Saturday, January 30, 2010
What exactly do we want from our artists? The distraction of entertainment? The clarity of hard truth? The tingle of titillation? The scouring release of deep-tissue catharsis? Maybe what we want most from our artists is risk.
Artists take risks. They don’t have steady incomes. They don’t have health insurance. They don’t own homes. They can hardly make the rent. They hang all their fears, hopes, dreams and fantasies out in the open for public disdain. They walk into every room naked. They’re high on a tightrope without a net. Living vicariously through our favorite artists anchors us in the realization that life is dangerous – a realization that hopefully propels us to craft our own best lives. We risk little. But we ask our artists to risk it all.
The myth of the artist as noble hero is not entirely genuine. Sometimes people just fall into the arts because they’re not very good at anything else. Too wounded and self-absorbed to ever stand up straight, the artist makes a business out of selling their pain. In many ways the life of the artist is a life of perpetual childhood. Beholden only to whimsy and free without a moment’s notice to walk away from any and all commitments – these are the genetic traits of the artistic life. Yet despite all the potential for narcissism and havoc, artists still inspire us with their fearless commitment to themselves, their craft and the maddening quest for beauty and meaning.
More than anyone else, Vincent van Gogh has come to represent the quintessential archetype of the modern artist. Articulate, brilliant, visionary and utterly mad, van Gogh captures our imagination like no other. Fluently trilingual (Dutch, English and French), a voracious reader, deeply spiritual and unapologetically carnal, van Gogh lived a little bit larger than the rest of us. And yet his life was a muddled fog of isolation, poverty, obscurity and despair. Were it not for the continual financial and emotional support of his beloved brother Theo, Vincent would have accomplished little or nothing – as it is, he is the most recognizable, influential and admired painter on the planet.
Van Gogh did not invent the marriage between madness and art, (think Goya), but he certainly perfected it. It is from van Gogh that we get the now-trite narrative of the artist who abandons all restraint and sells every drop of sanity to buy one more inch on the road to genius. Even a cursory glance at art history reveals a long list of artists who flamed out young and died broken, and in the music business it’s a particularly crowded club. This is the question: to make great art do we have to sacrifice everything else? Does it have to be either/or?
The idea of the artist as genius was born in the Renaissance with the emergence of Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Before then, painters enjoyed the social status of laborers. Michelangelo belonged to a trade union of house painters.
With Raphael, the idea of the artist became synonymous with genius. Along came fame, wealth, glory and the birth of something with which we are all too familiar – celebrity culture. Raphael, like a rock star, enjoyed every privilege and unlimited access to every salon, parlor and throne room. Wealthy nobles competed to be seen with the young genius. Hard living, megalomania and boundless appetite take their toll. He was dead at 37.
Vincent van Gogh died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound at 37. Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix died from drug and alcohol abuse at the age of 28. Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun at the age of 27. John Keats was only 26. Sid Vicious, 22.
The die was cast. To this day we reward our artistic masters with infinite wealth, endless indulgence and open-ended forgiveness. Only Michael Jackson can allegedly molest children and simultaneously enjoy near-universal adulation.
Must artists, like vampires, entirely abandon normal life to gain their heralded powers? Must they sell their souls? Does the voracious and parasitic nature of artistic genius always kill the host? Isn’t there any other way?
In ancient China a different model emerged. Perhaps because of the pervasive influence of Confucianism, the idea of the individual beholden to no one never really took hold. The ideal human life was one of connection, community, humility, responsibility and cooperation. The single biggest mistake a person could make was to not be useful and productive; the greatest shame, to be destructive to the harmony of the whole.
In ancient China then, the idea of the artist as celebrity never happened. Art is just something you do. Everyone is an artist. When the accounts are balanced, accountants paint. Housewives design living spaces. Bureaucrats play music on the weekends. Being artistic isn’t reserved for the petulant few, it is the birthright of every human being – every meal a masterpiece, every conversation a poem, every garden a handmade heaven, every gesture a dance.
This vision of art is a long way away from the notion of art as self-indulgent and destructive. Instead, art, like breathing, is innate and natural. There is no need to pathologically set it apart from the rest of life, thereby relegating an entire category of people – artists – to the confusing and paradoxical binary status of masterful geniuses and bumbling knaves. Rather than art being a way to wrest beauty from nature and place it on the canvas or in a sculpture or in a song, art becomes a way of celebrating our integration with the natural world. Nothing special. Everything special.
In our culture, the iconic myth of the starving artist – someone who has given up the creature comforts to sacrifice it all for their art – is a vexing, tenacious paradigm which has long ago outlived its usefulness. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate a new model – a model that combines the best of the eastern and western paradigms. Maybe you don’t have to walk away from middle class comfort to make great art. Maybe it’s O.K. to stand on your own without patronage or poverty. Setting aside some money from the tip jar for catastrophic health insurance won’t compromise your artistic integrity.
We need our artists to take risks. They inspire us to test the self-imposed boundaries of our own lives. But we also need our artists to teach us how to cultivate the beauties of our own lives. As parents, as professionals, as butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, we want to be shown how to integrate art into real life. As you weave your intoxicating spells with sound and paint and clay and words and light, please show us also how to harmonize the often conflicting energies of our own lives. Dear artists, we need you to make your own life beautiful and healthy and whole. Are you willing to take the biggest risk of all – being happy? As is true for all of us, your life is your greatest masterpiece. If you would really serve us, you would find a way to stand strong on your own while searching fearlessly for beauty and truth. We need you to abandon the sorry notion that only through your suffering and your alienation can you create. Drugs, alcohol, poverty and dysfunction are not the requisite elements of the creative life. It’s time to let the lie die. Art, like any other form of truth-telling, is dangerous. But art, like truth, is also a healing energy. Show us our pain. But show us also our infinite capacity to grow and heal ourselves and heal those around us. It doesn’t have to always end in misery. Artist, heal thyself.