General 7-22-2004

The Column: The Doomed Artist, part 2

Michael Fallon continues his examination of fictional artists' lives and their real-world corollaries.

Michael Fallon

HERE’S A FACT ABOUT THE ARTIST’S LIFE THAT IS NOT OFTEN DISCUSSED in the world at large. It is an uncertain and capricious and very often frustrating and cruel way to live.

The majority of artists, even some considered fairly successful, live in abject economic insecurity, and they struggle mightily to find a consistent way to support themselves enough to pursue their art. A recent book by Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor?, details the depths of such insecurity and hypothesizes on its reasons. “In monetary terms,” Abbing writes, “young artists are often severely punished. Depending on the arts sector and one’s country of residence, an artist can earn on average between 30% to 100% less than other comparable professionals earn. . . . Poverty among artists is real. Their endeavors are not or only somewhat compensated by non-monetary incomes.”

In my own travels and experience as a writer on the visual arts for the past seven years, I’ve seen economic marginalization affect artists in numerous sordid ways–even in the smallish and relatively less monetarily-cutthroat Midwestern metropolis of the Twin Cities. As a rule, artists tend to live in cramped and cluttered studios and other rudimentary spaces in low-rent and high-crime areas. Often, artist living/working quarters are replete with hazards such as raw wood-slat walls and exposed insulating materials, shoddy and dangerous electrical fixtures, rough plywood floors, toxic materials and odors, the disarray of works-in-progress, and so on. Time and again I’ve witnessed young artists squatting illegally and dangerously in warehouse spaces and other questionable light-industrial buildings not zoned for habitation.

One group of three artists separated their open living quarters from a furniture factory (and all the attendant noise and filth) with a flimsy six-foot-tall partition. Another artist I visited slept in a meat locker in an old butcher shop, the floor below him a battle zone of artistic shrapnel in the shape of spent paint tubes, blown-out paintbrushes, bombed-out canvases, and other detritus. Another artist used stacks of old paintings as furniture, his living room otherwise too cramped with art trappings to accept more functional tables or desks. And I’ve had an artist, fairly prominent in his day, attempt to get money from me after I interviewed him, saying he was so desperate for money that he decided he needed to have his time paid for.

Again and again I’ve heard stories and met artists who have all but ruined their lives from their long monetary struggles. I have seen the results of poor nutrition and questionable personal habits (such as substance abuse and too-frequent partying), and the effects of the long-term stress of having to hold two jobs for most of one’s adult life.

As a result, artists, generally speaking, often are among the most bitter members of society; they exist as outsiders from the norm, ranting and fuming in private moments at society’s ambivalence. And no wonder: The reality of the artistic struggle even goes beyond the basic myths about artists’ lives. That artists are often “starving” is well known, but the idea that it is a noble struggle, and that artists are essentially self-fulfilled spirits plying away in blissful rapture, is a romantic farce. The fact is, the form the artistic struggle often takes is destructive to the artist’s spirit and physical well-being.

WHILE THE REALITY OF THE ARTISTIC STRUGGLE may not be well-known to the general public, writers of fiction have long depicted it in exacting detail, in stories and novels. Such portrayals, while heightened with the necessary dramatic edge of insanity and doom, take their inspiration from real lives.

Emile Zola, for instance, melded the historical figures of his friends Manet and Cezanne into the character of Claude Lantier in his novel L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886)–though the character’s misery far outstripped the misery of the real artists he was based on. Lantier is a proto-impressionist whose artistic idealism drives him to the brink of despair, insanity, and eventually to death–mostly for lack of achieving significant success despite his Herculean efforts. Lantier’s doom is foreshadowed early in the novel, when a friend asks: “Has it ever struck you, that posterity may not be the fair, impartial judge we think it is?… What a sell for us all, to have lived like slaves, noses to the grindstone, all to no purpose!”

In Irving Stone’s historical novel Lust for Life (1936), based on the life and struggles of Vincent Van Gogh, the artist is depicted as a person who works with such single-minded passion and myopia that he ruins his personal relationships along with his mental and physical health. Toward the end of his life, after a stint in an asylum, Van Gogh says at the home of a doctor patron, “I work in haste from day to day, as a miner does who knows he’s facing disaster.” Just before his suicide, Van Gogh is a man out of step with society, depleted, drained, and “unspeakably weary . . . as though the hundreds upon hundreds of drawings and paintings that had flowed out of him in the past ten years had each taken a tiny spark of his life.” The implication is that art-making is what ruined Van Gogh.

It goes on. In Honore Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” (1845), a painter named Frenhofer burns all of his canvases and kills himself after he realizes he has lost his ability to paint in old age. In Henry James’s Roderick Hudson (1879), the passionate artist and title character jumps (or falls, it is not clear) from a cliff at novel’s end, after he has realized how his art has made him–in the estimation of a friend–“eager, grasping, obstinate,… ungrateful, indifferent, cruel” and an “egotist.”

