Joy in the Process

October 28th, 2004 · 1 Comment · Writing

Henri Matisse. Dance (first version). 1909

I used to be a cellist and a serious one, at least, serious enough to briefly consider a career in music and to have discussed the possibility of application to New York music conservatory with a representative of said conservatory. I didn’t end up applying, electing instead to study journalism, and then English and creative writing. It’s hard to pursue more than one course of study when you’re a musician; there are too many practice hours in the day to be gadflying about in other disciplines.

It was through the filter of playing music (and later, through writing) that I came to visual art, where I was immediately struck by the many differences between the disciplines, particularly when it comes to exigency, or the reason for making art or music in the first place. In music, it is so clearly about expression, but in visual art — at least these days — expression is about as in vogue as sipping absinthe through a sugar cube. Contemporary visual art is sterile and academic. It’s smart. It can kick philosophy’s butt in racquetball… or so it would like to think.

Helen Radice, the harpist from twangtwangtwang often writes about the reason for making music, and writes especially eloquently in her recent post on William L. Benzon’s book Beethoven’s Anvil. To quote her lovely riff on the experience of playing in a recital:

“Anyway, I began the Poeme, and suddenly the rage and anguish which is strongly composed throughout the work took over, and it was speaking for me. I didn’t think anything in words at all. There was only what Ben-Haim had put down to express, and it was the same as what I was feeling.”

One of the things I’ve missed the most about playing music is that emptying out; where you are merely channeling the music; where you can step away from the notes and your body takes over; where you can most nearly simulate the act of flying. Writing, too, can take on that quality of creation and expression, where everything melts away in the wake of your words. Visual art? Well, there’s the old cliche of the Jackson Pollock wannabe, slashing away at the canvas, unaware of the world, but that picture of the visual artist hasn’t been accurate since the mid-1960s.

The worst words in the postmodern art world are intuition, aesthetic, and expression. As in, “I make artwork that expresses my feelings about the world around me, using my intuition as an aesthetic guide.” Do not, I repeat, do not put that sentence in your personal artist statement. That sentence is pretty much a hanging offense.

But stripping the expression and intuition out of artmaking has taken a lot of the joy away from the process. Artists nowadays are encouraged to pre-plan their work. To make sure it enters into the critical conversation at hand. But very few people in the art world are encouraging artists to make work that they like to make just because the process itself is worthwhile. It’s little wonder that so few people get joy out of art that brought so little joy to its maker.

Category: Writing

One Comment so far ↓

  • Amy

    This is very good! Well-written. I especially like the description of emptying out, channeling… that flow and instinct of artistic expression and creation.

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