they tend to target those they think are really desperate so try your best not to be
This reminded me of a few things. First of all, it reminded me of desperation. I've had experience with desperation as it pertains to many different things in life, but this being an art blog, let's talk about desperation and artists. In other words - let's talk again about something aside from art itself.
There are few things less charming than desperation. I've seen artists desperate to sell work. Any fool can sense desperation: the unctuousness, the obsequiousness, the anxiety to stay in the face of the collector, the constant direction of the collector's attention to the work, to this or that aspect of the work - the sweaty forehead and the shining eye, the smell of need. This is a profoundly uncharismatic position to find oneself in, a position depressing to collector and artist alike. It leads later to self-disgust, to self-recrimination. What it hardly ever leads to is a sale…
Proust reminds us that we tend to receive those things we want most once we no longer want them. Of course, he was talking about Odette and Albertine, but he might as well have been talking about art sales. I am in a lucky position, an extremely lucky position: I can paint what I like and treat fairly calmly with collectors, because I have never depended on selling art to make a living. I'm not independently wealthy, I just have the best day job ever (ninja assassin)(I'm not actually a ninja assassin, although that would be sweet).
In another way, I suppose you could say that I am unlucky, because I am not hungry for sales. Hunger is a very important force in art. Hunger gets you into shows, collections, and museums. But I think I am hungry enough for the important part - I am starving to be a good artist. And I will let the rest take care of itself. Personally, I find being broke kind of paralyzing.
Now, moving on from the specifics, I am also reminded of the story of Amyclas, as told by Lucan in the Pharsalia, an incredibly turgid epic he wrote about Julius Caesar from 61-65 AD. The Pharsalia is kind of a ripoff of the Aeneid, which in itself is a ripoff of the Odyssey. This makes the Pharsalia a photocopy of a photocopy, with all the problems that go along with that:
Amyclas from his couch of soft seaweed
Arising, calls: 'What shipwrecked sailor seeks
My humble home? Who hopes for aid from me,
By fates adverse compelled?' He stirs the heap
Upon the hearth, until a tiny spark
Glows in the darkness, and throws wide the door.
Careless of war, he knew that civil strife
Stoops not to cottages. Oh! happy life
That poverty affords! great gift of heaven
Too little understood! what mansion wall,
What temple of the gods, would feel no fear
When Caesar called for entrance?
I first learned of this episode (and of the Pharsalia) from a reference in Dante's Paradiso (XI:67-9, if you must know). Apparently this story was a big deal in the middle ages, illustrating as it does the Christian principle of poverty. And what is the principle? That he from whom you can take nothing, need not fear you. Fear, in this sense, represents being compelled to stray from virtue. Caesar, who rules the world, can do nothing to compel Amyclas to depart from virtue, because he cannot take anything from Amyclas.
This is a powerful principle, but its true scope is clarified better by Epictetus. I had the great good fortune to run into Epictetus at an early enough age to be deeply influenced by his thinking. He was born a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia (now, like so much else, a part of Turkey) around 55 AD, and eventually got his freedom. His thinking as a philosopher was strongly shaped by his experience of slavery. In fact, I would nominate him as a contender for all-time best generalization of one's personal condition into a universal principle.
EpictetusHere's what Epictetus has to say about life, conveniently placed at the very beginning of the Enchiridion. I wouldn't try your patience with a long quotation if it weren't worth it:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Well, that's nice. He's a Stoic (incidentally, a stoa is a porch; the stoics originally sat around shooting the shit on the porch. Me and my buddies used to get high and do that in Carrboro, but nobody called us The Porchmen).
But consider this: Amyclas is fearless because nothing can be taken from him. Epictetus is at peace because he understands that not only can nothing be taken from him, but nothing can be given to him either. His poverty is not conditional, but definitional. What is his, must be his, has always been his, and will always be his. It is inalienable. What is not his he disciplines himself out of caring much for. It comes and goes, but he never considers it as belonging to him. Many of the things he considers not his are things with which it is difficult to part: life, limb, land. He is truly fearsome in what he doesn't consider his:
With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
In practice, he fell a little short of this degree of detachment, abandoning his famed solitude in old age to adopt an adorable smudge-cheeked orphan and shack up with some dame.
Epictetus Jr.But as a model of living, his idea is compelling, and some several people do seem to reach it.
I have not reached it. However, among the many things flitting around my mind, there is always some measure of Epictetus' idea that we are slaves with regard to many things, and ought to cultivate the detachment of slaves. In this lies freedom - freedom from desperation, freedom to choose and act.
I think this is important for the artist as well. Your art belongs to you. It is inalienable - it runs deeper than Epictetan action because it is, in fact, who you are. But all else is not yours. Sales and lack of sales - recognition and lack of recognition - respect and a good name or their absence - mortality and immortality - these do not belong to you, and you do yourself no good in depending too much on how they turn out. So long as you retain your sense of possession of your art - possession in the sense that you possess your soul - then you have everything you need.
I apologize for the sermonizing; I am not trying to teach you, but rather, to teach myself.