According to The Onion, that organ of the satiric masterpiece, there’s a painting in a coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin that’s recently found its voice. This report intrigues me for at least two reasons: not only am I a fictional character with a habit of talking back to my author, I’m also an artist, a painter. It turns out the aggrieved painting—clearly the work of an amateur, but every artist has to start somewhere—is tired of wisecracks about its appearance. The painting told reporters that “after four months of brutally sarcastic remarks from store patrons regarding its composition, color scheme, and sense of perspective,” it’s had enough.
According to the story, the painting’s resentment to date has been directed toward customers and staff. The article is silent on what the painting would say to its artist, given the chance. That’s too bad, because that’s the question I’m curious about. Coffee shop patrons—I expect they deserve a dressing down; but suppose the art starts talking back to the artist. I’m tempted to fly down and meet this piece of work, buy it a cup of coffee and ask about that.
The Onion—well that’s satire, but the thing about art, whether it’s sculpture or performance or paint on canvas or, in L’s case, her damn novel, is that at some point it will start to talk. And often enough it will say things the artist isn’t prepared to hear. In my own art practice, I’m moving away from abstract and exploring figurative painting, and frankly, I’m a little scared. Of course, my abstract work has always had things to say—it might say Ouch! or Sigh! or Joy! or simply, Look! It’s when an abstract goes mute that I know I’m in trouble. A figure though—a figure might turn out to be verbose, like that fed-up painting in Wisconsin. Suppose a figure I’m working on finds its voice, and I don’t like what I hear.
No, not literally. Say, just for instance, I get out my drawing board and I begin a study in pencil. It’s a portrait, a half-remembered face of a stranger. Say I’ve decided the expression will lean toward sweetness, because, as my friends will tell you, I like to put a good face on things. But after I’ve done considerable work, the expression begins to slip and I’m not looking at pure sweetness anymore, but rather anger is finding its way into the features; worse yet, anger that doesn’t even know that it’s anger. My intention was to make a lovely, uncomplicated drawing. If all that happened was simply that the work took a direction I hadn’t anticipated, fine: a new turn, to keep me engaged. But no, it’s taken on an attitude that will be near impossible for me to pull off. Come on: anger that doesn’t recognize itself—what does that even mean?
It happens to writers all the time, I’ll bet—an insolent piece of work and a writer wishing it would shush. Not that I’ve ever seen my author, L, try to take the easy way out when I get cheeky. Or have I? Because what’s an artist of any stripe to do when the work talks back? Do you run away screaming, or do you lean in and listen? Do you argue back, tell the work it’s wrong in its assessment, make the case for why you’re doing what you’re doing, why your way is best. Because making that argument, you see, is the only way to properly understand what you’re doing and why it’s right to stick with your first instinct. Except that—and this is what you’re really afraid of—often as not, your argument fails, and you have to admit your first instinct was lame and lacking. But you’ve invested all that time and all that work, and there isn’t a simple fix, and it’s back to the drawing board.
Anyone can see what the artist is supposed to do. The artist, to be any good, has to wade right into the argument and follow through with the conclusion, whatever that might be. Clearly. So it isn’t that I don’t know the correct way to proceed, but, I mean, it makes me tired. Maybe if I just pressed on, no one would notice. Anger that doesn’t recognize itself indeed.