Over the past year I have had different people tell me that I have become somewhat spiritual. One person actually said that I’ve become warm and fuzzy! Well, warm and fuzzy I can understand – there’s no surprise there. But spiritual? That’s a different kettle of fish. Let’s take a look.
I think this whole spiritual thing arose because I have been thinking in terms of painting as enchantment. I cautioned against equating my sense of enchantment with the more available sense of enchantment, the la-di-da Ezio Pinza kind that one can access without effort (the kind that can be had by simply setting up a nice little dinner table outside, sipping great wine, and listening to Pinza sing Some Enchanted Evening as the sun goes down). That kind of Pinza enchantment may be great for kicking back and revitalizing happy hour, but the kind of enchantment that makes art both edgy and life-giving is the kind that rips us out of fru fru land and yet has us all a tremble as we watch two shadows come together. That kind of enchantment, following Jane Bennett, turns on a revitalization of wonder.
But there’s a catch. Before one can slip into these moods of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, where we are then in a position to notice sensations, like color, previously ignored, one must find ways of escaping or exiting from our ordinary realms of perception and being – which begs the question: Why must we exit our everyday, ordinary realm? The answer is this: not only do our widely shared ordinary ways of thinking subvert access to the kind of enchantment I’m getting at, they are also celebrated as right ways of thinking at the very center of the good life we embrace (the institutional setting that we have inherited).
Let’s Take A Look
I think it may be useful to explain this kind of spiritualism (if you wish to call it that) by showing you some of my recent work at the same time that I describe my own strategies of escaping the ways of thinking that we all know and embrace. However, I will show you only details of paintings at first (you will be able to find each of the paintings from which the details were taken at the end of this blog) because I want to bring you into the sensual realm with me. The key, I believe, is to see just the sensual pieces of the subject. I will try to explain to you what is happening to me as I respond to those sensations and how I let go of my “ordinary” ways of thinking, being, and seeing that tend to block my passage to enchantment. There are four barriers, as it were, that I must think about getting past: 1) thinking that matter is inert; 2) not staying in the moment and seeing painting as a means to some external end or what is called instrumental rationality; 3) the urge to master nature instead of opening oneself to it; and 4) certain career path strategies that might slip into what is called a calculating rationality.
1. Letting go of the belief that matter is inert
I’ve arrived at my location. My easel is set up. I have two clamps on my palette and a clamp holding the canvas to the easel. It is cold but I wear no gloves. Everything must be absolutely solid; I may have to attack the canvas and I want nothing to move. My fingers must be absolutely sensitive to the handle of my brush. My palette is freshly loaded and absolutely clean. I am anxious. It’s like walking a tightrope, I suppose. There are lots of ways of slipping and falling and, therefore, lots of “absolutes.” I will exit and soar and breathe, see, and be in wonder, or when I throw the switch, nothing will happen. I won’t get off the ground. I won’t exit from my everyday mechanistic, desiccated world where I am separate from everything, where I have “work” to do and ladders to climb, and then I will pack all my gear back into the car, drive home disappointed and look forward to my stupid drink at the end of the day – okay, late-afternoon – where I – oh dear me – yes – unwind. Might as well shoot myself.
I try to relax and to focus. I need to escape and as Robert Henri has pointed out, “Nature doesn’t reveal herself to the negligent.” Nature loves to play, to hide, to tease, to play tricks, to seduce, to capture and take you away. But I must also learn to surrender totally for any of this to happen. I look over there. Ugh! Just silence. So I just start in and begin to mix a color. I feel stiff. Nothing is happening. Everything is dead. I’m hoping that nature will begin the conversation. Without using words, I ask, “Are you there?”
My iPod is now pouring, almost at maximum volume my special “take me away” music – and besides, the music encapsulates me – shelters me from the people who will be watching and hovering about. Interference from them breaks the spell. I’m ready.
In my ordinary realm, I must pay the bills to survive. I’m trapped in the realm of necessity like everyone else. But notice how I’m a different person in that everyday realm than in the realm of enchantment. The imperative to pay the bills introduces a flatness to the way in which I perceive the world.
For example, as much as I love the aesthetic of the house we just built, part of me was thinking resale value throughout the entire time that it was being built. And equally as empty, the glass, steel, cement, and wood used to build the house was just so much inert matter, piled up, waiting to be used.
But now as I hope to enter an entirely different realm – one that is magical and mysterious in ways – I must confront those prior feelings where nature is dead stuff or a simple resource to one where that same “dead stuff” may provide me with a meaningful sensual experience. Now I’m deeply yearning for an affective attachment with glass, steel, cement, and wood. And with some patience and resolve, as I begin to mix paint with an attitude of self-surrendering, I have feelings not unlike the feelings one has as when a drug noticeably starts kicking in. It’s an impulse of color I feel within. Matter has once again become affective. Where do you want to go? – I respond silently.
