Tag Archives: artists

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?

An Artist Goes to Hell — Excerpt 2

29 Oct

He went and sat down on his bed, examining the polished, white room. Equipment of every touch-screen surface, back-lit blue and pale angularity wrapped around the room in a U. There was a big screen monitor built into the wall, its face blank. Pensivemo sighed.
Dr. Sintek walked into the room quickly and looked surprised to see him. He smiled. ‘How you doing, sport?’

‘Great, just trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.’

‘Oh well, what do you mean?’

‘Oh well, for one, I don’t know where the hell I am.’

‘Oh that, yes,’ he said, tossing his hand as though it were a triviality. ‘I suppose we should get you set up since you’re still somewhat uninitiated.’

‘To what?’

‘Here, how about you come with me? Wait, do you got clothes? You’ll wanna get out of that gown, won’t you?’

‘I fancy I would,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Well here,’ Dr. Sintek said, walking over to the wall. He pressed some small button and the door opened inward. ‘This is your closet. Most of these things should be your size.’
Pensivemo took a look inside. There were rows of shirts, pants, jackets and suits.
‘We’re not going anywhere fancy.’ Dr. Sintek added. ‘Maybe just grab something simple or easy to put on, yeah?’

Dr. Sintek followed him into the closet for a moment and then stepped away quickly as though forgetting that Pensivemo needed privacy to change. Pensivemo pulled on a pair of cold jeans, shimmied into an itchy blue t-shirt and slid into a crumpled, smoky smelling, brown leather jacket.

‘Alright, now, are you ready to go?’ Dr. Sintek said, smacking his hands together and rubbing them.


‘We just have preliminaries we need to take care of before we can even do anything in the way of fraternizing.’

‘One of the maids said I had to go to the reception desk and when I went to the reception desk, they told me to go back to my room,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Oh well,’ Dr. Sintek began, rolling his eyes. ‘They’re giving you the runaround. But listen, we’re gonna skip that part. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to help you out with—’

The air-raid siren again. The beeping of his watch.

A voice came over the intercom. ‘Dr. Sintek, please report to room C-123-7.’

Dr. Sintek pressed his palms to his temples and grimaced. ‘I just have so much to do.’
‘Do you need help?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘No, I just have to do these things myself. Listen.’ He turned to Pensivemo. ‘I’ll be right back I absolutely promise. Now hold that thought.’

He left the room. Pensivemo went and sat on the bed for a second, looking around again, admiring the polished room. A cell? It wasn’t so bad for a cell.

On the wall was something that looked like a fancy intercom system. He walked over to it and got a closer look. The main buttons were numbered one through nine with zero at the bottom like a standard phone. He pushed the number one for the hell of it. It made a dialing noise and he waited by the speaker to see what would happen.

A voice came on the speaker saying, ‘This is Colbert.’

Pensivemo leaned in. ‘Hey uh … my name is Pensivemo Croce and I was just wanting to know if someone could tell me what I’m doing here.’

‘How’d you get this number?’ Colbert called back.

‘I just pushed a button,’ Pensivemo said. ‘I’m in a room.’

Colbert sighed over the intercom. It sounded like Colbert had turned to someone else as he muttered, ‘Damned patient got a hold of the intercom.’ Back to Pensivemo, he said, ‘Okay, sir, what I’m going to ask you to do, is I’m going to ask you to hit the little red button.’

‘The one that says “end” on it?’

‘That’s the one, champ.’

‘Won’t that end the call?’

‘It sure will.’

‘But I just wanted to ask someone a few questions.’

‘That’ll have to be arranged through your department. That’s not something I can take care of here.’

‘Well how do I do that?’

‘You’ll have to—look, what room are you calling from?’

Pensivemo frowned. ‘Uh, just a second, let me see.’

He stepped outside of the room and looked around the doorframe for a number.

‘Hey,’ a burly voice called. ‘Hey!’

Pensivemo turned to see a large man with pecks like shirted tires and biceps like balloons walking toward him. He had a navy-blue uniform over his dark body and he walked like he weighed a ton.

He shook his head as he said, ‘You aint supposed to leave your room, dude, you aint supposed to leave your room.’

‘I’m on the intercom with someone. I’m just trying to give them my room number.’
‘You aint supposed to leave your room, man, you aint supposed to leave your room. Who you fiddling around with on the intercom anyway?’

‘I don’t know I—’

‘You don’t know?’ He came up close to Pensivemo. ‘Get back in there.’

Pensivemo backed himself into the cell and the man followed him.

‘So let me get this straight. You were fiddling around with the intercom and you got a hold of you-don’t-know-who, who told you to get the room number for you-don’t know-what-reason?’

‘Well, here I’ll show you.’ Pensivemo went back to the intercom. It was off.

‘You tryin to make me look like a fool?’

‘No sir,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Listen, come with me.’

‘I’m not coming with you.’

The man frowned and turned his head a little. ‘What the hell you just say?’

‘I’m not coming until I know what’s going on.’

‘What’s going on is that you in here now because you scum. Don’t you get it? You aint leavin here for a long time. And right now, you comin with me cuz it seems like you need some talking to.’

‘Very well then. I’d like to talk to someone about this.’

‘Follow me.’

Pensivemo followed him into the hallway where the man continued on, muttering about people who break the rules and people who don’t follow orders.

