Sunday, December 23, 2012


A while back, I mentioned that my first solo show, "Blue Leah," was opening soon at Dacia Gallery in Manhattan. Well, it opened, and it was wonderful. Here's a picture of  the creative principals behind the show:

Wait, let's dress us up for the show:

She dresses up better than I do.

Here's Lee Vasu, the more public of the two gallerists who constitute Dacia Gallery:

I am proud to call this man a friend. Lee hung the show, and did a staggeringly good job of arranging the work.

Dacia is an archaic name for Romania. Lee is from Romania; he was raised under Ceaușescu, in Transylvania, down the road from the actual Castle Dracula - Vlad the Impaler's old place. Under the communists, it was apparently an abandoned dump. Not the Vampire Disneyland it is now.

One oddity of Dacia, the gallery, not the country, is that if you're an artist, and you've got an opening there, Lee Vasu wants you to give a little talk. Fair enough. I'm no kind of a public speaker, though, so the prospect of this stunt scared the crap out of me. I was eventually corralled into giving the talk, to an assembly of family, friends, and artists (there was some overlap). I found that if I leaned against the wall, it steadied my nerves.

So that's me giving the talk, looking very nonchalant, because I'm leaning against a wall. But if I hadn't been leaning against the wall, I would have fallen silent, or over.

These are the notes I had in hand should I need to remember what I was talking about. I had carried them around the city for three days beforehand, mumbling bits of the talk to myself:

I'm not above scrounging up a free blog post wherever I can get one.

So here, to the best of my recollection, is what I said. Some of it I've told you before. I think it's worth saying it again. I called this post "Credo" because this is as good a summary of what I believe, for my own personal mode of figurative art-making, as I've attempted.

Don't get me wrong - there are many legitimate ways to make art. Some of them are even mutually exclusive. The world is very large, and there is room for many of us, and for us to love one another despite our many differences.

But this is the core of what I do when I do people, and I believe in it intensely:

"All of you - family, those who have come in from out of town, out of the country, my friends from the art world, and my friends from the rest of my life - thank you all for being here tonight. It means a great deal to me to have you here. Thank you.

Before we get going, let me clear up the art historical references. [I wasn't thinking of these works when I came up with mine, but I cannot deny they are in my blood.]



You might not have noticed it, but the David.

[not the first time I've ripped that one off]

And, of course, the lighting owes something to Caravaggio, although I've changed the spectrum.

So - this talk is supposed to be about why I paint, or what my paintings are about, or something like that. I'd like to tell you a favorite story of mine on this subject. It's from Pliny the Elder, and it's one of the Greek myths of the invention of drawing. In this myth, a young woman from Sicyon, near Corinth, is sitting with her boyfriend. He has to leave the next day, and she's going to miss him. They're sitting by the hearth fire, talking. Suddenly she turns and sees the shadow of his profile on the wall. So she grabs a piece of charcoal, and makes an outline of the shadow, to remember him by. And that's the invention of drawing.

Joseph Benoit Suvee, Invention of the Art of Drawing, 1793

The next story I know that is parallel to this is a medieval story about the crucifixion. Jesus is on the Via Dolorosa, hauling the cross toward Golgotha. He's sweating, he's bleeding. He's covered in mud, people have been spitting on him. And a woman in the crowd, a sympathizer, takes off her veil, and pats his face with it. When she takes it away - a miracle! There is an image of his face imprinted on the veil. This image is the true image of the face of Jesus, and in the middle ages, they even had a fakey Latin-Greek term for this concept of the True Image: the vera eikona. With a bit of folk etymology, the name of the True Image, the vera eikona, becomes the name of the woman - Veronica.

Hans Memling, The St. John and Veronica Diptych (right wing), circa 1483

Both of these stories, the woman from Sicyon, and Veronica, are stories about the True Image. They are myths based on the importance to us, as human beings, of making a True Image. But they have something else interesting in common: the means of producing the True Image is essentially mechanical in each case.

So the question arises - if the means of manufacturing the True Image is mechanical, why do we still feel a need to paint after the invention of the camera?

I think we can answer this question by drawing on a very interesting concept raised by Neal Stephenson in his recent novel Anathem.

In this novel, the main character is press-ganged into serving as an amanuensis. "Amanuensis" is a fancy word for a stenographer - somebody who writes down what somebody else says. The main character, very reasonably, asks why they don't just get a tape recorder and some voice recognition software. And his boss explains to him that what is needed isn't a record of the words alone, but also that the words should pass through consciousness on their way to the record. It is absolutely essential - for narrative reasons - that a consciousness parse the words.

It is necessary that a consciousness parse it. This pertains to our question:

It is necessary that a consciousness parse what is seen for a True Image to be produced.

The finger on the shutter, the hand that holds the brush, the arm that swings the chisel - these are extensions of consciousness. They are required to produce a True Image.

