Independent Project

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Walter Hopps: Jasper, from what point in your life would you date the beginning of your career, your sense that you were an artist, or going to be an artist?
Jasper Johns: Going to be an artist since childhood. Until about 1953 when it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being, and I decided I shouldn’t always be “going to be” an artist.

(Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3 no.6 (March 1965), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, MoMA, N.Y., p.106)

The two classes that I am teaching are currently undertaking “independent projects” where the expected learning outcome is beginning to treat their work as their work. And not only to treat it as if belongs to them physically, mentally, and emotionally, but also that it is their work, their lifelong ‘independent project’.

Of course, it is presumptuous, not to mention absurd, to talk about this as a ‘learning outcome’. At best, it may be the first glimmer of understanding that being an artist is not a skill set, a talent, or an aptitude, but instead a particular kind of orientation towards the world and life. When Jasper Johns says “it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being” it suggests that being an artist is literally a question of being, that it is a mode of existence as much as an occupation.

It can be a difficult pill to swallow. Students enter art training for a wide variety of reasons, often without even a vague idea of what is involved in being an artist, but with an interest in making things and a sense that they want to be creative. They are also burdened by the trite images and clichĂ©s that circulate in the culture regarding “self-expression” and artistic “freedom”. It can be hard to come to terms with the reality that freedom and expression are the results of responsibility, rigorous discipline, and seriousness of purpose.

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I find that the fundamental problem of being an artist involves constantly needing to make choices about the right path to proceed upon, without anything to guide those choices except an elusive “vision” and the evidence of one’s work. Additionally, there is no easy path, or correct path, merely the one that lies ahead, opened or occluded by the accumulation of past decisions.

The first decision is a commitment to inhabit this mode of being fully, in the face of the very high probability that fortune and fame will not be the rewards that follow from this choice. And even if these material bonuses do arrive, the real (if less immediately tangible) reward for being an artist is existing in the world with the senses, the intellect, the emotions and spirit open and fully engaged. A possibly dubious prize when there are so many reasons to numb oneself against the world and so many available methods of anaesthesia.

The ‘independent project’ of art-making unfolds in relation to the life of the maker. As a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the difference between how I perceive my life and art and how students (generally half my age) perceive theirs. When I was younger, the urgency that I brought to my work had to do with wanting certain things (e.g. career success, jobs, shows) immediately. Now the urgency comes from the fact that I am over forty years old, that I may live another forty if I’m lucky, and that the first twenty-five to thirty were more or less pissed away. This leaves very little time to work on my project before the deadline.

No longer wander at random. You shall not live to read your own memoirs or the acts of the ancient Romans and Greeks, or the selections from books which you were reserving for your old age. Hasten then to the goal which you have before you. Throw away vain hopes and come to your own aid, while you yet may, if you care at all for yourself.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Section III, p.32)