The Writer Speaks:
Art and the Artist
It often amuses me, the idea that art just happens! It mystically comes winging out of the cloud of a dream during the night and the “artist” — seized by inspiration — takes pencil to paper or ink to page or paint to canvas or fingers to piano and — voilà! Art appears!
Admittedly, I have woken up out of a sound sleep to
scribble down words but, in my non-morning-person opinion, nighttime is for
sleeping! Staying up all night doing
anything, creative or otherwise, produces only fatigue in the morning for the
person or persons involved in the all-nighter! I have also tossed and turned till 2 a.m., unable to work out a plot
line for a novel. Then I fall asleep and
when I awake after a good 8-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep, the plot line is
complete in my waking mind.
Art is work. It takes time and it requires talent, but there are no easy paths to the drawing board. Art is the result of taking natural but raw talent and honing it, through technique and the precision of repetition, until the refined talent looks natural, more natural than the originally natural state of the talent.
How is this state of trained and refined naturalness achieved? Through the repetition of the mechanics of technique, a sometimes boring but always necessary and meticulous process that often denies the full expression of the talent that yearns so much to emerge. And yet that talent cannot completely emerge, at least not in the truest sense of mature, ripened talent, until the basics are mastered, regardless of the métier, the endeavour, the realm of study.
When I was teaching algebra to my then-adolescent son, he was rather insistent upon taking short-cuts. He claimed that he could do the problem faster and better with the short-cuts. I told him this statement just once: “You cannot attempt any short-cut until you have mastered the basic steps, in algebra, in art, in life.”
Of course, he did not listen. And he wasted approximately three months during which time, instead of fully learning fundamental skills and processes, he used his short-cuts. To his horror, his test results suffered and, to his even greater horror, he wasted time!
My annoyance was the distraction factor — the use of short-cuts distracted this student from mastering the basic, core rules and the orderly, repetitive steps that comprise the foundation of learning algebraic methods. This neophyte mathematician spent the summer catching up on those “3 months” that he “lost” as a result of using “short-cuts.”
This same seemingly monotonous repetition of steps in any technique is required for the mastery of any skill. Scales for the singer, finger exercises for the pianist, cutting and chopping for the chef, barre exercises for the dancer, perspective and shading for the painter, batting practice, warm-up exercises for any muscle-memory sport, game or craft — all are mechanical but necessary steps to achieve the magic of mastery. Perhaps even the surgeon flexes his fingers in preparation for wielding the scalpel.
“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” with or without pebbles in her mouth, were for Eliza Doolittle not merely words to torment her as she attempted to speak like a lady in a florist’s shop. The vocal drills were part of the mechanics of speech. Or as Professor Higgins more dramatically and eloquently proclaimed these words that express my sentiments toward the French language:
“I know your head aches; I know you're tired; I know your nerves are as raw as meat in a butcher's window. But think what you're trying to accomplish. Think what you're dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language: it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that's what you've set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.”
Conquer it, she did. The technique became a part of her, in the same way that any artistic technique becomes a part of the artist, so much a part of the artist that she cannot forget it: it feels natural. Voilà: the talent within the artist at last emerges, fully developed, in full flower, in inimitable form, performed not effortlessly but with the ease of confidence derived from the tried-and-true testing to conquer each note, each line, each step.
Technique, however, cannot create talent that does not exist in the first place; neither should technique be used to disguise (cover up) the waning or deterioration of one’s talent. It is a most distressing sight for anyone to observe an actor or singer or performer of any physical medium who has stayed too long on the stage. The mature artist must grow and mature as a person so that his “days in the sun” can be appreciated from the cool of the shade. From the coolness of that shade talents might develop and emerge that prove more radiant than the talents that shone with such luster in the bright lights.
In essence, the artist must understand that her talent is a gift, an aesthetic endowment from her maker. It is not a possession or a weapon or tool or a means of bartering the gift for fame, money, attention, recognition, or, most vilely, for power.
The passion that motivates the artist must be a pure desire to use the gift for good. Now, “good” is a highly subjective term, but its definition is somewhat akin, inversely, to the definition of hard-core pornography as supremely stated in 1964 by Potter Stewart, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice (one of “The Supremes”): “I know it when I see it . . .”
