Friday, March 16, 2012


I'm having one of the odder weeks in my life so far. This past weekend, I was in San Jose to attend a fairly large film festival called Cinequest. I was attending Cinequest because a script I co-wrote was selected as a top-10 finalist in the screenplay competition. It seemed worth the trouble to my partner and me to show up in person and see what benefits attendance might yield. It turned out to be quite a bit of fun too.

One thing I have always wanted is to get into something that rated having streetlamp flags.

An aside? Goddamn I miss California.

So, as finalists, we were invited to pitch our scripts to a panel of movie people. We then had one of those little strokes of luck which drive people crazy about the film industry: it turned out that one of the movie people on the panel was the director of development at a production company housed inside of one of the major studios, and his company has a standing interest in scripts with our basic premise. They see one every year or so, and it's never quite right. So this exec, who is actually a very personable and soft-spoken guy, asked us to pass along the script so that he can evaluate whether we've cracked the riddle of writing this premise correctly.

Let me save you some suspense. The odds are low. I'll take one last gloat and then move on with the story:

That's me in front of one of those little screens they use for publicity pictures. Neat, right? Also, there were cookies.

Then I got back to New York, and next thing I know I get a very nice email from the arts editor at The Huffington Post asking if I'd like to blog for them. "That Huffington Post?" my friend and about-to-be-employed-rapidly-sprucing-up-my-website-web-designer Emanuele asked. "It seems so," I said. Out of the blue. You know I've got plenty of little art schemes going on at any given time. This was not an outcome of any of them. This just happened.

You people - you've been through a lot with me over the past few years. I've tried to put on a happy face through many troubles, but I feel like I've sometimes been prickly as well. I have a lot of enthusiasm for sharing the things I'm thinking about regarding art and life, and I have always appreciated that you were willing to take time out of your own schedules to hash these thoughts over with me - Ed and Fred, Synamore, Jim, Kevin, Claudia, Jane, McG, Andrew, David, and of course the entire population of Oulu, Finland.

To tell you the truth, I'm not much of a blog reader myself, and have never really looked at The Huffington Post. I don't know precisely how big a deal writing for them is. My hunch is it's kind of a big deal. My de-facto trainers at The Huffington Post have informed me, in no uncertain terms, that I am about to have a cultural klieg light trained on me, and that I am required to establish a presence on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. My leg will not stop twitching, I can't sleep, and my stomach is upset, although that's mostly because I had some questionable celebratory sushi. I don't know if this is a big deal, but it probably isn't a small deal. We spoke recently about how I split my personality into Vincent, who makes the work, and Theo, who interfaces with the world. This feels like a turning point in Theo's life. Theo is open to being wrong about it, and looking like a fool later. But here's what he saw when he woke up this morning:

Given all that, I'd like to discuss institutional validation a bit. Let's call this writing gig a significant bit of institutional validation. Let's also continue to postulate that you too are an artist or otherwise creative person, and that our experiences are in many ways parallel.

I decided I wanted to make movies when I was 13. Between the ages of 13 and 30, I worked on that goal more or less continuously. At that point, I had a slow motion train wreck of a breakdown, and came out of it unwilling to bleed another drop for a medium which did not love me back. Don't get me wrong - I'd be glad to succeed in that field. I just won't bleed for it.

I began to draw seriously in 1998, and to paint seriously in 2004.

If you ever look at my artist's CV, you will see that it begins with a group show at a minor gallery in 2008. There was no institutional validation for my painting before 2008. There was never any institutional validation for my films. I turned 13 in 1988. So I went twenty years between dedicating my life to making art, and receiving any institutional validation at all.

I had a lot of support from my family, friends, and wife. They gave me a lot, much more than I deserved, and it still wasn't enough. It categorically couldn't be enough, because they weren't professionals. Twenty years is a long time to go without validation from the institutions of whatever field you're working in.

I have always spent between 30 and 50 hours a week on whatever medium I was working on, and 20-25% of my annual income, even when it meant going hungry. How did I keep going? Well, I'm fortunate, because I have a downright ridiculous amount of faith in myself and my work. This isn't just some kind of perverse strength of character. You should be so lucky as to have my parents for parents next time around.

But faith has its limits when you are staring down the ugly barrel of middle age, and for the past few years, my faith has flagged, here and there. So I'm fortunate also in being unbelievably stubborn and having a massive caffeine addiction. Being a single-minded speed freak is recommended for a career in the arts.

Be that as it may, I am angry, and I will probably never stop being angry, or whatever anger turns into when it grows old. Rudyard Kipling, unsurprisingly, expresses it better than I can, in his brilliant 1890 novel The Light That Failed.

