IN AWE OF CREATION

Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul”

By Paul

A couple of things have surfaced recently to make me think of one of my favorite painters of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  

Caravaggio, as he is simply known to most of us today, merely by the name of the town in which he was born around 1571, was an artistic genius of almost unbounded proportions, a great lover of life in all its varied permutations, and a murderer.  We know for sure that he did wind up killing someone, although the reasons and circumstances surrounding the act remain somewhat unclear.  He lived in Rome, and in a number of other Italian cities, depending on where he got commissions, or on whom he was hiding from at any given moment.  Some biographers minimize or completely shy away from the fact that he was also a lover of boys (and women too probably), but I see no reason why they would do that.  It fits perfectly into his character, which was one of thumbing his nose at many societal constraints, while at the same time being smart enough to use the social construct of the age to his best advantage.  He received a number of his commissions directly from the Catholic Church, and many of his most famous paintings remain in churches today.  

The two things that have recently brought Caravaggio and his life to mind are, first of all, a review that I read not long ago entitled “Empathy,” by William Kaiser, of a new biography of the painter, published in the Oct. 25, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.  The biography itself is called “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane,” by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Norton, 514 pp).  The other thing that makes me think of this great Renaissance rascal of a painter is the piece that my friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, posted on the blog site recently. 

If I were to attempt to summarize in a few words Kevin’s posting on why artists create art, I think I would say this: it is because they have to.  Caravaggio even went on painting while on the run from the authorities, who were in hot pursuit for the charge of murder that hung over his head.  He went from city to city in Italy, and even to Malta, all the while keeping one step ahead of the law, stopping long enough to create things of astonishing beauty and to earn a few florins to keep body and soul together, until he inally died of a fever, alone and friendless, in the town of Porto Ercole, just south of Florence, in 1610. 

It is also true that, during his lifetime, Caravaggio did receive a good deal of praise and recognition from his contemporaries.  His friend, Marzio Milesi, even went so far as to write in his epitaph, “in painting not equal to a painter, but to Nature itself.”  I would quibble with this to the extent that, in my view, Caravaggio never tried to equal nature (or Nature), but instead to infuse his own view of life (or Life) into his paintings.  In the end, therefore, the paintings wound up being something more like “Nature Plus,” in the same way that a painting is never the equal (being both better and not better) than a photograph, or even more so, than the actual, physical scene being portrayed.      

But what if no one recognizes your paintings as somehow worthwhile?  What if the world finds you, not objectionable, but unnoticeable?  Would Caravaggio have continued to paint, for example, if the Church, or other wealthy benefactors, had not given him both recognition and the money that flowed from it?  No one can really answer that question, I suppose, but my guess is that he would have found a way to do so.  Of course, things were very different in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when he was painting, and it might have been extremely difficult for someone like Caravaggio to be able even to buy paints and other materials, let alone to afford room and board, unless he sold his paintings.  Today, many artists earn their keep either by teaching art (although as Kevin says, rightly I think, “teaching is not painting”), or by doing something else entirely.  

A case might well be made for the fact that the Renaissance provided great opportunities for artists of all stripes to pursue their art, while the modern world does not.  In doing so, of course, they had to follow the requirements of the time and, for the most part at any rate, depict so-called religious material.  Occasionally, they could get away with doing a painting of a Greek or Roman god, but such depictions were minor in number compared to the Biblical scenes which were the norm.  Great artists, like Caravaggio, however, were able to rise above such limitations and succeeded in somehow showing us more than the painting itself depicted.  Take, for example, a painting called “the Conversion of St. Paul.”  It seems to me that the horse, not Paul, is at the center of this painting.  That is the first thing our eyes light on, not the prone and blinded figure of the Apostle to the Gentiles.  My personal reading of this is that Caravaggio is telling us that the world is paramount for most of us most of the time.  It is also enormously powerful and beautiful beyond measure.  The light shinning on the stead’s side and his haunches is its own kind of miracle, and the power and grace of the animal is almost beyond measure.  Yet we humans do all we can to control those natural forces (the horse is bridled and held in place by a groom).  And it also happens that we are occasionally dumbstruck, thrown, as it were, blinded by something that is beyond our control and our understanding, by something utterly sublime.  

