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In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from Sept. 4, 2019, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

One of my great pleasures, when I was an art critic, was visiting artist studios. Certainly, there was usually a mess, spattered paint, cans dripping or tubes squeezed, and rags and brushes. Things taped to the walls, papers scattered and, often, music blaring. But there was also a sense of purpose, a sense that someone here knew what he or she was doing.

I had that sense again recently while visiting my brother-in-law, the painter Mel Steele. I love his work. And I can watch over time as he works and reworks his canvas, trying this or that to make it better.

Mel is a professional. And by that, I don’t just mean he sells his work, or that he is talented. That goes without saying. I mean something more particular. It is something I see in the work and work habits of many artists I have come across, from Jim Waid to James Turrell.

I have been thinking about the manifest difference between the work of an amateur and that of a professional. And I don’t mean to denigrate the work of amateurs. Indeed, there are professionals stunning mediocrity and there are amateurs hugely talented. No, I mean something about the approach to the work.

This is something that I have been cogitating about since retiring. Without making any great boast about my own writing, I can say with utter confidence that I wrote as a professional. This is not a claim about quality or greatness, but about some inner acquaintance with the nitty-gritty of the craft. It has been 10 years since I worked for The Arizona Republic and I can say with confidence that writers never really retire: They just stop getting paid. 

In 25 years with the newspaper, I wrote three-and-a-half million words. Since retiring, I have written another million-and-a-half for this blog. My fingers get itchy if they don’t pound a keyboard. 

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the secret to achieving meaningful achievement is to repeat something 10,000 times. The book has been trashed by many critics as a kind of pop psychology, but without taking the actual number as gospel, certainly one of the things that makes a professional is that repetition. You don’t become a professional — as I mean it here — by being hired. You do it over the long haul, writing every day for years. Or painting every day for years. Or dancing, or playing violin. Or, for that matter, plumbing or dealing in the stock market.

For all that patience, what you get are several things. First, you get better at what you do. But you also become familiar with the business. By that, I don’t just mean the financial side of the work, but the daily bits of familiar habit. As a writer, that means understanding deadlines, the importance of editors and copy editors, the argot of the trade — point size, picas, inches, folios, air, heds, ledes, trims, slots, cutlines, sidebars, widows, and more than I can even now remember. But was once the lingo of my daily life.

If told I had 10 inches to fill on deadline, I could write a piece that would come in at 10 inches, give or take nary more than a line, before I even measured it. You just have the feel of it. Occasionally, I would return to the office from a concert at 10:50 p.m. to write a review and have 10 minutes to file before deadline. I could whip that sucker out: Ten inches in 10 minutes, and feel at the end like a rodeo cowboy tying the feet of a calf and throwing my arms out in triumph.

More important, you divest yourself of the bad habits of your amateur years and your novitiate. You unconsciously avoid using the same word twice in paragraph; you vary your sentence length; You know instinctively to include just the amount of background your reader needs, without burdening him or her with unnecessary detail; and you know in what order to present that background. You become aware of consistency within a piece. You know the difference between first ref and subsequent. You don’t leave readers hanging with unfamiliar and unexplained acronyms.  Do you know where commas fall? Do you abbreviate “street” or not? All this comes with familiarity and practice. And becomes second nature.

I now look with embarrassment at something I wrote when I first came to the newspaper business because I see all the stupid mistakes I made. Rookie mistakes. Over time and countless deadlines, you leave those inelegancies behind.

Most of all, you gain a comfort level: a sense that you know what you’re doing. Like a pianist who can run his spider fingers up and down the keyboard and confidently hit each B-flat as it passes. Or a painter who automatically reaches for the Hooker’s green because the Phthalo won’t give him the shade he needs.

You watch Jacques Pepin on TV slicing an onion and you can see how second-nature it has become, how quickly and accurately he does it. He knows how to make an omelet because, as he preaches, he’s done it 10,000 times. There may be more creative or innovative chefs out there, even among amateurs, but you have to admire Pepin for his confident professionalism.

Nor is a professional precious about his work. Museum curators can be fussy about white gloves and humidity levels, but the artists themselves are seldom so concerned. If they screw up, “I can always paint another one.” It is not unusual for Mel to paint over some detail he was unhappy with, even weeks or months later, to alter the work. It is only amateur writers who bitch and moan about editors changing their sacred texts. Editors (good editors — and I was lucky to have only good ones) make the writing better, cleaner, more precise. Even such things as cutting stories to fit news holes won’t perturb the professional. He may negotiate, but he won’t whine.

I’ve written about artists and journalists because that is the world I know best. But much the same could be said about professional musicians, construction foremen or career diplomats. Professionalism, as I mean it here, is not simply about being paid; it is an attitude. An approach to the work. A comfort level and familiarity, an ease, an assurance.

And any true professional can spot a navvy in an instant. You won’t necessarily feel superior, but you will feel a kind of pity for the poor beginner. There is so much to learn that is entirely beyond merely talent.


wordsworth

In the early 1800s, the population of England was roughly 8 million, and they produced Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley — not to mention Robert Southey, Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor, Thomas Campbell, Thomas Moore, John Clare and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

It is an astonishing flowering of poetry in a single era. Six major poets and a handful of others still read with pleasure by millions of people.

One might average them out very inaccurately as one great poet per 1 million in population.

Even in the 17th century, when the population of England was half that of the early 19th century, we have Thomas Carew, George Chapman, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, Michael Drayton, William Drummond, John Dryden, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, Andrew Marvell, John Milton and John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester).