Dirk Bogarde

In this scene, successful painter Dick Heldar speaks to his friend Maisie:

'Stick to your money, Maisie, for there's nothing more ghastly in the world than poverty in London. It's scared me. By Jove, it put the fear into me! And one oughtn't to be afraid of anything.'

Maisie watched the face working in the moonlight.

'You've plenty of pennies now,' she said soothingly.

'I shall never have enough,' he began, with vicious emphasis. Then, laughing, 'I shall always be threepence short in my accounts.'

'Why threepence?'

'I carried a man's bag once from Liverpool Street Station to Blackfriar's Bridge. It was a sixpenny job,—you needn't laugh; indeed it was,—and I wanted the money desperately. He only gave me threepence; and he hadn't even the decency to pay in silver. Whatever money I make, I shall never get that odd threepence out of the world.'

This was not language befitting the man who had preached of the sanctity of work.

No it isn't, but it's true. Vincent has never flickered, never failed - but I am not always in touch with Vincent. Short of institutional validation, one's ability to reach to Vincent can waver. The threepence is institutional validation when one first needs it. I didn't get it, and now I never can.

There is only so long one can go on, alone, convinced that one is right despite the entirety of humanity stating not opposition, but complete indifference. The maximum length that lonely interval can be sustained, I expect, is different for each of us, and I'm not sure if it's a curse or a blessing if you can sustain it your entire life. After all, you might be wrong. You might be a fifty-year-old actor, living on Cahuenga and sending out headshots. I might be wrong too.

So what I'm saying is that it is possible to make good work, even great work, in complete isolation from colleagues and institutions in the field. But it is hard, and it gets harder as time throws the finite duration of life into ever starker relief. It is easier to do good work with the support of one's fellow man. That's petty, but there it is.

I feel fortunate, very, very fortunate, that the tide seems finally to be starting to turn for me. I feel fortunate, not deserving, because as surely as I have been working alone, a thousand other people, as convinced of their rectitude as I, are right now working alone, and struggling similarly to maintain their faith and go on working. I have had my life changed, at least somewhat, by a single decision by a single well-placed individual; but I am marked by my twenty years, and I won't soon forget where I was - where I might still be - and where I could easily return if I'm not there now.


  1. The way I see it is there's only so much wine in the cup - and you have to drink it. It may get better with age, or worse; there may be more or less of it in the glass, and so forth - but ultimately if there is anything Nietzsche had right on purpose it was that man wants to drink it down with vigor and satisfaction. If institutional validation assists a man in disbursing his worldly goods to the next generation, then peace to him.

    I once considered that given the odds, there were a million beautiful and unknown worlds that came and went, never to be seen, perhaps, never to be seen even in our imaginations, in distant stars that lived and died before a man put two lenses together. But this is the case of what beauty is and means, it is a necessary superfluousness, and that its hidden-ness - merely the idea of the birds singing in forest untrod by man - is something of perhaps why institutional validation follows art at a tarrying pace.

    I'm glad to hear that you'll be in the company of a man I respect greatly, Scott Cairns, who in addition to being a man of my faith was also my father confessor's companion to Mt. Athos.

    It reminds me of my grandfather who painted and played classical guitar masterfully, but made his living in construction. He architected a beautiful house for his family (it still stands) and though he never made a living at music or painting, it is not clear that building houses was really distinct from either art.

    Or perhaps what you really wish to do is to write about beauty, or art, but to really do so requires doing that thing, and even, doing it well.

    I for one am not a great appreciator of nudes, edenic to golgothic to gomorrhic (if those even count as comprehensible concepts) but I am a great appreciator of thoughtful talk about 'the nature of things that be'.

    Or this is just my way of getting you to answer the question I posed in one of your July posts (about Negative Capability.)


  2. I personally have yet to figure out if life's obstacles are meant to be overcome on our way to our true purpose, or sign-posts saying, "Stop!" "Turn Around!" "Go Back!" The answer is only written on the back of them. I am happy the back of yours are saying, "Keep going!" Couldn't happen to a more friendly and thoughtful guy. Congratulations!

  3. In huge rush but, Kevin - more like thoughtless. Have revised list of faithful friends above. I apologize; I racked my brains, and still missed you.

    River - soon.

  4. Brilliant. I am so glad the tiny little movements of the universe aligned in such a way that I met you. I am proud to know you. I have learned much from you. And I literally could not be happier for you.

  5. Yeah, what Ed just said , but being your mom I sort of had to know you. Lucky me. And lucky all who do get to see your work and read your essays. Your fortitude is the world's boon. I am glad you hung in, through the loneliness and too much silence. May the wind continue to be at your back.

