Choosing Not to Render

Jessica was always the better artist. I used to think this was weird because my mom would get commissioned to do murals and sets and costumes for church and local high schools. So why was Jessica better at art than me? Wasn’t this stuff genetic?

By high school, Jessica’s paintings and drawings were winning awards. She was included in this regional young artists show called “Wunderkind,” and her work was shown off in galleries. I’d go to see them and read the artist statements, by her and the others. It was the first time I seriously thought about art – what it was and what the people thought who made it.

She could render pretty much anything. It became a kind of parlor trick in church vans and on family road trips; Jessica would have a pad of paper and a pen (She drew in pen!) and people would call out different requests of things, and she’d draw them from memory. Everybody knew she would grow up to be an artist.

Jessica got into an elite fashion school in New York, attended for two years, quit, and hasn’t done much art in the five years since.
Jessica in art school
She doesn’t want to be an artist, not as a job – she doesn’t like the solitude of it or the pressure to produce (and produce without spontaneous inspiration). Art makes her tired; she can’t do it all day. And, she says, there’s a difference between being good at something and being passionate about it.

She’s been talking a lot about feminism and social justice. “I could sift through boring documents all day and be excited about it if I was working towards social change,” she told me. She only wants to do art some of the time, when something particularly inspires her.
Jessica graduating with a degree in English
What it makes me think about is what we’re all supposed to be doing with our lives. Is Jessica, with her wild individualism, robbing the public good the use of her artistic services? Do we owe it to the wider community to do what we’re good at and leave our passions to the side? (I have discovered that I have a rare and refined skill at pushing paperwork, which I would happily drop. But, I suppose, there is a lot of paperwork out there and somebody has to do it.)

And what’s even worse is that some of us (Jessica and I included) are challenge junkies. Part of the allure of the things we are passionate about is their difficulty. It’s in the knowledge that we will be able to put our full efforts into them, and then maybe only scrape by.  It makes us dreamers of possibility and, I suspect, somewhat delusional. I wonder about it.

The artwork that Jessica did last was drawings on her notes during one of her favorite Lit classes. It was inspired by the lecture, the discussion, and the spectacle of the Victorians. (She took a picture of one of the spreads, and I wanted to make sure that people saw it.) She'll do more art in the future, when she's inspired to; it's just that she won't do art as an occupation. Everyone knows that the president isn't required to paint.


What Is It I'm Supposed to Feel?

My coworker came and sat with me at my desk, today. One wall of my cube is made of windows looking out on an unfettered view of Lake Michigan, four panels of water, horizon, and sky. She looked out at the lake and said, “What is it I’m supposed to feel? Is it peaceful?” The fluorescent lights were on overhead. The heater rattled. She chuckled. “I feel nothing.”


How We Use Art

I talked a little bit on my Call Me Maybe post about what makes something art, not that I was definitive at all; it's something that has been debated about for awhile.

Shakespeare wrote for a paycheck - for crowds of   common people, tomatoes at the ready, standing in an outdoor theater on the outskirts of London. He made no attempt for his work to be kept in printed form.

The impressionists were considered a bit nuts when they were first doing their large brushstrokes and multi-colored haystacks. They were pushing the limits of what people considered respectable painting. 

It wasn't until a few white musicians started playing the blues for that music to be acceptable fodder for white audiences, and it wasn't until then, of course, that it could be considered art. 

Art is a dear category to which one's work enters with much scrutiny (well, sometimes), and one which contains many of our heroes, our elites, the people we'd like to show off to the aliens. It seems to matter to us, whether it be in deciding what to teach in schools or who to put on the "Top Ten Albums of the Year" lists. In regards to this question, what I've been considering, lately, is not what internal qualities art might require, but instead how we, the audience, use art. (Because that necessarily influences how we evaluate it.)

So, on my yellow note pad, I've made a word cluster and color coded it.

1. Brown: for the Basest of Reasons - a.k.a Gaining Social Currency and/or Money

Money is an inconsistent indicator for what most people will agree is art. On the one hand, there are works in museums that, regardless of whether or not a particular viewer prefers them, he knows are art because there is a fatty price tag attached to them. On the other hand, Jodi Picoult is making a bundle of money on her books, and yet, I haven't run into many people who consider what she's doing art. In fact, "selling out", making more money on your craft can lead many people to believe a musician or artist is sacrificing their art for the sake of commerce. On a third hand, an amateur artist has much less chance of being taken seriously than does someone who actually gets paid. At any rate, it is certainly true that some people use art to make money: the artists themselves, the networks, the people producing it. Art is a business or at least has one attached.

Even those of us who are not making hard cash on art, use it for our own personal gains. It's my opinion that, in music specifically, a reason that some folks save their high praise for bands that are less well known is that we have so many bands available to us - it's a timely process to cull music from all that. Those who are willing to put in the work have a certain amount of social currency for doing so. They can set you up with the good music you've never heard of but that might come up later and you'd be so embarrassed if you were unfamiliar with it. Well-known music is much less valuable to the culler of bands.

2. Green: Mood Augmentation

We use art to feel more alive, to feel together, to get pumped up, to feel we're in the right. I'm thinking of Jock Jams before basketball games or running mixes played over headphones. We use it to feel more in love; we use it to feel justified about our sadness in breaking up. It supports our dark views on the world; it supports our bright views on the world. It gets the party started... or the movie night... or, you know, the gallery viewing. We use art to support the conviction that there is meaning to human life, that narrative exists. We use art to augment the collective mood; we use it to worship. We use art to deepen our experience, to help us understand it, and to communicate about it with or spread it to others.

3. Pink: Mood Alteration

Art is there as a distraction, an escape, a chance to get perspective on our situation, it's a way to know what it's like to be someone else. Watching Planet Earth happens to be the best remedy in times of things being the worst. It doesn't sugar coat reality, the wolf needs to kill the baby elk in order to survive, but the futile running of the elk for its life is awful to watch. It's like, "Yeah, this show gets me. I feel that." And at the same time it shows such an array of beauty that it's helped me to see and feel that there are bigger things beyond my own troubles.

Then there's the fact that each of us, individually, is never destined to leave our own skins. We'll never get the experience of literally seeing anything through somebody else's eyes, and we take ourselves everywhere. Art gives us the chance to escape a little bit from ourselves; it gives us a little glimpse of what it might be like to be outside, a way to sort of triangulate our experience with that of others.

4. Orange: To Connect with Others

There's an Adrienne Rich poem, Dedications, that starts out, "I know you are reading this poem". It made me think about what relationship an artist can have to his or her audience. Rich, who died on March 27th of last year, could know very little about me, her reader, but she writes a whole poem about what she does know. She does a lot of exploring the wreckage of what we have to work with. It's not lost on her that she can know something, have some connection with the people for whom she writes.

We, the audience, get to know a lot more about our artists. We get to hear their voices, know what they're capable of, and watch things get framed by their perspective. We get to relate to their characters, hate their characters, imagine ourselves within the universe they've created. We get to connect with some part of them, their perspectives, their imaginations, their societies. Being recently removed from a tight-knit community, I've wondered, midst the withdrawals, if art can be enough of a connection for me, enough of an access to a community. (My working theory is that it probably isn't. But it is, by all means, worth a shot.) And what I want most for my writing, what I want in my pursuit to BECOME AN ARTIST*, is to connect to other people, to help keep loneliness a little more at bay, to make their lives - cushy American lives - a little bit better.

I found the crux of this use, the use of art to connect people, last night at a friend's dinner party. I was talking to a woman in school to be an art therapist. She was saying that an advantage of being an "art" therapist as opposed to a music therapist or a dance and movement therapist is the flexibility that it offers. For her patients that don't have the fine motor skills to hold drawing or painting materials, she can incorporate music, acting, or motion. And for those, especially elderly patients, who have near-total mobility impairment, she can have a conversation with and treat the session as more of a performance piece. In this way, art is used to connect, to draw out, and it shows the progression and the point at which performance art is a conversation and a conversation, art.

*I'm not yelling at you; I'm just a little stressed about it.


2013 Will Be Great

I went to the opera a couple of weeks ago. It was my first opera experience, and I bought the tickets because they were cheap, the thing was in English (which I prefer), and because on camping trips as a kid, Lindsay and I would test out our "opera" voices in campground bathrooms. I remember that being amusing, and I thought maybe the real opera would be amusing as well. It's not like one could ever take people who sang like that seriously.

The opera, Grapes of Wrath, was three hours long and had two intermissions. It went by faster than The Hobbit, the movie. I realized at the first intermission that I was liking it - although, like isn't quite right because Steinbeck's story repeatedly smacks you in the face until you have no memory of happiness or hope, but I was certainly engaged. I was having a new kind of entertainment experience.

(The storyline is very grabbing, but I think it was the music that brought me to this next level of experience. I'm not big into musicals because the transitions between the singing and the speaking I find jarring - I get pulled out of the story. And then in movies, music oftentimes gets laid over a scene and is too obviously there in the director's attempt to manipulate my emotions. It annoys me. But when everything is sung, the music and the narrative are not separate from each other, and there are no transitions in and out of the singing. I stopped noticing it was music even while the music kept doing its heart-swelling stuff. It kept impacting me, but I had lost the detached awareness of it.)

And with that, I have felt motivated to try other new things. I've decided to only drink beer from Midwestern breweries for a while, the beer from Colorado and the pacific northwest being delicious but familiar.

There's such great new stuff to try. There's new music in 2013 by Waxahatchee, Kacey Musgraves, Youth Lagoon, Atoms for Peace, David Bowie, Joy Formidable, and that's just off the top of my head. Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing comes out in June. Doctor Who starts back up at the end of this month. There's a new Tomb Raider for Xbox!