Of these, we can easily confer “major poet” status on Milton, Donne, Marvell and Dryden, making our ratio again 1-in-a-million.

By these numbers, we should easily expect, living in the United States at this moment, roughly 300 major poets. One scratches one’s head, because these numbers obviously are not true.

Just one state, North Carolina, is roughly equivalent in land area and in population to England in 1800. There should be at least six poets writing between Asheville and the Outer Banks of equivalent worth to Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

(Obviously, there are eras in which poetry features more importantly in a nation’s culture, and other times when the palm, the oak or bay goes to the novel or the stage, and times — and places — where emphasis is given to painting, sculpture, music or even philosophy. This equation is only meant in general terms — in any art, there should be more well-known and influential practitioners than one might generally count among the population at present).

I reckon that the problem should be understood much as a bicameral legislature. If we count a poetic house of representatives, there should, indeed, be 300 major poets writing at this moment. But instead, we have a senate, and we have a limited number of spots per nation reserved for “major” status. Perhaps we should never expect more than four at any given moment in any given nation.

That means we must look to the reading public (or art-going audience) as a conferring body that says there is only so much room in our culture model for the role of major poet, like only so many slots for general in an army.

It may be part of our cultural umwelt. We have a fixed and number-limited idea of what it means to rise to the top. Perhaps there really are 300 people writing poetry in American now that, if they had been published 200 years ago, would have been considered important, but now are merely the residue of a niche publishing market.

But I mean to present my case in much wider terms: the many arts as they manifest in the culture.

There is a top tier, and we treat these artists — currently the Damien Hirsts, the Jeff Koonses, the Richard Serras — as if they are the “major” artists, whose work is our answer to the Raphaels, Rembrandts and Monets of the past. Their work is deemed somehow more important than the work of thousands of other artists working away, often outside the beehives of New York and LA.

Of course, any critic with an ounce of humility will grant that these are only our “guesses.” That history has a way of choosing different names for the art history textbooks of the future. But as the art world is currently constituted, there is a great divide between art that is considered important and influential — art at the cutting edge of a presumed history — and all the lesser lights, the wannabes. And this doesn’t even make marginal room for all the weekend painters and watercolor society members and their pretty irises and tablecloths.

But who is art for? This is the crucial question. Is art made for the critic, curator, collector and gallery owner? Is the measure of its worth that it fulfill the expectations of narrow and self-specified interest group? If that were so, the rest of us might as well give up and turn on the TV.

This is not to disparage those critics (of which I am one), curators, collectors and gallery owners, many of whom I know and admire, and whose gifts are considerable. But it is like saying that a book is best judged by a librarian: There may be some insight there, but we choose our books by our own lights, our own interests and tastes. To the librarian, we entrust the Dewey Decimal System.

So, who is the art for? The poetry? The dance, the theater, the opera, the string quartet? They are all for all of us who love them.

The search for the “historically significant” artist is a question of history, not of art. We should all be free to enjoy whatever art speaks to us. And as artists, free to make the art that speaks for us.

The “big-boys” (and girls) of art are not disincluded: They really are making wonderful things. But so are the lesser lights, the regional artists, the undiscovered, the shy. The names you see over and over in the art magazines are there on their merit, for sure, but they are also there because of their naked ambition to climb the art-world hierarchy and because of luck. Some were just lucky enough to be spotted by some curator making the rounds for another museum biennial, or to work in a university program noted for graduating elite artists.

I worked in the fields for 25 years in Arizona, which is not usually thought of as a fertile ground for the world’s great art. And it does have its unfortunate share of blue coyote paintings and noble Indian chief portraits.

But I knew a dozen, maybe a score of artists whose work, given the proper exposure to the right people with open minds and open eyes, might stand equally before the impasto of Lucien Freud or the imposture of Jeff Koons.

kratzThe work was forceful, imaginative, idiosyncratic and intellectually rigorous. There should be no shame in being thought an “Arizona artist” if the state could produce a Marie Navarre, a Jim Waid, a Mayme Kratz, a Bailey Doogan, an Anne Coe, a Matthew Moore, an Annie Lopez. I could name a dozen more that you’ve likely never heard of, but that you could well have, if things had gone differently.

Each of these artists had given me great pleasure and spurred my intellectual growth and widened my world for me.

And every state in the union — indeed, every nation on the globe — can put forth its own slate of names of the artists, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, architects, authors, musicians and composers whose value is underrated or ignored, whose work has made a local difference, even if not a national ripple. Who’s to say they are not important? Who’s to say their work is not the equal of the headline artists at the Whitney Biennial?

If we include these excellent but unheralded artists and poets, we probably begin to match the ratio of poets to population of 17th- or 19th-century England.

But I don’t want to stop there, either. It isn’t merely regional art I am defending. I would make a case even for such maligned art as the academic art of university teachers, the irises and tablecloths of the watercolorists — even the paint-by-numbers amateurs and the selfie-posters of Instagram.

Every person who makes an image — and especially those rare and brave people who take up a pencil and attempt to draw something on paper — makes a contribution. They learn something about the world, and about art, even if they don’t have that name for it.

Art is not merely what hangs on gallery walls. Its primary purpose is an interaction with the world, and when anyone makes that connection, with pen, brush, camera, clay or word processor, filtering through their sensibility their ideas, feelings and reactions to the world around them, they have made art.

And ultimately, it is the making of art, not its consumption that has value. Everyone should try it, everyone would benefit from it.