The Seminar (1981)
Twenty-Fifth Reunion Book, Class of 1956. Princeton University, June 1981, pp. 24 - 32.
"Marvelous talk, Mr. Bannard. Marvelous! I do think we managed to stir them up a bit, don't you?" Professor Truman Lee Curtis laid compliments on me as we walked from the lecture platform to the seminar room. I was skeptical of the genial academic's exaggerated enthusiasm for my talk, "Art and Experience," but he certainly was pleased by the full hall and by the anticipation of a lively seminar session.
Months before, when Curtis had called me, I told him I did not have much to say about "Careers in Art." He assured me I did. He also assured me that the conference would be well attended and well organized, and that I would be well paid. So, here I was at the Kansas Institute in the absolute middle of America finding everything he said was true. It was late afternoon. Almost cocktail time. A couple dozen people drifted into the seminar room, settled around the long walnut table and eyed me slyly while Curtis went over my lecture with them.
Curtis opened it to questions. There was a pause. Then a pleasant, prosperous-looking lady raised her hand.
"Mr. Bannard," she said brightly, "I just want to say that I really enjoyed what you had to say about the value of experience and I'd like to ask you, if you don't mind, what made you become an artist? Was there someone in your family who was an artist? Or helped you become an artist?"
My mind swept back to my father, a gentle, embittered railroad executive whose favorite things were Princeton, Eisenhower and ragtime piano. He felt my argumentativeness pointed to a career in law. My mother read the New Yorker, doted on Ogden Nash and did not care what I did. One grandfather was a tyrannical economist who fiddled with radios; the other was a convivial football player who wanted to be Governor of New Jersey and did not live long enough to be disappointed. The answer was easy.
"No," I said.
"We lI, then, how about art school? Did someone in art school inspire you?"
Another easy answer. "I didn't go to art school." Then I expressed a hunch: "Do you have a son who wants to become an artist?"
"Yes... We lI, that is, I have a daughter who is studying art, and I was just wondering what advice I could give her."
"Tell her she must really like making art."
"And how about art school? Do you think that will help her?"
"For an ambitious, fine artist, art school is a waste of time."
There was a general fidget around the table. Some of the younger people smiled at each other. Most of the older ones were in the teaching business. Prosperous Lady looked surprised. "Really? But how do you get them to use their creativity?"
"Either reward it or leave it alone. Or both."
"And art schools don't do this?"
"Hardly anything does," I replied. "Creativity is usually honored in retrospect. A person just has to want to work that way."
A thin hyperthyroidal man at the end of the table was itching to say something. "Mr. Bannard, I am an art teacher and some of my students are upset because you said in your lecture that it was impossible to be successful as an artist before you got enough experience, that is, until you are thirty-five or forty years old. And they want to know if..."
"Hold on," I interrupted. "I didn't say that. I said that very few artists are much good before they are that age. And it was an observation, not a prescription."
He nodded vaguely. He did not seem to know what I meant.
"In other words," I continued, "good and successful are not the same. Not in the art business, anyway."
"No... no, of course not," he reacted. "I guess what they want to know is how to, well, how to..."
"Make it in the art world," I finished his sentence. The two young men sitting next to Thin Man nodded in amused agreement. The condition of their clothing suggested they were painters.
"It's a legitimate question," I said. "I can give you a few pointers. Go to New York, which is the center of action. Get to know people in the art business. Never show a gallery representative more than a dozen works and make sure they are stylistically consistent. I could go on, but, as you can see, it's just marketing advice. That's the best I can do."
The group was quiet. They came for The Big Answer and they were not hearing it.
"All I can tell you," I continued, "is to keep working and hope for the best. If you are any good it will come out. If you are no good it will come out. And success, fast success anyway, depends on things you can neither predict nor control, like the taste of the art public. You can't change it. All you can do is cater to it. But the artists who do turn out to be not so good in the long run. Good artists seem to challenge public taste and that compromises their popularity. This has been going on for years."
"So you're saying you're not interested in catering to that taste," Thin Man stated.
"That's right," I answered. "Making good art is hard enough. I'm not interested in making it so you will like it."
"But didn't you say that students should go to New York and get to know people? Isn't that the same thing?"
"That's different," I replied. "You can do all the catering, pushing and selling you want. You just don't make art that does."
Thin Man gathered himself for another question but one of his paint-spattered protegés beat him to it. He had a pinched look about him, used his hands a lot when he talked, and his manner told me he was scattered, self-willed and probably talented.
