Translated by Edward Dennis Goy and Jasna Levinger
THE ARTIST’S WORKSHOP
The artist is a master. As such he is often addressed. Such an address, linked as it is to the original status and skill of the creator, awakens yet another association which places artistic activity in the space of a particular work-shop. The studio is considered as the area in which the artist, removed from all the hubbub of life, constructs his works in majestic isolation. Such a view leads to the idea of the studio as a refuge, a secret hiding-place or pestilential den wherein the artist’s productive activity, craftsmanship, the skill of the alchemist and scandal come together. Each of these statements is arguable. The artist, on the other hand, takes a far simpler view of his studio, knowing, at the same time, that everything within it is far more complex.
The studio is the artist’s reality. Those who have gone through the hell of getting by in poverty-stricken circumstances know what this ‘reality’ means. In a social system in which every spiritual activity is completely devalued and deprived, the solution of the problem of a ‘working area’ does not fall into the essential preliminary conditions for the successful realisation of a creative act, but rather into the unrealisable material aim of an entire life’s effort. Artists have tried to turn such difficulties to advantage, romanticising the image of the artist-bohemian, whose genius could not be distracted by any external circumstance, a view which was willingly adopted by those who humiliated and exploited them, affirming that for any man of spirit poverty was the true stimulus without which the creative artist could not be what he is. The fairy-tale was created of art as a supernatural phenomenon and of the artist as an unnatural being. For these or other reasons, the artist was proclaimed as a being for whom the daily social needs and, especially, privileges were far removed. But, this very need for a studio, the lack of which may become a real nightmare, proves ‘the social dependence’ and ‘material nature’ of the artist’s position. The so-called ‘objective circumstances’ can never entirely prevent the realisation of a work, but they can flaw it. The disposal of an ‘adequate working space’ represents for the creative artist one of those conditions which make possible the range of his gift; although, naturally, the possession or the lack of a studio is not a sufficient condition for a work’s realisation, nor a satisfactory justification for its not being produced. The studio, before all else, has a functional and practical character: it is the place where the artist lives. But this has nothing in common with suburban living. The atelier (from the word astella, a plank) is a work-shop, true, in this case not the work-shop of a craftsman, but of a creative artist. In this space everything must be subordinated to the creation of a work of art. It has a northern light, lighting up the stretched canvas on which the painter will depict his torment, shedding light upon a fantastic arrangement of objects – all those easels, tables, curtains, screens, podia, rostra and strange items – whose apparent chaos serves the artistic order. The studio spreads a scent of disorder only to the uninitiated, for he fails to understand that this is a case of a special way of existence, just as he greets the artist’s absentmindedness with a sneer, not realising that the creator’s absence from ordinary life is a sign of a deeper concentration. Faced with this and other such lack of understanding, the artist shuts himself away within the walls of his studio; it is a refuge in which the artist can be alone with his challenges.
Everything the artist requires is in the studio: nature, models, props, friends and public…, the whole world is there; all unfolds before the artist, while he keeps track of visions and fingers apparitions. Secure from outside surroundings, but surrounded by benevolent ghosts, simultaneously regarding many possibilities of which each has an equal right to existence, but of which only one will exist, the artist feels that type of tension that presses upon one’s being faced with the challenge of an unknown, yet already intimate work. Now all will become experiment. The well-worn saying about the challenge of the first page and every first step in creativity (which, in any case, are far more a matter of hope than of uncertainty) I mention only in so far as that then the artist is faced by an emptiness into which he must breathe life. That void is only one side of the creative process – that of the material which the artist employs. Such a comment regarding material belongs more to the sphere of the viewer, for whom the technology and material of a work, in general, is of little interest, than to the sphere of the creator, for this latter, once feeling an affinity to a certain material and in that material a challenge, will never consider that material as being purely material. The artist does not use his material only as a means, but rather to recreate it. Therefore in encountering material the artist, in a different fashion, encounters himself, for now, figuratively speaking, the artist’s ‘material’ is the artist himself.
Being faced with his material in his work-shop is something every artist experiences in his own way – the writer at his desk faced by the blank sheet of paper, the violinist in the rehearsal hall faced with the maple-wood of his instrument, the actor, drastically, with his own body. In this encounter the decision is made. But, once it is made, the challenge remains. It remains, because the illusory peace of the artist is scattered by the whirlwind of doing; it remains, because the initial pain is overtaken by the joy of action; it remains, because the peace of realisation is once more shaken asunder by the inexhaustible being of creation. Neither is the first step the beginning, nor is the final step the end of the road: everything is forever in question. So, the artist always is confronted by the challenge of his work, as if for the first time. Only now do things become clear, only now as, trembling with excitement, he paces his studio, circling his own self, trying to discover his own pulse in the rhythm of the world, only now does he see and hear everything. Still he glances towards ‘his poplar-tree’, towards the outside which has become so intimate that he no longer is aware of it, still picks and rummages (‘Mehr Licht!’) about what is closest yet which ever escapes him, still vacillates since the intention still evades him: the idea will not enter the word, the vision will not take form… Only when the writer’s hero leads his author, when the role carries the actor, when the line masters the painter, only then is the work begun. From that moment on the artist is no longer master of his work, but his work is the master of its creator.
