A number of years ago I wrote an essay that has received more response, among artists, than anything else I ever wrote. It was called “I Am Not an Art Critic.” I was widely applauded. Let me begin, then, by reiterating this popular declaration: I am not an art critic.
That said, I AM a writer, and I do write about art. Over the years, I confess to having written numerous critical reviews for national magazines. In my defense, however, I like to think that I use words in much the same way that a painter uses paint. I started out as a poet and, as a well-known contemporary French poet once said, “poetry is NOT a USE of language, it’s a madness inside language.” Or perhaps, to use a metaphor that I prefer, more of a dance with language. In this context, I like to think that I write everything as I write poetry… novels, articles, memoirs, art reviews... and yes, even what I have to say to you tonight. I would like you to think of this as a “reading”—a “poetry reading,” if you will, and to listen to it as such. What else does that stuffy old word “lecture” mean but reading? Because, yes, my own gift is as a writer, not a speaker, and I know that the words I write evoke not only meanings, but also images, wandering associations, physical sensations, feelings… As the poet Archibald MacLeish famously wrote, “a poem should not mean but be.”
(Has anyone actually read that poem recently? It’s quite a beautiful one. It goes like this:
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
There. We could say the same thing of a painting, couldn’t we? A painting should not mean, but be…)
So… you see before you a man who writes rather often about art, but who judges that each one of you, as a painter, knows more in the tips of your fingers about art than I can claim to know after too many years of scribbling too many words in the attempt to name it. As the actor/comedian—and art collector-- Steve Martin is reported to have said: “Talking about art is like dancing about architecture.”
I’m also not entirely sure what “The Painting’s Edge” might be, unless it’s quite literally that place where the painting ends and the wall begins. Fair enough. But I particularly want to dissociate what I have to say from the term that is so cheerfully bandied about in art circles: the “cutting edge”—the next art world “–ism,” the direction of the future, the latest theory cobbled together by aestheticians who should have better things to do with their lives. Throughout my years as a teacher, art school administrator and writer about art, I have been dismayed by the way in which art schools and teachers of art have increasingly terrorized their students by requiring them to kow-tow to the latest theory to come along—too many of them, it seems to me, from that haven of intellectualism across the Channel from the country of my birth.
I mean France. We English pride ourselves on being pragmatists; the French have always been an enigma to us. (I’m by no means the first to observe that if you compare the two languages carefully, you’ll be surprised to find that the English vocabulary is rich with words and sounds that evoke infinite variations of material detail, while the French language is much more mellifluous and immaterial, stronger in words that facilitate abstract, analytical thought. But I digress.) The truth is that I have not only been dismayed by the art schools’ growing emphasis on theory, I have been befuddled, bewildered, outsmarted, left in the intellectual dust…
Thanks to friendly relations with numerous studio artists, however, I know that I’m not alone in acknowledging that I have difficulty reconciling the art I see with half of what is published in the art magazines—or that I’m getting more reluctant, these days, to devote the time it takes to actually read them. I look at the pictures. But when it comes to doing battle with the text, well…. Frankly, the brain staggers. Worse, for me, is the now familiar requirement that art students be fed this stuff and cough it back up in the form of an “artist’s statement”—presumably so that ignorant gallery dealers and the even more ignorant public—in addition to ignorant writers like myself--can be educated as to the splendid theoretical and critical underpinnings they’ve been told they need to justify their work and validate its significance to the world.
But, as they say, don’t get me started…
Another confession: I have no pictures to show you. I was immensely impressed, when I was invited to drop in on The Painting’s Edge this time last year, when the invited speaker, Christopher Knight—a man I consider to be a REAL art critic (and think no less of him for that!)—declined to show more than a perfunctory couple of slides or jpegs on the grounds that these reproductions of images had really very little to say about the art he was talking about. I bow to his superior wisdom. And besides, I figure that your heads are already fully occupied by the hundreds of images you habitually carry around with you as working artists, and the dozens more you have added to your collection in just this one past day. If you’re a painter, my guess is that your brain stores images a mile a minute. Why burden you with mine?
So what, you may well be asking by this point, does this person have to talk about? The truthful answer, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you, is myself. That sounds like an awful presumption, but I think this is a basic truth about all human beings and all creative activity. I believe that we do art—or writing—in order to learn more about ourselves, and to tell each other as much as is humanly possible about who we are. I look at your art in order to get to know more about you and your perceptions, and to learn what a fellow human-being has to teach me about myself and the world we live in.
Many years ago—I tell this story often enough to know that it holds great meaning for me—I signed up for a workshop at the Esalen Institute with an ancient wise woman, a shaman from the Mexican Huichol Indian tribe—the kind of thing that Esalen revels in. I remember absolutely nothing about the workshop—but for one of those great aha moments that sometimes surprise us with a flood of pure, incontestable enlightenment—those moments when we just say, gratefully, yes! Here’s what this wise woman told us: Unlike our Western tradition of “giving” a name to a baby on its first arrival in the world, the Huichols first ask this question of the new arrival: “Tell me who you are.”
