Successes and Failures

Eugene Delacroix, Journal page, Musee National Eugene-Delacroix

One gets the impression from reading artist’s bio’s online that they are immensely successful, amazingly talented and constantly at the height of their careers. There seems to be not much humble pie available. Robert Henri believed that the only vital life is the one authentically lived.

All outward success, when it has value, is but the inevitable result of an inward success of full living, full play and enjoyment of one’s faculties.

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p.93

Authenticity requires an acknowledgement of one’s failures, character flaws and personal disappointments with one’s self and one’s work. The hardest thing to do is to accept our limitations. They may be physical or mental, maybe a lack of talent or skill. Or one may lack an acute rational capacity or emotional empathy (although this last one seems a necessary attribute for any artist). These types of limitations cannot be easily overcome or necessarily, need to be. Baudelaire believed that the artist needn’t worry about being “original”. A man could not help but be original by the fact that there is no one like himself in existence- he is unequivocally unique. This includes all of one’s flaws!

Delacroix embraces sincere engagement with the world. It is a matter of conscience that the artist create authentically:

To sum up: be strong, simple and true; here is an aim for every moment of the day, and it is always useful… You only respect yourself when you are open and sincere.

Delacroix, Journal, p. 47

There is always the pressure to present yourself in the best light as we are all apt to do. But there is something indescribably moving to hear someone express their weaknesses. We are all deeply connected in a universal way to weakness. It is woven into the fabric of our being. We all have them and the acknowledgement of them allows others not only to recognize the other person’s flaws but to feel their own humanity by recognizing their share of such weaknesses.

Delacroix takes this sign of weakness present within ourselves and gives it a place in the artist’s work. The image mirrors the artist intimately. He referred to this ‘unfinished’, ‘unpolished’ weakness in the work of art as calculated lapses. In the creation of a work of art, one has to let some things go and it is in the letting go of these certain passages that the true value of what remains can be fully realized, and not only realized but amplified. This amplification is greater because what is significant in the work is compelled to rise up out of an unfinished framework. Baudelaire called this the lacuna or gap. By leaving unfinished or incomplete passages juxtaposed against a beautiful refinement, it allows the imagination full play- partaking of the beautiful passages while simultaneously completing the unfinished passages within one’s imagination- thereby increasing the emotional elan and spiritual fulfillment the work of art can give.

If one reads the journals of artists, especially the great ones, they are full of humble pie. Most express a constant battle with themselves and their inherent weaknesses. Their laziness, lack of talent, and lack of moral strength or rational faculties is evident everywhere. There is no doubt, that the artistic life when lived with honesty, is a complete struggle. Feeding the voracious appetite of one’s creativity and imagination joined with the constant struggle to materialize an image as well as the economics of paying for it and paying for the food on one’s table. Delacroix for many years kept an account of how much he spent at the market and cafe, attempting to survive with his limited means. The road is steep and the burdens great, so one must fling off any added weight of self-inflation. The authentic life is the engaged life and thereby, a joyful existence.

These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being which he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of greater existence… That is the value of a “work of art”. The traces are inevitable. The living is the thing.

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p. 159-160

It is more likely, that our failures will lead to new insights rather than our strengths. When we find we have to abandon the comfortable ways we have been working and are compelled to embrace an uncertain, untried and unfamiliar method, we find we are inevitably at a crossroad. It is at these crossroads that one can find surprising moments of perception and unexpected wisdom. Weakness and self-doubt provide our creative faculties with the ballast they need to find an equilibrium between our flaws and our just successes.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “Successes and Failures”

  1. Having painted for many years, I found your understanding of the artist’s situation to be both grounded and true. As you so eloquently explained, the artist’s life is filled with struggle, with success and failure.

    This is inevitable. Unlike the perfection of mathematics which abstracts, art deals with the unique. The unique, being embedded in the substrate of reality, is rife with imperfection – the root of all struggle.

    Fortunately, this same imperfection allows the artist the possibility of, in your words, “…the engaged life and thereby, a joyful existence”.

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