My undergraduate degree was in electrical engineering. I really had no desire to study engineering. But it was a field that my “advisors” seem to have thought was a good field to get into. It was 1965 and the thinking was that with an engineering degree I could get a “good” job. I suppose I could have but on the day that I was scheduled to take an exam to get certified – and thus be able to actually get a job in engineering, I decided instead to blow off the exam and sit in the sun. Three hours of pleasure instead of three hours of suffering. I have always thought that that was one of my better decisions. Engineering wasn’t for me.
Actually, it wasn’t just engineering that I decided wasn’t for me. I had been the first in my family to graduate from college and up until that point just about everything that I did, by way of schooling and preparation for a career, had been done to please someone else. So when I was 21, I said to myself, “That’s it. I met my obligation. I’m now going to do what I like.”
A lot was going on in 1965: war, rebellion, the counter-culture, new ways of thinking and living. I was fascinated by what was going on around me but I felt like I was on the outside looking in. And I wanted to know more or maybe the correct way of stating this is that I wanted to be more – live more, discover more. So I decided to go to grad school in political science. I could have made a better choice but it was the choice I made and that is where I began my own little personal journey to explore the world around me.
My plan didn’t unfold as neatly as I had expected. Uncle Sam saw to that. But eventually, after four years in the military, I finally was able to do nothing but take a variety of interesting classes. Moreover, I was beginning to take painting seriously, too. So while I was immersed in all sorts of head-spinning academic courses, I was also getting steady exposure to my art teacher who seemed to never let go of the notion that if you want to make art, you first have to get a thrill. I loved the feeling of growing, of becoming acquainted with new ways of looking at things. I distinctly remember thinking – practically every few months – “Gee, I can’t believe I used to think that way.”
Now, part of what I was learning, or at least what I came to believe, was that if you wanted to study such things as people or society or history, you couldn’t do it in the same way that you might study electrons or rocks or bridges for the simple reason that people think about themselves – unlike electrons – and in so doing, they change. Yet, there are areas of political science – statistical analysis, for example, where that is all you do; you use science to study people. Not only did I think this was dumb, I thought such areas of study were boring. They didn’t seem to encourage reflection, growth, expansion, new ideas, or ways of being in the world. I will never forget one day when I asked a friend of mine, why on God’s green earth did he decide to focus his studies on statistical analysis, that is, to make a career of it. His answer stunned me: “That’s where the jobs are.” Wow, I thought. For me, that would be like snuffing out my newly found freedom.
Enter Lucian Freud, the great painter and grandson of Sigmund who died recently: I was reading an obituary (by Jeffrey St. Clair) of Freud when the following paragraph jumped out at me:
But from the beginning, he cast his die with the figurative painters and against the mainstream of the abstractionists. It was a risky move and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident about it. Even today there are those who call Freud hopelessly out of date. You can hear the chiding: Too serious. Not ironic.
A risky move? Are you kidding? If he had chosen, instead, to fit into the career-making currents of expert opinion – that is, if he consciously tried to be less serious or more ironic to give his career a boost, that would have been really risky for he would have been risking his life. Pablo Casals noted that to retire is to begin to die. Okay, fine. But to launch off into a career just because it more than pays the bills or because it puts your name up in lights is a Faustian bargain otherwise known as suicide.
Joseph Campbell, who studied the world’s mythologies, helps to illuminate this point:
…each incarnation, you might say, has a potentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality. How do you do it? My answer is, “Follow your bliss.” There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that many, if not most of us, do not have a lot of options when it comes time to put food on the table. I’m simply talking about guideposts. For example, with regard to painting: we could talk about line and color and technique and material and “how-to” for a long time. But if we are not fully free to be who we are, what’s the point? I find it both amazing and depressing that in all the books I’ve read on Impressionism, the central focus is the painting. Often there is a fuss made because some scholar has come up with a new scientific way of peering into the canvas with a new microscope or some electromagnetic device. This is like looking through binoculars from the wrong end. It’s not about the blankety-blank painting. It’s about the freedom the Impressionists carved out of their received institutions. That’s what we should be exploring. That was the scandal in their day: their disobedience, their wish to be free to be who they were and their resolve to follow their bliss. That’s their accomplishment, their contribution and that’s what they have to teach us.
“Ah, to live another 99 years, I’m just beginning to get the idea.”
Titian on his deathbed
“I think I’m at last beginning to understand something about it.”
Renoir on his deathbed
“All I can say is that painting is terribly difficult.
Monet at 83
That Titian and Renoir made such statements on their deathbeds seems a bit apocryphal, but the point is well taken just the same. My interpretation of their remarks is that painting is not what it first might seems, that it is an activity that goes well beyond the simple making of a product. After all, at 83 and perhaps one of the all-time masters of the craft of painting, Claude Monet tells us how difficult painting is. In fact, at this time in his life, he seems to have been destroying as many canvases as he left alone. And as with Titian and Renoir, I don’t think Monet’s frustration stems from problems of “how-to.”
