Monday, November 21, 2016

The myth of mastery

“I’m still afflicted with the malady of research. I don’t like what I do, and I paint it out, and paint it out again. I hope that this mania will come to an end. . . I’m involved in lots of things and not one of them is finished. I wipe out, I start over, I think the year will go by without one canvas . . . I want to find what I am looking for before giving up. Let me look, I have gone too deeply into the series of experiments to give up without regret . . ."
Pierre-August Renoir      

Art is not an endgame. There are no goal posts. Art is a journey. The myth of mastery implies knowledge and craft with a beginning and an end. The idea of mastery places too much emphasis on craft and not enough emphasis on creativity and expression.

Art is nothing if not an exploration of life and living – how we think, how we feel and how we see. Art is not just what we see in front of us. It is not just the present, but a reflection of what came before and what is yet to come. A painting of a tree in winter bears witness to a season, but it is just as much a testament to the brilliant fall color that was, and the new life the coming spring will bring. Art is a reflection of the past and present and a promise for the future. It is what we have learned, what we can learn and the possibility of learning more.

Art is a reflection of life and life is not static. While we may want the world to be linear and absolute, it is, in fact, arbitrary and complex. Our need to order and categorize is more likely to be based on a desire for control than on a want to understand.
The image of a painting has to live and breathe. It needs to imply possibility, wonder and awe. It needs to foster reflection and self-reflection. Art is an inspiration, not just a career. There are no answers, only more solutions.

“If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it.
 Uncertainty is the salt of life.”
 Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

In order to better understand art as a journey, we need to acknowledge and understand the pattern of art throughout history. The history of art is a testament to change. This record of change is one of perception, not just change in technique and skill. The Greeks said that to marvel is the beginning of knowledge and where we cease to marvel we may be in danger of ceasing to know.

The great art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote extensively on the pattern of change in art through the centuries.He noted how the Egyptians did not render in three dimensions but instead relied on what they knew rather than what they saw. "Greek and Roman art breathed life into these schematic forms; medieval art used them in turn for telling the sacred story, Chinese art for contemplation. Neither was urging the artist to ‘paint what he saw’. This idea dawned only during the age of the Renaissance . . . but every generation discovered that there were still . . . strongholds of conventions which made artists apply forms they had learned rather than paint what they really saw. 

The Impressionists "proposed to make a clean sweep of all these conventions . . ." They challenged the rules of academic painting and claimed their paintings were more 'scientifically accurate.' As Gombrich pointed out, however, their claim was only partly true. He wrote, "We have come to realize more and more that we can never neatly separate what we see from what we know."

“In fact, as soon as we start to take a pencil and draw, the whole idea of surrendering passively to what is called our sense impressions becomes really an absurdity. If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression? "It is not the ‘innocent eye’. . . that can achieve this match but only the inquiring mind that knows how to probe the ambiguities of vision.” (Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich)

Good art is not done by how an artist sees,
 but by how an artist chooses to see.

If we lose the drive to question and explore, not just what we do, but how we do it, then we run the risk of becoming secondhand hacks only capable of copying someone else’s idea of art.

While skill and knowledge are important in any endeavor, the idea of mastery in art implies a skill set to be acquired and a path to be followed. For many this path becomes one of fidelity to the latest vagaries of the art market and the most popular trend in art. The parameters of acceptability narrow and the range of expression becomes limited. Too many artists get lured into the idea of picture-making and neglect the search for creativity and expression. When we choose the path of conformity and ignore our personal search for visual meaning, we negate the very idea of what art is and what art can be.

I am reminded of the struggles of so many artists who worked long and hard, not to master a skill set, but in a  personal search for visual expression.

Claude Monet wrote, “I’m hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects (grain stacks), but at this time of year the sun sets so fast that it’s impossible to keep up with it… I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’m looking for: ‘instaneity’, the ‘envelope’, above all, the same light spread over everything, and more than ever I’m disgusted by easy things that come in one go.”  

Claude Monet 

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