Friday, October 31, 2008

The Shelf-life of One's Creative Center

Ken Johnson pens a wonderful review in today's New York Times of Rembrandt-contemporary Jan Lievens (whose work is featured in an exhibition at The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC). As precocious early on as he is all-but forgotten today, Lievens' life paralleled Rembrandt's:
Early in their careers the two painters worked closely together. They had the same teacher, Pieter Lastman; they painted each other’s portraits; they explored similar subjects; and they influenced each other’s styles. Over the years many of Lievens’s paintings were misattributed to Rembrandt.
Indeed, Rembrandt bought and hung one of Leiven's paintings in his home. This one, I believe:

[image remove]

According to Johnson's review, though, this one was about as good as Leiven seemed to get. Having created the remarkably accomplished piece here (given his total of 15 years on earth):

he seemed to sputter and spin rather than live up to such promise. Johnson notes:
As he matured, however, Lievens did not sustain a clear path of development. Instead he pursued a variety of styles and genres. He painted many tronies — quasi portraits of stock characters — which were popular at the time. He was good at portraying old, bearded men with soulful eyes, and a profile of a young girl is striking for her glowing blond hair.
Ken notes that despite how catchy some of the pieces are, simply by walking down the hall at the museum to their Rembrandt rooms, you'll see the difference in accomplishment:
[Y]ou will see how much painterly vivacity and psychological complexity is missing from Lievens’s works. His self-flattering self-portrait from the early 1650s turns to fluff when compared with Rembrandt’s miraculous, eerily lifelike self-portrait from 1659 in the museum’s collection.
So, the big question becomes...what happened and what can other artists learn from this story? Why did Rembrandt age well like a good wine, while Lievens seemed to have squandered raw talent? Ken throws out a few possible explanations:
Did premature success throw off his development? Did he diversify too much? Was his peripatetic life a distraction? He lived in London for three years in the 1630s and in several different cities in the Netherlands after that, and he was always in financial distress.

Maybe he had a personality disorder; one of his patrons noted in a letter that he had “so high a conceit of himself that he thinks there is none to be compared with him in all Germany, Holland, nor the rest of the 17 provinces.”
When I started reading the article, my first thought was that maybe Lievens was simply unlucky, timing wise, in the way that Salieri was unlucky to have lived in Vienna at the same time as Mozart. Indeed, listen to a piece Salieri composed today and it will strike you that had the Viennese not had his simply sublime contemporary to compare with him, he might have been heralded as the greatest composer of his age. (Which raises another question about whether that's enough to secure a significant place in history or whether we graviate toward the timeless greats and eventually ignore those only great compared with their contemporaries...another thread perhaps.)

Lievens, though, apparently was no Salieri. Taking Ken's word for it (because I haven't seen the exhibition), something seems to have never quite happened for Jan:
Whatever might have been wrong, ultimately the problem is not that Lievens was not as good as Rembrandt. It’s that after his meteoric start, he seems to have lost touch with his own creative center.
But that brings me to another question (one for this thread): is an artist's creative center something that we expect to last and stay in touch with, or can it burn bright and then fade, never to be regained at such an intensity again? If it's meant to last a life time, then, that would suggest every artist should get better with age, which doesn't seem to be the case in any field. That, then, suggests that creative centers might have a shelf-life.

Which leads me to wonder what can be done to prolong that shelf-life, which leads me to the notion of finding a muse, which leads me to wonder if what I've always assumed might be just an excuse among perverted older artists to dote on beautiful young people isn't in fact a very natural means of extending one's creative center, making it somewhat less unsavory. Of course, a muse need not be jailbait. A muse need not be a person at all. Perhaps Picasso et al. can still be considered dirty old men for not looking deeper for a muse less likely to bring them into conflict with customary statutes or at least morals. But I digress...

What (I'm asking you artists mostly) else can be done to sustain one's creative center?

Labels: art criticism, artists careers


Blogger Critter said...

Well I guess there's always blogging.

10/31/2008 09:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“...Did he diversify too much? Was his peripatetic life a distraction?” questions I ask myself.

If your muse were the sea, a masterpiece would be like a perfect storm, it can only occur when you put yourself out to there, vulnerable yet knowledgeable and staying the course. Yes it can happen everytime you sail, or not.

10/31/2008 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

I think that artists go through periods where life can intrude and/or eclipse focus, and it is our job to keep intrusions at bay, or at least remember how to get back to center.

Artists can also get "lost" in a (wrong) direction of their own work for various reasons (usually outside influences): at this point, some recognize that they have veered off-track and find their way back, while others either continue on the wrong track, or flail and grasp desperately at other courses, ultimately sinking themselves into the quicksand.

10/31/2008 11:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Jane said...

We can only try and find this (wrong) direction

10/31/2008 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

You keep your creative center by staying young; you stay young by constantly exploring, engaging, and expanding your interests. If you never expose yourself to anything new, your creative source becomes stagnant and repetitive.

They say that most great mathemeticians burn out by the time they're 40, but if a mathemetician switches to physics, he's capable of bringing fresh insight to it, because he hasn't developed habits of thinking in the new field.

I don't think it's so much about 'keeping intrusions at bay,' so much as having enough self-awareness to use every bit of input to feed our creative selves, rather than squashing them.

