The last letter was about calculated carelessness — this one’s about calculated naivete. “Naive,” or “primitive art,” according to arts writer Linda Murray, means “untrained artists in a sophisticated society.” According to Murray it’s “an unspoiled vision consistent with ‘amateur,’ or ‘Sunday’ painter, admired for its connotations of genuineness and purity of artistic impulse, and freedom from the trammels of professionalism, tradition, technique, and formal training.” The implication is that the genuine article is someone who doesn’t know how to paint properly, but does it anyway. As Ian Chilvers says, “In naive work, colours are characteristically bright and non-naturalistic, perspective is non-scientific, and the vision is childlike or literal-minded.”
There are a few questions worth considering: What of those who, in the desire to find a purer vision, adopt naivete as a style? Is naivete a choice? For schooled and academic painters is it possible to unlearn processes? Is this desirable? If naivete is inexperience, is it possible that some art can be contrived to represent the admission of inexperience?
The Czech writer Milan Kundera has given this one some thought: “Inexperience is a quality of the human condition,” he says. “We are born one time only; we can never start a new life equipped with the experience we’ve gained from a previous one. We leave childhood without knowing what youth is; we marry without knowing what it is to be married; and even when we enter old age, we don’t know what it is we’re heading for: The old are innocent children of their old age. In that sense, man’s world is the planet of inexperience.”
Gradually, for most of us, our naivete becomes unraveled. Society, education and the desire to be challenged, conspire to knock it out of us. The march of civilization seems to be one from primitive to evolved. But artists hold keys to rediscovering the roots of the naive psyche. And artists are the ones who have the power, should they wish to exercise it, to show others the way back.
PS: “You study, you learn, but you guard the original naivete. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: Many capable artists realize that going naive is a viable method of outwitting the cookie cutter. As well as the possibility of unlocking personal and universal truths, the golden badge of individualism is polished. Going naive is not naive.
Pure unadulterated minds
As a Graphic Design/Fine Art Instructor, Commercial Illustrator of 25+ years, I have learned from the naive, how to teach the naive, through a simple, pure spiritual form. The most incredible naive solutions came full circle through these so-called naive minds. Instead of filling the naive mind with facts and figures, the most successful lessons come from a quiet ‘drawing out’ of the latent information from each individual, setting each on a path to create their own sensational masterpieces. A wheel within a wheel — so to speak! And, incidentally, loving each and every one of these incredibly creative, (non) naive individuals. Thanks to those pure unadulterated minds for helping me to help them to ‘outwit the cookie cutter’!
Contrived art not worthy
For the educated artist to contrive towards naivete is just that, contrived. I do not consider their work worthy in any way. I believe when an artist’s work ignores knowledge by for example mixing mediums or constructing works that will inevitably fall apart and sell it to those who consider it valuable, are only creating for cash. They are confusing child-like with originality.
This is just me
Barbara Steele Thibodeaux, Louisiana, USA
I enjoyed your letter about the naive art. I am coming from another perspective, as I am a self-taught artist whose style is considered “naive”. I can tell you that when I first began painting, my work was much more “primitive”. Over the years, with knowledge I have gained just from pure experience, my work has become much more sophisticated, but still remains what is known in the art world as “naive”. It is just how it happens, and I sometimes wonder if further training would make any difference at all. Furthermore, I have been asked by gallery owners if this style is something I do on purpose, as a gimmick of some kind. I have to laugh…no, this is just me.
Talent from another life
Tricia Migdoll, Australia
I cannot go along with Milan Kundera’s idea that “We are born one time only.” I believe our talents do carry on from past lives. We cannot possibly get thru all we have to learn in just one tiny life! Look at the child proteges — where did their talent come from? From my own experience, twelve months ago, I went along to my first art workshop — had never held a paintbrush since high school — I was nervous, of course — but I painted the Still Life, and found I could just do it, and haven’t stopped painting since.
Alar Jurma, Montreal, Canada
Mr. Milan Kundera makes a great case for living the “unexamined life,” but unfortunately he’s just plain wrong. Mr. Plato would not agree and neither do I. We have all noticed how some babies are born with a more developed sense of awareness than other babies. That didn’t happen because one mom ate more Wheaties than the other mom. It came about because we bring to this life what we have accumulated from all previous incarnations, both the good and bad qualities as well as all subtle impressions. Many enlightened men and women throughout history have completed this human journey and they have proclaimed this same knowledge.
