Tag Archives: art

To Call Oneself an Artist

28 May

For the fear of sounding pretentious, people have given up referring to themselves are ‘artists.’ When people ask them who they are and what they do, many people would prefer to refer to themselves as ‘teachers,’ ‘statesmen,’ or ‘grad students.’ Meanwhile, the artist goes to his cave at night when the day’s work—which funds the very allotted time that turns art into a mere hobby—is done.

Granted, if you’re an artist who has a day job he finds stimulating, then wonderful. For many people of my generation, art is something done in the margins of life, often compromised and squandered up in devotion to cultural activities and ‘entertainment.’ One might argue that the price of being a true artist is high, but is not the price of assigning art to the realm of ‘hobby’ not higher? It only proves the unfortunate contingency of our world today: that that which is worth doing is not worth living for. And why is it not worth living for? Usually because it doesn’t pay.

Since we all know that respectable citizens go to university and get jobs, an artist must be someone with superhuman strength of intellect and energy, willing to produce masterpieces and best-sellers in eight-hour spurts on the weekends over the course of ten years, right? For some of us, this simply isn’t good enough.

The starving artist is a romantic image for those who have prevailed, ‘made it,’ in other words, with a big royalty check, a big advance or a television spots. There is a subtle belief that goes with this romantic image that one day if one starves long enough, it will pay off when they inevitably ‘make it big.’ We take for granted that, in ancient times, artists were not often issued royalties or given television spots. They did not have blogs, agents, promoters and zines. They sung, spoke and wrote, aware that their lives were not long (as they were indeed shorter) and that each day would see the furthering of art and life. At the end of life would come the end of art.

An artist who is charming enough can get by homeless. Eventually, a charming person may find someone or some people who are willing to take care of the homeless artist for a time while he does what he does best (and if not what he does best, then what he does inevitably). Unfortunately, there is no aptitude test to measure charm, so one best put this potential future out of ones mind (since most people, artists included, are not terribly charming anyway). The next option is to live for your art with no expectations at all—no hope that anyone will reward you or that anyone will offer you an open door or any easy way out. At the very least, this way, you are bound to make art that isn’t constricted to the limits that other art runs up against—that art which can only be made under comfortable circumstances.

Some artists might be in the fortunate position of a Goethe or a Proust—coming from money and, therefore, having little to worry about but the production of their art. Everyone else, however, must consider different options if they don’t want their art to belong to the realm of ‘hobby.’ The starving artist lifestyle may suit some people just fine, but there is another solution too, for those of you who want to live somewhat comfortably without compromising your entire life by doing something you hate.

It comes down to the very attitude with which you approach your life. Are you going to school to be a teacher, but what you really want to do is paint? Perhaps you feel that teaching will help your painting. In this case, when people ask you ‘what you do,’ tell them you paint. Most of the time, the question ‘what do you do’ means ‘how do you make money,’ but that wasn’t what was actually asked, was it? If it wasn’t asked, put the ball in your court. Don’t tell people you’re a bank clerk or a salesperson if that’s not how you identify yourself. Tell people the thing that you think most about yourself, and people will see you that way. Tell people you are an artist and they will treat you like one. They won’t want to talk about how much money you make; they will want to see/hear/experience your art. You might even run into someone renting out an incredibly inexpensive room or even opting it out for free, simply because they believe in your art as much as you believe in it.

If your art isn’t making you a living, be honest with your employers and potential employers. If you’re working full time at a job that offers part time work, take the part time work and let them know that the activities you are doing in what is deceptively called ‘free time’ is just as important to you as medical school would be for someone else. When you go to job interviews and your potential employer asks you what your long term goals and plans are and what you want out of the company or the business or the hustle, tell them that you want to do something fun which will provide for you and stimulate the more important activity you do outside of work. When you’re transparent about these things, you will get the life you want. You will probably be turned away from several dozen more interviews, but who cares? There are many ways to make quick money and quick money is usually a small compromise. A small compromise is better than the big compromise: lying to yourself and your employers in interviews for jobs you are going to hate for the next five years.

It is still possible to be an artist in this world. You may need to come to a compromise, but let the world compromise with you and not the other way around.



14 Apr

In what amounted to only a brief sleep, I had a dream that I’d already had many times while awake. I dreamt that I’d been very lost. Today, ‘lost’ might mean being thirty miles away from home without a GPS or wi-fi. In the ancient world, to be lost not only meant to wonder if one would ever make it home but to wonder, upon that very slim chance, if it was even worth it to come back. Time would have rendered everything that made it ‘home’ completely foreign.

Men wishing to visit exotic new places were not even sure how big the world was—if it was indeed limitless, or if their travels would pit them right at the edge of heaven or hell (if the earth was flat, who was to say one couldn’t walk right off the edge and into another world?).

Travel needed to be thought about with a great deal of courage and pragmatism. For one setting out into the world, one had to trust their resources and powers of perception if they even had plans to come back. One had to calculate the harmony of the winds and seasons and weigh them against the temperaments of foreign cultures and bonds made through great effort and much learned, and sometimes, much lost.

Men taking to the open sea, leaving wives and children behind, were obligated to live for that very hope of return, even if it meant dealing with great deals of change. But to those with no ties but cultural ties, ties of bloodline and heritage, being lost to one place is to be found to another.

In my particular dream, I set out into the world and became so incredibly lost that I was forced to wander and wonder for 100 years. Why did this strange fantasy keep occurring to me? Why did it color my dreams with images of such investment toward this all-consuming, life-long project, this simple but very heavy act of returning?

And I realized that this was just it—this word ‘project.’ This very thing we call ‘life’ is something we perceive to have linearity. Not only do we see it as having the linearity that exists between birth and death, but there is a linearity that begins from some quite remote moment and reaches toward a sense of purpose or a goal.

