I’ve always hated theories…My only quality is to have painted directly from nature…. – Monet
As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that? – Monet
My teacher, Bill Schultz, was as gentle a teacher as one could find. But when he demonstrated, questions about color use would drive him up the wall. Once, when asked what color he was using, he responded uncharacteristically tersely: “If you were listening to a concert pianist, would you ask what note he had just played?” Why would one of the gentlest and supportive teachers of all time snap at a student asking about color?
Questions about color are understandable; why wouldn’t I want to know what colors someone uses so that I may achieve similar results? But notice how quickly answers to such questions create problems. For example, I could respond by saying, “With dark pine trees I use ultramarine blue with a touch of deep cadmium yellow. Or, in blue skies I generally add a bit of quinacridone.” The student, then, is apt to go out and mix the “correct” color but in so doing she wouldn’t be feeling the colors. Instead she would be thinking the colors. The danger here is that the process, so wonderfully articulated by the Impressionists as one driven by sensation, would be transformed into a formulaic production process, driven by thought. The life-giving experience where one truly learns to see beyond the ordinary could possibly be lost. This is sacred ground. As Picasso once said about making love to a beautiful woman, “You don’t begin by measuring her arm.” We don’t begin seeing color by recalling some mixture someone else used in an entirely different setting!
Here’s a better way of asking someone about color use. “How do you see those colors?”
Robert Henri reminded us that the point of making a picture is not to make a picture. And why? Because for him, the crucial endeavor, beyond all else, was to visually get into an “extraordinary moment.” So many great painters keep coming back to the same point. Manet: you first have to be moved. Picasso: I do nothing except for pleasure. Hawthorne: find something that makes you “tremble.” Monet: “I’ve simply looked at what the universe has shown me, to bear witness with my brush.” And later, “It’s a total self-surrender.” And so often, “It’s all about the sensation.” Or Cézanne: “I vibrate with nature.” Or his wife noting, “He would halt and look at everything with widened eyes, ‘germinating’ with the countryside.” What are these artists suggesting? What’s going on?
Moments of Enchantment
Based upon my own experience, I would say that these artists are suggesting that nature is speaking to them and then, with their brushes, the artists are speaking back. They seem to be one with the subject. Think about that for a moment: to be one with something means to be entangled with something, to be drawn in or even captured by that something. This oneness, this capturing, may be thought of as moments of enchantment. Have you noticed the reversal that I’m suggesting here? Typically, commentators will say about Impressionists, “They wanted to capture the fleeting moment.” Or, “They wanted to capture the light.” But this is crazy. Why not capture butterflies? Or wild animals? Or escaped convicts? Such explanations make no real sense. First, I get a big net and then I run around capturing things. Why? I don’t know, I just do.
Notice what happens when we prioritize and pay attention to what happens to the artist in this process: for example, we could say that Monet, et al, were captured by the light. They were moved by the sensations of the moment. It gave them joy. The sense of wonder gave them pleasure. At least if we frame the moment or the capturing this way, it begins to make sense, doesn’t it? Oh, I see why someone would do that. It sounds like fun. Like joy. Like wonder. If I paint in this tradition, then, maybe I should be thinking more about the ways I might get into that joyful state, that state of being captured. I get it.
Here’s what happens to me: sometimes when I go out to paint – not always, but sometimes – and often midway into my two-hour outdoor session (generally), I find that I have drifted into a different state of being. Little sparkling colors begin to appear. I don’t want to confuse you: these are really tiny hints of color, very subtle, kind of like those “sprinkle” things people put on cakes. Tiny, tiny bits of color sprinkled around, that vibrate, that appear and disappear. Little tiny bright flashes. I only see them when I’m carried away, so to speak, when the visual sensations – line, tone, and color – capture me. And when this happens, I feel capable (more powerful?) and in the painting stage, in the proper order, I begin to paint them, one by one – here, there, everywhere. I feel good, alive – connected to something. Nothing else matters, and to put a fine point on it, if someone came up to me at that moment and said, “I will give you a Porsche of your choice in exchange for your ability to be captured by the sprinkles,” I would say, “Please. You’re going to break the spell.”
