A Favorite Passage

Randall Jarrell describes a student art exhibit at a fictional women’s college (“Benson”):

The students had learned all the new ways to paint something (an old way, to them, was a way not to paint something) but thye had not had anything to paint. The paintings were paintings of nothing at all. It did not seem possible to you that so many things could have happened to a piece of canvas in vain. You looked at a painting and thought, “It’s an imitation Arshile Gorky; it’s casein and aluminum paint on canvasboard, has been scratched all over with a razor blade, and then was glazed–or scumbled, perhaps–with several transparent oil washes.” And when you had said this there was no more for you to say. If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: it would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art. By the time a Benton artist got through exploiting the possibilities of her medium, it was too dark to do anything else that day; and most of the students never learned that there was anything else to do.

(Pictures from an Institution, Chapter 6, “Art Night”, section 2)

I was reminded of this by A. C. Douglas’ comments (here and here) on a contemporary composer’s desciption of how he composes his works. He may be a bit unfair to the composer, who does imply that he has to have an idea before he can tinker with it.

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