Provocation, posturing and posing are not equivalent to proclaiming and imparting artistic passion. Delight in deviancy is not in any way, shape or form the same as the devotion of vision and the dedication of inspiration that challenge conventional thought with something known as originality. “Performance art” in the modern sense is an oxymoron.
There must always be, for any art to “happen,” the element, the necessity, the drive of discipline; the idea of the real-becoming-the ideal; and the reminder, which must be ever-constant, that even during moments and passages of pure emotion and profound feeling, even anguish, that the performer must sublime those passions into a universally heart-felt expression. That expression must be guided by a rational, reasoning, thinking human being who contains the heart and soul of an artist.
The mere ability to feel — deep, inside — is not art. Millions do that sort of thing every day, indulging in intense epics of agony, luxuriating in guilt, emoting superficially to the extreme, wallowing in tear-drenched warbling — publicly, privately, on YouTube, online almost everywhere, off-line during boring nights in the burbs.
The need to express one’s self through art is not art. Self-expression is the Ego masquerading as art; and, Heaven knows, the Earth is amply filled with attention whores.
Art expresses the intense desire to speak to another human being, from the heart. It is the fervent longing, even urgency, and a sense of duty to bring light into darkness, hope into despair, and faith into fear. Such a commitment to transcendence that strives toward magnanimity can motivate the artist to engage in what might seem ridiculous levels of work, hard work, even exhaustive work.
There are no compromises in the realm of creating art; and there can be no compromises in the heart to grant the performance of art. There can only be the labor born of love, nurtured by long hours of burning the midnight oil, fed by a hunger that demands far more than it could ever give. In accepting that reality, that the Reward is in the sacrifice, the artist becomes real: the “artist” become the Artist. In attempting a short-cut to circumvent the diligent discipline of art, in grabbing the spotlight that then instantly loses the selflessness of honoring one’s talent, any performer thus yields to the call of the Amateur.
And for the Artist, there can be no graver insult, no label that stings so deeply as that of Amateur!
Think then of the final results of your work, along with the process that, in essence, is as much a part of the final result as it is the beginning and every step along the way. This process requires, demands, commands — technical skills, technique, and craftsmanship, not merely the desire to create, the inspiration to sing or paint or write or dance, and the passion to perform.
Dame Joan Sutherland advised: “Technique is the basis of every pursuit. If you're a sportsman or you're a singer or a swimmer, well, that comes under sport but you have to develop a basic technique to know what you're doing at any given time.”
Whether one is singing, sewing, cleaning, skating, fixing an automobile engine or cooking, technique is the key to success, or at least the key to optimizing the chances of success. Jacques Pépin, the wondrous chef and artist (in painting as well as in cooking and living well) wrote in Chez Jacques:
One has to cook with love and eagerness for the food to be exciting and flavorful, and this has to be controlled by good techniques.”
“Technique” in and of itself cannot neither replace or masquerade as talent, but the individual must first master the basic technique(s) of any art (or trade) if he expects to nurture the unfettered expression of his talent. Often the gifted person must also develop his own techniques; merely following established ones may not suffice for the expression of his talent.
Traditional and conventional methods may work for a time, but the innovative artist feels the need (perhaps compulsion, in the healthy — and, yes, there is a healthy — sense of the word) to create his own methods and techniques as part of the expression of his talent in creating art. In many ways, the artist is always self-taught.
Regardless of the source of the techniques, good, sound techniques develop craftsmanship. And, as Johannes Brahms stated: “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”
Art is based upon craftsmanship. Anyone who believes that art simply happens has not attempted to create anything, except perhaps a myth about the creation of art. Craftsmanship without talent, however, produces, at most, a highly skilled artisan. Furthermore, the vision that inspires art may be fully lacking within the mind, the esprit, of that person with trained hands and disciplined skills. And “vision” is that intangible element that separates the highly skilled artisan from the gifted but perhaps as-yet unskilled artist.
Vision is, in essence, inspired (by whom or what remains, or ought to remain, a mystery). And inspiration is, of course, the basis upon which art is built. If you must ask what inspires a person to create, then you do not understand the nature of inspiration. It is more than an impulse or a desire. It is a divine sensation, a yearning, a sense of becoming . . .
In the words of opera composer Giacomo Puccini: “Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all of man’s faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements.”
