the art of the unfinished painting

Over the summer, I started painting regularly for the first time in my adult life. Like everyone, I was looking for some relief. And even though writing is usually my go-to for creative practice, I didn’t want to write. I wanted something that I could do which I wouldn’t end up using as a measurement of myself. Writing is a big part of my job — there is a way to separate, or at least fan out, academic writing and other kinds of writing (and, yeah, I did write a poem or two) — but in the end I looked to painting as something which would help me free myself from the idea that anything I made had to be any good. With writing, I was inevitably hitting against the fear that whatever I made would ultimately reflect me, be the mirror of me. And I was, to be honest, worn out from that way of thinking.

With painting, I never know where to begin. And here’s the difference between writing and painting for me specifically: ideas for things to write occur to me all the time, even if I don’t actualize all of them; I almost never know what to paint. I don’t have the instinct. When I first started painting, I found famous originals to try to replicate, looking through online museum holdings, an MFA art book I have to hand, and taking screenshots of the artists I follow on instagram:

One of the things I like most about painting is that I really have no idea what is going to happen once I put brush to paper. (With writing I generally have an idea — and I usually have a very specific plan — but maybe I need to challenge myself more by writing in different genres.) And with the painting, it very often didn’t (and still doesn’t) work out. Like, at all. Many of them were bad, and many continue to be bad. But because I was going into it without the pressure for the painting to be anything, I was a bit more free to take in whatever I was able to about the experience.

Most of the summer (with a few exceptions) I was painting on 4×5¾ Fabriano postcards — once I was done, I would put them in a mailbox and send them off to friends and family. Basically, my idea was: I can paint, and not get too attached to the outcome. And I can let the people I love and miss know that I am thinking of them during this time of deep isolation. I learned things from replicating the paintings of others, and eventually started making my own — again, very haphazardly and experimentally. I painted abstractly, and — naturally, given our confinement — I painted some domestic scenes (mostly spouse and dog). I participated in several amazing and life affirming life drawing sessions run by the UK based anti diet riot club. And I started sending friends more elaborate paintings based on their interests. After a time, I eventually started using gouache as well as watercolour.

Somewhat recently, I started another replication — this time of a Renoir painting (c. 1869) in the MFA:

While I did do some planning (i.e light sketching — more than I usually do!), I will not fit the entire painting onto the paper. I will only manage a portion of the original because of this. (In this respect, I am — accidentally, trust me — replicating the exclusion style which Manet used on purpose.) I started the painting weeks ago, and for a while didn’t think I was going to continue. And yet every now and then I kept picking it up. And lingering on the details. As of writing, this is as far as I’ve got:

I have to say that, putting together this blog post, I cannot believe how much painting I have actually done over the last few months. I’ve been painting here and there, now and then, in dribs and drabs. A small thing which I took up as a way to find a sense of personal relief and to be expressive without also being self-constraining has resulted in a number of these artefacts. It’s hard for me not to see a message in all of this, as well as in the unfinished painting. I thought I had already learned the lesson (from writing my book) that large tasks are accomplished by small and sustained daily efforts. But, again, I didn’t enter into the whole painting thing expecting anything in particular, or trying to achieve anything in particular. In fact, it was precisely the notion of “achievement” that I was trying to avoid — because I think humans should do pleasing and meaningful things for no reason other than the fact that they are pleasing and meaningful. I may or may not finish that painting and that’s fine — because finishing is not the purpose of the painting. Painting the painting is.

Painting has also been a tool of counternarrative for me: it has shown me that I’m capable of something that I had — I now realize — tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t do, and couldn’t do. The should part comes from the fact that so much of contemporary life is geared towards work and productivity — but it is possible to work and to cultivate the parts of life that are in service of nothing other than vibrance and vitality of living. The could part connects to larger patterns of self-narrativizing, wherein we set our own limits by imagining our capabilities in narrowly defined ways. Honestly, it does make me wonder what else I could do, if I found a way into the thing that was meditative, meaningful, pleasing — and not geared towards an external goal. And to be honest, having this thought does fill me with hope. As for the unfinished painting, well, it stands for the time within which it was produced: a time of deep pain, uncertainty, and clearing away, which nonetheless created the conditions for looking inward, for cultivating practice and patience, and for being tender enough to appreciate the things which are surprising and incomplete.

