The Artist's Life (1994)



 Rembrandt dies in near bankruptcy at age 63, Rubens in wealth and esteem at the same age. Van Gogh, utterly without hope that his art will ever be understood, shoots himself in the stomach at age 37. Picasso dies an extremely wealthy nonagenarian. Such are some artists' fates.


 Despite the common humanity linking all people, artists are a different breed. They spend a lifetime, as surrogates of mankind's quest for meaning, truth and beauty, translating into art their feelings and observations of the world that non-artists note only in passing.


 While art's importance to civilization is well recognized, you can't eat art, sleep on it, keep the rain off with it, or drive it to Toledo. This "impracticality" -- the essentially poetic, spiritual basis of art, and humanity's lack of artistic understanding -- sets artists apart from the rest of the world.


 In extreme cases, such separateness can result in isolation, conflict and death. In a more pleasant scenario (not without its own pitfalls), the artist may be elevated to culture hero if fortunate and his work supports the positive or negative beliefs of the leaders of society.


 A profound, poetic society, spiritually developed and humanistic, may recognize a Michelangelo, a Bernini. If the leaders are materialistic and nihilistic, then artists with those characteristics will gain fame and riches. It is also true that great artists can arise spontaneously, independent of social climate.


 In most cases, artists trudge through life in a middle-of-the-road existence, exercising financial brinkmanship. Or they cave in to the fashions of the day, turning out products to meet art market demand.


 A well-known New York art dealer once said, "If Rembrandt walked into my gallery today, I couldn't (translation: 'wouldn't') give him a show."


 The "reasoning" behind this absurd statement was that the dealer already had too many artists (the universal gallery excuse for not taking on serious artists. To which we might reply, "Yes, you have too many artists. Too many lousy artists. Make room for some good ones.").


 The dealer's other reason was that Rembrandt was too "hot", expressing intense feelings in his work, while the dealer only exhibited -- and could only accept psychologically -- the "cold" art of pop, minimalism and photo-realism.


 The genuine artist's challenge is two-fold. First, is the immense, life-long effort to develop and evolve a significant vision that expresses both his feelings and those of his era in the context of timeless human experience. Then, once the work has been created, begins the task of getting it out in the world, trying to make gallery people and collectors understand what has been achieved.


 There is no doubt that the genuine artist -- not the run-of-the-mill commercial hack -- is ahead of his time, is the point-man for his society. Most of humanity is at least a generation behind the greatest artists. The irony and horror, of course, is that, with amazing regularity, these bringers of truth are condemned or ignored by their contemporaries out of fear or ignorance. Fear of the insights and inherent changes the artist is bearer of, and ignorance of their timeless implications.


 Great artists' clarity of vision shreds the fads and fashions that are the substitute for thinking in any era. Once safely dead and hallowed by history and myth, their artistic and spiritual truths can be cautiously approached, digested and integrated.


 But significant, living artists are a threat to the aesthetic, psychological and financial status quo. Who wants a Van Gogh or Cezanne in their rough workmen's clothes barging into a posh auction house to question what is going on with multi-million dollar prices for paintings they could only sell in their lifetimes for a pittance, if they could sell them at all?


 One sometimes hears the vile nonsense, clearly an ignorant rationalization, that it is better for artists to suffer because it forces them to work, to produce better work. As if the artist is a freak or subhuman species that doesn't feel the way "real" human beings do.


 Artists who happen to be poor, like Van Gogh, produce IN SPITE of the hellish strain of not knowing where the next franc or dollar is coming from, not because of it. Think of a syphilitic, homesick, 55-year-old Gauguin dying in the tropical Marquesas, the last painting on his easel, a snow-covered, thatch-roofed Breton cottage later turned upside down at a sale of studio contents and sold as a waterfall by a smart-aleck auctioneer.


 Was Gauguin better off as an artist and human being because of his suffering? Not likely. Would any comfortable middle to upper-middle to upper class individual or family want to trade places with him? Not likely.


 "Where do we get such men?," wonders actor Frederic March, as the admiral in the movie "Bridges at Toko-Ri", about the fliers on his aircraft carrier as they roar off in their jets, having left civilian life behind to fight in the Korean War.


 Such a question can as justifiably be asked of the men and women throughout history who devote their lives, as long as they can hold out, to the search for, and expression of, the timeless truths by which humanity must live if we are to remain sane and humane.


 In a world concerned with financial issues, power, prestige, keeping up with appearances and the status quo conventions of life, what kind of people are these artists who are willing to go off in a completely different direction, that few non-artists will ever understand, in order to express the poetry in their souls that echoes the poetry they see in the common things of daily life and the infinite spaces between the stars?


 These magnificent artists do not, cannot -- could not -- live by bread alone. They seek a clue, a link, a oneness with the greatness of life, of nature and of man through forms and images in paint and stone as true as the world itself. What a compelling, rewarding and dangerous task this is.




Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms