However You Get There


Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Robert Benchley‘s infamous statement, There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide the world into two groups, and those who don’t, also speaks to the human proclivity to figure things out and be right. We all strive to make sense of the evidence and then we pronounce, parse, judge, declare.

Some people like the GPS approach to life, the one where you get instructions and feel empowered in navigating the elaborate slalom that is a life. Others are not so keen on that methodology. Linguist and political pundit George Lakoff has used the metaphor of parenting to help clarify the fundamental differences in American political discourse. Conservatives, says Lakoff, respond more readily to the strict parent/harsh father figure as a form of leadership. Liberals are attuned to a nurturant parent/loving mother modality. (And thank you Lakoff for a good example of Benchley’s statement!) Looking beyond this simplifying but useful construct, a multidimensional spectrum of modalities exists where each of us find a perch that feels “right:” Controlled vs free, prescribed vs self-designed, transgressive vs rule-based.

I used to assume all artists were just like me. I was a transgressive and rule-breaking child, and I grew up to be well insulated from listening to anyone telling me how to operate in that sacred domain of my own art making. I was also convinced, right from the beginning, that the process of making art involved nonlinear, undetermined influences and inspirations. Plenty of artists and writers and musicians have that view too and talk about the mystery of it all: Where the work came from is unknown, but when it comes into your hands it is your sovereign duty to bring it into form.

Older and wiser, I know better now. That isn’t how it is for everyone. I am good friends with several artists who see their entire process as a highly conscious one. Some source their work in politics, social issues and cultural awareness. They are driven by a desire to bring visual language to bear on the vicissitudes of life in the 21st century. My model of creativity, full of not-knowing and nonlinearity, is seen as mystical and not relevant to those who are deeply grounded in the consensual reality.

No matter what your view—linear or nonlinear—there is a powerful story we can all tell about the direction our work takes and how to hold that story. In his fascinating book Doubt, Richard Shiff questions the ability of art historians and critics to ever really plumb the depth of the artistic creative experience. Their approach tends to erect abstract systems to explain art, but those systems “float somewhere above the particulars of the artwork.” While his approach aligns with my proclivity towards the “not knowing,” it still speaks to the distance that exists between the artist’s process–whatever that may be—and its ability to be parsed and understood. There will always be a gap between those two, no matter how you got there.

That process also deserves honoring. This passage from Jerry Saltz‘s review of a recent Philip Guston show shares his take on that particular journey:

The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art—not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict.

And in keeping with my own view of things, he continues:

This is especially pressing now that there are promising signs of artists everywhere trying to break through the fog of professionalism and careerism that have crept into the art world; the corporate carefulness that’s made too many painters make little moves in known directions; toe pre-approved formal lines; and make the system feel clogged up, static, sterile. Guston, who was desperate to change, knew this. He said “I got sick and tired of all that purity… the extreme codification of beliefs and the institutionalism of everything.”

Air time is available to those of you who see things differently. There’s no one way to do this, ever.

2 Comment

  1. Thanks, Deborah for this typically light ironic intro from Benchley and your subtle and insightful comments. This ongoing multi-faceted debate about dualistic, binary, symmetrical thinking seems to be hard to shake off, especially in “The Western World.”
    I might point out that the idea of a conservative (or any other) notion of the “strict parent/ harsh father figure” v. the ” nurturant parent/loving mother modality” is actually a bit of this “This or That” thinking.
    Having been up close and personal with examples of the opposite (accessible father, more distant mother), I think we must keep such dichotomies in mind. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. In any case, Thanks! (again)

  2. deborahbarlow says: Reply

    Thanks Rick for you insights. As I said to one friend on Facebook, I should have emphasized my belief that these things are not dialectical but rather a continuum. All the best.

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