I was with 16 students at the Esalen Institute last week, teaching landscape painting. Once again, as I have twice a year for about the last 15 years, I journeyed with each painter as they encountered, and tried to make some sense of, the spectacular land and seascape. Some were just beginners and some had been painting for years. On the last evening, as the class enjoyed and discussed the over 50 paintings painted during the week, we talked a lot about our experience and found as much value in our stories and process reflections as we did in the paintings themselves.
Returning to the studio, I now face the end of my project. Only a few weeks left and the full year cycle is complete. As I started the final group of five May paintings, I have found myself thinking about the old story, said to be Chinese in origin, of the artist who is commissioned by a wealthy patron to paint a fish. The patron visits often, over a couple of year period, seeking his finished commission and is always turned away. One day the patron finally demands to have the painting. Putting a fresh piece of paper on the table, the artist reluctantly paints a wonderful fish in a few moments and the man is amazed and delighted, but frustrated that he had to wait so long. In response to the patron’s admonitions, the artist opens her closet and a thousand paintings of fish tumble out.
I’ve always wondered about the meaning of this story. As I return to my studio with now 60 pond paintings on the walls, I notice this story is again on my mind.
In one interpretation, this ancient allegory is about striving for perfection, something that artists often do. I imagine the artist and the patron are two parts of the self. The artist’s dissatisfaction with her work and sense that it could be better drives her on to the next painting. Whether it is the same subject or a different one, in one sense all paintings are the same and the basic effort is repeated over and over. Like reaching for the stars, no matter how much higher we reach than the last time, the stars always seem to be just as far away. The artist can never really “arrive” or “finish”. The patron is the voice of the real world, the grounded and demanding voice that calls us to accept what we are and where we are right now, even if it is not perfect. This is the voice that knows that true perfection cannot be achieved and that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Paradoxically for the patron to get what he wanted, a marvelous painting, the artist had to both strive for the unachievable but then be interrupted in her striving. So maybe the lesson is to seek balance between the two viewpoints, that both are needed to have great works of art.
From another point of view, this story is about the tension between product and process. The patron was focused on an object, a fixed product, the artist was engaged in a process and the paintings simply gave evidence of that process and thus could never be viewed as “finished”. If the patron, representing the product point of view, had never demanded the finished painting, the artist in the story would perhaps have painted fish for the rest of her life.
I wonder, did she stop painting fish after giving the commission to the patron? Was his intervention an act of mercy or violent interruption? Perhaps the story is about the irreconcilable difference between a product orientation and a process one and the fact that designating a work of art as a product, an end in itself, an object, is really missing some fundamental truth.
I can see how painting all these pond paintings for all these months has caused me to be more and more process oriented. In the face of 60 paintings of the pond, it is impossible for me to see one of them as separate, “finished “ or “realized”. It is clear to me that the striving and deepening could go on forever and wind would always fill my sails. I found myself last week, as a teacher, also focusing on process and inviting my students to let go of their attachment to the product or outcome and put all of themselves into the act of painting, connecting, authentically relating to their world, be it outer or inner.
But where does that leave the patron? The tens of thousands of great paintings on walls across the planet are indeed all objects, products that were snatched out of some artist’s life process, even though it was not perfect, and made to stand alone.
I guess for now my conclusion is that we need both, that the story is a cautionary tale to both inner artist and inner patron. Like so many other conclusions, it leads me to the phrase my mother often says “it’s just like everything else,” the answer is both yes and no, it’s all about balance. So this is what I’m thinking, as I stuff the last few pond paintings into my overflowing closet