Go! Find a Dog & Walk Beside It
Before we start, I should let you know: I love dogs, grew up with them, have lived with one now for nearly five years, love her to pieces. Her name’s Xochi. She’s a mixture of breeds no vet has ever been able to identify—jet black with a little twist of white on her chest. I found her, or rather she honed in on me, a bleeding heart in a plaza in Xochimilco, late October 2018. Since then, her presence in my life has shaken me to cores I’d previously believed only art and human affection capable of shaking.
Now, the stink I’m about to kick up isn’t simply due to this love of dogs of mine. I promise. Rather, I’d like to go on the public record to express my feeling that living with animals doesn’t interfere with (as we’ll see some have argued) but can enrich artistic sensibility. The artist can learn a lot about expression, that is, from a friendship with an animal, from the inexpressible resonances and reverberations between species.
Anyways. Don’t take me too seriously. I’m only barking at the moon.
Well, I like Agnes Martin’s work as much as the next one, but in her writings she has this one idea I really just can’t stand. (An almost I-take-it-personally kind of I-can’t-stand.) It’s in the piece “What We Do Not See If We Do Not See,” and goes like this: “I suggest to artists that you take every opportunity of being alone, that you give up having pets and unnecessary companions.” Yes, you read that right: no animals for the artists. Not good for the work—sorry. Artists, why not let your plants die too, since they intrude on your solitude by requiring you to water them?
A couple things about this phrase don’t sit right with me. For starters, the argument seems moralistic. What, for instance, is an “unnecessary companion”? Who’s to determine, and per what value system, whose company is necessary and whose isn’t? The rest of the text follows suit. For a piece made up entirely of subjective claims, it arrives at an oddly absolutist definition of the true artist’s path as paved with suffering, self-reliance, and solitude. But while these states of experience will (I hope) always be and always have been the source of many great—and, let’s not forget, plenty of regrettable—works of art, surely there are other valid sources of creativity out there to consider. Couldn’t Martin’s ideals be complemented, for instance, by ease, collaboration, and company? Or are the lives of all true artists really “self-sufficient and independent (unrelated to society)” and “free of influence,” as she argues in “Advice to Young Women Artists”? What even is an artist free of influence, or a work unrelated to society? Does—can—such a thing exist? Should an artist really never step off her chosen course in response to a demand of someone, something, else?
Before I digress, I’ll get back to the point. What I really want to push back against is Martin’s idea that artists can’t make genuine art if they live with pets, because animal companions intrude on our solitude. What did Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wombat, or Nerval’s lobster, or Flannery O’Connor’s forty-some peacocks, or Dalí’s ocelot, or Schopenhauer’s poodles, or Dickens’s raven—who inspired Poe’s poem, by the way—prevent these artists from achieving? Would Les Fleurs du mal have been a tighter collection had Baudelaire never taken in that injured bat from the cemetery or kept a tarantula in a jar?
As I mentioned, I myself live with a somewhat less exotic creature—a dog—so I’d like to keep my thoughts focused on what I know. Something I appreciate about dogs is precisely that they do make demands on us. No matter how we’re doing, a dog pulls us away from our habits and out into the world. Feeling too sad to get out of bed? Terribly bored by the outside world? Well, time to get up because old Fido needs to take a leak, and there’s no one to take him out but you. How many times have I thought to myself, “the last thing I want to do right now is get off this heavenly couch,” then gone and done just that because Xochi needed a walk? And how often have those walks unexpectedly extended, having led me into an unplanned encounter with a friend, an unexpected scene that sent me off my planned course? (Let the dogs determine our courses, and we’ll see they're natural practitioners of the dérive.)
While life with a dog may complicate our solitude, it also disrupts our notion of what it means to be together, by differing from human company and communication. A vast gulf exists between a human and a dog’s experience, and a genuine engagement with this gulf is in no way useless to creative expression. Our attempts to express ourselves to dogs are frustrated by dogs’ inability to understand nuances of human language, but enriched in ways mysterious to us by their sensitivities to other forms of communication which lie entirely beyond our awareness—pheromones, scents, unconscious body language. We, in turn, do our best to understand their messages, but we too fall short, being ignorant of their tongues and projecting onto their messages a jumble of human sentiment and stabs in the canine dark. Still, the relationships we enjoy with dogs are somehow equal in depth to those we share with people. With dogs, we cultivate relationships that lie far beyond linguistic control or comprehension. It’s particularly fruitful for an artist to shed the confidence that his symbols are adequate for any circumstance he may encounter, or that he can arrive at any given experience prepared to speak commensurately.
I got to thinking about all of this recently when I saw a certain Joe Brainard painting of a white dog laid out rather elegantly on a green couch. I was immediately drawn in by Brainard’s tangibly affectionate disposition toward his model. The artist’s attempt to render his model faithfully, as if genuinely inspired by the dog’s beauty, the peculiarity of its form, stood in contrast to everything I’d seen by Brainard up to that point—work I enjoy quite a bit, as well, but which is defined instead by cartoonish play, pen-and-ink spunk. This wasn’t Brainard being Brainard in solitude; it was Brainard really listening to, seeking contact with, the dog—meeting the animal halfway.