"Hey, you know, you say if you go out and make it you're no good, and if you are any good you won't make it, so, you know, that's scary."
"Exactly what you are going to do about it?" I challenged.
He hesitated. "I dunno. I guess I'm just going to paint and see how I make out."
"You mean," I responded with feigned gravity, "you are just going out in the world and try to survive with no skills, no profession, no job, no security, no money, no nothing? Just a desire to paint?"
"Uh... I guess so." He pondered, off balance for a moment. "So what did you do when you were starting out?"
"Exactly what you are going to do."
"I don't get it. Then how come you act like it's so terrible?"
"Because sitting here with 20 years of the art business under my belt, [I know that] your prospects are scary. When I was your age it wasn't scary. It was fun. It was up to my father to be scared. That's the way it goes."
Prosperous Lady had been paying close attention. "You mean," she interjected, "you wouldn't recommend being an artist to your son?"
"Nope. The chances of success are too small. As we've decided..." I gestured to the young painter, "...it's too scary".
That exchange generated some amusement.
The other young painter, equally paint-spattered but blander and better-looking, asked, "How come you got into the art business then?"
"Because it interested me."
"That's all there is. The rest is rationalization."
"Seems to me," He said, gesturing at his buddy just as I had done, "you were getting into it just as casually as Doug is."
"You're never 'casual' when you're really interested."
"Yeah, but it sure takes a lot of nerve." Said someone in the back.
"It's nerve when it works," I answered, "and foolishness when it doesn't."
"So how do you know when it is foolishness?" asked Doug's friend.
"You don't," I answered. "Your go with your interest. Besides, what's the alternative? You can just as easily fail at a 'safe' career you don't like. Worse yet, you can succeed at it."
"Is that so bad?" asked an older woman sitting next to Curtis.
"I know several people who are going through their mid-life freak-out," I replied. "You can ask them."
Curtis drew attention to himself with a great clearing of the throat.
"Mr. Bannard," he said, peering professorially at a handful of papers. "All of this activity here in your biography - shows every year, articles written, lectures, panels, committees - it all looks very orderly, very thought-out, very 'upwards and onwards', wouldn't you say? And all that is just the result of this, this 'interest' of yours? No scheming or planning? No 'formulas for success'?"
He was getting back to the subject of the conference by pulling my leg for effect. He probably was a very good teacher.
"Formulas are all either wrong or trivial," I answered. "And anything looks orderly once it is set into past time. Biographies are like that. So is history."
"But there must have been some kind of planning ahead," insisted Curtis.
"Not really. I just set myself on what I wanted to do and played it as it came along."
"How about your paintings?" asked a dark-haired, husky man "Don't you plan your paintings?"
"No, I don't. Mainly because plans always seem to break down in the face of new conditions I find in the painting itself."
Thin Man shook his head in apparent disbelief. A red-haired girl with a worried look raised her hand and I pointed to her.
"But if you have no idea what you want to paint, how do you ever get what you want on the canvas?"
"I try not to," I replied. She slumped back in consternation. "I can go into my studio with a great idea for a nice blue glaze, say, but if something better comes up, out goes the blue and in goes the something better. I've got to count on myself more than my plans. I don't want to get what I want. I want to get more than I want. That's how art gets better."
"But it seems such a shame," said the red-head, displaying some visual imagination, "to paint out that beautiful blue glaze."
"Always paint out the good parts," I replied.
"Anything that qualifies as a 'good part' has separated from the picture. Paint it out and it will come up where it belongs some other time. I think Picasso said that."
"I guess I see what you mean," said Red-Head. "But it all seems a little out of control."
"I'll say!" snorted Thin Man.
"Control is over-rated," I retorted. "You don't control a picture, you take charge of it."
"What's the difference?" he asked.
"It's the difference between a pistol duel and a boxing match. Making a painting isn't a one-shot deal. You've got to work it out with your materials, pushing, pulling, changing, adapting. The art comes out of the activity."
"So it's all technique, then."
"Not at all," I answered. "Technique is only useful if you can forget it. Most of the advanced painters I critique are strangling on their facility."
"How do you get them to change themselves?" Asked Doug.
"You don't. You get them to change something they are using. The best way to change your art is to change your studio."
"And the result," declared Thin Man, "is that they end up on unfamiliar ground as confused as all get-out."
"If so," I replied, "I've done them a favor."
"Why in the world would that be doing them a favor?"