Paul Cézanne, Fruit and a Jug on a Table (c. 1890-1894), Boston MFA
Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Teapot and Fruit (1896), Metropolitan Museum New York
Edna Boies Hopkins, Love Apples (c. 1910-1913), Boston MFA
Frank Walter, Black Trunk, Pink and Blue Sky
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pink Tulip (1926), Baltimore Museum of Art
Emil Nolde, Irises, Boston MFA

Visit to Bates; digital humanities and the human body; Elizabeth Marlowe; tempora cum causis (14)

Ancient. This week I was up in Maine visiting the Classical and Medieval Studies department at Bates College. On Thursday (30th Jan. 2020), I talked about my primary research interest right now, Cicero and the Latin poets (I’m finishing up a book on this); on Friday (31st Jan. 2021), I talked about digital approaches to teaching. Handouts below: 

Modern. I can understand why “the digital” as category sometimes seems so distinct from the world of humanism or humanistic inquiry. But investigating the digital within the framework of the extensibility of human embodiment immediately complicates this view. Digital humanists (this term, to some, is tautological; to others, self-negating) often emphasize the essential continuity between established forms of intellectual work and the capacities of contemporary digital techniques; as Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto (The Digital Humanities; 2015: 2) write:

…everything from the scholar’s desk and shelves, study, studio, rehearsal and performance space, lecture halls, campuses, research institutes and convention halls can also legitimately be considered environments. Yet in many ways these new digital tools carry on, in analogous ways, the same functions of traditional humanities. Is the very computer upon which humanists rely so heavily still a tool, something akin to their medieval writing tablets?

Digital techniques build upon traditional humanistic practices but also develop them; Sarah E. Bond, Hoyt Long, Ted Underwood (“‘Digital’ Is Not the Opposite of ‘Humanities‘”; 2017):

Much of what is now happening under the aegis of digital humanities continues and expands those projects. Scholars are still grappling with familiar human questions; it is just that technology helps them address the questions more effectively and often on a larger scale.

“Digital humanists”, who spend so much time theorizing their own relationship to classical traditions and contemporary technology, are often met with knee-jerk reactions by those who have not taken the time to situate their own intellectual complaint. It all brings to mind Ursula K. Le Guin (I keep coming back to her), who regularly drew attention to the fact that her critics could not get past the genre of her writing to grasp the meaning of its content. At face value digital projects can have an alienating effect on traditional sensibilities, but when we dig deeper we quickly see that the intellectual processes required for such work are just as complex and interesting as the standard products of scholarship. I have written elsewhere about how teaching with digital techniques encourages students to sharpen analytic skills and deepen their intellectual commitment to research.

Anyway, returning to the embodiment part in all this. Technology is absolutely bound to the human body; formed for human use, imagined as an extension of human manipulation (in a literal sense of manus, i.e. ‘hand’) of reality. While contemporary technology sometimes feels so seamless as to be invisible to our own theorization, looking at older artefacts in digital history makes this incredibly clear. Take, e.g., the Philippe Henri’s (1984) “Cadavres Exquis / Exquisite Corpses.” This is a program for a computer generated poem: i.e. Henri wrote the code, but the actual poem was “written” when the program was run on a computer; and indeed rewritten anew each time the program was run. The code was circulated on paper (see the slide below: from Nick Montfort’s [@nickmofo] lecture at BU last year, “Translating Computational Poetry” — watch a video recording of the lecture here); and in order to run the program, a human being had to type it by hand into a specific computer, the TRS 80.

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“Cadavres Exquis”, which is only one e.g. of a whole genre of computational poetry, very clearly demonstrates the entanglement of technology with the essences of humanity, not just the body, but indeed the “soul” (if such a dichotomy is even truly real). The human spark which invents the poetry; the human body which materializes it; the technological body (i.e. the computer) which extends that invention and materialization.

When I found out about this example of entangled text and technology from Nick Manafort’s talk at BU, it immediately made me think of the contemporary emulators used to play old video games on modern computers; i.e. programs which simulate the hardware of the N64 so that you can play Ocarina of Time without having to use the physical tools required in 1998. Such digital reconstructions (if that’s even the right word) have a preservative effect, but they also make me think about the relationship between my own body and the console at the time when the game was originally released. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the attic, holding a controller (that was physically attached to the console – lol!), blowing the dust out of a Goldeneye cartridge. There are so many structural similarities between our relationship with these modern artefacts, and the historical processes which we study; the reception and reconstruction of ideas from antiquity to modernity. The relationship between text and context. The social and embodied nature of textual production.


