At the core of a creative act like painting or sculpting is the effort to make meaning (and not beautiful objects or money). We are very happy if we make objects we like and if we make money, but what we are really after as we create is the experience of making our life feel meaningful. Nowhere is the intersection of meaning-making and individual personality played out more idiosyncratically and more interestingly than in an artist’s choice of subject matter and in his or her handling of that subject matter. Why do you choose the subject matter you choose and why do you handle that subject matter in your particular way?
Say that you put ten artists in a room—maybe Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Cassatt, Cezanne, Picasso, O’Keeffe, Pollock, Rothko, Tamara de Lempicka, and you—and said, “Paint an apple or whatever ‘painting an apple’ brings to mind.” We know the outcome: ten very different paintings, some of which might include objects that looked like apples, some of which might include images that somehow reminded us of apples, and some of which would include nothing apple-like at all. Not only that, wouldn’t some artist in the group—maybe you—exclaim to himself, “I do not like assignments and I will do something completely not-apple-like!”?
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 short, calculating strokes.
Every painting is its own kind of mystery because it represents what the 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 which 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 you 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 are perfectly entitled to 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.”
If you have two pennies to the left and two pennies to the right, you are pretty sure that you have four pennies altogether. There is nothing very thrilling about that news, but at least you have nothing much to doubt. If, however, you’ve been painting desert landscapes, figurative nudes, optical paintings, monochromes, or anything under the sun, there may be much to thrill you in the process but also much to doubt. The central doubt 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 my surest way to make meaning.” The only answer we are entitled 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 elephant-sized doubt.”
When your subject matter or your handling of your subject matter gets you down—when a doubt arises that must be addressed—the first thing you want to do is surrender to the fact that, whatever you decide and however you decide, you remain in the territory of mystery. There may be good reasons for you to move from desert landscape to figurative nude or from figurative nude to desert landscape, but good reasons are not the same as transparent certainty. All you can do is choose, wish yourself well, and go off into the unknown.
The beauty of this reality is that, while we know far less about the sources and logic of our subject matter choices than we wish we knew, we are also far freer to experiment, to play with a hunch, and to follow a sudden enthusiasm. Gauguin remarked, in that ironic way of his, “I have known, everyone knows, everyone will continue to know, that two and two make four. But this irritates me; it quite upsets my way of thinking.” He was joking, of course, because he knew that he had no need to be irritated: in his world, in the artist’s world, nothing like the logic of math obtains. In the artist’s world, it is much more about love, guesswork, and pure adventure.
Do not get down on yourself when you start to doubt the rightness of your subject matter choices. There really is no way to be certain about what makes for a “right choice” or a “wrong choice.” Just do your honorable best to judge the matter and feel through what next steps you intend to take. Who knows—you may astonish yourself, Paris, and your apple too.
Eric Maisel is the author of 50+ books. You can learn more about him at www.ericmaisel.com, subscribe to all of his blog posts at https://authory.com/ericmaisel, and write him at firstname.lastname@example.org