Did you know that the composer, John Cage, interpreted Kakuan’s “Ox Herding Pictures”? He did so in several series, paintings he did on brown paper towels — the kind you used to find in public restrooms? Cage left them behind after he finished his work at the Mountain Lake Workshop in 1988. The director, Ray Kass (Professor of Art at Virginia Tech), gathered them up and saved them because he could not bear to throw them out as trash. Here’s an example:
While there, Cage wrote:
“When you start working, everybody is in your studio–the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas–all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.“
For me, Cage is talking about the importance of emptying your mind of everything but the work before you, clearing your head of the intrusions that crowd in to impede doing your own work, original work. And “if you’re lucky” you mange to get out of the way yourself and the image, almost literally, paints itself. You become the vehicle through which the art works.
But this doesn’t happen very often. Even when you are working alone in the studio your mind will sabotage your eye to prevent it from seeing what’s there. Instead it shows you the painting someone else wants to see…you know, the painting your friends will like, the painting the market is looking for, the painting your inner critic thinks is amateurish and boring, the painting nobody will understand or appreciate, the painting that might catch a judge’s eye or impress the right people, the painting that follows all the “rules” or deliberately breaks them to be sensational. “Oh the paintings you’ll see!” But these are not paintings you’ve been given to do and they will lack presence. They will be a production…maybe even a good production, but they will be missing the most essential ingredient that makes art matter.