Beauty as Theft

Mary Vernon, MFA

“We spend our life trying to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench.”
S. Beckett, Texts for Nothing

The plan here is that three ideas will tell you what you need to know. If I were more adept, I’d make this a play acted by two characters: Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault. But I am not a writer of plays, and I immediately get lost in arranging the stage. So, here are the ideas:

  1. A Reading from Diderot
  2. Breaching the Wall (where Beckett and Foucault could do their best elucidating), and
  3. The Space of Flows.

What these ideas should reveal to you is that the past and future of beauty might be the same, that the theft of beauty, and its translation into the world, is the work of the artist. If there is no work, there is no beauty. Where the future manages to make things easy, it will loose the possibility of beauty. It’s likely that the burden of the artist will change not at all, and the burden of the viewer could be unbearable.


It’s the Salon of 1767[1]. Denis Diderot has just explained to us, as we stroll through the galleries of the official Salon of the French Academy, that he’s recently discovered that the way to describe a painting is to enter with one’s gaze from the lower right or lower left corner and to “describe [the painting’s] elements as they are encountered.” We come upon The Rustic Musician by Jean-Baptiste Leprince. Diderot begins at the right and finds rocks, peasants male and female, a young musician playing a mandolin, some sheep, and a distant prospect he cannot walk out into because he is blocked by a wide pool. “This is lifeless, colorless, without effect,” Diderot says, “All these paintings by Leprince present an unpleasant mixture of ochre and copper. It can’t be said that I’m sparing of praise, though, for I’m about to sing those of the little musician at some length.”

“This beautiful head inclines forward slightly; its curly blond hair, hanging over the forehead, forms a kind of ruffled pad such as the ancients gave the Sun and some of their other statues. . .I forgive Leprince all the yellowish daubs I can no longer clearly recall for the beautiful head of this rustic musician. I swear it’s forever fixed in my imagination…This is such a head as a gifted sculptor would really be proud to have given a Hesiod, an Orpheus, descending from the mountains of Thrace with lyre in hand, an Apollo sheltered by Admetus, for I persist in believing that sculpture requires something that’s more integrated, purer, rarer, more original than painting. Among the figures that function well on canvas, how many can one remember that would survive translation into marble?”

Now, the worthiness of the rustic musician’s head having been established, Diderot begins to consider how such fine heads might be created. “What is the work of the imagination that produces them? Where do the ideas for them come from? Do they arise fully formed, or are they the result of sustained groping, of several discreet attempts? How does the artist assess, and how do we assess for ourselves their suitability for the thing at hand? …What then is inspiration? The art of lifting the flap of the veil and revealing to men an ignored or rather a forgotten corner of the world they inhabit. The inspired person is sometimes himself uncertain whether the thing he makes manifest is a reality or a chimera, whether it ever existed outside of himself; he is then at the final boundary of the energy of human nature and at the extremity of the resources of art. But how is it that the most ordinary minds are smitten with those rushes of genius and suddenly conceive what I’m having so much trouble describing? The man who’s most subject to such excesses of inspiration has no conception of those workings of his intelligence and strainings of his soul that I describe, at least not with all his wits about him; but if his demon seized hold of him suddenly, perhaps he’s stumble upon the same thoughts as I, …and it’s only from such a moment that he’d begin to understand me.”

Here the painter Leprince finds himself accused of lifeless and yellowish painting, yet of creating beauty worthy of ancient models, yet possessed of an ordinary mind, and stumbling onto his own finest forms. Diderot makes Leprince seem like an unpromising cat burglar. He’s the burglar who knows enough to get in to the mansion, but maybe not enough to come out with the jewels. Diderot expects Leprince to come out having stolen the recycling bin. How does the usually inept Leprince effect any work of the imagination? Think of poor Leprince when T. S. Eliot says: poetry is a “raid on the inarticulate/ With shabby equipment always deteriorating/ In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” (East Coker)

About the images, Diderot’s crucial question for us is: “How does the artist assess, and how do we assess for ourselves their suitability for the thing at hand? …What then is inspiration? The art of lifting the flap of the veil and revealing to men an ignored or rather a forgotten corner of the world they inhabit?”


