Enrique Martínez Celaya
The Whisper of the Order of Things
A philosopher’s questioning and a scientist’s eye shape Enrique Martínez Celaya’s original approach to art and to life. A world-renowned painter who trained as a physicist, he’s fascinated by the deeper order that “whispers” beneath the surface of things. Works of art that endure, he says, possess their own form of consciousness. And a quiet life of purpose is a particular form of prophecy.
Enrique Martínez Celaya is the Provost Professor of Humanities and Arts at the University of Southern California. His many books include On Art and Mindfulness, published by Whale & Star Press, an imprint he founded in 1998 to publish works of art, poetry, and critical theory.
Krista Tippett, host: I love finding extraordinary people, well-known in their fields but hidden from many of the rest of us. Learning about such people, hearing from them, can shift our own world a little bit on its axis. Enrique Martínez Celaya is a world-renowned painter who trained as a physicist. A philosopher’s questioning and a physicist’s eye shape his original approach to art and to life. One critic has described his art as an effort “to discern a deeper order that underlies what is obscured by the appearances of disorder.” Enrique Martínez Celaya poetically speaks of the “whisper” of the order of things. He says that works of art that speak to humanity across time possess their own form of consciousness and that a quiet life of purpose is a particular form of prophecy.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Enrique Martínez Celaya: There’s a tendency for us to think that to be a prophet or to do anything grand, you have to have a special gift, be someone called for. And I think ultimately what really matters is the resolve — to want to do it, to give your life to that which you consider important. And if you have no skills to offer or nothing special to offer, it’s all the more amazing that you do it, the more remarkable.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Enrique Martínez Celaya’s art has been exhibited around the world, from the Hermitage in Moscow to a collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic. He grew up in Cuba, Spain, and Puerto Rico. He studied engineering, physics, and quantum electronics at Cornell and Berkeley before leaving science for art. I spoke with him at a live event at Biola University in La Mirada, California.
Ms. Tippett: I met with some faculty today and talked about how I run into really interesting people from Biola all over the place. I very much value this place and its tradition of faith and intellect, hand-in-hand. And so I’m thrilled to be here tonight and thrilled to have Enrique with me as my conversation partner. So let’s just plunge right in.
You were born in a small town in Cuba into the socialism there of the 1960s. That’s a really interesting time and place to be born. Also, that socialism was officially atheist. I wonder how you would describe the religious and spiritual background of your childhood there.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Cuba was probably the least religious country in Latin America, even before the revolution. And by 1964, when I was born, there were no churches. Our churches were not really part of the community. My parents, though, held onto their Catholic God, even though it played very little role into our lives.
Most of the Cubans I knew were into Santería or Espiritismo, which were other traditions. And sort of the magic of that made the challenges of communism, the migration, and all of that, more — in some ways, more manageable for people. But then after that, I went to Spain, which is a little different, and Puerto Rico.
Ms. Tippett: Right. And how old were you when you left Cuba?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I was seven.
Ms. Tippett: OK, so you were quite young, but it also is interesting for me to think about living in a time and place when revolution was a living idea. I mean do you think that imprinted you, even at that young age?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Oh, yeah. I mean definitely. I mean this was a time that the revolution was — there were so many problems that we were facing because of the shortage of many things. But it’s still the idea that this big change has happened around us. There was a certain utopian feeling floating in the society, still. And it was hard not to get touched by that, as a kid, even though my parents themselves were against the revolution. But I’m — I was intrigued by it.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it was hugely aspirational.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: It was. It was, even for the little town we lived in. I think many people still felt that things were possible.
Ms. Tippett: Right. You then grew up and seemed to be becoming a physicist. And what I’ve read is that you went on a five-day retreat in the winter of 1990 at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and it was after that that you left physics for art. So tell us what happened there. [laughs]
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah. It was a crisis.
Ms. Tippett: Did you know you were in crisis when you went there?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah. [laughs] That’s why.
So physics had been my life, in many ways. I was interested in literature and painting since I was very young, but physics and mathematics were the most exciting things for me. And when I was a teenager, I had this sense that they were going to give me the answer to these questions. I always felt that I didn’t understand enough about the world and physics.
