Doubt and Faith in Painting

by cjdown

Willem De Kooning, Woman and Bicycle, 1952-53

[I]f you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody’s nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear I have to follow my desires.     (Willem De Kooning, p. 197, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art)

Over my painting wall, I have inscribed a dedication: Align means with true desires. Clarifying my true desires is a complicated task, as my thoughts and feelings are most often hopelessly tangled and opaque. In my studio journal, which forms the basis for the entries in this blog, I have been attempting to question as many of my preconceptions as I can identify and to investigate the possibilities of opposing or ignored viewpoints.

This process has caused as much confusion and vacillation as anything else. However, one outcome has been a determination to trust my intuition and a willingness to hope that these doubts might be productive, and not simply the result of a lack of conviction. In this tug-of-war, doubt and faith can play mutually correcting roles.

Art historian Richard Shiff describes doubt and belief as two extremes on a continuum – doubt is a degree of belief while belief is also a form of doubt. Following Charles Sanders Pierce, Shiff states “If belief and doubt belong to the same experiential category, then a doubt is a weak belief; we feel doubt when belief is weak. Reciprocally – but oddly – a belief is a strong doubt: When the doubted fact gains degrees of acknowledgment, it becomes a belief” (Doubt, p. 25).  Ideally, my practice exists near the middle of the continuum, holding doubt and belief in magnetic tension.

I have been trying to both follow and interrogate my instincts; on one hand to allow feeling and energy to be available to the work, on the other to consciously move towards the kinds of choices I would normally avoid. Doubt must be applied to assumptions, pronouncements, assertions, ideas, authorities, habits, discourses, histories; faith to materials, experience, desires, feelings, intuitions. Doubt can function to challenge established categories, belief to foster a trust in tacit, non-verbal knowledge, often in spite of what rational logic dictates.

Shiff, in his book Doubt:

 There are nevertheless times to doubt what the categories and the procedures designed to serve them indicate we should believe, and there are times to believe – to trust to intuition and feeling – what the same patterns of rationality may indicate we should doubt. To believe and to doubt with neither more nor less than a beneficial quotient of self-doubt becomes a useful psychological skill, an intuitive self-discipline. (pp. 18-19)

This intuitive self-discipline is of great use in the studio, but like any discipline requires vigilance to maintain. Balancing doubt must be a certain degree of faith in the absurd activity of painting itself.

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of Painting, c. 1665

In Daniel Arasse’s book Vermeer: Faith in Painting, he says of the artist’s work:

The ‘real world’ of Vermeer’s pictures is the world the pictures themselves inhabit, a world of painting; and painting was, for him, an exact and specific activity. In refusing to be ruled by social or commercial aspirations, Vermeer was able to use his paintings as a workplace, his laboratory for constant pictorial research. The meticulousness of this work is above all the expression of a need that is personal, individual and intimate. (p.16)

Arasse later relates Vermeer’s understanding of his painting practice to his decision to convert to Catholicism. “Undoubtedly the Catholic approach to the painted image endows it with spiritual prestige and the certainty of a ‘real presence’ that Calvinists rejected.”

He continues:

This conception of the virtual power of the painted image to become truly present could well be the spiritual frame that aroused and empowered the choices and artistic ambitions of Vermeer.

If it were for love, amoris causa, that Vermer converted, it was a particularly complex love, which combined love of the charitable indulgence of the Catholic God, love of the desirable Catherina Boles, and, just as profoundly, love for painting, which for the Catholic church was not surrounded by suspicion, which was on the contrary, invested with an exceptional and mysterious aura. Perhaps it was his own religion of painting that had also intimately led Vermeer to conversion.” (p.83)

Doubt and faith in painting are inextricably entwined. Vermeer’s faith in painting was pitched against Calvinist iconoclasm and suspicion of the “idolatrous cult of painted images” (Arasse, p.83). This iconoclasm is not doubt, but rather an extreme certainty in one religious belief that is in conflict with competing beliefs. Vermeer’s defense of his painting was an immersion in the practice, his “workplace, his laboratory of constant pictorial research”, an entrenchment of faith against suspicion.

Vermeer’s faith is not necessarily available to us today, with our own postmodern version of iconoclasm and suspicion of the cult of painting running rampant. Unlike seventeenth century Holland, there are few counter discourses to offer shelter. Likewise, doubt in painting is not unfounded, but possibly inevitable, once certain supporting structures and discourses have given way. As my advisor in grad school used to say, “you can’t be a virgin again”.

Some final words from Joseph Pieper:

[A person] who has attained a certain stage of critical consciousness cannot exempt [themselves] from thinking through opposing arguments raised by both “philosophers” and “heretics”. [They] must confront them … Ultimately, the only possible opposition the believer can offer to [their] own rational arguments is defensive; [they] cannot attack, [they] can only hold firm. (Faith, Hope, Love, pp. 72 -73)

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657