2. Letting go of an instrumental rationality
A deep yellow vibrates at me. It moves, dances, and seduces me. With a caressing stroke, I try and mix the color back, and as deftly as I possibly can, I drag and turn and push my brush around, following nature’s lead. I want to vibrate too. My own trillion molecules and that of those yellow vibrating photons seem to merge. With a deliberate swirly stroke of an olive greenish color, I respond to an olive greenish prompt. I’m being drawn in. I feel my brush being pulled up, delicately and off. I am welcomed. We are one, dancing. A silly thought passes through my brain: who needs a Porsche?
An intensely entrepreneurial friend has pressured me to embark on a failsafe project (we have replaced the term bourgeoisie with the euphemistic term entrepreneur; it sounds so much more – well – superior): we would organize weddings on Lake Como. But I don’t care about weddings, I protested. Nobody does. But think of the money you could make. Great. I make money and die in the process.
Let me see if I’ve got this: I do things for an external reward and the doing part of the activity means nothing to me. Isn’t that the definition of meaningless? Ah, but the meaningless activity, the instrument, gets me the reward and with the reward I can buy things like, say, a Porsche.
Instrumental rationality, with painters, is like some furtive stalker. Nearly everyone is compelled to paint for an agent of one kind or another. Therefore, a painter is under pressure – and I mean right during the process of painting itself – to think about results, or what will please the agent. The act of painting then becomes like the act of eating a sandwich. Each beginning is a kind of starting gate where one chews through the process until one reaches the end – all in one go. If I were to approach painting like that it would be impossible to sink into and get lost within pulsating moments because I would be riveted to that future moment called finished. If nature is to speak with me, I must never look for results, or know where the painting is going, or whether I will continue with it after the spell is broken, when I am finished (my emphasis). I have to push all those ordinary modes of making – a cake, a car, a house – and all the respective agents out of my head and escape from the sense that what I am doing is production. “Begin everything, finish nothing,” Sargent reminded us. I am there, with brush in hand, only for the purpose of savoring magical moments. Did you see that? A whisper of purple twirling. Yes! I’m alive. Possess me, then. I’m with you. Carry me away. You see, for me the payoff isn’t the pat on the back, the sale, or the freaking prize; it’s the pleasure in the moment of creation, where I’m fully whole and vibrating with what I see. If I weren’t getting these little surges of pleasure as I painted, I wouldn’t be painting.
3. Letting go of the need to master nature
It’s not surprising that they call the financiers on Wall St. “masters of the universe.” Making tons of money mastering stuff is where the action is, I believe. They use algorithms you know. Very bright people. But the mentality that is about mastering is the mentality that shuts down my oneness with the subject that I so enjoy, need, and feed off of. Suppose I were to say to myself: I’m bright too and capable, just like those mastering types. Okay then, let’s master this thing: I am not particularly interested in the color of the lake I see today – rather drab; I want the color “to pop” (a common motivation it seems) so I add in some white with a perky blue. Well, if I move in that direction, I might just as well paint from a photo or out of my head because I would then be separate from the subject anyway. Either way, the subject is objectified. Goodbye oneness, seduction, goodbye getting carried across the universe, and goodbye being able to see beyond the ordinary. (No wonder the color that I saw bored me.)
Look, one doesn’t have to be one with nature to be a painter but I do. I often push colors or if there are 3 or 4 colors swirling about, I may choose just the one that I seem to be tasting more. But when I manipulate nature in some way in the service of an idea, my ability to see deeply into things simply dies away because my feelings have died away. I’m totally in my head. Moreover, if I spend 10 seconds mastering the results and downplaying what I see, it’s ten seconds not really seeing. I must let go of mastering nature as an approach. Absolutely. One lifetime is not enough time to go very deeply anyway. As many artists have said at the very end of their lives, Degas being one of them, “Damn, and just when I was starting to get it!”
4. Letting go of a calculating rationality
Remember Hillary? Sigh. She was a calculator. And what was the line on her? She was inauthentic. We all know the feeling when we are in the ordinary realm, networking, maneuvering. Air kissing. The perpetual frozen smile. On the make constantly. We are not ourselves. Look at Damien Hirst. The cow’s head covered with maggots. Was that inspiration or calculation? Now he is the highest paid “artist” in the world. No wonder Matisse and so many other artists have been so hostile to the practice of calculating out strategies to succeed.
