Archive for the Artistic delusion Category

“…Tell your wife you love her. This is what it’s all about. Otherwise, you’ll be painting and looking at pictures like this. Your days are numbered, clowns. This is the end of the line. The end of beauty. The end of hope. What is art anyway? Decorations for museums.”

–Chuck Connelly, in the extra features on the DVD for The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, A Film by Jeff Stimmel

I realized about halfway through Jeff Stimmel’s 2008 documentary about Chuck Connelly that I had met this person before, several times. I’d heard his rants before, I’d seen his behavior, I’d witnessed in person how he lived. Through my years as a writer on art, I interviewed and wrote about a number of aging artists — perhaps 6 or 7 in sum — who were very similar to the way Connelly portrays himself in the film. They were so much alike, in fact, that it seems there must be a personality type: The Delusional Shut-in Artist, perhaps, or maybe the Quixotic Quack Painter.

Here are some of the character features of these men (all the ones I’ve met are men):

They are painters, most often.
They have a heroic vision of themselves (as a Great Artist, a warrior fighting against the cultural tides, a man on a holy quest for beauty, truth, etc).
They are so focused on their art — their quest — that not much else matters to them.
As a rule, they don’t care much about their appearance, and they often let themselves go.
They live in a kind of contained squalor, most often surrounded by the messy trappings of their art practice and the accumulated junk piles of the congenital shut-in.
They tend to believe that they’ve been cheated, somehow, out of the rewards (fame, wealth, attention) they feel is rightfully theirs.
They are misogynistic, abusive to their loved ones, and generally fail at interpersonal relationships.
Evenso, they can be very charismatic, attracting a succession of short-term acolytes, supporters, and co-dependents who eventually end up fleeing in disgust from being used.
They tend toward substance abuse.
They are verbally brilliant, though they think and speak in non-linear, associative ways.
They exhibit flashes of brilliance and great command of their own self-directed learning, but they tend to be, at best, emotionally adolescent.

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.

–Ernst Fischer

Loretta Bebeau, a Minneapolis-based artist, emailed her thoughts recently (quoted below) in response to my post on What Artists Are Thankful For and my paean to Grizzled Art Warriors. She started by explaining there’s a “story” waiting to be written about her friends Marge and Ed Bohlander.

Marge is one of the few women who did air brush in the 70s/80s/90s. Ed is/was a fantastic metalworker. We have a friendship that goes back to Hopkins and the early arts activism in that town. (In fact they called me and asked me to show.) It’s not the big, hot space like Flanders or T.Barry, but it is a friendship and they know their art. (They’re from the same era as T. Barry.)

Bohlanders went to NYC for awhile and returned to Hopkins, MN. After a successful stint there, they bought the building on 36th Ave. South. Here’s where we pick up their story. After a string of health problems they are now returning to their orginal career goals……….. this is what happens to artists as they go through life. Should we prepare the younger group?

…We ask “where are all of those art students after the age of 30?”

Additional topics:
Where do the older artists show when they want to develop new work? new audiences??
Why is it so awful to be showing from a studio? especially when “galleries are pulling back” due to budget problems. Who is creating “chatter” to build public awareness of visual arts? Who sees the artist as someone over 30?
Does the mature artist exist “out of” academia??? Why should we be proud of them???

Let’s compare visual art with the music world. The enthusiasm of Elvis cannot be recaptured, the Beatles represented the 1960s, and visual arts also represents a time period that cannot be regained. Therefore, earlier, older art still is valuable and continuous chatter about visual art creates awareness of the value.
Let’s compare the athelete over 30 to the artist over 30. Where do the old ballplayers go? Better yet, where are the UofM musicians from Bob Dylan’s era??? Let’s compare them to the local visual artists from that era.

I don’t need responses to the above questions, my purpose is to get something stirred up…. brainstorming…was the old term. During the down times, visual artists have always created a new “drive” for community attention. The drive also raises community spirit and health, aimed at a community pride in their artists.
It’s the time for the 40 year olds…

Then she shifted to explaining the hard realities of her artistic life.