“Tell me who you are…”
And I realized in that moment of epiphany that this was exactly what I was about. Everything I had ever written seemed suddenly to make sense in the light of this primal purpose: to tell others who I am and how I see the world. And then, through their work, to find out who those “others” are, that surround me and seek to make themselves known to me.
“Tell me who you are…” This is the essence of what I want to know when I come to look at the paintings you have made.
Here’s another lesson I once learned, whose message has remained meaningful to me all these years. I was not only a poet, in my younger days, but also a student of poetry. At the University of Iowa, while at the Writers Workshop, I took a course from a distinguished academic about Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the origins of romantic lyric poetry. These two British poets were amongst those of the period—the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century--who re-discovered the treasury of ancient Greek lyric poetry. As young men, they put together a collection of these poems in English translation called “The Greek Anthology,” and I learned that these brief lyrical passages—the origin, really, of all Western lyric poetry—were “inscription” poems, carved into the trunks of trees, on stone benches or walls—poems that were in a sense none other than that old “Kilroy was here”, inscribed to mark the ritual passage of a human being at that particular point in time, to tell us who they were.
So here it is: I expect and want no more nor less from a painting, whatever its edge might be. I don’t want a lecture about art theory and I don’t need you to tell me what your painting means. I want you to tell me honestly who you are, and offer me the opportunity to learn more about myself. I want to be able to recognize some part of myself in your paintings, and thus learn more about what we share, as human beings living on this precious and endangered planet at this particular moment in its history.
I will confide two contradictory things about myself. The first is that I am an intensely reserved and private individual… I have a whole big part of me that is appalled by the thought of being seen for who I am, that wants nothing better than to escape the prying eyes of others and their critical judgment, that would far prefer to run away and hide than to be seen standing here, speaking to a crowd of listeners who will surely see me for the dreadful fraud I secretly believe myself to be. Perhaps there are those of you who share this need for privacy and this fear of exposure? I happen to believe that it’s a secret part of many creative people. It’s what you might call the Emily Dickinson part.
But then I also have the Allen Ginsberg part, the opinionated show-off, who needs to be heard and paid attention to. This is the part of me that looks out at the world with outrage, the part that sees tyranny and injustice, acts of personal violence and war, and has an urgent need to shout out from the rooftops. This is the “conscience” part that feels a sense of obligation to my fellow-humans, that finds it almost obscene to fill my belly while so many others starve, to live at peace with myself while so many others are victimized by war. The part that refuses to keep quiet and disdains the need for privacy when so many public issues demand to be discussed.
It will come as no surprise, then, given these contradictions, that I respond to two very different kinds of painting--nor perhaps that I eventually see very little difference between the two.
I love painting that is obsessive, secretive, enigmatic, seemingly self-absorbed, mystical, concerned with the inner workings of the psyche and the mysteries of the universe, and indifferent to the material realities of the external world. This kind of painting is often, though not always, of course, abstract. It is sometimes, though not always, of course, monochromatic or minimal. I had the privilege to live for many years with a small painting by Yves Klein, the French artist who died at a very young age back in 1962. He was known, of course, for that “IKB”, his patented “International Klein Blue,” and for the monochromatic paintings in that intense, dusty cobalt blue that became his trademark. This particular painting sat on the wall of the dining room in our home. Small though it was, the space it opened up to the observing eye was an infinitude, reminding us every day of the vast void that surrounds our planet, in which our lives can seem tiny, fragile, insignificant—and infinitely precious. To be seen, the painting required a deliberate act of consciousness, a kind of leap into the void, an act of faith, an abandonment of the small self in favor of what I can only describe as an encounter with spirit. (You might remember also Klein’s leap into the voided, recorded in a famous photograph…)
That’s the big picture, the grand intention of certain kinds of abstract painting. It speaks to a part of me I have not yet mentioned, my discovery in recent years of the great spiritual resource of Buddhist teachings and their practical benefits on the path of life. (For those unfamiliar with my work, one of my main avocations at this point in my life is a blog called “The Buddha Diaries,” where I subject the experiences of my daily life to the scrutiny of Buddhist-inspired examination.) Because while Buddhism offers the context of a grand, spiritual vision—a vision with which the vision of an Yves Klein can resonate—it also emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the detail of mundane existence. Meditation is not, in my experience, first and foremost an approach to transcendence, but a way of learning focus and concentration in the world of practical reality. It’s the here and now, the action in the present moment that’s important: enlightenment may be the eventual goal, but the path is what we have to hand, which is real experience.