The work is born of the union of gift and of long perseverance. The artist retires to the privacy of his studio in order to devote himself in which every moment is significant, he retires in order, once again, to see everything from a distance, retires to be face to face with himself, to be his own mirror, a mirror from which trembles the unexpected image of himself. Freed of all restraints, of his crown of thorns and public mask, the artist, in his studio, becomes his own ally and his own opponent, becomes the one who is both built and destroyed while fathoming the secret of that which never will be fathomed. In the process of creation in which all is vulnerable (hence the fact that no author likes people to look at the sketches of that which has yet to be realised), the artist challenges both himself and the work which is his own other. It is then that everything in the studio takes on the maestro’s character, everything bears the mark of his creative existence. For this reason we need not be surprised at the thrill experienced by visitors to Goethe’s house or Delacroix’s studio on the Place Furstenberg who expect that the spirit of their erstwhile owner will once again arise from the preserved order of objects, as though hoping that the work-shop will reveal to them the secret of the work. Indeed, the critic who tends towards the biographical method, also gladly pays a visit to the artist’s working space, for he knows that in the studio the artist ‘lives’, for he knows that for the artist the studio is never a mere surrounding, but the reflection of the creation of a world. But the studio conceals more than it reveals. The artist carries all his property inside him and never creates what was not already within him. He is his own space and his work-shop is everywhere. Although the artist’s studio is everywhere, nonetheless, only within it, protected and concealed, does he dare to reveal his doubts and temptations. Contained within the work, the pain of creation remains framed in the confines of the author’s intimate being. All the anxiety that accompanied the making of a work is reconciled and secreted in the completed work. What has been created is a mask in which we may discern its creator.
THE MEANS TO WORK
I use this term advisedly, no matter how it may appear rough and ill-suited to the subject. The tie of the tool to the craft is present in a folk saying, and in the discussion of artistic creation it has its place. Clearly, without the technical side of artistic creation, without its embodiment in material and the employment of available means, the author would not be able to realise the work as he has conceived it. And the very ‘material nature’ of an artistic act proves that the work is not the product of ‘pure spirit’. Were this not so, creation would remain on the level of ‘idea’, in the domain of the subjective, unrealised experience. The work would not even exist. This dependence on the use of material should not be overemphasised, for the means have an initial but only partial participation in the final form of the work. One of the characteristics of the dilettante is an exaggerated faith in the essential role of the tool in the creation of a work, although usually even the layman realises that what is lacking is not the material, but the hand of the master. Hasty and naïve beginners rush to fill shelves with the best paper, excitedly purchase the colours of Van Gogh, long for Canon cameras … until they realise that no means, of itself, will produce the aim of which they have dreamt, and begin to justify their failures by the ‘circumstances’ and by ‘the lack of inspiration’, although all they have done is, once more, to affirm that wooden chests do not allow their owner to achieve the standard of a Thomas Wolf. Indeed, not even the great master hides his respect for his material, only with the difference that he is aware of its practical value. Nobody more than the writer appreciates good paper, nobody more than the painter a well-prepared canvas, but only because they are able to use it as a means. Material serves the artist. He uses material in order to instil into it his own world, to carve being into the fabric of the inorganic, in the form of the substance to weave a name far removed, yet from time immemorial, close: the primeval, the Ursache, the arché. The material, for the master, is the condition of the creation of the being of the work.
