Saturday, 25 June 2011

CONFIDENCE

Artistic confidence is a valuable asset when it is warranted, but a terrible liability when not.

Unfortunately, the nature of confidence is that it blinds us to whether it is warranted or not.

Picasso's huge ego was an asset when it gave him the courage to break with stale traditions.  On the other hand, Julien Schnabel's ego did him no favors when it led him to claim, "I'm the closest thing to Picasso that you'll see in this fucking life." Confidence can be the Jekyll or Hyde of art.

Artist Markus Lüpertz certainly had the confidence to stand up to his critics. When he erected his latest public artwork -- a creepy, 60 foot sculpture of Hercules with one arm, a big nose, blue hair and a stunted body-- the New York Times reported:
in the past his work has been, to put it kindly, misunderstood. One piece was smeared with paint and covered in feathers. Another was beaten with a hammer. Another was removed altogether after protesters demanded it be taken down. “It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Lüpertz....“The general opinion of my art is that it is rejected. I attribute this to a lack of intelligence among the people.”

 Some of Lupertz's confidence comes from avoiding nay-sayers:
I only work with students who admire me and think I am great.  If I am not the one that takes their breath away, I don’t feel like working with them, because this would be a waste of time. It’s not about their individualism, it’s about my individualism. It’s not about their genius, it’s about my genius.
Lupertz shows us that confidence can transform bad art into immense, unavoidable bad art.

At Stone Mountain, Georgia, sculptors Augustus Lukeman and Walter Hancock defaced an entire mountain with a sculpture the size of three football fields.


The sculpture, which depicts heroes of the Confederate Army, was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  As a work of art, it exemplifies the struggle between a pathetic lack of talent and disgusting racism.  Most artists might look for a more inconspicuous location for such a struggle-- perhaps hidden in the back pages of a personal sketchbook.  But if you have unquestioning confidence, you try to assert your position bigger and bolder and more permanently than anyone else's. 

The jackhammer and dynamite are apparently favored tools of the overly confident.  Consider this awful sculpture of chief Crazy Horse, currently on its way to becoming the largest sculpture in the world:
 


The sponsors of this statue hired sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948 to begin reshaping a mountain into a figure larger than Mount Rushmore.  The head of Crazy Horse alone is 87 feet tall.  The scale model pictured here in front of the despoiled mountain is so bad, an artist with any  judgment would have returned to the drawing board.   But confidence never heard the Turkish proverb, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back."

Confidence has served many artists well, giving them the strength necessary to undertake difficult projects and make bold decisions.  Illustrator and art teacher Sterling Hundley reports,
I've had students in the past ask me the question: "Do you think that I am good enough?"
My answer: "If anyone could say anything in that moment that would keep you from pursuing your dreams, then you should find something else to do with your life."
This is surely true.  On the other hand, when writer Flannery O'Connor was asked whether college writing programs were discouraging young writers, she responded "Not enough."  This is surely true too.

Distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful confidence is one of the greatest challenges facing any artist.  When is it Jekyll and when is it Hyde?  If there is a formula, I lack the confidence to articulate it here.