Meditation is also not easy. It’s not a purely right-brained, bliss-out activity. The path the Buddha laid out is in fact quite left-brained in its analytical precision: think of the four Noble truths, the eightfold path and so on. To follow the Buddhist path means, first of all, making the commitment to show up and, second, the exercise of a quite demanding discipline. To reach enlightenment, insofar as I am able, involves what for me has become a key word not only as a meditator but also as a writer: practice. We’ve all heard that corny old joke about the tourist lost in New York City who stops to ask directions from a native: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? The answer? Practice, practice, practice. Making good art is a matter of doing it and doing it and doing it again—I was about to add until we get it right, but that never really happens in meditation. Or, if it happens, happens in sudden and unanticipated ways, the kind of ways you can’t exactly plan for. I imagine it can be no different for a painter, working in the studio. First you show up. That’s hard enough in itself. There are always a million excuses, no? The kids. The laundry. The tax appointment. That long-delayed trip to China. Then the work begins…
Which brings me to a quite different kind of painting that I love. It’s the kind of painting that is an act of meditation in itself, an obsessive attentiveness to the action involved in making it, a means the artist uses (so I imagine) to access the deepest part of the psyche by eliminating every consideration save the making of each individual mark. I think of artists like Max Cole, for instance, or Agnes Martin, whose obsession fascinates the eye and compels absolute concentration from anyone willing to devote time and patience to following their practice. Of artists working today, I think of my friend Marcia Hafif, whose work is perhaps better known in Europe and in New York, where she spends half of the year, than in Southern California, where she spends the other half. Hafif works with small, monochrome panels, or at most with two areas of color juxtaposed with each other, building up layer after patient layer of meticulously applied paint until she achieves the particular perfection she strives after. For the observing eye, it requires us to follow along with each and every bodily movement, to “rehearse” Hafif’s act of painting for oneself if one wants to “get it.”
I love to be asked to follow the action of hand or arm, or to participate in the building of a particular texture, because these actions seem to invite me into the consciousness of the painting’s maker. It asks me to collaborate, in a way, in the physical act of creation, and through that collaboration to enter into the body-mind of the creator. The right brain, I have heard a speaker say, “learns kinesthetically from the movement of our bodies,” and when I find myself responding with that kind of “Yes!” to a painting, I figure that’s a part of it—the human body that we each inhabit and the movements from which we learn. So these aspects of a painting help me to actually experience a part of who that painter is—and to understand more about the relationship between mind and body: the way, if you will, the body thinks. A few minutes ago I cited that old adage, that “a poem should not mean, but be.” It’s this aspect of the painting’s being that excites me. There’s a magic to it, too: you show me how you do it at the moment of the doing, and the result is at once plain to see and a total mystery.
If I have dwelt thus far on abstract painting, it’s not because figurative and representational painting do not share these same qualities I respond to, but rather because abstraction—perhaps particularly monochrome abstraction—strikes me as their most extreme, and perhaps for that reason their purest manifestation. By the same token, though, the obsessively drawn line, the obsessively observed, recurrent pattern or image can also prove the vehicle for the kind of self-examination and self-revelation I’m speaking of. Here’s a poem I once wrote about a drawing by a friend, the artist Marsha Barron. It’s called, appropriately…
The line proceeds directly
from the heart, through the hand,
to the white surface of the paper,
with all its awkward pauses,
its hesitations, its sudden jolts
and turns, uncharted passages
through anger, fear, and pain;
or then, long, elegant moments
of inexplicable clarity. A spindly,
long-stemmed thing succeeds
in not quite being a flower;
a chunky, volumetric shape,
in not quite being a vase:
objects that never were, nor
will be, but in the mind's eye,
now here, on paper, startling
in outline, an inner darkness
translated with fierce precision
into the real world of here-I-am.
I used the words “from the heart” in that poem advisedly, because this, too often, is the forgotten part, the part with which our hyper-active left brains feel most uncomfortable, and therefore prefer to leave unspoken or ignored. I could be wrong, but it’s my impression that the word is not brought up too much in art school critiques. And yet, in my view, it’s an important word, and needs to be “at the heart” of everything a painter does.
I trust it will be understood that in talking about the need for you to show me who you are, I am not advocating some simple-minded “sincerity.” Those who follow the path of personal sincerity too often end up with nothing more than sentimental pap. I’m looking for something sterner, something more rigorous, the kind of self-examination that is unafraid to explore even—perhaps especially—those parts of ourselves we would not wish to have known, perhaps even to ourselves. It’s an approach that involves personal risk, and at the same time integrates every aspect of what it means to be a human being. The word for what I’m looking for is something more like “integrity.” It’s an often-abused word, so I’ll try to be specific.