The creator gives life to the basic substance. He breathes life into the whiteness of paper and the roughness of stone. He announces even that it is the material itself that calls him and urges him to make Being arise in it, that out of it he create form. The material itself seduces the artist, offers him resistance, surrenders to him … With time the artist masters its secrets, but not in order to subjugate it, nor to make routine use of it, but in order to inscribe his own image into the nature of the substance. The encounter between the artist’s spirituality and the material of its exteriorisation grows into the work. The link between the spiritual and the material gives promise of eternity, for ‘manuscripts do not burn’, for spirituality makes material a living being, so the paper might be expected ‘to scream…’. An anecdote concerning Michelangelo confirms, still more expressively, the presence of a hylozoistic attitude in the creative artist’s relation to the substance. It is said that the master used to claim that his statues already existed in the faceless stone and that all they needed was to be released. It goes on to tell how, having completed his magnificent Moses, Michelangelo remained a moment staring at the strange visage of the profit, and then struck the sculpture in its knee with his hammer saying: “And now speak…” The trace of this blow, once again, leads to the realisation that in matter the artist does not imitate reality, but rather transforms it into reality itself and makes his work alive in itself. And so on…
Respect for the function of material in artistic production is to respect essential presuppositions for the development of creative activity. The possession of essential tools and materials here is not for the purpose of consumption and accumulation of acquired goods, for neither is the material of which a work of art is created consumed, nor does its maker desire to retain it for himself as ‘property’. Material makes possible the immanence of spiritual existence. In it, it comes to be realised, and material itself is re-established in a new way: transformed into the image of an artistic work, it is opened to the grasp of the Other.
So far I have been supposing that materials are something which the artist always has at his disposal. But clearly this is not the case. No society is prepared to put its trust in the artist beforehand, but rather – on the contrary – too often and too long drives him to struggle in order to obtain the basic material preconditions, which many an artist fails to obtain even when he has already generally achieved his opus, for society, even then, treats him cavalierly as a ‘bird of the air’. It is even considered that hardship is a true stimulus for creative inventiveness and poverty an opportunity to exercise spiritual asceticism. With this goes the usual suspicion of the ‘moral character’ of the artist and distrust of the purpose of his work, which all together have as a result the marginalisation of his social status. The artist is sometimes distinguished but almost never influential. How often has he had to convince an apathetic financier that a hall is essential to a theatre, to prove to a customs officer that canvas is a painter’s material, to beg and pray in order to earn anything at all… As such he knows only too well that only the possession of the essential means – both for work and for the basic maintenance of existence – make possible the free development of his talent. If for any reason a talented artist may feel envy towards a socially recognised colleague, then it is, above all, for his facilitated possibilities for the realisation of his work: only where creation does not suffer from external hindrances is harmony possible between desire and possibility.
This availability of the material has not only the function of a prerequisite in the realisation of the work of art, but also occupies an important place in the realisation of the artist’s idea. The example of those branches of art – as are films, painting, and even music – whose enrichment of expression is also linked to the technological development of their means, clearly proves this. The camera, acrylic, synthesiser – are all technical means which transform the traditional artistic expression. These may well not interest the receptor, he may not even notice them, but they must be at the disposal of the artist. And then, when all means are available to him, the artist has between his intention and the realisation of his work the ‘small item’ of his own ability: his know-how and his gift, which are, when all is said and done, his basic ‘means’. The more the artist is obsessed by creation, the less is he his own man and all the more is he led by the work he is creating, until he becomes its ‘means’. The artist knows that there are no rules in the use of material, for they are constantly being re-written in the course of the creative process, just as he knows that in art there is no means that would promise beforehand the realisation of a work, for only when it is realised, does it lend meaning to the means employed. For this reason the artist takes very seriously everything that he would call his ‘means to work’. It is no longer a matter only of the material objects which he uses: it is a matter also of habits that complete his creative ritual, that is of the formation of stimmung in which he feels complete disposal to his work, and, lastly, of the media of his own expression to which he must pay special attention. And even when he announces that the best book is that which has not been and never will be written, even when he thinks that the best would be that text which has constantly been written and re-written, even then – and particularly then – he nurtures the faith and the sincere hope that he will thread into the material the sense of form – the sense of the word. He knows that the creative artist, as opposed to the dilettante, never uses material to destroy it. Were he not to ennoble it, he would long ago have abandoned his enterprise.
THE TITLE OF A WORK, THE AUTHOR’S SIGNATURE
First, one writes one’s own name, then the title of the work. From there, the reader thinks, with some justice, the book begins. The writer, however, knows that this actual beginning of a work is achieved with difficulty at the beginning of the act of writing; with difficulty when it is the question of the title, with still more difficulty when it is a question of inscribing one’s own name. This agony of postponement is not fortuitous. Firstly, it is the title. It was considered, since the days of Adam, that those who give names have a sacred significance and power over what is named: gods, masters, fathers and finally artists. The name was the accompaniment and symbol of personality, identical with the soul and linked magical connotations. In the meaning of a name was concealed the mystery of a human fate and character. The name was definitive of the being, for the being was contained in it. It is something of this that troubles a work’s author, for, by the name, the work will be definitively signified and entered into the register of meaning. From that moment the work will be referred to by its title. It is not a question of a mere simple title. By the title the informed person always understands an entire group of events, a being, a world. This is the reason for the frequent hesitation in the choice of a name. Admittedly, for various reasons.
