You are not alone

You need to go way out to a cabin in the woods to write a great novel. You must move up to a garret on the top of floor of a tenement to paint masterpieces. Do not disturb. Genius at work. The myth of the solitary artist, toiling alone, far from the madding crowd. We’ve all heard it. And yet I wonder, is solitude really the key to creativity?

Case in point.

In 1866, Vincent van Gogh left the Netherlands. For three years, he had been trying to teach himself to paint, essentially on his own. He briefly had a mentor who then grew tired and rejected him. He enrolled in an art school but clashed with his teacher for his unorthodox style of painting. Two months later, he quit to move to Paris.

Within 18 months, Van Gogh went from dreary, ham-fisted brown paintings to bright, lively, emotional masterworks that are some of the greatest paintings ever made. What made the difference?

Paris. Or more specifically the community of artists he found in Paris.

For the first time Vincent was exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism, and Japanese woodblock prints. He befriended Pissarro, Signac, Bernard, Seurat, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. His palette changed. His painting technique changed. His line quality changed. His sense of himself as an artist changed.

When Van Gogh finally found himself in the company of artists, he discovered what being an artist truly meant. He borrowed ideas and discoveries from them. He modified pointillism, he painted with complementary color, he discovered light, and in two years, he made over 200 new, fresh paintings.

Marinating in all those influences, helped him discover a unique and utterly personal approach to painting. By associating with great and generous artists, Van Gogh found himself.

Many of our teachers tell me they love being a part of Sketchbook Skool, because they usually spend so much time working alone. They love to commune with other creative minds, to share ideas, to talk shop, to find new solutions to common problems. Some of them set up shared studios. Others travel to conferences and conventions. Others use social media to share their works in progress and find input and support.

For many beginners, sharing art can seem like a scary business. We fear being judged or seeming to be presumptuous by donning the artist’s mantle. But remember the explosive effect of creative community on Van Gogh. Nothing he’d made before 1886 deserved to end up in a museum. He couldn’t find a single customer for his flat, amber landscapes and dimly-lit, mawkish still lives. But by stepping out, by daring to expose himself and ask to learn from other artists, he was transformed.

You may think you are not a Van Gogh. But have you gone to Paris? Have you taken advantage of the impact a creative community can make?

Speaking of creative communities, this piece was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine.  Didn’t see it in your inbox this morning? Sign up now.

Why art matters.

I think about art a lot. I look at it, I read about it, I make it. But why? What purpose does it actually play in my life? Why not focus on the Yankees or bow hunting or philately instead? These are reasonable questions so I decided to sit down and think of a few answers.

Pretty pictures. It’s common to downplay or dismiss beauty as a criterion for great art. We live in dark times, the critic says, and pretty pictures like Monet’s waterlilies and van Gogh’s sunflowers and Koon’s puppies aren’t relevant to our grim reality. Beauty is kitsch escapism and no challenge to the modern intellect. But that curt dismissal is ugly and wrong. We need beauty because, even in the grimmest times, it keeps us hopeful. Beauty gives us pleasure and we must always make room for happiness. Even through depression, wars, and tragedies, it’s still okay to respond to a beautiful face, a perfect rose, a catchy tune, a gorgeous sunset, a silly joke. More than okay, it’s human.

Art is real. And that’s more essential than ever. Because we suppress and distort so much in our culture. We fear death but can’t discuss it. We self-medicate rather than allow ourselves to feel sad or afraid. We bastardize nature. We celebrate fame and wealth and youth and ignore the wisdom of age. Art tells us it’s okay to let the mask slip. It’s okay to feel lonely. It’s okay to feel pain. It’s okay to feel impermanent. We all do. Art is not afraid to show the face of reality. And to say, “Everyone feels this way and has since the dawn of time”. That’s why the Egyptians made art about death and fear and loneliness and so did Rembrandt and Mozart and Hopper and Hemingway. Art says, “Pain exists. But we all get through it.”

Balance. We want our work, leisure, relationships, past and future, all in equilibrium. But that’s an illusion. None of us is sufficiently poised to maintain that balance for long, if at all. We are all distorted in one way or another, all imperfect, all human. Our lives are out of balance and so are our feelings. We may feel too serious, too trivial, too stressed, too controlled, too afraid, too old, too narrow-minded, too left, too right… Art lets us let it out. To cry in the movies where no one can see us. To be filled with heroic pride as the orchestra soars. To be soaked in adrenaline. To find a moment of calm. Art injects us with pure emotions we may never otherwise encounter on the bus or in the supermarket. It gives yin to our yang, Kirk to our Spock.

We are all freaks. The more normal we appear, the deeper we have hidden our truth. When David Bowie died, everyone stepped out of their personal closets to embrace him. Because art lets us all know it’s okay to be different. And besides, you’ve got no choice. We all harbor secret thoughts and fantasies and fears. Art hangs them soon the wall for all to see. And embrace.

