Author: Jerry_Fresia, Contributing Editor
|It was the first day of class, a Monday morning. Bill Schultz, my teacher, was about to begin. He picked up his brush and then hesitated. He turned to the class and asked, “What is it when a human being makes a mark on a canvas?” We waited somewhat expectantly. And then he replied, “It’s a miracle.”
In that answer is not just a truth, but an important truth – a truth that challenges a common assumption, namely that the most important thing about making paintings are the paintings. The painting is not the most important thing. Yes, a painting may win us a prize or even make us a living. It might even make us famous. But even more important than the painting we make is what happens to us when we make it.
So let’s get back to that assumption: why do we think the painting itself is the end-all and be-all of our work – as opposed to what happens to us when we make the painting? A lot of it has to do with culture we have inherited. The contribution of the modern era - that is from the Renaissance forward – was that we became free from an understanding of the universe where we were defined in terms of some larger cosmic order which in turn, as was the assumption, manifested the word of God. The new modern view was, instead, that we are self-defining. But there in lies the rub: this enlightenment view that we still share is one where we, as subjects, picture the world as a set of neutral objects, which we then observe or measure or manipulate. As artists, we became self-defining subjects – an historical accomplishment indeed. But we also became creative subjects that are separate from the objects which we paint, and that is the part of the achievement that is still troubling for it means that the task of the artist is rooted largely in observing or commenting on the world and recording our observations or commentary on canvas (or not).
The “miracle” or important truth that I’m talking about pushes this self-understanding of ourselves as self-defining subjects a very important step further. In this understanding, our lives are seen as expressions where we realize in our work something we feel or desire by virtue of the activity itself. Or to put it more sharply, in our expressions, we realize and become who we are because it is only through the effort of expressing that we clarify and make distinct who we are and who we are becoming.
Therefore, in this view, when we make a mark on a canvas, it becomes possible not just to create a thing, but to become a human being. It becomes possible, then, not simply to make a picture of something, but to create ourselves. That is the miracle. That is the reason we paint.
If we were to look at a painting by Cezanne, for example, we might see apples; but that is the superficial thing. No one cares about the apples or the sunset or the thing called a painting except insofar that it might move us, in a way that is rather inexplicable. The value of the painting - and here I am not talking about the market value or investment value - is that through it Cezanne continues to speak to us.
So this is the important truth: to make a mark on a canvas is to open the door of possibility of being moved profoundly and to move others. That is what painting is all about. That is the heart and soul of painting.
This approach to painting, of course, does not originate with me. It comes directly out of what can only be described as a golden age of painting. It was the approach that was central to the Impressionist rejection of the academic demand that artists skillfully record the world or in detached fashion create visual propaganda. Certain American artists who found their way to Paris in the late 19th century and returned to pass along a set of beliefs as well as a set of practices and techniques also expressed this view. The students of Robert Henri, perhaps the most passionate writer among them, captured much of these thoughts in The Art Spirit, a compilation of Henri’s thoughts and admonitions.
So where does that leave us? Well, for one thing, it compels us to be very cautious about careerism, the market, productivity, entrepreneurialism and other features of our way of life. I am not suggesting that we ignore the fact that our work circulates in a market and that our ability to have a career turns on the realities of exhibitions and curriculum vitae. My point only is that we might want to be clear about the ways in which the career sometimes advances while the art recedes. One way of getting clear about these things is to keep in mind a fundamental question: why do we paint?
There is the obvious – that we may wish to capture the experience of seeing something to which we respond, in some way, on canvas. But the point of this essay is to suggest that there is another – more important - reason. Our visual experience continues further, becomes richer, deeper and fuller as we paint it. A dialogue, a conversation begins. Our marks on the canvas are our response to the voice, the tastes, the touches that we see. I know that sounds odd, but the real category mistake that we make as visual artists is to assume that what we see when we paint is something separate from us, that we simply observe or measure or record with our eyes.
However, when we touch back or respond with our brush we begin something sensual, a dance of sorts, a conversation. We make a mark on the canvas and when we look back, with something that seemingly was not there a moment ago. And there is that miracle: by virtue of making marks, we have created ourselves a tiny bit more – and we actually can see more, feel more, because we have become more – by that tiny bit.
Were we not making marks we would not be able to see much at all, except that which we are supposed to see, that everyone sees - the expected, the names of things, trees, sky, house, person – the facts, the obvious.
You must see past these things. Taste with your eyes. Listen with them. Understand that the activity of painting is about the thrill, the enhanced moment you might realize. Then you will see. Then you will become.
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|B i o g r a p h y|
|Jerry Fresia, who organizes painting workshops on Lake Como, Italy, has a PhD in Political Science and has written extensively both on art and American politics. He studied painting with William Schultz and Wolf Kahn.|
|E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web Site: http://www.fresia.com|