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On being an artist On being an artist
by Alexander Mikhaylov
2009-01-06 11:04:49
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I started to write at the age of nine, which was not a rare activity for a kid of my age – many of my peers did the same thing. We were born in a culture where writing poetry and short stories were considered a normal pastime, a game that wore off after a few years, until the very idea to write completely disappeared, very much like baby teeth or partiality to sticky sweets.  Anyone who could write wrote something. In this respect, we remained very much products of the nineteenth century.

I had never taken my attempts seriously until it occurred to me that I could perhaps become a writer. I sent out a few poems to a couple of ‘teenage’ magazines, was turned down, and then tried it once more with the same result. Gradually, as I grew up, my itch to write quieted down, or rather it was replaced by an irresistible urge to play jazz, then to paint. I picked up a pen again many years later, although under the different circumstances and I have been doing it ever since.

Anyone who has ever attempted to write seriously, or does it still, knows that writing exposes an author to many revelations, some of them of a personal nature. I had a handful of those but one particular revelation of mine surprised me immensely. It was very simple indeed: once I learned to express myself, I began to realize that I should have never picked up music, fine art or writing at all. Why then did I do it?

I can name a variety of reasons, such as the flaming ego and the thirst for recognition, but they played a minor role: there was other, more important or more subtle reason.

I started to paint and to write again almost simultaneously. It happened during the second month after we had arrived to the US as political refugees. Back in those times, I had not been able to utter more than a few words in English, therefore my human contacts had been limited to my family – my wife and my kid. As to the outsiders, I had felt very much like a smart dog, who could understand a lot but who could not vocalize his thoughts or his feelings; besides, it seemed to me that I suddenly lost my entire identity, or rather had left it behind. Naturally, I experienced frequent boosts of depression during which I decided to turn to creativity: it helped me to get back on track.

I made a few attempts to write in Russian, but since there seemed to be a minuscule chance that anybody would read what I wrote, I concentrated on painting. Apart from music, visual art is probably the most democratic media, in terms of the cultural differences. One does not need words; all one wishes to convey can be translated into colors and symbols, more or less recognizable and shared by all.

I plunged into the fine art wholeheartedly. In fact, I was seeking a refuge in it and for the time being, it proved to be a good refuge. It gave me a peace of mind, joy and satisfaction. Only later, I realized that it also came with a steep price -- it was the painful insight I had in years.

For instance, since I lost all interest in professions that were not art, I made myself unemployable. Sometimes it smacked of madness. Once, I had spent a whole six months attempting to master the art of ‘chiaroscuro’ by copying a photo of the Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Old lady’, neglecting my ‘job hunt’ and wasting enormous quantities of art supplies we could ill afford.  Back in those times, my family and I had moved to San Francisco (It was during our third year in the Unites States – the two previous years we had spent in a small Midwest town in the middle of nowhere, so we were newcomers to California, and had been exceedingly poor as well). My wife - a university student - held two part-time jobs, so she had to get up early, around six-thirty am or so. Our kid departed to school a bit later. The moment I saw them off, I hanged a canvas on a wall and continued with my labors, meticulously placing brushstrokes until innumerous layers of paint resembled a three dimensional object. Naturally, I took breaks to venture outside looking for a job, but my heart was not in it. I was an artist and I hoped to make my living by it, no matter what. I could spent twelve or thirteen hours at a time doing it without food, water, or even sitting down to rest, oblivious to my aching legs and my tired back, seemingly immune to physical and emotional exhaustion. I repeated such feats many times, and it had never occurred to me to contemplate on the rationality of my behavior. I viewed any interruptions, such as cooking, cleaning the house, looking for a job or going to a real job, as annoying disruptions, a curse and a waste of time.

I had been employed off and on, of course, but all my jobs – a floor cleaner in a supermarket, a delivery boy in a copy shop, a display designer in a furniture store, and a sales clerk in art galleries – seemed to be a bad dream. I hardly cared how much I earned (which was a pittance). Once my wife acquired enough education to get herself a serious position with an adequate income, I was finally free to remain at home indefinitely and paint, paint, paint.  Consequently, my life withered to a semi-hermitic existence. I had no non-art related interests or ambitions. I ceased to care about our income (even though we have never had enough). Gradually, I reached the state where I could not even take care of my own survival.

It was after several years of this weird existence when my wife began to confront me. She was not opposed to my ambitions and my manic determination: she rather respected me for that, on the other hand, she pointed out to me that I was clearly loosing touch with the reality. I had never thought about it in such a way, but once I made an effort and glanced back, it terrified me. It came to my mind that I was turning into a madman.