10/31/2008 01:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

its a sore point this desire for flight. there are those who live in a city that is not their muse. that's when it all starts: the need to escape the unloved city, the abhorred place. and its killing. sure the peripatetics are intrepid heroes after their own ideas, jealous of their own time, refusing conventions that demand they compromise and stay put. yes, yes -but here too are those overly given to day dreams and unfocused yearnings. to the killing of time through unreasonable desires. and mainly, for death. the final flight. i know. i am there, have been there, is lost in there. de quincey has been there. bessie head was there but couldnt run. these are my soul intimates.

it's another sore point this diversify stuff, this multiple talent thing. so you started with drawing and poetry, but you also wrote prose and painted and then there's your irrepressible penchant to distort things through performance device. i know: i am there.

but i have a muse: myself.

i am a woman afterall.



10/31/2008 02:53:00 PM  
Anonymous KAT said...

We are the artificial beings among all others, our bodies are artifacts by nature

10/31/2008 07:35:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Holland Cotter in Friday's NY Times said about Joan Miró,
"Who, in 1930, would have bought such daft things? Nobody, and the pictures went into storage. We can appreciate them now because they look so new and because we can see what Miró was up to. In these giant doodles, Kandinsky’s music-of-the-spheres abstraction takes a hit and falls to Earth."

Rethink the concept of "career" The muse isn't money. The muse isn't the market. The market wants to put the artist in a well defined stylistic box and keep them there because it's easier to sell.

I've noticed that there is a fertile-fallow cycle which usually occurs over an artists lifetime. While these periods may vary in length, about ten years is a decent span for a particular "period" of an artists work. After ten years or working from any philosophical, intellectual or aesthetic position the path of creation has spiraled down to a point of repetitive self similarity. Some artists lack the ability to break out of this loop in order to regenerate the initial intensity found at the beginning.

In any lifetime, shit happens. Reality sets in and artists discover they don't have the initial ambition they once had. They discover they have to face the reality of their own limitations and the limitations imposed upon them from the outside. The naivety of youth is tempered by circumstance.

In order to "prolong that shelf-life", as Ed says, an artist does need to reconnect with that elusive muse which allows for self exploration, failure, and change. The path is not a straight line.

When all else fails, jailbait works.

10/31/2008 09:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

My muse's not helping because it saying to me "Why would you waste your time doing art, Cedric, instead of spending more time with me. Life is short, Cedric?!"


Cedric Caspesyan

11/01/2008 03:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Poetic Pier said...


11/01/2008 05:51:00 AM  
Blogger Judith Schaechter said...

Lots of things can go wrong with creativity but also there's an eye of the beholder problem. The trajectory an artist takes may not be one a fan follows to the end. (I like early Bowie, not later--but that's my problem not his)

Mathemetics is a young person's game for neurological reasons, right? Havn't they studied the phenomenon of prodigy and proven some physical reason that its short lived?
Artists aren't known to have this--or if they do its not so dramatic and acute.
There's no reason to assume inspiration, creativity will feel or look the same as one ages not to mention, one's values change...thank gawd we don't stay the same.....!

Also, discovery becomes much harder as more territory is covered...sometimes this initiates a search for refinement within the old path or sometimes a search for a new thing--nothing's wrong with either approach, I would think. Just keep your eyeballs and mind open and evaluate what you make...

Stagnation is to be avoided...what Pretty Lady says!

I like the idea of "muse"--it keeps things close to the heart and keeps vulnerable hearts less assailable by outside influence. A muse is a form of love, and yeah maybe lust--so what???? As long as its passionate!

11/01/2008 06:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An article appeared in The New Yorker several weeks ago. It discusses the differences in personality types between those who reach their creative peaks early in life vs those "late bloomers" who develop their artistic investigations over the span of their lives. Here's the url (I don't know how to make it a link)

11/01/2008 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger Hans said...

Maybe it's good to do only a few masterpieces, like ...12 to 14... and then take for diversity, risk and discovery, instead of repeat the stuff over years. There are Rembrandt's not that great, there are other Lievens'. The "failed" artists give me often more than the "stars". There are out amazing long -dead artists to be discovered, it needs just a slightly different point of view.
I agree fully with George's comment above. Best regards, Hans, interesting topic !

11/01/2008 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger * said...

The idea of the muse is like the idea of god-- it can come in handy for scaffolding emotions and seeing things subjectively. But since it's just an illusion or at best a metaphor, using it to generalize about what artists do can get tricky. (If I believed in a magical form of a muse, I'd probably be risking pissing it off by saying that-- but would still know that trying to pin it down would be a mistake!) An artist making a certain thing at a certain time is the result of a confluence of so many things-- a good idea (a rare thing), desire, energy, means, exposure to the right things, perseverance, the right and receptive context..kind of unromantic, but truer, I think. Many of my favorites are late bloomers (Alfred Jensen comes to mind). Artists find good ideas if they can, and do something with them if they can using whatever works for them-- hanging around younger people among other things, I guess.

11/02/2008 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger jeff f said...

Rembrandt was a superior talent in my view just for the very reason.

He developed and grew as a painter.

Look at the self portraits he did at age 53 compared to the ones he did at age 23.

Jan Lievens in my opinion was not as good a painter as Rembrandt when you look at the body of work. He did not think about painting in the same way that Rembrandt did.
Rembrandt seemed to always be searching and improving and working.

Hence his missteps in his career.

11/03/2008 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He did not think about painting in the same way that Rembrandt did.

questions regarding the image and its presentation are now quite different from when rembrandt painted.

now, right now, "searching and improving and working" happens in a variety of medium (and often with astounding if not dizzying) simultaneity.


(came for the american politics opinions, stayed (but only so) for the art)

11/04/2008 09:14:00 PM  

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