Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The code of inner rejections

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Eskimo at seal hole

Why do painters exist? I’m not talking here about the question of why painting itself emerged as an art form: applying pigment to a flat surface is an impulse as old as humanity, to the point where it almost defines us. What interests me is why it persists as a job title. It’s far from the easiest career to pursue, but it’s still an immediately comprehensible one, and our art schools are filled with students who see themselves—in the face of overwhelming odds—as spending most of their lives thinking about the problems of paint on a canvas. (Your in-laws may not think that you’ll make it, but at least they’ll know what you’re talking about.) In some ways, painting is more valuable as a kind of shorthand answer to the cocktail party question of “What do you do?” than as a description of the activity involved. Over the past hundred years, the definition of painting has been stretched to include all kinds of materials and techniques, to the point where its practitioners are united less by a shared body of information than by the ideal of a lifestyle. It’s also a more practical way of life than it seems, at least if you’re a certain kind of person. You could argue that painters still exist for the same reasons that the Inuit still live in Greenland: they’ve occupied that territory for a long time, they’ve adapted in certain ways to survive there, and they’re good at what they do.

The question of why painting endures isn’t a new one, of course, and if anything, the problem seemed more urgent in the first half of the twentieth century, when its boundaries were being seriously tested. In an essay titled “Mobile, Theatrical, Active,” the critic Harold Rosenberg asked why the “action” painters, for whom physical performance was so important, stuck with painting at all, instead of moving into other forms of media. And his answer fascinates me:

For most artists…a more complete action is attainable with a pencil or brush than with an instrument panel; they are suspicious also of means whose effect on the senses is so powerful as to reduce the spectator to passivity, in the manner of the movies. Another reason for “performance” painters to refuse to abandon painting is that, in action, limits, such as the rectangle of the canvas, serve as a counterforce. To avoid flabbiness, new or mixed genres are obliged to develop substitute constraints, in the form either of arbitrary rules of work or a code of inner rejections.

There’s a lot to think about here, but the phrase that sticks in my head is “a code of inner rejections.” The more I think about it, in fact, the more a painter—or any kind of artist—seems defined not so much by what he or she is, but what he or she isn’t.

Harold Rosenberg

And if the idea of a painter is a useful one, it’s because it provides a code of refusals that has been tested for longer than almost any other. A few weeks ago, I quoted the composer Morton Feldman, who pointed out that freedom in art doesn’t mean that the artist is able to do whatever he or she likes: “Freedom is best understood by someone like Rothko, who was free to do only one thing—to make a Rothko—and did so over and over again.” To a greater or lesser degree, that’s true of every artist. A style is really a list of things that you don’t feel like doing, and if most of those rules are arbitrary, so much the better. Within the confines of the canvas, which doesn’t necessarily need to be a rectangle, the possibilities are virtually limitless, which is why most painters quickly develop a few negative rules to guide themselves. (These rules can always be replaced by others, but there’s usually a finite set of them at any given time.) Some are explicit, which is why a certain breed of painter loves to write manifestos; others are intuitive or unconscious, which doesn’t make them any less real. And calling yourself a painter, whether you’re working with oil on canvas or a wild assortment of mixed media that changes from one day to the next, is a way of indicating that you’ve voluntarily taken on certain limits, just as someone else might identify as a vegetarian, a monk, or a Mormon. It’s a statement that you’ve embraced the code.

The funny thing, obviously, is that if you want to be a painter, the world is more than ready to impose any number of constraints on you without your consent. There are the inherent financial challenges, with a few artists who become fabulously wealthy on one end of the long tail, while the rest are faced with a choice between starvation and compromise, which have an unforgiving inverse correlation. Then there’s the ruthless logic of time and competition, which implies, rightly or not, that if you haven’t gotten your big break by your late twenties, you aren’t likely to ever do so. (To be fair, this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we see relatively few breakthroughs in the second half of an artist’s life, it’s mostly because the vast majority have dropped out of the game in the meantime.) And any artist is eventually going to discover natural limits to his or her talent: we all have a ceiling, and if we haven’t found it yet, it only means that we haven’t pushed ourselves hard enough. In the face of all these existing constraints, it might seem unnecessary for a painter to willingly impose even more. In reality, though, it becomes even more crucial. An artist’s freedom might be an illusion, but the only kind we really have, or on which we can reliably depend, is the freedom to choose our own constraints—as long as they fall within the limits that the world has already given us. We paint ourselves into a corner, and then we call it a home.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2016 at 9:12 am

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