Monday, March 31, 2014

Two Dark Ages Coming

I am writing as a historian of your far future, looking back at you now.

Soon, very little of the world before the 21st century--and the advent of the Internet--will seem real. So little documentation, so few videos. Sure, there's a century-long ramp from zoetropes to films to TV and color video... But what's a century? This was just the archaic beginning of many centuries of your digitized experience. You live in a bubble, and you are increasingly blind to the world outside that bubble, the world as it was prior to the 20th century. This is your first dark age.

Then, the electricity stops. Your bubble pops. Your videos, your documents, your entertainment, your memories, the bubble world is there, in the cloud, in servers, on discs, coded, ready, frozen, inaccessible. You can't get to it. For a long time you try, and you hope, and you preserve those mute boxes that hold your treasure. And then you let them go, and you work to recapture your humanity. You learn that there was a world before the digital world, a dim, hard to understand world, one lacking video evidence, but one that offers clues to your humanity. But those centuries of electronic memories are gone. This is your second dark age.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Undefined Rebel of the Future: Where have we been, where are we, and where are we going?

Lecture at the Annual National Conference of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education (APWE), Sacramento, CA, January 18, 2014: “The Social Mission of Public Waldorf Schools & Communities.”


According to Fareed Zakaria, we are living in one of the most peaceful times in the history of the earth. Between 1914 and 1991, war, holocaust, genocide, and totalitarian policies killed between 100 million and 200 million persons, maybe more. Following one of the bloodiest centuries in history, human beings today are less likely to die a violent death than at perhaps any time in the past. This means only that the world is comparatively peaceful, not that justice and peace prevail. And this is not to say that we perceive this relative peace. Far from it. Media and technology make it possible for much of the planet to know of a human death almost anywhere, almost instantly.

The world has come a long way in the last century or so in embracing civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, and democratization. And when, for instance, our government indulges in torture, it has to lie about it and hide it. We generally no longer accept torture and public execution. We have done well to protect the physical bodies of human beings.

On the other hand, we have done less well in recognizing and preventing psychological torture, what we might call soul torture. Waldorf school faculty meetings, and the way we treat each other as colleagues, can devolve into soul torture. And even when we are not torturing each other’s souls, we must develop psychological calluses simply to get through the day. If you can remember the sensitivities you had as a child, and recognize your current lack of sensitivity, you begin to appreciate the thickness of your soul calluses.

I have some things to say today that I have learned are challenging, and, in saying them, I have no wish to inflict soul torture on you. So, to preface my remarks, I’ll say that I have devoted my adult life’s work to what we call Waldorf education. I say what I have to say out of regard for Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about education. And I say what I have to say because I find it to be true.

To take one instance of something that you may find challenging, I will mention that I oppose the use of gnomes—or princes and princesses, or squirrels and bunnies, or any other imagined beings—to teach math. As I’ve written elsewhere, math gnomes are not part of Steiner’s beautiful work on math teaching, and they don’t exist in other cultures that have Waldorf schools. I asked Ernst Schubert (a German Waldorf school teacher with a PhD in math) about them, and he said, “What are these math gnomes? We don’t have them in Germany.”

If I could sum up Steiner’s book Balance in Teaching in one sentence, it is this: Roughly half of the subjects we teach are meditative in that they elevate the material world to the spirit; and the other half of the subjects we teach are prayerful in that they reach up to pull the heavens down to earth. Math is in this latter category, and you don’t need gnomes to help you do it. In fact, they are a distraction. They trivialize the conceptual beauty of math, and their use trivializes the real work of elemental beings.

So let’s say that yesterday, before you left for this conference, you drew some math gnomes on your blackboard and you planned a whole week’s worth of lessons based on math gnomes. You were taught to use them by your teacher educators or your mentor, and you believed until a moment ago that they were “part” of “Waldorf education.” What now? Should you feel bad? Should you be angry at me or at your mentors? Should you go home and erase the board and scrap your lesson?