I just read the tales of the “Grizzled Artist.” So, you have it. Onceuponatime I could just skip into a corporate file/admin/secretary job and pick up cash. But this no longer happens over age 50; bright young 30ish people rule the world.

Hey, I have children in that group and want them to do good, but the reality of food and shelter is reality. Also, painting was a habit that sustained me during that nurturing part of life. Artmaking is/was a basic part of my daily thinking. What do we replace it with??? Should I rock back and forth in a chair, or sway to imagined music?

Now the medical community mentions that creative arts keeps the mind from falling into Alzheimers and dementia.

Do I continue to spend amounts of time and money making art that no one wants to see, or do I actually fix the plaster on the kitchen wall and buy paint for it??

To follow up on my previous post, about what we are (despite it all) thankful about in art, I’ve posted an homage to Grizzled Art Warriors on the Thousandth Word blog.

Here’s a bit of the crux:

…make no bones, the range of committed and long-suffering arts denizens in this hardscrabble metro area of ours—without whom there’d be scant art worth celebrating today—while not terribly broad, is very deep. Just sit down and make a list, and you will see. My own list of local artistic heroes, whose grizzled tales I have often found myself drawn to, is split in two. It starts with dozens of artists who, while I don’t always love every work they make, are to be admired for surviving through thick and thin and continuing the battle. Then it moves on to those few purveyors and supporters of art—gallerians mostly—who’ve survived the wars from their front-line positions, under constant assault (mostly from needy artists) and with terribly unreliable supply lines to sustain them.

Once again, I invite anyone with thoughts or memories to share–about parts of the art world that you are thankful for, or grizzled arts figures that you appreciate and love–to do so. You can comment here on this blog, email me at admin@artisticfailure.com, or comment on the Thousandth Word blog.

On my Minneapolis-based arts blog, The Thousandth Word, I recently collaborated with Minneapolis artist-warrior, Gabe Combs, on a piece called  “Dried Blood and Dandelion Wine.”  It reveals, in the artist’s own words, much about the raw details of his present life (as an artist recently made homeless); here’s a sample:

Being an artist is not a fashion statement that passes with the season; it’s not something that hinges on gas prices. Art is something that combines with the culture to establish roots that intertwine with and break up the cement of society so the wildflowers can grow.Art breaks up a false foundation and replaces it with dirt. I wonder if it’s really possible to make dandelion wine…

Regular readers of CAFA will recognize that I have been following Gabe’s story, as best I can, since just before he was made homeless in March. You can read about the early stages of this artist’s self-destruction here, here, and here.

Also, here’s an informational post that tells you what’s up with this new Thousandth Word blog on Rakemag.com. I suggest you visit this site often (perhaps nearly as often as you visit the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America) to read more such stories by me and five other capable and informed local arts writers.

Attached below is a piece, recently published on mnartists.org, that describes a public forum I attended on “The State of the Arts in Minneapolis.” In the essay, I attempt to dig a bit further beyond the usual propagandistic platitudes and oft-repeated old saws about art here in frozen Minnesota to examine what things are really like for artists and small art organizations here.

 

COMMENTARY: What is the State of the Arts in Minneapolis?

Commentary by Michael Fallon

Or, “The Future’s So Bright, You Gotta Wear Blinders:” arts administrator and critic Michael Fallon comments on the recent panel discussion about the state of arts in Mpls and makes a case for candor in our civic conversation on the subject
On the evening of June 12, the Minneapolis Arts Commission, “a volunteer body that oversees the city’s public art and promotion of the arts,” invited a panel of arts leaders (from a handful of the city’s most influential arts organizations) to participate in a discussion at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the aim of taking stock of “the current state of arts in Minneapolis, and how to move it forward?” The commission’s website describes the night’s agenda as follows: “Minneapolis has enjoyed an arts explosion in the last few years, but how do we use that momentum and continue to build Minneapolis’ reputation as a leader on the national arts scene?” mnartists.org asked arts administrator and critic Michael Fallon to attend the event and report back with his impressions on the evening’s conversation.

