Telling the Laity of Our Love: Current Engagements in the Literacy of Art

Telling the Laity of Our Love: Current Engagements in the Literacy of Art

An Autobiography of Ideas

by Robert Enright

Anyone familiar with 17th century poetry will notice from the get-go that I have appropriated the title of my talk tonight from a justly celebrated poem by John Donne, the one-time wild man turned man of god, whose life and poetry traced a journey from the profane to the divine. Donne was a Metaphysical Poet and what continues to attract me to that style, is its combination of the ingenious and the physical. For Donne and George Herbert and Andrew Marvell, ideas were visceral things; they grabbed your physical being as much as they engaged your intellect. The Metaphysical poets were enamoured of wit and any poem worth its salt had at its centre a conceit, an unexpected and singular metaphor that could establish an intercourse between disparate and distant notions.

The Donne poem I’ve borrowed from is called A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, and it contains one of the most famous conceits in the Metaphysical canon. It is a love poem in which Donne, who was about to go to France for two months, addresses his wife, Anne. (Incidentally, Anne Moore married Donne in 1601, had 12 children with him in 16 years of marriage, and died in childbirth in 1617. The Valediction was written in 1611). The poem sets about to sustain a connection to her, not just through memory, but through the points of a compass. The poet refers to “dull sublunary lovers” who cannot “admit of absence”, and then characterizes the special kind of love they have:

You might have noticed, if your ear is tuned that way, a line in the third last quatrain that intimates the presence of an earlier, frisky John Donne. “When the other far doth roam,/ It leans, and hearkens after it/ And grows erect, as that comes home.” This quietly priapic poet was capable of setting in motion a conceit that was considerably more bawdy than the encompassing love so elegantly expressed in the Valediction. In the opening stanza of The Flea, published posthumously in 1633, the ingenuity that is the trademark of Metaphysical poetics, uses a small irritating insect to effect a more substantial purchase on the desired woman’s body:

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is,

It suck’d me first and now sucks thee

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Thou know’st that this cannot be said,

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

Yet this enjoys before it woo,

And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two,

And this, alas! is more than we would do. 

You may well be wondering what is the point of this philandering in the 17th century, and I will get to that. It has to do with audiences; with what the art we make does; and with what we want it to do. In the beginning of A Valediction, Donne advises his wife that while he is going away for an extended period of time, they should be circumspect in their display of emotions:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;

‘Twere profanation of our joys

To tell the laity of our love.

(Interestingly, I just re-read Elizabeth Smart’s unmatched rhapsodic novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, in which she describes the world’s antagonism to lovers as, “the hatred of the mediocre for all miracles”. You can see why Donne, three centuries earlier, and in another country, would want to keep his love cloistered). So I’m raising the question of what we tell the public – the laity – about what the arts are, why they are critical, what is their value, and why we love them.

In this last sentence I want to draw your attention to a pair of words I used (should I say, a pair of words I employed; or if my mood were to turn combative, would I say the pair of words I deployed)? I’ve suggested that the arts are critical, and if you took the meaning of the word to be “necessary”, then you were right. But I also mean to utilize its contrary sense; that the arts can be critical of the social and political values which surround them. The arts are critical of values, and the arts have value.

The subtitle of this talk is, “current engagements in the literacy of art” and you can see where I’m going. Currency is a measure of contemporaneity, currency is electric; engagements are social relationships, to be engaged is to be involved and excited; being engaged is the emblem of love’s beginning; literacy is being able to read. This kind of play with language is an approach that I was taught as an undergraduate at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. It was a method that came out of the University of Chicago, and its champions were John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allan Tate and William K. Wimsatt. Called the New Criticism, its currency was its focus on an extremely close literary analysis of the words the writer chose. Line by line, word by word. Ransom saw the poem as an aesthetic object that was best understood independent of the distractions of autobiography, psychology or even history. It was simply an arrangement of words that must be read in the terms it set for its own existence. This explication de texte was especially useful in reading poetry. You can see my equivalent attempts to tease multiple, and sometimes resistant, meanings out of the words the conference organizers chose as points of discussion. This is a New Critical strategy. (I have to additionally acknowledge the huge effect of Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930, a book written by William Empson when he was 22 years old. Understanding layers of ambiguity and the irony that often accompanies them, have served me well in the cultural trenches over the last 35 years.

