The right answer

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Artists in his Studio (c. 1628),  Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Artists in his Studio (c. 1628),
Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The artist stands before a canvas, or sits at a drawing board or computer. The position does not matter. What we are concerned with is inside, with what she – let’s assume the artist is a woman – is thinking.

There comes a point when a work of art falls to pieces – not physically, but in the process of its creation. Even if she can see beyond that collapse to a desired end point, the road to that end becomes obscure. The work threatens to evaporate, or shrivel, or just fail. Forward motion becomes impossible in this pea-soup brain fog. Perhaps she has been at this point more than once with this work. Certainly she has been there with others.

The answer she seeks is simple or complex, if not both. She only needs time to sort it out. In the back of her mind there is a thought, which has always been there, and makes its presence felt strongest when doubt brings work to a halt:

Why should I bother with the right answer when there are so many more interesting wrong ones?

Lee Krasner, Night Creatures, 1965,  Acrylic on paper; Gift of Robert and Sarah W. Miller, in honor of Lee Krasner, 1995 (1995.595) © 2011 The Pollock–Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lee Krasner, Night Creatures, 1965,
Acrylic on paper;
Gift of Robert and Sarah W. Miller, in honor of Lee Krasner, 1995 (1995.595)
© 2011 The Pollock–Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The terms “right” and “wrong” have little meaning in this context – that is what she is discovering, what all artists discover at one time or another, often repeatedly. Something either works or it doesn’t, and what works might be “wrong” in regard to art that has come before or in regard to the artist’s own output to that point. “It works” is what Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock used to say to each other when one of their paintings held up.  When they didn’t work, they were fourth-rate; when they did, they were masterworks. It’s still hard – even now! – for some people to see Pollock’s work as “good.” Krasner’s talent was hidden by sexism for many years, and is still being rediscovered today.

Unfinished art has a peculiar appeal that no other art can match. To see something in mid-thought is to freeze time – something art is said to do but rarely does. Even the photograph is mediated after the fact, whether in the darkroom or Photoshop. Mondrian’s works are so precise in completion that to see them unfinished, with strips of paper standing in for painted lines, is to see the gestation of something that was meant to be born but never will be. A sonogram of a painting in fetal form. Of course, there are those who will remind you that all art is unfinished until it is engaged by an outsider, but that is so obvious I could have said it myself. I have said it in the past.

She considers leaving the work unfinished, either to abandon it as failed or to preserve that uncertain moment, that right wrong answer. Sometimes a painting reaches completion before the surface is fully painted. Cezanne knew this, and said as much, and said it more forcefully in his own, unfinished/finished works.

I am not so interested in agendas, the “cutting edge,” art that is driven by Necessity to be short-lived. I am interested in art that aspires to be – the simplest goal in the universe, but one the artist must engage with fully. Creation is chaotic and orderly at the same time, and the artist must juggle both. If there is timeliness to consider, or an axe to grind, so be it, but those are two more balls thrown in the air, just as likely to sabotage the juggler as aid him.

Every myth and religion requires a flaw – or better, flaws. It’s what keeps people thinking, Without loose ends, questionable assumptions, or obfuscation there is nothing left to hold on to. Absolute Truth, whatever that is, is as smooth and slippery as a waterslide, but far more dangerous. Dangerous because flaws allow people rough spots to cling to, to peel apart the strata and examine, to live from, hanging like a plant growing at the edge of a cliff; without them, we go over the edge, helpless. What we love in people and things is more often the imperfections, because those are always within reach. Art has its myths and religions, and artists sometimes unwittingly desire to place themselves on a throne or altar – not as sacrifice, but as idol.

For the artist, now washing her brushes, this aspiration is easily dismissed. There’s too much work, too much banality, in the everyday making of art, much less the commercial/business element, for delusions of grandeur to take root. (And won’t those bristles ever come clean!) Her hopes lie with the work which, when complete, removes itself from ordinary effort just a little – that small gulf that lies between art and Art. To be recognized and granted the capital letter is to be admitted to the canon, to art history. Take the wrong answer and make it great. Discover that the flawed, the innately human, is what people really want underneath it all.

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