Post #1170 • May 1, 2008, 9:51 AM • 93 Comments
I go back and forth between wondering whether I've been thinking about this question too much or not enough. My preoccupation with the problem of masterpieces comes up simultaneously with dry spells in the studio. Self-criticism has a constant presence in my system, and causes symptoms of perfectionism and self-doubt to flare up when my defenses are down from lack of studio time. This will correct itself soon - the school year ends this week and I have a show in Edmonton in late August, so I will have the combined gifts of time and motivation. I will get back into a routine in the studio, spend a couple of weeks making total crap, and then I'll get into a new onslaught of production that will finally expend itself, resulting in another dry spell. Unfortunately, knowing that this is coming is not going to stop me from making myself crazy about it. (Only hard exercise and meditation mitigates the crazy-making. My brain, by itself, will spin until it blows a gasket.)
Catfish once said on this blog that all masterpieces are exceptions. I can't agree with this more. Looking at a roomful of Courbets or a couple of generations of Utagawas confirms it - in a collection of masterful works that want nothing for technique or composition or much of anything else, certain works just hit you in the head, inducing an "Mm!" sound followed by a slack jaw and an expasperated exhale.
But exceptions to what? Exceptions to the production of competent works that come out of a healthy studio practice. It parallels Zen. Aspirants seek enlightenment, but practice moment-to-moment awareness. It turns out that you can't do much of anything else. If you sit down and try to will yourself into revelatory experiences, you figure out pretty quickly that it isn't going to work. Instead, you set off in the direction of enlightenment, and when you fall short, you neither kid yourself about it nor kill yourself over it. You get up, re-orient, and set off again. Dogen finally says that practice is enlightenment. What a useful attitude! Before he died, the Buddha said, "Be a lamp unto yourself." Shine the light into yourself and look.
Likewise, you set off in the direction of masterpieces, but you practice making. When you fall short, you get up, re-orient, and set off again. Sitting with awareness moves in the direction of enlightenment. Making with self-criticism moves in the direction of masterpieces. Mature practice in both disciplines involves long stretches where nothing of note seems to be happening. Mature practitioners in both disciplines harbor a studied uncertainty about what they're doing even after obvious, confirmed signs of success. Re-orientation in both disciplines means a hard, honest look at one's actions followed by further action. Both disciplines require study and occasional rest.
I wonder if masterpieces have a common nature. (I realize that a lot of people in the art world regard the category as a sham. They can stop reading and return to kidding themselves.) I said a long time ago that good art aligns materials, technique, composition, and feeling. I think masterpieces align these supremely and mysteriously. I think we can at most set out to align them well and hope for the best.