No. That’s not what I’m saying or asking. My daughter’s teacher “used” math gnomes, and her education in math seems not to have suffered. But, in the future, you might resolve to read more in Steiner or in the work of his colleague and pupil Hermann von Baravalle (a mathematician), or in the work of others who know more about math teaching than did lovely Dorothy Harrer, an elementary teacher who first wrote about math gnomes. You might think more about your teaching and how to introduce math concepts. You might be less ideological in your approach to your work and the work of your colleagues. And, in particular, when it is your turn to evaluate a younger colleague or welcome one into your school, you might be more open to different ways of implementing Steiner’s ideas about education. Of course, I also hope that you will no longer use math gnomes and their ilk.


Following that introduction, here is my talk. I will begin with my title, “The Undefined Rebel of the Future,” talk briefly about the history of Waldorf schools in the U.S., discuss our present situation, and end with a consideration of our future.

My title comes from a paragraph from the last lecture of Rudolf Steiner’s Education as a Force for Social Change. This lecture was given on August 17, 1919, to teachers—not Waldorf teachers, just teachers. There was no Waldorf School in August 1919. Steiner traveled to Stuttgart after this lecture and gave the first lecture to the first teachers at the first Waldorf School three days later.

Here is the selection in which the phrase “undefined rebel of the future” appears:

“We should not allow teachers to teach before they have gained a concept of the selfishness that strives toward the nearest god, that is, toward the angel.”

For Steiner, each of us is accompanied through life by an angel. We may mistake our own angel for a larger god, and selfishly seek to inflict what is meant for us alone, what is true for us alone, on the rest of the world.

“We should not allow teachers to teach before they have achieved an idea of the non-egotistical forces that determine human fate and exist spatially distributed over the Earth, that is, the nature of the archangels.”

For Steiner, human fate, larger than that of the individual, is associated with beings he names the archangels. When we work with other human beings, we invoke the work of the archangels.

“Nor should we allow them to teach before they have gained an idea of how the past and the future affect our culture… and how that undefined rebel of the future can save us.”

Education prepares us for an unknown, uncertain future, and conformity, convention, and a lack of creative thinking and action will not serve us to face the future. We cannot know what the future will bring, and we educate truly when we educate for creativity in the face of the unknown. I will return to the future and to this quotation at the end of my talk.


Briefly—I have written more extensively about this elsewhere—the history of Waldorf schools in the United States can be divided into four generations. I don’t mean to reify these generations. They are an interpretive device for understanding aspects of our history. I could as well have emphasized continuity, but I’ve chosen not to for reasons that I hope are obvious following the synopsis below.

The first generation includes only one surviving school, the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, founded in 1928. I call this generation “The Europeans,” because of the influence of German, Swiss, and, eventually, English experts who informed the creation and function of the school in its early days. As late as 1979, Lucy Schneider, teacher and Faculty Chair, believed that teachers at the school had to know German (they didn’t and don’t). And, early on, teachers used German in everyday speech, when English was readily available, calling a verse a “Spruch” and therapeutic eurythmy “Heil eurythmy,” for example. When they wanted some pictures for publicity purposes, they referred to these as “Anschauungs” materials. This school was part of the Progressive Education Association, and, for instance, joined with other Upper East Side independent schools to have violent newsreels removed for some film showings so that children wouldn’t be exposed to these images. The Steiner School, founded to demonstrate the effectiveness of Steiner’s ideas, was in dialogue with other schools of what is sometimes called the Progressive Era.

The second generation includes a handful of schools founded during and after World War II. I call this generation “The Americans.” Curricula replaced some German or European literature with American writers like Emerson and Melville. Again, experiment and demonstration informed schools’ founding. The Waldorf School of Garden City was initially called the Waldorf Demonstration School of Adelphi College. Its Faculty Chair (then similar to a Head of School) traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby for separation of school and state. And those involved in the function of the school were also involved more broadly in adult education through the Myrin Institute. They were engaged in a dialogue with the broadest questions of education in America.

The third generation begins, pretty precisely, when Betty Staley and her colleagues moved from Kimberton, PA, to Sacramento, CA, in 1965. I call this generation “The Alternatives.” This is the generation that introduced the concept of a “faculty run” school, that emphasized a countercultural perspective, that saw Waldorf schools as “alternative,” and that introduced many of the wool skirt, Birkenstock, tie-dyed stereotypes that still haunt Waldorf schools. This generation also saw the greatest, almost explosive, growth of Waldorf schools.

