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Friday, November 02, 2012


Thanks to Rebecca B. for posting this quote from Andrei Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time / Запечатлённое время on my facebook wall:
Modern art has taken the wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for his own sake. What purports to be art begins to looks like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalised action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self-will. But in an artistic creation the personality does not assert itself it serves another, higher and communal idea. The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.
I especially love and believe this: The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. That thought is a very un20th-, un-21st-century idea, but it feels true to my own feelings and beliefs about art. And yet, the act of making a lyric poem, say, is a stirring joy in itself, and so the initial gift is repaid by wielding the gift, which in turn creates more gifts that at their best feel in-flooded rather than, as it sometimes seems with lesser works, spun from navel lint.

Another thing that is barely suggested in that Tarkovsky sentence is the idea of the artist and humility. That is, the artist's proper stance before the monuments of art from time past should be one of humility. 

And now I want to read that book...


  1. Tarkovsky is quite a fellow. I love his film Solaris. The remake couldn't come close, despite its far superior technology.
    Is the book translated? Cool cyrillic font!

  2. Published by the University of Texas!

  3. Me too. I want to read it too.

    Humility should be the default mode before the great works, though for a great many practitioners it more often seems to be 'What can I steal from this and then claim for my own?'

  4. @Clive: There's stealing, and then there's making new...

    Marly, I think the most needed part of the quotation concerns the relationship between sacrifice and affirmation of the self.

    'Stirring joy' is unfortunately not my experience of writing - rather, frustration, persistence, frustration, frustration...

  5. Lee,

    Luck has it that there are many sorts of writers...

    And I think the whole quote is intriguing and prescient. I imagine that different people will find different parts of it especially meaningful.

  6. P. S. Clive knows the difference, but still feels that complaint...

  7. Clive, before I realized that it is in print at University of Texas, I saw ten new copies in the UK at Yes, it looks like a good read for an artist, whatever the discipline. It was in the first few listings when I searched on name/title.

  8. If I ever get any money to buy books, it will go on my list. Maybe I'll check the U library too.

  9. Marly, regarding Clive: I don't quite understand. Has he been subject to plagiarism? Or accused of it?

  10. Robbi,

    I feel sure the UC-Irvine library would have it--or would order it!

  11. Lee,

    I'm sure he meant it as a critique of tendencies in the visual arts, but I really can't speak for him.

  12. I see, Marly. I thought you were referring to something specific by 'still feels that complaint'. My misreading, sorry!

  13. No problem--if he shows up again, he may answer you himself...

  14. Hello Lee

    In matters of art things can be complicated. An artist may be making an 'homage', or trying to carry a borrowed idea a little further. I think as a painter I'm a tad too eccentric and elusive to be seriously plagiarised, plus probably too well known for any up-and-coming artist to risk an outright steal. However, in my comment here I was thinking of one contemporary and well-known artist in particular, who has long been taking the ideas of others, lesser known than him, and presenting them as his own work. It's common knowledge, it's openly discussed, and there has been one court case I know of that found against him and for the plagiarised artist.

    We live in times where the internet has opened up the world. 'Borrowing' does occur and will continue to do so. Sometimes it results in new and exciting works that justify the means because they arrive at new conclusions. But there are undoubtedly occasions where the successful prey on the unknown for ideas, and that can be corrosive and crippling to a fledgling career.

    I have a friend who is a brilliant painter, though relatively unknown. A gallery owner contacted her and praised some quite startling work of hers that he'd seen online. He made enquiries about it, though nothing came of them. Some time later she called by his gallery out of friendliness and curiosity, only to see a row of paintings done by him ranged across a wall. Absolute ringers for the work of hers he'd praised. Same subject matter, same compositional devices, same 'style'. She felt crushed. That's not 'homage'. That's theft. I haven't suffered from it, but clearly some do.

  15. Clive, thank you for such a long and thoughtful response. It's clearly a difficult problem to get a handle on, with some clearcut extremes yet many other instances where it's not quite so easy to decide. What constitutes 'new conclusions', for example? And is the new i.e. originality truly the only basis for a moral judgement? After all, there was a time when originality was not the point of art-making - and in fact, in some cultures still isn't.

    That said, if someone copied an entire piece of mine and passed it off as his own (unlikely!), I suppose I'd be furious (though not crushed), depending upon the circumstances. But a passage here or there? Hard to know. I've certainly copied the style of another, much better writer - and very well-known - in some places in my novels, quite deliberately and without attribution - not just as homage, though definitely that, but as way to establish thematic resonance. (If you're curious what I mean, have a look at the churchyard scene in Chapter 39 of Corvus.)

  16. Lee, I've occasionally been in thrall, for a while (like a a crush, or even a brief love affair) to another artist. My large Mari Lwyd work was made when I was obsessed with Picasso's Guernica, though I'm pretty certain no-one would consider that any theft took place.

    Picasso himself was an arch 'borrower', and turned his eye to many works of art to start afresh on them. His riff on Les Meninas is a good example, the masterpiece of the old master... Velasquez... being reinvented by the great modernist. But I'm not referring to that, or to forgery, which in a way seems a more 'honest' notion, because at least the forger has to be an admirably fine craftsman to get away with the deceit. No, I'm referring to theft, where a work or idea is essentially copied (stolen) by an artist with the intention of passing it off as original work. Not an affectionate tribute, a variation on a theme, an homage or a passing of the baton, but a theft.

    It seems odd to be making a stand for 'degrees' of honesty here... not being offended by forgery, yet being outraged by a celebrated contemporary artist who has throughout his career serially lifted the ideas of better, lesser known practitioners, and presented them as his own. I suppose what upsets me about the latter is the atavistic fear of predators who steal life, soul, identity... call it what you will... because they can. Honesty, it seems, is subjective. They say that thieves who get away with the crime commonly convince themselves they occupy the moral high ground. It's the other person's fault, because they were not vigilant, or they held their ownership lightly, or they were weak or didn't deserve to own the good things they had. The Nazis despised the Jews and all they stood for, yet were envious of the great private collections of artworks in Jewish hands, and stole them when they could. It's that thuggery that appals me, however it manifests itself.

    I'll head for Corvus, as suggested. A churchyard scene, you say. Might I anticipate the ghosts of Magwitch and Pip?



Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.