Le néant

‘Nothingness,’ writes Sartre (1998 [1943]: 21) ominously, ‘lies coiled in the heart of being–like a worm.’ His pessimism is pervasive, but mundane. His obsession with nothingness brings us from the edge of the howling abyss to the yawning emptiness of our wallets, but the view from precipice–or that from the lively but friendless café–permits him to trace deep undercurrents through the nature of our being (1998: 6; 9-10; 30). The holes–the gaps–the refusals–the unremarked slipping by of opportunities–can certainly cause us to well up with existential dread. But they also reveal the immense power we can have over our lives, and the immense responsibility we have for the way we live them. For Sartre, this responsibility is a radical freedom so intoxicating and so burdensome it can make us sick; it is also inextricably bound up with even the tiniest eruptions of nothingness that surface in the world.

Copies after Meštrovic and Mihanovic

For we are the originators of nothingness, Sartre (1998: 8; 24) argues; every nothingness lives in our own minds as a sheer fabrication, a mere interpretation of events. Destruction is but a perspective: a city is only destroyed if we view it as such; in purely physical terms its components are merely rearranged. ‘There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else’ (Sartre, 1998: 8). The world surges on like a ruthless, rolling ocean, re-adjusting its parts without regard for the petty values we place on certain arrangements. The very concept of negation comes from the thwarted sense of importance we have arbitrarily placed on something.

Perhaps he first glimpsed this thread in Husserl. In posing a question, says Sartre (1998: 4-5; 23), we thrust a negative element into the world. Inserting nothingness into the world, we make ‘the world iridescent, casting a shimmer over things’ (Sartre, 1998: 23). When we ask, we admit space for the answer to be ‘no.’ As Husserl (1973 [1948]) puts it, we invite doubt into the world, we acknowledge that things are not unfolding mechanistically, we entertain other futures. Doubt is thus the flip side of possibility. For something to be possible–not definite–it must be able to waver. It could come off or it might not. Doubt, which seems to undermine our plans and our sense of self, in fact gives the world its luxurious openness. Uncertainty looms ahead of us like a door left ajar, it gives us a foothold, it shows the world to be full of cracks into which we can force ourselves and impose our will, through which we can inflict change on the world, redirect its course.

And so Husserl (1972: 87) sees the world as a kaleidoscopic churning of possibilities, of open questions, of expectations, trembling at its edges. As we stalk those edges with trepidation, they shift and reorient themselves according to our every move. The structure of the world, asserts Husserl (1972: 82-83; 1999 [1950]: 45), against the scientific spirit, is horizonal; its horizons are ever just at the edge of our sight, but ever rolling away from it. The view is different from wherever we stand: but from whichever position it remains petulantly ambiguous (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 79, 80; 196).

We only discover this structure, says Heidegger (1993 [1927]: 74-75), when things break down. When our equipment falters and shocks us out of our practical unity with them, when our reflective, thinking attention is drawn to their heavy uselessness and suddenly obvious separateness from our own bodies. Or when we discover them not there–the unfortunate lightness of our wallets–we are cast into the solemn and terrible mood that is Angst. The small non-beings bring us face to face with the great nothingness, face to face with ourselves. Where we are ordinarily lost in our doings and projects, merged with the world in practical little acts, our sudden reflective detachment from the world presents us with the unimportance of our little schemes and ushers in a sickening sense of futility. Stripped of its practical significance, the world is bare before us, devoid of meaning, robbed of value (Heidegger, 1993: 185-187).

But it is Sartre who remains gravely optimistic. This Angst is too all-encompassing; it makes the world too precarious, a world which in any case has no meaning. Negation greets us in some form at every turn, and it is not so earth-shattering as Heidegger would have it. The small nothingnesses whisper to us sweetly in their languid triviality, but even in their banality they can give us sharp moments of insight to our own freedom.

These insights cause us anguish, but it is anguish that urges us from the wavering edge of indecision. Anguish is an agony that eats us from the inside. Fear stalks us from outside, when we feel ourselves threatened or cornered, at the mercy of fate. Fear swells in us at the edge of the cliff, as we eye the loose gravel and step timidly on the uneven ground. But fear becomes anguish when the sinister thought enters our mind that we could cast ourselves over the edge (Sartre, 1998: 29). That the car keeps to its steady course on the endless highway because of the gentle guidance of our calm hands, but that a violent, decisive movement would wrench us into the oncoming truck. In that moment, we see that all our impulses are alike, that all are equally in our hands, that we are not cast about at the whim of chance but are shaping our future with every act. That every time we fail to choose (another tiny negation), every time we quietly watch an opportunity politely fade away, we have made as firm a choice as had we grasped it.