I believe that it is this combination of the love of all that the natural world is and represents for us, this attempt at depiction (vain, always vain, but nonetheless tried over and over again), along with the blinding Light of Vision that hurls us to the ground and makes us throw our hands up in awe, that is the nexus of what makes for great art.

Such power cannot be contained.  It is for these reasons, as Kevin says, that art – and I would add authentic creation of any kind – in the end supersedes all need even for recognition.  It bursts forth entirely of its own, it erupts, it nails us to the wall, and if we don’t do something about it, it crushes us with the enormity of its force and power.  That “doing something about it” is what I call art.  For artists, for all of us who feel the call for creation, it’s not just a requirement in the same sense as food or even sex, but it is instead something akin to air.  Breathe in and you live, stop breathing and for the most part you die.  

In the end, for the artist in each of us, all that can be said is: create!  We must create, or get out of the way, and let the flame burn where and what it may.

WHY MAKE ART?

by Kevin

Kevin stands in front of his “Earth Rose Window,” made of plastic bottles, displayed in the center city art gallery that will close in several weeks.

Robert and I have decided to close our 2,000 square foot art gallery in center city in a few weeks and move all of our art back to our Barn Art Gallery and studios deep in the woods. We’ve had a good run at the city gallery for the last 18 months, and enjoyed every minute of it, even though we only sold a few paintings. Before that we exhibited 65 big canvases at the new library when it opened two years ago, and they bought six of them to start their permanent collection. That was exhilarating! We also had a good time producing a two-man show for a gallery in a nearby city three years ago, and a local restaurant exhibit last spring led to the sale of two of Robert’s big paintings.

We’ve worked very hard, primarily for visibility, because in recent years there hasn’t been much disposable income that the public was willing to invest in art. We hosted popular open mic music and poetry nights monthly in our center city gallery, often attracting as many as 50 people. But poets and musicians are notoriously poverty-stricken in America, and, of course, they couldn’t buy any art no matter how much they might appreciate it.

We were content to open the art gallery for visibility, but recently we have found ourselves in such a time and money crunch that we have not made any art for months. Our “day jobs” and the upkeep of our 12 wooded acres and many animals and buildings are more than a full time life for both of us, especially when we are devoting evenings and weekends to making art as well. Running the center city art gallery, which initially promoted our art, became counterproductive as it worked to stop our art production. On top of that, the formerly vibrant city art scene seems to have stalled along with the U.S. economy. Local art galleries report that the spring and fall ArtWalks this year were very poorly attended.

“Multiple Personality Disorder,” 33″ x 42″ acrylic on canvas, by Kevin

So… It’s time to retreat to the woods and make art again. YAY! That should be a cause for celebration, right? But I have recently found myself whining about an artistic identity crisis. I’m beginning to come out of that now, but for weeks I’ve been struggling with the question “If art is made in the woods and nobody sees it, does it have a purpose?” (That question is the sequel to “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?)

This soul-searching has been useful in forcing me to decide whether or not communication and social response are an essential part of making art. My decision is “not,” although an occasional reaction beyond apathy would be nice. While art can be very useful, enlightening and helpful to society in all kinds of ways, and it is good if an artist’s work makes her or him feel a sense of connection and purpose in society, such functions are not essential to the intrinsic value of art as a vocation for the artist. The minimum requirement for being an artist is making art. Sharing it is optional.

The urge to create art is as fundamental for an artist as the urge to eat or have sex or pray. And when an artist does not create, there are eventually negative effects just as there are for any individual who abstains from eating or having sex for too long, and for some of us when we don’t meditate or pray. Art is the vehicle through which the artist is integrated with the material, psychological and spiritual world. Without making art, the artist is “disintegrated” and alienated from the world. Artists intensely desire union with all that is. Our love affairs and efforts to merge with the world lead us into creative processes that make us pregnant with the art to which we ultimately give birth.

“Something Was Happening in the Sky,” 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas, by Kevin

The fundamental function of integration that art fulfills for the artist physically, psychologically and spiritually is not dependent upon society. It does not require that anybody beyond the artist sees or responds to the art. While such responses are usually desired by artists as gratifying, challenging or stimulating experiences, and certainly necessary to art commerce, they must not to be confused with the artist’s internal process of integration through art with physical, psychological and spiritual reality.