IF YOU HAPPENED TO MISS THE FIRST FIFTEEN MINUTES of the recent panel discussion on “Minneapolis’ artistic future,” sponsored by the Minneapolis Arts Commission, you didn’t miss much. In what best can be described as an excruciating exercise of intensive local arts spin, early attendees to the event were treated to a host of thought-terminating clichés from Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson and from representatives of the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Orchestra, Loft Literary Center, Guthrie Theater, and McKnight Foundation.

Just to give a taste, the event began with a vague (somewhat desperate-sounding) appeal from Johnson to the scattered 65 or 70 audience members: “Please know the city views the arts as an essential part and great promoter of our community.” The panelists then unanimously echoed their convictions about the significance of the local arts community. “We’re in great shape,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, an associate curator at the MIA (filling in for the previously planned speaker, the Institute’s new director Kaywin Feldman). “Compared to other cities, Minneapolis is very impressive in terms of art,” agreed Philippe Vergne, chief curator at the Walker Art Center. And thus followed a succession of many of the same, shop-worn old saws that local arts advocates are prone to tossing off (usually without supporting statistical proof) when asked about the arts here. This is just a sampling of the glib, oft-repeated claims that were reiterated in the night’s opening remarks: Minneapolis is the “most literate city in America,” has the “most theater tickets sold per capita outside of Broadway” and the “widest array of artist service organizations in the country,” not to mention the “deepest sources of philanthropic support of the arts anywhere.”

It would be a fine thing if the vaunted art-city status that Minneapolis grants itself were provably true, and if the lip-service served up regarding support for local arts actually had the solid basis in fact that people claim. Unfortunately, the truth, as it can be empirically shown, is less sunshiny than I’m guessing any of the evening’s panelists are willing to admit. Minneapolis—unlike many cities around the country (including its neighbor, Saint Paul) and, notably, unlike most other cities with a reputation for arts friendliness—actually provides little practical support to the arts. Minneapolis offers almost no city funding to arts organizations and artists (beyond the requisite occasional public art project) and has no staff dedicated to overseeing arts development or planning. But, as was not the case with the optimistic spin offered up at the recent panel discussion, you don’t have to take my word for it. This bleak assessment of the lack of practical arts support by the city of Minneapolis actually comes from scholar and economist Ann Markusen, author of a national study investigating how various cities support the arts. Here’s what Markusen uncovered about Minneapolis in her 2006 paper, “Cultural Planning and the Creative City”:

In Minneapolis … the City Council abolished its Department of
Cultural Affairs in the 1990s, leaving only a small Office of Cultural
Affairs with responsibility for public art and publicly supported arts
programming, moved under the umbrella Community Planning and
Economic Development Department. There is also a separate City of
Minneapolis Arts Commission, but it has few powers and little
political clout, and is in general ignored by the more powerful arts
institutions in the City [this has important ramifications, as explained
below]. Cultural affairs departments and offices have suffered
relative resource losses in recent decades as taxpayer revolts and
higher priority placed on everything from public safety to
economic development have squeezed their shares of the public purse.

Markusen further explodes the myth of Minneapolis’ abundant arts support through a point-by-point comparison of urban arts policies around the nation. As opposed to the other, more truly arts-friendly cities—Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and several others—revealed by Markusen’s research, Minneapolis has no dedicated arts funds to support local arts activities, no central planning mechanism or agency to manage arts development activities around the city or region, and there is little sympathy for the arts reflected in urban planning and economic development initiatives. It’s telling that, unlike what you’ll find in some cities, for the City of Minneapolis, cultural policy has little standing. There are few formal avenues for interaction between arts organizations or artists and city planning departments with regard to the management of land use or the city’s zoning laws, which do not permit the mixing of commercial and residential use. Such restrictive policies about urban zoning make it needlessly difficult for artists and small organizations to survive in the region; specifically, these sorts of policies tend, over time, to foil artists’ and small arts organizations’ attempts to create affordable live/work spaces. Further, Markusen explains, in Minneapolis, it appears that “larger arts and cultural institutions have garnered the lion’s share of city commitments in terms of land, parking garages, and support from state bonding funds.” Generally, allocating such a large proportion of civic resources to a few big arts institutions further leaves small organizations, neighborhood arts centers, and individual artists out in the cold. (It is important to point out here that the bulk of the panelists work for just such large organizations which have been among the few beneficiaries of the city’s narrow arts policies, and that may help explain their allegiance to the group-think about local arts.)