The nature of the title is firstly defined by the nature, that is to say, the type of the work itself. In the so called exact sciences a descriptive, usually very long title may be tolerated, by which the aim is to lead directly into the complexity of the work itself, while such a title – in so far as it is not a matter of intended caricature – in the spiritual sciences, and in art especially, is clumsy and superfluous. A title needs to be impressive, economical, expressive and indicative. Its function is that of an announcement, hence it most often simply presents a statement of a work’s contents. The theme of a text is hinted at or even clearly indicated and directed by its title. So, in philosophical literature, the title may be considered adequate which may announce the work in such a way that it evolves from it once more. Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit is an excellent example of the coincidence between a work and its title: the theme that stands in the title is fully developed throughout the whole of the work, so as to gain its full form only at the end from which it arises anew. The job of a philosopher is to try to make his title a lemma, in its original meaning, that is to say so formulated that it clearly and concisely expresses what is the subject of the work.
Such explicitness is not essential to art, even as regards the choice of a title. Although numerous examples exist of a literal indication of the basic theme of the work, especially in artistic creation of older times, art has nonetheless retained for itself the right to hide more by its title than it reveals. No title, of course, can express ‘everything’, but that in art has mostly remained a mere discrete hint. Even when certain important information concerning some family, some dangerous liaisons or murder are written on the cover, even then the aim is simply, through a provocative title, to draw the reader into the trap of the plot. And while the inexperienced writer begins with a thundering title from which usually there gapes an abyss, the experienced writer mainly tries with his title to centre the theme of his work. With such inclusiveness is gained an organic link between the title and the body of the work. But although such procedure has shown itself as expedient, although it has often resulted in attraction and effectiveness, creative experience has nonetheless given birth to a sense of the superfluity of title as ‘a mirror of the theme’. While in science the title is of necessity adequate to its subject, in poetics it is ‘free’ in regard to the work which it represents. This is always sufficiently confirmed by the metaphoric language of art. Such a language has also gained the right and possibility of free play with meanings and, hence, it is no rarity for artistic creation to be christened, with completely arbitrarily chosen and frequently puzzling names whose link with the work remains only indirect, formal and external, or even completely opposite to the title which is represented by the work. In the composition of music, the use of a non-referential title has long been customary, for any referentiality in the title of a sonata or a symphony stirs the understanding of music by the layman. The literary moment of the title, often taken as a key to the interpretation of a work, disappears also from realistic painting, becoming itself ‘abstract’ and ‘musical’: Composition I is the result of an attempt in a picture to objectivise ‘internal harmony’; Composition I does not allow its meaning to be referred to in words but only by its own visuality. The title even points to something the work is not, but which is its intention. Sense, in any case, is not expressed in a title, but in the being of the work. The title is not a description but a label. But that which it is must have a name. It may be conceived, but cannot be given before the existence of the being becomes reality. Only the completed being of the work may carry the full burden of the sense which the author has concealed under a title. Then the work is identified by its name, but the name is remembered by reference to the work.
There are, indeed, works that are ‘untitled’, which we categorise and classify according to the author’s name. There are also works, such as Aristotle’s Metaphysics, to which their author has given no title, but still, titles have stuck to them since they preserved their spiritual integrity. When a work is given its title by an editor, publisher or producer, they need to pay attention to the nature of the work and of its creator, in order that the work should not be harmed. The integrity of a work the free writer authorises with his signature. The author’s name appears at the beginning of the book, but his signature is added only when the work is complete. By his signature, an author approves his work, guaranteeing that it is a work in harmony with his creative conscience. His signature makes the work relevant. It is no chance that various experts have lost all respect for a spiritual creation, the moment it was confirmed that its attribution was wrong. And just as, in such a case, every intellectual admiration and inspired attraction evaporates, so would it all rapidly occur when some neglected work is confirmed as ‘authentic’ (just one more proof that historical and aesthetic values do not coincide!). The fame of a work is the fame of the name, and the name is the fame of the work. This equation is equally valid in the plastic arts, in the flourishing of the idea of the original, as of a single and unique being, and of the original as the one and only material value whose uniqueness determines its sale price. Indeed, it is this second factor that has particularly motivated the flood of forgers, who have paid special attention to the imitation of an author’s signature, a signature which even outside the work, has obtained the status of collectibility, since the author’s very personality is considered a ‘rarity’: Dali’s framed signatures sell like good graphics, bank clerks did not cash Chagal’s cheques for small sums … The signature, in a certain sense, guarantees the presence of its bearer, confirms his existence. And while, with his signature, a man openly gives his agreement, so, by a pseudonym, he conceals something. No matter what reason there is for the use of a false name – the sound of it, the concealment of provenance, a joke, a swindle, shyness, paranoia … the pseudonym itself is in the end always identified with the actual name and represents the person it stands for. In passing, perhaps the greatest irony befell the lady-critic who attacked the works signed by Romain Gary, and praised those published under the pseudonym of Emile Agard. Perhaps the very use of a pseudonym, which proves that one may get by without one’s real name, gives the artist the idea that a work should exist without the defence of his authoritative signature. We are witnesses of the fact that authors’ names have become more famous than their works. Even the critics have supported the error that behind a famous signature there is a continuation of great work. But the work extols the name far more than the ‘name’ is a guarantee of the work’s greatness. The writers of great books – said Henry Miller – are not those who sign them. A writer may even refuse his name. He would do this because he knew that true works are beyond vanity: that they become, like the Odyssey, of whose author we need have no conception, that they are constructed like a world that exists independently. A great work is great, without the author’s name. It is great even without a title, since it is superior to a title. For this reason, the author, who, at the end, crams into a title a preview of the work and confirms its authenticity by his signature and thus confirms his authorship, hopes that both the one and the other support the work’s being, the work that exists independently. But if this is really the case, then there is no further need to bother about a title.
