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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Artistic Idolatry and Paralysis



Why do ordinary people involved in the arts sometimes feel paralyzed after viewing collections of great art, or witnessing great performances of music and dance, or reading the works of great writers?

Even such an accomplished artist as Virginia Woolf, for example, so adored Proust's novels that she felt herself incapable of writing after reading him. Such profound (and misguided) experience of great art nearly silenced her unique voice and vision. Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend: "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. "Oh, if I could write like that!" I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures-- there's something sexual in it-- that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen, and then I can't write like that."  (p.213). 

Many of us may feel something like this. We're smitten by great art, transported. It's a wonderful experience. But this can also have crushing consequences. Art is dangerous. For instance, I consider it a great gift to be able to witness art in many forms, and I spend what time I can doing so. Perhaps like some of you, I can also feel the burden of all the great art out there as an impossible expectation, a negative judgment upon my own paintings in comparison. Paralysis sets in. Nothing I can do is as worthy as what I've already seen done. Self-defeat.

Some take it so far as to wish to kill art history and banish museums, falsely accusing them of preventing us from thinking and seeing for ourselves. Musing about this issue, here are my thoughts and those I've gleaned from a fine little book, How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (present quotes are from pages noted in this book, London: Picador, 1997).

Here in Provence, where  I've been living and painting for the past months, I'm always  reminded of Cézanne, whose work I admire. I'm not a Cézanne or any other artist I admire. Too bad, perhaps. But why the contest? Cézanne isn't me, either. And, who knows what that particular path holds? My point isn't self-inflation, especially and surely not at anyone else's expense. But neither is it to deflate oneself in comparison to others. It's a bit of a juggling act to hold in perspective (rather than in zero-sum judgment) all that is worthy in art and in oneself. 
Provençal Suite 1, homage to Cézanne, www.janetstrayer.com
What Proust called artistic idolatry is a cause of the burden great art can have upon us. Idolatry is like a fetish: it suggests a fixation on one aspect (or image) that distracts us from, or even contravenes, the overall message and spirit of the whole enterprise: in this case, creating art.

For those attempting to make art, it can feel impossibly heavy to have the weight of all the great art already accomplished upon our shoulders. By comparison, how meager our own efforts, how distant our works are from the artistic expectations we may have, based upon the products of those we revere. We are likely either to be silenced, on the one hand, or defensively to conflate ourselves with those we revere, on the other. In the latter case, we become inflated with our idols, identifying ourselves with them rather than learning their lessons on our own, through our own efforts. Probably most of us suffer the first outcome, though, and are inclined to defeat ourselves.

Turning back to Virginia Woolf, after reading Proust, she wrote in her 1928 diary, "Take up Proust after dinner and put him down. This is the worst time of all. It makes me suicidal. Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless." (p.204). Fortunately, she stopped reading Proust for a time and wrote a few more books of her own. By the time she returned again to Proust, her diary entries suggest she'd made her peace with him: he could have his magnificence and she her own scribbles.

We can change the metaphor. Instead of feeling all the truly great art out there as a burden upon our shoulders, we can climb upon the shoulders of the artists we admire. Great artists historically did just that, even while breaking new ground. Significant works of art can help us define and celebrate our own independence and choices. Appreciating and learning from them, using them to shape and differentiate our own ways of looking, seeing, listening, hearing, making, sharing, developing.

When caught in the spin of artistic idolatry, however, it can distract us from what art has to offer. Idolatry is at work when we value something because it's signed by a given artist without appreciating the work itself. This feeds the industry of making golden calves and their replicas. It also helps fuel our picture-taking mania to make everything in the Louvre ours (click for my post on this topic ).

Idolaters combine a literal reverence for objects in art with a neglect of their message or spirit. They search for the exact recipe for Proust's madeleine, without realizing that a doughnut could serve just as well. After all, Proust's position is that "a picture's beauty does not depend on the things portrayed in it" (p. 206), but on the way of seeing that it shows to us. Though we're enchanted to visit the spot on the Seine where Monet painted, this spot is merely a coincidence. The real gift is how we appreciate the impression afforded Monet, so that then we may ourselves apply such vision to what Monet never had a chance to see. A genuine homage to a great artist is "to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes." (de Botton, p.214 ). 

The important point here is to grasp the general lesson a great work of art provides so that we can apply it to the particular things we encounter. The privileged status accorded to places painted or written about may or may not exceed the evidence of other places we've seen. It may indeed be latent in almost any place or encounter, so long as we take the effort to consider it as Proust, Monet, or any great artist might do.
Provençal Suite 2, www.janetstrayerart.com

I welcome and am grateful for the chance to see things through their eyes. I'm grateful for my months of living in Provence and seeing bits of the world around me as Cézanne might have seen them. When the paralysis and self-doubt set in, I have to remind myself that I'm the one doing the looking, listening, and sensing. I'm the one who has the paint in hand. Maybe I've even learned something from my neighbor, Cézanne, to enhance my own inclinations and skills. What I'm left with, whether inferior or superior to anything else, is what I can do. While still alive, I haven't yet found what the best of that might be.

Autumn Earthbound, current painting in Provence, www.janetstrayer.com

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2 comments:

  1. Very thoughtful discussion - and I love the art!

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  2. Thank you for your much appreciated comments, Janet

    ReplyDelete