Archive for the Misunderstanding the artist's life Category

lines from The Painter’s Game

by Janelle Morehart

…What of the painter?
What of him indeed
Poor painter
You strive so hard
And in the end you get nothing
But you’re happy
Forever happy
Like this is a great joke
People love the paintings
Therefore they love you
And every feeling they feel for the art
Passion, lust, love or whatever else they may feel
It will be all for you
But they’ll never know
It will be our secret
Just you and me
Our little secret
We’ll call it the Painter’s Game
A funny little joke it is
The whole world has been played
Without ever knowing
What a funny game it is
The Painter’s Game

Yesterday I posted, on the slowly failing group arts blog The Thousandth Word, a review called “Falling Man.” It’s about four recent documentary films that deal, somewhat indirectly, with the subject of artistic failure (though one of the films, “Man on Wire,” is actually, much to its own failure, about artistic success).

Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It would be easy to find oneself depressed after seeing all of this thwarted ambition and all of these shattered dreams. But I actually love these three films, mainly because they are real. They reveal personal stories that gibe with what we all see experience every day in this unfair world. After all, this is a country in which rich bankers reward themselves billions after extorting money from taxpayers, while good and honest and talented people can’t find decent enough jobs to support their families. These films show the truth: That the vast majority of us will come to the end of our lives having failed, over and over, to achieve our dreams. But then, that’s okay. This story about our inability to achieve our dreams is a beautiful, if sad, part of the human condition.

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??

“The lives of artists are as a rule unsatisfactory—not to say tragic—because of their inferiority on the human and personal side—there is hardly any exception to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”

—Carl Gustav Jung

Two recently published stories by artists raise the issue of artists struggling to find space to sustain their practices.

Sharon Butler, in this month’s Brooklyn Rail, writes:

…in spite of reduced expectations, the compulsion in even unseasoned artists to secure dedicated workspace has persisted…. But circumstances have diverted the obsessive quest for the studio. Today, large inexpensive spaces in acceptable proximity to Manhattan are rare, and artists, both emerging and mid-career, have adapted their art making strategies to meet the challenges of the post-studio era.

Her article surveys some of the constantly shifting realities of artists seeking space, and posits a future (and present) in which artists find ways to work without a true work-space.

As if in response, a concurrent article by Christine Wells this week on mnartists.org posits that “work space doesn’t always correlate to a particular address or piece of real estate.”

It can be a fluid arrangement or, sometimes, even a virtual one. Gabriel Combes [yes, the same self-destructing artist I wrote about several months ago] is an artist who recently lost his home; when we spoke a couple of months ago, he was on the brink of eviction from the apartment where he lived and worked. … Even in the face of impending homelessness, Combs was not particularly concerned about finding a new living space, preferring to crash with friends for awhile. As he pared down his belongings, he remarked that it led him to contemplate how his identity has been reflected in his possessions. As he readied himself for the street, he had to come to terms with letting go of the things that have identified him as both a person and as an artist up to now… Combs indicates that he would still like a studio space that’s “cheap, with lots of light and big windows” if he can find it. He’s looked at a few spaces, and is considering them with an attitude that can only be considered ‘chill.’ If he can find the right space at the right price, he’ll take it, he says; but, until then, he implies that any spot where his stinky paints are accepted will do. For Combs, a more important space consideration seems to revolve around getting his virtual “shop” in order. He uses the web to display, catalogue and sell his pieces online… straight to the audience, eschewing the idea of offering and displaying his work via traditional gallery spaces.

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.”)

tmcm051017.gif


An article called “Failure Makes a Comeback,” which recently appeared in the Western Washington University student newspaper, describes an exhibition of work, at the Viking Union Gallery, by seniors at the school who have all but resigned themselves to lives of artistic failure.

The show’s title–”F’ It”–is perhaps revealing of a prevailing attitude among young artists today.  The story explains that the show, organized by Western students Heidi Norgaard and Abby Wilson, is dedicated to “abandoned, damaged, or altogether failed artwork submissions” from the school’s students.

“We wanted to do a show where an artist put their heart and soul into [a piece of artwork], and it just didn’t turn out how they planned,” Wilson said. “They just had to say fuck it”…

To emphasize this approach, the coordinators requested a written description of what went wrong with the piece with each submission. They said the effect of seeing a failed piece of art next to the story of its demise adds depth to the exhibit.

The idea was inspired by a fiber-art major, who had started countless art projects that began as exciting concepts but ended up as big disappointments. “But that’s the process you have to go through,” she said. “Ninety percent of the projects artists make are really crappy. The other 10 percent are what you see in galleries… I’m tired of being mad about having shitty art, and I decided to start being happy about the mistakes I make.”

“People put too much emphasis on grades and getting things right the first time,” Norgaard said. “If every college was open to failure, we could learn a lot more.”

In the Montreal Gazette, a recent editorial called “Let Canadian artists be free” describes the hit that film and TV artists are likely to take because of a new tax bill called Bill C-10. According to the piece, the bill provides “arbitrary powers to the minister of heritage to deny tax credits retroactively to film or television productions the minister deems contrary to public policy, threatens freedom of expression as well as the financial foundation of our film and television industry.”

The article further explains that the bill will have “chilling financial implications. The ministerial powers to deny tax credits after the fact will create such uncertainty that banks will be reluctant to provide financing to cover tax credits. Industry group FilmOntario presented senators with the opinion of the Royal Bank of Canada: ‘Should the assumption of eligibility currently underlying all bank loans to this industry be compromised or diminished by Bill C-10, this will indeed limit the ability of the bank to continue funding Canadian content production.’”

Translation: Restricting freedom in this way—by keeping a close watch on how art affects the public good—will knock off Canada’s already hamstrung and suffering artistic community. Or as the story concludes:

The creative community in this country is fragile. We fight to have our voices heard over the roar of American pop culture. Our funding and protection slips away yearly. The artists of Canada - our writers, directors, actors, dancers, musicians, painters and poets - are not the rich and famous. The artists of Canada are among the working poor. But we know what we do is important. We do it with passion and conviction, empowered by our freedom of expression… To preserve artistic freedom and to avoid financial uncertainty for a significant sector of the Canadian economy, our film and television community asks the Senate committee to please fix Bill C-10.

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

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.)