In fact, societal reactions to art can significantly warp the integration process and even impede it. Artists who become very successful in selling one particular style or subject matter in their art, often find themselves enslaved to that success and unable to evolve and move beyond it to new forms and subjects. Artists who are rejected or fail to sell their work to an indifferent public, wonder unnecessarily what is wrong with their art and think of themselves as failures, rather than focusing on the successful integration their art has afforded them into their private physical, psychological and spiritual realities.

Art is not a talk show or a political debate or a marketplace. It is a private and personal practice like sex and dietary habits and meditation. Many artists choose not to show their work to anyone at all, or they show it to only a few trusted loved ones, because they know that this very private soul expression and exploration is fragile and can be damaged by public response which is often ignorant and cruel. If an artist has a strong ego and can withstand the rigors of public reaction and enjoy the resulting dialogue then s/he may choose to go beyond creation and into communication of art.

“I Miss Smokin’ SOooo Much!” digital print by Kevin

Commercialization or monetization of art — the attempt to promote and sell it — is a third and entirely separate category beyond private creation and communication of art. My hat is off to any artist who is so brave and bold as to proclaim that s/he will make a living by selling art. In this day and age in America that is a very hard path to follow. I do not recommend it, and while I have sold a fair amount of my art, I have steadfastly refused to require it to support me, preferring instead to raise money for food and rent by working in other jobs. I have never wanted my art to be influenced and changed by the marketplace. I like yellow and purple and bright colors. I don’t want to leave blazing hues, nudes or controversial subjects out of my art just because I know that they don’t sell as well as more neutral tones, hidden human forms and safe subject matter. I cannot allow my art to be dictated by lowest common denominators, because then it wouldn’t be my art.

Recently I spoke with a young sculptor who is supporting himself by selling his large metal sculptures. He has sold his work so successfully that he had to cancel a one-man show because all of his inventory sold out before the show opened! I asked him what his secret was. He replied, “I decided to ask what people really want and give them that.” So, of course, I asked him what people really want. He said, “Sunflowers and dandelions.”

Understandably, this young sculptor may have abandoned his own vision and personal expression in favor of making sunflowers and dandelions so that he can eat and pay rent. Now, I have nothing at all against sunflowers and dandelions. Van Gogh’s sunflowers are utterly sublime, as are the tall wonders themselves that grow in nature and provide us with beauty and delicious seeds. And I find dandelions magical and beautiful. It is more than possible to make authentic art with sunflowers and dandelions as subjects. But I’m guessing the real subjects for this young sculptor were groceries and rent, and his motivation was money – not personal integration or expression.

Some artists have been lucky enough to be born into flourishing societies that appreciate art and culture and have the luxury of supporting those pursuits during a time of economic prosperity. In such happy circumstances it is certainly possible for artists of all stripes to support themselves with their true vocation, while expressing their visions authentically and not merely shaping them to societal tastes. In many parts of America today, at a time when 23% of U.S. children are growing up in poverty and too many people are unemployed and hungry, buying authentic art is not a public priority. How could it be? Artists are therefore faced with a choice – We must tailor our art to the tastes of the wealthy or support ourselves with a “day job” and do our art as and when we can.

Many friends and acquaintances have said to me over the years, “Follow your dream! You are an artist. Quit that day job and do what you love. Become your true self!” I completely agree that I have to make art or I will sink into despair and dysfunction. Art is like food, water and oxygen to me. It grounds me in my own physical, psychological and spiritual being. When I don’t make art I become disenchanted and unbalanced. But I like to eat, too, and at least in the winter it’s nice to have a roof over one’s head. I’m not willing to stop making the authentic art that may disturb some people in favor of sunflowers and dandelions that might please the public but leave me gasping for air. So I’ll keep my “day job” for now, thank you, and pray that Social Security is still there in a few years.

Meanwhile, I’ve changed my mind about public response to art. In the past I’ve always said that both praise and condemnation were fine with me, and the only response I could not tolerate was apathy. Well… that declaration has now been tested and found false. Outside of a handful of very close and supportive friends, by far the most common response I get to my art these days is indifference. Often it seems that people don’t see it at all and I wonder if it has become invisible. For a while I was very bothered by this, but suddenly I find myself at peace. I don’t have to worry about whether or not my art elicits a satisfying scolding or gratifying congratulations. I now have the extreme luxury and pleasure of making art privately, in the peaceful solitude of the woods. This is a wonderful gift!

“Apple Man,” 3 ft x 4 ft oil on canvas by Kevin

I seem to have to remind myself every now and then to enjoy art as a solitary vocation, whether or not there is any public response. About 30 years ago I dreamt about a wondrous baseball tree and awoke with the following poem fully formed in my mind. I read it frequently when I find myself forgetting that art is a very private matter:

THE BASEBALL TREE

by Kevin

Have you ever seen a baseball tree

all covered with ripe juicy baseballs?

          Some of them are so ready

          they burst at the seams

          and ooze red through the stitches.

 

Those are the good ones to eat.

White and plump outside – bulging leather cheeks.

          Tear the stitches loose;

          catch the running juice;

          and feast on red flesh,

 

quivering and flashing in the moonlight

like a rare sea creature emerging from the shell.

          Ripe baseballs are very sweet

          like the reddest cactus pears

          of a Santa Catalina summer.

 

One warm night I found an excellent baseball tree

resplendent with painfully ripe, sweet fruit,

          splitting and spilling in the moonlight –

          glistening red flesh

          weeping to be eaten.

 

Overjoyed, I gathered many prize baseballs

as offerings for my beloved brothers,

          to show them loving respect

          and share the secret pleasures

          of my moonlit baseball tree.

 

But they would not eat my ready gift.

They looked strange and afraid and amused.

          They had not heard

          that baseballs are delicious

          as well as practical.

 

I myself ate several, to show them

baseballs are cactus-sweet and harmless.

          My brothers turned away

          shaking their heads

          with concern and disgust.

 

But in truth, I am sadly pleased

to go to my secret baseball tree alone

          on warm summer nights –

          sweet moonlit nights –

          and eat peacefully.

WHAT’S UP WITH THOSE GAY GENES ANYWAY?

By Paul

There was an interesting article by Dr. Simon LeVay in the Oct. 2nd , 2012, issue of the online Huffington Post, entitled “The Paradox of Gay Genes.”  The article itself is not long, and if you are curious about reading it, I would direct you to the following website:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-levay/the-paradox-of-gay-genes_b_1929641.html.

In the interest of saying a few words about the subject, I will attempt to give a brief synopsis of what LeVay, a neuroscientist and long-time researcher on the biology of sexual orientation, has to say in the article.  The main issue he begins with is the fact that he is often asked, when giving talks, whether or not homosexuality is somehow genetically determined, and if so what might be its usefulness, if the main biological purpose of sex is to pass genes on to the next generation.  As he puts it: “If being gay is genetic, and gay sex doesn’t produce children, why don’t those genes die out?

As he notes, this is an intriguing question.  And although he makes clear that no one really knows the answer (at least not as yet), LeVay does discuss several possible hypotheses, which others have offered, as to why this may be the case.  For the most part, these theories cluster around how other individuals, that is, not gay people themselves, might somehow benefit from gay genes being passed on.  Sisters of gay people, for example, might receive some kind of advantage from a sort of gay-nanny syndrome (my words, not his), whereby gay brothers would assist their straight sisters in the raising of children.  Another theory speculates that some small amount of gay genes, which are already in the parental mix, may somehow get passed on to the straight siblings of gay brothers or sisters, such that otherwise heterosexual male siblings might present themselves as “mildly feminine,” and females as more “masculine.”  The somewhat feminine men are then purported to be more attractive to women.  As such, in the end they are consequently better able to produce a larger number of offspring.  Regarding more masculine women, although still heterosexual, the theory is that they are more sexually active and aggressive, which would result in more sexual activity, and therefore in a greater number of offspring that might be produced, as a result. 

I want to emphasize once again that LeVay is not proposing that these notions are necessarily an explanation in and of themselves, only that they have been proposed as hypotheses.  And we must note that hypotheses, by their very definition, are starting points, unproven theories.  Even so, I want to say that, as hypotheses, these particular examples appear to me to be extraordinarily lacking in any power to convince.  First of all, at least in my experience, I know of virtually no gay men who have significantly contributed to the rearing of their sisters’ offspring.  And in regard to the greater masculine/feminine tendency in siblings of gay people, again this seems farfetched and fanciful to me.  I certainly have never observed it, either in my own family, or in the families of any gay people whom I have ever encountered.  And what may even be more germane, perhaps, is that the entire idea of what is considered to be masculine, and what is considered feminine, is profoundly dependent on society and on social norms.  Therefore, to conflate biological determinism with societal or cultural constructs seems to me to be highly suspect.  And even if we could somehow agree on what either a fully masculine man (if that is the right term), or a mildly feminine man, might actually look like, who has proven that women prefer the latter over the former?  I will let heterosexual women weigh in on this, but again it is likely that much would depend on exactly what the definition of masculine and feminine turns out to be in any given cultural context. 