Now, believe it or not, there is much written on this subject – the seeing matter as affective in western philosophy, which is suggestive, given that we can then connect many of these thoughts to the ways of thinking that shaped the approach to painting found in Paris toward the end of the 19th century. A recent book that discusses this sort of thing is Jane Bennett’s, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics.
Let me conclude this way: I will explain to you how to see color (and line) in a way that has zero to do with mixing colors or color theory by offering four suggestions. Everything in italics is the language of Bennett; she’s not writing about art or painting, but rather the way matter has been understood to be affective. But to borrow her language is a great way to talk about entering into the realm “that makes art possible” (Henri).
Suggestion #1: Look to be charmed or captured by or enamored with existence. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism; that is, the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature. Painting (as opposed to production which turns on external evaluations) requires that we experience moments of pure presence, conditions of exhilaration, caught up and carried away, so that our mood is one of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for example, noted this liveliness when he argued that Cézanne wanted “to make visible how the world touches us (Ponty’s emphasis).”
Suggestion #2: Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.
Suggestion #3: Long to become otherwise. We aren’t encouraged to feel color (or line) because it’s not a priority in our way of life. There’s no external reward for it; certainly not in contemporary art where language has displaced “the sensation.” Therefore, we must step outside that world. We must extend the limits of [our ] current embodiment; escape the confines of biography, culture, training, [and] expand the horizon of the conceivable. Open to an enhanced capacity to identify exits, escapes, passages. Art that liberates, it seems to me, is co-mingling, straddling two realms of being.
Suggestion #4: Think of the activity of painting not as a way of making an object but as a state of interactive fascination that propels us into a crossing, a metamorphosis, a becoming. To become is not to achieve a final state of being; it is to give more of a chance to that which rumbles in you, but you are not. At least not yet.
“As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that?”
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). Bennett is responding to critiques of modernity as “disenchanted,” an understanding most often associated with Max Weber. Bennett makes quite clear that her interest in “sites of enchantment” has nothing to do with “new age” spiritualism or theism. Rather she is interested in what may be thought of as the agency of matter itself and the way in which the experience of enchantment is related to ethics. To wit, she positions herself vis-a-vis a number of theorists, past and present, whose work makes contact with her understanding of the “liveliness” of matter.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” p. 7; http://faculty.uml.edu/rinnis/cezannedoubt.pdf
Readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of Robert Hughes, once considered by Robert Boynton of the New York Times as “the most famous art critic in the world.” Hughes died in 2012. But it was several years before his death that Hughes was, in effect, blacklisted by corporate media in the US. And why was this? It was because he had become fiercely critical of the contemporary art world, as evidenced by his 2008 film (made for British television but not shown in the US), The Mona Lisa Curse.[i]
In 2011, Miles Mathis, an artist-writer, described Hughes’ blacklisting this way:
Since Hughes began questioning the direction of contemporary art in the mid to late 90s, he has seen his star fall dramatically. He should expect now to be the granddaddy of art criticism worldwide, but the only place that continues to give him a nod is England…. In the US he is mostly persona non grata…. The US media was happy to promote Hughes’ The Shock of the New back in the early 80s, since in it Hughes was selling Modernism like an old-time barker. But as soon as Hughes’ cooled on the new art, the market pushed him aside as a nuisance.[ii]
So what is this Mona Lisa “curse” that Hughes witnessed, as a supreme insider, with “growing disgust?” It was the “giant shift” or “cultural engineering,” in full swing by the 1990s, that transformed the production and exhibition of “important” art into an investor’s dream: a market that maximized returns with virtually no real chance of downturns. Let me be clear here: Hughes argument isn’t that money “corrupt[s] the wells of imagination.” That, he had previously noted, “is a pious fiction.”[iii] Rather it is the vast network of control, a kind of totalitarian system, where all the moving parts internal to the contemporary art world lock together in service of the bottom line of mega-wealthy speculators. The curse, argues Hughes, “affects artists… how art is made and above all the way it is experienced. And this curse has infected the entire art world.”
