Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

05 MAY, 2014

Picasso on Success and Why You Should Never Compromise in Your Art

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“One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation.”

“Imagine immensities. Pick yourself up from rejection and plow ahead. Don’t compromise,” Debbie Millman advised in her magnificent meditation on what it takes to design a good life. But how does one resist compromising one’s creative ideals when straining to meet the practical essentials of survival? An uncompromising answer comes from one of the greatest creators humanity has ever known.

In 1932, the famed Hungarian photographer Brassaï, nicknamed by Henry Miller “the eye of Paris,” was asked to photograph Picasso’s sculptures, which at the time were practically unknown, for the first issue of the pioneering surrealist art review Minotaure, edited by André Breton. Picasso had just turned fifty. While already an established artist, he was still on the cusp of achieving worldwide acclaim.

But when Brassaï arrived at 23 rue La Boétie and entered Picasso’s studio, he quickly realized that beyond his modest photographic assignment lay a much greater reward — an invitation into Picasso’s private world and the gift of intimate perspective into his singular mind. After each session, Brassaï would return home and carefully record his talks with Picasso on scraps of paper, which he’d then stuff into a giant vase — not with the intent of future publication, but with the intuition that Picasso’s thoughts on life and art would be enormously valuable to posterity. This went on for thirty years, over the course of which the two got to know each other — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — while they explored together such timelessly alluring subjects as the ego, the creative process, the role of romantic infatuation in art, and a universe more.

In 1964, Brassaï — who was as talented a writer as he was a photographer — reached into his vase and decided to make his affectionate records of these dimensional tête-à-têtes public in the remarkable volume Conversations with Picasso (public library).

Picasso by Brassaï

One of these conversations took place on May 3, 1944. Though Brassaï was by then a successful commercial photographer — the very reputation by which he had entered Picasso’s life — he had dabbled in drawing twenty years prior, and had shown Picasso some of his early art. On that particular spring afternoon, Picasso expressed his admiration for Brassaï’s gift for drawing, insisted that he must have an exhibition, and began probing the photographer about why he had abandoned the pencil. Despite Brassaï’s success as a photographer, Picasso saw the relinquishing of any sort of talent — in this case, drawing — as creative cowardice, as compromising, as selling oneself short of fulfillment. Never one to bite his lip, he gave Brassaï a piece of his mind. While unsolicited, his words ring with timeless advice to all struggling artists on the importance of long-run perseverance and faith in one’s sense of purpose:

When you have something to say, to express, any submission becomes unbearable in the long run. One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation. The “second career” is an illusion! I was often broke too, and I always resisted any temptation to live any other way than from my painting… In the beginning, I did not sell at a high price, but I sold. My drawings, my canvases went. That’s what counts.

When Brassaï protests that few artists are gifted enough to be successful, citing something Matisse had once told him — “You have to be stronger than your gifts to protect them.” — Picasso counters by bringing down the ivory tower and renouncing the myth that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Unlike those who maintain that commercial success is the enemy of creative integrity — including such well-meaning idealists as Sherwood Anderson — Picasso was sensitive to the layered, dissonant nature of the issue. He understood the fragility of the creative impulse as a serf of the human ego — an ego that thrives, much to our dismay and inner turmoil, on constant positive reinforcement. He tells Brassaï:

Well, success is an important thing! It’s often been said that an artist ought to work for himself, for the “love of art,” that he ought to have contempt for success. Untrue! An artist needs success. And not only to live off it, but especially to produce his body of work. Even a rich painter has to have success. Few people understand anything about art, and not everyone is sensitive to painting. Most judge the world of art by success. Why, then,leave success to “best-selling painters”? Every generation has its own. But where is it written that success must always go to those who cater to the public’s taste? For myself, I wanted to prove that you can have success in spite of everyone, without compromise. Do you know what? It’s the success I had when I was young that became my wall of protection. The blue period, the rose period, they were screens that shielded me.

Picasso translates this ethos of not compromising from the ideological to the pragmatic as he sends Brassaï off with some practical advice on selling his drawings:

Don’t price them too high. What matters is that you sell a large number of them. Your drawings must go out into the world.

