Archive for the artistic self-consciousness Category

Below is an excerpt from the first essay I ever published.
It appeared in Mt. San Antonio College’s literary journal Mosaic just a bit over twenty years ago, in April, 1989. I was 23.

from Growing up with Steve Garvey

by “Michael Sean Fallon”

…When I was a kid in 1974, there was only one thing on the minds of the kids on our block. The Dodgers were in the hunt for a World Championship. They were powered by a line-up including four very young and talented infielders: Bill Russell, Ron Cey — the Penguin — Davey Lopes, and, our favorite, Steve Garvey. Now here was a real hero, someone that kids could admire and look up to without question. Even our parents seemed to think he was mostly on the up-and-up. He was clean-cut, good-looking, had graduated from college, had married his beautiful college sweetheart; he never swore, he never spat, and he never grabbed his crotch (at least not when the camera was on him he didn’t). He spent time with the fans, was always eager to talk to them and sign autographs; he talked to the press, and they wrote that he was just too good to be true. He batted. 312 that year, hit twenty-one home runs, drove in 111 RBIs [author’s note: This was at the height of a long era of pitching dominance], and he was awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the National League.

As a nine-year-old, I was ga-ga for Garvey. Here was a man that I wanted to be just like; I used to dream of trading place with him for just one day. I could see myself sidling up to my lovely wife Cyndy in my lovely Bel Air home and saying something like, “I’d really love to stay home with you and the kids, but we have that game against the Reds, and, gosh, we have to win this one if we’re going to get to the World Series.”

That would make her happy for a moment, but then she would be sad. She would look at me with large eyes and coo: “Can’t choo just stay a wittle wonger?”

“No,” I would be my chest stoically. “I have to do it for the team. But, if you like, I’ll hit a homer for you, and I’ll bring you the game ball.”

Every day without fail as part of my nine-year-old morning ritual, I checked the box score just to see if Steve Garvey had gotten any hits (I did this even if I had already seen or heard the game the day before). It would be a moment of sweet anticipation when I first opened the newspaper, and my hands would quiver until my eyes finally fell on their destination. If he had gotten a hit, it would be a good day; more than one hit, it would be a great day. No hits and forget it — I may have just as well not gotten out of bed. But with Steve Garvey, the bad days were rare because he was a model of consistency. He played all the time and eventually set the National League record for consecutive games played, and he always worked as hard as he could. Seldom did he go longer than one or two days without a hit, seldom did he let himself crush the fragile hearts of nine-year-old children whose well-being depended on his performance in the clutch.

Of course, there was The Slump. For weeks there were no hits. It was the worst slump of Garvey’s career, he could do nothing right. Three hits in his last fifty at bats. I was devastated. My family could probably tell you the date better than I could from ho I suffered and how I made them suffer with me. I believe it was 1976, the year the dreaded Big Red Machine won its second consecutive World Series. But like all low points in a person’s career, it couldn’t last, and he lived through it (we lived through it), got back on track, and eventually Garvey batted .319 for that season. I well remember the day he came out of The Slump and went five-for-five — the best day of his career and one of the happiest days of my young life. Turns out he had promised a crippled girl that he’d get a hit for her that day. It made all the papers. And, as in the movies, he couldn’t hit just one, he had to hit five: one grand slam, one other homer, two doubles, seven RBIs.

All these memories came flooding back to me just recently upon reading one of the many articles that have been written about my boyhood hero. It was like how you might recall a painful breakup with a serious steady one day while looking at your old photo album. The times I spent with Steve and the gang were sweet, or at least they used to seem so. Lately though, they’ve come to seem a little bitter, not so purely sweet. I feel sorry for all those Reds fans too, despite how I hated them when I was younger. They deserved better than what happened to Pete Rose.

Still, Pete was “Charlie Hustle.” He was never pure as the virgin snow. He had a grittiness about him — the snot-nosed kid from the tenements who was fighting for his mother’s good name. I guess we just misunderstood the kind of “hustle” they were talking about. But Steve Garvey was Mr. Clean, and there’s really no getting around the fact that he was not at all true to his image. He once was even quoted as saying he did everything as though there were a nine-year-old boy following him around. Or words to that effect.

I suppose all good things end, nothing last forever. Fortunately, the shock of shattered boyhood dreams is lessened by time. Steve’s not played for the Dodgers for seven years now. Sometimes it seems like only yesterday when my father and I were sitting in the living room watching the boys in blue struggle through the 1974 season to reach the World Series, chanting along with the home crowd as the first baseman is announced to bat with the game on the line: “Gar-vey! Gar-vey! Gar-vey!” (This was our variation on the more well-known “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie!”) We watched on TV, my dad and I, as they clinched the pennant late in the season, and we jumped around the room and screamed and gave each other five and jumped and screamed some more.

But, on the other hand, it seems like that happened eons ago.

The management team of The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America has been undertaking a bit of soul-searching over the past two-and-a-half months, trying to decide if/how to carry on the work of chronicling all that dooms art to failure in this country (and world) of ours.

Considering that we’ve been at this task, on top of day jobs and other extracurricular writing projects, for seventeen months (i.e., ever since September, 2007), and considering how much worse things have gotten—in the economy and in the arts—since the time that we began this chronicle, we now find ourselves at several crossroads. First, while it’s been fascinating to look at all angles and facets of artistic failure, and while our audience has grown steadily (now averaging 1,500-2,000 visitors a month), we now realize, pretty clearly, that nothing we write, nothing we selflessly point out to artists, curators, critics, or the audience for art, is going to change the conditions that make art such a difficult pursuit in our culture. Second, in the process of dwelling on all the bad cards that’ve been dealt to the creative, the artistic, and the art-sympathetic, we ourselves have been growing increasingly more cynical and glum about the prospects for a more arts-friendly world. And finally, owing mostly to the first two points, we find ourselves simply burning out on failure, and, more importantly, we’re burning out on, and no longer particularly enjoying, art.