If you are beginning to feel your blood pressure rise upon reading all of this, you will begin to get a sense of how I was feeling after the first round of statements by the panel. Fortunately for my health and yours, however, it was at that precise moment that the panel moderator, Fox 9 news anchor Robyne Robinson, stepped in to begin directing panelists toward a more measured assessment and constructive discussion about how the city is doing regarding the arts. “We can sit here and repeat over and over how great things are,” Robinson said, “but then you hear these constant complaints from artists. If things are great, why is the discontent there? Do we just have too many artists and are unable to feed everyone?”

McKnight Foundation program director for the arts, Vickie Benson’s response to this question—voicing her particular concern about the well-being of individual artists locally—represented the first genuine moment of the night, and her remarks elicited an outburst of loud applause from the audience. “We can’t forget,” Benson said, “about the artists who live with poverty, who have no health insurance, and who face a lack of retirement money. We can’t forget about the artists who bring so much vibrancy to our community.”

Other panelists, at first, weren’t quite so willing to immediately validate the local artists’ disgruntlement. “We cannot please everybody,” said Philippe Vergne, slightly testily. “We make choices and, by nature, this is discriminating. Discontent of this sort is not just present in Minneapolis. It happens in L.A., it happens in New York. It is in the nature of what we do.… Desire is important. We need desire or art dies.” Jennifer Komar Olivarez of the MIA agreed: “If you look at the broader picture, our role is to set a certain standard, a bar for local artists to aspire to. We can’t be everything to everybody.” Still, Robinson, to her credit, persisted in asking about the city’s role in supporting smaller organizations and individual artists. She kept dancing around this point throughout the next hour or so of discussion, digging for a more human, more specific response, asking for panelists’ assessments of the current state of affairs which might go beyond feel-good spin. And, as a result, over the course of the evening the discussion grew increasingly realistic about the state of the arts in Minneapolis and about its immediate prospects in the current times and near future.

In short order, Robinson asked whether there were inflated expectations for large Minneapolis arts organizations as a consequence of the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of expansion many of them have undergone in the past five years. (Some panelists admitted there has, indeed, been some tension and growing pains in the wake of recent redevelopment.) Robinson also asked about the potential for large locally-based businesses—which have given tons of corporate money to support these expansions—to exert undue influence on arts programming at the organizations on the receiving end of their largesse. (Most panelists sidestepped the question, instead arguing about the relative merits of “blockbuster” shows. I feel compelled to point out here that I suggested evidence of such corporate influence on arts programming was already beginning to emerge in an essay I wrote more than two years ago.) Robinson—again, to her credit—pressed the point, asking if the panelists’ organizations ever worry about “selling out” in the wake of their recent expansions (which the panelists again, for the most part, side-stepped). Then, she followed up with a question about whether the small organizations in town have suffered from competition with the large institutions (ole!).

As the discussion progressed toward its conclusion, and these expert panelists became less and less able to answer the hard questions about the struggles of the larger art community in Minneapolis, I could tell that Robinson was beginning to circle the truth. When she asked about the financial challenges facing the arts community in the current economy and, specifically, about whether the big organizations had contingency plans to deal with the difficult fiscal realities of the times, the panelists all—to a person—gave grudging nods. “We talk a lot about it,” admitted Vergne. “It’s a very constraining moment…. We’ve been much fatter in the past, but at the moment we are on Weight Watchers.” The other panelists spoke about the various ways that their organizations have been readjusting their activities to cope with declining support and increased costs, even as they grapple with the high expectations that a tapped art public has for these highly visible (and expensive) institutions. Then Vergne continued: “We have to change the way we operate and change our rules of engagement. If we don’t, we become dinosaurs and die.”

