June 24, 2010

Why Make Art?

Fra Angelico, Saint Nicholas Calms a Tempest at Sea and The Miracle of the Grain, ca. 1437, tempera on panel, 14 x 24 inches

A few days ago, I read a post on Sophie Munns's blog which included a short piece from Sue Hubbard called "Blue Sky Thinking". In it she argued that art was not simply expressing your creativity, but about mourning and loss, "transformed into art through the arduous creative process". I had an almost visceral reaction to this, feeling it to be too negative a view of artistic motivation. But perhaps what she was trying to say was something like this, from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark:
what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, ––life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?
If I look at the work of Fra Angelico, a fifteenth century artist who was also a Dominican friar, I feel moved by the beautifully depicted narratives in his predella panels. My feeling is mainly aesthetic, but far removed from our modern sensibilities, Fra Angelico was using his talent in the service of God, his altarpieces being objects of reverence and contemplation.

India, Provincial Mughal, Sohni Swims to Meet her Lover Mahinwal, ca. 1775-80, opaque watercolor on paper, 9 11/16 x 13 7/8 inches

The traditions of manuscript painting in Europe and India and Persia are varied, with both religious and secular imagery. This stunning example of Mughal painting is like the Fra Angelico in its storytelling. Visual art becomes a physical embodiment of the word, written or verbal, as in this Punjabi folk tale.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on white paper, 9 feet 4 3/4 inches x 9 feet 5 inches

What the artists, often anonymous, felt about the making of their work is unknown to me. In the 20th century we have more words from artists. A wonderful statement from Matisse, about his first experience with painting when 20 years old and recuperating from acute appendicitis:
When I started to paint, I felt transported into a kind of paradise...In everyday life, I was usually bored and vexed by the things that people were always telling me I must do. Starting to paint, I felt gloriously free, quiet and alone.
This comes to the essence of the question for me: how it feels to be making art. No matter what first draws us into art making––a favorite teacher; being a social outsider; feeling unhappy; a beloved book, painting, film––there is something in it that keeps us going. Matisse embarked on an entirely new way of working at the end of his long life, producing radiantly alive cut paper works.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956, oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 96 x 74 inches

With de Kooning's work, as with that of Matisse, I feel in the presence of an intensely physical engagement with paint; I believe that this sensuality must be part of their attachment to the making of art, as the actual process of mixing and applying color is an activity difficult to give up. de Kooning kept working through illness at the end of his life.

So now to my motivation, and yours if you'd like to comment on this: the word describing the feeling that I've had foremost in my mind this week is pleasure, a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in the process of making, even in the sometime struggle to get a work right. I love the silky surface of the vellum and the feel of paint sliding across it. I love the rich translucent color of the egg tempera paint, its ease of handling, its crisp rendering of detail. The intense focus on a small work brings me into another world, a place of color and form and light. I love seeing this new thing I've made; if I judge it a success, it feels weighty and real and beautiful. I hope that others will like the work, but I realize now that this is not a paramount consideration. For the past year, after being represented by a commercial gallery in New York City for over 30 years, I've been without a gallery; there is no certainty that I will exhibit the work I am doing. I now know that this doesn't matter; it is the process of working that is essential, that takes me both inside myself and out into an intense engagement with the visual world.


  1. enjoyed this group of paintings! why indeed make art... but no one size fits all. the 'whys' are as numerous as ticks on a wheel of chance. I come up with 'curiosity' for own own motivation - 'what happens when you do x with y?' - but yesterday I might have said I'm just trying to stay out of the dungeons. Pleasure as motivator, or pain or an intense desire to commune or communicate -- basically, doing what has to be done. (the 'has' is an undefinable, unknowable initiating energy...)

  2. thanks for your take on the 'why', rappel. Curiosity, certainly a great motivator; for many I imagine it's an aspect of intellectual explorations. Thinking about the variety of reasons why, I too might have come up with something quite different a year ago, certainly 10 years ago. I suppose that's something that keeps us engaged in art making: the ever changing ideas about why we have to do it.

