At first, it may seem strange that facility and facile are cognate, the former connoting technical excellence, the latter, superficiality. But many artists learn the connection the hard way, discovering that that for which they fought—mastery of their medium and its techniques—comes at a cost: that facility tempts one to be facile; to ignore the rough edges of experience and to overlook the irregular and unpredictable; to name or render too tidily that which resists quick categorization.
As a result, many artists renounce their early mastery, and in some cases actively seek ways to hinder it. For instance, after working for a couple decades in monochromatic, hard-edged minimalism, painter Brice Marden started painting with long sticks, which “destabilized his natural facility,” according to Roberta Smith, and helped him break out of stale habits that he’d fallen into. And critic and theorist Edward Said points out that one of the hallmarks of “the late style” in artists, is its “tears and fissures,” which testify to “finite powerlessness” of the artist. It’s this lack of facility that gives late works their power.
For some time on this blog, I’ve been collecting examples of artists who resist or renounce technique. For instance, Thelonious Monk played with the flats of fingers, to the chagrin of your childhood piano teacher. Fairfield Porter praised Jane Freilicher’s “clumsiness”; James Schuyler, in turn, called it an essential quality of Porter’s work. And Schuyler himself built a poetics out of search and stumble:
My latest encounter with artistic resistance to technique comes from an unexpected source: Anne Truitt. I recently went to see her stunning show currently display in the tower of the National Gallery of Art. In preparation for my visit, I re-read Truitt’s book, Daybook, a collection of journal entries from 1973-1980, and I came across this fascinating passage from June, 1978:
The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadily along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity. As in any profession, facility develops. In most this is a decided advantage, and so it is with the actual facture of art; I notice with interest that my hand is more deft, lighter, as I grow more experienced. But I find that I have to resist the temptation to fall into the same kind of pleasurable relaxation I once enjoyed with clay. I have in some subtle sense to fight my hand if I am to grow along the reaches of my nerve. (my emphasis)
Earlier in Daybook, Truitt worries that she’s “not good enough to be an artist,” especially given the seeming certainty with which others use the term to describe themselves. But in this passage, she comes to realize that the “idolatry” involved in such certainty is the opposite of being an artist. It’s not a matter of being “good enough,” but open enough, vulnerable enough to forego technical excellence—to “fight the hand”— let go of self-limiting labels, and embrace uncertainty.