It was an on-going joke in art school, when one was particularly stressed over a coming crit or a stubborn body of work that refused to well, work, that we would all quit and go to law school. With mock sincerity we offered ourselves up to what is traditionally thought of as the toughest of all schooling: would-be doctors and lawyers absorbing texts with moral fastidiousness, to end up holding people’s civil and medical lives in their hands. To live the life of (what we imagined) creative ignorance in exchange for a little bit of sanity and doors without wolves. In the throes of creative angst, in the sometimes humiliating, stagnating, messy, absurd, incoherent compost that is the creative process, we wanted to throw up our hands and walk out the studio door.
I won’t bloviate about what the creative process is or isn’t. Like most things that “speak commandingly to the soul,” as Lewis Hyde once wrote, the creative process is a mystery and probably should be respected as such. But there are occasions when we get to glimpse into the mind of an artist and the furious currents or absorbed silences within, and watch how they got from A to B, as in the Whitney’s stellar exhibition Hopper Drawing, which ends October 6th. There are over 200 preliminary sketches, pages from Hopper’s sketchbook, and a handful of etchings that accompany 21 of his paintings. A retrospective of sorts, not of Hopper’s body of work per se, but rather of his process; his sedulous spirit. (For an excellent précis of what this exhibition looks like, read Alex Heimbach’s previous article here.)
In Lewis Hyde’s cult classic The Gift, a book notoriously difficult to sum up, Hyde spends his first few chapters — as well as two essays on Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman — describing creativity not just as a gift we receive (with Greco-Roman ideas on the ‘muse’ and the Maori ‘hau’ or spirit) but as one we give. The book was perhaps best described by Tim Martin in his Independent review as “a survey of how the giving of gifts has shaped societies and human consciousness from primitive times to the present, linked to an analogy of the creative process and spliced with a pair of extended critical essays on Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound: rarely, you might think, would such a pitch get a book farther than the university library.” Martin goes on to describe how, years later, The Gift’s cult-like bandwagon is no less full. To quote the book’s 25th anniversary edition blurbs:
“No one who is invested in any kind of art… can read The Gift and remain unchanged” (David Foster Wallace).
“A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art” (Zadie Smith)
“A cause for across-the-board celebration” (Geoff Dyer)
“Few books are such life-changers” (Jonathan Lethem)
As an artist and someone who also occasionally writes about art, I often find myself in creative ruts. Inspiration can come quickly, without warning, but a gut-level understanding of What It Means, and the acceptance and flushing out of meaning, can be very, very slow. I’m not suggesting that “meaning” is perforce conveyed to the viewer, or that meaning need be the purpose of a piece. (Clap twice if you believe in conceptual art.) Conversely, some artists have no problem with concepts; it’s the visual resolution that comes more slowly. But either way there is a necessary moratorium, a limbo all creative types experience, and it can be torturous.
Imbued within Hopper Drawing — in the sheer momentum, time, and energy used to flesh out a subject — is a sort of empathy, a companionship bred of understanding and justification of the creative process. Yes. This is hard work, the exhibition seems to say. And yes, it may take 50 drawings, 41 false starts, or a million failures before you get it right (if you get it right!), but they will be admirable failures.
The artist is a malleable, vulnerable, and imperfect filter through which a domineering force exerts its will. And watching someone labor so arduously over a rural scene in the New Hampshire countryside, or a perfectly lighted New York sidewalk, is a reminder to knead the dough, so to speak. I might liken this kind of motivation to seeing a dance performance and wanting to go home and register for dance classes or maybe just go for a good run. (In the same vein, I remember going to see the Fast and the Furious with some rather dudebro-y bros in high school, and afterwards watching the way they felt compelled to drive like maniacs through the twelve stoplights that make-up my hometown. Same impetus, different result.)
In a chapter on the “labor of gratitude,” Hyde makes a distinction between work and labor. Work is what we do day in, day out, and is often what pays the studio rent. But labor? Labor is different. Labor is harder, longer, more complicated. Like climbing a mountain, labor is about misery. We often describe this as recognizing our calling.
