photo: juli strader
the invisible interior of artistic humanity

by max podstolski

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(This article was originally published in June 2000)

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 confided—pointing to his leaning walking stick—that 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 loves—plein-air painting in exquisite natural settings—given 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 everyone—how could they even begin to contemplate such a mammoth absurdity?

In my view, art history, the art world, the art market—in 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 painting—to 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 common—yet often intensely individualistic—artistic humanity.

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.




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