What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

Ringo, God, and art

Ringo Starr, it seems, got up in the middle of the night to feverishly write down the lyrics to “Back Off Boogaloo.”  He even attributed the inspiration to God.  It just goes to show you the bankruptcy of the whole idea of the artist interview.  It’s like interviewing an athlete following the big game.

“Tell us about that homer, Biff.”

“Well, you know, it was a hanging curve ball, and I saw it real good, and just took it the other way.”

Thanks, Biff.  That cleared up a lot of questions about baseball, and life itself.

It’s easy enough to understand that athletes might not be able to articulate exactly what was involved in a spectacular performance; they may not be aware of it themselves.  They might think it had to do with wearing their hats backwards, or eating only broccoli the night before.  It’s the classic distinction between knowing how and knowing what.  But you’d think it would be different with artists.  You’d think artists would start out with something specific in mind, make decisions about how best to convey whatever it was to their audience, and proceed according to some rational plan.  And they do.  Sort of.

“Tell us about that painting, Jackson.”

“Well, you know, the paint was real wet, and I saw the fan, and just spilled it over the canvas.”

That may be what we want to hear from Biff, but it won’t do from Jackson.  Why?

Because we think Jackson Pollock’s painting has some meaning, some value, beyond its physical self, even beyond its immediate context the way the homer does in the baseball game, even if that meaning is just a deeper realization that there is no deeper meaning (Oh, yeah, admit it, we do think like that).  Or at least we hope it has.  And so does the artist, and that’s the problem.  Because everybody’s invested in this idea that something not superficially apparent is going on with the painting/poem/song, we feel it needs explaining, in case some of us may have missed something, and who better than the person who created it.

Except the person who created it is not necessarily the best source.  The main reason for this is that great Freudian frontier, the subconscious mind.  Because of the way our silly brains work, what we’re trying to say is often not exactly what we think we’re trying to say; it could even be the polar opposite.  It’s the infamous Freudian slip, and art is its Baby Huey, the great bouncing 200 pound infant crashing through all the fine china we’ve so carefully laid out for the guests.  Ringo’s God turns out to be his own damn self after all, but not the self he’s used to playing with in public.

Unfortunately, it’s not much help when the artist being interviewed is a bit more self-aware.  Robbie Robertson , referring to writing The Weight, gives an excellent description of the subconscious process:

“I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things … in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there.”

But what did the song actually mean?  Well, ahem, symbolic… blahh… Buñuel… surrealism.. that is, ahem..  Not sure, exactly.  It does mean something, but asking the artist isn’t much help, and in this case, at least, he’s up front about it.  At least he doesn’t insist it’s about a bender in Buzzard’s Butt, Arkansas, when everyone else is insisting it’s about the ultimate futility of human existence or something, or vice versa.  Not that it might not be both of those things, denials, affirmations, and ambiguities notwithstanding.  It’s all complicated, you see, by the fact that, once a work of art is released into the wild, it means anything anyone wants it to mean.  Ultimately, art is feral by nature, and there’s no getting around that.  Ask Frank Stella about St. Louis, Mo, and the Grand Pissoir.

Of course, there could very well be a real meaning, in the sense of something that motivated the work, whether that something was understood by the artist or not.  My own poetry is sometimes explained to me in ways I never imagined while making it, but which are entirely plausible to me on reflection.  It’s this ambiguity which is at the same time so enticing and so frustrating.  It’s not that there’s not a real meaning, it’s that there can be several real meanings, even contradictory ones.

If art were unambiguous, who would need it?  We already have sport.  Biff is never going to insist, “Homer?  That was a sac fly!  I hit the damn thing, and I don’t care how many idiots think it’s a homer!”