Hughes’ critique turns, to a large degree, on the rise of billionaire hedge fund executives and oligarchs who have bought warehouses of art on speculation, created their own museums or who have absorbed into their portfolios branded museums so that the exhibition of branded contemporary artists can easily be integrated into the exhibition of branded luxury goods and fashion.[iv] As night follows day, ambitious and savvy young artists gear their work to catch the eye of speculators all the while speculators search for artists whose work satisfies the new imperatives of the luxury brand integration. Many are familiar with the story of how Charles Saatchi, in 1990, drove his green Rolls Royce to a warehouse to see Damien Hirst’s large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow’s head.[v] Saatchi bought the rotting cow’s head and a year later declared that he would fund whatever artwork Hirst wanted to make. That Saatchi was co-founder of the world’s largest advertising agency and master in the blending of words and concepts in marketing was of no small significance in his interest in Hirst. This cultivation of artists as securities with maximum risk avoidance requires the complicity of very pliable artists; this often means very young artists quite untroubled by Faustian bargains. Charles Saatchi, for example, purchased the work of Alison Fox who was, at the time, still in college. He then persuaded the Guggenheim to do the same. Obviously this added value to Saatchi’s investment but, equally as important, it increased the probability that Fox might acquire a global brand, with production lines and PR teams to be exploited by the money men.[vi] “Apart from drugs,” notes Hughes in the film, “art is the biggest unregulated market in the world….[with] contemporary art sales at about 18 billion a year…boosted by regimens of new rich collectors and serviced by a growing army of advisors, dealers, and auctioneers.”
But here’s the thing: this “giant shift” does indeed impact the “entire art world,” even those of us who grind through canvases atop easels, one at a time. Think about it: what is the most a collector will pay for, say, a painting without the artist being credentialed out the ying yang (which is to say, anointed by an article in Art News or maybe a branded gallery that exhibits in one of the major chi-chi art fairs)? One or two thousand dollars? Maybe three? But after that, who is going to come along and drop – say $5,000 – on a painting simply because they like it, without reference to a fat and reassuring resume? It may happen, but not often. And if a painter wishes to live in a decent world city where a professional painting career might be possible, she would need to gross about $26,000 (the living wage in a city like Boston) at minimum, which really means $52,000 if the painter is working through a gallery.[vii] So let’s say our artist sells one $2,000 painting every month at the gallery. This unlikely scenario means that she would still be at less than half the gross “living wage,” possibly living alone, in some not-so-great apartment in Boston. This is not a promising situation for somewhat independent artists, and our metric didn’t even include the cost of supplies, framing or on-going training.
Okay, so let’s say I try and get the fancy magazine write up, or get into the special exhibition sponsored by Coke, or Nike, or The Gap. Should I sanitize my blog so there is no mention of the internecine corruption in the contemporary art world that disgusted Hughes? Surely that would undermine my life chances if editors, gallerists, or collectors googled my name. Must I shy away from pointing out that currently there are active campaigns against Coke, Nike, and The Gap because of their horrendous labor practices, practices that have resulted in the murder of union organizers or the quasi enslavement of workers in the poorest regions of the world? [viii]
This is where the “disgusting” part, for me, gets real. Go along, get along. And in the art world this means that I am better served if I’m a pleasantly chatty, apolitical, and institutionally obedient fellow that networks and self-markets my brains out and who has learned to push down any feelings of empathy for, say, the 1,100 girls burned to death at the garment factory in Bangladesh.[ix] After all, if they can disappear Robert Hughes, they can surely disappear me.
There are other ways of piecing together respectable sales and maintaining a critical voice and a degree of freedom. It’s quite a hustle, riddled with insecurity, to be sure. The notion of independence from centers of power, of having control over what one makes, and/or having positions on social developments around the world (that was once the basis of dozens of artist groups – the Impressionists being just one – since the French Revolution straight up through into World War II) used to be the hallmark of an “artist.” Recall Mary Cassatt’s passionate defense of independence when in 1904 she refused an award saying:
I, however, who belong to the founders of the Independent Exhibition must stick to our principles, which were no jury, no medals, no awards…. Liberty is the first good in this world and to escape the tyranny of a jury is worth fighting for, surely no profession is so enslaved as ours.[x]
Imagine contemporary artists banding together to “protest official exhibitions.” Sigh. That ship has sailed, big time. A different spirit envelops us now, one that Andy Warhol expressed rather well: “Good business is the best art.” And thus I turn back to Hughes for solace. His exchange with Alberto Mugrabi just tickles me:
Hughes: Someone has told me that your father had something like 800 Warhols. Is this true?