All these discoveries were going on while I was in the Honours English program and I have to admit that I am embarrassed at how much I still use from the splendid education I received from a cluster of professors to whom I remain indebted. Ron Marken, Peter Millard, Terrence Heath, R.E. Rashley, and Don Kerr, set me on a journey into language, which is more engaging than ever. They were Prospero’s, every one of them; I was their Caliban, and they taught me how to curse; they taught me how to curse lyrically. I swear, it’s the gods’ own truth. I always admired the title of a book of prose poems that Terry Heath published in 1972 with the House of Anansi in Toronto. It was called, The Truth and Other Stories.

It was a wonderful surprise to read the “Conference Notes” and to see that Don Kerr, Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate, would be reading in advance of my address. Professor Kerr’s seminar in 20th century British drama was a revelation to me, and the first I knew of Joan Littlewood, John Arden, Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, and Tom Stoppard. He also taught me about the structure and utility of melodrama, and I remember fondly Black-Eyed Susan, a three-act nautical comedy written in 1829 by Douglass Jerrold. I will be getting to the comforts of melodrama in a bit, but for a moment I want to return to the subject of love. (Before leaving behind the subject of Don Kerr, though, I should add that for the last decade or so, and maybe longer, he has been poaching my territory as a writer on the visual arts. But I am prepared to forgive these minor border crossings, as long as he continues to write poems that are about painting. Ut pictura poesis, Don.     “As is painting, so is poetry”, and as a prairie poet, I don’t expect your Horace to be a four-legged, herbivorous animal.

But back to love. I entered university in 1967, the year of Expo, when the country was celebrating an orgy of culture-building and nation-defining. My aspirations were considerably less lofty. In the flatlands of Saskatchewan, in my own habitat, I just wanted to get laid. Losing my virginity, as it was so quaintly phrased, was my Centennial Project and I’m happy to report that I achieved it, as always just before the deadline, on the evening of December 31st, 1967.

I’m making light of it, putting on Mr. Donne’s profane tunic, but the fact is, I was madly and utterly in love. Nora was a living dream. A miracle, really. Already in her honour’s year in English, she was brilliant, sang folk songs with her sister, had hair down past her butt, and was regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Saskatoon. Her father was a distinguished Professor of Political Science, a commentator during elections for the C.B.C., and a winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour for a delightful collection called Mice in the Beer. Through Nora’s family, I entered a world that I didn’t know existed.

The world I did know, and the one I came from, I loved thoroughly. My father was a businessman and my mother stayed home and raised four children. Ours was not a cultured family, in the bookish way. To be sure, my father, who was a highly intelligent man and not unsophisticated, religiously read The National Enquirer and News of the World and as far as I can tell, I think he actually believed they were reporting news. I was astonished. One story in an issue of  News of the World has a certain currency in my memory because of the recent fuss over the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The headline read, “Titanic’s Captain Really a Woman Dressed as a Man”, and the gist of the story was that the world’s greatest marine tragedy occurred because a woman driver was behind the wheel, and could have been prevented, had she not been. At the time I thought it was bizarre that my father was reading this stuff; today it occurs to me that those tabloids were really a form of fiction and that Dad didn’t have to read novels, since he was already getting more than his share of absolute invention.

For the first two years of my undergraduate degree I had convinced myself that I was doing pre-law (I was taking political science and history courses) because I was going to become a lawyer and join Canada Life and work with my father. Of course, what was really happening is that I had met Nora, and her apartment, stacked with novels, mostly American ones, that I was reading voraciously, was actually setting the tone and direction of my education.

Our own story was one of love and passion. It had a salutary effect on my relationship with my mother. For reasons that were never entirely clear, I was reluctant to take out the garbage, but suddenly I was reformed, and could be counted on to trundle out the back door of our house on Lake Crescent no matter how inhospitable the weather, garbage in hand. What mother didn’t know was that I continued down the back lane and over to Nora’s apartment on Main Street, skipping classes, and spending the day and as much of the night as I could get away with, in bed with my lover, deeply sympathetic to Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry’s tragedy in A Farewell to Arms, and dreaming up our own version of a moveable feast. (We did go to live in Paris four years later, by the way, but that is an altogether different story). Nora and I didn’t bother to get engaged; instead we got married. The point I’m making is that those years in Saskatoon were formative and remained shaping for decades. Truth be told, they probably still are.

