Archive for the Motives explained Category

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.

I promise to post new material to CAFA very soon (once funeral fallout has settled, grant deadlines have passed, and life falls back into its regular pattern), but in the meantime here’s an updated version of the material I linked to in my previous post.

The reason I reposted this piece, and the reason I’m resubmitting it here, is I added more thoughts at the end based on events that occurred on September 15. By this I mean, in particular, “…the country’s continued and deepening economic decline and slide into oblivion; its inexplicable and pathetic fascination with Sarah Palin; its continued and maddening political gullibility; and the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who once, appropriately enough, observed in his essay ‘Consider the Lobster’: ‘After all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience.’”

 If you’re lazy (like me!) and just want to read the new material, here it is, block-quoted:

AFTERWARD: SEPTEMBER 15, 2008: So it took ten long years—after giving it all I had to give—for me to fail in art. And while there are lot of platitudes that I could spout off here—about what one should do when given a bowl full of lemons, about what one should do if at first one doesn’t succeed, etc.—let’s be realistic for a moment. On July 15, 2008, I learned, plain and simple, that my expectations for art will never be met, that I will never be quite the success in art I hoped to be, that the arts community will never rise to the levels that I dreamed for it, and that I am lucky to have escaped.

I could point out that it took twenty wasted years, after graduating from college with a hopeful degree in art, for me to understand that a life in art is a doomed life, but I won’t dwell on this. Instead I’ll point out I’m not particularly unique in realizing the nature of the art world. The great German painter Gerhard Richter, for instance, said as much when he proclaimed: “Art is always to a large extent about need, despair and hopelessness.” The great American painter Jasper Johns said, about his early career as an artist: “I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter—that would be my life.” The American realist painter William Bailey said: “…Frankly, I believe that every painter is in a state of continual failure. The only constant in a painter’s life is failure.”

Now, in mid-September, two month after my grim nadir and a few weeks after the debacle of the lipsticked Pit Bull, while the days retract, gardens dry up, and a wan chill fills the air, I look back at all the drama and despair of the end of my arts career, and I am happy I am still able to breathe. I say this full knowing that the economic and cultural woes have only deepened since July 15. Lehman Brothers has tanked; Merrill Lynch has been bought up (even after nearly 100 years of independent operation); the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped on his day by nearly 500 points (the sixth highest amount in history); and David Foster Wallace committed suicide after battling with deepening depression (ironically enough while living the hometown of my brother, where I had just happened to be visiting at the time because of the death, at age 84, of my grandmother).

Yet despite the ever-darkening clouds outside my existential cabin, I am placid now, after having removed myself from the turmoil of a life in the arts. I’ve started a new, more sane, less soul-sucking, job, and I’m quietly, after two years and two months of dismay, coming to terms with my potentially misspent artistic life. If I had been, back on July 15, more level-headed and more prone to thinking for the long-term, I might have realized that—despite the individual failures of thousands of young people like me, despite the constant struggle and eventual capitulation of all of us in the arts, despite the endless climb against the raging current—it doesn’t matter really. Art goes on. Art survives and continues to be made, usually by the next generation who, in their energetic ignorance, relives the failure over and over again. Over the long term, individuals like me matter little in the face of the painful human compulsion to realize beauty from the labors of the hand.

If I were more resilient and long-suffering, or perhaps more talented or more cutthroat, all I’d have had to do is wait until these things that are ruinous to us now—in the culture, and in the art world—had passed, and we’d moved on to a more optimistic and hopeful time. Some of my more long-suffering artist friends have already spoken such words to me since July 15, the worry-lines of resignation on their faces giving lie to their optimistic words: “Music always gets made,” one said to me, “and it’s up to us—each of us—to come to the music.” Those who walk away from the music, he seemed to be saying, aren’t worth worrying about.

Maybe, I nod outwardly. But inside I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an end time looming in the arts. Yes, people will continue coming to the art in their way, sticking with it or not on their own terms, finding their own equations for success and failure, and all will abide. But I wonder just how many more of these smart and capable young people who become fascinated by, and fall in love with, art—against their better judgment—have to ruin their life because of it. How many of us will continue to fall in love with such a life partner, passing twenty rocky years with her until we find out she’s been unfaithful since the beginning? Yes, maybe the music will go on no matter who is there to make it. But will the music have the resonance and beauty it’d’ve had if the culture had somehow agreed to make at least a minimal commitment of energy to it?

