The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Month: February, 2012


Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937

For me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times is not an art of the past: perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was. (Pablo Picasso, quoted in Picasso: Style and Meaning, Elizabeth Cowling, p. 392)

Painting allows for a kind of generous relationship to tradition. When I go to a major centre to see art, I often find that historical collections provide as much or more sustenance for my thinking than whatever is hot or current.

It is possible that I am just weary of a continual push for the “new”, or that as I get older my taste is becoming more and more conservative, less open, moribund. I find myself thinking about concepts like “quality”, “depth”, “emotion”, “clarity”, terms that would have made me shudder a few years ago.

It is also possible that as my own practice unfolds I get less and less from my contemporaries because the work demands its own contexts. As my painting becomes less involved in contemporary obsessions with media images and strategies like found imagery, montage and cultural critique, the more I feel like I have to turn to work from other times to find relevant exemplars.

The quote above by Picasso suggests two things to me: first, that art which is too closely tied to myopic current trends will not have lasting value, it will fail to “live always in the present”; second, that temporal distance is not a determining factor for whether a work continues to have resonance.

This in turn suggests that it is a mistake to regard art history as primarily a succession of styles, each displacing the one before it. Instead, it is a continuum where specific instances may be just as valid now as they ever were. Further, it suggests that the canon is not usefully understood as timeless and static, but as contingent and shifting.

The avant-garde emphasis on rupture and opposition finds its culmination in the postmodernist denial of meta-narratives like the art historical canon. Ironically, insofar as the avant-garde has become part of the canon of modern art it is also undercut. The cultural authority of the canon is problematized by revisionist histories that critique the basis of value judgments on which it is formed – the dead white male thesis.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009

To my mind, this presents a serious obstacle to the legitimacy of painting as a practice. The meaning of a painting, as Kerry James Marshall says, depends on the question “What function does the painting perform in the context of other things that are like it?” In other words, how does it work in relation to the discursive field of the canon? If that field is imagined primarily as a calcified extension of cultural dominance, then painting can only ever be in the service of power.

I think that certain versions of the canon are maintained by dominant institutions for the gratification of those institutions. However, I also think that there are counter versions, formed by concrete, specific examples rather than monolithic structures. The needs of individual artists determine this field, the boundaries of which may shift according to those needs.

All of this may be wishful thinking, and starting with a quote by the canonical dead white male artist, Picasso, may seem perverse or misguided. Nevertheless, I recognized his words as an expression of both a love of art and a resistance to the entombment of its traditions by cultural managers. For me those sentiments seem more relevant today than ever.

Words and Pictures

In my art I tried to explain life and its meaning to myself. I also intended to help others to understand life better. (Edvard Munch)

Edvard Munch, Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-42

I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying, not what you set out to say. I think one ought to use everything one can use, all of the energy wasted in painting it, so that one hasn’t the reserve of energy which is able to use this thing. One shouldn’t really know what to do with it, because it should match what one is already; it shouldn’t just be something one likes. (Jasper Johns)

Jasper Johns, According to What, 1964

A painting feels lived out to me, not painted. That’s why one is changed by painting. In a rare magical moment, I never feel myself to be more than a trusting accomplice. So paintings aren’t pictures, but evidence – maybe documents, along the road you have not chosen, but are on nevertheless. (Philip Guston)

Philip Guston, The Pit, 1976

Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that—if we know how to interpret it—we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work. Just as we may observe the movements of an unknown animal without understanding the law that inhabits and controls them, so Cezanne’s observers did not divine the transmutations he imposed on events and experiences; they were blind to his significance, to that glow from out of nowhere which surrounded him from time to time. But he himself was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebration. Yet it was in the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was from the approval of others that he had to await the proof of his worth. That is why he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances other people directed toward his canvas. That is why he never finished working. We never get away from our life. We never see ideas or freedom face to face. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Cezanne’s Doubt)

Paul Cézanne, Mont Ste. Victoire and Chateau Noir, 1904-1906

gnōthi seauton (know thyself)

working drawing, gouache and oil pastel on paper, 2011

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. (Bayles and Orland, Art and Fear, p. 5)

I think that being an artist demands a certain kind of relation to the “self”. By this I mean a kind of tapping into the resources and experiences that form a person on many levels, not a kind of “self-expression” in the sense that is often used in pop-psychology. I make this distinction because I think that art-making is actually the exact opposite of the narcissistic individuality and quest for instant gratification that is such a driving force in our culture.

For me, the value of art has to do with how the self is revealed or thrown into question by the experience of it. I believe that self-knowledge is a tool for understanding the world and for acting on it. Understanding our own strengths, weaknesses, desires, aspirations, limits etc. is the first step in building the world we want to live in. It is also the first step towards compassion for others.

This is a knowledge that is distinct from the “content” or “subject” of a work of art. It has to do with the way that you become a different person through the experience in ways that can’t be predicted or accounted for.

A  humbling example is the first time that I really paid attention to the paintings in the Matisse gallery at the New York MoMA, about two years ago. Before that experience I had always felt Matisse was a bit lightweight, following the art historical truisms I had imbibed as a student. But when I allowed myself to really look, the experience turned my understanding of Matisse’s work, my own work, and the work of other painters on its head. It fundamentally re-oriented my conception of painting, of what I sought to achieve in my own painting, and through that my own values and world-view. The embarrassment comes from realizing the arrogance of writing off an artist like Matisse in the first place, based on nothing but hearsay and a misunderstanding of his intentions – a presumptuous belief in my own un-tested, un-examined knowledge.

Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916

I wouldn’t say that I am now converted to Matisse’s position, only that I now have to consider his position whereas before, it didn’t register. I would contrast this to Marcel Duchamp, whom I have to consider because of the influence his strategies have had on contemporary art in general, not any particular experience I’ve personally had with his work.

Slightly different kinds of transformations occur in the production of an artwork. Artists are changed by the process of making their work: the failures, the leaps, the small observations about the way material responds to certain conditions, the boredom, the discoveries, all accumulate in the experience of artists. This in turn  leads to different kinds of choices, different results, new concerns or altered ways of thinking about old concerns. In short, new ways of thinking about the world.

The results of art making depend on, and are added to, the resources of the self. That is, artists draw on their reserves of skill, memory, interests, emotions, attitudes in order to make their work, and the manifestations of that effort become part of those reserves for future work.

The activity of mining these resources can be fraught, however, because they demand a kind of scrutiny and honesty that can reveal one’s own shortcomings, not just as an artist but as a person. This sort of introspection also tends to bring to light a wide variety of painful memories, regrets and bitterness. The cultivation of self-knowledge, however, can be a powerful antidote to a fabricated “individuality” that exists primarily as a marketing tool. It also might lead to “making art that matters to you”.

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