In fiction, artists often have to die an untimely and early death, mostly because they almost inevitably fail to live up to and achieve their heroic artistic quests–and so have nothing else to live for. Possibly, the artists struggling in these stories are a kind of stand-in for the writers’ own fears: the artists’ dire circumstances may reflect the writers’ deep insecurities about their own artmaking. In most of these stories, the road to artistic doom is paved with the stones of heavy and unrewarding toil. Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth (1946) is a good example of this. Gulley Jimson’s struggle to continue working as an artist leads to ever more humiliation and disappointment. The story itself is mostly a semi-humorously tedious recounting of Jimson’s attempts to survive; he begs for money from friends and acquaintances, gets involved in scams, and tries to relocate old lost (and supposedly valuable) paintings held by an ex-wife. He is a con man by necessity, and as such he is jailed several times, chased by the police on several occasions, and beaten up by a man for selling phony and worthless art cards. In the end, Jimson has a stroke and dies, exhausted, poor, and alone.

Despite the sensationalism of these stories, they are true in how they reveal the consistent struggle of artists dating back at least to the time of Balzac, when a private patronage system became the norm. And they reveal the increasing disparity between the romantic artistic notions common to society and the brutal truth of what an artist has to go through. This societal bait-and-switch is a uniquely modern phenomenon, and one that is accelerating in contemporary times.

As Hans Abbing puts it, the phenomenon of the ever-growing artist community–of “large groups of artists with low average incomes”–increased after the Second World War. He explains that Western cultures initiated artistic subsidies in an effort to lessen the condition of artistic poverty, but ironically, he writes, “considering that artists’ incomes remained low or even decreased implies that these efforts were largely ineffective. In this respect, I argue that poverty in the arts is structural… In fact, [subsidies] may just result in more people wanting to become artists. Subsidization increases the number of poor artists per hundred thousand inhabitants and thus increases poverty.”

BUT ALL IS NOT DOOM AND DEATH FOR ARTISTS IN FICTIONAL ACCOUNTS. In more modern artist stories, the artistic struggle is more subtle and less extreme. Artist characters still suffer, but in ways other than death and insanity. Jeremy Pauling, an artist in Anne Tyler’s Celestial Navigation (1975), is a neurotic recluse who never leaves home, is unable to use a telephone, and barely communicates with those around him. The artists in Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York (1986), meanwhile, struggle to survive and thrive amid a backdrop of urban addiction, prostitution, and other types of self-destruction. And a most recent depiction of the artist’s life, Arthur Nersesian’s 2003 novel Chinese Takeout, details the everyday struggles of a New York artist, Or Trenchant, in the booming late 1990s.

This last book explores all the nitty-gritty details of the modern artist’s quest to survive and make art, starting with efforts to cope with the expense and hassle of living in contemporary New York. For instance, each day Trenchant strains to keep his broken-down van one step ahead of the traffic police–as his parking ticket debt is mounting exponentially. Later, he goes into deeper debt when he gives money to a heroin addict he has fallen in love with. By the story’s end, Trenchant makes a desperate attempt to carry a two-ton grave marker he has carved to a cemetery so he can receive a commission and pay off his debts.

Overall, Trenchant’s life is a succession of disappointments and failures–mostly due to his own foolishness. Like Gulley Jimson, Trenchant dreams of leaving a larger legacy by painting a mural of grand design, but he gets bogged down in mere survival. At one point, he calls himself a latter-day Sisyphus, “doomed to roll my stone forever.” As his struggle deepens, he grows resentful and “sick of painting art for a class of people I despised; fed up with musty lofts that I’d never be able to afford; burnt out with being a deluded, lonely artist; and pissed that I was sentenced to an impoverished career choice that I made as a traumatized thirteen-year-old.” In the eight years since his first (and last) successful solo show, he says, “the struggle has only grown harder… Although I didn’t write myself off as a complete failure, all the illusion and romance was gone.” He worries about dying on the streets.

Fictional accounts of artists may intend for us to ask bigger questions. In this age of more universal education, greater leisure time and discretionary wealth, and ever-mounting cultural options (and concurrent explosion of the artist population), fiction writers point out that society gives artists a dual message. On one hand, we all seem to agree that artistry, creativity, and cultural production are valuable. Yet on the other hand, we seem to ignore the artists who struggle to give us this valuable commodity. So, these fictional accounts seem to ask, how much should we expect artists to sacrifice for their art, and how much should we strive to ease the artistic burden?

The story of the artist Or Trenchant ends on a rare positive note. He manages to get his sculpture to the cemetery on time, is paid an extra five hundred dollars for his trouble (and can pay off his debts), and then learns that he has simultaneously gotten a good write-up in Art News for a painting show. Ironically, his success does little to make him more optimistic. “You don’t seem very pleased,” says the gallery director who has told him the news of the good review. He replies: “I didn’t think I’d have to sacrifice so much.”

Perhaps Trenchant simply realizes that despite his momentary recovery artistic doom still dangles over his head like a sword.