« Montreal, and Why I Love It | Main | Fire »

December 06, 2007


Yes, different times, when an author or an artist could get away with that. Not any more. Nowadays they market the man or woman along with – if not ahead of – the product. Personality sells. It's the old Major Tom thing: "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear" as if any of that makes a difference. The sad thing is, those men who stood in line to become my heroes, as soon as I read even a little about them, I realised they were just men, fallible and flawed.

But isn't that good, to realize everyone is just a person? It's one reason I like reading the lives of artists and writers. But maybe that's not what you meant, Jim?

And yet...

Move way far away from Soho galleries where the "experts" determine what is art and what isn't, or what's valuable and what isn't, move into the internet realm of Julian Merrow-Smith, for example, whose Postcard from Provence strikes a chord in so many people that they get into bidding wars for his tiny paintings on card -- every day.

It's work. He works hard at this. And the people who buy his paintings know he works hard. And he's very, very far removed from the arbiters of taste and "art" to whom we gave such power in the 60s. Time to take it back, methinks. Some already have, it seems.

Yes. A thing I spend a lot of time thinking about; art, artists, the place of artists in society and the necessity of their art for our overall well being. My grandfather always said talent is nice but what makes a 'real' writer is the willingness to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I would add: the privilege to be able to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, paired with that willingness he mentioned.

I wax very personally nostalgic over Classical Athen's relationship to its playwrights (as if I have any idea what that was like) - state sponsorship of all living expenses, in return for which the playwright often wrote and produced scathing indictments of the very government putting food in their mouths, and everyone assumed - just knew! - that this was a necessary component of a fundamentally healthy democracy. Artists holding the mirror up to power. How far we have come from that.

Pica's right, I think, that artists still do this - they just do it with less support, less context, at a higher cost that is less sustainable. But how much more really challenging art could exist if the artists weren't having their homes foreclosed, spending all their energy and time trying to get enough money to eat or pay off student loans from their extensive (dismissed) training, etc. ad infinitum?

Wonderful programs galore for people to dabble in 'the arts.' No longer real support for full time artists achieving and expressing mastery, and mastery itself impugned as an elitist luxury, a trivial and unnecessary pursuit, rather than a necessary feature of a healthy culture.

On a brighter note, though, here's one of the artists preserving a dying art necessary for our well-being: master story teller Gioia Timpanelli. Haven't been able to listen to it yet, lacking high speed, but I know her work well and she is the real thing.

Yep. Thanks for the comments, Jim, Pica, TH.

It all goes back to education, in my view. If people have no tools with which to approach painting, serious music, poetry, literature, it's just going to make them feel stupid; those areas are going to feel elitist and closed. My school system, in a very rural part of the U.S., had a strong music program. Everyone learned to read music in grade school. As a result, many farm kids and poor kids also learned to play instruments; the fact that there is a good community chorus and theater there now, forty years later, is part of that legacy. Kind of like planting trees.

Not to disagree with anything said here or in the comments, but the chief reason for the universal value of painting (and sculpture) before the advent of photography and printing was the sheer technical difficulty of creating lifelike images. A world without paintings was a world without pictures, then.

Dale, you're quite right, of course. So does the facility with which almost anyone can create one, now, devalue both the skill and the medium of painting, or has painting evolved into something entirely different?

Well, I think it's much like the change wrought in how books are approached by the advent of the printing press. Now that we are awash in cheaply created books and images, we won't approach them all as the fruit of months of hard work. And we shouldn't, because most of them aren't.

But I think it would be a great loss if the quality of attention that people used to bring to such things, as a matter of course, were to be lost. The reverence that you still feel, on handling a medieval book written out in a beautiful script by hand -- you know someone put a good piece of their life and talent into it. You're willing to attend to it because they were willing to attend to it. That kind of reverence has to be consciously cultivated, now. We don't get it for free any more.

That's why I'm always insisting that people should memorize poetry. It's a way of slowing down, handling a creation reverently.

I am, by the by, memorizing a terrific poem just now, about hosta seeds, that riffs on Shelley's West Wind --

each like your dark eye
that bores hotly through me
reaching for a hold
in yielding earth.

Yes, yes, I agree with everything said here! Education is truly the only way we can instill appreciation, not just to help create artists but also the audience for the arts. Some people come to it naturally but the encouragement is vital.

I wish I had the facility to memorise, but it just doesn't last. Some things stick, others don't, and I don't always, maybe hardly ever, even, recognise why. But craftsmanship isn't the entirety of art or every picture would be simply illustration. Some things stand out, others don't, and there's a personal, visceral response to these things. I can look at an Australian aboriginal 'dot' painting and, although I know I'm seeing something different from what the artist knows he or she painted, some Dreamtime location or story, I see more than just hours of daubing ochre on a canvas stretched across the ground, just as I know I'm seeing something equally remarkable gazing at the 'blank' colour field of a Rothko painting. I don't always 'get' a poem or story, but there's a difference between each one from author to author and genre to genre. Rap and hip-hop songs aren't any less musical for being based on samples. But in these examples, as in the lost lives of these Dutch painters, what's envied isn't that their entire earthly lives can be so simply summarised, but that they also had an 'unearthly' life, one that may now consist only of a single work, or dozens, but that retains, long beyond the earthly three score and ten, its illimitable essence.

Thanks, Greg, that's a profound way of speaking about our "other" life as artists and what connects all of us - I really appreciate the comment.

...and Dale, thank you, I'm very flattered! I've always memorized some poetry but it tends to be sections rather than whole poems. I wish I could memorize piano scores as well but find it very hard, while it's easy for me to memorize one-line music for voice or a single instrument. I agree with you that memorization allows us to enter much deeper into a work, as well as forcing us to slow down. (This is one argument for liturgy and chant in one's spiritual practice, too.)

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.