Friday's post, "Doing it for love," touched on the difficult balance between making art and earning a living, and why we should be wary of allowing the latter to determine our self-worth -- particularly during a global pandemic when funds are drying up everywhere. But we must also be wary of valuing our work solely through other public marks of success: publications, exhibitions, praise from critics, etc., fine though all these things may be. As the world slows down in response to the pandemic, and the public side of our work is swept away (book launches postponed, concert tours cancelled, rehearsal stopped, galleries closed), what we are left with is the daily practice of art-making, and the personal value we find within it. Which is, I firmly believe, the most valuable thing of all.
Some years ago, I came across the following passage in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by the American abstract sculptor and color field artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004) -- who, despite major recognition in the form of museum shows and prestigious fellowships, still found it difficult to support herself and her three children through making art. Truitt wrestled with how to determine the worth of her work: was it by the praise she received from galleries and critics, or by her failure to make a sustainable living with it? She concluded that the answer was neither of these; the true measure of her work rested closer to home:
"I don't know why I seem to be able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don't even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I'm an artist, being an artist isn't so fancy because it's just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems more to it than that. It isn't 'just me.' A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.
"The 'just me' reaction was an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist; a life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories.
"The Renaissance focused this sole attention on the artist's individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists' egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma.
"It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one's self that is realistic. The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their work decisions.
"Sometime during the course of their development, artists have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.
"This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze."
Keeping a careful balance between our public selves and our private selves is important for everyone, I think, but vital for those of us in the Arts. Turn too far inward, and you may find yourself creating work that doesn't communicate with anyone else...which is, at very least, a lonely place to be. Turn too far outward to the gaze, the applause, the financial rewards of the marketplace, and you may lose connection to the vital spark that fuels your art, and your love of the practice of your craft. Creating art, like creating an artful life, is all about balance. About standing firmly in the center of the circle, and not tipping toward one extreme or another.
"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos," said the Nobel-Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow. "A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."
Indeed it does, as the strange new world of a global pandemic reminds us.
The photographs here were taken at Scorhill, a Bronze Age stone circle on the open moor past Chagford and Gidleigh. From its center, the sun balances and sets on the largest stone on Midsummer's Eve. Whatever else it may be, it's also a work of art, holding age, time, and stillness in an embrace of sky and granite.
Walking among the ancient stones, I thought about Gretel Ehrlich's words from The Solace of Open Spaces: "The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding."
Athough Truitt's art was very different from Ehrlich's, or mine, I think she'd agree.
As Howard and I turned to leave the stones, I spoke a prayer I learned long ago from the Diné (Navajo) people of my own country: Beauty above us. Beauty below us. Beauty in the four directions. May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.
All of us are artists as we create our lives, our families, our communities. All of us balance the conflicting demands of the marketplace and our deep, earth-centered selves. At Scorhill, the noise and flash of the consumer world disappears, and there is only this, granite and sky. There is only this, and it is enough.
May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.
Words: The quotes above are from Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Penguin, 1984), The Solace of Open Spaces (Penguin, 1986), and Conversations With Saul Bellow (University Press of Mississippi, 1994). All rights reserved by the authors. Two related posts: On fear of judgement, (about pernicious perfectionism), and a lovely piece on the Pale Rook blog about why you should stop apologising for your work.