Did you ever find yourself checking a book out of the library again and again? It might just be something that makes you feel good, like mashed potatoes or chocolate or a favorite cartoon can. Or it might be a book of wonder, a book with exciting new ideas spilling out on every page. Or just something so unbelievably beautiful that it makes you ache to turn the pages. When I was in grade school, in the 1960s, it was a book on dinosaurs illustrated with segments from the mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum. I had a lot of toy dinosaurs and a few books on the subject, written for children and sold at Woolworths, the dime store, but I’d never seen anything so magnificent. Were the illustrations even in color?
But there are other reasons for being drawn to a book. Perhaps it’s to give meaning or answer a question.
As an adult, beginning maybe 25 years ago, I kept taking out The Artist, by Edmund B. Feldman. (I wanted to put a link to him or the book. He’s not on Wikipedia. Most of his books are out of print. Sorry. Give Google a try.) After borrowing and reading it two or three or more times I eventually found and purchased a copy, which I read then and again just a few years ago. It has now become one of my security blanket books.
Each chapter takes on a different artistic role:
- The Shaman
- Child Artist and Naïve Artist
- Peasant and Folk Artist
- The Classical Artisan
- The Medieval Guildsman
- The Renaissance Genius
- The Revolutionary Artist
- The Bohemian Artist
- The Illustrator
- The Industrial Designer
- The Gallery Idol
- The Hyphenated Artist
All of this is suggestive but I could never find myself in there. And that, I think, was what I was looking for: my place within the world of art.
In retrospect it seems I was often misguided. I’ve tried to present my art to the public and will, I hope, continue to do so. In the early 1980s I did the obligatory search for a gallery to represent me. In the spring of 1983 I had a solo exhibit at the Tweed Museum of Art (on the campus of UMD) and in the spring of 1985, not long after I’d moved to Minneapolis, participated in a group exhibition of drawing at the Duluth Art Institute, an exhibit I’d inadvertently instigated. I suppose if I’d kept pushing in that direction I might eventually have made a mark of some sort. Instead, I withdrew.…In 1984 I tried producing a book of poems and drawings. Once I began recording, in 1996, I made cassettes and then CD/booklet sets to give to friends. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I once again put something before the general public, starting with soundcloud.com.
That wasn’t what I needed to be doing. I just needed to produce art. Yet everything I’ve read about art insists it’s a social activity, that there’s a transaction or bargain between artist and public, and I kept buying into that in a half-hearted way.
Most importantly, I needed to make the art that was crawling around inside me rather than whatever it was that galleries would show or a public would support or a patron would request. This seems like a more familiar story, right? The tormented artist, confined by society, awaiting liberation and discovery, blah, blah, blah. Don’t take it that way because that’s not where I’m heading.
The public, making money, success, and all that external crap has never mattered except as an occasional afterthought. I’ve always experienced art as a personal need, as something coming up from the depths of my mind, rarely conscious or communicable. Art comes from somewhere under the surface to spill out onto a sheet of paper (or into a microphone, as it has in recent years). Then it vanishes again until the next upwelling. There might be a fallow period lasting years. I might change medium when I next begin working. I might spend years reviewing, revising, and cataloging what I’ve already made. Or I might even play with the idea of publishing, of putting it into a book or website (though that begs the question of engaging the public versus turning my own art into a more familiar artifact—since I’m more likely to encounter the work of others online or in a book than at a gallery). The act of generating something new is only part of it.…Of my own art, what I find in any way satisfactory has not been coaxed or forced or cajoled. It is not subject to intellect or will. It has its own periodicity and purpose. It comes unbidden and freely, at least at first. When I try to force art—that is, when there’s no sense of internal necessity—it makes me sick, almost physically ill, and I almost always hate what is produced.
But, until very recently, I think I’ve been trying to find that social context, however distant it might be from a tangible audience.
I’m going to give you two examples of my graphic work. The first, a still life from sometime around 1982-1983. The second drawing is from Laughing Water, probably drawn February 1996. (In the spring of 1983 I had decided that I would put together a collection of poems and erotic drawings called Laughing Water, which became something of a Leaves of Grass as it continued to evolve and grow over the decades. You can learn a little more about the history of that at Prattle and Din, a memoir of my recording experiences.)
To me this still life was and remains meaningless, nothing more than an exercise in technique and discipline. At the time I was trying to be a “real” artist—as Henry Miller defined the role—by working very hard to produce something every day (though he was insisting an artist produce all day, every day). I was also attempting to internalize someone else’s idea about art as observation, perhaps one of the commentators on Rilke’s Neue Gedichte. The drawing has no reason to exist except that I thought I should be doing something constructive that day and that I should be training my eye and hand. It doesn’t really come from anywhere, go anywhere, or embody anything. There’s nothing emotional about it. There’s no necessity. It’s merely an observation of what I set in front of myself.
The second drawing, circa February 1996, is an attempt to process my feelings toward an unplanned pregnancy. At this point I was past my anger at having another child and the ensuing responsibilities imposed on me and was coming around to identifying with everything unwanted, including unwanted children. When I tell you about what was going on the drawing makes sense. But, really, there’s very little conscious activity. The images and words are a random set of connections, momentary connections that might not hold up under daylight or intellectual examination. What is on paper is a fragment of what was churning in my mind that day.
I just said that I needed to “process my feelings” and I think that’s where the critical literature of art falls flat. I think it goes deeper than “processing”. I have to describe it as thinking. Art is the act of thinking. The artifact is the debris of thought. I can’t recall ever hearing anyone say it this way: art is thinking. It’s fundamental to the artist. It isn’t just processing something. For some of us, thought has to take sensual form. It has to be worked via the senses. More importantly, thinking has to be put outside one’s self so it can be observed at a distance (in part I say it this way to include the verbal arts). We have to shape our thoughts in some way, then stand back from them to take them in as a whole. To an outsider—and maybe to the artist, too—this may seem nothing but an esthetic process, and sometimes that’s all it is. I would say there’s a lot more going on.
If you only look at my graphic output you’d wonder if I thought of anything but sex. Almost all I’ve produced since the spring of 1983, when I began Laughing Water, is sexually explicit (and a majority of my drawing and painting prior to that was often restricted to the female nude). I, at least, have long wondered why sex was necessary (in my art). In regard to my own life and production of art, I’ve never been accepting of our socio-sexual roles, both private and public. In the private realm, I’ve always thought there should be more to sex than orgasm, even as an end goal. If you look at the full body of my art, literary and graphic, you will see a resistance to society, you will see pleasure discussed and depicted sensually rather than orgasmically, you will see sex as a kind of worship of life (of being alive). I hope that you find in my thought and art something more engaging than a one night stand. I hope that you, too, will challenge our social heritage.
Sooner or later I might want your input on my thoughts. And for that I do want to put my art before the public. I do want an audience because thinking is a richer experience if it’s not an isolated experience, if it leads to dialog. And yet, at the beginning, thought is a private experience. We have to walk alone on the moors or take a boat out on the water when no one else is around. We have to work alone while we smear and scribble our thoughts onto paper. Before we engage each other we have to engage ourselves.
To Feldman’s index we need to add The Artist Thinking.