Tuesday, February 16, 2010


There was a fellow in the memoir-writing class I 'facilitated' a while back whose offerings always left me feeling as if he weren't telling the truth. I didn't mean it as a criticism, I just meant it in the sense that I didn't think he was telling the truth.

And what did I think he was telling? He was telling something that he hoped would win applause ... something that would allow him to conceal whatever his honesty was and yet reap approval ... approval that would then allow him to approve himself.

Art poses a strange koan: If it cannot communicate with others, it's probably worthless except in the elevated sense of self the artist might have. Art has to communicate ... but if the artist only works in order to communicate, s/he's bound to be disappointed and come up short ... a two-bit faker.

Art, I think, requires the artist to tell the truth ... his truth, her truth ... the truth.

My brother-in-law (when he was still alive and was studying sculpture) sat down in front of a block of wood one day and ... it scared the living shit out of him: "I realized it was just me and the block of wood. Nothing else." That moment frightened him so badly that he never went back to sculpture again.

His honesty impressed the hell out of me.

This ... is ... it! Right and wrong have exactly nothing to do with it. Approval is too much of a compromise. Failure and success are completely off the mark.

This ... is ... it.

Art may scare the crap out of you, but at least you can look in the mirror without tears in your eyes.


  1. When I was younger, I used to paint for the applause and was never quite satisfied with what I received. One day, an art teacher was reviewing my work as I pointed out the ones I thought were truly impressive (because I followed the style and formulas of others) and he had no reaction. A painting, off to the side of my studio, was peeking out. He picked it up and studied it. I was embarrassed because I thought it was too rough. He said, "Now this is an honest painting. This says more about you as an artist than any other painting here." I told him that I was just fooling around, not thinking too much about how I was painting. We looked at each other and just smiled.

  2. Stolen from the internet:

    When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words "The First Principle". The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

    When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which the workmen made the large carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master's work.

    "That is not good," he told Kosen after his first effort.

    "How is this one?"

    "Poor. Worse than before," pronounced the pupil.

    Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

    Then when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: "Now this is my chance to escape his keen eye," and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction: "The First Principle."

    "A masterpiece," pronounced the pupil.

  3. Excellent story. Thank you Adam.

    PS: I have to remember that this form of visual art is not 'performance' art.