Why Stephen Lyman Is Not An Artist* (Letter to a Philistine)
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
*Remarks to an old college climbing, wrestling, skiing, rugby, drinking buddy
When you told me that Stephen Lyman was “the second best-selling painter in America” and I replied, without ever having seen any of the man’s work, that “he must not be much of an artist” you took umbrage at, what you said, was my unqualified presumptuousness. The next day when we went to see Mr. Lyman’s work on the walls of that carved duck, Van Gogh poster, “gallery” in Sand Point, Idaho I did not see a single thing to disabuse me of my previous night’s contumely. Furthermore, I should point out, with no small indignation, that what we were looking at were not even actual paintings, but digitized prints of paintings, (glicee on canvas) with an ad hoc brushstroke here and there, “by the artist,” as though to legitimize their four-figure price tags and cheesy “certificates of authenticity.” I have never heard of a real artist who needs to have warrantees attached to his paintings. Nevertheless, despite the embarrassment I experience in contemplating Mr. Lyman’s work, I shall try to explain why he is not an artist.
Mr. Lyman’s signature oeuvre is Sierra twilight campsites beneath craggy summits basking in alpenglow with a brilliant campfire burning in the foreground. Now and then he throws in a wolf or eagle for (ill-conceived) effect. This is a first-cousin of the sort of painting you see all over the southwest: cowboys roping a calf, war-bonneted Braves seated high on a butte looking out over teepees and buffalo roaming. This is illustration, not art. What, you have every reason to ask, is the difference between art and illustration? The answer is not easy and, more than likely will invite heated debate, even among cognoscenti. For example, a good friend of mine, who is an excellent painter, not to mention, one of the most cultivated men I know, told me to go in the bathroom of the restaurant where we were having lunch one day and look at the painting over the toilet and come back and tell him whether it was “art” or not. It was a reproduction of course, of an impressionist-style image of a lovely floral path leading up to a small Mediterranean villa beneath an azure sky. It was unarguably, a highly skilled rendering. Was it art? My sense was that it was either an overly sentimental bad day’s painting by a good artist (such as we find now and then with Renoir) or more likely an impressionist-style good day’s painting by a dilettante. In either case, it doesn’t have much more to say than, “Here is a pretty little house with a lovely path leading up to it.”
A third member of this Club Critiques de Pissoir, a painter of no small experience, felt, with little more than a cursory glance, that it was simply an “illustration.” (Most importantly, what did the owner of the restaurant think when three older guys crowded into his little bathroom at the same time?)
I mention this anecdote to suggest that the issue is not cut and dried. One guy says it is art, another illustration and a third equivocates. Even serious artists struggle with this issue. Why should it be an issue? Who should care besides the “Doctors of Philosophy” who bore us to death lecturing about these things? Parenthetically, you and I spent many years of our lives playing a variety of sports from wrestling, judo, tennis and Lacrosse to skiing and mountaineering. We trained, competed and coached. We lived for sports. Should we care if some neurasthenic geek insists that croquet is a sport? By the same token, why should three serious artists care whether a certain painting is illustration or art? The reason is that as amateur athletes we had nothing to lose by an insistence that croquet is a sport. So what? As resolute artists however, we have everything to lose by a collective (educational, governmental and societal) ignorance of art. Does the name Jesse Helms ring a bell? Remember the Robert Mapplethorpe brouhaha ten years ago? Look what happened at the Brooklyn Museum five years ago with the Sensation show; condemned, sight unseen, by both Giuliani and Clinton. The list is long of people with power who prefer the comfort of illustration to the challenges of art, who prefer Rockwell to Warhol. Illustration is a kind of proxy art. Sometimes great artists make beautiful illustrations (Rembrandt!) but seldom does an illustrator make serious art.
Illustration is picture making wedded to expectation. In other words, a specific idea needs to be expressed and the illustrator gives us that in easily understandable, recognizable form. The illustrator wants us to recognize the figures and shapes in his drawing and painting immediately, and that is all he is interested in…as opposed to the serious painter, in whose work we become fascinated with limning, marks, under painting and brushwork, in addition to a myriad of psychological, esthetic, structural and formalistic things going on in the painting. Brilliant as he is, Norman Rockwell, for example, remains an illustrator because there is nothing more in his painting other than the totally expected look of fear on the child’s face and the gratuitous look of sage-like, good-humored compassion on the barber’s face. Small town barbershop, that’s it. No more surprises. The tornado is fast approaching as Dorothy is running toward the fruit cellar…you glance up at the picture and fully expect to see Dorothy running toward a shelter with a ferocious tornado in the background. With your mind’s eye satisfied you go back to the story. That is illustration.
