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Painting as if It Matters

I’d like to follow up on something that I started to write about in the last blog post. Near the end of the post I brought a quote of Andrew Forge from his monograph on Monet:

“Academic art tells us that knowledge takes precedence over experience. Romantic art – which means all serious art since 1800 — says the exact opposite.”

Forge continues:

“But the moment it proclaims the sovereignty of experience it is inserting intention between the impulse and the deed.”

There is no use of experience without a story to explain that use. What is the story we are telling ourselves about our experience? How do we intend to use it? That story determines our intention. There is no way to paint from experience without a story.

Monet, Rouen Cathedral, West Facade, 1894

Humans are storytelling creatures. We’re set up to tell a story to ourselves about our experience, particularly if we are using our experience for a creative act. One might say that the storytelling itself is a creative act; using the story to create a physical form like a painting is doubling the act, extending it. There is sensation, which is story free. But as soon as we place and reflect on sensation our minds have fashioned the sensation into a narrative. And that narrative, what we tell ourselves about what we sense, how we wield it internally, has profound and powerful implications.

The paragraph continues:

“The rubric of intention allows the Romantic artist to find metaphors for what he is doing: ‘I will paint as if I am able to see instantaneously’ or ‘I will paint as if I had never seen another picture’ and so on. Without that ‘as if’ and its enabling fiction he is condemned to indulgence and self-parody. Armed with it he can begin to see himself and to move himself to genuine strenuousness.”

Monet, Andrew Forge, p. 130

Andrew Forge, Fallen Tree, 1980-1984

Intention is a consequence of experience and our accompanying story. Our deed, in this case how we paint and what it means to us, follows. When Monet is painting he is telling himself a story about his experience. The Modern project is not just the grounding of human creativity in overt subjective experience. It is the reimagining of that experience into a unique story. Paradoxically, the power of the unique story lies ultimately in its universality.

At the end of the last post I asked what it looks like today – the freedom to live and paint deeply, as if it matters. The “as if” in the end of that question is the same “as if” that Forge is describing. I believe it is a real choice facing each of us and what we each choose will make all the difference.

Morandi, Still Life, 1960

Culturally, we seem to be living in a period of a great mistrust of experience. It’s been deconstructed and disavowed. If the great adventure of Modernity was rooted and staked in the wellspring of firsthand experience, our post-Postmodernism is mired in an ambivalence toward all of it. We seem to be afraid to trust our experience as a worthy place from which to create. Or perhaps we hesitate to get too close to our experience out of the fear of being overwhelmed, and the move to theoretical sophistication is simply a cover. Not just experience is suspect, but even irony today provides no satisfaction. As a culture we don’t know where to be in order to work towards or work from. In our secularized world we no longer have a shared larger story or myth to give structure to our efforts. The growing surge of civilizational uncertainty is like a giant Buddhist joke, “Did you hear the one about planet Earth careening into unavoidable and relentless groundlessness?”

Leon Kossoff, Hands of Father, 1978

How does one make in such a situation? What kind of intention and narrative can we tell ourselves that would allow us to make, paint and create with “genuine strenuousness”?

I suggest the possibility of a narrative not of religion, or technology, or politics, or art, or any creed or dogma of any kind, but rather a narrative born out of the sheer sensation of life itself. Of being here, being alive, now. And letting our awareness of the terrible preciousness and precariousness of the situation we are all in together move us to choose an “as if” that matters.



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