The Ghost of Van Gogh’s Ear

Friends, artists, countrymen, I come before you today to speak about something that I feel quite strongly about.

Problem is, I don’t know quite what I feel. So don’t expect coherency. (Then again, if you expected coherency, you probably wouldn’t be reading this so I dunno.

Our view of artists these days seems to be defined largely by two models. There’s the Van Gogh model, where that Real Artists are starving in a garret–unwashed loners, wild-eyed, unwilling to compromise, possibly a few Amish short of a barn-raising. And in this bastion of beer cans and moldy coffee cups, of dirty needles and chain-smoked cigarettes, driven to frenzies of self-loathing, the Real Artist creates raw personal visions that are immutable. Nobody strolls in and says “Hey, bet that’d look really cool if you added a pony.” To do so would be a hideous insult to the artist and likely to cause them to fling themselves at you, palette knife aloft, shrieking profanities. The Real Artist twitches a lot and wears dark glasses when he goes out and titles all his art by throwing darts at a Bible and stringing together the words the point goes through. The Real Artist is Serious.

And then there’s the hobby artist model. The hobby artist is almost always female, plump, good-natured, and likes flowers. She has enough art pottery to recreate the entire Last Supper on not-completely-functional plates. She likes flowers (and occasionally skulls), has one or two Georgia O’Keefe prints hung in the studio, and finds time to paint between PTA meetings, because she is primarily a housewife or career woman who just happens to like painting. The hobby artist is not taken seriously, is expected to produce pretty much nothing of lasting merit, and at the height of her success may be found illustrating children’s books with titles like “The Little Squid That Inked” and “We Are All One With The Earth Dream.” She ain’t rocket material.

Both of these models bear about as much resemblance to the reality of the actual working pro or semi-pro artist as a female manatee does to the lead in the Little Mermaid, and yet I think a great deal of the way that artists are viewed in our society is informed by these two models.

How you deal with the second one, I don’t know. Someone who’s been there will have to tackle that question–I’ve only hit the periphery. I know that it IS a problem, mostly because I’ve talked to artists and writers who, not having the luxury of being able to support themselves solely on art at the moment, are generally percieved as homemakers with a hobby. Often by people like, for example, ME, who oughta know better and have no excuse. And hell, I’ve run into it a time or two myself–“So what do you do?” “I’m an artist.” “No, for a living.” “I…am…an…artist…” “OH.” Possibly my fondness for art pottery is to blame. However, in general, I don’t have a problem with people accepting that I’m a career artist, probably because I give off an air of being dangerous hair-triggered and violent whenever the topic comes up.

But the Real Artist thing…yeah, that one I know. We probably all do. It’s like this giant shadow hanging over us, shaped more or less like a severed ear, and giving rise to some really weird notions about what a real artist is like.

For one thing, a lot of people seem to expect me to be surly. Now, I AM surly, don’t get me wrong, but I try not to surl at people who are being nice to me, and the fact that I have the temperment of a half-starved badger is due mostly to upbringing and socialization and has nothing to do with art. Plenty of artists are the nicest damn people you’ll ever meet, wonderfully caring, sensitive souls. Plenty of more artists are just plain jerks, and should be recognized as such–you don’t get to be an ass to people merely because you can draw well. (A standard that oughta also be applied to pro-athletes, if you ask me–I don’t care how well you can throw a ball, if you’re a jerk, you oughta be called on it.) And when I answer my fan mail, which I try to do fairly regularly, even though I often slip up and miss a few, because I’m inherently a wretched scatterbrain, (so hey, if you’ve e-mailed me at any point, and I didn’t reply, try it again–odds are it just got lost in the shuffle) a lot of people write back to say how astonished they are that I answered it. And politely! I don’t know how to react to that, except that there is something dreadfully wrong with the way things work if the majority of people expect abuse from the artist in response to genuine praise. The silence of a really busy soul–sure, that’s inevitable for a lot of people, and I don’t think anybody blames ’em for it, but to be surprised at courtesy just scares me.

And then there’s the suffering. “You must suffer for art!” Bullshit. I could paint naked bunny women or riding dragons just as happily in a jacuzzi in the Swiss Alps, having my back kneaded by a trained geisha-chiropractor while another one plies me with peeled grapes and tequila. That one should strive really hard with the actual act of painting, and understand that it’ll occasionally be frustrating and make you want to scream–sure, fine, if it’s incredibly easy, you’re probably just not pushing yourself. But let’s not go sleeping on beds of nails.

And then, finally, there’s how the art gets made, and this is the one I think that makes me the most weirded out. Like photo reference, say. With clockwork regularity, once a month or so, either I find it on a forum or I get an e-mail asking “Is it okay to use photos? I mean, not to copy them, but to look at them? Is that cheating?” The most recent one over at Yerf professed disillusion that so many artists use lots of photos. (For the record, in case anyone’s wondering–virtually every pro artist out there uses scads of photos, and most of them become photographers in sheer desperation so that they can take their own as well. A good number of ’em do the trick with the opaque projector and the canvas, too. Such is life. This is not considered “cheating,” no matter what anyone may tell you–nine times out of ten, your client wants the art on his desk and he wants it to look good–provided no one’s plagerized or infringed, how it gets there is between you and your God.) I can’t help but think that it’s this lone-artist-in-garret mentality that gets us to this point, and I feel bad for all the artists just starting out–who are often the one asking these questions–who often get radically disillusioned when they learn what really goes into art. Or worse, you get people so obsessed with originality and so afraid of duplicating anything that has been done before, that they won’t look at ANY other art, and exist in a sort’ve panicky “Am I original enough?!” which does nobody any good except the guys who make ulcer medication. (This isn’t all Van Gogh’s fault–a lot of it lies in the tedious sniping prevalent on-line of so-and-so copied MEEEE!, but that’s another rant for another day.) And I’m still shaking my head from a conversation a month or so ago, when a friend of a friend, having just viewed (ironically) the Van Gogh collection in some European art museum or other, asked me how to become an artist. I trotted out my standard these-are-a-few-good-books-to-start speech, and mentioned some life drawing co-ops in town. He asked if the models were, like, hotties. I hope that my falling over and braying like a donkey on nitrous didn’t dissuade him too badly. (I’d had a lot of wine.) I don’t know where exactly I was going w’ dat, but anyway, it was an amusing slice of life.

It ain’t all bad. Sometimes it’s a little baffling. Take, for example, the iconoclastic art-must-be-an-expression-of-personal-vision thing. I’ve had clients tip-toe around providing any actual details on a piece for fear of treading on my Muse. “We’d like it sort of like this, but we don’t want to fetter your creativity!” And I’ve had them walk on eggshells trying to propose changes, in a similiar vein, with displays of tact to suggest that they were asking me to donate my firstborn child’s kidneys. And we should probably all be grateful that the visual arts, probably due in large part to this perception that good artists live in garrets, have mostly resisted corporate cubicle-izing–not entirely, but still, better than a lot of other genres. Maybe we should be burning offerings to ear-shaped altars for this boon, nevermind the rest of it at all.

Maybe part of it is the word “artist.” Maybe if you bill yourself as an illustrator, people automatically assume that you’re a skilled artisan in the business of creating visual art to spec. Possibly the word “artist” has enough baggage to make it tricky at best.

I dunno. Told you I had mixed emotions. But that’s my rant.

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