Ms. Tippett: Did you invent a laser in Puerto Rico in high school?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I did. I did. And I worked in a research lab, and then I built this laser. And it was very exciting.
And I worked on a nuclear accelerator later at Cornell; then I worked at a place called Brookhaven. And I was really destined to do that for my life. But as I got older, when I got to Berkeley, I was painting all the time, and what I wanted to do was paint. And it got to the point that I really had that crisis. I felt like I had to make a choice. And I went to this lighthouse. I drove down from Berkeley to this lighthouse and ensconced myself in the little house there for five days. And when I came out, I drove back to San Francisco knowing I would be an artist, although I didn’t know what that meant.
So I worked as a scientist. I dropped out of the doctorate program — I was doing the doctorate and MFA at Berkeley at the same time. I dropped out of both and worked as a scientist, trying to build enough money to be able to do things, designing lasers. And then I moved to Oakland and sold my works in the parks in San Francisco, trying to figure out what was next. And that was a terrible time.
Ms. Tippett: A terrible time?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, yeah. My parents were distraught. I was the oldest in the family. We had been immigrants, quite poor in Spain, and so on. And I have always done well in school, and the promise was that I was going to be a successful person, and here I was having a crazy dream.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Although supporting your art habit by building lasers is still more impressive than supporting your art habit by being a waiter or something.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: [laughs] Yeah, it was odd to say to people what I did with my day job. But it also took some credibility out of me being an artist. When I would say, “Well I’m an artist, but I’m also a physicist,” it seemed always like it was a hobby.
Ms. Tippett: It seems to me, though, that the scientist in you is very much alive in you, in your approach and philosophy of art, in the way you — and in your art.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, you’re right. It is. It is alive, even though sometimes people don’t realize it. I think that one of the most important ways in which it’s alive is the treatment I have towards my studio. I approach it not as a factory, which has become very much the way of artists looking at the studios in the last 40 or 50 years, but rather as a laboratory, as a cross between laboratories and a monastery, that kind of hybrid place.
Also, the process of inquiry that I use for my work owes a lot to my training as a scientist.
Ms. Tippett: How’s that?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: When I take on a new project, rather than building upon the successes of the past or what I have done before, I go back to the holes of my process, the things that I didn’t understand well. And I go into those. And I find that that’s a very typical thing of scientists to do. I also try to be rigorous and unfriendly towards my own biases and assumptions. And I think I also owe that to physics. My interest in philosophy, I think, comes from physics.
And finally, and this is maybe the most important of all the reasons, I think the arts have become extremely apologetic to the sciences, partly because science has been so successful over the last 200 years. So I think in many — many of my experiences with academic art and art theory has been the tendency to want to be scientific — or pseudoscientific. And when I came to art, I came to art without apologies. And that gave me a great deal of freedom.
Ms. Tippett: There’s even a way that you’ve described painting that evokes that for me, the craft of it, or even the way you understand what’s going on. You talked about — though, as an observer, we’d see painting as something that is happening on a surface with materials — you said, “in an interesting painting, images fight back, and their meanings play hide-and-go-seek with materials.”
That is such an interesting — I mean that image is going to change the way I look at any painting from here on out.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Well, I mean I think paintings are odd, in the sense that it seems to us that everything that is important is on the surface and visible. Unlike, say, science: we expect that we have to go in deep to understand what’s really at play in an equation or something.
But that’s very deceiving. I think paintings have a complexity, a relationship to presence and reference in the work of art, the tension between what seems to be and what is.
[music: “Protheis Prothei” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with philosopher and artist Enrique Martínez Celaya.
[music: “Protheis Prothei” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: What are you working on right now? Just to tie these ideas to a specific project.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: So I’m working on a body of work that opens next month in New York; or I just finished it. And pointing to — just before, I did a show called “Empires” that looked at ambitions and illusions, in some manner. And now I’m looking at the aftermath of that, what happens after those ambitions have been played out.