Excerpt. Elizabeth Marlowe (@ElizMarlowe) Shaky Ground (2013: 9): “Many archaeologists follow the thinking of Paul Kristeller, who suggested that ‘art’ as we know it wasn’t invented until the eighteenth century. According to this view, notions of pure, historically transcendent form slide perilously close to deeply suspect ones of ahistorical universal beauty. Ancient objects should instead be understood as manifestations of ‘visual culture’ or ‘material culture’ — the understanding of which depends heavily on context. In this and in much of the recent literature, the binaries are conspicuous: archaeology vs. art history, academia vs. museums, context vs. form, artifact vs. art, history vs. beauty, resonance vs. wonder.” 

Daily Life. Morning light in Maine. 


Temple of Dendur, Lindy West, Josephine Balmer; tempora cum causis (6)

Ancient. One of the interesting features of studying the past is that you can see patterns of change even in objects which claim to be unchanging. A famous passage of the Greek historian, Thucydides, expresses horror at the fact that political crisis changed the very meaning of words themselves: καὶ τὴν εἰωθυῖαν ἀξίωσιν τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐς τὰ ἔργα ἀντήλλαξαν τῇ δικαιώσει, “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them” (Histories 3.82). During the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), this phenomenon is perceptible in a number of ways. Augustus, who claimed to restore the republic, changed the course of Roman political life forever, inaugurating a monarchy which did not name itself so. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York there is a famous Egyptian temple honouring the goddess, Isis, as well as Pedesi and Pihor, deified sons of the local Nubian chieftain. This temple is noteworthy in a number of respects, one of which is the fact that the ruler of Egypt depicted making sacrifices to divinities in its reliefs is the Roman princeps, Augustus himself. Augustus is there represented in the traditional regalia of the Egyptian pharaoh. An example of a deep difference consciously hidden underneath traditional forms. 

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The Temple of Dendur, completed by 10 BCE. Metropolitan Museum.

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The Roman princeps, Augustus (left), as Egyptian pharaoh, burning incense before deified figures of Pedesi and Pihor. Metropolitan Museum.

Incidentally, I can’t think about the Temple of Dendur without also thinking about this scene from When Harry Met Sally (1989), filmed right in front of it.


Modern. Last Friday, we made the trek to Cambridge (crossing the Charles is no joke) to hear Lindy West speak at an event organized by the Harvard Book Store as part of the book tour for her newly released The Witches are Coming. I heard West at the MFA last summer, giving a version of what would be the book’s first chapter; that lecture was deliberately arranged as a counterpoint to the narratives of sexual conquest on display in the MFA’s special exhibit at the time: “Casanova’s Europe.” West praised the curators of the exhibit for their explicit acknowledgement that, while Casanova’s memoirs provide a rich document of the 18th c., it also described “behaviors toward women that today would be criminal.” A praiseworthy effort to make visitors to the museum consider that the objects on display do not uncomplicatedly manifest beauty and wisdom of the past (there are other indications of this throughout the MFA). That our interaction with these artefacts is not simply one of aesthetic appreciation, but one which creates meaning by contextualizing the object within an understanding of the culture which produced it.

The reading from The Witches are Coming took place in a church, which I thought was somewhat fitting. The audience was 99% women. After her reading, audience members asked her questions which were heartbreakingly moving. Over the week that followed, one which was unusually busy, I found snatches of time here and there to read the book itself. Day-to-day life in modern America is filled with noise and fury and rhetoric, and bad faith arguments. West, with characteristic wit, manages to cut through that noise. 


Excerpt. Josephine Balmer, Papyrus Trace (Papyrological Institute, Florence, 1953) in The Paths of Survival (2017): 

“trapped in the scent of lavender, musk;
letters from a lost world, seeping back

to black, etched in breath-blown dust:
speak out… …dissent… …enough…:

a few precious words of Aeschylus
we’d all believed had gone forever —

the fragment found at Oxyrhynchus
then lost again in an Allied raid

by this second miracle returned to us,
late violets trembling above a grave.”

Daily Life. This week, we had a Greece vs. Rome debate at BU. My colleague, Sasha Nikolaev, made us some ostraka for the vote — I heard him hammering the pot through the wall. It ended in a tie!