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Pearls from artists* # 220

Lima, Peru

Lima, Peru

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

 It is the job of the writer to say, look at that.  To point.  To shine a light.  But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention.  We develop our sensitivity – to use John Berger’s phrase, our “ways of seeing” – in order to bear witness to what is.  Our tender hopes and dreams, our joy, frailty, grief, fear, longing, desire – every human being is a landscape.  The empathic imagination glimpses the woman working the cash register at a convenience store, the man coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, the mother chasing her toddler up and down the aisle of the airplane, and knows what it sees.  Look at that.  This human catastrophe, this accumulation of ordinary blessings, of unbearable losses.  And still, a ray of sunlight, a woman doing the wash, a carcass of beef.  The life that holds us.  The life we know.     

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

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Pearls from artists* # 48

"Big Deal," with double portrait of the author

“Big Deal,” with double portrait of the author

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Until the invention of photography, the painted (or sculptural) portrait was the only means of recording and presenting the likeness of a person.  Photography took over this role from painting and at the same time raised our standards for judging how much an informative likeness should include.

This is not to say that photographs are in all ways superior to painted portraits.  They are more informative, more psychologically revealing, and in general more accurate.  But they are less tensely unified.  Unity in a work of art is achieved as a result of the limitations of the medium.  Every element has to be transformed in order to have its proper place within these limitations.  In photography the transformation is to a considerable extent mechanical.  In a painting each transformation is largely the result of a conscious decision by the artist.  Thus the unity of a painting is permeated by a far higher degree of intention.  The total effect of a painting (as distinct from its truthfulness) is less arbitrary than that of a photograph; its construction is more intensely socialized because it is dependent on a greater number of human decisions.  A photographic portrait may be more revealing and accurate about the likeness and character of the sitter; but it is likely to be less persuasive, less (in the very strict sense of the word) conclusive.  For example, if the portraitist’s intention is to flatter or idealize, he will be able to do so far more convincingly in a painting than with a photograph. 

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

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Pearls from artists* # 16

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

For the artist drawing is discovery.  And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true.  It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.  It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking.  A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you to see.  Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it.  Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it:  the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.  Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical.  Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you.

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 6

"Quartet," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38" image, 70" x 50" framed

“Quartet,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

*  an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

After we have responded to a work of art, we leave it, carrying in our consciousness something which we didn’t have before.  This something  amounts to more than our memory of the incident represented, and also more than our memory of the shapes and colours and spaces which the artist used and arranged.  What we take away with us – on the most profound level – is the memory of the artist’s way of looking at the world.  The representation of a recognizable incident (an incident here can simply mean a tree or a head) offers us the chance of relating the artist’s way of looking to our own.  The forms he uses are the means by which he expresses his way of looking.  The truth of this is confirmed by the fact that we can often recall the experience of a work, having forgotten both its precise subject and its precise formal arrangement.

Yet why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us?  Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.  Not of course our awareness of our potentiality as artists ourselves.  But a way of looking at the world implies a certain relationship with the world, and every relationship implies action.  The kind of actions implied vary a great deal.  A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness.  Yet each of these examples is too personal and too narrow to contain the whole truth of the matter.  A work can, to some extent, increase an awareness of different potentialities in different people.  The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement.  Nor need the work be optimistic to achieve this; indeed, its subject may be tragic.  For it is not the subject matter that makes the promise, it is the artist’s way of viewing his subject.  Goya’s way of looking at a massacre amounts to the contention that we ought to be able to do without massacres.         

John Berger, Selected Essays

Comments are welcome.

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