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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why Paint What Is Present?


You’ll never smell the painted rose
I watched a painter paint a scene of beauty—a nude, a landscape, a starry night—
Why did he do this? It was not to preserve the scene’s beauty.

What he painted wasn’t there or if there it was unseen.

Did he enhance the beauty with his art or his imagination
or did he paint what was unseen?  He added to the scene—yes
but from where did he draw his addition? What absence drove him?


The lover says, I paint my lover when she is absent . I paint from memory or a photograph because, overwhelmed with desire, I want to bring her back. I paint to spend time with her. I paint her for the same reason one who cannot paint stares at the photo or plunges into memory: to make present what is absent.

That’s a motive to paint what is absent. But why paint what is present?  Why crawl out of the lover’s bed when she is there in palpable flesh and paint her? I see her better when I paint her than when I merely look at her, better than when I make love to her. That may be so. But is it enough? The painting is also the delay, the foreplay, of making absent what is present in order to make more present what is already present but not fully present. Also true. But isn't the painting also already about the future absence of what now is present. The future absence that makes the touching more urgent as the painting dries is the same future absence that drives the painting. This play of presence and absence underlies all art.  

Let's think this through more systematically. Why paint what is present?

To preserve, to enhance, to supplement, to elicit. Those might be the whole range of possibilities. They all meld together if stared at too too closely. And even if they were distinct in themselves their borders would be imperfectly discernible, always in dispute. Nonetheless, they are the possibilities.

There’s no need now to paint in order merely to preserve, if "to preserve" is aimed at the ostensible beauty a very good photograph (also a work of art of course) or video would do as much as could be done in that way more closely and more easily. It wouldn’t be the same—as Emerson noted. The whole scene is its spatio-temporal context. And that is irretrievable. You’ll never smell the painted rose. But it is as much as can be had. And so, “to preserve” can never have more than a small part in painting a present scene.

To enhance: This is never not part of the effect. A painting that is only as beautiful as the scene lacks something. We might say the scene can never be captured in a painting, but that is misleading. Something is lost in the translation. Yes, but something must also be gained. A painting points at the thing in the scene that accounts for its beauty and pulls it forward, enhancing contrasts, directing the gaze. This may be enough. But it’s not all.

To supplement, to add what is missing, put in what isn’t there. There are only two ways to talk about what isn’t there: the absent and the invisible. The invisible is there but doesn’t seem to be. "To elicit" is to bring out the invisible. "To supplement" is to add what isn’t there. To supplement is to commandeer the scene. It’s the imperial impulse. It may not be wholly negative for that. One wrestles the scene into what it is not in order to convert it into what one wishes it were or needs it to have been or to be or to make it say what one wishes to say. Lights and filters and oboes and violins. To supplement is to comment on the scene or to use the scene to comment elsewhere. The choice of subject is of course already a comment if it is not an excuse (“this is worth painting”), and everything done from there is also comment, personal or transpersonal: I love this, it moves me or this is a to-be-loved thing; it moves me or it’s moving. That general comment underlies the whole enterprise. All range of specific comments also obtain, potentially: this is why I love it, this is what is lovable about it, or her. One cannot escape supplementation.

To elicit is the Romantic impulse. To make the invisible visible. There is always something invisible, not absent, in anything beautiful. To see through the apparent to the real. God or nothing. This is not strictly the sign-value of the scene. What is invisible may be unutterable. One can ache to possess or to become part of the beauty one perceives. The art may amplify that impulse. It may do this by supplementation or elicitation, and it may deaden the scene too, but it may also bring the ache to such an intensity that the viewer—the lover—loses all power to stand. We fall over for lack of strength in the presence of so much beauty. (Was this the real fall of the mythic Adam for Eve? Milton may have thought so.)

The painting either leads us back to the scene or takes us away into itself. Either way, if it is art and not hack work, it leads us to whatever truth there is in beauty.

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