How To Be An Artist

I’ve just finished writer David Rakoff’s remarkably witty, insightful, poignant, snarky but never mean collection of essays, Half Empty. What a joy to read.

From a piece he calls, Isn’t It Romantic — written in reaction to seeing the Broadway show, Rent — he muses on what it takes to be an artist:

“..hanging out does not make one an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV — I hate to say it — none of these make one an artist. They can help, but just as being gay does not make one witty…the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out: a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.” 

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen Rent and probably never will; even if, and, perhaps, because, Rent has been hyped as a modern day interpretation of Puccini’s La Boheme. 

I mistrust — hate may be more accurate — hype.

Compare any part of La Boheme, if you will, to the following lyrics from the title song of Rent:

“Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent”

(Where, oh where, is Stephen Sondheim when we need him?)

From those lyrics alone, I don’t think it’s outrageous to assume that:

Rent is to La Boheme —

— as Thomas Kinkade

is to Christian Boltanski .

Which, quite possibly, begs the question: What is art?

I can tell you what art is not. It is not for individuals that:

1) see something on a wall/floor/ceiling of an art gallery that appears to have taken a really long time to do in the eyes of this viewer (as in: “wow, it looks just like a photograph!”) and continues to judge all art by that bizarre standard;

2) Joe-Schmo-tourist full of unsolicited opinions, who has never taken a single art history course in his life and probably never will and goes to a gallery only while on vacation and only because his wife has forced him into it —  all of which does not keep him from opining, loudly: “They call that art? I could do that!”

3) are the 1%, the billionaires, who have driven up the price of art to obscene heights, who buy art as an investment only, so they can flaunt their wealth to their fellow billionaires (who fully expect them to — otherwise why spend all that money?) Those who buy art at auctions or private gallery showings, and only on the advice of their art consultant since the bottom line is what they care about most (the 1%, the unmistakeable presence in high-end galleries, are easy to spot: those of the expensively cut snowy hair, designer-ly suited up, scribbling notes on little pads next to their too young for botox but botoxed nevertheless trophy wife, whose sole job is to fan herself with the price list and wear stiletto heals and Prada and shun us lowly artists who show up at the gallery – i.e., invade their privileged space — because we would like to see the work).

We all know the rich are getting richer (and if the artist is dead, so much the better because they get to keep all the money at auction that the gallery doesn’t get). Sure-bet, top drawer artists are also getting richer in an inverse proportion to genuine values and a genuine love of art. We’re supposed to admire — revere, suck up to — wealthy collectors who don’t have to cajones to buy a work of art without getting a second opinion.

In yesterday’s paper, there was an article on artist John Baldessari (big time CA artist, rich guy, in case you don’t know) who recently erected a billboard overlooking Manhattan’s High Line, a billboard that brandishes a $100,000.00 bill as its message.

Apparently, very few of that particular denomination of currency have been issued over the years. Accordingly, the billboard has been touted as some kind of “protest” by the Baldessari hype machine. That’s a laugh.

A John Baldessari work recently sold at auction for $280,000. I suppose he’s depressed because it wasn’t $2 million. I’ll bet he’s crying in his pillow this very minute.

Meanwhile, the rest of us artists are doing our own work whenever we can because we love what we do. We make art because we can’t not make art. We don’t need millions. That’s what day-jobs are for. That’s how we pay the rent.

What we would like is some recognition and a little more respect.

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