Everyday matters. Our society celebrates money and fame. But the rich are no better than the other 99%. And the famous are by and large not role models, just cracked egos standing on a tattered strip of red carpet. But beauty is everywhere and art points it out for us. van Gogh paints his shoes and his postman, Warhol a soup can and a car crash. Pollack splatters house paint to show us the beauty of chaos. Rembrandt shows us the loveliness of his lumpy nose. Bacon immortalizes a side of beef. Artists show us the eternal majesty of trees and waterfalls, sagging breasts and smelting plants. While pop culture snatches back its fickle crown every news cycle, art shows us the eternal value of a simple lemon on a sunny kitchen table. Now, go, it says, look at your life and the riches it contains.

Valuable. I don’t go to church, mosque or synagogue. I don’t read Plato or the Tao. But art teaches me the things that matter. Explore the values that endure. Remind me of the legends that have passed down through time. These are crucial truths to guide me as I travel through my ordinary life, riding the subway, sipping my tea. Vital lessons that never go out of style like: Nature is to be revered. Humble pleasures are the sweetest. Everyone is significant. We are all connected. Hope is eternal. Bad things happen. The road bends. Life should be enjoyed.
Where else can I get these reminders? In fortune cookies and this month’s self-help bestsellers? Or in masterpieces that have endured because they embody and transmit our collective wisdom.
The history of art is the history of what’s important to us as civilization and as a species. That’s why we erect huge buildings to house and display these old pieces of cloth daubed with paint, why they are among the first things we must visit when we come to a new city. They contain the truths that we, as a civilization and as a species, know are to be treasured.

I believe in my marrow that art is not a luxury. It has been a crucial part of humanity since we told stories around the campfire and painted the ceilings of caves. Art is not just for intellectuals. Art is not just for museums or public television or vacations in Paris. Art is here to make us feel better and be better. To remind us of our humanity and our connectedness. To unearth and share our feelings. To remind us we are not alone. Art is forever and for everyday.

Finding fulfillment

Recently, I have been reading the amazing biography of van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. What a story! Vincent tried so many things before turning to art. He was desperate to find a vocation and devote his life to something that his family would think was worthy. But nothing stuck. He tried being a print dealer, a clerk, a schoolteacher, a minister, a missionary, and each time, despite starting with intense enthusiasm, he gave up and wandered away.

Getting good at something involves two, related factors.

One — you have to work at your skills. Practice, experiment, research, study, and come back to work, regularly, for an extended period of time. I don’t care who you are or what talents you think you have, working at your craft is crucial to greatness. Experience makes you better, more facile, more intuitive, more apt to come up to some new and great. There may seem to be shortcuts. They are illusions. Even one-hit wonders work their butts off for years. Vincent was certainly willing to put in the work — but he couldn’t stick with anything. Why?

The second factor is purpose. This is more complicated than just wanting to be great at something. It’s about your calling. What must you do even if no one ever saw you doing it or paid you to do it? What will you stay up late to do? Skip meals to do? Do until your shoulders cramp and your hands fall asleep? What completes you?

We all have something we can excel at. It might be throwing a football, making a sauce, curing disease, building a house or running a country. If you can’t think of what that is, you just haven’t found it yet.

When you discover this purpose, it will fuel you while you do all the work required to be good at it. Without it, you won’t get far. But to find your true purpose, you must be brutally honest with yourself.

I took a creative writing class in college. When the professor told us we needed to submit a story each week, one of my classmates groaned, “A story every week? That’s required?” The teacher paused then said, “Why are you here?” and we each looked into our souls.

You can’t pick a purpose because it’s fashionable or lucrative. Don’t take up acting just to become a celebrity. Don’t go to graduate school just because no one will hire you. Don’t become a missionary just to please your dad. Write because you have to, not because you want to be “a writer”.

Finding your purpose can take work too. It means exposing yourself to lots of different experiences until something clicks. Watch YouTube videos, observe people running different kinds of businesses, wander through museums or hardware stores, ask strangers what they do and why. What draws you in?

Look into yourself and your past. What were the moments that brought you the greatest happiness? When did you truly feel you were you? Where were you? What were you doing? What was the essence of that moment? Was it about helping others? Making something with your hands? Solving a complex problem? Organizing chaos?

You can discover your purpose at any age. You might be young and starting your career. You might have spent thirty years doing something indifferently because you had to bring home the bacon. It’s not too late. Vincent discovered his purpose just ten years before he died. But it gave his whole life meaning.

Can you live yours without it? Should you?