The fourth generation, which I call the “Social Missionaries,” includes the Wolakota Waldorf School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the Milwaukee Urban Waldorf School, and the growing number of charter Waldorf schools in different public school districts. These have in common an interest in making Waldorf education available to those who cannot afford tuition at an independent school. Each of you represents this generation, even if you began your career in a previous one.


We suffer from what Owen Barfield called the “sin of literalness.” Given the weight that the word “sin” carries, I prefer to call it the “mistake” of literalness. We mistake objects for their meanings. We could say that this is one definition of materialism. Worse, we turn things that are not objects into objects. We indulge a kind of mental materialism. We have done this with such things as the concept of IQ, believing for too long that there is a mental “thing” called intelligence. This mistake continues to induce suffering in millions through tests like the SAT.

And, without meaning to, we have objectified Waldorf education. The first use in English of the phrase “Waldorf education” occurs in A.C. Harwood’s book, The Recovery of Man in Childhood, published in 1958. Works before that—Francis Edmunds, Baravalle, and others, referred to Steiner’s educational work to the Waldorf School plan, referring to the first school in Stuttgart, but did not use the phrase “Waldorf education.”

More important, Rudolf Steiner did not speak or write about Waldorf education, Waldorf schools, Waldorf teachers, or Waldorf students. We have created and inhabited these categories, and it’s probably time to begin to let them go, to loosen them up.

Steiner spoke and wrote about education, schools, teachers, and students. He did not intend to create a brand or trademark (this is not to gainsay the necessity of protecting his name for educational purposes, but neither is it to endorse any particular use of the trademark). He did not intend to create a system of alternative schools, large or small.

He intended for us to so alter our relationship to ourselves, to the world, and to other human beings, that education itself would be transformed. Model schools could assist or demonstrate this process, but alternative schools would be less likely to. Schools of the first two generations remembered this intention; the third forgot it, and the fourth, without study, is simply unaware of it.

In thinking about the Waldorf education that we have created, we can acknowledge characteristics that are superficial and characteristics that are more deeply necessary, even essential. Superficial characteristics I call “myths,” in the pejorative sense, not in the deep sense of ancient stories full of poetic truth. I began with a prime myth, the myth of the math gnomes.

                To this we could add that there is, in Steiner’s work, no “three day” main lesson rhythm. (Lecture 3 of the book mistitled Education for Adolescents presents a two day rhythm.)
                There is no requirement that every teacher produce an annual class play.
                There is no mention of circle time. (Circle time was likely created in the UK in the 1970s, not in Waldorf schools, and imported in the 1980s.)
                There is no requirement that teachers paint each year with their students. Steiner grants teachers the right to pursue other “more important” activities, trusting that when students paint again they will have developed in the meanwhile, and their work won’t suffer.
                Further, although Steiner considered festivals important, he does not mention them in his educational work. The connection between festivals and Waldorf education is our creation. And, in creating it, if we have imported an exclusive, Christian, even Germanic culture, then we deserve to suffer for it.
                Finally, here, there is no understanding of a teacher as a martyr or a mother hen. Walter Johannes Stein, PhD, class teacher at the first Waldorf School, did not teach after what we misleadingly call “main lesson.” He did not follow his class to the playground, eat lunch with students at their desks, or have to teach too many periods later in the day. A culture of martyrs and mother hens can be traced directly to the economic pressure that our schools feel, trying to pay teachers on too few tuitions.

This list of myths goes on and on. I have written elsewhere about more myths, and we could each formulate a list of our own.

Considering essentials, however, can move us away from our objectifying consciousness and toward greater variety and freedom of interpretation and practice. Here I will also mention just a few essentials.