Ms. Tippett: So I want to talk about some passions and themes that run through your work and through your thinking and writing, the idea of empires. You have this phrase — “the dialectical friction between the domestic and the epic.” I don’t know if you said that in the context of “Empires.” [laughs] But I mean here’s something you wrote. You wrote that despite — you had an early interest in classic empires like Rome — “The empires that matter most to me now are the smaller empires of day-to-day living constructed by promises and shaped by our drive, our accomplishments, and our failures. These are big and small empires built around our hopes and around our scorns, empires of place as well as of memory, of today in the land and of tomorrow in the sea.”
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah. I was going through a big transformation in my life when I took on this project of “Empires.” And I got into this big argument with a Dartmouth professor, what empires are. But my empires with this — these empires that I saw growing up, through my mother’s dressers or the dust on top of some book, these kinds of empires that — one of the qualities they have is a sort of failure built in, certain futility in the adventure of those ambitions. And that dialectic that you spoke about, between the epic and the domestic — I think artists are usually artists of the epic or artists of the domestic. But what I am interested in is the friction between these two spheres: the domestic spheres of our everyday lives — children, families — are sort of a small goal, so to speak; and these larger movements of time and history and God, these kinds of larger ideas. And the two of them rub against each other; and that friction between the domestic and the epic is a source of a lot of my work. So what I’m interested in is always sort of the small — the small breakings, the small fractures.
Ms. Tippett: At risk of stretching this too far, I feel like that friction is so much with us now. And I think national, political level, but also globally. It feels epic, and it feels connected to our lives, and yet it’s hard to get a handle on that or to know how to be working with it.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean there’s sometimes a tendency to speak in numbers, in terms of numbers or groups. And to me, everything always breaks down to the individual — individual suffering, individual failure. And no matter what group you belong to, I think that individuality of suffering and possibility and hope is the fundamental building block of human experience. And it is that — it is only to that — that art can say anything. Art can say very little about groups or general movements.
Ms. Tippett: And I think consciousness is — obviously, it’s one of these epic things, but it runs — and it is the theme of philosophy. It’s a special passion of yours, right? It’s something that you write about and think about, and it makes its way into your art.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it’s — I think it started when I was very young. I had this sense of — my own sense of lack, of missing, always feeling like there was too much fullness to the world, and I understood so little of it. And consciousness is at the center of that awareness.
Not to go too far, because then this is a little bit of a rabbit hole, but there is a way to look at artworks as consciousness.
Ms. Tippett: Artworks?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Rather than just be representatives or embodiments of a consciousness of the producer, they themselves having some consciousness: I guess animated, open engagement. There’s nothing intelligent I can say about it other than a feeling that I have that this is the case.
Ms. Tippett: Tell me an example of you experiencing that with a piece of art.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: One of the most obvious examples, I think — and it happens to me every time I encounter any work by Van Gogh, no matter where it is, and the moment I see it, something happens. There’s an intelligence at play in the work itself and a sense of something I can only describe as a consciousness in that work that engages me, forces me to be a witness, forces me to be a conversation partner, places me in a very unstable place. And there’s an instability in that exchange that is more, simply, than just looking at a bunch of marks and thinking of how Vincent might have made them or something like that. And this is a rare thing, I think. But I will suggest that somewhere around that, one could construct the definition of what art is, as opposed to an art activity. It’s when something has the capacity to embody consciousness in a way that it can be unfolded.
Ms. Tippett: Over hundreds of years. [laughs]
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Over hundreds of years, yeah. Maybe this is what art is.
Ms. Tippett: And I think that’s an interesting distinction too, that there are works of art that convey that, and there are — what did you say — art activities. Because every — I don’t think you would say, either, that every painting has that consciousness or conveys…
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean I think when you go to a museum, and you look around, most works are forever trapped in their moment in a way that they are completely historical. But then the great works of art are always ahistorical. Regardless of the historical condition, they speak to you in the present.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: And that present-ness of the work of art is what I am suggesting brings about this engagement with consciousness. And those things are the work. Somewhere around there is that I would try to construct the definition of what art is.
Ms. Tippett: Yes. Another theme of yours that recurs is memory — memory and displacement. OK, so here’s this poem, which — I think I saw it because you have these notebooks that accompany some of your works and exhibits, where you — and they get published. They’re really fascinating if you have a chance to see them. They’re handwritten, and it’s basically the notes you take. It’s basically a journal, right, a journal of the process. So I saw this written in one of those notebooks, with words crossed out, and then here it appears all neat and tidy on the page.
