Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Definition of Success

This week, along with the start of the Holiday Whirlwind, which has, in fact, included gingerbread houses, I had a wonderful visit from Rebecca Sullivan of Ember, and her boyfriend Paul. It's one of the virtues of living in New York, that even if you met someone more than five years ago, and hardly remember what they look like, they come visit you eventually. As long as they don't rip the sinks off the wall, or smoke indoors, they're welcome.

And now I have somewhere to stay, if I ever go to Wales.

It always amazes me when artists of any genre show no interest in, or knowledge of, other art forms. For me, every kind of art informs and enriches all the others. Not only do I find it fully possible to dance about architecture, I don't even understand why this might be construed as difficult. I'm not a musician, and I like it that way; music provides at least one source of pure inspiration and enjoyment, informing my work in the most direct way. I do not and cannot paint when I don't have music playing; sometimes I'll wake up with a start and realize that I have been staring at a canvas for 45 minutes without moving, simply because the CD ended.

I'm not one of those people who can literally hear colors and see music, but each set of vibrations appears to me to instruct all the others. Thus, at times I will put a piece of music on 'repeat' until I get the corresponding painting right, or make a painting about a poem. I am still looking for the right musician to collaborate with--once I met a cellist who would compose a piece, send it to a painter who would paint a painting about it, he would compose another piece about that, etc. This sounded like my ideal life. But he was a flake, so I'm looking for another cellist, with staying power this time.

And, now that I notice it, I have an occasional habit of accosting talented musicians in random night clubs, and befriending them, or at least introducing myself, buying a CD, and getting on their mailing lists. And even more occasionally, they end up crashing in my living room. What a privilege.

So while Rebecca was here, I subjected her to my favorite tracks off the CDs of all the other talented musicians I've harassed in the last few years, and she listened not only politely, but intently. I noticed that she seemed to be apprehending a new song as rapidly and comprehensively as I myself apprehend a new painting; she grasped all of the important elements before it was half over. It didn't matter whether she 'liked' it or not; she was just taking it in. And we talked about the creative process, and synesthesia, and she, like most of my other creative friends, promised to buy a painting of mine as soon as she could afford it. She looked at the paintings as intently as I listen to her music; she said, seriously, "You're a real artist."

Which took me aback.

I haven't been thinking of myself as an 'artist,' lately. Having fought so long and so hard to be one, I have realized that the fight was killing me, and decided to stop. Lately I have been taking one day at a time, and focussing literally on whether the floor is clean, and what the light is like, and--god help us--politics. And, if I am to be truly confessional, trying to figure out what to do with the voice that has been growing increasingly hard to ignore, over the last six months or so, the one that's making that keening sound, having to do with, horrors! nesting, and loneliness, and biological clocks.

Because the fact of the matter is, that at the point I hit that last nightmarish breakup, the nesting alarm was ringing full-tilt. I was taking bike rides through Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, and my limbic brain was screaming, "That one! That cozy, solid brick house with the Greek trim, the French windows, the front garden with roses and cobblestones! Mine! Now!"

Then the breakup pretty much took care of that. You don't 'nest' when you're in psychic intensive care. You exist, precariously; you make some art. You do your job and keep putting one foot in front of the other. In a way, it was something of a relief; it's not comfortable to be compulsively coveting other people's houses, all the freakin' time, particularly when the basic starter home in your area costs upwards of $1.2 mil. It's purely an unnecessary mental stress factor.

Now, I do not believe in trying to force things. I refuse to do the personal ad thing anymore. I refuse to sign up for some horrible new thing called 'speed dating.' I will not hang out at clubs, or go to singles parties, or let my friends try to set me up. I refuse, refuse, refuse. I will not do any more 'relationship-finding' activities that constitute, basically, job interviews. It goes against my spiritual philosophy, my practical experience, and my innate sense of decency and propriety. It's yukky and disgusting, and it doesn't work.

No, instead I'm practicing that mental and spiritual acrobatic trick called 'letting go, and letting God.' I'm the first to confess that I'm not doing it very well. I mope, I hide, I leave parties and shows and openings early, instead of brightly getting on out there and Meeting New People. I do whatever I feel like doing in the moment, carefully ditching anything that feels like an agenda.

Because trying to force it got me where I was before, and there's nothing worse than that, and I will NEVER DO THAT AGAIN.

So instead I try to see things in a larger perspective--that this is just one of those things that all people struggle with, that it's a process of 'tempering,' that I don't know how it will turn out, but it's a necessary strand in whatever lacy web my entire life is weaving. And that, on some level, in some way, someday, I will perhaps get some decent art out of it.

Which brings me to a recent Adam Gopnik essay about Jerry Shore, which I found profoundly touching, in its illustration of how a life can be a success, can be a work of art, despite all apparent external failure.
...Work suddenly became very hard to find, and his search for it was not helped by his drinking and depression. Friends say that he lost confidence, as can happen quickly to a man caught up in a confidence game.

Yet this was the moment when he gave himself over to a project that he may have begun sometime earlier, in the late seventies. He travelled through Manhattan and Queens, making large-scale, exquisitely printed color photographs of some of the most aesthetically unpersuasive streets in New York City. For the next ten years, until his death, he pursued this project, with a focus and self-discipline made all the more moving by his ever more distressed circumstances.

