(This following piece is a sort of Part 2 to Getting Back to the Studio, from the last post. Forgive me if the tone is a bit strident — I’m just trying to remind myself of what the hell I’m doing here with this oil and colored mud.)
In a formidable and tender-hearted review of the collected works of Primo Levi in The New Yorker by James Wood (September 28, 2015), Wood brings a thought from Saul Bellow, who “once said that all the great modern novelists were really attempting a definition of human nature, in order to justify the continuation of life and of their craft”. Might not the same be said of the great modern painters? Andrew Forge, in his extraordinary introduction to a monograph on Soutine, writes about representational painting as a kind of rehearsal or experimentation with ways of living. I take this to mean as well, ways of being. In order to justify the continuation of life and of our craft. This isn’t about “art” – forget about art. Art is a slippery word. It seems to my mind the term “art” today has become almost inseparable from perverse culture and end days. This is about life and craft. I may not be an artist – I don’t really know what that means, but I know that I am a maker and a painter.
Thinking again about what Pema Chodron is speaking of in Unconditional Confidence , there is great value in not just turning towards the experience of fear and our painful uneasiness, but inhabiting that place with attention and giving these fragile experiences courageous form. These places in-between, before and under words. The sensations themselves. Is this not part of the greatness of these modern masters, to inhabit these places of fragile awareness and bring them into manifest form, intact and generous? Cezanne, Soutine, Matisse, Bonnard, even the daemon-will of Picasso. Auerbach striving to catch that experience of something coming into being. De Kooning’s slipping glimpser.
If our images carry less, knowingly or unknowingly, if they merely bring another dumb (non-vital, non-communicative) object into this world, isn’t that just connivance? Compromise with forces that would steal and sell our humanity? And is that not the cunning and genius of our art world, trading on hearts and souls? Selling our work is not the problem – making work that lacks real vitality, real life – that’s the easy compromise.
So let us be makers and make with dignity. To the best of our abilities. How did John Berger put it in The Shape of a Pocket?
“Today, to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.”