Make Love, Not Pictures
Many years ago when I was teaching political science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a young female student (who knew that I painted) asked me, “Is painting like making love”? Quite taken back by the question and not wanting to get into trouble, I quickly and succinctly responded, “No. Whatever gave you that idea?” “That’s what someone told me,” she said.
The truth was, however, I lied. Actually, I had noticed the parallel. Now, don’t get me wrong. Painting is decidedly not sexual or erotic. Not at all. But the process is like most activities that are sensual in nature and that also seem to enrich our self-understanding in some way. Along with making love, we could count dancing for pleasure; spontaneous and visceral conversation; enjoying a dinner with several unexpected and delightful courses; playing tag that ends abruptly but quickly evolves into another directionless game; exploring a new far away city without a destination in mind; going to a concert with friends and perhaps indulging in something that amplifies the experience; being drawn into a jazz improvisation and so on. Note, here, that the etymology of the word “jazz” is rooted in the improvisational nature of the “call and response” of sexual activity. Notice, also, that all the activities listed above turn both on there being a sensual pleasure, an improvisation of sorts, the sense of always being in the beginning, and the sense of self-actualization or the realization of greater awareness.
We might also better understand these parallels by contrasting the activities listed above with activities that are normally considered as work; that is, as activities that produce goods or services exchanged in a market such as the making of shoes, houses, cars, or the providing of tax filing assistance, counseling of various types, management of one type or another. In these sorts of activity, the value of the activity is measured by the quality of the result – as it is intended to please another or meet some measure. This external measure is the critically important element because it shapes the activity or making process (think of “teaching to the test”). There is always an end point, a finishing, a pre-determined destination or goal. Therefore, when one paints to expressly please another (a grant competition, to supply a gallery that in turn has a particular market niche, to satisfy a commission, or to simply to look for results as one paints in order to meet some pre-conceived notion of success), we can say that the painting process is akin to a production process. This is what I mean by painting pictures.
Back to the making love parallel; let’s probe a little further (not farther, ahem!). Well, for one thing, there is the much coveted sense of oneness; a painter (as Impressionist) is one with nature. There is the mutual vibration as Cézanne points out. The improvisational, sensual call and response of painting informs us that painting, like making love, is exploratory, without, necessarily, a destination. As with painting and making love, the beginning phase is as wonderful as all the following phases that might follow. One need not finish or conclude or execute as in the conquering approach, that everyone finds so odious (at least in theory), known as “slam bam thank you Mam.” Nor, again in theory, does the scorecard mentality of “how was I?” find acceptance. (I find it odd, however, that so many painters accept, as normal, such grades and measures as Master Artist at the same time they get the joke, “Rembrandt, PhD.”)
Here’s my point: the measure of a painting, as in all other life-giving activities, is the feeling one has as one does the activity, whether it is making love or making a painting. The payoff is always in the moment of expressing, and therefore realizing, one’s feelings. This is the moment of creation. And delightfully, the process creates the work. The painting simply follows, as by-product of the experience.
When painting is reduced simply to making a picture in order to please or win approval, the measure is the evaluation of the result. The payoff is the impact that the evaluation has in one’s position in a hierarchy.
So now the truth can be told. Painting is like making love, at least to a degree. The doing of it ought to feel good and not like the anxiety-producing feeling one gets when one takes a test and then waits to see if the results signify that one is half-way worthy or just a dummy.
Just so you don’t think I’m some old fart from the 60s (as in Timothy Leary’s suggestion that we “turn on, tune in, drop out”), the distinctions outlined above are really old hat. Philosophically, they have formed the basis, at least in certain circles, of determining what might count as a free and fulfilling life for quite some time. One can even go all the way back to Aristotle who distinguished between a general kind of making – the building of a house, let us say – from a kind of making where the actual process of making contributes to a “living well,” to a truly human and free life (which Aristotle called “being” or “doing”).
Now, who would have thunk – a link between Timothy Leary and Aristotle. I wonder if either ever painted.