"Because they'd get away from whatever it is that's between them and their painting, which is usually a lot of comfortable habits, and get them back to themselves and the particulars of their craft."
"Which are what?" Thin Man really wanted me on the grill.
"Facts. External facts, paint, canvas, and so forth, and internal facts, which are the feelings you have when you are working with them."
Thin Man made a face. "That's all there is to art? Facts and feelings? That's it? Well, I give up!"
"That's it," I said.
There was a silence. Curtis looked perplexed. "Surely," he said, "there is more to art than that. You seem to throw out all logic, discipline, rules and the like. How about 'beauty' and 'truth' and other such timeless things?" He was not tongue-in-cheek this time.
"Well, I do have a couple of 'rules', if they can be called that," I answered. "And one of them is that in making art or looking at it, if you can't see it, touch it or feel it, don't bother with it. Frankly, I think words like 'truth' and 'beauty' just get in the way."
"Why, then, do they recur with such regularity through history in connection with art?" Curtis asked.
"Art is direct and personal and pleasurable," I answered. "And this bothers people. So they use a lot of abstract words to make art so grand it gets carried safely out of ordinary experience. Why do you think people get so intimidated in museums when they should be enjoying themselves?"
Curtis and Thin Man exchanged raised eyebrows. A neat lady with oversized eyeglasses who had been taking notes spoke up.
"So all we can get from art is 'feeling?'"
"If it's the right feeling, that's enough."
"Now, is that the emotion the artist is expressing? Is that what you are talking about?"
"No, not at all," I answered. "Emotion is common. You don't have to make art to express emotion."
"But art must be expressing something."
"Sometimes it does. But the only thing that really matters is how good it is."
"But," continued Note-Taker with an air of frustrated patience, "what do we get from it?"
"We get the recognition of that goodness."
"Well, what good is that?"
"It isn't 'good for' anything", I answered. "It exists only for the effect it has, not for any so-called 'larger purpose.' It is very pleasurable, however."
"Geez!" exclaimed Thin Man. "There should be more to art than that!"
"In art 'should' is a dangerous word," I answered. "You're better off with 'is'."
"But it seems so simple," he said.
"Great art is 'simple'," I replied. "It has a kind of stunning obviousness to it. I think maybe God is like that. But that's not my specialty."
That engendered a few smiles and a few more expressions of puzzlement. I could tell that this group, like so many others, had been weaned on the long words and sententious nonsense of the art magazines. They did not like it or understand it, but they were accustomed to it.
A hard-bitten, heavy-set lady with frizzy hair and indecipherable dark clothing raised her hand and Dr. Curtis acknowledged her as an art historian.
"This is all very fine, Mr. Bannard." She contemplated the wall behind my head for a moment, leaving me to decide what was very fine. "But you keep talking about 'good art'. Now, I am disturbed by the word 'good'."
"Everyone is," I answered. "It's a sign of the times."
"It's so narrow," she insisted.
"You mean you agree? You admit it's narrow?"
"Sure," I said. "The range of good art is narrow. History tells us that."
"OK, then. Perhaps you can tell us what 'good' art is."
"Nope," I answered. "No way I can tell you what 'good' art is."
"I don't understand," she said with a demanding petulance. "If you don't know what good art is then how can you talk about it?"
"I didn't say I didn't know what good art is. I said I couldn't say what good art is. I know good art when I see it. But I can't give you the reasons for its goodness. No one ever has."
Hard-bitten smiled grimly and pulled off her rimless glasses and shook them at me slowly as she spoke.
"So what you are saying is that art quality is entirely subjective and unprovable. Am I right?"
She'd been at this for a long time, I guessed. But so had I.
"Yes and no," I answered. "But mostly it's beside the point. You experience art, you don't 'prove' it. Good art gives a lot; bad art doesn't. Quality becomes real through experience, not definition. And furthermore, I don't care. If you can't get anything out of Mozart, or Titian, or Yeats, you just go somewhere else."
"Leaving you alone with all your elitist, privileged cohorts, I suppose."
"Not elitist. Specialized maybe. And if getting something out of art is a privilege, we've earned it, because we've worked at it. And deny it to no one, incidentally."
"Anyway," she stated, replacing her glasses and folding her arms, "That still doesn't make you right. You are still very dogmatic and narrow and limited."
"I'll apologize for coming across dogmatic," I replied. "But I've been up all those blind alleys and I've given up being delicate about it."
