In a recent discussion I had with a student we talked about how hard it is to deal with how all art ends up feeling like failure at some point of the process. Somewhere between imagination and implementation, the first impulse is lost and something new is created. Another way of saying this is that the ideas we have for our work do not always translate well into the final product. Inspired ideas never make it into the world unchanged.
This kind of discussion is part of any creative process as far as I know. First, our ability to criticize our own work is necessarily a little bit ahead of our skill level. Each skill gets developed only when we can see where it can be improved. As a result we are forever able to see how our work could have been better. Unless we very carefully and consistently cultivate a healthy relationship with this truth, art making can be painful. Second, there is something gorgeous about inspiration before it is forced into the confines of forms and media. Somehow words, brushstrokes, and composition chip away at the core of the idea's initial delight and singularity. I know I needed quite a bit of time and teaching to understand these issues in a way that helped me as I work. The difference is between a creative artist who struggles blindly and one who can begin to chart a direction for themselves and their artistic journey. Its actually a really big deal.
So, after thinking about the conversation, I realized I had an opportunity to open up a discussion that has plagued all of my advanced students and most of my other students at one time or another. I spent some time thinking about my own experiences and what allowed me to make my own breakthroughs. When I had the conversation with the rest of the class a few days later, I set the table by the big windows in the art center that look out onto Morgan Park Academy's campus with a pot of jasmine green tea and a stack of photocopies of one of my favorite Robert Hass poems, Meditation at Lagunitas.
We read the poem out loud as we drank tea.
These lines in particular had popped into my head. They were why I chose this poem to structure our conversation:
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light....
Now I don't want to impose on the poem too much, here. I don't think the poem is only about my own uses here, I don't want to imply that the poem is only about visual art either. Based on Hass' body of work, I don't think its entirely unreasonable, however, to apply his ideas to visual art. I have come to the conclusion that one of the levels of this poem if not the central thread of the work is about the vagaries of trying to capture the ethos of beauty and beautiful moments. So, this has quite a bit to do with painting. But first, I feel its important to point out a few things.
In postmodern literary theory, there is an assumption that there is a communication gap between words and their meanings. This goes for images as well. Reading words and interpreting images is a difficult business. Its hard to forge them and it is equally hard work to unpack them so we get something resembling the initial message. By putting words on the page we all think of different mental images. By putting images on paper or canvas, we call to mind different associations because we all have different experiences we draw from.
By choosing the clown-faced woodpecker and the black birch, the original emotion and setting is put at risk. The very first step of creation breaks away from the original idea that may not survive the translation from the artists mind to the receiver of the message. Postmodern theory is messy and confusing but it is vital to understand at least the general phenomena of how these communications work.
When we get to the point of a visual work when we know what we want, we can "see" it in our mind's eye. Any mark or brushstroke upon paper or canvas quickly becomes "a tragic falling off from a first world of undivided light." It does not have to be failure necessarily, but it often feels that way. We do begin our inspiration in a similar mental space:
...of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word (or visual work in our case) is elegy to what it signifies.
And it is true that things fall apart quickly when we try to give such amorphous feelings and insight a specific form. By choosing one thing to become an object that serves to carry our message, we exclude all other possibilities. Words are like paper boats that sink quickly if we try to load them up with meanings that are too heavy.
The elements of visual images work similarly. Picasso's exhaustive sketches and studies for one of his early great works, Les Saltimbanques, illustrates this well. He drew and re-drew the circus performers to try to capture the way he felt about them. Picasso reorganized their arrangements together to capture the right relationships to characterize their roles in life. He also put them in a variety of situations and locations to balance the need for cohesion as a group but also to convey the sadness and disconnection from society as they led a romantic but disconnected kind of nomadic life as the circus traveled.
Hass takes us through visceral memories and gives us music and gestures to flesh out the song he weaves for us. (I hope you take the time to read the full poem on its own from the hyperlink above, its well worth the effort.) By giving us concrete examples and metaphors, he calls upon a whole history of experience that informs the message he is offering us. He gives us a cast of characters we can relate to, a series of roles that we have or will play, or wish we had experienced in our lives.
This gives a similar landscape to serve as a context, a history that conveys a kind of nomadic journey through the life of the poem's narrator. Then he takes us back into direct physical experience and uses the music of words and a pulling back of the camera so we can feel the enormity of the significance of all the experiences tied together much as Picasso has arranged all the elements to give us an experience we can connect to on a personal level:
...there are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
In bringing us back to the music of the poem, (blackberry, blackberry, blackberry) the emotional meaning of the poem, we re-enter a new version of the original intention. This is the point of making serious art and it rarely happens when we take things too seriously or linearly.
It is in rediscovering the original failed intention that the meaning is rescued. This trick that is called poetic closure takes the simple words and infuses them with the other information so that the very academic idea of blackberries as an arbitrary label becomes something of great significance, it becomes a mantra. It becomes a song. This is what we should be aiming for.
Its not that our works of art should avoid failure. Failure in art is much the same as Hershey's failures at business. He went bankrupt something like 11 times in the process of becoming the chocolate king of Pennsylvania. It is what we do with the pieces and how we continuously re-arrange them that builds something that holds together. Failures really and truly are the building blocks of any creations' success.
So, while the conversation my class had around the table in the art center was a lot more elegant and concise than this essay, we agreed that we could renegotiate our expectations. The act of recognizing how the failure of our inspirations to make it into the world intact or not is not actually a failed act. What could be construed as a failed act is only an incomplete one. Through this lens, we can see that the moment of sadness is actually the moment of greatest opportunity for the creative mind. That is where our attention belongs.
That sadness leads us to the next piece or decision that builds towards a work of art that really works. Once all the many pieces are gathered and artfully interwoven, the message is no longer a paper boat but a collection of interwoven ideas. Like the baskets from Greek tragedies that carried babies down the river to their fate and the rest of the myth, our works of art can actually offer something larger than just a frozen moment or a flash of insight. They show how the scattered aspects of our lives hold meaning and not just for ourselves.
I once heard an interview of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. I think it was Terri Gross of NPR. He said he was always attentive to whether he could re-enter a song. This was the ultimate test of his songwriting, whether he had written something that could be inhabited and re-inhabited. By writing songs that continued to be relevant and by writing songs that could bring back their original intention. This act of searching for the original intention through the song implies that art is just a vehicle. Perhaps in this way, he was able to preserve something of the beauty that makes artists create in the first place.
This reminds me of another poem by Robert Hass, Spring Drawing, which brings up the issue of creating inhabitable spaces for ourselves through art and imagination, but that will have to be another post for another day.