Does art find harmonies that soothe? Do the harmonies suggest an underlying and reassuring order? All is well?
Does art destroy smug tranquility? Does the destruction open up new ways of seeing, hearing, living? Or does it merely wipe away preconceptions without building a scaffold for new structures?
I read that James Joyce came across a few intelligible passages as he edited Finnegan’s Wake. A reader might just be able to connect some dots. Joyce immediately reworked the offending phrases until they seamlessly blended in with the seething babble of the rest of the book.
Picasso broke forms, twisted shapes, rendered the world in ways that surprised him. Yet he missed having a set of rules by which he could judge the value of his work. He realized that Cubism had undermined tradition, and that he couldn’t retrace his steps to regain the comfort of working in an enclosed system.
I used to use color as a weapon. Reds and greens clashed and tore at each other. Hot colors shouted at dull. I wanted to wake everyone up to make them feel what I felt. Now I know that they already did, that my emotions weren’t unique. And now I like a little harmony as my days grow harder to manage and the world seems alien to me.
I sometimes visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I lived in Pennsylvania. The lower floors started with James Ensor, and as I progressed upward I saw a progression of movements. Fauvism jumped to Cubism skipped to Dadaism and Surrealism. The tangled energy of Ab-Ex ran down and became supplanted by Pop Art and increasingly arid Minimalism. The eighties section focused mostly on installation art. Eccentricity seemed to be the only recognizable goal. I fled around a corner into a quiet room with dimmer lights, sat on a bench and sighed. A Monet water lily painting hung before me, and I felt like a thirsty traveler sipping cool water at an oasis.
I sometimes encountered a bass player named David in a floating garage band that met in two places. Each location had its own roster of musicians, but I limped along at both venues strumming rhythm guitar. I was mediocre at best. One day David chided me about my playing and said, “You know, sometimes it’s about being creative!”
He referred to my uninspired chords when we played extended jams that spiraled out for ten minutes plus. All songs stayed in E, and I ran out of ways to vary my approach after the first three minutes. I wanted to tell Dave that I might be a bit more creative if I had played guitar as long as he had, but I expected no understanding from him. He’d forgotten that he’d sucked when he first picked up a guitar, no longer remembered that his creativity was the product of instincts and muscle memory built up over years of practice.
I eventually gave up playing music in a group when it became clear that I didn’t have the drive or talent to improve significantly, and when I realized that I felt no special thrill even when I managed contribute a few choice licks. It all seemed a bit mechanical and boring compared to writing a poem or painting a picture.
Years earlier I met similar criticism at the University of Delaware. One instructor pressured me to vary the surface texture of my paintings (he made thick, painterly abstractions). Another criticized the stiffness and timidity of my brushwork. He demonstrated what he meant by taking my brush and making quick, fluid strokes that enlivened dead passages on my painting. Both professors expressed frustration with me when I did not follow their advice. They assumed that I was a tightly wound, repressed individual who would forever cling to a narrow range of effects.
I understood what they wanted, but couldn’t deliver it. I had to paint another seven or eight years before my brushwork became more spontaneous, before I learned how to paint thick, expressive passages with complex textures.
In both music and painting I understood that “it’s about being creative,” but I had a deeper desire to improve when it came to making fine art. And I gave myself time to experiment and fail. My painting technique eventually grew freer, the results got better, and my creativity blossomed.
I recently grew irritated with a student who rigidly stuck to her customary mode when painting an abstraction. She continually reverted to copying from a subject verbatim, held her brush in a death grip, and made scratchy little marks. She refused to create rhythmic distortions in shapes, to flatten forms, to experiment with color. Instead she turned her picture into a muddy Impressionist mess.
I felt an urge to tell her to loosen up, to experiment, to make new choices. I almost said, “You know, it’s about being…”