{Thanks to everyone who commented and emailed after my mea culpa post yesterday.  Your understanding and encouragement mean the world to me.}

Vincent & the Monkey

Long after his death, Vincent van Gogh has been diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to syphilis. He may have been bipolar or epileptic, eaten too much paint or drunk too much absinthe. Did van Gogh hear the voice of the inner critic, that toxic monkey endlessly jabbering in his head? Certainly. He had plenty of problems and one or more of them led to the events of 27th of July, 1890, when he shot himself, in the chest, in a wheat field. He hung around for another day and a half, said, “The sadness will last forever” and died.

Van Gogh was 37 and he had been painting for just ten years. In that time he accomplished so much, producing hundreds of beautiful works of art that have influenced artists ever since. His life, short though it was, left ripples.

But what if he hadn’t cut his life so short? What if he had lived to 86 like Monet? Or 84 like Matisse? Or 91 like Picasso? What might he have accomplished if he’d lived a full and complete life? What paintings might now hang in museums? What directions might he have taken the art world? How might we all see differently than we do? Try to imagine all he never had the chance to imagine.

So much beautiful art has been made through the course of human history. But there is so much beautiful art that never was made, never sketched or painted or framed or hung. The monkey voice does the job of that pistol in Auvers-sur-Oise every day, cutting creative careers short, stifling ideas, throwing up roadblocks to new horizons. Every time the monkey forces a creative person to give up, the world is robbed of ideas that could lead to more ideas that could lead to answers and inspiration and gasps of delight.

The fact is, you can’t know what impact your work could have on the world. Don’t let the monkey decide for you.

Why it doesn’t look just like the picture.

fax-faceIn the 1980s when photocopying technology became increasingly available, David Hockney made a series of prints using a Xerox machine.  I was looking at some of these prints recently and trying to overcome my initial dismissive reaction: these aren’t ‘prints’. But of course, they are. They were state-of-the art prints in their day.

Printing is and has always been a mechanical method of making multiple reproductions of an image. In the past artists used woodblocks, etchings, engravings, then lithography, screen printing and so on. Today, many artists sell giclée prints of their work, prints that are digital scans of their drawings which are then processed and printed on inkjet printers. And what if we skip the paper part of it all together and use an iPhone and a distant computer server. Isn’t that basically the same idea?

Our instincts say no. It’s somehow not hard or special enough. Where’s the craft? But of course a good digital scan take experience and tools and work. So that’s not it. Or maybe it’s posterity, the sense that an old Xerox or a computer print out surely won’t survive for hundred of years like a Dürer woodcut. But with archival papers and inks and proper handling, that’s probably not the case either.

No, I think the real issue is scarcity. If you can just push a button and bang out an infinite number of reproductions, it is no longer precious, a limited edition, valuable. If someone can make an infinite number of copies, then there’s no value to any particular one. A Work of Art is reduced to the same status as a call report or a lost pet flyer. So the Art Market has trained us to dismiss this way of looking at it. If it can’t be bought or sold for increasing amounts, don’t bother making it.

Now, if inventive, creative, curious people like Dürer or Rembrandt had been able to make thousands and thousands of copies of their images with just the push of a button, believe me, they would not have been sweating over blocks of wood. They weren’t burdened with the same market concerns that weigh down our view of art. They made limited editions mainly because it took a helluva lot of work to get even a dozen proper prints from a copper plate.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Thinking about Hockney’s Xeroxes made me think about how technology is constantly improving the ways it solves basic human problems. Not just labor saving devices, but things that make our lives better and richer. Examples abound.

But what about image making? There was a point when people drew on cave walls with blood and mud, to make some point lost to the sands of time but they were using the best image-making technology they had. Eventually we figured out how to carve stone statues, to make fresco, to stretch canvas, and so on.

This image-making and image-sharing had a purpose. Usually it was to tell a story or pass on some vital information: this is what the Gods did, this is how we won this war, This is how handsome and powerful the King is, this is how Jesus came back, and so on. Nowadays, if Jesus came back again, we would probably use Vine or a Facebook post to share the news, not a fresco or calligraphy on a goatskin.

So if, in one split second and with no real experience or skill, you can use the phone in your pocket to make an image that is technically superior and precise to anything you can make with pencil, why make art at all anymore?

That’s a question people have been asking themselves for almost two centuries. And the answer that Manet and Monet and Seurat and Cezanne and Van Gogh and the rest of the gang came up with over a hundred years ago is that the purpose of art is no longer to reproduce physical reality, it’s to convey how we feel about it. To capture the human condition, the way we see the world through the veils of subjectivity, experience, emotion, history and all the rest of the stuff that make us who we are.

This is something we have to think about when we draw.  Stop assessing your work based on how close it is to “reality”. Don’t bother posting a snapshot of your dog next to the drawing you did of it. Who cares if you are almost as good as that camera in your pocket. ‘Cause in fact, you’re not even close. That photo is a far better way to make that image. More efficient, more accurate.