Hyde notes that there are a group of folk tales representing the “labor of gratitude”:
In a tale with which we are all familiar, ‘The Shoemaker and the Elves,’ a shoemaker is down on his luck and has only enough leather to sew a single pair of shoes. He cuts the leather out and goes to bed, planning to sew the shoes in the morning. During the night, two naked elves come and make the shoes.
As you may know, the shoemaker awakes and is astonished with the find of the already-made shoes and the perfect precision of their stitching. In the story, the nightly miracle happens again and again until the cobbler stays up to see who is helping him become so prosperous. Seeing the naked little elves, the man resolves to clothe them as a token of thanks and leaves a shirt, coat, pants, and pair of shoes for each elf. The two elves are pleased and dance and sing (as elves are wont to do) ne’er to return to the cobbler’s studio.
“The tale is a parable of a gifted person. It describes the time between the initial stirrings of a gift (when it is potentially ours) and the releasing of that gift (when it is actually ours),” writes Hyde. It’s a beautiful image: a gift is not ours until we can give it away. Artists labor and create meaningful images but their truest value lies in how much that effort can inspire someone else. And this isn’t confined to the art world. A person who has realized his or her gifts — whether that gift be creative or not — will inspire us in return to create or write or dance or legislate or whatever.
It’s important too to note that this sort of inspiration precedes the derivative sort where we ape those we admire — what I would call aesthetic inspiration. (Hopper for instance was obviously inspirational in that sense. Film noir being a good example. “Hopper affected the look of American film,” writes critic Robert Hughes, “Even more widely than artists like Lyonel Feininger affected German Expressionist film in the 1920’s.”) Inspiration that stems from labor is inspiration in its purest form; the first stirrings of the creative impulse.
One of the reasons Hyde’s book is so loved, and why the Hopper exhibition is so relentlessly moving, is because they give cause for celebration; for honoring those protracted dialogues with our inner muses, when they are both abundant, generous, and nourishing, and when they are truculent, belligerent, and downright cruel. In Hopper’s drawings, in their volume, in the little notes and attention to detail, we apprehend his gift and we feel the ripples of our own. Or perhaps we just feel comfort in belonging to a collective creative undertaking.
It’s a little old-fashioned to be so committedly sentimental about the labor of gratitude, I’ll admit. But I find it incredibly virtuous and it’s something I admire greatly; something I find encouraging. I am shamed to say I belong to that lowly echelon that finds too much greatness discouraging. Impressively successful artists. Perfectly crafted prose. Paintings so genius that I turn away feeling embarrassed and more than a little downtrodden. What’s the point? I am so plain. I have nothing, really, to say. I feel lacking and ungrammatical. Everything’s already been written about. It’s all already been done. And done so much better.
But! — and it’s an important but — none of that is actually the point. It’s not about competition. It’s about the challenge. And that is something I am gratefully reminded of when I see shows like the Hopper exhibition, when I read books like The Gift, when I watch buskers in the subway, when I read drafts of essays written by peers and then I read published versions weeks later. It takes considerable creative and intellectual power to create, but perhaps the more we labor the easier we make it for others to labor alongside us.
“You work at a task,” says Hyde, “You work and work and still it won’t come right. Then, when you’re not even thinking about it, while spading the garden or stepping into the bus, the whole thing pops into your head, the missing grace is bestowed.” Just by laboring, as Hyde suggests, by honoring our gift and creating something, we give manna to the communal pool, where anyone might drink and find inspiration. We feel we have received a gift and in turn want to give something of ourselves. It is creative reciprocity at its finest.
“Perhaps most importantly,” writes Tim Martin about Hyde, “his book offers to the lone scribbler in his workshop those most valuable of gifts: inspiration, companionship, understanding, and justification.”
The lambent force within the artist demands respect, firstly from the artist’s self. And so we muddle away towards something, though we’re not quite sure what. Artistic progress and the realization of one’s gift are predicated on the misery and the joy, the eternal effort we suffer for it. And in the end the elves leave our studio, and what we are left with is a generous reciprocity.
Hopper Drawing continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 6.