More and more often, I see digital images appear in various forums focusing on digital art, images that, to me, are to Art what karaoke is to Music.

Simple as that


Because, in the Art that I “know” and practice, the main issue is one of connecting with -and seeing/making emerge- the holy grail of creative work, the elusive underlying form.

That which is always present in one’s perception of “whatever” (“perception is constitutive” and “Each one of us is a brand new point of view on the world” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty so well stated), but which almost always remains aloof, elusive, “hidden.”

But “hidden” in a strange way because, as Derida said, it’s really about “making the visible visible.”

It is worth noting here that Alberto Giacometti said: “I could paint all my life the same chair.”

“To cater to the appearing as it appears” (Edmund Husserl) is a very tall order, but one that may be what one’s creative life is/should be about.

Using source material (images/videos) “naively” only adds surface icing to the taken-for-granted “literal” structure of the source material, source material often not even created by the ones using it (hence “karaoke”).

How does one connect with that elusive (and dynamic, it evolves with our ever-changing perception) underlying form?

Options abound, but in order to be (relatively) successful, they all require a “simple” step: whatever “structure” one started with/from has to be lost in the course of the work, it has to “die” (taking along one’s expectations and intentions) in order for “something” to be (re)born (more on that below).

There is no other way.

Short of that dying, we’re talking mere illustration (in a pejorative sense), mere dabbling, pretending, “camp” (as my old friend Mercedes Matter used to say) in fact, “visual karaoke.”

A “simple” step it is, but as T. S. Eliot puts it eloquently in his essential “Four Quartets” (Little Gidding V):

“A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)”

Picasso once said: “What saved me is that I became more interested in what I found than in what I was looking for.”

But it was Giacometti who really nailed it (he was talking about a little pocket-knife, a “canif,” with which he gouged/shaped the clay of his sculptures): “When I no longer know how to hold this knife, then, and only then, have I got a chance for any kind of breakthrough.”

He also said: “j’ai fait un immense progrès, maintenant je n’avance qu’en tournant le dos au but, je ne fais qu’en défaisant.” (I made immense progress, I now advance only with my back turned to the goal, I only do by undoing.”)

It’s been said that talent is demonstrated not by how much one knows how to do, but by how well one can function when no longer knowing what to do!

It’s as if the “digital revolution” serves most people in their dedication to avoid this “working by way of not-knowing” instead of helping them deepen their understanding of their nature…

It is as if the digital realm had taken Art back to the 19th Century, to the hay-days of the Salon, days during which painting (for example) was assumed (had?) to be a re-enforcement/glorification of the societal model of “reality” as posited by the bourgeoisie’s world-view (its Weltanschauung).

Not all that different from the parading (pseudo) “avant-garde” which is, in fact, just another form of trite conformism…

Yet, the societal models of “reality” evolve, one only needs to read critics of the early shows of the Impressionists to realize that those very images, the reproductions of which now grace a multitude of living-rooms walls, were deemed disgraceful at first (to say the least).

Granted, there’s a nasty twist that has occurred since the 19th Century, likely triggered by the atrocities of WWI (and the many other butcheries that followed), a loss of faith in (our) humanity, resulting in a hidden (or not) agenda that posits, as its credo, that “Life is a bitch and then you die.”

It’s easy to understand that, for those who have subscribed to that faith, “fudging is/has to be the order of the day,” if life has no meaning (found and/or created), to succumb to karaoke would make perfect “sense.”

Why die in/to (as?) the search for the holy grail when everything seems doomed, pointless?

The widespread belief being that “the eye works like a camera and we all see the same thing(s),” why suffer (through) the search for “the real” when/if “we all see the same thing” and our/my gaze holds nothing unique, worth living “for?”

Witness the experience of James Ensor (who is much much more than the painter of the masks he is famous for) while he was a student in Art school (in Brussels): one day, the director of the “Académie,” who actually was fairly sympathetic to Ensor, looked at one of his paintings and the still-life that was his motif, then leaned over Ensor’s shoulder and whispered in his ear: “Do you have any problems with your eyes by any chance?”

This could have been the still-life in question:

Not all that different from what Breton yelled at Giacometti when he found out that Alberto (then a prominent member of the Surrealists) had “gone back to working from the visible:”

“A face, a face!!!? Everybody knows what a face looks like!!!”

Well, Giacometti did not know (any longer) what a face looked like (neither do I), that was especially demonstrated to him, by him, as soon as he tried to draw/paint/sculpt “what he really saw.”



As I said earlier, I don’t know either, and I too have done a considerable amount of looking/drawing/painting (still am):



(more here:

I had the privilege to “teach” at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture ( for a number of years, before it became just another degree-granting institution.

That exceptional school was started by Mercedes Matter (a superb artist, a great person, and a close friend of Giacometti and many other prominent 20th Century artists) on the premise that perception was/is the basis of “it all” (I of course totally subscribe to that, which is why Mercedes brought me there to teach).

Bill de Kooning was one of the many brilliant artists Mercedes attracted to the Studio School (see the list of some faculty members available on the school’s web site, it is indeed impressive).

It was then a den of genuine commitment and dedication to living one’s pursuit of Art, so different from “regular” Art schools, it spoiled me to the point of becoming utterly uninterested in teaching in habitual academic institutions.

When I left that school, I concentrated on my work, and on my work only, ending what had been an interesting teaching period of my life (I had the good fortune of “having” several exceptional students).

