“Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient. To act is easy, to think is hard; to act according to our thought is troublesome. Every beginning is cheerful; the threshold is the place of expectation.” (Goethe)
Expectations are found in the beginning and are shed at the threshold. Every threshold is a place of opportunity. I tend to squander Opportunity.
At first, it seems that both art and education take us beyond what we currently are and, simultaneously, allow us to enter into an intimacy with ourselves. The beyond that they reach is an installment of another direction: one is exposed to something that one has yet to experience, yet to learn. Intimacy is the other side of the same coin: since we have experienced and learned things that do not belong to us, we have to reconnect with ourselves, to regain the wisdom we already have.
No wonder why the so-called creative class belongs to the same epoch with detox teas, drinks, and diets: eat a cauliflower, cleanse yourself, learn to listen to your body.
This two-way movement, this exiting and entering, is, perhaps, the magic of art/education we ought to communicate when planning our future: a job, another grant, one more opportunity, an op-ed piece. Here, it is worth to remember that even the mere presence of a magician involves a promise, a future: something will happen. Entering, exiting: a guy walks into a bar, he walks through a wall, disappears, and reappears. With art and education, we also disappear in order to reappear: we know that a life without movement (exiting, entering) is not really a life at all but simply an incarceration. The presence of art and education is, thus, not presence in a strict sense of the word, but a passageway, a threshold that moves things, bodies, and thoughts through itself.
It would be problematic to talk only about movement, about space. Like for a prisoner serving their time in prison, the very magic of magic has a lot to do with waiting. We wait that a thing changes into something else, we wait that the magician reappears. Similarly, please believe in the power of a museum visit: statistically, you’ll live longer. Also, read a book; you’ll probably get a job. This is how the future incarcerates the present. A prisoner can identify oneself as prisoner when s/he knows that there is a space and a time outside the prison walls; a space and a time that once belonged and does not yet belong to the prisoner (or, if one is serving life or in a death row, never again). Is this exactly the kind of temporal narrative that the two-way movement (in/out) of art and education tries to constitute? Learning, enjoyment, and experience as identification with an annihilated presence that makes sense only as a transient phase after an enunciation of a promise and before its completion?
This is how we get back to detox: once ‘toxins’ have inundated your body, you can happily clean yourself, that is, go back to your original state.
If, at first, art and education are understood through the two-way movement of exiting and entering, a movement that is simply another word for waiting, how could one approach differently, beyond this first glance?
The Weight of it All
I often wrestle with this notion that art, in particular my art, must be protected. Protected from what, though? Two things come quickly to mind. The first is the deeply personal thing of protecting some amount of time to make the work that I feel needs to be made. To do this, I have to look at my wife, my kids, my friends, the news, the laundry, the dishes, the stacks of bills, the crumbling grout in the bathroom, that wonky baseboard in our kitchen that my daughter seems to always pick at and clearly needs to be reattached and say, “I need this time for my work. It’s important.” But because I am often in doubt about its importance to anyone in the world but me I often relegate the work to nap times and late at night, once all the other stuff has been done and the demands on my time become choices of leisure; like, do I watch this television show or do I go try to make a drawing?
I don’t mean to be too cavalier here, because it leads directly to this second space, which is a particularly wicked problem in thinking about protecting my work. This problem feels so large that I can’t ever seem to articulate it clearly so for now I will just call this the money problem. One of the reasons that this problem feels particularly tricky to me is that it manifests itself in all sorts of big and small ways. If, for instance, you are interested in the art market, you can find example after example of the ways the market shapes and is shaped by cultural production. It especially includes colleges and universities that teach art, an argument Stephen Maddoff makes in Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century). He writes that schools might try to claim a space that is free from the dictums of the marketplace but there are no such states of exception. The academy tries to claim this space but it cannot exist in part because “its teachers and the reception of all artistic practices (including visiting artists who show their art and influence student production) are subject to the acceptance of the marketplace, which is juridical in its powers.” Or, to put it another way, the quickest way to teach in a highly regarded art program is to be a highly regarded artist. This all strikes me as worthy of discussion and debate, but it admittedly feels unfamiliar as I toil away on small drawings in my Midwestern basement. I recognize this conversation occurs, but I don’t see quite how I participate in it.
The tension I find in the money problem is more specific. To put it bluntly, I don’t really make any money from my art. Sure, I sell a piece from time to time, but that doesn’t put food on the table; at best, this is a break-even enterprise. And this puts artmaking in opposition to one of the dominant lessons of my life: work that is important must be able to provide shelter, food, entertainment, clothes, a car, a vacation at the beach, a better life for your kids, etcetera, etcetera. When I think about protecting my work from the money problem, it becomes about severing the link between these materialistic, if not pragmatic, concerns and the art. But then I wonder, “What if this artwork were able to provide financial relief? Would I find this satisfying?” I would like to think it might be satisfying, but there is a terror inside that wonders if I would be constructing a gilded cage.
And from this pressure two more thoughts spring forward. First, is the work supposed to be a down payment on a future that might not exist? Of course, this isn’t worth anything now, but one day, when that big MOMA retrospective happens, this will appear as a self-evident step along that larger journey. This thought is fleeting though because, way down deep, I’m fearful of something larger: this thing, where I will truly find my confidence, whatever it is, is never going to happen. All this time and all this work will appear so slight in retrospect. I will have made a bunch of small drawings when I should have been more concerned with larger things in the world. In this chastising thought I find another issue: I often conflate some form of monetary worth with self-worth. This is some of the weight I try to unload as I clear space to try and make a drawing. This, also, is the load that I pick back up again as I try to justify, in retrospect, how I have spent my time.