Keeping an Eye Open

Not I, but my wake.


Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes is the first book I pulled from the seven hundreds. The opening chapter, while pulling me into history was not pulling me into art, and I was quite annoyed by the writer’s strong opinions and his choice of art to write about. Nevertheless he was a good storyteller and I kept at it, reading many sentences over and over again to try and hang with what he was saying. At times it felt like a throwback to reading the Art History book in college Humanities, which I didn’t enjoy at all. In Art History I often felt like the meanings of the paintings were made up or at least rather presumptuous. 

I found I had to read Barnes’ book with Google close by because I was so clueless as to the names of the artists and artworks. I realized I have much to learn about who’s who in the art world. But I also realized I don’t have much patience for that. It feels pointless at times, like much ado about nothing. Why should I admire a painter just because I’ve been told to? And out of all the artists there are in the world and throughout history, which ones do I want to visit with? So it is hard for me to trust that this is where I should be spending my often so limited time.  

I want more time for my seven hundreds research, but I also need to trust the process I’ve chosen for myself, which is one book at a time and always the very next book on the 700 shelf until the book is finished. I think this is the only way to assure I am exposing myself to a wide variety of education on the arts and that I am making progress with my plan. 

I am glad I persisted with this book. I did get won over by Julian Barnes’ writing voice and did some research to find out he has written novels too. In addition I discovered all kinds of new paintings I have never seen, some of which I pinned on my Pinterest board, largely because the colors or the zany details impacted me.

Pierre Bonnard. Large Yellow Nude. 1931.
Pierre Bonnard. Large Yellow Nude. 1931.

My takeaways from this book are as follows:

I like the topic about whether visual art should be explained with words. Essentially do we need art critics explaining their take on a piece of art or artists telling us what they meant by their art? This is something I've considered before. Barnes said it is a question that has been debated for quite sometime.

There was a portion where Barnes was discussing how ludicrous it is to have an art show with hundreds of works by the same artist, and how daunting that is, as an observer, to wade through ALL THAT ART. No one is able to absorb it all and much is skipped over anyway. He talked about how less is better. He thought you could even get to know an artist better by seeing less and sitting with a few pieces of art for longer. I couldn’t agree more. Which is why it was so funny to me that I felt like this book was drinking out of a firehose: SO MANY PAINTINGS REFERENCED.

Maybe that is why I didn’t care for art history much. I want to go down rabbit holes, but there isn’t time. It’s also why it took me four weeks to read this book. Ha! I don’t like going slow. Looking up EVERY SINGLE REFERENCE exhausted me, and yet I couldn’t help myself. One more artist to see is one more artist to get to see. Is this the exposure to the arts I need? The firehose approach? I am still unsure.  

Reading these essays opened my curiosity again for the arts. It got me so excited knowing how much there is still to learn. It also made me realize that everyone is entitled to their opinion of art and I can jump into that arena and start having a say just like Julian Barnes can. I want to be here in the 700s having a say, I just am not sure in what capacity yet. Reading and writing in this way seems like as good a start as any. I guess this means I do enjoy using words to discuss the visual arts. 

I wrote down a quote from Barnes that said, “All that matters is what happens,” and I feel that so strongly. I make (and have made) an artistic life happen. Any activity feels like the right choice because I am in action rather than wishing or talking about someday maybe. 

The last thing I will add was a quote that said, “Bad personal art is the worst of all,” and I think it pairs nicely with these two quotes from Mallarme´ that Barnes shared: 

“Somewhere in the creative act is the attempt to evoke [call to mind] an object by placing it deliberately in shadow and referring to it allusively and never by name.”

“To paint not the thing itself, but the effect which it produces.”

I have come a long way with my own creative expression, and I believe these quotes touch on that growth. I think there was a place and time for me to share "bad personal art" that was quite directly and perhaps awkwardly exposing of myself. Perhaps all artists need to go through these stages. I once got some feedback that my writing was difficult to read because of how personal it was. I understand this. I have made some very raw art that I wanted noticed before felt freed up to proceed as an artist. 

As I grow as an artist my self becomes less and less in the forefront because my self becomes more steady and sure internally. I know who I am at my core, and I don't need to demand the art be about me directly. I am in the shadow.

My art is not so much about me directly, but what I make in my wake. 

I live, art happens.


noun: wake

: used to refer to the aftermath or consequences of something.

: the track left by a moving body (such as a ship) in a fluid (such as water)

broadly a track or path left

Oliver. The Great Wave. 2019.
Oliver. The Great Wave. 2019.

1 thought on “Keeping an Eye Open”

  1. I’m delighted by your self-imposed project because I love doing things like this too (working through an alphabetical list, for example). I admire your determination to stick with a book when the going is hard, especially with limited reading time available. I’ve read two Julian Barnes novels and enjoyed them (but I have to say, that without Goodreads I would have completely forgotten about one of them, to which I gave 4 stars.) A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is quirky — it begins on Noah’s Ark. You might really like it (if you have any time left for reading other things besides the 700s).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *