PRINT July 1962

Vic Smith

SOME PEOPLE TELL ARTISTS to shut up. Some artists tell themselves to shut up. Few really want to hear the beast talk. The horse’s mouth dare not speak with a bit in it—it’s not good manners. The sage, the clown, the madman should keep his distance, preferably behind locked doors, behind everyday discourse, behind commonplace reality; otherwise the mystery may vanish—or worse, the mystery may become real.

Words are difficult. Especially for artists. Especially when artists have nothing to say. When ideas are strong, words can become insufficient; when ideas are weak, words can become rhetoric. But the time has come for artists to speak for themselves again, however painfully and with whatever reproof.

That’s why I’m here. I came to talk. Bluntly. Mostly for myself. Even at the risk of getting trapped in my own “story” and getting insight smothered in programmatics. Even at the risk of befouling visual thought in a tangle of tormented verbiage and the dead weight of immodest dialectic. I am willing to risk impunity. Otherwise I would have stayed cozy and silent in my ivory tower or my black pit, safely out of the delicate dilettante’s way.

Everyone has dreamed of making his own world, be it a sand-castle, a tree hut, a play house, a secret cave or a private, fenced patio. The construction of a place we can call our own is no less than an attempt to make the world into an image of ourselves. It is not an attempt to create beauty alone; it is an attempt to objectify our inner identity. Beauty, like happiness, is a by-product of human endeavor: it is a welcome achievement but it is not an ultimate goal. Our goal is the reality of our lives, and any redirection of effort toward beauty alone disembodies beauty and leaves the cadaver of dandyism and mere decor. Religions, philosophies, the arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man—even the dreams that enliven sleep—arise from one exclusively human impulse: to make in order to see ourselves, to make in order to know ourselves—not to make “a work of art.” This is by now an obvious premise, yet few seem able to accept its equally obvious implication: that art speaks only to those who already know. Clearly, art does not teach. It gives its secrets to those who have earned them, its beauty is revealed to those who have already attained the beautiful. Thus art is communion, not “communication.” Artist and observer both give something of themselves, art becomes the means whereby they share in the beauty of human understanding.

The authenticity of subjective art has been questioned by those who exclaim, “But life is not abstract!” Whoever said it was? But the objective view of life, confined as it is to an epitome of conscious and verifiable data is surely no less an abstraction than the subjective. Men separate “truth” from all of that which exists; they purloin “truth” from the whole complex of their experience. Moreover, they tend to see not what is in front of the eyes but what is in back of the mind. They tend to see what they want to see. They see their own concepts. They see their own ideas. They see their own beliefs. Those who insist on a “truth” that everyone can immediately “understand” are implying not only their own monopoly on human perception but also that reality is consistently clothed in the same costume. They are implying that we have no new dreams, no new aspirations, no future. In short, we are finished, according to these preachers of finality, and we have no alternative now except to become our own connoisseurs.

Our sand-castles, our serious playthings, the construction of a world of our own, are the alternative to the reactionary’s suicide. By confronting ourselves in what we make, we are. Art is even more than a concept of experience: for the artist, it is a confirmation of existence. As such, art is more than a benediction to being what we are. It is also a paean to what we can become.

Whenever a new idea of experience is born; an unknown, often frail and helpless image enters into life and finally breaks free to search for its philosophers, poets, musicians, sculptors and painters. As it grows, this image becomes suspect. It howls in the night. Half monster, half prophet, it grows strong. Perhaps it is natural that a new image disturb and even terrify us, for we, like other animals, are resentful of any new mutation—whether physical, mental or spiritual.

Nevertheless, we cannot continue to warp or delete the present in order to make it fit the past. We are not idolaters. We must use our concepts, not be used by them. Without the ability to move beyond conceptions of the past, living things die off. An artist does not stop to bury the dead. He does not justify. His art is not a rationalization for something else. He tries to draw conclusions, not impose them. Art and life are not something to reinforce our crumbling edifices; they are not something to buttress a feeble and tottering idea of existence: they are something to affirm and invigorate growth and change. Concepts are merely concepts. Art reveals the strength of livingness in men, not the strength of their reasons for living. Art, like life, embodies experience, and neither is an explanation of it.

