In The Painter, Ashbery touches upon some of the basic concepts in imitative arts. He does not attempt a poetic reconciliation of the warring schools of criticism. Rather he presents a situation in which the artistic creativity may come in direct conflict with the demands of modern society. The poem presents the situation of an artist who wants to paint the sea. His ambition is to present the sea rather than paint it. He wants that “nature, not art, might usurp the canvas”. Ashbery concludes that such an ambition would result in a total denial of modern urban values and would be met with violent rejection.
Ashbery establishes a relation between the sea and the buildings in the very beginning of the poem. The artist sits between the symbols of nature and the urban jungle of cement and steel. He was enjoying his work and expected that his subject would easily yield to creative reproduction, but his expectations were thwarted. Reality refused to be captured so easily by art. Ashbery compares his ambition to children’s view of prayer showing the simplicity of his desire. Ashbery contrasts the artist’s expectation to realistic theory of art asserting that even the most naturalistic presentation of life is still not nature as it exists in a different medium which changes its attributes. The artist with this realization is unable to present reality and so “there was never any paint on the canvas”.
Ashbery contrasts the artist with the people in the buildings. He emphasizes the basic difference between their modes of thinking. They want to “put him to work” desiring him to paint something less “angry and large”, something “more subject to a painter’s mood”. It is obvious that they consider art to be an imitative skill in the service of urban, commercial interests. It is “more subject to…a prayer” or as one may say ‘an order’. The concept of presentation of reality in the sense that reality may actually “usurp” the canvas is alien to them.
The artist’s choosing his wife for a subject and making her “vast” is Ashbery’s way of defining bathos. Ashbery being a gay poet could hardly have expressed matrimonial love in any other way. However this time it was as if the portrait “Had expressed itself without a brush”. With this encouragement the artist now arises to paint with seawater, letting the medium of reality to be the medium of artistic expression. This was as if the artistic creation would “wreck the canvas”, putting an end to the illusion of presentation and letting the reality to be expressed without any alien medium of expression.
This new mode of creation in which the artist is overtaken by his subject is blasphemous to the people in the buildings who consider it to be the case of “a painter crucified by his subject”. Others declare it to be the egotistical expression of the artist’s self and not presentation of reality.
The work of the artist is such that “all indication of subject began to fade”. Immaculate reality untouched with art is the final expression and provokes a destructive violent response form the people of the buildings. The portrait is tossed into the sea where it becomes one with its subject and thus the expression of the subject remains a prayer.
The poem presents many contrasting views related to art and its relation to reality and society. Ashbery finds an appropriate locale for the presentation of ideological discord. The artist sits between the sea and the buildings, i.e., between nature and the urban civilization. The buildings are tall and overcrowded, apt representation of overpopulated urban scene. The tallness of the buildings also reflects the way the people look down upon the artist. But the artist has his back to the buildings. His independence of thought is met with advice from the buildings. People want to “put him to work”. Ashbery with his usual figurative way of presentation makes the artist paint his wife whom he makes “vast, like ruined buildings”. He very cleverly hides whether the portrait of the wife was made in paint on the canvas or if it was a real-life portrait.
The poem makes use of figurative language throughout thus making every simple detail stand for a more complex thought related with theory of art. Phrases like “sea’s portrait, plaster its own portrait on the canvas, the brush as means to an end, usurp the canvas. As if forgetting itself the portrait, had expressed itself without a brush, wrecks the canvas, crucified by his subject, all indications of a subject began to fade, to howl, that was also a prayer, the sea devoured the canvas and the brush”, all have figurative meanings expressing or reflecting significant artistic concepts. Ashbery uses the word prayer several times, in this poem every time meaning something different. The artist’s prayer and the people’s howl which was also a prayer have contrasted meanings and so Ashbery uses the same word to mean different things to show how reality can be seen from many different perspectives.