Even these small, offhand acts, lighting a cigarette, raising a coffee to our lips, are the very things that inject value into the world, insists Sartre (1992: 36-38). In taking up this pen, this brush, I affirm that writing, painting, matter to me, ‘without justification and without excuse’ (Sartre, 1992: 39). In painting this picture I affirm myself, I force myself onto the world as a painter, I construct my identity, I project my future, I declare that ‘I am the self which I will be, in the mode of not being it’ (Sartre, 1998: 32). I make small steps toward that future, laying little seeds of meaning in the world like a trail of shiny coins. I solemnly make appointments with myself in the future, with anguish lurking at my back, agonising at the thought that I might not meet myself there (Sartre, 1998: 36).

Sartre digs up nothingness where others would rather not, but it is because he has seen that possibility implies negation. And where there is possibility one can exert one’s freedom. We must choose at every juncture, continually remake ourselves, examine ourselves at every step, question ourselves, even doubt ourselves (Sartre, 1998: 35). That we might fail is the very condition of possibility: that something is at stake affirms that something matters to us, that we have imposed a pocket of meaning in the world. With anguish hounding us we must seize the burden of responsibility. ‘Only those who can truly give themselves a burden are free.’ (Heidegger, 1995 [1983]: §38).

Heidegger, Martin. 1995 [1983]. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Heidegger, Martin. 1993 [1927]. Sein und Zeit. 19. edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1999 [1950]. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973 [1948]. Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970 [1954]. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans: David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1998 [1943]. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge.


Little by little people began to come to the rue de Fleurus

Anfang © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Anfang © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paintings, as we’ve discussed before, are to be seen. The painting, the work itself, is an object, not merely an image. It has what philosophers might call ‘extension’ in the physical world—stretcher bars, linen, three-dimensional paint caked on the surface—and it arguably exists autonomously, divested of its author. If such an object is worth seeing in person, irrespective of its originator, we should consider how it might be seen. There is no doubt that paintings must be exhibited, but in what manner ought this exhibition happen?



Conrad, one of my trusted book-recommenders, gifted me Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and I spent the Festtagen indulging in her reminiscences of early twentieth-century Paris. Thinking about how painters are marketing their work now, renting gallery space, paying commission to private galleries, entering competitions, paying for residencies for the opportunity to exhibit under prestigious organisations, and even pushing their wares in the overwhelming monstrosity that is the international art fair, I was especially taken with how Stein’s companions forged their paths, and her instrumental role in their success. The crux of the matter seems to be that Gertrude Stein herself recognised something of value, and acquired that thing for herself, cherished it, and shared it. How different this attitude is from that of considering a painting a product that may or may not float in the marketplace.


Gertrude Stein and her brother collected paintings. They bought the paintings that really struck them, that they genuinely appreciated. They hung them in their Parisian apartment, as ‘Alice Toklas’ (2001: 10) describes:

‘The home at 27 rue de Fleurus consisted then as it does now of a tiny pavillon of two stories with four small rooms, a kitchen and bath, and a very large atelier adjoining. Now the atelier is attached to the pavillon by a tiny hall passage added in 1914 but at that time the atelier had its own entrance, one rang the bell of the pavillon or knocked at the door of the the atelier, and a great many people did both, but more knocked at the atelier. I was privileged to do both. I had been invited to dine on Saturday evening which was the evening when everybody came, and indeed everybody did come.’

the gang

Gertrude Stein’s collection was eclectic, and she began to make the acquaintance of the painters she collected, who began to come to her apartment for meals. In their mid-twenties, she and Pablo Picasso forged an intimate friendship through these very dinners and the portrait sittings they led to. Matisse became a regular guest and dear friend. Painters from disconnected quarters of Paris began to converge in the social hub of the rue de Fleurus, and in their wake, a string of curious art admirers. Toklas (2001: 14) describes the intimidating collection of paintings, unsettling paintings that existed at the periphery of the established art institutions, which flooded Stein’s atelier:

‘They completely covered the white-washed walls right up to the top of the very high ceiling. … It is very difficult now that everybody is accustomed to everything to give some idea of the kind of uneasiness one felt when one first looked at all these pictures on these walls. In those days there were pictures of all kinds there. … At that time there was a great deal of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne but there were also a great many other things. There were two Gaugins, there were Manguins, there was a big nude by Valloton that felt like only it was not like the Odalisque of Manet, there was a Toulouse Lautrec.’