Here’s what a student of de Kooning (when Bill taught at Black Mountain College) reported of his teaching:

“Finally this little Dutchman comes in, says how do you do, and starts setting up a still-life. He spent about two hours setting up this simple, simple little still-life. Backing up and looking through the window of his hands seeing how it was, changing it a little bit, finally we were wondering what he was doing, Not talking much. Finally he stops and finishes it and he looks around and he says, ‘Vell ve’re going to spend all Summer looking at this ting. On one piece of paper or one canvas and we’re going to look at it until we get it exactly the way it is. Then we’re going to keep working on it until we kill it. And then we’re going to keep working on it until it comes back on its own.”

The only thing I would change in Bill’s statement (and I did discuss this with him -and Elaine- several times) is the bit about “until we get it the way it is.”

Along with Giacometti (and indeed Bill and Elaine de Kooning), I believe that it is utterly impossible to “get it the way it is,” but as Alberto would say: “if the goal is unattainable, one can get closer…”

And we DO get closer when, as Bill tells us, it comes back on its own.

That which we do not lose cannot come (back) on its own…

If we hold on to the taken-for-granted structure and wallow in that (false) safety, we are stuck with/in karaoke.

Question is: if the goal is assumed to be reachable, by all, in exactly the same way, what’s the point of trying?

If indeed “Life is a bitch and then we die,” what’s left for us to do?

Fudging? (During the days of the NY School, painters talked about “pushing paint,” we could now talk about “pushing pixels.”)

There is a way out, but it is a difficult one, always: it is the way of working without knowing.

Short of that, it’s all karaoke.

If the focus is on skills and tricks of the “digital image-making trade,” one avoids almost completely the experience during which, through which, “it comes back on its own.”

By relying on “how-to” recipes, one is missing what is, to me, an absolutely essential step, that of “working by way of not-knowing.”

I am convinced there is more to gain from learning from one’s “mistakes” than from somebody else’s (relative) success, especially if those “mistakes” are recurrent (if recurrent, they probably are “loaded…”).

In his book “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” D.T. Suzuki puts it thus: “Unless it grows out of yourself, no knowledge is really yours, it is only a borrowed plumage.”

Much too often, there slips in the conversations between “digital artists” the assumption that all there is to Art is technique (and hardware!), focusing almost exclusively on “how it is done “(and with what) instead of on what really matters, the “what it is doing.”

One witnesses a mad race after some fancy new tricks (faster computers, more powerful graphics cards, faster hard drives, new presets, special effects, filters, algorithms, etc…), getting them before others do, in the hope that the new tricks will make one’s worlk stand out and compensate for one’s lack of vision.

But, as Paul Cézanne said: “The pursuit of novelty and originality is a false need that poorly conceals banality or lack of temperament.”

Art does not come out of craft, it comes out of a need for something so vital, so potent, and yet so elusive, it will “create” the craft when needed, as needed. (“When the need is genuine and intense, the craft appears..”;-)

In his “Four Quartets” T. S. Eliot said it as well as Giacometti did when talking about his pocket knife, but in a different way (Giacometti’s way was with images, Eliot’s was with words):

“Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to


By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot


To emulate–but there is no competition–

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

(East Coker, excerpt from part IV)

“what has been lost

And found and lost again and again…”

It’s precisely this succession of finding/losing, doing/undoing, finding/losing, doing/undoing, for as long as one can sustain it (which is why Bill de Kooning told his Black Mountain College students to work “all Summer on one piece of paper or one canvas”) which creates “true Art,” the one that “comes back on its own…”

Like traces/patterns left by a struggle.

Like ashes after a fire.

No fire, no ashes.

No doing/undoing, no Art.

Only (visual) karaoke…

Before I leave this, I was talking about de Kooning.

Is the following painting his?

Or perhaps Philip Guston’s? (Please read this superb letter to Philip Guston, written by Musa Mayer, his daughter. It quotes him of course, but Bill and Elaine de Kooning also, as well as Mercedes Matter and many other artists active during those important days.)


What about this one?


And this one?


No, they are not “Abstract Expressionist” pieces, they are significant details from the following two James Ensor paintings (painted long before Bill de Kooning and Philip Guston were born):





So, if you are still “with me,” I submit that “Great Art” is not the result of mere technical proficiency (if it were, there would be no “special, even magical quality” to the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cézanne, Giacometti and all), it is not that which gets done through “knowing” but rather, it is a manifestaton of all that we are and can be when we no longer limit ourselves and our actions to the dictates of our discursive mind.

More about “all that” here:

This post originally appeared on Jean Detheux’s


Belgian born, graduate of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts (Liège).
In Canada/U.S since 1971.
Has taught “Art” in Canada and the US (NY Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, NYU, Concordia U., Alberta College of Art, etc.).
Artwork (natural media and digital) in private/public collections (in Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Middle-East).
Left natural media (1997, due to sudden deadly allergies to painting materials) for digital technology (started exploring “time-based art”).
Films with the National Film Board  of Canada (“Liaisons” and “Rupture”), numerous films in festivals since 2005.
Focuses on the importance of the hand gesture in image making (“le geste révélateur”), and especially, on the exploration of “inherent animation” (that which is done/found “by accident”), avoids “smarts” like the plague, believes that the conceptual approach is a dead-end.
Numerous lectures (in the US, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Lebanon, Belgium), conducts master-classes (including in music schools), has written many articles (AWN, SAGE, VFXWorld, NFB, The Wig, International Journal of Arts and Technology, etc.)makes films and also participates in concerts, creating images in real-time in collaboration with musicians (improvising and/or not).