And so, the curtain had at last been lifted, revealing a reality beyond our blind faith in the region’s art supremacy. Now, perhaps, a real discussion can begin.

Addendum re: Minneapolis’ Failing Arts Future (June 24): The New York Times noted today that the Dia Foundation has announced the hiring of noted Minneapolis arts booster Philippe Vergne to take over directorship of the struggling foundation. Vergne’s departure marks the fifth high-profile Minneapolis arts leader to leave the city within the past year. Others include former Walker director Kathy Halbreich and chief curator Richard Flood, state arts board director Tom Proehl, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts director William Griswold.

The cartoon below says everything you need to know about why artist are doomed to failure. (Side effects of creativity include: “poverty, impaired judgement, poor health, difficulty with relationships, delusions of grandeur, alienation, anxiety, dependence on the approval of strangers, and bad reviews.”)

/category/artistic_delusion/tmcm051017.gif


Just to check back in, below is pasted the most recent online forum post by Gabriel Combs, the artist who self-destructed (and went homeless) a few months ago.

Note: I haven’t seen Combs since just before he was evicted from his apartment. He was not particularly pleased with what I wrote about his experiences, so I don’t imagine he’d have any interest in meeting with me again. Therefore, unfortunately, the only way I have of knowing how well the now-homeless artist is doing is by reading the scant words he writes on this online forum. (And these words don’t paint a pretty picture.)

i sold my soul for a bowl of soup, and there was a fly in it.
cuts don’t heal
slow seeping blood
its death and it creeps

testosterone and adrenaline mixed with alcohol
my senses have gone animal. survival explicitly dictates it. its a fine line from here to hell, and i’m aware of every instinct, sight and smell. dreams are theatre and threatening and nostalgic nightmare with beauty and godpleasesomeonehelpmeplease. sleep face down arms crossed in a coffin with the process of suffocation. radiate light in the day, solar cell (prison) becomes anemic until after midnight shadows confiscate lack of contrast.

an ideal balance of alienation and abstracted nostalgia.

“i don’t care about my bad reputation
never said i wanted to improve my station…”

choooke…. my body is afflicted with this heartttttt…… brokenbreakcrookedandstraight

“runnin through the field where all my tracks will be concealed

and theres no where to go…”

nothing is making much sense. i don’t know where i am.

here are three 3″ x 4″ statik kinetic tortoise, now up on ebay for only .99 cents. i gotta get out of here soon…

(posted on mnartists.org by Gabriel Combs, May 18, 06:35 PM)

Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present. It cannot regret the past; it is dangerous to prophesy the future. It can, and does, draw on the past in its use of existing heritages but it only does so to give point to a modern argument. In no sense is documentary a historical reconstruction and attempts to make it so are destined to failure. Rather it is contemporary fact and event expressed in relation to human associations.
–Paul Rotha (1935)

It’s a testament to the power of the new documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, “My Kid Could Paint That,”  that people (at least the ones that I’ve talked to) tend to see what that want to see in the film. The documentary, about the recent fifteen minutes of fame of a four-year-old abstract painter, is a strange kind of mirror, reflecting back at each of its viewers an individual reality of the viewer’s choosing. That is, some see it as an indictment of the fickle art world, which has the power to create fads and just as quickly to relegate them to the junk pile. Some see it as an exploration of the enduring power of creativity—particularly of the most pure and innocent (and cherubic) kind—even in the face of the cynical economics of creativity in this country. Still others see it as an American fable about average people trying to get ahead in a field of endeavor they scarcely understand, a sort of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches genre turned on its head…

To me, this film, as well as two other recent documentaries—Esther Robinson’s “A Walk Into the Sea” and Matt Ogen’s  “Confessions of a Superhero”—reveal all of these contradictory realities, and, in the process, explore the complicated  and troubled relationship that Americans have with creativity, fame and fortune, and the ever-present will to stand out above the ordinary masses. Each film reveals something about the the absolute lengths that real people will go to just to get their name in the record books, their work up on screen or gallery wall, or their pictures splashed on a page of the  24-hour news cycle.