Stein’s collection began with the value she personally saw in these ambitious new works, and extended to friendship with the people behind them. She seems to have recognised both the work as an object of value, and the originator as a fragile conduit for the bringing of such objects into the world: the painter needed to be sustained in order to bring these objects into being. And sustain them she did, with friendship, intellectual discourse, interesting and varied society, food and the purchase of countless paintings.

Brukner group journal club

Brukner group journal club

Despite the worth she personally attached to these paintings, Stein (2001: 17) rather off-handedly comments that ‘at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing anyone there,’ with the result that ‘only those came who really were interested.’ This revealing statement demonstrates an important attitude: that ‘value,’ as we normally speak of it, is all tied up in monetary worth, in the demand for products in a market. Stein’s language betrays this attitude, though her actions demonstrate her ability to find and nurture a different sort of value.


And the contrast is stark: if we begin by considering the painting as a product, we are forced to think how to attribute monetary worth to it, how to convince people that they desire or need such a product; in short, to create demand. If there is one thing to learn from Gertrude Stein about the value of art, it is to turn this idea on its head and start from the other end. Yes, the painting is an object, but not a product, and its value takes a certain insight, a certain understanding, to see. It is an autonomous object left behind in the world, enriching the world in an intangible, difficult to define manner. But it is also a visual stand-in for an idea that has the power to leave its mark on our intellectual landscape. It is the signal of a person who originates such an idea, a person existing in the world and striving to articulate that idea while they yet live. It is a physical sign pointing to a collective of thinkers who cluster around that idea, and in this sense a physical gateway into an intellectual circle. Behind a painting of real worth is an idea that exists in living beings.

In my studio © Sasa

In my studio © Sasablanik

Stein’s atelier burgeoned into a hive of activity. Having seized upon an idea, and gathered about her the people who harboured this idea inside themselves and expressed it in their works, interest in these paintings and in these people grew organically. The atelier would be populated with ‘scattered groups, single and couples all looking and looking.’ Stein would mingle, joining the various discussions. She (2001: 17) would respond to knocks at the door: ‘and the usual formula was, de la part de qui venez-vous, who is your introducer. The idea was that anybody could come but for form’s sake and in Paris you have to have a formula, everybody was supposed to be able to mention the name of somebody who had told them about it. It was a mere form, really everybody could come in and as at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing any one there, only those came who really were interested.’

But soon, more were interested than was really practical. Though things began slowly—‘little by little people began to come to the rue de Fleurus to see the Matisses and the Cézannes,’—the invitees began to come ‘at any time and it began to be a nuisance’ (Stein, 2001: 47). The curiousity of the well-decked atelier of 27 rue de Fleurus naturally demanded its own form, and that form became ‘the Saturday evenings,’ the weekly dinners that Stein would host for artists and intellectuals and passers-through and those newly arrived in Paris.

27 rue de Fleurus emerged as a very particular way in which to see paintings, a truly independent alternative to the official salons of Europe. Matisse gained a following by exhibiting in the more orthodox manner, showing ‘in every autumn salon and every independent. Picasso, on the contrary, never in all his life has shown in any salon. His pictures at that time could really only be seen at 27 rue de Fleurus’ (Stein, 2001: 72). Picasso’s influence extended from the Saturday sessions at Gertrude Stein’s house, and found its way into the salons by way of his followers (Stein, 2001: 73). The salon was not redundant, but it was not the only way to have one’s paintings seen, nor to gain international reknown.


A third element remains to this story of artworks making their way into the world and being seen. Stein writes with palpable respect for Parisian ‘picture dealers’ who believed in the idea rather than cautiously making profit-driven transactions. ‘There are many Paris picture dealers who like adventure in their business,’ she writes (Stein, 2001: 261). She continues:

‘In Paris there are picture dealers like Durand-Ruel who went broke twice supporting the impressionists, Vollard for Cézanne, Sagot for Picasso and Kahnweiler for the cubists. They make their money as they can and they keep on buying something for which there is no present sale and they do so persistently until they create its public. And these adventurers are adventurous because that is the way they feel about it. There are others who have not chosen as well and have gone entirely broke. It is the tradition among the more adventurous Paris picture dealers to adventure.’