Why? To answer this, we have to answer: what is the True Image a true image of? It is entirely possibly to measure the density or volume or boiling point of iron, for example, by mechanical means, or to find out the color of a star. These are purely physical phenomena. Machines are good at representing physical things. But it is next to impossible for a scale, a telescope, a surveillance camera, to represent consciousness, or the soul, the spirit - whatever you want to call it. The True Image is an image of something that is not physical. It is of the same nature as consciousness, and this is why consciousness must parse it to represent it accurately.

Daniel Maidman, preparatory sketch for Blue Leah #2, pencil on paper, 15"x22", 2011

When we paint, we are making an image of a spiritual phenomenon. The image itself begins to partake of consciousness, owning itself and making person-like demands on the viewer. It is very difficult to make such an image. It is not hard for the artist alone. It is also hard for the model. Modeling as a practice is physically demanding, it is a form of athleticism. And more than that, the model must present themselves, make who they are available; their consciousness must, unhidden, interact with yours. It is very difficult to do, and I am very grateful for having worked with my model - can we all give a hand to Leah, who is here tonight?

[applause, Leah blushes]

Daniel Maidman, preparatory sketch #1 for Blue Leah #3 (rejected lighting), pencil on paper, 15"x22", 2011

Now, given how difficult it is, let's ask again: why would anyone bother? Why is the True Image so important to us? I think Plato addresses this problem with his distinction between Being and Becoming. Everything eternal - ideas, mathematics, things like that - is described as partaking of Being. Everything that changes, that comes to be and passes away, that lives and dies, is described as partaking of Becoming. And Plato says that that which is Becoming is an illusion. It doesn't really exist. Why does he say that? It's a radical rejectionism. He's rejecting death. He says, "It is impossible that death should exist."

Consider again the woman of Sicyon. She looks at things that are partaking of Becoming - her boyfriend, who will leave in the morning. The fire. The shadow. And she realizes she will miss these things. So she reaches for those objects closest to her which partake most of Being: the charcoal and the tiles of the wall. And she translates that which is Becoming into that which is Being.

We pursue the True Image as a less radical version of Plato's rejectionism. We say, "This thing, which exists now, is real. I see it now. I love it now. I don't want it to go away." So we reach for whatever we can reach that partakes of Being, and we make a True Image of the thing we see. We make an image using materials that will last longer than we will. That way we can remember, and not die, and we can go on telling the future what we thought was so precious and so important.

Thank you very much."


A more concise version of this talk appeared in the December, 2012 iPad edition of Poets and Artists, which is a marvelous magazine that you should check out, and this would be true even if I didn't have the good fortune to be in it sometimes.


  1. So to summarize the answer to your question of why paint after the invention of the camera, the painting process transforms an ephemeral conscious interpretation of the subject (something that is Becoming) into a permanent work of art (something that is Being). Is that about right?

    This topic reminds me of Walter Benjamin, who wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Although, I think Benjamin wrote about the experience of viewing art (and the aura of an original artwork) rather than the process of making it.

    1. Dammit, Andrew, what did I tell you about saying the same thing just as clearly in fewer words?

      Yes, that seems more or less right.

      And I haven't read the Benjamin work you cite, although I have a vague memory of having heard of it. Or perhaps I did read it, so long ago I can't remember it clearly. Does it have to do with a kind of fetishism of the unique art object? Because I've always been very ambivalent about that justification of Art - that this object is special qua object; it seemed to me like a retreat from the bolder claims of art in the face of the mechanical onslaught, and not a very convincing fallback position.

      I could, however, be thinking of a different analysis entirely.

    2. The original essay was written in German in 1936. Here's a link to a 16-page English translation:

      I find the actual essay kind of tedious to read, but I hear people refer it periodically. I'm no authority, but I think he's known for two main points.

      One is about what makes an original artwork special. I can relate to this point. I see a lot of artwork online and in books, but seeing it "live" in a museum or gallery can be another experience entirely. A personal example was when I saw The Swimming Hole by Thomas Eakins at LACMA. I'd seen the image online, but the original was striking. Maybe it is the scale. Maybe it's the the color vs the RGB approximation. Maybe it is some intangible quality -- the "aura" to use Benjamin's term.

      Another point is about how reproductions can expose a work to a far wider audience, making the original more famous and desirable. Presumably this is why people go to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. Benjamin calls this "cult value."

    3. Andrew - thank you for the link! I will download it and read it. The Eakins experience you describe is the main sense in which I do think it is better to see the original - the broader physicality of the work. But most of the paintings I know I have seen only digitally, now that I think it over.

      I dislike "cult value" but haven't reflected much on it.

      Have a great new year.

  2. Hmmm. I did post a terribly clever and erudite comment from the other computer, but it seems to have disappeared.

    Instead, I'll just comment that I have just recently rediscovered Stephenson and am currently a third of the way through the Baroque cycle. Fabulous stuff - as is, of course, your blog.

    1. Jane - I hate to lose a cool comment that way! But I am thrilled you're enjoying the Baroque Cycle (which apart from its virtues in itself, conveys a bit, I think, how grateful sensible Americans are to Scottish civilization). And also I am glowing to be compared in any way to the mighty Neal Stephenson. Have a wonderful new year.