A young man sits on the pavement. Playing an instrument. A bit further on another is completing a sketch in chalk. On the opposite side of the square, two girls are performing a short ballet piece. In front of a large department-store a Latin-American ensemble in native dress. Jugglers, people performing mime, magicians … In fine weather and on holidays they crowd the streets and squares, when it is raining they go down to the subways and the underground stations, at night they are silent.
They are artists. Street artists.
The first tourists from socialist countries often looked on them as a special sort of beggars, which proved to them that, in the harsh conditions of capitalism, everybody had to work, even those who idly begged. The better-informed accept street artists as unpaid entertainers to whom one should occasionally give the odd coin. The suburban mentality sees in them a potential nest of debauchery and all manner of misbehaviour, but benevolent supporters and unrealised talents create an entire mythology concerning these anonymous eminencies by which, at least to some extent and between the lines, glorify their own unrecognised ‘genius’. The easiest way to put it would be that all of these labels are applicable. Street artists differ no less in their performance skills than do the other known and recognised artists. The difference, however, is not just one of quality but of motivation. The first, probably most usual motive for street performance rests on the knowledge that it is a well-tried method of earning some money. In this sense, the socialist tourists were not far from the truth: the cities are full of worn-out musicians and young students from the conservatories, as well as all sorts of ‘artists from necessity’, for whom their instrument serves as a clumsy camouflage of their true situation, as also a proof of their pride that refuses unearned and humiliating charity. Passers-by and idle strollers never stop for the sake of these latter. Far more attractive are the young beginners, for whom the street offers an opportunity for the public testing of their talent. Still greater attention is given to those enthusiasts who perform some small folk spectacle, which is the performers’ contribution to the conservation of the tradition to which they belong and for the spectator a mixture of the exotic and the bizarre. These first skilfully exploit this, often expanding their ‘activity’, offering various talismans, souvenirs and even their own cassettes to the assembled crowd. A crowd will gather also around those professional entertainers who have gone out onto the street because, at that moment, they lack a regular engagement. Their trade-mark is their skill as entertainers. Such professionals may sometimes be joined by some real star of show-business. Woody Allen played and Mario Lanza sang on the street. This apparent eccentricity on the part of the vedette is partly an expression of his nostalgia for direct, spontaneous contact, without the repressive mediation of the manager, just as it could also be proof of a democratic attitude forbidden to him. The final meaning of such a star’s performance is a contempt for the official: Woody Allen is no longer anonymous, even in a crowd, and so his democracy is false, for, even here, he is a star who evokes immense attention, indeed, a defiant star who resists the rules of those who have made him a star. So the vedette, in this way too, demonstrates his independence, individuality and greatness. Finally, there are not a few of those whom a pure artistic motive has led to be street artists, irrespective of whether it be a matter of beginners for whom this is an opportunity for a first public performance, or whether it be a case of mature performers who are testing the possibility of realising a spontaneous street happening. An odd obligatory exhibitionist rounds off this picture of street performance.
Hope is what all street artists have in common. Nor is it of great importance whether their hopes are for small gains or great glory; what matters is their decision to persist in their life’s challenge, what matters is the will that does not allow them to surrender to the comfort of idle nihilism, what matters is their desire to come face to face with existence. Any creative activity proves that the man has not abdicated.