I will not bother asking what the purpose is, for I cannot suggest anything like an accretive purpose for mankind or even an individual purpose. But what we do know is that everyone seeks to fulfill a purpose of some kind, but the question is, where do these varied purposes come from? Some want to get rich or make good art or raise children or accomplish all of these at once. Some want to make their parents happy or serve their country or destroy their country.

In all of these things, there is a sense of investment in a project that is bigger than the individual undertaking it. We are wrapped up in and living in narratives not of our own making. The stories that make up our world will either see themselves lived out through us or we can make our own new stories through them.

Perhaps this is why I had become so obsessed—if at first only subconsciously—with being lost. It represents the most refined example and highest summit of what it means to invest oneself in a project. Being lost is the biggest project of all. The project is not simply survival—one could clumsily refine every other sense of ‘project’ to a sole drive like will to survive or will to life. Rather, when one is lost, the project is to forsake the biggest change, to forsake nature’s most violent act against man, which is not death, but this—to destroy his sense of knowledge. When a man finds himself alone on the shores of a distant island with no promise of ever being seen again or when a man wanders through the wilderness on some foreign continent, unsure as to what direction he is going or if his home even exists or if his family has not moved on altogether to a new place, all of his learning is either burned up by the circumstances or thrown into that inevitable journey.

By throwing what little knowledge one is even capable of acquiring in this great stretch of life into a simple yet heavy project such as returning, absolutely everything that doesn’t matter is trampled into the muds and dusts of time.

The artist is like one who sets out on a very far voyage from which he may never return. But the artist’s sense of ‘return’ does not belong to a home that can be located within the artist’s life. The artist loses himself and seeks to return to a place that has escaped man altogether—to a place that may never have existed or which is so primordial that it only leaves some trace of itself in our minds and keeps passing through us in a never-ending inheritance.

The artist is not doing something so different from everyone else, and yet no one sees it. The artist’s project lies so adjacent to the projects of the world around him that their very foreign variables would appear to pose a threat to convention—few would like to admit that the strangeness of the world is not entirely strange, or far too related to what they consider normal.

Most surfaces of the earth have been explored and exploited. There are very few places to get lost anymore (even when a man is lost today, he knows where it is that he is lost, at least in some general sense). It is no longer really possible to be geographically lost to the degree that ancient man could.

But it is still possible to get lost in other ways. Think about the very concept of being ‘lost’ and what makes up its essence. It is to be plunged into the unfamiliar. The narratives that make up today’s world, though varied, numerous and contradictory, are familiar. Perhaps the only way that one can be lost today is to travel so far from the narratives of culture that one finds oneself in completely foreign territory, which one never thought one’s mind could reach. To be lost today does not necessarily have anything to do with even moving an inch. One can become lost while one is completely still. It is a perceptual loss.

‘Loss’ has often become a synonym for a kind of despair or the absence of something good. But that is the only to have lost something else. Once you yourself are lost, it would seem that you lost the entire world (or at least, the world you knew).

To seek a new voyage is to accept or embrace the fact that you might get completely lost and will have to dwell in that place of loss. Is it so strange to view the artist as someone who willingly accepts that voyage into the loss of the world they know, so that they might find or be found in a new territory altogether?

Brief Thoughts On American Novels (if not “The American Novel”)

27 Sep

Eclecticism is, at once, the strength and weakness of the American artist. It is often said of him that he is too ambitious, though often it merely appears this way since he has become a brilliant collector.

Take the American novelist, for instance. After having spent years worshipping the greatest masters of western civilization and beyond, and after having then perfected their methods, he at once wishes to have the dialogue and psychological thoroughness of Dostoyevsky, the round introspection of Proust, the scintillating prose of Nabokov, the labyrinthine structures of Borges, the musical playfulness and erudition of Joyce, and often enough, the American artist succeeds.

It is for his very ability that we are endeared to him, but it is through his rendering of style, his application of method and his constantly oscillating rhythm that we become disoriented, having passed through every hall in the great house of his narrative design, that we come away feeling only that we are standing on the foundations of all history and that, yet, we will be another beam rather than a statue, mural, or even a pillar—passed silently by the admirers of the future.

How frightening this is for the American artist …  Now, in what is still the youth of his nation, he fears that he does not yet know himself or his culture, that it has not developed well enough for him to round off his perception of it or to edify his audience. He fears that he’ll pass into the shadows of history without contributing a distinctive spirit.

Modernism struck a stylistic chord with America who, not having properly formed such a distinct artistic identity the way different parts of Europe did, was so involved with its assessment of, obsession with and imitation of the European masters that, by the time this century arrived, time had run out and their collection of techniques, sentiments, thoughts and tastes became the pastiche that it is today.

But, perhaps, the very admiration paid the American will be that he was the most brilliant collector of all, a faculty from which others could later build. But can we be sure that ignoring the worst of all arts and taking the best of all arts will be very important for artists of tomorrow? Who says they’ll have much use for what ‘bests’ have already come and gone? They’ll be too busy making greater mistakes in the wake of greater triumphs.

Irony is the closest art comes to a semblance of humility. It is the easiest mode in which it is possible to operate in the face of this truth: that that which we understand now and those forms which we currently have in place will one day be no longer or will have changed almost beyond recognition. Other devices, techniques and methods don’t have the same ability to say, ‘I may not know as we stand now how things will be, but we can laugh at ourselves now as we will when that day comes.’ Though too much irony can give a work of art the stench of bad parody and often make one suspicious of veiled pessimism, just the right touch of it allows future generations to forgive previous generations.