“It was not time or circumstance that displaced your memory. It was concentration. Then the whole house filled with birds flapping their wings, shaping the air into snowballs of sound, which they threw against corners long ago left to silence. The yard, abandoned to weeds, had the flowers of laughter. And the window flickered light over the porcelain fish, which, for all time, jumped from the dark crystal table.”
I’m totally fascinated by “It was not time or circumstance that displaced your memory. It was concentration.” And I have no idea what you’re saying there. [laughs] So please explain.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I think that I find that sometimes, in my experience of some people and some events, the only way to move past them, the only way to survive them in some manner is with some sort of sometimes seemingly heroic effort, almost a practice of forgetfulness. That you have to every day wake up again and forget them again and forget them again until that practice of forgetting them becomes sort of your everyday thing. And that seemed like a love poem there that you read, but it was a poem to a moment of my childhood. And yeah, it was effort.
Ms. Tippett: It was a hard moment.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: It was a hard moment, not because something happened to me but because of the fullness of that moment and those conditions and everything that the world around it — the world and the people around them — the feelings of those things. It brings together a great deal of memories of departure and so on and who I was and who are the people around and required sustained effort to not sink into that place and never come back.
And that’s the thing with memories. That’s the thing with certain circumstances — that they are so vast that if you don’t keep swimming against that current, it will draw you back, and you will never recover.
[music: “Appian Way” by Land Observations]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Enrique Martínez Celaya through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Appian Way” by Land Observations]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Enrique Martínez Celaya, exploring his philosopher and painter’s lens on the world we inhabit now. He’s also a trained physicist. And I spoke with him at a live event at Biola University, an Evangelical institution with a reverence for intellectual rigor and the arts.
Ms. Tippett: A phrase that comes up in your writing and in what people write about you is this notion of “hinge moments.” And I think you just described that: standing before a Van Gogh painting. And actually I recently — just in Minnesota a week ago, I met a Biola alum who talked about standing in front of one your paintings. And essentially — she didn’t use the phrase “hinge moments,” but she said, “I stood there, and that changed me. I walked away, and I was different.” And it seems to me that one of your projects that feels like it was important to you was your Berlin work, “Schneebett,” that you did for the Berlin Philharmonic, writing about — well, would you just — I mean it seems — it was about Beethoven’s deathbed. But it was about a lot more than that.
It’s interesting, too, when you write about that period of Berlin. So that’s mid-’90s Berlin. This was a period before the — so Germany had been reunited, but it was a period before the Bonn government relocated to Berlin. There were still bullet holes in a lot of those buildings in East Berlin, which was true when I was there as well. They’d just never been repaired. So the past was just physically alive.
And you wrote that this project considered the end of an — or that you were “in the midst of the end of an epoch and the consequences of displacement,” that Berlin at that time “suggested a mood, a way of being which I had not understood before and still do not understand well.” I wondered if you would say some more about that, because that feels like it was bigger, also, than that time, that place in time.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I mean I think Berlin, at that time, had this sense of collective memory. It was just a whole city held together. In the windows, when you look up to those windows, you still feel that you can see that past in those windows. So in many ways, it was my own exploration of my exile — strangely enough, going to Germany to find it. But it was through that, through all those desolated houses of Berlin. At that time, really, it was — you felt that you were walking through a past that was still half-animated in some manner.
Ms. Tippett: Did it take you back to that 1960s socialist Cuba, in that sense?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Oh, yeah, it did. It did. And it did in a way that by being unencumbered by my own specific history, I could see it with some distance.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and I have to say, that language is very resonant for me. I mean the end of epochs, the beginning of something that you can’t quite understand, the consequences of displacement — that’s very resonant language for this moment in the 21st century, I feel. I don’t know. Do you think of it — and I feel like — as you say, the places you’ve come from, the places you’ve been, also, you have a certain perspective on that that can be useful.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: One of the consequences of being in exile is that in some ways — you gain the world in many ways. I feel that the freedom that comes with being an exile is to take all these different ways of looking at these problems of displacement and loss and then incorporate as my own, and without necessarily trying to tie it up to, specifically, the Cuban exile experience.