That’s not to say we are giving up this endeavor—at least not yet. It’s just that, at this point in history, with so much going wrong and so many artists and regular people anxious, overwhelmed, or cast at sea, we want to take a different tack with failure. We want to ruminate, occasionally at least, on more lofty things. So, having searched our souls, we here at CAFA are shifting our focus away from (except in the most crucial cases) a simple, dry chronicle of failure that dwells, depressingly, on all the things that are going wrong, and we are moving toward (hopefully) more poetic, literary, theoretical ruminations on what it is in the human condition and character that dooms so many of our most well-meaning endeavors to fail. What is in our make-up—spiritual, psychological, genetic—that leads us to (poignantly, doggedly) continue practicing something (like art) even though we know it is futile? And what does the abiding need for art say about the exquisiteness and beauty that lies at the core of humanness? This means instead of continuing to aggregate the latest bad economic news in the arts or to list the policy changes around the country that have a negative bearing on art, we will strive to tell the human story of (the doomed-to-fail endeavor of) art-making.

And so to start, we quote below a poem somewhat about this human predisposition to failure, heard last night in Minneapolis at a reading by Dobby Gibson. It is from his new book of poems, Skirmish, published by the small independent Graywolf Press.

Why I’m Afraid of Heaven

by Dobby Gibson

If you stood on Venus,
where the atmospheric haze
is so thick that it bends light,
it theoretically would be possible
to stare at the back of your own head.
Which would mean you’d never
again have the pleasure
of helping a beautiful woman
fasten the clasp on her necklace.
On Jupiter, a beautiful woman
might weight 400 pounds,
but so would you,
and you’d be far more worried
about suffocating to death
on planetary gas.
We’ve all desired what we can’t find here.
We’ve all left our gum beneath the seat.
In a bright department store,
a plastic egg gives birth to pantyhose.
In a dark dorm room,
a lonely freshman finally gets his wish.
The dog tries, and fails, to run across the ice.
After spending a lifetime
conscious of being alive,
why would anyone
want to spend an eternity
conscious of being dead?
In this bar, one of the world’s last remaining pay phones
hangs heavy in the corner.
Most days it waits in silence.
Once in a while, it just rings and rings.

As a follow-up on my previous post about artists hitting inevitable career/existential hurdles, I’m posting an email from an artist I don’t really know. She got my email address from the Art Happy Hour! site (that I run as a counterweight to all this Artistic Failure gloom and doom), and she sent me a copy of an email she had written to an exhibition coordinator voicing frustration about being rejected for an art exhibit at a hospital in Minnesota, suggesting for some reason it would be grist for conversation at the happy hour.

(The message is included below, with identifying details X’d out for purposes of confidentiality and privacy, because it provides an interior glimpse of the wounded psyche of an artist hitting an artistic hurdle.)

From: XXXX@msn.com
To: XXXX@allina.com
Subject: RE: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2008 08:57:03 -0500

Thanks XXXX,
I’m going to keep this rejection letter as evidence of how difficult it is to show work in Minneapolis. The pieces were exhibited at Augsburg in 2004, and since that time I’ve had them stored in my studio. NO one wants them because they do take visual and physical space. New York art critic Eleanor Heartney juried one into a competition at the Plains Museum in Fargo, she liked the work. But otherwise, I still own it and store it, which costs me money.

The galleries in Minneapolis have responded with the same words that you have used. They note passion…but no thanks.

I fully understand your position and have other work, but this was a strong emotional period of my life that really demanded healing my heart. What does an artist do with it? My colleagues wonder why I’m not showing, and the answer is I’ve tried.

The full insult is when galleries look at a resume and assume that the artist has not tried to exhibit because other galleries have rejected the work. I do find that my ideas fit better on the coastlines of our country, but that demands shipping expense. If I behave myself and frame it under glass, then I’d have that additional expense, but that doesn’t guarantee acceptance.
You see my point??? Coffee shops won’t even show the work. I truly need your prayers.

best to you,
XXXX XXXX


Subject: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2008 12:18:56 -0500
From: XXXX@allina.com
To: XXXX@msn.com

Dear XXXX:

Thank you for your interest in participating in The XXX XX XXXXXXX exhibit at the XXXXXXXXX XXX Health & Healing. I received many submissions, and was struck by the quality of work I saw.

 

I regret to inform you that your work has not been selected for inclusion in this exhibit. Your images are strong, the description of your experience moving, and I honor the healing that is a part of the artistic process for you. However, I had to make difficult decisions as I worked with issues of space availability and the desire to create a cohesive group show.

 

I thank you again for your willingness to share your work with the patients, staff and visitors of the XXXXXXXXX and XXXXX XXXXXXX Hospital. We very much appreciate artists, and the ways in which art helps to create a healing environment within our clinic.

 

Blessings on your continued artistic journey.

 

Warmly,

 

XXXX XXXX

XXXXXX XXXX Program Coordinator

Arts and culture critic Terry Teachout has, today in a great Wall Street Journal essay, coined a new term that describes the tendency of certain successful artists to fail: importantitis. Touching on the careers of Leonard Bernstein (post-West Side Story), Orson Welles (post-Citizen Kane), and Ralph Ellison (post-Invisible Man)—all of whom struggled because they were “strangled by self-consciousness” in trying to make, after their initial success, the next great work of art.

In the article, the author proposes Teachout’s First Law of Artistic Dynamics: “The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one.” The Chronicle of Artistic Failure humbly proposes its own corollary to the First Law of Artistic Dynamics: “The best way for an artist to fail is to live in America.”