Monday, March 28, 2011

A Follow-Up...

... on my "Waiting for Hockney" exchange with Cynda Valle. She wrote:

Dear Peter, thanks for all. As Glenn said when he read your reply: "There's alot of wisdom here". I have to agree that the art itself was pretty anti-climatic once we finally got to see it. But despite that (or because of it!), I think the man himself could represent all artists. Billy believes that what he thinks and feels is worthy of the world's attention. He than spends years developing the technical virtuosity to express it. Despite the result, this seems to me the art-making formula that all artists have in common; the "I" plus practice over time equals art. Of course nobody works in a vacuum; the surrounding culture and history provide the visual language that the artist uses. The way the art is received doesn't really fundamentally dampen our conviction that we have something to say. In fact if it is not well received we are part of a long tradition and can always comfort ourselves with the Van Gogh defense ("People will want my work after I die.") Or my personal favorite by Rollo May (should have it tattoed backwards on my forehead so I see it whenever I look in a mirror!): "Creative Courage is continuing despite your doubts, not quitting because of them." So even failure in the eyes of the world doesn't have to shake our conviction that we are worthy.

Billy also has in common with all artists a personal yardstick with which to measure success. For Billy it was Hockney (yeah, i agree a STRANGE personal yardstick), but all artists have one; be it gallery representation, big sales or a teaching gig. And finally Billy (like all the artists I know) has to get a day job. I was tickled that it was the same job that kept me afloat when I was his age (waiting tables!!!). So despite what you, me or Hockney's assistant thinks of his work, he, for me, represents "every-artist". To open up another can of worms I wanted to ask you what you thought of Hockney's comment to his assistant: "There's still that damn photograph". I thought it ironic that he validates the use of photography in Secret Knowledge, yet sees the photographic root of the drawing problematic???? And on a personal note: you have always been a compassionate advocate/ champion of artists and have NEVER been scornful or elitist ! I'm enjoying the dialogue ! Love, Cynda

(Whooops! I just reread your reply and I think you already answered my photography question; To assume the photograph is the ultimate arbiter of accuracy is a BIG mistake!)

To which I wrote back as follows:

Here's the thing, Cynda: suppose that what Billy thinks and feels--no matter his conviction or intention--is really NOT "worthy of the world's attention"? (Not everything is!) Suppose that his thinking/feeling never gets past the initial, trite cliche? Suppose he has never taken the trouble to deeply question what he thinks and feels, or to ask himself what lies beyond the surface of his assumptions? Suppose he has never really given a thought to the paths open to an artist in the current cultural reality, how an artist functions, what the task of the artist might be--other than to make a magnificent, photographically correct drawing?

For me, being an artist requires all this, and more. Making art is not an accomplishment, it's an investigation. It seems to me--sadly--that Billy discovers nothing in the course of his eight-year odyssey. This is why I question your notion that he "could represent all artists." I don't lack compassion for him as a human being. I just don't think he has yet discovered what it means to be an artist, and therefore can not "represent" them. A good and difficult discussion, though. Thanks for provoking it. Love, P

And Cynda, again:

I do see what you're saying: From my own kids I know a toddler is as excited about his first creation (poop in the potty) as he is of anything else... And just because HE's excited and passionate doesn't make it art. Yeah, I guess alot of art is "shit"!!!!!!!! I hope you have by now gotten the email i wrote you this morning (subject: writer's remorse). Just to reiterate ; What i will remember is not Billy's story, but your validation of my own working process..THANK YOU, it means alot to me. I will share our dialogue with my advanced painting students and tell them of your books; the topic being near and dear to the heart of every artist, and the next time i'm feeling discouraged i will take our your blog and reabsorb it, thanks again. Love Cynda

Saturday, March 26, 2011

To Be an Artist...

I thought this exchange with my friend, the artist Cynda Valle, would be of interest. It concerns the movie Waiting for Hockney—the story of Billy Pappas, a young man whose eight-year, single-minded obsession with a single graphite drawing of Marilyn Monroe—and with the British artist David Hockney as his ultimate judge and mentor—led him, finally, only back to the fast food restaurant where he had worked previously as a waiter…

Cynda wrote: I just watched the movie "Waiting for Hockney" and thought of you (both as Hockney’s biographer and a person who thinks much about the purpose of art and artists)... As I watched it, I thought it was going to be like any other Hollywood movie in that there would be trial and tribulation, but at the end all would be happily resolved. How much more interesting it became when at the end I realized it was telling a much truer (in my opinion) story of the typical artist's (my) life: the exciting build-up to the moment the artist dreamed of and then, instead of "happily ever after" comes nothing. The artist continues to work and the energy slowly builds to another crescendo, followed by another disappointment, until this cycle all to quickly eats up an entire lifetime.

