iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Brian D. Cohen

GET UPDATES FROM Brian D. Cohen
 

Grace

Posted: 09/28/11 03:18 PM ET

"I've been shooting in the dark too long/When something ain't right it's wrong..." -- Bob Dylan

"This is what a picture should give us ... a colored state of grace." -- Paul Cezanne

I don't remember much of what was said to me in graduate school, now nearly thirty years ago. Most was dismissive, or condescending, or vague. (What most art schools fail to do is to examine their own premises. They so often are permeated by what style was current when their professors were trying and failing to make careers as gallery artists, or maybe by a dilute tertiary interpretation of what's happening in Artforum, that they don't question and don't see the conformist pressures they unwittingly impose. These fish, they don't know they swim in water.) I went my own way, quite alone, except for my friends, dead Modernists in art books.

But one thing was said to me, maybe the only thing I clearly remember, that stayed with me, and remains the highest praise I've ever received. It was from a visiting artist, the only woman ever to review graduate student work (all 19 tenured professors were male). She looked at my paintings for a long time and said they had grace. That was it -- grace. She didn't say anything else that I remember.

Why this stuck with me I don't really know, but I thought, or hoped, I knew what she meant, and in fact the comment helped me realize that was what I wanted in my work. It has become what I've strived for ever since. Whether you can work for it, I don't know either, as it usually comes unbidden, rarely when you want or need it the most. It won't come without work, but it doesn't come from work. (Salieri worked harder and was more devout than the petulant, irreverent, infantile Mozart, at least in the apocryphal movie Amadeus). It rarely comes at all, and never stays.

What is it -- ineffable, resonant, untranslatable, immaterial (yet inarguably moving through the senses)?

The first and only time I heard the violinist Hilary Hahn in concert I saw her bow pass over the strings but I couldn't sense where the sound was coming from. She made the sound, but it was no longer part of her, or a result of effort; it had left her for us.

Grace doesn't belong to us, much as we may feel we've worked for it. It is not our own, but can reach others. What other reward of making art has this value: touched someone else with grace? Even this we rarely know. To be truly gifted is to be able to share this grace, and the gift of no use until shared.

This sense, feeling, state -- that you've made something right and true, and necessary, something that must be in the world -- is worth any amount of travail. Is this the only way we know we aren't lying to ourselves? Nothing is right until you get there, and when you get there, you can rest. The rest is silence.