On Discernment

Honesty, clay, and cross-training.

The truth of the present, the truth of the past few months, is: I can’t write right now. As you squint at the paradox, let me amend it: I can’t and haven’t been able to write fiction in months.

It happens. The field must lie fallow for a season. But it’s a drab and bitter season, and one full of bad news. The publication of my first novel has been delayed. The car requires expensive repairs. Three times a day, like an anti-Claudius, I lie on the floor and pour medicine in my ear.

So I have had my hands full of clay these past few weeks. With clay-caked fingers, I read about armatures, cold porcelain, loop tools, sprigging, bulking, and human anatomy, skeleton to musculature.

When I last sculpted, eight years ago, it was naively, as I come to all new things. Human forms have always been hardest for me, in every medium. I think I know what a face should look like—everyone thinks they know—and what the components of a face should be: nose, eyes, and so on. I make a roughly shaped head, put the right features in the right places, fiddle with the nostrils, and produce a lifeless and inhuman thing.

It turns out that we’re not built that way. Humans are not superficially constructed. The skull is the foundation of the face, and muscle and fat pads and drapes of skin express and reveal that structure in unexpected ways. Using flayed anatomical illustrations for reference, I balled up aluminum foil in the shape of a skull and built individual muscles over it, piece by piece: three separate scraps for the upper lip, including the philtrum, and a fourth for the fat of the lip itself.

Once you’ve built a face in this way, from the unseen to the seen—once something distinctly human emerges from shapelessness—every face becomes suddenly beautiful to you, or at least incapable of ugliness. I was surprised when that sliding shift in vision came, though it always comes.

A similar shift arrives in drawing, too, as we move from the normative, Platonic schema of what a person looks like (two eyes, a nose, a mouth—a theory of faces picked up in kindergarten) to truly seeing what is before us, in blocks of shadow and light, and relating it honestly and without bias. Blind contour drawing was a revelation for me; I think there is no better exercise for practicing artistic honesty. One must let go of all expectations of a final outcome, all preconceptions, all insidious suggestions by our lazy,* pattern-seeking brains to conform what we are making to what we’ve seen a million times before (and yet not truly seen).

That is the final aim of every art, I think: to tell a truth, and a real one. Not to say what we think or believe or insist on, not to impose a sloppy generalization on the world, not to gain praise or fame or money, but to say or sing or paint or carve an honest thing, as well as we can.** And as artists beholding art, we must see and judge an honest thing in itself and for itself. On the page, there is no such thing as a perfect line*** or a line that is right or wrong, bad or good, five-star or one-star; but there are compelling lines, or harmonious ones, harsh or unmusical ones, as well as blue-pencil lines that need to be drawn before the final line is decided, and erased after.****

This practice is endangered.

This practice is dangerous.

Upton Sinclair’s remark that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” remains as accurate as ever, and can in fact be generalized: For the vast majority of people, it is difficult to get them to understand or believe something that inconveniences them or requires them to make a change, professionally, socially, intellectually, or practically.

A generous interpretation might be that they are in self-protective denial about painful truths. To accept that that women are raped no matter what they are wearing (swimsuit and niqab alike) is to accept that the world is a deeply unsafe place, full of predatory men, that the possibility, even probability of violence exists for oneself and loved ones, and that one’s personal choices have limited effect on whether a rape occurs, compared to the predator’s personal choice to prey on you.

Less generously, one could also say that people determined to make no changes whatsoever take the clichés they were force-fed all their lives and beat vulnerable people over the head with them. Of course your mother loves you. This company takes sexual harassment seriously. You must have said something to set him off. How do you know she meant it that way? He’d never do that. We’d never do that. Boys will be boys. Our country is the best. Your standards are too high. And so on.

At present, half our politicians and most of our other leaders, in business and faith and elsewhere, have abdicated the uncomfortable practice of seeing what is, rather than what is desired or expected or what should be. In this anomie it falls to the artists—it falls to you—to look unwaveringly at what is before you. With interested detachment, observe the play of light and shadow. Then, putting pencil to the page, trace out no more and no less than what you see.*****

Courage is as much an exercisable skill as shading with charcoal. If you can tell that small truth—if you can tell a small truth again and again, with kindness and beauty—at the critical hour, you may be able to discern a greater truth, whether about character or a situation or a right action, and speak it.

“Glory” (2020). Clay, aluminum.

* Metabolically conservative, to be precise.

** And if we do not express it well, to strive to improve so that we can.

*** Though Alphonse Mucha’s pencil studies of hands and flowers in the Mucha Museum in Prague might persuade one otherwise.

**** Also lines that maybe should have made a left turn at Albuquerque. (The last ten seconds are particularly instructive.)

***** This charming guide to the basics of drawing can be read, against the author’s intent, completely metaphorically.

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