Sunday, November 25, 2007

I Am Not Talented

Just returned from a trip to Fort Worth, visiting my family, and incidentally my archive of Early Works, which lives in a storage unit down by the railroad tracks. The verdict is in: as a feckless young art student, I had No Talent. Yack. I mean it.

Mom and my aunt Prudence were splendid; they helped me haul the piles of cracked, crumbling, dusty, dirty, decaying artworks out of their tomb, unroll them, take vile snapshots with a digital camera for the Historical Record, and then pile them into a dumpster. I didn't throw away everything, just the extreme monstrosities that made me cringe in horror and shame. Actually I even saved one or two of those, as a reminder. They remind me, principally, to be kind.

Because I can't begin to describe how bad those student paintings were. Suffice it to say that I had no notion of color, composition, light, surface, paint quality, line quality, or conceptual content. My student work had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except for a certain cheerful willingness to keep flinging paint around, in the absence of all external evidence that this process would lead somewhere fruitful.

Funnily enough, I don't find this revelation of my profound untalentedness to be the slightest bit depressing. Instead I feel an expansive sense of peace, liberation and connection. It's difficult to describe.

I'm not one of those PC egalitarians who thinks that talent is an elitist myth. It does exist, and I've seen it. There are people born with grace, skill, vision, and a discipline which expresses itself ceaselessly and without apparent effort; it is if they spent a thousand lifetimes in intensive practice and study, and were born into this body already possessing a mastery of medium and profundity of expression.

I repeat; I am not one of those people. I started off as a committed painter with nothing more than an overpowering sense that there were things I needed to learn through painting, and things I needed to express. I had only the vaguest idea what those things were; if I'd known, I wouldn't have needed to paint. I waged epic battles in defense of my right to be callow, immature and clueless. Anything I may have achieved in the way of worthwhile art has been done the hard way, through trial and error, discipline and practice, and sheer irrational pigheadedness.

Why does this give me such a sense of peace? Well, for starters, I'm no longer the slightest bit upset with all those faculties, arts organizations, committees, galleries and philanthropists who turned down my persistent applications. They were obviously people of taste who knew exactly what they were doing, and I commend them. I didn't need or deserve their help; any assistance from then would have only fed my unrealistically inflated notions of self.

Furthermore, I feel a warm sense of connection with the vast majority of humanity, also not born with the facility of a Mozart or a Barry McGee. Being perceived as 'gifted' sets you apart; it is isolating and chill. Much is expected of a talented person--success is regarded as automatic, and failure is received with exasperated contempt. Talented people are not judged by the standards of ordinary mortals. They are not expected to be kind, mature, ethical or friendly; if they are any of those things, it's a bonus.

When I expected myself to be talented, I also regarded myself with exasperated contempt, as a separate creature from the rest of humanity, where the usual standards did not apply. This was not a comfortable state of mind in which to exist.

Now I look back and think--well, I'm not talented. I just worked really hard. I worked to earn money, and practiced hard, and studied hard, and thought hard. I improved, really really slowly. I made a lot of messes and wasted a lot of time and money on dead ends, and picked out the one small thing I learned from that dead end and used it later on, to better effect. Now when I look around at how many people have paid good money to hang one of my paintings on their wall, and continue to enjoy it, and don't regret the money spent, I'm very proud of that. It was never a given that this would happen.

Now I look at my future, and think that I will continue doing this, without the burden of thinking that it has to be something special. If I create something beautiful, that will be a joy. If I don't, that's to be expected. I am not talented.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


I took a short studio moratorium while hanging the Blogger Show; it seems to be true that I can only flex my creative muscles in one or two directions at once, and hanging shows is like painting and sculpting using other people's artwork as your raw materials. It's a process I really enjoy, and know that I'm good at. Moreover, I've known many many artists who are not good at it at all, and thus I have no problem with unapologetically taking charge of the process. A bad hanging or lighting job can make a great piece look mediocre, and a mediocre piece look like garbage; a good hanging job, or just lots of clean white walls and good light, can make a mediocre piece look like it's in Chelsea. Oh, wait...

So, anyway, at the opening I had a good chat with Nancy Baker about the blatant sexism of the Art World at the highest levels, the levels where serious money changes hands. It is true, as Tracy Helgeson says, that there are tons of non-NYC galleries run by women, that show lots of women's work--largely work that is pretty, in a recognizable genre like landscape or still life, and breaks no new ground, artistically speaking. It is also true that women who paint like Nancy does have a very hard time selling work outside of NYC. Nancy told me that she has repeatedly been dumped by galleries, even when her work was selling well, and replaced by a good-looking young guy just out of art school. Big Money, and Chelsea dealers, seem to be interested in good-looking young men, and not much else.

This is the kind of thing that I prefer not to think about, for obvious reasons. But when I am forced to think of it, I don't expend much mental energy on getting angry. Instead, it forces me to consciously prioritize my life's goals--because, given that there are enormous obstacles in the way of my achieving even moderate worldly success, I haven't got any energy to waste. I need to remember what the ball is, and keep my eye on it.

So, in no particular order, here is my list of Lifelong Ambitions:

• Design a chapel, in collaboration with an architect (hopefully my brother-in-law, who is something of a genius) and a glassworker. It will be of stone, placed in a rural setting or on a large piece of forested property, with a stream bisecting it from back to front. It will include simple vaults, windows based on my mandala paintings, and lanterns suspended in arcs, parallel to the stream. (At least, these are my preliminary sketches.)

• Form connections with artists and other creative people (musicians, writers, dancers, performers, directors etc.) and work with them on collaborative projects that help extend our joint creative minds in genuinely new and effective ways.

• Have some influence on the way hospitals are designed and fitted out, to make then into genuinely healing environments, and not the nightmarish torture-zones that most of them currently are. (I can and will write an extensive treatise on this subject, soon.)

• Exhibit my work in serious professional galleries, where it gets the press and recognition that it deserves. (This may seem so obvious as to be tautological, but it needs to be stated.)

• Produce museum-quality work that extends the capacities of the human mind--perceptually, imaginatively, and spiritually.

• Create healing and meditative environments at every opportunity.

• Publish at least one book.

Maybe these goals are too general, but it's a working list. I am wary of setting my eye on specific targets that are all too easily shot down by forces beyond my control--i.e. 'I want a solo show at the Whitney by the time I'm thirty-five.' I am equally wary of putting too much weight on what might be called external factors--money, recognition, and fame. It has to be enough to for me to succeed on the terms where I have the most control, which are self-discipline, relationships, and the quality of the work itself.

My biggest enemy, and the biggest fear I have, is that despair over the world's indifference will make me lazy. It has done so many times in the past. My biggest challenge is to overcome my own negative tendencies.