I was leafing through 'Hawthorne on Painting,' a slender volume of quotations and aphorisms as remembered by his students from his Cape Cod School of Art. I was reading it because I'm very interested in Charles Hawthorne's approach to painting, and to teaching painting, which is primarily concerned with what he calls "the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another — the fundamental thing." Anyway, I hope to write more on this idea of 'color spots' at some later date, but I was rather struck by the opening paragraphs of his book:
Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision—it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so. The world is waiting for men with vision—it is not interested in mere pictures. What people subconsciously are interested in is the expression of beauty, something that helps them through the humdrum day, something that shocks them out of themselves and something that makes them believe in the beauty and the glory of human existence.
The painter will never achieve this by merely painting pictures. The only way that he can appeal to humanity is in the guise of the high priest. He must show people more—more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory. Here is where the artist comes in.
We go to art school and classes to learn to paint pictures, to learn our job. Our job is to be an artist, which is to be a poet, a preacher if you will, to be of some use in the world by adding to the sum total of beauty in it. We like to do it. There always have been and always will be people of our kind, who like to look at nature and make representations, and others who like to look at what we do.
We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace. It is so much greater to make much out of little than to make little out of much—better to make a big thing out of a little subject than to make a little thing out of a big one. In every town the one ugliest spot is the railroad station, and yet there is beauty there for anyone who can see it. Don’t strain for a grand subject—anything is painter’s fodder.
— Charles Hawthorne
A deeply unfashionable notion of the purpose of painting. And yet, I confess to a secret sympathy with it. Beauty—uncritically sought—cannot be the only criteria in art, of course, and yet . . . isn’t it more nourishing than the idea of the ‘critique’, which currently holds sway in the highest art circles? Perhaps the best art combines both: critique without beauty is a dry pill to swallow, beauty without critique a flabby, undisciplined thing.
Certainly, I feel myself moving in the direction of the small subject, of seeking the beauty in the commonplace, of eschewing grand subject matters or statements. More and more I realize I have no grand statement to make.