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January 18, 2008

Subject Matter in Art - Part Two

In an earlier post, I wrote about Subject Matter in Art, and I want to add more on the subject here.

I recently came across a quote by poet Ted Hughes that seems to me is as applicable to any of the other arts as to writing. It's about subject matter. Here's what he said:

"You write interestingly only about the things that genuinely interest you. This is an infallible rule .. in writing, you have to be able to distinguish between those things about which you are merely curious – things you heard about last week or read about yesterday - and things which are a deep part of your life … So you say, ‘What part of my life would I die to be separated from?" – Ted Hughes (Edward James Hughes), English poet (1930-1998) in Poetry in the Making.

Keeping this in mind should certainly help narrow down the choices of subject matter we would do best to concentrate on, which would include the things we feel deeply about, think about often, and understand (or "know") better than what might have currently caught our imagination but might not be, at least until we've gone into it in depth and have truly been transformed by it -and are still fascinated by it - our cup of tea.

Besides making it more likely that we will produce a more creative and meaningful (to us and to others) work of art, being genuinely and "for the long haul" enthralled with the subject means we'll probably have the energy, determination, patience, and stamina to actually move forward with our art. If, on the other hand, our interest is not deep, we will only be nibbling around the edges of something that can neither hold our attention nor inspire us, and obviously this will lead to some pretty pathetic output. Neither we nor anyone else will really think what we're doing is up to much, because it won't be.

I had an experience myself recently (not the only one I've had like this) in which I came to realize that the reason I wasn't really putting myself into a drawing I was working on, and in fact was wondering if I'd ever "get right," was that it wasn't "my" subject. It's a picture (which I was doing from a photograph) of an old two-story wooden house that looks like it was probably built in the 19th century. It's in a neighborhood that obviously has changed, yet this house (a corner house) and yard has been left intact, and with tall old trees casting shadows on it, and I could imagine -- for a few forced seconds -- how the scene looked 150 years ago or so. Looking at the photograph, sent to me by a friend who took it not far from his own home, brings back "old times" - I see a neighborhood with sidewalks and tall trees lining the streets and think of life going by at a slower pace, and so on, yet I can't help but see the little changes and realize there is probably a Wal-Mart with a big parking lot just down the block now -- In other words, there's sadness along with the pleasant thoughts because it makes me aware that there is no going back, and that this house is fragile and will probably not be there for long. The emotions this scene brings up in me gave me the false impression that this subject was quite meaningful to me and would be a good thing for me to draw. The fact is, though, that it is someone else's subject and I really don't know or care that much about that particular house, even though I find it interesting and know I would like to see a drawing or painting of the same subject by someone who knows the subject and also can do this kind of thing very well.

If I were really good at depicting old wooden houses and thought I could do the job well, I believe that my best approach to the above-mentioned scene would be to emphasize and even exaggerate things that suggest what I myself do feel most strongly about and often think about when observing such a scene, which things include how everything in the universe is constantly and inexorably changing, insuring that old things, no matter how precious they seem (at least in retrospect) all eventually go and in fact are never one day what they were the day before, and are in the end replaced completely, and so on and on forever. All things, all the time, change - they just do, and there's no stopping it. Now that means something to me that I can hang a hat on, and feel passionate about, and would give me the energy to make something unique and more likely worth the effort. But still, I'm not skilled at drawing old houses of this type and there are other things that I would rather draw and that I would draw better, and so I'd be better able to express my thoughts and feelings and ideas and so on via other subject matter.

I'm going to add a quotation to this post that I forgot to add to the first one I wrote on Subject Matter in Art:

"'What shall I paint?' - the answer is a pretty obvious one, 'Paint what you are, paint what you believe, paint what you feel.' But to go a little deeper, such a question seems to indicate an absence of opinion, or perhaps it indicates a belief, not an uncommon one, that painting ought to be this or ought to be that, that there is some preferred list of appropriate subjects. Again I think that many young people if they were asked 'What do you believe, or hold most dear?' would reply honestly, 'I do not know.' And so we again go back to our first outline for an education: 'In college or out of college, read, and form opinions.'" -- Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Lithuanian-born American artist, in The Shape of Content.

Subject Matter in Art - Part I
Subject Matter in Art - Part III


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