A quick pre-disclaimer: Pardon me for referencing the London Review of Books two days in a row, but that’s what weekend-catching-up-with-a-stack-of-unread reviews can do to you.
In reviewing Rachel Campbell-Johnson‘s Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (‘The Shoreham Gang‘, LRB, 5th April 20120), and in particular, on Palmer‘s ‘The Valley Thick with Corn,’ Seamus Perry writes:
Oddity in art can be a bravura display of brilliant perversity, like Glenn Gould taking Bach at a counterintuitive lick; but the best Palmer is odd in a much quieter and more mysterious way than that, as though serenely unaware of its own peculiarity. It is hard to imagine an art less calculating: the picture is not the emphatic expression of a personality but more the exposure of one, as though allowing an intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy to reveal itself to a public gaze; and a good part of its quiet power comes from the implicit sense of vulnerability which goes along with that sense of exposure.
Perry has captured an interesting aspect of the public, revelatory aspect of an artist’s work: how the understatement of the inevitable exposure involved in putting out an artwork for public consumption and evaluation can produce a more powerful statement.
Much great art is recognizable as an emphatic signature, a distinctive stamping or watermarking of the cultural landscape by a particular vision made manifest. There we admire the artist for having forcefully asserted a unique personality through the medium of choice; the artwork is suffused with the artist made immanent. But as Perry is right to note, what makes some great art work is that the artist can make into his work into an inadvertent confession.
This confession is unlike the tell-all revelations of modern memoirs; rather, it is a peek behind the curtain, one pulled aside for us by the artist. It is to ‘bare one’s soul’ but not because that was the explicit motivational intent; rather, in viewing the work, we realize the artist has had to pay such a price to make it possible. This exposure is a little more bashful, a little more ‘vulnerable’; it commands respect because we are made aware of the seeming reluctance that underwrites it. As such too, it is less flamboyant, perhaps more modest. These features add up to a distinctive style of their own.
In producing art works of this kind artists make another kind of familiar statement about the relationship between artworks and those who make them: sometimes the artist is merely a conduit, a channel of sorts, for the expression of forces greater than him; the works make themselves available to the world through him. The exposure of his ‘intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy’ is the burden the artist bears for having turned himself over to these. Here, the artist is not lord and master but something more humble, modest, and circumscribed. Our appreciation of this visible ‘vulnerability’ then, finds its grounding in our acknowledgment of the cost exacted, our gratitude to the artist for having performed this service for us.