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Getting Back to the Spirit of Artists in Paris

Forget about exhibitions and juries, try these five ways to grow as an artist

From

Painting by Jerry Fresia.

"The way to make art is to move in the direction of the greatest pleasure and excitement. "

Photo © Jerry Fresia. Used with Permission.



In 1904 in Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt refused an award and in so doing reminded her audience of the spirit that gripped Paris during what might be described as a golden age of painting:

"I... must stick to my principles, our principles, which were, no jury, no medals, no awards.... Liberty is the first good in this world and to escape the tyranny of a jury is worth fighting for, surely no profession is so enslaved as ours."
Robert Henri,
an American artist who also studied in Paris and who was a cousin of
Cassatt, helps to fill out this sense of freedom. "Forget about the
exhibitions and the juries," he urged. "Think less of the success of
the by-product and you will have more success with it. Keep living."

Notice how in Henri’s mind even "exhibitions" and "successful" painting might
confront us as tyrannies. But how? If we are free from tyrannical
juries and exhibitions, what are we free to do? Henri is wonderfully
lucid in this. Certainly not the freedom to make "pictures… however,
unreasonable that sounds." Making pictures is what you do when you
submit to juries. Rather the purpose of the free painter was to reach a
"state of being" or "more than an ordinary moment of existence." Or to
put it in other words: growth is the entire payoff.

Notice the reversal of the relationship of the painter to the painting. If we organize our abilities to make a successful painting, that is, a painting that intends to please a juror for example, we are making pictures and we are instruments in a production process.

If on the other hand we treat the marks on the canvas as "a by-product,"
the painting becomes an instrument (not the end) in finding moments
that are more than ordinary. That the painting activity is an
instrument in our becoming and that our becoming is the goal and not
the making of a product for which we earn an award (read: career). This
is a theme that runs right through the latter half of 19th century
Paris, from Corot to Monet on through to Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso.

5 Ways to Grow as an Artist

So how would a Cassatt or a Henri or Picasso approach painting differently than we do today? How might this heartfelt fear of others controlling our painting process impact our self-understanding as artists? Here are five possible answers:

1. Making a successful picture is not the goal. Think of
periods, such as childhood, when we grew, our self-understanding
changed and we became more of who we are. There was an endless stream
of events where we expressed ourselves and slowly began to discover the
things that pleased us. As with the sense of freedom characterized
above, the entire payoff was growth. The events of life when we grow
are the things that happen along the way. Making art should be exactly
the same. Paintings are just the series of events or steps we take. Let
them go. Keep moving. Or as Henri implored, “Keep living.”

2. The painting process is always a beginning. As soon as the
freshness evaporates (we are bored or lost or acquire interest in
something else), stop. Do not think in terms of finishing. Picasso
lectures eloquently on this. Finish is the death of our work because it
means we are painting an expectation or “to be like” and that puts the
brakes on painting to see and feel more deeply. Every beginning is a
new prompt, a new point of departure. Begin everything. Finish nothing.


3. Ignore non-artist authorities. Juries, the grantors, the
gallery, the direction from above are just so many fingers in our pie.
All external measures are dangerous because they not only push us to
performing, as opposed to creating, but their sense of worth takes over
our own. This is precisely what Parisian artists fought against.


4. Get into a prolonged creative process. Have dozens of
paintings in your studio that have been abandoned for one reason or
another, left in various stages, unfinished but always complete as
expressions of who you were at that moment. Work on several paintings
simultaneously. You are not making shoes.

5. Furnish the world with your beauty, let the world see, touch and feel who you are.
Scary I know. It is so much easier to hide within safe fortresses, the
sources of praise and dignity that we can count on by pleasing our
audience. This is the dreaded condition called style. We cannot be free
to be who we are if we are not always risking being who we are in front
of others.

What about the career, you ask? The painters of Paris were incredibly ambitious but their big career move, as it turned out, was biting the hand that fed them. Career yes, but freedom to become is holy ground. No Faustian deals, please. Therefore, we may put an
entrepreneurial hat on once we put down the brush, but never when it
limits our becoming. The assembly line to the great gallery opening is
every artist’s kiss of death.

The life of Franz Schubert may suggest a model. He was so into the process of creating music that each of his new efforts was but an opportunity for little Franzel to become more Schubert. So, he would compose the work, let it go and move
on. His students would then find the work, practice it and perform it
for him afterwards, whereupon Schubert is reported to have said, “My,
that is lovely. Who wrote it?”


This is the way to make art. Move in the direction of the greatest pleasure and excitement. You are gifted. Risk showing us your gift. Where others are drowning, you will be diving. And it is when you cannot be bothered with product, you will look about the studio and
find a few pieces that have a life. Your life. And so you gather them
up and market them. And then after 30 years of painting, you will have
had a career and the “later” you will have emerged. You will have
grown. And you will have been an artist.

Ah, those Parisians. They had a way.

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