Stein (2001: 60) describes how all the painters in her circle were very grateful to one Mademoiselle Weil who had a bric-à-brac shop in Montmartre, since ‘practically everybody who later became famous had sold their first little picture to her.’ She relates the story of the German Kahnweiler who had worked in England until he had saved enough money to realise his dream of having a picture shop in Paris. He invested heart and soul in the cubists, establishing his gallery in the rue Vignon. Eventually, Stein (2001: 118-19) relates, ‘they all realised the genuineness of his interest and his faith, and that he could and would market their work. They all made contracts with him and until the war he did everything for them all. … He believed in them and their future greatness.’

The attitude of the dealers mirrors Stein’s own: these art buyers saw more than a product, more than a business opportunity. They were able to estimate value in another way, and supported individual painters because they saw these painters as embodying certain ideas that needed to be upheld and disseminated. Of course, the picture dealers had a very difficult role in having to try to make monetary value match up with this other, more difficult to define value that they saw in the works. Perhaps as businessmen and women they were foolish. But as messengers trying to draw attention to something of worth, they acted admirably, and I wonder if they have a counterpart in our own time.

In my studio Conrad Ohnuki

In my studio © Conrad Ohnuki

‘But to return to the pictures’ (Stein 2001: 13). They are supposed to be seen, and we will find a way for them to be seen. Most importantly, this way will unfurl organically, and with the multifaceted support of those who spot a particular kind of value in works of art, and who can’t help but defend this value and stand behind the ideas they esteem.


Stein, Gertrude. 2001 [1933]. The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Penguin: London.


Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.


Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic











This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

Portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle













De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.


Painting: the lost virtue

After Caravaggio, Madonna of the rosary

After Caravaggio, Madonna of the rosary

The role of the artist is perhaps less clear than ever, and hence the motives of the artist are also something hazy and questioned. In centuries past, the artist performed practical and useful functions—depicting all manner of things from scholarly medical diagrams to religious narratives for the illiterate to portraits to be passed to posterity. It’s easy to imagine the artist’s role as comfortably integrated into society, a practical trade like any other.

Now that everyone reads, and photography quickly and cheaply records near anything we can imagine, there is no obvious need for someone to labour over manually producing our visual records. And since there is no need, the artist is expected to defend her chosen position, which appears to the modern mind superfluous and something of a luxury. In our pragmatic world, the deep conviction that you simply are a painter, and that above all you are compelled to paint, is unacceptable and as irrelevant as the painstaking work you produce, which, by the way, can I photograph it and tweet it to all my friends? #artistingallery #noway

Sunset painting 1

I think there are (to simplify) two breeds of artist: the kind that sees what has been done before and is inspired by it, and the kind that rejects it. This division seems to rest on how one perceives one’s role as an artist. The contemporary position seems uncannily aligned with—my inner Marxist rears her head—capitalism: and this should hardly be surprising, since capitalism flavours our most prevalent conceptions of value and most other aspects of our lives. The unshaking belief in progress is wed to capitalism, and drives our economies, our businesses, the funding of our scientific programs. A contribution is only made to the world in so far as one has ‘value added,’ which is specifically understood as having improved on what was already there. This mindset views history (art history included, it would seem) as a long, straight line trending ever upwards. I find this concept of historical improvement to be very troubling.

And I am not alone. It seems that, armed with this idea of improvement, many painters see the old masters and abandon this task completely. Why learn to draw if one cannot better Rubens? Why learn how to model form if one can’t hope to surpass Michelangelo? (Which in itself raises the interesting question, did Rubens surpass Michelangelo?) In despair at such a project, it seems sensible to sidestep it and simply do something else. To think of something clever and new, and succeed in novelty rather than skill. The artists who pursue such work must really have internalised this mindset of improvement, and hence see their role as an artist to contribute something value-added to the world. Producing more of the same at a standard of excellence does not fit with this progress-oriented view of value.

Sunset painting 2

Now I don’t study Rubens with the aim of becoming Rubens. I admire him endlessly, and hope to learn all I can from him. And he is not the only artist I mine for wisdom. No, when I dig deeper to understand how and why, and when I invest time in learning proportions of the figure and anatomy, it is not to imitate but ultimately to refine my own particular skills which will be expressed in my own way. I have other concerns than Rubens did, and I experience the world in a fundamentally different way than he did. These things are going to be apparent in my own work, and it will belong to its own time and place. Bryson (in Nelson, p. 177) argues that with the technical knowledge gained by the apprentice in the atelier, ‘as the painter takes up position before the canvas and begins to work, there is an encounter between this complex of practical knowledge and the new situation; under the pressure of the novel demands of the encounter the complex itself is modified and the tradition extended.’

