January 7, 2015 Repository 166: Where Art Falls Down | The Not-so-genius MacArthur Genius Posted In: art practice, bon mots, contemporary art, perspective, social critique

Pablo Picasso in front of The Kitchen (La cuisine, 1948) in his rue des Grands-Augustins studio, Paris, 1948. Photo: © Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Pablo Picasso in front of The Kitchen (La cuisine, 1948) in his rue des Grands-Augustins studio, Paris, 1948. Photo: © Herbert List/Magnum Photos

I’m not going to lie, if Picasso were alive today and he spoke at my commencement address I would listen very, very carefully. If he told me to go smoke a cigar through my nose, I would. We artists, despite the idea or aura of being one’s own voice, are very impressionable. And in a field that gives no rules, no reassurance and no true metrics we are constantly looking for a sign, a guideline or a concept that will pull us along in our practices.

I still listen to commencement addresses in the same way that professional football players or wrestlers watch old matches or plays in the hopes of osmosis to the muscle memory. Great thinkers and great thoughts help the creative process.

This past week one of my favorite online curators of intellectual significa, Maria Popova, posted a commencement address from 2005 by MacArthur Genius Award winner Teresita Fernández. The title of the post and ideas in the speech were “what it really takes to be an artist.” Compelling. After listening to the 20-minute speech, I was inspired 12% and left uncomfortably hungry for more.

Most of her points were salient, where you listen and feel comforted knowing that not only do you feel these things, but PHEW a MacArthur Genius does too!! Some of her ideas needed some fine tuning – I don’t think it’s OK to tell young artists to ignore compliments on their work which she suggested. Especially after she opened her speech with a tale of crushing distress when her prof didn’t like her work. Requesting a deeper dialog with your audience is one thing, which I think she was suggesting, and taking a compliment is entirely OK and different.

The main point that really jarred me in her talk is the same point where the rest of the art world, art schools and artists in general fall down, that we absolutely must reconsider for the health and well being of the arts is as follows, from her top 10 list of being an “artist”:

“5. Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.”

In this innocent seeming suggestion lies the exact reason why the arts lag behind the fields of science and finance. Another word for stumbling is research. Another word for stumbling is process. Another word for stumbling is trial and error. If artists gave themselves permission to show all kinds of work instead of “museum quality”, “professional” or “final” works the arts would be much better off. Deeper aesthetic dialogs would be second nature to people, artists or not, if they were able to look under the hood. Scientists would never succeed or push boundaries if they were not given access to ALL the information supporting a certain thesis.

By creating an atmosphere in the arts of experimentation and play, of failure and success, the grounds for discovery become rich. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to understand the evolution of an artist by seeing all of his/her output? Wouldn’t it be comforting to know that Gerhard Richter or [insert your favorite artist here] went through periods of really distressing and unaesthetic work? Isn’t it true that through catharsis (a very, very chaotic and messy process) can healing and revolutions occur? How do we stay sane in a field where we are not allowed to show our mistakes, where we aren’t allowed to look at the failure of others in order to learn? It’s preposterous.

In conclusion – don’t edit privately, don’t hide your crappy work under the rug: how do you know it’s crappy work? It’s an awfully egotistical world to live in if you only present your “best”, and never show your humility. There should never be the National Endowment for the Nice Arts. And on that note of letting it all hang out, being raw and unedited, I would like to nominate Karen Finley to be a consideration for the next round of MacArthur Genius Awards. Go girl.

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  1. Wayne Surber • January 7, 2015

    Hey Catherine, Many years have past and it's funny to here your voice in my head again. Totally agree with this post. Share as much as you can, you only truly learn from failure and mistakes.
    Tracie and I wish you much love from NYC
    -wayne (la cip 2001) Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • January 8, 2015

      Wayne! An absolute treat to hear from you, thank you so much for the note. I hope the post rings true in whatever you may be artfully doing. I think of you all often, and can't thank you enough for the thoughts and memories today. Wishing you both love and wisdom in 2015!!!! Reply

  2. Karen Rand Anderson • January 10, 2015

    "By creating an atmosphere in the arts of experimentation and play, of failure and success, the grounds for discovery become rich." So well said, Catherine. I have long believed in sharing process, sketchbooks, mistakes, certain "failures" and studio mess-ups as part of my work... In my shows over the past few years, I've included some copies of pages of the studio art journals I keep which are relevant to the work. Some of those pages are pretty raw, and rough. People have stated that the journals were very meaningful and important for their appreciation of the work presented, and added layers of depth. Let's hear it for the artist's process, mistakes, and evolution. Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • January 14, 2015

      Absolutely Karen!! I love that you shared your journal for the show. Two months ago I attended a show here in Portland where the painter left his sketchbook in the same vein. I was over the moon about the sketchbook - even more so than the paintings - they were stunning and indeed opened up my perception on his thinking. I vote he rips out the pages and frames them, then does an exhibit of those;-) Thanks always for reading! Reply

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