing the senses or the mind – it is a pleasure that goes much deeper. Art cannot be governed and predicted. Art goes beyond any social or personal concept of value – quality cannot be measured.

The qualities of art are valid and relevant regardless of a field to which they may be applied. Any field can be a space of creativity – whether it is expressed as a visual hanging in a museum or an abstract description of an object-oriented language. Artistic expression does require skill- but skill can only bring me to the edge of creativity – from there I rely upon faith to guide me into and through an experience of unknown.

For me, YCombinator is an example of your artistic expression. I am guessing that when it was first born it was unique and unheard of. It challenged some underlying assumptions of the startup indsutry. I am also guessing that the idea for YCombinator (or some of it’s underlying forms) came to you and/or your partners out of nowhere. I am sure you had much previous experience (not just ideas!) in this industry – but your experience did not include YCombinator. It was an invention. Your previous experience brought you to the brink of creativity and you took a dive in and came back with YCombinator. From the richness of your writing I am assuming that this is not a one time thing. This is your creativity at work in your field of experience.

But your article about art – well it’s a sour grape. Why is that? I can only ask. Have you ever created what you consider to be art? Have you ever faced or experienced creativity with your physical body?I have a feeling that you have little to none experience with what you believe to be art. This echoes through in your writing. You are talking about ideas that exist mostly in your mind – they are not associated to any real experience. It is natural for this to happen – it is the nature of the mind to speculate and create ideas. It also tends to believe its ideas – and this is a shortcoming.

This I believe also sheds some light on some of Alan Coopers idea’s (see “Inmates..” book mentioned above) about technologists. Technological engineering, especially hi-technology is mostly an abstract engagement – it is imaginary. With software even it’s realization is in an abstract domain and form. I apologize for the coming generalizations – I did not find a way to avoid them. People who are masterful engineers have amazingly proficient minds – this is their primary tool. It is also their primary limitation. Their experience of reality is a limited one – simply because they spend so much time away from it. Unless they consciously work at creating such experience, not via social networking, but in the physical world – their understanding of it remains limited. This may explain why the general user experience of software is not good. The algorhythms are crunching away with amazing efficiency – but the human interface is mediocre at best.

I invite you to have a look at your blog. How much effort and attention have you invested in it’s contents vs.  it’s looks and usability. I would wager that not many artists read your article about art – those that did are probably part technologists. The others will not come around or stick around too long. This is not a good or bad thing – it’s just the way things are. Ironically you have been talking about art with people who are least qualified – in terms of experience.

I agree with your suggestion that ‘kids going to art school run smack into a brick wall’. I just think they will run into a different wall. A wall of knowledge and understanding. Creativity cannot be hacked. The keys to creativity include things such as love & support, freedom (not a chaotic flavored freedom, but one that brings with it an immense sense of responsibility) , faith & patience. Yes skills are required – but they are not nearly enough.

I was a very smart kid – my grades were great and I excelled in my studies. I was also unhappy and uninspired for most of my life. I believe that it is a practice of Yoga that established the foundations to new perspectives. I also believe that it prepared me for meeting art. I have come to believe that a passionate practice of mind and body (which together hold the keys to the spiritual) have made me complete. My body has a unique quality of being present while my mind can wander off.

Ironically the reason I am reading your writing and writing this is SweetClarity – a project I am heading in which art, technology and business are converging. The reason I am reluctant about reading and getting involved with technology/startup/vc … is exemplified in your article about art. I feels that this industry (of which I was a part for 15 years) is dominated by mind. It is in many ways out of touch and lacking in respect for reality.  It seems to be obsessed with value – so much so that is leaves little room for quality. My gut instinct in regard to SweetClarity has been supported by numerous professionals who have said steer away from VC. It doesn’t need to be like this. We need to respect our limitations – especially those of the mind.

In yoga there is an idea of Tapas (a sanskrit word) – which can be translated as friction and heat. They say it takes heat generated by friction to soften the body and the mind so that we can reshape it. I thank you for the Tapas in your writing. I hope I have been able to accomodate it wisely.

All Things Good

“It’s easy to talk of entering a void until you’ve tried to enter one yourself.”
John Heilpern – Conference of the Birds

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