Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wondrous Ignorance

Henri Matisse
I was struck the other day by a critic's review of Henri Matisse after an exhibition in 1911.

It seems a perceptive statement about the creative process, of the differences between a process- and a product-emphasis--and how which one an artist selects can make all the difference.

Jacques Rivière opens with a blanket statement about types of painters (easily applicable to writers): "The pure torment of seeing too deeply. A fine painter, knowing and sensitive, is paralyzed by his prophetic gift. He sees in a flash exactly what he is going to do and how he will do it: it is as if the work stands complete before his eyes. That is why he never actually paints it: his initial conception is so clear that when he picks up the brush, he feels that he is going to repeat himself, and the picture he is painting tries to diverge from what he imagined.Great artists confront their own work as if it were a stranger; they do not foresee every step from the beginning; covertly they watch it develop; they discover it passionately, little by little."

Rivière then criticizes Matisse, saying that Matisse "seeks to imitate this wondrous ignorance" but as a result loses his spontaneity. This inane criticism of Matisse aside...

What Rivière is offering is a complicated view of invention and the process.

Probably all writers have had that experience of the flashing idea--the vision of a project which appears before them often in unexpected moments. The unconscious takes advantage of such moments to catch the writer off-guard.

I once saw my entire dissertation flash before my eyes; it had a floor plan, like a labyrinth done in red-brown ink. It was accompanied by a bolt of energy. I felt secure (even smug) that I had captured the project--only to have it vanish by the time I reached my desk. I then spent a year trying to retrace what I had seen in those moments--which was okay by me because I have a pretty good sense of the nature of the process.

The "wondrous ignorance" posited by Rivière speaks to the idea of staying open, without preconceptions, to the moment of writing. Even when one moment is filled to its ceiling with a grand design, a verbal machine of perfection, a greatest hit, the writer asks, "What next?" "How will that vision change in the next moment?"

This type of writer places more emphasis on the process, on the experience of creating, than a display of product. It's riskier, this facing of the unknown, this placing oneself in a position of ignorance, but it is more rewarding than doing what one already knows is aesthetically "right" or publishable.

In "The Invisible Avant-Garde," John Ashbery says: "In both art and life today we are in danger of substituting one conformity for another."

What concerns me, however, about a willful separation of initial conception and the work process is the phrase from Rivière's review: "that is why he never actually paints it."

Some people "have a great idea" for a book/novel/screenplay. They're carrying around this massive picture frame of an idea like an ancestor, bringing it to the cocktail party or on the subway platform where you encounter them and they confide in you.

They are burdened with the self-frustration of knowing they will never start the project. That they'll be carrying around this longing, really an immense portrait of a stillborn concept, maybe even for the rest of their lives.

They are in awe of their idea. In their mind, it's already framed, hung up, already Perfect. But they are frankly a bit afraid that their idea actually exceeds their capabilities.

What these people most need is a spoonful of wonder and ignorance, of stepping forward and making a mess of their perfect idea.

It's probably a good thing that most of us most of the time don't see prophetically and that it takes playful work to finish a piece of writing. The inaction between Concept and Construction can cause far more anxiety than the lack of certainty of each writing moment. Inaction is a breeding ground for self-loathing. The writing moment is full of possibility, of wonder.

-- Jacques Riviere, review of Henri Matisse, "An Exhibition of Henri-Matisse," 1911

No comments:

Post a Comment