Archive for the Artists are their own worst enemies 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.

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.

I thought now would be a good time to check back in with Gabriel Combs, the artist whose descent (into homelessness, substance abuse, and near-incarceration) I have covered here and elsewhere. Fortunately, Combs keeps a MySpace page, on which he has been updating his blog fairly frequently of late. Below are some interesting tidbits from his blog:


Date: August 16, 2008
Post title: sepulchral beatitude of a heartstring fugitive
it was a love story first, now a tale of unending loss. sometimes i don’t want the day to end, as i don’t want to face another night alone. sometimes the night seems more fruitful in its suffering dread. got to this point giving away my heart to fools and liars. i always believed and was so dedicated. so in love and so blind, regardless of my mistakes and short-comings. so in love with the world, a world i now cannot find…two stories, one loving and one hating, one living and one dying.




Date: August 20, 2008
Post title: narcissism prevalence; prima donna persona non grata
i hear there is a handbasket suitable for my transport to hell. …i checked in to the ER for many, many problems exactly three weeks ago to the day. they ejected me several hours later as i had no “actual plan to commit suicide”

i have a fistful of friends, lets call them friendly pariahs. outsider is still alive like a cultural stitch will mend a fashion trend. i harp on this issue like an instrument with passion…

…slowly reading lord jim, as after a maddening push on reading am suffering a maddening push on art making. all you generations are xyz, fool. its already been established and if you can’t follow the patterns you needs to back the fuck up because its all old news…

i’m looking for my lee krasner but i want her to be lee bontecou…




Date: August 27, 2008
Post title: Alcoholic Altruism/Augean Artiface
twelve pack goes down like gravity. falls like an anvil, falls like autumn. i can feel it heavy, more than last year. dropping further and faster. another day passes, un-named and unknown. got up half dead today, morose and numb. nose numb and red. i love how it feels to have that haze. saves me to live another day on the slow suicide savoring how i die. one with a perpetual death but still lives to tell about it. there is no pre nuptual to marriage with this ritual. i’m not sipping, just stammering and stuttering under lifes’ trauma. i don’t seem to die regardless of my planning. i wish i had some advice for someone to not end up here or to alleve some friends concern i’m too far gone. you see, i don’t have hope to make it anymore and so i have’nt a care in the world. i don’t expect to live and i can’t seem to die. i slit the wrists but the blood just keeps coming. i’m going to go lay down in the gutter amongst my filth…its an empty round in a full chamber game of russian roulette and i wear the crown of shit. hands down, quit askin questions. i got an answer for your suggestion. i’m sweatin while you’re restin. calloused while you’re guessin. curse everyone while i’m blessin.




Date: August 30, 2008
Post title: minnesota mediocre; fair game midwest manifesto
five months homeless now. sold everything just about. i think i can make six months. trying hard to set shit up to go back to ohio (cue pretenders song) for a minute after september. wur um frum, lotsa folks in graves there. never seen my moms grave yet. might find where abouts some other family, down in kentucky, virginia, ect. back in them mountains…when a fly comes in my studio my tendency is to maim it and offer it to my pet spiders. i did so today but busted it open and it fell thru the web and the maggots came out and consumed the corpse. i imagine they began to die and there was like one fat one left in the end. i did’nt bother to observe the end of it. reminds me of the art world.

i’ve enjoyed the recent thoughts of mr. fallon, for the record. at times the thoughts stray from the track i’m on, but we seem to converge here and there as i do with a number of the other under rated minds around here. i like the new thousandth word vicious guest article. funny how the consensus is growing that this art scene needs to change and one needs to talk about this *shit*, or it will stay in the hands of those that need to *go*. get out now, or get kicked out hard. i gots boots fool. …

i know exactly who i am in my time and while i’m actually still alive. just like those before me did. fall down drunk and don’t get paid for the art i do but you gotta make prints to get out as much work as i do. 85 or so pieces sold in the last sixty days plus a couple give aways. this is’nt ego this is the facts. i’m just building up, still humbly following the tracks of pollock, van gogh, ect. those that went to fucking hell for this shit without a flinch. i’m not leaving it for you to decide. hell no, you’ll tell me piss in a jar is it.




Date: September 4, 2008
Post title: troubled water torrent/noli me tangere via tantalos
woke up on the sidewalk the other morning. i lose days here and there. if you’ve seen the jackson pollock moving picture the scene where he wakes up on the (as i remember it) cement platform underneath a window with some kids looking at him. dirty and deranged. i was in a block that was mostly a school, lying on sidewalk that was paralell to black asphalt. i remember drinking with a couple of guys from tibet. learned a thing or two before the blackout set in. things about my thinking and spirituality while speaking with a buddhist. (one guy i think was not speaking english and was deaf anyways) …sold the engagement ring yesterday, took it off my key-ring. got ripped off for gold but freed from a trap of sentiment. being in my mind is being a cat herder. i keep up and multiply ideas like bacteria. beneficial parasites. yo, you got the sun in your eyes in this show down and am i an artist or a writer. leave you guessing as your eyes narrow and mine grow wider.

bring it to fruition, notice i’m quiet but my knuckles are swollen and scarred.
cut my eyekon teeth and my art comes up in you rough and hard…

you ignored the artists like us in the past and now we are aware. you’ll wait for us to die like vincent but we will teach you like hoffman.

you fucking a hole.

FU

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.

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.”)

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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.

Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

“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.)