One of the things the prairies taught me was how to see. In one way, I learned to see so precisely because there was so little to see, or more accurately, what was available had to be found. Prairie-dwellers are close-lookers and I’ve always argued that we have a special sensitivity to variations of light and subtle tonal shifts. We are good on close value.

Once you actually see what it is you’re looking at, then you have to develop a language that makes sense of that perception. I’m talking here about a pictorial language rather more than a verbal one, although the need to ‘speak to place’ and to find a way of speaking commensurate with its scale and character is a literary problem as much as a visual one. Robert Kroetsch wrote about the prairie as a palimpsest that has to be continually re-inscribed because every year, without fail, the “white erasure of snow” covers our tracks, whether they’re habitual or cultural.

  It has always seemed perfectly sensible to me that Clement Greenberg’s formalism caught on in the prairies. Anyone who has lived here knows that there are days when the horizon disappears and what we are looking at when we look at the landscape is a space that has no conventional points of definition. (I think it is why one of the central visual devices used by prairie painters is the line of telephone poles that cuts vertically across the undifferentiated landscape and leads us back, in a clumsy way, to some far away location, a line uniformly flat and horizontal and running in the opposite direction). This is where the question of developing a language that responds to where you are becomes critical.

Let me use an obvious example. The most traditional way of rendering space is through perspective; this applied apparatus of creating the illusion of foreground, middle and background was the basis of pictorial representation from the Renaissance through to Cubism. But when an educated painter was depicting the prairie landscape he would make a mark the way he had been trained, then look out past his easel (if the wind hadn’t already blown it to Estevan), and see that the mark he had made on the surface didn’t correspond to what he was seeing. And this awkward perceptual and manual two-step continued until artists began to make marks that actually described the space they were seeing, rather than the space they had been trained to see. In the prairies, we have developed very fine landscape painters (Dorothy Knowles is a giant in this regard) because it was necessary. This territory is well known to Terry Fenton, curator, painter and the President of the Arts Alliance whose remarks opened the Congress this morning.   

It is worth noting in passing that the New Criticism was the verbal equivalent to Greenberg’s formalism, which also rejected any reading of painting that was not intrinsic to its two-dimensionality. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the acceptance of an aesthetic that was seen as foreign and that became entrenched at the famous Emma Lake Workshops, was without implications for the visual arts community in Saskatchewan. (Or the infamous Emma Lake Workshops: which of the two words you chose is a clear indication of your chosen side in the ground war being fought in Saskatchewan and Alberta). There was a battle raging in my own 16 year old body as well. My father had built a cottage on Carwin Park at Emma Lake, and my friends and I would excitedly channel through Little, Middle and Big Emma to get to the Art Camp with hopes of seeing the life model sun-tanning on the dock. She couldn’t have tan lines for the class and so she tanned naked. My first experience of art, then, at Emma Lake was an imagined carnality, the distant gaze of a young man, with the help of binoculars, from a speedboat, at the object of his desire. Many years later I would return to interview and write about a number of the artists who attended the workshops but our beginnings in a place are often quite different from our endings.

Let me return briefly to the structure of melodrama: the battle tents were eventually pitched in Regina and Saskatoon in a struggle between the Priests of the High Church of Modernism and the Clay City Ramblers. It was Clem and post-painterly abstraction versus Gilhooly and California ceramic funk. Stories are especially compelling when they have co-equal protagonists, and certainly figures like Robert Christie, Doug Bentham and Bill Perehudoff found their match in Joe Fafard, David Thauberger, and Russ Cicansky. In their aesthetic wrestling, they were all versions of Antaeus; they grew stronger when they touched the earth. There was undoubtedly politics involved but the real challenge for both camps was to come up with a workable language. What it finally reduced to was a charactered landscape, populated by figures, and an abstracted landscape. Both were reflecting characteristics that emerged from the ground up.