Here’s my point: the activity of painting, if it is to be the rich and fulfilling thing that makes one want to do it everyday, must be something that is truly life-giving. A “high,” so to speak; an unusual, uplifting-type pleasure. Something that as it pleases also empowers. Bottom line: it is not about the freaking product, the painting, the thing, the result!
I find this particular thought – namely, that painting is not about making a product, although products result – to be the hardest thought to communicate to students. My fear – and perhaps insight – is that because we live in a society organized around ever greater horizons of production (we are a “civilization of productivity” as scholars are wont to say), we have become, in the inimitable words of David Viscott, “production freaks.” Even such thoughts as productivity – a painting in the morning, a painting in the afternoon – or the notion of using standard frames or making paintings that fit into suitcases undermines our freedom as expressive creatures. Too pure you say? I don’t think so. There are a zillion little things in our everyday life to which people regularly take offense (a scuff mark on a white sneaker, not screwing on the cap of a bottle of tonic water tightly, driving around in a car that has a dent, some guy who makes love with his socks on – OMG!!). But when it comes to the scared ground of artistic expression, the constraints of production imperatives, otherwise known as the assembly line, are just fine. A bit odd, don’t you think?
I once took a workshop with Wolf Kahn. He’s a great artist in my opinion, not only because of the results he gets, but because of his point of view about the process that begets the results. Although not an Impressionist (in terms of aesthetic), he very much exudes the Impressionist spirit of independence and self-realization through painting. As you ponder what Titian and Renoir were getting at, consider the essence of the point being made here by Kahn:
A picture can be regarded as just another object, another piece of junk (and, regrettably, often an expensive piece of junk, requiring special care). The artist, seen under this light, is a manufacturer of luxury items….The practice of art should have an effect not only on the public, but even more importantly, on the artist himself, by enlarging his sphere of freedom. Once this is understood…the problem of being a mere manufacturer of expensive objects disappears; pictures are justifiable because they are steps in their maker’s artistic development. Each picture is valuable only insofar as it contributes to this development, because it enables the artist to go on in a freer, larger way to his next picture (emphasis added).
What a great insight: the value of a painting turns on the degree to which it contributes to the painter’s development, on the degree to which a painter becomes freer and larger in the process. If we wish to make art as opposed to pictures, it behooves us – Kahn seems to be saying – to spend some time thinking about the value of the payoff in the moment of creation.
Think about it. But don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to get the idea.
A requirement of Impressionist painting is to have a thrilling experience as we see. But there is a big barrier that tends to block the thrill: our language. That is, we picture the world through the language we speak. In fact, we often don’t really see the world around us at all. Instead, what we see most often is our expectation.
For example, if I ask you to think of a color when I say the word “apple,” you will say “red.” And “grass?” You will say “green.” What about “sky?” “Blue,” of course. What’s the problem?
Well, okay, let’s take a look. On the left is an image of a blue sky.
If this is my concept of what “sky” is, it is likely that the color to the right (a “sky” blue) will find its way into whatever sky I actually see. In other words, the very concept of sky – that is, blue – tends to displace the sensation of color that enters my eyes.
Monet was well aware of this problem. He once said to a friend that he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him. Monet is telling us that it is necessary to step out of our language. That we ought not to see “sky” when we look at the sky. This is quite difficult but seeing this way becomes a bit easier if we also follow Monet’s advice:
“When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you.”
This is what I tried to do in the examples below. The squares on the left are patches of sky taken from the paintings on the right.
You will notice that in the first example there is no significant amount of blue. In the second example you will see that there is a fair amount of green. And in the third, which is a “blue sky” with puffy “white” clouds, there are several colors which modify the blue and there is no white.
Here’s the point: to be free to see with our eyes, we must let go of the shared set of ideas and distinctions that are part of our received way of life that congeal into a language. We must be free not only of descriptive terms like sky or boat or house, we must be free of other concepts that are part of our entire self-understanding as we stand there with brush in hand – such as the concepts of art, painting, talent, work, success, and many more.
It is ironic that the academic cognoscenti today dismiss Impressionism as little more than “eye candy,” hardly “challenging” or “difficult” at all. It would also behoove us to get free, as did the Impressionists, from such concepts as “expert,” “director,” “juror,” “awards,” and “hierarchy” as well.
Charles Hawthorne, an American painter, who founded the Cape Cod School of Art at the turn of the last century, said, when teaching painting, “Color first…house second.” He is reminding us that in the process of painting, it behooves us first to get lost in those visual elements that excite us – color for example. For Hawthorne, the painting process is not about making pictures of such things such as houses. It is about feeling the sensuality, the energy of such things as color – not just first, but first and foremost.
This realization of profound feelings as we paint – as we work – is what is meaningful about the activity of painting. What is alive and meaningful is never the thing referred to – the house. That is just a prompt. What is alive and meaningful is the rush, the realization of our powers in the moment of creation. That’s the payoff.
Turning that corner – feeling the color as opposed to painting a picture of the house, was, for me, something that took quite a long time. I really had to think a lot about it, wrestle with it, get clear as to where I was going wrong. Simply stated, I was on the wrong track. So are many of my students. Try as they might to feel the color (and thus to see it – and see it twinkling, changing), they will instead make a house or a tree or a boat. Correct, but dead. Why is something seemingly so simple, so difficult?
