Alexander Trauner, Street scene in Paris, 1930 (Photo: Trauner Estate)

The Surrealists were fascinated by chance, by the spontaneous event that might unlock the unconscious. They wandered the streets and let those chance encounters play out. André Breton‘s novel Nadja is based on just such a random encounter, and the character Nadja quickly comes to mean much more than a beautiful woman met by accident on a Parisian street.

The “inspiration by wandering around” approach advocated by the Surrealists has its own version online. The 21st century method is less aerobic but highly convenient: It is that five minute wait in line at FedEx that can also be a quick access portal to timely and compelling articles, blogs and websites. If you’ve done just a bit of vetting on your social media feed, you can sidestep a lot of the silly and stupid and get right to the relevant. And sometimes the timeliness of what you find is uncanny.

Here’s a fresh example. At a recent social gathering I ended up sitting next to another artist, someone whose work has achieved commercial success. My usual response is that any time an artist can make money (with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade, R.I.P.), that’s reason to celebrate.

But I was unprepared for the arrogance and smug self-satisfaction, the self-promotional advertisement that came at me like a fire hose for most of the evening.

This encounter disturbed me on several levels. She’s borish at best but more at stake for me is a fundamental belief that art requires both confidence and humility. One without the other and it doesn’t work. It has been a long time since I ran into someone who had such an absence of the latter.

But here’s where that Surreal serendipitousness comes in. That night I came across the perfect blog post to put my discomfort with the evening aside. Ann Michael is a writer and a poet. Her blog post, Passion, art, doubt was just what I needed at that moment.

She starts with a quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark––we do what we can––we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.

This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”

It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate.

Our doubt as passion, our doubt as a task. I embrace it as an essential ingredient in staying open, in courting a wild and unexpected relationship with the uncertainty that is art making. Thank you Anne, and thank you so many others whose wisdom has shown up just in time.

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