“My Kid Could Paint That” tells the story of the Olmstead family from Binghamton, New York. Mark and Laura are the middle-American parents—she a dental assistant, he a manager at a Frito Lay Plant—of two children, Zane and Marla. At age 2, in 2002, perhaps imitating her father, a hobbyist painter, Marla Olmstead began to paint. At age 3, a family friend suggested that they should let him hang Marla’s paintings in his coffee shop. In 2004, a local photorealist painter and gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, mounted a show of Marla’s work, prompting local journalist Elizabeth Cohen to write an article on the painting prodigy that eventually turned Marla—after the New York Times put a “match under a fuse” by picking up the story—into a national, even international, sensation.

To his credit, Bar-Lev keeps his camera level while exploring the competing forces and desires that end up acting on the family after being hit by the storm. Even as the balloon of hype and hoopla inevitably bursts, after a damning 60 Minute profile of the family suggests that an overbearing Mark has been prompting Marla’s creative output, Bar-Lev does not appear interesting in digging into the riddles that are plentiful in Marla’s story. Most of his film flat-footedly follows the agony of the family, and especially of the mother, as they deal with the charges of dishonesty and exploitation and wonder if they’re giving Marla a “normal” upbringing. “I want to take a polygraph,” Laura Olmstead says at one point in the film, “I don’t want to let anyone come in and dissect us again… What have I done to my children?”

Tellingly, throughout the film, Bar-Lev refuses glorify Marla, unlike the initial media stories, as a genius prodigy and natural creative force—preferring to show her most often in her natural state as a goofy and preoccupied four-year-old, pushing paint around like mud with her hands or chasing after butterflies in the yard. Bar-Lev seems to see his role as an unbiased and unjudging observer of one particularly noteworthy example of the country’s troubled love-affair with fame and its misunderstanding of the nature of creative output. 

The most interesting portrayal in “My Kid Could Paint That” is of the father, Mark Olmstead. And while Bar-Lev neither reveals Mark Olmstead as a gray eminence nor completely swallows the family’s explanations of Marla’s pure creative process (he voices his doubts to the family on film), there is enough questioning that we’re not really sure what to believe in the end. After all, the camera records the mother’s saying early on, “Mark always wanted to be in the spotlight.” Like many people, Olmstead is a former athlete who’s always been artistically adept and who seems disappointed by his lot in life. “I would have been better off if I had become an NFL quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do… But I’m proud as hell of my daughter, as far as her painting ability goes.”

Observing the toll that fame and fortune, or the desire to touch the candlelight flame of each, takes on people is of utmost interest to Bar-Lev, and it also appears to drive the makers of two other recent documentary films.

I’ve already written a bit about the first, “A Walk into the Sea,” and I plan to write more once the DVD is available (apparently in early July), so I won’t dwell on it hear. The second, “Confessions of a Superhero,” is beautifully filmed, but ultimately much more lightweight, than either of the other films. “When we were kids,” says a superhero character to introduce the film, “we all dreamt about what it would be like to be a superhero, to have superpowers like x-ray vision or superhuman strength… But we all grow up. And sometimes we turn out to be not that super. And maybe we’re just plain ordinary. [This film] is a look at what people will do to be famous. And what they’ll settle for when they’re not.”

