What is Monet Doing? (Part 3 of 3)
This is the third blog in a three-part series: one of the thoughts that I have been suggesting, implicitly perhaps (as so many other artists have), is that the “subject” of a painting is never the subject (at least it ought not be), that painting as an activity is the expression of self and, therefore, a process of self-realization, a process of “becoming.” This process at its best, therefore, is joyful given the sense of fulfillment one feels as one realizes one’s powers and unique shape – and yet it is always fraught with degrees of torment given that it is a kind of rebirth, where one keeps shedding skins, keeps growing. So we find, for example, Monet’s most important teacher, Eugene Boudin, explaining his love of painting skies this way: “To swim in the open sky…what a joy.” And then he adds, “…and what a torment.” To understand what Monet is doing we must probe further this linkage between exhilaration, triumph, and joy on the one hand and torment on the other.
One of my favorite insights of Robert Henri is relevant here: “The drudgery that kills is not half the work that joy is.” I made mention of the Henri quote to a friend (a non-painter) once, as we were sitting at a café on the shores of Lake Como while we were both sipping prosecco (the Italian version of champagne but not considered hoity-toity in the least.). The weather was perfect, the day glorious. My friend, seemingly with great ironic pleasure announced, “I’m feeling rather joyful right now and I have no sense of working, let alone a sense of drudgery. ” Somewhat deflated, I responded, “Well, there’s joy and then there’s joy.” Unimpressed, my friend smiled back at me and ordered another prosecco.
I was trapped by the very language we shared, a language that has but one word for all the possible kinds of joy one might experience. Let me then make a distinction that American English, at any rate, does not admit. The joy of which Henri speaks is not the joy that arises when we are passive and something pleasurable happens to us: sitting in the sun and drinking prosecco, or going shopping, enjoying a grand meal, or receiving gifts; rather it is the kind of joy that comes from not only acting in the world, but a kind of acting we might call resistance, a clarifying of who we really are. Our true shape, our unique spirit or being comes into clarity when we push against our surroundings, when we “let the world know and feel who we are.”
This isn’t easy. When we push against what surrounds us – a kind of “putting ourselves out there” – we are not only made more visible, we are made more vulnerable. And yet, this is the stuff of creative expression. This is what Manet meant when he reminded us that “one must risk oneself entirely and anew each time.” Yes, of course we make paintings. But let’s get the order straight: more fundamentally when we paint, we are making ourselves, allowing that song from within to be heard. The paintings follow.
Okay, back to Monet. Take a look again at his own descriptions of what he is feeling as he goes through the process of painting:
I get disgusted by what comes too easily at first try, I am literally driven mad by the need to render what I feel.
I am feverishly engaged in what I am doing, and every evening I am eagerly waiting for the next morning to do still better….
It was all bad. I have erased what I did…the approach was wrong, the feeling was wrong too.
I have been working every day on the two same canvases and yet have been unable to achieve what I wanted, it will have to come but with what pains and labor.
I always want to do better…and yet I simply cannot, I keep trying.
I have been working on fourteen paintings today….If I were living in Rouen, only now would I start to feel my subject.
I think it would be a terrible mistake to read these passages and infer from them that Monet is simply frustrated, as anyone might be, in not achieving a certain result. Over and over Monet keeps saying how he wishes to “render” his feelings. In fact, he is “driven mad” by this need. But to render one’s feelings is to realize one’s feelings and to realize one’s feelings is to realize and come to know one’s powers, one’s shape, to really begin to see and feel – to clarify – who one is. Thus it follows that if the painting comes easily, there is no real clarification and the feeling is one of “disgust.” When he says that he must “keep trying” and “do better,” in the context of this intense need to render and realize his feelings more profoundly, he is telling us that for him painting is a process where he, Claude Monet, as a unique being, is emerging. The process is a kind of unfolding. Stated another way, Monet is telling us that his commitment is to become more Monet, to the person he is most.
