Thursday, October 08, 2009

Say Something!

I'm sure you've all heard this, from your mother or your teacher or your spouse: if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Words to live by. No harm done. Genteel. Polite. Thoughtful. Considerate. Safe. We can all agree on this, no? And live happily ever after!

NOT! These have never been the words I live by, and not for the obvious reason. The obvious reason being that: OMG, something bad is going to be said. Something that is going to make people upset, uncomfortable, offended. No, that is not my thinking at all.

If you haven't got anything nice to say, then find something! That's right! Unless we're talking about something that is evil, find something nice to say. Hey, Satan, nice cape!

Seriously. I wasn't brought up with the "if you haven't got anything nice to say don't say anything at all" wisdom. Shocker. So if I ever heard it I didn't think much about it, ignored it, but on some level always knew it was cockeyed to say the least. Here's why.

Once you've established that no one says anything if they don't have anything nice to say, what have you got? ALL SILENCE BECOMES NEGATIVE! All silence becomes damning. Every time someone sees you and is silent you're thinking, do I smell bad, did I do something, am I bad? People brought up in this world with this philosophy interpret all silence as judgment that is critical, disapproving, and negative. Never mind that it ruins silence. Never mind that what is really going on is pure evil of another sort, laziness, the failure to get off your butt and find something nice to say. Absolutely. Think about it. If you are one of these people that has deluded yourself into believing that this idea of not saying anything bad makes you a nice person, think again. It makes you a first class jerk!

Do I need to answer the question about how this applies to art and artists? I don't think so. They very act of making art is an expression of appreciation. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that what an artist does is what they care about. Dot dot dot. What they care about is what they appreciate. Art is the appreciation business. Has been since someone could draw on a cave wall. The artist bridges the gap between self and life/world/nature/dreams/others through art. They ask the question do you feel what I feel, think what I think, see what I see, etc, etc, etc. Well? Do you?

Yes. Art is a force. It is an action. It initiates a response, a reaction, or resistance. Maybe, according to physics, these things are equal. Great art generally creates all of these things and history plays this out. Great art provokes both response and resistance. Love and hate, or, which is more accurate, love and FEAR.

This idea of saying nothing at all is fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of offending. Fear of your own enthusiasm. Let's face it, every artist wants a response. Charles Giuliano, the retired Boston art critic , photographer, old friend and former colleague, once said that to be ignored is the worst thing that can happen to an artist; so I know that he and I at least agree on this one thing. Ha!

So I say, find something to say! If you haven't got anything nice to say, then find something nice to say! Life is a two way street. Love is a two way street. Art is a two way street. You like it when other people go to the trouble of finding something to say, and you HATE it when they don't. You HATE it when they come into your studio and don't say anything. Of course you interpret that as negative judgment. If they don't give you a yes, a wow, a thumbs up, but instead act like: what? Or worse, that there was nothing there, well, that sucks, doesn't it. Everyone feels this way. And still, these are the very people that often pass the poison. They want to be a one way street. They love getting a response from someone, but can't give a response in return. They are the problem. They are dropping the ball. Art is energy, and energy begets energy, and when you don't say anything, when you are silent, you stop the flow of energy.

This raises other questions of course, like, well, what if I really don't have anything nice to say? What if I really don't like something? Well, my answer to that is WHY? Ask yourself why? Are you threatened on some level.

I'll give you a difficult and embarrassing personal example. I don't hate a lot of work, but lately I found myself really hating the work of this one artist. Now what I should say up front, is that I don't really hate their work at all. I probably like it just fine and could easily find lots of nice and worthwhile things to say about it. What I hate, what I really hate, is that all these people love this artist's work for what I believe are the wrong reasons. Because it isn't modern art, thank God! What a relief! Because it is cute, like gift soap. Because they think it's pretty and that's that. No challenge. I hate that the world might be turning its back on the art I love. The art of Pollock and de Kooning, the art of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, the art of Kandinsky and Popova and even Picasso. Yes, I love Picasso. There, I said it.

So you see, I'm threatened. Not at all by the work, but by what I'm afraid of, that the work I cherish, the work I am passionate about, the work I believe in and am wowed about and appreciate, will die away, and all we'll be left with is gift soap. Crap. In fairness to this artist, they are clearly carrying the torch of an artist like Frida Kahlo, making art that is about intense personal interior experience. Is there a place for that? You'd better believe it! That is what it is all about. They just use a more literal kind of code. Figurative. I find myself hopelessly aligned with abstraction. I wasn't always. I used to paint like this person. I used to make egg tempera paintings that fed off of Botticelli. But my roots are in abstraction now, and it is from there that I grow for the time being.

See, and along the way I even found something nice to say about an artist I supposedly hate.

1 comment:

Patrick Baker said...

Hi Addison,

after reading this and your most recent post, I didn't want to go away hogging the energy, not saying anything. First something nice: reading your posts is like being in the room with you, and, since I miss you, this is a great gift. Thank you.

Now something less immediately positive but still nice (because meaningful criticism and questions are actually nice--are we on the same page?): what about art that you really don't like, not because of secondary factors, but because you basically find the art disgusting? I'm not one who thinks that art has to be immediately pleasing to the senses, but art whose main object is to disgust is, well, by its very nature, disgusting. Perhaps I wretch (figuratively, of course) when I see truly disgusting art because I feel threatened. But is it illegitimate to be threatened by nausea? I mean, if art brought me to throw up (literally) on the shoes of the artist because it was so damn disgusting, am I really then supposed to thank the artist for saving me from an evening of looking in vain for a movie to download from iTunes (without attendant vomiting)? See what I mean?

I guess the central question is whether every act of creation is good and beautiful, and more profoundly than in a simple aesthetic sense. Like when the Bible says, "and God saw what he had wrought, and it was good", or when the Greeks referred to the best among them as "the beautiful and the good". If it is not, then it would seem impossible to say something nice about all art.

At any rate, I still feel terrible that the most thoughtful thing I ever had to say about your art-- which I have since forgotten--I told to your wife instead of you. I'm sure she's forgotten, too.