I want to go to the theater - the Goodman and Steppenwolf; I want to go to a burlesque, Gorilla Tango. I might buy new clothes! (at least underwear because I need some)

Mitch and I are going to Sweden and Norway this year. We might run half marathons. I want to ride my bike across the USA with my parents, go to Africa to pet lions with Lindsay (show her my newly informed bathroom aria), and become an astronaut. Maybe I'll try switching genders. New stuff is great, and so, I predict, is 2013.



Tonight, while I was sitting listening to sad bedroom rock and reading Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Mitch interrupted me by coming home toting a ticket. The second one we've gotten this month for expired tabs. Tabs, in theory, should be great. I'm used to them showing up in the mail in their important little envelope and with their helpful instructions. They're actually just brightly colored stickers - sort of like the ones you'd wear stuck to your shirt in preschool - that you affix to your license plate. Shouldn't be that bad.

Except when you don't get them in the mail because you're supposed to get something called "an emissions test", and you can't get so-called emissions test because the car won't start most of the time because it's cold and the starter's going out. And you have to wait for it to be sunny - because then it's warm enough and the car will start - to take it to the mechanic to get the starter fixed. And it's only sunny on Sundays! They're closed on Sundays. And when all this happens, you just automatically have to start paying the government money because they've found you out: you're terrible at being an adult. You're, like, a complete adult fraud!

It's obvious because you don't have the correct brightly-colored stickers.


Ghost Story

So Larry should have stopped drinking, and popping pills, and living alone. He sits – well, sat – in the cube next to mine… and, he was a pretty regular guy. Regular in the sense that he was 53 and took horrible care of himself, ate a lot of Lean Pockets – a lot of Lean Pockets – and put the minimum effort  into his work. Maybe he was a little subpar for “regular,” but I’d like to think he wasn’t too far off.

We’d have regular movie nights at his house, cardboard Lean Pocket sleeves would be everywhere. I’d ask him, “Larry, you going to get yourself a wife? Somebody to clean up all this junk?” He didn’t like that joke. He might have been gay. Kept to himself for the most part, was very private about things, even though he let me come over to his house, and all. He seemed very unhappy… so I guess he must have been.

He used to tell me, this was a while back, that in a couple of years he was going to go to Hollywood. He was going to write “screenplays”. I told him he’d be better off just getting himself a nice woman and settling down here. I mean, he has a nice job, doesn’t have to work too hard. And we got that color festival in the spring – it’s something I can always look forward to. He said “No.” He was planning on saving up for a couple of years, taking advantage of the low rent we got around here and the lack of distractions so he could focus on developing his “craft.” Crafts, in my understanding, were stuff made by old ladies.

I myself never had time to find a woman. But it’s suited me nicely, and I figure I’ll get around to it, someday. A nice lady will come into my life eventually. I go to Karaoke night from time to time; it’ll happen to it sooner or later. I’ve got time. Not in a hurry. Don’t really think about it, much.

We have windows in our cubes of a little stream outside. I’d ask Larry why he wants to go to Hollywood, a city with a lot of pollution and people. You’d miss out on the nice quiet around here, I’d tell him. And anyway, I don’t know why he needed to be a writer. Enough stuff is written already. And I was okay with watching just old movies together. He kept on insisting we see the new ones, ones that were getting awards and stuff. I don’t really need new things, but I could tell he was unhappy, and sometimes he’d get really excited and say, “Did you see how he did that? That is why I want to be a writer.” So I said it was okay if we kept watching the new stuff.

We worked in cubes next to each other for ten years. He never brought any personal stuff into the office at all, no pictures or anything, I mean. A lot of people with families would have pictures of their kids, and he didn’t have any kids. Neither do I, but I brought in old calendar photos, like of barns, and put them up on my cube walls. Shouldn’t only be family people that get to look at something makes them happy. (I look at the one from last February the most right now. Bright red peeking out from all that white snow and the trees in front of it just a bunch of black sticks.) But Larry never had anything up in there. There wasn’t really anything to clean up when he died.

I was a little happy for him when he ended up dying. He didn’t get involved with anything around here, didn’t know anybody personally, and even the two of us were barely friends. Just the two resident bachelors of the place; that’s all we had in common, really. I thought it would be a relief for him to be able to stop wanting things for himself that weren’t readily available. I felt down, then, when he kept showing up to work. It’s like his brain and his body got divorced, somehow. And even though his brain wanted to go to Hollywood for so long, and become a writer, his body just wouldn’t have any of it. None of the getting up and changing bit. I suppose his body is in the ground now, somewhere. So maybe it’s his soul that’s tied to this place. His soul that got lodged here.

I had to tell my boss, “Larry’s here.” My boss didn’t care too much. “He bothering anybody?” my boss asked. “No,” I said, “just logging orders and running reports on his computer like always.” People around here are pretty relaxed; they don’t mind Larry being a ghost. He leaves his Lean Pockets in the microwave, though, sometimes. There have been some angry post-its in the break room. My boss figures all the better if Larry’s a ghost, because he doesn’t have to pay him anymore, and training new people is always so tiresome…