I was recently at dinner with some friends–good folk, well-meaning & sincere folk–who wanted to draw me into the table talk by saying, “Larry…tell us about your art.” Of course there was none of my art around for anybody to actually look at so I couldn’t help but puzzle over what to say.
My wife, who is an artist as well, chose to talk about the shows she’d been in, the sales she’s made, and the scenes she’d been painting recently. I, by contrast, don’t do ‘shows, sales, or scenes’ … so what’s left to say?! The ironic truth is that were I to talk about my art in its absence I would thereby demonstrate that I had nothing worth painting! Why paint something you can as easily say in a lecture or write in an essay or chat about over cocktails? Yes, art is a language but it is a visual language, one for which I have no equivalent in verbally conceptualized discourse. I wonder why Beethoven didn’t just write an essay rather than composing his 5th Symphony? Would it not have done just as well? Surely he could have put it into words that would clarify everything and make for good conversation. (Does that sound dumb? It should.)
Now I don’t want to imply that there is no appropriate reply to “tell us about your art…”. There is. But it would have be about process rather than content. Too often it is not process that people want to hear about when they ask you about your art. But the fact is, the content doesn’t translate accurately to the dinner table. Between bites I could say something about how I ‘make’ a painting…or about the conversation I have with a painting as I’m doing it…or what I hope a painting might succeed in doing when someone sees it. But I can’t talk about what’s actually there because what’s there is for the eye/the mind to see rather something for the mouth to say. It’s a visual language in the same way that music is an auditory one. This seems rather obvious to me. So why is this so hard for some folks to understand? Maybe because seeing has been suffocated by a lot of hot air. I cannot help but identify with Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady when she sings in exasperation, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through…I’ll tell you that, this is no time for a chat!”
So as a painter I try to show what I have to say because I cannot say what I have to show. At a dinner table with no point of reference, no artwork to look at (much less see), here’s how I kill the conversation. I say: “I start a painting by seeing what isn’t ‘there’ and then I try to show it. And what I discover in the process, by trying, is that I can’t paint what I see because it’s not there! but I can see what I paint. Can you?”
To paint is to learn visual language; to look is to learn to see. It doesn’t just happen, it takes practice and no little bit of work.