But I do feel that this is a moment in which the conversation has been narrowed to sort of create this sort of simplistic opposition between “locals” and “the other.” And I think that it’s more complicated than that. I mean I think one of the things that I’m most interested in is to find the strangeness in each of us.
Ms. Tippett: The strangeness.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: The strangeness, the sense of otherness in us. I mean I think that we all carry a burden of otherness, of not being a local, so to speak. And I think getting in touch with that will make this simplistic opposition disappear somewhat — or completely, if it we look at it closely enough.
Ms. Tippett: I’d love to talk about religion and the term “religious,” what that means for you. And I think, actually, where we are, it flows right into that. The way you use the term “religious,” I see it connected to connotations of consciousness, also of an awareness of moral failings, of emotional ambition and seriousness. And I don’t have a sense — this is not something that you overtly speak about or reckon with.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: So the religion of my childhood — I had a contentious relationship to that religion of my childhood. But even though I had a contentious relationship with it, it mattered to me. I want art to do what religion does for my parents and for people who are believers: a certain inquiry into truth, a certain clarifying force in one’s life, a certain guide. And that’s how I have approached it. And that’s why I sometimes react when people ask me what the work is about. I mean nobody asks what religious experience is about.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: They just — if they ask something, it’s: “How does it come about?” And I think — I find, sort of like Wittgenstein, that even though I am myself not religious, I look at life from a religious point of view, that the questions that people usually address in religion are the ones I want to think about and talk about, not only in my work, but in my work.
Ms. Tippett: I was — what was it. Oh, when we were talking earlier on about your idea of a painting, that there are meanings: “Images fight back, and their meanings play hide-and-go-seek with materials.” It seems to me that it’s kind of a way to move through the world, also: seeing meaning that is playing hide-and-seek with materials. As you say, that’s you as an artist, but it’s also — as you just said — it also describes a religious way of moving through the world.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah. Yeah, I mean and there is — there is a secret in all things. And that secret that is in everything, in my shoe and everything that there is, I think makes life and reality and the moment so full, so vast, that only the kinds of attitudes that people describe as religious attitudes have the possibility of approaching that fullness with any kind of sincerity and with any kind of possibility of getting anywhere.
Ms. Tippett: You sometimes say that artists should be prophets, and then you often qualify it and say, “minor prophets, at least.”
And I like the way you define that, because you don’t define it as being mystical. You said — you actually did a lecture in 2009 called “The Prophet,” and you drew on Pushkin and Kahlil Gibran, and you wrote, “The prophet is not a martyr or mystic who seeks transcendence, but one who turns humbly and curiously towards the world.”
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I mean I think there is a tendency — not just in our moment; I mean Kierkegaard made the distinction between the apostle and the genius 170 years ago. But there’s a tendency for us to think that to be a prophet or to do anything grand, you have to have a special gift, be someone called for. And I think ultimately what really matters is the resolve — to want to do it, to give your life to that which you consider important. And if you have no skills to offer, or nothing special to offer, it’s all the more amazing that you do it, the more remarkable. And I think that resolve is all that really matters.
And in the specific case of art, I think the notion that to bring the future forward by throwing yourself desperately — I think desperation is part of what I consider a prophet to have. Once you have made that resolve to launch yourself forward, then desperation is the only factor: urgency, desperation. There is no way to calculate. And the reason I made the distinction between minor prophet is because I’m not trying to put any capital letters here or trying to say that you’re going to be remembered as such, because it really doesn’t matter. It’s a private journey that no one needs to really know about.
[music: “Doria” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with philosopher and artist Enrique Martínez Celaya.
[music: “Doria” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Ms. Tippett: You use the word “whisper” a lot — do you know that? — in your writing.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I didn’t know that.
Ms. Tippett: “The whisper of the order of things.” And then you said somewhere, “The whisper is faint, but the best art helps us to hear it.”
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean I think the reason why I use “whisper” is because maybe — maybe I have little ears.