Mugrabi: Yeah, that is true.
Hughes: What’s your opinion of Warhol?
Mugrabi: I think Warhol is probably one of the most visionary artists of our time. He’s an artist that has opened every door for every artist today.
Hughes: Did you know him?
Mugrabi: No. I never met Andy Warhol.
Hughes: I used to. I thought he was one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life.
Mugrabi: Why is that?
Hughes: Because he had nothing to say.
[ii] Miles Mathis, http://mileswmathis.com/hughes2.pdf
[iii] Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (1990) p. 388.
[iv] “Are Museums Selling Out?” online.wsj.com/articles/are-museums-selling-out-1402617631
[v] If you are saying, “I don’t get it” – then the speculators have already won. To say “I don’t get it” means that somebody does (ie, the “smart guys”). What virtually no one does is to simply declare what, in fact, you do understand: “This is one unmitigated piece of shit.” But to say that would be to say that the fabled emperor has no clothes; pull on that dangling thread and the entire fabric of elite control might be in jeopardy. In addition, this type of art, Saatchi (advertiser in-chief) would remind us, is about the “idea” (so often totally sophomoric but who’s sticking their neck out?). And the shift toward celebrating the “idea” means that the oligarchs can more easily control the production process: the actual making of stuff is pushed off onto “assistants,” directed by the “executive” artist in collaboration with curators, marketers, et al. Goodbye independent artists who use both their hands and mind.
[vi] 220 Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (2008), p. 220
[vii] The calculation of a “living wage,” which means living just above poverty, in Boston (not known as an art center on the level of New York or London) is $26, 316. This means that if I’m selling through a gallery, which generally takes 50%, I would need a gross income of $52,632 just to scrape by. http://livingwage.mit.edu/places/2502507000
[viii] Coke sponsors many art exhibitions (http://bit.ly/1p73m1J) as does Nike (http://bit.ly/1pAn7ha). The Gap founder (now deceased), Robert Fisher, is well known for his extensive collection of contemporary art which now constitutes the larger portion of work at the SF MOMA (the collection is on loan, not donated).
[ix] http://gapdeathtraps.com/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Savar_building_collapse
Alice wrote to me seeking advice on how to paint trees: “ One thing I really struggle with is trees. I have no idea whether to do an underpainting or in the construction stage if I should add lines or not. For example, in Monet’s painting, I can’t see an obvious color for an Underpainting.”
Image No.1 is the Monet painting that puzzles Alice. I can see why. The value changes throughout are subtle and the tree doesn’t really separate sharply from what is around it. We don’t know exactly what Monet was looking at, but let us assume that the painting is a faithful representation. Using Photoshop, let me create what I think might have been the stages of the painting.
First, let’s squint so that we can’t focus. Squinting and comparing helps us to see things simply. Also, because the first two stages (Composition and Construction) are line stages, let me remove the color. At this point I’m only interested in value relationships.
Image No. 2 is what I see as I squint. It’s a little blurry and I am able to see how the values relate to one another. I see that the tree is somewhat like a ball. One side is struck by the light; the other side is shady and the transition from light to dark within the tree is gradual, so there is no separation of value, hence no line, within the ball-like tree. I notice, again simplifying, that apart from cast shadows, the ground area is basically one value. There also appears to be a smaller dark bush in the lower left hand corner and a very small tree,that is darker than the ground. The sky too is nearly one value but gradually gets lighter near the horizon.
