Art, craft, and the elusive self

“In Schooner Valley,” a pastel by David Owen

I knew Dave Owen in another life—my Hoosier period—and since then he’s become an admired landscape painter in southern Indiana. In his thoughtful new blog post “With the Artist Added,” at David Owen Art Notes, Dave reflects on the nature of art and artists as he prepares for a show. I was struck by how much his insights apply to writers and writing.

In the first place, he isn’t wild about the three pieces he’s taking to the competition, including the landscape reproduced above. And yet:  “. . . I have realized that my paintings become neither better nor worse when a judge gives them a thumbs down or a thumbs up. They have a life of their own and are whatever they are.”

To me, “In Schooner Valley” is lovely. But I can’t see what Dave sees—and certainly not what he’d hoped to see emerge from his brushstrokes. I too have finished pieces that I feel don’t quite work. Or at least fell short of what I’d imagined. Even successful and published stories, essays, and poems are handmade things and are lumpy or lopsided in spots. And what a mess we had to make to get halfway close to our intentions. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio, a potter’s bench, or a writer’s hard drive?

After fearsome effort, the creator sees flaws. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” said Paul Valery. I believe it. Artists labor until they’re frustrated with what they have made—the work’s no longer an ego extension, far from it—and their feelings can’t be hurt by a judge or an editor. They did the best they could, got what help they could, and at some point they moved on. Not because they gave up too easily, but because whatever that object still needs is beyond their powers.

At the gallery, Dave looks at various paintings and wonders where each artist’s style comes from. Hours later he happens to read John Burroughs, the nineteenth-century nature writer, reflecting on how bees turn the nectar of flowers into honey. “Just as honey begins with the nectar that the bee finds in the flower,” Dave muses, “so a painter’s style begins with whatever sweetness the artist finds in life.”

Thus we arrive at the irreducible in art: the creator. Craft is the necessary conduit for this elusive self. We can teach craft—how to apply paint, how to put words in logical order—but we cannot teach that which paints, that which writes. At least not directly. And it’s the only thing more important in making art than craft.

Yesterday, after reading Dave’s essay, I was thinking about this as I judged some poems and essays for a little contest on campus. Most of the work was very rough from a craft perspective, yet there was such life and energy in it. One girl’s vivid essay, brimming with feeling for her handicapped brother, read like one of Gertrude Stein’s better stream-of-consciousness prose experiments. I admired it—hang the grammar. I recalled how writing theorist Peter Elbow advises writers to write as fast and as thoughtlessly as possible in their first drafts.

Elbow’s aim is to foster discovery by freeing the unguarded self from the constraints of craft before, necessarily, imposing craft. Natalie Goldberg’s and others’ freewriting approaches cleave to this. But many other successful writers use what Elbow calls “the dangerous method”—trying to polish each sentence to perfection as they go.

Self and craft need each other like the bee needs the flower and the flower needs the bee. Yet they can seem hostile to each other. Writing drafted for utter correctness may fail to express truth and beauty; writing that’s not at some stage disciplined by craft may fail to express anything at all. Working out this paradox seems central to art. I believe it’s something all artists must do in their own sweet, idiosyncratic way.


Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, discovery, emotion, freewriting, NOTED, working method

9 responses to “Art, craft, and the elusive self

  1. Richard, thank you for taking the ball I tossed in the air and running with it. For me, the tension is between craft and vision or even craft and expression. When I began six years ago I necessarily focused almost entirely on craft. Now that my basic skills are somewhat more advanced, the questions “What do I see?”or “What do I want to express?” are becoming more important. They, I find, are harder to answer.

    Thanks for including me in your great blog.

    • Dave, I ran with the ball but fumbled it, I think. I felt so thick-headed writing that post. Your words “vision” and “expression” may get better at what I was trying to say than my term “self.” They are certainly less loaded.

      Anyway, it’s the personal. How can craft help you get that down without becoming an end in itself or somehow actually getting in the way? Little kids are pretty much every one artistic, and they lack craft. Their work usually isn’t accomplished but can be compelling. What is it that compels? Sometimes I think craft must be learned until the personal vision can flow through as unimpeded as a child’s. Didn’t Picasso say it had taken him a lifetime of learning so that he could forget everything and paint like a child?

