The Search For Meaning: Self-Awareness


This article appeared in the PROFESSIONAL ARTIST APRIL 2011 issue. To download this issue, click here.

Ignorance is bliss, or so goes the time-worn cliché. In terms of art making, or at least in my experience with it, nothing could be more true. For years, it was my modus operandi. Drawing was my entertainment. While most boys played with toy soldiers and race cars, I also acted out my play in drawings, complete with the sound effects I made as penciled bombs exploded and cars skidded. I was aware of nothing more than the pleasure of watching some amorphous vision take form on paper. This bliss carried me forward for many years, until I gradually became “educated.” Some of this education took place in art school, but much came as I studied the work of artists whom I admired and read what they had to say about why they did what they did. I discovered that a work of art had meaning and that art should extend beyond the pleasure world inside one’s head. Eventually, my eyes were opened, but when I then looked at my own work, I saw nothing. The more I learned, the more frustrated I became until at one point I could barely stand making art anymore. I had finally learned how to paint, but felt as though I had lost the reason why, or perhaps I never had it.

“The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” —Caspar David Friedrich

As I write this, I suspect that some readers might have no idea what I’m talking about. Others are possibly thinking that I’m describing the trouble with today’s art world — all that self-analysis and conceptualization. For others, my account strikes home — I am describing your experience. You have known a similar discomfort in the past or are feeling it right now. You know that there is something more out there, and you desperately want it. I hope that you find yourself in this latter group. If so, you are a fellow pilgrim in the search for understanding. It is a lifelong pursuit, and self-awareness is the first step. You are engaged in a conscious process of introspection and examination that can be, at least temporarily, the death of pleasure, and for some, even the death of art itself. Only the most gifted, self-taught savant can entirely evade this process and still produce work that is deeply personal and at the same time substantial. For the rest of us, gaining understanding is essential. Without it, art is like a cake made only of icing. It may look good on the surface; it might even be tasty if you dip your finger in it, but after a while you want some cake.


This is why the work of an artist is so difficult. The layman does not understand that what seems like a somewhat frivolous and pleasant pursuit on the surface is actually multi-layered and complex, striking at the very core of human expression. To be an artist is to embark on a voyage of self-discovery toward a destination that always remains just slightly out of reach. This journey continues long after we have conquered most technical challenges. For many artists, including myself, the real struggle only begins at this point. We come to understand that a work of art is more than a nicely arranged and executed object. It may be that, but it is also much more. We realize that art is a vehicle for communication, and that all art communicates, whether we intend it to, or are aware of it, or not.

One of the first things I remember hearing from my professors in art school was that “art is really about seeing.” At first, I thought that they were simply referring to literal observation, and there certainly is truth to the statement on that level. As we practice, our observational skills and abilities are greatly sharpened. There is no question that trained artists are able to distinguish things like nuances in proportion and value in ways that “mere mortals” cannot, just as a trained athlete can accomplish physical feats beyond the reach of the average person. My quest for the mastery of form and craft kept me thoroughly occupied for many years; however, eventually I came to understand that the vision my professors were referring to went beyond observation of the external world. Seeing is not only about careful study of the landscape or the human body, or even learning to recognize and manipulate formal elements such as shape, composition or color. Seeing goes deeper; it takes place both within and without.

“The idea that intelligence should be in an antagonistic relationship to the senses is an abomination…” —Thomas McEvilley;

Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millenium, pg 102

Please do not misunderstand; I am not diminishing the value of the countless hours I spent (and still spend) learning and refining technique and becoming increasingly sensitized to the structural elements of painting and drawing. I wholeheartedly affirm the value of this discipline and that an artist’s personality can certainly be expressed through technical means, just as a virtuosic musician can speak through his or her instrument. Great musicians, however, do more than hit the right notes; they bring their music alive with a creativity and invention that springs from an inner motivation that surpasses correctness. Working from this inner place is the more elusive challenge, and in the end, perhaps the most essential. The visionary German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, stated it rather bluntly when he said, “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.”

As artists, we can learn from studying nature and the work of other artists; indeed, they are essential parts of our training, but in the end, the well we must draw from is our own souls. Recognizing this was my moment of truth. I came to a place in my artistic development where my work looked fairly good and was selling, but I could not shake my profound dissatisfaction. At that point, I could have quit, or I could have pushed the disturbing thoughts away and continued making art with blinders on, but neither of those options seemed possible for me emotionally. Instead, I had to look within if I wanted to continue painting. I had to gain a deeper understanding of what I was doing and why. My work was hampered by my own lack of awareness. I had to become more critical, and not just in refining the visual aspects of my painting.

Other Articles in This Series:

The Search for Meaning: The Inner Motivation (May 2011)

The Search for Meaning: Contemporary Relevance (June 2011)

To download these issues, click here.

As a professor, I try to help my students embrace this great dilemma. I believe that this is possibly the most important aspect of my job. I want each of them to head off on their own personal search for understanding, to become aware of what they desire their art to communicate, to be critical. I understand that there is room in this world for all sorts of communication and that this communication can take place on many levels, just as in music there are commercial jingles, Beethoven, Phillip Glass and Jay-Z. There is room for it all, but it is important that we recognize that there are differences among these choices and that we understand what it is we are aiming for. When the fog clears, our ultimate goal is to emerge with a signature vision, a voice that is truly our own and reflects our unique personality. PA

Matthew Daub ( is a Professor of Fine Art at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. His watercolor paintings and drawings have been included in numerous invitational exhibitions at institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and most recently at the 185th Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at The National Academy of Design. Daub is also the director of ARTS SOJOURN ( — an arts/travel company specializing in painting trips to Italy. He is represented by ACA galleries in New York City.