After a bit of research, I found the dog in the painting to be one Whippoorwill, the whippet of Brainard’s life-partner Kenward Elmslie; the setting, Elmslie’s green couch in the living room of his home in Calais, Vermont where the two artists would summer together. And it turned out that Brainard hadn’t painted just one portrait of him, but a handful—at least four intimate portraits of the dog, and one landscape of the Vermont residence with the dog painted from behind on the lawn, lost in contemplation of the house and the horizon beyond it, the title of the latter being Whippoorwill’s World (a tongue-in-cheek nod to Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World?).
These paintings sent me down the rabbit hole of Brainard’s work—the visual work, the writing, interviews. (I highly suggest going down this rabbit hole.) If an artist’s style could be said to be defined in large part by what they believe should be let in or left out, it would be difficult to think of an artist whose style is more defined by letting the world in (the “influence of society”) more willingly. The more I considered Brainard’s art, the more I found his work to stand in direct opposition to Martin’s call for solitude. Of writing his book I Remember—a series of well over a thousand personal memories recounted in sentences beginning with the words “I remember”—he says, “I feel that I am not really writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written. I also feel that it is about everybody else as much as it is about me. I feel like I am everybody.” Compare that porosity with Martin’s philosophy that “one must go absolutely alone with not one thought about others intruding because then one would be off in relative thinking.”
A major portion of Brainard’s output was made in the context of social life: poetry reading flyers, hundreds of book and magazine covers for friend’s publications, illustrations for those same friends’ writings, collaborations with practically the entire starting lineup of the New York School. Speaking of collaboration, Brainard and Martin’s stances on collaboration are particularly telling of the polar differences in their stances toward what it means to make art. For Brainard, collaboration creates an opportunity to actively confront one’s solitary habits. “It’s fun,” he says of the approach. “It’s very arduous. You have to compromise a lot. You have to be willing to totally fail and not be embarrassed by it. That’s the main thing, which is very good for you.” (The idea of compromise also brings to mind life with a dog: having to come home from the party because the dog hasn’t gone out since the afternoon.) For Brainard, butting one’s ideas directly up against another can have a humbling, salutary effect on an artist, causing him to reassess his views in unforeseeable ways. For Martin, however, the act of collaboration is a degradation whose practitioner doesn’t even qualify as an artist. “Being an artist is a very solitary business,” she writes. “It is not artists that get together to do this or that.”
Who am I to say which approach is better? Both artists created provocative work of enduring and diverse appeal. I’d simply like to draw attention to how Brainard’s approach allows the artist to change by way of the experience of art-making, whereas Martin’s approach would have artists use their practice as a diving bell to sound the walled-off depths of their individuality. Sure, I have my personal preference: art, for me, is the great space of unlearning. I won’t judge you for thinking differently.
In a sense, Whippoorwill—and Brainard’s “Whippoorwill” series—was the epitome of what Martin counseled artists against, given that he was both a pet and an “unnecessary companion.” Unnecessary in the sense that Brainard didn’t choose him, he chose Elmslie, but the cute little whippet came along as part of the package—a third party with his own character and needs that lay outside the direct channel between the two artists. (In an interview, Elmslie underscores how patient—the word he uses is “gentle”—Brainard was about having to pluck Whippoorwill’s white hairs off his nice Armani suits.) A painting such as Whippoorwill’s World, such as the title implies, is an earnest attempt to depict the alien reality of this creature on its own terms. It displays a reverence for what his partner loves and chooses to bring into his sphere. We don’t arrive in each other’s lives as isolated points, but rather well-formed characters with divergent histories and companions, and this painting shows Brainard embracing not only Whippoorwill but Elmslie’s affections. This openness not only to the general world at large but to the specific world of the other, for me, only amplifies the emotional quality of these works; they defy the notion that art must be made in solitude and celebrate it as a mysterious space of social encounter. Joe Brainard knew it when he let the world in: old Whippoorwill was as worthy a model as Botticelli’s Simonetta Vespucci.
So, take an afternoon and try to see the world like a dog smells it. If you get bored, you’re boring, too. Any walk down the street can be as good as a visit to the Frick. Look from the right angle and you’ll catch an electric pole looking as stunning as Houdon’s The Dead Thrush (my favorite piece in that museum, for what it’s worth). These aren’t new ideas: readymades and such. We profess not to fall for the institutional sleight-of-hand, but I think we’re still very much under its spell. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to know that my best friend would piss on the David’s feet if it were available to her, and would ascribe more value to a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos than to the Mona Lisa. I take her views as seriously as Simon Schama’s. I mean it. I really do.