                What we call Waldorf education addresses a world of ideas and ideals. I mean these words in a philosophical sense. My idea that I will have a second bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream for desert is not, philosophically, an idea, even if it sounds like a good one right now. An idea, for Ralph Emerson, is an “immortal, uncreated necessity.” It stands outside of time, it is not manifested in this created world, and its existence is necessary to the existence of what we call the universe or cosmos. This isn’t neo-Platonism, it’s just pure Platonism. And, to paraphrase Friedrich Schiller, each of us contains “within” us an ideal human being. These are two among a host of concerns that we may call the spiritual concerns of Waldorf education. Not that they are unique to Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, or anthroposophy.
                We address children according to their developmental needs. I hardly need say more about this to this audience of teachers. In this, I believe Waldorf schools are remarkably successful, not that we don’t have a lot of work to do in continuing to translate Steiner’s concepts and vocabulary for a more modern clientele.
                In the context of human development, we address three “soul capacities,” ways of knowing or ways of being, which we often call thinking, feeling, and willing. We would do well to remember that psychologists have long regarded these using a different vocabulary—cognition, affect, and behavior, among others terms.

Again, there’s more to say, and we could each develop a list of what we consider essential. I’ll wrap up this section by talking about what I believe is at the pith of the core of the essence. Others may call this “living thinking,” but here I’ll call it creativity, or creative activity.

In thinking about and discussing creativity, we too often focus on the “ah ha” or “eureka” moments, forgetting the apprenticeship, hard work, rhythm of engagement and letting go, moral and ethical considerations, and many other aspects of the work of a creative person. In this regard, I highly recommend the work of Howard Gruber, a developmental psychologist who spent his working life studying the development of creativity.

Too conclude this section, I’ll quote Gruber on the relationship between creative work, morality, and freedom. These words apply, I believe, to the deepest concern we have for the education of our students, for the work of the “undefined rebel of the future:”

“At once we see that the indispensable middle term between creativity and morality is freedom. We can hardly speak of a moral act if the actor has no choice. Creative work also requires inner freedom…. Creative work must be in some ways kindred to the world, if not the world as it is, then the world as it will or might be. It flows out of that world and it flows back into it. Thus the creative person, to carry out the responsibility to self, the responsibility for inner integrity, must also in some way to responsive to the world.”

I will add that education toward the development of creativity, of living thinking, occurs most readily in high school students, and not in those who receive a “Waldorf” education only through 8th grade. Waldorf schools represent a pyramid in the U.S.—many early childhood programs, some elementary schools, and few high schools. I believe we would do well to change this pyramid, which has likely grown because of economic pressure (high school is expensive) and the culture of school-founding in the past few decades that belongs primarily to parent communities, working for the education of their own young children. We could assist this pyramid in becoming a column.


We are heading toward a mass extinction of schools as we know them. Human services like education and health care are not as available for economies of scale as are things like food and blue jeans. As commodities become relatively less expensive, education, like health care, becomes more expensive, to the point of unsustainability.

On the one hand, small, underfunded independent schools will become extinct—go out of business—first. Or, they would, except that they are also flexible, agile, creative, and mission-focused. They are, we could say, the shrews or proto-mammals that can adapt and survive while the large cumbersome, centralized, bureaucratic, uncreative schools—the dinosaurs in this metaphor—become extinct, go out of business.

And there’s a bottom line here that is not financial: Children need to be educated. The forms of schooling may change. Schools may go out of business. But children will need teachers, and creative human beings will find forms in which education can occur.

Politically, we face pressures toward standardization that have already reached beyond a dehumanizing threshold. The very good news in this is that it drives like-minded persons and communities together—private and public school teachers, Waldorf schools and those who do not teach or work in Waldorf schools, parents, teachers, community members. If we don’t engage with our fellow travelers here, more shame on us.

On the one hand, political change is least likely when times are good—and we are still the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. On the other hand, experts and pundits are terrible at predicting the future, and unforeseen change can come quickly. Jump in your time machine, go back to 1987, and have 1000 experts predict how long they believe the USSR will endure and how long they believe the Berlin Wall will stand. Have them write their educated guesses down and seal them in envelopes. Enough said.

Culturally, our way is clear. Replace weirdness and myth with a focus on essentials. Honor Rudolf Steiner, and honor the children we teach, in this way, and our work will flourish.

We stand at the beginning of a fifth generation, if not today, then very soon. This generation will introduce new characteristics to our work. It will include us all, but is unlikely to be found in independent schools, in charter schools, or in homeschools. How do Rudolf Steiner’s good ideas about education find their way to all the children and families who would want them and benefit from them? We will work out the answer to this question, and my guess is that it will involve many strategies and a host of responses.

