Having long been suspicious of the idea of confidence, never having much myself other than in things that don’t really matter, I’m sold now on the idea that the real job of the artist is not to see how many other people agree with what he’s made, or to seek out those who agree with him and make the kind of art they’ll agree with: the righteous job of the artist is to create things much closer to those things opposites.
At last I’ve reached the time of life when almost everything I do I do against my will—and it’s all I want to do: write the book I’ve been writing for the last 3 years, The Autobiography of Poetry, and paint and read books I haven’t read, books I’d been meaning to read when my life was less full than it now is and I had more time.
Reading writers I disagree with and looking at paintings I don’t understand—things I do now more than I ever did before—I see there really are higher beings, people who can see things we can’t see and put the things they see in books and on paintings they hang on walls so they might live forever, and that we should be grateful to them.
Consequently, I often agree with extremes. Jean Genet, writer, sitting for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti, artist, in Giacometti’s studio, and then writing a book about it years later, about the time he, Genet, sells his portrait by Giacometti to get the money he needs to buy a house for one of his younger male friends. If there’s a greater example of confidence in the arts of writing and painting I don’t have the imagination to imagine it, as it’s a perfect circle.
Giotto’s the only artist believed to be able to draw a perfect circle by hand. I can make half a perfect circle by hand three-quarters of the time and three-quarters of a perfect circle half the time, but I’ve never made a perfect circle by hand and I never will. I don’t have the confidence or the skill to make a perfect circle, though I do have the art-belief and self-belief to be making a painting I’m calling Giotto made of mostly hand drawn circles, one circle consuming another in an intergalactic universe of circles of different colors and sizes.
Giotto (1267-1337) pre-Renaissance, was fortunate to live before the age of celebrity. There’s just enough known and unknown about Giotto for him to exist as a mystery that may or may not have been able to draw a perfect circle by hand. Whether he actually produced The Assisi Frescoes, for instance, is still debated, though it’s clear the fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is by Giotto. What’s not debatable is that Giotto’s work was commissioned either by The Church or by what were known as noblemen, most of whom weren’t noble, and that he wasn’t considered an artist at the time, the way we now consider an artist as a creator with semi-supreme status, but as a craftsman able to render memorable images.
In between making the Giotto painting and writing my book, I’m reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, the first DeLillo I’ve ever read. No book about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination could possibly be a page turner, in fact, it’s the opposite, at least for this reader; I read Libra slowly, and often reread passages to make sure I’ve secured the sequentiality of the narrative. DeLillo forces a reader to witness a history that’s not only difficult to witness, but perhaps impossible, murky, dark, intentionally confused and confusing. I can’t think of a book I’ve ever read in which the writer seems to be asking the reader to repeat back to him what he’s just read (witnessed.) DeLillo, a journalist in the Kafka mode, must be a very strong person, strong enough to write what he’s written, to stay at one with the material with enough self-belief to defy the instinct every writer has for a happy ending. The research that must have been required to write Libra, and the inevitable pace of the truth-telling that resulted is remarkable! Such is the force of the writing that it becomes the solemn obligation of the reader to think deeply about what he choses to read in the first place and how to read it: I’m reading Libra now, often not wanting to turn the page but having no other choice.
Libra is a tragic American coming-of-age story, as tragic as Dreiser. In a curious way it explains the phenomenon that is Donald Trump, an American nobleman, the ‘good little boy’ patted on the head by his mother and father, no doubt told by one of them that ‘one day you’ll grow up to be President’. DeLillo, of course, never mentions Trump—(Libra was first published in 1988)—but presages the time: the rise of television and the new found power of celebrity, the overtaking of the meaning of words by graphic images manipulated by messengers lurking in the shadows of the apparent political structure, making it look to the People as if it’s the same good old country when actually it’s become another country, a country that bears no resemblance to its manufactured reality, and so is a complete fiction, a lie, a series of lies as told on populist media platforms of tv, social media, and the movies by those anointed as the celebrities of the age.
I possess self-belief; perhaps my lack of confidence is not a lack at all, rather a self-effacement based upon a an honest personal history of honoring ambivalence, ambiguity and resisting certainty. I only wish to live quietly in a world where one knows who I am, my writing and painting receiving only my own attention, the attention of loved ones and others I respect. I have nothing to say to the press, nor would I say anything if I was ever asked.