A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen. Even if that object represents an entire exotic world, it must pass through the veil of the self to be realized—to be art. For it is the artist’s fully engaged sensibility—mind/heart/soul—that is really at stake for modernity. For all the critical complaint about the narcissism of modern artists, the twentieth century demanded self-absorption of its great ones: Don’t give us your skills, give us your attitude.—Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime
I knew Dave Owen in another life—my Hoosier period—and since then he’s become an admired landscape painter in southern Indiana. In his thoughtful new blog post “With the Artist Added,” at David Owen Art Notes, Dave reflects on the nature of art and artists as he prepares for a show. I was struck by how much his insights apply to writers and writing.
In the first place, he isn’t wild about the three pieces he’s taking to the competition, including the landscape reproduced above. And yet:
. . . I have realized that my paintings become neither better nor worse when a judge gives them a thumbs down or a thumbs up. They have a life of their own and are whatever they are.
To me, In Schooner Valley is lovely. But I can’t see what Dave sees—and certainly not what he’d hoped to see emerge from his brushstrokes. I too have finished pieces that I feel don’t quite work. Or at least fell short of what I’d imagined. Even successful and published stories, essays, and poems are handmade things and are lumpy or lopsided in spots. And what a mess we had to make to get halfway close to our intentions. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio, a potter’s bench, or a writer’s hard drive?
After fearsome effort, the creator sees flaws. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” said Paul Valery. I believe it. Artists labor until they’re frustrated with what they have made—the work’s no longer an ego extension, far from it—and their feelings can’t be hurt by a judge or an editor. They did the best they could, got what help they could, and at some point they moved on. Not because they gave up too easily, but because whatever that object still needs is beyond their powers.
At the gallery, Dave looks at various paintings and wonders where each artist’s style comes from. Hours later he happens to read John Burroughs, the nineteenth-century nature writer, reflecting on how bees turn the nectar of flowers into honey.
“Just as honey begins with the nectar that the bee finds in the flower,” Dave muses, “so a painter’s style begins with whatever sweetness the artist finds in life.”
Thus we arrive at the irreducible in art: the creator. Craft is the necessary conduit for this elusive self. We can teach craft—how to apply paint, how to put words in logical order—but we cannot teach that which paints, that which writes. At least not directly. And it’s the only thing more important in making art than craft.
Yesterday, after reading Dave’s essay, I was thinking about this as I judged some poems and essays for a little contest on campus. Most of the work was very rough from a craft perspective, yet there was such life and energy in it. One girl’s vivid essay, brimming with feeling for her handicapped brother, read like one of Gertrude Stein’s better stream-of-consciousness prose experiments. I admired it—hang the grammar. I recalled how writing theorist Peter Elbow advises writers to write as fast and as thoughtlessly as possible in their first drafts.
Elbow’s aim is to foster discovery by freeing the unguarded self from the constraints of craft before, necessarily, imposing craft. Natalie Goldberg’s and others’ freewriting approaches cleave to this. But many other successful writers use what Elbow calls “the dangerous method”—trying to polish each sentence to perfection as they go.
Self and craft need each other like the bee needs the flower and the flower needs the bee. Yet they can seem mutually hostile. Writing drafted for utter correctness may fail to express truth and beauty; writing that’s not at some stage disciplined by craft may fail to express anything at all. Working out this paradox seems central to art. I believe it’s something all artists must effect in their own sweet, idiosyncratic way.
[See also “Between Self and Story.”]