Breaching the Wall

Diderot calls it lifting the flap of the veil. Whatever the metaphor, the artist’s task is the hard work of stealing from heaven. “I’m no prophet. My job is making windows where there were once walls,” Michel Foucault said, but apparently not in print. It was overheard by Hubert Dreyfus, who mentioned it in a talk that was heard by Lewis Hyde, who wrote it down. Not only is it a precise statement of the artist’s work, it is gathered to us in an artist’s way, not without a little theft. It is Lewis Hyde, in his book Trickster Makes This World[2], who reminds us that the first god of artists, Hermes, is a thief. As Coyote in the Southwest, as Loki in Norse mythology, as Legba in West Africa, he makes trouble and forces heaven to spring leaks. It is not surprising to find Hermes ruling the world of lies that tell the truth and of making windows in walls. The way Leprince got that handsome head was by drawing, painting, and looking at handsome heads for several decades. He wormed his way into its beauty and made it real.

Here’s the metaphor (which you may prefer to the actuality): Every day Leprince faces a stone wall, beyond which lie the many perfect kingdoms of distinct gods. The god of the perfect relation of the color Naples yellow to raw Sienna. The god of firm contours; the god of tiny physical spaces; the god of tiny illusory spaces; the god of the blush of the cheek; the god of damp eyes in horses; the god of burrs on etched lines. Because he was at this wall yesterday and the day before, back into time, Leprince knows how he can attack the wall. He’s looking for the joints, the places where something was built but could be dismembered. It’s there that he can raid the land beyond the wall. If there were no joints, the territories beyond the wall would lie in isolation, untapped, unrevealed, unconnected. Today, Leprince cuts his way through the mortar into the rich territory of soft-lying-over-hard. Already to have stepped past the wall is practically too much for Leprince. He’s been cut by the stones, his back hurts, and he’s a bit lost. He’s annoyed that there’s more to carry than he wanted. He’s pulling back through the wall all of the discovery he can handle. He’s hungry, he’s practically blind to what he’s got in his hands right now, and he’s very happy. He has made a raid on the kingdoms of beauty.

Here’s the actuality: Every day Leprince goes to the studio or the museum or the library. The world wallows in offerings. He knows so little compared to what there is. Because he has some idea of how to run his life, he knows how to start a day, even when he cannot foresee what the day’s efforts will bring him. He enters the studio, and sees the canvas The Recaptured Bird, back from the Salon, where it was shown. Leprince finds it suddenly unbearably bad, and turns it to the wall. If he is so bad as to have sent this to the Salon, what can he do? The model arrives. His assistant arrives. Now the paper is out and the ink is out, and he turns the bad painting back around. There’s just one area there, around the knees of a reclining girl, that shows how something might be done if one had not stopped too soon. Leprince tells the model to lie on the model stand, yes, flat on her back. That will be interesting. The ink, the color of walnut gall, so variable, so warm, undiluted it is almost black; at the greatest dilution it gives a wash the color of almond tea. The model is thin; her bones are stretching the skin remarkably at the pelvis and the ribs and the collarbone and the elbows and the bridge of the nose. This ink can cut the corners of forms beautifully if it is handled with the brush that is round but strong. Leprince has forgotten the bad figures in the bad painting. He’s mute with concentration, and in all the hours until the model complains that her back is killing her and may she please get up, Leprince is absorbed in a raid on the beauty of her bones.