A second common quality is of an external nature. All street artists ensure their often essential earnings by the proffered hat. Their income is not assured beforehand, but must always be earned anew, so that in this sense they are truly free artists, who, over and over again, struggle for their existence. The street artists still more resemble their predecessors in entertainment – the travelling actors. Common to both is the expectation of a monetary award for their efforts. Both regularly vary the venue of their performance. Common to both is that they are both addressing a haphazard, undiscriminating public whom they must please. In so far as they please it, the public will graciously reward their effort, although, in this gracious scattering of small change, there is also ever a shade of contempt and superiority which the well-off man often feels towards the poor artist. (One should perhaps remember that the casting of metal coinage at the performers, which even Pirandello experienced, was a sign of belittlement and contempt, far worse that any whistling or other sign of scorn.) To please! this becomes the imperative for street artists. In a drastic way, they confirm the fact that all art ‘lives’ by the whim of public taste, though, more than other artists, they are forced to resort to tricks of seduction and methods of flattery. Hence they try, in their performances, to avoid ad-libbing. Well-organised groups of street artists have a clearly defined programme, consisting of a combination of catching and well-tried acts. In any case, they are generally not in a position to improvise, as do the lead musicians in a jazz session, but repeat what has for them long since become routine. Their art is closer to mechanical repetition than to creativity, closer to mass production than to artistic creation. On this level street artists are not true artists. They are entertainers.
This is how the public experiences them. With time, it grows accustomed to them as a part of the town decor, as an ornament to the ambience and free entertainment which dispels monotony and creates the illusion of good living, as the entertainment wing of the urban atmosphere. But connoisseurs and specialists know how to distinguish even true talents among street artists. Not only have many future celebrities had their first ‘auditions’ on busy streets, but, at times, have even skilfully adapted their performances to the given ambience, which has resulted in a particular conceptual gesture. The completion of the act of performance and its haphazardly selected location lends both the work and the place an unexpected quality: in the passages of an underground railway, a sonata affirms its indestructible value, spiritualising the depressing space of the metro. This ‘ambiental’ possibility of art was brought to its extreme consequences by those theatrical groups which, counting on directness, spontaneity and surprise, without any warning or explanation, began their performances on some square or in some park. Art is possible always and everywhere – that utopian slogan is the motive force of such attempts. Possessing courage, a high degree of self-confidence and concentration, these uninstitutionalised companies had to be prepared for every form of improvisation. Improvisation was customary already in the comedia dell’ arte. Pushkin in one of his stories mentions an actor who was able to weave an entire monologue at a word, cast at random, from among the assembled public, the American theatre Combine adopted this as its usual practice. In such attempts even failings are turned to advantage, from Paganini’s performance on one string to Hamlet in jeans. Inventiveness in strained circumstances has been known to aid and direct the occasional witty conceptual decision.
Improvisation, naturally, may be considered a proof of the highest art. As resistance to every pattern and accepted dictum in general, improvisation opposes every rule and ‘prescribed’ necessity, expressing, through its own spontaneity – which is a game in which a new order is discovered – the ever-present trend of art towards freedom. So, improvisation is not a matter of a momentary reaction of the performer, for spontaneity ever wells up from the depths of being, but nor is it a question of entirely inner motivation, for it expresses also the attitude of the creator to every artistic and even social canon. Hence it is possible to say, albeit with some caution, that in the performances of individual street artists there exists a dose of rebellion and open defiance towards any form of institutionalisation and its representatives. Defenceless, left to themselves and the whims of the passers-by, the street artists confirm drastically that all freedom is uncertain. And what need is there for a safe refuge? What is discovered in the game may be lost in the game. Fearless before the eternal, discovering the sense of the ephemeral and unrepeatable, the true streets artists do not serve vanity, but the work itself. Their acceptance of authorial anonymity and the disappearance of their own work is the acceptance of the immanent sense of life itself. The song will not be taped, the actor will be forgotten, the sketch will be washed away by the first rain, yet by this very creation for one single moment the potential value of every possible moment is confirmed: in the game human glorifies freedom, in freedom life, in life the free player – human. Street artists are only an occasional and only a pale echo of this possibility, but, in the world in which we live, even a slim hope means a great deal.
THE PICTURE AND ITS FRAME
The window through which we look and through which we may be seen has a frame. The mirror in which we look at ourselves also has a frame which – not without reason! was often made with the greatest care and effort to attract. Through the frames of spectacles, we are often regarded. From behind their darkened lenses we are wont to hide. Stages and cinema screens are ‘framed’, children put covers on their books, the book is protected and ornamented by its cover. The frame is something in which things are put, are confined. They protect and separate.
