This past weekend in Nova Scotia I ate lunch with a playwright, a performance artist, and a visual artist. That sounds like the beginning of a joke. The playwright Don was the organizer of the literary festival I was reading at that evening, and this was the traditional opportunity for visiting writers to meet the local intelligentsia. Seated at a round wooden table on uncomfortable antique chairs in a screened in back porch attached to their country summer home near the Medway River, a few dozen kilometers from where I grew up, we talked about specific activities within particular disciplines. I was asked by the visual artist Doug if, with my obvious passion for art, I ever was tempted to create any myself.
I told him I was not.
I did not say “I can’t draw.” Since the early 20th century not being able to artistically render a perfect drawing from imagination or sight has been no great impediment to creating great art. Marcel Duchamp was an adequate but not stellar draftsman. The Dadaists showed little interested in what Duchamp called “retinal art” and though many accused them of being unable, or unwilling, to accurately reproduce the world on canvas, they none-the-less changed the art world forever with their conceptual approach. Recently at the AGO I saw on the floor of an otherwise vacant room a large pile of zirconium chips, perhaps six feet in diameter and a foot or so thick in the middle. In it was placed by the artist one single diamond chip. One diamond among those thousands of fake diamond chips–elusive, tantalizing and virtually impossible to locate even for the artist.
I have no idea if this artist can “draw” or not.
I simply don’t care.
It is a ‘brilliant” piece, saying something, perhaps, about the ratio of originality to mediocrity, about value, about loss. If Marcel Duchamp abandoned visual art because, as some say, he was simply no good at it I don’t care about that either. He took art from eye to the mind, and it has been thriving there ever since. The philosopher Eric Hoffer said the paths to innovation are always made by those who can’t compete within the current paradigm. Even Doug, the relentlessly visual artist with a studio full of fine, carefully wrought canvases, understood that art is so much more than brush and stroke. None of his pieces, he told me, were ever “done”. He showed them but with the caveat that they were perpetually unfinished, perpetually being elaborated on and reworked and changed. Doug has managed in his own fashion to be both a”retinal” artist and a conceptual one. Duchamp, perhaps, would have approved.
But the reason, I told Doug and the the others, that I didn’t create art is because I wanted to have an artistic passion for which I did not have a corresponding ambition. I love to read, but I always do so with the eye of a writer. I am always trying to figure out what the writer is doing. I am always “at work.” I read a lot of classics because I often am less critical of books written hundreds or even thousands of years ago. I tend to avoid contemporary Canadian literature (although I sometimes make exceptions to this rule) because it is too much like what I do. I love going to a gallery or an exhibit because I can fully appreciate the work without comparing it to my own. I don’t suffer envy, or inferiority, or reluctant admiration. I simply laud and admire. One of Conrad Aiken’s best short stories describes a writer in a cafe stricken with all kinds of negative emotions as he considers the work and success of another. My relationship with writers is fraught with these kinds of emotional landmines.
My relationship with art is not.
I am a groupie. A fan. On the few occasions I’ve been tempted to create something I just remember that, and remind myself that to go from fan to practitioner brings its own minefield of complications. From the little I saw, I very much like what Doug did. In my conversation with Don about writing, it was all business and little passion, which is perhaps as it should be. But with Doug we could just talk about art, artists, the work. There was some business (art juries and criteria for grant applications, etc) but even this was not uninteresting to me. To deprive the world of Dostoevsky would mean the loss of some of the greatest books ever written. The deprive the world of Marcel Duchamp would mean whole disciplines would disappear, and great rooms in some of the world’s best galleries would stand empty and echo hollow. In a review of my book of essays Strange Ghost, many of which were about art, visual artist Derek Von Essen said my sensibilities “screamed” visual artist.
The screaming, in the end, is what matters. I have no desire to stop screaming and start conversing, which is what separates artist from fan. I shall never create my own pile of zirconium. I shall never make a canvas that is never complete.