So I draw lines (in oil, following the Composition in charcoal that was brushed off), not much darker than the white canvas and I place lines only where values separate (refer to image No. 3). Remember I am making this as simple as possible. The light side of the tree seems to separate ever so slightly with what is behind it as does the shady side. But because I see the shady side separate less strongly, my line there is less intense. The bush to the left as well as the tiny tree seem to separate. So does the horizon. I do not construct shadows (or reflections) because they are just air. If I were to construct shadows they would look like a hole in the ground.
Image No. 4 is my photoshop-ed version of an Underpainting. Alice states that she can’t see “an obvious color” for the Underpainting, but recall that an underpainting is many, many layers of color or veils of atmosphere. We use a technique called scumbling and we begin with all the dark values, then we move on to the middle values, and we leave the light values open or that part of the canvas blank.¹
Image No. 5 is my Reconstruction. I purposely use a very dark line because I want to “undo” the Underpainting. I don’t want the dark lines (again, placed where values separate) to belong to the Underpainting. This way, when I return to color in the next stage, the Painting stage, I will be forced to go richer and a little darker in order to bring the painting back into balance.
In image No. 6, I have begun the Painting stage. Again using Photoshop, I have simulated brush strokes, placing one stroke at a time against another, building with the color. I have painted the darks, then into the middle values (image no. 7). Notice that I am allowing the Underpainting to show through in places. I try not to “plug it up;” I want to be able to look through the brushstrokes in the Painting stage – to a degree – down into the underpainting.
Image No. 8 is my photoshop-ed version of the final painting. Notice that I saved painting into the “lights” until last. In the Underpainting stage I scumbled into construction lines and, similarly, in the Painting stage, I painted into the lines. One doesn’t have to obliterate construction lines. The bits that remain after painting into them will do the job of signaling a value separation; in other words, the bits of line that remain from the Reconstruction will still help create form.
The photoshop look, as it were, is rather mechanistic; however, I hope that you can see how one moves through a painting. Now Monet advises us repeatedly, “don’t see the object before you.” In other words, don’t see trees or fields or skies as trees, fields, and skies. Don’t be literal. Just see color and where values separate, or line. So the method he used was an oscillation between line and color. The whole thing is an unfolding; it is complete in every stage. There is no point called “finish.” One stops when one has nothing more to say or when one wishes to say nothing more.
¹Many people think that when I say “lights” that I am referring to “whites” or “highlights.” No. Remember that when we begin and we squint and compare, we also simplify by reducing everything, in our mind’s eye, to three values: darks, middles, and lights. This can be tricky, especially when we are painting outside. Generally, if the light is striking one side of an object, it falls into the “light” category even if it is not one of the lightest values in the painting. It is similar to sorting laundry. If I ask you to sort all your clothes into three piles, one for the darks, one for the middles, and one for the lights, it may be difficult to decide where the light blouse with a light flower pattern goes. But in the end, you must decide. And everything you decided was in the “light” pile, as it were, is left open or blank – only to be painted in the final step of the painting stage when we “paint the lights.”
I stumbled onto a nice YouTube video called Chatting With Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview. In it Tyler Green interviews Serge Guilbaut, a favorite writer of mine, so I spent some time with it. It turns out that the “lost interview” was a 1941 book-length interview with Henri Matisse that was never published because Matisse, in the end, rejected it. Luckily the lost interview was finally published in 2013.[i]
To be honest, I’m not crazy about Matisse’s work; in some ways he’s like Picasso for me. I certainly can recognize the authority in their work. They are true masters, but I’m not especially moved. However, what does excite me about the both of them is this: they are both absolutely brilliant when they talk about what it means to be an artist. So I ordered “Chatting” and was not disappointed.
Here’s the thing: when I articulate what it means to be an artist (as I was taught and as I have since come to believe), I’m often perceived as a curmudgeon, too political, or worse, airy-fairy. For example, one of my favorite concepts and one that I eagerly proselytize is that of “becoming.” By this I mean that the activity of painting ought not to be driven by external rewards (sales, prizes, or pleasing everyone from friends, lovers, and the endless army of gate-keepers that make up the art-industry); instead painting as an activity ought to be an unfolding, a discovery and expression of who we are most. Cèzanne and Monet, to site obvious examples, became who they were most by the end of their lives but only because they were free, for the most part, from the army of gate-keepers who normally direct and control the careers of artists for purposes of their own.