Ah, now there is a word we can latch onto! Extended. This is the view that the first kind of artist I mentioned must take. This artist doesn’t go to look at the Van Dycks and think to herself, ‘I can improve on these!’ But she—wholly reasonably—sees them, admires them, and reflects that Van Dyck, that Rubens, that Michelangelo were mere mortals like herself who simply dedicated their whole lives to their perfectly respectable trade, worked hard and hence got very good at it, as can she. The focus is not on what went before and how to differentiate oneself or prove oneself measurably better, but rather on excellence itself. Excellence, rather than being tied to value, is associated with that old concept of virtue. It would be absurd to say, ‘I won’t aspire to honesty or integrity or courage, because they have already been done.’ Rather, the virtuous person cultivates these characteristics in himself in order to be as excellent as possible. The pursuit of excellence in his field echoes this. He refines his craft in order to be the best he can be, irrespective of what others are doing or have done.

Sunset painting 3

On this view, it doesn’t matter how much amazing art is already in the world. It didn’t matter to Veronese that he came to the party years after Titian, just as the chronology doesn’t matter to the art gallery visitor, who is dazzled by them side by side. They both contribute their own visions and in so doing contribute meaningfully to a long tradition of representational painting. This tradition is not exhausted so long as there are artists born in new times, experiencing new things and finding new positions to express with their own capacities and skills.

Is this appeal to excellence and thus virtue a moral imperative to extend the artistic tradition? Perhaps so. Perhaps to focus on value is to risk getting muddied in market-oriented ideas; perhaps thinking too hard about how one compares to others is a distraction from the real question of what you can do with what you have. Focusing on how you can improve yourself matters first; your contribution will be measured by this. If your motive as a painter is to pursue excellence in your field rather than to be better than everyone you ever heard of, you will probably also be more comfortable with your role as a painter, partaking in a long and esteemed tradition, not a fading craft.


Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


Art and the human condition

Kleines Cafe © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been spending more time at the Atelier of late. I’m taking an extra drawing class with Ryan, and I managed to squeeze in a tutored life drawing class with Scott Breton. The guys also throw a respectable barbeque of a Saturday evening, and invited me to an artist floor talk and exhibition in Noosa the following Friday, and all in all I’ve been avoiding all other social engagements in order to be a giant art nerd, having impassioned discussions about George Lambert and leafing through sizeable John Singer Sargent book collections.

Conversation delved particularly deep at said barbeque. I learned that Scott was in a former life a scientist, and (re)turned to art after realising that one does not become a scientist and cure AIDS, but one becomes a small cog working in a highly specialised area. Art is the inverse of this: perhaps the only career that allows one to indulge oneself, to preside over one’s own work. Which is not to say that Scott abandoned his true calling—his artistic skill is finely tuned and nothing short of incredible.

The view from the top of my street–the jacarandas are blooming

Scott’s adamant claim is that art and science are inherently linked, demanding similar skills and thought process and stimulated by the same experiences. This seems obvious to me. While I didn’t pursue science, I did pursue philosophy, the ‘king of sciences,’ and in large part because I felt it united the two currents running through me. I will likely never be a physicist, but my analytical mind thrived on physics in school, and it was the education system which forced me to narrow my pursuits. In senior high school I could only manage to narrow down my interests to these classes: maths, physics, English, music and art. I only have to look at J, working in quantum physics, who spends most of his time doing some very creative problem-solving acrobatics, staring about himself intensely as he draws new connections and generates idea after idea. These fields are not disconnected.

Having felt like I’d justified the role of the artist in my own mind, it distressed me to learn that Scott battles with the notion that art might not be a valid pursuit. We talked about footballers, and how, though we can’t empathise with their goals or desires, we can accept their place in society (though perhaps not their financial place in it as somehow far above that of mere mortals). But here is an accomplished artist of great skill doubting his contribution to the world. It’s not because the world doesn’t financially acknowledge his work (though that might be a nice place to start), or even because his work hasn’t resonated strongly with people—rather, it has. It seems that the crux of the matter is that art has no function. A carpenter makes an artefact, but it is a useful one. A painter makes an artefact that does nothing more than bring beauty into the world.