      Your comment reminded me that two years ago, in my post “Truth and beauty,” I touched on this while mentioning another landscape painter, a friend here in Ohio who has stared at the hills for over three decades. He’s made a rule for himself not to insert what isn’t there–no old wooden gate if there wasn’t, no flowers blooming out of season–even though his paintings are not in the least photo-realist:

      “His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.”

      So, yes, vision.

  2. A great topic and discussed with insight. However, I feel that we don’t really have a self, elusive or not. Some 5% of our atoms disappear each year and less scientifically I would suggest that is our names and the behaviour of other non-selves which give us this compelling illusion. If we write an autiobiographical short story, a memoir or a novel with strong elements of our experiences in, we are building coherence out of the less coherent in a selective way. To me, reading something which does this in an illuminating way is of more interest than reading something which is immaculately crafted- it is like preferring painting to photography, perhaps. Thank you for this highly stimulating writing. John.

    • John, thank you. I am sympathetic to your notion of non-self from my study of Buddhism.

      My working definition is actually that what we call self is the upper, outer, thinnest, and most insignificant layer atop something oceanic. What Jung called the collective unconscious and which includes what might be called God. In any case, when I used self in my post this is what I meant, not just Me but my channeling of something much larger. From that globe, expression must move through the box of craft to come into being as art, however. And that process can lead some wrongly to suppose that craft is more important than content, or the original impulse . . . or something. As you say, it isn’t. I think you might like this quote from an earlier post, “Craft, self, and rolling resistance”:

      “Writing is not a bundle of skills. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.”—Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose

      I visited your blog in Britain–very impressive. I look forward to returning.

  3. I love this conversation! This morning one of my FB friends and former students asked, as she studied Hebrew texts, what the relationship to self is to text. I will send her the URL for this post and urge her to read the comments also. How to reach for the beyond, using the tools of memory and imagination, forgiving ourselves in advance for our failures to actually create what we know is there? Sweet and idiosyncratic indeed!

    • Shirley,

      At its best, maybe this all comes down to a form of spiritual discipline. It is certainly humbling to try make art. And just to engage as reader or viewer with text or image can be profound as well. Maybe that is the key in each act, the dropping of that part of self called ego, or more anciently, pride.

  4. Richard, two years ago in one of my first blogs I discussed what it might mean to “paint like a child” after watching my granddaughter, then age 5. Today I might shorten it to two words: No fear. But here is the longer version.

    I enjoy the story of the kindergartner who asked her mother “What do you do at the university?” “I teach adults to draw and paint,” she answered. Puzzled, the child asked, “Do they forget?” Yes, they do forget, most of them. It’s not that they forget the product of childhood drawing and painting, but the process. They forget the attitudes and inner qualities that generate paintings in childhood. How do children draw and paint? Here’s how one preschooler does it.

    She draws with absorption and focus. When she draws, the project before her is her whole world. For those moments, it is what matters most of all.

    She draws with purpose. To you, her drawing may look like scribbles, but there is meaning behind each stroke. She says of a yellow streak, “That is light from my flashlight bouncing down the stairs.”

    She draws with spontaneity and freedom. There are no visible restraints. No inner critic is holding her back. Nor does she care what the neighbors think.

    She draws with energy. Everything is intense. Everything is moving.

    She draws with delight. This is not work. She enjoys what she is doing. It gives her energy and does not take energy away.

    She draws with confidence. There is boldness. There is no fear.

    Stepping back, I see that this child’s drawing and painting are born of enthusiasm and innocence. I do not paint as freely as she does, for adulthood has dampened my enthusiasms and eroded my innocence. But, seeing her freedom and her delight, I vow to try. Perhaps I can remember my own childhood painting a little at a time. Today I will seek to paint with increased energy. Tomorrow I will try to lay down my brushstrokes with more confidence.

    • Wonderful! No fear. I wish!

      Yet I think of what Eckart Tolle said In A New Earth: The ego is that which wants and fears. The child, as you have captured so wonderfully here, works with joy. The desire and its reward are both right there and in the work. Too often I want to make art and fear I can’t. After I’ve caused myself sufficient suffering, I go on.

      I love the university story. It is inspiring and energizing to me that we can stop forgetting; the process calls something forth. Not something we hold in our heads. It’s not knowledge (craft), though that helps in expressing what we are trying to express.

  5. Love the painting. And the discussion from post through the comments… Matisse wrote about how important it is for the artist to see everything as if he were seeing it for the first time, as if he were a child. I love all that implies–perhaps most of all that we get so used to seeing things that we forget to really s e e them.