“Superhero” traces the life trajectories of four people who spend their days dressed up in superhero costumes to take pictures, for “tips,” with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. Interestingly, all of them want to be actors and have minor (very minor) screen credits. Also interestingly, they all seem to be standing just a bit on this side of the sanity smokestack. One in particular, Christopher Lloyd Dennis, who looks somewhat like Christopher Reeves and, of course, plays Superman, is described by the others as fairly nuts. “Yes, obsessed,” says a man who dresses at Batman, “he is very obsessed. That would be the one world for Superman.” He claims at one point that his apartment holds at least a “million dollars” worth of Superman memorabilia, and he claims (dubiously) several times on film that he is the son of the actress Sandy Dennis (who told him on her “death bed” that he should get into the “business”—thus, kicking of his entertainment “career.” “He’s suffocating in the world of Superman,” says a friend from the Boulevard who dresses as Wonder Woman.

But in fact, they all seem, in their own way, rather driven to distraction by the effort to keep stoking the flames of their dreams to make it in Hollywood. “I feel so much like a loser,” says a fourth character, who dresses up as the Hulk, “because I didn’t come out here to get in a costume and stand on Hollywood Boulevard for chump change. I’m out here seriously to make a name for myself.”

In the end, “Confessions of a Superhero” peters out simply because the characters develop no “arc” during the story. All four simply end the film as they started, as people who are burdened by a hopeless dream. Some get married, some divorced; one gets counseling, one lands a role in a cheesy kung fu spoof; one is arrested, another ends up on Jimmy Kimmel. But that’s it. Their dreams live on, pathetically never to be realized.

“We should not forget that 99 percent of all art-making attempts are failures.”
-Phillip Lopate, Portrait of My Body

My favorite story of artistic failure happens to be among the first such story. Honore de Balzac wrote the long short story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (”The Unknown Masterpiece”) in 1831. It was first published in the newspaper L’Artiste with the title “Maître Frenhofer” and tells the quintessential story of an artist driven insane by the failed pursuit of his art.

Plot summary: Balzac’s story takes place nearly two centuries before, in the early 17th century, when the young and still unknown artist Nicolas Poussin, visits another painter, named Porbus, in his studio. With him is the famous old master Frenhofer (who, unlike Poussin and Porbus, is fictional), who comments that a painting by Porbus seems unfinished. Frenhofer picks up a brush, makes some slight touches on it, and transforms the figure in Porbus’s painting so she appears to come to life.

The two marvel at the mastery Frenhofer has over his technique, but the old painter has to admit that he is frustrated in his own work. He has been unable, for the past ten years, to complete his one great masterpiece, which he calls La Belle noiseuse (”The Beautiful Troublemaker”). To help the old master, Poussin offers his own lover, Gilette, as a potential model, and Gilette’s beauty is so great that it inspires Frenhofer to finish his project quickly. However, when Poussin and Porbus visit Frenhofer’s studio some time later to view the painting, they see instead a mass and swirl of crazed brushstrokes and mishmashed colors. In fact, despite Frenhofer’s belief in the great beauty of the painting, all the two young and bemused artists can make out in the work is part of a foot. In the end, their disappointment in the painting drives Frenhofer over the edge into madness, and he destroys the painting and kills himself.

What I like most about this story is its absolute truthfulness and keen perception in examining certain key features of the artistic drive. While Poussin and Porbin are the rare workmanlike and analytical artists, especially when it comes to their own work, Frenhofer is stifled by an absolute desire for greatness, the hubris of wanting to create a true and historic masterpiece (importanitis). He is blinded by his creative urges to his own failings and the (lack of) quality of his output, though not of others (artistic delusion; artists are their own worst enemies). He is so driven by some his internal artistic urges and his conviction of their greatness, that he is unaware what his work is unappealing, inept, and a complete mess.

Like many such blind, proud, and deluded artists, when he realizes the depths of his failed vision for himself and his work, when he learns that all his burning efforts to create the great masterpiece he is sure he is capable of are in vain, Frenhofer is devastated, driven to insanity, and he can no longer live.

Does this sound like any artists we know? (Hint: To some degree or another, every artist that CAFA has profiled is, in his or her own way, a modern Frenhofer; indeed, it’s quite likely that 99-percent of all artists are.)