  3. "a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in the process of making " Your pleasure in making art is reflected in my pleasure in viewing your art.

  4. thank you, anon. Getting responses to my work, via the web or in person, certainly add icing on the art cake.

  5. I understand your description of the sensual pleasure you get from painting, but isn’t art about having something to say. And don’t you get pleasure by saying it?

  6. well, Joe, that's what's so interesting; even though a few years ago the content of my work was very important to me, with issues of land use and abuse, and the contrast between landscape and machine in agriculture at its core, right now I'm feeling that it's the abstract stuff that matters. And what keeps me going is not saying something, but making something.
    But the basis of my images is still agricultural machines; I continue to feel attached to the subject matter, if not the content.

  7. I keep trying to figure out what I want to say about this important subject (without needing to start a blog of my own!) I wonder, does our culture tends to undervalue this kind of pleasure, preferring to valorize sorrow or anger or outrage or storytelling? (Not that those aren't good reasons to get to work, too.)

  8. Susan, thanks for commenting, even though as you say, it's such a huge subject, with so many facets. Comments here, and email conversations are making me think of a follow up post. As for the cultural valorization, I think it changes, don't you? art world praise goes to political art, then to abstraction, or to earth works, conceptual art, photography. It's as though we can't keep more than one idea in our brain at the same time. But the huge range of art works being made, though perhaps not acknowledged, point to multiple motivations and myriad meanings.

  9. well Altoon...
    there's so much to respond to here.
    I just caught the name of the Fra Angelico painting and drew my breath - 'Saint Nicholas calms a tempest at sea and the miracle of the grain'.
    I know Im getting off track...but a curiuos name isn't it...all-in-one?
    It completely captivated me...made me wish to know more!
    The Matisse quote resonates strongly! I so enjoyed Hilary Spurling's 2 part bio on this artist... did you by chance read that? I have often been fed by his writing about art.
    The comments you make re de Kooning and Matisse register... the intense physical engagement with paint. I'm afraid my tiny studio of recent times forced accomodation of restricting measures where paint was put aside for inks.
    The sight of the concrete floor in the studio-to-be last week brought the slow dawning realisation that I was about to break out of these tight bounds ...room to make a little mess, spill paint if needs be, spread out, work on numbers of things at once ... work on the verandah...I cant quite believe it yet. So that whole wonderful relationship to paint is going to be part of my life again. Im wondering...what will this be like... what an adventure!
    Your last remarks - about the changed situation at this time with your work - is so poignant!
    I cant help but feel that is such a powerful truth about art. Not always convenient but the integrity of that - it is sustaining and I cant help but feel something is gestating with your work and yet to be born in its fullness - sometimes i see things in your new work that I have not seen anywhere - something exciting... something that will have its day in the sun.
    Perhaps Im out of my depth saying this... but I see it nevertheless!

  10. hi Sophie, thanks for your comprehensive comment and your statement on my work. As for Fra Angelico, the painting above is a predella panel from an altarpiece that was in a chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari, so the panels showed events from his life. In the one above, two miracles that he performed are illustrated.
    I did read the Spurling biography, which was fascinating. There's also a good de Kooning bio by Stevens and Swan which is especially good for the early years.
    Your new studio will be a way into new thinking, so have fun with it!

  11. A lot of us are losing our galleries in this economic climate. In a way, perhaps that is better---we will paint not with an eye on showing it, but with our inner eye, and heart if you will, to paint for art's sake. And for ourselves.

  12. why make art? to give life to flatness. it all counts!

  13. To intensify the everyday engagement with the world out there, the visual world.
    After making a painting, taken from something I've observed, the something I observed is changed.
    And then back again to the next painting.
    I very much enjoy that back and forth, to live in movement.

  14. Yes, yes and yes to Debbie and SherinSan and Meredith. There really are so many reasons, each of them wonderful.