  6. Ed - thank you so much for your good wishes - and the feelings of learning and pride and especially gladness are entirely mutual. Can't wait to see you later in the month.

    Ima - lucky me too! And thanks - I hope I'm not just getting overexcited here. But I'm glad I have been able to continue to paint and write, and pleased to be able to share with you some outward checkmarks of success as well.

    And Kevin - I didn't have time to say before, but I like your signpost idea very much!

    And River - this entire theme may be beside the point for you; your sense of language is almost identical with a friend of mine who has been quite content to make movies in his basement, revolving around some of the more unusual interactions of light and matter, for some years now, with absolutely no artistic contact with virtually anyone. He is not so constituted as to require support in any deep way. I am more of an extrovert, and more than that, an archivist, so it is an active issue for me.

  7. Dear Dani,

    What a week! The cliche of overnight recognition coming after decades of trying resonates here. As it is written, "may you go from success to success." And however far you go, for reasons you do not state, it will not be enough: you deserve more.

  8. Thank you! I am very moved by your note - and by your figuring out how to post a note in this very fussy system. You support means the world to me.

  9. Oddly, all the people I know who have worked to the point of obsession (and beyond) seem to have got very lucky recently. All (including you, of course) very well deserved!

    Maybe my mother was right when she said you had to be in the station before you can catch the train.

    1. Oh, and thanks so much for mentioning me - especially as my comments are not nearly as erudite or generous as some.

  10. Your mother had some clever sayings! Anyhow, I'm glad your friends are doing well, and I can't wait to meet you. And of course I would mention you! I love your comments, and also your cat watercolor.

  11. Well there you go!

    One day, Didi, I will meet you, and give you a hug. Unless you're not a hug person, in which case I will shake your hand.

  12. Gah. Clicking the reply button above not working. Anyway, I hope I don't disappoint in the flesh - and that you can understand what I am saying!

    In answer to your other reply, arrive on the 28th April - not long now! Planning on swanning around brooklyn on the 29th (a sunday). Doing a workshop every morning at the ASL Manhattan campus for the week after that, so will pretty much be around for the whole week. Oh, and we have our own show at some point out at the campus - have you ever been?

  13. Congratulations!

    Hopefully your screenplay will pass muster (insert pass-the-mustard pun here) but in any case that contact could lead to something good -- perhaps something unexpected, the same way the Huffington Post offer seemingly fell out of the sky.

    Of course it didn't fall from the sky. It was just an unexpected result of your efforts toward some other purpose, such as gaining exposure with art galleries.

    Ultimately, the Huffington Post affiliation may give you the street cred to open some doors. Art collectors value name recognition, perhaps so they can impress their friends by name-dropping at cocktail parties.

    This reminds me of a great line. When I was modeling for a figure drawing class, I had a conversation with the instructor during the break. I commented about the absurd prices that billionaires and museums pay for artwork at auction. The instructor responded, "Art historians know what they are supposed to like."

  14. Jane - I hope so too, although my downstairs neighbor is Glaswegian, so I may corral her for translation if we run into trouble. I'll look forward to meeting you sometime that week! I think I've been to the campus you're talking about. This is very exciting!

    Andrew - thanks for the congratulations! I will keep my fingers crossed that things keep sorting themselves out for me, without my having to really think it through all that sensibly. Your anecdote reminds me of the umbrage taken at the price most recently shelled out for Klimt's gold paintings - the price contradicted a consensus about their merit in terms of art history, and a lot of angry historians grumbled about these moneyed twits rewriting art history with checkbooks. I'm not sure which side I'm rooting against more in that kind of pissing match.

  15. Thank you - after a couple of weeks - for the shout out. I just had a show open, most o my reading has involved memorizing a script. But I am glad to be a drone in the hivemind.

  16. - Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!
    - Yes! We're all individuals!
    - You're all different!
    - Yes, we ARE all different!
    - I'm not...
    - Shut up, you!

    Also, congrats on the show!

  17. Just got an email about a talk on the 30th April at Forbes Gallery - - which I'm planning on going to - thought it might be your kinda thing!

    Also, the Art Student's League have confirmed that our show will be on the 24th May, and there will be a bus leaving from the Manhattan campus on 57th st for anyone that wants to come along.

  18. Jane - that talk is already on my calendar! I'll look forward to seeing you there. A good chunk of the New York figurative scene will probably turn up for it.

    Where's the show? Would love to be able to make it.

  19. Oh good! So see you soon!

    The show is an open studio event at the Vytlacil campus in Sparkill - it is from 5pm to 7pm and as I say they run a bus there and back. I've never held an open studio before, so will be a learning experience (and am thinking of bying some Highland Park on the way in at the duty free, so if no-one turns up at least I can enjoy myself!)