To conclude, I will return to the quotation about the “undefined rebel of the future” with which I began. Some of you may have recognized that the thoughts in that quotation are given form in Steiner’s “Teachers’ Imagination,” spoken at the conclusion of the first lecture he gave to the first teachers at the first Waldorf school, just four days after the lecture from which I’m quoting.

I have taken the liberty of writing a verse for you, based on this quotation:

Develop strength
To teach

Gather courage
To face

See by the light
Of the undefined rebel
Of the future.

How do we ensure that the next generation is a generation of undefined rebels? Not the tiny portion that are currently in Waldorf schools of one kind or another, but the whole generation? I leave you with that question. 

What is Anthroposophy?

Anthroposophy (lower case "a" always) is the "informing discipline" for our age, as philosophy was for the Greeks. Philosophy then branched and branched until, 2500 years later, we now have a course catalog full of subjects, and a person in one discipline can't talk to someone down the hall. Anthroposophy doesn't introduce new values, or seek to resurrect Medieval ones, but to work back uphill, consciously reuniting fragmented knowledge... And anyone who works with this understanding is an "anthroposophist" in the broadest sense, whether or not he or she has heard of Steiner, and whether or not he or she believes a word he said...

What do you think?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Are Things Really Random?

How can an algorithmic process like computer programming actually produce a random number? I was avocationally interested in understanding random-number generators. I looked into it.

Turns out, a computer program can't actually generate random numbers. So-called random number generators do not, in fact, generate random numbers.

It's more complicated than this, but the principle is easy: Choose a string of numbers in which you can't find a pattern, like, say, a particular chunk of the irrational square root of 2, and then use that sequence to determine the outcome you want to generate "randomly."

Why bother to point this out?

Well, one of the core assumptions of our modern minds, often unquestioned, is that any number of phenomena occur randomly. Without the assumption of randomness, statistics, a cornerstone of many scientific methods, is undermined.

It seems to me that there are three objections to the assumption of randomness.

1. From physics: Brilliant physicists, like Stephen Hawking, tell us, "Everything is determined. But [because of things like the uncertainty principle] we can't know what has been determined." What appears random to us, then, is actually deeply embedded in the motion of the universe and could not have happened otherwise. So randomness is simply an assumption that leads to an approximation of what we cannot otherwise fathom.

2. From statistics: Even within this framework, it's clear that some phenomena appear random to us (like coin flips) and others do not (like my decision not to have seconds on dessert tonight). But any statistician can tell us that it's rarely, if ever, clear whether or not any particular phenomenon is random. We can analyze results with a degree of confidence, but confidence is simply not certainty.

3. From history: Ancient persons looked at the sky and saw meaning in the arrangement and movement of the stars. To them, many, many phenomena that we find random, they found meaningful. Today, skeptics have "proved" that astrology is false. But, really, you can't prove such a thing, you can simply call it into question. Believers believe, and non-believers disbelieve. True skeptics remain... skeptical, unconvinced, willing to be proved wrong. Or right.

I choose astrology because I am particularly indifferent to it. I have not found evidence of its truth (or falsity) in my life, and I've made it so far as a happy person thinking about lots of other things. If astrology contains truths, I'm blissfully unaware of them. And, if it's false, it's of no consequence to me.

The world allows for more than two positions, of course, and I believe most of us live somewhere between cold, statistical models and a feverish devotion to every "meaningful" omen.

My points, in the end, are not particularly large, but they may have large implications. If the world is less random than many of us commonly assume, we can learn by being open to new patterns of meaning of which we were previously ignorant. It's good to be clear about what we know, what we don't know, and what we assume but may be wrong about.

