“Art is not a skill contest, nor an innovation contest. Art is an honesty contest. If we can be precisely who we are, in the most intimate and candid and courageous way, we will start to connect to the universal…” Ran Ortner
Visiting the Dali museum in Figueres, Spain was a personal quest. (I love Dali’s paintings and have visited the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FL numerous times since my family lives there.) So is getting my poetry manuscript done and published.
This year I felt obligated to myself and to all my voyeuristic friends to go.
Kate Maruyama says becoming a writer can make a person agoraphobic.
A week before leaving for , I sat in on poetry lectures and readings at Antioch University, my alma mater, supporting several poet friends who were graduating. The quote of the week seemed to be from an article in The Sun by Ran Ortner:
“Art is an honesty contest.”
To be precisely who I am, to be honest, I would have admitted I am a homebody, that my tolerance for living as a traveler is two weeks, unless visiting family.
To be honest, I don’t write much away from my desk (unless in school or at a workshop), I become obsessed with maps and agendas and must-see sights out of worry of chastisement from friends back home.
“What, you didn’t eat paella every night?”
“And Tapas? and did you go the Museo de Jamon?” (that is actual the name of a chain of restaurants)
I tried to conjure romantic images of me writing in an apartment overlooking the Alhambra.
(Somewhere in all this I am also supposed to meet my husband. All this conjuring and voyeuristic projection left me tired and anxious.)
To be honest, I find the inward journey of writing to be incompatible with the outward journey of traveling. I am not sure I make the cut as an artist, being a homebody with incessant anxiety of writing and travel. I had forgotten in my time since graduation from Antioch what it means to be an artist. Whether it is an honesty or skill or originality, I didn’t want to admit I was failing.
Travel, particularly solo travel, forces us to be honest. Once in Spain, I realized it was my trip and I could do what I wanted. What did I want? To see the Dali museum and then go home and re-discipline myself in writing.
The part of the trip I was most excited about was volunteering to converse with Spaniards studying English for a week in a remote medieval village turned resort near Soria. Here, there was nothing to do, except for the assigned conversations, and my brain, for the first time in ages, was allowed to turn off, to fully relax. This allowed me to listen to what Spain had to say.
When not at the VaughanTown retreat, I immersed myself into being a tourist, visiting the key sites in Madrid and Barcelona, many of which revolve around prominent Spanish artists: Dali, Gaudi, and Picasso. I spontaneously bought tickets for a classical guitar concert at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Pi. I let go of the idea that I had to write while traveling.
Yet I was still a writer. And if reading is writing, as my mentor taught me, then listening to music and viewing art is a form of reading.
The exhibitions in Spain are not just about the masterpieces, but the masters themselves and the process of art. It is a lesson in being an artist.
Dali drew me to Spain to learn something.
Art can happen anywhere, even at home. Especially at home. Americans often seem to think that everything is easier in Europe, particularly creating art and finding love. After all, in Europe, they have long vacations, they speak strange languages, they produce great artists. Sure, it was the thing back in the day to be an expat artist. Maybe it still is. However, as C.S. Lewis notes, it is what makes us unique that makes us special. The more I travel, the more I marvel how I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth: California. Gaudi created art in his hometown. And intentionally kept it there (he was a Catalonia nationalist). Though Picasso and Dali traveled extensively, they also created art at home, in Spain, often in small villages from where they came. Being away from their roots, from home, wherever home was at the moment, did not make their art. Art happened wherever they were. It was part of their being. The key is keeping open the mind and heart’s eye to be inspired. Traveling often is a means to remind ourselves how to do this, but it is the inward journey that produces the art and, for me, this is most likely to happen once I return to the sanctuary of my own home.
(It takes work, this outward and inward journeying. While art may not be a skill contest, it does require a study of skills and tools.
Mastering the sonnet does not make one a poet, but any poet will grow from mastering at least one sonnet.)
Artists must be diligent. Picasso, whose father was a painter, started painting at a young age (at 15 he won an Honorary Mention at Madrid’s General Fine Arts Exhibition and Gold medal in Malaga for his painting “Science and Charity”). In the Picasso museum in Barcelona, one can see that young Picasso (and well, Picasso at any stage) painted anything on everything. Portraits on wood, landscapes on napkins. Dali, Goya, all the masters, if you see enough of their work you know, tried painting from every style, medium, perspective, at times finding genius for which they are ‘known’ and at times finding only mediocrity, which we even bother to hang in a museum out of curiosity due to that work of genius. For example, I thought Picasso rather than Dali as I approached this work in the Reina Sofia: (I do not consider myself even a novice expert on art, so maybe the surprise is must my ignorance). Dali did not start off as one of the primary surrealist painters. I wonder if there was a time when each was frustrated as they grew out of preconceived boxes of how others saw their art. For example, since I entered my MFA program with a manuscript of formal poetry, many there think of me as a formalist, though it has been a long time since I have written formal poetry (I often use it as a starting point, but rarely does it end formally). Art is a willingness to try every tool and a willingness to experiment beyond comfort zones to find which combinations work. And to find the pleasure in discovering something new, on the canvas or in the self.
