Why a painter paints
by Miles Mathis
It would seem
that I have nothing left to say concerning "Why a painter paints".
Surely creativity is of a whole, and whatever I say about writing pertains
equally to painting. But things are not so tidy. All I know for certain is my
own case, but in my experience writing and painting are quite different. They
come from different places, reveal different emotions and ideas in different
ways, and have different functions.
Painting, in its purest form, is neither discursive nor analytical. It is not
the solution of a problem or the answer to a question. Even more importantly, it
has no linearity. You will say that painting has line quality, but I mean that
painting has no movement forward. It is not read in a line or felt in
a line. Whereas even the most lyrical poem must be read from start to finish,
along a line of verse, painting is read as a whole. There is no beginning or
end of a painting. Even music is linear, in that it must be experienced in a
certain direction. Painting is not, and this makes it unlike any other art. In
its very form, painting escapes the linearity of time more fully than can
music, literature, dance and the rest. A painting may take some small time to
be seen, some seconds or minutes to digest; but in itself it is utterly still.
It may describe action, but it is actionless. It may move to tears, but it
cannot impel or exhort. Silently, it simply is.
This is why a large or complex painting is in conflict with itself from the
beginning. It is the depiction of an instant but it takes much longer to see.
It is timeless and non-linear in general form; but in specific content it
demands a long and changing regard, a regard that is temporal, and that becomes
more linear the longer it takes. An extended regard develops a direction, and
this very direction conflicts with the whole effect. Too many elements, even in
a perfectly "balanced" composition, usurp the whole, and turn what
should be an immediate or nearly immediate revelation into an extended
cognitive and analytical act. The experience of the painting becomes a conflict
between overall form and its sub-forms. The reception of this conflict causes a
measure of unease that can never be fully resolved, no matter how successful
the painting is in specific ways. Even the greatest large paintings, like the
Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or a Rubens masterpiece
suffer from this internal conflict. An art whose inherent quality is stillness
and wholeness has been broken and remade, expanded and exploded in order to
contain what it cannot hold. These giant paintings are great successes in
partial ways, but they can be only partial successes as a whole, since they
have sacrificed the whole for the part. The sub-forms have shattered the
overriding principle and nature of painting.
The non-linearity of painting makes it less abstract than the other arts. By
this I mean that it requires fewer or less elaborate mental constructs for its
comprehension. It is immediate aesthetic gratification, in both senses of
"immediate". It happens quickly, and without linguistic or other
complex intermediaries. This makes the historical movement toward abstract
painting doubly and triply counterproductive. It is to play against its
strength. Just as with painting as politics, painting as abstraction is an
illogical step, a ridiculous mistake in intention and application. It is like
buying more expensive shoes for a bird. Abstraction makes painting more
cognitive, which makes it harder to comprehend, not easier. It will be argued
that I am conflating two definitions of "abstract". An abstract
painting is a distillation, which is a simplification, as I have admitted
elsewhere. It is a distillation of what I am calling sub-forms; but it is also
an abstraction in the sense I am using it in this paragraph. An abstract painting,
though simpler, requires a new mental construct for its comprehension. That is
why a child doesn't have to be taught what a traditional painting means. It is
accessible with the same intuitive apparatus he already has. But a child must
be told what an abstract painting is about. He must be taught to see it
intellectually, in light of some new theory. He must be taught this with
language, whereas he did not have to be taught to see his mother and father
with language, or to see a painting of his mother and father with language. I
hope you can see that this undercuts the historical argument in favor of
abstract painting. To make painting more abstract is in effect to make it more
cognitive, which is to make it more like literature, which is to make it less
The form of painting is determined by its creation and determines its
reception. That is, pure painting, as a wholly silent art, most naturally
reveals the quieter parts of the self. A silent art is not best suited to
excite or alarm. It is true, bright colors, sharp edges, and the depiction of
certain shapes and scenes may excite, but those colors and shapes must first
override the silence and timelessness of painting as a whole. They must defeat
it. And they can defeat it with some success. But it remains a fact that an art
is at its fullest when its forms and sub-forms work as one.
Some will answer that forms are empty shells, to be filled only by human will.
