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Pearls from artists* # 281

"Poker Face," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

Interviewer:  Do you think criticism helps any?

Capote: Before publication, and if provided by persons whose judgment you trust, yes, of course criticism helps.  But after something is published, all I want to hear is praise.  Anything less is a bore, and I’ll give you fifty dollars if you produced a writer who can honestly say he was ever helped by the prissy carpings and condescensions of reviewers.  I don’t mean to say  that none of the professional critics are worth paying attention to – but few of the good ones review on a regular basis.  Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion.  I’ve had, and continue to receive, my full share of abuse, some of it extremely personal, but it doesn’t faze me any more.  I can read the most outrageous libel about myself and never skip a pulsebeat.  And in this connection there is one piece of advice I strongly urge:  never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never.  Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.       

Truman Capote in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited, and with an introduction by Malcolm Crowley

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Pearls from artists* # 201

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Matisse needs to find life difficult.  There has to be opposition and struggle:  “You come out by your own means,” he says:  “The essential thing is to come out, to express that sense of falling head over heals for a thing;  the artist’s job is not to transpose something he’s seen but to express the impact the object made on him, on his constitution, the shock of it and the original reaction.”

I sense that Matisse has little faith in the way his painting is feted nowadays.  A man of scrupulous integrity, he must wonder how much truth there is in all of that.  There is a vein of gutsy courage in him that is as unyielding now as it ever was.  Hard times have accustomed him to rely entirely on his own judgment and accept the solitude that this implies.

HM:  I’m already a little too official.  You need a bit of persecution.  When you’ve been controversial and they finally welcome you in, something goes wrong.  Very few people can see the picture itself; they just see the banknotes you could turn it into. You love your paintings less when they’re worth something.  When they’re not worth a cent, they’re like desolate children.

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

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Q: Do you have a mentor?

"Alone Together," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Alone Together,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  No, but I often wish I did.  How wonderful it would be to consult someone who’s been there, a productive and successful artist who could provide advice on all the concerns, especially the problems and dangers, inherent in a professional artist’s life. 

But I have been at this for thirty years and found no such person!  I think it’s because each artist’s career is highly unique as we chart are own individual paths.  Unlike most professions, there are no firm rules or straight forward career milestones for making your way as an artist.

Besides the countless hours spent in the studio, I have always worked diligently to understand the art business.  Certainly getting work seen, exhibited, reviewed, sold, etc. is as important as making it in the first place.  It’s all part of being a professional artist. 

Early on I developed the habit of relying on my own best judgment, both in creating the work and in getting it seen and collected.  Certainly I have made plenty of mistakes.  As a result though, I know a tremendous amount about the art business.  And I enjoy sharing what I know in the hopes of steering other artists away from making similar missteps.

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 49

Untitled, 24" x 24" chromogenic print, edition of 5

Untitled, 24″ x 24″ chromogenic print, edition of 5

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

The beauty of art is better, “higher,” according to Hegel, than the beauty of nature because it is made by human beings and is the work of the spirit.  But the discerning of beauty in nature is also the result of traditions of consciousness, and of culture – in Hegel’s language, of spirit.

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent.  As Wilde pointed out, art does more than school us on how and what to appreciate in nature.  (He was thinking of poetry and painting.  Today the standards of beauty in nature are largely set by photography.)  What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such – of what lies beyond the human and the made – and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.

A happy by-product of this insight, if insight it is:  beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”    

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag At the Same Time:  Essays and Speeches  

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Pearls from artists* # 27

Broken Bridge II, by El Anatsui, on the High Line

Broken Bridge II, by El Anatsui, on the High Line

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

Of course, when people said a work of art was interesting, this did not mean that they necessarily liked it – much less that they thought it beautiful.  It usually meant no more than that they thought they ought to like it.  Or that they liked it, sort of, even though it wasn’t beautiful.

Or they might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful.  Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on:  the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera.  The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment.  Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

What is interesting?  Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).  The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out.  The wicked, too.  To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious.  Connoisseurs of “the interesting” – whose antonym is “the boring” – appreciate clash, not harmony.  Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political, written in 1932.  (The following year he joined the Nazi Party).  A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics – and war – are interesting.   

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag:  At the Same Time

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Pearls from artists* # 21

Apartment building, New York City

Apartment building, New York City

* 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 beginning of a work that the writer throws away.

A painting covers its tracks.  Painters work from the ground up.  The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them.  Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right.  The discardable chapters are on the left.  The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the work’s middle, and hardens toward the end.  The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work’s beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand.  In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.

Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work.  If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them.  He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust.  Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared – relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork.  But no.

Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.  Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.  Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.  At length he turned to the young man:  “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it in the bad stack.  Why do you like it so much?”  The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”      

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

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Pearls from artists* # 15

Somewhere in Guatemala

Somewhere in Guatemala

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

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish, and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.” It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the floor. Creativity doesn’t generally work that way for me. (The rare times when it has stand out like April blizzards). You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.

… I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” This happens to anyone who is willing to stand in front of an audience and talk about his or her work. The short answer is: everywhere. It’s like asking, “Where do you find the air you breathe?” Ideas are all around you.

I hesitate to wax eloquent about the omnipresence of ideas and how everything we need to make something out of nothing – tell a story, design a building, hum a melody – already resides within us in our experience, memories, taste, judgment, critical demeanor, humanity, purpose, and humor. I hesitate because it is so blindingly obvious. If I’m going to be a cheerleader for the creative urge, let it be for something other than the oft-repeated notion that ideas are everywhere.

What people are really asking, I suppose, is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” but “How do you get them?”

To answer that, you first have to appreciate what an idea is.

Ideas take many forms. There are good ideas and bad ideas. Big ideas and little ideas.

A good idea is one that turns you on rather than shuts you off. It keeps generating more ides and they improve one another. A bad idea closes doors instead of opening them. It’s confining and restrictive. The line between good and bad ideas is very thin. A bad idea in the hands of the right person can easily be tweaked into a good idea.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life: A Practical Guide

Comments are welcome.

Pearls from artists* # 4

At work on "False Friends"; photo by Diana Feit

At work on “False Friends”; photo by Diana Feit

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

Given a small kernel of reality and any measure of optimism, nebulous expectations whisper to you that the work will soar, that it will become easy, that it will make itself. And verily, now and then the sky opens and the work does make itself.  Unreal expectations are easy to come by, both from emotional needs and from the hope or memory of periods of wonder.  Unfortunately, expectations based on illusion lead almost always to disillusionment.

Conversely,  expectations based on the work itself are the most useful tool the artist possesses.  What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece.  The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials.  The place to learn about your execution is in your execution.  The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love.  Put simply, your work is your guide:  a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work.  There is no other  such book, and it is yours alone.  It functions this way for no one else.  Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how you got there.  Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace.

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work.  To see them, you need only look at the work clearly – without judgment, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes.  Without emotional expectations.  Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.  Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.  

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome.