Songs for the Struggling Artist

Artists with paint on their shoes

I am sitting in a cafe with a cappuccino, trying to write. I am fighting the usual fight, trying to find the thread I want to follow, the one that will give something back. I’m on the precipice of finding that thread when two young women come in and sit close by. They have loud voices and are happy to speak at volume despite the fact that they are the only people talking. Which is fine, it just means I can’t help but listen.
One of them is a visual artist, a painter, it seems, though she does not sound like a painter. She sounds like a stockbroker’s girlfriend to me. She’s got a sorority girl’s cadence and tone. She’s enthusiastic and, it sounds like, very successful as an artist. She’s organizing high profile events. She’s been interviewed by many publications. I hear her tell the woman who’ll be producing/curating her next show that she can basically guarantee 200-300 people at anything she does. She says this is because she brings a ton of press.
In her mouth, phrases like “post impressionist” and “lyrical abstraction” sound odd but it’s clear she has an MFA and is a darling of the art scene. Which is great for her, I’m sure, and probably her work is wonderful, but I confess that hearing this woman talk makes me long for the people I think of as “real artists.” I can’t help constructing a narrative in which this woman was raised in a privileged environment, encouraged with materials and lessons and able to pay every penny of her exorbitant MFA tuition and now, she’s a bona fide high profile artist, ooh Mama!
I’m hearing her talk and I’m longing for the painters I knew in the past – the ones with paint on their shoes, with their hands stained, with their hats pulled down over their eyes to shield them from the brightness or darkness of the world. It makes me long for a painter I knew who put a paintbrush through his canvas several times from the frustration of trying to make a better painting. That painter took on an administrative job to pay his bills. Then, about 7 years ago, killed himself. I’m not saying he killed himself because he worked in an office or even because he was a frustrated artist. That would be gross over-simplification of a complicated situation, but I miss that painter. And the painters of his school.
This woman whose voice is echoing through the cafe, though clearly passionate about her work, doesn’t strike me as someone who would ever have paint on her shoes. She’s a publicity machine. She’s a good hostess, a creator of events. It seems likely to me that she paid her own way through the channels of the art world.
And I fear that this is the art world now. That there are no more painters with paint on their shoes in the places compensate them.
And I extrapolate and fear the it is the same in every art now. The ones who are thriving are ones who could afford to bring the party, who could spend all their time painting/taking class/dancing/singing and never had to make a living on the side.
It felt like a warning, this eavesdropped conversation. It said, if something isn’t done, all artists will be like this. Art will be (or is it already?) for the rich, the privileged, the endowed.


2 Comments so far
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I’m torn between agreeing with you about the commercialization of the art world, and wondering if you’re judging this woman based on your own preconceptions, and 19th-century-Romantic ideas of what an artist is supposed to be. It would be interesting to see her work; maybe it’s bland and commercial, but maybe it’s different from what you would expect. I once worked in an office with a blond, Vanna White type–it took me a while to realize that she was actually smart, because I’ve been so conditioned to think a certain way about people who look/sound like her.

Comment by harriedcostumer

Funny. Yeah. I was totally judging her and made up all kinds of nonsense about her that probably has nothing to do with her or her art. If I met her, rather than just being plunked down next to her, I might have found her fascinating and I could have actually heard about her art, rather than her publicity machine. And I love that you commented on this – because I am totally torn about whether to keep this particular post up or take it down, for the very reason you mention. I’m not sure I stand behind myself 100% on this one. I’ve let it remain mostly because that flurry of judgements that whizzed through as I listened to her talk led me to an apocalyptic flight of fantasy where every artist was like her and there was no more room for mess. And I am interested in room for mess. But I certainly don’t believe an artist has to be a mess (or crazy or broke or all that old Romantic stuff) even if I sometimes miss the ones that were.

Comment by erainbowd

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