The uncertainty principle
Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
But as Milan Kundera said, there is no going back. We’re already there. Here on the “planet of inexperience” we’re always on the frontier. The trick for the painter, I think, is to know this and to embrace the danger and the mystery of it. This is what I meant in an earlier letter about not learning to paint. Once you think you know how to do it, you’ve closed a door to future possibilities. It’s like graduating from college and thinking you’ve been educated. Yeah, right. Art should always have that naivety and innocence you’re talking about, but it can’t be achieved artificially, by pretending to go naive. You do it by realizing that everything you’ve learned — all the skills and all the history — is only a series of steps toward the next painting. Of course experience can take the edge off and make us more confident, but where facility begins creativity ends. At least I hope that’s the case, because I always feel like I’m reaching into the unknown with a loaded brush and hoping for the best.
Benefit of teachers
Anne Copeland, California, USA
I am a fiber artist, and I choose to be naive, and also choose to work loose rather than following any teacher. That has always been a dilemma for I know that some artists are much more polished than I am because they have had the benefit of lots of good teachers. But then I see many more pieces that look a whole lot like the work of the teacher and I don’t want that at all. I would rather choose to be naive than to have my work look like everyone else’s.
No talent for art
Dave Louis, Coventry, UK
I’m the father of two very young daughters who produce on occasion some interesting art, just as a child may, on occasion, produce some interesting beat sequences with a drum set. The key word is ‘occasion.’ But the mark of genius is consistency. How can an untrained so-called naive artist achieve this? Mozart was a very young genius but there was nothing naive about the music he produced or the way in which he physically played his instrument. Do we hear of naive genius piano players? If anyone knows of one, try listening to it for an hour. L. S. Lowry is the closest thing to a naive genius painter but his naivety was only in his vision and not in his paint. This whole naive purist thing smacks of my college days when certain students just couldn’t accept that they had no talent for art. Some of them were pretty smart talkers but they never fooled me for a minute.
(RG note) The reclusive L. S. Lowry (1887-1976) spent most of his life in Manchester, UK. His celebrated industrial and slum landscapes were often inhabited by matchstick figures.
Claude, Nova Scotia, Canada
I have very few formal training only a few stroke courses but no basis about colors mixing etc… but I find the “peasant painting” the more refreshing for its naive qualities and it is also where I do my best. I like folk art painting because there is no strict rules like in classical painting but I would also like learning about the opposite like sacred geometry I call scientific painting. My question is “can the harmony of a naive painting equals the one of a classical or sacred painting?” I just scanned my last painting before the last touch-ups but the piece of wood is larger than the scan. Part of it was inspired of a tiny picture in a book.
Nurturing the inner child
Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, USA
Picasso said, “It takes a long time to become young.” Expressing the naive psyche is difficult, but it can be accomplished by schooled artists who pay attention to and nurture their inner child. To create a satisfactory painting, the elements and principals of design still need to be adhered to, while relaxing and allowing that inborn, primitive part which is recognizable to all mankind, to surface. It takes a long time to become loose without losing it!
The artist’s secret
Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA
Your past two subjects have brought up an experience I enjoyed many years ago when I was commissioned to do a piece by a person who loved the style of artist/nun, Corita Kent. Along with a video of Corita’s work, I was given the following anonymous writing which has remained a favorite in trying to maintain spontaneity as I create. Eleven years later, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this bit of philosophy. If anyone has ever come across the author, I’d be most indebted.
“THE ARTIST’S SECRET” (in part)
“The greatest singing birds generally stop in the midst of the most daring trills and roulades, cock their head sideways, as if utterly amazed at the fabulous sounds they have just given off. They are astonished by their own performance, as if it had been perpetrated by someone else, and this is, indeed, the highest delight in life to discover that you have capacities that surprise even you.”
Rousseau and Dubuffet
The naive painter Douanier Rousseau was admired by Picasso and many other greats. But the particularity with Rousseau is that he was not a very bright person. He, for example, made everyone believe that his paintings of jungle scenes were based on a trip to Africa. Turns out he had never been in Africa. I doubt that one can paint like a naïve if he or she is not a true naïve. It’s going to be and look forced or artificial. Perhaps one painter that came closest to forcing that stage is Dubuffet. This subject also touches me, somewhat, as I am not a trained painter. There is a certain “naivete” in my work which I want to preserve. Rousseau and Dubuffet never quite changed their styles, even though they painted for decades and matured as persons, but not as artists. In that sense, they never grew up, and it’s just as well. I try to forget all the paintings I have done before so that my creativity is not burdened by all the weight of past works. It’s awfully hard. Sometime I am afraid the thrill will be gone.
