Letter to a Young Artist

I love their willingness to play endlessly with their own visual ideas. I love their dialogues and their internal quarrels, their restless argument, their liveliness. In short, I love their humanity.
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(With apologies to Rainer Maria Rilke.) Joost de Jonge is a Dutch artist based in Amsterdam. You'll find images of his paintings at his website.

Dear Joost,

First, my warm thanks for your package of books and catalogues. I'm honored by your interest in my writing and by your wish to be in touch about our common interests. I have some thoughts to share about what I can learn, from reproductions, of your painting; and about the context in which you work, commendably, to make it known.

As is so often the case, the thoughts you provoke in me are much about... myself! I realize, for example, that I am finally unashamed to have a simple mind, and a mind that seems to want to grow simpler with each passing year. Perhaps it's the result of 15 years of flirtation with Buddhist thought and practice. I'm not a simpleton, mind you. I spent the better part of my early years struggling to appear much smarter than I really was. I completed a doctorate in Comparative Literature, and spent a number of years in academia. It was never a comfortable fit. Standing in front of a class of students and attempting, in my insecurity, to persuade them that I actually knew something that they didn't know, and needed to know, was always an excruciating experience for me. I was actually required to "teach" critical theory, which I frankly did not understand particularly well myself!

I was, in those days, a poet. All that I knew, all that I saw, all that I had experienced in life went into the poems that I wrote. I would have been at a loss to reduce their content to words other than those I had used in making them. I still think of everything I write as a "poem" in this sense. (Your reference to "ekphrasis" was of special interest to me -- and I loved the presentation of "The Ekphrasis Project," by the way. Having written about art for many years, I have always avoided the notion of being an "art critic." I have understood that work to be more in line with what I learned, as a poet, about "translation." That, it seemed to me, was the ultimate goal: to have my reader experience something of the artist's work in a different medium -- hoping, always, for the "live sparrow" rather than the "stuffed eagle," to use Edward FitzGerald's nice analogy about the art of translation.)

What does all this have to do with the package that you sent me? Well, I was attracted to your work, in the first instance, for the simple reasons -- the ones my friend Peter Frank refers to at the outset of his essay in one of your catalogues. They're beautiful, they're sensual, their rhythmic patterns are seductive, their textures and surfaces (I'm guessing here, because I have not seen originals) tactile and visually engaging... and so on. And I do go, believe me, beyond the simple reasons: I know that I engage intellectually with the work, that I pick out their art historical references, that I make associations and draw conclusions at a level somewhere below consciousness. Some arrive effortlessly, at lightning speed, others take their time and reach me at their own slow pace.

But it's my choice to keep things simple, not to become overly engaged in the intellectual activity that certainly opens up as a possibility, but does not attract me. I think that this is because, eventually, I find that activity restrictive and reductive. It dis-serves the painting by making it something less than it is, something that supports a theoretical aesthetic approach, say, or explains its own art historical context. I have to tell you, Joost, that my head spins when I read that other Peter's brilliant prose analysis! It gives me a headache just to try to read a paragraph. I honor his analytical skills -- perhaps even envy them a bit! -- but they leave me longing to get back to the experience of the paintings, to the simple, holistic enjoyment of them, to what happens not in the head but in the heart and body when I look at them. And the heart and body, as I understand them, are far more complex, far more empathetic, and indeed more fully "intelligent" than the head.

So, Joost, I very much like your paintings and your "scribbles." I love their humor and their vulnerability. I love their physicality. I love the joy, the exuberance -- as well as that hint of the dark side that Peter also mentions. I love their willingness to play endlessly with their own visual ideas. I love their dialogues and their internal quarrels, their restless argument, their liveliness. In short, I love their humanity. And while I understand that the intellect is a part of all this, my own belief is that to emphasize that aspect of them unduly is to risk freighting them with a seriousness of purpose, a sober veneer of rationality, that in some way betrays that very thing that gives them life.

One of the common -- and to my way of thinking unfortunate -- lessons taught in art school today is the primacy of concept. I say no. I say mind is prime. And mind is far more vast and far more powerful than any of the puny concepts that it generates, since it encompasses not just the intellect, but also body, heart, and soul -- not to mention everything beyond. Mind, to my mind, is infinite potential.

So there you have it, Joost. My thoughts. Forgive my having spent so much time talking about myself... and thank you for offering me the opportunity to do so. I wish you many years of still more wonderful work!

With respect, Peter

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