I remember times when I had blamed the art, which, of course, was as stupid as blaming your own body for wanting to breathe; besides art was the art – something that existed – with or without me. In addition, I blamed myself for my laziness and stubbornness, but it also explained very little. Perhaps, I was stark mad.

To please myself and to find some moral justification for my pains, I used to picture it as a sick dependency, an obsession, madness, and a sort of an aesthetic alcoholism. Of course, I had nursed a fair number of unrealistic ambitions, but frankly, it were not the ambitions that kept me going, but something else. Consequently, I noticed that I was living in a ‘la-la’ land, constantly creating images and stories in my head. There was no way out of it. Finally, I gave up. I was done for. I was an artist.

*   *   *   *

I undertook writing as a psychological self-exercise. By that time, I was well aware that my life was heading nowhere, due, perhaps, to several problems, mistakes or misplaced efforts, who knows? Then it seemed as a good time to tackle them honestly.

One of the many questions was - why must I be an artist? Was I born one? Or did I make myself one willfully? There are successful businesspeople, academicians and such, who earn their daily bread and are respectable members of the society, while I felt myself an outcast, a true ‘bohemian’, a twisted personality with no useful skills, education or professional experience. I could not even hope that my writing would ever be published, for I was writing in English – a language I did not start to learn until the age of twenty-five. 

Was it my own doing? Or were there outside individuals who could be hold responsible for this?

I remembered the people who complimented me on my works, who organized my first exhibition, who gave me their hard-earned money for my art. It seemed a start of the path towards the glory. In fact, with the exception of the paintings I destroyed, I have always managed to sell my art works. Yet I could find very little, if any, satisfaction in this. No matter how often I sold my art to incidental collectors, I remained an outsider, a ‘lone wolf’, a dilettante, whose works were constantly rejected by art galleries, and who had no connection with the established art world.  

On the other hand, I hardly envied these academicians and businessmen. For years, my determination to become an established artist fed my inner pride. It was just as one of my acquaintances - an art teacher in fact, had told me - ‘It is virtually impossible to make a living by art but I think you’ll do it. You’ve got guts.’ Of course! This was exactly what I wanted to hear. I was determined to achieve the impossible.

Now I can say that the aforementioned phrase was the only clear encouragement that I had ever received. Naturally, many people complimented me on my talents, but I could not in all honesty say that they urged me to undertake anything, or to make drastic resolutions. In fact, I always misinterpreted their message. They simply liked what I was doing but none of them ever told me to become an artist, or a musician, or later on – a writer. It was quite the opposite thing, in fact. I had been warned on the countless occasions not to do it. I had been warned not to sacrifice my life.

*   *   *   *

It has been a long time now since I completely ceased to feel either sorry for myself, or to feel sadly perplexed. I am who I am and it is just that: nowadays I consider myself to be ‘too far gone’ even to permit myself to have doubts, even if I had had any. Perhaps, I could have been luckier if I had never picked up a pen or a brush. Perhaps, I could find joy and creativity in some ‘down to earth’ profession. It seems useless to speculate on it now.

My message is different. It would be wonderful if all those young people who are ready to venture down the same road, or barely have started, were issued some serious warning.

Of course, creativity is an excellent thing. Apart from the superficial reasons, such as ego, recognition and fame, it gives a human mind the greatest opportunity to take a glimpse of eternity, to employ the whole specter of senses and to feel the power of the mind in its full glory, to build something that, even as a poor imitation, at least tries to interpret the world in its countless complexities. In a way, creativity is a half-conscious and highly emotional venture down the path made by the Creator in strive to comprehend his creation.

Yet there is, once again, another side of the coin.

It is useless to deny the fact that we live in a class society. (Of course, it is no the same as living in a caste society). To a certain degree, we are given a chance to exercise class mobility, which we do to a more or less degree until we face the limits, or bump into a glass ceiling.  Naturally, we are introduced into this conception gently, for the modern democracy and the very idea of equality save us from an immediate disappointment. Humans need to hope and need to believe. Among many things, we believe in almost countless opportunities, and from the early childhood on, we are constantly given a sugar pill in the form of modern legends and success stories. We want to become ‘Cinderella men (and women).’ Unfortunately, we tend to disregard the difference between the reality and the fairy tales. 

Modern ideologies, science, revolutions, wars and political tumults gave birth to an entire class of people who are ready to turn their backs to the society and to search for the alternatives. However, the art is not the best one. 

