What makes men of genius, or rather, what they make, is not new ideas, it is that idea—possessing them—that what has been said has still not been said enough. . . . Novelty is in the mind that creates, and not in nature, the thing painted. . . . That fever, you take it for the power to create, but it is, rather, a mere need to imitate. . . . Ah, no. The fact is that they have not said the hundredth part of what there is to say; the fact is that with a single one of the things that they skim over, there is more material for original geniuses than there is . . . and that nature has put in safe keeping in the great imaginations to come more new things to say about her creations than she has created things.
Eugene Delacroix. Journal
Recently I listened on Youtube to the late Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, fielding questions from an audience. He was asked about why he painted “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” over a hundred times. Was it a series. His response was No, not a series. His reason for the repeated paintings was that he felt that he never found what he was looking for as he explored that composition. He believed that was the same reason Paul Cezanne painted mont sainte victoire over fifty times. Delacroix, in his journal, pointed out that “genius” believes there is still much to be said in the subject under consideration.
The topic of genius is one that has intrigued me for a number of years. I confess that in graduate school I dreamt of publishing an original idea (probably the dream of over 90% of dissertation authors). Once I landed in the teaching arena, I continued to look for that original idea to publish, to put myself on the map so to speak. As time went on, I came to this notion that creative genius is manifest in the act of configuring ideas in a way not done before. As history continues to unroll, it becomes increasingly impossible to be “original.” Once I began to think down this track, I tossed the vision of originality and instead found my joy in the act of creating, no longer fretting over whether or not my work would stand the test of time.
Back in 1993, I was enraptured by an article published in Newsweek, titled “The Puzzle of Genius,” written by Sharon Begley. I saved the issue, and twenty-one years later, I still read it, and now quote from it:
The creative geniuses of art and science work obsessively. They do not lounge under apple trees waiting for fruit to fall or lightning to strike. “When inspiration does not come to me,” Freud once said, “I go halfway to meet it.” Bach wrote a cantata every week, even when he was sick or exhausted. Though most composers would kill to have written even one of his best pieces, some were little more than wallpaper music. Eliot’s numerous drafts of “The Waste Land” constitute what one scholar called “a jumble of good and bad passages [that he turned] into a poem.” In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Simonton found that the most respected produced not only more great works, but also more “bad” ones. They produced. Period.
A few years back, I stopped using my full-time job as an excuse, and leapt from averaging fifteen-to-twenty watercolors per year to well over a hundred. Sure, some of them are 5 x 7”, but some are 22 x 28”. Some are quite bad, but others are quite alright. I’m pleased that I’m cranking out creations, no longer fretting over every one of them being worthy of framing and hanging. Funny—around the time I began feeling somewhat smug over cranking out great quantities of art work, I read about the day in 1975 when Andrew Wyeth was approached by Thomas Hoving to assemble a major exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wyeth unlocked his cabinets and drew out more than fifteen hundred pre-studies for his tempera, dry-brush and watercolor masterpieces. Fifteen hundred!
In my life today, I frequently encounter colleagues who describe themselves as “frustrated artists.” Oftentimes, I discover that they haven’t created anything in years, using as an excuse their job, family, health—any number of obstacles that all humans encounter during this all-too-brief sojourn on earth. David Bayles and Ted Orland collaborated on a book that has impacted me probably more than any other book from this recent decade: Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. I was stung by this observation: “The world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts, sometimes conspicuously flashy gifts, yet never produce anything. And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented.” I loved the musings of Howell Raines, long prior to his becoming the Executive Editor of The New York Times. He movingly testified that “we are not on this earth for long. Part of what a midlife crisis is about is figuring out what gives you pleasure and doing more of that in the time you have left without asking for permission or a financial or emotional subsidy from anyone else.”
As I write this, I am aware of file cabinets jammed with my old sermon manuscripts, my graduate school term papers, my lectures from college and high school classrooms, public speeches given, and over 130 volumes of my journals dating back to 1987. And I look across my library shelves jammed with volumes filled with highlighted, underscored and marginally-noted texts spanning over three decades. The shelves are also crowded with VHS tapes and DVDs of documentary and Teaching Company lectures. And they continue to whisper their invitations for me to explore new pastures, but I simply cannot get at them all, not just now, and probably never will. Yet still I find time sufficient to think on these treasures, and tonight am delighted to have a little space to write what’s on my heart. On this day, I also had the pleasure of picking up a painting that I had stopped working on a few weeks ago. Though I was at a crowded art festival, I still found some time to tinker with the painting, trying to learn a new angle in watercolor. I enjoyed the time painting, and I enjoyed the wonderful chats with patrons throughout the afternoon. It’s been a good day.
Thanks for reading.
I paint in order to remember.
I journal when I feel alone.
I blog to remind myself that I am not quite alone.