(RG note) Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was inspired by graffiti and made works out of junk — tar, sand, glass, etc., often contrived into human forms. “Dubuffet preferred amateur spontaneity to professional skill.” (Peter Murray) He built a large collection of what he called art brut, some of it produced by psychotics.
Angela A’Court, London, UK
Picasso was fascinated by Henri (Douannier) Rousseau’s naïve paintings. Ben Nicholson discovered and celebrated Alfred Wallis’ naive Cornish scenes. Both Picasso and Nicholson recognized the unencumbered energy of painting without a traditional background and embraced Rousseau’s and Wallis’ different approaches. Some of the simplest art is also the most beautiful and sophisticated. Sensitive minds such as Matisse, Gauguin, Milton Avery, William Scott, and others, have understood this.
David Lloyd Glover, Hollywood, CA, USA
Sophistication is often the great inhibitor to the creative spirit. Too much knowledge may not be a good thing. This time I resisted attending the exhibition “John Singer Sargent in Italy.” The gallery is only ten minutes away but I just couldn’t endure yet another ego-crushing experience. Few artists have ever had the sheer control over their artistic faculties as Sargent. To stand before such amazing work is frankly intimidating. So avoid I did in order to complete my June exhibition without feeling like a complete hack. Beware of too much study as it can only engender that dreaded feeling of incompetence. Dive into your works and allow your innate creativity to help you over that gnawing sense of doubt. Don’t be hampered by all the rules and etiquette you may have been instructed in. Just let loose and let it out!
Experiencing one’s own voice
Cora Jane Glasser, Long Island City, NY, USA
I tend to work in the naive mode, but not because I decided to “go naive,” any more than someone decides to “turn gay!” Although I had some formal training, I guess it was not so much that it kept me from progressing toward what might be considered “naive.” Rather than a function of inexperience, breaking formal barriers and allowing oneself to make art the way it comes naturally for the particular artist is a result of experiencing one’s own voice, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and allowing it to thrive.
I believe that my block occurred because I have an unsophisticated way of applying paint to canvas. Your letter made me question my work, why I paint what I paint…if I intentionally try to be naïve. I stopped just moving toward the colours that wanted to appear on the canvas. I questioned my motivation and if painting is indeed what I should be doing, and also “who the hell do I think I am that I can paint and have something worthy to offer?” Made me question my very existence. I temporarily forgot how to access that joy that I had previously brought to my work.
A profession that is worthy
It’s interesting to me that in a world where it is important to have a skill that performs a service an artist is willing to extend himself to the least of his abilities or skills. Can an artist be an artist simply by desire, or must he or she prove themselves worthy? If it is a worthy profession then I say yes. If being called an artist is merely a term that embraces all creativity, then it is ordinary. Can many artists draw? — no. Do many know how to apply paint correctly? — no. Do many understand design? — no. Do many know something about composition? — no. Do many know about color? — no. So in truth they are “Sunday painters.” Creativity is a wonderful thing, but creativity alone isn’t enough. Without the skills to execute a successful piece, the work is less than honest. From experience with many younger students, it’s frustrating. Why, because what they saw and what they created didn’t match their message. I say stop playing politics and philosophy with our aspiring artist and give them the skills to do their job. A job and a profession that is worthy.
We of the circuit
I was having a conversation with another artist who was occupying herself with the lovely notion that she was a “studio-taught” artist and had found many like me that have nothing important to say because we do “tent shows.” We of the circuit lack the “for art’s sake” responsibility and therefore are simply art in the vernacular. Admittedly, I spoke of the need to pay the mortgage and the needs of my family and that developing a discipline on my own was a great challenge. She countered with the fact it could not be done, and that painting in a naive fashion was simply a fool’s path. I told her that every artist I knew held themselves accountable for their works, and that today’s graduates tend to become more absorbed in the functions rather than the results. I think the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbs” said it best when Calvin, at the end of an art discussion with Hobbs, looks at his viewer and says, “Being avant-guard is knowing who is kidding who!” I think learning the pathways are important, but being true to one’s own imprecise representations eventually regales the patrons’ senses. The transmission of truth via the colors of the naivete are the brightest!