Truth is, there’s just no good way to spin a post-July 15 world. The only solace, perhaps, are words by the Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden, who said, “Sometimes a noble failure serves the world as faithfully as a distinguished success.” Perhaps July 15, 2008, simply had to happen so I, and perhaps you, could at last look at the artless world with new, and clearer, eyes, and realize that failure just is our lot in the arts. It’s just the way it is.

And while it’s sad that a person who’s dedicated so much time to art should be so bitterly resigned to failure now, perhaps this need not be a tragedy. Perhaps, in fact, this is a liberation and a blessing, a full license for me to investigate a number of new questions about art. Instead of wondering how I can survive the next week as an artist, I now can ask, with deep intention, why can’t the life of artists be better in this country? Instead of worrying about my next opportunity to exhibit or be on display, I can chronicle of the various aspects of failure in the arts in our time—with the view of someone who’s seen it and lived it—and expose the unaware to the depths of the problems faced by artists in America. I can take pause and wonder why can’t the beauty made of artists’ hands become a more integral part of the everyday life of Americans? Why aren’t we all working together—all of us, in all corners of the country—to prop up the arts and make our land more rich with beauty, with artistic ideas, with the well-crafted trappings of an elegant life? I can wonder exactly what it means that we’ve created a culture so antithetical to all the things that art stands for.

And so, with my hard-earned awareness of the precarious nature of a life in the arts I am driven now to seek potential answers about why, if art is doomed to failure, are we living creatures so attracted to its pain.

I’ve been distracted and out of town this week due to work and funerals and other everyday matters, and so I’ve had no original material to post on the subject of artistic failure of late. To make up for my distraction, here’s a link to a story that was posted this week on mnartists. It’s a story about my own latest bout with–what else?–artistic failure. Until next week…

Friends of Failure, and sundry outlying readers of CAFA, in case you’re wondering why production has fallen off of late on this site just know it’s not a sign of the end times. I’m currently in the midst of several upcoming projects, including an analysis of the state of Minneapolis arts and a longish essay on the f*cked up nature of young artists these days (both of which I will discuss/link to on this Chronicle in due time…).

Also, I’ve been working to establish a new arts writing initiative (and ruminating on the nature of “success” in the wacky world of arts writing), seeking (and closing in on) new daily sustenance, dabbling at some poetry (in an effort to keep myself sane), organizing community events, and giving a careful reading to Bill Ivey’s intensely documented and highly opinionated new book, Arts Inc.

It’s summer, after all—the perfect time to step back a bit from the usual goings on to ruminate somewhat on what it all means. And so that is what I’m doing…

I promise things’ll pick up (quite a bit, in fact) in future weeks here on the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America.

THE CHRONICLE OF ARTISTIC FAILURE IS THE STORY OF THE DECLINE OF ART IN AMERICA. It’s a tale of the failure of the entire support structure for artists and arts viewing. The narrative encompasses the life work of artists and arts workers from a variety of backgrounds and places around the country, but it is a story that touches all of us in America, whether or not we think much of art or the plight of artists in our time.

How I came to write this chronicle is difficult to explain. Part of it, I suppose, is self-pity. Part of it too is a reaction to the timbre of the times, with how difficult it is for creative voices—those people who truly have something new and inspired to offer the world—to be heard above the cultural din. But the biggest part of all has to do simply with concern for the future of art.

I know I probably would be better served if I could redirected my creative mind’s chain of reactions and impulses to more productive and career-advancing work than focusing on failure. When I wrote my first critical review of art for the Atlanta-based art magazine Art Papers shortly after I moved to Minnesota in 1997, I did not intend to end up where I’ve ended up. But considering the life-long stresses that artists and other arts community members face—economically, socially, culturally, mentally—in their struggle to continue making or supporting their creativity, I suppose it was inevitable. This is the curse of the creative person: One often has little control of the leaps the mind will make, no matter how ill-advised or dark, and of the strange and potentially offensive forms of expression it will take on in its pursuit of creativity. The self-destructiveness of human creativity is age-old. This has been clear ever since the modern art market first emerged in the early 19th century, a century that is littered with stories of artists who were doomed to miserable failure caused by the artist’s own creative practice. Many artists on this dubious honor roll are rather highly regarded today.