If and when I’m calculating out my super career path, here’s the big problem: I’m never the person who is able to get drunk on pink and blue photons dancing before me. I would be too busy thinking about what particular painting direction will advance my career. It took me years to even begin to feel a twinge of color. Now I use all my energy to slip into that realm where I can see a twinkling and seductive lime green. I crave for it to propel me. I want it to curse through me. I’m a color junkie. Or maybe I’m a color tripper? Who knows? If I become a hoop jumper, a contest competitor, a super-duper award winner and resume builder, great. I will move step-by-step up the freaking ladder; but again, I let go of all that for the simple reason that seeing more deeply – which is to say becoming a better painter, is not something that is or can be calculable. There is a greater imperative: I need to believe in myself where I am now. I’m too obsessed at the moment with being unnerved by that orange that seemingly keeps twinkling at me.
I don’t know if any of you still think I’m spiritual. I hope I’ve made it clear that whatever my “ism” is, it is not the kind that sits off to the side of or is disengaged from the success treadmill, or something that I can access at will or with ease. When and if enchantment happens it is because I have developed a bit of a strategy to access it and, apart from the music, it turns on consciously confronting and then letting go of those ordinary ways of being I have inherited. It requires, I’ve learned, a sense of anxiety. Not only am I unsure that if I access enchantment I won’t fall off my little tightrope, I know I must be a different person during those few precious moments when I am painting, that is, a somewhat different person than the person I am when I’m navigating the choppy seas of basic survival. I have a foot in each realm. This can be joyous to be sure, but it is also tormenting.
Bennett acknowledges this tension. She notes also that moving out of an atomized and predictable routine and into a realm where we are enamored with existence and able to feel moments of pure presence, creates within us a sense of being charmed but also a sense of being disturbed. The feeling of wonder is never far from the feeling of unease. This kind of spiritualism, if that is the correct word, for me at least, turns on a scraping off, a starting over, a letting go of what I already know, what I already can do well (especially as a painter); it is a kind tearing away, an uprooting, a dislocation, a resisting, a disobeying, a being bad! Eugene Bodin, Monet’s teacher, once said that when he painted the clouds it was “such a joy and such a torment.” Manet also used those exact same words to describe his realm of freedom. Funny, huh?
Let me end with a brief description of Cèzanne to re-enforce these points. He deplored competitions and awards. Many who knew him said that his only friends were trees and, therefore, would feel compelled to buy property when an entrepreneur saw in the respective trees only a resource and was prepared to chop them down (Renoir did this too). He constantly talked about sensations (as did Monet and Pissarro), vibrating and germinating with nature, and he regularly conversed with the nature that he painted. He declared again and again, that he would never allow entrepreneurs or to use his language, the bourgeoisie, to get “their hooks” into him. In fact, so hostile was he to those who lived exclusively in the realm of what I have been calling, following Bennett, “ordinary perception,” that he never simply used the term “bourgeoisie” by itself. He would always say instead, “the dirty bourgeoisie.” And why was there that burning hostility? It might be because he was obsessed with “realizing” (his word) who he was most. In other words, painting for him was, at its most fundamental, an activity of becoming. And so he would say, “With each canvas, I’m never the same man but I’m always Cèzanne.” “With each stroke I risk my life.”
Definitely a serious guy. And, I don’t know, rather spiritually engaged, don’t you think?
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). It is Bennett’s concept of enchantment that I have been working with and it isn’t a stand-alone idea; it is part of a pairing with the concept of disenchantment, which is a critique of modernity advanced by sociologist Max Weber. When I read Bennett I was stunned by her use of language and by the fact that her articulation of what she calls “sites of enchantment” bore an uncanny resemblance to what many great painters and writers have been pointing to as the realm we painters need to enter if we are to have half a chance at making art. Hence my desire to identify the activity of painting, when properly understood, as enchantment. All the italicized words in this blog unless otherwise noted are taken from Bennett.
 I’m referring to the ways in which we make and distribute our work in the larger art industry without thinking much about it. For example, if a private dealer wished to exhibit Monet’s work, he would have bought the work outright. Today, we beseech gallery owners to allow us to provide them with a free inventory so that they may sell our work on consignment. The difference is significant, but it is an inherited way of selling our work that we don’t think twice about and, worse, consider the practice to be just fine.
 As Monet once stated, “What people do not understand about my work is that it is a total self-surrender.”
 “If he’s sincere, if he’s entirely taken up with what he’s researching, he can’t do painting that flatters art lovers. If he’s 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.” Chatting With Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, Tate Publishing, p. 56.
 “….where this contact either fosters and/or itself constitutes a spiritually significant fulfillment or wholeness.” Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) p. 425