The other day I went to the Met to see the last day of the Bernini show. On my way to the Bernini section, I had one of those art museum experiences which I find essential to my well-being as an artist.
Here's what happened. I went the long way around, passing through the medieval and early Renaissance galleries on the second floor. I glanced to my right, and this is what I saw:
This is Bartolomeo Montagna's (no, I never heard of him either) oil-on-wood "Saint Justina of Padua," painted, as nearly as I can tell from the museum label, between his birth before 1459 and his death in 1523.
Saint Justina here hit me like a solid punch to the gut. I had a jaw-dropping, soft-legged sensation of ringing stillness. I was being overpowered by the beauty of this painting: the compact rounded clarity of the depiction, the model's force of virtue, intelligence, insight, and wit, and Montagna's gorgeous technique.
I don't go to art museums often enough. They say you can't just invent art out of your own head, without reference to history. This is less true than you would think. I have gone through a very long period of studying some of our art heritage very intensely. But I have also sequestered myself intensely from it for a time, and my new pictorial ideas build, as much as anything, on my older pictorial ideas. Fortunately for me, I'm either very good or deluded enough to believe I'm very good. So I do not perceive myself, moment by moment, becoming impoverished by living in my solipsistic art referential universe.
Then, after a long absence, I go to the Met, or the National Gallery, or someplace like that. And it is just shocking. Here is simply magnificent work, the wealth of age upon age of discipline, inspiration, and genius.
If you are not an artist, your experience of attending an art museum will be different from mine, just as a musician's experience of a musical performance is different from that of a music fan.
If you are an artist, when you are just starting out, the work in art museums - the really good stuff - seems miraculous, it seems to be a unitary phenomenon on the far side of an unbridgeable abyss. Your ambition is to earn your own spot in these museums, these treasure-houses, and yet you despair of ever earning such a spot, because of the magnificence of the existing residents.
Your despair, however, inspires you. You start down the long road of your training, to see if you can rise so high as to reach up and touch the drapery, trailing below these gods as they circle the empyrean.
You study and work for years and years, and that unitary miracle you saw begins to come into focus, and as it focuses, it separates. Now you see that this incredible work is not immortal only; like the Greek heroes, it is the offspring of a union of mortal and immortal parents.
The immortal parent is vision. Vision is beyond your control as a would-be artist. You have it, or you do not. You can gain and lose it; it will come and go as it will. All you can do is prepare yourself to receive it, and even so, nobody has found a method for this preparation which is more successful, in terms of statistical significance, than just getting drunk like an asshole every night.
The mortal parent is technique. This, you can gain, and in fact, much of what you are spending all those years and years on is refining and improving your technique.
As your technique improves, it will begin to match the work you have admired in museums. You will not want to admit this to yourself; it will seem sacrilegious. But recognizing what is so is part of being reasonable. Technique is mortal. You can train hard enough to beat it. I can paint as well as, say, the bottom quintile of the painters in the Met. And my technique is not as good as that of dozens of painters I know, many of them annoyingly younger than I am. Technique is difficult, but not impossible. Some of it derives from talent, but without practice, talent doesn't amount to much.
Now you go back to the museum, and you have lost the innocent awe of the art lover or the aspirer to art-making. You're an artist, and you spend a lot of time squinting at particular passages in paintings, decoding the methods of their creation. You admire the flow of compositions. You make notes on bits to steal.
You begin to evaluate vision, to say, "My vision is as strong as this, but not yet as strong as that." You know it is foolish, that this kind of evaluation is notoriously biased, unreliable, and best done in the long light of centuries. But you cannot resist. You are still ambitious.
You have gained a great deal, but you have lost a great deal as well. You are jaded; there are scales on your eyes. You have looked at so much art that you are blinded to art.
This is a hazard of the profession. We are like bouncers at the strip club of the soul.
This is my experience of it, anyway. There is nothing in this sequence I have not undergone, the pointless vanities and stinging disappointments alike. You know I am ambitious, and I am doing my best to share with you the convolutions of my ambitious road...
So all of this explains the tremendous importance, the absolutely vital importance, of the sensation of being punched in the gut. This is the return of the original interaction with great art, the reminder of the might and grandeur of the thing. It is the humiliation that redeems the drudgery and the vanity, that renews the challenge of the majesty of the project, of us, we ourselves, when we look up from the mud.
My sensation of this sucker punch was different from what it used to be. It used to be, "I will never make such great work." Now it is, "I will never make this great work." This is an astonishing leap in assertion, and it was surprising to me how highly I regarded my work. But it would not do to make a false report. My sensation was not of an essential incapacity, but of an essential lack. Whatever I ever do, I will never paint Montagna's Saint Justina; Montagna already did. I will never paint any one of these masterpieces. I might paint masterpieces, but they will not be these, they will be some other ones. These are no longer available.
Since, it would seem, my craving has the same borders as the universe, this unavailability struck me like the pang of a hunger that cannot be fed. It was a terrible feeling, an abrupt sense of envy and loss. It was actually the reverse of that impulse to paint which I described in Credo - I saw what Montagna loved, and loved it too, and could not perform that conversion of adoration into paint which is so central to my experience. I became Montagna, but with my hands cut off, my tongue cut out, an incapable Montagna. My craving burned me.
And this - this is enough! I have worked to become mighty, and every inch of might I conquered cost me an inch of wonder. It is no good to live without wonder. I've got plenty of wonder about plenty of things, but less about art, and I need to have wonder about art to remain an artist. So this experience, this discovery, is vastly reassuring. The wonder moved, and hid, and finally, it re-emerged. Its quantity is undiminished. The inner circle of wonder that I cannot make so great a thing has narrowed, but the outer circle, of wonder at things I might possibly have made but did not, is greater in area. It is a savage lack, a gnawing absence. It is the very hunger I am always worrying about losing. Saint Justina teaches that the true hunger is unfeedable.