References to artistic integrity, to it’s not so much the sales, reviews, and careerism as the devotion to process and craft, are usually spoken in sotto voce, with nostalgic idealism, in groups of two or three in car parks outside of openings. The message doesn’t get wide play because, though it's relevant, it’s not, um, topical, because it’s not quantifiable; because you don’t learn it in art school but mostly because to admit as much is to admit, wrongly, that, in the terms framed by a run-amok consumerist, materialist society, the absence of a career (as opposed to a vocation) would otherwise suggest that one was a…failure.
Today that word, integrity, has been brought out into the open, into the mainstream, into the light, with the publication of Peter Clothier’s magnificent “Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad With Commerce”. In it he assembled prior writings from various sources; several he culled from "Artscene," one (in three parts) from a lecture he gave in conjunction with the Idyllwild Foundation’s painter’s retreat, "The Painting’s Edge," (R.I.P)
The writing is accessible without being simplistic, ego-less, not me-me-me, the better to communicate his message of what it means to shepherd a calling. Some are but a few paragraphs, some persist a little longer. The tone is gentle and constructive, challenging and, at the same time, obvious, revealing half-spoken truths of the way we want the world to be which we wistfully admit is not necessarily the case. They can be read in any order and can be approached in mid-essay to encounter nugget-troves of lapidary wisdom. His topics include his practice of Buddhism and it’s focus on breathing as a portal to the creative subconscious, on his evolution from an art critic, with all the negative associations one associates with the practice, to art writer, which means that, instead of creating Manichean binaries of Good or Bad, to discover instead what the impact that any particular work of art has to say about the person who made it on the person who experiences it.
Wide-ranging, incisive and inclusive, the book is political (but not just that). It’s art historical and art critical (but not just that). It’s a diary of his personal preferences (works that are paint-obsessive, works that cry outrage to a disheveled world) (but not just that). Mostly, though, its a take-heart polemic about the commercialization, intellectualization, and celebritization of the flimsy institutions that buttress art, not art itself. It’s a primer on the Buddhist practice of meditation as it relates to the creative process best described in “Hey, Wait a Moment: One Hour/One Painting, which ties together all the themes in the book. To respect the ungodly amounts of time an artist puts into her work, he proposes a 60-minute, pre-cognitive session of aesthetic meditation in front of a single piece. Buddhist-breathing clears the mind of everything but presence and permits us to re-live and re-create the process of it’s production, after which time you articulate, not the sources, not the similarities, not the price, but the experience derived therefrom.
This extraordinary, much-needed, perfectly-timed book of essays becomes even more extraordinary by Mr. Clothier’s manner of presentation. He writes in the style of Montaigne’s the quotidian-is-sublime manner as he plumbs his own life aiming at (and hitting) what he keenly calls the intersection of mortality and infinity. The pieces are sensitive, they are frank. He writes with much-appreciated candor of how, as a young man, he sought to conflate making a living with his poetry, conventional art criticism, and teaching. His roadblocks with academia and his humorous back-and-forth with an editor who wanted more adjectives, more of an edge, more oomph, an encounter that made him realize that he wasn’t so much judge, jury, and executioner of art as a translator from one idiom (paint) to another (words). He describes, with words of inspiration, how he didn’t fit in with academics, how he wanted to communicate, to share his experience of art beyond the narrow ken of an art magazine audience. He wanted, in short, to unify his writing with his Buddhism-based life, his obvious love and respect for art with his desire to communicate it to people on a global basis, desires of which all came together with the blogosphere and his site, The Buddha Diaries, http://thebuddhadiaries.blogspot.com/.
Mr. Clothier’s profound message simply told provides him with more than just a way to describe his own evolution from art critic to art writer. It allows him to indict without rancor an art world that is about anything but the art. The result is a compelling manual for living (Think Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus), for incorporating the experience of life into the experience of art that, in his generous, poetic mind, are one and the same thing. It’s a wonderful tribute to shouldn’t-be anachronistic ideas of beauty (which renders you agog and mute; you don’t know what makes it beautiful, it simply is) as they relate to the lifelong joy of looking at art, irrespective of prevailing theories, trends, and -isms. It should be made compulsory reading for art schools (read: factories) to counterbalance art star aspirations as it brings us back to First Principles that level the art world’s Us/Them playing field.
The book suggests that it’s not as much about the finished product - the work of art (this extends to music, dance, theatre, as well) - as it is about the process (i.e., the life that produced it). It’s a matter of persistence, of not getting waylaid by distractions, commercial or otherwise. It’s about doing something without any consideration of getting paid which, if you’re an artist who works from some inner, inchoate need, goes without saying. The title of one of the essays, "I Am Not a Critic", says it all. He's a philosopher-poet who maps out a journey that combines one’s life with one’s art to produce a quixotic quest for the marvelous and the fantastic, void of materialist signposts of success that lead to other untrue destinations.