The Upside of Despair

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I. Givevra de’ Benci

When I still painted, I tried hard to be aware of the effect that every brush stroke I placed on it had on the entire canvas. Every one of them reconfigured the visual space. Every one of them limited and shaped what it made compositional sense for me to do next. With time, keeping that awareness in place became almost second nature. I needed it to avoid mistakes, but I also enjoyed it. It formed a large part of the pleasure I took in painting.

To my own eyes, some of the paintings I thus produced were miracles of clarity. Colors and shapes enhanced one another to the point where the entire canvas glowed. And the longer I looked at it, the more intensely it glowed. The phenomenon undoubtedly owed much to the fact that I had painted it. I knew the background of every square centimeter on that canvas and why it worked as it did. To other people’s eyes, it was usually just a painting, not bad perhaps, but not breathtaking either. In any case, however, never one to leave well enough alone, I used to take my completed paintings and move them around the house, hang them on this wall or that, stand back, and try to take in the visual effect of the painting on its environment, and vice-versa. Because I had painted them, some powerfully reconfigured the wall or changed the feel of an entire room. Looking at them a month later with a colder eye, I always found that they had deteriorated into mere wall decorations.

One of the reasons I stopped painting was its dawning on me one day that if I had Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Ginevra de’ Benci hanging on one of those walls, it would never thus degenerate. It is too good. But no matter how hard I might try, the chances of me ever producing anything that good were laughable.

I am not telling you a story meant to be sad. I learned a lot from my efforts to produce credible paintings, including that I was better at accomplishing some other things. I have no regrets about that. I am just trying to articulate a feeling I have about art when it is good.

The clarity Leonardo achieves in his painting borders on the surreal. Its quality will dominate any wall. But the complement of that clarity transcends the effect it has on a wall. It prominently includes the cognitive impact it has on the viewer.

When I let my eyes linger on Ginevra de’ Benci, I start out delighted and discomfited at the same time. The light that Leonardo’s painting casts consigns everything around it to darkness. That includes me who look at it. Compared to that light, I am a shadow-veiled thing, an opaque darkness looking out. As the light shines into it, it makes that darkness come to life as darkness. The light delights me and the darkness that I feel myself to be at that moment makes me uneasy.

Gradually, though, the two feelings merge. The delight is mine and I am the darkness that experiences it. The two are opposing sides of the same thing. And while I can’t grasp what that thing is, its felt presence fills me with awe – a joy tinged with fear, a fear infused with the warmth of kinship. The thing – me – is not of the world, yet part of it. I am a paradox, an impossible union of opposites. In my acute sensing of that, more as feeling than as thought, I come unspeakably alive for myself as nothing else can make me come alive. I credit the painting for inducing that feeling in me and love it on that account, and this without necessarily thinking any of this through.

I could have chosen another painting to make the point, or the Parthenon, for that matter. I can think of no other way of explaining the exhilaration that building induces in me and in countless others. Seen from below on Dionysus’ Way, the sight of it leaves most people speechless. It takes their breath away, and this long before they know a thing about Doric columns, entablatures, or entasis. They are meeting up with themselves.

I do not want to insist that my explanation of the power of Leonardo’s painting to move people is the only one possible. I am sure that art historians could have a field day devising competing analyses of what makes Ginevra de Benci work as painting. I just think that at some level or other, any art worthy of notice involves a paradox of which it presents itself as a quasi-magical resolution. Different takes on a work may identify that paradox differently. In any case, however, a strong aesthetic response to a work of art is always a resonating by the viewer to the solution of the paradox that the work intimates, or is, or is seen to be. And the strongest response of all is the one we have to art that induces in us the feeling or the illusion of an understanding of the paradox that we ourselves are, and of which all others are intimations.

Nor would I want to argue that only art has that effect. Science can have it. Hard thinking or meditation may produce it too, though rarely as instantaneously, as unmistakably, or as pleasantly. Moreover, unlike productive thinking in whatever form, this response to good art lies within every person’s reach. It requires no special effort, intelligence, erudition, or training. For the same reason, the experience is not necessarily transparent to every person who has it. That requires some clear thinking, which, for one reason or another, may lie beyond one’s reach or disposition.