Diderot acknowledged that Leprince made a good raid on the territory of beauty in the head of the rustic musician. Diderot always described himself as relating everything to the development of his own heart and his mind. It seems to me that, where Leprince was successful, something had shone through the work and into Diderot’s attention. The breach in the wall allowed something to be dragged back. What I miss in Diderot’s review of this painting is the sense that the viewer gets two sorts of pleasure from the artist’s raid on the territories beyond the wall. Diderot explains how a plum of vision is given in the artist’s work; he does not explain that the narrative of the artist’s raid is to be found in the work as well. Let Diderot peer a little closer, with Leprince’s marks as his object. Let him look at the head of the rustic musician. He will find there the marks of struggle, the anxiety at getting through the wall, the vision and revision – so much wrestling for form in so few inches of canvas. Now if Diderot will look to the pond or the field that disappointed him in the same painting, he will find more perfunctory marks, usually longer, lazier strokes, signs of inattention, lack of patience. I’m not speaking of lack of detail (often detail is mere sign making); I’m speaking of a lack of work. The rich narrative of Leprince’s fight is in the face of the rustic musician, and that is its beauty too.

You can’t be one of the greatest painters without being the most dogged of fighters. John Singer Sargent is good, but Rembrandt on the whole is much better. The delicious passage in painting (and sculpture too) is made just beyond the ability of the artist, so that for Rembrandt, so able to breach the wall that he spent most of his time on the other side thieving, the work is just as hard as it is for Leprince, (maybe harder) but our reward is finer. Sargent is so accomplished that he should have fought harder.


The Ray of Sunshine, The Free Bench

If the artist’s job is to make windows in walls, the viewer’s job is to be where the visions show through. Beauty from the far side of the wall is hard won. Let us say you live in a great park beside a great sea. Rays of sunshine fall now and then, but it’s a cloudy town; and you wonder if it’s getting cloudier. You are always on the lookout for good benches – the ones that get into the sunny spots. While the sunny spots seem to be decreasing, the number of benches is always slightly increasing. What are all these benches good for if they never find the sun?

This is what I mean about the artist’s burden changing not at all, and the burden of the viewer becoming unbearable. The artist’s calling still demands the painful work to cut through the wall. But the number of disabled, unwilling, fake, and deluded artists may be going up. There are more purveyors of emptiness now. What if more people who do no work are called artists? What if people who call themselves artists do no work, and don’t know how to work? How could such a thing happen?

The real artist prays for the tool too difficult to control – a tool with a will of its own. The unwilling, fake, and deluded always have sought the tools that are easy to use. The easier a tool is to use, the greater the artist needed to find its level of risk and power. Take a look at the development of photography. In 1845, the photograph was arguably more difficult as a tool than was drawing. The long exposures, the silver plates, the baths of chemicals, and the severe limitations on what could be done made it so tedious to use that each image was fought for. By the time negative roll film, and brownie cameras were available, photography was easier than drawing. Of course artists like Atget or Stieglitz had worked photography to make windows in the wall. But now everybody made snapshots. We made them so easily that we failed to learn to work with them. Most of us did not know how to make snapshot photography difficult enough to get us to and through the wall. I leave aside in this argument my idea that sometimes, as in snapshot photography; windows are made in the wall by what we call “accident.” That’s another lecture. By the time we had computers with Photoshop appropriating and manipulating all forms that can be photographed or scanned, we began to make the camera the secondary tool of photography and to make electronic alteration the primary tool. The electronic manipulation world is so easy that most of us will forget the value of the difficult. Fortunately, I sometimes overhear someone saying: “I’ll just draw it on paper, it’s too hard to do it in Photoshop.”

I do grant that easy-to-use tools may themselves be difficult to make, and may have their own narrative of beauty in their creation. That includes the hardware and software of computers. All the machines of ease and certainty are what David Pye[3] calls “the stored embodiment of the care, judgment, and dexterity exercised by the workman at an earlier time.” The tool may be a work of art and cut a window in the wall, but whether it can be used to make other works of art depends on whether its user knows how to work the tool. I’m optimistic about the possibility of artworks from and in computers. But I am disappointed in what’s being seen now. So much accumulation of easy effects, so little struggle, so little news from the far side of the wall, so little sunlight on those benches.