Now listen to Matisse articulate the same view. He explains that it was at the ripe old age of 21 that he was given a paint box and “the moment I had that paint box in my hands, I felt that this was my life. Like a cow given a sight of grass….” What a nice way of saying that he was not just discovering who he was but who he was most. The paint box, like grass for a cow, was something he needed to become Matisse.
Regarding the need to be free from gate-keepers, Matisse continues:
“You must come out by your own means….to express that sense of falling head over heels for a thing…to express the impact the object made on [you]….I understood…that I had no business painting to please other people….If [a painter] is concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling. He neglects his gifts and eventually loses them….[painters painting for prizes] were lost souls….they were studying…how to win medals….the great failing…was that the students thought technique so important…”
Inveighing against the tendency of painters to use words to explain what they wish to say with paint, Matisse told his students: “Listen: do you want to paint? Well start by having your tongue cut out because from now on you should express yourselves only with the brush.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!
And how might an artist view the art market? “The public is not the buyer: the public is the sensitive material on which you hope to leave an imprint….If you work for others, you never get anywhere….” Okay, got it: one must become who one is most, regardless of trends, experts, sales, and prizes. In fact, all the expert-directors out there (think Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst) “make you do” the things that get attention, but “you don’t need to feel, you don’t need to be an artist….”
But just as I was feeling validated in my ranting, I came across a letter by Kurt Vonnegut, the great American novelist, that really nailed it for me. It seems that Vonnegut, was invited to speak at a high school, but given his age and infirmities, he wrote a letter instead. It read, in part:
“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow (emphasis in the original).
“Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood [the high school teacher]….Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
“Here’s an assignment…. Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net…. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody….
“Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
Oh, the insights of these two. I liked the part about the “net,” suggesting that art requires structure. To the “young British artists” – directed at every turn, or artists like Warhol whose ambition was to be as rich and glamorous as his jet-set pals, there’s no “need to feel,” no “need to be an artist.” And to the throngs of art students in higher education, compelled to make the most superficial social commentary with their work, “cut your tongues out.”
Plein-air painting will never be exhibited at the Venice Biennale and what many of us do will be thought of as a charming anachronism, off to the side – way off – of what “important” artists do. But visual art without us, simply put, would be a mistake.
And so it goes.
The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and colour…. genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.
A few weeks ago I was in Amsterdam. Seeing Van Gogh in the flesh, as it were, was a big part of the trip. The big take away for me was this simple insight: if I want to be a good painter, maybe even an artist, I need to get out of my head more!
Part 1: Enter Charles Baudelaire[i]
Baudelaire might be the perfect guy to help me get out of my head, to see and feel the world sensuously, to treat every line and color as a visual and sensual prompt to which I am compelled to respond emotionally. Look at the way he urges us, as artists, to do this:
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way….But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes…in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.[ii]
Or here, where Baudelaire in reviewing a painting by Eugene Boudin,[iii] suggests that paintings don’t need people in them. They don’t need to tell stories. Why? Because if you can get intoxicated by simply savoring the sensuality of form and color, then:
….all these clouds with fantastic and luminous forms, these yawning furnaces, these firmaments of black or violet stain….mount to the brain like a heady drink or the eloquence of opium….[iv]
And here’s the good news, according to Baudelaire: we are born relating to the world this way. As kids we are little intoxicated sensuality addicts (see quote on top). Kids are always drunk! Just look at the little painting by the kid above. It’s a flower but you would never know it. The kid is drunk, it seems, with the colors green and purple. I don’t think she even sees “flower.”[v] My teacher would always say, “Get it through the color.” Charles Hawthorne long ago urged us to paint “Color first, house after…not house first, color after.” But I prefer Baudelaire’s simple admonition: “Be drunk.”
