What does it take to write poetry, to make art? Does it require a special endowment, given only to some?
When I was already nearly 30, and still hiding my writing and art under the bed, I stumbled onto The New York Feminist Art Institute. This was during the heyday of “women’s liberation” when many of us began to learn that “the personal is political.” The women at the school were ardent activists in a variety of ways, but the most radical part of their philosophy for me was their egalitarian view of art and artists. “Art-making arises from self-understanding,” they said, and “content inspires form.” (NYFAI catalog, 1980) My whole self trusted this approach, which hinted I might possess something intrinsic that I could draw on in my creative work.
Before that I had simply not known where art came from. It appeared to me as if it came from talent—and from education, knowledge, and experience I didn’t have access to. I had felt the urge, the inner necessity to paint, to write poems and songs, but I did not know how to respond to my own need. I had tried, and dropped, a few art classes, finding it too uncomfortable to reveal both my aspirations and my ignorance.
The classes I had taken were bewildering. Students gathered around a still life setup, each one painting the same scene from a different view. This reminded me of the only previous art training I’d had, in elementary school, where teacher hung up a completed crayon drawing, usually on a seasonal theme, and handed out stencils and cutouts so we could all reconstruct exactly the same image. At a world-famous art school in New York, I heard, “You must always put an odd number of objects in your still lifes!” And, “You are holding your brush the wrong way!” I could not see what this actually had to do with art, yet I was not only disheartened, but also intimidated by these mysterious and, to me, arbitrary, rules.
The New York Feminist Art Institute erased the silly rules and gave me a set of principles I could connect with and use. Eventually, I saw that their terms could be expanded: Art-making arises from something even deeper and more fundamental than self. Call it Self—a term that includes our personal selves as well as other beings, and both the external world and the deep world. Without continued attention to all of these things, art becomes all surface and technique, mimicry—a classroom wall of Thanksgiving turkeys.
And content does inspire form, not necessarily in the sense that, say, a particular subject or feeling would bring forth a sonnet instead of a prose poem, or an abstraction instead of a portrait, but in the sense that who we are, the contents of our lives, leads us inevitably to what we create. Our art appears as the fruit of what we pay attention to.
Yet the Feminist Art Institute’s primary insight is correct: while the impulse to create is engaged by our interaction with the world, it is our own response to that experience that gives rise to art. Art flows from the inner to the outer, moves from the heart of being outward into form. This has profound implications for all people, and especially for women, because it locates the impetus for art-making and the content of art in one’s own being—rather than in an external and often male-defined paradigm of suitable subjects, styles, materials, techniques, or approaches to being an artist. It radicalized me, as a woman who had no grounding in the arts and who could have hardly expected, given my culture and education, to make the perilous interior and exterior journey that art requires. What it gave me was the knowledge that all I need to make art is openness to the flow of being through my own self and the world. Every human being has access to her or his own openness. It is a skill that can be cultivated. This skill is the “inner craft” that precedes and underlies the technical skills that also help art emerge.