Concept of Art in The Painter by John Ashbery

John Ashbery uses painter as persona to present before us his conception of poetry. The painter like Ashbery is innovator and wants to capture the vitality of life rather than the mere surface transmit of beauty of the same.

The painter is the most representative poems and is a key to understanding Ashbery both as poet and artist. The painter breaks down the traditional and orthodox restrictions laid by the classicists and wants to steal the essence of art. Ashbery is no moralist and conceives the art for its own sake. As the bird sings for its own sake, Ashbery writes in the same fashion. There are many salient features of the poem that we can analyze as under. The poem is highly concrete and pregnant with symbolic allusions:

“Sitting between the sea and the buildings/ He enjoyed painting the seas portrait”
The sea is a symbol of creativity ad the unexplored depths of human consciousness. It also resents the vitality and essence or life, which has been long ignored. The buildings and their architecture are the explored and achieved conditions of art. The painter symbolizes the creative and modern urge and the people in the buildings are traditional critics who fail to understand the philosophy of art. Symbolically, the poem shows the condition of the artist sandwiched between two contrasting forces behind art; conventional, traditional and superficial approach on the one hand and modern, creative, experimental and innovative on the other. The modern artist is not restricted by the limited and restrictive view of life. He is the controller of his art and defines its parameters. He believes that art is all-powerful and vast and it cannot be conceived in a traditional narrow thinking. His analogy of child’s prayer is not analogy only. Through it, he presents a philosophy of art. The artist should be a meditator and start art like a prayer. Ashbery knows:
“To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,/ Plaster its own portrait on the canvas”
is insane and even a common mind cannot entertain such an idea. So such conception of art in reality can be achieved only through prayer in silence. The difference between artificial art and vital art is presented by the artist with his back to the buildings and the face to the sea. This leads to “There was no paint on the canvas”. Objective art is difficult to attain but it lends realism and universality to the artist’s masterpiece and the objective art is not bound by the artist, his consciousness or his artistic ability, so the painter meditated for long but nothing appeared on the canvas. The painter wanted either to paint objectively or nothing at all. He was an iconoclast, his representation of art must be perfect other wise; he will be just another artist in the world. But the people in buildings urged him to:
“Try using the brush/As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,”
Because they were the upholders of the traditional art of subjectivity which was delimited by the artist’s mind and couldn’t survive in the limitless regions of the vast universe. This is the reaction of the traditional artists to the experimental nature of the modern artists. The painter responds to the rationalists with a true conviction of a perfect artist who asserts that how could he explain to them his prayer That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas. The painter’s conception of art is like that of a child’s prayer which is a direct relationship between the artist and the art like that of a prayee to God. This concept cannot be materialized and explained to the traditionalists, for they cannot understand the artist’s avant-garde approach. The painter’s definition of artist that objective representation of reality must be the basis of art, the art confined by the artist’s feelings and emotions is not true and genuine. Soul, spirit, vitality of life, the essence of reality are the features which the painter is aspiring in his portrait. The painter further asserts:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait/ Let it be you who wrecks the canvas”
The Painter is both a political and religious allegory. The pathetic state of the painter lends political and social interpretations of the poem. The Communist Manifesto and Fascistic authorities all crucify the innovators and curb freedom of expression of those who champion a new cause for humanity or art. The line “Try using the brush for a means to an end” shows the selfishness of the political masters as exemplified by Socialist Realism. The painter was a genuine artist who opposed these restrictions on art. He was a free agent and wanted to attempt his poetic vision, but this freedom is not allowed as Ashbery depicts, “The news spread like a wild fire thought the buildings”.  The visionary painter was crucified by the so called custodians of political beliefs. The word ‘crucify’ has religious connotation so the poem becomes a religious allegory too. And reminds us of the story of Christ who brought a system as welfare to humanity but was rejected by the so called chiefs of Judaism and was crucified. Thus Ashbery rightly states, ‘My poems are paintings in words.’’ His approach in the poem is objective rather than subjective. John Ashbery is a perfect craftsman like Alexander Pope, Spenser and Tennyson. He is renowned for artistic galore in his poetry. The imagery is fresh and startling. In Painter, Ashbery achieves artistic perfection with simplicity of diction. 

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