Love this piece by Bob and Roberta Smith. “HBs are for architects” is the pencil trash talk I didn’t know I needed. (My wife has a master’s degree in architecture.)
Well, here is a coincidence: after I blogged about the Richard Serra quote on coming to a Y in the road in Leonard Koren’s What Artists Do and how it reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” I read further into the book and came across John F. Kennedy’s speech on the role of the artist in American life. He gave it in 1963 at Amherst College for the groundbreaking of a library named in honor of… Robert Frost. Not only that, but Koren notes that Kennedy quoted “The Road Not Taken” in his remarks:
All this requires the best of all of us. And therefore, I am proud to come to this College whose graduates have recognized this obligation and to say to those who are now
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I hope that road will not be the less traveled by, and I hope your commitment to the great public interest in the years to come will be worthy of your long inheritance since your beginning.
No matter. The rest of Kennedy speech is worth reading:
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world….
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society–in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.
Read the rest here, or listen to it, below:
Here is how I think art works: If you’re depressed, draw a picture of Batman depressed. You’re still depressed, but now you have a picture of Batman.
Chuckled at this Carl Pope, Jr. piece I saw in the Who RU2 Day exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art today. Here it is in context (Love that Pope, Jr. demanded that the museum staple gun the letterpress posters to the wall):
I also love how Pope stole this dialogue from Casablanca:
I was there with the kids, so I gotta go back and spend some more time with it…
Einstein supposedly said that creativity is the residue of wasted time, but I think a lot about the residue of creativity. Sometimes that residue is a work of art, but more often than not, it’s a tiny trail of waste —debris, dust, shavings, clippings, trash, etc.
I love it when artists collect and display this residue. (Sometimes they even sell it.) One of my favorite parts of Edward Carey’s show at the Austin Public Library was a bowl of his pencils, used all the way to the stumps.
Years ago, I saw a show of book carver Brian Dettmer, and there was a box of his X-acto blades on a pedestal. (He estimates he goes through “15-50 blades a day, usually switching over to a new blade every ten minutes to half hour.”
In 2013, designer Craighton Berman ran a funny, tongue-in-cheek Kickstarter called “The Campaign for the Accurate Measurement of Creativity.” It included a “Sharpener Jar” — “a product designed to quantify creative output.”
Since I wrote Show Your Work! in 2013, I’ve been interested in how artists share their process, how social media allows you to share when there’s nothing, really, to share, and how sometimes the scraps and ephemera from our process can turn into their own attractions. (Above: Amanda Palmer’s sticky notes posted while working on The Art of Asking: “[I] was trying to find a way to share their colorful beauty without also revealing their content.”)
The six-year-old is taking art classes at Laguna Gloria. I love dropping him off because while he’s in class, the 3-year-old and I get to explore the grounds. (An older dad told me years ago how important it is to split your kids up once in a while and go on little one-on-one “dates” together.) Yesterday the 3-year-old was having some serious separation anxiety (my wife is out of town), so I put some paper down on the stone ledge around the tiny koi pond and told him to draw the plants. This is what he drew.
In his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci suggested you could find new ideas by looking at stains on a wall. “Although it seems of little import and good for a laugh,” he wrote, the practice “is nonetheless, of great utility in bringing out the creativity in some of these inventions.”
By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused lines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.
I used to set down tea bags on an index card, and turn the stain into a drawing:
Leonardo notes that Botticelli used to throw a sponge with wet paint against a wall and find a landscape inside it. This is, essentially, how Ralph Steadman starts his drawings: first, a splash of ink, then seeing what the splash of ink wants to become…
…those sevens looked like ray guns to me!
And later Waters showed off his piece “308 Days,” which is a 3.5 x 9 feet long piece showing about 10 months worth of his crossed-out to-do lists on index cards:
Looking at the scribbles I thought, “Hey, wait a minute that reminds me of…”
Twombly! Waters is a collector, and says he owns over 80 of his books. He keeps the catalog for Letters of Resignation beside his bed. (His housekeeper once told him, “They have the nerve to put this in a book!”) Waters says he loves Twombly because he makes people mad. “This kind of contemporary art hates you too, and you deserve it.”
He explained on Newshour:
I even have a piece that says, “Contemporary Art Hates You.” Because it does, if you hate it first. It’s a thin line. You can’t have contempt about it and go in, but you have to learn, you have to study a little. You have to figure it out. Why these things happen and then suddenly this whole world up– opens up to you. You can see it in a completely different way. It’s like, you were blind before.
The minute you start looking, the world will keep showing you pictures.
PS. Here’s Waters showing off the joke with the sevens:
Toni Morrison — Toni Morrison! — was once on the phone admitting how upset and depressed and unable to work she was when her friend interrupted her:
“No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
In his book, Artists in Times of War, the historian Howard Zinn tried to outline the relationship between the artist and society. He emphasized the word “transcendent”: the artist transcends “the immediate,” “the here and now,” and “the madness of the world.”
The artist thinks, acts, performs music, and writes outside the framework the framework that society has created. The artist may do no more than give us beauty, laughter, passion, surprise, and drama. I don’t mean to minimize these activities by saying the artist can do no more than this. The artist needn’t apologize, because by doing this, the artist is telling us what the world should be like, even if it isn’t that way now. The artist is taking us away from the moments of horror that we experience everyday—some days more than others—by showing us what is possible.
The artist provides a much-needed, much-valuable service to us, as trivial as the work might sometimes feel when the artist is doing it. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” says Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels. “Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
But, Zinn says, that is not all the artist does:
[T]he artist can and should do more. In addition to creating works of art, the artist is also a citizen and a human being.
And yet, when the artist attempts to do her duty as a citizen, she often hears: “I follow you for your art, not your politics.”
(Whenever I hear this I immediately think of George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” And Margaret Atwood: “You’re supposed to do one thing. If you do more than that, people get confused.”)
There’s a specific feeling from some fans that artists and creative people should stick to their business. “I didn’t sign up for this.” “Leave the politics to politicians.” “What do you know, anyways, you’re just a singer.” (Even though, as in the case of health care, politics has everything to do with whether the artist will be able to keep making the work their fan loves.)
Zinn says we can’t be deterred by such sentiments. “It takes only a bit of knowledge of history to realize how dangerous it is to think that the people who run the country know what they’re doing.” This country is our business, and it’s our business as citizens to try to make it as good as we can.
Here’s Jacob Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
These are dispiriting times, but it’s our our duty as artists and citizens to keep using our gifts and to keep using our voices to make the world a better place.
So, please: Keep making your art. Keep speaking the truth. We need your efforts, no matter how small and how trivial they may seem to you.
There’s no time for despair, but if you really need a day off, take it. Find the beauty and peace you need to keep going. The work will still be here when you return.
At the Mexic-Arte Museum this afternoon I came across this 1905 broadsheet with José Guadalupe Posada woodcuts. The skull in the bowtie immediately reminded me of the creepy capitalists in George Grosz’s work. (See the detail below from his 1921 drawing, I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me from Being the Master.)