When the work is about to commence, there has to be some tenuous notion of what will happen, but it is usually wrapped and hidden even from the person who will be doing the creating. An artist has a delicate sense of the work to come, and how it might become the perfect thing in the imagination, but historian and critics are wrong when they assume that it can be clearly seen in advance. No painter knows what the picture will look like, and those painters who try too hard to use paint to realize an idea are typically disappointed. Like poetry or any other creative enterprise, painting is something that is worked out in the making, and the work and its maker exchange ideas and change one another. The ideal image of the work is blurred and hard to picture, as if it were seen out of the corner of the eye. If the artist tries to turn and look at it directly, it vanishes. The only way to capture it is to do the work, and remake the idea through the paint. (James Elkins, What Painting Is, p.78)
This has been on my mind lately. What is the relation of an “idea” which starts a painting and the painting itself? The question has come up for me in terms of my own work, the work of students, and the work of other artists. It has also come up for me in terms of how art is talked about in institutions such as galleries and art schools as well as journalism.
The question itself is not a painting question, for, as Elkins says, in painting the idea must be remade in terms of paint – paintings speak for themselves, or at least I think they should. Instead it is a question of discourse, of our talk about the objects and practices of painting.
There seems to be a certain amount of expectation or pressure to theorize, insert “concepts”, or otherwise make paintings into the objects of intellectual analysis. Grant applications, artist talks, statements, critiques all demand some form of verbal context for the work. In many cases, the talk about the work is far more interesting than the work itself. This pressure seems to be exerted by an assumption that linguistic explanation is required to validate works of art. The increasing number of explanatory texts in galleries and artists who seem to specialize in discourse may be symptoms of this assumption.
On the other hand, Philip Guston’s rejoinder that painters who don’t have anything to say about their work are a kind of “painting monkey” also resonates. My bookshelf full of artist’s writings has taught me that artists are very often the most insightful commentators on their own and others’ work.
Reading, thinking and analysis (that is, intellectual or conceptual activities) are all large parts of my own painting practice, and I also occasionally write about the work of other artists. This is to say that I am not anti-intellectual, nor do I think that art should abstain from intellectual questions. It is only to say that the experience I seek in making or looking at art is not exhausted by intellectual engagement. What I’m after is nourishment, and this is a notoriously difficult thing to articulate in language; the difference between reading a recipe and cooking and eating a fantastic dinner.
I think our talk about art work could benefit from critical scrutiny. Habits of talking over work instead of experiencing it are not more rigorous, just easier. This especially applies to my own work and discourse.
If a good work of art cannot be represented in terms other than itself, how does one talk about it? The answer is, in analogies. A description bears a family resemblance to its subject rather than reproducing it. an intelligent esthetic analysis uses the concepts of quality, relationship and transition. Being outside of logic, these concepts do not “make sense”, and since they are untranslatable they are not “useful”. Art discovers a reality that human intelligence is not coextensive with and that cannot be manipulated. One understands material reality by experience. One understands art by imaginative identification, which is the way the artist (or scientist, or logician) discovers his subject in the first place. Wallace Stevens said the aim of poetry was “without imposing, without reasoning at all, to find the eccentric at the base of design.” This is both the artist’s vision and his sense of order. (Fairfield Porter, Art in its Own Terms, p. 268)