(This article was originally published in
It was a glorious morning as I strolled with my family down
the steep rural road toward the shimmering bay. At a bend
near the bottom a couple of elderly artists, a man and a woman,
badges showing they were bona fide members of a provincial
art society, had set up easels overlooking the picturesque
scene, which they were industriously depicting in watercolour.
We got to chatting with the gentleman, an engagingly talkative
fellow easily into his 80s, while the woman kept silently
painting, scarcely acknowledging our presence. He confidedpointing
to his leaning walking stickthat being crippled made
it difficult to get around much any more, at least without
some kind soul to drive him. This was clearly a reference
to the middle-aged, sturdy-looking man leaning idly against
the paddock fence, attending watchfully to the painting in
progress like an admiring acolyte. The master explained that
his wife's refusal to drive on hills was no help whatsoever
in getting him to such out-of-the-way places, so he had to
rely on the good graces of others in the art society. While
she remained securely at home, the proper place for people
of advanced age, he continued to venture forth into the wild
blue yonder, despite an increasing debility which, nevertheless,
didn't prevent him from standing in front of his easel for
hours at a time.
As we moved on I called out, "Keep up the good work!"
a hypocritical platitude perhaps, as I've never considered
such quasi-impressionistic landscape painting as good in any
but the most mediocre sense. But my remark was not meant to
be insincere, not at all. Though I have no taste personally
for that kind of art, I have nothing but admiration for the
artist's dogged determination to keep doing what he obviously
lovesplein-air painting in exquisite natural settingsgiven
the stubborn recalcitrance of a body which has all but given
up the ghost.
Like him, the vast majority of artists will never be famous.
Many will achieve limited, parochial renown to be all but
forgotten by posterity, except maybe for family members, art
society types, dedicated collectors, traditionalist dealers,
local or national art history chroniclers: all strictly small-time.
A tiny handful will be posthumously resurrected, declared
'great' or 'significant' in the van Gogh paradigm or under
the banner of ideological-revisionist art history. The condition
for most artists will remain relative anonymity and obscurity,
but I stress the word 'relative' here: being known and respected
in a local community carries its own weight, however insignificant
against the wider international benchmark.
But then, why dwell on artists anyway? What makes them so
special compared to 'ordinary' humans? My considered view
is that there is no essential difference, as the human condition
is innately artistic. Everyone is potentially an artist: all
it takes to become one is the self-realisation that that's
what you already are. It is not what you do that makes you
an artist, but your awareness of something within that constitutes
an artistic or aesthetic dimension. The primal artwork is
one's own life, indeed life itself as you experience it and
reflect on it. There is no barrier between life and art in
this sense, the sense that everyone shares.
The usual sense of art, on the other hand, thrives on exactly
that opposition to life. Artists traditionally depict life;
it is not enough to say they merely live it. Asserting that
art is life, on that view, is totally meaningless, so why
bother? If everyone's an artist, doesn't that cheapen the
concept, reduce it to the lowest common denominator where
no one can fail at it any more? Art historians surely shouldn't
write about everyonehow could they even begin to contemplate
such a mammoth absurdity?
In my view, art history, the art world, the art marketin
other words art with a capital "A"is less important
than the art which is part of all of us, which we participate
in by virtue of being human. I believe it's more important
to succeed at life than art (at least in the usual, commonly
held view of art). Yes, one person's success is another's
failure: each may easily invert into the other, like the fluctuating
interplay between yin and yang. Do you place greater emphasis
on your little time before death, or the big time that stretches
endlessly forward and backward? It's not just a question of
art, but a philosophical or religious one. The only difference
is the way you feel about it in the here-and-now, which is
all you can ever truly call your own.
There have certainly been cases of up-and-coming artists who
self-destructed prematurely, hastening the inevitable end.
For them the opposite may have been true, in sacrificing life
for art. Take Philip Clairmont, the New Zealand expressionist
painter who ended his talented life while still in his early
30s. His final creative/destructive act was to treat himself
as a paintingto be hung, literally. A poignantly tragic
finale to a short but brilliant career. His art was intentionally
made to fall to bits one day, similar to people, so you could
say he was true to himself, as both artist and human. On that
view better to go out with a suitably dramatic flourish than
merely fade away.
If you define your own art yourself, then you succeed or fail
entirely on your own terms. If you equate it with the way
you live, then succeeding at life simultaneously implies succeeding
at art, and vice versa. It connotes thinking about and modifying
your own attitudes and values, to enable you to create the
life and identity you want. It is only a limitation in thinking,
a fixed idea, to presume that art must either be socially
visible or not exist at all. The liberating realisation is
that art can be totally invisible except to you, the creator,
that it need have no other existence than in your own head.
The invisibility of art is the rule, not the exception, despite
appearances to the contrary. All artworks imitate something
that exists only in the private space of artistic perception
and/or conception. In giving form to that private vision the
artwork is identified by us, the audience, with the artist's
interior view, but what we are really seeing is our own interior
view projected onto the artwork. In doing so we are not recreating
the artist's vision, but creating or recognising our own.
Interior views are universally shared; it is the way we all
see, though we can never know for sure that others see exactly
what we see. It is looking out from, and looking in toward,
the invisible interior that shapes and reinforces our commonyet
often intensely individualisticartistic humanity.
Copyright © 2000 Max Podstolski.
All Rights Reserved
Max Podstolski is an information specialist
in Fine Arts and Humanities at the University of Canterbury
Library in Christchurch, New Zealand, and occasionally-exhibiting
'primitive modernist' painter.