But it seems that both in science and art and anything — in anything, the truth is not screaming that much. And I think that you have to be attentive, silent enough, be able to look and listen very, very carefully. And even then, you have to be very lucky to hear something. But when you do hear something, it’s transformative. And that order of things, that more stable reality underneath the appearance of things, is life-changing. And I think scientists will say that’s the case, and I think poets, and I think theologists — I mean I think everybody agrees that truth is — requires some suppressing of other things to see it.
Ms. Tippett: It’s interesting to ponder that. And also because we’re all so trained to be — really to be noisy, right, to raise our voices. And to think of truth, real truth, as something that will be whispering, and so that part of the way we have to let it into the world or attend to it is to be more quiet, more gentle.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean it doesn’t lend itself naturally to many of what we hear in the culture as a whole. And I think we are challenged — and especially, I would say, even more so the younger. My kids are challenged by all of this, all these demands — to the point that to even talk about something that exists underneath all that, like a rustle of leaves or something, underneath that whole scandal…
Ms. Tippett: Or the whisper of the order of things. [laughs]
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Or the whisper of the order of things. That is something that not only sounds foreign, but the kind of concentration — and also the kind of giving up of many of the things we hold dear and we have been taught to love and demand and wish for and crave — is a tall order.
Ms. Tippett: This is something kind of completely different, but we just have a few more minutes, and I do want to ask you about this. You — and I don’t really know the story here, but it sounds like you moved — you’ve kind of moved away from and towards color in your life, and that you’ve kind of moved away from color and re-embraced it after the birth of your children, in a new way.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean I started as an apprentice for a painter, very traditional paintings. And in the late ’80s, I destroyed all my paintings. I burned them, and I felt that — physically, I actually burned them. I felt like I had to build painting from the ground up. And I think eliminating color — I eliminated from my painting anything that anybody has ever said that I was good at. So if I was good at drawing, I took it out. If I was told I had facility with color, I took it out. And then I said, “Well, if I give up all these things, what is painting, for me?” So I’m very interested in the idea of being anti-facile in some ways, rejecting what comes naturally or rejecting pleasure.
So then I worked in black paintings for a long time — although black is so seductive, that in itself is a problem.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: So it’s too easy to be fetishistic about the rejection itself. So I was fortunate to have children. And when they came, along with them came the reinvention of a new way of working to make sure that I was not getting too comfortable in that other way. And then with them came color over tar paintings, of all things. And I still mute it; I cannot make a big, triumphant return to color, because it is relatively muted still. But it is there.
Ms. Tippett: I was thinking, when I read that — I interviewed, a few years ago, a physicist, Arthur Zajonc, who’s worked a lot with Goethe, who we think of as a poet but in fact really thought of himself more as a scientist. And that he — that Goethe defined colors as “the deeds and sufferings of light.”
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean all colors — I mean really, all colors are just basically — I mean light is the same thing, whether it’s a red or a green. Just slight shifts will make one into the other, depending on how you move and speed and so on. But yeah, I mean — my kids are very interested in color, and they ask me all the time about them, and they cannot believe that I think brown is a nice color, for example. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: This is why we have children. They set us straight.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: But I think that there’s an emotional relationship that colors can bring about, and paintings are intricately connected to the notion of not absolute color, but local color; colors in relationship with one another. And I find this to be a profound part of the encounter with paintings. And the colors of paintings are always insignificant, or relatively lame, compared to nature.
A lot of the great things of paintings is the constraints, the limitations. I mean that’s what makes them a creative enterprise; it’s the constraints. A lot of people talk about art as freedom when, in fact, it is the constraints that allow the possibility of art to happen. And color constrained under the pressures of these relatively small dimensions is beauty under compression, which is always an exuberant form of beauty.
Ms. Tippett: This is a final detour, but you have such an interesting view of — and you wrote about this — about photography, and you wrote about this a lot in your Berlin experience. And it strikes me because now, and for people in this generation and our children, photography is something — it’s a momentary activity. It’s almost synonymous with seeing, taking a picture. And you talked about — here “whisper” is again. “Photographs whisper that to look at them is to lose or overhear something,” that “the chemistry of photography holds grief as a potential.” I just think this is so interesting, to think about memory and mourning, that there’s so much going on in pictures. So much more meaning than we attribute now.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, I mean I think that when people look at, say, a portrait of somebody, we always think that what we’re saying is, “That person is no longer.” But in fact, it’s the other way. It’s us that do not exist for that photograph.
