Drawing, Conversation, Life

Whistler's Mother [Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also called Portrait of the Artist's Mother] -- colored paper, by William Eaton, Oct 2017Le brouillon d’une version en français se trouve ci-dessous


Most artists, before they have begun to draw—in a studio, with a model—have made any number of decisions. What materials they are going to work with and on; the scale of the work; what sort of results they hope to achieve—a likeness? classically proportioned beauty? an evocative gesture? This outline allows us to speak of another, ideal drawing process in which decisions would not have been made. Perhaps the artist ends up doing nothing, or at least not making any marks, and this without shame. The artist’s hand and eye respond to the model, the moment, the lighting, her own emotions and emotions in the room, her technical capacities and limitations, political and economic circumstances surrounding the room, . . . All of which might paralyze or inspire the artist, but could, more likely, less extremely, result in art works that, however great or small, are of their time and place.

This outline allows us to speak of an ideal conversation which would begin, or not begin, amid similar aspirations. Two people—strangers or friends—find themselves intersecting, perhaps seated facing one another, sharing a meal, perhaps side by side in an elevator or walking out of an abs-butt-and-thighs class together. Of course often (always?) there are things we need to say to someone, anyone, to another human being. But in the particular ideal process I am sketching here, any such need is no more than faint. Above all there is this other person who is sharing space with us and who is, to at least some degree, open to hearing what we may say. “I” respond to “you” and you to me, and there is—like a boat blown by a wind across some surface of a vast sea—a conversation.

Might we then go on to speak of an ideal way to live—without planning, but with our eyes, ears and hearts open, with our hands and our lips ready to respond to others, to our circumstances and feelings? We might.

Although, of course, the artist through drawing learns things, or his hands and eyes do. And if we talk with someone a second, third, fourth time, our minds are no longer unfilled. We come to these subsequent conversations laden, at times happily, with material that cannot be unchosen.

— Text in English and French and collage above (after Whistler) and drawing below by William Eaton


Un passage de l’atelier à la conversation vers une façon de vivre

Lyon Plage, blue suit, drawing by William Eaton, pen and crayon, July 2017
La plupart des artistes, avant qu’ils commencent à dessiner – dans un atelier, avec un modèle – ils ont pris n’importe quel quantité de décisions. Les matériaux sur lesquels et avec lesquels ils vont travailler, la largeur des œuvres, le genre de résultat qu’ils espèrent atteindre – une ressemblance? de la beauté classique? quelque chose plus expressionniste ? Cet aperçu nous permet de parler d’un autre processus, plus idéal, dans lequel les décisions n’auraient pas été prises en avant. Il se peut que, finalement, l’artiste ne fasse rien du tout – ou pas le moindre signe – et cela sans honte. La main et l’œil de l’artiste répondent au modèle, à l’éclairage, aux émotions les plus intimes et qui circule dans l’atelier, à ses capacités et ses limites, à la situation politique et économique dehors, et . . . Tout cela pourrait paralyser l’artiste ou l’inspirer. Plus souvent, le résultat serait un œuvre d’art, moins extraordinaire, fort ou faible, mais bien celui de son endroit et de son moment.

Cet aperçu nous permet de parler d’une conversation idéale qui se mettrait en route, ou pas, accompagné d’aspirations similaires. Deux personnes – étrangères ou amis — se retrouvent ensemble, peut-être assis face à face, partageant un repas, peut-être côte à côte dans un ascenseur ou sortant ensemble d’un cours abdos-fessiers. Bien sûr, souvent (toujours?) il y a des choses que nous avons besoin de dire à quelqu’un, à n’importe qui, à un autre être humain. Mais dans le processus idéal esquissé ici ce besoin est laissé à côté pour qu’il y ait plus de place pour l’autre personne qui partage l’espace avec nous et qui est, du moins en quelque sorte, ouverte à entendre ce que nous pourrions lui dire. Je réponds à vous et vous à moi, et – comme un petit bateau qu’un vent pousse à travers la surface d’une vaste mer – une conversation s’ensuit.

Pouvons-nous maintenant parler d’une façon idéale de vivre, sans projets, mais avec nous yeux, nos oreilles et nos cœurs ouverts, et nos mains et nos lèvres prêts à répondre aux autres et à nos circonstances et nous émotions ? Nous pourrions.

Quoique, bien sûr, l’artiste en dessinant apprend les choses, ou ses mains et les yeux les apprennent. Et si nous parlons un deuxième, troisième, quatrième fois avec quelqu’un, nos cerveaux ne serons pas vides, nous aurons les idées de l’autre et lui de nous. La vie procède avec des matériaux, des connaissances, dont on ne peut qu’essayer de se débarrasser.


Scholarly Note

The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Ruprecht Bion famously urged that psychoanalysts approach each session without memory, desire, or understanding. For example, he writes that the failure of an analyst to “practice this discipline will lead to a steady deterioration in the powers of observation whose maintenance is essential.” W.R. Bion, Attention and interpretation (1970), see Chapter 4: Opacity of Memory and Desire.

In a psychotherapy text I find this riff:

[H]ow can a clinician really be “without memory, desire, or understanding”? Are we not supposed to remember our patient’s history and diagnosis as well as all the theories we have studied so that we can choose the best possible interventions? Are we not supposed to desire to help our clients heal old wounds and develop new strengths? Are we not supposed to understand our clients’ life experiences, joys, and pain? The answer of course is “yes,” but also “no,” because often the best, most meaningful clinical work is done when the therapist is in the emptiest, most receptive, most impressionistic state.

From Inside Out and Outside In: Psychodynamic Clinical Theory and Psychopathology in Contemporary Multicultural Contexts, 2nd ed., edited by Joan Berzoff, Laura Melano Flanagan, and Patricia Hertz (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 272.


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Art, Sex, Politics cover from AmazonIn a new, provocative collection of essays, William Eaton, the author of Surviving the Twenty-First Century, shares the pleasures of questions, tastes, reading and more visual arts. “That we are animals, that is as sure as ever. How savagely we behave! And how affectionately rub up against one another. How, desperately, make love?”

Includes a revised version of the present essay.

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Drawing, Conversation, Life


  1. […] Since November 2012, Montaigbakhtinian has been receiving letters from this Carolyn (assuming, that is, that this is the same person who first wrote using the pseudonym “Whyde Eide.” Several of her letters involve both drawing and erotics of one kind or another—e.g. My Best Friend (June 2013) and Down Time (December 2016). Readers interested in other William Eaton pieces touching on similar subjects might see Morandi, Bonnard, and Silences Within or Drawing, Conversation, Life. […]

  2. Thank you for posting this. I love the art! I agree with the need we all have for communicating with each other–whether with words or gestures or eye contact–and how important that is. I’m always glad to hear from you.

    2017-03-09 13:03 GMT-05:00 montaigbakhtinian :

    > William Eaton posted: “Le brouillon d’une version en français se trouve > ci-dessous Most artists, before they have begun to draw—in a studio, with > a model—have made any number of decisions. What materials they are going to > work with and on; the scale of the work; what so” >

    • Hello Carol. Good to hear from you! I have been thinking that nowadays there are people who make “friends” with the idea that this means people to read their writing or look at their art work. And then there are people who write or make art in the hopes that this will in some way help them connect with other human beings. (Emily Dickinson is ever the prototypical, heart-wrenching example — sending poems to specific “friends” and decorating these letters with flowers she had carefully dried, and often receiving little or no response in return. She had overwhelmed her “friends.”) In any case, I like to think of myself, and you, as being in this latter category rather than in the first one. With best wishes, Bill

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