Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lionel Dobie's Artistic Admonition

"Why do photography?" Or, more generally, "Why do art?" This seemingly "obvious" question is anything but obvious; it is also infinitely far from "simple." Indeed, I would hope that most artists never consciously ask it (of themselves); and never use words alone if forced to answer it by others. For (quickly jumping to the conclusion of this short entry) their life's work is by itself a never-ending, silent but engaged, "answer" to (what ought to be an) unspoken question best left to others - those other than the artist - to ask. What can any artist (apart, from - maybe - one whose art is oratory) possibly say in answer to such a question?

I was reminded of its unintentional absurdity while watching an old (~ 20 yo) film called New York Stories. Or more precisely, while watching the first of three "shorts" that comprise this film called Life Lessons, and starring Nick Nolte (as abstract artist Lionel Dobie) and Rosanna Arquette (as aspiring artist Paulette). Paulette is Lionel's former lover, but moves in with Lionel in the hopes of learning art from him. The movie mostly explores how Lionel's creativity is coupled with the fits of jealousy he suffers through while Paulette dates other men. Paulette eventually leaves, but not before Lionel has gone through enough jealousy to fuel the completion of the art he needs to open a new exhibit. As the movie ends, another aspiring female artist moves in and we are left with the strong impression that this "new relationship - broken relationship - jealousy - creativity" cycle is the meta-pattern that defines Lionel's world and life.

All of which is, for my purposes here, utterly irrelevant and inconsequential (though is a fair summary of the short film for those who have not seen it; it is certainly entertaining enough to watch and enjoy). To me, the one shining moment in the film happens near the end, right before Paulette leaves for good. We are in Lionel's loft studio (where most all of the film takes place), with Lionel listening to some loud music and painting like a madman - very much in the "Zone." The canvas is huge (it looks like to be at least twenty feet on the side), paint is being splattered everywhere, and Lionel is - as any artist can confirm while painting / creating - oblivious to everything around him except his inner state. In walks Paulette, who has been patiently waiting - yearning, begging - for some advice from Lionel, but has yet to receive anything of value. Heck, she is not even sure if she any good as an artist, much less what to do about it. So she confronts him. Then and there.

"Am I any good?" she asks. Lionel's reaction is the best self-contained "answer" to that question I have seen; certainly on film, possibly ever, in any context, and serves as a thought-provoking - even soul-searching - admonition to all artists, aspiring and accomplished alike. (I may have forgotten the exact details of what happens next, but...) Lionel throws down his brushes with an Eastwood-like "Dirty Harry" fury - veins at his temples flaring and throbbing - phlegm unashamedly spewing - frothing - out his mouth as he screams, "Good?!? What the f*** difference does it make whether you're good or not?!? You paint because you need to!"

What a beautifully transcendent moment. They are "merely" actors, and Nolte is not "really" an artist (or is an artist of a different kind, stage-playing an artist). That does not matter. Though I prefer answering questions - even this one - in a slightly more civilized manner than Nolte's character, I confess that I cannot imagine a better, more perfect, response. It summarizes exactly my own sentiments.

Why do I do photography? Is it because I like taking pictures with a camera; reveling in the tactile feel of cold magnesium and pushing buttons? Because I'm shy in public and prefer to hide myself behind a box with lenses? Because I'm really a conventional artist at heart but know I have no talent for drawing or painting and so must make do with an "easier" art? Because I'm a narcissist who thrives on hanging my work in public? Because I yearn for attention and recognition from my artistic peers? Because I am in a perpetual search for the "perfect picture"? Because I'm trying to find a way to express my "artistic vision"? None of these are true, in the purest sense (though some may contain hints of banal, and fundamentally meaningless, truths).

I do photography because it is who I am. As surely as my laughing at Monty-Python; my relishing my wife's cooking; my joy at playing with my sons; my absorption with physics equations and computer code; my night-time ritual of re-reading, for the umpteenth time, some story by Borges; or my fascination with abstract art - none of which I can explain the "reason" for that adds anything to the simple fact that they are all things I happen to love to do, so too I can say the same about my photography. All of these things are their own reason and explanation. Life and work and play and joy and love and ... everything else that makes up my life and gives it meaning, is a self-contained, self-referential soup of nested cause and effect, and experience. And they are all, ultimately and collectively, the only meaningful expressions of who I really am. I do photography because it is who I am. And when I stop, I cease to be. Until I start again...

"All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness."


Anonymous said...


Thoughtful, thought-provoking, and I'm always interested in how you approach the 'why' issue in photography. Seldom asked in popular circles, or on the web, it's the central question. Appreciate your perspective on this question.


Tacoma Family Photographer said...

Quite interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing.

Moon said...

As a software engineer, I continue to spin through your clause: "self-contained, self-referential soup of nested cause and effect". In technical terms, I am thinking "blackboard pattern of a set of production rules". In other terms, I am sensing "darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding" (Tao Te Ching again)

rothberg said...

Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Are you having a beer?" Descartes says, "I think not," and ceases to exist.

Miserere said...


I asked this question a while ago (Why Do You Take Photographs?), and judging from the number of responses, most people don't really want to know; they're just happy shooting away. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But I still think it's a valid and (very) important question, and you've addressed it bravely. As for Lionel's thoughts on it, I do think he has a point: A true artist rarely cares whether he's good enough or not because s/he doesn't create Art in order to be good, but because s/he cannot imagine Life any other way.

clipping path said...

Really informative and interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

zdjęcia ślubne said...

Great stuff! Man, you're my God! Nice photos on your blog.

trace said...

I remember that film. I'm also reminded of one of my favorite films, "Lust for Life", with Kirk Douglas as Vincent VanGoh. I loved the portrayal of Gauguin by Anthony Quinn.

One memorable scene between the two artists takes place in VanGoh's Yellow House in Arles. At one point in a heated exchange, Gauguin says "All I see when I look at your paintings, with your writhing trees, and your paint spattered thick across the canvas is that you paint too fast!" to which VanGoh sreams "YOU LOOK TOO FAST!"

Even between artists and ages, this question is universal. I think "Lust for Life" is the epitome of Lionel Dobie's "Barbaric Yawp"!