Ms. Tippett: Oh. [laughs]
Mr. Martínez Celaya: And as such, there is a grief, a mourning of the loss of — always built into a photograph. On my painting table, I have a photograph of Robert Frost with his son, Carol. And Carol, many years after that photograph — in the photograph, Carol is maybe 13. Many years later, Carol committed suicide. And I have that photograph with two apples from Robert Frost’s orchard on my painting table. And I look at it every day, and I think: That photograph knew everything that was to come, sort of in the leaning of Carol toward his father — the future was there. And I look at it every day to figure out if I can catch it, and which part of it.
So then, three inches away, I have a picture of my son and I. It’s still unfolding. And I’m trying to understand how that photograph, who tells me that I don’t exist for it, is holding all that will be in its place. And I think that’s what photographs can do, in some ways. And like many other things, by taking so many photographs, by having them in our phones, we don’t look at them carefully enough. And in fact, they have become sort of a testament of having lived, when in fact what photographs do is say: You’re no longer.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] This is too deep for 9:00 PM.
So a simple — actually, a ridiculous question to end. But the question is really how you would start answering this question of — through the life you’ve lived and the work you do, the way you walk through the world as a scientist/artist/philosopher, how would you start to answer the question how you think now about what it means to be human, how your sense of that has evolved to this — at this point?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I think the thing that is most pressing that comes up when you ask that question is compassion. I think — not because it comes naturally but because it doesn’t, to me. And I find that at this age, with four kids and with a world that everywhere one turns — and not just in the news, in just about every encounter with every — every person is carrying something. And I think what I’m reminded constantly is, to be human is to be aware of that, more than intelligence, more than anything else. And it’s increasingly urgent and increasingly hard to remember that.
Ms. Tippett: I like how you describe it also not as a quality but as a work in progress.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Yeah, it is a work in progress. This morning I was seeing a man eating from a garbage can halfway between Brentwood and Bel Air, two expensive neighborhoods of L.A., and everybody driving by and so on. And I was thinking, what will it take for somebody to stop and do something about it? But nobody did. And I didn’t. And I think that our familiarity with those images and our capacity to survive them, to move on, is remarkable to me.
Ms. Tippett: Do you consider yourself to be a hopeful person? Is hope a word you use?
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I don’t — I think hope is in some ways a heroic human quality, especially in light of what life sometimes brings. But perhaps it’s the best thing we have, to have the heroism of waking up in the morning, brushing our teeth, and saying that something will be possible.
That being said, I don’t describe myself as hopeful. I think hope is another of those works in progress. For some people, it seems amazing that they can sustain hope against atrocities and oppression and so many horrible things. But it’s also amazing when people are hopeful when they have a menial job they hate or a terrible family life and then somehow still have this remarkable human capacity to still think that tomorrow will be better. There is a certain wonderful thing — and also a terrifying thing, a denial of the present — that comes with hope. And sometimes that’s the only thing we have. But I turn that one around constantly in my head.
Ms. Tippett: Well, Enrique Martínez Celaya, thank you so much for this conversation.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: Thank you.
Ms. Tippett: Thank you all for coming.
Mr. Martínez Celaya: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
[music: “Intro” by The xx]
Ms. Tippett: Enrique Martínez Celaya is the Provost Professor of Humanities and Arts at the University of Southern California. His many books include On Art and Mindfulness, published by Whale & Star Press, an imprint he founded in 1998 to publish works of art, poetry, and critical theory.
[music: “Intro” by The xx]
Staff: On Being is: Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Carolyn Friedhoff, and Katherine Kwong.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Tessa Blumenberg at Enrique Martínez Celaya’s studio and to Jonathan Anderson, Nila Osline, Kenny Miller, Chris Irwin, President Barry Corey, and the rest of the wonderful people at Biola University.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The John Templeton Foundation.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.