The Space of Flows

In the June 5 issue of The New Yorker, Manuel Castells, who teaches sociology and planning at Berkeley, was quoted as saying: “The space of places has been superseded by the space of flows.”[4] So this is the world you live in. Where more things of less value are made, but where news of them moves more easily and more quickly. Or we might turn to our metaphor of the wall again, and think of what is flowing through those windows. The many perfect kingdoms of distinct gods, the territories raided by artists, leak into our world through the windows in the wall. If what we mean by the space of flows is commerce with those gods, we’re doing what we should do. The beauty beyond the wall needs to be reached, as the perfect organ needs to be flowed through by blood. I fear Professor Castells was not thinking of that, but rather of the spaces where we communicate like lightening – the electronic fields where effects arrive at the same time as their causes.

I must admit that this space of flows (today’s world communications pooling and gushing) has been kinder to the exhibition of my work than the old space of places. Right now, I have three exhibitions up in three places on the globe. I got the invitations to show in those three places in three ways: the first in the old space of places, the second in the twilight between places and flows, the third entirely in the world of flows. These are all exhibitions of physical objects that were filled with struggle for me. They are all hanging on real walls. In the old system of the space of places, I sent slides and artist’s statements for two years to the Evanston Art Center near Chicago, asking for a solo show of my work. No email, all polite letters and waiting. Before that, I had been to the Evanston Art Center and had admired the space, I had known the former director, and I knew my work would look good there. That’s the space of places as it operates for exhibitions: know, personally, the people, know physically, the space, and discuss on paper, slowly.

In the twilight system between the space of places and the space of flows, the second exhibition was invented. I know very well a member of the State Department who took up her post in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a couple of years ago. We talk by email regularly. Operating on impulse, in the mode of flows, I said to her: “What if I sent little paintings in the mail and you showed them somewhere in Almaty while you’re there?” She said: “Sure.” And told me the mailing regulations. As soon as we were ready (this year), I mailed small color studies to her. She hung them up. Solo show in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I know that friend from the space of places – we have lived in the same city, and been at the same university. The idea of having that show gave me the task of working on small, oil color studies. It gave me the most important work of this year to do.

In the third show, arranged entirely in the space of flows, Dušan Fischer of The World Festival of Art on Paper of Kranj, Slovenia, may have seen my work on my website (I think so), and emailed me to invite me to send three works to the World Festival this year. I looked at the festival website, and found it interesting. I gathered three small collages, scanned them, and sent them as an attachment in email, along with the information form and a $39 entry fee by credit card (on the web), then put the three real collages in a box and mailed them to Slovenia, where they are hanging now.

Far into the landscape of flows, my own website,, displays work from the past five years, the Chicago show, the Almaty show, and essays on my work by David Newman and Dawson Carr. Just recently, a Saudi Arabian man, a painter, emailed me from my website to ask some advice and to give some. He had a website too. We talked about work. Where in the space of places would I have had that discussion? Perhaps I should have seen his paintings in person to begin to talk to him about assessing their suitability to the thing at hand, but I still think I could tell what was going on. With some of my smaller color studies on my web site, you certainly can tell the nature of the work. I saw exactly where he was in trouble. Maybe he saw exactly were I am in trouble. I knew the four times (at most) I could say he had been making windows in walls, and I told him about those.

The future, it seems to me, gives artists the same difficult task; no matter what tool they use to approach it. The space of flows lends small powers to their plans. The viewer, the lover of art of the future, will find, if we are lucky, that the wall is still being breached. Or, the viewer will find the rays of sunlight miles and days apart.

[1] John Goodman, editor and translator, Diderot on Art. Volume II: The Salon of 1767. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press). 1995. pp. 180-181.

[2] (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). 1998.

[3] David Pye. The Nature of Art and Workmanship, (Bethel, Connecticut: Cambium Press). 1998.

[4] Nicholas Lemann, “No Man’s Town: The good times are killing off America’s local elites,” The New Yorker, June 5, 2000, p. 44.

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