In a world now face to face with its own insane rationale, we can—and must—see ourselves. The artist looks within and tries to see that which has produced this grotesque reflection of contemporary human “reality.” If we choose to follow the literal traditions of historic reality now, if we dare to pattern our methods after methods of the past, the consequent holocaust can be atomic and deadly. If we choose to resist this danger the consequent anxiety, anguish and inward revolt can produce a holocaust of the spirit—no more merciful and no less explosive, though perhaps less fatal.

The science of cybernetics has produced machines that “think” rationally and positivistically—logically. A machine can “learn,” a machine can “be educated,” a machine can reach an “intelligence level” called “genius.” A machine can outwit an expert human checker-player, can compute and analyze with far greater speed than any living mind, can write “poetry,” can “draw a picture,” can write an experimental TV screenplay; and someday, says one M.I.T. scientist, a “thinking” robot may well be able to reproduce itself and even to “replace most present human functions.” (Sic!)

But until technology produces a machine to enable man to discover man, we are stuck with our own intuitions. Meanwhile, the programmed computer remains one of the most provocative symbols of map against his own image and one of the most challenging forms of the eternal question: “What is man?” Like the computer, we are fed countless rules, habits and concepts of response by personal and social patterns of history and tradition. Our crisis consists in that history and tradition seem to ask us to play a role which we dare no longer play. The rules, habits and concepts of the past seem not merely inappropriate to the present moment—they appear to lead to catastrophe. It is as if we stand between the known and the unknown, with the unknown our only way out. Logic, rational positivism and even rationalism appear rigidly unreasonable probably because such approaches to experience and communication imply not only that language, history and life are the same but that each is also perfect.

In contrast to the present glut of fashion-oriented stylists, a few sensitive and thoughtful artists—a sort of Shavian “fellowship of the Holy Ghost”—are involved in a gigantic struggle to liberate themselves from their own programming. They are desperately trying to extricate themselves from the fatal role history would assign. Their methods may seem “irrational” and their manner may seem “careless.” But to adopt the methods of that which defiles and destroys in the name of “rational behavior,” to be asked to participate in the wooly-minded mannerisms of “educated incapacity” and all the other rationalizations of human beings stampeding toward manslaughter or blithely drawing up neat little inventories, labels and criteria for their own execution . . . !

We must begin again—and we will begin again, one way or another from scratch. As artists, we must purge ourselves of all technique without feeling and all feeling without conviction. We must engage in a form of exploration which begins with the living, human validity of the immediate self—a kind of center, like a seed—and pursue this elemental bit of actuality until it flowers and ripens, even if it means encountering what at first is a void of infinite possibilities and a chaos of excruciating frustrations. The question is not: “How well can I paint?” but: “Am I what I paint?” We must realize, above all, that history is now. It is not to be imitated; it is to be created. Historical and traditional concepts cannot teach us how to do it; they can only show us what others did. Plainly, we must find our our way. Moreover, we cannot realize the masters of yesterday until we become masters of today. Any accurate sense of the grandeur of the past demands, in lieu of having lived it, a totally personal involvement in the present. We cannot repeat the past; we can only rediscover it—by discovering and rediscovering our own inner experience. History is carried within ourselves, and it is expressed not in an act of emulation but in an act of human identification. The paradox is this: that we will come closer to the art and artists of the past when we realize that history is now, and that it has always been now. (It is fantastic to think of the number of witch-doctors still propagating the belief that by devouring the body of Raphael one will gain his soul!)

Sure, it takes courage. It takes courage to recreate value and meaning with integrity: that is, with self-responsibility. Some will call this “a retreat into self-centeredness;” but only in the depth to which we pursue self-communion will our communion with others be genuine, and only in the extent to which we have earned authority in our own way will authority eventually be found in our work.

Artists do not begin with mere “talent.” They begin with a longing to grasp that inscrutable, unnamable thing we call “the real.” Eventually one learns that he cannot know the real until he becomes the real. When he arrives, the word disappears. At this point, artists are not just observers; they are participants: they are life. They grow, flower and ripen with the need to praise life by adding to it—by adding no less than themselves. An artist’s work is far more than a diary; it is an act of self-confirmation. This is the source of that tormenting sense of “duty” which drives every creative being and which sometimes even destroys him. An artist must give. He does not simply reflect the world around him; he does not simply mirror his environment. He does not depict, he creates. There’s a hell of a difference.

