Friday Tips for Artists: Remainder of Excerpt from Chapter One

Below�is�the remainder of the�excerpt from Chapter 1 of Living the Artist�s Life that I initially posted Last Friday


…When you get to the museums, study the masters–and I do mean the old ones.� Study them well.� Study the traditions and try to learn what they have to teach you.� Never mock a traditionalist unless you can do better, and don’t mock them even then.� If your leaning is avant-garde, or deconstructionist, or sheer abstraction, that’s fine, but it will behoove you to understand, and to even try to execute, what Sargent did, what Rembrandt knew, and what Michelangelo mastered.� After you do understand it, then you can move on to Rothko, Warhol and de Kooning.� Why?� Because it is impossible to grasp where art is going if you do not understand, and respect, where it has been.

If your work is all social statement and no craft, that’s fine, but you may want to ask yourself, what exactly are you offering the world that no one but you can execute?� As an artist, this is one of the most important questions you can ask.� And yes, you eventually must answer it, since if your work isn’t unique, if it doesn’t reflect a vision and a discipline and a vigor that in turn reflects your individual talent, then what’s the point?�

I don’t care which museum I may visit–the Chicago Art Institute, the L.A. County, the Met, the Nelson–I personally never try to tour all of one museum in one day.� That’s too exhausting.� Instead I simply gravitate toward the work that I’m interested in at the moment, and when I find those rooms, I may well spend hours there.� Maybe I’ll sit, maybe I’ll walk in those ridiculous circles that we all do in museums, maybe I’ll initiate a flirtation.� Whatever the case, I never push myself to view more works than my senses can appreciably take in.����

And as I’m looking at those works, I try to never forget that the paintings on the walls, and the sculptures on the lawn, were each the same product of insecurity, ego, humility, joy and depression that most work is.� The artist who created those pieces, whether Duchamp or Motherwell or Moore, had as many difficulties, and was as full of piss and vinegar, as the rest of us.� Sometimes their difficulties were greater than anything we can imagine, such as Rodin during his starvation years; it’s just that fame, and the passing decades, have dulled the bitter realities of that sacrifice.� But believe me, the hardships were just as real and harsh to the young Rodin and his family as your own are to you.

Remember this too: most museum works were created in sloppy studios under all kinds of duress, and often were the sole thing of beauty in those distant, ill kept rooms.� Sometimes those works were the only thing of beauty in many of those distant, tragic lives.� The formal surroundings that they now hang in don?t change the conditions of their creation, they just change the background, and the background is often deceiving.�

In the same vein, the museum intellectuals who analyze those works, and dissect and explain them, and in some cases worship them, don’t change their essence either.� Those intellectuals, while essential to the museum business, are not made of the same cloth as the creatures who created the works; the two are different breeds.� Normally the intellectuals know this, accept it, and often are glad of it.� If they don’t, don’t disillusion them: everyone should be allowed their bit of fantasy.

More often than not the artist is not an intellectual, does not fully understand what she creates, and doesn’t even want to.� The artist, in all probability, would never fit into a museum staff job; she can’t fill the intellectual’s shoes, just as the intellectual can’t fill hers.� But they need one another.� We need the intellectuals to preserve and explore the work, just as we desperately need all you haphazard artists to render it.� The relationship is mutually beneficial.

Keep all this in mind in the museums as you tour them.� Don’t ever let a museum, or its staff, intimidate you.� If it weren’t for your kind, there would be no need for art museums, or their staffs.� Just as importantly, never let a museum kill what the work is about, since some of them, with their excessive formality, do.� See the work for what it is, and how it was created.� And always remember this: you are of that family.� But try to not take that for granted: chevrons are earned, not given.

So tour the museums, tour the towns and cities; take in all you can of the past and present, and the future too if it speaks to you.� Let no experience pass that thrills you, or scares you, or challenges what you think you know.� Live fully but not destructively, unless self-destruction is your credo.� If it is, that’s your business, just don’t take others down with you.� That isn’t your due.� Creation is your due.� Respect that.� Let it anger you if it must, let it enrage you on occasion (apologizing later to those you offended), but keep your fire alive, so long as you don’t rely on dope, booze or abuse to do this.�

Many people think they keep the fire alive with the dope and the booze, only to find out years later that they were extinguishing it all along.� Then they find out it’s no longer able to be rekindled.� Then they die.� You can do this too if you want, but what will you accomplish in the course of your deterioration?� Very little, either for yourself, or for the society whose attention you’re trying to gain.� And yes, we all do it partly for attention.� Sure, we do it for the passion and the inspiration and the desire to give, but attention is one of our primary motives, so you may as well go ahead and admit it, if for no other reason than to get it out of the way.� (Just don’t try to get me to admit it.� I’ve never done anything for attention.� Oh never.)�

All right, a select group of museums are behind you.� Now you have to get back in the studio, and back to work.� You have to engage your passions.� Yes, painting and sculpting, like writing, are an engagement of sorts.� They are an engagement between the ass and the chair (to paraphrase Hemingway), or the hand and the brush, or the lips and the blowpipe.� Nothing takes the place of hard work.� Nothing, you will find, has as much bite either.

Leave a Reply