I have often thought that a truly representative film of a serious painter's life would be quite boring. In order to make great paintings, it is necessary to sit or stand quietly, and do the work. For every hour that Schiele spent hounded in court, or that Picasso spent having women throw crockery at him, or that Caravaggio spent knife-fighting with the Jets:
...for every hour of that business, there were probably a hundred of work in the studio which would be mind-numbingly dull to watch.
Generally speaking, I am a partisan of the level-headed-life school. I have known bohemians and hipsters, heroin girls and traveling rockers, lotharios and histrionic tyrants and cafe philosophers. All of them were leading interesting lives, and without exception, they failed to produce anything of note.
My own life is of little narrative interest. I have a telecommuting job that is not art, which pays most of my bills. I do it at a place and time of my choosing, although I always choose a coffee shop, and the morning. I spend some time on correspondence early in the afternoon. I go to the studio as frequently as I can, and I try to get home early enough to spend some time with Charlotte. We make an effort to see our friends. Until recently, we had a cat.
This is what you would call the modern form of a middle-class existence.
There is some poet, or something, whose name eludes me now, who advocates for this sort of existence, in order to provide a stable foundation upon which aesthetic flights of fancy can be built; that the energy for drama which resides in every human heart should be reserved for the work, not the life. I think this poet, or whoever he was, had it about right.
Also, consistently with my always-be-wrong approach, he had it wrong, and I bloody well have it wrong too. Somewhere, there is an optimum balance of drama and life, and it is not on the setting-your-watch-by-Immanuel-Kant's-afternoon-stroll end of the spectrum. It may be near it, but it is not there.
I was happily reminded of this by an incident earlier this week. A while back, I showed you this painting, Industrial Object #1:
Charlotte happens to be out of town right now, and I had been planning on painting Industrial Object #2 last week. Then I was colonized by our friend the cold virus:
This gave me aching joints, a facial headache from sinus pressure, a runny nose, a sore throat, nausea, chills, and dizziness. I decided to try the one-two of megadoses of vitamin C and sleeping in. Eleven hours of sleep later, I could still barely concentrate or summon the will to move. By 3 pm, I hadn't gotten out of bed. Being a good Protestant (I'm not actually a Protestant), I felt massively guilty at my lack of productivity. So I hauled myself up, put on some clothes, and walked the 1.1 miles from my apartment to my studio, very slowly. Then I walked up the four flights of stairs to my studio - also very slowly. I had a bitching headache by the time I got to the top. So I sat for a while in the comfy chair in my studio, feeling like maybe this was a stupid idea and I should go home and get back in bed.
Then I sat down in the uncomfy chair to paint, figuring that once I had a paint brush in my hand, I could settle into doing that, and get it done. I started working on Industrial Object #2, and had to fight the urge to stop as I tackled each new section. I was in a blurry wooze of sickness, but I managed to paint for 9 hours, and painted the entire thing:
This wasn't smart and it certainly didn't make me get better faster. The painting itself is cruder than I might have done if I were on top of my game or weren't rushing it. But by god, I really like how it turned out, and I like that it was a stupid move to paint it when I did. It felt invigorating to carry on painting in the face of opposing force.
It is good to cheat circumstance sometimes, and to carry on melodramatically when you ought to stop. None of this should be taken into account in evaluating the work - the work is the work, it doesn't matter how it was made. Rather, it will make you a better artist - or at least, it will make me a better artist - to replicate on any available scale that elemental dying and being born again which characterizes the true artistic act.
It is in dying that the senses are heightened, that the irrelevancies are scoured away, that the final sums are tallied and the ledgers all thrown out. It is in the interval between dying and being born again that the soul, bared and permeable, is exposed to the fundaments of the universe, to the mighty forces that undergird existence itself. It is in being born again that a new world is made, unencumbered by the assumptions, inertia, and detritus that gradually ossified the old world. The new world is fresh, richly colored, and characterized by a continuous state of revelation and discovery.
The artist must, absolutely must, find some means of accessing this new world at regular intervals, or the work becomes stately and old, and soon dies.
A life of continuous adventure leaves no room or energy for the work. A life of Kantish regularity leaves no room for life. The optimum is somewhere in the middle path: a path that gives you substance yet allows your substance to crack often.
A virus gave me the opportunity to walk the middle path this week. All hail the virus.
Postscript: It should be noted, even so, that a movie of this entire episode would have consisted of a dude sitting in a chair, wiping his nose, drinking orange juice, and painting. Very boring.
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