Is the task of the artist to document reality or enhance it?
You say, “Yes and yes.” And I’d say, “Good answer!” But I didn’t start this post with a biggy question just to answer it with three words (a very short post). So I’m going to pursue the question a little further. You can follow or stop with your three words, as you wish.
In this question, I’m referring to intention–purpose, calling–rather than ultimate product. Place two painters before an actual landscape and one could strive to document what he sees and the other could strive to enhance what he sees and the two paintings may, to the objective observer, appear identical. But what matters, to me in this question, is not the outcome but the means to get there, the intention of the artist in creating the work of art.
Of course there’s more at play in such intention than just artistic goal, however important that one purpose is. Personal background and history–from earliest memories and experiences right up to today’s–shape this outlook. Culture, nationality, society, class, period, philosophy, religion, hobbies, health, relationships, even fate–maybe fate most of all–feed into this choice. Arguably, for the artist this one question is the most fundamental expression of self. Are you–or is the muse or God or the gods or angels or the cosmos or the zeitgeist or the voices or the visionary acting through you–striving to record what already exists or somehow reshape it, in a manner of your, or the muse’s, choosing?
Can one do both, either simultaneously or by turns? Well, perhaps, in which case my question is kind of meaningless. But ultimately I don’t think so. Again, it’s this expression of self thing–I don’t think someone can live on both sides of such a fundamental fence–more like the artistic Grand Canyon. Either the world as perceived–at whatever and however many levels–is sufficient subject for your efforts or it isn’t.
This gives rise to a logical extension. Everything perceived–again, at whatever level: our five physical senses or however many others we collectively or individually possess–was created outside of the artist–by humans, God, natural forces, time, or some combination of any or all of these. But what the artist reshapes–if that’s his or her goal–is created inside the artist. In both cases, reality is transmuted within the artist. But to what end? To honor, capture, record what exists, what has been created? Or to alter or add to it? Remember–the paintings may look the same; but the intention makes all the difference in the world, at least to the artist.
In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Swann falls in love with Odette. But to do so, to fully immerse himself in the lofty and transcendent feeling of love, he must filter Odette’s reality through an artistic ideal, in this case the ideal of a figure from the wall frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the figure of the Old Testament maiden Zipporah painted by the Renaissance master Botticelli. For Swann, the real person of Odette is not adequate stimulus or repository for his desired goal. He combines that reality with an artistic masterpiece (another reality) in an internal alchemy to fashion something new and acceptable: his own creation. Now Swann is a single character in Proust’s grand scheme. But one can’t help but see in Swann’s internal reshaping of external reality a version of Proust’s approach to the entire memory-based epic. Proust’s real world and real memories aren’t adequate for him or his narrative. They must be reshaped into something greater, something higher or lower but in any case more. More what? Human? Divine? Resonant? Artistic? Durable? We don’t know–only something more! The reality is not enough.
In Becca’s Book Zach returns from Rome and the next night sees Becca in a pose that reminds him of a masterwork he saw during his trip:
Zach opened the door and Becca stepped into the room with a bulging book bag over her right shoulder and a stack of a half-dozen books cradled in her left arm and tucked against her chest. She dropped the stack of books on Zach’s coffee table and he helped her slide the heavy book bag off her shoulder. She wore baggy gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt over a white T-shirt with its crewneck collar showing above the sweatshirt. Her long blond hair, still damp from a shower, was woven into a single braid tied at the tip with a rubber band. Wisps of hair had worked loose from the braid and the hair pulled tightly over her ears and head, giving her the appearance of one busy but not quite harried, radiating grace through stress. Her appearance reminded Zach of Botticelli’s Zipporah, daughter of Jethro the Midianite, from the Moses Cycle fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, the image of all the myriad artworks he’d seen in Rome that had held his attention the longest, and for obvious reason. Becca could’ve donned a queen’s robes or Cinderella’s gown of finest satin and he would’ve found her no more lovely than she was at that moment.
For Zach at that moment and indeed throughout the narrative, he has no need to enhance the reality before him or the reality he’s living in. The challenge is not to enhance but rather to appreciate, document, record, and honor what he’s been given. And, as with Swann to Proust, while it may be dangerous to infer the author’s intention from a character’s, in this case it is enlightening. The author’s goal of recording and honoring the world as it is, however transmuted by the muse, is ever paramount.
Is the task of the artist to document reality or enhance it? The answer depends on the artist; and within the artist, it depends on many things. But the one thing it isn’t is a choice. Either what’s created and perceived is enough, or it is not.