In 1824, for example, French painter Theodore Gericault, creator of one of the most famous paintings in the history of art—“the Raft of the Medusa”—died of consumption at the age of 33. That the painter, whose work is widely considered groundbreaking today, was relatively forgotten at his death caused Jules Michelet to write: “He wanted to die. Nature listened, and death, death slow and cruel, gave him time to savor all the pains of a great unfinished destiny.”

In 1827, the English poet, painter, engraver, and printer William Blake died and was buried in an unmarked grave at the public cemetery of Bunhill Fields. Though Blake is widely admired today, he never shook off poverty and passed his last years in obscurity—and, according at least to William Wordsworth, in madness—even quarreling with some of the small circle of friends who supported him and his work.

In 1887, American painter Louis Michel Eilshemius showed two of his early paintings at the National Academy, considered a remarkable achievement for a young artist of the time. Afterward, however, he suffered through a long dry spell of public indifference until he finally gave up painting altogether after forty years of effort. He died in 1941, unknown and in a state of dire poverty, feeling he never received the recognition he deserved and writing bitterly at one point: “The mediocre are jealous of the superior. That is partly the case that my life has been a continuous struggle against irrecognition.”

Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s life was marked by poverty, drinking, poor nutrition, smoking, and obsessive work habits—all of which took a toll on his health. In his later years, bouts of productivity were interspersed with hospital and asylum stays, and in early 1890 Vincent’s attacks became more frequent and left him ever more incapacitated. On July 27 of 1890, van Gogh set out into a field with his easel and painting materials, where he took out a revolver and shot himself in the chest. He later died of the wound. Meanwhile, the painter Paul Gauguin, an estranged companion of Van Gogh’s, was deeply depressed toward the end of his life. In 1891, he at last abandoned his family and moved more or less for good to Tahiti, where he became ill, possibly of syphilis, and developed a drug addiction. Around 1892 he tried to commit suicide with poison but failed. He died of a heart attack in 1903.

Late nineteenth-century American painter Ralph Albert Blakelock’s early work was celebrated alongside Albert Pinkham Ryder’s work as essentially American. In midlife, though, Blakelock’s work stopped selling, and he suffered horribly in his attempt to support his family. In 1899, Blacklock was institutionalized, most likely due to schizophrenia compounded by the disappointments of his life, and he died there a few years later. French sculptor Camille Claudel was considered remarkably talented as a young sculptor, but she spent most of her adult life as a recluse. In 1913, Claudel was committed to a mental asylum, where she remained until her death thirty years later.

While these artists came from various places, background, and situations, and they each found their own unique way to ruin their lives, what connects them is the very fact that it is their creativity that causes their life frustration and ultimate failure and doom. All of these artists, more or less, could not help themselves from following their own idea of art; they pursued their own eccentrically creative approach to art-making or delved into subject matter considered taboo by most people. Their creative minds gave them no choice but to explore art in each their own way, and in the end they paid the price for this.

Camille Claudel, for example, was prone to portraying the human form in overtly sensual way that was deemed inappropriate at the time by state and press. The resulting censorship and isolation may have contributed to the decline of her mental state and to her institutionalization. Van Gogh and Gauguin, meanwhile, lived lives well outside societal norms, full of Bohemian excess and shameful decisions—one lived with a prostitute, the other took a Tahitian island girl as a wife even while he still had a wife back home. Further, their painting styles challenged the norms of the time, causing much bewilderment among the public, and, at best, ambivalence when it came to buying. Blake’s work too was wildly eccentric for the time—in fact, that’s what makes him such an enduring artist today. However, his unique artistic choices led, as with Van Gogh and Gaugin, directly to his economic dissolution.

Perhaps the greatest, most archetypal failed artist, Theodore Gericault, was a creative maverick whose great historical painting, which took him nearly a year to complete, was deemed at its unveiling, despite its technical mastery, an embarrassment to the reigning powers of the time. Though it was customary then for great historical paintings to be bought French government, “The Raft of the Medusa” remained unsold and stored in a basement of the Louvre for more than forty years until its rediscovery. This ultimately forced Gericault to work and exhibit in England, where he spent his final years, angry and alone and supporting himself by painting genre pictures of horses. The state of frustration engendered by his own creative choices is evident in his writing: “I search vainly for support; nothing is solid, everything escapes me, everything deceives me. Our hopes and our desires are truly only vain chimeras, and our successes, only phantoms… If there is to be one certain thing that we can be sure of on this world, it is our pain. Suffering is real; pleasures are only imaginary.”