by Gregory Gusse
I was lunching with Judy Vars at the Red Beet when the topic came up about...artists. The issue
was the “it is all about me” attitude of most (actually all successful) artists. She didn’t want to
be like that, she wanted to be sweet and compassionate - but “me, me, me” is required. She
started to realize that when reading her latest Rasmuson rejection letter.
The buddha nature so desired by thinking beings is contrary to artistic expression. Simply put
they are opposite pursuits. Where our little buddha internalizes emotion our little artist demands
emotion be externalized. Where our tiny buddha seeks to be compassionate our leather-winged
artist demands attention and love - inside outside!
For normal people, not budding bodhisattvas or Rembrandts, we try to find balance between
those extremes, or if we are Taoist we try to find harmony with the yin and yang of it all. Artists,
though, are by their very essence extremists. If they are any good, or even bad, but passionate.
I am not saying that abandoning inner peace for the turmoil of art is bad, not at all. Though I
am frequently torn in which direction to go; I see value to both. Apparently I can get pretty nasty
when facing this dilemma, so I can be empathetic to the questioning artist.
There is the necessity to blow one’s own horn, remember the poet, Ali, “float like a butterfly,
sting like a bee”. “I am the greatest”, he reminded us. Or as van Gogh put it, “What am I in the
eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who
has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then —
even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an
eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than
on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I
am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I
see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven
towards these things with an irresistible momentum.” Yes the dirtiest corners! Apparently he
had a very different vision of himself than he figured most people had of him. In both cases it
was “all about me!”
Another reason artists need to be “all about me” are the damned critics. Since well in excess
of 90% of the work of the very best artist is schlock and the worst artists will tell you over 95%
of their work is the greatest stuff (a word in contention concerning art) the world has ever seen,
there is an obvious disconnect - a cognitive dissonance they say these days.
Critics, of course, are needed to keep the pants on the emperor but more so they provide that much
needed attention. As the artist Brendan Behan said “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your
own obituary” So buck up my little friends. And as a critic myself I am reminded, “Nobody ever
lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” ― P.T. Barnum
After several years of writing this column I feel more like Vincent everyday. I’m pretty sure I
write great and meaningful things, like he said “a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one
ever came to sit by it. Passersby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on
their way.” But it really isn’t a way to make friends - sooner or later you piss everyone off.
It isn’t easy being an artist, since an artist has no choice in the matter. Jung pointed out that it is
much more than a simple compulsion, this “me,me,me” stuff. An artist simply has to make art. I
am not so sure our buddhist HAS to meditate. The buddhist seems to have a universe of choice,
the artist none. For the rest of us the truly sad state is so many folks compelled to make art are
really crumby. The rule says an artist must make art. There is no quality clause.
So next time, my enlightened friends, you see an artist rambling on at a million miles a minute
about his or her wonderful art or some whacked concept or even how they have to sling burgers
instead of make art...be compassionate..