Last, with the assumption of randomness comes the apparent discovery of meaninglessness. If we value meaning--or, at least, the search for meaning (which is a value and a meaning in itself)--then we owe it to ourselves to chafe against the tyranny of randomness, not to believe in it when we aren't called to, and to keep our minds appropriately open.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What Next? The End of Work

My machine, my meta-machine, is finished. All I have to do is push “Start,” and all human labor will be accomplished for all time. Self-constructing, self-maintaining, self-repairing machines will mine the ore and reap the harvest and build other machines to do what needs to be done. My self-cleaning, temperature controlled clothes are on, the nanobots on my scalp will keep my hair cut. Nanobots in my body will maintain my health. If I want to go somewhere, I think of it, and machines appear to whisk me there. If I don’t want to walk, I can ride, or fly. I think of a cup of hot tea, and it’s there at my elbow. Structure, sustenance, health care, transportation, all will be done. My machine will do it, without complaint, without attention.

Human labor is a thing of the past.

All I have to do is push the button.

And then what will happen?

And then what will I do?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Whole 9th Grade is Out of Control (Memories of Al Tomlinson)

I charged into the Teachers’ Room. “The whole 9th grade is out of control,” I announced. It was my first year of teaching (1985, Pleistocene). I was 23. Energetic, enthusiastic, green.

Mr. Tomlinson slowly lowered his newspaper. He looked at me over his glasses.

Mr. Tomlinson had been one of my science teachers in high school. He was masterful in his handling of students. I never knew him to have a behavior problem in a class. If someone were obstreperous, Mr. T would calmly say, “Steve. You look like you could really use a drink of water. Why don’t you take a stroll down the hall, get a drink, and join us when you’re less thirsty.” He started every class with a joke, which we called “the word of the day.” As a colleague, I learned that he had a small shelf of joke books next to his science texts. He never swore or lost his temper or hurried or seemed out of sorts. He was a large, attentive, placid man.

He was perfectly clear in his expectations, in the conduct of his classes, in his demeanor, and in his lessons. One of his favorite demonstrations, first thing for high school science, was to (pretend to) leave an empty gallon turpentine can on a hot plate. He’d start class, tell us the word of the day, give a brief quiz. Then he’d turn to start the class. “Oh, goodness,” he’d say. “I shouldn’t have left that on there.” He’d take the can off the burner, screw on the cap, and set it aside. He’d go on with the class. A few minutes later, as the air inside cooled, the can would implode, loudly, dramatically, contorting itself into a crumpled mess. “What happened? What did I do? What did you see?” And that was an unforgettable introduction to gases. (Almost as impressive was returning the can to the hotplate, lid on, and watching is regain its original shape.)

Beside the point, but Mr. T was really large. More than six feet tall, and with enormous, thick hands and feet, the shoulders of a telephone pole, and a great belly. He rode an old upright bicycle to school, slowly, often wearing a large, long, dark trench coat. A young student who passed him in her car on the way one day turned to her mom, eyes wide, and asked, “Mom. Is that a giant?”

“Really?” he asked me. “The whole 9th grade? What about Lily? She was out of control?” A demure young lady.

“No, I guess not Lily,” I said.

“George?” A taciturn, reserved boy.

“No, not him,” I said.

He named a few more students who had actually behaved perfectly well for the whole class.

“So who was out of control?” he asked.

“Leslie and Jonathan,” I said. They had been cracking each other up for much of my class.

“So that’s it.” Mr. T said. “One or two students can make a class feel like it's out of control, but it’s never really the whole class. Just deal with those students.” He picked up his newspaper.

I got it.

Thanks, Mr. T.

(In honor of Halloween just past, I’ll mention that Mr. T claimed each year that he dressed for Halloween as “Mr. E.” Another of his jokes—if you don’t get it, say it to yourself a couple of times.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

“You’re going to be so disappointed": A Pushy New Yorker and James Turrell’s Iltar at the Guggenheim

James Turrell, Iltar (1976). Photo gives the form but not the flavor of the piece.

We waited for more than an hour on the upper levels of the ramp around the rotunda of the Guggenheim to see James Turrell’s “Iltar” (1976). There’s a name that I’ve forgotten for the condition in which we found ourselves—we had invested so much in waiting so long that, the longer we waited, the less likely we were to leave. And so we joked with each other to lower our expectations because, the longer we waited, the more our expectations climbed.

