In his famous account of learning the piano as an adult, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger refers to a book by psychiatrist, Marion Milner, a pseudonym of Joanna Field. Milner was the sister of Nobel-physicist Patrick Blackett, and great neice of Edmund Blackett, architect of colonial Sydney. Her book is an account of her attempts to paint and draw, and to learn to paint and draw, as an amateur artist. I am not enchanted by her artwork, and I find her Freudian accounts of artistic creativity and its barriers both implausible and untrue to life. I believe Alfred Gell’s anthropological account of art to be far more compelling – that artworks are tokens or indexes of intentionality, perceived by their viewers or auditors as objects created with specific intentions by goal-directed entities (the artist, or a community, or some spiritual being). These perceived intentions include much else beside the expression of feelings.
But Milner’s book is replete with some wonderful insights, many of which express a Zen sensibility. Herewith a sample:
But if willed effort to create a “good'” picture or a “good'” person only, so far as I could see, led to something which had a counterfeit quality, surely this did not mean that one should never try to learn what a good picture or a good person was like? It seemed rather than one must do two things. One must certainly work at hammering out internally one’s ideal, know as far as possible what one wanted or liked. But then one must forget it, plunge into a kind of action in which the acting and the end were not separate” [p. 92]
Also it now seemed possible to say more about where the learning of the rules did come in, in learning how to paint. For the beginner, the chief obstacle emphasised is his lack of skill in managing the medium. Thus he is often expected to spend a long time discovering and learning the laws of optics, finding out how certain arrangements of shapes and colours produce certain regular effects on the eye. If one is going to be a professional painter probably this is all right. But for the Sunday-painter I thought it was not at all all right, at least not for me; for one might [page-break] spend a lifetime of Sundays and get very little way, if one did not also how to become more used to taking the plunge, more able to throw the rules to the winds and forget the separateness of oneself and the object. I thought of children’s drawings in this connection, how often with so little knowledge of proper methods of depicting visual experiences they can yet take the plunge and the results delight us. Probably they can do this because the plunge itself is less of plunge to them, since they live so much of their lives, through play, in a state where dream and external reality are fused; it is a familiar element for them, they are like birds and can live both on land and in the sky without complicated machinery to get there.” [pp. 92-93]
Thus the phrase “expression of'” suggested too much that the feeling to be expressed was there beforehand, rather than an experience developing as one made the drawing.” [p. 116]
Now another question had to be answered about the free drawings. For the fact that the ideas in them were obviously in part determined by the circumstances of a Freudian analysis did not, I thought alter another fact; that was that they embodied a form of knowing that traditional education of the academic kind largely ignores, and one that I myself was unaware of using – until I began to study the drawings in detail. But when I had done this there had been no doubt that many of the drawings did represent thinking of [page-break] some sort, reflections about the human situation, as well as the experiences with a medium. So, the question arose, why had it not been possible to think out such ideas directly in words? This raised a more general question of thinking in the private language of one’s own subjective images, as against thinking in the public language of words. It also brought to the fore the problem of the academic and over-linguistic bias of traditional education.” [pp. 122-123]
Such ideas about what one might be trying to do in one’s painting pointed the way to settling certain very practical doubts I had had about the relation between painting and living. For years I had had to decide each week-end, should I shut myself away and paint or should I just live? It was perhaps less of a problem for the professional painter who could live in his spare time. But for the Sunday-painter it brought the need to balance up the various renunciations and gains. I had so often come away from a morning spent painting with a sense of futility, a sense of how much better it would have been to get on with something practical that really needed doing. And I had often felt, when out painting, both exalted and yet guilty, as if I were evading something that the people round me, all busy with their daily lives, were facing, that their material was real life and mine was dreams.” [p. 135]
“There was another reason why it was now possible to paint. It was because there was one central fact that made it seem worthwhile going on, whatever the objective value of the pictures to other people. It was that I had discovered in painting a bit of experiences that made all other usual occupations unimportant by comparison. It was the discovery that when painting something from nature there occurred, at least sometimes, a fusion into a never-before-known wholeness; not only were the object and oneself no longer felt to be separate, but neither were thought and sensation and feeling and action. All one’s visual perceptions of colour, shape, texture, weight, as well as thought and memory, ideas about the object and action towards it, the movement of one’s hand together with the feeling of delight in the “thusness” of the thing, all seemed to fuse into a wholeness of being which was different from anything else that ever happened to me. It was different because thought was not drowned in feeling, they were somehow all there together. Moreover, when this state of concentration was really achieved one was no longer aware of oneself doing it, one no longer acted from a centre to an object as remote; in fact, something quite special happened to one’s sense of self. And when the bit of painting was finished there was before one’s eyes a permanent record of the experience, giving a constant sense of immense surprise at how it had ever happened; it did not seem something that oneself had done at all, certainly not the ordinary everyday self and way of being.” [p. 142]
“The central certainty that this process [the investigation and writing of this book] does not work from purpose to deed, in the way that expedient activities do, is easy to put into words now, at the end, but was not there with effective conviction from the beginning . . . . There had been nothing in the beginning but vague uneasy feelings and an urge to follow certain trickles of curiosity wherever they might lead. All the same, I have left the introduction as it was originally written, partly because books need introductions, partly because the fact it had seemed, retrospectively, that that was what I had set out to do from the beginning, was in itself an illustration of the later discovered truth that activity creates purpose.” [p. 145]
Alfred Gell : Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
Marion Milner (Joanna Field) : On Not Being Able to Paint. London, UK: William Heinemann. Second edition, 1957.
Alan Rusbridger : On not being able to play the piano. The Guardian, 2002-01-05.