Although, as I have said, LeVay does not overtly give credence to any of these theories, he does note toward the end of his article:  “As a happy homosexual, I find it a bit disconcerting that my sexual orientation might simply be the price that evolution pays to improve straight men’s performance in the sexual marketplace.”  That sounds to me as though he may think that such hypotheses might have at least some degree of credibility. 

If, for the moment at least, we assent to the idea that there is a “gay gene,” or perhaps more likely a whole complex of such genes which, when activated by a physical or a social or a cultural stimulus, somehow results in a person being gay, what does that tell us?  In fact, it seems to me that the entire notion then gives rise to a number of other questions.  First of all, I believe that it is questionable to make the assumption that heterosexuality is the base line from which any other sexual orientation must deviate.  Is that really the case?  If sheer numbers are the sole criterion, I suppose there may be a degree of truth in it.  Still, it does not take into consideration the sliding scale, if you will, that sexuality is for most people.  During the course of our lives, all of us are attracted to countless other people.  Some of those people are individuals of the opposite sex, and some are of the same sex; some are older than we are, some are younger.  If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, most of us have to admit that at some time or another in our lives we have been attracted to a whole host of individuals.  If society were to place no special onus, no particular meaning, no negative connotation on same-sex attraction, I have no doubt that many more people would act on such impulses, at least some of the time.  And so, who is to say that exclusive heterosexual attraction is the norm, the default, against which everything else is to be measured and found deviant?  On the contrary, it seems to me that sexual attraction, itself, is the norm, and that this attraction is directed toward whoever it may be, depending on a whole host of individual, societal, and cultural preferences and specifications.

Another question arises in regard to this notion of what “use” gay genes may have.  Just how far are we prepared to go in order to say that things are fully biologically determined?  Are some people, for example, predisposed to being artists because of their genetic make up?  Surely it cannot be construed that the artistic vocation is somehow biologically useful.  And if that is the case, of what possible benefit would an “artistic gene” serve?  How would it enhance the next generation, and what would lead to its selection over, let us say, genes that predispose an individual toward something else which makes lots of money?  The evolutionary theory at work here is that those who are most successful (read, in modern society, those who make the most money) select others who have equal success.  It happens in the animal kingdom all the time.  The biggest and strongest males get to mate with the most fertile female or females.   Yet, it is clear that most artists remain at the lower end of the economic pecking order in the majority of modern societies. 

Neither am I suggesting here that gay people have a corner on the market when it comes to the creation of art.  Who could have been more heterosexual than Pablo Picasso?  And most of the great Impressionist masters of the 19th century were straight in their sexual orientation (at least as far as we know).  We could go on endlessly talking about other heterosexuals who excelled in one form or another of the arts, but that would take us too far afield.  My point here is not that artistic inclination equates either with heterosexual or homosexual inclination.  It is only that, if both stem from genetic predispositions, then both are equally “useless” from a strictly evolutionary point of view. And yet, the world has always had its artists, just as there have always been gay people.

Human sexuality generally cannot be reduced to any one gene, or even to a set of genes.  I believe that sexual orientation, of whatever stripe, is not solely predetermined either by biology or society, as much as both probably do play some role in its unfolding and in the particular expression it can take in any given individual.  This is not to say that neuroscientists such as Simon LeVay ought not to continue research and exploration.  Quite the contrary.  The more we learn, the more we begin to understand the underpinnings of the enormously complex and endlessly fascinating topic which is human sexuality.  But neither should we fall into the philosophical trap known as reductio ad absurdum, and claim that being gay can be reduced to something as simple-minded as help in the rearing of one’s sister’s children. 

If ever we do some day arrive at a full and profound understanding of the origins of homosexuality, my guess is that it will be seen to be as expansive, as full of beauty and wonder, and as utterly mysterious as heterosexual attraction is or ever has been.  On that day, let us hope, religious groups and others who currently condemn same-sex attraction will instead come to honor and to celebrate the stunning and awesome miracle that it clearly is.