Another lesson from the past has remained meaningful in my life. A dozen years or more ago, I became deeply involved in the study of the masculine psyche—including, by now you’ll understand, my own. I learned about the archetypes of the lover, warrior, magician, king and their respective affective qualities of compassion, intention, intellect and creativity, and how the integrated personality needs to hold these qualities in balance. I came to understand that the fully integrated human being must also have an awareness of the earth he stands on (the reality of the world) and of the sky above (the field of idealism and aspiration) and that ALL these qualities must meet together at the center, the place of inner wisdom, the human heart.
This is the map of the psyche, as it were, that guides my own path as a writer and a seeker after the deeper truths of human nature. So when I speak of the integrity I’m looking for in a painting, the aspect I say Yes! to when I see it, it’s very precisely in the balance of these qualities. I may not be able to explain or expound upon them, but I’m never more sure than when I see them brought together in a single work of art: the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and for want of a better word, the spiritual.
As I began by saying, it’s my belief that far too much privilege has been accorded to the intellect, at this point in painting’s history. Don’t get me wrong, the intellect has its place; an artist, even a painter, would be foolish to proceed without a good measure of technical knowledge of the medium and a firm grasp of art history—including, as needed, the work of contemporaries. But let’s not forget, or minimize, or subordinate, the co-equal roles of body, heart, and spirit.
I did mention earlier that there are two kinds of art that I particularly respond to. I have been talking primarily about the inward-looking, self-revelatory kind of art that tells me who you are. I would not want to close without at least mentioning the other kind of art that appeals to me, the outward-looking, sometimes political, often socially engaged kind of painting that wants to yell its sense of outrage to the world. I mentioned my blog, The Buddha Diaries, which represents the inward-looking part of my own work as a writer. You may also know that I do a counterpart to The Buddha Diaries in a podcast that I put together for Artscene Visual Radio. It’s called “The Art of Outrage,” and it gives expression to that other, public part of me that needs to be heard.
We live at a moment in history when there is more than enough to be outraged about. I have few friends, amongst the artists and the writers that I know, who do not share my anger at the actions and inactions of those in power, in recent years, in response to such urgent global issues as terrorism, population growth, the increasingly violent competition for dwindling resources, war, famine and the threat of disease, the extinction of important and beautiful life species, the routine abuses of our planet that threaten its very existence. I personally am angry at the religious as well as the political leadership, who vie for power and thrive on ignorance, intolerance, and violence. There is more to be angry about than I have time to include in this short list.
So I admire those artists who have the courage to address such issues overtly and with passion in their work, despite the still powerful influence of modernist thought that rejected such engagement. Bring on the politics, I say. Bring on the outrage. Bring on the satire and the scatological. Alan Ginsberg had it right: bring on the “Howl”! Since my allotted time with you is about to expire, let me draw your attention to just one artist whose work is currently available for you to view in a major exhibition--and who represents, for me, the epitome of this kind of art: his name is Peter Saul.
Saul’s work has consistently bucked the mainstream for the past fifty years. His paintings are outrageous, outraged, often unabashedly political (see his portraits of politicians like Reagan, Nixon, and Bush, for example). He feels free to use his work to explore themes of social injustice, and institutional abuses like corporate fraud, police brutality, and capitalist exploitation of all kinds. And yet—I made this point earlier—Saul is first and foremost a painter, as you’ll understand if you listen to my interview with him on “The Art of Outrage” in anticipation of his first-ever full-scale retrospective exhibition, currently installed at the Orange County Museum of Art. (And this, indeed, is why I bring him in as an example; I hope the mention will encourage you to make time to see this extraordinary show.) Saul paints what’s in his heart and on his mind. He paints because he has to, because that’s who he is. (It’s no surprise, of course, that this should be the first occasion for a major American artist who has been widely respected for so long by his peers to be recognized with a museum retrospective. Rather, it’s a sad commentary on the way in which art institutions sideline those whose work defies the currently accepted aesthetic canons.)
Which brings me to my very last point, returning to my major topic: me. I reiterate: I’m a writer. You’d think I’d love to go into a bookstore. But no. To me, the experience is nauseating beyond words. So many books. So much that I judge to be pure trash. Imagine the competition, once your book is written, to find an agent; for the agent to find a publisher; for the publisher to place a book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble; for the book to sell more than a handful of copies… It’s a chance in a million.
So I’m sure that you, as painters, as I do, as a writer, must sometimes ask this question: what in the world do I think I’m doing, adding to this immense plethora of STUFF with which the world is already overflowing? And I’m sure that you come up with the same answer as myself: because this is what I have been given to do; because I need, in however small a way, to mark my presence—here, at this moment in time and in this place—in testimony to my short passage here on earth; and because this is the only way I know to fulfill that purpose.
So, bless us all, we do keep doing it, don’t we?