Syllabus and Charybdis

I’m much less affected by criticism these days.  But when I was a youth, the criticisms I heard sometimes really stung.  I recall once I was painting a scene from a pier.  It was a big deal for me, who was unaccustomed to painting where others could watch, to be painting at a popular locale, but I had steeled my determination.  A man came up to me after I had been working a little while and expressed his displeasure with my little picture by saying, “YOU see THAT?!” 

I was just learning to journey through the complicated world of visual perception  and was hardly prepared to champion my meager en plein air efforts.  I was an innocent girl standing on a pier with an aluminum easel.  (Should I have pushed him into the water?  One good shove’ve done it.) I cannot speak to what motivates a stranger to make comments like that; surely my picture did him no harm.  I wasn’t even exhibiting it:  I was painting it!  Would someone, a stranger, look over your shoulder while you write a letter to a friend and offer to correct your grammar?  Writing – in the act of it — is private; but paintings done in public the public thinks to be their fair game.  Writing is sex and painting is marriage, I suppose.

I took it, I think, as well as I might have given my youth.  Recently I’ve come under fire again (after long quietude) this time from another artist also a stranger.  In my fifties I look upon the phenomenon in quite a different way.  This bee delivers no sting.  After years of studying various masters through books and the museums; after unreckonable hours of my own trials in drawing, after sustained moments squinting, gawking, looking, and perceiving color and its after-image; after many midnight vigils contemplating the purpose of subject matter, plunging into the emotive depths and toe-holing the high eyrie intellectual cliffs of meaning; after feeling the rich music of presence before great masters and before Nature (that ever mysterious lady); after many elongated minutes spent in simple meditations over my beautiful creamer or the sea shell Walter gave me decades ago, or fashionable Doll – after all I have accumulated in squirrel-storehouse self-awareness I have become fairly impervious to wholesale criticism such as I got.  Instead my woman’s intuition inclines me to look to the motives of the critic.

Ah! Therein lies a mystery of sorts, one for an astute novelist to use to make a Gilbert Osmond or a Hector Bartlett. As a painter I deal in surfaces, the thought thread of motivation I’ll leave for sister arts to portray.

Better that I should share my wisdom, if you’ll allow me so immodest a word, though wisdom it is.  Look to your general purpose:  do you wish to be a “great” artist?  I do.  Do you want this “greatness” so as to be “famous someday”?  No, I do not.  What I want is the possession of the visual knowledge that the old masters had about the world.  If I had wanted fame, I’d have sought fame in the proper American fashion:  I’d have worked assiduously day and night to become a Rock Star – get me a guitar, some long legs (not sure where you get those), a few riffs and a husky siren voice,  just like any fame-coveting, red-blooded American woman would.

As to fame “someday,” I can’t see the percentage in it.  Rich?  Oh, rich is different.  Give me buckets of money, only the fame you can keep.

Je voudrais être illustre et inconnu.

Here’s the kicker, boys and girls: seek always to increase your skill, your ability to draw with precision or with devil-may-care; draw with emotion, with spontaneity, with vigor, with quickness or with long sustained power.  Draw a line from your mind’s thought-paths.  In however many ways you can find to expand your resources: follow the same motive as regards color, scale, proportion, motif, tonality – any other aspect of art one can name.  Seek skills; while seeking, use well the skills you already possess.  Ask questions with these tools, make assertions, and delight in the veil of light everywhere around your eyes.  Look at, study “Nature.”

These things are enough.  They are an embarrassment of riches.  What you can do and what you long to do someday, there’s a path to follow.

Il faut avoir une haute idée, non pas de ce qu’on fait, mais de ce qu’on pourra faire un jour; sans quoi ce n’est pas la peine de travailler.


What other people think about it, well, we do wish to be understood and to be liked.  But that’s the extent.  The criticism that matters, the praise that matters also, has to be your own for in making art you do no more than project aspects of your life into an outer vessel. 

I tell you — boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen — we have come no further – and this is not a bad thing at all – this is the heart of the matter, we find that Socrates and his Delphic Oracle were right:  you must know yourself.   Your portion of the cosmos and its mystery is all you’re granted.  But hey, what do you want?  In American we’ll even throw in fries and a Happy Meal.