They entered another hallway and a series of doors before coming to a room with a key-in number pad on it. The big man pressed a long series of numbers and the door buzzed to let him in. Inside, there were a bunch of guys in that same navy blue uniform. They leaned on tables. They rested their elbows against walls. They turned their heads, smiling like people who always tell jokes when no one is around.

A man with big, frizzy hair sat at a table in the front of the room, looking up at them above rimless glasses. He said, ‘What do we have here?’

‘This fool was trying to leave his room.’

The old man frowned and turned his spinny-chair to a computer just left of his desk. The other military types eyed Pensivemo with jockish aggression. ‘What’s your name?’ the old man asked.

‘Pensivemo Croce.’

‘Sounds like some kind of faggot name,’ the man who’d led him in said.
Pensivemo shrugged. ‘It’s not for everyone.’

The old man motioned the one bigger man to the computer. He shuffled over there, big biceps and all, and leaned forward, his blue-panted buttocks in the air like a couple of bowling balls. ‘Huh,’ he said. ‘You’re big shit, you know that? Some kind of renaissance man or some shit.’

‘Poetry, novels, essays,’ the old man read monotonously.

‘A symphony too. What kind? Looks like—oh, you did two symphonies.’

‘Translator of classic and epic poetry.’

‘Playwright! You’re pretty hot shit, you know that?’

‘Was involved in … the brass band in secondary school,’ the old man muttered, ‘and then … theater in New York, Broadway, then … Oxford … Rome, Paris, Vienna, Hong Kong?’

‘Hong Kong!’ the big man said, slapping a leg, frowning. He bit his lip and shook his head.

‘Son,’ the old man said, who was probably only ten years older than Pensivemo, ‘how in the world did you find time to do all of this stuff and still compromise your life to,’ (patting his knee at each stress) ‘… Such. A. Degree. That you. Can’t get. Out of this mess?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t know what kind of mess I’m in.’

‘You know damn well, dog, you know damn well,’ the first guy said.

Pensivemo, with a lifted finger pointing at the computer screen, stepped carefully toward it and said, ‘Does it … happen to say on there what I—’

‘Hey!’ the big man said. ‘Step back dude! Just step back!’

‘Alright!’ Pensivemo said.

‘Take a step back, dude!’

‘We really can’t have you looking at the confidential files,’ the old man said through his breath-flicked mustache.

‘Even if you’re reading out loud to me?’ Pensivemo said.

‘Don’t try to play mind games on him. Are you tellin him he’s a bitch? You best not be calling my man here a bitch.’

‘I’m not,’ Pensivemo said.

The big man frowned. ‘Wipe that look of entitlement off your person and step back.’
‘I’m back,’ Pensivemo said.

‘You in trouble.’ He frowned at the screen and shook his head. ‘Ah man. You sick man. What kind of De Sade shit is this?’

‘If you won’t let me see my file,’ Pensivemo said, ‘can you tell me what it says?’

The old man shook his head and turned to eye Pensivemo above his rimless glasses. ‘Son … now I’m a just sort of person. My grandfather was old enough to have worked as a slave in the fields and I am old enough to hear stories straight from his mouth. I know what it’s like to look at criminals with a shamelessly empty eye so that we might do what needs to be done to get that criminal rehabilitated and reformed back into society … And as democratic as I am, I have to say, now, I certainly hope that maybe one day you will be in such a state that you are ready to be reformed and rehabilitated as a functioning human being, but your file here is a perfect example of a man that cares so little about the well-being of others and so much about his own personal jollies that he’s willing to lay to waste all that is good and every conventional reaction to his situation. Are you understanding what I’m saying?’

‘Tell me my charges,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Son, there are certain laws that transcend the law,’ the old man said. ‘Do you understand me? Even if you weren’t in this room, the things that you’ve done wrong would be charged by the very streets in which you live. You’d be charged by all of humanity and all your responsibilities crying out from all the future before you, and which you neglect, by the way.’

‘Well, what’s my sentence? Can you tell me that or how long it is if you can’t tell me my crime?’

‘Hey, listen!’ a voice called from the entrance of the room. It was Dr. Sintek. He marched up, his red jowls jiggling, his lip and right eye twitching. He shoved past the big man, who lifted his hands with an offended frown, and squeezed past the old man to get to the computer. ‘I’m shutting this down.’ He looked down venomously at the old man and up at the big man. ‘You know damned well you’re not supposed to be reading anyone’s file.’ He turned back to Pensivemo and said, ‘Come on. Let’s get back to your room.’

Pensivemo followed him into the hallway and said, ‘Hey, thanks. Those guys are bit antagonistic, aren’t they?’

‘Oh, you noticed?’ Sintek said, walking faster with each stride so that Pensivemo almost had to jog. ‘They’re like that all the time. They’re contractors. Absolute cowboys. Some of them are actually hired right out of a mental institution. Others are just temp workers. Glorified security is what it is.’

‘Who was that old man?’

‘Chealy,’ Sintek said. ‘He’s full of bad tidings of very little joy.’ Back in his room, Sintek frowned and said, ‘Does it smell like pot in here to you?’

Pensivemo frowned. ‘I don’t smell anything.’

Sintek tossed a hand and raised his eyebrows. ‘Could be coming through the vent. Anyway, listen, I’m going to help you out here with your sentence.