Finding the balance
For me art has been a huge struggle. I cannot let go of it but keep bumping up to stuff in my brain. It has really hit home to me that each of us must take what we have experienced in life, learned, loved, and not get too wrapped up in what art is. I say this because what is art for you is not always what art is to me or someone else. I am definitely at the primitive, naive stage. I’m starting to realize that I may be in this place for a very long time. My life is busy in so many directions because of where I have been in my life. I tried to put a lot of it — family, cooking, friends, sports, events, etc on hold thinking that once I became the artist that I thought I wanted to be — then I could go back into some of the things that were hanging in the background. Well, I’ve found out that that doesn’t work! This business of “Go to your studio” is not always productive mentally or physically. My life is all the other things too and that is what feeds my heart and soul. I’ve found that a balance is much healthier. You can see why I may never become more than a primitive painter. My friends are getting used to my colourful and bold “in-your-face” paintings. It has taken me months to sit down and type this out. Your letter finally made me realize that this is me. To finally admit that I am not going to be able to envision a style, but to take what I have in life and enjoy it and treat that whole thing with a grain of salt. It is such a relief. I could go on and on about how new artists get sucked into the shows, groupy events etc. to feel like if they do this and that, they will someday be ‘there.’ Yuck.
Joseph Tany, Granada, Spain
Artists should use paint in abundance — forget the costs — a 60x50cm work could easily need a 1 kilo tin of each color. One kilo tin of red, one kilo blue and so forth — and use them without measuring — Nada — also use them as you put ketchup on fried potatoes or like a thick layer of the best chocolate on crispy toast — do them to eat very well — (also using layers of cement is a good idea). Precaution: Try to avoid the actual eating of paint, they could be poisonous — if you insist, try just a little — and try not to drink the turpentine, if that happens, try to fix it with a gallon of good fresh milk.
Sprezzatura sparks sensitivity
B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Your sprezzatura letter was one of the best and I wished I’d read it before going on my recent trip. In my tight world of detail this insightful word insinuates how insignificant and insensate my work has become. (I enjoy alliteration) I will insert sprezzatura into my vocabulary and will my brain to think ‘studied carelessness.’
Reading four of the Twice-Weekly letters at one sitting (I’ve been in Tennessee, teaching) as well as all the responses has made this an overwhelming morning. A most enjoyable time was spent reading the long list of all the odd, funny, short, complimentary, antagonistic, unusual grammar, etc., responses to past letters. It appears from these short ones that your readers are as varied as the general non-art public.
(RG note) The laughingly long list languishes lugubriously at What artists have written
(RG note) The following are from “The Resource of Art Quotations” which can be found at http://www.art-quotes.com/ More than 1400 new art quotations are being added to the resource this week.
Quotes on naivete
“The unconscious mind is decidedly simple, unaffected, straight-forward and honest. It hasn’t got all of this facade, this veneer of what we call adult culture. It’s rather simple, rather childish… It is direct and free.” (Milton Erikson)
“Every creative act involves… a new innocence of perception, liberated from the cataract of accepted belief.” (Arthur Koestler)
“Every act of rebelling expresses a nostalgia for innocence.” (Albert Camus)
“Naïvete is the blessing of some, the choice of many.” (Robert Genn)
“Enlightenment takes place when one lets his innocence emerge and sees nature and life with a childlike awe and respect. The ‘why’ of a child is repeated over and over, causing more questions and the never-ending process of discovery.” (Charles Duback)
“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” (Albert Einstein)
“The innocent one is he who does not explain, for whom life is both a mystery and a total light, one who does not complain… For innocence admits of neither regret nor dispute. The innocent one assumes all responsibility.” (Jean Giradoux)
“Now my innocence begins to weigh me down.” (Francois Rabelais)
“A little amateur painting in watercolours shows the innocent and quiet mind.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003. That includes Janice Aye who writes, “I guess one might say I’m naive, I’m self taught, but I didn’t “go” naive. I wish I had training, and art theory. But I just paint from my heart, the things and people I love.” And Hank Tilbury, of Nashville, Tennessee who wrote, “Herman Melville said, ‘There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.’ Of course, he was commenting on the process of rendering blubber from a floating whale carcass, but I have applied his words as a guiding motto in my artistic endeavors for years. It’s technical, but it ain’t science — know what I mean?”