Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heat of Battle

Last time, we plunged headlong into a complicated discussion of subtle properties of Ingres drawings, and the subtle mechanisms they answer to in the brain.

Since then, I've had a chance to actually see a bunch of these drawings in person. I forgot, I live in New York. It turns out New York is the kind of place where you can drop by the Morgan Library and see a show of a dozen or so of their own Ingres drawings and a second show of drawings from the Louvre, including a bunch of other Ingres drawings, including this one:

It turns out the two figures are wedged together like that because each one was cut out from a larger piece of paper and then they were matted and framed together. By, I suppose, a goddamned idiot.

But I did not come here today to scoff at French curators with you. Non. Rather, I would like to discuss something else which this show brought vividly to mind. I think Stanislavski says it better than I can - in this scene, the drama student narrator of An Actor Prepares finally reaches the point of real acting:

My hand ceased wrapping the string around my fingers and I became inert.

'This is the very depth of the ocean,' explained Tortsov.

I do not know what happened from then on.


Tortsov explained: 'The coming of inspiration was only an accident. You cannot count on it. But you can rely on what actually did occur. The point is, inspiration did not come to you of its own accord. You called for it, by preparing the way for it. ... The satisfying conclusion that we can draw from today's lesson is that you now have the power to create favorable conditions for the birth of inspiration. Therefore put your thought on what arouses your inner motive forces, what makes for your inner creative mood. Think of your super-objective and the through line of action that leads to it. In short, have in your mind everything that can be consciously controlled and that will lead you to the subconscious. That is the best possible preparation for inspiration. But never try for a direct approach to inspiration for its own sake. It will result in physical contortion and the opposite of everything you desire.'

Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, pp. 291-2

Stanislavski is describing a transmogrification I have treated before: that the act of art-making cannot be perceived - the narrator "does not know what happened." It can be prepared for, yet when it arrives, consciousness as we normally think of it zeroes out. Skills deploy of their own accord if they have been acquired in advance. Talent stretches itself to its limit. But the will and the understanding are curiously absent.

What Stanislavski describes relates pretty closely to every single description of pitched battle I have ever encountered. (Let me clear up any confusion: I have acted. I have not been in battle. I am a bad actor. I imagine I would be a fairly bad soldier.)

As I understand it, and I am very open to correction here, there are three fundamental types of battle:

• the seige
• guerilla skirmishes
• the pitched battle

Pitched battles are the ones we generally think of when we think of war: symmetric set-piece encounters where enemy forces meet, on a field if one is available, and try to kill each other. The force left standing wins. Bloodshed is worst when neither side will yield. Both sides will go on butchering one another, from the tribal warfare of ancient Greece to the trenches of World War I (for more on this, see Victor Davis Hanson's marvelous The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece)

Descriptions of pitched battle consistently invoke a condition in which the immediacy and dynamic multipolarity of incoming lethal force produce a constriction of the soldier's universe. Strategy and tactics erode, thinking erodes, all that remains is the exertion of countering force and a terrifying struggle to survive. The condition is similar to that of Stanislavski's actor - he is thrown back on training and character, and if he is to prevail, he had best hope these qualities, and luck, serve him well.

This strikes me as one reason that generals often sit on hills; so that they can think. The shape of pitched battle, and the guidance of its course, are overwhelmed in the midst of the fight.

This model of pitched battle is, oddly, rarely portrayed well in war movies. On the other hand, it is portrayed exceptionally well in virtually every zombie film - Field Marshal Moltke's comment that no plan survives contact with the enemy is faithfully rendered time and again when the walking dead are involved.

the enemy
(not pictured: the plan)

I, and most of you, have never experienced pitched battle, so essentially we don't know what we're talking about. But we have experienced a similarly universe-constricting condition, and that is illness. Do you remember, when you were sick, how your long-term plans, your overriding concerns, and your complex thoughts shimmered and dissolved, and you were reduced to - what is this smell - this heat - this dampness? What can I do to make this pain less?

There is an idea behind illness, but it is not apparent to the sick person. There is an idea behind pitched battle, but it is invisible to the soldier. The idea can be discovered, in the calm of cleanliness and quiet, and light and time, in the laboratory and the strategy tent. In the field, they are lost.

To bring this back around to Ingres, we have been studying him in the laboratory and the strategy tent. We have described his efforts and their effects from the perspective of utter premeditation and calculation. But picture-making, like acting, and battle, and disease, is a state not of thought, but of confrontation with force. It is categorically similar to battle: order emerges out of chaos, as a function of preparation and good fortune.

So what I learned - or, rather, remembered - confronting Ingres face-to-face, was that all these theoretical concerns are apart from the direct act of creation. Looking at Ingres drawings directly, you can see before you the struggle of their making: the curves traced out multiple times, uncertainly, as he gropes toward the shape he seeks; the abrupt dark checkmarks, overlying existing lines, where he decides a note of emphasis is required; the zigs and zags of a changing evaluation of how to confront the problem at hand.

Only in the faces does perfection annihilate all traces of its evolution. There are no errors in the faces, no dropped lines, no hesitations. Nor are there erasures. In person, you can duck to catch a raking light on the paper and study its texture. Erasure leaves alteration in the texture of the fibers of the paper. There are no erasures in the faces.

Even so, the experienced artist will recognize what he is seeing: a combination of profound talent, immense skill, and the forbearance to think through the placement of the preliminary marks, pencil hovering over the paper like a dowser's rod, before the fatal commitment proceeds. It is nearly superhuman - nearly, but not quite. I've done it. You've probably done it too. It is one of many tools; a tool on which Ingres relies heavily in his faces. The darkest lines in the faces occur near the end of the drawing process, once he is dead certain he's gotten their placement right. He builds up from light to dark, on a tightrope, avoiding error at each step, and finally gets his 100 in the class.

The moral of the story is that much of this blog approaches art from what might be called the wrong angle - we go into analysis quite a lot, teasing out the subtleties, the mechanisms, and the counterintuitive impacts of the mechanisms of picture-making. But this is not how I make work. Work is not made in the laboratory and the strategy tent. It is guided and understood from the hill, but it is made in the mud and the chaos and the heat of battle. This is important to remember.


  1. I think this sort of thing is what athletes call "flow". As you mentioned, behind and before flow lie strategy, understanding, reasoning, mechanics, explanations, analysis. But as much as any of these, at least in my experience (which, granted, is more on the pitched-battle side of things than the artistic side of things, being a teacher of little martial artists), flow requires practice... lots of practice. More for some than others. Too much sometimes. ugh. I hate practice. But there it is.

  2. I enjoyed this essay very much, particularly for the recognition of the stripped away moment of experience when the preparation is or is not embodied and that will make the difference in survival or In some cases, great art. Thought about that watching a performance of the Cirque troop in KA last night. Their training is so great they continuously appear to defy gravity. I, on the other hand, would fall and break bones, and to your point, in pitched battle would not last long. It is training that enables the Zen-like freedom in moments of great intensity when there is no time to think that results in survival and at times great art. I agree that attempting to linearly define a great work of art will always fail, as that subconscious brilliance (call me judgmental ) exists beyond definition except to recognize it when it shows up.