Forgetting the Roses

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the tremendous capacity photography has for revealing new things in new ways should be overlooked or ignored by the majority of its exponents—but such is the case.

—Edward Weston

Henri Matisse, known for his expressive use of color, was one of the most creative and prolific artists who ever lived. Historically, Matisse is celebrated as one of the founders of the Fauvist movement, which built upon the legacies of impressionist and post-impressionist artists. Looking at Matisse’s work, it’s easy to see the influences of painters such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne.

If Matisse had practiced “painting celibacy” in the same sense that some photographers claim to practice “photographic celibacy,” odds are none of us today would have heard of him. At least not as a celebrated artist. Matisse’s greatness comes not from imitating the works of those who influenced him, but from finding ways to harness the inspiration of his influencers in making his own original work.

Describing the influence of Paul Cézanne on his work, Matisse explained in an interview: “Cézanne, you see, is a sort of god of painting. Dangerous, his influence? So what? Too bad for those without the strength to survive it. Not to be strong enough to withstand an influence without weakening is proof of impotence . . . For my part, I have never avoided the influence of others, I would have considered it cowardice and lack of sincerity toward myself.”

Matisse also said, “There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.” Clearly, despite the difficulty, Matisse did not forget the influences of other painters he admired. In these words, Matisse also explains why “celibacy” is a poor choice for a creative artist. Put simply, you can’t forget what you never knew to begin with: to forget, you first must remember. What Matisse is proposing is a selective form of forgetting: keeping what’s useful and forgetting what’s not useful. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Forgetting is the shears with which one clips away what one cannot use—though, mind you, under the overall supervision of memory. Forgetting and memory are thus identical.”

In his book, Either/Or, Kierkegaard famously claims that boredom is the root of all evil. A solution for boredom, according to Kierkegaard, is to practice a form of intellectual “crop rotation”—the practice of farmers to occasionally switch among different crops and methods of cultivation. Since different plants use and contribute different nutrients to the soil, rotation helps keep the land fertile. The same, Kierkegaard claims, applies to ideas and attitudes: every so often, to avoid boredom, it’s useful to change things up, to try and to experience new things, and to do so within the limitations of the soil available to you.

To avoid ambiguity, Kierkegaard clarifies that one must rotate the crops, and not the soil. Explaining what he means by rotating the soil, Kierkegaard gives examples such as “One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad.” By this example it’s easy to see how so many photographers hoping to make artistic work make the mistake of “rotating the soil” instead of rotating the crops: when they exhaust the “low hanging fruit” in one location, they head to a different location to harvest more—similar—low hanging fruit somewhere else. Kierkegaard calls this mode “inartistic” and self-defeating. Instead, he proposes that the right way to practice crop rotation is to adopt limitations: to remain within the same field, the same land, the same soil, and to invent new ways of cultivation. This is where we come full circle to Matisse’s comment about forgetting. “The more inventive one can be in changing the mode of cultivation, the better;” Kierkegaard wrote, “but every particular change comes under the general rule of the relation between remembering and forgetting.”

Explaining the relationship between remembering and forgetting, Kierkegaard suggests that we must approach every endeavor in such a way that we can later forget some aspects of the experience: the aspects that may later diminish our capacity to be inventive and to not be bored. If we don’t consider in advance that we may later want to forget some aspects of an experience, we may sabotage ourselves by creating memories that we can’t later let go of. What may prevent us from useful forgetting, according to Kierkegaard, is hope. He explains, “forgetting is an art that must be practiced beforehand. Being able to forget depends always on how one remembers, but how one remembers depends in turn on how one experiences reality. The person who sticks fast in it with the momentum of hope will remember in a way that makes him unable to forget.”

Hope is generally considered a good thing, often encouraged by motivational speakers, self-help gurus, and positive psychologists. To understand why hope may become detrimental, consider that to hope is to wish for something in the future that is ostensibly better than what you have right now. To hope, therefore, is to be dissatisfied with what you have in the present. To encourage people to never give up hope is to encourage them to always be dissatisfied, to always dwell on what they don’t have or don’t like—to always remember the things that made them unhappy in the past, and that are making them unhappy in the present.

To hope requires holding onto things that diminish your life (so you can hope for something different), making it impossible for you to forget them. In the realm of art, you can think of this kind of self-defeating hope as wishing to be as good, as famous, as rich, as successful, or as creative as someone else. By holding onto this kind of hope, you constantly remind yourself what you dislike about your own work. The better way is to treat the works of people you admire as inspiration to build upon, not as something to imitate in self-defeating hope of being someone else, and making your work appear like someone else’s. What you must forget is not all the roses that were ever painted, but your hope of painting your rose as someone else had painted theirs.


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4 thoughts on “Forgetting the Roses

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  1. Super helpful Guy. This reminds me too, that we need to live more in the present and take solace in the positive aspects of our lives as well as with our art. To some extent, at least to me, it is necessary to put on blinders of sort and filter out those elements that diminish our own self-worth. Rejoicing in the present is essential (and ever so difficult for some of us).

    1. Thank you, Jamie! It’s difficult for all of us. This is why mindfulness is so difficult and requires training. It literally re-wires the brain to focus attention on things happening in the present, rather than drift into ruminations, worries, and regrets.

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