You are here:   Art > A Self-Portrait Of The Young Man As An Artist

In the margins of the art world: Jacob Willer can be seen in the background of his "Portrait of my Father, Dutch Palette" (2013)

Detail: "London, Last Weeks of Winter" (2013)  

"Memento Mori for a Painter at the Farmer's" (2013)

"Painter, practise" (2012) 

The life of the artist is most often considered after the fact, so that it becomes a tale of triumph, or at least destiny, illuminated by glorious art. Or, in the special case of the autobiography of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), we have a tale made terrible, even tragic, by our knowledge of the artist's ultimate failure-a tale of ambition turned to delusion. But living artists can hardly afford to preoccupy themselves with fate. Since my own career in art has not even begun-I am preparing to exhibit my work and trying to figure out how the artist's life can be lived-perhaps I can tell a different, less mysterious and less heard tale, explaining an artist's early motives, his day-to-day routines and concerns. 

I only ever call myself a painter, not an artist, mostly because I do not presume that the results of my activity amount to art. People wonder how one comes to painting as one's principal occupation. I never decided on it. I came to it slowly. I was visiting museums more and more, and thinking about less and less apart from art. Art became my focus and I developed a sense of duty to it. I paint to do this duty to art. It seems more usual that an aspiring painter first discovers art through a fascination with the process of painting itself. That may well be the healthier, most natural way. However, I have to believe that I can make something from my own particular interests. At school I remember those odd children who found it so easy to draw accurately. I was not one of them. But I also remember thinking that somehow I happened to make more engaging pictures than they did (there must be at least a little arrogance leading one into the arts). I have since developed strong ideas about what a painting is, and of how subtle it should be. And why it should be — why it must be. No matter how much more easily other painters may paint, they cannot know the pictures I imagine, and so there will only be me to paint them.

Another reason I do not call myself an artist is that I am anxious to distance my activity from that of those who tend to call themselves artists nowadays. No one at my old art school, among the teachers or the students, really shared my ideas about painting; indeed, most of them seemed to think of painting as the opposite of art, or a dangerous constraint to it. I found this constant ideological confrontation tiresome and sad. So when my formal education was over I decided I wanted nothing more to do with arty people. I easily avoided them, and they me. 

But I regret this now. For I am no modernist — I have little interest in the idea of self-expression, and I believe that art is always a cultural product; I believe art actually depends upon communal values and activity. It is anyway quite obvious that, from the Burgundian courts to the workshops of Florence and even to the cafés of Paris, painters always thrive in community. I have plenty of non-painting friends with whom I gladly and profitably discuss my ideas. But friendship is private; friendship is not community. So now I try to meet more painters of my age. They mostly approach art the other way, the innocent way, just by painting. Discussion with them is therefore not like discussion with my old friends, but their company is useful in other ways.

Cultural progress has always thrived on competition — competition is a communal activity — but it is of course much harder these days for painters to compete directly. During the Renaissance it was clear who was painting best and most profoundly, so an ambitious young painter could, at least, easily know his aim. Now our painting styles are so fancifully diverse that they are barely comparable in any meaningful way. (This, perhaps, cannot be said for the many painters whose work seems to derive from a photographic instead of painterly language, whose styles — and often faults — are so similar, due to their common source; but I have never met any of them, they seem to be a school apart and, due to the very different nature of their project, I would not in any case feel much community with them.) For this reason most painters may really be as isolated as I am, even if they only socialise with other painters. But painters can still, at least, compete over their dedication to their work. Painters make each other work harder. 

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.