I recently gave a talk at the Art Gallery of Hamilton on William Kurelek. The large show of his work, called “The Messenger”, was organized by three Canadian public galleries; it opened in Winnipeg, is currently in Hamilton, and will travel to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Kurelek is a painter for whom I have little fondness, but he does make my point about how a visual language can respond to the contours of physical space at the same time that it can thoroughly engage an inherited painting tradition. Kurelek’s favourite painters, and the ones he felt closest to, were Bosch and Breugel. In Bosch he found an apocalyptic expression that corresponded to the Cold War period he lived in; in the more homespun Breugel, he discovered a way of celebrating the daily activities of the people who occupied that fraught space. What emerges in Kurelek’s art is an accommodation to place of the ideas borrowed from medieval painting and generated out of his fierce Roman Catholicism; in Dinnertime on the Prairies, an oil on masonite painting from 1963, he re-crucifies Christ on fence posts in a prairie field, and holds him to the cross with barbed wire that would normally contain the livestock. His prairie paintings are less likely to have big sky sunsets saturating the horizon line, than to envision huge mushroom clouds igniting the air, a nuclear Armageddon replacing the god-directed one that Bosch imagined. If it’s any consolation for the people in this room, Kurelek’s most dire depiction of the end of the world, in a painting called, This is the Nemesis (1965) happens not in Stonewall, Manitoba, but in Hamilton, which is totally destroyed and its population decimated, while on the darkened horizon, another nuclear cloud can be seen rising over Toronto.

I want to begin the final portion of this talk using this idea of The End of Things that Kurelek so dramatically reminds us of. I have to admit a certain reluctance to take a holiday organized by Club Eschatology. There is a tendency in critical thinking to identify points of termination: the death of the novel, of film, of modernism, the end of art history, and so it goes. I don’t want to join that club by talking about The End of Canadian Culture but I will say that I think we are at a crisis point. (I’m also taking a cue from the poem with which I began this talk: a valediction is a farewell and an opportunity to say something that matters; isn’t the focus of this congress “Engaging Matters”?) What happens in our culture over the next four years will be critical in determining the kind of culture we’ll have in the future and the nature of the art forms that will be its expression and its embodiment. We have a Federal government that is hostile to the arts and that is unabashedly political in the way it is instrumentalizing the mechanisms that fund culture. Of course, they are also applying more direct ways of changing Canadian culture, as the last round of punishing cuts to the C.B.C, the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada made evident. How the Canada Council escaped the purge is anyone’s guess; it’s partially a question of not being noticed. And the Prime Minister’s dislike of the C.B.C. – I’m being polite here – made it an obvious target. This is a mean-spirited, bully boy government without a cultural policy that has been clearly considered. So there is a kind of nasty capriciousness about how they’re operating at the moment. But I have no doubt that when they set their sights on arm’s-length agencies like the Canada Council, that they’ll find ways to do damage.

I want to give a quick example of how they are taking pre-existing funding structures and adjusting them to suit the version of culture they favour. Canadian magazines are funded in a number of ways and one of them is the Canadian Periodical Fund (the CPF). The purpose of the fund is to help Canadian magazines overcome the market disadvantages they experience, and here I’m quoting the government website, “to provide the financial support they need to produce and distribute high quality Canadian content for Canadian readers”. The fund was also designed to support small and mid-sized periodicals over large ones. You’ll notice in that mandate statement the implication that “high quality content” is an important measure of value, but what the website also announces is that farm periodicals and religious periodicals are now eligible for support. The programs that the CPF replaced and consolidated were the Publisher’s Assistance Program and the Canadian Magazine Fund, and those programs were supportive of a significant number of cultural magazines. Border Crossings was – and remains in diminishing ways – one of them. But the new dispensation is supporting a much more targeted kind of publication that represent a different sense of culture than we might find in this room. Two years ago one of the biggest recipient of CPF money was The Western Producer in Saskatoon; it was given $1,588,000; Border Crossings, a magazine that I think it is safe to say is regarded as one of the finest magazines in this country, and outside of it, was given $38,000. Our grant the year before $49,000 and the promise is, given the formula they are applying, that it will eventually bottom out at $3000. (Just as a matter of interest, The Catholic Register received half a million dollars, and more religious publications than literary magazines received funding in 2011 – 12. Canadian Heritage, the department that administers the grants, has warned that 50% of the magazines will receive what they are calling “significantly different” levels of support,   i.e., less money. There is also a cap of one and a half million dollars on the amount of available support for any publication. Farm publications are exempt from the cap). Now don’t get me wrong. I am a prairie boy at heart and by summer vocation, I picked rocks and pitched bails and the first literary magazine I ever worked with, as a reader, was Grain, when it was edited by Caroline Heath. It was prairie but it wasn’t farm. So I’m not against money going to The Western Producer; in quite another way I think of Border Crossings as also being a producer in the west. I just have a feeling that in the future we are going to see more of the money the CPF has at it’s disposal heading towards publications that have very little to do with cultural and artistic excellence and that have everything to do with readership. 