I can think of no better case in point of art versus illustration than Winslow Homer’s Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1863, described recently in the New Yorker. Homer was working for Harpers Weekly sending back engravings of Civil War battle scenes (before the invention of the photolithography process). For the magazine illustration he showed the sharpshooter braced athletically in his tree with his telescopic sight and, for the sake of illustration, to emphasize that this was a prolonged vigil waiting for the appropriate target, he attentively included the man’s canteen. The canteen was important for narrative, illustrative purposes. However, in the oil painting he made of the same scene, he left out the canteen because it served no (art) purpose.
“Every good painting begins as illustration,” John Hull used to tell his students at Yale. Picasso, stunned by the bombing of Guernica, Goya horrified by the ravages of the Napoleonic War, Van Gogh charmed by the sunflowers in Arles, Gauguin seduced by Tahiti, Bellows and his boxers, Richter and the Bader Meinhof Gang…all these experiences, ideas, thoughts, concepts, events, and emotions manifest themselves in a canvas first as a kind of germ of illustration not altogether unlike the way a composer begins with a simple folk melody and gradually weaves it into a full musical composition. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star is a folk melody we can all whistle. It “illustrates” the nocturnal ditty that goes along with it. Give that little melody to Mozart and the whimsical, contrapuntal result (Ah Vous Dirai-Je Maman) provides us with an example of what Mr. Hull said above about a painting. The real painter goes beyond something appropriate for the space above the bed in a Motel Six.
For example, you remarked on the “reality” of one of Lyman’s eagles. As Max Beckmann said, “The serious artist goes beyond the idea which is hidden behind so-called reality….seeking for a bridge which leads from the visible to the invisible,” in other words, a reality which expresses both an external, observable sort of reality and an inner (unconscious) reality coming from deep within the artist himself. The craft for rendering “realistic” eagles is just a part of art no less than coordination is a part of sport. Looking real might be the last thing I want to see in a painting.
Digressing for a moment, it is worth pointing out that we would probably not be having this discussion in Europe. The thing is, the average American has almost no training in art; a little finger painting and a field trip to the museum in grammar school and that’s it; while his European counterpart is required to take art classes in high school as well as in college. Europeans cherish art the way we cherish sports. As we (north) Americans mature we too will grow to appreciate the arts but historically the fact remains: the exercise of “manifest destiny” does not require a deep understanding of Beethoven and Michelangelo. The result of this dearth of art appreciation is a national immodesty stated succinctly by Henry Ford, “I know what I like and that’s enough.” The point is, somewhere along the way we all have to learn to appreciate the chasm between naïve, youthful work and adult work, between Dick and Jane and Dostoyevsky. Stephen Lyman is to painting what Harry Potter is to literature.
Serious artists are never satisfied; they live in a constant state of dissatisfaction and turmoil. I get the very distinct impression that Mr. Lyman is quite satisfied with his glowing campfires, soaring eagles, wildlife posters and checks rolling in every month! Matisse said to his friend Leon Delgand, “First of all it is advisable to acquire the habit of not lying, neither to others nor to yourself. That is where we have the drama of many artists today. They tell themselves: I am going to make concessions to the public, and when I have made enough money, I will work for myself. From that moment they are lost. They behave like these women who propose to walk the streets until they have a sum of money, then marry. Virtue is like a match: it can only be used once. It is the same for painters.” I suspect Mr. Lyman was not familiar with Matisse.
So, what is art? What is good art? Perhaps the only reasonable conclusion is that art is anything made by an artist; and God only knows how many people out there think they are “artists”. There are also millions of people who play pool, tennis and golf. Ultimately, it takes one to know one. One has to be immersed for years and years, in anything, to know what is good and what isn’t. There are at least a hundred thousand little girls in China who can play Bach’s Second Partita. Every one of those little girls will have an excellent vibrato and hit every note. How do you tell which is better, which one will be the next Sara Chang? Recognizing good art from bad art is about the same as the guy working for the Washington State Fisheries Department whose job it is to go down in the hold of fishing boats and actually smell whether the fish is good or not. There is no machine which can do this job; you can’t learn it in a few months, there is no formula. You simply know from years and years of experience; the fish is good or it isn’t.