Saturday, March 26, 2011

To Be an Artist...

I thought this exchange with my friend, the artist Cynda Valle, would be of interest. It concerns the movie Waiting for Hockney—the story of Billy Pappas, a young man whose eight-year, single-minded obsession with a single graphite drawing of Marilyn Monroe—and with the British artist David Hockney as his ultimate judge and mentor—led him, finally, only back to the fast food restaurant where he had worked previously as a waiter…

Cynda wrote: I just watched the movie "Waiting for Hockney" and thought of you (both as Hockney’s biographer and a person who thinks much about the purpose of art and artists)... As I watched it, I thought it was going to be like any other Hollywood movie in that there would be trial and tribulation, but at the end all would be happily resolved. How much more interesting it became when at the end I realized it was telling a much truer (in my opinion) story of the typical artist's (my) life: the exciting build-up to the moment the artist dreamed of and then, instead of "happily ever after" comes nothing. The artist continues to work and the energy slowly builds to another crescendo, followed by another disappointment, until this cycle all to quickly eats up an entire lifetime.

I'm thinking there must be in the artist (and me) an incredible ego and a certain relentless naivete that allows them (me) to always have faith that the next painting will be the one to change everything. Contrast this with the jaded scorn of the art elite and it's not a pretty picture! Hopefully I have some years left on the planet so I don't know yet how the story ends for me, but sometimes I'm terrified that the cycle will never change, and sometimes I feel confident I can free myself from the burden of desires...The only thing I know for sure is that I will always paint. Would love to hear your thoughts. Sincerely, Cynda

My response: Dear Cynda, I certainly honor (and share) your compassion for poor Billy, whose story this movie tells. And yes, the cycle you describe is an unhappily familiar one: the slow build-up of anticipation and hope for recognition, and the let-down that follows when the response to your work does not meet up to expectations. And the hope that the next piece of work will turn out to be the great one that shakes the ground we all stand on! I’m sure that every creative person knows that pattern—and I sure do not exclude myself!

Still, having watched the movie at your suggestion, I think that Billy’s story is significantly different from the one you describe. His obsession with what is perhaps the hardest subject to handle—essentially a cliché, with apologies to Marilyn!—with no apparent understanding of the risks and challenges involved, suggests from the start that he will never be the artist he so much yearns to be. Worse—again from the start—he mistakes sheer technical proficiency and photographic accuracy for art. He has the (admittedly naïve) intellectual arrogance to believe in his own genius without the knowledge and perspective that a smattering of education would afford him. The limits of his understanding are underscored by his elevation of David Hockney to the role of St. Peter, the arbiter and keeper of the keys to heaven’s gate.

In short, Cynda, unlike yourself, Billy is no artist. He has a lot more tray-carrying to do before he even reaches the threshold. I don’t want to be ungenerous to a young man who seems to me, honestly, more pathetic than authentic, but to be an artist, as I understand it, generally implies a responsibility to know what you’re about. Obsession alone (as in the case of, say, a Henry Darger, or any number of other “outsider” artists) can sometimes, rarely, cut it, especially if the vision itself is obsessive; but not, I think, the obsession with technique. There is a kind of arrogance in assuming that all mainstream art is elitist and that ignorance necessarily leads to a fresh vision and fresh ideas. More often than not, sadly, it leads to cliché.

So I celebrate the artist in you. You are no Billy Pappas. Yes, there’s the struggle. And yes, indeed, there are the disappointments along the way, there’s the sense of despair, there’s the constantly recurring question: is it all worth it? But you, Cynda, are not about technical proficiency (well, only in part!) You’re not about attracting the attention of a David Hockney. Your work, in my judgment, springs from an inner depth, a necessity, a quest in which our Billy shows no sign of being interested. That artist in you keeps coming back to the work because you have to, that’s who you are, not who you’re trying to be.

As you can tell, I did find the movie quite fascinating, but in a different way from what your letter led me to expect. For me, this was not, as you suggest, “the typical artist’s life,” but rather the life of one who unhappily did not begin to understand what art was all about and wanted to be an artist anyway. That his astounding, eight-year dedication to this project did not pan out came as no surprise, given its misguided premises. The message, for me, was this: to be an artist—writer, musician, actor, dancer—requires more than dedication to the acquisition and practice of skills. For most of us, it also requires vision, informed intelligence, historical perspective—and the kind of modesty that sparks the most important of all ingredients, curiosity. The need, not only to perform, but to discover the unknown.

I hope this doesn't read like "the jaded scorn of the art elite!" I do thank you for urging me to see this movie, because I did in fact both enjoy and learn from it. I just don't believe that this is "your" life! I know that you--despite all discouragements and despite even yourself!--will move on to the next picture and find our more about yourself, your life, your vision. Rightly so.


stuart said...

thanks for posting and commenting on Cynda's letter.
"Waiting for Hockney" is a terrific title. Can't wait to see Hockney as metaphor.

MandT said...

I am probably one of the few art historians, who consider Hockney to hackneyed.... much ado about nothing until the stage sets demonstrated some original talent.

stephen said...

Doesn’t passion lie at the core of all success — not just in art but in everything? My passion for writing and teaching helps me bear all the rejection slips, disinterest and the roar of silence that greets my latest essai … and keep going. It’s more than consolation; the pursuit of passion — which is never a goal, but just the ongoing process of life itself — brings core satisfaction. In my weaker moments I crave success in the eyes of the world, but when I give it up and return to my passion I’m reminded how futile that craving is. I embrace and enjoy what success I achieve, but passion for the process itself is why I do it, even if I sometimes forget that. Perhaps in success we unconsciously hope for release from this constant inner tension, but that’s just the stress of life, without which there is no creativity.

PeterAtLarge said...

MandT, I do think that Hockney's career has been patchy, and his ideas sometimes wacky. But he has made a contribution. Consider the early paintings, before he came to Los Angeles; and the So. Cal. paintings which so effectively capture some aspects of life in this area--including its potential emptiness. He made some interesting experiments in perception with his photocollages, and his opera sets have been exciting and groundbreaking. I'll grant you that some of the later work has been "phoned in."

Stephen, yes! Absolutely! I think another of Billy's problems was in mistaking ambition for passion.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Bravo, Peter, for the excellent post 'To Be An Artist'. I can echo every word and though I haven't seen that movie, I'm sure from your description that my response would be exactly the same as yours. I've been an artist all my (long) life and can confirm that it:
"...requires more than dedication to the acquisition and practice of skills. For most of us, it also requires vision, informed intelligence, historical perspective—and the kind of modesty that sparks the most important of all ingredients, curiosity. The need, not only to perform, but to discover the unknown."

About Hockney, I think that his mature work lacks the originality and verve that his early work had. But I've alwys loved his drawings and etchings. And his experiments were certainly fascinating even if their excitment soon wears off.