The rationale coming out of Heritage Canada is muddled; you can’t support small and mid-sized publications and also reward those with the largest circulation, whether paid or requested. But at its core it does address the idea of audience engagement. If I’m allowed a bit of binary thinking, let me suggest that there are two kinds of artists in the world: the Classical and the Romantic. Both have dimensions that are real; both have aspects that are mythical. The classical artist is one who sings the values of the culture that they find themselves in. I think of Homer and his epic narratives. This kind of artist sits at the centre of the culture and articulates and gives form to the way the citizens imagine themselves to be.

The Romantic artist is in distinction to his: he’s the outsider (it’s most common representation is the poet in the attic, although most assuredly Elizabeth Smart would fit into this category). This kind of artist doesn’t so much sing the cultural values, as attack them, and I remind you of the other application of the ‘critical’ role that the arts play in society. The current political climate doesn’t favour the artist as adversary, or as a burr in the pantleg of the nation as it takes its constitutional. (It is interesting to note that the beleagured C.B.C. television network, in its desperate attempt to appease the new power brokers, is infatuated with business and entrepreneurial shows which combine cutthroat business attitudes with the kind of reality show where someone is always getting tossed off the island. If I have to watch another program on which all I see is the snarling, self-satisfied scowl of Kevin O’Leary, I’m going to throw the television screen out the window. He is the embodiment of what Thomas Hobbes described in Leviathan (1651) as the natural state of mankind: nasty, brutish and short-tempered. For me, along with the idiotic braying of Don Cherry, he represents the failure of Canada’s public broadcaster to showcase our best minds and our best ideas. (There are certainly examples of venality in the private sector: the ambush of Margie Gillis by Krista Erickson on Fox News is a textbook example of a kind of dishonest journalism that is accepted as legitimate practice by some broadcasters. It was nothing short of disgraceful).

I think that the view of the artist in Canadian society will be an evolving one over the next few years and in this regard I was dismayed to see one of our most distinguished theatre companies bow to the possible pressure of politics. When Richard Rose, the Artistic Director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre decided to cancel the production of Proud, Michael Healey’s satire about a Prime Minister, because one of his Board members thought it might be actionable, we witnessed a very troubling moment in the history of Canadian theatre. (The play was read by a libel specialist at Healey’s request and he was assured that it was fair comment). The most insidious form of censorship is the kind we apply to ourselves, and while Rose has refused to comment on his reasons for turning down the play, the decision does raise the question of self-censorship. Sadly, it resulted in Healey’s resignation as Tarragon’s playwright-in-residence, a position he had held for 11 years, and damaged a two-decade long personal and professional relationship.  

The Tarragon fiasco is one of those events that has ties to the double-headed meaning of the word ‘currency’ in the title of this talk. It is both a measure of the contemporary relevance of the arts and of their economic value. There was some speculation in Rose’s decision that he and his Board saw the fate of Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival whose federal funding was cut after producing Homegrown, a play that the PMO said, “glorified terrorism.” The message that the PMO sends out is punitive and interventionist; it if doesn’t like what you do, it will find ways to make it difficult for you to do it. They do it on the back of the ubiquitous and insidious phrase, “the taxpayer’s money”. Everything is now susceptible to this non-specific catch-all. We have to alter Donne’s line to become, “Twere a profitalization of our joys/ To tell the laity of our love.” All cultural endeavours are now obliged to speak the language of the marketplace. Our justification is held within a pocketbook. I repeatedly marvel at the double standard that is used when the issue of public funding, the public trough, and taxpayer’s money are applied to business. Has any cultural organization ever, no beyond that, have the total number of financial debacles involving cultural organizations over the last 50 years, no let’s use a watershed year like the beginning of the Saskatchewan Arts Board in this province in 1948, have the total number of financial difficulties experienced by artistic organizations in the last 64 years even come close to the bailout of the automotive industry in the last few years? Has there ever been anywhere the lack of fiscal prudence involving an arts organization? These are, of course, rhetorical questions, and everyone in this room, knows the answer to them. A myth has developed that cultural organizations are bad financial managers and that they are constantly being fed too much, and too often, at the good old cultural trough. These days when the subject of reputation and fiscal management come up, I just utter the dreaded F-35 and conservatives run for their majority in the House of commons. But like all myths, the story of economic incompetence is generated out of a necessity see the world a certain way. It reflects the mythmaker more than the group it is ostensibly about.    

