September 3, 2014

A Life Changing Critique


Can a critique change the course of an artist's life, being that a change in their art is equivalent to a change in their life? In mid-September 1849, Gustave Flaubert asked his trusted friends Maxime du Camp and Louis Bouilhet to listen to a reading of his just completed manuscript, the first Temptation of Saint Anthony; he was almost 28 years old. In his book The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, Mario Vargas Llosa describes Flaubert before this important reading: "We may be quite certain that he is happy, nervous, fearful of their verdict as he begins reading". The verdict, stated by Bouilhet:
We think you should throw it in the fire and never mention it again. 
Give up subjects so vague and diffuse that you're unable to get a grasp on them and bring them into focus; since you have an invincible tendency toward lyricism, you must choose a subject where lyricism would be so ridiculous that you'll be obliged to watch yourself and eliminate it..... 
The source of the story of the reading comes from Maxime du Camp's memoirs, so the absolute truth of them is questionable, but Vargas Llosa writes
Be that as it may, we have no reason to doubt his testimony that the verdict that he and Bouilhet handed down against the first Temptation was an extremely harsh one. 
Flaubert begins to be a great creator when he reacts against this lyrical, sentimental, romantic bent that predominates in his early writings, and here the sentence passed by Maxime and Louis in the course of that long night at Croisset played a capital role. The judgment of the two friends was not only a quite fair one; even more importantly, it was a useful one: it helped Flaubert become a different writer.
The powerful effect of this critique on Flaubert, turning him into the great artist that we now know, giving us Madame Bovary, made me think about a critique in my past that in a similar though less dramatic way, shifted the direction of my painting. I had just come back from Skowhegan, an intensive and exhilarating summer art school, where I had primarily studied with Gabriel Laderman. During the summer my work had moved from partially abstracted still lives to naturalistic perceptual work. Therefore, my plan for my second year of graduate school at Brooklyn College was to continue to make studies from life, of still life, of the figure, of the sky. When I explained this to my graduate advisor, Philip Pearlstein, he told me not to treat myself as a student, but as an artist. Just as Flaubert's friends told him to look close by for a subject, Philip said that I should look out my window, look at the neighborhood, find subjects around me that engaged me. But whatever I chose to do, take it seriously and take it as far as I could.

I felt at the time, and still feel, that this critique saved me from months and years of fruitless labor. Have you ever had life altering evaluation of your work?


  1. Still looking out of your window and seeing new ways of seeing.

  2. Would you make one, if I sent jpegs?
    I think I am ready for a good evisceration.
    That is not about you; you are kind and know the kind of gentle which can destroy and does not. I would like to know if my sloppings are art!

    1. sorry, JBS, no. First of all I no longer teach; second, I wouldn't critique from online images.

    2. I can't say I blame you....for the sound answer.
      But no, you do still teach!
      Thank you.