Transcript of a talk given by Nicholas Marsicano to his painting seminar at SUNY Purchase, circa 1984.
The Dada act appears to be by, upon a situation. The man who put the moustache on the Mona Lisa did not put it upon Leonard da Vinci; he put it upon a lousy painting that they made so much of, romanticized; all false values in terms of what art really is. Leonardo da Vinci has a little painting about this big sitting up like that over the Mona Lisa on the side; one of his masterpieces of painting; his masterpieces – the Annunciation – everybody comes gawking at the Mona Lisa because all of this fiddling that takes place around it. These are some of the things you come to understand.
In terms of service: the nature the art serves society or makes the world better to look at or something like that; this business of Utopia, or humanism, it’s going to do something to make a better human being – or is going to propagandize for some situation. I’m afraid, yes, it can do that. On the other hand, it can be the worst enemy to any of these dogmas. The church or dogmas, the government or dogmas, society, or social injustices.
I can’t quite say the man who was most religious painted the most religious painting. In this case it was just the opposite. The non-believer who believed rather than the artist for the dogma. It’s true at times. Art has been subject to the church. Art has been subject to the government. Art has been subject to society and each and every one of us in some ways are affected by this opinion and by the circumstances. And some ways, sometimes we appear to make a concession to what the world wants of you, and yet, you are committed to the truth – the inner truth of one’s self. Even though the external truths is demanded of you, is something else, and you can do it – perform it. But in the end, you know you are being untrue to yourself. When it comes to painting, I think that’s the one thing you have to know is to be true to yourself. In that sense, it is an individual singular art. There’s only one man who paints or one person who paints, I should say. There’s not many, many people.
And it is possible art flourishes best when we come into contact with each other. In other words, when we have acquired respect for other painters like yourself. And you can look at their paintings and their art and it may be different from – appear to be different from what you’re doing – and to be able to say, “Jesus, that’s nice, I like that!” In other words, the generosity of appreciation and understanding is all we want. To hope that you’re going to get it from anything other than a painter and even then, it’s questionable, is impossible. They will say things; how wonderful you are and all that sort of business. But in the end, I think the respect painters have for each other, when that is possible, is the most important thing to any painter. Is there one person who understands me? Poor Van Gogh! If he would have gotten that, he wouldn’t have needed to have blown his brains out. They can say all they want about the guy being nuts, but that’s the thing that kicked-off the final tragedy of his life.
And he wanted it – and wanted it so badly and he needed it. It is an art of aloneness. But the one thing is, you cannot be alone. You’re only alone in the process and the act of painting and doing your own painting. After that, you want at least one person to say, “Jesus, that’s good, nice!” and to tap you on your shoulder. This also, you must be able to give. I find amongst students, the only reason why most of you are not doing the best work and justice to yourself is your inability to give it to somebody else. Because when you give it, it is you who are giving it. It’s almost like saying it’s your dream – and you are created. Perhaps and understanding for that painting that that other person who did the paintings, might know in a different way, perhaps, that the way you know. And that reassurance is all that is necessary and so therefore, in this class, I do hope and expect to establish some exchange. Any person’s accomplishments or student’s accomplishments should and must be your accomplishment. If they can do it, you should never feel you can’t do it, too. And the fact that they have done it you take your hat off and “thank you” – as if to say, “well, I don’t have to do it; It’s been done for me and I’ve done it.” Then you can go and do what you want to do. OK?
But that lack of generosity is what perhaps is one of the greatest limitations you impose upon yourself. It’s alright to say, well, I’ll only go look at Rembrandt. Yes, it’s safe, but even then there are bad Rembrandts. Even then, there’s no saying what you see, whether you see the right thing or not is the right thing. That learning to see is what it’s all about.
I don’t necessarily encourage the habit [referring to a student with a studio off-campus] or the idea of that kind of situation at a certain point – and if you’re good, then it’s even more important why you should be here that others should be able to see what you’re doing. It’s part of your responsibility to give as well as to take.
I think the poet or writer is more capable of that kind of isolation because he can go down to the mailbox and the world comes to him. But when it comes to painting, you got to be able to see and see the real thing. I know you can tell me you got all the books and all the reproductions and all that sort of business, and I know that Malraux spoke about the “Voice of Silence” or something like that. That business of an art that comes from a reproduction. It’s not the same thing as seeing a painting – as seeing the scale of it confronting it. All right – that’s my answer to that. My only hope is you don’t encourage it any more than necessary in terms of isolating yourself. Look, they’re nice people, and nobody’s going to bite you. And if they do, you’ve got to learn to bite back. Otherwise, you’ve not going to learn how to survive. I mean, if you’re so precious you’ve got to be protected, that individuality, it’s hopeless. You might as well give up the ghost and go buy yourself a new one at the five and ten cent store if necessary.
What I mean by that is you can’t be so protective of your art and yourself. Because the world is hostile. They don’t like the fact that you paint. And they’re going to pick away at you in every shape and form that they can. When you told your mother or your father that you wanted to be an artist – that’s the last thing in the world they wanted to hear. And God knows they should be the most sympathetic. You’re not desirable citizens. You are the devil, that’s all there is to it. And you’re the snake in the grass in the garden of Eden. Well, face it, that’s the artist.
And especially today I think it’s more hostile that it has been for a long time, this whole situation. There have been periods certainly when the artists perhaps were in command of the world of art, but today I think you’re at the mercy of gallery dealers, critics, museum directors, and everything else.