So finally I come to the question of literacy – the task and the gift of reading. In many ways, it is the most elusive of the words in my title, and it’s a problem that comes out of the condition that the arts find themselves in. We are living, as artists and citizens, in what has been called “The Post-Modern Moment. The moment is a protracted one and doesn’t seem to be moving along. So it is both an exciting and an exasperating time. Exciting because ideas can migrate where we want them to, and exasperating for exactly the same reason. Much of the time we don’t know how to read because we don’t know what we’re looking at. To go back to an earlier idea, we have no perspective because we have so many perspectives. When Samuel Johnson, the literary giant who had an age of literature named after him, was asked who were the greatest writers, he said they are the best, judged by the best minds, over the longest period of time. I wouldn’t disagree, but I also recognize that the luxury of time that Dr. Johnson speaks about is unavailable to us. As a critic, I try and cover the field of contemporary art, and it covers me. The challenge is to become a polyglot, to be as literate in as many of the languages of contemporary art making as I can. Then I fall back on what I know. To be literate is to base our capacity to read on previous readings, on the accumulation of meanings that a lifetime of looking at and writing about the arts can provide. We are where we are because of where we have been. How we employ what we know, how we work to engage audiences with that knowledge, those are the things that will make us be current, to sing our own bodies electric in the spaces that light us up.

I want to end by reading you the final section from an interview done with Robert Motherwell in 1989. Robert was one of the Abstract Expressionists, the generation of painters that changed modern art. He also became a friend and this interview reflects something of that trust.

Q. You’re not very comfortable under public scrutiny are you?

A. Well, my myth is a counter-myth and it’s an unappealing one. You know, banker’s son, WASP, Harvard educated, wealthy, private schools. But the anxiety of making something living and true never leaves a creative person and is basically so deep, so insatiable that after years of it – and again I say this partly jokingly – I can imagine a person very well saying to himself, “I’ve had it. I can’t face another ten years of wondering if what I’m doing even makes sense, let alone whether it’s any good.” The private life of a creative person is almost intolerable. It’s as difficult to make a painting now that satisfies me as it was the first year I painted. I have no virtuoso capacities at all. I was never schooled in technique. In one sense of the word, I work quite primitively, quite directly – as directly as a child. But there’s a compensation in not being a virtuoso. I can’t fake a picture, really. It either authentically comes out or it’s nothing and I just throw it away. So in that sense painting remains an eternal challenge to me. I think that partly keeps me going. But I would think probably in the end most people simply could not take this amount of anxiety over a lifetime. Who would want to live the life of Franz Kafka and become immortal. It’s too great a price. 

Q. That anxiety never really leaves, does it? Is there doubt about every canvas as it’s being done?

A.  Always, about the canvas itself and also about the audience. Because there’s no such thing as permanent history. There were even a couple of centuries where Rembrandt was regarded as a minor, uninteresting painter.

Q. You still look at a blank page or canvas with trepidation?

A. Absolutely. No more than everyday life is easier, or my relations with my wife or with a friend. At times everything goes haywire, at times everything is as smooth as honey. But there’s no way I can control any of it, except in social relations. I’m more peaceful than I used to be. But being peaceful is no help in painting, because painting is supposed to be the opposite, an act of passion.

Q. I want to end with a large question. Why does art matter to you?

A. The importance of it is to make one feel less mad, less alienated and less ill-at-ease in the universe. I mean if one hears an early Divertimento by Mozart, one immediately feels, “Yes, I’m sane, I understand what he’s talking about, there’s another person in the world whose feelings match my feelings. I’m not some isolated creature, wandering around in a foreign, uncomfortable, frightening, unreal universe.” Basically my interest is to communicate and to have a medium that’s as expressive in its complexity as a human being. It’s an inexhaustible problem, and also an inexhaustible interest. What could really be more interesting, or in the end more ecstatic, than in those rare moments when you see another person look at something you’ve made and realize that they got it exactly, that your heart jumped to their heart, with nothing in between.