Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Amy Ellis Nutt's book about Jon Sarkin, Shadows Bright as Glass, was reviewed in the New Scientist in April this year.  A couple of weeks ago an excerpt from it was published in the Saturday Guardian. Sarkin was a chiropractor who suffered a stroke, after which he started drawing and painting more or less every minute of every day. It seemed to lessen his sense of hopelessness. The stuff just comes out. The final column of the New Scientist review continues:

.. I was surprised that Nutt avoided addressing one important question: is Sarkin's work really art? Defining art is endlessly thorny, but the compulsive, mechanical manner in which Sarkin creates seems to leave out a key ingredient of true art: intention.

Sarkin has his illustrations published in The New Yorker, and his works sells in major galleries.

When asked what his art means, Sarkin answers, 'It doesn't mean anything'. Perhaps this makes his work the purest kind of art. Indeed, Nutt refers to Sarkin as they neurological embodiment of Monet's Impressionistic philosophy: 'Artists like Monet search their whole lives for this kind of immediacy, to capture an experience, a sensation, in all its colour and light and texture, just as it is happening', she says.

Sarkin's work also reminds me of the surrealists' practice of automatism - writing or painting a stream of consciousness, removing all rational filters to directly engage the subconscious. But even automatism was itself intentional.

In the end, asking what makes Sarkin an artist is the same as asking what makes anyone an artist. Like all great books, Shadows Bright as Glass raises more questions than it answers.

There seem to be some interesting ideas here. Let's start with compulsion. From what I've heard, Kurt Jackson seems to be what those looking on might term 'obsessive' or 'compulsive'. So are practically all full-time artists I have ever heard about, including Renoir. Is this what we call it when someone immerses themselves in something, and, due to that immersion, finds that more and more connections are made, leading to more and more emergent effects? I wonder what the difference is, at that point, between the person with some degree of brain damage who finds that drawing and painting make them feel better, and the person who is so immersed in it that they, also, don't feel right unless they are continuing their immersion.

The author concedes that there are no clear answers, but she does seem to be confident in the statement that intention is an ingredient of 'true art'. Is the person who has been immersed for years really acting intentionally? Might not the activities of drawing and painting be similar, by that stage, to eating and drinking; a form of breathing, and also play? I can still see that she has a point. Kurt Jackson does, presumably, wake up some mornings and not feel in the mood, or decide to go out in a boat for the day rather than paint the sea (or does he?).

But then what about Werner's space? Werner is talking about operating from a place, as I understand it, where intention has, momentarily at least, been uncoupled from action. His space is a state; a state which seems to be emergent, which cannot be willed into being. He is arguing, I think, that it's precisely intention (I will conquer this piece/master this difficult scale/wow everyone tonight with my solo) which undoes the musician, however proficient they may be technically. Doesn't intention separate the mind into (at least) two positions - the player and the osbserver? This is what Barry Green, in The Inner Game of Music, calls 'self 1' and 'self 2', which he argues saps the life out of people's playing in exactly the same way....


  1. Fascinating.

    I pasted the following into my notebook (private blog) yesterday:

    “the work-as-interpreted must be such that the artist believed to have made it could have intended the interpretation of it, in terms of the concepts available to him and the times in which he worked”-Arthur Danto

    Just a few days ago I also copied the following:

    “In Validity in Interpretation, E. D. Hirsch attempted to stipulate a narrower definition of the word [“Meaning”] in order to lay the debate to rest: he distinguished "meaning," the discovery of the author's intentions, from "significance," any imaginable subsidiary meanings, not necessarily intended by the author but construed by an audience.” http://thebookman.wordpress.com/2008/03/01/postmodern-terms-lacanian-to-novelty/

    That’s the great thing about play though isn’t it: purposeless purpose. But perhaps play is more purposeful than we give it credit for – it’s just not an immediately conscious intention and therefore that split you describe doesn’t gain a foothold.

  2. These quotes are serious food for thought. Is one of the things they are suggesting that the viewer of the art should be able to see/understand the maker's intention in the making? I think I had come to conclusion that that was pretty impossible - that whatever a person 'saw' in a painting would always be their own. And yet we're also fascinated by knowing what an artist intended - we seem to want it in words.

    As for play - which, of course, art isn't always, I imagine - what you say is very thought-provoking too... Do we intend to play, but then accept the unpredictability of what appears?



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