When Samuel Beckett was a young man in the early Thirties and trying to find a basis from which he could develop, he wrote an essay known as Beckett: Proust (1931) in which he examined Proust’s views on creative work, and he quotes Proust’s artistic credo as declared in Time Regained: ‘The task and duty of a writer [not an artist, a writer] are those of a translator’. This could also be said of a composer, a painter or anyone practising an artistic métier. An artist is someone with a text which he or she wants to decipher. Beckett interprets Proust as being convinced that such a text cannot be created or invented but only discovered within the artist by himself and that it is, as it were, almost a law of his own nature. It is his most precious possession and, as Proust explains, the source of his innermost happiness. However, as can be seen from the practice of the great artists, although the text may be strong and durable and able to support a life-time’s work, it cannot be taken for granted and there is no guarantee of permanent possession. It may be mislaid or even lost, and retrieval is very difficult. It may lie dormant and be discovered late in life after long struggle, as with Mondrian or Proust himself. Why it should be that some people have this sort of text while others do not, and what ‘meaning’ it has, is not something which lends itself to argument. Nor is it up to the artist to decide how important it is, what value it has for other people. To ascertain this is perhaps beyond even the capacities of an artist’s own time.
But although art, that is to say, this text of an artist, cannot be learned or taught, painting can. The compelling and urgent task of a poet, a painter, etc. is to translate their text and it is this task which can be thought about, examined and discussed. The person who succeeds as an artist is not someone with an important subject, a significant or visionary message, but someone who has trained themselves to translate, who has acquired a habit of working, who knows his métier. Whatever may – or may not – have happened at art school, the museums and art galleries can be relied upon as the great durable book of painting. Of course, one has to be willing to look, to find out. Without being willing nothing can begin to happen.
Bridget Riley, ‘Painting Now’ in The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965-2009, ed. by Robert Kudielka (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), pp. 290 – 303.
[First published in The Burlington Magazine, 1997]