One of the benefits of being an artist is you get interviewed by the "press". There's a journalist in front of me, seated on my couch. We've spoken before. This is the first time I've seen her. Usually, these interviews are superficial but I've got a good feeling about this one. I hope she asks me something useful, like: "as a traditional visual artist, what is your place in this day and age when so much visual art is non-traditional?" Yeah, I'm ready for that one. Instead, she asks: "Why are artists strange? Why are you doing this when you can make a lot more money using your other technical skills?" and I slowly sink down into my chair.
I know its a straight question, I'm just tired of answering it. For 18 years I've answered it and its old like the Old Testament. I need that question like I need more grey hair. Besides, there is no combination of words I can string together that will satisfy her question. No, that's not really true. The truth is I'm vexed because she caught me off guard. I do hate the question for it implies a personal defect or at best, a limited sense of self-preservation. Its a question you ask a rookie. Here's my real problem: I keep training for the interview with Charley Rose or Tavis Smiley, then I'm disappointed when the journalist I get hasn't studied-up before talking with me. If she knew about art then she would pose better questions but she is editor of a local paper for heavens sake, not Art in America. Maybe I expect too much. Is there is a deeper truth to my reaction? The fact that I earn a living at this means I've succeeded where 10,000 others have failed. I should be commended for having achieved a goal that is nearly impossible. But if I were as big as I thought I'd be by now, the journalists would come bearing gifts instead of questions that piss me off. Yeah, that's it. I glance up to see where she's looking and wonder if she just saw me smile.
The word "artist" is a very big word. There is a wide spectrum of artists with differing financial motives and levels of income. She's using the word artist in its broadest sense to include writers, musicians, actors, dancers, filmmakers and so on. But mostly, she's using the word artist to describe creative professionals who need to generate income but whose desire to find personal expressiveness in their work is far greater than the desire for material wealth. This particular kind of artist is often a mystery so we say they're "strange". Actually, they operate from a different base of assumptions about life. I have two answers to her question: one is long and one is short.
Here's my long answer:
I believe there is such a thing as a person being born to do something specific. We are the primary force at work in shaping our own destiny, at least people like myself who had a running start in life. But to the extent the universe steps in and shapes it for us, I believe I was born pre-wired to be an artist. Nothing else delivers the feeling of accomplishment that I get from this. I'm supposed to be an artist and the types of projects I aspire to do are simply not within the reach of weekend warriors. You've got to be a pro to compete for them. But as a professional artist you begin to realize just how different you are from the rest of the economic system.
The economy is driven by people who identify a need and then create a product or service that fills that need. But the artist creates something for which there is no immediate need. Luis Kahn said it best: "Nobody needed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony until he created it. Now we can't live without it." The mainstream culture instructs us on how business should be conducted. The frontal lobe of the culture is television, which broadcasts least objectionable programming to the widest possible audience. Most corporations use a variation of this traditional marketing approach by reaching out to large well-defined, pre-existing markets in order to make sales. But the artist must often build a market for his work in reverse, sometimes one client at a time, creating a market where none existed before. The name of the artist is the brand. In this way, artists move in opposition to the economic system.
The culture instructs us all to go to school, get a job, get a better job, go into crazy debt and begin a life of cyclical consumption. This suits most of us just fine. But for many, this sets the stage for an internal struggle between the desire for material wealth and security and the longing for happiness and self-expression. Artists are not at the center of this struggle if they forgo material possessions in order to pursue their work. But artists have their problems also. The traits that make them so creative also make them vulnerable to the world: their sensitivity, the longing to be heard and the belief that the world really wants their best shot can create an opening that talent alone may be unable to defend. In the end, true artists have no choice in the matter. They have to take whatever risks are necessary and go for the brass ring in order to live with themselves. In this nation of optimists, artists may be the most hopeful of all. The ones who survive produce work (to quote Leonard Cohen) "that lives in the chambers of our hearts".
As a nation, we are very self-critical regarding the recent past. Then, after a few years, we move on. As individuals, we are not generally given to self-reflection. But self-reflection combined with imagination, talent and desire is part of the engine the artist uses to create work. Not weepy, self-indulgent sentiment but self-reflection "through the filter" as Cohen said, "of craft and hard work". This is especially true of writers and actors. Harry Crews said "writers spend all their time preoccupied with the things that their fellow men and women spend their lives trying to avoid thinking about ... It takes great courage to look where you have to look, which is in yourself ... in your relationship with fellow beings ... and make something of them."
Artists may appear to be disconnected from the mainstream but they are not, for they must operate in this culture in order to sell what they produce. In fact, their dissimilar pursuit of happiness strengthens the culture. The artist is to the culture what tin is to bronze; what carbon is to steel. Christopher Reeves argued before congress that artists of exceptional talent are a national resource. I would argue that art is as much a measure of civilization as the process of law and I am not alone in this belief. When the nation was born, John Adams wrote: "I must study politics and war that my sons may ... study commerce and agriculture ... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry (and) music."
I feel privileged to draw breath in the opening chapter of the twenty-first century. I'm pleased whenever someone uses my name and the word talent in the same sentence. But according to Sydney Pollack, "almost all talent is liquefied trouble. All of it is frustration with something as it exists, that you're trying to improve on". I know this frustration well. I smile when people tell me how well rounded I am; how I don't appear to be "tortured" at all. They've bought my cover story and my practiced smile. The artists I know are not well rounded, but lop-sided with sharp edges that they pull back and fold over. They're inside painting when others are trimming the hedges or barbecuing; writing when the rest of the world is asleep; designing a cathedral when the client would have settled for a cafeteria and sometimes they're not the easiest people to get along with. Their talent makes it easy to overlook their unusual behavior. I'm not in complete agreement with Harry Crews, but there is an element of truth in his belief that "nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design".
So here she is, seated on my couch asking still more questions that I hate. I pretend to go wild. I kick over a painting, pretend to throw her out and we both start laughing. "So, why are artists strange?" she asks again. Now shes just having fun with me. She doesn't know about art but she wants to and she has to start somewhere. I'll give her more information as we go along but for now, I give her my short answer:
"because they are supposed to be".
* With apologies to Masolino da Panicale (c.1400) for the unauthorized use of and digital surgery on his painting at the top of this page. I should be whipped.