Cezanne famously said, “With an apple I will astonish Paris!” What he meant was, “Using an ordinary apple as my starting point, a subject painted a million times before, I will make some new meaning because of my artistic vision, my facility with a brush, my personal response to nature, and my commitment to see really clearly.” That is only a part of the story, however. What Cezanne could only know much less well—what each of us can only know in a hazy way about ourselves—are the historical, cultural, and psychological forces at play that provoked that apple choice and those signature Cezanne brushstrokes.
Every painting is its own kind of mystery because it represents what an artist thinks she is doing and also what the artist is entirely unaware that she is doing. In a real sense subject matter is never a completely conscious decision, because processes go on in the brain that the brain can’t stand apart from and witness. It is not possible to know if a trip to see glaciers last year caused you to paint this apple this way, so that we feel unbearable stillness as we view it, or whether it was glacier-visiting and also growing up in snow country, or nothing of the sort. We can’t know—and the artist can’t know either.
There are certain profound psychological consequences of not knowing where our subject matter comes from or why we are handling it exactly as we do. The most important one is that we can always doubt the result. We look at the thing we’ve just made and, because it has arisen in part knowingly but in part mysteriously, we may well wonder, “Why did I make that?” On good days we answer that question with a hearty, “Just because!” We smile and continue on our way. But on bad days we are pulled to answer, “I don’t know—and it may have been a complete mistake!”
The central doubt that arises is “Why this?” The answer we wish we could provide is, “Because I have thought it through and I know for certain that this is exactly what I meant to create.” The characteristic answer that we are pulled to provide, however, is the more absurd and provisional one: “Because I have given it some thought and am hoping for the best, which I recognize leaves room for huge doubts.” Artists must bravely and maturely endure those pesky doubts, since some portion of the source of subject matter must remain forever mysterious.
Eric Maisel’s latest book is LIFE PURPOSE BOOT CAMP: