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.

Piano

When I was a kid in the third grade at St. Phillip’s school, my father decided I should take piano lessons.  The basis for this was my recent obsession with this new singer on the pop horizon by the name of Elvis Presley.  He sounded like nobody I had ever heard before, or, rather, like everybody I had ever heard before at once.  He played guitar, although as little as possible, so I wanted a guitar, too.  My father, sensible beyond all reason, thought I would be a better musician if I learned to play the piano first, and then branched out from there.  He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that what I really wanted was to be a rock and roll star, wriggling and hooting my way to popularity and fame; in my child’s mind the two were indistinguishable.  If musicianship was a requirement of that, I was happy to go along, but to a point.  Elvis, as I said, played his guitar as little as possible, leaving musicianship to the musicians in his band.  Never mind, Dad wanted me to take piano lessons.  He had played violin before the war, and loved music, but had abandoned it, along with much else of beauty, after the war spat him back out.  He didn’t understand Presley and rock music, except to acknowledge their financial potential.  “The more they wiggle, the more money they make,” he used to say.

It was his own fault, in a way.  He worked at RCA record division, at the plant that pressed the vinyl into music.  As a perk, the company let him take home six albums every couple of months, his preference.  He had no preference.  As a result, the take-homes were random, everything from Stravinski to Homer and Jethro, and whatever lay between.  In those  days, RCA pressed the records for a lot of smaller companies too, so the range was wide as the world.

At the same time, the radio music scene in my city was the epitome of eclecticism.  In a single hour on the same show, you could hear Mario Lanza, Hank Snow, the Platters, and Elvis.  I had no idea until much later on that you were supposed to pick a genre and ditch the others.  I made no artistic distinction between  Ezio Pinza and Elvis.  But I knew the other kids at school and around the neighborhood were crazy for the latter, and not the former.

It didn’t hurt that Elvis had this rebel persona.  Suffocating in my staunchly religious family, I immediately identified.  When my father told me I was going to take piano lessons, like it or not, my dreams came crashing down.

First, he had effectively coopted my ambition, spun it around until it was unrecognizable, and made it his own.  I couldn’t imagine anything less rebellious than piano lessons at St. Phillip’s.  I thought I knew the terms of that, and I didn’t like them.

My friend Wayne was the only guy I knew who was doing that.  Every day at 3:00, the rest of us would line up to leave the school and enter the free world; I would see Wayne trudging across the playground to the convent to take his lessons, always after school, and, it was darkly rumored, sometimes on the weekend as well.

The convent!  The actual lair of the creatures whose lives were dedicated to stripping the joy from ours!  Who knew what torments Wayne endured there?  Many years later, he told me it wasn’t at all bad.  I’m still not sure I believe him.

I knew what had to be done.  I resisted with all my might, and discovered that my father had given me the very thing I thought he was stripping away: an opportunity to Be a Rebel.  I marshalled every argument I could think of, mostly involving how much time would be lost from my other studies (in the third grade!), or how I would have to be late for dinner a lot, a cardinal sin in our house.  I stomped and put on magnificent silences, I exiled myself to my room.  In the end, against all expectation, I prevailed.  He gave up.

I was on cloud nine.  I got my guitar eventually, and hacked away at it.  By that time I was into folk music, and regarded music lessons of any sort as too gentrifying for my tastes.  My tempo was ragged, and I was king of the 13 bar blues.  I discovered jazz about that time as well, and predictably played guitar less and less as I realized how abysmally incompetent I was compared to the musicians I admired.  I made a hash of it, like most things.

The only abiding result of all of that was a growing regret that I had talked my father out of those piano lessons.

Well, this year, I finally gave in, bought a piano, a beautiful Yamaha P-115 electronic keyboard capable of pretending to be a dozen other instruments as well.  I started online lessons, the excellent Playground series created by Quincy Jones.  So I sit at the keyboard, practicing, getting a little better, a little more musical every day.  And as I sit there, I notice a little voice in the back of my head:

“Michael, sit up straight!”

If you won’t go to the convent, it seems the convent will come to you.