II. Productive Despair

Making good art takes work. So, often, does bad art. The presence or absence of talent supposedly explains the difference. Amazingly enough, however, good artists typically belittle the role that talent plays. According to them, inspiration is mostly perspiration. They keep at it day after day, establish a routine, stick to it, shut out the world and its distractions, and, well, just work. Some paint a hundred paintings, one each day for three months, just for the exercise. Eventually and after many failures, plausible art tends to show up. From what I have observed, however, so, probably even more often, will mediocre art – by which I mean technically competent work that has no aesthetic merit. Working interminably gradually issues in increased technical mastery, but not necessarily in art that repays a second look. More commonly, a sterile virtuosity sets in, the fruits of which disappoint the more as they are dazzling. One encounters it in writing when a writer with nothing to say says it exquisitely well. I encountered it in modest form in my paintings. The better they became technically, the more loudly their aesthetic vacuity asserted itself.

I strongly suspect that in trying to explain their successes beyond mere technical virtuosity, those artists are leaving something out of the story they tell. They fail to mention the role despair plays in their creativity, either because they do not clearly understand it themselves or because they feel uneasy about it. It is a little embarrassing, after all, to admit that one’s painting painted itself, or that one’s poem, or one’s novel, wrote themselves – to admit, in other words, that one owes one’s inspiration to the moment when one despaired and gave up.

Cryptic though that may sound, there is no riddle here. Despair is unpleasant and nothing more natural than our striving to avert it. We hate feeling impotent or without hope. Hence, if you are an artist, all that tenacious work day after day. You want to end up fully in charge, controlling your materials, knowing what you are doing and why. But unless you are somewhat obtuse, you also sense that to be a recipe for mediocre art. You need to let yourself be in order for any worthwhile creativity to flow, to let it flow without getting in its way with your own ideas of what it ought to produce and how. You need to let your brain do its thing, which it will refuse to do until you put your wilfulness out to pasture. Unfortunately, you are up against the devilish fact that putting your wilfulness out of gear is not something you can do. It is something that happens to you when you despair, where it makes no difference whether what causes you to despair is an unsolvable compositional problem in a painting, or your apparent inability to stop wanting to be in charge of your creativity in general. You only stop being in charge when you give up trying to be, and you will not stop trying until you despair.

For what it is worth, I suspect that to be the solution to the Buddhist conundrum that wanting to be free of desire is also a desire. To the extent that desire is a nuisance, there is no freeing oneself of it until one despairs while trying to do so, until, that is, one’s willful self dissolves or implodes in overwhelming impotence. If I am right about that, a good artist is a natural Buddhist – in fact, if not in name.

Despair is much maligned. It wears the face of a creative sterility that threatens to be permanent. But sensing perhaps instinctively, or as a consequence of experience, that nothing short of despair can set their creativity free, good artists do not try to avert it. They seek it out by working obsessively. Confronted by an apparently unsolvable compositional problem on a canvas, a mediocre painter will throw the canvas away and start over. A good one will persist in trying to salvage it. He or she will try every possible solution to the problem until there is none left, or until exhaustion sets in, and then despair. And at that point, one of two things usually happens. Either, coming as though out of nowhere, a solution presents itself uninvited and unthought of until that moment, or it suddenly becomes crystal clear how the problem could have been avoided in the first place. If the latter, only then does it make sense to throw the canvas away and start over without repeating the same mistake.

In a more radical version of the same phenomenon, as when no solution presents itself, nor any useful clarity, the artist’s despair eventually issues in spontaneous stock taking. What is he or she doing? Trying to solve compositional problems? What difference does composition make to what he or she is trying to achieve? And why try to achieve it? Why paint at all? It is only out of the depth of despair, as when painting strikes a person as an absolutely useless activity, or his or her ability to do so, as hopelessly beyond redemption, that better painting has a chance of emerging. For there is no other way of throwing off all the baggage of received opinion, misguided ambition, conceit, self-delusion, and so on, that naturally encumbers the free flow of creativity.

