return to 2004

Writing and Painting

Part 1
Why a painter writes

by Miles Mathis


After all I have painted and written, there are some, even of those quite close to me, who fail or refuse to understand what I say and mean and intend. Although I paint in a straightforward manner, without any modern mystification, and although I write bluntly (if not baldly), still I am found enigmatic. That my paintings should elicit a range of responses, I have no quarrel with. A work of art that allows no emotional breadth likely has no emotional depth. But that my writing should likewise allow a range of interpretation, I do not accept. I will not be "deconstructed" for the benefit of any reader, no matter how brilliant or sympathetic. This being the case, I suppose it is up to me alone to continue to sharpen my own words, till they cut the confusion of even the dullest mind.

I will refine my position in two ways in this paper, by answering two very broad questions: "Why does a painter paint?" and "Why does a painter write?" Those who have swum very far out to sea with me (simply, perhaps, as a diversion from the commonplaces ashore) only to decide at last that I am drowning myself by degrees, will likely have failed to follow my compass on precisely these two questions.

I will divulge my co-ordinates on the second, less important question, first: "Why does a painter write?" The same reason a writer writes—posterity. A writer writes so that the world cannot make a mistake about who he was. He says, in indelible characters, this is what I could do and what I did do. Whether a writer is writing a poem, a novel, or a magazine article, he is finally leaving a map of his mind, a record of its contents. If he is a real writer, he is not writing for fame or money; he is writing because he values his own thoughts and because he hopes these thoughts may be of some value to others. It is an act both selfish—in the sense of valuing oneself—and selfless—in the sense of giving oneself to the world, often for a low price or no price at all.

This is why so-called "literary interpretation" is so ruinous. Deconstruction is a sort of soul-stealing, and literary critics are often little more than vampires. An actual dagger can only kill the body, but a careless or malevolent interpretation can destroy a person's work for eternity.

Some will say, "Yes, yes, enough of the old-fashioned posing and platitudes. The real question is why an artist, who should have enough to do in dashing his brushes about, would take the time to viciously attack other artists, much less sports figures and pop musicians. After a while it all begins to sound like sour grapes."

Yes, and doubtless it is the best policy to keep quiet always—then you cannot be falsely accused of anything. Those who attack me on this ground seem incapable of understanding that everything I have written is a counter-attack. A defense. The art I love has been attacked without scruple for a century. As a category it has been vilified and trampled upon and misused in every possible way. Beyond that, due to my love of this art, and my refusal to give it up as thing dispossessed, as a thing no longer valued, I have been prejudged, dispossessed, undervalued and at times reviled. I have been lumped into groups to which I do not belong, refused entry and employment, denied fellowship and chance for honor, and made exempt from exhibition. So I am more than amazed when I am criticized for speaking back. It is like telling the man who cries out when his wife has been killed, "Shut up, you're just jealous of all the men whose wives haven't been killed."

It is not just Modernism that has killed my wife, it is the priorities of an entire culture—a culture that thinks that a drum machine is music, that thinks that taking pictures of Lance Armstrong is creative, that thinks that blasting out of a sandtrap is a culturally significant action. That thinks that buying cars is more important than educating children. Such a culture is remarkable not only for its shallowness but also for its simplicity: current culture is Manichean in its inability to imagine more than two possibilities. Republican or Democrat, right or left, politics or decoration, erotica or pornography, new or old, hip or passť. What is even harder for such a culture to understand is that a call for greater possibilities is not the same as a call for more "diversity" or relativism. No, it is a reminder that the truth, which is a monad, may lie outside both categories. Neither "hip" nor "passť" are meaningful adjectives. Nor, in historical value, are "old" and "new". Art is neither decoration nor politics, nudity implies neither erotica nor pornography, and the left and right are both wrong.

Which brings me to my last reason for writing. A painter writes because he is more than just a painter. An artist cannot be judged only as an artist any more than a restauranteur can be judged only as a restauranteur. An artist is a man or woman, not just an occupation. A man is judged by his opinions and desires, as well as by any artifacts he may leave us. (This is not to say that artifacts should necessarily be judged in the light of these opinions. The art should be judged as art, the man as a man—judging Starry Night and judging Van Gogh are not strictly equivalent.) Therefore it may be best to state one's case in no uncertain terms, especially where doubt may be expected to arise. Did you or did you not support the Nazis, Ms. Reifenstahl? Mr. Heidegger? How did you feel about the Jews, Mr. Pound? What did you really think of women, Mr. Nietzsche? Did you, Ms. Reifenstahl, support the Hitler who promised more police on the street (as did both Clinton and Bush) or the Hitler who planned to exterminate the Jews?

A great artist, a great writer, has not only a deeper vision, but a longer vision. The desire to find a precise enemy is not just the desire to throw brickbats, the joy of the knife. It may be the desire to choose a side—to in fact be a side. To further define that side and what it means to history.

Will you be the person who loans Vincent 10 francs to buy paint or the person who patches his fence with the painting? Will you be the monarch who commissions Velasquez or the monarch who commissions Lucian Freud? Will you be the art critic who discovers and promotes a truly great artist (and be the first who ever did) or will you write absurd and trivial things about people who are greater than you in every possible way? There are a thousand ways to be art-historically significant without ever lifting a brush or chisel. You can be remembered as that guy who first gave Michelangelo a job (de Medici) or that guy who said The David's nose was too big (what was his name?). You can be that guy that bought all those beautiful works (Mr. Frick) or that guy that paid a million for a real cowhead with maggots (what was his name?)

So you see that being a painter who writes is not just a waste of moonlight. It is not dereliction of duty to the canvas or exponential vanity or belligerence for its own sake. It is an answer to a calling for a lover of multiple Muses. It is oblige, obligitoire. It is shield and truncheon both. It is self-eulogy and self-epitaph, autobiography and diary. The canvas and canvass of further regions of my mind and desire.

Finally, it is the knowing and the proof that I can wield the enemy's weapon better than he can himself, and the reminder that he cannot wield mine at all.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.