there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned


[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I  share the letters here.]

2 June 2013

Dear friends,

Last month, the universe conspired several times to bring Mary Oliver to consciousness. On Friday evening, probably the fourth time she visited my thoughts, walking on Commercial Street in Provincetown, coincidently her hometown, I decided to listen. Popping into Provincetown Bookshop, I purchased Long Life, Essays and Other Writings, which by virtue of a reference led me to the library on Sunday to borrow A Poetry Handbook. She begins that book with this:

Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school. This is true also of painters, sculptors, and musicians. Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person.

Still, painters, sculptors, and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques. And the same is true of poets. Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned. (Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, Harcourt Brace & Co. 1994, p. 1.)

I’m suspicious of the idea that artists are born, or that talent is given, if not because it serves to obscure the labor of art, then certainly because it encourages solipsism. Perhaps even more, I want creative revelation to be available to more than some small chosen group, to be an aspiration for us all. In her way, Oliver sees this too, and leads us to the delightful possibility that the process of becoming an artist lies in something too mysterious to be manufactured, recycled by rote. I can live with that. I don’t mean to be a miser, or to unnecessarily take from artists the joyful rush that comes from self-proclaimed genius, and I certainly understand the central role that affinity plays in the arts. We don’t commit ourselves to the obsessive making and remaking of things within our forms without such acts having personal meaning. But at the core of an artist’s making process, it seems to me, there must be a line of inquiry that is simultaneously personal and more broadly useful or meaningful.  And, it seems to me critical that we acknowledge the labor—physical, intellectual, and by ritual—that develops and advances what artists do.

As you know, this semester I’ve been trying to sort out my relationship to the analytical and to the poetic. I’m trying not to see these things as artificially disconnected, but also allowing each its due. I’m fairly confident of my analytical voice, but suspicious of it, too. It’s easy for me to hide in that voice, to shore up my insecurity in an authoritative tone.  It’s more difficult for me to embrace metaphor, to make inference, to allow a story to speak for something larger than the literal. It’s easier for me to underscore a point, make an argument, or name a meaning. It delights me to think about the critical “essay” taking the form of a poem or painting, and also trying to remember that critical exposition isn’t the pinnacle of human meaning. With this in mind, I’m listening for those places and ways in which art speaks.

Over the weekend, reading the anthology, Drawing Us In: How We Experience Visual Art, in Hilton Als’ forward, I found this:

… the art that affects us and attacks us with the artist’s passion and dreams is something we’ve seen before, somewhere, if only we could place it. It’s a matter of how deeply one has ever looked at one’s interior world: it’s been there all along. Art is mortality made manifest. We won’t last, but this painting or drawing, sculpture or photograph will.  (p. ix)

And, in another part of that book, Dorothy Alison offers:

I think that using art to provoke uncertainty is what great writing and inspired images do most brilliantly. Art should provoke more questions than answers and, most of all, should make us think about what we rarely want to think about at all. (p. 14)

And then later, reading a new monograph on Richard Diebenkorn’s figurative period, this thought jumped out at me:

All paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression. To call this expression abstract seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract…a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts. But I’ve been content to accept the label of Abstract-Expressionist because I do feel a kinship with the honest search of these painters. A forceful quality in art, truly representative of our modern situation, will rise above the labels of abstraction and realism…a painter is bound to reflect himself and his times. (Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkley Years, 1953-1966, Yale University Press, 2013. p. 36)

Each of these thoughts connects the work of the artist with experience in the world. Each speaks to the nature of audience or dialogue. Each tells us something about the particularity, the preoccupation of its author. Each, in its own way, perhaps just through a cursory glance, hints at a theory of art.

It occurred to me the other day that asking an artist to define their personal theory of art is an unusual request. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s wrong, but rather that it’s odd—not the kind of thing that comes up in regular conversation or the kind of thing one might often spend time thinking about. The fact that this is a revelation to me is also somewhat odd, perhaps reflecting my own preoccupations with the program’s degree criteria and revealing the particular bubble in which I live. Strangeness aside, I continue to think wrestling with the question is important, and certainly a way to better understand one’s artistic context. I find myself wondering now whether this question is simply an opportunity to reflect, to consider the many ways that artists try to understand why they do whatever it is that they do—and why the doing of it is specific to their historical moment.  We are creatures of context, whether we know it or not. Knowing, understanding and seeing our personal context strikes me as having some liberatory value.

We’re also creatures that can choose our context. If our aspirations don’t fit with our current context, we can either choose to change aspirations—effectively denying them—or we can move. And I don’t mean this arbitrarily or only geographically. We can conceptually place ourselves in relation, conversation, and dialogue with those people, ideas, and places that inspire and support our goals.  We can become the artists we want to be by locating ourselves in the right place(s).

I’ve written about these things before, so I won’t repeat myself.

I’ve returned to this topic because it keeps returning to me. Working with finishers on portfolios, and in conversation with other students this semester, the question of a personal theory of art, one’s location in dialogue with other theories of art, keeps coming up. It’s curious to me that we struggle to articulate why we make art, what we mean to convey, and how we think what we do matters. And when I write “we” I don’t mean “you”—I fully include myself in the struggle. As you can probably infer from the quotations above, from the thinking I’ve shared in these preface letters this semester, I’m thinking a lot about the space that exists between visual art and literature—which are the forms I’m trying to navigate these days. In a sense, literature is helping me find my visual arts practice again. It’s reminding me why I have an affinity for painting, reminding me of the pure pleasure of looking, seeing and then looking some more. It’s also interesting to consider that my immersion in theories of art may be what obscured my path as a visual artist. So I should qualify my questions about theories with a caution to be true to your affinities, and to be wary of fashions.

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