‘What are you fighting against?’
We were all sitting around our professor, on the floor, on drawing horses, or on tackle boxes filled with art supplies. We were in a darkened university drawing studio. A few minutes before, he had sent the model out for a break and beckoned us to join him for some philosophical reflection. This was a regular part of being his student; and it was an aspect of his teaching that most of us appreciated.
But, no one ventured a reply to his question. He had a fine intellect; one of the best I’ve encountered. It was easy to feel intimidated when speaking with him. Sometimes those who answered before he made clear where he wanted to go with his thoughts hit embarrassingly far from the mark.
‘What makes you angry?’
A twenty year-old man sputtered and launched into a litany of complaints about society’s prejudices, the irrelevance of art, and the stupidity of . . .
‘Yes!’ declared my mentor. ‘See! He has a purpose. Do each of you have a purpose?’ He smiled broadly at the man who was still making his oft-repeated remarks and motioned gently with a hand for him to be quiet. The student lowered the volume of his rant, lowered it a bit more, and then stopped talking altogether.
Another young man shifted in his seat and made clear he wanted to speak. Our professor nodded to him.
‘I don’t think art is about being against anything. Being against things is a waste of time and energy. You need to be for something. That is what I am about — not anger, not discontent — I am for something better.’
‘Aha,’ our professor nodded and smiled (though wearily). ‘For something better. That means, does it not, that there is dissatisfaction with something — the thing upon which you are attempting to improve, or replace?’
The student’s brow furrowed and he nodded slightly.
‘The only way any of us can become something is to push away from something else. The only way we can make our voice heard is to make it rise over and apart from the murmur of the crowd — or worse — the indifferent silence. Any life worth living is a temper tantrum. If it is also to be a life lived effectively, it needs to be shaped by principles and discipline. Just as a rocket can only propel itself upward by pushing away from the earth, no artist — no one — can create themselves and make something beautiful without deciding what they do not want to be, in order to use that as the measure of what difference they need to build up in their life and work.’
‘But, Professor,’ said the first man, ‘I would rather create by loving instead of hating.’
‘Yes,’ he nodded again. ‘There is an aspect of your character. It will shape your life and work. It is the way you choose to fight — with a fierce and gentle spirit. But do not miss the point . . . that you are fighting.’