That is true not just in painting, but in any creative enterprise. We are possessed by the past and its recipes. There is no exorcising it without pushing those recipes to their limits until they fail, and until the despair their failure induces in us breaks the tenacious hold they have on our minds. And of all the recipes that tend to have artists in their disabling grip, none is harder to shake off than the idea that they are the conscious authors of their paintings, or their poems, or their essays, the practical implication of which is that producing worthwhile art involves making huge efforts to perfect their control over their creativity. The competing truth is that perfecting that control means relinquishing it, a feat that only despair can enable.

I imagine that this is not the first time you hear that story, although probably not in quite these terms. As usually told, it is a somewhat romantic, comforting story. It would have one believe that before one can accomplish anything in art, one needs to let go, overcome that wilfulness that gets in the way of one’s receptivity to what a work wants to be, as opposed to what one’s crippled imagination wants it to be. One needs to learn not to force things, to eschew violence, to cooperate gently with reality instead of trying to push it around – to become attuned to the Tao and the power of non-action. Etc. While there is truth to all that, the story obscures the fact that letting oneself be carries the risk that what one’s creativity, thusly conceived, produces may not be to one’s liking. Indeed, one has no idea what it will produce. My own may surprise me, with no guarantee that the surprise will be a pleasant one.

III. A Personal Note

One may ask why, knowing all that, or taking myself to know it, I am not out there with my paints and brushes, running myself into the ground trying to produce a canvas with the power of Leonardo’s. The answer is that I am unable to find my way to the requisite persistence. I lack faith in the power of visual art to make more than a tiny dent in a disheartening state of affairs. Of what use is the elation Ginevra de’ Benci induces in me in a world that feels increasingly like it is coming apart at the seams? What good does it do for me to have gratifying private epiphanies about the being that I am, while others are starving or barely able to hold body and soul together? Arguably none. So what good would it do for me to set out to induce such experiences in a handful of other people, supposing even that I could?

Up against those questions, I concluded some time ago that I would do better producing verbal renderings of mental landscapes that might have more far-reaching effects. This essay is an example of one.

IV. Troubling Creativity

If there is hope in despair, then there is plenty of hope for humanity. There is certainly no shortage of despair. Its pervasive presence strongly suggests that we may be on the verge of a massive burst of creativity and of a different human world. A better one? That all depends on the depth of our despair.

Increasing numbers of people are giving up. Voter turnout in the recent election, for instance, was the lowest since 1942 – a little over 30%. Normally, this is what happens when voters mistakenly believe that their vote makes no difference. I think that in this case they rightly concluded that the election made none. It makes no difference who is in charge in Washington when the problems confronting the government are unsolvable. Arresting climate change, for example, would require such enormous changes in the way we go about things that no American government has the power to bring them about. The same is true of income and wealth inequality, as well as of their negative consequences in countless people’s lives. It is true as well of the money-driven political circus that passes for public discourse about these and other issues that threaten our collective well-being. It is unfixable, and will probably remain so until we start thinking differently. Only despair can bring that about. In that sense, despair is a good thing and deploring its growing presence in our country and elsewhere, indicative of self-confusion.

“Except,” I hear you say, “that we are not artists. We are just citizens going about our daily business, perhaps not terribly well acquainted with history, but acquainted enough to know that the creativity to which despair can give rise is often catastrophic. When a society starts to unravel and there is no hope, it becomes vulnerable to the appeal of magical solutions that typically make things even worse. Demagoguery and political extremism come into their own. Nativism, racism, and other forms of rabid ideology flourish as desperate means to restore a measure of partial societal cohesion. You dream of the Parthenon. Try focusing on Dachau instead! That, too, was the result of creativity initially spawned by despair.”

I concede the point. I do not doubt either that were it possible to avert the unraveling of society, then doing so would be greatly preferable to radical, possibly misconceived, attempts at repairing it. But what if, as now, that seems impossible? What if every effort to keep the ship afloat just causes it to sink deeper? Try harder? I am all for that. But what if – as many people increasingly suspect – the ship is inherently defective and can only be fixed by rebuilding it? On calm oceans, it may once have been adequate. They are calm no longer. Unless we face that, we may end up going down with it.

I dislike apocalyptic talk as much as the next person. But I would venture that we all know that, in this instance, we abhor it because we suspect that it may be true. We would rather remain hopeful. But here we are.