Monet may paint haystacks, cathedrals, and water lilies but the subject is always Monet. We say “that’s a Monet.” But here is what I’m trying to draw your attention to: that to become Monet is to become Monet as against the values and constraints of the way of life that he inherited. He is not “becoming all that he can be” (to quote that American TV jingle) where achievement is measured in the standard sense, where the institutional set of opportunities made available are adopted or identified with unreflectively. On the contrary, he is explicit: the accepted understanding of what it meant to be an artist for him was “unhealthy.” Were he to have accepted the standard measures of success, he would have had to become less Monet, he would have had to die a little in the process.
I have recounted my own experiences along these lines to students many times. After a decade of rather serious study, I had mastered, as it were, the mechanics of painting that I had been taught. And yet, my work, while correct, always struck me as dead on arrival. My problem, I discovered later, was that I had viewed the act of making paintings much like everything else I had done – or made – in my life up until that time. As a kid, for example, the measure of any work I did that had been assigned to me was the evaluation – by some authority – of the results. Did I do it well or not depended on meeting some unquestioned external standard that I, personally, had nothing to do with. Perhaps it was my father’s judgment of how I cut the grass. My self-worth too was tightly woven into these measures. Ditto with school work. Grades were everything – the feelings I had during the course were essentially irrelevant. Results were everything. Production was everything. My place in whatever hierarchy in which I happened to be implicated was everything. So when it came to painting, I was results-driven, focused on the product, desperate for some measure of approval by my teacher or that implicitly granted by the almighty sale or by the acceptance to a gallery; and from there a new hierarchy would insert itself. Was the gallery a good gallery? Was my way of painting considered by “the experts” to be important or was it (and me along with it) considered passé? Was the job a good job? Would the position be sufficiently worthy of announcing it to friends and family or was it evidence that I was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy that women everywhere would shun? Would my salary be sufficient to purchase the sorts of things that proved that I was not the person I feared I might be?
The threads of a way of life run through us, envelop us, shape us and are largely invisible to us. As those same threads carried over from a way of life organized around ever greater horizons of production and ever more interwoven sets of hierarchies found their way into my process of painting, I was utterly oblivious to the fact my autonomy had been eviscerated. And, frankly, had someone explicitly pointed this out to me, I know I would have shrugged the whole thing off. I mean, why probe such nasty, inconvenient truths? Why rock the boat? Why stop the music and dig around? It won’t help me, right? To hell with it. My little career path was unfolding properly. Yet the cancer that devours one’s personal and independent creativity was, for me at that time, at about stage 4. I had become, to use the parlance of psychiatry, a “production freak.” Well, there you go. I was normal.
Now, to become conscious of all of this, to understand, to cite just one example, that my feelings during the work process mattered – over and against the results or product, what do you suppose I had to do? I had to become aware of all those social threads that ran through me. I had to stop and reflect upon normal ways of doing things. I had to dredge up my assumptions and see if, in fact, they were valid. I had to push against my surroundings. I had to get some distance from the myriad values and expectations that I had inherited and had embraced as my own.
When, for example, I read that Picasso argued that the concept “finish” is an inappropriate category in determining when we stop painting – it’s just fine for making a cake, a car, or a house – do you think that that was an idea “I got” straight away? What was worse was the fact that to pick away at one idea invariably brought into question yet an array of other ideas, each linked to one another, each now percolating up to the surface. There was always a sense of relief as this happened, as in “I don’t have to carry that baggage around anymore,” but at the same time, as I began to slog through the examination of one idea after the other, the more powerful feeling was one of opacity and anxiety. What am I doing? Where does this lead? Am I sure? My family is going to go beserk.
When my teacher implored time and again to not look for results as I paint, that the pay-off comes in the moment of creation, in that moment when one realizes that he or she actually does see more, it was simply not possible for me to respond by saying, “Oh yea, sure. I get it.” It was not possible to simply become more on the spot, to jettison ways of being overnight. To jettison the ingrained compulsion to get into a good gallery or a good anything, to disassociate selling from self-worth, to see the ever present insistence, coming from every direction, to market my brains out as problematic or hollow, as a misdirection, or as a danger, really – is like the drudgery that kills. The transition to a more fulfilling way of approaching painting – that kind of joy – is unlike the rather quick simple joy that comes swiftly and easily. It is not like the joy of having found a better way, for example, when I dumped my desktop computer in favor of a laptop. The difference for me was that as I slowly grew out of my inherited way of being in the world and into one that was more of my own making, I had to risk putting myself out there “entirely and anew each time.” “To be free,” Henri reminds us, “…can only be attained through the sacrifice of many common and overestimated things.” But to cross all those thresholds! Ouch, the pain, the indignity. Crap, I was no longer normal!
