Essay on being present and the Art Critique


I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

—John Steinbeck

    Therapists, psychologists, philosophers as well as Priests, Pastors and Rabbis’ have said it for decades, along with Rembrandt. It is the sole lesson of the soul. Yet it only takes a new mother to reveal one of the deepest needs in us all, the need to be present and the need to be observed being present. The steady gaze of an aged Master painter being present with the viewer, as well as a newborn fixated in the eyes of their Mother.

     One of the most important moments in any critique is usually missed. It is the moment of being present with a work of art, sitting in silence, visually listening.  After sitting in dozens of critiques over the years only one Professor that I know and most respect performed such an act regularly. “Let’s give this painting two minutes of observation, please see the work up close as well as at a distance,” he would always say. Those two minutes often changed my mind about the work that I had only glanced at momentarily. Being present with a piece of art in a critique is a manner of being present with the student as well. It is the essence of meaning itself, to see and be seen. How few of us actually practice this act of living, even unto ourselves in the morning mirror?

   When I was in art school in the late seventies it was very popular to throw around the “S***!” word in every critique. Professors would not pull back their immediate responses, “a piece of s***, over and over and over, they boldly pronounced to a room full of immature artists. Their affect spoke much louder than their limited four letter vocabulary, it killed the spirit in many immature painters like myself.

   There is a large difference between ‘effect’ and ‘affect’. My students have now learned the power behind the word ‘affect’. They realize that they communicate 90% of the time with their non-verbal’s, not their mouths. They make themselves present. The effect of their affect is to communicate stronger than they ever imagined. Rather than become violent or verbally abusive, they let their affect do the talking, they

become present in a dramatic fashion. If the gatekeeper (the Professor) of the critique has not lain out the safety net of respect for each student and work of art then the wrong effect occurs. That safety net being present for each piece critiqued no matter how good or bad it may be. Each work deserves its moment.

     Often as Americans, we don’t live in the moment. Instead we live in the moment to come. Problem is, if you are always living for a future moment, i.e. retirement, the pay raise that will change your life, or that day you will win the lottery—then you never actually live at all. Sadly, I think I have lived most of my life this way. I started having panic attacks at age 40 after I was fired from a New York Art Directors job. I started grinding my teeth and tried anti-depressants only to discover they made me more depressed. My hidden frustration of wanting to be a painter full time would float to the surface and I faced the monster of regret as if we were roommates in a lone jail cell.

     I was never mindfully present to step outside of my life and see what I was doing to myself. I was like the patron that waited in line at the Louvre for hours to get in and then walked quickly past the art, never really absorbing the beauty of the pieces. The need to see it all in a day made my spirit bankrupt but my mind happy.

     To view great art you must be present before the work. You must let it speak to you and you must learn to listen. Your mind must retreat and your spirit must advance. It is only after you hear Beethoven’s 5th and are raptured in the arrangements that you allow your mind to come out of the back seat to try to explain what the music was all about. Recently I visited the retrospective of William de Kooning’s art at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. I overheard a guide explain his work on a surface level.

     She described little areas of each painting that had certain fluid movements and she would reveal small details about the technique used by de Kooning to create an abstract painting level upon level. All her information was shallow and meaningless. It was all mind banter. One has to stand before a painting and wait, wait for it to talk. One must be present with humble ears to hear. You must be present before the art.

    As a teacher to under privileged black students I found myself always trying to improve my lesson plans and come up with projects that educated and informed students in a more meaningful manner. I was missing the most important dynamic of being a teacher, an artist, and an adult. I was not present.

     To be present requires being still and sitting. To be present requires listening. To be present is the easiest thing in the world to do. To be present is the hardest thing in the world to do.

     I started simply sitting with my students and being present with them. At first most of them found it very uncomfortable. I became privy to their conversations that one would deem inappropriate for a teacher’s ears. I made myself be with them all, sometimes doing the same projects that I had taught and sometimes just sitting and listening to the conversations.

      I think there is an important form of intimacy with simply being with another human being saying nothing, doing nothing but just being. I think it is a statement to the other person that they are valuable to be around and that they are accepted.

     One day I realized that perhaps my lack of being with others just for the sake of being could mean that I never really lived. My art is mostly about man being in his fallen human condition. The paintings are largely about death on a cross or being held. Life and death. Expulsion and embracing. Suffering and suckling. Sinner and innocence.

     At the age of 18 months I was diagnosed with a form of illness that meant I had to be quarantined for a week. This meant that I was not allowed to see my parents except for a few hours each day and never at night. The doctors felt I would die and that I needed to be placed in an all white sterile room by myself to play out my illness.

     Though I could not be held or comforted at night I went through a form of transformation that I cannot explain or fully remember. I do know that I was held. God was present.

     Perhaps this is why my work is largely about the cross and being held; certainly it is about being present. While sitting with my students, just being, I still often feel that time is money and my life is far too important to just sit there, shut up and be still; but I’m getting better at it.