I finally read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I may not be performing a tune-up anytime soon, but it has really impressed me in terms of what I do, namely paint in the “classical” tradition. Author, Robert M. Pirsig distinguishes “Romantic” beauty, as the appearance that strikes the senses, from “Classic” beauty, which comes out of a harmonious order of the parts.
Representational artists, like me, have often been made to feel “square” because we aren’t “cool” and spontaneous; we can’t throw paint around like a guerrilla (or a gorilla). We are not “romantic,” by the definition above. The book has taught me to value my having a rational, classical method and offers a reconciliation of these two approaches. Obviously there needs to be a balance. I’m not here to invalidate the sincere efforts of any of my splatter-painting colleagues. What needs to be present in any artistic endeavor, however, is an authenticity, the presence of something called quality.
Pirsig asserts that quality is actually what generates our perception of reality. It is not merely a response to “reality,” a judgment, as we were taught to believe in school. It is a pre-intellectual awareness. Ever wonder why the first thing that pops into our head when we look at a work of art is either “I like it” or “I don’t?” It is an emotional response. Before there is understanding there is an awareness of and attraction to quality.
John Singer Seargent’s monk-like devotion to achieving a perfect, spontaneous eloquence in every stroke is an example that comes to mind. As a portrait artist, I can appreciate the effort, the working and reworking that went into creating the appearance of effortlessness in his best work. It would never occur to most viewing a Seargent how much underlying structure and “science” went into making his paintings. There was an immense commitment to finding the balance between romantic and classical beauty. These diametrically opposed approaches are clearly reconciled in the work of creative genius like Seargent.
Sure it can be said that quality is “whatever you like.” But it’s also true that what a genius “likes” contains a world of experience that informs his every scribble.
Juxtaposed in my reading room is another great book for painters, published by Stove Prairie Press, called “Alla Prima, Everything I know About Painting” by Richard Schmid He too is a masterful painter. Two questions arise as I read these books in tandem: is it possible to be a good painter and not be a good artist? And the other: is it possible to be a great artist and not be a good painter? Schmid has nothing profound to say about his subjects. It’s just delicious to look at. It is his sensitivity and expressiveness in paint that makes his work profound. He masterfully observes what is important and essential and gets it down on canvas with an elegant authority. Ostensibly, he operates in the world of appearances, which according to Pirsig makes him a “Romantic.” But he executes his paintings with the depth of understanding and skill that can only be termed “Classical.” Schmid makes this Romantic/Classical reconciliation look easy. But is he an artist? Absolutely. It’s the romantic/classical reconciliation that makes him so.
I know many who would say no, he’s just a glorified copyist. While this may be said of many realists working today, it can’t be said of Richard Schmid. I’m getting pretty bored with those artists who bang away at splatter painting and random stabs of color, turning down their noses at anyone who’s taken the time to get under the hood, as it were, and learn the craft of painting. Yes, on one hand, art is “whatever you want it to be.” But it needs to be so much more. Otherwise, why all the fuss? Schmid asserts that “‘looseness’ should be the way a painting appears, not how it is accomplished.” It’s funny how the critics of representational artists accuse them of having nothing deep or profound to say-what does a beautifully painted landscape really tell us about being human?
On the other side of the abyss, representationalists accuse conceptual or abstract artists of a similar lack of depth. Where, for example, is the art in dragging a piece of wood behind a car and then hanging it on a wall? We’re asked to accept that it’s not the wood board but the experience it represents. But is it art? Sure, why not?
Ultimately, great art must create its own universe, one in which the artist has completely invested him/herself. This is where art lives or dies. The jolt of that immediate gratification of appearance combined with an understanding of the underlying structure and meaning makes for a Zen-like experience when it comes to creating and enjoying serious art. It’s also great for riding and maintaining motorcycles.