I have been thinking, lately, about how art and life cannot really be distinguished from one another. Thus, discussions about whether or not madness and depression are a help or a hindrance to the artist seem beside the point. Our circumstances--mental, spiritual, physical and emotional--are our palette. What each of us do with our given palette is unique, mysterious, and not subject to any lasting critical standards but our own internal ones.
The project, which seems to have begun as a kind of surcease from his commercial work—a way of recapturing some of the concerns and obsessions that had led him to New York and to art in the first place—soon became a substitute. It was all he did; given the number of images he left behind, he must have been out with his camera, hunting scenes and taking pictures, nearly every day until he died.
Jerry Shore died at fifty-nine, in a 'well of alcohol and isolation.' He only sold one photo during his lifetime. Yet in those photos, and in their preservation by a collector, in their tender observation by a sensitive writer, his life is shown to be a complete success; an articulated, honest, loving vision.

So I try not to judge myself for 'failing' at anything, whether it be art, relationships, finances, or All Three At Once, the way it has appeared to be for the last--oh, since I moved to New York, pretty much. I try not to judge anyone else, either. Instead I look for the Jerry Shore in me, and in everyone--the beautiful, unique, irreplaceable perspective that this person brings to the world, whether it's a way of prattling artlessly in a way which sets strangers at ease, a habit of noticing, a way of phrasing, a grace. These things count; in the long run, they're the only things which do.

If you look for failure, you'll always find it. When you look for success, you can usually find that, too.


Chris Rywalt said...

Except that the question of whether madness or depression are a hindrance is important unless you're just going to give up the stuggle.

It's clear that you don't think there is a struggle -- everything is "a necessary strand in whatever lacy web my entire life is weaving". Let go and let god and all that.

I'm not typing this in an effort to convince you to change your mind or to change how you are towards me. I'm typing this so you -- and anyone else following here -- can get an idea of how I see life.

It seems to me that Americans, in general, appear to take one of two views of the natural world.

The first view is that humans must tame the natural world, that our purpose on Earth -- if we have one -- is to have dominion over nature. All of human history, then, is a tale of the long effort to control and master the natural world, to wring from it its bounty and own its wealth for ourselves.

The second view is that Nature is a glorious whole, with every part performing its duty, like some vast glowing machine. All is one, and humans must find their place in nature and live in harmony, whereupon pain and strife will evaporate. Nature is an orderly system, an all-encompassing spirit, surrounding and nurturing everything and everyone, if only we can accept it.

One day it occurred to me that there are other views of the natural world. And the one I see all around me is this one: Life, all life, is a struggle. The universe is constantly trying to break you down. All of nature -- living and not -- is taking you apart, piece by piece, moment by moment. Every instant millions upon millions of tiny parts of you are dying to keep the rest of you alive for a few moments more, under attack by microbes, radiation, chemicals, parasites, fungi, and who knows what all else.

We cannot dominate nature; that's a battle we'll always lose. And if we acquiesce, we risk being eaten.

All there is, is struggle. The fight. The battle to continue as long as possible.

I'm not willing to give up. I want to fight. I can't just say, well, depression is a part of me, I must accept it, and however it will inform my art, thus it shall be. I have to say: What is this doing to me? Do I want it? How can I change it?

I will not let go and let god. I have no faith that there is any kind of god, and if there is, he'd better stay well away from me, because otherwise we're going to have WORDS.

Not very Zen of me, I know.

danonymous said...

Cute stuff....both of you. And of course, from my perspective, you are both right, and throw in a dozen more points of view and in my world view they would be right as well.....each for themselves as a self-contained cosmos called "a person". I love that no matter how great the personal struggles are, no matter how often they are in our lives, rarely does one die from them. This has led me to reappraise my view of some things.
Suffering....used to be something I abhorred and wanted to be as far away from as possible.....until it hit me that the way to what I wanted was through a road surrounded by ...well...suffering. And struggling...well....that ws what strengthened me for the next...uh...struggle. And at this point in my life, while I hate it, at the same time I create situations that perpetuate that struggle at an ever higher level for me just to see where it takes me and what I can do with it.
Failure is another word that has been ejected from my vocabulary.
There is a difference between failure and failing. Failure has a finality that says...dead end. Failing is part of a continuum and never a final result. So much of who I am has been built upon numerous failings that have nonetheless led to places I cherish.
It certainly seems to be an American phenomena to immediately judge results in the very short term. It ain't over till it's over that occurs at the end of one's life.
I applaud both of of you and myself and the myriad others who struggle with decision and indecision and circumstance and everything else and yet return again and an again to a particular pursuit and direction.
I have to say " who cares about the results?" even if I do.

Desert Cat said...

Thus, at times I will put a piece of music on 'repeat' until I get the corresponding painting right


I've done this, just because it seemed like the right thing to do, and was working. I wasn't aware that others did the same.

"Success" is one of those things that everyone seems to want, but surprisingly few people recognize when they have some measure of it. And when they do, it seems less...satisfactory than they may have expected.

I suspect that "success" (if there is such a thing) is in the journey and how you walk it.

For me, success would be reaching a point in time and space where there is no more need for struggle, striving, contending, no more strife, anxiety, anger, surrounded by natural beauty and abundance, and easy, un-pained relationship, sans demands and disappointments and recriminations.


There is no such on this earth. But I get little tastes of it here and there, glimpses of what it might be if only it could be.

And that will have to suffice.