We can get a clue from kids. Kids are much more likely to see color and not the house. Often in kid paintings, red houses are often just a lot of scribbled red. No house at all. They are already there, brimming with wonder, sensation. Feeling their powers. Alive. I was there once too. We all were already there. But a funny thing happens on the way to becoming a “success” in the “real world.” Somewhere along the way I, and I suspect you too, learned – and believed – that work itself is pain and toil. This should come as no surprise. It is part of our institutional inheritance. Adam Smith (an architect of our economy), to cite just one example, defined labor as a “disutility;” that is (according to the Oxford Definition of Economics) “the psychological cost of work or other unpleasant experiences [emphasis added].” Kids know zip about this sort of thing. Often, they are wonderfully uneducated and free – at least until about the second grade.
And so concepts like “blue Mondays” and “thank God it’s Friday” become pervasive and uncontested. “Happy hour” comes after work. A triumph highly coveted is the triumph of early retirement, is it not? All these elements of our shared understandings convey a belief that if we are good at anything, if we are worth anything, the worth and value will show up in the results, the product. And we know when we have measured up, when we have “succeeded.” It is when an external authority – some boss, manager, supervisor, expert, director, owner, committee – says so. So, in effect, the external authorities of our lives are constantly whispering to us in a thousand ways: your worth, your value is the worth and value of what you produce. Look for results, baby.
So it goes.
“Color first – house second” is not just helpful advice or a technique or a way to make paintings. It is a dagger in the heart of whom we have become, a challenge to an entire way of life. Painting, as a creative process, as Hawthorne and so many other artists are suggesting, is not about making the successful picture – whatever that might be. Painting is about the excitement of feeling larger and more powerful. It’s about growing and becoming more.
The house? Do as my teacher would endlessly urge. “Get it through the color.”
This blog is about what it means to be a creative person, particularly as it relates to painting. But much of what I have to say can be generalized. All human beings are innately creative, even the most uncurious psychopaths. In fact, I would argue that to be human is to be creative. But many of us don’t have the opportunity to be creative and, therefore, many of us do not have the opportunity to be free human beings. And here’s the punch line: among those who don’t have the opportunity to be freely creative, I will argue, are artists themselves. I’m thinking primarily of painters but as I said, the point I will be making can be generalized.
And why is this? I’m getting ahead of my story but here’s a bit of foreshadowing: because much of what artists do is directed by someone else – and for purposes that have little to do with advancing the cause of creativity or human freedom. A great insight that was said by someone (Atisha) over one thousand years ago holds true today: “The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.” In other words, if we wish to do anything of substance, especially as it relates to our own emancipation, it behooves us to dig beneath the surface of the way things appear.
I chose the title for this blog, “The Art Class,” because it perfectly captures the two meanings I wish to explore. The first is the kind of art class where a particular art form is taught, a painting or dance class, for example. I will spend sometime writing about these things but more importantly, I will be connecting all of that to another kind of art class. It is the more important sense of class because while the class of people who make the decisions as to what counts as important in the art world has as much influence over who we are and the kind of work we do as any class focused on “how to,” it remains largely invisible and unexamined. In fact, to move in this direction is taboo – which is all the more reason I wish to do it. We get a glimpse of the art class I have in mind when Eva Cockcroft – a particularly insightful artist who died in 1999 – reminds us that “To understand why a particular art movement becomes successful under a given set of historical circumstances requires an examination of the specifics of patronage and the ideological needs of the powerful.”
There it is. THE NEEDS OF THE POWERFUL. We are not suppose to even think in terms of power or the powerful, let alone identify their sources of power and spell out their needs. I feel compelled to do just that, however, because I wish to amplify and provide substance to Robert Henri’s (one of America’s greatest artist/teachers) dictum that “art when really understood is the province of every human being.” In other words, my purpose in writing this blog is to get back to the notion that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. Truly great artists are not great because they possess extraordinary talent or skill or win the favor of the jet set or are innovative necessarily; rather they are great because their work liberates and often does so long after they are gone. They do as Beethoven predicted he would do – like Bacchus, they press out wine for future generations.
Pablo Casals famously said, “Don’t play the notes, play the music.” Of course. Who wouldn’t want to play the music? Yet few of us do. And why is this? Well, for one thing, we first have to master the notes. That’s hard work. It takes years. But harder still is to be profoundly moved by the music and that in turn requires the ability to be profoundly moved by the music of ordinary life. For this, we must be free to feel intensely and authentically, to be who we are most – and that is largely an unavailable condition. Because for so long we have been jumping through hoops and competing for the gold star that the powerful dangle in front of us to meet their needs we are rather clueless as to what we, ourselves, truly like or need. We have long ago forgotten the thrill we got in coming to know our own power as we risked being who we are. This is what Picasso was getting at when he said that it took him only four years to learn to paint like Raphael but it took him a lifetime to learn to paint as a child.
Learning to paint or dance or make music is less learning about new techniques and more about learning new ways to be free. That is no small task.