After having studied with me, I think that you have a sense of my absolute passion for art; it is, by far, the most important thing in my life. Besides teaching you techniques for making it and a language for discussing it, I hope I have also communicated to you the joy that it gives me. It is my sincerest wish that it could eventually bring such joy to your own lives as well.
And what is art? This is one of the slipperiest, knottiest questions one could ask – its identifying characteristics throughout history and region have been a forever shifting affair; any definition one might try and impose could be quickly undermined by citing art made in another time and place, for which the prevailing criteria of our own era, or previous eras which we hold in esteem, does not obtain.
I think it is, however, fairly safe to say that the proper jurisdiction of all world art has been the poetic, the imaginative, the aesthetic, and the emotive. But many artists and commentators on art have come to feel, particularly since the end of the second world war, that these attributes are very slight in the face of the barbarism that mankind is capable of visiting upon itself. After the horrors of the Nazi death camps began to come in to focus, Barnett Newman famously asked of himself and his familiars in the New York School: “What are we going to paint?” Painting pictures of flowers and sunny days seemed to him to be comic at best in the aftermath of slaughter on an industrial scale – little more than decoration or entertainment or therapy.
The world that you, my students, are about to inherit, and within which you are beginning your journey in life, is fraught; peace and prosperity are far from assured. Democracy itself is under siege, and hate is a palpable and increasingly well-organized force. You’ve been set down here through no fault of your own, and given no choice but to make your way through and over these obstacles. Faced with such a daunting reality, how can you be bothered with the poetic?
In 1911, an ancient stone hand-axe was discovered in Norfolk, England. It was made by a neanderthal, and is believed to be in excess of 200,000 years old. The axe was cut from a piece of flint which had a fossilized shell on its surface, and its owner clearly designed the tool around it, carefully centering the motif and making sure the bottom of the shell was roughly parallel with the bottom of the axe. This surprising example of the artistic urge predates spoken language by more than 100,000 years. Written language does not appear until about 4,000 years ago, making it quite a new thing by comparison. This individual’s short life was ruled by the exigencies of survival, yet he took the time to decorate one of his few possessions.
Self-expression, it would appear, is one of the very first things early humans practiced as they became more like people and less like animals. Far from being optional, it is an intrinsic part of what makes us human. There are other animals on earth that walk on two legs, live inside shelters of their own construction, and have surprisingly sophisticated modes of communication. But none have art; none have vivid imaginations and varied means of expressing them.
Art is simultaneously egotistical and generous. It is an expression of our individuated existence and an insistence that it stands out as something special among all the other individuals that surround us. But in sharing this expression, we hope to enrich the lives of all those who see it, and perhaps inspire them to express their own individuality through similar means, through the magic of art. Coming in to contact with their reciprocal expressions then enriches our own lives as well.
If we agree that it is no longer appropriate to write poems about love until such time as the world is a completely just place, then we have effectively banned such poetry forever. Do you want to be part of the generation that makes that heavy proscription? Do I? If we abdicate that much of our fundamental humanity in the face of the oppressive and inhuman, doesn’t that mean they’ve already won? In 1963, Leonard Bernstein, the director of the New York Philharmonic, wrote in response to the assassination of his friend John F. Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Titian made paintings of rare beauty throughout the horrors of the black plague, and Matisse, who famously bought combat boots in the hopes of joining the resistance, made pictures about the joy of life during the darkest moments of the Nazi occupation of France.
And so, if you can take anything away from the time you spent studying with me, it would be this: even as you seek increasingly greater subtlety and sophistication in your creative output, never feel embarrassed about expressing the true contents of your hearts, whether it be sorrow or exuberance. Use no irony or filter in its genuine expression, and so long as it is in earnest, let none tell you that it is frivolous or beside the point at our tenuous moment. And if you feel an overwhelming urge to write a poem about love, or to dance when winter changes in to spring, let nothing stop you.