Unfortunately, there are hordes of well-wishers, progressive educators and such who urge young people from underprivileged families to explore their creativity. ‘You must live up to your capacities! You must explode them to the utmost! Everybody is unique!’ Sadly enough that this, seemingly innocent and often well-meant message, creates a strong believe that art professions are an easy ticket to fame and prosperity. ‘Be honest with yourself, and be creative. Everyone is genuinely interested in what you have to say’ and sure enough, everybody definitely has to say something.

How often such messages are misinterpreted by young people as an advice to choose an artistic profession. It becomes even more confusing in visual art, where the often-misjudged tendencies towards simplicity create an illusion of work that can be easily accomplished.  Similar attitudes exist towards sports and pop-music. How many inner city kids seriously contemplate a perspective of becoming famous and well-paid basketball players, or rap singers, and what realistic chance to become one do they have?

Sometimes all the well-wishers achieve is to plant opportunistic attitudes in the minds of the youngsters who do not see many perspectives in their lives and who wish to escape poverty with its boredom, bleakness and everlasting drudgery.  It is truly sad, when young people stop even considering acquiring useful professions that can provide them with an adequate satisfaction, income and professional pride, and turns their attention to arts instead. The art world, as well as everything else, is exists in, or, according to Marx, is a product of, a class society. It is at least naïve, if not outright mad; to dismiss the importance of education, social ties and connections, which unfortunately, continue to play a pivotal role in people’s lives.

One is bound to ask where all the painters, writers and musicians are bound to come from. I might answer the question by this: every child has certain dreams, such as who he or she want to become in the future. There are seemingly endless and quite surprising scoops of professions we might think as suitable and desirable for ourselves when, as children, we think of our future. There is a limit, however. By the age of six or seven, we, or our parents and guardians, for that matter, know roughly, what we will be able to achieve, and what is closed to us forever. In this respect, we start to learn of our opportunities as well as our limitations quite an early in our lives. If, by reaching the teenage years, we are still unaware of either, it means that we simply ignore them all. In other words, it means that that we dismiss the fact that certain opportunities are nonexistent, and we are happy to ignore the real ones too. The history of art, for that matter, tries to disprove this by offering various examples but consider just two of them: Gauguin had not started to paint until he was in his middle age, but then, he was a society man, well familiar with both the worlds of artists and art collectors alike, while Van Gogh (even despite the fact that his brother was an art dealer) was merely an outsider, and remained so until the end of his life.

Naturally, there are always ways and means that can disprove these rigid rules. Speaking of those, I personally can recollect an encounter with a published gay writer (it happened in San Francisco), who (being somewhat tired of the company of illiterate young Latino men) urged me to come out of the closet for the exchange of promotion of my art in a few local newspapers, an introduction to the ‘artistic circles’ and all such. Being a married man and decidedly non-gay (although I have never thought the gays in any way abnormal, sinful or ‘pervert’, just not my cup of tea), I declined. By doing that, I placed my family and my allegiances above my art, which, in a way, spoke volumes about my future destiny as an artist. (Interestingly enough, when I asked him how he had managed to find a publisher – and he was writing on a rather difficult subject – the prosecution of the gays by the Nazis – he told me that he met him ‘socially’). 

 I try not to sound cynical but merely non-idealistic. On the bright side however, I still believe that, no matter what one’s circumstances are, it never hurts to try, except … do not forsake your algebra lessons. You never know when they might come handy, huh?

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Emanuel Paparella2009-01-06 15:51:03
To Mr. Mikhaylov: those are poignant and courageous autobiographical revelations which speak volume of a sincere love of art for art’s sake but also reveal the stark insight that art needs to be holistic and connected somehow to the totality of life, as Picasso advocated after discovering African art, or we pay a heavy price for not doing so. Intriguing that comparison of Gauguin and Van Gogh’s attitude toward life vis a vis art and each other. Am I wrong in extrapolating out of such an insight that even genial and creative artists need a good mentor that helps them navigate the intricacies of the artworld, that without a mentor even a genius like Van Gogh will ultimately fail in connecting art to life?

There is a recent illuminating book on the subject of the friendship of Gauguin and Van Gogh at Arles in 1888 by Debora Silverman titled: Van Gogh and Gauguin: the Search for Sacred Art, wherein the author puts on the table the thesis that despite the difficulties in their personal relationship, the two great painters had a tremendous influence on each other and that such a relationship came at a critical point in each of their careers. Silverman feels that in the shadow of the drama of that failed relationship their larger intellectual and theoretical debates on art have been neglected. She contends that here for the first time the great significance of their religious backgrounds and conflicts, with important new research on Van Gogh and Gauguin's respective Protestant and Catholic origins and formations, and fresh readings of the major pictures of the period come to the fore; and that both artists emerge in startling new ways, as the paintings they produced at Arles are reevaluated in the light of their divergent attempts to create a new sacred art.