But that image isn’t really what you want, is it? What you want is to capture your soul, your inner state, the love you feel for that dog. You want to make a picture of the inside of your mind.

Don’t worry about Xerox®ing reality with your sketchbook. Focus on capturing You instead.

So far nobody, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, has come up with an app for that.

The Museum of You

Scan

For most of the history of mankind, mankind had little time for Art. People spent all their days just trying to survive, tilling the soil, tending to their herds, struggling to turn raw nature into subsistence.

Then we invented machines that could do a lot of that work and time opened up a bit. A hundred years ago, ordinary working people were finally able to afford musical instruments in their home, then they could buy radios, cameras, televisions. For the first time they actually had time to entertain themselves and to look for the beauty around them. Not just the beauty that they saw when wiping their brows and peering over the handle of the plow at the setting sun, but time to go to museums, to watch films, to listen deeply to music just for its own sake.

Of course, people have been making art for hundreds of years before this. But they’d been making art for the select few, those very wealthy people who had the time to enjoy it and pay for it. Royalty, then the rich burghers, and of course the church, art to tell stories to those people who had the time to come into the Cathedral on Sunday, and to be appropriately wowed and cowed by the display of gold, marble, and fresco that showed the true history of God’s works here on earth.

Artists used to be hired to perform, hired like gardeners, footmen, and stableboys. But since industrialization, being an artist who created works for his own satisfaction became possible. Artists could paint what was in their minds, could paint the things that they chose, humble subjects, everyday things, accessible beauty, and then those works could become commodities and be sold to those people of means who could afford them.

And the number of people who could actually be artists was limited. Being an artist has always been a struggle, a self-selecting profession, and very few people manage to survive. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mozart, van Gogh, all died penniless. Ironic because the economics of the art world means that there are always limits to the amount of product available, limits that drive up prices, and generate profit for someone. And as today there are more wealthy people than ever, the limited supply of art becomes more expensive. That’s why these days we see record prices for art, for art that was created centuries ago but also art that was created last year. And we see certain people creating tighter and tighter markets for certain artists’ work, therefore those prices escalate, artificially. We are reminded time and again that art is to be made by Artists, by trained professionals, but certified by the establishment. The rest of us don’t have talent worth cultivating, can’t make anything of value.

But what about the rest of the emerging middle classes? What about all the other people who have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and for the first time are able to afford art and entertainment in their lives? They bought movie tickets, import recorded music, and the technology with which to enjoy it. And they bought museum tickets, tickets that now cost $25 or more. Access to museums full of art that was originally created for people far wealthier than them, people who did not share great art with the great unwashed but kept it behind their high gates and guarded walls.

What do you do if for the first time you have the leisure and the disposable income that will allow Art to fill a part of your life, a part that wasn’t available to your parents or your grandparents and ancestors before them? Well, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to afford any of the art made by professional artists these days. Long gone are the days when one could travel to Paris and buy the work of the young Picasso for a few pennies on the dollar. Even today’s Picassos are already out of reach. Today there is simply not enough art being made by the system of Galleries and professional Artists to satisfy the needs of the more and more people who want and can afford art in their lives. That’s by design of course, making sure that demand will rise by artificially suppressing supply.

But there’s good news, for all of us who now have the time to make art a part of our lives. Because we don’t need to invest in the works of art that has been credentialed by the art establishment, we don’t need to look for art that is been marked up by Galleries, or bona fide by museums. We don’t have to believe the limitations of the established wisdom that identifies art made outside of the system as outsider, naïve, amateur, hobbyist, inferior. We may have just a little bit of spare change or spare time, but we don’t need to invest tens of millions of dollars in order to have beauty in our lives.

Instead we can start to value the art that appears in formerly blank sketchbooks, on empty canvases bought at the local art supply store. We can find inspiration by doing a Google image search. We can find instruction by looking at YouTube or enrolling in an online course.
The wonderful thing about the world we live in is that we all now have the time to appreciate art and we all can be free to make it for ourselves. You don’t need to buy into the same conceits that ruled the art world for all of those years, namely that artists were journeymen to be hired by the rich, the value of their work artificially inflated by critics, gallerists and curators. Know that we are free to take our leisure time and do what our ancestors did — till the soil, sow the seeds, and reap the rewards of homegrown art. Art that we can give as gifts, swap with our neighbors, share in our communities and enrich our lives. If we make it, it is good. It is a reflection of who we truly are —not passive shoppers or customers — but an inherently creative, expressive and productive species.

We are now entering the time of art with a small a, not Art that goes under the gavel and hangs in the hallway of billionaires, but art that is of us and is therefore infinitely more valuable to you and me.

We’ve moved from a time of no Art to a time of consuming Art and now to the time of creating art.

Have you gotten with the times yet?