When, understanding that despair can issue in catastrophic creativity, I try to be clearheaded about this, I initially despair of extraordinary creativity as a plausible remedy to our problems. But then it comes to me that our being mere citizens does not preclude our being artists. Conceived as art, the human world has no room in it for Dachau or similar ugly places. A world that does is not a work of art. Indeed, it consigns all individual art to offensive self-indulgence.

But all of that remains just comforting rhetoric until I confront the reality that the only thing that keeps me knowing the difference between the Parthenon and Dachau is my sensibility – the very different emotions that each of those places induces in me. I have to trust my sensibility, which there is no good reason to do unless I make it my business to ensure that mine is a sensibility worth trusting. Seriously conceiving of the human world as a work of art comes with the imperative to attend to the quality of our collective sensibility as an initial project. It sounds like an immense undertaking, and it is.

So, there, for a start, is a project that calls for significant creativity and a willingness to despair. How else would we find it in us to throw off a conception of sensibility that is as old as Western culture and that relegates our emotions to incomprehensible phenomena that we would be generally better off without? How else would we find the courage to think differently?

Then there is our conception of art itself as the exotic private business of a handful of individuals striving to produce works of one sort or another that move some people. Even if one supposes that in the emotions it induces, art so conceived occasionally brings those people deliciously face to face with their paradoxical humanity, what does that accomplish for the other 7+ billion inhabitants of the planet? It may be better than nothing, but it is nowhere near as good as a conception of art as the business of all, as the essential calling of all human beings to create a common world in which they all feel at home because it is beautiful, and the beauty of which reflects to each the being that he or she is.

That broader conception of art as effectively coinciding with human life sounds like a fantasy. It might be nice if we could find our way to it, but we can’t because, well, we are in the survival business, not the art business. Is that actually true? Or are we just mindlessly parroting the theory of evolution? Of course we strive to survive! But we also strive to survive as the beings we are. Otherwise, what would be the point of survival? Behaving like a coward or a hypocrite, for instance, may help one survive, but only as a parody of a human being. So do heartlessness and sentimentality. So does greed. That those dispositions may further a person’s chances of survival does not preclude our condemning them because they represent an affront to the beings we are, ugly faces of degenerate humanity that make anyone cringe who still is plausibly human.

In today’s human world, it is hard to survive without consenting to being a parody. That is one of the main reasons why that world induces so much unhappiness and alienation. It is hard to be honest without being a chump, or courageous without being a sap. But that’s what you get when we are all in the survival business at the expense of the beings we are, namely a world that is a chronic insult to human sensibility, a disheartening parody of what it could be if things were the other way around.

Our normal take on that situation is that the only remedy to it consists of all of us making heroic moral efforts to behave differently, absurd in view of the likelihood of that happening being the same as that of every person on earth being struck by lightening at the same moment. In other words, there is no remedy. When mere decency requires heroism, there will not be much decency. There is no way out of that box without thinking differently – an impossible feat without the despair required to throw off a conception of human beings as only, or even primarily, in the survival business.

To be sure, without survival, there is no art. But without art, broadly conceived as an attending to our needs as the beings we are, survival is for the most part a meaningless, not to say tawdry, achievement. Moralizing will not get us beyond that as fact of life. If anything, it makes things worse by reminding us of our impotence to act as morality would have us act. Merely edifying talk won’t do it either. We need a fundamental change in our consciousness of ourselves that issues in a conception of human beings as artists, of the world itself as their work, of its beauty as their objective, and of their sense of themselves, both as its creators and as its beholders, as the reward of their efforts.

That is where my reflections lead me. If we do not want to continue living in a world that insults our sensibility, we have to create one that doesn’t, one that actually caters to that sensibility. We have to think of that world as the ultimate work of art and of its creation not as something that we ought to do in the sense of a moral duty, but as something that we want to do because we are all artists at heart. That world has no room in it for mayhem, oppression, endemic poverty, exploitation, racism, or constant wars. But to get that far away from where we find ourselves today may take quite a bit of despair. In that sense, we may well be half-way there already, provided, of course, that we get on with the business of attending to the quality of our collective sensibility.

© Serge Kappler 2014


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