Brassaï and Picasso

Conversations with Picasso is an absolute treasure in its entirety, the brilliance of which Henry Miller captures in the preface:

In some inexplicable way it seems to me that the spirit which animates Picasso can never be fully accounted for by his work, no matter how prodigious it may be. Not that I deny the greatness of his work, but that the man himself is and will remain far greater than anything or everything which he accomplishes with his hands. He is so much more than the painter, sculptor, or whatever he may choose to be while breathing is in him. He is outsized, a human phenomenon.

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01 MAY, 2014

Carson McCullers’s Little-Known 1964 Illustrated Children’s Book

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Refreshingly direct verses with a strong existential bend and an undercurrent of science and astronomy.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups — including these gems by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and J.R.R. Tolkien — I was thrilled to discover that in 1964, Carson McCullers penned Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig (public library), a charming collection of short verses for young readers illustrated by the acclaimed German set designer and painter Rolf Gérard.

Written three years before her death, by which point McCullers had suffered multiple strokes and had lived with the entire left side of her body paralyzed for more than 15 years, the refreshingly direct poems straddle a peculiar balance between innocent optimism and wistful contemplation.

Many of the poems not only have an existential bend, concerned with such contemporary questions of science and philosophy as the nature of nothingness and why the world exists, but they also exude a palpable enchantment with science, astronomy, and cosmology — no doubt due to being written during the golden age of space exploration.

HOW HIGH IS THE SKY

The sky is higher than a tree I know.
I know it’s higher than an airplane
But when at night there is a starry sky —
I wonder which is higher
Stars or sky?

I SOMETIMES WONDER

I do not wonder where everything is.
Everywhere is shops and children, trees and air,
Our gate, our garden, these are everywhere.
But Mama darling, Papa dear, I sometimes wonder
Where is nowhere?

THE UNSEEN

I’ve seen a mountain,
I’ve seen the shore,
I’ve seen so many, many things more;
I’ve seen fireflies who light up in the dark,
I’ve even seen Yellowstone Park.
But the thing that I, and anybody else has
Never seen, I swear,
Neither I nor anybody else has ever seen air.

ASTRONAUT

I’m not afraid of space ships or orbital flights
Where the lights are blue and purple and
There is a zooming sound.
I lie in my space suit important and brave
While zip zing the world goes round.

Today at recess Buddy dared me to fly
To the moon, dared and double dared.
While I was thinking he called me chicken.
I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

I am afraid of the black-patched pirate.
I am afraid of Captain Hook
And of dares and double dares,
While I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

Others pull into question the seeming absurdities of adult conventions:

A RAT AND A RAINBOW

This afternoon the sun shone while it showered.
This afternoon there was a rainbow —
Bands of orange, gold and red, like many-colored flowers
Bent in a big bow across the sky.
Children ran across wet grass, pointing at the
Rainbow shouting, “Look, oh my!”
Why is it rude to point at people,
But not to point at a rat or a rainbow?

Others still are bittersweet, even decidedly wistful, exploring such darker subjects as loneliness, hopelessness, and the interplay between badness and sadness:

GIRAFFE

At the zoo I saw: A long-necked, velvety Giraffe
Whose small head, high above the strawy, zoo-y smells
Seemed to be dreaming
Was she dreaming of African jungles and African plains
That she would never see again?

SPORT WILLIAMS

I knew Sport Williams in second grade
He was a bad boy.
He was a repeater.
Failed in his number work,
Scribbled in his reader.
He threw spitballs.
He stole money,
And always lied and said
He had not done it.

When Betty had a sore toe
And had to go to school
With a cut-out bedroom slipper
Sport jumped into the air
And stayed there
Until he landed on Betty’s sore toe
In the cut-out bedroom slipper
On Purpose!

Oh! Sport was a bad boy.
No one loved him but his mother.
And when he was suspended, she said, “He was not
A bad boy,
But a sad boy…” because
No one loved him but her, his mother.

PANDORA’S BOX

There was a little girl called Pandora
Who opened a magic box.
The magic box was a tragic box,
So look what happened to poor Pandora.

SWEET AS A PICKLE AND CLEAN AS A PIG

When you’re sweet as a pickle
And clean as a pig —
I’ll give you a nickel
And dance you a jig.

Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s verses, Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

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01 MAY, 2014

Letters to a Young Artist: Anna Deavere Smith on Confidence and What Self-Esteem Really Means

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“Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.”

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless meditation on self-respect. But how can character be cultivated in such a way as to foster that prized form of personal dignity, along with its sibling qualities of confidence and self-esteem?

That’s what celebrated artist, actor, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith explores in a section of the altogether fantastic Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind (public library) — a compendium of counsel addressed to an imaginary young artist, titled after the famous Rilke tome, in which Smith addresses with equal parts pragmatic idealism and opinionated optimism those of us seeking change and championing social change, as well as those who see themselves as “one of the guardians of the human spirit.” She introduces the premise, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

Art should take what is complex and render it simply. It takes a lot of skill, human understanding, stamina, courage, energy, and heart to do that. It takes, most of all, what a great scholar of artists and educators, Maxine Greene, calls “wide-awakeness” to do that. I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.

[…]

I am trying to make a call, with this book, to you young brave hearts who would like to find new collaborations with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful.

For artists and creative spirits alike, Smith argues, the issue of confidence is as important as it is messy — and it’s also often a placeholder term for something far more crucial in the dogged pursuit of mastery that defines any successful creative endeavor. She writes:

Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.

Equally important, and arguably even trickier to navigate, is the question of self-esteem — that elusive quality so vital to our spiritual flourishing yet, due to our human fallibility, so fragile amidst the world’s constant and mostly unsolicited feedback and input. Smith reminds us that, not unlike the false validation of prestige, to peg our measure of self-worth on external validation is to commit ourselves to a never-ending cycle of disappointment — a seemingly simple observation that feels increasingly hard to internalize in our culture of “likes” and everyone’s-a-critic commentary. Smith puts it elegantly:

In the arts, value … is like a yo-yo. You can’t base your self-esteem on how well your work is selling or on how well it’s received.

Instead, she considers the essence of what self-esteem actually means and why it matters:

Self-esteem is that which gives us a feeling of well-being, a feeling that everything’s going to be all right — that we can determine our own course and that we can travel that course. It’s not that we travel the course alone, but we need the feeling of agency — that if everything were to fall apart, we could find a way to put things back together again.

More than a form of self-soothing, however, self-esteem is also a powerful conduit for effecting change in the world:

Some people seem to be able to organize themselves around big ideas, and others cannot. This has to do with self-esteem. Self-esteem for creative people is important inasmuch as it is a part of what helps you organize yourself and others around an idea, so that it can come to fruition. Ideas are a dime a dozen; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is a foundation.

While acknowledging, as modern psychology does, that the foundations of self-esteem itself are laid down during childhood, through our upbringing and our early experiences, Smith admonishes against relinquishing personal responsibility in the architecture of character and self-esteem, and reminds us that we are the sole custodians of our own center and worth:

Self-esteem cannot really be built from the outside. You begin to see the real evidence that you can, in fact, affect the things around you. These experiences ultimately integrate themselves inside — if that foundation is there. Self-esteem does not come from surrounding yourself with people and things that seem to increase your value. Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.

It’s about your worth. Your self-worth… You — and only you — can ultimately put the price tag on that. Your tag reveals not only how you value yourself, but how imaginative and original you are about valuing others. In my experience, happier people are people who have not only a high price tag on themselves, but a high price tag on the people around them — and the tags don’t necessarily have to do with market value. They have to do with all the sense that adds up to human value.

Letters to a Young Artist is magnificent in its entirety, a precious invitation to communion with one of the most expansive and original creative spirits of our time. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on art, John Steinbeck on the creative spirit and the meaning of life, and Robert Henri on how the spirit of art binds us together.

Thanks, Wendy

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