I'm thinking there must be in the artist (and me) an incredible ego and a certain relentless naivete that allows them (me) to always have faith that the next painting will be the one to change everything. Contrast this with the jaded scorn of the art elite and it's not a pretty picture! Hopefully I have some years left on the planet so I don't know yet how the story ends for me, but sometimes I'm terrified that the cycle will never change, and sometimes I feel confident I can free myself from the burden of desires...The only thing I know for sure is that I will always paint. Would love to hear your thoughts. Sincerely, Cynda

My response: Dear Cynda, I certainly honor (and share) your compassion for poor Billy, whose story this movie tells. And yes, the cycle you describe is an unhappily familiar one: the slow build-up of anticipation and hope for recognition, and the let-down that follows when the response to your work does not meet up to expectations. And the hope that the next piece of work will turn out to be the great one that shakes the ground we all stand on! I’m sure that every creative person knows that pattern—and I sure do not exclude myself!

Still, having watched the movie at your suggestion, I think that Billy’s story is significantly different from the one you describe. His obsession with what is perhaps the hardest subject to handle—essentially a cliché, with apologies to Marilyn!—with no apparent understanding of the risks and challenges involved, suggests from the start that he will never be the artist he so much yearns to be. Worse—again from the start—he mistakes sheer technical proficiency and photographic accuracy for art. He has the (admittedly naïve) intellectual arrogance to believe in his own genius without the knowledge and perspective that a smattering of education would afford him. The limits of his understanding are underscored by his elevation of David Hockney to the role of St. Peter, the arbiter and keeper of the keys to heaven’s gate.

In short, Cynda, unlike yourself, Billy is no artist. He has a lot more tray-carrying to do before he even reaches the threshold. I don’t want to be ungenerous to a young man who seems to me, honestly, more pathetic than authentic, but to be an artist, as I understand it, generally implies a responsibility to know what you’re about. Obsession alone (as in the case of, say, a Henry Darger, or any number of other “outsider” artists) can sometimes, rarely, cut it, especially if the vision itself is obsessive; but not, I think, the obsession with technique. There is a kind of arrogance in assuming that all mainstream art is elitist and that ignorance necessarily leads to a fresh vision and fresh ideas. More often than not, sadly, it leads to cliché.

So I celebrate the artist in you. You are no Billy Pappas. Yes, there’s the struggle. And yes, indeed, there are the disappointments along the way, there’s the sense of despair, there’s the constantly recurring question: is it all worth it? But you, Cynda, are not about technical proficiency (well, only in part!) You’re not about attracting the attention of a David Hockney. Your work, in my judgment, springs from an inner depth, a necessity, a quest in which our Billy shows no sign of being interested. That artist in you keeps coming back to the work because you have to, that’s who you are, not who you’re trying to be.

As you can tell, I did find the movie quite fascinating, but in a different way from what your letter led me to expect. For me, this was not, as you suggest, “the typical artist’s life,” but rather the life of one who unhappily did not begin to understand what art was all about and wanted to be an artist anyway. That his astounding, eight-year dedication to this project did not pan out came as no surprise, given its misguided premises. The message, for me, was this: to be an artist—writer, musician, actor, dancer—requires more than dedication to the acquisition and practice of skills. For most of us, it also requires vision, informed intelligence, historical perspective—and the kind of modesty that sparks the most important of all ingredients, curiosity. The need, not only to perform, but to discover the unknown.

I hope this doesn't read like "the jaded scorn of the art elite!" I do thank you for urging me to see this movie, because I did in fact both enjoy and learn from it. I just don't believe that this is "your" life! I know that you--despite all discouragements and despite even yourself!--will move on to the next picture and find our more about yourself, your life, your vision. Rightly so.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Woe Is Me

Do you ever wake up with the feeling that you've been working like mad all night but have no idea what you've been working at? This happened to me last night. I think it might have had partly to do with that bum knee. For exercise this week, I have avoided walking, as per the doctor's orders, and using instead the prone-position bicycle at the gym. Last night, since we had theater tickets, we parked in downtown Laguna Beach and walked about three blocks to the restaurant where we had booked dinner, then five of six blocks to the theater, and a couple more back to the car. Then I woke several times during the night with shooting pains in the knee and had a hard job finding a comfortable place to get back to sleep. (I blame George, in part, for this. He insisted in sleeping right down in the place where I extend my foot, and refused to budge despite several hearty kicks. George sleeps just fine.)
I think this blog is another contributor to those hard-working nights. My head starts to write before it even hits the pillow and persists in thinking/writing while I'm trying to get to sleep. That is, it keeps trying to line up the words just right, then going back over them in a kind of rehearsal, to be sure they'll be remembered exactly when I wake. My theory is that it keeps working away at the same stuff while I'm sleeping. But then, when I wake... nothing. It's all gone anyway, and I have to start afresh.
Does this sound familiar to anyone? It has taken me years to build to the kind of daily writing practice that is, pretty much, my life today, and I'm grateful for it. I have perhaps been a bit too successful, though, because I'm clearly finding it hard to hit the "off" switch. The past few days, it has been the same with meditation. Than Geoff's familiar advice resounds in my head: Not now. But my head has either not been getting the message or choosing to ignore it. I sit and make up words. I write...
This morning I have decided to reverse my usual process: write first, then meditate. This is it, the writing part. I'll report back on the results. In the meantime, metta to all. Here goes.