A picture too has its frame. The framed picture is a completed picture. Nothing more can be added, corrected or changed: the picture has found its frame, a frame has enclosed the picture. We use the word frame here both in its metaphorical and its literal-technical sense. In the first case, this refers to the aesthetic range of the picture, in the second, to a not very essential practical detail. Can we so easily dismiss from the domain of our interest this surrounding of an artistic work, if we recall that the frame too belongs to the picture and must have both a functional and an aesthetic unity with it? And then again: is the frame something added to the picture only from without, or does it grow out of the picture itself, as its own inner demand? Does the picture need a frame? And, if it does, in what way?
The picture had a long history before the frame became an integral part of it. From its beginning till today, the frame has had a double purpose, practical and decorative. In the first place, practical: the frame protects the picture, fortifies it, makes it portable. Mounted icons and altar pieces could be carried easily from one place to another without great risk. In Byzantium, in processions or public liturgies, the frame made of precious metals did not have only the purpose of a technical aid. Its material luxuriance announced and accentuated the ritual significance and value of the icon. So, even in its earliest employment, the frame appears not only as an attempt to add to the picture a definite value from without, but also as a sign that it protected that definite value: the golden frame, a material value in itself, at the same time affirmed that what it framed was worthy of that value. The sanctity of this world and the world beyond complimented one another. The status function of the frame would never again be able to be neglected. From ancient times, there is a residual awareness that the framed picture is a depiction of what is holy, that the framed picture depicts what is worthy and is worthy of what it depicts. It is not for nothing that all later mannerist portraits of various nobles and rulers were framed in gold and shone in accordance with the splendour of the person portrayed. A framed picture is a valuable picture. The frame protects the material value, but also the spiritual. It surrounds the picture’s delicate edges. It emphasises and extols the picture and, with its square or rectangular form, consciously or unconsciously, is associated with the doors of a Temple, with symbols of the universe, of constancy and spirituality … The earliest frame signified the entrance into the Holy* .
In secular painting, this meaning is simply transformed, often, indeed, in a banal and comical fashion. That which hangs framed in the corridors of various ministries, in doctor’s surgeries and in the drawing rooms of parvenus mainly have less importance for their owners than a rug, but the owners are ready, in case of need, to present and defend this unfunctional ‘part of the furniture’ as a ‘household deity’. In the bourgeois hierarchy of values, only the picture with a frame has the status of a valued object. The framed picture may be exhibited, for only when framed does it indicate that its owner values it and that it itself has value, since only then does it represent both its owner and itself. In this way this object becomes a sanctified middle-class value. Here the spiritual expresses itself in the material, while the material is raised to the ‘spiritual’. But not only works of art are framed. People frame family photographs, usually of the dear departed and beloved spouses, we frame diplomas, certificates, even newspaper cuttings and important letters, in other words, all that represents the owner of such trifles. In emphasising these symbols, their owner ’emphasises’ himself and the world of his sacred values. Everything that is considered prestigious is framed. The value of the frame affirms the value of the framed.
The frame, however, does not always have to be ‘outside’ the picture, does not always have to be an external addition. Already in the XIII and XIV centuries, the frame was carved on Gothic pictures and retables in the same block of wood on which the picture is painted. Such a frame represented an ‘organic’ part of the picture. It was ‘in’ the picture. In Rococo, frames were even painted, while in modern painting, the frame itself is ‘painted’ within the picture, or, with Klee, indicated by a mere line. In this way the frame becomes an integral part of the picture, becomes a mark of what is painted. It marks the spatial limits of the picture, limits which divide the picture from the rest of space. The frame is, indeed, an apparent, formal boundary of a true work of art, just as, for a bad picture, it is the sole proof that one is dealing with an oeuvre. The frame, then, is a means of fixing a picture, of its being marked and emphasised in relation to its surroundings. It is the boundary, the limit of a world. It differentiates the picture, clearly distinguishes it from the wall, its natural support. (It would not be out of place to mention here that, basically, it is the same tendency which leads both to the large format being used to occupy a wall, to dominate space, and to the miniature which, as it were, ‘ignores’ space, yet still demands that attention be concentrated upon it.) One might almost say that any radical rejection of the frame would return art to the state of room decorating. The picture ‘merges’ with the wall, becoming once more a part of its decoration. But this would be a mere repetition, the way has been passed from fresco-painting to the mobile icon. Autonomy or inclusion into its natural surroundings – that is the basic aesthetic dilemma which arises from the use of the frame. While, in the first case, the frame acts as a sign of the work’s integrity, in the other, the frame is rejected in order to affirm the trend towards pure, self-sufficient graphic