What I Know about Art
What are we doing here in this life anyway ? For a lot of people, a six pack of beer and a football game answer that question very nicely. For others it’s family, grandchildren, and community. To be an artist is to not be satisfied by those happy ways. To be an artist is to be an outsider looking in, like Thomas Mann’s « Tonio Kröger », a character to whom I related strongly as a teenager. All those material and social comforts are not for us.
An artist has to find his own way, driven to respond to his experience of life in the best way he can. As my teacher and friend Harry Callahan put it, to share « what I feel and have always known ». That is the motivation, to do something, say something, make something that is a deep expression of who you are and how you feel about this mysterious life. On the most basic level, the artist is someone who produces something, but to be called Art the thing produced must have special qualities attached to it. Skill coming from talent is appreciated by everyone, easily appreciated. Skill is important but, to my mind, other values are more important.
In the best work there is a sense of passionate intention, the desire to capture a feeling in whatever medium. I started as a photographer and the great photographers were able to do that. My heroes were Cartier Bresson, Danny Lyon, and Harry Callahan. I knew them all. But for me, the simple, direct approach of a reed pen drawing in india ink on paper and oil paint on canvas provided a more satisfying experience. So that is what I have been doing now for over forty years.
How did this all happen ? Why did it happen ? The oracle of Apollo in Delphi said in Greek, « Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself ». It is a hard directive, easier said than done. For whatever reasons, this idea attracted me strongly from a young age. When young Holden Caulfield of « Catcher in the Rye », smack dab in the middle of teenage angst and confusion, went on a quest « to find himself » I related.
The affluent world I was in after WWII was not satisfying to me. And I noticed that it didn’t seem to make the adults I knew very happy either. It certainly didn’t solve the problems of our family, something I wrote about extensively in my book, « The Painting of My Life ».
What did make sense was my father’s clever and skilful cartoons, his writing, my mother’s excellent painting, the painting of my sister Mary, and the good reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of our house, La Berceuse and Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, as well as my father’s black and white photographs. Our neighbour Rowl Scherman was a teen idol with the guitar and later a fine photographer working for Life Magazine. A book and a film about him came out in 2016 : Eye on the Sixties : The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman. His brother Tom was exceptionally talented in drawing and went on to work at Disney. Down the street, a woman twenty years my senior, Lee Schoenburg, was the editorial director at Magnum Photos. We became lifelong friends. My godfather, Paul Rhymer, wrote over three thousand episodes of Ma Perkins, one of the most popular shows on radio before television took over. He is considered one of the great American humourists of the twentieth century, in a class with Will Rogers. That is a whole lot of background, something I haven’t mentioned before.
For me, Art seemed to make sense as an antidote to the materialism surrounding me. I had spiritual awareness from an early age. Art seemed closer to religion than to business. The idea of it in my mind was quite pure. That being said, I think most of us start out wanting the élan, the fame, the honour, and the glory we associate with « specialness » and our art heroes. It is easy to forget that Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach and took three days to die, that he sold only one painting in his life, and that his mother used his paintings to plug holes in her chicken coop. We remember those things later when the artist’s path gets bumpy which it does.
I became a photographer and studied painting in the New York museums to understand art principles : light, composition, contrast, values, and many other things which were also applicable to photography. With my Magnum Photos connection, I worked in photojournalism, working to capture the street events of the nineteen sixties, working in league with great photographers as much as I could. I was just a kid, in my early twenties and they were twice my age, most of them.
But I also felt that photojournalism was not enough, not what I was looking for exactly. The beautiful idea of art was what I was seeking and if I didn’t know what that was, I did have a sense of what it was not. So I packed my bags and took my small R-18 1965 Renault all the way across America to Yosemite National Park to meet Ansel Adams and learn about photography as Art. He was a technical master and just at the beginning of getting the tremendous recognition he deserved.
But somehow his wonderful pictures, so controlled and technically beautiful, seemed dead and less personal to me than the street photography I knew so well. The workshop was a few weeks long and we had been asked to submit some of our prints for evaluation on acceptance, and I had done that. At a big introductory meeting of the whole group in Yosemite, I was very surprised to see that Ansel had made slides of several of my photographs, one of Janis Joplin I remember and a couple of others, and he talked, without having met me, about how good they were. This was very confusing since I was here in Yosemite to be more like him and less like me, or so I thought.
This gets into the essence of the oracle’s message, « Know Thyself ». Art is all about that, about being comfortable in your own skin, about showing who you are through your work. I now know I was better than I thought I was. Lack of confidence was blocking my path.
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