As for myself, I’ve been talking about little else all along. My work is no less a commitment to humanity for being personal. In fact, the more personal I become, the less unique I feel. We are all moving, one way or another, toward ourselves and thus toward each other. In short, I am convinced of the universality of my own eyes, my own heart and my own mind.

But I am only beginning. Beginning again, as always. Beginning with myself. Without shame. Sometimes I fuss and fumble in utter confusion. Sometimes I get caught up in the fireworks of sheer bravado. Sometimes I grow downright hard-nosed, cramped and fettered from lack of inner clarity. Sometimes the need to speak leads me into pretension. But I can begin again.

Man makes his own world: he makes his own concepts of truth and his own ideas of reality. At times, he constructs walls around himself, leaving no way out. But he will survive this kind of self-imprisonment as long as he has a demolition squad of renegade spirits who, in their search for innocence, disrupt the tyranny of the old in order to gain their freedom—their freedom to see the old from the outside four-dimensionally, perhaps more surely for what it is: their freedom to be themselves in order to create the new. Permit me now to become even more personal, for these thoughts remain raw and incomplete without the following extension.

All of time is now, and now is timeless. It is our most precious possession—our only possession. But we are prodigal sons (although our fathers seldom know we have come home). Like the symbol for infinity, the moment of now, when it is lived, turns in upon itself; and where we had thought to travel outward, we come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we find ourselves with the whole world. My point is this: we go back only by going forward; we go back by and because we are going forward.

What is the secret of this time ward plunge into the timeless? From what level of the consciousness does it arise? Why do the graphic incantations on the Paleolithic walls of Altimira and Lascaux speak of the same aspirations as the notebooks of Leonardo? Why does Vermeer sing the same reverent song as the Persian miniaturist? Why is the heroic affirmation on the Sistine ceiling repeated no less eloquently in the backyard towers and spires of an immigrant tile-setter in Watts? Why does African sculpture so often remind me of Goya or even Rembrandt? Why are mythology, religion, art and moral cozies everywhere the same beneath their various manners and costumes?

Why does only that creative act which is born of the timeless, deeply personal now remain eternal? Why is its presence forever immediate, actual and alive? It is as if the future had been with us from the beginning. The half-forgotten, often lost memories of deepest night are not so private after all. The whole world dreams the same dream. Each of us has felt the warmth of darkness breed both his beginning and his end, and each of us has seen the born and unborn forms of life dissolve and gather in a single, knowing stillness. These are dreams where life meets life within a timeless space—a space of formless origins, without chaos and without order—a space beyond the legend of unnumbered solitudes where we confront the wombless face of life within, and, as if to melt into a universal mirror whose reflected image never varies, find ourselves becoming all that was and all that is and all that ever shall be.

But we are subject to the world we have constructed, spinning dizzily among the things we have produced; and trumpeting our chrome-plated dawn with snorts and rumbles, we begrudgingly awaken to our separate, same-old-selves—bulging with appetites, sagging with strategies, heavy with time, incredibly bound, private but impersonal, “adjusted” but alone—as if each day our special flesh is barely recomposed while our thick, numb blood quickens just enough to get us through another automatic, servile day. Producing things, we find ourselves becoming things: empty, even of a sense of emptiness.

Exaggeration, perhaps. But there is the terror of haunted man. Almost against his will he has become his own derelict, abandoning the treasure of his insight to the soft, forgotten dark. He is split like Aristophanes’ flounder, no more than half man, a fillet still thrashing while assuming itself whole, unable to realize the character of his own crisis. The tragedy of our dying epoch is that we find nothing but time in the blinding burn of twentieth-century sunlight, and that the sweet, ripe fruit of dreams is secret even to the dreamer.

Frankly, it takes guts to be an artist. It’s easy to be alive, but it takes guts to live—to live life, not to be lived by life. And it takes guts to have enough life to want to give life in return: to love life enough to want to liberate it in your work.

Let this, then, be one man’s verbal answer to those constipated martinets who hide their blind-spots behind dogma and who would disembowel us all for the sake of antiseptics and consistency. As for the others—the angels who manage to survive—my work is a sometimes facile, sometimes clumsy, mostly loving, silent lifelong effort to show you what I mean.

Vic Smith

From an all-campus lecture given at the request of the Lectures and Forums Committee, Long Brach State College, March 1, 1961. Revised and Condensed.