And here we come to the crux of it all: when I was disgusted too with cranking out absolutely correct and acceptable work, I understood, deep in my gut, that my paintings were dead. I knew at some level that I had to get off the track which had been the track of my life since the first grade, a track I had been moving down breezily, a track that had been delivering to me those wonderful pats on the back for each and every little triumph. In short, I had to slowly but surely stop the music. I had to question. I had to drop out of the great success-competition-be-all-you-can-be-achievement-rat-race. I had to walk through the looking glass, leave that great journey of moving from working-class-ville-to-success and enter into that space where one is looked at – well let’s just say – askance. Oh, the torment. I can still hear my mother saying, “It’s really a shame. He did so well in school.”
* * *
“What would make a successful workshop for you?” I ask students when they arrive. “I would like to learn new techniques,” is the most common answer given. Do you suppose that that response is shaped by a culture that rewards innovative technology and efficient production? And when I respond, “It may be more fruitful to learn new ways to be free,” do you suppose that this competing notion is something that can be readily understood? Or will ever be understood at all?
What impresses me about Monet and his peers is the degree to which they were embroiled in the turbulent politics of their day, the way they met regularly to discuss strategy in the context of philosophy, literature, theater, and the history of their own profession, and how they identified with artist struggles past: “We followed on the heels of the School of 1830,” Pissarro noted in 1900. I also liked that they were influenced by a new understanding of what it meant to be an artist, one that was articulated nicely by Charles Baudelaire, in his The Painter of Modern Life, an essay that some have referred to as the “philosophical manifesto of the Impressionists.” An artist, suggested Baudelaire, is “a man [woman] of the world…who…wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe.” Artists toward which he felt scorn, instead, were those who were “no more than highly skilled animals…[whose] conversation, which is necessarily limited to the narrowest of circles, becomes very quickly unbearable…to the spiritual citizen of the universe.”
Whenever I see my friend with whom I was drinking prosecco that day, I say, “now remember, the drudgery that kills….” And I stop. And we laugh. It may be a rather elevated or dry or arcane or difficult conversation to jump into, particularly if all we want to do is to slip into a dreamy alcoholic buzz while sitting in the sun. But for anyone who wishes to render their most incredible feelings or realize their deepest creative powers and, thereby, become “spiritual citizens of the universe,” “drunk” like the child who “sees everything in a state of newness,” then, in that case, it is a conversation that one ought to insist upon having, don’t you think? We are trying to paint our own special poem – the poem of our lives – after all.
 “I’ve always said the subject is not the subject.” Wolf Kahn, ARTnews, December 2001, 89.
 David Viscott (May 24, 1938 – October 10, 1996), was an American psychiatrist, author, and media personality. While his commentary on creativity was brilliant (I possess old cassette recordings of a workshop he gave on creativity) I don’t believe there is any written or recorded material from this workshop that remains. If you go to Youtube you can see him do his on-air therapy, which interesting in itself.
 The quotes by Monet can be found in his letters; I took these from Claude Monet at the time of Giverny, edited by Jacqueline et Maurice Guillaud, Guillaud Editions, distributed by Rizzoli, New York.
 Monet is also explaining to us that the measure of his paintings are the feelings that he realizes as he makes them.
 For this reason we often refer to works of various artists according to their stage of becoming. Paintings by Monet of figures or streets, for example, might be called the early Monet. Whereas his water lilies would be called the later Monet. Much of this phrasing, “the self you are most” comes from Viscott.
 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, 206.
 Quoted by Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, 4. The “school” in this context would be the artists pressing for democratic control over their work in the revolution of 1830.
 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 6-7. If you google this essay, you will be able to download the relevant passages.
 Baudelaire, 8.