Creating art needs focus, at times, obsession. Gaudi kept working with the same principles of physics, of hyperbolic and elliptical structures, with symbols of Catalonian patriotism, with blurring art for pure aesthetics and functional art. The only break he took from his work was to attend mass twice a day. Which also dispels myths that brilliant artists are faithless and hedonistic. In fact, looking at his desk at the time of his death, I have vowed to not mop my floor or drink wine until I finish this essay, and to feel good about that decision. Obsession with one’s work can be good (maybe not to the point of neglecting housework for more than a few days). However, we are taught to think of masterpieces as original works from some kind of divine inspiration. Yet, Picasso produced over 14 versions of an imitation of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. He painted her realistically, abstractly, childishly, close-ups, full reproductions, with and without the attendants. Suddenly, the 20 versions of a poem in my files seem appropriate.
Interestingly, Dali also paid homage to Velasquez’s Las Meninas.
Which is the next lesson: Art is dialogue and artists do not work in isolation. Artists respond to and inspire each other, as we see with Las Meninas. It is imitation, emulation, an exercise, a re-imagining, a re-visioning of someone else’s personal made universal through art. Sometimes, crazy as it sounds, artists collaborate, such as this sculpture by Dali and Man Ray. Sure, it is not a radical idea that artists collaborate, except when held against the myth of the reclusive artists (not to be confused with introverted). The Reina Sofia audio tour and curation emphasize the dialogue and connection of art to society and of artists to each other. Each room is not simply an exhibition of one artist, one movement, or a chronological presentation, but a lesson in how art lives in the world, displaying pieces from various artists, various time periods, and various genres to track how the progress and evolution of techniques, theories, and philosophies of art. The audio guide poses rhetorical questions that artists and society were grappling with in that time period rather than merely describing the paintings on the walls. Artists interact and live in this world and in community of artists. Dali, as is seen in his museum and his ability to market art, does not distinguish between high art and mainstream culture. He frames a picture with sandals and plastic cherries, a choice that reminds us he is ‘just like us,’ or at least that the world of art should not be exclusive and separate from our everyday lives. Gaudi also reminds us of this in the swirling sculptures of the chimneys and air vents of the Casa Mila. And Barcelona 4 Guitars reminds us that even classical guitar concerts are about the celebrating being alive, being creative beings as they ham (the Spaniards do love their Jamon!) it up between numbers, use familiar pop and rock tunes as transitions, and offer an encore medley that includes all four playing one guitar, an electric guitar, cell phone interruptions, opera, and Jerry Lee Lewis impersonations.
Art and life must be able to co-exist.
And this is the final lesson: art is about finding and conveying joy, even if it is the joy of breathlessness of this painting that captures grief, or the melancholy rendition of Serenade, or a poem about my inability to not worry.
This is just part of the story from part of the world. For whatever reason, it was the part that I was drawn to this summer. I was meant to be in the Sagrada Famalia late that hot afternoon when the light created a slow motion fireworks display through the white marble and stone. And to be in Figueres to know that sometimes the best is closest to home. To do what I love without question or judgment or fear and to do it everyday. To write about everything on anything available.
One of the first things I read in my jetlag recovery was this quote from Emily Rapp’s Salon.com article shared on FB:The world can be a horrible place at times, but we don’t have to participate in this, we don’t have to harden our hearts as we’re taught and told to do, in order to survive or be sexy or attractive lovers or perfect parents or interesting people. We do not have to make ourselves into mysterious gifts, waiting to be chosen or read or understood by those who will earn us, unwrap our secrets, and then what? We can be something more authentic, and speak from a different place, a different planet. This is why I like being a writer, because what it demands is both simple and incredibly hard. To be a human being. Does anyone even know what that means anymore?
Had I not gone to Spain, I would have read and loved this. However, after Spain, where I had to choose what parts of being an artist are authentic for me, I know a bit more about refusing to wait to be read or chosen, and this, perhaps, brings me one step closer to beating myself in this honesty contest.
Though as a psychic told my friend’s daughter, “remember that you are the prize, not the contestant.”