Scattered about on a bulletin board in my studio are several brief-but-pithy quotes attributed to artists, such as To see is to know (da Vinci) & Drawing is the fountainhead & substance of art (Michelangelo). I’ve relied heavily on these two in particular, internalizing them assiduously when I first started making art & then sharing them with my students when I began to teach. Perhaps a more widely-known quote, though, is one by Henri Matisse: La créativité demande du courage, usually translated as Creativity takes courage, although I prefer Creativity requires (or even better, calls for) courage.
It would be nice to know in what context Matisse made this utterance but maybe its very generality accounts for its appeal. Personally, my first reaction to it was a quiet little jolt at the unexpected juxtaposition of creativity & courage. While I had certainly experienced boundless fear & uncertainty during the early years of my art-making journey, it had never occurred to me that my perseverance could be deemed courageous.
I suppose Matisse could have been referring to the courage required to choose a life in the arts over easier, more lucrative endeavors or perhaps he meant that it takes courage when artists reveal the fruits of their creative labors to the world at large. Both are certainly true.
But then the other day, when I was working on a painting (my quaint euphemism for “struggling with” a painting), it suddenly occurred to me that Matisse must have been referencing those day-to-day acts of courage that take place in the privacy of the studio, the ones that call for a psychological squaring of the shoulders & a mental stiffening of the spine in order to make some character-building decision like, say, changing the entire background of a painting halfway-through because, deep-down, you know it will give a much better result.
Unlike the noble displays of courage typically extolled in the public arena, there is nothing the least bit interesting, heroic or thrilling about the sort of courage that the creative process requires, which is just the gritty work of scrupulous honesty, unremitting self-awareness, a commitment to authenticity & a willingness to take risks. Courage is required because we make tough decisions inside our heads & behind closed doors: We must be our own consciences if we want to realize our full artistic potential. After all, no one else will know if we decided it was too risky to put an ink wash on a drawing we slaved over for days, even though it would be the pièce de résistance if we did. No one else will know if we gave up on a project because we got frustrated. And if we do take the risk or put in the extra effort, no one will recognize that, either…Well, no one but Matisse.