An actor in teacher-actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre Company owned a dog that she brought to rehearsal, and it slept all day while the company rehearsed. Inexplicably, every night just before the actors were to end the rehearsal the dog got up and went to the door with its leash in its mouth, ready to be taken home. It puzzled Stanislavski why the dog trotted to the door several minutes before his master called him, just as rehearsal ended. How did the dog know that rehearsal had ended before anyone went to the door?
Eventually Stanislavski figured it out. The dog could hear from the voices when the actors started talking like normal people again. It could tell the difference between the fake and the real. If a dog could, certainly an audience could, and the fake is repulsive in an actor. As the best actors tell each other, “When you are on stage or before the camera, remember not to act. People can tell when you’re acting.”
The Actor’s Truth
Stanislavsky was the most significant figure in the history of actor training. When he used the word “art” it meant “life” to him, and life meant the truthful, the real, the authentic, the genuine.
“Life” is all he wanted, and life is what he struggled to get to flow through the actor, and between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. Everything in the work of art must be convincing for the artist as well as for the audience. Actors should behave as though the character is real and what he is doing is real, as though the conditions and circumstances of the character’s life are real. That the dagger Othello stabs himself with is real. That everything is real. Stanislavsky said that the judge of the truthfulness of a performance is not the actor or the audience, but the actor’s fellow actors on stage with him. If you have an effect on your fellow actor; if he believes in the truth of your performance, you’ve reached your creative goal: truth.
A household name in his time, John Ruskin was a 19th century English art and architecture critic and wonderful stylist whose beauty of expression ignited the creativity of Marcel Proust. Ruskin believed that what distinguishes great artists from weak ones is first their sensibility, second, their imagination, and third, their appetite for hard work. He might just as well have added a fourth, their quest for truth. All great artists in every art are aiming and have always aimed to achieve that object of their quest. What that truth is to them—how they conceive of it—varies from artist to artist, and is the basis of their distinctive work. A Zen adage reads: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain. “ There are also many paths, many routes, to artistic truth. You are on a path.
To Ruskin the artist’s truth lay in his/her self-expression, the revelation of the artist’s being, such as the painter’s special talent to convey every shadow, every hue, every line, every impression of “visible things around him ” and secondly his ability to communicate his every emotion. Painter and print maker Edward Hopper too believed that the aim of great painters was to attempt “to force the unwilling medium of paint” into a record of their emotions. A skilled writer, a skilled dancer, a skilled sculptor works an entire career to express every shadow and every emotion—in words, in motion, in an object.
Truth and the Artist’s Vision
In Fire in the Crucible: The Alchemy of Creative Genius, John Briggs sees the artist’s quest for truth and beauty as the artist’s important motivation to communicate his/her vision. That vision is based on “themes” which are the artist’s “fingerprints.” The vision is a strong part of the artist’s identity and may well have become a part of him in childhood, and may well too, be reflected in his work all his future life. In early life future artists accumulate experiences, people, places, key episodes, and ideas which they will draw on the rest of their lives, endlessly recapitulating them in their work. These are the origins of their craft. Anyone who knows an artist’s work well is able to identify the artist’s recurring themes and subjects—his preoccupations that are everywhere in the work.
Your work has themes in it that are inseparable from your personality and creative spirit and life. Those themes and that vision affect everything about your work down to its smallest detail. Every part of the artist is revealed in his/her art and cannot be hidden. And if it is really art, its truth is that it is in close partnership with the whole being of the audience that the artist is trying to reach, the beauty and truth in the work resonating in the sensitivity to truth and beauty in the audience.
No artist talked about or wrote about or was more consumed with the quest for truth than Ernest Hemingway. The writer’s job, he said, is quite simply “to tell the truth,” to speak truly. To tell the truth was to tell about what he had personally experienced, or what he knew from going through something similar. Most artists are concerned with subjective truth more than literal truth, but Hemingway used no other information from any sources than what had happened to him, not literary sources, not academic. Truth was transcribing accurately and simply for the reader “the way it was,” and “the real thing,” putting down what he saw and felt in the simplest way he could. He could invent and elaborate as any artist does, but he elaborated from the reality of what he actually knew from having been there. He said that a writer’s “gift” was a conscience, a “built-in, shockproof bull shit detector” the “writer’s radar” that went off in his mind when the writer was not telling the truth, but “faking.”
Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon:
“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, was to put down what really happened in action: what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced…the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck, and if you stated it purely enough, always.”
Similar to Hemingway, many painters paint only what is before them and is true and visible, and refuse to paint from memory. Are you an artist who sticks to “the way it was” and “the real thing”?
Henry Miller/ Gertrude Stein/ Paul Cezanne
Novelist and essayist Henry Miller felt that the artist’s truth lies in finding a “voice,” and that the discovery of one’s true voice doesn’t happen easily, but requires boldness. Miller imitated every style in hopes of finding the clue to the gnawing secret of how to write. Then:
“Finally I came to a dead-end, to a despair and desperation which few men have known because there was no divorce between myself as a writer and myself as a man: to fail as a writer meant to fail as a man…It was at that point…that I really began to write. I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those I loved. Immediately I heard my own voice…the fact that I was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good and bad had dropped out of my vocabulary…My life itself became a work of art. I had found a voice. I was whole again.” (Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing)
Gertrude Stein also found truth and beauty coming out of the artist’s spontaneity: You “have to know what you want to get; but when you know that, let it take you and if it seems to take you off the track don’t hold back, because that is perhaps where instinctively you want to be and if you hold back and try to be always where you have been before, you will go dry.”
Truth doesn’t lie in “careful thinking,” But “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come, and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition.” It “will be a creation if it came out of the pen and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing of the thing you are doing.” (John Hyde Preston, “A Conversation with Gertrude Stein”). In the same way, 19th century landscape painter George Inness found that the truth of art is the artist’s “personal vital force” that if left alone comes out of the artist spontaneously without fear or hesitation.
A creator must necessary possess tremendous drive, determination, and persistence because exceptional creativity requires a tremendous amount of effort. Paul Cezanne’s truth was the perfection of his craft in a lifetime’s work: “I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping, and it would still seem to me as if I knew nothing…I consume myself, kill myself, to cover fifty centimeters of canvas…I want to die painting…” All great artists are spurned on by a single-mindedness, but few can match Cezanne in that regard.
An Architect’s Truth
Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest architect. Not one given to easy goals, Wright’s architectural goals were , he stated, “the rejuvenation of architecture, the creation of indigenous forms to express and suit life in the United States, and the destruction of Fakery and Sham (that) rule the day.” To Wright, truth didn’t lie on the surface of things. Surfaces were deception. Truth was hidden and capable of being discovered only by probing deeply. “For the architect the patient analysis of nature would reveal the true meaning of functional structures.” Wright found in nature and the machine the two inseparable cornerstones of his search for truth. (Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture.)
A Dancer’s Truth
Isadora Duncan’s quest for a dancer’s truth was lifelong and intense. “My art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one true movement…I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement…I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the center of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of the vision for the creation of the dance—it was from that discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school.” (Isadora Duncan, Autobiography)
Commitment and Sacrifice as Truth
Artists exhibit ferocious concentration on the task to be accomplished and will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it.
“I have always put the requirement of what I was writing first–before jobs, before children, before any material or practical interest, and if I discover that anything interferes with what I’m doing, I chuck it. Perhaps this is foolish, but it has always been the case with me.” (Saul Bellow)
“What one bestows on private life—in conversations, however refined it may be…is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” (Novelist V.S. Naipaul)
“Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates.” (Gustave Flaubert)
Your Artist’s Credo
It should be apparent from what you’ve just read that great artists are precise and clear and quite serious about what they are striving to accomplish—what truth they’re seeking–and can describe it succinctly in a paragraph or two.
How would you describe your overall artistic vision, the truths you are trying to express in work after work? And what are the handful of most important recurring themes that are so much a part of you?
“What I’m trying to get across is…”
“In all my works I find these themes again and again…”
You might ask people who know your work well their opinion. Put the answers down in writing, a statement of your artist’s credo.
Let me know by leaving a comment about the truth you are seeking, your artistic vision, and the themes in your work. I’m writing a book about art and artists of all kinds and want to see what your thinking is. If you are not an artist but are interested in the subject, I would like to hear your opinions too.
© 2014 David J. Rogers
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