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Post #1573 • November 1, 2012, 9:52 AM • 4 Comments

H.L. Mencken, from Minority Report:

Artists can seldom account for their own work, and when they show actual genius hardly ever. The moment they try to explain it they become absurd, and what they have to say is commonly borrowed from the jargon of critics, which is to say, non-artists. The process of creation is only partly intellectual. The rest of it seems to be based on instinct rather than on idea.



John Link

November 1, 2012, 12:55 PM

Nice to have you back, Franklin. And what a fine quote from Mencken. When I taught writing about art, I told students no artist should be allowed to write about his or her work - and I included myself in that prohibition. I suppose there are exceptions, but the word "absurd" almost always applies. It also applies to the perfunctory public critique, when artists who happen to be students are asked to explain or otherwise defend what they are doing to a crowd. Yet so many, students and teachers alike, seem driven to conduct them. Given that I participated in thousands of them, I'm sure someone must have benefited sometime. I just cannot recall any specific instance.

And finally, instinct and intellect are not really that distinct from each other. It may be they are two different words for the same thing. They just look at it from different vantage points: instinct is direct while intellect tries to follow rules of thinking.


Walter Darby Bannard

November 2, 2012, 7:43 PM

Instinctive activity is doing something without thinking. Intellectual activity is justifying it. One is personal, the other is social.


Chris Rywalt

November 3, 2012, 1:23 AM

I've come to believe—and I think this bears on the idea of instinct—that at some point an artist has to trust their own skills. At some point an artist has to realize, consciously or not, that they've been doing this a while and they'll probably do okay without thinking about it too hard. That may be what Mencken means when he says instinct, but I think it's less instinct and more practice—practice in the sense of rehearsal—and trust in that practice. There are certainly things which bear thinking about, but when it comes to the physical act of putting paint down, or ink, or whatever, you have to trust yourself. Trust the process, trust that your hands and eyes know what they're doing.

I fear the day when I won't be able to trust myself. I think of Renoir and his arthritis, Degas losing his eyesight, Charles Schultz and his lines getting more wavy every year. I have a friend on Facebook, a professional illustrator, not much older than I am, who writes about having more control of his hands one day or another, and how maybe he'll be able to get some work done. Ernest Hemingway, tempus fugit, and all that.


George Bethea

November 6, 2012, 8:18 AM

Beautifully written! Before we open our mouths everything is already said. As artists and humans we need to reflect upon ourselves while working, walking, talking, everything.



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