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May182003

« Tortured Artist »

An Artist is a person who would kill himself if not for hope.
Artist: A person with a perverse desire to meet life head on and live to tell about it.

I briefly knew a fellow of 52 years for about two months last year. He worked at the senior center as a volunteer. He was on disability from work as a CPA. He was tremendously helpful and well liked. Anything that needed doing got done, and he was impeccable and perfectionistic about his new role, which of course paid nothing but gratification. I would like to think he got that, but I'm not sure that he did. He committed suicide in the fall. He had been seeing a shrink, and had been subjected to all sorts of drugs that might help him cope with his demons. His outward demeanor was one of being urgent and pressed for time, and I always thought that he was so eager to please as many as he could, and that was why he darted from one task to another. I didn't know him well at all, but he made my first week on the job a lot more bearable when he didn't have to. So it was a shock to us all in the office when we heard the news. Of course, word about suicide never really got out to many of our clients, if at all. Suicide is not really the fodder you talk about at lunch with all your peers. I personally think that Joe was not an artist. I have no evidence one way or another. Just a hunch, but I ordinarily don't think of CPAs as artists. I don't know whether or not to wish he was. People who want to be dead get dead when no one is looking or expecting it. Joe certainly didn't call attention to himself or his plans. He was unhappy and saw no way out but by his own will.

We all must have our examples of artists that teeter on the edge of suicide, but somehow seem to fall back into life just enough to stick it out and see another day. Some, like Cobain or Hemingway eventually break, but no doubt they put up a good fight first. There is a breaking point. But I think that artists are the resilient type. They are cursed with the ability to see the world in ways different than the rank and file see it and the duty to let others in on their findings. One would like to think that it's a blessing and not a curse to have a gift that is rare like that, but sometimes it can be a terrible burden. Sometimes, it's like being a lightning rod in a thunderstorm. Artist? is not a job, it's a way of living. It's a way of perceiving the world and the myriad interactions within it on all sorts of levels. And sometimes, if all goes "well", it can hurt like hell! A good day for an artist could be making a stunning and sudden lunge toward a new idea, look, sound or whatever medium facilitates the expression. But sometimes, it's literally hell to pay to get to that point. I won't pretend to be a brilliant artist, but I have certainly known that trade off. I have known this for years, but it seems that the words are coming to me, even after these years of struggle. I have known some artists of various persuasions, and while some do great art, not a lot of them are well adjusted to life. And I have known some folks that do some activities to create things, write, or what have you, but they don't really live that life that actually lives them.

We artistic snobs have a saying that goes a little like this: We don't make the Art, the Art makes us.

You could read about Robert Fripp's place in the band King Crimson. To hear him tell it, he is on the temp staff as a guitarist and ringleader to harness the other talents in the band into making a record or doing a tour. He apparently feels that KC is not his brainchild, but that he is a hand in the realization of music that can only be played by an amoebic lineup of people that go by the name of King Crimson for a few years at a time, and disband seemingly for no reason. Fripp has said that he allows King Crimson into his life, and only when he feels that he can take the pain! He is an Artist. Does he live the life or does the life live him? I have read his essays about music industry backstabbing and doubletiming, lost revenue, credibility, and a host of other things that any sane person would run clear from. But people of an artistic/creative persuasion are survivors. From day one, it seems that in order to get by, you have to work with your brain on. Mike Keneally has a lyric in a song of his that mentions not singing the song "with [his] brain off." Mike is a living artist. He's known a few family and professional tragedies but keeps on and moves forward, and his music goes with him. But is it really his music? He has told me that he has albums of music just waiting to get done, if only he had the time or money. To me, that would support this other artistic notion that art and music and brilliant lines of language are already out there in the universe, and all we need to do is tap into that and give it the form that it will take and be known to the world with. The whole thing is basically a turnkey operation, but a few qualified people will be able to get that key. The rest won't even know it exists. Hunters can tap into the subtleties of a forest and the game they hunt, follow tracks, know how weather will affect things, etc. Artists? They examine life, love and hate, and all sorts of seedy places the sensible would not dare to visit. They are privy to the inner workings of all this. Big as life, in every sense of the term. Some turn inward for the material to investigate, others turn outward to seek the game they hunt. Some don't even seek it. They are the philosopher kings. Philosopher kings people who don't seek the attention they garner. They may be utterly disinterested in any spoils of their output. They might do it for the love of it, or even more purely, the fact that they got selected by whatever body or power that can deliver the art to a person. Philosopher kings are what we need in political office these days—the more pure among us that don't seek any particular glory for themselves, but are called to a position mainly because they don't seek it, and in hopes that they might conduct themselves better than the ones that do seek a position of authority, power over or representation of others. I may have lost you on that, but let me put it this way: in the same way as Jesus came disguised as an invalid or poor person without fanfare, so will the artist. And so will the art.

I could get into the well trodden part about how major labels are not selling art in music, and Barnes & Nobel isn't in the business of selling fine writing that really challenges us to the core, but that is painting with too broad a stroke. We all know about and have different tolerances for that sort of thing. I happen to think Sting is brilliantly talented and has really been a starving artist in the past, but something happened that he can now light fires with all the money he has! I know that he is a survivor. He just happens to be waytoofuckingrich and the friction is gone at the moment.

But back to suicide. (I just know all of you were waiting to get back to that!)

I am reading Neil Peart's book Ghost Rider about his voluntary-but-existentially compulsory exile to the roads of North and Central America after the tragic deaths of his daughter and wife within about 10 months of each other. He rode his motorcycle 55,000 miles in the 14 months that followed in an effort to combat the astounding grief he had. Everything he thought he was or had was rendered null. He writes openly about feeling rage and disgust and anything else he can summon to deal with the loss and despair that followed. For him, the journey was the only thing he could do to stay alive. It was his coping mechanism. Most don't have the means to do what he did. Joe from the senior center probably had not the means nor the will to see it through. I am amazed at how Peart kept at his journey. He didn't play drums or write lyrics in all that time, but he searched up and down in his being to stay ahead of the game. And sometimes, he just couldn't. But he relied on those close to him, and kept moving, each day daring himself to reinvent who he was, and find some meaning. I don't think his artistic output amounted to anything for a few years, but the artist in him was what kept him alive to see another day. I guess its that perverse desire to meet life that kept him alive, because he pretty much knew that he had nothing to live for after that tragic year.

Artist. A person with a perverse desire to meet life head on. And live to tell about it. I had this thought just tonight, that you almost don't need to create art to be an artist. It almost seems to me that art is not in the output, but the ability to meet life and be a conduit for things that are not so easily understood. It demands resiliance. Too bad Joe at the center didn't seem to have that in the quantities he needed.

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