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The “rag and bone shop” barn studio of my (nearly) lifelong friend, artist George Wingate. Our conversations here and in other venues over the last 40 years have been some of my favorites.

My friend Robert Hanlon recently wrote me and said, “You are an expensive friend: you make me buy books!” Sorry Robert, but here’s another one I know you are going to want to read and mark up as your own. It’s a fortunate thing you are so good at selling your art.

Between Artists: Twelve contemporary American artists interview twelve contemporary American artists is a simple idea but oh so valuable. Reading these artists conversing with other artists (who are, in most cases, already good friends) is a bit like listening to really good mechanics talk shop with other really good mechanics—a lot of under the hood chatter, sharing of tips and the undefended discussion of the practical as well as the intuitive. In these conversations both the art and the craft of a body of work are worthy topics. Of course some exchanges are more resonant with me (I will be sharing some highlights later from my favorite, Chuck Close interviewing his graduate school buddy Vija Celmins) but all in all this is a volume I’ll be referring to many times in the future.

As a teaser, here’s a few lines from the introduction, written by the inveterate trickster king Dave Hickey:

The speakers in these interviews are saddled with the tragi-comic injunction to talk about that which they cannot: their art—to discuss that practice, which, were it explicable, they should not be pursuing, to explain those objects which, had they known what they were making, they almost certainly should not have made. Thus, Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox is applicable here. “The fox knows many little things,” Berlin explains, “the hedghog knows one big thing,” and artists, as artists, are almost always hedgehogs. They know one big thing, the thing that drives the engine, that perpetually eludes articulation. So what we have here, between these covers, is the conversation of hedgehogs playing at being foxes. We do not get that one big thing, nor could we expect it. But we do get the atmosphere, the filigree of little things, of accident and incident, of nuance and desire, that surrounds the enormous absence that the work of art must, necessarily, fill in our lived experience.

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Grand master for a lifetime: Henri Matisse, photographed by Man Ray

The nautre of art making over the lifetime has been a recurring theme for me these last few months. Spurred in many ways by the publication of Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, by Nicholas Delbanco (which wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped), my curiosity about what makes an artist able to continue working has only deepened. Answers are few as to why some continue on and others do not, but the question is a potent one.

Here are a few highlights from Delbanco’s book:

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Why should it seem so difficult to substitute endurance for enthusiasm, to temper ambition with artistry;what are, in Cyril Connolly’s fine phrase, the “enemies of promise” that keep us from achieving the best work at the end?

***
To know, I mean truly know—as might a basketball player or ballerina—that the best is behind you is to turn to drink or diterhing or to an oven or gun. A few modest and decorous authors—think of E. M. Forster and Eudora Welty—withdraw into silence and declare at a certain point in their career, Enough’s enough. But most of us go on and on, unable or unwilling to break a lifetime’s habit of wrangling with language, and happy to be allowed, even encouraged, to do so. Most of us, when asked which book has been our favorite, will answer (hopefully, wishfully, truthfully), “The next.”

***
For a group of ceaseless strivers (often miserable, always doubt-hounded as they search) the motto is Cezanne’s: “I seek in painting.” Whereas Picasso announced, “I don’t seek; I find.”

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Of the aging artists, Donald Hall has this to say: When I saw Moore the year he turned eighty, I asked him, in a jocular manner I hope, to tell me the secret of life. Without jocularity he answered that the secret was to devote yourself entirely to one end, to one goal, and to work every day toward this goal, to put all your energy and imagination into the one endeavor. The only necessity was that this goal by unattainable.”

***
As Anthony Storr observes, in “Solitude: A Return to Self”:

One of the most interesting features of any creative person’s work is how it changes over time. No highly creative person is ever satisfied with what he has done. Often indeed, after completing a project, he experiences a period of depression from which he is only relieved by embarking on the next piece of work. It seems to me that the capacity to create provides an irreplaceable opportunity for personal development in isolation. Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent, and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than his relationships with others.

The last quote, from Storr’s book, is a rich one. It is also right in keeping with my personal predilection for hermitizing, for being defined more by my work than anything else. And it was provocative enough to get me to read Storr’s book next.


New York Studio Gallery (Photo: NYSG)

My Facebook friend Agni Zotis sent me a notice for this event, the Unaffordable Art Fair. Here’s the copy from the event’s FB page:

Several years ago, my friend took a collector to Julian Schnabel’s home in Montauk with $10,000 ready to spend right there and then. Mr. Schnabel responded, “What do you want from me? A postage stamp?” I respected that man, that larger-than-life artist ever since.
– de la Haba

The arts are a major economic driver, for everyone except artists. Artists are increasingly being called upon to support the economy by lowballing our work or with outright contributions for which we cannot claim fair market value. The benefit of exposure that is said to accompany these sacrifices is a myth; unique objects are not good products with which to generate buzz and, quite frankly, most professional artists refuse to participate in all but the most worthy causes due to unfavorable tax laws. We, the artists of the Unaffordable Art Fair, ask- How do you value art? Remember: you get what you pay for.

