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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.