Achievement in art is not always quantifiable, although capitalism has certainly achieved the “art” of cashing in and cashing out on many a would-be, wanna-be, and once-was artist! Production (for use) does, however, matter.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a gifted German musician and composer who was born into a family of gifted musicians. He was profusely productive, amazingly innovative, and fundamentally a happy person. He was busy, working all the time. Ever the humble, gifted composer, Bach stated, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”
Perhaps Mr. Bach was correct, but I deem the element of “being obliged” to be industrious crucial to the element of success.
There is one interesting fact about Johann Sebastian and his contemporary composer of Baroque music, George Frideric Handel: Bach and Handel were both blinded by the same ocular surgeon (a “John Taylor”). It was more than bad luck for these composers of that era (1600-1750). Medicine as a skilled art had evidently not evolved as much as music! Bach died, blind, from the complications of a botched eye operation.
Bach was an original in his chosen métier. This element of originality cannot be borrowed, stolen, faked or, hah! Imitated!
Franz Joseph Haydn, the prolific and inventive Austrian composer (1732-1809) of the Classical era, was less humble than Bach. Being a mentor to Mozart and (however much possible) a teacher to Beethoven might have curtailed his modesty. This Father of the Symphony claimed: “There was no one near to confuse me so I was forced to become original.” Indeed, Haydn did become, independently of anyone, a master of music in his own way and with his own forms and inventive ideas.
British art historian Robert Clermont Witt states in his 1902 treatise, How to Look at Pictures:
“. . . In the Middle Ages, when the artist was less an individual than a member of the guild with its fixed rules to which he was bound to conform, the painter had but little scope for originality unless he possessed more than the ordinary share of talent. . .”
This statement is unabashedly true. Originality can be developed, but only through the expression of nascent talent.
How then does a raw talent develop originality?
Originality is not developed as much as the person, the individual is developed, and from that unique character is born originality, which is a fundamentally innate vision. To develop that authentic sensibility, originality, one need not be a rebel force of one or live in an isolation booth (although at times that situation can feel preferable to mingling with the noisy throng). Any image that comes out of the natural expression of who you are — is original! First develop who you are; then the artist in you will know what to “say” and will devise a unique way to “say” it!
This concept of “authenticity” was not born yesterday or whenever it was that the marketing of “authenticity” began. As Shakespeare stated: To thine own self be true.
Lastly, and firstly, in art, there is the element of heart. To sing from the heart, to speak from the heart, to write from the heart, to give from the heart: therein resides the purest impulse of the artist.
The heart of an artist is the birthplace and the home of his creativity. There is where a “voice” first echoes the sounds that will become a poem; where the vision initially “appears” that will illuminate a canvas; where the introductory stirrings of the musical notes “play” that will bring a tear to the eye; where the instinctive smile “forms” to give from one heart to the heart of another human being. With a song in her heart, the artist gives, often without even being aware of the gift or the giving of the gift.
Monsieur Pépin captures a bit of the essence of this intangible element of art in the section entitled “The Anatomy of A Recipe” in Chez Jacques. Although this man takes a structural approach to cooking, his cuisine always comes from the heart:
“Somehow the mechanical and progressive process of adding one ingredient to another in well-defined and logical steps doesn’t really equate with the final taste. There is a gap — a disconnect — between the step-by-step procedure and the completed dish, just as an artist cannot equate the technical process of painting with the finished work of art.
In addition to the method required in both cooking and painting, something intangible and elusive relating to the individual and his personal taste has to be part of the process. This intimate element determines the originality and concept of the dish . . . “
I believe that Beethoven more succinctly hit upon this truism: “Only the pure of heart can make good soup.” These words are written on a blue index card and attached with a magnet to my refrigerator to remind me not to even attempt to make a pot of soup if I am in a bad mood!
The artist, be she a cook or a composer, is only as good as her heart, which hopefully beats with passion; only as pure as the expression of that passionate heart; only as fulfilled in heart and in art as the degree of duty to which that heart compels any act of creativity.
Romantic composer Robert Schumann spoke eloquently of the passion and the duty of the artist:
“To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, such is the duty of the artist.”
In a world that knows too much darkness, the mission of the artist must know only that duty. The mission of taking an idea, an image, an emotion — from the individual to the universal, from the personal to the public, from the specific to the general, the limited to the limitless — that quest is how art happens.
And such a quest is really quite indescribable!