What stimulates art? Does it need to be stimulated? For my readers who are artists, are there certain smells, sounds, sights that inspire you to create?
In the chapter “The Idea of Art”, Paul Valéry looks at the definition and the act of Art. The word art originally meant simply “a way of doing”. Little by little, it evolved into “the ways of doing” that involve voluntary action or action initiated by the will. It implied that there was more than one way of obtaining a desired result and it presupposed some sort of preparation, training, or at least concentrated attention. There is the art of walking, breathing—even silence!
When we look at painting, for example, we say “this is Monet’s art” or “this is da Vinci’s art”. This is confusing, however, as we are combining the artist with the action. For Monet, da Vinci, Van Gogh, the great masters of painting, I believe the aptitude of painting was innate, a skill that came naturally. Van Gogh states , “I dream my painting and I paint my dream”.
This became very apparent to me when I began to paint for the first time, just five years ago. I wanted to apply the past twenty years of studying art—visiting museums around the world, becoming familiar with the artist’s works through an artist’s catalogue raisonné, reading critical essays and biographies of artists, watching documentaries, etc—to the canvas. So, I began by copying the works of my favorites, Monet, Renoir, Caillebotte, and Van Gogh. Very challenging, but very rewarding. I also learned that the skill of painting was not innate for me and that I needed to learn the techniques of mixing the right colors, considering the right medium (watercolor, pastel, oils), calculating perspective using geometry, drawing, shading, just to name a few.
These artists also had to learn skills through lessons and through practice. Unfortunately, these many hours of practice can be unappreciated by others, as with Van Gogh, so it is important to create art for oneself!
Is there a distinction between the work of skill (œuvre de l’art) which may be a production or any ordinary kind and with a practical aim, and a work of art (œuvre d’art)? In his book Aesthetics, Paul Valéry seeks to answer this question: “How do we know that an object is a work of art, or that a system of acts is performed with a view to art?
In everyday life, we perform useless actions through our motor organs: we can trace a circle, whistle a tune, walk in cadence, etc. Most of these actions have no practical purpose but they can illicit sensory stimuli.
This morning, as I am writing this post, there are the sensory stimuli of the smells :of freshly brewed Kaldi coffee, of arctic winds from the north after last night’s snowfall and of a White Barn scented candle “Flannel”; the sound of silence after this newly fallen snow only to be interrupted by the ½ hour chimes of my wall clock; the sights out my window of the bright sun reflecting off of the snow and the Cardinals, Finches and Robins eating from our birdfeeder. These delicious stimuli would be considered purely transitory and considered “useless” by Valéry as they play no part in the functioning of the mechanisms essential to the preservation of life (71). However, these stimuli release emotions which I believe are essential to my physiological existence!
Valéry explains that these useless sensations, consequently, endow a kind of utility and necessity to the world of Art and each individual feels and judges them as his nature allows or as he wills.
The five senses that produce stimuli lead us to dwell on the sensations that they cause and the impression that they make: satisfaction resuscitates desire; response regenerates demand; sensation heightens the expectation of a sensation and there is no definite end. How can one organize a system of perpetual stimulation which is essential to Art, Valéry asks? (73). How can these sensations lead us to create Art?
One who sets out to make a work of art strives to capture these sensations. As I am focusing on the visual arts for this post, I began to think of a painting that struck a certain emotion in me the first time I saw it: It “spoke to me” in a sense, drew me in. There have been so many for me over the years.
The first painting that comes to mind is Le Pie (Magpie) by Monet in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. This was easy: I love Monet, I love to watch birds and I love snow!
“How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill?”-Victor Hugo
My first glimpse of Monet’s Magpie at the Musée D’Orsay was in 2005: it was a wonderland of quiet, still, tranquility. My eye was drawn to the light of the sun which shines upon this freshly fallen snow, creating blue shadows. And then, voila, there he sat: this little black bird with a white breast, perched upon a roughly hewn fence post, greeting the day. All of this lovely milieu, created from Monet’s memory, as a backdrop.