expression to which nothing may be added from without, in which the edge of the picture is the picture itself. Entire walls and ceilings are painted with this purpose in view, for the ‘frame’ is the wall itself on which the canvas is hung. In this way the picture merges with its background and becomes its ‘natural’ part, the difference between the executed work of art and its surroundings is eliminated, by which the picture becomes not merely one of the objects but proves itself to be as ‘real’ as any other, but on a higher plane. In any case, the edge of a prepared canvas, in fact, plays the part of a frame: the edge replaces the frame, even when there is no frame. The painter does not paint within an already defined frame, although the size of the canvas forms the limit of the picture. The engaged observer does not notice the edge of a picture. For the painter, the frame is imaginary, for the art lover, it is unimportant. Where the frame dominates, where it attracts more attention than the picture itself, the picture is lacking, where, with its ostentation it overshadows the painting, the painting is threatened, but where it exceeds the painting by its quality, it points to the fact that the frame is unjustly ignored as an object of aesthetic interest. For the painter, then, the frame is not, or should not be, in any way, a prerequisite, nor a value in itself. The picture does not develop in harmony with its frame, but, rather, the other way round. This is why even such old masters as F. Lippi, S. Botticelli, Michelangelo took care over the appearance of the frames for their pictures, seeking to ensure that the frame was in harmony. The frame, in a sense, must be a continuation of the picture, that is to say, its integral part, an addition to its graphic expression. That the frame is an essential part of the picture is most clearly shown in sacral painting, in which the frame itself is often painted, even filled with a succession of smaller paintings which usually were thematically unified with the painting which they framed. And while, from the author’s point of view, arose an awareness that the frame and the picture should harmonise, the owners of their works introduced a fashion by which the frame should be constructed according to the ‘significance’ of the painting or of what it depicted. This significance of frames, which, by their ornament, by their sculptural decoration and all forms of intarsia, offended the eye of the onlooker with their exaggerated richness, went so far that the frame was no longer made for the picture, but that, instead, the picture was ordered to suit the frame. The customer gave the painter a list of requirements based upon a given frame: the concrete presence of such a frame symbolically expressed the artist’s actual restrictions. He whose talent survived even this, is the pride of art history.
On the other hand, in a metaphysical sense, there is no such thing as a picture frame. It must be unimportant and unobtrusive, and so it is, when the picture truly dominates the space: we do not remember the frame, where the picture has penetrated the depth of our being. The well-known advice by Velasquez’s teacher, that he should paint so that “the picture should go beyond the frame”, points to the fact that a real picture should have no limits, that it should have no pre-requirements, that it must overcome every form of restriction and, in a way, step outside itself, in order to be a picture for others. The frame exists for the artist only as an imaginary frame. But, just as a completed picture demands a definite frame, since it is already ‘framed’ by its completeness, in the same way, the frame sometimes demands its own picture. An empty frame expresses a need for a picture. Literally one cannot long regard an empty frame: there is something painful, unbearable, in that unpopulated waste land of space, in that empty nothingness. One is gripped by despair, looking into a void. In a metaphorical sense, the frame is born together with the picture, like an imaginary and never attained boundary.
But the completed picture is the real picture. It becomes a framed space. In enclosing the picture with a frame, the artist both benumbs and secures it, as if closing the doors of a safe refuge, as though giving a home to the picture’s being, sheltering it from every trouble, trial and misfortune. The frame preserves the picture, raises it and emphasises it. And just as the confines of our glance cannot take in the entire ‘world’, so the picture is not imprisoned in the expanse of the frame. The frame is not a sign of limitation, but of completeness. As every ‘living’ framework, it encloses a world. It is the magic rectangle of the mirror, through which Alice enters the Wonderland. Hence, the frame, even when it is identical to the picture, always differs from it: it is the mark of a world that evades it, of a world which it suggests and whose apparent boundary it is. The frame is the formal denotation of the picture. And what has been said for the frame of a picture, may be said for any other frame.
* ‘Geometrism’ long dominated the style of frame design. The square, the rectangle, during the Renaissance the circle (rondo), and later the triangle… Only in our time, the rime of the decline of all harmony and proportion, we have the unequal, ‘anarchical’ frame which does not follow the laws of proportion.
Predrag Finci started his career as an actor. Later he studied philosophy at the University of Sarajevo and at the University of Paris X: Nanterre under Mikel Dufrenne. He was a visiting researcher at Freiburg University under the supervision of Werner Marx. He completed his MA in 1977 and Ph.D. in philosophy in 1981. He was a professor of aesthetics at the University of Sarajevo until 1993 when, during the Bosnian war, he left Sarajevo for London. He has lived there since and worked as a freelance interpreter and writer until his retirement in 2011. Finci is the author of twenty-five books.