Get the facts:

“Artists now play a huge but mostly unrecognized role in the new American economy of the 21st century” – NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. http://www.nea.gov/news/news08/ArtistsinWorkforce.html

“Orthodox micro-economists dismiss concern for artists’ relatively low earnings given their high educational attainment as simply a case of market over-supply…. But vis-à-vis stimulus, artists turn economic orthodoxy on its head. Compared to most other groups of workers, artists are more apt to spend what they make rapidly and on other goods and services in the local economy…. [and] artists enhance product design, employee relations and marketing in many industries.”
http://www.giarts.org/article/economics-arts-artists-and-culture

“Section 1221(3) of the Code explicitly provides that artistic property is not a capital asset and, thus, not entitled to long-term capital gain treatment.” (Meaning artists cannot deduct fair market value for contributions of artwork.)
http://www.aamd.org/advocacy/tax_rec.php

“Artists’ personal characteristics, in particular their average educational attainment, more closely resemble those of other professionals than other occupational groups. However, artists tend to experience labor market outcomes more adverse than those of most other professionals.”
http://www.arts.gov/research/Researcharts/Summary40.html

“Most artists have relatively low incomes, even though the majority (62%) are college graduates and hold at least one additional paying job.” (1/3 reporting under 40k; another 1/3 reporting under 20k.)
http://eleetmusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Selected-Findings-Artists-and-the-Recession-Survey-2009.pdf

So if you are in or near New York City this weekend, might be worth a visit:

THE UNAFFORDABLE ART FAIR
Coordinators: Gregory de la Haba & CJ Nye

HOURS: Friday, noon – 8:00pm & Saturday, noon – 6:00pm
COCKTAIL PARTY: Saturday, 6:00 – 9:00pm

New York Studio Gallery
http://www.nystudiogallery.com
154 Stanton Street at the corner of Suffolk, 2nd floor
New York, NY 10002
(212) 627-3276
Subways: F, M, J, Z to Essex St-Delancey, V to 2nd Ave-Lower East Side

PARTICIPATING ARTISTS:

Agni Zotis, Bernard Klevickas, Billy the Artist, Carrie Villines, CJ Nye, Dalton Portella, Elizabeth Hendler, Erik Pye, Francesco Masci, Gregory de la Haba, Jim D’Amato, Jsun Laliberte, Juan Hinojosa, Lee Wells, Lina Puerta, Mat Szwajkos, Peter Fox, Piotr Shtyk, Robert Preston, Stephen Madden, Stephen Woods, Tara Misenheimer

Facebook page link here.


Oaks tree in Cumbria

Alain de Botton writes both fiction and nonfiction. His books are engaging, clever and just downright fun. Although I’ve never read any of his three novels (not sure why that is) I have every one of his nonfiction publications. His titles make picking up his books irresistible (IMHO), with names like How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety, and The Architecture of Happiness.

In keeping with this very practical approach to life and its complexities, Alain and some colleagues recently started The School of Life.

From his website:

The School has a passionate belief in making learning relevant – and so runs courses in the important questions of everyday life. Whereas most colleges and universities chop up learning into abstract categories (‘agrarian history’ ‘the 18th century English novel’), The School of Life titles its courses according to things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families. An evening or weekend on one of its courses is likely to be spent reflecting on such matters as your moral responsibilities to an ex partner or how to resolve a career crisis.

Life done fun.

His latest book is The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Highlighting 10 different professions ranging from care ship spotting to rocket science to biscuit manufacturing, De Botton observes the pleasures and the pains of people doing their jobs. One of his subjects is Stephen Taylor, a representational artist who lives in Colchester U.K. Seen through De Botton’s non-artist eye, Taylor’s process takes on a mystical quality. Although I do not spend long hours pinioned beneath a 250 year old tree (one of Taylor’s favorite subjects to paint) with my canvas and oils, De Botton’s description feels apropos to my work as well as many other artists I know. Whether representational or not, the intention seems to be shared.

As the night wears on, the human world gradually recedes, leaving Taylor alone with insects and the play of moonlight on wheat. He sees his art as born out of, and hoping to inspire, reverence for all that is unlike us and exceeds us. He never wanted to paint the work of people, their factories, streets, or electricity circuit boards. His attention was drawn to that which, because we did not build it, we must make a particular effort of empathy and imagination to understand, to a natural environment that is uniquely unpredictable, for it is literally unforeseen. His devoted look at a tree is an attempt to push the self aside and recognise all that is other and beyond us—starting with this ancient looking hulk in the gloom, with its erratic branches, thousands of stiff little leaves and remarkable lack of any direct connection to the human drama.

To see Stephen Taylor’s work, click here.

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