Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Love and Cold Water

Plenty of cold water in my neighbor's yard. Actually, this photo is not germane to the post--I just included it because I like it.

A since-departed mentor of mine once told me, “All an artist needs is love and cold water.” That two-part prescription is problematic on both sides of the equation but lets take them in the order they come.

For an artist, appreciation and approbation can be powerful motivators but their pursuit can be ends unto themselves. I actually don’t know too many artists whose ambition is to be wealthy through their art (not much danger of that) but very many would like to be appreciated, influential, respected within their field, remembered after they’re gone. Reasonable enough but when you think about it, those are pretty big requests, beyond the reach of most who are not lucky enough to have a bridge or a park bench named for them.

One blessing artist enjoy is that if they work real hard and are lucky, they create living talismans that alter perspectives and perhaps carry their name into the future. That’s the goal but I am repulsed when someone pushes that agenda too hard—their ego, their need to be loved eclipses the work. That’s just me though: I am much more interested in real, impactful work than keeping track of who’s famous at this moment.

In order to be loved, an artist must love their work in a giving way and love does not carry a quid pro quo: I love thee that I may be loved. The artist needs love but he must give it out, not knowing whether it will redound.

What about the business with the cold water?

There has been a debate through the ages—and I’m not going to answer it on this blog—about whether artists need to suffer to find inspiration. Consuelo didn’t simply tell me that artists need the universal solvent for its life-giving, thirst-quenching properties. She wanted me stay out of my comfort zone, away from complacency. I think she was right: I work best when I’m challenging myself and taking that terrifying leap from bathtub to freezing waterfall.

There’s a second, more sinister interpretation that also holds some sway: that artists should not get paid; that suffering, privation, and tragedy are somehow good for the artist’s work.

Believe me when I say this: my work is not better after a poor night’s sleep. My work is not enhanced by shaking and baking out in the marketplace so the mortgage gets paid—I simply make less art during those periods. Spiritual hunger is good, and perhaps a little gnaw in the belly can get you off the couch but starvation does not yield up good art.

Basic respect and appreciation, subsistence, and the occasional splash on the face—that’s enough to keep most artists going. The good ones find a way to keep going even when those basics are not forthcoming.

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