Iltar, according to Edgar Cayce, an early 20th century clairvoyant, was a high priest who migrated with his people from Atlantis to the Yucatan, where he and his followers built an undiscovered temple to preserve records of Atlantis and an earlier time. He was a sort of Central American Noah. You would not have learned about him in school, or in grad school. Unless you were interested in the work of Cayce you would likely not ever have heard of him.

There are two kinds of people interested in Cayce’s work—New-Agers and those so irritated by New-Agers that they take valuable time out of their busy lives to try to debunk New Age beliefs. Good luck with that.

Whatever Turrell means by naming his work after the obscure Iltar, he’s not a skeptic or debunker. His work is sincere and his work is in light. What Iltar means to him—a link with the mythical past, a leader, a record-keeper (Cayce predicted that Iltar’s stored records would be rediscovered in the future, I believe), a revealer—can be shown in a mysterious work of light. (It’s possible that Turrell’s choice of name is not rational. Turrell made the work. Turrell read Cayce or heard about him from a friend. And something in the work accorded with something in his feeling for Cayce’s myth, and so a name was born.)

On the other hand, Turrell is deeply interested in meditation, even “scientific” meditation, and he did create a large work on the Yucatan peninsula.

Nothing about Iltar as mythical priest appears in any of the Guggenheim’s materials, nor, so far as I can tell, in any reviews or discussions of the work. Other Turrell works have Egyptian names (“Aten Reign”, for instance), and those who think about Iltar at all may assume that he or it is an Egyptian reference. But it’s not.

Turrell has a history, dating back to his first well-known work, Afrum, which is Latin for “African,” for giving his works gnomic and obscure titles. Why white light projected into a dark corner to create the illusion of a cube should be called “African” is a bit of a mystery. On the other hand, square? White? Imposed on darkness? Maybe it’s also just too obvious, heartbreaking, and funny. And the Latin makes is seem like a scientific designation or species.

As we got close, we could see black curtains part and people leave the exhibit in ones and twos. They didn’t look particularly happy or enlightened; more put-upon. Our expectations waned. A guard admitted new viewers as the old left.

We reached the front of the line. A short, well-dressed woman exited the black curtains. Instead of turning to leave, she approached us, smiling. “You’re going to be so disappointed,” she said. “It’s such bullshit. This is why I hate New York, and I live here. It makes me so angry. You’re going to be so disappointed. Such bullshit.”

She stalked off. We smiled and entered the room.

Iltar is a rectangle of gray light on the back wall of a room, lit indirectly by two dim lamps on the sides. It’s a moody piece. Look at it for a while and, slowly, the rectangle begins to lift off the wall. Or maybe it opens a hole into the wall. Deep or shallow? It’s hard to tell. Or the rectangle appears to arise behind a mist that isn’t there. It moves and shifts and swirls. You can let it wash over you, or you can begin to wrestle with it, consciously willing it to be a hole, or to float. It’s hard to achieve in a room full of strangers, knowing that there’s an hour-long line of others waiting behind you, but, after a short while, you lose yourself in the work, and enter a quiet world of light and shadow. If you allow it to be, the piece is “about” how our eyes and mind make sense of the world. At the same time, the world of light and shadow resists our sense-making and imposes its own order on us.

Turrell may have been working to create a circumstance in which viewers could experience the “ganzfeld effect,” a sort of visual sensory deprivation that may cause apparent blindness, dark or light spots, color effects, hallucinations, or, likely more in line with Turrell’s aim, altered consciousness.

Turrell, however, did not envisage an hour-long line of tourists at the Guggenheim when he created the work in 1976. He and his friends could spend long minutes in quiet contemplation. Also, it’s clear, the work required a lot of tinkering to produce. How bright should the lights on the side be? How large the rectangle? What proportions of light and shade would yield the effect he sought? The work, like our perception of it, came into being slowly.

I liked this work better than my wife and her friend. I would have stayed longer. But we left to get some dinner, passing the line of waiters. I can’t say we looked more enlightened or less peeved than those who left before us. But we were definitely amused by the New Yorker who took it on herself to attempt to order our experience of Turrell’s work. We perceive, and the world pushes back at us, directing our perceptions like a pushy New Yorker. Not totally disappointed, and not totally bullshit.

James Turrell, Afrum I (1967)