Archive for the importantitis Category

“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.)

I have a personal theory that all artists, no matter their stature, talent, social position, or personal history, eventually at some point in their career hits a big, chest-high, brutal hurdle that stops them dead in their tracks and forces them into, at best, an existential crisis, or, at worst, a spirit-shattering spiral into doom–either by a needle-fed OD or by a pistol in a field or by hanging oneself in the woods or through slow mental, physical, or spiritual decline.)

Of course, everyone in every career hits inevitable job hurdles. Maybe you don’t get a position you really want and have to settle for a second choice, maybe you’re passed over for a raise, maybe your new boss or another coworked is a complete douche, maybe you just wake up and realize you hate what you do–all of us face this stuff. We all, at some point, ponder chucking it all, scraping up as much funds as we can, buying a hacienda on the coast of Belize, and spending the rest of our days sipping One Barrel and running a cheesy and perhaps slightly illicit internet business of some sort or another.

For artists, though, hitting the Big Hurdle is different than for most other professions. This is because individuals who take on the mantle of the artist, for some reason, often develop deep identities of themselves as an indelibly crucial part of the culture at large. That is, artists are trained—either by the education system, the artistic culture, their peers, or just pure wishful thinking—to have a bloated sense of their own importance to the rest of the world, a sense of identity that is greatly out of proportion with what their actual role is in the culture. When artists realize, inevitably, eventually, that their sense of themselves (important creators of culture) simply does not match up with how others often view them (lazy, lucky, self-aggrandizing bums), viola! The Great Soul-Shattering Artist Hurdle is met, and the artists either A) tumble horrifically in the attempt to mount the hurdle and become soul-wounded to the core, B) are stopped dead in their tracks and forced to give up their race, or C) find some sort of long and slow way around the hurdle to continue onward.

As I mentioned, this is a theory. I have little quantifiable proof past a few anecdotes really, because, as the axiom puts it, it is generally the victors who write the history books. That is, the artists we tend to know are the ones who have taken path C) around/over the hurdle and have managed to find success (or at least a way to sustain them in their careers). We don’t know artists who at some point have just given up (taken path B), because they just tend to disappear into the blank ether. And we all know a few sensational examples of A)—artists who have killed themselves out of despair or illness—but that is only if they have, at some point, become famous for their art. (I wonder how many unknown examples of A) there are that we’ll never know.)

Part of the mission of CAFA is to pay attention to artists as they meet the career-crushing, soul-smashing Artist Hurdle of Doom. This is in the hopes that artists might learn something essential about themselves and their relationships to what they do. It is to train artists to think in terms of finding their own answers for their problems, not blaming the rest of the world for their struggles. It is because I long ago grew tired of hearing the refrain of complaints from artists, and I’m turning the mirror around in the hopes that artists will figure it out for their damned selves.

All of this is to explain why I lingered too long over the sordid story of the struggling artist Combs, as he struggled with paths A) and B) through his own personal Artist Hurdle. It’s why I’ve kept monitoring ex-artist-cum-blogger Prokop, who has said in regards to giving up art (after I wrote about him):

I never expected success to be handed to me without working for it. I’m not sitting on my hands whining about my failure. What people don’t realize is that hard work does not get rewarded. I’ve worked as hard as I could in my pursuits. I’ve always had such a hard time just trying to make enough money to maintain my own survival. I have to choose between having time to make art and having money to make art. I opt for one, and three months later I need to shift the weight, and maybe sacrifice a flexible job for a consistent income. And I’m not giving up. I’m still writing songs, recording and releasing music. Yes, I quit making “visual art.” That’s a different story. I’m very critical of that discipline right now. I’ll figure out how to write about it eventually…. I’m waiting for something to pay off right now. I’m trying to take it easy and not stress myself out. I can’t afford for my depression to be driving me, so until something happens maybe a little apathy is the answer. I was all ready to make a routine out of bourbon-sours and Law and Order episodes on Netflix, but Michael’s blog got me thinking.

It is also the reason that I–long long ago before I even knew what I was doing–wrote about this overly insistent, but ultimately doomed artist, after he had hounded me to write about him–calling me at home, at my day job, at every number of mine he could find. This artist Kassel had started an amateurish gallery (called Eat Bugs), spearheaded an art “movement” (called New Expressionism), pulled together a pathetic band of followers, and he wanted attention. Of course, the attention I gave was likely not what he expected. Here’s a tidbit:

The conversation shifts again, and Kassel goes off to seduce other likely candidates, so I decide to make my own escape. The air outside is refreshingly cool compared to the oppressive air in the gallery, and the roar of Lake Street is somehow pleasant after the amplified singing and loud talking. Starting one’s own artistic movement is a terrible responsibility, it seems, and those of us who don’t suffer such a burden should appreciate how lucky and free we are.

In the end, like most any artist hitting the Great Artist Hurdle, Kassel closed his Eat Bugs gallery shortly after the story was published and eventually gave up making art. But note: Since then the artist appears to have gone on to a PhD program in political science and, recently, to serve in the Congressional Fellows program.

(Moral of the story: Though you will, like every young artist, eventually, inevitably hit the Great Artist Hurdle, there’s no reason your life has to be ruined when you do.)

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.”