Mastery

Drawing of a woman draped in a sheer fabric. Chalk on brown paper by James Whistler.

James McNeill Whistler, the guy who famously painted his mother, went back to the drawing board–literally–to create a masterpiece.

It seems that the already well-accomplished artist felt that his work on the human form was weak. So he went about practicing and perfecting his drawing by spending hours in the studio studying and reworking images on paper. He thought he didn’t do enough work earlier. He crammed on the form of the body and the draping of fabric. He worked in chalk on brown paper or sketched in oil.

I was struck by the exhibit showing a piece of art that never was. (Well, it was, but then it was destroyed. But that’s not my point.) There were many studies, many explorations, many versions of the work. All in preparation for the final canvas, which was itself reworked, painted, scraped and repainted. This went on for ten years, incomplete. His mom thought that “he had tried too hard to make it the perfection of art.”

Ten years working on a singular painting. While this wasn’t his sole effort, it was an ongoing effort. Learning, working, improving, struggling, and doing it more.

This is someone acquiring mastery. It is a process that takes time. It is a process that requires sustained effort. It is a process that accesses multiple aspects of thinking and feeling.

I live in a world of immediacy, of instantaneous transfer of messages, some of which are programmed to disappear immediately. I am surrounded by people anxious to master, but in our anxiety and rush we move past the task that is completed, but far from mastered. We claim to respect and admire craft and virtuosity, yet adopt a DIY mentality, “I can do this.” And then think that we DID attain a high level–but it was just cleverness.

It’s the neighbor’s house that they remodeled seven years ago. They can’t sell it now. The work they did was good. It looked good. They were not proficient in laying floors and hanging cabinets and taping drywall. It was the first time they tiled a bathroom. Their work was more than sufficient. It was fine. But it took them much longer than the practitioners who had apprenticed and studied. It lacked the familiarity, judgement and awareness of the master. They were neophytes. It was their first rodeo. Their work did not stand the test of time.

Also, today I was reading a critique of the White House work on a cancer “moonshot.” Dr. Vinay Prasad, a cancer researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, took the idea to task. After challenging the Ground Hog Day aspects (War on Cancer in the 70s anyone?) and efforts to push drugs out faster, accelerating new therapies and opening clinical trials (none of which are groundbreaking), he identified the deficiency with the moonshot approach. The fundamental problem he sees is that a surge of concentrated effort to cure cancer doesn’t fit medical discovery. Science is a long process of experimentation, applying lessons and connecting dots across disciplines. It takes time. And mastery.

I’m wondering, what I am working on? What am I trying to master? What will I leave that will stand the test of time?

Damn, that museum trip has my mind working.

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