Over the nine years of writing this blog, I have returned frequently to the theme of staying open, vulnerable and accessible in the art making process. The Zen tradition has an apt phrase, the “don’t-know mind.” There is also a quiet word for this particular kind of receptivity: modesty.
Artists and modesty, in the same sentence? Some would say that isn’t a likely pairing. And some would say it isn’t a desirable quality for an artist anyway.
But it is for me. And that is in spite of a long history of artists perceived as anything but modest. From an essay by Eric Gibson, Can Artists Ever Truly Be Modest? on In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues:
Among the virtues commonly attributed to artists, modesty, it can confidently be said, is not to be found. In their professional capacity, painters and sculptors may be described as “visionary,” “innovative,” and the like. As human beings, however, they are almost always spoken of in pejorative terms. As Rudolf and Margot Wittkower observe in their 1963 book, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, “There is an almost unanimous belief among [laymen] that artists are, and always have been, egocentric, temperamental, neurotic, rebellious, unreliable, licentious, extravagant, obsessed by their work, and altogether difficult to live with”…
A robust ego is necessary to a successful artist.
Gibson goes deeper into these stereotypical perceptions, and he gets to the heart of a dichotomy: “Artists lead two lives, one outside the studio, and one in it. And it is in the life within what one writer describes as ‘imagination’s chamber’—with the blank canvas, the bucket of cold clay, or the virgin block of stone—that ego falls away.”
That is an essential tension that most artists confront: Receptivity and vulnerability are needed in the studio. But outside that space, confidence and clarity are essential for navigating in the external world.
It is easy to spot those artists who are very good at one end of the spectrum but fall short at the other. We’ve all known “atelier” artists—the ones who only want to make their art and leave all the external demands to someone else. Then of course there are those high visibility strutters, the ones who are gifted at self promotion and treat art making as secondary (or as is often the case now, turn it over to others to do.)
Like most artists, I would like to be good at the making and the merchandising. It is a balancing act, and there are seasons when I have to focus on one at the expense of the other. Meanwhile modesty isn’t a quality that gets advocated all that much. It is often equated with size, as in small.
Mira Schor breaks that open with an essay she wrote 15 years ago, Modest Painting:
Enormous size certainly intends to call attention to itself, but modest paintings are not necessarily small, and small paintings are not necessarily modest…modesty is not synonymous with a lack of rigor or ambition for painting. In fact, modesty may emerge from an artist’s emphasis on rigor or ambition for painting itself rather than for his or her career.
Schor’s words bring to mind several artists I admire. One is Lori Ellison. A painter as well as a poet, Lori was well known for both her exceptionally compelling work as well as her consistent and thoughtful advocacy for the importance of staying humble. After her untimely death in September, I have been going back to reread her words.
She shares her wisdom in an interview with Ashley Garrett from 2014 on Figure/Ground: An open-source, para-academic, inter-disciplinary collaboration:
[Ashley Garrett:] A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?
[Lori Ellison:] To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:
In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”
If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.
To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.
Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard—I can just hear the screeching.
If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind—we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone—I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.
Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic—that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet—not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.
That, that is what I am looking for.
As am I, Lori. As am I.