Seeing It

by cjdown

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain (Open), 1989 - 1991

I paint because it’s my work. And I paint because I believe it’s the best way that I can spend my time as a human being. I paint for myself. I paint for my wife. And I paint for anybody that wants to look at it. Really at heart, for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t mean just look at it. Well, I do everything I can in terms of what I put out for people to look at. I mean I supply them with all of the information I possibly can. And they just have to take care of it from there on in. As in anything, you know, like the more responsive, the more open, the more imaginative you are when you deal with something, the better the experience it will be. (Brice Marden, quoted by Gary Garrels in Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, p.17)

I know / You might roll your eyes at this / But I’m so glad that you exist (The Weakerthans, “The Reasons”, from the album Reconstruction Site)

Last week my teaching semester came to an end, and now I’m marking and giving students last bits of feedback. This process can be both rewarding and daunting, because it puts into stark relief the results of one’s teaching methods.

What is worth engaging as an artist? a teacher? a student? I worry about what I teach students and what I fail to teach them. I worry that students’ misunderstanding or a lack of clarity on my part can be needlessly deforming. I worry that my own enthusiasm waxes and wanes and that this might be reflected in students’ loss of interest or love of what they do in the studio. I worry that the system of education that I am part of and the system of legitimation (the art world) that students will enter on graduating are deeply flawed and reward the wrong things.

If I believe that teaching is a worthwhile pursuit, and I do, what tools should I be trying to pass on to students? Where my own work has failed has been in lapses of nerve, in succumbing to cynicism, in taking for granted my own assumptions, in the suppression of joy in favour of cool distance. But this observation leaves me with the uneasy feeling that the tools students need most are beyond the reach of my teaching.

Making art demands some sort of empathy towards the world. It isn’t only the critical gaze of analysis that fosters understanding, but also the acknowledgment of the things one loves. I think this is something like what Brice Marden has in mind when he says that his painting is “for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t mean just look at it.”

“Seeing it” is an affirmation of existence, and the evidence upon which one can find another “good” or “wonderful”. “Without such preceding experience, no impulse of the will can exist in any meaningful way. That is, without such experience we cannot love at all, not anything or anyone. First of all, what is lovable must have revealed itself to our eyes, to our sensuous as well as mental faculty of perception: ‘visio est quaedam causa amoris’, seeing is a kind of cause of love” (Joseph Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 197).

Marden’s simple evocation is the kind of thing that art sophisticates often roll their eyes at. It sounds naive or cliché or sentimental, seems to lack intellectual rigor, even to evade responsibility. It is the kind of thing that would be surprising to see in an artist statement, because it lacks reference to any kind of theoretical or critical language. Marden’s position would be difficult to defend in academic contexts which tend to privilege oppositional posturing. And yet, it also feels intuitively right, adequate, whole.

For the moment, I am content to follow this intuition, but it raises questions for my teaching practice. Is it possible to teach bravery? curiosity? openness? love? More to the point, how to protect and cultivate these qualities in the face of crushing antagonism?

Perhaps it is necessary to constantly assert the difference between art training and art making. Although in many ways students are learning how to “be” artists, it seems inappropriate to claim that I am teaching them to occupy an existential position; at best, art training may foster an understanding of the need to do so.

A comparison might be made to the difference between religious studies and religious practice. It seems reasonable to think that an academic, scholarly understanding of religious systems across cultures might enhance personal religious practice. It is entirely unreasonable to think that it could function as a substitute. Likewise, “art studies” (art education/history/theory) are supplemental, not primary, to artistic practice. Instead, it is the “impulse of the will” to say “I’m so glad that you exist” which provides fundamental motivation.

Brice Marden, The Muses, 1993