Wednesday, February 29, 2012

'Master', Signal of Achievement, or Meaningless Word in the Arts?

This week I am working on a new 36 x 48 in. painting of poppies in bloom at the foot of the Catalinas. On Saturday of this week I'll be doing a paint in gallery demonstration at Cobalt Fine Arts in Tubac. Anyone free to stop in will be most welcome - the Cobalt Gallery has some of the best contemporary artists in Southern Arizona.

Today I wanted to write a brief bit on a word that has echoed in my head for years - the word 'master'. In the arts, the term is used, in it's most basic sense, as a kind of reverence for someone who is generally accepted to be extremely skillful, unique, original - or all of these things. Of course when we speak of "the old masters" we know that we are talking about those artists who have filled the museums that we all enjoy. Yes, the term is a kind of reverence, and in MOST cases, at least with regards to the artists of the past, it is a term that is justified.

But what about today? I must admit that the word 'master' as it relates to living artists is a term that is frequently misused. One of the prime ways that it is misused is when an artist refers to themselves as one. When you call yourself a master, in your promo materials, in your bio materials, etc - you are claiming to be both the soapbox and the person standing on it. I think that being deemed a 'master', if the word is to be used at all, is a designation that should be left to others, not to the artist themselves.

It seems to me that if you call yourself a 'master' then you are greasing the slopes towards arrogance. I once told a friend about the day that I realized what the difference was between arrogance and confidence; it's simply the manner. An arrogant person believes that they are great and seems intent to tell you all about it - and to surround themselves with people who may be cowed into uncritical adoration. A confident person offers up the fruit of their abilities, will defend their visions with equal gusto - but a confident person will never beat another person over the head with what they have done. They will simply say "Here it is. I believe in this. I believe in myself." I have heard, firsthand and second hand, the diatribes of arrogant so called-masters. Some so self-assured as to insult those who disagree with them on matters like politics. This is nuts for an artist, because art is a kind of middle ground where people of all backgrounds and all beliefs can stroll the same turf. Art is truly a unifier. Even myself, I will admit to a rare comment or two on politics, but the last time I did speak on a particular matter, I also said that I know I am speaking to people with lots of different views, and I want my friends to know I respect our differences. I trust that as long as we are civil, we can even profit from the discussion. A great piece of art doesn't have party affiliations. And it shouldn't.

There is only one man I would call a 'master', and that is Jean-Claude Quilici. He has been my dear friend, cohort, and inspiration for many years. He is my master, and as long as I live I don't suspect that I'll have another. But one of the main reasons I call him my 'maitre' as we'd say in French, is that I have NEVER heard him refer to himself that way. He is a painter. Many think he is a master. But I would dare say he spends probably not an second of his time thinking of himself that way. That's the key.

It's a little like the explanation I remember Jean-Paul Sartre gave when he refused the Nobel Prize for Literature. He said that it was a way in which the literary establishment kills your career by saying that you are, in essence, finished, and that you have nothing more to say. He later said that he believed his work was more alive in his later years because he refused the prize. I.e., he refused to admit he had reached any kind of plateau - and he just kept working. I feel that the use of the world 'master' in art represents the same kind of plateau effect. And I still think it is more sensible term for others to consider when one's life's work is finished.

Whether or not people will one day call me a master, I don't worry about that. I don't want to let anyone kill what I hope is an upward progression in my work by admitting that I've reached some pinnacle. All that is illusory, in my mind. I only concern myself that I should put my head down when one painting is finished, and then start thinking about the next thing - and so on and so forth. Art is many paths - many trails. I am only on one of them. My fellow artists on are others. (Some insist that their trail is the only one in the woods - but some of us know better.) Where I started and where I end up is really only something that others will decide when my life is over. So it's best not to worry about being a 'master', or putting people into a state of hollow adoration while you are alive. There will be a point, of course, when my life and all the paintings are done - then people can say whatever they want!