Hannah Arendt writes extensively about different active pursuits of humanity in her book The Human Condition. She calls them labour, work and action. By her scale, art is a measurably higher pursuit than mere practical labours, for just this reason that it is not tied to such functions. The catch, of course, is that the type of work she categorises as labour is in fact more highly prized in the modern world. To describe our society as consumerist says nothing other than that ‘we live in a society of labourers’ (p. 82)*. Labour stems from our physical needs, encompassing all activities we undertake in order to support ourselves as any other earthly creature must:  obtaining food and shelter and so on. Labour’s clear goal is to sustain life, though its products are all consumed in attaining this end. Labour is simply a means, then, and therefore instrumental, and we value its products instrumentally rather than for themselves (pp. 79-84; 110-11). A table is only valuable in so far as it makes a suitable resting place for plates of food or for working at, and the carpenter’s work is thus validated.

Arendt’s second category, work, captures our efforts to create something lasting, and art falls into this category. Rather than being consumed like the products of daily life—clothing made to be worn until worn out, couches made for everyday use, food to be eaten—these artefacts are meant to outlive us and to continue on as something of a legacy (pp. 137-8). Her third category, action, transcends even this—it is rather the process, the performance, the experience, and art can be these things, too (p. 198). The countless life drawings and studies that are repeated for the sheer process and not as final drawings belong to this category.

The point, then, is that Arendt has given a lot of thought as to why things that lack functions, or have less obvious functions, might in fact be more valuable: they are what make the human condition something special. Our culture values physical necessities like any other unenlightened creature, lavishing praise on those who concentrate on ‘making a living.’ It doesn’t respect the place of workers like artists who contribute nothing of necessity. But it ought to: such work sets us apart as human.

Perfect weekends for bike rides and picnics by the lakes

* Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).



Rands and your monetary worth

Evergreen © Samantha Groenestyn

The notion of value is a very important one to the commercial arts. Rather than expressing oneself, as an artist would, the commercial artist—illustrator or graphic designer, or both—solves visual problems that clients cannot solve themselves. This service is valid, necessary and skill-dependent, and for these reasons it is valuable. And when we speak of something’s value or worth, we often quantify it in monetary terms. I’m certainly not of the persuasion that everything of worth can be priced, but this is an instance where it ought to be. Solving visual problems is as relevant a contribution as any in the broader context of work, and no one else works for free.

Illustrators and graphic designers, sadly, work for free often enough that there is a name for it: speculative work. Holly DeWolf* (p. 154) defines speculative work as ‘doing work for free without the guarantee of compensation. The client basically says, “I’ll tell you if I like it when I see it.” Payment usually never happens.’ I’ve read enough books like hers to be wary of this type of work that ultimately devalues illustration and the problem-solving process more broadly. There’s even an online campaign against speculative work, NO!SPEC. I was therefore shocked to hear this spec-work anecdote from my graphic design teacher.

He told me a sad tale of a struggling photographer who couldn’t decide between the sleek, modern logo he’d designed for her and the stylish one based on her handwriting he’d provided as a second option. ‘Did she pay for two options?’ I asked, my inner Dagny Taggart doing some quick sums. My teacher explained that he simply tossed in the second one because he’d come up with a few ideas and they were no use to him so she may as well have them.

I was shocked enough at this lack of respect for the value of his own work, when he went on to explain that the photographer then lost her other job and couldn’t pay him, so he simply gave her everything—the website he designed, the posters and flyers and logo options. What I learned from this is, go cry at a man who doesn’t like crying, and he will give you whatever you want, even a free website.

‘This isn’t a cookie-cutter business,’ DeWolf (p. 154) sternly reminds us, imploring us to remember we are skilled, offering expertise and time, labours for which we should be awarded money.

Paul Rand, the designer revered by Steve Jobs as the ‘greatest living graphic designer’ (when they were both, clearly, living), and the creator of the IBM (including the eye-bee-M) and NeXT Computers logos, knew his worth. His ‘Randian’ perspective might be mistaken for the self-assured and economically-savvy views of one Ayn Rand, of whom he is no relation (though interestingly, they both adopted the name Rand in place of their previously identical surname, Rosenbaum). Paul Rand did not offer options, as Steve Jobs recalled, he offered a single solution, and demanded payment whatever the outcome:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you — you’re the client — but you pay me.’

We would do well to remember this sentiment, and boldly proclaim our worth.

* DeWolf, Holly. 2009. Breaking into freelance illustration: the guide for artists, designers and illustrators. How Books: Cincinnati.
 Maria Popova has uncovered a fascinating interview from 1993 in which an overawed Steve Jobs attempts to capture Paul Rand in words.

I’ve started a series of paintings of things I have knit. This is J’s Scandinavian jumper, 100% merino wool, dapper pattern courtesy of Drops Design. When I start knitting paintings, you’ll know I’ve gone mad.