But this is not true. The color red cannot be made to have a sedative effect simply
by willing it to. A square cannot be made softer than a circle, by willing. Art
is not the creation of forms, ex nihilo. It is the use of
So painting, as the most timeless or non-temporal art form, must have arisen as
the expression and for the expression of man's least temporal thoughts and
desires. From the beginning it was a freezing of those things that men and
women found most compelling and important—the things they did not want to
change. Hence painting as a record of achievement, used by cultures
throughout history to exhibit their finest moments, that they not forget. Hence
painting used as totem and apotropaion, as a warding off of evil, which evil
was unwanted change. Hence painting as nostalgia: fond memory of things valued
This makes painting as propaganda the gross misuse of a tool. It is using a
bird's nest as a megaphone, a dove's wing as a hammer. To turn painting into
politics and theory, one must destroy its inherent usefulness, replacing it
with forms and uses of other arts and non-arts. One may be able to make a
dove's wing into a hammer by encasing it in iron, but it is not clear what
function the dove's wing retains. Nor is it clear that one has remained on the
path of wisdom.
The function of politics is, or should be, the implementation of the new.
Politics concerns those things we want to change. If we were all completely
satisfied, politics would be at an end. An art whose forms are silent and
non-temporal is hardly a logical tool for revolution. Guernica did not
impel to action half as much as what was written about it, and that writing did
not compel to action half as much as what was written about the war in Spain
Likewise, the idea of "action painting" has also been an absurdity.
Painting cannot "move to action". No matter its form or content,
painting, in itself, cannot impel. The action in a Pollock painting is
all Pollock's. The painting may be lively, but the only impulse is eye
movement. It impels one only to ask why a still canvas in a quiet room should
be used to mimic movement. Would not movement itself have been more to the
point? Critics find these questions endlessly fascinating, but for me it is a
short and false conundrum, equivalent to asking why a man would go fishing in
the desert. He doesn't know how to catch fish, that's all.
This means that a painter, if he knows what he is doing, paints because he sees
painting as the best way to express his connection to the silent and timeless.
A natural painter knows the strengths of his tools and plays to them always. If
he wants to convince or impel or move to action he makes use of other arts,
arts designed for such purposes, such as literature or drama or dance. If he
has a subtle silent emotion to express, one that does not yield to word or
reason, to verbal expression or movement, then he gravitates intuitively to
visual art, where such thoughts and desires can take shape and be released into
the world, begging experience.
Even within the boundaries I have described here, this experience is vast.
Painting that eschews politics and conscious abstraction, linguistics and
compositional over-complexity, does not thereby become a pinched and limited
art. Human connection to the silent and timeless is infinite, and this
connection is not in need of amplification or replication or distillation or
explication. It is not in need of ballast or support, fluffing or stitching,
propping, filling or dressing. It is not improved by complement or compliment:
by being yoked to other arts or non-arts or by being overwritten. It requires
only a human-sized space of rest and quietude—the space inside a frame—where
both artist and viewer can retire for a time to that instant depicted, that
place where change is no longer wanted.
It is no longer wanted not because the depiction is necessarily beautiful or
blissful, but because in that frozen place everything is a source of joy—even
pain and sadness. This is what Schiller meant by
saying that all art was an ode to joy. Art is the lovely experience. The
feeling of life from great elevation, like that of a god. From that distance,
all feeling is ecstasy. The already fine line between pain and pleasure
evaporates, and we understand, if only for an instant and if darkly, the real
gift of emotion itself. We lick our lips at tragedy not because we like to see
others suffer, but because we have reached an instant of infinite receptivity
and acceptance. The tears are precious because they are the realest and rawest
thing we know. They come closer to melting us than anything else. It is no
accident or pathology that makes sadness seem the deepest emotion. It soaks even
our deepest dreams in ways that happiness never does. Unfulfilled longing is
the original impetus to both art and dreams; who knows what a completely
fulfilled man would paint, or dream about.
This, I think, is the key to art. Art is a cohort not of politics but of
dreams. An artist in search of subject should not monitor the magazines and
newspapers. He should monitor his own nightly excursions. This is the natural
and given road to the infinite and timeless. There the worldly rears its head,
but it does not rule.
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