“More matter, with less art.”
- Gertrude, Hamlet 2.2
I was going to write something about Kansas. Kansas is the subject of not one, but two lovely essays by Erin, and I thought I might find some inspiration there too, some spark to elevate my thought and prose closer to hers. But I didn’t get very far.
It’s not that I had nothing to say. I started the essay; I knew where it was headed; I even had a couple of nifty lines pre-cast and waiting in the margins. It’s just that, as I realized last night right with the gentle fog of sleep rolling in, I started by saying the wrong thing.
I started by talking about photos, and by saying that I am not a photographer, which in an obvious sense is false. I take photos every day and I get paid for them. It is literally part of my job to take pictures—in fact, it is the part of my job that takes the most time. I took my job at Habitat for Humanity, working in communications, because of the writing, but it turns out writing is no longer a primary mode of communication. Writing just offers an interpretation (optional) for the gauzy images that dwarf it on the spread of each newsletter, brochure, and webpage produced. So I take about two photos for each word I write, and that is my job.
But of course I meant, and intended to explain, that I am “not a photographer” in a different sense, that more essential sense that Socrates would pursue when wrapped in a dialogue—surely there was one like this—about the “true photographer,” the one who does it in the right way at the right time, with both knowledge and love of his art. That is not me. The muse of photography, whoever she is, has never lighted on my shoulder, whispered in my ear. I am a hack. I widen the aperture, set the exposure and change the shutter speed, in desperate and mechanical imitation of anyone who appears to know what she’s doing. I feel like an chimp, just aping people with a toy I can manipulate but not understand. The results are sometimes interesting but largely random. Most of my photos go right to the recycle bin.
Thus there is one subject for which I am not a photographer in any sense: our family photos. My clumsy attempts to “capture memories” produced enough limbless people and unrecognizable buildings that we tacitly agreed, at some early point in our marriage, that Erin would take all our keepsake pictures.
So my photography career progresses within a comical irony: I am a paid professional, but I am so poor an artist that I am not allowed to be an amateur.
This, of course, has everything to do with Kansas, and I was going to explain how . . . but then in that midnight epiphany I saw how wrong my beginning was. It was fiction based on falsehood.
The myth of the muses I accept—not as literal truth, but as a fitting poetic description of the mystery of genius. Some art seems inspired, breathed into the artist by something external that he himself cannot explain. Some artists appear, in a truly passive sense, to be “gifted.” What a blessing to our lives.
But art in most instances is not Art in this way. It is not blind rapture or divine possession. It is really less Art than craft, the practice of principles that accrues, however slowly and imperceptibly, into perceptible skill. This we were taught as freshman English students, bewildered at the low marks on our essays; perplexed at the sudden failure of our old method: writing what came to us; hoping for some new word from Parnassus to solve all our problems. A fresh muse wasn’t what we needed, or at least it wasn’t something we would get. Practice and study—and a few tours through The Elements of Style—was what we needed. Our senior papers attest the truth of that. No one became Samuel Johnson or Evelyn Waugh with a few year’s practice, but we could craft our sentences with purpose and effect. We got better.
To divide the the world of art simply into haves and have-nots is falsehood. Certainly the distribution of gifts varies, and certainly there are geniuses for whom art seems all ease and no effort. But the rest of us aren’t just stuck in deficiency.
And thus my own narrative of hopeless artistic deficiency was a fiction. The thing about humans is that we are not apes. Even when we think we’re just aping someone, something distinctly human happens to us if we do it long enough. We start to understand.
That happened just last week to me. I even felt it happening. I glanced up from my desk and realized the light outside was ideal for shooting our garden at work, so I grabbed my camera. I trolled around and suddenly saw a lovely structure for the background. I took some photos, saw they weren’t quite what I wanted, and took a few more till I got it right. In 30 minutes, I was a demonstrably better photographer.
The months of trial and error preceding that felt like futility, but they were more like fertilizer, preparing the soil for sudden growth.
It’s true that there was something like inspiration—the sudden, unexpected realization, coming as it were out of thin air. But I would call it intuition, and I think it’s something earned and developed, not exactly received. Or perhaps, more accurate, it’s a kind of receptivity that’s earned and developed. Maybe the muses do speak to the rest of us, or at least let us overhear them. We just need to learn their language.