Now imagine seeing and painting like this not just as a child but as an adult, and forever. Baudelaire describes such an adult as someone “who is never for a moment without the genius of childhood – a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale….[She has]…insatiable passion – for seeing and feeling….” Insatiable passion for seeing and feeling? Whoopie! This could be the ticket. Good-bye living in my head.
George Breitner George Breitner
Part 2: Enter the School Teacher
‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.
‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.
‘What is it for?’
‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.
‘What is this?’
‘What do cows give us?’
‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.
‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’
‘It’s where people live.’[vi]
In this example, suggests Stephen Parrin, students are taught “to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience (emphasis added).”[vii] Sensory details don’t exist. And after 12 years of education, Parrin believes, “the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them.”[viii]
Floris Verster Floris Verster
In other exercises, Parrin found that even when students were on a walk, exploring blindfolded, as soon as they identified an object as “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore “the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual.”[ix] It is not surprising, then, how now as adults – and even as painters staring for hours at a subject matter – we “wholly bypass personal experience.” We have been taught to live in our head.
Part 3: The Exhibition
The one thing nice about visiting new museums is being introduced to new (albeit long since departed) artists. In addition to Van Gogh, I’ve posted images from the work of George Breitner, Isaac Israels, and Floris Verster. Breitner and Verster were contemporaries of Van Gogh. Verster came along a little later. I was impressed by their authority. It just jumped off the canvas. They were really in control of their craft. And I loved their amazing simplicity and tonality.
Van Gogh, Potato Diggers
It was nice to see some of Van Gogh’s famous paintings but I found the work of his that I had never seen before to be even more powerful. An example was his Potato Diggers (above). Lose. Simple. Direct. What impressed me most about Van Gogh was how even in the work that didn’t make my list of favorites, the charm and sincerity of his personality was powerfully present. As much as I like the other painters mentioned above, their passion for seeing and feeling is less on display, hidden to a degree by skill and convention. Not so with Van Gogh who makes himself entirely vulnerable, with all his against-the-rules way of painting.[x]
He really puts himself out there, like the painting below (VG2). There is a lot about this painting that seems off or wrong. And yet, the more I looked at it the more I got drawn in. Everywhere on the canvas he is alive, intoxicated, drunk. The painting just follows. It’s a by-product of his intoxication.
Van Gogh, VG2
Part 4: The Question of Talent
Baudelaire was critical of the concept of genius and/or talent shared by most at the time – namely that it is a rare thing, genetically endowed. It is a concept that still haunts us and inflicts enormous self-doubt upon everyone. Do I have talent, we all wonder? Am I good enough? Baudelaire’s insights alter the equation. For visual artists, it’s not about measuring up to some arbitrary standard; rather it’s about the ability to retrieve that state of innocence and sense of wonder that comes from engaging the world, not just through categories, but sensuously as well. Or to put it another way, instead of the concept “talent,” substitute “sincerity” or “freedom” and ask: am I sincere? Am I really free to be who I am?
The good news then is that there can be no one who anoints or announces or declares an artist to have talent. It is the province of everyone. Each of us feels fulfilled and exhilarated as we exercise and discover our power. Every human being begins life with the intense passion to see and feel. And then as we develop our ability to see everything through categories, our ability or freedom to savor our sensory experiences is neglected. It withers. Van Gogh seems to have escaped this trap. He was drunk his entire short life. No talent. Never a martyred slave of time.
[i] Baudelaire, as you know, was a writer-critic who was very close to Manet. He wrote a lot about a new way of being in the world that was changing the way writers and painters made art. The Impressionists, I would argue, very much expressed that way of being in the world.
[iii] Boudin was probably Monet’s most important teacher.
[v] This is precisely what Monet is getting at when he tells us, as painters, not to see the “thing” before us.
[vi] Stephen Parrin, Reflection 149: The Blind Walk, October 6, 2009 http://onmymynd.wordpress.com/tag/gerald-edelman/
[x] For example, we are told to not draw with the color but rather we should place the color. Or we are taught that our strokes should go against the form. Van Gogh ignores all this. Plus his values are clearly off in his very dark blue skies. But it works because the force of his personality is so uniquely Vincent. It is as if he is shouting “this is me” everywhere you look.