"But if there's no proof of what you say," she insisted, "why should we believe you? There are plenty of experts who disagree with you, you know!"
"I'd be worried if there weren't. But you can't take the word of the experts. Most of them are off base."
"Including you, I assume," she said sarcastically.
"All I can guarantee you is that I believe what I say."
"But how do we know you are right'?"
"You don't," I replied shortly. "That's up to you to figure out."
"So you are not only narrow and dogmatic, you are selfish to boot."
I shook my head. Her hostility did not irritate me but her arrogant obtuseness was beginning to.
"'Selfish' would be to relieve you of your responsibility to think for yourself," I answered.
Doug broke in then. "That's what I think, too," he said. "But you know, sometimes when I do what I want, and think what I want, I'm wrong, man, and then I mess up. You know what I mean?"
"That's fine," I answered gratefully. "Keep on messing up. It's the only choice you have. You educate your instincts that way. It's a lot better than yielding them up to some authority."
"What you're saying is, don't trust anybody. Right?"
"Not exactly. You can learn who to trust just as you learn anything else. Just be sure there aren't too many of them. Quality is not decided by popularity."
A slight girl with a pleasant flaky expression asked: "Doesn't it get kind of boring, just liking that little teeny bit of real good art you're talking about?"
A few smiles flashed around the table.
"Just the opposite. You are choosy when you're interested, and when you are interested you run everything past your taste. That way you find all kinds of things to enjoy. But you never confuse the 'teeny bit' of absolute best with all the lesser stuff, as the art public habitually does."
"For instance?" she asked.
"Oh, I suppose Andy Warhol is a good example. Certainly not the only one."
"Gee, I sort of like Warhol," ventured Doug.
"Sure," I said. "He's fun in a way. But you don't mix up what he does with great art."
"How come so many people do?" he asked.
"Because people don't pay enough attention to their own direct perceptions. They see something hyped up and they are afraid to say it's no good. Right now 'bad' is 'far out' and the art bullies are getting away with murder. Pick up any art magazine and you'll see what I mean."
Dr. Curtis drew himself back, looked at his watch, smiled purposefully at the group and said, "I think we have time for one more question... Yes?" He pointed to Prosperous Lady, who had raised her hand.
"Mr. Bannard," she said sweetly, "I don't want to pester you with questions that go back to the... 'old days', you might say, but I was just wondering how have you changed in the last twenty-five... that is, since you got out of college?"
I wasn't prepared for that. I scratched my head and "ummed" and "erred" and did the best I could.
"Well, I think my ambition has changed; that is, I'm more ambitious for my art and less ambitious for what it can do for me. I pay more attention to my feelings, and to common sense, and there are a lot of basic things I've learned the hard way. Maybe I can paraphrase a birthday card I got last year by saying I hope I got better, not older."
"And how," she asked, looking apprehensively at Curtis, "how has the art world changed in that time?"
Another tough one. What hadn't changed? Or had it really?
"I'd say the most obvious change is that it has gotten much bigger - more artists, more art, more money, more variety - and it includes a lot more. And it changes more slowly now, probably because of the increased size. And bad taste is rationalized in a much more sophisticated way."
I thought for a moment, and then shrugged, to say that was about all could think of. A couple more hands went up, but Curtis made a show of looking at his watch.
"Thank you all for coming," he said expansively. "Thank you very much. I'm afraid our time is up."
Curtis made a few announcements. We had not run over our time so figured he was more concerned with the imminence of cocktails than the virtue of punctuality. The two young artists waved at me and said "thanks" as they walked out, as did the Prosperous Lady and a friend who had been with her, and several other people who had not asked questions. The Hard Bitten Lady escaped to her sour destiny. Thin Man, to my surprise, came up and shook my hand and said he really enjoyed it, and I realized belatedly that his relentlessness was for the benefit of his students, and I liked him for it.
Curtis winked at me and said, "I want to thank you for a most interesting session," and then leaned over and muttered "soon as they are all out of here we can repair to the acuIty lounge for a little refreshment" and then he sat tapping his fingers on the table, smiling at one or two of the stragglers.
"By the way, Mr. Bannard, I haven't seen much of your writing in the magazines lately. Got anything coming up?"
"Oh, nothing much. Except I have been asked to write a short piece for my twenty-fifth reunion book at Princeton."
"Is that right? Well, now. Any idea what you'll do?"
"I don't know," I answered. "But I think I'm getting an idea."
We headed down the hall to the faculty lounge. I needed a drink, too.