Valéry would call this scene “an accident of the outside world” which emotes the need to “see again, to hear again, to experience indefinitely”. This is one reason why I recently copied Monet’s Magpie—to see again and hear again and experience the pleasant emotions that this image brought me. Before I painted, I would rely on admiring someone else’s art. Now, I can create my own œuvre d’art. “The lover of form never wearies of caressing the bronze or stone that excites his sense of touch” (77).
It is time to go paint a landscape of snow!
Paul Valéry. Aesthetics. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Pantheon Books, 1964.
This year, I’m reading (a few ages a day) the first 2 volumes of Paul Valéry in the Pléiade collection. Before starting this project, I actually didn’t know (or remember, because I was probably taught that earlier in life) that he had studied architecture extensively. The volume I have has poems, but also lots of essays, including on art
Thank you for that reminder about Valery’s Pleiade, on my TBR list. Have you read his novella Alphabet?
Interesting post Robin. I sometimes wish I could paint or play the piano well but then I realize that I’m not willing to put in the hours of practice. I’ve been too busy studying French and improving my writing skills. Good for you for jumping into this late in life.
I think all artists, regardless of natural talent, benefit from studying and copying the works of others. Dancers learn to execute countless choreographed works (some famous others not so) long before they become choreographers themselves. Musicians do the the same thing. As do writers, painters, photographers… eventually, the student has absorbed a tremendous scaffolding of tricks and techniques. Armed with that, they then must throw caution to the wind and let their creations flow from their own desires, experience, and vision. Without putting in the hard work of studying and imitating, however, I think few if any artists can ever achieve greatness.
Thank you for this Carol! As you stated, I have now used this foundation of techniques and have attempted some originals. I seem to paint with the same palette ( I love the blues) and landscape themes of oceans, sky and snow. No matter where I start, I end up with the same. I’m okay with that. It brings me much peace and joy. I have started teaching my grandkids to paint, what fun! I’d like to know the tools you are using to improve your writing skills. You are very proficient! Can one imitate writing styles as well? Does it become part of your lexicon after years of reading good literature? Robyn
Hi Robin, I meant to reply earlier and then got distracted and forgot. Regarding painting the same subject matter, I don’t think that matters one bit. I have a good friend who started drawing in her mid to late 50s. She took some classes and really enjoyed drawing the faces of women. After a year or so, she challenged herself to draw one face per day over several months and post them on Instagram. She really improved during that period. She kept working on faces, taking an occasional class, and learned how to work with different materials. A few years ago, she started giving online classes herself and little by little her business has taken off. It’s been thrilling to watch her trajectory. When she posts a new class, hundreds of people now sign up. And, she still largely draws faces.
I am usually reading one or two books on writing. I bounce between them. Nothing earth-shattering. They just act as continual reminders of pitfalls to avoid or techniques to try out. I can’t claim that I’ve absorbed their teachings but I’m sure some of it has sunk in. Next week I’m starting an online writing class through Stanford’s adult ed program. I’m looking forward to getting some direct feedback.
I think reading good literature is very important. I wish I had time to produce pieces that imitate other authors’ voices. I think it would be a fun exercise that would also enrich my writing. From what I read from the experts, however, the most important thing is to just write (or paint, or play the piano…) without worrying too much about the end goal.
Hi Carol, wow, I am inspired by your friend’s commitment to her passion and availability to share her gifts with others.
My gifts and passions are more in the editing and synthesizing part of writing, not the composing. I am constantly amazed by those, as yourself, who can take these words and thoughts and communicate sophisticated ideas in rhetoric (or even non-fiction) that leave me wanting more! Thank you for your time and thoughtful replies! Robyn
I enjoyed this very much, Robyn! Your magpie painting is very well done. This is exactly how it works:
Van Gogh states, “I dream my painting and I paint my dream”.
Thank you Dwight! This is a great compliment coming from you.
You are welcome. I am just like you… self-taught and still learning! :>)