AP2009-01-07 06:02:52
And how did the Rembrandt copy turn out?

Alexander mikhaylov2009-01-09 03:51:37
I sold it

Chris2009-01-09 15:58:18
I remember some words by Bob Dylan, something like "Come writers and poets, to prophesy with your pens, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again, for who who would loose is later to win, the old roads are rapidly fading." Something like that. You sound like you regret your entire life, a life that was full of art. There is joy in art. There is beauty. There is hope. I'm sorry you live in such sadness about the beauty you strove to achieve.

AP2009-01-09 17:53:33
There are times, though, when art can be turned into something not joyful nor beautiful at all.

AP2009-01-09 17:58:00
Sometimes it is creepy, bizarre and inadequate. It can even stop being art to become just a freak show.

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-01-09 17:59:43
To Chris: No, it is not as simple as that.As to sadness - why, it is good to feel sad sometimes, as long as it is sadness and not a plain self-pity. Occasionally, sadness triggers deeper self reflections

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-01-09 18:10:08
Perhaps, it is something out of the left field but still, I cannot help laughing when I recollect certain episode, related to art appreciation: once, I painted a copy of Alfred Sisleys’ ‘Canal de Saint Marten’ (forgive me if I misspelled the title). I believe it was quite an adequate copy (later on, I had an opportunity to scrutinize a few Sisley’s originals and it turned out that my technique was not far off). Anyway, I put the painting of mine on some charitable auction a year later (it was not signed, but nicely framed). Well, after a long bidding the painting caught the price of all … 40 dollars.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-09 20:58:07
Indeed, romantic melancholia a la Van Gogh is quite different from nihilistic melancholia a la Sartre and the ability to distinguish them may be crucial to the ultimate meaning of an artist's life. To reduce art to an expression of the macabre, the montruous and the creepy is surely not the former but the latter.

AP2009-01-09 21:13:25
I totally agree. It has nothing to do with Mr. Mikhaylov's article, though. I just totally agree.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-09 21:56:58
If we can now find a few others who also totally agree, even if about nothing, we can then start a mutual admiration club and call it the Feeling Good Club of Win Win situations, and we can then congratualte each others with a few high fives and slaps in the back and, why not, even a few hugs and kisses on both cheeks. At that point Ovi will cease to be a magazine of opinion and become a therapeutic feel good magazine with one opinion with which everybody agrees. The Grand Inquisitor in charge of political correctness will, alas, have to be fired.

AP2009-01-09 22:20:24
Ahah - you miss him after all. I never thought I would read that.
You misunderstood me: I said the reason why I agreed had nothing to do with this article, but with something else, namely the fact that I've been reading a couple of things lately which are a pure expression of the creepy. That's different from agreeing with nothing: I agreed with your pair of sentences. Are they nothing? I don't think so. Or were they supposed to be?

AP2009-01-09 22:22:01
Are you angry that I agreed?

LL2009-01-09 23:24:12
Ah nuts you sound just like me - with the exception that I am Buddhist and meditate and I have no spouse to protect me. You are a lucky person.

dude2009-01-09 23:41:47
learn to self edit - i can't figure out whay you are trying to say

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-01-10 00:05:58
To Chris: 'There is joy in art. There is beauty. There is hope.'
There is no beauty in art, none whatsoever. Art is just art - it simply is. You would not find the fact that you walk on two legs particularly beautiful, not unless you've started as a dog (See Bulgakov's Dog's Heart)

AP2009-01-10 01:16:37
Who are you talking to?

AP2009-01-10 01:32:04
Oh, okay. I see. What she's trying to say is that you sacrificed your wife a little bit, Mr. Mikhaylov. And that you're lucky, so you should feel at least a bit joyful about that. I say if your wife chose to support you, maybe that's because she really loved you.
About art, I'm not sure. I agree with you that it doesn't have to be beautiful nor joyful. Sometimes the ones who state that it should be beauty and joy and hope are the ones who end up producing something bizarre, inadequate and creepy in its content. Quite contradictory, isn't it?

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-01-10 04:28:23
Why past tense? She loves me still, or so I've been told. As to the second part, that is my point exactly. Life is short and the art is long-lived, or something to that effect. Not sure how it goes in Latin.

AP2009-01-10 04:38:32
Because you wrote about your past, and that was what we were talking about. vita brevis ars longa or something like that.

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